Title: Choosing Black
Summary: Dying for the village has never bothered Ino.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything you recognize, sadly. Kishi does.
Each year at the Academy, in the very first class, every grade level is asked the same question. It's written on the chalkboards and every child is given a small white stone. The question has two possible answers they can choose from.
Leaving the stone white means they pick the first answer. For the second answer, the stone must be turned black. In the early grades, this is done by clenching their fists around it and applying pressure.
In the later grades, this is done by channelling chakra into the stone.
The question is:
What is your duty to the village?
The answers are:
1. Live for the village
2. Die for the village
In the very youngest classes, most answer with a white stone except for the few who think it would be more fun to see if they can turn it black. (There are always a few.)
As the classes go up in years, the reasons for their answers become more varied. Most, however, still choose white.
After all, who wants to die?
The children are never told that their answers are collected, studied, and forwarded onto other shinobi in the village, who make note of the changes in answers, of the general tenor of the classes, and who enact changes in the curriculum as they see fit.
The question is the cornerstone of the village.
The first time Ino turns her stone black, it's her third year in the Academy, she's seven and considers herself a big girl now.
She turns it black by squeezing it tightly.
She turns it black because Aunt Inoue recently died while coughing and choking up blood and worse gunk because she succeeded in a mission but got hurt by some new poison that the medics in the hospital couldn't find a cure in time.
Ino doesn't turn it black because she's sad, though she is, but because she thinks about the way Aunt Inoue had been smiling when she'd died. Aunt Inoue had been happy to die for the village.
If she's got to die one day, then Ino thinks she might rather like to go with a smile of success.
At eight, Ino turns her stone black because she'd still prefer to go with a smile but also because she's been to a few more funerals and duty, it seems, means an awful lot of death.
And because her daddy said that it's impossible to live for a village.
She doesn't really understand why, even though he'd explained it to her when she'd asked, but Ino turns her stone black.
Daddy is never ever wrong.
Hers is the only black stone in the class for the second year in a row.
(Somewhere, though she doesn't know it, this is being noted and forwarded on to the appropriate parties.)
At nine, she frowns at her stone, undecided at the colour, and glances around the room to see what other people are doing.
Sakura has her hands folded neatly in her lap, her white stone left untouched. Uzumaki is tossing his white stone back and forth between his hands clumsily, trying to get someone, anyone, to pay attention. Shikamaru is sleeping. Chouji is eating chips and talking to Inuzuka, who is letting his dog play with his stone. Their stones are white too.
Sasuke slips his stone into his pocket and says nothing at all.
Ino turns hers black. She still believes her daddy is right.
This year, there are several more black stones and the mood of the room is decidedly quieter. The question, this far into their training, holds more gravity than it did once upon a time.
There are also only twenty-nine out of thirty stones returned. Iruka-sensei is displeased with them and keeps them all in detention after class in an attempt to get whoever kept their stone to give it up.
Sasuke doesn't give it back, Ino keeps her mouth shut because Sasuke would kill if her if she tattled, and Iruka-sensei eventually lets them go.
Ino thinks about what Sasuke did, wonders why, and says nothing.
Later, she'll realize that at nine, he'd already decided that he would neither live nor die for the village.
Later, she'll understand what that means.
At ten and eleven, the same thing happens. A stone goes missing (Ino suspects Sasuke again and again but never sees him pocket it after that first year) and, in each year, a few more of the stones are turned black.
Some waver back and forth. One year, Aburame Shino's stone is white. The next it's black. And then white again.
Sakura's is always white, which Ino thinks suits her—Sakura is an optimistic person under the insecurities.
Uzumaki's is always white because he's an abnormality who thinks ninja are good and fight for peace when push comes to shove.
Ino might be only ten, then only eleven, but she knows how many people die being a ninja.
There's no peace in death-unless you've accomplished your mission before dying.
On the walk home that night, Ino wonders what's wrong with her, that the thought of dying for the village doesn't scare her. It just makes sense that, one day, it'll happen.
Maybe she's the abnormality?
Ino considers the idea carefully—she's always been the popular one, nothing else—and then dismisses it. She has her reasons.
They seem like good enough ones to her.
By the time she graduates-a Genin, at last!-the mix of stones in their class remains steady with more white than black, but a good portion of black. Ten out of twenty-nine because the thirtieth stone still goes missing.
(She wonders what Sasuke does with the stones, when the day is over.)
When they assign teams, Ino complains but she's not really surprised. Not after years and years and years of hearing their fathers talk about the 'good old days'.
It's not such a bad idea, in any case, because she works well with them.
It doesn't escape her notice, either, that throughout the years, neither of them turned their stone black even once. Shikamaru has no intentions to dying anywhere but in bed, surrounded by his family. Chouji is optimistic but steady. Optimism paired that way leads to living, not dying.
She's optimism and recklessness. All razor-edges and bubbling personality. Death with a bubblegum sheen.
Ino thinks about that all the way home and wonders if more than marks were considered in splitting up the teams. Her stone black, theirs were white. She matches up the teams with what she knows of their stones and realizes that no team has more than one person on it that turned their stone black consistently.
She wonders what it means about Sakura's team, with two white stones and a missing one.
(Later, when that Team 7 falls apart, Ino thinks about that and wonders if it is because there were never three, just two and an empty space.)
By the time she graduates, her stones are black because Ino has realized that she loves her friends more than her village.
She'll die for her village. (Though, she hopes, not any time soon.)
But she'll live for her friends.
