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: I think Avicii's 'Hey, Brother' might actually be my Nara twins song. There's something bittersweet about it.

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Chapter 70

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Hey brother, there's an endless road to re-discover.
Hey sister, know the water's sweet but blood is thicker.
Oh, if the sky comes falling down for you,
There's nothing in this world I wouldn't do.

~Avicii; Hey Brother

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The Dead Wastes were probably more impressive to someone that knew anything at all about deserts. To me, they looked about the same as the rest of the desert that we'd passed through to get here. Granted, we had travelled through a few variations – rock, rocky sand, sandy sand, a dried out old creek bed to name a few – and this did seem to be on the rockier side of the equation.

Then again, there was something I noticed about it, and that was the complete and utter lack of chakra in the air.

Nothing lives here…

The desert had seemed pretty bare of life to my eye, with the exception of a few small and lonely plants, a spikey looking lizard or two, and a snake basking in the sun. (Kankurou had also suggested that our heavy footsteps might summon a giant sandworm - apparently straight out of Dune - but Temari had just scoffed and rolled her eyes at that, so I was pretty sure he was joking.) But the natural energy in the air had differed little in volume from any rural area in the Land of Fire, suggesting that there was a thriving ecosystem however little of it I could see.

The fact that this place had no chakra at all…

I shivered.

Tentatively, I gathered a little chakra into my hand, holding it up at eye level. The blue glow seemed to waver, like a candle flame in the wind, pulling inwards to the Wastes. Despite my tight control, it was peeling off, dispersing into the air and being sucked away.

"Interesting," I said, more unsettled than anything. It seemed… active. This wasn't just an area with no chakra, it was an area where no chakra could be.

"What was that?" Naruto asked puzzled, staring at the air.

"It's almost like something is drawing the chakra away," I said.

"Eh?" Naruto frowned. "But where would it go? Into a jutsu?"

I blanched a little. "Let's hope not." An area this size, for however long it had been empty? That would be an extraordinary amount of chakra. That would be… destructive.

"It's still a huge area," Temari was arguing with Shikamaru. "It'll take weeks to search."

"I should be able to get us close," I said, cutting in. "I can sort of sense the energy the stones use, so we won't have to search everywhere."

"That's better," Temari agreed, grudgingly.

I thought about pointing out that she had agreed to come this far without even that much of a plan, but it didn't look like she would appreciate the reminder.

We set off again, and suddenly I was in the lead, taking us deeper and deeper into the Wastes. My lungs didn't like breathing this lifeless air, which was rich considering how long it had taken them to realize that chakra wouldn't drown them.

The Wastes were flat, bare rock more than sand, with cracks and crevices reaching downwards that sometimes split it valleys or gulfs. That was interesting in its own way, and not just in making sure we didn't accidentally step off the edge of a cliff. It almost seemed like this had once been like Land of Rivers, since water erosion and underground rivers were the prime cause of such cave networks.

There was no water here now.

Sometime in the afternoon, I started hearing the song of Gelel grow louder and clearer, which was a relief as it meant we were going in the right direction. I followed it, until it was so loud my bones felt like they were vibrating, and it was so clear that I could have named each note, had the melody had recognizable notes. I couldn't have begun to describe it but it was beautiful.

"Somewhere here," I said, after a few circles around. It had grown dimmer in each direction, so it must have been here.

It could have been anywhere. This wasn't flat ground, and it could have been hidden in any number of crevices or caves, or buried a hundred feet underground. Even with Naruto's shadow clones, it would take us a long time to search them all.

"Quiet," Gaara rasped, crouching and pressing his hands flat against the ground. Specks of sand danced around him, as if caught in a breeze.

When he stood, he seemed to know exactly where we were going, and lead us down and through twists and turns with unerring certainty. We'd climbed through caves before, in Hidden Waterfall, but those had been built or repaired for human use, whereas these were just natural accidents. It made the trip… interesting, but we were ninja and were hardly about to be defeated by the natural world.

