Author's Note: First, I'm currently (2016-01-26) giving away the complete text of two different novels ("The Two Year Emperor" and "The Change Storms: Induction") and the start of my newest ("The Tinker's Daughter") over on my page at:
I don't currently have plans to take them down, but they probably won't be up forever. Come grab 'em! If you are reading this from the future and they aren't there anymore, stop by anyway; as long as the is still there I'll usually have something up for free.
Second, I and several other people are running "Marked for Death", a rational Naruto quest over on SufficientVelocity. Google for 'sufficientvelocity marked for death' and you'll find it. Alternatively, there's a link in my profile.
"Lovely tea," the Fox said, sipping delicately. "Shame to hear about Hinata and Shino's escape."
Orochimaru waved a hand dismissively, his face never changing expression. "They were always secondary interests. I obtained the Hyuuga girl's blood, so I can clone her Byakugan freely. She would have been very useful, both in her own right and as a trainer for the next generation of Sound Byakugan users, but her loss isn't critical." He took a bite of his tempura, chewing thoughtfully.
"And Shino?" the Fox asked. "What, his powers don't rate your interest?"
Orochimaru's eyebrows went up. "On the contrary, I would very much have liked to obtain his cooperation. Still, we recovered a few dozen still-living kikai from the bodies of our patrol, including eleven females. They're down in Lab 3, being fed a carefully moderated diet of chakra and attended to by a group of highly motivated scientists who understand that I value the lives of those bugs more than I value the lives of those scientists. Assuming that we manage to establish a breeding population we'll be able to work on development and study. It will most likely take several decades, but we will eventually work out how to reproduce the Aburame symbiosis."
The Fox's eyebrows went up. "I'm impressed. Very few humans think about the future beyond the next year, and I've never met one who thinks in terms of generations."
Orochimaru snorted. "Yes, they are idiots, aren't they? They simply accept the fact that they're going to die and therefore they decide there's no point in planning for the future. Since I have decided that I'm not going to die, it only makes sense to think on a time horizon of a century."
"Only one century?" the Fox said in amusement.
"Yes," Orochimaru said. "There's no point in planning beyond that; the advancement of technology and mechanismics will most likely render such plans moot. Simpler to focus on the now and implement the truly large-scale plans once science has caught up to the goals."
"I see," the Fox said. "Going back to the previous topic for a moment—what about Anko?"
"She was never going to willingly join me," Orochimaru said dismissively. "Had I managed to convert her genin she would have stayed, but she never would have served. Eventually she would have needed to have an accident, but I couldn't afford to do that while I was still wooing the students."
"My, my, my, aren't you the schemer?" the Fox said approvingly. He paused to sip his tea, then made a throwing-away gesture with one hand. "So, what's this project you wanted my help with?"
"How familiar are you with the biological mechanisms for chakra storage and generation?" Orochimaru asked. "I've been doing some experiments on the subject, down in my surgical lab..."
"Anko!" Reizo said, leaping to her feet with a glowing smile so she could throw her arms around her girlfriend. "You're back! I was so worried!"
Anko wrapped her arms around Reizo and squeezed her tight, hiding her face in the curve of the other woman's neck so that she could breathe the sweet peaches-and-strawberries scent of her. Just for a moment, with her eyes closed and her lover's warm arms around her, she was able to push all the worry and misery away and just be.
Reizo had welcomed Anko back from too many bad missions, and she knew the signs. She set her feet and let Anko lean on her as she gently stroked the jonin's blue-black hair.
Anko leaned on her for over a minute, floating in the comfort of her lover's arms and slowly gathering the strength to keep going.
Eventually she straightened up, wiping away unshed tears. "Sorry," she said. "I'm a hot mess."
Reizo passed her a handkerchief and led her to the futon. "Sit," she said, drawing her down. "Ibiki! Anko is home!"
A door down the hall burst open; there was a rustle of displaced air as Ibiki shunshined in, seeming to appear on the futon beside them so that he and Reizo had Anko sandwiched between them. He rested a hand on her back, eyeing her carefully.
"Bad?" he asked quietly.
Anko sniffled and blew her nose on the handkerchief. "Really bad," she said. "Worst ever. Even worse than that one where Yamada-san and the others got it."
