AN: CO- WRITTEN BY my lovely new betamuse: Thirdtimescharm, If you love this fic, you should tell her so.
It was a tactician's nightmare. This was every situation and scenario he had never wanted to be involved in. It went well and far beyond troublesome. It was the unsolveable mission-the one they had been sent on, expected to return home. It would impossible to achieve, and yet, they could not fail. Shikamaru's eyes and thoughts darkened.
Tsunade had failed to mention that mission involved the retrieval of children. Then again how could she have known that the informants they were testing on were kids? Clan children had been getting kidnapped, but there was no way to know that the two were linked. No one could have known. All of them were younger than eight, varied in age and scared. None of them with enough ninja training or wherewithal to make it to the border undetected alone. There were sixty fully trained Iwa ninja on their trail, all Jounin level, catching up with them all the time, as the children had to slow; tired legs, burning lungs. Ino-Shika-Chou would not be enough to stop them and save all of the children, each one of them with valuable information needed to finally put an end to this tyranny on clan children being kidnapped and experimented on. They couldn't have known that the disappearence of children and their mission were connected.
One could play shadow games, and of all the teams to do it, it was them...but he couldn't count on the children not breaking into panic, or running straight back into enemy hands if something went wrong. Even with geinin, they were trained how to hide, to be able to defend themselves. These kids hadn't even graduated into the academy. They didn't have the training. How would he hide so many from detection with 60 pairs of expert eyes searching for them? Even if he sent the children on, and the three stayed, if anyone got past them, it was over. There would be no help, he had already tried contacting with support teams. They were too far away to rendesvous in time. His mission was to gain intel. These children had it.
There had to be a diversion, someone to distract them whilst the others took the children and got them to safety. It would force them to split the groups, a manageable feat. Only one person could be spared for the distraction because two would be needed to defend the children from the split and to keep them in order and moving. It was the impossible mission he had been warned about his entire life. If Tsunade had known there would be this many she would have assigned reserve teams in waiting. Their rumors suggested only a handful at most. Now with fifty five tiny children looking to them for answers, expecting three anbu to save them, Shikamaru felt numb. There would be casualties this time. It couldn't be done, without severe casualties and detriment to the mission.
"Get out of here" Ino ordered, periwinkle sharp like a kunai, teal breaking through the center, her core, her strength. "Take them and run"
Shikmaru's mind was racing through scenarios trying to find another way. There had to be another way. They were Ino-Shika-Chou. But both he and Chouji were in bad shape, as they had done the bulk of the work breaking the children out once they realized what was at stake. These children would have been dead if they hadn't. Minutes passed, minutes they did not have. Damn it. And he had nothing, nothing, NOTHING that did not result in loss.
For the sake of this mission, if they did not split, they would all die. Shikamaru was a strategist. Go was no different. Sacrifice the pawn, for the sake of the queen. Asuma's life had taught him to cling to his teammates, to care about the bonds he had formed. His death had taught him that sometimes those very bonds caused people to die, to give up their lives for the cause they believed in. He would not be able to talk her out of this. Shikamaru nodded, gathering the children, picking up the lone toddler who would not be as fast as the others and craddling him against his shoulder.
Words without sound were exchanged with that single, solid look between the two. Chouji was trying to protest, but she shook her head. Ino was resolute, as she pulled out her sword, the shink of the blade echoing her intent.
She would not beg. She would not hesitate, and she could notfalter. Letting her lips stretch into an imitation of the smile that she was known for, one cerulean blue eye dipped shut in a wink.
"See ya," Ino breathed quietly, turning her back-for all the world, a picture of determined calm.
She could taste the lie on her lips-and knew that he could, too.
No one knew that she had averted her eyes because she would not have been able to stand seeing him leave her behind.
And then-there was nothing. Silence told her that they were gone. Her team, their mission objective, had left. Ino fought back a tortured laugh. Was it strange to feel betrayed by someone doing what you had askedthem to? Fighting back the bitterness, the blonde squared her shoulders, kodachi steady in her hand.
