Rating: T
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. Quotes between line brackets credited to Anne Danielewski, a.k.a. Poe, unless otherwise noted.
World: Modern Supernatural AU
Notes: Book Two of the Haunted series (Book One is forthcoming). This takes place a couple months before the events of Abyss (Book Three). It's not necessary to have read that fic to understand this or vice versa, but they do reference and build upon each other a lot, so I highly recommend them both to pick up on every twist and turn I include herein. I've classified Hidan and Ino as a "pairing" here, but this isn't a traditional romance due to the nature of Hidan's character as I interpret him (i.e., a largely aromantic psychopath). I wanted to portray a Joker/Harley or Hannibal/Clarice type of relationship, and these two are the absolute best bet for that if you ask me. As in Abyss,not everything will have a resolution. That's what makes horror, well, horror. You're not supposed to understand how or why everything happens the way it does. Enjoy!

Hear no evil.

"Sometimes I'm terrified of my heart;
Of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants.
The way it stops and starts." - Edgar Allan Poe

Narcissus, blinded by his own vanity, fell in love with the Other in the water with a face as beautiful as his.

But Narcissus was naïve to think himself so solitary, so safeguarded and self-guarded in a liminal cradle between fantasy and fright. Blind to the shadow that had followed him Wherever this was, never leaving his side. Loving him.

Hating him.

"Stay with me forever," Narcissus prayed.

"Forever," the Other said, its lips moving in the refracted sunlight, singing.

Among still leaves, in dark, empty places, In and Around and Nowhere at all. Unseen, not even heard. Kissing unwilling ears. Jealous kisses, starved for something she's never tasted. Never would taste. If only he'd turn and look.

If only he'd turn.



This voice is alive.

Her hands were cold.

Freezing, actually. It was barely May and the AC was determined to convert the law offices of Morino & Mitarashi, LLP into the arctic Ninth Circle of Hell. Ino Yamanaka rubbed her hands together, cursing the absurdity of Big Law. The partners had gotten rid of the paper cup dispenser and even put a paper quota on the first- and second-year associates in an effort to cut "frivolous" costs. Ino would have liked to meet whatever hair-splitting accountant had deemed straight-jacketing the junior associates a more pressing concern than the exorbitant electricity bill the firm paid every month because fans were somehow unprofessional.

If not for the fact that that she was on the forty-seventh floor of a skyscraper in Midtown Konoha, Ino would have been tempted to open a window and let in that sweet, almost-summer breeze, pollution and car horns and all. A skirt had been a poor choice this morning. Her three cubicle walls sneered at her with their multi-colored post-its and obnoxiously nostalgic grad school pictures. Happier times. Even the dreaded 1L spring semester sparkled in comparison to Right Now. Ino made a note to invest in more pantsuits to brave the forthcoming frigid summer.

A heavy weight descended upon her from the divine fluorescent lights above, warm and perfumed with men's aftershave. Ino sighed in wanton contentment, and if it wouldn't have been unprofessional, she may have sprawled out in her swivel chair. A dark shadow loomed over her, unimpressed and unmoved by the dramatics.

"Your shivering was getting louder, if you were wondering. I've read the same Indemnity Clause four and a half times over in the last ten minutes because of you."

Ino reached up to her haloed savior, squinting past the glare of the overhead lighting. "Shino, you're a lifesaver. Have I told you that lately?"

"No." He paused, grey eyes uncertain for just a moment. "Don't let them see you with that or it's both our heads."

Ino straightened up in her chair and draped Shino's winter coat, which he kept in his gym locker downstairs all year round in case of freak snowstorms or maybe an apocalypse to which no one but he was privy, over her legs and wheeled closer to her desk so it wasn't visible from behind. "Oh, we can't have that."

She winked at him, but Shino merely sighed and trudged back to his cubicle across from Ino's. Waiting until she heard him settle in, she tapped the wall dividing them and held a bag of chocolate-covered raisins over it.


"I know you've been stealing them. Go ahead. I brought extra. Think of it as brain food."

There was a pause as Ino's arm began to tingle with blood loss the longer she kept it elevated, but eventually Shino took the bag from her, grumbling unintelligibly. Ino smiled to herself. Perhaps she never would have befriended Shino under normal circumstances. Their personalities clashed like untuned piano keys. Shino was an excellent pianist, by the way. He'd played for the whole firm at last year's holiday party, earning him a slap on the back from Anko Mitarashi, one of the named partners, and a "That was fucking romantic" that left Shino possibly more embarrassed than he'd been before having to disclose this private talent to a roomful of people cutting his monthly checks.

The point, of course, was that Ino decided she could trust Shino Aburame. If not for his fucking romantic piano playing, then for the way he blushed when she offered to proof his contract edits the next day (Saturday, there's no rest for the wicked or the romantic, it seemed). The Jew fro helped, especially when he wore sunglasses with his suit (severely frowned upon by Ibiki Morino, the other named partner and Shino and Ino's boss). Everyone needs an ally in the cutthroat world of corporate Big Law. You never know when you'll want a parka in the middle of summer.

Ino yawned and checked the clock. 7:28 PM on a Thursday. A redlined financial contract sat forty-something pages deep on her desk, its words bleeding with angry slashes that pooled in the margins. She was only on page seven, never mind that Ibiki had given her this new project only an hour ago.

"I'm meeting with the client tomorrow morning at 9," he'd said.

Good thing Ino kept a toiletries kit and change of clothes at the office. Armed with pen and laptop, Ino settled in for another sleepless night and sizeable paycheck due to her tomorrow afternoon. The light at the end of the tunnel, meager as it was.

"Yamanaka! Aburame!"

Ino nearly fell out of her chair in surprise and scrambled to stand. Her heel caught on a fold in Shino's jacket, which did not help matters. Frantic, she shoved Shino's coat into the wastebasket under her desk. There would be time to apologize later for the whiteout stains it would accumulate from an exploded tube of the stuff she'd thrown out earlier.

Shino stood up, equally frazzled and, quite possibly, annoyed at having now read that damned Indemnity Clause a sixth time over. But he kept his mouth shut about that.

Anko stopped and peered between the two of them, sizing them up. For as long as Ino had known the woman, Anko had always seemed like she was looking for an excuse to punch someone. Anyone, really, didn't matter who they were. It served her purposes as the firm's head of litigation. The third year associates liked to joke that there was no need for witness prep when Anko could mangle just about any jury in cross-examination. What was that about justice being blind?


Ino was about to ask what Anko needed when she saw that Anko wasn't alone.

"Sasuke?" she blurted out.

Sasuke Uchiha trailed Anko looking like he was in for a long night himself. He was getting no special treatment at the Konoha Police Department, and as one of the youngest detectives in homicide he frequently had to pick up the grunt work more experienced officers thought beneath them. No one liked the stink of nepotism, but it was no secret that Fugaku, the police commissioner and Sasuke's father, encouraged his officers not to go lightly on either Sasuke or his elder brother, Itachi.

Still, even though the firm occasionally hosted visits from the KPD, it was rare to get one after hours and from a younger officer, no less.

"Hey," he said to Ino, and she spared him a wan smile. He looked a bit haggard.

"All right, I'll put this nice and slow for you two," Anko said, interrupting before Sasuke could say anything. "Basically, the economy's shitty and I'm short on lackeys. Uh, I mean talent." She waved a hand in front of her face as though swatting imaginary mosquitos.

Ino and Shino shared a glance, already dreading where this was going.

"My esteemed partner's got a bug up his ass about keeping up our five percent pro bono hours donations, though, so here we are. C'mon, both of you."

Anko took off toward her corner office on the opposite side of the floor from the corporate cubicles. Sasuke nodded at Shino and Ino and trailed after Anko. With no other choice (and biting back a groan), Ino and Shino obeyed. It was almost painful leaving behind the work, knowing it would still be there when they got back, whenever that was.

Sasuke had a videotape for them.

"The KPD and the District Court appreciate you for taking the case," Sasuke began.

"Just cut to the chase, Detective," Anko said. "Business hours are over, and I've filtered enough BS for one day. On with it."

Ino wanted to smirk, but refrained when she saw how Sasuke didn't react to Anko's manner. Something was off. It wasn't like him.

"To give you the short version, we apprehended a notorious member of a local crime syndicate, the Red Clouds: Hidan Sugimura, also known as 'The Reaper', if that rings any bells."

"The one who mutilates himself in the same fashion as his victims," Shino said.

"That's the one."

Ino shivered. Hidan was a high-profile criminal who'd been publicly active for about a year. If the newspapers were to be believed, he was suspected of eleven killings, brutal murders that even the TV stations had been hesitant to broadcast for viewer discretion concerns. A bona fide serial killer whom most thought insane due to the religious touchstone of his ritualistic killings, like it all served a purpose. A living nightmare if ever there was one.

"We caught him, and the State's Attorney's built a solid case against him," Sasuke continued.

"And you want us to defend him," Anko finished.

Ino swallowed, and even Shino looked a bit paler than he usually did.

"Everyone has a right to legal representation, unfortunately," Sasuke said.

"They do," Anko said. "But why us? Hiashi Hyuuga's not gonna want to jeopardize his case and, well, we're the best defense firm in town."

"Hidan doesn't have the means to pay for representation, and even if he did he's refusing it outright. Something about all lawyers doing the devil's work. I think there's an allegory in there somewhere." At this, Sasuke did smirk.

Ino snorted at that, and all eyes turned to her. "Hey, these snakes are the only ones standing up for the wrongfully accused, that's all I'm saying."

Anko grinned. "Exactly. Detective, do you know Hyuuga's record for prosecuting innocent defendants? It'll make even your father blush."

"I can't say I do, but I'll take your word for it. Hidan's guilty, though. Sorry to have to recruit you for a losing case."

"Semantics," Anko said. "We'll let the court decide in all its blind justice."

Sasuke fiddled with the television to set up the recording he'd brought with him. "I'm going to warn you all that this footage is a little disturbing. Hidan's being held in a maximum-security sanatorium downtown. His court-appointed attorney oversaw this interrogation."

"What happened to him? The appointed attorney, I mean," Shino asked.

Sasuke spared Shino a glance askance. "He quit. Said you couldn't pay him enough to continue the case. Not that he was getting paid at all. Well, here we are."

Ino listened to the conversation in silence, her heart rate accelerating. Not out of fear, but anticipation. There was something about the criminal mind that drew all lawyers regardless of their specialty, some Otherness about the social and moral deviant that both repelled and fascinated. Perhaps it was a desire to deconstruct people and their motivations piece by puzzle piece, the way she did every day with multi-million dollar contracts, looking for the holes and figuring out how best to fill them. Some holes, however, were too deep to fill. Endless fissures in the soul that stretched to hallowed hollows unseen and unknown. What was it about the Abyss that called to the curious observer to take that last step over the edge, if only to better hear its siren's song {echo}ing down and down along obliterating, obliviating walls?

The TV screen crackled with static and buzzed to life. Shino leaned forward on his knees to get a better look. The screen showed a gray room with a stainless steel table taking up the center. A man in orange prison scrubs sat at the far end, looking down at the table as though asleep or drunk. His silver hair was slicked back like a greaser's, which may have given him a cool look if not for the yellowing effect of the scrubs. A voice off-camera spoke.

"This is Lieutenant Itachi Uchiha for the KPD Homicide Unit. The date is April 29, 2014, 2:37 PM. The accused is Hidan Sugimura, known also by his alias, 'The Reaper'. Counsel for the accused is present, and the accused has been read his Miranda Rights. Please state your name for the record, counsel."

"Seiji Yamaguchi, defense counsel," another voice said.

Ino stole a glance at Sasuke, understanding now why he'd looked so uneasy before. Itachi was a well-respected officer in the KPD, but something had gone awry with this case. She could almost taste her curiosity now.

"Hidan, I'll be asking you some questions about your involvement in the Jashin Murders—"

"Killings," Seiji interrupted. "Let's save any legal liability for a court of law, Lieutenant."

"My mistake. I'll rephrase," Itachi said. "Hidan, with regards to the Jashin Killings, can you tell me about the ritual you used?"

Hidan said nothing. He didn't even move. It was as though he really was asleep. Itachi tried again.

"This symbol."

Itachi fiddled with some papers off-camera and pushed a photograph toward Hidan. The camera angle wasn't quite right, but Ino could make out a lumpy mess of human body meat with a red symbol drawn upon the flesh, a triangle inscribed within a circle.

"What does it mean?"

Still no answer. Itachi sighed.

"Your silence won't help your case."

"Mr. Sugimura, as your counsel I'll remind you of your constitutional right to remain silent as to all of Lieutenant Uchiha's questions."

A clinking sound, metal on metal, sharp and cold, made Ino's skin crawl. Hidan shifted and looked up at the camera. His hands were bound in the thickest shackles Ino had ever seen and chained to the table. Hidan was known not just for his violent piety, but also for his clownish joviality in the commission of crimes. Witnesses reported inhuman cackling, something reaching almost Joker-level proportions. Ino thought that was a good way to think of Hidan. He was so disturbingly 'Other' that he seemed more the product of an overactive comic book imagination than a living person plaguing the streets of Konoha. Well, not anymore. The orange did little to diminish that aura of something around him, though.

"Who the fuck're you?" Hidan asked, frowning.

There was a pause as Seiji gathered his thoughts. "Your attorney, like I said. I'm here to ensure you get a fair trial, Mr. Sugimura."

Hidan chuckled, low and faint. "You know what I hate about your lawyers? You try to be everyone's friend. You sneak up nice and close and then you rob 'em for everything they got. Goddamned misers, every last one of you. Heh, and they call me a criminal."

"Mr. Sugimura, I'm confident that we can build a strong case in your favor. I'm not here to rob anyone—"

"Cut the crap you fuckin' pussyfoot. The name's Hidan, not Mr. Sugimura, and you're pissin' me off."


"Counsel, I'd like to continue the interrogation if you don't mind," Itachi said.

"Of course, please continue."

Now that Hidan was talking, Itachi jumped right back into his questions. "Why don't you tell me about Jashin. He's your god?"

Hidan chuckled again and shook his head, muttering under his breath.

"I didn't catch that," Itachi said.

Hidan gave the camera a dirty look but said nothing further. He shifted his hands again, and the chains that bound him scraped against the table, grating. Undeterred, Itachi tried again.

"This Jashin, you claim that he grants you immortality in exchange for tribute. Why?"

Still nothing, but Hidan scratched the back of his head hard enough to mess up his hair. Ino thought he might draw blood if he kept it up. The scrip-scrape of Hidan's chains sent stinging waves down her spine, and she rubbed her hands together for a distraction.

For all his patience, Itachi was starting to burn his fuse. "Hidan, you know there's no such thing as immortality. We are born, and then we die. It's a fate everyone shares, even you. Killing innocent people won't change that."

"How d'you know if you haven't even tried it, pretty boy?" Hidan shot back.

Itachi did not miss a beat. "I've killed people before in the line of duty. And yet, I'm still mortal and subject to nature's whims."

Hidan sighed loudly and attempted to rub his temples, but it was an awkward maneuver reminiscent of a child making a silly face with the handcuffs inhibiting his range of motion. "It's because you're a heathen. Not everyone gets chosen."

"Lieutenant, perhaps we should take a short recess. This line of questioning is deviating from the State Attorney's case—"

Itachi ignored Seiji. "Even so, faith has nothing to do with mortality. Death finds us all regardless of what we do or don't believe. You're not immortal."

There was a tapering silence that lingered just a heartbeat too long. Long enough for the atmosphere to shift. The camera was no longer an unbiased observer, but a captive audience. Hidan leaned forward.

"When I was a little boy, my momma used to read me fairytales. You know, knights and dragons and shit. She said if I wished for something, there was a chance someone'd grant it, kinda like that one puppet kid who lied all the time. I forget the name."


"That's it. So she'd read 'em to me when she wasn't whorin' around with those jackass boyfriends of hers or high on dope. Or maybe she was, I don't remember. They're all the same anyway, those fairytales, I mean. People hate their lives so they wish for somethin' better, somethin' impossible. But kids are selfish little bitches, so they wish and wish even though they know they'll never get what they want. I wished, too, on a star of all things. I asked, uh, what's her name... The Blue Fairy, I think."

"You asked her to make you immortal?"

Hidan looked offended. "No," he said, very serious. "I asked her to make me a normal boy, like all the other kids who didn't have to stand guard outside while their fuckin' train wreck of a mother sucked her way to the monthly rent. Y'know, normal."

"And did she grant your wish?"

Hidan snapped his head to Itachi, his violet eyes burning even through the grainy camera lens. Like he'd only just noticed Itachi was in the room with him.

"You wanna know what she said?" he asked, leaning forward.

There was some movement beyond the scope of the camera, and Ino could imagine both Itachi and Seiji leaning in, as captivated by Hidan's strange charisma as she was.

"She said...NO!"

Hidan screamed and shot across the table as far as his chains would allow. He swung his hands in an attempt to grab at his visitors, and he gnashed his teeth, spitting into the camera as he continued to shriek and shake, like a chained animal calling for the blood of its poachers.

Ino jumped in her seat and gasped in fright. Beside her, Shino was no longer leaning forward and his grip on his pants was white-knuckled. Sasuke paused the tape, landing on a frozen frame of two orderlies wrestling with Hidan as he struggled, biting the air and trying to grab onto anything within reach.


It was like something had come alive inside him, a demon that suddenly wanted out and could wait no longer.

"He ended up biting a chunk out of one of the orderlies' necks," Sasuke said. "The lawyer sent his resignation in the next morning."

No one said a word for several seconds, still mulling over the catastrophe that had landed in the middle of Anko's spacious corner office. Shino's knuckles were still bloodless and Ino was still breathing audibly through her nose.

"Okay," Anko said. "Detective, my assistant'll see you out. I'm keeping that tape."

Sasuke rose. "That's fine, it's a copy. I'll let the State's Attorney know you'll take the case."

"We are?" Shino asked.

Anko shot him a dirty look and licked her lips. "Yes, Aburame. We are."

Ino barely heard the conversation. She stared at the TV screen, transfixed by those burning, mad eyes drawing out her soul.

And his laughter that {echo}ed in her ear, ceaselessly.

"You can't have both of them. You have your own team; use some of them."

Anko rolled her eyes. "My team is busy working on cases we're actually getting paid for. All your team's doing is scribbling on contracts."

Ibiki glared at his colleague. "Those scribbles are paying your six-figure salary."

Anko flicked a paper football into her pencil jar, ignoring him.

"This case won't do us any favors," Ibiki went on.

"It's charity. And, uh, you're the one who wanted to keep it up, remember?"

Ibiki was silent a moment. She'd caught him in a trap, and they both knew it. Pro bono was good for press and prestige, and in this economy Ibiki was willing to double down on work while cutting costs as long as it meant good PR. More clients. Ino and Shino were hired for their good sense and efficiency, and their billable hours were among the highest among the firm's younger associates. Still, sacrificing them would mean slowing down Ibiki's business.

"Tell you what. Just give me Yamanaka. Aburame does that rambling-mumbling thing that sort of weirds me out."

"Ino is working on a major draft with me. The deal's set to go through next week."

"So give it to Aburame." Anko folded her hands on her desk and looked pointedly at Ibiki. "Listen, this guy, Hidan. He rattled Itachi Uchiha."

Itachi had a reputation as a closer, one of the most straight-edged, ruthless Lieutenants the KPD had ever seen. He was constantly making headlines for overseeing the capture of Konoha's most wanted scum, and the city knew him as something of an accidental hero. He'd been the one to bring in Hidan, too, but after what Anko had witnessed on that security tape, a part of her didn't blame Itachi for wanting to move this case out of the police department and into the lap of the law to pass judgment.

"So I'm gonna rattle this son of a bitch right back. I wanna know what we're dealing with."

Ibiki rubbed a hand over the thick scars on his face to dispel the phantom itch there. A nervous habit. They both knew Anko wouldn't let this go now that she'd sunk her teeth in. It was what drove Ibiki to recruit her in the first place. She was one of the best in their field.

"Do you think you can win this case?" he asked.

"No. But I think we can keep him out of the electric chair. If he cooperates."

"Justice, huh." Ibiki wiped his mouth, thirsty, and checked the clock on the wall: 10:07 AM. "I need a drink."

