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.

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Chapter 87

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There's a battle outside and it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

~ Bob Dylan; The Times They Are A-Changin'

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"Eh, what do you want to talk about? Is it about the mission?" Naruto prompted, puzzled. He seemed more confused than worried, which was fair enough because the mission was, to all accounts, over. It had already been dealt with. We'd even handed it over to someone else.

We shouldn't have been running into any new problems just yet.

Of course, that never really worked out very well for our team, anyway.

I was a little warier about whatever Sai was going to bring up. I knew what I wanted him to say but it was probably a bit too much to hope for. We'd only been on two missions together, and there hadn't really been anything pushing for the truth.

Sai looked as nervous as Sai could look, which wasn't very. "About the Watari ninja," he corrected. "It's likely that we will face censure for our decision to allow them to ally with the Land of Birds. That ninja was not wrong when he said that Konoha has long been preventing them from settling down in one place in the fear that they will grow strong enough to be a danger."

He took in our puzzled faces and forged onwards. "My secondary mission was to prevent the Land of Birds from establishing ninja forces."

Something unpleasant jolted through me. I hadn't forgotten that Sai had been up to something, but it had taken on a much lesser priority.

"What?" Naruto asked, again. "What do you mean 'secondary mission'? Did Baa-chan tell you to do that?"

He crossed his arms, frowning at Sai. He looked a little hurt, which was fair enough if Tsunade was going around giving missions to his team mates behind his back.

"No," Sai said, and smiled. "She did not."

That didn't sink into Naruto with as much gravity as it should have, but I understood it. What he was skirting the edge of saying.

Sai. Was he really telling us now? So early and easily? We hadn't done anything to convince him, or earn it. Even the way we'd been trying to make him focus on emotions had sort of been shelved for this mission. There just hadn't been time.

"What's that supposed to mean? Sai? What did you do?" Naruto said in frustration, voice rising in volume and pitch. He uncrossed his arms and planted them on his hips. He was still more confused than angry.

"I didn't do anything," Sai said. "That's why I'm telling you. I was supposed to, but I failed my mission."

Oh. That was it. He was looking for reassurance. Tell me I did the right thing.

I swallowed, and reached out so that my hand curled around his. While deciding what was the right course of action ahead of time was hard, I was an expert at coming up with reasons to justify it after.

"You made the right decision," I said firmly, trying to transfer the idea just by sounding confident in it. "The Land of Birds is our ally. They have a strong trade agreement with the Land of Fire and have mostly avoided being caught up in the fighting between ninja villages. And they're only a minor country, besides. They don't have the resources to maintain and supply a village that could be an effective threat to us."

Okay, that one wasn't exactly true. Sound and Rain were both villages in minor nations, but they had the benefit of S-rank shinobi bolstering their fighting prowess. Without those, they wouldn't have been nearly as dangerous.

"It's much better to have the Watari settled somewhere where they have no reason to turn on us, rather than to keep them on the run. Eventually, if we kept pushing them, they would decide that retaliation was a better strategy than evasion – which is exactly what we're trying to avoid, right?"

They were good, sound, logical reasons; things that might comfort Sai, or that he might be able to use to argue his position. I guessed I could see why Danzo would want to have kept them moving, to prevent them from settling down and gaining power and becoming a threat rather than an annoyance. But that didn't mean he was right, or that it was a good tactic. If you pushed them too far, hounded them too much, then they wouldn't care that Konoha outclassed them. They would just throw everything they had at us, just to be left alone.

The cornered animal was the dangerous one.

"I failed my mission," Sai repeated quietly.

"You made a judgement call," I countered. "That's what they train us to do. To operate in the field where we don't have the direct supervision of our superiors, based on the information available to us."

"Yeah, it's okay," Naruto said. "No one's going to be mad or anything. You aren't in trouble." There was a silence. "Right?"

Sai gave him a fake smile. "It's nothing to worry about."

"No, I don't understand what's going on here," Naruto said. He looked from Sai to me. "About secret missions, or, or any of that! But we did the right thing and you shouldn't get in trouble for that! And I'll tell anyone who says otherwise!"

I had a brief, horrifying image of Naruto striding up to Danzo and doing just that. Sai's fingers flexed against my own, briefly, and I was sure he shared it.

"Thank you," Sai said. "But it's not necessary. I only wanted to tell you that I might not get another mission with you."

My eyes jerked to his face. I hoped he was talking about being reassigned. He looked so calm and composed that I couldn't tell.

"Like hell," Naruto declared. "You're our team mate. And that's that. Baa-chan will say you have to stay with us, and then whoever is giving you dumb missions will have to listen. She's the Hokage!"

I hoped it would be as easy as that. I expected it wouldn't be.

