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.

Nemesis Jedi – Tobirama is totally Shikako's favorite Hokage. Just saying. Even if inventing Zombie no Jutsu was a terribad move and the Uchiha Police Force thing didn't turn out so great either.

Anemos – I did hint at Shikako being able to sense natural chakra in one of the earlier chapters, and basically knew not to touch it until she could get instruction. And while she knew about the toads, she didn't know that monks basically did the same thing. But yes, using it is still a long way off. Sealing is an area that I think not a lot of shinobi get into. Mostly, I'd wager that seals are copied. You make an explosive tag by making it identical to that reference tag, rather than by understanding that this bit goes boom. Medical ninja would study medical seals, but probably wouldn't create new ones all that often, which makes Tsunade special. On the SotTG, well, Aoi had it despite it being his supposed bargaining chip into Hidden Rain, and it was implied that before that it was kept in a dusty storage room somewhere, so I can't see it being that important, despite all our reactions of lightsaber. XD



Chapter 64



I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies
This is the dawning of the rest of our lives ~ Green Day, Holiday



"Good," the medic-nin said, ticking off something on his clipboard. "Now again."

Obediently, I ran through the exercise again, pressing my palm flat to the table and lifting each finger in turn. It was surprisingly difficult for something so simple, and the muscles in my hand twinged with pain.

"It looks like you're right on track," he said. "Don't forget to do your exercises, and treat the scar tissue to keep it supple."

"I won't," I promised, slipping my compression glove back on and picking up the squeezy stress ball from the table.

"Try not to overdo it, either," he said with a wry smile. "It might seem slow, but you are healing well."

Objectively I knew he was probably right. It was just frustrating to be barely able to do anything.

It wasn't just because of my injuries; I was still rather lacking in chakra which made training difficult. I still had plenty to do, seal work mostly; the Sound Four had reminded me of barrier ninjutsu and I was rather lacking in defensive capabilities. Not to mention the other dozen or so ideas that had been kicking around in my head. Every time I accomplished one thing, it led to half a dozen more ideas about where it could go from there.

I left physiotherapy, absently rolling the ball over my fingers, and headed upwards. Ino was finally allowed visitors and I had to see her.

"Hey, Ino," I said, hovering in the doorway.

She was sitting quietly on her hospital bed, staring blankly at an open book on her lap. Her eyes were still slitted and I felt guilty for wishing that the physical sign of change had gone away.

She glanced up, reflexively, before lowering her eyes again. Her bangs were brushed forward, loose across her face, almost as if she were trying to hide.

"Hi," she said dully. She looked better than she had at the briefing but still not… quite herself. And I knew what if felt like, to realise that your very self was malleable, that what made you you could be changed so easily…

I had been lucky enough to come back to myself unharmed. Ino… hadn't been.

How much, and how badly, she'd been changed… that I didn't know.

I crept forward, feeling as if I was intruding. The silence in the room was suffocating. "I-" I cleared my throat. "I'm sorry. I should have come up with a better plan."

For a second, I thought she wasn't going to respond. I wasn't even sure she heard me. But then Ino took a shaky breath. "I should have listened," she said, eventually. "You warned me that it would be dangerous. But." She blew out a breath. "I was… so sure it would work. It should have worked. It's… Mind-Body Switch isn't easy you know. I trained hard to be able to do that." She looked frustrated, maybe even on the verge of tears. "It's not a lot, not compared to you or Sasuke or even Chouji can do but it's all I have." Her voice cracked on the last word. "Without it I don't have anything and I'm not – I don't want to be useless."

"Oh, Ino. You're not-" I hurried to reassure her, startled at the sudden turn the conversation had taken.

"No," she bit out. "Don't. Just, don't, okay? I really screwed up. I know…" she hiccupped and buried her face in her hands.

I stared at her in bewilderment and perched on the side of the bed, hugging her awkwardly. I was at a loss for what to do. Of all of us, Sakura had been the one prone to tears, not Ino. Never Ino. "You did fine, Ino. No one could have known about the curse seal. It doesn't make you useless."

