By Aoikami Sarah
This is a sequel to "Talk", a fic focusing on Ibiki. "Listen" is about Anko. Rated M for mature language.
The bar was a little hole-in-the-wall; smoky, painted black, dimly lit and crowded with off-duty shinobi looking to unwind. Morino Ibiki dressed down in a plain grey long-sleeved shirt, fingerless gloves, black pants and a grey bandana covering his head scanned the room: a long rectangular space with a pool table near the door. The bar was opposite the restrooms and there was a small stage at the far end. Musicians were setting their gear up for a show and a few of their groupies hovered near the lip of the stage. There was no sign of the kunoichi who had invited him out to loosen up. He made his way to the bar and ordered a pint of draft beer. He was very glad that he had decided to leave the mochi he made that afternoon at home.
Five minutes dragged by feeling more like an hour. He soon found himself at the bottom of his beer and already starting to "loosen up" by the time she walked in the door.
"Hey!" Anko cheered from a good twenty feet away. She handed her five bucks to the doorman and jogged over to him. She was wearing an outfit that was amazingly more revealing than her usual ensemble. His cheeks felt suddenly very warm, whether due to the beer or the greeting, he wasn't sure. "I'm so glad you came!" she shouted with glee. Just about everyone turned to see what the fuss was all about. The bar tender had another pint for Ibiki and a cheap beer in a clear glass bottle for Anko ready before she reached him. "How'd the mochi turn out?" she asked and slugged back half the beer.
"Fine," he answered and tried not to stare at her bottle. "How was the rest of your day?"
"Pffff…" she rolled her eyes. "More paperwork that I wanna think about right now! I don't know when I'll see the bottom of it. I mean seriously. You'd be amazed the stuff that still needs to be done to repair the damage those Sound fucks did to Konoha."
"Oh, you're working on the restoration project, are you?"
"At the moment. The council's got us going in shifts. They need one person to keep tabs on stuff here for at least a week. When there's someone else not out on a mission, I'll get to go back out again."
He nodded. Talking shop was comforting. "Same here. Last week I was, well, classified. This week it's back to guard duty. Which is fine. I need the rest."
"Totally!" Anko didn't bat an eye at the 'classified' comment. Being a shinobi working so closely with Konoha's security, she was sure there were many things that Ibiki could never tell anyone. She nodded to the bar tender for another round. "I got this one," she said with a smile.
He looked down. The pint in his hand was still half full. He wondered at her stamina and thought of a non-offensive way to ask her how old she was. "Anko-san, what year were you at the academy?"
"I was a year behind you," she answered, a bit distracted, waving to some friends who'd come in.
"That's what I thought, but you and I made Chuunin the same year. So at that time you must have been, what? 12?"
Anko brought the bottle up for another gulp, but stopped and snapped her head around to stare at him. Her eyes were wide with worry. "Yeah," she replied and lowered the bottle.
Ibiki was (as all good interrogators are) keen to translate body language. He watched the beer get neglected, her shoulders tense up and her brow wrinkle ever so slightly. All of these signs and her silence flagged her discomfort. He had broached a subject she didn't want to discuss. It took a moment, but he remembered just why.
"I'm sorry. Just trying to make small talk… and failing miserably…" he muttered.
Anko blinked and relaxed. "It's ok. Not my favorite phase of my life is all." She downed the rest of the beer and was almost automatically given another by the friendly bartender. "Come on. Let's get up close. The band's starting soon!" She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him towards the stage.
.X. Flashback .X.
At ten, Mitarashi Anko passed the academy exam and became a Genin. As one of a handful of younger students that year, she was excited and hopeful as she entered the classroom for the last time. Her sensei, a young woman with glasses and long, curly black hair ordered them to take their seats. She called off the names of the students in each team. "…and Kuzuki, Iruka and Shizune will make up team ten," she announced. Some of the students turned and stared at Anko: the only one whose name had not been called. The little girl flushed. Snickers resounded. She slapped her hands on her desk and stood up.
"What the shit is this!" she cried.
"Anko! Language!" her teacher shouted back.
"Suzume-sensei! Why am I the only one left!" Angry tears came to her eyes. "Why is it always me!" Many of the other students were now laughing.
