Everywhere she turned: Pandemonium. Havoc. Death.
(This was beautiful; creation to the eyes of the one who brought this upon the village.)
She stood frozen solid in the middle of the street as everything around her slowly turned black from the fire's burning glory. Sweat ran down the side of her face as the surrounding's emitted heat wrapped its arms around her, intense, making it hard to breathe. Flashes of orange, yellow, and red danced within her exposed cerulean eye, which was struck with fear, trepidation, and panic. Her lips were dry and her face had gone pale. She felt her body become numb, immobilized by the bloodcurdling scene all around. She swallowed and found her throat coarse.
The house to her left exploded with a passion, knocking her out of her dumbstruck catalepsy, and she shielded her face with her arms. Sharp debris cut into her flesh and blood started to race down her arms and shins. The blood from the former slid to her elbows and it dripped to the illy, illuminated ground, marking it with darker spots. Rubbles untimely rained down; and so did pipes, furniture––whatever was left of it––and more or less, cinders. She forced her body to run a few meters away from the area she was at.
A couch or a cabinet would fall on her if she didn't move.
Pieces of chipped wood also poured from above; chunks of lumber and shards of glass. She had her hands on her knees, watching it, her breathing slightly audible, when she was at a safe distance. She was in a slight stupor when, moments later, a woman's morbid scream frightened her.
It came from just a few feet behind her.
She felt a chill run up her spine; the piercing cry laced around horror, loss, and sobs. She turned around.
There, a woman with short brown hair was kneeling on the ground, her thin hands covering her (tear-stained) face. Her dress was like it had been washed in a pool of blood; it was pure crimson and obviously soaked. Her forearms were also painted red and under her was a small puddle of dark liquid, disturbed. The woman's body was shaking all over––tense. She looked like she had just escaped from a family slaughter––and what she last saw before she successfully fled was the twisting of the neck of her grandmother and the evisceration of her brother's intestine.
There was a round object, though not a perfect sphere, lying in front of the woman.
Due to the spacious distance, she had mistaken it for a ball but when she took a closer look and with a little help from the dusky light of the flames and a brighter, faraway light from another explosion, she saw what it really was.
Ino saw a head.
A man's decapitated head.
Her hands involuntarily went to her lips and she made a small, squeaking noise as she took two steps back. Tears started to form in her eyes. Her whole body started to shudder evidently, her knees and legs trembling badly. She felt ill and uneasy, thinking that she wouldn't be able to take it. She turned away, the face of the man carved in her mind, unforgettable.
The mouth was wide open, as if it was going to utter an erupting yell of sheer agony but it never came because––
She felt nauseas.
One-fourth of the head had been blown away. The right eye was gone and its socket had fresh blood; it had run down like a river and had dyed the man's––the previous owner's––cheek.
She tried to push the mental images out of her head. The built up revulsion, she held it in. Soft whispers trekked in and out of her ears, reminding her; it plagued her. (That could've been you.)
Its teeth were––
She dropped herself kneeling on the ground, eyes tightly shut; her hands now covered her ears, trying to shun away the man's gruesome expression, face, and the fictitious whispers. She was hearing hushed, distant screams and the muffled shouts of shinobi ordering the villagers to go to the Konoha gates. The sound of two successive explosions and the crumbling of buildings passed through the protection of her hands and reached her ears. The man's traumatizing face flashed in her mind again, irritating her.
No. Go away!
Even her thoughts sounded perturbed.
"Ino? Is that you?" An unfamiliar voice called out to her, but she didn't hear. The person held her wrist and she looked up: It was the jounin who wore the bandana, only now the bandana was tightly tied around his arm, helping stop the efflux of blood. It was probably a deep wound since the large handkerchief was now somewhat dripping. "Are you alright? You're not hurt, are you?"
She wanted to respond, but her vocal chords have died a long time ago––she didn't know exactly when––not complying to produce her voice. She shook her head instead.
That was the start of her relaxing, calming down, relieved to see that someone was there.
She studied him for a bit (it was sort of a reflex). His face looked odd, a mix of concern and turbulence strained his expression, a bad blend; fiery colors randomly bounced about his face. His forehead was slick with sweat, slithering down and forming droplets under his jaw, and so was his palm. He had smudges of soot on his cheek, neck, forearms, and a severe burn under his right ear. He also had a forming bruise on his bottom lip.
"That's good," he said. He helped her stand up, held her by the hand, and then started to guide her toward the Konoha gates. He stopped as he felt her fingers twitch and stiffen, as if reluctant. He turned his head to look at her. She was staring over her shoulder, looking behind, a questioning, bewildered glaze in her eye. He looked over his shoulder as well, but found nothing there. "Ino, we have to––"
That was all he got out until his head blew up, sending splatters of blood on her. Her eyes widened––scarred and distressed––when she looked back at him. She uttered a small, cracked cry and she violently––desperately––wriggled her wrist out of his grasp. When she was released, she tumbled back and crawled over to the side, a decent distance away. The body twitched and staggered before it dropped on the ground, stationary and dead, headless even; blood discharged from the top of the neck where the head was connected. Was. She watched the body fall as she panted, a deranged look marred her pretty––quite blood-flawed––face.
That was the continuation of her discomfort.
She had no issues with blood or death (or a little gore)––she was a medic after all––because she saw those countless times at the hospital; a chuunin lost his leg, got stabbed, gashed or sliced from a battle, examined a corpse to realize the cause and time of death. But a person's head spontaneously exploding was, at every aspect, different.
She wanted to turn her head away from the mess that had happened to the man, to close her eyes, to avert her gaze, but found herself unable to––helpless. It disgusted her and nausea started to build up again. Throwing up isn't an option, she thought, feeling sicker than she already was, her stomach churning. She felt cold despite the fervor around her. Her hands quaked involuntarily and a warm tear clandestinely crept down her cheek.
Her thoughts still sounded panicked. Rattled and spinning.
When did this start? She mused, uncertain and confused. I wasn't aware when this began? She imagined herself halted somewhere, at some point, in the eternal expanse of time, ignorant of the lethally developing crisis surrounding her possibly unconscious self––mind and body. She didn't know what was what anymore; the more she excogitated, the more she felt lost. She turned her head toward the direction of where she saw the bloody woman; she wasn't there. She let out the breath that she had been unknowingly holding.
Ino gathered herself later on, built up composure once again––it took some time, though––and she stood up, her legs quite controlled now.
