I tear my heart open, I sew myself shut
My weakness is that I care too much
And my scars remind me that the past is real
I tear my heart open just to feel...Scars by Papa Roach
Looking at Shoji trembling in Asuma's body tore at her heart and she had to take a breath. For Shikamaru and Choji it was a little harder to get into a battle state of mind.
"Choji? You okay?" She asked quietly, noticing that his mind was elsewhere. Scattered thoughts that didn't want to think about what was happening now…how to avoid this but knowing it was inevitable. Remember the real Asuma is alive somewhere. She mentally coached her boys when she felt their helplessness at this situation they were in. She steeled her heart and practically forced her calming thoughts into them, though to her it felt like desperateness. I have to end this for Shoji and I need your help. Please…
"We got it Ino." Shikamaru said softly, eyes narrowing. His body was loose with readiness, brown eyes focused.
Go to Asuma now! Shikaku voice snapped at them. They nodded and Ino took the left and Choji took the right, running in unison as Shikamaru raced forward toward Shoji-Asuma. The three-point formation was a beginning move. It had been a while since they had a decent fight with Asuma. And he had Shoji's memories and skills so she knew it wasn't going to be easy. Shoji-Asuma deflected both hers and Choji's kunai and had just enough time to block Shikamaru's oncoming attack with lightning speed by jumping back.
"We'll cut him down in one sweep!" Shikamaru yelled. There was smoke and a substitution log peppered with explosive tags stood where Shoji-Asuma was. They backed in surprise and ran the other direction. They had just enough time to…
"Ino!" Shikamaru grabbed her hand and pulled her along with him a second before the explosion catapulted them forward. She slid next to Shikamaru and Choji tripped and fell with a slide. Shikamaru sucked his teeth trying not to be irritated with their other teammate but failing. Her arm was burning with a wide scrape and a rock from the explosion had hit her in the forehead, leaving a swelling goose egg. Choji's sweaty face had fine dirt caked on one side of his face and little pebbles from the mountain wall caught in his thick red hair.
"Your movements are too slow Choji!" Shikamaru barked, picking himself up from the ground. He was dusted with the blast, a small trickle of blood down his arm where he fell. Ino's heart thumped a little hard at his temper. "Pull yourself together!"
Choji flushed guiltily and Ino stomped on her shame. He was getting enough from Shikamaru but she made a mental note to bitch at him when this was all over. Quick movement caught her eye. "He's coming!" She yelled, noticing the blur of movement beyond the ash and smoke.
Asuma landed, noticeably restraining himself from going after them. "Shikamaru! Cast your Shadow Possession jutsu to move me close to Choji!" He instructed and began running. Shikamaru immediately put his hand together.
"That's exactly what I was planning to do!" He said. She knew how he had planned it out, both Asuma and Shikamaru. A feint move to think that she would cast her Mind Transfer on him but in actuality, she would move behind Choji and wait for him to hit the target with his Multi-Sized fist and then she would trap him in her Mind Jutsu. It was supposed to work but Choji had a big heart and even though he knew that the real Asuma was alive, he just couldn't bring himself to smash the face of this zombie Shoji-Asuma.
"Choji!" Shikamaru barked in annoyance.
"Th-this is just too much for me I can't—" Choji's eyes were closed and Ino huffed out a breath.
"Choji! Move!" Shoji-Asuma punched him and then did some fast hand signs to prepare for Dust Storm jutsu. She and Shikamaru recognized it immediately. She knew Shikamaru's shadow wasn't going to reach him in time and she took off in a run just as Asuma countered Shikamaru's attack and went after Choji. Her whole body felt like it exploded in pain when she collided with Choji's heavy body and the wall of the canyon they smashed into crumbled with the force of her and Choji's weight. Shikamaru was in front of them in an instant.
"You okay?" He asked them, meeting her eyes with a trouble look.
"Barely." She muttered feeling disappointed in her teammate. Choji please!
He looked up at her with tear filled eyes. "Why does it have to happen like this?" She felt her glare soften.
"It's too late to whine!" Shikamaru snapped. "We agreed to take him on!"
