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.




Chapter 71



Weep for yourself, my man,
You'll never be what is in your heart
Weep, little lion man,
You're not as brave as you were at the start

~Mumford and Sons, Little Lion Man



"Shikako!" Naruto cried, scrambling across the ground to where Shikamaru and I were huddled. "You were- You're okay!" His voice was a painful mix of confusion and relief.

I blinked back the blurry tears clouding my vision. There was a lump in my throat, something thick and heavy, filled with grief and loss and slowly fading fear. "I-" I rasped. "I'm okay. I'm okay."

I'm okay.

If I said it enough, was it true?

Shikamaru's fingers were claws digging into my shoulders, a solid grip anchoring me in place. It was starting to hurt, but it made it feel like I was me again. Like I was settling back into this body, not some ethereal figure made of energy. The two of us were separated by flesh and blood, no longer joined by spirit and soul.

Oh, Shikamaru. I closed my eyes and let my forehead rest against his shoulder. Just for a few seconds. Just a few. He wasn't letting me go. He wouldn't let me go. Not even if the thing taking me away was death. How had he even done that? How had he managed to reach me, when I wasn't even me anymore?

I shivered, muscles jerking and contracting under my skin, an uncontrollable impulse even in the desert heat.

The feeling was fading, of what it had been like. I'd understood things, then, but now it was like a dream. In a way, I supposed I was grateful, because it was too much even now, some kind of sharp and raw thing that wasn't meant for humans.

Naruto's hand tangled in my sleeve, and it was such a young move, such a childish request for contact, that I drew a deep breath. I was okay. I could do this.

I rocked back, sitting up and wiping my eyes clear on the sleeve of my jacket.

Generally, I didn't really like crying in public. It was too messy, too personal, and just because it was understandable didn't really make it any better. The fact that I wasn't the only one in tears didn't help either, it just let me feel embarrassed on their behalf too.

There was movement to the side, as the other moved now that the land had stopped restructuring itself. I flushed as I caught Gaara's eye, even though his expression gave nothing away.

The immediate fighting might be over, but we were still in the middle of a mission and it wasn't exactly appropriate behavior.

There went any respect I'd earnt from the sand siblings.

"We should move," I murmured, voice still raspy. "We've got a mission to finish." There were so many things that needed to be done, but the list of unfinished tasks didn't motivate me like it normally did. I just wanted to close my eyes against the endlessness of it all.

Shikamaru made a harsh, disbelieving sound. "You just died." His voice cracked heavily. "The mission can just-"

You just died.

Because, if we didn't move, I had to sit here and think about what that meant. About how close I'd come to losing everything, about how close I'd come to failing.

I'd thought I'd known where the danger was coming from. But this mission wasn't even on my list – wasn't anything I'd had forewarning about. And that was the kicker, wasn't it? This wasn't Orochimaru or Itachi or Pein. This wasn't part of the 'story'.

And yet I'd still nearly died here.

And it had been because of my own mistakes. I'd been tired, and distracted by the sounds I could hear. I hadn't taken Haido seriously. I hadn't been paying attention to my surroundings. I should have been able to dodge the sword when he called it towards himself, when it started flying through the air, but I hadn't even seen it. I'd forgotten about it.

I'd made a mistake.

And it had nearly killed me. It had killed me.

I drew in a shaky breath, trying to hold onto the little composure I'd regained. My eyes were tearing up again. So much for dignity.

"I'm sorry," I said, voice breaking. "But please-"

Don't make me do this here.

Shikamaru softened and drew back. "Okay," he murmured, eyes searching mine. "Okay. We'll finish this." He drew a deep breath. "We'll finish this, then we're going home."

I nodded, relieved he was letting it drop. Relieved that he was going to take charge and sort everything out. If it had been my responsibility, I'm not sure I could have managed. At the same time, I needed this to be done, needed to see it to the end and know how it all worked out. I needed it to finish.

