Title: Dreaming of Sunshine

Summary: Life as a ninja. It starts with confusion and terror and doesn't get any better from there. OC Self-insert.

AN:

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Chapter 121

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Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. ~ Anonymous

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"So, a training trip, huh?" Shikamaru asked, leaning against my doorframe.

I paused in folding clothes and looked up at him. He looked casual, arms crossed against his chest. But he was wearing the Shadow Hand in order to have his arms crossed – did that make it more or less casual?

I missed not having to guess. Missed knowing and missed conversations that hadn't had layers to guess at.

"Yeah," I said. "They're experts in barrier techniques, so it'll be useful if I manage to learn anything. Asuma-sensei agreed to introduce me to some of his friends at the temple, actually, so I'm hopeful it'll go well." I shrugged. "The timing isn't really the greatest but it's an opportunity that I have to take."

"You'll be by yourself the whole time, though," Shikamaru pointed out.

"There'll be people there; I'm not running away into the wilderness." Though not people I knew, which was probably his point. Asuma-sensei wasn't staying, so I would be on my own. Still, it wasn't like I'd never done that before, either. "It's only a month, anyway. I'll manage."

Even if I didn't manage to adapt and make friends, a month was a short enough period of time that you could just… wait for it to be over.

"I kinda wish you could come," I said, ruefully. "But you probably wouldn't get very much out of it."

It was true, in way. I wanted those years back, too. That relationship. Realistically, taking Shikamaru with me would probably just irritate the hell out of me – put a limit on my ability to learn and the amount of time I could spend training. I would hate it.

But maybe it wasn't really about realism. I wished an imaginary Shikako could take an imaginary Shikamaru with her to an imaginary Fire Temple for an imaginary holiday. It was a wistful, unreal thing – that was why it was a 'wish' and not a 'want'.

Shikamaru snorted, but pushed off the doorframe and stepped inside my room for the first time in the conversation. "Yeah, they're not exactly known for their ninjutsu," he said, flopping down on the bed.

"Nope," I agreed, trying not to feel surprised. "Taijutsu, maybe. But that's about it."

Shikamaru made a face. "I'll pass. I get enough of that here."

I waited a moment, but went back to packing. "You'll probably be busy enough with R&D, anyway," I said, because that was another thing on my mental checklist of loose ends to tie up before I went.

"Yeah, we can't both ditch them," he said, with a snort. "Can you imagine how annoyed Kofuku-oba would be?"

"She wouldn't know how to treat us if she wasn't annoyed at us," I said dryly.

"With you, you mean," Shikamaru shot back. "She still likes me."

"I don't need her to like me, I just need her to do what I want," I said. Which was a good thing, because I was hardly rolling in good will around here these days.

"You need everyone to like you," Shikamaru said, and there was nothing I could say to that except 'not anymore' and that felt too heavy for what this conversation was.

"Speaking of," I deflected. "Do you think I should take a host gift to the temple? Something? I feel like I should, but then, monks. Maybe not."

"I think you're supposed to make donations," he said, but doubtfully, like he wasn't sure either.

At least that conversation meant that we parted on good terms. When Asuma-sensei and I departed Konoha the next day, Shikamaru wandered down to the gates to wave us off.

The trip to the temple was slow. Asuma-sensei wasn't in any kind of hurry, content to amble along. I was a bit more eager to actually arrive, and would have probably run the distance if I'd been on my own, but since he was doing me a favour I couldn't justify pushing us to go faster.

I half wondered if he was playing a 'learn some patience, student' card, which was a thing Kakashi-sensei probably would have done, except I had plenty of tolerance for inactivity on a mission. You didn't get to choose when things happened on missions, you just had to react to them. And sometimes those things were 'nothing' and so was your reaction.

The Fire Temple was worth the wait, though.

It wasn't massive the way Konoha was massive, being only a scattered handful of buildings, but it was old in the way that very few buildings here were. It was historical, had the weight of years in every stone and brick. It had been old before Konoha had ever been imagined.

And there was so much chakra.

Enough that the background white noise of ambient chakra was like pounding surf instead. Still ambient, still natural, but so much more noticeable. The temple had to be built on a dragon vein. It had to. And even then…

And there was… more concentrated chakra in the walls surrounding it. Seals? Probably. Half the reason I'd come here was that they were famous for barrier seals. It seemed logical that their home would be covered with them. It was what I would do.

"Asuma!" A tall, bald man dressed in the white-and-black monk habit called, descending down from the gates to meet us on the road. He seemed glad but not surprised.

