Its an offer too good to turn down.
Theres a ringing in her left ear that never disappears, and Ino taps her fingernails against the teacup trying to drown it out. Shikamaru is four days late.
Shikamaru is late and she wonders if this is her divine punishment, but thinking like that is stupid, so she pours the now lukewarm tea out in the sink and starts packing her bag instead of wasting more time with pointless thoughts. If all goes right, the mission will take a week, it says in the letter from the Hokages office. Ino only packs enough food for one day.
She sweeps the floor in the flower shop before leaving, not wanting to arrive in the mission room too early. Summer is their least busy season and they can afford keeping the shop closed for a while.
Her father is asleep upstairs. Today is one of his good days, one of the days where the pain doesnt make him scream and toss in his bed, only whimper a little in his sleep when she wipes the drool off his chin.
Incurable, Tsunade-sama said, incurable, unless
The two other ninja shes assigned with are a man and a woman shes never met before. Their faces are open and friendly, and when they greet her, their bows are perfectly polite. Ino smiles at them as sweetly as she can possibly muster, but she doesnt memorize their names. It will be easier that way.
Theyve reached the far end of the forest when the others attack, and even though shes been prepared for it Ino is taken with as much surprise as her teammates. They are dead within seconds, the woman from a cut across her belly that showers Inos skirt in blood. The man goes with a needle through his right eye, the eyeball bursting with a pop.
Ino makes the sign in time. The kunai stops only inches from her face, and she moves her hand in the practised pattern again and again, until the enemy ninja draws back and uncovers his face. For now, theyre on the same side.
When he cuts her leg Ino doesnt scream, and when she runs towards Konoha she doesnt look back once. The pain is a small sacrifice, easily healed and easily endured, and her own blood drying on the fishnet around her knee is her cover. She tells herself the blood on her skirt is her own too.
Shes questioned afterwards, after the wound on her leg has healed without a scar and the stains on her clothes have been washed away. She didnt notice the attack in time, she says. She didnt notice the attack and they lost vital information and two good ninja. She looks down as if she felt guilty for escaping with just a scratch, and maybe she does, because once she starts sobbing she cant stop, and the interrogator looks at her with pity and lets her go.
Its already dark when she steps out through the doors and into the street. Her makeup has smudged a bit, and Ino fixes it under a street light by the corner of the official building, meeting her own eyes in the foldable pocket mirror. Apart from her hair theyre her finest assets, big and blue with long lashes, but tonight they look tired, the usual spark isnt there.
Ino snaps the mirror shut; then she follows the neon lights to a bar where she drinks until the clenching feeling in her stomach is replaced by a bubbling happiness, and shes forgotten all about an offer too good to turn down.
The next morning she wakes up in the wrong bed in the wrong house. Theres a dull throbbing between her legs and the dizziness makes her almost stumble on her own feet on the way to the bathroom. She swallows the pill with water from the tap, hoping for the chemicals to kill anything that might have began to grow inside her. A shower could wake up the man still snoring under the covers, and so Ino only rubs off the dried sperm still clinging to her thighs with a damp towel before sneaking out through a window. She meets Chouji on her way home.
She meets Chouji, and she sees him cringe at the smell of sweat and cum and alcohol from her body, but when he puts his hand on her shoulder his touch is soft and she feels like crying.
Instead a wave of nausea hits her and she doubles over and pukes all over her own feet. The pale yellow contents of her stomach run between her toes, warm and dripping at first but cold and sticky in a minute. The sensation is sickening, and she dry heaves long after theres nothing left to throw up.
Chouji carries her the rest of the way. They leave her soiled shoes in a trashcan by the side of the road, and he lends her his handkerchief to wipe off her toes. It will be ruined forever, she warns him, and he smiles at her protests and cleans her feet for her. Maybe she should protest when he lifts her up in his arms, but her knees are shaky and her resolve is weak. Ino tells herself she is much stronger than this in reality, and relaxes into the rhythm of his walk.
Shikamaru is back, Chouji tells her, and his voice is a deep rumble when she presses her ear against his chest. She can hear his heart beat deep under flesh and bones and every thump is a reassurance.
How are you feeling? He asks, and his voice drowns the ringing in her ear.
Good, she answers. Good.
It isnt really a lie. Shikamaru is back and Chouji never left and maybe she really does feel good, if she takes some time to think about it.
