Author's Notes : This is a continuation of A Golden Gray Mourning. All you need to know from that one is that Sakura is being taught by Ibiki Morino. Thanks for all the support from everyone, I hope you enjoy this one as much as the last one.
The first rays of morning had barely crossed the horizon when Tengu Hane, matriarch of her clan, strode into the Konoha Aviary. A dozen members of the Tengu clan jumped to attention watching as she moved through the caged enclosure, carefully inspecting their work.
The menagerie sang happily as she walked. Hane may have been strict when it came to her clansmen but her love of the birds here was clear. Several years ago, radio and other technology had almost rendered the messenger birds obsolete. It was only through her tireless campaigning that the Konoha Aviary had maintained its position of prominence in the village.
Hane paused and held out her arm, letting one of the hawks land on it. The hawk gratefully took the piece of meat she had in her hand and allowed itself to be examined.
"Her wing has almost healed," Hane told the young man standing next to her.
"Nama should be able to return to full duty this week," he replied with a smile.
"And still no clue as to watch caused the injury?"
The young man shook his head. "The teeth marks weren't anything we've seen before. And Nama's memories are a jumble."
Hane nodded slowly and looked into the hawks eyes. For a moment, the Tengu bloodline technique activated, allowing Hane to enter the bird's mind. But as her subordinate had said, Nama's memories were blurry. Something that moved fast, something that's form was hard to place, something that should not have been there.
Hane frowned and handed Nama back to the young man. "At least we don't have to worry that the Inuzuka's dogs have gotten out of hand again." She reached forward and ruffled the bird's feathers slightly, smiling as the hawk pecked her hand affectionately.
"I have business with the Hokage this morning," Hane stated. "I'll be back in the afternoon. Have all the owls returned from their night hunting?"
"Hai, Hane-sama," came the chorus of replies.
Hane nodded and turned on her heel, her footsteps barely audible as the birds called out their own good byes.
"And, in the isolation of the sky…"
"At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make…"
"Ambiguous undulations as they sink…"
"Downward to darkness, on extended wings." (1)
"This is maroon."
Sakura's head whipped around and she stared at Ibiki. He was holding up the unmarked pail of paint with a frown. "What?" she asked.
"I asked for brick. You gave me maroon. You've failed the exercise."
Sakura glared at him, eyebrow twitching slightly. "Exercise?" she snarled. "This is not an exercise!! This is… this is…"
Ibiki looked over at her with a questioning look. "This is over," he stated, placing the pail in her hand. He stood up and gently replaced the paint brush on the easel, walking back towards his office.
Sakura glared as her sensei disappeared, leaving her dangling upside down. Some exercise. When Ibiki had told her to memorize several poems, she knew he would test her on them the next morning. She did not expect, however, to have to do so while being hung upside-down, feet tied to a shelf filled with red paint cans that Ibiki insisted were different hues.
She had repeated at least a dozen poems and managed to select the right paint can and the first time she messed up, he decided to call it quits. Inner Sakura threw out a lot of nasty words at the uncaring nature of her teacher.
Outer Sakura sighed and pulled herself up, trying to ignore her stomach muscles' protests. She delicately placed the can next to the others and then slowly untied her feet. She fell gracefully to the ground and hurried after her teacher, barely sparing a glance at the easel and the painting her sensei had been working on.
"So, what did you learn?" Ibiki asked the moment she entered the room.
Sakura looked at him trying not to let Inner Sakura externalize what she was yelling. "Ummm… that there are way too many shades of dark red paint?"
Ibiki sat down and poured himself a cup of tea. "Why couldn't you select the right paint?"
Sakura let out a deep sigh and tried to think of an answer. "I was too tired?"
"Exactly," Ibiki said. "You were under duress, hanging upside down and attempting to lift heavy objects put strain on your body and eventually your mind. When our body is under pressure, our mind becomes less clear. We can't remember things we should know and can't distinguish details any more."
Sakura frowned. She hated when he actually had a point to his exercise. Sometimes, she was happy to believe that he was the sadist everyone made him out to be. But during their two months of training, Sakura slowly realized that there was more to him. He studied a lot of scrolls, mostly on war philosophy but few that were poetry. He painted, though mostly in different shades of red. And he always drank green tea at the end of their lesson.
"I'll meditate on it," Sakura settled on. He nodded and motioned that she was dismissed. Sakura bowed and ran out of the room.
She waved to a few of the other Interrogators as she walked the familiar path through the dungeons to the outside world. The people here were already accustomed to her, most of them taking a bit of time to wave back. It was nice to have that happen. Sakura was no longer another genin. Like Naruto and Sasuke-kun, she was training to be something more.
She reached outside and squinted at the burning sun. Arriving at 5:30 every morning meant that she rarely saw the sunrise before she went training with Ibiki-sensei. But it was always there to greet her as she made her way to the bridge to meet with the rest of her team.
She started to move but she collided with someone else. She apologized profusely, trying to let her eyes adjust to see who she had just offended.