Actually, that was a pretty poor description – all the men I could see were tall and bald and wearing the same things. Even their chakra had a strange uniformity to it, something I was only used to feeling from clans.

Asuma-sensei waved. "Chiriku," he said. "It's good to see you again."

Chiriku – that was the monk that had been a member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja. He had the same Fire bandana that Asuma-sensei wore, marking his allegiance.

The two of them fell into step with an easy kind of comradery, unsurprised and unassuming, like they were friends who had just run into each other at the local ramen shop. I kept half an ear on their conversation, but mostly stared around the temple with a kind of wide-eyed fascination and fingers that itched to run over all the walls.

"-this is Shikako Nara," Asuma-sensei said, sounding amused enough that he probably knew. "She's interested in studying here for a short time."

I turned my attention back to them and bowed as politely as I could, clasping my hands in front of me. "Jiraiya-sama recommended you very highly," I said, which wasn't actually a lie. I was also completely ready to shamelessly namedrop if it helped me get what I wanted. I had the feeling Jiraiya would only approve of that.

"Is that so?" Chiriku asked, mildly and giving no hint as to what he thought of that. It was very serene. Monk-like. "What kind of things are you interested in studying?"

"Fuuinjutsu," I said, easily. "Barrier seals, primarily, but I enjoy learning anything that's available." I hesitated a fraction, but there wasn't really an option to learn by stealth, so I'd have to front up. "Jiraiya-sama also suggested that I seek your guidance in learning about natural energy."

That was a roundabout way of putting it, for sure, but I felt like coming out saying 'teach me to be a sage' was expecting a bit much.

I felt like they got the subtext anyway, with the way Asuma-sensei was staring at me.

"That's-"Chiriku hesitated for the briefest of moments. "-hardly a topic that can be mastered in so short a period of time."

I nodded, diffidently. "I understand that," I said, trying to balance between earnest and earnest. One was good, the other was too much. "I didn't expect that I would be able to master it." I didn't really expect that I would be told very much about it at all – but I'd take what I could get.

But at least it seemed agreed upon that I was staying, even if it hadn't been said in so many words.

Asuma-sensei delivered the mission missive and stayed to drink and reminisce with Chiriku, but I was funneled off towards the younger monks. The students. Trainees? Initiates? Whatever they were called.

It was a little awkward. Very 'first day of school' where you know that everyone around you knows each other and has already formed lifelong friendships.

"Sora," Chiriku said, singling out a single novice. "Please help Shikako get settled. She will begin with the first group in the morning."

Sora was approximately the same age as me; pale skinned and dark haired. He seemed vaguely annoyed at the instruction – or just vaguely annoyed in general – but accepted his orders with deference.

"Come with me," he said, turning without waiting to see if I would, and stalking off towards what I presumed were the living quarters. "The first group are the newest novices," he said, a touch of superiority lightening his face.

"That makes sense," I said, neutrally, pretty sure there was some kind of catch there. "Seeing as how I'm new."

Sora let me settle into the 'guest' accommodations. Apparently people wanting to come and experience temple lifestyle wasn't an entirely unknown thing. They were pretty plain and Spartan but it wasn't like I had any kind of high standards. I could, would, and did sleep outside in the dirt when required.

The gongs rang early the next morning as a wakeup call but I'd expected that. And I'd been willingly doing five am mornings for a long time so I kept any and all complaints to myself, trying to look bright eyed and bushy tailed. It helped that I didn't really know what was going to happen or what was expected of me, so I had to be alert.

Sora found me with the same expression of annoyance he was wearing yesterday. "This way," he said, with a jerk of his head. "The first group meets in the lower courtyard."

I followed him and found about twenty novices lining up in rows of five, in front of a single monk. It reminded me of academy practices, really, and I doubted I was too far from the mark there because it was pretty easy to see what the 'catch' was, that he'd been setting me up for.

Not a single one of them would have been older than seven. The youngest were probably five.

"The newest novice begins in the lowest ranked position," Sora said, gesturing to the back of the rows. He tucked his hands into his sleeves, in a way that might have looked wise and placid if he hadn't been smirking.

I raised an eyebrow at him, pretty much unaffected. Did he think I would be bothered? Humiliated? Humble-iated? "I went through my ninja training with a class of five year olds too," I murmured.

His face dropped instantly into a scowl. Oh yeah, that was not a response he liked. "How old were you then?"