Stillness. Emotions had no place in this battle. There was no room for remorse or regret. She had nothing to mourn. The decision, Ino thought fiercely, had been hers alone.
Ino began to pull out her tools. She would set up a trap for them, force them to follow her lead, and away from the others. Maybe she could buy enough time for help to come. Maybe pigs would fly she thought with a snort.
Neji's pearlescent eyes narrowed as he crossed arms over his anbu vest. Shikamaru stood in front of the others, in front of Tsunade as he reported his tale of the awry mission. The room was cold, concrete building of the headquaters made and prepared for any attack. It housed the interrogations unit, and other various training and combat areas. It was also where Anbu held meetings like this one. It was more like a tomb, a solid fortified tomb. Hyuuga Neji couldn't hear Shikmaru's words. He'd could not hear the sounds of an intelligent genius, but of a ridiculous coward, leaving behind his own teammate to die in his stead. Calloused, jaded, cynical. Of course the strategist had left her behind. He cut his loses because in the end, the only one that had mattered when it got down to the bare bones of the situation was him.
Tsunade's brow was furrowed, hazel eyes regarding him intently.
"Hokage sama, permission to send a retrieval team to investigate the matter further" Neji interjected, cutting Shikamaru's report off, gloved hands tightening over his arms as he stood. All eyes were on him as he stepped forward into the circle of light. The harsh lights above them buzzed, staccato crescendoed as the atmosphere grew tense.
"She's dead" Shikamaru retorted, bittersweet admonition was surprising. "There's no way she could have survived that on her own."
"Then why did you leave her?" Neji's tone was cold, ridiculing as he looked upon the spiky haired shadow user.
Shikamaru's brown eyes were almost black as he looked upon the anbu captain, dark circles underneath them, puffy. Sure, he was tired. It must be exhausting giving up on the very bonds forged through blood so quickly and decisively.
Tsunade's look was considering as she gazed upon the anbu captain. "This surprises me coming from you, Neji"
"Oh?" He asked. "And why is that?" He asked, cooly, fighting to keep his tone neutral.
"Because you're not usually one to put yourself forward on behalf of others." Shikamaru replied, intelligent brown eyes now focusing the entirety of their gaze on him. The look was piercing, calculating, as he processed.
Neji merely smiled. "In that we are the same, then." Eyes turning back to the Hokage, he shook his head. "She's alive, and we need to find her before Iwa does, Hokage sama."
Shikamaru flinched, fist clenched as he fought back whatever it was he wanted to say. Neji ignored him.
"Of course we need to see if she's still alive." Shikamaru's voice was tense, rough from emotion, but he refused to meet his gaze.
"Have you so little faith in your own teammate?" Neji demanded.
"I did what I had to for the sake of the mission. She told us to leave." Shikamaru's voice was angry, defensive even as his fist clenched. He took a step towards Neji. Pearlescent eyes didn't miss the look, the subtle body cues that were as clear as day for the Byakugan user. Shikamaru was threatened.
"Is that your excuse?"
Shikamaru lunged. It was Chouji who grabbed him, held him on the right, and Shino on the left whilst he struggled. He stopped almost immediately realizing the futility of it all. Chouji's dark eyes were haunting, Tormented by her death, and by the words he spoke, the truth of the matter. But Chouji was Ino-Shika-Chou and therefore just as responsible.
"Neji, spare us your social commentary." Tsunade's tone was sharp, reprimanding.
"How easy it is to justify leaving a women alone to die." Neji remarked cooly.
"The Hyuuga would know about dying for lost causes, wouldn't they?" Shikamaru snapped.
Neji bristled, puffy veins igniting, around his eyes, chocolate hair swaying behind him as he stepped forward into the circle under the harsh lights about to do more than just talk.
"That's Enough." Tsunade's fist crashed against the steel table, smashing it intstantly. She stood, heels clicking, forcing the two to focus on the shorter blondes fury.
"Every minute we waste with your egos is another minute she doesn't have." Tsunade's hazel eyes burned. "Neji since you are so fit to judge the situation" Tsunade paused, sarcasm biting. "Take your righteous indignation and a team with you. If you can find her alive, save her."
