So... hi? I know, I know. I've been unforgivably AWOL for the longest time and I'm sorry, really! Insert the same medley of excuses here, paired with the fact that I was sort of not reading Naruto for a little while (which is now remedied, thank goodness).
But anyway. Here's another chapter for any of the wonderful people that are still following this.
Chapter 5: The Long Night
The night started off with a long spell of what was, at least for them, an almost uncharacteristic quiet.
Ino had opted to play along with the excruciating silence, assuming her companion was busy at work formulating a bad-ass plan for their smooth escape, only to surprise her with it when it was fully formed and ready for action. But as the minutes ticked on and the temperature dropped almost palpably around them with no word from Shikamaru, Ino was starting to think that maybe she had a little too much faith in people.
“So, you…uh… going to hit me with that grand escape plan any minute now, Shika?”
She was greeted by the faint hum of the refrigerator.
“Hey, what are –“ Ino looked over to where Konoha’s resident over-stated genius was seemingly fast asleep beside her, head nestled sideways in the crook of one arm. Constant vigilance, her ass. “I can’t believe this! You were the one droning on about not falling asleep… Get up!”
Wait a second. As profoundly untalkative as her companion was notorious for being, these were decidedly special circumstances, and there was no harm in being extra careful. “Hey, Shikamaru?” Ino whispered, tentatively pressing two fingers to his neck for a pulse. No, she realized, rolling her eyes, not dead; his heartbeat was still there and flickering strongly under the warm skin. You know, Shikamaru’s neck really was quite warm, Ino noticed suddenly, almost unfairly so, and some slightly-chilled part of her brain made her rest her hand there for a beat longer than was absolutely necessary. In fact, now that she really thought about it, Shikamaru had a surprisingly nice neck – long and well-boned, fairly slender…
Whoa. Now she was definitely going crazy. Horrified with her thoughts, Ino unconsciously pressed down a little harder.
“Not dead,” Shikamaru choked out, cracking open an eye. “Just ignoring you.”
With lightning quick speed, Ino snapped back her hand and scowled at him, praying that her blush wasn’t evident in the darkness. “Then, talk,” she prompted huffily. “Talking keeps me awake. And you’d better be listening.”
The warm body next to her gave a long-suffering sigh. “Alright, then.”
Ino rolled her eyes. “Talk. Say something, I don’t know, something normal. So I can try and forget about the fact that we’re locked in this refrigerated tomb. ”
“Fine, fine,” he drew himself up a little straighter, tugging the blanket closer under his chin. “Last—uh—Tuesday I had to get up early to test the Cryptography Ops Unit, so I set my alarm clock. I figured it wouldn’t work, since it didn’t the last time, so I put the alarm in my bathroom. That way, when I went to turn it off, I’d already be halfway to being ready.”
Leave it to Shikamaru to figure out a rather complex plan for such a simple task. “And?”
“I was late.” He shrugged. “Fell asleep in the bathtub.”
“The end,” he deadpanned.
“What? What the hell kind of story was that? I was thinking about something a little more nostalgic and uplifting. And since when exactly does you setting your alarm clock qualify as normal? In all our lives, you’ve only done it three times!”
He shrugged back in a way that conveyed exactly how troublesome he found the notion.
Ino rolled her eyes at him. She should’ve seen this coming. “Right, well. Another story. And don’t skimp on the upliftingness.”
“I’ve got nothing,” replied Shikamaru, reaching both hands behind his head in his standard pose of careless ennui. “Nothing uplifting, at least.”
Ino tucked her blanket carefully under one knee, thinking it over. “Oh… hey. Did you know that one of Chouji’s girls made it past the chuunin exams in the last set of tests? Her first shot, and she was one of only three successful genin. Chouji was over the moon – the proudest teacher ever.” She grinned, despite herself.