I was just… teetering on the edge. On the edge of what, I didn't know, but too much pressure would send me toppling. And I didn't really want to find out what was at the bottom.

We stood together, which was slightly awkward as no one seemed to want to let go. I slid my hand into Naruto's. His skin seemed fever hot to me. Or maybe I was cold. I felt cold.

We'd missed part of what the rest had been talking about, though it seemed like Kahiko was fretfully explaining what had occurred inside the mine, including the details about Temujin's parents. Temujin's eyes flickered up as we approached, and I noticed with a start that they were green, not Sharingan red.

Did his stone vanish? I didn't think it had been removed. Not before I'd been stabbed, anyway, and who would have had the chance afterwards? Or is it just because the spirit of the Gelel is… gone?

"What have we done?" Temujin murmured quietly, face ashen.

"Invaded our country," Temari replied, with an ease that belied the impact of her words. "Killed a lot of people. Attacked shinobi of Suna and the Hidden Leaf. Attempted to release some kind of ancient chakra beast." She drummed her fingers against her leg and arched an eyebrow. "Answer your question?"

Temari, clearly, didn't do sympathy.

He stared at her, eyes slightly over wide. "There is no apology I can give," Temujin said, eventually, "for those actions."

Temari snorted. "You've got that right," she said, leaning on her closed fan. "An apology isn't going to cover it."

"The only thing I have is my life," Temujin said, bowing his head. "Take that, then."

To me, that seemed to be a slight over reaction. But then, this was a world where suicide – seppuku – would wipe the slate clean, regain lost honour and make things better. It was a mindset I had never assimilated. To me, all it seemed to do was leave one more body to be buried.

Naruto's hand tightened on mine, likely out of surprise. "You're just giving up, just like that?" He interjected, slightly bitterly. "After everything you've done here? Everyone you've hurt? All your big talk about bringing peace and a better world, it means nothing to you?"

Temujin didn't move, but he closed his eyes. "I was mistaken. Haido-sa…" he choked. "Haido's utopia was no utopia at all."

"So what?" Naruto shouted. "You think that guy's way is the only way to do things?"

Shikamaru shifted on my other side, subtly. He was looking at Naruto, not quite surprised, but something indefinable in his features. Yeah, Naruto had that effect on people, when he got serious like this.

Kankurou frowned. "It doesn't really matter if he gives up or not," he pointed out. "From now on, he's a prisoner of Suna. He's not really going to get a chance to do anything else." Cynically, he added, "It might be better for him if he is resigned to it."

Gaara looked vaguely troubled by the whole conversation, though it was hard to tell.

"Regardless," Temari cut in. "That's the least of our worries right now. There's still an invasion going on out there. The longer we waste here, the longer that goes on."

"Is there any way to contact the rest of your fleet?" Shikamaru asked Temujin bluntly. "You called them here, so you must have some kind of signal." It was the simplest solution to the problem, if Temujin could order them to stand down from here. Or if we could fake Haido ordering them to stand down. If there was communication, there were options.

Temujin blinked. "Ah." He licked his lips. "Yes. There's a communication array in the stronghold. But. The only ones who could use it were those with the stones…"

Kankurou made a face. "Great," he muttered. "Like we'll trust you to do that." I didn't think Temujin would try anything. He was done. He had given up. It was possible they wouldn't even work anymore, anyway. Still, attempting would cost us very little, and mostly only in the way of time.

The other option was heading back to the shore and attempting to stop whatever ships remained, one by one. That would be a much longer siege.

"I say we just knock him out," Kankurou said, mulishly, "and if we need one of those stones, we could make sparky over there give it a go." He used his thumb to gesture over his shoulder at me. Shikamaru made a small sound somewhere between surprise and outrage.


Gaara held up his hand. "Wait," he rasped. He stared at Temujin for a very long and unnerving moment. "If we take you to the stronghold, will you give the order to stop?"

Temujin nodded. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," he said, misery creeping into his voice.