Shoji-Asuma looked grim. "What's with that face Choji? Asuma would be disappointed in you! Right now I have his face and I am your enemy! This body is dead!" He pounded his chest with a hollow thump. "If you don't defeat me, the real one will die too!" He narrowed his dark eyes and dropped his voice to a threatening hum. "I'll make sure of it! I'll make my sacrifice mean something to you! Asuma will suffer! Don't hesitate!"
Still he hesitated and Ino pushed beyond her disappointment and annoyance. Shikamaru touched her shoulder, a signal to open her mind to him. It doesn't matter to him if its Shoji. All he sees is Asuma and Choji doesn't like to hurt his friends no matter what. His mind voice sounded tired.
Shoji-Asuma sighed. "You said, long ago that if someone were trying to hurt Shikamaru and Ino that you would protect them no matter what. I know that you're kind but taking me down is kindness. This is the time to transform that kindness into strength. Enough is enough fatso! Take me down!"
Ino winced at that name calling. She hoped Shoji knew what he was doing with Asuma's memories. Provoking Choji like that was a little…
"Did you call me fatso?" Choji asked in a dark serious voice and she and Shikamaru took a tentative step back together. "I'm not fat!" He yelled. "I'm pleasantly plump!" He cried and ran after Shoji-Asuma. Again, he stopped and Ino hissed and steeled her position, gathering her chakra. When Shikamaru's chakra blade flew into the air, she transferred herself into Choji just in time to stop an attack. She trusted that Shikamaru would take care of her body considering that there were other battles going on around them and white Zetsus were swarming them.
Ino? Inside Choji's mind Ino divided her attention. Half to keep Choji's body moving and deflect Shoji-Asuma's attacks and half to talk with her friend.
Choji, you don't know how it was when I was on that mission. When I met Shoji he was a loyal Sound Ninja and I was a prisoner of Orochimaru's base. When I tagged his mind into my Mind Surrender jutsu he protected me and kept me safe. She showed him some memories, little see through images that sapped more charka that she liked to admit. After, when Orochimaru and Kabuto came to the base I didn't know what had happened to him. But Kabuto…he punished him for helping me. He punished him for falling into my Mind Surrender jutsu and punished him for loving me. I need to end this Choji…please let him have his peace. Remember what our earrings represent. Remember our oaths to our families. If we lose this was, they will be in danger. Asuma, his littler daughter and Reiko. They are our future Choji. We are doing this for them!
She felt him waver, then like a breath of fresh air she felt him calm himself, find his purpose and find his strength. It felt like every shake and tremor, every ragged breath and whimper solidified into a tight stone of inner strength.
"Its okay Ino. I got it now. Switch back." Even his voice sounded smooth, confident even. And with a metal hug for her friend, she switched back just as a gigantic Choza, Choji's dad, deflected a Burning Ash jutsu aimed at them with his staff.
Chakra, brilliant pure chakra bloomed from the back of her friend. His body shrank to half its size in mere seconds. She scrambled from Shikamaru's arms onto wobbly feet.
"That's my boy." Shoji-Asuma said with a growing grin. "Yes that's the look."
She had never seen Choji so serious before. It was like he became another person altogether. "He didn't take the Chili Peper pill." Shikamaru observed turning to Choza. "Will he be alright?"
Choza looked proudly upon his son. "He transformed on his own so he won't have the bad side effects." He said solemnly.
"Was the shell of the chrysalis harder to break than you thought Choji?" Shoji-Asuma asked. "You can fly now right?"
And he did. He flew and ended the battle for them. When the sealing corps descended on Shoji-Asuma she told them to wait. He was paralyzed with Shikamaru's Shadow Shuriken jutsu and his time had come. She could see the gentle resignation in his eyes as he watched her move towards him. Her team gave her room. Half his body was already covered with the sealing scroll, only his shoulders and head was free. She reached out and touched the dry cold shell of his cheek, tears coming to her even when she promised herself to be brave in front of him.
"Shoji…" She didn't know what to say to him and if felt foolish to try and apologize to him again and again when he already forgave her.
"I'm almost home Ino." He said in a shuddering voice and she nodded. "Let me go now. Save Giro."