"Anko-chan…" Shizune whispered.
"That's so not fair," Iruka muttered.
"Class, quiet!" Suzume shouted. "Thank you." She pushed her glasses up her nose. Anko, you will be on a team of one. Please be patient."
Anko sunk down in her seat and pouted, but could not find patience.
.X. End Flashback .X.
After the opening band had finished their set, Ibiki put the pint glass he'd been worrying down on the bar and leaned over to Anko. "I think I'm gonna call it a night."
Her pout was the last thing he expected to see. "Aw, but the headliner is really good…" she whined.
"That's ok. I've had enough. I'm an old man, I'm tired," he excused himself.
"Wait, I'll walk you out." Anko put her own empty on a ledge and followed him outside into the sticky air.
"I'm sorry," she began.
"There is nothing to apologize for."
"No." She waved her hand, her eyes half-lidded, weighed down by the four plus beers she'd had since entering the club. "I know you didn't mean to bring up the past, but it does bother me… There's really nothing I can do about it. It just always does."
"Again. I'm sorry."
She took a deep breath and bowed her head, realizing he wanted to be forgiven. "It's nothing. You know…" Anko began, eyes on the ground. "Not that many people know that much about me, I mean you were probly there during that Chuunin exam but… You know. I keep that shit to myself. Most people, they remember, or they've heard about it and they keep their distance from me." She looked around as if looking for someone to back her up. "You're sorta the same way, right? People sorta know about you, but they don't want to bring it up. When I was in your house, man! I would never have thought…!"
"Thought what?" Ibiki asked patiently, interested.
"Well… that there would be so much light and music and sound and mochi!" she laughed. "I got to see you. The real you. No one really gets to see the real me…"
"Sounds a bit unfair," Ibiki grinned.
"Yeah right?" she looked up and was surprised by the curvature of his lips. "Not many people want to see the real me."
"Eh?" she asked, startled.
"Someday, may I see where you call home?"
"Ha!" she laughed, the novelty of the idea tickling her funny bone. Her own lip curved. "Sure, but that'd be unfair."
"Because I dropped in on you unexpected. I saw how you live normally. You tell me you're comin' and I'll have time to try to make my shithole all nice…"
"Then may I come now?"
"Now!" she asked, laughing some more.
"Is it a bad time?"
"No! I mean. Hahhahaha. I mean… Sure." Anko grinned.
"What about the headliner?" he asked, nodding toward the thumping of drums coming from inside.
It was Ibiki's turn to laugh. They walked slowly, side by side down the block to Anko's apartment.
Ibiki was surprised that her apartment wasn't as sloppy as he expected it to be. Like him, she held a position in the Leaf that allowed her to be stationed inside the village most of the time, so she did a lot more living in the space she occupied than most shinobi. Bookshelves practically lined the small living room to conserve space but rather than filled with literature, they housed a variety of objects like magazines, antique weapons and little statues of dragons.
Anko dropped her coat on a bench in the entranceway, took off her shoes and flopped down on the couch in the living room.
"This is it!" she chimed. "Shocked?"
"It's far less frightening than I had imagined," he stated and seated himself in a chair opposite her. She laughed. Bills, a newspaper, more magazines and a good sized collection of coasters littered the small coffee table between them. Anko stared unabashedly at him. His tidy appearance and large body size made the room look smaller that it already was. He rested his left ankle on his right knee and tapped his hand on the chair's arm. The chair looked far too small to be comfortable. Anko shot up off of the couch. "Here! Please sit here. I'll make coffee."
Ibiki tried to protest, but she had already disappeared into the kitchen. He pushed himself out of the small, but engulfing chair and took a seat on one end of the couch. He could hear a clattering and soft cursing coming from the kitchen as Anko tried to quickly brew a pot of coffee. She emerged, brushing coffee grounds from her hands and said it would be ready shortly. She dropped down onto the other end of the couch and smiled awkwardly at him.
"What are you doing here?" she asked quietly.
Ibiki's eyes widened. "I…?" He wondered for a moment if she really was as crazy as everyone said she was. Then he read her eyes. "If you know why you asked me to come out tonight, you know the answer."