"Shikamaru?" she asked. "Ah… good morning."
"Morning anyway," he replied, placing a hand on his bushy ponytail. "You going to meet your team?"
"Yeah," Sakura smiled.
"Ah," he drawled. "I'm going to the Hokage's office. It's on the way."
Sakura eyed him strangely but he ignored her and started walking away. Sakura frowned. She supposed in his language that meant to follow him. So she quickly fell into step behind him.
He didn't look at her and he didn't appear to want to talk. Sakura could only wonder why he had decided to walk with her. As a chuunin, he could ask her to help on a mission but she figured that if he needed someone, he'd look to Ino first.
"I need to ask for something," Shikamaru paused in mid thought as if he was trying to plan the next move. "You don't have to agree to it…"
"Is it a mission?" Sakura asked.
"Not really," Shikamaru replied. He continued to shuffle and Sakura starting to feel anger welling up inside her.
"Well then, what is it?"
Shikamaru frowned. "It's about Ino."
Sakura's feet came to a stop. "What about her? Is something wrong?"
"You could say that," Shikamaru replied.
"Then tell me what it is!" Sakura cried, crossing her arms. Why was he being so cryptic? After the incident a few months ago, only a true idiot would think that Sakura wouldn't do anything for her best friend.
"You know how it's September and all," Shikamaru started. "And the end of the month is her birthday." He looked like it had taking too much of his energy to state the rather obvious fact.
"I know," Sakura frowned.
"Well," Shikamaru stated, "she's having a party. And I know she wants you to come. I also know she's too stubborn to ask you herself."
"Are you telling me that this is all about going to Ino's party?" Sakura fumed.
"Yeah," Shikamaru nodded.
"From the way you were talking, I thought she was in real danger," Sakura cried.
He shrugged a bit. "Well, it is important to her and all."
"Of course I'll go," Sakura said, relieved that it was nothing serious. For a moment she saw the hint of a smile on Shikamaru's face and she had the sinking feeling that she had just done exactly what he had planned.
"That good," he replied before shuffling towards the Hokage's office. He looked over his shoulder and saw her clenching her hands in obvious frustration.
"You coming?" he asked over his shoulder. But she was already charging towards him.
Hane moved up the stairs, nodding at several of the jounin that bowed at her as she passed. She moved into the jounin meeting area, acknowledging the various good mornings that were tossed her way. As a higher ranking jounin, most of the younger ninja kept a respectful distance, something which Hane enjoyed.
Pouring a cup of tea, she pushed aside a graying strand of hair and turned around, golden eyes resting on the familiar form of her arch rival, the head of the Inuzuka clan. The man frowned slightly but none the less nodded at her. Hane nodded back, knowing that despite their disagreements their allegiance to Konoha kept them comrades and not enemies.
Shizune suddenly appeared next to her, carrying an empty tray. She stopped and retrieved several cups of tea.
"Good morning, Hane-sama," she said politely.
"Good morning, Shizune," Hane replied. "Is the Hokage available yet?"
Shizune shook her head. "Not yet. She's got a rather irate village chieftain in there right now. It could be awhile."
"Wonderful," Hane sighed. She watched as the younger woman struggled to balance the tray of tea cups while grabbing at the pile of sugar and cup of milk. "Allow me to help," Hane said, taking the condiments in her hand.
Shizune thanked her and followed her as Hane moved up the stairs. When they arrived at the door, it was clear that the argument inside was far from over.
"I've already lost a dozen cows," the chieftain was yelling as Shizune opened the door. "And that is food that is lost to Konoha. I have to feed my village first." Shizune quickly walked in, depositing the tray of tea there while Hane waited at the door for her to retrieve the milk and sugar.
"Of course," Tsunade replied, attempting to maintain some control over the meeting while thanking Shizune at the same time. "We wouldn't expect anything less. But ninja are not wolf hunters. If you have a problem with wild animals, then there are hunters available for hire."
"No hunter will accept this job!" the chieftain called. "Our neighbors in Futari attempted to send hunters out already and those hunters never returned. They said only bits of their supplies were found."
Shizune quickly moved towards the door to take the remaining things from Hane, trying not to interrupt the argument too much.
"This is not a wolf pack, Hokage-sama," the chieftain continued. "This is something more, something evil in the woods. This is not a job for hunters anymore."
Before the Hokage could answer, the window slammed open as a strong breeze blew through. The papers on her desk scattered and Shizune quickly handed the milk and sugar back to Hane, despite the older woman's protesting look.
"Damnit Shizune! I thought that window was fixed," Tsunade yelled.
Shizune moved quickly, collecting the papers on the floor next to Tsunade. The chieftain let out a deep sigh as he sank in his seat. Hane hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should just go in and help.
There was a low call and hawk sailed through the window, landing on the desk. Hane balked a bit at the sight, eyeing the new arrival. The pattern of feathers, the curvature of the beak was all too familiar.