Her opinion only solidifies, strengthens, the more time she spends as a Genin and then as a Chuunin, and the world falls to pieces around her. She has to be strong for Sakura and then strong for herself when her team leaves her behind because they think her weak, which hurts deeply, badly, and for years after she's pretended to be over it.
She has to be strong to be able to live for her friends, as her missions get more deadly and her powers grow and are trained, honed, to a weapon-sharp brightness.
She also has to resign herself that never will she ever get half the credit she deserves for her strength than others will get for their more obvious, flashy strength.
It takes her years to come to terms with that and still rankles if she thinks about it too hard. In the end, Ino contents herself with doing the best possible job that she can do, so if anyone iswatching, they think well of her.
The stones, with their question, are only rarely thought of.
But they're never forgotten and, sometimes, when she's very bored, Ino tries to decide what other shinobi she knows would pick if they had to answer that question.
Live or die?
As she gets older, Ino thinks the question becomes more complicated.
Still, it's never a doubt in her mind that hers would remain black.
When she's barely seventeen, ANBU approaches her.
Ino studies the mask, the black bodysuit, the white armour, and listens to what they have to say.
The agent has a lot to say. It all boils down to that old Academy question though.
The question is:
What is your duty to the village?
The answers are:
1. Live for the village
2. Die for the village
Ino stares at nothing for a few minutes, the agent as patient as a shadow, as she comes to terms with the fact that, likely, they've been prepared to approach her for years.
They were just waiting for her to get strong enough.
It's the only thing that makes sense.
"How many others picked the black?" she asks.
The ANBU agent just stares at her. They are expressionless thanks to the mask.
"Black," Ino says, "again and again." She shoots the agent a wry look. "But then, you knew that, didn't you?"
Silence is her only answer. It's the only one she needs.
ANBU is the backbone of Konoha's most deadly missions. The first offense, the first line of defense, and they do the dirtiest, most morally wrong missions and do them well.
The death rate is atrocious. Konoha demands many lives from her agents.
Ino says yes.
Chouji goes quiet and sad when she tells them why she's no longer going on missions with them. Shikamaru gets angry, though he doesn't yell.
Both try to talk her out of it.
"I don't understand, Ino," Chouji says. "It's like you're happy about this."
Ino resists the urge to rub at the still healing tattoo (chakra destroys the inks, so it has to heal naturally) and considers that. "I am," she decides to admit, throwing caution to the wind. "I think it'll suit me."
"You'll die," Shikamaru says, his voice raw. "You're just a Chuunin. Jounin drop like flies in ANBU. You think you can survive?"
"Survival isn't what ANBU is about," Ino tells him, her voice gentle because he's angry because he's worried, "death is."
They both stare at her horrified and aghast.
Ino laughs a brittle, bright-edged sound. "I don't plan to die," she says, "don't misunderstand me. But dying for the village doesn't bother me. If it happens, it'll happen, and I'm okay with that."
"I'm not," Shikamaru tells her flatly.
Chouji nods. "Neither am I."
She loves them both, so help her. "That's why neither of you are in ANBU." Ino takes a sip of her drink then sets it down with a clink. "And why I am."
Both of them look mutinous enough to go talking to the Hokage about this. Ino fumbles for an explanation that'll make them think about this instead of just reacting.
"Look," she says, "you remember that question in the Academy? With the black or white stone and if you'd live or die for the village? Both of you always picked white, right? You'd live for the village." Ino takes a deep breath. "I always picked black. I'll die for the village. That's why I'm in ANBU."
Her heart sinks when they still look at her like she's the wrong one. Ino can't explain to them why she feels it's so right, though she keeps trying.
In the end, though it guts her, Ino steals their memories of the conversation and leaves them thinking her bandage, which hides her tattoo, is just because she got a minor scrape during her last mission and hasn't healed it yet.
She broods in her new room, in ANBU's headquarters, and tries to decide how she's going to deal with them when they realize what she's done. No matter which way she views it, Ino is certain she's destroyed their friendships.
And if she hasn't, she's even less certain what she'll do.
A knock on her door distracts her. The chakra on the other side is vaguely familiar though so she gets up and opens it. A girl with long black hair, narrow eyes, and red, red lips looks at her. Like Ino, her arm is bandaged.
"Finally," the girl says, "I thought you weren't ever going to open up."
Ino raises one eyebrow. "I thought you were still in medic training, Sanyu."
"I got bored." Sanyu shrugs. "Came up with my own jutsu. ANBU was interested enough to snap me up."
"Rot-jutsu. Messy, nasty-smelling stuff. Really effective in the field though I'll have nightmares forever if I hit one of our own with it." Sanyu looks at her defiantly, like Ino is supposed to be horrified.
She smiles slightly instead. "I just stole my teammates' memories of my telling them I'm in ANBU," Ino confides. "They're going to kill me when they find out."
"You going to tell them?"
If she was a good person, she would. "No," Ino says, "they're happier for now. If I die before they find out again, they'll never be told. If not, well, it's easier if they hate me instead of if they talk about trying to join ANBU themselves."
"Does dying for the village bother you?" Ino asks impulsively.
"I wouldn't be here if it did," Sanyu points out incredulously. "I invented rot-jutsu. Someone is going to kill me. I'll do what I can before they get me."
Ino finds she's fond of this girl, who she barely knows, who gets why dying isn't so bad. They're all going to die one day. In ANBU, it's just taunting death to come a bit faster and that suits Ino, who has never been good at cowering. "In the Academy," she says, "was your stone black?"
Sanyu's smile is beautifully edged. "Always and always, Yamanaka. Just like yours, I'd wager. You want to go for drinks?"
"Sure," Ino says. "We'll toast death."
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