The Yamato Works, Ino thought, reminded her of Konoha reflected in a puddle. The pipes stretched downwards into the deep darkness much like the scraggly, piecemeal towers of Konoha that grew toward the sky. In the dark there were streets and paths of pipes, alleyways of stone, and hidden footholds. Anko had fallen into the role of the leader; she had to, being the only one who knew this place. Shikamaru and Ino both trailed in her wake.
The woman was distracted; Ino could see that. She wouldn't claim to be an expert on anything Mitarashi Anko-related, but something was unsettling their ANBU leader. Guilt, and loyalty to the village, had roped Anko into this mess. That's why they were all down here in the dark; loyalty, in some fashion, to something.
Shikamaru was convinced Sakura held the key to turning the tide of the invasion; Ino was convinced that Shikamaru knew what he was doing. Her best friend was smarter than anyone she knew. He was brilliant when he wanted to be and shockingly insightful the rest of the time, but he had changed since the last time Ino had seen him. He'd matured. With a start, Ino realized she hadn't heard a single complaint out of him so far. She couldn't remember the last time he'd taken something so serious as this self-imposed mission to save Sakura.
Since sliding down that long, dark tunnel hidden by a simple manhole, they had walked for what seemed like miles. The Yamato Works were vastly larger than the city above, with twists and turns designed to foil invaders. Anko knew some passages, but there were only a handful of people still alive that could say they'd mastered the place.
"And believe me, you wouldn't want to be stuck down here with any of them," Anko had added. The look on the woman's face hadn't been joking.
It was the two genin slowing their progress. Ino had only just learned to use her chakra to help with climbing, and Shikamaru was no expert, so Anko was forced to ferry the two when there wasn't a longer, easier route. They had to backtrack more than once when Anko had thought she remembered a shortcut that would make the decent easier, only to find that someone had sealed the passageway up or that things weren't as she remembered.
"How do you know this place so well?" Shikamaru asked. It was the first non-necessary thing any of them had said in an hour. His voice echoed through the tunnel they were following at the moment and Ino looked sharply at him, but he pressed. "You said only a few people know their way around here, but you've only gotten turned around a few times."
Anko didn't look back at him. "I spent half of my childhood down here," she said. Ino hadn't thought she'd answer. "I was only a little older than you two the last time I had to find my way around in this shit."
"Wow, that must have been decades-" this time Anko looked back, glaring at Ino, "uh, years ago."
"Not even ten years," Anko snarled. Ino held up her hands. The woman rolled her eyes and grumbled a slur under her breath. "Whatever. Point is, I don't have any good memories of this place, so don't get lost."
It was Ino's turn to roll her eyes. "How can we get lost if we don't even know where we're going?"
"You'll know it when we're where we need to be."
"How's that?" Shikamaru asked.
"Because that's when Suna will try to kill us. Now shut up and stay close." Anko turned back around and focused on the dim light coming from the end of the tunnel. "Besides, the labs are up ahead."
Although neither genin knew what the 'labs' were, they knew Anko was right half an hour later. Ino nearly stepped onto a hidden seal trigger on the pipe they'd been walking along. Anko had saved her and showed them what to look for going forward (though not without complaining and cursing them for their clumsiness).
Anko called the trap, and the others they found later, sloppy, but warned that they would get worse and more difficult to spot. She seemed disturbed at some points when she found them, both by the complexity of the traps and where they were. Ino got the feeling that Anko hadn't expected Suna to know their way around so well.
And suddenly Anko signaled a stop. She used the hand signal for it, which made Ino tense up. They were on a stone catwalk that skirted the edge of a gaping pit, with other, lower walkways crisscrossing below them. After a moment, Anko waved them forward and Shikamaru and Ino crawled up to her.
"Be quiet and listen," she whispered. At first all Ino could hear was the beating of her own heart and Shikamaru's uneven breathing, but gradually she thought she heard what Anko meant: a light scratching echoing out of the pit.
A tiny shadow moved out into the dim light and Ino realized she was watching people emerge from a side tunnel. Soon another shadow followed, then another. They were walking at a slow pace across another bridge spanning the pit.
Shikamaru pointed farther up the wall. Two figures that Ino hadn't seen were rapidly making their way upwards. Ino's heart hammered in her chest when she realized if they kept going they would be up on the catwalk in mere minutes.