She looked confused. "I just wanted to. I'm not sure why."
"You are sure. Perhaps not consciously." He stood up and walked into the kitchen. "I don't think you planned on inviting me into your house, but you wanted someone to talk to." He poured the thick, black coffee into the waiting mugs and brought them out to her. Anko looked like she was melting into the couch. Her brows were crunched together, mulling over what he said. She was no match for the master interrogator. Ibiki handed her a mug with a spiral design on it. "And I'm a pretty good listener."
He sat back down, crossed his ankle over his knee again and took a sip of the hot coffee. "You said it yourself. We're alike. Other people know very little bit about us, but what they do know makes them hesitant to speak to us at all. With me, I find people are afraid to talk to me because of my position. They feel that I'm always after their secrets. Or if they don't feel that sort of paranoia, they're put off by my appearance, or the idea that I was viciously tortured makes them uneasy. Fortunately, I haven't let it bother me. I keep to myself. Until the other day when you visited me, I'd almost forgotten that I was capable of fairly normal human interaction." Anko's mouth was open slightly. He managed a small smile. "Thank you."
She straightened up. "Yeah. No problem," she said, the confusion fading away. "So…?"
"Would you like to talk to me?"
Anko's shoulders relaxed. She gripped the coffee cup and let its warmth flood her fingers. "I don't want you to feel like you're my shrink or anything… but yeah. I'd like that." She took a small sip and stuck out her tongue. "Ugh. That's strong. Sorry." Ibiki didn't seem to mind. "You probly know more about me that most folks cause you're in intelligence, right?"
He nodded. "I'm only aware of some of the events linked to Orochimaru. He was of interest to us, not you."
This served to further relax her. "Good. That's nice to hear. So, where should I begin?"
"The beginning's a good place."
Anko nodded. "When I graduated from the academy, I was the only one in my class who didn't have a three-nin team. I was the odd number. I guess after me, they rounded the numbers out so that doesn't happen anymore. I waited for my sensei to arrive. Everyone else had all gotten theirs except me and a couple other kids…"
.X. Flashback .X.
Anko stared at the curvaceous Jounin who had just entered: Tsunade, one of the 'legenday three' who was taught by Sandaime. The students of Hokage were always exceptional shinobi and subsequently their students were just as talented. The legend didn't even make eye contact with her. Quickly, Tsunade rounded Iruka, Shizune and Kuzuki up and led them out of the classroom.
The sounds of laughter and pleasant conversation faded from the building. Afternoon sun slanted across the floor, casting a warm orange glow against the blackboard. Anko hung her head and stared at the desk she sat at. "Why…?" she asked. "Why is it always me that's left behind? I'm way better than all of them!"
"So I've heard…" a voice like fiberglass purred from her right. She hadn't heard him come in, or even sensed that he was there. He was tall, pale and grinning thinly. His amber eyes seemed to bore into her. She found she couldn't look away. "Mitarashi Anko-chan, I presume?"
"Ha… hai!" she managed to eek out and stood quickly.
"My name is Orochimaru. I will be your sensei."
Most rookie teams learned gradually through training and D-rank missions that amounted to nothing more than chores. Most rookie teams did not have C, B or A rank missions. Most rookie teams did not take the Chuunin exam within the first 6 months of graduation. But most rookie teams did not have a legend for a sensei. Anko wondered if Tsunade's team worked as hard as she did as she back-flipped away from the huge snake. They had probably never felt the fear of death or the desire to win driven by a basic survival instinct. She launched more needles at the snake, remembering to aim for its eyes. It closed in on her and struck, but its fangs clamped down onto a log.
"Gotcha!" she shouted and perforated it with a spiral pattern of needles to the left side of its face. The snake hissed in pain and vanished in a puff of smoke. Anko looked very pleased with herself. She stared up at her sensei. "Well, how'd I do, Orochimaru-sensei?"
"You're still slow," he drawled. "You should work on that."
"Hai!" she shouted, standing at attention, waiting for his next instruction.
"We're going on a mission," he said and tossed her a scroll.
"A B-rank to the Hidden Cloud," she muttered, reading it. "We leave tonight?"
"Yes. You're excused for the day. Don't be late."
