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: Since people were wanting to get on with "the plot"…

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Chapter 134

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Looking back isn't going to help you. Moving forward is the thing you have to do. ~ McKayla Maroney

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"Well," Tsunade said, snapping my medical file closed. "According to all known medical tests, there's nothing wrong with you that more water, vitamins and sleep can't cure."

It certainly felt like I'd been subjected to all known tests, even if 'being looked over by Tsunade' probably substituted for a fair number of them. I got it, I did, and I knew I'd probably been lucky to get out of hospital the first round without being subjected to them all.

'Lucky' given the circumstances.

"So how do you actually feel?" she asked.

I swung my feet back and forth, perched on the edge of a hospital examination bed. "Tired, sometimes," I said, at length. Tired could mean too many things, but it was still the closest word. "It comes in waves. But other than that…" I shrugged.

"We've been sparring," Sasuke offered from where he was leaning against the wall. Technically, he probably shouldn't have been in here, but he was still officially on guard duty and he knew the whole story already and I would have only told him the results afterwards anyway so it was just easiest for him to stay. "Light sparring," he amended. "Her endurance is down a little but otherwise there's not a lot of change."

Tsunade nodded. "We'll keep an eye on it," she said. "I suspect any damage is going to show itself in the long term. Techniques that use life energy usually result in some form of increased aging – you aren't exhibiting any signs but that might be because you're still growing. You might be looking at stunted growth spurts or increased age related problems later in life."

"Using life energy shortens your life," I said quietly, thinking of Tsunade's own healing jutsu, the way it had been described and the reason that she wore her genjutsu glamour.

"In simplistic terms, yes," she agreed. "But right now, you're healthy. That's the important thing."

My smile twisted a bit at the edges. "Lucky."

Tsunade chuckled, and it sounded exactly as humourless as I felt. "You could have done worse for your winning hand." She reached over and laid her hand over top of mine – not the clinical, impersonal medical touch, but something that was meant to be warm and comforting. "You get good luck and you get bad luck. And sometimes they just happen at the same time. Don't conflate them and hold one responsible for the other. It doesn't work like that."

I bit my tongue and didn't ask how that worked for her. Tsunade was legendary for having luck that was exactly like that.

That didn't make her any less right.

No one would be any less dead if I wasn't healed. Being chronically injured or in pain or whatever wouldn't do anyone any good. It didn't balance any scales because there were no scales.

Shit, as they said, just happened.

"Yeah," I said, just a little belated. "Uh. So. I'm clear for duty?"

"Light duty," Tsunade emphasised. "And that means I'm also reassigning you." She raised her eyes to Sasuke. "I'm putting you back on the roster."

Sasuke crossed his arms but didn't actually protest it. I imagined he was pretty bored as well, given that no threat had materialised in my direction. Now he could go back to doing whatever he did in Anbu.

"Probably for the best," I agreed. "I need to go down to the R'n'D labs and those aren't exactly places you can follow me." And helping Shikamaru with the clan stuff and, and, so many more things.

Sasuke huffed. "You'd be surprised," he murmured, but I absolutely didn't want to test my clan defences against his Anbu sneakiness. Whichever outcome that resulted in would be bad.

"Are you still going to come by for dinner?" I asked idly, as we left the hospital.

Sasuke flicked me an amused look. "I'm going to go home and not talk to anyone for at least twelve hours," he said flatly.

"Fair." I knew that feeling.

He hesitated, just half a step, when we came to separate. "You need anything?"

I shook my head. "Nah. Go home. Good luck on your mission."

It was odd to be without Sasuke after so long of being side by side, especially in town where people were noticing me in ways they usually didn't. It wasn't the cane – or wasn't just the cane – but some kind of recognition with it. People stepping aside, people glancing my way, hushed whispers just out of hearing distance after I'd walked past.

The shinobi gossip mill was something incredible, I just wasn't exactly sure what the gossip was.

It made me feel a little exposed, a little paranoid, the muscles between my shoulders pulling tight. I'd have rather just been a faceless part of the crowd. Too much attention was a threat.