"I feel like this should have been harder," I mused. We weren't quite in a cave –there was still sunlight spilling down around us – but two giant stone slabs were wedged together to make the area virtually inaccessible. Beyond that, however, was a structure with clear signs of workmanship. It might have been half collapsed, pillars worn and engravings and patterns faded, the stairs covered with piles of sand… but it was here.

"Why?" Naruto asked, seeming to be honestly puzzled that I considered finding the remnants of a long lost civilization in a day 'too easy'.

I stared at him. He stared back.

"Never mind," I said, slumping.

He looked curious for a moment longer, before shrugging it off. "Let's go inside!" He called, running up the steps. "I want to see what it's like!"

"Idiot," Shikamaru groaned. "You deserve every trap you run into."

But we couldn't not follow, so after a moments pause we started up the stairs too. Whatever I'd imagined inside, it wasn't like that. The outside might have been crumbled and time worn, but the inside was as clean and fresh as if people had only left the day before. It was wide open, a central hub with many branching corridors off it, and every available surface was heavily decorated. The columns were carved, there were mosaics across the floor and picture frames on the walls, like the most extravagant of temples or palaces. It wasn't dark, either, like it should have been with no sunlight. I couldn't see any light sources, nothing glowing, but it was like broad daylight in here.

"Creepy," Kankurou said, stopping beside me.

I barely heard him. If the Gelel was a song, then this room was a masterpiece of acoustics. It pushed at me from all sides, and I could feel the stone in my pocket beating in time like a second heart.

And despite Shikamaru's mutterings, it didn't look like there were any traps. Naruto was darting in and out of the corridors, exploring with eagerness, and we broke up and spread out to have a look around. I paused to look at all the carvings, which were incredibly detailed. Like the mosaic patterns on the floor, they seemed very geometric, but not rigid and repeating.

I couldn't help but reach out an awed hand to brush over them.

And then yelped, jumping backwards and pulling my fingers away as though burned.

It had taken my chakra! Just pulled it straight out of my hand! It had been so strong, like the pull of a riptide sucking you out to sea just when you thought that the water was safe. I hadn't been able to fight it, or resist it, chakra to chakra, and it was lucky I could back away.

"It's a seal," I said, astounded. The others had stopped at my first exclamation, wary of traps and dangers. "This whole place is a seal…"

With a new eye, I looked over the patterns and carvings.

And swallowed.

It was huge. It was complex. I didn't even understand what it was for. But it made sense. The Dead Wastes, completely lacking in chakra because it was all here, sucked out of the air to feed this monster of a seal, for centuries. Millennia.

Shikamaru cursed, low and vicious. "Do you know what it does?"

I shook my head. If seals were like languages, then this was written in some long dead tongue, and I had no Rosetta stone. And even if I could translate it, it would be like babelfish, a mess of poorly aligned words with no context or explanation.

People only think in so many ways, Jiraiya had said. But what about a different civilization altogether? I was different enough, and I had still grown up here a second time.

"I vote for not staying in the cursed and abandoned temple," Kankurou said, almost immediately.

Even if Naruto wanted to explore, no one was really arguing with that.

We set up a small camp just outside, with no small amount of relief. We'd been moving non-stop since yesterday, and a rest was long overdue.

"They're not going to be able to get the boats here," Temari said in satisfaction, perched on a rock and still somehow managing to look sophisticated. "Which means all we have to contend with is the mobile fortress that you described. We don't know how many soldiers they can deploy, but this is an excellent area for ambushes. We should at least be able to engage without suffering too many losses."

Especially since they had Gaara on their side. Once they stopped playing hit and run with the coast line, they were done for.

I was starting to feel good about our chances for dealing with this, which is why I probably should have expected things to start going wrong. A beam of bright white light cut through the air above us, visible in the small parts of open sky we could see.

"Lightning?" I tried, not even sounding like I believed that.

We went up, sticking to the walls to ascend vertically, and cautiously peering out in case of a trap.

"You!" Naruto shouted, jumping up and pointing angrily at Temujin.

I blinked. How on earth had Temujin got here? Had he followed us?

He wasn't alone either, but the man with him wasn't one I had seen before. He didn't look like any member of Haido's entourage, older, shabbier and less well dressed. He was carrying the ferret that had started this whole mess of a mission, cradling it dearly to his chest.

