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: Okay, there has been some fantastic fanart for DOS drawn recently, so go check out the links in my profile page, if you're interested. Violet-skya has done a comic panel of chapter 70, which is awesome.

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Chapter 73

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Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic; it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation. ~ Vannevar Bush

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"I'm okay," I said, repeating the mantra that had been falling from my lips for days. The syllables were starting to become meaningless.

Shikamaru tapped a shogi piece into position. I made my move without giving it that much thought. It was a sloppy, haphazard play that I saw fault with almost immediately.

Too late, keep moving.

Shikamaru sighed, long and long, as if it came from his very bones. "No, you're not," he refuted. "You're not okay, 'Kako."

"I am," I countered. "I'm perfectly fine, see?" I lifted my arms in a little demonstration.

"That's not what I mean, and you know it," he said, but he seemed defeated, so I hoped he would give up this line or argument soon. I wasn't sure how much longer I'd be able to fight it without agreeing that he was right.

I really didn't want to do that.

We played silently for a while longer. The game was very lopsided, and I knew Shikamaru would wipe me off the board with no effort. It made me irritated, like an itch under the skin. I usually played better than this.

"You know," Shikamaru said, then stopped.

He clicked his piece into place, and I spent a few minutes studying it, half to avoid his eyes and half to try and salvage the game.

"You know that if you want to-" he started again. Stopped. He was looking at the board too. "You don't have to do field work. There's plenty of-"

My head jerked up. I glared at him. "I made a mistake, okay?" I said, and my voice wobbled a little bit. "I know I did. But that doesn't mean I… It doesn't mean I'm bad at this. I can do this. Shikamaru."

"I didn't say you couldn't," he said. "I just… you got hurt. You got really, really hurt, Shikako." He ran a hand through his hair. "Do you know how lucky we were? You nearly didn't walk away from that. What if… next time you're not so lucky?"

My breath caught. "There won't be a next time," I said, as firmly as I could. I could hear the emptiness of the assertion, though. That wasn't something I could promise. "I won't make the same mistake again. I'll train harder. It won't happen again."

"What if it does?" he persisted.

"It won't."

He looked frustrated.

I felt frustrated.

"I can't just quit," I said.

"Why not?"

I stared at him, feeling my throat constrict around the words, suffocating them. "Why don't you?" I choked out. "You could get hurt next mission. It's all the same."

How could I argue, when I couldn't explain why it was so important? When I couldn't share everything I knew? And the thing was, it wasn't about trust, not really. I'd known for years that I could tell them if I had to. I hadn't kept silent because I thought they would turn on me. I didn't think they would turn me in. If nothing else, I knew Shikamaru was on my side.

After Gelel, how could I not know that?

I kept silent, because to tell them the truth now, would be to tell them that I had lied. I had lied every day they had known me, every word and every action overshadowed by omission.

I wasn't the Shikako Nara they thought I was.

I didn't keep silent because I didn't trust them.

I kept silent because they would no longer trust me.

"It's not the same," Shikamaru muttered. "I don't get missions like you do."

Which… was true. But not really the issue. "You could," I said. "It only takes one."

He sighed.

I bit my lip and tried not to feel too hurt. I could see his point. I could. I knew what he was trying to do. That didn't mean it didn't hurt when it sounded like he didn't think I could make it as a ninja. That I wasn't good enough. That all I was going to do was get myself killed.

I clicked a piece into place on the shogi board, not caring if it was a good move or not. I didn't even care if it was a legal move. It was just something to do.

Our standoff was broken by a knock on the door.

"Am I interrupting?" Ino asked cautiously.

I forced a smile. "No, of course not. Come on in."

"Right," Ino agreed, awkwardly edging into the room. She passed me a leather necklace strap, just like I'd asked for. I twisted it around my fingers and didn't put the stone on it immediately, because I thought Shikamaru might recognize it, and after that conversation I just… didn't want to.

"Thanks," I murmured. "I owe you."

"No problem," Ino said, eyes flicking from one of us to the other. "Is everything okay?"

Shikamaru sighed and stood up. "Yeah, it's fine," he said dully. "I should probably go. Mum wants me to help sort out the fortnightly orders."

Given that dad wasn't here, and mum was handling a lot of the clan matters, it wasn't so strange that she wanted his help with it.

It still seemed like a retreat.

"Have fun," I said, idly, starting to pick up all the shogi pieces from our terrible game. I didn't look up as he left.

"Okay, that was not 'fine'," Ino said, sinking into the vacant chair. "That might be the very definition of 'not fine'."

"It's fine," I stressed. "Just leave it alone, okay?"

She leveled a serious look at me. "I want to help you. I know you don't like it so much when you need help, not like this. Not when it's for real. But … I am here for you, okay?"

Ino was in the middle of her own identity crisis. Ino had been hurt in a way that even my near death experience didn't match. And she was still trying to help.

It wasn't fair to dump that on her. It wasn't fair in the way that Sakura expecting me to reassure her wasn't fair.

"I know that," I said quietly. "But… I'm okay, yeah?"

"Yeah," she agreed seriously. "You are."

I sagged. Until she said it, I hadn't realized how much I needed someone else to verbalize it. To agree with me.

Yes. You are okay. You will be okay.

