Reason for Absence

By: firefly

Note: a gift fic prompted by the lovely sayakasama, who loves crack scenarios as much as I do. Hope you like it, my dear. :D

Reason for Absence

Perspiration dripped from her brow, beading on her upper lip as she swallowed thickly. Her eyes stung where the sweat ran into them and she squinted in the obscenely bright sunlight glaring through the windshield.

The interior of the car was like a sauna and the rolled down windows did little but flood the enclosed space with exhaust fumes and sticky air. In front of her, the rear bumper of another car nearly touched the front of hers. Engines revved impatiently in the traffic jam. Yelling and cursing drifted through the window in between the blasts of car horns.

Ino slowly closed her eyes, tightening her grip on the wheel as she exhaled.

Calm, stay calm, she told herself, forcing her eyes away from the digital clock display. I'm sure the judge will understand why I'm late. After all, I'm only just trying to keep that shitty construction company from knocking down the flower shop that's been in our family for—

A car horn erupted obnoxiously from behind her.

Ino rolled down the rest of her window and shoved her head out along with her arm, thrusting her middle finger out.

"Go to hell!" she screamed.

The car didn't honk again.

Five minutes later, her car had advanced a measly ten meters from where it had once been. She could feel her frustration mounting into panic, dimly realizing she'd never been this stressed in her entire life. She was fifteen minutes late—no way this would make a good impression on the judge. Especially since her case had been weak to begin with.

But since scoring an internship at a large insurance company, she'd finally gained financial security and was up to date with paying the shop's bills. Today's meeting with the judge would have been the clincher. She'd even worn a nice purple blouse and straightened her hair extra carefully to make a good impression, although the humidity had done a number on it.

"Get a move on, you bastards!" she shouted at the windshield, punching the dashboard. "I've got an appointment!"

What little of the horizon she could see was warped and wavy in the distance, coils of heat dancing on the asphalt. The normally four-lane road, sandwiched between buildings comprising the business district, was downsized to three lanes. A thin rickety fence blocked off the lane adjacent to the one she was in and construction signs littered the sidewalk around it.

Cursing, Ino leaned forward in her seat to get a better look at the situation up ahead.

The cars were bumper to bumper for as far as she could see. The car in front of her suddenly rolled forward and before she could even press her foot down properly on the pedal, they jolted to an abrupt halt again.

If she'd punched the steering wheel any harder, she would have deployed the airbag.

Another glance at the time elicited another wave of panic and subconsciously she found her gaze drifting over to the blocked off lane. It led directly to the intersection she needed to make a right at.

Her grip tightened on the wheel.

It might have been the exhaust fumes coupled with the smog that made the blissfully empty road seem so fallaciously inviting and safe. It might have been the fact that the car was second-hand and she didn't exactly mind damage to the bumper or tires.

Whatever it was, it shot aside her inhibitions and her regard for the rest of the road.

Slamming her foot down on the gas, Ino jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, tires screeching as she tore out of the lane. Bracing herself, she gunned the engine and drove right into the rickety fence blocking the fourth lane, knocking it flat and speeding violently over it.

The car cleared the fence without puncturing the tires and a huge grin spread over her features as she tore down the beautifully empty lane, ignoring the bumps and jarring potholes.

A construction sign bounced off the front of the car. Dust flew up on all sides. And Ino did nothing but laugh in hysteric triumph.

The traffic lights of the intersection ahead blinked green in invitation, and taking it as an incentive, she leaned into the gas and let the car run its course. The line of cars to her left eventually tapered off as she passed the obstruction in the road. For a few blissful seconds, it felt as though the road belonged to her and no one else.

Making it to the intersection would have made her late to her appointment by twenty-five minutes. Looking back, she would have gladly taken her place back in the traffic jam if it could have spared her what came next.

She saw the figure quickly winding its way through the maze of construction signs, hardly registering it to be a pedestrian, barely aware that he meant to cross through the closed off lane. Then he appeared directly in front of her.

She slammed on the brakes without even thinking and the impact still threw her forward into the steering wheel with enough force to knock the wind out of her. The car screeched to an abrupt halt.

Then silence.

Ino merely sat there gripping the steering wheel, wide eyes gazing blankly into the distance. Behind her, the noise of traffic continued, falling on deaf ears.

I killed him, she realized faintly.

Panic couldn't even begin to describe what she felt in that moment; all she knew was that she could scarcely breathe, each gasp starting with difficulty and ending in a hitched, broken wheeze.