"I was nothing but dead weight," she said, still muffled. "The whole mission, I did nothing to help. I –" she choked and shuddered. "I was so happy when I made the finals. My first try, as a rookie. Dad didn't even manage that. The only Konoha kunoichi… but I lost and, and you've all come so far-"

I listened in confusion, stroking her back soothingly.

"You don't even need me anymore. You're… you've changed so much and you're so strong now and I don't even know when that happened. And Sakura is advancing so fast and you know there's talk about apprenticing her to one of the medics? No one does that anymore. Even Hinata is… and I'm still just me, and you don't need me anymore!"

This wasn't just about this mission. It wasn't even mostly about this mission.

"I – of course we do, Ino," I said. "You're my best friend. And Sakura would say the same." I hadn't changed that much since becoming a Genin, had I? "And you just had a bad matchup. It happens. It doesn't mean you're weak."

"You don't." She pushed away, wiping her eyes. "You used to follow me or Shikamaru around. You'd hardly even speak to anyone else. And now you're helping plan A-ranks or whatever and you're like a completely different person."

I stared at her. Of all the ways this conversation could have gone, this wasn't one I had been prepared for.

"It was easier," I said haltingly. "To let you take charge when you were there. You're good at… at people and at organising things. Like our study group. None of the rest of us could have made it happen. But that's not the only reason… I'm sorry if you feel… if we haven't made it clear that… you're important, Ino. Not for what you do but just for being Ino." I felt clumsy and useless, trying to put into words something so simple and so complicated at the same time.

Ino just gave a watery smile. "That's the Shikako I remember. 'Good at people'. Heh."

"That's what I get for trying to give a heart-to-heart speech?" I asked, trying for indignant, but mostly just feeling relieved that Ino was listening and joking. "Maybe I should just have gone to get Sakura."

"Sakura doesn't get it," Ino said, voice low, fingers twisting the edge of the blanket. "She hasn't seen-"

She gave me a helpless look.

"We're all growing apart," I said. And that was the problem, wasn't it? It wasn't something that you could counter, all of us having different experiences, but Ino was reaching out, trying to find something familiar to hold herself to and… it wasn't quite what she was expecting. "Sakura hasn't had to fight; she's still studying." She might have had to see the aftermath, at the hospital, but it wasn't the same. And maybe she was thinking the same, having seen things in the hospital that we hadn't seen in the field.

"Yeah," Ino agreed, subdued. "I just didn't expect it to happen so fast."

She went silent, and after a while, I tentatively breached a question. "Are you… okay though? With … everything." I waved a hand aimlessly, trying to refer to what had just happened without words. If Inoichi wasn't working with her any longer, and she was allowed visitors, I was pretty sure that meant she was on the road to recovery, but that didn't mean she thought she was fine.

Ino glanced at me. "No," she said, as if testing the word. "No, I'm not."

I stalled. I hadn't been expecting a negative answer – truthful or not.

"I just…" Ino began. "I don't know how you did it… I didn't think about it then, but when Tsunade came back and healed you, you just… got up. Started training again, like nothing had happened. But, I can't." She laughed, sounding a little too desperate and hysterical to be entirely comforting. "I can't. I lost bits of myself and I don't even know what's missing. How can I be okay? How can I just get up? How did you do it?"

And how could I explain? How could I say that Tsukiyomi had been awful…That the press of foreign chakra and that forced sharp perception had been damaging… That in the short term the horror of watching so many people die so messily had hurt… that waking up to find a month gone, people moving on, had been confusing, but … I'd had years of waking up knowing that I'd lost everything. Family, friends, pets, home, places, language, culture… so much that I hadn't even acknowledged, just taken for granted as being there. It wasn't something I thought about, even now when I loved what I had, when the loss was merely painful rather than completely and utterly incomprehensible.

How could I explain that I had gotten up, reached out, kept trying because by now it was all I could do to keep moving onwards.

