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: Announcement time! Okay, we have a few. Links are, as always, in my profile for you guys.

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Chapter 83

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As a rule, what is out of sight disturbs men's minds more seriously than what they see. ~ Julius Caesar

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"Next," Sasuke said. "Papers?"

"Geeze, Sasuke," Naruto complained. "It's like you don't know us or anything."

Sasuke looked dully bored and this was clearly not the first hour of his shift on the front gates of Konoha. I didn't really envy him the duty. Sure, it was necessary. And sure, if it failed, things would get bad, but that didn't actually mean it was fun to do.

"No exceptions, idiot," Sasuke scoffed. He held out his hand and wiggled his fingers impatiently.

Naruto grumbled as he passed his ID card and the mission scroll over.

Teasingly, Sasuke flicked his Sharingan on and inspected it seriously, turning it over like he expected there to be something wrong with it.

I snickered and dropped mine on the table, beside Sai's. "I feel safer knowing Sasuke is prepared for all the imposters trying to sneak into the village right now."

There was silence. Not just 'silence' but silence. Meaningful, as conversations cut out behind me, as nervous tension jumped in the air.

I had just enough time to meet Sasuke's eyes in surprise, watched them widen in warning, before I dropped, rolling sideways away from the knife that swiped through the air where my head had been. I came up on one knee, shadow coiling like a spring and lashing out.

In the second I had been down, Sasuke leapt across the table and had one man pinned face down in the dirt, arms twisted up his back. The second had been backed against the wall with Sai's tanto pressed snugly against his throat.

The crowd startled, a few sudden screams springing up. Ninja materialised out of the gates, to herd them back and to remove the prisoners we had acquired. The Special Jounin – Hayate, I thought, the proctor from the exams – who had been manning the opposite desk, stood and quickly took charge of the situation, efficiently directing people until it was as if nothing had ever happened.

The fight had taken a second, maybe less. The clean up might have taken a minute. In less time than it took for someone to have a smoke break, the line was moving again.

No one could say ninja weren't efficient.

"That was dumb," I said, "launching an attack right at the gates. What did they think would happen?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Probably because you just blew their cover. Why do you have to make my job difficult?"

"I was just making a joke," I muttered. Because dammit, I hadn't known they were infiltrators. How the hell would I have known that? If they'd kept their cool and not attacked me I would never have known anything. They'd have had much better luck if they'd just kept bluffing. Didn't they teach you that before they sent you off from infiltrator school?

Deny, deny, deny.

Sasuke swept our ninja ID's up, and handed them back to us. "Get lost," he ordered. But he smirked, so I was pretty sure the brief fight had been the highlight of his day.

I stepped past, then had an idea. I smacked him on the shoulder. "Dinner. Ichiraku."

Sasuke shrugged. I took that as acceptance.

"Dinner after missions is a Team Seven tradition," I explained to Sai, as we continued on. "And Ichiraku is Naruto's favourite."

Those two sentences were both true. They just weren't related at all. But I didn't… I really didn't want to take Sai to my home. He hadn't done anything on this mission, and that wasn't as reassuring as it should have been. Because if he hadn't done anything, then why was he here? Why now, why with us, what was he after. What had he accomplished that I hadn't seen?

And until I had answers to those questions, then I didn't want him in my home.

But I didn't want to totally exclude him either. One, I wanted to keep an eye on Sai, not just now but in the long term. Two… socialising would be good for him.

"Ichiraku is the best!" Naruto said without pause. I was glad he hadn't questioned the change in routine, which was partially the reason I'd chosen Ichiraku. Naruto was hardly going to turn down an excuse to visit his favourite place. "You've gotta come. The tofu ramen is really good!"

Sai didn't really say 'yes' but he didn't say 'no' either, and I was hoping that his general propensity to follow orders would come through for us here.

"If you don't like Ichiraku," I offered. "You can pick the restaurant next time." Implicit that there would be a next time, that we would have another mission together. But Naruto had taken to Sai, so I was pretty sure that he was going to request it.

It wouldn't be so bad, as long as I could keep an eye on him. And work out what he was up to.