I wasn't exactly worried about this descending into a fight. Temujin was so outnumbered, and unless he was leagues above the other Gelel warriors, we'd be able to handle him.

"Oh, the unparalleled shinobi of the Leaf and Sand," the old man wheezed. "You must help me-"

"Be silent," Temujin commanded, shoving him in the shoulder and forcing him to stumble a few steps forward. "Haido-sama is already on his way. There is no need for you to resist any longer."

"Leave him alone!" Naruto shouted. "Are you alright, old man? What'd this freak do to you?"

"Tricked, tricked and betrayed!" the old man said, sniffling dramatically. "He came to us in friendship, as though he were the ninja hired to bring Nerugui home-" He hefted the ferret to demonstrate his point. "Then forced us to give up the secret location known only to our clan!"

I raised an eyebrow. This was the man who hired us? And he knew the location of the Gelel mine? This was utterly, utterly ridiculous.

… but I had started hearing the Gelel when we met the ferret, hadn't I. Not when we ran into the base, or into the golems, but the ferret.

"It has one of the stones, doesn't it," I asked, woodenly. It wasn't even a real question.

"Nerugui has been with our clan for generations," the old man confirmed. "He was once the companion to the kings of the empire, and we were trusted with guarding him." He looked dolefully at us all. "The mine must never be recovered, do you understand? It's power is beyond anything humans can handle. Those stones are the reason that the empire was destroyed!"

"Power is only power," Temujin shrugged. "What matters is who wields it. In the hands of Haido-sama, we will build a utopia. A world without wars, where the weak are never trampled by the strong… That is all that matters. That is our dream."

"There is so much wrong with that that I don't even know where to start," I said, annoyed. It was good that he was talking, it gave us more information, but it was still utter bullshit. "What part of devastating helpless villages and kidnapping people leads to peace? That's exactly what you're telling me you hate. Utterly hypocritical."

"We had no choice," Temujin insisted. "Sometimes sacrifices must be made. We have made sacrifices too, noble sacrifices to make the world better. That is what it means to accomplish something."

"You don't get to decide what sacrifices other people should make!" Naruto yelled, which was exactly the same thing I would have said. "It's not noble, and you should stop acting like you know better than everyone else!"

I really kind of hated that all these bad guys used 'world peace' as their explanation. It seemed to tarnish the whole concept, as though every time they were proven wrong, it was proven wrong.

"The ends don't justify the means," I continued, tag teaming off of Naruto. "The means create the ends. Any rule that's built with such needless bloodshed will continue that way. You think Haido will stop giving orders to kill people, just because he has what he wants?"

That one at least seemed to strike home, and Temujin faltered for a moment. "Don't talk about Haido-sama that way!" he snapped. Not deep enough, then, it seemed.

"This… Haido," Gaara rasped slowly. "Who is he?"

"Haido-sama is a great lord of Rikujou," Temujin said, earnestly for one who was so stoic. "He is noble and very wise and has achieved many great things in uniting the nations of our warring country. Even I… My friends and I were rescued by Haido-sama when bandits destroyed our village. That's why we believe so strongly in his dream to free the world of wars. That is why I must recover the mine of Gelel."

I couldn't say the revelation made me terribly sympathetic. "Your village was destroyed by bandits?" I asked, deliberately softly. "So you're just doing to others what was done to you?"

There was a bit of vicious satisfaction at watching the words hit home.

It had probably blown the small progress we were making. But there was satisfaction.

"He must be one of the descendants of the royal family," the old man said dolefully. "They left across the sea many years ago and took with them the Book of Gelel and the last of the stones. Only the blood of the royal family can destroy the stones, so we were never able to do more than hide the mine. Maybe now it can finally be destroyed…"

"Incredibly interesting," Temari said drolly, looking anything but interested. "Are you going to come quietly?"

Temujin raised his sword, but the sand that Gaara had been steadily piling around his feet as we talked spread up and immobilized him. A ninja would have expected that.