Ibiki inhaled through his teeth. Anko had been a wreck for weeks after that; if this one was worse...
"Are you allowed to talk about it?" he asked.
Anko shrugged with one shoulder, not looking up. "No one said not to. Officially, it's still a C-rank. I wouldn't suggest blabbing it around, though. You sure you want to hear it?"
"Of course," he said, pulling her head against his broad chest and kissing her cheek. "Always, love." An onlooker would have been shocked to see the gentleness with which the scarred torturer held her; this was a side he showed only in this house. Anko and Reizo had done this for him often enough, put him back together when he came home ashamed and emotionally exhausted by what he'd done at the 'office'; now it was his turn to be the strong one for Anko.
Reizo interlaced her fingers with Anko's and squeezed them gently to capture her attention. "Do I need to leave?" she asked quietly.
Anko's hand closed spasmodically, clutching her tight. "No!" she said. "Please stay."
Reizo breathed carefully to keep herself from shrieking in pain as the bones in her hand ground together. Her partners were ninja; they were immensely strong even when they weren't using chakra sheathing. They were both very careful with her, but Anko was at the end of her rope and not paying as much attention as usual.
Once she had the pain under control she traced one finger lightly down the back of Anko's hand in a gentle signal; the jonin's hand flew open as though bouncing away from a hot surface. She pushed herself up from Ibiki's grip and turned to Reizo with horror in her eyes.
"Oh, kami, love, I'm so—"
Reizo shut her up with a kiss. She held it for several long seconds until she felt Anko relax slightly, then she leaned back and bopped Anko affectionately on the nose with one finger. "Hush, you," Reizo said. "No harm done. Now, tell us about this so-awful mission." She carefully did not rub the pain out of her hand while Anko was watching.
Anko flashed her a watery smile of thanks, then sniffled and blew her nose again. She sat, hunched over and staring miserably at her hands where they lay limp in her lap. Ibiki and Reizo pressed close; Anko was a tactile person, and the best reassurance they could give was simple contact and a willing ear.
"It was just a scout," she said. "Me and the kids, up through the DMZ between Waterfalls and Sound. Should have been easy-peasy, quick in and out. But then Orochimaru showed up and t-took us captive in Sound." She paused, her shoulders shaking as she fought back tears. "We were there for weeks, and I had to look strong for the kids. Hinata came up with this plan where I would be such a bitch DI that it would be plausible for them to defect to Sound. We thought it might give us a little space for escape." She laughed and the sound wobbled. "I knew it probably wouldn't work, but 'probably' isn't 'definitely' and I didn't have any better ideas. I trained the hell out of them. Did all the things that Orochimaru did to me."
Ibiki hugged her close, resting his chin on top of her head with a carefully muffled sigh. Having to do those things to her own students must have torn Anko apart. She still had nightmares every couple of months about Orochimaru's training; she always woke up screaming and lashing out. Fortunately, Reizo was a light sleeper; she had learned that she needed to leave the room and fetch Ibiki immediately if Anko started having a nightmare while sleeping in Reizo's bed.
"He was wooing them," Anko said, eyes locked on her lap where her fingers twisted together aimlessly. "He was teaching Naruto taijutsu and ninjutsu, whipsawing him with compliments and insults. He was challenging Shino with logic, dangling the idea of a school where people actually studied the Aburame rationality techniques, where his clan's teachings could really make an impact. Hinata...he found some heavy leverage with her and used it ruthlessly. He knew immediately that she was the lynchpin; both of the boys were crushing on her so hard they could barely think straight, so if she'd decided to stay they would have stayed too."
She paused, clearing her throat so that she could be sure she'd be able to speak without breaking down. "One day, I pushed a little too hard in training, upset Naruto a little too much, and the Fox almost got out. Naruto's eyes were red, he suddenly had whiskers, and he was throwing bijuu power around like candy at fair day. He seriously tried to kill me. I barely stayed ahead of him until I managed to get him in a genjutsu and have an image of Hinata talk him down. I was more careful after that.
"We told him to be careful about the Fox," Anko said. "Didn't matter; Naruto kept talking with him and making deals. The Fox—Kurama, that's his name—seduced Naruto, telling him stories about his parents, promising to teach him jutsu and make him strong. I kept warning the kid away, but I could tell that he was going to fall eventually, and I didn't know what to do. How do you fight against something you can't get at, something that's inside the person you're trying to protect?"