Being able to keep Sai would be handy, in the long run. It gave us a line back to Danzo, who had already shown he could keep tabs on us. We were playing at a disadvantage, here.

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"Sai! You made it!" Naruto waved vigorously and nearly fell off his stool. Sasuke's reflexive grab was the only thing that stopped him.

Sasuke looked like he regretted the impulse. "Idiot, sit down," he said. "You're making a spectacle of yourself."

"Taicho," Sai greeted, barely refraining from standing at attention. "I am present, as requested."

Naruto practically beamed at the title. Sasuke looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I shrugged.

"This is Sai," Naruto said to Sasuke. "He was on our last mission with us. He's a pretty cool guy – he does this awesome ink drawing stuff. And this is Sasuke, our other team mate."

"Thanks for watching their backs," Sasuke said, and though he sounded disinterested there was something sharp and wary about his eyes. "And for this morning. You've got good reactions."

Sai simply nodded and slid into the open seat beside Naruto. Ichiraku was pretty busy at the moment, so we were crammed together down one half of the counter. But the food still arrived pretty sharply after we gave our orders.

Naruto filled the air with chatter, about our mission, pestering Sasuke about what he'd been doing, dragging Sai into the conversation – he was actually getting pretty good at wrangling people into talking with him and not just talking at them.

We didn't end up staying that long. Sai slunk off shortly after the 'goal' of consuming food was completed. I couldn't say I was exactly sorry to see him go, but Sai was a problem that I would rather have close at hand, rather than operating where I couldn't see what he was up to.

We went to the training grounds. It was starting to get too late to really be training now, but we were beginning to get used to taking our time together where we could get it and it wasn't like you could pick your conditions in the field. We'd worked that out.

"Spar?" Naruto suggested brightly.

I smiled. "I have a few new seals I want to test out in controlled conditions." Not that sparring was really 'controlled' per se. But it was better than trying to test them in actual combat for the first time. That was reserved for if we were in really deep trouble.

Sasuke eyed me warily. "I don't like the sound of that."

"They're harmless," I assured him. "Really. They shouldn't even explode."

I wasn't even lying, so the fact that that only made them warier was fantastic.

The seal I was talking about was basically a magnet. Magnetism as a jutsu was pretty damn rare, but I couldn't see a reason why. Magnetic fields were easy. Wrap a coil of wire around a hunk of metal, and bam, electromagnet. High school physics level. If you could do it like that, then you could probably do it with chakra. I knew you could do it with seals.

It was just that magnetic fields were one of those huge, fundamental forces. They were a little intimidating.

I wasn't even all that interested in the magnets themselves – this was just my trial run for the one I really was interested in; Gravity.

That was going to be more difficult.

"Ready?" I asked, teasingly.

The boys looked at each other, then leapt backwards up into the trees.

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"So?" Sasuke prompted, turning to me, once we had finished sparring.

"So what?" I returned, genuinely perplexed. He'd have to give me a little bit more to go on than that.

"How come you don't like Sai?" Naruto continued. He frowned. "I thought you didn't, but then you were all nice to him so I thought maybe you did, but then…"

Huh. Naruto was always perceptive when you didn't really want him to be. "I like him just fine," I said. That was true, wasn't it? "It's just different working with someone new."

"Right," Naruto said doubtfully. "Because even if he's a little weird, I think he's really lonely. He needs a friend."

"I know," I said gently. Sometimes, I was in danger of forgetting that Naruto didn't win people over because he was a great fighter, or anything like that. It was because he empathised. He'd seen himself in Gaara and Haku and Sasuke. And now in Sai. And he'd wanted to help them. "I think so too."

Sasuke shrugged. Whether people liked each other had never been a high priority to him. But he probably spotted the inconsistency of not having team dinner at my house, amongst

other things. He was undoubtedly curious.

"Baa-chan agreed he could come with us on our next mission," Naruto said, like I hadn't been there for that conversation. "That's okay, right?"

I smiled reassuringly. "That's very okay."

Risky maybe, but okay.

"It's … interesting," Sasuke said, slowly. He crossed his arms, and leant against the wooden training post. "This morning at the gates…"

"He was pretty cool, right?" Naruto said. "Like, Shikako moved and then you moved, and then Sai had the other guy caught before I could even do anything." He looked a little sheepish.

It wasn't that Naruto didn't have good reflexes. He did. Once he knew that he was in a fight. Something like this morning, where the fight was unexpected and unprovoked could still take him by surprise. That was just something that experience would teach.

I'd been taken by surprise.

"That too," Sasuke said. "But his ninja ID…"

I sharpened. "Yeah?"

He looked at me, steadily. "It was new. Newer than ours. It wasn't worn. Didn't even have any fingerprints on it." Ours were new, seven months old, and it wasn't like we subjected them to terrible conditions. But they still got handled, pulled in and out of pockets, got bent and scratched. The edges wore away. They got faded and frayed.

"You could see that?" Naruto asked, confused.

Sasuke shrugged. "I had my Sharingan on, remember?"

I sat back. Not surprising, if 'Sai' was an identity created for this mission. Sasuke hadn't said there was anything wrong with the ID, which probably meant it was either a perfect forgery or created by the Konoha Administration. It wasn't hard to imagine that Danzo could get things fabricated. ROOT had to be interwoven with the village in order to function.

"People get replacement cards," I said cautiously. It was true.

"Yeah," Naruto said. "Maybe it got damaged on a mission. We could have asked him."

I… didn't really want that to happen. It was better for us, if Sai didn't know we knew. Once he realised we were onto him, it was going to be so much harder to keep an eye on him, than if he thought we were just unaware.

"It's not really a big deal," I said. "I mean, it's just a card."

Sasuke stiffened. Sharpened. "Do you know something, Shikako?" he asked.

Aww, dammit.

I blinked, trying to look surprised. Also innocent. "No?"

Unfortunately, Sasuke didn't look deterred. "We all know something is up," he said. "You might as well spill."

I did groan, that time. "Sasuke."

"Look," he said. "You did this before. With Yakumo. And you said you'd tell me next time."

I wasn't sure I had said that, actually.

"I don't know what it is," I tried.

Sasuke continued to look unimpressed. He folded his arms.

"I don't know exactly what's wrong," I amended. "And you're just going to think I'm paranoid." I chanced a glance at Naruto. He looked pretty nonplussed, looking between me and Sasuke like there was a tennis match in progress.

"I'm starting to feel pretty paranoid myself," Sasuke grumbled. His eyes were searching mine. "But even if it's nothing, we can look into it together. You don't have to do it alone."

"You're a better friend than I deserve," I said, sighing. I dropped my eyes to stare at the ground. The guilt was biting, a niggling feeling of shame twisting in my gut.

I was perfectly aware I was going to keep lying to him. There were a lot of things I was lying to Sasuke about, even if only by admission. He was better than I deserved.

"Shikako?" Naruto cut in. He sounded worried, and earnest. His face was creased and lined. "Is something wrong?"

I crumbled.

"Sai," I said. "Don't you think he's a bit… strange?"

"The ID," Sasuke said. "That's important, right?"

I nodded. "I think so. And just how he acts and stuff. Some of the questions he asked. Nothing big. Nothing that proves anything." I was trying to downplay it, now. Because I couldn't really point a finger to any one thing that screamed suspicious.

Sasuke hesitated, as though he were putting things together. "You think he's…" his voice dropped, secretive, even though we were here alone. His hands twitched into the sign for 'Anbu'. "There to watch out for you and Naruto? It's probably not the worst idea."

It was actually a little impressive that Sasuke had managed to come to a nearly correct conclusion from only two meetings. From barely any information at all.

"Or to watch us," I said. No, Tsunade assigning an Anbu to watch out for Naruto wouldn't have been the worst of ideas, when Kakashi-sensei was away and we were down a team member. But.

"That's the bit where you start to sound paranoid," Sasuke said cautiously.

"Wait." Naruto's voice rose several decibels. "Sai is-!"

I cut him off with a furious wave. "Don't say it! You aren't supposed to talk about it," I said. You weren't actually supposed to know about Anbu, even when it was something that 'everyone knew', like Kakashi-sensei. It was a bit of polite fiction. "And… Maybe. We don't know."