"I would have preferred to have greater forces here," Temari said critically. "But I suppose we don't have to worry about how to lure them in anymore."

Haido being on his way might have been accelerated from our plans, but it was basically what we were hoping to achieve in any case.

We tied Temujin up and went back down to our makeshift campsite. Now we were on a timetable, there were plans to make and traps to set. I didn't have much to offer, as the barren nature of the area made all my seals useless, so I spoke with the old man a little. His name was Kahiko, and he was part of a caravan of nomads that had been in River Country. He had been the one to hire us to retrieve the ferret – named Nerugui- which made me slightly regret our decision to abandon the original mission. If we'd ended up meeting him first, could we have learnt all about the stones and Gelel beforehand? Then again, the decision we'd made had been reasonable with the knowledge that we'd had and who knows what other events might have occurred.

All offers to take him to a safe distance, however, were rebuffed with melodrama that reminded me sharply of Tazuna. As much as I'd ended up liking the bridge builder, it was clear that Kahiko had his own agenda, whatever it might have been. I felt like throwing my hands up in frustration.

After that, it was mostly just waiting, and we took the opportunity to rest as much as we could.

"They're coming," Gaara rasped, just as the next day's dawn peeked over the horizon. The night had been freezing and I was almost glad for the return of the searing desert heat.

"Finally!" Naruto said, hopping up and peering around. There was nothing to be seen, but that didn't stop him from trying.

I made one last attempt to get Kahiko to safety – which he refused – and followed the others out to the places we'd chosen for fighting.

Like Temari, I rather wished we had more people with us. Especially when the stronghold came back into view, rumbling the ground like an earthquake and towering against the sky. It was moving quickly over the flatter ground; far faster than it had been in River Country.

We waited, tensely, until it hit one of the spots we had readied, and the ground caved in, a bare crust of rock hiding crumbly sand and open space beneath. It pitched forward, nose sinking down into the ground, treads circling without grabbing, and ground to a halt.

"Perfect," Temari said, heaving her fan in a wide circle. Winds blasted out, only gaining speed and strength as lashed across the open space, so that they carved deeply into the metal of the machine, more than one pipe bursting and spilling steam or simply being sliced straight off and clattering to the ground.

Sand whirled through the air, stirred up by the winds, but luckily was directed away more than toward us.

It made visibility poor, however, and when the golems came crashing towards us, it was only luck that one of us spotted the one flying overhead. Temari slashed at it with a sweeping gust of wind, but it dived agilely out of the way, low enough to see that it was not one but two; a twisted feminine warrior carrying the lord himself.

And they were headed towards the mine.

Temari broke off from the fighting to follow them, and I shared a quick glance with my brother before doing the same.

I wasn't exactly happy to leave the fighting when there were so many of them, but Haido outranked them in order of priority. And with both Naruto and Gaara there, they were unlikely to be overpowered.

Temari took another swing at the flying figures, and even standing behind her, I felt the kick back of the technique, then seemed to … falter. She stared ahead, eyes blank, wrists bending awkwardly under the weight of her Tessen.

Genjutsu?

I didn't know Temari well enough to know if she had a plan – pretend to be helpless under the effects and reel the attacker into a trap – or what her level of genjutsu defence was, but the Gelel warriors were fleeing, not attacking, and it was better to offend her with help than leave her stuck in it.

I altered my course, skidding to a stop beside her and clamping a hand down on her shoulder to disrupt the genjutsu. It was stubborn, and not-quite-chakra and I probably rattled her slightly harder than strictly necessary to break her free of it.

Then I took off towards the mine, because our targets had made great time while we were occupied.

By the time I got within range again, Haido was gone, Temujin was freed – again – and the disturbingly vampiric flying woman was swooping overhead.

"You must be really desperate to get your ass kicked by us," I sighed, as Temujin drew his sword.

"Rising Thunder!" A line of pure green light blasted out of the blade, curving along the path of his strike, as though the air itself was being cut apart. A note of Gelel sang out, pure and refined, ringing with strength and power.

"Wind Release: Wind Cutter Technique!" Temari called out, and as the two jutsu clashed they hung frozen in the air, just for a second, and I swore I could see where they met.