"I promise I will." She told him and leaned down and gave him the slightest kiss on his lips. They were dry and cracking and up close he smelled of earth and death but she didn't care. "Thank you Shoji." She whispered haltingly, tears making her voice sound deep and thick. And when she looked into his eyes one last time, she didn't see the dark brown and black zombie eyes. She saw him. His eyes, bright mahogany with traces of gold flecked around his iris. He gave her a shocked smile, eyes glued to her. She kept eye contact with him until the sealing scroll covered his face and the Sealing Corps finished their tasks.
There were tears in her fellow teammates eyes and she knew what they were thinking. If Asuma had truly died that day, then this would have happened and it wouldn't have been Shoji. It would have been a man who had become family. Who had trained and cared for then since their graduation five years ago. Choji growled in pain and anger and right before her eyes he blew up in size, taller than Choza. He had learned his family's multi-sized technique.
"I'm ending this battle now! So please help me Shikamaru! Ino!" He called out to them. With one more wistful look at Shoji-Asuma Ino smiled. It broke some of the gloom and sadness that had seeped into her heart.
"Choji I've been with you a long time." She sighed happily, Choji's confidence spilling over and affecting her and Shikamaru. With her team she felt invincible! "But I've never seen you take charge!"
He saw her on the battle field wielding a sharp fluid scythe and cutting down white Zetsus. Earlier, she had taken down a reanimated body with her team. Her hair flowed like whip around her body and her blue eyes were bright with determination and blood lust. He stayed off to the side where injured ninja were, kneeling and healing and patching and sending them back out. But he would see her and he would duck his head to avoid her gaze. Since that day two months ago he had wondered if the whole incident he remembered was just a figment of his over exhausted imagination. But the fear in those blood red eyes stuck with him as did the shame of what he did to the poor girl who was under an obvious genjutsu.
Doctor Jima lowered his head when the object of his thoughts brought him a hobbling young girl with a nasty looking bloody leg. "She need a tourniquet! Hurry!" The blonde teen kneeled beside the crying and hissing female ninja and placed a hand over the crisscrossing wound. Her hands glowed green and Dr. Jima's eyes widened. She knew medical ninjutsu?
Her fingers pressed firmly into the wound like a scalpel and the girl screamed and gritted her teeth. Her sweaty black hair was pulled out of a bun and wisps of it stuck to her forehead. Bleary grey eyes watched the blonde with a mix of anxiety and trust. Just a few hours ago she was facing off against Zombie Asuma whom he heard was no one to mess with and now here she was, using healing jutsus like battle didn't even faze her. But on closer inspection, he saw a slight tremble in her arms, her fingers curling to hide it from him but he saw. She was becoming exhausted. He wanted to check her to see if she was pregnant, the doctor in him agonizing over the possibility that she could lose the baby if she over taxed herself, wanting to force prenatal pills on her. But the man in him was frightened of blood red eyes and he struggled over his horrible guilt.
"There, I think that will do it." The blonde brought him out of his dark thoughts and he scolded himself for his wandering mind and focused on the injured kunoichi. "She might have a fever later. Giver her antibiotics when you got the time doc." She grinned and gave him a mock salute before she was off again, into battle. His protest for her to STOP caught in his throat. The man inside won over today.
She thought she was going to die and toward the end she accepted it. Anything was better than being stuck in this stupid pillar naked and cold. But something, a vibrating sound had her snap her eyes open. That man, the one who was her primary caretaker, who had told her that he would protect her was there hitting her tank with a metal chair over and over. The spidering cracks grew bigger, spread further and then with a loud sounding pop in her ears, a gush of water escaped her water pod. He reached for her, his hands feeling hot against her cold wet ones. He pulled and pulled until he had her outside the tank. But the kink in her tube was still a problem and she wildly grasped at her mouth piece. The man helped her and then it was finally off, she took huge lung full of air, sucking greedily and then coughing at the dust and ash she breathed in. The man threw the breathing apparatus across the room and quickly took off his lab coat, draping it over her shivering naked body.
