Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Beta'd by drowsyivy, UmbreonGurl, and animemoms.


"Uchiha-san," Cousin Shin drawls, staring at some point beyond Chichi's right shoulder. "Rather serious matter, mind if I come in?" He's got one arm looped through mine.

The bucket I'd brought him a week ago swings casually from his other hand.

Chichi blinks at him. "Certainly."

It's early yet, early enough that it's just the three of us. Chichi's keyring clinks when he opens the front door of the Station.

Cousin Shin whistles at the site of Chichi's desk. "Is it tax season or something?"

I...might've gotten used to the amount of paper on there, enough that I don't notice it as something rather out of the ordinary anymore.

At least now, I have confirmation from other people that that amount of paper everywhere is not normal.

"It is certainly not tax season." Chichi takes a seat and gestures for us to do the same. He pauses for a moment, as if thinking what Cousin Shin had said through. "I do hope you filed your taxes, Inuzuka-kun."

Cousin Shin barks a laugh, languidly lounging in his seat, still casually swinging the bucket from his hand. "T'was a joke, Uchiha-jisan. Not to be taken seriously. My old man's desk looks like yours only when it's tax season."

Chichi stares at him from a moment longer. Maybe he's trying to ask, "Are you only here to joke?"

"Nah," Cousin Shin dumps the contents of the bucket on the floor. "Someone's been throwin' trash into the Naka River." He jerks his head in my direction. "Hime-chan here found some interestin' trash though." He plucks a piece of the broken shuriken blade from where it'd fallen. "Sure you're more familiar with this than me, Kobayashi make, second war relic."

Chichi sighs. "The Nakano has been unsightly for some time now. I recall some efforts to do something about that, but the station's been busy recently."

It had fallen by the wayside, because the river weighs less on a cosmic scale than the lives of people.

And while I can't fault that exactly, doesn't mean it doesn't burn.

"Yeah, guess it has." Cousin Shin shrugs. "Didn't concern me much before, but it's personal now."

Chichi mutters something that sounds suspiciously like "Does it always have to be personal with you people" before he composes himself properly. "The weapons in the Nakano bears looking into though."

"Yah, I'd say so." Cousin Shin slouches in his seat, throwing his right leg over his left, a hand idly holding his ankle. "Not to mention, against the law." He looks rather quizzically at Chichi. "You cared about that sorta thing, right?"

"Yes." Chichi signs yet another sheet of paper. He will never make headway against the sheer volume of paperwork on his desk. It seems to multiply rapidly no matter what he does, "I do in fact, care about 'that sort of thing,' as you put it."

"Oh goodie." Cousin Shin smiles, a bright, sharp thing. "Finally, we're getting somewhere!"

"Indeed," Chichi agrees rather drolly. "We're getting somewhere at last."

I resist the urge to sigh.

This is going to be a long morning.


I walk in the vague direction of home that evening, taking the route that runs by the Naka River. Chichi hadn't known who was suddenly dumping hazardous waste into the river, even though he had told me to check in with Naka — the person, not the river.

As it turns out, my patrol partner runs the River Conservation Group on weekends and organizes the cleanup crews whenever the plastic pollution in the river gets too bad and starts to threaten the aquatic life and drinking water quality.

I half suspect that the broken shuriken were meant for him. Why exactly, even he hasn't been able to guess.

When will I stop stumbling into plots meant for other people?

Yes, some of it is I have a nasty habit of not being able to keep my eyes forward, and I just have to do something. I can't march on and pretend I didn't see it. But surely, it's not this easy to stumble into one problem after another simply by stepping off the beaten track.

I don't know where I get the self righteous, 'well if no one else will fix it then I will' mentality from. I only know that I cannot look away when I can offer a hand.

And it is a choice I keep on making, even if insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

This world isn't something I can fix. It is built on too much blood and death and broken things to be fixed entirely. I have to pick and choose my battles.

So focused I am on thinking through the consequences of my actions — dodge.

Someone slams into the space I'd been a moment before, my hands already flying through the hand signs for an earth wall.

It buys me a moment, no more.

Masked.

Tanto.

ROOT.

I do not think. I only move.

The tanto comes in my direction. Blood rushes in my ears.

I swing one nightstick up to meet it, lightning buzzing at my fingertips.

It slices through the old wooden nightstick like butter, I pull back two steps, a cut opened on the underside of my left forearm, at the same time, slamming my right hand forwards.

The air in front of us explodes.

I roll out of the damage area, sliding further back. What is ROOT doing—

The masked figure is back, tanto discarded — likely broken — I dodge a kunai.

We're playing games now, are we?

