Chapter Ten: Compelling
She woke to throbbing pain originating at her optic nerves and ending at her temples.
"I'm alive?" she rasped. "I'm not dead again?"
"No, Kimi-chan," said a warm, familiar voice. "You're quite alive."
A calloused hand pressed against her forehead, and the sharp tang of medical chakra soothed the building pain in her head. Now able to think, Kimi cracked open her eyes and promptly regretted it. The harsh hospital lights darted in and out of focus, and tears poured down her cheeks. Another surge of healing chakra dulled the ache, and her vision returned.
She blinked. Dr. Nohara was leaning over her, lips pursed with concern.
"Kyou-sensei?" Kimi cleared her throat, suddenly feeling very thirsty. "What happened?
The doctor glanced to her left, expression cooling into something resembling hostility. Her eyebrows were ever-so-slightly pinched, and her normally expressive eyes were hard. Kimi followed her gaze to see Inoichi sitting in the chair beside her bed. His customary smile was missing, replaced by stark relief.
"There was a genjutsu mishap. I cannot disclose anything more," Kyou said with frigid civility. "I am sure that your teacher," the emphasis on the word was entirely caustic, "would be willing to explain further."
The animosity drained from her as she turned to Kimi and placed a hand on her patient's head. A light pulse of healing chakra echoed in Kimi's coils, causing her to shiver.
"Diagno—" Kimi coughed and gratefully accepted Dr. Nohara's offered glass of water. After soothing her parched throat, Kimi tried again. "Diagnostics jutsu?"
Kyou smiled. "You're right. It's good news, too. You'll have a lingering headache for a week, but most of the damage is healed. We'll keep you in observation for a few days, just to make sure, though I doubt there'll be any complications." She sighed, expression softening further as she tucked Kimi's hair back. "I'd stay longer, but I really must attend to my other patients."
"Can't I know exactly what went wrong?" complained Kimi, giving the doctor her best puppy-eyes.
"Oh, hush!" Dr. Nohara shook her head. "There's no point. I know that you'll get your hands on your medical file anyway."
"Fine, fine," Kimi grumbled, though her put-upon disappointment was ruined by her grin.
"Either I or someone else will come to check on you in a few hours." She adjusted the IV bag and touched the younger girl's shoulder. "Take care, Kimi-chan."
Inoichi gave Dr. Nohara a grateful smile as she walked to the door. The medical-nin didn't deign to look at him before the door shut.
Kimi looked at the peripheral IV in her arm. It hadn't been changed, so she'd been here for less than 72 hours. The IV bag, on the other hand, looked like it had been replaced at least once. So she'd been here for a day, minimum. Her eyes scanned the room. By the bedstand was a large, elegant flower arrangement. White anemones, azaleas, blue pansies, and pink roses spiralled and rose from the vase in a way that enhanced and unified the disparate flowers.
"I was out for two days?" she hazarded out loud, glancing at her teacher. Kimi stared, surprised to see that Inoichi was wearing casual clothing. Instead of his jounin or Intelligence uniform, he wore a t-shirt and shorts. Sure, Inoichi had worn casual clothing before but never outside the clan compound.
"Yes. Good deduction." He rubbed his forehead and stood up. Inoichi approached her bedside, stopping a foot away. He frowned, his blank, blue eyes darting to the flowers and then to her IV stand. Most telling of all, her teacher clenched and unclenched his hand. Inoichi was hesitant, and he was telegraphing it obviously.
His pleasant smile was still the default, but Inoichi had become more genuine with her over the past four years. In all that time, Kimi had never seen him look unsure. She'd seen him at his lowest point, after the devastation of the Nine Tails, but even then, Inoichi had been anguished and heartbroken—never hesitant.
Slowly, tentatively, he reached out and grasped her hand, taking care to avoid the IV. "I'm glad you're alright, Kimi."
"Sensei," she said, pushing down the rising anxiety, "what happened?"
Inoichi let go and stepped back. His face was blank, now. "There was an intelligence failure. The prisoner was recorded to be low-chuunin level with a specialty in taijutsu. Unfortunately, his skills in genjutsu were unknown. Rest assured, those who made the mistake were punished."
Kimi frowned. "I thought his chakra coils were sealed? How was he able to do—what did he do, anyway?"
"His tenketsu were sealed, making him unable to release chakra. His internal coils were not. Full chakra sealing is reserved for the most dangerous criminals and those with high chakra control." He grimaced. "As I said, it was an unacceptable failure of intelligence."
"Alright," said Kimi slowly, "but what did he do?"
Inoichi paused, eyes focusing on her hands. "He took control of the genjutsu chakra net and tried to turn the illusion against you. He wasn't releasing chakra himself, so it was possible despite the seals."