Everyone was so insistent that I wasn't. They were tearing down the foundations that I was using to keep myself steady, the walls and defenses that I had built. And Ino… Ino had just pitched in to help fortify them.

I made a muffled sound, that might have been a sob, and covered my eyes.

Arms wrapped around me. My chin dug awkwardly into her shoulder. "You're okay," she whispered. "You're so strong, you know that? This isn't going to be what takes you down."

I focused on breathing, and let the words settle in.

Yes. You are okay. You will be okay.

Then I chuckled and drew back, a wry smile tugging at my lips. "Sneaky," I said.

She feigned innocence. "I'm here to help. That's all."

And that was a huge part of who Ino was. Someone who wanted to help. Who wanted people to be happy and healthy and confident in their own skin. Who liked fixing things.

"I had a fight with Sakura," I admitted, slightly abruptly. "Yesterday when she visited me."

It was a simple problem, something that would probably blow over by the next time Sakura and I saw each other if we ignored it. But it was also something that would be so, so easy for Ino to fix.

"What about?" she asked, because Sakura and I didn't really argue. We didn't always get on, but I didn't like arguing and Sakura hadn't always been so assertive.

"I made a joke," I said, shrugging a little, and looking up at the ceiling. "Okay, it was a bad joke but still." I told her about it.

"Shikabane," Ino said, shaking her head. But she snickered. She understood, at least, why I'd said it. "That is bad. Please tell me no one in your family was that bad at names."

I considered. "Well there was Shikatsu. Which could mean 'Life or Death'. But she picked that one out herself, I think. Her birth name was Amago." She hadn't been the heir, but it had been … not uncommon for heirs to die. Whoever took over as clan head usually picked a traditional 'shika' name to go with the role even if they hadn't been born with one. Dad had kinda bent the rules with giving both Shikamaru and I the same name, even if I suspected he just didn't want to come up with another one.

Ino snorted. "Trout. Like that's much better."

"Like you have room to talk, Ino."

She shoved me in the shoulder. We grinned at each other.

It occurred to me, that just as I knew what she had done, she knew exactly what I had done in telling her about that fight. Was this what ninja friendships were like? Knowing what each other needed, and giving just that and no more? And each of you knowing, all the while? It seemed manipulative, almost. And yet… was it really that different?

It was just … more deliberate than before. That was all.

"We should all get together again," I suggested. "Study group."

"Absolutely," Ino agreed easily. "I think we're all in the village at the moment, anyway. We should take advantage of it."

"As soon as I get out of here." I stretched. "Hopefully soon."

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Tsunade did discharge me from hospital in the end, even if she seemed slightly concerned about the rate that my chakra was returning.

I didn't tell her I had used some of it. That would have got me far worse than 'slight concern'.

It was good to get home, even if the first thing I did was clean out my mission bag. I was so glad that ninja became so paranoid about packing their own mission gear. No one had touched mine. It was all really gross by now, and everything would need cleaning, but no one had touched it.

The book was safe. No one had seen the bloody remains of my clothes. Because there was a difference between hearing that I'd been hurt while seeing me perfectly fine in the hospital, and seeing the physical evidence of just how bad it had actually been. I didn't want mum to have to come face to face with that.

I shoved the book into a sealing scroll, feeling the bite of chakra as it activated much more than I usually would, and hid it amidst my other scrolls. It wouldn't do as a permanent hiding place, but for now…

Then I emptied out the pockets of my bloodstained jacketed, rolled it up and binned it. I wasn't keeping it. Everything was thoroughly unpacked, cleaned, replaced and repacked. Tsunade had said two weeks, but I felt much better having my stuff ready now.

The fact that it hadn't been ready had been a minor but persistent nagging in the back of my brain the entire time I was at the hospital.

Then I cast a critical eye around my bedroom and decided it needed tidying too.

There was a shine of productivity that came from making progress, even if it wasn't on the things that you should have been doing.

"Cleaning?" Shikamaru asked quizzically, leaning on the doorframe to my room, hands tucked casually in his pockets.

I shrugged, and ran a hand through my hair. It was sweaty. Yuck. "Seemed messy," I said.

He shrugged, because it wasn't like mess bothered him. It usually didn't bother me either. "Mum's making gyoza for dinner."

I liked gyoza, don't get me wrong. They were lovely little steam fried dumpling things, and I would happily eat them all. But they were a ridiculous amount of effort to make, and I could never see the point of putting that much work into something you were only going to eat.

No, that wasn't an opinion I would ever voice in the hearing of an Akimichi. I wasn't an idiot.

"I guess that was a hint to come downstairs and help out?" I asked, standing. I sighed. I didn't really feel like either cooking or socializing but giving in the first time mum asked would probably give me some leeway down the road. If she really wanted us downstairs, it would escalate from 'hint' to 'order' to 'nagging' and I didn't want to deal with that either.

In the kitchen, mum had already made the dough and filling, so all that was really left was putting it all together. The three of us sat around the table in comfortable familiarity.

I scooped a ball of filling mince out of the bowl, pressed it into the center of the dough wrapping and pinched the edges shut. My hand twinged, still stiff and awkward. Even though the Gelel had healed it, it would likely never be as good as new. The initial damage, that Kimimaro had caused, had been nearly healed before I'd gone out on the mission. It was better than anyone expected it would be, and with training I could probably get it to a level where no one would never notice it had been hurt, but it would never reach the level of speed and flexibility that it could have if it had never been damaged in the first place.

