A/N: Welcome back to Shadows Ascending! Last time Choji brought back a rogue Otogakure shinobi, and this chapter we see what Tsunade is going to do about it. Meanwhile, Sasuke begins pursuing Ino, and Choji makes a decision.
I hope you enjoy, and make sure to review!
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Chapter 4: The Price of Duty
As the days went by, Ino found herself growing ever more lonely. It had been more than a week since Choji left, and even though Shikamaru was still in the village, he might as well have been off on a mission, too. He spent most of his time holed up in the Hokage's Tower with his father and other high-ranking shinobi, no doubt on some important village business.
Ino was glad that the Hokage seemed to be appreciating Shikamaru's talent, but that didn't make it any easier to ignore the fact that she was alone. Asuma and Kurenai were on an extended mission to Water Country, and so aside from pestering Sakura, who was always busy at the hospital, Ino had nothing to do but train. Which she did, with a vengeance.
Every day she went to Team 10's old training ground, where she proceeded to uproot boulders, slice the branches of trees, and generally wreak havoc on innocent nature. It was there that Sasuke found her, the day after she had defeated him during their sparring session. That had been three days after Choji left on his mission, and it was the same day that Shikamaru seemed to disappear into the Hokage's Tower.
"What do you want?" Ino demanded crossly. She had better things to do than banter with Sasuke; her Wind jutsu needed some serious fine-tuning, and she planned to practice her mind possession on a swarm of bees nearby.
But Sasuke didn't demand a rematch, as she'd been half expecting. He waited there silently until, finally, she looked at him. "I was hoping we could train together," Sasuke said. Ino waited for the inevitable sarcastic comment, but it didn't appear. Sasuke looked and sounded sincere, even humble. "You know Naruto's gone," Sasuke told her, "and for all I know, Sakura has decided to live in the hospital, that's how much time she spends there. I've been training with Kakashi, but apparently there's something big going on in the Tower, so he told me to train on my own for a while. I tried, but it got a little… lonely."
Something big in the Hokage's Tower? Ino mused. It must be the same thing that's taking Shikamaru up there so often. I wonder what's happening?
"So… what gives?" Ino said. "Aren't you overjoyed to be able to train without inferior weaklings slowing you down?"
Sasuke chuckled softly. "You know," he pointed out, deliberately casual, "if you tell a person he should change, and then refuse to believe that he's trying, you betray your own good advice."
Ino flushed a dark red. He had a point, but still… was it possible that her words had gotten through to Sasuke that easily? No, there must be more to it than that. But if he was even pretending to change, it was Ino's duty to let him try. Sasuke was right about that much.
Moreover, Ino had to admit, it sounded like the two of them were in the same situation. Both completely at loose ends, without teammates or sensei. Sparring with Sasuke would make a welcome change from performing the same jutsu over and over. It would certainly be a challenge, and a completely new experience. The Uchiha's fighting style was different from those of Choji and Shikamaru, and no doubt he had some tricks up his sleeve. How could he not, after training from sunup to sundown with Kakashi for more than a year?
Ino walked over to Sasuke, who was standing upright, no sign of his usual arrogant slouch. "I'd bet my life savings you're up to something," she said, drawing a grin from Sasuke. "But I don't have the time or the patience to figure it out, and it's true I need a sparring partner while Choji and Shikamaru are busy. So I'll train with you, on one condition."
Ino did her best to imitate Sasuke's smirk, the one that had once been so common to him. "That you don't slow me down."
That day set the pattern for the days to follow. Ino woke up early, met with Sasuke at the training ground, and pushed herself to her limits and beyond. Sasuke was stronger, faster, and cannier than before, although his new ability fell far short of his second stage Curse Seal form. Ino couldn't match Sasuke in terms of pure taijutsu, but that didn't stop her from trying. She took particular pleasure in the few hits that she managed to land. She had grown up sparring against Choji, so she knew how to throw some serious force behind her attacks. Punches that wouldn't have fazed the young Akimichi had a gratifying impact on the Uchiha.
