Aconite

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Written for UE, who asked for the most IC Sasuke x Ino I could manage, preferably post timejump. I leave it to you to decide how well I met her challenge.

As for the aconite of the title: it's the "ninja flower," with mildly toxic roots, that Ino throws at Ame in the flashback scene during her fight with Sakura. Ino has always struck me as someone who's very resourceful and who will use anything she can to protect her friends. I like her, even if sometimes she is a little so-and-so.

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She shouldn't be so surprised. The target has been making a nuisance of himself on both sides of the border for months. A rich merchant who was an agent for both the Daimyo of Rice Field Country and a minor feudal lord of Fire Country, he has just successfully (depending on how you look at it) double-crossed both. The feudal lord in Fire Country wants to know how, and why, and he wants all of the merchant's personal papers and the names of his contacts and the true story of his treachery.

The lord of Rice Field Country just wants his head.

Ino learned most of the story from the mission specs and the rest of it from the briefing the icily furious feudal lord gave her before she set out to complete her mission. She fills in even more details from the papers her gloved hands riffle through gently as the big man in the bed behind her snores drunkenly, rendered almost comatose by her new mind-control jutsu on top of nearly six bottles of sake. She knows the full extent of his duplicity—and of his perversions; he deserves whatever nightmares her jutsu combines with his sake to produce—and so she's almost expecting the Sound-nin who drops noiselessly through the window, neatly dodging her traps.

She doesn't expect it to be Sasuke.

For half a moment, both of them freeze. Sasuke crouches on the rich rug below the window, bristling with kunai, dark eyes only slightly widened in his too-pale face. Ino kneels at the desk, one hand filled with papers, the other rising unconsciously to toss her loose hair back over her bare shoulders. The habits of childhood are hard to break, even after she thought them all shattered the day Chouji and Shikamaru nearly never came back. He's still as handsome as ever, although there are new hollows beneath his cheekbones and above his brows, and a new scar creeping down his collarbone to disappear into his shirt, and a new and longer hairstyle that does nothing to compliment his thin face.

Maybe it's the hairstyle that snaps Ino out of her split-second reverie. She drops her hand casually from her own hair to her thigh, barely clad in the lightest of silk lingerie. Shielded from Sasuke's view, her fingers twist in half a seal before tapping the long stem of one of the embroidered aconite flowers that gird the hem. The cold steel of senbon needles fill her hand, comfortingly. She didn't expect to use this jutsu, but then, she's beginning to think she should stop expecting anything at all.

"Sasuke," she says. She's a little proud of how her voice stays calm and steady and quiet. She can't say she hasn't thought about Sasuke, these past three years and more, but she thinks she can say her thoughts have changed. He's not Uchiha Sasuke, Academy heartthrob, anymore. He's not the prize to be won in her rivalry with Sakura, and he's certainly not the boy she prayed would be on her team.

He's Uchiha Sasuke, traitor and Sound-nin, and he's the boy who broke Sakura's heart, and he's the reason Shikamaru and Chouji nearly died.

He's come to kill her target, and she's damned if she's going to let him get away with this too.

His dark eyes flicker towards the man in the bed. "Drugged?" he asks in a voice so flat it's nearly a statement instead of a question.

"Drunk," she says, a little scornfully. No need to let him know about her special jutsu yet. She's never tried it without her victim already incapacitated—either by drink or drugs or by Shikamaru's Shadow Bind—and she'll need every advantage she can get if she's going to beat Uchiha Sasuke. She slides the senbon into throwing position between her knuckles and adds, "I'm surprised Orochimaru let his future vessel go on a mission like this. Taking a risk, aren't you?"

That old contemptuous twist of his lips still makes her heart speed up a little, but this time it's with anger and only a little excitement. He's still underestimating her. He's always underestimated her, and although at thirteen she might have done nearly anything to attract his attention, now at sixteen she's decades older and centuries wiser. She's a kunoichi, and underestimation is a kunoichi's greatest weapon.

"There's no problem with a mission 'like this'," he says, still flat, still disdainful. The flick of a finger, and a kunai glistens in his hand. "Unless you think you can stop me?" He makes the very idea sound laughable.