I swallowed. I didn't really like thinking about it, especially in those terms. It had been years… "Sometimes… if I look out the window at sunset and the sky is red…" I said quietly. "It feels like I never left." That wasn't something I had ever voiced aloud. But if Ino needed to hear it… "It's not like it didn't affect me. I just… got up. I get up. Every morning. That's the hardest part." My lips twisted into something that probably wasn't a smile. I couldn't really look at Ino, staring blankly past her at the wall. "You set a goal, something that you have to do, even if it's just something small. 'I have to get up, because I have to visit Ino today'. After that, it's just momentum to keep yourself going."

That one was an old trick. I have to get up because I have class. I have to get up because I have work. Ninja didn't have such a schedule, and without one I had to set my own goals for the day, otherwise I'd laze about in bed all day and I knew it.

"Oh," Ino breathed in surprise.

"It is okay to not be okay, you know," I added quietly. "You don't have to get up right away. And… you can ask us to help you. Or… if you don't want to ask… we'll help anyway." Because I had trouble asking for help and I didn't know if Ino was the same. Probably not; she'd never had any problem telling people what she wanted but… just in case.

Ino slumped back against the headboard. "Thanks," she said softly. "I just realised… I never asked. You said you were fine and that was it."

"It's okay," I said with a shrug. "I was fine."

"You mean you wouldn't have fessed up if I didn't need to hear it," she corrected, a little sadly.

I tried to weigh up if that was a good response or a bad one and what I needed to say in return. I didn't want to set her off again, and she was being… changeable. It was like walking in a minefield. There were things you didn't want to step on, but you didn't know where.

"Never mind." Ino sighed. "Look, I just… need some time to think, okay? I'll talk to you about it some other time."

I nodded, said my goodbyes and left. I didn't kid myself into thinking one conversation had fixed everything. But maybe it was headed in the right direction.

I slipped away from Ino's room, feeling wrung out. How could visiting a friend be more exhausting than physical rehabilitation?

I brought myself a drink from the vending machine and settled into the courtyard to drink it. There was bright sunshine, gentle wind, birds singing in the tree and the low chatter of other people enjoying the day, and none of it could ease the unhappy tightness inside me.

I stayed longer than I meant to – not that I had concrete plans – and eventually a gaggle of students spilled out into the courtyard, carrying books and food.

"Shikako!" Sakura said brightly, waving goodbye to the others and ducking out of the crowd. "What are you doing here?"

"Hey." I managed a smile. "Friends of yours?"

Sakura sank down onto the ground next to me, setting her books in a stack. "They're the third year medical students," she said, glancing away and tucking her hair behind her ear. "They're alright, I guess."

They did look a bit older, I noted, maybe sixteen on average, though a few were older than that. They hadn't looked particularly surprised when Sakura had broken off from the group, though a few had waved at her. Not close friends, no, but friendly, at least.

"I'm glad I came outside, then," Sakura said. "Usually I go to the library at lunch."

She was peering at me, green eyes bright and slightly anxious and I was at a loss for what to say. "Ah," I agreed, taking a sip of my drink to cover the pause. "Lucky."

"I heard about what happened," she said, slightly hushed after a pause. "A bit, I mean. But you were hurt, weren't you?" She made an aborted move towards my arm. "Can I?"

I held it out to her mutely, but instead of unwrapping the bandages or inspecting it like I had anticipated, her chakra sank into my arm. I jerked a little, in surprise, not quite yanking my arm from her light grip.

Had Sakura ever used her chakra on me? I didn't think so. It was unlikely she'd known how to do this prior to joining the Medical Corps and I didn't think there had been an opportunity since. Maybe it was just the timing of it, but her chakra reminded me of the sleeping gas they'd used to knock me out for surgery, faintly sweet and chemical, light enough to overlook if I didn't remember how fast it had worked.

Something in her face eased and she drew back. "I thought it would be worse," she admitted, a little shyly.

