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: Someone pointed out that the calendar on deviantart wasn't as accurate as it should be… I redid it only to find that the twins birthday had slipped past. Whoops. . I could push graduation back, since it's kind of never specified when it occurs, but that makes things awkward too.

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Chapter 84

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,

~ Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien

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We celebrated our birthday the day Shikamaru returned.

I honestly hadn't noticed it slipping past. Usually, it was Ino who reminded me, talking about her own birthday approaching. Since hers was the day after mine, it was a pretty convenient reminder.

… which also meant I'd forgotten Ino's birthday this year.

Damn.

"Problem?" Shikamaru murmured, catching my eye.

"Forgot to get Ino a present," I murmured back. It was only the three of us, but we'd gone out for dinner. It was the kind of fancy restaurant and traditional food that we didn't often go to, but I enjoyed all the same.

He gave me a look. "Her birthday is literally the day after ours."

"I know that," I said, annoyed.

He blinked. Then he sighed. "I can't believe you forgot your own birthday."

"I know when it is," I said. I just… hadn't put together 'hey, it's September 22nd' with 'my birthday is September 22nd'. And well, frankly, birthdays stopped seeming so important after you'd had about twenty of them, and resetting the count to zero hardly changed that. I'd never really been the type to throw a party for it, and there was even less of a point getting worked up when there were two other people planning things at the same time.

Mum laughed and covered her mouth with her hand. "I wondered why you didn't say anything," she said. Her eyes were bright with mirth, crinkling at the corners.

I huffed, exaggerated, and made a show of intently picking up food with my chopsticks. But I didn't really mind them laughing at me in this instance, because I could acknowledge that it was really silly. I would have laughed too.

"I guess I shouldn't expect a present then," Shikamaru said.

"I got you one ages ago," I replied flippantly, even though I didn't think he really cared. He was just poking. "Don't you worry about that."

And I did. When we got home, I rummaged around for the 'safe place' I'd hid it, and eventually managed to unearth it from my desk drawer, where it was buried beneath an avalanche of miscellaneous blank notebooks and paper that seemed to accumulate. It made a good hiding place, but even I didn't tend to go through that very often, so I'd forgotten that was where I put it.

The box was only about the size of a shoebox, and I took care not to rattle it as I took it downstairs.

I gave mine to Shikamaru first.

He picked it up and tilted his head, considering. Then he gave it the tiniest of shakes and listened to the clatter of metal.

"Kunai?" He guessed.

It was an old game, one we'd always played, to try and see who could guess what their gifts were before they opened them. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes it wasn't.

"Half right," I said, teasingly. "Open it."

He didn't though, turning the box over in his hands, eyes narrowed at it. I could tell he was trying to work out what I meant by 'half right', but I honestly didn't think it was something he would be able to tell. Well, maybe if he had the same thought process I did, but they'd been brought on a whim when I'd seen them, rather than a logical plan.

Then he gave me an exasperated look and pulled the wrapping paper off. "They are kunai."

"Half right," I repeated, and flicked one up out of the box, rolling it over my fingers until the handle fell into the palm of my hand.

Then I stabbed it into my thigh.

Reflexively, Shikamaru grabbed my arm. His fingers clenched bruise tight around my wrist, but he would have been too slow anyway.

I lifted an eyebrow at him and raised the knife. My leg was unharmed.

"Trick blade," I said. The blade slid up in pieces, smaller sections inside larger ones. It didn't retract the whole blade, but it was still a fair portion of it. And it was blunt besides.

Shikamaru exhaled a breath. It shook, just a little. "You didn't have to be so dramatic," he grumbled. It took another second for him to lift his hand away.

I'd intended to tease. But maybe it had hit home a little deeper than that.

"I saw the chance; I took it," I said, lightly, twirling the blade over my fingers. "You'd have done the same."

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"You didn't remind me," I said to Ino reproachfully, walking into the flower shop.

Ino flicked a glance up at me, then went back to arranging a bouquet. There was a tiny lizard perched on the counter, and I would have taken it to be a garden ornament if I didn't know better.

"Remind you what?" she asked. She held up two carnations. "Pink or red?"

"Red," I said, with barely a glance. "It was your birthday."

Ino considered, then discarded the red and tucked the pink into the center of the arrangement. "Uh, yeah. Happens every year. You had one as well. "

I paused. There was a moment when I could have made an excuse. "I forgot," I said sheepishly. "Sorry. But I got you a present."

I dropped a small, wrapped gift box onto the counter. It was only a set of hair clips, with a jewelled flower (and a sharp edge, we were ninja), but they were the kind of thing I thought she would like.