Late for an appointment, judge would be mad, judge would be unimpressed, screwed up the case, killed a guy, late for an appointment—

Again, unthinkingly, she killed the engine and shakily reached for her seatbelt, spending nearly a minute struggling to get it off. When she finally released it, she practically dove out of the car, scrambling to stand away from it.

Plumes of dust drifted up under her unsteady steps as she reluctantly made her way to the front of her car, hand holding onto the hood for support. As she stepped past the front tire, the air left her lungs.

A man lay crumpled on the road a good five or six meters away from her car, facedown on the dusty asphalt. He wasn't moving.

"Oh," Ino managed to get out, her voice thin and high-pitched. "Oh…shit."

It seemed odd to her that no one else seemed to notice what she'd done. The blaring noise of horns and muffled curses continued to resonate through the street from behind her, the drivers oblivious to the fact that there was a dead man lying on the road up ahead. The surrounding street was devoid of pedestrians.

The mere thought of finding someone to call an ambulance made her sick to her stomach.

Manslaughter. She'd go to jail for manslaughter and reckless driving. Forget sparing her beloved flower shop the wrecking ball—she'd never be able to see her parents beyond a plate of Plexiglas in the prison's visiting room.

Her legs buckled at the realization. Before she could collapse against the side of the car, something that sounded like a muffled curse broke through the noise of traffic.

Ino blinked, wide eyes returning to the motionless body as the curse tapered into a pained groan.

He's dead, she told herself blankly. There's no way he's still alive.

But after several seconds, another pained groan resonated from the motionless body, along with some choice words she managed to catch.

"Motherfuck—that hurt…"

Ino's legs nearly gave out when the man suddenly withdrew his arm from underneath him, slowly pressing his hand into the dusty asphalt to push himself up.

Without realizing it, she stumbled forward in disbelief, staring at him but saying nothing for fear of distracting him from his miraculous revival.

She watched, transfixed as the man slowly reached out with his other arm, lifting his head off the pavement. The silvery hue of his hair was besmirched with dirt along with the white wife-beater he was wearing. His black pants had turned a muddy, ashy grey from what must have been several 360 degree tumbles in the dirt.

It didn't occur to her to speak until he somehow brought himself to his knees.

Despite the inanity of the question on her lips, she still had to ask.

"Are you okay?" she choked out.

The man finally raised his head and glared up at her. Blood dripped from a long, livid cut across his cheek, along with several over his torso.

When he didn't reply, she took a step forward, hands automatically rising from her sides to help until his glare intensified.

"Back the fuck up, bitch."

She stopped midway, inwardly astonished that he was able to drag himself up to sit back on his knees, let alone speak. His features twisted in a grimace of pain at the movement and after prodding experimentally at his ribs, he pinned her with a vicious scowl.

"Goddamn it, what the hell's the matter with you, driving eighty in a forty zone? You blind or something? Can't see the signs?"

Ino merely stared at him, torn between relief and consternation as he roughly wiped his bleeding cheek with the back of his hand.

"Any faster and you would've knocked my fucking head off, damn it."

His face was pale and steadily growing paler as she stood there, at a loss for words. Then she noticed he had his arm draped loosely over his front and it dawned on her that she'd hit this man with her speeding car. She took another step forward and grimaced.

"Look, I'm…really sorry about that. I was in a hurry—"

"Shit," the man muttered suddenly, ignoring her and glancing down the street. "I'm late."

Before she could speak, he suddenly dragged himself to his feet, stumbling against the hood of her car before straightening halfway and limping off.

"Hey, where the hell are you going?" Ino burst out, finally finding her voice as she ran after him. She skidded to a halt when he collapsed to his knees before reaching the curb. "You need to go to a hospital!"

"Says the dumbass who ran me over," he said scathingly, clutching at his ribs again. "Get outta the way."

"I hit you hard enough to kill you," she snapped, voice catching at the impact of her own words. "You're in bad shape. I can't just let you—"

Before she could finish, he'd somehow forced himself to his feet again and went staggering off towards the curb.

For a moment, all she could do was stare after him, dumbstruck.

Then she rushed forward when he wound up collapsing again just before hitting the sidewalk, this time falling on all fours. Gradually, a distinct sense of alarm replaced her unease.

"Just get in the car," she said quickly, eyes darting around to see if anyone was watching. "I'll take you to the hospital, okay? Just—stop moving."