And so Ino laughs, lightly, easily. "Not stop you, maybe," she says. One-handed, she folds the papers she's already selected and then slides them into what little bodice the slinky lingerie affords. She casts one quick glance around the moonlit room. Nothing to be done about the unmistakable signs of her presence, but she's got the information and the evidence she came for, and by the time the servants find the body they'll already know that the slender blonde their master took upstairs tonight was more than she appeared.

"I don't have to stop you," she tells Sasuke. "I just have to be a little faster than you."

Senbon glitter in the moonlight. Sasuke flicks his kunai and deflects the two steel needles easily, contemptuously.

But there's no one and nothing to deflect the third senbon from reaching its target and burying itself deep in the throat of the traitor merchant both of them were sent to kill.

Sasuke stares for a moment at the crimson stain spreading over the white sheets. Then he stares at Ino, and the black wheels of the Sharingan are spinning in his red eyes. But she never lost that moment, and her hands are already twisted into a new seal. "Don't try it," she warns. Her voice is a little breathless; excitement and anger and fear have set her heart pumping and her adrenaline racing. He's Uchiha Sasuke, after all, and whatever else that name has come to mean, it's never stopped meaning genius.

Ino's not a genius. But she's smart and she's tough and she's dedicated, and she hasn't spent these past four years as Shikamaru's teammate for nothing. "I've seen your jutsu," she says quietly. "And I've heard about Orochimaru's; we all have. Hokage-sama had Anko-san give a lecture to all the chuunin and jounin in the village a few months ago. I know what you can do. And you don't know me."

The Sharingan are still spinning. Ino forces herself to meet that crimson gaze. He can't copy her techniques, not without years of mental training and a special affinity for spiritual techniques. He can't steal her jutsu, he can't steal her mission, he can't do anything to her she's not prepared, as a kunoichi and as a pig-stubborn Yamanaka, to face.

Except, maybe, give in. The Sharingan's relentless whirl slows and then stops completely. He blinks, and his eyes are black again. "Fine," he says, sounding for the first time a little weary. "As long as he's dead, my mission's done."

He straightens and turns to the window. Ino doesn't drop the seal, but her shoulders slump with the relief she won't yet let out in a sigh, and she spares a fraction of a second to glance at the door.

She's forgotten how fast he is. Between one heartbeat and the next his body is pinning hers to the wall, and his breath is hot on her face, and his kunai is kissing her throat. His free hand slips delicately between her breasts and draws out the folded papers. He flicks them open, spares the dark lines of cramped writing a derisive glance, and tosses them back onto the futon. They melt into the tangled sheets and spreading blood. Ino draws a quick, furious breath—and holds it, as the pressure of the kunai sketches a light line of fire across her throat.

"Maybe," Sasuke whispers into her ear, voice as low as a lover's, "you don't know me, either."

"No?" Ino arches an elegant eyebrow and rearranges one finger in the seal still crushed between their bodies. This close, touching him at nearly every point, there's no way she can miss. "Maybe," she echoes him, "we should take some time to change that."

Not every jutsu name has to be shouted out. It's a point of pride among most shinobi to announce their techniques, to let their enemies know exactly how and by whom they were defeated; some ninja live and die never knowing that they don't have to do so. But for a kunoichi undercover, silence is often her best ally. And now, it saves Ino's life.

Sasuke jerks as the force of her mind energy hits him; fortunately the hand holding the kunai to Ino's throat spasms backward, not forward, and Ino catches his hand just in time to prevent him from inadvertently blinding himself with the hilt. He's already sliding bonelessly to the floor, eyes wide and staring and entirely empty, mind lost in the maze of her Mind Prison Technique. She catches him before he hits and hefts his limp weight awkwardly over her shoulders. He's too thin, she thinks ridiculously, and nearly chokes on a giggle born of sheer nerves. How many times has Chouji said that to her?

Chouji. Shikamaru. Ino's lips curve up in a delicate smile. "So much," she whispers to the unconscious young man draped over her shoulders, "for kunoichi being weak. You're just lucky it wasn't Sakura."

She leaves by the window, landing a little heavily on the dusty street below, then fading into the shadows without a sound. In the empty room she left behind, blood and ink run together and blur forever the words of the papers she fought to find.

As a few Konoha shinobi learned long ago, some things are more important than the mission.