"Aw," Ino said, wiping her hands on her apron. "Thanks. We didn't get back to Konoha till after, so I was honestly waiting to see how long it took you to notice." She ducked down and opened the cupboard door, rummaging around until she found a package, and gave it to me.

I rolled my eyes. "Until someone wished me happy birthday, apparently," I said. In the same vein as mine, the gift turned out to be a heavy silver clasp for my braid – with nifty little catches inside to conceal a lock pick. Handy.

"And no one did?" Ino frowned.

"Shikamaru did," I said. "And that might have been the reason mum cooked gyouza the other day, come to think of it." And I couldn't imagine mum not wishing me happy birthday, so that meant I hadn't been paying very much attention. Which wasn't exactly unknown, if it was early morning or I was in the middle of reading something.

"You are actually hopeless," Ino decided. She slid the clips into her hair, replacing the set she was already wearing and dropping them in her pocket. "How did you fool people into thinking that you're smart and observant?"

"I lied on my exams," I deadpanned.

The shop bell jangled angrily as the door was thrust open. Sakura burst inside. "Ino, you have to help me!" she wailed.

She didn't look injured, I assessed. Which didn't exclude verbal harassment, if someone was trying to bully her again. It didn't seem like she was being followed, and I couldn't sense anyone hovering suspiciously, but I angled myself against the counter so I could see out the window down the street, just in case.

Then Sakura caught sight of me. "You! This is your fault!"

And promptly burst into tears.

Ino darted forward to console her, even as I blinked in confusion. "My… fault?" I asked.

Sakura clenched a fist, and I noticed it was scraped red and raw, like she'd hit something with it. "You! You and your techniques and your seal and – and one hundred percent!"

Ino gave me a querying look, patting Sakura on the shoulder and leading her to a seat. I shrugged, a little helplessly. But I was starting to get an idea.

"She's going to kill me," Sakura continued, inconsolable. "I'm dead and its all your fault."

"No one is going to kill you," I said firmly. "What happened?"

"I was practicing and I broke the log and someone saw me and I'm in so much trouble!" She hiccupped, tears still brimming in her eyes.

I rocked backwards onto my heels, a little bit of relief brimming in my chest. That was all. But it was clearly a big deal to Sakura, so I squashed the impulse to brush it off.

Ino gave me a look that said 'explain, now'. It was still creased with worry, so it wasn't all that impressive, but I obliged.

"You were working on the super strength technique?" I asked, just to confirm. "And someone saw you?"

Sakura nodded miserably. Even her hair seemed to be drooping. "Tsunade-sama is going to be so angry at me."

"It probably won't even get to Tsunade," I pointed out. "She's the Hokage and very busy. I think you're making too big a deal out of this. It's just a broken post. That happens all the time."

"They already told her! I have to go and meet her this afternoon at Training Ground One!" Sakura refuted. "I'm dead. This is it. I'm never going to be a ninja."

My mouth dropped open. My only consolation was that Ino looked equally stunned.

"You get to train with Tsunade-sama?" Ino breathed, looking awestruck. "Sakura, that's amazing."

Sakura had already caught Tsunade's eye? No way. I didn't doubt that she had the skills – how could I? – but I honestly hadn't expected that. Not until she actually made medic nin, or picked apart the technique enough that it became obvious what it was. One broken training post did not the next Tsunade make.

How much had Sakura done that I was missing?

She squeaked and looked utterly gobsmacked. "I- I didn't think of it like that," Sakura said weakly, looking even paler if that was possible. It looked as if that thought was even more intimidating than the prospect of being in trouble. "What am I going to do?"

"What do you want to do?" Ino asked seriously. "This is an amazing chance but you don't have to take it, you know. No one is going to be angry if you turn it down."

But it would be really, really dumb, I didn't add.

Sakura took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She wiped her eyes. "It is really amazing, isn't it? It's Tsunade-sama."

"Yeah," I agreed.

"I'd have to be crazy to turn it down," she said. "It's Tsunade-sama." The shock of it seemed to be starting to fade. A little.

Ino smiled at her. "You're going to be amazing," she promised. "We'll get you cleaned up, then you're going to go and impress the hell out of her."

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I made plans with Ino to meet up the next day and find out how Sakura's training went, but I never got the chance to follow through; Naruto came and told me we had a mission.

"Make sure you ask Ino how Sakura's thing went," I told Shikamaru, nudging him awake with my foot.

He rolled his head in the grass, looking at me with bleary eyes. So much for 'cloud watching'. "But I don't actually care," he said.

"Ask anyway," I directed. "I wanna know."

"So you ask."

I rolled my eyes at him. "I have a mission."

He made a displeased face, and I ignored it. I wasn't having that argument now.

"So I'll see you later," I finished, raising one hand in a lazy wave and turning to go. I half expected him to say something after me. But he didn't.