"Permission to take Inuzuka Hana and Tsume" Neji replied.
"Denied." Tsunade's voice was as cold and sterile as the medical equipment she used. "You will take Inuzuka Kiba and Akamaru with you. You can also have Kakashi ,who will lead this excursion, and see to it your arrogance doesn't get in the way." Tsunade replied. Neji knew it was a punishment and he accepted it with silence.
"Hokage sama, permission to be a part of the retrieval team." Shikamaru replied. Chouji chimmed in as well.
"Denied. You have spent precious energy running back to tell me of this, instead of acting like a Team. You are not emotionally, or physically ready for the weight of this mission." Tsunade rebuked.
Shikamaru's head hung in shame.
"Hokage sama, permission to be an informant for the retrieval team" Chouji's voice was humble, cheeks wet with streaming tears.
"Informant?" Tsunade asked. Her look was tempered with compassion for the bigger Akimichi.
Neji was just as surprised by the request as the hokage.
"The retrieval team will need someone who knows Ino, in order to find her. After resting, I will rendevous with the team. I volunteer for this mission without addition to rank or pay." Chouji replied, hands behind his back standing tall, in spite of his tears. With his mane of reddish orange hair behind him, he looked much like a weeping lion in the harsh light.
Tsunade bowed her head. "You are in no condition to return to a mission after fighting your way back to the border. Denied. You will recuperate and leave it to others to handle." Tsunade said.
"And the retrieval team?" Neji asked.
"You will leave immediately after being briefed." She turned to her anbu "Summon Hatake Kakashi and the others promptly, and make sure they are mission ready at the top of the hour. Everyone else, dismissed." The room exploded with ninja smoke, leaving only the proud Byakugan user and the Godaime Hokage as the smoke dissipated.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Tsunade's tone was no nonsense and demanding. She did not give him pause before continuing.
"You are in NO position of authority to criticize my chief strategist and the Nara clan head. Particularly on a mission you did not lead and were not a participant of." Tsunade said, heels clicking as she looked up without fear straight into those piercing Byakugan eyes. "Consider yourself very lucky that I don't demote you over your baffling breach of protocol and that you didn't start a clan brawl." She snarled.
Neji was unperturbed by her irritation. "You know I am right," he remarked, thoughtfully, as he looked at her evenly. "You agree with my sentiments."
"Your clan's status, even as a branch member, has given you privlege and entitlement to think that I care about what you think." Tsunade snarled. "Because of your little stunt, you will be vice captain to Kakashi for this mission and afterwards for as long as I deem necessary. Perhaps this will teach you to actually think before spouting such stupidity."
"Your failures aren't mine, Hokage-sama. I will save her." Neji replied.
Tsunade grabbed him by the vest, pulling him down to her level. "Take that presumptuous attitude of yours and leave it with the mission, or you'll be babysitting geinin for the rest of your life." She said without threat, but promise, for the Godaime Hokage did not say anything that she would not do.
"So you would have me leave her there if she is dead? Abandon the mission if the Iwa nin are all around?" Neji retorted.
He paused, then, looking down at the woman seeing how deeply concerned and taken she was with the situation at hand. Tsunade's eyes gave her away. It was clear in those hazel eyes, her worry, her distress at the situation. His words. His words had been presumptuous. "Hokage-sama, I-" Neji's eyes shuttered with apology in motion.
"No. Don't." Her fist tightened in his vest, amber eyes sparking heatedly. Taking a deep breath, as if to continue her shouting, Tsunade paused, and exhaled heavily, letting her hand drop.
There was more than distress for a missing shinobi in her eyes. The loss, for each and every soul, was one that she felt acutely, but it was more than that. The shadow of haunted memory was rich in her expression, skeletons from decades ago working to rise again.
Men that might have been saved, and children that shouldn't have had to die. The ones that she could have made a difference to-and failed.