"You're sure, Gaara?" Kankurou asked quietly. He shifted uneasily, readjusting the weight of his puppet.

"It's not so different," Gaara rasped, "from what we did. We attacked the Hidden Leaf, caused pain and suffering… I thought it was the only way to validate my existence, but I was wrong. We were defeated, and we found that it wasn't just strength that mattered in a fight. It was the bonds between people that mattered."

"Well, yeah," Kakurou agreed. "But-"

"We were given a second chance," Gaara continued, cutting him off. He turned, slightly, so he was looking towards us. "Even though we were clearly your enemies, had attacked your village and hurt you, you let us go, so that we could attempt to fix our mistakes and become better people. You showed us mercy. Because of that, we have become allies and both our villages have benefited."

Naruto laughed awkwardly, and scratched the back of his head. "Well, we are friends," he offered, a little uncertainly.

Gaara's expression did something complicated, where it seemed to soften and firm with resolve at the same time. "It's not so different," he repeated. "Only this time, we are the ones who can offer a second chance."

Temari didn't look happy, though whether that was at the reminder of their defeat, or at Gaara's decision, I couldn't tell. Kankurou just seemed resigned.

"Temujin. Tell your fleet to stand down and bring this fighting to an end."

Someone had made a decision. That was really all I cared about right now. In an undertone, Shikamaru directed Naruto to go and fetch our bags. We'd stashed them away outside the mine before the fighting had started, and hopefully they would have survived the destruction. I really hoped so, actually, because I could use a clean shirt.

And I was trying not to think about what my shirt was wet with. It was sticking uncomfortably to my chest. And it was warm.

It would have been less disturbing if it was cold, maybe.

"Are you sticking around?" Temari asked, cocking an eyebrow at Shikamaru.

He shrugged. "Even if we left now it would still take us three days to return to Konoha," he replied. "So we might as well stay and see what happens with the rest of the fleet. That way we can give a full report to Hokage-sama about the situation." It was sound reasoning, clear and understandable, said in a manner that was just a little detached. If it hadn't been for the arm slung around my shoulder, I might have even bought it too.

She shrugged. "Suit yourself." But she did look at him oddly, so I didn't think Temari really brought it either.

Truthfully, if the Gelel hadn't healed me fully – as it seemed to have – then rushing home for medical treatment would have little effect on that. We'd never make it in time for it to be useful. The only benefit would be in avoiding future conflict, and we'd risk that anyway by rushing back through River Country without making sure the fleet was dealt with.

When Naruto came back, I apologetically slid out of Shikamaru's hold and grabbed my bag from him. It was a little battered, but everything seemed to be intact.

"Be right back," I muttered, ducking away somewhere for some privacy.

I rifled around in my bag, pulling out a change of clothes and ignoring the Book of Gelel that was haphazardly crammed in there. I'd have to do something with that later, but I just… couldn't muster the energy right now. I changed shirts – carefully cleaning away the flaky blood over skin that was slightly pink and sensitive, but otherwise unscarred – and regretfully disregarded my jacket as a goner. The front zip was busted, and there were tears in it, but the major problem was the giant red bull's-eye stained into the back. I shivered, and hastily scrunched it up and shoved it in my bag.

I didn't have a spare jacket and it was funny how lack of a single layer of clothing made me feel so much more exposed. I swung my backpack on and absently scrubbed at my arms as I wandered back towards the group. It was ridiculous, really. A jacket was no protection at all, when jutsu could carve stone. And it wasn't even like I was underdressed compared to everyone else – all that was really visible was my inked up arms.

Everyone was ready to go, but didn't look like they were exactly waiting for me to hurry up, so that was good. Shikamaru had a familiar cylinder in his hand, which I took in relief. It probably wouldn't be very good to have lost my sword on the second mission I took it on, would it?

Tsunade would probably be pissed.

Oh, she was not going to like this mission report, really. Not at all.