"Sentries," Anko hissed. She got to her feet. "Come on! Stay low but keep up with me! There's a hidden passage up ahead!"
Anko sprinted down the catwalk in a low crouch. Ino and Shikamaru didn't have to copy her; they were small enough to sprint at a full run. The ANBU was quicker than they were, even hampered. She was pressing her hand into a hidden switch when they reached her.
It was dark and dusty inside, but Ino didn't have the time to think too much about it. Anko shoved her and Shikamaru in right before the door slid behind them, sealing the three in total darkness.
Anko's hand found Ino's mouth in the darkness. The woman kept it clamped there for a good minute and Ino's eyes adjusted enough to see Anko's body pressed up against the hidden door, listening. Ino didn't even try to get away; she froze with dread as the seconds ticked by.
Finally, over five minutes after their frantic escape, Anko slowly released her hold on Ino and Shikamaru. "I think we did it," she said, sounding surprised herself. "Who has a light?"
"I brought glow sticks. They're in your backpack, Ino," Shikamaru said. He grabbed two and snapped them; their soft glow filled the narrow corridor they were in, but also illuminated a larger passage a few yards down.
Anko waved off a glow stick when Shikamaru offered it to her. "I know where I'm at," she said, leading the way.
The hall branched off into several chambers. Ino couldn't help herself and looked into each one as they passed. Most seemed like storage rooms, but as they went further in, there were signs of past habitation. One was a kitchen, dusty plates still on the table; another was a living room of some kind. They were still nothing special, but they had more to look at than just empty space and spider webs.
Finally, one room caught Ino's attention, and she stopped. It was a small bedroom. When Ino stepped inside, dust swirled around her face. There was a stone bed built into the rock, complete with a stone end table and stone shelves. A dirty old rug crumbled under her feet when she stepped on it.
"You're a nosy brat." Ino almost jumped, but for once the woman wasn't trying to frighten her on purpose. Anko walked into the little room, almost outside of the range of Ino's glow stick. "I think we can take a break," Anko said. "No one has blown the door down yet, anyway."
Ino blanched as the light of her glow stick filled the room. "Someone didn't know how to decorate," she said. The bed was in an alcove, surrounded on three sides by stone shelves. Dirty porcelain doll eyes stared back at Ino. They came in every shape and size-classy dolls with fancy, frilly clothes that a rich civilian might wear; ninja in tailored outfits, complete with little weapons; and even some animal dolls, paint faded with age. None of them seemed to be part of the same set and they were displayed haphazardly on the shelves. Most of them had chips and breaks, like someone had played with them instead of treating them like the collectors' items they were.
Anko walked up to that little alcove and ran her finger across the face of one doll. The nature of the light shadowed her face. "Maybe because normal kids don't think about color-coordinating their toys," she sneered, answering Ino's flippant observation from earlier.
Ino made a face. She hadn't meant to insult some creepy kid that had lived down in this hole. "No need to get touchy about it."
"Let it go, Ino," Shikamaru advised from the doorway; he wasn't entering the room. "Come on. I need your help up here."
They left Anko there with the glow stick on the bed. Shikamaru led them to a dining room caked with dirt and dust. If that wasn't nasty enough, Ino saw moldy old boxes of food laying out. Whoever lived here left in a hurry. Even the refrigerator, an ancient beast that had lost a battle against modernity, was halfway open. Spider webs of decay and mold were visible under the layer of dust inside it.
Ino thought the scene looked like something out of a horror film. Shikamaru was leaning against a cabinet, but Ino firmly remained in the middle of the room, not wanting to touch anything. He didn't look too happy, either. "You should have some tact," he said, surprising Ino again.
"Tact about what? Some creepy dolls?"
Shikamaru stared at her for a long moment. Ino shifted, back and forth on her feet, jaw itching. She wished she could scratch it. "Stop staring at me," she grumbled. "What do you want from me? I'm here, aren't I? Helping you on this stupid suicide mission."
"You don't think it's stupid or a suicide mission," Shikamaru countered, and then, before Ino could refute that that, he said, "And I'm not talking about that. You heard Anko. She spent half her life down here. She knew right where to get in to that secret door."
"You're saying she's the one who lived down here?"