"So I lost control of the ghost?" Kimi relaxed slightly. Well, that was disappointing, but in the realm of genjutsu mistakes, it was relatively minor.
"Not... exactly." Another pause. "Do you remember the chakra-control exercise I first taught you?"
Her annoyance surged at the non sequitur. "Yes. The one with the leaf, right? What does that have to do with anything?"
"Well, the whole technique has two parts," he began. "First, chakra is stuck to the hand, and then that chakra is stuck to the leaf. The first part is easy to do. Like chakra attracts like, so the chakra outside of your body naturally wants to stick to it. The second part—"
"I know, sensei," she snapped. "It's why most medical jutsu need physical contact. Purifying chakra removes the personal markers, making it incredibly difficult to control. Your point?" This wasn't the training field. She didn't need another lecture on theory.
Inoichi continued like she hadn't spoken. "When the prisoner was seizing your chakra, you attempted to regain control of it by, for lack of better word… snapping it back to you. All of your chakra in his body tore through his chakra coils before forcibly returning to you. A stronger version of genjutsu backlash, so to speak." He shifted, and his voice dropped in pitch. "Genjutsu rarely causes physical damage to the victims. If a caster tries to tear through the internal coils, the intended victim would immediately know. All they would have to do is flare their chakra."
Kimi's breath caught. "But the seals prevented that. He couldn't vent my chakra." Her heart pounded in time with her head. "I ruptured his coils. I did. I had to. There's no way I didn't. Genjutsu focuses on the brain, so—" She stopped, chest tightening.
Briefly, Inoichi closed his eyes. "Yes. He's dead."
"You're telling me that…" Kimi started laughing, high and thin and hysterical. "I, I killed a man by making my chakra sticky?" Tears pooled in her eyes as she gasped, and her manic laughs turned to sobs.
"Kimi, are you... " He stopped. "It's going to be alright, Kimi, we'll—" Inoichi reached for her hand again, and Kimi jerked back.
"Don't touch me," she hissed, anger overwhelming her despair. She hiccuped once but forcibly regained control of herself, willing her tears to stop. "It's your fault, and don't you act otherwise."
"We'll fix it, Kimi-chan," he said, almost pleading.
"Fix it? You want to fix it?" Her answering laugh was almost a screech. "You can't fucking fix this!"
"Take deep breaths. You're having—"
"Can you bring the man I killed back to life?" Kimi tilted her head and pursed her lips in a grotesque imitation of a pout, her rage giving her a single-minded clarity. "Can you bring back my mother? How about Isamu?"
Inoichi stilled at the mention of his brother.
"No, you can't! Murder is not something you can undo, Inoichi!" Her breaths came short and fast. "I didn't want this life. I told him that I didn't want to kill anyone. All I wanted to do was work in medicine, and now look what I've done! If it wasn't for your damn brother—"
"Don't speak of him like that." Inoichi stood.
"I will speak of him however the hell I want!" Kimi shouted. "He ruined my life!"
"He saved your life," said Inoichi, cold and hard. "And don't you dare say anything more—"
"Alright, then," Kimi smiled, sweet and saccharine, "how about we speak of Misaki instead?"
Inoichi flinched, and her name hung between them like a grenade. For a moment, he seemed to be made out of granite, but his posture loosened into something neutral.
"What is there to say about her?" he asked, quietly, ever so quietly. "She taught you. She cared about you."
"Is that why she poisoned me?"
Inoichi was silent, but his eyes were stunned. Had he thought her to be so ignorant? She was used to being underestimated, and a part of her knew it was safer, but his surprise brought her no comfort.
"Get out." A part of her was weary and heartbroken and disgusted, but Kimi summoned up the anger that had kept her from thinking. "Get out, now."
"Kimi…" he murmured. "I'm so sorry. I've never wanted to hurt you."
"Get out of my room!" she screamed in response. "Leave me alone! God, can't you just leave me…" she choked out. He backed away, hesitant and remorseful, but the door shut as Inoichi respected her wishes for once. Her tears returned, and Kimi sobbed alone.
She stayed in a miserable haze for two days until it was interrupted by three surprise visitors: Yugao, Mizuki, and Iruka. Despite herself, Kimi smiled. She owed it to the three children, and she would not burden them with her despair.
"Kimi-chan!" said Yugao, stopping in place. "You look horrible! Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm alright. The doctors are discharging me today, actually." She looked over the trio. "You all look great, though!"
It had only been a month or so since graduation, but Kimi could already see the changes. The trio stood tall and confident, their clothing dark and professional, headbands affixed in prominent places. They had increased muscle tone, too. Shikaku must have drilled them to the ground.
"Thanks!" Iruka looked her over, his previous cheer fading.
"What happened?" added Mizuki. He frowned beside his teammates.
"Genjutsu mishap," she said shortly, with no room for further questioning. "So, are the flowers for me?"
