Chasing Shadows

Story: Chasing Shadows
Category: Harry Potter + Naruto Crossover
Genre: Chapters: 24
Author: silenceia
Last updated: 04/01/2018
Words: 148392
Rating: M
Status: In Progress
Content: Chapter 1 to 24 of 24 chapters

Summary: It has been two years since the girl that was once Jasmine Potter last set foot into Konohagakure. Now she finds herself surrounded by sinister plots, and dangerous foes are on the rise. With old and new allies by her side, she'll fight to protect everything she has ever loved. Now if only it were so easy to unravel who is friend and who is foe... Sequel to 'Growing Strong'

*Chapter 1*: A muddy beginning

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto. I don't own any of the mentioned rabbits either.

A muddy beginning

Eight years ago

15th July, 1987, Headmaster's office of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is pacing. It isn't a habit he indulges in often, but in this case…

Two days ago, in the dead of night, all the surveillance charms monitoring young Jasmine Potter's health went haywire while the tracking charm on her simply deactivated. Not because she was injured or even killed (and he hates to even consider such a thought); the charms would have told him such a thing.

No, their going out of control means that an event has occurred that cannot be interpreted.

Naturally, Dumbledore had immediately dropped all his previous occupations to ascertain himself of young Jasmine's well-being, secretly hoping that maybe, she had activated The Power He Knows Not.

Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared him for the circumstances he found. Young Jasmine, gone, vanished into thin air! And not because of accidental apparition but because of something else – the cupboard the event had occurred in had been positively humming with residual magic, all of which he'd collected after running diagnostics and scans over the scene.

(A cupboard. Petunia had been keeping her niece, her own blood, in a cupboard! And Vernon – he'd been abusing the child! How could it have slipped past his notice? Had the blood wards addled the surveillance charms' results? But he hadn't accounted for dear Jasmine being at risk in her aunt's house.)

Dozens of tracking charms hadn't been able to find the girl. He'd spent all of yesterday trying to interpret the strange residual magic and the results of his scans, to no avail. But if he wants to find the girl, then he must understand the magic she used.

Then, in the dead of night, a terrifying possibility had made itself known in his, if he may say so himself, rather brilliant mind.

A brilliant mind can be a curse, sometimes.

The possibility had to be taken in consideration, and Dumbledore had dropped everything and apparated to the Ministry of Magic. Hidden under the invisibility cloak he'd borrowed so long ago from young James Potter – and he'd deeply regretted it as the item could have saved the family – he'd made haste in heading down into the Department of Mysteries where he had then entered the Death Chamber. Ignoring the whispers of the Veil of Death, he'd performed the necessary spells to either verify or (hopefully) contradict his suspicion.

The results were devastating. The Veil of Death radiated a similar signature to the residual magic found in the location of young Jasmine's disappearance. Not identical, thankfully, but the conclusion was obvious.

Jasmine Jamie Potter had somehow been whisked to another dimension. Either by her own doing of by forces beyond his knowledge.

But the responsible party mattered not.

Jasmine Potter would have to be located and retrieved. Her destiny must come to pass, and Dumbledore would be the only one capable of making it so.

Grim-faced, Dumbledore stops his pacing and sets to work.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Present day, in the middle of nowhere, one of the countless islands of Water Country

The man with the eyepatch and the blue hair is unable to walk. Blood seeps through bandages wrapped around his left upper thigh. But his expression and the way he holds himself show him to be a formidable opponent even with his injury and obvious blood loss.

The man's name is Ao. Currently, he is hidden among the spindly trees of a swampy forest, ten miles away from Outpost Kappa of the Kirigakure ninja forces on one of the many islands that the Country of Water is comprised of.

In his mind, he probably curses the partner he has been assigned for this mission. He should have known that something would go wrong. Missions with her always have something go ridiculously out of control. Always.

His enemies drop down in front of him, a safe distance away. Even unable to stand, Ao is a dangerous enemy.

"Well, well," one of Ao's opponents drawls, grinning smugly. "The great Ao, on the ground. What a sad place to die for you."

"Pah!" Another spits. "Death to the traitor!"

"Agreed," the third one says with a monotonous voice. "The likelihood of support coming for him increases with every moment we wait."

"You and your likelihoods," the first one says dismissively. "Who wants to do the honours?"

"I do," I say as I appear in the middle of the three. With a glint of steel, Shingi To Giri whistles through the air. A moment later, the enemies fall down, blood spurting from their necks.

"Took your time, didn't you?" Ao gripes while I wipe the blood off my katana that used to belong to Sasuke's father, then spare a look at the three bodies. For a moment, my mouth curls in remorse at the sight. Ao speaks up again. "Shouldn't you be desensitised to killing by now? Did you not receive any emotional conditioning?"

"Sure I did," I reply as I step over to him. "Tremble in awe, you're sitting before the one ninja immune to desensitisation."

Lucky me. I'm glad Ibiki wasn't in charge of that part of preparing me for my extended stay in Water Country. He would have noticed I was faking my responses. Or in that case, my non-responses.

"Right," Ao deadpans.

"So," I muse. "I think those were the last ones. Let's go back."

"Behind you," Ao warns, just as I sense a spike of chakra. In an instant, I've turned around, drawn my blade again, and launched myself at the enemy – a pale-skinned woman with short white hair. She drops to the side and throws a volley of senbon at me. Shingi To Giri slices once again and the senbon are sent back at her. The woman curses and replaces herself, appearing just steps away from me.

Her hands speed through handseals. "Water Style: Meat Grinder!" she yells while I sheathe my katana. Around her, a column of water surges up, spinning rapidly with a screeching sound. Another wall of water billows around the both of us, spinning in the opposite direction. She smirks at me triumphantly, secure in her victory. The water wall behind me starts to close in, if I don't do something about that, I'll be flayed between the two spinning water walls.

"Meat Grinder, I see," I comment. "Crudely named, but fitting. A-rank technique?"

She smirks. "Scum, you can't talk your way out of this. In a minute, all that'll be left of you will be a pile of red mush."

"That's disgusting," I retort flatly. "How about we don't do that. You can surrender, you know?"

"Ha!" she spits out. "Like I'll listen to you, bloodline-scum!"

The spinning water wall behind me is closing in. If I had claustrophobia, I'd probably be getting anxious right about now. Thankfully, I don't. Still, I don't want to end up shredded to death, so I should probably do something about that technique.

"I warned you," I sigh and pull out a kunai with an explosive tag. With a twitch of my chakra, I activate it. My opponent's widen in panic.

"You can't do that! You'll blow both of us up!" she screams.

"Ahh," I say, watching the fire travel along the tag. "I'm from Konoha. We're a special kind of stupid over there."

I flick the kunai a the inner water wall just before it goes off. Then we're engulfed by fire. When it's over, I step out of the ensuing dust cloud, a water armour covering my whole body. As I move back to Ao, it flows off my skin into the ground.

"Okay," I say. "But that was the last one."

Ao glares at me. "You used me as bait for them!" he growls at me.

"Oh come off it!" I scoff. "I wouldn't have let you die."

"Right, because I'm, I quote, 'the only decent shogi player in all of Water Country'," he answers.

"Actually, it's because you're practically a national treasure," I quip. "Your sense of humour is the driest thing in all of this vast, muddy place."

Ao stares me down. Considering he's on the ground while I'm standing, that's an impressive feat.

"I do not have a sense of humour," he replies in a measured tone. I grin at him.

"That's not something you should go around advertising, and you're funny anyways," I answer.

"You lack respect," Ao gripes. "Your entire generation-"

"You do realise that saying things like that only makes you sound like a grumpy old man?" I ask, kneeling down beside him. "Hold still, I'm going to heal you. I'm in no mood to carry you for miles through all this mud. I swear, you should rename this place into Mud Country. There's more mud than water."

"Tch, always complaining. When I was your age-"

I roll my eyes as my hand lights up green. "Not this again. Seriously, making you the bait was the best plan, and you know it. Besides, you were in no danger. I have a reputation to uphold, after all."

"What, that all the missions you go on tend to go ridiculously out of control?" Ao asks with a raised eyebrow.

"And here you claim to have no sense of humour." My lips quirk in amusement. "I was talking about my other reputation, you know, the one that makes me so popular to go on missions with. I don't let my teammates die."

Ao snorts derisively. "Idealistic fool."

"Grumpy old man." I finish healing him. "Done. You should get that checked out though when we get back. It's only a patch job."

"Understood," Ao says and gets to his feet. "I'll clean up the bodies. Take a rest."

"Yes, old man," I mutter.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Outpost Kappa. When Ao and I get back, Hōzuki Suigetsu is on guard duty.

"Yo, Midget," he greets me by his nickname for me with a smirk, revealing his pointy teeth. "Took ya long enough. You were only supposed to scout."

I don't even react to the nickname. I've heard it often enough from him. Besides, it's kind of true. I've grown strong. I have not grown tall.

"I live up to my reputation," I deadpan instead. "On a side note, by our estimation the loyalist forces in this area have been decimated by a third, which means the information we gathered is mostly inaccurate by now. Not all of it, though. We know where their hideouts are."

"Damn," Suigetsu whistles. "I volunteer to be your partner on your next mission, Ren."

"See?" I say, turning to Ao. "I'm popular." Then I turn back to Suigetsu. "Forget it. I haven't forgiven you yet."

"Aww, but Midget!" Suigetsu pouts. "It was your jounin promotion! You were supposed to get drunk!"

I snort. "Jounin promotion, right. Like it actually counts. I won't forgive you until you have suffered what I have suffered the morning after that."

Suigetsu, who is among the most brutal and bloodthirsty people I have ever met, actually winces. Even Ao looks uncomfortable.

Because yes, it was that bad.

"You fight a lot better when you're hung over," Suigetsu finally says. I glare at him darkly.

"Have you ever been so hung over that you could barely open your eyes because the light hurt so fucking bad that it felt like you were being stabbed in the brain with a lightning bolt?" I ask. "Have you ever had a flash tag go off right in front of you while in that state? And an explosive tag right after? And, I don't know, experienced a surprise attack of about fifty crazy bloodline-racists at the same time? Have you?"

Long story short, I got (fake) promoted to jounin, which Suigetsu and a few others decided we had to celebrate by getting me drunk. The next morning, the loyalists staged a surprise attack.

Not fun. At all.

"Uh, no," Suigetsu says, obviously looking for a different topic to switch to. "Haku and Chōjūrō are here!"

That brightens my mood instantly. "Really?"

"Yeah, orders are to take those bastards down." Suigetsu grins bloodthirstily, caressing the hilt of Shibuki, the oversized sword that has hundreds of explosive seals incorporated in it and marks him as one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist, like Zabuza, Haku, and Chōjūrō. "Can't wait!"

"Right," I say. "And hopefully I'll be reassigned after that and won't ever have to see you again."

"But Ren-chan!" Suigetsu exclaims. "You know you loooove me! You've seen me naked and all!"

I cringe. "Don't remind me."

Ao and I were tracking an A-rank missin-nin that had been a thorn in the side of our forces for ages. We'd already injured the guy, but he got away and fled to the mainland. We eventually caught up and dealt with him, but then Ao detected an underground shelter right under our feet with his implanted Byakugan. And naturally, we decided to sneak in and check it out. Turns out, we stumbled right over one of Orochimaru's underground labs. And while I was hiding behind one of many tanks filled with water…

"Hello, beautiful," a voice croons. I blink in surprise and stare at the boy that has appeared in the tank that appeared previously empty of anything except water. Then I jump back ten metres, crash into another tank, and yell,

"Holy shit put on some clothes!"

"I can't, I'm locked up in this damn tank you stupid bitch!" he yells back. Meanwhile, I turn away and rub furiously at my eyes.

"Eww! It was right in front of my face," I gag.

Needless to say, we brought down every ninja in the whole damn facility on us with our yelling. It was not one of my shining moments, and Suigetsu has never let me live it down, the asshole. And for some idiotic reason he got attached to me during the course of the battle at the lab. Something about me letting him out of his tank and then cutting down every single one of Orochimaru's researchers currently in that room. And letting him have my spare katana so he could do some cutting, too. And throwing a lab coat into his face. He thought it was 'sweet and charming'. The cutting-people-down thing, that is.

Then Ao recognised him as a former Kiri shinobi and we ended up taking him back with us like some stray kitten.

"Good times," Suigetsu sighs.

"I still have nightmares about that thing right in front of my eyes," I mutter darkly. "A kingdom for brain-bleach."

Ao snorts derisively and strides past us. "You're wasting time with your inane prattle. We have a report to make."

"Later, Suigetsu," I say, hurrying after Ao. "The usual place."

"Got it, Midget!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Akagi Ren. That was the name I chose for myself after leaving for Kirigakure with only my blade Shingi to Giri at my side. No one back home in Konoha even knows what my name here is – a safety measure, just in case. I was given a way to contact Dad if I ever needed help, but only the most dire of emergencies count as a reason for doing so. So in essence, when I arrived, I was completely on my own, and I wanted my name to have at least some sort of meaning.

Akagi. Red tree.

Ren. Water lily.

It's been almost two years since then. I turn fifteen in a month.

Back then, I made my way to the meeting point, where I was promptly snatched up by Zabuza and Haku who brought me before the Godaime Mizukage Terumi Mei and some of her most trusted jounin, Ao among them. After that, I was thrown into a reception camp for those homeless ninja wishing to join Kirigakure. There were endless tests and brutal trainings from the jounin there, and manipulations and backstabbing among the contenders; because while Kirigakure did accept almost any ninja into their forces, they hardly put them in favourable positions – only the ones that were outstanding had the chance to make it to something other than cannon fodder and would get a chance at a decent life. So the competition between the contenders was harsh and brutal, and it was not uncommon to find someone dead in the mornings, or permanently crippled. After all, most all of the people there were some sort of criminals – either missing-nin or homeless kids that never had anybody teach them morals and kept themselves alive through sheer viciousness.

It was hell. A muddy, bloody hell. I was later told the jounin in charge of the Slums, as the reception camp was fondly called, had orders to make sure I didn't die, but I certainly never saw evidence of that. They sure as hell never prevented assassination attempts, and there were a lot of those after it became clear that I wasn't just some half-starved brat with nothing to lose; no, I was some half-starved brat with nothing to lose with a shit ton of potential , high intelligence, and an extremely valuable sword. Which made me the target of anger, jealousy, and various attempts to kill me.

Those were the dark days.

I was not in a good place mentally back then. I'd just left everything I'd ever loved, no, I had been made to leave. I'd felt abandoned and lonely and hopeless, and I was this close to breaking. The reason I didn't… well.

But I lived. I clung to life. Did some things I wasn't proud of. And I made it out of the Slums; harder and stronger than before, and still possessing something akin to sanity, which was more than what most of the other graduates could say for themselves.

After that, I was absorbed into Kirigakure's forces, just one new genin among many. I was assigned to one of the numerous outposts on one of Water Country's numerous islands, one that was still crawling with followers of the bloodline limit-hating Yondaime Mizukage Yagura. We were expected to fight them, try not to die; and if we failed at the not-dying part to take as many enemies down with us as we could.

I'd have fallen in the first battle if it hadn't been for the fact that Zabuza and Haku had also been stationed at that outpost. But again, I didn't die. And if I fell down, I got up. I got stronger. I survived. Sliced my way through the enemy forces, clawed my way to strength. I didn't really have any teacher, but some of the jounin at the outpost didn't mind sharing some tips, and Zabuza was always up for a spar, so I managed to accumulate some serious skill, and soon some of the other genin started to follow my lead when they got the memo that people that stuck to me tended to live through battles. I got a field promotion to chunin – the irony – and from then on, things got better.

After the area was cleared of the Yagura-loyalists, I was assigned to another outpost. It was there that I was assigned a partner, a freshly minted jounin named Chōjūrō, who was also one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist, like Zabuza. Unlike almost every other Kiri-nin, he was shy and gentle despite being a fearsome fighter, and we became friends. Fought side by side and made names for ourselves. I also became known as a decent strategist and from then on was involved into planning attacks, which is how I met Ao. Who was a complete bastard to me at first, but tolerated me because I was just about the only one who made a challenging shogi opponent.

It was around that time that I became known as the Bloody Flower of the Mist. Even got ranked A in the bingo books.

I hate that name.

I wonder if it should amuse me that while Orochimaru's henchmen are probably scouring the nations for me and infiltrating every secret training facility affiliated with Konoha, here I am, famous and fighting at the front lines of another village, appearance altered just enough to look like a different person.

It took about another year for my next field promotion. By then, I was part of the group of Kiri-nin that was constantly sent from outpost to outpost to support the troupes there; either with strategies or combat force. Others are Ao, Haku, Chōjūrō, and Zabuza. Suigetsu will probably soon be, too. Though lately, the fights have been dying down. There are hardly any loyalists left.

Since my time at the Slums, I've only set foot into the village of Kirigakure a total of five times. The rest, I spent surviving whatever battle I was thrown into, and making sure those near me survived, too.

It kept me from thinking about… things. And thinking about things is bad. I did that the first few months. Wallowed in self-pity a lot, too. Not really a good time.

I don't regret coming to Kiri. Even if I was miserable more often than not, there are some moments that I wouldn't trade for anything. I've made friends here, made memories, saved lives, accomplished things.

Life as a Kirigakure ninja may not be a happy one. But it certainly has its moments.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

We give our report to a tank of a man named Yoshiaki. He also happens to be an enormous asshole, like most Kiri-ninja, and he can stand neither Ao nor me, simply because we are smarter and better than him. Technically, I'm of equal rank as him, and Ao as an elite jounin outranks him, but since we tend to get shuffled from outpost to outpost and Yoshiaki has pretty much been here for his entire career, the bastard has gotten a superiority complex and thinks he's better than us.

He's not.

But he is in charge of the outpost, and therefore he can make report-giving extremely troublesome by questioning our actions and being an asshole in general. The current conversation goes much like every one before it.

"So you disobeyed my orders and engaged the enemy in combat," he states snootily. I roll my eyes.

"Maybe you should give your orders to the enemies and tell them not to attack us. I'm sure they'll be open to discussions," I retort.

"Do not get smart with me, you bratty little-!"

"Oh fuck off," I snap. "Like you'd recognise Smart if it hit you in the face." He bristles.

"Now, see here! I've been keeping quiet about your attitude, but I will do that no longer!" he thunders. Ao and I look at each other and simultaneously roll our eyes.

Here we go again.

"Since you have come here, you have been nothing but a thorn in my side. Wherever you go, you cause trouble-"

"I don't cause it, it finds me."

"And pretend to be oh-so innocent-"

"Because it's not my fault."

"Insult your superiors-"

"I don't insult my superiors. I insult you."

"You disobey the rules-"

"I could tell you shit about rules that would blow your mind."

"Fuck up your missions-"

"I complete them and bring everybody back alive. How is that fucking up?"

"WILL YOU SHUT UP?!" he explodes. Spit flies from his mouth as he yells. "Are you even loyal to Kirigakure?!"

One moment he towers over me, the next he flies through his desk into the wall of his office. His head hits the stone with a crack. I lower the hand holding a water whip and look at Ao. "He shouldn't have said that," I say.

Ao nods grimly. "He shouldn't have."

Questioning a Kiri-nin's loyalty to the village is Taboo. It's something you just don't do without hard evidence. Even if I'm not really a Kiri-nin, most of the time I feel like I am. Even when I go back, as long as it doesn't compromise Konoha, I will remain an ally of Kirigakure.

Kami, I hope Konoha will never become an enemy of Kiri.

"So I guess while he's out, you take charge and come up with a plan to raid the loyalists' stronghold?" I ask. "Do you need help planning?"

Ao gives me a disdainful look. "Of course not."

I nod. "Then I'll go and meet the others. Later, Ao. Remember to get that leg checked out."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I told Suigetsu to meet me at the usual place. Considering I hardly stay at any outpost for longer than a month, it's a bit hard to determine a 'usual place'. So as it is, the 'usual place' is a glorified description for, 'That shitty dive where you can get wasted, stoned, and possibly laid, though you probably won't remember it the next morning'. It's not a place any of us except Suigetsu would normally frequent, but every outpost has at least one, so it makes for a decent meeting place, as long as one brings their own drinks. If not, it ends like my farce of a jounin promotion did.

In pain.

Outpost Kappa consists of an assortment of huts, barracks, and tents hidden under a genjutsu barrier. The Usual Place in this case is to be found in the basement of one of the barracks. I suspect it used to be a storage room, but now it contains a shoddily built bar, a few benches and chairs, a few rickety tables, and cheap alcohol. Lots of that. Also, an assortment of ninja in various stages of drunkenness.

"Yo," I greet. "You're here already."

"Ren!" Suigetsu cries out, a flush to his cheeks, a bottle of sake in his hands. "It's been so long!"

"Two hours, however did I survive without you?" I ask blandly, then turn around to the other two. "Haku, Chōjūrō-kun. It's good to see you two." I pull out a chair and swiftly sit down, surreptitiously slapping a privacy seal on the table's surface. A moment later, it is activated.

"Riko-san," Haku greets me with a serene smile. Still ethereally beautiful with his long, silky black hair, wearing a dark green kimono, the only thing that has changed about him is the blade he carries. Nuibari, the longsword in the shape of a sewing needle, another weapon of the Seven Swordsmen. In Haku's hands, it's not a tool for killing, but for binding and stitching his enemies together. He's probably the most peaceful person to ever have been one of the Seven. Scratch that, he's the most peaceful person in all of Kirigakure, Water Country, and possibly the world. "It has been a while."

"It's… ah, it's good to see you, too," Chōjūrō adds shyly.

Haku, Chōjūrō and Suigetsu. These three are my best friends in Kirigakure, and they are among the few who know who I really am. Haku, because he already knew before. Chōjūrō found out when I was hurt on a mission, got a fever, and started talking gibberish in my fever-induced dream. Suigetsu knew from the start, because one of those bastards at the underground lab we found him in recognised me – didn't live to tell the tale, of course.

I think one of the reasons Suigetsu got so attached to me is that Orochimaru fucked both of our lives over. Add to that the fact that I was probably the first in a long time to actually treat him like a human being, the fact that I'm the one that freed him, and the love of swords we have in common, and it really doesn't come as a surprise that we ended up as comrades. I can even overlook his love for killing and chopping off the limbs of his victims. It's not like he kills indiscriminately, after all. And I'm not all that innocent, either. Not anymore.

"So what have you guys been up to?" I ask while pulling out a small cup from my bag, filling it with hot water, and putting a tea bag in it – water ninjutsu is so useful. Haku holds out a cup of his own to me, and I fill it for him.

"We're in a bar," Suigetsu gripes, eyeing our cups with distaste.

"And we are drinking," I retort. "Tea."

"It is very calming," Haku adds serenely. Suigetsu sticks out his tongue in distaste and takes a deep swig from his sake bottle. "I have been stationed at outpost Yuki-onna for the last month," Haku remarks.

I snort. "Really? The guy assigning us has a really weird sense of humour."

Haku smiles. "I'm afraid that I do not understand what you are talking about, Riko-san."

"Yeah right," Suigetsu snorts. "Like it's a coincidence that you ended up at the one outpost named after a snow demon that appears as a beautiful woman."

Haku's smile gains an edge, and his eyes shine mysteriously as he gazes at Suigetsu. "I still do not understand."

Suigetsu's eyes shift around nervously. "Uh, I mean. Yes." He holds out his bottle. "Sake?"

"No, thank you. I do not drink."

I swear there's something going on between them. Something like this happens every time we get together. Not that that happens often.

"I-I believe Zabuza-senpai is stationed at outpost Oni right now," Chōjūrō adds softly. "Uhm… I think Riko-san might be right. A-about the guy assigning us, I mean. Except, I think it's a girl." He suddenly blushes heavily. I resist the urge to pat his head.

Looking at Chōjūrō's demeanour, no one would ever guess how strong an opponent he can be.

Suigetsu snorts. "Outpost Oni, really? The Demon of the Mist at Outpost Demon?"

"Ahh, Zabuza-sama has returned to Kirigakure," Haku informs us. "About three weeks ago, I believe."

Chōjūrō gets a wistful look on his face. "It would be nice to return home," he says softly.

"It would," I agree.

"Oi, Ren, which home're you talking about?" Suigetsu asks with a sharp-toothed grin. I merely shrug in response.

"What have you been doing, Riko-san?" Haku asks me.

"The usual. Lots of missions going funny," I answer with a sheepish grin. "And today, I may or may not have slammed that bastard Yoshiaki into a wall. Ao is in charge now."

Suigetsu barks a laugh. "Bastard had it coming!"

Suddenly, a pretty pale pink rabbit hops elegantly into the bar and lands neatly on the table before Haku. I twitch, but refrain from saying something.

With a look at us, Haku explains. "I left Ume-chan at my previous post. There were preparations being made for another battle. I worried about the outcome. Please speak, Ume-chan."

I nearly gag seeing the adoring look he gifts the rabbit with.

"Our troupes were successful," Ume says primly, her straight ears laid back neatly. "The commander wishes you well."

"Very good," Haku answers. "Thank you for your hard work, Ume-chan. Please rest now." Ume thanks him and poofs away. I glare at the small smoke cloud.

Some guys have all the luck with their summons.

"What's that glare for?" Suigetsu asks with a grin. "Oh right. You have a rabbit contract, too, right? Except…" he makes a dramatic pause.

"Go to hell," I snap.

"Except his are better," he finishes with an evil grin. I punch him in the face. It's entirely unsatisfying seeing as it turns into water and offers no resistance to my fist at all.

"Um, there is more than one rabbit contract?" Chōjūrō asks.

I steal Suigetsu's bottle and take a deep swig. "Yep," I say. "There's a story behind it. As everything that has anything to do with rabbits, it's completely crackbrained."

"Riko-san," Haku admonishes and looks at me with his sad, sad eyes.

"I meant, as everything that has to do with my rabbits," I amend. Damn it, aren't puppy eyes supposed to become less effective the older the user gets? And when did my resistance get so low? "Anyone want to hear the story?"

"…Yes?" Chōjūrō asks uncertainly. Suigetsu attempts to snatch his sake bottle back, but I pull it out of the way. If we're going to talk about rabbits, I need alcohol.

"Alright," I take a deep swig and start in an unctuous voice. "Long ago, there was only one clan of the noble Leporidae, standing united against any foe. Few matched them in strength." I take another deep swig from the bottle under Suigetsu's reproachful glare.

"…And?" Chōjūrō asks when I don't say anything further. I snort.

"And then some idiot started a fight over who stole his mama's carrot, the whole thing got blown up into insane proportions, some idiot used a grenade to blow up the Rabbit of Caerbannog who was the boss of everyone at the time, and the rabbits divided into two rivalling clans: The Floppy Ears and the Straight Ears." I snort derisively. "Haku got the Straight Ears. I got the Floppy Ears."

Suigetsu suddenly pauses in his glaring. "Wait, I've seen the boss of Haku's rabbits! It has floppy ears!"

"You've seen Bun-Bun and you're still alive?!" I ask incredulously.

"I turn into water, I'm hard to kill," he deadpans. "So, your story doesn't add up!"

"It wasn't finished yet," I say morosely and take another swig from the bottle. "See, the rabbits now consisted of two rivalling clans, but they weren't too happy. The Straight Ears wanted more discipline and training, but their boss was a bit of a free spirit and only cared for playing. The Floppy Ears wanted more freedom, but their boss was a murderous tyrant."

I pause and glare at the bottle in my hands.

"…what happened next?" Chōjūrō asks timidly.

"They swapped bosses," I snort. Suigetsu spits out tea – when did he steal my cup from me?

"You're kidding," he says.

"I assure you, I am not."

"But it doesn't work like that!" he protests. "Summons can't just-!" He waves his arms around.

"Rabbits are very surprising creatures," Haku says serenely.

I open my mouth to say something insulting. Then I pause, reconsider, and decide not to blow Haku's bubble. "Anyway," I continue. "The Straight Ears ended up a disciplined clan with decent training and manners. The Floppy Ears descended into anarchy and madness under the Flying Mint Bunny's rule. Guess who ended up with what summoning contract?" I give him a tight smile.

"Ugh," Suigetsu says. "I know why I don't have a summon."

"Screw you," I mutter, and finish the bottle.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Chōjūrō and Haku end up sleeping in the room Suigetsu and I share.

It's probably not exactly proper to share a room with the guy when I have a boyfriend, but I don't want to get murdered in my sleep and I trust Suigetsu to watch my back. I've shared sleeping space with Chōjūrō and Haku before, too. Sometimes it gets cold on missions.

It's fine. We're comrades. Anyone who has a problem with it can shove it. Also, modesty completely flies out of the window after a while, what with the constant fighting and injuries. Having medical abilities, Suigetsu isn't the only person I've seen undressed.

No one here cares who sleeps with who, anyway. As long as they can be found during emergencies, it's all good.

Besides, it's nice to not have to worry about having my throat slit while I'm sleeping.

"Night, guys," I mumble. The others mumble their answers, and I let myself fall asleep. There'll be a battle tomorrow, it wouldn't do to be tired out.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I dream.

It's one of those dreams.

I appear in a room that has the distinct feel of a hospital room, but doesn't actually look like one, with wooden floor and dark walls. The surroundings are blurry, though, so I can't tell for sure.

The girl that is me but not is lying on a bed, sleeping like the dead. Except, it appears to be around noon, if the light coming through the window is any indication. And her sleeping form looks… odd. The only thing that moves is her chest, rising and sinking almost imperceptibly with light breaths. Anything else appears frozen. Not a muscle move in her face, not a finger twitches.

She's too pale. Too thin. Her lips are dry and chapped, her long red hair which normally looks so wild and vibrant hangs limply and has lost its shine.

On a table next to her bed, flowers and gifts are lined up. I think there are chocolate boxes, too. Can't really identify anything, though.

"Coma, huh?" I murmur, and at my words, the scene is swallowed up by darkness.

*Chapter 2*: The battle of Kappa Lake

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

The battle of Kappa Lake

I awaken, but I don't open my eyes. Instead, I deepen my breathing and calm my mind.

When I open my eyes next, I'm in my inner world.

I stand on a stone platform that floats in darkness. When I look around, I can see a multitude of other platforms floating short distances away; there are also doors, windows and paintings hovering in space, connected by a network of bridges and stairs made from all kinds of materials. When I look over the edge, deep below me shines the light of the dome that used to be Lily. Houses are gently illuminated by it.

I focus for a moment, then start walking. Up a set of stairs, down a slide made of water, jump over to a platform made of glass. My mind is a labyrinth, but it's my mind, and I won't get lost in here. At least, not for long.

Finally, I reach the platform that is at the centre of everything. It's shaped like a circle and made of polished wood. There's a couch at the side, a nice fluffy rug, and a throne-like chair, in which sits the main reason for my retained sanity.

Dementia examines a shiny sphere floating in the air before her with a frown. Reflected in the orb is the motionless form of the girl in my dream. More spheres float all around the platform.

"She looks an awful lot like you," I remark. "Too pale, that hair…"

"Do you have anything useful to say?" She asks coldly. "I know as much about these goddamn dreams as you, meaning a big, fat, Nothing At All."

A fact that continues to vex her.

We both watch the girl sleep in the sphere.

"Seems like that scene on the graveyard didn't go so well," I comment softly.

I've had dreams of the girl that isn't me for two years now. They are always short, a few minutes at most. Surroundings are always blurred, many of the faces of the people around her are, too, with few exceptions. There's hardly ever any sound in them.

The last one happened a week ago. I appeared on a graveyard then. She was bleeding and tied to a headstone. There was another person there, a woman, I think. Cold, unhinged laughter seemed to echo from her.

"Stating the obvious," Dementia states. "What do you want."

I raise an eyebrow at her. "Merely checking if you came up with anything. I'll leave you alone now."

"Finally," she hisses.

I roll my eyes at her and leave my inner world.

I probably should have gotten rid of Dementia ages ago. But I didn't do it, because I needed her, still do. There have been a lot of things I couldn't have handled without her. Back in the Slums, when I was really alone, she was the only one that was there. We made a deal: I fix up my mind and put some order to it, and she helps me deal with the hard stuff.

Yes, she hates me. No, I don't trust her. No, I do not enjoy her company.

But she's there.

"Oi," Suigetsu drawls. "Wake up!" He attempts to kick me, but I'm faster. I'm on my feet in an instant, sword out and at his throat. He gulps.

He may be able to turn into water, but I can do a lot of fun things with water. Boil it, for starters.

"Ao-san has called a meeting, Ren-san," Haku informs me pleasantly. "All those that aren't on guard duty have been called to the meeting hall."

I sigh and sheathe my sword. By my estimation, it's still a few hours until sunrise – Ao must mean to attack at dawn.

"Let's go," I say.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Five minutes later, we enter the meeting hall. Though, calling it that is a bit pretentious. It's just a cleared out dormitory in one of the barracks, but it's large enough to hold the ninja currently stationed at Outpose Kappa –there are nineteen, me included, Bastard Yoshiaki excluded, seeing as I put him to sleep and he never really does anything, anyways.

Ao stands at the front of the room, waiting on the last stragglers. Suigetsu, Haku, Chōjūrō and I position ourselves in the back.

When everyone is there, Ao starts to speak. "Our scouts have discovered the location of the remaining loyalists in this area. We attack at dawn."

Whispers break out. "Won't they have relocated?" someone shouts from the back. "I heard a bunch of them bastards got offed!"

Ao gives the shouter an impassive look. "They already have changed their location to a different hideout. Which we also found. The enemy is not aware of that. Seeing as the witnesses were neutralised before passing on the information."

"Bloody Flower, huh?" Suigetsu whispers loudly, drawing a few looks to me. I resist the urge to hit Suigetsu and keep my face impassive.

Kami, I hate that name. Can't wait to be rid of it.

"The loyalists' stronghold is situated in a hidden fort close to Lake Kappa," Ao continues to speak. "To be precise, the lake is to the southern side of the fort, the western side is protected by the swamp. To the North and East, the fort is surrounded by forest. Our main forces will be lying in wait there while a small unit attacks from the lakeside to drive the enemies out." His one visible eye fixes on me. "Akagi, you will lead the squad consisting of Yuki Haku, Hōzuki Suigetsu, Chōjūrō, and yourself."

"Understood," I nod my acquiescence.

Great, more killing. But then, some people deserve to die. I've seen what they do to those with bloodlines.

I did not earn my name by accident.

"I suggest you move out now," Ao advises.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

It's still dark when we sneak up to the lake, making no more sounds than ghosts would.

The fort isn't visible. Ao and I only found it earlier because of his Byakugan and sensory abilities. They must have some genjutsu masters there, hiding it.

We can, however, make an educated guess where it is, seeing as the morning mist is a lot denser in one area.

"See that?" I whisper. "We hit that with a large-scale attack, it's bound to hit something."

"That's your plan?" Suigetsu asks with a bloodthirsty grin. "I'm so down with that."

"That's good," I deadpan. "You and I attack full frontal. Haku, you'll be at the swamp side of the lake, Chōjūrō at the forest side. Make sure no one escapes that way."

"Understood," they whisper. We all stare at where the fort is.

"Get into position. Don't be seen. We attack at sunrise. Me first, you follow up," I order. "Now go."

A moment later, Chōjūrō and Haku are gone. Suigetsu is already melting into the water. I follow him. With barely a splash, I dive under, breathing as easily as I do on land. Years ago, I'd have cringed at the cold, but now I'm used to it.

"Found it," Suigetsu announces. Next to me, his eyes and mouth appear out of the water. "It's right ahead."

It's a little off-putting, seeing as the rest of his face is missing. He looks really weird without his nose.

"Good," I reply, and swim up to the surface to chance a look. The mist is thick, it's like standing in the inside of a cloud, and it sends my chakra sense buzzing. This close, there's no missing it. The mist is definitely a genjutsu. Too strong to simply dispel. And the moment I step on the water's surface, I'll be seen and attacked.

But by the time that happens, it'll be too late for anyone to stop me.

I dive down again. "Suigetsu," I murmur. "It's time."

His bloodthirsty grin appears right in front of me. "Finally! I just have this urge to cut someone down! I've been waiting for this!"

"Yeah, I never said you'd get to attack," I remark, which stops him in his tracks.

"What?" he asks dumbly.

I grin evilly. "Suigetsu, my dear friend, you're my attack weapon."

He frowns in confusion. Then his eyes widen in horror. "Oh hell no!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The light shifts. Minutely. It's a bit hard to tell, seeing as I'm underwater and above is a bunch of mist. Then again, it's not real mist. Do illusions cast shadows? Most don't. I don't see why this one should, though. The illusory mist would cover up any shadow anyway. Hmm…

"This is revenge for your jounin promotion, isn't it," Suigetsu gripes.

"You never did apologise," I answer distractedly, still pondering the oddities of genjutsu.

"Fine. I'm sorry. Even though it was hilarious to see you drunk. And Chōjūrō nearly exploded when you kept hugging him and called him a sweetie-pie. Damn, that was a good night…"

"For some reason, I cannot find it in me to forgive you even after delivering that heartfelt apology." I kick off toward the surface. "It's sunrise."

I hear Suigetsu grumbling as he floats after me.

Then I step on the surface of the water. Almost immediately, I feel chakras flare somewhere relatively close, but by that point, I'm already going through hand seals. "Suiton: Suishouha!" I yell. And before me, the water starts to tower higher and higher. Then I thrust my arms forward and the wave starts rolling forward, first slowly, then picking up speed until it's just one enormous wave created to destroy everything in its path. And transport Suigetsu right into the enemy's stronghold.

Must be fun, being stuck in a giant rolling wave. Almost like being near explosions while having the hang-over from hell.

Besides, he gets instant transport right between the enemies. Lots and lots of people to cut down. That was what he wanted, so he isn't allowed to complain.

A moment later, I sense multiple chakra signatures blink into existence and head away from the wave. Then a mighty crash sounds as the fort is hit. The mist-genjutsu shatters around me and the visibility conditions vastly improve, allowing me to see the damage I've done.

More than half of the stronghold is gone. From the looks of it, it used to be a small fort, built on stilts over the water. Now the stilts are broken, what's left of the structure has crashed down. Most of the loyalists seem to be headed away from it and me, instead heading straight for the forest, where Ao's troupes will be lying in wait. A few seem to still be in the damaged structure – I can hear Suigetsu yell in delight.

At least one of us is happy.

But now I have to concentrate on my own situation, seeing as suddenly, three ninja flash in front of me, taxing me, trying to figure out the best attacking method. From the corner of my eyes, I see ice explode in the distance, meaning that Haku is busy. On the left, I hear explosions – Chōjūrō is fighting, too. Which means I can't use them in whatever I do.

"Haa…" I sigh.


"You're gonna pay for that!" one of my opponents, a large man with no hair, threatens, displaying some impressive Killing Intent. "How dare you attack as like that, bloodline scum!"

Like I don't know that speech by heart by now.

"You have one chance to surrender," I warn.

I feel a minor spike of chakra from the petite woman to my right, and suddenly, everything around me turns black. The water beneath my feet, very air I breathe, are darkness… genjutsu. Chains of sharp white bones sprout from the water and wrap around me, immobilising me. Killing Intent chokes me.

The hairless man suddenly appears before me. "Die," he growls and rams a kunai into my heart. I cough wetly, drops of blood hitting his face. And then I smile. My body turns red and starts to shine, as if it's made of blood. "W-what?" the man yells, but it's already too late. The body has turned into blood and changed shape, turning into bloody vines, with beautiful red blossoms attached to them. The vines wrap around the man, the bloody drops on his face expand into a net that starts to choke him.

I step up behind the man and draw a kunai across his throat. Around me, all the black from the kunoichi's genjutsu is replaced by red. The black water turns into blood, above me, the murky, cloud-covered sky turns into a gorgeous rose-and-gold sunrise. Blood flowers of any kind sprout from the blood lake. "Demonic Illusion," I announce softly. "Flowers of a Bloody Morning."

The illusory scene isn't particularly horrifying. It's actually quite beautiful, in a morbid way, but not fear-inducing. What makes it so dangerous is the smell, the sweet, cloying scent of death, decay, and blood. It's paralysing, numbing, disorienting, and combined with my Killing Intent, it's extraordinarily powerful and extremely hard to break.

The petite woman staggers back in horrified realisation. "Y-you are!" she whispers with wide eyes.

"It's too late for apologies," I answer, and impassively watch as my blood flowers choke her. She attempts to break my genjutsu, but fails due to her panic. A minute later, I put her out of her misery with my still bloody kunai and let the illusion fade.

The third man, a thin and smallish person wearing a helmet, attacks me with a loud yell. I flip out of the way. "Evaded the genjutsu, huh?" I ask.

"Cowardly illusions do not work on me!" he yells. From a scroll, he unseals a sword and relentlessly attacks me. I dodge and evade. "I know all about you, Bloody Flower! I was there at the battle of Kurokawa! You slaughtered my wife, and now I will slaughter you!"

Kurokawa. The Battle of the Black River. I remember that one. Not the wife he talks about, there were a lot of people dying back there. But I remember accidentally creating my signature genjutsu, the one that I just used on his teammate. Back then, I was only going to use a B-ranked genjutsu called the Tree Binding Death I learned back in Konoha. But I got cut by a weapon that had some kind of hallucinogen on it, and my mind was all over the place, fear and disorientation amplified a million times, and my sense of smell oddly sharp. And there was so much death and blood around us that I panicked, and all the blood and fear, all of my panic, was carried over into the genjutsu and made it a very powerful technique that immobilised all enemies around me. I later developed the technique into what it is today in an attempt to make people think that that was the reason for my hateful moniker.

Only partly succeeded. No one was going to forget what I did at Sapphire Lake anytime soon. But that's something I refuse to think about.

I move to draw my own sword. Which is when the man rips his helmet off and reveals a seal tattooed all over his face and neck. "I've lived for this!" he screams, slices his hand open, and presses it to his face. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

Almost immediately, the man's head begins to swell, then the rest of his body follows. His skin begins to bubble and starts sprouting white fur, his clothes rip as he grows; one, two, five, seven, twenty feet into an armoured giant hybrid between an ox and a man. Large, cruelly curved horns protrude from its skull, its eyes glow red. An ear-splitting war cry tears itself out of its throat. In the end, it's about sixty feet tall.

I watch in horrified fascination. The fool summoned something inside himself. Merged with it. That's… ugh.

A large battle axe appears in the monster's hand. He swings it down on me. If I let it hit the ground, it'll destroy half the island, obliterate the entire ecosystem, and potentially kill all of us. I can't let that happen. So I quickly pull up a mist screen so nobody will see what I'm doing.

I slap my hand over my neck. "Kai!" I yell. And power floods from the Cursed Seal into me. Muscles crack and shift as my skin turns iridescent white and large leathery wings burst from my back. "Water Style: Water Chains!" I shout and dozens of chains surge up, far faster than I would be able to without the extra power, and wrap around the battle axe, rip it out of the monster's claws. But I don't stop there. More and more chains shoot up from the lake and start entwining and twisting around themselves. "Water Style," I whisper. "Water Chain Golem."

The figure that forms out of the chains is every bit as monstrous as the hybrid. Only vaguely humanoid, with glowing white eyes, its body is formed entirely out of water chains. It's not as tall as the monster, but the power concentrated in it is comparable.

The ox monster throws its head back and roars in fury. Then it takes a thundering step forward to throw a mighty punch at my golem. I grit my teeth and pour more chakra into it. Then I lift up my right arm and the golem mirrors the motion to block the hit. I can feel the impact of the monster's fist echo all throughout my body. But now it's my move. I pull back my left fist and swing it down.

The golem mirrors me and the giant battle axe in its arm cuts through muscle, bone, and tissue. Blood sprays down on me in a warm rain as the thing screams in pain, but mid-scream it cuts off, there's a loud poof, and suddenly the mangled body of the original human body crashes down into the water, the thing he summoned into itself gone.

With a grimace, I let the curse fade. It's already wearing me down.

Seven minutes. That's the maximum time span that I can use it, and after that, I need a bit of recuperation. But there are times when it's worth it. Like this one.

I let the mist fade away and look around. To my right, icebergs tower, but no sounds of fighting are to be heard – Haku must be just about done. To my left, there are yells and shouts, that means Chōjūrō is still fighting. From the direction of the fort where Suigetsu is explosions sound, meaning he is enjoying himself.

From the direction where Ao's forces should be battling, I hear hardly anything, not with Suigetsu's explosions drowning everything out. But I can still sense chakras spiking. I wonder if I should go help out, but almost instantly dismiss the thought. My orders were to flush the loyalists out and make sure none escape over the lake. That's what I'm going to do until told otherwise.

Haku suddenly appears next to me. One of the few people that can sneak up on me, he is completely silent, his chakra so muted that he might as well be a ghost. I give no reaction to his appearance. "It appears the battle is almost over," he reports. "I have blocked any escape path over the swamps, but no one seemed willing to go that way. I imagine the fumes are not pleasant to breathe in."

Not pleasant. That's one way to put it. Poisonous and hallucinogenic another.

"Well, that's one worry less," I muse. "And I'm counting the giant ox-man-hybrid as the part of the mission that went out of control, so that's over with, too."

"Yes, I suppose that qualifies," Haku says, a trace of humour in his voice. My odd luck with missions has been the subject of many a joke. Before they started calling me the Bloody Flower, I was known as Unlucky Ren. I actually preferred that. But the things I did, the reason I'm being called something else now… I have to bear the weight of that name. That is something I cannot run away from.

I must never forget.

Suigetsu's explosions stop. Either he's decided that he'd rather use Shibuki for cutting or he's done. Or dead. But that's unlikely. He's like a cockroach, extremely hard to kill.

Chōjūrō appears, Hiramekarei in his hands. "Ren, are you alright?" he asks worriedly. "I saw that thing, but I couldn't help."

"Fine," I answer and shrug. "A little tired, maybe. The golem still takes a lot out of me."

Chōjūrō nods in relief. Then he jumps as Suigetsu suddenly grows out of the water surface like a really weird mushroom. "What rank is that technique, anyway?" he asks, like he's been part of the conversation the whole time.

"Don't know, don't care," I answer. "It works, that's what matters. You alright?"

He shrugs. "Yep. One of them actually was worth going all out. The rest was small fry." Suigetsu suddenly grins. "Still worth cutting down."

"Good for you." I sigh and look around. "Let's clean this place up a little. I want to call it a day soon."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The next few days are filled with meetings, reports, and interrogations. The latter, I'm not a part of, fortunately. Instead, I spend my time with Ao, going over results, figuring out the information we got, scouring the island for any more signs or loyalist activity. Two of them escaped, which is two too many.

Five of our ninja died. That's also five too many.

But in comparison to previous battles, it's pretty good. Especially considering that monster summon. And no civilian casualties, that's great.

There's also one less than pleasant conversation with Dementia concerning repressed emotions that she vehemently opposes dealing with, but that matter is quickly resolved by her shoving them back into me via the mental equivalent of a sucker punch. Less than pleasant, as I said. So far, there have only ever been two things we agree on, one being the matter of the odd dreams requiring our cooperation, seeing as they continue to bother me, and the other one… is about a certain door in my mind. One that we have sealed shut for the time being. The memory behind it…

"I want it gone! It's breaking us!"

There are things even Dementia can't deal with.

"We're going back to the village," Ao announces as he comes in while I sort through reports in an effort to get a clear picture of how the raid went – we were split in three teams, and while the report for my team was pretty easy to do, the others aren't quite so simple. One of the groups got scattered and their individual reports don't add up. My guess is that someone there fucked up and edited his part in the battle a bit. Which wouldn't be a problem to figure out, except that it appears that more than one person did it, which is troublesome. Can't have people lying in their reports.

I let the reports sink. "Back to the village?" I ask cautiously.

Ao nods curtly. "We're leaving in a half hour." He hesitates. "I believe you should say your goodbyes," he finally adds.

I blink, trying to process. Say my goodbyes… oh.

He thinks I'm not going to be back.

Because I'm going home to Konoha.

Huh. That's… I don't know how to feel about that. Happy, of course. It's just – it doesn't seem real. I've been here for so long, and most of the time I didn't even have time to think about home, or I was too tired to do it. There's been so much blood, so much death. The sun hardly ever shines here, it's always hidden by clouds or mist. Sometimes, I don't even remember what sunshine on my skin feels like. I have trouble remembering what watching the clouds with Shikamaru was like, how it felt sitting at Ichiraku's with Naruto, the feelings that I got when I was near Sasuke.

Those things just don't belong in the world I've been living in for the past two years.

But when I go back, will I forget what it feels like to hang around in the Usual Place with Chōjūrō, Suigetsu, and Haku? What it's like fighting side by side with them, our swords working as one unit? How much fun it is when we crack dirty jokes for hours while sitting half-drunk in some dive?

I guess time will tell.

"I'll make my preparations," I reply to Ao. "I'll meet you at the exit."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I find my comrades all in one place. Haku and Suigetsu are sparring while Chōjūrō looks on. I take a moment to commit the sight to memory.

Who would have ever thought that I'd make friends like them in this place?

"Yo," I greet Chōjūrō as I appear next to him. To his credit, he barely even flinches. "Ao and I are going to Kiri. He told me to say my goodbyes."

"Hello, Ren-san," Chōjūrō returns the greeting shyly and peers up at me before getting up on his feet. "Say your goodbyes?"

"Yeah." I give him a sad smile. "Seems I won't be around much anymore."

"Oh," he says softly, looking a little down. "That's too bad." Then he suddenly blushes. "I mean, it's not bad that you can go back to your home, it'd j-just be better if you stayed. No, I don't mean it like that! What I meant is-"

"I know what you meant," I answer and bump my shoulder into his. "I'm going to miss you, partner."

"I-I'll miss you, too," he answers, face now resembling a tomato, he is blushing that hard.

"Oi!" Suigetsu yells over to us. "Why's Chōjūrō looking like that, Midget! You joking 'bout big swords and overcompensating again?"

"Who ever said I was joking?!" I yell back. "And with Shibuki's size, you're obviously overcompensating the most!"


I laugh as he comes over, sword brandished. Sadly for him, Haku throws Nuibari. The needle-like longsword passes through his chest, then chakra starts traveling along the wire attached to it, and ice spreads from Suigetsu's chest.

"I believe your fight was with me, Suigetsu-san," Haku remarks serenely as he walks over.

"I'm leaving," I blurt. "Ao's taking me to Kiri, and I don't think I'll be back in ages."

Suigetsu's grin falls. "No," he protests. "Stay."

I step closer and hug him. "I'm gonna miss you, crazy guy."

He puts his arms around me tightly. "I'm not letting go," he warns. "I'm gonna put you into my pocket and keep you there, Midget."

"Like you could," I snort. "Chill out, this isn't goodbye. I bet I'm gonna see you again soon enough."

"Yes, you will. Because you're not leaving," he repeats stubbornly. "You're one of us!"

A smile steals itself onto my face at his words that give me a warm feeling in the chest. Nonetheless, I extricate myself from his arms, but not before whispering, "Thank you for being my friend," into his ear.

"You will be missed, Ren-san," Haku finally adds softly. I nod sadly.

"I will miss you, too. Thank you, guys. For everything." I look at all of them. "You… I don't know what I would've done if you weren't here. Probably gone insane or something. It was great, being a part of your group."

"Um." Chōjūrō speaks up. "It's not, I mean- You can stay a member, if you want. Even if you aren't here."

My smile makes a comeback and I laugh a little, though it sounds a little choked. "Don't make me cry, you assholes," I whisper. "I hate goodbyes."

"Then get lost!" Suigetsu growls. "And see that you stay the hell alive until you come back!"

"I'll do my best," I promise. Then I turn and walk away, lifting my hand in a farewell wave.

But I don't cry.

Kiri ninja don't cry.

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Unlike Konohagakure, Kirigakure is an actually hidden Hidden Village. It's situated in a mountainous region on the largest islands of Water Country, surrounded by swampy forests. And befitting its name, it's always surrounded by thick mist that is only partly natural, which makes it extremely hard to find for non-natives.

A large wall surrounds the village, which is made up of cylindrical buildings built from the same grey stone as the wall – with all this moisture in the air, anything built from wood is going to rot sooner or later.

In its entirety, the village of Kirigakure is not even a third as big as Konoha, and much thinner populated. There are few civilians, the ones that still live there are a curious mix of criminals, stubborn business owners, and people that have nowhere else to go. Ninja are few as well, in the time after the civil war was declared over, many hopeful recruits came streaming into the village, but just as many died during the various battles with loyalists and many of those that survived deserted later. And after a while, the influx of recruits slowed. Still, the ninja population is slowly recovering.

One good thing about all this is that no one in Kiri has to be homeless. There's always cheap living quarters available, and any civilian can find work – people to manufacture clothes, grow food, produce weapons are in high demand.

Yes, Kirigakure isn't the nicest place to live in. But it's not the worst either.

Ao and I arrive at morning after two days of travel by ship and on foot through the swamp and forest. Naturally, we are completely soaked and muddy by the time we make it to Ao's apartment to clean ourselves up. Not that he needs much cleaning up, he doesn't look as if he got hit by a mud bomb like I do, thanks to some idiot rogue ninja who thought it'd by a good idea to attack us.

"I call the shower," I yell out and dart past Ao as soon as he opens the door.

"Get mud all over my floor, why don't you! Your generation-" Ao snarks after me, but by then I've locked myself in the bathroom and turned on the hot water.


I think I'm going to use up all the hot water. Yeah, that sounds like a good plan.

Ao hammers on the door. "Hurry it up! Mizukage-sama is expecting us!"

"She can wait until I'm clean!" I yell back. "It's all your fault in the first place! You were right next to Mudbomb Man! You coulda stopped him!"

I tune his no doubt grumpy reply out and enjoy the hot shower for a minute longer until the bastard turns the hot water off and I'm suddenly drenched in freezing cold ice-water, which prompts a vicious round of cursing.

Fine. I'm still not going to hurry up. I want to look presentable when meeting the Lady Mizukage. So I take my sweet time brushing out my long hair and braiding it around my head, which is the only way to wear it if I want to avoid the horrible frizz the eternal mist causes. After that, I pull on some dry clothes – black pants and shirt, grey flak jacket. The hitae-ate goes around my neck. Standard Kiri uniform. Pretty much the only kind of clothes available at the outposts when one's own clothing is destroyed.

"Finally done?" Ao gripes when I stroll out of his bathroom.

"Can't wait to be rid of me, can you?" I retort sarcastically.

"We're late."

"I wasn't aware there was a time set for our meeting."

He gives me a side glare. I blink at him innocently. He turns away in a huff. Together, he and I walk off into the village.

We find the largest and widest of the cylindrical buildings and enter. Two flights of stairs later and we walk down a corridor.

A chunin hurries in our direction, carrying a stack of papers. At seeing Ao, he halts and whispers, "The red eagle soars on silent wings." Ao nods grimly, the chunin hurries on. I burst into a fit of giggles.

"It is not funny," Ao hisses. I catch my breath and nod seriously.

"You're right, it's not funny. It's hilarious." I start laughing again. "You have your own code for, 'The Lady Mizukage is PMS-ing.'"

It takes me another minute to regain control of myself. Ao's indignant glare does not help things.

The two of us are called into the Mizukage's office the moment we arrive at her door. No pesky waiting for Ao and me.

Inside, behind a desk, sits the Fifth Mizukage, waiting for us. Tall and slender, with green eyes and ankle-length auburn hair, wearing a royal blue battle dress with mesh armour underneath, Terumi Mei is as beautiful as she is dangerous. Behind her, guarding her, is Momochi Zabuza, looking grumpy as ever.

The moment the door slams shut behind us, a privacy seal activates.

"Welcome back, Ao, Riko-chan," Mei greets with a smile. "I trust you had no trouble while traveling?"

"Nothing we couldn't deal with," Ao assures her. "We apologise for the delay."

"It was all because Ao couldn't be bothered stop this one guy from activating a mud bomb, even though he stood right next to him." I glare at Ao. "One would think you'd have some consideration for your teammate after such a long time."

"There were three others attacking me! With steel ropes!" Ao protests. "One would think you would be able to protect yourself! I'll be glad to be rid of this partnership! You youngsters these days-"

Sudden Killing Intent flares from Mei. She's still smiling like the sun which doesn't match her words at all. "Ao, shut up or I'll kill you."

I shake my head at Ao. "Sheesh, you're so insensitive, Ao."

He throws me an incredulous look filled with betrayal. For all his smarts, he has never figured out that Mei is extremely sensitive about her marital status, or rather, the lack thereof. This results in her sometimes hearing different things than what is actually said. My best guess for an Ao/Mei – translation: Steel ropes might be translated to 'elope', and the thing about being rid of our partnership must have set off some kind of abandonment issue.

Ao has a special talent for making Mei mad at him. It's hilarious.

Mei's sunny smile turns to me and grows into something genuine. "Ah, Riko-chan, this is why I like you. Such a sweetheart."

"Girls gotta stick together, Mei-chan." I grin at her while Zabuza and Ao glare at me incredulously. "Especially us redheads."

Let's just say that Mei took a little shine to me after I first arrived and leave it at that. Something about me being such a precious little cutie. It was kind of disturbing, really. The only other person who gets treated like that is Haku, but everybody loves Haku, so that's not as weird.

I'm pretty sure that it was Mei behind those rumours that she and I are distantly related. Well, it's not a stupid assumption, we do have similar colourings. Still, it did get me into some trouble. It also got me out of some trouble, so that's fine.

Mei sighs and her smile fades. "Unfortunately, I did call you here for a reason."

"Due to the economy, you're going to have to let one of us go?" I hazard a guess. "Take Ao. He's rude and grumpy."

"Hey!" Ao protests.

She laughs. "Ahh, I'm going to miss you."

"Likewise, Mei-chan." I look at Zabuza. "I might actually even miss you, Demon-sensei. As weird and unlikely as that sounds."

"Hell will freeze over before I ever want to see you again, brat," he growls back, stroking the handle of his Kubikiribōchō. "Unless it is to behead you."

I sigh theatrically. "And it's because of that attitude that the sentiment is so weird and unlikely."

And that concludes my goodbye to Zabuza. Heart-warming.

"You could stay, if you wanted to," Mei offers. My lips form a smile.

"Thank you," I answer. "But the consequences might not be so nice if I did that."

Though it'd be really funny to see Naruto, Sasuke, and Shikamaru storm Kirigakure. Naruto would probably attempt to Ramen-Talk the whole village. I'd pay to see Zabuza's reaction to that.

"And I have someone waiting for me." I smile. "Or rather, multiple someones." My boyfriend, my best friend, my brother, my family, my friends…

"I see," Mei sighs. "I can understand that." She pulls out a small case from her desk. "I'd like you to deliver this to your Hokage. The scrolls within must not fall into the wrong hands."

"Understood," I answer, then hesitate. "What's going to happen?"

"Ao and Akagi Ren will set out for a mission. They will be attacked. Only Ao will survive."

"So the Bloody Flower falls, huh?" I sigh. "I suppose it's for the best."

Mei stands up from her seat and walks around the desk. With a sad look on her face, she pulls me into a hug. "I do hope you stay an ally of Kirigakure," she murmurs softly. I feel her slip something into my pocket.

"Of course," I answer and return the hug. "We're friends, no?"

She laughs. "Yes. We are."

"Then there's no problem, is there?" I ask. I can almost feel her warm smile on me.

"No, there's not." Mei releases me. I resist the urge to check what she slipped into my pocket.

"Nara Riko, you will depart tonight and leave for your home village."


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A/N: So here we are, the sequel is there – not that you actually had to wait for long.

That said, I will be taking a little break from this story, a sort of vacation if you so will, so as to not risk burning out. But this story is not discontinued. I will merely write up a few chapters, figure out some plot-stuff, let Riko grow up in my mind.

I just wanted to give you guys something to chew on for that time, hence the double update.

I can promise you though, the next chapter will be out by New Year's at the latest.

*Chapter 3*: Return to Konoha

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Return to Konoha

I leave that same night, by myself. It takes me a day to make my way unseen through the forest to the shore, where a tiny little boat is waiting for me. No one sane would use something like that to cross the ocean, but with my abilities… I shoot across the waves like I'm flying, and it only takes me half the night to reach Wave Country. I play with the thought of visiting old man Tazuna's family, but decide against it in the end. With my luck, I'd probably end up getting them in trouble. Plus, it's way too early in the morning. So in disguise, I only stop to grab some breakfast, buy a few things in the few shops that are already opened, have a look around the still sleeping town, then leave Wave Country via the Great Freedom Bridge.

So nostalgic.

It was in Wave Country where I had my first serious battle, where I made my first kills. Where I first met Haku and Zabuza. To think, the impact that meeting would have… that I'd spend two years with them…

It seems kind of fitting that this chapter of my life ends in Wave Country, too.

On the other side of the bridge, a small town has apparently grown from the ground - it sure wasn't there when I last was here, over two years ago. But it suits me just fine. I do have to take care of some things. My appearance, for one. So I get myself a room at an inn, set up some barriers and privacy seals, and get down to business.

Before I left Konoha, a seal had been placed on me. It contains a strong illusion, one that hides my Cursed Seal and my assortment of scars from view and also subtly alters my facial features and body build. It constantly draws on a portion of my chakra, so unless I die or consciously deactivate it, my real looks stay hidden.

I haven't seen my own face in two years. Only my eyes were untouched by the disguise. But now I can deactivate it.

And that's exactly what I do, after taking a shower and washing my hair with a special solution to turn it back to its original colour. Then I take a look into the mirror.

"Huh," I say to my reflection.

My hair is still dark red, my eyes are still bright green, my skin is still pale. There's still the faded lightning bold scar on my forehead. And my face is my face, though its features have matured a bit - the high cheekbones seem more prominent, for example.

As for the rest of my body, I'm still a bit on the short side, with a petite frame. Though I finally did grow some curves - not much, but it's definitely not nothing. I can't be mistaken for anything other than female.

Not too shabby.

The scars on my skin hardly even register. I've seen a lot of those in great variety. The ones on my body are pretty tame compared to some. There are the ones I got during the fight with Gaara, on my leg and my shoulder. Then on my other shoulder, there's the fine network of scars I got when Hoshigaki Kisame hit me with Samehada. And another scar in my shoulder, where Sasuke stabbed me with an underpowered chidori when he went all crazy avenger on me. And on my arms are the - now faded - scars I got when Ukon pinned me to a tree to torture me.

And those are just the ones from before I left. Now there are scars all over my body, I can't even tell where most of them come from, except for a few I received on memorable occasions. There's one on my left forearm that looks horrific, that's from a missing-nin that looked more fish than human - he tried to bite my arm off. Didn't quite succeed, thanks to me sticking senbon into his neck and paralysing him so he wouldn't be able to bite down. Then there's a jagged scar over my chest where someone tried to stab me with a rusty knife - that was pretty damn awful. In my left side is a scar from my first battle after graduating from the Slums - some bastard tried to gut me but had sucky aim, and Haku froze the wound shut while Zabuza gave us cover until I was good to fight again. The wound wasn't healed until hours after the battle was over, but I was so shell-shocked that I hardly cared until Haku dragged me off to the medics.

Again, I don't look too shabby. Those scars may look awful, but they are proof of the battles I fought, and there are hardly any recently made ones. The worst of them will be hidden under my clothes, anyway. Though I do think I'll show off the one on my arm. The intimidation factor is pretty neat.

What I'm definitely going to hide is the tattoo of the Flying Mint Bunny on my right upper thigh. That... is beyond embarassing. I took bitter revenge on the culprit behind that. However, I couldn't get rid of it since it was done in special chakra ink, which made it pretty much impossible to remove, so I'm stuck with a rabbit on my thigh permanently. Fuck my life.