Shikamaru's eyes snapped over to the hallway. Anko's silhouette was almost invisible in the soft green light of the glow sticks; she walked into the kitchen. "Lived down here, killed down here, and thought I would die down here. It wasn't a good fifteen years of my life."
At least she doesn't look mad, Ino thought. Anko just pulled out a dirty chair from the old table to sit in. She didn't seem to mind the sticky grime as it covered her arms and clothes.
"My master," the word was a curse, "lived and worked of this section of the Yamato Works when he trained me. He did human experiments on Konoha ninja here. We can get to those labs through the passages in this place, unless Suna has already sniffed them out."
"Who was your master?" Ino wondered. She realized she'd stepped on a landmine when Anko glared at her, but she gathered herself and stared back at the woman. "We need to know! I get that you're a mysterious ANBU and everything, but if it can help, I want to know!"
Shikamaru pushed away from the cabinets. "You're prying too much-"
"I'm not prying enough!" she snapped. Then she turned to Anko, who was still frowning at her. But Ino couldn't stop; her fears and anger spilled out. "I know you're helping us and I really appreciate it, and you saved my life I don't know how many times, but the village is burning down around us! Shikamaru said that Suna wanted to grab Sakura alive. Why is that? Why is she so damned important?! How is some backwater village like Suna taking us over?! Where is the Hokage? The ANBU? Anyone who can actually do something?!"
It could almost be imagined that the room shifted after Ino's tantrum, that the bricks settled more firmly into their places. Ino stood in the middle of the room, huffing from shouting, glaring down at Anko. The woman just firmly stared back up at her. Off to the side, forgotten, Shikamaru sank back onto the counter. Ino was one of his best friends, but right now he wouldn't get between her and the ANBU woman.
Slowly, Anko pushed her chair back. Ino caught her breath long enough to swallow the lump in her throat. Anko was a short woman, but looming over Ino she seemed like a giant in the way quietly angry adults could.
And then, to Ino's complete shock, she smiled. It wasn't much–just something too curled at the corners to be a sneer.
"So there is a spine under there," Anko muttered, still fighting off that smile. She was angry, her cheeks were a ruddy red flushed color, but bemusement was winning its battle. "When did you find that?"
Anko slapped her cheeks a few times and let out a great puff of air. "Fine! Fine. Classified information doesn't mean much anymore, does it?" she sighed, raking a hand through her rough mop of hair. "These are all Orochimaru's old labs."
That had not been what Ino was expecting. "Orochimaru? The guy Sakura works for?"
"Orochimaru, the sannin," Shikamaru added, which sounded much more important. Ino knew about the Sannin of Konoha (who didn't?), but Orochimaru was the enigma. The traitor. Her father said Orochimaru had ran off because he hadn't been named the Fourth.
"Was he some kind of scientist?" Ino asked.
Shikamaru nodded even while Anko scowled. "One of the best. My dad told me we base a lot of our newer drugs off his early work with his teammate."
"They collaborated on a lot of things," Anko hissed. She had sung back into being more angry than amused and this time Ino gave her space to talk. "Orochimaru was a genius, but he doesn't have a soul. He cut little children like you two up into cubed meat, just to put them back together again. He wanted to find out what made the world tick."
She raised her arms, gesturing at the surroundings. "This was his universe for the last few years, before he tried to kill the Third and then escape. That was the last time anyone from the village had seen him until he came to Konoha to propose an alliance, right after we received information that Suna was thinking about an attack. The Third told all the jounin about it. A few days ago, he calls us all together and says that Kiri and Iwa could move against us and he activates the village reserves. Orochimaru gave us half of that information, and the other half verified by our own ANBU."
Shikamaru's eyebrows knitted closer together. "So then Orochimaru is helping us," he said.
"He doesn't have a charitable bone in his body," Anko shot back. "He's a monster. He uses people until they are empty husks and then throws them away. Even Suna is being used." She turned to Ino and pointed. "Your girl convinced them that Oto would be their ally in the invasion. That's what she was doing in Suna. If Suna found out Orochimaru was playing both sides, they would have chopped her to bits right there on the street. That means he promised them something else. Something more."
"This is way out of our depth," Shikamaru muttered, and Ino completely agreed. She regretted ever pushing Anko so hard now. "Now we have to keep Sakura away from Suna."
