Disclaimer: I don't own a damn thing. Except for Hikari, but hey, if you guys want to borrow her, feel free.

Chapter One: Dirty, Filthy Ninja

She was never quite sure how it had got started.

Well if she was honest with herself, then she would have to say it was almost entirely her Aunt Noriko's fault. A suggestion that would have probably given the woman a stroke, but nonetheless, it had been the fact that she always bitched and complained about the ninjas that came to her hostel that had sparked the original thought.

"Those damned ninjas! Trekking in mud and blood and Kami knows what else! Filthy, violent barbarians the lot of them. And those Kunoichis! I have no doubt they can kill a man, but could they cook for one? Clean for one? Yet they swan around in clothes a whore would be ashamed to be seen in, taking the attention of good men..."

That was usually the point that Hikari tuned her aunt out. Aunt Noriko had been diappointed in love when she was Hikari's age, when the man she had had "an understanding" with had decided to marry a Kunoichi instead. But of all of her Aunt's vitriol, it was the comments about ninjas being dirty that stuck with Hikari.

Now, let it be said, Hikari had a completely different opinion about ninja to her Aunt. For a start, her little brother Masaru was a ninja, and she was damned proud of him for managing it. If it had been up to her, she would have probably graduated the Academy herself.

But the Kyuubi had killed that dream before she really had it. She'd been eight years old when the Demon Fox had attacked Konoha, and she had been lost by her elder sister in the fracas. When they had found her, a day later, she had been pinned under rubble. Her leg had been practically pulverised, and so the med-nin had been forced to amputate just above her knee, but she had never forgotten the feeling of relief she had felt when a Hyuuga had spotted her and directed a squadron of genin to dig her out.

One of those genin had ended up her brother-in-law, as her sister, tearful and grateful, had struck up a friendship that had lasted years before the friendship based on gratitude had changed to romance. Even if he hadn't been her rescuer, Hikari knew she would have liked Akimichi Souta. As it was, Souta had eventually fallen in love with her sister's way with dumplings, as much as her sweet nature.

Hikari however knew that a sweet-nature was a trait that she didn't share with her sister. A combination of unrelenting phantom pains and a dislike of anyone who pitied her had taught her the joys of sarcasm at an early age, not to mention a healthy disrespect for anyone who tried to make things easier for her. It hadn't taken her long to learn her limits, and the first few who had tried to pander to them had underestimated her, and thus thwarted her intentions to try and live, rather than just survive.

Her mother had been the first to cotton on.

"Leave Hikari be," she'd told Hikari's grandmother, who had been miffed at the then five-year-old telling her that she could go to school because there was nothing wrong with her brain. "If she wants help, she'll ask for it. She knows her limits, and the school isn't so far that she can't hobble over there."

Her grandmother had retorted that it wasn't the distance that worried her, it was the response of the other students to her maimed granddaughter.

She need not have worried. The first kid to refer to Hikari as "Hop-Along" to her face got the butt of her crutch to his. If it hadn't been for her obvious disability, that fight, and the seven that followed it would have been enough to get her sent from the civilian school to the Academy. Her teacher, Takeshi-sensei said this to her face with a sniff, telling her that if she couldn't behave, then Hikari was going to have to learn from home, seeing as the Academy had decided that there was no point in training a cripple.

That was the last time a fight happened at school, but it quickly became well-known that if you tormented Hikari, she would get even, one way or another. The nick-name "Hop-Along" stuck, but never to Hikari's face. After Takeshi-sensei ended up having her bed infested with maggots, no one dared call her a "cripple" either. Hikari had never admitted how she had managed to do that one, but people found it more than a little suspicious that her distinctive crutch-print was found in the dirt not far from Takeshi's back door.

Later, when her sister was working in one of the Akimichi restaurants along with her sisters- and brothers-in-law, it became known that spreading the name to them was a good way to get yourself banned from a particularly tasty source of dango.

It was when she had been sitting, eating some of said dango, her crutch propped up against the side of the table when she had heard the conversation that made her act on the half-formed idea that she had been considering since the last time her Aunt Noriko had ranted about ninjas and their cleanliness.

"I mean, it's not that I particularly mind long-term missions. I get to see foreign places, sleep with foreign women... but coming home to a dusty apartment is always such a complete fucking pain. It's alright for you two, even if you weren't part of clans, you've got wives. It's loners like me that get back from a mission and have nothing to greet us but dust and mould and the remains of whatever got forgotten in the fridge last time..."

Hikari turned to see Shiranui Genma sitting with Yamashiro Aoba, Nara Shikaku and Akimichi Chouza (and how she hadn't noticed him come in she would never know- what with his immense size and bright red hair it was hard to miss that profile), enjoying a few plates of dumplings. Shiranui had been the one speaking, the senbon needle that was habitually in his mouth flicking around on particular words.

Yamashiro scowled, the light streaming through the window shining off his sunglasses. "You think you have it bad. I came back after a week-long mission and realised some punk kid had broken one of my windows. It rained for three days. Three mint condition Icha Icha completely ruined!"