"Just bring her back," Tsunade's voice wavered, the steel of resolve solid behind it. Turning back to stare out the windows-to the graveyards of battles past, to the memorial stone of fallen souls, to the unrecovered bodies-she drew a tired hand over her eyes.
"Just bring her home."
The vibrant young woman faded into something else, then. It was not that she was any more or any less than what her contemporaries were familiar with-simply that it was different. Her mind raced, assessing the information she had. Even knowing that the individual responsible for the diversion rarely survived, she had elected to stay behind, if only to buy them time. That did not mean that she would go peacefully into her grave.
The odds were stacked against the blonde kunoichi, but that was nothing new. It seemed that unfair fights were nothing more than an occupational hazard. Ino grinned savagely. Numbers were, after all, just numbers-there were ways to rectify that situation. Ino got to work.
The trip wires were well covered, and Ino brushed the sweat off of her brow. Shikamaru had taught her that trick. She bit her lip. There was no time to be thinking of that. She didn't have much longer before Iwa was coming and if they tripped them too soon, it really would be all over. She jumped into the trees, sliding the porcelean mask over her face as she waited for them, tense. Sweat dripped down her face, her golden hair damp with perspiration as she silently cursed Iwa for their dense forests and humid weather. Flies buzzed above her hiding place as she held her breathe.
Kazuga Itarashi was a Iwagakure ninja, though he didn't look like one. Taller than most, he stood at six foot four, towering over his fellow ninja. His skin was pale almost to the point of grey and unhealthy looking. Strong cheek bones and a firm jaw distinguished him and the years of little to no sleep had forever brandished the dark gray smudges around them. On top of his head almost in direct contrast to his skin pigmentation was bright target worthy full red hair. He was either stupid, or dangerous to wield such a color. Frost colored eyes, nearly translucent, took in the forest floor that made no sound, save for the beat of insects wings. Kazuga's eyes narrowed, wrinkles on his forehead creasing beneath his Iwa hitai-ate that covered the choppy locks that weren't bound in the unruly ponytail behind him.
There was something off about the feel of the forest, something that should be registering but wasn't, like a word on the tip of his tongue that wouldn't come. He couldn't pinpoint what it was, but the squad leader could feel it. Something wasn't right. Kazuga's squad around him moved, rustling through the brush, exploring the area as they searched for the missing children stolen from the lab. Years of investment, and research would be lost and heads would roll if they could not find the children and apprehend those responsible.
Kazuga shuddered, for there were far worse things that death in their country. He had a slight limp, a battle wound from a worthy opponent, and felt the tip of his ear that was no longer there, a habit he had picked up in his more recent ninja battles. Still, for all of the deafening silence of the region, he couldn't shake the impending sense of trouble. What made it all the more problematic, though, was that he couldn't identify what it was.
Mifune, one of the first string trackers, stepped foward as he laughed in cold humor at their mission objective. About to berate him sharply to pay attention, Kazuga heard the sound before it registered, and his eyes widened. "MOVE!" He cried. The sharp twang of wires tripped into motion was all the warning that the squad would get-and by then, it was far too late.
Kazuga had figured it out as he flew across the lush forest bracing himself for impact. What had set the entire background ascew was the lack of any animal life. There had not been a peep of a bird, the sound of squirrels or any other woodland creatures. Instinct had saved Kazuga's life in the past, but the short lived knowledge had come too late now. He was getting careless. The silence, formerly accredited to his men sweeping the area, had been a ploy. He had overlooked the obvious. Traps had been set, disturbing the wildlife..and there would be a price to pay for his oversight.
His entire squad was blown backwards into the brush dragged along the surface of the forest floor. Bleeding from a gash to his head, ears ringing, he glared malevolently at the wreckage of the explosion, finding his feet once more. Well played he admonished in his thoughts to the mystery ninjas. Traps, little better than what a genin could set, had done in jonin-level ninja. Sets of prints scattered the area leading in three different directions. The foot prints matched the descriptions of those they had caught. Clearly the explosion was to take out as many as they could. They had either taken the children and run, a stupid plan on their part. Or they were hiding the children and trying to defeat them here and now.
