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: Links still aren't working, but all the fanart can either be found on my deviantart (Silver-Queen), on the tumblr (dosbysilverqueen) or on the DOS Chapter Guide site. Don't forget the Forum, either, if you want to discuss things.

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Chapter 97

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Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it. ~ Hunter S. Thompson

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I was groggy and nauseous and not even sure I was really awake.

But I was also panicking. My heart was still beating its staccato rhythm in my chest, spurring adrenaline through my system. Now, now, move now it sang. You have no time.

My face was pressed against concrete. Gravel bit into my cheek. It was a distant feeling, devoid of any pain. Just a fact to be acknowledged. Probably not good. My eyes were blurry. Or it was dark. Was it dark?

I fumbled, moving my arms until I could get them under me, could push myself upright.

Not restrained. That was something. That meant something.

But the world swam as I tried to move. The ground tried to throw me off. I retched; tried not to throw up. Threw up anyway. The acid stink of vomit was competing with some other kind of smell. Burning meat. Blood.

There were hands on my shoulders.

I twisted away. Tried to fumble with my chakra. There was nothing there. Nothing there at all. Just a blank guttering void inside me. Not good.

My heart tripped, stuttering over its beating.

"Shikako! Shikako, it's us!" I heard the words, heard the sounds but they took so long to organize into meaning. To become safe.

"She blew up his head. That's sick."

"Shut up, Kankurou." Ino. That was Ino's voice. The hands on my back, moving me, they were Ino's hands. The chakra sweeping unsteadily through me, that was Ino's chakra. She sounded distressed. Felt distressed. Ino.

"He deserved it," Kiba said, voice underscored by a low, threatening growl that just went on and on. Akamaru, then.

Something. There was. Something important. I should. There was something missing.

"Hinata?" I croaked, the world travelling light years to spill out my mouth. My tongue fumbled against my teeth, blurring the sounds.

Someone burst into tears. Okay. That was Hinata. Good.

Not good. Why is she crying? Who dared make Hinata cry like that?

I threw up again. My arms collapsed. Just gave way beneath me with no warning. Someone caught me, held me up so I didn't land in my own vomit. Lovely.

Then there was a sound like a sonic boom. Like someone sliding out of body flicker so fast and so hard the world around them had to make space. Killing intent simmered in the air, bright and cold. Like lightning.

I'd never felt it before. But it was familiar and comforting all the same.

Sharingan no Kakashi had arrived and was ready to murder the fuck out of people.

I closed my eyes.

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The next time I woke, I was drowning in chakra. It flooded my lungs, filled my throat. I couldn't breathe.

"Stop being dramatic," Tsunade said irritably, and my lungs went up and down without my permission. My heart beat in a steady rhythm under her strict guidance. Her chakra was filling me up, was everywhere, little lights inside my blood.

I opened my eyes.

Her hand moved away from my face, hovered over my chest for a second, then withdrew. The feeling of drowning went with it.

I gasped, choked a little, but breathed easier. There was a residual hum of her chakra, green and friendly, left behind in the empty spaces where I had nothing. I was still chakra exhausted. But chakra exhausted like I had been following my match with Gaara, not like I had spent that very crucial last piece trying to escape a kidnapping.

Kidnapping. Right.

I sat up. Pretty much every part of me protested. But the ground wasn't trying to throw me off any more. Any improvement was accepted, at this stage.

We were in an alley, maybe only a street or two away from the theater. They hadn't managed to take me very far. It was a little crowded. Ino, hovering at my side, eyes red and looking at Tsunade with a look of undisguised wonder. Kiba, Hinata and Kankurou slightly further off with Kurenai. Kakashi, posture ramrod straight for once, glaring daggers at a familiar Grass ninja – the women who had been in charge of the Exams. She was flustered, glancing away from his exposed Sharingan. Further out, more Grass nin holding a barricade, keeping people from looking in, maybe setting up genjutsu so it didn't look like there was anything here.