Iruka blinked. "Oh, right!" He placed the vase of flowers by her bedside. "It's hibiscus, for glad tidings!"
Mizuki groaned and rubbed his forehead. "No, you idiot! That's iris! Hibiscus means gentle, which makes no sense for a hospital visit. You brought the wrong flowers!"
"How was I supposed to know? You just told me to bring flowers!"
"Shut up, you two," snapped Yugao. "We're in a hospital."
The two boys fell silent and scowled, though their glares held no real heat.
"Hibiscus flowers are beautiful." Kimi smiled at the children, touched by their consideration. "Thank you. It means a lot to me."
The trio blushed and waved away her thanks, protesting that it was what friends were supposed to do.
"It's not as good as that one," Mizuki mumbled, pointing to the ornate spiral of flowers.
"Yours is still gorgeous in its simplicity." Kimi's assurance was just a little teasing. She certainly loved their simple clump of hibiscus more than the elaborate arrangement that Inoichi had brought.
"Hey, who is this from?" asked Iruka, who had wandered to her bedside table. "It's just… one flower. And it's kinda ugly, too. At least we got you more than that!"
A single sprig of edelweiss sat in a thin vase. Beside it was a folded card. After glancing at her for permission, which Kimi gave with a nod, Iruka opened it and read it out loud.
"It says, 'Be not defeated by the rain.' That's it." He flipped it over. "There's no name or anything. Wow. Lame."
"Edelweiss stands for courage," Yugao remarked. She raised an eyebrow as she contemplated the elegant scrawl of the card. "And that line… it's from a famous poem, right?"
Kimi gave a small smile. "Yes, you're right."
Though she hadn't seen him, Kimi knew that Itachi had sent it, his own way of reminding her to stay strong. The poetry and handwriting was a dead giveaway even without him signing it. It was a surprising but welcomed gesture.
(A voice in her head, one that resembled Inoichi's, whispered that Itachi's connection to her could definitely be exploited. Kimi pushed it aside and ignored the accompanying pang of self-loathing.)
"Well, Kimi-chan, it was nice seeing you." Mizuki rubbed the back of his neck. "We'd stay longer if we could, but we have to go train with our teacher."
"I'm glad you came to visit." Kimi looked away briefly, trying not to mourn their inevitable loss of innocence. It hadn't yet happened, and this was not the time for macabre rumination. "Now, go train! I'll be fine."
Lying to them had always been easy.
After being discharged, Kimi's first destination was her house—not the room that she had in the Yamanaka compound, but the actual apartment she'd shared with her father. She'd debated on what to do, but in the end, she entered through the window after deactivating her simple traps. The front door didn't feel comfortable anymore.
Her room was exactly how she left it plus a layer of dust. Kimi took a deep breath, uncertainty and nostalgia and sorrow interplaying in a way that left her acutely uncomfortable. She walked to the bookshelf and pulled out her personal journal. Kimi had stopped relying on it, really. Thanks to Inoichi, she'd begun using meditation instead, which had the benefits of improving her yin chakra reserves and mental fortitude.
Kimi opened the journal and grabbed a pen. She flipped through the earlier pages, rubbing her fingers over the water damage and dirt in the corners. An unfortunate amount of the journal was devoted to her nightmares, especially since she'd started this journal after the Nine Tails' attack. The effect of her moving into the Yamanaka clan was clearly shown on the journal. The entries petered away from three times a week to monthly, if that. Kimi stared at her last entry, which consisted of a grocery list and idle reflection on how life would be after graduation. With reverence, she turned to the next blank page.
In large, neat letters, filling the entire sheet, she wrote: I killed someone.
Kimi closed her eyes. The nightmares had only gotten worse after the attack, but they'd mostly faded away in the last year. The nightmares would be back, now, and they had new fodder. The thought didn't bother her. She deserved them.
Footsteps startled her, and Kimi instinctively gathered chakra for a genjutsu, only to let it disperse when the door opened.
"Kimi?" asked her dad, staring at her with wide eyes.
"Dad." She stared back. How long had it been? Months? He'd tanned and grown leaner. Most surprising of all, he had a hint of gray in his unkempt stubble.
He walked towards her, his hesitancy etched in each sideway glance and twitching finger. Her dad started to raise his arms for a hug but aborted the movement, leaving them by his side.
"How are you?" he said quietly. "How have you been? Has, has being a ninja treated you well?"
Kimi shrugged. "It's fine." She paused, and though Kimi wasn't entirely sure why, she added, "I was just discharged from the hospital."
"What? You were in the hospital?" His face crumpled. "I didn't know. I didn't know, Kimi-chan. I didn't know."
He kneeled and pulled her tightly in an embrace, so suddenly that Kimi almost grabbed a senbon from her pouch in shock. Carefully, she returned the hug. Her father was shaking.