"Can you tell us who did give you the mission?" I asked, wondering if it was worth it to push it. We were walking a fine line here, all three of us. It was important, but I already knew. And I wasn't, entirely, sure what Naruto would do if he knew. At this point, there was very little we could actually change, especially for Sai.

He shook his head.

"Why not?" Naruto asked. "Are you an Anbu? Is that why…"

Sai blinked, and actually looked startled for a second. "Something like that," he said. It wasn't a yes. But it wasn't a no, either. And to be fair, ROOT both was and was not.

Naruto did look slightly appeased by that answer. "It's a secret, I get it."

"Yes," Sai echoed. "A secret."

I bit my lip, then took a chance. "You don't want to tell us," I said slowly. "Or you can't tell us?"

"I cannot tell you," Sai said. He hesitated again, then opened his mouth and pushed his tongue forward.

"A seal?" Naruto asked, voice suddenly hushed. The volume of earlier dropped away so fast it was startling. "What does it do?"

"Stops him from speaking," I said, stating the obvious. "Or at least speaking about something in particular."

"Can you fix it?" he asked.

"Remove it?" I said, guessing what he was really asking. "Probably not. Or … not yet. It's a compressed seal, I'd have to expand it to be able to understand how to undo it." I thought of the project I had barely started, trying to understand how to magnify a seal so that I could see the components. "It's a complicated one too. Part of the Eight Trigrams arrangement? No, it's a hexagram, that's even more…" I trailed off. It could have been 'Kan' or it could have been 'Ton'. Influence or concealment? Or both, layered over top of each other?

Sai closed his mouth. He didn't say anything else.

The silence stretched until it broke.

"Someone in Konoha put a seal on you, so you couldn't talk," Naruto said, voice flat like a he was pressing a lid down over simmering rage. "And they give you missions that Baa-chan doesn't know about. Missions that are wrong."

I shifted, drawn back out of my thoughts, eyeing Naruto warily.

His hands were clenching and unclenching, muscles vibrating with tension.

"Did you know about this?" He asked me, still the same flat voice. His eyes were piercing blue. Still blue. Was this something I should be worrying about?

It was like the conversation with Sasuke all over again. I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was somehow wrong. It had sounded too accusatory.

"I had … suspicions," I said, trying to keep my voice as calm and neutral as I could. My heart was starting to hammer. I was a liar and I would keep lying to them. "But no proof."

"Does… does Baa-chan know about this?"

I gave a stiff, one shouldered shrug. I was as drawn tight as a bowstring. I'd snap, if I pulled any tighter. "I don't know," I said. "But. I don't think she could have missed it. Do you really think she would have assigned anyone a mission with you without doing a thorough background check? I think- She must have a plan. To find out how bad it is. Or how deep it goes."

Was this a good idea to be discussing in front of Sai? Was this a trap, a trick? But he gained so much less than he'd given, for this to be a trap. Would Danzo have judged it worth us knowing, in order for Sai to… to what? Get closer to Naruto? Sai had been doing that just fine on his own. This wouldn't help.

The thing was, our only advantage over Danzo was that he didn't even know we were playing the game. He was too settled, too powerful, had far too much experience here. If we played with fire, we would end up burned. And he was a whole lot of fire.

"It's not right," Naruto said, as though saying it would fix it. "It's like Neji's seal. It's not right."

"It isn't," I agreed. "But there's not much we can do about it right now, is there? Look… I'll work on how to break it. It might take a while, that's all."

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Naruto was… not exactly happy, all the way back to Konoha.

I doubted Sai was, either, and I was really not in any kind of mood to play peacemaker. I was tired and I was hurt and I was about a billion different kinds of stressed.

So I wasn't thrilled when the first thing that Naruto did was ask for another mission.

I could see why, though. If Sai really was in trouble, then turning right back around and leaving the village would delay it. Until we could think of something better or a way to help.

I got that.

But a back to back mission right now would have been … difficult.

"Not a chance, brat," Tsunade said gruffly. "Downtime exists for a reason and you are well and truly over the acceptable mission-load anyway."

"Besides," a second voice intruded, heralding Jiraiya entering the Hokage office behind us. Shizune trailed behind him apologetically. It was nice to see her again – I'd been vaguely aware that she had been on the front lines with dad.

"You won't have the time."

Oh. Oh.

Oh no.

Surely not. They couldn't be leaving already.

We needed Naruto.

I glanced at Sai out of the corner of my eye. This was bad. If Sai had been assigned to watch Naruto, then Naruto leaving on his training trip would mean he would vanish back into the depths of ROOT. Even if you didn't factor in whatever punishment this mission promised for him, it was hugely unlikely that I'd get to work with him again.

He had just been shown light, and now it was all going to be snatched away from him.

"Why not?" Naruto demanded, spinning around.