Figure's not too much bigger than me, got a few inches but not much more, breathing raggedly.

Whatever I've done, I've spooked them just a bit.

Who are you?

It doesn't matter.

They rush me. One step. Two.

I have nowhere left to dodge. Three shuriken, the last one hits their upper arm.

And then the figure is upon me.

We trade a barrage of blows back and forth, me, teetering on the edge of the slight embankment before the river, them, doing their level best to force me down while avoiding my hands.

I cannot retreat.

Only one path then.

I throw myself forwards, barreling into their chest, a kunai in hand.

What follows can best be described as a messy wrestling match where I stab blindly at whatever opening they give me, few as they are.

We roll —

The ground gives way.

The shock of the cold water hits both of us about the same time, me still in danger of getting crushed by the greater weight above me, especially since they've stopped struggling.

I crawl out of the river, shivering and holding my left arm. The gash is thinner than I expected, and also not quite as long, but I am covered in blood and river water, and the ROOT Agent that attacked me looks much, much worse for wear.

If they hadn't been trying to hard to hold off my hands from prepping another explosion, I likely would've died.

I drag the limp body out of the river shallows. It coughs, weakly.

"Are we done trying to kill each other?" I ask it.

It holds up a hand in seal of reconciliation. With a sigh, I offer it the same respect.

I, much to my chagrin, only got one good stab to the side in during my blind panic. The rest are only shallow gashes.

But then.

I really really doubt that I'll be greeted with applause from Shishou should I kill one of his agents, if only because that would deprive him of a useful tool.

The figure doesn't protest when I pull the mask off of their face.

"Fu." I deadpan. "Why were you trying to get yourself killed?"

He smiles at me. "Part of your training, Hana-hime." As if it is quite normal to be speaking while we are both covered in river scum and bleeding from various places. As if he had not just suddenly attacked me in the middle of me trying to go home.

I could scream.

I really could.

At least, it's only early evening and not the middle of the night.


It takes me about seven minutes to march my bedraggled, dripping self through the streets of Konoha, and up two flights of stairs to Shishou's office in the Tower, dragging Fu along by the hand.

We must make for a sorry looking pair, but at this point, I think the residents of Konoha are used to me wandering through the streets while looking like I just crawled out of hell.

I do not bother to knock.

"Shishou." I have to applaud myself.

I don't even sound that angry.

"Hana-kun." He slowly looks up, taking in, I'm sure, the river water I'm still dripping onto his nice wooden floor. "What brings you to my office today?" He raises an eyebrow at me. "I assume you did not come prepared?"

The casual way he pretends that nothing is wrong tears through what remains of my patience.

He has a Go Board set in front of him for Okami's sake.

"Were you expecting someone else to come play Go with you?" I'm breathing hard, blood roaring in my ears. This is the first time he's made me angry enough to…

Not yell exactly.

No, I'd always been so careful with him before.

But this is me. I can't do careful for long periods of time. The longer we coexist the more I am myself. "Were you going to let me stab Fu to death, Shishou?"

"If he couldn't take care of himself, I would be rather disappointed." If he got stabbed to death by you, which I rather doubt can happen, I wouldn't mourn his loss at all.

Ouch.

His eyes fall to the rash snaking about my right hand.

I haven't entirely gotten down the technique yet. This is a rash instead of a burn, but the combination of Raiton and Doton still leaves me rather bafflingly injured.

Kakashi had frowned, lines creased deeply about his forehead and chin, but hadn't been able to come up with a solution. Raiton is fine.

Doton is fine.

Raiton and Doton together is not fine.

"Fu, report."

Fu's hand drops from his side as he drops to one knee, head bowed. "Hana-hime has the Explosion Release, Danzo-sama. She displayed proficiency in a variation of the Uchiha Nightstick technique, some baseline Doton and Raiton Jutsu, and some variant of taijutsu. Her pain tolerance is passingly good. When pressed further, she devolved…"

He trails off into the silence.

I stand there, eyes transfixed on Shishou's face.

I don't think he heard Fu, certainly hadn't heard the tail end of that assessment.

His entire face had gone white, the cheap laminated go board slowly crumpling in his hand, black and white go stones clacking against one another as they slide out of position, falling onto the table.

For several very long moments, all that we hear is the sound of harsh breathing.

And for the first time in a while, I am frightened by the look in those dark eyes.

He is human. He is human. Heishum—

It is so hard to remember when he looks like this.

It is hard to remember when the look in his eyes is halfway to madness already and getting worse with the passing seconds.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Had that clock on the wall always been so loud?