We didn't run, because we had Kahiko and Temujin with us, and that was probably a good thing, because I didn't have any chakra. It was funny, I didn't feel… that badly off. There was exhaustion, but it was more the mental and emotional type, rather than limb shaking and sleepiness. Still, after what had happened, a little chakra loss was hardly unexpected.

"Are you cold?" Naruto asked in a whisper loud enough that everyone probably heard.

I stopped rubbing my arms. "Ah, it's fine," I said, perfectly aware that I shouldn't be cold. I should, probably, be worrying about heat stroke and sunburn if I didn't have chakra to regulate with.

But I felt cold.

Naruto wiggled out of his jacket, leaving himself in only Chunin vest over mesh shirt. "Here," he said, shaking it out and offering it to me.

I made motion to resist again, then gave in at the stubborn set of his jaw. Orange wasn't exactly my colour, but I'd take what I could get.


Oh, if Ino could see me now. Although, actually, I was pretty sure Ino would find the jacket the least of all worries.

"I could carry you," Naruto suggested about a hundred meters later. "If you- if you're tired or anything." He bit his lip, looking worried.

"I'm fine," I said.

One foot in front of the other. That's all I needed to do. Just keep walking. It wasn't far away, even counting the way that the ground had been reshaped, and it was now grassy hills instead of rock and sand.

There was movement around the stronghold, however. I didn't think that the others would have left any of the golems behind them, but it was possible that they had only just arrived. Or were newly created.

Temujin stepped forward. "Wait," he said, as the golems turned towards us. "My friends… the fighting is over. Lay down your weapons."

It was tense for a moment, then, almost as one, they did as asked.

"They're your friends?" Naruto asked, eying the golems curiously.

Temujin nodded. "Many of us were from the same village. Haido took us all in, after…" he trailed off.

There wasn't much more to say to that.

Temujin led us inside, walking confidently through the halls of the stronghold. At my side, Shikamaru was tense, but even if this was a trap, we'd already shown that we could take them on. I didn't think it was, anyway.

The room he led us to was crowded with all of us there. There was some kind of radar like display to one side, and some kind of sound board with numerous dials and switches. Temujin adjusted a few with practiced ease, and brought an old-fashioned microphone towards his mouth.

"This is Temujin to all members of the fleet. Please stand down. Disengage from all combat and await further orders." He took a deep breath. "Haido is dead. We have surrendered."

There was nothing but the crackle of radio for a moment, then replies started coming in. Thankfully, they were all 'affirmative'.

"And the villagers," Shikamaru mentioned, voice a low rumble. "You'll release them." It wasn't so much a suggestion as a fact.

Temujin nodded. "I- yes, of course."

That took much longer. Temujin could cut the power draining from the pods that they were in, but they had to be all individually released and removed. It wasn't just the villagers, either. The golems were controlled by people who were also in stasis, and with the sudden lack of power they also had to be removed. Even after the power was cut, everyone was still unconscious, and we took several trips to bring them outside.

And then had to repeatedly explain and calm people down as the civilians started waking up, disorientated.

I smiled for the thousandth time. "You're all safe now," I repeated. "Everything is okay. We'll sort things out and get everyone returned to their homes."

"They destroyed it all!" One man said. "I saw it!"

I paused. The village we had come across had been unlivable, that was for sure. What were we supposed to do about that?

"We will help you rebuild," Temujin offered. "It will not be the same as it was, but perhaps… we can make some amends for what has happened."

It was a good offer. It helped the civilians, it showed that Temujin was willing to make amends. It helped refocus his priorities. It was a really good offer, actually. There was no denying that.


It might not be.

I squinted against the sunlight, and located Gaara. He was to the edge of the clearing we had deposited the villagers in, standing on the edge of a rough cliff, overlooking the desert. I extracted myself from the people I was helping and walked over towards him.

From this vantage point, I could see the changes we'd wrought to the land clearly. I could have believed we were in Land of Fire almost, from the look of it.

