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"They were all lost the moment they pressed their bloodied thumbprints to dusty scrolls and sealed their names away. This is the sacrifice of all shinobi." - Yamanaka Ino and Hyuuga Neji. Sometimes they take the corpses home with them.
* * *
Ino comes home quietly, unobtrusively, and with the smell of blood that is not her own faintly trailing her. She removes her arm guards at the door and lays her gloves attentively along the table. She stands there staring at them for long moments, and then she's moving further into the house, removing her hair-tie, sighing as the long, blonde tresses brush past her shoulders and down her back.
Neji greets her in the threshold of their bedroom.
Ino's eyes shift over his shoulder, unfocused. "Work ran late," she says.
I injected mercury beneath a man's eyeballs and denied him sleep for 72 hours, she doesn't say.
Neji glances at the unblemished gloves by the door, and then back at his wife. "Have you eaten?" he asks.
Ino shakes her head, fingers curling and uncurling.
"Come," he says, motioning for the kitchen. He stills with his hand on an open cupboard door when Ino wraps her arms around his waist and stops him.
"Just…wait," she says, her breath pooling between his shoulder blades.
And Neji waits. He looks down at her fingers laced over his stomach and wonders, not for the first time, if she will ever stop smelling of blood.
Or rather, if it will ever not be familiar between them.
There is nothing tender about the way her hands slip downward, purposeful and intent.
Neji hisses when she dips below the drawstring of his pants, and before he can turn fully to her or breathe a word of concern – because he is concerned, enough that she has him shaking, always has him shaking and in some part of his mind he realizes she has always known this (it's why she can rip answers from enemy nins' throats with the same hands she caresses him with that very night) - she plants her lips at the curve where neck meets shoulder and the axis of his world shifts imperceptibly.
Just enough that his vision goes a shade darker.
* * *
Neji looks down at the dead kunoichi at his feet. She had taken the place of her comrade when Neji's Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms nearly ripped the rogue nin to pieces. The shinobi he intended the attack for is slumped against a tree, unconscious, unaware of his dead lover (lover, Neji supposes, because of the look in her eyes when he had meant to kill the man).
His fellow ANBU Crow wipes his katana on the grass and then stands straight beside Neji. "She might have gotten away if she hadn't stayed for him."
Through the slits in his mask, Neji can see the broken arch of her back, blood trickling from her ears and mouth. "That's why you don't take missions with lovers."
Crow glances at him out of his peripheral, and sure, maybe Neji recognizes the hypocrisy in that statement, because he doesn't stop requesting the Hokage pair him with Ino when he discovers he needs to.
Not when he begins sneaking glances at her bared neck and the flex of her thighs and the vaguely threatening quirk of her lips when she manages to catch him (but she has always seen his stares, and for someone who sees a lot more than she, he still hasn't figured that one out, but then, Ino's always been rather talented at bringing the hidden to light).
And he doesn't request a new partner after that first night he pins her to a tree and presses a thumb along her delicate collar bone in reverent desire, his tongue trailing the motion as he moans into her skin. Nor when she presses herself against him, lips at his throat, hands dipping lower, lower, until –
Not even after that first night he loses himself inside her, one of her hands pressed over his mouth to muffle his groans while her other grips a fistful of his hair.
But the moment he trails his hand after hers in the crowded tea house, eyes downcast, the space between them farther than he's ever known and he's a second away from closing that space – right there in front of everyone – Ino's eyes flicker dangerously and she's abruptly sliding into the seat next to Shikamaru, ignoring his grumbles of there being no more room, and Neji is forced to take the seat across from them.
She does not look at him in the entire time it takes his untouched tea to grow cold.
The next day they are reassigned on Ino's request.
It is only when she comes to him days later, hands cupping his cheeks, brilliant blue eyes unblinking on his, that she tells him, with a fragility to her voice he has never heard before – "The mission will always come first" –
They are married two months later. And maybe this is how he finds himself in love with Yamanaka Ino in the first place.
Because she is right in all the wrong ways, and Neji knows she will hold true to those words.
"The mission will always come first," he says now to Crow, turning from the corpse.
And they will each always come second, he doesn't say.