Once back home Ino orders Chouji to explain her early return to the medic nin that takes care of her father while shes on missions. He chuckles when she hurries to get into the bathroom before the medic sees her filthy appearance, and she makes a quick grimace at him before closing the door. She longs to sink herself down into a hot bath, but she needs to see her father, and a shower is all she allows herself.
It still takes her a while to get clean. When she walks out from the bathroom followed by a cloud of steam, Chouji has the tea ready. They bring the cups upstairs, to the room that smells of sickness and long, dreary days.
Ino opens the window a little while Chouji drapes a napkin around her fathers thin shoulders. Inoichis hands are only skin and bones, and when he smiles at his best friends son, Ino notices hes lost another tooth. Her father is only forty-two.
The painkillers have worked and he can sit upright, even hold the cup on his own. Ino leans against the wall by the side of the bed and listens to her father telling long stories shes heard a thousand times before, filling in the gaps for him when his memory fails. Chouji listens with an interest she supposes must be fake, but his face is honest and his laugh is hearty, and the jasmine tea in her cup is hot and sweet.
She recognises the signs early on. The sweat drops pearling on her fathers upper lip, his hands clutching the sheets, the empty look in his eyes, already braced for whats to come. The pain is back.
Chouji is reluctant to leave, but she almost pushes him out, not wanting him to be there when the seizures start. He takes forever to put his shoes on and Ino snaps at him when he doesnt find his kunai pouch at once. In the doorway he pauses and asks if she has time to see Shikamaru soon, and cant they all go have barbecue, like they used to. She answers yes and yes, and when hes finally gone she runs up the stairs in three steps.
She sleeps in a chair in the sickroom that night, her fathers wilting hand in hers.
A day later Ino gets two letters from the people whose names she doesnt know. A small brown bird brings them to her early in the morning, and theres a sealed explosive tag attached to the letters. She makes the sign twice to disarm it.
The first letter is sent out to the whole organisation, it would seem, and is nothing but encouraging words about soon reaching a goal she neither knows nor cares anything about. There are a few lines about the successful recruitment of a Konoha spy, and it takes her a minute to realise its her they mean.
She reads the first part of the second letter, the one thats only for her, and her heart sinks. They want her to kill a Konoha ninja herself this time.
She reads the second part and she knows shell do it. Its an offer too good to turn down.
The man she will kill in two days is no one special, and first she doesnt understand why they want him out of the way. She gets her answer when she steals a look at his file when on medic training in the Hokages building. Hes a traitor, like her, but the other way around. She puts the file back without reading the rest of his info. It will be easier that way.
Shintenshin is not a jutsu designed to kill, but there are ways if youre brave enough.
Ino feels a pang of guilt when injecting the sedative into her fathers arm. The dose is high and will put him out for at least one day. She tells herself that this is the last time, her last lie before everything is over, and then she sits down by the window facing the street and waits.
The flower shop is not too far from the official buildings and the mission room, and most who have business there will pass by their house. Ino doesnt leave the window the whole day, not even to go to the bathroom. When the sun begins to set she is terrified he wont show up at all, but just as shes ready to declare defeat, he appears from a house on the other side of the street.
She enters his mind quickly, adapting to the body without as much as a twitch of his thick fingers. The man is big and bulky, but when she starts walking around she finds he is surprisingly flexible for his size.
Taking him out of the village is easy, as she strolls down the streets with a grin on her face, greeting as many people as she can without seeming abnormally cheerful. She wants him to be seen and remembered for future investigations. Getting through the village gates is only difficult in theory; the guards will let any grown ninja through, and she answers their jokes about getting lost in the forest with what she hopes is a manly chuckle rather than a giggle.
A tree growing on the edge of a steep, its branches leaning out over the gap, and she has her perfect scenario. Its a bit harder to climb than she expected. The man is too heavy for most of the branches, and it takes a few tries to get high enough to have nothing but thin air for a hundred meters below.
She holds her breath for a few moments before looking down. She pictures the mans body falling, his scream shrill before he hits the rocks below her with a loud thud, and her stomach turns. Its not a good way to kill.
The silence is deafening, she left the ringing in her left ear in her own body back at the flower shop. She thinks of going back, of confessing, of exposing her lies once and for all and leaving all letters and signs behind.
Then she thinks of her father, and jumps.