I thought about the pounding terror, the slick feeling of blood sliding between my fingers, the sharp pain of the initial injury and the repeated star bursts as I moved it. I thought about pressing it to my stomach and hoping it wasn't deep. I thought about the long, dark walk home and the contrast to where we were sitting now. It barely seemed real.

"Ah," I said staring down at my neatly bandaged forearm; hand tucked away in a compression glove. My fingers flexed. "It could have been worse."

"Have you seen Ino?" Sakura asked, sitting back and unpacking her bento box. She offered me some, and I waved her off. "I did this morning. She seemed… quiet."

Quiet wouldn't have been the word I would have used, but she probably hadn't ranted at Sakura like she had at me.

"Just now," I said, wondering if I should share. But… it was personal, wasn't it? It wasn't something that should be gossiped about… "We should do something for her."

"Something?" Sakura queried. "Like what?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. A get well present? Dinner? A day out?" Something that said 'we're friends. Even if everything is changing, we're still friends'.

"That could be fun," Sakura agreed. "Maybe we could go to the onsen. Or, ooh, shopping. It's been a while since we've all just hung out."

I was content to stay silent and let her eat, my attention drifting off.

"So what have you been working on? And don't say 'nothing much'. I'll never believe you."

"Seals, mostly," I said. "Can't do much physical training at the moment, or hand seals so…" I shrugged. "Actually, maybe there's something you can help with. If you've got time or whatever." She was the only other person I knew with supposed 'perfect' chakra control, and well, this was something she had been able to master. I hadn't intended to broach the subject so soon, not until I had a chance to test her reaction.

Sakura looked interested. "Yeah? I don't know much about seals."

"It's not sealing," I said. I grabbed a piece of blank paper and started sketching a rough limb and chakra movement. "Most people use chakra enhancements to increase their strength, right? But there's a limit to the amount that you can do so, before you actually start damaging muscles and tendons by putting too much strain on them. The better you are at balancing which parts you reinforce, the higher the limit is, but it still plateaus."

"Yeah," Sakura agreed. "We learnt that at the Academy."

"Right. So, to get beyond that plateau you'd need to do something different right?" I kept sketching, drawing down the ideas I'd worked out some time ago. "Like, say, the release of precisely timed chakra bursts as kinetic energy to maximise physical damage?"

Sakura blinked. "You'd blow your arm off with the backlash!" she objected.

"Not if you were counter-reinforcing it," I returned, scribbling the key points down. Okay, my drawings were horrible and my actual calculations were encoded in my notebooks at home, but it got the general gist across.

"I guess," she said doubtfully. "But the precise chakra controlled that would be required to do both at the same time would be…" she trailed off and frowned. "Where did you get the idea for this again?"

"There are quite a few famous strength enhancing techniques," I demurred.

But Sakura wasn't deterred. "This is Tsunade-sama's strength technique!" she hissed, leaning in close so no one would hear her. "You can't-"

"Not entirely," I prevaricated. "I don't know how Tsunade-sama does her technique. But I would assume that she does do something similar, yes."

Sakura didn't look impressed, but I noticed she hadn't let go of the paper. "This is impossible," she said.

"The numbers work," I countered. Of course 'in theory' was much different to 'in practice'. There was a reason I hadn't exactly tried it.

"Do they?" Sakura asked doubtfully.

"If you assume one hundred per cent accuracy in chakra conversion and conservation," I conceded.

"Even medical techniques don't assume more than ninety per cent. Ninety five for the seal based techniques. And assuming you can hold effectively two techniques at the same time is just asking for trouble."

"Not as much as you would think," I countered, getting into the spirit of an academic argument. "Most ninja effectively hold bodily chakra enhancements while fighting, even when using gen, tai or ninjutsu. It becomes a passive technique that requires little concentration to hold."

"True," Sakura conceded, pursing her lips. "I still think there are problems."

