Chapter Six: Carry Me On


The world moved and shifted around me. Swirls of blaze red and burnt orange danced beneath the twisting curls of smoke. Screaming echoed, sounding far away as everything cleared and stood still. Still held, still bound, and yet there was now something held to my neck.

Pain let me know that it was sharp.

Masks. White masks. A wall of white masks stood before me and my captors, unmoved by the knife ready to slit my throat.

"Stop, please, I don't want to die!" I shrieked as I struggled against the person holding me hostage, scratching futilely at the hand that held the knife.

"But isn't this what you wanted?" someone asked me.

I watched as the masks parted and Danzo appeared. On the inside I was snarling at him. He would betray me. He would.

"Don't worry," my captor whispered into my ear. I stiffened in shock, "I'll protect you."

"Tousan? Tousan, why-?"

"Isn't this what you wanted?" Danzo asked again.

And suddenly, Dad's hand was no longer holding the knife to my neck. Instead, it enveloped my own hand, which was now gripping knife.

"Tousan, what are you-?"

"You're not alone. We'll do it together."

Then we began to walk towards Danzo.

"No!" I screamed, trying to stop, trying to throw away the knife. Anything.

Danzo made no move to evade the blade, and none of the masked men tried to intervene either.

"We'll do it together."

"Why? Why?"

"Isn't this what you wanted?"

And just as it seemed inevitable that Danzo would be gutted by our hands, he stepped aside. A wail escaped me as my arm was forced to plunge the blade into the stomach of the person that had been standing behind him.

"I'm sorry!" I put my other hand around the wound, trying to stop the bleeding. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"

Lavender eyes stared back at me, full of pain and betrayal. Blood dribbled out of the corner of lips that parted and...

.

"Nanako-san!"

The desperate whisper coupled with the hand on my shoulder, shaking me, had me jolting into consciousness. My eyes landed on a pair of frantic lavender ones. That had me shoving myself backwards. I turned away, balling my hands up into tight fists against my chest and hunching in on myself. Behind me came the sound of shifting cloth and I twitched violently as the sounds drew closer and closer.

"Nanako-san?" I felt fingers and a palm splayed against my back and nearly bit through my tongue fighting the need to recoil from the touch.

"I'm sorry," I apologized in a shudder and immediately cringed, as if hearing echoes of my nightmare, "Bad dream."

"Oh." The hand on my back was still for a minute before sliding up to my shoulder and squeezing it. "I have those too. Was it bad?"

"The worst."

"I'm sorry." The apology hung between us.

It wasn't long until I had to break the silence.

"Did I wake you up?" His quick protests had me sighing because I knew he was lying so I wouldn't feel bad. "I didn't mean to. I-" I'm just so afraid of my dreams of the future. Of your future. Please, just don't I- "-'ll try to be quieter."

"Yeah, please do that," someone muttered.

The unexpected bit of sass during such an intense moment had me snorting even as someone else hissed an incensed, "Yahiko!" into the darkness. I finally turned to face Nagato. The last afterimages of my nightmare had faded away thankfully, and all I saw was a boy with bushy bed head hanging in his bleary eyes. A smile tugged at my lips as I reached up to cover his hand with my own.

"I'm okay now. Go back to sleep," I told him, before easing his hand off and moving to lie down again.

Just as I felt settled, I was disturbed by a rustling behind me. I rolled off my side until I was on my back and looking in the direction the sound came from. There was Nagato, on the floor next to me pulling his blankets over himself. It took a couple long moments of staring him down before he nervously explained himself.

"My parents would do this for me when I had bad dreams," he eventually said, and I blinked in surprise at how easy the mention of his parents slipped from his lips, "So I thought..."

"Thank you," I quickly cut him off, not needing any more explanation, "You're too nice to me Nagato."

"It's- I'm not-" he stuttered, "Yeah. You-You're always welcome, Nanako-san."

I smiled at him and closed my eyes. It took him awhile to fall asleep after I did. Once his breath evened out, my eyelids opened again and I watched him. There wouldn't be any getting back to sleep. Not with him this close. Sighing, I closed my eyes and started regulating my breathing. If I couldn't sleep, the least I could do was meditate.


"They're moving," I said, tugging on Konan's sleeve.

She nodded to me and then we were off, hopping from rooftop to rooftop. Roof hopping was something new we'd all added to our list of skills we needed for heists. With Konan and Nagato peer pressuring him, Yahiko had finally caved and began accepting training from me. When the kids were finally physically fit enough, I began suggesting we add some more parkour-esque stunts into our plans. And by physically fit, I meant starting to be able to outrun, outjump, out everything me physically if I didn't put my chakra into it. Ah, the disadvantages of a midget body.

Yahiko was a surprisingly good strategist when he wanted to be. Now that he was more willing to listen to me, he'd take my simple but worthwhile ideas, smooth them out, and run with them. Amazingly enough, he really made them work. If we needed an inconspicuous lookout, we could put them on the roof. If things went south, we could escape by roof.

His potential to be a leader was beginning to shine through. All he needed to do was grow in both strength and maturity and Rain would yield to him.