"Okay, enough staring," I tell my reflection and turn away from the mirror to get dressed. Brown boots, black leggings, mesh armour top, and over that goes a loose oversized dark grey shirt with multiple hidden pockets and storage seals sewn in. As it only has short sleeves, it leaves my arms free. My Sword belt goes around my waist and I'm good to go. Except for my waist-long hair. There is now too much of it to put into a ponytail, it just looks weird. But I don't really want to cut it… In the end, I settle for chopping it off anyways, until it only reaches my mid-back. Then I braid back the top sections to keep the rest of it out of my face and make a mental note to get some wire to put in my hair so anyone that tries to pull it gets their hands sliced.

I look into the mirror. Not exactly fashionable or sexy, but I look like someone to take seriously. The clothes are sort of dark and drab, but my red hair and green eyes cancel that effect out. And the outfit is pretty simple and practical, so that's a plus, too.

I nod at my reflection. "Not too shabby," I decide, then turn away from the mirror to deal with the other thing that needs to be taken care of. Namely, what Mei slipped into my pocket. With a frown, I locate the clothes I left Kiri in, and pull a small bag out of the pocket. Sitting down, I empty the contents on the floor before me.

It's a slip of paper with a storage seal on it. Furrowing my brows in concentration, I examine it. It's not the weapons of poison containing kind, in fact, it's the kind that can hardly store anything.

With a shrug, I activate it. Promptly, a thick scroll and another small bag appear. I reach for the scroll first and open it after making sure it's not trapped. A small note falls out of it.


Recently, both the Hokage and Kazekage have called for meetings concerning a dangerous organisation called Akatsuki. With the situation of Kirigakure being what it is, I was forced to reject the meeting. However, I believe that before long, you will find yourself fighting this organisation.

As it is my explicit wish to see Akatsuki destroyed, I have enclosed information that might be helpful or of interest to you. It is yours to do with as you please. Treat the information with caution.

In friendship,

Terumi Mei

I let the note sink. "Mei-chan," I whisper with wide eyes. Then I hastily grab the scroll and open it.

Skim the information within.

"Holy shit, Mei-chan!" I whisper, barely able to pick my jaw off the floor.

It's helpful information alright. The kind that is definitely Classified with a capital C.

Mei gave me an entire profile of Hoshigaki Kisame, plus his history and the events that led up to his defection. And that's not all. There are summarised records of certain actions the Yondaime Mizukage Yagura took. Who was, apparently, merely controlled by someone else, someone who was affiliated with the Akatsuki, seeing as how all of Yagura's recorded actions were to the benefit of Akatsuki.

"Holy shit, Mei-chan," I utter again, completely stunned.

With trembling fingers, I pull out a blank scroll of my own and start copying the information down in triple-encoded English so only I will be able to read it. Because I doubt that I'll see the original scroll again after giving it to Tsunade or Dad; and I refuse to be out of the loop. Mei entrusted that information to me. I'm the one who bled and suffered in Kiri while they sat behind their desks and did paperwork and whatnot. I'm not even sure if I should give them the original scroll, period. The information on Hoshigaki Kisame, okay, that they can have. But the stuff on Yagura? Summarising it should suffice. I doubt that they'd be able to do anything with it, anyway. Those records are from decades ago, not to mention Akatsuki will have covered their tracks.

Or... I could just give the original to Jiraiya. If anyone could make it useful, it'd be him; and I doubt the man would try to get political advantages out of it. Which I'm not so sure of with my father and Tsunade. And even the summarised version might cause a shit ton of trouble.

Stuff to think on later. If Tsunade and Dad ask for the scroll, I'll give it to them. If I feel it's necessary that they know, I'll give it to them as well. Until then, Jiraiya will be the only one to know.

Decision made, I continue copying the scroll and start another copy, this one in a Konoha code, the records from Yagura's reign carefully edited and summarised. After I finish, I close both scrolls and seal them away. Then I pick up the small bag that was also in the storage seal and empty its contents into my hand.

It's a necklace. With a delicate pendant attached to it, in the shape of a water lily. Its colour is blood red.

The note attached to it says, "So you don't forget."

Swallowing hard, I slide the necklace over my head and stuff it under my shirt.

As if I could ever forget.

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I leave the inn after eating a very early lunch there - and damn, it was a good lunch. I've mostly lived on military rations and grilled meat for the past years; only on very few occasions when missions led me to the mainland did I have a chance at some decent tasty food.

I start walking at a leisurely pace, like a traveling civilian. My face and hair are hidden under a large straw hat, a long black cloak hides my figure. Considering the sun isn't shining and the air is somewhat chilly, it makes for a decent disguise. The cloak is a bit conspicuous but my sword would probably draw even more attention, so whatever. It's not like I have another cloak, so it'll have to be this one, even if it does look like I got it from a criminal.

Probably because I did, but it's a good cloak, and since I washed the scent out no one will find out about its origin. How I got it and who I got it from… I tend to get headaches thinking about that. So I usually don't.

I walk in the direction of Konoha until mid-afternoon. That's when the sun finally breaks through the clouds and makes all the colours seem so much brighter, so much more intense. In Water Country, the colours always seem grey-ish, washed out, and dark; and the sky is almost always clouded. Seeing the lush meadows and forests around me almost glow green in the sun is amazing.

Taking my hat and cloak off, I hold my face into the sun. It feels wonderfully warm. I'd almost forgotten how sunshine on my skin felt. I didn't even realise how much I missed it.

With a smile, I leave the dirt road I've been traveling on, spread my cloak out under a tree, and lay down on it. Then I close my eyes, fully intending to soak up every last ray of sunshine until night falls.

Ahh, bliss, I think as I doze off.

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"…I swear it's her!" a whispering voice interrupts my blissful dozing. A soft bark sounds right after that.

"It cannot be. Why? Because Nara Riko is in a high-security training facility," another voice answers.

"Ano… I also believe it is her," a shy girl's voice interjects.

"I can hear you people, y'know," I drawl as I sit up and yawn lazily. "Yo, Kiba, Shino-san, Hinata-chan, Akamaru-chan. What're you doing here?" My eyes focus on the nearby bushes where I can sense their chakras.

Silence. Then a loud bark sounds and an enormous white dog leaps out of the shrubbery. I grin and get up. "Man, look who's all grown up!" Akamaru barks proudly and jumps up to lick my face. I laugh, my fingers curling in his shaggy fur to scratch behind his ears. "I like to hear that, buddy."

"See? It's definitely her! Only Riko ever steals my partner!" Kiba jumps out of the bushes and runs toward me, Shino and Hinata following at a more civilised pace. With a wolfish grin, he stops before me. I tilt my head and look up at him. He's now way taller than me, his face more mature, though the grin is still the same. Instead of his fur-lined coat, he now wears a black leather jacket.

"Did you shrink?" I ask. He blinks in confusion.

"What?" he asks.

"Akamaru-chan doesn't fit on your head anymore," I explain innocently. He blinks once, then bursts into loud, boisterous laughter and sweeps me up in a hug. I laugh, too, and let him swing me around.

Kami, it feels good to be among my village's people again. Kiri was fine, but it wasn't home.

So what if there's a part in my head that calculates which parts of Kiba would be easiest to stab, which targets are unprotected by armour, how much time it would take to paralyse and disable him? I'd never act on it. It's just what I do now.

"Man, it's good to see you!" Kiba grins. "It's been what, two years?"

"Something like that, yeah." I shrug, then focus on the other two. Shino looks… pretty much the same as I remember, except he's a little taller and his cloak is a greenish-grey, the hood hiding his poofy brown hair. As always, he wears sunglasses.

Hinata… is now drop dead gorgeous. Long silky dark-blue hair falls to her back, her figure has grown, gentle curves are accentuated by her clothing. She has also grown way taller.

It is a sad, sad day. Hyūga Hinata is taller than me. Not by much, but still. It's the principle of the thing.

I smile at them. "It's good to see you three. You look well."

Hinata blushes a little. "Thank you, Riko-san," she says softly. "You look well also."

Shino nods. "It is unexpected to encounter you here. Why? I was under the impression that you were training in a certain training facility."

"…I just blew my cover story, didn't I?" I grin sheepishly while quickly constructing a believable lie. "I was actually on a long-term mission. Deep cover, fake identity, disguise; use your imagination for the details. It won't get close to the truth, but that's probably classified anyway. I completed it, so now I'm on my way home."

Kiba blinks. "A mission? What rank?"

I shrug again. "Don't know. A-rank or something. It was troublesome."

Actually, if it had really been a mission, it would most definitely have been S-class, but it really doesn't matter.

Kiba whistles appreciatively. "Nice. We just finished a B-rank. Want to go back to the village with us?"

I grin. "Do you even need to ask? 'Course I'll go with you." I turn around and collect cloak and hat to seal them away. "I'm good to go."

"Sweet." Kiba grins. "We'll even slow down for you so you can keep up," he taunts.

"Kiba," Hinata admonishes softly. Naturally, Kiba doesn't listen.

I give him a mocking smile. "Oh yes? Then how about a race? Loser has to shout 'Nara Riko is the shit' from the Hokage Monument."

Kiba blinks, then his grin turns feral. "You're on. Loser has to be my slave for a day."

"You can't be your own slave."

"What the- I'm gonna show you!" Kiba yells, pointing at me. Shino sighs deeply while Hinata pushes her fingers together anxiously.

"Real mature." I taunt with a smirk while he fumes. "Shino, count to three, please? Hinata-chan, can you be the judge?"

Hinata nods. Shino sighs. "Neither of you is being very mature right now. But I shall indulge you. Why? I do not believe I can deter you from your current course of action. Very well, you start on three. One…" Kiba's chakra suddenly surges and he gets on all fours. I raise an eyebrow.

So that's how we're going to play it?


I sigh and roll my shoulders a bit.

"Three," Shino finishes unenthusiastically. Kiba shoots off at an insane speed using his clan's Four Legs Technique, Akamaru running behind him.

In the completely wrong direction.

"You'd think he'd notice genjutsu, what with having had Kurenai as his sensei," I state.

Hinata giggles softly. "He will notice soon. You should hurry."

I grin. "I'll see you at the village!"

Shino nods curtly. "Understood."

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I slow down about a mile away from the village and climb a large tree that overlooks the road to lie down in. By now, the sun has vanished, but the climate is still mild and comfortable. Familiar forest sounds and scents envelope me, and a small smile pulls at my lips.

Water Country has forests, too, but they tend to be on the swampy side. The trees aren't as nice either. Nothing one can comfortably lay down in.

It takes about half an hour for Kiba and Akamaru to come running down the road that leads to Konoha's front gate. A smirk pulling at my lips, I let myself fall from the tree right in front of him. He yelps in surprise, trips, and falls flat on his face. "Not a word," he growls, his voice muffled.

"I win," I state, lightly kicking at his shoulder with my boots. He groans.

"How the hell did you get so fast?"

I snort. "I did manage to squeeze some training in during my mission, you know."

Haku is scary fast. Surviving a spar with him requires some serious speed. Never mind the advantage superior speed is in a battle.

"Ya don't say," Kiba snorts and works himself back to his feet. He grins ruefully. "Do I really have to yell from the Hokage Monument?"

"Alternatively, you can wear a sign declaring you to be my bitch for a week," I say sweetly.

He shudders. "Hokage Monument it is. You weren't this evil before you left, were you?"

"Who knows?" I quip. "Ah, there are Shino and Hinata. Hey, by any chance, is the rest of my team back already?"

"Not that I know of." Kiba shrugs, then grins. "But I bet they're gonna show up soon enough! Heh, it's been so quiet in the village without you."

"You should have enjoyed it while it lasted, dog boy," I deadpan.

Shino and Hinata finally make their way to us. "I see you won, Riko-san," Shino says.

"Yep," I reply. "Made Kiba eat dirt. He doesn't want to be my bitch, though."

Kiba sputters and blushes bright red, just like Hinata. "You- you!" Kiba yells.

Dark amusement rolls off of Shino. "It will be enjoyable to have you back, Riko-san," he intones. I smirk at him evilly.

"I'll be sure to spend more time with your team."

Kiba gets over his shock and points at me. "You! What happened to you! You used to be sweet!"

I have no idea who he's talking about. When have I ever been sweet?

I reach up and pat his head. "There, there. It seems your perception of me was terribly idealised. It has now been corrected. Now, how about we get to the village? It's early evening already. I'm hungry."

"Butbutbut!" Kiba shouts, waving his arms around like a lunatic.

"That seems to be a sensible idea," Shino says, ignoring his teammate. "Let's go." And he starts leading us towards the village. I happily follow along. After a moment's hesitation, Hinata follows as well, and Kiba brings up the rear, muttering to himself. I smirk to myself.

Not even in the village, and already I've mildly traumatised someone. I'm such a good girl. Demon-sensei would be proud. Maybe I should send him a rabbit to inform him. He's especially fond of Ninjin. Only tried to kill the little shit once before going after me.

It unfortunately also resulted in Ninjin meeting Haku and Ume, the pretty Straight-Ear rabbit. Now he has an unfortunate crush on her. Forbidden love, he claims. It's like Romeo and Juliet, only way more pathetic and with less death involved.

Such thoughts populate my brain as we reach the village gates. I stand still for a moment, taking in the bustling streets just behind them, the Hokage Monument, which now has Tsunade's face added to it.


"Oi, you coming or what?" Kiba yells, apparently having gotten over his shock.

"Yes, yes," I answer, take a deep breath, and step through the gate into Konoha.

Angel's don't sing, hell's gates do not open to swallow me. Hallelujah.

Sitting in the guards' booth are two familiar faces. I wait until Shino has signed his team in, then step up to them as they are bent over and scribbling on papers. "Hi, Izumo-san, Kotetsu-san," I greet. "Nara Riko, returned to Konoha."

Their heads snap up so fast, I'm pretty sure they'll have whiplash.

"Yo," I greet. "I'll be going to the Hokage's Office with Team Eight, if that's okay? We can chat later."

"Holy shit what happened to your hand?!" Izumo suddenly exclaims, which naturally draw all attention to the wonderfully badass scar on my arm.

"Someone tried to bite it off." I shrug dismissively, even as Kiba with a yell grabs my hand to examine it. "Fingers are still there, so don't worry 'bout it. Can I go now?"

Izumo nods, eyes riveted on the scar. "Must have been some guy," he mutters.

"Looked more like a fish on legs, actually," I answer blithely. "Guys, let's go." Without waiting for a replay, I start walking down the familiar roads, taking in the bustling people, the laughing children. Nothing has changed.

None of it seems real.

"What the hell kind of mission have you been on?" Kiba yaps as he catches up to me. I snort.

"A troublesome one." I shrug. "Could have been worse, though. I wasn't on my own."

Kiba frowns unhappily. "What happened to the bastard who did that?" He nods at my scarred arm.

I shoot him a dark look. "What do you think?"

"Good," Kiba growls. And that's that.

We reach the Hokage Tower. Frowning, I look up at it. Somewhere in there are the people that sent me away. I get why they did it, I do, and I can't deny that their plan worked incredibly well. But that doesn't change how I feel about it.

I let Shino take the lead as we enter and fall into step beside Hinata. "Ano…" she fidgets a little. "Are you alright, Riko-san?"

I breathe a large sigh. "I don't really know. Mostly, I guess. I prefer not to dwell on my state of mind. Depending on how I look at it, I'm either awesome or… not."

"I see," she whispers, a small frown on her face.

We walk up the stairs. A random chunin meets us halfway. "The cat stands in the rain and bellows to the moon," he whispers, a mildly panicked look on his face. Shino and Kiba exchange a look and nod grimly.

"Thanks, man," Kiba mutters, and the chunin nods and hurries on.

I stand there, frozen. "I have the weirdest déjà-vu right now," I breathe. "Did that just now mean what I think it meant?" A large grin spreads across my face.

"Uhm…" Hinata blushes bright read. "It, ah, it meant, that Tsunade-sama is in a… bad mood? Due to f-feminine i-issues," she whispers. "Uhm…"

I burst into really immature giggles.

"What the hell, Riko?!" Kiba glares at me. "It's not funny! At all!"

"I can't help it!" I cry. "There's just so much beauty in the world!"

"It's not beautiful!" Kiba almost shouts. Akamaru barks. Even Shino nods.

I burst into giggles again, horribly tempted to tell them the code they use in Kiri to warn against a PMS-ing Kage, but I don't think they'd see the humour in it. Well, Hinata might, but she looks so embarrassed right now…

"Don't we have a meeting?" I ask, still chortling. One last glare from the boys, and we're moving again. All too soon, we arrive in front of the familiar door of Tsunade's office. Team Eight walks right in, seeing as it's open. I hesitate. Swallow nervously. Then I school my features into a neutral expression and follow them in.

"…accomplished the objective," Shino is saying. "On our way home, we encountered an old comrade."

Tsunade's eyes fall on me and widen. I wave at her. "Yo," I say. "I'm back."

Tsunade stares a second longer, then she snaps out of it. "You three!" she barks at Team Eight. "Out!"

Shooting me concerned looks, my three old friends leave the room. The doors slam shut behind them.

Showtime, I think.

Unasked, I grab a chair from a corner and drag it in front of Tsunade's desk, sit down, and lazily lean back. Tsunade examines me with narrowed eyes. "You're back months earlier than we expected," she finally says.

"My apologies," I say with a pleasant smile. "I didn't mean to inconvenience you."

She leans back in her seat and brushes back her hair, which must have been a sign for the three guards hidden in the ceiling, because two of them immediately vanish.

"You've grown," Tsunade remarks.

I shrug. "It happens."

No one says anything for a few moments as she studies me with narrowed eyes and I slouch in my seat and return her look blandly.

"I'm supposed to deliver something for you," I eventually break the silence and pull the box Mei gave me out of my bag. I place it on Tsunade's desk. "Here you go."

"Very well," she answers, not once taking her eyes off of me and not making a move to take the box. "I'd like to hear your report now."

Behind us, the door opens. Familiar chakra signatures enter. I break eye contact with Tsunade and turn around. "Hello," I greet calmly. "Inoichi. Dad."

They freeze when they see me. I return their looks, making no move to go to them. "Surprise," I say. "Despite all the efforts made to foil me, I did not die."

"It's good to see you, Riko-chan," Dad says.

"Welcome back," Inoichi greets me.

There are no hugs and hair ruffles from Dad. There are no joyous tears from me. Our goodbye was too awkward and strained for that.

Yes, I love this man - how could I not, he's my father, the man who adopted me into his family and accepted me as his own. But, he's also a man that made arrangements to send me away for months behind my back. Never even hinting at his plans. I'm sure it was for my own good from his point of view. But from mine, it was a breach of trust. He never even apologised.

A privacy seal is activated the moment the two men close the door behind them.

"Your report, Riko," Tsunade reminds me. I turn my back to Dad and Inoichi so I can focus on her again.

"Muddy," I say coolly. "Bloody. That about sums it up."

She leans forward, eyes narrowed in a glare. "A bit more detail would be appreciated."

"Detail, huh?" I raise an eyebrow at her and lazily lean back in my chair, ignoring her intimidation tactics. "Fine. Let's see. Outside of battles and missions, there were eleven assassination attempts made on me, but I stopped counting after the first four months, so the actual number is higher. I took part in ten major battles against the loyalists and thirteen minor ones, not counting the scuffles I tripped over during my few stints as a Hunter-nin. I stopped almost dying all the time after about eight months. Is that enough detail for you, Hokage-sama?" I ask pleasantly.

I don't think anyone besides me in the room is breathing.

"Battles?" Tsunade asks finally.

"You didn't think they'd let me hole up in the village and hide my mug from Orochimaru while secretly training me, did you?" I ask. "I only set foot into Kiri a total of six times. And three of those visits lasted less than a day."

She leans back, frowning. "They were supposed to hide you amongst their forces, train you, and keep you safe," she says with a displeased expression.

I laugh harshly. "Oh, that they did. They hid me amongst their ninja. And the deal was that they keep me safe from Orochimaru. If I died from anything else, they'd still have kept their word. As for training, battle is considered the greatest teacher, and I got taught a lot. They kept their word, believe me. Just not the way you expected them to."

"And you were supposed to lay low."

"If I'd laid any lower, it'd have been six feet under." I yawn exaggeratedly. "Can I go now?"

Tsunade narrows her eyes at my attitude. "You're aware of protocol for shinobi returning after a long-term mission?" she asks me suddenly.

I nod. "They'll be interrogated to confirm their continued loyalty," I answer. "How very convenient that Inoichi is already here, no?"

Tsunade nods. "Inoichi!" she orders, gesturing to me.

I sense the man in question approaching me. A heavy hand settles on the back of my head. "I'm sorry about this," he says softly.

"Good for you," I answer coolly. And then the world goes black.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I land heavily on one of the many platforms in my mind. Inoichi stands next to me, looking around in surprise at the maze my mind has become.

"You have been busy," he remarks.

I shrug. "My split personality was getting bitchy about it being so messy, so I cleaned up."

"Right," Inoichi says, looking around. "Where is she?"

"No idea." I roll my eyes. "So do you want me to show you around, or can you find your own way?"

Inoichi looks at me warily. "I think I'll be fine on my own."

"Suit yourself," I say dismissively. "The Kiri memories are all in that direction," I inform him, gesturing to my right, where the pathways all seem to be made of water, ice, wet wood, and mist. Then I stroll off. Inoichi walks in the direction I indicated.

I stop moving when I'm certain he isn't watching me anymore, then I sprint off to Dementia's dwelling. It doesn't take me long to reach it.

As soon as I set foot on the platform, she snarls and attacks me. "What the hell is he doing in my realm?!" she hisses, green eyes blazing with anger, wild red hair flaring around her. I manage to catch her fist in my hand and throw her to the side.

"Your realm? It's my mind," I growl back. "And he's here to make sure of where my loyalty lies."

"Like I don't know that!" she snarls at me. "You just had to provoke them like that, did you? Of course they'd brain-check you immediately, you stupid bitch!"

"That was the point!" I yell back. I wave my arm and an image of Inoichi walking purposefully along the pathways of my mind and opening its various doors appears. "Here, I can keep secrets! I can at least see what information he gets from me, and I can make sure he doesn't find out about certain things! If they'd sent me to Ibiki, I couldn't! Ibiki would pick my brains apart! I could say, 'the weather was great that day' and he'd somehow know that I killed seven people, had a nightmare about Sasuke not recognising me when he came back, and how many apples I ate for breakfast!"

"So you invite the mindreader into your head?!" she yells. "Someone who could probably easily make me disappear with barely a thought?!"

"Yes!" I gesture at Inoichi's image. "You want to know why? It's because some things need to stay secret."

She sneers at me. "Keeping secrets from your beloved village. How the mighty have fallen. Going to go traitor next?"

I glare right back. "There is loyalty to the village and there's protecting my friends. What do you think Inoichi is looking for? If he really only wanted to check my allegiance to Konoha, he'd already be out of here. No, right fucking now, he's looking for every shred of information on Kiri and its ninja that might be useful."

"Selfish bitch!" Dementia hisses. "You put me at risk just because you don't want to be forced to talk about your precious friends. Instead you invite a mindreader in so you won't be responsible for betraying them, because how is it your fault if the information is extracted from your very mind?!"

"I'm doing it to protect them!" I retort icily. "I can manipulate what he sees in here to an extent. I can hide certain things. And most of all, I can keep them from finding out about Ao's byakugan!"

She hisses like an angry cat. "What do I care for Ao? I'm the one in danger!"

"And do you think my mind would be as comfortable for you as it is right now if Konoha went to war over a stolen byakugan?" I ask her, feeling close to murdering her. "Any attempt at a Leaf-Mist alliance would fail. All those old fuckers that no doubt have political power would cry for vengeance. Have you forgotten all those war-stories that feature Danzō, the Butcher of the Leaf, who just happens to be on the council and advisor to the Hokage? And what do you think Hyūga Hiashi would do once he found out that Kiri has one of his precious clan's eyes? We're talking about a man here who condones placing killing and torture seals on half of his clan, all in the name of protecting that bullshit eye!"

Dementia glares at me mutinously, but at least she's listening.

"All it'd take is one order and a team of assassins would be after Ao's ass. And all it'd take is one witness to see that it was our people going after someone from Mist. Ao is one of their most valued and respected ninja! You think they wouldn't go to war over him? And that is if Konoha doesn't declare war first! Tell me, how many lives would be lost? And it would all be my fault, because I couldn't protect one fucking secret!"

"Fine," she spits. "But if you ever invite someone into your mind again, I'll make your life a living hell! I'll send you nightmares and hallucinations until they lock you up in a nuthouse!"

"Fine!" I hiss back. "I'll clear it with you first!"

Both of us fuming with rage, we watch as Inoichi opens door after door and disappears behind them. I focus on concentrating on the memories I want protected - add a little mist here so Ao's byakugan will be hidden, make a person suddenly cough so certain sentences will be swallowed. Hide some of the smaller doors with more private memories behind them. And I notice Dementia disintegrating some of the pathways. Finally saw some sense, the bitch. Or maybe she remembered that I am capable of chaining and locking her up.

"What about that door," she suddenly says, pointing at a slim black door in the background of the image of Inoichi.

I sigh. "I don't have to worry about that," I say grimly. "He'll find the Bloody Door first. And he'll be gone after that."

Dementia suddenly laughs coldly. "I wonder if they'll lock you up once he shares what's behind it."

"Who knows…" I mutter darkly.

I watch as Inoichi walks over a bridge of mist and stops in front to another door. He moves to open it… then stops and frowns. Turns to the right, walks a few steps, and suddenly finds himself before a grand bridge made entirely of blood. And at the end of the bridge is the Bloody Door. It's large and forbidding, looking more like a prison gate than anything. Glowing chains and vines are wrapped around it, but still rivulets of blood seem to leak from it, into the bloody bridge.

With a grim look, Inoichi crosses the bridge and attempts to open the door. It doesn't budge. He touches the chains and vines. They don't even move. He tries a few other things, but apparently Dementia and I locked that door down tight.

Inoichi makes a handseal, and suddenly I feel something hook behind my neck and yank me into the darkness. A moment later, I bounce of the bloody bridge to Inoichi's feet. I glare at him. "That was completely unnecessary."

"What is that?" Inoichi asks grimly, jerking his chin at the Bloody Door.

"A door," I say.

"What kind of door?" he asks.

"A locked one."

"Riko," he says exasperatedly. "I'm not your enemy."

"It's a locked door, and it's locked for a good reason," I retort. "That's all I'm going to say about that."

"It's not healthy to cut yourself off from a traumatic memory. You need to acknowledge it so you can deal with it. The same with your split personality."

"Trust me," I say. "In the case of this door, locking it was the only healthy option. And I acknowledged what happened alright. I just don't want it haunting my mind all the damn time."

Inoichi looks doubtful.

He should really know better than that.

"You want to know what?" I snarl. "My split personality that I subconsciously created to deal with everything that I can't deal with doesn't want to deal with what's behind that door; that's how bad it is. But you aren't going to listen to me anyway, so why don't I just unlock it, you take a look behind the door, apologise, and get the hell out of my head?"

Inoichi looks entirely unimpressed with my rant and just jerks his chin at the door again. Rolling my eyes, I touch my hands to the chains. Rattling, they start loosening. So do the vines, though I have nothing to do with that, those are all Dementia's.

"There. Door's open." I step back. "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Inoichi throws me an admonishing look. "You shouldn't run from your memories, Riko."

"And you should take a look in there before you say things like that," I retort sweetly. "Are you going to stand around there forever?"

Inoichi throws me another look, but doesn't say anything more before he pulls the blood-leaking door open and steps inside, pulling it shut after him.

A minute passes. Another. And another. After ten minutes, Inoichi steps out of the door, looking decidedly pale. "I'm, I'm sorry," he utters, a horrified look in his eyes.

"Yeah, yeah," I wave him off. "So do you need to be here still or can you leave?"

"I think I have all that I need," Inoichi murmurs. "I'll see you outside."

With that he vanishes. "Finally," I mutter, breathing a sigh of relief. Then I get up on my feet to lock the Bloody Door again. Unfortunately, Inoichi didn't pull it close behind him. So when I reach out for the door handle, I see a sliver of what's behind the door.

The image of what used to be called Sapphire Lake. They call it something else now.

Pressing my eyes shut, I firmly close the door and lock it. Chains crawl all over it to keep it that way.

Well. Today, I've managed to avert a potential war and traumatised a number of people, now including Inoichi.

Not bad.

*Chapter 4*: Reunited

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.


"She doesn't hate us. She's just angry at the world. We can be glad it's only that. The things she's seen…"

"Look at this, Inoichi. It's a report on her abilities."

"This isn't good."

"It might not be such a bad thing. At least we know she can defend herself."

"This is a mess. The Bloody Flower of the Mist is one of our own. Do you even know what that means?!"

"I saw the memory. Believe me, I know."

"What are we going to do?"

I pull myself out of my mind world to the low murmurs of Tsunade, Inoichi, and Dad. With a soft groan, I open my eyes, lest they figure out I've been listening for as long as I have. They fall silent as I sit up, idly yawning as if I take mind-reading naps in the Hokage's Office all the time.

Somewhere in the background, Kiba yells "Nara Riko is the shit!" from the Hokage Monument. It kind of ruins the tension.

Tsunade snorts. "As always, Riko, you're a goddamn mess," she states and takes a sip from a sake cup that wasn't there before. Well, if she can drink on the job, then I can drink while not on a job. I have a headache anyway. Lazily, I reach into my bag, pull out a sake bottle, open it, and take a deep swig while the three of them stare at me incredulously. Tsunade twitches, a tick mark appears on her forehead.

Oh yeah, someone's pissed off.

That's good, angry people overlook things.

Drunk people do too, on the other hand. So it's a good thing I'm not drunk. There are techniques for water users that allow them to drink gallons of water and store them, only to spit them out later. It works with sake, too. I won a drinking contest against Suigetsu that way.

"Is there a point to that statement?" I ask, my tone mildly amused.

She narrows her eyes at me. "Put that bottle away. Or better yet, give it to me."

"As you wish," I answer. I put the bottle to my lips and drain it. Moments later, I place the empty bottle on her desk. "Here you go. One empty sake bottle for you, Tsunade-sama."

The tick mark intensifies. This meeting is going to end with me splattered on the floor in a pile of bloody mush, I just know it. Poor Shizune will have to mop me up.

"Tsunade-sama," Dad murmurs. She visibly takes a deep breath and calms herself. Or attempts to.

"Do you know what this is?" she asks me, a clear challenge in her eyes, and holds up…

"A scroll," I deadpan.

"And do you know what it contains?" Tsunade asks me slowly as if speaking to an idiot that isn't Naruto and therefore exempt from the worst of her ire.

"I'm sure you're going to tell me," I reply pleasantly.

"This is a report on your skillset. It mentions the areas you excel in and some of the missions you have done," Tsunade tells me, her eyes piercing mine. "Assassination, Riko?"

Dad closes his eyes, a pained expression on his face. Inoichi clenches his fists, staring at the edge of Tsunade's desk. The Hokage herself is back to fully focusing on me.

I lean back in my seat. "I don't particularly like killing," I answer her. "But I'm really good at it."

Kind of a cruel joke fate played on me, there. She's a bitch.

"But assassination?" Dad asks.

For the first time, I stare straight into his eyes. He looks sad, I notice. Resigned. It hurts to look at him, because that's my Dad, and I can't stop being angry at him while at the same time wanting to jump into his arms and cry my eyes out for a few days. And then there's the part of me that wants to hurt him as badly as he did me.

"Battle. Assassination," I say. "Where's the difference, really? The outcome's the same, I live, they die; but with assassination there's a lot less pain for everyone involved."

She frowns. "So you haven't become a homicidal maniac, that's something at least. What targets were you sent after?"

"Shinobi, mostly," I reply. "Sneak in, locate target, kill them, leave. Do one, you've done them all."

"Mostly?" she asks for clarification.

"There were some nobles that housed loyalists in their homes and funded their cause." Those were always a challenge. The loyalists guarded those people jealously. "Didn't Inoichi tell you, since he just saw that shit in my mind?" I ask pointedly.

"Yes," she says. "Let's talk about that. Let's talk about the Bloody Flower. Let's talk about - what was it called? - Sapphire Lake."

"They don't call it that anymore. Ao renamed it into Dead Lake," I reply. "Not exactly original, but he's a ninja, not a poet."

"Yes. Ao." Tsunade pulls out a file from her desk. "An elite jōnin from Kirigakure, one of the Mizukage's most trusted elite jōnin. Made a name for himself during the last war. Inoichi tells me he is your friend?"

I snort. "Friend? He's a bloody bastard. We're sworn enemies."

She raises an eyebrow. "Elaborate."

I roll my eyes. "He belittles me, I beat him at shōgi, he hides my sake, I put mud into his shoes, he delegates dumb jobs to me, I dye his eyepatch pink. It's a vicious, vicious cycle of hatred and revenge," I say blandly. "No doubt he's already made up a dumb and embarrassing death for me. The asshole."

"Right. Mortal enemies, I see," Tsunade deadpans. "We were talking about how you came by your moniker."

"No," I say. "We weren't."

"Then let's talk about it now," she says sweetly. "Because Akagi Ren is ranked A in bingo books of every village, with orders to not attack unless at least two jōnin are available as backup."

"So?" I ask.

"So we are going to talk about it, and we are going to talk about it now." Her tone brooks no argument. I give her one anyway.

"No," I answer coldly. "We are not going to talk about it. Inoichi can talk about it. You can talk about it. You can even talk about it to me. But I'm not going to say one bloody word about Sapphire Lake."

Tsunade's fist smashes into her desk. It shatters. Papers fly everywhere. "Riko! Will you stop it with the damn attitude!" she yells, her patience having reached its limit.

I tilt my head. "Would you rather I pretend to be the girl that left here two years ago, Hokage-sama?" I ask politely. "You know, the twelve year old crybaby that you had no problem with sending into a warzone without any backup? Forget it. There isn't much left of her."

"Fine," she hisses. "Let's do it this way. I order you as Hokage to answer my questions."

"Why don't you just ask Inoichi?" I hiss back. "Seeing as he rummaged around in my mind on your orders."

"Did you or did you not lose control over whatever power you have and massacre over fifty people in a matter of minutes?!" Tsunade yells.

I still. Something in my chest goes cold, another part of me wants to start crying. Almost automatically, I make myself go completely cold. "No," I answer coldly. "And there weren't over fifty people. The number was around forty."

"Someone else did it?" Tsunade asks, a hint of relief in her eyes. Some part of me takes a sick pleasure in shattering it completely.

"No," I repeat emotionlessly. "What I meant was, no, I did not lose control. I meant to do what I did. At no point was I not in control of my mental faculties. I was just really, really angry; and that's all you get to know about that incident." I get up from my chair. "I'm done here. Ask Inoichi for details."

"Where do you think you're going?!"

"Home," I snarl. "I'm going to go home, hug the stuffing out of my brother, help my mom make dinner, take a fucking break. Don't you dare take that away from me. And for shit's sake, stop treating me like a bloody traitor! You are the ones that got rid of me when shit got hard! I didn't want to end up fighting in a goddamn civil war! You don't bloody get to blame me for the consequences. This one is all on you."

And with that, I walk right out of Tsunade's office.

No one stops me.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The first few months in Water Country, I was sad. Lonely. Abandoned. I kept thinking that there must have been a mistake; that someone, anyone, was going to come and take me back home. Everything would be like it was before. I'd be with my family, I'd play shōgi, teach at the Academy, eat ramen. But it never happened. I took life after life and every day killed me a little more.

I don't know when it was that the loneliness no longer made me sad and I started getting angry instead. Angry at those who sent me away, angry at the world for being such a cruel and dark place. It wasn't good anger, not the kind of anger that would have made me feel stronger; no, this anger was painful and dull and festering like an infected wound. But it was still a million times better than the crushing sadness.

I think it was during an ill-fated mission with Chōjūrō that I finally had enough. We'd been fleeing and got separated; and I was badly hurt, feverish, and bleeding out. So when I laid down among a pile of civilians' corpses and hid what little chakra I had left, my pursuers didn't spare a look and continued searching for me. And as I laid between the still cooling bodies of innocents, the last part of me that believed I was going to get saved died.

Gone. Didn't end up with Dementia either. It just vanished.

That wasn't the only part of me that disappeared. It was just the first one. Insecurity, hesitation; gone. The part of me that always lost itself in fear; gone. That part of me that always wanted to see the good in people; vanished. The trust I used to have that Dad always knew best; shattered. And those are just the parts that I know I lost.

Looking back only ever hurt me, so I stopped doing it. Crying only held me back, so I didn't do it anymore. Trust only left openings for cruelty, so I saved it for the precious few that deserved it.

Don't look back. Keep moving forward.

Just. Keep. Breathing.

That was how I survived Kirigakure.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

My feet take me down familiar streets, though they don't feel familiar anymore. Birds sing, merchants praise their wares, kids run through the streets laughing; but it feels like I'm seeing it from a distance. Like there's an invisible wall between me and them.

When was the last time I heard kids laughing? I don't really remember. Must have been back when I was teaching at the Academy or something.


It gets better when I enter the Nara Clan Compound. There is quiet and peace here; and thanks to the large trees, it isn't as bright and blinding. Something inside me uncoils.

This is home.

I pause for a moment when my house comes into sight. Large, surrounded by trees. And on the porch sits a sight for sore eyes.


He's playing shōgi against a blonde woman with multiple ponytails. It takes me a moment to place her face - Temari from Sunagakure, I think she was. Sister to Sabaku no Gaara. I remember Shika outwitting her during the finals of the dreadful Chūnin Exams, right before my fight against Lee.

And now she sits on my porch, playing shōgi against my brother.


This demands investigation.

I stroll closer, purposefully loosening my hold on my chakra. Not by much, but enough to be senseable. It isn't polite to sneak up on people, after all. I haven't forgotten all my manners.

Temari notices me first and looks up, surprise registering on her face as she recognises me. Shikamaru on the other hand is intently studying the board, a frown on his face. I look on in amusement as he first reaches for the rook, lets his hand sink again; only to reach for the rook again.

"Futile," I say. "Use the knight instead."

...I don't think I've ever seen his head move as fast as it does now, snapping up and whipping in my direction. I raise a hand in greeting. "Long time no see, brother mine."

He stares at me, eyes studying me intently, missing nothing. They sharpen when they take in the scar on my arm, and when they get to my eyes, he rolls his eyes. "This is going to be such a drag," he groans.

I gasp in mock shock. "Shika! You expanded your vocabulary to contain expressions other than 'troublesome'! I'm so proud!"

Temari barks out a rough laugh. My brother raises his eyes to the sky. "My life is full of troublesome women..." he complains to no one in particular. Then his eyes refocus on me, noticeably softer now.

"I'm back," I say quietly. "Shika."

"Welcome back," he replies simply. "Ri."

"You're the first one to say that and actually mean it," I remark.

"It's good to see you, troublesome girl," he murmurs.

"Keep going on like that and I might actually admit that I missed you like crazy," I answer.

"Wouldn't mind hearing it," he returns.

"I might say it if you bribe me with a hug." I raise an eyebrow at him, a smile playing around my lips.

With a groan, he slowly works himself to his feet, abandoning his and Temari's game. He slowly approaches at the pace of a rheumatic snail, not taking his eyes off of me.

He's taking too long. So I take a few quick steps forwards and throw myself into his arms, clutching his chūnin vest in my fingers. His arms go around me and I'm home.

I breathe in his familiar scent and have to blink away a few tears. "Missed you like crazy, Shika," I whisper. "I'm back."

"Missed you too, troublesome girl," he murmurs back. "Welcome home."

We stay like that for a minute or two, but then Temari's insistent staring gets annoying, so I extract myself from my brother's arms with a smile at him that hopefully doesn't look as watery as it feels, and turn to her. "Hello, Temari-san," I greet calmly, my features now smoothed into a neutral expression.

Considering my brother and I just had our heartwarming reunion complete with emotional whispering right in front of her, I don't think I succeed in fooling her, as evidenced by the wry amusement on her face. At least she has the decency to not say anything about it. "Good evening, Riko-san," Temari returns my greeting.

"So what're you doing here?" I ask bluntly, having reached the limit of my manners.

...I'm sure they will come back. Someday.

"Mom invited her over for dinner," Shikamaru grouches.

"Oho?" I ask, interest piqued.

"She likes her." My brother shudders, which makes Temari smirk.

"Huh," I say. "Okay."

"That's all you have to say?" Shika demands, glaring at me.

"Cute," I tell him and pat his cheek. "I'll go in and say hi to Mom, you two finish your game, alright?"

Shikamaru stares at me. "You like her, too, don't you?" he asks in a horrified tone of voice.

"Why wouldn't she like me?" Temari asks, smirking victoriously; because there really is no right way for Shikamaru to answer that question.

"Now I like her," I declare, which earns me a dark look from my brother and an approving grin from Temari. "Enjoy your game, you two."

"Oh, we will," Temari almost purrs.

"Highly doubtful," I hear Shikamaru mutter under his breath as I walk into my childhood home.

For a moment, I freeze at the sight of the familiar interior. Smell the familiar scents of Mom's cooking wafting through the air, hear her puttering about the kitchen.

It's been so long.

Feeling oddly hesitant, I slowly walk towards the kitchen. The door is open, and light shines through it. I can see Mom with her back to me, viciously chopping vegetables the way only she can.

I knock against the door frame as I stand in the threshold. Mom whirls around, kitchen knife in her hand. Our eyes meet, and for a moment, we stare each other. Then her apprehensive look replaced by a radiant smile and she puts the knife away. "Riko!" she exclaims, coming towards me. "Welcome back!" And then her arms pull me against her and her Mom-scent surrounds me, and for a moment, it's as if I was still the same twelve year old that used to live here and the past two years never happened.

Without my telling them to, my arms wrap carefully around Mom. "Hey Mom," I whisper. "I'm home."

She releases me and beams her smile at me. "Welcome home," she repeats. "What a surprise, Shikaku didn't tell me you were coming back already! Look at you, all grown up. Though you are way too thin. Didn't they feed you in Water Country?"

"Not with anything tasty," I reply with a wry grin. "Dad's going to be late, I think."

Which I'm actually kind of glad about. Being around Dad is uncomfortable and confusing. I never know quite what to feel.

Mom sighs, studying my face. "He felt bad about sending you there, you know?"

"Funny," I reply. "I felt bad about being sent, too."

She rolls her eyes. "I'll just say that you are allowed to be angry, but you should remember that your father always only had the best in mind for you."

"I know," I answer. "But that only makes everything harder."

Mom sighs. "Alright. Just so you know. And you'll have to stop being angry at some point. Remember, we're a family. We stick together. Now go get cleaned up, we have a guest for dinner. I will not have my daughter smelling like weeks of travel."

"Hey, I had a shower a few hours ago!" I protest. "Besides, what's up with you inviting Temari over?"

She just smiles mysteriously and pats my cheek. "You let me worry about that, sweetheart. Now go get cleaned up. Just because you are some big shot now doesn't mean I can't still kick your ass if you forget your upbringing, young lady."

"Big shot?" I ask, slightly amused. "How would you know that after two minutes of talking to me?"

"It's all in the eyes," Mom answers. "A mother knows such things."

"Huh," I make. "If you say so."

"Now go take a shower."

"Yes, ma'am," I mutter and leave the kitchen. A little apprehensively, I walk up the stairs into my room.

It looks the same as when I left. A shelf overflowing with books, a desk full of writing utensils. A large window. My bed, the purple stuffed Devilbunny Naruto won for me in Snow Country sat on it. Pictures of a younger me together with my team, my friends, or my family on the nightstand and on the walls. Slowly, I walk in and sit down on the bed and stare around blankly.

I'm back. I'm Riko again. The weight of my name piles on my shoulders.

In a way, being Akagi Ren of Kirigakure was freeing. No more S-class ninja after me, no Orochimaru, no kidnappings. No pressure except for that of having to survive and being responsible for whoever was on my team. No more being hunted.

I was Just Ren, at least for a while, until Sapphire Lake happened and I became the Bloody Flower, a name that comes with its own crushing weight.

And now I'm not Ren or the Bloody Flower anymore. Now I'm back, and everybody wants me to be Ri again, the girl that left here two years ago, but I have no idea how to be her anymore. It's like the younger me left a hole shaped like Ri-Before-Kiri that Riko-That-Returned doesn't fit into anymore.

I bury my face in my hands and take a few deep breaths. Don't panic, Ren, I tell myself. Wait, that's wrong. I'm Riko. Don't panic, Riko.

Kiba's easy friendship, Hinata's genuine worry, Shino's odd companionship, Mom's glowing happiness at having me back. It's not real. It's not for me, it's for the girl that left back then. The one who didn't have an assassin part of her brain that keeps calculating the most efficient ways to kill them. I'm not- I'm not-

"I don't know if I can do this," I whisper into the silence of my room. "Shit."

But I'll have to. So I reach for my bag and pull out another bottle of sake and drain two cups' worth, which dulls my fears enough to get me through the evening. After that, I get up and store the bottle away. Wallowing in self-pity has never helped me before, it's just a waste of time.

I'm just going to be me. If they don't like what I've become, well, sucks for them. I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not. And really, so far, I've done okay.

Also, I have more pressing concerns. Namely, Mom kicking my ass with her Mom-powers if I don't take my shower and show up for dinner on time.

So that's the plan: Take a shower, brush my teeth to hide the scent of sake on my breath, paste on a smile, get through dinner, make conversation, try not to fuck up and say something that'll ruin everyone's appetite and make everything awkward. And after that, go to bed and at least try to get some sleep.

And that's what I do.

I'm pretty sure I manage to at least fool Temari and Mom.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I can't sleep. The bed is way too soft, the floor smells all wrong, and the entire room feels like a cage. It feels like the ghost of Riko-before-Kiri is trying to creep into my head and when I wake, it'll be as if the past two years never happened before, like everything had been a bad dream and everything would go back to the way it was. And I don't want that.

Even if I'm not entirely sane and whole anymore. I like who I am now.

And I don't want to forget. I'm not allowed to forget.

The room is driving me insane, so I climb out the window and up on the rooftop. It's not as if I'll be getting any sleep tonight, anyway.

Up on the rooftop, I sit down and look up at the stars. I haven't seen them in ages, seeing as the sky in Water Country tends to be obscured. They are pretty. Shiny. And way far away.

I used to like looking at the stars, but now it just makes me feel cold and lonely.

It's like a bad joke. Here I am, surrounded by family, in a beautiful village filled with friends and allies, and all I feel is lonely and caged. And I've only been back a few hours.

A few hours without fighting, strategising, inventory, or anything pressing to do. Instead, leisurely traveling, sunshine, laughing children, delicious food, and meeting friends and family. It's surreal.

I'm sure I'll readjust at some point.

There's no use worrying about it now, and I'm not too fond of moping around, so I just lean back on the roof, fold my hands under my head, and look up at the stars mindlessly. They really are pretty.

A familiar chakra enters my sensing range. It approaches the house, pauses, and a few moments later Dad sits down next to my lying form.

"Couldn't sleep?" he asks.

"Bed's too soft," I reply shortly. "Why are you here?"

"I live here," he deadpans. I roll my eyes.

"You know what I meant," I say.

"I don't need a reason to want to talk to my daughter after I haven't seen her in almost two years."

"Which is your fault entirely," I retort, still staring up at the sky. I see a shooting star and wish that Dad would go away.

He sighs. "Would you at least look at me while we are talking?"

"You are talking. I'm not."

"I'd still like you to look at me."

I flick a glance at him and then return to looking at the cold, distant stars. "Mom left food for you in the fridge. Why don't you go inside and eat it?" And leave me alone. I don't want to talk to you.

Dad sighs again. He sounds tired. A small part of me feels guilty, a larger part... doesn't. "I suppose I owe you an apology."

"You do," I answer.

"I'm sorry, Riko-chan."

"For what?" I ask.

"For sending you away."

A twinge of hurt stabs straight into my chest and my fingers, hidden under my hair, clench. My eyes close for a moment. Damn it, I need another drink.

"Riko-chan?" Dad asks.

"You're sorry now," I remark, forcing my voice to remain neutral. "You weren't sorry then." I get up on my feet, because I can't stand to be around my father any longer. "And besides, that isn't what you should be apologising for. I forgave you for sending me away the day I left; there was no alternative to that." My feet start carrying me to the edge of the rooftop.

"Then tell me why you are so angry at me."

I stop for a moment. Clench my fists, squeeze my eyes shut. Open them again, don't resume walking. "I graduated from the Academy in mid-October, shortly after Naruto's twelfth birthday. Orochimaru branded me with his Cursed Seal during the Chunin Exams, about three months after that. You told me yourself that you'd been making preparations to send me away for my own protection ever since. I was told about being sent away in August.

"That's over seven months' time you were preparing to get rid of me, behind my back. Seven months, and I never suspected a bloody thing." I raise my shoulders, drop them in resignation. "How do I trust you after that?"

There's no answer from him. Just defeated silence.

"Didn't think so," I say, and resume walking. "I'd appreciate it if you left me alone for some time. I really... can't stand being around you right now."

I half expect him to protest. To fight me on this. To give me a sign that he wants to make things right, that everything will be okay, that we'll go back to hair ruffles and shōgi.

But he doesn't say anything.

Huh. I guess there was still a part of me that believed that Dad could solve everything.

My shoulders slump as I leave it and him behind me.

It hurts.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

*Chapter 5*: The Bloody Flower of the Mist

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

The Bloody Flower of the Mist

My feet carry me deep into the Clan Forest. I sit down under a tree, draw my knees up, and hide my face in my arms. I feel the tears run from my eyes over my arms into the ground, but eventually they stop. The hurt, however, doesn't. So I remain there, curled up as if making myself as small as possible could make me invisible, and stay like that until the sun rises and its rays start falling through the leafy cover.

At some point, my old friend Rikumaru joins me and starts grazing close to me, as if to show me silent support. It almost makes me cry again.

"What am I going to do?" I whisper hoarsely.

Rikumaru doesn't answer, of course, but he does come closer to bump his snout into my shoulder. With a sigh, I reach out to pat him. "I wished humans were as uncomplicated as you are," I mumble. "I haven't been back for even a day and I'm already miserable."

Rikumaru snorts softly and lays down beside me. Blowing out a breath, I lean against him, absentmindedly stroking his silky fur. "I know, I know," I say. "I shouldn't wallow in self-pity. I should be making plans, meeting people, get shit done. It's just a bit much at the moment."

In the distance, I identify Shikamaru's chakra signature entering my sensing range. With a sigh, I stop suppressing my own. He wouldn't give up until he found me anyway.

It doesn't take long for him to reach me.

"I thought you'd be here," he says as he shuffles over to me with all the enthusiasm of a dead snail. He drops a bento box into my lap. "You missed breakfast."

"Was Mom very angry?" I ask as I open the box. Rice balls, neatly chopped vegetables, two pieces of sushi, a bit of fried fish. Luxurious.

"Worried, more like," Shika answers as he crouches down and rubs Rikumaru's snout. "You've got a way with the deer. I don't think Rikumaru would let anyone but you use him as a backrest."

I look away from him. "I remembered something about my biological father," I say offhandedly.

"You did?" my brother asks. He walks over and leans against a tree opposite from me.

"Mm," I murmur. "He could turn into a stag. Used to let me ride on him, too. Mama got really mad."

Shikamaru blinks. "Huh. Right. Think you could do it, too?"

I snort. "Nope. I'd probably get stuck as an animal forever. Or end up as the wrong animal. How would you like a cockroach for a sister?"

He smirks. "I'd put you into a terrarium, put dozens of barriers around it, and keep it in my room. You'd be safe forever. Especially seeing as cockroaches are hard to kill."

"That's mildly disturbing," I remark. "I appreciate the sentiment, though."

For a moment, we share a comfortable silence, in which I start eating my breakfast.

"You said Mom was worried?" I finally ask.

"You didn't show up for breakfast, and you weren't in the house. Dad said not to worry, but he looked horrible and he hardly ate anything. Doesn't take a genius to figure out something troublesome went down between you two." Shikamaru raises an eyebrow at me. "Want to talk about it, Ri?"

I shrug. "There isn't really anything to say. I told him how I felt. That's all. Now we're both hurt. I'm an awful person."

Shika sighs. "You're just troublesome. You are not bad."

I look away from him. "You don't know the things I've done while I was gone."

"The Bloody Flower thing?"

My head snaps up. I stare at him. He stares back.

"Yeah, I know about that. I kept an eye on the bingo books. Guess I knew you'd show up in there at some point, you attract too much trouble not to. Recognised you pretty damn fast, though I don't think anybody else did. It wasn't that obvious." He looks at me. "Talk to me."

"What about?" I ask defensively.

"About Kiri. About what you did while you were gone. About that massacre. Or talk about whatever you want, just talk."

I heave a deep sigh and slump against Rikumaru. "Later?" I ask. "I swear I'm not going to try to run away from those things. I just want to get some stuff out of the way first."

Now it's his turn to heave a sigh. "Troublesome. What stuff?"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"Really?" Shikamaru asks me. "You're willingly going to the hospital? Who are you and what have you done to my sister?"

I roll my eyes at him. "Very funny. I'm not that bad."

"Sure you aren't," he deadpans.

"I'll have you know," I say primly. "That I haven't gotten hurt to the point of needing a hospital in over seven months."

"Uhuh," he mutters doubtfully. "Be proud of yourself."

"Anyway, I need to get a physical and stuff if I want to go on missions. It's the rules." I roll my eyes. "So don't say I came here willingly."

"Do I have to be here?"

"Nobody forced you to come. Why don't you go see the lovely Temari from Sunagakure and impress her with your incredible work ethic?" I ask.

Shikamaru glares at me. "Shut up."

I snicker at him. "Oh right, it's your day off. Or something. Wait, is it your day off? Or are you using me as an excuse to slack off?"

My brother snorts. "Hanging around you is a full-time job, Ri."

"So I am your excuse. Well, you're going to have to stick around then, brother mine." I stick out my tongue at him in a stunning display of maturity. "In the hospital we go!"

"This is such a drag," Shika complains.

"Oh shut it, you lazy bum." I bump my shoulder into his. "You aren't the one who has to get a physical." And with that, I grab him and drag him after me into the hospital.

It looks exactly the same as I remember. Clean floors, white walls, nurses in pristine uniforms. It's a far cry from the outpost infirmaries I'm intimately familiar with, both as a patient and as a medic. Those were... messier. Louder. And always, always short-staffed. Which meant that after battles, I'd more often than not be helping out there, even if I was hurt myself. It was great motivation for not getting chakra-exhausted during battles.

"Ri? You alright?" Shikamaru asks me. "You've got a weird look on your face."

"No, that's just my face," I answer distractedly, scanning the room for threats, escape routes, and chakra signatures.

"Right," Shika deadpans. "Everything's fine."

"Caution never hurt anyone," I retort, and straighten when I spy Shizune hurrying over to us.

"Riko! You're back!" she exclaims. "Why are you here? Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm here for my physical. I want to get back to doing missions," I answer. "And it's nice to see you again."

She blushes a bit. "I'm sorry, welcome back! It's just, it's been a stressy day, and I've had to oversee two operations and Tsunade-sama is in a mood-"

"I wonder whose fault that is," I mutter under my breath as Shizune babbles on. Poor her, she looks positively frazzled.

"-and the new nurses needed to be instructed on protocols and security measures-"

"Shizune-senpai, why don't you give me that physical now?" I interrupt. "And after that, you can drink a nice, calming tea."

She looks as if she's about to burst into tears. "Yes! I'll do that! I'm sorry!"

Oh shit, what am I gonna do if she really starts to cry? And- "Shikamaru, don't you dare leave me alone!" I hiss at my brother who was slowly but surely inching away. "Shizune-senpai, maybe you should just point another nurse to me and go home for today? No offense, but you don't seem to be-"

"No, I can do it!" Shizune takes a deep breath. "Right, follow me." She swiftly turns around and hurries down a corridor. Shikamaru and I exchange a concerned glance, until I shrug and follow Shizune. I don't think there is much she could mess up with a physical, and it's not like I've never dealt with beyond-stressed medics before - I've been in her shoes, actually.

Shika grumbles something and follows me.

"Alright," Shizune says, tacking a sheet of paper to a clipboard and scanning it. "Have you had any problems with your health or taken any medication while you were gone?"

"No to medication," I say. "But sometimes my arm hurts a little when the weather is about to change. It's actually pretty useful, but kinda annoying, too." I wave my scarred arm at her. Her eyes widen when she sees the scars, but to her credit, she stays professional when she takes the arm. Her hands start glowing green.

"It seems to have healed alright," she informs me. "I can't find anything wrong. You could have Tsunade-sama have a look at it if it bothers you too much, though."

"Nah," I answer. "As I said, it's good for predicting the weather."

"And just how did you get that?" Shikamaru demands from behind me. When I turn my head, his eyes are glued to my arm.

"Exactly the way it looks like," I answer flatly. "An asshole with really pointy teeth tried to bite my arm off."

"You're lucky it's still there," Shizune remarks as she scans my arm further.

"Luck had nothing to do with it."

"I don't want to know," Shikamaru mutters. "I don't want to know." Shizune's head suddenly snaps up from her examination.

"Uh, Shikamaru-kun, a physical is normally given in private. Riko-san-"

"Is completely fine with him being here," I finish for her as I sit down on a hospital bed. "He's my brother. He can stay if he wants to."

"Well, if you say so..." Shizune say unsurely. Then she shakes herself and slips back into professional-medic-mode. "Did you bring the files with your medical and surgical history in Kirigakure with you?"

I stare at her blankly.

"Riko-san?" Shizune asks.

"Sorry, sorry," I say. "No such files exist."

"What?!" Shizune exclaims. "But-"

"Most healing sessions were patch jobs on the field," I interrupt. "There was never time for paperwork. And what paper we had available was used for reports and strategising and stuff."

Shizune shakes her head and mutters something about uncivilised Mist ninja under her breath, her pen scratching over the paper as she marks something. Then she starts reading a series of questions off her clipboard.

"Do you have any allergies?"


"Do you exercise regularly?"

"Ninja, duh."

"Do you smoke?"


"Do you drink alcohol?"

"Less than Tsunade."

"It would be worrying if you drank as much as her," Shikamaru remarks.

"Could you go into a little more detail?" Shizune asks.

"I drink when I'm with friends or when I'm having a bad day." I shrug. "Not regularly or anything."

Shizune marks something on her clipboard and continues asking questions, now mostly centered on my chakra usage and how often exhaustion occures. Finally, she starts asking about past injuries.

I get up and start taking my shirt off.

"What are you doing?" Shizune yelps in surprise.

I give her a deadpan look. "If I have to list all my injuries, I'm bound to forget something, so I'm going to use my scars as reference points." And with that, I strip off my shirt and mesh armour and bare all my scars to the world.

"Oh," Shizune says tonelessly. "I see."

Shikamaru says nothing. He just stares .

"So," I say and start pointing at the various blemishes. "Stab wound, stab wound, explosion shrapnel, stray kunai, senbon, this one is from a sword, and this one... I actually have no idea how I got it." I frown at the scar in question. "Probably a stray kunai or something."

"Right," Shizune interrupts. "I'll just-" And she makes her hands glow and starts running them all over my body. Which will hopefully save us some time and spare Shikamaru the gory details. He's looking a little... off, right now.

"You alright?" I ask him.

"I really want to hit Dad right now," he replies, his eyes on my various scars.

"Please don't," I say. "This is my shit to deal with."

"You're my sister."

"Do what you want." I shrug. If it makes Shika happy... Better let him vent his anger instead of letting it fester.

A few minutes later, Shizune announces that she's done with my physical and that I'm completely healthy and could theoretically start applying for missions come tomorrow, when whatever paperwork should be processed. I thank her for her time, tell her once again to get some rest, and then Shikamaru and I leave the examination room.

"That must have been the shortest hospital stay you have ever had," Shikamaru mutters as we enter the entrance area. "How the heck did I get stuck with such a troublesome sister?"

"It must have been cosmic justice, you lazy bum," I answer with a smirk, when I feel the weight of someone's stare on me. Without missing a beat, I attempt to trip Shikamaru which allows me to cast a look around without looking too suspicious aside from the fact that my brother is currently cursing my name while I laugh at him.

The person staring at me is a nurse with crimson red hair and eyes, with glasses on her nose. And the expression on her face is really weird. The best way to describe it would be 'enraptured'.

Shikamaru drags me out of the hospital before I can go ask the girl what that was about, because I sure as hell don't have anything looks-wise that would explain that kind of staring. If it were fear she looked at me with fear, or respect - that I could understand. But rapture?


"Hey, Shika, did you know that nurs-"

"Riko-chan, is that you?" a familiar voice interrupts me. "I heard you were back, it's so good to see you!"

"Hi, Ino," I greet and turn around to meet her eyes.

Wow. Hinata is not the only one who grew up to be gorgeous. Though with Ino, calling her 'hot' would be more approbriate. With her purple top baring her midriff and only covering her rather large bust and a skirt of the same colour hugging her generous hips, hardly anything of her body is left to the imagination.

...I wonder if Inoichi had a heart attack when he first saw her leave the house in that outfit.

"Riko-chan!" Ino exclaims and with a laugh jumps forward to hug me. "It's been so long! How long have you been back? We've got to catch up! Was training alright? Did you meet any hot boys?"

"No," Shika says firmly.

"Wha-'" Ino starts.

"No," Shika repeats.

"Seventeen hours, 'alright' isn't the word I would use, and no," I answer Ino's questions. "The boys I met weren't exactly hot."

Because Haku is ice, Suigetsu is water, and Chōjūrō is shy. I can acknowldedge that they are physically attractive, but if I want to preserve my sanity, I can not think of them as hot. That would be just wrong. It'd be the same as thinking of Shika as hot, seeing as they are my brothers-in-arms. Bah.

Ino pouts. "Aww, we've got to find you a man, Riko-chan. You're looking all cute and badass now with your sword and all, and I love that hair-"

"No," Shika says.

"Oh shut it, Shika!" Ino snaps. "If Riko-chan wants to get herself a boyfriend, then I will damn well help her, right, Riko-chan?"

"Uhm," I say.

"No," Shika says.

"And I need someone to go on double dates with, when Sasuke-kun and I finally get together! Kami knows that I will not be going with Forehead-"

"Uhm," I say.

"No," Shika says.

"There you two are, Shika and Ino. We're going to be late for team practice if you don't hurry up now and - huh?" another familiar voice speaks up next to us. "Riko?"

"Hey Chōji," I greet him with a smile. A sunny smile spreads across his face.

"Riko! Welcome back!" He grins at me. I grin back. It's impossibly not to, not when he looks so happy and welcoming even wearing armour over his now large and imposing figure.

"Good to be back," I reply. "What was that about team practice? I was led to believe that it was Shika's day off."

"Oi. I never said that," Shikamaru protests, even as Ino glares at him while Chōji laughs.

"Why don't you just come with us? I'm sure Asuma-sensei wouldn't mind," he says.

"... that sounds pretty good, actually," I answer. "Do you mind if I come with you for your team training, Shika, Ino-chan?"

"No, of course not!" Ino immediately exclaims.

"I thought I was going to help you run errands," Shika grumbles in a vain attempt at escaping his team training.

"Oh, that can wait," I wave him off. "I wouldn't want to keep you from doing your duties to your team! You can help me later!"

And so, after Shikamaru has thrown me a very dirty look, we head off to Training Ground Ten.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Asuma greets me and welcomes me back in a friendly way, but I can see the wariness in his eyes as he takes in the way I move and hold myself. It makes me a little bit sad, seeing as I once saved his life. But I suppose it was to be expected. It's not like I look at him the same way I did back when I was twelve, either.

"So, you've been training for two years?" he asks me.

"Nope. I was on a mission," I answer. "But it was training, too. In a way."

"Aren't all missions!" Asuma laughs wryly. "Are you only here to watch?" There's something lurking in his tone, a hint of a challenge. Anticipation spreads in my chest.

"Depends on what else there is to do," I drawl lazily.

"What do you say about shaking my team up a bit?" he asks.

"Oh, say yes, Riko-chan!" Ino exclaims, clapping her hands together with gleaming eyes. "It's going to be so much fun!"