"Why do you say that?"
"Think about it. Whatever Orochimaru tempted Suna with involves Sakura. It's something important enough for them to commit to the first real war since the Third Ninja War ended. Sakura could even be one of their major war goals." The boy gathered himself, right in front of Ino's eyes. He's really changed, Ino thought, still unused to this new Shikamaru enough to be surprised.
Even Anko seemed affected. She shifted, crossing her arms, but didn't snap at him. "Good little speech, but we have to find her first. There are dozens of labs down here that I know about and probably double I don't."
"Something with tanks. Tanks big enough to put people in," Shikamaru said. "We found some documents on the Suna-nin we fought before that old woman took Sakura. I only scanned them, but there was something about tanks and medical equipment in there. I didn't know what that meant then."
"Tanks… there's one lab I can think of that might have them." Anko looked to the side, down the opposite hall leading out of the kitchen. "It's not that far, actually. Orochimaru had one of his last experiments there."
Shikamaru nodded, and he handed off another glow stick to Anko. That was enough of a signal for everyone to get moving.
Ino brought up the rear of the group as Anko led them down another series of twisting and turning passages. It quickly became obvious that without a guide someone could easily die down here, in the dark. Anko found tunnels hidden in tiny slips of shadow, cleverly hidden by the architecture of a sharp turn; she pressed random loose bricks and dead ends transformed into passages. Not once did they run into a Suna-nin; Anko remembered the way better than she gave herself credit.
A fight in a narrow tunnel could only end with desperate kunai in the dark. The thought kept Ino close enough to Shikamaru that she nearly ran into him every time the group stopped.
Finally, half an hour later, Anko abruptly shed her coat. "Give me the sticks," she whispered, and then wrapped them all up.
"We're getting close to the access," she whispered. Ino felt around for the hem of Shikamaru's shirt and she felt him do the same to Anko. The ANBU didn't seem to have any trouble in the dark; she went forward with the same confidence and silent stride she'd used with the light. Shikamaru and Ino both stumbled after her, doing their best to mitigate any sounds.
The access turned out to be a vent no larger than the width of Anko's shoulders. The light peaking from around the dirty blades was lower than the glow sticks had been. When she ducked down to peek through, Ino couldn't see much other than the several large, green water-filled tanks in the room.
But Anko was frowning. "There's water on the ground," she whispered. Squinting, Ino could just make out the slight shimmer of liquid on the slick black stone. "That's not right. This place shouldn't be in use."
"Unless this is the lab we're looking for," Shikamaru whispered back. Anko shooed them both away from the vent and went through some seals in the dark. It was impossible to see which seals the ANBU had used, but there was the telltale rush of air of something being summoned. She saw what it was when Anko dropped the tiny snake down to the vent and it slithered its way between the blades. "I didn't know you could summon anything," Ino mumbled. Anko flashed a toothy smile in response, but her eyes were locked onto the room behind the vent.
All three sets of eyes watched the little snake slither across the floor. Now the water was more pronounced; it rippled with the serpentine movement of the animal as it swiftly crossed. It left Ino's field of view several times, going this way and that, and the whole thing went on for several minutes. Anko didn't seem worried, so Ino said nothing to break the heavy curtain of silence that had drawn close. Heartbeats later, the snake slithered back into view. It raised its little head, looking straight at the vent, and then curled into very deliberate patterns. This went on for a solid minute until Anko surprised both genin by taking a kunai to the corners of the vent.
"It's all clear," she said, loud enough that Ino winced. That wince became a full cringe when Anko, tiring of trying to pry the vent loose, gave it a solid kick. The metal made a horrible clatter as it hit the stone floor and Anko made only a little less noise when she dropped into the room.
Shikamaru gave Ino a look before shrugging. He was much quieter when he went after the woman. "Can't believe she calls herself a ninja," Ino groused before she shimmied through the vent hole as well.
The smell of pure rot hit Ino when she was on the ground. She doubled over and gagged, but Shikamaru was right there, putting something over her nose and mouth. He'd ripped both his sleeves off and had one of them tied around his own face as a filter. "Don't look at the chunks too much," he warned, but Ino's eyes naturally went straight to them.
