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: FYI, demanding updates is always rude. Demanding to know why it's 'taking so long' when it has been less than two weeks since the last one is incredibly rude and most likely to make an author too annoyed to do more writing.

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Chapter 131

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Nobody knows how to get back home

And we set out so long ago

Search the heavens and the Earth below

Nobody knows how to get back home

~ The Lumineers, Nobody Knows

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"Report."

"Nara. Report."

A sigh. A burst of green light. Warm hands. The smells of the hospital; disinfectant, soap, linen.

No pain. No blood.

No ash.

"Shikako," Tsunade's voice, again. Softer. Kinder. "I need you to tell me what happened."

I shuddered. From the very centre of self, a tremor shaking things loose.

I had to tell her.

I had to tell her what had happened.

That was my duty, as a ninja. To give and give and give and rise every time something was asked of me.

But.

I was… so tired. Hadn't I done enough?

Look at what you've wrought. Look at what you've caused. Haven't you done enough?

I breathed. In. Out. Steady. Breathing was an autonomic reflex. Unconscious. Automatic. Irrepressible, even – you couldn't just stop. It was a thing that just happened, whether you thought about it or not. In and out.

The body wanted to live. Beneath everything, there was that. One breath at a time.

Tsunade sighed again as the silence stretched out. She strode towards the door, heels clicking on the floor and opened it, letting people flood in. Shikamaru. Inoichi. Kasuga.

"Shikako!" Shikamaru darted towards the bed, clung to my hand.

I breathed.

"What's wrong with her?" he asked.

Tsunade levelled a bland look at him. "That's my question," she said, addressing both him and Kasuga. "Shikaku sent a very brief message that seemed to imply the Nara clan is the expert on… this."

"Dad said?" Shikamaru echoed, and frowned. "Dad's at the border. Why was she…?"

Tsunade's lips thinned. "She was on a classified mission in the Land of Rice Fields and turned up at the border, unresponsive. Your father sent her home for treatment. So. Can it be treated?"

"But-" Shikamaru started.

Kasuga-oji thumped him in the shins with his walking stick. "You aren't here as her brother, Shikamaru," he said, severely. "You're here as her clan head. Get it together."

Shikamaru's lips thinned, but he straightened and drew his shoulders back. "Apart from dad, Kasuga-oji is the best person to be able to treat her," he said.

Kasuga leant his weight on his walking stick. "If Shikaku sent her back rather than treat her himself-"

Tsunade shook her head. "He didn't have the time or resources," she said shortly. "The situation is bad out there."

Kasuga accepted that. "Then whether or not I will be able to help her depends largely on one thing," he admitted. "And that's whether she did it on purpose or not."

Shikamaru's hand tightened on mine. "Why would she do it on purpose?!" he demanded.

But Tsunade and Kasuga were watching each other, faces ninja-blank.

"What?" he asked.

"She brought Yamanaka-sama with her," Kasuga pointed out. "And that means that whatever your sister knows, whatever her mission was… it's worth her being mind-walked for."

"I brought Inoichi because Shikako wasn't on a solo mission," Tsunade deflected. She looked at Shikamaru, grave and earnest. "We have Konoha shinobi missing in action. Who are in serious danger and require back up. Back up that I have no idea where to send."

"You want my permission," Shikamaru said, swallowing. "I'm here as her clan head."

Inoichi put a hand on his shoulder. "You know I won't hurt her," he said, gently. "But time is of the essence and it takes a long time to bring someone back from this."

Shikamaru nodded jerkily.

No.

I curled in, a dragon in the dark, dragon and darkness both, defended, protected. My treasure was myself. My soft underbelly was covered in scales.

I am fire. I am death.

I ached.

"We should try first," Shikamaru said, the words sticking in his throat. "Just. We should try first." He marshalled himself. "If she did do it on purpose, then she might have left a trigger to undo it."

"Alright," Tsunade agreed, softly, softly.