(Because if it needed saying at all then they wouldn't be shinobi.)
* * *
"You never wear a ring," Ibiki mentions, nodding to her hand while he stands beside her.
Ino looks up at him with a raised brow. "Can't bloody the finery, now can I?"
Ibiki purses his lips, nodding faintly, turning back to the man slouched in the cell before them. "You're good at not bloodying your hands. It's why you're made for this."
Ino doesn't answer, just looks at the captured nin resting unconscious against the bars.
"But I can see how a ring might…get in the way," he says lowly.
She laughs. Abrupt and eerily loud. She shakes with it. "You say it like anything gets in my way." Her hands itch to clasp around her bare fourth finger.
Thing is, Neji never gave her a ring. And maybe it had been that way because he hadn't thought to live long enough to give her one in the first place. And somehow, that still holds true.
She doesn't tell Ibiki how she comes home with her lungs in her throat, senses searching frantically for the sharp tang of his chakra, how she reaches for the door like it is the last time she will ever open it.
(Because she knows – the day he doesn't come home, neither will she, and this she tells to no one. She has worked with secrets long enough to live with one herself.)
Ibiki eyes her thoughtfully. "You could though, you know, if you wanted to. You could wear one."
Ino's mouth clamps tightly shut as she folds her arms across her chest.
No. No, she couldn't.
Don't let the prisoners see a weakness, don't give them a window, don't let them know you can hurt just as well.
And Ibiki knows this, too, but maybe this is his way of giving her an out. An out she will never take, because –
"Like you said, I'm made for this," she answers decidedly, reaching to open the cell door. "And nothing gets in my way."
The captured nin wakes with a scream.
She never asked for a ring anyway.
* * *
"We must take his eyes," Neji says, squatting at the side of the fallen ANBU, a known Hyuuga. His teammates crouch around the corpse similarly. Even with the Hyuuga seal stealing away the Byakugan upon death, Neji has seen too many horrifying experiments, too much desecration of the dead to trust anything but his own hands.
Crow flicks a kunai from his pouch and then stills, the blade glinting in the twilight. Neji looks up at him.
He expects it, really, if he thinks about it; the kunai is flipped, handle held out to him, and in the moment Neji takes the offered steel he also remembers that Hyuuga have always taken care of their own.
Ox slides the cracked and bloodied mask from Dog, their dead comrade.
In the minimal moonlight, Neji recognizes the man – he remembers the way he had served tea, and the way he gracefully closed the shoji doors, and even the way he padded silently down the halls of the Hyuuga abode.
He does not remember his name though. And when the tip of the kunai pierces the edge of his eye, a thin arc of blood branding Neji's chin as he cuts deeper, curling the blade tight along the eye socket, he finds it doesn't matter.
Nameless, all of them. Be it Hyuuga or ANBU. There is no room for remembrance in lives like theirs.
Even still, when he finally makes it home four days later, Neji stalks across the living room floor after slamming the front door closed, startling Ino from her cushioned seat on the couch, and before she can utter a word in greeting his hands are in her hair and his lips are on her mouth and he's pushing her down onto the couch, sinking into her, muffling her sound of surprise with his tongue.
Because his wife has never served him tea in her life, and he doesn't think she'll be starting anytime soon. And because she keeps her doors open, shoji or not, without exception, even when she strides towel-less from the shower into the bedroom. And because she has never stepped lightly, in this house or any another, and maybe these are all the reasons she is not welcomed at the Hyuuga's.
And yet, hers is a name he does remember.
"Ino," he moans into her mouth, already dragging down the waistband of her shorts in a heated rush, his knee already pushing her legs apart.
"Ino, Ino, Ino," he pants against her.
Distantly, Neji wonders who will take his eyes when he is gone.
But he is too distracted by the arch of Ino's back when he bites down on her neck to think too long on it.
* * *
"It's pointless, you know? They'll throw you away in the end." The captured nin splutters blood on the words.
Ino narrows her eyes as she squats down in front on him, the dim light of the interrogation chamber casting slants of shadow across her brilliant, brilliant hair. She does not offer a response.