Her shoulders shook silently as the sobs broke through her rigid control. Reizo held her and leaned her head on Anko's. Ibiki wrapped his arms around both of them and held them close.
Anko got herself under control quickly; she wiped away the tears and noisily blew her nose. "Yesterday there was this big fire in Sound, obliterated half the town," she said. "It was awful. The medic tent was overflowing—grandparents, grownups, kids, all of them horribly burned. They weren't combatants back from a battle, they were just civilians trying to go about their lives. They didn't look any different from our people, either." The corner of her lip twitched spasmodically, and she looked at Reizo with red-rimmed eyes. "There was a girl there that looked a lot like you, love. A few years younger, but the same cheekbones, the same hair. She'd been burned all down her left leg; she was screaming on the table as the medics operated." She clamped her jaw shut, looking away. Reizo kept her presence smooth, not letting her own distress be added to Anko's burden.
"Naruto wanted to help rescue some people who'd been trapped in the fire," Anko said. "He made a deal with the Fox, let him transform Naruto's body into this...monster. Six eyes, fur, massive muscles, claws. The Fox was in control, of course, because life wouldn't have sucked enough otherwise. He led us into the fire, rescued those people, led us out, and then gave Naruto back control, just like he had promised. Of course, Naruto couldn't control the new body at all, so he was even more dependent on the Fox afterwards than he had been before.
"I could tell I was losing them, and it was only going to get worse, so I said we were going." She laughed; the sound was jagged. "Here's how good those kids are: Shino was so worried about what would happen to me when we got back that he started playing barracks-house lawyer, claiming that my order to run wasn't legal. I nearly ripped his arm off; it was the only way to shut that down before the other two got behind it. Then we ran for it. Orochimaru was waiting for us just outside of town."
Without looking she reached out with both hands; Reizo and Ibiki both took one without hesitation. Anko let herself fall back against the futon, eyes closed, face pinched. "It was him and about twenty of his ANBU; there was no way we were fighting clear, especially since Shino was down an arm and Naruto couldn't even stand up on his own."
Anko fell silent, leaning against the back of the futon with her eyes closed. Reizo stroked her hair softly for a moment, then glanced at Ibiki and tipped her head towards Anko in suggestion. Ibiki leaned in, cupping Anko's cheek with his free hand and kissing her. "Keep going, lover," he said, his voice the low growl of a ninja pushing on through pain. "Get it out."
Anko was still for several seconds, then opened her eyes with a sigh and continued.
"That stupid blonde brat," she said. "Loyal, strong, brave, determined...and stupid, stupid, stupid. I was stalling, trying to figure a way out. Between one word and the next, he changes; suddenly it's the Fox in control again. He floods the field with a couple thousand kage bunshin, rips the heads off the ANBU before they can do anything. He pinned Orochimaru down—for one happy moment I thought maybe he was going to kill him, but nope. Sensei took a dive, let the Fox pin him down so that he could talk to him. Started talking about how Jiraiya-san was going to be showing up in a couple of days, how sensei could talk him into letting the Fox out. Next thing you know, the Fox and sensei are thick as thieves, chatting over dinner while the three of us watch. I tried a genjutsu, but the Fox swatted it back in my face.
"We sat there for hours," she said. "And then an entire company of its damn clones escorted us back to our quarters and stood guard. Sure, supposedly it was to protect us, but there were twenty of the things in the room with us, and I could feel their eyes on me all night...greasy, looking at me the way Orochimaru's lieutenant used to when I was growing up." She broke off as a shudder went through her body.
"It's okay, love," Ibiki said. "You're safe. It's okay." He laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and pressed a kiss to her temple.
Anko nodded gratefully and made herself continue. "In the morning, the beast was still in charge of Naruto's body. He came in, wanted to play with his food. He was being so nice, telling us how he was going to take care of us, watch out for us. Offered to teach us jutsu, or take us back to Konoha so we could 'bathe in the blood of our enemies', whichever we preferred. Kept switching between friendly and psychotic with no warning, and I could practically hear him laughing at us from behind his teeth."