"Uhh..." I say. "I don't know... " Considering the things I usually do with my techniques... It's not like I'm incapable of holding back, and I have had quite a few harmless training spars, but those were the Kirigakure version of harmless. That's a bit different from the Konoha one.

Chōji laughs good-naturedly, munching on a potato chip. "It's alright. You don't have to if you don't want to."

"But she wants to!" Ino protests.

"Nah..." Shika says. "She has errands to run, and she's being troublesome and making me go with her. So we're off." He grabs my arm. "Let's go, Ri."

Asuma is in front of us one moment, the next he's behind us, one arm around each of our shoulders. "Now, now, Shikamaru, no skipping out on training."

"Yes, Shikamaru," I parrot. "No skipping out on training."

"And you, don't underestimate us, Riko," Asuma tells me, blowing smoke into my face. I screw up my nose. I've trained some in tracking and enhancing my senses, and now it's coming back to bite me.

"Yes Riko," Shika snipes at me. "Don't underestimate us."

"Perfect!" Ino chirps, grabs my arm, and presses it into her ample bosom. "Girls versus boys!" She cheers.

"She's my sister," Shikamaru says immediately. "We'll do Nara siblings versus the rest."

Ino pouts. "But you've had her all day! It's my turn now!"

"She hasn't even been back a whole day, you troublesome woman," Shikamaru deadpans.

"She's also right here," I pipe up, feeling a little uncomfortable with being crowded like this - Asuma with his arm around my shoulder, pressing me up against my brother, and Ino insistently tugging my arm against her body. This must be what a bone feels like when two dogs fight over it.

"I wouldn't mind teaming with up Riko either," Chōji says.

Make that three dogs. And I'm being ignored.

I don't like being ignored, unless I actually want to be ignored. I narrow my eyes. "Hey!" I snap.

"Quiet, you," Shika says, and goes right back to arguing with Ino.

Fine. I tried.

The fingers of my left hand, hidden between my and Ino's body, carefully starts forming seals while I surreptitiously gather water in the other one. Almost imperceptibly, I shift my weight.

"But I've never teamed up with Riko-chan before!" Ino whines loudly, completely oblivious, just like the rest of them. Asuma probably would have noticed if he hadn't been distracted by his team's squabbling, though. But as it is... I take them completely by surprise when I suddenly smoothly slide out from under Asuma's arm and make an ice cold water bomb explode in their faces. The only one who escapes is Chōji, and only because he isn't crowding me as badly.

Ino shrieks. Shika curses. Asuma blinks dumbly, looking ridiculous with his cigarette hanging limply from his mouth, dripping water.

I grin at them. "Catch me if you can," I taunt, just as my left hand finishes the seal sequence and my body vanishes into a whirl of white jasmine petals.

Shunshin, Riko version. Haku and I sometimes did shunshin-only spars, which led to us getting a bit competitive and developing a number of pretty ways to vanish - not that it's that hard, it's just a minor genjutsu application over the user's body, it just takes a bit of imagination to make it look good. But considering the sheer number of versions we created... Haku developed seven, and that's just the ones that I know of. I myself have nine, though some of them aren't that original...It was probably a bit of a waste to put that much effort into what is essentially always the same technique, but hey - it was fun.

...The face Haku made when I vanished into a bunch of sparkles like a fairy was priceless. Of course, he badgered me for an hour until I cracked and taught him how to do it, and the next day he could do it better than I could. And now he takes a disturbing sort of pleasure in using the sparkle-shunshin against whatever enemies have the misfortune to be fighting him. "It confuses them," Haku says with his creepy smile whenever someone comments.

Haku has a weird sense of humour.

I land noiselessly on a tree branch, not even a leaf rustling. Cloaking my chakra and sharpening my senses of hearing and smelling are second nature to me. My hand drifts to the hilt of my sword but stops just short of the handle before I snatch it back.

If one draws their sword, they must be ready to use it. And I'm not ready to use it on my brother and my friends. No way. Unlike Suigetsu, they can't put themselves back together.

Frowning at myself, I seal Shingi To Giri into a storage seal on my wrist. In my stressed-out state, I don't want to have to deal with controlling dangerous reflexes.

Now what? I ask myself as I scan the surrounding trees and analyse where the shadows fall, all while I monitor Team Ten's members' chakras a good as I can - at the moment, Ino's and Chōji's are wavering in confusion and surprise, Asuma has his cloaked fairly well, and Shikamaru's is sharp and concentrated. I can almost see him sitting on the ground, his fingers joined together in a circle. An reluctant grin tugs at my lips.

I haven't played shōgi against Shika in so long.

I shunshin twice more, this time using the unembellished version that I no longer need handseals for. Then I sit down on a branch and think about what techniques I can actually use - any signature Bloody Flower ones are out, obviously. The only way I could use those...would be in situations where no witnesses would be left. In other words, I can only use them if everyone else around me dies.

I could, of course, modify them - with the genjutsus, that shouldn't be too hard. It might take a bit of time, though. But for today's spar... I'm just going to go with using water and mist. With Shikamaru as my opponent, it'll come down to brains over brawn, anyway.

...No, mist is out, too. That would give Shikamaru too much shadow to work with. Using Water Chains would be risky, too, seeing as they'd offer an instant shadow-connection to myself. No... I need to make it harder for Shika to use the Nara techniques. I also definitely need to make sure that I won't get hit with Ino's techniqes, because while Inoichi would be able to deal with Dementia easily, Ino would get flattened. And Dementia would be pissed at me for letting Ino in my head in the first place.

And to complete the set, getting hit by Chōji's clan techniques should be avoided at all costs. Not to mention that Asuma probably has a shit ton of nasty tricks to pull from, though I'm not sure if he'll join in on the fun. He probably will if I actually do manage to kick his team's collective asses.

Awesome! Four opponents, one of them being Shikamaru, I can't get hit at all by whatever they'll try, and I'm not allowed to use my favourite techniques for various reasons.

Sitting there on my branch, I continue to monitor Team Ten's chakras. By now, they've all cloaked theirs enought that I can only just tell their locations, never mind their states of mind. Shikamaru probably told them to do that - he must have figured out my sensing abilities from my letting him find me in the Clan Forest this morning.

What I can tell is that they appear to be waiting for me to attack, seeing as I'm practically invisible to their senses right now. Are they planning to ambush me?

Well, I can't get around attacking them.


Until I do, I could go for a cup of ramen - kami, I missed Ichiraku's so bad - except that would give Shikamaru more time to plan... and he'd definitely figure out where I went.

...It's so troublesome going up against an opponent who is as smart as I am and three times as good at strategising. Troublesome, but in a good way that sets the gears in my mind turning.

I do like a challenge. But I'd hate to lose. I'd never live it down if Suigetsu or, heaven forbid, Demon-sensei found out. Or Ao. I'm a freaking jōnin, for shit's sake! Which I doubt will be recognised here, seeing as the promotion processes and criteria are completely different, but still! I can fight jōnin, I can even fight more than one jōnin at once, I'm the goddamned Bloody Flower, and if I lose this, I'm never going to be one of the-

And wow, that's enough of that. There won't be any problems if I just win this whole thing. I nod to myself and with a flick of my wrists, senbon appear.

I might as well go with traditional Mom-methods for this one.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Surprising Nara Shikamaru is next to impossible. He's way too smart, always plans hundreds of steps ahead and calculates everyone's moves before they even know they are going to make them. Any plan I can come up with, he'll already have accounted for, I'm sure. So I figure if I don't make a plan at all and play it by ear, I'll have the best shot at winning. Also, the less time Shika gets to plan, the better.

I do have some advantages here. Firstly, Shika has no idea the things I've learnt. Secondly, while he probably has figured out a lot about me in the hours I've been back already, he can't exactly share the knowledge with his team which will make coordinating them a little bit harder. Thirdly, I know his weak points.

Team Ten is still in the clearing where I left them. Ino is standing before a tree, eyes closed, hands joined together in the Ram Seal - she's obviously trying to sense me. Shikamaru stands next to her, slouching casually. A little ways away, blocking the way to a small river, stands Asuma. Chōji's chakra I can sense to my right, but the sight of him is blocked by trees.

I guess he should be my first target. But something about the scene isn't right. My eyes rove over the clearing and stop on Ino and Shika. Frowning, I study them.

There doesn't seem to be anything wrong. But my gut instinct tells me there is, so obviously I must be overlooking something.

It comes to me only a moment before it's too late.

Ino is too quiet, her facial muscles too slack, her shadow is touching Shikamaru's, whose hands I can't see. At the same time, a bush next to me rustles and a chipmunk jumps out, staring at me with far too intelligent eyes. And then the intelligence leaves its eyes and it squeaks and runs. At the same time, Ino suddenly opens her eyes and yells: "Chōji! She's at eight o'clock!", but by that moment, I'm already in motion, leaping back into the thicket of trees so I'm clear of the danger zone when Chōji's enlargened fist smashes the area I was in just moments ago.

And then I smell cigarettes and flip around in mid-air, blocking Asuma's trench knives with kunai. I twist around and smash my right foot into his smirking face and with a poof! he disappears. Shadow Clone.

Speaking of shadows, the shadows of the trees around me are twitching oddly, so I swiftly kawarimi away, back to the edge of Team Ten's clearing. Ino is now wide awake, senbon in her hands. Shikamaru is right next to her, Chōji stands in front of both of them, a living shield.

Asuma is still blocking the way to the river. It kind of makes sense, they know I can create water, but they also know it drains my chakra like nobody's business after just one technique.

But that was then. I'm not the same person anymore. So when I make chains of water burst from the ground beneath Asuma's feet and snake up his body in a mimic of the Shadow-Bind Jutsu, the chakra drain isn't large enough to make me falter in any way. Senbon leave me hands and strike true lightning fast, paralysing the man.

"One down," I drawl as I land in the clearing, right across from the three remaining opponents.

"One down," Shikamaru echoes, and from the bushes next to me, a shadow shoots out and connects with mine. "Falling for the bait, Ri, that's pitiful."

I smile. "Did I really?"

And my body dissolves into a whirlwind of flower petals in all colours of the rainbow, enveloping the whole clearing, and by the time Shika and Ino have broken the genjutsu, Chōji is on the ground, unconsicious. The two remaining conscious people glare at me.

"Oh my, did I do that?" I ask faux-innocently, examining my hands. "I think I broke a nail."

Ino snaps first. With an angry yell of, "Don't look down on me!", she jumps forward, fingers twisting into a vaguely familiar sequence of hand seals. "Poison Mist!" she yells, and after taking a deep breath, she blows an enormous sickly-green smoke cloud at me, but my own fingers are already flashing through seals of my own. "Suiton: Suijinheki!" I shout out and spit an enormous amount of water (and possibly a bit of sake) from my mouth, which forms a circular barrier before me that absorbs Ino's Poison Mist. And as suddenly as I called up the Water Wall, I let go of it, making a few hundred litres of water fall to the ground, where it then disappears.

Time to counter-attack, I think, and yell loudly, "This one's for you, Shika! Suiton: Mizu no Muchi!" And within moments, Water Whips are in both of my hands, and I have the pleasure of seeing pure panic on my brother's face, right before one of the whips hits him right across the ass while the other wraps around Ino's ankle. A large movement of my right arm sends her straight into the river.

I raise the hand holding the newly freed whip threateningly.

"Forfeit!" Shikamaru shouts, and sputters when I make the whips burst. "You win! Who the hell taught you the Water Whip, you troublesome girl?!"

"Haku," I answer. "But really... every kunoichi knows it over there. It's like, the traditional technique for mothers to use on unruly children. Which kind of raises the question of why the hell Haku knows it..."

Shikamaru's face has a decidedly green tinge to it.

Never underestimate the power of Mom's disciplining methods.

"Y'know, there's an S-class technique that's derived from the Water Whip," I say in a conversational tone. "It's called the Water Dragon Whip. Total badass."

Shikamaru freezes.

"Please tell me you don't have an S-ranked whipping technique," Asuma groans, working his somewhat uncooperative form to its feet.

"I don't have an S-ranked whipping technique," I say obediently.

"Shit, she has an S-ranked whipping technique," Shikamaru groans.

"That's not what I said. Hey, do you think Mom wants to learn it?"

"Don't you dare!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

By the end of the day, after dinner with Team Ten at Yakiniku Q, Shikamaru and I find ourselves back in the Clan Forest. We sit down next to each other under a tree. For a moment, there's only silence.

"So talk," Shikamaru finally says.

I hug my knees and study the ground in front of me. "I killed a lot," I say.

"I gathered that," he answers drily.

"It was war. It was us against the loyalists, and some days it was hard to tell who the bad guys were, us or them. And other days, it was way too easy."

Shika nods. "How bad?"

"As if that could be measured."


I glare at the ground. "It's a good thing they faked my death to cover my leaving. I made the Bloody Mist that much bloodier. Can't be good for the image."

"Talk to me."

"Blood. Death. Murder," I say. "I've seen too much. I've dealt it too much."

"But you're still alive," Shikamaru rationalises things he doesn't know the first thing about. I'm silent for a minute or three.

"Sometimes, I don't know if that's a good thing," I admit, staring ahead. "But I promised you I'd come back. Kept me going, that promise. In the dark days."

Shocked silence. I think I said too much. But he needs to know.

"Battles were kind of always the same. Blended into each other after a while. But some stood out. The one at the Black River, where I fought under the influence of some hallucinogen and couldn't get out of it. Or that other one, happened around seven months after I arrived... there were twenty-nine of us, and around thirty loyalists. I was one of the five people that survived. Took us ages to clean up the corpses."

Shikamaru has nothing to say. I throw him a side glance. His fists are clenched so tightly that his skin apppears to be white. "Go on," he forces out.

I look away. "It gets worse."

"Bloody Flower."

"I locked that memory away," I say. "Couldn't deal with it. Messed with my head. Seriously messed with my head."

"But you do know what happened."

"Yeah. Saying I locked it away... it'd be more accurate if I said that I locked away what I felt about it. It's not even shut away completely, I've got that stuff leaking into my mind so I can assimilate it slowly. I remember what happened back there, I just- it's hard to explain. It seriously messed with my head when I didn't lock it away."

"Tell me."

"You don't want to know."

"Try me."

"You really don't want to know."

"It's not about what I want!" Shikamaru snaps. "It's about knowing what my sister went through! It's about deciding if I need to put you on suicide watch! It's about- about-" He clams his jaw shut.

I clench my fists and look away. "Right," I say tightly. "Fine. It was about... eight months into my career as a Kiri kunoichi.

"The loyalists scattered after the disappearance of the Mizukage Yagura, only managing to form small squads. But around that time, those groups started to organise themselves and cooperate and merge with other small squads. The group of loyalists we were supposed to bring down that time consisted of about forty people - a small army. They took over an island, slaughtered all of Mei's - that's the Mizukage's - forces and started taking over the island. They made their base a fortress built into the middle of a small lake called Sapphire Lake. Most of it was under the water surface, only a small platform was visible from the shore, and it was usually covered by genjutsu. We didn't know that, though.

"Of course, Mei sent troupes to get rid of them, and I was part of those troupes. We got there, but we couldn't find those bastards. Until we were warned that there was a small village made up of blood-line-carrying refugees in the area." I pause. "We knew we had to evacuate them, so we went to search for them, but it was too late." I take a deep breath. "It was horrible. All the men of the village had been slaughtered when we came, some were tied to posts in the village centre, tortured to death. There were some corpses of older women, too, and they had piled up all of the children's bodies into one grotesque monument. But no younger women, anywhere." I shake my head. "They'd all been taken.

"We tracked them, and we eventually reached Sapphire Lake. It was called that because it was of the deepest blue colour - the island used to be a popular spot for vacations in noble circles, back before the whole bloodline war began. It was famous, had a variety of fish that could not be found anywhere else in the world. The gem of the island, that lake. Never would we have expected they would make their base in there, and if it hadn't been for the tracks we found, we definitely wouldn't have found them.

"I was sent as a scout to dive under and check out their defences, seeing as I was one of the stealthiest and very good at navigating underwater.

"I found them. I snuck into the hideout." I pause, clench my fists, press my eyes shut against the sudden burning in them. "I, I saw what they did to those women - the ones that were still alive. They, they begged me to end it all - to kill them, if only they would not have to suffer any more." My body starts trembling as I talk. "And I did it. I - there was nothing I could have done for them, it wasn't - they wouldn't have lived, they didn't even want to live. S-so I killed them, and they were grateful for it." A choked noise escapes me. "And after - I lost it. I just went cold. All I wanted was to kill those - those - and - I refused to let anyone escape, so I -" I take a deep breath, trying to get the words that are choking me out.

"By the time it was over, the lake wasn't blue anymore. It was red. I'd killed every single living thing in it. My friend Suigetsu, he was waiting outside, he said that the water just suddenly started churning, and then dirt and detritus dyed it grey, and then came the blood. And afterwards, I stepped out of the water, and the dyed-red water ran down my body like I'd taken a bath in blood.

"From then on, the lake was called the Dead Lake, and people started calling me the Bloody Flower of the Mist."

Shikamaru is silent. I start to get up. "I'll leave you to your thoughts," I say, but lightning fast, his hand darts foward, clamps down on my wrist, and yanks me against him. A moment later, his arms are around me and his face is buried in his chest.

"Don't you dare run from me," he growls. "You're my sister. I meant it when I told you that I didn't care how you came back, as long as you did."

My fingers grip his flak vest. "I'm a mass-murderer," I say softly. "I don't deserve-"

"Finish that sentence, and I'm telling Mom."

I don't finish the sentence.

"Sounds like those people deserved to die anyway," Shika growls. I shake my head.

"That's not the point."

"What's the point, then?" he asks.

"I'm a monster that can eradicate dozens of people in a matter of minutes, and they can't even fight back."

"So?" he says. "You had reason to do it."

"Doesn't make it right. I shouldn't- humans shouldn't have that much power."

"Well, I'm glad it's you that ended up with it," Shikamaru states, making me stiffen. "You might at least do some good with it."

I scoff. "Right. Because I'm such a good person."

He cuffs the back of my head. "Now stop being stupid. It's troublesome. You got anyone else I should know?"

I shrug. "I specialise in assassination."

He groans. "Why?"

"'cause the point of assassination is to avoid battle. And I really wanted to avoid battles for a while."


"Tell me 'bout it."

"Did it work?" he asks.

"Yeah. I still had to fight in the big battles, but I could avoid the smaller ones. I got to join a hunter-nin squad, learned some tracking, killed bad people. Didn't see as much gruesome shit."

"And you're a good assassin?"

I snort. "What kind of question is that supposed to be?"

"Just calculating how much protection you're going to need."

"Idiot brother," I say. "I'm one of the best. It sucks."

"Well," he answers. "I can work with that, you troublesome girl."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Shikaku and he meet with Tsunade that day. The topic is, of course, Riko.

Tsunade rubs her temples. "Suggestions?"

Shikaku says nothing. Unusual. Normally, he has a lot to say about his daughter.

"She's still loyal," Inoichi says. "But she's lost her trust in us, and a good chunk of respect."

Is it just him, or did Shikaku just wince?

"Obviously," Tsunade snaps, glaring at him. "She's never called me 'Hokage-sama' before. And that damn attitude is pissing me off."

Inoichi sighs. "She'll get over it."

Privately, he thinks that Tsunade is being as hard as she is on Riko because she sees herself in her.

Tsunade slams her fist into her newly replaced desk. "I'm not waiting around for some little brat to get her shit together!"

He rolls his eyes. "First of all, she's not some little brat. Second, she may be loyal to Konoha, but she's fought for Kiri for two years, so she needs to readjust. Cut her some slack. Third, her attitude may be a bit lacking, but she is much stronger now."

"Great!" Tsunade throws her hands up. "We've got an unstable girl of dubious loyalities with super powers and an attitude problem! What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Give her a vacation? Order Naruto back to set her straight?"

"A vacation would be the worst thing to give her," Inoichi answers. "Give her something to do. Show her we acknowledge her strengths. The best way to regain her trust would be to show her that we trust her."

"Do we?" Tsunade snorts. Inoichi ignores her

"I am putting her name forward for promotion to jōnin," he says calmly.

It's a rare occurence to see shock on Nara Shikaku's face.

Tsunade sputters. "You can't be serious!"

"I am," Inoichi retorts. "Riko has sufficient abilities in most of the ninja-arts; and excellent skills in select areas. A number of our jōnin wouldn't be able take her in a fight. She is highly intelligent, and she has a strong drive to protect others. I believe she more than qualifies. She has everything we look for in our jōnin."

Except mental and emotional stability, but if that were an explicit requirement for promotion, Konoha would find itself without jōnin pretty soon.

Tsunade stares at him, her jaw slack. "Noted," she finally says. "And denied. I don't trust her enough."

"You've been quiet," Inoichi tells his oldest friend after the meeting. Shikaku just gives him an even look back. "Riko talked to you," Inoichi guesses.

"I hurt her," is his answer. Inoichi only nods. After such a long time, Shikaku doesn't have to voice out a request for advice.

"You did," he says. "But you know, as does she, that there were no alternatives to sending her away."

"That wasn't the problem," Shikaku answers, to which Inoichi nods again.

He's been inside Riko's mind long enough to know how she feels. He probably knows it better than she herself does.

"She'll forgive you," he assures his friend. "Riko loves you. Just give her some space."

"That seems to be all she wants from me these days," Shikaku says bitterly. Inoichi rolls his eyes.

"She's angry, hurt, and confused. Riko is just a barely fifteen-year old girl in the middle of puberty. She'll get over it. Just look at it like... her teenage rebellion."

Shikaku stares at him incredulously. "I'm supposed to look at my daughter slaughtering and assassinating her way through all of Water Country plus her drinking and swearing in front of Tsunade and me, as a rebellious phase?"

Inoichi can only offer a shrug. Put that way, it does sound a bit stupid. "Look at it from the bright side. Your daughter does not run around half-naked."

"There is that," Shikaku agrees with reluctant amusement. He sighs tiredly. "Give her space, huh? How troublesome."

"There's no real need to worry until she starts swearing in front of Yoshino." It's a weak joke, but it's the thought that counts. Shikaku can rely on Inoichi.

"Yoshino would probably solve the problem, though," Shikaku plays along.

"And destroy the village in the process," Inoichi mutters. "Anyway. It'll be fine. Let her have some space, maybe let her move out. Be there for her when she needs you, and eventually, she will need you."

"I was afraid you would say that." Shikaku sighs deeply.

Inoichi understands completely.

When it comes to Riko, her needing Shikaku will most likely be preceded by a minor catastrophe.

*Chapter 6*: The Mystery of the Hyūga Jōnin Curse

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

The Mystery of the Hyūga Jōnin Curse

"Are you sure you should be going on missions already?" Shikamaru asks me doubtfully as we head to the Hokage Tower.

"I'll go insane if I have nothing to do," I reply.

"And you want to avoid Dad," he guesses. I sigh and shrug. Considering I have now spent two nights sleeping in the Clan Forest and only went home for breakfast when I was sure Dad had already left, it would be kind of hard to convince him otherwise.

Maybe I should move into Naruto's appartment for a bit. I doubt he'd mind. Or I could crash at Sasuke's place, but that would probably get lonely fast with no one but me in that big house. But Mom would get pissed... She already chewed me out this morning when I finally showed up for breakfast.

"Anyway," I say. "I need something to do."

"Troublesome. If you say so," Shika answers doubtfully as we arrive at the Tower. "Have fun, then."

We separate, Shikamaru going to some sort of meeting to discuss some strategy or something, while I slowly walk up to Tsunade's office. The door is open when I arrive, so I walk right in. "Yo," I say. "I'm bored. I want to go on a mission."

Tsunade's eyes narrow. "I think a vacation would be much healthier for you," she retorts.

"Oh yes," I go along with her. "A vacation! Just imagine, me, with nothing to do for weeks... That is such a good idea!"

Shizune's wide eyes shift from me to her and back to me. She hurriedly grabs a stack of paper. "I think I have something for you, how does a nice C-Rank sound?" she babbles hastily but freezes when Tsunade raises her hand.

"Shizune, grab me the forms from the hospital," she orders.

"Err... which ones?" Shizune asks with a confused frown.

"All of them!" Tsunade snaps.

Shizune squeaks and hurries out of the room.

"Wow, you're willing to do more paperwork so you can talk to me in private? My, I'm so flattered," I say blandly.

"Shut up," Tsunade snaps at me. Her eyes are fixed on mine.

"Something on my face?" I ask with a raised brow.

"You were recommended for promotion to jōnin," she says abruptly.

I blink. "What? Why? By who?"

"I am, frankly, baffled by the notion," Tsunade tells me with relish. "You are, of course, not getting promoted."

Okay, now she's just trying to piss me off. Succeeding, too. I resist calling her a bitch. It's hard, but common sense wins. I am not suicidal enough for that. "That's nice," I say instead. "Would've been troublesome."

"Right?" She nods to herself. "I'm doing you a favour, despite your horrible attitude."

"You're a saint," I retort. "So, mission?"

"Vacation," she returns.

"Mission," I insist.

"Vacation," she stubbornly answers.

Bitch, I think. Bitch, bitch, bitch.

"WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME?!" she roars and slams her hands on her desk, which looks decidedly sturdier than the one that got destroyed during our last conversation.

Whoops. I said that out loud. Shit!

Okay. Now it doesn't matter anymore what I say. To hell with caution.

"You heard me!" I snap back. "The hell's your bloody problem with me! I get that you don't want to promote me, but you don't have to rub it in my face! Also, I'm not taking a bloody vacation!"

"AHA! SO YOU DID WANT THE PROMOTION!" Tsunade points at me accusingly.

"OF COURSE I DID!" I yell back. "I make a damn good jōnin! I deserve that promotion! I'm way overpowered for a chūnin!"

"We have different standards in Konoha!" she yells.

"Oh please," I snort, squashing the urge to attempt strangling her. "I met those standards months ago!"

"The position of a jōnin indicates the trust of the Hokage, which you currently don't have!" By now, we are pretty much nose to nose over her desk. "And I have yet to see evidence of your progress! All I see right now is a self-righteous brat with an attitude problem!"

"You want to see my progress, you goddamn hypocrite?" I hiss. "I'll show you progress! I bet you, I will make you eat those words!"

"A bet, huh?" she latches onto my words. "Fine! Let's make it a bet. I win, you stay chūnin, you cut the attitude, take the damn vacation, and you will follow a certain security protocol!"

"What, like, having an armed guard and restricted movements?" I laugh bitterly. "I think I've left those things far, far behind me."

"Oh?" she taunts. I bristle. "What happened to making me eat my words?"

"Oh, I never said I wouldn't do it," I hiss back. "You're on. I win, I get promoted, I keep my attitude, and you shove the security protocol and the vacation up where the sun don't shine."

"You tread on thin ice," she growls. "Fine. Here are the terms: I give you an in-village B-rank mission, and if you have completed it until 2 pm, you win. But you'll only get promoted to tokubetsu jōnin."

"Fine!" I hiss.

"Fine!" she snarls back, reaches into a drawer of her desk, and pulls out a folder. "Here's the mission: Solve the problem of the Hyūga Jōnin Curse-"

"The what?" I ask.

"You heard me!" Tsunade snaps. "The jōnin of the Hyūga Clan are being haunted by a series of ridiculous accidents. It'd be bloody funny if it didn't cause a shortage in Hyūga sensors. So you need to find the cause and eliminate it."

...I suddenly have an intense feeling of foreboding.

"Gimme that." I point at the folder. She makes an angry noise and throws it at me. I wisely side-step the projectile. It slams into the wall, where it leaves a crater. I roll my eyes as I walk to the wall and scrape the folder from the crater. "Ever considered anger management classes, Hokage-sama?"

And then I sparkle-shunshin straight out of the office before she can kill me.

"THE FUCK?!" Tsunade's voice echoes after me.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I appear in the corridor a few steps away from Tsunade's office. Said corridor is filled with terrified chūnin.

"The red eagle- wait, sorry, wrong code. I mean, the cat's barking to the moon and whatnot," I inform them. Someone in the background whimpers.

"What the hell did you do?" Shikamaru drawls from where he leans against a wall - his meeting must be over, then. "And did you just appear in sparkles?"

"Modified shunshin," I explain. We start walking to the exit. "My invention. Not Haku's. Mine."

Shika stares at me for a moment.

"Anyway," he says. "Why was Tsunade-"

"Tell me about the Hyūga Jōnin Curse," I interrupt, waving the folder at him.

Shika sighs. "It's been going on for about two months. Even Neji was hit-"

"That moron is a jōnin?!" I interrupt again. "The fuck? Like, Tsunade wants me to stay chūnin forever 'cause I piss her off, but that dimwit gets promoted?! Where's the sense in that! Wait a sec, what happened to Neji?"

"Shut it, I'm talking," Shika says. "As I was saying before you interrupted me for the second time you troublesome girl, it's been going on for two months. One Hyūga slipped on a banana peel and fell into a pond where he was set upon by piranhas. Another sleep-walked into the Forest of Death. Things like that happened to every jōnin except Hiashi himself."

"Pity," I mutter. "So, Neji?"

"Had an incident involving a blindfold and a skateboard," Shika answers. "Anyway, of course it's been investigated. But after three teams failed, the mission's been labeled a lost cause," Shika finishes. "An unsolvable mystery."

"Lost cause, you say?" I ask with a cheerful smile. "Unsolvable, you say?" My smile vanishes. "That fucking bitch Tsunade!"

"I fear the answer will cause me a headache, but I will ask the question anyway," Shika says. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"...tell you later." I crack my knuckles. "I've got an unsolvable mystery to solve!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The position of a tokubetsu jōnin, or special jōnin, is a bit ambiguous, from what I know. It's above chūnin and below jōnin, officially. However, in the field the tokubetsu jōnin specialises in, their authority can exceed that of a normal jōnin, while in other areas, they might be treated as chūnin. But in general, the position has a lot of perks - almost as much authority as a jōnin with only a fraction of the responsibility, plus a power position in their chosen field - which in my case could be a great many things, seeing as I'm good at more than just killing - sword fighting, for example.

The thing is, though, that there are never two tokubetsu jōnin with the same specialisation. So whatever position I get, it depends on which ones aren't already occupied. The tokubetsu jōnin seat for genjutsu specialisation, for example, is sure to already be filled. Sword fighting though might be free - it's not exactly a common speciality of Konoha. Well, I guess I'll just see what I end up with - one thing is for sure, tokubetsu jōnin have a higher chance at becoming real jōnin than chūnin do, simply because they have more opportunities to prove themselves to people who might recommend them for jōnin promotion. So I really want to win this stupid bet, because I really don't want to stay a chūnin; not when I know that I'm better than that.

And in a stroke of completely ridiculous luck, I am quite sure I know exactly who is responsible for the Hyūga Jōnin Curse.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"Unsolvable mission, my ass," I mutter darkly, still pissed off at Tsunade's treatment. "What bullshit!"

My feet carry me to the Academy. It's almost noon, so I have two hours to complete the mission. Which would be a whole lot less annoying if there weren't some ANBU tailing me. I'll have to lose them.

Now... I could jump onto the roofs, lead them on a wild-goose chase all over Konoha via elaborate schemes and utterly destroy their confidence and humiliate them using traps and other fun things. But I'm not in the mood to put in an actual effort into something that silly. So I only duck into an alley and make a water clone while hiding my own chakra. "Go annoy the Hyūga or something," I tell the clone moodily. It snorts in annoyance and stalks off just as moodily. The ANBU follow right behind.

Falling for such a simple trick, that's just sad. I shake my head after them as I continue on my way to the Academy. Right now, they should be on lunch break... yep. They are. Lots of shrieking children running around.

Undetected, I sneak around until I find in a well-hidden niche in the back of the schoolyard, where Hyūga Hanabi, Nara Chie, and Tachibana Aimi are bent over some papers, brows furrowed in concentration. "We hit when he walks next to the river," Chie is saying. "We know he likes to smell the flowers."

Hanabi smirks. It's entirely wrong on her aristocratic face. "So when he bends over..."

Aimi throws her arms up. "Boom!" she cheers enthusiastically.

"How in the world did you not get caught yet?" I ask.

Their reactions are hilariously entertaining. Aimi face-plants into the papers. Chie makes a noise akin to a shrieking tea kettle. Hanabi jumps at least ten feet into the air and sticks herself to the wall at that height like a frightened cat.

"Wow," I say. "You've got to work on your contingency plans."

"N-Neesan, h-hey, what are you d-doing here," Chie stutters. Aimi swipes her arms so the papers get bunched up under her face, then she starts fake snoring. Hanabi drops back to the ground, flicks her hair back with a practiced gesture while inconspicously shifting in front of the other two, and says with a happy smile (so wrong on her face), "Riko-sensei! You're back!"

I look at them with raised eyebrows. "You should have pretended to be working on homework. That would have worked better."

Hanabi throws her hair back again, her demeanor easily shifting to that of a noble heiress. "But we were, sensei!" she says haughtily.

"Much better." I smirk at them.

"Don't know what you're talking 'bout, Neesan," Chie drawls. Aimi continues to snore.

"You should probably get rid of those papers," I advise them. "After you memorise them."

"What papers?" Chie aks with a raised eyebrow. "There are no papers here."

"The ones under Aimi's face," I retort. "Who I know isn't asleep."

"No... papers..." Aimi mumbles sleepily. "Mmm, cupcakes... ufufufuhh..." And she curls up, the papers rustling under her head, and sighs happily.

"See? There are no papers whatsoever here," Hanabi says with enough conviction to brainwash a lesser person into believing her despite the incriminating evidence right before their eyes.

"Of course not," I say. "Now, why don't you clean that up and we'll talk?"

"Yeah, let's talk," Chie takes charge. "So we graduate next month. Are you jōnin already?" Her face suggests that she will be very displeased if I am not.

"Wait, you graduate already? You're way too young. Chie, you're eleven. Hanabi and Aimi are even younger," I answer with a frown.

Hanabi sniffs haughtily. "Like I'd let Sarutobi graduate earlier than me."

Chie crosses her arms in front of her chest and taps her foot rapidly. "Are. You. Jōnin. Already."

"Nope, sorry."

She throws her arms up. "You had one job!"

I roll my eyes at her. "Oh shut up."

"Do you know how much work we put into The Plan?!"

"What, the plan to somehow eliminate all Hyūga jōnin in the most humiliating way possible to avoid getting one of them as your sensei?" I ask with a raised eyebrow. "Which I'm really impressed with, by the way. Even if it's completely ridiculous, not to mention dangerous."

"But I don't want a Hyūga sensei," Hanabi mumbles. "They're just going to neglect Chie-chan and Aimi-chan."

"And we don't want Hacchan to be sad," Aimi says softly as she comes to stand beside Hanabi. The papers have mysteriously vanished, a scrap of paper still hangs between Aimi's teeth. "Right, Chi-chan?"

"Right," Chie says.

Shit, they're adorable. And now they're doing triple puppy eyes.

"Augh," I make. "Don't do that! Chie, Naras shouldn't even be capable of puppy eyes. Hanabi-chan, where did you even learn that?"

Their eyes shift to Aimi. The force of her large, shiny eyes is incredible. Forget sharingan and byakugan, the puppy eyes are the most dangerous dōjutsu in the world; and Aimi is a master of it.

"Fine!" I snap. "I'll get you a non-Hyūga sensei, alright? But you've got to stop the whole Hyūga Jōnin Curse thing."

"But it's fun," Aimi protests.

"Can't you be our sensei?" Hanabi asks, her eyes pleading.

"No can do, I'm sorry," I apologise earnestly. "I'm involved in way too many troublesome things. I'd only put you in danger. But I swear I'll be around. Like, when you leave the village, I'll tag along as 'extra protection'. And I'll give you extra training when I've got the time. Alright?"

They shuffle their feet. "...Fine," Hanabi finally utters. I give her a bright smile and ruffle her hair. She sniffs and pretends she doesn't like it.

So cute.

"And you have to stop the Hyūga Jōnin Curse thing," I repeat.

Great, and now they're pouting. "But!" Aimi protests again. "It's fun!"

"And so far no one's died!" Chie adds.

"Oh, I know it's fun." I nod sagely. "Pranking is amazing, and you wouldn't believe the shit Naruto and I pulled back in our Academy days, but I kinda got the mission to stop the Curse, and if I do it I get promoted to tokubetsu jōnin, won't have to stay in the village, and won't have to have a constant guard, and will therefore be able to accompany you on missions. Also, if I fail this mission I'll have lost a bet to Tsunade, and I don't want my luck to be Officially That Bad."

The three of them gape at me. Chie is the first one to catch herself. "What's in it for us?" she asks shrewdly.

I grin. "I'm glad you asked," I say, and with a flick of my wrist, suddenly hold up two large scrolls. "I've got two summoning contracts here that I have no use for, and don't ask me how I got them. You three get to decide which two of you sign."

"That's a stupid test," Chie drawls. "Obviously you just want to see if we'll relinquish our claim so our teammates can have one. But you actually have three contracts, right? One for each of us."

"Wow, you're creepy," I comment.

"What contracts? What contracts?" Aimi starts bouncing on the tips of her toes. "Is it something poisonous? Something with claws? Or scales? And fangs? Do they spit fire?" She starts giggling.

"...I'm going to ignore that question, you little psycho," I say. "Anyway, I've got something badass, you can have that, Chie. You ought to have some more attack power. Hanabi-chan, you get something less battle-oriented. They're pretty good with genjutsu - a bitch to deal with, let me tell you." I throw them the respective scrolls. They take them with slightly doubtful looks.

"What are they?" Chie asks.

"You have the pandas," I answer. "Hanabi the swallows. I'll teach you girls the summoning techniqe later. For now..." I turn to Aimi. "You're eligible for another contract."

She blinks. "Something poisonous?"


"With claws?"

"Not that I'm aware of."


"Chisel Teeth."


"More like fluffy soft fur."

"...Can they spit fire?"

"Not all of them, and they're not that good at aiming."

She stares at me large eyes that say, what the heck am I supposed to do with something that useless, they aren't even poisonous.

"I'm talking about the rabbits. Floppy Ears, to be precise. That's the contract I hold." I shrug. "You're eligible since you can see the Flying Mint Bunny."

Aimi tilts her head. "You mean the green rabbit with the wings?" In the background, Chie mouths 'Flying Mint Bunny' silently. She and Hanabi exchange the universal our-teacher-is-crazy look.

"Yep. That one. Boy, it's so annoying," I answer Aimi's question.

"Huh," Aimi says. "What do the rabbits do?"

I clear my throat. "Well. They talk a lot - shit, they never ever stop talking. They have obnoxious colours. They are loud. And insane. They are the most annoying things ever! They live to embarrass me! They make me want to jump off a cliff every single time I summon one! Chaos ensues wherever they show up! They are bloody stupid! But-" I sigh long-sufferingly. "They've never let me down when it really mattered. And they do make some decent trackers and messengers. The combat-rabbits aren't bad either, though they're all completely off their rocker and you've got to know which one to summon at what time or they'll go homicidical on you. Anyway," I pause a little and swallow drily. "I thought you might like them. And if you got in trouble, they'd tell me and I'd come and save you. You know."

"Why," she asks bluntly. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I like you three," I answer seriously. "And, Aimi, I couldn't save Fumio. And I probably won't be able to keep you safe, either. But I can make sure that you'll be damn hard to kill. That's why."

Aimi nods. All of us pretend that we don't see her lips tremble.

She holds her hand out to me. "Gimme," she demands. "I want the rabbits."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Time is up and I'm back in Tsunade's office.

"I'm back," I say.

Tsunade spares me a look, raising a cup of sake to her lips. "At least you don't look hurt. That's a nice accomplishment right there."

"I'm rather proud of that, too," I drawl. "So about that mission you gave me, you know, the one that had your jōnin stumped for months and was in certain circles declared as 'unsolvable', which I'm sure you didn't know about when you gave it to me, because why would you give an unsolvable mission to a humble chūnin such as I? So anyway, since you didn't know about it, the terms of the bet-"

Tsunade's face has grown suspiciously red during my little monologue. "A True Gambler never takes back their bet!" she snaps.

"I'm no gambler," I retort. "And I'm not taking it back, I just think we should renegotiate the terms. Maybe give me another mission that hasn't been labeled a lost cause."

"But I am a True Gambler, and I say the bet stands!" Tsunade snarls. "You don't get another chance!"

"What about a time extension?" I ask.


"Are you really sure you don't want to take back the bet?" I ask. "Really, completely, totally sure?"

"Nara Riko!" Tsunade thunders and slams her fist on her desk, which groans ominously. "The bet's terms stand! You don't complete the mission within the set time limit, you stay a chūnin, accept the security restrictions upon your person, and stop it with the damn attitude. You complete it, you get promoted to tokubetsu jōnin and act as a normal ninja. I will not haggle with you, brat!"

"A simple yes would have been enough," I retort, rolling my eyes.

"Attitude!" Tsunade snaps.

"Oh, I forgot to mention, I solved the unsolvable mission."

Tsunade spits out her sake and starts coughing. "W-WHAT?!" she yells when she can finally breathe right.

I let a victorious grin spread across my face. "Mission complete!" I announce with all the chipperness I can muster, thrusting a fist up in the air. "You lose! I win! I get promoted, I don't get put into a cage, I keep my attitude! Such a wonderful day it is when cosmic justice strikes and someone's nefarious plan is completely ruined, Hokage-sama!"

Tsunade does a decent fish-out-of-water impression.

I beam at her. "I love cosmic justice when it happens to other people!"

"YOU!" Tsunade shouts. Her fist finally smashes her desk into pieces, making paper fly everywhere. Someone is going to have a lot of fun cleaning that up. Shizune, most likely.

"Yes?" I ask happily.

"You tricked me!"

"Did I?" I ask innocently. "Surely it would have made no difference in the outcome of this lovely conversation if I'd announced my success right at the start? Seeing that a 'True Gambler' such as yourself would never take back a bet or change its terms, as you so adamantly insisted on even after I gave you every chance to do so."

The by now familiar tick mark appears on her forehead. I'm pretty sure she's about to scream some more, but I'm not in the mood to listen to it.

"So I'll be taking regular missions as a tokubetsu jōnin starting tomorrow," I steamroll ahead. "Ones that actually correspond to my skill and level and don't keep me cooped up in the village. And the cute little ANBU attempting to stalk me get recalled, or I will deal with them myself."

"Mission report!" she barks at me. She's probably hoping that something in my report can be twisted into a bullshit-excuse in making the bet invalid. Little does she know that I made a sport out of giving my reports in the most annoying manner possible back when I still had to give reports to Ao. I can talk anyone to death if I want to.

"It was a tale so full of ridiculous twists and heart-stopping action that it would take me hours to tell it, Hokage-sama," I start.

"Tell it anyway," Tsunade snaps.

"I must first inform you of a number of highly important details so that you may understand the background behind the happenings of this tale-"

"Cut the crap and make it short!"

"Wow, sore loser much?" I retort. "Hokage-sama, I must insist. It is important that you fully understand the full picture of the happenings that led to the situation that eventually resulted in what came to be known as the Hyūga Jōnin Curse."

"What part of 'Make it short' did you not understand, you obstinate pest?" Tsunade growls, and slams back the rest of her sake. I wished I had some sake.

"But Hokage-sama!" I gasp in fake shock. "Then you won't understand and you will ask questions, and I will be forced to tell you everything anyway, only it'll be backwards because you wouldn't ask the right questions and we'll both end up horribly confused and in a terrible mood. No, no, I will tell you in chronological order and provide you with all the pertinent background information."

"Nara Riko-" Tsunade growls.

"See, it all began when Class 4a graduated from the Shinobi Academy to become proud genin. I was placed on Team Seven with Uzumaki Naruto, my best friend, and Uchiha Sasuke, whom I was also close to. Our assigned jōnin sensei turned out to be Hatake Kakashi, who was entirely unfamiliar to us. Right after the team assignments were announced, Kakashi-sensei made us wait for hours in order to-"

"Goddammit Riko!" Tsunade yells. I'm pretty sure if she hadn't already destroyed her desk, it would have met its end right about now.

"Alright, alright. Maybe that part isn't necessary," I say. "Well, during out first D-rank mission-"

Tsunade screams something unintelligible. Wow, Ao never lost it quite that bad.

"Now, don't be that way." I smile at her innocently. "You should be grateful, I already edited the parts involving the founding of Konoha out. Even though they throw a shocking light on the situation at hand. Thinking about it, I probably should inform you-"

"Just shut up!" Tsunade groans and drops her face into her hands.

"But Hokage-sama!" I exclaim. "It is important that you know everything-"

"The mission was completed? No more shortage in Hyūga sensors?" she asks, words muffled by her hands.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," I answer. "But I must insist-"

"I'm sure I can trust your word on this," she snaps. "Hell, you're a conniving little bitch, you know that?"

...Ahh, victory tastes sweet.

"How unkind you are, Hokage-sama," I sniff. "So about that promotion?"

"Oh yes," Tsunade says. Her eyes gain a vicious gleam to them. "As it happens, the tokubetsu jōnin specialising in infiltration and assassination recently got promoted to full jōnin. Sadly, it's the only position you'd fit into... but of course it's your choice if you want that particular position."

Well damn it.

"Like I'd want to be an assassin forever," I mutter. "Well played."

"I rather thought so myself," she says smugly.

"I'll take it."

She blinks. "Come again?"

I glare at her. "I said, I'll take it. I already specialise in assassination. It's not like that'll go away if I don't become the tokubetsu jōnin specialising in it. Also, I want that promotion."

"How am I supposed to explain this to your father?" she exclaims incredulously.

"Not my problem." I smirk at her. "So, you gonna keep your word, True Gambler that you are?"

If looks could kill, I'd be in some serious trouble right now. "Fine!" she spits.

"Fine," I echo with a smug grin.

When I step out of the office after the paperwork is taken care of, a smile breaks across my face. I got one step closer to the rank I deserve, I managed to win me some freedom, and I won a battle of wits against Tsunade.

I'm bloody awesome.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I skip through the corridors of the Hokage Tower in high spirits. Granted, it's only a small victory and pissing the Hokage off will definitely come back to bite me in the ass. But whatever. I'm awesome. Now I think I'll spend the rest of the day teaching the kids the Summoning Technique. Which is probably going to lead to all kinds of chaos, especially in Aimi's case.

Shit, what was I thinking, giving her the Floppy Ears contract? Now I'll have to deal with the rabbits! And Aimi! Who will probably get along fabulously with the little critters while I will be the one with the headache. I feel sorry for their future jōnin sensei, whom I have yet to find.

Why did I agree to do that? Right. Because of the puppy eyes. I need to train my resistance. Somehow.

Okay, let's see... their sensei obviouslyy can't be a Hyūga. They definitely need to have puppy eye resistance. They also need to be strong enough to protect those girls. They need to be able to emphathise with my three little psychopaths. It needs to be someone who doesn't put any stock at all in the whole clan superiority thing, meaning they can't be someone who respects authority.

Where the heck am I going to find someone like that? I don't even know any jōnin besides the senseis of my generation! And it's not like the right person is just going drop into my lap!

Someone hugs me from behind. I freeze.

Someone just snuck up on me.

"Snake bait~!" that someone sings into my ear. "Guess who just got promohooteed~!"

I grab the offending limbs around my body, shift my weight and twist my hips. Mitarashi Anko goes flying over my shoulder, but performs a move that should be physically impossible and I end up pressed against her in a really, really awkward hug - until my body dissolves into water and reforms ten steps away from her.

Anko licks her lips, her eyes gleaming manically. "Ho?" she drawls with a smirk, cocking her hip. Her coat falls strategically open in a move that would be horribly distracting to anyone attracted to women. "The kitten grew claws!"

I flash-step in front of her and grab her forearms. "You," I breathe. "You are perfect!"

A/N: So some people had questions...

Where is Kakashi?

On a training trip with Sasuke, completely oblivious to Ri's plights. If he knew about it, he'd have kidnapped her from Kiri faster than you can say 'warzone'.

What's up with Tsunade? She being such a b****!

I know. Tsunade is being a horrible bitch at the moment. So is Riko.
Tsunade is a proud and stubborn person. Riko is not the same she was. They just clash horribly at the moment.
Tsunade doesn't think Ri is a traitor. She just sees her lousy attitude and respectlessness, she saw her drinking and swearing, and guess who that reminded her of? That's right, herself. Who left the village. And she thinks if she controls Ri, if she pushes her into being who she used to be, then that won't happen. Having her stay a chunin would keep her away from the really dangerous missions. Giving her a vacation would really be the healthiest course of action. She's, in her own way, trying to protect Riko.
The problem is, Tsunade is also not the most mature and well-tempered person. So when Riko just pushes away all her help and does everything to piss her off... well. Boom. You read what happened.
About the trust thing - she sent Ri off to a different village. And Riko comes back, is borderline hostile, and has undergone a huge shift in personality, at least outwardly. And Ri has never been known for being stable and emotionally balanced. So combine that with the shock that Ri is a known assassin and responsible for a massacre, who in their right mind would trust her? Inoichi may have been in her mind, but he is also emotionally compromised when it comes to her. And he wasn't in her mind that long.

When in the timeline are we?

We're two months before the Gaara Rescue Arc, meaning we've got a few chapters to go until Naruto and Sasuke show up, and they don't even show up at the same time. But rest assured, you will not be bored. At all.

Riko is not very likable right now.

Yep. She's a hot mess. Traumatised, horrible trust issues, and has a huge attitude problem. But believe me, she gets better. There will be some progress next chapter. I promise.

*Chapter 7*: Team Headcase

I awaken in my room. For a blissful moment, I think about nothing. Then the events of the previous day come crashing into my head. I turn around and scream into my pillow.

"What have I done?!" I wail, only it comes out muffled due to the pillow in my face.

I'm cursed. There is no other explanation. That thing yesterday doesn't even count as a mission and it was out of control before I was even debriefed on it - which was admittedly my own fault. Provoking Tsunade, what in the seven circles of hell was I bloody thinking?!

But the really insane stuff happened after the mission. My mind flashes back to the encounter with Mitarashi Anko.

I flash-step forward and grab Anko's forearms. "You," I breathe. "You are perfect!"

She blinks. Then her grin grows ever wider, her arms go around me, and she rubs up against me. "My," she purrs into my ear. "I do like me a sweet little redhead!"

I whimper at the terrifying memory and pull my blanket over myself. Needless to say, I handled the situation less than gracefully. Shrieking and an escape through a (closed) window were involved. Naturally, Anko gave chase. It took a lot of yelled explanations until she backed off a little bit.

"LeavemealoneIhaveaboyfriend!" I shriek and flip back. Anko is suddenly behind me, licking my ear. "Kyaahhh!" I cry in the worst display of girliness I have ever performed.

"I'll distract you from him..." Anko purrs. "Yeowtch!" Through sheer luck, my elbow scores a hit on her nose. Good elbow! It shall forever be my favourite body part! But Anko never gives up. "Ohh, so you like it rough, hmmm?"

"ShutupI'mtellingmymum!" I shout in panic.

Anko stops short. "Oh shit, that's Water Whip Yoshino, right?"

Mom is now my favourite person in the entire universe. I swear I'm going to show her the Water Dragon Whip. That'll teach Anko to hit on me like that!

But the horror didn't stop there. Oh no. Because after I took Anko to meet the three girls... they got along.

"I'm Aimi and I like my friends, poisonous, scaly, clawy, fangy and firespitting animals, chocolate muffins, and laughing creepily."

"Aww. Hug attack!"

By the end of the day, all three kids had new hairstyles, trenchcoats, and dango sticks in their mouths, thus looking like mini-Ankos.

I punch my pillow. "I have doomed the world!"

"Ri?" Shikamaru asks from the doorway.

"Go away I'm busy," I moan into my pillow.

"Troublesome," he mutters. "As amusing as this is, there's a messenger at the door. You're supposed to be at the Hokage's Office in," he pauses for a moment. "Four minutes ago."

"...Shika, please talk me out of murdering the Hokage."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I'm already ten minutes late when I leave my house. But I really and truly don't care. If Tsunade thinks she can get to me with these sorts of petty games, she has another think coming. So I walk along the streets at a leisurely pace.

The attack comes out of nowhere. Surprise attacks usually do.

One moment, everything is normal. The next, the smell of ink pervades the air and a shadow falls on me. Shingi to Giri finds my hand and slices upward in a perfect arc, right through the black-and-white beast. Ink splatters all over me as it bursts.

I stand stock-still, all muscles tense. Eerie calm fills me as my eyes find the boy sitting on a rooftop a fair distance away. A scroll lays across his knees, a brush is in his hand. His hitae-ate bears the sign of Konoha.

His face is like a Nō-mask and seems to be frozen into a smile which makes his features that would be otherwise attractive more than just off-putting. His choice in clothing is questionable, too. What kind of guy wears a skintight midriff-baring black jacket?

He appears like a black-and-white drawing with his translucent-looking pale skin, the black hair and eyes, and his choice in clothing. The only spots of colour are two red straps attached to his jacket.

A sharp motion of my sword sends all remaining ink flying off my blade.

"What do you want?" I ask calmly.

This, I can deal with. This is familiar territory. I don't have to be careful not to hurt anybody's feelings here. The boy means nothing to me. And yet, something tells me not to kill him. And it's not just the Konoha-hitae-ate.

Instead of answering my question, his brush flies over his scroll. Then his hands forms a seal and six more ink-beasts leap from the paper. They are beautiful, I note. Ferocious. Like a cross between artistic renditions of lions and demons. I'm almost sorry to destroy them, but it's not like I have a choice. So I take a quick step forward and sharply turn out of the way of one beast. Sunlight reflects off Shingi to Giri's blade as it cuts into the beast's side and reduces it to ink. Two more steps, to more arcs drawn with my sword, and only one beast is left standing. When it leaps at me, I duck and let it sail over me. The tip of my sword draws a dark line on its stomach. I roll out of the way as blood - no, it's ink - rains down froms its destroyed form.

The same motion as before flings the ink off my sword. My eyes are still on the boy, hardly having left his form during the fight.

"I won't ask the same question twice," I say.

He stays silent. His smile widens and he lifts his brush again.

I exhale. And land next to him, the tip of my sword at his throat.

His eyes widen. They are still focused on the after-image illusion I left behind to cover my shunshin. "One chance to surrender," I advise him coolly.

The boy's skin turns black and he bursts into ink. He was a clone all along.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I'm late for the meeting. Naturally.

"You are late, Nara," Tsunade gripes scathingly.

I chance a look at the clock. Thirty minutes late isn't that bad, right? Kakashi did much worse. Besides, I just had to change my ink-stained clothing. It would have been so disrespectful to show up in front of the esteemed Hokage all dirty and shit.

"My apologies, Hokage-sama," I say with my best impression of Haku's smile which can look amazingly fake and sincere at the same time. "I stayed up late celebrating my wonderful promotion and overslept." A blatant lie. I was so worn out from the day's antics that after dinner, I simply fell into my bed and asleep, but she doesn't need to know that.

No need to tell her about the Ink-Boy incident. That was a definitely a test, seeing as he was wearing a Konoha-hitae-ate. Also, he's in the room.

Tsunade gives me the death glare. She probably didn't get to celebrate either. Ha! Serves her right for trying to trick me. Granted, I did provoke her. And accidentally called her a bitch. And yelled at her. And rubbed my victory into her face. But still!

"So what's this about, Hokage-sama?" I ask. "And why's there so many people here?" I inspect the ninja assembled in the Hokage's Office. There is, of course, Shizune. Then there's Haruno Sakura, who appears to have grown up a whole lot. It also appears she's going for the tough-girl look, what with the shorter hair and the combat boots.

Shizune and Sakura stand behind Tsunade, making me think that they are here to support Tsunade and not involved in whatever plot has been cooked up to screw me over this time.

Three other people are in the room. Number one: Ink-Boy, equipped with his creepy smile that seems to be designed to make people want to punch him. Number Two is the bespectacled red-haired nurse from two days ago, only now she is wearing short black shorts, black thigh high stockings, and black sandals; her upper body is covered by a lavender jacked which exposes her navel. The worshipful expression directed at me hasn't changed though. It's incredibly creepy up close.

The final occupant of the room is a man with short, light brown hair, black eyes, and a forehead protector that frames his face. His chakra feels vaguely familiar. For some reason, it makes me think of kittens. I frown at him. "Tenzō?" I ask.

He turns to me. "No," he answers.

"Lion?" I try again.



"I'm not a kitten!"

Tsunade clears her throat in annoyance which effectively ends the conversation. "Riko, this is Yamato. He will be the leader of your new team."

I freeze. "Come again?"

"He will be the leader of your new team."

"Could you please repeat that?"

"You heard me!" she snaps. "The other two will be your teammates. Now go get to know each other. Dismissed."

Ink-Boy, Redhead, and Yamato start filing out of the office.

"Hold on a damn second!" I protest in disbelief. "What do you mean, 'my new team'? What about Team Seven? You can't break us up! What's going on?"

She narrows her eyes at me. "I owe you no explanations," she says scathingly.

I return the glare, feeling rage churn right under my skin. Feel my hair charge with what feels like static but isn't. In the background, Redhead lets out an excited squeal. "This is a temporary arrangement," I state icily.

"And if it isn't, what would you do?" Tsunade sneers. "You are going to follow orders, Nara Riko."

My hands clench and unclench into fists rapidly while I fight the anger down. I need to be calm about this. Calm.

"This is a temporary arrangement," I repeat stonily. "You are not breaking Team Seven up."

"Are you hard of hearing?" she snaps. Oppressive Killing Intent floods the office. I refuse to answer with my own.

Stay calm. Be rational.

These are the kinds of situations that make me glad for Dementia's existence.

I give Tsunade a thin smile that is every bit as fake as Ink-Boy's. "Occasionally," I say. "I look forward to seeing you explain this to Naruto once he gets home." And with that line, I toss back my hair and flounce out of the office.

I seem to do that a lot these days.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The man that is ANBU Lion/Kitten and Tenzō and now, apparently, Yamato, leads us through a bunch of forest paths to who-knows-where. But I don't really care what his name is because he isn't Kakashi. And Redhead and Ink-Boy aren't Naruto and Sasuke. This is not my team.

Which isn't their fault, it's Tsunade's or whoever had the bright idea to place me in a different team. But at the moment, I hate them all. Therefore, the attempts at conversation made by my not-accepted teammates utterly fail.

It isn't actually my fault, though.

"Hi my name's Karin did you know that you sparkle?" Redhead verbal-vomits at me, which... what. And why the hell is she blushing now?

I shoot her a cautious look, edge away from her, and hurry to catch up with not-Kakashi. Which I fail at because Ink-Boy is suddenly next to me with his incredibly annoying I-can't-in-good-conscience-call-it-a-smile that is putting me on edge because it looks kind of like Haku's I'm-going-to-kill-you face, only less peaceful. And for the following two minutes, he keeps staring at me with that expression.

I'm uncomfortable after two seconds.

"Something on my face?" I finally ask.

"I read that it is polite to introduce oneself before beginning a conversation," he answers.

I throw him a cool look. "I think you already know who I am," I retort.

His smile stays frozen, the way it did this entire conversation. Maybe it's a facial tick. Maybe it's not his fault he looks like that. "That is true," he informs me. "I have been debriefed on my teammates."

Teammates, he says. As if. These people will never be my team.

"And yet you saw the need to test me earlier..." I muse lightly. "Was your debriefing not thorough enough?"

"Sorry about before," he says insincerely. "I merely wanted to gauge the abilities of my new team member. I just didn't know how much I'd have to look after the weak bitchy crybaby."

And maybe his face is like that because he's a giant asshole.

"WHAT THE HELL, SAI?!" the redhead named Karin shrieks, apparently having eavesdropped. "THAT'S SO RUDE! SHE'S GOING TO HATE ME NOW!"

"My apologies," the newly named Sai says in an entirely unrepentant manner. "Harpy."

Karin does an amazing interpretation of Tora-the-cat throwing a temper tantrum and lunges at Sai with an incoherent scream. She doesn't get far, Yamato is suddenly behind her and holds her back. "Let me go!" Karin shouts, struggling valiantly. "I'M GONNA KILL HIM!"

"Calm down!" Yamato tries to speak to her. "He's your teammate!"

"Wow," I say. "We're off to a great start already. It's probably not enough to get us dissolved on the first day, but keep trying!"

Yamato throws me a look that says, I really expected better of you.

I shrug and give him a bored one back. Like hell I'm just going to accept this team. A temporary one for the duration of a mission, sure, no problem. But the way Tsunade phrased it, this is supposed to be my new team. As in, I'm not on Team Seven anymore. And that is unacceptable.

Also, Sai is an asshole and Karin is insane. The jury's still out on Yamato-of-the-many-names.

Karin calms down a tiny little bit. Sai is still smiling. Yamato heaves a sigh. "Just follow me," he mutters, and walks on ahead.

Neither Karin nor Sai move. Karin because she's still bristling like an angry cat, and Sai because he apparently has enough common sense not to want her at his back right now. He opens his mouth. "I meant no offense. I like ugly harpies like you."

Karin tries to kill Sai again.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The situation ten minutes later is beyond awkward. Or it would be beyond awkward if we were normal people. As it is, I only feel a tiny bit uncomfortable, mostly because of guilty pleasure. Karin's attempts at killing Sai were hilarious.

The girl in question is still fuming and therefore not capable of feeling awkward. Sai still has that annoying fake smile on his face and nothing about his body language suggests his feeling uncomfortable, so he doesn't feel awkward either.

Yamato... Well.

Currently, we're standing in a clearing. Karin is tied to a tree. Sai is tied to another tree. I was left free since I wasn't trying to kill anyone.

The interesting thing about this is that my definitely-not-teammates aren't bound with ropes or wires. They are bound by thin wooden branches which Yamato made grow around them, which means the guy can use Wood Release, the kekkei genkai of the Senju Clan. The kekkei genkai that only the First Hokage, Senju Hashirama, was able to use. Until now, apparently. Just who is Yamato?

I'm fairly sure that he has orders to observe me. Which explains his place in this stupid new-team arrangement. The terms of the bet Tsunade and I made stated that my movements weren't going to be restricted and I wasn't going to be followed around by ANBU guards. But having me watched by a team captain who just coincidentally happens to be a former ANBU doesn't violate those terms.

Well played, Tsunade.

That still leaves the question of my other so-called teammates. Karin works in the hospital, so she's probably a medic. Given my track record with injuries, a medic is a logical choice to put on any team I'm on. But Sai... he's around my age, but I don't remember ever having seen him in the Academy. And I would have remembered him. From our earlier fight, I know he has some serious skills, that ink ninjutsu he uses is definitely advanced. And that was just a clone of his that he used to test my abilities, his real self is probably capable of much more. When Karin attacked him, I saw how he moved, efficiently and gracefully, not one movement wasted. That boy has had some serious training. But where did he come from? The only explanation I can think of is ANBU, but that doesn't explain why he didn't go to the Academy with us. In times of peace, children below the age of ten aren't sent into the field, much less put into ANBU. There are laws about that. I don't remember the details, but the laws definitely exist.

Of course, the definition of 'peaceful times' is vague at best. So the laws can be... made to fit the situation. So if people with a lot of political influence push for it, a child can graduate from the Academy early and become a ninja regadless of a lack of war. But if that applied to Sai, I'd have heard about it, because he'd still have to have gone to the Academy and finished the course work. And that means if he graduated early, he would definitely have been hailed as a genius. So seeing as this is the first time I've become aware of his existence... that possibility is out.

The easiest explanation would be that he just didn't go to the Academy. But that's impossible. Every Konoha ninja starts out at the Academy, however short their stay there is. There are laws for that, too. I should touch up on them when I have time.

But Sai's background isn't important right now. What I really want to know is, why is he here, on this team? It can't be just to watch me. Yamato should have that more than covered. And I heavily doubt that he's just a placeholder to fill the last seat on a four-man cell. Teams are serious business, especially in Konoha. There has to be a reason why Sai and not anyone else was picked to be on this team that isn't Team Seven but has one of its members on it.