And the headless corpse, lying only feet away from me. Couldn't forget that. I had a vivid recollection of trying to plant a Touch Blast on him. It had been a last resort, because I'd had no other choice, because it had been the only thing left I could even try. I'd had no idea whether it had worked or not.

Obviously it had. Thankfully. I'd had little enough concentration, but it was something I had practiced hugely. Just this morning I'd planted them with my feet while evading Gaara's attacks, using only a fraction of my attention. And even if it hadn't been one hundred percent correct, it had still done what I'd needed it to. Explode.

I will never complain about being known for these, I thought, semi-hysterically. Ever again.

"Bullshit," Kakashi-sensei snarled at the Grass nin. His anger was roiling off of him in almost tangible waves, a separate feeling to the tightly leashed killing intent. This was the Kakashi Hatake that other villages knew. This was the threat. The danger. "I want to know what the fuck you think you're playing at. A kidnapping in the middle of the exams?"

She stepped back, hands up and palms out, pacifying, almost a gesture of surrender. "We will have to identify him before I can give you any information. That might be," her eyes drifted across, "slightly difficult. This was not ordered by Kusagakure in any way, shape, or form. Of that I am certain. I will get to the bottom of this."

Kakashi-sensei gave the fullest impression of sneering, for someone whose mouth was covered. "Bullshit," he repeated. His sharingan spun, angrily.

Tsunade sighed and rose gracefully, brushing the dirt and gravel from her pants. "Kakashi," she said mildly. "Stand down. I'm sure Hidden Grass is going to cooperate to the fullest of their abilities." And her smile was no less terrifying than his rage had been. "This is obviously a very serious situation. We wouldn't want it to escalate."

Kakashi-sensei reluctantly stepped back. He obviously didn't want to but this really wasn't the place to challenge the Hokage.

"Shikako," Tsunade continued. "Describe what happened."

I put aside the little gibbering corner of my mind, and tried to arrange my recollections in a coherent way.

"We left the theater," I said. "I was separated by the crowd. I didn't think much of it – there were a lot of people and the doors aren't that wide. I was on the left hand side of the road. I was trying to get back to Kurenai-sensei when someone grabbed me from behind. They put a cloth over my face with some kind of chemical anesthetic. Chloroform, maybe." I shrugged. If Tsunade couldn't tell from healing me, then the cloth was bound to be around here somewhere. "They pulled me out of the crowd and down one of the alleys, I think. It was very fast. I don't know if anyone noticed."

"And then?" she prompted.

I looked at the body. Kaboom, my mind suggested helpfully. "I got free?" I said. "I think the others found me. It's a bit hazy."

That appeared to be satisfactory, anyway. I guessed the others had told her their side already. And the evidence pretty much spoke for itself here.

I'd probably only been out for a few minutes the first time, before being found by Ino and the rest, if that. They'd have been fast and I wasn't far away. Maybe a bit longer the second time, if Tsunade had been called and arrived and healed me.

Tsunade nodded. "Kurenai, take the kids back to the cabins and keep them there. Get Asuma to take his lot back too. They're on total lockdown now. No one goes anywhere."

Which was a fair enough response. We had too many clan heirs and blood limits here to take this lightly. It didn't matter if it was a one off, because if it wasn't handled right it could very easily become a free for all. With us as the prize.

I struggled to my feet. And very swiftly had an Ino under one arm and a Kiba under the other. On one hand, yes, good. On the other, I didn't like the obvious weakness in front of all the other ninja. I'd been kidnapped, I'd been knocked out, I'd needed healing and now I couldn't even walk on my own.

Kaboom, my mind repeated, quietly. I looked up. Caught the eye of anyone who was looking at me and held it, with that thought repeating. Kaboom.

Kurenai herded us away, through the streets towards the cabins. Her hand was on my shoulder, a steady presence, strong but slightly chilled.

"I'm sorry," she said, voice tight. "That should never have happened."

"There was another ninja," Ino said, explaining to me, quietly. Her voice was steady, but she was holding onto me so tightly. "He hit the crowd with a genjutsu. Nothing serious, really. We thought it was just a joke. Kurenai-sensei reversed it back on him and took him down."