But that was many years away. For now, he was just a boy down on the ground robbing some merchants blind with the help of Nagato and the dog. Konan and I were up top, watching out for them. We would provide cover if necessary. Also, I thought as I absently glanced at Konan, keeping her off the streets.

The boys and I had been united in our efforts to keep Konan protected after the Datura incident. They were less worried about me because I was so small and unkempt I looked like a grubby little unisex brat, but Konan? You had to be blind not to see that she was lovely even for a young girl. It was astounding that they hadn't encountered this kind of problem until now.

"They've stopped," I announced, coming to a stop at the ledge.

Her feet slipped some thanks to the rain making the roof slick, but Konan stopped close to where I did. We peered down into the alley that the boys had ducked into with the bag of food. They were there, looking up at us expectantly. Konan pushed the coil of rope she'd had on her shoulder off, holding one end tight as she let the other down to them. Yahiko tied the end of rope to the bag. When he was done, Yahiko gave the rope a couple tugs. The blue haired girl nodded to me and then we positioned ourselves on either side of the rope with our hands gripping it, we put hand over hand pulling it up to us. Once we had the bag up on the roof, we untied the rope from it and threw it back down to the boys. Not long after, Yahiko, Nagato, and Chibi were also up on the roof with us too.

A round of smiles passed between the four of us and then we were off. The trio worked together to carry the bag between them as they jumped. I would've helped, but my height, the utter life ruiner it was, made it awkward. This was why I was instead rearguard while Chibi was our little point man.

Since I was left free of any burden, I had plenty of time to look down upon the little village as we ran. So much was ugly here that I wondered if there was anything beautiful to be found. Sometimes I challenged myself to find something pretty, something wonderful, in this muddy, rain soaked place.

Most of the time all I saw people starving in the streets, begging much like how I had tried to once or twice in the beginning before realizing it was useless. Doors would always shut on me, people always drew away from me, and then I starved much like the others who had already given up.

Some days, I wondered if the only beautiful things I'd find here were my kids, bright flashes of color that they were.

Some days, I wondered if I wasn't trying hard enough to find more.

Soon, we made it to the edge of town that was closest to where the base was at. As the holder of the rope, I was the one to secure the rope and lower it to the ground. Tucking Chibi under my arm, I saluted the others with two fingers and went first to descend the rope. The dog fussed a bit, disliking being held at such a height. The minute my feet were on the ground, he nipped lightly at my arm until I dropped him. He then circled my legs and barked happily at me as if it were all water under the bridge and we were still friends.

I glowered at him.

The rope was pulled back up and then soon the sack was being lowered down to me. When I had it, I untied the rope from it and tugged it to let them know I was done. It was trickier getting the rest of them down, especially Yahiko who always elected to go last, but trial and error by this point had taught us how to do it without the effort ending in injury or loss of the rope. Once we were all down, we collected our bag of spoils and began our trip back to the hideout. It was only a half hour distance to the factory on foot. We were always cutting that time down more and more, the stronger and faster we got from doing the same run over and over again.

Also because Yahiko detested losing a foot race to a canine.

We were making good time for a quite a while, just passing the ten minute mark and likely to arrive the factory at a whopping twenty-three or twenty-four minute new record, but suddenly came to a stop. Chibi had drawn up short and a low growl emanated from him. For a moment, I was stunned. As much as I detested the dog, I could acknowledge that he was very good animal. Intelligent, friendly, loyal. He was also fairly good natured and well behaved, very unlike the menace and brat I treated him as. If something was agitating him like this, then it was serious.

"What's up with Chibi?" Yahiko asked, looking back and forth between Nagato and I.

Nagato shook his head, a motion I mirrored. All of us took a minute to stare in the direction Chibi was. It was hard to make out much in front of us due to the rain. If we had been in better weather conditions, we would've easily been able to see the hideout from where we stood. Glancing at Chibi, I turned my gaze back ahead and very slowly, very carefully, began letting a trickle of chakra leak into my eyes. Using chakra to enhance my body, my senses, had been something I'd been playing with as of late when it seemed that I was finally making headway with other chakra control exercises. Chibi's reaction was warrant enough to try it, even though I was a far cry from being proficient at chakra enhancement.

It took a while for my eyes to find the right focus, and even then, I only had it for a short amount of time before my control went haywire. Through the unruly weather conditions, my eyes pinpointed the base. My hands flew to my mouth in shock.

I didn't know what was worse, the black smoke that rose from what was left of the dilapidated building-cave, or recognizing the person who stood before it and watched it burn.

It was more likely to be the latter.

My chakra and eyes chose to fail me not even a beat after. Sight over sharpened, then blurred, then discolored, and then I was forced to immediately shut my eyes and cut off all chakra flow to them. My hands slid from my mouth up so that the heels of my palms were pressed to my eye sockets. Gods above, that fracking hurt!

"Nanako!" I heard the others shout as I hunched over, grunting in pain.

"It's alright, I just did something stupid and now my eyes hurt," I assured them, twisting my palms into my eyes as if that would relieve some of the pins and needles sensation I was getting in my eyes.

