It was as if the smallest, most minute fragments of her body crawled under the burden of absolute terror. The air itself seemed to possess life of its own as it caressed her skin and bit down to the marrow of her bones, hoping to find the slightest scrap of warmth to consume, for it bore a cursed hunger that refused to find satisfaction.
Ravenous cold filled up every inch of this place, this... construct of a young boy's imagination. The pervasive atmosphere enveloped her tightly, cutting through her clothes without care, and fervently clutched at her flesh, pawing and scraping and killing her, one cell at a time.
Worst of all was that there was no pain to blind her senses of reality. There was enough reddish light for her eyes to see the truth. Her body was still intact.
"The mind is but a stage filled with puppets." Ino chanted as feeble tremors rocked her body.
It felt like she was numb with cold, but she knew better than to believe that. Ino closed her eyes and whispered her lessons like a mantra.
"The mind is but a stage filled with puppets."
This place was not real. Her 'body' was just a construct of her imagination so... how? How could she lose control over her own imagination? The very idea left her confused and horrified.
'What's wrong with this place? Naruto... is this really your mind?'
Ino leaned against the concrete walls of a long hallway flooded up to her knees in still water, the barrier of its walls broken by many empty doorways leading into areas of unfathomable darkness, its ceiling serving as a guide for a network of pipes as they traveled along its length. All in all, the decor wouldn't look out of place in the village sewer.
"The mind... is but a stage... filled with puppets."
And that was it. Nothing else stood out and yet... It was certainly the most awful place she'd ever set foot in, figuratively speaking, far and beyond the village's forty-fourth training ground, nicknamed Forest of Death. It was inexplicable, the feeling of dread that assaulted her, and she knew that her confusion only made the experience worse.
She shivered weakly as she tried once more to force movement into her arms, to shape her fingers into the hand-seal needed to make her escape but they would have none of it. They hung limply at her sides and stubbornly refused to budge. That frightened her more than she would have believed.
"Dad..." she spoke, her voice barely registering as a whisper to her own ears. "What am I supposed to do?"
He didn't answer, and she was somewhat ashamed to realize that she had hoped he would.
Ino knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that what she was feeling wasn't real. That was the only reason she managed the resist the panic that tried to take her mind apart as her 'body' weakened and fell further out of her control. Her knees wobbled dangerously as they struggled to support her weight, then collapsed, plunging her fully into the vile fluid that filled this horrible place.
The dive hit her hard, and left her feeling stiff and brittle like a block of ice, as though her body might crack apart if she didn't stay perfectly still.
"Urgh!" she groaned as an indescribable sensation surged from the depths of her being. It filled her up and left her feeling bloated, like she had just finished eating an Akimichi dinner, only with the nausea of overeating replaced by intense pain, as if her body has seized up into one giant cramp. She couldn't resist the urge to scream as the feeling increased, but could only hiss weakly, releasing a trail of tiny bubbles to caress her cheeks on their way to the surface.
For a moment, nothing more happened. Then, everything seemed to disappear, the pain, the terrible cold... everything just... slipped away...
The burning intensity of her agony faded into gentle warmth, and she found herself lulled and relaxed by the motions of the current. Her eyelids felt heavy, and the addition of their weight proved unbearable.
Her eyes closed without resistance as the current carried her away.
Submerged in a sea of nothingness, drifting towards the unknown, she knew no fear.
She knew nothing.
Something tugged at the loose threads of her consciousness.
It was a voice, and it felt somewhat familiar. If she could just focus, she might be able to…
"Please! Ino, wake up!"
That word was like a shot of adrenaline injected to her heart. Ino. Three letters, two syllables. It was a name.
It was her name. She had forgotten it.
She had forgotten her name!
The panic she had been repressing climbed out of the pit she had thrown it into and incited rebellion. Her composure was the first to reach the guillotine. Her entire body flailed about wildly, trying to escape something she couldn't see, hear or touch, something she couldn't confront and fight.
Something else quickly tried to restrain her, but only managed to agitate her even more, drawing a scream out of her throat as she redoubled her struggles.
"Ino, Ino, Ino! Stop it, calm down! Ow! I said stop, dammit!"
A pair of arms wrapped around her and held on tightly, but the effort proved to be no longer necessary. The sound of that voice expressing its owner's annoyance triggered something in her memories.
'I know that voice!'
And she quickly remembered her mission.
Her eyes opened wide, and she was left breathless.
"Oh man, I'm so sorry, Ino! I only meant to scare your old man a bit, I didn't think he'd send you in here!"
Seeing him as he fretted over her and held her upper body out of the water captivated her. She was entranced by his eyes. They were just impossibly blue, seeming to glow with the color. It was as if the red varnish that stained everything in this place wouldn't touch him, like the eldritch light that reflected off of his eyes was somehow changed by the contact. Purified. It made him seem different, otherworldly.
A faint flush spread to her cheeks and she closed her eyes quickly, feeling an intense desire to suppress it.
'I know I'm going crazy when Naruto, of all people, starts looking cute. He's a dork. Get a hold of yourself, girl.'
Unfortunately, Naruto took this as a sign that she was falling unconscious and began to shake her rather roughly.
"Ino, wake up!" he screamed.
With deft hands, she reached out to grab his jacket collar and tugged until their faces were only an inch apart. His eyes were wide open and as blue as the midday sky.
"Alright. I'm up. Stop doing that, right now."
He nodded repeatedly, so she let go of his collar.
"Help me up."
He did that too, then retreated to a safe distance. Immediately, she became utterly aware that she was soaked to the bone when the cold reared up its ugly head and took a bite right out of her, forcing her to shiver violently.
Naruto winced and scratched his jaw, looking embarrassed. "Oh yeah. Sorry about that."