He'd drawn the attention of our Jounin. Maybe he'd been part of it, a two man team, or maybe the other guy had just seen the chance and taken it.

"Then when we looked back," Ino continued. "You were gone. Just… vanished out of the crowd. Between one blink and the next. Everyone was panicking because of the genjutsu, and we couldn't find you."

They'd been fast, then. It had felt fast, to me, but I'd been in the middle of it. Any ninja could have managed it, though, it was just a matter of speed and timing. And luck.

"We would have found you anyway," Kiba said, confidently. "Even if you hadn't blown up his fucking face. No way could they have hidden from me and Hinata." Akamaru barked once, as if emphasizing the point.

I nodded, lethargically. "You know who they were?"

Kurenai-sensei's hand squeezed, gently. "I'm sure Kakashi-san will find out."

"They're saying he's not a Hidden Grass ninja," Hinata said, voice quiet.

I tilted my head to look at her. It felt like trying to move the world with my neck. Her Byakugan was going. Ah. Information gathering. Could she read lips like that?

"Kakashi-sensei doesn't believe them," Hinata continued. "I don't think Tsunade-sama does either."

Of course they'd be saying that. No way did they want Konoha to come down on them like a ton of bricks. A ton of angry Kakashi. That was a lot of angry Kakashi-sensei. They would go squish. "Say he's an infiltrator, take the slap on the wrist for a security flaw," I mumbled.

"There's other possibilities, though," Ino said, and she looked at Hinata too. "Other than Grass."

"Let's not speculate," Kurenai-sensei said, calmly. "Let's just get you back to the cabins, okay?"

The cabins were a flurry of confusion and activity. The Jounin sensei were all outside, looking casual but covering enough of the perimeter between them that it had to be anything but. Asuma-sensei was already there, he'd hustled his group back once the commotion had started, as a precaution, but none of them had actually known what was going down.

He took one look at us, face grim, and directed us inside. I could feel the mental security alert ticking higher.

Everyone exploded into questions all at once, talking over each other.

"What happened?" Sasuke demanded, taking one look at me. "We heard the explosion. That was you, right?"

That would explain how Kakashi-sensei had arrived so quickly. Thank you, explosions, I thought.

"Someone tried to kidnap Shikako-chan," Ino said grimly, not even attempting to break the ice gently. Though how would you go about that? Well, I'm sorry to say, there was a small incident. And by small I mean large. And by large I mean-

There was a brief beat of silence. And then everyone exploded into questions again. This time there wasn't even the hope of picking one voice out from the rest.

"Hey, hey!" Kiba barked. "Let her sit down. Then you can hear all about it."

I was dragged to one of the beds and propped up on it. Then bundled in layers of blankets until I could barely move a muscle. Water and food appeared out of nowhere and were forced into my face. In between resisting my over eager helpers, I could see Hinata and Neji having a quiet, hurried conversation.

"Tsunade-sama and Kakashi-sensei are over there demanding answers," Ino said, after filling them in on what had actually happened that we knew about. It wasn't a lot, truthfully. We knew the where and the how, but the who and why… that was the important stuff.

"It was either a really good attempt or a really bad one," she said. "I'm not sure which. It failed, so I want to say 'bad' but… it nearly worked. If they'd had somewhere to take her nearby where we couldn't follow…"

If they'd tried to launch an immediate retaliation, a full ninja response to follow me, it might have looked like Konoha was the aggressor. Might not have worked, but it might have muddied waters for long enough. And who knows what would have happened next.

I shivered. And immediately had Akamaru bundled down my front like a furry hot water bottle.

If they'd been smart enough to know how to avoid a tracking team. If. If. If. They'd been smart enough to get me out of the crowd, to distract the others. Had it just been a moment of opportunity? Had they arranged it?

"You killed him?" Neji asked, voice flat and face hard.

I nodded, tiredly. "Yeah. It was all I could do." Later, when I had the energy to be horrified, I would be horrified at how close I'd been to not getting away. At the way I had had so few options. I was too tired for it, right now. It would involve incriminations and regrets.

