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 133

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Most of life is showing up. You do the best you can, which varies from day to day. ~ Regina Brett

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"Match," Sasuke said, snapping up another card.

I dropped my cards and sighed. "Why am I playing reflex games with you?" I asked rhetorically.

"Because you were bored and didn't want to think of strategy?" he suggested. He scooped the cards up and started shuffling them, the cards deftly flying between his hands.

"Bad choice on my part," I mused, looking out over the garden.

The problem was I was bored. Actual work required more mental effort than I was willing to muster – soon, soon, but not yet – and doing nothing just left thinking myself in circles which just wasn't productive and was bad for my mood.

What had been done was done. Thinking about it didn't make it change. The truth was that it had happened. That I had been an integral, if unwilling, part of making it happen. Not my intent. Not my set up. Not my disastrous breaking of the seal.

But yes. I had set it. If I hadn't set it, it could not have broken. There would have been no explosion.

But if I hadn't set it, then the ritual would have succeeded.

Stalemate.

And there was nothing that I could do to fix that. I couldn't undo it. I couldn't bring back the dead. I couldn't make reparations. There was no seal, no prosthetic to make here.

All I could do was think and there was no benefit in that.

It had happened. I'd seen the direct aftermath. Touched the ash. Heard the screams. Seen the destruction.

What did you do after that?

"Deal again?" Sasuke asked, tapping the shuffled cards on the shogi board we were using as a table.

I sighed. "Why not?"

Obligingly, he dealt the cards out. The morning stretched endlessly around us – without training or study I didn't really know how to fill it.

I was so bad at this.

"Oh, hey! It's Tenten." I waved at the figure approaching the house. She wasn't the first person to stop by, not even today, and while circling awkwardly not talking about things was frustrating and tiring, at least it was a distraction. In small doses.

"Hey," she said, stopping next to us. "How are you?"

It was nothing but pure polite formality.

I shrugged. "Recovering. I miss the days I could walk around the house without having to take a breather, but I'll get there."

"I tell you, you should get a cane," Sasuke repeated.

I made a face at him.

Tenten laughed. "Well, if you do make sure it's a sword cane," she advised.

I was about to refute it then I paused and considered. "I could have a sword cane," I said thoughtfully.

It wasn't, necessarily, that I needed a concealed weapon. Not when it was perfectly okay to walk around Konoha with an actual sword on your back. But it was just cool.

"Really?" Sasuke asked dryly. "That's what it takes?"

I shrugged at him. "Don't knock it." I switched my attention back to Tenten so she wasn't totally ignored by our bickering. "How's things with you?"

"My team is being deployed," she said, shifting slightly. Not quite nervously, but… apprehension? I wasn't sure. "We'll probably be gone for a while so I wanted to come and sort things out with Shikamaru before I left."

"Oh," I said and blinked. There were ways to take that that weren't bad, but her apologetic smile didn't exactly leave a lot of options. "Well. He's inside."

She nodded. "Thanks," she said, as she slipped past us. "I'm really glad you're okay, though."

I waited until she was inside and raised my eyes at Sasuke. "That's going to be a supremely awkward conversation."

"Yep," he agreed which meant that it was obvious enough for Sasuke to notice. Not necessarily care, but notice.

I considered how much I didn't really want to be in the vicinity of that and pushed myself to my feet. "Okay," I declared. "Let's go get me a sword cane."

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Finding a sword cane wasn't actually hard; this was Konoha.

But there was an odd atmosphere in town. Not quiet or fearful – this was still a ninja village, it'd take more than a disaster a long way away to make that happen. But there were fewer ninja around, and those that I saw were moving with a sense of purpose.

And their uniforms…

I could ignore a lot of things if I didn't want to see them, if no one shoved them in my face, but once I'd seen them…

"The funeral has already been, right?" I asked Sasuke, voice quiet.

Sasuke hesitated. "Yeah," he said, almost reluctantly.

I nodded. Konoha was… efficient, particularly in this regard. Quiet and unobtrusive an undeniably efficient.

"I have to get something," I said vaguely, looking around for the shop I wanted. It didn't take long to find it, or to purchase it, or to walk towards the cemetery. A little longer, maybe, to find the headstone designated for Aoba but… it was a nice day for a walk.

I put the sunglasses down, next to the small vase of flowers and the stick of burning incense.

"Sorry," I said.

But no. It felt wrong. Foolish. To try and speak to a stone that wasn't, couldn't be, any kind of representation of Aoba.

How did that poem go? Do not stand at my grave and forever weep I am not there I do not sleep

Aoba wasn't here. Wouldn't be here even if his body hadn't been turned to ash and swept away on the breeze. Whether he was in whatever afterlife he believed in, or had been reincarnated or … whatever had happened to him, he wasn't here. Nothing I said would reach him. So therefore, talking was just… performative. Empty.