Maybe it did. A little.

"Are you sure?" Konan asked at my shoulder.

If I was listening correctly, Nagato was hovering at my other one, twisting his hands.

"I might not be, but that's not important right now," I answered her, sounding snappier than I wanted. I took a calming breath before speaking again, "Someone is burning the base."

Gasps and cries of anger and denial ran through the others.

"Who would-?" Yahiko started.

"The samurai."

At my right, Nagato stiffened, and at my left, Konan began shaking like a leaf. I bit my lip, wishing I wasn't doing this to her. She was still having nightmares since the Datura incident. For her to believe that the woman and her samurai were hunting us, she was sure to be terrified. I removed one of my hands from my face so I could reach out for her. My fingertips grazed her arm and then slid down it so I could grasp her wrist, let the contact soothe her. I felt her calm slightly at the touch. But not enough. The sound of her quiet sniffles over the constant patter of rain made me want to cry like she was.

In front of me, I heard cursing, and stomping, and limbs flailing. Yahiko was reacting exactly as expected in this situation.

"We need to get out of here," I finally snapped in full snappishness, having made the mistake of trying to open my eyes at the same time I spoke.

"Why?" I heard Nagato whisper at my side.

"Yeah, why?" Yahiko snarled, his mid-tirade fury spilling into his question.

"They're looking for us right?"

"Yes." Grumbled and hissed like accusation.

"So we need to not let them find us. That means we need to find somewhere safe."

For a long moment, I thought Yahiko was going to yell at me, call me a coward, and demand that all of us go to the base and play at being heroes.

(Definition of a hero: Someone who gets other people killed.)

Instead he yelled and swore some more until at last, he stopped and quietly asked.

"Where do we go?"

If I could reach him without fumbling blind like a fool, I'd give the boy a hug. He was feeling what all of us were feeling. Lost. Without a home. I'd been lost ever since I'd left Konoha, but I'd found something close, something comforting in that cave-like abandoned factory. I could only imagine how the others felt, losing something likely much more dear to them than I'd ever understand.

And suddenly I threw my dignity to the wind and stumbled forward anyway, hearing both Nagato and Konan protest behind me. My hands, outstretched before me, met with rough raincoat material. Forward moment kept me moving until my head was buried somewhere in the middle of a too thin chest and let my arms circle the waist. Slowly, I ran my hands up and down his back, whispering calming things. Promising we'd be fine, we'd find a new base, we'd be together.

If he cried out his loss, crumpled around me as he did so, I ignored it in favor of keeping the flow of my words as soft and comforting as my touches. More arms wound around us, Konan and Nagato having felt left out. We all stayed like that for a while until reluctantly, I reminded them that the threat of the samurai still loomed.

I hesitated before making the suggestion - that was not just a suggestion - that we stay away from the village and move east. It killed me that I didn't even have to justify myself and that they were too trusting, or too emotionally compromised, to fight anything I said. The kids took up the load again, but not before they tied one end our rope to my wrist and the other to Chibi's collar.

It took me too long to figure out what they had done, and by the time I had, I was being dragged by wrist and rope and dog after them.

"Aw, you guys..." I whined.

I got a bark and subdued laughter in response.


The thing with my eyes didn't really go away like I'd hoped.

I could see, sort of, which could be considered a blessing because at least I wasn't blind. But, it was confusing, regardless of not being blind. It seemed at first that I was experiencing some sort of light sensitivity. That was the explanation I had for why it hurt to open my eyes. Then, when the pain and sensitivity became tolerable, I realized that messed up depth perception could be added to my list of issues. Things often appeared either too close or too far from me than they actually were. At one point, I'd seen someone and began to reach for them thinking I was close enough to touch. And then, I'd found that they were actually feet away and I was flailing at air.

It must have been an incredibly pathetic sight because I was unexpectedly dragged into tight hug by Konan only a moment later.

I hated it. This uselessness. I had to be tied to Chibi at all times because the others worried I'd manage to get myself lost or hurt without the dog looking after me. Really. The dog. Looking after me.

I think that the worst thing about this situation was that even though my problem was causing the biggest inconvenience since I'd joined them to date, no one complained or got upset at me. Not even Yahiko. Yahiko, who had freaking complained when I so much as breathed funny in his direction.

Playing a petulant, moody child wasn't so hard when you weren't really playing at it so much as living and breathing it.

One thing thankfully hadn't changed just because of my eyes: training. I didn't need to see to do my katas or privately practice chakra control. I warned the others against trying to continue learning by watching me do it, since I wouldn't be able to correct their mistakes like usual. Not that they listened to me. When I ran through the motions, I would hear them stubbornly following along with me.

Something that changed though not as much as I thought it would was our other lessons. Teaching them how to write and read was suspended indefinitely, but there was still so much that could still be taught in other ways. All three of them, no matter how they tried to hide it, had a burning curiosity for the world outside Rain. As the only person they had access to who was knowledgeable about things outside of Rain, I was always asked dozens upon dozens of questions about what made other countries different from Rain. I tried to answer them as well as I could, though I found it hard to describe what a sunny day was like, or how it was possible for dogs to talk where I came from.