"There are Suna shinobi on their way," he murmured, unmoving but acknowledging me with a glance from the corner of his eye.

I couldn't see anything. I couldn't sense anything. But I didn't doubt him. Besides, given our lightshow, I would have been more surprised if they weren't.

"Right," I agreed. "Temujin offered to help rebuild the villages that they destroyed."

"I see," Gaara said. I didn't know if that was approving or disapproving.

"It's up to you, in the end," I said hesitantly and bit my lip. "But, uh, I'm not so sure they should hang around that long."

He turned towards me.

"Even if the Mine of Gelel is gone, they probably still have a few leftover stone shards, if the communications array is any indication." Temujin's sword still had one, at least. Temujin himself might have still had one. "And… I think there are a lot of ninja that would really like to get their hands on those, if word got out. Plus, you might want to consider what people will think of Sand having an army camping on their doorstep so soon after the Invasion."

"That we mean to attack again," Gaara completed, voice low and rough.

"It might be taken that way," I acknowledged. "Especially if they're looking for reasons…" They didn't even have to believe it to use it to justify an attack.

I shrugged, and folded my arms around myself. "Just something to consider, I guess."

Gaara nodded and turned back to staring out over the land. I waited a beat, assumed the conversation was over, and was about to leave before he spoke again. "The Gelel. Is it gone?"

"Yeah." I cleared my throat of the rasp it had fallen into. "It's gone. It was… It's not like Shukaku or Kyuubi, who can hold themselves together if they're let go. Without the mine forcing it smaller it just … spread out. It's the air. It's the earth." I scuffed a toe against the ground. "You don't have to worry."

"I'm not," Gaara murmured. "It is… peaceful here."

"Yeah. Hardly the Dead Wastes anymore, is it?"

"It's a garden." Gaara nodded. "Life made from death." He looked pleased.

"Poetic," I said. Shi Kara Ikioi-en. The Garden of Life from Death. It was a better name than I would have come up with, anyway.

We waited until Gaara's reinforcements had arrived, then said goodbye and headed home. Everything wasn't quite finished but what remained was clean up and we had even less of a stake in that than we did the fighting.



By the time we set up camp, we were already back in River Country, though further north than we had been previously. We'd considered travelling longer and setting up camp late, but there was no denying that we were all tired. We could use the rest.

I fell asleep to the sound of crackling fire, and woke hours later when my body told me it was time for shift change, even if no one had roused me.

"Eh?" Naruto whispered loudly as I sat up. "What's wrong?"

"It's my turn," I said, also whispering. Nighttime had that effect. "Isn't it?"

Naruto shook his head. "Nuh-uh. You got hurt so you don't have to keep watch tonight. We decided."

I sighed and hooked my arms over my bent knees. I should have seen that one coming. "Are you sure? You used the Kyuubi's chakra and I know that makes you tired…"

Naruto hesitated. "Nah. It's fine."

I hummed, saying nothing.

"I wasn't going to say anything," he said in a rush. "Because you were hurt so it doesn't seem fair. But when… when you were…" He struggled with the words.

"When I was," I agreed. We didn't have to specify.

"Yeah. I was really angry. And… I guess I used a lot of its chakra. Even more than I used the last time against that bone freak." He made a face. "But you started to glow, do you remember?"

I didn't, but I guess that was a given. I'd seen light, so it wasn't much of a stretch to think everyone else had too.

"You started to glow, and there was all this light everywhere. And it kinda… went inside me and made me feel all warm. And the Kyuubi got really quiet and all its chakra just went away. I was inside my head – inside the seal, I guess – and I saw it. The light. And the Kyuubi. Normally I don't see it," he clarified. "Even if I talk to it in the seal. It's hidden in the dark and only teeth and anger. But this time I saw him." He looked pensive.

I couldn't think of what to say to that. "Ah."

"He does kinda look like a fox."

I cracked a smile. "I guess that's where the name comes from, then."

