The Catbird Seat, Chapter 1: FALCON
Rated: T
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
World: Modern AU
Notes: I saw the show Leverage and basically fell in love with it. This fic is meant to be a nod to that fabulous show, so if you're familiar with it you'll probably pick out some things referenced in the show itself. I'm going to try a similar idea here, but with Taka and Ino because there is nothing better than Taka and Ino and that is not up for discussion. Several pairings. Enjoy!

"I am not what I've done,
But I've become the smoking gun.
Can't fight these bad intentions."

Carabiners. Nylon rope. A taser, just in case. Lurid eyes scanned the dumbwaiter shaft. Two by two by a dark abyss of unknown depth. Nothing she couldn't handle in her sleep. Practiced fingers hooked up the last carabiner and let go. It was no Interlaken bungee jumping and it smelled of old pastries, but she would make do. Karin Uzumaki free fell twenty stories, counting as she went.

Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three...

At twenty-four, she was where she needed to be. Cinching the rope, she glided to a halt before a small door and pried it open with a crowbar. The lights were on, but no one was around. There was a camera in the far left corner, and she hung back while it rotated. When it was just beyond her viewpoint, Karin disengaged her harness and eased her way out of the dumbwaiter on her hands. She flipped over herself twice before coming to a squatted halt behind a stainless steel table. The camera reversed its path and swept over the room once more, oblivious.

By her reading of the blueprints she'd stolen three days prior, the room she wanted was just across the hall from here. Wasting no time, Karin crossed the room in an arc following the camera. The door to the hallway was locked, so she let down her hair and used the oversized bobby pin holding it together to pick the lock. She was out of the room in seconds and picking the lock on the door across the hall.

The room was empty save for a single green and gold tapestry against the far wall. Karin froze, however, when she saw the motion detectors on the sides of the room. Cursing, she crept along the wall, pressing her body as close to the edge as possible. She'd have to disable it manually, but in the process she could risk setting it off. Approaching, she fished around a supply pouch strapped to her thigh for the USB she used for situations like these.

But something wasn't right.

Karin squinted through her glasses, but her eyes were not deceiving her. The motion detector was inactive.

"Bullshit," Karin whispered.

She waved a hand in front of it, but nothing happened. Frowning, she walked in front of it and jumped up and down, waved her arms around, did a little spin. Still nothing.

Something was definitely not right.

Karin sprinted to the tapestry and pulled it back. A safe was embedded in the wall, but it looked like it hadn't been opened. Chancing a look over her shoulder, Karin got to work cracking the combination. She pulled out a stethoscope and regulated her breathing. The combo was hers in under fifteen seconds. Child's play. It was too easy...

Inside was the prize she'd come here for: a thousand-year-old hairpin carved out of ivory and inlaid with black and blue diamonds. It would sell for a pretty penny at a private auction. Smirking, Karin tied it up in her hair and replaced the tapestry. She gathered up her things and walked toward the door, but loud blaring made her jump.

She'd tripped the motion detectors.

"What the hell?"

This was no time to dawdle or wonder why on earth the motion detectors picked this time to start working. She ran. Getting back to the roof would take longer than getting out, but by now the police were probably on their way and the front door was not an option. Unperturbed, Karin ran for the elevator.

The elevator car arrived with a soft ding and she punched the button for the roof. The doors closed and tuned out the infernal blaring. She began to calculate how much time she had. Probably no more than a minute or two. It was plenty of time to make her escape.

Something jostled her hair from above and Karin ducked, ready to defend herself. Above, the elevator escape latch hung open and a small claw-like contraption hovered above her. Anger and embarrassment swept over her with a force so strong, Karin could have believed the elevator was plunging to the depths of an ocean of black hatred.

"Hey, thanks for this, sticky fingers. Couldna done it without you!"

Karin growled and made a swipe for the pilfered hairpin, but the metal contraption floated higher and out the escape latch. And then, the elevator stopped. Karin didn't need to try pressing any buttons to know this elevator was going nowhere fast. The clawed robot was gone. A man's cackling and Karin's mussed hair the only evidence that it had been there at all.

"Suigetsu!" Karin screeched, pounding on one of the elevator's sides.

Hell no.

"Hell yeah!"

Suigetsu Hozuki fist-pumped three or four or five times (not that he was counting or anything). His phone showed a clear image of Karin stuck in the elevator and coloring the space with an admirable collection of expletives in his honor. His droid floated beside him, the hairpin in its claw.

"The mighty Kubikiribouchou strikes again," Suigetsu said, giving his drone a thumbs-up.

It had been child's play to follow Karin's movements and clear a path for her to steal the hairpin. Now that that pesky safe was out of the way, Suigetsu was home free and Karin would get picked up by security in, oh, about one minute and twenty-seven seconds.

But who was counting?

Suigetsu punched in a few codes on his phone to clear the alarms and divert the police from his path when they finally arrived. He made for the stairs and fully intended to walk out the front door, but something clattered down the hall and gave him pause. Suspicious, Suigetsu reached for the thick hunting knife at his thigh.

He never made it.

A shadow alerted him to another's presence and he slashed with the knife, but the next thing Suigetsu knew he was flat on the floor with his own knife pressed against his cheek. Somewhere above, Kubikiribouchou buzzed about in distress.

"Hey, at least buy me dinner before you throw me down," Suigetsu said, his voice half muffled by the carpeting.

"Good food would be wasted on you."

If Suigetsu didn't have a knife pressed against his face, he may have rolled his eyes. "Oh, it's you. Just great."