Things were easier when they asked for stories after they'd exhausted themselves of questions. Ever since the night I had comforted Konan, I made it a point to tell the kids stories. They may not have been aware of it, but I tailored my (borrowed) stories to impart lessons.

Stories about how people of all kinds could change the fate of the world and shape the fortunes of all with loyalty, honor, and a willing heart. Stories about fate and destiny, and how people could live up to or even break free from them. Stories of great adventures over mountains, across the plains, on the seas, even amongst the stars. Stories of love so passionate and pure, others would be left behind.

(The love stories I could have left out, but I really did enjoy the way Konan would sigh dreamily at the happy endings.)

Today, as we slogged eastward bound through more of the usual rain and craggy rock formations, I told them another. There was a boy who flew, a girl who told great stories, a land hidden past a star, a gaggle of boys lost, and so much more. Our rule for stories was that they were not to interrupt me until the story was over. As always, they reluctantly waited until "the end," before pouncing.

"Do you think fairies and mermaids really exist?" Konan asked eagerly.

"I don't know." I tapped my cheek thoughtfully a couple times. "I mean, I'm not sure. There are plenty of things we hear about, but have trouble believing in because we don't have proof they exist. I've never met a fairy or a mermaid, or seen any proof they are real, but why not hope that they are? Wouldn't it be wonderful?" My lips quirked into a funny smile. "I do believe in fairies, even if it's just me."

"Mmm," Konan hummed, "I think it would be wonderful if they were real too."

"D-do crocodiles really like the taste of people?" Nagato stuttered out, "Do you know if there are any in Rain?"

"Ah, I'm also not sure if there are any in Rain. I don't think I'd want to go looking for one just to find out either. And um, I think anything might taste good to a crocodile if it makes good food. The one in the story just seemed to really like the taste of people. Well, one person in particular."

Even with my eyes closed, I could sense that my answer did little to reassure Nagato of his safety from vicious crocodiles. There were a couple more interesting questions, like what kinds of happy thoughts could make one fly, or what exactly a thimble actually was. Just as the questions seemed to be wrapping up, Yahiko piped up with a question of his own. Usually he asked more questions, but this time around, he'd left most of them to Konan and Nagato. He seemed to have been in deep thought about something, and had finally sorted his thoughts out when he spoke up.

"Why did she choose to grow up?" I could imagine his face pinched and his mouth downturned in a frown, "She could've been happy if she'd stayed and never…"

Something else unusual; Yahiko wasn't one to falter with his words. Except, considering his pattern when it came to talking about his feelings, talking about me, I could count on the boy to be less than articulate and severely emotionally constipated. At least it seemed he was getting better about it. If this had been before the Konan situation, he would have yelled or given me the silent treatment. Glad as I was that he'd asked instead of staying quiet, this was a loaded question made hard to address by its asker. I took a moment before I started carefully, gently responding to his questions. Asked and unasked.

"Maybe she might have been happy staying with them and never growing up." I paused. "But I think that she knew she'd miss out on a lot of stuff if she had chosen that."

"And what's so good about growing up?" he demanded hotly, though he didn't raise his voice.

"It just seems so hard, growing up," Nagato added, his own voice soft as a whisper in the rain, "Adults don't look very happy; even my mom and dad didn't. Isn't growing up just getting meaner, and sadder, and… tired?"

"You think that that's all growing up is?" I asked.

"Isn't it?"

"I don't believe it is."

"Why?" he breathed out.

"Probably because I hope too much," I answered, praying I was saying the right thing, "I hope that when I grow up, I can make my dreams come true. If I grow up, I can be strong enough to protect my home, my family, my friends. I want to grow up because I want to see my little brother grow as well. Grow into man I can be proud of, loved and safe and happy. I want us both to be so happy." I turned my head in the direction of the others, as if to remind myself they were still there. "I want you guys to be happy, too, you know. I wouldn't want to grow up, or make any of you grow up, if I didn't think we could all be happy."

"But you're going to leave." Yahiko's statement caused a ripple of discontent in the other two. "You're gonna go away, and Konan, Nagato, and Chibi, and-" he made a frustrated noise, "they're gonna be sad, not happy when you leave. You're gonna leave, grow up, and forget about us!"

My eyes fluttered open, and I took in the distorted sight of my kids. Yahiko, he'd finally said it. And as I looked at him, at Nagato and Konan too, I knew that all of them felt the same and had felt it for quite a while. Somehow, I'd let myself not see any of the doubts Konan had in me. Convinced myself that I'd assuaged Nagato of any worries that I would abandon them without so much as a backwards glance.

How had I failed so thoroughly to inspire any belief that truly I cared in them?

Words failed me then. What could I possibly say that I hadn't already tried? My head tipped backwards as I stared forlornly up into the cloudy sky, wishing it had answers for me. I wanted it to tell me how to reach them. I thought I'd proved myself by now, but obviously I hadn't.

