Title: Crowskin

By: Sintari

Rating: T

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Warnings: Sexual situations, barely there violence

Summary: Let me also wear, such deliberate disguises… In Ino's world, people look and never see. Ino, Chouji.

In her line of work, she should have known better than to underestimate hired muscle, but Intel's report said that Sasaki's was an amateur operation, and so Ino had grown careless. The mission required an experienced Special Kunoichi, which in Konoha, always meant Ino. She was to steal important documents from Sasaki, but not kill him. This parameter made the mission harder than a common assassination, and necessitated the skills that Ino had to offer. She'd made contact at a party, worn red (his favorite color, according to the file), and snapped at him when she maneuvered him into spilling his drink on her. That last part – a little appreciation for discipline – hadn't been in the case file, but Ino was experienced enough by now to read between the lines.

She went to work – a smile here, a smirk there. Look at me lick my lips; look at the arch of my neck. Follow the line of my dress down to the curve of my ass. Like what you see? It's only what I want you to see. Sasaki was pushing fifty, unassuming and balding. Why would a girl like her go for a man like him? Even if she were just a common gold digger, there were much richer and more handsome marks at this very party. But people only see what they want to see, they never really take the time to look at one another. A Special Kuniochi depends on it.

Six hours later she was back at his penthouse suite wearing only the ruby necklace that he had presented her as an apology for his carelessness with his wine.

Afterward, he'd fallen asleep on his stomach, and that was when she made her mistake. He'd stationed only one bodyguard inside the suite, and he was outside the bedroom door. A quick jutsu the night before had assured here there was no security on the window, so Ino silently stuffed the rolled up documents into a scroll case, slung it across her back and proceeded on what should have been her merry way.

The bodyguard caught her ankle with one meaty hand. Before she could summon even the small amount of chakra it would have taken to break his hold, he had her back inside the bedroom, hands twisted behind her back.

Sasaki was sitting up in bed, his expression transforming instantly from sleepy to scary.

The bodyguard, clearly a master of submission holds, restrained her against his body. Her shoulder was almost dislocated, but not quite. A Special kunoichi always knows what image she is presenting, even in such dire situations – maybe especially in such dire situations – and Ino realized that the sunlight would be gilding her unbound hair. She bit her lip in feigned vulnerability. There were a number of sharp objects pressing against her back and thighs, and the bodyguard didn't show any sort of response, even when she undulated against him. She'd assessed the situation in a heartbeat and concluded she'd rather Sasaki take her punishment into his own hands.

But the bodyguard had tossed the scroll case on the bed, and he was too busy reading the extent of her treachery.

"I'd heard of ones like you," he sneered. "But I never though I'd actually be a target. I guess I'm playing with the big boys now." Still naked in bed, with a sheet hastily thrown around his waist, Sasaki cocked his head to the side. "So tell me, what would one of the 'big boys' do in this case?"

The bodyguard was well-trained enough, Ino now realized, to know that this was a rhetorical question.

"I know the look of you now," Sasaki continued. "And if this were a different situation, and someone had come at me with a sword, it would not be the weapon I'd destroy, it would be the wielder."

Only at the first signs of relief did Ino relax enough to realize that sweat had begun prickling between her shoulder blades and crawling down the backs of her knees.

"…But I might render the weapon obsolete."

There was a pause, as Ino considered the implications in her head.

"Cut her face."

The bodyguard had to slacken his hold on her to bring the knife toward her face, but Ino feigned immobility as the blade glided into her line of vision. He was going to do it. Her stomach dropped. Without hesitating, or really taking aim and considering, he was going to do it.

She made her move, chakra making her feet springy as she kicked away from his body. But he was faster than she could have imagined, and she felt the cut, like a fuse burning down, like her career potentially ending just across her left cheek.

In the gloves, Sakura's hands were unfamiliar and rubbery as she pinched Ino's chin between thumb and forefinger.

"I shouldn't heal it," she said. "Then you wouldn't be fit for this duty anymore."

When Ino replied, she barely moved her lips, unwilling to open the cut along her cheek even a fraction more.

"If you don't heal it, then I won't be fit for anything."

She heard Sakura's pained sigh, but she also heard the familiar buzz of chakra concentrating in a confined space. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Sakura staring intently at the long gash. Then she felt the tingle of the flesh re-knitting. Sakura was rumored to have a gentle touch, and Ino thought the experience was a bit like butterflies walking on her face.

Sakura stood back to inspect her work. "That's the best I can do," she said.


Sakura silently passed her a hand mirror, then watched her inspect the site. There was only the faintest white line from nose to jaw. It was more like an indentation, really.

"Cosmetics will just draw attention to it," Sakura was saying, her clinical voice carefully back in place. "But nobody will notice it unless they really look hard at you."

Ino laughed.

"Then nobody will ever notice it."

In lessons once, her tutor scared her with a cautionary tale about a young kunoichi foolish enough to have her lover's name tattooed in an intimate place. Too proudly in love to hide it, she undertook missions in the mistaken belief that her targets would never observe the tiny letters. The tattoo made it into another country's bingo book, and within the year, she died for it. For love.