Think of it as PT,I thought, carefully pinching the edges of another dumpling shut. Productive PT even. Much better than 'move your finger twenty times'.

It wasn't silent – we did talk. It was just nothing that struck me as important. 'You should be more sociable', 'don't just shut yourself away in your room', 'have you cleaned up' all made an appearance.

"I'm plenty sociable," I protested lightly, mostly focused on my hands. "I might go visit Hinata tomorrow, or Kiba. He promised to show me the new puppies." Not recently, mind you, but if there was an excuse I would take it. I wasn't quite sure how I'd manage to get from 'invite Hinata to study group' to 'ask Neji about the Kurama girl without making him suspicious' either. It wasn't like Neji and I were friends.

"You can take the fortnightly delivery to the Inuzuka clinic then," Mum said. "If you're going that way."

Even better.

I made a grumbling sound, just so she didn't get suspicious. Somehow, she always seemed to be when we agreed to do things without complaining.

"So Sasuke said there was some excitement while we were gone?" I asked vaguely at a later point. Surely a lightning strike to the tower wouldn't have gone unnoticed.

Mum hummed. "Yes, there was an emergency drill. I suppose with all the things that have been happening lately, Hokage-sama has been refining the response system. And, well." She looked at us both and sighed. "The situation with Hidden Cloud… it could escalate at any time."

"What happened?" Shikamaru frowned.

"The Kurama clan provided a genjutsu," Mum elaborated. "Lightning striking the Hokage Tower, in order to simulate an attack by Hidden Cloud shinobi. It was only a short response drill, two or three hours at the most, but it does show she is taking things very seriously, doesn't it?" She frowned, looking worried.

Oh. Wow. Because that was all kinds of brilliant, wasn't it? Disguising an actual attack as a drill, using the actual enemy outside our boarders as an explanation… and yes I could see why 'lightning strike' and 'Cloud Ninja' went together without elaboration. The fact that that kind of attack was a legitimate worry and people were wondering if we were going to be stepping up onto war footing... Tsunade wouldn't want to compound matters by revealing that our own shinobi were turning on us.

"The Kurama," I repeated, with a frown. "Wasn't there a thing about them, a few years ago?" That was a risk. I had no idea what happened.

"A few… oh, yes. The Clan Head and his wife were killed in a house fire," Mum said, trying to recall. "It was suspicious, but it was just after the Uchiha… well. There wasn't anyone to look into it. Their daughter survived it, though. She must have been around the same age as you two, come to think of it. Was she at the Academy with you?"

I frowned. "I can't remember," I said. Not in our class, I didn't think. I would have recognized the surname.

Shikamaru shrugged when I looked at him. No, he wouldn't have really noticed either.

That was good information, though. Something concrete to look into.

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The next morning, I went round to the Hyuuga compound. I didn't quite make it all the way there before I almost literally ran into Naruto.

It was, frankly, one of the last places I expected to see him.

I blinked. "What are you doing here?"

He rubbed at the back of his head and chuckled awkwardly. "Eh, I had to come and get Neji," he explained. "I have a mission with his team."

"Already?" I asked, a little surprised. Then again, Naruto hadn't been hurt and he couldn't exactly do much training in the village when Kakashi-sensei had been sent out again almost as soon as he'd returned.

"When I sent out all those clones to look for stuff in Land of River, they found some guys who wanted to come to Konoha." Naruto shrugged. "I helped them a bit, and they must have got here okay because when I asked Baa-chan about it, she said it could be my problem."

Well, it was good that Naruto was taking responsibility for things, and following up on what happened. I guessed that Tsunade was trying to encourage that. And it would probably be good for Naruto to 'lead' a mission where he actually was the person in charge, rather than the way he would defer to me or Shikamaru. Not that I suspected Neji would let him get away with terrible decisions but it would be different.

It did put a bit of a hole in some of my plans though.

"That's great," I said, distractedly. "Uh. Do you think… could you do me a favour?"

"Of course!" Naruto said, brightly, as if he'd love nothing more.

I felt a little bad about asking. It wasn't that I thought he would say no. It was that I was pretty sure he would say yes. "I'm a little low on chakra," I said. "Do you think I could…"

Naruto lifted his hands up, glowing blue. "Of course! That's easy. I have heaps of chakra!" He giggled. "I thought you were going to ask something difficult."

I didn't have enough chakra to properly do a Transfusion. It wasn't really the kind of jutsu you were supposed to use on yourself, either. In the end, I only really managed to smooth out some of the peaks before shunting it into my coils. It felt awful. It burnt.

"Thanks," I said, managing an actual smile despite all that. "Good luck with your mission. Stay out of trouble."

Naruto grinned and bounced off.

I rubbed tiredly at my eyes, and went and talked to Hinata anyway. Maybe it was for the best that Neji wasn't there. He was clever enough to put it together that something was up if I asked about it directly, and good enough at reading people that he'd notice if I tried to ask about it indirectly.

Maybe Kiba would be the better choice after all.

I headed back onto the clan grounds and swung by the main pharmaceutical office to pick up the Inuzuka Clinic delivery and requisite paperwork. It wasn't unusual for me to do that, so no one really raised any eyebrows, though I did have to repeat 'I'm fine, I'm fine' a few times.