A hand fumbled around Suigetsu's pant pockets.

"Hey! Look man, I know we worked together once back on the Monte Cristo job, and I admit you got some nice moves, but I don't like you like that. I don't even like you, period!"

His captor ignored him and found what he was looking for: Suigetsu's cell phone. Metal and glass crunching under too-big feet almost drew tears to Suigetsu's eyes.

"No more toys for you."

The pressure lifted from Suigetsu's back, and he rolled over slowly. Kubikiribouchou hovered near his face, beeping erratically. The hairpin was gone. Suigetsu peered through the door to the stairwell just as it was closing and caught a glimpse of orange.

"Goddamnit, Juugo."

Violet eyes fell to his smashed phone and he sighed. "Right in the family jewels."

Kubikiribouchou had pulled up a video screen and beeped angrily, and Suigetsu finally understood the situation. The elevator camera recorded no image of Karin. She'd escaped. Suigetsu sighed and pulled out another phone from a pocket in his cargo pants. He piggybacked onto the building's secure Wi-Fi connection and hacked the internal security port. Cameras picked Juugo up on the twenty-ninth floor and gaining. Karin was nowhere to be seen.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me!" Suigetsu hissed.

He forced open a nearby elevator and hacked his way to the roof. There was no way he'd lose to either of those two wack jobs.

Juugo made it to the roof and locked the door behind him. Nearby, the crane he'd "borrowed" sat waiting for him to climb in and bust out of here with the prize he'd won. Security would be no problem now; he'd already taken out the guards on the ground floor and apparently they felt no need to hire backup for the upper floors due to the complex security system hardwired into the building. It had been easy enough to let Suigetsu hack it and infiltrate after. The computer nerd never even saw Juugo coming.

Still, it was an odd coincidence that they were both here for the same prize at the same time. Juugo had gotten an anonymous tip about the piece. It was supposed to be auctioned off tomorrow evening and security would be impossible to get past during the event, so he'd settled for swiping the piece tonight. One less drug lord or human trafficker who could cash it in and fund the vicious cycle. Juugo couldn't wait to be rid of it.

The night air was cool and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. City lights blotted out the stars, but Juugo wasn't here for the view. He jogged toward the crane, but something tripped him and he fell flat on his face.

"Thanks for bringing it all the way up here."

Juugo coughed and saw a redheaded woman waving the hairpin before his eyes. Karin, if memory served. He hadn't even detected her presence, and it took some serious cojones to sneak up on him. He spit the blood and dirt from his mouth and tried to get up, but something stepped on his back and sent him right back down.


Suigetsu jumped off Juugo's back like a springboard and sprinted after Karin. That damned alien robot buzzed after him, and Juugo launched up and crushed it with his bare hands. Suigetsu heard the crunch and forgot about Karin in his newfound distress.

"My baby!" he cried, falling to his knees and gathering up the robot's parts. "You heartless asshole!"

"It's a machine. And I'm not heartless."

"Oh god, I'm fading. I'm breathing in the chemicals. This is it, the apocalypse!"

Karin, meanwhile, was getting ready to jump off the side of the building and repel all the way to the ground, but Juugo caught her rope just before she could jump and yanked her backward. The hairpin scattered across the concrete, and Juugo had an irate female clawing at his hair.

"Calm down—"


Juugo convulsed and released Karin.

"What the— Did you just taze him?" Suigetsu said through his tears.

Karin ignored him and ran after the hairpin. She never made it.

A black shoe rested just over the hairpin as if to crush it, and Karin sucked in a breath, nearly stumbling in shock. That was a priceless piece this douchebag was about to crush, and how dare he—


Karin's blood boiled in her veins at the sound of that voice. She lifted her gaze up a tailored pant leg, past a silk, black tie, and finally to settle upon a face she'd last seen twisted in fury. Fury at her.

"Sasuke Uchiha."

"Oh my god, it really is the end of the world. How'd the Feds get here so fast?" Suigetsu punched the screen of his spare phone in search of answers, but Sasuke ignored him.

Juugo hung back, still stunned from the tazing. Only his military-grade combat vest had spared him a blackout, but not the shock of pain. It made sense now. Three of the world's best criminals all in one place? It smelled like an FBI set-up, and he'd fallen for it.

Sasuke retrieved the hairpin and twirled it between his fingers. "I don't think we've all gathered in the same place at once before. It's a little different."

"It's a little fucked up, is what it is," Suigetsu said, standing. He pointed an accusatory finger at Sasuke. "What the hell're you doing here? You think you can bust me? You got nothing, Uchiha."

Karin shifted her eyes between Sasuke and her escape, just beyond him. The last time they'd met, he hadn't intended to let her get away. This time, she didn't have the upper hand. And she'd never been on good terms with either Juugo or Suigetsu. The three of them worked alone, and alone was how Karin intended to keep her night. The sooner she could get out of here, the better.

"Don't even think about leaving," Sasuke said, looking down at Karin, who was still crouched. "Not before you've heard my proposition."

"Proposition?" Juugo asked.

Suigetsu rolled his eyes. "You set us up, didn't you? What is this, a Triple Crown bust? Gettin' lazy, are we?"

"Believe me, if I were here to bust you we'd be halfway back to FBI Headquarters."

"Yeah right. 'Cause you've had so much luck with that before."

