"Aaaah! Damn it!" Anko woke up clutching at her shoulder. Over that past week her curse seal had started to throb and hurt like hell at random times. Eventually it would always pass but the intervals between the attacks were getting shorter and the attacks seemed to be getting more intense.
"It's all right," she panted clutching at her shoulder. "I'm a ninja I can deal with pain. What cannot be changed can be endured."
The words brought little consolation as the seal suddenly throbbed.
"Aaaahh!" She clenched her shoulder so hard that her nails drew blood.
"Why me? Why have I got to be the lucky one?" With one hand she tossed aside the sheets and stumbled towards the bathroom. There were pain pills there in the cabinet, strong ones. She tried to avoid using them but this was a bad attack and she could already tell it was going to drag out an hour or more. She was tough but not a masochist no matter what some people thought.
These attacks were really worrying her. The seal on her shoulder had been dormant for years. Then without warning it had started to hurt for no apparent reason. The attacks had been coming quicker, lasting longer, and were becoming more and more violent. What scared her even more than the pain was the evidence that she was changing.
Switching on the light in the bathroom she looked at herself in the cabinet mirror above the sink. The skin around her curse mark had turned a sickening shade of grey; the mark itself had grown its inky lines spreading out to form a complex pattern within the area of infected skin. When she touched the mark she could feel heat coming from it, as though that one part of her body was fevered.
"Something is happening to me," she muttered fearfully. "I'm changing."
Once more she thought about reporting this to the Hokage. Tsunade just happened to be the world's greatest medical expert and top medic nin. If anyone could help her it would definitely be the Hokage. The problem was the reaction she would receive if anyone found out she was having trouble with her seal.
Even after many years of faithful service she was still something of a pariah in many people's eyes. The Hokage wouldn't condemn her of course, but there were plenty of others who were not so understanding. To them she would always be his apprentice. Forever bearing his mark and sharing in his shame no matter how hard she fought against it. Anything that connected her to Orochimaru was dangerous, and so rather than go directly to the Hokage she'd hesitated and hoped it would pass.
All the years of service didn't matter. All the times she'd put her life on the line for the village didn't matter. Even the fact she'd faced her former teacher determined to sacrifice her life in order to end his didn't make a damn bit of difference. People had actually whispered she'd been in his service all along. To some she would just always be suspect until the day she died.
"Fucking bastards I'd like to kill you all and feed you to my snakes!"
She clamped down her jaw and shook her head violently. No, no, no, that was wrong. Some people were just plain ignorant and that was all. She'd learned to accept it… mostly. Why was she having such violent thoughts about the villagers? Was the pain getting to her? Or was something going on inside her head?
She stared at herself in the mirror. Were her eyes changing color? Maybe it was a trick of the poor lighting, or maybe she was imaging things. She looked at her face and though her brown eyes had hints of yellow in them. She turned her face just a little and she could swear she could see it clearly. She turned back and her eyes were normal again.
"The pain is driving me insane," she muttered.
She opened the cabinet and took out a nearly empty bottle of vicodin. She took five or six and crammed them into her mouth. Opening the faucet she cupped her hands and sucked in water until she got them all down.
"Something is wrong; something is definitely, definitely wrong." She stared at her face again. Her eyes looked normal. There was nothing normal about those black lines on her shoulder though or the party grey splotch of skin.
The pain was still there, but dulled. Like this it was bearable. In five to ten minutes the pills would really kick kin and she would be out like a light. As she slouched back to her bed her thought were scattered.
"It isn't getting better… I'll see the Hokage tomorrow." She mumbled to herself. "Maybe she can fix it or maybe she can't. Maybe it's good if she can't. Then I can teach them."
She shook her head on the pillow. No, no, don't think that way.
Even if it is true.
How I would like to teach them all.
Normally the vicodin put her out like a light. She would fall into a deep and empty sleep and wake up in the morning her usual over exuberant self.
Tonight though would be different.
Tonight she would dream.
Dreams filled with color and texture and substance. Where walls bled and water ran up hill. Where she was a child of thirteen again and her beloved sensei was before her amid a field of skulls and bones. He was the one she loved and hated above all others. She had lived for him and longed to die with him. She could not even remember who she'd been before he'd come into her life. Everything about her was a twisted reflection of her sensei.
He was quiet.
She was loud.
He dressed conservatively.
She was always one step away from being cited for public indecency.
He was obsessed with immortality.
She didn't care if she lived or died.
She had no originality whatsoever. Every choice was based on him.