Shikamaru's hands on mine, shadow on mine. But if he was the shadow of the bird that skimmed the surface of the water, then I was the depths of the ocean where light did not reach.

"Shikako," he said, out loud then not. Shikako, shikakoshikako come back its safe itssafe comeback Shikakocomeback! givemebackmysister

There were no gods for him to fight. No gods. No weapons. No chance, no choice, no hope. Nothing here but me.

I wanted to sleep.

I just wanted to sleep.

Kasuga was nightfall, wrapped around me. A thing to breathe in and blur at the edges, but not enough to draw me out.

Inoichi reached. His hands were cool. The dragon bared teeth, ready to fight or flee or defend, driven with the singular instinct to protect the self. The darkness waited.

And he drew back.

"What's wrong?" Shikamaru asked, worry clear.

"There are traces of a mental attack," Inoichi said carefully. "A serious one. I'd need the departments protective sealing if I was going to mind walk her. And even then… I'm not certain I wouldn't be doing more damage – either compounding the attack or by tripping whatever defences she tried to raise against it."

"I see," Tsunade said, grimly. "And you saw nothing?"

"Nothing," Inoichi confirmed. "Absolutely nothing. Which means I hope that she did do this on purpose and managed to hide from me."

Shikamaru made a little punched out noise.

I was so tired.

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"I wonder," Kasuga drawled, later.

Later. Later. It was later. There was no window in this secure room, nothing to say time had passed. But it had. Everyone else had gone. They'd brought him a chair. I remembered being aware, remembered remembering, but everything was a splatter-blur of snapshots, a jigsaw puzzle tipped out of the box. It made a picture, but only if you put it all together.

"Did you leave a trigger?" Kasuga asked. "Did you do this on purpose? It's too clean to be unwilling, but that doesn't mean it's what you meant to do."

He waited. I breathed.

"What would you use? If it was Konoha, then you're here. If it was the Hokage, you've seen her. Your brother. Your father." He hummed, thoughtfully, to himself. "What signifies safety, to you? What means the mission is over and it's time to come home?"

His chakra was over mine, like nightfall over land. It was tempting, that close comforting darkness. But it was so far away and I was down so deep. I would have had to dig my way up, through layers of dirt and mud, and even the thought of the climb left me exhausted.

I would have to reach for him.

I would have to climb.

I would have to start.

"You aren't sentimental enough to use the baby. No. No, it's not a person at all, is it? Or a place. It'll be words – the simplest trigger of all."

It was too much.

I couldn't-

I couldn't do it.

Kasuga kept talking but the words drifted over me, fragments of sentences like ocean waves. I detached. Drifted.

There was a knock on the door. Swift, professional, a warning more than a request.

Ibiki stepped inside.

Kasuga narrowed his eyes. His hands tightened on his cane. "That's hardly necessary," he said.

Ibiki gave him a flat smile, maybe something intended to be reassuring. "I'm just a concerned colleague," he said, "here to ask a few questions."

"I'm not leaving the room," Kasuga said, flatly.

I could almost feel the tension in his chakra. The shift of the darkness from warm and comforting to a thing that hid danger inside it.

Ibiki crouched next to the bed, so that our gazes met. He took my hands in his, my fingers pale and limp against his dark gloves. His grip was firm. Anchoring. "Shikako," he said. "Information is the most important weapon a ninja can have."

It echoed. There will be times you have to risk your life to get it. Had that been only a year ago? It felt like lifetimes.

"Your comrades are fighting out there," he went on, implacable. "Don't you want them to have the weapons they need?"

I shuddered.

Those who abandon their friends are worse than trash. Sensei's words. Konoha's ideals.

Truth.

I breathed in, shaky, hitching. No longer smooth automation. My heart was pounding, beats picking up rabbit fast as I tried. I was fighting weights that didn't exist, concrete blocks on every limb sinking me to the bottom of the ocean.

Every struggle took energy I didn't have.