The Feds had it out for Suigetsu Hozuki, but the kid was a computer genius. All they'd ever managed to pin him with was password theft—of Tumblr and Facebook accounts. And even then, he'd only used the accounts to spread subversive messages over the Internet for the "Free Information" movement. The FBI had no concrete evidence on the identity theft, credit card fraud, and innumerable security hacks Suigetsu had orchestrated in his relatively short career. Perhaps more depressing, they had no connection between him and a sabotaged State of the Union address in which someone had uploaded gay pornography to the monitors projecting the President's visage. Ask him and Suigetsu would say the guy had it coming as a homophobic, greedy piece of shit, and good riddance that he never got re-elected. At twenty-five, Suigetsu was a veteran in his field.

"You're the only one I've actually caught of the three of you, Suigetsu. Consider it an honor."

"Why did you gather us here?" Juugo said. He stood upright again, the earlier taze having worn off a bit.

Juugo was as intimidating in practice as he was in theory. Six foot six and in his prime at twenty-seven years of age, he was a literal and metaphorical giant among men. After falling in with some bad company as a teenager, Juugo became an addict and joined a street gang to survive. Sasuke busted his gang during a drug raid in East City, the first bust of his federal career, but his team only managed to apprehend Juugo's partner, Kimimaro, who'd been gunned down by his own men in the fray. Juugo got away that day, and Sasuke let him. His only friend dead, Juugo got clean, joined the SEALs, and toured Afghanistan for three years. His past was a shadowy mystery, but of one thing Sasuke was certain: Juugo was the best hit man this side of the Atlantic. And that was all that mattered.

"Like I said, I've got a proposition for you. We have similar goals. Together, we can accomplish them more easily than we can alone."

Suigetsu laughed out loud. "Wait wait wait, you gotta be kidding me. You wanna work with us? What happened, you get fired from the President's PTA or something?"

Sasuke was silent, and Suigetsu put the pieces together. "Shit, they did sack you. What happened? You get too cozy with one of your informants?"

"If I did, I got more action that you ever have."

Suigetsu drew a small knife from somewhere in his belt and threw it. It whizzed past Sasuke's head, slicing the ends of his bangs when he moved just in time to avoid being impaled. Suigetsu seethed, and Sasuke waited, knowing this would pass. Guys like Suigetsu were a game of High Striker: hit them hard enough to set off alarm bells, and they always fell back to equilibrium in time. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Karin withdrew Suigetsu's knife from the roof access door and advanced on Sasuke, blade first. Sasuke put up his hands, one of which concealed the ancient hairpin, and let her back him up. The last time she'd had him on the receiving end of a pointy object had ended in him barely escaping with his life and dignity intact.

"Cut the crap," she said. "You obviously lured us here. Now, I want my payout."

Sasuke waved the hairpin before Karin's eyes. "This?"

Karin reached for it, but Sasuke threw it on the ground and smashed it. Karin gasped, and that second of distraction was her undoing. Sasuke grabbed her wrist to wrest the knife away, but she fought back. They held the knife between them, a game of push and pull, but give or take too much and one of them would lose more than a silly hairpin.

"Do you have any idea what you just did?" Karin hissed. "That was the Athena Cluster! It's worth more than you'll earn in your entire lifetime!"

"More than your last trip to the D.C. Smithsonian?"

Karin paled, but she schooled her features. Suigetsu narrowed his eyes. He hated secrets, and this smelled like a big, fat one waiting to be popped like a ripe, red zit. His fingers tingled in frustration.

Sasuke loosened his grip and let Karin take control of the knife (Suigetsu's knife, let's not forget, and you better believe he's going to Clorox that thing when he gets home).

"Long story short, I'm here to recruit you," Sasuke said. "All of you."

"You know, maybe you're the one who needs some jail time. Clear out that air-tight head of yours," Suigetsu said.

"For what?" Juugo asked, crossing his arms.

"A job. A big job."

"I work alone," Karin said. She still had Suigetsu's knife pointed at Sasuke's chest.

"Well, I don't," Sasuke said. "And I need each of you to pull this off."

"What's in it for us?" Juugo asked.

Suigetsu threw up his arms. "Are you serious? You're okay with this?"

Juugo ignored him.

"Whatever you want."

"Whatever we want?" Karin scoffed. "Everyone's got a price, but I doubt you can pay it."

Sasuke took the knife by the blade and lowered it. Karin held his gaze, but she found no trace of duplicity. She'd always been good at spotting a lie. A thief by nature, Karin was the best in her field and many others. From cars in Germany to banks in Switzerland to art in the Far East, nothing escaped her sticky fingers. Orphaned at a young age, she'd grown up in the foster system. Thievery was the natural next step. If no one gave her what she'd wanted more than anything growing up, why not learn to take it for herself?

"You're probably right," Sasuke conceded. He reached for a hidden pocket in his jacket and retrieved a thin file, but not before Juugo put up a hand, ready to defend. Sasuke put a hand up in a placating gesture and handed the file to Karin. "But they can."

Karin peered at the offered paperwork, dubious. She backed away and leafed through the documents. Suigetsu snuck up on her and stole back his knife. Karin barely noticed him, and he frowned. But when he saw what had arrested her attention so fully, he bit his tongue.

"You can't be serious," Karin said. "This is suicide."

"Geez, what happened, they kill someone you love this time? Hey, big guy, take a look."

Juugo approached and peered over Suigetsu's and Karin's shoulders. Sasuke said nothing as they perused the file.

"I can't promise specifics," Sasuke said when they fell silent. "But I can promise you'll get your money's worth if we succeed."