She screamed. She screamed even around the dirty sleeve over her mouth, past Shikamaru's hand. She screamed loud enough that her teeth rattled.
Anko wasn't smiling anymore. She wasn't anything. Her face was closed and professional as she stood in the middle of piles of flesh and body parts, rotting all around them. A few remaining tanks had floating arms and legs, or half-formed torsos in them, which made it abundantly clear what they all were now standing in.
"Focus on me," Anko said. "Block out the rest. Both of you. Get over here."
One step at a time, both Ino and Shikamaru got through the worst of it. Anko had apparently cleared out the worst of the gore where she was standing, because even though she was in the middle of a clutch of shattered glass, there was none of the horror now safety behind Ino's back.
She was near the wall, standing over something. Someone. The boy was slumped over, resting against the wall. His arms and legs were snapped and bent at unnatural angles, like some huge fist had grabbed him and squeezed - hard. A river of blood flowed down from his mouth, staining his shirt and the surrounding floor, mixing with the oily contents of the broken tanks to become a thick red sludge. Every vein in his body was purple and standing out against his otherwise porcelain skin.
"Suna poison," she said. Anko wasn't wearing any kind of mask, Ino noticed for some strange reason. She lifted the boy's head with the tip of her boot. A thick glob of blood fell from his lips and splattered onto his chest. Anko pulled her foot away in disgust. She looked over at Shikamaru. "You said it was an old woman puppeteer that grabbed Haruno? Short? Lavender hair?"
"How did you know?" Shikamaru wondered. He looked at the body for a few seconds longer than Ino had before he found something else to be interested in.
Anko cursed under her breath. "Chiyo. She was a monster in the Second War. She killed a third of the Land of Earth's civilian military by herself. She poisoned Tsunagi Castle, assassinated its commander, and then killed anyone not vomiting up their guts with her puppets. It's what led to the Earth's Daimyo pulling out of the war."
Shikamaru went ashen. "That Chiyo? She almost killed me. And Choji's father."
"There's no 'almost' about it. If you two are alive, it's because she didn't want to kill you. Even Orochimaru avoided fighting her during the war. Without Tsunad…wait a second."
Ino dragged her eyes back to the corpse. Anko reached down and plucked a soggy, dirty scroll from the boy's stiff grip. "Never seen one like this before," she admitted, turning it over in her hands. It was sealed tight it wouldn't open no matter how much Anko tugged at it. The only thing that marked it as being odd was the character for 'soul' painted on the outside.
She slipped it into her pouch. "Might be useful," she said, already turning away from the body. She scooped up her snake summon on the way and whispered something to it. It disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
"You guys need to come and see this," Shikamaru called out. He had wandered off and was now standing next to a thick, metal door set into the back of the room. It was featureless except for a raised metal lip where the handle should have been.
Anko pressed her ear up against the metal. "Don't hear or feel anything," she said. Her hand went down to the lip and she pressed her palm up against it. "Hopefully no one changed the locks."
It unlocked with a loud thunk. Eager to be anywhere except in this room, Ino was the first through, ignoring Anko's hissed warning and Shikamaru's grabbing at her.
There wasn't anything horrible in here. Even the lights worked when Ino quickly went for the switch. Anko came in right behind her, kunai out, but the only thing to see was a row of unbroken green tanks on one side of the room and a row of empty hospital beds against the other. The only odd thing was a rickety old gurney laying on its side in the middle of the room.
"This was anticlimactic," Anko said. Ino wanted to grab the woman and shake her until she turned sane, but she settled for ripping off the sleeve over her nose. She didn't throw it away, because there was no exit door in here, but it didn't stink of rotting flesh and it sounded like the ventilation still worked.
And then Shikamaru pointed past her. "There's Sakura," he said, sounding as relieved as Ino had heard him yet tonight. The girl's heart leapt into her throat and she raced past him, almost knocking the boy over. She skidded to a stop in front of a clean, unbroken tank. A part of her brain snagged on it not being the same sickly green of the others, but that didn't seem important next to what she saw:
A perfect, whole, Haruno Sakura, floating peacefully behind a few inches of glass.
Ino's eyes took in the whole picture of Sakura before her fist slammed into the glass. "Help me get her out!" she yelled to Shikamaru, who snapped out of his shock long enough to look around for something to crack the glass with.