"Five," I answered blandly. "Does it make any difference?"

It did and it didn't. Either way, it didn't change what was happening now. I bowed politely to the instructor and took my place in the line, copying the posture of the other novices. Sora left, to go to whichever group he was with, and I waited patiently.

It was not so different to Academy training at all. We did warm up stretches and ran through basic techniques and short sequences of moves. They were unfamiliar to me, but I was a Nara and we were mimics, very used to noticing how people were moving and reflecting back actions. It wasn't anything like the preternatural sharingan learning but in a controlled learning environment like this I didn't need anyone to correct my stances.

There was no sparring – I presumed that it would come later – and since I was working with five year olds it wasn't exactly anything I would have called intensive exercise. After the training there was a period of … well, of kneeling and bowing and chanting. Basically. It was interesting in a way, listening to the monks reciting, voices layering over and over each other from different places in the temple, not quite in synch but not out of it either.

And then we all scurried off to do pre-breakfast chores and breakfast making. The kids all went about it with a sense of calm routine, unhurried and a little bored. I gamely kept up, ferrying bowls and plates around and tried to find a place in the choreographed chaos of the entire order being fed.

After breakfast there was mediation – Shikantaza, 'silent sitting' which sounded exactly like a Nara name should - so we trouped out to a small building a small distance from the main temple. It was long and narrow, with only three walls and open at the front to overlook the valley and lake below.

It honestly reminded me of a bus stop more than anything.

Still, the view was pretty, and it gave me something to look at while I sat in seiza and stayed calm and still. We were far enough away from the temple that we couldn't hear anything, which gave the illusion that we were more isolated than we really were. The instructor paced in measured footsteps in front of us, meeting any fidgeting or snoring with a swift correct from his keisaku stick.

And so went the rest of the day; I stuck with the first group for chores and training, but thankfully skipped out of the more ordinary lessons. Sora came to drag me to other places to fill in those blocks of time; theology was interesting, but only in as much as it would allow me to decipher their seals and not because I had any real desire to become a monk myself.

The day was strictly regimented, more so than even the Academy had been. It wasn't bad but it was surely an adjustment to make after so long of having the freedom to choose what I did all day.

The next day was the same and so was the one after that. I started to fall into the rhythm of it, started to know where I was going and what I was doing without having to just follow along.

Life in the Temple was… it felt insulated. Everything that happened, it happened here with little connection to the outside world. Even in the first week I felt cut off, like I wouldn't know if anything happened in Konoha. Realistically I knew that messages would get through – either via hawk or by sending a ninja as a messenger – and it wasn't like we ever stayed in touch while we were on missions.

It just felt different. Like I was out of touch, out of step, out of place. But there was plenty to do – I had access to the libraries, to all the monks who spent their lives maintaining the seals of the temple. I had plenty to learn.

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"The senior monks are meditating in the interior courtyard after dinner," Sora told me, with the same kind of formal stiffness and near distaste that seemed to be his trademark. "You've been invited to watch."

"Thank you," I said, though I wasn't exactly sure what that meant. I presumed it was something other than the regular meditation we all seemed to do, or that there would be something to watch and a reason for said invitation.

Meditation was not, generally speaking, considered a spectator sport.

Apparently something about this was, however, because after dinner the inner courtyard was ringed with spectators. Everyone kept a very respectful perimeter, quiet and out of the way, and I knelt down beside Sora trying to keep my confusion to myself.

Wait and watch. That was pretty much the watchwords of the temple. They were all about 'patience' and 'in good time'.

Chiriku was leading the other senior monks. It wasn't 'meditation' like the silent meditation we'd been practising, but closer to the ritual prayers that were held several times a day.

However interesting it was to watch, it still took me a long time to see the point.

Or rather, to feel it.

I hadn't been focusing on my chakra sense while I'd been here – and that was my mistake. My personal bias blinding me to what was going on. These weren't ninja but they were trained chakra users and I should have been paying more attention. But I hadn't. I'd been focused on the seals, on the things I knew had power, and ignored the things I considered 'just religion'.

Stupid. There are more things in this world than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

I'd even noticed it when I'd arrived. I'd thought 'these monks all have strangely similar chakra'. I knew there were ways that a person could change their chakra signature, because I – we, the Nara – did it to our spiritual energy.

And that was pretty much what the monks were doing now. They were cycling their chakra, harmonising it, either consciously or unconsciously in time with the ritual they were performing together. And on each cycle they became a little more similar, a little closer to whatever kind of baseline they were trying to achieve.