Considering Sai's lousy attitude, it has to be an important reason. That guy is most definitely not a team player.

"Please stop staring at me," the boy in question says to me. "I'll pound you."

I raise an eyebrow at him. "Sorry, I'm saving myself for marriage."

Karin and Yamato get mysterious coughing fits. Sai though gives me a blank look. "What-?"

"I'm not into bondage either," I tell him with a pointed look at the branches binding him.

The coughing fits get worse. I don't think Karin is breathing right. "I don't understand," Sai says.

"Obviously," I snort. "Stop trying to piss me off. You'll lose."

"I don't hold any malice towards you," Sai answers. "I'm just trying to display that kind of personality."

"So you do hold malice!" Karin yells, but I tune her out. Sai's words struck something in me.

Who is he when he isn't displaying that shoddy personality?

And what am I doing, getting interested? Next I know, I'll be emotionally involved. Which would be counterproductive to getting out of this team thing.

"Anyway!" Karin continues to yell, straining against the branches binding her. "All you do is piss people off! WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE?!"

"Hey, hey!" Yamato, who until now just stood to the side and tried to stop us via chastising looks, interjects. "Don't say things like that in front of your captain, Karin!"

"But behind your back it's alright?" I ask. He spares me a disappointed look.

"Teamwork and cooperation are the most important thing in a team. I thought Kakashi-senpai taught you that," he says coolly.

I open my mouth. Close it again. And ignore the little voice in the back of my head that whispers, he's right, he's right, you're wrong. "They aren't my team!" I snap instead. "My team is Team Seven! These... people... they can't even compare to Naruto and Sasuke!"

Silence follows my words. There's a horrible feeling coiling in my gut. I feel sick. Karin suddenly looks pale and sad. Yamato is frowning. But Sai... Sai smiles. "Well, I'm glad you think that way," he says serenely, and it makes me feel even more wretched. "I wouldn't want to be likened to a worthless pansy-ass loser and a two-faced prick obsessed with revenge."

My mind goes blank as my mind processes what he just said.

Pressure builds up. My skin feels to small for me. Static noise rings in my ears. And then Karin's voice cuts in and draws me back to the present. "SHUT UP!" she screams. "JUST SHUT UP! DON'T YOU DARE INSULT SASUKE-KUN IN FRONT OF ME! JUST WAIT UNTIL I GET FREE, I'M GOING TO PULL YOUR BRAIN OUT YOUR EARS AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR-"

The earth rumbles as wooden beams shoot up In front of us. Stone shards and chunks of earth fly everywhere. Chakra and Killing Intent flood my senses.

When it's over, Yamato stands in front of an enormous wooden cage. "We will be taking missions starting tomorrow. Until then, you need to have worked out your differences. You can either do that inside this cage, or we can go to the Konoha Hot Springs for an overnight trip." His eyes fix on me, whose hand is holding a half-drawn Shingi to Giri and whose stance has shifted to a defensive one when he made the cage. "Which will it be?" Yamato asks ominously. "I like being friendly... but I don't have any problems ruling through fear either..."

His gaze makes me feel tinier than an ant. His dark eyes are enormously big. They seem to grow larger and larger, as if to swallow me up. His entire face looks hungry, as if he wants to eat me and only leave bones as proof of my existence. Behind me, Karin whimpers in terror.

The shadows paint a terrifying effect on Yamato's face. Like it's illuminated from below by the fires of hell.

...He's holding a flashlight under his chin.

It's official, I think. This team consists of headcases.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Of course, we end up at the Konoha Hot Springs. No way in hell am I going to be put into a cage with Sai and Karin. At least right now, I'll only have to deal with Karin. Who is currently behaving in a very odd manner. Now, I already gathered that she's a weirdo what with her staring at me, but now her behaviour is downright concerning.

I sigh and stare up at the ceiling of the changing room in exasperation before turning to her. "You alright?" I reluctantly ask.

"I'm fine!" Karin squeaks out from where she is hugging herself, her fingers digging into the thick lavender fabric of her sleeves.

"Suuuure," I mutter.

She flushes. "I don't feel like bathing. I think I'm coming down with something."

Right. That is so believable. But then again, it's none of my business. I have enough problems of my own. There's really no need to add other people's, too.

I shrug. "Suit yourself." And with that, I start getting ready to bathe while Karin fidgets uncomfortably. A part of me wants to ask her about what is wrong, because it's so bloody obvious that she is not okay at all. But in the end, the words get stuck in my throat and I stay silent.

I seal Shingi to Giri into a seal on my wrist, then start taking my clothes off. Behind me, Karin inhales sharply. I spare her a glance. Her eyes are fixed on my numerous scars. Not in horror or disgust, that's not it. It's just... a really intense look, and she's biting her lips as if she wants to say something. But just like me earlier, she stay silent, so I wordlessly wrap a towel around myself and walk out of the changing room.

A minute later, I sink into the hot water, close my eyes, and lean back with a blissful sigh.

Ahh, this is the life.

For the first time since my return to Konoha, I really relax. The warm water does wonders to ease my tenseness. Not to mention, it's water. And the steam rising from it kind of reminds me of mist.

Water splashes as Karin flops down opposite me. I lazily crack an eye open. She's glaring at me with a defiant look, her arms crossed protectively in front of her. When I see those arms, I open both eyes and slowly sit up.

"Karin," I say seriously. "Who did that to you?"

Karin's arms, chest, and neck are riddled with scars. And they aren't battle scars. They are bite marks. Human bite marks. Some are faded. Others can't be older than half a year.

"It doesn't matter," she answers curtly. Huffing, she glares at a group of civilian girls who aren't exactly being subtle about staring at her in fascinated disgust. I form a seal. Mist rises up and obscures us from sight. Karin relaxes a little.

"Why doesn't it matter?" I ask. "The scars obviously bother you."

She huffs. "Only because of the looks people give me. My flatmate called me a freak the other day. Of course, she moved out yesterday without notice, so now I have to pay rent by myself and I'll probably lose the apartment because the landlord is an asshole-"

"Oh?" I ask mildly. "What's your flatmate's name?"

She shrugs. "Ami. Kuroda Ami."

I snort. "Purple hair and evil grin? Two walking bad hair days as best friends?"

Karin blinks."You know her?"

"Went to the Academy with her." I shrug. "I defeated her once by sitting on her."

Karin lets out a startled giggle. "No way! You've got to tell me about that!"

So I do. Karin turns out to be a good listener, now that she isn't being all worshipful or angsty like earlier. And it's kind of a relief that she isn't anyone who knew me before. I don't feel like I have to live up to any expectations. It's... nice, I suppose.

"I have a kekkei genkai," she suddenly says. "My chakra heals people. That's where the bite marks come from."

"Ouch," I blurt out.

"I know, right?" Karin agrees with a grin, but grows serious more quickly. "And I like healing, I do."

"But?" I ask.

She stays quiet for a moment. "My family wasn't native to Kusagakure - that's where I grew up. And it was just my Mom and me in the first place... it was fine until she died - terminal illness, you know."

"I'm sorry for your loss," I say quietly. She just nods, staring at her hands.

"Anyway, Kusa is a small village. And they're all about diplomacy and technique analysis when dealing with other villages. So they've always got ambassador-people from other villages staying there, you know? Constantly infiltrated. But they only trust their own people." She shrugs sadly. "I was never counted among those. When my abilities showed, they had no qualms about using them."

"You mean abusing them," I guess.

Karin just gives me a sad look. "Kusa's medical system isn't half as advanced as Konoha's," she says by way of an answer. "Anyway, things got better for me after returning from the Chūnin Exams - we didn't make it, but I really felt like my team finally accepted me."

"What happened?" I ask when she doesn't say anything further.

"The scientists wanted to try... recreating my ability."

They experimented on her, she doesn't say.

I feel sick. What kind of person am I, that I was so hostile against a girl that has been through things so horrible? Have I really become that bitter? With a foul feeling in my stomach, I reflect on everything I've said and done since coming back. The revelation isn't pretty. I've been an immature self-centred bitch with absolutely no discipline who let her bitterness control her. I was openly antagonistic to Tsunade, the leader of the village. Granted, she was being a bitch, but what I did wasn't any better. This person I've been the past days? I don't like her at all.

Clearly, I deserve to be punched in the face and Ramen Talked.

"So I ran away," Karin continues, oblivious to my self-judging. Which I stop to give her the attention she deserves.

"That can't have been easy," I remark quietly, still reeling.

She suddenly flushes. "It wasn't! I was running, and they were catching up, and then Sasuke-kun came and saved me! He was soooo cool!"

I blink. With everything going on, I forgot that she somehow knew of Sasuke earlier, seeing as she defended him with all the valiantness of an angered fangirl. But apparently, it's more personal than I thought.


She saw Sasuke.

"You saw Sasuke?" I ask. "How was he? Did he look alright? He won against the Kusa guys, right? Was Kakashi-sensei there, too?"

"Uhhh," Karin utters. "Yes? To everything?"

"When was that?" I blabber on. "Man, I haven't seen him in years. Did he say anything about when he would return to Konoha? Nah, probably not, that's all dependant on Kakashi-sensei's judgment, and good luck getting a straight answer out of him. He must have annoyed Sasuke so much."

Karin starts laughing. I break off my babbling and stare at her. She looks years younger when she laughs, and so innocent. Her laughing face looks kind of familiar, but I can't put my finger on it.

"Ne, you really like Sasuke-kun," she finally says teasingly.

I will myself not to blush. "Of course, he's my teammate and friend," I answer. Boyfriend.

Karin shoots me a knowing look. "U-huh," she makes. "So if I, hypothetically of course, told you I hit on him and tried to get him drunk and was all over him..."

I give her a tight smile. "I'd be very mature and forgiving about it. But hey, did you know that he has a fanclub that will rip anyone to pieces who gets close to him? Vicious, those girls. You probably wouldn't want them to find out about what you hypothetically tried to do..."

"Hypothetically, Sasuke-kun would have told me off by claiming to have a girlfriend," Karin huffs. "I don't go after taken men."

And hypothetically, we wouldn't want the fangirls to know about said girlfriend either, I don't say. No need to give her blackmail.

"That's good to hear," I say instead. "Hypothetically."

"Thanks," Karin suddenly says. I blink in confusion.

"For what?"

"Earlier," she answers. Like that's supposed to tell me anything. What I remember about 'earlier' is Yamato being a creep with a flashlight, Sai being an asshole, me being an awful bitch, and Karin attempting to kill Sai and telling me that I sparkle. What was that about, anyway?

"You know, when Yamato-taichō made that cage?" Karin elaborates, picking up on my confusion. "You jumped in front of Sai and me."

I shrug, a little uncomfortable. "I was just... reacting? I didn't even notice I did that..."

"So your first reaction is to protect people?" she asks, her eyes suddenly gleaming with admiration. Great, she's back to being weird! "That's so cool!"

"Right," I deadpan. "Anyway."

She edges closer with that look on her face. Seeing as we're both naked, it's weird.

"Anyway!" I repeat. "You said that I sparkle?"

She blinks, the look vanishes. It is replaced by an intoxicated looking one. She even drools.

"Karin!" I hiss sharply.

"Whaaaat?" she slurs. "Mmmmmm..."

I facepalm. The sharp sound makes her blink. Then her head snaps up and she jerks back, slips, and goes underwater. "Dammit!" she splutters when she resurfaces. I raise an eyebrow at her. She flushes in embarrassment. "I'm sorry!" she yelps. "It's just, I'm a sensor, and your chakra is sparkly! I've never felt anything like it." She edges closer again, her eyes closing. "It's like... Mmmm... you aren't really saving yourself for marriage, right..." She licks her lips.

"I am not something to eat!" I hiss at her, before I can even ponder that Karin must be an incredibly good sensor if she is able to pick up on magic, which so far no one has ever been able to sense when I wasn't doing anything with it. Hell, the byakugan can't even see it. The sharingan can, though.

"Deliciousss..." Karin garbles.

I drench her in cold water.

"Sorry!" she yelps as she falls over yet again. "I'm sorry!"

"Don't do it again," I say. "Please don't do it again."

Her eyes go all shifty. "Uhh... I'll try?"

I groan.

"It's not my fault!" she tries. "Really! It's like, my heritage! Uzumakis have no self-control!"

My jaw drops open.


▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Whoever put Karin on this team is an evil genius. Since she is apparently the only known family member of my best friend in the whole wide world... I can practically feel Naruto's puppy eyes from countries away.

"Ri-chan! You have to be friends with her! Karin-chan's my family, 'ttebayo!"

Though at this point, I'd have befriended her even if she weren't an Uzumaki. I've been completely unfair to Sai, Karin, and Yamato. They have about as much choice about being on the team as I do, meaning none whatsoever.

I think 'Team Headcase' might be a fitting team name.

Karin at least has potential. Sai... the kindest thing I can say is, he makes it hard to like him.

And Yamato is very obviously trying to buy himself into our hearts. First the Hot Springs, and now this.

"Whoa, awesome!" Karin squeals and hurries to sit at the table loaded with dishes of any kind. "I've never seen food this amazing!"

Sai quickly sits down, too, but his smile doesn't seem any more genuine than before.

At least I have a better fake smile. "I think we'll have to watch out," I say as I move to join Karin. "If we aren't careful, some other team is going to snatch Yamato-taichō away!"

Karin laughs. "Nah! We're keeping him!"

Yamato laughs sheepishly. "Don't expect this to be a common occurence. I don't have that much money."

"You mean you're paying for this yourself?!" Karin gasps while I eye the food suspiciously.

Food this amazing and expensive, for free? After that scene earlier that should have done anything but endear us to Yamato? Food that was already waiting for us when we came in, with Yamato as the only person in the room?

Yeah. Not eating that. I have a fairly good idea what the explanation for this is. And I don't like it at all.

"Itadakimasu!" Karin cheers, enthusiastically clapping her hands together. I mimic her with more restraint. Yamato nods amicably, and Sai does nothing. A moment later, they start in on the food.

Yamato watches us with too-attentive eyes.

"Aren't you going to eat?" he asks me. I smile at him.

"Everything looks delicious. I can't decide what to start with," I explain.

"Ripo!" Karin exclaims with her mouth full. "Pry thiv!" And she holds a bowl of tempura out to me.

I crack a forced grin at her and take the bowl. "Thanks," I say.

Yamato only relaxes once we're all stuffing ourselves with food. I, on the other hand, don't relax at all.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Naturally, I end up sharing the room with Karin. Naturally, I can't sleep. Not so naturally, that doesn't have anything to do with paranoia. It has more to do with Karin rolling from her futon, all across the room and onto my futon to put her no doubt vise like arms around me so I won't be able escape while she eats me. Astonishingly, she stays deeply asleep the entire time. Even when I deposit her back on her own sleeping place and the whole thing repeats, she doesn't wake up.

This leads to me escaping our room. I half expect her to sleep walk after me like a hungry zombie. Thankfully, she doesn't.

Man, having her on the team is going to be troublesome as hell. But I kind of... don't mind. Suigetsu was troublesome, too. Now I consider him one of my best friends.

My bare feet make no noise at all on the wooden floor as I navigate the corridors of the hotel, unseen as if I am no more than a ghost. A door slides open and fresh air caresses my face as I step out onto the spacious porch that overlooks one of the bathing areas. My feet carry me along slowly until I run into our team captain.

Of course, I knew he was there all along. Is what I'm going to pretend.

"Sleepless night?" I ask quietly.

Yamato makes his scary face. The flashlight thing looks even creepier in the dark. "You are unable to sleep?" he asks ominously, and I suddenly have visions of being made to sleep. Permanently.

I've got to learn how to do that. Haku would be so jealous! Especially if I combined it with the Flower Background Illusion, one of the few techniques that he couldn't puppy-eye out of me even though he really tried.

"It's funny, really," I answer Yamato flatly. "I couldn't sleep because I found something weird in my food." I shake out the right sleeve of my hotel-issued kimono and hold up the tiny seed. Yamato's face goes blank. "You know, I don't even mind if you track me. But I don't appreciate it when people on my team secretly put trackers into my food." The seed vanishes into my sleeve again. "I do understand that I am currently not trusted, and I do know that what I said earlier was unfair and mean. I'm sorry, I'll try to do better. But it goes two ways, taichō." I give him a serious stare. "Next time you put something in my food, you lose what little trust I have in you permanently."

He nods gravely. "I understand."

"Very well."

Silently, I walk back to Karin's and my room.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Karin is sleeping peacefully, drooling on her pillow. A tiny smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. There really is no doubt about it. She and Naruto are definitely related. The thought makes me ridiculously happy. But the smile fades when I remember how I spurned her and Sai after the meeting with Tsunade. And she just - forgave me. When I didn't even apologise. And considering she was living in a village that rejected her, abused her ability, experimented on her, and she carries the proof of that etched into her skin... and still, she is able to smile, to laugh, to trust people. How brave she must be, to actually follow me into the baths, bare her skin, and face all those looks.

I've been so blind. I thought I was being strong, pushing people away. Rejecting the girl I was back then, who trusted others and got hurt for it. But I was only running away. Karin is a thousand times stronger than me.

Something warm drips down my face. My hand wipes the tear away. I stare at it, staining my hand, glistening in the moonlight coming through the window. I weak chuckle escapes me, and I look at the still sleeping Karin who is now grinning goofily - probably dreaming about eating me or something.

I wonder if the Ramen Talk powers run in the family.

"Hey," I whisper softly. Karin doesn't stir. "My name's Nara Riko. I like my precious people. I dislike killing, even if I do it a lot. My hobbies include shōgi and swordfighting. My dream... I used to be happy with just what I had, but now... I want to be part of a certain group of ninja. It's kind of unrealistic, I'm from the wrong village and all, but I still want to try.

"But I guess, more than anything, I dream of a world without war." I sigh softly as Karin continues to sleep. "Where everyone gets along peacefully. Where people don't have to fear for their loved ones' lives. Where children grow up to be people, not soldiers. It's even more unrealistic than the first dream, but again... I want to try."

I turn away. With a hand seal, a Water Clone comes into existence. I hand her the tracking seed, change into my regular clothes, and slip through the window. A soft voice behind me makes me pause. "I'm Uzumaki Karin," Karin whispers. "I want to be friends with you."

"Done," I whisper back. "I'll be back soon. I've just got to talk to someone. Sleep well, Karin."

"G'night," she mumbles. Moments later, soft snores sound. In contrast, there is no sound from me as I disappear, heading into the village, through smaller streets and alleys. At this time of the night, no one is outside aside from the patrols ensuring the village's safety, and none of those notice me.

Instinct guides me into the familiar thicket of the Clan Forest, past the sleeping deer herd, only Rikumaru's ever watchful eyes tracking my passing. He seems to give me an encouraging nod, or maybe that's just my imagination or wishful thinking.

Then, in a clearing, I find Dad, looking up at the stars. And suddenly, I'm at a loss for words, because I wasn't really thinking when I headed for him, I just rolled with the idea. And now I can't figure out what to say. It's Too Much. I'm angry at him, I love him, I'm disappointed, I'm sorry, I'm scared, I need him, I don't want to need him, nothing makes sense anymore. Maybe I should just leave, he hasn't noticed me anyway-

"I missed you!" I blurt out. He whirls around to face me with wide eyes, and suddenly my eyes are burning and the words come tumbling out of my mouth. "I missed you! On the bad days, I needed you! And on the good days, I caught myself thinking how I was going to tell you all about my day. I wanted to tell you about new friends, I wanted you to see how much I've accomplished, I wanted you there to be proud of me, or just play a round of shōgi, or just be there! Everyday, I just - I mean - it wasn't - but you weren't there, and I missed you!" I roughly wipe my arm over my eyes. "And I didn't want to miss you, because I was angry at you, but I still did, and it just, hurt. I trusted you the most and you - how could you send me away?!" I stare at him angrily through my tears. "How?"

And then his arms are around me, pressing me against him, and my hands are clinging to his jacket while I sob. "I hate you," I whisper. "I missed you so much."

"I missed you, too," he says hoarsely. "Every hour of every day. And I'm sorry that I hurt you, but every time I see you here, alive and back home, I know I'd do it all over again, even if it means you hating me forever. You're my daughter, I love you, I'm so proud of you, even when you're yelling at me. You - I'm always going to be there for you. Even if you don't want me to, I'll be there when you need me."

I just press closer to him, or maybe he is the one pulling me closer, I don't know. My tears drench his jacket. My hair feels damp where his chin rests on it. Neither of us say anything more.

Later, we sit next to each other on the damp grass, both exhausted.

"This team thing, it's not temporary, is it?" I ask hesitantly.

"Officially, no," he answers.

I breathe a sigh in relief. "Good enough," I whisper.

"I have a mission for you," he says.

"Something to do with the team?" I guess, voice hoarse from crying. He nods.

"Keep an eye on Sai. I'm sure you have noticed-"

"Oh yeah," I mutter darkly. "I have."

"He wasn't chosen by Tsunade-sama or me to be on your team."

I frown. "Who chose him then?"

"It was supposed to be Tsunade-sama's advisors. They were concerned that you weren't... adequately protected. When Tsunade-sama conceded to let them pick, they deferred to Shimura Danzō in choosing the team member. Do you remember him?"

"Even if I didn't," I say darkly. "I've heard enough about him. So he chose Sai?"

Dad nods. "Sai is from the ROOT division of ANBU."

Now that's interesting. So my guess about ANBU was correct. And my suspicions about Sai weren't just paranoia.

"Let me guess," I say drily. "Danzō is involved in that division."

"Danzō emphasises military power and cold logic over diplomacy," Dad explains carefully. "He created ROOT, with himself as leader. The division was disbanded eight years ago and Danzō lost his position, but he hasn't changed his views."

"You think there's something going on with him," I guess. "And placing Sai on the team is part of some plan." Dad nods.

"Yamato is also keeping an eye on Sai, but you might see things he doesn't."

"I'll do it," I say. I chew at my lip. "Dad?"

"What is it, Riko-chan?" he asks gently.

"I was thinking... I've got a lot to figure out," I mumble, staring at the ground. "And I think I need some space. And Karin's looking for a new flatmate... I was thinking, maybe..."

He sighs. "You want to move out."

"I just - I know it's crazy, I only met her hours ago and she's really weird!" I say. "But, she's - she's helping me with stuff, I guess. Helps me see things clearer?" I end unsurely.

Dad sighs again and puts an arm around my shoulders. I lean against him cautiously. Things between us aren't alright by a long shot, but, they might get better in time. Like mom said, family has to stick together.

"You don't need to justify yourself," Dad says quietly. "To be honest, I was expecting your moving out. As long as you come visit, it's fine. It might be a good thing that you're moving in with the Uzumaki girl..."

"Why's that?" I ask.

"You have been mistaken for an Uzumaki before," he explains. "If you move in with Karin, the assumption will seem more likely, and your true heritage won't be questioned as much."

I sigh. "Somehow, I have a feeling that it might turn out more troublesome than you make it sound."

"It usually does," Dad says sagely. "But you know that I'm always going to be there for you when you need me."

"Yeah," I whisper. "Thank you, Dad."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

*Chapter 8*: Dawn Rising

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Dawn Rising

When I slip back into Karin's and my room, the sun is already rising. I figured I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway, so I decided to do my new friend a little favour and track down her misplaced former flatmate.

...let's just say Ami will be sure to pay the rent for this month and apologise for her rudeness. And talk to the landlord about her moving out. And inform him that there will be a new tenant soon.

I must have gone crazy. I'm moving in with someone I barely know, moving out of my childhood home into a flat I've never even looked at before. But I feel like it's the right thing to do. No idea how I'm going to break the news to Mom and Shika, though. Not to mention Karin. I probably should have asked her beforehand, but it was kind of a snap-shot decision. Then again, I don't think she'll mind, given how... enthusiastic about our acquaintance she was.

I wonder if all Uzumaki are so quick to make friends.

Thinking of her being an Uzumaki, I'll have to keep an eye out for her. I've been attacked before because of assumed relations to that clan after all, and I don't want the same to happen to her, especially given that she is a medic, not a fighter.

The clone I left with Karin dissolves after handing me back Yamato's tracker and reporting a quiet night. I settle in a corner of the room and spend a few hours meditating and trying to regain some balance to my emotions. I... don't want to be that angry and bitter person I was during the past days anymore. I was okay in Kiri, wasn't I? A bit screwed in the head, maybe, but no more than the next ninja. Why shouldn't I be alright in Konoha, too?

So I meditate until the hotel wakes up, employees start moving about, meals are prepared by the kitchen staff. I idly monitor chakras and listen to the general noise by chanelling chakra to my ears - a trick taught to me by my wacky summons during one of the few times they decided to be useful.

Of course, since they are the Loppy Ears, they are incredibly bad at teaching. Sharpening my hearing with a shouting rabbit directly next to me certainly was a unique educational experience that I'd rather not repeat. Of course, a week later, they taught me how to amplify my sense of smell, and the less is talked about that, the better. ("Smell this, idiot summoner! It's pepper!" "OW!")

I perk up when I note Sai's chakra stirring. First, he moves about the room he and Yamamoto share, then he leaves it, and settles on the rooftop soon after.

Well, I was getting bored with meditating anyway. I get up on my feet, stretch a little, and walk out of the room. After moment of consideration, I go back in, and write a note for Karin.

Good morning,

I'm on the rooftop to talk to Sai. If you hear explosions, that will be us.

Also, on a completely unrelated note, I might be interested in being your new flatmate.

Talk to you later,


I leave the note next to her futon, then I walk out again. A minute later, I'm on the rooftop and studying Sai. He sits there with art supplies spread around him, of all things. On his lap is a small canvas, which he's drawing on.

"Wouldn't have pegged you for the artsy type," I muse as I approach. "But I guess it makes sense, what with your ink technique."

He smiles. It makes something in my gut twist. His smile is just so empty. "Good morning, Riko-san."

"Good morning," I answer as I drop down next to him. "Why do you always smile like that?"

He smiles some more. "A smile is the best way out of a tough situation. I read that in a book."

My gut twists again, and I remember what Dad told me yesterday - that the shinobi of ROOT were once under the command of Danzō who values cold logic and military power. But I don't show my growing unease and instead tilt my head in what hopefully looks like innocent curiosity. "Why would you need to read a book to tell you things like that?"

"My training did not cover the details of social interaction," he replies, still with that empty smile on his face.

My unease grows. "Well, your book is generalising too much," I say lightly. "Smiles don't get you out of trouble in many cases."

"It didn't seem to work with Karin-san yesterday, even when I was paying her a compliment," he agrees, with just a tiny bit of confusion.


Sai is a robot-ninja.

And I'm emotionally invested.

"Weird, that," I comment finally. "About yesterday, I was out of line. I was having a bad week and I wasn't expecting to be assigned to a new team. I got angry and I took it out on you and Karin, and that wasn't fair to the both of you. I'm really sorry."

He blinks. I get the feeling that this is the first time anyone has ever apologised to him.

One day, I'm going to throttle whoever made him this way. Danzō, most likely. Which means I need to get the dirt on him so he'll get convicted and no one will bat an eyelash at my annihilating him.

In the meantime, I'm going to try and teach Sai to be human.

"Is this leading up to a confession of love?" he asks curiously. "Do you want to have passionate sex on a kitchen table and walk off into a sunset together?"




Deep breath, Ri.

"I don't know what kind of books you've been reading," I say in a measured tone, "but from now on-"

This is when Hurricane Karin hits, because apparently she has bat ears. "YOU! I WON'T LET YOU STEAL RIKO AWAY! SHE'S MIIINNEEE!" she shrieks as she leaps over me and tries to kill Sai once again. What she lacks in skill, she makes up for with enthusiasm.

Wow, she has a great right hook.

Sai is pretty good at evasion.

Mean kick there, Karin. Now if only it'd hit...

Whoa, Sai, put the scroll away, no ninjutsu at the Hot Springs... nevermind.

Note to self - don't piss Karin off.

Karin just kicked Sai in the nuts. It finally succeeded in wiping the smile off his face.

"You three." Yamato appears on the rooftop. He looks... kind of unhappy. Karin whimpers in terror. Sai is unable to do anything, curled on the ground as he is.

"Team bonding!" I blurt. "We were bonding. Sparring. Yeah. Karin wanted to demonstrate her special technique to Sai."

"Yes!" Karin babbles. "He needs serious help! With his current skills, he'll never able to successfully have sex on a kitchen table! Especially not with Riko if he ever touches her I'll-"

"Exactly!" I nod fervently. "See? We're getting along really well!"


Yamato still makes us wait inside his wooden cage after paying for our stay in the Hot Springs, and leaves us in there while he goes to get us a mission.

"...So," I say brightly. "We never did introduce ourselves, Sai. I'm Nara Riko."

"I'm Karin," Karin tells him. "But you can call me Karin. And don't even think about asking, I'm not healing your crotch."

Sai blinks slowly. I jump in before he can come to a conclusion on Karin's statement. "Anyway, Karin, did you find my note?"

Her face brightens. "Yes. Do you really mean it? You really want to move into my flat?"

"Sure." I shrug. "Why not?"

She squeals. "Awesome! When can you move in? Oooh, it's going to be perfect! We can do each other's hair and paint our nails and talk about boys!" She gives me an obvious wink.

"Uhh," I say.

"I've always wanted a sister!"

"As long as you don't eat me," I sigh, a tiny little bit touched. Uzumaki-Ramen-Talk Powers are a scary thing.

"Why would I do that?" she laughs. "I've totally got myself under control. Just because your chakra sparkles..."

"Don't ask," I mouth to Sai.

"..and is all shiny... and delicious..." She drools and shifts closer to me. "Ohhh..."

I'm getting locks for my room once I move in, that's for sure.

"Are you about to engage in sexual intercourse?" Sai asks.

"YIIIEAAAAUUUURGH!" Karin shrieks and launches herself at him.

Of course this is the moment Yamato reappears.

I look at him. "It is the beginning of a wonderful friendship," I tell him monotonously.

He is not amused.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"She is quite strong and fast. I am certain she was holding back when I tested her, but her skills are considerable."

"Did you succeed in befriending her?"

"I am certain she is sexually attracted to me. The other team member interrupted before she could finish propositioning."

A slow nod. "Very well. Build on your progress."

"Understood, Danzō -sama."

A pause.

"I arranged for Team Yamato to be assigned a certain mission. The objective is to retrieve a certain item before it can be handed over to a merchant from Lightening Country. Your task is this: Sabotage the mission and switch out the item with this fake. Make sure the fake reaches the recipient. Bring the original to me. Fool the team with another fake."

Two scrolls are handed over.

"Understood, Danzō -sama."

"You need not consider Nara's survival a top priority."

"Understood, Danzō -sama."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"So, Yamato-taichō, what's our mission?" Karin asks thirty minutes after we exited the gates, finally having gathered the courage to do more than shoot the man nervous looks. I can't blame her, he's terrifying when angry. The flashlight thing especially.

I wonder what administration has been smoking to send a team this dysfunctional out on a mission. That's just asking for trouble, which is entirely unnecessary considering I'm on the team and trouble inevitable.

"It's ranked A," Yamato informs us, still looking a bit miffed.

"A-ranked?" Karin asks with wide eyes. "Wow! What are we doing, saving a princess?"

"Nope, Tsunade ain't letting any member of Team Seven near a princess ever again," I answer. "Not after the mess in Snow Country."

"Snow Country? Hey, isn't that one actress from Snow Country? Fujikaze Yukie?" Karin babbles. "It's not like I'm a fan or anything... But did you meet her? Her movies are so amazing! I mean, just look at-"

"Right, not a fan at all," I deadpan. "She's the daimyō of Snow, you know."

"For real?" Karin asks.


"Huh. I didn't know that. That's cool, I guess. But I really like her movies! And I heard she got engaged to a co-actor recently!"

So the fact that Yukie/Koyuki rules a country is less interesting than her job and dating life. Good to know.

"We're meant to retrieve a certain valuable item," Yamato cuts in.

"Huh? Oh right. Mission." Karin gets back on track. "What kind of item?"

"A scroll," I answer.

"I wasn't aware you'd already been debriefed," Sai says with his fake smile.

I snort. "I wasn't."

"Then how do you know?" Karin enquires in confusion.

"It's always a scroll," I reply. "Always. Except that one time where it was a chair. Boy, that was weird."

"Chair?" Karin asks dumbly.

"Uncomfortable, too. Anyway, scrolls are major ninja bait."

"You don't know that it's a scroll," Yamamoto interjects, sounding a bit pissy. Probably because I keep ruining his moments.

"Sorry, sorry," I apologise. "Please, continue."

"The item we are to retrieve is..." Cue Yamato-Scary-Face and Karin's subsequent terrified whimper. "A scroll."

"Oh wow, what a surprise, a scroll," I say in monotone. "Told ya," I mouth at Karin and Sai. "So, what kind of scroll is it?" I ask.

"A valuable one," he returns helpfully. "Very valuable. Fifty million ryo, to be precise. And that is just what certain people are willing to pay for it, not considering the information within." Karin gapes, I raise an eyebrow, Sai's expression doesn't shift at all. Yamato does his scary face again. "So you understand that this mission is important and should not fail because of a lack of teamwork, am I right?"

"Well," I start, but cut off when he focuses his giant black holes of eyes on me until they are my entire universe.

"Am I right?" he repeats. Karin sobs silently in the background.

"Of course," I nod fervently. "Of course!"

Cue peaceful smile. "Very well!"

This man is bipolar. I swear it. And crazier than me.

"Where will we find this scroll?" Sai asks.

Yamato looks at me.

I get the feeling I'm not going to like this.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"But Kakashi-sensei made me promise not to break into castles full of enemies by myself anymore!" I protest. "'Riko-chan,' he said. 'Riko-chan, you do not infiltrate enemy castles guarded by ninja on your own, is that clear?' and if you think you're scary with that flashlight thing, you've never seen Kakashi and the Flower Background."

Granted, the Flower Background only made an appearanc long after Snow Country, after Kakashi spent a few weeks with Ninjin, but they don't know that and it was scary. The flowers were pink and sparkled.

There is a reason I never taught Haku that particular technique. That's where the friendship ends.

"Flower background?" Karin asks.

"Don't ask," I say. "Seriously. Don't. Don't ask about the Sunset of Youth either."

"Sunset of-"


Yamato clears his throat. We shut up. "Be that as it may, you now specialise in infiltration, this is your job."

How nice of him to not mention the assassination thing.

"Hey, I just thought I'd mention it so when Kakashi comes back, I can say I tried to resist," I explain. "And then he'll blame you."

Yamato droops. Seriously. He's suddenly so down, it's like he has his own rain cloud over his head. I feel like I've kicked a puppy.

Karin pats his head. "There, there," she says sweetly. "I'm sure it'll be fine."

"Sure it will!" I affirm hastily. "It's just the castle of some noble, guarded by some ninja and samurai! No big deal. All we have to do is walk in, find the damn scroll, and walk out. Piece of cake. No reason to worry."

Yamato gets a hold of himself. He coughs awkwardly once. "Yes. The scroll contains valuable information about the economy of Fire Country. The noble who currently has it - very influential and close to the daimyō's family - actually stole it himself, but because there is no solid proof and he is politically powerful, the scroll cannot be retrieved through official channels. Our information says it has recently been sold to a merchant from Lightning Country, and that the transfer will take place in the next few days."

"And because the guy is from Lightning, we can't take them out and impersonate them when the transfer happens," I deduce. "And they might have guards, too. From Kumo, even. If they are rich enough to buy that scroll."

"You're so smart," Karin gushes with glowing eyes. "So we've got to get the scroll before the Lightning guys show up?"

Yamato nods. "If need be, we are going to have to sabotage them, but we can't be seen, and we cannot injure or kill anyone of them because the diplomatic consequences might be... unfortunate. We're going to be splitting up in teams of two for this mission. Riko and Sai will be partners, and Karin and I are going to keep an eye on the man from Lightning and his entourage."

Sai and I exchange a look. He smiles. "Please take care of me," he says insincerely. "I look forward to working with you."

"So do I," I reply with a smile that is no more real than his.

"I will kill you if you touch her," Karin hisses darkly.

Sai continues to smile. "Your pathetic previous attempts were cute, harpy."


...It appears as if this is going to be my life from now on.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Team Headcase spends the following five days planning and preparing and trying to kill other members (Karin), eat other members (Karin), being obnoxious (Sai and me), and slowly but surely losing their fear factor (Yamato - his scary face is easy to break with jokes about morning wood). We also do ninja stuff like watching the guards of the nobleman's castle, discussing meeting points, escape paths, contingency plans, and attempting to train together. Failing, too. Karin's kunai mysteriously all fly at Sai while she flies at me, even if we're supposed to fight each other. Sai tries to win every fight alone. I'm busy fending off Karin, attempting not to kill Sai, and trying not to be a giant bitch. Yamato wis Yamato.

It's a troublesome week. But it's also a teensy tiny little bit fun. Best thing, no one bats an eyelash at my own weirdnesses. The fact we're camping in a spacious cabin Yamato made with his technique didn't hurt either.

Tonight, it's two nights before we're going to break into the castle.

I dream.

This dream is different.

The girl-that-isn't-me is no longer in a coma. She still looks horrible, but she's on her feet and holding herself straight with a determination that reminds me of Naruto's when he gets up after being beaten down. And even though she looks like she's going to keel over any moment, she's walking. Along a paved road, run-down houses in the background, with shoddy cars standing in driveways.

Cars. Driveways. Paved roads. Flickering streetlights.

I had already suspected it, but this confirms it: These dreams take place in England. But I can think on that later. I have to remember everything about this dream. About her. About the boy following her, gesticulating and arguing. For once, the dream isn't blurry at all, I can clearly see his features - a finely cut, somewhat pointy, aristocratic face, and pale blond hair. I've seen him around her before, but never in detail.

The girl suddenly stops, stance rigid. The boy looks confused, then rapidly pales, pulling at her arm, trying to drag her away, but for all that she looks weak, she doesn't budge while the boy panics.

And then I see what has him so scared.

Demons. They are humanoid in shape though way too tall, their figures covered by ripped black cloaks, but their hands are visible. They are greyish, glistening with... something. And the feeling in my gut... These things are pure evil, I know it. Frost seems to emanate from them, and the boy looks like he's going to make the run for it, but she grabs his hand and smiles at him.


Pokes his forehead.

I can't hear what she says, but her expression says it all. "Don't be scared. I will protect you."

The boy stares at her. I stare at her. Neither of us know what to do with this.

She never smiles. She never shows feelings beyond anger. She's supposed to be ice-cold.

The girl turns away, to the demons, and her gaze brush over the spot I'm standing in; and for a moment, it's almost as if she's looking straight at me, but then she's facing the demons, and her entire demeanor changes as she pulls out a thin piece of wood. Now she looks fierce and angry. She lifts the stick and yells something, and silver light explodes from its tip. A silver glowing deer bursts out and gallops straight at the demons.

"Rikumaru?!" I whisper incredulously, and the scene vanishes in a whirl.

I drop straight into Dementia's dwelling, freaking out.

"What the hell is Rikumaru doing with her?" I almost yell.

"I don't know!" she snarls back at me. "Why don't you tell me! It's your precious, precious friend!"

I take a deep breath, trying to calm down. "This isn't - okay. What do we know? She's magic. A witch. She's got a wand."

"We knew that already. Don't waste my time!"

"Oh, like you have so much to do, stuck in here!" I snap back. "She's in England. We didn't know that for sure."

Dementia snarls.

"Dammit, why weren't there any street signs?" I mutter. "We could've pinpointed the location..."

"And then what," Dementia sneers.

"Then we'd fucking know," I retort icily. "Dammit, do you have to be so bloody difficult? At least try to be helpful!"

She rolls her eyes. "The long lost twin sister theory is out now, seeing as your lookalike can't have met Rikumaru. Happy now?"

"Screw you," I retort. "She was different. And for a moment, it was as if she was looking at me. Thoughts?"

"Don't forget the forehead poke," she taunts, her lips pulling into a twisted smirk, eyes glinting shrewdly. "Maybe she is you, after all."

"Don't go there," I warn, starting to pull myself out of my mind. "I'm leaving."

"Mmm, who is the only person we've ever seen doing that?" she muses, her voice echoing after me as I leave my inner world. "Have you forgotten who gave you that cloak you love so much..."

Her cold laughter still rings in my ears as I open my eyes to the real world.

"Bugger," I whisper.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Two days later. The mission is underway. Sai and I made it into the castle, which is an enormous thing, visible from every point in the nearby city, towering over everything. It's ugly as sin, with big-ass walls around the place, and lacks everything that makes castles appealing. It was also hard as hell to break into, and even harder to navigate. The thing is an architectural nightmare, and guarded by both samurai and ninja. It's also the exact kind of place that I enjoy breaking into, and there isn't even an assassination involved, so cheers for me. The only downer is Sai, but as long as he sticks to the plan, we'll be good.

The plan being, don't get caught. That would just suck.

I should feel good about this mission what with all the precautions we took. But I'm uneasy. I've got a bad feeling. And that dream... it can't mean anything good. Because what if? What if the girl is really me? But how could that be? Nothing about those dreams makes sense. And this is definitely the wrong time to be distracted, because tonight, we're finally stealing the scroll. The man from Lightning is due to arrive tomorrow, and Karin and Yamato have gone to monitor his progress and delay him in case he's coming early. We're cutting it a bit close, but we needed the time for reconnaissance. So things wouldn't go wrong.

Yeah right. I did try to warn the team about my lousy luck, but I don't think they took it seriously. Maybe I could try again. "Hey folks, I had a weird dream. Let's call the mission off!"

I almost wished I had said that when, of all people, Shikamaru and Asuma showed up, on their way back from a mission of their own - I suspect that someone in Konoha actually got worried about my rotten luck and sent them on a mission in this area. Karin and I were checking out the city at the time when she pointed out two ninja's chakras which just so happened to belong to my brother and his sensei. Long story short, I made a few subtle remarks about our super-secret mission, followed by meaningful looks at the ugly castle, which means the mission isn't so secret anymore. Asuma and Shika decided they'd wait for us to finish the mission because then we would be able all go back to Konoha together, not because my brother is overprotective and wants to be there in case I need back up.

Unrelated to that, Karin was way too enthusiastic about meeting my brother, but she didn't try to eat him, so it wasn't too bad.

The point is, the initial situation has changed. There are more variables now. And even if they are good variables, it means that there are elements already out of control before the mission even started, and that might upset the whole situation. But there is nothing I could do about it, and I'm fairly sure that the pros outweigh the cons in this case.

Team Headcase split up when night fell. Karin and Yamato left to intercept the caravan the merchant from Lightning is travelling with. Sai and I broke into the castle.

Which led up to the current situation. At present, Sai and I are navigating a large corridor filled with all kinds of tasteless sculptures and horrid decorations purely designed to show off the owner's wealth. They also provide all kinds off hiding places which is a good thing, considering there are samurai patrolling inside. And thanks to Karin's sensing skills, we know for sure that there is a team of four ninja somewhere inside this building, but we know they aren't patrolling. Our best guess that they guard the nobleman and his family, or the scroll. Or maybe both. We'll find out soon enough.

Heavy steps approach. I dart behind a sculpture and pull up a genjutsu to hide myself, only belatedly realising that I'm hiding behind the statue of a naked man contorting himself. I cringe and hope that Sai doesn't notice. The boy in question is hiding in a perfectly innocuous niche not too far from me.

The samurai patrol comes marching down the corridor in rigid formation. The heavy suits of plate armour they wear make oddly little noise. With their facial masks, they seem alien to me, their outfits impractical. But from books I once read, I know that samurai armour is made with state-of-the-art technology; and has been designed to withstand a great variety of ninja attacks. Add to that the rigorous training they go through, and they make for dangerous opponents that one should never underestimate. Their skills in sword fighting are nothing to sneeze at either, I heard. So if we do get noticed, things will get troublesome.

And then there's suddenly a mouse running in the middle of the corridor. It looks like one of the ink mice Sai uses for reconnaissance, and what the fuck is it doing?! I throw a look over at Sai, but he isn't looking at me and his face is blank as usual, though the damn smile is absent.

This doesn't bode well.

The patrol halts. One of the samurai steps forward. I stare at the mouse with bated breath, trying to will it to do the sensible thing and run. Instead, it jumps at the samurai whose sword slices clean through it, reducing the mouse to a blob of ink.


I launch a genjutsu at the samurai, but only one of them drops down, so I'm forced to jump out from behind the naked-man-statue and attack the samurai physically. "Sai! Bind them!" I order.

Sai does not do a fucking thing.

Because he's not there.

Double bugger.

The asshole probably went to get the scroll himself, leaving me to deal with this shit. I curse silently, and with a few handsigns, water chains materialise and wrap around the samurai, tying them together, but their armour protects them too well for me to knock them out with senbon or anything less than lethal force, and I'm not supposed to do that in my own country against employees of an influential nobleman.

One of the samurai twists his wrists and I can only watch as a black pellet shoots out from his armour. It hits the ground.

It explodes. Loudly. Any samurai in the vicinity will have heard us.

Triple bugger.

Sai just managed to bring every single guard in this goddamn ugly castle down on my ass.

Fuck my life.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Meanwhile, Karin

Karin is enjoying this part of the mission decidedly less than the week leading up to it. Sure, Yamato-taichō's chakra is nice and stuff, but the guy is scary, and he isn't Riko.

Oh, Riko... My one true idol...

Karin sighs happily. Riko might be the first real friend she has ever made. Of course, there's Sasuke-kun, but she isn't really close to him... Maybe when he came back to Konoha, she could invite him? To her and Riko's flat, because Riko was going to move in and it was going to be so so perfect and they could be like sisters! Her brother Shikamasa even approved! At least, that was what her intuition told her when she met him earlier.

His name was Shikamasa, right?

Yes, her life's looking up. Sure, Sai is annoying as hell and like, totally into Riko what with his constantly hitting on her, but she's Karin's. Friend. Karin's friend. Future flatmate, fellow redhead, and they were going to be like sisters. She just Knew it.

As soon as this annoying mission was done. Crawling through woods is not her idea of fun. How embarrassing would it be if she came back with branches in her hair? The horror! And there was a perfectly usable road just twenty feet away! Just because they couldn't be seen... and because Yamato-taichō was really scary... Why couldn't she be partnered with Riko? So strong, so cool, and the only one never scared of Yamato... along with Sai, but that's because Sai had no feelings, he'd even said so himself. So he doesn't count.

Why did she have to be here again?


And it had only been one-and-a-half hour of traveling at civilian speed.

She perks up. "I can sense them!" she says. "Wait, isn't it a little early? They weren't supposed to be this close already!"

"We'll have to delay them," Yamato-taichō answers unhappily. "How much time until they arrive?"

"Uhh..." she frowns, stretching out her senses. "Fifteen minutes? They aren't that fast, it's a huge trek. They've got twelve ninja with them." She bites her lip. Karin is good at what she does, but her fighting abilities are... not that great. Her taijutsu is more brawling than anything, combined with dirty tricks like hair-pulling and nut-kicking. Her ninjutsu is mostly medical, with the exception of the chakra chains, but those are a bit unstable. Genjutsu - she can break it and do simple illusions, but nothing that would fool anyone above the rank of chūnin. But hey! Yamato-taichō is really strong, he could handle all the fighting while Karin cheered him on!

Speaking of Yamato, he's doing his Mokuton thing and growing a tree that promptly falls right over the road. And he's making the roots in the ground move so the road will be all uneven and slow carriages down and stuff.

Great, now Karin feels useless. Why isn't she with Riko again? While Riko is with Sai? Who will be hitting on her the whole time? UGH. UGH.

So in an effort not to be completely useless while Yamato-taichō works, she keeps her senses on the caravan. Its sheer size astonishes her, but then, the guy is paying 50 million for a scroll. He can certainly afford to travel in style.

They slowly come closer. Karin kind of wishes they'd be faster. The wait is killing her. She never was a patient girl. Does that make her a bad ninja? Probably.

But. She is good at what she does. And as long as she can heal people... that's all she needs. That's all she wants. That, and not to be lonely anymore.

The first carriages should come into view any second now. They should probably get to hiding. Twelve ninja guards, and strong ones from what she can tell, are too much for the two of them to fight. They're only supposed to delay them anyway. So Karin signals Yamato-taichō and slips into the foliage, close enough to observe with her chakra sense, but far enough to not get discovered and hit by any stray attacks, just in case they get discovered. Her partner meanwhile slips into the earth, and that's smart, he can attack from below without getting caught, and with all those roots in the ground making the road uneven, if a carriage wheel breaks, no one will think it was a ninja sabotaging them! She grins. Maybe this mission isn't that bad. In a few hours, they'll be able to go home, and she'll have the entire trip to impress Shikamasa-niisan. Wait, she probably shouldn't call him so familiarly already. Shikamasa-kun. That sounded good. Yes.

Finally, she thinks. My life is looking up.

This is the moment everything goes wrong. This is the moment two chakras enter her sensing range. This is the moment her legs give out under her from sheer fear.


Monsters are coming.

She has to warn Yamato-taichō! Get up! Come on! Her legs shake badly as she gets up and hobbles toward the caravan, and it gets worse the closer she gets to the monsters. The monsters that are heading right for the caravan. Are they additional guards? Oh kami. They're all going to die, she has to warn Yamato, warn Riko, warn Sai! Come on, legs, don't give up now! Just a little further!

She's too slow. She's too late.

Fire illuminates the world. Incredible heat hits her, even from the distance. She can feel all the chakras vanish, all that life, all the precious, precious little lights, just gone and tiny pieces of her heart with them, and she screams. In the heat, her tears evaporate from her face.

This, this, these aren't ninja. They are forces of nature, and she's as helpless as a newborn kitten.



Karin is good at what she does. Karin is the best sensor of her generation. And even in this distressing situation, she never loses track of Yamato's chakra. She feels him attempting to travel further into the earth to escape the heat even as he weakens. And stops moving, his chakra, his life, draining away. But it's there. And Karin runs. As close to the heat as she can, because it'll be a cold day in hell before she lets a comrade die. And this is hell, and it ain't cold, so Yamato won't die today.

She slams her hands on the ground. Chains made from pure chakra burst from her hands and dig into the earth, flickering and unstable, but holding as she wills them to Yamato-taichō's location in the ground.

And she's so scared. Scared that it'll be in vain. Scared she'll die. Scared for her comrades.

And scared because she can hear the monsters talk.

"Heathen! Shoulda left some fucking sacrifices for me!"

"Quiet. Time is money."

Then they're gone, leaving Karin's heart and mind racing as she fishes for her partner.

Money. One of the monsters is after money.

The scroll her team has to retrieve is worth 50 million ryo.

Oh kami, please no.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


The samurai keep coming. The whole corridor is filled with them. I'm just glad I hid my hitae-ate.

"Water Chains!" I hiss, and capture one samurai. And then I swing him into his companions, taking three of them out. But for every one I take out, two more seem to take their place.

One swings his sword, lit up with chakra, at my back. I abandon the chains, jump up, and stick myself to the ceiling.

Below me, the swords of dozens of samurai light up with energy as my opponents ready their attacks.

Infinite bugger.

*Chapter 9*: Abomination

Shikamaru sits on a rooftop, staring in the direction of the castle, the stupidly well-guarded castle, that his sister is currently breaking into. Asuma-sensei joins him and calmly lights up a cigarette. The scent used to annoy Shikamaru, but now it holds a certain level of comfort.

"Aren't you being a bit overprotective?" his sensei asks, a chuckle in his voice. "Your sister has gotten pretty strong."

"She's also pretty stupid," Shikamaru answers. "And her luck is troublesome at best."

To the east, the sky lights up in an inferno, as if hell had come down to earth. Shikamaru and Asuma are on their feet instantly, racing towards the fire.

"Point taken," Asuma says lightly, but his eyes are dead serious. "What was your sister's mission again?"

When they arrive at the site, it's obvious that there are no survivors. The only thing left for them to do is to contain the fire. Thankfully, Shikamaru has a storage scroll filled with water with him. Because it might come in handy someday. Just in case Ri got herself in mortal danger and needed some water.

He is not overprotective.

"Shikamasa-kun?" a weak voice asks. "Asuma-san?"

Who the heck is Shikamasa?

Shikamaru turns around. For a moment, he's distracted by the red of her hair, but the voice was not his sister's. "You're Karin," he remembers. "Shit, sit down, you need a medic."

The girl looks like death warmed over. She's shaking, her eyes are sunken in, and from the singed state of her clothes, it's obvious she only just narrowly escaped the fire. Her arms are uncovered and he can clearly see the scars riddling them, including the fresh bite mark near her left wrist. She's leaning against a tree for support. "I'm fine," she says shakily. "I've got a fast recovery rate. Give me an hour and I'll be right as rain."

"Karin?" Asuma appears. "Are you alright? What happened here?"

"Yamato-taichō and I were supposed to delay the caravan," she whispers, hugging her arms around herself, trembling. "And then those two... they came out of nowhere and k-killed everyone, I felt it h-happen... Yamato-taichō got hurt in the fire, he was hiding underground and I couldn't w-warn him, but I got him out, I h-healed him, he's back there." She jerks her head at the forest behind her, absently scratching at the fresh bite mark. "You've got to - you've got to get to the castle now!" she says with sudden desperation. "They're after the scroll! Riko and Sai, they were supposed to steal it, they don't know they're coming, what if they die, please-"

Shikamaru is running before Karin could even finish the sentence.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


I'm pretty sure this is the worst case scenario. Every samurai in this castle is attacking me. There's only the ninjas missing.

"Surrender," one of the samurai intones, his voice oddly distorted through his face mask. "You cannot win, kunoichi."

I sigh.


"One chance to back down," I say softly. "Only one. I won't hold back if you refuse."

"Attack!" the speaker from before shouts, making me sigh again.

No one ever backs down when I offer them an out.

The samurai swing their swords, sending crescents of pure chakra at me, but they only hit my afterimage as I shunshin down, my own sword drawn. Armour is sliced through, and one man breaks down. Then another. And another. One comes at me from the front, sword already swinging downward to cleave me in two. I sent him tripping into one coming at me from behind, but yet another one takes his place, and this time, Shingi to Giri slices up to block it, coated in sharp, sharp chakra that cuts through the samurai's chakra coated sword.

There is little Wind Chakra cannot cut.

My secondary affinity is weak, but I'm ace at using it in combination with my sword. And now I'm really glad I trained it.

Two samurai attack me from both sides and again only hit an afterimage while I shunshin a few feet away, right onto the shoulders of a particularly large enemy. Cuts and stabs rain down on those surrounding me. By now, the corridor is full of unconcious samurai, but more are coming still. I'm wasting precious time, and I've got to keep an eye on Sai. Plus, there's a sinking feeling in my gut. Like something horrible is about to happen. The last time I felt like that... was before I dyed Sapphire Lake red.

Screw the mission. I'm getting Sai, and I'm getting out of here. And then I'll find the rest of the team, and Shika and Asuma, and run like hell. After I deal with the goddamn samurai.

After the next shunshin, I henge myself into a samurai. And while they look around for me, I call up my good old friend, the mist. Within seconds, all around me is pure white, even sound seems muffled - for them, but not for my sharpened hearing. A hand seal later, and two water clones silently form, immediately getting to work on knocking the samurai out while I run along the ceiling and the hell away from the enemies. Channeling chakra to my nose, I follow the scent of ink that Sai exudes, taking care to dodge all the samurai still heading to the scene of the earlier fight. With every passing moment, the bad feeling in my gut gets worse.

We have to get out of here. Stupid Sai, what was he thinking, running off like that and leaving me behind? I'm going to punch him so hard. And then I'll beat some humanity into him. And when Naruto is back, Sai will get the Ramen Talk. Oh yes.

The farther I run, the less samurai I encounter. In that sense, Sai's plot was ingenious. He used me as a distraction and as a result he can now move about freely because all the samurai are heading to fight me. If it didn't involve throwing me to the wolves, I'd admire the strategy. But as it is, I will punch the living daylights out of him instead.

Sai's scent grows stronger the deeper I advance into the castle. I can tell he moved with purpose, which just pisses me off because it means that he was intentionally misleading us before. If he'd just asked, I'd probably have agreed to be a distraction, or let my clones be ones. He's putting the entire mission at risk.

Great, and now I've lost his scent. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to spray perfume all over the corridors? Ugh. I pull back the chakra from my nose.

Guess I'll have to do this the old-fashioned way. Yay.

Okay, if I were a thieving noble, where would I hide an incredibly valuable stolen scroll I'm not supposed to have? Probably not under my pillow. Somewhere well-guarded. There is a team of ninja stationed here somewhere... Surely, they are meant to be guarding the scroll?

It's a start, at least.

Another possibility would be for the nobleman to carry the scroll on his body and have himself guarded by ninja. But a noble of this pedigree, who is also favoured by the daimyō, wouldn't risk carrying such hard-evidence around with him unless he was very arrogant and cocky. Or stupid.

Regardless, if I find the ninja guards, I'll likely find the scroll. So I start sensing for chakras. Unfortunately, I have nowhere near Karin's skill, and I keep getting distracted by samurai-chakras. I can't make out specific chakra signatures, either, unless they belong to people I know well. So it's bit like searching for a needle in a haystack.

When I finally do find Sai, it's pure luck, because there are no chakras to sense here whatsoever, seeing as Sai's is suppressed and the ninja guards are dead on the ground. That bastard. We weren't supposed to kill! We didn't need to kill! I could have gotten the scroll, which sits right in the middle of the room on a pedestal, without anyone noticing.

Wait, who puts a super-secret 50 million ryo scroll on a pedestal for everyone to see? Either the lord is very confident in his security, an utter moron, or it's a trap.

My bet's on the last option. Sai has obviously considered this too, and examines the pedestal. He finds a few wire traps and a nasty security seal, which he quickly disables.

This is when I decide to make myself known. But before I can drop down behind him and give him the shock of his life, voices approach. Posh, distinguished voices.

"...Rude," a nasal voice sneers. "To think they'd arrive early."

I have to hand it to Sai, he works quickly. In a matter of moments, he's sealed away the bodies and created ink copies of them. The traps are back up, and the scroll is switched out for a fake.

I get a sick feeling in my stomach.

Sai planned this from the start. He wasn't just on an ego trip where he wanted to do everything by himself. This, this took preparation, and information. Why else would he carry a scroll that looks exactly like the original? God-fucking-dammit, he would have gotten away with it, too! I just assumed- I should have noticed. But he's just always so empty and clueless.

Kami, I can only hope Karin and Yamato are okay. That merchant shouldn't be here already. What the hell is going on?!

I'm scared.

This is all wrong.

I don't want another massacre.

A nobleman in elaborate robes enters the room, accompanied by two samurai. They don't notice either me or Sai, both of us concealed. They don't notice the fake ninja guards.

And then Sai drops down behind them and it's too late for them. He takes them out with efficiency, killing all but the noble so quickly that I don't even have a chance to stop him. Then he grabs the fake scroll from the pedestal, transforms into the nobleman, and leaves with the ink-ninja.


I don't waste any time and drop down to check the lord's vitals - his pulse is strong, he's only unconscious. Why he was left alive, I have no idea, but I doubt he'd admit to anyone that the scrolls were switched. Or that he had them in the first place. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if whoever instructed Sai (Danzō, my mind whispers) would use this as blackmail.

And then I let out a bitter laugh, because there's a scroll-shaped bulge in the nobleman's wide sleeves, and the realisation that Sai switched a fake scroll for another fake scroll is just too... ridiculous. There he goes, leaving me to die - because no matter what I thought earlier, that's what that was - and betrays the whole team, only to fail at the last obstacle. He betrayed us for nothing.

It's just too damn sad.

I snatch the scroll and get the hell out. I've got to check on the rest of my team.

Screw Sai.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I slip out of a window and sprint toward the towering castle walls, anxious to get to Karin and Yamato, or Shika and Asuma. That terrifying feeling is getting ever worse, something is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I need to know what it is, but I don't want to know because the last time... I'm fucking terrified.

I should have listened to my gut this morning.

With ease, I start running up the wall, expecting shouts of alarm to raise, but it stays quiet. Too quiet. Deadly quiet.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

All the guards that should be patrolling on the castle wall are dead. Not just dead, but mutilated and ripped to pieces. A part of me screams in anguish. I shut it down and let the battle-cold come over me as I inspect the corpses.

Two attackers, I think. One using a large blade. Hardly any clean kills, likes to see people suffer, gets off on the pain of others. Those faces look terrified. The other one... I grit my teeth at the sight of the corpses that were literally ripped to pieces. Efficient. Ruthless. Thorough. They're all one-hit-kills.

It's a massacre. I run along the wall, but it's just corpses everywhere. Until I see something curious, a sign drawn on the ground. A triangle, surrounded by a circle. It's drawn in blood, fresh blood. It has to mean something, but I haven't the faintest clue what it might be. Shaking my head, I run on. Just a little further, then I'll jump off the wall where it's closes to the city, find Shikamaru and Asuma; and after that, Karin and Yamato.

The large front gates of the castle wall come into view. They are wide open.

The merchant's caravan is nowhere in sight.

That cannot be. Our information said that the noble thief offered the caravan lodgings on the castle grounds. And earlier, I heard the man himself complain that they'd arrived early.

Double infinity bugger.

They never arrived. Because it isn't them. It's whoever took out the guards. Someone else is after the scroll, some ruthless killer; no, two ruthless killers, but they won't get the scroll because I have it. While Sai will hand them a fake. Sai, who used me as bait and left me to die, who was going to fuck up this entire mission from the start, who endangered all of us; Sai, who is a traitor. He's going to die, just like I would have if I'd been as weak as he seemed to assume I was.

I press my eyes shut, clench my fists, grit my teeth. I want nothing more than to run. Why should I care about that traitor? He brought it on himself.

I bury my face in my hands.

"Those who abandon their teammates are worse than scum."

Shut up, Kakashi.

"The pain of losing a precious person... It's the worst, isn't it?"

Shut up, Haku.

"I don't let my comrades die."

Shut up, Ren.

Sai abandoned me first. He's not precious to me. I don't even see him as a comrade.

I'm scared.

"Fuck that shit, you weak little bitch."

Piss off, Demon-sensei.

"They shoulda called you the Bloody Drama Queen of the Mist."

Fuck off, Suigetsu.

"'Course you're strong, Ri-chan."

Dammit, Ruto.

"Stop running, Yasumin."

"Augh!" I throw my hands up. "Screw all of you!"

I start running.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


A smile is the answer to most of life's problems, the Root agent assigned to the name 'Sai' knows. Smiles are helpful in appearing trustworthy. They discourage aggression and inspire friendship. An angered person may be appeased with a smile. Smiles invite romantic interest.

Therefore, he smiles as he approaches the merchant and his assisstant in the luxurious entrance hall of the castle, accompanied by his ink companions. They are far more reliable than the members of his team, for Sai is the best of his generation.

(It isn't that he prefers the clones over real people. He has no preferences. It is just that his clones work far more efficiently.)

"The scroll," the merchant rasps. He's a tall man with an aristocratic face. The assisstant is tall, too. His mind flips through his knowledge and classifies them as 'intimidating looking'. The average civilian would exercise caution in their interaction with them. The nobleman he is impersonating though would do no such thing faced with a mere merchant.

"Of course," Sai answers, adding a noble accent to his voice, and taking care not to let his smile slip. He hands over the fake scroll. "A pleasure doing business with you," he recites from a book on social interaction.

The man takes the scroll. A tight knot in Sai's chest uncoils.

Mission accomplished.

He had done well. Now all that was left was to collect Nara Riko's body, dead or alive; and meet the rest of the team to hand over the second fake to the team leader.

The merchant crushes the scroll in his hand. "You dare deceive me?!" he roars. "You dare cheat me out of my money?!"