"You make it sound like you have this all planned out," Juugo said. He was eerily quiet despite his new proximity, and Karin shot him a look.

"I do."

Suigetsu chuckled and shook his head. He fiddled with his phone a moment. "Well...looks like they really did fire you. Oooh, selling intel to dirty politicians? Really, Sasuke? Didn't your mother raise you better than that?"

"If my status is that important to you, then no, I'm not with the FBI anymore as of Friday."

Juugo peered at Suigetsu's phone, curious, and Suigetsu nearly tripped over himself getting out of crushing reach. Just in case.

"Look, if you're not up to the task, I can kidnap someone better."

"Hey man, you're talking to the best in the business, okay, the goddamned King of England," Suigetsu said.

"There's no King of England, idiot, only a Queen," Karin said. She folded up the files and handed them back to Sasuke. "I'm sure you don't expect me to work with an old enemy without at least sleeping on it."

Juugo nodded. His eyes lingered on the folder still in Karin's hand, but he gave nothing away.

Suigetsu jammed his phone back into his pocket and crossed his arms, sighing dramatically. "Yeah, right, uh, I need to think about this. Settle my affairs. Write my will and stuff, since that's suddenly relevant..."

Sasuke accepted the file back from Karin and held it in both hands. The tab at the top read 'SOUND CORPORATION - EXECUTIVES.' He tucked it away in his suit jacket before he could dwell on it anymore.

"All right," Sasuke said. "You have until tomorrow at 5 pm. I'll text you the address if you choose to show up."

"You don't have my phone number,"Juugo said.

Sasuke smirked. "Think about my offer. I expect to see all of you tomorrow." He withdrew his cell phone and punched in a number. Not a minute later, the sound of helicopter rotors filled the area and whipped up a chilly wind. Sasuke climbed inside and leaned out the window.

"And that wasn't the real Athena Cluster. You didn't think I'd really hand over a priceless artifact to a bunch of thieves, did you?"

Karin itched for Suigetsu's knife right about now, but the helicopter rose too high in the sky for anyone to reach Sasuke now. Suigetsu grumbled something about engine failure and began fiddling with his phone again, but Juugo closed a hand over it.


Juugo looked between Suigetsu and Karin, the latter of whom was already prepping her harness to make her getaway.

"Will you be there tomorrow?" he asked.

Karin's look was unreadable as she stepped onto the edge of the skyscraper. She shrugged. "He owes me a hairpin."

She jumped off the edge of the building, gone. Juugo released Suigetsu, now confident that Sasuke was far enough away for the hacker not to sabotage his vessel, and made for the crane. Suigetsu fell to his knees and poked at Kubikiribouchou sitting in a sparking pile of junk where Juugo had crushed it.

"My baby. My only love," he said, wiping an imaginary tear.

Juugo rolled his eyes and hauled Suigetsu up by the collar. "Come on, Nerd. It's a long way down."

"What the— Hey! Unhand me!"


Juugo flung Suigetsu into the cage, which rattled on impact. Then he climbed in after the younger man and lowered them to the ground.

"I hate you," Suigetsu said.

"Not the best thing to say to the guy operating the crane."

Suigetsu poked Juugo in the chest. "I will end you, man."


"I mean it!"

"You talk a lot."

"I didn't even ask for your help—"


Suigetsu took a step back and narrowed his eyes. "What?"

"Shut up."

Silence was a virtue. In the peace and quiet, there was time and opportunity to think. To reflect. But Ino Yamanaka had never liked being alone. Dilemmas.

"Chuck, honey, you took that frontal lobe hemorrhaging like a pro. Oh! If your mama could see you now she'd be pleased as punch."

Ino giggled, pleased with her best Southern Belle impersonation. Chuck remained silent and stiff. These pale types were all the same, but at least they listened to Ino without a fuss.

"So, blunt trauma. I'd say you made some drug pushers pretty angry, Chuck."

Ino logged her observations into the patient's medical file. His name wasn't really Chuck, but Ino called all the male cases Chuck, anyway. Otherwise, they came and went and she never heard from them again. This way, it was like welcoming home an old friend. Poor guy. She was all he had in the world now.

Ino pulled on her goggles and selected a thin scalpel from a stainless steel tray. She pulled down Chuck's modesty sheet to get a better look at his upper body in case he'd taken a beating before the killing blow. She made a face at the generous amount of hair on his chest.

"Geez, even if I wanted to detect bruising I couldn't make it out under all that...fuzz..."

She left the operating table and rummaged about the cabinets for an electric razor.

"Shaving Mr. Short, Pale, and definitely not Handsome. Not exactly how I envisioned my morning going," Ino grumbled as she fiddled with the power switch. The razor buzzed to life and she hovered over Chuck's chest like a tyrant looking down on his servile people, ready to show them by example just how her brand of justice was meted out against the Hairy.

"I'm sorry, Chuck," she said, her eyes growing misty as she slipped back into the southern accent. "I wish it didn't have to be this way, but ya'll understand one day when I find the bastards who did this to you, sweet thing."

Ino took a shaky breath before attacking the cadaver with the razor and expertly sawing off the layers of thick, curly hair.

"The horror!" she cried. "Oh, the horror!"

Stripped of his hair and his dignity, Chuck the cadaver waited as Ino retrieved her arsenal of knives, set her iPod to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, and got to work. She sawed through flesh, muscle, and bone, through the chest cavity and along the clavicle. Ino paused and lay a gentle hand over his greying heart.

"You really know how to bear your heart to a girl."