Just as I was about to close my aching eyes once more and prod the others back into walking, I spotted something falling towards us. A faraway, sharp whistling sound that grew louder and louder against the rain accompanied the sight. It took only a second to place the sight, place the sound, and let the cold, terror of recognition grip me before it was tamped down.

"Scatter!" I screamed.

When you thought you were caught in the market, you ran. They beat you or tried to have you arrested if they caught you. But before you fled, before you went a single inch, you warned the others to get out. Get out now. You saved each other before you saved your own skin. And if you heard someone call out the warning, you listened, you didn't question it. You ran.

I didn't stop to check on the others, trusting that they'd get themselves to safety. I went to run as well, but found myself yanked violently in the other direction and to my back. A swear bubbled up in my throat as I remembered the damn rope and the damn dog.

There was no time to lay there and curse it. There was almost no time at all. Chibi was whining, confused and dazed, having fallen liked I had. There was almost no time, and there was the rope and the dog.

I was on my feet as fast as I could get to them, and quickly, I wrapped my hands around the rope and pulled, dragged, Chibi to me. I pulled so hard, it had the dog yelping as he was gracelessly dragged across the unforgiving ground. Later, I'd apologize, maybe give him a treat, or let him get away with biting me. But for now, we needed to move, there was no time.

His body was tucked into mine, I was curled protectively around him, my legs were beginning to carry us away but-

There was no time.

Whistling metal, a thunk in wet rock, loud explosions.

Smoke and fire.

The world was on fire.

"NANAKO!"


Everything hurt so bad.

It hurt so bad, sososobad, why couldn't it stop? Where was Kanda-sensei? He'd treat my wounds. Where was Mom? Her glowing green hands would be such a comfort. She'd take care of me. She always took care of me.

"Kaasan," I cried, before realizing it hurt so bad to speak too, "Kaasaaaaaaan."

A sob ripped out of my chest when my body was moved, sending more searing painpainpain through me.

"She won't stop crying!" some said, panicky and out of breath, "Why won't she stop crying?"

"Shut up!" someone else roared.

"W-We have to find someone to help her or she might…"

There was a curse, I was jostled, I wailed, someone whimpered.

"She'll be okay, she has to be."

"Nanako-san. Nanako, please."

It was too much.

.

Moving. Everything was moving. There was wind in my ears. A little bit of warmth bled through the surface of whatever my front was pressed against. A little, but not enough, the air was heavy with cold and wet. Something tickled at my nose, scratched on my cheek.

What was going on?

It. Still. Hurt.

What was that sound? It was awful. Pathetic. Why wouldn't it stop?

I thrashed. The hurt increased. The sounds did as well.

Stop.

.

"-aw you! I saw what you did! You healed your friend. You can heal our friend. Please, just heal her, she might… she can't…"

So sad. So desperate.

"Should I kill her then?" A yell. "She's suffering, isn't she? It would be kinder, I would think, to end the suffering of a war orphan for good."

Sinuous, dangerous… and comforting?

"Orochimaru, enough!"

Orochi… maru? Orochimaru. Orochimaru! Orochimaru!

All I could do was whimper when I wanted to cry out.

"Please heal her… Please, chiryō-shi-san..."

"She's not like us! She's not a war orphan. She has a family. She has a home. She has to go back to see her parents and her brother! SHE CAN'T DIE HERE!"

Everybody dies. Death doesn't care who you are or what you have.

"And where is her family? If she really has one, why aren't they here to care for her?"

"She was- she was taken! Taken from her home. She doesn't belong here." There was lapse of silence until that soft voice started louder again. "You're ninja from the Land of Fire! From Konoha!"

Konoha? That was home. I longed for my food, and my bed, and my Mom. And Aito's sweet smiles. Home.

"What of it, kid?"

"You can take her home!"

"And where is that? Why does it matter that we're from Konoha?"

Konoha. Konoha. Konoha.

"That's her home! She told us. They took her from there."

"No… It can't be…"

That voice, so sweet to sound so shocked.

"Nanako!"

"Oh Kami, it's Nanako!"

"Nanako!"

There was more yelling. And hands touching me, moving me about. But it was all too much again. Too much thinking, listening. How tiring just thinking and listening could be. Everything still hurt too.

Maybe sleeping would make it better.

Even if I couldn't sing Aito to sleep, or have Mom tuck me into bed.


Since my eyes had gotten messed up, I would forego opening my eyes in the morning when I woke. It seemed a little pointless when my vision was so shoddy. First thing I did was felt around myself. Once I got my hands on the floor, I'd be able to push myself up from lying down.

However, it seemed like I wasn't going to be able to do what I had planned. There were arms wrapped around me. I squirmed, not liking being held like that. Nagato and Konan should've known better than to do that by now.

"Lemme go," I groaned, "I want to get up. Where-," yawn, "-'s Chibi?"

"Nanako?" my sleeping buddy murmured sleepily into my hair.

I stiffened. My eyes shot open and swiveled down to look at the arms looped around me.

Two things had me gasping in shock. The first: I could see. Everything was clear; the colors, the distance, the sharpness. I could've cried in happiness. Would have, if not for the fact that the second part that had me freaking out was seeing the pair of adult sized arms around me.