Naruto cupped his hand in his chin. "That's pretty cool. I believe it."

I shared a look with Sasuke.

"You can't believe it if we don't have evidence," Sasuke scolded, exasperated.

"We could ask," Naruto protested.

"We can't ask," I said, firmly. "It's a secret, remember?"

Damn, but I felt like a juggler, trying to keep a hundred balls in the air. I couldn't tell if this whole conversation had been a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe both.

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Nara R&D stole me away for the next few days, for the introductory course / internship thing that I probably should have gone through before I'd been thrown in the deep end. It might not have totally prevented that giant muck up, but it probably would have gone a long way. And now I would absolutely classify all my seals as 'personal' rather than 'experimental' and would attach them only very grudgingly to my research project.

It wasn't all bad, and I could see the point of it, but it did seem too-little-too-late.

"Are you certain you don't want to transfer here full time?" Kofuku-oba asked.

"Absolutely certain," I said, flatly. "I like field work."

I hadn't wanted full time before, I certainly didn't want it now. This wasn't even part time. It was extracurricular. It was 'when I have time' work.

Except, there were a couple of things I really would have liked access to right now, that were unfortunately out of my reach.

I had a Hiraishin kunai burning a hole in my pocket and absolutely no way to read it.

I needed a seal expander, and yet, as Jiraiya had demonstrated – they were really damn difficult. There was no way I was getting at an R&D one (if they had one) without a whole list of reasons.

So. Either I had to give up, for now.

Or I had to make one myself.

There were problems with that. Firstly, I had no idea how. Secondly, seal expansion took up a whole lot of room. It was going to be really hard to find someplace secure where I could do it.

Jiraiya's had reminded me of a projector. It had magnified the seal and projected it. What if I went a different route? I didn't need it projected, I only needed to see it. I needed a microscope.

Or something.

I daydreamed about the solution while I complied my project notes for review, and avoided all the people trying to talk to me about the control measurement seal.

Yeah, no. I still wasn't doing that.

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"Hey, Naruto," I asked, at our next team training. "Do you think you could teach us the Shadow Clone Jutsu?"

I'd seen it done often enough – felt it done, when I'd been trying to help him with summoning jutsu – that I thought I could probably do it myself. And Sasuke had almost certainly copied it at one point or the other. But it was politer to ask.

"Sure!" Naruto agreed. Then he hesitated. "It takes a lot of chakra, though…"

"I know," I said. "But I'm pretty sure if we only make one, then we'll be fine." Half our chakra to the clone, plus the initial jutsu cost… Sasuke would be fine for sure. He probably would have been fine all along – shadow clone wasn't more intensive than chidori. Me? I'd felt how much it had taken Naruto to use it, and as long as I wasn't much worse than that (and I didn't think I would be, honestly) then I'd be fine too. It was unlikely to be a staple of my combat jutsu's, but I could think of many benefits to being in two places at once.

"Okay," Naruto agreed. "Uhm. Well the hand seal is like this… and you just kind of let the chakra go." His hands twisted with familiarity, and a second Naruto appeared with ease. "It's a really easy jutsu. I don't know what else to say."

It probably wasn't teaching on a very grand level, and probably wouldn't have worked if we hadn't known how already… but it was good enough.

"It has to be easy if you can do it," Sasuke scoffed. But I noticed his Sharingan was on, and he looked focused and intent as he made the hand seal. There was a slightly messy puff of chakra smoke, and then there were two Sasuke blinking at each other.

"Awesome!" Naruto cheered. "Now you do it, Shikako!"

I nodded. "Alright, here goes." The hardest part was just letting the jutsu take my chakra and not trying to manipulate it and control it… but it worked.

The sudden loss of so much chakra was disorientating, and so was the appearance of the clone. She looked…

Well. Obviously she looked like me. But you know, normally? You never see your own face. You see reflections, and pictures, but never yourself in 3d, and that's different. You look different.

If I'd walked past her on the street, I probably would have assumed she was one of my cousins – not that she was me.

"This is so weird," we both said, in unison.

I winced. Was that really what my voice sounded like? That was terrible.