Eyes shifting upward from his sprawl along the dirt floor, the nin glares at her in something she might have called pity if it wasn't so hard.
(But maybe all pity is hard – empathy is a pretense in this place, anyway.)
"Whatever loyalty you think you owe your village," he explains through a cough, fingers digging into the dirt, "it's pointless. You are nothing to them. Just like I was to mine."
"Then it should be no issue to reveal where you've hidden their scroll," she says calmly, hands stilled in the appropriate sign.
The prisoner flicks watering eyes to her terrifyingly still hands, his labored breathing loud in the room, the scrape of his nails along the dirt ringing in Ino's ears.
(It is always the sounds that follow her home at night, not the screams, but the sounds – the way air chokes beneath blood in a gurgling throat, the way frantic hands scramble through the dirt, the way broken ends of bones grind sickeningly against each other.
She never screams in her nightmares either but oh – the sounds.)
The man chuckles darkly, and she cannot tell whether it is defeat or irony, but his muscles quake all the same and she knows he will not take long under her touch.
"And yet I cannot," he replies, eyes closing, a tremulous breath leaving his chapped lips. "We are both slaves to our respective owners it seems."
Ino draws a deep, even breath through her nostrils, exhales it slowly through parted lips, eyes the man with an indifference that might have terrified him had he kept her gaze.
"My loyalty is not blind, nor is it singular." Before her mind, pale eyes flash.
The wounded nin blinks blearily up at her, breath catching in his throat.
Ino's hair spills over her shoulders as she rises to her feet, the only brightness in the dim room, her hands still poised mid-sign. "And we are done here." She forms the release with her palms, and the man doubles over, screaming, hands clenching at his stomach.
He is still screaming when she walks from the cell unperturbed.
Later, when she is poking her chopsticks through her bowl of ramen, Ibiki slides into the seat next to her. "Yamanaka."
"I haven't been that for a while now, Ibiki." She throws a disinterested brow his way.
"Ino," he amends, and somehow that is worse and she doesn't know why.
She swallows thickly and turns back to her food.
"What that nin said…" he begins.
She sighs, pushing her bowl away. "That's what fear does, makes philosophers out of all of us." She rests her hands on her lap and doesn't take notice of their shaking. "Preachers even."
Ibiki stays silent beside her.
And suddenly, she is angry. Spiteful. Her heart rages against her ribs. "What utter bullshit," she spits, pushing from the table.
Ibiki watches her stalk away, her bowl of ramen still steaming on the table.
There are still no screams in her nightmares that night, though maybe there should be.
* * *
Neji does not tell Ino she is pregnant.
It has never been offensive in their house for him to use his Byakugan within its walls. She has never chastised him like the Hyuuga have, nor even seen the indecency in it. There is comfort in that knowledge he does not question, even when his Byakugan shows him things he'd rather not see.
Because this…he'd rather not see.
He had seen the first three as well, before she miscarried, and he had named them all, buried them all, loved them all – infinitely and without remorse – even when he curled his arms around the trembling form of his wife as they laid in her barren hospital bed and he whispered "I'm sorry" over and over and over as though it meant something.
As though children were promises they simply forgot to keep and not wishes they'd never meant to make.
(Such wishes are considered curses beneath the weight of the Hyuuga seal.)
Ino is at the sink when he comes up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair, that brilliant, golden hair, that hair he wonders if his children might have had, should he have been allowed to keep them, and the thought makes him hold her that much tighter.
"Neji," she breathes in question, though his name has never been a question on her lips, only a sureness, only a firm understanding.
Only ever a statement, a demand, a certainty.
(It is the only certain thing between them – from seals to missions to miscarriages – his name on her lips is the only sure thing either of them know.)
"I have to leave in the morning," he says.
I want to stay, he doesn't say.
But maybe Ino knows anyway, because she drops the rag in her hand and tries to turn – tries, but fails, because Neji holds her steady against the counter, his grip almost painful.
"Neji," she says again, this time firmer, pushing back only to be met with his hips pinning her back against the sink, his desire apparent. She sucks a breath between her clenched teeth.
"No," he breathes against her neck, a heady exhale that has her arching against him as he peels her hair back from her neck with purposeful fingers.