At least in the Nara compound everyone was a known quantity – and busy.

But I was out of excuses to avoid it, so it was time to buckle up and get back in the game.

And that meant, firstly, checking in with Shikamaru. Officially. It wasn't that we'd been avoiding each other, but our conversations had been conspicuously lacking in detail and information because I wasn't asking and he wasn't telling. Turned out, when you avoided 'ninja stuff' as a topic, there wasn't actually a lot for two ninja to talk about.

Shikamaru was in dad's office, hunched over the desk reading a report and tapping a pen against his lips.

I rapped on the door, leaning against the frame and crossing my arms casually.

He looked up, slowly, dragging his eyes off the report – the kind of slow response of someone who considered what they were reading more important than what was around them, who knew they were in a place of no danger.

"Shikako."

"Hey," I said. "Hospital cleared me. Light duty only, but still. Figured if you were this busy then there was something you could send my way."

"Oh, so now you want to help?" His voice absolutely didn't manage to conceal the bitterness.

Oh, he was going to do this now?

I checked myself: irritated and tired but okay. I could do this now, even if I didn't want to. I had enough control over myself. I stayed where I was, kept my muscles relaxed and breathing even.

"Okay," I said, and my voice was miraculously steady. "I wasn't here. And I'm sorry, but sometimes that's going to happen. There's a lot going on and I have to prioritise, and sometimes someone else's problems – or my own problems – are going to come in first. I needed time to heal. And now I've healed, I can prioritise this."

I wasn't trying to rebuke him, exactly, but this was my position and I wasn't going to move. I didn't feel like it was unreasonable.

I watched him take in a deep breath and hold it. "There's too many of these for me to deal with," he said, and gestured at the desk, which was a complete and total dodge, but a productive one. Productive because it was something we could do something about. "Can you sort them out?"

"Sure," I said, easily, and slipped into the room. "What's the current clan situation?"

The current clan situation, as it turned out, was not so much 'panic' as 'everyone complaining about the workload'. Every new task got at least four 'it can't be done, we're too busy' responses before accommodations were made for it. And solving that was mostly just a matter of finding the right people in charge to talk to.

Because pretty much everyone except us had done this before. Preparing for war, fighting a war, taking stock and making sure we had enough supplies… it wasn't new to them.

"- storage scroll production is on track, but they just approved your control and element seals and there's no calligraphers to transcribe them." Shikamaru yawned and slumped back into his chair. "The Academy wants at least enough for the graduation genin – Iruka-sensei approached me and asked about them – but I'm pretty sure orders will go up if we actually, you know, have them."

I nodded. "I'll drop by and see if I can help," I said, unenthusiastically. I'd rather spend that time working on creating seals, but they wouldn't be any use if they never got made.

"And then there's the… the ordinary stuff," he said, waving at the other pile. "Routine orders. Taxation changes. I think someone is trying to adopt? I don't know. I haven't had time to look at it." He rubbed his hand over his face, looking pretty overwhelmed and stressed out.

I surveyed it. It was a lot. And that kind of unfinished workload hung over your head, even without the complicating factors.

"I'll triage it," I offered. "You keep working on that stuff, it's more urgent. I'll find out what needs to be done here."

Some of it was easy – the Inuzuka order was their standard, though I had no doubt it would probably increase soon – and some of it could just be sent to someone else to deal with – the taxation changes could be justified or not by the accountants – and some of it was already done and just needed to be approved.

Side-by-side we chewed through it. It was… interesting, to see Shikamaru like this. Working hard, not because someone was forcing him to, but because it needed to be done. Stepping up, making decisions, wrangling people into place.

Being reliable.

That was the Shikamaru who was going to be the clan leader.

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I hesitated outside the door to the Cryptography office, just a fraction, barely noticeable.

And then I pushed the door open and strode inside, chin held high. This was a place I needed to be, I couldn't avoid it.