Beside her, Shikamaru had closed both eyes, looking for all the world as though he was relaxing under a blue sky on some grassy hilltop and not hideously mal-equipped and trapped in a pitch-black freezer. He said nothing, so Ino went on.
“You were out of town on a mission, so you probably didn’t know. But Chouji’s going around calling her a younger, female version of–”
“—Me. I do know.” Shikamaru didn’t crack an eyelid. “I saw Chouji right when I got back.”
Now this was news to her. Chouji may have stopped by every in a while but Ino could have counted the number of times she saw Shikamaru this last year on the fingers on one hand – if not for this mission, the absence of contact would have likely stretched on a lot longer, knowing the two of them – and here she finds out that the rest of her ex-team were merrily cavorting about behind her back all the while. Sure, the boys were the best of friends in a way she had never been with either of them, but that didn’t place a phone call or visit completely above and beyond their capabilities. What gave?
Ino, stuck in thoughts that were becoming progressively angrier, snapped out in time to catch the tail end of Shikamaru’s question. “Huh?”
“What happened with you? Your kids didn’t test, from what I heard. And judging from what I saw back there, it’s definitely not because they’re not capable enough.”
“Oh,” Ino rolled her eyes. “Riki had this whole stage where he was convinced his life calling was to somehow sabotage the Chuunin testing grounds and become a legend. He got about as far as the front gate. That didn’t stop them from banning him, though, which put the whole team on the blacklist.”
“Ha.” Ino could have sworn she heard a smile in his voice. “And how many bruises did they get for that?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she balked in feigned-indignation. “I’m the picture-perfect example of a compassionate teacher. That black eye, sprained finger and wedgie were all his own fault. Or Hatsumi’s.”
To this, Shikamaru said nothing, resuming his semi-napping state by closing both eyes again and leaning a little further back. The sudden proximity definitely wasn’t an unwelcome change – he was warm and the freezer was undeniably not misnamed. As the moments wore on, Ino’s toes were taking on a slightly distressing numbness. Nothing lethal, though. At least not yet.
The two of them had shared their two blankets between them, following the age-old rule of doubling body heat to maximize survival probability, and it was working well enough so far. Ino flexed her fingers beneath the blanket, taking careful note of extremities first, and was relieved to find the chill no more than any she would feel on a winter night in Konoha. But this definitely didn’t mean the cold wasn’t taking its toll, and more than once during the duration of their predominately one-sided conversation, Ino had felt herself drift a little into sleep; and each and every time this happened, Shikamaru would cough or shift slightly beside her, jarring her from the potentially dangerous slip. Whether or not this was purposeful wasn’t really evident. Back in their stakeout days, Shikamaru was always kind of a shifty sleeper.
Back in their stakeout days… Ino’s mind gave a little jolt of recognition at the circumstance, a throwback to their old days under Asuma-sensei, with the two of them and Chouji huddled out at night while their teacher had a smoke, wondering when he would give up the coffin nails for the betterment of their team and could all just find the next decent lodging for a decent a) night’s sleep, b) meal and c) grooming appliances.
It had been long, Ino realized then. Sure, following Asuma’s death, the three had made a few unspoken efforts at see each other more frequently. But things happened – life happened – and sometimes the hours weren’t enough to spend on holding things together.
Sadly, that was exactly when they’d start coming apart.
But just how long it had actually been hadn’t occurred to Ino before now; now that she was stuck in such sudden proximity with her old childhood friend and found herself unaccustomed to recent things about him – a poorly-healed scar along the back of one hand, likely mended on the fly during some mission or another, the elongation and hardening of bones that came with adulthood evident in his face. God, he did look older – something she had never really seen before. Looking at him now, Ino supposed he had grown well; the face was a slender one, almost leaning towards a more classically aristocratic look. If you ignored the terrible posture. And that was certainly hard to do with him slumping into her shoulder.