"Run through it, then," I suggested. "Work it out and we can trade notes, see what we both came up with and which would work. I'll have to decode mine…"

Sakura bit her lip, staring down at the paper. "I – well- it's Tsunade-sama's technique! We can't just…"

"Try and recreate it?" I asked. "You think we're the only people that have tried this?"

"So what makes you think we'll manage?" Sakura retorted. "If no one else has?"

Which was a good point. "Is that enough to stop you trying?"

She looked torn. On one hand, this was a challenge, an intellectual challenge at the moment, which was the kind she loved the most. On the other hand… yes, it did seem a little underhand to try and recreate our Hokage's technique.

"We'll get in trouble."

"It's possible," I admitted. "But we're pretty much creating it from scratch just, you know, inspired by a technique that already exists." And any ninja that told you they'd never been inspired by someone else's techniques was a dirty liar.

"That's just details and you know it." But she folded the paper up. "I'll… look at it. I'm not promising anything! But I'll look at it."

Which was saying that she was interested enough to try and work the theory of the technique out. Whether or not she'd help with the practice, well, that was another bridge to cross when we got there.

I smiled. "So how's your training going?"



"Are you going to come and see the Sand Team off?" Shikamaru asked, leaning against the doorframe casually.

"Mmm?" I hummed, half listening as I wrote. "Wait, what? They're leaving? How do you know that?"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Some of us have left the house recently, you know."

"I thought you were helping out at the Academy," I said, puzzled. I was pretty sure that was what he had been complaining about recently.

"Yeah," Shikamaru agreed. "So were they."

And that was unexpected, yet brilliant at the same time. It kept foreign ninja occupied, under the watch of the few ninja in Konoha who were (debatably) able to spare an eye, showcased Konoha's strengths and exposed the kids to foreign ninja under friendly circumstances. The risks were, of course, letting foreign ninja who had recently been enemies around Konoha's children.

Some might have said that the risk was too high, even if we were nominally allies.

"Huh." I blinked. "Right. Okay." I set my work down and grabbed my kunai pouch. Not that I thought I'd need it, but it felt weird not wearing it. It was like leaving the house without my keys. Or something.

We headed out to the main gates. Ninja weren't really that big on saying goodbye, or seeing people off, but it felt like the right thing to do.

"Have you been working with them a lot?" I asked curiously, because it was odd for Shikamaru to go out of his way for anything.

"A bit." Shikamaru shrugged. He cast a sideways glance at me. "Was there something you wanted to say to them?"

I shook my head. "I already said what I had to say." I wasn't sure how it had gone over, but I'd said it.

Shikamaru gave me an odd look, and yeah, okay it wasn't like he knew what I'd had to say to them. Hopefully he assumed it was something like 'thanks'.

There was a quiet bustle of activity at the gates, but at a glance there was no one I recognised. Shikamaru didn't say anything, and just propped himself up against the wall with folded arms, so I mirrored him, absently rolling my stress ball over my fingers.

"Huh," Temari said, pausing in the middle of the street and cocking a hand on her hip. She stared at Shikamaru. "What do you think you're doing here?" Her brothers halted beside her, seeming content to allow her to be the one to speak.

"Even if it's troublesome," Shikamaru said, "it's only polite to say goodbye when allies are leaving." There was a tone of familiarity to their exchange, of banter. I was strangely fascinated at the hint that Shikamaru and Temari might have become friends while she was here. It was something I hadn't seen developing, hadn't been a part of, a side to my brother that was entirely separate from me.

Although 'friends' might have been stretching it a bit. There seemed to be a mutual wariness between them all; that of foreign shinobi watching each other carefully, evaluating every word and move.

"Thank you for your help," I said, bowing shallowly. "It was lucky for us that you were here."

To my surprise, it was Gaara that bowed back, albeit very stiffly. "We were assigned this mission merely to get us out of the village now that there is no one with the power to contain us," he rasped and I knew by 'us' he meant himself, most of all. "And as a subtle discourtesy to your village. And yet…" he paused, seeming to search for words. "I am glad we were here."