Naruto grinned back, eyes squinting into tiny crescents. "Kurama. That's his name, I mean."

"Kurama," I repeated, wondering vaguely if Naruto had any idea… But of course he couldn't. I'd encouraged him to this end, had asked about the Kyuubi's name back when he'd first 'revealed' he was the Jinchuriki. I just… hadn't expected it to happen so fast.

Not that simply learning his name meant that they would work together. But it was the first step along a road that Naruto wasn't meant to take for years yet.

I hoped…

"That's… wow." I was super eloquent, clearly. I tried to marshal some kind of train of thought.

"Yeah," Naruto agreed. Then he laughed awkwardly and rubbed the back of his neck. "But you should go back to sleep! I'll keep watch, no problem!"

"Right," I agreed. "I just have to-" I waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the trees, and slid out of my sleeping bag. "I'll be right back."

I wrapped his jacket around myself and ducked out of the campsite. I didn't go far, just enough to have a bit of privacy to go toilet, but I didn't head back immediately afterwards.

Because I still couldn't feel my chakra.

By now it should have started to return, even if only just slightly. The fact that I wasn't showing any of the symptoms of chakra exhaustion only made it stranger. I just didn't have any.

I touched the spot on my chest anxiously, but it was healed. It hadn't come undone.

Then I reached for my chakra, the same way I had done a million times.

Beneath my hand, my flesh turned malleable, losing solidity and slithering in a way unnatural. I gasped, but no sound was made, no air rushed around, because I no longer had lungs with which to draw breath. My entire torso was transformed, blackly shifting shadows instead of flesh. It crept down my arms and legs, marched up my neck towards my face.

I jerked backwards, trying to get away from myself.

Stop! Stop!

I panicked, trying to claw at it. But my fingers went through the shadow with only the barest sense of pressure, grabbing nothing. I tried to press it down, suppress it with my chakra, but I couldn't. I didn't have chakra. This was my chakra. The more I pulled, the stronger it was, the faster the transformation happened.

I was struggling, and that only made me pull harder, a reflex action, grasping at my chakra to strengthen myself against whatever enemy I was fighting.


It was cold, crawling over me, out of me. It was shadow. It was darkness. It was the void.

Colour dropped away as the transformation completed. Sound dropped away. Everything was less vibrant, less real. The darkness of night became less threatening, my eyesight piercing it cleanly and completely. I had become it. I could twist and float away, nothing more than one shadow among many.

But… I was still me.

I waited, calming by the moment as nothing more happened. My mental grip on my chakra relaxed, letting it ebb back down to resting state.

I let it go.

The world snapped back into place. My body was flesh and blood once more. I gasped for breath. And then I started to cough, great hacking heaves that burnt my throat.

Don't do that. Don't do that again. That had been… I didn't know what that had been. It wasn't a technique. I hadn't done anything. But it was a transformation, like the Gelel warriors had transformed. It was clearly linked.

Maybe it was a fluke, I thought desperately, trying not to contemplate the scope of it. If it was caused by the Gelel, if it was permanent… then how would I be a ninja without chakra?

No. That was getting ahead of myself. I leant against one of the trees and just focused on breathing. I'd feel better when I wasn't hacking up a lung, and closing in on hyperventilation.

"Shikako-chan?" I heard Naruto call uncertainly. "Are you okay?"

I swallowed another cough. "Fine," I rasped back, starting to move. "Just swallowed wrong."

Shikamaru was awake when I got back, and I murmured an apology for waking him before slipping back into my sleeping bag.

Sleep was a long time coming.



We got back to Konoha three days later, skipping the outposts and making a beeline for the village proper. It was slow going because I couldn't chakra enhance and simply couldn't keep up a standard ninja pace.

That said, we didn't run into any complications, so there was a small bright side to it.

"You're instructed to report to the Hokage's Office immediately," the gate guard said, as we signed in.