If I said 'sorry' I was only saying it to myself, not to him.

I sighed and turned away. "Let's go home."

It wasn't the grave stone that made it real. It was all the places that Aoba wouldn't be – it'd be his desk in the Intel Department, cleaned and reassigned. It'd be a Special Jounin gathering, with no empty seat for him. It'd be no one to take a problem to, no one to ask a question. It'd be knowledge, lost. Stories, lost.

Sasuke didn't say anything. Maybe he didn't know what to say. I sure didn't.

But there was someone waiting for us by the gates; Anko, leaning casually against a nearby tree. Unobtrusive, out of the way, but her gaze flickered to us when we approached in a way that said she was waiting.

Sasuke drew closer to me, alert and wary.

"Anko-senpai," I greeted because of all the people in Konoha I didn't think Anko was working for Danzo. "Can I help you?"

"Hey," she said, standing up straight and sticking her hands in her pockets. "I heard you were finally up and about. How are you feeling?"

I gave a half-shrug. "Getting there," I hedged. "You know how it is."

She nodded and gave me a lacklustre grin that came nowhere close to her usual level of spark. "Aoba was a good friend of mine."

"I'm sorry," I said, sympathetically. For your loss silent but implied.

"Me too," she said. "Ah, that's not how I meant to start this. He was a good friend – he had a lot of friends – so of course we all kept our ears open…"

I turned that statement over, matched it with what I knew about Tsunade's plans. "The mission report leaked," I said. I didn't sound surprised, even to myself. "Well. I guess it was bound to happen, Aoba was involved…"

It startled a laugh out of her, sharp but still humorous. I was glad, the second it was out of my mouth I'd thought it might have been too irreverent. Too soon.

"It's what he would have wanted," she mocked. "But I wanted to make sure you knew," she added. "It sucks to be blindsided with something like that."

I nodded, seriously. "Thank you."

"Sure," she said, lifting one hand in a lazy salute. "And, you know… he was a good ninja. Couldn't keep his mouth shut, but he knew what he was doing in the field." She lifted her gaze over my shoulder, towards the cemetery. "We spent a lot of time behind enemy lines, me and him. If you couldn't send a Yamanaka, you sent Aoba." Her eyes met mine, steady this time. "What I'm saying is… whatever happened out there, Aoba knew what he was getting into. As much as any of us ever know."

I drew in a shuddering breath. "I know," I said, simply. I'd been in charge, true. I'd suggested pushing forward, true. But the trouble we'd found ourselves in hadn't been anything we'd known about in advance. Hadn't been anything we could do anything about.

"He'd be glad you made it out," she added, gently. "Any of us would be. Sometimes that's all you can ask; that your team makes it out."

I closed my eyes. Thought about the despair in his face when he recognised me. Oh no. Not you. I thought you made it out. I thought you were safe. Thought about the fact that he'd died, knowing that I was there with him. He would never know I didn't die too, never know I'd made it out. Never know that I'd stopped it.

"I know," I repeated, hoarsely.

She nodded, rocking back on her heels, hands still in her pockets. "You're a smart kid; I figured you would," she admitted. "Still, it never hurts to say it." Sympathy, not pity. The knowledge of someone who had been there before.

I nodded at her, throat aching and closed over.

Anko stepped aside. "I'll see you at the kunoichi club," she tossed over her shoulder, by way of goodbye.

"Well," I said and paused. "At least we know it's all going according to plan?"

"I'm pretty sure that's something people say when things aren't going according to plan," Sasuke disagreed as we started moving.

"Ah, but you see," I said, pulling out my Most Serious And Wise voice, "I planned for you to say that."

Sasuke snorted and bumped his shoulder against mine, but gently enough that I didn't stagger. "And how do you figure that?" he asked.

"Well," I said. "If you consider my ability of complete hypnosis…"

He rolled his eyes at me. "I'm the one with hypnotising techniques, not you."

I smiled. "Oh, but that's just what I want you to think."

He scoffed and didn't dignify me with another response.

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Of all the people I expected to visit me while I was convalescing, Kakashi-sensei was practically obligated to be on the list. I mean, I totally expected it to be a random happenstance encounter, oh my, and not an actual social call, but still.

Turned out I was right, it just took a little while to happen.

"I need to go report in," Sasuke told me, voice very low. "I'll be back really quickly."

I wasn't sure if Kakashi-sensei being here was the opportunity he was waiting for – someone he absolutely trusted with the duty – or if sensei had given him those instructions, somehow. I thought it was probably the latter, but I hadn't actually picked up any kind of signal.

"You could sit down," I suggested, as Sasuke vanished back towards the village.

Kakashi did so, looking pretty damn uncomfortable, even for Kakashi.

