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 132

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The art of life is to know how to enjoy a little and to endure very much.~ William Hazlitt

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"Hawk," Tsunade asked, speaking over my head. "Is your identity compromised?"

Sasuke turned his face towards her, blank mask firmly in place. He still seemed nonplussed by the question.

Given that he still had the sleeve of my borrowed cloak in a death grip, it seemed like a bit of a redundant question.

I managed to roll my eyes. "I know it's Sasuke," I said. "I can sense his chakra." Just in case she thought he had betrayed his secret ANBU oaths or whatever.

"I thought as much," she acknowledged, sounding a little wry. "In that case, Hawk, I'm reassigning you."

His shoulders went stiff.

"Bodyguard duty," she went on. "If the attack at the hospital really was to target Shikako, then there might be a follow up attack and she's in no state to defend herself."

I felt like I should object to that but it was… pretty true, really. I'd only really know if it came to a fight, but I certainly wasn't at my best right now.

"And you're uniquely situated to be able to hang around the Nara household without any questions asked," she continued dryly.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Sasuke said, instantly.

If she hadn't assigned him, I was pretty sure he would have done it anyway. Which was probably the point.

Tsunade gave my shoulders another squeeze and moved around to sit back at the table.

"Shikako," she said, "do you know anything about the attack at the hospital?"

I paused for a long moment. I had no idea what Sai had planned. Would telling her get him in more trouble? I didn't want to do anything that would make things worse for him. Not when he was trying to help me. And it all circled back around to the question of 'how much did she know'? If she did know, what was she doing or not doing? What was Danzo doing or not doing?

Too many variables. Not enough data to work with.

My silence must have stretched out too long. Sasuke pulled on my wrist, shaking me slightly.

I blinked. "The hospital is very secure," I said, vaguely. Even without the extra security of the secure wing, it was right in the heart of Konoha, filled with people (most of them ninja) at all hours. If you were going to fill a place with paranoid ninja at their very weakest, it had better be safe.

Tsunade's lips thinned. "Yes," she agreed, but didn't press me for any actual details I may or may not have known.

Which was good. I didn't think I'd be able to come up with a convincing lie on the spot.

"Now, both of you," she said and paused, meaningfully. "You have to understand that this is S-rank classified. This is the most classified thing you will ever know in your lifetime, do you understand? Even more than Naruto's status, even more than your other missions… this is it. If anyone ever finds out that Konoha was, however indirectly, involved in this incident… I don't have to spell out how bad that would be."

Incident. Such a neat little word.

What was the saying? One death was a tragedy, a million was a statistic?

It didn't feel like a statistic.

"But-" Sasuke started, then stopped. "Wouldn't the truth-"

"How many people do you think will believe it?" Tsunade said. Gently, even. Patiently. "That it was all the fault of some obscure cult worshipping an evil god? And now they're all dead? And, amazingly, the ninja we sent to deal with it was one that happens to specialise in seals and explosions?"

I swallowed.

Sasuke shook his head. In denial, not of her words, but of the truth of them.

But she was right. She couldn't let that be tied to this village – not when the truth only barely excused the outcome.

I could say 'it would have been worse' but what evidence did I have? Only what I'd lived, what I knew, what I'd seen. And that would never stand up in the court of public opinion.

The burden of proof would be on us, and we'd never be able to supply anything adequate. And even if we did, the other villages had too much to gain from holding us at knifepoint over it.

In a way… I was a little glad that she didn't plan on telling anyone. No one would know. I wouldn't have to deal with people knowing. Their reactions and judgements. I was pretty sure that those were going to be bad enough as it was, without that added on.

"What do we stay instead?" I rasped.

Tsunade nodded. "You were on a mission to the Land of Rice Fields," she said crisply. "Aoba was killed and you managed to escape and headed south for reinforcements. It was classified, of course, and you can't talk about it, so the details don't really matter at this point. I'll have a report drawn up for you to memorise and sign, and some of that will end up leaked which will provide you with a bit of an alibi."

I nodded. It was simple, enough. Straightforward. This, then this. Smooth, efficient clean up. All the pieces tucked away back into their boxes and the game board cleared.

"As for your … injury," she went on and frowned slightly, seeming to consider.