One of the monitoring seals started to beep.

"Your friends need this information," Ibiki repeated. "What happened on that mission?"

It was too much. The idea, the concept, trying to reduce it all into words, speaking, lungs exhaling, mouth forming shapes, throat vibrating with sound – too many pieces, too many points of failure.

I couldn't-

I grasped for the surface, hands clawing out of a grave, a drowning swimmer clutching the open air. I touched Kasuga's darkness, tried to find purchase on it, but he recoiled from me.

"Stop!" he ordered, sounding almost panicked. "Right now!"

"What happened to Aoba?" Ibiki asked, anyway. Not cruel. Not kind. Just. Asked.

Aoba. Aoba.

Those who abandon their friends are worse than trash.

He might need rescuing, Tsunade had said. But he didn't. He didn't.

I choked on air, couldn't find the words. But this was easy. One simple concept. One idea. One word.

I lifted my hand. Dragged it through the heavy, molasses air until it was at my throat. Thumb to carotid artery. Dragged it across. The simplest of charades - death.

The medical seal gave a shrill whistle.

I breathed out.

Closed my eyes.

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I drifted.

There were sparks of colour. Green chakra. Foxfire at night. Medical ninjutsu poking and prodding heal and fixthis and whatiswrongwhatisit.

I slept. I woke. I slept and woke and sleptwokeslept the difference blurring and blurring. The exhaustion stayed, clouded like fog over everything.

Red eyes. Dark hands. Scrambling in the dark to find me. More chakra. Some familiar, some not. Medics. Questions. Words. Sounds. Noise.

Time, slipping through my fingers like sand on a beach.

And then-

Hands, grabbing my arms. Dragging me to my feet. Rough, hasty.

I blinked.

Black cloak. White, bone mask. Anbu. Chakra; Sai.

I blinked.

I was in a hospital room. General Ward, not Secure this time. No guards. It was dark – night time, with only the glow of streetlamps through the open window. I was wearing white hospital pyjama's. My hair was loose. My feet were bare.

Sai dragged me forward, swinging an identical black cloak around my shoulders. "You must come with me," he said, urgently. "You are in danger."

I wavered, lightheaded. My blood pounded, rushrush of sound in my ears. The mask he gave me only amplified it, enclosed it around me, contained.

Danger.

"Quickly," Sai said. He took my hand and dragged me forward, towards the window. "Shikako. There isn't time."

I wet my lips. "What." More croak than word. More sound than shape.

"There are shinobi coming here," Sai explained, "to take you away."

I clambered, ungainly, out the window. Sai caught me and body flickered us both to the roof.

"Danzo," I rasped. What else would Sai know to warn me of? We started moving, roof hopping away from the hospital. I followed Sai blindly, trusting he knew where he was going.

He made a sound of assent. "I don't know what he intends," he said. "But you should not find out."

I shuddered, stumbling briefly. Sai's grip on my wrist tightened, ensuring I wouldn't fall.

I didn't want to find out. Did he know what I'd done? Or did he just guess, or want to find out, or question me himself? And if… if he did…

He'd want to do it again.

That I didn't doubt.

The explosion. The black hole. Would Danzo even stoop to dealing with Jashin? He would consider lives of people to be an acceptable price for power, wouldn't he?

I couldn't let that happen.

"I need," I rasped, "to talk to the Hokage."

Tsunade would-

I could put Tsunade between us. I'd be safe there. From Danzo, at least.

Sai nodded, blank mask barely shifting. I plotted our course, realised he had already come to that conclusion – we were headed for the Hokage's residence. If it was so late that Tsunade wasn't at that tower, then we had to go to her home.

"You'll have to convince them to let you in," he said, as if that was only a small task.

Well. Tsunade would want to see me. Though I doubted she would have left messages with her guard to that effect, on account of me being insensate in hospital.

I nodded because I didn't have a choice, and Sai let me go, fading away back into the night, leaving me alone, exposed and horribly helpless.