But stepping inside, the differences were clear immediately. They'd rearranged the whole room. All the desks, some of the bookshelves, the whole inside of the office was radically different.

Clever.

There was no empty desk, a tribute and unstated memorial, but neither had it been callously reassigned and given to someone else. I still caught myself looking around, that unthinking glance for a familiar face, but there was no glaring reminder of Aoba's absence.

"Shikako!" Shiho dropped her pen and darted around her desk, catching me in a hug. Her glasses were slightly askew and her hair was frizzing. "Oh, I'm glad you're okay! I heard about what happened! And about Aoba. It's so sad."

I managed a smile for her, real because of how honest she was. How much suspicion there wasn't in her gaze. Most ninja seemed to know there was more to the story than they were being told, and they didn't like it. Especially here, in the tower, in the heart of the Intelligence Division. "Yeah, it is," I agreed.

"Are you coming back?" she asked.

I shook my head. "I'm doing part time in War Ops," I said semi-apologetically. "But we'll probably see each other a lot."

She nodded. "Oh yeah, we get a lot of communications to code for them."

I wasn't on roster so there wasn't much for me to do – I cleared out the straggling documents on my desk and checked that nothing had come in for me specifically.

(There was an old post-it slapped to a pile of forms in my desk drawer, 'don't forget to fill these out!' scribbled in Aoba's lopsided handwriting. I smoothed the edges of it down, chest feeling tight, and left it there.)

In War Operations, Kakashi-sensei waved me over, and then everything kicked into gear. I spend the day analysing feedback, running messages, offering suggestions, and trying to foresee every possible outcome of actions no one had yet to take.

"What about allies?" I asked, quietly. "What do they think about… the incident in Land of Hot Springs?"

Kakashi-sensei paused. "Sand and Mist will stand with us but neither of them can field a large force. They have terrain advantage around their village, so neither of them are going to be easy targets and we won't need to provide defenders to help them, but the biggest advantage there is going to be not having to watch our backs."

If east and west were held by allies, that would limit the directions our attackers could come from. Theoretically. But he was right, both villages were coming off of internal strife and trying to gather their own strength.

"Rock could go either way. Or rather… they're not going to be our allies. But whether they ally with Cloud… Depends on what kind of deals they work out." He tapped his fingers against the desk. "It's not going to be an easy alliance, and that leaves us with possibilities."

Possibilities to sabotage them.

"Then there are the minor villages… Sound is going to be a problem. And with Rice Field Country being so close to Lightning Country… we don't want to end up in a situation with Orochimaru at our back."

And in all of that, I noticed, he hadn't actually answered my question.

I let it go.

"I'll lead a force out, soon." He hesitated. "That'll probably mean that the Jounin Commander will come back."

"General Hatake, huh?" I asked. Konoha didn't have much in the way of titles and ranks – Jounin, Chunin and Genin was about it – but field commanders in war time were Generals and their orders trumped base or outpost commanders.

His shoulders went stiff. Like he didn't like the title. He probably didn't. "Something like that."

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Kakashi-sensei left and dad came back and things got more busy rather than less. But I was eventually cleared for full duty and got, well, really bored with the consistent cycle of training-paperwork-seal copying. I figured a mission or two would break up the monotony – and shoulder some of the responsibility to the tracking team that I had been largely neglecting.

But when I went to the mission desk, they had a scroll with my name on it that directed me to the Hokage.

It wasn't that it was unusual per se; Tsunade had been giving us most of our missions herself for a variety of reasons. But if she'd needed me for a mission, she would have summoned me, not just left a 'when she shows up' message.

She wasn't available right away but I made an appointment and waited until she was.

"Shikako," she greeted, pleasantly if not a bit warily. "What brings you here today?"

I lifted the scroll. "You wanted to see me?"

Recognition dawned on her face. "Oh yes." She stood from behind her desk and stretched. "This is a conversation that can happen over tea, I think. I've hardly had time for a break all day."