Anko Ino's arm before she could slam into the tank again. She grunted as Ino tried to squirm away. "Calm the hell down! Look at her! She's breathing!"
Shikamaru dropped the rock he'd found. "She's right, Ino. Look at her chest."
Ino flushed, but before she could shriek something Anko grabbed a hold of her head and forced it right up near the glass. "Look. At. Her. Chest. That's breathable liquid. Orochimaru used it all the time because it healed his subjects faster. Get a grip."
The blond pushed Anko's hand away. "I'm the only one that has a grip! Sakura is floating inside of a glass tube and you both are telling me to calm down!"
"Because I need you to stay calm! Watch the damn door for a second! I still remember how to turn one of these things off!"
The seconds took an eternity to slip by. Ino watched the door, but she also watched Anko as the woman fumbled around the back of the tube. Shikamaru was digging around in his pouch for a spool of ninja wire, which he rigged up to the door with an explosive tag, but the last thing Ino could think about right now was securing the room. She was right back at the tube when a ring of vents opened up at the bottom and oily water spilled out. When the glass split open in the middle on hinges Ino hadn't noticed, she was there.
Ino caught her friend as she fell out of the tube. The girl was limp and unconscious, but her body still instinctively hacked up all the fluid in its lungs. Ino wrapped her in sheets she stole from the hospital beds and dragged her away from the puddle of medical fluid.
Anko had more of a grasp of basic medical care than Ino did. She checked Sakura's pulse and pushed open her eyelids. There was no reaction even though her pupils dilated.
"What's wrong with her?" Ino asked.
"More than I know how to fix. Notice anything wrong with this picture?" Ino blinked; Anko was pinching Sakura's hair between her fingers - Sakura's short hair. Someone had cropped at her shoulders. And Sakura's scars - they were gone. Every single one, from her arms to her legs to her stomach, had disappeared without leaving so much as a pale trace.
"Did the water heal her?" Ino asked. Selfishly, her eyes wandered to one of the other tanks. Her hand was already rubbing her jaw, where her own jagged souvenir was just beginning to heal.
But Anko shook her head. "No. As far as I know, it doesn't work like that. It won't heal cosmetic damage. And why would Suna care about a few scars? Why did they put her into that tank?"
"Can we wake her up?" Shikamaru asked. He was still by the door, watching the horrific room beyond. "Ino, there are some smelling salts in your bag."
She found the little medical pouch and cracked the small plastic container under Sakura's nose. No response at all, which made Anko click her teeth. Before Ino could stop her, she had her kunai out and was poking at Sakura's fingertips. Again, nothing from the comatose girl they had come all this way to find.
"Something's wrong here," Anko muttered, thought she seemed to be at a loss for what that actually was. It was probably the closest she would get to asking for help.
Shikamaru settled into his preferred pose for deep thought, but it was Ino that came up with something first. "I can use the Shintenshin on her. Dad used it to bring people out of comas before."
Anko shrugged. "It's an idea." Her eyes went over to Shikamaru. "We don't really have time to think too much about it. I don't think Suna would have just left this brat here after all the trouble it went through to get her."
Ino held out her hands centered Sakura in her crosshairs. At some point all of her friends had gotten to experience the Mind-Body Switch; Asuma had ensured that Shikamaru and Choji were familiar with it. She had broken her friendship with Sakura before she'd learned the technique, though.
I wonder what it'll feel like, Ino thought as she activated the jutsu. She felt the usual slipping of her soul unwinding from her body and suddenly she was floating free. Anko and Shikamaru couldn't see her, but Ino could still see and perceive them. Their souls glowed like lanterns in the room, though Anko's was strange. There was a black lump of something on her soul's neck.
But Ino didn't have time to investigate. The woman was holding Sakura and Ino could see the hazy outline of Sakura's own soul, though it was very faint and seemed to float around the girl in a wispy halo.
Ino's soul settled down into Sakura's body like she was sitting in a comfortable chair. Sakura's flesh became her flesh; her eyes, Ino's eyes. It was as perfect a Shintenshin as she had ever performed.
Too perfect. Even an unconscious person's mind had some kind of push-back. Falling into Sakura had been like slipping on an empty shirt.
"She's not here," Ino said, panicked. She tried to get up in Sakura's body and stumbled. Anko had to catch her. "I can barely move her legs."