He was looking down at her with one of those slight, playful grins she had come to recognize as not being a sign of good humor, but a sign of interest. His yellow snake eyes measured her, saw through her, read her thoughts with a casual ease. She'd never been able to keep any secrets from him. Looking up at him now she felt that same old certainty that he could read her like an open book.
"So full of pain and rage little Anko," sensei said in his soft lilting whisper. "Tell me… what is it that fills you with such fury?"
He was a traitor. He had abandoned her and thrown her aside as if she were garbage. She hated him.
She also loved him, just as a child loves the parent no matter how much she'd suffered for it. On some level she'd always hungered for his approval. Always wondered why her love had been rejected. She simply did not know how to stop caring about him.
"Why?" She asked in her little girl voice. "Why am I the only one who suffers?" It was a stupid question and not worthy of a shinobi, but it was the truth. She had loved with her whole heart. She had always done her best. She had always been loyal.
Weren't all those things supposed to be rewarded?
Why was she alone condemned?
His eyes glittered and she was certain he could read her thoughts. "You suffer because you are a failure," he answered simply. "I thought you might prove worthy to be my apprentice, but you lacked the will to seek power. So I used you as a test subject; and even there you disappointed me." He let out a sigh. "You are nothing but a failed experiment."
"No!" She shouted. "That can't be true! My life has to mean more than that!"
"Why?" He asked teasingly.
"Because I did everything I was supposed to!" She screamed. "I don't deserve to have my whole life labeled as a failure! I refuse to accept that! I'm not a traitor or a failure!"
Orochimaru eyed her curiously. "What is it you want?"
She answered without thinking, giving into the rage that had been in her heart for so long. "I want respect! I want to matter! I want people to look at me and keep their fucking mouths shut!"
Orochimaru laughed softly and looked very pleased. "What you want little Anko is power."
For a second her mind rebelled at that. A loyal ninja of the Leaf did not seek power; she was a tool for her Hokage and her village. A ninja needed to be fearless and obedient and without ambition.
Her sensei had always hungered for power. Power over others and power over death and the limitations of the human body. She'd always suspected his true nature but had refused to look beyond the surface. When he'd forced her to see him for what he was she'd rejected him. In the end she refused to betray the village and so he had tossed her aside after giving her the curse seal as a final gift.
When she'd asked him why his answer had been simple and direct. 'You lack the will to seek power.'
Back then she'd been sure she'd made the right choice. That was before years of accusing looks and whispers spoken behind her back. Before being condemned for her sensei's crimes. Years of being an outcast and despised by many of the people she'd trued to protect. She never let them see how she hurt because of it, how all the looks and whispers poisoned her against the village she'd sacrificed for. She'd done the right thing and suffered for it.
For just a moment she held onto those old beliefs. But all the years of pain and anger rose up and blew them out like a candle in a strong wind.
"Yes," she answered. "I want power."
With those words.
With that choice.
Something inside her died, and something new was born.
Orochimaru's lips turned up in one of his very rare smiles. "If you want power little Anko you need only give into your hate. That is your only path. You are a failed experiment… but even failures can produce wondrous results some times."
She felt her entire body start to convulse and shake as everything around her disappeared.
"Yesssssss," his voice whispered from the darkness. "Wondrous results indeed."
Naruto was stretching and looking up at a sky that was just beginning to lighten. After two and a half years away with Jiraiya held come back and his very first mission had been amazing. He'd helped save Gaara and beat those Akatsuki bastards and even gotten a possible clue to finding Sasuke! Chiyo's sacrifice to bring Gaara back had been sad, but it had been her choice and he honored her courage. For such an old woman she'd been pretty tough and really brave.
There had been other casualties as well, but those were not quite so tragic. Though they were disturbing.
"Yosh! My eternal rival are you ready for another piggy back ride?" Maito Gai said in his usual over exaggerated voice.
"Gai this really isn't necessary you know." Kakashi said while trying with only limited success to sit up. While his injuries were not life threatening they were serious enough to prevent him from making his way back to the village under his own power.
"Nonsense my eternal rival! Trust in me to see you safely home! It's a promise!" He presented a gleaming smile and thumbs up in a classic 'good guy pose.'
"I appreciate the effort, I honestly do." Kakashi said sounding uncomfortable. "It's just that I'd really rather not have you carry me around piggy back all the way to Konoha. It's just a tiny bit embarrassing."
Gai's thick eyebrows leapt up and down in astonishment. "Yosh! Why did you not say so? If you do not wish me to carry you piggy back I will not."
Kakashi exhaled a sigh of relief. His friend could be monumentally stubborn sometimes. "Thanks."