"Way ahead of you." Anko was already pulling out a bottle of scotch from somewhere behind her desk. It was half empty. She poured two glasses for Ibiki and herself and clinked them together.

"This is about Hyuuga, isn't it," Ibiki said, taking a sip of his drink and savoring the burn.

"Not everything is about that pompous clown."

"But this is."

Anko shrugged and threw back the entire contents of her scotch. She poured herself another glass. "Maybe I'm still sore about Zetsu's case."

"Zetsu was guilty. I know it, you know it, and a jury of twelve Konoha citizens knows it."

"The man suffered from acute multiple personality disorder. Much as I believe in capital punishment, he needed a shrink, not a warden with a Taser."

Ibiki topped off his drink and set it down on Anko's desk. "It's in the past. You know as well as I do how this works. The courts aren't final because they're right; they're right because they're final."

"That's real fucking optimistic, Ibiki. You sing that song to your baby daughter at night?"

Ibiki turned to leave. "I don't care how you do it, but don't hand this one over to Hyuuga. He still won't let me live it down."

Ibiki left and Anko sneered after him. She retrieved the paper football from her pencil jar and set up for another shot. Ibiki's empty glass sat at the opposite end of her desk. Thinking better of it, she readjusted her hands and flicked the paper away. It soared in a lazy arc and landed in Ibiki's used glass. The ends of the paper grew damp as they soaked up the remaining traces of scotch, yellowing.

"All right," Anko said, leaning back in her chair. "Time to save a dead man."

"Can't talk to a psycho like a normal human being."

To be honest, Ino had always wanted to go to prison. The cages, the guards prowling the halls ready to cow any inmate who became a bit too rambunctious, the knowledge that these men, rare breeds forcibly taken from their elements, were dangerous. Evil, some might say. Entrapped but not tamed. But then, what little girl has never dreamed of reaching for the lion's mouth just so see if those teeth are really as sharp as they look?

Maybe he won't bite you.

Maybe you're special.

"Welcome to Ash Tree Lane Asylum, ladies. This probably wasn't what you were expecting?"

Ino and Anko followed the warden down stone, gray hallways with interminable, tortuous branches wending off to who knew where. A maze. There was a rumor Sasuke had told Ino once that when this place was built, the supervising architect ordered acid be poured down the walls to make the place look rough-hewn and battered, like a medieval torture chamber.

"To set the mood," Sasuke had explained with a smirk.

"I never took you for dirty talk," she'd said, brushing off the eerie chill his words had incited in her that day.

The chill was back as she ran a hand along one of the uneven walls, porous and rough to the touch. Back when sanatoriums beat and tortured their wards, Ino wondered how many bodies had been smashed against these walls, like cheese graters, their burned pores flaying flesh and muscle as long as the angle was just right.

The warden, a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and harsh lines around his blue eyes whose name Ino hadn't bothered remembering, led them deeper into the complex.

"This wing is reserved for our special cases. The ones in solitary, or the 'Hole', as we're fond of calling it here."

"Charming," Anko said.

"You see, we have to keep them separate from the rest of the inmates. They could cause trouble. Not just for others, but for themselves, too," the warden continued.

A young man in a labcoat was talking on a phone up ahead. A doctor of some kind, perhaps one of the in-house psychiatrists. Ino noticed that he wore a plastic beater at his hip, thick and intimidating.

"You arm your doctors?" Ino asked, still staring at the weapon as they passed.

"Hm?" The warden caught Ino's eye over his shoulder. "Oh, yes. It's mostly for show, to keep the inmates docile. Just a precautionary measure, of course."

Anko gave Ino a look that said 'bullshit', but neither of them said anything further. Eventually the warden stopped before a door on the right at the end of the hall.

"This is one of our session rooms. I think it'll serve your purposes well enough. I've got two orderlies inside in case something goes wrong."

"Actually, they can't be in there with us," Anko said. "Attorney-client privilege."

The warden looked aghast. "But ma'am, this prisoner is dangerous. Are you aware he's caused injury to two orderlies and a security guard in just the short two weeks he's been with us?"

"I believe he also assaulted a fellow inmate. Isn't that in the file, Yamanaka?" Anko asked.

Ino opened up one of the manila folders she carried. "Yes, right here. It says he clawed at the inmate's face and left two deep gashes in his left cheek. The man needed stitches."

The warden sighed. "All right, I know how this works, in any case. There's a phone on the wall by the door if something goes wrong. Two orderlies will be standing outside the door if you need assistance."

"No cameras, either," Anko said. "Not that I don't trust you, of course."

"...Of course."

He ushered the two women inside, and Ino let the door click shut behind her. Locked. The room was tiled with a drain in the middle of the floor under the steel table in the middle. Two empty chairs sat at the closest tableside, and Anko took a seat without a word. Ino hesitated a moment.

Hidan sat slumped over across the table, just as he'd looked in the video Sasuke had brought to the office. Ino eyed him warily and sank into her chair next to Anko. She set Hidan's file on the table before her and waited.

"More snakes," Hidan grumbled, not bothering to look up. "For fuck's sake."

"For fuck's sake is right," Anko said, clearing her throat. "But unfortunately for you, even serial killers deserve a proper defense in court."

Hidan looked up, frowning as though he'd heard a bad joke. He looked between Anko and Ino, silent, and Ino stared back. The look in his eyes changed from annoyance to confusion, and finally to something simmering, but not in the way that makes a heart flutter. More like makes it break and bleed and fester.

In person, he was a whole different animal. Ignoring the obnoxious orange jumpsuit, Hidan was black and white. His skin was so pale Ino had to wonder if there was any blood pumping beneath the surface or if it had all been sucked down the drain in the floor. Even his lips were colorless. His face was angular, like someone had knocked his head in with a hammer and broken off chunks, content to leave the edges jagged and sharp. But his eyes were dark, nearly sunken. Their deep violet shade was too washed out in the room's stale lighting to distinguish from the dark rings around his eyes, giving him a spectral look. Like someone had taken embers to his eyes and hollowed them out until there was nothing but ashes left.


Ino knew he was guilty of every crime they accused him of and more with that one look.

He grinned. "Don't take this the wrong way, ladies, but you don't look like much of a defense."

"I'm Anko Mitarashi with Morino & Mitarashi. Whether you like it or not, it's my job to make sure you don't get the chair when the State's Attorney's done with you."

"I'm touched. Now get the hell out."

Ino stole a glance at Anko. Most people were happy to let a lawyer handle their problems for them, but criminal defense was a special breed, she supposed. The clients weren't quite right.

"Why don't we start from the beginning. Tell me about your friend Jashin," Anko said, leaning forward.

All traces of amusement vanished and Hidan coiled in on himself, hyper-focused. "Watch how you speak about Lord Jashin, woman."

"He's your god, right? How'd that happen?" Anko persisted.

Hidan lifted his hands to wipe his mouth, and his heavy chains scraped against the tabletop. Ino watched them slither higher with his movement. He mumbled something unintelligible, and Ino strained to hear.

"What was that?" Anko asked, eyes sharp as she glowered at their client.

Hidan peered up at her but kept his chin down, an effect that gave him the look of a man who just wanted to break bones. "I said, shut your whore mouth about Lord Jashin, you stupid cunt."

As a pretty girl who'd survived college in the city and now navigated the perilous waters of a cutthroat, male-dominated profession, Ino had heard her fair share of misogynistic slurs. They never did enough damage to throw her off course, and perhaps that was why she'd made it this far already. Anko, of course, was no stranger to the fragility of the male ego, either, and probably carried a hammer around just waiting for the chance to smash any cancerous masculinity that got too aberrant for her tastes.

Coming from a client, one who wasn't even paying them, was a different story.

Anko laughed prettily. "Aren't you a charmer. How about I put it this way. Konoha and its people want you dead in the most agonizing way possible. Hell, I bet that old prune Hyuuga gets off to the thought of you frying in the chair. But your bottom line is this: the death penalty's controversial as cruel and unusual punishment, so me and my whore mouth may be able to spare you that merry-go-round. Ino?"

Ino nearly jumped at the sound of her name, but she covered it up by extracting some files from one of the many folders she'd spent all night preparing for this. With her eyes downcast as she searched through her notes, she didn't notice Hidan's gaze shift to her, silent.

"Yeah, here we go... The Deific Decree defense," she said, smiling a little when she produced the notes she'd compiled on the black letter law and precedent cases the previous night. It had been no more than a passing comment in her Criminal Law course as a first year law student, and one she'd never thought she would ever revisit again as a corporate attorney.

"We're working an insanity defense to your crimes," Ino explained. "Part of that is the Deific Decree defense, which will exculpate you from moral wrong because you believe you've been ordered by god to commit these acts even though you know they're legally reprehensible."

"There's a lotta big words in there, girly," Hidan said. Coming from anyone else, maybe it wouldn't have sounded like a threat.

"Basically, your religion could be your ticket out of the death penalty," Anko said.

Hidan looked between the two women for a moment, and Ino held her breath. When he burst out laughing, she couldn't decide whether to be disappointed or terrified.

"If I didn't think you two were fuckin' hilarious, I'd rip your throats out for that. Using religion? It's not a goddamned supermarket coupon."

He was crying from laughing so much, but the scene was anything but jovial. Ino's hands grew clammy despite the slight chill in the room, and her ponytail added heated weight to the thick collar of her blazer. Anko rose slowly and pushed her chair back with a grating scree.

"That's enough for today. Think it over, Hidan. We'll be in touch to work on rounding out your case. I'm sure we'll become fast friends." She turned away without waiting for Hidan's response, and Ino scrambled to follow.

His voice stopped the two women in the doorway. "Oh, I know we will."

Anko ignored Hidan and exited the room. Ino caught of glimpse of him over shoulder, curious. He was looking right at her, like he'd only just seen her and could not believe she was still standing there. Colorless lips stretched into the beginnings of a smile, twisted, like some invisible force was pulling at the muscles under his skin and cutting them to move them into place. Ino's stomach churned with fear and a little disgust, and she bolted out the door.

His laughter followed her out.

When Ino got a text from Sasuke asking if she was free for lunch, she jumped at the opportunity to get out of the office and away from Hidan's brief that was, sadly, not writing itself.

"So, how'd it go with the big, bad wolf?" he asked after they'd ordered and settled into a table on the patio under a big umbrella.

Ino sipped her iced tea. "I'm still here, aren't I?"

Sasuke gave her a look, and she waved him off. "What do you want me to say? It's just a job, and one I'm not getting paid for. But, I don't know, it's interesting the way a horror movie's interesting, you know? The axe murderer is probably hiding in the closet but you can't help but check the closet just be absolutely sure and besides, there's something about outsmarting the bad guy that just really gets my blood pumping—"

"I get the picture."

The waiter brought their food and Ino didn't realize how hungry she was.

"Maybe I should take you to lunch more often. Looks like you haven't eaten in a week the way you're putting it away."

Ino flipped him off and swallowed a mouthful of sandwich. "Hilarious. But if you do, bring Karin next time."


"How's it going with you two? I haven't talked to her lately with how swamped I've been."

Sasuke shrugged. "It's fine. She's busy, I'm busy, you know. We're moving in together at the end of the month, and she's been crazy about finding a bigger apartment—"

"Whoa! Hold up, did you just say you're moving in together?"


Ino forgot her lunch and reached across the table to grab Sasuke's hands. "Oh my god, that's awesome! Since when? And congratulations on finding a girl who can put up with your all-black wardrobe!"

He rolled his eyes. "Very funny. And we've been talking about it for a couple months."

"And she didn't tell me. Well, now that I know this calls for a girl's night out."

Sasuke smirked and Ino released him. She couldn't stop smiling.

"That would be good for her, actually," he said.

"What do you mean? Everything okay?"

Sasuke shifted and started pushing the rest of his pasta around his plate with a fork. "It's fine, just the usual."

Ino rested her chin on her palm and gave him a pointed look. "It doesn't sound like the usual. What's up? Does it have to do with moving in together?"

"I don't know," he began, thinking. "I told Itachi about it a little while ago, and after that she kind of clammed up. They've always been on weird terms, you know what I mean."

Ino frowned. Karin had interned at the Konoha Police Department with Sasuke a few years ago when they were all still in college. She'd also met Itachi, who was Karin and Sasuke's supervising officer during their internship. From what Karin had told Ino of him, she and Itachi had a close working relationship and got along well. But after the internship ended, they barely had any contact at all. Some time later Karin started dating Sasuke, but the elder Uchiha kept his distance, focusing on his work more than his family. He was just a hardworking guy, always had been, and no one thought this strange. Ino suspected something had happened between Itachi and Karin, but neither ever let on and Ino didn't want to ask. Especially since Karin had ended up with Sasuke and was happier than she had ever been. Happy enough to be moving in, apparently.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Ino said. "Did Itachi say anything when you told him you'd be moving in with Karin?"

"Not really. He was happy for me, but it wasn't the longest conversation we've ever had. That's just Itachi."

"It's probably nothing. Moving in with someone's a big step, so that's probably it."

Sasuke said nothing for awhile, and Ino didn't break the silence.

"Ino, you don't think..."

She waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.

"Never mind, I'm just overthinking things. I just wish they got along better, like they used to."

"To be fair, your brother's not exactly winning any awards for friend of the year. He's practically married to his job."


The waiter came to take their dishes and offer desert, which Ino and Sasuke jumped to decline. Neither had ever been a fan of sweets.

"So when are you seeing Hidan again?" he asked.

"No idea. Soon, I hope. I need more for the brief or the judge is gonna throw our case out. But Anko's the boss, so it's up to her."

"That woman is a force of nature. Not in the good way."

Ino laughed. "She grows on you."

"Do you really think you guys can do anything for Hidan? No offense, but the guy doesn't deserve any mercy."

Ino shook her head. "We're trying to avoid the death penalty, but that's it."

"So you're okay fighting a losing case?"

She thought back to the face-to-face conversation she and Anko had had with Hidan the other day. The look in his eyes, barely human. The smile that didn't belong to him.

"I knew he was guilty after just a few minutes in that room with him. The trial's just a formality at this point. Honestly, I'm not even sure I want us to win on the death penalty issue."

They rose and split the bill with cash. Before Sasuke headed for his squad car in a nearby garage, he said, "Listen, just... Watch yourself with this guy. You saw the tape I brought you."

How could I forget?

After meeting Hidan for the first time herself, Ino wasn't surprised that even Itachi had lost his composure around the guy. She shivered, but put on a bright smile to hide it.

"Aw, you do care. I'm touched."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Whatever. I'll see you."

Ino waved, feeling a little smug. The feeling did not last. When she got back to her cubicle to work on Hidan's brief, Shino interrupted her.

"Anko wants to talk to you. What about? Nothing good, if I had to guess from the way she's been screaming on the phone all afternoon."

Sure enough, Anko was standing behind the desk of her corner office and yelling into the phone. A bottle of scotch, about three-quarters of the way empty, sat next to a used glass. Ino deflated at the sight.

"Um, right now? She looks kind of busy..."

Shino shook his head. "Her exact words were, 'When Ino gets back you send her to me. I don't care if I'm on the phone or having a fucking heart attack. You send her in or your ass is grass.'"

Ino stared in shock at Shino's impression of their boss, complete with her jagged facial expressions. "O...kay... I'd thank you, but I don't think I'm gonna like whatever's about to happen."

"Good luck," he said, returning to his cubicle before Ino got any bright ideas to drag him along for moral support.

Groaning, Ino smoothed out her pencil skirt and walked as slowly as possible to Anko's office. She knocked, and Anko glared at her over her computer, where she was still on the phone. Nevertheless, the older woman waved her inside and Ino had no choice but to comply.

"I get it, just calm down, for god sakes!" Anko said.

Ino took a seat in one of the chairs opposite Anko's desk and waited, pen and notepad in hand.

"Okay just... I SAID I GET IT! Listen to me, you don't go outside, you don't talk to anyone, you don't even think about anyone. You got that? Just wait there, I'll come to you. And don't even think about calling your wife. I mean it."

Anko slammed the phone down on the receiver and let out a garbled cry of frustration. She ran her hands through her hair and swore under her breath. Ino waited in silence, not wanting to draw her boss's wrath. Noticing that Anko's glass was empty, Ino quickly refilled it with more scotch.

"Thanks," Anko grumbled, downing the drink.

"You wanted to see me?"

Any relief Anko obtained from the drink faded, and her expression became somber and sour. "Yeah. We've got a bit of a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"One of our long-time clients just killed a man, and now I've got to mitigate his ass before the Feds haul him in."

"Killed? You mean, like, murdered?"

"I'd like to swing manslaughter, actually, let's not jump to conclusions here."

"Can I ask...who the client is?"

"Old man Danzō Shimura."


Danzō was a wealthy but eccentric client, having worked with the firm since its inception. A retired general turned arms dealer, Danzō had opinions and wanted everyone to know them. Ino didn't agree with his politics at all, but he was a high-profile client for the firm.

"Anyway, long story short, looks like he got into a scuffle with some hippie protester at his home and things got violent. I have to take the lead on this given who he is, and it's going to monopolize my time. His case takes priority," Anko explained.

Ino paled. "But, what about Hidan? There's still a lot of work we need to do, not to mention the trial—"

"Yeah, I know. I'll be there for the trial, but I'll have to pass everything else to you. The briefs, the depositions, witness prep, everything. You can check back with me as you go, but I'm passing you the reins on this one."

Ino gaped. "What?! You can't be serious! I-I'm a junior associate!"

"You've been here what, two years now? You're fine. This is the easy part. I'll handle the trial, but I expect you to prep me. Got it? Great."

Anko rose from her chair and made for the door. Ino scrambled to stand and followed her out.

"Anko, please, this is a lot to handle for me. I'm corporate, not litigation. And this is a serial killer we're talking about!" she hissed. "Can't someone else take the lead?"

Anko stopped and whirled. "Are you saying you can't handle this?"

"Huh? No, well, it's just—"

"Because if I recall when we interviewed you, you were one of the top candidates, very promising and eager to learn. Are you telling me you don't want this challenge?"

"N-No! Not at all, I want the challenge."

Anko grinned. "Great! I'll expect a draft of the brief on my desk next week."

Ino reached after her, but Anko was on a mission for justice (sort of), and she barrelled out of the office like a bat out of hell. Shino saw Ino stranded in the hallway outside Anko's office and threw her a lifeline.

"So... That went well?" he asked, sauntering close to her.

"I think I just got stuck with the Hidan Sugimura case with no support," Ino said.


There was a short pause.

"Well, look at it this way: it's already a losing case. You can't screw it up too badly."

Ino glared at him. "Gee, thanks for the moral support. Some friend you are, Shino."

Shino watched her stomp off, puzzled. "Women."

"What a terrible thought.
What minds have you shredded?
I bet they regretted having ever thought you up.
Just look at you shine, committing your crimes.
You know I don't want you in my mind
'Cause you're breaking my stride.
You poisonous vine.
You're strangling me inside."

Ino was sure she would never get used to coming to this place. Ash Tree Lane Asylum was the kind of place mothers told their children never to go near, like a haunted house or neighbors with home life scandals. But she had a job to do, and thinking about those rough walls upon which flesh could be ground to bloody meat was not helping her.

"You're alone today?" the warden asked.

"Yes. Anko's busy with another case. I won't be long," Ino said, gripping the files she'd brought tighter to her hip.

"Well, that's fine. He's restrained as usual. There've been no incidents lately. You may have caught him on a good day."

Lucky me.

"Right this way."

The warden escorted Ino to a holding room and opened the door for her. She walked inside and the door clicked shut behind her. Locked. As usual, due to attorney-client privilege, no orderlies were present. Ino wanted to stare at the stainless steel table and just take her seat, but Hidan's eyes on her were too heavy to ignore. She caught his gaze from the doorway.

"Well, well, well," he said. "Can't say I didn't expect this."

He looked the same as before, though his gauntness never ceased to disgust her. He wasn't disgusting to look at, per se, but the signs of his treatment in this place made her stomach turn. It was not hard to guess that his living conditions were slightly below humane, though he probably deserved it for his past violent outbursts. Ino took her seat and thought about her breathing. Normally confident and collected, there was something about Hidan that threw her off-kilter.

Gee, maybe the fact that he's a psychotic serial killer.

This was so not what she'd signed up for when she'd joined Morino & Mitarashi.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

His eyes still burned, the eyes of a man long dead, though she had no doubt he could see her perfectly. He wrung his hands as though cold. "I mean you."