Well, if that wasn't a subtle reminder that I owed her a great deal for the mess that was currently happening…

I trailed her out of her office, to a meeting room nearby that was small and cozy. An assistant brought in a teapot and cups and poured them for us. Shizune was in charge of organising and setting up medical field stations and had been gone for some time.

I tried to sift through the information I had and piece together a conclusion.

"You aren't going to send me on a mission," I guessed, staring down into my tea. This wasn't a mission briefing. This was trying to soften some kind of bad news, moving from a professional setting to a personal one.

Tsunade paused and then sighed. "In war time, ninja are contested resources as much as, if not more so, than locations themselves," she explained without really denying it. "Ninja like your year group make terribly tempting targets. You're heirs, with bloodlimits, and strong enough to be threats without being strong enough to be untouchable. If I send you out, every enemy ninja in the vicinity will target you."

"And keeping us here is wasting those resources," I countered.

She nodded. "It is. It's a delicate balance to strike. There will be missions for you. But they'll be carefully chosen to avoid as much risk as possible. For now, we have the strength to do that, and I'm not going to play my hand earlier than I have to."

I thought about asking about Team Gai, already dispatched. I thought about arguing that I could fight – would, willingly, fight the war I'd started – but the way she had worded it meant I wasn't just arguing for myself. I would be arguing to send Ino and Hinata, to send Chouji and Shikamaru and all the others, to war as well.

"But what do I do then?" I asked, feeling that well of helplessness as an avenue was cut off to me.

Tsunade arched an eyebrow at me. "You think the work you're doing with Intel and War Ops is unimportant?"

"Of course not," I agreed, hastily. "But it's not- it's not all I can do."

She tapped her fingers against the table, thoughtfully. "In about a month, Hidden Mist is holding the Chunin Exams," she revealed. "Anko intends to enter her team into it, and while I agree that they're one of our best options, they are a wild card. None of them have any field experience and that's going to make things… difficult for them."

Had it been a year since our exams, since I made Special Jounin, already? So much had happened but… it felt wasted. Squandered. A whole year gone, a whole year closer and where was I? How much stronger was I?

Not enough. Not nearly enough.

"I could help them with that," I agreed, a little timidly. "If Anko-sempai agrees." It wasn't what I wanted, not by far, but I could take a hint when given to me.

"You'll be going with me as my escort," Tsunade said. "So, you'll be able to see how they perform. This exam seems like it's going to be … quite an event."

"Oh?" I asked, a little puzzled.

"Mm." She sipped her tea. "The Mizukage has timed her wedding to coincide with the end of the exams. An interesting tactic. And of course, we're obliged to present a gift since we'll be attending."

In terms of PR, there was nothing people loved more than weddings. It did sound very clever. Especially in terms of drawing clients to a place that they wouldn't, historically, have felt very safe and welcome in going. Mei was really going all out.

"The… Mizukage's wedding?" I repeated, mind sticking a little bit. That was certainly not a thing I had anticipated happening. "To who?"

Tsunade looked amused. "Zabuza Momochi," she said.

I stared at her. She didn't appear to be joking. "Well that. Makes sense?" I guessed. It didn't not make sense, anyway. They were both high level figures of the village, who had worked together. I didn't know anything about how they interacted and what the impetus for the wedding really was but at least on the political level it made sense.

And Mei – who I remembered as never being married and as wanting to – probably wasn't only doing it as a political stunt.

"You could also complete your medical training," Tsunade suggested, shifting the conversation back on track. "I know you have basic skills and I would much prefer that you have adequate training if you're going to be using them on your fellow shinobi."

I winced. "I just. I thought something was better than nothing?" And it kind of fell under that very vague 'field shinobi' umbrella of stuff. I'd never claimed to be a fully trained medical ninja when I was offering aid.

"It is," she agreed. "But there's a reason that the medical program exists and has strict standards. I'll even write you a recommendation myself."

"Thank you, Tsunade-sama," I said, because what else could I say. "But… I would make a decent medic. Not a great one."

"One more decent medic is a hundred ninja who don't die," she said. And when put like that…

I nodded.