She tentatively looked around; empty, everyone was at the Konoha gates already, unexposed to fatal danger and risk. The crackling of the fire was her only companion. She heard something made from glass shatter as something heavy (one of the rafters, perhaps) dropped on it and then made a loud thump.
She was staring at the spot where a potted plant used to stand when something compelled her to look up at the Hokage tower; instinct told her there was something interesting there, something she knew.
Just something; go look!
All she saw was a thick layer of smoke, well-defined against the pitch-black sky. It appeared to be still, unmoving, no wind blew the grayish gas. The thought that she was stuck at a point in time occurred to her again. Centered on the smoke, she suddenly wondered if it was possible to restore the village (there were no shinobi extinguishing the devilish flames; seemed as though everything was left for ruin, abandoned for the better). Two of the protruding pillars at the roof of the tower collapsed and fell down on the attached building to the right. A crash happened, then a loud bang, then the disharmonious sound of an object hollowly breaking apart. She watched it become demolished. A cloud of fume flooded out, like a black fountain.
A silent signal of warning.
(Ino didn't see the message of it, though.)
For some ungodly reason she found it fascinating. The way it––
She shook her head contemptuously and abruptly turned her back to it. Distractions, they lured attention away from something important––duty, task, aim; excuses, they delayed an intention (sometimes for a purpose, and on purpose). The acrid odor of smoke invaded her nostrils and she coughed.
What am I doing? I need to get out of here.
A feeling of betrayal landed on her. Leaving the village just like that didn't feel right. Konoha had been standing strong for over sixty years; it served as a home and refuge from the threats outside, in the open. Departing––hoping that the village would tend to itself, rescue itself, and wishing that it would be standing there when she got back––seemed despicable. But she knew she couldn't do anything here, furthermore, there was no gumption in staying. Tsunade would send back jounin to clear the fire after the villagers were safe. That much she was positively certain of.
(The people were top priority.)
Ino then carefully pondered her role; what part would she play in all this? Her eye trailed to the recently beheaded jounin, however, she was a tiny bit apologetic that she had reminded herself of that again. For a few seconds, she stood quietly, null options engraving themselves (or maybe those weren't options at all). When she had reached the end of the rope of her contemplating, an idea had sprung up; her contribution. Of course!
She could heal. Alleviate the pain of the injured––she didn't train under the best medic and a powerful influencer, Tsunade, for nothing; she could now accomplish what she'd always wanted to do: Serve as a benefit, a plus for the village. She wouldn't be just on the sidelines anymore, protected and unable to offer her skills as a bonus. She had worth now. Feebly smiling, but still doubting, she walked away, exiting.
She still carried the weight of the mislaid concept that she was betraying her village.
She had taken seven steps when she felt a tug at her skirt. She froze; instant fear grappled her in the throat, a hitch in her breath. A portrayal of the circumstance dawned in on her: A nearly lifeless body, with its limbs deformed, its hair in a bundle, its face shadowed, and its clothes shredded, tugging at her skirt, begging for benefaction––the fact she had experienced atypical situations tonight, she had no argue that it was possible. She slowly looked behind her and relaxed (discreetly exhaled) when she saw that it was a little boy––clearly alive and breathing and well, about the age of seven.
The boy was crying. He was wearing blue pajamas with dried blood near the hem of the shirt. His left hand was against his eyes and was holding three white flowers. She knew what those flowers were; she knew them very well.
Those were her favorite kinds when she was little.
Ino stooped down and held the little boy in her arms. She felt the struggle of the boy's body to take in air. She resolved that they had to get out fast; the fire was eating up all the oxygen. Carbon monoxide was lofting all around them, waiting to be inhaled and absorbed by the lungs.
"It's alright. Let's get out of here, okay?" Ino said––finding her voice for the first time tonight––rubbing the boy's back. Her voice was strangled and she didn't think he heard her. She then looked at him, her hands placed gently on his shoulders, and gave him a reassuring smile that said, everything was going to be fine and that he'd see his parents again, unharmed. The boy didn't smile back, instead, his face began to contort in pain and his eyes released another collection of tears. The boy's shoulders left her hands, she didn't feel them under her palms anymore; she gave him a quizzical look. Then something happening on his face brought upon emotions of insecurity deep inside her.
The boy was disintegrating.
She pulled away from him, who didn't seem to mind what was taking place. She stood up––a bit too quickly that blood rushed out from her brain, resulting in her quick, temporary blindness––and stepped away. Squirts of blood dropped on the ground. The breaking of his skin was apparent, cracking up before dispelling into nothing. Half of his face was now taken away; it had started with his left ear then it spread to his eye. It was as if a cloaked cannibal was destroying him, slowly eroding, nibbling his existence.
A sense of pity and duty welled up inside her. I have to save him!
Immediate understanding of the boy's situation then took hold of her before she got near him again, and it countered her with the words, no, you can't.
He was too far, too unreachable, beyond irreparable; the spread of whatever was gnawing on him was too fast, and it was already too late even from the start––the moment it began, everything was already over, nothing more could be done. In a matter of seconds, both of the boy's arms vanished.
Then his right eye disappeared, the last of him.
He was gone.
The boy's pajamas had drooped on the ground, making folds and creases. It lingered as an impression of a memento.
Ino was perplexed. I'm losing it. I'm FUCKING losing it! She scolded herself for no sensible reason. The cosmos lied blamelessly on the ground, pure white and untarnished. Her haunted gaze was fixed on it. Mo––
She started coughing again, more forcefully this time, and she heard a click in the back of her throat. When it stopped, the cosmos called to her, and it caught her attention once again. It was giving her a subtle message, a sign, a hint. (A wink.)
She was forgetting something.
She needed to check something.
Cosmos were flowers… Flowers.
She heard a crash; a house of neutral distance from where she was surrendered to the fire's feat, nevertheless, her focus remained on the blossoms. The flowers were significant right now, only three florets mattered to her at the moment. The purpose––the idea, the presence––of the blooms were at the tip of her tongue and she just needed to grasp it. She knew that this was another configuration of a distraction, but for an urgent reason, this wasn't supposed to be neglected––I'd regret it if I did. A petal from one of the cosmos snapped off.
And as if on cue, her brain recalled the connection the flowers had.
Shit! My parents! (Are they out of the house?)
(The flower shop!)