"Hai!" Anko handed the scroll back, bowed deeply and her sensei vanished in a puff of dusty earth. "Orochimaru-sensei… kakkoi! His entrances and exits are so cool. One day I'm gonna learn how to do that poofing thing, too!" She grinned and walked back into the village. Another mission away from home would bring more time with her sensei, more experience, more knowledge and more power. She was a better ninja than everyone who'd been in her class, she was sure of it. She headed for the sweets shop, figuring she deserved a treat after beating the snake.
"There's that Mitarashi girl," a woman whispered to her friend.
"The one that's training with that creepy Orochimaru?"
"The same. Look at her. She looks smug, doesn't she?"
"Must think she's something special."
Anko stopped in her tracks and pointed at the busy-bodies. "I am special, you old hags! You're just jealous!" she stuck her tongue out and pulled her eyelid down at them. She got the great idea to try to 'poof' away, but her first attempt at it resulted in her falling flat on her ass. The 'old hags' laughed at her as she cursed at them and ran away, forgetting about the sweets shop entirely.
Anko was too young to tell that something was fishy. She trusted her sensei implicitly. If he said they had a mission, they must have a mission. If he said the young, dark-haired nin they were sent to capture was only disguised as a Leaf-nin, she believed him. The boy was about 16 and had an advanced bloodline that allowed him to become sort of invisible, more so than with simple ninjutsu. He was far too strong an opponent for her, yet her sensei stood back and watched as he beat her, fairly severely. Before the boy would surely have killed her, Orochimaru stepped in chased the nin into the woods. A good twenty minutes later, he returned alone. Anko panted and tried to pick herself up off the ground. Her shoulder was dislocated and her pride was crushed.
"Does it hurt?"
"N… no," she hissed.
Orochimaru crouched down and cocked his head to the side. "Don't be stupid. I don't just mean the wound. Being beaten. Does it hurt? Do you burn with the desire to be stronger?"
"Yes!" she cried.
"Would you like me to help you become stronger?"
Anko wondered what all the training and ridiculously hard missions were for if he hadn't been helping her become strong. This must be a test. Should she answer yes or no? The way he was smiling at her made her mind up. "Yes!" she shouted.
"If you can keep a secret, I will make you stronger than you can possibly imagine…" He didn't wait for her to answer. Orochimaru reached out and pulled her into his lap. Anko's eyes went wide. She thought too late that something was very, very wrong. He pushed her shoulder back into its socket and her hair away from her neck. "This will only hurt for a day or so," he advised and sunk his teeth into her flesh.
.X. End Flashback .X.
Anko rubbed her neck and stared at her knees. Her feet were tucked up under her. "I got the curse seal when I was only 10. No one knew about it till later."
"Did it grant your wish?" Ibiki asked quietly. "Did it make you stronger?"
"Oh, hell yeah," she said with a faint glimmer in her eye. "At first it was like a dream come true, that is, after I recovered from the initial shock. When I came to, Orochimaru was carrying me on his back. We were just outside the Leaf. I tried to ask him what happened to the enemy, but he wouldn't give me a straight answer. That was about the time that all those boys had gone missing. I didn't know what was happening so I didn't make the connection."
Ibiki nodded. "You wouldn't have heard about such an investigation. There were three boys including the one you fought that disappeared in the span of three months. Somehow, no one put it together until much too late that their disappearances were connected."
Anko shuddered. "Yeah, those boys were all failed curse-seal experiments." she breathed and sipped her coffee. "I was lucky. I lived. He swore me to secrecy and made me cover up the heaven seal. Then we trained and trained and trained, always far from the village, always to the point where I lost consciousness. At first it was just to activate it and control it. I thought I was doing well. He thought otherwise…"
.X. Flashback .X.
"The Chuunin exam?" Anko blurted out, nearly choking on her tea.
Orochimaru sighed slowly. "Yes. I will not abide by having a Genin as a student for much longer. I have given you the strength you need. If you can control it, you can pass the Chuunin exam." He raised his own tea to his lips. "But if you can't, you will fail the exam and you will fail me."
Anko went white. "I will pass, I swear it!"