I could never balance the scales – they didn't exist. Even if I knew how many people died, there was no equivalence. Saving one hundred people didn't make up for killing a hundred. Didn't make up for even killing one. Every person was unique.

There is no equivalent exchange for a human life. Hah.

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There was one other thing I had been working on that would be helpful – would save lives – if it was implemented.

My barrier seal.

So, I called together the Seal Research Group and took them to the training fields.

"So, a big part of being able to analyse seals is to find out their weak points and how to counter them," I started. "You might be able to get a sample of the seal to examine – which I will supply to you – but for those of you who are combat shinobi, you'll need to be able to do on the fly as well. Luckily, for this example, I'm not going to be actually making you fight against the seal. I'll give you some tags, and then you'll have to come up with weaknesses."

I handed three seals to each person. "The first one is a traditional Four Corner Sealing Tag," I said. "Each tag is the anchor point and forms the limits of the walls. The second seal is a Barrier Wall – it creates a fixed size square barrier with the tag in the centre. The third is the Barrier Dome." I paused. "It's actually a sphere, but anyway. The tag is placed the central point and it'll form a sphere with a radius of approximately two meters."

I made a motion at the field. "Go wild."

I dropped to the sidelines and watched them. Some of them jumped straight to the practical demonstration, some of them went over the seals with a frown and reference book first. That was okay. The more eyes that looked these over, the better.

Tenten had done a lot of this testing with me, and I'd done a lot of it myself. Even straight off, the SRG was finding the limitations.

Some of them, actually, had been built into the seal. For starters, the barriers formed around any physical objects in their path. That was the reason why the Barrier Dome was a dome instead of a sphere if you used it at earth level. That had the downside of allowing entry of enemies if they were fast enough, but had the benefit of not amputating your arms if you ended up setting it up wrong. Kind of an important safety mechanism.

There was also the movement of air – especially for the Barrier Dome – in that it didn't happen. Good for defending against poison gas, bad for having air to breathe.

I wasn't so worried about the upper strength limit – it would crack, eventually, because everything broke. But it would take a very serious, very severe hit to do so. And even then it would buy you a second which, if you were fighting at that level, was probably what you needed. Or you were dead anyway.

"The hospital is going to love these," Nanto said, thoughtfully.

"That's the plan," I agreed. Jiraiya had said as much, back when I had brainstormed the idea with him. That was the impetus for the Barrier Dome, mostly – large enough for a medic and someone lying down to be safely treated. It wasn't fool proof, but it was better than nothing.

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They hadn't intended the investigation to cross my desk. But it had been passed back and forth between War Ops and Intel and given that I was in both and had a high enough clearance level to look at it, of course it came to me.

I took one look at it and froze.

"Nasty, right?" Said the tired looking Chunin who had been working on it. "Some sick asshole out there."

A circle. With a triangle inside.

I swallowed. "Yeah," I agreed, distantly. "I'll. Um. Work on this."

It took me a long time to read the report, closeted away in a solitary room. The thing was. It wasn't even, actually, knowingly, related to what had happened. No one but me would have ever tied the two together. Or Tsunade, if the right information had made it's way to her desk, and not just a summary.

What this was, was a list of massacres. Families. Farms. A village. Different places, different people, scattered around the edges of Land of Hot Springs.

(Not Cloud ninja, War Operations said. Not an intended attack, they said. Possible but unlikely to be an attempt at destroying morale.)

How many people?

And at each of them, a blood painted symbol.

And at each of them, bodies mutilated and arranged to spell out words.

Heathen. Infidel. Heretic.

God-killer.

Not Cloud ninja, no. Not an attack on morale, no. This was a… a warning. A target. Hidan knew. He knew. And he was going to-

No. No he didn't know. Not exactly. Jashin had been able to identify me, identify Gelel, but was that enough for his follower to be able to find me? Surely not. Otherwise he would have come after me. Come to Konoha. Not this … display. This was casting a net. This was a taunt. A target in the other direction.