"We have a team member in need of medical treatment first," Shikamaru said, hands stuffed into his pockets, and slouching.

The Chunin's eyes flickered over all of us, but he seemed willing to let that go.

Then another ninja appeared out of the crowd to 'escort' us to the Tower, and things started to go downhill. Common sense – and regulations – said that injured shinobi should be treated at the hospital before reporting, especially if said injuries were serious. If it was really bad and urgent at the same time, debriefing could be done at the hospital.

Except this guy was unmoving about the fact that we needed to report right now, immediately, ASAP.

And Shikamaru wasn't happy with that. He hadn't been happy all the way home, and it had just simmered under the surface. Someone was about to find out what happened when you really pushed a Nara into nastiness. You really didn't want a genius brain one hundred percent focused on making you just as unhappy.

"We can report in first," I said, nudging Shikamaru's shoulder. "Another hour isn't going to make that much of a difference."

He scowled.

"Besides," I said. "Tsunade-sama is a medic. We'd probably have to talk to her anyway." Because it was weird and crazy and probably well out of the normal limits of medical ninja.

So, really. Reporting to the Hokage would be much faster than going to the hospital.

"I don't like it," Shikamaru said flatly.

"Those are your orders," the Chunin said, equally flatly. "Your opinion is irrelevant."

I was starting to dislike him. I hoped he wasn't going to be someone we ran into repeatedly.

But when we got to the Hokage's office, Tsunade wasn't even there. The two village elders were, and an older man with one covered eye and an arm in a sling. Danzo. It could only be Danzo.

Shit. I could feel cold sweat breaking out on the back of my neck, just from being in the same room as him. He had Shisui's eye, with its undetectable, mind altering genjutsu. He was the one that had sentenced the Uchiha clan to death. He was responsible for so much.

And my team mates had no idea who they were in the room with.

"Hey!" Naruto cried, indignant. "Baa-chan made us come all the way up here and she's not even here!"

I could feel my heartbeat picking up, starting to hammer uncomfortably in my chest.

"Uzumaki Naruto, Nara Shikamaru, Nara Shikako," Koharu said, giving us all a gimlet stare and ignoring Naruto's outburst. "This is your mission debrief."

"Who are you all, anyway?" Naruto asked, crossing his arms. "And why are you in Baa-chan's office?"

I made an aborted gesture in his direction. I didn't really want Naruto getting in trouble with these people. Especially not with Danzo.

The Elders looked offended. I supposed it had been a while since they'd had to introduce themselves, or run into anyone with Naruto's brand of bluntness.

"Idiot," Shikamaru sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "They're the Elder Council. The Hokage's advisors. Koharu-sama. Homura-sama." He nodded at them both and left an empty, querying silence where Danzo's name should have gone. Maybe he didn't know it.

No name was offered. It probably flew straight over Naruto's head, but Shikamaru would have picked up on it.

I hoped he picked up on it. It wasn't exactly like I could tell him 'beware of Danzo'.

And it wasn't exactly like we could refuse to say anything. We could insist on reporting only to Tsunade, but I wasn't sure how that would go down. We had no specific orders saying we could only report to the Hokage, and theoretically we should have been able to trust them.

And we definitely didn't want to look like we had anything to hide.

"Where is Baa-chan?" Naruto asked again.

"Tsunade is currently at the hospital. I believe there was a situation that required her personal attention," Koharu said. "However, it has already been decided that this mission was to be upgraded to S-rank, due to the politically sensitive nature of your actions."

"S-rank?" Naruto squeaked in surprise.

I was a little surprised myself. While, yes, the most basic description of mission rankings involved the danger level – A-ranks were more dangerous than B-ranks and so on – there were other factors that counted. S-ranks were more likely to be assigned because of politics than because of the chances of running into S-rank shinobi. Put that way, an alliance with Hidden Sand to defend against an invasion of two countries from an unknown aggressor probably did count. I just… hadn't expected it. Doing A-ranks was one thing. S-rank…

No one did S-ranks as a Genin.