Kazuga had no choice. He had to split the forces, what was left of them. Half would persue further to the border, see if they could recover the children had the ninja taken them. The remaining would deal with this nuisance and cover their flank for their return. Whoever had caused this would pay dearly Kazuga promised staring at the dead bodies of his comrades. This farce would come at a high price-and to whomever was responsible, the only acceptable forfeit would be their life
"Spread out. Split up, capture those responsible and find the brats." He snarled.
Kazuga's eyes swept the charred remains of what had been more than a fourth of his force, silently taking in the damage. Registering the nuanced detail that had been inlayed into the traps' design, the man was struck with a chilling realization.
"What are you all standing around for? We have work to do." He ordered.
Abruptly, he did not know which to be more concerned about-returning alive, in failure, from this retrieval…or the sudden realization that he may not even survive to fail. Summoning the rest of his team, those still alive and capable, he set their orders to kill on sight. There would be no capture for shinobi of this calibre. There would be no interrogation and thus no stories to cover over or explain. He would meet the stakes that had been offered. Today, they only dealt in death.
The golden haired Yamanaka grinned in exultation, lighting from the trees like a song bird as the tripped explosion rocked the forest. Tinder ignited in brilliant sparks, sending flames spurting, darkening the skies not canopied by forest tops.
She felt their deaths, magnificent in her triumph. They could not afford to ignore her presence. It was almost like an obscene gesture to their very faces. She had killed a fourth of the task force, probably the stupid ones that had little to no skill anyways, but they would be looking for revenge. The explosion had single handedly covered Shika's tracks and her own making it more difficult for the squad they had sent after Chouji and Shikamaru who had a significant head start on them now. They would find the other trails she had left for them, hopefully split up further to find her. She would take them out, one by one, group by group. Now she just needed to find a place to hole up and stash her body somewhere they would never find her. Atleast she hoped.
Neji didn't have to wonder what the pinneapple haired genius was up to. Shikamaru's cigarette smoke gave him away as he stood in the meadow that his team was supposed to meet in, surrounded by ash. Was Neji supposed to feel sorry for the shadow user? The strategist took another deep drag from his cigarette, exhaling it, as Neji came forward.
"If you think I'm going to defy Tsunade's orders for your conscience's sake, you thought wrong" Neji told him firmly, pearlescent eyes unwavering.
"That's not why I'm here" Shikamaru told him, hands shaky as he smoothed through his spiky hair, to scratch the back of his head.
Rationally, he knew that the Hyuuga would never understand. He didn't want to-but there had to be a way to make it make sense to the man. He also as a clan head couldn't afford the political ramification of isolating the Hyuuga even if Neji was only a branch member. The mission hadn't been black and white. And in that moment, with those children—and Ino, sword drawn with calm determination, there had only been one decision. It didn't even matter if it had been the right one, anymore.
"Then why are you here?" Neji retorted, folding his arms across his chest.
"Because there's somethings you need to know if you're trying to find her." Shikamaru told him. "And without Chouji with you, you're running the mission blind."
Perhaps not the best choice of words, he thought as Neji grew visibly tense.
"The only thing I want to know is why you thought it was a good idea to leave Ino stranded, surrounded by a squadron of Iwa nin alone" Neji replied, tone dark.
Shikamaru took a deep breathe."We have intel from every single one of those children on who is behind this massive clan kidnapping. We didn't know the two missions were connected. Every. Single. One. That wouldn't have happened unless there had been some sacrifice. The mission has always been the priority, the objective. And especially given the weight of this particular mission, I would have thought that you, of all people, would understand that value." Shikamaru said, hurt evident in his tone.
"You abandoned your teammate for the mission. Just say it already." Neji told him, not accepting his justifications and excuses any longer. "There is nothing you can say to redeem what you've done. You sacrificed your team for children. There is always another way."
"You dont realize-" Shikamaru protested desperately.
"Clearly" Neji replied scathingly. Something snapped in the cloud gazer.