"Nama?" Hane whispered slightly. But the bird on the desk, despite being having the appearance of her hawk, stretched its uninjured wings out, letting out a screech.
The milk and sugar clattered to the ground as Hane moved. The bird was not Nama. She let the Tengu bloodline's power seep into her veins and she realized that it wasn't even a bird on the desk.
"HOKAGE!" she screamed, as she ran to the bird.
Shizune reacted first, her duty clear. She pushed the Hokage to the ground and covered her with her body. The chieftain's face paled and he ducked, diving under the desk just as Hane scooped up the bird and quickly turned to the window. Without a spare moment to think, Hane knew she had only one choice. She moved towards the window and jumped.
"Shikamaru! Don't think I'm stupid enough to fall for your little plots!" Sakura yelled as she stomped after him. "I don't like being manipulated into saying yes."
Shikamaru just sighed and kept walking, trying to ignore the ranting girl next to him. She was exactly like Ino. Maybe louder.
"Are you even listening to me?"
Shikamaru had stopped walking and was looking at a round shadow on the ground. It was steadily growing, something shadows simply shouldn't do under normal circumstances.
And then he was no longer studying the ground but being pushed away as Sakura knocked him to the side and onto the ground. He landed on his back and looked up, catching a glimpse of the sky through the wisps of pink hair that danced across his eyes. He could make out a woman, falling towards him and for a moment, he thought she had wings, beautiful shining wings that stretched across the blue expanse.
Then the sky exploded and she disappeared. And all Shikamaru was left with was a surge of heat and a pounding sound inside his head.
Kakashi was drinking his morning cup of coffee, trying to wake up a bit before began his morning routine, when the sky turned orange suddenly. Before the explosion even began to abate, he was on the move.
Judging from its location, the explosion had occurred somewhere near the Hokage's office. He knew that most of the jounin would be headed there as well and if it was an attack on Konoha, they'd start their defenses there.
The civilian evacuation alarms hadn't sounded yet, making him believe that it might be an isolated event. Reaching the Hokage's tower confirmed the idea as no enemy ninja were in sight. Instead, the jounin there were frantically attempting to secure buildings that looked close to toppling.
The Hokage's tower itself had lost most of its roof. He felt his chest constrict as he came to the conclusion that it was a single event, mostly likely with the Hokage herself as the target.
He turned and found Hagane Kotetsu waving him over. At his feet was a familiar looking pink haired kunoichi. He quickly shifted his focus away from the tower and headed towards Kotetsu. He knelt down and looked at his student. She looked up at him with big green eyes, hands placed firmly over her ears.
Much to his surprise, another one of the rookie nine sat next to her. Nara Shikamaru looked less then pleased, hands also over his ears, a deep frown on his face. Kakashi could almost hear him mumbling about how troublesome the whole situation was.
"Are they all right?"
Kakashi turned around as Tsunade approached them.
"Hokage-sama," Kotetsu said quickly, "are you sure you should be walking around in the open?"
She waved him off as she knelt down next to two younger shinobi. "I'm not the type to hide, especially if there's work for me to do." She quickly performed a series of hand seals and leaned over, placing her hands on Sakura's forehead. A moment later, Sakura's hands dropped from her ears and she smiled.
"Thank you," she said softly Tsunade moved towards Shikamaru.
"What happened?" Kakashi asked.
Sakura shrugged. "We were just walking and I saw someone falling from the Hokage's tower. We got out of the way and then suddenly…"
"A bomb," Shikamaru added as Tsunade let go of his head. He muttered a word of thanks and stared at the smoldering pile of wreckage.
"Most likely," Tsunade frowned.
"Inside the Hokage's tower? How?" Kakashi asked.
Tsunade shook her head. "I'm not sure. There was a bird, a hawk from the looks of it, and then…"
Before she could finish, a dozen Anbu appeared around her. Kakashi instantly locked eyes with the one with a fox mask, and the other man nodded in recognition before turning his attention back to the Hokage.
"Hokage-sama, I have to insist you come with me inside. This was obviously an attempt on your life and we have to secure this area before you can move freely around it," he stated.
Tsunade looked at him. "I understand your concern, Captain. But at the moment, my skills as a medic are needed."
"I'm sorry Hokage," the Anbu Captain replied. "But as per the laws laid down by the Council, I can have you forcibly removed for your own safety."
Tsunade's eyes flared in anger. She knew he was right but it didn't mean she had to like it.
The group turned and watched as a group of jounin frantically waved for her attention.
She got up and quickly moved towards them, Shizune and the Anbu a few steps behind. Sakura stood up and started to head after them but Kakashi had a good grip on her shoulder and pulled her back.
Tsunade headed towards the crater the jounin had gathered around. She looked down into the hole and slowly reached an arm down. She was touching something, though Sakura couldn't make out any details. Tsunade stayed in that position while Shizune turned to the jounin and slowly shook her head.
Above the crater, a flock of hawks had taken to circling in the sky. At Shizune's reaction, they let out several long, almost mournful, cries.
(1) Poem by Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning