Chapter 4: Fire Casts No Shadow

Screaming again. This time, Kakashi managed to control his reflexes, but an ominous buzzing was beginning to come from the direction of the Aburame.

Suddenly, with a huge, ragged gasp, the previously limp body of Yamanaka Tsubaki arched, her grey eyes snapping open, wide and traumatised.

"Tsubaki!" Aburame Mushimaru was by her side in an instant, holding her.

Kakashi turned to see that Alice's eyes had likewise opened, and that she was sitting primly in her chair, straight-backed and blank-faced, aside from a slight twitch of her lips that may have been a smile of delight, or may have been a grimace of distaste. Kakashi found himself wondering which would be more disturbing, unable to decide either way.

Tsubaki did not seem to realise that she had tangled her hands in Mushimaru's jacket.

"That was... barbaric," she said, and her comment was obviously directed to Alice. Kakashi looked from her, to Alice, to the Aburame, and then back to the Yamanaka. He was unsure what precisely Tsubaki was referring to, but whatever it was, it had been Alice's doing. To his surprise, Tsubaki's glare at Alice was only half-hearted, and not the one he had seen before when she had found an enemy.

"I know," came Alice's calm reply. "But you wanted to understand."

Tsubaki swore under her breath. "Telling me would not have made enough impact. Your people are truly barbaric."

Alice smiled dreamily. "And yet we consider ourselves to be the very height of civilisation, and those who live in grass huts, killing only animals that attack them or that they need to eat the primitive savages. There is more irony here than in a blacksmith's foundry." Her tone was unchanged from before, when she had been sipping tea and eating dango with the Aburame. Kakashi was unsure how to interpret that.

Tsubaki seemed to come to herself then, and realised her position with the Aburame.

"Mushimaru-kun..." her voice was a half-whisper. "I will be alright." She straightened within his hold, and slowly let go of his jacket.

Recognising her unspoken request for what it was, the Aburame released her. He did not however step away.

Kakashi decided that it would be best to move this along.

"Alice, we are going to leave you here for just a moment. We will return presently," he said, and without prompting, the Aburame gave the Yamanaka a hand up in a fashion designed to hide the fact that he was half-carrying her from the room.

Alice seemed to be unperturbed by this, and simply nodded, beginning to hum a foreign-sounding song as they left through the door.

"My office," said Tsubaki tightly Kakashi nodded, despite the fact that he knew the Aburame's was slightly closer.

The Aburame said nothing, but the moment Tsubaki stumbled, he went from supporting her to practically carrying her. Kakashi heard the buzzing kikai, and decided not to comment. The few other nin that they passed on their way to Tsubaki's office did likewise. The Yamanakas had been working within T&I practically from its inception, and Tsubaki in particular was in some circles even better respected than Inoichi, as she was known to have a more subtle ability to elicit information than his. Only few Aburame had ever been involved, as their skills generally biassed them more towards hunting and tracking specialities, but the one before Aburame Mushimaru had been one of Morino Ibiki's mentors.

The few ANBU, interrogators and code-breakers who saw the grim faces on the three of them knew better than to comment.

Tsubaki placed her hand on the door so that the chakra-lock deactivated, and then the three of them were inside, the Aburame gently settling Tsubaki in her well-padded office chair, showing a level of familiarity that surprised Kakashi as he reached into the third draw of her desk and withdrawing a small box that contained head-ache tablets and soldier pills. A small suiton-jutsu, and the glass Tsubaki kept on her desk was filled with water.

Tsubaki smiled at him. "Really, Mushimaru-kun, I am fine. Stop mother-henning me."

The Aburame made a slight scoffing sound. "I am merely ensuring your return to peak efficiency, so that you will be able to report to the best of your ability," he retorted.

Tsubaki raised a blonde eyebrow. "Sure," she said in a mildly teasing tone. "If you do this for Inoichi, I might have to get jealous."

To Kakashi's amazement, the Aburame actually spluttered.

Sometimes Kakashi was extremely glad that he wore a mask that obscured his features. It made it easier to hide the fact that he was smirking in amusement.

"What happened?" demanded the Aburame, his gruff tone softened by the fact that he was seemingly unaware of the fact that he was stroking Tsubaki's arm.

Tsubaki grimaced, and then sat erect in her chair. "That girl is a genjutsu savant," she reported. "Either she is incredibly practiced, or it is a bloodline. Since she does not seem to be entirely aware of how she is doing what she does, I would lean towards the latter. Her self-diagnosis of madness seems to be not far from the truth. There are some truly twisted things in that girl's mind. Some of it seems to have sprung spontaneously from her imagination, but quite a bit of it is due to the fact that she has had some truly horrific experiences, and quite a few of the latter are due to how people from whatever hell she escaped thought to 'treat' people with mental illness." She shuddered, and then explained some of what she had seen. Kakashi was unsurprised to see the Aburame's eyebrow rise above his clan's trademark sunglasses. Playing cards? Chessmen? Tentacles? Alice's mindscape frankly sounded quite bizarre. The mentions of the Cat were however less worrisome. Assuming the Cat was in fact some sort of summon, well, Kakashi could relate to having to deal with difficult know-it-all summons. "She tested me, to see what I would think of one of the worst of their treatments. Fortunately, I seem to have passed, because not only was what they were doing reprehensible, I could feel her anger, fear and despair." Tsubaki paused, and Kakashi was shocked to see tears drip from her eyes.

