Chapter Thirty-Eight


Now. Obviously we had two extra Hokages at the time of Orochimaru's "death," and unlike Shisui, they didn't disappear.

One Hokage went off to locate the only medic who could save Grandfather.

The other stayed home.

I got to go home, too, once the medics decreed that my chakra was stable. I was commanded to rest up, which made me wonder if Dad had told them that I was grounded or if he'd grounded me because he knew what they'd command. Anyway. Resting up gave me time to stockpile some less chakra-intensive seals.

I was able to take some nice long walks, too, as part of the recovery process. These may or may not have taken me past "Tenzō's extra wood clones." Which I may or may not have settled down to watch.

I wasn't alone in this. Several jōnin came to gawk during their non-existent break times. A lot of them muttered under their breath.

The First Hokage was just as impressive as their mentors had told them.

They'd kill to be Tenzō and interact with him.

Too bad he hadn't been around when they'd been kids on construction duty. Kids these days. . . .

But the real kicker, the thought that had them tracking down a long-dead Hokage instead of finishing their own tasks: "What does he think of us?"

That question probably fueled some intense self-improvement.

"Tenzō's extra wood clones," for the most part, were normal wood clones, and not designed to carry out conversations. If I hadn't heard the gossip among the higher-ups, I wouldn't have suspected anything. Clones can be in several places at once; the casual observer cannot.

The wood clones were numerous and hard-working. As they finished with each building, specialized construction crews tag-teamed to complete the plumbing and wiring. Owners and residents trickled back as each building cleared code. They offered all kinds of opportunities to distract me. I couldn't help with official work, but I could certainly locate someone's neighbor, carry a few boxes, and help carry out trash. There wasn't much left to carry out, though, since apparently Wood Release is a form of recycling.

I watched clones, volunteered, and tried not to think too much.

Easier said than done. Rumors were everywhere. Rumors said that the First Hokage was repairing the village and that the Second was MIA. Suna was crippled. The new village of Sound was floundering. Suna was already negotiating for its hostages.

I couldn't waltz up to a wood clone and ask what the undead Kages were doing and what their reasoning was. Dad wasn't sharing details with me, and he knew that I knew they'd chosen to stay for a while. Hashirama was obviously staying to help rebuild. I was only guessing that Tobirama had left to find his grandniece Tsunade. Dad was all "I can neither confirm nor deny" about that.

I would have advised them to delegate the other way—send Hashirama to convince his granddaughter, leave Tobirama here to talk some sense into the village council. I hadn't been asked, of course.

For all I knew, Tobirama had better insight on how to talk to Tsunade. He'd lived a bit longer. He was the better sensor, that was for sure. He'd found the One Tail, figured out whose kids Kato and I were, and had patted my clone on the head.

Mom said he had come back with more power than his brother. I guess it made sense to use Hashirama's chakra on wood clones. It was efficient. Logical. More useful to the village than going to find Tsunade would be.

Mom's words in the hospital room came back to me: "When you see evil, choose not to look the other way." Something like that.


What could I do to help? Surely more than an odd task. Surely more than spying on a legend. The latter was kind of selfish, and besides, what was the purpose? Winning a pat on the back?

What to do to help . . .

To help . . .


There was a certain young man locked in a cell somewhere in our village. From what I'd heard about Suna, no one was negotiating to get him home. They probably didn't have a way to control him yet, and no one had stepped up to the job of Kazekage. A Kage would have to be powerful enough to take down the One Tail. Maybe no one was brave enough to take on that responsibility. Maybe they were hoping he'd break out and come home on his own.

They would want him back. No village would cut loose its jinchūriki. Humanized or not, a weapon's a weapon. A glass cannon was worth a lot of trouble.

I knew that Dad wanted the jinchūriki gone—guards were wasted manpower and Suna wouldn't be bothering us for a while. He just refused to send a mass murderer home to a village that clearly couldn't protect itself.

I think that ultimately, he was refusing to let Gaara become Naruto's worst nightmare. Dad was pretty attached to his blonde jinchūriki. He didn't want to see a different kid go down a twisted, mindless killer path. Once upon a time, a young Hatake had suffered along that route himself.

Sanity and soft spots aside.

A Tailed Beast was imprisoned in our village.

There were people who wanted our village to keep that edge.

I worried about Shimura Danzō, the man who controlled the village council and more importantly, controlled his own faction of ninjas, Root. During the invasion, our Konoha ninja had gone around capturing invaders when possible. Root had found a good number of those prisoners and finished them off.

I didn't know much about the organization, but I did know that its operatives were trained to be inhuman. Danzō would go to any length to keep Konoha from falling (he had an alternative definition of the word). If Root had murdered common captives, a trapped jinchūriki clearly wouldn't bother their consciences. After all, the Tailed Beast imprisoned inside was a chakra creature, and it couldn't die.

That was that, then. I'd look for Gaara. I could certainly do that while grounded from missions, practicing jutsu, and forming clones. I'd have better luck searching for him than trying to find Root agents.

Gaara wasn't dying on my watch.


It took a few days to locate Gaara's cell. I was lucky—I could hear through the security seals pretty well if I stood in the correct abandoned lot. If I listened from the right spot, I could even hear words. It was a good thing that I'd happened to catch my father heading in to talk to the boy early on. Dad is very distinctive.

Even so, those seals were nasty!

Gaara had begged to return to his village. Dad said that negotiations were underway. Gaara said to please stop drugging him, since the One Tail neutralized such things anyway and if Gaara wasn't careful the One Tail would escape.

The Godaime hadn't ordered for drugs.


I really needed to see if I could figure out more about our village's little ripples of power. Drugs don't sneak themselves in. And while the first conclusion I jumped to was Danzō, the only thing I knew for sure was how to (sometimes) identify a Root agent. I didn't know who else had a hand in things. There could be other players. I'd been trying to figure little things out about Danzō for years, and the only thing I knew for sure was that he must know about my hearing, because there was never anything to listen to. I'd tried my best not to ask too many questions. Being Kakashi's kid afforded a real sense of safety. Especially now that he was the Hokage. I hoped.

As soon as I found Gaara's prison, I started "meditating" in the sweet spot. Far from subtle.

It was nice to have a chance to hone my sense of hearing. What I was listening to, however, was not so pleasant.

The young jinchūriki muttered endlessly. Most of it was talking back to the One Tail. Occasionally Gaara slipped and muttered about his village and his family. He'd figured out that his father was dead. He was glad about that. He was also concerned that he was glad.

I camped out up there until someone noticed the breach in the seals and fixed them.

Then I broke cover.

"Dad," I said one morning as said person was enjoying the solace of our shower, "do you have a minute?"

"If you turn off the hot water I will send you to Snow Country," he threatened.

What was wrong with snow?

"Your threats have gotten better," I commented when he eventually came into the living room. I was lying on my back on the floor, thinking back to countless escapades from down here. Bygone days.

"You shouldn't be up at two in the morning," he said. "If it's the seals, I already gave you permission to have a clone write them. One clone only."


