An Artful Deception

Chapter I: A New Mission

She sank down onto her futon with a sigh, looking thoughtfully around her new room. It was fairly small, of course; she was renting in the cheaper of the two inns in the village. Even if Konoha had had the means to afford more, it would have looked very strange for a girl her age to be wandering around, especially unescorted, with more than a meagre amount of money. And the last thing she wanted to do right now was stand out.

There was very little furniture in the room other than the futon itself; it seemed that the people in Kumogakure didn't care much for the niceties in life. The shades drawn down over her single window were plain and undecorated, matching the blandness that was the rest of the room. In any other situation, Ino would have found such starkness distasteful and unbecoming, but she was far too concerned with the specifics of her mission to dwell on it.

She wasn't likely to be spending that much time in her room in any case.

Getting back to her feet, Ino walked over to the half open door and the single bag she'd left draped to the side of it. Shutting the door, she picked up the bag and brought it over to the table in the far corner. Opening it, she began sorting through the things she'd deemed important enough to bring. On a mission like this, she hadn't been able to take along that many things, and wouldn't have wanted to anyway. If something were to go wrong… well, if she had to flee, Ino didn't want to be forced to leave behind anything of real value.

Grimacing slightly, she pulled her hitai-ate out of the bag. Gently Ino stroked the Konoha symbol at its centre, more than a bit uncomfortable at the concept of travelling around without it. She knew that such was impossible, of course, and that had she been truly wise, she would have left the hitai-ate back in Konoha entirely. This mission would be difficult and potentially dangerous enough without unnecessarily leaving proof of her allegiance lying around the inn.

Still, not wearing it was bad enough. Despite the circumstances, not bringing it at all would have felt like a betrayal of Konoha. Ino would have regretted not having that powerful a symbol of her home with her, and she sensed that she might just need the reminder before this mission was over.

Shaking the foreboding thoughts out of her head (and she supposed they were only normal; after all, this was her first really crucial mission since her promotion to chuunin—misgivings were to be expected), Ino straightened up again and dropped her bag unto the futon, hitai-ate still in hand. She was reluctant to simply leave it in her room, but didn't dare carry it outside of the inn to find someplace safe to put it. On her first day in Kumogakure, such behaviour would look suspicious. Perhaps later she'd be able to move it. Surely the shinobi here didn't see the need to search the rooms of all travellers…

Stuffing the hitai-ate back into her bag, making sure it was all the way at the bottom, Ino hoped she wasn't making a serious mistake. She didn't know quite what to expect in the Land of Lightning… and wasn't that why she was currently here, after all? Since the first time she had taken the Chuunin Exam, almost two years ago now, Kumogakure had sent no genin to be tested, and the Hokage, Tsunade, had finally decided that now that Konoha had recovered enough from Orochimaru's attack, steps needed to be taken to ensure that they were aware of exactly what was happening in Kumogakure.

Deciding that she wouldn't get much of anything done by sitting in her room pondering the specifics of her mission, Ino walked back over to the door. Some fresh air would be good for her anyway. She opened the door and walked outside, momentarily shielding her eyes against the rays of the mid-afternoon soon. It was currently the end of spring, and Ino found herself wondering just how often it was likely to rain at this time of year in the Land of Lightning. She supposed she might as well enjoy one of the few sunny days she was likely to see, and worry about her mission later.

A slightly muddy dirt road ran alongside the length of the inn she was staying at, and several young people were standing on the far side of it, in front of a rundown looking house, speaking and laughing rather loudly. None of them wore hitai-ate, and Ino wondered just how many people in this village were successful shinobi. It was certainly something she was going to have to learn during her stay.

She made her way down the street, passing several other buildings in more or less the same shape as the one across from her inn. This was supposed to be one of the five great shinobi villages; Ino couldn't help but feel a bit surprised at the state it seemed to be in. Had something happened here recently? Something they didn't want the other villages to know about for fear of being seen as vulnerable?

Ino tapped her fingers to her lips, wondering what was more likely in this case: enemy attack or natural disaster. She'd done her homework, and realised that the weather in the Land of Lightning was often simply catastrophic. Perhaps that had played a major role in whatever had gone wrong here.

Filing that knowledge away in her mind, Ino continued along the path, wondering where the other inn, the more costly one, could be found. She was soon distracted, however, when she noticed a pair of older men, one of whom was clearly a shinobi, sitting in the shade of a tree and playing a board game. A light smile graced Ino's lips when she recognised the game they were playing: go, which along with shougi was one of Shikamaru's favourite pastimes.

Shikamaru and Chouji. She managed to fight down the wave of loneliness that threatened when she thought of them, but she still couldn't help but wish at least one of them were here with her on this mission. Technically, now that they were all chuunin, they wouldn't necessarily be working together from now on. And as much as Konoha had been able to recuperate after the attack, the village still couldn't afford to send more than one shinobi on this mission. Ino was in this by herself.

The idea had worried her at first, and in many ways still did. She had thought that Shikamaru would be more fitting for this type of mission… she was able to admire his intelligence without bitterness, and knew how much easier a time of it he would have thinking up plans to obtain information, and piecing together the puzzle that arose in the best possible manner.

Ino remembered bringing the question to her father, asking how she could have been chosen for a task for which another was so much better suited, especially since it was her first as a chuunin. Smiling to herself, she recalled his response: "We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and we can never truly know until after the fact what will be most important in any situation. Shikamaru is one of the most brilliant shinobi in Konoha, but his genius is still unaccompanied by any real drive. You, Ino, however… you're intelligent enough in your own right, and know how to observe things. But your true skills lie in understanding people and knowing how to handle them… and that is why you, not Shikamaru or anyone else, are suited for this position."

She smiled ruefully, not sure how much she appreciated the idea of her communication skills being the best she had. Ino was a shinobi, not a reporter or counsellor. Would she ever be recognised as such, or would she always be regarded in such a secondary role? She sighed; still, there was more to the life of a ninja than battle alone, as a mission such as this one demonstrated.

Forcefully she pushed such depressing thoughts out of her head. She had a job here, and she was going to accomplish it. And as much as she missed Shikamaru and Chouji and the rest of the village at the moment, it wasn't like she was going to remain alone for the entirety of her stay. Tsunade and Asuma had suggested that meeting and befriending some of the citizens of the village would both help her build her alias as a unthreatening civilian and give her important sources of information.

As good as the others were at observing instead of acting, Ino knew Shikamaru would have been much too lazy to even attempt to meet people here. And Chouji… oh, he was a great guy, of course, but his physical appearance was unfortunate when first impressions were so important.

Now Ino… she knew she was the perfect one for the job. Smiling to herself, assured of her social skills and chances of success, she passed the men playing go and continued along her way, immersed in confident thoughts that kept the fear of inadequacy at bay.

Until, that was, she heard the bang.

A/N: I've recently become converted (and then addicted) to the concept of DeixIno. So much that I've broken my "one-shot only" rule to write a multi-chapter story on the matter. Feedback is appreciated, of course. ;;

Next Chapter: Deidara is bored. Oh, horror.