Hana was in the office when I got there, so it was a simple matter of running through the checklist, checking the bottles and signing off that everything had arrived safely. I liked Hana, she was brisk and no nonsense, but never really rough or curt. Also, you had to respect anyone who maintained both an active field presence and effectively adapted Konoha medical training for animals.

"Great," I said, folding up the signed papers and tucking them into my pocket when we were done. "Is Kiba around?"

Hana filed her copy away into a black folder. "In the kennels," she affirmed, pushing the back door to the office open and bellowing his name down the corridor.

I smothered a grin.

"What?" Kiba hollered back, vaguely annoyed, before his head poked into the office. He blinked at me. "Oh. Hey. What's up?"

I shrugged. "Just dropping off the clinic's medicine. How're you holding up?" He'd been injured worse than I had on the Sound Four mission, but we hadn't really had a chance to catch up since.

"Eh, I'm back on light duty." Kiba shrugged and held the door open, a clear invitation to follow. "I heard you got yourself messed up again."

"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," I said, because when did you ever get the chance to quote that and mean it?

Kiba laughed. "Well yeah, they must have been." We twisted through a few corridors, though a room with small dog cages and outside where the large runs were. Most of the Inuzuka dogs roamed free, but about half of the cages were full with dogs that were injured, or had puppies, or otherwise needed to be separated from the rest.

There was a press of small fury bodies to the outer fence as they all rushed over to investigate the 'new' person. I crouched down and wiggled my fingers at them. "So cute."

"They all need names," Kiba said idly. "You got any good ones?"

"Sorry," I said. "Nara are good at a lot of things, but names aren't one of them. We're twins named 'deer girl' and 'deer boy' and the only reason we have the 'deer' is because of tradition."

"Better than getting called 'nose'," he shrugged philosophically.

"Is it really that Kanji?" I asked. "I thought it would be 'flower'?"

"That's what Hana wants people to think," Kiba said. "But it's not. Mom was on the good drugs and dad was too scared to argue. At least they picked mine in advance."

I snickered. We bantered a bit more. I learnt that Shino was apparently back in the village, and annoyed that he'd been the sole member of the Konoha 12 to not go on the Sound Four mission.

"Seriously," Kiba said. "Don't bring it up unless you want a half an hour rant about it."

"Would telling him that he was one of the first people we asked for help?" I asked. "If he'd been in the village, he would have been there." Because I could sympathize with feeling left out. It wasn't like we'd done it on purpose, but it was a big event that everyone but him had been involved in.

"Oh, I know," Kiba responded. "I told him it was his own fault for being so smug about going with his dad. If he'd just been doing nothing like the rest of us…" He grinned at me.

"The price of ambition," I quipped lightly.

Kiba opened the gate, and a whole litter of puppies came tumbling out over me. "So this is what you've been doing? Looking after puppies?"

"Mostly," Kiba agreed. "And training."

"Sasuke said you helped him with the genjutsu thing the other day," I said, hoping that was opening enough to get him to talk. I didn't want to ask too many pointed questions. I wasn't sure if Kiba would know anything that Sasuke didn't, and I didn't want a repeat of how that conversation had gone. Kiba would be much safer if he didn't suspect anything was amiss.

"He told you that? Well yeah. When the lightning bolt hit, I sniffed the caster out; used the scent of the jutsu to track back to where she was hiding. Should have figured it was a genjutsu at that point, but I didn't."

That was pretty impressive actually, in terms of tracking. I wasn't an expert, but jutsu didn't exactly leave much in the way of a ninja's scent. Maybe a small amount of chakra residue…

"Then she got us all in another genjutsu, like the entire village was empty and destroyed." He frowned. "It was weird. Even Kurenai-sensei's genjutsu aren't like that."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Even though we knew it was a genjutsu we couldn't break it. None of the normal methods worked." He showed me a bite mark on his hand, and since Akamaru wouldn't do that, I guessed it had to be part of their attempts to break the illusion. "Even Neji's Byakugan couldn't see through it. Sasuke even put a genjutsu on us, inside the genjutsu. I dunno, I think he hypnotized her into undoing it, in the end." He shrugged. "But the medics took her away after that. They said she was sick. And the Hokage said we'd call the whole thing a drill."

He cast a sheepish look at me.

I put on a reassuring smile. "It's okay, I already knew," I said. "She was about our age though, right? Yakumo Kurama?" I'd looked up the old newspapers in the clan archive, dredged up the articles about the house fire that mum had mentioned. There hadn't been a lot. There never really was, in the newspaper, and I wasn't exactly sure it was trustworthy anyway. But it had given me a name. "Did she go to school with us?"

"Nah," Kiba said with complete confidence. "I've never met her before." He tapped his nose. "She never went to the Academy at all."

Setting aside the implication that he would recognize and remember all those scents – which I wasn't sure I could even do with faces – that meshed with what I had thought. She might have just been old enough that we'd never crossed paths, or she might have not gone to the Academy the same way I narrowly missed out. It wasn't common, in clans, but it could happen.

"Did she seem sick?" I asked, mind ticking over. Sasuke had mentioned that too, that she had been called 'sick'. Was it a euphemism?