I listened to the couch dip under his weight. One of the springs snapped, but we weren't going to be replacing couch springs any time soon, thanks to our current supply chain. We'd patch it with ninja wire if it came to it. Ninja duct tape. Now back to my purpose.

"The One Tail is still here, right?"

Dad rubbed at the fine stubble along his jawbone. "I should be asking you. You're a very persistent watchdog. You've unnerved his entire group of guards, in case you're curious. A whole squad of barrier specialists is convinced you're bluffing."

Maybe I should have stopped eavesdropping before they'd discovered a way to block me. But that wouldn't have helped me.

Long-suffering eyes found the ceiling—and then one blinked shut. Its owner shook his head. "Why are you interested in the jinchūriki?"

A whole host of reasons.

None particularly compelling.

"He's my age."

"Give or take three hundred and sixty-one days. Why, Kana? Don't forget that I deal with people who talk in circles every day, now."

Some people thought that way. Not everything could be laid out in neat rows and sections. Not to me.

"You know about Yakumo," I said. "The Id could kill everyone in the village by just insisting that we don't exist anymore. But she's a very, very nice, earnest girl who constantly tries to better herself. We could seal her chakra off and eliminate the possibility. No threat required."

"Your sensei can control the Id if need be."

"And to make one more comparison, there is of course our very own Nine Tails. He's the happiest person I know, hands down. Well-meaning. Growing into himself. Feared and hated," I continued with the same awful flippancy about two very real people's actual lives. "Even though he should be treated as a hero, he's an orphan that never knew a friendly face except for Iruka-sensei and Grandfather. Also Suzume, who isn't real and doesn't count. Having a Tailed Beast only seems to make him a better person."

"I see where you're going and Gaara is not the same as our Naruto," Dad cut in.

"But Dad, can you honestly tell me that he enjoys killing?"

"I would have before his guards began recording what he was saying, thanks to you, and we realized that the One Tail speaks to him constantly."

"Couldn't you use the Sharingan and make it stop?"

He raised an eyebrow. "I did that earlier today."

Really? Great! And probably terrifying, but it didn't seem like the boy would suffer from alone time. He seemed like the kind of person who values silence. Who wouldn't, after living in his shoes?

"Without the distraction," my father continued, "Gaara comes across as an intelligent young man. Don't smile too much, Kana. He's the container of a very bloodthirsty demon. Do you think I could live with sending him back to his home village? Suna cares for power above all else. Their Kazekage sealed that demon into his own son. That village made him who he is. In their current state, they would practically idolize him. Genin as he is, he might try and bid for power.

"And do you know what happens if a bloodthirsty jinchūriki controls a hidden village?"

Sure, he protected it very effectively.

"No. You weren't born in Kiri, where your mother feared to raise children. Her predecessor was a jinchūriki." He paused for effect. "Do you know how your mother graduated from their Academy? Each child was pitted against a teammate. One survived.

"Suna is already corrupted. I won't add to it, not when they haven't even chosen a new Kazekage."

Oh, who cared about their economy. This was Gaara. My opinion of him had come a long way since the first time I'd met him. There was a decent person underneath the reputation. If only because I wanted there to be one.

Yakumo and the Id. Gaara and the One Tail.

A future I believed in, if only because I refused to not have something to work toward.

"I feel sorry for him because he's in solitary confinement with the One Tail. You clearly want Gaara to have more control over himself. Why can't you help him?"

Dad stared at me coolly. "Do you think I'm going to grant visitation rights to my own rookie genin daughter?"

"No," I said. "But considering I've heard him manipulating dirt outside of his cell, I think that he has a great sense of self-control and patience. The walls don't seem to bother him too much."

"You heard him moving dirt?"

"Sure. Small stuff like quartz, I'd guess. His chakra has probably leached into his surroundings. That was all I could hear today when I dropped by. Unless it was worms. It's hard to tell."

Dad let out one of his why-me sighs and melted into the couch. He shuddered mid-melt when his back met the wet patch his hair had been faithfully adding to.

I held up a hand and methodically turned my attention to a chakra exercise. I'd decided that perfect control of a few tenketsu points would be a great skill to work on. Being grounded had given me plenty of time to dream up everyday practice ideas. This one was great for contemplative pauses.

On, off.

Drip, drip.

Why were we being silent?

"If the Suna boy attacked you, what would you do?"

Die? No, I had to have a better answer than that. I'd met the One Tail and had sat next to Gaara for days now. I hadn't spent the whole time feeling sorry for him. Not when that dirt had started twitching.

"It would be nice to pretend to be one of his siblings and convince him that he could come home. But if he attacked me, um, I'd see if the absorption seal works on chakra-infused sand while substituting with anything that could get me out of there. Then I'd go for Tenzō-san, he was the one who dealt with the One Tail after you knocked it out. If he attacked me as the One Tail, I'd substitute immediately. I don't think I'd even get to think about it."

Dad sighed again. "I'll give you five minutes. Then you're out. No more hanging around his cell. You'll have to follow protocol, and I don't guarantee a second visit."

I sat up. "Wait, really?" A visit?

The corpse-like Hokage nodded.

I wasn't so sure I had any desire to visit the One Tail but . . . I jumped up and hugged my father anyway. "Thanks, Dad. I'll try to convince him not to break out."

"It's in his best interests to stay put."

That's what all prison wardens say. I gave mine a kiss, said goodnight, and headed to my room.

Where my subconscious tried to figure out if it was more scared of the Id or of the One Tail.

(The answer seemed pretty clear.)

(My subconscious would have had a better use figuring out why Dad had allowed this visit. In my head, it was something that Naruto would ask for, not me. And somehow Naruto would find out. Somehow he'd cause a headache. At least Daddy only had to deal with one headache for now. . . .)


"Hi," I said once Tenzō had escorted me into the room. Tenzō didn't budge from my side.

Gaara, just like the first time he'd met me, stared.

I didn't bother with warmth or friendliness. The boy's gaze was cold. He'd almost killed Sasuke when they'd clashed in the woods two weeks ago. Sakura had gotten there just in time. Naruto hadn't been around at all. No one had introduced Gaara to Naruto's logic.

The Gaara I was talking to hated people because people had hurt him again and again and again. Yet he'd also told his annoying brother to leave Suzume alone.

I've met ninjas who would have stood back and said nothing, on the grounds that people who didn't stick up for themselves needed to learn how to do it. Creepy stuff. But that clearly wasn't Gaara.

Somewhere inside all of the violence and self-preservation, there was a boy who at worst thought that his brother was annoying, and it wasn't good to cause a scene in an allied village.

At best? Well, I was going to find that out.


Here went nothing.

"First things first, I'm only here for five minutes, and if you try anything that so much as breathes a threat in my direction, my father will definitely have you drawn and quartered."

A teeny, teeny tiny smirk pulled at his lip.

"I know," I said. "Your sand armor would make that difficult, wouldn't it? I told him that, too. He said he has his ways. So that's your warning."

Gaara resumed staring, this time with no trace of tells.

Ugh, I hated prolonged eye contact. I hated that Naruto hadn't gotten to this kid before the whole transformation and capture business had gone down. I hated being here.