"Would you fuck off already?" he suddenly shouted, throwing her an irate look. "Seriously, you hit me with your goddamn car—least you could do is leave me alone." He lowered his head, voice softening into a mutter. "Shit…Pain'll have my ass for this…"

"Look, I'm sure whoever's waiting for you will understand why you're late. I'm late for an appointment, too, okay? Now just get in the car—"

"Like hell I'm going anywhere with you."

"You can't even walk."

"It'll ease off."

Ino stared at him in disbelief. "Are you crazy? Look at my bumper. It's completely dented—"

"Oh, jeez, sorry for what my body did to your car."

"Why are you being so damn difficult? You might die—"

"Not bloody likely."

"—and I'll go to jail for manslaughter, and I can't have that, all right? Now get in the freakin' car."

His scowl gradually receded into a sneer.

"Are you gonna make me?"

Ino stared at him, suddenly wary. After regarding him for a while, she finally spoke, sounding defeated.

"If it's the cost of treatment you're worrying about, of course I'll pay for it."

"Pfft. I don't need treatment, period. So unless you want me to call the cops, get back in your busted-ass vehicle and fuck off to wherever you were in a hurry to get to in the first place."

Though she was humble enough to accept that this was her fault, the stress of being late for such an important court date coupling with this stubborn asshole's refusals for treatment was leading to the emergence of a dangerously throbbing vein in her forehead.

"Maybe I should've hit you harder," she snapped. "At least a trip to the morgue would've been easier."

Although it caused him obvious pain, he laughed out loud.

"That's rich, seriously. You're getting mad at me for running me over?"

"I'm getting mad at you for being an asshole," she gritted out, reddening as her blood pressure began to skyrocket. "Honestly, are you touched in the head, or something?"

"Hey, I wasn't the one trying to qualify for the Daytona 500 in a blocked off lane, okay? You're the psycho."

Ino stared at him as he scowled back and felt something cut loose in the depths of her brain. She had had enough.

The man raised an eyebrow when, very slowly and steadily, Ino went back to her car, opened the back passenger door, and then started back towards him. He threw her a scornful look as she raised her arm, thinking she was going to try cajoling him into the car.

"Okay, seriously, what part of—oof!" He collapsed to his knees when the young woman suddenly balled her fist, reared her arm back and elbowed him in what were possibly three broken ribs, evoking enough pain to knock him out temporarily. As he began keeling over, Ino quickly grabbed his arm and slung it around her shoulders.

"I am not. Going to sit by. And let you ruin. My life," she said through gritted teeth with every staggering step she took towards her car. He was heavy as hell and in hindsight she could only attribute her sudden fortitude to pure desperation. By the time his head had stopped reeling from agony, he found himself being thrown unceremoniously onto the back seats.

He heard her fiddling around and then heard several clicks as she buckled him down with all three restraints, practically anchoring him to the seats. She felt around his pockets until she found his wallet.

Then she slammed the door shut and circled back to the driver's side, getting in and starting the engine.

"So, Hidan," she said in a voice quaking with subdued hysteria, glancing at some I.D. in the wallet. "My name's Ino. Just sit there and stay nice and quiet while I try to find the fastest route to the hospital, okay?"

Hidan squinted up at her in disbelief, gathering his senses long enough to realize what was happening. "What the hell are you—"

Before he could finish, she floored the accelerator, burning rubber and emitting a tire screech that sent birds into flight as the car took off. Cursing in shock, he held onto the seats for dear life as she swerved violently into oncoming traffic, sending other cars veering out of the way as she floored the accelerator again.

"Are you fucking batshit?!" he shouted from the back seat as she cut across three lanes without signaling. "Where the hell are you taking me?"

"To the hospital," she snarled, gripping the steering wheel like a woman possessed. "You know, I'm being a good Samaritan, taking care of my fellow man—"

Hidan swore and threw his arms over his face when she nearly collided with a cement truck.

"—because I'm thinking, even if I missed my court date, they'll let it slide if I say I took you to the hospital. Because that's what a good Samaritan does—"

For the first time in his life, Hidan actually hoped the police would notice how fast they were barreling down the road and flag them down; he clutched his rosary to utter a death prayer as she continued rambling.

"—even though it's my fault you got hurt in the first place, but you probably had it coming for being such a stubborn prick."

Hidan somehow managed to work off two of the seatbelts, struggling to sit up and clutching his ribs as the car violently jostled him from left to right. When he finally managed to raise his head and look out the windshield, he blanched.