Watching his deep, violet eyes, she followed his gaze as it travelled up and down her body. She did not flinch, didn't even frown. This was familiar territory, and even a psychopath was no stranger to it.

"You're mistaken, Hidan. My boss is tied up with another case. I'll be meeting with you up through the trial, where she will take over your defense," Ino said.

He chuckled, softly at first, but it gradually built. "Sure she is."

"I don't really care if you believe me or not. I'm just here to ask you some follow-up questions."

Hidan sat back in his chair and watched her, relaxed. He continued to wring his hands. "So... Ino, right? How's a pretty number like you end up a snake?"

Ino opened up the files she'd brought and clasped her hands over them. "You know, lawyers aren't snakes. Sure, we're looking to get paid, but a lot of us actually believe in seeing justice be served. Even for lowlifes like yourself."

He grinned. "Well, look at that. A snake who ain't afraid to bite. How'd you get mixed up in this, anyway? No offense, but you don't look like the type."

She'd heard it all before, but coming from Hidan it didn't ring the same way. He looked genuinely curious. She wasn't sure whether to be even more offended or not. "I like puzzles," she said. "Clients come to us with a problem they want us to solve, but they don't bring us all the pieces. We have to find them and put them back together."

"So whaddaya do if the client's, uh, guilty?"

Ino held her head high. "We try to reach a fair and just punishment for the client, something befitting the crime."

Hidan sighed and lowered his head to the table. "You're a piece of work, you know that?"

"Thank you."

He straightened up and caught her gaze. "You should know, whatever happens doesn't matter. I don't live by this world's laws."

Ino jumped on the transition to launch into her questions. "So what world's laws apply to you? Lord Jashin's?"

He laughed, but Ino had the distinct impression that he was not amused. "You're pretty clever, aren't ya? Bet you were top of your class or some shit, eh?"

"Not at all. I'm just average."

"Ah, but you're sharp. You're not buried in your fancy books. You take time to look around. To listen." He scooted forward and leaned across the table as far as he could without straining his shackles. "So tell me, Ino Yamanaka. Whaddaya hear?"

She was getting nowhere fast. Ino was no psychologist, but even she could tell when a case was a lost cause. Hidan would only tell her what he wanted her to know, for better or for worse. So she would do what Anko had promised to do when they began this case: rattle him.

"I hear a man speaking from beyond the grave. There's no need to beat around the bush with you. Our case is a stretch, at best. Konoha favors the death penalty, and the chances of getting you off the hook are dismal. Frankly, I don't care. You're guilty, we both know it. But that's not what I'm here for. I'm here to do a job. You're just the flavor of the week."

"Beautiful," he said. "You really do listen."

Ino frowned, thrown off by his odd behavior.

"You wanna know what world I live in?"

Ino leaned forward without realizing it.

"I live in their world."

"Who are 'they'?"

He wrung his hands some more and lowered his chin to look up at her from his hunched position. "You really wanna know?"

Ino got a chill, but she ignored it. Serial killer or no, he was chained up, practically starving if his physique was any indication, and had no reason to hurt her. She humored him. "Is this the part where you tell me I might not like what I find out?"

He chuckled. "Nope. Just the opposite, actually. You might like it so much, you'll never know anything else."

Ino bit the inside of her cheek. Every rational alarm was going off in her head, telling her to cut this out and just get to business. But something about him drew her in. She imagined this was the effect he had on his victims. There was a certain charm to him, that Do Not Enter door you're not supposed to go through but can't help but long for, just to see what lies beyond. He was in custody, chained and monitored, so there was nothing to fear. Still, her heart beat faster at the threat of him.

When she was a girl, Ino's parents had taken her and her best friend, Sakura Haruno, to the city zoo. Sakura had enjoyed seeing the colorful birds the most, but Ino only cared about the big cats, the leopards, the tigers, and most of all the lions. They were the kings and queens of the jungle according to the information slides. To her dismay, all they did was lie around in the sun sleeping. Not very kingly at all, and she'd complained to her father as much.

"Don't let their appearances fool you, Ino," he'd said. "The best predators lie in plain sight waiting for their prey to stray too close. It's a false sense of security, see? And by the time the prey realizes the danger, it's too late."

Sakura had not wanted to stick around, frightened by Inoichi's explanation, but Ino continued to watch the lions, their torpor suddenly foreboding, a chill on the back of neck. Could they see her? Were they watching her through half-lidded eyes, calculating how quickly she would fall, how easy it would be? Until even the slightest twitch made her jump and whirl, looking for shadows behind her, black jaws ready to take a bite out of her. But there was nothing there.

She'd begged her father to take her back to the zoo every summer so she could see those lions again, experience that thrill. Maybe this time, she would think, they'd finally pounce. Go in for the kill. She wouldn't miss it.

"Tell me about Lord Jashin. What does he tell you to do?" she asked, blinking the memory away.

Hidan studied her a moment, his expression giving nothing away of his true thoughts. To the unaware, he would have appeared exhausted and starving, but the look in his eyes was ever alert. Nothing could tire him. Ino quashed a silly whim to look over her shoulder for dark maws hovering, waiting to rip her apart.

"It's more like suggestions," Hidan said. "Lord Jashin knows everything that's happened. I just decide what to do with it."

"You mean like people's sins? That's how you choose your victims, right?"

"We're all sinners. Some of us just can't get away with it."

Ino ignored that cryptic warning, not wanting to let him take control of the conversation. "They must commit some unforgivable trespasses to end up dead."

"Girly, you dunno the half of it." He bared his teeth in a wide grin. "But you could if you want."

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't tell me you're not curious." He leaned forward and whispered, "Don't you wanna hear for yourself?"

Ino sighed and rose. She was getting nowhere fast with him. Perhaps she'd have better luck with his on-site shrink. "We're done here. Excuse me."

She returned the files she'd brought to her bag and made for the door, but just as she reached for the knob, a bruised hand slammed onto the wall by her head and cut off her retreat. Ino whirled, fear spurring her into action, and she clawed at the closest available surface: Hidan's face. He'd gotten free of his cuffs somehow, and the hand that wasn't on the wall found her throat and squeezed. Not to kill, but to make a point. Her nails dug into the skin of his wrist, painting red ribbons in his purple skin.

Hidan leaned close and Ino froze, unable even to fend him off. The burning in his eyes was so close she could feel it searing her skin. They were a deep violet, poisoned and rotting. This close up, she could feel his warm breath on her skin, stale and sour from lack of brushing. His cheekbones stuck out, but not from want of food like she'd previously surmised; rather, they were a part of him, part of the mirage that lured prey into its false sense of security, distracted from the sear in his eyes until it was too late to run—the world was already going up in flames.


Ino's voice cracked, and he relished it. Shuddered. She hadn't spent much time thinking of how she would die, only that she would one day. Linger at the lion's den too long and she was bound to get bit. He didn't attack her any further, didn't caress her or draw her blood. He just hovered, watching her react to him. Ino tried to relax her muscles, stop fighting him, unwilling to give him whatever rise he wanted. The best she could manage was a venomous glare to mask her mounting fear.

Serial killer. Serial killer!

He leaned in and for a moment she thought he would bite her. Kiss her the way she never wanted to be kissed. Black and blue. But he stopped before they could connect, and he hovered at her ear. Over his shoulder she saw a camera, but it was off. Attorney-client privilege. She could have screamed.

"Listen carefully," he whispered in her ear. "They wanna tell you their secrets."

His voice rang in her ear like a howl, though he was barely breathing against her. The grip he had on her neck tightened and she whimpered. His lips twisted in a grin, literally twisted, like something was compelling him, and she heard the {echo} of his cackle even though he remained silent. The pain in her neck was cutting off her air, and Ino tried to heave but could not. Black spots bubbled her vision, but she fought to stay aware.

"This voice is alive," he said against the shell of her ear.

His voice was mercury slipping in her ear and dripping out the other side, crystallizing everything in between until there was nothing but that voice, the lilt, its lingering {echo} reverberating in her ruined mind. Even the pain couldn't snuff it out.

And then the door slammed open. A strong force slammed into Hidan and knocked him away. Ino squeezed her eyes shut and saw stars. Her throat swelled as air fought its way past crushed passageways. She slumped to the floor and lost a high heel in the process. Her hands were at her neck, gingerly feeling for damage she already knew was there. An asylum doctor had Hidan pinned to the ground, and though he was outmuscled, two orderlies rushed in after him, having seen the commotion. They made short work of Hidan, who didn't seem to be resisting them at all.

He only laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Ino's fear picked that time to return to her like a cold, wet towel to the face and she scrambled to stand. When she reached for her discarded shoe, she noticed something drip to the floor. Red. A phantom shiver ran up her back and she touched a hand to her left ear. It was bleeding.

"Listen carefully."

"Restrain him!" the doctor shouted as the orderlies struggled to cuff Hidan once more.

She couldn't stay here, not with Hidan. She had to get out.

"They wanna tell you their secrets."

A nurse appeared in the door and noticed Ino fumbling with her shoe. "Miss, let me help you. Are you all right?"

Ino pushed past her, unwilling even to look back at Hidan. He continued to guffaw, expending every breath in his body, and Ino nearly tripped over herself trying to get out of there. No tears fell, and she barely felt the ache in her neck as she focused all her energy on escaping these rough walls, walls soaked in old blood long bleached clean. Her heels clacked and {echo}ed behind her as she ran, like a hundred pairs of feet chasing her down the barren halls. The whole way, Hidan's laughter never diminished, and Ino feared that if she looked back she would see him there, hunting her.

"This voice is alive."

She bumped into an asylum guard when turning a corner and dropped her bag. Without a word of apology, she bent down to pick it up.

"You all right, Miss?" the guard asked. "You look like you're in a hurry."

"I'm fine, just fine," Ino snapped, righting herself.

She barrelled past the guard, not bothering to look back. He called after her but she ignored him. The only thought on her mind was getting out of here before she suffocated. Outside the sky was overcast with the threat of rain. Ino leaned against the stair railing and heaved. She felt for her neck as though his hands were still there, crushing her, gasping for breath. Eyes closed and body trembling, she counted.

One, two, three, four...

Deep breaths, ignore the pain in her trachea, stop shaking. People passed on their way in or out of the asylum, some sparing her curious glances. Ino paid them no mind as she concentrated on mitigating her condition. Her car was parked just around the block, so she headed for it. Not until she slammed the door closed did she have a chance to relax. Alone and in silence, away from prying eyes and questions, she could breathe. A hand flew to her neck and she pulled down the visor to check herself in the mirror.

There was nothing to see.

Ino stared at her reflection, incredulous. "What the hell?"

She turned her chin to get a better look at her neck, but there were no markings. No pain. It should have been swelling and purpling by now, but there was no trace that Hidan had touched her at all. She turned her head to glance at her ears, but the blood was gone. Even the insides were dry. There wasn't a trace of him on her. She sat back in the driver's seat and stared at nothing.

"This is insane," she said aloud. "Insane."

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

Ino jumped at the song in her ear, a girl child's voice. There was no one in the car with her, only leather seats and cloth grocery bags piled behind the passenger's seat. The radio was silent, but she toggled the nob anyway just to be certain. A beeping sound cut through the silence of her paranoid observation, and Ino swore. She fished her phone out of her pocket. There was an associate meeting back at the office in twenty minutes, and she'd be late if she didn't get moving. Checking her reflection in the mirror once more and finding nothing amiss, she decided to put this behind her. Something weird was going on, but she had no time to think about it. Nothing was even wrong with her physically, so it was easy to ignore the creeping chill blowing through her ears. She rubbed one with the heel of her palm and heard ringing. Frowning, she turned on the radio and cranked up the volume.

"Whatever," she grumbled to herself as she pulled into traffic.

One last glance in the mirror revealed nothing in the backseat, no one behind her, not even a shadow.

The rest of the afternoon and evening at the office was business as usual. Ino attended meeting after meeting and hardly got any actual work done. She thought little of it, knowing that 'actual work' meant Hidan's case brief. Anko was out meeting with paying clients, and no one asked about Ino's trip to Ash Tree Lane Asylum. Even Shino, who had an uncanny ability to pick up on when she was feeling claustrophobic in their tiny cubicles was busy with his own projects most of the day. By the time 8 PM rolled around, Ino was ravenous and went home for the night, intending to whip up some breakfast for dinner.

She hung her keys on the hook by the door and shed her heels and suit jacket. Purple bunny slippers with ears awaited her aching feet, and she slipped into them on autopilot while making for the eggs in the fridge. Monotony. She tuned out the world, even the iHome she clicked on in the living room. Scrambled eggs and toast for dinner did little to break it, stale on her tongue as her mind was elsewhere.

"Don't think about it," she said aloud over an empty plate.

Think about what?


She laughed aloud, but it warped in her ears, thicker, deeper, sharper. A man's cackle. Ino hissed and shook her head. Silence. She sighed and sank down on the table, exhausted. The dishes could wait, surely.

"{You know it's terrible for you, hon.}"

"{Ah, old habit.}"

"{I wish you'd quit.}"

Ino frowned and jerked to attention. Had she dozed off? She rubbed her bleary eyes and looked around. The window was open and a soft breeze billowed the curtains. Rolling her eyes she rose and moved to close it. Pausing, she peeked around outside. There was a view of the city down below, nothing spectacular but worth the price of this place. The building across the street was being renovated for apartments, unoccupied. Her neighbors' windows were floors above and below. Pedestrians walked fifteen floors below on the sidewalks, enjoying the evening.

"Quiet location my ass," she grumbled, slamming the window down.

Yawning, she opted for a quick shower and a movie to help her sleep. There was no way she could do any more work tonight, not after what had happened—

"Not thinking about it~" she sang, skipping to the bathroom.

A hot shower was just what she'd needed. Refreshed, Ino changed into pajamas and towel-dried her long hair. Steam fogged the bathroom mirror, and her eyes wandered to her neck without her permission. The skin was smooth and unmarred. There was no pain, not even a phantom itch. She dried her ears with the towel, and it came away its normal baby blue color. No blood.


The temptation to linger hung about the small, tiled bathroom, but Ino wasn't about to indulge it. Flicking the lights off, she settled onto the living room couch and browsed her Netflix queue for something to watch. A thriller, something with a mystery she could solve by the end. The movie loaded and her phone buzzed. She had a text from Sakura.

"Hey Pig! Free on the weekend?"

Ino smiled and punched at her phone screen. "Margaritas at my place since yours sucks?"

"Hell yeah! I'll bring my blender." ... "Hey my place doesn't suck!"

The TV played background music as the film started. Ino chanced a look at the screen: blood everywhere. It started with violence, though the camera didn't show the killer's face. There was only his victim, a young girl.

"It's always a young girl," she mused aloud as she responded to Sakura's texts.

"{It's a girl, you know.}"

"{How do you know?}"

"{I just know.}"

Ino looked back at the screen. The film was still rolling in the eerie black and white of a late-night forest chase scene as the murder victim's background was established. She looked around behind her over the couch, but nothing was amiss save for her dirty dishes sitting in the sink. Ino shook her head.

"God, what a long day."

The movie switched gears to the FBI agents faced with the daunting task of solving a mystery that had stymied the state police. The lead on the team was a veteran female agent, middle-aged but sharp as a tac. Ino grinned and curled up on the couch. The minutes passed and she became engrossed in the story. The lights dimmed and the scenes changed to a wide bluebonnet field, where the female FBI agent was reflecting on the numerous dead ends in her case thus far.

"{I don't want you smoking when she's born.}"

"{I'll quit, I promise.}"

"{You said that last time, and you never did.}"

"{Oh give it a rest, already.}"

Ino sat up and glared around her empty apartment. Still and silent save for the sad background music accompanying the emotional scene in the bluebonnet field.

"Who's there?" she demanded.

That wasn't coming from the movie.

No one answered, and Ino got up and looked around. She checked her bathroom, her bedroom, even the laundry closet. Nothing. Frustrated, she rubbed her ears, thinking she'd probably been dozing again, lucid dreaming perhaps. It happened sometimes with high-stress jobs like hers. But it was one thing to be stressed and quite another to be hearing actual voices...

"I'm just tired," she reasoned.

Returning to the couch, she resolved to finish the movie, reap poetic justice, and call it a night. The twist at the end kept her guessing and ultimately set the film up for a sequel. Ino stretched out and yawned, satisfied with the evening's entertainment. She rose and turned off the TV, pausing afterwards to listen.

The voices were gone.

"Just my imagination," she said, relieved and feeling a bit silly.

Ten minutes later she was in bed and dozing off. The digital clock on her nightstand read 12:32 AM and she turned over, willing sleep to take her. The fan gyrating near the bedroom door was the only sound lulling her into a deep slumber.

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

Ino's eyes flew open and she jerked into a sitting position. Her body shook and her forehead glistened with cold perspiration. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she rubbed them clear of sleep. She put a hand on the mattress to steady herself, but frowned at the sensation.

It was hard.

"What the hell?"

She tapped the floor, wooden, and realized she was not in her bed at all, but on the ground. Her bedroom was carpeted, though. Fear and bile rose in her throat but Ino swallowed them down. There had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. The air tasted stale, like mothballs and something musty, subterranean. Ino rolled over onto her hands and knees as her eyes adjusted to the darkness and her hip knocked into something cold and hard.

"Ow, damnit."

Shapes came into focus as she felt about. Whatever she'd run into was round and smooth, cold to the touch. Metal. She felt around it and took in the full shape.

"A door knob," she said, puzzled.

A closed door was embedded in the floor. Ino crawled away from it but another knob met her retreating foot. Another door. Confusion turned to trepidation as she rose and looked around her. Doors, everywhere. They covered the floor and the walls. She looked up, but it was too dark to see the ceiling of this place. Maybe it went on forever in darkness, an inverted abyss. The space was enclosed otherwise. She walked to the nearest wall and put a hand on a doorframe to get her bearings.

"Dreaming," she said. "I'm dreaming."

It was freezing cold. An afterthought and one she hadn't noticed until just now. Ino shivered and her breath steamed. It had to be below freezing temperature in here. She looked around again. There were plenty of ways to go, but opening one of these doors was not an appealing thought.

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

Ino recoiled at the now familiar tune in her ear. It was muffled, far away yet close enough to hear. "Who's there?"

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

She rubbed her arms for warmth. Her pajamas provided little warmth. Frustrated and wishing she could just wake up already, Ino paced forward along the wall, following the little song that seeped through the wall. "Where are you?"

She passed a door and heard rattling. The doorknob shook, locked, but someone was on the other side and trying to get out. Ino paused and stared at it. "Are you there?"

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

The little girl's voice wafted through invisible cracks in the door, and Ino knocked on the door. "I'm here, I can hear you. Are you okay?"

The doorknob rattled Ino reached for it. It wouldn't budge. Locked. She swore and kneeled down to peer through the keyhole. "I'm here, I can help," she said, squinting through the tiny portal to see.


Darkness, not even a hint of movement. She strained her eye, but Ino saw nothing. The doorknob held her balance steady as she peered deeper beyond the door. The {echo} faded and she concentrated on searching for the origin, a little girl trapped beyond the locked door.


An eye appeared on the other end of the keyhole, wide and bloodshot, blacker than the darkness surrounding it. Ino screamed at the vision and the voice shouting in her ear, accusatory. She fell backwards and scrambled away from the door. The knob rattled more violently. A little girl laughed somewhere, the soft giggles escalating to a cackle too old and too wicked to be innocent. Ino began to hyperventilate, her fear commanding her to move away, as far away as possible. Beneath her, more doors' knobs began to rattle. Something wanted out.

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

Tears of fright filled Ino's eyes and she squeezed them shut. Her shivering hands she placed over her ears to block out that infernal song, but it {echo}ed all around. "Shut up!" she cried. "Shut up!"

The rattling was deafening, and the door upon which Ino sat shook so violently that she had to stand and get away from it. She looked around for an exit, anything at all, but everywhere she looked there were only endless doors, locked to keep whatever stalked her out.

"{I don't want to be alone.}"

"{Please, you don't have to do this!}"

"{Forgive me! Oh god, please forgive me!}"

Voices everywhere, male and female, child and adult, indistinguishable and barely intelligible. Terrible thoughts, last wishes, helpless pleas for mercy.