"Remember," he said, looking straight ahead. Anko noticed that he only let his eyes rest on her when he wanted to impress a point upon her, as if his very gaze was a weapon. "Do not use the second stage in public unless you want to lose your life. The curse seal is a forbidden jutsu. Konoha will execute you for possessing it."
"Understood," she answered, put the tea mug and vanished, having mastered the art of the cool exit. She didn't see her sensei's grin widen or hear his darkly amused chuckle.
During the second of the three exams, Anko bolted through the Forest of Death. The examiners all had money against her and were positive that without a team to aid her, she would fail. Out of twenty teams that entered the forest, only eight ever arrived at the tower in time. Half of the twelve teams that failed were killed; two by creatures of the forest and four by other Genin. No one had ever asked who was responsible for their deaths, but the examiners were certain that only one person had done the deed.
Anko tapped her foot, growing restless. "Mou," she groaned. "It's been three days already, where are these stragglers?" She had arrived in only four hours, an exam record. She was relatively unhurt save a few scratches from the forest itself and her clothes were spattered with blood. No one asked her if it was human or not. The scent of it was making her anxious to fight again. Finally, the last three Genin made their way in, bedraggled, hungry and waving the white flag. The final match-ups were decided and Anko looked at her position.
"I hope this Shindama kid is a strong fighter," she said, reading the name of her first opponent and cracking her knuckles. The older boy called Shindama held his number and swallowed deep. She cocked her head to the side and grinned sweetly him. "And I hope his blood is nice and sweet."
Ever since the Kyuubi had wrought havoc on Konoha, the village was still recovering. Visitors were few and celebrations were somber. The crowd at the third exam was sparse. Anko's fight was the third one of the day. Sandaime Hokage, who had volunteered to re-enter service, presided over the exam. He watched the matches with a grandfatherly eye, but his eyes narrowed as his old pupil turned his head toward the Hokage's skybox. Orochimaru had been furious that Sandaime hadn't chosen him as his successor, but ever since Yondaime's death, Orochimaru had been quiet; too quiet in his opinion. Sandaime leaned forward and rested his chin on his clenched hands as Anko stepped into the ring.
Shindama looked nervous, and for a shinobi hoping to become Chuunin, this was an automatic deduction. Anko strode out, exuding confidence and pride. She knew some of the kids from the academy were in the audience. She knew those old hags who made fun of her would have no reason to do so after today. She would be a Chuunin and Orochimaru would smile at her and tell her she did well. She was sure of it.
Her opponent raised his left hand in front of himself, forming a seal while his right sneaked into the pouch on his back. Anko sneered and folded her arms. The boy tried to feint but Anko charged him. He couldn't throw the kunai the way he wanted to when she as in such close range. Anko's own kunai landed in solid wood as she went for his throat.
"Damnit," she hissed. The idea to have this over in one strike went up in smoke. She gritted her teeth and detected his presence behind a nearby tree. Anko jumped and disappeared into its branches. A hissing sound behind her drew her attention. She turned too late and an explosive note detonated behind her. The limb she was standing on snapped in half as Anko was blown off of it. She tucked and rolled as she hit the ground. He was behind her in a flash, a kunai pressed to her neck.
"Give," he commanded.
"Fuck that," she hissed. "I've still got an ace up my sleeve." Something dark and undulating shot out from the wide sleeves of her jacket. "Ace, meet lunch!"
The boy shouted and leapt away from Anko's snake. It crawled across the ground and just as it was about to strike, it stopped and curled into a ball.
"What the…?" Anko stared slack-jawed at her pet. "Ace?" She made the mistake of looking up at Shindama. His hands were held in a strange seal. He grinned. Anko felt her mind whirl and fell to her knees. "What… genjutsu!" she muttered and threw up what little she had eaten that day.
"I didn't want to have to use it. A pity you didn't know that was my specialty," Shindama twirled the kunai around his finger. "Give up now and save yourself further humiliation."
"Fuch… yoooou…" she muttered and tensed up. "I can'lose… Oroshimaaru-sama said I can'lose… Jus' don'go level two…" Black marks like calligrapher's ink spun out from under her scarf and painted themselves across her face. Anko wiped her mouth and stood up. "I didn't wanna hafta use this…" she mocked him and charged.