As the days went on, Ino had to admit that her training with Sasuke was helping her stave off the loneliness. When she was fighting with every ounce of her strength and skill, she had no time to think about the stony expression on Choji's face as he turned away from her. But every night, before her aching muscles pressured her into sleep, she would remember. And every day, Shikamaru still went to the Hokage's Tower, and Ino knew that whatever was going on, it was too important to tell anyone, even his best friend.
The knowledge that something important was going on made it even harder to wait patiently. But Shikamaru would tell her when the time was right, and in the meantime, Ino could work on new genjutsu to try and neutralize the natural advantage of the sharingan.
Often, when they were too tired to spar any more, they would argue tactics together. Ino found herself growing more comfortable with this new version of Sasuke, and even wondered if he was changing for the better. She began to relax around him, and at times she could believe that he would be able to take up a life in the village once more. The memory of his Curse Seal form hovering over a fallen Naruto began to fade, replaced by the innocent child that Ino had seen when she looked inside his mind. And even the innocent child started to blur into Sasuke as he appeared now, with an earnest expression that sometimes morphed into an open, playful smile.
One evening, exactly five days after they began training together, Sasuke and Ino were walking back to their homes. They walked side by side, chattering about nothing. Without warning, Sasuke stopped. He turned to her, and his eyes grew serious. "You told me once to be more like Naruto," Sasuke said softly. "I always thought he was a bonehead, yelling about his love for Sakura at the top of his lungs. Now I realize how much courage that takes. Well, here goes…"
He leaned in, and before Ino knew it his lips were on hers. The shock was such that it took her a moment to push him away. She could feel a rush of heat, and knew that she must be blushing furiously. She drove her right fist into Sasuke's stomach, just under the ribcage. He fell to one knee, grunting painfully. But then he… laughed. That only enraged Ino further. She rained a series of blows down on Sasuke, striking again and again with fists and feet. Still laughing, Sasuke put up a minimal defense, only turning aside the strikes that would have hit any vital spots.
Ino stopped, regaining her breath, trying to regain her self-control. "How… how dare you!" she hissed.
Sasuke stood up shakily, still grinning like a madman. "So that's what that feels like," he whispered. His voice grew more serious, though his eyes still shone. "Ino, I can't say I'm sorry I did that, because I'm not. I can't believe it took me this long to see you, to really see you, but now it's impossible to stop. You're smart, strong, beautiful… I know you stopped liking me a long time ago, but can't you give me another chance? How I wish you would."
Sincerity rang in his voice, but Ino still felt only anger. "I'll give you one more chance… to get out of my sight before I give you the beating you deserve. Never do that again!"
"I promise I won't kiss you again without your permission," Sasuke said, "but how can I stop feeling this way about you? As well ask the stars to go out, or the seas to dry up!"
Ino took out a kunai, testing the blade against her thumb. Sasuke backed up, holding his hands up in surrender. "I'll go now," he said, and Ino hated how calm he managed to sound. "But I'll be back. I learned that much from Naruto – never give up, no matter how many times you get beat up." Sasuke sent Ino a crooked smile that she had never seen before, and gave her a thumbs up. "It's my new ninja way."
Then he was gone, leaving Ino alone in the street. She wondered briefly if she'd fallen under a genjutsu – surely nothing else could turn reality on its head so completely. She raised one hand towards her mouth, but let it fall before making contact.
Oh Kami, what if someone saw?!
Choji had no idea where his feet were taking him, but he wasn't surprised when he ended up at Training Area 17. It was over a mile away from the village walls, and it was nothing more than a bed of rock, with boulders strewn around like strange bushes. In the approaching dark, it looked truly bleak, which fit Choji's mood like a glove.
Unbidden, the image he was trying to escape resurfaced. Sasuke Uchiha, leaning in… and Ino… Choji shook his head violently.
Rational, Choji thought, though even in his head his voice sounded desperate. Have to be rational. Do I have any right to be this angry?
Of course not. I don't own her - she has every right to like anyone she wants.
But… Sasuke? He tried to kill us!
But Choji knew that wasn't the real reason he felt so betrayed. A smaller voice, quiet yet no less insistent, knew the truth.
It's because you thought she was over him.