"Very well then!" Without warning Gai scooped up Kakashi and held him out in front in both arms bridal style. "I will get us to Konoha within six hours or I will jog naked around the village one hundred times!"
Naruto, Sakura, Neji, and Tenten stared at the image of Gai holding Kakashi in his arms like a young bride and shuddered.
Lee was filled with admiration and sent a glance towards Neji.
"Don't even ask!" The Hyuuga said cutting him off before he could speak.
"Gai this really isn't any better!"
"Yosh my eternal rival! There is no need to be shy! I will gladly hold you in my arms the entire way to the village! With my fires of youth to warm and protect you no harm will come to you while I am here!"
"Well that didn't sound gay at all," Sakura muttered.
"Come my youthful companions! Let us get back to the village as soon as we can!"
Soon the two squads were moving at top speed.
"I don't know about six hours," Naruto said. "But we should be back in time for me to have Ichiraku ramen for dinner. Man I can hardly wait."
"Is that still all you can think about? Seriously I sometimes think you have ramen on the brain." Sakura sent her teammate a shy glance and blushed a bit. "I think I'll have some sushi and rice when I get back. If a certain someone wanted to treat me I don't think I would mind." Her blush deepened just a tad and she looked at him encouragingly.
"You'd rather eat sushi instead of delicious Ichiraku ramen? Seriously?" Naruto shook his head. "No way I ever would!"
Sakura sent him an annoyed look and could just feel her temple throbbing. "You're a baka!" She snapped and pulled away ahead of him in a sudden burst of furious energy.
"Huh? What did I do?"
It was a beautiful morning in the Leaf village.
It was spring time and the cherry blossoms would be falling in a week or so. All over the village people were stirring, kids were getting ready to head off to school, adults to work. Shops and businesses began to open and get ready for another day. In the Tower of Fire the Hokage would be busy at work handing out assignments and receiving reports from returning teams.
There were of course ninja training in the designated training grounds or preparing to leave on a mission. Ninja would also be returning all through the day and looking to relax and enjoy some down time until the next mission. Merchants would be arriving as well as foreign and local lords and businessmen; all looking to hire shinobi for various missions.
As a rule a hidden village was always active. They drew all sorts of clients and the money they paid fed the local economy and supported all those regular businesses that provided whatever a shinobi might need. Walking thought the early morning streets the girl was humming softly to herself. Her best friend had suddenly left for a mission to Wind Country and rumors said that Naruto had come back and left with her too. She couldn't wait to talk to Sakura and find out about it. Unplanned mission were almost always interesting.
Yamanaka Ino arrived at the door of Anko's apartment early that morning. Being a member of the Yamanaka clan and having mind control and access abilities she was being recruited into the ANBU. Specifically into the Torture and Interrogation section. Anko was a former member and a specialist at intimidation. Ibiki had asked her to show Ino the ropes and try to help recruit her. Her father worked with his department from time to time and had been a great help. He hoped to have him daughter join them as a full member.
The problem with using her abilities to uncover things was that very often you saw and experienced memories that were… unsavory and once those memories were gained they were damn hard to forget. Her father assisted only when normal methods failed and often did so reluctantly. Ino was unsure but willing to at least listen.
Ino knocked on the apartment door. "Anko-san?"
"Come on in, it's open."
Ino entered the apartment and shut the door behind her. The place didn't look like Anko was expecting company. The cop and dishes from the previous night's meal were still on the table. She spotted more dirty dishes piled up in the sink and empty beer cans were lying her and there. The whole apartment smelled of alcohol and… vomit?
Ino frowned. Not a very good first impression for someone who's supposed to be recruiting me. "So Anko are we going to ANBU headquarters?"
"Actually there's been a little change of plans Ino. Could you come into my bedroom for a second?"
"Sure," Ino replied. She opened the door and came in. "So what do… mmmph!"
She was caught by surprise as an impossibly strong hang slapped down over her mouth and she was shoved against a wall. Surprise gave way to sudden fear when she got a good clear look at Anko's face.
Her skin was a metallic grey and her eyes yellow and slitted.
She was wearing just a fishnet shirt and so Ino could see a black tattoo that was all over her heck and one shoulder. A single complex squiggle of twisting lines and barbs that gave an impression of sickness and disorder.
All that was not what scared her the most though.
It was her mouth filled with yellow razor sharp teeth.
Anko smiled revealing an entire mouth full of those triangular shark like fangs. "You'll be first."
Savagely Anko bit down into the girl's shoulder and injected the poison.
Ino screamed and screamed… but no one heard her.