"Why not, he asks," Jiraiya huffed. "You forget already, kid? I told you we'd be leaving after I finished looking into some things for Tsunade. And now I'm finished."

"Oh, but-" Naruto hesitated. He looked at me. At Sai. "I can't go. I… I have responsibilities. I'm a Chunin now."

Tsunade and Jiraiya exchanged mutely surprised looks.

"Nice to know you realise that," Tsunade said. "I'd been beginning to wonder if you thought the promotion was just about a fancy jacket. But I'm granting you special dispensation for this training trip. It'll be a good chance for you to get stronger, among other things. That is what you want, isn't it?"

She had him there.

"Yes," Naruto agreed, reluctantly. "But I could do that here," he argued weakly.

"Not safely," Jiraiya countered. "Not the things I want to teach you." He raised a meaningful eyebrow. "So go and say your goodbyes, we'll be leaving tomorrow."

It was like a punch in the gut. Like something I should have seen coming but got hit with anyway.

I had seen it coming. I'd known.

But so soon…

"We'll have a farewell dinner for you," I offered, and if my voice was off no one said anything. "Tonight. At Hyakumi." That was a big Akimichi owned place that would probably not be too mad about a huge party coming in without much warning. "So that everyone can say goodbye. Uh. Hokage-sama. Jiraiya-sama. Shizune-san. If you wanted to come," I added, a little flustered. I knew them, and they were exactly the people that Naruto would want at his farewell dinner, but that didn't change the fact that I was currently inviting the leader of the village to a dinner party.

Awkward.

"Sounds like fun," Jiraiya said and patted me on the head. "You might want to stop at the Jounin Commanders office on your way out."

I was fairly sure I knew what that meant, but the surprise of it caught me somewhere between joy and panic. Dad had been gone for ages and a lot of things had happened in that time.

We were ushered out of the office and split up. Naruto heading home to pack and Sai to do… whatever. We managed to wrangle a promise out of him to show up for dinner, and I hoped it would hold.

I knocked on the door to the Jounin Commanders office.

"Welcome home."

He looked up from reading a scroll. I caught a faint flicker of recognisable handwriting – my own – before he rolled it and set it aside.

"Welcome home," he echoed. "You just got back?"

I nodded, leaning against the door frame. "Just now. Was going to head home and get cleaned up but Jiraiya-sama said you were here."

His gaze flickered over me. I had no doubt he could tell that I was tired and hurting. Guiltily, I hoped that would be enough to excuse me from any kind of in depth conversation right now.

"I was called back a few days ago," he said. "There's plenty of time for us to get caught up later. Go and get some rest."

I smiled. "Will do."

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There wasn't actually much time for rest, but a shower and clean clothes went a long way to making me feel better.

I restocked, told mum and Shikamaru about dinner plans and bullied Shikamaru into actually going out and inviting the rest of his team.

Then I headed around to Sasuke's place, only to find that Naruto was already there.

"I heard you the first time, idiot," Sasuke was saying.

"Hey," I said, briefly knocking on the door. "Guess you've heard all about it already?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "And some," he agreed. "You heard about sensei yet?"

"No?" I said, with a tone of vague alarm. He didn't seem worked up, but that sentence didn't sound good. "What about sensei?"

"Hospital," Sasuke said. "Chakra exhaustion. We were going to go visit."

Not so bad. Kakashi and chakra exhaustion went together like… stuff that was often together.

"I'll meet you there," I offered. "I have a few more things to do first. People to invite. Stuff."

Very smooth, Shikako. You're on a roll.

"Right," Sasuke said, dubiously, like he was weighing up whether it was worth asking more. "We'll see you there."

It wasn't like I had much to do, actually. And I did swing by and invite all the other Rookies and Team Gai to dinner. Everyone seemed to actually be in the village together, for once, which was a little surprising.

It was just that, after the debacle of forgetting my own birthday, I'd made of note of when my teams were. Sasuke's had already been and gone – while we'd been on a mission, no less, and he hadn't said anything – but Naruto's was tomorrow. He was leaving on his birthday.

So yeah. I wanted to get him a present.

In the end, I picked out a sturdy travel case – the kind for toiletries that had little compartments and sections for different things – because it was useful and he would be travelling a lot. Also, it was bright, screaming orange, so I felt like he would appreciate that.

Then I swung by Hyakumi to make a booking for dinner and ensure that we actually had somewhere to eat and had to politely choke down the onigiri that Tsubame Akimichi made me because 'you're too thin, dear'.

Chouji's family were fantastic people, they really were. They were kind and generous beyond all expectations. But I really did not eat as much as any of them seemed to assume I did.

By the time I got to the hospital, it was clear that Naruto had already repeated the story of our latest mission, judging by the semi-baffled look on sensei's face.