You're doing this in Naruto's stead and you don't have to like it but you're going to try, a small drill sergeant in my head ordered. Don't make me yell.

Five minutes. Five nervous minutes, made worse by the fact that I probably wasn't someone that he wanted to see. He'd probably rather spend time with Neji, Sasuke, Shika—someone he would have noticed during his stay in the village. I was recognizable, but hardly interesting.

But I did like to think. Maybe thinking would be good. I could pretend that he was Kato, ready to listen to some oddball ideas that sometimes grew into reality.

And this was it for Gaara. I was the only one here, and the only interaction he was going to get. Might as well make the most of the silence.

"I've . . . kind of wondered if it's possible to copy that with water. The sand armor. If you could infuse water with chakra—which I know plenty of people can—could you cover your whole body with it? Obviously you could, but armor needs to be dense and I imagine yours is built to allow for some air exchange most of the time. That and it probably doesn't have evaporation problems built in like water would.

"The thing about water that interests me the most is that it refracts and reflects light. Again, that would be a problem in the sun. But if you could control the reflections, you could control your visibility to an extent. It might even be possible to use all of the water to reflect the view from behind you, so if everything was handled just the right way, you could be invisible."

I'd spent some time imagining just what Boil Release might entail, and the whole "controlling water vapor" had raised a few tangents. The water armor thought was yesterday's. I'd spent a good bit of yesterday dreaming up things I wished were real. Things like Gaara's complete control over the One Tail.

"I haven't verified much of it, but my family has a few volumes of Maeda's Elements that I should have time to poke through later. It'll probably disprove everything I just said. Still." My gaze had wandered over his table, bed, bookcase, and facilities during the tirade and returned dutifully to him. "I'm not very practiced with this whole kage's child stuff. I have a feeling I'll be entertaining people in the wrong sense." My voice grew wry. "Was it ever hard for you?"

Gaara, wonder of wonders, chose to reply. "I didn't entertain people."

"That sounds great to me."

We risked another pause in our five minutes, so I forged ahead again.

"You know, a month ago my father invited one of Kiri's Seven Swordsmen out for dinner. And then my dad decided he didn't want to show up. So not only did I have to go and drag my own father to a meal that he'd arranged, I also got to apologize because of it and keep the conversation going so that I could pretend they were getting along."

I risked a glance back at the Staara. He didn't seem to sympathize. Tough crowd.

If I were imprisoned in an enemy village, I wouldn't be smiling along, either. Well. Not inwardly.

"No, I don't think that everyone wants to talk all of the time. I have every intention of not talking to or seeing anyone for several hours as soon as I leave here. If I didn't have time alone, I'd go insane."

Ack! Not the most political thing to say here.

Tenzō stiffened when I tensed up. Gaara frowned and looked wary.

I snorted. "Right. Well. I don't know you at all past your scary reputation and the fact that you were spying over my shoulder at the written test. I have no idea if I'll be allowed to come back tomorrow, but if I can I'll bring one of Maeda's volumes with me. My brother will kill me if I take the lightning one, though."

I hesitated. "Unless you've already read them? I can't read all of the titles on your bookcase from here. And for all I know, you have ten copies in your bedroom at home."

His skeptical glance assured me that this was not the case.

"Okay. Um, would you prefer wind or earth?"

Boo, I liked it better when he replied.

"I'll bring both. Do you have any requests? I mean as a human being. I could bring you a picture. I could smuggle out a secret message if you had one, but," cue Tenzō's disapproving look, "it obviously wouldn't be a secret. Can you think of anything?"

I bet he thought of plenty of things. He didn't share.

"All right then," I said. "I'll come back tomorrow if I can pull enough strings."

Tenzō ushered me out, and the metal-but-surrounded-with-wood door swung shut on our quiet prisoner. The jōnin raised his eyebrows. "Pull enough strings, really?"

"Why, what—oh. No comment. Did you make all of the furniture in there?"


"Do I really have to tell the head guard everything that I think was said or implied, even though she was literally watching the cameras and microphones?"



Visiting Gaara actually worked out. Five minutes seemed long at first, but considering there were days when he actually talked for part of that time, it wasn't too bad. Some days we both read. Some days I voiced ideas to give him something to shoot down. Everyone's a critic.

I ranted about my team. I ranted about my brother. I complained that Dad didn't have time for our family anymore. Tenzō got really touchy when I showed off my newest ability to light a flame with my fingers.

Gaara's room picked up two rugs, a large photo of Suna, a stuffed panda that he claimed only survived because it reminded him of how much he detested me, and ten or fifteen potted succulents. I'd aimed for varieties that didn't need full sun. When I'd joked that he could save me some money by making pots, the head guard had personally come and kicked me out.

They were just bitter that they needed microphones.

Gaara was self-controlled enough to warrant bewilderment from various parties. I knew more. He liked me, that much he didn't bother hiding. I was good at defusing. I was good at leaving early. Gaara was not willing to risk being murdered by my father. He didn't trust people—least of all me since I was determinedly nice—but the confinement seemed to have relaxed him. His captors wouldn't let him wreak havoc on the village. No one was outwardly trying to kill him.

With windows and a full library, the boy would be happier than most people could imagine.

So I wheedled Dad into letting Kato come with me. I included lots of arguments like "did you see what the chidori did in the exam? Well, Kato's better at it" and "pleeeease, also he has all of these weird insights on Earth Release that would make sense to Kato and I know you hate listening to him talk to me all night while you're trying to sleep so maybe this will get it out of his system."

Kato enjoyed the chakra theory jargon so much that Dad extended our time slot to half an hour. Now I had a whole new reason to wish for Naruto's return.

"Wow, so if instead of counteracting it, you balance your ratio at the exact moment you extend the—"


I drew the line at seals.

Tenzō laughed at me every time I looked at the door. "They're mostly correct," he would say.

"Then you moderate!"

For being an ANBU, he sure laughed a lot on the job.


Overall, visitation was a success.

Gaara stopped playing with the outside sand. Perhaps Tenzō had installed some new repressive array on the walls. I liked to think that Gaara had calmed down.

He really seemed like he was going to be okay. He was calm, clever when he wanted to be, and very interested in chakra theory. Kato and I had quite a few private discussions (sometimes with Dad) on what was safe to talk about and what would earn us pointed looks from Tenzō, and Gaara never tried to push us past our conversational limits.

And we never discussed anything private. We never discussed what it was like to be on either end of the fight with the One Tail. Gaara had no interest in venting about his rotten life before Dad had put the One Tail to sleep.

I knew enough about some things in life to expect that one day, something would happen and Gaara, whether by choice or not, would end up in his previous state. That would be his real defining moment. If he snapped out of it that day, Dad might start to trust him. He might get to go home.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was perfectly content to stay here as an imprisoned jinchūriki with supervised playdates.

Whatever his feelings were, he wasn't sharing them with me and his guards.

"Do you ever get nervous?" I asked Tenzō one day.

He smiled like he'd been waiting some time for this exact question. "Did you ever babysit yourself as a child?"


Tsunade arrived in the village on the first day of September. She immediately took over Hiruzen's care. Her protegé Shizune showed up a day later. No one noticed that we were one epicly famous ninja fuller. Or if anyone did, Dad kept it on the down-low.