Winking, she jotted down notes on her observations. Time passed and Ino told Chuck about the time she pranked her best friend, Sakura Haruno, with twelve large delivery pizzas and it ended up backfiring because Naruto was over and he was more than happy to plow through them all. Of course, she told him all this as she used a sharpened spoon to dig out his left eyeball, which was a glass fake, only to find a rubber balloon filled with heroin hidden behind it.

"Chuck, have you been keeping secrets from me? You bad boy." She logged the find in his file. "I hate to say it, but it looks like those drug pushers had a good reason to come after you. Bless your soul."

The sound of someone clearing their throat made Ino drop the glass eye on the floor, and it shattered. She whirled.

"Damnit! Who let you in here? You just made me drop Chuck's eye!"

"Um, sorry, sorry!"

Moegi, Ino's assistant, hovered in the doorway looking like she'd just destroyed evidence instead of Ino. Sighing dramatically, Ino pulled off her bloody rubber gloves and threw them in a wastebin before approaching the younger girl.

"So? What's the matter?"

"Oh, well, you have a visitor..."

Ino frowned and checked her watch: 11:43 am. A little early for lunch, and she wasn't quite finished with Chuck yet. The thought of leaving him all alone was not a happy one, but relationships were about sacrifice, she supposed. Shrugging off her labcoat and hanging it on a hook by the door, Ino gestured for Moegi to follow her out.

"Who is it?"

Moegi winced. "He wouldn't say, just that you were supposed to meet him at Bistro Isabelle around the corner for lunch."

Ino's mouth twitched. "I don't remember making any plans with strangers. He sounds so demanding, too." She flashed Moegi a grin over her shoulder as they exited the medical wing, but not before retrieving her Bureau-issued handgun from a drawer and cocking it. "Just my type."

Moegi blushed but said nothing more. The ground floor of the Konoha FBI office was bustling at this hour as people rushed out for lunch or for murder. Either way, both required a good washing after the fact. Ino ignored the crowd and turned back to Moegi.

"Okay, kid," she said, eyeing the short redhead. "You tell Shī that I'm taking lunch out. Chuck's not quite finished, but I'll wrap him up for our friends in Tactics when I get back."

"Um, I think his name was Frank—"

Ino put a hand up to silence her young assistant. "Don't speak that name in my presence. Now go. I'll only be gone for a little bit."

Moegi nodded and dashed off to find Shī, the head coroner. Ino grabbed her phone from her purse, but there were no new messages. She paused a moment to think. Whoever this person was who wanted to meet with her didn't want to leave a record of it. Suspicious, Ino pocketed her phone and headed outside, her long, blonde ponytail swishing behind her. It wasn't until the sun hit her eyes that she remembered she was still wearing her surgical goggles, and she swore. Yanking them off and stuffing them in her purse, she smoothed out her bangs and headed for the restaurant. It was a warm spring day, but it was bound to get worse as summer set in over the next month.

Bistro Isabelle was small and specialized in take-out options for the busy FBI employees who never had time to stay to eat. But there was a dining room in the back, and when Ino walked in, the hostess seemed to recognize her.

"Are you Ino Yamanaka?" she asked as she balanced a tray with five mugs of beer.

Ino eyed the alcohol. Well, it's five o'clock somewhere.

"I can be," she said.

The waitress smiled. "Your party's waiting for you. Please follow me."

Ino did just that, slipping on her sunglasses to eye the crowd without garnering any unwanted attention. The waitress led her back to the dining room, which was slowly filling but not crowded at this hour.

Smart, she thought. He doesn't want an audience, but he doesn't want to stand out.

Stand out he did, however, to the eye knowing what to look for. The waitress stopped at Ino's reserved table and Ino had to hold in a string of expletives that probably would have gotten them both kicked out of the restaurant.

"Your table, Miss," the waitress said, leaving Ino to her mystery host.


Ino removed her sunglasses but didn't sit, settling for glaring at the table's other occupant. He smirked.

"Hey, Ino."

"Sasuke Uchiha," she said, forcing a bright smile. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't call out the armed forces to haul your ass to prison, you know, the ones right around the goddamned corner."

"You could keep your voice down, you know."

He grabbed her wrist before she could protest and yanked her into the chair opposite him. Ino glared at him, dressed in a brown beanie and popped collar to hide his appearance. She grabbed the complimentary water nearest her to chug before she started screaming. When she was about halfway through and couldn't feel her throat anymore, she set it down.

"Okay," she said. "Because of our history, I'll assume you have a reason for being here that doesn't involve suicide. You have five seconds."

"I want you to join an elite team of special agents to bring down Sound Corporation with me. You'll get paid."

Ino stared at him a moment, but when he held her gaze with no intention to elaborate, she realized he was being serious. She burst out laughing.

"Okay, I hear retirement is nice but give me whatever you're smoking, please."

Sasuke said nothing and instead passed her a manila folder across the table. Its label read "SOUND CORPORATION - EXECUTIVES." Ino eyed it like one would eye poison ivy: with unabashed curiosity as to the pain and suffering that surely lay within.

"Just read it," Sasuke urged.

"The only reason I haven't called the police yet is because unfortunately, you're my best friend. At least, you were before you went and turned traitor."

Sasuke had always been a hard bastard to get a reading on, but Ino knew where to look after years of practice. The hurt in his eyes did not go unnoticed, and a part of her regretted her words. This fiasco with his burn notice had not come easy for anyone close to him, least of all her. She didn't want to believe it, having known Sasuke all through college and their FBI recruitment. He'd become an important person in her life, a true friend, and while Ino knew many people she had few true friends. This dirty sell-out business wasn't like Sasuke, but who was she to argue with official protocol?