Choji remembered their Academy years, when he would play hooky with Shikamaru, Kiba, and Naruto. Just as clear were the memories of Ino and Sakura fighting over Sasuke. Could years of infatuation really disappear without a trace? And of course, Ino had been inside Sasuke's mind.
Choji had been there for the battle with Sasuke, but only Ino knew what had transpired in Sasuke's mind. She had saved him from creeping insanity, and had seen everything there was to Sasuke, down to his very soul. Perhaps that had created a bond between them, or maybe Ino had seen that Sasuke was a good person after all.
There was nothing Choji could do except to support his teammate. If she wanted to be with Sasuke, that was her decision. He would just have to wish them the best-
Choji's fist registered a sharp pain, having just punched the rocky surface beneath his feet. He felt a burst of chakra leave his fist, chakra that he'd gathered without being aware of it. Small fissures appeared around his hand, little spidery cracks in the stone. Then they spread, and suddenly they weren't little any more. Fissures exploded in every direction, literally tearing the ground apart. Choji jumped up and away, chakra fueling his legs, and as he soared through the air he watched the spectacular destruction of what had once been Training Area 17.
The next morning, Choji approached his father before breakfast. Choza was in full armor, apparently preparing for a mission.
"Dad," Choji began, "do you know of any missions outside the village?"
Choza looked at his son with concern. "You've barely recovered from the last one," he pointed out. "Why the rush to get back out there?"
Choji looked down, schooling his expression. "I… I feel responsible for what happened. I led my team into disaster. I want to try again, to gain experience without Shikamaru there to save my ass. Otherwise, how can the village trust me?"
"I think you're being a little hard on yourself, son," Choza said with a frown. He bit the end of a loaf of bread, chewing noisily. "But if your mind is already made up, I won't try to change it. Now that I think on it, there is a mission that could use you. Izumo and Kotetsu are preparing to track down a team of rogue shinobi that stole some precious artifacts from the Fire Temple. They could use another chuunin for backup, even if they don't want to admit it. Working with those two would be exactly the kind of experience that you want."
Choji nodded gratefully. "Thanks, dad. I'll join up with them now."
"Aren't you going to have any breakfast?" Choza asked, astonished. He was shocked at the cold, focused light in Choji's eyes.
"I'm not hungry."
Shikamaru stood next to Temari in the Hokage's office. Tsunade was watching both of them with an interesting expression, at once excited and deathly serious.
"Do you know why I've brought you here?" she asked, lacing her fingers together underneath her chin.
"I assume it has something to do with Choji's mission," Shikamaru said slowly. He'd spent quite a lot of time worrying about that, since his friend had been kept in an underground medical facility far longer than should have been necessary. "He must have brought back some important information."
"That he did," Tsunade agreed, "and a hard time he had of it. He captured a former shinobi of Otogakure."
Shikamaru's breath caught. Temari leaned forward eagerly. "Does he know where Orochimaru's hiding?"
Tsunade shook her head. "No, unfortunately. But he has a piece of information that is almost as valuable. He knows the location of the largest Otogakure stronghold still on the continent. When Orochimaru was defeated, his army scattered… but they had orders to retreat to a safe location if the worst happened. We couldn't figure out where it was. Now we know."
The wheels were turning in Shikamaru's brain. He could already see a dozen possibilities, but there was really only one that was most important. "If we capture the leader there…"
Tsunade nodded. "…we can extract Orochimaru's location from his or her mind."
Temari smiled, practically quivering with anticipation. "Then we call out Gaara and a strike team, and Suna and Konoha launch a joint task force to wipe that slimy bastard off the face of the earth!"
The Hokage inclined her head, allowing a small smile to tug at one corner of her mouth. "Precisely. Orochimaru is currently the largest threat to both of our villages, and who knows what he's up to at the moment. No doubt he's rebuilding his forces, maybe even recruiting or continuing his evil experiments across the sea. There's no time to waste."
"So what's the play?" Shikamaru asked. "Do we muster out a quick response team? Neutralize the village and take down its leader?"