She didn't think of her safety anymore, all thoughts of leaving the inferno of a village dissipated. She turned toward the direction of the shop and started to run. Her sandals made a dusty scratch against the ground as she gradually began sprinting across the deserted homes. Each house she passed seemed to mock her, as if showing off that the residents who were inside were now kilometers away from the village, together and complete; no one missing from the family. A pang of sadness shot through her as she tried to not think about the likelihood of her parents still being inside their abode, trapped––maybe even unconscious. She made a sharp turn at the third corner she came to and stopped when a gust of wind hit her full on.
It blew the heat and a thick coating of smog toward her, resulting in her inability to respire properly. She covered her nose and mouth as she coughed lightly. The gust lasted for about seven seconds. She was about to continue running when a shadow appeared ten feet away from her. It resembled a blob and it grew in size as the owner of the shadow drew nearer.
Fell from the sky nearer.
Ino looked above and her sight met a dark figure––human in form––descending from what looked like a giant white eagle, idling a few meters away. She felt the little bursts of winds, from the flapping of the wings of the avian, rub past her face. The dark figure landed in front of her; it stood up and faced her. Though she couldn't see the person's features properly––in detail––it was obvious to her that the person was a male; the essence he held just whispered that eerie fact to her. Moreover, his essence told her that he was responsible for all this. She grabbed a kunai from her pouch and held it in front of her, positioning herself defensively just in case he attacked. She felt the quickened pulsing of her heart.
She couldn't see the man's face, darkened by an unnatural umbra. He wore a black cloak with a high collar and his hair was fixed into an upright ponytail. Other than that, she couldn't tell what else he had; he stood there, his semblance looming like an omen. A dark omen.
(Deceit was what she could dominantly comprehend.)
Very slowly his right hand lifted up, beckoning her to come over. Her grip tightened, anticipating that a battle was about to begin––and she was on the losing side. She could sense definite power in him, a malevolent aura, and intricate skills.
She expected a droplet of sweat to slide down her face and drip onto the ground, but there was none of that. Instead, her skin felt dry. Her vision started to get blurry and her intake of air was rapid. This is bad.
And at that moment, the lower half of the man's face became visible and was unconcealed by the high collar.
Ino saw him smile. It wasn't evil, whatsoever. Not intriguing either.
It was an appreciative smile, hovered with slight conceit and mischief.
Her face felt warm now and her grip on the kunai was loosening, though she was absolutely positive that she was grasping it with all her might. She saw his lips move, his hand still extended toward her.
How does this bastard know my name?
She saw his lips move again but its synchronization with his voice lagged. And she couldn't put a face on him, his voice was alien to her.
"There will be chaos."
She started to choke. Her coughing fit acted up again and she couldn't breathe at all. She dropped the kunai and both her hands came to hold her neck, pressed against it and pushing up, trying to dislodge whatever was inside––she was feeling a tight blockage in her throat. It then started to feel itchy and infected, like several microscopic bugs were, literally, crawling all over. She managed to take a minute intake of air. She felt her limbs weakening and she dropped herself to the ground. Her left hand was now flat on the earth, supporting her frame, and her eyes were now emitting tears due to the excruciating pain that was spreading in her, through her. The fingers on her left hand then began to ache, feel heat, and instantaneously become numb; when she looked at it, she screamed, but it was, without a warning, cut off, resulting into a fractured echo.
Whatever had happened to the seven-year-old boy a while ago, was happening to her now.
She was disintegrating, deteriorating. It was her turn.
She lifted her face to him, ready to curse him with the most obscene of profanities, but she only produced a wheezing sound. She coughed out blood mixed with saliva. Her head started to disappear, eroded; her hands, feet, and abdomen were gone. Her veins, muscles, tendons, bones, bone marrow were now visible––and would disappear soon enough; ad nauseam (she felt like she was being skinned alive). Her eyes were closing; it hurts! Her existence was being erased.
She could almost taste death––
Ino's eyes flew open as she outrightly sat up, her spinal chord popping loudly. Her breathing was hard and labored, deep inhaling, and beads of sweat were on her forehead. She swallowed and felt like a knife had sliced a wide gap in her throat. Her seemingly hollowed cerulean eye was glazed over at the end of her bed. Her hair was clinging to her face and she brushed them off with a clammy finger. She looked outside her window and saw the clear blue sky, the sun, and the chirping birds. No sign of a calamity. No disaster.
She treaded to the bathroom unfocusedly and dizzily, feeling feverish. The bathroom tiles felt cold under her bare feet, sending sharp electric shivers through her nerves. She opened the tap and let the clear liquid flow––she saw her faint reflection, rattled and stressed. She cupped her hands, gathered water, and splashed it on her face. The water's temperature was freezing and she yelped out of surprise. It stung and it drove her drowsiness away. She waited a few moments before slopping her face with water the second time. She then wiped her face with a towel and hung it around her neck afterwards. She stood by the sink for a long while, still delusional and scared, trying to find herself, contending to lessen the severity of the thundering emotions she had. She took her exit later on and descended the stairs, heading for the kitchen.
The exhaust fan was turned on, making that mechanical whirring sound. There was rice being cooked and pork slices were boiling in a pot, steam was coming out from the tiny hole in the lid. She pulled open the refrigerator and took a pitcher of apple juice. She settled a glass on the table, poured the beverage in it, and placed the pitcher back in the fridge; the cold air it released gave her legs and forearms goose bumps. She sat on one of the chairs, her mind still lingering on her dream.
It was a nightmare.
Feeling uncomfortable, she folded her legs and settled her heels on the chair seat, her thighs pressed against her chest and her hands on the table, holding the glass. She heaved a heavy sigh and silenced her blundering mind. Dreams are thoughts, she told herself (without the use of words), thoughts that the subconscious mind processed and imaged during slumber. It means nothing. You're just thinking too much, Ino. She rationalized.
She took a sip of the juice and the sweet taste brought her taste buds to life, her tongue tingled as it was splashed with something cool, her throat enjoyed the refreshment. She licked her lips. She then heard slow footsteps drawing near the kitchen; she turned her attention to the doorway and waited for the person responsible for the sound to emerge.
Her mother came in, holding a vase full of variously colored flowers. The vase featured hand painted roses over a transparent red glass, with a gold trim on the rim and the base. It was her mother's favorite one––among all the other vases they had lying around––because it was the very first wedding anniversary present Inoichi gave her––it was filled with perennials back then and was given to her along with a red box that contained a silver necklace.