Sasuke put a hand over hers and stared at the table. Ino was taken aback by the gesture, so apologetic and sincere, so unlike him.

"I should've said something sooner." He looked up at her and the look in his eyes was hard. "But I was set up. You have to believe me. I wouldn't betray the organization. I'm not Itachi."

Ino watched him carefully. He couldn't even say the word—brother—like saying it would make it true. Itachi was responsible for this entire mess, the reason Sasuke had been burned in the first place. Having betrayed the FBI to join a criminal organization known as Akatsuki, Itachi was disgraced and hated within his former agency. Akatsuki was an underground group with a small, core membership roster and innumerable informants, connections, and allies at all levels of society, from the local laundromat to Fortune 500 companies to the highest levels of government. Itachi had left the FBI, having come out as a mole for Akatsuki, and now he was on the run. No one had been able to pin him down since his defection three years ago, and he rarely surfaced. Most of the Akatsuki kept to the shadows, preferring to orchestrate their deals under the table.

Ino didn't have to read the file on Sound Corp. Sasuke had passed her to know where this was going. Sound Corp. was a medical technology company, specializing in everything from biomedical engineering to hardware. It was the leading innovator in medical science. There were rumors that the top brass used company resources for more nefarious purposes, like employing charlatan doctors, working the black market for organ harvesting, and human trafficking and experimentation. FBI investigations over the last decade had never turned up anything conclusive, and the charges were dropped. Sound Corp. was squeaky clean, but a lack of available evidence was not enough to convince everyone.

Sasuke had been working a new angle to the Sound Corp. investigation by trying to connect the executive board directly it to Akatsuki. The new angle would revitalize the stale investigation, but not everyone was thrilled about it, including the FBI Director and Sasuke's father, Fugaku Uchiha. But Sasuke was determined. Perhaps it was young ambition, a desire to prove himself to the father that had always favored Itachi over him. Ino couldn't say for certain. But either way, just as Sasuke made some headway, his burn notice came through along with evidence connecting him to dirty deals with government officials. He was accused of accepting bribes and selling top secret FBI information in exchange for political favor for his "obsession," as the lawyers were calling it. They painted him as a crazed loose cannon using the fruitless investigation into Sound Corp. as a personal vendetta against Itachi, whose betrayal had been more personal than professional to Sasuke. But Sasuke escaped custody, and now he had the Feds and local police and possibly Akatsuki looking for him.

Ino still wondered why she hadn't called the cops when the waitress returned and asked them what they wanted to order. She took them by surprise, having interrupted a serious moment, but Ino and Sasuke switched gears without a second thought. They ordered and waited for the waitress to wander out of earshot. Ino leaned forward a little and looked Sasuke in the eye.

"Let's say I believe you. Why would anyone set you up?"

Sasuke opened the folder between them and perused the pages. "That's just it. I think I was on to something, and I got too close. So they got rid of me, or tried to, anyway."

Ino looked down to where Sasuke was pointing. It was the FBI file on Orochimaru, Chief Executive Officer of Sound Corp. The guy wasn't winning any medals for humanitarian of the year despite his company's mission to provide the best medical technology to hospitals and universities all over the world. His record was rife with indiscrepancies, mostly regarding former business partners the FBI had managed to nail. Orochimaru, however, had always managed to avoid implication.

"If what you're saying is true, then don't you think there would've been a hit out on you? Especially now that you're on the run? Getting you fired doesn't solve much."

"I don't know, but I'm not complaining. Look, I didn't meet you here to talk about the past. I'm looking ahead now."

The waitress brought their food and Sasuke concealed the file.

"What do mean, you're 'looking ahead'? Sasuke, you're on the run from the Federal Bureau of Investigation! That's kind of serious, you know?" Ino paused and her shoulders slumped. "And now I'm abetting an escaped prisoner by having lunch with you. Aw hell, the cute ones are always a bad influence."

Sasuke ignored her distress. "I'm talking about finishing what I started. I want to get these guys. If I can prove there's a connection between Sound Corp. and Akatsuki, I can clear my name and bring them both down."

Ino glared at him across the table. "And as a bonus, you can bring in Itachi, is that right?"

Sasuke set his jaw. She knew that look. He was shutting down. This topic of conversation was a dead end. It had been since the day Itachi defected. Ino felt a twinge of regret for having brought it up, but they both knew she was right.

"I'm not blaming you," she said. "And...I want to believe you. I know you want to find Itachi and bring him to justice, but you wouldn't do what they're accusing you of just to make it happen. The risk of getting caught is too great, and you'd never jeopardize your career like that. It's not logical."

Some of the ice melted from Sasuke's expression. "Maybe you can tell that to my father when this is all over."

"Okay, what is 'this', exactly? What are you planning?"

"Like I said. I'm going to finish what I started, and I want your help."

Ino rubbed her temples. "What was I saying about a bad influence?"

Sasuke reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a rumpled slip of paper, which he passed to Ino. "Just think about it. I'll need your decision tonight, though."

He got up and threw a few bills on the table, leaving his half-eaten lunch behind. Ino grabbed his wrist before he could walk away.

"Do you have any idea what you're asking me to do?" she hissed.

He paused and watched her askance. "Yeah, I know. That's why you're the only one I can ask."