That wasn't his first choice, but Tsunade had said that time was of the essence…
Tsunade shook her head. "That might be faster, but there's no guarantee we would succeed. I don't know how many shinobi retreated to this new stronghold, and their numbers may even be growing. I won't commit to an all-out offensive strike unless I know more about what I'm sending our people into."
"An infiltration mission, then?" Temari asked.
"Yes. We have a unique opportunity, thanks to Choji's brilliant decision to capture the Otogakure shinobi alive."
Shikamaru could see all the pieces falling into place. "You're going to replace him with a double!"
"Not just any double," Tsunade said, her gaze gaining intensity. "With you."
"Me?" Shikamaru squawked, taken by surprise for the first time in a long time. "Why me? Why not ANBU? I'm not trained in disguise techniques-"
Tsunade cut him off by raising one hand. "Don't worry about that. This isn't going to be your average deception – you'll be protected by more than a mere Henge. I'm going to oversee your disguise myself." She grinned, and Shikamaru couldn't suppress a shiver. "When I'm done with you, your own mother won't recognize you."
Shikamaru could guess what this meant: the Hokage was going to change the very make-up of his body through her medical ninjutsu. His disguise would hold up to almost any scrutiny, because it wouldn't even be a disguise – he would actually become a physical clone of the captured shinobi. But that still didn't answer his most important question.
"But why me?"
Temari snorted scornfully, drawing Shikamaru's startled gaze. "Do you really have to ask?" she said snidely, while her eyes laughed. "I would have picked you, too." Shikamaru had to suppress a blush, cursing himself for being as silly as Hinata.
"She's right," the Hokage added, smiling approvingly. "You're one of our best chuunin, with a close to perfect record. There's no one I would trust more in the field – I mean, it was you who first detected Otogakure's treachery, and it was you who brought Uchiha Sasuke back. Your intelligence and determination will serve you very well on an infiltration mission. After a few medical procedures and some advanced training, we'll begin the mission."
"Will I have any back-up?" Shikamaru asked. He wanted Choji and Ino, of course, and Hinata's team would be invaluable as scouts in enemy territory…
He was so deep in contemplation that he failed to hear Tsunade cough twice, trying to get his attention. Temari gave a short bark of laughter, while the Hokage glared at him. "I love it when you get all lost in thought," Temari whispered, winking at him. "It's adorable."
This time he couldn't help it – he blushed to the roots of his hair. Carefully not looking at Temari, he bowed toward the Hokage. "My apologies, Hokage-sama. You were saying?"
"I was saying," Tsunade said, enunciating each word, "that you will not enter the village alone. I will send one of our best agents with you as back-up. She has years of experience with infiltration missions. I will also send a large strike force as back-up; you'll be in charge of choosing those teams. Now, you may have met your partner before, during the Chuunin Exams. Her name is Mitarashi Anko."
Shikamaru remembered her. It was hard to forget someone who dressed like that, and her personality was no less unique. He had no trouble believing that she was a skilled agent, however – the Third Hokage wouldn't have put her in charge of the Second Exam if she wasn't. That didn't change anything, though.
"I want Ino," he said firmly. Temari did a double-take, while Tsunade's eyebrows climbed almost to her hairline.
"I want Ino to be my partner," Shikamaru repeated. "I'm not undervaluing Anko, but no one works with me better than Ino. Besides, we're heading into Otogakure – a village full of shinobi expert in manipulating sound-waves. Communicating with my partner in secret will be hard enough without worrying that anyone in the village could overhear us. With Ino, we can communicate mind-to-mind without anyone being the wiser. Not only that, but her mastery of Mind Invasion techniques is growing every day, and she's already considered a genius by her clan. Once we find the Otogakure leader, she can extract all the information he's carrying. If I'm going to infiltrate the village, I'll need her with me."
Tsunade thought for a long minute, thought lines creasing her forehead. "I don't know…" she said at last. "I'm not doubting her capabilities, and you're right that her techniques make her uniquely suited to this task. But I think you're underestimating the difficulty of such a mission. For however long you have to stay in the village, you'll have to live a lie under constant scrutiny. You must carry out whatever acts of cruelty are required of you, whether it be torture or even murdering innocent people. I have my doubts about you, Shikamaru, and the only reason I felt comfortable sending you was because Anko will be there to watch out for you. This was going to be your Jonin Exam… I'm not sure that Ino is ready for a similar test."