Later, she would swear that her speaking up had been almost involuntary. The truth was, she blurted out something she had been thinking about for a while.

"I could help you with that," she said.

The three ninja spun to stare at her.

Shiranui looked her up and down, surprised. "Help Aoba with what, precisely?" he asked finally. "You got a source for Icha Icha?"

Hikari blushed and scowled as the men started laughing at her.

"No," she said with exaggerated patience. "I could look after your houses for you. When you're away on long missions. Or hell, even when you're posted around here and can't be bothered to pick up after yourselves. I'm going into business," she blurted out brazenly.

Yamashiro Aoba snorted. "If you think we're just going to let some random civilian inside our houses, then you have another think coming, lady."

"You're Sorayama Hikari, aren't you." Heads turned to see it was Akimichi Chouza, the head of the Akimichi clan speaking. "Your sister makes good dumplings."

Hikari smiled at him. "She'll be flattered to hear you say so, Akimichi-sama," she said with a slight bow.

Nara Shikaku turned to his friend as though to say something, paused, and then examined Hikari with lazy eyes. "Ah. So you're Akimichi Natsuko's little sister who got caught under the rubble when Kyuubi attacked, yes?"

"Hai," she said simply, reaching over to grab her crutch and standing up. She had little doubt the four of them had spotted the crutch immediately. They were ninja after all.

She stood tall, leaning as little on her crutch as possible, and looked the four of them in the eyes.

"My name is Sorayama Hikari, I am 16 years old, and a civilian. I attended the Academy for two years before the Kyuubi incident, an incident that killed my father and took my leg. My younger brother, Masaru is currently a genin on the team led by Minami Rei. My elder sister, as you might have gathered, works here, and is married to Akimichi Souta. My mother is ill. The doctor says she might recover if we pay up for some expensive medicine."

Akimichi Chouza started a little at that. "That's what that money Souta wants to borrow is for?"

Hikari shrugged. "I am unaware of any plans that he and my sister might have. All I know is that I want to do my part. I'm a cripple," she said bluntly. "And I have no desire to live on charity. So I have to work. I've spotted what I think could be a niche market that I can fit into. Ninja go off on long-haul missions all the time. It's alright if you live in a clan, but if you live alone, then you have to trust your neighbours to water your plants, assuming that you do indeed actually trust your neighbours." She paused, and let them mull that over for a minute.

Suddenly, Shiranui started laughing. "Kami, you've got some balls on you girl."

Hikari resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She didn't see what gender had to do with anything.

"I'd be willing to set up a contract. For a set rate, I'd keep plants and pets alive and the house liveable in. Anything I might find in said house would be kept strictly confidential, under pain of the laws of divulging equivalently ranked secrets. Personal information that does not pertain to missions that I might stumble across I would put under A-rank on the contract."

Shiranui stopped laughing. "You're serious."

Nara raised an eyebrow. "A-ranked? You do know what the punishment for violating an A-ranked secret is, right?"

"Interrogation and then imprisonment," Hikari said promptly, doing her best to keep a level tone. "But I have no intention of breaking confidentiality, so I have nothing to worry about. I'm not a gossip, and I have a healthy respect for what you ninjas do around here. Something a lot of civilians seem to forget is that we wouldn't be living half so comfortable if it wasn't for shinobi putting themselves on the line. If it hadn't been for the Yondaime Hokage, this village wouldn't even exist. If it hadn't been for the Hyuuga that found me, I might have died under that rubble, before the genin dug me out. But apart from that," and here Hikari allowed them to see her sheepish grin, "I really need the cash. It'd be dumb to jeopardise my source of income by bandying about who exactly has limited edition Icha Icha novels."

At that last, Shiranui and Yamashiro started laughing, Akimichi looked amused, and Nara looked thoughtful.

"Alright," Nara said.

Everyone else stared at him.

"Uh..." Hikari fumbled. "Alright what?"

Nara shrugged lazily, but Hikari suddenly felt like a bug under a microscope. "I think your idea has a bit of merit. So, I suggest a trial run. If you can disinfect Genma's apartment for him in twenty-four hours, I'll recommend your services to people I know often get sent on the long-term missions."

"Hey!" Genma protested, nearly spitting out his senbon needle in surprise. "Why my apartment?"

Nara smirked. "If she can disinfect that pile, then everyone else's place should be a breeze for her."

Hikari smiled and bowed. "Thank you so much! Just give me the address, and the time you want me to visit, and I'll come with supplies." She frowned for an instant, a thought occurring to her. "Are there any traps I should know about?"

Genma shrugged negligently. "A few on the entrances, but I'll disable them for you before you go in." He wasn't sure how he felt about Nara Shikaku inviting some stranger into his house, but her sister had apparently married into the Akimichis, and she seemed determined enough. Maybe she'd be able to finally answer the question that had been bugging him for a while now, since he had realised he'd forgotten the answer years ago.

What colour was his carpet?