"Nanako?" I heard them say again, less groggy and laced with joy and concern, "Oh thank Kami, Nanako, you're awake."

"I told you she wouldn't like being held," someone whispered a ways away, just as I set myself to squirming again.

The arms suddenly slipped away, and as much as I mourned the loss of heat, I rejoiced more in my freedom from fleshy restraints. I rolled and scrabbled a bit until I was on my hands and knees, and then pushed back until I was sitting back, face to face with my sleeping buddy. Then I proceeded to cry.

"No, don't cry kid. You know I'm bad with tears. Come on, you know what your tousan would do to me if he knew I made you cry! You wouldn't want your tousan to hunt me down and trap me in a genjutsu full of angry women, would you?"

A snort, followed by a soggy hiccough burbled out of me before I segued into a full on giggly sob fest. I scooted forward into Jiraiya's open arms, throwing my own around him and not even managing to get them halfway around his chest. This was better than the Christmases I used to celebrate a long time ago. I smushed my face into his front, nuzzling it. He must of thought I was insane or something, the noises I was making. Thankfully, he didn't make a single comment about my behavior. Instead, he gathered me up in a tiny bundle of limbs and blankets and got to his feet.

Peeping out from where I was held, I saw that he was carrying me over to Tsunade and Orochimaru. If I had considered getting a look at my surroundings, it was forgotten at the sight of more dearly missed people. I only had time to wrestle my arms out towards them before Jiraiya was passing me to Tsunade.

Where Jiraiya had been unfailingly gentle, Tsunade embraced me fiercely. One hand threaded in the hair at the back of my head, her nails lightly scraping my scalp, while the other gripped tightly. She spoke incoherently into my neck and hair, peppering kissed wherever her mouth traveled. Her eyes had been red and watery when I'd seen her, and I sincerely, futilely, hoped that wasn't my fault.

She held me for a long time, and it almost hurt, but I loved the feel of her too much to care. It seemed too soon that she was releasing me, but I found my landing in the last set of waiting arms. Orochimaru's arms were looped beneath me like a sling and I leant forward into him like I would have in a swing so as not to fall backwards. We were not overly affectionate people with each other, but for this moment that was forgotten. I tucked my head into his neck and my arms went over his shoulders, sliding through his silky, black locks. There was the slightest tightening of his hold, and his chin moving to settle at the crown of my head in response.

How had they found me? This wasn't in the plan! And yet… I shut my eyes, too content to give it much more thought.

"-on't trust 'em," I heard someone hiss.

There was the sound of a scuffle and I stirred from where I was against snake summoner. Nagato and Konan were shoving at Yahiko, who was swatting indignantly back at them and glaring at Orochimaru and me. Tsunade, still teary eyed, seemed to be biting back chuckles while Jiraiya didn't bother with restraining himself. I glanced up and saw Orochimaru staring placidly back at the boy, completely unaffected by his ire.

Yet again, I was overwhelmed, but it felt like a good kind of too much. It seemed, as I looked about what seemed to be a cave, that while this wasn't home, this was better than I'd had in months. My old loved ones and my new friends were here with me together. It was comfort enough to last me until I saw the rest of my family again.

My hands slipped down as I went to tug at Orochimaru's collar. His yellow eyes dropped to look questioningly down at me. I gestured towards the kids and the smallest flicker of understanding flitted through his eyes. He lowered me carefully, making sure my feet touched the ground steadily before he completely released me.

I felt like some bizarre kind of blanket turtle creature, with my covers clutched and bundled tight around my body like a cushy shell as I shuffled over to them. Normally, I would've probably had Yahiko broken down in guffaws at my ridiculous state, but he, and the others as well, had quite quickly become somber at my approach. That seemed really… wrong. I couldn't trust myself to read their feelings right either. After being so wrong about their trust in me, how could I hope to guess at what troubled them now?

Nagato was the first to crack. Tears began silently trickling down his cheeks. He met me halfway, and practically fell to his knees before me, hands clutching at my front as he pressed his face against me.

"W-we thought you were going to d-die," he whimpered, "You were going to leave us f-f-forever."

"Oh Nagato," I murmured, one of my hands coming out of the blankets to rest on his head.

Another hand was laid over my own. I looked up to find the owner giving me a tremulous smile.

"You shouldn't have scared us like that," Konan scolded. Her other hand was fisted tight in the front of her raincoat.

"Just what were you thinking?" the last boy exclaimed, crowding in on the three of us to lean over me, "You didn't even run!"

"I tried." I placed my other hand on his upper arm and felt the tension there. "It just, it was a mess." We both winced. Suddenly, something occurred to me. "The dog! Where's Chibi? I was holding him when..."

I trailed off. Yahiko had gone pale. Beside him, Konan looked away, biting her lip. I felt my chest seizing. Had I failed again?

"He got hurt too," Konan began to explain.

"Oh no, nonono-" my fever pitch denials cut her off.

"Nanako, wait-!"

"I messed up!" My hands pressed into Nagato and Yahiko harder. "I thought I got him. I'm supposed to take care of him, I'm so sorry!"

