I know. I forgot about the earrings. I swear, they were there the whole time. I just kept forgetting to mention them. They were originally gonna already be in her ears, but I like how that scene with Sakumo turned out, so maybe it was for the best.
"Well, this is nice."
Inoichi threw a glare at Shikaku, his teammate pointedly avoiding his gaze. Nice. They were lost in a green hell of a forest and he called it nice. They had vital information to deliver to the frontlines on the border that would help save hundreds of lives, information hard won from far behind Iwa's borders. If they couldn't get out of the infernal forest, people would die.
"I agree," Chouza said, smiling when Inoichi whipped his head around to stare at him, open mouthed. "The weather is a pleasant change."
Sure. Ok. If they had to go through all this nonsense in knee deep snow, it would definitely be worse. This backwater corner of Earth Country was ironically more temperate than much of the Land of Fire and Konoha itself was probably smothered in snow. Still, that only meant that the summers here were likely abysmal.
"Can you two be serious?" Inoichi hissed, pupiless eyes searching the shadows between the trees for hidden enemies. "This isn't the time for your idiocy."
Shikaku's shoulder's slumped, his usual disinterested expression tinged by a bit of unease. "Ease up, Ino. We know it's important, ok? This forest is creepy and we haven't found a single landmark. The maps are useless. We're going to die and our bodies will fertilize these monster trees."
Inoichi and Chouza exchanged worried glances. Shikaku's pessimism had worsened since the war started, and his impending marriage hadn't helped. Inoichi quirked an eyebrow at the tallest member of their team, indicating he should do something. Chouza sighed.
"Give me the map," he said, reaching out to take the paper from Shikaku's tightly clenched hands. "There must be something we can use to orient ourselves."
"There's nothing." Shikaku shook his head angrily. "Just those ruins the Hokage says one of his Anbu found. Nobody's been able to find it, since, though. It was probably a hallucination caused by this stupid forest."
It wasn't that hard to believe. Inoichi's work in Torture and Investigation and his own Clan's studies of the human mind told him that too long in the forest—carpeted in green moss, no animal calls in the air, the tepid temperature despite the winter season—could definitely have strange effects on people. Although, the Anbu were elite and trained to withstand greater stresses than they were, so it was a little harder to believe one imagined the ruins the Hokage added to the maps of the region.
"You mean those ruins?" Inoichi and Shikaku turned to look where Chouza pointed. Indeed, only a stone's throw away, large stone slabs rose from the moss, a tall, crumbling staircase rising into the trees.
Where the hell had that come from?
"We're going crazy," Shikaku lamented with a long, drawn out sigh. "It's a shared hallucination."
"I don't know," Chouza said skeptically, walking forward to stand on the stairs. "It feels pretty real to me."
"How odd. There was nothing here two seconds ago." Inoichi placed a hand on the ancient stone, feeling the indentations of carvings long worn to nothingness under his fingers. "Did Sakumo-senpai say anything about a genjutsu?"
"No, but he did mention wards." Shikaku had shed his nihilism for the moment, dark eyes glinting as his mind worked. "He couldn't summon while inside."
Anti-summoning wards? Those were few and far between, used only in the innermost chambers of Konoha's prison system. Prisoner of war were interrogated there, and the last thing anyone wanted was one of them summoning an animal or—even worse—their comrades into the heart of Konoha. Such wards were restricted for military use, though, so finding them in a random set of ruins in the wilds of Earth Country was rather unprecedented.
"So," Chouza said, looking at the map. "We know where we are, now. Do you want to go?"
They should. The war waging on the border had all the hallmarks of rivalling the last two wars, combined. The information they'd taken from Iwa would go a long way to ending the violence sooner, rather than later, and the faster they got it to the shinobi in command of the fighting, the better.
"Oh, let's just check it out. Two seconds, in and out, then we'll go. We'll need more than just 'there were stairs' for our reports."
Inoichi nodded his head, Shikaku's words providing the perfect justification for satisfying their curiosity. "Right. The Hokage wanted more information about it if we could find it. We would be remiss to simply move on, now."
Chouza gave both of them a knowing smile, well used to their antics after so many years together. "Alright," he said, folding up the map. "Let's see what's up there."
Light glinted off the cross as it dangled from the golden chain—the same shade of gold as her earrings, the hoops tugging at her ears in a new and wonderful way and tickling the sides of her face. She'd found them in her pocket ages ago but hadn't had the nerve to pierce her ears, herself. It was lucky Wolf had showed up when he did, or they'd still be collecting dust in the back room. They were family heirlooms, according to Choumei; a wedding present from Kakuzu to her great grandmother. It was hard to imagine the legendary miser giving suck pretty accessories away, but he was a different person, then. A loyal soldier who had yet to be betrayed.