"Oh shit."

"Sit back," Ino advised him with a steely glint in her eye as she swerved off the road and toward the bridge looming ahead. Hidan stared in horror at the 'under construction' sign she sent flying past his window, about to lunge forward and take the wheel from her when they hit a hill of dirt that sent his head colliding with the ceiling.

"Son of a bitch!"

The construction workers on the bridge shouted in alarm and waved their arms frantically, only to lunge out of the way of the speeding car as it ripped past. Hidan felt the colour drain out of his face completely when he noticed no end on the other side.

In response, Ino jammed her foot down on the accelerator, hitting 140 kilometers an hour and leaning back in her seat. "You'd better lie down, buddy."

Even though it wasn't in Hidan's nature to listen to anything anybody told him, he couldn't have lain down even if he'd wanted to, horrifyingly transfixed by the end of the bridge getting closer and closer until it suddenly ended and the car was airborne.

A few seconds later, they hit the ground with enough force to snap their spines, Hidan cursing at the top of his lungs as Ino cackled in triumph, steering the car back towards the road leading to the hospital.

A security guard dove out of the way as she swung into the hospital parking lot a few minutes later, braking hard enough when she reached the entrance to send Hidan's already throbbing head smacking into the back of her seat. She cut the engine and threw the door open, disappearing into the hospital and emerging seconds later with two attendants and a stretcher.

"I found him out on the road," he heard her saying tearfully as they hauled him onto the stretcher. "It must have been a hit and run. I got him here as fast as I could…"

Everything swayed and undulated as they rushed him inside, their voices taking on a hollow echo as the pain settled in and ushered him back towards unconsciousness. As the attendants stopped long enough to open the doors, Ino reached out and patted his leg, voice soft and reassuring.

"I'll be in the waiting room. Okay, honey?"

Despite the impending blackout that was already starting to cloud his vision, Hidan managed to raise his head and look at her as if she'd lost her mind before they wheeled him into the ER.

"Is this guy a part of the mafia or what?" Ino muttered aloud in the waiting room. She sat on the chair closest to the phone, sifting through the wallet to see if she could find any contact information.

So far, the only piece of I.D. she'd been able to find was a pitch black card emblazoned with a red cloud that had his picture and name on it. The rest were scribbled notes too messy to read, cards advertising a church of Jashin, a few credit cards, and another pitch black card with no markings except for a phone number.

Mind made up, Ino stood and grabbed the receiver, holding it against her shoulder as she dialed in the number. It rang twice before someone answered it.

The voice that came through was cold and imperious.

"Where are you, Hidan?"

Ino blinked at the odd greeting before clearing her throat.

"Um, hello?"

There was a pause. When the man spoke, his voice was threateningly low.

"How did you get this number?"

"Uh…" Ino fumbled with the wallet until she found the black card with Hidan's name and picture on it. "Your friend's wallet. He—"

"What have you done with him?"

"I didn't do any—I mean, there was a little accident and I brought him to the hospital. I just thought I should let someone know in case you were—"

There was a click and the phone abruptly went dead.

Ino stared blankly at the wall with the receiver silent against her ear, trying to process what had just happened. She contemplated calling back but decided to wait instead. Besides, the voice on the other line seriously gave her the creeps.

As she sat back down, the realization that she would have to deal with the court contacting her over her absence induced a wave of nausea. Sure, in her state of temporary insanity on the road, she'd assumed she could simply just invoke the good Samaritan excuse and win the judge's favour.

The only problem was that Hidan would most definitely blow her cover and kindly remind the police that she'd been the one to run him over in the first place.

Slumping against her seat, Ino wondered what she could possibly do to convince him to help her out. She wiled away an hour as crazier and crazier suggestions came to mind and was in the midst of imagining herself performing hard, back-breaking labour with him laughing and sipping lemonade in the background when a nurse approached her.

"Yamanaka Ino? You can see your friend now."

Ino started and stared up at her blankly before she realized where she was. Trying to muster a look of concern, she followed the nurse into the hallway and to his room.

Ino clenched her fists nervously as the nurse opened the door and bustled in, loudly proclaiming, "your little heroine is here to visit you!"

As the nurse moved aside to restock some supplies at the other end of the room, Ino stepped towards his bed as he dropped the arm that had been draped over his face. When he caught sight of her, his eyes widened and he pointed accusingly.

"You! You psychotic little bi—mmph!"