"Nanako, Nanako, wait, calm down," Konan said, grabbing me firmly.

"I'm sorry." Hysteria was creeping up on me. "Chibi's dead and-"

"Nanako, Chibi isn't dead."

I stared long and hard at her.

"What?"

"He isn't dead Nanako," she repeated, before hesitantly adding, "He's just not okay."

"Where is he?" I demanded, my head whipping about, searching the cave.

"Here," I heard Tsunade say, "The dog's here, Nanako."

Tsunade was knelt down in another part of the cave, gesturing towards something at the ground in front of her. I shrugged off Konan, but took a bit more care in extricating myself from Nagato, before heading over to investigate. The first thing I saw of him was fluffy tail lying limp on the floor. He was on his side, his legs splayed out in front of him. His chest heaved in shallow pants. There were bandages wrapped around his upper body and the right side of his face. Just as I went to touch him, to prove to myself he was really real, my eyes fixed on what had made Konan and Yahiko so upset.

"Oh."

I didn't dare reach out and touch. It was common sense to not touch someone else's wound. Who knew how they would react? Animals especially could be violent when injured. I could remember Tsume telling me about that kind of thing happening in the Inuzuka kennels to the new workers.

Even still, my fingers twitched in reaction to the sight. Chibi looked like he was in pain. While I had never set out to specifically save the dog's life, I had because I cared. It seemed I'd even succeeded at it, but at such severe risk to myself. As I looked him over once more, I wondered and hoped this was for the better.

"I did what I could," she told me, "But there are some things I can't heal."

After all, how did you heal what was no longer there?

"I know," I acknowledged with a shaky nod, "I understand. I'm just… glad he's alive."

Without warning, I was being pulled to her again.

"And we're glad that you're alive Nanako." Her voice was still breathy and hitched in odd places. "Me, Jiraiya, Orochimaru, and your friends, we're all so glad that you're alive."

"I know." I gazed over her shoulder at the rest of them, swallowing hard to keep down the swell of my emotions. "I know."

Sighing, I set my head back down on her shoulder, and breathed her scent of battle, sweet sake, and home in.


My aunt and uncles gave us three days. It was all the time they could spare Chibi and I to recuperate before we had to cross the border back into the Land of Fire. Where four street urchins and a dog could hang about war torn territories unmolested by ninja, the same could not be said for the newly christened Sannin. Likely, by the next release of bingo books, all three of them would have their nifty new titles added as well as a steep hike in their reward offered for death or captured.

(One does not simply walk into Rain, fight Hanzo, and come out of the battle alive without something to show for it.)

As Jiraiya had regaled my three friends with the story of the Sannin's epic battle, I could see my friends' eyes glowing with the beginnings of hero worship. Yahiko, in particular, was rather starstruck. Of the three of them, he probably hated Hanzo most. Konan had told me that it had been Hanzo, astride one of his monstrous salamanders, that had waged a battle close to his hometown, uncaring of the civilians who would be caught up in it. Yahiko had gotten out before the massive beast crushed the town. His parents hadn't. So it made sense. Awful, horrible sense.

It all seemed very easy, those first two days. Almost surreal, considering the company, the location, the circumstances, everything. The kids were charmed by Jiraiya and Tsunade, Orochimaru was being polite, and both Chibi and I were doing much better.

But it wasn't. Not really.

I could've guessed this would happen, but I had studiously taken to not guessing where they were concerned. I took advantage of my time sitting away from them with Orochimaru to think about how to ask them. It had been on my mind for a very long time now, and I had to carefully consider the consequences of my proposal. There was a chance that they would say no. If they said yes, then it would be Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Orochimaru to deal with at that point.

And likely, many more barriers to be accounted for after that.

However, I couldn't not do it. I wanted to try.

I'd hoped I could ask them on third day. For hours on the second day, I'd practiced my speech. Orochimaru, who had been sitting with me at the time, had regarded me curiously as I pet Chibi absently and muttered under my breath.

My plans, or course, went to pot the minute I woke from my somewhat fitful sleep somewhere between night and day and found the cave's population down by three underage inhabitants.

"Where's Nagato?" I crawled over to where he and his sleeping mat should have been right next to mine. "Konan? Yahiko?" I scrambled to my feet and swung to face Jiraiya, who was the one on guard duty at the moment. "Where are they?"

"Your friends left," he answered with a slight frown, "Said they were going back to their town." He reached down beside him to grab something and then held it out to me. "Asked me to give this to you."

With trembling hands, I took it from him. It was a delicate paper flower. I turned it over in my hands and found something written clumsily on a petal.

Sayonara.

I remembered teaching them how to write that word. That word. I remember-

They weren't allowed to leave like this.

"Which way did they go?"

"You're not going out there," Jiraiya said, staring back at me, his expression alarmed, "It's raining Nanako, you're in no condition to be going anywhere right now."

"Then go find them and bring them back!" I begged, any chances of retrieving them myself dying when I saw the stern refusal to negotiate settling into his eyes.

"Nanako, they obviously wanted to leave to spare themselves the painful goodbyes. Why can't you let them have that?"