She was sitting cross legged, both hands clasped tightly in her lap for warmth. At the beginning, Shikamaru had adopted the same pose, but, being taller, both his knees jutted out from under the blanket. He inevitably settled for tucking them to his chest. It was still cold, though, progressively colder than Ino remembered the minute before and in one sleepy moment, she almost extended her legs over his lap to leach some extra warmth.
Startled by the direction her thoughts were straying, Ino shook her head roughly, trying to clear her thoughts. Awake, she thought, mentally chanting the word like mantra. Stay awake. There was no way she was going to succumb the same end as a garden vegetable, spooning with one of her oldest friends, after living through 22 solid years of grueling shinobidom. There will still so many things to see, to do. For example, she was still a virg—
Oh gods. The Ritual. All of a sudden a veritable tsunami of uncomfortable thoughts came rushing at her, and Ino scrambled to change the subject of her contemplations out loud. “Ah hah… um… hey! Do you know what I’ve always wondered about Kakashi-sensei?”
“Huh,” replied Shikamaru, sounding like he cared about the gestation periods of platypuses more than he cared about her thoughts regarding Kakashi-sensei.
“Boxers or briefs?” She finished lamely.
“Alright, this conversation is definitely over.”
Ino huffed. “Well, I had to say something. I’m looking out for your life here – you were totally falling asleep a minute ago.”
Shikamaru didn’t answer, sighing instead in a long-suffering way. If there had been light, Ino was sure his breath would have misted in the cold air. When he said: “Boxers,” she almost didn’t hear him.
“I said: boxers.” He sat up a little straighter, shifting his semi-reclining position to face towards her. “You and Chouji had that long-running battle that year you couldn’t stop thinking about what Kakashi-sensei looked like under his mask. Chouji said boxers. You said briefs. He won.”
“He did not win,” she scoffed, feigning indignation. “The results were inconclusive.”
“Nope, Chouji definitely won.” Shikamaru shifted backwards again, resuming his forward-facing stance. “You forced Chouji and I to spy on him in the change room, remember?”
Oh right. Good times.
“But you know, that was only that day though. I’ve seen him in the change room since and I’m fairly sure he’s switches it up.”
Ino bit back a laugh. “And you didn’t back me up?” She asked in mock indignation. “Whatever happened to trust, caring and support in a comrade?”
Shikamaru scoffed. “In our team? To you? You’d be looking for Asuma.” Then he closed his eyes.
Asuma-sensei… that’s right. Ino had usually been the default winner of many intra-team quarrels by the sheer strength of her personality, which just helped to load the rare situations in which the boys took a victory. Despite the fact that they never were too overtly smug about it (Chouji being too nice, Shikamaru being too lazy), Ino would fume about it for days, during which time Asuma-sensei would try to placate her with low-level missions to neighboring shopping towns, the two boys grudgingly in tow.
“I’m cold,” Ino huffed, blinking away sudden tears she could feel crystallizing on her eyelashes. When she turned a little to the side, her ankle gave a sharp throb. Fabulous. Pressing a hand to the injured joint, Ino closed her eyes, concentrating on opening the gates that would emit the healing chakra necessary to mend the stretched and broken muscle.
Shikamaru opened an eye. “It’s just a sprain, right? I wouldn’t waste my energy, if I were you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” retorted Ino. “Gods know we’ll probably freeze to death in here anyway. That way, the ankle won’t be a hideous size when they drag my frozen corpse out of here with that sack of peas.”
She pressed down harder, adding a touch of heat to the healing emanation. Shikamaru sat up and reached out, grabbing at her wrist without cracking an eyelid. “I said: stop. Don’t be an idiot and drain yourself now by freaking out. Save some of that chakra for our escape.”
“Freaking out?” Ino gaped at him, feeling suddenly, inexplicably angry. “Yes, I am freaking out, because somehow it missed your colossal genius that we’re in a freezer! We’re freezing!”
Shikamaru sighed loudly, dropping her wrist, but still didn’t open an eye.