The cross wasn't really a cross, though Unko took great comfort in the similarities between it and the symbol of her religion. It was two cylinders, the longer, vertical one forced through a hole in the middle of the shorter crossbar. It was weird. Like someone had gone out of their way to make a cross from a pair of particularly fat needles. Why would anyone in Naruto have the need for a cross? Was it possible that she wasn't the only person from her world to cross over? Had someone else needed the comfort a cross could give?
Umm…I hate to burst your bubble, but no. Not at all.
She huffed, wrapping her hands around the pendant. "Oh? Then what? Why else would a cross show up in a world without Jesus?"
One could argue that Naruto functions as a Christ figure in the canon, but you're right that the cross doesn't hold the same significance in this world. That necklace is actually a weapon.
The cross was small, not even the length of her little palm. What could she do with it? Give someone a mosquito bite?
Pfft, no. You need to pull the stick out.
…was it…was it…like, Inspector Gadget?
Hmm, more like the pen-sword from Percy Jackson.
Mushi's wings buzzed under his shell. People. People coming.
Aw. She wanted to play with the magic cross.
Wait, no. People. Why were people coming? She hadn't seen a person since Wolf ran off into the sunset, like, a bajillion years ago. He'd only showed up because he was hurt and literally fell from the sky. The buzzing insects in the air told Unko these new people—plural—were coming up the stairs, like civilized folk. What did she do? They couldn't be coming to kill her because the wards would let them in if they were, so they might actually be nice? Oh, she wasn't ready.
It's fine, isn't it? They're not here to hurt you. Plus, weren't you just complaining about not having human friends.
"Shut up, this is different! Not all cruelty is violent, you know. Besides," she pouted as she put her necklace back on. "Hashirama still got in, didn't he? How'd he manage that?"
Choumei was quiet and she immediately regretted asking the question that had plagued her for so long. She almost apologized, but then he spoke.
He didn't consider it violence. Violence is enacted against people, and I wasn't a person to him.
"But people lived here, right?"
He forced them to leave. It's hard to say no to a man with the mokuton.
Yeah, she could see it. He was the 'God of Shinobi' after all. The only person who could challenge him was Madara and he'd gone unfortunately crazy. Those pesky sharingans, tsk tsk tsk.
That wasn't the issue, right now.
"So, these guys could do damage even with the wards," she said, channeling chakra into her feet and jumping onto the roof of the inner sanctum. "We should just avoid them, if we can."
She settled in to watch the intruders as they stepped into the courtyard, her presence hidden by a genjutsu Choumei insisted she learn. When she saw them, she nearly fell from the roof.
Ino-Shika-Cho! That was Ino-Shika-Cho! What the fuck was such an iconic team doing in her temple?
She pressed down lower to the roof, her body flush with the thatching she'd finally finished. It was so much work but sleeping in a dry room made it worth the effort. She'd even taken up basket weaving to carry more stuff in from the forest. Choumei hadn't quite talked her into farming, yet, but she had a feeling she'd give in, sooner or later. She just didn't know enough about the plants in this region to confidently say she could do it.
"The reports mentioned a person lived here, right?" The biggest man she'd ever seen in either life asked his friends. His red hair fell all the way down his back and held back from a round face by a white headband. Chouji's dad, no doubt about it. "Do you remember anything about them?"
Report? Fuck. Wolf was a Konoha Anbu. And he'd tattled. So unlucky.
Snitches get stitches.
She had to hold in a laugh that almost erupted out her nose. Choumei had really expanded his vocabulary over the course of their time together. Hearing sayings from her old world said so casually in the voice of Batman was so jarring.
"I'm willing to bet they know we're here," Shikamaru's dad said, sounding almost exactly like his son one day would. "They're probably waiting for us to leave."
"Then we should take a quick look around and get out of their hair as quickly as possible."
Yes! There was a reason Chouji was one of her favorite characters. His dad raised him right, it seemed.
"Now, wait a minute." No~! Ino's dad, don't you dare be as meddlesome as your daughter. "The Hokage wants us to make contact if we can. Besides, I'm fairly sure the resident is a child."
"A child? Living here alone?" Chouji's dad looked so concerned. "That can't be right."
"It explains why they're hiding, though," Shikamaru's dad said with a yawn and a shrug. "Three strangers show up out of nowhere; I'd be hiding, too."
If you know that, then go away. Shoo! Begone! Or else be fed to the turtle!
Shika the elder clearly had a death wish. He walked right up to the sacred pool and crouched at its edge, dipping his fingers into the water.
"Is he stupid?"