We didn't know where to go to find Sai – unsurprisingly – but he apparently had received word about the mission because he arrived at the tower the same time we did.

"Geeze, you look awful," Naruto said bluntly. "Are you sick?"

He wasn't kidding. Sai looked terrible. I mean, he was pale anyway, but this was an extra level of looking like a ghost. There were dark creases beneath his eyes and he looked… rumpled. Ruffled.

I pressed the backs of my fingers against his cheek. "You don't have a fever," I said quietly. "Are you feeling okay?"

Sai took a quiet, deep breath. I could feel him stiffen, to try to regain some composure. "I am prepared for our mission," he said, voice clear of inflection.

Naruto looked uncertain.

I hoped the reason wasn't us. That the reason Sai looked so terrible wasn't because of something that had happened on the last mission – that we had made him cross Danzo in some way – that we had made things worse for him.

That wasn't what I wanted for him.

Tsunade spared us barely a glance as we trooped into her office. There was a young nervous looking man hovering awkwardly in the middle of the room. He definitely wasn't a ninja, I could tell that much.

"This is Chishima," Tsunade introduced briskly. "He's hired a team for a C-rank to the Land of Birds. They're having some problems with rumours of a ghost-"

"A ghost!" Naruto interrupted, sounding remarkably alarmed for someone who actually ran into a ghost on our last mission. Well. Naruto didn't, exactly, but it still counted.

"Rumours of a ghost," Tsunade repeated, glaring. "That are causing some upset with the civilian populace. You're to investigate the source of the rumours, hopefully put a stop to them, and bring world peace to all the little boys and girls. There should be no fighting involved. Are we clear?"

"Gotcha," Naruto said confidently. "Rumours. Investigate. Peace on earth. No problem, leave it to us."

"Mission accepted," I murmured, quietly, and tried not to seem too amused because Tsunade-sama seemed annoyed.

But really.

World peace.

Chishima stepped forward hesitantly. "Uh, I'm pleased to meet you." He gave a small smile. "I'm really glad that you've accepted this mission, we really are quite desperate."

Tsunade threw us the mission scroll, and we led Chishima out of the tower and towards the gate. It was late afternoon to be setting out, but he seemed eager to get home, and had apparently travelled all the way to Konoha alone for the purpose of hiring a team. That spoke of dedication. It was a long way, and not particularly safe for a solo traveller.

Hence why people hired ninja as guards.

"Ah, well, I guess I should start at the beginning," Chishima said as we walked away from the village.

"Is there really a ghost?" Naruto asked, before he could really start.

Chishima rubbed his head awkwardly. "That's what people have been saying," he said. "The Cursed Warrior… it's an old tale in the Land of Birds. There was a samurai lord who was murdered, but no one could bring the man who killed him to justice. So he rose from the grave and hunted down his killer himself. They say that anyone who isn't avenged after their deaths can become a Cursed Warrior, and still walk this earth."

A pretty tale, but I thought it would rather take a bit more than determination to hang around after you died. It clearly wasn't impossible, but Kubisaki had at least had a seal involved.

I would very much have liked to dismiss the entire ghost story out of hand but, unfortunately, my cynicism had taken a hit. Now ghosts were one of the possibilities I had to explore before arriving at a conclusion. How very taxing.

"There has been an assassination?" Sai asked, seeming uninterested in the majority of the story.

"No!" Chishima exclaimed. "Well. No. That's why the rumours are so terrible. Our Daimyo passed away only recently, leaving the title to his son Sagi. Only… Sagi-sama is very young; the same age as me. There were many people who felt that he was too young to inherit the title."

"So the rumours are meant to discredit him?" I asked, frowning. Chishima didn't seem all that young, from our point of view, but I could see the problem with crowning a Daimyo that wasn't even twenty. And if the Daimyo had died suddenly or unexpectedly, then assassination was always a possibility.

"I think so," Chishima said. "Or to discredit Mousou-sama." He caught our blank looks. "Mousou-sama was the chief advisor to the previous Daimyo. He's currently acting as the regent for Sagi-sama. He's a very wise man."

That, I thought, was even more interesting. "So, Mousou is the regent. Hm. Who were the people most against Sagi becoming Daimyo?"

"That would have been Komei-sama," Chishima said. "He's the chief strategist and the leader of the military forces of the Land of Birds."

"You have a large military?" Sai asked, and there was something flat about the question, even for him. He wasn't looking at Chishima, eyes straight ahead on the road.

Chishima cocked his head to the side. "I guess?" He said, uncertainly. "I don't know how big other countries militaries are to compare it to. But the palace has a lot of guards."