"What was it?" the Aburame asked her softly.

Tsubaki shuddered again. "They cut into a young girl's brain. Alice said that the girl had been disobedient, and so in order to 'cure' the girl's disobedience, they strapped her into a chair, cut off her hair, and then cut into her brain whilst she was still awake!" Tsubaki choked off a sob, continuing, "the screams were so horrible, and then they were suddenly cut off. The girl was still alive, but the light that had once been behind her eyes was gone entirely, and though she still breathed, and moved, it was obvious that she was not alive. They unstrapped her, and ordered her about the room, and she responded like a string-less puppet..." she trailed off, and Kakashi pretended not to notice the Aburame's knuckles turn white as he tightened his grip on the Yamanaka's hand.

"Why do you think she wanted you to see that?" Kakashi wondered aloud. "Was she trying to terrorise you, or to gain your sympathy?"

Tsubaki shook her head. "I don't think that was it at all. I think she wanted to trust me. When elements of her mind attempted to attack me, she protected me, in her own fashion." Tsubaki grimaced at the memory of being dressed in the Rabbit suit. "But she needed to be sure, and so she showed me something that easily could have happened to her, if I'm not mistaken. She showed me the thing she fears far more than death."

The Aburame frowned. "In doing so, she has revealed one of her greatest weaknesses, no?"

Tsubaki shook her head. "Perhaps, but if I had reacted in any way other than horror, then I doubt she would have let my mind go. Alice has some truly formidable defences within her mind. It's structured around a place that seems to be pure genjutsu in its construction, but when I attempted to disrupt the genjutsu and leave, I could not. I was only able to leave because she allowed me to."

The three ninja silently contemplated the possibilities that arose from that latter fact.

The Aburame was the first to break the silence. "Did she exhibit any aggression towards Konoha?"

Tsubaki shook her head. "No."

"Do you believe that she is likely to present a threat to Konoha in future?" he asked her.

"Hard to say," Tsubaki frowned. "She has an extremely strange way of looking at the world, but from what I can gather, for the most part she does not believe in pre-emptive strikes. From what I could gather, in the past she has been more likely to prove passive in a situation that many others would rail against, though she has vowed to never let things get so bad again. However," and Tsubaki's mien became particularly grim, "if anyone starts anything with her, she will finish it. She is not a believer in second chances when someone has wronged her, and is absolutely vicious when cornered. I believe that is why she killed this Bumby man, in the end."

Kakashi observed the Aburame as he deliberated.

"So," the Aburame said, "correct me on any point you feel I have misinterpreted. This Alice Liddell has an almost reflexive approach to genjutsu, perhaps bordering on some sort of bloodline. There is a distinct possibility that she holds some sort of contract with the Cats. She appears to have a respect for human life, and appears to be quite intelligent. On the other hand, she is also quite unstable, and likely to overreact if provoked. This however would seem to be a reaction congruent with most ninja who have been through a particularly traumatising event, and so would not be anything new to the village."

Kakashi raised a brow. He could see where this was going. "So you want to introduce her to the Hokage?"

The Aburame jerked a nod. "Yes. Since the Chunin Exams Incident, we are, if not desperate for more ninja to fill our ranks, at the very least not in a position that it would be advisable to turn away any who could aid in increasing our numbers." What went unsaid was that Alice was a young woman, who, even if she did not wish to conduct missions for Konoha, might potentially decide to settle down and have a family. At best, if she really was in possession of a previously unheard-of bloodline...

Kakashi nodded. So long as the usual procedures were followed with introducing strange ninja into the population, (chunin that were assigned to overtly include the ninja in the community and make them feel welcome, and ANBU that were assigned to covertly watch the new ninja's every movement until such a time as they had been determined to be not suspicious,) he had a feeling that as odd as Alice seemed, she would make at the very least an interesting addition to the ranks.

At the very least, (and here he had to conceal a snigger,) she would make decent-enough eye-candy.

Tsubaki, having consumed her medicine and drunk her water, stood. "If you are going to introduce her to the Hokage, then I am coming too."

The Aburame looked at her in concern. "If you are still fatigued from your mind-dive, I am sure the Hokage..."

He was silenced by Tsubaki raising a hand.

"Not a chance." Tsubaki grinned. "I want to see what the Slug Princess makes of her. It should be an interesting gauge of her diplomacy style."