Not so much the injury as the recovery. All those questions of why and how would dig too deeply into a situation we didn't want people looking at – and my clan knew how to ask. Timing wise, we were already skating on thin ice with the 'attack' on the hospital and I certainly didn't want anyone looking into it, not if there was a risk they would see Danzo at the other end.

"Activation cost," I said, slumping forward. "Or… deactivation cost. Call it an active technique that required a substantial chakra input in order to end. I needed to save up enough chakra to safely cancel the technique. You said the symptoms were similar to chakra exhaustion, and my clan knows I'm working on techniques with chakra cycling…"

"Your brothers arm," Tsunade said, in recognition. "It's little implausible but not impossible… yes, I think that would work. And a discharge for chakra exhaustion certainly isn't out of the ordinary."

Details were hammered out. Tsunade produced a hospital discharge form, conveniently backdated. Sasuke helped me back into my ANBU mask because, having arrived as an ANBU, it was wiser for me to leave as one.

"Come on," Sasuke said, leading me away from the house, and we flittered through some twisting streets of the village, before ducking into a side door of a building complex. It wasn't exactly hidden – in the sense of genjutsu – but it was out of the way and discrete. And probably secured in some way, if the slight pause as Sasuke opened it was any indication.

Inside, well, inside it looked like an office filing room. Boring and normal. Steel filing cabinets, shelves covered in binders, a low bench along one wall and a plastic pot plant. But Sasuke opened a drawer with a particular twist of chakra and revealed that this was, instead, basically a Secret ANBU Locker Room.

"It's a waypoint," he said. "Because, you know, it's totally inconspicuous when an ANBU leaves your house every day. No one would ever work it out."

"Makes sense," I rasped.

There was an 'I'd tell you but then I'd have to kill you' joke to be made here, surely, but I couldn't work out how to frame it to account for secret rooms I shouldn't have known about and then the moment passed.

It probably would have only been funny to me, anyway.

"Tsunade gave me your gear from the hospital," Sasuke said, withdrawing one of the scrolls she had given him. She had probably picked it up while she was there sorting everything else out, since that was a bit of a giveaway that I hadn't signed myself out under normal procedures.

But then he opened it.

Well, I can't wear those.

Sasuke recoiled, just a bit. Someone at the hospital had helpfully shoved my clothes into plastic bags before sealing them, probably because contamination, but it was pretty clear they were beyond saving.

"There was a lot of blood," I repeated, distantly.

But my necklace glinted at me, sitting quietly atop the pile, and I snagged it off and looped it around my neck. I channelled chakra through it, drawing it out, almost instinctively.

Something inside me settled, like I was no longer treading water just to stay present, like an anchor had been removed from my ankles. This stone was a safety net, a life preserver, holding me steady.

I let out a shaky breath. "Can you please just… get rid of those?"

"Sure," Sasuke said, quickly, sealing them back away in a hurry. "There should be something here you can wear, instead."

"I've got stuff," I said, twisting my wrist and pulling clothes out of hammerspace. It seemed obvious now. Sensible. I even had spare shoes in there, because I'd destroyed a pair on a mission once, and that meant I'd been running around in bare feet for no real reason whatsoever. Very clever of me.

I pulled out a hair tie and hesitated, contemplating if I could be bothered with the hassle of trying to do my hair, or I should just leave it hanging loose and tangled and annoying.

"Here," Sasuke said, easily plucking it out of my fingers and then moving behind me. His fingers deftly wove through my hair, only pulling occasionally at clumps of tangles. It was surprisingly skilful, but then a three strand braid was child's play compared to the various knots and rope tricks we'd been taught at the Academy.

"Thanks," I said. There was nothing to examine my reflection in, but I felt more like Shikako The Shinobi. Hair out of the way, chin up, shoulders rolled back. If not actual strength, then at least the veneer of it.

Piecing myself back together. One stone. Then two. A foundation to build the rest upon.

Once I was dressed, I folded up the ANBU cloak and mask and then dropped it into hammerspace – while staring Sasuke dead in the face. He looked very briefly amused.

"That's a security hazard," he said, and then failed to ask for them back.

I wasn't sure if Sai needed them back, if anyone would notice it was missing, and if he did I wanted to have it on hand. And if he didn't, then I was pretty sure I could come up with ways that an ANBU mask would be useful.