"What happened? Why didn't anyone—" His voice wasn't steady. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Why were you in the hospital?"
"Just an accident." She exhaled and rested her chin on his shoulder. Kimi felt like she was six again, before Isamu and the Nine Tails and everything else, when her biggest worry was acting like a child for her parents. "I'm alright, now."
Her dad pulled away a little, brushing her hair away from her eyes. He glanced at the gold barrette in her hair and blinked. "You're still wearing it?"
"Of course, dad." Kimi smiled. "You gave it to me."
He placed her hand on her head. "It looks good." Her dad looked down and to the side, as if steeling himself for something unpleasant. "I'm sorry for being a horrible father," he murmured. "I shouldn't have left you alone, Kimi. Will you forgive me?"
Kimi adjusted her smile, making it more sympathetic. "Dad, it's been hard for all of us. What you did is understandable."
"I don't deserve a daughter like you," he said, laughing in a way that sounded suspiciously close to sobs.
"It's fine, dad." She patted his shoulder. "It's okay."
Her father rubbed his eyes, and Kimi politely looked away.
"Will you stay for lunch?" he asked, eyes bright but voice steady. "It'll be like old times."
Their relationship couldn't be the same as it once was. Too much had happened for that. But… perhaps they could build a new one, a relationship that was closer to two equals. Like the one she'd had with her mother in her last life. Maybe that was just a pipe dream. Kimi wouldn't know until she tried.
"Sure," she said finally. "I'd love to."
According to the message Kimi had received, Inoichi had given her two additional weeks of medical leave. Kimi had decided to spend as much of it as she could working with Kyou at the hospital. Healing other people partially alleviated her conscience. At the very least, it allowed her to forget. Repression was unhealthy, yes… but eventually, she'd confront it. Eventually.
Dr. Nohara had suffered from a series of miscarriages and had partially returned to work; the doctor's coping methods were apparently similar to hers.
"It's good to have you back," said Kyou as Kimi changed an IV. "I've missed you."
"I'm glad to be back." Kimi double-checked the doses. "I've always liked working here."
"Yes, of course." The doctor's eyes turned downcast, but she forced cheer into her following sentence. "I've forgotten how convenient it is to have an assistant like you. While I won't ever replace my wonderful first student," she said with a teasing lilt, "I've started teaching another one."
"Oh?" Kimi raised an eyebrow. "Who's the lucky kid?"
"A boy named Kabuto."
Kimi froze, but Kyou continued without noticing, too busy concentrating on her diagnostic jutsu.
"It's not a formal thing since he's still in the Academy. He helps out in the hospital a lot, and I've been giving him some pointers. He's very talented for his age. Actually, Kabuto reminds me of you. I think you'll both get along great."
The doctor finally saw her reaction.
"Kimi-chan? Are you alright?" She stepped forward, forehead wrinkled with concern. "You know, I'm here for you. In case you need anything."
"I'm fine." Kimi hesitated. She couldn't tell the doctor about Kabuto, not without evidence. She couldn't do anything about him. Not yet. At the same time, though... "Actually," she said slowly, "I'm not fine. Could I take you up on that offer?"
Kyou's eyebrows went up. "Of course, Kimi-chan. What's wrong?"
"Do you know why I was in the hospital?"
She grimaced. "Vaguely. It was a bad case of genjutsu backlash, but no one would tell me the circumstances."
Dispassionate and disassociated, Kimi recounted the events that led to the man's death. "I killed him," she whispered, and the walls came crumbling down. "H-He couldn't vent the chakra, and I tore through his coils, and... God, I killed him."
Kimi wasn't crying—she was still too numb—but she was shivering violently, as if to shake away her guilt.
"Oh, Kimi-chan…" The doctor sighed and pressed her hand on Kimi's shoulder. "It will get better. I promise."
Even through her grief, Kimi saw that Kyou's was uncomfortable. Konoha put severe emphasis on bottling emotions and grieving alone, and such insistent conditioning was difficult to break, even when one knew otherwise. Kimi wasn't entirely immune, but her opinions on coping had carried on from her last life.
I'm rationalizing my guilt again, she thought. I'm trying to distance myself from the problem by focusing on Kyou.
Kimi exhaled, inhaled, and exhaled, controlling her breathing. She'd lost her purpose. For all these years, Kimi had been working towards getting a job as a medic: to help people, to learn about healing chakra, and to avoid the very situation she'd been put in. That had failed. After the Nine Tails' attack, the nebulous goal of "making things better" had also been added, but Kimi had always hoped in some corner of her mind that she'd avoid what had happened—what would happen. Denial could only get her so far.
"Yes, sorry for blanking out." She smiled at her former teacher, Inoichi's lessons coming in full force: touching her tongue to the roof of her mouth to relax her jaw, raising both eyebrows slightly, and crinkling her eyes. "You're right. Thanks for listening, sensei. I feel much better."