She releases the jutsu before the man hits the ground and within an instant shes back in her own body in her own house, in her own clothes that are now wet and smelly. Apparently her bladder couldnt hold it any longer. Frustrated, she runs a hand through her hair, and when it brushes against her cheek shes startled to find her face is wet too. Thats when she realises shes crying.
Two nights of no sleep before she gets the news about the mans death, and when she does she goes two more sleepless nights waiting for the ANBU to turn up on her doorstep. On the fifth day exhaustion catches up with her at noon, and she falls asleep slumped in the couch in the living room.
Her dreams are sunny and warm, with missions where no one gets hurt and friendly bickering in the tent long after the sun is down. Theres a large hand pulling her ponytail when she sticks her tongue out and the smell of tobacco clings to her clothes by the end of each day. She is happy and safe and her team is her whole world.
When she wakes up its pitch black outside, and Asuma is dead.
Asuma is dead, her father is dying and the guilt clings to her useless fingers, weighing them down. Her chakra is not enough, was not enough, and when she closes her eyes Asuma dies again and again and Tsunade-sama shakes her head in resignation.
Three lives and a betrayal and she will never feel a heart stop beating under her palms again, never have to watch a body cramp in unspeakable pain. Its an offer too good to turn down.
Their man will wait for her at the outskirts of Konoha for the final meeting. She has met her part of the deal and they will keep their promise. When she buttons her shirt in front of the mirror she pouts seductively at her reflection and tosses her long hair over her shoulder. She wont tie it back today, as a way of celebration.
After seeing the messenger shell meet with Chouji and Shikamaru to have barbecue, and she tells herself that shell be on time for both, her first meeting wont take long. She checks her hair in the mirror a final time before leaving the house, but she doesnt quite meet her own eyes, not anymore.
The messenger is masked. A white blank surface with two tiny black holes that stares at her from under a heavy cloak. Not as much as a simple red swirl decorates the mask, and its unsettling.
When Ino takes the scroll from his hands she notices he is wearing gloves, and that one of them has started to rip at the seam. The scroll is small and old and when she starts to open it the messenger gestures for her to stop. She must let him leave before she can control her payment.
Three lives and a betrayal, and Ino doesnt care anymore. As soon as he turns around she rips the scroll open in one single movement, and the signs glaring back at her from the paper is a mockery. The scroll is a fake.
Shintenshin is not a jutsu designed to kill, but there are ways to go about it if youre desperate enough. She enters the messengers body with a rage that is a surprise even to herself, and when she cannot find a kunai anywhere under the cloak she takes one from her own unconscious body lying at her feet.
She slits the messengers throat without hesitating, releasing the jutsu just as her sight turns red. As soon as shes back in her own flesh she rolls quickly away from the puddle of blood spreading in the grass, holding her hair up so as not to get it dirty. The adrenaline rushes through her veins and her pulse beats loudly against her eardrums when she gets back on her feet, watching the messengers death throes.
The messenger is a woman. Good looking, with dark hair and full lips. When Ino searches through her clothes she can feel that she had an attractive body as well as a pretty face, and Inos hands shake a little when she turns the womans pockets inside-out. Theyll come after her.
Theyll come after her, but when she holds the real scroll in her hands she feels nothing but triumph and when she sticks it under the bandages around her chest she cant help but think that she has won. The forbidden jutsu will eat away at her soul one bit at a time, but her hands will never be cold and slippery with blood and rainwater again, they will be warm and bursting with chakra. She will never lose another life.
The scroll chafes at the skin between her breasts when she runs to where shes promised to meet her boys. She savours the feeling of the wind running through her hair as she runs, feeling stronger and more beautiful than ever before.
She takes a moment to adjust her clothing and smoothen her bangs before she greets Shikamaru and Chouji who are waiting by Konoha bridge. Ino kisses them both on the cheek, pats Chouji on the head when he asks where shes been with worry in his voice and laughs at Shikamarus drawling half-insult.
Theyre about to leave in a good mood and with a good appetite, even Ino for once, when Shikamaru puts his hand on her shoulder. She turns to look at him and when she sees the look in his eyes the happiness runs off her as quickly as it appeared.
He takes a few strands of her hair in his hand, twirling them between his fingers. Mixed with the blonde is a dark red that smears on his hand as well, getting stuck under his nails. She looks at her hands and her nails are lined with red as well.
Ino, what did you do? Shikamaru asks, and his voice cant drown the ringing in her ear.
Nothing, she whispers. Nothing.
The lie hangs silently between them for the rest of the day.