"There, there, no need to get emotional," Ino said with a fake, high-pitched laugh as she held the pillow over his face, throwing paranoid glances over her shoulder for the nurse. "You can't get worked up like that. It's not good for your health."

"That's what I told him," the nurse agreed sagely from the other side of the room, oblivious to Hidan's flailing arms and muffled curses. "Oh, I forgot the gloves in the supply closet. Excuse me."

Without glancing their way even once, the woman left the room. Ino finally relinquished her grip on the pillow and drew back, glaring at Hidan as he gasped for breath, purple-faced.

"What the fuck's the matter with you?" he wheezed incredulously, clutching his ribs. "You seriously trying to kill me?"

"I brought you to the hospital, didn't I?" Ino retorted. "Now just chill out. We need to talk."

"I'm not saying shit to you, you fucking loony. You can explain how you ran me down with your shitty car to the cops."

Ino forced a sweet smile and brought a chair over to his bedside, taking a moment to fluff his pillows and pluck some stray gravel from his hair before she sat down.

"Look," she began with a remorseful sigh, lowering her eyes. "I'm really sorry about all this. Truly I am. And I know it sounds incredibly selfish of me to ask, but I need you to keep that little tidbit about me running you down between us. The story the doctors know is the one of me finding poor injured you on the side of the road and heroically bringing you to the hospital, and that's the story that needs to stick if I'm going to have a life after this point. And I know, I know, there's probably nothing I can offer you that'll be on par with the favour I'm asking of you now, but please, take a look at this young, beseeching face and find it in the goodness of your heart to forgive me. Can you do that?"

"Hell no," he said flatly.

Before Ino could throw herself on top of him and beat him senseless with a bed pan, the door opened.

Hidan took one look and groaned, smacking his forehead.

"Hidan-san!" a young man wailed, sprinting across the room and latching onto him in a hug. "You're alive! I was so worried—"

"Get off me, Tobi!"

Ino stared at the young man in the eye patch and black suit, nonplussed, when he was followed by seven more people. Ino's suspicions that Hidan must have been involved in some sort of mafia were cemented when she took in their appearances. There was one woman and six men, all dressed in black suits with red silk ties, all radiating a level of intimidation so intense the security guard didn't even bother informing them of the "three visitors at a time" rule.

"What the hell are you guys doing here?" Hidan demanded after he'd managed to throw Tobi off. "How'd you even know where I was?"

The red-haired man standing in the centre of the group turned his head towards Ino. "We were informed."

Ino felt a cold sinking sensation start somewhere in her chest as she recognized the voice as the same one she'd heard on the phone.

Before anyone could speak, Ino stumbled back with a shriek when the man in the eye patch practically tackled her in a hug.

"You saved Hidan-san!" he sobbed, crushing her to his chest. "Thank you so much!"

"Deidara," the red-haired man said impatiently, and that was all he needed to say for the blonde man (who bore a striking resemblance to herself, Ino noted) to move forward and yank his partner back by the nape of his neck.

"What the shit—" Hidan finally put two and two together, staring at Ino in outrage. "You called my fucking boss and told him the same bullshit story?"

"Er…" Ino found herself at a loss for words when she found every head in the room turned towards her. "Well, you see…it's kind of like..."

"She ran me down with her car!" Hidan yelled. "Then threw me in the back and almost killed me again driving here like a fucking lunatic."

"Was it intentional?" a dark-skinned man at the side asked dryly. "I wouldn't blame her."

"Shut the hell up, Kakuzu."

"It wasn't!" Ino burst out, flustered and panicked as they looked at her again. "I was in a rush to get somewhere and accidently hit him with my car. But then I brought him here—and, and okay maybe I did take liberties on the road but it was an emergency!"

"So that was you the radio was talking about?" another one of them asked, grinning with alarmingly sharp teeth. "The police lost you after you drove off the road. Impressive."

"Everyone out," the red-haired man suddenly said quietly. "I want to speak to Hidan alone. Itachi," he turned to look at the somber, dark-haired man standing behind him. "Look her up."

Itachi merely nodded and turned to leave, followed by the other members as Ino stared after them in alarm, wondering what exactly 'look her up' was supposed to mean. Before she could ask, Tobi swung by and grabbed her hand, dragging her out of the room.

"You can sit next to me, Hidan's saviour. I want to hear all about it!"