It wasn't done.

"Yes, S-rank," Homura confirmed. "As such, it is very important that we are able receive your account of events immediately and assess the situation for the benefit of Konoha. There is no time to waste."

"Well, we gotta do it quick," Naruto acquiesced. "Because Shikako-chan is supposed to be at the hospital."

I shifted uncomfortably in my borrowed jacket as three sets of eyes bored into me - three sets? Two sets and one? – and was grateful that I didn't look obviously injured. Then again, that might have got us out of this meeting.

"I'm sure it can wait," Koharu said dismissively.

Shikamaru took a short step forward. "We were arriving at Mizugiwa to complete our original mission, when we noticed a distinct lack of activity in the area," he began, tersely. "The town had been destroyed, and we estimated it to have been within the last day. We began a search of the area to determine if the perpetrators were still nearby. We located a large, mobile stronghold that they were using as a base, and decided to investigate further while Naruto sent a message to the border outpost via summons. In our investigations we discovered several more targets and decided to move on ahead in order to warn our allies in the Land of Wind. Once there, we took part in an ambush that defeated the leader of the army, and his subordinates surrendered."

"Those actions are well beyond your initial mission parameters," Homura noted.

Shikamaru nodded, face neutral. "Our Intel at the time suggested that reinforcements would take several days to arrive, so we were prepared to gather information for them. We were forced to act, however, when they spotted our presence, and when we found that there was a second force already attacking the coastline of the Land of Wind."

For all he was saying, there was a lot that Shikamaru wasn't telling them. And the way he was saying was heavily slanted. True, yes, but presented in such a way that we were less likely to get in trouble for it all.

"This army," Danzo said, speaking for the first time. "Where was it from?"

"South, across the ocean," Shikamaru said. "They believed that they used to reside in the Elemental Nations before the time of the Sage of Six Paths, but sailed across the sea. Their intentions seemed to be to return and subjugate their original homeland."

"The oceans to the south are supposed to be impossible to pass," Koharu said. "They would have had to sail through the doldrums and convergence zone…"

"Their ships were weird?" Naruto offered, a little uncertainly, not looking like he really understood what she was saying. I didn't really, either. "They were all made out of metal, not wood."

"First contact with a new nation," Homura mused, exchanging a look with his fellow Elder. "An unpromising beginning, but perhaps…"

"More importantly," Danzo interrupted, stepping forward, cane tapping on the floor. "Were they the cause of the atmospheric phenomenon over the north-east of Wind Country, several days ago?"

I swallowed. This was where we had to tread most carefully of all. "Yes," I said. "During the ambush, a relic was destroyed. It released a large amount of chakra, but did little damage."

"A relic?" Danzo repeated. "A weapon." His eye stared into me, like he knew I was lying. Like he could see. See what I knew about the mine, about the stones, about how they were created. See… about the book.

I froze.

The book. In my bag. That explained everything about the stones. About how they were created. That might, just, have enough information to repeat the process.

"I-" I started, voice rasping and breaking. I reached for my chakra to stabilise myself, to regain composure.

And realised what I had done.

I gasped, hands flying to my chest, folding over in half to hide.

I ignored the cries of my name, then hands fluttering on my shoulders, and focused on keeping my chakra small and squashed in my chest. I couldn't let myself transform. Not in front of them.

Shikamaru's hand pressed in under my neck, fingers seeking out a pulse. I choked, fear and panic causing another surge of chakra that I repressed. I had to. I had to. I couldn't tell if it was working. I could only hope.

I couldn't let it go without calming down.

But I couldn't calm down.

"What is going on here?!" A strong, familiar voice called, door slamming open. I caught a glimpse of Tsunade in the door frame, Sakura peering out behind her.

"She doesn't have a pulse!" Shikamaru shouted.

A hand descended on my back, green chakra flowing into me.

Then there was nothing.