But Ino is not used to being told no, and when she moves to push back again, Neji winds his arms from around her waist and traps her hands against the counter instead. "I said 'no'," he growls into her skin, moaning at the resulting tremble that rocks her.
His hands are already pushing up her skirt and when he finally sinks inside her heat, rocking into her with a heady need, her fingers gripping the sink, her head thrown back as she pants beneath his touch – Neji realizes this is her need as much as it is his
Perhaps even their punishment, too. Their punishment for ever thinking of lives beyond shinobi and duty and sacrifice.
And maybe, if he pushes hard enough, if he grips her tighter, if he drowns his sob in the taste of her skin, they will be able to remember why they chose their village over each other.
Neji does not tell Ino she is pregnant.
But more than that, he does not tell her how he wishes she wasn't.
* * *
Ino discovers the truth herself several days later while Neji is out on mission. She leaves Sakura's office with a hand over her stomach, waving off her friend's concern. She walks the way back to their home by herself, greeting Choji as she passes him, even Kiba and Akamaru when they stop mid-wave, catching her different yet familiar scent on the wind (she doesn't get into the why just yet).
She has done this before, and each time she has regretted it.
She imagines this time will be no different.
Ino crawls into bed and lies there staring at the ceiling until night falls. Until she can hear the rustle of branches just outside her darkened window. Until the gentle slide of their opening bedroom door makes her stir against the sheets and her husband's chakra is suddenly sour and jagged in the room.
Until her mouth is ripe with unspokens and Neji comes to her on a sigh.
"I'm home," he says, and she doesn't need him to say it, because she can smell the mud on his shoes and see the tear in his flak jacket and even in this cold, cold room, she can feel the heat of his calloused palms when they reach for her.
Ino grabs him by the collar and pulls him down, shifting on the bed until she is crouching over him, her features sharpened into something familiarly like anger (that she doesn't understand) and then she's trembling, fits curling into the material of his jacket and when he lights his hands comfortingly along her shoulders she finally shudders with her first sob.
"I'm home," he says again, "and I'm sorry."
Relief that tastes dangerously like dread washes over her tongue. Her jaw tightens over her words, her body sinking down until she is pressing her forehead into his chest and expelling a shaky breath between the clenched fists that hold him beneath her.
"I'm sorry." This time a pained, ragged exhale.
"Shut up," she whispers against him, swallowing tightly.
Neji slips a hand tenderly into her hair.
"You should have told me." She doesn't think it needs mentioning exactly what he should have told her, because it's apparent anyway. It's blaringly obvious. It's how he doesn't reach for her waist or pull her fists from his jacket or do anything really but press his lips to the crown of her head and let her shake above him.
"You would want to keep it," he answers without censure.
Ino lifts her head up then, and if he can see the tears lining the corners of her eyes he doesn't say anything (maybe this is how she finds herself in love with Hyuuga Neji in the first place). "I would," she affirms, eyes steady.
They stare at each other in the near dark for long moments. Long enough for Ino to remember the pain of each previous miscarriage, and long enough for her to remember the disgusting relief she wouldn't admit to feeling when they happened.
Because any child born to them would still be sealed, and they have given enough of themselves for this village, for their clans.
Laughingly, and even a little bit desperately, Ino had once asked Neji to run away with her, to just leave, to just –
Their clans, their duty, their lives as shinobi.
But then Konoha had been threatened, as it always is, and Ino had rushed to the front lines before she could get her answer, aborting the idea before it could even take root.
She had been pregnant then, too, and when she awoke in the hospital, Sakura had told her it was a miracle all she lost was the baby (the baby she hadn't even known about and here – here is where Ino begins to crack).
"I would keep it if I could," she says honestly. More honest than she's been in a long, long time, and Neji's palm at her cheek reminds her that he sees all.
Even her lies.
"I know," he breathes lowly. "I always have."
Ino's face sharpens back into the (un)familiar anger. "Shut up," she repeats, leaning back slightly, steadying herself as she straddles him atop the bed. She stares down at him and watches the flicker of something painful cross his moonlit eyes. "Shut up." This time a croak, a plea. And then she is lowering back down, slanting her lips over his and releasing his jacket to smooth her hands down his chest.