Kakashi considered. It had been less than a fortnight since Tsunade had taken the position of Godaime Hokage, and last he had heard, in between revamping the hospital, treating various special cases such as himself, Rock Lee and Sasuke who had been badly injured just before her return, she had been doing her very best to thwart her apprentice Shizune's attempts to beguile her into completing the backlog of paperwork.

Kakashi smirked. Well if that was the case, then she was going to love the thirty-page contract that was standard for a new ninja joining the village!

AVAVAVAVAVAVAVAVAVAVA

"So you are the Hokage?" Alice took a delicate sip of her tea as she observed the blonde, pig-tailed woman with enormous breasts who sat across the table from her wearing a silly-looking red and white hat.

Tsunade looked the girl up and down, and could not say she was overly impressed. Sure, she would be the last person to say that one should take people on face-value, but all she could see was a frail-looking girl in her late-teens with too-big jaded green eyes in a pale face, that was only emphasized by the black kimono she was wearing.

And why in the hell was she wearing an apron? Did she fancy herself to be some sort of maid?

"Yes. I am Senju Tsunade, the Godaime Hokage." Tsunade sounded mildly irritated by the obvious question, and took a sip of the drink that was in her own cup- in her case, sake. Shizune would be furious when she found out.

Alice seemed to consider this information. "Hokage? Does that mean Fire Shadow?"

"This is the Land of Fire," Tsunade replied, with a slight frown.

"Oh." Alice replied. "But I thought this was the Village Hidden in the Leaves?"

"Yes." Tsunade was starting to wonder if this might be a prank.

"So this is the Village Hidden in the Leaves in the Land of Fire?"

Tsunade wondered if this was some sort of prank. The girl sounded deadpan enough that she was unsure whether she was trying to be funny or not. There was so far no detectable disrespect in the girl's tone, so she decided to see where this was going.

"As you are no doubt aware, yes," Tsunade replied.

A sound suspiciously like a snort came from Yamanaka Tsubaki, who was standing a few feet behind Alice, along with Aburame Mushimaru and Hatake Kakashi.

Tsunade shot a glare at the three of them, and then turned back to Alice.

Her brow was slightly crinkled. "But is that not dangerous?"

"Is what dangerous?" Tsunade growled.

"Living Hidden in Leaves in the middle of Fire."

Tsunade blinked. She had never really thought of it that way. Perhaps the girl was not a complete moron, merely ignorant. "I suppose I see your point, however, the names are of historical import only. Konoha was named for being in the middle of a forest, and the Land of Fire was named for the tendency for fire-natured shinobi to be present there."

Alice pondered upon this, but her thoughtful frown did not quite remove itself.

"What?" Tsunade asked her.

"Why are you called the Fire Shadow then?"

"Because I am the leader of the Hidden Village in the Land of Fire," Tsunade explained, with a somewhat impatient note in her voice.

"But would it not make more sense to call oneself the Leaf-Shadow?" Alice asked her. "After all, fire does not cast any shadows, so essentially, by saying you are the Fire Shadow, you are saying that you do not exist."

"If I could convince the world that I did not exist, then I would have a lot less paperwork to fill out," replied Tsunade dryly, taking a sip of her sake. She decided that Alice was in fact not a moron, and merely had a very strange sense of humour. She could cope with that. After all, having healed Rock Lee, she had just spent several days fending off a grateful Maito Gai. After that, anything else was easy. She decided however that a subject change was in order. "So, you wish to become a ninja of Konoha?"

This pronouncement was met with a mildly quizzical expression, but otherwise no answer.

Tsunade was instantly annoyed.

"What?" she snapped. "Cat got your tongue?"

Alice smiled serenely. "Oh no, of course not. I refuse to let him have it, because I doubt I would ever get it back from him."

Tsunade cocked her head at the girl. She appeared to have been unruffled by the small amount of killing intent that the Hokage had just released in her general direction. Perhaps there was something to her after all.

"So? You did not answer me. Would you like to be a ninja for the Hidden Village of Konoha?"

The quizzical expression remained. "In perfect honesty, I have no idea."

Tsunade stared at her.

"And why precisely do you have no idea?" Tsunade gritted out.

Alice folded her arms in front of her. "Well, I do not know the details, of course. Father always said only fools entered agreements in which they did not know all of the details."

Tsunade resisted the urge to hit her head against the desk. So the little bint wanted to quibble over details. Fine. Tsunade knew how to deal with details.

"Shizune!" she yelled.

A side-door opened, and her apprentice-cum-assistant-cum-nag-cum-secretary emerged.

"Yes Tsunade-hime?"

"Please fill in this woman on the standard prospective ninja contract," Tsunade said with a negligent wave of her hand.

Shizune stepped over to a filing cabinet, immediately extracted the correct paperwork, and fifteen minutes later had explained to Alice all of the terms and conditions.

Alice's brow furrowed.

"Yes, yes, well that is all well and good, but what is a ninja?"

The sound of Tsunade hitting her head against her desk startled a few roosting pigeons outside.

...

Edit: Fixed a few minor details. Again.

Until next time,

Erisah.