Kyou's shoulders relaxed, and the doctor smiled back, apparently buying the act. "Anytime, Kimi-chan." She glanced at her watch and grimaced. "Actually, I have to report to surgery. I have to take my shift." She hesitated, a frown tugging at a corner of her mouth. "Will you be alright?" she asked, tentative, as if Kimi was made of glass.
"Of course I will!" Kimi playfully nudged her former teacher. "You should go have fun in surgery. I know it's your favorite shift."
Kyou rolled her eyes. "I'm sure I will." She touched Kimi's arm with gentle reassurance. "Take care, alright?"
Kimi let her smile soften into a perfect facsimile of sincerity. "Of course."
With that, the doctor strode out, determined and focused and somewhat relieved. Now that the older woman was gone, Kimi slowly let her composure crumble. Deliberately, she sat on the floor, leaned against the wall, and covered her face with her hands. Kimi wanted to cry, but she felt too hollow and empty. Her last measure of control was expended on keeping her chakra steady. There were plenty of sensors in the hospital; it wouldn't help to make others curious. Kimi steadied her breathing as the cold from the vinyl flooring seeped through her clothing.
She didn't know what to do.
She didn't know what to do.
Soft footsteps sounded from the hallway, and Kimi's mask of composure snapped back into place. In a fluid, effortless moment, she stood and refolded the blanket just as the stranger opened the door.
"Kimi-san?" The voice was vaguely familiar. "I'm not sure if you remember me… but, um, Dr. Nohara sent me to find you."
She glanced at the door and her heart stopped for a brief second. A gray-haired, spectacled boy smiled at her.
"Kabuto-san?" Kimi just barely added the suffix in her shock. This was the wrong time for this—she couldn't think of a worse moment that Kabuto could have picked. Kimi hadn't been so off-balance in a long, long time, and Kabuto could use that to his advantage. That could not be allowed. Efficiently, Kimi compartmentalized every negative emotion she had and focused on now with cold clarity.
"That's me! Wow, you have a good memory. The doctor wanted me to tell you that she'd be in surgery for a bit longer." He grinned and held up two paper bags. "In the meantime, she wants you to have lunch, and she commanded me to make sure. So I brought you teriyaki!"
Kimi stared for a moment. She couldn't refuse without coming off as rude or suspicious, and by bringing lunch, he'd ensured that they'd have continued interaction—one that could easily be extended into a friendly relationship. And he'd done all that in a natural, almost awkwardly endearing way. Had she not known who he was, Kimi would've been fooled. Despite knowing all that, she still couldn't pick out any tells.
(Which begged the questions: was Kabuto with ROOT, now? Was he with Orochimaru? Was he still an innocent kid fighting for his teacher? Who was he, and what did he want?)
"I'd love to join you," said Kimi, smiling. "Thanks, Kabuto-san, I really appreciate it." Two could play at this game. She took the offered bag and sat on the edge of the empty bed. She gestured to the chair, and Kabuto pulled it closer to her and also took his seat. In companionable silence, the two opened the bags and began eating.
"So, did you transfer over to the hospital?" asked Kabuto as he grabbed a napkin. "With your medical skills, I'm guessing that you're in the med-corps, right?"
"No. I work in a different branch." Kimi chewed on a piece of ginger. "How about you, Kabuto-san?"
"Ah, well…" He rubbed at the back of his head. "I'm in my fifth and last year at the Academy. Hopefully, I'll graduate. I'd like to work in the hospital, but I'll take any spot in the med-corps!" With just the right bit of bashful self-deprecation, he added, "It's all I'm good at, anyway."
"I'm sure that's not true!" she protested with the exact amount of casual reassurance. "From what Dr. Nohara's said, you're really smart!"
"She said that?" His cheeks turned pink. "W-Well, you're really smart too!" Kabuto's blush deepened.
Well, Kimi was rather impressed. "You're too kind," she said. Kimi went back to her food, curious to see where Kabuto would take it from there. It was too easy to forget how dangerous the boy was.
"So… um," he shifted slightly, "you were in Mizuki's class right? How is he doing? I haven't seen him in a while."
"He's doing great! Mizuki really likes his team." Kimi found herself rather galvanized by it all: from the way he shifted from tactic to tactic to find information—and to respond to her own ripostes. She decided to go on the offensive. "You said that you wanted to be a medic, right? Is there any reason? It takes a lot of practice to learn medical jutsu. It's not something that people just become good at."
Kabuto glanced to the side and pushed up his glasses; Kimi wasn't sure if that was a tell or false-flag. He looked at her for a second too long before saying in a subdued voice, "I was taught by the medic-nin that found me. At the orphanage, I didn't have much to do besides practice." Kabuto shrugged. "It came in handy. I used it to get pocket change."