Then the blades of wind shattered and broke, flying back towards us on the wave of green light.

This is going to hurt, I thought grimly as I threw myself at the ground – into the ground, though I barely scratched the surface as the leading edge of the attack passed overhead. But it had widened out into a wedge as it travelled, and I couldn't avoid it totally. Temari's scattered wind blades stabbed into the ground haphazardly, dangerous and uncontrolled.

I rolled unsteadily to my feet, feeling scraped and raw. Temari had sheltered behind the open lee of her Tessen, though she didn't look happy with the damage it had taken, and there was a nasty gash in the stone behind us that would make Shikamaru very annoyed to have to cross when it came time for them to follow us.

The vampire laughed, nauseatingly sharp and high pitched, looping overhead. "You said they were dangerous," she jeered at Temujin.

"Wind Release," Temari growled. "Great Task of the Dragon." The sky – I kid you not – went dark, with what was apparently just wind, which then descended upon us like some kind of tornado from hell.

I took one look at it and went 'nope'. I wasn't staying out in this. Temujin was standing between me and the mine entrance, but that was too bad for him because he was going to have to move.

Temujin might have been fast and had great reflexes, but a ninja moving at Body Flicker speed is all but invisible to the naked eye. Body Flicker was a burst of pure speed, almost sliding over the world, pulling yourself from one spot to another, done with chakra alone. You could start at a standstill, and finish at a standstill, in a different position to the one you started in, without having to do all that pesky running in between.

So when I mirrored one of Lee's favourite openings, appearing in a low crouch in front of him, and sweeping his legs out with a roundhouse kick, he was taken by surprise.

Then I made for the mines with as second Body Flicker, and didn't even look back to see whether he was following me, or caught in Temari's tornado.

The inside of the mine was just as eerie as before – maybe more so now that there was actual fighting going on and I knew that the Gelel was drowning out my ability to sense enemies. Which meant I couldn't rely on sensing to find Haido, and would have to use the old fashioned method of looking.

Ruefully, I wished we had investigated more closely, then at least I would have had a map and an idea of which way he would have been likely to go.

As I ducked into one of the side tunnels, there was a clatter of metal against stone, which at least told me that Temujin had followed. I wasn't exactly eager to confront him, regardless of what I'd said outside. We'd been running and fighting and running with little pause for days, and I was starting to flag. My hand, barely healed and then sorely abused once more, was a hindrance, my seals would not work due to lack of natural chakra, and unwary brushes against the seal work of the mine would result in chakra loss. It was not an ideal situation for fighting.

Hopefully, there would be a good spot or two for an ambush, and I'd be able to take him out that way.

I wasn't actually sure what I would do once I found Haido. 'Stall' seemed appropriate.

This is a right mess.

I moved onwards, trying to guess at which paths Haido might have taken. Down? Deeper into the mines? But he was hardly going to dig them out of the ground himself, was he? Depending on how quickly the fall of the empire had progressed, there might have been a store of stones kept awaiting sale… or they might have been cleaned out completely.

The volume of the music was making my head pound, and it was hard to think, like standing in the front row of a concert and trying to do math.

Then I heard the sound of raised voices echoing along a corridor, and realized I had found my answer. I couldn't make out the words – it was too indistinct for that – nor who it was that was shouting, but there could hardly be other people here at this time, could there?

I darted into the room just in time to see Kahiko stab Haido with a small dagger.

Kahiko, of course. I hadn't seen him outside, but I'd assumed he'd just hidden when the fighting had broken out. But no, of course he was getting himself involved.

Haido yelled, a wordless roar, and threw the old man backwards. I moved to intercept; around the central plate we were standing on, the floor fell away, stairs circling the walls and descending far downwards. If Kahiko fell from that, he wouldn't survive.

There was a small dais on the wall opposite the entrance, with an empty pedestal. I had the feeling that it hadn't been empty a few minutes ago, and the greenish glow visible from Haido's hand seemed to confirm that.

I dropped Kahiko to the ground to keep my hands free, and hoped he didn't jump into trouble again. It hadn't even achieved anything, because the small wound had already healed with the regenerating power of the stones.