"I'm sorry," Neji offers against her mouth, trembling.
She is as well, both sorry and trembling.
So utterly sorry she has no words for it. Nothing but her mouth on his and the faint hope that when she wakes in the morning he will still be there, still be –
(Because if there is anything in this world she can keep, she hopes it to be him, at the very least.)
* * *
They meet Hinata in the street on their way to the training grounds where Lee and Tenten are waiting. It is the first he has seen her since Hanabi's induction as the Head of House.
Hinata stumbles to a halt before them, smile going wide, and Neji feels his chest tighten, though not uncomfortably. Hinata places an affectionate hand on his arm and he covers it with his own, fingers squeezing tight.
"It's good to see you, Neji." Her smile does not waver, even when she retracts her hand and they are once again three feet apart.
Always, three feet apart.
(The Hyuuga have never been a family so much as they've been a household and it is ingrained in each of their bones deep enough to always be thus, even when their hearts know better.)
"Hello, Hinata," Ino says warmly, and maybe it hadn't always been 'warmly', but in loving Neji, Ino has learned to love more than him, and the way Hinata inclines her head in Ino's direction tells the blonde kunoichi that it is mutual, if not even a bit welcomed.
They welcome a lot more than they say, really, but there is always – still –
Three feet between them.
Neji's jaw tightens minutely, and if Ino hadn't been utterly and intimately familiar with every insignificant flex of his skin, it might have gone unnoticed.
But he knows his wife better than to believe that.
"You should come to dinner tomorrow night," Hinata offers, adjusting the bags in her arms.
"The Hokage's not too busy for the little people?" Ino asks teasingly.
Neji nudges her for her impropriety but she only nudges back, exaggeratedly, and Hinata giggles in response, and maybe, just maybe –
Neji thinks this is what family means.
Hinata pulls away the hand that had hidden her giggle and smiles in response. "I'm sure Naruto misses you as well."
There is a moment between the three that is the calmest Neji has known in a long, long time, but then Hinata is brushing her bangs aside as she sighs beneath the sweltering sun and then there – there – the taunting green of the Hyuuga's seal peeks out beneath the dark strands.
Neji goes rigid with remembrance. Ino's hand winds around his elbow and begins to pull.
"Well, we'll see you tomorrow then. You should get out of this heat, Hinata," Ino urges. And then they are away, and the last thing Neji sees is Hinata's hand settling along her rounded belly and Neji thinks he might be sick, right then and there.
It's not until they are several blocks away when Ino stops them, turning Neji to face her, her hands gripping his shoulders with a fervency that is all too familiar.
"Hey," she says. "Hey, hey, look at me."
He does. He always does. He has not stopped looking at her since the first moment she had touched her lips to his forehead and whispered her affection into his skin.
"It will not be the same for them," she tells him, near shaking him.
He nods at her, but she doesn't seem to believe it, because she grips him tighter.
"It will not be the same for us," she breathes determinedly.
But his own seal burns beneath his hitai-ate, and in the time between her desperately grabbing his hand and then resting it along her barely visible stomach, somewhere in the back of his mind Neji remembers that the Hyuuga have always been a household.
Not a family.
* * *
Ino drops the file down on Shikamaru's desk, not without a certain amount of contempt. "There's your information," she sneers, and maybe if she were a better person, she would feel guilty for it.
But then, if she were a better person, she wouldn't be here at all, and that in itself is all she needs to release some of that righteous indignation into her taut shoulders. She pulls them further back – "spine straight, chin high, you're a Hyuuga now" (it's not so different from being a Yamanaka she realizes, except perhaps how tightly they shut their doors) .
Shikamaru lets out a pained sigh, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.
She can't blame him for Choji, she knows this. She blames the captured nin bleeding out in the cell she left him in. But it was still Shikamaru's signature on the mission scroll, still his hand that sent their teammate to his death. And in the end, it is easier to hate Shikamaru than it is to grieve Choji because that means grieving more than just Choji and she – she isn't ready for that.
May never be, really.
Ino can handle the anger. She can handle the job. This is the pledge she made to her village all those years ago.