Is he being honest? I can't tell at all. She didn't know much about his early life, so Kimi didn't even have a reference to compare his story with.
"That's very noble," she murmured.
He looked at her, startled. "Huh? Why would you say that?" He rubbed his head again. "There's nothing noble about my motivations."
"You could've done anything else, but you decided to spend the time you had by learning medical jutsu. And you succeeded. That's incredible." It was. It would be. Kabuto was someone with no special heritage, no bloodline, but he'd managed to claw his way to the stratosphere of the ninja world through sheer effort and skill in medical jutsu of all things. He was also a scared little boy who'd do heinous, monstrous things in search of his identity.
Kimi gave him a bright smile. "The medic that found you seems like an incredible person. Not many people are willing to teach kids like us any jutsu at all, let alone medical ninjutsu."
Kabuto's eyes softened. "Yes, she is."
Kimi hopped off the bed and tossed the empty paper bag into the trash. "It was nice talking to you, Kabuto-san. Thanks for the meal."
"S-Same!" He scratched his cheeks. "We should do this again sometime."
She didn't let her smile falter as she waved goodbye. It was only when Kimi left the room that both relief and anxiety returned. She couldn't worry or panic now. Not here. There was too much of a chance that someone would come upon her, just as Kabuto did. But why did he come find her in the first place? Fear eroded at her self-control, almost causing her to lose her grip on her chakra. Danzo hadn't noticed her, had he? Kimi desperately hoped that Kabuto wasn't working for him yet. Was he being honest about Kyou asking him? Was that his only motivation?
She let out a short breath. The questions could wait. She could wait. But even with every justification, Kimi could feel herself being pulled apart at the seams.
Kimi didn't know if Itachi would show up to the weekly meeting, but she sat at the yakisoba stand anyway. (It wasn't as if she had much else to do. As much as she enjoyed having two weeks break, Kimi found herself with more free time than she was used to.) She checked her scuffed watch. It was a couple minutes past the agreed upon time, which surprised her somewhat. Itachi was nothing if not punctual.
Her suspicions were assuaged by the appearance of a different, older Uchiha. With a slight smile, Shisui slipped through the crowd before coming to the stand. Kimi stared at him with surprise. She hadn't seen the teen in months, not since the time he'd invited her and Itachi to eat dango. His appearance was rather sudden. As Shisui sat down, Kimi could feel the thin web of a genjutsu settle around her. She glanced to the owner of the yakisoba stall; he hadn't acknowledged Shisui at all.
"Area-effect distraction genjutsu?" Kimi hazarded outloud.
Shisui nodded, still smiling. "No one will know that we're sitting here."
"Oh. Alright." She raised an eyebrow slightly, suspicion rising. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you, but I was expecting someone different."
"Itachi's on a mission with his team. He'll be back in a couple of days."
"I see," said Kimi slowly. "Thank you for letting me know."
Shisui's dark eyes peered into her own before giving her a once over, starting from her feet, skimming over her clothes, before finally lingering at her gold barrette.
"Shall we stop with the charade?"
She blinked. "By all means."
His expression went completely blank, and his eyes turned red with the sharingan. Kimi froze, feeling rather like a mouse did when faced with a snake. It was impolite and offensive for ninja with ocular bloodlines—or any bloodline, really—to blatantly activate and use them when with friendlies. It implied that she was a threat or enemy, an implication that Kimi really, really didn't want.
"What do you want?" Shisui asked, flat and low.
She laughed softly to herself, though a part of her wanted to continue the laughter on a more hysterical, panicked note. "I've been asking that myself, Shisui-san. Could you be more specific?"
"Don't play games with me." His eyes spun faster. "What do you want with Itachi?"
With a sudden chill, Kimi realized how much she'd been acting like Inoichi. "Games, huh?" she murmured, looking down. Forcibly, Kimi brought her gaze back to his hypnotic eyes.
"I can tell if you're lying. Do not try it." His voice was at the same, ordinary volume, but every inch of his body language, from the angle of his shoulders to his folded fingers, screamed threatening.
"So you want the truth? Fine." She wasn't about to tell him about the massacre, not when he was already suspicious, but Kimi could do honesty. She wanted to be honest, especially since she didn't know if her lies could fool the all-seeing sharingan. "I want…" Kimi trailed off, hesitant, gaze sliding to the side.
"Well, I want—" she stopped. My old life back. An end to this meaningless violence. A fairer world, one where children don't have to— "I want peace." Kimi met his eyes, surety diffusing through. "I want a world where children don't have to fight."
Shisui's sharingan deactivated with shock, turning black for a split second before bleeding back into red. "What?"