It was also interesting that she clearly had my chakra, not her own. But it was… discrete and separate. I tried to reach out and manipulate it, like I might chakra in any other jutsu.

She shivered and made a face. "Don't do that."

"So how do you dispel them?" Sasuke asked.

"They can do it themselves," Naruto said. "Or you just stop the jutsu like this, and all the clones will dispel." He did something, and yes, actually, I could feel the way that the jutsu was still running. It didn't need constant attention and maintenance, like transformation, but it wasn't finished after you created the clones.

Well obviously not. The memory transfer function tended to indicate that.

"You want to…" I asked my clone.

She shrugged, but pressed her hands together. "Dispel." I had a sense of chakra rushing towards me –

And I blinked up at the blue sky.

" – medic over here as fast as possible. Tell them it was a training accident," Sasuke said rapidly, voice flat and controlled. He was kneeling beside me, looking across at someone. Naruto.

I reached up and grabbed his shoulder. "Wait," I rasped. "I'm fine. There's no need."

"Shikako-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. He dropped down on my other side in a flurry of movement. "Are you hurt? What happened? You just fell over!"

I tried to sit up. Sasuke's hands on my shoulders very firmly pressed me back down again.

I sighed. Everything ached. It kind of felt like I had been slammed by a truck. A truck made of chakra that wanted to go through me.

My chakra had returned. But I hadn't been… ready for it. It had wanted to go into my coils, and they'd been full and unprepared to expand. It had fit, but I felt stretched tight, my skin pulling up goosebumps, and jittery.

"I felt my chakra come back," I said. "It took me by surprise."

"Surprise," Sasuke repeated flatly. Yeah, okay, 'surprise' was a weak descriptor for something that made you pass out. Faint. Faint with surprise. Oh, man, I hope they didn't tell this story to everyone.

"I wasn't ready for it," I said. "It'll be better next time."

Sasuke didn't look like he agreed. "I still think you should see a medic."

I really did not want to see a medic. The amount of time I'd spent in the hospital was ludicrous. And they were going to start to think I just couldn't take care of myself.

"It's fine," I insisted. "They'll just tell you it was my hypersensitivity anyway." Because I had a diagnosis that would explain this – sort of – and that would be the easiest conclusion to jump to. "If you really insist, then we can send for Sakura."

Naruto brightened, but Sasuke did not. "She's not fully trained," he argued, but it was weak. I was fairly confident that I had won.

He didn't protest when I sat up this time.

"I didn't think it would hurt you," Naruto said lowly.

"I'm not hurt," I said, quickly. "It just felt strange, that was all. I wasn't expecting it." I pushed myself to my feet and hid the fact that I felt a little shaky. "See? Perfectly fine."

Sasuke shrugged, but didn't rise. "Why don't you tell us more about what the jutsu does?" he suggested to Naruto. "We can practice another day."

That was a good suggestion. The idea of trying to repeat the shadow clone jutsu right now had dread curling in my stomach. I just knew it was going to hurt.

This jutsu was probably going to be beyond me, unless I could find some way to control the return of the chakra afterwards. Which was a real pain, because it could have been so useful.

"Okay," Naruto said. "Well, you know about the memory stuff, right? Oh, but if you don't want to make a whole clone to send it, then you can just make the memory into a clone and dispel that."

I blinked. "What."

"Like…" Naruto searched for words. "You just stop the jutsu before it actually makes a clone? But it still forms and dispels, so you can still pass information along." He nodded. "Yeah. That's it."

He might have described it as simple but that was definitely high level chakra manipulation. I was pretty sure that even counted as mastery of the jutsu.

Naruto really was the most unpredictable ninja.

"You idiot," Sasuke said. It almost sounded fond. "You don't even see why that's impossible, do you?"

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"There you are," Ino said. "I've been looking for you."

I blinked at her. There was a small lizard – less than the size of my hand – perched on her shoulder. A chameleon. One of her new summons, almost certainly. It was completely still and unmoving, like a little ornament. Or a toy.

She also had a purple aster tucked into her hair, which was a habit I was starting to notice more and more with her. If it wasn't an actual flower, it was a clip, or hair tie… some kind of decoration. And I knew Ino liked flowers, but she hadn't always felt the need to dress like it. To have a constant reminder of the fact.