"Had a nice sleep, dear?" Her mother asked, placing the vase on the table––Ino heard the plopping of the water as the slight rocking of the vase bothered its stillness. Her mother started to arrange the flowers into a more appropriate display.
Ino was staring at the blossoms when she heard her mother's question, interrupting her fixed engrossment; she answered a second later, offering a late, peculiarly sounding, reply. "Ye… yeah…" she started, "good morning, mom."
Her mother gave her a split second of a knowing glance and she didn't seem to notice.
Ino eyed the flowers carefully, its colors and coordination picking at her brain. "Hey, aren't those…?"
"They are." Her mother finally looked at her. "You left these last night without giving them water. I found them this morning and thought I'd give these flowers a little more time before they wilted."
Ino was taken aback, part of the statement didn't sound appropriate. This morning? What time is it? She glanced at the clock and it read, 12:48. Already? Her mother tossed her a small white envelope and it skidded across the table; it stopped at a few inches before the edge. She took it and opened it; previously knowing what it contained, she just bluntly let her eyes roam the cursively written text on the card, an unenthusiastic front shading her face, all the possible heads up for a sign of excitement was nonexistent.
"Who's it from?" Her mother asked finally.
"You didn't read it?" Ino said, not looking up from the card.
"Why would I? It's not for me."
"Then how'd you know it was mine?"
Her mother's face took the form of a more softened expression. "A mother has her ways." It was one of the oldest adages ever used throughout history and she expected her daughter to roll her eyes at it, in consequence of the fact that her mood was off this afternoon, but she didn't. She placed a yellow flower (that was prohibiting a pair of violets to be seen) a little to the right, creating a more harmonious blend. "Who sent it?"
"Anonymous." The reply was bland, almost dismissing.
Her mother fell silent. A moment too long, contemplating her next query. She considered the tone of Ino's last response and took the hint that she either didn't want to discuss it or it didn't matter to her. Nonetheless, she pushed on. "An idea from who, perhaps?"
Ino shook her head. "I don't have the interest to find out, either." Mellow now.
Something's bothering her, her mother mulled, you're just not yourself today, Ino; almost distracted.
This wasn't the first instance Ino had received an item that counted as an expression for admiration from a nameless individual; this was actually the third.
(Too much expression, if Inoichi was asked.)
And each time, Ino would make it her leisure to try to know whom it was from.
Not once was she able to succeed, though. It was maybe because the villagers kept their mouths shut well or she had never questioned the right people. But the chances of the latter reason were slim, considering the villagers' free and frequent interaction with their fellowmen. Everybody knew each other in Konoha.
Ino's mother started to get worried. Are you fidgeting about something serious? She noticed that her daughter's expression had lightened a little bit, not marked by depth any longer. Or…
"Is your heart set out on the man you showed around the other day?" She desisted focusing on the flowers and eyed the younger female, changing the subject.
(This could be why you're uninterested––your mood is still a question, though, but let's leave it like this.)
She maneuvered the topic into a hard turn and she hoped that Ino wouldn't take it the wrong way. Then all of a sudden, she immediately wondered if she could take it back.
Ino was having a flash of Konoha being reduced to cinders, but having heard the query, it popped and she looked at her mother with unfocused eyes, as if not understanding what she had just said and she needed to take some time to absorb its denotation. It was incoherent at first; she didn't remember the incident she was talking about. But when she finally did and was about to speak, her mother waved it off.
"I'm sorry, that's none of my business," she concluded, "you'll talk about it if you choose to." The atmosphere changed. Though she was her parent, she needed to respect her daughter's privacy.
"No, that's… not what I…"
"You're old enough, Ino. Fifteen; and like I said, you'll talk about it when you want to."
That was the end of it. Her mother didn't speak anymore of the matter, and neither did Ino.
Her mother turned to her after a minute or two of silence. "So, what would you like for brunch?" A small grin pulled at the corner of her lips.
Ino generated a pleasing expression in return, "a tuna sandwich will be fine, mom."
Her mother apprehended a moderately restrained falseness––ambiguity––in the curving of the young female's lips.
She wondered if it was possible––and okay––to distrust a smile.
Sipping juice from a small carton, her mind still not apart from her dream, Ino was now heading for the Hokage's office, holding four folders containing information about the condition of the four patients in a comatose, three jounin, one chuunin; they lost against a nukenin from Kumogakure, who had attempted to cross the border of Konoha.
She was almost at the main door when another blond emerged from the inside. His face was drilled into a pout, his hands behind his head, and he was muttering––the typical reaction he unleashed whenever he got a disappointing, low-ranked mission. It's childish, but. She let an amused smile go.
He stopped as soon as he saw her. "A––Ino."
"What are you mad about this time," she had placed her left hand on the curve of her hip and the other was by her side still holding the folders, "Naruto?" She noticed that he wasn't wearing his hitai-ate and his jacket was unbuttoned, revealing his black shirt underneath, printed with a small orange swirl, and a blue necklace that gleamed as it was hit by the sunlight. "Did Tsunade-sama refused you for an A-ra––"
"No! It's much worse," he interrupted, scowling now, "Ero-sennin has information about Akatsuki."
A-Akatsuki? Just the thought of the name made her feel for Naruto; it wasn't pity, something stronger yet weaker at the same time. The first time that feeling emerged was when she had heard about why Uchiha Itachi resurfaced in the village and what had happened, and it developed further when she had overheard Tsunade talking about the aftermath if Akatsuki was to ever have the Kyuubi within their grasp. Those people…
"And they wouldn't let me hear it," Naruto turned to face the tower, his hands dropped to his sides, "he's telling Tsunade-no-baa-chan now." A determined glimmer was in his eyes. I need to know, damn it! I'm the one they're after!
She was staring at the back of his head when her mind replayed the discussion about Naruto, if the bijuu inside him was to be successfully extracted, between two of the Legendary Sannin.
"Jiraiya, you do know that you will be responsible for Naruto's safety." Godaime said, her voice resolute. She was leaning back on her chair and her face was serious and firm, eyeing him.
"You've told me that for the seventh time today, Tsunade, I'm sure it's in my brain now," he showed an exiguous sad face; his words had an overtone of exasperation, "I'm not senile, y––"
"You're treating this like a joke!" She slammed her fist on the table and there was a fairly audible breaking sound. "You know the outcome if Akatsuki obtains Naruto; they'll purge the Kyuubi and that will––"
Jiraiya raised his hand, stopping her before she uttered anything further. "I know." There was a pause, as if to accentuate the next thing he was going to say. "He'll die."