I jumped from the roof, landed ungainly on the cold grass, and padded through the gates toward the house. It was a large, imposing building, almost a compound of its own, and I wondered if this had been the Senju residences, back when there had been enough of them to call a clan.

I could sense the Anbu squad around the walls, long before they made themselves known to stop me.

But.

That was Sasuke's chakra.

Of all the chances. Of all the people in Konoha that could have been on duty here, tonight, it had to be just the one I needed.

I stared up, focused on the place where he was balanced on the roof, and uncurled one hand from underneath my borrowed coat and slowly paced it through Konoha Standard.

Hokage. Report.

My hand with its scars and poison green nail polish, recognisable, especially to someone with photographic eyes.

I hoped it was recognisable.

It must have been. There was a blur, Sasuke materialising down on the ground in front of me and grabbing my wrist in a grip so tight it was almost painful.

"I'll handle this," he said, out loud.

Another Anbu faded out of the night, argued briefly with a flurry of handseals. But Sasuke must have won, because I wasn't struck down, and he ushered me in through the door.

Someone was clearly dispatched to go and wake the Hokage because we waited in the foyer. Tsunade wasn't pleased to be woken up in the middle of the night, but she appeared with a frown and a dressing gown. Her hair wasn't in her customary pigtails and was almost the most surprising thing.

"Hawk," she said, focusing on Sasuke. "What's the situation?"

"Hokage-sama," I rasped, slowly. My throat was so dry. "I need to report."

Her head turned, slowly and deliberately, and took me in. I didn't think that she hadn't seen me, or anything like that, but she was very, very clearly re-evaluating whatever judgement she had made.

Tsunade took a deep breath and then released it through her nose. "Right," she said, almost to herself. "Come on, then."

But she took us to the kitchen first, and filled a teapot, getting a tray of cups and biscuits out. "We're definitely going to need this," she muttered.

Sasuke stepped forward to try and carry it, but she balanced it effortlessly on one hand and swatted him off with the other, herding us both further into the house. It was a nice place but… austere. Like a showpiece.

"This room has privacy seals like you wouldn't even believe," she said, closing the door behind her.

I would believe it. I could feel the chakra humming in the walls. And, well, the Hokage's house.

"Sit down," Tsunade directed. "And we'll get started."

She poured the tea. I sat and took a cup, fumbling briefly with my fake Anbu mask to remove it. Sasuke took a cup and didn't remove his mask, and on a better day his secret Anbu drinking techniques would have been unfairly interesting to me.

"On the 24th," I started, slowly, voice as measured as I could make it, "Aoba and I departed Konoha via the East Gate."

The first part was standard for any kind of mission. We'd travelled to the boarder. Encountered no problems on the way. The outpost had told us about the Cloud ninja.

"We decided to continue with our mission," I said, distantly. "That the potential information gain was worth the increased risk."

The thing was-

The thing was, we'd been right. It hadn't been the Cloud ninja. We hadn't fought them. We hadn't even seen them. If they hadn't been there, there would have been no difference to how things turned out at all.

Or would there have been?

It did see awfully convenient that a god of pain and misery and bloodlust and people killing each other in awful ways would be summoned while there were two armies gathering only hours away. It did seem awfully convenient that it had happened while there were two ninja in the city.

Had we strengthened it? How strong was a ninja, compared to a normal person? Enough to matter, even with this?

"Nara!" Tsunade ordered, sharply.

I jolted, tea slopping out of my cup and onto my hands. It was hot. I stared at them dumbly, until Sasuke passed me a napkin to wipe it off.

"I- oh," I said, vaguely. Where had I been up to? I couldn't remember. "On the 24th Aoba and I departed Konoha via the East Gate-"

Tsunade's face was closed as I reported. A good, solid leader expression, unsurprised by what she was being told. Not judging. Just listening.