She watched him go, walking hunched over with a fake limp to throw off anyone who might be watching. She rolled her eyes and examined the note he'd left her. It read:

1341 Honness Ave.

"Hey la, hey la, my boyfriend's back," Ino sang to herself.

She crumpled up the note and stuffed it in her pocket. The waitress passed by to take Sasuke's plate and Ino flagged her down.

"I'll have a Maker's Mark on the rocks."

The waitress gave her an odd look but nodded. "Right away, ma'am."

"You know what, make it a double," Ino called. "I'm gonna need it."

Ino parked three blocks from the address Sasuke had given her earlier that day. Chuck the heroin-smuggling cadaver got no further attention from Ino's surgical hands, as she claimed food poisoning and left early. Standing in the middle of her apartment at home, she was still and silent as the ramifications of her decision slowly processed. This had just become potentially the most important day of her life, and Sasuke had given her no warning at all.

Once, Ino had agreed to go on a blind date in Sakura's place out of the pure goodness of her heart because she was such a phenomenal friend. That had been an evening of suffering the company of a slightly heavy-set redheaded man named Sherman who carried a lingering stench of Indian food and wet dog that seemed embedded under his skin as though he bathed in the stuff. Worse, he mumbled while taking barely a breath to break the stream and got going about his life's passion: the Dewey Decimal system.

"When I told Tenten that I wanted a guy who was well-read, I think she went a little overboard," Sakura had said.

"If by overboard you mean she set you up for the nuclear apocalypse, then yeah, that at least begins to scratch the surface of the sheer terror I just went through for you, Forehead."

Now, as Ino approached the abandoned warehouse near the harbor on the outskirts of Konoha City, that blind date was looking like a walk in the park. A small part of her even missed the way Sherman chewed with his mouth open as the prospect of the end of her entire career as she knew it loomed over her like a thundercloud ready to electrocute whatever was left of her sanity.

"What the hell am I even doing here?" she asked herself as she slipped inside.

The night was cool and she wore a leather jacket, but not for warmth. A 9 mm Smith & Wesson weighed down the left inner pocket, loaded. The serrated hunting knife strapped to her thigh over her jeans, however, was a greater comfort. She was better with knives. The door to the warehouse was open already and she slipped inside, her fingers resting on the hilt of the knife just in case.

Inside was dark, only the light of the full moon diffusing through the high, grimy windows. Large crates lined the inside housing who knew what. Ino's high-heeled boots clicked and clacked as she walked, echoing. She heard voices up ahead. Someone was already here.

"I mean, why are you even here, really?" a young man's voice said.

"The payout, same as you," said a woman's voice.

"Bullshit. You're here for Sasuke and you're not foolin' anyone."

"I can be here to kick your ugly ass."

"Oooh, I'm shaking in my boots!"

"I'm here for Sasuke, too," a third masculine voice said.

"Huh?" the first man said. "What the fuck for? Hey, how do you even know Sasuke?"

Ino turned the corner and came upon the three conversants in the midst of their discussion. A redheaded woman dressed in form-fitting black and glasses stood near the middle of the room glaring at a white-haired man in cargo pants sucking on a soda straw. The third man, tall, muscular, and in a wife beater, leaned against a wall in the shadows. A string of dusty lamps shone overhead, offering meager light. Ino stepped forward, and the sound of her heels attracted the others' attention.

"Who the hell are you?" the woman asked, eyeing Ino.

The men turned to observe her as well, but Ino said nothing as she took a moment to study them, committing to memory every twitch, shifts in position, their poise.

"Whoa," the soda-toting man said, giving Ino a once-over. "Please tell me you're here for the party."

"I'm Ino," she said, keeping her distance. "Sasuke invited me."

The woman said nothing, but she didn't take her eyes off of Ino. Her hand hovered near her hip, where something blockish was strapped to her. A Taser. Ino bit back a smirk.

"Relax," she said. "I'm guessing we're all here for the same reason." Ino pulled back her jacket to reveal the 9 mm strapped to the inside. "I brought toys, too."

"I'm Suigetsu," said the soda drinker. He bowed dramatically. "Let's be friends."

The third man pushed off the wall and approached the group. Walking, Ino noticed just how large he was, like something out of the movies. His build and gait screamed professional training, but he carried no visible weapons.

Special Forces, maybe SEAL or CIA even, Ino thought to herself.

"That's Juugo," Suigetsu said. "He looks scary, but he's actually kind of a pussy."

Juugo shot Suigetsu a look but made no move to react. Still, Suigetsu shrunk away as though he expected to get clocked.

"Dumbass," the woman said.

"And this lovely bag of dicks is Karin," Suigetsu said, recovering.

"Suigetsu, I swear to god I will strangle you with your own intestines," Karin spat.

"So, you all know each other," Ino interrupted, amused. "I feel like the third wheel."

"No no! You're definitely, like, the first wheel," Suigetsu said, approaching. He flashed her a grin that was so natural, Ino could believe he'd been born with it.

"Aren't you charming," she said, frowning.

"I get that a lot."

"What do you do?" Juugo asked suddenly.

"What do I do?" Ino repeated.

"Sasuke's assembling some kind of team," Karin explained. "I'm a thief, Suigetsu's a computer nerd, and Juugo's a hitter."

"For your information, I prefer the term 'hacker'," Suigetsu said.

"And I prefer being on a different continent than you," Karin said. "But life doesn't always give us what we want."

"So you're all criminals," Ino said. "I should have seen this coming. Ohhhh goddamnit, Sasuke." She turned away ran her hands through her bangs.