It was a good point, but it didn't faze Shikamaru for a second. This was Ino they were talking about – it wouldn't be the first time that they faced death together, and it wouldn't be the last. The odds of success were greater with Ino next to him, no matter how skilled Anko might be. Shikamaru trusted his intuition as much as he did his mind, and both told him to hold out for Ino.
"If I'm ready to test for jonin, then so is Ino. We've faced the same challenges, and our rate of improvement is comparable. I'd say the same for Choji, but I already know he'll be part of the back-up team. Please, Hokage-sama, trust me. Have Anko train both of us, but send me in there with Ino. We'll get the job done."
"You're sure about this?" Tsunade asked, locking eyes with the Nara genius. Shikamaru only nodded.
The Hokage sighed heavily, and shifted her gaze to look out the window. "I'll take it into consideration. But first, I need to know that she can practice deception to the extent that will be required on such a mission. I will give her a preliminary test. If she passes, then I will make my decision. Is that acceptable?" The chill in her voice told Shikamaru that his Hokage was not pleased by his stubbornness. He bowed low.
"Then that's settled. Temari-san," the Hokage barked out, so sharply that Temari jumped, "I have a task for you as well."
The blond kunoichi stood straighter, hands at her sides. "Yes, Hokage-sama?"
"Take these," Tsunade said, throwing something small and light to the Suna warrior – no, it was two somethings. Temari snatched them out of the air and inspected them closely. It was a pair of leather gloves, both reinforced by flexible metal inserts and covered all over with strange signs.
"These are the gloves that the Otogakure shinobi used to fight Choji," Tsunade explained. "They make use of some type of Sealing jutsu, allowing their wearer to combine taijutsu with punishing ninjutsu element attacks. I was wondering if you might take these to your puppet builders in Suna. The gloves themselves are not in perfect repair, and they need to be keyed to Shikamaru's chakra. Can your artisans do that?"
Temari nodded without hesitation. "We may not have Sasori of the Red Sands, but our puppet builders can figure this out. With a bit of Shikamaru's hair, they can create new Sealing jutsu to keep anyone but him from activating the gloves."
"How long will it take?"
Temari cocked her head, thinking. "I'm not sure. No less than a week, with travel included."
"Then get to it," the Hokage ordered. "We all have our parts to play in the mission to come. Give my regards to your brother, and brief him on the details of our plan. We need Suna to be ready, so that the moment we know where Orochimaru is hiding, you'll be ready to move."
"Yes, Hokage-sama." Before Shikamaru could think to react, Temari had danced up to his side, kissed him swiftly on the mouth, and retreated to the window. She opened the catch and threw herself out into the open air, gliding away on her fan while Shikamaru was still bringing his hand up stupidly to his mouth. There was a moment of shocked silence, followed by Tsunade's bright laughter.
"Ah, Shikamaru, I think you're outmatched by that one," she said, wiping at her eyes with one hand. "She's too much woman for you."
This time it was Shikamaru's turn to glower at his Hokage. "So what's next? I assume you'll need to set up the preliminary test for Ino."
In the blink of an eye the serious Hokage had returned, her face a mask of deliberation. "That's correct. As for you, we'll begin your training. I'll have Anko begin teaching you the basics of infiltration, and then you can start getting… acquainted… with the shinobi you'll be impersonating. Once you have the basics down, we'll begin preparations for your medical procedures. They shouldn't be too bad… well, except for the larynx replacement. That one will hurt like a bitch." The Hokage smile reminded Shikamaru of a shark.
"L-larynx replacement?" Shikamaru stuttered.
That didn't sound good.
Ino made her way slowly but deliberately through the village to the Akimichi compound. Sasuke's unwanted advances the night before had made her realize something: no matter what the consequences, it was always better to be open about your feelings. That was the only reason she wasn't hunting down the arrogant Uchiha and breaking a few of his bones. She had to find Choji and let him know how she felt. It didn't matter what happened after – one way or another, they would be fine. At least, that's what Ino kept telling herself.