He took three steps towards her and the difference was like a mountain top on the moon and a beach resort.
She couldn't help it. She closed her eyes and moaned. "Oooh wow, that feels sooo good."
She opened her eyes and saw the blush on his cheeks, but something else took hold of her mind and wouldn't let go until she cried uncle and submitted to its call.
"Hold still," she commanded as she marched towards him, splashing water around messily.
"What? H-hey! What are you doing? Let go! HEY! That's mine!" he complained as she unzipped his jacket and urgently pulled it off him.
"I need it more than you do! It's so damn cold in here. You're a man, aren't you? Stop complaining."
Normally she wouldn't ever consider wearing something so atrocious, but desperate times called for desperate measures. So she completely ignored Naruto as he pouted and sulked, gathered her courage and pulled the monstrosity on, zipping it all the way up for good measure, and nearly melted as the warmth overwhelmed her.
"Ino? Are you okay?"
"Naruto," she called, keeping her eyes closed to preserve the experience. "I'm sorry for all those times I made fun of your jacket. This thing is glorious."
He laughed. "Sure thing! So, what are you doing here anyway? This place isn't all that welcoming."
Understatement of the year, that.
"Well, before that, I've got to ask you something." That something wasn't part of the mission parameters, but she had made a promise and she intended to fulfill it.
The boy cocked his head and asked, "What's that?"
"Are you the real one?"
Something in his whole demeanor changed, and Ino suddenly knew what he was going to say before the words even left his mouth.
"No, I'm not," he said with a grimace on his face. "That's why you're here? You're looking for him?"
She nodded sharply, now completely businesslike. She was lying, of course. Technically she was only supposed to wait until something happened and then report her findings, but why stop there?
'Might as well kill two with one shuriken and drag him out of here myself.'
Though, it made her uneasy to realize how easily she'd been fooled. If Sakura hadn't forced a promise out of her, then she probably would have made the same mistake as her father.
"Damn it," he swore. "I knew it was taking too long, but it's hard to tell the time down here. How long has it been?"
Ino shrugged. "I'm not sure. Three or four days, maybe?"
If anything, his expression soured even more after that revelation, but he kept his thoughts to himself and stared into empty space.
"So, do you know where he is?" she prodded, hoping for a reaction. "And what should I call you, anyway?"
He shrugged slightly, but didn't seem to be paying much attention as he answered. "I'm the watchman around here, so you can call me that."
Ino rolled her eyes. "Alright… Watchman. What exactly are you watching here?"
His eyes turned towards her. "Everything. The catacombs are the weak link. If anyone wants to get in or out, this is the place to do it."
"Okay then." She didn't understand a word he was saying, so she decided to cut to the chase. "So, about Naruto? You know where he is?"
Watchman's expression wavered, going through a gamut of emotions before settling into a mask of impassiveness. "Sort of," he mumbled. "But he's probably busy. I'll try to get a message to him, but you'll need to wait until he comes back."
Ino scoffed and crossed her arms, unable to believe that he was stonewalling her. "Right. What could he possibly be doing in here that's so important? Doesn't he know that people are worried about him? Hokage-sama has been trying to wake him up for days now! And Sakura…"
She trailed off. He stood with a bowed head and eyes tightly shut, his fists clenched tightly and his features twisted as if in pain, looking like the very picture of contrition. She needn't say another word.
Ino sloshed a path through the water, breaking the silence that smothered them as the sound echoed throughout the hallway. Her decision was made. She would go look for the boy herself, though it seemed like a real bother.
'You're so inconsiderate, Naruto! You'll never get a girlfriend at this rate.'
As she tried to move past Watchman, his fist whooshed before her eyes and slammed into the wall, cracking the concrete and blocking her path. His head was still bowed, but a single blue eye stared her down through his fringe as sand and fragments of rock plopped into the water below. Only now did she realize that he wasn't wearing his forehead protector.
"Sorry, Ino, but I can't let you pass."
She had never heard his voice sound like that, like a real shinobi, empty save for a hint of warning. It surprised her so that it must have shown on her face as she looked at him, incredulous. "You're really going to try and stop me?"
"I'm the watchman. Nothing gets in or out of this place without my permission." He didn't nod, or shrug, or move at all as he answered. Evidence of tight control.
'This… isn't Naruto.'
That realization meant that she couldn't keep treating him like an old classmate anymore, and would need to start treating him like the obstacle he was proving himself to be, like an enemy ninja under henge.
Her eyes narrowed and her hands tightened into fists. "Get out of my way."
She couldn't have made the warning in her voice any clearer, but far from making him back down, it seemed to do the opposite. A crooked grin split his lips, showing a hint of teeth.
"You wanna throw it down? Come on then. I'll even let you throw the first punch."
His black T-shirt clung to his upper body, showing tight, wiry muscles in relief, deceptive in their power. Though Ino successfully resisted the urge to grimace, her lips thinned in dismay as Watchman called her bluff.
Naruto's technique wasn't anything special, but he was tough and he was strong and if Watchman was anything like him, then he was just too dangerous to tangle with.
Ino wasn't under any illusions. She didn't have any weapons on her and she didn't even want to imagine what would happen if she dared to use her family's special techniques on Watchman. If they went the distance she would have to rely on straight taijutsu to take him down, a daunting proposition indeed.
"Tch…" There really was no way around it. She brought her hands together and entangled her fingers into a familiar handsign. "This isn't over."
The world quickly blurred into a mess of colors, gradually shifting towards total darkness. A black stain edged by blonde and orange occupied the very center of the picture. Near the top of the indistinct figure, two points of light glowed brightly in shocking blue, deviating not at all. Even when the world was engulfed in darkness, the two orbs remained, shining like fairy light.
Ino retreated, having completed her mission, and the world knew her no more.