Ino blinked. Her lungs suddenly felt compressed, heavy; she was drifting into a silent universe. Naruto will… die? Although she never really had a strong bond with him (she disagreed and quarrelled with him a lot, even about minor, unimportant issues), there was still that quiet friendship. There was that time when she helped him shop for his week's supply of food, even though she had to deliver six packets of seeds to a customer. There was that mind-numbing hesitance between them, but there was closeness in a way.
"Hmph!" His lips capsized into a tight frown, communicating displeasure. He turned and started walking away, taking mild, angry strides. "Bye-bye, Ino." He said in a gruff manner. The direction he was heading at was familiar to her; she smiled warmly.
(Sometimes she wondered what made Ichiraku's ramen so tasty that it appealed to him so much; to her, it never was any different from other brands of ramen.)
She then proceeded inside the entrance of the tower.
The hallway was empty and it smelled of wax and paint. The scent amalgamated and it invaded her nose; she felt her chest squeeze in. She hurriedly came to the stairs and ascended them, her sandals softly thumping against the wooden steps, some creaked under her lightweight. She was waving the folders in front of her face, fanning the chemical stench away from her. When she was at the top step, her windpipe felt vacuous but also filled with a strong smelling gas, she sniffed a little and cleared her throat. She started to walk toward Tsunade's office.
She was about to knock on the brown door when she heard someone murmuring from the other side and was followed by an animal's soft squeal. She steadily rapped on the door gently.
"Come in," came a sharp and adamant voice. She's in––with Jiraiya-sama. She turned the knob and pushed the door open. She was expecting to see the Hokage and a white-haired toad master but instead she saw Shizune, standing near a maroon shelf, her back turned to her, reading a document.
"Shizune-san?" She uttered incredulously, a concerned look on her face. I'm sure the person I heard was… She shook the concept away. "Um… Shizune-san?"
The dark haired woman didn't face her. "Yes, yes––I'm sorry, I'm quite busy and… where did I…?" She walked toward the desk that was messed up with papers, stamps, unopened inkbottles, folders, and clips. A paper slipped down behind Tonton. "I apologize for the disorganized sight." She managed an uneasy laugh.
"It's alright," she walked toward the table, taking the fallen piece of paper. "Um… where's Tsunade-sama?" She asked, handing it to her and looking around the office.
"Tsunade-sama? She's in the meeting room with Jiraiya-sama, did you need something from her?" She asked as she filed the paper Ino handed to her.
"Well, these are the files from the hospital she wanted." Ino said, showing her the brown folders, each pinned with a red piece of paper on the upper right corner. "Comatose patients."
"These are urgent then," she took it and read its contents. There was a purple check mark on one of the files; only one thing came to mind: A multiplying virus due to poisoning. I need to get this to the higher-ups. She read some of the examination results and then arranged them inside their respective folders. "I need to go."
"Eh? Why––? I can just––"
"Do you have anything else to do this afternoon, Ino?" Shizune was halfway to the door, Tonton was following close behind.
"Well… no, but––" Her face turned into worry.
"Then if it's no trouble, would it be alright if you categorized everything here. I'm sorry, but this is urgent…" She grabbed the doorknob, waited for Tonton to cross the door, and looked at the young blonde.
"A––lright." Her voice suddenly held back. "It's fine, Shizune-san."
"There's some Polvoron on the table; take some if you want."
With that, the door closed, but not before Ino heard a slight thank you. She sighed. She now gazed at the disorderly table, then her sight trailed to the window, noticing that the sun was reaching its peak. She then focused on her assigned task and got to work.
There was one black (deceased; M), one blue (missions; B-rank), and five brown (profiles; each one had the first three letters of a surname printed on the front) folders. She first started to search for the papers that were supposed to be under the black folder; she started to read each one; she gathered the ones she needed and placed the others, the ones she didn't need just yet, aside. She went over some of the names: Miura, Makoto, Masato, Moroboshi…
She placed them inside the folder temporarily and fumbled through some more of the papers to see if she missed anything; she would arrange them alphabetically later on.
After that was done, she reached for the brown folders and started to rummage through the papers once again to place them in their right category (either in San, Aji, Tai, Ono, or Ued). It was fairly easy to classify.
Exactly thirty-seven minutes, and more or less five seconds, passed, the sun was at its highest point, and she was done. Although the folders have been filled, there were still papers that were on the table; they didn't fall under any of the seven folders; most of them were stamped under reports, some were jail and prisoner records. She stretched, feeling her bones becoming alive again, she yawned. Her eyes dropped on the bowl full of Polvoron candies; she took one, unwrapped it from its bright orange cellophane wrapper, and took a bite.
She grabbed the Ono folder and placed it between Oka and Sakata, on the fourth level of the shelf. She turned to the table again and grabbed the Aji folder. She was about to stuff it in when she noticed that there was no space for it to fit or to squeeze in. The Aji folder was pretty thick and bulky, too. I had no idea that there were a number of people who had Aji as the first two syllables of their surname.
She placed the folder down on the floor and stared at the shelf, deciding to take some thin ones off from it and replace them after she had shoved the Aji folder in. She nodded, taking the idea into account. At first she thought of reconsidering; maybe she could just push the row of files to the side to make room, but when she tried, there was only a little gap––an inadequate slot. She let out a breath and grabbed a random folder to slide out. She pulled it out and something came along with it; a red folder flopped to the ground, some of the papers from inside it peeked out. She stooped down and picked it up; her eyes then shifted with interest as she read its label. It wasn't clipped with a piece of paper that had three letters written on it, a name was written.
Her mind was suddenly blank for a moment, but was then restored.
The folder wasn't fat, nor was it too thin. She brought it to the table and scrutinized its outer shell. The red folder was obviously new, the edges weren't folded and the surface wasn't scratched. Compelled to read its contents, she lifted the flap slowly; she felt a rousing desire for lore. All these years, the only person she knew who was a member of the organization was Sasuke's older brother. She knew that the organization's goal was to capture all the bijuu and use its limitless capabilities for their immoral and corrupt desires.
That wasn't enough. I know so little. This was a chance, an opportunity given to her for a purpose, and she would grab it, know more and help the next time they come to Konoha and try to take Naruto––just if. I will.