We were so understaffed that I was sent to Tsunade's family's house to tidy up during the first few hours . . . well, okay, only because I was still grounded. That and I could pretend to be some village official checking in on her home for damage evaluation purposes. Only I couldn't, because I was grounded. Bleh.

So basically I asked Dad for the key, scrubbed her house down, and prayed that the boredom-therapy might somehow help my grandfather pull through his coma.

I also left a small stack of seals with a thank-you note on top.

Jiraiya and Dad's team returned on September fifth amidst celebration. The Sandaime was waking from his healing coma! Apparently the legendary Sannin Tsunade had rushed to the village just in time. No mention of her conveniently clean house, of course.

Naruto stopped by our house once he'd sated his Ichiriku ramen fix. Kato and I were home.

"Thank goodness, he's already eaten," Kato muttered.

I was still the dutiful hostess, so I took the opportunity to rid our freezer of the dregs of a green tea ice cream carton. With it gone, maybe someone would buy something more palatable.

Naruto, predictably, had had the time of his life somewhere in the middle of the whole life or death search for Tsunade. He'd perfected (he claimed) the Rasengan that Jiraiya had begun teaching him before the tournament.

Kato sneaked into the narrative. Which elemental nature did Naruto have?

There followed a mimed suggestion that Naruto keep talking, which of course the blonde "didn't understand." Such liars Dad trained.

(Naruto didn't know yet. Kato promised to get him one of those testing strips.)

Grandfather's savior, Tsunade, had been roaming our lands in a depressed stupor ever since the man she had loved died twenty-seven years ago. Well, actually, some photos in her living room proved she couldn't have been roaming for more than fifteen. She had a decently hushed-up weakness in that she couldn't stand the sight of blood. The Sandaime had taken pity on her and let her wander.

She gambled, collected bounties, and healed incurable illnesses when the mood struck her.

When Jiraiya and company caught up with her—some old guy with white hair had tipped them off, Naruto said, and Jiraiya bowed to the old coot before he vanished, weird, huh—and explained the Sandaime's precarious condition, the poor woman had frozen in guilt and whatever other pent-up emotions she'd cultivated over the years. She didn't, however, outright refuse. She wanted more time to think about it. Mental preparation.

Hours later, several curse-sealed goons showed up. Their goal was to kidnap Tsunade. Interesting, because if Orochimaru were dead, what was the point of kidnapping her?

Jiraiya and his kiddos eliminated the goons. I gather that Jiraiya did the eliminating part.

Tsunade watched Sakura frantically try to seal up some sort of gash that Sasuke picked up (our narrator insisted it was close to a missing limb) while Naruto defended them, and something in Tsunade snapped. Probably Sakura's obvious lack of training in the medical field. The woman knocked Sakura to the side and healed the cut. Yay!

Then Kabuto appeared, and metaphorically blew Naruto out of the water. Poor kid was mindblown.

Waaay back at the time of the written exam, there'd been this nice teenager who'd told Naruto that he believed in him. Naruto, of course, had marked him as a friend and ally.

Fortunately, Sasuke had not, and he was the reason Naruto was standing here today.

Lots of summoning ensued. Naruto insisted that Sasuke's life's goal was to win a hawk summoning contract.

Evidently his tolerance for snakes went downhill again.

The Konoha bunch won, and Tsunade raced for Konoha with every ability she could muster. Shizune ran after her.

Jiraiya and crew took the scenic route to save Tsunade a ton of pestering.

Naruto demonstrated.

"And she gave me this necklace. She says I'm going to be the next Hokage, and she'll be here to see it." His eyes turned all sneaky. "You should have seen her face when she heard that Kaka-sensei was the new Hokage. She shouted at Ero-sennin for like ten minutes. She thought that he should have taken the office. Although she was drunk at the time." He cocked his head. "Kaka-sensei seems like a robot at times, but I don't think he's emotionless. Sasuke-kun has gotten all kinds of dirt from his cousin's time in the ANBU."

As usual, Naruto avoided our very obvious suggestion to keep talking on this fascinating subject. He was curious how things had been at home.

I told him that Gaara was imprisoned because he was trigger-happy.

Naruto had a bone to pick with Gaara. He wanted to storm up to where the boy was imprisoned and hand out some common sense. Kato wasn't convinced that Naruto of all people could hand that out.

I just rolled my eyes. "He's not in the central prison. They made a new cell near the abandoned district to contain any damage. If you can be patient, I can get you in around sunset tomorrow. You'll just have to pretend to be me the whole time and not say anything incriminating." This was, of course, a pipe dream. Tenzō knew me far too well, and the people assigned to Gaara would be on to Naruto like sharks.

"Nonsense, your dad's the Hokage! I'll henge into you and tell the ANBU where they can shove it. Or I can just go as myself—the Hokage's my sensei!"

"Uh." I exchanged a glance with Kato before settling on sympathy. "I hope you had a nice time out of the village, Naruto-kun. Now that you're back, you're going to find that having the Hokage as your sensei is going to be a special kind of torture. Sorry. There won't be any favors or perks."

Kato nodded. "I can lend you a spare mask, if you like."


"Ahhh, good morning, Pakkun. Could you get off my stomach?"

"You're wanted at the Hokage Tower."

I froze. Pakkun prodded my abdomen with a stubby forepaw. "He wants you now."

Of course he did. Shows up late to all the functions but expects the progeny to be different. I shouldn't have sworn the oaths.

When I arrived at his office, I immediately swept into a sarcastic bow. "Hello—oh." I hated those silencing seals on the office! "Good morning, ah, Temari-san. Nice to see you again."

The blonde girl gave me a polite nod.

I slunk to my feet and pretended that I'd always been upright.

Dad cleared his throat. "Temari-chan is here to negotiate for her brother's release."

And I was here why? Actually, she was here why? Suna should never have let a genin negotiate for anything, let alone send one by herself to a hostile village. "Here I am, eat me" isn't a vibe villages are supposed to do.

"She's asked to see her brother. I want you to take her there." He tossed me a scroll, undoubtedly full of official words like, Maa, let the girl see her brother. —Kakashi

I caught the scroll and schooled my face into passable complacency. "Well, let's go, then."

When we were outside, I stopped. "Did you want breakfast on the way?"


All business. Good.

"Would you mind covering your hite-ate with a henge? The streets are full of civilians going to work at this hour and we probably don't need any undue gossip." Undue alarm, I meant.

You're not the boss of me, Temari's gaze said. I shrugged.

"We're still using roads until the architects clear the civilian buildings for roof traffic." Small talk fulfilled, we made a beeline for Gaara's prison. I cast a few genjutsu to make Temari unmemorable. No need to bother the civilians during my designated tour guide debut.

I was grounded, but I was still allowed to cast genjutsu that were important to my health. I considered these ones to be important. I doubted anyone except Temari would complain. If she noticed them, I'd remove them, of course. No sense aggravating a guest.

When we passed various people leaning casually against walls and arrayed in varying degrees of casual, I made a point of waving.