At least it's in his hand, I thought. Easy enough to cut off. It wouldn't kill him, either, unlike Fugai.

"More interruptions?" Haido said, looking at me with a sigh. "Those children really are worthless. But it's too late. I already have the first stone of Gelel, the Heart Stone, and there is no longer anything you can do to stop me."

"Yes, there is!" Kahiko snapped, and drove his little dagger into the centre of the mosaic on the floor. There was a pulse of chakra, and it rippled, surging out from the point. "This is the Chamber of Sealing, and with the royal blood, this will destroy the entire mine! These legends have been passed down our clan for generations!"

And Haido started to laugh.

Oh, that isn't good. I didn't know what he was laughing about, but it was never good when you revealed your trump and the enemy laughed. And… the seal didn't actually seem to be doing anything.

You could have told us this before, Kahiko!

"Fool! I have searched long and hard for these stones, they were not handed to me by birthright alone."

Well, it was too much to assume that they would have survived so long passed down from parent to child. It had been thousands of years. They could have been sold, stolen, traded, lost… any number of things. There wasn't even any guarantee that there were any of the 'royal blood' that still existed, nor that there actual blood would fit whatever parameters were designed into the seal. Good grief.

Metal clattered behind us, heralding Temujin's entrance into the hall. Behind him, a tiny furred face peeked out inquisitively, before churring happily and bounding through the room to curl up on the pedestal.

"Ah, Temujin. I thought I gave instructions to allow no one inside?" The reminder was sharp and biting. "No matter. Kill them."

And Temujin, wonder of wonders, hesitated. "Haido-sama? We have what we came for. There is no longer any need…"

"You always were too soft," Haido snorted contemptuously. "How many times do I have to tell you? They are noble sacrifices for a greater cause. Those who stand at the top have to make tough decisions, so the rest of the world may be drawn into a peaceful utopia."

"You mean 'so the rest of the world bows to your might'," I cut in softly. "You only say 'peace' to convince others to follow you."

"What does it matter? I have the stones now. If no one dares fight, then there will be peace."

"You will be a tyrant and people will always rise up to fight tyrants," I retorted. "Besides, those stones are not as powerful as you seem to believe. Maybe your home is different, but there are people here who could crush you, stones or no." If he thought we were the pinnacle of ninja ability, he was in for a rude awakening.

Still, I hoped it didn't come to that. Because having actual ninja get their hands on these was a far more frightening thought.

Immortal, endlessly regenerating ninja. It would be like Edo Tensei zombies come early. No, something would have to be done about it.

Haido glared darkly and raised his hand, palm facing towards me. I was moving before the blast of energy left his palm and impacted on the ground I had been standing a bare second before.

"Such power!"

"Haido-sama!" Temujin objected.

And Haido turned his hand on him. Unlike me, Temujin didn't move fast enough to avoid the blow, and it sent him tumbling across the ground, sword flying from his grasp.

"Hmm, I can't control it properly yet," Haido mused, seeming unconcerned about what he'd just done. "That should have killed you, Temujin. I really don't have any use for you, anymore, if you're just going to get in my way. Your sacrifice was appreciated."

Temujin rose up on hands and knees and was staring at Haido with disbelief. "You- you…"

There was light glowing on his breastplate, just above the heart. No, not just light, it looked like writing. A seal?

"The royal symbol," Kahiko muttered. "So it was the boy all along…"

Haido twitched his fingers, but instead of another blast of light, Temujin's swords started sliding across the floor towards him, with some speed. My jacket pocket pulled forward, the stone inside it seemingly drawn to Haido, but wasn't the target of the technique, and therefore not strong enough to pull through the material.

"This sword was one of the relics of the Empire," Haido said stooping to lift it. "This was what led me to you, in the end. Your mother fought in the battle of Fuchidoru, and there were many tales of her skills. I knew it was a power I must have. She refused to hand it over, for the betterment of all, so what happened afterwards was necessary."

Wait. Hadn't Temujin said his parents were killed by bandits?