Because sending an unsheathable weapon, a Jinchuriki known for insanity and one who had recently attacked our village no less, on a simple delivery errand had to have all kinds of hidden meanings. And yet, in one simple move, Tsunade had turned their insult into our victory.

Temari and Kankurou both looked slightly ataken back, but recovered quickly. "That's right," Temari agreed. "But try not to get into too much trouble. I'd hate to have to make the trip from Suna that often."

Shikamaru smirked slightly. "Likewise."

Kankurou shifted a little, adjusting the weight of his puppet on his back. "Right. Now that Temari has gotten all of her sappy goodbyes out of the way; let's blow this joint."

He ignored the dark look Temari shot his way with the ease of long practice.

They were just about to head out the gates when someone yelled "Wait! Wait" from behind us.

I turned, bemused, and watched as Konohamaru dragged a confused Naruto through the crowd.

"We had to find the Boss," Konohamaru explained, panting. "That took forever."

Moegi and Udon, having been apparently left in the dust as Konohamaru raced off, appeared as well. More surprisingly, Ebisu-sensei was tailing them. I was amused to note that Moegi had a obi tied over her normal outfit, dangling a large sloppily tied bow behind her much like Temari.

"Whadda you midgets want?" Kankurou demanded gruffly. "Aren't you supposed to be in class?"

"We're here to say goodbye!" Konohamaru retorted. He marched smartly up to Gaara and nearly tripped over his own scarf. He shoved a piece of paper towards Gaara. "We made it," he added unnecessarily.

Gaara blinked.

Konohamaru was, much like Naruto, the kind of person who would react to something that intimidated him by reaching out and poking it. Of course, his run in before the Chunin Exams had mostly been with Kankurou and it didn't look like he'd forgiven that.

"Thank you," Gaara said quietly. From here, I could barely see what had been handed to him, but it looked … colourful. And potentially glittery.

"Thank you for helping Ebisu-sensei teach our class," Udon sniffled. "I hope you come back soon."

Moegi beamed, clasping her hands together. "We'd like it if you visited!"

Ebisu-sensei adjusted his glasses. "Your assistance at the Academy was much appreciated. I'm sure the other teachers will agree with my assessment that you were valuable assistants."

Naruto looked uncharacteristically sombre. I recalled that Temari had mentioned Gaara wanting to speak to him, and I hoped they had. It would probably have been good for both of them. "I guess this is goodbye then," he said. "You know, when you first showed up here, I thought you were just a crazy guy. I was even a little scared of you. But we're a lot more alike than I ever would have guessed." He laughed, a little uncomfortably. "Ah, I guess what I'm trying to say is; I'm glad you found precious people of your own. Even if we didn't get to fight, I can tell that you're a lot stronger now. So, you better keep getting even stronger, because that's what I'm going to be doing!"

Gaara nodded slowly. "Yes. I think I will."



It was mid-afternoon when I knocked on the door to the Yamanaka residence, carefully wrapped host gift in my arms. I'd been surprised to receive a formal invitation from them, but the card had had touches of pure Ino all over it, so I'd hoped she was having fun planning a dinner party.

I was a little early, but Sakura was already there.

"Hey, Shikako! Come help me take this into Ino's room!" She gave an aborted wave, hands full of snack food and nibbles.

I slid the gift onto the bench and picked up an armload. "Sure. So whose coming to this thing? Do you know?"

"Not many people, actually," Sakura replied with a tiny, barely noticeable frown. "Us, Hinata… I think Tenten. That's about it."

"A real girls night out," I said. "None of her friends from the Academy are coming?"

Ino had had a much larger social circle than the two of us, and it seemed odd that they weren't here, especially compared to a recent friend like Tenten. I doubted that five months was enough time for her to completely stop talking to them.

"I don't think so," Sakura said. "I think she just wanted a small get together?" She didn't seem very certain of the fact.

I shrugged. I couldn't really blame her if she did. Even after she'd left the hospital, I hadn't seen her much; she was keeping herself quietly tucked away.