Sasuke barely changed, exchanging the white chest plate and arm and leg guards for a wide necked shirt no different to the ones he normally wore. Most notably, he kept his sword, which made sense since he was nominally still on duty and it wasn't an unusual weapon for Sasuke-not-Hawk to be carrying anyway.

We didn't leave through the same exit – which I guessed kept with the 'secrecy' thing, because if someone were watching it then an ANBU entering and someone else leaving would be fairly obvious – instead sliding further into the building proper and twisting through several hallways to exit out a different door.

Except we didn't make it all the way home before I had to stop and lean heavily against a wall.

"Shikako?" Sasuke asked, hovering a touch too close.

"Fine," I said, through gritted teeth, trying to marshal my chakra. It was all there. It was all fine. What was with this stupid feeling of weakness?

"I can-"

"I can walk!" I snapped, shaking his hand off.

Sasuke backed off, eyes dark.

I forced myself off of the wall. We were nearly there, anyway. And I could hardly be carried back when we were trying to assert that the whole reason I was out of the hospital was that I was better. Sure. That'd be really convincing.

Slowly, but with one foot in front of the other and on and on again, we reached the Nara clan lands. Sasuke paced coolly beside me the entire way, within reach but without offering again.

"Tadaima," I called, voice sounding weak and thready as I pushed open the front door. I had to sit on the step of the front entrance way to laboriously remove my shoes and by the time I'd stood, Shikamaru had skidded into the room.

"Shikako?" He asked, incredulously, eyes flicking over to Sasuke before hardening. "You're supposed to be in hospital."

"Well, I'm not," I said, self-evidently.

Mom interrupted, hurrying down the stairs with Kino in her arms.

"Shikako!" she seemed a mix between surprised and confused, with the beginnings of worry starting to peak through.

I managed to dredge up a tired smile. "Surprise?"

She hovered indecisively for a second, before handing Kino off to my brother so that we could hug. I leant into her, gratefully, warm and comforting and steady.

"Oh, but how? No one told us… We didn't think you'd be released so quickly!"

Which was a very delicate way of saying that I'd been in no state to actually leave.

"Ah, you know," I said vaguely, carefully making my way over to the couch to sit. "I don't like to stay in hospital any longer than I have to."

"But- you-" Shikamaru spluttered. "Are you okay?"

"Perfectly fine," I said, waving it off with a vague hand motion. "Just a bit tired. Chakra exhaustion, you know? And there was some kind of commotion at the hospital last night; I didn't get much sleep."

"An attack," Sasuke filled in and everyone's eyes jumped to him. Interestingly, mum seemed to look him over, eyes darting from his pants to his shoes neatly removed in the foyer – the parts that were still ANBU uniform. Huh. "No one was hurt and nothing is missing, but I think Hokage-sama took it as a personal offence."

As far as diversions went, this was probably not the greatest. On the other hand, the attack wasn't going to be a secret so they would find out about it eventually and this way it distanced me from it. Sort of. It still made the timelines messy between when I was supposed to be places and according to who but that couldn't be helped without making people suspicious.

"Oh, is that what happened?" I yawned. "She did seem pretty annoyed."

Shikamaru still looked confused, like he was two steps behind, but at least it wasn't worry. "Chakra exhaustion?" He parroted. "That's all?"

"Yeah," I agreed. "It took a lot of energy to cancel that technique." I shrugged a shoulder. "Took a bit longer than I thought it would, but all's well that ends well, right?"

The words were shockingly bitter on my tongue, even if I managed to say them lightly. I was goading him now, pressing all the buttons our long arguments had exposed – too casual, too dismissive, too self-centred.

As expected his jaw hardened, teeth clenched as he bit back whatever response he wanted to give that. "So, it was on purpose," he said, and yep, that was definitely anger.

Good. If he was angry then he wasn't thinking about it.

He had to have accepted, subconsciously, that it was true.

"More or less," I agreed, lightly. That was a nicer, kinder, truth, wasn't it? Imagine it was deliberate, intentional. Imagine there had been no horror so great that there was no other option. Just a choice, a switch to flick – yes or no.

Wasn't that nicer?