"What did you say?" He isn't loud. None of this is loud, but it roars, filling all the space in the room.

Sharp as a bullet cracking.

Ice breaking on a river.

The chakra's a crushing weight leaning in from all around.

A go stone crumbles to dust, the pressure rattling the windows, papers drift away from his desk.

Fu's gone paler now, paler than his normal self. "Hana-hime has the—" He said explosion release the first time.

I am fixed to my spot on the floor, river water pooling around my feet, though I have long ceased to care that I smell or that the gash on my arm aches dully.

"Out."

I see him swallow, see his shoulders shake — another Go stone crumbles to dust.

Fu pauses, desire to finish his report warring with what I assume must be his desire to live.

"Leave, Fu." Gravel screeching across a long paved drive. Lightning static like the dry stillness before a storm.

Fu flees out the door.

"It is true then?" He asks me, when the door has clicked shut, despite the pressure in the room, despite half the papers that had been on his desk having now drifted to the floor.

He hadn't moved, but the wooden walls and floor threaten to buckle and distort.

I cannot turn my head. I cannot move.

"It is true."

He looks at his shaking hands, holding them before him as though he'd never seen them before, half madness tipping over into something much, much worse.

"Thank you, Hana." The pressure suddenly rushes out of the room as quickly as it had come.

I gasp for breath. I hadn't realized how hard it was to breathe before.

"You may leave."

I don't need to be told twice.

I make it home, flying over the roofs until I reach my own room, but still my heart refuses to stop pounding.

What was that?

Try as I might, I don't know.

I don't know.

I don't know.

Two seconds later, the door of my room slams open, twelve loud paws thump thumping, nails clacking loud against the wooden floor.

"Hana! Hana! Hana!" I'm prodded by three wet noses, pawed at and thoroughly examined by three very concerned dogs.

"Hana was hurt." Ichi decides, plonking himself firmly across my middle. "We have to decide what to do about that."

San and Ni each make do by sitting on one of my legs. "Decide! Decide!" They chorus.

"But first we squish Hana," Ni says with great authority. "Squishing first, deciding later."

"Guys…" I protest from beneath the furry carpet I find myself under. "Squishing would hurt me."

"But you're not making any distress noises." San turns up his nose with a huff. "Therefore squishing is perfectly acceptable."


Dei-kun must've learned his lesson after what had happened last time because he does not return to visit me again, which is likely safer for both of us, especially since Shishou had become so...odd recently.

I miss Dei-kun, but it's a dull ache. We don't see each other often enough for me to miss his presence in my day to day life. Instead, it's in the small moments, in a flash of orange feathers or when I pull out the notes he'd so carefully written for me.

I understand, so it shouldn't hurt, right?

It keeps him safe, and I love him enough to wish for his safety before anything else, right?

And yet, understanding this does nothing to help how much I worry. I don't know what his temporary sensei thought of the whole affair, I don't know how he's been doing in the exams, and they draw to a close without me learning much about them.

The exams are dangerous. People have died, will die, and no one bats an eye at the carnage. And while I know that he's talented, that he's capable, that he's far better prepared than most people his age, in my heart he is a child, one of my baby cousins and I can't help but worry for him.

I haunt the Chunin Breakroom for more news a few days a week, but even when I poke at my hesitant acquaintance with Iruka who seems to know everything when it comes to Chunin life, it yields few leads. What that tells me, at least indirectly, is that no one died or got maimed badly enough that it became breakroom news, which...doesn't allay my fears entirely.

What I consider news worthy and what other people consider a passing blurb at best are often...one and the same.

I am unused to having to settle.

But to ask specifically about a foreign shinobi? That would raise questions, and Shishou and I...possibly already have enough questions between us without opening that particular can of worms.

For one thing, we haven't played Go in over three weeks now.

For another, his office had suddenly become unavailable. Closed, the receptionist said, though she didn't know much about what had happened to make that reality either.

I wasn't aware that his office could close.

As for me, I haven't really heard from him since he basically dumped my time with him onto Fu and even that had been done in writing and not in person,

Fu, in the absence of anything better to do, has decided that it would be a great time to teach me to use an ANBU order tanto, despite me not being anywhere close to joining ANBU. My roll in the river with him a few weeks ago would've proven that even if I didn't already believe it.

I might be lethal in some situations, the list of other people I've killed, however indirectly, grows longer proportionally to the time I spend as a shinobi, no matter how desk job I have it at the current moment, but ANBU?

ANBU might as well be the sun.

Which is what makes Fu's current project to teach me to block and parry with a weapon I don't, and don't intend to, own all the more laughable in its own small way.