"Let me out," Ino whispered to herself, concentrating on her own voice over the myriad others.

"{I don't deserve this!}"

"{You don't understand.}"

"{No one gets out of here.}"

"Let me out!" Ino screamed.

The door she stood upon swung open under her feet and she fell. Her terrified screams followed, {echo}ing briefly until the darkness and vast nothingness swallowed them, no walls and no doors and no hope to cling to.

"{Let me out.}"

A voice not her own.

Ino screamed again, but nothing came out.

"I see a stairway so I follow it down
Into the belly of the whale where my secrets {echo} all around.
You know me now but to do better than that,
You've got to follow me, boy.
I'm trying to show you where I'm at.
Hey, Pretty.
Don't you wanna take a ride with me through my world?"

"As you can see, we haven't quite made our quarterly goal, and I'm not just talking about the juniors," Ibiki said to a room full of Morino & Mitarashi lawyers. "We have one last quarter to round out the year. Those of you falling behind on billable hours need to be aware. In this economy, we'll be forced to make cuts."

"Hey," Shino whispered to Ino, who was seated next to him. "You should finish up that pro bono and get back to the real work. You know, because I do not want to be stuck here without you."

"{He didn't do it!}"

"{Why can't you just listen for once in your life?}"

"{No, no! Oh god oh god oh god—!}"

Ino hung her head in her hands and breathed through her mouth. She'd woken up with a headache that was gradually becoming worse as the day wore on. Any hope of her dream having been just a dream shriveled and died upon waking to a cacophony of voices reverberating through her head. She was alone in her apartment, wandering through a sea of disembodied {echo}es. It had been like this all morning. Most were unintelligible murmurs, sometimes screaming, wailing, foreign languages, laughter, children signing.

"{Ba da pa pa.}"

Others sent her into the beginnings of a panic attack.

A hand on her shoulder nearly made Ino scream. The voices hushed and Shino stared at her point-blank, frowning.

"Ino? Did you hear what I just said?"

"Huh? Oh, no, sorry," she said, wiping her mouth to hide her irregular breathing.

Shino gave her a weird look. "How's the pro bono going?" he whispered as Ibiki went on about the styrofoam cups in the lounge.

"The what?"

"You know, Hidan the psycho serial killer we're trying to save for reasons I still cannot justify to myself?"

Ino looked away and stared at the table. The voices fell silent and only a low ringing {echo}ed in her ears. "Hidan, right."

"Okay, thank you everyone for coming," Ibiki said. "Now get back to work."

The conference room emptied and Ino rose with the crowd. Shino put an arm on her shoulder once they were outside in the hallway and she faced him.

"Are you all right, Ino? I ask because you seem very much in space today."

Ino blinked and forced a smile. "Sorry, it's nothing. I stayed up watching a movie last night."

They walked back toward their cubicles, but Shino didn't drop the subject.

"So, you didn't answer my question. How is the pro bono case coming?"

"{Fucking cunt, I'll kill you!}"

"{Jack, please, put the gun down baby—}"


"Hm? Oh, right." Ino ignored the whispers in her head and the nausea in her stomach. "It's going."

"Ibiki's got me very busy, but if you want, I'm happy to accompany you the next time you pay Hidan a visit. If that's something you want, I mean."

Ino stopped at her cubicle and rested her hands on the desk. "That's right, I should go visit him."

He attacked me.

"Didn't you go yesterday?"

Yesterday, I didn't hear them.

{"Poooooor Ino."}

Ino swallowed and refused to look around, knowing she would find nothing. No shadow lurking over her shoulder, no presence or entity or whatever the fuck was happening to her.

"The visit got cut short," she said.

"{When he tried to kill you~}"

Ino gritted her teeth. Cool breath tickled her ear. She jumped and whirled, lashing out with a pen. Shino just stared, concerned.

"Hey, are you all right? You seem jumpy today."

Is it talking to me?


"What?" she said, exasperated.

Shino put up his hands in a placating gesture. "My apologies if I angered you."

Ino's face fell and ran her hands over her ears and through her bangs. "No, Shino I'm sorry. I'm just...not myself today." She paused before adding, "I'll probably go back and see Hidan soon, but you don't have to come. It's sweet of you to offer, though, thanks."

Shino watched her a moment longer. "All right, if you say so."

Ino barely heard him as she sank into her chair and pulled up Google Search. The realist in her, the part that made her good at her job told her there was a rational explanation for all this. It was probably the case, some kind of post-traumatic stress in the wake of Hidan's attack. And she knew he'd attacked her despite her lack of physical injuries to attest to it. He was crazy; she had all her faculties intact. Fishing her iPod from her purse, she chose a rock playlist and cranked up the volume to drown out any whispers looking to drip venom in her ears, figment or no.

There is a rational explanation, she thought to herself.

Thanks to modern technology, most answers could be found online. She tried the obvious first and entered a search for 'hearing voices'. There were plenty of hits, but most were articles and organizations centered on mental illness, especially schizophrenia.

I'm not crazy. This is dumb.

Drumming her fingers on the keys, she entered in the next search that came to mind: '{echo}'. She received hits for a new movie playing, 'Earth to {Echo}'. Irrelevant. There were company pages with the word '{echo}' in the name. Google Images brought up crude diagrams of sound waves. She scanned the hits, looking for anything that might help.

The Myth of {Echo} and Narcissus, she read.

It rang a bell, but she couldn't recall where she'd heard it. Curious, she clicked on it and began to read. There were several versions of the old Greek myth about a nymph who'd earned Hera's wrath and was sentenced to a life without voice, doomed only to repeat the words of others. She fell in love with a beautiful youth, Narcissus, but, unable to speak first, she could only repeat his words to him. One version said the god Pan seduced {Echo} and fathered her two children. Another said {Echo} refused Pan's advances, and Pan caused creatures to tear her to pieces in retribution. Most versions recounted Narcissus catching his own reflection in a stream. He became enamored of himself, and when he spoke to his lovely reflection, {Echo} spoke back to him from the shadows. But Narcissus never looked back. Perhaps he didn't realize it was the lonely nymph talking to him and not his glistening reflection. Perhaps he didn't care. {Echo} withered in darkness, her skin and bones wasting away with the passage of time. Only her voice remained, wandering and wailing for all eternity.

Ino frowned. It didn't look relevant to her particular problem, but something about the myth stuck with her the way fright stays with people, carving out a niche for itself in her bones where she couldn't see it, didn't even know it was there until one day she'd look in the mirror and catch it festering, unchecked, and all of a sudden she'd remember why she was so afraid.

"{This voice is alive.}"

Ino jumped and nearly fell out of her chair at the sound of Hidan's voice in her ear, as though she were back in the asylum and he had her by the throat. She ripped her headphones out of her ears and gripped the edge of her desk. She looked around. Other lawyers and office employees walked up and down the hall going about their business, oblivious to her trembling. Shino got up and peered at her over their cubicle divider.

"Ino? Did you break something? I heard a crash."

Ino released the edges of her desk as though burned. "No, I'm fine. Sorry about that."

"You're acting very strangely today," Shino went on. "Are you sure you're feeling okay?"

Ino laughed for him. "I'm fine! I think I'm just ready for the weekend, you know? I'm having drinks with Sakura on Saturday."

Shino nodded. "Oh, please tell her I said 'hello'."

"I will. You should come out with us sometime."

"Ah, I would, but as you know I spend weekends at the farm when I can."

Ino shook her head, smiling. "Your family is so bizarre, you know that? I mean, who even owns a bee farm? You're like something out of a cult 50's horror flick."

"It's a family tradition."

"So why'd you become a lawyer?"

"Everyone needs a lawyer."

Ino laughed. "Very true. I imagine bees have lots of enemies."

"Actually, that's a common misconception. I can explain. You see, the killer bees you may see in cheap B-list horror films are grossly misrepresented—"

"Yeah, yeah, I get the picture. Believe me, Shino, you've changed my whole perspective on bugs. I should get you a medal for that alone."

"Ah, well..."

Ibiki picked that time to drop by and load Shino up with more work. "Ino, don't think you're off the hook. As soon as you've wrapped up that brief for Anko, I've got a financial agreement I need you to take a look at."

"No problem," she said.

He nodded and continued conversing with Shino about the project they were working on. Ino sat back in her chair, her mind drifting once more to Hidan. An Internet search would not give her the answers she wanted, of that much she was certain. The thought of going back to Ash Tree Lane Asylum was not a pleasant one, but she saw no other recourse. Picking out the number for the asylum from the company rolodex on her desk, she picked up the phone and and scheduled another appointment to see Hidan. The earliest she could get in was next Monday, which was not ideal, but there was nothing she could do about it.

I just have to get through the weekend. No big deal.

No big deal at all.

It stormed the night Sakura came over.

Ino was finishing up with the finger food she'd cooked up for tonight. Sakura was a lightweight who could use all the help she could get. Ino hummed along to the music playing on her iHome as she stuck a fork in the cheese puffs. Five more minutes, she decided, resetting the oven timer.

"{One of these days, I'll ask you to marry me.}"

A woman laughed lightly.

It was easy to ignore these voices. Maybe because they were familiar somehow, an old song on the radio whose lyrics were buried deep in the recesses of her mind, almost there but not quite. More than likely it was because they were harmless. Just kind susurrations, intimate.

"I can hear you," Ino said as she chopped fruit at the kitchen counter.

No answer. Perhaps they didn't hear her. Recordings? She would find no device hidden in her walls, no practical joke. Not because she'd checked, but because she just knew. The voices never left her, not for long. These two, the parents-to-be, were usually clear and the only voices she heard at the apartment. At work, driving, walking around outside was a different story. Mostly there was no distinguishing the words. Everything blended, colors running in water until they turned black and too thick to distinguish. Sometimes one would pierce through the rest. Anger, passion, sadness, even wistfulness. Ino had begun to grow used to them.

But there were some she didn't want to get used to.

A knock at the door pulled her from her thoughts. Ino rinsed her hands and walked toward the front door. Like humming, the whispers started up. She hesitated, strained to listen, but nothing made sense.

Who's there? she wanted to ask. But if she did, she might get an answer.

"Pig, open up! I'm getting soaked out here!"

Ino rushed to the door and unbolted it. Sakura stood on the other side in a floppy yellow rain poncho. She had a blender in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other. Ino shooed her inside and locked the door behind them.

"Oooh, do I smell appetizers?" Sakura asked, making her way to the kitchen to relieve herself of her luggage.

"Please, you don't think I'd let you cook for yourself, Forehead," Ino teased. "They've got a couple more minutes if you can wait."

"Fine, fine."

Sakura assembled the blender while Ino retrieved the ice she'd made in advance. A few shots of tequila and margarita mix later, the frozen drinks were ready for consumption in wide glasses. Ino joined Sakura across the coffee table in the living room with hors d'oeuvres, and the two women dug in.

"Oh my god, Ino, this is a sin," Sakura said after a mouthful of cheese puff. "You have to give me the recipe."

"What, so you can blow up your apartment? I don't think so. Besides, this keeps you coming back to me." She winked and sipped her margarita.

Sakura laughed. "Point. But come on, I'm not as bad of a cook as you think."

"Oh ho, do I have to remind you of Naruto's birthday party last year? The crème brûlée?"

Sakura's mirth left her and she soured. "That was an accident. That torch's 'on' switch was so jiggly a light wind could have set it off."

"Well as I recall, a light wind helped spread the fire to five tables. The fire you started." Ino tsked and shook her head in faux disapproval.

Sakura hissed and threw a wadded napkin at Ino's head. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"Hell no."


"I love you, too."

Sakura rolled her eyes and tried to hide a smile behind her drink. They talked of work, Sakura at the hospital and Ino at the firm. Sakura worked the night shift, which made getting together ever more difficult, not to mention their grueling working hours. Still, the two friends had always been good about keeping each other in the loop of their roller coaster lives. They laughed and drank and reminisced. At one point Ino queued up the Netflix and played Dial M for Murder over Sakura's protests, but Sakura became engrossed in the old Hitchcock classic and Ino never let her live it down.

"God, Grace Kelly was just perfect. Like, the perfect human being," Sakura gushed.

"You know, people say I look like her," Ino said, smirking.

Sakura snorted and poured herself a refill of margarita. "Please. Blondes are not all created equal."


"Hey, someone's gotta keep you down to earth. I bet all those hot murderers your firm represents just lay it on thick for you all the time."

Light danced in Sakura's eyes, from the alcohol and the company, but Ino found no joy in her words as she pictured two burning, violet eyes in her mind and shivered. Like just thinking about him could give him a glimpse of her. Sakura noticed the change in mood.

"You okay?"

Ino recovered and forced a smile. "Fine. It's just been a long week."

"Hey, speaking of murderers, I heard from Sasuke that you're working a pro bono for some bigshot serial killer? I thought you were one of those boring contract lawyers."

"Very funny, Forehead. And yeah, I'm corporate but we're shorthanded on this. Even Anko had to take a backseat for paying clients."

Sakura gaped. "Wait, so you're saying it's just you on the case? Is that even okay? You're not a senior associate."

Ino waved her off. "I'm handling it. The guy's locked up and I just have to do the briefs."

{"He wasn't locked up last time~"}

Ino rubbed her left ear to get the whispers out, little worms that wriggled in her ear, deeper and deeper.

"What's wrong? And don't tell me it's nothing. I know that look." Sakura set down her drink to prove her point and gave Ino her full attention. "Is it the case? Because you know, no one would blame you. The guy's a murderer, right?"

"Yeah. I mean, it's not really that," Ino tried.

"Then what is it? You can tell me."

Where to begin? Was it even wise to talk about it? Saying it out loud to another person would make this real, eliminate any shred of hope that she was just hallucinating, dreaming, drunk, whatever. Anything was better than this noise that wasn't quite white, though there were times she wished it was, as though tuning it out could negate its reality. As though closing her eyes to the lion's salivating maw would make it forget its hunger.

"Do you know the story of {Echo} and Narcissus? From Greek mythology?" Ino asked.

Sakura gave her a weird look. "Yeah, I guess. She fell in love with him but he fell in love with himself or something, right?"

Ino nodded and filled Sakura in on the details of the myth she'd researched earlier in the week. They were branded in her memory now, a part of her soul. She'd reread the words over and over and over, in her head and in her own voice at nothing more than a whisper for fear someone might hear.

"Narcissus was so obsessed with his own image that he didn't see anything else. He didn't hear {Echo} talking to him even though she was literally right there," Ino said as she stirred her slushy margarita. "I mean, what kind of person does that? To be so focused on your own life, your own problems or desires that you can't even register another person's words in your ear."

"I don't know." Sakura watched Ino in silence for a moment, green eyes troubled. She'd never been the best at reading others, and Ino had always been good at keeping things hidden. But it had never stopped Sakura from trying, and time paid off. "I guess it kind of sounds like a dystopian future. People become so internalized that they lose sight of the world. Everything we need is right here in front of us, so why look back?" She sighed. "Well, I don't think the Greek poets of old had the dark side of capitalism in mind when they wrote their stories."

Ino barely heard the rest of what Sakura was saying. Only one thought rang clear as a bell above all the rest: "He never looked back."

"Yeah, he was too busy admiring his own reflection like the narcissist he was. They even named the condition after the guy."

Ino shook her head, desperate to loosen the cobwebs clouding her senses. "No, I mean, he never looked back at her, not even to reject her love. All she wanted was his love, and he couldn't even turn her down. So she wasted away and died until she was just a voice, and even then all she could do was repeat whatever he said. She had no agency."

Sakura put a hand on Ino's and caught her gaze. "Hey, it's just a myth that explains what we now know to be a scientific phenomenon. It's just sound waves and space." She paused before adding, "Look, are you sure you're okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Ino pulled her hand away, suddenly uncomfortable with the contact but regretting breaking it at the loss of warmth and security she felt whenever she was around Sakura. "What? Come on, don't be ridiculous. I haven't seen a ghost, geez."

{"Listen carefully."}

She rubbed her ears hard enough to hurt. "You know, that kind of neglect'll do things to a person. To him, she was just this voice telling him his own secrets."

"What are you trying to say?"

Ino ran a hand through her hair. "I'm saying you can't love someone like that. Not forever, at least. Living an invisible life like that... {Echo} probably grew to hate him. That's why she wasted away. She must have hated him so much and she could never tell him because she could only say what he said, what he wanted to hear. He never looked back."

Sakura said nothing.

"What if he had?" Ino pressed. "What if he'd looked back at that voice in his head? What if he'd listened to her? What would've happened to him?"

{"They wanna tell you their secrets."}

Sakura let out a short, nervous laugh that she stifled with another swig of margarita. "I don't know, but what does it matter? It's just a myth. And even if it wasn't, what can an {echo} do?"

Ino swallowed and winced at the exsiccation in her throat, unquenchable. "I don't know."

I don't want to know.

{"This voice is alive."}

"Shut up," Ino hissed.


"Oh, sorry, nothing. I just need a refill."

The conversation changed and they spent the next hour talking about food, boys, and news of Karin and Sasuke moving in together.

"We have to take her out and get the whole story," Sakura said as she pulled on her poncho to brave the rain once more. "I can't believe she's been so hush hush about it. This is something to celebrate!"

"I know, right? Don't worry, I'll get it out of her. Let's go out soon."

"Hah, I know you will."

"Sakura, take a cab, okay? This weather is shit and it's late."

"Yes, Mom," Sakura teased. "I will."

Sakura left and Ino locked the door behind her. There wasn't much of a mess to clean up, but she did have to take out the trash. With the dishes done, the leftovers stored in the fridge, and the trash bag tied up and ready to go, Ino checked the clock: 3 AM. Groaning, she resolved to get in bed after this.

Outside it was still raining, but the stairs leading down to the dumpsters a couple floors down were covered. The dumpsters themselves, not so much. Ino trudged down, one step at a time, hauling the heavy trash bag along behind her. It was dark and there were no lights to illuminate the stairs as she descended. She thought little of it as she stepped down and down. There was a sensation of depth to this trek, like she wasn't just going down but within, deeper into something breathing and alive. Pausing a moment, she turned to look back over her shoulder at the light outside her front door. It was far away and high up. The dumpsters should be just ahead.

Tap, tap, tap. Every step sounded louder than the one before it, like an {echo} hitting her harder and faster every time. She was so focused on reaching the end that she lost track of the journey. Her breathing was labored and sweat coated her forehead. She'd been hurrying and hadn't even realized it. Peering ahead, all she could make out was inky blackness, undulating as it beckoned her forth.

"This isn't right," she said aloud.

A quick glance back, however, returned only more of the same sentient darkness. There was no light in sight. Panic rose in her throat and she turned to face down again. She shook her head and took a step back.

"I don't want to go down there."

{"Go down there."}

The disembodied voice came from behind, and as soon as Ino heard it the whispers started. So many voices, pained and worried and desperate to be heard, though none could overcome the dull drone. Fear took over. This was not the safety of her apartment or her office, and there was no up or down. The darkness around her shifted, groaned like some wounded beast, stalking her. Wanting to put as much distance between that growling voice and herself as possible, Ino abandoned the trash bag and ran down the stairs as fast as she could. The whispers became louder as she went to the point of becoming painful. She covered her ears, tried to keep them out, but they slithered in and made a home there, reverberating within her. She screamed.

"Shut up!"


Ino collided with something hard and cool, and for a moment she saw stars. Disoriented, she barely heard her constant {echo}:


Fumbling about for something to right herself, her hand closed around a doorknob and she twisted it on instinct. Anywhere was better than here, and she stepped through.

And fell.

There was no time even to scream. The ground rushed to meet her as the room spun, and what was the floor became the ceiling. Groaning at the soreness in her legs, Ino pulled herself up and looked around. The door she'd come through swung shut on its hinges. It sat several yards high on a wall. There was no getting back to it. A familiar fear latched onto her shaking fingers and crept up her arms. She shivered and scrambled to her feet. Doors, everywhere.

"No, not this again. No, no, no."

I wasn't even asleep!

But did that mean this place was real? Ino didn't entertain the thought as she ran around and looked for anything that might help her. She was careful not to trip over any doors in the floor like last time. That was all there were: doors. But it was silent; the whispers had ceased and all she heard was the sound of her own breathing.

"Hello?" she tried. "Can anyone hear me? Hello!"