Ino knew that Choji was back in the village, and that he had been injured while on his extended mission. Her father had told her the night before, so she guessed that she could find her teammate at his family's compound, no doubt being fussed over by his parents.
The Akimichi compound was visible long before Ino reached it – the calorie-crunching warriors preferred red tile for the walls around the compound, red to match their armor and the colors of Konoha. Ino could hear the sound of Akimichi shinobi sparring beyond the walls, their boisterous voices trumpeting exuberantly.
Any other time she would have gone to watch, maybe even challenged one of them – she was always happy to beat up on Choji's cousins, many of whom had bullied the gentle boy when he was younger – but today she was on a self-appointed mission. She went straight to the house of the clan head, Choza Akimichi, whom she knew almost as well as her own parents.
She knocked loudly on the front door, knowing that Choji's parents weren't offended by a little noise. The door opened a few seconds later, revealing the mountainous figure of Choji's father.
"Ino," Choza boomed, with a laugh that made her ears ring. "What brings you here? Looking for my miscreant son?"
Ino took a deep breath. "That I am, sir! Is he inside?"
Choza clapped a hand on her shoulder with such force that it took all of Ino's shinobi training not to stagger. "No need to 'sir' me, girl! Heavens, I don't think I could look your father in the face if his daughter took to 'sirring' me! As if I didn't bounce you on my knee when you were a baby…"
Ino winced inside. It looked like she'd managed to start Choza off on one of his stories. Mercifully, a feminine hand emerged from behind Choza and hit him across the head. Choza's wife appeared next to him, grimacing at her husband.
"Stow it, you! She asked you a question, so don't be nattering on all day!" She smiled kindly at Ino, and winked. "Don't mind my husband."
Choza rubbed the back of his head, grumbling. Then he turned back to Ino, his face resuming its usual beaming smile. "I'm sorry, Ino, but Choji's back out in the field. He left early this morning with Izumo and Kotetsu. They're hunting down some bandits for the Fire Temple! I swear, that boy just can't sit still. He only just now got over his injuries…"
Ino's spirits fell, but she only nodded and thanked Choji's parents for their help. It seemed Choji still wasn't ready to rejoin the team – Ino could only hope he would be back soon. As she turned away from the Akimichis, a flash of movement caught her eye.
Ino pulled out two kunai and tensed, realizing a second later that it was only Shizune, the Hokage's assistant. Ino fell over herself in her haste to apologize, putting her weapons away.
"Don't worry about it," Shizune said breezily, though her pig, Tonton, oinked reprovingly. "It's good to see that the younger shinobi still have their guard up. Anyway, the Hokage wants you. Do you have the time?"
Ino shook her head with a wry smile. When the Hokage wanted you, it didn't matter if you had the time or not. "Lead on."
Shizune smiled back. "Good answer."
The two kunoichi took to the rooftops, using the Body-Flicker jutsu to travel faster than the eye could track. Ino was still getting used to traveling at such high speeds, but the more she got used to the technique, the stronger she would be as a shinobi. So she taxed her body to the utmost to follow Shizune, trusting her rapidly improving reflexes to keep her from running into any obstacles.
Instead of passing the chuunin guards at the base of the Hokage's Tower, they ran straight up the side of the giant building. It was a privilege that Shizune had as Tsunade's assistant – she didn't have to worry about the normal time-consuming procedure of passing the guards. If Ino had attempted to scale the building without Shizune there, hidden ANBU guards would have been on her before she could sneeze.
As it was, Ino and Shizune entered the Hokage's office a second later, ghosting through the window to land at attention before Tsunade's desk. Tonton did his part as well, letting out a fierce squeal.
"Ah, you're here." Tsunade put aside a stack of papers and fixed her attention on Ino. Ino wasn't sure, but she thought that Tsunade looked graver than usual. She hoped she hadn't done anything wrong. Oh no… maybe Tsunade knew about the kiss?! Ino could explain, it hadn't been her fault-
"Ino," Tsunade began, cutting off her train of thought. "How fares your training with Sasuke?"