"How many ninjas do you have?" Temari wondered.

"Oh, enough."

I didn't mention that at least a few of the passive threateners had used henges. The village's actual strength wasn't a conversation topic.

As we walked, traffic ran across the roof routes. The main routes were a top priority to our infrastructure. I definitely didn't need to traipse across the rooftops with a Suna friend, though, and she didn't need to know the exact ratio of repairs to personnel we had.

Many of our civilians greeted me, the new Hokage's daughter, and nodded at Temari. Temari checked that her hite-ate was still visible and seemed puzzled under her mask of wariness. Heh. Clearly our citizens trusted me implicitly!

And maybe some did. I'd met an awful lot of them recently, after all.

Gaara's prison was disguised by a collapsing shed that was probably a good security measure on its own. The week's password opened a door among the debris. We climbed down Tenzō's narrow wooden staircase and approached the security team.

I handed over the scroll, waited while Gaara's head ANBU eyed its contents impassively, and hung out in the camera room when the ANBU allowed Temari into the cell. Temari flinched as the door creaked open. She looked pretty bewildered when she saw her brother's room.

"Hello, Gaara."


"This is . . . nice."

"I know."


"Is that a copy of Maeda's Fire?"

Gaara looked almost smug. "Yeah."

"Can I borrow it?"

The ANBU beside me snickered. "You could tempt half the ninjas in Konoha with one of those books. The other half are useless idiots."

"I'm only a prisoner, Temari. I don't think you can remove anything from my cell."

The ANBU snickered again. "What a hardship."

Elbowing an ANBU in the side would be stupid, right? Especially one that was muttering? Or maybe the informality meant that I could get away with it. Not that I would.

Gaara's guards really had a sense of humor. I was starting to wonder if I'd rubbed off on them, or if Dad had picked them out on purpose. Maybe it was Tenzō's fault, and they'd worked together for a long time?

"There's one thing that she can remove from the cell," I pointed out. "Eventually."

The ANBU's elbow twitched.

"Fine, fine. You can do the commentary."

I glanced at the screens that showcased Gaara's very memorizable room and gave his plants a quick visual checkup. As usual, all healthy. He'd fixed the cracks in the most recent one's pot, which was interesting. The pot was wooden. Had he convinced Tenzō to patch it? Tenzō was the one keeping the poor plants alive, since Daddy wouldn't allow dirt into the cell.

Gaara's room looked norma—hey, where was the stuffed panda?

Gaara very studiously avoided eye contact with any cameras. I grinned.

In the cell, Temari turned her attention back to her younger brother and told him that the Hokage had said that she could stay for a few days. She hoped that she'd be able to see him more than once, but that would of course depend on the village's leader.

Her eyes flickered back to the embossed title, and to her credit she actually glanced at Gaara himself as he brushed some nonexistent dust off of the cover.

Oh, the hallowed pages of Maeda's volumes! Feast your eyes, peasants! Read the first ten pages before the ANBU decide you've learned enough and should get on with business!

When we were leaving, Temari turned to me with real interest. "You lent my brother one of Maeda's books. Do you have any more? I've only ever gotten to read his Theory of Duality."

I ended up promising that she could treat me to lunch if I could bring a book along. I had the feeling that it would be a very long lunch.


It was.


Now that visits were a thing, Naruto bartered for a one-on-one visit with Gaara. I was very glad that he did, because when the One Tail rose high above the trees that evening . . . I watched a giant toad summon pop into the air next to it. The toad melted into the Nine Tails.

I dutifully used genjutsu to reroute gullible people (how convenient that I was grounded!) and watched the ANBU set out.

They didn't intervene.

Naruto beat the One Tail with a Rasengan to the face.

Gaara surrendered.

Dad arrived on the scene and nonchalantly let Gaara and his sister leave. I could picture the political spazz already. Why did you let the One Tail go?

Did you see what it did to the forest? I don't want to keep that in the village. It can go and destroy Suna.

Suna is our ally! (Double-tongue, much?)

They created their jinchūriki. Dealing with him is their responsibility.

He sent an ANBU to tail them just in case.

Tenzō wouldn't do anything unless Gaara lost control again. I had a feeling that Gaara wouldn't need the help.


"Kana-chan!" Sakura grinned a few days later. "You came to visit the Sandaime's room?"

I smiled. "Nah, I know it's empty and he's back at the Hokage Mansion. I came to check up on you, actually. Are you doing well? I see you got a haircut."

What did we call that again? A mission bob? It looked quite drastic.

Her own smile twisted. "Yeah, it kind of caught on fire. Shizune-san cut it for me. Does, does it look all right?"

Oof, on fire? I checked her short pink locks over for any signs of trauma. "Sure," I decided, "your hair looks nice at any length. Would you like a hand with those bandages?"

"It's fine, Shisō gave me a particular way to do it. Maybe you could stack them when I'm done?"

"Depends. Can you tell me what happened while you were gone? You weren't an intern at the hospital the last time I checked."

"Oh! Well. That's because Tsunade-sama took me on as her apprentice. I've been interested in medical chakra for most of my life, and one of the genin in the exam, Kabuto," she shuddered, "taught me how to start practicing to do a real medical jutsu. I forgot all about it until Orochimaru's curse seal ninja got past Sasuke-kun's defence and he started bleeding out. Tsunade-shisō had a huge fear of blood, but she faced her fear and pushed me out of the way to save him. Sasuke-kun owes her his life."

"Sasuke sure seems to take the hits on your team," I said wryly.

"Really?" She mulled this over. "Maybe that's because Naruto-kun heals so fast. And both of them are always trying to shield me. They really shouldn't. That's part of why I wanted to train with Tsunade-shisō."

"She doesn't pull punches?"

Her eyes sparkled. "Can you imagine what happens when I sock them in the jaw? They'll never see it coming."

I raised an eyebrow. "I'm worried, Sakura-chan. Who knows what we'll do if all three of you can fight on equal grounds?"

She grinned. "We'll find out."


"What do you want?" Sasuke asked when I slid his front door open with my foot. I'd asked for entrance. He'd granted permission from his bedroom and was at the entryway now.

I shifted the bags in my arms higher. "For the moment, I'd just like to put these somewhere. Is there a surface that's not predictably covered by sharp metal objects and cleaning cloths?"

The dark-haired boy grunted. "That's Shisui's mess. What's in the bags?"

"An order from Akatsuki Weapons. They said that he'd given instructions to deliver it as soon as it came in, and, well, unfortunately they know I'm his student and they're kind of short-staffed."

I slid the door shut and gave the entryway a dour look. The table opposite the shoe rack was usually clean. I wiped my shoes on the mat and followed Sasuke to the kitchen. Shisui didn't mind shoes so long as they were clean.

If only his housekeeping had the same proclivities.

"For being gone, he sure managed to cover everything," Sasuke commented with deliberate flatness.

The counters, the bar, the table—even the lights had a few shuriken dangling off the fixtures.

"Ouch. I don't suppose they're genjutsu?"

"If they are, it's effective."

A beat.

"Are you hoping he'll be back soon?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "It depends, can I move out while he's gone? He's just Shisui. He'll pick them up after he cleans them. He's probably trying to manipulate me into doing it for him."