Kiba actually tilted his head in thought. "You know, I didn't notice," he said. "She didn't smell sick-sick. Not, like, hospital-sick." He shrugged. "But there's a lot of stuff that I wouldn't have picked up on. I'm not Hana. You gotta have training to notice that kind of stuff."

"Of course," I agreed automatically. Some of these were details I probably should have gotten from Sasuke in the first place. But some of them were things he wouldn't have known either. This had been a worthwhile venture.

There wasn't much else he could tell me. I let the conversation fade away from that topic, falling to other things, and maybe staying to play with the puppies for longer than was strictly necessary to maintain cover.

I swung by Sasuke's apartment, but he wasn't there. He wasn't at the team training grounds either, or the Uchiha training grounds, and that exhausted my list of places to look for him.

Damn.

I blew out a breath and leant against a tree, staring at the sky and hoping it would provide inspiration. The explanation that Yakumo was 'sick' had potential, but it was a dead end in terms of information. I couldn't access medical records – they were highly secure. It might not have been 'doctor-patient confidentiality' but Tsunade believed in keeping records of what were effectively weaknesses secret. That kind of stuff could literally be a killer if it got out.

Anbu was even more of a laugh, if they were involved. I'd get nothing there.

Short of out and out going to the Kurama clan compound… and we didn't really have any contact with them. I had no reason to. It would raise too many alarms if anyone was watching.

And Sasuke said she had been locked up before this attack, so it was doubtful I'd be able to get to her now.

I chewed the thought over as I wandered home, hoping something would jump out at me. There were ideas, but nothing I was willing to run with at this stage.

When I got home, Shikamaru was seated in the lounge, playing shogi against himself. There was a thick file sitting next to him, and he held it out to me without looking up from the game.

"Kofuku-oba dropped this off for you," he said, naming the aunt that was in charge of approving the clan research projects. I knew her reasonably well, but I couldn't think of any reason off hand why she would be looking for me now. "She said to come discuss it with her later."

"Okay," I agreed, uncertainly, taking it and flipping it open. The first page was familiar though. I'd forgotten about this. I'd lodged an application to have access to a variety of stone and rock types, and possibly crystals to see if there was variation in the amount of chakra that they would be able to store. It had been one of the first steps to my attempts to create a chakra storage seal.

I'd forgotten about it, because it had been lodged before I'd graduated, and I suspected it was full of faulty fuuinjutsu assumptions.

"It was approved?" I asked surprised, and received no answer.

It wasn't that I was asking for materials that were rare or difficult to get a hold of. It was just… even I didn't stand by my original application. There was no way Kofuku-oba thought it was a good research plan. Unless she meant for me to learn that, but … well. There were easier ways to convey that.

I'd have to go see her to find out.

I sighed, deeply. Infusion of chakra or not, I felt tired. All these mysteries didn't help.

"I'm going to go lie down," I said. "Read a book or something."

Except that reminded me that I really did have a book to read. I tromped up the stairs, mind whirling into a different problem and the solutions I'd picked out.

Now that I had chakra to use, I knew what I could do with the Book of Gelel. It was a little risky, but infinitely safer than leaving it lying around in my room, even sealed into a scroll.

I'd seal it into me.

Storage seals could be put onto anything – there wasn't anything wrong with that. They just weren't usually practical to put on people, unless you were desperately in need of a spare kunai. And most ninja wouldn't have known enough about sealing to do it themselves, and wouldn't have trusted a Seal Master to put a seal on them either.

None of those were really a problem for me. I could do it myself – had put seals on myself already – and I only wanted to store one thing.

I got out my ink and brush and stared at myself in the mirror, trying to decide where it was going to go. Somewhere that it wouldn't be immediately noticeable, so arms were out, and my training seal already took up a chunk of space around my wrists. Back would be too difficult to reach, and I probably wanted to be able to get the damn thing out to read. Eventually I settled on the curve of my hip bone, where it would be hidden regardless of whether I wore pants or swimsuits.

It required a bit of awkward twisting to paint the seals along my leg and stomach. I had to lie flat on the ground, and one part trailed off me and onto a scroll laying on the floor. I tried not to move much as I put the brush down and unsealed the book from its previous home.

I took a deep breath, balancing it carefully on the point of my hip. "Seal."

Chakra flexed. Smoke puffed out. The ink coiled and retracted, chasing its way over my skin to the center point. I could feel it twisting, could feel the new pocket dimension forming, could feel the seal setting on my skin. I breathed deep, rode it out, and pressed, forcing the seal smaller and smaller, compressing it to a point.

It was… interesting. I didn't usually compress seals. None that I used were big enough to bother with going the extra step.

I sat up. Moved my hand so I could see it. Heavy gothic lettering, English letters, slightly smaller than the palm of my hand. Not bad.

Granted, I could have chosen a better compressed form than the word 'book' but it was descriptive. It worked. It conveyed the essence of what I wanted it for.

I pressed chakra into the seal, releasing the book. It appeared with no problem, and the outline of the seal was still visible on my hip. Good. It was no good if the seal would only work once. It was too messy to have to redo it each time. But there was no reason it shouldn't have. Normal storage seals worked more than once.

The whole process hadn't taken all the much chakra, but it was have been more than I would have been able to spare if I hadn't run into Naruto. As it was, I was probably going to have to use some up before I went to my next hospital check-in, otherwise there would be questions asked.