"That's not good," Neji said, completely failing to read my mind. Rude.

Sasuke stood, angry and confrontational. "It was the best thing she could have done," he snarled. "And if she hadn't killed him, I'd do it myself!"

Neji shook his head. "It's not," he repeated, but not angrily. Maybe wearily. Maybe resigned. "Because now there's no proof there even was a kidnapping. Or any way to get answers about what went down."

He was likening it to what had happened in Konoha ten years ago. It was nearly the same. A kidnapping gone bad. And if that had taught us anything, it was that it could still go worse.

"Kurenai-sensei caught the other one, though. He's alive," Ino said slowly. It was clear she was thinking through all the implications. There was something clear and empty about her expression, like she was a marble statue, unmoving through the ages. I wondered if I looked like that, when I thought hard. Probably I just looked confused. "And he used genjutsu on the crowd. There are bound to be other ninja that can collaborate that fact. So it's clear we didn't start it."

"Okay," Tenten said, a calm head amidst all the worried faces. "So who benefits? Basic investigation question, right? Who benefits from trying to take Shikako?"

There was a moment of silence. I'm sure more than one of us was thinking the same thing.

"If they were after bloodlines, I'd be the last pick," I said, when it was clear no one else would say the obvious thing. "Not with Hinata and Ino right next to me." In terms of inheritable abilities, doujutsu and mindreading beat out shadows. Not even a hard decision. "So it was me, specifically, that they wanted. Something I did, or something I know."

Which was weird and baffling. But I'd played a strong hand here at the exams, so there might have been people who wanted to cash in on it. Or were annoyed by it.

Hidden Grass was the obvious pick. Was it too obvious? Or had they been that worried by the fight with Muku?

Too many questions; no answers.

I yawned, eyelids like atlas failing to lift the world.

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I woke groggy and smothered in dogs.

That… wasn't right.

I cracked my eyes open and squinted. "Pakkun, why dog?" I asked plaintively.

The pug put a tiny paw on my cheek. "Boss thought you might get into trouble," he said in his gravel voice. "Can't imagine why. He asked us to keep an eye out."

That made sense. It explained the heavy weight across my feet. And the ones beside me. The bed was crowded. Except. "That's not a dog."

Pakkun sighed. "He asked that weird friend of his to leave a summons, too."

"Gai-sensei is a turtle," I agreed knowledgably, and went back to sleep.

I slept for most of the day, briefly waking up to eat and go bathroom. Asuma-sensei was clearly on guard duty, spending most of the day sprawled on the next bunk over, reading a battered hardcover book and smoking. But the cigarette smoke was all drifting eerily out an opened window and I couldn't even smell it.

"I've had worse assignments," he said to me at one point. Or I thought he did. Maybe. My chakra exhaustion, the soldier pills, it was all catching up with me. Had caught me. It was not a whole lot of fun.

And then everyone returned and the cabin was suddenly full of noise and life. I went from mostly sleeping to mostly awake, propping myself up on an elbow to greet them.

Sasuke shook his head.

"No?" I guessed, not really sure how to interpret that.

"Finals are Gaara and Haku," Tenten said, looking at Neji almost apologetically. "Konoha is out of the running."

"Whatever," Sasuke said. "Doesn't matter." But he paced the room like a caged animal, shoulders stiff.

"It was a good fight, Sasuke-kun," Ino said, but her voice was a shade too flat to really sell her enthusiasm. "I had no idea you were that good at genjutsu! And those ninjutsu were amazing!"

"You didn't even want to go and watch it," Chouji said to her, sinking down onto his bunk and rummaging in his packs for food. "You wanted to stay in the cabins."

Ino shoved my legs over, climbed over a dog and managed to situate herself on my bed. Somehow. "Of course I did," she said impatiently. "But Tsunade-sama said she wanted us all in one place together. And she said you were fine and wouldn't be awake, anyway."

Lee sat down on the turtle, which looked completely resigned to being used as furniture.

I laid back down and let the chatter wash over me, of the way the fights had gone and other details of the day.