She fully turned the flap and saw that the first page was comprised of a picture of a man with blue skin and small round eyes, and information about him. She read the name: Hoshigaki Kisame.
Nukenin from Kirigakure. Former member of The Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. Wanted for sabotage, government annulment, assassination of… a feudal lord!
She read a little note at the bottom: Partnered with Uchiha Itachi. She noticed that his profile had a second page, stapled at the top left corner; she flipped it over. The page beneath had a detailed description of him, jutsu he could use, and his background. She didn't read too thoroughly and proceeded to the next one.
The following profile had a sketch of a strange looking man. The left side of his face was shaded, but the right half remained white. He also had Venus flytrap leaves extruding from either side of him. According to the information, he was a Kusagakure nukenin.
Ino had a skeptical look on her face, that's it? This is all they know about this guy? She also noted that there wasn't a second page. She then moved on to the third member: Uchiha Itachi. She counted the papers stapled together; there were four. Figures, Itachi was from Konoha, it wasn't shocking if his biography was written here, or at least part of it. She didn't bother to read everything, just a few pointers.
(Little did she know that if she continued to the next record, her mind would go numb; Deidara's dossier was next––and a sketch of him was provided as a bonus inside.)
The Uchiha Clan's pride. She set his file down and took––
The door clicked and slowly swung open, disturbing her from her analysis, and she turned her head toward it. Shizune stood by the door, relief washing over her face. Her forehead was lightly beaded with sweat and she was holding a tray of hot tea; its fresh smell filled the room. Tonton was looking at Ino. Shizune sighed. "She isn't here yet." The blonde stood in wonder, not understanding. Shizune took a good look at the desk and saw that it was somewhat clean and organized; she smiled. "Thank you for your help, Ino," she said, walking in and pushing the door close with her shoulder, "I really appreciate it." She settled the tray on the table, a little away from the files.
"It was no problem at all." Ino replied. Tonton stood by the shelves and then lied down.
Shizune started pouring tea on the cups. "Would you like some?" She offered her a cup.
"Thank you." Ino thought that a little drink would get her refreshed. "I'm sorry I couldn't finish everything up." She took a sip.
"No need to apologize, you did a fine job," Shizune took the Akatsuki folder, arranged the files inside, and closed it.
Tonton had begun his nap.
And Ino still didn't know about Deidara's true identity.
Ino walked the streets in a petty daze; a flash of her nightmare occurred to her a few minutes after she had exited the Hokage tower and it made her uneasy once again. For some reason, the smile of the faceless man in her dream bothered her. And so did what he said.
There will be chaos.
She felt like she knew him (and something told her that they have met), but she couldn't put a face on him; his voice was uncharacteristic, though it sounded all too familiar although distant. She wondered if anything that happened in her dream had any meaning at all; frankly, she didn't think it held any significance.
(Overall, why did she have the dream in the first place?)
Her head was slightly stooped, looking at her path, her feet going left-right-left-right. She was caught up in her reminiscing and wasn't attentive enough, and it resulted into her bumping someone's back. Quite forcibly; her nose hurt. A plastic bag containing a box dropped and the person nearly stumbled forward.
"I'm so sorry," she said, rubbing her nose, "I wasn't paying attention and––ouch…"
The person turned around and took a good look at her. "Ino?" The voice was of a male's, deep but moderated.
That voice. She raised her head and looked the man straight in the eye; she recognized him right away. "Deidara-san!" His visible blue eye curiously scanned hers, vivid and ardent, but a muted seriousness––that was leaning toward irritation––was there. Bit by bit, she started to become beguiled, drawn in by his alluring, yet oddly enough, eluding gaze. She suddenly recalled her fault. "I––I'm sorry… I…" She bent and grabbed the handle of the white plastic bag she caused him to drop (an excuse to break eye contact and to mitigate the beating of her heart) and raised it up. The scent of warm, fresh, cookies wafted from the brown bag inside.
Deidara was holding a chocolate cookie in his right hand, his pointer finger and thumb clamping it. His mouth was chewing and she could hear crunching. His eyes then moved toward the plastic bag (his head turned the slightest bit) when she held it out. "Oh," he started in between chews, "thank you." He took it with his left hand, the handle wrapping around and barely denting his fingers due to its weight. He swallowed and took another bite, crumbs fell.
I didn't think he favored sweets, she thought, looking at him––to the plastic bag––then to the cookie.
He noticed her staring at his sweet treat––his food––and he gave her a questioning look. Thinking that she wanted one, he let one of the handles of the bag drop, its opening widened, a gesture of an offer. He swallowed what he was eating. "Go on, take one… un."
What he said startled her. "Eh?" She blurted, jerking her head up, the same questioning look crossing her face. "E––No," she raised her hands to deny the offer, "that's… it's alright." Apparently, I'm misunderstood, she mused.
"Hmm?" It came out sounding quite disappointed; he then got the handle he loosed and settled it in his hand.
She let her hands fall to her sides. "Funny; you don't appear like a man who's fond of sweets," she managed a small smile. A comfortable ambience was settling (but somehow, it didn't feel welcoming).
His eyebrow raised, the comment was unexpected. He innocently looked at the bag and waved the assumption off, shaking his head. "This? It was just a giveaway from that store." He pointed to a shop with a sign hanging on the door that said, Homemade Special: FREE BATCH (cookies). Surely enough there was a line composed of mostly children and mothers––with grocery bags hanging in their hand and their child by their side. "The lady said I looked like I needed it." He bit off a portion of the cookie. "Sure you don't want any?" He inquired once more.
She nodded. "Anyway, I didn't see you around yesterday." She tried to change the subject, not wanting to be offered anymore of the sweet treats she avoided like the plague due to her not wanting to lose her figure––especially not now that Deidara was here, in the village.
There was a stutter in his response. "Ye––yeah. Didn't see you yesterday, either." He lied. "Busy?"
"No, not really." She snuck her hand inside her pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief designed with an embroidered blue flower and her name below it. She folded it into a certain angle.
Without a warning, she slowly raised it and wiped it on the side of his lips. "A––" Bewilderment was heavily obvious in his face. He froze, an awkward situation.
"Seriously," Ino started, "can't men eat decently? You have crumbs on you." She then lowered her hand, folded the cloth, and tucked it inside her pocket again. Score!