Ino shifted uncomfortably. The Hokage's eyes were too knowing for her comfort. "Fine, Hokage-sama. In terms of physical recovery, he's doing well. Psychologically speaking, I'm not quite sure, but he hasn't displayed any residual memories of his brother. Orochimaru, on the other hand, he hates with a single-minded passion."
Tsunade looked satisfied. "That's good to hear. Heaven knows, Orochimaru deserves his anger, but since Sasuke never trusted Orochimaru, never looked up to him, there's less chance of it becoming as personal as with Itachi. But I've also heard that Sasuke has been spending quite a bit of time with you. The ANBU agent I've assigned to follow Sasuke said he prefers your company to that of any other shinobi in his age group."
The Hokage's eyes again bored into Ino's, and she could guess that the Hokage knew exactly why Ino blushed. "Hokage-sama, I don't encourage him… I just trained with him because my teammates were both busy, and… I had no idea he would…"
"I'm not mad at you, Ino," the Hokage said. Her face was an unreadable mask. "I think it's good that Sasuke has found a friend. Naruto is away on his training trip, and Sakura is far too busy training with me and working in the hospital to spare any time for Sasuke. Even his apparent… romantic attachment… bodes well for his recovery. The village elders are ecstatic – they see Sasuke's transformation as a new hope for the village. They can't wait to get him married, so that he can put down roots and begin reviving the Uchiha clan."
Ino was extremely confused, but she didn't like the direction this conversation was going… "I'm not sure I understand, Hokage-sama. What are you saying?"
Tsunade's eyes, so cold and unforgiving, held Ino in thrall. "I'm saying that Sasuke is your next mission."
"I have no intention of talking to Sasuke again, let alone… anything else!" Ino surprised herself by shouting.
The Hokage drew herself up to her full height, her voice coming out clipped and freezing. ""You seem to be operating under the delusion that I care what you intend," Tsunade said. Ino became very still. "You have sworn to protect your village and obey the Hokage. That means you do what I say."
Ino spoke very carefully. "Are you telling me I have to… marry Sasuke?"
"Don't be absurd," Tsunade replied sharply. "You're both far too young for marriage, no matter what the Council says. But your mission, which is B-rank, by the way, is to put up with Sasuke's attentions. Allow him to court you in front of the rest of the village, and while you don't have to respond favorably, you cannot reject him out of hand."
"Because this is the first time Sasuke has shown interest in anything besides vengeance. He's learning to become a whole person – he's changing for the better."
Ino let out her breath in an angry huff. "And because he's starting to get a life, I have to give up mine?"
"Let's be clear on something," the Hokage said, holding up a hand. "You're a shinobi of Konoha. Your life does not belong to you, it belongs to the village. In the past, you've proven yourself to be ready to give up your life to protect Konoha – that, and your skill, are the reasons you made chuunin. What I'm asking you to sacrifice now is not your life, merely your love life. I'm asking – no, I'm ordering you – to carry out this mission for the greater good of the village. If you can't do that, then maybe you ought to reconsider your career choice."
Those words hung between them, while Ino tried to regain control over her rampant emotions. "Well?" the Hokage asked. Ino swallowed bitter words, wondering how this mission could possibly serve the best interests of the village. But it wasn't her place to question her Hokage.
"I apologize for my outburst, Hokage-sama… it was unprofessional."
"Good. Then I'm assigning you a B-Rank mission, which is to allow Uchiha Sasuke to court you. You do not have to accept his heart, but under no circumstances may you reject it. In the eyes of the village, you must be seen as a woman playing hard to get. You may tell your true feelings to no one who is not in this room, understood? If anyone, whether your teammates, your sensei, or your family, sees through your deception, you fail the mission."
"Not only that," Tsunade went on, "but you will also keep a close eye on Sasuke and monitor his psychological state. By allowing him to stay by your side, you will be better able to determine how he feels about his missing memories. Do you understand why I'm asking you to do this, Ino?"
Ino simply nodded her head, not feeling equal to speech.
"That's not good enough, Ino," Tsunade said, relentless in her pursuit. "I am not a leader who expects blind obedience. I want to know if you truly understand why I'm ordering you to do this."