Sai's eyes widen. The forgery of the scroll was perfect. How-

The merchant's hand separates from his arm and shoots forward, too fast to dodge, and grabs his throat, threatening to crush it. He stares in confusion at the hand that is attached to the arm by dark grey strings, bridging a distance of two meters.

This was not included in the mission parameters, he thinks dully as he attempts to pry the hand away and gasps for air, the same way a civilian would do in this situation. He still has a part to play.

"Where is the original," the fake merchand demands, letting up on the pressure so Sai can answer.

Sai smiles.

"I know not what you spea-rghghh." Abruptly, his air is cut of again, his sight grows blurry. His transformation dispels and his ink clones collapse. The enemy's eyes narrow, and more of the dark threads shoot out from the man's arm and efficiently search his body. Both the fake scroll for his team and the original one are pulled out of his backpack, along with his supplies, equipment, and the book he'd drawn for his brother, the book that meant something even though it shouldn't.

Sai is dropped to the ground, coughing. A kick slams into him and smashes him into a pillar. Pain registers in his brain, but he is used to pain. What numbs him is that one thought.

I have failed the mission.

It's all over. There is no room for failure in the Root. He is but a mere tool of Danzō-sama's, and now he is broken.

Smoke puffs out as the two men release transformations. One of them smiles and says something, but the words don't reach Sai's brain. The man grabs a large triple-bladed scythe made from red metal.

Sai is scared. He isn't supposed to be able to feel fear, but right now, he does.

The scythe flies at him with deadly precision. And then, suddenly, all Sai sees is red. The kind of colour that had his fingers itching to draw it everytime he looked at it. Not the red of the clouds on those cloaks the two enemies wear, but a rich, beautiful colour.

Sparks fly and metal shrieks as Nara Riko blocks the scythe with her sword, the red of the metal not holding a candle to the colour of her hair. And then she jumps back, grabs him, and the world vanishes into a blur, and he only just manages to hold on to one single thought.

Why is she here?

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


It's not my best shunshin. I could blame it on the fact that I've got Sai as baggage, but the truth is, I'm freaking. The fuck. Out.

Akatsuki. Those guys are from Akatsuki. S-rank ninja, and not just that, but Akatsuki S-rank ninja. Itachi-level S-rank ninja.

We're screwed.

The landing is hard and choppy. I only managed to get us up a flight of grand stairs leading up from that pretentious-as-hell entrance hall and into the large corridor behind it. Cursing, I check Sai's injuries. Bruised ribs, head injury bleeding like hell, definitely a concussion - fuck, what is this, what am I doing, I should be running instead of healing him.

"You bloody fucking idiot, I'm going to fucking murder you for this stunt, you just fucking got us killed," I hiss under my breath while healing his head. "Fucking Akatsuki, I should have fucking run, fuck, fuck, fuck."

"...Why," Sai croaks, eyes slightly unfocused.

"Shut the hell up, don't talk," I snarl.

"Why do you heal me?" he asks, sounding stupidly confused.

"Fuck you!" I snap back. "You aren't allowed to die until I've punched the living daylights out of you, you miserable idiot!"

"But why?" Hell, there isn't even pain in his voice even though his injuries have got to hurt like hell. But all he sounds is confused, and broken. And for the first time, he acts as if my words matter to him, and I think, I could crush him right now in every way. "Why did you come?"

I snarl again and pull him up by his collar, all the while not stopping my medical jutsu. My eyes, shining bright green, are reflected in his black ones. "Because," I growl. "That is what teammates do. You're a traitor. You left me to die. Planned my death, and probably Yamato's and Karin's, too. And I want to know why you did that. I want to know who you did it for. And I want to know who the fuck taught you that it's alright to betray comrades, and then I'm going to kill them. And so help me, I'm going to beat humanity into you if it's the last thing I do, so that you'll know exactly how much of a piece of shit you are for what you attempted to do." I rip my hand away from his head, my healing somewhat done. "I saved you because I don't let teammates die. Now get up, we're getting the fuck out of here."

"But I failed my mission."

"How the hell can you think about a mission right now?" I hiss furiously. " If we stay, we're going to die, and the mission's over anyway! Better run now so we won't fail in the future!"

He lies there, face blank and empty. "I have no future. I have no past. I have no name and no feelings. All that exists is the miss-"

I grab his collar and slam him into a wall. He winces as his injuries act up. "Don't fuck with me," I growl. "You are here. With me. Your name is Sai and if you ever say something like that about yourself again then you're going to have a lot of feelings and all of them will be pain. Do you understand?" I lean forward so we are nose to nose and all he'll be able to see will be my eyes. "You're my teammate and if anyone tells you that you don't exist beyond a mission, they are wrong and I'm going to annihilate them."


"Do you understand?!"

I never get to hear the answer because the floor under us explodes and I'm hurtled through the air and lose track of Sai. Wind jutsu, a part of my mind spits out, and Shingi to Giri finds its way into my hand. I light it up with wind chakra and start cutting through the technique, spinning around in mid-air like a whirlwind, drawing a cocoon of sword strikes around myself. I'm still thrown into something - ceiling or wall, I'm not entirely sure. Something under me breaks and I fall down down down and only just manage to land heavily on my feet, my muscles protesting. Sai is a few meters away from me, on his feet, too, but looking entirely out of it.

Something slices through the air. I throw myself to the side and that horrible scythe thing buries itself into the floor where I was just crouching. One of the Akatsuki laughs. "Fucking heathen bitch, I'm gonna sacrifice you!" Slicked back silver hair, purple eyes, I recognise him from the bingo books. Hidan. S-class criminal from Yugakure, mass murderer, highly dangerous. And the other one, tall, black mask, and cruel eyes that are red except for the green irises - Kakuzu. From Takigakure.

Screwed. That's what we are.

"Not until she has revealed where the scroll is," Kakuzu says impassively. Hidan throws his head back and laughs loudly.

"Jashin-sama will make the bitch talk!" He swings the long metal cable attached to his scythe and it whizzes through the air again. I hastily flip to my feet and away, but that horrible thing - just being near the weapon makes me sick - slices throught the air after me, Hidan controlling its every move, and it's only by sheer luck that I manage to narrowly dodge the first three attacks. But by the fourth, I've been driven into a corner, and there's no evading. I only just manage to raise Shingi to Giri to block the scythe, but the force of the attack slams me into the wall despite my chanelling chakra to augment my strength. From the corner of my eye, I see Sai lunging for Kakuzu with his ninjatō drawn and be batted away like an annoying fly, crumpling against a wall, but then that scythe flies at me again, and I throw myself forward, diving under it and rolling over my shoulder to get to my feet, and just as I think I've gotten clear of the attack, something slams into my throat and lifts me off the ground, my sword goes flying. It's Kakuzu's hand, attached by dozens of writhing dark grey threads to the rest of his body, grabbing my throat. I dangle in front of him uselessly, clawing at his hand for I can't breathe.

"Man, Kakuzu!" Hidan complains. "Don't screw around with my sacrifices, you fucking heathen!"

"Do not get in the way of my profit," Kakuzu returns coldly. "Kill the spare."

"Not the fucking same!" Hidan yells. "Jashin-sama wants the bitch first!"

His partner ingnores him and eases his grip on my throat at tiny bit, allowing me to draw a desperate breath. "Girl, where is the scroll," he demands.

"F-fuck you," I gasp out and slice through the threads attached to his hand with a sword made from water. Hundreds more threads shoot out from his arm stump, aiming for me and the severed hand. I shunshin back, right in front of Sai to deflect the scythe aiming for him. Don't touch that thing, I think. Don't.

"Here." I throw Sai a scroll and some ink in between dodging and deflecting, mind racing. The truth is, we have about a snowball's chance in hell. I don't even have time to do handseals, and I heavily doubt I could get them with genjutsu, even the Bloody Flower ones. Hidan on his own, maybe, but both of them? No way. Taijutsu is out, too. With that disgusting thread-thing Kakuzu has going on, getting close would be suicide.

"Ninpō: Chōjū Giga!" Sai says behind me, and finally, he's doing something to help. Five ink snakes speed toward Hidan, two get destroyed by the scythe on the way, but the other three make it and wrap around the man. I run at him immediately.

And then his hand holding the cable attached to his scythe jerks. I throw myself to the ground as it sails over me, a few strands of hair fluttering to the ground.

The scythe sails through the air and buries itself in Hidan's torso. Sai's ink snakes are destroyed. Ink drips to the ground.

I stare in horrified stupor as Hidan grins and yanks his weapon out of the wound that should have been a lethal wound. No way. Impossible. He can't be immortal.

Kakuzu's hand flies at me again. I throw myself to the side. Right into the path of the scythe. My eyes widen as it flies ever closer. I lift my sword but I just know that I won't be able to-

"Ninpō: Chōjū Giga!" Sai shouts again. Three of his ink lions jump between me and the weapon. It tears right through them, but it gives me the time to throw myself around so it flies past me, only just nicking my cheek. But the cable catches on my arm and I go crashing to the ground with a yell. Sai covers me, more of his ink creations charging Kakuzu, keeping him busy and buying me time.

Hidan laughs, and his scythe flies in his hand. He's now standing in one of those triangle-in-a-circle things I saw earlier. The symbol gives me the creeps, the same way his weapon does.

With a manic expression, Hidan lifts the blade of his scythe to his mouth. There's a drop of my blood hanging from it.

Stop him, my instinct screams at me. My fingers fly through seals.

"Suiton: Mizurappa!" I shout, and blast a large jet of water from my mouth and through my hand, injecting it with chakra and who knows what else. The technique blasts Hidan off his feet, sending his weapon flying and washing the blood on it away.

"Wind Style: Pressure Damage," the deep voice of Kakuzu intones. A tornado-like blast of wind sweeps toward me and Sai.

"Water Style!" I yell, rapidly forming seals. "Water Encampment Wall!" From my mouth blasts an enormous amount of water that doesn't quite have the time to form a barrier before me and instead just collides with Kakuzu's wind technique. The force of the collision throws me back a few steps. My technique is easily overpowered. I'm hurled of my feet an through the air. My back collides with something, but it breaks under my body.

I land on grass. My body bounces of the ground and then skids to a stop. Gasping for air, I look up.


The entire wall of the entrance hall is gone. The structure of the castle groans ominously, looking as if it's going to come crashing down. If it does, half the castle will be destroyed. But I can't worry about that right now. Ignoring my bruised body, I get to my feet again, facing the two Akatsuki members that are slowly approaching, unstoppable forces. Sai is to my right. He didn't get off as lightly as I did. His leg is a bleeding mess, and he seems to have lost the scroll I gave him.

To think this is how I'm going to die. I lift my arm, reach out with my fingers. Shingi to Giri comes flying into my hand. I hold it out in front of me.

One of them. I'm taking one of them down with me.

They come closer. Hidan is grinning manically. Kakuzu's eyes are cold, promising death.

And then they freeze. Out of nowhere, Asuma crashes down in front of them. His trenchknives gleam with chakra as he charges, and Hidan's head rolls to the ground. But then the writhing mass of Kakuzu's threads explodes from his body and Asuma has to retreat so as to not be torn to pieces. The threads whip around seemingly uncontrolled, ripping through walls and pillars. "Shikamaru!" Asuma yells.

"Water Style: Water Cannon!" I shout, and spit a beam of boiling water right into the writhing mass that is Kakuzu. At the last moment, the threads form a protective barrier around him.

Shikamaru drops down next to Asuma, grim looks on both their faces. "Sorry for the delay, Ri," he says without taking his eyes off the enemies. "Your other teammates are alright."

"Took your time, didn't you?" I say shakily. "Thanks."

Hidan's head laughs.

Hidan's head.


While lying on the ground.

While his body still stands.

I think I'm going to throw up.

"I'm gonna fucking sacrifice you fucking heathens!" the head screams. I wonder if my horror shows on my face. "Jashin-sama demands your fucking suffering! Oi, Kakuzu, fix my damn body!"

"Quiet, Hidan," Kakuzu drones. I fight the urge to stagger back as he takes a step forward. Threads pick up the head. Pierce through skin. Attach it to the body and sew it on.


Shikamaru and Asuma look every bit as freaked out as I feel. Sai just stares.

Kakuzu's glare fixes on Asuma. "It seems money came looking for us."

Money. He wants money. The scroll. Asuma's bounty. But the scroll is worth more.

"Shika," I croak. "I need one minute. Can you buy me one minute?"

"Yeah," he says. "Ninpō: Kagenui no Jutsu!" His shadow, cast by the lights from the castle, writhes. Stretches. And charges off the ground, straight at the enemies. I don't waste any time and fall back, biting my thumb. Pull the scroll out and scrawl a bloody message on the outside.

"Akatsuki. Help."

My fingers twist into seals. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

The neon green rabbit appears in a puff of smoke. An explosion sounds from where the fight is going on. "HIIEEEH!" Flash Ninjin Seven shrieks in fear and attempts to jump right into my face. I catch him in a well-practised motion and cradle him to my chest.

"Hold still!" I order, quickly strapping a holster on his back.

"Things are exploding! I wanna go home!" he wails, squirming and batting his paws against me with the strength of a newborn kitten. "Sucky summoner!"

"Shut it!" I hiss. "You can run in a moment, I just need you to-"

A scream of pain.

"ASUMA! NO!" Shikamaru screams. I look up.

Asuma is hanging in mid-air. Dozens of threads are stabbed into his body. Blood drips on the ground. His cigarette drops from his mouth, his eyes wide with pain and surprise. Shikamaru screams his name again.

Hidan's scythe whistles through the air.

"Water Chains!" I shout. A single chain forms. Loops around the cable. Pulls.

The scythe slams into the ground a hair's breadth past Asuma's neck.

I breathe out shakily. "Ninjin, I need you to run to my father, okay? Just follow the street southwards."

The rabbit trembles in my arms, terrified. "Don't wanna!"

Lightning sparks along Kakuzu's threads and slams into Asuma. He screams. The smell of charred flesh and burnt hair pervades the air. Shikamaru gags. I don't. The scent kills off any fear and brings the battle calm back to me.

Kakuzu looks right at me. "Girl. The scroll. Or he dies."

Oh, but he's going to kill Asuma anyway, isn't he, to get his bounty? I know it. Shika knows it. He still gives me a pleading look, silently begging me to make this nightmare stop, to save his teacher, to slay the monsters and make the world right again.

There's nothing I wouldn't do for my beloved brother.

Ninjin whimpers. "Tell Ume-chan that I love her!"

I ignore him and slowly hold up the scroll. "You mean this scroll?" I drawl lightly, subtly shifting my stance. Kakuzu's eyes fix on the item in my hand. Verify that it's the original. I smirk at him. "Come and get it, asshole."

The scroll slips into the holster on Ninjin's back. I grab the rabbit by the scruff of its neck and hurl it in the direction of the castle gates to our left, as far as I can. "IIIIYYYYAAAAAIIIIIIHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh..." Ninjin screams, the noise quickly growing distant. Kakuzu's eyes widen and follow the scroll, his attention taken off of me for just the fraction of a moment.

It's all I need to shunshin in and cut Asuma free.

The water chain that deflected Hidan's scythe earlier wraps around Asuma's limp body and throws him out of the danger zone. "Sai! Get him out of here!" I order sharply. "Take him to Karin!"

"DODGE LEFT!" Shikamaru screams. I throw myself to the side instinctively, something crashing down where I just was, my sword going flying again. "OTHER LEFT, IDIOT!"

"Shut up!" I yell back as I get to my feet, just in time to see Kakuzu's threads launching at Asuma and Sai. Shikamaru's shadow pierces forward and loops around the threads, giving Sai time to hoist Asuma up on an ink bird - he must have gotten back scroll and ink - and take off.

Kakuzu hesitates for only a moment. "You will die for this," he promises me darkly, then he's gone, running after where Ninjin disappeared to.

He won't catch him. Ninjin runs faster than anyone.

I flip back to evade a scythe from a manically laughing Hidan, and land crouched next to Shikamaru. It's just us two left now to fight this monster. "Now would be a good time to pull out an S-ranked whipping technique," he mutters.

"I'll keep it in mind."

"So, Assassination Expert," Shika says, a strain in his voice, but he's keeping it together. "We've got to defeat an insane and unkillable S-ranked ninja. Any suggestions?"

I give him a strained smirk back. "I do like a challenge. I love you, Shikamaru."

"I know," he says. "Don't talk as if you're going to die. You are not going to die."

"I'll do my best," I promise quietly.

I slowly get up on my feet, eyes fixed on the monster that is Hidan. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Call Shingi to Giri back to my hand. Raise it in front of me.

Hidan might be S-ranked. He might be Akatsuki. He might be a monster.

But the Bloody Flower of the Mist is a monster too.

*Chapter 10*: God Killer

I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

God Killer

"Water Release: Water Dragon Whip!" I yell. Water coats my arm. Forms a large whip that grows longer and longer until it feels as if there's an entire river attached to my arm. It settles into the shape of a fierce dragon with glowing eyes.

I swing my arm. The dragon smashes through rocks and trees, going straight for Hidan. Who jumps up, flips to evade, and swings his scythe. It bites straight through my dragon. I curse as my S-ranked technique collapses into nothing. That damn scythe isn't normal.

The fight isn't going too well.

Hidan's manical laughter rings in my ears as I perform another flip to evade Hidan's scythe. I throw a barrage of needles at him, but he twirls the cable of his weapon around and all the projectiles are deflected. The scythe then speeds toward Shikamaru and right through him - it was just a clone. Using the enemy's moment of distraction, I flicker closer to him. "Suiton: Suijouki no Jutsu!" I take a deep breath and blow a mass of billowing steam at Hidan, only to flicker back.

"BITCH!" he screams. Impossibly fast, his scythe comes whistling towards me. I throw myself to the ground, holding my sword over myself for extra protection. It works for a moment, but Hidan's weapon just comes back to slice me, and this time, I have no way to evade. But then the scythe jerks away and clatters to the ground.

"Kagemane no Jutsu: Success," Shikamaru drawls. I breathe a sigh of relief as he makes the cursing Hidan drop his weapon. "Ri! Now!"

"I know!" I yell back as I run at Hidan - if I can just decapitate him, this time he'd be out for the count with no one to reattach his head to his body. I have to do this fast, I can already see the strain on my brother's face from holding someone as strong as Hidan with his Shadow Bind technique.

My sword draws an arc through the air, the metal gleaming in the light coming from the lit castle windows.

And then the ground under me explodes. Searing pain travels along my leg as I'm flung into the air and thrown back. I hear Shika yell, hear Hidan laugh, "Your technique wore off!" Dust obscures my view. My ears are ringing, and I'm dizzy. I only just manage to turn to my side before I throw up. Shit, the bastard got me good. When did he even put explosives in the ground? I try to get up again, but my balance is so off I have to press a hand lit up with healing chakra to my ear.

Too late, I see the scythe coming for me. I try to shift away. It's not enough.

Ice cold metal bites into my arm. Blood gushes out and I scream. My body freezes as something changes. It feels as if something has a hold of me, like I'm being trapped in a spiderweb made of ice. Shit, I knew that weapon wasn't normal!

Hidan jerks the scythe back to himself. I grit my teeth and continue healing my ear. Shikamaru drops down next to me, and relieved, I take in his mostly unhurt form. "Ri!" His eyes sic on my arm, and he rips off his shirt sleeves and wraps them tightly around my arm. "Can you fight?"

"Yeah," I mumble. My eyes settle on the enemy, who's watching us with sick glee. His feet draw a symbol with blood on the dirt, a triangle within a circle, the same symbol I saw earlier when I found all those slaughtered guards on the castle wall. I get to my feet, absently pressing my healing hand to my leg, done with my ear. The arm will just have to hold for now.

"GEHAHAHA!" Hidan laughs. "Prepare to be judged by Jashin-sama, you fucking heathen bitch!" He lifts the scythe to his mouth. I blast a jet of water at him. Shikamaru sends out his Shadow Stitching Technique.

Pain blooms in my limbs and chest. My legs give out. A horrible weighty feeling drops over me.

"Fucking hurts, doesn't it?!" Hidan laughs. His appearance has changed, now his skin has turned back, with white bond-like markings on his skin, making him look like a terrifying grim reaper, like demon. Water drips from his chest, where my attack hit him. Shadow threads are stabbed through his limbs. The exact spots where I feel pain. "LET'S SAVOR THIS PAIN TOGETHER! EVERY INJURY ON ME WILL BE YOURS! REJOICE IN JASHIN-SAMA'S JUDGEMENT!"

The implications hit home only a moment later. Shikamaru's eyes widen in horror as he makes the connection. I see his Shadow Threads tremble as he realises that his attack hurt me. "Keep it together! We can do this!" I order sharply. His face hardens and he nods.

Hidan strains as Shikamaru's shadow starts pulling him out of the circle. I grit my teeth at the pain. "Sorry," my brother says. "But if we get him out of that circle, his technique will cancel and we can kill him."

"I know," I answer, my hand still pressed to the injury caused by the explosion earlier. "It's not that bad."

"As if I'd let you stop my ritual, you fucking heathen!" Hidan screams, attempting to resist.

"Ugh," Shika groans. I sense for his chakra levels. They're dwindling rapidly.

Shit, shit, shit.

I finish patching up my leg and get to my feet, trying to think of a way to stop Hidan without killing myself in the process.

Chakra surges. Not mine or Shika's. Hidan's. "RAHHHHHH!" he screams as strange, raw chakra bursts from him.

And Shika's shadow threads are torn apart. He drops to his knees, breathing hard.

Hidan pulls out a long metal spike thing, a sort of spear I think, grinning manically. "Gehahaha! Where should I stab first, Jashin-sama! Leg? Gut? Heart? Brain?"

I growl and start doing handseals.

If we can't get him out of that circle...

"I know," Hidan hisses and points the spear at his abdomen. I feel the blood leave my face. "Girls always scream when I stab here! Go on and on about having brats! HAHAHA!"

...then we'll just get the circle away from him!

"Suiton! Suishouha!" I scream.

Water Release, Rising Blast. Half of my chakra drains away as water materialises from thin air. And more water. And more water. It surges up, covers the ground and rises, creating a tidal wave that I blast straight at Hidan, washing him and his ritual circle away. When it's over, the whole area is covered with eight feet of water, Shika and I standing on it. My own personal lake.

"Whoa, Ri," Shika comments.

"Sorry, this is gonna make it hard to use your shadow," I mutter back.

"I have hardly any chakra left, anyway," he replies. "Got any explosives?"

Wordlessly, I hand him my kunai pouch.


We look up. Hidan stands glued to the battered wall of the castle that looks like it's only held up by a miracle. I send a quick prayer that any residents, servants, and samurai evacuated, because it's only a matter of time before the whole thing comes down.

"How long can you hold out against him?" Shika asks in English while Hidan continues to rant.

"You got a plan?" I ask back in the same language.


"How long do you need?"

"...Twelve minutes."

I nod. "Okay."

"Don't die." He vanishes, and then it's just me versus Hidan.

"Y'know," I say pleasantly, interrupting Hidan's swearword-riddled tirade. "I usually offer people the option to surrender before a fight, but I don't think I'll do that for you. Your organisation threatens my best friend, you know? And you hurt ninja of my village. Not to mention you're trying to kill me."

Hidan screams in rage and whips his scythe toward me. I flip out of the way, hitting the blade away from me with my sword. Hidan jumps at me, his spear aiming for my gut. I shunshin in mid-air, landing behind Hidan while he stabs an afterimage, and launch a kick at his spine. It's like kicking a wall, the impact reverbarates through my whole body. Mentally cursing, I jump back while he spins around with a kick of his own, followed by a stab with the spear. I shunshin again, white flower petals bursting everywhere. And again. Over and over, until a dozen of afterimages are littering the surroundings and the air is filled with flower petal illusions, creating a flimsy layered net of genjutsu around him. He roars in anger, breaking the illusions. But it's no use for him, I create them faster than he can break them.

"FUCKING HEATHEN SLUT!" Hidan screams, his scythe swinging around in a wide arc and destroying five of my afterimages. The cable catches on my heel and smashes me into the lake I created. Hitting the suface feels like hitting concrete. The cable around my ankle jerks and yanks me out of the water again. Hidan laughs. "JUDGEMENT TIME, BITCH!"

The scythe speeds towards me. "Riko-Rasengan!" I shout and smash a glowing orb of spinning water into the flat side of the blade, blasting it away before it can hit me. It pulls the cable taut and me attached to it out of the way of Hidan lunging for me with his spear brandished. I crash feet-first into the castle's wall and tuck into a roll to absorb the impact, managing to shed the cable around my ankle in the same motion.

The wall groans ominously. Cracks spread under my feet as it starts to crumble. With a horrible breaking sound, the structure ceases to hold, the walls crumbling down, windows shattering, floors falling apart, roofs caving in. I curse as I shunshin away.

When it's over, all that's left are pillars and metal beams, the skeleton of what was once a proud if ugly castle. The back half of the castle and parts of the side wings are still partly intact, I can look directly into rooms and heavily decorated corridors. It doesn't look as if anyone's still there, they must have fled.

It's only been four minutes.

I bite my lip and duck behind a large piece of wall. Hidan is nowhere to be be seen, but I still sense his awful chakra. It's so large however, that I can't pinpoint the location.

If this fight were only about me, I'd hide away and attack only if I got a good opportunity. But Shikamaru is still here, and I promised him twelve minutes of distraction. I can't risk Hidan finding him. Which means I have to draw all attention to me. But I need to be careful. I've already spent a ton of chakra.

"Water Release, Water Armour," I whisper, water creeping over me and settling in a second skin. Carefully, silently, I step out from my hideout.

It's eerie, standing in the ruins on my own, the water splashing occasionally as rubble slips into it. The moon has come out and dimly illuminates the scene. I swallow dryly, almost wishing that Hidan would come out now because I can't stand the tension. But only almost. Every second he isn't here is a second I'm giving Shikamaru.

A spike in chakra is my only warning. I don't hesitate to run up a stone pillar without even looking to see where the attack comes from. Below me, Hidan's fist crashes into the pillar which crumbles, forcing me to jump on another one. He runs after me and he's fast. And strong. The first hit I block reverberates in my bones, making my arms useless. I jump back and do my best to just evade. Shingi to Giri falls from my hands, but with a backflip I catch it with my right foot, sticking it to my sole with chakra. A spinning kick from me nearly takes off Hidan's head. He growls, his scythe returning to his hand, and I throw a quick genjutsu over him as I vanish in a shunshin. I appear in the air above him while he yells, "COME OUT AND FIGHT ME YOU LITTLE BITCH!", and attempt to cleave his head in two with the sword still stuck to my leg. He notices me at the last moment and jerks his scythe in my path and I'm forced to abort the manoeuvre. A kick to my stomach drives all the air from my lungs and sends me crashing into a pile of rubble, and I'm just glad for my water armour as wood and stone breaks under me.

I'm an assassin. I'm more about subtlety than raw strength and incredible techniques, which I couldn't use right now anyway because my arms are numb. Until they're back to normal, well...

"You could always let me out," Dementia taunts at the back of my mind.

"Let me get back to you about that later," I think back. "As in, never again."

A whistle of air alerts me that that damn scythe is coming for me again. I grab a conveniently hanging metal beam and bat the blade aside with it while I draw myself from the rubble.

"You need me," Dementia almost purrs.

"Not exactly. I've got seven minutes left to distract him. I'll manage," I shoot her down. "Since I can hold that for seven minutes. We'll talk again if that goes wrong."

No answer. I kick at what looks like a piece of roof away. And come face to face with Hidan. Who still stands on the stone pillar. With his skin dyed black and white bonelike markings all over his body, a demonic grin on his face.

He stands in his ritual circle. He has the cable of his scythe in one hand and the spear in the other.

"Face judgement, heathen!" he growls and plunges it straight into his chest.

I drop like a stone, pain wrecking my body. I cough wetly. Hidan cackles. "Hurts, doesn't it, bitch?"

Yeah. Yeah it does. It hurts a lot.

But hurt is all it does.

I lift a trembly arm and press a finger to my neck. "Kai!" I hiss.

Power floods my coils. Muscles stretch. My nails sharpen. Wings rip through my skin and burst from my back. My vision sharpens. All numbness fades from my arms and I grab my sword from my foot and get up, glaring at Hidan.

"Yeah, it hurts," I say. "So what."

Shock paints his grotesque face. "HOW?!" he shrieks. "YOU ABOMINATION! YOU MONSTER!"

There is something immensely satisfying about being called that by something like him.


And stabs the metal spike straight into his heart.

I don't fall this time. But I can't stop the gasp from escaping my throat and my hand from clutching my heart at the sensation of it being stabbed. "HOW?!" Hidan screams again. "WHY WON'T YOU DIE!"

I raise my sword at him. My free hand starts forming seals. "Looks like your god has no power over me," I answer evenly. "Let's call it magic. Suiton: KIRISAME!"

Water Release: Drizzling Rain.

Hundreds of thousands of white glowing water droplets form in the sky above us, in the air around us. And then they descend, like arrows, like bullets they shoot down, slicing through everything in their path. Pillars crumble as they are punctured through, rubble is pulverised. Hidan screams and I only see him raise his scythe above himself for protection against the death raining down from above. The droplets falling on me just gently drip off my skin, but I feel the agony as they rip into Hidan, his pain transferring to me.

Now this is what I call an S-ranked jutsu.

"You," Hidan hisses hatefully, his bleeding form somehow still standing. "I will erase you from the face of this earth! Your entire existence is an insult to Jashin-sama! "

I snarl at him. Crouch down and spread my wings. And jump. Barrel straight into him and smash him through the pillar, a clawed hand buried in his chest. Grab a rib, break it, and rip the piece out. He screeches like a pig and tries to stab his spear into my wing, but I deflect it with the bloody rib. Shingi to Giri slices down. Sparks fly as it clashes with the scythe in Hidan't hand. I hiss angrily and abruptly pull one knee up to stomp it right into the bleeding hole in his chest. He smashes straight into the water with a yell while I flip and land on the surface. Shingi to Giri slides into its sheath, my fingers twist into seals. Grimly, I slam my hands onto the water surface. "Shindo Futan!"

Depth Charge.

A shockwave blasts from my fingers into the water and momentarily compresses it beneath my hands.

The things is, water is non-compressible. And that means that the compression will disperse through the water body. And crush everything in its path.

I bite back a surge of Bad Memories as I use what destroyed Sapphire Lake. A gong-like sound sweeps through the air, like a death bell it rings.

Shakily, I take my hands from the water surface. No way he survived that. No way.

"Damn you for making me use this," I whisper. I cough a little as I start walking slowly towards a large rock. Sitting down sounds like a real good idea to me. I rake a slightly trembly hand through my wet hair. I'm going to have nightmares for sure. "Shit," I mutter.

And then I freeze. Turn back around, disbelieving.

Dark, black, chakra, not from this world. It gathers in the spot I crushed Hidan in. More and more.

I turn and start running. My wings spread and I leave the ground behind me and charge straight into the night sky.

Below me, my lake is destroyed. All the water is blasted away as if a bomb had gone off, and leaves only a crater in the earth. The shockwave sends me hurtling through the air, but my flight stabilises soon enough and I look down at what used to be Hidan.

Now he isn't anymore. Can't be. Impossible. Impossible. I press a trembling hand to my mouth.


Gift? No.

That is no gift.

What used to be Hidan is now a pile of pitch black bones, assembled into something that vaguely resembles a skeleton, but the proportions, the sizes, the connections, are all wrong. In the place of flesh, the disgusting black chakra wafts around its bones, roiling and curling in a way that makes me think of maggots. Instead of eyes, gleaming yellow light rest in its eye-sockets, making the skull look even more demonic.

In its clutches, it grips the hilt of the scythe that is wrapped in that chakra, too, no, it's not wrapping around the weapon. It's coming from it. The scythe is the source of it.


"No you won't," Shikamaru says coldly. "Earth Release: Rock Pillar Prison." The ground shifts. Cracks start to form. Pillars of rock shoot up and surround Hidan, forming a prison cell.

"I thought I still had two minutes," I breathe shakily, because Shikamaru is the last person I want anywhere near this monster.

"I hurried," he replies.

"AS IF THAT WILL STOP ME!" What used to be Hidan screams and throws itself against the prison bars. They start cracking. Shika grits his teeth, I sense his chakra flaring. He must have taken a soldier pill considering how low his reserves were before. But that won't save him against someone like Hidan.

He shoots a look up at me. "Stay where you are," he orders.

I glare down. "Shika-"

"Trust me, you troublesome girl."

I don't get a chance to answer. Hidan's next assault shatters the prison bars and he goes straight to attack my brother, who just barely manages to jump back and deflect the scythe swung at him with a kunai. Mid-jump, he throws a barrage of shuriken at Hidan who doesn't even bother defending, the weapons just bounce of his bare bones. When Hidan charges at my brother again, I dive down. The resulting crash of my curse-enhanced form against his demonic appearance resounds like thunder, rattling my bones. Snarling, I attempt to rip his head off, but his strange dark chakra burns like acid, so I settle for kicking him away.

"Okay, so don't stay where you are," Shika mutters.

I forego answering, mostly because Hidan is charging at us, roaring in anger and way past the point of coherent speech. I block two of his hits and bat away his scythe, but then he manages to grab one of my wings and flings me away into and through another pillar. I feel something rip through the membrane of my right wing, but the pain is negligible in the face of everything. I growl as I shake rubble off of me. My eyes immediately lock on the Hidan-thing lunging for Shikamaru, snarling and screaming incoherently, but looking like it's trying to catch smoke, because Shikamaru evades it at every turn, as if he knows its every move before it happens. An enraged roar tears itself out of Hidan's throat, an attempt to skewer Shika with the scythe goes wide; the genius he had in wielding it lost in the throes of his wrath.

"You don't scare me," Shikamaru says cooly.

My brother is a badass.

But even badasses make mistakes, so I run forward again, only my seven minutes are up and my wings are starting to retract, my cursed form retreats, cold spreads in my limbs. I grit my teeth. Just a little longer, come on, come on...

The transformation back to my normal form halts. But the Hidan-thing is already almost at Shikamaru's throat, and I can only watch as my brother only just manages to evade, a deep cut on his cheek showing how close he came to dying. But he flips back and is fine, and when Hidan leaps after him, his spear lifted to stab into my brother's chest... He freezes. Screeches. "HOW?!"

Shika drops to his knees. I land next to him and do the same, the curse finally retreating and leaving me cold, cold, cold. Shikamaru points at the ground at Hidan's feet. There are two knives there - Asuma's trenchknives. "Those," Shika rasps. "Store chakra. You jumped right into my technique." He gets up, grabs my collar, and drags me to my feet and away. "And now you're done." He cuts at a wire. It snaps. So do at least a dozen other wires. And the Hidan-skeleton-thing is ensnared in wire; wire that is lined with dozens of explosive tags and flash tags and what I identify as... faulty storage seals. That'll make a big boom.

"Nice," I mutter through numb lips.

"Yeah," Shika says and covers my ears with his hands. "Kaboom."

The world shakes. The resounding explosion rattles my bones. The light is blinding even with my eyes pressed shut. Shikamaru presses his face into my shoulder.

And then it's over. There's just a crater left and bones strewn about. Shikamaru slowly gets up, unsteadily - he should have covered his own ears, now his balance is all off. I watch as he climbs inito the crater and studies the bones. Those things must be sturdy, I think. They're still whole, not shattered.

But we won. I breathe out shakily. We won.

Which is when my gaze falls on Hidan's head, half buried in the still steaming ground. His glowing eyesockets are locked on just beside my brother. Where a skeletal hand is stuck in the ground like a forgotten kunai at a training ground. A hand that still holds the cable of the scythe.


The hand holding the cable jerks

The scythe slices through the air and I move

the world blurs around me

I reach for the hilt and

the scythe stops

Warm red liquid spills over my hands.

I stare in incomprehension at the scythe half-buried in my brother's chest.


We both fall to the ground. His eyes are already sliding shut. Blood leaks from his mouth.

"No," falls from my mouth has my hands frantically light up in flickering, unstable green and press against his wounds. "No, no, no, no, no... Karin!" I scream. "KARIN!"

But Karin isn't here, she isn't here, oh God, Shika is slipping away, this is, no no no NO NO NO NO

The green light of my hand flickers brighter, but it isn't taking, his body is rejecting it, he's dead dead dead I'm not

I pour more and more, the light flares brighter and brighter and I think I'm crying or screaming and I can't see clearly because my brother is being taken away and I don't want it so I follow him and it's so so cold and dark here and I'm being pulled back but I won't won't won't I have to

"GIVE HIM BACK!" I scream at the large black and white sceleton monster thing in front of me. "GIVE ME BACK MY BROTHER!"

It grins and lifts a red jagged scythe thing. ANoTher SacRIFice, it jeers. YouR SUFfeRinG wILL bE GLoriOUs.

I pull my Shingi to Giri. "Give Shika back," I hiss.


The scythe slams down on me and I rip open every door there is in my mind and the darkness is flooded with blazing white and golden and silver flames.

The world burns and Jashin screams.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I'm on the ground half sprawled over Shikamaru. My body feels like ice, there are even ice crystals on my clothes, but the ground around us is scorched. A puddle of melted red metal is next to us, the remains of Hidan's scythe. I try to move, but my limbs won't respond.

"Ri," he groans.

A sob escapes me. Just one, because if I start to cry now, I won't be able to look at him anymore. "You w're dead," I whisper through numb lips. "You were dead you were dead you were dead you were-"

"Sorry," he mumbles. "S'cold. Troublsm."

"Don't," I whisper desperately. "Don't do that again. Don't die. Don't - don't leave me. I - I really thought you were-"

"Am not," he answers weakly. "Y'came for me. Kami, Ri."

"Selfish god," I mumble. "Evil god. Burned him to cinders. Shika, your wounds."



"You followed me down."


"Into death."

"Got practice dying."

"Killed a god."

"Wanted you back."



"We've got to move."

"Gimme a minute." Some warmth is returning to my body. I snuggle into his chest, listen to his heart beating strongly and steadily.

"Love you, Ri."

"Love you more," I whisper back.

"So tired..."

"No, don' sleep, don't, you gotta stay 'wake," I babble. "Please, you gotta stay with me!"

"Jus' five minutes..." His breath starts to even out.

"No!" My weak fingers fumble, try to shake him awake. But it's no use.

Five minutes come and go, and Shikamaru doesn't wake again.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N:*Spoiler alert*




No, Shika isn't dead. He's being a Nara and sleeping. I'm sorry for this most evil of cliffhangers.

*Chapter 11*: Dreaming while awake

I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Dreaming while awake

Six years ago

3rd August, 1989, Headmaster's office of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry

Albus Dumbledore stares at the delicate contraption he'd taken two years to painstakingly build in a room adjoining to his office.

Two years had passed since young Jasmine Potter went missing. There are days when Albus Dumbledore despairs over the as of yet fruitless search for her. Oh, he knows he'll eventually find her. But until then... well.

Needless to say, his lemon drop consumption has quintupled in recent years. The house-elves even give him dirty looks now when he asks for a refill.

Dumbledore though can safely say that he has bigger problems then miffed elves. Tracking young Jasmine had turned out to be much more of a challenge then he'd initially thought. He never expected there to be such a multitude of dimensions. How was he supposed to find one little girl in them? Could he even be sure that time passed the same in whatever realm she'd been taken to as it did on Earth?

He'd already started researching ways to resolve that issue. It wasn't a pressing concern though. Dumbledore had to find the dear girl first. A feat he thought only a week ago could be accomplished upon completion of what he'd dubbed the 'Thaumaturgist' - namely, the contraption he was currently staring at. It had been built solely to find young Jasmine's unique magical signature in the multitude of dimensions.

How many hours had he spent lovingly crafting the components? How much hope and effort had gone into brewing the potion in which her magical signature, taken directly from the cupboard in which her disappearance had taken place in, was preserved?

And it had all been for naught.

The Thaumaturgist hadn't been able to find the child. That could mean two things: Either she had - Merlin forbid - died, or her magical signature had changed. Dumbledore could safely dismiss the former; and it wouldn't be too unlikely for a child's magical signature to shift, though to the extent that even the Thaumaturgist couldn't find her would have required drastic circumstances.

The poor girl. Lost in a strange place, after suffering such abuse from her own family. She must be so very terrified.

Dumbledore straightens. So his first try had failed. He'd try again. After all, he was, if he may say so himself, the most brilliant wizard of several generations. Young Jasmine would be found and retrieved, and Dumbledore would then ensure that the dear girl was provided the care and guidance she so desperately needed. He owed it to her; after all, it had been him who was ultimately responsible for the misfortune she had experienced in her short life. And not just because of that, he genuinely loved the child he had once held in his arms when she was still an infant, like a grandfather would his grandchild.

Ensuring that she was safe and cared for as she was carefully guided toward her destiny was the least he could do for young Jasmine.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Present day, Konohagakure no Sato


Konoha is way too fucking big and way too fucking sunny. And way too fucking full. People everywhere, screeching children, Suigetsu wants to cut something, preferably lots of people.

He can't, though. Suigetsu's an ambassador now. Because Mei wants an alliance with the tree-huggers.

Now, he respects his Mizukage, he does, Mei's the shit. But he really wants to know what she's been smoking to make him of all people an ambassador. He was made for fighting, dammit. Unlike his partner.

"What a beautiful village," Haku gushes. "It must be nice to live here, with all the sunshine and happy children."

Fucking Haku.

"Nice. Yeah," Suigetsu growls. He knows what happens to people who contradict Haku. No one can withstand The Eyes. Except Mei, she just glomps Haku until everyone forgets what the issue was about and then does things her way, but Suigetsu can't do that.

"Suigetsu-kun, are you unwell?" Haku asks obliviously.

"Fine," Suigetsu growls.

"I'm sure we can get you some yoghurt after the meeting with the Lady Hokage," Haku ignores him.

"Cheh. Whatever," Suigetsu mutters. The guy with the ridiculous hair that's leading them to the Hokage Tower shoots them a weird look over his shoulder, so Suigetsu gives him his best toothy grin, and the guy hastily turns back.

"Here we are!" he points at a big building like it isn't obvious. Does the retard think they're stupid or something? It says "Fire" on the big-ass sign over the door, for shit's sake.

Haku claps his hands in delight. "An impressive building!" he praises. "Thank you very much for your kind guidance!" And cue the damn smile. Ugh.

The guy blushes and waves like an idiot. "No problem! At all! If you need anything, I'm usually on guard duty! Maybe we can-"

"Fuck off," Suigetsu says and drags Haku into the building. A dark-haired woman meets them, greets them, tells them her name, and leads them to an office where they meet the Hokage.

Bloody hell, those are some big tits.

Haku of course immediately launches into a speech of alliances and friendships and world peace and shit. Or something like that, Suigetsu isn't listening, he figures he'll just stand there and look dangerous. Talking isn't his thing. Neither are alliances. Or world peace. Why is he here again?

The meeting seems to go alright or something. He doesn't really know. No one dies. Haku looks bloody happy by the end of it, the Hokage looks annoyed. Must be a good sign.

"Thank you very much for meeting us." Haku bows, while everyone stares at him with varying levels of confusion, because Haku is not what a normal Mist shinobi looks and acts like, and thank god for that. "I am sure this will be the beginning of a long-standing friendship."

The Hokage mutters something, the dark-haired woman cuts in with a nervous laugh, and moments later Haku and Suigetsu find themselves outside the Hokage Tower. Haku hums in satisfaction and sets off.

"Oi!" Suigetsu yells. "Where the hell do you think you're going?!"

He has plans, damn it. They involve alcohol, a sword fight, and a midget with red hair.

"Oh," Haku says with a sad, sad smile. "We have permission to look around the hospital here. Konoha has the best medical system of all the Hidden Villages, after all. But I'm sure it won't take long, don't worry. I'll treat you to yoghurt later."

Suigetsu groans.

Haku knows him too fucking well.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The hospital is also way too fucking big. The tree huggers must be total pussies. Can't stand a few chopped off limbs, gotta run to the doctor for every damn papercut, and that's the real reason the Leaf's medical support is the best in the world, because everyone here is a fucking pussy. And seriously, papercuts? Real ninja don't do paperwork.

The nurses are hot though in their uniforms. Not as hot as- and no, that way lay bad things, stupid brain, don't think about Haku in a nurse uniform. Even if the guy's eyeing them jealously.

Fuck. Haku is such a girl. And Suigetsu might kind of be-

Nope! No way. Not Haku. Of all people. Sparkle-and-glitter Haku who loves peace and shit, just like the fucking midget, and shit, look at him, now Haku's smiling at some fat guy, does he like fatasses? And hell, Suigetsu is so doomed.

"Chōji-kun!" Haku smiles like the fatass is the answer to all of the world's problems. Suigetsu is going to kill the shit out of that guy. He can just see it, all that blood and fat splattering everywhere, can hear the bones bursting under his sword. Fuck that alliance Mei wants so much. "It has been such a long time since we last met. How have you been?"

"Huh?" The guy says dumbly. "Haku? From Wave?"

"I'm so glad to see you again." And fucking Haku smiles, birds sing, butterflies fly, the world is beautiful. Hell, Suigetsu needs to go kill something, preferably that fatass. "How have you been? Is your team well?" Haku continues on obliviously.

The guy droops like someone killed his kitten. Fucking weeny. "No," Fatass says sadly. "Shikamaru's in there." He nods at the door. "And Ino, and his family."

Shikamaru, Shikamaru... sounds familiar. The midget probably mentioned him some time. 'Cause she loves Haku and Chōjūrō, but Suigetsu is the one she talks to. So who's that Shikamasa dude again?

"Oh no," Haku murmurs, doing that comforting voice thing. "That's terrible. Is he-"

"Just exhaustion or something," Fatass says shiftily. "No one's really talking, though."

Exhaustion, pah. Fucking Leaf pussies.

"If there's anything we can do-" Haku says, and Suigetsu is seriously tempted to end the sentence for him with his sword, but Fatass talks first.

"You can go in there. I'm sure he'd like that." Fatass smiles tightly. "I'm just going to be outside a bit."

"Of course," Haku nods understandingly. "This must be hard on you. He's your best friend, isn't he?"

The guy sniffs. Fucking sniffs. Next thing he's gonna cry, 'cause tree-huggers are so bloody sensitive. "It's just - he's been hurt before. But the medics are acting all - and Riko is-"

Suigetsu stiffens. Right, Shikamako's the midget's brother or something. Which means she's here.

"Did something happen to her?" Haku asks sharply. "Is she alright?"

Fatass shakes his head, sniffing again. "Yeah. Just - try to talk to her, alright? She's just been, well-"

Suigetsu gets a sinking feeling in his stomach. Stupid midget. Should never have left Kiri.

Haku says something else, then knocks lightly on the door and enters. Suigetsu follows. There's a guy on a bed, looking dead asleep, emphasis on dead. There's a woman with brown hair sitting next to another guy that looks exactly like the sleeping one with his hair styled to look like a pineapple, both their eyes sharp on Haku and him. And a blond girl that looks up when they enter and smiles in surprise, and hell, she's hot. Suigetsu would hit that if it weren't for Haku.

But Suigetsu's eye fasten on the one other person in the room. The redhaired girl, sitting on a stool facing the sleeping guy, knees drawn up and hugging them with thin, scar-covered arms. Unkempt hair falls down limply, like all life vanished from it. Her skin is too pale, her cheeks hollow, her eyes sunken in and fixed solely on the guy on the bed. She hasn't so much as blinked in the entire time since they came in.

Fucking midget. His stomach turns. Not this again.

"...been like that since they came back from a mission," he hears the hot blonde whisper to Haku. "Not eating, not sleeping, not talking, just nothing at all. Just looking at Shika." And damn, hot-piece-of-ass is getting more unattractive by the second with the tremor in her choked voice.

And the damn midget. Bloody drama queen. And of course, who's the one who gets to deal with that? The one person in this goddamn village who isn't a fucking pussy, that's who.

"...anything we can do?" Haku asks softly, all concern and well-meaning, but that ain't what Ren needs.

"I don't know! She isn't talking, she isn't even reacting to anything except when one of the nurses tried to get her to leave, that was-"

"You know," Suigetsu interrupts. "I had a friend that did that exact same bullshit once. Ya ain't getting through with talking."

And Suigetsu hadn't gotten through to her after Sapphire Lake. She'd just lain there with open eyes, not sleeping or anything, all the food he'd forced down her throat vomited up the moment he turned his head, and it had been bad. She'd wasted away, and he'd been helpless. And then, one night, she'd just - vanished while he wasn't looking. And he'd gone and searched for her, and so had Ao, but they hadn't found her. But then they'd come back, and there she was, back in her bed, wrapped in a black cloak that was too big for her, sleeping. And when she'd woken up the next day, she'd eaten something. Hadn't talked at all, but she had listened. And Suigetsu knows something happened that night, but whatever it was, thank God.

She doesn't look half as bad now as she did then. This is more like one of those times when she spaced out for a few hours, when she was still recovering. And with that, Suigetsu can deal.

"You know what to do?" The brown-haired woman demands, and shit, she looks like Ren when she's mad. "Then do it." She jerks her head at Ren. "Now."

And yeah, that's not gonna fly. Suigetsu glares at her. "Gonna need some space. Get out."

She bristles. So does Blondie. "Now see here-" Blondie starts shrilly, but Haku gently interrupts.

"Please, trust Suigetsu-kun," he says gently, and it takes all the fight out of the harpies because that's what Haku does. He's so fucking sincere and kind. "I know he is a bit rough around the edges, but he is a good man, and he will do everything he can for Riko-san. I have full faith in him."

And doesn't that just make Suigetsu feel ten feet tall. Damn Haku. Suigetsu is so doomed.

Haku leads them out of the room. The only one who doesn't move is pineapple-guy with his sharp eyes. And Shiromaru and Ren, but they don't count. "You know my daughter," Pineapple says.

Suigetsu grins, baring his shark-teeth at the man. "Do I, now?"

Pineapple doesn't take the bait. "This has happened before," he states, nodding at Midget. Suigetsu barks a laugh and ignores him.

"Oi, Midget," he says. "Wake the hell up."

She doesn't even blink.

"Fucking drama queen," he growls, draws his sword Shibuki and pokes her with it. He's still being ignored. "Oi," he says. "I'm poking you. With my sword."

No reaction.

"My very big sword. I'm poking you with my very big sword that's also hard as hell, and fuck, how out of it are you?" he growls, because this should have at least merited a blink. "Fine, we're gonna do this the hard way." Shibuki is put back in its place on his back. His fingers twist into seals. A stream of water shoots from his mouth and blasts her off the stool against the wall. And Suigetsu suddenly can't move, because Pineapple has him choking on his shadow, but it doesn't matter because she's coughing and wiping water from her stupid face, and she's getting to her feet and looking around in confusion. Her eyes catch on Pineapple for a moment, but then she sees him. "Suigetsu?" she rasps, staring up at him with her giant green eyes, sounding like a little girl, and fuck, doesn't she look completely helpless right now. Stupid bitch. She looks around once more. "Oh," she mumbles when she takes in the mess he made. Her eyes catch on the shadow connecting him and her damn father, and some of the fight returns to her eyes.

"Let him go," she orders. "He's my friend."

Pineapple looks at her for a moment, his face unreadable to Suigetsu, but not to Ren, apparently, seeing as her face twists and she looks away sharply, frowning. Her gaze lands on Shabumaru on the bed. Her fists clench and unclench rapidly, and Suigetsu senses her already retreating back into herself. Pineapple apparently does, too, 'cause the shadows disappear damn fast and Suigetsu can move again. He steps forward, grabs her hair, and drags her with him. "Oww, what're you doing, asshole," she protests, trying to wrench out of his grip, but she's so weak, she can't even walk without getting wobbly legs. Bloody idiot.

"You're gonna get some food down your throat, and you're gonna be glad for it," Suigetsu snaps at her. "The fuck is this supposed to be, huh? The world ain't revolving around you!"

"HE DIED!" she suddenly screams. "HE DIED AND I- I-"


She deflates, the fight gone from her. He lets go of her hair and instead drags her by her arm. She stumbles after him without protest.

Stupid, goddamn, idiot midget.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Ren - no, her name is Riko here, gotta remember that - walks after him through the corridors of the hospital. Moving seems to do her some good, with every motion some fluidity returns to her movements, and some purpose returns to her eyes. Not the spark, though. She's just spent and empty. Like she usually is when returning to quarters after a battle and hours of healing.

She stops suddenly. Suigetsu pinches the bridge of his nose. "What the bloody hell is it now?" he growls.

No answer. She just walks into a different hospital room and stares blankly at the person on the bed, a redheaded girl who looks even worse than Ren - Riko - Midget with her chalk white skin that hangs off her frame as if she'd suddenly lost a ton of weight and the dark shadows under her eyes. Tubes are attached to her arms, and one of those things that help people breathe is on her mouth. Suigetsu rolls his eyes when Midget steps forward and grabs a plaque from the bedside and starts to read it, her face still completely blank.

Someone enters the room. A nurse with pink - pink! - hair. She blinks in surprise when she sees Midget and throws Suigetsu a confused look, but just shrugs his presence off. "Riko-san?" she asks cautiously.

Midget looks up, her blank eyes fixing on the nurse. She says nothing, just flicks her eyes to the girl on the bed.

"Oh, uhm, Karin will be fine. It's just severe exhaustion...overuse of kekkei genkai... we have to keep her comatose for now..." her voice trails off under Midget's gaze. "You should be resting, you were injured, too, and you need to eat something-"

Suigetsu bites back a laugh when Midget just walks off, not giving a shit about Pinkie. He follows right after and outside, drags Midget to the nearest café which turns out to be the creepiest thing he's ever seen, the kind of place Haku would love but makes Suigetsu want to run in terror. There's music, flowers, hearts. The cake placed in front of them is heart-shaped, too.

Midget stares at it blankly. She looks completely out of place here - so does Suigetsu, and people are staring at them, but she's the one whose clothing is ripped in places and stained with probably-blood. Someone apparently threw a deer-skin jacket over her so he can't see, but Suigetsu would bet that the back of her shirt sports the tell-tale rips of her wings breaking through.

"Eat," he orders. "Now."

She still stares at the cake.

"I will stab you with my big and hard sword-"

"Your big and hard sword that explodes on contact?" she asks semi-automatically. He growls at her, secretly relieved at the somewhat normal response. She looks back at her cake and picks up a dainty little fork. "The last time I was here, I kawarimi'ed out."

Can't blame her for that.

"Why?" he asks, just to keep her talking. Her gaze shifts to the side, her face infinitely sad, and he wonders what kind of idiot ever let her become a ninja, because she's too fucking soft.

"Cake was too sweet," she only answers. He rolls his eyes.

"So what the fuck happened?" he finally adresses the big, fat, bijuu in the room.

Her gaze turns distant again, so he kicks her under the table. She kicks back, his leg splashing into water. "You can tell Mei-chan that she was right."

Well, that tells him nothing at-fucking all.

"So now what?" Suigetsu asks.

Her thin shoulders rise and fall again. "I don't have a fucking clue."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


If anyone were to ask me how we got back to the village after that fiasco of a mission, I wouldn't be able to answer. I think I distantly remember Dad's face, so he probably got me here. Other than that? It's a big blank right up until Suigetsu blasted me into a wall.

What's he even doing here?

Do I care?

Suigetsu says something. I just nod and try not to look at his empty eye-sockets, the blood running down from them. His mouth that's too wide, splitting his face in two halves when he talks. The waitress behind us has no head. The walls are made from skulls. We're sitting on decaying corpses. The cake on my plate looks like a still-beating heart. I see everything through a red film, as if there's blood-mist all around us.

It's not real, I know that. That doesn't make it any less real.

"Oi, Midget!" Suigetsu says loudly.

"What," I answer.


I look at the heart on my plate. It lays in a puddle of blood. Baboom, baboom, it makes in sync with its contractions. The metallic scent clots my nose. To think that Suigetsu of all people would bring me to this café of all places. I think I liked it better when Fumio took me here so long ago.

"Not hungry," I say.

"Yeah right. You're just skin and bones. You look like a skeleton. Fucking eat, you bloody drama queen."

I look down on my body. He's wrong. I'm not skin and bones, I'm only bones. A walking skeleton. If I eat, the food will just fall through my ribs. What a waste.

Nevertheless, I stab the finger-bone fork into the beating heart on my plate and dig a piece of flesh out. It falls on my plate with a squelching sound. I feel Suigetsu's eyes on my as I stab the piece of flesh and force myself to swallow it.

I resist the urge to gag at the salty and slightly metallic taste.

"Too sweet," I only say, and push the plate away from me. Suigetsu pushes it right back.

"Eat. All of it. Now."

"Can't we get something else?" I whine.


Maybe that's a good thing. I don't want to know what a bowl of ramen would look like to me now. Brain soup, most likely.

Suigetsu pokes me with a slimy finger that looks like it's melting. "We are not leaving until you've eaten your cake."

Cake. Heart-cake. Is this punishment for being such a bitch to Fumio back then?

I force another piece of heart down my throat. "My, Suigetsu, who would've thought you'd bring me to a place like this?" I drawl. "Have you gotten in touch with your sensitive side?"

"Shut your face, Midget."

"I'm sure Haku appreciates it."

He attempts to smash the heart-cake in my face. I lean out of the way and it ends up decorating a wall. The headless waitress is pissed beyond compare and verbally kicks us out of the café.

"...yoghurt?" Suigetsu asks.


I keep my eyes fixed on Suigetsu's back as I trail after him while he uses his yoghurt-addict senses to find a yoghurt vendor. Above me, the sky is bleeding red, and black clouds form disturbing patterns. The ground under my feet squelches with every step I take. The people around us are skeletons, monsters, demons. The sounds reaching my ear are oddly distorted, loud one moment and distant and echoing the next.

Suigetsu only looks slimy and melting, so I'd rather look at him than anything else.

After he's gotten us yoghurt, we end up sitting in a park under a rotting tree. Having learned my lesson with the cake, I don't look at my food and just gulp it all down. I feel Suigetsu glare at me, but I refuse to look at him.

"The fuck, Midget?" he asks, sounding pissed off.

"Thanks for the food," I say.

He mutters something about ungrateful bitches under his breath while he slurps his yoghurt. Strawberry flavoured, I think. It's his favourite, he once told me. Normally, I'd be able to smell it, but my nose is clotted with the metallic scent of blood.

My head hurts.

"So, the plan's still a go?" he asks. "Or are ya too pussy to do it?"

I manage an eye roll. It makes me dizzy. "Fuck you, asshole. I'm gonna do it."

"Ya sure? Cuz you look kinda dead. Can't become one of the Seven Swordsmen like that."

I glare at him. Judging from his unimpressed face, my glare only reaches 'tired kitten' level.

"You just fucking watch," I say.

"Well you ain't gonna beat Kisame-senpai like that."

...true enough. I want to be one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. The problem is, I'm from Konoha. The only way it'd be accepted would be if I got the one sword that picks its wielder. Which is Samehada. Which belongs to Hoshigaki Kisame. As in, Uchiha Itachi's partner and a member of Akatsuki.

Perhaps I should try to come up with another plan. Hell, I had enough trouble with Hidan, and I'm fairly sure he doesn't rank as high as Itachi; and Kisame as Itachi's partner would be his equal. Bloody hell, I need to train.

A little boy runs past us, laughing. His skin is coal black. White bone like markings mar his face. He carries a red scythe on his back. Glowing eyes roll wildly in his eye sockets.

I press my eyes shut, take a deep breath through my nose and slowly breathe out through my mouth.

"Midget?" Suigetsu's voice seems to come from a different galaxy, it sounds so distant. "Oi, Midget! Fuck you, I ain't your babysitter!"

"Knock me out," I force out. "Now."

"The hell?"

"Hallucinations. Please. Make it stop."

"Why the fuck do you have hallucinations?" he demands.

"Because I fucked up my own mind while killing a god, can you please do something?" My head drops into my hands while my body curls up. I distantly hear Suigetsu curse up a storm about this looking really bad for an ambassador, and then the lights go out.

Naturally, that isn't the end of it. No. I end up in a junkyard, the ruins of my once proud mind world around me. I stand up to my hips in blood, and blood mist obscures the surroundings. The skeleton of the labyrinth hangs over me, only flimsily held together by vines. I groan and send up a bunch of chains to help.

"So the great Riko finally deigns to show up," a cold voice drawls. Dementia appears on top of a pile of body parts.

"Yeah," I answer. "I'd apologise for the mess, but I'm not sorry."

She rolls her eyes. "This would not have happened if you'd let me out," she hisses scornfully.

I return her look evenly. "But you wouldn't have saved Shikamaru."

"You sound sooo sure of yourself," she sneers.

"Are you saying I'm wrong?" I ask curiously.

"Does it matter?"

I raise an eyebrow at her. "You tell me."

"I ain't telling you a fucking thing."

"Fine then." I shrug. "Are you going to help clean up this place?"

She glares at me. "The Bloody Door is open."

"I figured." I sigh and rub the bridge of my nose. It certainly explains my royally fucked up mind. The hallucinations are a new thing, though.

"Quit as a ninja," Dementia says. My head snaps up.

"What?!" I ask incredulously.

"You heard me." She glares at me.

"Why the hell would you even say that?" I demand.

"Oh, I don't know, maybe because you came this close to actually going insane this time? Because you actually ran into death? Because you're too fucking weak to beat even one Akatsuki, and a brainless one at that?"

"I killed a god and won!" I snarl.

"And watched your brother die. Look at you." She gestures to me arrogantly. "Pathetic. Couldn't even protect your own brother, and shut down because of it."

"I'm not quitting!" I hiss. "Akatsuki is going to come after Naruto, and they'll have to go through me if they want him. I know I'm not strong enough now, but I will train until I can fight them. There's no way I'll sit back while they walk around threatening my precious people. They nearly took Shika from me!"

"He wouldn't have been there if not for you."

I stagger back a step. Dementia smiles gently. "Give up," she croons. "Let someone else handle the hard fights. Heal up. Teach at the Academy. No more killing, no more fighting."

I can see it. A peaceful life. No more walking down this dark path I seem to be on. No more assassinations. No more nightmares coming true.

"I can't," I whisper brokenly. "I'm sorry, I can't."

Her gentle smile is replaced by hateful rage. "So you choose this." She gestures to the carnage around us.

"There is no choice to start with," I say tiredly. "You think this is bad? It'd be a thousand times worse if I lost Naruto. Or Sasuke. Or Shikamaru, again. You'd probably disappear, too, if that happened."

She flings her hands out. Razor sharp vines shoot toward me, aiming to stab me. I don't move.

The vines stop a breath away from me. "Tch," Dementia hisses, and vanishes them. "So you say."

"Tell me I'm wrong," I answer. She suddenly stands before me, her fingers around me neck.

"You," she hisses. "Are going to get stronger. I don't give a fuck what you come up with. Get your shit together. Or else."

"Else what?" I ask. A grin suddenly takes over her features.

"How do you like your hallucinations?" she asks.

My fist snaps forward. I throw her off me. "You," I whisper. She laughs coldly.

"Did you honestly think I'd let you destroy yourself and me along with you? Don't be naive. This world is going to crush you." She glares at me coldly. "However, you are right, it will crush you even worse if you withdraw from the frontlines. But know this, the moment you lose your resolve to protect your little friends... I will make the choice for you. You can't protect anyone when have to fight against yourself."

I straighten and return her glare. "Rest assured then. I won't falter in my resolve."

Her green eyes meet mine. A long moment passes. Her lips curl in disdain. "So be it."

"So be it," I echo. "Now what do you say, we clean this damn mess up?"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I open my eyes wearily. My body feels more rested, but my mind is tired.

I'm in a hospital room. Tsunade stands over me, her hand withdrawing from my head - she must have woken me up using her medical ninjutsu. Inoichi is there too, but that's it.

"Your father is with your brother," Tsunade answers before I can ask. "You can see Shikamaru when we're done here, right now you need to give us a report."

Silence. I blink up at Tsunade tiredly while sitting up. "I'd take that vacation now."