A lot of guards, yet he'd still travelled alone? It didn't look like the thought had even occurred to him. Maybe I was being overtly paranoid here – Chishima gave the vibe of being very sheltered.

"But no ninja, right?" Naruto jumped in. "Or you wouldn't have had to come to get us."

"Right! To be honest, I don't really know much about ninja," he admitted. "They say you can do magic, is that true?"

"It's not really magic," Naruto said, laughing awkwardly. "It's just chakra. See?" He started forming a Rasengan in one hand, blue chakra swirling together. It was a little wobbly, but he wasn't using a clone to help stabilise it, either.

Chishima adjusted his glasses. "That's amazing," he breathed. "I've never seen anything like that."

Naruto preened under the praise. "That's not all I can do," he said.

"So where do you fit into this?" I asked, interrupting the showing off. "Do you work at the palace?"

"Yes," he answered. "I'm the assistant to Mousou-sama, and I have been for years. In fact, Sagi-sama was a dear friend of mine when we were growing up. I have to say… I'm really very worried about him. Ever since he became Daimyo, he has become very cold and closed off, nothing like the happy boy I remember."

"Responsibility is hard," I said, sympathetically. "It can change people, sometimes."

"Yes," Chishima agreed. "I know. And he's also grieving. It wasn't just his father that died, either. Shortly after that, his younger sister Toki became very ill and passed away. That would be very hard on anyone."

Oh. Well. Two sudden deaths in a royal family in under a year? Curiouser and curiouser, as they said.

It might have been nothing. But then again.

"That's awful," Naruto said, empathetically.

"So that's why I want these awful rumours to go away," Chishima continued. "So that Sagi-sama doesn't have to suffer through them."

I sort of wished Naruto was the type to pick up on subtle implications like this, so that I could talk it over with him. Scratch that. I wished Sasuke was here. He would have spotted it.

"So you came all this way by yourself, for your friend?" Naruto asked. "That's super brave."

Chishima laughed awkwardly. "No one else wanted to come," he confessed. "And I've never left Land of Birds before, so I got a little lost on the way. I had to ask a lot of people for directions."

In which case, it was doubly amazing that he ever made it to Konoha. I wondered if that was the point.

Naruto seemed impressed, however. "Wow. Sagi sure seems lucky to have a friend like you. So you don't have to worry anymore. We'll find out what's going on and make sure your friend is okay. And that's a promise."

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In deference to the fact that we were travelling with a civilian, we made camp early in a large clearing and set a campfire going.

Chishima had been happy to keep talking about the Land of Birds and its recent troubles, and combined with what I already know about the place, it was all adding up to an interesting picture.

Bird Country wasn't exactly insular, but it wasn't a huge exporter either. They were rather traditional compared to neighbouring countries and, as the Cursed Warrior story showed, had a tendency towards being rather superstitious.

But I was rather more interested in the current political makeup of the place, and the facts that Chishima didn't seem to be aware that he knew. Something fishy was definitely going down, the only question was what. Without being there, or being able to question anyone else, I couldn't draw a conclusion, but I would be really damn surprised if there really was a ghost.

If the Daimyo hadn't been assassinated, then someone was at the very least taking advantage of his sudden death to shake things up.

"What is it that you're writing?" Chishima asked Sai over the fire. "Are you also a scribe?"

Sai looked at him blankly. "It's a drawing," he said. His hand smoothed over the small book. "It's for my brother."

"You have a brother?" Naruto piped up. "You didn't tell us that!"

"He's dead," Sai said, bluntly. But there was an inflection to the words that hadn't been there before. They seemed softer. "This book was going to be a present for him. But before I could finish it… he succumbed to an illness and died. Afterwards, I couldn't continue drawing it. There seemed to be no point. But I remember now, what it was that I wanted to draw in it."

"I'm sorry," Naruto said. "About your brother. That sucks. I'm sure he would have loved it."

"How can you know that?" Sai asked. "You never met him."

"Because he was your brother, duh," Naruto answered, as if it were self-evident. "And he would have known how much hard work you put into it and how much you cared. When someone gives you a gift like that, it's impossible not to love it."

I smiled at them, through the flickering light of the campfire.

When it came time to split up the night watches, there was an unspoken agreement between Naruto and I.

"Me and Shikako will take watch tonight," Naruto said. "You get some sleep, okay, Sai?"

Sai blinked. "It is standard to divide the night watches into three," he said. "I am capable of taking watch."

"We know," I said, reassuringly, so he didn't feel like he was at fault. "But you look really tired, so it's better for you to get some rest. There's no point in pushing so hard at the start of the mission."

Sai looked like he wanted to protest more, but this wasn't really a situation where either of us were going to budge.

"Goodnight," Naruto told him. "Don't worry about anything, okay?"

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