Ino had to fight to keep her expression neutral. "Because if Sasuke is busy trying to impress me, he won't be searching for the truth of his lost memories."
"That's one reason," Tsunade allowed, "and it will suffice for now. You may go, and report back to me in one week. Dismissed."
But as Ino turned to leave, Tsunade called out to her. "Wait!" Ino turned around sharply, relying on her years of discipline to keep her emotion from showing. "This mission is not forever, Ino. When it is over, I promise that you can tell Sasuke, your friends – the whole village if you want – exactly how you feel. But until then, you tell no one… not even Choji."
Ino stiffened, but only bowed once more. "Yes, Hokage-sama. May I go now?"
Ino left the study at a perfectly controlled walk, though her hands were clenched tightly to her sides.
When she was gone, Shizune rounded on the Hokage with fire in her eyes. "Hokage-sama!" she cried, highly affronted. "Did you have to go so far?"
Tonton seemed to agree, giving a highly upset oink.
The Hokage sighed, burying her face in her hands for a second. Then she raised her head, and nodded. "I did. The only way the Otogakure mission works is if the enemy shinobi believe she and Shikamaru are a couple. Ino will have to play a role before an entire village of hostile shinobi, and if she slips once our plans fall apart. I need to see that she can play a role even in front of the people she cares about most."
"But you even threw Choji in her face, too! Sensei, you know how she feels about that boy! How would you have felt if someone made you act that way in front of your first love?"
Tsunade looked out the window, but her eyes saw only the past. "I wish someone had done something like this for me, Shizune." Her assistant gasped. Tsunade spoke on, her voice slow and contemplative. "When Dan died, I blamed the village. I valued my love over my duty, and I abandoned Konoha for years. If not for Naruto, I might never have come back. I won't allow Ino to repeat my mistakes. If she breaks, I want her to break now, not out in the field, where people will be trusting her with their lives. I have no problem with her confessing to the young Akimichi, Shizune. In the proper time. But first, I have to know that her heart won't come between her and her duty."
Shizune paced back and forth, so agitated that she didn't even soothe Tonton. "Even if that's so," she said, "and I'm not saying I agree with you, don't you think you're just playing with fire as far as the Uchiha boy is concerned? Once the mission is over and Ino tells him the truth, isn't he going to hate you more than ever because you ordered her to trick him?"
Tsunade gave a small smile. "You're seeing the situation from every angle, Shizune. I'm proud of you, even if you're not very proud of me at the moment. Yes, I anticipated the problem with Sasuke. That's why I brought him in first, to talk to him. I told him about the mission to infiltrate Otogakure, and explained about Ino's part in the infiltration. I asked him if he would take part in this mission, and he agreed. All he wants is the chance to prove to Ino that he's changed. Well, that and the chance to be part of the relief team in the field, so he can take an active role in fighting against Orochimaru's minions."
"That doesn't make it any better!" Shizune all but shouted. "He's just going to get his heart broken again!"
"I know," Tsunade said calmly. "I'm counting on it."
Shizune rocked on her heels, completely taken aback. "W-what?" she sputtered.
"Sasuke will eventually discover the truth about his brother," Tsunade said bluntly. "It's impossible that he wouldn't. I want to know – I need to know – if he's just going to react the same way. Some people are naturally evil, Shizune. Orochimaru, for one. No matter how much love he received from the people around him, no matter what positive example he was shown, he craved power too much. I need to discover if Sasuke is that kind of person. Right now he shows much promise. He has faced rejection from Ino, and instead of hating her, he wants to show her that he's truly changed. But what happens when he knows, once and for all, that she will never love him? Will he accept it with grace and dignity? Or will it turn him against her, against us? I need to know this, and I need to know it soon. Otherwise there could be far more at stake than Ino's happiness."
Shizune felt like crying – tears of frustration or anger, she wasn't sure – but she was a shinobi too, and used to hard truths. That didn't mean she had to like it. "We serve at the pleasure of the Hokage," she said tightly, "but I still say this is crueler than anything Morino Ibiki ever came up with."
Tsunade winced slightly, Shizune's words hitting their mark. But she said only, "I've rolled the dice. Now we must wait to see how they fall."