"Come on we have to go!" He hissed quietly at her, looking around in a panic. The room was on fire and the machines were sparking and popping angrily at them. He held her up, but her weakened legs failed and she stumbled. She had been in that tank for so long that her legs and arms didn't want to work. Tears blurred her vision. She was going to die anyways! Her nerves screamed at her, her skin scrapping in the shattered glass and debris that littered the floor.
She didn't know she was actually sobbing loudly until a hand was over her mouth. "Shhh, it's okay Ino." Her eyes snapped towards his. Now that she was out of the tank, she could see his features sharply. He was in his thirties perhaps, with pale green eyes and caramel colored hair. He wasn't handsome, his nose a bit too big for his face and his chin a little long, but she saw the soft kindness in his expression. That name he called her, Ino, it sounded right. And wrong. She couldn't explain it. He kneeled beside her and gathered her in his arms. He struggled under her weight but he managed to get them out of the burning room and into a dimly lit hallway. It was filled with smoke and she could hear loud arguing and cursing. Her arms were trembling with the effort to hold on, but she would slip time to time. The man took her around a corner, down and then around. After a while she stopped trying to memorize the path he was taking, her mind becoming overwhelmed. Her hands pulled the damp lab coat closer to her body. It was cold and she was beginning to shiver again. She curled her toes, trying to get some nerves to work.
"Over there!" Someone far behind them yelled. The man kicked open the door closest to them and then quickly grabbed a bloated bag from a lone standing table, his one arm straining with his grip. She clung tightly to his neck, arm shaking.
Behind the sad looking bed was a rather odd rectangle line. The man slapped his hand over a red bulb light on the table and the wall slid open to a secret passage. He looped the bagpack onto his shoulder and they headed into the inky night.
"Wh-" Eyes wide by the sound of her raspy voice, the naked girl tried to clear her throat.
He tightened his hold on her. "Shhhh." He soothed, eyes glittering in the dark in an eerie way against the frigid night air. Her hair was still wet and the lab coat she wore was wet and now her teeth were chattering. There was an urgency to get away from this place even she felt.
The man turned to the voices and cursed. "It will be okay Ino. It will be okay I promise!" He whispered to her but she could feel the fear emanating from him, an uncertain truth to his tone. He wanted it to be okay, but he wasn't sure it would be. What was going on? She wished she could ask him but her broken voice and chattering teeth prevented her from forming any words. She could only gulp and hope that they both made it out of wherever they were.
He skidded down a slope of frozen dirt, his breaths white in the chilly air. Her nose stung with a smell that revolted her and made her primal fear surge forth. "It's the only way to save you, you'll see." His voice was close to her face and she found strange comfort in his warmth and concern. Until he dropped her and she landed on something spongy and cold. She didn't even cry out. He whipped his coat from her body and then threw the bagpack in with her. She struggled to right herself, her senses overwhelmed with the sickly-sweet smell of earth and decay. She was moaning, or something like a moan.
"Please Ino! Stop and be quiet! They'll hear you!" His voice sounded thick with the plead. "They'll kill you! Play dead. Don't breathe! Wait. Please just wait until morning! I'll lead them away from you. When it's clear, go to the Village Hidden in the Leaves. They'll help you!" His voice retreated and she took a few calming breaths. She didn't know what was going on, she didn't know why there was such a pressing need to do as he said. The night air was charged with so many emotions she didn't know where to look, where to turn, what to think, where to go. But she did what he had said, her body went slack (it wasn't even hard) and she closed her eyes to pretend. But unconsciousness reached their greedy hands into her mind and she surrender willingly.
His knees felt cold and achy from the winter ground, but when he fluttered his eyes open he pushed aside his discomfort. Urgency catapulted him from the Earth Shrine he had been praying at. Elder Willow's warning still rang in his head.
The cabin came into view and Reiko burst through the door. Both Sasuke and Itachi turned to him expectantly. Their eyes still bandaged. In his hands, clutched to his chest was a bag made from thick sweet grass that the Earth Monks pushed into his hands when he left the small shrine. They gave him very serious and precise instructions on how to brew the secret tea Elder Willow had requested of them. A healing remedy.
"Three days!" He said breathlessly and threw off his winter coat. His run had made him sweaty and uncomfortable. Nervousness and anticipation was a nauseating mix.