What a tease you are, Ino. He touched the place where she rubbed the handkerchief on, feeling if there were any more of the crumbs left. The white cloth was pure fragrance. It smelt of luxuries. "I guess it's a man's tactic to get a woman closer to him, un." I can be one, too, you know. He smiled.
Ino blushed. He noticed; score.
(How cute; how cute.)
Deidara then tilted his head upwards, examining the condition of the day. Quite late already. The sun was still bright and beaming, its rays peeking out of the clouds that obscured it, but it was gradually preparing to set. "Want to take a walk with me, Ino?" He asked, not looking at her; his tone was flat and his face was passive.
"Well…" She said tentatively, thinking if she had anything else to do for the day; nothing popped up. "I guess so––sure."
He lowered his head. "You sure you have nothing to do?" He asked, as if he knew what she just thought of.
She felt excited. "I'm certain."
"Alright then," he murmured. "Do you want to just roam around?" He took a bite of the cookie, finishing it. He then shook out his hands, briskly running his fingertips into one another––as if dusting––removing the tiny bits of the cookie. He looked at his shirt to see if any of the cookie's particles fell and have adhered onto it.
She shrugged. "It's alright with me, is it with you?"
It was a little past four when they exited the Shiritsu no Hare, one of the few middle-class restaurants in Konoha––Deidara proposed that they stop by a restaurant, when he unexpectedly felt his stomach rumble, for an early dinner; he treated her. The food served in there were a tad bit pricey, but affordable, nonetheless. The streets were now flooded with an orange light and the wind had gotten stale and clement. In a few minutes, the streetlights were going to turn on. As both of them walked juxtaposed with each other, she couldn't help but notice Deidara's contemplative look. He was deep in thought, as if he was analyzing his next move, next step.
"What's wrong, Deidara-san?" His features didn't change. "Everything alright?"
"Everything's fine," he stopped walking and scratched the back of his head in slight––all feigned––annoyance, frustration, and exasperation. "It's just that…" A pause. A crucial moment for him. Relay your words carefully, don't give yourself away. He straightened himself up, standing firmer; Ino stared at him. "You see, I went to the library yesterday; I was looking for a newly published book––just published two weeks ago, un."
"But the librarian said they didn't have the copy yet, which is weird because––"
"Nearly everything is shipped to Konoha, right?" Slyness was heavily indicated in her words, albeit not on purpose.
He didn't say anything, but it was evident in his face that he agreed.
Due to Konoha being a powerful village, several suppliers chose it to be the center of profit; strong country, big money. The so-called suppliers always made it a point that their products were of excellent condition and were prompt in deliveries, or it would be a demerit from their standards. Even though Konoha could cut out connection with them due to instability conditions, or for any other reason, the association between them could be rebuilt at any time. (What advantage.) More than thirty supplying businesses have an affiliation with the village.
"Who was the author?" She asked.
"Jiraiya––sama." The old man
was respected in the village, and he figured that since he was an
outsider, he needed to use an honorific for the Legendary
Sannin––though personally, he really didn't care. A village's
well-loved man, hero, or leader was to be revered by a foreigner if
he was in their territory; the land's customs must be followed.
Ino's face was now unclear, slightly confused, and amused.
Conflicting. He thought, does everybody do that when they hear Jiraiya?
"Jiraiya-sama?" She said, thinking doubtfully––he couldn't possibly be looking for the Icha Icha series, those books are all over the village. Deidara eyed her. "Well, maybe the book you're looking for is here, but isn't in the public library yet," she directed her vision to the Hokage tower.
"What do you mean?" He felt like he was getting closer to his goal, and he knew that the closer he got, the more caution he needed to have and take. And to apply. Don't blow it.
When she spoke again, her voice was scantily above a whisper, a murmur, its deliberateness was obvious to him, not meant for him––or anyone nearby––to hear or understand. "Tsunade-sama has a library… no, Tsunade-sama has three libraries inside the tower––"
"Three?" He heard.
(Shit, she mentally spat at herself.)
The kunoichi turned to him and nodded quite uneasily. "Large ones, actually." Deidara was silent, waiting for her to say more, but she didn't. I don't think it's in there, though. She pleaded to whoever was listening to her thoughts that he wouldn't press or expand the subject.
The books stored inside there must be confidential. Deidara was pleased, already plotting. Perfect.
She tried to change the course of the conversation, her voice barely giving it all away. "What's the title? Maybe I can help yo––"
"No, never mind. I can wait until I get back to Iwa, un." He faked an appreciative smile. "I'll order it from there."
Her mind rushed back, rewound to her dream. That… smile. Again, she felt horrified; a simulacrum of the smile that belonged to the faceless man. She pushed the image away, not wanting to be caught stupefied by the person in front of her. "Okay then."
Thanks for the information, Ino. You've been useful.
Night was falling.
Deidara now headed toward the inn, the Shoda Inn, his temporary home, alone. Ino had to leave him, having to report to Tsunade regarding the files she delivered earlier, but she simply said that she had an errand to attend to. His eye gleamed as the light of the streetlamps hit it and he had an awry curve at the end of his lips, contented with his fabricated story and at how smoothly he pretended about it. He turned to the Hokage tower that was to his left and used the scope he had to look at the red edifice marked with the kanji of fire. The wind blew and his fringe brushed away, fully exposing the mechanism on his eye. He looked past the topmost window and saw no one; it was semi-darkness inside. He turned away and proceeded, rethinking his next approach.
He knew he would be the very first suspect if he stole the book right after acquiring the information; Ino would obviously point her finger at him––this had never happened until you had known about it! It was risky, but not passable. He had been in Konoha for far too long and he hypothesized that Pein was becoming impatient in each passing day he still wasn't back. Although, he figured that it would be the same even if he prolonged the inevitable betrayal he was bound to commit; he took the book, without a trace went missing the next day (and forevermore), everything would lead to him. No difference.
It starts… and ends tonight.
And all he needed to have was patience.
As darkness took over the skies of Konoha, lights inside houses were extinguished, curtains were drawn, and doors were locked. The night surveillance group came up and got to the high walls that surrounded the village with binoculars and wireless radios. Other shinobi took their place in the guard-stand. Later on, hour-by-hour street inspections were to be carried out. The leaves of the trees and bushes swayed as the invisible hand of the wind caressed by. The smell of incoming rain was dramatically increasing, the wind had started to become chilly.
"If it doesn't rain tonight," a chuunin who was on top of the village walls said, "it'll pour tomorrow morning." Heavy.