"Damn it, what about this do you not comprehend? This isn't difficult, Neji! Two hundred different plans. Two hundred different ideas, and I failed. Me, the genius.. I didn't have one that would have gotten us all out alive! And even knowing that, I still couldn't ask her to stay!" Shikamaru yelled, fists clenched as he got into the Byakugan users face.
I failed her.
Had they both known they had been thinking the same thought, there may have been more empathy from the Byakugan user.
"That still doesn't explain why you left her out there to die." Neji retorted, unimpressed.
"Because I didn't" The protest was immediate and vehement. "I didn't leave her to die. Of all of us, she has the best chance. And she knows it. Which is why she choose to stay"
"And why is that?" Neji asked coldly.
"Do you know nothing about the Yamanaka clan's abilities? Ino can switch bodies with people, slit their throats before they know it and dissapear back to her own body before they bat an eyelash." Shikamaru replied.
"Of course I'm aware of that. Do you take me for a fool? That doesn't mean she has the stamina to manage a squad of thirty on her own after breaking into a compound facility. She doesn't have the chakra to take on so many and to expound the risk further by leaving her body vulnerable."
Shikamaru sighed, taking another drag of his cigarette, exhaling as he shook.
"She is my best friend. You don't know how hard it was. You can't possibly know." Shikamaru replied, voice choked with emotion.
"You were the mission leader. You were supposed to protect her." Neji told him, finger stabbing him accusingly in the chest.
"I was the highest ranking officer. I was not the leader." Lifting his shaking cigarette to his lips, Shikamaru closed his eyes-hoping, just for a moment, to scent the pungent aroma of flowers and steel... To believe that she was there. "We're ninja, Neji. We weren't meant to be protected. She knew that when she signed on for this."
"This absolves you of nothing." Neji stated. "We may be weapons. We may be nothing more than that to everyone else-but she is your friend. Your best friend. Don't protect the ninja. Protect the people you care for most." Neji replied, eyes meeting his. Shikamaru looked away, unable to meet that accusing pearlescent gaze.
"You couldn't possibly understand. Ino… Ino has always called the shots. She makes her own decisions." Shikamaru's tone was weak.
"And you made the decision to leave her. My team is here." Neji told him dismissively.
"There's a reason why I choose to leave, Neji. Its because out of all of us, growing up with her, she played the best at hide and seek. She had the most chance of all of us to do the most damage. Because she has the training to make it, to hold out until you can get there." Shikamaru told him.
"For your sake and hers, you'd better hope you're right." Neji told him, turning from him towards his team.
"Yo" Kakashi's masked face greeted him with eyes closed.
"I'm surprised you're even here on time, much less properly equipped" Neji retorted, tone sharp and hostile.
"Retrieval of a Konoha nin takes precedence over saving kittens and helping old ladies cross the streets." Kakashi replied, scratching his white hair with a chuckle. Memory lurked in his gaze, sharp and poignant.
Neji ignored him as he looked over the other members of their team.
"Nii-san" Hinata greeted as she stood by the silent Shino, who tipped his head in acknowledgement of the other Hyuuga. The other obnoxious member of team eight decided to announce his presence with a tantrum.
"Can we get this bullshit over and done with, and get on the way? the scent's getting cold" Kiba complained. Akamaru sprawled out on the grass, tail thumping every now and then when Hinata would reach over to scratch behind his ears.
"Is this it?" Kakashi asked. "This is our task force" Neji told him tone sour and prickly. Kakashi nodded in thanks.
"You all know why we're here. I'm Hatake Kakashi, and I will be leading this operation with Hyuuga Neji as my vice captain. The situation is this: Yamanaka Ino is surrounded by Iwa-nin, on their territory. We need to make haste to reach her, expending chakra to port there in leaps and bounds. You'll feel the drain in your chakra, but don't expend to the point of danger, in the event of encountering the enemy. Don't fall behind. Don't waste chakra. Know your limits and speak up. When we're closer, I'll brief you further."
We'll bring her back, his haunted eye said-be it the girl herself, or a corpse, Yamanaka Ino would come home.