"Cool. I'll leave the bags here on the floor, then. I'm not sure what he ordered."


I hesitated. "Hey, Naruto explained some of the fights you guys got into. Did Kabuto seem to target any of you? I've heard that he's involved with some really creepy kekkei genkai experimentation."

Sasuke's cheeks flushed slightly, but, "No. He said that none of us were worth bothering about."

I'd worried this whole time for nothing? That couldn't be right. "You're worth a lot of bother," I told him. Then I made a quick decision. "Honestly, I expected that he'd try to get you to go with him or something."

The Uchiha shuddered. "Why would he even ask? I've seen what Orochimaru did to his own." There was this slight, slight thoughtful pause. "I wouldn't join him."

Huh. Huh. I believed Sasuke. He wasn't insane and didn't seem to have a life goal of killing his brother. Our Sasuke had quite a drive for power and an obsessive urge to improve. He wasn't willing to kill himself to get revenge. But Orochimaru, Kabuto, whoever was pulling the strings now— didn't know that.

I couldn't just write off one of the earmarks of an entire work of fiction. "Naruto has trained under Jiraiya-sama, and now Sakura is Tsunade-sama's apprentice. There's an implication there, if you catch my drift."

Sasuke's eyes widened. "I am not contracting with snakes. No way. Not after what I've seen them do."

I shrugged. "I'd blame the contractor for that. Besides, multiple contracts can come in handy. Different animals have different strengths."

"If Kakashi offered to let you join his summoning contract, would you accept?"

Hey, no fair. "I, uh—"

"Yeah, you wouldn't. And I won't contract with snakes. Besides, Orochimaru is dea—"

"Wait, what makes you so sure that I wouldn't contract with Dad's pack?"

His eyes narrowed. "Have you ever seen yourself around a normal dog? You flinch every time they bark at you."

Seriously? I'll admit that I was . . . alert . . . around dogs before I joined the Hatake family, and while I still paid attention to unfamiliar dogs in close proximity, I thought I was long since over it! "Does that mean that I flinch around bees, too?"

Sasuke smirked. "And Aburame swarms." Ugh. But if he'd observed it, it had to be true.

"If you ever catch me in a genjutsu with one of those I will kill you," I warned. "K-I-L-L. You'll never make it to chūnin, never get your ideal summoning contract, and I will definitely get revenge in the second it will take to bleed out while you realize your spinal cord is already severed."

Now he was staring with a disconcerted expression.

I smiled as sweetly as possible. "I'll see you around."

"Not if I see you first."

I didn't fight the grin.


After I finished grilling Team Kakashi, I went to Dad's office and tried to grill him for information on Shisui's whereabouts. It was getting ridiculous. I could understand if Shisui were off on some top-secret S-ranked assignment in Sound, or fending off an Akatsuki member, or trying to eradicate Orochimaru's remains. That would all be great. I just wanted to know he was coming back.

There was only so much meditating I could do before I went crazy from being banned from using jutsu. I could tolerate the missions aspect. I could understand that my chakra equilibrium had taken a hit and that some rest had done me good. If my sensei could come back, surely normal life could resume.

Using typical offspring strategy, I led into things with a change of subject. A subject that had gone well for me so far.

"Did Gaara make it home?"

He sighed. "Would you know, he stopped at the border and asked Tenzō to thank me for letting him stay."

I blinked. "That's . . . sweet."

"And he asked if he could request a C-rank to have his effects sent to him."

This provoked another blink. But. The succulents had been hard to source with the state of the village the way it was, and the little tanuki-shaped bonsai had been someone's heirloom.

"I figure you can box them for him," Dad finished. "That way I won't have to hear about some genin team killing your precious houseplants."

Well, they were Gaara's now, not mine.

"Sure, I can do that. My schedule's wide open. I had chakra control this morning, some fire practice, light reading, and hand seal drills before lunch, and I'm not sure whether to go jogging later or see if Kato and Yakumo finish their duties early so we can spar before I make supper. Now I can pack plants and books. Busy day."

"Sounds terrible."

He tossed a stack of files onto the only clear patch of desk and formed a clone. Then he stood up and let the clone take his seat.

I had no idea what he was up to and decided I'd better ask my question before he popped out of here. "Where's—"

Too late, he was two blocks away. "Come on," he said.

"The window wasn't even open," I told the clone. It shrugged.

Dad took off while I left the Hokage Tower. I caught up after he stopped at the Memorial Stone.

"You're getting faster," he said.

"I wasn't really running. You seemed like you wanted to talk, not play cat and mouse."

"All the same."

His attention traveled to the names on the stone. I followed suite. I'd spent the past weeks focusing more on the people who were alive and hadn't counted how many names had been added. I didn't like to dwell on it. The more time that passed, the more names would jump out as living, breathing memories, not unfamiliar names on a memorial.

Coming here, dwelling on names instead of knowing I could still meet the person on the street . . . death was limiting. Seeing someone else's future come to a close—so many possibilities, and then none at all—life was a precious thing.

Perhaps I should come here and reflect. I certainly had my fair share of friends that I'd never see again, and dwelling on them might help me feel less lonely.

(I didn't feel alone, though. Just in a different chapter of life.)

"When I was young," Dad said, "I had teammates."

I tried to process this and came up blank.

"It was a typical three-man cell," he continued. "The future Yondaime was our sensei, and we got along just as terribly as any new genin team ever does." He chuckled; I stared in wonder.

"You've seen my old team's photo on my wall. We barely knew each other at that point, and Obito and I had already decided to get along as well as cats and dogs. But time went on, and we slowly learned to support each other's differences, and became a good team."

A good team, as he liked to say, wasn't about strength. What really mattered was support. Strength without support still meant that you were dead.

"Unfortunately, we lost Obito during the Third World War." He swallowed. "After that, Rin was captured during another mission and forced to become the new host for the Three Tails.

"I rescued her, of course, but I was far too late. She told me that they'd implanted a curse seal onto her heart that prevented her from, well, eliminating the threat."

He looked at me.

"Makes sense," I said when he didn't continue. "Was it a setup? Let you rescue her, then force her to release the Three Tails when you reached the village?"

"I believe so. At the time, it seemed that Kiri was behind it all. They sent quite an array of high-level ninjas after us to retrieve her, which was enough to convince me that her suspicions were wrong. But Rin didn't hesitate. She knew that Minato-sensei, Kushina-san . . . most of our forces were busy, and nowhere near the village. She made a choice."

Now it was my turn to swallow.

"She threw herself onto my chidori," Dad said softly, "and I watched her die at my hand. You can't imagine what that did to me."

I couldn't. But I could remember how affected he'd been years later.

I knew what a mercy kill was. So did he, I'm sure. He'd probably dealt with those before. This wasn't the same thing.

"At the time, it was hopeless," Dad said. "I couldn't have subdued the Three Tails while fighting the Kiri ninjas. I failed her, and she died."

My throat hurt. Nohara Rin, the plaque read. It didn't tell the story. None of the names did.

"But you looked for Gaara."