The instant he whipped around, looking for her voice, she realized she was the one who spoke. Shit. She was so used to being the only one with a human voice, she just said all her thoughts aloud. You know, like an idiot. Mushi's chiding buzz in her ear told her that even he shared the sentiment and she hung her head in shame.
Ino's dad actually chuckled at his friend's expense. "It's not every day someone says that about Shikaku. I don't suppose you'd care to explain why you think that?"
He didn't know where she was. He couldn't, with the genjutsu still layered on top of her like a magic blanket. He was aiming the question at the entire courtyard, likely trying to figure out her hiding spot.
It…it would be fine, right? They were Ino-Shika-Cho. They wouldn't hurt her if she went down there, would they?
Don't trust them, Choumei insisted, finally saying something Batmanesque with his Batman voice. That village is bad news.
Of course, Choumei would be bitter toward Konoha. Hashirama was the one who destroyed his temple, after all, and gave him away to Taki like an inanimate object. Unko's mouth twisted in distaste as she thought about Naruto. The people of Konoha didn't treat jinchuriki like people, either.
Still, these guys weren't the First Hokage. If Kushina still held Kurama, then odds were they didn't even know what jinchuriki were. Right?
She knew it was a bad idea. She knew if she went down there, there'd be no going back. Still, hearing humans having a conversation awakened an ache in her heart. She wasn't cut out for the hermit lifestyle. It was necessary and she understood that, but it was still pathetic that her fondest recent memory was getting her ears stabbed by a stranger.
Choumei sighed long enough to give yon Shika a run for his money.
Fine, he said with an audible pout. But if they turn on you, I'm killing them and then their children will never be born.
Yikes. Ok. Maybe she wouldn't go down there. Chouji's life hung in the balance.
Shikaku jumped away from the water's edge, the turtle finally making his move. His friends broke out in raucous laughter, even going so far as to bend over or slap their legs.
"Ah, so that's why," Chouji's dad said, wiping a tear from his eye. "Does your little friend have a name?"
No. Demons don't deserve names.
She really wanted to go down and say hello, but fear—equal part Choumei's and her own—kept her frozen in place. The words stuck in her throat.
What would she even say? It wasn't like she could ask them about their mission or why they were obviously trespassing in another country. Ninjas were all about espionage, for all they were always having flashy wars. One wrong question and it'd be game over. Wolf hadn't killed her because he owed her. She'd fed him and even rolled him over so he wouldn't drown. Honestly, he probably should have killed her, but something stopped him. She didn't know what, but she was grateful. She only knew this version of Ino-Shika-Cho from the few times they showed up in the show, and these guys weren't them, yet. They had another…what was it Choumei said? Twenty years? She knew who they would become, but not who they were. It was better not to chance it.
She watched as the men calmed down and began searching the courtyard. She tensed as they entered her home, desperate to know what they were doing in there but terrified of moving and revealing her spot on the roof. They kept calling out to her, Chouji's dad, especially, trying to speak with her.
It was tempting. So, so tempting. The threat of violence kept her in place until they left the way they'd come, out the door like proper humans. Even then, she waited for Mushi's surveillance beetles to give the all clear before she rushed inside to see what they might have done. Everything was as she left it, except for a white cloth bag sitting on the stone top of her stove.
She crept up to it, fully expecting some kind of trap, but nothing happened when she poked it. Tentatively, she opened it and a smile took over her face as she recognized the smell of sugar. Inside the bag were brightly colored spikey balls, no bigger than her fingernails. They were so cute!
They might be poisoned.
She tossed one in her mouth, anyway, and relished the sugar melting on her tongue. If it was poison, it was the tastiest kind.
"You did well retrieving that information," the Hokage said around the shaft of his pipe. "Thanks to you, we were able to avoid the trap Iwa was setting for us."
The Ino-Shika-Cho team nodded their heads at his praise and he lifted a page of their report from his desk.
"I see you managed to find the ruins agent Wolf discovered. It's unfortunate that their inhabitant chose not to interact with you, but I am glad to have a confirmation of its location. You suggest here that it may be guarded by genjutsu?"
Shikaku bowed slightly in acknowledgement. "Yes, Lord Hokage. The ruins were not there one second and appeared as though from thin air the next. The forest surrounding it is featureless and disorienting and, in retrospect, I can only think it is by design."
"I see." The old man leaned back in his chair, nibbling on the pipe he wished he could light indoors. Maybe if he did, Tsunade would come back—if only to beat some common courtesy into him. "That would explain why none of the other teams sent in that direction have encountered it. Though, I do wonder what made you so special.
The trio had no answers for him and he dismissed them with a wave.
Strange, that the child would speak so freely with a masked Anbu agent but avoid one of the friendliest teams in Konoha like the plague. Perhaps, some proper reconnaissance was necessary.
Chouza left her konpeito candy. uwu