"We investigated the village," I said. "There wasn't- There wasn't much there." I fell silent again, but didn't let myself drift. It was getting harder to focus now, taking so much more effort to put things into words. I didn't know if it was because I was running out of whatever burst of energy that the brief brush with danger had given me, or if it was because I was getting closer to things I didn't want to talk about. "But Aoba. He found the symbol. The monks-"

There was a knock on the door.

I stared at it blankly. Even Tsunade seemed nonplussed.

She seemed to weigh her choices. This report or whatever unknown crisis was happening outside?

"Put your mask back on and follow me," she decided.

Sasuke helped me affix the Anbu mask back in place and I stood, mimicking the way that he fell into step slightly behind the Hokage. We followed her out, back to the foyer of the residence and knelt in a ready position when she stopped.

And that was a good thing, because my knees felt wobbly when I saw who was there. Danzo, flanked by his own blank faced guards.

"This is a bit late for a social call," Tsunade said, dryly, just half a beat late. "What do you want?"

"Bad news, Tsunade," Danzo said, though he didn't look particularly perturbed. "There was an attack at the hospital."

"What?!" Tsunade demanded, all pretences of politeness falling away in an instant.

He held up a hand in the most patronising of placating gestures. "Since I was at the tower when the report came in, I authorised a squad to pursue the attackers. I'm sure the situation will be dealt with shortly."

"I do not take an attack on my hospital lightly," Tsunade growled.

Personally, I thought the claim that Danzo was at the tower in the middle of the night was also as suspicious as hell, but maybe she was just moving down the list in order of priority.

"Initial reports suggest that there was no damage to the facility," Danzo offered, seeming to pull back just a fraction at her response. "And the only patient missing is Shikako Nara. Which makes the target of the attack fairly clear, I think. Obviously I suspect Hidden Cloud-"

"Shikako Nara," Tsunade repeated flatly. "Missing from the hospital? Of course she is; I released her into the care of the Nara clan earlier today."

"What?" Danzo froze.

"If they can't even match an up-to-date patient list, then the rest of the report is immediately suspect," Tsunade snapped. "I'm going to deal with this personally." She clicked her fingers and Sasuke and I rose on command, following her as she strode back into the house. "You two guard the house. I'll return when I've dealt with this."

She vanished in a body flicker and performed which was probably the fastest clothes change in human history, flickering back past us impeccably dressed and hustling Danzo out of the house with the finality of a slammed door.

Sasuke looked at me. "You are the luckiest goddamn person in this whole village," he said, voice tinged with disbelief.

I huffed something that was nearly a laugh. "I just have really good friends," I said tiredly.

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When Tsunade returned, it was a lot closer to dawn and Sasuke had spent most of the intervening time trying to force feed me biscuits.

Everything tasted like chalk dust. It probably wasn't the fault of the food.

"Alright," Tsunade said, breezing back into the house. There was a steely glint in her eyes. "Where were we?"

"What was that all about?" Sasuke asked.

"That's what I'd really like to find out," Tsunade said grimly. "I don't appreciate people playing games behind my back."

She ushered us back into the secure room, and I started where I'd left off.

Well, no, actually. I started from scratch again, because it was easier to retrace the same words when I knew what I was saying. They were all there, one after the other, like breadcrumbs marking a trail.

"On the 24th, Aoba and I-"

I reached the point where we'd left off. "Aoba found a symbol," I said, weighing every word. "A circle with a triangle inside it – the symbol of the Jashin cult. He went to go and investigate it, to see if he could find out who it was."

"You said the monks," Sasuke realised.

Tsunade waved him silent, sharply.

"The monks," I agreed, subdued. "They must have… I think they knew we were looking for them."

I closed my eyes. This was the most important part. The hardest, least truthful part. I had to be careful, to fit my words into this correctly, and never trip over them.

"They had… some kind of spiritual connection to Jashin, I think," I said. "It made them stronger. Faster. They could heal from all kinds of damage – stab wounds and fire and even beheading."

Careful, careful. I balanced on the tightrope of truth.