When I next swam into awareness, the scene had changed. It was later now, darker and quieter. Everyone was sprawled around the floor, playing cards – Shinobi's Rest, which had flexible rules and didn't really matter how many players, time or cards you had. We'd learnt it in the Academy, way back when, under the topic I'd called 'When Teachers Don't Actually Want to Teach' but Iruka-sensei had sworn up and down was 'Appropriate Downtime Activities For Ninja On Missions'. Without the swearing. Obviously. Because Iruka-sensei.

Funnily enough, this might have been the first time I'd ever seen it actually played on a mission. So maybe he was right, after all. Maybe I just did the wrong kinds of missions.

"Are you betting on who gets to carry me home?" I asked sleepily, wondering if I had heard correctly and whether I should be offended or not.

"Yosh! I have lost every round!" Lee said, terribly excited.

I squinted at him. "Shikako out," I decided and closed my eyes again. Going to sleep was such an excellent method of escaping conversations that I wanted no part in. I was sad in advance for when it no longer worked. Maybe I would just pretend to be chakra exhausted forever. That would work, right?

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"You can't be serious," Kurenai-sensei said. "Why would you tell them? They don't need to deal with this, Kakashi. They're just Genin. It'll just worry them needlessly."

I glanced around the room and confirmed that, yes, everyone else could hear this argument too. Awkward.

Kakashi-sensei opened the door and stepped into our cabin, barely glancing over his shoulder. "Yes, they do, Kurenai," he refuted calmly. No, calm was the wrong word. It was more a lazer guided focus, like being given a mission and assessing the best strategies and then just carrying it out. "Because we were too late. And chances are we'll be too late next time, too."

He looked serious and purposeful, not really like the man I knew. "They're not just Genin," he went on. "They're soldiers. And you should know that."

"Did you find out who it was?" Sasuke asked immediately, on his feet, hands balling into fists at his side.

Kakashi-sensei gave him a short nod. "They were Hidden Grass ninja. According to Rei, they were both declared missing ninja nearly six months ago for conspiring against the village. But I'm willing to bet that those records are all backdated and they were active Grass shinobi up until last night. The surviving attacker seemed under that impression, anyway."

"What does that mean?" I asked, pulling up my knees and leaning my arms over them. "Was it ordered?"

Kakashi-sensei gave a rolling shrug. "Hidden Grass is pretty close to starting a civil war. There are two main factions, Grass Flower and Grass Fruit. They've been keeping it pretty low key, up until now, and it was assumed that they would manage to continue that for the duration of the Chunin Exams. It's in their best interests to keep it under wraps while all the clients are here, and while there are so many foreign powers about. The last thing they need is an external threat to go with the internal one. But it seems you panicked them, Shikako."

I felt the weight of his gaze. Not reprimanding, but… yes. He was saying it was a direct response to something I had done. I nodded.

"The Blood Prison isn't just an important resource for Hidden Grass as a whole; it's a location of strategic value in a civil war. The side that holds the prison has huge advantages over the other. So you suddenly became a rather important game piece." His eye curved into a smile, but it was somehow less than his usual expressions. A fakeness to it, like a bright sheath to cover up a blade. "They acted quickly to try and move you around, which was lucky for you because it meant they screwed it up. If they'd taken another day to plan, they might have come up with a better option."

Another day and I'd have had more chakra, I nearly said, but it wouldn't have necessarily been true. Using so much against Gaara had seemed safe at the time, but it had been a mistake. Based on faulty assumptions. And the consequences were that I was near helpless in enemy territory. If I hadn't managed to plant that Touch Blast, I could be deeply regretting that mistake right now.

"So that's it?" Sasuke demanded sharply. "That's the end of it? They hurt her and everyone just washes their hands of it?"

"Hardly," Kakashi-sensei said. And now he slumped back into a more familiar posture, pulling out his Icha Icha. It was strangely reassuring. "There's been all kinds of shouting happening in the Kage box. Accusations flying all over the place. If you thought your little handshake stunt had shaken things up, it's nothing compared to what's going on right now. Everyone is using it as a chance to say something."