There was always more than one lesson to be learned in each of her tutor's stories, just like how in their line of work, there was always more than one meaning in a glance, more than one nuance in a sentence.

Ino was a true kunoichi. She had never loved anyone so much that she was willing to die for them, so she sure as hell wasn't going to die because some thug had gotten lucky enough to mark her face.

She swept her hair up into a French twist and walked into the flower shop. Unlike Ino, who could have sat behind the flower shop counter, gossiping and reading magazines for hours, her mother could never stand still. Today, she was spritzing the pre-made arrangements.

Seeing Ino, she stopped mid-spray.

"Good morning, honey."

"Hi, Mom."

When Ino hesitated at the door, her mother returned to the flowers. Ino, who only that morning had escaped from the clutches of an armed man who outweighed her by a good hundred and twenty pounds, had to steel herself to approach her mother.

There were mirrors on all the walls of the shop, it made the inventory look more abundant. Ino caught her mother's eye in the mirror, above a bouquet of daisies.

"I changed my hair, Mom. Did you notice?"

In the bright lights of the shop, Ino could just make out the remains of the cut, mocking her from the mirror. Then her mother turned and really took her in for the first time.

"I did notice. It's just that you change your hair all the time… I mean, you were always a lovely girl," her mother finished lamely, trailing off. This was too close to the border of things better left unsaid.

"But what about here?" Ino pressed. She brought lacquered nails – still red – to her cheek, right beneath the scar. "Do you think I should move some from out behind my ears?"

Looking a little lost, as she'd worn her own hair in the same pixy bob for ten years, Ino's mother shook her head. "I don't know, honey. You're the one who… Knows about these things."

"Then I think I'll leave it up," Ino said with a false smile. "Thanks, Mom."

She left before her mother could wonder what in the world she had just been thanked for.

She spotted Shikamaru across the street. His route home from the Hokage Tower took him by their shop. Ino fell into step beside him.

"How's tricks?" she asked.

"Shouldn't I be asking you?"

Ino let that one slide. He'd made no secret of his displeasure when she'd become the Konoha's first Special Kunoichi in twenty five years. He was soft, she'd convinced herself. If he had his way, he'd get an entire squad killed on a job that she could have in the bag with little more than a bat of her eyelashes. Of course, she never said this to him. A kunoichi doesn't burn her bridges.

She stopped, causing him to stop too, and finally turn his face to her. He met her eyes uncertainly.

"I just wanted to see how you were," she said. "We never talk anymore."

She watched his eyes; they held hers for a moment, then he glanced around. At no point had Shikamaru focused on her mangled cheek.

"I'm the same as always," he said. "Rather be sleeping."

"Then I'll let you get to it." Surprising herself, she impulsively added, "Come around sometime."

They parted with his, "yeah, sometime, maybe," lingering in the air between them.

Weeks passed, and Ino became adept at skirting the area with her cosmetics. Soon, she barely noticed the ghost of the cut when she looked at herself in the mirror. A minor worry that it was even now being recorded into someone's bingo book did nag her, but even Tsunade, who had been so adamant against Special Kunoichi, had pronounced her fit for duty. She received plenty of searching looks from friends and strangers alike, but no one had focused too long on her cheek or asked how she'd hurt herself. By the time she went out into the field again, she felt as safe as she could reasonably expect.

She was in their favorite bar – the one that guaranteed lifelong shinobi business by serving them underage – when Chouji found her. She had been supposed to meet Sakura for one of their increasingly infrequent girls nights, but Sakura had called – she would be late, was it okay with Ino if she brought someone? No, not like that. Just a very good friend – and Ino had the feeling the night would end even before it began. But maybe the stranger would add new flavor to old conversations that just went around and around in circles. Ino would be sure not to steal Sakura's "very good friend." These days, she often found herself flirting automatically. A workaholic, that's what she was.

The barstool creaked when Chouji sat down on her good side. He'd grown into a massive man, taking up almost the entirety of the barstool next to him, and unintentionally narrowing Ino's personal space as well. For a moment, she felt like just resting her head on his broad shoulder, and might have let herself if he weren't wearing his ubiquitous arm guards.

The first words out of his mouth were, "You look tired."

She smacked him on the arm, backhanded. "Are you ever going to learn how to talk to a lady?" Primping her hair for emphasis, she elaborated, "In our language, saying 'You look tired' is just as good as saying, 'You look like a hag. Now move on over for the next generation, grandma.'"

Out of the corner of her eye, she recognized a chastened slump to Chouji's shoulders.

"You can look beautiful and tired," he muttered.

Ino breathed an exaggerated sigh. "You're utterly hopeless, Chouji, and will be until the day you die."

But he wasn't paying attention to her any longer. He was staring, and the expression on his face was, for once, unreadable even to her.

"Hey now, the pendulum doesn't haven't to swing so far in the other direction. You've already admitted you think I look tired. And," she was growing uncomfortable now, not sure why, "There's a difference between an admiring stare and the piercing gaze of a sociopath, you know."

When he finally spoke, the words were quiet. Without really knowing why, she suddenly recalled again the tattooed kunoichi who had been so willing to die for love. Maybe there are worse reasons to die, she thought.

"Ino," Chouji said. "What did they do to your face?"