I fixed my clothes, put away my ink and brush, and sat down to read.

.


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Later that afternoon, head buzzing with a long dead civilization and chakra matrix theories that I only half understood, I headed down to the research labs to find Kofuku Nara.

She had a tidy little office, a desk and a few chairs, filled with books and folders. Most of them were unnamed.

"Ah, Shikako-chan," she said, looking up from reading a scroll. Even as I hesitated in the doorway, she smoothly rolled it up and tucked it into a holding stand. "I didn't expect to see you so soon."

"Oba-san." I bobbed a quick bow. "You, uh, you approved my research application?"

"Preliminarily," she agreed, ushering me in and shutting the office door. "We do have a fair basis of information on some of the points you mentioned – certainly the geological ones. I don't expect that you have access to them at the moment, but I can get you dispensation for certain articles and papers."

I'd expected that. I only had access to the Genin level archives, so anything in the upper level archives was beyond my reach. Soil types, rock types; those things were useful, for farming, for building foundations… all sorts of things. And not, in terms of difficulty, all that hard to study.

"I would be grateful," I murmured politely.

"Once the necessary background has been established," Kofuku-oba continued. "You can re-submit an edited proposal and I'll reconsider it. I've heard good things about your sealing aptitude so far, and this is certainly a direction that we would encourage you to explore. A functioning, independent chakra storage unit is certainly an ambitious goal."

I gave my thanks and tried not to frown. Because while I'd redesigned a few seals and could make copies of a dozen more… that wasn't exactly in the same league as creating them. Nowhere near. My 'best' seal was a touch based explosive, which was a fancy alternative to something you could purchase in any licensed weapons store in Konoha.

It was a bit of a stretch to expect me to jump from that to chakra storage.

Admittedly, the Book of Gelel would probably help extraordinarily in that situation. But it wasn't like anyone knew I had that.

We hammered out a few details, and she escorted me to the research specific archive to introduce me to Takatori. He was a distant cousin who was in charge of the archive and researching … something.

"You won't be able to remove anything from this room," Kofuku-oba said. "But you'll be able to come here as long as Takatori is present to supervise you."

Takatori yawned, rubbing at his eyes. "That's not something you should worry about. I'm starting to think I live here."

"He has authorization to acquire additional material if he thinks it's relevant," my aunt added. "I think you'll find plenty on the premises to occupy you, however."

Judging by what I could see, I agreed with her. These weren't books, they were hand written, or printed off type writers, an accumulation of individual research efforts. There were shelves and shelves of them, densely packed, the bookshelves barely far enough apart for a person to stand between.

My fingers itched. I wanted to touch them.

Takatori was grinning at me, like he could see the thoughts written all over my face. "We'll get along just fine, oba-san,"he said to her. "Where do you want to start?"

I stepped forward. "Where can I start?"

I didn't end up staying as long as I might have, however good company Takatori was. I was tired, and I'd already put in a few hours of 'study' today. And in terms of 'things important enough to force myself to do' this didn't reach the top of the list.

"You talked to Kofuku-oba?" Shikamaru asked, when I got home. He was still sitting in front of the shogi board, and I wondered if he'd played the whole afternoon, or if he'd gone and come back.

I nodded absently. "Yeah. I might be spending more time in the archives for a while."

"Too bad."

I paused, only halfway past him, and looked down at the game. It was a stalemate. "Shikamaru."

He looked up, quizzically. "Yeah?"

"How'd you get her to approve it?"

There was a flash of something in his eyes. "Why would you think I-"

"Don't," I warned him. Don't lie. Don't pretend you didn't.

Because it was a good move, wasn't it? If he couldn't convince me to quit the way he wanted to, then he could certainly distract me by giving me something I wanted. It might have even worked.

He shrugged. "I didn't tell her anything that wasn't true."

I waited. The silence stretched out.

"She was interested to know that you were being taught by Jiraiya," Shikamaru added, as explanation when it became clear that I wasn't going to move. There might have been more to it that that – there usually were more layers than there seemed to be – but it answered my question.

Shikamaru wanted me out of the field. And he was willing to work around me to get it to happen.

And the thing was…

It might have worked.

I wanted to do this.

But I needed to be stronger.

And …

It hurt that he'd done this. That he was trying to undermine me. That he was suddenly someone I needed to out think. That I couldn't trust him to be behind me one hundred percent, because his idea of what was best was different from mine.

I swallowed, rough and harsh. My throat was dry. I couldn't speak.

I brushed past him, up the stairs and into my room. The door shut with a click of finality.

.


.

"I, uh, I looked for you yesterday," I said awkwardly. "But you weren't home."

Sasuke shrugged, eyes flickering over the trees around us. We'd just gone for a 'random' walk in the clan forest, which was one of the safest places I could think of. "Patrol," he said, by way of explanation. It was even less verbose than was normal for him, and, yeah, that wasn't a good sign.

I nodded, sitting down against the base of a tree trunk and stretched my legs out in front of me. "I looked into it," I offered, because it was hanging in the air between us, unsaid. "Her name is Yakumo Kurama. She's fifteen and the heir to the clan. Her parents both died four years ago in a house fire. She's not officially registered as a ninja, and she never attended the Academy, so if she was Kurenai's student then it was a special arrangement. Unfortunately, Kurenai-sensei is still at the border, so it's impossible to ask her what happened."