Anko let out a breath. "Did you do something wrong?" she asked, hopelessly. "It doesn't make any sense. By ANBU accounts she's one of the strongest kunoichi in your generation now."
"I know how to do the Shintenshin! The tank did something to her!"
"It doesn't work like that!"
"Well, she's younger."
Anko and Ino both turned to Shikamaru. He had a look on his face like he'd just found the last, nagging puzzle piece that'd been bothering him for days. "She's younger," he repeated. "Probably about a year younger. She's lost maybe two inches and a dozen pounds."
Ino struggled to her feet with Anko's help. Just as Shikamaru said, she came up significantly shorter than Anko than Ino was used to. And her arms were soft and spindly, which Ino knew should be firm, along with Sakura's legs.
A high metallic twang came from the doorway as the tripwire snapped, but without the force of an explosion tag. Shikamaru spun around, kunai flying, and a very-much-alive teen caught it an inch from his face.
"Kabuto," Anko hissed like a curse. She let Ino go and the girl struggled to stay upright. As annoying as that was, having Anko between her and the zombie boy, who was still bleeding from his ears, was probably a great thing.
"Anko-san. You look well." The boy, Kabuto, gingerly tossed Shikamaru back his kunai. He strolled into the lab like he owned it.
His eyes caught on Ino. For a moment, they went wide and surprised, but then they flicked over to Ino's real body, laying off to the side, and they went back to narrow. "Yamanaka Ino, I suspect," he said. "Smart, trying to bring her out of a coma like that. It could work, if she was actually in a coma."
Anko's stance tightened. "And here I thought Chiyo saved me the trouble of killing you."
"She came the closest out of anyone," he replied. It sounded light, but there was a definite strain to his voice to maintain control. "But if you wish to finish the job she started, then by all means. I'm sure Orochimaru would be pleased that you saved him the effort when he gets here."
"Bullshit. He's nowhere near Konoha," Anko snarled, but her arm started shaking ever so slightly. Ino watched a bead of sweat run down the woman's neck.
"He most certainly is, but you already knew that he would come. Orochimaru is a snake that will devour this village."
Ino shuffled closer to Anko. "Who is he?" she asked. She was desperate to find some sense in what the two were saying to each other. All she really understood so far is that Orochimaru might come to the village. She knew that probably wasn't a good thing, based on what Anko had told them about him. Anko-the ANBU, the former special jounin, the toughest person Ino had ever met-was scared to death of him, too.
"His name is Kakushi Kabuto," the woman answered, "and he was Sakura's handler when they turned her into a sleeper agent. He's a spy." Anko sounded disgusted. "He's also supposed to be dead. Danzo implied that he was."
"He would never kill me," Kabuto interjected. "I am too useful to him, since I understand all of Orochimaru's research in an easier-to-control form. I've been in an ANBU prison for weeks now."
Ino thought she understood less now, after the explanation. "He's a spy for Orochimaru? Or that Danzo guy?"
"He's playing both sides. He's a kid with no loyalty to anything."
Kabuto smiled and bowed his head. "Loyalty is something treasured by the talentless. It offers them a metric to judge their lives by that is empty and requires the smallest amount of effort. It's not something a ninja should worry about."
"But you are worried about what Orochimaru will do to you once he finds out you've been spilling his secrets to Danzo. And that you've helped Suna with whatever it is they wanted to do with Haruno."
"Not even Orochimaru can kill me yet," Kabuto shot back, losing some of his composure. "There's too much I have left to do."
Anko stumbled as Ino pushed past her. "You're right about that! Fix Sakura! She's not in here!" Ino said, pointing with Sakura's arm to her head.
"Of course she's not 'in there'. She never was. I began growing that body a week after I recruited her. "
"Where's her original body, then?" Shikamaru asked. He was still behind Kabuto, kunai in his hand, but the teen was unconcerned. He waved the question off like it was a footnote. "Stuffed in a box I buried under the Academy. The real question you should ask is where her last body is. Suna used it to hold the One-Tailed Shukaku after extracting it from Sabaku Gaara. They now have an empty, perfect vessel that will obey their commands and the Kazekage's son is no longer saddled with the burden of the demon."