As she found herself being forced into the waiting room and surrounded on all sides by the freaky people in black, with the dark-haired one tapping away suspiciously at a laptop and the one in the eye patch babbling nonstop in her ear, Ino wondered why she hadn't had a nervous breakdown yet.

What felt like an eternity later, the blue-haired woman touched her Bluetooth earpiece and suddenly rose to her feet. "Pain wants us back in Hidan's room. Young lady," she turned to look impassively down at Ino. "Stay here."

Ino made an odd 'meeping' sound of assent and gripped the armrests of her chair as they filed out of the room. To her mounting anxiety, she saw the dark-haired man hand the laptop over to Pain as he entered the room.

Heart hammering in her chest, Ino watched him apprehensively as he sat down on a seat across from her and quickly read through a file of some sort on the computer. When he was done, he closed the lid and fixed her with his hawkish gaze.

"Yamanaka Ino, correct?"

Ino nodded dumbly, not even bothering to ask how he knew her name.

"I am going to ask you to confirm exactly what Hidan has just told me. If you lie, I will know, so I recommend you keep honest if you know what's good for you," he intoned, impervious to her obvious squirming.

"First, did you hit him with your vehicle?"

"Yes," Ino said in a small voice. "But it was an accident."

"Were you driving in a barricaded lane when the incident occurred?"

"Yeah, but I was—"

"After you struck my associate with your vehicle, did he go with you willingly?"

"No," Ino mumbled, wringing a tissue between her hands. "I sort of had to…force him. But it was for his own good!"

"Can you confirm that, upon discovering no viable exits from traffic, you were able to maneuver your vehicle through a construction zone, evade collisions, and drive off an incomplete bridge?"

Ino mouthed wordlessly for a few seconds, eventually nodding in resignation as a miserable look crossed over her features.

Pain regarded her with an inscrutable look on his face. "And you did this all without a single casualty."

"I guess," she said weakly. "Look, I'm really sorry about all this, but I've missed a really important court date—"

"Over a dispute with a construction company."

Ino stopped dead, blinking in shock. He tilted his head and leveled her with a complacent look.

"H-How did you know that?" she stammered.

"I have my sources," he replied, watching her intently.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then he suddenly moved, reaching into his jacket pocket. Ino froze, thinking for one wild second he was going to pull out a gun, only to blink in surprise when he withdrew a pitch black business card and extended it towards her.

Ino reached out and took it, looking at him with a mix of fear and curiousity as he drew his arm back and folded his hands again.

"I have a proposition for you, Yamanaka Ino."

She swallowed hard. "I'm listening."

He flicked a speck of dust from the sleeve of his impeccable black suit and adjusted his tie. "I run a highly specialized, highly revered organization. The members of my group, as you saw back there, each possess prodigious skill in their own respective field. I'm sure you agree after witnessing Itachi's skills with a computer."

Ino slowly nodded, torn between wondering where he was going with this and whether she'd be leaving the hospital in the trunk of a car.

"Although you nearly incapacitated one of my associates, I am willing to overlook that, as well as take care of your troubles with the court and the construction company if you agree to my terms."

"How?" she asked incredulously. "Is that even possible?"

Something resembling cold amusement flickered in his eyes. "My influence runs deep in all city circles, particularly the legal system."

Okay, now she was terrified. He must have noticed the way the colour drained from her face, for he leaned forward and got straight to the point.

"In exchange for all I've offered, I want you to teach your skills to my organization."

Ino simply stared at him, dumbfounded.

"Your proficiency with stunt driving is impressive, to say the least, and a skill that is unfortunately lacking in my group. The card I've given you is for your use and your use only; each of my associates has a private number with which to contact me with. I will await your answer and give you twenty-four hours to come to a decision. If you decide to decline my offer…well…"

He drew back, watching her haughtily. "No one has been stupid enough to do that as of yet."

Finding herself incapable of speaking, Ino merely nodded, tremulously gripping the card as he inclined his head in farewell and stood, striding confidently out of the room to rejoin his group.

Ino waited till her heart stopped hammering in her chest before lowering her eyes to the card. Like the card she'd found in Hidan's wallet, there was a single phone number and no other markings.

Her head began to throb with the number of questions and worries buzzing through it; on one hand, the offer was painfully hard to resist since it would solve all her problems, but was she willing to become a cohort to an organization that was most likely involved in illegal matters and emanated an aura so dangerous it defied explanation?