And Ino is a kunoichi of her word.
Shikamaru seems to give up from the start, because all he does is open the folder and raise a single disinterested brow up at her (the tight line of his mouth gives him away anyway and somewhere inside it softens Ino, if only a little). "That was fast," he says, as though not really expecting an answer.
She has one anyway, always does. "It's called Torture and Interrogation for a reason, sir. We don't sit around painting each other's nails down there."
His fingers skim over the photograph in the file, evidence of her questioning. "No, you don't," he agrees quietly, his fingers retreating back over the edge of the table where they fold over his lap. His eyes flick to her nails anyway, maybe in sarcasm (it is his greatest shield, afterall), or maybe in some kind of reassurance because really, you never know with Ino and yet, her nails are still pristine.
A brilliant, dangerous red. Not a chip in sight.
She always has been quite adept at keeping her hands clean.
(They, neither of them, were ever very clean though.)
"I hope it was worth it," she nearly spits, eyebrows rising like a challenge.
Shikamaru pushes from his seat. "It will be."
Ino narrows her eyes, arms crossing over her chest. "It better be, for Choji's sake. You can tell the Hokage I said that."
"Naruto didn't send him on that mission. I did."
Ino grips her arms tighter. "Stop, Shikamaru, before I really begin to regret it."
Bracing his hands along the table, he leans forward, his face a passive mask. "I sent him, Ino."
Gritting her teeth, Ino takes a step forward, finger jutting in the air toward him. It's this air between them, this stale, heavy air. She's choking on it. Drowning.
Her lungs are sodden with it, so that every breath is like a hook in her throat.
"Fuck you, Shikamaru," she grinds out, not even noticing the wetness dotting her eyes. "Don't you fucking dare – "
"And you'd have done the same thing," he says surely. As though it is without question. Because he has always known her a little more than she'd have liked though neither of them have ever admitted to it.
It's enough to still her, for her hand to drop limply back to her side, for her to suck a sharp breath through her clenched teeth.
If she looked hard enough, she'd see the regret behind his eyes, but she isn't too keen on looking right now. Not now.
Maybe not ever.
(They'd brought Choji back in pieces and she hasn't been to the cemetery since.)
"We do the things that others won't, Ino. The things that must be done." He closes the folder slowly, the whisper of its pages like a death knell to her. "You know this even better than I."
It's true – it's all true, it's inherent, it's second-hand, it's in her fucking bones, her fucking skin. It's her, inside and out and down into those deep, deep dungeons where her hands rip screams and information from shinobi just as honorable and loyal as she. Just as true as she.
But this is her village, and not theirs, and in the back of her mind she knows that doesn't make it right but it is. It is right.
Because if it was wrong then that changes everything.
She turns to leave, because she cannot stay here.
"Your husband's been added to the mission's docket," he calls out behind her.
Ino stills, her hand on the doorknob. Part of her knows he isn't allowed to tell her this, and yet, he tells her anyway. Because this is Nara Shikamaru. And Nara Shikamaru will always be her teammate, her friend.
Even when she hates him for it.
"Neji is strong. He'll be fine." Her hand tightens on the doorknob and she hears Shikamaru slump back in his chair behind her. "But more than that, he knows that the mission always comes first."
She doesn't wait for his answer.
His whisper of "I'm sorry" doesn't make it past the closing door behind her and she will never know how much he means it.
* * *
They break his hands.
And while the saying goes that there cannot be a Hyuuga without eyes there also cannot be a Gentle Fist without hands.
Ox is already dead, and Neji promises to return for his body but at the moment it takes all of him not to black out from the pain as he rushes from branch to branch back toward Konoha.
The mission is compromised. Crow has already returned to the village with the stolen scroll while he and Ox were to eliminate the nin following them. If Crow doesn't make it back with help in time…
There are only two left, though two is all that may be needed.
Suddenly, he thinks of his wife. His sharp-tongued, sharp-edged wife. His golden hair wife. Perhaps he is getting too sentimental as the years go on. Or maybe it is just the fear. The branding, pungent fear that this is it for them. A failed mission and not even a body to bring home to her.
She is tired of burying comrades anyway, he knows this.