Across the room Anko gasped. Ino had never heard the woman show that much surprise at anything. "What's a Shukaku?" Ino asked, turning to the ANBU.
"One of the nine tailed beasts that roam the world. You are familiar with the Kyuubi that attacked this village twelve years ago? It is one of nine. In fact-"
Before Kabuto could say another word Anko shot across the room like an arrow. Her knee drove straight into Kabuto's stomach, doubling him over. "Enough of this," she snarled, grabbing a fist-full of his hair. "Is Haruno alive? Yes or no. We can't wait down here anymore."
Kabuto's hand speared straight at Anko, glowing. The woman bent out of the way with only a thin slice of her shirt being caught. Her foot came down hard on the back of Kabuto's leg, crumpling him, and she wrenched his arm up into a clench. "One more time." She pulled hard on Kabuto's arm and Ino heard a pop come from his shoulder. "Is Haruno Sakura alive?"
He didn't talk; he only glared up at Anko. The woman didn't yell or curse at him. When he was silent for another heartbeat, she put her foot into the small of his back and calmly wrenched his entire arm straight out of its socket.
Kabuto looked back over his distended shoulder. "That's not a kind thing, Anko-san," he said. "If I couldn't turn off my pain receptors, I would probably be screaming."
The tip of Anko's kunai went into Kabuto's temple. Where before the teen had been calm, even amused, now his eyes hardened and his body went rigid.
Slowly, Anko turned the kunai. Ino could faintly hear the horrible scrape of iron on bone. "You are a speck of dirt compared to Orochimaru," she whispered. "I could cut your meningeal artery and leave you here to bleed out. I could miss it and start removing little chunks out of your brain until you're a drooling vegetable. Could you heal that?"
The answer was evidently the negative. Slowly, carefully, Kabuto raised one of his hands and pointed at Anko's waist. "The scroll you took," he said, voice measured and calm despite his situation, "is the tether. We needed a soul to mature the body we used, slowly, over a long period."
Anko reached back to her belt with her free hand. She tossed the scroll to Ino. "Figure that out. Nara, give me more of that wire. We've got to get this one to the Tower."
"Isn't that dangerous?" Shikamaru asked as he started feeding wire to the woman. Anko wrenched the teen's other shoulder out of its socket and tied both limp arms behind his back with the cutting ninja wire. Rings of blood immediately began flowing from Kabuto's arms, but he didn't seem disturbed.
Anko pulled the knot tight. "We need him. He's the only proof I have that Danzo is going behind the Hokage's back. He comes with us."
This was all background conversation to Ino. The second the scroll had brushed her fingers she'd felt something sealed in the paper. It was faint and nebulous, but it was real and familiar.
Ino put the scroll on the floor and released her Shintenshin. Sakura's body landed with a meaty thud as Ino's soul rose out of it. Instead of going back to her own body, she floated down toward the scroll. Without Anko in the way, she saw that the fuzzy halo she had thought was Sakura's soul in her body was coming from the scroll, projecting outwards in the vague shape of a person.
Whatever this was, it was an advanced sealing jutsu the likes of which Ino had no experience with. None of her lessons, either with her father or at the Academy, had mentioned being able to seal a human soul into an object. Ino floated around the silhouette, not even sure how to interact with the sealed thing. Was Sakura aware of where she was? Could she see Ino right now? Had she heard everything from the moment she'd been sealed?
There was no reaction from the floating soul. So, she reached out and touched it.
The feeling that Ino had been missing when she first had used the Shintenshin, the feeling of meeting a mental barrier and pushing it out of the way, hit her like a punch to the gut. This soul had a very defined sense of self. Still, Ino mentally pushed harder, and with more of her chakra, until the barrier finally gave way to her jutsu with a pop.
And she fell.
In the physical world, the scroll flashed a violent green. Shikamaru had been ready to help Ino up when she'd released the Shintenshin in Sakura's body, but the blond remained inert. So did Sakura. "That's not normal," he said.
Tied, bleeding, and over an impatient Anko's shoulder like a sack of flour, Kabuto laughed to himself.
"She," he said, choking out the words around the blood still in his throat, "should not have done that."
Author's Note: And now we're learning a lot more about just what happened to Sakura a year ago (story-wise). Next chapter will completely flush-out that story, so I hope you all look forward to it!