Hesitantly, Sasuke came to crouch in front of me. "You think it's possible," he said, as if half disbelieving. "You think that she was telling the truth."

I hesitated. "I think … it's not impossible." This was a shaky line to tread. Because how much of his faith in the village did I shake? Too much, and Orochimaru's offer might seem attractive. Too little, and his own history would take him off guard.

"I thought you trusted Tsunade." That sounded almost accusatory.

"Four years ago wouldn't have been Tsunade," I reminded him. "And there are more people in power in Konoha than just the Hokage, no matter what it seems like. Something like this… we might not ever know the truth, Sasuke. That doesn't mean it's still not dangerous, either way. If it's true – if – then it's supposed to stay secret."

"But you're looking," he said flatly. "You think it's dangerous… you panicked. But you're still looking."

"I did," I admitted. "Sorry. You really surprised me with that one." I ran a hand through my hair. "But I'm looking because… even if it happened, that doesn't mean it was right."

"Right," Sasuke agreed with a prolonged exhale. "What do you need me to do?"

I considered it. "I don't know," I admitted. Because Sasuke getting involved would be dangerous for him because of his own history. And yet, I couldn't exactly push him out of it, for much the same reason.

"No plans?" he asked, but there was a faint hint of teasing.

"We'll have to wing it," I said gravely. "Though, if there are people keeping watch on her, they'll probably keep tabs on the people that came into contact with her. You probably don't want to look like you're looking…"

"I haven't seen anyone," Sasuke said, uneasily.

I nodded. "Just… keep your eyes open, okay?" I said. "That's all we can do."

Sasuke still looked troubled, which was fair. This hadn't been a very reassuring conversation.

I felt bad that I had no answers to give him. If I hadn't made a big deal out of it at the hospital, then he would never have considered anything to be wrong.

I didn't like this either. I'd gotten used to having, if not complete knowledge, then at least a decent idea what was going on. It seemed like everything this week was proving me wrong.

I felt very small.

"Want to do some training?" I asked half-heartedly, rolling my neck back to look up at the sky.

Sasuke snorted. "Aren't you supposed to be on medical leave?"

I shrugged. "What they don't know won't hurt them, right?"

He seemed to be considering it. "No." He shook his head. "I have afternoon patrol. I need to go soon."

Disappointing. I sighed. "Too bad." It wasn't exactly that I felt up to training, but it would have been normal. We could use some normal.

And I needed to burn off some chakra before my check-up at the hospital.

Well. If Sasuke wasn't going to train with me, I knew how I could do that.

I stayed in the forest after he left, not bothering to seek out a proper training field. I wasn't going to be doing anything that damaging, and I didn't want anyone stumbling over me.

Instead, I leant back against the tree, and fished my new necklace out from underneath my shirt.

"You," I murmured, inspecting it.

It wasn't like the other stones of Gelel that I had seen. I couldn't hear it, couldn't feel it. But it couldn't be inert, either, because it was compressed chakra. It wasn't as physical or material as it seemed. So it couldn't be dead.

But maybe I couldn't feel it the same way that couldn't feel yourself.

Gently, gingerly, I touched a spark of chakra to it. It sank in with no sign that anything had happened. But I could still feel it. It was still there.

Puzzled, I pulled it back out.

My hand came away from the stone, shadows creeping over it as the chakra re-emerged.

The transformation.

"Ah," I said.

I didn't panic. Not this time. It didn't get very far, barely covered my index finger and knuckle. There wasn't that much chakra.

I examined my finger with almost detached curiosity.

The stone clearly altered my chakra. My chakra then altered me. It wasn't so different from the principles of our jutsu in the end. This level of change might have been found in the upper levels of our clan techniques, but I'd never seen anything like it in action.

Tsunade had said this had been in my eighth gate, beside the heart. That meant that when I had tried to use chakra, this transformation had taken place. Now that it was external, I had to put chakra in and withdraw it for the same effect to take place.

I pushed chakra back into the stone. The shadows slid off my finger like a glove, retreating and retracting.

I flexed my hand. Nothing felt different about it. I gathered more chakra, pushed it into the stone and pulled.

My hand wavered, shadows creeping up to the bend of my elbow. The necklace was still suspended it in, shadows solid enough to hold things. I let it go, let it fall to the ground. My hand stayed transformed.

Doesn't need contact. Nice to know.

I concentrated, trying to manipulate the shape of it. I could stretch it, a little, could bend and twist it in ways that hands generally didn't. It was difficult, but I didn't know if that was an inherent difficulty, or simply because it was something new to me. I'd keep trying.

I played around with it. How quickly could it change? How much chakra for how much transformation? I didn't try and do a full transformation, not like the one that had happened on our journey back – for one, I didn't have enough chakra to waste, and… I wasn't quite ready to risk it.

It left me tired though. Not exhausted-exhausted, but enough to remind me that yeah, I was supposed to be on medical leave here.

Need to work on it more, I thought, looping the necklace back around my neck and tucking it away. It's promising.

More than promising, really. If I could get it up to the level of full body transformation that it had been… that was Jounin level skills right there. I didn't expect I'd manage it quickly, but surely in a year or two… if I could get it by then, it would be brilliant.