"And we don't do anything?" Sasuke persisted.

"We are doing everything we can," Kurenai-sensei said from the doorway, voice warm and reassuring. "It's a delicate situation. Not just for our treaty with Hidden Grass, but for the Chunin Exams as a whole. If people violate the sanctity of the Exams and start trying to kidnap the competitors, then the whole structure will just collapse in on itself. And then the replacement for war might turn into actual war."

Which translated to 'no, we don't do anything'.

Sasuke's gaze burned.

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The next morning was the finals. The mood was energetic and excited amongst the civilians, and hugely tense anywhere there were groups of ninja.

In our group, it was basically dead. We were holding the mood hostage and strangling it. With extreme prejudice.

We sat in the stands in near silence, alert and waiting. I was there, not because I was substantially better, but because they would announce the promotions after the final match and we all had to be there for that. I'd been piggybacked there – by Lee – no matter how much I insisted I didn't need it and bundled in blankets like I was a nana. The other groups were equally as tense and equally as locked in on themselves.

The air between us and Hidden Cloud might have caught fire if anyone had glared just a little bit harder. And the two Hidden Grass competitors had yet to show their faces.

Temari and Kankurou hovered near the edges of our group, and just before the start of the match, Haku herded the rest of his team through.

"Good morning," he said, smiling apologetically at us. "Is there room for a few more?"

Chojuro had one of the twins by each hand, his fingers wrapped loosely around a wrist so that he could easily let go and start fighting if he really had to but also so that neither of them could get lost without his knowledge. We weren't the only paranoid ones, then.

"Of course," Ino said, with a genuine smile. I wondered if this was what they'd done yesterday, as well. "It's our pleasure."

The twins were bundled into the middle of the group, with me, and Chojuro took up a sentry position at the edge.

"I'm glad to see that you're well, Shikako," Haku said.

I wished him good luck in turn and he descended down to the field.

I wished that I could have enjoyed the fight. It was a good one – hugely spectacular with two terrifyingly skilled ninja pitted against each other. It was the kind of fight I doubted I could safety witness ever again, without risking being drawn into it because it would be real.

Yet, I couldn't. Because there was only the sick twist of reality spoiling the lightness of the festival. All the lights and colours felt fake and the cheering was grating. Gratuitous.

It was spoilt.

"The winner of this match, and of the Hidden Grass Chunin Exams," the referee boomed. "Is Gaara of the Desert!"

The crowd roared like an ocean, like the waves battering against the shore.

Haku bowed, down on the field. He wasn't exhausted. He'd held back, hadn't committed himself totally to this fight because there was more to come. Not in the exam. But the exam wasn't real.

"We'll have a short break, to allow the judges to deliberate," the referee continued on. "And then announce the promotions!"

As if the judges hadn't been arguing about this all week. Our performances themselves were only a very small part of the decision.

All the Genin who had taken part in the Third Exam were called down to the field and lined up. I flatly refused to let anyone carry me down, and doubly flatly refused to walk slower than normal no matter how much my everything hurt. Our sensei lined up behind us, a line of serious faces watching over us. Asuma-sensei was placed directly behind me.

The Kage and village leaders filed out next, standing so they were facing the line of us.

"From the Village Hidden in the Mist," Mei Terumi said, smiling sweetly and holding out a Mist standard Chunin vest. "Chojuro."

He stepped forward to take it, bowing. And then she swooped down and pressed a kiss to his cheek. Chojuro went red, and if he'd had to speak I'd have guaranteed that he would have stuttered.

She repeated the process with Haku, who handled the affection with a little more dignity.

Chiyo barked out the names of all three of the Sand Genin, and it was Baki who actually gave them their vests. Though apparently she did throw something at Kankurou's head, then cackled incoherently, and pretended to fall asleep. That was ninja eccentrics for you.

Grass promoted Muku, but not Ryuusetsu. Hidden Cloud promoted both the ninja that had made it past the first round of the exam. Hidden Rock promoted two of theirs despite neither of them making it past the first round. It smelt like a throwaway concession.