Shikamaru drew back, away, shoulders tight. "Well, if that's all," he said, sarcasm heavy in his voice. "Maybe when you're done throwing yourself recklessly into danger and worrying everyone, you could consider filling your clan duties instead. I understand they come with a much lower chance of permanent injury and death, but I'm sure you could think of something."

I let the façade of lightness fall away. "I'll check my schedule," I said, flintily.

As if their worry was my chief concern right now. He could take his worry and deal with it himself. However he fucking wanted.

Shikamaru snorted, dismissively. "Whatever."

He left the house, not quite slamming the door behind him, and I sank into the couch, that brief spat having taken whatever energy I'd managed to regain.

Sasuke looked horribly awkward, and Mom was looking between me and the door, a faintly irritated frown on her face.

I… didn't want to deal with that.

"I'm pretty tired," I said, which was nowhere near as much of a lie as I wanted it to be. "I might just take a nap."

"You should probably have something to eat," Sasuke suggested.

"Later," I murmured, twisting myself around to lie on the couch. My room suddenly seemed far too far away. I'd go there in a minute. I just needed to close my eyes. "You've got first watch, right?"

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Sasuke's chakra – bright and alert. Someone approaching the house.

I woke, blearily.

Ino.

No. No, I didn't- I didn't have the energy. Not to be friendly with Ino, and certainly not to lie to her face about what had happened. She would know.

I wiggled my shoulders back into the couch cushions, tucked my chin under the blanket someone had draped over me and tried to drift back off to sleep.

"-would have thought you'd be on duty," Ino was saying, voice drifting through the house.

"-just how the roster works out sometimes," Sasuke replied. "Lucky, I guess."

I remained stubbornly asleep, tracking their movements through chakra and sound. Sasuke was near silent, even the shuffle of cloth somehow muted and quiet. If it wasn't for his chakra, I might have thought he wasn't there at all.

Ino patted my hair and smoothed down the blanket, but didn't stay for very long, saying something about being on her lunch break and needing to go.

"I'll let everyone know that she's home," she said, sounding more practical than disappointed. "If they don't already know by now."

Sasuke hesitated. "She probably doesn't want too many visitors," he said awkwardly. I was grateful.

Ino gave a short laugh. "That's how I know she's actually hurt," she said. Her hair swished as she shook her head. "I'll tell them. Let her know I stopped by, okay?"

I waited until she was gone – not just out of the house but out of range – before I opened my eyes. Sasuke didn't startle, exactly, but he did sharpen his attention.

"Thanks," I rasped. "I'd rather be alone."

He nodded, curtly, like he understood that. "You should have something to eat."

"I'm not really hungry," I said. It was true, but I knew I should eat anyway. These symptoms were old, old friends of mine, showing up in exciting new contexts like a repeating motif to life. Lack of appetite, lethargy, cold.

"Eat anyway," Sasuke said, disappearing to the kitchen and coming back with a bowl of rice, an energy shake and a bottle of vitamins. Clever.

I managed a couple of mouthfuls of rice, chewing it to mush before I could bring myself to swallow and half of the drink. It would have to do.

I lay back down but couldn't go back to sleep. But the idea of actually getting up and trying to do something – even things that really needed to be done – was nearly unthinkable. There was a whole list of tasks I could, should and normally would do… and yet every single one of them seemed unappealing.

I picked a book off the bookshelf, some old and battered children's book that I'd read repetitively during my younger years. The story was familiar if not terribly engaging. Even less so we I finished reading and couldn't decide what else to do so just … started over again.

"Are you… okay?" Sasuke asked, cautiously.

I dropped the book onto my chest, half way through it for the third time. "I'm bored," I told him, pathetically. "But I don't want to do anything."

I could hear mom moving around the house, and my childhood had conditioned me to be wary of speaking those words. Any utterance of 'I'm bored' was sure to be followed by a list of tasks one could accomplish instead.

He made a show of checking the clock. "So, that only took… six hours of being on medical leave?"

I threw the book at him. "Shuddup," I grumbled. "Aren't you bored?"

He shrugged. Yeah, that was different. He was working. "We could go for a walk," he suggested.

I agreed. Not because there was anywhere in particular I wanted to go, I just didn't want to remain here doing nothing.