He never thought to have her bury him.
In a way, he is a fool. They knew this from the beginning. They always knew this, since that night he made his vows to her with only Hinata and Choji as their witnesses, his hands gripping hers so tightly he thought he might never have let go.
(He lets go every morning though, when he trails his hands along her naked back and leaves in the grey hours of sunrise while she is still sleeping and even still –
"The mission will always come first".)
The two nin corner him in a clearing.
In the end, it is finished with his thighs snapping one's neck between their hold, and the other bleeding out when he plunges a kunai deep into the man's throat with his teeth. Neji lays there for several long minutes slumped over the body, his vision inking black with the pain and exhaustion, his mouth bloodied with another man's ruin. It is sour on his tongue like he has never tasted before and belatedly, he recognizes the ache of a punctured lung.
But he cannot pull the kunai from his chest with these broken hands of his and just before he blacks out entirely he thinks he sees Crow at the edge of the clearing and somehow he manages a gurgling chuckle.
He would have liked to thread his fingers through her hair, just one last time.
The image of her is stained to the backs of his eyelids, so that even in the dark, she is there.
* * *
Ino already knows that it is a lost cause. The moment she steps into the hall of holding cells, she is resigned to it. She has word that her husband is already dead, or at the least, very nearly dead, and all there is to show is a stolen scroll and a captured informant, one she had tortured days ago for the very information that got Neji into this mess in the first place.
She storms in anyway, and perhaps this is the mistake that brings the end.
Because there is nothing in her eyes but doubt and regret and the fierce salt-sting of tears she isn't familiar with, not when she grabs the nin by the collar, yanking him to her, and not when she stares into his glazed over eyes. Definitely not when she feels the first shudder overtake her body.
"You," she manages through clenched teeth. She cannot manage any more. Because words have failed her, just like her village has, and how dare they fail her on the same damn day because this is not – this is not what she signed up for.
Somewhere in the back of her mind Ino remembers the sharp curve of her father's back when he had sunk to his knees and cried, his face in his hands, and she had stood there at the end of the hallway, watching him, this man who was quiet love incarnate, this man who was twice her size and infinite times her experience (she was eight, academy-bright and Sasuke-blinded), and she remembers wondering what that stark copper scent was when she had wound her hands through his damp hair and held his wailing form to her chest until suddenly –
It comes to her, years later, when the crimson stain of blood is lodged permanently beneath her fingernails (a brilliant, dangerous red, no chip in sight).
It doesn't matter for what he cried, for what he mourned. They were all lost the moment they pressed their bloodied thumbprints to dusty scrolls and sealed their names away.
This is the sacrifice of all shinobi.
And this is exactly what she signed up for.
Ino curls her fist tighter, knuckles pressing into the nin's throat. He is but a common, nondescript man, so generic she will not remember him years from now. She will not even remember how he had slipped through her hold, though she suspects it has to do with the sheen of tears over her eyes and the thundering rage of her heart that blinds her (they always told her that temper of hers would be her downfall and oh, how they were right).
What Ino does remember though, is the blinding pain in her gut when she looks down and finds two of his fingers jabbed between her tenth and eleventh right rib, the bones shattering in her abdomen. And she should have sensed his surge in chakra, she should have felt out that last vestige of resistance in the far reaches of his mind, she should have never let her guard down, she should have seen it fucking coming.
She should have done a lot of things (like love her husband as a wife and not a shinobi, but she already made that choice years ago).
What she does instead is choke on the air in her lungs, a cloud of blood spraying past her lips on a jagged cough. Her vision inks black for a single, terrifying second and distantly she can hear the man's faintly resigned chuckle, her chakra flaring tightly to regain some semblance of control. Just as he twists his hand, chakra lancing into her stomach when his fingers curl between her broken ribs, bits of marrow digging into her organs, she rushes him back under the veil of adrenaline, slamming him into the cell wall with a roar of unimaginable pain. His head bounces back against the concrete, his fingers dislodging from her gut and in the same time that he begins to form a hand sign Ino is already grasping his chin in one hand, the other at the back of his neck, and then she is yanking with all the force she can, a sickening crack resounding through the empty room, his neck snapping so cleanly the bones are already pressing against the skin at a nauseatingly sharp angle, and she –
She is slumping to the floor after his body slides down the wall. It is a lost cause afterall, she thinks, as she settles a hand on her aching stomach, doubling over as she coughs into the dirt.