"For what?" Sasuke asked, a frown on his mouth. He and Itachi were dressed warmly in smoky grey pants and dark blue shirt with the Uchiha Clan Symbol on the right side of the sleeve, high on their arms.
"When we need to leave this place. Elder Willow said something big was coming and that we needed to be there! He sent me some of this!" He held out the pouch but then flushed. They couldn't see what he had! DUH! "It's a healing ancient healing remedy that Elder Willow gave me. It will speed up your recovering time. They told me what I needed to do to make the tea but it must be taken within three days. All at once, they said will null the healing properties, but spread out in three days will help you guys." Her began combing through the dishes in the cupboards to find the tea pot.
"Did they tell you what was going on?" Sasuke asked.
Reiko shook his head, concentrating on the preparation of the tea. "He didn't say, something about the future always changing but he did tell me one thing." He paused, biting his lip. Sighing he turned to his uncle and father.
"He said that you and Itachi have separate roads to take. You and I are supposed to go and find…Orochimaru." His mom had told him stories of the Snake Sannin and he was very reluctant to meet him. But Elder Willow had insisted and he looked agitated. He had never see the Earth Spirit like that before and it had scared him.
"He dead." Sasuke said bluntly, tilting his face to Itachi. "You killed him right? When we fought last."
Itachi soft sighed from his place at the small kitchen table. "I killed the piece of him that leached onto you through your cursed seal. There are others who still carry his seal, thus still carry a part of him."
Sasuke clucked his tongue in annoyance. "Then we find someone who still has the cursed seal. Beyond going back to Sound, is there no one close we can find?" He turned to Reiko. "Did they tell you how we can get to Orochimaru?"
Reiko paused again, but then took a breath. "He said we have to find Anko Mitarashi. Kabuto has her."
"Kabuto has to be close to the battle field to control the undead soldiers." Itachi offered.
Reiko nodded along. "Elder Willow said the same and sent some Earth Spirits to locate him. He said there was a shrine at Dasumo Reach close by the Land of Frost that we need to get to to receive his message." He knew from his letters from his mom via Aio (his way of making it up to Rieko for his lie) that the Allied Forces were making their way through the Land of Hot Water and the Land of Frost. He shrugged. "He didn't know more than that. But Itachi…"
"Itachi what?" Sasuke asked, tilting his head to the side.
"Itachi needs to go to the boarder of Fire and Sound to Orochimaru's base hidden there. It had been ransacked by joint Fire and Stone ninja last night. But there was someone there he needed to get, if they're still alive."
"What do you mean? He doesn't know if this person is alive? Are they hurt? Three days seems like a long time to wait to go after a single person. Someone who could be dead anyways. Wouldn't I be more suited to go into battle than on this errand?" Itachi frowned.
"I don't know!" Reiko shook his head. "Elder Willow was really upset about this whole thing! About those White Zetsu's leaching off of Earth power and weakening the barriers. You should have seen that place!" Tears gathered in his eyes. "I've lived in Earth Summon's Realm my whole life! That place was dying! They were dying and Elder Willow was desperate!"
"Alright." Itachi soothed, holding out a hand. Reiko ran to him and buried his face in Itachi's clean smelling shirt. He was trembling with worry and pain. The spirits took care of him all his life. They protected him, taught and loved him until it was time for him to be returned to his family. They were his family too and he had to save them!
Sasuke sighed and Reiko sniffed before letting Itachi go. He began to feel awkward that he lost his cool like that. "Elder Willow said that it was best if you did this Itachi. That you get that person before revealing yourself and joining the war. He's old and wise. I would listen to him if I were you." He tone trembled but held warning.
"I'll go." He said gently, a hand on top of Reiko's head. "If you trust him then I'll trust you and go and find this person. You have to be brave and take care of your Dad while I'm gone."
Sasuke snorted lightly in a kind of amusement and Reiko felt a small smile pull at his lips. "I got it."
A low whistling interrupted them and Reiko found two tea cups and pinched some of the medicinal herbs into the bottom of them before pouring in the hot water. "Now drink up." He confidently held out the cups for his father and uncle. "We have three days."