I blinked.

Of course I looked for Gaara. Who wouldn't look for Gaara?

"You believed in him," Dad said. "And you were right."

I blinked some more. "I'm confused. Why are we talking about Gaara? I know he's a jinchūriki and believe me, I'd never be able to subdue a Tailed Beast or a jōnin, full stop, but . . . you just said that Rin-san made her own choice, and not the one you wanted. I didn't choose anything for Gaara. So far as I know, his choices were his own. I wasn't involved."

He smiled.

How could he smile? We were talking about an event that had traumatized him, not some cutesy D-rank! And I'd been well and truly scared of the One Tail. I was far from Dad's level when he'd broken Rin out of Kiri.

"You believed that he could change," Dad said, "and I know you would have done the same for her. It honors her memory. Because she was unsaveable."

I blinked again and gave up. Perhaps he thought that I could have convinced her to make a different choice? Or that at least I had the compassion to try?

Dad patted me on the head.

After a few minutes of reflection, he removed his hand.

"We're going to have to stop feeding you. Can't have you getting any taller."

I rolled my eyes.

"So if the Kiri n—"

"You know, there—"

He chuckled. "Yes, what about Kiri?"

"Just that it sounds fishy. If Kiri intentionally let a jinchūriki escape, surely they wouldn't send their best people out just to be decoys. And if someone wanted the Three Tails to attack Konoha, there must have been a plan to it. I can't imagine why anyone would send a Tailed Beast to a village that had Sharingan wielders as its police. If Kiri was behind the escape, wouldn't they have waited and then sent their ninjas as reinforcements against the Uchiha clan?"

"Perhaps it was a third party," he agreed, "who wasn't prepared for Rin to be rescued, and the rest was simply Kiri hoping to claim her."

No. People who messed up like that wouldn't have managed to catch her in the first place.

"Anyway, that is an old story, Kana, and nothing you should be worrying about."

Wow. No subtlety today, was it?

"Okay. What were you saying, then? When we were talking over each other."

He smiled. "Well, I'm sure you heard about the fight with Orochimaru, and how the Mizukage threw your seal tags at the reanimated Kages and the Second Hokage used them to break free of Orochimaru's control."


"I . . ."

"The ones Kato calls 'glomp tags,' I believe. Your jutsu-negating ones."

I had given Mom a stack of those and I did vaguely remember them being part of her account. But that . . . "sounds a bit presumptuous," I muttered to myself.

Sure, the glomp tags I'd given Mom were a step up from the version I'd used in my own fight with Orochimaru. The ones I'd used were supposed to redirect. Hers were designed more to absorb the chakra that formed the jutsu. The tags worked pretty well. I had high hopes for them. High hopes did not mean that they would affect a reanimation jutsu and a mind-control seal.

"Sure," Dad agreed, "I can see why you'd think that. But the Second Hokage insisted that if it weren't for your tags, he wouldn't have broken free, freed his brother, or managed to stay after Orochimaru's death."

I doubted—well—okay, I could believe that multiple tags could have had some sort of effect, and that once Tobirama had gained some sort of an edge, he could have broken free. "Insisted," though. That sounded a bit strong.

"He wrote down some suggestions and sealed them into a scroll for you. It's back in my office. I'm going to destroy it as soon as you read it."

I . . .

There I was again, losing my train of thought.

Forget Minato. Tobirama was the coolest Hokage ever. Even if my seals had helped him, there was no need for a pat on the back (or the head), and there was absolutely no need for him to leave a list of ideas. That was generous.

Or practical. What if his suggestions could cancel out Orochimaru's mind control tags completely?

"I was wondering what it would take to make you speechless," Dad said. "Just think, by the time you're a jōnin, you won't even bat an eye at this kind of thing. Probably because genin don't do enough paperwork. Well. You stay here and think, and when you're done, Gaara's plants and books are calling your name. Don't give away our family library."

He left.

I eventually recovered enough to wonder where Gaara's plants and books were, and how I could get to them, since I assumed that the ANBU team would have moved on to different projects.

No doubt this was part of Dad's plan to keep me from being bored.

It was working.


Where in the world was Shisui this whole time?

"Oh, that's simple. I was on an escort mission."

A what.

My (very tired-looking) sensei ignored my skepticism. "You heard me, Kana-kun. A simple escort mission."

I pursed my lips and opted to shut up, which was probably my only real option.

He smiled beatifically. "And by the way, your father said that you are no longer grounded. Congratulations!"

"Um, thanks. I think."

"Your teammates are occupied for the rest of the afternoon. What would you think about a spar in the meantime?"

I shifted. "Wouldn't you rather take a nap first? Or catch your bearings? I'm pretty sure they restructured one of the streets near your house."

"I'm pretty sure you almost died fighting a Tailed Beast."

Well, uh—

He had me there.

"And I'm told you've been very bored recently. Wouldn't want you to lose your skills, not when you've had so much time to reflect on them recently."

It occurred to me here that perhaps I hadn't used my time being grounded as efficiently as I'd thought, and this "spar in the meantime" was probably going to leave my pride shattered.


Trounced, the word was. Thoroughly, utterly trounced.

Five times in a row.


Then I gave up counting.

"You know what the point is, right?" he asked while I tried to catch my breath.

"Of course," I said disjointedly, "that I'm never going to beat you. Do you really have to use the Sharingan?"

He shook his head.

We resumed our traditional ninja lesson of bashing truths into each other. He was winning.

I didn't get time to think, so I mostly thought about how unfair it was to be expected to figure out some obscure point. Especially when there were so many distracting pointy objects coming my way.

"Should I run?" I guessed.

Apparently not. Ouch.

I tried sneaking a clone out to call Yakumo, but this was also rejected.

So I gave up. "You're a superior force. I'm not going to win. I can try to retreat, try not to draw your attention, but I can't think logically in an all-out fight. Not this kind of fight. Seriously, you couldn't give me a second to think?"

This bit of dialogue marked the longest respite I'd had.

Shisui shook his head. "Not today. No time, and no quarter."

"That must have been some escort mission."

He smirked.

"One last fight, Kana."

I swallowed. "Can't you give me a goal?"

He shrugged. "Same one as aways. Survive."

Once again, he used the Sharingan. I don't know why. He could track my movements just fine on his own.

He threw shuriken. I dodged without much trouble and returned my own volley of weaponry. I still couldn't aim to save my life, but I could at least throw with the proper amount of force, and some were bound to get in the way. He parried those with ease and flickered close. Right in my face.

I threw myself to the side and attempted to catch his ankle in an earth-binding jutsu, which failed. We exchanged blows, instead, kunai against tantō, and I substituted away and there he was, right in front of me again. I jumped backwards and tried the earth jutsu again, this time catching my own ankle (on purpose) and using the momentum to catch him from an awkward angle. He dodged just in time and hit me with a motion sickness genjutsu.

Again, I substituted. I formed a clone as I did—blech—and it attempted to turn the genjutsu against him while I gagged and choked out a fireball. My clone dispersed before things went south in genjutsu land. Its purpose was accomplished, though. I'd shaken the genjutsu.