Three of the minor villages ended up giving promotions – Nadeshiko, Fog and Valley.

And then it was Tsunade's turn. "Neji Hyuuga," she said. And then she called Lee. And Tenten. And just… kept going, until all nine of us had been called forward.

I accepted my Chunin vest almost numbly, falling back into line as Ino was called forward. There was no way. This had to be a joke. Surely not.

Surely so, it seemed.

All nine of us.

The crowd was cheering.

"Holy shit," Kiba crowed, eyes wild, and it was like a spell was broken. "All of us? No way!"

We crowded each other forward, the same exhilaration and disbelief in our faces. Lee hollered for joy and leapt onto his sensei, Chouji swept both Ino and I into a huge hug.

"Asuma-sensei!" Ino called. "Did you know? You knew!"

Asuma-sensei laughed, avoided her swiping hands. "I didn't know. Nine promotions, huh? How did you swing that, Hokage-sama?"

Tsunade smiled, stepping closer with an amused twist to her lips. "I didn't," she said. "I only wanted to promote half of them. But the Raikage wouldn't hear of it. And I quote 'get your damn plants out of these exams'. He was willing to let us dominate this exam, if it meant we couldn't keep it up for the next one."

Which was a point. If you thought about the exams in the long term purpose of advertising the village, it was better to conserve your best and brightest, using them to show off the village over a number of years rather than burning bright and burning hard.

My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night, but ah my foes and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light.

And I didn't even care.

"Nine has to be a record," Kurenai said, a tad wistfully. "There were six at mine. And that was pretty impressive."

"It is," Tsunade agreed. "And impressive or not, we've still got a couple of hours of daylight left and we're not spending it here. Everyone get packed up, we're moving out."

We sobered up, a little, breaking out of the group of congratulations and heading for the exit. I waved at the other teams, Mist and Sand, who were celebrating in their own ways. It was sad to leave without saying anything, but we would see them again. I was sure of it.

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There was an upside and a downside to travelling out of Hidden Grass.

Upside, Lee didn't get to carry me, much to his great disappointment.

Downside, this was because Gai-sensei had been volunteered for the task.

I had no chance of protesting. "Thank you, Gai-sensei," I said dutifully. "I'm very grateful."

I'd have rather walked. But apparently we were pushing the pace as fast as we could, and that didn't leave room for chakra cripples. Tsunade's words, not mine.

All complaints aside, I was hardly jostled. Gai-sensei was basically gliding like a cloud the whole way. I rested my cheek against the back of his shoulder and tried to zone out. I'd done so much sleeping over the past two days that it wasn't appealing, yet there wasn't much else to do, either.

"I know they say Nara can sleep anywhere," Kakashi-sensei said, without really looking at me. "But that's a bit much, isn't it?"

I opened my eyes long enough to glare at him, because he had been the one to volunteer Gai-sensei. "I could have walked," I grumbled half-heartedly.

"The weather is lovely," Kakashi-sensei agreed, not even pretending to listen to the words actually coming out of my mouth. "I got told I had to give these to you, so here you go."

He reached out, uncurled one of my hands and pressed something small and metal into them, then vanished from sight. I had to work out how to see what he'd given me without falling off and without smacking Gai-sensei in the face. Of course.

"He has the worst timing," I mumbled.

Gai-sensei chuckled. It reverberated right through him. "My Eternal Rival has a very singular approach!" he agreed. "But he has been very worried about you."

I sighed. "I know," I said. "Sensei always worries. He just pretends not to."

I shifted my weight, curled my chin into his shoulder and peered over it into my hand. Earrings. Kakashi-sensei'd given me earrings. From my clan, for my promotion. It was tradition.

"Sensei, you dweeb," I muttered. "You couldn't have given them to me before we left? Now I'm going to drop them."

.


.

So I have to apologize for the last ending. It seems everyone expected it to go in a much different direction than it really did. I really regret that, it's been totally blown up. I hope no one is too horribly disappointed. At least the update was fast?

But the exams are over, everyone is back in Konoha now. Moving on.