"He didn't hurt any of you, did he?" Reizo asked.
Anko shook her head. "No. He just wanted to mess with us." She swallowed more tears. "We asked Kurama if we could talk to Naruto. He started to say no, but then he suddenly fell over and all his clones vanished. I didn't wait; I literally grabbed the kids by their collars and ran. Had to kill a patrol on the way out; they were too much for me, so I had to use the Seal. Punched right through the leader's chest, had to shake his body off my arm."
"Did you know him?" Ibiki asked quietly.
Anko nodded, her hair falling in her face. "Kohaku," she said. "Younger brother of a guy I trained with. Didn't know him well, but he hung out with me and Daiki a couple times." She shuddered. "Anyway. Had that...gunk all over me, all the way home. It's not just chakra, you know? It's got...thoughts in it. Hate. The world looks different when you're using it; everything is sharper, rougher. I kept dwelling on everything that had gone wrong, seeing all the mistakes, everything I could have done better. Every time I looked at the kids, I didn't see two brave genin who had stood tall under way more than they should have had to. No, I saw two snotty, whiny little bastards who had been making my life miserable for weeks."
She fell silent, staring at her hands. Ibiki gathered her in and held her, rocking her gently.
"It's all right, love," Reizo said softly. "You said it yourself—you know what the kids are really like. It's no different from the way I sometimes growl at you when I come home tired and hungry."
Anko snorted wetly and turned her head so she could see Reizo's face without pulling away from the comfort of Ibiki's arms. "You don't growl very loud," Anko noted.
Reizo made a show of putting her nose in the air dismissively. "Of course not," she said. "I am a lady, unlike some people in this conversation."
The corner of Anko's lip twitched but she didn't play along the way she normally would. Instead, she went back to the story.
"It just got worse when we got home," she said. "The guards at the gate did the normal check-in procedure; I had to keep reminding myself that this was normal, that they weren't really dragging their feet just to make me stand out in the sun a little longer because they hated me. Once they let us go we headed for the Tower to report in; I had to remind myself that it's normal for civilians to get out of your way when you're coming back from a combat op looking all sweaty and dangerous, much less when you're covered in writhing black chakra goo. I kept wanting to shout at them, curse them, rip their chests open for looking at me like that."
She paused, and then gave an honest, albeit ragged, laugh. "You should have seen Cat, though," she said. "He was on guard duty outside Hokage's Tower; he saw us coming and told us to halt, started quoting regulations at me. I couldn't stand it anymore, so I kicked him into a wall. The medics say he'll be fine in a day or two."
Reizo smiled; the laugh was a good sign. No matter how broken Anko was when she came home, once she managed to find something funny—no matter how dark or disturbing it might be—there was daylight ahead. Sometimes a long way ahead, but ahead.
The humor faded and Anko sighed. "Anyway," she said. "A couple of the other ANBU went and reported to Hokage-sama, and then we were escorted to his office. I was still covered in that glop and when we came through the door"—her breathing stumbled a bit and she forced herself to continue—"just for a moment, I really wanted to kill him for sending us on that mission. I could actually see myself doing it, too. Lunge forward, punch right through his face so his head explodes; be sure to shield my eyes with the left hand to intercept the blood spatter, because I'd need to take out the ANBU next. I could imagine the way my hand would feel afterwards, all greasy and slimy from his brai—" She cut herself off, flicking a shame-filled glance at Reizo.
The young waitress smiled and cupped her cheek. "Anko, it's all right," she said quietly. "It wasn't you. It was that seal that Orochimaru-san forced on you."
Anko felt Ibiki shift beside her; even without meeting the man's eyes, she knew that they were thinking the same thing: no, it wasn't the seal. The seal exaggerated what was there, brought out the worst, but it couldn't create feelings from nothing. Anko was fanatically loyal to the village—to the man—who had given her a second chance, but she was still a ninja. She was a human attack dog, carefully trained to solve problems with violence. It was all too easy to want to respond violently to anger, even when she knew the anger was misplaced. As much as both Anko and Ibiki cared for Reizo, the sweet young woman would never understand just how much self-control her two loves—and every other ninja—needed to exert, every moment of every day, to keep from killing everyone who annoyed them.