Shisui spat his own fireball in response, and I backed up as his grew larger. I kept mine small and more concentrated. He couldn't see past his fireball—but neither could I, and he hadn't lost ground. Rats. No wonder people did that.

I had a split second to decide what to do. I'd tried a lot of things already. None had worked, and none would. He kept nipping my plans in the bud. I'd never be able to outthink him.


No time to think?


Maybe at least it would be fun.

I threw a jutsu-negating tag at our firefight and dropped to the ground. Playing dead had no purpose, but at least he didn't appear over me with a blade to my neck. I substituted again and formed two clones this time. Kind of dangerous to do without a plan in mind, but hey. One stepped forward to shield us. The second turned to face me and henged into Shisui.

I henged into Kato and stayed where I was. It wasn't like I'd be able to get up for the next few seconds.

Shisui (the real one) snorted.

"Ignore him," the clone Shisui whispered. It took a calming breath.

Okay. He was going to press me again, so . . .

Shisui formed a clone of his own, which rushed forward to take care of my shielding one. At the same time, he darted forward to engage the fake Shisui. He threw shuriken at the shielding clone's back (bye) and was quickly on top of me. I substituted. The fake Shisui covered my escape with the homemade version of Boil Release, then substituted out of there. It must have surprised Shisui and his clone enough to—oh never mind, his clone was in front of me. I grabbed my tantō and lunged.

Across the clearing, my clone formed two clones which both immediately spat Boil Release at Shisui. The original dispelled itself. I gained its memories and suddenly, I was part of a plan. A crazy plan. One that wouldn't work. But hey, it was worth a shot.

Shisui's clone had no problem herding me towards the man himself. All I had to do was imply I didn't want to go, and then I had no choice.

My two remaining clones attempted to keep Shisui's attention. This was as difficult as it sounded. My sensei was faster than anything I could throw at him, wasn't going to fall for genjutsu tricks, and was using the Sharingan. All I could do was cater to his whims. As my clone had realized, he was going to nip any obvious plans in the bud.

My clones split up using the fastest speed they could manage. Not bad.

One henged into Gai and started monologuing about Youth. The other took a careful breath during the tiny moment of distraction (it was starting the protective bubble-like version of Boil Release that had saved me from the One Tail) and henged into, yeah, a scary mixture of Gai and Shisui.

Unsurprisingly, both Shisui and his clone took offense to that, and both launched a fireball without a second thought. I paled but managed to stab my sensei's clone in the back. Being burned alive was not a memory I wanted to go through.

But the clone death, I discovered, was the Gai one. Something quick and from behind, like Shisui had flickered there to tie up a loose end.

The scary clone was still standing.

And Shisui was grinning at it.

"This wasn't really what I had in mind," he said, "but I'll take it. When did you figure that out?"

"Um." I hadn't.

He dispelled his clone. I cancelled my henge of Kato. Looked like the plan was off.

The scary clone changed back into me. "I've been working on it for a while," it said. "It's not really a jutsu, so I've been allowed to work on it while I was grounded. Kind of."

Hey! Stop spilling all of my secrets.

"Anyway. I'm glad it worked against those fireballs. I'm just a clone, but it's better being a clone than a shish kebab. Yikes." It dispersed itself and I gained memories and chakra.

We'd had a lucky break. The clone had had perfect timing. Just enough time to start Boil Release, and just enough time to react to the fireballs. It was like they'd been . . . sucked in.

I blinked. "Were your fireballs identical? Did they have the same amount of chakra?"

The Uchiha considered this. "Quite possibly. It's a pretty standard jutsu, and I didn't really stop to modify it."

The clone would have had a good guess at the strength of the fire, then. It was a gamble at the time. But she managed it, and she came out unscathed.

"Did you use that against the One Tail?" Shisui asked.

I balked. "Who told you that?"

"I simply assumed that if your clone was willing to use it, it's probably saved your life at some point. You don't trust an experimental jutsu unless you have a reason to."

"I thought I pointed out that it isn't a jutsu."

"Of course, whatever you say."

Now that he'd found something to talk about, I wasn't about to let the opportunity slip. Anything beat getting beat, over and over. Not that I couldn't take it. It was just frustrating.

"I know you know that I've been working on Boil Release with Kato's help. We were working on an offensive jutsu."

"Yes, your . . . sneeze."

"Well, I haven't touched that since the invasion. Kato hasn't had much interest in having his weapons corroded."

"Imagine that."

It was more that Kato preferred to talk about the brainstorming he'd done with Gaara.

"My sneezes aren't very effective. Maybe they disperse too quickly. But yes, while we were getting chased by the One Tail," I rolled my eyes at his triumphant expression, "I panicked, and I was in its range. This, whatever it is, kept me alive. I've been thinking about it ever since. I don't know the best way to use it, but I figured it can't hurt to practice sustaining it. It's not much harder than meditating on fire nature and that sort of thing."

Plus, I had some really good incentive what with my meetings with Gaara. Also a good excuse, since Daddy wasn't likely to get angry if I were practicing an escape tactic. Not if I followed the terms of my grounding to the letter of the law.

"I'm pretty sure genin your age aren't supposed to say that," Shisui commented, "but what do I know. Being a ninja is all about beating the odds."

"I'm pretty sure that Dad invented the chidori when he was younger than me," I retorted, "and no one walked him through it. I've had a lot more help."

"That's not what I was saying," said Shisui. "Anyway. I'm going to go take a nap, and you can tell your teammates that they're expected at sunrise and not a moment earlier. It's time for us to train again."



~An update! Yay!

First, I've been reading through this chapter for a while, tweaking it as I went. I got tired of that so here it is. It would have been two chapters, but I decided to just go ahead and do everything at once. So there's a bit of a back-to-back-to-back thing going on. In my head, it's something like this: Hey, Gaara still exists! Now visiting Gaara! Tsunade and Team Kakashi are back! Gaara's going home already! Big conversation with Kakashi! Now action with Shisui! ...I had hoped to break the Gaara business into different chapters - mainly to see people's reactions to it, then get to see separate reactions when he went home. That's most of the fun of putting up new chapters. Knowing that someone somewhere will enjoy the process of reading my work, and sometimes I get to know what those thoughts were at the time. Exciting!

Some thoughts. 1) I am convinced that Kakashi learns to contain a tailed beast partly as a way to make sure the Rin situation never happens again. That's probably a bit of a no-brainer. 2) The conversation about Rin and choices . . . the point Kakashi was driving at was that Rin made her choice based on the options she thought she had. Gaara made his choice, too, but after Kana had willingly reached out with her form of therapy-no-jutsu. Kakashi is real big on people getting out of hopeless situations, and people willing to believe in other people. No wonder he's fond of Naruto. 3) Being grounded was really convenient. Like you, I am suspicious that it was on purpose. 4) I'm really curious what would change if Obito overheard the Rin conversation. 5) I, too, have questions about what the two Hokages got up to. I believe that they are both dead again by this point. 6) We haven't seen much of Danzō in a while. I have a feeling that will change.

Always curious to know what you thought, and what you think might happen in the future. Thanks for being a part of my writing outlet. :)