"And I'd give you the promotion," she retorts. "But I need your report first."

I look down at my lap, fists clenching. My fingers are drenched in blood. I blink hard and the hallucination goes away, but only after a long moment. My gaze darts around aimlessly.

Where is Suigetsu? No one is as good as him at dragging me back to reality.

Tsunade straightens. Her tone turns authoritative. "Report, shinobi!" she orders, and just like that, I straighten and my mind clears.

Shinobi. That's what I am. A soldier, a tool. I cling to that and start talking. About preparations, about breaking into the castle, about Sai's betrayal, about Hidan and Kakuzu. About Asuma and Shikamaru jumping in to save me. Tsunade and Inoichi's faces grow more grim the longer I speak.

When I get to the point where Shikamaru blasted Hidan to pieces, I choke on the words. Inoichi tries drawing it out of me, but I just. Can't. "No," I whisper and shake my head, images playing before my inner eye. "No, no, no, no..."

"Enough," Tsunade orders. "Is what you refuse to speak about going to cause harm to the village?"

I shake my head.

"Is it going to deter the medical treatment of your brother?"

I freeze. "I don't know," I mumble. "I just can't... I can't."

"We have gathered that Shikamaru had a very close brush with death but was saved?" Tsunade asks. I nod. "For your information, your brother should be alright. There is some trauma, but it has been treated. He should be fine once he wakes up."

I look up at her. "Really?" I ask quietly.

Her eyes soften just a little. "Really."

I nod. "Okay. Can I go see him now?"

"In a moment," Inoichi says. "There are some things we need to talk about."

I straighten once again and give him my full attention. "Sai," I guess.

Inoichi nods. "Do you remember your return to Konoha?"

I shake my head.

"After we got your request for back-up, a rescue team led by your father and Shizune headed out immediately. They found your team, but only Sai and you were conscious. And only Sai was capable of answering questions and giving a report. You on the other hand, were mostly unresponsive, but attacked anyone coming close to Shikamaru and yourself."

"Oh," I utter.

"Your father eventually got you to calm down enough for the medics to treat Shikamaru. You still didn't let anyone come close to yourself, though, and you refused to take your eyes off of your brother. Basically, you shut down."

Tsunade speaks up. "In case you're wondering, I treated your injuries while you were passed out."

"Thanks," I say automatically, but the word feels empty.

Inoichi continues. "That was five days ago. The only full report we received was Sai's, and he gave it only after a meeting with his superior."

"Shit," I say.

"You can say that out loud," Tsunade comments dryly. "As you can guess, your reports do not add up."

"What about Asuma-sensei?" I suddenly ask. "Yamato-taichō?"

"Yamato has regained consciousness, but seeing as he was nowhere near the fight with the Akatsuki, couldn't give a report on the relevant happenings. Asuma hasn't regained consciousness yet."

"Will he be okay?"

"His career as a ninja is over," Tsunade says bluntly. "But he'll live. In any case, until now we haven't received any report besides Sai's."

"But you have my report now," I reply with a sinking feeling in my stomach.

"Riko, it doesn't count for much at this point," Inoichi says gently.

"But Sai is a traitor!" I protest. "And seeing as he has no will or motivation of his own, he must have been acting under orders, which makes Danzō the traitor, right? Not to mention how someone fucked up Sai's mind, what if the entire ROOT is like that?"

"The only proof is your word!" Tsunade snaps angrily. "If we accuse Danzō right now, it'll be your word against his subordinate's, and seeing as you weren't in your right mind for days after the mission, there is no way anyone will take your word over his. Danzō still has a great deal of power in this village and sway over the council. You speak out against him, they'll put you in a psych ward and never let you out again. Hell, I'm not even entirely sure you shouldn't go there anyway."

"I'm not either," I mutter. "So they just get away with it."

"Hell no," Tsunade scoffs. "We may not have enough proof now, but the old bastard is going to pull more shit like this, and when he does, you can bet your ass we'll be acting."

"Or I could just kill him now," I offer darkly. "I'm good at assassination."

"Don't tempt me," Tsunade mutters. "The council would launch a full investigation and use it to get rid of me."

"I could kill them, too."

"Don't tempt me."

"Believe me, Riko, assassinating Danzō is above your level," Inoichi cautions. "He has survived more than one war, and his fair share of assassination attempts as well. He was on par with the Sandaime Hokage, the God of Shinobi."

And I killed an actual god. I wonder how Danzō stacks up against Jashin.

"The offer stands." I shrug. "So now what? I claim memory loss and get put on medical leave?"

"Yes," Tsunade confirms.

"That might be for the best," Inoichi says.

"This means your promotion is on hold, too," Tsunade warns me. "I promise you'll get it as soon as I can justify it, though."

I sigh and rub at my temples, trying to ward off the incoming headache. "Alright. Can I go see my brother now?"

"Of course."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I meander back into Shika's room. He's still sleeping. Mom sits next to him, also asleep. Dad sits in the corner on a chair. I slowly walk over and sit down in an empty chair next to him. Tiredly, I lean my head against his shoulder. He ruffles my hair gently but says nothing.

"What do you do," I finally ask. "When you stop knowing where your nightmares end and your reality begins?"

"You find someone to wake you up."

I nod mutely.

Hour pass in silence where we just watch our sleeping family. A part of me is itching to run away, but I'm terrified to even take my eyes off of my brother. Is this what my family felt like every time I ended up in the hospital? Did they watch me, fearing that any breath I took would be my last?

And yet, every second that passes is one that I could use to grow stronger so I'll be able protect them. So Dementia won't have a reason to send me more hallucinations. So I can defeat my nightmares.

But I refuse to leave. Instead, I plan. Come up with options. Examine them. Discard them. Weigh possibilities, analyse what I can already do, what I need to learn, where my abilities fail me. Brain-storm for anything that can give me an edge.

What I come up with is crazy. And dangerous. Next to impossible.

"Dad?" I whisper.

"What do you need?" he asks immediately.

"Scrolls. On every advanced clone technique you know of."



▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Shikamaru wakes four days later. By then, I've read through all the scrolls Dad gave me, and am making notes on a scroll of my own. Said scroll falls to the ground as I just stare at my brother, not hearing a word he's saying. I might be crying, too, he's looking freaked out so it's likely.

Just then, a nurse come in, and upon seeing he's awake calls a doctor and from then on there isn't a moment of calm. It's only late at night when we're finally alone - Mom doing rounds at the hospital, Dad catching up on work.

"You look like shit," Shika rasps tiredly.

"Look who's talking," I mumble.

"C'mere, troublesome girl," he mutters, and taps the hospital bed beside him. I crawl under the covers and curl into him. Warm. He feels so very warm, and I can hear his heartbeat. I sigh softly. He does the same. His hand curls into my hair. "Thank you."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: So yeah, Shika lives. Riko's mind is turning against her. I promise though, future chapters will be lighter. They also won't be as frequent, since I've reached the end of my prewritten chapters and am once again in the middle of exams.

If you want to read something lighter, check out the sidefic 'Riko and the Plot Bunny' I published a few days ago. It's basically one long omake.

Until next chapter!

*Chapter 12*: Passing Time

I own neither Naruto nor Harry Potter.

Passing time

I spend the remainder of my two weeks of vacation/medical leave attached to Shikamaru's side. Or he spends it attached to me, it's hard to say who the clingier one of us two is .

That means he gets to watch me train. He sees me spar Suigetsu and Haku before they have to report back to Kiri, and witnesses Suigetsu make a spectacular idiot of himself in front of Haku.

Today, he gets to watch all my failed attempts at creating a technique that'll either double my fighting strength or kill me. The latter option sounds more likely.

"Dammit," I curse. The shadow clone I made huffs in annoyance and dispels herself.

"You got it to work, though," Shikamaru comments.

"Not the way I wanted, I didn't," I reply.

"At least you managed a decent shadow clone," he grumbles. "Mine are half transparent."

I rub at my temples. "Let's take a break," I suggest.

"I go back to active duty tomorrow," he says. I almost trip.

"What? No! It's too early!" I protest.

"Shut up, I'm fine, and you know it." He rolls his eyes at me. "And we're going on mission together, seeing as Ino is training with her father and Chōji is on a mission with Team Eight. And your team is out of action."

My team? Which team? Team Seven? Or Team Headcase?

The members of Team Seven are all still MIA. As for Team Headcase... Karin is still comatose and won't be woken up for a while. Sai is apparently going through special training to correct certain shortcomings, and I'm not quite sure if I'll ever see him again to punch him in the face. Yamato is on a mission or something.

"Us two? On a mission together?" I ask anxiously. I don't want Shikamaru anywhere near my bad luck.

"That's what I just said."

"Too early," I repeat.


"Don't you want to laze around some more?" I ask hopefully.

"And leave you to go on mission alone?" he deadpans. "That strikes me as a supremely bad idea."

"What about Asuma? He's still in the hospital."

"Ino's in the village. She'll look after him."


"Shut up, Ri. It's an easy mission, I picked it. It'll be just like more vacation. No need to worry."

"With me on the team, yes there is."

"You're exaggerating."

"Uhh, hello? Do you remember why we even got a vacation in the first place?"

"Because of an S-rank ninja after money. Nothing to do with you."


"I'm going with you and it's not negotiable, so shut up and come look at clouds with me."

Damn it.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

We leave for Sunagakure bright and early the next day.

"Not sure how much you know about our relations to Sunagakure," Shikamaru muses as we stroll along at a leisurely pace.

"Just assume I know nothing," I reply, my eyes nervously scanning our surroundings.

"Right. Stuck in the middle of nowhere for two years, you were. Troublesome."

"Oh shut up."

"So we've got an alliance with Suna."

"I knew that."

"Gaara's kazekage now."


"The inauguration was a month ago, but unofficially, he's been running the village for longer than that. Don't ask me how I know that."

"Temari?" I hazard a guess.

"Acts as an ambassador between our villages. So do I, for that matter," Shikamaru answers.

"Everybody's an ambassador nowadays," I mutter. "Suigetsu, Haku, Temari, you..."

"Quiet, you. Anyway, Suna has a council and most of the members are assholes," he continues.

"Surprise, surprise," I say.

"Right? Anyway, the council ran the village while Gaara wasn't being considered for kazekage. They didn't really like the power shift when Gaara started making an effort to be recognised. Of course, nobody outright speaks or acts against Gaara. So the council needles him with politics instead."

"That sounds incredibly cruel. Politics, ugh."

"Right? Who'd want to lead a village."

"Idiots and Naruto," I answer.

"And Naruto isn't an idiot? Anyway, their latest target to bitch about is the alliance between our villages."

"Naruto can't be counted amongst regular idiots, he's too, err, special." I pause. "So you, chūnin extraordinaire, and me, your headcase of a sister with no clue about anything to do with Suna, are sent to save the day?" I ask doubtfully.

Shikamaru smirks. "Actually, you are the key element to saving the day."

"I am?" I blink in confusion.

"You, sister mine, can create water. In insane amounts."


"Sunagakure is located in a desert. With limited water resources. It's an especially dry and hot summer this year."

"Ahh," I say. "Konoha is such a nice and convenient ally to have. Sending the kunoichi who can conjure water by lake amounts."

"I see, we understand each other," Shikamaru drawls.

"Always," I answer with a smile.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The Country of Wind, is, surprise, windy. It's also sandy. Why they didn't name it Sand Country, I don't know. Maybe to fit in with Earth, Lightning, Fire, and Water Country, the latter of which should also have been been more aptly named Mud Country.

Travelling through the desert is entirely uncomfortable. The heat burns the life right out of me, and the wind dries out my skin. I'm just very glad for my water creating skills.

In total, it takes us four days until the enormous walls of Sunagakure come in sight. Shikamaru handles the formalities which doesn't take long, seeing as he's done this all before. Inside, I look around wide-eyed. Suna is completely different from any place I've ever been to before. All the buildings are made from the same type of rock. The people all wear wide clothes, almost all the shinobi wear the same uniform. It's strange, seeing everything so uniform and orderly, but there is a sort of beauty to it.

"Come on," Shika says, and I follow him through the streets. It's obvious he's been here often, he looks almost at home in this village. Unlike me, I'm hot and uncomfortable, and the sand in my clothes is driving me insane. Also, I'm in a strange place with tons of ninja I neither know or trust. Just like a vacation, my ass.

"Where are we going?" I ask.

"To the Kazekage's Office to explain your presence, and to hash out the details. I figure you can't just fill the reservoirs with a snap of your fingers, right? You're going to have to do it over a few days."

"Good thinking. Hey, what do I even call Gaara? Kazekage-sama? Gaara-sama? Just Gaara? Or do I not talk at all? Mom's etiquette lessons never covered this." I shoot my brother an insecure look.

"What did you call him during the Chūnin Exams?" Shikamaru asks.

"Err..." I frown. "Gaara-san."

"Then that's what you call him, you troublesome girl." Shikamaru smirks. "Try not to embarrass yourself too badly."

"Oh haha," I snort. "You're hilarious."

"I know."

"That was sarcasm."

"I know."

"You're annoying."

"I'm your brother."

I roll my eyes. "I can tell, this is going to be a wonderful mission. Hey, did you know my missions always go FUBAR? And we're in a ninja village! Which has a jinchūriki! Who is kazekage!"

"Chill, Riko. Nothing is going to happen." Shikamaru yawns. "Don't be troublesome."

"You are the troublesome one."

"We're here." Shikamaru stops in front of a building that looks kind of like every other building here, except it's bigger and, I suspect, at the very centre of the circular valley Sunagakure was built in. I wonder what the village looks like from above.

"Well then, let's go," I chirp in fake enthusiasm.

Inside, a man with a goatee meets us. Like so many people here, he's wearing a beige robe, and a turban-like head gear made from white cloth. He introduces himself as Councilman Yūra and leads us up some stairs.

"Alright, Ri?" Shika mutters to me in English.

I frown. "Yeah," I mumble back. "It's just, my intuition is kind of weird about this guy. I don't know."

"Troublesome," Shika sighs. "But no immediate danger?"

I shake my head.

"Okay. Maybe it's because he sits on the council."

"Maybe," I agree doubtfully.

Yūra stops in front of an open door. "The shinobi from Konoha are here, Kazekage-sama."

"Thank you, Yūra. Send them in," a vaguely familiar voice rasps.

Yūra steps aside and waves us in. Shikamaru goes first. I follow, slightly nervous.

Gaara sits behind a desk, clad in the white and blue Kazakage robes. The corresponding hat sits beside him on his desk. And damn, he's grown up since the last time I saw him. His skin is a much healthier tone, his face has more definition to it, and his eyes, instead of glaring coldly at the world, are calm and kind. Evidently, Naruto's Ramen Talk had long-term effects.

I still can't get over the fact that he became kazekage. Naruto's going to have a fit when he hears about that, I just know it.

"Welcome back, Shikamaru-san," Gaara says calmly. "And welcome to Sunagakure, Nara Riko-san."

Shikamaru nods. "Thank you. We're glad to be here." He nudges me.

"Uh, yeah," I say, internally wincing at my poor etiquette. "Thank you. It has been a while." Not to mention, the last time I saw him, he was trying to kill me and the rest of Team Seven. Naruto told me he has changed since then and even helped look for Sasuke and me after Sound kidnapped us, but it's still more than a little awkward.

Gaara nods. Shikamaru reaches into his pouch and pulls out a scroll. "Tsunade-sama sends her greetings," he says as he hands the scroll over. Gaara receives it with a nod, and opens it. His face betrays nothing as he scans the contents.

"I see," he finally says when he is finished. His eyes focus on me. "The Konoha's assisstance is much appreciated. When can you start?"

"Anytime," I answer.

"We should probably settle in first, though. Ri will be tired afterwards," Shikamaru interjects.

Gaara nods. "Of course. Kankurō will show you to your quarters."

"No need." Shikamaru cracks a smile. "I know where they are."

"Very well." Gaara looks at me. "You will be retrieved from your quarters in an hour." The way he says it, it sounds more like he's asking for permission then an announcement. I wonder if he's feeling as awkward as I do.

I give him a smile. "Alright. See you then, Gaara-san."

A nod, and we're dismissed.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Our quarters are fairly sparse. There are two beds, two wooden chests for storage, a table and chairs, and that's pretty much it. A small bathroom is there, too, but there's no tap or shower, just two water containers placed in a corner next to the sink, merely enough for washing hands and face.

"Sunagakure is very strict about the use of water," Shikamaru tells me. "All citizens are allowed a certain amount of water per day, determined by age, health, and job. The only buildings with water connections are the Kazekage Tower, the hospital, the greenhouses, and the water distribution buildings. They don't have baths or showers, everyone learns from a young age to wash themselves with sand. Only infants are washed in water."

"That must take some getting used to," I muse.

"You have no idea," Shika says, then smirks. "Thankfully, we don't have to worry about it, since we have you here."

I grin back. "I'm such a convenient person to have around, aren't I?"

"Always," he answers. "You should eat something to help your reserves."

"Right," I nod, and pull out a storage scroll. A puff of smoke, and a bunch of fruits fall into my hands. I unseal a ration bar for later use, too.

"You know, there's a basket full of fruit right there, you paranoid headcase," Shika drawls, pointing at the table.

"Suna is the village of poisons, you know?" I raise an eyebrow at him while I bite into an apple. I offer one to him, too. "I'm not sure I could detect the more subtle poisons, especially not if it's a strong smelling fruit."

Shikamaru accepts the apple. "Whatever. I'm not complaining."

We while the hour away in companionable silence, until a knock sounds on the door. Shikamaru opens. It's Gaara. I blink in surprise, I didn't expect him to come himself. "Ri, let's go," Shikamaru announces.

"Ah," Gaara says slightly awkwardly. "There have been protests about letting foreign ninja near our water reservoirs. Riko-san will have to come alone."

Oh great.

Shikamaru scowls. "No way. Do you know the kind of things she gets into when she's on her own?"

"She is under my protection," Gaara speaks seriously. "She will be safe in Sunagakure."

My brother still frowns. I sigh. "Shika, it'll be fine if Gaara-san is there. Stop worrying." I blink, feeling a bit odd that I'm the one reassuring him now. "Will you be alright alone?"

We haven't been apart in weeks.

"Troublesome," Shikamaru mutters. "Of course."

I nod and walk to the door, subtly squeezing his shoulder on the way. "Be right back."

"You better."

Gaara says nothing as he carefully grabs my shoulder. Sand surges up and whirls around us. I press my eyes shut to prevent it from getting in. Shunshin is second nature to me, so even if I don't know this version ot it, I can easily recognise it as that.

"You will have to be blindfolded," Gaara rasps, and again, it sounds like a question. I nod, keeping my eyes still closed, since my instinct seems quite content in Gaara's presence.

"Alright," I give my permission. It's not like a blindfold would make a difference if he decided to attack me. He controls sand, and we're in the freaking desert. Where there's pretty much no water. "I don't mind."

Cloth rustles. Something soft is placed over my face. I tense a little when Gaara's hands pull the blindfold tight and tie it. Automatically, I sharpen my remaining senses. My sense of smell is pretty much useless here, though, everything smells of sand, and there are a number of scents I can't even interpret. My chakra sense would be useful if I weren't standing next to Gaara whose chakra is so insanely strong that it makes sensing anything else nigh impossible. Hearing is clearly the most effective of my senses.

Gaara's hand carefully grabs my wrist and starts tugging me forward. I can tell when we enter a building, and I hear a door open. There's the puff of a seal being released, and a whiff of cooler, fresher air that smells slightly of water - such a welcome scent - brushes over my face. "Careful," Gaara murmurs. "We're descending stairs."

I nod. "Thanks for the warning."

We walk down endless stairs in awkward silence. I count our steps. Four hundred-seven, four hundred eight... Why won't Gaara just use his shunshin again? Are there rules against using it, wherever we're headed to?

"Okay, say something," I say. "This is beyond awkward, and since we're going to have to do this a few more times, we might as well try to get along."

Dead silence on Gaara's end. My bravery fails me immediately. This was such a bad idea.

Oh well, might as well keep going. What's the worst that could happen? International incident, Shikamaru getting angry and plotting revenge against Suna, death and destruction...

"If it helps, I'm not mad at you for trying to kill me back then," I add nervously. "I mean, you seem quite sane now. And Naruto says you tried to help back when I got kidnapped - thanks for that by the way, I really appreciate it. Anyway, people try to kill me all the time, so it's not like it's a big deal. Plus, you had a demon screwing with your head, so it's not even your fault! I mean, I've done a few really bad things myself when my mind wasn't in the right place so it's not like I've got room to judge. You should really say something now so I stop rambling like an idiot. Seriously." I take a deep breath after my uncharacteristically long speech.

Behold, the master of conversation, Nara Riko. This was such a bad idea.

I'm entirely unprepared for step number five hundred eleven to be the last one. In full anticipation of step five hundred twelve, my foot makes jarring contact with stone ground way before I expect it, causing me to lose my balance. Something hard as stone is suddenly wrapped around my shoulders, keeping me upright and stopping me from tucking into a roll. It's gone almost immediately, though.

"My apologies," Gaara says hastily. "My sand-"

"Can we just pretend I never tripped at all and never speak of it again?" I interrupt brightly. "Because if certain people hear about it, I'll never live it down. They'll make up some shit about me fainting in the kazakage's arms and they'll call me a damsel in distress for the rest of my life. And now that I've said that, please don't blackmail me."

Silence again. Can silence sound confused? Because this silence does.

"...I won't," Gaara finally says, sounding entirely too unsure for a kage.

"Thanks!" I answer, probably entirely too enthusiastic, but hell, I'd kill for this incident never to reach Demon-sensei's ears.

The rest of the walk passes in silence since I don't want to chance embarrassing myself any further. Slowly, the fresh, sharp scent of water grows stronger, and I begin to hear the noise of water - blubbering, splashing, running. My senses stretch out, there are several chakras in the distance, but more than that, water. In immense amounts. After days in the desert, it's a comforting thing to sense. I'm not used to waterless environments.

I hear a door open almost noiselessly, a seal being released. We enter what sounds like a cavern from the way the sound echoes. I feel wary stares on me as Gaara unties the blindfold.

My eyes widen at the sight before me. We're indeed in a large cavern, stabilised by stone spires and pillars, the walls polished, seals adorning them. But what holds my attention is the water. It's everywhere. There's a an intricate system of deep reservoirs, a large lake further away. Mighty water tanks made from shiny metal stand close to the walls, some are even inserted into them. A system of large pipes, some so big an elephant could live in them, others delicate and barely thicker than my wrist. The cavern is so wide, I can barely see where it ends. And I suspect it's not the only one of its kind, there's no way a ninja village would have only one place to organise all the water distribution. And no matter how large it all seems, it can't be enough to sustain a village of Sunagakure's size.

"Oh, wow," I breathe, attempting and failing at taking it all in. This might be my favourite place in all of Wind Country.

There are a number of ninja here. They all wear skin tight suits, not the linen robes of most of Suna's ninja force. I see two simultaneously make handseals and levitate water from one reservoir to another. Another balances on a pipe, apparently directing water through it.

This must be where all water-natured ninja from Sunagakure work.

One of them approaches us. "Kazekage-sama," he greets politely. I only get a cold look and condescending nod. "So this is the supposed water-maker?" He says 'water-maker' the way Tsunade says 'council of Elders'.

Gaara only nods. The man gives a barely concealed sneer. "I still think this is a bad idea. Sunagakure does not need the... assistance of a half-baked kunoichi."

Nice. I feel so welcomed.

"Noted," Gaara says coolly, a note in his voice that says, do not irritate me.

"She doesn't even look like much. What did the Leaf send us, a genin?" the man obliviously continues his diatribe. "This is an insult. Kazekage-sama, I implore you-"

"Hey," I interject mildly. "Look at me."

He barely spares me a sneer. I smile at him while gorgeous white flowers spring into existence around us. They fill the air with the sweet scent of decay, gently brush his skin, whispering a soothing lullaby. The man rapidly pales. "I said look at me," I repeat calmly. "You don't talk to Gaara-san about me. You talk to me about me. And you damn well look at me while you do it. Now how about you do your damn job so I can do mine?" I release the genjutsu.

The man nods hastily and stumbles away.

"Sorry about that," I say to Gaara, cringing on the inside at his cautious stare. Threatening one of his villagers might not have been the best idea. "I don't have the best temper."

He nods shortly. "You have my apologies, too. I promised you safety."

I give him a blank look. "But I am safe. I'm with you, after all."

"But not safe from their words," Gaara murmurs.

I blink, feeling oddly warm. I know what it feels like being protected, but it's rare that someone would go to the extent of shielding me from someone's unkind words. And I'd never have expected Gaara of all people to be one to go that far. "It's... ahh, alright?" I say, sounding unsure. "Not your fault?"

Gaara nods. We turn to follow the jackass until we stand before a row of empty reservoirs. "Fill this as much as you can," the man sneers as he points at the reservoir we stand before, eyes glinting in barely concealed malice, no doubt already composing condescending commentary on my abilities or the lack thereof. I grin at him, showing my teeth. Some of his bravado leaves.

"Gladly," I say. My fingers twist into seals. "Suiton: Suishouha!"

The reservoir fills within a minute, spills over, and fills the adjoining reservoirs, too. By the time I cancel the technique, three reservoirs are filled to the brim and Jackass is sputtering, pale, and terrified of me. "Is this enough for today?" I ask sweetly. "I can do more, I think."

His mouth opens and closes wordlessly.

"We will be back tomorrow," Gaara says, and leads me out of the cavern. And I might be wrong, but there seems to be something akin to satisfaction in his voice.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

It's nighttime. I sit on the rooftop of the building Shikamaru and I are housed in and stare up at the sky.

A swish of wind and sand, and I'm not alone anymore. "Good evening, Gaara-san," I greet, looking at him. He's changed out of his kazekage robes and now wears dark clothes and a red coat.

"Good evening," he says. A pause in which neither of us says anything follows. Then, "Why aren't you sleeping?" he asks bluntly.

I smile slightly and look up at the sky again. "I can't say I care much for the desert, but it has the most beautiful night sky I've ever seen." And it does. The sight of the thousands of stars nearly drove tears to my eyes when I first I came to the roof because I couldn't fall asleep. "I could look at the stars forever."

I feel more than hear Gaara step up next to me. When I chance a look at him, he's looking up at the stars, too.

"Hey," I say offhandedly. "You've heard about Akatsuki?"

He looks back at me. "I've been warned, yes."

I nod. "Shikamaru and I ran into two of them. Hidan and Kakuzu. It was only a few weeks ago, I don't know if you've already heard."

"I haven't," he answers. He pauses slightly. "How dangerous are they?"

I shake my head. "They're monsters. I don't know how Shika and I are still alive. You gotta be careful if you ever face one of Akatsuki's member. You don't have to worry 'bout Hidan anymore, though."

"Why are you telling me this?" he asks.

I shoot him a blank look. "Well, they're after the Kyūbi. Chances are they might go after the other bijuu, too. And you're Naruto's friend, so I figured I'd warn you."

"Ah," he utters, and looks up at the stars again. Apparently, I'm not the only awkward one. "Naruto said you were his first friend," Gaara suddenly says. "How did you become friends?"

"I told him I wanted to be," I answer. And now it's Gaara giving me a blank look. I sigh and explain. "We were both eight years old when we met at the Academy. I was kind of a coward and it took me ages to actually approach him, but when he got beat up in a spar, I decided screw it. I found him, helped fix him up, and he asked why I was even talking to him, so I said, 'Because I want to be your friend.'" I shrug. "He dragged me to eat ramen right after. We've been best friends ever since."

Gaara frowns. "It is that simple to become friends?"

I suddenly remember that Gaara's life was even lonelier than Naruto's was; and throw caution in the wind. So I shrug. "Yeah. Hey Gaara, you wanna be friends?" I give him a tentative smile.

He stares at me.

And slowly nods.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

The few days Shikamaru and I spend in Sunagakure are fairly enjoyable. Once a day, Gaara takes me to the reservoirs where I do my water thing. Since our talk, it's not nearly as awkward as before, though it's not not awkward either. After that, Shikamaru and I are free to do as we wish, which usually leads to us strolling around the village. Temari shows up once to take me shopping, and Shikamaru is dragged along to carry our bags. Kankurō is ordered to show us the sights and take us to a puppet theatre, which is pretty interesting, though the play itself is seriously depressing. Twice we have dinner with all three of the Sand siblings. At night, Gaara and I sit on the rooftop and look at stars and talk.

It really is like a vacation. I'm actually reluctant to leave, but Shikamaru needs to carry back scrolls to Konoha, and I want to get back to training, which I can't do freely in Suna. Temari accompanies us back to Konoha, citing that discussions need to be made concerning the upcoming Chūnin Exams which will be hosted by Sunagakure.

"I'm so glad I have that shit behind me," I declare.

"Hear, hear," Shika agrees.

"Lazy idiots," Temari grumbles.

Shikamaru yawns. "Remember who beat you at shōgi yesterday..." he drawls, causing Temari to glare.

I laugh lightly at their antics. However, I visibly tense the closer we get to the gates of Konoha.

"Troublesome," Shikamaru sighs. "Ri, nothing is going to happen."

"Quiet," I snap. "Any second now. Any second we're going to be attacked by an at-least A-ranked missing-nin with a freaky kekkei-genkai, and at least one of us is going to get seriously injured in the subsequent fight. Back-up from the village will arrive too late to defeat the bastard, leaving all the hard work to us. The least you two could do is be on your guard."

"That... was disturbingly specific," Temari remarks. "Relax, I don't sense any attacking intent around, and I'm sensitive to that kind of thing."

She'd have to be, wouldn't she, growing up with an unstable jinchūriki?

"Chill, Ri," Shika says exasparatedly. "Nothing is going to happen."

He is right. Nothing happens. It seriously freaks me out. Clearly, it means that the next mission is going to be twice as bad as usual when it finally goes FUBAR.

But nothing happens on the next mission either - a simple delivery one with Shikamaru's team. And the escorting mission with Shikamaru, Kamizuki Izumo and Hagane Kotetsu, the two chūnin who usually guard the gates, goes spectacularly fine too, to the point that my temporary teammates complain about boredom.

It drives me insane. This is not how my world works.

"So let me get this straight," Shikamaru finally concludes. "Normally, you're paranoid because your missions always go wrong. And now, you're freaking out because our missions are going fine."

"Yes," I agree.

"This is such a drag," Shika sighs. "Have you considered that maybe it's not the calm before the storm? Maybe karma is just making up for the shit of the last catastrophe."

I look at him. "No, that's impossible."

Shikamaru groans and gives up.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Several important things happen in between my currently fairly low-key missions.

One, I summon a rabbit to take the information I have about Akatsuki to Jiraiya, which I completely forgot to do before. Kyuuri comes back with no reply, but reports that he and Jiraiya will co-write a novel sometime in the near future. I resolve to never summon Kyuuri again lest the entire Icha Icha series gets ruined for me.

Two, Karin wakes up. And she isn't all that great yet and was recommended to have someone stay with her while she recovers. So like I promised, I move into her flat.

"You sure about this?" Shika asks. He sounds calm, but there's a hint of panic in his eyes. I give him a serious nod, feeling rather unsure myself.

"Let's face it, we can't cling to each other forever," I admit. "Sooner or later, we're going to have missions separate us. Better to go insane in the village then on a mission. Besides, we'll see each other all the time anyway. You heard mom threaten me about not visiting."

"I don't like it," my brother grumbles.

"Me neither," I mumble.

It sucks the first few days. I have nightmares. Shika does, too. I end up slipping into his room at the crack of dawn. He grips me into his arms so tightly breathing gets hard. But eventually, while the nightmares don't vanish, the anxiety over the separation does abate. Karin is actually really helpful with that, providing a welcome distraction. And I hear Shikamaru plays shōgi with the still hospitalised Asuma a lot, so he keeps busy, too.

The third important thing is a storage seal Dad hands me one afternoon after asking me to follow him to the Clan Forest. "The others were against giving you this," he tells me. "But I know you need closure."

The containment specification on the seal reads Hidan.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I'm alone when I unseal Hidan's skull. It falls to the ground with a dull thud.

"Fucking heathen bitch!" it snarls. "You put me on my damn body right this fucking instant! You unnatural monstrosity!"

I say nothing while it rants. Just stare at the skull, bile rising in my throat. But Dad was right, I need to by the one to deal with this. The head of the man who, who killed him, my brother. He's going to pay.

I put my foot on the head and resist the temptation to squash it like a grape. Instead I, almost gently kick at the violently swearing thing, let it roll onto my foot, and kick it straight into the air like a soccer player. My hand digs into its cheekbones.

I cut in coldly. "There's no body left. Only your rotting head."

"You bloody heathen!" it screams, grotesquely rolling his glowing eyes. "Fucking heretic! Jashin-sama will punish-"

Unhinged laughter tears itself from my throat. "Hidan," I laugh. "Let me tell you what's going to happen to you. I'm going to encase your head into the melted metal of your weapon. It'll flow into your every orifice. Down your throat, into your nose, it'll fill every hollow space, and it'll burn. And then it'll go cold and hard. No more screaming and cursing. No more noises. All your senses will be cut off. No more smelling, no more listening, no more hearing. And I'm going to bury you where no one will ever find you. And then," I whisper. "You're going to live forever."

Hidan screams. "Heathen bitch! Spawn of a syphilic whore! Jashin-sama will make your suffering last eternally! You will-"

"Jashin?" I laugh, but it sounds more like crying. It doesn't feel like crying though. "It tried. Took my brother, swung a giant scythe at me, promised me eternal suffering. And you know what?"

Hidan has shut up now. Its features are twisted in disbelief and growing fear. I relish that look.

"I made it scream. Made it burn! Made it crawl in the ground before me like the pathetic wretch it was, and then I ended it. Your precious Jashin is gone. And I took my brother and brought him back with me."

I smile at Hidan, a sharp, edged thing.

It screams.

Later, when I've made good on my threats, I give Dad a nod to let him know that I dealt with it. And because we're both Naras, he understands.

No one touches our family and walks away unpunished. No one. Not even a god, and certainly not a god's groveling servant.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: A fillerish chapter, but you'll be happy to hear that we're pretty much caught up with canon. The Gaara thing just sort of happened, because I suddenly noticed that he and Riko never had any actual interaction, and the first Shippuuden arc is coming up. Also, I love Gaara.

For the people worried about my updates getting delayed because of studying... The moment I opened my books, the muse started a frontal assault on me. I have never had more inspiration for writing than now when I'm supposed to be studying.

(Seriously. I wrote 3500 words in one day. With an exam scheduled for the day after. I advise against imitating that.)

*Chapter 13*: Poison

I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.


About two months after my return from Kiri, my lucky streak of boredom comes to an end. Hanabi drops down in front of me, Aimi and Chie flanking her. All three wear trenchcoats and ponytails.

"You've been avoiding us," Hanabi accuses me.

"Well, I've been busy defeating S-rank missing-nin, improving our relations with two Hidden Villages, saving my brother, and moving out of my childhood home. I was a little bit too busy to deal with you," I reason.

Hanabi frowns. Chie speaks up. "So you'd rather fight S-rank missing-nin than come visit us? Gee, that hurts, Neesan."

"Yes," I say. "I'd rather deal with S-rank missing-nin than with you. You three are bloody terrifying."

Smug grins all around. Of course they'd be flattered.

"So we graduated," Chie drawls.

"Congrats," I answer.

"And we're a team now," Hanabi continues.

"Oh God."

"And Anko-neechan is our sensei!" Aimi cheers.

"What have I done."

"But today she has business at T&I," Chie drawls.

"And she wouldn't take us with her," Hanabi grumbles. It's a very dignified grumble.

"Stingy," Aimi pouts.

"At least one of you has that much sense," I say with some surprise.

"Nah, Uncle Ibiki kicked us out," Chie says.

"'Uncle'?" I repeat.

"Yup! He's nice when he isn't stingy!" Aimi beams at me.

"I honestly don't know what to say."

"Anyway," Chie cuts in. "Hanabi's cousin/uncle/something is supposed to substitute for Anko-sensei today. Since she's busy doing fun things at T&I."

With a growing sense of dread, I ask, "Where is said substitute, then?"

"Tokuma-oji had an unfortunate accident earlier today," Hanabi informs me. "He broke his leg."

"Unfortunate," I echo.

"Very unfortunate." Hanabi nods seriously.

"Accident?" I ask.

"A very unfortunate accidental accident, brought on by an accidental series of unfortunate accidental happenings, which led him to being accidentally at the site of the accident at the time the unfortunate accident happened. It was all very accidental. And unfortunate," Chie clarifies.

I blink slowly.

"It was an accident," Hanabi informs me, just to make sure I understand the fact of the matter.

Aimi giggles. "Very unfortunate. Lots of red juice came out. Accidentally."

"Riiight," I say, wondering why in the world I never thought to prevent this team from forming. "I hope you three have a good alibi."

The three kids look at me with wide, innocent eyes. "But it was an accident!"

"Riiight," I repeat. "So what do you brats want?"

"Training!" they chorus. It shouldn't be cute. It really shouldn't.

"Alright," I sigh. "Before you really kill someone. Let's go."

Fifteen steps. We make it fifteen steps further before the next idiocy happens.

"Oh look!" Aimi chirps. "It's Tora-chan!" And without any warning, she jumps toward the devil-cat. Contrary to my expectations, the evil thing does not proceed to either run away or mutilate little Aimi. Instead, it jumps straight into the girl's waiting arms and starts purring up a storm. "Who is the best cat ever?" Aimi coos, scratching the fat lump of a cat behind the ears. "Who has the sharpest claws that rip ninja to shreds? Tora-chan does! Aww, you're such a great cat!"

"This is highly disturbing," I comment to Chie.

"I know, right?" she mutters back.

"OI!" a boy's voice yells behind us. "That's our mission! Give me the cat!"

And lo and behold, here comes Sarutobi Konohamaru, closely followed by Udon and Moegi. Seems they graduated, too.

Aimi pouts. "No!" she protests, the cat in her arms glaring at the boy and hissing. "I wanna keep Tora-chan!"

Naturally, that doesn't fly over well with the boy. He points at Aimi indignantly. "You can't keep it! It's not yours! It's our mission! Now keep it still while I take it!"

"How do you think you are talking to my teammate, Sarutobi?" Hanabi snaps, a glare on her face.

"I can talk to Crazy Aimi however I want, Freak-Eyes!" Konoha yells. "Now give me that demon!"

Vast amounts of Killing Intent emanate from both Hanabi and Chie. It's like they are suddenly shrouded in dark clouds of malicious intent. Aimi on the other hand is smiling a glowing, happy smile, and it's even scarier. Somehow, I know something incredibly bad is about to happen.

And to make the impending chaos perfect, the closet pervert (according to Naruto) Ebisu shows up, now evidently the Konohamaru Corps' jōnin sensei. "What is going on here?" he demands, righting his sunglasses. "Oh I see, you found the cat for us. Very well. Well done." He reaches an arm out imperiously. "We'll take it from here. Give the cat to us."

"Ufufufufuh…" Aimi giggles.

"You want the cat?" Chie drawls.

"You order us to hand it over?" Hanabi demands.

"Uh-oh," I say.

"Here you go!" Aimi chirps.

And throws Tora right into Konohamaru's face. A large MEOW! sounds. Screams of pain ensue. No member of the Konohamaru-Corps is spared. Not even Ebisu.

"That," I state. "Was the most evil thing I have ever seen."

Three pairs of wide, innocent eyes look up at me. "But it was an accident!" Chie protests. Her bottom lip trembles.

Hanabi nods. "Nobody can control Tora! Everyone knows that!"

"…Who are these people?" Aimi asks with a confused frown, staring at the screaming pile of kids in front of her. Ebisu attempts to lunge forward at the devil-cat, trips over Konohamaru's flailing legs, and lands face-first in the ground, his ass sticking up in the air, which reveals a rather unfortunately placed rip in his pants. I quickly cover Chie's and Hanabi's eyes to preserve their innocence. Aimi I deem a lost cause.

"Nothing to see here, girls," I say. "Don't look, don't look, don't look. Seriously, don't look."

"That's a funny birthmark," Aimi remarks, intently staring.

"Riiiiight," I answer. "Training. Let's go. We'll work with your summons. Now."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Naturally, that isn't the end of that. I did promise to go on missions with the brats one day.

Well congratulations, Ri, that day is today.

We're supposed to get some sort of special herb that only grows in a forest in River Country. And yay! Anko has finished her business in T&I, so she's coming with us! Somehow, I know this to be the end of my nice, calm, and gloriously boring missions.

So I make sure to say my goodbyes properly.

"Karin, if my ramen stash is empty when I come back, I will tell my Mom."
"Hiek! Please don't!"

"Mom, would you mind checking in on Karin while I'm gone?"
"I don't, but I'll be very busy in two weeks, so you better be back by then."
"Of course, I love you Mom."

"Shika, if Temari tells me you couldn't work properly because you were worrying about me, I'll be seriously put out when I come back."
"So finish that mission quickly, you troublesome girl."
"Hug me first."
"What a drag. Come here."

"Bye, Dad."
"Goodbye, Riko-chan. Be safe."
"I'll try. Let's play shōgi when I get back."
"I'll be waiting."

Three days later

"So what have we learnt about giving Aimi explosive tags?" I ask sternly. Next to us, Aimi is on the ground laughing manically.

"Not to do it?" Chie guesses.

Behind us, at least two acres of forest are merrily burning down. I already sent two water clones to deal with the fire. Hanabi is staring intently at the flames while they are still there, completely mesmerised. "It's beautiful..." she whispers.

"Why do I get the feeling that you're just telling me what I want to hear?" I ask Chie. "Nevermind. We need to get Anko to a doctor."

To my right, Anko sits on the ground, slowly but surely losing consciousness.

We got attacked by a flock of missing-nin. Nothing we couldn't deal with, but Anko got poisoned protecting Chie.

"So we're going back to Konoha?" Chie asks as the only one capable of coherent speech, seeing as Crazy Aimi is still living up to her name and Hanabi just discovered the joy of pyromania.

I shake my head. "No. I don't know how fast-acting that poison is and I don't know the poison extracting technique. Suna is closer and they are experts when it comes to poisons. So that's where we're going."

"We don't have authorisation to go to another Hidden Village," Chie points out.

"It's fine," I say. "It's a medical emergency, and I'm friends with the kazekage. Don't worry."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

It takes us six hours until Sunagakure comes into view. By then, the three girls are riding on a panda Chie summoned, three of Hanabi's swallow summons are fluttering around and singing merrily to 'increase travel comfort', and Aimi is talking to a scorpion she successfully found and captured. Meanwhile, I'm left to carry Anko who slips in and out of consciousness and drools on my shoulder.

There is something wrong with this picture.

There is something wrong with Suna, too.

"Now that's one giant dune," Chie remarks.

"Giant... hehehe..." Anko mumbles into my shoulder. She remains ignored.

"Yeah," I agree with Chie's statement. "It wasn't there the last time I was here, and that was only three weeks ago. The entrance wasn't blown up and full of dead people either."

I bite my lip. It's not like we have a choice besides entering the village, Anko needs an antidote, so we'll have to go in there. Besides, Gaara might need assisstance, and we are friends.

At the mention of dead people, Aimi perks up and gives us her full attention. "Dead People? Where?"

Hanabi activates her byakugan. "There's some living ones, too. They're cleaning up the bodies, I think."

"D'you think I can help?" Aimi asks hopefully.

Chie helpfully points at Aimi and mouths 'necrophile' to me. I sweat-drop, not entirely sure that she is screwing with me.

"No, Aimi. I'm sure they can handle it. We're just going to ask for an antidote for Anko. If they need assisstance they'll ask, but I doubt they'll ask for help in body clean-up," I reason. "C'mon, let's go."

We reach the main entrance to the village, a single cleft between two cliff-faces. At present it's covered in rubble. There are bodies among the chunks of rock, the odd limb sticking out. They haven't been taken away yet, the shinobi present seem to be more concerned searching for survivors among the rubble.

One of them lands before us. He opens his mouth. I interrupt before he can say anything. "Team Forty-four from Konoha plus Nara Riko," I introduce us pompously. "We have a medical emergency." I shift to reveal Anko's drooling face. "Is now a bad time?"

"Err..." the guy stutters, staring at me, Anko, our panda, and the girls. Aimi has set the little cage with the scorpion on her head. "It's, uhm, ahh, well-"

Hanabi jumps off the panda, byakugan still activated. "You've got survivors there, there, and there," she informs him haughtily, pointing at various spots in the vicinity. "And there's one under the rock you stand on. Also, there are three exploding tags, one under that rock over there, another up that wall, and one on the rock next to you. Now, the hospital?"

The guy sputters, completely out of his element.

"Enough, Hikaru, I'll take it from here," a deeper voice says. A vaguely familiar man approaches. Red facial markings, a turban-like head-gear, a sheet covering half his face.

"Baki-san, was it?" I ask as the speech-impedimented guy flees our presence. "What happened here?"

He shakes his head. "Follow me. We can talk on the way to the hospital."

The girls look at me. I shrug, nod, and shoot stern looks at Chie and Aimi. Panda and scorpion disappear.

We turn to follow Baki.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I frown as I look around. There's a tense atmosphere all over the village. Shinobi guards are everywhere. Some houses look damaged by explosions and occasionally there are large piles of sand in the streets. Combined with the giant dune piled up just outside the village... There's only one person capable of moving that much sand.

"Baki-san," I speak up. "Is Gaara-san alright?"

He tenses and shoots a look around. "We'll talk inside."

He ushers us into the hospital and leaves us with a medic who takes a look at Anko and whips out an antidote in five minutes flat. Ten minutes later, Anko is somewhat coherent again. "Snake-baiiiiit," she whines. "It's hooooot."

"Not my problem. Take off the trenchcoat if you're so bothered," I answer distractedly, attempting to eavesdrop on a conversation about five rooms away. It's not very fruitful. Their words are all out of context.

Anko gasps, scandalised. "Take off my trenchcoat? In front of the kids? My, Snake-bait, aren't you-"

"Quiet," I say.

Baki comes in again and asks for a word with me. I shrug and follow him. The rest of the team trails after us unasked. Baki looks kind of annoyed at that but says nothing.

He leads us into a guarded hospital room. A wave of heat and the scent of sick and sweat hits me the moment I enter. There are medics flitting about, and an old crone seems to be doing... something that involves a beaker, various test tubes, and small-scale explosions on a large seal. On a bed in the middle of the room is the shirtless form of what I only belatedly realise is Kankurō due to the lack of black suit and facepaint. He's sweating awfully, his face contorted in pain. Yet I can't see any obvious injuries. He must have been poisoned.

I bite my lip. I kick ass at fixing wounds and burns and doing first aid. Sicknesses and poisons I am fairly clueless about.

The old woman looks up, sees us. Sees our hitae-ates and snarls, a kunai falling into her hands. "What are Konoha-ninja doing here?"

"Chiyo-baasama," Baki speaks up calmly. "Konoha is our ally now. They are here to help."

We are? Good to know.

The old crone shoots us a hateful glare. I shift in front of the girls and return her stare evenly.

"Tch," Chiyo snorts derisively. "Suna has become weak. We don't need the help of them."

"You know," I muse to Baki, dismissing the old bitch. "It'd be nice to know what we're supposed to help with."

"Yes," Baki answers. "Sunagakure was infiltrated two days ago."

I feel more than hear Anko step up next to me, shielding Hanabi from Chiyo's view. The old crone is now staring hatefully at the girl's eyes, obviously having recognised the byakugan. "By who," Anko demands.

But it is me Baki looks at as he answers, "Akatsuki."

Something inside me goes very, very cold. "I see," I say calmly. "I haven't seen Gaara around."

"He was taken."

I nod, outwardly calm. "What about Kankurō?"

"He went after them. We found him like this." Baki nods at the form on the bed. "A pursuit unit was sent after the enemies. There has been no word from them, we must assume the worst. We have already sent our fastest hawk to Konoha to ask for assistance. However, it will take him a day to reach his destination, and travel from Konoha takes three days at the least."

I stare down at Kankurō. For a moment, his image overlaps with my brother's when he was lying lifelessly on a hospital bed mere weeks ago. My hands clench into fists.

Kankurō is someone's brother, too. So is Gaara. More than that, Gaara is my friend.

"There were two Akatsuki members. One has been identified as Akasuna no Sasori, a genius puppeteer and poison specialist. The other is a missing-nin from Iwagakure who uses ranged and directed explosives."

I nod numbly. Anko shifts in front of me. "What do you want from Riko?" she demands angrily.

"Nara Riko," Baki says seriously with his deep voice. "You are the only one among us who has successfully beaten a member of Akatsuki before."

The old crone's gaze snaps up and fixes on me.

"You can't just expect Riko to fight for you!" Anko snaps at Baki.

"We do not have any ninja strong enough to take on someone Gaara couldn't beat in our forces," Baki reasons. Chiyo scoffs.

"And you think I can?" I ask softly. "You're wrong. The previous victory was luck, and my brother helped."

"Besides, her mission is to protect the three brats on their mission," Anko adds.

"A mission that is technically over," Chie remarks. "We've got the herbs we were supposed to find."

"But we haven't delivered them back to Konoha yet," Hanabi cuts in.

I listen with half an ear as they start discussing, my own thoughts racing. To think it'd be Akatsuki again... to think they'd come after Gaara. I even warned him against them, so for some reason, I thought they'd never get to him. As if my warning would make the threat go away.

Gaara is a friend. He's Naruto's friend, too.

You cannot seriously be considering this madness, Dementia snarls in the back of my mind. Gaara isn't even important.

He's my friend. That's all the reason I need. If you need another, he's a jinchūriki. Akatsuki getting even one bijuu brings them closer to their endgoal, whatever that is, I answer.

You have no hope of taking on even one Akatsuki. You remember last time.

And that is part of why I have to go anyway. They nearly cost me my brother. I need to stop them.

You haven't gotten that technique you were developing to work.

Well, good thing I work best under pressure, no? I ask.

Fool. We're going to die.

Stop worrying. It'll be okay. But I need you with me, not against me.

She doesn't answer.

Thanks, I tell her.

Meanwhile, the discussion has not born any fruit. Now they are arguing over Kankurō.

Aimi strolls over to Kankuro's sweating form. "I think he's dying a painful and miserable death," she remarks happily.

"Don't stand in the way, girl!" the bitchy old woman snaps at her and attempts to shove her away. Aimi gracefully flips backwards over Kankuro's body.

"Righty-o," she sings and holds her hands over his heart. They start to glow green. "I'm gonna make him owe me his life! C'mon, Hacchan, it's gonna be fun!"

"Don't touch him!" the old bat snarls. "He is my patient, Leaf brat! You aren't needed!"

Hanabi steps up next to Aimi. "What are we doing?" she asks, ignoring the old woman.

"Huh?" Aimi asks. "Oh. Yes. A plan. I have one."

I sent a silent prayer to every deity I know of that Aimi won't kill the Kazekage's brother.

"I'm gonna keep the poison from his heart, and you can do your needle thingy and slow his metabolism down! Then the poison's not gonna spread! It'll be like he's hibernating, like a bear! And in six months, he'll wake up all better!" Aimi beams at Hanabi.

The Suna people all stare at her in a stupor while her glowing hands are held over Kankuro's heart. They stare some more when Hanabi sticks senbon into Kankuro's body.

"I don't think that's how medicine works," I hiss at Chie.

My cousing gives me a deadpan look. "Medicine has obviously never met Aimi. So when are we setting out?"

"Hell no," I say. "You are staying here."

And cue the puppy eyes. It's not nearly as effective when Hanabi and Aimi aren't with her.

"No," I say again. "While I'm not entirely sure that you can't take down S-rank ninja, I need you here. You're the only one in this team that has anything resembling common sense. And Aimi is stuck doing her medical thing to Kankurō. Someone sane needs to watch over her. You'll have to do."

"So you're going," Anko says neutrally.

Baki looks up, hope in his eyes.

"Cut it out," I snap at him. "I'm only going to track them. That's all. There's help coming from Konoha, right? I'll track Gaara, and then I'll wait for reinforcements. I'm not fighting Akatsuki without back-up. Now, give me something with Gaara's scent."

Baki nods and disappears.

"I will go as well," Chiyo croaks. "I've wanted to give my dear grand-son some-"

"No," I say. "You'll stay here and figure out how to fix Kankurō."

"I won't take orders from a Leaf-brat, insolent girl!"

I roll my eyes. "And I won't take crap from a random stranger, old lady. You have a job here. Do it."

"You gonna be alright, Snake-bait?" Anko asks quietly.

"No promises," I mutter back.

"I'll make sure you don't get in trouble over this. If you survive, that is," Anko promises.

I give her a crooked smile. "Thanks," I say, and draw a kunai over my thumb. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

A puff of smoke. Two rabbits appear. One is a hot magenta colour with purple paws. The other is purple with hot magenta paws. Both have abnormally large ears and wear raincoats. In their paws are umbrellas. "First!" they both yell. "What? No! I was first! You bastard! I won! Cheater! How dare you! I'll kill you!"

I grab them by the scruffs of their necks before they can kill each other. "Riko!" the both shout, pointing at the respective other rabbit. "Negi cheated! Hey, why is it so warm?" They look around with completely identical faces except for their obnoxious colouring.

"We're in the desert," I inform them.

"What?! Not in Mud Country anymore! Haha, loser, you're wearing a raincoat in a desert! Asshole, stop imitating me! No, you stop! No, you stop! No, you stop! No-"

"Shut up!" I snap.

"What the hell is that?" Anko asks. "Looks like snake-snack."

Both rabbits bristle. "These," I cut in. "Are the Negi Twins. The magenta one is Negi One, the other one is Negi Two. They'll help us keep in contact."

"How?" Chie asks curiously. Aimi and Hanabi are watching, too. The Suna-nin are staring in fascinated disgust, Chiyo included. Any good reputation I might have had in this village is now ruined.

"Ha! I am the Number One Master of Rabbit Morse! No, I am! No, I am! No, I AM! No-" both Negis yell. I shake them slightly to shut them up.

"Rabbit Morse is a form of communication the rabbits can use," I explain. "When they tap the ground with their hindpaws while using a special technique, the sound waves transfer over long distances in a way only the rabbits can hear with their ears. The Negi Twins can easily communicate over two countries' distance."

"Huh," Anko utters. "That's actually pretty useful."

"Doubtful," I say darkly. "You can never escape the sibling fights."

"It's his fault!" both rabbits yell, pointing at their respective twin. "No, yours! No, yours! No-"

"See what I mean?" I say. "Anyway, I'll take Negi Two with me, and you can have One. We'll keep in contact that way."

"What? I wanna go with you, Riko!" Negi One yells. "You can't go with that idiot!"

"What? I'm the better choice you pink moron!"

"What? I'll give you pink!"

Both rabbits strain against my hold in an attempt to kill each other.

"They're so cute!" Aimi says.

"Riiight," I say, and hand the struggling Negi One to Chie. Negi Two I set on my shoulder and tell him to sleep. He sniffs and burrows into my hair. Now that his brother is out of sight, he's a little calmer.

Baki comes back, the Kazekage Hat in his hand. Well, that should do for a scent sample, I think, and slam my hand onto the ground again. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

This time, five rabbits appear. "Yo, Summoner! And other Summoner!" a yellow rabbit with heart-framed sunglasses greets. "What'cha need?"

A green one with a propeller hat jumps on him, slamming his head in the ground. "Carrots?"

"I want sake!" a blue one shouts.

"Cake!" a red one demands.

The purple rabbit lets out a deafening snore.

"Wow," Anko says.

"Not a word," I growl.

"You smell like snakes," the blue one tells her. He sniffs. "And you need a shower. Also, you shouldn't have eaten those walnuts."

Anko blinks.

"Yeah, thanks for letting us know that," I answer. "Guys, this is the Shouga Tracking Unit, eleventh generation. Remember them, Aimi, they're actually somewhat competent at what they do." I point at the respective rabbits. "That's Shouga Blue, Shouga Yellow, Shouga... Well, you can guess their names. They answer to their colours, too."

"Right we do!" Yellow has recovered from being jumped upon. He salutes to Aimi. "Summon us anytime! It only costs our weight in food once per day! I want bananas!"




"Eggplants for Purple!"

"You get your food after the job," I say sternly.

"Stingy!" they chorus.

"Tch," the Negi Twins sniff. "Greedy. A good rabbit does not think with his stomach. Bastard, stop copyinmmmmph."

Chie and I simultaneously stop the rabbits from talking. "Guys, I need you to find the guy that hat belongs to. The trail should lead out of the village," I say.

Green blinks. "You mean someone actually wears that ridiculous hat?" He nods to himself, his propeller hat spinning. "Humans are weird."

Yellow hops up and sniffs the hat. Baki looks at him like he has a very fatal and contagious disease. "Got it! Let's go! Come on, Summoner!"

And off they are. Except for the still snoring Shouga Purple. I pick him up and tuck him under my arm.

"Well, see ya later," I say to the assembled company. Baki looks like he's seriously regretting asking me for help. Anko is grinning, Aimi is fully focused on Kankurō now, a sinister smile on her face that I'm only half sure she makes because she wants to freak the Suna ninja out. Hanabi and Chie wave at me.

"Break a leg," Hanabi says.

"Break a neck," Aimi continues.

"Someone else's if you can't manage your own," Chie finishes.

Anko sniffs. "My brats are sooo adorable."

I chuckle a little. "Later, brats."

And then I'm off, too.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Itachi and Kisame come as soon as their Leader calls. Rather, their chakra projections do. Both appear on the fingers of the Gedō Mazō Statue, the statue in which the One-Tailed Beast is to be sealed.

Deidara and Sasori stand at the bottom with Leader-sama. The jinchūriki lays at their feet, unconscious. Itachi had hoped that the kazekage of all people would be able to fend off Deidara. Alas, it was not to be.

"Now, let us begin," Leader-sama intones. Deidara and Sasori leap up to their places on the statue.

Itachi casts a look around. Two spaces remain empty. One used to be occupied by Orochimaru, the other by Hidan. They would have replaced Hidan, but the membership ring couldn't be retrieved after his defeat at the hands of Nara Riko and her brother.

That piece of news had certainly shocked him. To think that the young kunoichi from his home village would become that strong... he hadn't expected it. He had known she was strong, but to the point of taking on a member of the Akatsuki and winning, even if she had help - he had not seen it coming. Perhaps he should go and test her abilities once the extraction of the Ichibi was over. Riko is one of the few people who continuously hold his interest, and she is close to his brother as well.

"The extraction will take little more than three days," Leader-sama continues. "All of you, be mindful of your real bodies. Zetsu, you will keep watch. Use your largest range."

"I know," Zetsu's white half answers.

"Three days?" Kisame drawls. "Shouldn't we expect it to take longer, considering Orochimaru and Hidan are gone?"

Itachi hopes so. The longer it takes, the more likely a successful rescue becomes.

"If you really think so, then let's get started already," Leader-sama orders.

That is when Zetsu suddenly speaks up again. "An enemy from Konoha is tracking Sasori and Deidara. It's the kunoichi who defeated Hidan."

Itachi stills in surprise. Kisame speaks up. "I'll go. I haven't had a good fight in months."

"Yes," Leader-sama says. "The body possession technique is more suited to someone like you as you have the largest reserves among us."

"She is from Konoha," Itachi interjects quietly. "I should go."

"Tch. Ruin my fun, why don't you," Kisame huffs.

"Quiet," Leader-sama interjects. "I have made my decision. The one who will stop the enemy is-"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


I look around uneasily. Somehow, I feel watched, but there's nothing human around even according to the Shouga Tracking Unit, and there's hardly anything they can't smell. The only humans who've come through here are the two Akatsuki members, Akasuna no Sasori and his partner. And Gaara, of course.

According to Green, one of them smells sharp and bitter like poison, and only vaguely human, more like glue, wood, and death. It doesn't sound reassuring.

The other one smells like clay and fire. And blood, as if he's been hurt. That sounds better, I think.

Between the two of them, I think I'd rather fight the one who uses explosives. Puppets are creepy, and getting poisoned is not something I want to risk. Explosions I can deal with.

The trail leads us into River Country, and doesn't that just make me shiver. The girls and I, we just came from there. Had we taken a different route, we might have walked right into a pair of Akatsuki. I wonder how close we came to dying.

It's been a day of tracking. And at first, it was pretty hard to follow the trail. Gaara smells of sand. Try finding that scent in a desert. Try finding that trail in a windy desert with its ever shifting ground. But the rabbits are good at their job. It's the one good thing that can be said about them. That, and they're fluffy.

"Okay, we'll hunker down here," I announce. Here being below a fallen tree whose unearthed roots build a small, hidden shelter. Drying the ground is child's play for me. A blanket spread out on the ground, a few barrier seals distributed around me, and done is my shelter. "Dinner time," I call the magic words out softly.

Yellow falls out of a tree. Purple is suddenly wide awake. Blue surges up from a nearby creek. Red grows out from the earth. Green just... magically appears.

Rabbits are such a ridiculous summon.

"Food! Food!" they demand. I roll my eyes at them and unseal the demanded goods.

"Gluttons," Negi spits. "Stupid rainbow freaks. Give me a lemon, Riko."

I roll my eyes and watch in morbid fascination as Negi devours a lemon, peel and all. It's kind of frightening.

Afterwards, the assorted rabbits cuddle up on and around me. As long as no one decides to lie on my face, it doesn't bother me - "Get off, Purple!"

Negi suddenly perks up. I tell the Shougas to shut up while he listens.

"Oh, he did not just say that!" Negi yells. Furiously, his hindpaw taps the ground. "Oh yes, you pink freak, I will teach you to respect your older brother. No, I'm older! No, I'm older!" I roll my eyes and tap my hand on the ground.

Shut up, you idiots.

Negi shuts up. For a second. "What? It was your fault! Your fault! No, your fault!

I tap the ground again. Seriously, shut up, I rabbit-morse. Anything new, Negi One?

Negi Two's ears twitch. "The pink idiot says no and he acknowledges me as the superior and elder brother and promises me eternal servitude," he declares.

"Right," I say.

"Also, a snake tried to eat him."

"That I can believe."

"Other than that, nothing."

Anything new about when we can expect back-up? I tap. Sending messages is easy. Receive them I can only over very short distances.

"Nope," Negi translates. "But he says he's an idiot who secretly eats catnip. Catnip!"

"Scandalous," I comment.

Thanks, I tap.

Shouga Blue, previously situated on my lap, suddenly sits ramrod straight, nose twitching. A moment later, so do the other Shougas. Carefully, I put Negi on my shoulder and the others on the ground. My finger taps the ground noiselessly. Hide.

Yellow disappears into the trees. Blue dives into the creek. Green flies away, the propeller on his hat spinning madly. Negi hides in my hair. The rest burrow into the ground.

Meanwhile, I carefully gather up the blanket and disappear into the thicket between the trees.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I don't get any rest that night. That's fine, I can function on little sleep. But seeing as every time I find a new hideout, a rabbit morses to me that there's still someone sniffing after us and I still feel watched... It soon becomes clear I'm being hunted. It's not a feeling I enjoy.

And I'm not about to confront the hunter. I was tracking Akatsuki. The fact I'm now being hunted does not bode well. One thing Dementia was right about: I'm nowhere near ready to face one of those monsters again. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I'll be given a choice.

Behind you, a rabbit taps. To the right is clear.

I shunshin to where he told me. Silently, I hurry through the forest. Until the forest thins and opens to a dry plain with nowhere to hide.

Bile rises in my throat.

I wasn't just being hunted. I was chased. Someone wanted me here, in this terrain, and now here I am.

An enormous chakra reveals itself some distance away behind me, Killing Intent chokes me, like a noose it tightens around my neck. The ground shakes and cracks as something surges towards me through the ground. There's no choice, I jump out in the open and the thing travelling through the ground crashes into a rock. A dust cloud rises.

Oh shit, the rabbits tap.