From up in his sky box, Sandaime watched the fight progress, wondering when something would go wrong. He wanted to trust his former student, but his suspicions were mounting. It was harder to follow them under the cover of trees, but the Hokage had a clearer view than anyone in the audience. He saw the tell-tale markings of a cursed-seal snake their way out over Anko's skin. She flew at her opponent. Even as the fight progressed, Orochimaru watched the Hokage's box like a hawk. Sandaime waited. He didn't realize he didn't have a moment to spare.
Anko leapt up and astounded Shindama with her speed. It was the last thought he had as her fist connected with his forehead, cracking his skull and snapping his neck. He fell down like a doll. Anko panted over him and stared at the dead body. Her blood ran hot. "No…" she muttered. "What's wrong with me? I've got to keep it together!" She fell to her knees. The seal was unraveling into the second stage. There was nothing she could do. It was over. She would fail and be executed.
The Jounin judge kept his distance, but witnessed it all. He looked to his left as Sandaime appeared at his side. He left a bunshin in his place in the box so as not worry the audience, which booed, their vision still mostly obscured by foliage.
"Get two stretchers. Declare this match double KO," he ordered and approached Anko. "My dear, are you alright?"
The 11 year old turned her head to him, his large official hat looming over her like an umbrella. "No…" she whispered. "I failed."
"Not yet, you haven't. Will you cooperate with us? Will you tell us where you got that seal from?"
"If I do, will I pass?"
"If you do, I will allow you to retake the exam one day."
This was good enough for her. She nodded and Sandaime approached her. He put his hand on her neck, muttered an obscure phrase and the seal retreated. Anko cried out and fell into his arms.
"Poor child," he muttered as he laid her on the waiting stretcher.
"Orochimaru-sama…" Anko whispered incoherently. "I'm so sorry… I failed…"
"Orochimaru," Sandaime said as he noted that her sensei had disappeared. "I won't forgive you for this if this."
.X. End Flashback .X.
"When I came to, I was in a hospital room. There were guards outside the door. I knew I was screwed, but Sandaime wouldn't let the head of interrogation talk to me. He was the nicest man I've ever known, that old fart," she said with a quiet chuckle. "He told me that Orochimaru had fled Konoha and as you know, it wasn't until the next year that I was allowed to retake the Chuunin exam. It took that long to make sure the curse seal was really locked down." Anko hugged her knees. "I took the Chuunin exam again, alone. I passed, alone. No one praised me. No one cared. The only person who said anything nice to me was Sandaime."
"He was an amazing man," Ibiki said quietly. He watched Anko with unblinking curiousity. Anko watched her toes.
"You know I saw Orochimaru in the Forest of Death before the attack, right?"
"I fought him. He flared up my curse seal for the first time in more than a decade. I hadn't felt so powerless, so helpless since way back. I couldn't stop him. Even with my own life, I couldn't stop him!" Her nails left marks in her legs as she hugged them tighter.
"You feel responsible for Sandaime's death?" Ibiki realized.
Anko nodded and put her forehead down on her folded knees. "I knew you wouldn't understand…" she muttered into her lap.
"Anko, we all feel responsible for his loss. You're not alone." She looked over at him, her brows pinched together in confusion. He looked out at one of the bookshelves and the decorative weapons it contained. "I always wonder what we could have done. I play out scenarios that could have avoided this tragedy over and over in my head. But fate is a cruel thing. It does what it must and that which happens, happens for a reason." When he looked back, she was smiling.
"For what?" he asked.
"For listening, and not judging me."
Ibiki simply nodded and stood up. Anko walked him to the door. They shared an awkward silence before she stuck her hand out. He took it and assumed she would shake it, but instead Anko pulled him closer and gave him a sort of masculine hug. "If you wanna check out the headliner sometime, gimme a call," she said.
Ibiki knew he was blushing. "Perhaps," he replied.
"Well, that's not a 'no'." She grinned as she let him go. "I'll give you a call."
"Do that," he said, his training kept his voice even but he was anything but calm. She showed him out and the cool of the evening washed around him. The air was heavy with the potential for rain. "Tomorrow," he mumbled, walking slowly back home. "I'll bring her the mochi tomorrow."