Part One

"Duck your head, breathe."

Gasping, tears stinging the backs of her eyes, Yamanaka Ino did just that, bracing herself on her knees as her chest heaved suddenly. The sparse breakfast she'd managed to get down that morning came back in a rush, souring her mouth and spattering the ground in front of her. The scent would normally have been enough to make her sick again, but she didn't even notice it.

When his hand came down to rub her back in slow, patient circles, she hiccoughed and spat, hot tears slipping down her face. They had never told her it would be like this. In all the training, all the emotional conditioning, nothing had prepared her for the horror of taking someone else's life. They had said it would be hard, they'd told her she would need to detach herself from the situation, but she couldn't.

How did you detach yourself from the mangled corpse of a person you could have just as easily spoken to moments before? How did you forget that it was their blood on your hands, their warm, slick lifeblood that you had spilled? It was impossible. She couldn't treat people as objects; they were human. She couldn't even comfort herself with the knowledge that if she hadn't done it, she would be the one lying on the ground, motionless.

She almost wished she was dead.

Coughing, she pitched forward, catching herself with her palms as she gagged and threw up again. When she thought of those eyes... so empty, so knowing. He had known he was about to die and he had just accepted it. She would never be able to forget this day, no matter how long she lived.

It would be a grisly sort of holiday for her. The first day she killed someone, at only fourteen years old. She'd never really understood what it meant to be chuunin before, but now she knew. This wouldn't be the last time she took someone else's life. That was how akunoichi lived.

Arms buckling, she would have fallen into her own vomit if his arms hadn't caught her and hauled her up, shaking, against him. Somehow he seemed to have expected this, and he said nothing, merely tucked her against his chest and began to leave. Ino didn't even notice the trees blur as he jumped, nor did she feel the air as it whipped her bloodied bangs across her face. She couldn't feel anything except the shaking.

God, she'd killed someone.

Closing her eyes, she buried her face in the fabric of his jacket and sobbed, the sound almost unearthly. It was wrenched from deep inside of her, almost painful for him to hear, but he understood.

It was never easy. He would let her cry for today.

Tomorrow, there would be no time for tears.

The blood had begun to dry on her by the time they reached camp, and he was silent when he slowed to a walk, expression impassive. It wasn't his place to scold her for her reaction, but neither was it his to coddle her. He would see to it that she washed her face and arms, and changed her clothes, and then he would leave her to her tent until the morning.

By then, perhaps she would have hardened her heart enough not to think about it. They all had to, at some point. She would crumble from the inside if she didn't.

Kneeling in the center of the camp, he did a quick scan of the area from behind dark glasses. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, he straightened, arms still around Ino. She was quiet now, and he knew he had heard the last of her outbursts. Her mind would be retreating for a time, now, and sheltering her from the more difficult thoughts. Not for long, he hoped, because if she allowed herself to be pulled away, it was likely she wouldn't come back.

He was silent as he led her to the stream and carefully pried her away from his jacket, his hands steady, sure. She made no effort to resist him, only winced at the sight of his red, sullied palms. When he set her at the water's edge she shied away from her reflection, and he couldn't blame her.

She wore a man's blood like war paint, slashing across her cheeks, forehead, lips. Her hair, normally a wheat blonde, was streaked a gaudy shade of red. The death had been a messy one, but that was to be expected when you ripped a man's trachea out. The front of her shirt would never be the same, either. Even if she managed to wash it clean, she would always see the stains.

He knew, because he had a jacket like that.

Withdrawing aworn piece of cloth from his pocket, Shino crumpled it in his fist and dunked it into the water, not all at perturbed by how cold it was. He grasped Ino's chin lightly with one hand and brought the cloth up with the other, beginning the tiresome task of washing her face. She was still and quiet throughout it all, face starkly pale against the red that he was fast washing away.

Footfalls behind him informed Shino that their comrade had returned, and he paused for a moment, sending a Kikai to investigate. Once he was satisfied that it was Kiba he returned to his task, mostly complete, save for her hair and shirt.

Swirling the cloth in the water, he released her chin and began to wring the rag out. She would need to function as herself again soon, whether she wanted to or not. Perhaps it was cold of him, but there was nothing to be done. This was the reality of life now, and she had to either be able to face it, or turn away from it.

The decision had to be hers, however.

His brows drew together lightly when he turned back to her and found her eyes fastened on his face. They were not the disconcerted ones of before; rather, they were focused now, aware. She looked slightly ill still, and her eyes contrasted harshly with the paleness of her face, but she was coming back.


He offered the rag to her, and she accepted it, murmuring, "Thank you."

When she began to motions of wiping down her arms, he turned to begin to attend to himself. He didn't have nearly as much to clean as she did, mostly because his Kikai had done the actual destruction for him. He did have a bit of blood on his hands and now his jacket because he had carried her, however.