It was true. It had just never happened.

"They could… if they got your blood, they could make a connection," I said, slowly. "Kind of like Shadow Possession. Except it didn't make you mirror their movements, it mirrored their injuries."

Sasuke reached out and gripped my sleeve.

"So, if you attacked them," I went on, just to make sure, just to be clear, "it hurt you, too. And they could heal."

"That would be very hard to fight against," Tsunade said, gently. "Especially as a team."

Sasuke looked at her sharply.

As long as she knew. There was no better way to warn her about Hidan than this. And people needed to be warned.

"They also had a seal," I said, waving a hand listlessly. "It was big. Over the whole village. It must have been there for years." I closed my eyes, thinking, trying to make it add up. "She said they changed the bells. It was at midnight at first, but they moved them to dusk. Because people complained. So, they couldn't have been there forever? Or people would have been used to it. They must have arrived recently…"

"We can find out," Tsunade said. "If it's important."

I shrugged. Did it matter, really? "They had a seal," I repeated, doubling back. "It was the size of the whole village. It took- it gathered energy from the village, from the people. Like-" I flicked my gaze to Tsunade, hoping she would put it together. "But not chakra. Not even natural energy. I don't. I don't know what it took, exactly. Life energy or…"

Her face blanked. "What did it do?"

"It took energy," I said, fumbling haltingly with the words. "I was so tired. The animals just died. The kids. They were… they wouldn't wake up."

I sounded so plaintive, so helpless. Like there was anything Tsunade could do about it now.

She rose from her seat and circled the table, resting hands on my shoulders and sending diagnostic chakra into my system. "You came in with symptoms similar to chakra exhaustion, but your levels were fine. Given your state, we considered it to be a result of prolonged jutsu usage, but if it was because of a seal…"

"Can you fix it?" Sasuke asked, sharply. His hand tightened its grip on my sleeve.

"It's an unusual case, but she's in no danger," Tsunade said, which wasn't exactly an answer. "What did the seal do?"

I shuddered. Inside and out.

"It-" I whispered, throat dry. "They-"

I didn't want to-

"Shikako," Tsunade said, voice clear and calm. Her chakra was buzzing calmly, stopping the racing of my heart, smoothing out my breathing. Overriding the fear response. "It's over now. Whatever happened, it's over."

"There was so much blood," I said, so that she would understand.

If she hadn't been touching me, hadn't been so close, I would have never noticed the flinch.

"It was everywhere."

My hands were shaking. I couldn't. I couldn't.

"Take it slow," Tsunade instructed. "Breathe. Come on, Shikako."

I breathed. Let her count it out for me. Let her chakra chase away the adrenaline, the chemical stimuli.

Facts. Just keep it factual.

"They took us to the temple," I said. "They killed Aoba. They wanted… wanted to bring Jashin in. To the world. But it wouldn't have… but it wouldn't have stayed the world. Not the same. Jashin wasn't a thing. Not like the bijuu. He made reality different."

It didn't sound enough. Didn't communicate how wrong it was. The pain and misery and death. Were there enough words in all of the human language for that? If there were, I didn't know them.

"He was in my head," I whispered. Whimpered.

Nearly there. Nearly there. Just a little further.

"He would have done things… I couldn't- I couldn't let that happen," I said. "I was going to contain it. The way they wanted to contain… the other… it would have been bad." My voice slipped, starting to plead. "It would have been bad, I know. It would have killed a lot of people. Maybe the whole village. But. But I didn't-"

Tsunade stroked my shoulders. "What happened?" she asked, quietly. Maybe she could already see.

"They broke it," I said. "My seal. It wasn't strong enough-" I shuddered. "They broke it, and it exploded."

Sasuke's grip was painful, now. But I didn't want him to let go.

"My summons," I said, one last gasp to explain. "They pulled me out. But I saw it."

And that was it. That was as far as I could go.

"I saw it," I said, and crumbled.