Nothing, not even an {echo}. The space was too narrow for her voice to carry to any listening ear. Not even an {echo}. Ino hugged herself for warmth and for fear. No use screaming. No one would hear her here. She walked around and hummed to herself to fill the space.

So many doors. Where do they go?

She approached one on the wall to her right. There was nothing special about it, just the same oily black wood as the rest. A low growl resonated somewhere above, the same she'd heard running to this place. Like it was alive and had swallowed her whole, down and deep into the belly of the whale. Thoughts of escape, thoughts of Hidan, thoughts of poor {Echo} and her immortal suffering alone in darkness swam in Ino's mind, but they came to an abrupt standstill as she heard the tune she was singing to herself.

"Ba da pa pa."

Ino covered her mouth and began to tremble. The whispers picked up again, completely out of nowhere, and she could no longer see the ceiling. It had disappeared, swallowed by the darkness. When? How had she not noticed before?

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Ino choked on her own breath at the sound of that singsong tune, muffled, coming from somewhere nearby. She wondered if she'd called it, summoned it somehow with her own singing. Every instinct told her to run but there was nowhere to run to. She kept a hand on the wall and moved.

{"Ba da pa pa."}

This terrible thought followed and drew her in, had been for days, and she couldn't get it out of her head. Door after door after door, and the song grew louder. Ino wrapped her hand around the knob, and it shook from the other side, locked and wanting out. She put her ear against the door, her breathing shallow.

"What can an {echo} do?"

Nothing. She just wasted away. She can't hurt me.

{"Hurt me."}

Ino jumped and pulled away from the door. She hadn't even said anything, but that voice... Her head began to pound with the onset of a migraine.

"Get out of my head," she whispered. "I don't want you here!"

Voices hissed in her ear, made her head swim. She saw nothing but darkness, felt nothing but cold, and only the whispers kept her grounded. A constant. Ino reached for the doorknob again. Unlike Narcissus, she heard them, knew they were there. Whatever their secrets, she listened.

{"Let me out."}

Or maybe he did know. Maybe he knew {Echo} had been there. Maybe he wasn't oblivious or vain. Maybe he was just terrified out of his mind, petrified in place, unable and unwilling to look back because if he looked, if he answered her cries, she would consume him. She would become real and immortal.

"This voice is alive."

Ino twisted the knob. "What do you want?"

{"Ino, don't!"}

Ino gasped and pulled her hand away from the knob as though burned. The force of her movement made her stumble backward, and a door somewhere behind her opened, slammed into the wall. Ino stared at the space beyond, blackness folding in on itself and something else. A silhouette? It was hard to make out through her watering eyes. Behind her, the door she'd abandoned rattled louder and louder as whatever lay on the other side tried to get out.

{"Let me out!}

Shaking legs drew Ino away and toward the open door, a way out, or maybe a way in. It didn't matter, and she ran. "Please, help me!"

{"You're safe with me."}

Trembling hands caught the door frame as Ino leaned into the darkness, searching for a ray of light.

That voice.


{"You shouldn't be here."}

Tears blurred Ino's vision, warped the darkness and his presence, readily felt but invisible. She couldn't see him, but she felt him, his voice, all around. "Asuma, is that you? Asuma!"

The door behind Ino rattled so violently that she was sure it would burst off its hinges. Ino was no coward, but this scared the living daylights out of her. The only escape was into absolute darkness, destination unknown.

"Hello!" she screamed into the void.


Not even her own voice. The abyss swallowed it whole, too vast to make an impact. Ino looked back. The door she'd left behind leaked something she couldn't make out, something long and slender. It swam closer to her on long tendrils with minds of their own.

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Ino choked on a sob. "Fuck you."

She jumped.

And she fell. The {echo} followed her, but she didn't look back. She faced the fall head first. There was no way she was going back there.

Let me out.

Please, let me out of here.

{"Let me out."}


Up, down, Here, There, nothing mattered anymore. Maybe this was it, the end of the road. The voices died behind her, all except the door swinging on its hinges as invisible winds passed it by, bodies diving after her. But she didn't look. Don't look don't look don't look don't—


Ino shifted on the wet ground, doused from head to toe in chilly rainwater. She coughed and it wracked her entire body. A light flickered overhead and cast errant shadows as moths flocked to it for shelter from the rain and the night. Her head pounded, and she sat up. Trash lay strewn about the ground, empty milk cartons and tin foil and used paper towels.

"I'm back," she said, looking around at the familiar surroundings.

Her teeth began to chatter, and her clothes were completely soaked through. How long had she been out here? How had she even gotten here? The last thing she remembered was falling, chasing that voice from her childhood.


Tears stung her eyes at the memory of her old teacher and friend. It had definitely been him she'd heard, there was no doubt about it. Nothing made sense, but she knew that voice, finally clear after all this time. She pulled herself up and looked around. There was a rip in the trash bag she'd carried down here, which explained the mess. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. In the distance, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the cityscape.

The rain fell all around her and Ino just stood there, listening to the roar and wondering if this was what it was like to drown.

"And his head spins around just like the exorcist,
And I find it ever so hard to resist
His cries."

"I knew you'd come back."

Ino had disliked a startling number of people in her lifetime, but never had she hated someone the way she hated Hidan. It fascinated her how he could draw such an intensely negative reaction from her just by speaking. And it felt good to project such a blistering emotion on a man like him, not even a man at all.

Bet his victims could sympathize.

{"Bet they could."}

Ino sat down across from her client without a word. She brought no folders today, no briefcase, not even a notepad. Pepper spray, however, she'd packed in her jacket pocket. The warden had been loathe to let her in here alone and unmonitored again, but she insisted on attorney-client privilege. It was the law, and the warden was just slippery enough to bend to a show of bravado and the threat of police action against him should he refuse Ino's terms.

But this was not a visit to offer legal counsel. Ino was here on her own business, and she was not leaving until she got the answers she sought. Tucking her long bangs behind her ear, she ignored Hidan's comment.

"What did you do to me?" she demanded.

She noticed he was straight-jacketed this time. He wasn't going anywhere, certainly not anywhere near her. It emboldened Ino, though she could not deny this man scared the shit out of her. Straight jacket or no, there was no diminishing the burning in his eyes directed in all its force upon her. She held his gaze, unwilling to let him intimidate her.

Hidan licked his lips. "Nothin'. But I can if you want. Just say the word, girly."

Ino leaned forward enough to fold her arms on the table in front of her. The cold steel stung her bare hands. She swallowed the tickle in her throat at the discomfort his innuendo brought her. "When you pushed me against that wall," she pointed to said wall, "you whispered something in my ear. That's when all this started. So I'll ask you again: what the fuck did you do to me?"

He frowned, and Ino had the irrational urge to giggle at how ridiculous he looked like that. Confused, like a child, pouting.

A pouty serial killer.

"Hm, don't recall," Hidan said. "I mean, I recall pushing you against that wall, don't get me wrong."

Ino clenched her fists. "Do I have to spell it out for you?" She lowered her voice despite the fact that there was no one monitoring their conversation. "I'm hearing things."

"What kindsa things? You gotta be a little more, uh, specific."

What kinds of things?

{"I never loved you."}

{"What should we name her?"}

{"I'll fucking kill you, you stupid bitch!"}

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Ino averted her gaze. "Voices. More like {echo}es of voices. I hear them everywhere. Usually I can't understand them, but sometimes I do..."

"You know, I think they call that skitz-o-frehniuh." He drawled the syllables like they were pushing past a mouthful of marbles. "You probably shouldn't be tellin' people that unless you wanna end up in here with me."

He bared his teeth in a grin and his eyes lit up as he appreciated his own words and watched her absorb them.

"Cut the crap, Hidan. I know you know what I'm talking about."

He shrugged. "Even if I did, who gives a flyin' fuck?"

"I want you to fix it. Make it stop. Whatever, I don't care, just do it."

His grin faded and he resumed staring intently at her. "No."

Ino narrowed her eyes. "So you do know what's going on."

"Ah, clever, I see what you did there. But still, no."

"Why the hell not? This is your fault!" Ino took a deep breath and smoothed her long ponytail, gathered her thoughts. "Look. I can't live like this. The voices are one thing, but the blackouts..." She shook her head. "I don't know if I'll escape next time."

Hidan watched her in silence, barely moving even to breathe as he listened.

"Don't just stare; say something," she demanded.

He tsked her. "Can't get somethin' for nothin', girly. Why should I help you?"

"Because I'm the one fighting to save your wretched life. You should be thanking me."

Hidan laughed, low and throaty, not like the cackle that had chased her out of this place before. "There are some things I'd like to do to you, but thanking you ain't one of 'em."

Frustrated and exhausted from prolonged insomnia and a lingering terror that clung to her bones like winter's biting chill, Ino rose from her chair and pushed it out with her legs. "Fine. Then you can rot in here for all I care."

His voice stopped her as she turned to leave. "I said there are some things."

"You don't seem to want what I'm offering."

"Then maybe you're offerin' the wrong thing. Sit down."

Ino remained standing but she turned to face him. The subtle shift in his expression was not lost on her. He wasn't used to defiance, particularly not from petite young women. He flashed her a bright smile that gave Ino the creeps.

"I'm all ears," Ino sneered.

"I just wanna talk to you is all. You know how boring it is being cooped up in this shithole?"

"We're talking now."

"Nah, you're already out the door." He leaned forward and hunched until his chin nearly touched the metal table top. "I wantcha in here. Where I can hear you good."

Ino held her head high, well aware of the height difference fueling the power play between them. But the way he leaned forward, practically offering his neck to her, leached her confidence somewhat. This man was not an idiot; he just liked to fuck with people and watch them squirm.

"If I talk to you, will you talk to me?"

Hidan sighed dramatically. "What is it with you females? It's always me, me, me." He leaned back in his chair. "You need two to carry a proper, uh, conversation."

Ino hesitated. To give into his request would be to admit his dominant position in the bargaining pool. But refusing him would mean the end of her quest for answers. There was only one solution, and while she hated it, she hated the idea of retreat even more. So she reclaimed her seat and crossed her arms, waiting.

"There, see? I'm not such bad company."

"Start talking," Ino said.

"Wouldja consider yourself a religious person?"

His question threw her, but she held his gaze. "No. Tell me about the voices."

"I see. Haaaa the pretty ones never are. Just my fuckin' luck, huh?"

"Hidan, answer the question."

As though someone had flipped a switch somewhere in Hidan's head, he changed. Transformed into something else, a different beast with claws and a taste for blood. He hardly moved, but the look in his eyes said it all. Ino stiffened as an icy chill of fear ran down her spine just looking at him.

"Tsk tsk tsk girly, what'd I tell you about carryin' a con-ver-say-shun, hm?"

{"Trigger-happy Jack is gonna blow."}

She wished she had some water, anything to distract her hands from the rattle in them every time she heard that voice, the one speaking directly to her. She looked up and to the right, pondering its origin, but gave up the search, not wanting to succeed. Hidan watched her eyes and followed her gaze. He licked his lips.

"I'm a god-fearing man myself," he said. "I like that phrase: god-fearing."

With no other way out of this if she wanted any hope of his cooperation, Ino resigned herself to playing along with his sick Jedi mind tricks. "Many people find comfort in religion."

He frowned. "The fuck d'you know? You said you're not religious. You weren't lyin' to me, right?"

"No, I'm not lying. It's just common knowledge."

He calmed down and Ino let out the breath she was holding. "Huh, well maybe for those damned pretenders. You got any idea how many people claim they believe and then turn around and fuck whores or screw their friends or punch their kids? Fuckin' heretics. Hah, what'm I sayin'? 'Course a snake like you oughtta know."

"Most people aren't like that." She ignored the jibe at her profession.

"That's 'cause most people get away with it." He grinned. "We all got our secrets, stuff they don't wantcha to hear."

Ino bit the inside of her cheek at the opening he may or may not have just given her. "So what happens when we can hear them? Those secrets."

He tilted his head to see her better, or worse perhaps. Ino wasn't sure how he could see much of anything in his poor hygiene and health. Those burning, sunken eyes that reflected a deep, bruising purple, like the bottom of a frigid ocean where no light and no warmth could ever reach.

"See the problem is that people claim they're following the holy word, but they're just lyin' through their crooked teeth. Nobody wants to admit they're fucked up. That's not normal."

Ino lamented the missed opportunity, but she let it go for now. "But you admit it. It's why you're here, to take credit for all those people you mutilated to death. I can't think of anything more blasphemous than murdering innocent people."

The words flowed like honey from her lips, easily and eagerly. His lips twisted in anger, but not for the reason she would have expected.

"Innocent? They were not innocent! There was that kid stealin' money from his parents' retirement fund so he could buy useless shit and get lit every night. Scum. And the mother of four who loved her shitty Ketel One more than feedin' her damned toddler. Scum. And the old man who liked to make his ten-year-old niece suck his crusty old dick. Scum, all of them. They deserved to die 'cause they had secrets. Shit they didn't want anyone to know, but I know. In fact, they're fuckin' lucky Lord Jashin chose them. I sure as hell didn't."

There was no arguing the logic of a madman. No matter what she said, he would never see the world the way she did, the way normal people did. Even if what he said were true (debatable and irrelevant to his penchant for murder), it didn't give him the right to mete out his own brand of justice when there was a functioning legal system to take care of it. It wasn't perfect and plenty of people slipped through the cracks, but she had to believe in it. If she believed in anything at all, it was the human capacity for compassion and fairness.

"What do you mean that Lord Jashin chose them? You don't choose your own victims?"

"Oh no," Hidan said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I'm just the executioner, not the judge."

"But how do you know who he chooses?"

"Easy. I listen."

Ino swallowed as a buzzing in her ears grew in volume. "You hear them, too."

"I hear secrets."

Her heart was pounding so loud she could barely hear the escalating whispers screaming for attention. "What do they tell you?"

"Aaaaaall kinds of things. But I only listen to Lord Jashin."

Ino said nothing to that. He must have named one of them, though she could not imagine why.

Because he's psychotic.

What a terrible thought.

"Whadda they tell you?"

Dark stairs that led to nowhere and voices, those infernal voices leading her on. Go up. What is up when up is down and nowhere at all? Where do those doors lead?

"What can an {echo} do?"

"They say, 'let me out'."

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Ino held her aching head in her hands and breathed through her nose. Thinking straight was an ordeal, and she didn't trust herself to talk much anymore. She needed to get out of this place, away from Hidan.

"You don't look so good, girly. Somethin' keeping you up at night?" Hidan asked.

Ino lifted her head and met his gaze, smug and alert. Of course he knew.

"I have to go," she said, standing up and determined to leave this time.

Hidan didn't try to stop her, but she caught his last words as she swung open the heavy metal door and stepped outside:

"You'll let it out one day."

Ino refused to look back even as his words clawed at her back, gnawed at her brain and filled her with ideas, such terrible, terrible thoughts.

No, I won't.

Her heels clicked and clacked as she sped down the empty hallway, {echo}ing behind and in front like stones dropping into a deep pool.

I won't.

{"Ba da pa pa."}

The lie burned a hole in her haunted head, burrowing deep and making a home to stay.

Six walls (unpadded, he isn't getting away this time and no one cares, besides). His whole life in a tiny room with eyes and ears that neither see nor listen. They wouldn't know what to look for, anyway. He sits there, surrounded on all sides by these walls that obliterate, not even nail holes where old pictures hung (for no one who ever came in here ever left), and he listens.

She is gone.

But she'll be back.

He knows because they tell him so.

A jerk to the left to catch a shadow of an {echo} that isn't really there. The room's eyes and ears can't detect it, anyhow, so it must not be real. Must not be normal.

They're getting worse.

They don't like this place, these oblivious walls that erase and conceal that which isn't really there. Maybe he will die in here. The thought amuses him, and he laughs.

He will not die in here.

But they're getting louder, more impatient. This can't go on forever. He bears his teeth in a snarl.

"No," he says. "I won't."

The room's eye swivels, entranced by these unbidden words.

"Fuck off."

Burning, violet eyes sweep the room, searching but not seeing. He and his prison are not so different.

"Because I'm not done yet," he says. He is growing angry.

Eyes and ears possess strict limitations. They cannot speak, they cannot feel, and they cannot detect what is not there. At some point his breath begins to mist, but the room cannot tell the difference in temperature, these walls that obliterate and obliviate.

"You can't have her."

The door opens and brings with it a rush of warmth and the smell of burned food. He remains seated on the floor, cross legged and jacketed.

"Don't be so fuckin' greedy."

Feet shuffle away, quicker than before, to put the walls in between Here and There. The door closes and locks, leaving him alone. But the joke's on them, this room, those eyes and ears that know nothing at all.

He is never alone.

Ino became used to the voices in her apartment. They were always the same, and though she knew them now, they did not know her. Not anymore.

"Asuma, I'm thinking of getting a cat. This place gets so lonely, don't you think?"

There was no sound at all as Ino padded to the kitchen to prepare some dinner, her mind far away from her encounter with Hidan earlier that day.

"So that's how it is, huh? Well, Kurenai will agree with me, right?"

{"Tulips? For me? Oh, they're beautiful!"}

A man chuckled. {"I'm lucky you're so easy to please."}

Ino listened to them with a wistful smile. "A cat is, then."

Here, the others didn't disturb her. It was only the two of them, living their lives in remnants only Ino could hear. How could this be evil?

It's not evil.

It wasn't evil when she stayed up until 4 AM every night, exhausted but unable to tune out Asuma worrying about his unborn child and Kurenai commenting that she had a dinner date with a girlfriend later. Little things, beautiful things, things that saved her. Things that kept her up at night and hollowed out the hole in her head where worms and whispers and lives she'd once loved made their home.

It's not evil.

"I'm listening. I hear you," she reassured the empty darkness surrounding her bed. "I'm here."

{"I'm here."}

"Do you dream, girly?"

"Everyone dreams. Most people just don't remember," Ino said.

She'd asked the warden for a glass of water but he'd refused her requests.

"No liquids. He could use them to kill himself."

She thought about reminding him that she'd brought pens in here before, but decided against it. The man was scatterbrained, probably in no condition to be running an asylum. She wanted to laugh.



"Soooo, do you got a good memory or a bad one?"

She shrugged. "Average, I suppose."

"What'd you dream about last night?"

Ino pursed her lips together. His little inquiries into her personal life were not her idea of a good time, but she grinned and bore it for the sake of answers.

"Doors," she admitted. "So many doors, but no way out."

"Or maybe, no way in. Didya ever think about it that way?"

He ran his tongue across his teeth behind closed lips. He did that a lot, she'd noticed. Maybe he liked the smooth dampness. Smooth and damp. Like the doors in that arctic, dark place. Walls that obliterate and obliviate. Nothing could get in, and nothing could get out.

"I got in," she said.

"Really, now."

{"Let me out."}

"Funny thing about doors and walls is there's, uh, two sides to 'em. An In and an Out. A Here and a There. Bah, it's all so fuckin' complicated."

"Why do you do that?"

"Come again?"

"You act like you don't know what you're talking about, but you do. You know more than you're willing to share."

He shifted in his straightjacket, like he was grabbing at an itch he couldn't scratch. A crooked smile found its way onto his sunken but youthful face, almost comical. Almost quirky, if Hidan could have ever been described as quirky.


"Well, maybe I don't wanna share with you. Maybe if you, say, let me outta this place, I might be more forthcoming."

Ino snorted. "Nice try. You're here because you're a danger to the public. You're never getting out of here."

"Tsk tsk tsk, don't say shit that makes you sound like a fuckin' retard. It doesn't suit that pretty face."

"Insult me all you want. You're still never getting out of here except to die."

"Well, you and me both, girly."

Ino shivered and it showed.

"What, you don't believe me?"

"I'm not the one who killed eleven people in cold blood. I can leave anytime I want."

He laughed, softly at first, but it soon escalated. Ino let him have his laugh, knowing there was no use interrupting anyway.

"Poooooor Ino," he drawled. "This place is my home. My, uh, household, you could say." He made a face. "Household. You got one of those?"

"Sure, I have an apartment."


Ino gave him a condescending look. "Like I'd tell you."

"But I thought I was stayin' here until I die, er, forever."

"Nothing is ever absolute."

He smiled and Ino feared she'd said something right. "No, it sure as fuck ain't. So you got a household, then."

"I do."