“Are you even listening to me?”
It was probably for the best that Ino couldn’t feel her hands then, because she was pretty sure that there was nothing else to stop her from killing him.
Yuu wasn’t sure of a lot things, but he was pretty certain that anytime Rikimaru went quiet, somehow, somewhere out in the universe, something was going very wrong.
“Uh, Riki?” He asked, looking over his shoulder and losing the alignment of two pins as he did so. Great; yet another fifteen minutes of tedious lock-picking in almost solid darkness wasted. He swiped at his aching eyes.
The unusually silent comrade in question was peering questioningly at the grate above them, a pensive look on his face. This was new. For the most part, their journey had been accompanied by Rikimaru’s unending commentary on Yuu’s slow progress and the seemingly endless amount of locked doors – it seemed that whomever had designed this makeshift base had paid no attention to facility of movement whatsoever; there were even locked panels located throughout the ventilation system, undoubtedly meant to hinder any lock-picking intruders like themselves.
“Keep going,” Rikimaru instructed him, not taking his eyes off the grate above them. “Something’s been bothering me.”
Yuu glanced upwards, catching the faint hum that been a backdrop to their entire night. “Oh, the refrigeration?”
Earlier that evening, Rikimaru had tried to cobble together a device to overcome the refrigeration system, but to no avail. He had managed to create a magnet for the vibration mimicker (something that came in immensely handy when Yuu’s meager supply of adhesive ran out), but the refrigeration system wouldn’t give. In the end, Yuu had suggested they ditch the project for lack of time; it didn’t seem like the system was alerting anyone of their presence, at least, and the room it was cooling wasn’t one they had encountered yet.
“Just leave it,” said Yuu, turning back to his task. He plied the pick, simultaneously pushing the tension wrench, and one more pin gave way. “It doesn’t matter.”
A fumbling noise came from behind him. “Oh, yes it does,” answered Riki, rummaging through their pack. “There’s no way I’m letting something as simple as this get the best of me.”
“Come on Riki, don’t waste—“
“Just gimme until you’re done there.” A light flicked on behind him, and Yuu could hear the snap of the wire clippers. “You’ll take forever, anyway.”
Stubbornness, Ino was learning, always, always was its own punishment. She tried to make this lesson as ingrained as possible each and every time her eyes dipped shut.
Shikamaru glanced at her and sighed. “You’re falling asleep, aren’t you?”
Ino blinked slowly. “No.
He just nodded in an infuriating sort of way.
“And don’t say you told me so.” She hated it when he was right. Suddenly, it felt like all her limbs were four times heavier than they should’ve been, the coldness tugging down on them like weights. Sleep would be blissful now, she thought, eyelids slowly drifting shut. She’d just close them for a minute…
Beside her, Shikamaru shrugged. “Well, when you spend your chakra on healing a little sprain in a sub-zero freezer…”
Awake, she thought. Talk. Stay awake. Something, something….“Hey, Shikamaru?”
He glanced at her.
“Shut up.” God, even her synapses were firing slower now, the message taking a moment to cross the distance between her brain and tongue. She closed her eyes.
"Hey," he said, sounding annoyed. "What did I just tell you?"
If Ino had all of her five senses at her behest at that moment, she would have been more than happy to bite back sharply with a retort that might have included his own apparent narcolepsy and the fact that the two were dangerously courting hypothermia, but figured that really wasn't an option right now. Sleep lapping at her eyelids, she gave the sort of groan she greeted her alarm clock with on an early morning.
Shikamaru shifted heavily under her left ear. "Hey." He nudged her. "Ino. Wake up."
Her eyelids gave a flutter; she was falling asleep. She knew as well as he did that doing so would be potentially fatal. "Hey!" He said, louder this time, patting her twice on the cheek. "Don't fall asleep. Get up."
Was his hand warm? She didn’t know, truthfully, the pressure on the side of her face felt a little further from the skin than it had a millisecond ago.