"Miso soup," I said, breezing in and handing sensei the takeaway cup I'd picked up along the way. "It's got eggplant in it."

I lifted the medical notes from the end of his bed.

"Pretty sure those aren't for you," Kakashi-sensei said mildly, popping the lid off the cup to check.

I shrugged. It was mostly blacked out anyway, but there was the 'chakra exhaustion' followed by a ramble of other codes that made little sense to me. No injuries listed, and no special care instructions as far as I could tell. "Just looking," I demurred. "You get into such trouble without us."

The expression he gave me was totally worth it.

I perched on the edge of the bed, because the chairs were all taken.

"And you get into no trouble at all," Kakashi said dryly. "What was this I heard about Watari nin?"

I shrugged, then had an idea. "Hey, how do you fight people using that Hiding with Camouflage Jutsu? Last time I could sense them, but this time they were better." I looked at him expectantly.

"What?" He said back.

"You're our sensei, you're supposed to be teaching us this." I wiggled my fingers at him. "So teach." Yeah, our team was being broken up. It had already been broken up, but this time, Naruto was actually leaving. There was no way to pretend that we might get another mission together. Not for three years, anyway. But that didn't mean that we had to all fall apart.

We were still a team. Kakashi was still our sensei.

"How did you fight them?" Sasuke asked suspiciously. "Naruto didn't say."

"Area of effect techniques," I said promptly. "I just blasted everything until I hit him. But that didn't work so great because I was in the area of effect. I want to know if there's a better way."

Kakashi-sensei put the still full cup down on the bedside table. "Right," he said, and cleared his throat. "Well. It depends on the circumstances and surroundings. But. You have a few options…"

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Dinner was loud and rowdy. Sai had come, as promised, and Tsunade and Jiraiya. Word had got around, too, and it seemed like everyone who wanted to say goodbye to Naruto had shown up. Iruka. The Konohamaru Corps. Ebisu. Anko and Isaribi. An old Genin and some Jounin I didn't recognise.

He seemed torn between happiness and misery.

"Seems like the end of an era," Kiba said, jostling me with his shoulder. "Nothing's going to be the same now."

Akamaru scurried around under the table, not technically supposed to be here but somehow allowed anyway.

"You're too young to be talking like that," I shot back. "The end of an era. Tch."

He laughed, unoffended. "But it's true, isn't it? Damn, I never woulda thought that Naruto would be the first of us to leave."

I managed a laugh. "He's not going forever, Kiba. Three years, that's all."

"I know, I know. Feels like a lifetime, that's all. You know how much shit has happened in six months?" He shook his head. "I'll be surprised if he recognises us all when he comes back."

My stomach might have swooped. I would deny it, though. "We might have to invest in name tags."

"Good plan. Shino especially. Then people might remember him." He grinned, teasing.

Said person glared at him across the table and adjusted his glasses. "In that circumstance you should train to increase your observation skills. A skilled shinobi should not forget those around them."

"Don't fight," Hinata scolded gently. She wasn't being particularly obvious, but she'd been watching Naruto out of the corner of her eye all night, even though she hadn't spoken to him very much.

"Hey, Hinata, want to come with me? I have to give Naruto his birthday present." I would bet ten to one that Hinata also had something to give him, but hadn't quite worked up the nerve to actually give it to him.

A bet that was totally rewarded when she fished a neatly wrapped box out of her bag and stood to accompany me.

It was a good night. And early the next morning, I went out to the gates to wave goodbye as they left.

Sasuke was there too, and Kakashi-sensei leaning casually against a wall as though he'd picked this particular spot for no reason at all.

"Train hard, okay?" I said, hugging Naruto. "If you're going for so long then when you come back, you better be at least able to kick Sensei's ass."

Kakashi-sensei snorted.

"Believe it!" Naruto shouted at him.

"Yare, yare, keep it down kid," Jiraiya groused, looking bleary eyed. Since he'd been drinking with Tsunade the night before when we'd left the restaurant, I wasn't surprised. "And if we're giving out impossible challenges, then you better be able to fight me when we get back."

He dropped a hand on my head and ruffled my hair.

Beneath the surprise I was… pleased. I had exactly no chance in hell, but… it was a goal. Something to aim for. That was the level we needed to be on, anyway. This would just be an excuse as to why I was aiming so hard for it.

"Challenge accepted," I said winningly.

He laughed. "Whatever you say. Keep out of trouble, you hear me? And keep working on those seals. You've got some good ideas. I'd hate to see them go to waste."

They walked away.

That was it. That was all it took.

Naruto was leaving now.

At the gates, he paused, and turned around one last time. "Shikako?" he called. "I am going to find a better way. You better believe it!"

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A.N: You can all blame Sai for this chapter taking so long. That conversation took forever. And Naruto is now gone, just like everyone wanted.