"I hate this system," she confided, aware that her words were edging on treason. "I hate that kids are given weapons and sent off to kill or die. I can't change it." Kimi laughed, bitter. "I'm powerless, and, and… I'm not willing, I can't… I can't do what it takes to gain the kind of power this world demands." Kimi let out a slow, shaky breath. "But Itachi can."
His face was still, forehead slightly creased in that same expression of mild surprise.
"That's what worries me, though," continued Kimi. "He's just—Itachi's just a kid. He's younger than me, and he's under so much stress and pressure and I know that this world will demand… it already demands more than any child should ever have. He's the heir to the Uchiha clan and a prodigy beyond measure. Itachi can reshape the world." Sudden anger coursed through her. "But he shouldn't have to!" she said vehemently. "It's not right. It's not right."
Shisui blinked, and his red eyes faded to coal black. "You're serious?" He blinked again. "You're serious."
She nodded. "I can see it happening already. Itachi is being isolated. I don't know what I can do," if I can change anything, "but I have to try. Even if it is as simple as meeting him for yakisoba."
He stared for a moment longer. "Wow, you're more idealistic than I'd expected." Shisui tilted his head, considering. "You really are a civvie, huh?"
Kimi raised a shoulder in a half-shrug. Was he honestly trying to rile her up by pointing out her background?
Shisui gave a half-laugh. "I don't know what I expected from you, but it wasn't... that." He smiled, crooked and wry. "Maybe I should've prepared for that. Us trainee babies tend to be a little stranger."
She frowned at the strange phrase, taking the sudden mood shift in stride. "What?"
"I'm in—rather, I was in your position. I was orphaned at a young age, and Fugaku helped train me." He relaxed his upper body, letting his hand swing by his sides, idly brushing his weapons pouch. "Just as another clan is helping train you. The Nara?" Shisui hummed in contemplation. "Or perhaps the Yamanaka?"
Kimi didn't reply.
Shisui hopped off the stool, stretching his arms over his head. "Now, that was interesting! We should talk again sometime."
"Yes," she said with a smile that was neither entirely genuine nor false. "We really should."
He gave a jaunty wave, letting the genjutsu dissolve around them, and faded into the crowd.
Kimi turned the page of Poisons, leaving a sticky note to mark each substance that was nonlethal. Misaki's book was incredibly thorough, and her former teacher's notes filled in the occasional gap. The author, no surprise, was a Yamanaka, though Kimi was amused hat her name was also Ino. (She felt a little pang of loneliness at that. Kimi hadn't seen Ino during her entire time off.)
A knock at the door ruined her introspection. Kimi stretched out her chakra sense, feeling someone's silky and vaguely familiar signature. She frowned. It wasn't one of her classmates, nor was it Inoichi. It certainly couldn't be a civilian. Konoha didn't have door-to-door salesman or a culture that encouraged strangers to visit people's homes. Out of habit, Kimi gathered enough chakra for a genjutsu and grabbed a senbon. It wasn't like she could do much if someone really wanted her dead; Kimi was just a genin, and a weak one at that. With an elevated heart rate, she opened the door.
Anko smiled, toying with the dango skewer in her mouth. "Hey, Kiki. Wanna spar?"
That was unexpected.
"Not particularly," Kimi said dryly.
Then again, considering her role in the Intelligence Division, perhaps it wasn't so surprising. Oddly enough, Inoichi had given her space, not even contacting her during these two weeks after the incident (don't think about it don't think about it). It was about time that he'd done something, and Anko's visit had his fingerprints all over it.
The older girl shifted, resting her arm against the frame and positioning herself so that her foot could block the door. "I heard you were on leave."
"Don't you want to come back? Sure, you'll lose fifty ryo, but isn't it worth it?" At Kimi's continued silence, Anko tried a different tack. "Inoichi was actually shaken, you know. Most people don't get a full two weeks off. Ain't that sweet?"
"So Inoichi sent you." Favors were the unofficial currency of Konoha, but Intel in particular put emphasis on it. All operatives traded them back and forth, bartering for information and benefits. "You're discharging a favor." She raised an eyebrow and said, tone dry, "Unless he owes you?"
Anko gave a nonchalant shrug, though her smile was now tinged with sharpness. "Inoichi? Owe me? As if. It'll be a long time before my debt to him is cleared." She lolled her head to the side. "You know, you're real lucky to have him as your teacher. Just kiss and make up already."
Kimi curled in on herself, making her voice thinner and higher pitched. "But I don't want to." She felt a little bad pushing Anko's buttons like this... but not that bad. It was about time she had a taste of her own medicine. "Haven't you ever been angry at your teacher?"
Anko scoffed, anger etched in her dismissive posture. "What Inoichi did was right, if not fucking gentle. So what if you got blooded early? I was much younger than you when I had my first kill, and it was in a warzone."
"Really?" She raised her head slightly, though she continued to look down. "What did you do to cope?"