It wasn't just this one exercise; no, everything they did in the temple was bound to be work towards this result. Everyone learnt the same way, everyone learnt the same things and did the same activities and ate the same and slept at the same time – they were all learning to think the same.

And this was why.

I could see it with Chiriku – the way his chakra flattened and settled, the way it spread out becoming something larger than his body and fuzzed at the edges, blurring into the world around it.

And I couldn't tell where he stopped and the chakra of the temple started.

Chiriku was the man sitting at the head of the monks. And Chiriku was the formless bodiless chakra surrounding us all. The chakra of the temple and the chakra of the monks was one and the same.

Of course.

The Fire Temple had been here, on this dragon vein, for how many hundreds of years? How many thousands of monks had lived here, breathed here, meditated and expended chakra in exactly the same pattern, seeking peace and nirvana and imprinting themselves upon the natural energy of the temple?

I was thinking of energy as if it were some blank and lifeless thing. But it wasn't, of course it wasn't. The natural energy in Land of Snow had been cold, had been keeping the land in eternal winter. Gelel had been alive.

The monks had been tending to the energy of the Temple like it was a garden. Like it was a bonsai tree – slowly, slowly pruning and coaxing until it grew in the same patterns they did. Until they were in sync with it, on whatever level.

All this I thought, watching them breathe calmly and quietly. The natural energy of the temple swayed in rhythm, in and out like the tide, condensing down and down until it was a visible golden glow around the bodies of the men.

"The Welcoming Approach," Sora murmured, very quietly and in awe, like he hadn't really meant to speak.

Sage mode.

This was why the Fire Temple had survived where even ninja clans hadn't –why it would take immortal S-rank ninja to even breach their walls.

And also… why it would take decades of dedicated study to master this. To even approach use of this technique.

I couldn't do it. Didn't have time. And even if I had… I would still look for another way. Because, like the chakra armour from the Land of Snow, this technique relied on the world around it. These monks were at their greatest here, in their stronghold, with their equals surrounding them.

It was not a technique for a ninja that walked over the world. It wouldn't be nearly so strong anywhere else.

Disappointment bubbled in my stomach, but I looked at it and let it go. I had so much more to consider now, so much more to study and try and fit into my worldview.

"Amazing," I said, voice just as quiet and awed.

Sora glanced at me sideways and smiled, like we had just shared something.

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One of the other - really fascinating - skills of the Fire Temple was the ritual ninjutsu which was some sort of hybrid of sealing and ninjutsu. Or group fuuinjutsu? Which was something I knew of in context of medical sealing, but less so outside of it. Seals were hard enough on their own without adding in the complication of getting different people synchronized enough to use them together.

Which was probably another way that the monastery lifestyle helped out, come to think of it.

"Destruction of Evil Seal!" The eight monks snapped into place, forming an octagon, and a web of glowing seal script spread out from their feet, joining like a snowflake in the middle.

I watched it, tilting my head curiously. "So," I asked, "does having more people involved make the seal stronger or weaker?"

"A good question," the elderly monk next to me said with a hum. And no actual answer to it. I was getting used to that. It was very Kakashi-sensei – though actually he usually answered a question when it was directly posed to him and he wasn't just trying to be obnoxious.

"I can see it going both ways," I continued, out loud. "More people means that individually you only have to focus on a small fraction of the seal. There's less to memorize and calculate. The more small chunks you can break the seal down into, the more people you get involved, the easier it is for each individual person to cast."

He hummed again.

In front of us, the seal wavered.

"On the other hand," I went on, "the more people involved, to more points of failure you're introducing to the system. It only takes one mistake to collapse the whole thing, and now you're relying on eight people to do little things perfectly rather than one person to do a lot perfectly."

"Both those things are true," the monk agreed. "So what answer do you have?"

I sighed. Neither of those points were exactly mutually exclusive. Or rather 'stronger' and 'weaker' were the wrong words to describe it. It was quicker to learn if you only had to learn a fraction of it, which made it more accessible and easier to use. But introducing more people introduced more weaknesses to the process. And it meant you had to have all those people around to use it. Which was another reason most ninja tended to lean towards solo techniques.

It was better and it was worse. It just depended on what part you were looking at.

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AN: This chapter did not go anywhere near where it was supposed to, but people have been getting very antsy for updates, so here it is. Sora's arc may or may not come back later, I don't know, but it really didn't fit here.