"You didn't answer my question," Juugo said.

Ino glanced at them over her shoulder. "I'm a Fed."

Karin backed away and drew her Taser. Suigetsu shrunk back behind Juugo, but Juugo didn't move an inch.

"Hey, Sasuke said he was through with the Feds," Suigetsu said. "What gives, man?"

"Don't worry. After today, I'm thinking I won't have a job to go back to."

Karin lowered her Taser and watched Ino, but she said nothing. Ino sighed and faced the group once more.

"I guess you could say my specialty is people."

"Why is that useful?" Karin blurted out.

"Because Ino's the only one of you lot who can function in normal society."

Sasuke's voice reached the group from above, where he stood on the second floor balcony. He wore a black suit and looked down at them over his nose. Ino rolled her eyes and Karin mumbled something about 'pompous ass'. Ino caught her eye and grinned.

"My thoughts exactly," she said.

Karin said nothing and quickly looked away to hide a blush.

"I'm glad you all came," Sasuke said as he headed for the stairs to join them on the main floor. "We have a lot of work to do."

"Yeah, about that," Karin said. "When are we getting paid? I don't work for free, you know."

Sasuke walked toward them until the five of them stood in a loose circle. "I know. I can get you all fifty up front. You'll get the remaining four-fifty after the job's done."

"No shit, are you serious?" Suigetsu said. "That's half a mil each. Who died and made you moneybags?"

"It's not my money."

"Great," Karin said.

"Not great," Ino said. "I came here because I thought we were doing something good, not just stealing money, Sasuke."

"Good's a relative term. You wouldn't be here now if you didn't believe that."

Ino crossed her arms.

"What's the job?" Juugo asked.

"Sound Corporation. We're going to destroy them," Sasuke said.

"Uh, how exactly are we gonna pull that off? They're rich, powerful, and probably have demonic powers," Suigetsu said.

"Yes, Sasuke, how do you plan to do what the FBI hasn't been able to do in over ten years of hard work?" Ino asked.

"By exposing their illegal operations. If my investigations prove true, and they will, the execs will go away for life."

"You have a personal interest in this," Juugo said. "What happened?"

"That's not something we need to discuss right now. The point is, each of you has a specific repertoire of talents that together can pull off this job. That's why I recruited you."

"Heh, fighting thieves with thieves. Didn't think you had it in you," Suigetsu said.

"We're all full of surprises, I suppose," Karin said.

Ino caught her exchanging a significant look with Sasuke, intrigued.

"So how's this going down, exactly? You know, since I'm basically forsaking my job and my life as I know it for this," Ino said.

Suigetsu chuckled but Sasuke ignored him.

"We'll attack the executives. There are three: Guren, Kabuto, and Orochimaru. We take them down, and Sound Corporation will go down with them."

"So three cons," Juugo said. "You planned this?"


"Well~ Mr. Mastermind, I'll bite. Can't say I don't like seeing a bunch a rich douchebags drown in their own shit," Suigetsu said. "But, you know, I still wanna know why Blondie's here. Not that I'm complaining, but why would a Fed give up her career for this?"

Ino gave Suigetsu her full attention. Sasuke said nothing as she stared, blue eyes half-lidded and analyzing.

"Suigetsu," she said. "The Hacker. You expend so much energy trying to look stoned because you think being relaxed will make you look cool and unthreatening, but really your mind's somewhere else. It's in the way you stare at nothing as you fiddle with the phone in your left pocket. You're probably building designs in your head, thinking about how you might deconstruct people as though they were computer programs. But that's just your problem; people are not equations. You're smart, but you only know one thing. It makes you arrogant, but it also makes you insecure because no one else can understand anything you're talking about. Karin doesn't seem to like you, but you still harp on her, like you'd rather fill the silence with vituperative bickering than let it sit. You're really very lonely, but you don't want others to know that. You think it'll make you weak, and that's the last thing you ever want to be. That's how I'd play you, as an interested, available woman who can speak your language just enough to sell it. You're too busy staring at my chest to grill me on the specifics of your trade, anyway, and that just makes it easier for me. You'd want so desperately to believe I'm interested that you'd do my job for me. Maybe you suffered a loss that you never recovered from, someone close to you? A parent, or a sibling—"

"Stop it," Suigetsu said.

He was no longer grinning, no longer casually slumped. Every muscle in his body was taut, ready to fight or flee. Juugo raised a hand toward him, but refrained from touching him. There was a long pause, and Ino regretted her words. It was easy and natural to get carried away with her thoughts, but to voice them aloud could lead to irreparable consequences. Perhaps she'd gone too far with Suigetsu. She opened her mouth to apologize, but he flashed her a salacious grin.

"I guess you're not bad. Question is, can you hold up in the field?"

His smile was too bright, his eyes too scrunched. The set of his shoulders screamed anxiety, but Ino didn't comment. She recognized the defensive tactic. What was worse: that she'd been right, or that she knew she'd been right?

"You can be the judge of that," she said softly.

"There'll be plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other later," Sasuke said, breaking the moment. "For now, we'll need to secure a base of operations. Project FALCON starts tomorrow."

"Project...FALCON..." Juugo said.

"Freelance Association of Ladronist CONsultants," Sasuke clarified.

"Okay seriously, how long did it take you to come up with that? Don't lie," Suigetsu said.

"Too long," Karin said.

"Keep your phones on. I'll be in touch," Sasuke said. "Let's go steal a multi-million dollar corporation."

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