"Well, I made it my—" Anko stopped and gave Kimi a considering look. "Wow, you're actually kinda clever. You almost got me there. It wasn't subtle, but you did it pretty well." Anko shook her head slowly. "You're good at playing the innocent little girl. Huh."
Kimi watched warily as Anko's grin widened.
"What happened to me isn't important." The physically older girl leaned forward, biting her lip and displaying her fishnet-covered chest. The mesh had fabric between the wires, so her clothing wasn't as lewd as it seemed from a distance, but Kimi was still rather uncomfortable with a minor approaching her in such a sexual way. "What matters, Mimi-chan, is what you're gonna do."
Despite Kimi's anger at Inoichi, there wasn't much point in pretending that she wouldn't come back to Intel. She couldn't quit, not really, and Inoichi had invested too much in her to let her go. (Ten years. Kimi had to serve for at least ten years.) As much as she hated it, Kimi knew that her situation—and her bargaining position—was temporary. She might as well take advantage of it, starting with Anko.
"I'll credit you as being the main reason for my return," said Kimi quietly. "I'll let Inoichi know what a great help you were."
"Oh?" Anko feigned nonchalance, but her pale eyes still gleamed. "And what do you want in return?"
"You're a skilled shinobi. I'd like to train with you biweekly, preferably with poisons." Kimi knew that she'd never be a great warrior, nor did she desire that kind of power, but Kimi did want to minimize death. She was not naive enough to think that she'd never face combat. (Even if, in some corner of her mind, she had before… that veil had been forcibly ripped away by the prisoner's death. It still hurt to think about.) Poisons were a handy tool, allowing her to control the level of lethality, but Kimi didn't want to approach the Yamanaka. Not yet. She was still a little bitter.
Anko was a good alternative. Besides growing up on the battlefield, Anko was also the only surviving student of Orochimaru and one of the few people capable of withstanding the cursed seal. She was multi-specialized, too: a poison expert with the notoriously picky snake summons, a reputation for unpredictable taijutsu, and a deepening clout with T&I. The only reason she wasn't a jounin was because of lingering suspicion and politics. Some genin would kill for the chance to train with her. And Anko was still in Inoichi's sphere of influence, so he wasn't likely to complain, either.
Konoha took teacher/student relationships very seriously, but that wasn't what Kimi was asking for. It was more like going to an upperclassman or colleague for help. The request wasn't exactly casual nor was it very formal, but it was a good deal for both of them. Training a genin for twice a week in return for major brownie points with her boss? Of course Anko would agree.
"Deal." With a soft smile, Anko reached out and brushed Kimi's cheek with the back of her hand. "I have a feeling that this is the start of a lovely relationship."
On her last day of leave, Kimi held up a piece of okra, examining it for defects. She planned on cooking some dinner for her and her father since she was already a better cook than him. Strangely, despite being market day, the crowd seemed to buzz with... apprehension. Kimi frowned, setting the vegetable down. She could hear the word 'Kumo' being repeated quite frequently, which worried her. She scanned the crowd, eyes settling on a group of chuunin who were whispering to themselves. With ease, Kimi meandered towards them under the pretense of grabbing a few oranges.
"It's fucked up, man," mumbled one. "I mean, at least it's not fuckin' Iwa, but it don't feel right that the Sandaime's letting those Kumo bastards come in Konoha."
Kimi picked up a different orange, internally confused. Kumo wasn't as hated as Iwa, since most of the fighting between Kumo and Konoha had been indirect, but the two weren't close enough for casual visits.
His scarred friend nudged him. "Hey, shut up. Not so loud, idiot." His eyes darted around for a moment, but after seeing nobody visibly listening, he turned back to his friend and lowered his voice. "I can't say I disagree. I mean, it was different with Suna, but Kumo don't have anything to gain from coming with a delegation."
Kimi's blood ran cold. Kumo was sending a delegation for a peace treaty. Already?
The third man spoke up. "It's none of our business. Grab your cigarettes so we can get out of here. It's a long way to the outpost, and I'm tired of waiting."
It felt much too soon.
Hinata is going to be kidnapped.
AN: The stakes are being raised higher. The next chapter should have politics, tension, and something resembling action.
Thanks to immatx and Diana Moth for beta-reading this. This chapter seriously improved because of their advice.
The companion fic Between the Spaces has been updated. It has the POV of Kimi's father Takumi.
The recommendation for this chapter is The Yondaime's Assistant by Diana Moth. It's an excellent fic that delves into the less considered parts of the Naruto world, breaking tired cliches and featuring masterful characterization. The main character is an competent, incredibly likable adult in the genin corp. I highly recommend it.
I am humbled by your kind words and support. This story has lasted so long because of everyone who has given comments, concerns, and their criticism. Thank you all for reading.