If anyone knew who was responsible, what would they do with that information in the face of this? And it wasn't… there were rumours. Had been, ever since I'd appeared at the border, covered in blood. How little would it take for him to put that together? To find me, regardless of truth and certainty?

How could I, knowing what he was doing, ignore this?

How could I stop him? I couldn't. I wasn't strong enough. That was the whole point.

And I had thought that this couldn't get worse.

Numbly, I gathered it all together and took it to Tsunade. She was in the middle of a conversation with dad, but took one look at my white, strained face and took the file.

"It's him," I said, voice tight. "The symbol is the same. It's. Because."

She looked at the pictures and didn't flinch. Oh. Oh, she did know.

"I will deal with this," she said, voice firm and reassuring.

They weren't our people. It only mattered as intelligence. I wasn't going to leave Konoha. I was defended here, protected.

I nodded, blindly.

Dad wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "We should continue this later, Tsunade," he said, and guided me out of the room to his office.

I folded my arms across my stomach. They weren't shaking. There was no danger here.

"Was that file the Hekiyuu Massacre?" Dad asked, carefully.

I nodded. Swallowed. "Yeah. All of them."

"Pretty rough stuff," he said quietly, squeezing my shoulder. "Did you identify the culprit?"

I hesitated. It wasn't really a question – obviously, I had. I'd said as much to Tsunade. But it was still classified… or…

"It's not a Cloud ninja, is it?" he asked, sounding like he guessed the answer to that, too.

I shook my head. "Missing-nin," I said. "I was looking into him. Before." And dad was the Jounin Commander. He probably did need to know about this. Even if that mission was classified, even if Akatsuki was classified, this wasn't the same thing.

Probably.

Either way he kept asking questions, kept gently steering my answers. I didn't know how much I'd told him, kept tripping over my words. Probably too much. I didn't say anything about the explosion, about the seal or the cult, but there was only so many ways to fill the dead air in that story. I thought.

And… I didn't want to lie to him. It was important that people knew how to fight Hidan, if he was hanging around the border, waiting to see who challenged him. They would need to know what to do – what not to do – to get out alive.

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"What?" Sasuke asked, blearily squinting at me.

Okay, yes. I was breaking into his house at approximately midnight. I just hadn't thought he was back from whatever mysterious Anbu mission he'd been on. There was a tension about him, like he was prepared to launch awake and into action, but was equally prepared to close his eyes and go back to sleep.

"Sorry," I said, belated. "Kino is crying and I can't sleep. I was going to crash here."

More than 'I can't sleep' the crying had been driving straight through my brain. I'd tried to use a sound muffling seal to make my room quiet but that had been a mistake. It had been a complete and total mistake. Even with my sensory ability, the absolute silence had only jacked my paranoia up to maximum.

If something happened, you wouldn't hear it. It could be happening right now. You wouldn't know.

And I was achingly tired. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep safely.

"Whatever," Sasuke sighed, flopping back down on his bed and tucking the kunai away.

I contemplated the room. There was no couch. I could have pulled my sleeping bag out of hammerspace and slept on the floor. But…

I curled up next to him, on top of the covers and back to back, and fell asleep.

"There was actually something I wanted to ask you," I said, in the morning, as we got ready to trek over to the team training grounds.

Sasuke made a noise to indicate he was listening, sliding his feet into his sandals.

"How do you go about getting recruited to Anbu?"

He paused. Flicked a glance at me. "You ask an active duty Anbu how you go about getting recruited," he said, sardonically.

"Really?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

He shook his head. "Not really. But you get … recommended. It comes down to the Hokage in the end. Why?"

Not 'why do you want to know' that was obvious. More like 'why Anbu'?

I shrugged. "I can't take missions as myself," I said, echoing the answer he'd given me a long time ago. "And I… I need to keep fighting."

"It'll be harder for you," Sasuke said. "The secrecy."

Because I had family. Because I had people that would ask where I was. I shrugged again. "I'll work it out," I said.