Ino's room had been rearranged, with a small table for the snacks and drinks and several kneeling cushions.

"Hullo," Ino said, beaming, as she shuffled the flower arrangement on the table. "What do you think? At the end or the middle?" She moved the vase back and forth several times.

I glanced at it. "Middle?" I offered, helping set the bowls down.

"Middle it is then. Perfect!" She looked happy; much more like herself in spirit. It was good to see.

"Having fun then?" I asked, amused. "I liked the camellia with the invitation. Victory under adversity?" There were several meanings, but I was pretty sure that was the one she intended to use.

Ino gave a secretive looking smile.

"I got a convolvulus with mine," Sakura said. "Perseverance."

"So we all got something different?" It did make sense, if she was trying to send a message.

"I'm not saying," Ino said, with a laugh. "You'll have to wait to work it out. I bet it's killing you now."

Playfully, I stuck my tongue out at her. "No, it's not!" I liked puzzles, true, but not so much that I couldn't wait.

Tenten showed up next, looking a little awkward and intimidated.

"Glad you could come," I said.

She sidled close to me, looking relieved. "I didn't know what to expect," she said lowly. No wonder she was intimidated, then. The Yamanaka might not have been a huge clan, but they were fairly well entrenched into the community. For an orphan like Tenten, a formal invite might have heralded a lot of nerves. Especially considering we were just casual acquaintances.

Well, I didn't know if Ino knew her better than I did.

"Do you know Ino well?" I asked.

Tenten hesitated. "Okay, I guess. Well, we hung out a bit when… when Sasuke was on my team." She shrugged. "She was someone to talk to when I got sick of the two of them."

That … actually made more sense than 'lets invite the kunoichi who went on the last mission with us'.

"I wouldn't worry about it," I said. "I think the invites were just Ino getting carried away. If you make things too formal, it just gets boring."

A smile tugged at her lips. "Well we wouldn't want that."

Hinata arrived precisely on time, knocking timidly on the door. "Oh," she said softly, staring at us. "I'm sorry, I…" She trailed off miserably, fiddling with her sleeves.

"That's a lovely kimono," Sakura said brightly.

It was. Very much so. The problem was that none of the rest of us were anywhere near as dressed up. Awkward.

"That," Ino proclaimed. "Is a brilliant idea, Hinata. We should all get dressed up. It'll be fun." She bounced to her feet.

And amidst the giggling and flying cloth, as we raided Ino's wardrobe, I remembered to ask "so what flowers did you get with your invitation?"

"Chrysanthemum," Hinata demurred shyly. "Thank you, Ino. It was lovely."

Tenten shrugged. "It was blue?"

Well, colour could change the meaning, but the way Ino burst into giggles, I figured that wasn't the point.

"What? I have better things to do that memorize a billion different types of flowers," Tenten said defensively.

"It was an iris," Ino gasped out.

I nodded. "So, camellia for victory. Convolvulus for perseverance. Chrysanthemum for natural perfection. Iris for heroism." I thought about it. "Natural beauty is a warrior who perseveres and finds victory despite adversity?"

"That's so cool!" Sakura said, clasping her hands together, eyes a little starry. "A kunoichi only grows more beautiful as she fights."

Which wasn't quite the interpretation I would have taken from it but I guess I couldn't fault Sakura for it.

We spent ages getting ready and doing unrepentantly girly things like our hair and nails – shinobi nail protector was like the holy grail of nail polish, long lasting, non-chip enamel designed to stop your nails getting caught and tearing on things or the multitude of nasty things that could happen when you used your hands for a living.

"Don't you girls look nice," Ino's mother said when we came downstairs for dinner. "I feel underdressed."

Like my family, the Yamanaka normally at a table with chairs, which was just easier and more convenient, but for formal occasions low tables and seiza cushions were preferred.

Dinner was excellent and I ended up striking up a conversation with Tenten about seals.

"When you offered me a book," she confessed. "I thought you meant a textbook."