As she contemplated this, movement outside the waiting room window caught her attention. She glanced outside and blanched when she found Pain dropping a wad of cash into a nurse's hand as the others piled into a black limousine with tinted windows. Tobi helped Hidan into the back seat and Pain joined them moments later. The car door slammed shut and the driver gunned the engine, taking off with a screech of tires into the distance.

Ino stared after them, holding the card limply in her hands.

She decided she would sleep on it.

1 month later.

Hidan tried the door handle, aware of how futile it was since she'd engaged the safety lock. "This is such bullshit, seriously."

Ino slipped on her sunglasses and leaned her head out the window to take in the obstacle course set out on the abandoned race track. "Quit being so grumpy. And don't be such a chicken."

"Chicken? If I'd been in the car with you any longer the last time, they would've had to scrape me off the goddamn road with a spatula. You hear me? A fucking spatula."

There was a jingle of keys and then the deafening roar of the V10 engine coming to life.

"Wow, what kind of car is this again?" She reached for the glove compartment and opened it, shuffling around until she found the manual. "A BMW M6, huh? Your boss sure likes his luxuries luxurious."

Hidan was muttering nonstop under his breath, clutching his rosary as Ino slapped the compartment closed. "Can't believe this…Pain's out of his goddamn mind…had to pick me out of all the other bastards…"

"You should be happy as my first student," Ino sniffed, though she grinned mischievously right after. "You get to set an example for all your friends. Lesson one: evading obstacles and cutting corners. Now pay attention since this is going to be a part of your driving exam later on."

"Yeah, if I'm not a smear on the tarmac by then," he muttered darkly under his breath, grimacing as Konan came into view and raised the starter gun. "Oh, fuckin' hell…"

"On your mark," Tobi yelled jubilantly from the stands. "Get set…go!"

Konan fired the gun and Ino floored the gas pedal, whooping in glee as the car shot forward like a bullet, leaving a trail of dust in its wake.

Kisame let out a low whistle from where he sat next to Itachi in the stands. "How fast was that?"

The Uchiha checked the speed meter before jotting down the number on his clipboard.

"0 to 100 kilometers an hour in 4.3 seconds."

"Who wants to bet that Hidan is crying by now?" Zetsu asked with an amused smile as they watched the car swerve violently between the obstacles, spewing up plumes of dust and gravel. The BMW drifted seamlessly around the corners without the tires moving an inch, screeching as it straightened out and picked up to 170 kilometers an hour.

Kakuzu reached out and gripped Zetsu's hand. "I'll take you up on that."

Within a few minutes, the car came to a screeching halt back to where it had started. An instant later, Hidan's door opened and he practically fell out of the car, getting to his hands and knees and crawling over to the nearby bushes to vomit.

Ino jumped out a moment later and jubilantly struck a victory pose. "How was that?"

"Very good," Pain said approvingly from where he was sitting behind the wheel of another car. "Now, a quick preview to lesson 2. Deidara is rather eager to test out our newest product. Deidara?"

"Ready," the blonde answered with a maniacal grin, leaning out the passenger window with a bazooka over his shoulder.

Perhaps a month ago Ino would have fainted upon seeing the weapon, but thirty days spent in close quarters with the Akatsuki mafia had pretty much desensitized her to all things explosive and lethal.

"No problem, but…" she paused and glanced over to where Hidan was gasping for breath after disposing of his breakfast. "I don't think he's up for it."

"He's fine," Pain said dismissively. "Besides, you need someone to inform you of the weapon's trajectories, and Hidan is especially knowledgeable in long-range modes of attack."

He then nodded to Kisame who obediently emerged from the stands, grabbed Hidan by the scruff of his neck and tossed him back into the car. Ino shrugged and gladly went ahead to join him, taking a brief moment to inform him of what going to happen next and ignoring his apoplectic reaction as she buckled up and started the engine.

Sure, it was a potentially life-threatening job, she admitted to herself as she slammed her foot down on the gas and took off. And sure, she was surrounded by the creepiest and weirdest people she'd ever met far too often for her liking…

Hidan twisted in his seat when he caught sight of Pain catching up in the rearview mirror.

"What the hell is Deidara holding? Is…is that a fucking bazooka? Holy shit—left! Left!"

Ino swerved in accordance to her partner's frenzied directions and avoided the explosion that took out a fair portion of the race track wall.

So maybe the job was dangerous, but at least it played to her strengths.

And besides, Ino thought happily, shifting into second gear. It definitely beat the hell out of working for an insurance company.