"So," I said. "War Operations, huh?"

Because I couldn't ignore it any longer. Kakashi-sensei was wearing the same uniform that the ninja in town had been. A heavy chest guard, layered over top of his jounin vest. The defensive measure of a ninja for who combat on a mission wasn't possible or expected, it was guaranteed. It was intended.

War plate.

This was happening. This wasn't just people threatening and making noise. Konoha was rolling out tools and uniforms and starting to outfit people for war.

He drew in a sharp breath. "We were always going to go to war."

I blinked. Our trains of thought must have been on completely separate pathways because I had no idea where that had come from.

But sensei was looking at me urgently, like it was critical that I understood him. "It was always going to happen, do you understand?"

He wasn't… he wasn't right, though. There was a whole other world saying that this wasn't inevitable, was it? Or had it happened, in those off-screen years of the time skip and simply never been important to the story? Could we anticipate this being so short?

But I didn't think so. Because there had been too many changes. Not just Land of Hot Springs. There was the alliance with Mist and Sand, the chunin exam demonstration of our friendship that had accelerated things in so many different directions. There was Zabuza and Haku surviving at all. There was more than that, probably, deeper and layered underneath it but-

-those were the things I'd done. That had led to this.

I closed my eyes. That was what Kakashi-sensei was saying.

Kakashi, whose father had started a war and then killed himself.

"Whatever happened out there-" Kakashi-sensei said, and swallowed roughly. His hand hovered in the air before landing on my shoulder.

"Nothing happened," I said, eyes still closed. "You read my mission report, didn't you? I wasn't anywhere near Hidden Cloud. Nothing happened."

Not convincing, no. But Kakashi-sensei wasn't someone I really needed to convince. I just needed him to play the party line.

"It's not your fault," he whispered, sounding like he knew they were just words. Just sounds on the breeze.

Did he know about the attack? I wondered, suddenly. He clearly knew Sasuke was watching me. But if he didn't… what would he assume the constant watch was for? That would make him come out and say this?

Too obvious.

I opened my eyes. "Is there something I can do to help?" I asked. "My clan is busy making medicine and seals, so I'm going to be needed here but… I could help. Once I'm better."

Shikamaru, so stressed and busy. It made sense now. Dad always made look running the clan look easy, but even the day to day stuff wasn't. This would be even less so. I'd have to step up. I'd have to help.

Kakashi-sensei gave me a searching look, like he didn't quite know what to make of that. "I could always use more minions in the tower," he said.

I nodded, as brisk and professional as I could be, dressed in civilian attire in my own home. "And I have a barrier seal to finish refining," I said, more to myself than him. "That'd probably help if I can get it done. Everyone likes barriers."

I hadn't planned for this. Not exactly and not now. But I there were still things I could do. If I had contributed to this mess, then I could contribute to fixing it.

When Sasuke returned, Kakashi-sensei and I were sketching out plans in the dirt – plans for what wasn't necessarily clear because we had wandered from the initial premise in quite a substantial fashion – and he looked only a little bemused to see it.

Kakashi-sensei stood and dusted off his hands, like he totally hadn't been doing anything strange. "Ah, you know," he said, awkwardly, and scratched his cheek through his mask. "You'll both be fine. You're survivors; you'll make it through the war."

"We've got too much to do for anything else," Sasuke said, all smirking bravado but with the undercurrent of knowledge that it didn't really matter, that it was never down to you to choose.

"Way too much to do," I agreed.

That night, after dinner, a subdued Shikamaru pushed Kino-chan into my arms before going to help mom clean up in the kitchen.

I wiggled a soft toy at Kino, half-heartedly. He was, what, four weeks old now? Able to look at things and track them and make noises but that was about it. His chakra system was starting to kick in, and with zero increase in screaming, so he probably hadn't got any kind of sensitivity to chakra. I hadn't really expected him to because I knew what mine stemmed from and it seemed like pretty low odds that that would happen twice.

I gave Sasuke a meaningful eyebrow.

He huffed and made a show of reluctance. But Kino vanished from my arms pretty damn smartly and it was a series of events that made both of us happier, so … win.

"He's going to grow up in a world where we're at war," I said, thoughtfuly. It was still an abstract, still an idea more than a reality. I didn't know what a world at war looked like first-hand either – but it was stranger to think that Kino might not know what one at peace looked like. Sadder.

We weren't supposed to be the last children of peace.

"It won't touch him," Sasuke said, so fiercely that he would probably fight the whole damn war himself to make sure that didn't happen.

I nodded, slowly. "We'll make sure of it."

And the next morning, for the first time since I'd made it back to Konoha, I did my morning exercises, breathing in the damp dawn air.

It was hard - to find the motivation to start, to find the energy to complete it - but it felt like waking up.