No kidding, I think.

The enormous chakra comes closer. A silhouette appears in the dust cloud. A gust of wind reveals my hunter.

I swallow hard.

"Kisame-san," I force out a greeting.

A few weeks ago, I killed a god. But it wasn't a god I believed in.

Kisame, though. Kisame I very much believe in. The strongest of the Seven Swordsmen. The Monster of the Mist. What is a flower, no matter how bloody it may be, against a monster?

I knew I would one day fight him. He is my goal, my target, my ambition after all. But I didn't think it'd be this soon. Too soon. I'm not ready.

"Well, well... who would have thought. The little kitten from two years ago, all grown up," his deep voice muses, sounding amused. "To think that it was you who killed Hidan..."

Fuck, he knows about that?

"Kill is such a strong word," I reply.

He grins, a terrifying grin with too many and too sharp teeth. "So the fucker still lives?"

"Live is a strong word, too." I tilt my head. "Any chance we can settle this over a game of shōgi?"

He grips Samehada.

My hand goes to Shingi to Giri.

"I didn't think so."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: Oh man Riko. How do these things always happen to her? Canon!Harry's luck was never quite that bad.

For anyone wondering: Negi is Japanese for onion. Shouga means ginger.

Riko chose Negi Two to go with her because he looks slightly less ridiculous, being mostly purple and only a little magenta, unlike his brother.

So I know a lot of people were expecting Naruto and Riko to have their reunion this chapter. Sorry, folks, you'll have to wait a bit. If it cheers you up... this is how the reunion probably won't go:

Naruto: "So what were you doing while I was gone, Ri-chan? Did you even do anything? Did you train? I bet you trained, 'ttebayo. Did you have any fun without me? Can you even have fun without me? Does the village even exist while I'm not here? Did you eat lotsa ramen?"

Riko: "...I spent two years playing a large scale prank on the whole of Kirigakure by pretending to be one of them. I had so much fun until the whole war thing happened. Haku says hi, by the way."

Naruto: "Do they have ramen in Kiri?"

Riko: "Yeah, but they're all soggy."

Naruto: "The horror!"

*Chapter 14*: Shark and Flower

I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Quote in honour of an epic fight:

Gai: "That Ninjutsu! And that giant sword! You must be-"

Kisame: "It seems you finally remembered me."

Gai: "Someone I've met before!"

Kisame: "..."

Shark and Flower

In Kirigakure, Hoshigaki Kisame is a legend. He graduated at a young age and was almost instantly snapped up to be apprenticed to Suikazan Fuguki, back then the wielder of Samehada and the leader of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. Kisame made a name for himself quickly, defeating countless enemies ruthlessly. He was the ideal Kirigakure ninja were held up to, both back then and even now still.

What he is most infamous for is, perhaps, the incident with the Cypher Division, a secret intelligence squad that existed during the last Great Shinobi War. Kisame had been ordered to guard it. When the squad got cornered by Konoha ninja, Kisame slaughtered them all to protect their knowlegde from falling into enemy hands. Not long after this incident, he found out that his master Fuguki had been selling information to other villages, and slaughtered him just like he did the Cypher Division, took Samehada for himself and became one of the Seven Swordsmen. He soon became known as the Monster of the Bloody Mist. In total, he completed 332 missions in his time as a Kiri-nin, 3 D-rank, 68 C-rank, 154 B-rank, 78 A-rank, 29 S-rank.

Eventually, he became a missing-nin when he was revealed to have been plotting to overthrow Water Country's government and to have been involved in numerous assassinations that include another country's daimyō.

Hoshigaki Kisame is known to have superhuman strength and speed. His chakra levels are so high he is known as the Tailed Beast Without A Tail. He's an immensely strong swordfighter, before acquiring Samehada he used a simple katana and still never lost a fight. His ninjutsu is incredibly powerful as well, he is unmatched in using Water Style techniques.

Demon-sensei once told me he fought a total of twenty-eight matches against Kisame. He didn't win a single time.

"I can smell your fear." Kisame grins, revealing way too many teeth.

"I'm sure you do," I reply calmly. "It's a sensible reaction to S-ranked missing-nin, I'm told."

Shingi to Giri slides out of its sheath. I raise it in front of me. Kisame's grin gets wider. "Nice sword."

"Thanks," I say. "You too."

...I really hope he doesn't take that the wrong way. I don't think my sanity would survive an innuendo battle against him.

He grabs Samehada's hilt. The enormous sword is wrapped in bandages and strapped to his back. I'm pretty sure the thing is taller than me. "Samehada has been thirsting for your chakra."

"It must be happy to see me then," I answer.

"Indeed," Kisame says. "So happy it'll just eat you up!" He throws Samehada up into the air and slams the palms of his hands together. "Suiton! Bakusui Shōha!" His chakra levels spike higher than ever. He bends backwards, his chest expanding.

I jump out of dodge, fully aware of what that technique is.

Kisame bends forwards and vomits up a goddamn Tsunami. The roaring sound the water makes is deafening. Higher and higher it towers over me, with him standing on it. Samehada falls back into his hand. Negi whimpers and burrows into my neck. Go home, I want to tell him, but I'm too busy jumping as high as I can, because there's a bloody tidal wave crashing down on me. Kisame passes below me, laughing wildly - can't blame him, to ride a wave that big must be one hell of a high.

I land on the roiling waves he left in his wake. My eyes dart around, where did he go?

A wave that is more tower than water surges up slowly. Kisame stands on top of it, grinning down at me.

Oh. There he is.

The wave crashes down on me, Kisame riding it again. Instead of jumping like he probably expects me to, I run straight into the wave and cut a path through it. When I'm standing on the water's surface once again, Kisame is nowhere to be seen. Negi is tapping on my shoulder wildly, messaging his twin. Giant fish attacking us with-

He never gets to finish the message. A giant water drill - Suiton: Suigadan, a useless part of my brain spits out - comes for me from down below. I only just manage to slam my palms onto the drill as it pushes me up and up, and try to slow it down and stop it with my own chakra, but Kisame's is just too fucking strong. The drill sucks Negi and me in and the world goes spinning. I curl my body into a ball and attempt to slow the currents around me down. Which is when I notice that Negi is no longer attached to shoulder.


The moment the water is calm enough, I'm on the surface, looking for a spot of obnoxious purple and a drip of magenta. I find Negi drifting on the waves easily enough. He's unconscious. One of his legs is broken, and he's barely breathing. I draw water from his lungs, but he doesn't wake up. "Sorry little guy," I whisper. "I'm sending you home, alright?"

Negi Two vanishes in a puff of smoke. I straighten my shoulders and turn around.

"Now that's a nice look on your face." Kisame grins bloodthirstily.

"You're gonna pay for that," I hiss back.

"Always more fun when my prey fights back."

Fuck that noise. Fuck the motherfucking shit ouf of that motherfucking- You take my friend and hurt my damn annoying rabbit, and you think it'll be fucking fun?!

I raise my sword. Kisame throws his into the air and twists his fingers into seals. His palm slams onto the water surface. "Water Style: Shark Bomb!" Water surges up, a giant shark made from water blasts toward me with its giant maw wide open. I lunge forward, Shingi to Giri lighting up with sharp wind chakra. At the last possible moment, I throw myself to the ground, the shark flying over me this close. Shingi to Giri slices through it like butter. I slide over the water surface on my back, behind me the shark bursts. Then I'm on my feet again, stabbing my sword at Kisame's stomach from below, but Samehada falls into his hand and he swipes my Shingi to Giri to the side like an annoying fly. I use the impact to twist into a spinning kick that hits him right into the face. He bursts into water.

Water Clone. Shi-

"Suirou no Jutsu!" sounds from behind me, and water surges over me. Water Prison. When I turn my head, there's a grinning Kisame attached to the large water bubble I'm trapped in. The real Kisame slowly emerges from below, Samehada slung over his shoulder. With a mad laugh, he swings it down on me.

Are you fucking serious, the Water-Clone-and-Prison combo is like the oldest trick in the book.

"Riko-Rasengan!" I yell and pull the prison-water into the spinning orb forming in my free hand. Destabilised, the prison bursts and I lunge forward and under Kisame's guard. My rasengan slams into his chest and blasts him all across the lake he created. "Guess what?" I growl when he gets up with his fucking grin gone. "You aren't the only water user here, you fucking fish freak."

He laughs. Fucking laughs! I blast him across a lake and he laughs! "Ha! You're more resourceful than I thought!" His laughter suddenly cuts off and then he's running towards me with incredible speed, Samehada swinging in a wide arc at my head. I dive under it, swipe my own blade at his kneecaps. He jumps back, but Samehada is stabbed forward at the same time. I shift my weight and use Shingi to Giri to redirect it. Senbon fly at Kisame's eyes from my free hand, he bats them away with his bare hand. He swings Samehada again, and I duck down and slip between his legs and attack his neck from behind. Faster than should be possible, he wrenches the enormous Samehada around to block my attack.

"Who taught you?" he suddenly demands.

I narrow my eyes. "Riko-Rasengan!" I yell again and blast the attack at his back. It only hits Samehada and is absorbed. Kisame doesn't miss one moment and moves.

My world narrows down to him and me, Samehada and Shingi to Giri. A vicious dance of swords where one mistake means death. Every single one of my strikes is blocked. But none of his connect either.

"You," he growls during a moment's break. His good mood is gone. "Who taught you?"

How do you know to evade my strikes? How can you know how I will attack? Who taught you to fight Samehada?

I do not answer.

Momochi Zabuza taught me the sword. Hōzuki Suigetsu taught me Samehada. His older brother once knew how to wield each of the Seven Swordsmen's blades, and he taught his little brother well, who in turn taught me. It's the only reason I'm not dead yet. Because I can read Kisame's sword style which I learnt myself and practiced with Suigetsu's Shibuki and Demon-sensei's Kubikiribōchō, not that the asshole ever knew.

However, Kisame is still a thousand times stronger than me, and so I end up on my back, blocking Samehada a hair's breadth away from my face. Damn-

He punches me into the water. I get blasted down like a bullet. A rib or two gives. Blood spurts from my mouth. "Gah-!" I gasp, and end up coughing when water rushes into my mouth and nose. Panicking, I caugh heavily, clutching my throat with the hand not holding my sword, don't let go of sword don't let go of sword don't let go- My back impacts the ground hard. I knocks sense back into me and I remember that I can breathe underwater and have the ability to heal. I right myself and press a green glowing hand to my chest. A gasp escapes me as a rib slides back into place.

Above me, I can only vaguely make out Kisame through the churning water's surface. I can, however, see clearly his palm slammed onto it. From each of his fingertips, an enormous shark forms, immediately diving down towards me. I grit my teeth.

This is no longer just a battle for survival, or for saving Gaara, or payback for my rabbit. It's personal.

It's a battle for pride. A battle between to sword fighters.

Shingi to Giri lights up with wind chakra. I kick off the ground and shoots straight towards the sharks, the water resistance nonexistent for me, I dive as quickly as Kisame's sharks do. My blade slices straight through one shark and pierces another. One attacks me from below. "Water Chain Sword!" I growl out, chains exploding from my sword and ripping into the remaining sharks. Which is when I see that they regenerate no matter the grave damages I dealt to them. How annoying. My left hand forms seals. "Suiton: Mizu no Tatsumaki!" I yell out the name of the first A-ranked technique I ever learned. Water tornado. The water starts to spin around me, faster and faster, a silver glow shining within. It expands and once it reaches Kisame's sharks, they are ripped apart, no traces of them left. No regeneration this time. Take that, asshole.

While the water surrounding me is still saturated with my chakra, which Kisame would have to overpower if he wanted to use it against me, I make the water carry me upwards, shooting to the surface like an arrow. The moment I break through, Samehada is swung at my head, Kisame standing with the sun in his back, making it hard for me to see him clearly. But it's a trick Demon-sensei used frequently back when he trainend me in the stone desert for the Chūnin Exams so long ago, so I listen for the rush of displaced air, feel for the movement of chakra, and sense for attacking intent. With a great movement, I hook Shingi to Giri under Samehada and make it pass over my head. The force of Samehada's swing in addition to my ribs creaking at my motion throws me off-balance and wide open however, which Kisame uses to smash his foot into my side. This time it's me blasted across the lake. I only barely manage to hold on to my sword.

I growl in frustration. This couldn't go much worse. Taijutsu? Suicide. Ninjutsu? Anything I can do, he can absorb with Samehada. Genjutsu? He travels around with Itachi, the king of the mindfuckery otherwise known as genjutsu. Running away? He found me before. I wouldn't get far. Using the mist? He can definitely navigate it better than I. He has more than a decade of experience on me.

Kisame chuckles lowly, looking quite literally like a shark that has smelled blood. No, actually, he just looks like a sadistic motherfucker.

"I heard my old comrade Zabuza took an apprentice and another student," he says slowly, smugly.

Oh no. Oh no, no, no. This is bad.

"They called that student the Mist's Bloody Flower."

This isn't happening.

He grins sadistically. "You fight like Zabuza." The grin widens. "Makes it even more fun to fight you!"

"I have no idea what you are talking about," I deadpan. "But keep talking while I prepare my super awesome plan to rip you into a million pieces."

Yeah, a plan like that would be seriously appreciated right about now.

He laughs. "Now, now. Tell me, how is Zabuza these days, flowergirl?"

I throw him a bewildered look, mind racing. "Haven't seen that bastard in years."

The smile fades. "I don't like liars."

"And I don't like talking fish. I've got the worse deal here."

"I wonder... Have you been holding back?" Kisame muses. "Against me. I wonder if I should feel insulted, flowergirl."

"By all means," I answer. "Go ahead."

My fingers flash through seals. Please work, please work... Shit!

Kisame bears down on me, Samehada raised high. I abandon my technique and throw myself to the side, my injured ribs protesting. I roll to my feet regardless and only just manage to deflect another swing of Samehada with Shingi to Giri. In my free hand I form a familiar technique.

Kisame panics immediately. He clears twenty feet in one jump to get away from me.

I stare at him. Then stare down at the water whip in my hand. Stare back at Kisame, whose face is going from Oh-shit-water-whip! to royally pissed off within moments. "I cannot believe that worked," I say incredulously.

Then again, this is the teach-your-children-respect technique of water using kunoichi everywhere (and Haku). But to think Kisame would be affected...

"You die," Kisame growls.

I nod seriously. "Oh yes."

My fingers twist into seals again. This time, I don't stop even when Kisame runs at me again.

Come on.

Water surges up with a deafening boom when Kisame's sword strike whistles past me and hits the water. He pauses. There's a glowing vine made from water wrapped around his wrist, pulled taught and evidentially having pulled the attack away from me. The other end of the vine is attached to a hand which belongs to-

"Mizurappa!" I yell out and blast Kisame away with a strong jet of water. "Snap out of it!" I yell to my companion.

She isn't listening. Wide green eyes stare up at the sky, at the forest, at the water around us. Her fingers move through the air as if trying to capture the of wind within her hands. Wild, untamed red hair moves in the wind. "What," she whispers, almost inaudibly, and finally turns to me, the wonder in her eyes making way for raging fury. "What have you done?!"

"Hello Dementia," I say. "Congratulations, you're outside. I could use your help. And I call it the Reflection Clone Technique."

"How dare you," she hisses. "To use me like a tool, I won't let you. Put me back this instant."

"We're going to die," I say.

"I don't belong here!" she snaps. "Whatever clone technique this is, I don't want it, I hate you, let me be!"

"But you can be outside this way," I argue. "I thought you wanted that."

"Why the hell would I want that?!" Dementia glares at me hatefully. "There's too much space here, I hate people, I hate you, why the hell would I want to come out and deal with any of that? Are you an idiot? I'm quite content existing in my realm, watching you fuck up your life and suffering for it. I used your body one time and I hated it! I hate this world, it's sick, it disgusts me!"

"I thought you wanted to take over my body! You fucking scared the shit out of me!" I almost yell at her.

"Motivation for you, entertainment for me."

I am flabbergasted. "You-!"

"I'll be leaving now."

"Fuck that shit!" I snap. "You like your existence, you'll actually have to fight for it because we're going to die and-"

I feel my stomach lurch when suddenly the water beneath us sinks abruptly. Both Dementia and I fight to keep our balance. Dark shadows fall on us when a giant wave towers over us, Kisame standing on top of it, his eyes shining triumphantly as he attacks us with almost the entire lake as his weapon. "Tsunami no Jutsu!" he roars, his voice almost one with the roar of the water.

Dementia and I act as one. Glowing chains explode from my sword, forming a protective dome around us. Dementia drops to her knees and presses her palms to the water we stand on. Hundreds of vines shoot up and thread themselves into my chains, creating an impenetrable wall. Kisame's tsunami crashes against it, the force of it creating a shockwave that sends the already kneeling Dementia on her ass and me stumbling back a few steps. Cracks appear in our wall, streams of water dripping in. I grit my teeth as I pour chakra into my sword and will the wall to hold. Dementia's vines move to fill the cracks.

Kisame's attack seems to last for an eternity.

And then, just like that, it's over. The roaring noise stops, and where there was a tidal wave battering against our defense, suddenly there's nothing anymore, and the sudden lack of resistance almost has me falling over. Dementia gets back on her knees, bent over in exhaustion.

"This once," she says quietly. "Just this once, I'll help."

"Thank you," I breathe.

Our wall falls. Bright sunlight streams in, and Dementia shields her eyes against it. And suddenly, I realise that this is her first time to ever see the sun, to feel the wind; because the one time she took over when I passed out during a battle, it was night. And it's only the second time she has had to fight, and this time the odds are so much worse. We both know that we're probably going to die regardless of how hard we fight. And I'm sorry to have dragged her into this, because she might be a part of me, but she isn't me, and this isn't her battle.

It isn't fair. None of this is.

"Spare me the fucking inner monologues!" Dementia snaps in English."Where did he go?"

Kisame is nowhere to be seen or sensed. Which means...

There's something moving in the water.

"Below!" I yell.

"Water Lock!" she shouts and presses her hands back on the water. A light shimmer sets itself on the water surface, and when Kisame shoots up to skewer us from below, he smashes into a wall, trapped underwater. The impact still sends the both of us flying but we're back on our feet moments later.

I touch a hand to my neck. "Kai!" I whisper, and power rushes into me, turning my skin white and my hair longer, whipping around my face wildly. My fingers shift to something between claw and hand. With a sting of pain, my vision sharpens. This time, I forgo the wings, because what use are wings in a water battle?

Dementia's appearance mirrors mine, only her skin is not as white, her hands are actual claws, and her hair is the same as it was before, long and untamed. Her pupils are slitted, but I'm pretty sure mine are, too.

"Ho?" Kisame drawls as he appears on the water a fair distance away from us. "What's this? Two of you?"

"More than you can handle," I boast with fake bravado.

Dementia's water vines take him by complete surprise. The shoot up from below, snake up his body, and drag him into the air, swinging him around like a ragdoll and right into the path of-

"Water Dragon Whip!" I shout. Water trails down my arm and forms a large serpentine dragon that I swing at Kisame. The bastard somehow manages to twist and shield himself with Samehada, but still his left arm is left ripped open and bleeding sluggishly. Too sluggishly... odd, but there's no time to figure that one out. Who knows how his damn fish body works.

Dementia's vines vanish. "Suiton: Suiryuudan no Jutsu!" she shouts, and a dragon-shaped column of water shoots up beneath Kisame and bites into him. It collapes a moment later, eaten up by Samehada. I appear into the resulting spray of water, directly above Kisame's battered body, and punch him straight into the chest, smashing him straight down, only for his body to be pierced by more of Dementia's vines.

It bursts into water, substituted with a Water Clone. I whirl around just in time to block an attack at my back with my Shingi to Giri. Kisame is grinning wildly, the fucker is enjoying this.

"Suiton: Kirisame!" Dementia yells, and a rain of glowing water drops shoots down on both of us. Kisame uses Samehada as an umbrella, giving me an opening. Shingi to Giri slides into his shoulder when he shifts at the last second. His sharp turn almost makes me lose my hold of my sword, but I channel wind chakra into it and cut it out of Kisame's shoulder, only to pay for it when a blast of water from his mouth blows me all the way back to Dementia.

Kisame smashes his palm onto the water, sending a large surge of it into the air. His hands fly through handseals. "Suiton: Amesuikōha!"

Water Style: Rain Water Shark Wave.

The flying water transforms into dozens of sharks, some much larger than me, others only the size of my thumb. And they all are flying at us. Dementia and I move in perfect synchronisation. "Suiton: Suijinheki!" we yell out, and blast walls of water from our mouths, smashing the sharks on impact.

Which is when I feel my fingertips growing cold.

No. Impossible. It hasn't been seven minutes yet! It's only been half of that- shit.

"Curse is running out," I grit out.

"What?!" Dementia hisses.

"We're dividing the power between us. The time limit is halved," I growl. "We need to end this now."

She nods grimly.

The sky turns rose and gold in the light of a beautiful sunrise. The lake turns blood red. Flowers of blood grow from the water, blooming with gorgeous blossoms. The cloying scent of blood, death, and decay wafts up, numbing and paralysing. "Demonic Illusion: Flowers of a Bloody Morning," Dementia announces proudly, as bloody vines crawl up Kisame's body.

Chakra explodes from Kisame, shattering the genjutsu.

Only to come face to face with a garden of carnivorous plants, made entirely from silvery glowing water. The lake he created is gone entirely.

I stand in the middle of that garden. "Water Style," I say calmly. "Carnivorous Garden."

And my flowers attack. Sundew attaches itself to him, immobilising him. Venus Flytrap snap their maws at him. Heliamphora swallows and traps him in its pitcher-like trap. Every flower becomes a weapon as they attack the trapped shark man. Water droplets explode everywhere.

I drop to my knees. The Curse recedes, burning flower-like markings traveling over my skin and into the seal on my neck, leaving normal, human skin in its wake. Beside me, Dementia's clone body becomes translucent, starting to melt into a strange shimmering liquid. "Thanks," I whisper.

A loud boom.

An explosion of chakra. My weaponised flowers are blown apart, and in the spray appers Kisame, missing his right arm and shoulder, pieces of flesh missing from his body.


I stare in confusion at the large sword biting into my shoulder and deep into my neck. Attached to it is Kisame.

Next to me, Dementia's body disappears.

"And now you die, flowergirl," Kisame growls.

What little strength I had left is rapidly waning, eaten up by Samehada.

No, I think sluggishly. No, I don't want to die. I haven't seen them again. I've got to get home and tell Shikamaru 'I told you so'. I've got to save Gaara. Dad's waiting at home with the shōgi board. I've got so much shit to do.

A garbled noise escapes me when Kisame drives Samehada's spikes deeper into my body. There's a dirty joke hidden somewhere in that last sentence, I'm sure. Haha. Damnit.

Kisame chuckles.

I lift my arm with my last remaining strength and the chuckle cuts off. There was still a sword in my hand. I've never let go of Shingi to Giri even once during this fight. Now my hand slides of it when it sticks in Kisame's throat. Surprised, he makes one last blubbering noise - haha, insert fish joke here - and collapses right on top of me.


Lights out.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Kisame suddenly grins wildly.

"Is it done?" Leader-sama asks.

Dread and resignation pool in Itachi's stomach, and a spark of unreasonable hope.

"Left her to bleed out," Kisame squashes that spark. "That little bitch ain't no problem anymore."

"Problem?" Deidara repeats. "Was she ever a problem?"

Kisame grins, almost fondly. "Turns out that Leaf brat was the Mist's Bloody Flower."

Itachi allows himself one short second of sadness and remembrance for Nara Riko; foolish, brave girl that she was. He had no doubt that she would be missed.

Itachi would not miss her. He had not known her nearly long or well enough for such a sentiment.

But he would not forget the girl who looked him in the eyes without hesitation when nobody else had done so since Shisui's death.

Zetsu's words put a sudden end to the silent remembrance Itachi had held.

"Her body's gone. Can't find her anywhere."

And the spark of foolish hope is rekindled.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Something hauls the weight squishing me off of me. Blearily I blink. There's a red rabbit sitting on me, poking me.

"Wakey wakey, Summoner!" it sings obnoxiously off-key.

A blue one hops up next to him. "Oh God there's blood!" it yelps and faints.

"We lost one!" a yellow one announces.

The earth under me sinks in. "Wha-" I cough wetly. There's a metallic taste in my mouth. Blood.

"We dug... a... burrow..." a sleepy looking purple rabbit says slowly. "So tired..." It falls over and snores.

"We lost another one!" the yellow one declares.

"Hah?" I say intelligently.

A green one with a really weird propeller hat comes flying into my field of vision, the propeller on its head turning rapidly. "Operation Rabbit Rescue: Commence!" it shouts with a ridiculous pose.

The ground beneath me caves in completely and the world goes dark. I hear shifting rocks and earth, and I know I'm being moved, sucked into the ground, but I can't see a thing and I can't move, and it's terrifying. And then it's over and I crash through the ceiling of a dug-out hole in the ground. There are some glowing stones there illuminating it, but I can't really appreciate the scenery, I'm too busy coughing and trying to breathe in between coughs, liquid filling my lungs. Already black is closing in on me again. The rabbits' chatter barely reaches me anymore.

I'm dying.

I suggest you start crying now, a voice speaks into my head. What was her name? Dementia.

I blink.

That thing will come to cheer you up, she says.

I don't feel like crying, I answer.

Dementia doesn't answer with words. She answers with feelings instead. They take hold of me, and there's nothing I can do to block them out.

Sadness. Crushing grief. Pain. Heartbreak. Hopelessness.

A sob escapes me. Hot tears leak from my eyes.

These are the burdens Dementia carries for me because I'm too weak to do it. That, perhaps, is the saddest thing.

"Hi there!" a high-pitched voice squeaks. The Flying Mint Bunny appears in a golden cloud. "How're you doing- Uwahh! You're bleeding!" It squeaks, flying in circles in a panic.

"Hey Boss," the Shouga rabbits chorus as one, except for the unconscious Blue and the sleeping Purple.

"Yo Minty," I croak weakly. "C'mere."

The FMB lands on my chest, helplessly patting my chin. It sniffs. Its eyes fill with tears. The sight is heartbreakingly sad. "I don't want you to diiieeee!" it wails. "Don't die Riko-chaaaan!"

The tears drip on my skin and my wounds heal.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: Woohoo! We've hit 1000 reviews, and it's only been 14 chapters! You guys are awesome, thank you so much!

Also, the FMB has apparently phoenix abilities. Who ever knew? I certainly didn't. Well, I suppose the thing has to be good for something...

About Riko: There was no way she could win that fight. She did have the upper hand for a little bit, but think about: Gai and Team were losing until Gai went Sixth Gate and smashed Kisame. Riko can't match that kind of power at this point. Also, most of her abilities, she and Kisame share, but he has like hundred times her chakra and experience.

It's a miracle she actually survived.

Anyway, until next week!

*Chapter 15*: Riko and Itachi

I own neither Naruto nor Harry Potter.

Riko and Itachi

My rabbits take me out of the emergency burrow they dug while Dementia and I fought Kisame after a twenty-four hour rest that I sorely needed. My reserves aren't rebuilt yet, but chances are that the Akatsuki think me dead, bled out on the ground after Kisame's finishing blow. Or what I thought was Kisame. According to the rabbits, his body turned into someone else's corpse after I stabbed him. It worries me. On the one hand, it means that the real Kisame isn't anywhere close. On the other hand, it means that he isn't dead, and that is terrifying. Because he now knows about my identity as the Bloody Flower, which means the rest of Akatsuki will soon as well.

Also... it means that the Kisame I fought was much weaker then the real one.

It means that even though I dealt a killing blow in the end, I am the loser of that fight. And I hate that. I could hold my own against Hidan, for a while at last. But Kisame I don't stand the ghost of a chance against. If it hadn't been for Dementia, I'd have died.

If I fight another Akatsuki member again, I probably will die.

And if I don't do it, Gaara might die. I'm not entirely sure how a bijuu is extracted from a jinchūriki, but I doubt it allows for the host's survival. I'm also reasonable sure that it involves a great deal of preparation, sealwork, and time. Bijuu are essentially gigantic masses of chakra, often likened to natural disasters. There's only so much chakra that can be drawn out of one human body at a time. It should at least take more than a day to extract that much chakra. If I'm right about that... I arrived in Suna two days after Gaara was taken. I spent a day tracking, then a night being chased before facing off with Kisame. Another twenty-four hours of rest followed. That's three-and-a-half days in total that he's been missing. Assuming that the Akatsuki took two to three days to wherever they would extract Shukaku from Gaara... There's a good chance he's still alive.

At least, that's what I'm hoping for. If I'm wrong... I can't think about that now.

In any case, I'll do what I can to save Gaara. So onwards I go, meanwhile making myself a more accurate timeline of what has happened so far. Let's see, I don't know any accurate times, so it'll be guesswork... okay, setting the end of Gaara's fight against Akatsuki as the starting point, it should look a little something like this:

Day 0, hour 0: Gaara is taken
Day 0, hour 2: Kankurō is defeated and poisoned.
Day 0, hour 3: Baki sends a messenger hawk to Konoha to request aid.
Day 1, hour 3: The messenger hawk arrives in Konoha.
Day 1, hour 4: Tsunade sends aid to Suna. (Hopefully.)
Day 2, hour 0: Myself and Team Trenchcoat arrive in Sunagakure
Day 2, hour 2: I head out to track Gaara.
Day 2, hour 14: I notice I'm being followed.
Day 3, hour 2: I fight Kisame.
Day 4, hour 4: I head out again after resting.

Going by that timeline, reinforcements from Konoha would arrive in Sunagakure on Day 4, hour 4 at the earliest, and take a day or so to reach my current position, provided they don't run into any obstacles and head out from Sunagakure immediately, which is unlikely. If there's a medic with them, they'll want to take a look at Kankurō and perhaps find an antidote, if that Chiyo person hasn't found one already. So I shouldn't expect reinforcements before the end of Day 5, and that's being generous. I frown unhappily at that.

Well, there's nothing I can do about it. Except remove obstacles and clear the path... but I'll have to be careful. I won't be of any use if I die.

I leave the plains where Kisame defeated me behind me and enter the forest once again. This time, I move much more carefully.

The Kisame I fought was fake. That means that he had to possess that corpse somehow. It also means that he did so for the sole purpose of stopping my progress. And seeing as he was in a fake body... his real self was nowhere close to me.

Meaning, someone had to have told him my location. Meaning, someone found me without me of my rabbits noticing.

That is particularly worrying because the rabbits scoured the surroundings all night and found no human scent besides mine and the Akatsuki we were following. An unknown enemy without a scent... not good.

In the end, the only thing I can do is to be careful. No use speculating. I'm as prepared as I can be. By this time, back-up should have arrived in Suna and might even be on the way towards me. I've been regularly tapping out messages to Negi One, so while neither I nor the Shouga rabbits can receive an answer over this great a distance - only Negi Two can do that, and he's recovering at Mount Usagi, where the rabbits live - the back-up team should be decently informed of my whereabouts and my plan to find Gaara's location and clear the way there as best as I can.

My progress is slow, though. Kisame chased me quite a ways off-track. And being as careful and stealthy as I can be slows me down considerably. Not to mention the exhaustion still lingering in my bones. It takes me nearly half the day to get back to the trail, and seeing as following it directly is risky, I follow the rabbits' lead and do everything I can to obscure my own tracks. I use rivers, mud, and trees to obscure my scent. I backtrack. I make unnecessary turns and detours.

By the time a rabbit informs me that they've found the Akatsuki's lair and that we're only a few hours away from it, the sun is already setting. It's getting quite cold, so I pull on my cloak. By my estimation, I could go on for another few hours, but I'd rather rest before approaching. Who knows what kind of traps they've set. Who knows what they'll do if I do get noticed. The rabbits did say that only Sasori and his partner entered the Akatsuki hideout, but what if another member possesses another corpse? I'll need to be at the top of my game.

If I had really thought my stealth tactics would be enough to fool an enemy of Akatsuki's level, I probably would have been more surprised when Red tells me, "Enemy ahead." He gives me a quick description. I nod and tell them to go back home to Mount Usagi. They disappear pretty fast after I give them their reward.

Dropping all stealth, I square my shoulders and walk onwards to face the member of Akatsuki I want to fight the least. He stands there, waiting. Our eyes meet as I walk into the clearing.

"Good evening, Itachi," I greet quietly. "I assume you aren't here just because you want your cloak back." Demonstratively, I flap the sleeve of the wide black cloak I'm wearing.

"Riko," he returns my greeting evenly. "I would not have thought that you would keep it."

I shrug. "It's warm," I say. "It's a good cloak. Why would I throw it away?"

"I was the one who gave it to you."

"Yes," I answer quietly. "Again, why would I throw it away?"

When it means something to me. When it is proof to me of how he isn't all he seems, how there is still something good left in him.

He was there during the worst night of my life. I don't know why. I don't know anything about him. But I do know that Itachi and I have more in common than I like to admit. And that for all his cruelty, there is still kindness in him.

Perhaps that makes him even more cruel.

It was shortly after the massacre of Sapphire Lake that we met for the third time in my life. And unlike the times before, this time Sasuke wasn't involved. Anything that happened was between him and me.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

They keep me in the infirmary. I can hear them whisper about me. I don't care. All I ever do is lie on the cot and stare up at the ceiling. A few times someone tries talking to me, but they leave when I don't answer. The food I don't eat is taken away and replaced. A few times, they knock me out because I do not sleep either.

It doesn't matter. I do not care. I'm a wraith, a ghost, made from ice, surrounded by blood. It won't go away. It's all over my skin, under my skin, filling my lungs, choking me.

"Midget, you gotta snap out of it. You've got to eat. You tryin' to kill yourself or something?"

"Tch, your generation. Always making people worry."

They talk to me, and their words get through the numb, itching under my skin. The words won't go away again, so I stand up and leave. No one sees me, I'm a ghost. I float through the forest on silent bare feet. There's a sword at my side. Was it always there? I think so. I think it has a name, too. I've forgotten.

I sit down on a fallen tree that seems as broken as me and look up at the sky. It's completely dark. The clouds hide the stars and moon, as they always do in this place.

But I don't have the right to see them, anyway. Monsters don't deserve to see beautiful things.

I clench my fists. I need to stay away from people. I'm too dangerous to be allowed around them. Killing, that's all I'm good for.

I look up when I sense a chakra in the distance - not from the direction of the camp. Must be a surviving loyalist. Though what he or she is doing in the middle of a forest with their chakra uncloaked, I have no idea.

Getting up from the fallen tree, I hide my chakra and start ghosting through the forest. My bare feet make no sound at all on the swampy ground. A part of me is aware that confronting an enemy while armed with only a sword, low chakra, and no armour to speak of is a bad idea. But I don't care. Let it end. Let me die fighting a murderer.

I have no idea how long I walk through the forest until I reach the lake that was once the gem of the island. Of course, it had to be here that I end up. Wreckage is still floating at the surface and piling up at the shore. I wonder if the water still looks red. I can't see it in the darkness. Maybe I'll find out if I jump in. But I have to deal with the man inspecting the lake first.

As if he feels my gaze, he turns around to me. I know this man. I've seen him before. I don't think he's a loyalist.

Mild shock registers on his face. Maybe he is scared of ghosts. No, that's someone else.

"So this is where you were," he murmurs. "Nara Riko."

Is that his name?

No. It's mine. Or is it? Or was it Monster? I frown.

"Uchiha Itachi," someone with a rough voice says while my lips move. And suddenly, the numb breaks and it's all back. I'm Nara Riko and Akagi Ren, I am a mass murderer and massacred over thirty people, I turned Sapphire Lake red, I'm a monster. I should suffer. I should die.

"Kill me," I say.

His eyes widen. "What?" he asks.

I stare straight into his eyes. Maybe he'll do his sharingan thing and torture me. That would be a way to atone. But his eyes stay dark and unfathomable. "I said, kill me."

Itachi looks at me. "No."

Now it's my turn to recoil. "What?" I whisper.

"I will not kill you, Riko-san."

"Why?! I want you to!" I snarl, suddenly angry. "What's it matter to you if I die?! You didn't have a problem slaughtering your own family!"

"You aren't in your right mind."

"Then I'll just make you!" I scream. Suddenly, my sword is in my hand and I'm lunging towards Itachi.

And just as suddenly my wrist is held in an iron grip, the trembling tip of my sword is almost at his neck, and Itachi stands way too close to me, his dark, still-not-sharingan eyes fixed on my blade. "Shingi to Giri," he murmurs in recognition. "Did my foolish brother give it to you?"

"Let me go!" I yell, trying to yank my wrist out of his grasp. "Damn it, let me go!" I try to pry his hand off my arm. He doesn't even budge. A sob breaks free from my throat.

"What happened?" he asks. I snarl at him and shake my head wildly. "Does it have anything to do with what happened here?" He casts a look at the lake. I still at the reminder.

"I did that," I hiss maliciously. "Guess you and I are the same now, both mass murderers."

Itachi stills. "I see," he says calmly. And then, "When was the last time you ate and slept?"

I flinch back from him. "What?" I ask.

He lifts my wrist to his eye level and inspects it. "You are too thin."

I try to pull away again. "What the hell is wrong with you?! Let go of me!" With my free hand, I try to punch him. He easily catches my fist, and I end up stumbling. Snarling, I try to kick him. He merely shifts his weight and my kick goes wide. I try again, and suddenly my arms are free and something hits my forehead, making me stumble back and almost fall on my ass. Itachi stands there, two fingers of his hand pointed at me.

I jump back another step, cradling the wrist he held in my free hand protectively while glaring at him. Suddenly, I'm aware of how vulnerable I am. I must look so laughable to him, barefoot, in only a shirt and shorts, my only weapon a sword, unsteady on my legs after starving myself. It just serves to make me angrier.

"Riko. Go back. Eat. Sleep," Itachi says calmly. "You don't want to die."

"What do you even care!" I hiss.

"What would Sasuke say if he saw you like this?"

With a guttural cry, I leap forward to attack him again. Then I only feel a sharp pain in my head and all goes black.

When I wake up, I'm back in the infirmary, wrapped up in a black cloak much too large for me.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"Thank you," I whisper softly, not really intending for him to hear it. But judging by the slight widening of his eyes, he does. "What were you doing in Water Country, anyway?" I inquire. "Was Kisame homesick or something?"

Itachi says nothing.

"Oh God, he was, wasn't he?" I groan.

Itachi closes his eyes. When he opens them, they are sharingan red, and I fall into another world.

There is no red-and-black hell vision, promising torture to the wretched soul caught in it. Instead, I stand in a well-lit corridor. Polished wooden floors gleam under my feet, cream coloured walls are only interrupted by paper sliding doors.

Slowly, I start walking into the direction where light seems to come from, until I end up in front of one of the paper doors. I slide it to the side and step out on a porch overlooking an incredibly beautiful garden. Green grass sways gently in the breeze, tiny white flowers peek out. A crooked pine tree stands over a small pond that is surrounded by reeds.

It's peaceful. The kind of peaceful that I've only ever seen in three places - the cenotaph, the Nara Clan Forest, and that meadow where I first landed after leaving Privet Drive, though I do not remember it too clearly.

I take a few silent steps and sink down on the wooden floor on the edge of the porch, letting my feet dangle, and just look at the garden.

It's only moments later that Itachi gracefully sits down next to me.

"This is certainly better than torture," I finally remark.

"I have no desire to see you suffer needlessly, Nara Riko," he returns evenly.

I swallow instinctive replies, such as 'I really don't get you' and 'What the hell?'. Instead, I only say, "Thank you for showing this to me. It's beautiful." He doesn't answer.

For a few moments, we sit in peaceful silence.

"If you hadn't - if you weren't - I think we could have been really good friends," I finally say.

Itachi doesn't reply. I sigh. "I'll figure you out one day."

A moment of silence, then I speak up again. "You came to stop me. So Gaara is still alive?"

I figure Itachi's silence must signify agreement. I breathe a sigh of relief and stand up. "Okay. Thanks."

"And where do you think you are going?" he asks, faint amusement in his voice. I frown at him.

"I'm going to save my friend, that's where," I answer. "Kai!"

The genjutsu doesn't break. I turn back to Itachi with a feeling of trepidation.

"This genjutsu, the Tsukuyomi, cannot be so easily broken," he says. "In here, I control everything, including time and space. Only one sharing the same sharingan and blood with me can break it."

Sasuke, I think. Sasuke could.

"Let me out of here," I demand.

He turns away, a clear dismissal. Like I'm an annoying child. I glare at the back of his head and run back into the house. There has to be a way out. Silently cursing my stupidity in recklessly looking into his eyes, I hurry through the corridors that all look the same, slide paper doors open to look into identical empty rooms, look for something, anything, only to end up back in the garden even though I headed away from it.

He really does control everything.

"It really is in your best interest to let me out of this world," I try again.

"It is in yours to stay. To go out there would mean your death," Itachi retorts. "You will not escape this world of mine."

I stomp my foot and glare at him. "What do you care about my best interests? I'm your enemy." A fact that I should have remembered earlier. Damn it.

"I heard you killed Hidan," Itachi ignores the question.

I continue to glare at him. "So what."

"Hidan is... was... perhaps the weakest member of the Akatsuki," Itachi finally says.

"That's scary," I comment tonelessly.

"And similarly, I am not the strongest either," he continues.

"That is scarier," I answer.

"You would do well to avoid a fight with any of us."

"Careful there," I say bitingly. "You almost sound like you care."

His fingers poke my forehead. I bat them away angrily. "Let me out, damn it!"

Dementia? I call. Hello? Earth to alter ego? A little help here? Someone's controlling my mind! You don't like that sort of thing, right?

I don't see why I should help, she answers. I'm against you dying.

I resist the urge to growl in frustration.

"Why are you doing this?" I demand instead. "Why not just kill me?"

"What use would you be to me then?" he asks.

"Use?!" I echo incredulously. "Are you insane? I'm of no use to you in any case. You and your lousy companions almost cost me my brother. You are aiming to kill my friends, including Naruto, my best friend in the whole world. You yourself are planning something for Sasuke, and you know what I have to say about all of that? Over my dead body."

"Do you value your own life so little?" he asks.

"I care about theirs more," I return harshly. "Now if you aren't going to kill me, let me out."

"It should be over soon..." he murmurs, looking up at the sky.

I feel my anger grow. It buzzes under my skin. "What do you mean by that?"

"You asked about the use you had for me," he answers after a long pause that only serves to feed my rage. "At this time, a team from Konohagakure is headed our way. They will arrive in a mere five hours."

Five hours, I think. That can't be. It's only Day 4, hour 8. Anyone from Konoha would have only just arrived in Sunagakure.

"In here, I control everything, including time and space," I remember Itachi's words.

My blood turns cold.

"How long," I hiss. "How long have you kept me prisoner here?"

"You do your clan proud, Nara Riko," he muses. "Excellent deduction."

"How many days?"

He spares me a cool look. "Twenty-eight hours have passed since I drew you into this world."

Day 5, hour 12.

"Why," I whisper through numb lips.

Itachi is an enemy. Itachi is an enemy.

Itachi is not a friend.

"It won't take many more hours to extract the One Tails," Itachi says impassively. "Seven or eight, perhaps. Interference until then will not be allowed."

I clench my fists. "I'm your hostage. You're going to use me to stop the team from Konoha."

My voice doesn't even sound cold anymore. It just sounds dead.


Why does it hurt so much.

Why does it feel so much like a betrayal.

The ground starts to shake. The walls rattle. Windows crack. The water in the little pond rises up, floating towards me. Plants and trees crumble into dust as all water is drawn out of them. Itachi slowly gets up. "Interesting," he murmurs.

The house behind us crumbles into dust. The water floating around me like planets rotate around the sun turns blood red. New plants grow to replace the dried up husks, these ones red and made from blood. The clear blue sky turns rose and gold.

Red roses adorned with vicious thorns snake up Itachi's body. He closes his eyes. The roses flicker, become transparent... and stay exactly where they are.

"I see," he murmurs. "You cannot break it, so you chose to take it over. However... before these eyes of mine, your efforts are meaningless."

Suddenly it's me who is bound by roses, these ones black. Thorns bite into my skin.

I remain unmoved, my eyes focused on him.

A rip goes through the sky. Darkness looms behind, and through the darkness comes one enormous skeletal hand, followed by an arm. Wider and wider the rip in the air grows, and through it climbs a demonic vision, its visage grinning, a giant red-gleaming scythe in its hand. Its eye sockets gleam with silver and golden fire.

The scythe smashes down and the world shatters. Itachi and I remain standing in darkness, flowers and Jashin gone.

Stars appear around us. More and more light up until we're standing amidst a galaxy. Unimaginable cold, the cold of the universe, seeps into my bones. But I'm already cold and dead inside. It does not affect me.

An inhuman roar sounds. Above me, from the light of the stars forms a demon of an entirely different sort than Jashin, but no less terrible. Rust-red fur gleams, enormous fangs are bared, red eyes with slit pupils are fixed on Itachi. Four paws, each as large as a house, are placed in a rectangle around me, the impossibly large body builds a roof over my head. Nine tails whip around behind it, smashing stars apart.

The Kyuubi is set upon by a murder of large crows. It roars and bites them to bits, even as they peck its eyes out. From the bleeding eyes, dark flames burst and eat the fox demon up alive. This, too, does not bother me.

The remaining crows multiply and set on me. Two metres away from me, they burst into golden and silver flames, leaving not even ashes.

The stars around us vanish. Instead, we suddenly stand in a room made of mirrors. I cannot tell how big it is, it might be infinite or it might be a tiny cell. Nor do I care about its size. None of this is real. Not the thousands of reflected Itachis, and not the thousands of Rikos trapped within the glass.

Not even the view of my body turning to paper reaches me. When it starts to burn, from the feet up my legs to my hips to my chest, it simply turns into ice shards and reforms, the fire fizzing out.

And then the scene shifts to something else entirely. Houses. A broad street. Walls. People walking, talking, laughing. On a wall of one of the houses is the crest of the Uchiha Clan.

My fingers twitch oddly.

A boy, maybe seven, perhaps eight years old, runs through the streets, the people calling friendly greetings to him, the boy answering cheerfully.

"How's the Academy, Sasuke-kun?" one older man asks.

"Fine, Uncle! I have to hurry, Aniki promised to train with me!" the boy shouts back, I can clearly see his black hair sticking up in the back, his dark eyes, so innocent, sparkling in anticipation.

"Hurry up, then!" the man laughs. "Here, take some rice balls!"

My fingertips start to tremble.

And out of nowhere, vines shoot up and block the view, the sounds, everything, they build a dome around me and Itachi. Around us, spires and pathways appear in the darkness, doors and windows hanging suspended in the air. A very familiar labyrinth.

Dementia steps up behind me. Her arms wrap around my neck from behind, pulling me against her in an oddly possessive gesture. "Enough," she says.

Itachi's eyes widen slightly for one short moment. "A separate personality?" he murmurs, mostly to himself.

I can almost hear Dementia's threatening glare in her voice, kami knows I've been on the receiving end often enough. "I know exactly how much her mind can take before it breaks. You are going too far. Enough. Release her."

Itachi remains unmoved.

"So eager to continue your brainfuck-battle?" Dementia hisses. "You don't know anything. She'll crush you if you push her too far. Just like she crushed Hidan and Jashin."

Another widening of the eyes. "Very well. I-"

His speech cuts off. Blood spurts from his mouth and the hole in his chest. The hand pushing through said hole is holding lightning, the sound of birds chirping drowning out his words. Behind him stands twelve year old Sasuke, sharingan blazing in fury.

"Told ya," Dementia says. "Crushed."

Tsukuyomi dissolves. I don't move from my place in my mind world. "You idiot," Dementia says. "He calls up the cold of the universe, destroys the Kyuubi, turns you into paper and burns you up, but your breaking point is a little boy looking forward to training with his dear, dear, older brother."

I don't answer and simply return to the real world. What use is there in talking to her? She knows me inside and out, but she never understands. She only acts when she feels threatened. The only one she cares for is herself.

Returning to my body is awful. I'm on the ground, chakra and hands bound. My muscles haven't moved in over a day, I haven't eaten or drunken anything either.

It doesn't matter.

Itachi is an obstacle in the way to a dying friend. My chakra is bound, but I have power buzzing under my skin that isn't chakra, right at my fingertips.

The ropes binding my limbs fall off. The chakra seals burn out. I get up from the ground, eyes fixed on Itachi in cold fury.

"Impress-" he starts, but I'm already behind him, my fist smashing into his jaw sends him stumbling. My afterimage vanishes. If Itachi had had his sharingan on, he'd have seen it for the mere illusion it was. If he hadn't assumed I'd still be interested in talking, he'd have swatted me away like a fly. But he didn't.

I shunshin again. A kick smashes into Itachi's side. His body dissolves into a murder of crows and reforms behind me. A kunai stabs into my back. My body dissolves into a storm white petals that envelope him. A twitch of his chakra shatters the illusion, but instead of vanishing, the petals turn into razor-sharp snowflakes that shoot towards him and then through him.

A Grand Fireball smashes into my real location, but I'm no longer there, my shunshin lands me across the clearing.

"To be able to use shunshin in a battle... it has been a long time since I last saw it," Itachi says calmly. More Fireballs are blasted at me. From four directions and from above. "Unfortunately for you... I have seen it, and I know the correct way to counter it."

"Suiton: Suijinheki!" I snarl, and blast out a dome of water from my mouth. Steam explodes everywhere and obscures sight and scent. I vanish into it, sword drawn. When I attack Itachi with it, a hard blow smashes into me from the side. And I go up in smoke.

Miles away, I grin viciously as the memories of my first Shadow Clone slam into me. During our little genjutsu contest after I woke up, I managed to find just enough time to make two of them.

It doesn't take long for the memories of the second clone to reach me.

"A Shadow Clone," Itachi murmurs.

"What will you do now?" I drawl, sauntering up to him. "Chase my original, or delay the full team of Konoha ninja headed this way? Which is more important? One lone kunoichi, starved and exhausted and with known abilities, or the unit of at least three well-rested ninja of unknown powers, picked specifically for the single purpose of rescuing the kazekage?"

Itachi picked the unknowns. I send a silent apology to the team from Konoha, but I'm almost entirely sure that this Itachi was a fake just like Kisame, which I hope means that he's not as strong as the original. Furthermore, that Tsukuyomi technique had to have weakened him. A full team should be able to get past him.

In the meantime... I am going to save my friend.

We're running out of time.

*Chapter 16*: Guess who?

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Guess who?

"Aww man! I can't believe I'm finally back, 'ttebayo!" Naruto stares up at the village gates, grinning so wide his cheeks hurt. "It looks exactly the same! Look, look, Ero-Sennin!"

"Yeah, yeah," Ero-sennin gripes, the old sourpuss. He's been grumpy since Ri-chan's rabbit showed up. Apparently, it gets more action than the old pervert.

"I'm finally back!" Naruto yells again, punching in the air.

"You've been talking about nothing but your return for the past five hours," Ero-sennin points out.

"'Cause it's true, 'ttebayo!" Naruto laughs. "Man, can you believe it? I'm back! I can't wait to see everyone!"

Ero-sennin shakes his head. "Then how about we go inside? Sometime today?"

"Shh!" Naruto hisses. "This has to be an entrance! People are going to talk about today for years to come, dattebayo! THE DAY THAT UZU-"

"Gaki, what's taking so long?!" Jiraiya shouts from the other side of the gate.

"Not fair!" Naruto shouts and runs after him.

So much for dramatic entrances. Naruto laughs anyway, 'cause he's home, believe it! This was gonna be so awesome! Now he just had to find Ri-chan and the bastard and Kakashi-sensei, and everything would be perfect and right in the world, and hey look, there's a giant pillar, let's run up!

He laughs wildly and spreads out his arms, looking down at the village spread out beneath him. "Listen up, Konoha!" he shouts. "UZUMAKI NARUTO IS BACK!" He sniffs a little and wipes back a stray tear. It's such a beautiful moment. He's missed Konoha so much.

"Naruto-kun?" a girly voice asks down below.

"Huh?" Naruto utters and looks who it is. Then he waves wildly. "Oh, hey, Sakura-chan!" And he jumps down and lands in a crouch.

Hah! How's that for looking cool! Take that, bastard!

Naruto strikes down a point in his mental 'Naruto-Sasuke-Coolness-Competition' chart. Naruto is winning by a mile. The bastard isn't much competition. He just isn't that cool.

"Welcome back, Naruto-kun!" Sakura greets with her nice, pretty smile.

Naruto grins and gives her a thumbs-up. "Good to be back! Huh? Hey, I'm taller than you!"

This is so cool, he isn't the shrimp anymore! Well, actually, Ri-chan was always shorter than him, but she never seemed small.

Sakura-chan giggles. "I guess you are! You've really grown up, haven't you?"

"Yeah! I'm tons stronger now! Just you wait, let me show you-"

"Idiot!" Ero-sennin hits Naruto on the back of his head. "Don't use techniques in the middle of the street!"

"Ero-sennin!" Naruto protests, and tries to hit back. Ero-sennin snorts and casually bats Naruto's fist away. "Gaki, the Hokage's expecting us."

"Cool! We're gonna see Baa-chan! Ne, Sakura-chan, you look green in the face? What's wrong?"

She laughs, it's a lot higher than her giggle. Weird. "Ahahaha, do you always call shishou that?"

"Yeah, sure! 'cause she's like, old. Like Ero-sennin!"

"Oi, gaki!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"Welcome back, Naruto."

"Baa-chan!" Naruto exclaims. He violently suppresses the urge to tackle-hug her. Ero-sennin said not to do that. Frankly, Naruto doesn't understand why, the world needs more hugs.

He'll just save it for Ri-chan! Ri-chan likes hugs.

"I trust that your training went well?" Baa-chan asks, smiling.

Naruto grins and shows his biceps. The gesture isn't as impressive as it could be, what with his long-sleeved jacket covering the actual muscles, but it's the thought that counts. "Of course, Baa-chan! I'm tons stronger now! Ne, ne, is the bastard back yet? Team Seven is ready to-"

"Yeah, about that."


"Team Seven." Tsunade sighs. "Unfortunately-"

Naruto gasps. "Is Ri-chan alright? Did she almost die again? For like the hundredth time? I mean, it's not like that's anything new, dattebayo, and I almost die sometimes too, and the bastard... is super uncool, so he doesn't do that stuff. Anyway, how's Ri-chan? Bet she went crazy missing us!"

"No, Naruto-kun," Shizune-neechan says with a bright smile. "It's just, about your team. There have been a few chang-"

"Delays," Tsunade cuts in. "Kakashi and Sasuke aren't back yet. Riko is on mission. We can expect them to be back one of these days, the Team Seven reunion will have to wait until they're back."

"Oh, haha! Why didn't you just say so!" Naruto laughs, albeit a little sadly. For some reason, he'd expected Ri-chan to wait at the gate for him. He totally forgot she had a life outside of Team Seven! "On mission, huh?"

"Tsunade-sama!" Shizune exclaims. "Err, Naruto-kun-"

"Man, I can't wait!" Naruto beams at her. "It's gonna be so awesome when we're back together! I bet she's tons stronger now! Hey, what did you wanna say?"


"Not important," says Baa-chan. "So, since you have a few days until your team is ready to reunite, I'll be sending you on a mission with a temporary team tomorrow so you can back in the swing of things."

"Nah, Baa-chan, I'm awesome! No swinging back needed!" Naruto grins brightly, because okay, maybe he isn't feeling on top of the world anymore, but still on top of the Hokage Monument.

"Oh? Then how about you prove it?" Baa-chan asks with a gleam in her eyes. "Tonight, you'll fight someone."

She looks at Sakura-chan.

"Huh? I'm fighting Sakura-chan?" Naruto asks in confusion. Because he's sure Sakura-chan's plenty strong, but well, she's also a girly girl. Not that that's a bad thing, though! She's pretty, and her hair is pink-

"No. The both of you will be fighting together."

Sakura-chan sucks in a sharp breath of surprise. "Shishou?" she asks.

"Cool!" Naruto grins at Sakura and Tsunade. "Who're we fightin against?"

"You will fight-"

The door opens. In steps-

"Ahh!" Naruto shouts and points. "We're fighting Shikamaru?!"

"What?" Shikamaru asks. "Oh. You're back."

Naruto grins. "Hell yes I am! How's Ri-chan?"

Shikamaru shrugs. "On a harmless mission with a few genin. Should be fine. Anyway, Hokage-sama, here are the papers." He hands a bunch of papers to Baa-chan.

"Wait, so We aren't fighting Shikamaru and-" Naruto falters. "What's your name again?"

"It's Temari," the blond kunoichi next to Shikamaru growls.

"No..." Baa-chan says. "You'll be fighting... I'll tell you when you get there. 7 pm, Training Ground Three, don't be late!"

Naruto grins. "Sure thing, Baa-chan!"

And he runs out. There's a bowl of ramen calling his name!

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Tsunade interlaces her fingers and rests her chin on them. Her golden-brown eyes pierce into Jiraiya's.

Not like there's anyone else to stare at, Naruto ran out and the Nara brat and his pretty blonde companion followed soon after.

"Spill it," Tsunade orders.

"Ahh, Tsunade-hime, you've gotten perceptive!" Jiraiya laughs jovially.

"Don't," she snaps. "Don't pretend with me."

He stops. "Sorry," he says. "Habit."

She rolls her eyes. "What is it?"

"How do you know there is something?" Jiraiya asks curiously.

"You haven't so much as said hello," Tsunade growls at him. "How could I not know?"

"Ahh..." Jiraiya sighs. "I'm getting old. Losing my touch. Unlike you, you're sharp as always." He pulls over a chair for himself and sits with a groan. "Sake?" he asks.

"The hell kind of question is that?" Tsunade waves impatiently. "I've been dealing with council fucktards all day and Shizune hid my alcohol."

Jiraiya snorts and pours them their drinks. For a moment, they drink in silence.

"So?" Tsunade asks.

"Nara Riko," Jiraiya says.

Tsunade's head hits the table. It shudders ominously. "You've got to be kidding," she says.

Jiraiya watches her in bemusement. "What's that about?"

She sits up and downs the rest of her sake. "That little witch is the source of most of my current headaches. Now you, who hasn't been in Konoha for years and were in hiding, show up acting all-" she waves at him. "Grumpy, and then you say her name as a reason, and I can just sense another headache coming. Give me more sake."

"You're going to have to explain that," Jiraiya says as he pours their sake. "What did she do?"

Tsunade waves impatiently. "You first."

"Fine..." Jiraiya takes a swig. "A few weeks ago, one of her rabbit-summons showed up. Fun little bugger, totally on my wavelength. Anyway, he gave me a scroll from Riko."

Tsunade frowns. "Why don't I know about that?"

Jiraiya gives her a look. "It probably has something to do with the reason for your trying to break the desk with your head just now."

"What was the scroll about?" she asks, making a face. "Must have been something to get you worked up."

Jiraiya snorts. "Akatsuki."

Tsunade chokes on her sake and starts coughing. "What?!" she nearly shrieks.

"That little witch, as you so charmingly called her, somehow unearthed information that I couldn't have gotten in my wildest dreams." Jiraiya taxes Tsunade. "Incidentally, it had to have come from Kirigakure's sealed records. Anything you want to tell me about that? Also, what was Shizune on about earlier?"

Tsunade downs her second cup of sake. "Well," she says. "Fuck."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Naruto arrives at the Training Ground five minutes early. Sakura-chan is already there.

"Hey, Sakura-chan!" he shouts. She nods at him with a brief smile.

"Good evening, Naruto-kun," she says.

It has to be a miracle. She hasn't hit him even once! She hasn't even gotten mad for weird reasons! Clearly, Naruto has gotten cooler.

"Hehe," he snickers in triumph. "Hey, d'you know who we're fighting?"

Sakura-chan shakes her head. "I don't think Tsunade-sama had someone specific in mind. She'll probably pick some jōnin at random."

"Huh, okay," Naruto says. "So what happened while I was gone? I heard some from Iruka while we ate ramen earlier, but he didn't know that much."

"Hmm, well..." Sakura-chan taps her chin. "It was a pretty calm two years, I guess. I became Tsunade-sama's apprentice-"

"Cool!" Naruto exclaims, and she smiles briefly.

"All of us became chūnin, Neji even made jōnin."

"WHAAAAA?!" Naruto's scream echoes. "All of you?"

She shrugs. "I guess you're the only genin left now. Hey, it's not that bad. The next Chūnin Exams are coming up, you should talk to Shikamaru about that, he's a proctor."

Naruto suddenly has a flash of inspiration. His fist hits his palm in realisation. "Hey! I'm not the only genin! Sasuke is, too!"

Sakura-chan looks at him oddly. "Sasuke-kun isn't a genin... Oh wait!" she suddenly exclaims. "I thought he already got promoted! But then, he wasn't here to get promoted, was he? Off doing special and elite training..." she sighs dreamily. "He'll be soooo strong when he comes back!"

"Nah," Naruto gripes. "I bet I'm stronger."

Sakura-chan huffs. "Well-"

"Hey, what about Ri-chan?" Naruto grins.

Sakura-chan frowns at him. "She went through special training, too, and only came back a few months ago. She was promoted to special jōnin upon her return."

"Whoa..." Naruto murmurs, a grin on his face. "I bet she's really strong now."

"Well, I wouldn't know." Sakura-chan suddenly straightens. Moments later, Baa-chan, Ero-sennin, and some dude that looks vaguely familiar arrive.

"Naruto, Sakura, this is Genma. He'll be your opponent." Tsunade smiles. "Have fun."

The Genma dude gives them a weird smirk. "I will."

"Oi!" shouts Naruto. "What's that supposed to mean!"

"Naruto!" Sakura hisses. "Calm down!"

Genma smirks even more. "I'm sure you'll figure it out."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

It means they get their asses kicked.

In the beginning, it looks pretty good for them. Naruto has his awesome clones and they totally would have gotten that guy, and Sakura was awesome. She shattered the entire ground with her fists! And then Genma spit out a few senbon and Naruto had made a few jokes, and that's when it went downhill.

Okay, it didn't go thaaaaat badly. They totally almost had him three times! But Genma was all slippery and stuff and seriously good at hiding, and he had some lightning jutsu that numbed Sakura when it hit her - Naruto, too, but he recovered quicker.

Anyway, Sakura-chan and Naruto had caught him in a trap. And Genma cheated.

Switching with a log is just not fair!

So they lost. They had to defeat Genma by morning, and now it's morning and Genma is still standing. Out of breath and stuff, but still standing.

"Hmm..." Tsunade-baachan says. "Well done, all of you. I can see you made great progress, Naruto."

Naruto grins at her. "Ha! I was holding back, 'ttebayo!"

Baa-chan smiles at him. "I'm sure you were. Anyway. This fight served another purpose as well. Tomorrow, the three of you will be sent on a mission together!"

Naruto's chin drops. "WHAAAT?!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Naruto is sulking.

Being back is awesome and all, but Ri-chan should be here, and Kakashi-sensei, and the Bastard. It's just not the same without them.

Sakura-chan is alright though, he guesses. But that Genma guy is a jerk! Cheating with a log, that asshole!

He enters Baa-chan's office. Sakura-chan is already there. Genma comes in a few seconds later, which makes him late in Naruto's book. Tch, lazy ass.

"Hello, you three!" Shizune greets them. "Naruto, since you've been away for a while, we picked a nice easy bodyguard mission out for you."

Naruto only hears 'nice and easy' and explodes. "NO WAY!" he shouts. "THAT'S LAME!"

See, even Tsunade is glaring at Shizune. And-

Naruto sees white spots when something incredibly hard impacts his head. "NARUTO!" Sakura-chan yells. "DON'T YELL AT THE HOKAGE!" To Baa-chan, she sweetly says, "I'm sorry, I'll keep him in line from now on. May we please have the mission papers?"

"No way!" Naruto shakes his head. "Give me something that fits an awesome ninja like me!"