Haido examined the sword carefully. "In the end, it was useless. The stone was corrupt, answering only to your family. But your mother also had a book, and that was much more valuable." He threw the sword to the side.

"You were the one that destroyed his village!" Kahiko said, verbalising what we were all beginning to realise. "You killed them all."

Temujin was staring in mute horror. I did feel sorry for him now. Maybe Haido had seemed reasonable, before they'd come here. Maybe the violence had crept up on them. But this was a lie right from the start, from before the start.

"But you no longer have the book," I said, carefully drawing attention back to myself. "Do you?"

That did it.

"Where is it?" Haido snarled. "You stole it, you thief!"

"If it wasn't yours to start with, how am I the thief?" I asked. I didn't actually want to provoke him into action, just distract him. I was perfectly fine with Haido monologuing as much as he liked.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kahiko shuffling towards Temujin. I hoped he wasn't going to try the knife trick again, because I'd rather not have the entire place destroyed while I was inside it. Afterwards… well that was fair game.

I took a step forward, cautiously. My lightsaber was in my pocket, and all I had to do was cut off his hand. He hadn't mastered the stone, and so far its abilities had seemed straight forward.

"That book is the foundation for our new world," Haido said. "It contains the secrets to how to use the stones for a prosperous existence. If you return it, I will show mercy. I will even allow you to be part of our new utopia."

"Eh," I said, shrugging a shoulder. "I already destroyed it."

So much for not provoking him. I should probably have played along with accepting the offer and buying time to get closer.

I dodged the first blast, planted my good hand on the ground and flipped over the second, drew my lightsaber and deflected the third – which worked, and I didn't consider that it might not until the moment before it hit – and was close enough to swing at him when something hit me in the back and I staggered.

I blinked, confused. Temujin and Kahiko were to my side, I could still see them, staring in wide eyed horror. It hadn't been them.

My lightsaber went out, and tumbled from nerveless fingers.

I blinked again, slower and heavier.

That's not good.

My legs weren't working right. I fell forward, onto my knees. They jarred against the stone, but it was a distant feeling.

There was a shriek, like the cry of a wounded animal, and the air turned red.

Sluggishly, I raised my head – when had I dropped it? – and watched Naruto careen past me, making the air bleed. Red chakra snapped over my skin, and it should have been unbearable, but all I felt was heat.

Naruto is here. It'll be okay now, right?

"-he'll pull the place down around us!" Temari's voice said, warbling and wavering in my ears. She was holding Shikamaru by the arm, trying to drag him back out the door. But he didn't want to go, was shaking her off, and you couldn't make a Nara go where they didn't want.

"Shikako!"

I struggled to get up. Shikamaru was never so upset, never sounded so hopeless. I just had to show him it was okay.

But there was something heavy attached to my chest, and it was so hard to move, I was so tired…

I reached up to touch it, fingers clumsy. It was cold, cold and metal, pressing out through my sternum. It shouldn't have been there. It was Temujin's sword, and it was in my chest.

Shikamaru crouched in front of me - when had he moved? - eyes wide and hopeless. It looked like all the pain I wasn't feeling was hitting him. Listlessly, I raised an arm, touching his face gently. Blood smeared from my fingertips across his cheek.

It was so hard…

"'Kako, 'Kako, come on, please," he was saying, just my name, over and over again. His hands fluttered, my shoulders, hands, arms, chest, shoulders as if he couldn't decide where to touch.

And it dawned on me that I was going to die here.

I was…

I swallowed, tried to say something. But there was nothing. What could I say? I'm sorry, I love you, I failed, I'm sorry, I don't want to go.

I didn't want to go.

Because I was going to lose this.

I was going to lose Shika and Naruto, Ino and Sasuke and Chouji and Sakura… I was going to lose mom and dad. I was going to lose feeding the deer in the early morning and the dawn peeking over the tree tops. I was going to lose shogi in the living room and feet under the kotatsu in winter. I was going to lose standing on water and defying gravity. I was going to lose lightning sparks dancing over my fingers and earth trembling underfoot and I was going to lose a shadow that moved itself…

I was going to lose the chance to make a difference.