I wondered if I was reading too deeply into that.

"I'm at home," I said. "Where else would I be?"

"That's my question," she shot back, hands on hips. "You're so busy these days."

I tucked my pen into the pages of my notebook and set it down on the veranda beside me. "I guess I can't argue with that," I admitted. "But it looks like you've been pretty busy yourself." I made a vague motion to the chameleon on her shoulder.

Ino dropped down to sit beside me. "It's a work in progress," she admitted. "I'm negotiating with them. Apparently signing the scroll in the middle of combat isn't how it's typically done."

"Who would have thought?" I said dryly.

She smirked. "Exactly. They're a bit wary." She didn't seem too upset by it, and the fact that there was a summon clinging to her shoulder meant that it couldn't be going too badly. "They were really loyal to Kubisaki, you know? Even at the end there…"

Staying for fifty years, for a man that was already dead? Carrying out his dying wish? Yeah, they'd been loyal. That was good if she could win them over, but not so good if she couldn't.

"But it's going well?" I asked.

She smiled. "Yeah. This little guy is a Watcher. I agreed to keep him with me for a few days, so he can see where I live. The kind of person I am. That kind of thing."

A show of trust. The Watcher wasn't a combat summons, so it was unlikely to turn on her by itself, but I of all people knew the value of information. If they decided that they didn't want Ino as their summoner… well… There wasn't that much they could do with it without another one – as far as I knew – but it was still something to hold over her head.

Ino probably knew that too. But at some point, you had to take the risk and give trust in order to get it back.

"Ah," I said. "Much further to go?"

"A little," she said. "I was going to go see Sakura and Isaribi next."

The name rang a bell, but it took me a few minutes to place it. Isaribi was the girl that Ino and Naruto had brought home from the Land of Sea, who I suspected had been part of some of Orochimaru's experiments.

"I haven't seen Sakura in a while," I offered. "I'll come with you."

It meant taking a trip to the hospital, but at least it was as a visitor, not a patient. I'd take what I could get.

We decided to stop by and see Isaribi first, which turned out to be a good choice. Sakura was there, after all, and she wasn't the only one, either. Even though Isaribi had a little hotel-esque room all to herself, it was a little crowded.

"I hope we aren't interrupting," Ino said, knocking gently on the open door.

"Only slightly," Anko drawled. She leant against the wall and tucked her hands into her pockets.

"No, not at all!" Yakumo countered, clapping her hands together in excitement. "Anko-sensei was just saying that Isaribi is going to start training with me. Now we only need one more person for a proper team!"

That explains why she's here, I thought, because Sakura worked here, so her I could understand, and Anko had been the leader of the team that brought her back, but Yakumo had no connection.

She looked thrilled at the news. The girl that could only be Isaribi looked slightly less so, eyes down, fingers fidgeting with the fabric of her pants. She was dark haired and dark eyed, but wearing bandages across her face and shoulder. That was barely worth mentioning as far as ninja fashion went, even less so when the person in question was actually in a hospital.

"That sounds great," Ino said. "What do you think?" She perched herself on the bed next to Isaribi.

I hovered awkwardly around the edge of the room, next to Sakura. I hoped she wasn't too upset to see Isaribi being folded into a ninja team, when she herself hadn't made the cut. The circumstances were different, and I suspected that Anko was going to be doing a lot more supervision than training, as she was doing with Yakumo.

It wasn't actually a bad set up. As with Yakumo, Anko had a lot of skills that made her ideal for helping to integrate someone that had been on the bad side of Orochimaru's experiments. If Isaribi really did want to be a ninja, then it was killing two birds with one stone.

"So, ah," I said to Sakura awkwardly, seeing that Ino had already made herself the centre of attention. "Had much time for training?"

"A little," Sakura said, tucking her bangs behind her ear. "I've been working on the, uhm. The thing you gave me." She darted a glance at Anko, which. Didn't so much avoid suspicion as the complete opposite. Nothing quite got a ninja's attention like people with secrets.

I made a humming noise. "Working on it theoretically or 'working on it' working on it?"