The mistake that brings the end.
Her unborn is already trickling down between her thighs, the seat of her skirt soaked in blood.
This is how they find her when she finally loses consciousness.
This is also how they lose her.
* * *
Neji wakes two days later. He doesn't question how he still lives. He doesn't question how long he has been unconscious. He doesn't even question the presence of his sleeping wife at his bedside, though he should probably question her hospital gown (he doesn't still, he can't, he won't, because he already knows what it means – he's done this scene before, after all).
He takes a moment to stare at her, the grey light of early dawn blanketing the room so that her golden head of hair isn't gleaming, isn't brilliant. It's just an unremarkable blonde, nearly ash-like in this failing light.
He realizes he has never loved her so much as in this moment.
Ino stirs awake, because maybe she has sensed, even in her sleep, that he is awake himself, that she is tied to him like that, cognizant of him, ever-lingering in each other's wakes so that when one is conscious, so is the other. So that when one is hurt, so is the other.
So that when one is needfully and painfully in love, so is the other.
At least, this is what Neji likes to think, because it is too disheartening to think otherwise and he has already decided (in this half-state of pain and dream and reality) that if he does not love recklessly then it isn't worth loving in the first place.
When she blinks her eyes open to stare into his moon-pale gaze, he is sure there is no other woman in the land who could bring him to such reckless love.
"I'm home," he croaks in a voice too long unused.
And then her face is crumbling, her hands moving to cover her eyes as the first tears come. She doesn't have to tell him how she got into that hospital gown in the first place, how she snuck from her room into his in the night, how she has spent the last hours grieving this alone. She doesn't have to tell him anything.
"And I'm sorry," he says, voice still rough.
It is the constant between them it seems.
"I'm home" –
She is still sitting with her face in her hands. A single ragged breath breaks from her and presses against her palms. "Do you love me?" she whispers.
"Yes," he answers without thought, because it needs no thought. It simply is.
Neji loves Ino, as surely as he knows she loves him, and when he watches the shake of her shoulders and the soft curve of her back as she hunches over in her sobs, Neji realizes it may even be a little more.
A little more than surely. A little more than love.
Ino takes a labored breath in and lowers her hands, curling them into fists along her knees. "Good," she says, almost a laugh (almost, if not for the soft touch of delirium beneath her breath). "It helps." A grateful smile passes her lips, and then a steady calm seems to overtake her, her hands curling over her knees as she reigns in her breathing.
They sit staring at each other beneath the weight of their quiet tears, and for a moment Neji wants to reach out to her and usher her into the bed beside him, if only to have her closer. But then he is looking down at his broken and bandaged hands, this reminder of the life he chose.
The life they chose.
And before he can say anything she is already rising to leave.
He thinks he knows what he should say, or what he wants to say, but none of the words come. Nothing comes but bitterness and grief. It tastes like another man's blood on his tongue and suddenly, Neji realizes it will always taste like that.
"The Hokage has already summoned me hours ago, Neji." Her back stays resolutely to him.
Neji swallows tightly, the bile already rising in his throat – that rank regret, that fucking regret, the knowledge that somewhere, someone, maybe even themselves, had well and truly fucked up.
So he says the only thing he can. "Stay."
He watches Ino's shoulders slump slowly, before she is turning back to him, walking to him, bracing her hands on either side of his face and kissing him.
Kissing him and kissing him and killing him.
She pulls back a touch, a heavy pant on her lips, on his. She leans her forehead against his and holds it there, her thumbs grazing over his cheeks. "I love you, too, Neji," she says.
I can't, she doesn't say.
But then, most things don't need saying between them.
Because Ino still smells like blood. Because the axis of Neji's world is still shifted.
And because he knows, when she leaves him in that desolate hospital room, and when he watches her go with the quiet understanding that all shinobi possess – they will carry this grief with them wherever they go.
They will always love with carrion hearts.