Then, I'm not exactly sure that I should expect him to have other hobbies. I'd asked him about what he does for fun once, and he'd blinked at me for a very long time before telling me that he considered training "an appropriate leisure time activity, Hana-hime."

That gave me no hope for the existence of any hobbies whatever.

At least I know he didn't suffer any particular ill effects from being stabbed, rolling around in river water, and then raising Shishou's ire. After I had time to calm down while — safe alone but most safe — in my own room, I'd gone over the outburst, over and over and over, in my mind, turning it this way and that without any way to understand just what had happened.

Something had happened. Something terrible and upsetting for Shishou.

But — He had to have known. He'd known Tou-san who'd sent me down the path to exploring the Explosion Release in the beginning.

I have two pieces of the puzzle but not the piece that connects them into a coherent whole.

But seeing as I could make no headway against that, and I wasn't even sure I'm in the position to actually think deal with the implications of whatever had happened with Shishou, I leave it be. For now, the best I can salvage is that Fu doesn't seem to have come out of the experience any worse for wear.

At least after these past few weeks of visiting tea houses with me after our practices where he attempts to teach me, he no longer sits like he's expecting to attack the waitress at any given moment whenever we visit Mufu-an.

He's also able to place his own order now. "One green tea, please." He still looks uncomfortable, slightly out of place here in the tea house booth with its paper lanterns and wooden paneling, but he's also learned to say 'please' and 'thank you,' so I consider it an improvement.

"Chrysanthemum tea for me, please." I watch him from across the table, watches the unnatural stillness that occupies him whenever he sits, watches how his eyes travel from window to window to door to window again. He has precious few tells, but whenever he's indoors, unless it was in front of Shishou, he's so very, quick to look for exits.

Quick to note when they've been blocked or otherwise become off limits in some way.

Quick to subtly shift and examine every angle for escape routes.

It makes me wonder what sort of training he's gone through to do that so frequently.

By no means is it really a nervous sort of checking in, because I honestly don't know if Fu does nervous, but it is vigilant.

"Normal people fidget." I tell him quietly, audible over the quiet chatter of Mufu-an.

He blinks at me, cat-like, with pale yellow eyes that under the right lighting could probably look like living gold. "We are not normal people, Hana-hime," he tells me.

I laugh at that, a quiet thing. "Why aren't we normal people?"

"Because we're Danzo-sama's people." He says this with perfect seriousness, no hint of even the slightest bit of doubt. "And none of Danzo-sama's people are anything less than exceptional."

"But sometimes we must act like normal people, no?"

I don't feel particularly exceptional. Unlike Fu, I don't trust "Danzo-sama" implicitly, but that sounds too much like doubt so I put it away for now.

Instead, I show him how to properly whisk his tea to the right amount of froth, the flick of the wrist, the downward tilt of the fingers, the peace of mind you need to make good tea — the things that Sensei once taught me while we sat here in Mufu-an, the things I remember from the days where Team Ensui and our next mission was all I had to worry about.


Eventually, my relationship with Shishou goes back to normal, or at least, whatever could be construed as normal about my apprenticeship at the Tower.

We play Go.

We talk about politics.

Once in a while, I bring him breakfast. I only rarely see him eat, but that matters less in the scheme of things.

I resolutely do not think about what happened last October.

Occasionally he sends me out to a training ground with one ROOT Agent or another, and they do their best to not poke me full of holes while teaching me to dodge.

There were a few near misses, and a few holes.

One extremely memorable occasion landed me in Konoha General sitting in the same room as Kabuto with a tanto through my left hand as he fussed over the injury with that gently chiding tone of his.

If I didn't remember that he was maybe possibly already evil, I'd never even suspect it.

He was a young teen who possessed such a quiet, unassuming air about him, so polite even when he was calling someone out for their bad health habits, so genuinely friendly it required some mental gymnastics to register him as someone evil.

The particular ROOT Agent I'd come in with — I'd ended up naming him Tokito after he couldn't, or wouldn't, give me a name he'd prefer — beckons at me awkwardly when Kabuto finishes up. "Hana-hime, it's time to go."

I make a face at this, but agree that it's best to get out of the hospital. With the way I've been going recently, I can start to understand why Kakashi hates it here.

Fu's particular habits seem to have rubbed off on them. All of them call me Hana-hime and nothing I say or do will persuade them to do anything different.

So winter again begins to give way to spring.

On the morning of the thirteenth of April, I arrive to find the Go board set and Shishou standing in the window looking out at the city.

"Good morning, Shishou."

"Your father used to greet me the same way when he came to visit." He doesn't really turn to look at me, though I feel the heavy weight of his attention all the same.