"Both," Sakura said, surprising me. "I mean, I redid some of the theory according to medical ninjutsu… I'll show you it later. It's at home."

"Sounds good," I said.

Sakura rubbed at the knuckles on one hand. I noticed they were slightly… pinkish, as though the skin had been damaged and healed. "It's a work in progress," she admitted.

I huffed a laugh, and made a mental note to get her some gloves or something. "Everything is," I said. "Don't feel too bad. The last time I tried to learn a new jutsu I knocked myself out. If you're doing better than that, then you're fine."

Sakura spluttered, halfway between shock and laughter. "You did not."

I grinned. "You think I'd make that up?"

"Probably not," she allowed and rolled her eyes. "You're ridiculous."

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I sat very quietly, and very still, under Kasuga's eye, and practiced bending my shadow to my will. I wasn't doing anything particularly advanced or new – just exercises I'd done more than a thousand times before.

Yet for some reason, he was watching with an intently focused look.

"And how are your other exercises going?" he asked, eventually.

I paused. Oh. Right. "I haven't had any problems since," I said.

It wasn't even a lie. I'd just changed my definition of 'problem'. Being able to separate myself into two wasn't a problem as long as I could control it.

It was a technique. Nothing more. Nothing less.

"Is that so," Kasuga said, and it was less a question than a statement.

I smiled at him, the expression as open as I could make it when I was being less than truthful. "I panicked before," I said. "In hindsight, the situation seems much less dire than I thought it to be."

The look he gave me was assessing and piercing.

I went back to my exercise, splaying shadow tendrils on the ground around me. In my own practices with the stone, I'd learnt that the chakra imbued-and-retrieved in it came out thicker and darker than any of my own truly was – as though it was purified to some perfect level of shadow jutsu. It could turn me to shadow, yes, but I could also use it as chakra for my jutsu and they would be stronger for it. But the imbuing took time, so I wasn't content to simply add that step to any use of my jutsu in combat. It would be too much of a liability.

I'd used it instead as a baseline - a comparison - to help strengthen my own chakra, holding it in one hand and continuing with the path dad had shown us to strength our shadow affinities, trying to match that level with my own abilities.

Not something I could do under the watchful eye of Kasuga, given that I couldn't explain where the Gelel stone came from, but ironically, the stone itself provided a safeguard against falling into the black.

If I went too far, stretched myself too fast… then I lost the balance in imbuing the stone and would simply transform into shadow.

It was almost difficult to remember how frightened I had been the first time that had happened, when now it was so reassuring.

"You have progressed… significantly," Kasuga said, the words weighty.

I threaded six tendrils through the loops of six kunai and lifted them into the air. One jerked higher than the others, the kunai slipping loose, until I made a last minute correction and turned the tip of the tendril into a hook.

Sloppy.

It was hard to exert pressure when you couldn't feel anything in response. Or not nothing. But the feeling I got through my shadow was very vague. Being able to judge how hard to pull or push was simply a matter of experience here.

I spread my fingers out, then slowly turned my hands over. The shadow tendrils curled over, an orbital ballet, the kunai swinging around. One came too close to my arms. They were blunt training ones, thankfully, but it still showed a lack of precision that annoyed me.

"Thank you," I said, too much of my attention focused on my training to try and guess whether or not that had truly been a compliment.

I looped the tendrils around, rotating them in a circle around my body, moving them right from the base where they touched the ground. Too often I treated them like arms, fixed at a point, but they were not. The bottom was as free to move as the top.

I could feel the strain of it now, tension creeping between my shoulder blades, as they took more and more concentration to control. Mental fatigue and nothing more, though the chakra cost itself was nothing to sneeze at.

I breathed carefully, in and out, and drew forth a seventh tendril from the ground, reaching it up to circle around and loop through the hooks of all six kunai. Then, one by one, I withdrew the others, until it was the only one remaining, and brought my kunai back to the ground.

"Kai," I said, tiredly. The metal clattered in the dirt.

I flexed my shoulders and rubbed at the back of my neck where the tension had built up. I nearly had it. But nearly was not good enough.

"Do it again," Kasuga said.

I ran through the seals. "Shadow Stitching Jutsu."

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