I was going to lose everything.

Again.

It didn't matter what came after, if it was nothing or everything, the end or a new beginning… I was going to lose this.

I didn't want to go.

Shika was still talking, but I couldn't hear him anymore. The song in my head was too loud, and there was nothing else, anymore. But it was beautiful, and nothing hurt, and it was dragging me away into light. The tempo was like the beat of a heart, and the melody like breathing and it was warm and almost familiar.

But I… didn't want to go.

I wanted to live.

And the light roiled and twisted inside me, filling me up, like a supernova inside my chest. I gasped, eyes flying open.

Because… it. The Gelel. It wanted to live too.

It had begun here. A long time ago. And there had been people here, always people, short sparks of life that lived and shared with it, tended to it and it grew. It lived. Maybe not sapient. But sentient. It had lived, and it had shared life with the little sparks, and they had lived longer and better, shining brighter. It had loved.

And then they had gone.

We had been alone here, and we had waited, waited for them to come back. And now they had, bright, shining life carrying pieces of us.

And then one of them cut out, candle flame guttering into darkness.

We cried out, a long note of despair. We did not wish to lose them, not to go back to being alone. We reached out, and we knew them. Shikamaru, Naruto, Gaara, Temari, Kankurou, Temujin, Kahiko, Nerugui… we knew them.

We could feel the anger of Kurama breaking against the seal. Like glass it was, clear and true, separating the two of them the way we were not separated. We touched him, soothed him – time passes – and he shone, clear and bright and alive. And we could feel the other, Shukaku, and we could touch him too, alive and eternal like us, as great and infinite as the depths of the universe.

Then… a note of discord. A shadow where there was nothing to cast it. Something that was not us, within us.

Shikamaru.

You would fight a god? We asked him, curiously. He did not hurt us, could not hurt us. We were light and life, not mortal flesh to be injured or damaged. We were. We existed.

Yes, came the reply, fierce and bright. Give me back my sister. He pushed and pulled and he was so small and nothing compared to the vastness of space, a drop of ink against the night sky, an ant trying to destroy a star.

His energy drained, little by little, fading away, life leaching out as he expended it in a fruitless struggle. For what?

Shikako, he pleaded.

My name. For me.

We were –

I was –

I was caught in the center of a storm, torn and tugged in every direction. I couldn't hold on. I couldn't let go. I wasn't who he thought I was, wasn't who he was fighting so hard to get back.

Shikako!

I had wanted to be special, hadn't I? Wasn't this… wasn't this special, precious, terrifying, to know that someone would fight a god. For you.

So that you would stay.

I didn't… I didn't want to go.

I reached for him, and it took everything I had. The Gelel pulled at me, and it wasn't malicious, it wasn't, it was safety and light and joy and life and it was so hard, so hard, but I-

-let-

-go.

Light exploded upwards, a fountain of it, a column of it, pouring out of me and into the sky. It covered the sky in all the colours of the aurora, bright enough to be seen under the noonday sun.

I choked, trying to breathe, and Shikamaru's hands were on my shoulders, and he was crying, and my body felt wrong, heavy and ungainly and imperfect. I was hollowed out, burnt from the inside, empty and too full all at the same time.

Naruto was sitting, half collapsed, eyes wide and face pale. He looked uninjured, more awed than horrified. Temari crouched beside her younger brother, a half formed shell of sand protecting them both from falling debris. Kankurou, further away, had dragged Temujin and Kahiko to safety.

The temple around us was shattered and gone, and things were unfurling from the ground, growing things, grass and trees and flowers. I could hear water burbling up, a cheerful babble, as an underground spring refreshed.

I breathed.

It didn't hurt.

Cautiously, with great dread, I looked downwards. There was no sword protruding from my chest.

I touched it. There was nothing but solid, unbroken skin. If it hadn't been for my tattered, blood soaked shirt, I wouldn't have believed I was injured at all.

"We were stars," I said to Shikamaru.

And started to cry.

.


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Well, this one's been a long time coming. The next chapter should be the last of the movie, wrap up and help explain all the things Shikako didn't really see.