I could have screamed at him. It wasn't his, or their, decision to make, leaving me without proper goodbyes. Or leaving at all. How dare they leave me, when it was them who had been so worried about being left? They didn't understand. This was wrong. This wasn't the way things were supposed to be and it needed to be fixed.

"No." I finally firmly managed. "Jiraiya-ojisan, please bring them back."

This was probably the first time I'd ever been this obviously angry with Jiraiya. It must've been obvious to him despite my polite words, because he looked as if he'd been struck. His hesitation had me fearing that maybe he wouldn't do it. Maybe he'd even be angry at me for this bratty but necessary tantrum.

My worries were cleared away when he brought his hands up to form a seal (a flurry of them that ended in tiger). Suddenly, another Jiraiya poofed into existence, an exasperated look on his face as he disappeared from the cave in the next second in a cloud of smoke.

Minutes trickled by as we waited for the shadow clone to retrieve the children. In that time, Jiraiya and I had a staring match. I thought at first I had triumphed when his gaze broke off, but then I realized it was because he had sensed them approaching before I had. It took a bit before I could hear loud yelling coming from the direction of the cave entrance. Then, suddenly, they were there.

Yahiko was howling verbal abuse from where he hung from one of the clone's arms around his middle. Nagato hung from the other. Konan was perched on its shoulders.

"Happy now?" the real Jiraiya muttered.

I nodded, watching as the clone set them down before me before it was dismissed.

All of them refused to meet my eyes.

"I'm…" I trailed off, before straightening my back, "I am so mad at all of you right now!"

Nagato and Konan each flinched while Yahiko's scowl only cut his face deeper.

"I promised that if I ever left, I'd say goodbye," I said, calming my tone, though there was no stopping my hurt from leaking into it, "Were you going to go and not even-"

"We did!" Konan cut me off, "We did say goodbye!"

"This," I almost hissed at her, holding up her paper flower, "Is not a goodbye."

It took everything in me not to crush the flower between my fingers in rage. That kind of thing, I knew even in this state, was unforgivable. Konan would cry. Yahiko would try to kick me. Nagato would probably let him. And I'd probably let him too.

"You were running away," I accused, "You were running away from me. I care about each of you so much. Do I really matter so little to you? Do you… do you really not want me? Do you hate me?"

I knew of course that what I asked couldn't be farther from the truth , but I needed to make them realize what they'd done was utterly unacceptable. If I had to paint myself as insecure and needy of affirmations of their attachment to me, so be it. It was with grim satisfaction that I watched each of their faces snap to mine, horror struck. They babbled denials and apologies, desperate to convince me that they could never hate me.

(Never, no no no, sorry, can't hate you ever, how could we, so sorry, why do you think that, sorry sorry, never, no...)

That was where I pushed.

"Please don't leave again," I begged, sniffling the slightest, "Please. I want you to stay with me. I don't have to leave. You- you could come back home with me!" I paused, looking to Jiraiya who was flabbergasted. "They can, can't they?"

"Well, I mean-" the white hair man began to waffle, "I dunno. I think, but, Tsunade-hime would probably know better than me. Maybe there are processes, but…"

"They can," Tsunade piped up from further in the cave, awake and tired of listening to Jiraiya talk uselessly, "There are papers that would need to be filed and of course someone would need to vouch for them in a meeting with either the Hokage or the village council. Which I'm sure can be easily done."

If I could see her, I was sure she'd be giving me a very meaningful look.

"You can come home with me," I pressed again, taking in the shocked looks on the kids' faces, "I mean, if you want to?" I slipped a thread of uncertainty into my tone and expression. "You guys are like my family. My home is your home too, if you want it."

I reached for Nagato, who was closest.

"Please?"


AN: I am so ashamed. Just let me die. Then I can just "ghost" write the rest of this story without any worldly troubles to bother me as I do so. Maybe then, I wouldn't make you lovely people wait four fecking months for a chapter. Seriously, you could stone me and I'd let you, but point out all of the super jagged and pointy ones out to you before you did so. I'm so sorry. Gah.

Comments on the chapter: SO MUCH HURT!COMFORT/FLUFF. Drowning in rainbow vomit and pillow pets. Minor research on eyesight problems. Totally pretending to actually know what I'm talking about here. And the shadow clone technique is supposedly in the seal sequence of ram-serpent-tiger. Chapter also currently unbeta'd, so I apologize for that too.

Nanako's story time was brought to you by Peter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Barrie. If this chapter seemed a bit Tolkein heavy, well, that's what happens when you're helping a college professor draft a lesson plan on a course about Tolkein's works. I'm being driven half insane by an intense desire to write a post-Hobbit AU SI/OC story. No plot bunnies, go away and never darken my doorstep again. I've already got a large enough brood of you. (I also may have snuck other quotes in, but I'm not copping to anything else, you hear me!)

P.S. Wow, just realized this is the first chapter Jiraiya and Orochimaru got dialogue. WTH?

Terms:

tousan- father
kaasan- mother
chiryō-shi-san - healer
sayonara- goodbye
-ojisan - suffix for uncle