A tense quiet settled between them, laced with something dark and horrible. He knew where her thoughts were, but he didn't bother to say anything to her about it. She would sort things through in her time. It wasn't his concern; after all, this was just one mission. He wasn't bound to her as he had been Kiba and Hinata, and so he only needed to see her safely home and then he could wash his hands of her, so to speak.

Unzipping his jacket, he angled his body away from Ino and slipped his glasses off the bridge of his nose, setting them on a rock to his right. There was little to no chance that she would look over and notice him, but it was safer to make certain that she wouldn't see, should she happen to glance his way. Shino had always been particular about keeping the majority of his face hidden.

Cupping water in his hands, he brought it up and splashed it across his face, lips parting slightly as he did so. He was tired, nearing exhaustion, and he wanted to get some rest. As the leader of this cell, it was his obligation to stay up first, however, so he would. The water was just one method of jarring his senses enough to wake him adequately.

Shaking the water from his face, he reached up and rubbed his fingers along his eyes, the only outward sign of his weariness. This mission was taking its toll on him as well as anyone else, but for the sake of his position of leadership, he needed to be alert. He must present an infallible front to his comrades.

Dropping his hand, he reached for his glasses and slid them back into place, then zipped his jacket up the front. When he turned back to Ino, she had dunked her head into the water and was furiously scrubbing her hair with her hands. He watched her a moment and then rose, hands falling to his sides, fingers curled slightly. She would be fine.

Pulling up suddenly, Ino gasped for breath as her hair whipped back and sprayed his pants with droplets of water. She shook her head, eyes closed, and then stood very slowly.

When their eyes met, hers carried a new weight, but they were still sane. Still human.

"Thank you." The words were simple but they carried such significance.

He merely nodded. "We should return to camp."

Ino thrust a fist at him, his handkerchief bunched tightly in her small, round hand. Shino accepted it wordlessly and secreted it away into one of his deep pockets before turning and leading the way along the slight trail. Ino followed behind him, her steps heavy but constant.

It appeared that Yamanaka Ino would survive this first brush at playing God. She carried a mental scar now, but she had recovered faster than he had anticipated. Perhaps there had been sense in assigning her to this mission, which he had doubted at first. It seemed too harsh to subject someone who was so freshly a chuunin, but she was bearing down well.

His own lips thinned in slight disapproval. He could remember a time not long ago when he had killed his first enemy. He had taken it in stride, and Kiba had accused him of being a 'heartless bastard' at the time. None of his comrades had known how shaken he had been, how horrified he was to comprehend the fragility of human life and how easy it was to take it.

Only his father had known, and he had been the one to help Shino through that time. He was not as strong as his peers assumed him to be, but he did not dispel their notions. That would take too much time, and it would shatter the image that he presented to them. He had worked hard to cultivate the impression of a shinobi, flawless in his emotional detachment.

After all, his father had told him, even if you feel, fake that you don't. You will never be underestimated if you give them no cause to think that you are afraid, hurting, or angry.

He could understand how she felt, however, just as he had understood Kiba's first time. It seemed that he was fated to be the pillar for them to collapse upon when they felt weak or scared. That was what it meant to be a leader.

Fingers flexing, he stepped into the boundaries of the camp and inclined his head to Kiba, who was sitting cross-legged, tending a wound in his arm. The other boy merely lifted an eyebrow and asked a question with his eyes, one that Shino answered with the briefest of nods.

Kiba exhaled slowly, dropping his eyes back to his arm as they approached. "Injuries?"

"Minor ones," Shino replied, pausing next to his former cell mate even as Ino continued on to her tent. "Three enemies were dispatched."

Kiba nodded, reaching over to pat Akamaru's head absently. "We took care of one. Ino..."


Kiba shook his head, tone taking on a bitter note. "Life's a bitch, isn't it?"

Shino didn't respond to that. Instead, he glanced up to the canopy of trees and gauged the sun's position. They had a few hours left before nightfall.

"I will take first watch."

"Suit yourself," Kiba replied, pulling the last stitch through his arm. He leaned over and bit the thread, scowling, before looking up. "I'll take second."

He had known that Kiba would, so he didn't bother to reply to that, either. As he made his way to his tent to tend to his own wounds, Kiba watched him, a harsh smile twisting his mouth.

"You know, it'd shock the hell out of me if you ever pretended to care about something."

Shino disappeared behind the flap of his tent without a sound, and Kiba shook his head again, giving Akamaru a knowing look.

"Just like I'm always tellin' you. Nothing fazes that guy."

How little Kiba truly knew.

The muse for a ShinoIno fic has been taunting me for a while, so I thought I would give it a shot. This one is written for my darling husband, Mathieu. :D Even if he'll hate me for saying so. (blows kisses)