"There aren't many textbooks on the subject," I said. "Or at least, not that I've found." The revelation that sealing was a method that varied from person to person because of individual experiences and preconceptions probably helped to explain that. "Has it been helpful?"

"Very. I'm thinking… you've been able to modify seals right? One of the problems I have with using storage scrolls to hold weapons is that, well, I have so many of them. And throwing the scrolls is easy enough, but they make a target."

"And you either have to seal everything into one seal, and then have it all appear at once, or use a lot of separate seals," I continued, having an inkling of where she was going. It was the first place my mind had gone.

"Right. Storage seals are all in or all out. You can't, say, put two things in and then take one out. But what if you could? If you could make a permanent, partial opening seal that could be used repeatedly?"

Hammerspace. Totally.

"Well, storage seals actually don't have any shape when they're empty. They're … collapsed, I guess, and they take the shape of the object that's put on them. Which is why you can store food in there without it going rotten, because there's no air or heat… you could try sealing, I don't know, a box and then putting things in and out of that pre-sealed space, but I'm not sure how you'd go about opening it and getting things out without collapsing the whole thing," I admitted. "You might need a completely different base seal instead. Maybe combine it with summoning…"

"Yeah," Tenten said, looking animated. "I've been thinking about that. I've been calling it the door way effect. If a seal is like a room, then usually you're building it around whatever you want to seal, and taking it down when you're done. And if you knock out one of the walls, then it doesn't have enough support and collapses. But most rooms have doorways, and they can support a bit of structural weakness, you just need to find a spot that will hold. And obviously, put a door in so you can open and close it."

It was a simple analogy, but I could see what she meant. Find a point in the seal where you could put a doorway or a tunnel and then pull things in and out through that. Like going through the back door instead of the trapped and guarded front gates.

Across the table, Ino moved her hands in a 'blah blah' motion. "Boring work talk," she decided.

"Hey," Tenten shot back. "I listened to you lot talk flowers before."

Eventually, Tenten and Hinata left with happy smiles to head home. Sakura and I had been invited to stay the night, like we'd done many times before.

"You know," Ino said, unrolling the extra futons while Sakura was in the bathroom brushing her teeth. "For someone who says they're no good at people, you're excellent at getting us to help each other."

I gave her a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"

"Sakura told me it was your idea. To get us all together."

"Oh. Well, I meant for us to do something for you, not …" I shrugged a shoulder. "I didn't think you were going to throw a party."

"It was good though, wasn't it?" Ino asked, rhetorically. "I would have missed this."

That… wasn't quite right. "Ino?"

She glanced up. "Just hear me out, okay? I've been doing a lot of thinking these last few days and I know you're just dying to hear." Her voice took a teasing lit, though it was still serious.

"Okay," I said slowly.

"I've been thinking about quitting," she said bluntly.

I wasn't sure if I could have spoken if I'd wanted too.

"I know. I'd have to abdicate as clan heir and everything, but I have cousins who could take the role. It wouldn't be too hard." She leant back against the wall. "I really thought about it. All this stuff in my head… it taints everything. I'll never know, ever again, if something is what I want, what I like, or if its him. If I'm being influenced… it's not just as simple as having his memories. There's more to a person than that and I don't even know which parts –" She shook her head. "There's always going to be doubt. Like, if I keep learning medical ninjutsu, is it me? Or is it something I picked up from him? Am I going to wander down the same path he did? Even something that's supposed to be for helping people is tainted now."

I wanted to speak, to reassure her that she wouldn't, but she wasn't finished yet.

"But… I always wanted to be a kunoichi. I wanted to lead the clan. I wanted to fight and to heal and to help people. If I quit now… if I quit because of him… that decision is going to be tainted too."

We were silent for a second.

"Natural beauty," I quoted quietly, "is the warrior who perseveres and finds victory despite adversity."

Ino smiled. "We're going to bloom into the most beautiful flowers of all. Just you wait."



This chapter took forever to write, which is a shame, because this was the bit I was looking forward to writing three chapters ago. : (