"I hate that word, howss-hold." He drew out the word's individual sounds so she could hear them all, every part. "Just a fancy word for prison, like this place. People think they want it, a buncha walls keepin' 'em safe from the Big, Bad World out there, but really they're all trapped. It's them who can't get out."

Ino rolled her eyes. "You're overthinking it. A household is just a home, like you said. People live there. That's it."

"It's not about thinkin'. You think too much with your fancy degree and fancy job and all that other privileged bullshit you got going on. No no no, you know what I mean. Take a peek inside that snake heart of yours and you'll want out, too."

"I'm not trapped. And I know my own heart better than anyone. Certainly better than you."

"Aaaahhhh," Hidan sighed. "There you go, puttin' up walls again. Why do you lock yourself up like that? So many doors, but no way out. Poooooor Ino."

Ino remembered a room, dark and cold, doors everywhere, locked, an endless stairway she couldn't climb. What was behind them? Who? What?

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Hidan watched her, waiting, as she revisited that nightmare. No way out, none that she dared try. Only {echo}es tolling for her, keeping her company.

"Like I said, you and me both."

A knock on the door signaled the end of the session. Hidan had therapy to get to. Ino rose and admitted the orderlies here to haul him off down some gray corridor to the bowels of the asylum. Ino stepped outside and let the orderlies do their job. Just as they passed her by with Hidan, he leaned as close to Ino as he could get without being noticed and whispered:

"Ba da pa pa."

Ino pressed her body against the wall so violently she scraped up her fingers on the serrated walls. She hissed in pain and surprise, ready to lash out, scratch her bleeding finger across Hidan's sneering face, gouge out those burning, deep eyes because there had to be something behind them, someone inside, someone like her. But he was gone, disappeared down that endless, winding hallway to an oblivion where she could not follow.

But she wanted to.

Hidan's brief was done and polished. It sat in a pile on Ino's desk collecting dust. She hadn't filed it yet. There was time, she told herself. Anko hadn't asked anyway, and the court didn't need it for another week. It wasn't long, and the level of dispassionate blackletter law she'd managed to fill it with almost surprised her. It was what she didn't include that stayed with her. The things she kept for herself.

"What is that?"

Ino looked up to find Shino leaning over their cubicle divider, staring down at her.

"Huh? What's what?"

"That song you keep humming."

Ino frowned. "I wasn't..."

"Well, yes, actually, you were. Something like, 'ba da pa pa'. I'm sure that's it because I've heard you singing it before."

Ino heard nothing else as Shino's words hit her like a block of ice. She couldn't remember singing aloud at the office. Hidan knew, too, but she hadn't sung in front of him, either. Or maybe she had? The memories eluded her, if they existed at all.

If it wasn't her singing, then who was it?

"What can an {echo} do?"

"No, no, no," Ino said as she gathered up her purse and prepared to leave.

"Ino? What's the matter? If it's the humming you're worried about, it doesn't bother me at all," Shino said.

Ino shook her head. "I-I have to go. I'm not feeling well. Please tell Ibiki, okay?"

She was out of earshot before Shino could answer.

{Echo} loved Narcissus more than anything. She stayed by his side, gazing at his back from darkness, content in her existence so long as she could stay near him. Free.

But how loyal is love? How strong is it? Nothing is absolute. Nothing lasts forever. No one is immortal.

No one.

Even as worms ate her flesh and rats gnawed at her bones, she continued to gaze upon the silhouette of her love, her lifeline. The one who filled her lungs and gave her voice, even if it wasn't her own.

What about two?

Two was her demise. Two was her nightmare. Two was what she needed, and two was what she never had. He never looked back.

Partake of me, she implored the vermin chewing at her flesh. At least somewhere, something could feel her.

Two are immortal.

One to feed, the other to receive. A selfish immortality. He forsook sustenance, needing only himself. She forsook herself, needing only him. And in the end, as in everything, all that remained was a shade, a whisper on the wind of what once was.

What is still there, though he is long gone. Though he cannot see her. Hear her.

He cannot see her claws ripping the flesh of his fine back, burrowing deep into his heart, pounding on his walls.

"Let me in. Let me in!"

Walls that keep him isolated. From her. From her love.

From her hatred.

He is not safe from either.

"What will happen if I let it out?"

Hidan smacked his lips together. "Well~ it's like what that one poetry faggot said: to let it out or not to let it out, that's the million dollar question, baby."

Ino bit back a smirk. "Close enough."

She took stock of him. He was leaning back in his chair, shoulders hunched, head back, legs spread out. Comfortable, straightjacket notwithstanding. She, too, slumped a bit and crossed her legs, hands in her lap. Jerking, she sat up straight and uncrossed her legs, bringing them together as closely as they would fit. She couldn't remember when she'd begun to slouch in his presence, but it was ending now. Strapped in or not, Hidan was not someone she ever planned on underestimating or relaxing around.

He noticed her sudden shift and chuckled. "Cool your jets. It's just little ol' me here. Nothin' to be afraid of."

Ino ignored his taunting and got back to business. "What would happen if I let it out?"

"Let what out?"

"You know what." She averted her gaze. "It scares me."

"Hah, that's funny."

"It is not funny!" Ino snapped. "Look, you might be okay with all this," she gestured around the room, "but I'm not. I'm not crazy, and I'm definitely not like you. I don't want any of this."

Hidan shook his head. "Since when did a snake like you become such a shitty liar?"

Ino said nothing as she held her ground.

It's not evil.

"It's funny 'cause you still don't get it."

"Then enlighten me, oh wise one."

"You know, one of these days someone's gonna smack that sharp mouth of yours."

"As long as I deserved it."

Hidan threw his head back and laughed. "That's why I like you, Ino Yamanaka. You're not boring."

"Answer my question. What happens if I let it out?"

He calmed down and looked her dead in the eye. Wide eyes that burned and smoked and made her own eyes water, like staring into fire for too long. "Whatcha should be askin' is where does it go?"

Ino said nothing. Not because she had nothing to say, but because she'd already thought of this. And she didn't want an answer to that question. Beyond the doors she couldn't open, the doors that confined her to that dark household, where her secrets {echo}ed all around—what lay beyond?

And once the door was open, would she ever be able to close it again?

"You've already opened it, haven't you?" she asked.

"That is none of your goddamned business."

"That's why you won't tell me what happens. I already know."

Hidan frowned. "What're you on about?"

"Households. You already said it." Ino's mind raced with the memories of their past conversations. That dark stairway to nowhere and everywhere. "You followed it all the way down. You couldn't tune out the voices. You can't say no to Jashin."

Hidan jerked forward and bared his teeth. "You better shut your filthy mouth if you wanna keep it."

Ino covered her mouth, but not out of shock. She stifled a laugh, one from deep inside. "Oh my god, why didn't I see it before? You're here because you're addicted. You let them control you. You're not a serial killer; you're just the delivery boy."

Hidan rattled his restrains so violently Ino thought for sure they might break, but they did not. The steel table and his chair were bolted to the ground, and he made little impact. The look in his eyes, however, was the kind she'd never seen but instinctively knew to fear more than death itself. She slowly stood, towering over him.

"How simple," she said. "You're only here, you're only anything because of them. What happens when you let them out? You happen."

"You dunno what the fuck you're sayin', girly."

"Oh, I think I do. I think I know exactly what I'm saying. But I'm not like you. I won't let them out. I'm not a little bitch like you."

He struggled against his restraints as Ino backed away toward the door. "Ino! Don't you fucking walk away from me!"

"Too late."

She let herself out of his holding cell, a smug smile on her face.

"I told you before, you're stuck. You're not goin' anywhere. And I'll find you."

Ino waved at him over her shoulder. As the door closed and blotted out the sound of his struggling, she caught his final warning to her:

"You'll let me in."

The door slammed shut behind her, cutting off all sound, and she started down the hallway toward the exit. She sang a soft tune to herself as she went, that smile never quite leaving her face.

"Ba da pa pa."

"Tell me what you've come for,
Moving like a hunter through my back door,
Leaving the perfume of all you adore
To die nameless on my floor.
You've got some nerve to come back here;
You're not the only one who can smell fear."

Dinner at Karin and Naruto's place was a welcome distraction, but there was an exhaustion that had seeped into Ino's bones and refused to give her a respite. She couldn't shake it, no matter how much espresso she downed or how excited she was to hear about Karin moving in with Sasuke at the end of the month.

"I got the olive oil!" Naruto announced, setting down a vat of the stuff on the counter next to Ino.

"Great. Why don't you go set the table?" Ino said.

Naruto crossed his arms. "You totally just want me out of the kitchen, huh."

"Duh, idiot. You know you're a mess in here," Karin chided.

"Aw, Karin, not you too!"

Karin rolled her eyes and Ino laughed. Naruto trudged out of the kitchen and busied himself with setting the table.

"Try living with him," Karin said as she chopped garlic.

"Speaking of which," Ino said, making use of the olive oil Naruto had procured. "Sasuke tells me you're moving in with him pretty soon. Wanna tell me why you're keeping it a secret?"

Naruto and Karin shared a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise. Karin had come down for an internship at the Konoha Police Department one summer during college and never really left. Naruto was ecstatic to have her, the rest of his close family already deceased. Somehow, the two of them kept each other going in spite of it.

Karin continued to mince garlic. "It's not a secret. I'm just not advertising it to everyone and their mom."

"Hey now, I thought we were friends," Ino teased.

"We are," Karin said before she could stop herself. She scowled. "Whatever. It's happening, end of story. Nothing to talk about, really."

"Well, I'm just happy for you. I know how close you and Sasuke are. This was a long time coming."

"Yeah," Karin said softly.

"So...why do I get the feeling something's holding you back?"

Karin brought the knife down on her thumb and hissed. Blood bloomed and began to drip on the cutting board. Ino said nothing as she reached for some paper towels, wetted them, and handed them to Karin.


"Distracted much?"

"I guess."

Karin had always been a bit laconic. Not at all like Sakura, who was an open book to Ino. She supposed everyone had their secrets, but whatever this one was had been grating at Karin for some time. Years.

"They wanna tell you their secrets."

"Listen, we don't have to talk about it, okay? Just forget I said anything," Ino said.

Karin shook her head. "It's fine. I just... I don't know. It's really happening."

"Yeah, I guess it is." Ino offered her a smile.

"Do you ever wonder if things weren't supposed to be like this?"

Ino frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Just that. That maybe, somehow, we're on the wrong path. That things should've been different."

Ino gave Karin a weird look and put up a hand. "Whoa there, should I be worried? You sound like one of those CW teen dramas."

Karin snorted. "Please, like I watch that crap."

Ino grinned and resumed chopping the garlic. "Listen. This kind of decision is huge. You've been with Sasuke, what, like three years or something? I think you're in the clear. I mean, as long as you know you love him. Um, you do love him, right?"

"Of course I do!" Karin blushed and looked away. "Whatever."

Ino laughed. "It's not like it's some big secret, you know. Anyway, as long as you're happy, then I say don't worry."


She didn't sound convinced. Ino stopped chopping and put a hand on Karin's shoulder. "Hey, what's really the matter?"

"Nothing, it's fine."

"No, it's not. I can tell."

Karin was silent for a moment, unsure what to say or if she should say anything at all. "Sometimes I just wonder if things had been different, where would I be? If I hadn't been where I was, met who I met, at that exact time, would things be different?"

She was being purposefully vague, and Ino didn't want to press. She recalled what Sasuke had said about Itachi and Karin not being on the best terms, and she wondered if that had anything to do with this. It was none of her business. It wasn't her secret.

"Listen carefully."

"I think things happen for a reason. We meet the people we meet for a reason. Maybe sometimes it's a bad reason, and maybe they're bad people. But everything matters. What counts is how we deal with that bad timing. There's no such thing as fate."

Karin removed the paper towel from her split thumb, which was no longer bleeding. "Yeah, I agree." She rinsed her thumb and dry blood came loose, swirled down the sink. "But it doesn't make those encounters any less terrifying."

For as long as Ino had known Karin, she'd always gotten the impression that Karin was holding something back, something awful and powerful and not quite hers. But Karin never said a word and Ino never asked. Neither did Sakura. The three of them were close, but this was a subject no one dared broach. An unspoken promise.

Some secrets, perhaps, were better left kept.

"No, it doesn't," Ino allowed. "But fuck that."

Karin smirked. "Yeah. Fuck that."

"Come on, guys, can I please help? It's so boring out here by myself, you know?" Naruto whined.

Ino laughed. "Sure, come on in, Naruto. You can watch the clock for me."

"You have got to be joking," Karin said, her face pale.

"Sweet! I'm so there!" Naruto said. "Karin never lets me help out. You're the best, Ino."

"Idiot, that's because you always make a huge mess and I have to clean it up!" Karin said.

Ino slung an arm around each around the cousins. "Tell me that when you've tasted the stuffed mushrooms, Naruto. And believe me, I know you will."

{"I know you will."}

Ino gritted her teeth to maintain her smile. She ignored the voice, the only one that addressed her directly, and tried to lose herself in her friends' bickering.

{"I know you will."}

What a terrible thought.

On some level, Ino had expected this. Anticipated it.

Wanted it.

{"You'll be back soon, right?"}

{"You know I can't stay away for long."}

"Shut up," she hissed as she paced her apartment in her purple bunny slippers, hair in a bun, panting not from exertion but from stress.

On some level she knew how fucked up this was. Listening to the voices of lost friends, people she'd loved, people she didn't even know, innocent people, suffering people, people viler than she could even imagine. None of it mattered. They all blended together and dripped poison into her ears as she tried to sleep. She didn't sleep.

But this.

Anything but this.

This morning's paper sat on her coffee table. She'd already read it at work that day. She'd already heard everyone's panic. The secretary, the paralegal, the financial partner, Anko, Shino. Sakura. Karin. Sasuke. Naruto. All had spoken to her, called her, asked her the same questions over and over and over.

"Are you afraid?"

"Shouldn't you be afraid?"

"Do you want to stay with me for awhile?"

"Aren't you afraid?"

Clocks still passed the time. The sun still sank on the horizon. She still had work to do. And the voices never left her. Nothing was different except this.

Hidan had escaped.

"I'm not afraid!" she'd say.

"He won't come after me."

"I was trying to help him. He has no reason to hurt me."

Or maybe that was exactly the reason he would come for her.

"You'll let me in."

"No I won't, you sick fuck," Ino whispered to herself as she paced.

Logically, it made sense that he wouldn't come for her. She was trying to help him, and after all the time they'd spent together she thought he got the sense that she wasn't out to get him or antagonize his point of view. As if logic held any sway over Hidan.

"Can't talk to a psycho like a normal human being. Duh, Ino."

She bought a steel baseball bat that afternoon on her lunch break. Just in case. Shino offered her a glamorous weekend at his family's bee farm outside the city once he heard the news.

"Wow, you know, to be honest I've had a secret desire to see this famous bee farm you're always telling me about," she'd said.

"Like I just said, the invitation is open. And considering the circumstances surrounding a murderer on the loose with a possible motivation to come after you, I thought this was excellent timing."

Ino smiled and put a hand on Shino's shoulder. "You've got a way with words, Shino. But really, I'll be fine. Hidan has no reason to come after me."

{"Come after me."}

She retracted her hand so fast that Shino noticed her distress.

"Ino, shall I insist? If you're curious, my friends Hinata and Kiba will also be joining me for the weekend."

She felt bad for having refused him, and his determination now was endearing. The Shino she'd gotten to know here had never been very forthcoming with his feelings or even his desires, preferring to keep to himself and allow others to run things. But when things got tough, he always made his opinion known and he was usually right. Ino sighed.

"All right, fine, I suppose I could tag along. But if I get stung you're on the hook, buddy."

Shino adjusted his sunglasses. "I assure you that with the proper protection, the chances of you getting stung are close to nil. And besides, I have no control over the ways of insects, so I don't see how I could be blamed for any sort of mishap that may or may not occur—"

Ino put a hand up to silence him. "Okay, yes, got it, whatever you say. You're the bee master here."

She walked toward the break room and Shino followed. "Actually, I'm not a certified keeper. My father is, however, and while it's not accurate to call him a bee master, I suppose you could apply the moniker casually..."

That had been two weeks ago. The weekend was fun, and hanging out with Shino's college friends was a blast for Ino. But every time she got near the bees, their buzzing intensified. Like staring into fire too long, if she lingered she heard something else. Hallucinations.

Hidan still didn't come for her.

The steel baseball bat rarely left her side at home. Her door and windows were bolted despite the summer heat. The heat she could stand; the waiting killed her a little more every day. And the daily dose of arsenic in her ears never let her forget the approach of her own mortality.


Myths and legends and campfire ghost stories always alluded to midnight, the witching hour, the dead of night when demons and ghouls and phantoms emerged to make their mischief. Ino wasn't afraid of the dark itself. Even as a child it had never much frightened her. What lurked in the dark was a more pressing concern.

She sat on the living room couch with the lights off and clutching her steel baseball bat. Outside, a storm was brewing. The summer rains were in full swing, and they'd brought their loud and flashy progeny with them. Every night was the same, waiting in darkness for the voices to find her. Shino's weekend distraction had done little for her nerves in the end. A growing part of her wished this would just end, that Hidan would just pop up somewhere on the radar. Killing people, arrested, even coming for her. At least then she'd know. But sitting on the couch in athletic clothing and combat boots, hair tied up for easier movement, waiting to fight or flee for her life day in and day out, was driving her mad.

{"We're all mad here."}

Mad, mad, mad.

Alone in the dark.

But not truly alone.

The whispers returned. Or maybe they had never left. Maybe she was so used to ignoring them as much as she could, bees buzzing in her ears. Sometimes they stung.

{"I don't want to be here anymore."}

{"Where would we go?"}

{"Anywhere but here."}

Not Asuma. Not Kurenai, either. What was the difference? In this tiny room where the hallways were small and the doors even smaller, there was no escaping. Either way Ino was here, inside, unwilling and unable to leave.

{"Let me out."}

Knock, knock.

"Who's there~?" Ino sang.


Her eyes flew open and she scrambled to her feet, baseball bat at the ready. That knocking hadn't been an {echo}.

Knock, knock, knock.

Ino swallowed, but it didn't help the clenching in her throat that made breathing difficult. Suffocating in anticipation of him.

She knew it was him. How could it not be? At her breaking point, the witching hour of her self-control, of course it was him. There had never been anyone else.

Knock, knock.

"Let me in."

Ino shook her head and backed away. "No way," she whispered to herself. "No way I'll let you in!"

{"I'll let you in."}

She whipped her head around, eyes full of darkness. The deadbolt on her front door slid open.

"No!" she shouted.

But she was rooted in place, hands trembling and palms sweaty where she gripped the bat. The doorknob twisted.

That's not me doing that. Not me not me not me not—

{"I'll let you in."}

Footsteps. A nervous laugh almost strangled her.

Silly girl. Ghosts don't have footsteps!

Closer. Her grip on the baseball bat tightened.

"Hey, Pretty," he said.

Ino let out a guttural cry and charged. She swung her bat. Even in almost total darkness, she knew where to step to avoid the coffee table and couches. Hidan did not. He caught her bat in his hand, and that's when it should have been over. One hundred and ten pounds and a recently full-time insomniac should never have the upper hand over a homicidal fugitive attacking in the dead of night. But that homicidal fugitive did not know the layout of Ino's apartment.

Hidan lost his balance and tripped. In so doing he released the bat. Something inside guided her hand, a cocktail of adrenaline and hatred and the noxious demon that had taken up residence inside her, and she brought the bat down on Hidan as hard as she could. He and the weapon crashed through the glass coffee tabletop. The shatter was so deafening that Ino stumbled backward and dropped the bat to cover her ears.

Bombs, one after another. A symphony of glass shattering and blood leaking in her head. Ino fell to her knees and trembled. Instead of Hidan, perhaps she'd been the one to take the beating and crash head first through half an inch of glass. Strong hands hauled her up and shoved her against the wall, but the splitting pain in her head was a more pressing concern than the clutches of a killer.

And then, nothing.

No more bombs, no more breaking. Blood seeped from Ino's ears, but she felt no pain. Heard nothing, not even the pounding of her terrified heart. Hyperventilating and never quite getting enough air, she tried to focus. Something covered her ears: him.

Hidan, she wanted to say, but no sound came out.