At least one good thing had come out of this whole mess.

I took myself home, walked past Shikamaru without speaking, and went to my room.

I had a lot of reading to do.

.


.

"That looks much better," Tsunade said in satisfaction, ticking something off on her clipboard.

I swung my feet back and forth, perched on the edge of the examination bed.

I hadn't really expected Tsunade to be the one here. It seemed a little menial for the Hokage herself to follow through on boring things like check-ups. The initial damage, sure, but I'd expected to be offloaded to a regular doctor by now.

Not that I was complaining. I just hadn't expected it.

I thought you trusted Tsunade, Sasuke had said yesterday.

I did.

I answered her questions, omitting only the slight jiggering of chakra I had done to get back into 'acceptable parameters' and considered.

At the end of the examination, Tsunade set the clipboard down and looked at me with serious eyes.

"Alright," she said, making a 'come on' motion with her hand. "Out with it."

I blinked. "Tsunade-sama?"

"Whatever it is you want to say," she elaborated. "Out with it."

I considered. Well. It wasn't Tsunade that we had to hide from, was it? She might not know about Sasuke, but Yakumo would be on her radar, if only from the attack on the tower.

"Yakumo Kurama," I started.

Tsunade sighed. "Medical leave means resting, not poking your nose into other people's missions," she scolded. "I don't know why I expected anything else from you."

"I was just wondering, if she was here at the hospital? Sasuke mentioned that you said she was sick…"

I didn't really want to bring Sasuke into it, but Tsunade basically knew where I'd heard about it all from already. I hoped he didn't get into trouble for it.

She raised an elegant brow. "Why?"

"I just wanted to know if I could speak with her," I said in a rush. "Based on what Sasuke told me, the way that she anchors genjutsu to paintings seems to mimic the fundamentals of sealing. Jiraiya-sama has been a great help in developing my own studies, but I'm very interested in the applications of being able to tie a technique to a picture. Even if it turns out to be a facet of her blood limit, I believe that studying it will provide a-"

"Stop, stop," Tsunade said, interrupting my semi-plausible explanation of my interest.

I stopped, sheepishly aware that I had perhaps sounded a little rehearsed. Possibly like the opening statement of a thesis. It was overdone.

I tucked my hands under my thighs, hunching my shoulders in a little.

"Yakumo Kurama is," Tsunade said delicately, "not sick in a way that I can cure. However she is still quite disturbed and very dangerous."

Well that was ominous, wasn't it?

"Aren't we all dangerous?" I asked, then ducked my head when I realised how cheeky that sounded. Clearly Naruto was a terrible influence on me, if I was talking to the Hokage like that.

I did see her smile, though.

"The Third decreed that she was dangerous enough to require Anbu supervision and permanent home detention." Her voice sounded idle, and she tapped her nails against her clipboard rhythmically. "I don't think you're quite at that level."

"Why home detention?" I asked, because Tsunade was willing to talk. I didn't know quite why she was explaining rather than telling me to shut up, but I wasn't going to ignore the opportunity. It might have been a test, it might have been an offer – I didn't know. But I wasn't going to ignore it.

"He considered it a merciful alternative to a more permanent solution."

Okay. What? I frowned. Was Tsunade admitting… no surely not. She would hardly be so blasé about an in-village assassination to me. But clearly killing Yakumo had been an option somewhere along the line. I felt like I was missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

"With all due respect," I said, hesitantly, not really confident in this conversation at all. "But solitary confinement isn't merciful." There was a reason it was used as a punishment. No, not just punishment, it could cross the line to torture.

"Oh, I agree," Tsunade said. She sounded satisfied, like I'd said something she was waiting for. I felt very off-balance. "What would you suggest instead?"

"I.. suggest?" I faltered. Yeah, no. I had no idea what was going on here anymore. "I suggest that…" That what? I'd thought this was about her parents, but it might not have been, after all. Disturbed and dangerous. Tsunade had said. Not sick in a way I can cure. What did that mean? What did that leave? "… that unless Yakumo is completely unable to function in a social setting, isolation will only exacerbate whatever issues she suffers? Rehabilitation should focus on the building of support structures and social contacts…?" I trailed off.

Of all the responses I'd expected to asking, this wasn't one of them. I didn't know how to answer, and it made me very, very nervous – a trait that every student was familiar with. I had not studied for this exam.

I didn't know how we'd gone from asking what had happened, to talking about rehabilitation.

"And more specifically?" Tsunade prodded.

There was an answer she was looking for. And I didn't know what it was.

I took a deep breath. What could I say when I didn't know anything about her, about her circumstances? She was our age. Mixed up in something serious. Dangerous. Sick. Alone. Alone. "Specifically," I said slowly. Well why not? I'd already told Tsunade I wanted to talk to her. "There is a kunoichi study group that I would like to invite her to."

Something that looked an awful lot like surprise flickered across Tsunade's face.

Okay, that didn't seem to be the answer that she was going for, after all. I bit my lip and stayed silent.

"An interesting proposal," Tsunade said, eventually, and then said nothing more about the topic at all. "Your examination is completed. Your follow up will be in a week. Make sure you make an appointment with reception."

I gave her an uncertain look, as she swept out of the room.

No. I had no idea what all that had been about.