This is...oddly new.

As a rule, Shishou doesn't often talk about Tou-san, and then never more than a few words at once.

So this is new, in a way that I am ill equipped to respond to.

I'd spent some more time telling Kiba stories last night, though most of them he's heard. Soon, I'll run out of new stories to tell him.

A life distilled down to its bare essentials.

How long does it take to forget someone?

"You walk differently." It takes me a moment to realize that he's continuing, but when I do, I can't help but be drawn in, be mesmerized by any shred of detail. "Some days he was loud enough that I could hear him coming up the stairs. He'd always be out of breath. 'Good Morning, Shishou.'"

He's speaking of when Tou-san was a boy then, because the Tou-san I knew moved with the same cat-quiet walk of most shinobi who've been active duty.

It's strange to think of Tou-san as a little boy, running up the stairs.

Was he excited to visit? Did it make him happy — the hours he must've spent in this room. What was that like?

"Oh." I am hesitant to ask for more, one push and it may upturn the balance.

He sets a box down on the table when he sits down, and my eyes are drawn to it, I suppose, because it is the one bright spot of color in this room.

It's wrapped in plain cotton cloth, dyed red.

There's no outward indication of what it is, but—

"You turn eleven today, do you not?" he rumbles. "Let's see how much you want to win, shall we?"

A birthday present from Shimura Danzo.

Did the anniversary of Tou-san's death make him maudlin? It's been years, years upon years and he's never even felt the need to drop in, talk to Kaa-san, visit Kiba — he's never felt the need to be around before this year, when I stumbled into his office to ask for permission to go visit the capital.

Six years on now, and this is the first year he's acknowledged my existence.

Six years on now, Go stones clatter as he swirls them around, one bowl of white, one bowl of black.

Six years on now, and I must, put the past in the past. If I look back I am lost.

I take a deep breath. "Since I am eleven today, does this mean I get a handicap of eleven moves?"

He almost laughs, the sound stifled just a bit. "So you've learned to ask." He taps a white stone idly against the table, seemingly considering the request. "But by that logic, you would get a handicap for every year you've lived, and we all know life doesn't work that way."

I frown at the empty board, a black stone in my hand. "I bet you're going to tell me I only get a present if I win too. How am I supposed to win if I don't get any handicaps?"

"I wasn't about to suggest it." He leans back in his chair, surveys the empty board between us with a slight trace of amusement. "But since you have, we can play by those rules."

"I much rather not." I grumble, but I place my first stone on the board anyway.

"Oh?" He raises an eyebrow. "Convince me, Hana-kun."

He's in a good mood today, then.

"Well, if I don't win, you'll have to keep the present." I frown as I consider my next move. Where to place my second stone? He didn't place a white stone on the board yet, so I'll consider it one handicap won. "And I imagine it's not a very useful thing to you."

The things that are useful and interesting for small girl are not the same things that are remotely useful or interesting for old men, generally.

"And how do you come to that conclusion?" He intervenes, placing a white stone on the board. "I could enjoy eating chocolate."

"I would be very disappointed if my birthday present was chocolate." One does not become Shimura Danzo to give little girls chocolate for their birthday presents.

He wouldn't be so uninspired.

No, if it's a birthday present from Shimura Danzo, it is meant to be spectacular, awe inducing, and more importantly, something you wouldn't be able to find anywhere else.

Because after all, Danzo-sama's people are nothing short of exceptional. I'd expect the same of his presents.

He hums. "Your track record of breakfast food items says otherwise."

"I wouldn't be so disappointed if anyone else said they were giving me chocolate for my birthday." If it were Kakashi, I'd be delighted that he even remembered my birthday in the first place. "But you're better than chocolate."

His laughter is a deep thing, one that reminds me of mahogany and velvet, rich in a way I hadn't expected.

This is not the laughter of a villain, just the genuine amusement of an old man who happens to like the company he's keeping.

"I am glad to know that I am better than chocolate." He puts another stone on the board. "At the moment, Hana-kun, you're losing quite badly."


A.N. And the wheel of time, it turns. I'm disappointed that I didn't get this chapter out earlier, but I'm at university and I left all my notes for further chapters at home so, updates have been...slow as I try to work out what past me even wanted to get done. Hopefully I shall be able to collect and redraft them when I go home for Thanksgiving.

I'm deeply grateful for all the people who have been so amazingly supportive of this story. Bloodless has grown so far beyond what I'd thought it would be. And honestly? That never fails to make me happy. So thank you, all you wonderful people who've made this journey so much fun.

~Tavina