Silhouettes jumped out at her, a hundred of them, shapes, moving and still, hovering and sinking, but all blurry in the oily darkness. Only his eyes burned bright enough to make out. That terrible violet deeper than the festering hole in her head where the worms made their home. But his hands were warm and soft on her ears, blocking out the world. She could not say how long they stood there like that, locked in shadow and silence, but it was the first respite she had known since she'd met him.

There was no stopping the tears.

He brought her head to his shoulder and held her, one hand on the back of her head gripping her bun and the other at her waist, locking her in place. He smelled of rust and cigarette smoke, bitter, his own unique perfume that made her want to vomit and commit the sensation to memory.

"Shhh, shhh."

At one time there had been a voice in her head, the one she'd grown up with, that would have told her this was the stupidest, most dangerous business she had ever gotten herself into. But that voice was gone, rotted away and become food for the teeth that chewed her up day in, day out. In and Out.

Slowly, she pushed away enough to get a look at him. "How?"

He grinned, and she could smell the cigarettes on his breath, clinging to his slightly crooked teeth. His hair was slicked back and washed, miraculously, as was his face. Even in the dark, he looked better than he had in captivity. He released her head and tapped his temple, but said nothing.



What was one more voice to add to the cacophony? Hidan was many despicable things, but no one ever doubted that he was a pro.

"Admit it, girly. I drive you wild."

Remembering herself, Ino attempted to wrest free of him. She beat on his chest, kicked at his shins, clawed at those burning eyes to get to the bottom (there must be a bottom, an ending, nothing lasts forever!), but he was stronger. He'd lived with them longer. He'd loved them longer.

Hidan grabbed her wrists and forced them backward against the wall. Ino cried out in pain, but his kiss silenced her screams. Wet, silken, decay, like eating old ash (were you expecting anything else?). She struggled, but he was relentless. There was no winning against him. Maybe she'd always known that. As long as she played by the rules, there was no winning against him. Though she'd dreamed of it.

What a terrible thought.

Kissing Hidan was like waiting for pain that never came. Ino's stomach twisted and wretched, anticipating immolation, but it never burned. It was as real as it was unreal. In and Out. Here and There and Everywhere. His fingers in her hair smeared the blood leaking from her ears, sticky and warm.

Where am I?

Narcissus never acknowledged {Echo}, but that didn't mean he didn't know she was there. Watching him, waiting to be let in.

Ino threaded her fingers through Hidan's hair, ripped at him, and he bit down on her lip. Lightning from the gathering storm outside struck in silence, cut through the darkness, but Ino saw nothing with her eyes closed.

{Echo} loved Narcissus so much that it killed her.

Hidan hoisted her up by the thighs, forcing her to hold on or fall. In her bloodied ear he whispered secrets she already knew, could guess.

"Listen carefully."

"I wanna tell you a secret."

Thunder crashed outside and drowned out his voice. Ino opened her eyes and in that moment, everything changed.

Thunder is merely lightning's {echo}, but it strikes fear in the heart harder and deadlier than any bolt of light.

"Hidan," she, pushing him back. "Why do you think you're immortal?"

Hidan relented and let her slip back to the floor to stand on her own. Her blood coated his fingers and dried under his nails along with strands of her long, blonde hair.

"'Cause I am." He laughed. "Always have been."

"How? How do you know? Have you failed to die before?"

He ran a hand under her chin and forced her to look up at him. "Every goddamned day."

Ino jerked her chin out of his grip and looked around. The remains of her shattered coffee table lay in pieces on the ground. She bent down and selected a shard bigger than her hand that tapered to a wicked point.

"Have you failed yet today?"

He grinned and grabbed her hips to secure her in place again. "The night is young."

She let him kiss her again. It was easy to give in with him, just like she'd been doing all along. Indulging him. He knew this better than she did. He'd heard them longer, loved them longer, lasted longer than she had. But they had taught Ino their secrets, too. Hidan was not the only one who could smell fear.

{Echo}'s heart withered and died with her love, but her voice lived on with her hatred.

"Don't worry," Hidan whispered against her lips. "This is for me, not for Lord Jashin. You'll like it this way."

His hands travelled up her waist, her shoulders, searching for her slender neck. But Ino was faster. Gripping the glass Hidan had let her keep, she brought it down on his back and wedged it between his shoulder blades. The edges shredded her palm as she drove the glass spike as deep as she could push it while enduring the sting—bee stings, a thousand in the palm of her hand. Hidan grunted and fell back, and Ino ran.

She pushed his lurching body to the floor and sprinted for the door, heedless of her bleeding hand as she scrambled to escape him. Get out get out get out!

"Let me out!" she cried.

The front door swung open and she raced for the fire escape stairs. There was no time to idle at the elevator. Rain hit her like a thick blanket and bit at her exposed skin. Bees, so many bees swarming and chasing her, filling her ears with their humming like war drums. Behind her, somewhere, she heard heavy footsteps.

"Wait for me~"

Ino choked on a sob as she swung around a corner. Each floor took only a few seconds to clear, but she had more than ten left to scale.

Boom, boom, boom.

Hidan followed with a legion of unseen bodies at his heels. The creaky, metal stairs shook under his weight as he lunged down and down after her. Against her better judgment, Ino chanced a look up. Lightning struck again and revealed his silhouette, black and amorphous. Only the eyes stood out to her, bright and dark all at once and trained on her.

"Come back to me," he said, scaling a full flight of stairs and gaining.

Ino shook with fright and tripped trying to regain her momentum. Rain and tears blurred her vision, creating the illusion of a darkness blacker than night. The stairs disappeared into it, but she didn't care. Anywhere was better than Here. A loud crack of thunder wracked the stairs and she jumped forward, reaching for the void's velvet folds, grasping for anything.

Her hand closed around a doorknob, and she crashed through something hard.

A full-body ache was Ino's adversary as she fought to stand. Putting pressure on her ruined hand by accident, she hissed and retracted it, reaching with her good hand for balance. The floor was uneven but ordered. Smooth, oily wood carved at right angles and stretched in straight lines. Her breath misted, and she knew where she was.

Doors loomed above and around her, all closed. Hidan was nowhere to be seen, but she had no idea how long that would last. He could find this place. She was as sure of it as she was sure he would kill her if he caught her again.. Ino got to her feet and ran to the nearest wall. Her shoulder slammed into a closed door, but it didn't budge. Gritting her teeth, she rammed another door nearby and knocked her head on it in her trajectory. Nothing but a sharp pain in her head where she'd made contact. Growling, she stomped as hard as she could on the door she stood upon carved into the floor.

"Hey! I know you're here, so answer me! Answer me, goddamnit!"

But there was no answer, no sweet {echo} to assure her she was not alone. Her voice did not carry in this vast, empty space. It was bigger than she remembered, now that she took a moment to look. The far wall had disappeared, sunken in shadows. There was no other side, or if there was it was far from here, across an abysmal ocean of cold.

"Where are you?" she screamed.

The darkness swallowed her voice as it left her lips, feeble and tired. Panicking, Ino ran toward the void. Somewhere in this pantheon of solitude and silence she would find them. They had to be here.

"Please, I'm here! I'll let you out! Isn't that what you want?" Panting, Ino came to a halt and rested her weight on her knees. "Someone, anyone!"

{"Hey, Pretty."}

Ino froze at the sound of Hidan's voice {echo}ing everywhere. There was hardly anything to see, nothing to grab onto, and she fumbled in darkness.

"S-Stay away from me!"

{"Let me in. You don't wanna be all alone, do you?"}

"Go to hell!"

She ran, though to or from where she knew not.

{"Let's play a game, girly."}

Ino ignored him and picked up the pace. Her combat boots were too clunky for sprinting, but they got the job done well enough. Terror fueled her forward.

{"It's called 'Hide and Seek'."}

"Leave me alone!"

{"You can hide."}

Ino tripped over a doorknob and went flying. Curling in on herself on instinct, she crashed against something hard and unyielding. Her back took the brunt of the impact. It knocked the wind out of her, and she gasped for breath.

{"And I'll seek."}

Ino coughed and gagged. Her throat stung with cold and exertion, and she slumped, unable to continue. Her tongue was thick and swollen with ash, Hidan's taste.

"You and me both, girly."

She pulled her knees to her chest and tried to think, but nothing came. There was only an infernal scratching sound somewhere behind her.

Scritch, scratch.

Followed by the faintest child's cry:

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Ino covered her mouth in shock and tasted the blood flowing from her hand. Standing, she pressed her ear against the doors on the wall, one after another, following the eerie call.

{"Ba da pa pa."}

"I'm here," Ino said, settling on a door she was sure was the right one. "I'll get you out of there."

Where do they go?

She tried the knob, but it was locked.

What do they want?

{"Here I come~"}

Ino shook. Hidan was getting closer, but she refused to look back over her shoulder or answer him anymore. "Come on, come on."

"What can an {echo} do?"

Giving up, she threw the rest of her strength into breaking down the door.

{"Let me out."}

"Working on it!"


"Stand back!"


{"Olly olly oxen free!"}


{"Hurry, Ino. We can't hold him off much longer!"}

Ino staggered. Asuma. She wiped her tears and threw all her weight into one last push. Footsteps clattered in the distance, gaining on her faster than any normal person should be able to move.


The door burst open and Ino fell through. She opened her mouth in a scream as gravity fled and left her to waiting arms. Sweet susurrations assaulted her from all directions and gathered in her haunted head. They scraped and ripped at what was left of her until even her hands couldn't block them out.

Doors slammed open, one after another, everywhere, and more voices joined the howling in her head. Mothers crying, men praying, children singing. Little girls kneeling all alone, scorned and strong. The thunder that crushes after lightning has fled.

Slender arms wrapped themselves around Ino and held her close.

{"I'm here."}

Ino's lips curled back to reveal rows of bright, white teeth, smiling.

"I'm here."

"Don't you mess with a little girl's dream
'Cause she's liable to grow up mean."

It was raining. The kind that seeps through the skin and clogs your veins, the one you feel in your core, and no matter how warm the weather is, you cannot shake the chill of a night spent among the elements. The park was deserted, and lanterns lighting the walkways glowed, blurry with mist, like will-o-wisps. Ino was on her knees and sinking into the mud some animal had torn up. Ravaged, more like.

"I told you you'd let them out one day."

Across the way, Hidan sat similarly hunched. His shoulders rose and fell with each breath. Rainwater ran down his face and through his hair, which was mussed due to the chase and the weather. Ino began to convulse. He was still here, still alive. Whatever had happened, it hadn't affected him. Out of options, she began to scramble backwards through the mud.

Hidan stood on wobbly legs, and Ino noticed the rips in his jeans. His shirt was gone completely. Thick, red wounds painted his chest and belly, angry crevasses that bled almost black in the poor lighting. He advanced.

"But I guess they weren't enough. You don't love 'em enough. It's 'cause you don't believe. You're a heathen, just like the others."

Ino choked on a sob and struggled to stand. Her weight sank in the mud to her ankles, but she didn't care. Never in her life had she experienced a fear quite like this. Not a fear of death, but of surviving this. What would it take from her? Did she have the strength? Where would she go if he killed her?

{"Ba da pa pa."}

"Shut the fuck up!" he screamed at her.

Ino covered her mouth, dazed and misunderstanding. She hadn't said anything.

{"Ba da pa pa."}

Ino stared at her hands, one bloody and hardly recognizable, the other dark with mud. {Echo} had loved Narcissus more than her own life, and she'd died waiting for him to acknowledge her. But somewhere along the line, that love devolved into something hideous but powerful, powerful enough to keep her alive. An ancient existence that could not be burned, drowned, or forgotten. To the listening ear, it was both frightening and fantastical, a myth made real. A little girl's dream ripped at the seams.

"What if he'd listened to her? What would've happened to him?"

"What happens if I let it out?"

"What can an {echo} do?"

{"Let me out."}

"I've given Lord Jashin everything, and this one little thing is all I ask for in return. You're just like me."

Ino shook her head, eyes mad with the night. "I'm not like you! Why me? Why does it have to be me?"

Hidan spread his arms and tugged at his open wounds, but he didn't seem to mind the pain. "You know, it's fate. I didn't even know you knew that Asuma guy, but shit did he put up a fight. Made it fun for me. Usually they just cry like pussies, but not him."

"Asuma," Ino said, cutting through the voices in her head. "No, it can't be. That was you?"

Asuma's case had been a dead end. The police had no leads, nothing to go on. The double homicide with his pregnant wife, Kurenai, had left them frustrated but unable to make headway. The case remained open, but like most unsolvable cases it lay in a back room, dusty and forgotten for a decade.

"Yeah, that guy. Tried to be all noble and shit protectin' his woman. Gotta give him some credit for makin' it interesting. But in the end, he didn't get it. He didn't listen. Just like you."

{"Don't listen to him, Ino."}

{"You're better than him."}

There was an army at Ino's back, an army of voices with pasts and presents but no futures, and they squabbled to be heard. They grew louder and more frantic the closer Hidan got, but he paid them no mind. All those lives loved and lost, holding onto something, holding onto her, to him, so heavy.

"You killed them," she said, finally understanding. "All of them."

Hidan emitted a guttural cry of frustration and pulled at his messy hair. "Damn, it's like all of a sudden you're ignoring me! Lord Jashin accepted their sacrifices. I told you this already. But he can't have you."

"You killed them," she repeated. "And Asuma, Kurenai, even their unborn child." She covered her ears, but the cries never ceased. "I can hear them, every single one. Oh god, there are so many."

Hidan reached out a hand to her and the lacerations on his chest and stomach smiled. "Come back to me. I'll make it all stop, once and for all."

Maybe it was fate that it should end with the two of them.

"You and me both, girly."

Asuma, Kurenai, all the others plunged into everlasting darkness on the whim of this madman, reduced to nothing but immortal {echo}es searching for a place to go. It would end with her.

{"Let me out."}

The misty park lamps flickered and popped, one by one in rapid succession. Hidan looked around, confused.

"No," she said, stepping forward and reaching for Hidan. "I will."




A scintillating bolt of lightning, jagged but willful, struck somewhere in the distance and cast a heartbeat of dead light on the area, creating a void bereft of night.

"Forever," Ino said.

Darkness rushed to fill the space between them, literally, brushed against her outstretched arm like tail feathers in flight. Carrion birds descending upon a fresh corpse. The howling in her head burst in a paroxysm of hatred and instinct, a shock of thunder, the kind with teeth and a taste for burning things. Hard and fast, it cut straight to the heart through flesh and bone, efficient and at long last felt. Delighted.

The roar drowned out Hidan's cries of anguish, and soon not even a mere {echo} of them remained.

Who's immortal now?

Who's alone now?

"You and me both, girly."

Somewhere far away and close at hand, a door slams.



"There's someone singing in the walls."

"Is it like an {echo}?"

{"Ba da pa pa."}

"So you saw her this morning? How'd she look? Did you check her hair? Her hair gets real stringy when she's stressed and stuff, you know?"

Ino rolled her eyes and switched the phone from her hand to the crook of her shoulder while she changed the bandages on her hand. "Yes, Naruto, I saw Sakura. Picked her up around 8 or so. And her hair looked about the same as it always does having to spend so much time around the infirm."

"Are you sure? Maybe I should go check on her or something. I mean, it's crazy what happened with Itachi."

Ino's gaze fell. "Yeah, I can't even believe it."

Itachi Uchiha had been admitted to Konoha General late last night during Sakura's shift. He'd apparently suffered a stroke, but his behavior had turned violent and landed Sakura in a hospital bed herself. Ino had gone to pick her up this morning at Shī's behest, who was Sakura's interim supervisor while the chief of surgery was out of town. Somehow, Ino had managed to put on a smile for her bedraggled friend so early in the morning despite the events of the previous night with Hidan.

Had that been last night? She couldn't say. One moment she was in the park facing down the object of her deepest affliction with no recollection of how she'd gotten there, and the next she was driving to Konoha General, hand bandaged and a headache to accompany her. There had not been time to sort out what had happened with Sakura and then work, and now Naruto was hitting her up for information on their mutual best friend.

"I left Sasuke like twelve voicemails. The shithead hasn't called me back yet, typical. Can you try? I'd ask Karin, but she, uh, doesn't live here anymore and she's not picking up, either, and I just really hate it when no one tells me what's going on, you know?"

Ino sighed. "Yeah, I know, Naruto. I just got home, so I'll try Sasuke and Karin, okay?"


"Yeah, I promise. Geez, don't you trust me?"

"Haha, of course I do! What's that supposed to mean anyway, huh?"

"Whatever. I'll talk to you later."

No sooner did Ino hang up the phone than someone knocked at her door.

Knock, knock.

"Who's there~" she called.

As soon as the words left her mouth Ino felt sick. A dizzy spell hit her like a train wreck, and she gripped the kitchen counter to steady herself. The urge to vomit was so overwhelming that she was sure she would cough up her entire stomach.

"It's Sasuke. Open up," a voice said from outside the front door.

And just like that, the nausea disappeared. The departure was so sudden that Ino gagged and gasped for breath, afraid it might elude her, but fresh air filled her greedy lungs easily. Deep breaths, one, two, three, and she was still here.

"What the hell..."

She wiped her mouth, which had acquired an acrid taste, like the smell of burned flesh. Jogging to the door she admitted Sasuke, but he remained in the foyer, hands in his pockets and paler than usual. Ino could have smacked herself for hesitating even a moment. She pulled him into a hug.

"I'm so sorry about Itachi," she said. "I found out this morning. My god, Sasuke, I'm so sorry."

He reluctantly returned the hug, and Ino knew to pull away. He'd never been a very physical person, even with close friends and family.

"I'm... I really don't want to talk about it."

Ino shook her head. "Of course. Listen, if there's anything you need, anything at all, let me know. Please."

He looked up and caught her gaze. He looked lost. She said nothing about it. "Thanks, Ino."

She flashed him a bright smile for both their sakes. "What are you doing on duty? Shouldn't you be at the hospital?"

He shook his head. "I can't stay in that place. Not while he's like that." He wiped his nose and averted his gaze. "Look, since Itachi's out of commission for now, someone's gotta help ease the case load. I'm here about Hidan Sugimura."

Ino's smile faded at the mention of that name. Images of popping streetlamps and rain flooded her memory, but she had no time to dwell on them.

"I'm assuming you read in the paper today about how his body was found in the park early this morning. Some joggers found him. They thought he was a dead animal, but then they saw a human hand a little ways away. His body was mangled almost beyond recognition."

Ino's eyes glazed over and she ceased to hear or see Sasuke. Flashes of memory, like lightning, returned to her. Hidan, here, kissing her, serenading her with hymns of her impending death at his hands. Doors, closed doors, open doors, doors that would forever remain open.


Ino raised a hand to cover her mouth lest she cry out at the deluge of memories returned from almost total erasure. She tasted gauze and Sasuke took her wrist.

"Hey, what happened?" he asked.

"Have you failed to die before?"

Her coffee table was gone from the living room. She hadn't even noticed it until just now. There wasn't a trace of it left.

"Oh, you know, I cut it pretty bad cooking dinner last night."

Sasuke frowned. "That's a big bandage for a cooking accident. Did you go to the hospital?"

"Yeah, I went to pick up Sakura this morning and one of the nurses checked it out for me. No stitches, I got lucky."

Sasuke watched her a moment, but he didn't question her. Lying had always come so easily to Ino that she even believed herself sometimes. Sasuke was sharp, but he had no reason to doubt her word on this.

"Okay. Well, anyway, you were the lead associate on Hidan's case when he was still in custody. Did he ever contact you after his escape?"

Yeah, he stood right where you're standing and I stabbed him with a piece of broken coffee table.

Ino shook her head. "No, not at all."

"What about when you visited him at Ash Tree Lane Asylum? Did he ever threaten you or give you a reason to think he would come after you?"

"You'll let me in."

Ino snorted. "He's a psychotic killer. Of course he threatened me. He even asked me where I live at one point."

"Did you tell him?"

"What? Of course not. What, do you think I'm crazy or something?"

"You and me both, girly."

Sasuke ran a hand through his hair. "I know it's stupid, but I have to ask these questions. I'm going to need you to come down to the station and make a statement. Are you free tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever you need. But Sasuke, do you honestly think I'd be here talking to you if Hidan had come after me?"

He smirked. "No, but you can get pretty scary when you want to be. Even psychos would do well to watch out."