We didn't go far, just wandered around the Nara forest, and didn't go fast either because I kept feeling the need to stop and rest. It was probably a good thing we weren't on any kind of schedule.

"Are you going to let me help you this time?" Sasuke asked, arms crossed. He raised an eyebrow, challenging.

I leant against the tree and scowled. It was unfair – I'd managed a desperate sprint from the hospital to the Hokage residence last night. I should be able to manage a walk.

"I hate being helpless," I said. "That was the worst thing-"

I trailed off. How could I pick any one aspect as 'the worst thing'? How was that one, personal touch more awful than any of the others?

"They're all the worst things," Sasuke said, looking away.

Yeah, he got it. It wasn't a ranking, or a value. It was just shifting the focus to look at one thing at a time. Skirting around the edges of the whole that was just too much, too big to ever really talk about.

"The worst thing," I murmured, pushing on. I didn't look at him, either. "I thought I was strong, but they took that away so easily. I couldn't do anything."

I listened to the sounds of the forest – the wind in the trees, the birds, the insects, somewhere in the distance the deer – and our own, slightly ragged breathing.

"You did do something," Sasuke said, slightly haltingly. "You made a friend that dragged you out of it."

That wasn't-

Wasn't where I thought that was going to go. It wasn't right but it wasn't wrong either. Still helpless, in the moment of truth. But actions before that played into it, too.

I huffed and tipped my head back against the rough tree bark. "Voice of experience?" I said, dryly.

"I have this one friend that always seems to pull me out of trouble," Sasuke said, voice equally, equally dry. "And if I can make one, you've probably got dozens."

There wasn't much I could say to that. "I really ought to make a rule about people using my own actions and words against me in arguments," I reflected.

Sasuke snorted. "It is the easiest way to defeat you," he said. "Almost like you made a good point about it or something."

"Ha ha," I said, not laughing at all. "Jerk."

I pushed myself off the tree. I didn't wobble or go lightheaded or anything like that. There was no cause. "I can walk," I said. "It might take more energy and effort than normal, but I can do it."

"Well, maybe you could get a cane then," he suggested.

I made a face. "Ugh."

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The next morning no one actually commented on Sasuke still being here – probably because he was helping Mom with Kino-chan and Shikamaru hadn't been around enough to realise that he never left.

I thought about asking Shikamaru what he was busy doing but I honestly wasn't sure I was prepared to deal with whatever it was.

Actually, Mom was pretty busy too. Which meant it was definitely a clan something. Which meant –

I wandered outside to sit on the veranda in the sun and watch Sasuke pace through some warm up sword kata's, hands wrapped around a cup of hot tea and a blanket around my shoulders.

Which was how I was when Sai came to visit.

"Sai!" I dashed closer, aware of Sasuke dropping out of his kata to trail me. I honestly hadn't expected him and there was an incredible gut-punch of relief to know that he was okay.

"I am here to communicate my well wishes for your recovery," he said, smiling blandly.

"Can I hug you?" I asked, and waited for his nod before throwing my arms around his shoulders. He didn't make any move, and I tried to take that as 'not knowing what to do', rather than 'not wanting it'.

"I was worried," I murmured quietly into his ear, voice too low to be overheard. "You didn't get into trouble for helping me?"

His hair brushed my cheek as he minutely shook his head. "You were simply not present when the retrieval team arrived. It was not accounted for in the mission planning and the team was not able to make a field decision to update their objectives."

It was very nearly a quote, which probably meant he was teasing. For Sai, anyway.

I drew back.

"I must also ask about your mission," he said.

I took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. "It was a classified mission to the Land of Rice Fields," I said, carefully and calmly. "We encountered problems and my partner was killed. I was injured. But I'm better now."

Details and no details at all. Hopefully that would be enough for Sai. It wasn't much, but if Tsunade did leak the 'report' at least it would corroborate it.

Sasuke was hanging back, looking at me with a raised eyebrow. And yeah, there was pretty much no way to explain this interaction without delving into the whole 'Danzo' issue, though I was pretty sure that Sasuke could put together that someone had helped me out of the hospital.

"So," I asked, lamely. "How's your art going?"

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So you can mostly blame Shikamaru for how long this chapter took. Funnily enough, this was the nicest way that conversation could have gone.