Suddenly, blue light flared through her eyelids as Shikamaru fired up a burst of chakra, emitting a warm glow that emanated from both hands. Lack of medical skill prohibited any healing benefits, but the warmth was still brilliant in itself, likely magnified by their frozen surroundings and the sensation of her thawing skin. Shikamaru rubbed both of Ino’s hands between his own until she had defrosted sufficiently, leaning into his arm. To her profound dismay, the blessed flow of chakra immediately ceased.
“Ugh,” she groaned croakily. “Selfish.”
“No,” he retorted, not letting go of her arms. “Smart. I’m even lower on chakra reserves than you, and I’m not wasting it until we’re just about to get out of here.”
In any other circumstance, Ino would have fired back with some sarcastic retort or another, but this time she figured she should save her breath. Any shinobi knew that chakra fatigue was in another league entirely: it encompassed not only physical tiredness, but was a considerable drain on the mind as well. The dull, unsheltered ache that came from spending chakra lingered until you managed to create more, permeating down to the bone. Ino closed her eyes, feeling a wave of contentedness wash over her. So tired… It would only be for a second…
“How long’s it been?” Came Shikamaru’s voice, suddenly and viciously cutting through her dreamy state. With him beside her and rubbing her hands between his, the voice didn’t seem nearly as distant as it had a moment ago. But it was still incredibly hard to respond.
Ino lifted a limp wrist, their bundle of hands following, then dropped it. “Check … my watch.”
“Hey,” he warned, lifting her wrist to examine the timepiece there. “You’re not falling asleep again, are you?”
“Well, hold on. We’re waiting,” he replied, placing their bundle of hands under the blanket. “You’re fine, nothing critical. Keep talking.”
“Waiting… Seriously?” She asked, numbly watching as her breath misted heavily in front of her face. “No secret, awesome, amazing plan that doesn’t involve freezing here? “
He let out something that sounded like a laugh, and shook his head. “No.”
“So we’re going to die.”
“Then you’ve got a plan?”
“Just waiting.” No plan, then. This waiting business was just the expected niceness that came before you witnessed your old family friend and comrade freeze to death beside you in a giant stone refrigerator, her ankle roughly the size of a baby elephant’s. Awesome.
“Stop,” she mumbled, sluggishly trying to extricate herself from his grasp. Unable to pull both hands completely towards herself, she settled for grabbing onto his lapels. “That hurts.”
“Be happy you can feel it,” he retorted distractedly. And while she was busy trying to formulate a snappish response, Shikamaru reached up and carefully detached both her hands from his collar, glancing over at the refrigeration gates. “Well, looks like that’s our cue.”
“Huh?” said Ino dumbly, trying to shake her cold-induced fog away like so many dirty cobwebs. “What cue?”
“The refrigeration’s turned off and I don’t think it’s morning yet. You might want to rescind the threats on your little tech genius when we get back.”
Huh? What did Rikimaru… Oh, of course. He had been moaning about forgetting to set up his new gadget before their departure, hadn’t he? Some remote access kill-switch for any mechanical device. Oh, thought Ino gratefully, bless his smart (and smart-ass) little heart.
“Alright,” instructed Shikamaru, getting up stiffly and moving towards the doorway. “You spent your chakra about forty-five minutes ago. It might not be much, but you should’ve accumulated at least some since then.”
It was true. Though she was still slow and foggy, Ino wasn’t as close to losing consciousness as she was about a half hour prior, the warm energy running hotly through her veins. Experimentally, she tried flexing a hand; a little sluggish, but all parts connected.
“Warm yourself, but don’t overdo it. One or two short bursts of chakra. You’d better be ready to run.”
Ino was already on her second burst. “You don’t need to tell me,” she snapped, feeling better already. “One minute more.”
“No time,” answered Shikamaru, and at that moment brought his elbow down on the neck of the guard that burst through the door.