"Hahaha, very funny."


"Right, well, I should get back. I'll see you tomorrow downtown."

"Bye, Sasuke. And hey...get some rest, okay?"

He spared her a small but weary smile. "We'll see."

"Oh, and call Naruto back. He's driving me crazy with worry."

He waved, and Ino locked the door behind him.

She stood there, unmoving, for a long time. Thinking. Dreaming. Remembering. It was mostly a blur up until her confrontation with Hidan in the park (presumably the one where those joggers had found his body).

Mutilated body. He said 'mutilated'.

She stared at her hands, clean and wrapped. Small hands, a professional's hands, manicured. Incapable of maiming anyone, let alone a man like Hidan.

"He's not a man."


Wasn't a man.


Ino sank to the floor as an image of Hidan's shoulder twisting around 360 degrees before ripping clean off came back like a bad hangover. Flashes of blood, flayed flesh and sinew, all this made her sick with horror and a little grief (did I do that? I couldn't have done that.).

"I'm not like him!" she shouted.

Her empty apartment offered no solace, not even a kind {echo}. Panicking, Ino picked herself up and ran around the space, calling out for someone who might hear her.

"Asuma, answer me! Kurenai!"

No answer.

She pulled back the covers on her bed, opened all the kitchen cabinets, banged on the backs of the couches.

"Anyone! Can't anyone hear me?"

She collapsed in a heap in the living room, the spot where her coffee table had been just yesterday. Not even a stray shard remained of the furniture; she'd done an impeccable job cleaning up at some point, though she was hard pressed to remember.

"They're gone."

Ino waited, absorbing the silence like a breath of fresh air. No buzzing bees in her ear, no headache, no weight in her heart slowly turning it black with rot. Gone, all of it. Gone with Hidan.

"All I did was let them out." It came out sounding like a question, but one to which she already knew the answer.

"Where do they go?"

"What can an {echo} do?"

"They're really gone." She dared to smile. "I guess that bastard wasn't as immortal as he thought he was."

For the first time all summer, Ino settled in for a peaceful night's rest. She never slept more deeply.

Even the vague memory of Hidan falling to pieces all with a smile on his face and a cackle in his throat despite the excruciating pain wasn't enough to stir her. The voice she'd grown up with wasn't loud enough to worry her over it.

"But he underestimates my mind.
I know he's messing with my head.
My only weakness is
I can't believe the guy could be entirely dead."

Things went back to normal for Ino as though nothing at all had happened. She no longer dazed out listening to phantom whispers, wondering what they wanted. The investigation into Hidan's sudden and violent death hit a dead end with no leads. Plenty of people wanted the guy dead, but the m.o. had the KPD baffled: how could a guy die by the same method he used on his own victims?

Talk of a copycat floated around the interested parties, but with no further attacks and a lack of evidence, the case was dropped. Ino was not alone in suspecting that the KPD was more than happy to give up on this one. As far as just about everyone was concerned, Hidan got the justice he deserved in the end.

It surprised Ino how little she thought of him in the aftermath. After spending so many of her waking moments wracking her brain over him, it was easy just to put it all behind her. She couldn't reveal any information about Hidan's involvement in Asuma and Kurenai's murders, but knowing that Hidan had gotten exactly what was coming to him was good enough. Once the KPD closed Hidan's case, Ino made sure Anko was aware of her refusal to ever work on a criminal defense case again, and if she didn't like it she could fire Ino.

"I don't think I've got it in me to sympathize with the bad guys. Guilty or innocent, I just can't do it."

Ibiki was delighted to have her back doing corporate work. "Now that you've had your little dance with the devil incarnate, you can focus on making us some real money again."

After so long hearing disembodied voices in her head, however, she could no longer abide the silence. It ate at her spirit, and she could no longer stomach the idea of coming home to an empty apartment in the dark. She got a cat, the feistiest tabby kitten she could find at the shelter, and named him Louie. But even her newfound true love was not enough to fill the long, cold hours of empty space so vast it devoured any sound that passed through it, giving nothing back.

Taking the initiative, Ino organized a group outing for herself, Karin, and Sakura. Karin had just been promoted at her job, and Ino hardly needed an excuse to go dancing. The louder the music, the better.

The three of them had not gotten together in some time, and Ino lapped up the social interaction with glee. Karin was a killjoy as usual, but her attitude didn't stop Ino from helping everyone have a good time. The drinks flowed and the music blared at a club Ino had picked out for them. Even Sakura, who'd been stressed at the hospital lately, found a reason to smile at the discovery of Karin's promotion to deputy investigator at her firm.

But the topic of conversation switched to the morbid topic of a comatose Itachi soon enough. Ino had expected this with Sakura overseeing his recovery and Karin so close to the family through Sasuke, but expectations never quite prepared one for reality. Despite the energy in the club, their table felt like a dead zone.

"I think they want to wait a little longer before pulling the plug," Karin said. "See if he'll wake up."

Ino nodded. "Well, they've got my firm's number. Just in case."

"He's doing just fine, you know," Sakura said suddenly.

Sakura had been distant lately, and with her busy schedule Ino hadn't had much time to dwell on her best friend's withdrawal. But just looking at Sakura was enough to set off alarm bells. Something was weighing her down. Something terrible.

"Itachi's doing well. And cases like this are always up in the air. He could wake up tomorrow, or he could stay like this. You just never know. But he's not getting any worse."

Ino did what she could to comfort Sakura, and it was enough to settle the matter for now. Sakura didn't seem like she wanted to discuss work right now, anyway. Karin, however, remained silent as she stared at the table, lost in thought. A fresh round of drinks and a hug from Sakura cheered her up, or at least broke her out of whatever stupor she'd been in. Itachi's situation was taking its toll on all those close to him, and even the club music couldn't sever that connection entirely. By 4 AM, the girls had danced until their feet ached and were ready to call it a night. Sakura opted for the subway since she lived in the opposite direction of Ino and Karin. Not wanting to risk public transportation, Ino strong-armed Karin into sharing a cab with her.

"Text when you're home, okay?" Ino said to Sakura.

"Sure, Mom."

Karin pointed an accusatory finger at Sakura. "Don't talk to your mother like that."

Ino laughed as she flagged down a cab. Once in the back seat, she shoved Karin over to make room. Sakura disappeared around the corner where the subway entrance was, and Ino sighed. "That was fun. Probably because it was my idea."

Karin snorted. "Well, I'm glad you had fun. I don't think I'll be able to hear anything but auto-tuned computer beats for a week."

"I know, isn't it great? It's like drowning, but without the dying part."

"You're so fucking weird."

Ino leaned her weight on Karin's shoulder. "But you adore me."

Karin shoved her off, but her smirk betrayed her true feelings. "Whatever."

The lights of Konoha passed them by as the driver navigated what little traffic there was at such a late hour. The alcohol lulled Ino in a blissful daze.

"Sakura wasn't herself," Karin said, though she maintained her gaze out the opposite window.

So you noticed, too.

Ever since the day Ino had checked Sakura out of the hospital when Itachi attacked her in a fit of stroke-induced insanity, there had been something different about her, and not for the better. It was as if a dark cloud followed her around, only it wasn't a cloud, and it brought with it the {echo}es of a storm that had not yet hit.

Ino shrugged. "She's upset about Itachi."

"We all are."

Ino gave her a look but let the subject rest. Itachi was a weird subject for Karin, always had been. "Yeah, but Sakura's the one overseeing his recovery. Or lack thereof, I should say. I can't imagine what she must be feeling."

"Yeah, I guess."

Karin was not convinced.

Neither was Ino.

The girls fell silent for a few minutes. Ino's stop would be first, and they had nearly arrived. She fished around her purse for some bills to pay the driver.

"What's that song?" Karin asked.

"Hm?" Ino said, only half hearing her as she searched for a twenty.

"That song you keep humming. 'Ba da pa' something or other."

Ino froze. "Was I humming? I didn't even realize." She found a twenty and passed it to Karin. "Here, my part."

The driver pulled up outside Ino's apartment building and she climbed out. Karin poked her head out after her.

"Hey, are you okay? I mean, I know you're not sober, but I just mean in general. I never hear you humming. It's creepy."

"Ba da pa pa," sang Hidan's voice in her head the way he'd taunted her at the asylum during one of her visits. Like he knew her secret.

Of course he knew it.

But Karin did not.

She should not.

"Wow, rude. I have a lovely singing voice, I'll have you know," Ino said, flashing a smile. "Hey mister, you get her home safe."

The cabbie waved and Ino winked. Karin watched her a moment, lingering in the doorway, but she dropped it. One look told Ino that she was far from convinced, however.

Ino hurried inside and bolted the front door. Next came the windows. Louie tried to climb up her dress for attention, and she picked him up. Even his squeaky meowing could not shake the feeling that something was horribly wrong. She had not felt this level of anxiety since Hidan was still alive.

What a terrible thought.

"He's dead," Ino told herself. "No one's immortal. He was a psycho. Touched in the head. Right, Louie?"

The tabby just purred and pawed at her long hair. Ino sat down on the couch with him and scratched his belly, smiling a little.

{"Ba da pa pa."}

A chill of fright ran down Ino's spine. Louie wriggled free of her touch and hissed. He scampered off into the bedroom. Ino sat perfectly still and held her breath. One second, two, three, four—


She got up and proceeded to turn on every light in the house. The steel baseball bat rested in her closet, so she retrieved it, too. When she passed by Louie hiding under the bed, he growled at her, low and guttural, a surprising pair of lungs for such a small kitten.

"No you don't," Ino hissed, returning to the living room and looking around, searching for shadows that weren't there. "I'm done with this crap. I let you out, and you're gone, just like him."

{"Just like him."}

Ino's hands began to tremble as she itched for something tangible to smash. The thought brought back the night she destroyed the coffee table by plunging Hidan into it. Her eyes blurred and her throat clenched. She began to hyperventilate.

"You're not welcome here. Leave me alone!"

No answer, but somewhere, someone laughed, light and smug. A little girl.

"I swear to god, I will tear this place apart and all of you with it. I want you gone!"


"We already are."

The voice in her ear was so clear and distinct that Ino screamed and swung the bat without thinking. She hit the lamp next to the couch, and it shattered on the floor. In awe of her own terror, she dropped the bat and sank to the floor, clutching her knees to her chest. And she sobbed.

The apartment grew still, and shadows set in where the light of the lamp once shone.


They didn't lie.

The voices, that is. They had never lied to her, and they didn't start now. This time, they were truly gone. No more humming, no more desire to fill the space around her with music and telephone conversations and friends who would rather be home relaxing than listening to house music and wearing heels that should have been classified as torture devices.

Not that Ino did not still indulge in a social life, but with Sakura preoccupied and Karin somewhat MIA due to Itachi's condition and the strain it put on Sasuke's family, Ino had more time to focus on other things. Weeks passed, and winter rolled into town. She liked winter, all that white, cold nothingness. Even a dead void could be beautiful as long as the sun kept shining.

Maybe it was instinct, or a sick sense she'd picked up from Hidan to be able to sniff out death. She woke up today with the taste of ashes in her mouth, and even after brushing twice and indulging in a spicy breakfast, she could not get it out. Like an incriminating stain in her favorite shirt (because those were always the ones that stuck around).

She went to visit Itachi in the hospital. They had never been close the way she was close with Sasuke, but the thought of Itachi never waking up disturbed Ino deeply. He'd been the one to catch Hidan. Perhaps all of this was his fault. She never would have been on the case if there had been no criminal to prosecute.

She also never would have gotten the chance to obliterate him from the face of the earth. It amazed her how little she cared about the reality of what she'd done, though she could not figure out why. The excuse she fell back on was that he'd deserved it, and she was not above reaping revenge. But it didn't ring true for some reason. There was so little feeling when it came to Hidan that she hardly recognized herself. Love is easy to forget; hatred stays with you forever, like a cancer. It doesn't diminish over time. It festers.

Ino took the elevator to the fourth floor overnight ward at Konoha General, her mind awash with her own thoughts. Karin was the last person she'd expected to run into here, and it showed.

"Karin, hey," she greeted, pleased to see the other girl.

Karin jerked her head around to face Ino, face pale as though she'd just seen a ghost. "Ino. What are you doing here?"

Ino approached slowly, observing Karin's posture. Tense, like she was ready to bolt. Ino was sure she'd never seen Karin like this before. Something must have spooked her.

"I came to visit Itachi. I assume you're here for the same reason?"

"Yeah," she said, trailing off. "Weird that we picked the same time to show up."

"Yeah, what a coincidence."


"So, are you going in or what?" Ino asked, indicating the closed door.

Karin looked at the door and just stared. "I was."

If Ino knew anything, it was secrets. She'd had her fill for a hundred lifetimes in the recent months. Karin was keeping something, something dark and hungry and utterly terrible. But she said nothing. She just stood there, staring at the door.

Ino stepped forward and closed her hand around the knob. A flash of another door she'd opened made her hesitate. This was not Pandora's Box and she was not running from a psychopath in the dark folds of her heart. The knob twisted with just a little resistance, but the door swung open to reveal a modest overnight room with one puttering lamp on the bedside that looked like it'd seen better days. Ino looked back at Karin, who still had not moved.

"Well, it's open," Ino said, smiling a little. "Let's go in, okay?"

Karin nodded. "Right."

It did not escape Ino's notice that Karin waited for her to go first. Inside, Itachi lay under tan covers hooked up to all kinds of monitors and machines. An IV drip fed him slowly throughout the day. Ino wondered what he tasted now, if anything. Maybe ashes.

She and Karin stood at opposite sides of the bed and looked down on him sleeping peacefully. Almost. His complexion was etiolated, almost yellowing, and his breathing was shallow. His bangs were a bit damp from sweat. And his hands were so bony Ino was sure she could have snapped them with her fingers. Karin covered her mouth as she looked down at him. Her eyes misted over, but she said nothing at all.

"Do you want a moment?" Ino asked softly.

Karin didn't look up at her, but she nodded. "Thanks."

Ino nodded. Her heart ached for Karin, who had always cared more than she let on. It ached for Itachi, too, who was already gone in every meaningful way. It was a wretched fate. Not wanting to intrude, Ino turned around and headed for the door.

{"I'll see you soon, Itachi. Just wait a little longer."}

Ino looked back over her shoulder, but Karin hadn't moved, lost in thought. The young boy's voice rang clear in Ino's mind, but there was no one around. Perhaps she'd imagined it. No, she'd definitely imagined it. She was through with that nonsense.


Ino left the room and headed for her car, refusing to look back. A couple nurses and a receptionist she passed watched her go, curious as to the strange tune she sang as she went.

It snowed the day of Itachi's funeral. He died that very night after Karin and Ino had paid him a visit. Uncanny, like fate.

There's no such thing as fate.


The first person Ino spotted at the funeral was Naruto, and he immediately pulled her into a bone-crushing hug. He'd been crying, and the sight made her tear up, too. Her heart went out to him.

"Naruto, I'm so sorry. I know how close you and Itachi were."

He made a valiant effort to smile, and Ino covered her mouth to keep from choking on a sob. "I'll be okay, you know? It's just... Aaah, that goddamned idiot. How could he just go and die like that? I mean, he's got a little brother who can't even wipe his own ass without him. That jerk."

Ino hugged him again so he wouldn't have to keep up the charade, and Naruto leaned his weight into her. The services began, and the two of them broke apart to listen. Karin was up front with Sasuke, their hands clasped tight.

"...And I'm sure that wherever Itachi is now, he's in a better place," Fugaku said. He paused to cover his mouth and nose with a handkerchief. "Thank you all for coming today," he went on after a short pause to collect himself. "A moment of silence, please."

Ino backed away, unable to watch the display of grief any longer. She hadn't even been close with Itachi, but she ached for those who had been. It was too much. Sakura stood alone in the back looking like she might break in two at any moment. Ino recognized the misty eyes, the colorless lips, the stress wrinkles on her forehead: guilt. Without a word, she embraced Sakura.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."

Naruto joined them, and Ino took that as her cue to leave. He and Sakura had been friends forever, and they'd known Sasuke and his family longer than Ino had. She wanted no part in intruding upon their private grief. It was not her place. So she excused herself and promised to meet up with them later. One look at Sasuke, Karin, and the rest of the Uchiha and she nearly crumbled inside. They were lowering Itachi's coffin, and everyone was losing their composure. Sasuke openly cried, something Ino had never seen him do.

I can't be here.

Something about it wasn't right, like she was a lewd voyeur watching an intimate moment. It made her skin crawl. She had to get out. Turning away from the crowd, she wandered deeper into the graveyard at a jog. Initially it was to put some distance between the funeral procession and herself, but as she went her feet carried her down a familiar path. One she hadn't walked for some time because she'd stopped believing it led anywhere.

Snow fell in fat, thick flakes, silent and undisturbed by wind. She dared not speak no matter how much the quiet weighed upon her heart. This place belonged to the dead, not to her. She had no business disturbing them.

Dew froze underfoot as she walked, now slowed to a sedate pace and following a tortuous path to a specific grave marker. It amazed her how quickly things changed and died. The grass was still green, but it would brown and shrivel later, drown in snowmelt, and be crushed underfoot. A wretched fate, but what fate wasn't wretched?

Her breath misted, and she hummed as she went, no longer fighting the tune stuck in her head.

"Ba da pa pa."

There was no {Echo} here (only Narcissus). The dead did not speak, not to her. Not anymore.

It was nothing special. Asuma's grave, that is. It was weird calling it that. Ino stuffed her hands in the pockets of her gray pea coat and rolled her shoulders to warm her neck. His marker was next to Kurenai's. The glassy marble outlined her reflection over the few words emblazoned upon its surface. It seemed like only yesterday that she'd heard them.

"I miss you," she whispered. "I miss you so much."

I miss your voice.

Whatever this was, a gift or a curse, whether it was gone or simply choosing to ignore her, there was a part of her that needed it. As sad as Itachi's death was, Ino was sure there was something left, a lingering will that would survive as long as there were those who thought of him. As fucked up as Asuma's death was, Ino was sure he wasn't totally gone. Who is ever completely gone? And where do they go?

"Where do they go?"

But what can an {echo} do?


Snow fell and buried Ino's feet atop the grass that was already dead. Asuma's grave remained solid and unchanging, the mark of a life lived and remembered. This was the best normal human beings could do. A slab of rock to commemorate a man who'd died for no reason. A life thrown away.

A life she could no longer hang onto.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But I don't want this anymore. I can't..."

{Echo} was dead. She had been for a very long time. And no amount of love or hatred would ever change that. Ino sniffled and took a deep breath. It misted before her, blurring her reflection and the words on Asuma's headstone.

Tears fell hot and cold on her cheeks, like they couldn't decide what to be. Goodbyes had never been her thing, but nothing lasts forever. No one is immortal.

No more denial, no more drowning, and no more pretending that it had never happened. All that mattered was that she'd survived it. Survived him. There was some peace in that, for her and for them.

A slow wind picked up and whipped the falling snow. Ino's ponytail flurried behind her, grasping at the fleeing breeze like grabby fingers.

"I don't want to hear," she said.


She tasted ashes on her tongue. Her feet froze in place, welded to the ground as she studied her reflection in Asuma's grave marker, a shadowed outline against a backdrop of white. Footsteps in the snow behind her drew near, boom, boom, boom.

But she dared not look. Dared not answer.

After all, what can an {echo} do?

{"I'm right here,"} he whispered in her ear like a lover's hushed confession.

Somewhere, Here or There, a door slammed. Shutting him out or trapping her inside? Did it matter?


Ashes fell from the sky, cold as ice and light as snow. They dissolved on Ino's tongue and filled her heart with a plague she couldn't cure. Never would.

"What if Narcissus had looked back? What would have happened to him?"

Her reflection stared back at her, frosted and beautiful in the winter morning against a backdrop of white void. Its lips moved in the shape of a song.

"Ba da pa pa."

{"Ba da pa pa."}

She turned and looked back—

"This voice is alive."

"I'm haunted
By the hallways in this tiny room,
The {echo} there of me and you,
The voices that are carrying this tune:
Ba da pa pa
Ba da pa pa."

Your reviews are highly appreciated.

PS – Look out for Book One of this Haunted series, which will follow Karin and Itachi. Abyss is Book Three, and it follows Sakura and Sasori.