And that lack of understanding was exactly why they both loved her.
Anko leaned forward to kiss her girlfriend, then leaned her forehead on the other woman's. Reizo's soft breath tickled the hair on Anko's cheeks, drawing a smile from the exhausted jonin. "I like it when you say my name," she murmured.
"I know," Reizo said impishly. "That's why I do it, Anko." She stole a quick kiss, then leaned back and pushed Anko upright. "Come on, finish the story. Then it's straight into the bath with you. Ibiki can wash your back while I make some food."
"Just her back?" Ibiki asked, the misery of a thousand lost puppies in his voice.
Reizo swatted him playfully on the thigh. "Be good, you!"
He snorted. "I am always good," he said.
"It's true," Anko said. "He is." She leaned back against Ibiki and tipped her head way up so she could see his face upside-down. "I don't think we should tell you that, though," she said seriously. "You might get a swelled head."
Ibiki smiled; her voice was exhausted and there were still traces of sadness in it, but she was at least trying to be playful. "Maybe later," he said. "Now, finish the story."
Anko shrugged, letting her eyes fall closed and wriggling a little to make herself comfortable against Ibiki. "Not much more to it, really. Hokage-sama shut down the seal and that gunk started oozing back into it. He checked in with the kids first—mostly to give me a minute, I think. He asked if they were all right and if they had anything to report that I wouldn't be aware of. They said yes they were and no they didn't, so he sent them off to the hospital with orders to stay there overnight." She gave a small laugh. "I think there might even have been something in there about 'held incommunicado, no visitors except with permission of the Hokage, not even family.'"
Reizo looked at Ibiki with a confused frown, silently asking if the joke was another 'ninja thing' and could he translate for the poor civilian? He shrugged, just as mystified. Why was it funny that Shino and Hinata weren't going to be allowed to see their families?
"Anyway," Anko said, rubbing her thumbs across the backs of her lovers' hands. "I gave my report and afterwards he told me to go home to you two. I walked around for a couple hours first, waiting for the black goo to finish going back into the seal, and then I came here." Some last trace of tension seemed to go out of her and she sagged bonelessly against Ibiki. A moment later her eyes popped open; she looked up at his face and there were no defenses left, nothing to shield the woman inside the ninja's uniform.
"I left him, Ibiki," she whispered, looking up at his scarred and ugly face. "I just left him. With sensei."
Ibiki smiled sadly and stroked her cheek with the tips of the fingers on his free hand. "No, Anko," he said. "You extracted the other two so that you could get reinforcements. Don't have the slightest doubt: Konoha will go back for him."
She looked into his eyes, searching for the truth. She found it in abundance and smiled a fragile little smile.
"Damn right we will," she whispered.
Author's Goodbye: Yes, this is the end. Yes, there are still plot threads that weren't tied up in a neat bow; life is like that sometimes. The story regarding the Republic is still outstanding, but even Orochimaru doesn't expect that to be a threat for at least a decade. On the other hand, I've had a lot of questions about "what was Orochimaru doing in his lab?" and "was the Fox really friendly?" Well, if you were paying attention, you now have the answers.
Will there be a sequel? Maybe. I don't have immediate plans for it, though. For now, I think it's time to let the characters have a chance to recover from their trials and tribulations.
Thank you to all the wonderful people who have read this. I have been very grateful for every review, every Reddit comment, and every PM...yes, even the negative ones.
I would like to leave you with a request: if you enjoyed this story, pay it forward. Write something of your own and publish it—here on FFN or on any of the dozens of other free-publish sites, whatever works for you.
My prediction: The vast majority of you are going to close this tab without, even for a single moment, entertaining the thought of writing something.
Step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Learning the fine rationalist art of CoZE (comfort zone expansion) is a really important life skill, and putting your writing online is a low-risk way to do that. Don't try to cop out with "I don't have any stories." Baloney. Everyone has stories; write up a memory that's important to you. And don't even try to tell me, "Oh, but I don't know how to write!" Neither did I when I started; I learned by doing. So please, set the excuses aside, put something up on the web, and share it with the rest of us. When you do, drop me a PM; I'll leave you your first review, but you have to publish something first.
Well? What are you waiting for? Seriously. Go write one sentence of a new story, write now.