"I hope it pours tomorrow then. Don't want to get soaked." Another chuunin beside him said, placing the black binoculars against his eyes and sneaking a bite at his sandwich. (He was successful.)
A cloud allowed a drop of rain to fall.
It hit a leaf and slid down to the ground.
Nothing else came down.
Silence. Walking. It's dark.
Deidara treaded one of the lonely roads of Konoha in the shadows, avoiding the lights of the streetlamps. A jounin just passed him eight minutes ago, shining a flashlight at every nook and corner. He hid in an alley, behind a stand of large, used, cardboard boxes. He let a few minutes by and then continued on his way. He was just a few meters away from the tower and he could already feel accomplishment, triumph. He couldn't wait to take whatever it was he needed and just flee from the village.
(His instincts told him it was too easy; or maybe the patrollers were just lacking, really badly.)
Little stones and pebbles rolled under his feet as he walked. He used his scope to scan the circular blockage, as well as the entryway––first base––of the Hokage tower and the surrounding area and saw no one there.
When he got to the entrance of the barricade, he suddenly tensed up when the leaves of a tree behind him rustled.
A brown cat ran out. He stared, dumbfounded, at the running fur ball and after a while, released the breath he held out of relief. He loosened his grip from the kunai (wrapped in black cloth) that was inside his pocket and moved on. The doorway was sealed. He tried to push open the closed wooden doors but failed due to it being locked from the inside. He gazed at the tower, all the windows were dark and black; he gazed around, nobody. He closed his eyes and tried to sense a trace of chakra.
There was none. Null.
He observed the setting of his surroundings thoroughly. There were no tall nearby trees he could climb up to assist him in leaping over the walls to gain access inside. The barricade was too high to clamber on. Forcing the doors to open would be too noisy. "One option left… un." He said to himself. The mouth on his right hand started chewing clay. He then formed it into an eagle when it was prepared and was about to set it on the ground to increase its size when his body stopped moving. He froze, all his limbs were immovable, all his muscles weren't responding. What the hell? Deidara heard a grumble to his far left. He wanted to turn his head but he couldn't.
"Oi. What do you think you're doing there?" Came a voice that sounded so flat and monotonous. He heard footsteps getting closer.
Deidara crushed the clay sculpture and fed it back to the mouth in his hand, concealing it. His hand then involuntarily went to his head and scratched lazily. The man's chakra was imperceptible. The footsteps stopped and he found himself turning to face the other person without his command.
He came face to face with Shikamaru.
Shikamaru looked surprised. "You…" He didn't release him just yet.
Deidara flinched unnoticeably and felt alarmed. God, not him. He felt sweat starting to form on his nape. (It was actually quite amazing that they recognized each other right away although it was dark.) Alright, what's my excuse for being here? He managed to calm down enough to think safely, sharply, and clearly. He swallowed, feeling nervous.
Shikamaru's hands were now inside his pockets and he was eyeing him, as if to confirm who he really was. He noted his features and then he was sure. No doubt about it; Deidara. He suddenly wondered if he got the name right. He let out an inaudible groan. "Deidara," he didn't care for an honorific, his presence here, at this hour, was suspicious, "why are you here?" There was an attenuated warning in his voice.
"A bell. It woke me up."
"A sound coming from the tower, un." He concealed the irritation he felt for the other shinobi.
Shikamaru looked at the tall and dark architecture, scrutinizing it for a movement of any sort and straining his ear to listen. After a moment he responded to the hanging statement, but he didn't look at the blond. "I don't hear anything."
"I'm still hearing it." Just boggle him, he thought. "It's coming from…" He paused. "No. The sound just shifted; it's," he paused once more, "going further."
The younger man looked at the radio strapped to his hip. It was silent as it could be, no transmission. "Not one of the squads present at this time––circling the village, patrolling––have reported a––" A crackle. Broken words. He looked at the radio and took it from the strap. He pressed the red transmit button and responded.
Shikamaru listened to the information as partial static interfered. The man on the other line said that a strange howling was being heard. First squad was now pursuing it and that there was no need for others to follow; a report would follow on with the validation of the sound's source. "Understood." He replaced the radio and let out an exasperated and tired sigh. Quiet at first and then spoke. "What you've heard wasn't a bell."
Deidara raised an eyebrow––fake. "No?"
"A bell doesn't howl." They stared at each other, contemplating the other one's next action, next statement––and a possible bluff. Shikamaru's shadow then retracted from Deidara's and he could once again move freely without a copy. "We'll handle it here."
(What a troublesome job Asuma volunteered me for.)
Deidara stretched, feeling that his body had gone to sleep, his back pained a little and his neck felt stiff. "I guess." He turned to his left and headed back, waving a hand of goodbye while he was at it. "Do a good job," he mumbled, but he was already too far for Shikamaru to hear.
First attempt: FAILED.
When he got to his room at the inn, he punched the wall out of aggravation. The sound resonated dimly and what felt like a shock wave travelled up his arm, but he didn't feel it. He then let himself fall on the bed, thinking how well and bad the plan went. It was good that he had set a precaution before he had indulged on––an attempt––to finish the mission. A few hours prior to him leaving the inn to head on, he had made a sculpture of an owl and let it fly to the forest, for backup. If he were ever caught, he'd make it hoot––or howl, as to what the Konoha ninja heard––by pressing the compressed chakra he placed inside, commanding its actions. The chakra would then drain and the sculpture would turn to dust because it wouldn't be sustained with energy.
The plan went bad because––why didn't I think that there would be people guarding the tower?
After much thinking, his mind began to tire and then drifted, his eyes closed, his heart beating slowly as his whole body attained relaxation.
He soon fell asleep. Dreamlessly.
Twenty-seven miles due southeast of Konoha, the leaves from the trees rustled and some danced down toward the ground. Thumping sounds could be heard as sandals stomped heavily and quickly from branch to branch. Barks were chipped off as the owner of the sandals pushed off.
I'm making good time, he thought as he landed down to the ground, observing the area he was at for any signs of concealed shinobi, preparing for an assault. He had been travelling for three hours, taking breaks ever so often, and he was already here, nearing Konoha. "I'll be able to reach it by early, tomorrow morning." The wind blew and his long green scarf slightly waved.
With that he jumped off to the next branch, his feet becoming hastier.
The moon took a peek at his face but only a mask was revealed to it.