Like hell he's going to do 'nice and easy'! He's Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage!

"Well, this is your mission now, so deal with it!" Tsunade-baachan snaps at him. "If you do well, I'll give you something better, but for now-"

"Hokage-sama!" a woman storms into the office. "It's terrible! The Kazekage has been kidnapped!"

Naruto perks up. Now there's an opportunity to a great mission!

Baa-chan apparently thinks the same way. She takes a deep breath. "Team Genma, I have another mission for you."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

They're at the village gates an hour later. It's funny, yesterday Naruto couldn't wait to get in, and now he can't wait to head out.

Ero-sennin waves him over. Naruto heads over to him. "Naruto," he says. "You absolutely mustn't use that."

"I know," Naruto answers shortly. Like he could ever forget. The guilt over losing control and hurting Ero-sennin haunts him still.

A few words later, and Ero-sennin heads on over to Genma.

"Oi, Naruto," a familiar voice says behind him.

"Huh? Shikamaru?" Naruto asks. "What're you doing here?"

Shika shakes his head. "Come here, there's some stuff you need to know."

Naruto blinks in confusion. "Okay," he says and walks over. "What is it?"

"Do you know who kidnapped Gaara?"

"Err, Gaara? The Kazekage was kidnapped, not Gaara," Naruto says.

Shika rolls his eyes. "You moron. Gaara is the Kazekage."

Naruto blinks. "Oh, okay. Wait, WHAT?!"

"Not important right now," Shikamaru says.

"Wait, they kidnapped Gaara?! Who could kidnap Gaara?! He's so strong! And-"

"Man, Naruto, are you really that thick?" Shikamaru asks. "Ri said you knew who was after the Tailed Beasts."

"What d'you mean, Ri said-" Naruto stills. "Oh," he says tonelessly.

"Yeah, oh. Troublesome," Shikamaru mutters. "Akatsuki."

"Okay," Naruto says. "Okay, thanks for the warning, Shikamaru."

"That's not all."


"I'll just assume that that was a question," Shikamaru says. "A few weeks ago, Ri and I ran into them on a mission. Our team was pretty much annihilated, though no one died. Thing is, Ri and I fought one of them."

"WHAT?!" Naruto shouts. "Why didn't anybody tell me?! Which one was it? Did you defeat him? You defeated him, right?!"

Shikamaru rolls his eyes. "Yeah. His name was Hidan. Thing is, Naruto, you need to be careful. Those guys are monsters. If it weren't for Ri's... abilities, both of us would be dead right now. It was a really close call."

Naruto clenches his fists. "Akatsuki," he growls.

"Another thing," Shikamaru says. "I might be overthinking this. But Ri's mission is in River Country, and that's next to Suna. That means she's at least five countries too close to Akatsuki for my liking. And she's friends with Gaara, and she's an enormous trouble magnet. So there's a good chance you'll run into her. And if you do... protect her. She's good, but she isn't that good, and she sucks at watching out for herself."

Naruto nods grimly, not questioning Shikamaru's reasoning at all. "You can count on me, Shikamaru."


Shikamaru leaves without another word, and soon after the team heads out.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Three days later, they arrive in Suna, together with Temari whom they collected on the way. Now they're running to the hospital, because apparently Kankurō got hurt by Akatsuki. Sakura-chan immediately offered to take a look at him.

They burst into the room. Naruto only recognises Kankurō because of Temari's exclaiming the name when she hurries to his side.

Also in the room are an old woman, a few medics, the crazy lady from the Chūnin Exams, and three kids with Konoha hitae-ate, one of which is asleep, a pink rabbit with giant ears sitting on her head.

"Anko," Genma says while Sakura-chan examines Kankurō. "What're you doing here?"

"Wait, are you the team Ri-chan was with?" Naruto asks rapidly. "Where's she? Why isn't she here?"

Anko shakes her head. "I got poisoned on our mission, Riko brought the kids and me here to get me treated. We came here, they treated me, and then they informed Riko that the Kazekage was kidnapped. Next thing they do, they show her that puppet idiot in that state," she jerks her head to Kankurō on the bed. "And ask her for help, because she's the only one who actually managed to fight an Akatsuki, nevermind that she nearly lost her brother over it and had some insane luck on her side." She growls. "Emotional coercion. Of course she said yes. So she went off tracking Gaara while our medic did her best to delay the poison in Kankurō. You can see the result over there." She nods at the sleeping girl. "Aimi is completely exhausted."

"She did well," Sakura-chan says. "There's a good chance Kankurō would have been dead or very close to it if it weren't for her." She straightens. "The poisons is made up of," blahblahblah poison blahblah, Naruto has no idea what she's talking about. "I'm going to extract the poison, and then I'm going to make an antidote."

She turns and starts giving the Suna medics orders.

"So Riko went tracking the Akatsuki?" Genma asks Anko quietly. "Did she leave a trail for us to follow?"

Anko scowls. "She left us with a rabbit. They can apparently communicate over long distances. Unfortunately, the Akatsuki noticed her and her rabbit was injured and had to pop away. She can still send messages, but she can't receive them."

"She was noticed?"

"Seems she got into a fight with a fake Hoshigaki Kisame. She survived." Anko clenches her fists. "She checked in hourly. However, she missed the last two check-ups."

"You think something happened," Genma notes. Anko nods shortly.

"Something or someone is keeping her from checking in."

"What're we waiting for then?!" Naruto says. "We gotta go save her! Let's go!" He turns to run out of the room. Genma snatches his collar.

"And where are you going?" he asks. "We can't leave so easily. We need to wait for Sakura to finish the antidote."

"But Ri-chan!" Naruto protests. "I can't just-"

"Imagine this," Genma says calmly. "We go right now. And we find her poisoned. The poison kills within three days, but it would be faster for someone of her body size. One of us has to carry her back, but moving her will only spread the poison faster. She dies."

Naruto growls.

"Now imagine, we wait a day. Sakura finishes the antidote. We find Riko poisoned, but can provide aid immediately. Riko recovers and can even give us information on the enemy. Which do you chose?"

"Fine," Naruto growls quietly. "But we only wait a day, and if she hasn't checked in by then, we head out without Sakura-chan. She can catch up."

Genma nods. "Fair enough. In the meantime, we'll talk about what we know so far about the enemy."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

They head out the next day. Sakura finished the antidote.

Ri-chan hasn't been in contact at all.

I'm coming, Ri-chan, Naruto thinks.

He doesn't notice that his eyes flash red for a moment.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: Sorry, not much happening in this chapter and it's pretty short, but I've been really busy this week and didn't have much time for writing. And yay! Naruto's back! Yippie!

Anyway, thanks for all the incredible support you give me!

On a side note, I have a new fic out, it's called "Red like the Storm", and it's a Katekyo Hitman Reborn/Harry Potter crossover. Go check it out if you're interested!

*Chapter 17*: Light in the Dark

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto. Anything else you recognise isn't mine, either.

Light in the dark

Itachi said there were maybe seven or eight hours left until Gaara is done for. I've lost twenty-eight hours, possibly more since I didn't manage to escape immediately after he said that.

Gaara is dead for sure if Shukaku is completely extracted. But even if I interrupt the extraction, he might already by past the point of no return. There's only so much a human body can take.

Grimly, I cram two ration bars into my mouth and then gobble some water down. I only take a minute's break to tap out a message, because the team from Konoha might be worried since I was out of contact for twenty-eight fucking hours. And they might like a warning about Itachi.

At best, I have five hours left to save Gaara. I grit my teeth, trying to come up with a plan. It's useless though. I don't know enough. No plan of mine would survive contact with the enemy.

I growl in frustration as I launch myself through the trees. I haven't done anything this suicidal in... twenty-eight hours. Haha. Fuck my life.

The one good thing that came out of my episode with Itachi is that my chakra reserves recovered while I was under. The Shadow Clones sapped them again, but that's what soldier pills are for.

Two hours of surprisingly unobstructed travel later and I look down on a red shrine gate placed before a large rock. The good thing is, there's a well-filled river right there. The bad thing is, on the rock is a barrier seal, which I am knowledgeable enough about to identify as the main seal of a Five-Seal Barrier. Which is a means to protect an area by placing four barrier seals around it and a fifth, the main seal, to connect them all. To disable it, the four barrier seals need to be removed simultaneously.

Again, fuck my life.

Okay, I think. I've got about three hours until Gaara might slip into critical condition. I can do this.

I bite my thumb. "Kuchiyose no jutsu!" I growl out and slam my hand down.

The four rabbits of the Shouga Tracking Unit 11th generation that I wanted to summon do not appear. Instead, I get four members of the Shouga Tracking Unit, 12th generation.

Well shit.

"Riko-tan!" Shouga Azureish White squeals and jumps into my face. I catch her in one hand. She curls up and snuggles into my fingers, an apple-sized ball of fluff. "Mithed you!" she lisps.

The 12th generation is a bit... weirder than the 11th. And younger. But mostly weirder.

Also, Shouga Azureish White (she couldn't be Shouga White, there was already one in the 9th generation) is the cutest, cutest rabbit ever. She has won the Miss Junior Mount Usagi Beauty Competition - sponsored by Carrot Inc. - three times in a row. Since she's three years old, that means she has been the cutest rabbit in existence since she was born. She's very proud of that fact.

"That's sweet of you," I say, tickling her stomach with my pointer finger. She giggles adorably. "Where's the 11th?" I ask.

Shouga Polkadot (daffodil yellow dots on dandelion yellow fur, the dots aren't exactly visible but try telling him that) attempts to run up my body and makes it to my knee before he falls off. I catch him with my foot. He makes himself comfortable on it. "Drunk, dude!" he reports. "Came back from a mission with lots of sake, and dude, that human stuff knocked them right out!"

Somehow, I feel like I should have been expecting that.

"Thanks, dude," I answer wryly, and turn to the third rabbit. "How are you, Black?"

Shouga Black ("Black like his soul, dude," Polkadot whispered loudly to me when we were introduced) glowers at me. Not once in my life have I ever seen this rabbit blink. I have, however, heard him talk with an incredibly squeaky voice that kind of send me into giggles because it doesn't fit his appearance at all, which secured me a place on his eternal shit list.

"Right, nice to see you too," I say dryly and turn to Shouga Fluffles.

He's really pretty, very elegant with his steel grey fur. He stretches gracefully and rubs affectionately against my leg, walking with slow, unhurried steps. Then Shouga Fluffles meows.

Shouga Fluffles is a cat.

Back when he was a kitten, he was found all alone and abandoned by the Shouga 11th generation, who decided to make him their group project and raise him as a rabbit. Due to that, he is in a constant identity crisis.

Boy did I freak out the first time I summoned him.

Fluffles meows again. I pat him gently. Poor thing can't talk, so he uses rabbit morse for communication.

"Am I cat, or am I rabbit? I have a rabbit's heart, but the body of a feline. My mind is sharp, but it longs for simplicity. Shall I eat carrots, or mice? Must I deny my instincts and suffer so, knowing that nature intended for me to be a hunter? But should I give in, won't I become less rabbit? Won't I suffer even more, from the guilt of taking a life? Oh Destiny, why did you settle me with this lot? And yet, I am grateful-"

Also, he never shuts up. Ever. Day in, day out, he morses his woes to the world which annoys the incredibly morse-sensitive Negi Twins to no end. He's a hardcore emo.

"There, there," I say, patting his head. "I'm sure you'll figure it out."

Azureish White hops from my hand and sort of bounces to the ground. "Aww, poor Fluffleth!" she chirps. "How about you look at Azzie for a bit, that maketh everyone happy!" She twirls around and poses cutely. Carrots flash in the background.

Shouga Azureish White does not have a Flower Background. She has a Carrot Background. It is that which secured her the title of Cutest Rabbit Alive, aside from her obvious cuteness.

She probably isn't going to be winning any awards for her personality, though. Then again, with the rabbits, one can never be sure.

Black stares at her, love-struck.

Polkadot pulls out a catnip joint.

This situation went south pretty damn fast. Why, oh why, does the 11th generation have to be drunk right now?

I sigh deeply. "Polkadot, put the joint away. Fluffles, while you work for me, you're a rabbit. Azzie, come here." Azureish White jumps on my shoulder and snuggles into my hair. Her incredibly soft fur brushes against my skin. Black glares at me jealously.

"So, my dear rabbits - yes, I'm including you, Fluffles - here's the situation..."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Two hours later finds me at the same spot as before, looking down at the shrine gate and making my preparations. According to my rabbits, only two people have entered the cave that must be behind the barrier. However, two people means two Akatsuki members, and that means I'm as good as dead if I try to fight them. Which means I'll run in, grab Gaara, and run like hell.

I'm under no illusions that it'll be that easy. Hell, they probably already know I'm right outside their lair. And they know about the Bloody Flower thing.

Doesn't mean I don't still have a few nasty surprises for them.

And this time, it's different. This time, I have time to prepare. The previous times I fought someone from Akatsuki, they were in control of the battle field. This time, it's me. As Suigetsu once said... "You're nasty fucking bitch, Midget."

I sigh and look around when I'm done.


"I feel like I should stop you," Dementia says in my head. "This is insane."

"I feel like you should stop me, too," I answer. "Then again, we've known for a while that I'm not exactly sane."

I throw a kunai with explosive tag high into the air. It explodes with a loud kaboom.

3, 2, 1. I rip the main seal of the barrier off. The barrier shimmers... and falls.

Thanks, rabbits. I was worried for a while that Polkadot would be too high to remember his job. Or that Azzie would get lost in her reflection and Fluffles in his monologues. And that Black wouldn't do it out of spite, the asshole.

I take a deep breath and slap an explosive tag on the rock blocking the cave entrance.

"Kaboom," I whisper.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


The entrance is blown to pieces. Barely any light streams into the cave. Dawn has just barely broken.

Itachi inwardly sighs and closes his eyes as Nara Riko comes running in, sword drawn, eyes fixed on the Kazekage's silently screaming form as the Ichibi is extracted from him. She got close, much closer than he could have anticipated.

Too close. Like a moth attracted to a flame, she will die.

" A clay spider fall on her neck. Katsu!" Deidara shouts, and it explodes. There's nothing left of her body. "Ha!" Deidara crows.

"That's the bitch Hoshigaki and Uchiha couldn't kill, un?!"

The ceiling caves in. Among large chunks of rock, the real Nara Riko comes falling into the cave.

Right into the bijuu extraction technique.

She screams as her body convulses. Itachi sees how her chakra is dragged from her mouth and eyes. And he sees when strands of brilliant white are ripped from under her skin.

He sees her body starting to glow and her green eyes beginning to shine.

And he sees the brilliant white strands of her power disappear into the Gedo Mazo statue.

A crack forms in the stone. One of its eyes flickers.

"Cancel the technique!" Leader-sama orders sharply. The members of Akatsuki obey instantly. Kazekage and Nara Riko fall to the ground with dull thuds. Itachi sees her trying to get up, her limbs failing to obey her. She shifts protectively over the Kazekage, checking his pulse as she glares up defiantly at the ranks of the Akatsuki.

"Kunoichi," Leader-sama intones darkly. Itachi sees her incline her head just a fraction in reaction. He also sees her make seals with one hand. "By God's judgement, you are hereby sentenced to death."

Her voice is hardly more than a low rasp. "I've had enough of gods."

And she and the Kazekage vanish in a cloud of sparkles. Deidara starts to curse. He stops immediately at Leader-sama's next words.

"Sasori," he says. "Deidara. Retrieve the jinchūriki. Kill the kunoichi."

The addressed men obey instantly, leaping through the hole in the ceiling. Itachi listens after them. Which is when he notices that one noise in particular is missing, and that there's no light at all coming through the ceiling.

Deidara's strained voice reaches him. "You've got to be kidding me, un."

The noise Itachi can't hear is the sound of the river outside the cave.

And the reason there is no light is the thick, roiling mist waiting outside.

She might actually get away.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I collapse behind a rock, panting hard.

Holy fucking shit.

Holy fucking shit.

Okay, I think slightly hysterically. Okay, look at the positive side. Gaara is still alive.

"Yeah, and that's it for the positive side," Dementia says dryly into my head. "Want me to elaborate on the negative?"

"I think I'm good, thanks," I retort.

"Akatsuki knows your face... and surprise, surprise, they want to kill you! Can your luck get any worse?"

"Don't jinx it and shut up," I answer.

I take a deep shuddering breath and wrap my arms around myself.

Holy fucking shit plus infinite bugger.

Okay, I need to... do something. Yeah. Something. Like. Check Gaara over.

My awfully trembling fingers settle on his pulse. It's weak, but it's there. Good. I blink hard, trying to shake the cobwebs in my mind away.

Dammit, I hurt. Not just my throat from screaming, not just my muscles from my body contorting. I hurt inside. They ripped something out. Something of me. Not just chakra, that wouldn't feel so awful. Something, a part of me, is just missing.

They ripped out a piece of my magic.

I don't know why they stopped the technique, but I'd bet it had something to do with that. If there's anything I know about magic, it's that it fucks with chakra.

"I'd heal you," I whisper to Gaara, my voice raspy and like sandpaper on my throat. "But I'm pretty fucked up myself, sorry."

I pop one of my clan's special pills into my mouth and cringe at the effects. It's like an Akimichi pill for normal people, and shit, it hurts. But I need every bit of power I can get.

My mist wafts around me as if to comfort me. It's not normal mist. I was already somewhat low on chakra when I turned the river into mist. And the lower my chakra... the stronger my magic influences my techniques.

This mist is almost... sentient. An extension of myself. I can sense the chakras of the two Akatsuki men. One of them seems to be staying inside the cave. The other one has ventured into my mist - no, now he's using a technique. And flying up and leaving it.

Of course one of them can fly. Of course.

I'm just glad my mist makes me pretty much invisible. And that the other one's stayed in that cave. The puppet user, I think. The other one's chakra felt earthy and explosive.

If I were a puppeteer, I'd stay the hell away from this mist, too. Wood and moisture don't go together... and this mist is a bit more aggressive than normal. As long as I'm inside it, I'll be safe.

Something earthy feeling enters my mist to my left and explodes.

Okay, so it's not entirely safe. But I should be able to avoid the bombs sent from above to ferret me out. Somehow.

I force myself to my feet, Gaara slung over my shoulder. I need to get him out of here. Frowning, I look up. A mere thought has the mist becoming almost transparent - for me at least - so that I can see the blond Akatsuki guy standing atop a strange white bird that is circling up in the air. As I watch, he reaches into a bag at his side, and throws something small. A puff of smoke, and the small something turns into another bird. It charges down and out of my sight. A moment later, a large explosion sounds and destroys a part of my mist. I wince at the sensation.

From the distance, I see blond hair. I wreck my brain for a match with anyone S-classed from the bingo books, which I went through during my vacation just to figure out potential Akatsuki members. Blond hair, clay, explosives. I think I saw a slashed Iwa hitae-ate earlier.

Deidara. That's his name. Doesn't actually help me any.

I perk up when I feel four familiar chakras enter my mist. Friendly ones. A thought from me has my mist neutral towards them.

Reinforcements, finally. I sharpen my hearing.

A moment later, they're here.

"My hip rival! It has been such a long time!" Blinding light gleams from Rock Lee's teeth. Maito Gai stands next to him with a fond smile on his face that threatens to become a blinding one. Behind the two stand Hyūga Neji and Tenten, with twin exasperated expressions on their faces, though Neji is on high alert at the same time. So is Gai, though he is much better at not showing it. While I take them in, mind racing, Lee rambles on. "And I see your youthfulness has only grown as you have saved-"

I grab Gaara from my shoulders and shove him into Lee's arms. "Here. Get him out of here."

"-Gaara-san, and of course- what?"

I note that Gai's smile has slipped. "Get him out of here," I repeat grimly. "To a medic. I'll hold Akatsuki off. Go."

"Huh- ah - uh?" Lee stutters intelligently while expertly shifting Gaara's unresponsive form on his back.

"What do you mean by that, Nara?" Neji demands.

"I mean by that that you're going to die if you stay," I answer flatly. "One enemy uses poisons and puppetry. One scratch, you're dead, and three of you specialise in close combat. The other enemy uses ranged and directed explosives in a way that defeated Gaara in the desert. Look, I know you guys are strong, I know you guys are really strong, but those two? They're the worst opponents you could face. And it's because you are strong that I need you to take Gaara out of here."

As if to prove my point, way too close to us detonates another of those strange bombs.

I cast a grim look up. "Besides, they don't know you're here. You can get out of here while I distract them. They want to kill me anyway, so chances are they'll focus on me and not notice you."

Tenten sputters. "If you think we'll just-"

"Tenten," Gai interrupts seriously enough to shut her up. "Riko, you are a treasured comrade."

I swallow hard. "And I'm glad you're here, I am. But I need you to make sure Gaara gets out of this alive. If he dies, Suna loses the Kazekage. We, Konoha, will most likely lose our most valuable alliance." I clench my fists to make my fingers stop trembling, and stare into Gai's eyes, willing him to understand. "And more important than any of that, we lose a great man and a precious friend. So please," I say. "Go already."

Don't make this any harder than it already is, I don't say.

Gai's dark eyes that I remember sparkling with enthusiasm and energy two years ago study me seriously, the energy still there but the sparkle gone for now. Eventually he closes his eyes, looking pained. "Very well," he finally says. "You can entrust Gaara-san's safety to us without worry. We shall take him to safety without fail."

Behind him, Tenten's jaw drops. Lee just looks confused. Neji's face is unreadable.

"Thank you," I say, and I'm glad that my voice doesn't crack.

He gives me a long look. "Perhaps we should talk when we are back in the village."

I give him a lop-sided grin, not commenting on how unlikely my survival really is. "I'd like that, Gai-sensei." I cast a look up. "You should go now."

They disappear into the mist, taking Gaara with them. I close my eyes, refusing to watch their backs as I'm left behind. "Gai-sensei!" I hear Lee say.

"How can we just leave her behind like that?!" Tenten demands. "Did you see how bad she looked? She's going to-" Here she seems to choke up.

"Tenten, Lee," Gai says, uncharacteristically quietly. "The Nara Clan are known for quite a few characteristics. If you were to ask a citizen of the village about them, they would answer, 'The Nara are lazy'. If you inquired further, perhaps you might be told, 'They are very intelligent.' Only very few will tell you this: The members of the Nara Clan are capable of objectively looking at a situation from all angles and decide on the very best course of action to ensure the survival of their comrades, and they will abide by that course even at the cost of their own lives. My dear students, Nara Riko has most certainly the greatest understanding of the situation, and has already decided on the action that must be taken. She is, without a doubt, a great shinobi of Konoha."

Dammit, why can't they move faster. I don't want to hear this.

Wait a minute.

I open my eyes. "You're still here."

Neji raises an eyebrow at me derisively. "I outrank you. You cannot make me leave."

I give an incredulous laugh. "Are you fucking serious."

He doesn't deign to answer that. In retrospect, it's an idiotic question. Hyūga Neji doesn't have one humorous bone in his body.

We've never gotten along. And here he is, of all of Team Gai's members the most unlikely one to want to help me, refusing to leave. It kind of blows my mind.

"Our chances at survival?" Neji asks impassively.

"Somewhere between zero and minus one," I say. "However, our chances of not dying immediately are actually pretty high."

"Another team is on the way," Neji answers blandly. "Naruto is on it."

"Oh," I utter, eyes widening.



Here. On his way.

He's coming for us.

He can't be here.



Our chances of survival just went up by about one percent. That's... pretty good.

"Say, you ever gotten drunk, Neji?" I ask. "Because you just made my day and we're getting a drink together after all this bullshit is over."


"Imagine: You, me, and a sake bottle or three. We're gonna get shitfaced and talk about the good old times at the Chūnin Exams, and we'll have a blast."

"How barbaric," Neji sniffs.

"Oh yeah. It'll be scandalous. A drunk Hyūga, for shame," I agree. "You in?"

"You are a fool, Nara Riko," he says.

It isn't a no.

I laugh. "I know! So I swear I'm gonna get you drunk, and I don't go back on my word 'cause it's Ruto's ninja way, so we're just going to have to survive this bullshit."

He gives the Hyūga equivalent of an eye roll - a minuscule twitch of his nose. "I believe you spoke of distracting the enemy from the Kazekage's rescue."

"Yeah," I say. "What do those unfoolable eyes of yours see?"

"Three chakra-active rabbits and a cat involved in most ridiculous battles against versions of themselves," he returns blandly.

"Oh." Now that's embarrassing. Guess those barrier seals had traps on them. "How ridiculous are we talking?"

Neji shoots me a haughty look. "The cat is crying."

"Poor Fluffles," I say. "Looking at himself must be hell on his identity crisis."

"One rabbit is rolling around his counterpart, who isn't doing any better but appears to be less dizzy."

"Polkadot," I sigh. "He's a bit clumsy."

"The second rabbit is participating in a glaring contest."

I roll my eyes. "Black. I've never seen him blink at all."

"And the last one..." Neji shakes his head in disgusted disbelief.

"Beauty competition?" I ask. "Oh hell. Azzie doesn't deal well with concurrence. Awful temper, y'know?"

Neji looks at me incredulously. I raise an eyebrow at him. "She's descended from Bun-Bun, that's the current boss of the Straight-Eared Rabbits. Warn me if she pulls out the switch-blade, because that's when shit gets real."

"What," Neji says.

"She's boss-level," I inform him. "The only reason she didn't become a combat rabbit is because she's deathly afraid of breaking her nails. Also, it's not good for her cute image. So, what're the enemies doing?"

Neji shakes his head slightly, looking slightly ill. "One is circling on a clay construct far above is. The other has stayed in a cave not too far away. His body appears to be that of a puppet, safe for one part."

Yeah. Monsters, all of them, those Akatsuki.

I nod. "Okay. My mist's kind of agressive towards my enemies, so that's probably why he's staying inside. A human body wouldn't be too affected, but a wooden one..."

Neji looks at me with his byakugan. "Your chakra levels are low, Nara. You won't be able to maintain this mist for much longer."

"No," I agree. "But it doesn't just rely on chakra. I have a kekkei genkai that provides me with an alternate power source. The byakugan is unable to pick up on it, but you should have noticed by now that my mist is not exactly behaving like normal mist. If I hadn't recognised your team as allies, you would never have found me in here."

Neji narrows his eyes and gives a jerky nod.

Another explosion reminds me that we don't exactly have time to talk. I close my eyes, thinking hard. "You've got some absolute defence technique, right?" I ask. "Good, we'll need it. I'll handle attacking for now. I don't want either of us getting close to those people."

What happens after I run out of juice is a different story.

Neji nods shortly. "Very well."

"Then let's get this party started."

It doesn't take us long to get a plan hashed out. It goes something like this: Draw attention, make him believe we have Gaara, and don't die.

Step one will be easy. Step two will be taken care of with a simple illusion on my part.

Step three is the hard part.

"Okay," I murmur. "Let's do this." I quickly create the illusion of Gaara hanging on Neji's shoulders, then I crouch down and focus on the power in my blood, the magic that's been roiling since I jumped into the chakra extraction technique.

"This is insane. Once again," Dementia says.

"Maybe so," I answer. "But I understood something, back in that cave. About my magic. When it was being ripped out, I felt it. And I think I might finally be able to use it, because for the first time, I understood that it's a part of me. Not just some thing that's attached to me."

"Right. And this is the perfect time to experiment with it. In a battle with one to two Akatsuki members."

"Not like I can back out now. Look, if you aren't gonna help, shut up."

She stays silent. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

Okay, I think. Lily once said that magic is all about intent. Focus. Focus.

I raise my hands and let the power flow. Neji breathes in sharply. I open my eyes.

My mist coalesces to three enormous dragons, eyes glowing with white-gold light. And then they charge, twining and twisting through the air. Two of them head right for the flying Akatsuki, the remaining one goes for the cave.

For a moment, I stare wondrously at what I created, then Neji pulls me back to reality.

"We need to get out of here," he says. "Our cover is gone."

I nod and follow him stumbling a bit because my legs don't feel quite right. We head for the trees, the opposite direction of the one Gai took. "Down!" Neji suddenly yells, and my body obeys instantly. Neji jumps over me. "Kaiten!" he shouts and spins, forming a dome of whirling chakra, right in time to block an explosion.

When I look up at our enemy, I see him evading my mist dragons on his clay bird, readying more of his strange explosives in his hand. They fly at my dragons, but one heads for Neji and I.

Good. That means he saw us run.

"Hakke Kūshō!" Neji yells and blasts pure chakra from his palm. The clay construction thuds to the ground uselessly.

"Let's go now!" I shout. Neji doesn't need encouragement and follows closely behind me as we fly through the trees. "Neji, what's happening in the cave?"

"The chakra projections have disappeared," he answers. "But Sasori still remains."

"Good," I say.

And gasp and fall over, clutching my chest. Neji jumps forward and catches me. "Your dragons were destroyed," he murmurs.

"Dammit," I groan as I work myself to my feet. "Okay, we need to move."

Neji nods grimly and grabs my arm, pulling it around his shoulders. "I can still run by myself, y'know?" I grumble even as I match my jumps to his.

"Not fast enough," he answers flatly. Behind us, a tree goes up in flames.

"Point taken," I say. "Where's he?"

"Above," Neji answers. "He's got a visual on us."

"Dammit," I curse. "How much further-"


We halt abruptly twenty feet away from a ravine.

Clay spiders. Everywhere. In the trees around us, above us in the branches, below on the ground, and on the branch we stand on.

They jump.

I wrap my arms around Neji and focus. The world squeezes down around us, and all goes dark and void and there's so much pressure. And then we fall into a river.

"Neji!" I yell. "Neji!"

He doesn't answer me. I somehow manage to get us out of the water. In the background, I hear explosions. When I look up, I see we are at the bottom of a ravine, and the trees above are burning. The trees where Neji and I were before.

I drag Neji beneath a crooked tree. He's unconscious and deathly pale.

The lower part of his left leg is missing. Not ripped off or anything, just... missing, like it was cut off, but it's hardly even bleeding. I jump up and cast a searching look around.

There. I jump into the river and fish the rest of Neji's leg out, swallowing the revulsion back down. It's not like it's the first time I've seen or touched unattached limbs.

"Okay, let's do this," I mutter. I hold the limb to the stump of Neji's leg. My hand lights up green.

It's surprisingly easy to reattach. It's almost like the two body parts weren't even really apart in the first place, just... in two different places. There isn't even a scar in the end.

I hold my hand to Neji's head. His eyes flutter open. "Watch out!" he shouts, but it's too late.

Something behind me explodes and the world goes dark again.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

There's a labyrinth of pathways and doors floating in the darkness. From below, gentle golden light shines.

Orbs with moving images inside float around me, showing our memories of the past. Windows show me the present.

The windows go dark with disconnection.

I frown bitterly. A thought has a door appearing in front of me.

I walk through and connect. Limbs twitch, nerves transmit thousands of sensations to me, none of them pleasant in any way, not that anything is ever pleasant.

My eyes open. My hands shoot out, catch on the crooked tree, and redirect my body so as to not slam head-first into it.

"Riko!" a voice says urgently.

"Not quite," I growl. "Riko is taking a break."

Hyūga Neji's eyes narrow. He's somehow on his feet, apparently having shielded the worst of the explosion.

"Who are you," he demands as his previously split apart leg gives out.

I give him a mocking smirk. "Someone who answers to no one," I answer coldly. "You don't look able to fight. Or walk."

He's useless to me then. Except for one thing.

"You can do a chakra transfusion, yes?" I raise an eyebrow at him.

"Why would I give you chakra?" he demands.

"Because I have need of it, and you have some but can't use it due to injury." I roll my eyes. "I have an interest in my continued existence. Oh look!" I point at the sky. "There comes someone with orders to kill Riko."

"I see him," Hyūga snarls back.

"Get on with it then," I order coldly. "I might even consider saving you then."

Neji dying would inconvenience me anyway. Especially since Riko can't deal with grief and guilt, which means I'd have to deal with it for her. Not to mention, she'll throw my realm in disarray. Again.

I hate her so much.

Hyūga hesitates.

"Oi!" the Akatsuki calls out, arrogantly standing atop his ugly bird thing. "Where's the jinchūriki?!"

"Sometime today, Hyūga!" I hiss out. To the Akatsuki, I just raise an eyebrow. "And what makes you think I'd answer that question."

Hyūga's hands light up with chakra and reach for me. Chakra streams into my system.

"I'll make art of your friend if you don't tell me, un!" the man shouts.

Disgusting. People are hideous.

"And I care because?" I sneer. "He has done what I needed him for. And now I will deal with you."

He laughs mockingly. "And how would you do that? You don't live up to your name, Bloody Flower! I don't see any blood, un!"

"Bloody Flower?" Hyūga murmurs, frowning.

"Assassin from Kiri," I answer. "Ranked A, bordering S. What did you think Riko was doing the last two years, genius?"

"What?!" he hisses sharply.

"Shut up and do your job."

I sneer up at the arrogant Akatsuki. "Oh, you will see blood." A vicious smirk spreads on my face when I feel something twitching in my mind. "You will." I jump away from the Hyūga and land on the surface of the river, my hands already speeding through signs. The Akatsuki quickly rises higher on his bird, probably remembering the dragons from before. But that's not what I'm calling up.

Riko climbs up from the river, looking thoroughly disconcerted. It brings me a small measure of satisfaction. If connecting to our body is like stepping through a door, being summoned into the Reflection Clone feels like being dropped into a snake pit through a trap door. "Okay, this feels really weird," Riko says, clenching and unclenching her fist.

"Enjoy your nap?" I ask caustically. "Yes?"

"No, I didn't, actually," she answers in exactly the same tone.

"Good," I hiss.

"But thanks for asking." She smiles at me fake and bright.

How I hate her.

The sound of batting wings interrupts our... conversation. There's a strange white bird flying right at the both of us. Riko straightens, her eyes steely. She takes a deep breath. "Azzie!" she yells. "This man wants to create a world where everyone is judged on their abilities and actions rather than looks and money! A world WITHOUT BEAUTY CONTESTS!"

It takes Shouga Azureish White less than a second to appear. "Ahahaha!" she giggles, fluffing her ears. "That'th crathy!"

The clay bird is drawing way too close for my liking. I slam my hand on the water. Vines shoot up and impale the bird. It explodes. The blast drives Riko and me back a step and blows Azureish White over completely. She twirls in the air like a dancer and lands on a rock with a small clink. And freezes, lifting her paw to her face.

Killing Intent explodes from her. Her eyes lock on Deidara. "My nail," she says, perfectly calm. "You broke my nail."

I take a step out of her line of fire. So does Riko.

One does not get in the way of a pissed off boss-level summon.

"What's that supposed to be?!" Deidara mocks. "A ball of fluff?"

"Pretty much," Riko whispers, echoing my thoughts, which just pisses me off.

"Ahahaha!" Azureish White giggles sinisterly. "I am the reigning Miss Junior Mount Usagi! The Cutest Rabbit Alive!" She twirls around herself and lands in a pose. "My beauty is the treasure of Mount Usagi! Kneel in awe!"

"The hell?!" the idiot on his bird laughs. "I'll show you a beautiful rabbit!"

"Is he seriously getting into an argument with a rabbit," I say flatly.

"Sure looks like it," Riko answers.

The Akatsuki throws a small clay figure. With a puff of smoke, it turns into a rabbit-looking thing of clay. "Behold! True Art!" the man raises his arms, grinning madly.

The reigning Miss Junior Mount Usagi pulls a switchblade.

"True art is an explosion!" The man forms a seal.

Azureish White jumps and tears straight through True Art. "YOOOOUUUUUU!" she howls. "HOW DAAAAAAARE YOU BREAK MY NAAAAIIIILLLLL!"

"That'll buy some time," I say. "I'm getting out of here."

"No," Riko says.

"What?" My head whips around to her. "What do you mean, no?"

She shoots me a derisive look. "He'll follow us anyway. I refuse to run."

"I don't," I hiss back. "Do what you want. I have the real body anyway. You can't do anything. For once, I'm in control."

She bristles. "Fine. Take Neji with you, then."

"And slow myself down?" I raise an eyebrow at her. "Why would I do something as pointless as that?"

She narrows her eyes at me. "Because you may control my body now, but once you're back in my mind, I'll be the one in power!"

That's what she thinks.

No one controls me. No one. Orochimaru tried once. Never again.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I glare at Dementia for a moment, then chance a look at where Azzie is ripping through clay constructions with her switchblade while screaming about beauty and broken nails before I run over to Neji who's looking somewhat worse for the wear. "Are you okay?" I ask, falling to my knees beside him.

He shoots me a distrustful glare. "What the hell is going on with you, Nara? What is that?" He jerks his head over to Dementia.

"Separate personality. It's complicated, and we don't have time for this now. Are you hurt? I can heal you," I say urgently.

"Save the chakra." He glares up at Deidara. "Deal with him. Don't let him escape."

I nod. "Neji," I say. "Thanks for not leaving. I'm... looking forward to that drink."

A jump carries me back to the river. "Y'know," I tell Dementia. "He's got orders to kill me anyway. Might as well take him down while it's just him on his own."

She rolls her eyes. "You never shut up, do you?"

"I've noticed that you still haven't left like you claimed you would." I raise an eyebrow at her. "Whatever. Do what you want."

Azzie lands in front of us, her fluffy fur singed, eyes crazed. "Ahaha! I broke another nail. My fur is messed up." She throws her arms up. "AND THE NEXT MISS JUNIOR MOUNT USAGI ELECTION IS IN EIGHT WEEKS!"

She's so messed up, she even forgot to lisp cutely.

"Okay, Azzie," I say gently. "Go home, rest."


She disappears with a puff of smoke.

...I'm pretty sure soaking in aloe does count as resting.

"And now I'm going to kill you, un!" Deidara shouts from above.

I answer by yelling, "Suiton: Suiryuudan!" A column of water rises, forming into a dragon, higher and higher. Glowing eyes focus on my enemy. Then the dragon leaves the water and flies at him, roaring silently. The man's one visible eye - the other is hidden behind his blond hair and an eyescope - widens. He throws something - how many of those explosives does he have?! - and two clay birds shoot towards us, much faster than the ones before.

One goes for Dementia and me. The other one for Neji.

Water vines shoot up from beneath the fingers of Dementia, but the birds are much too fast to be caught by them. Needles from me are evaded, too.

"Suiton: Suijinheki!" I shout and blast out a wall of water.

An explosion blasts a hole into it.

And then the second bird is suddenly right in front of my face. Oh shit.

"Art is an explosion! Katsu!" I hear the man yell.

In reflex, I bring up my hand to protect my face. My fingers brush against the bird-bomb. White light explodes from the tips and floods the bird.

It falls to the ground with a dull thud. Nothing explodes.

"Huh?" I ask, staring at my fingers.

Okay, that's a new development.

My water wall collapses. Deidara comes in sight. He's frowning at us. And he doesn't look all that fresh anymore, either. That's something, at least. There's a fresh scratch on his cheek and his cloak is soaked, meaning my dragon did at least do some damage before it was destroyed.

I try to think of a plan. The problem is, with those strange explosives of his, he can easily blast apart most of my techniques, or just circumvent them.

...a Chain Golem might work. Hit him straight from the sky. Or if I used the Cursed Seal, I could fly up and battle him in the air. The problem is the time limit. With both Dementia and I in action and the chakra drain we've already gone through, the Curse won't last longer than two minutes, and that's nowhere near enough time to beat him.

"Ugh," I scoff. "Suiton: Kirisame!"

This time, it's not a rain of droplet blades coming down. It's a hail of glowing needles shooting up from the river at Deidara. He curses and adjusts his bird's flight to an angle that makes it a shield to my needles. He did not anticipate the power behind my technique.

The needles don't penetrate the thicker parts of the bird's main body. But the wings are torn through like paper and the whole thing falls. Deidara jumps off. Unfortunately, the needle storm is mostly over by then, so he just gets a little bit skewered instead of torn to pieces.

I growl and ready a Water Dragon Whip. My fingers flash through seals-

"Rasengan!" a rough voice shouts.

"Suiton say what now?" My seal-forming fingers get tangled and useless.

"Oh hell no," Dementia groans.

A tall figure with spiky blond hair - so familiar, so beloved, so utterly wonderful - comes flying straight at Deidara. Who throws a clay spider at him. "Katsu!" Deidara shouts, and the spider explodes. But his attacker is suddenly jerked away and slams into the river mere steps from me, the old woman from Suna shaking out her hands, chakra strings dissolving.

I can only watch in a dumb stupor as Naruto's head breaks through the water surface, a bit of algae clinging to his hair. He spits out a bunch of water and grins at me brightly, water splashing everywhere as he waves his arms around. "Ri-chan! I've come to save you!"

A missing piece in my heart returns, and a slow smile spreads on my face.

"Ruto," I say. "You seriously need to work on your entrances."

In a world full of darkness, the sun came to find me and make it bright again.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

*Chapter 18*: Choose your battles

A/N: Ehehehe... *ducks rotten tomatoes* I'm sorry?

Jokes aside, I really am sorry it took so long. Real life is crazy, Riko was being stubborn, other main characters were being a lot more cooperative, so those got more attention. Anyway, I'm not entirely happy with this chapter, but I really want to get through with this arc and this is the version I feel mostly comfortable uploading.

I can't promise the next chapter will not take a while to write, but I can promise that it will definitely be written, even if it takes a while.

Anyway, thank you for all your kind reviews. You amazing people are amazing.

Now onto this, I'm proud to say, completely rabbit-free chapter!

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Choose your battles

I stare down at Naruto. He stares up at me with the brightest grin known to mankind, jumps up from the water, and wraps me into a giant hug. It's kind of wet and cold thanks to his soaked clothing, but it's still warm and perfect.

"Ri-chan! Missed you, 'ttebayo!" he says.

"Missed you, too," I mumble back. My finger tighten on the back of his not-entirely-orange jacket. "But this really isn't the time." I shift my weight, channel chakra to my legs, and throw us out of the way of a bird-bomb. Naruto manages to twist us around so that his body absorbs most of the impact. Admittedly, his body is sturdier than mine, but I doubt that's why he did it. Clearly, his hero-complex is still going strong.

I scramble to my feet, Naruto following close behind. He glares at Deidara who's on his bird far up in the air, and points at him. "You bastard! Where the hell is Gaara?!"

Dementia facepalms in the background. Wow, he's an idiot, she says into my mind. Funny that our mental connection is still there even though she is outside now.

Fuck off, how would he know? I answer her.

"Eh? Why's there two of you?" Naruto asks, looking confused. "Are you a clone?"

"Do not lump me with the likes of her, Uzumaki," Dementia hisses.

"Don't mind her," I say. "She's probably here to help. I think. Anyway. Now's still not the time."

"Correct," another voice says. A jōnin approaches. The guy that was there during the finals of the Chūnin Exams. What was his name again? Genno? Gennai? No, wait, it was Genma. I think. "Are you able to fight, Riko?"

...good question.

"Yeah," I answer. "Gaara is safe. He's with Gai-sensei."

"Eh?" Naruto asks, dumbfounded. "He's okay?"

"I didn't say that," I mutter. Louder I say, "He was unconscious and severely weakened when I got him out. When Gai-sensei and his team showed up, I asked them to take him somewhere safe. Neji stuck around to help, though."

And thank heaven he did. In retrospect, trying to take on an Akatsuki in my state was beyond reckless, if not to say stupid. It's not like I have to do everything by myself. It's just... what I'm used to do.

"Eh? Eh? You got him out, Ri-chan?!" Naruto gapes at me. "Out from where? Are you hurt? We ran into Itachi earlier and he was reeeeaaallly strong! I kicked his ass anyway, 'cause I'm awesome like that, but, like, um-"

"Bloody hell, will you shut up!" Dementia snaps. "You aren't the only one capable of fighting!"

"Ri-chan, why's your clone yelling at me?" Naruto cries, pointing at her.

"Not. A. Fucking. Clone!" she snaps back.

"I am entirely unsure of what to do in this particular situation," I inform Genma, who's standing there looking mildly interested in the proceedings.

"Who is she?" he asks.

I sigh, keeping an eye on the flying Deidara who looks like he's plotting, and the bitchy old lady from Suna who's standing next to Haruno Sakura - cool, we've got a medic, that's awesome - with her face unreadable. "Separate personality. It's complicated. She's currently an ally, at least I think so, but she also has her own head, so... yeah." Genma's face doesn't change. "You're taking this surprisingly well," I say wryly.

"I've seen crazier things," Genma shrugs. "So long as she isn't an enemy, I won't sweat the details." He shoots a calculating look upwards. "The Kazekage is safe, you say?"

"He's with Gai," I say by way of an answer.

"Then we need to keep that one from pursuing them," Genma muses, eyes locked on Deidara. "Are there other enemies around?"

"You, girl," the voice of the old crone rasps as she approaches. "Where is Sasori?"

"Back in the caves that way." I wave my arm to indicate the direction. "Neji said those two, Deidara and Sasori, are the only ones around."

"Oh yeah, is Neji okay?" Naruto asks.

"I am quite fine, Naruto-kun," Neji remarks impassively from his spot under the tree next to Dementia.

"Whoa, Neji, where'd you come from?!" Naruto shouts, pointing at him.

You'd think he'd have managed to grow a brain in the years he's been gone, Dementia sneers over our mental connection.

It's more a question of awareness, I answer.

One does not exclude the other.

"He was there the whole time," I answer Naruto dryly. "Genma-senpai, your orders?"

I notice the crone from Suna edge away from the group. I open my mouth and she turns and runs with surprising speed. "Well, shit," I say.

"Hey!" Naruto shouts and makes to run after her. "Wait, where're you going! Ack, let me go, Genma-taichō!"

"No," Genma says flatly. "You are not going to run off after her. Not with Akatsuki in the area."

"Genma-taichō!" Sakura stands with picture-perfect posture as she speaks. Ao from Kiri would have loved if I'd done that, the old asshole. "Permission to support her!"

"Go," he says, anad Sakura turns and runs.

Genma sighs and looks up at the hovering, now grinning, Deidara. "This situation is not ideal," he admits.

"No shit," I mutter. "The hell was that old bitch thinking!"

"Sasori of the Red Sand is her grandson. I'm assuming she wishes to put an end to him herself," says Genma.

"Eh?" Naruto utters. "Eh?!"

"And left us to the wolves," I mutter. "Awesome. I feel like hitting her. And now we're without a medic. Is there at least an antidote to the poison Sasori uses?"

"Oh yeah, Sakura-chan made one, 'ttebayo!" Naruto beams. "It was totally awesome when she fixed Kankuro!"

That's a relief, Kankuro is alright. Speaking of Kankuro, did I not leave a rabbit at his sickbed? "Where's Negi One?"

Naruto blinks. "Huh, that's weird. He was there just now."

I facepalm. "Great, a rabbit running rampant," I mutter.

"Not that that isn't interesting, but I do believe we have more pressing concerns here," Genma speaks up dryly, gesturing to the Akatsuki flying above us. Who is now taking off on his bird. Fuck. "We need to prevent him from finding the Kazekage."

"All right, 'ttebayo!" Naruto shouts and runs after him. Genma sighs deeply.

"Hyūga, are you fit to travel?"

Neji gets up and tests his leg, the one that got blown off (which he hopefully does not remember) when I did that teleporting thing that I'm not sure I will ever do again since I don't want to blow my or someone else's head off. "I shall be all right."

"Dementia," I say, looking at my split personality, sending her a mental message.

"Are you fucking serious," she hisses at me.

"Please," I say.

"I hate you."

"Thanks." I turn to Genma. "I'm going to go after Sakura. Dementia will take my place here for now."

He nods shortly. "Very well. We move now."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Nara Riko is different. Always had been. Even back in the Academy, Sakura always knew this. Because Nara Riko could fight, even then.

Sakura had been so proud, back then. She'd been ranked first among the girls during her first year at the Academy, even before Ino-chan. Because while Ino was strong, and popular, and so, so pretty; Sakura was smart and worked hard. Even if she wasn't a member of any clan, Sakura had been the number one girl, the Top Girl. And that meant that her name stood right next to the Top Boy's.

Uchiha Sasuke. The coolest, dreamiest, strongest, most perfect boy on the face of the earth. They were meant to be, Sakura just knew it. She loved him. They had a connection.

So Sakura did her best to stand out, to shine, to make him notice her. She followed Ino-chan's advice on dressing to make herself pretty. She didn't dare talk to Sasuke-kun, not back then when she'd been so shy, but she did everything she could to make him notice her - use flowery perfumes, get perfect marks, trip on purpose so he'd catch her. She stared at him all the time in the hopes that he'd look back. He never did, but sometimes his eyes would pass over her and linger just a moment; and Sakura would feel elated for the rest of the day, because he'd noticed her.

She was so, so in love.

Then came her second year at the Academy and with it, everything changed. Because Nara Riko had come to the Academy and single-handedly stolen Sakura's first place. Sakura hadn't thought much of the girl when Ino-chan had introduced them at the entrance ceremony; she was too small and seemed to be shy and a little skittish. So it had been a shock to see her name in first place where Sakura's should have been. And Sakura wanted her Top Girl spot back.

From then on, Nara Riko had been her rival. Her goal. The one who she was going to make admit defeat to her.

Of course, Riko had never even acknowledged her as a rival. Even when Ino-chan and Sakura had gone to confront her and announced that they would be competing, Riko hadn't taken them seriously.

But that was okay. She would, one day. Sakura would make sure of it. Or so she thought, but try as she might, she could never catch up. She didn't understand why that was until after Riko was transferred to her class.

Nara Riko was strong. She didn't fold under Ami's glares and insults. She could keep up with even the higher ranked boys in class, second only to Sasuke. And Riko was pretty; with her dark red hair and bright green eyes. She didn't even have to try, she never wore pretty clothes or put perfume on, never seemed to care for her hair.

Sakura always felt like a washed out version of Riko, with her pink hair that tended to be messy, her dark green eyes that were dull in comparison to Riko's bright ones, and then there was her accursed large forehead whereas Riko's was perfectly normal, safe for a faded scar that somehow made the girl seem even more intriguing. Whereas Sakura had to count calories and force herself through diets, Nara Riko's figure was always perfect. It wasn't fair. Especially since Riko didn't even seem to care.

At least she didn't seem to be interested in Sasuke-kun. Unlike her erstwhile best friend Ino, who turned into another rival. Sakura decided that she'd rather focus on Ino instead of Riko as a rival.

So what if Sakura wasn't first place? She'd still win Sasuke-kun's heart. True love didn't care about petty things like Academy rankings. And there was one thing that Sakura was better at than Riko: Being a girl. Sakura prided herself on her girlyness. Unlike Riko, she was sweet, eager to help, and always respectful. Sakura could cook, sew, arrange flowers, do a tea ceremony. She had impeccable etiquette. And, as almost-first place among the girls, obviously she was a talented kunoichi.

Really, she would make the perfect shinobi wife one day.

But still, deep down, she had always wanted Nara Riko to acknowledge her. To make the girl admit that Sakura was someone, if she could not get her to admit defeat and grovel at her feet.

Sadly, it didn't happen. No, Riko continued to be handed everything that Sakura had ever wanted. The most crushing was, perhaps, when Riko was placed on Sasuke-kun's team, instead of her.

And shannaro! It should have been her! That would have been the prime opportunity for her to make Sasuke-kun finally fall in love with her! And why Riko? She didn't even like Sasuke, as far as Sakura knew! Who would take care of him now? Who would be there for him, offer him a shoulder to lean on after an exhausting day of training, or a listening ear after a particularly grueling mission which Sasuke-kun would no doubt have finished admirably? And who would be her protector now? It was infuriating. And not fair.

What had been her wake-up call? Ino defeating her in the Chunin Exams and denouncing her previous motivations? Fumio-kun's death that no one had seen coming? She didn't know.

But she knew for sure that she had to change herself when Shikamaru, Naruto, and her went after Gaara, Riko, and Sasuke-kun during the invasion. Shikamaru they were forced to leave behind. Naruto went on to fight Gaara together with Sasuke. And Sakura had been left behind to dig the trapped and injured Riko up. The only thing she could do was apply some first aid.

And then Gaara had attacked them. And Sakura would have been killed, if not for Riko.

She still remembers it clearly. She'd been frozen in terror. And Riko, injured and tired and hurting, had grabbed her and Pakkun and whisked them away. It had taken Sakura a few moments to realise that she wasn't dead. And when she'd looked up, all she could see was Riko, the girl Sakura had been jealous of for so long, the one who had everything that was rightfully Sakura's, standing over her covered in painful looking burning marks; blood dripping from a deep wound in her shouler where she had used her own body to protect Sakura.

"It's fine," Riko had only said. And then she'd shunshined her and the dog away, told them to run, and headed straight into the fight by herself.

Sakura had never understood what the word 'bravery' meant, until then.

And she'd never understood just how meaningless her life was. And being meaningless... was something she would never allow herself to be.

So she'd turned her life around, and she'd become strong. Sakura excelled in medical training, and saving lifes - it couldn't get more meaningful than that. But she was ambitious, and so she'd asked Tsunade-sama to take her as a student. And Tsunade had seen something in her.

Now Sakura is among the best kunoichi in the village, and at the very top in medical capabilities. And she itches to prove herself. To be on par with Riko. To shine. Which is why she had rejoiced to be placed on Team Genma for a mission this important.

Anticipation coils in her stomach as she chases after Chiyo-baasama. This was what she had trained for. This was dangerous. Waiting ahead would be an enemy more dangerous than any she had ever face before, an enemy the likes of Riko had trouble with. And a part of Sakura couldn't wait to fight him.

Before her, the unassuming cave entrance looms. Sakura takes a moment to center herself.

"So you still cling to your pathetic life," a gravelly voice rasps. Sakura's breath hitches at the sheer emotionlessness of it.

"I couldn't die without seeing my cute grandson's face," Chiyo-baasama answers in a deceptively light tone. "Why don't you show it to me, Sasori-dear?"

And the next thing Sakura hears is the clinks of weapons, and she feels the chakra surging. Without second thought, she runs into the cave. "Chiyo-baasama!" she shouts.

"Stand back, foolish girl!" Chiyo yells.

She needn't have bothered. Sakura had frozen all on her own at the sight of the monstrous puppet before them - on all fours like an animal, a massive demon's mask covering his back, and the most frightening, an enormous scorpion's tail protruding from its back. "W-what is that?" she gasps.

"A puppet," Chiyo answers coolly.

"First I'll drag out your entrails..." Sasori rasps, sending shivers of terror down Sakura's back. "Then I'll rip off all skin and clean up the blood. After that, I'll treat it so that it doesn't decay, and fill the body with weapons... as the old woman said, this is but one of those bodies turned into a puppet..."

"W-what?" Sakura whispers.

"With the two of you, it will become exactly three hundred puppets. This is my art."

"Leave, Sakura," Chiyo says. "This is not your fight."

"No." The words come from Sakura's mouth before she even decides on them. "I might be scared. But I am a ninja of Konoha, and I will not leave a teammate behind." She straightens, feeling the sheer rightness of the words. That's right. She's strong. There is no need to run. "Where is his real body?"

"Inside the puppet," Chiyo answers after a pause. "The puppet is his armour. Do not blame me if you die."

"So first off, we need to get him out of that puppet?" Sakura guesses, keeping an eye on the enemy.

"Yes," agrees Chiyo. "I know that puppet well. It is Sasori's favourite, 'Hiruko'. But his shape seems different from the one I knew... he must have modified it. The mask on his back... he strengthened the defence, no doubt about it. It will take superhuman strength to destroy it."

Sakura straightens and clenches her fists. "Then it is a good thing I am here, no? I told you whose student I am."

Chiyo pauses for a moment. "Indeed..." she murmurs. "Then listen. This is my plan..."

Sakura does. And nods.

"I don't like to be kept waiting!" Sasori growls.

From then on, Sakura loses track of time as she moves. Or rather, as she is moved by Chiyo-baasama. It's a peculiar feeling to have her movements controlled by a puppeteer.

But it works. There isn't a single scratch on her or Chiyo when Sakura smashes her glowing fist into the puppet with a fierce battle cry and blows it apart.

Perhaps that is when things start to go wrong.

"This is Sasori?" Sakura asks, eyes wide at the pretty young man before them. His face is perfect - not a single blemish, and almost unnaturally symmetric.

"Impossible," Chiyo whispers. "I haven't seen him in twenty years. And yet, he has not aged a single day..."


And then Sasori summons another puppet. The Third Kazekage. The strongest of all kazekage.

"Getting nostalgic yet, Chiyo-baa?" Sasori laughs.

"How can this be?!" Sakura almost screams.

"He disappeared over twenty years ago," Chiyo says in stunned disbelief. "All search parties returned empty-handed. Sasori, you did it?!"

The man laughs again. "So what if I did? Will you try and avenge him, old hag, even though you're about to die? I admire your confidence."

Sakura looks between them wildly. She is way out of her depth here. To think she'd wanted to fight, had looked forward to it...

"I have far too many regrets to die here," Chiyo answers. "Especially since my cute grandson has slipped into the hands of evil!"

"How foolish..." Sasori muses. "I tire of this petty squabble." A swipe of his hand sends the Kazekage puppet at Sakura - fast! - and Chiyo yanks her back with a startled yell of her name.

Not fast enough, but then suddenly the broken tail of the Hiruko-puppet is shielding Sakura and she's dragged out of immediate danger even as the tail shatters. She gasps with wide eyes. So close!

Oh, did she say she esaped from immediate danger? Well, that was wrong. The Kazekage puppet is terrifying. Sakura has never come so close to dying so often in so little time before. Even when Chiyo-baasama summons puppets of her own, she's barely holding him off.

And then things go from bad to worse. Because the Kazekage puppet... has the abilities of the Sandaime Kazekage. Namely, the ability to control iron sand.

"Sakura... you must leave!" Chiyo orders her. "I can handle this alone! You can't do anything!"

"No!" Sakura protests. "I... I won't! I'm a ninja of Konoha, and I won't abandon a comrade!"

"Watch out!"

The 'Mother' puppet that Chiyo uses grabs Sakura around her waist and draws her out of the way of a lethal Iron Sand Shower. "Chiyo-baasama!" Sakura cries out, before breathing a sigh of relief at seeing the old woman safe behind the 'Father' puppet, which uses a chakra shield to protect its wielder.

Said puppet trembles and doesn't move again. The Iron Sand jams the joints of it, making it unable to move.

"Now then..." Sasori muses. "Now that you only have one puppet... I wonder which of you will die if I attack the both of you."

Neither of them dies. Because Chiyo apparently had one arm of hers turned into a prosthetic limb with the ability to form chakra shields. A limb that is now, much like the puppets, jammed with Iron Sand.

Just what kind of battle had Sakura run into?! This... this isn't human anymore!

"Run, Sakura!" Chiyo orders again grimly.

An image flashes before Sakura's inner eye. The memory of Riko, Cursed Seal marks running over her body, deep gash in her shoulder as she shielded Sakura. "It's fine," she'd said before collapsing on her knees because her leg had been hurt as well. And she'd shunshined Sakura and Pakkun away. "Run."


I cannot run.

Not again.

What can I do?

"No." Sakura straightens. "Use me. I will be your puppet."

She would not run. Not when she could still fight. Because if she ever wanted to compete with Riko, then she'd have to give everything. Riko had been half-dead back then. And she'd still kept going, kept fighting, and now Sakura would as well.

And then the fighting starts anew, and this time, Sakura is in the thick of it. But that's okay.

She'd found her bravery. Her will to fight.

Sakura's the goddamn student of the Godaime Hokage. She's one of the best medical ninja in the whole world. And she's strong.

So it takes her but a moment of Sasori believing he'd won to destroy the Kazekage puppet. It drains the majority of her chakra, but it's so damn worth it.

By that time, the cave is no longer a cave but a field of rubble, the sun beating down on them. Chiyo-baasama had partly gotten trapped under a rock, but seemed to be working on freeing herself.

And then Sasori takes his cloak off, and everything in Sakura shutters to a stop. Because that... that is not human. Sasori had turned his body into that of a puppet. She chokes down bile rising in her throat. No, no. This couldn't be possible. What kind of monster did that to themselves?

"It has been a long time since I used myself."

The flamethrowers she and Chiyo can evade by hiding behind boulders. But where is he now? Her field of vision is limited now, and Sasori makes no noise! Heart beating in her ears, Sakura almost doesn't her it, the whistle of steel hissing through air. She looks up and there's a sharp blade on a metal cable heading straight at her, too fast, she won't make it, she's too slow, and kami-sama, she doesn't want to die! Uselessly she raises her arms in a vain attempt to protect herself.

"Sakura!" Chiyo screams.

She closes her eyes, braces herself for the pain.

The pain never comes. Instead, there's a clang of steel against steel.

"Huh?" she asks, looking up. And thinks she's caught in a memory, because there's Riko, standing strong in front of her, that same grim expression on her face. A sword raised in front of her.

"You okay, Sakura?" she asks, not taking her eyes off of Sasori.

Sakura chokes on her words.

"You!" Chiyo gasps.

"You..." Sasori muses. "So you still live."

"Imagine that, asshole," Riko replies. "More than can be said for you, apparently. Damn, you're ugly."

Sakura works herself to her feet. "I-" she begins. "You-"

"Listen, I'm pretty much outta juice," Riko cuts in. "I've got my sword and that's it. Any cool stuff is your responsibility."

"I... yes." Sakura nods, shaken. Then stronger: "Yeah!"

"Good. Here he comes!"

Sasori blasts water at them.

"Okay, correction, I can still do some cool stuff," Riko deadpans and moves. Slicing through water, redirecting it - that's right, she's water natured, right? - Sasori's attack is completely ineffective, and Sakura has time enough to run over to Chiyo and heal her as well as she can.

"Tch," Sasori scoffs. "A water user. Then how about this?"

Lightning sprays from his hand. Sakura's eyes widen. That is the one thing she will have trouble dodging-

Except Riko slices through that too, her sword glowing with - is that Wind Chakra? It doesn't look too different from Asuma-sensei's technique...

"You annoying brat!" Sasori shouts, finally losing his composure.

And summons a hundred puppets.

"So that's how it has to be, huh?" Chiyo-baasama rasps. "Very well."

Riko lands next to them. "Please tell me you've got a trump card, because I don't."

"That was all you were good for, brat?" Chiyo asks derisively.

"That's the fourth Akatsuki I'm fighting in less days," Riko hisses back. "So sue me if I'm a bit fucking exhausted."

"Rude," Chiyo huffs. "Stand back."

And she summons ten puppets.

Things go crazy then. It's impossible to keep track of everything - there's only the next puppet, the next enemy to crush. Sakura loses her sense of time completely, she's only dimly aware of Chiyo's puppets fighting by her side at times, Riko's sword glinting in the sun as she flits in and out of the thick of the bulk, puppets falling apart where she appears, like she does this kind of thing every day.

Riko looks back at her, bright green eyes sparkling. A wild, ferocious smile is on her face; and Sakura's lips pull themselves into a matching one.

"Watch my back, Sakura," Riko says. "I've got yours."

"Hell yes!" Sakura growls out. And inwardly, she is freaking out, because Nara Riko just acknowledged her, because Nara Riko just now really looked at her and liked what she saw.

Haruno Sakura has finally been acknowledged by Riko.

It is a heady feeling, she supposes. She wants more.

"Sakura!" Chiyo shouts. "Here!" she throws something at her - Sakura recognises her as some kind of minimised puppet head combined with a binding seal. "Get close and use it!"


Sakura storms forward. Chiyo's puppets cut a path in front of her, sacrificing themselves in the process. Riko is shortly behind her, guarding her back as she promised. Before her, the enemy puppets converge. But there's one tiny, small opening, and Sakura throws the weapon.

Sasori's body is caught in the fangs of the demon-like thing that Sakura threw, only now it clearly displays the binding seal on its back.

The battle comes to a stop.

"We... did it?" Sakura asks, disbelieving. "We did it!"

Chiyo breathes out. "Yes... Sasori, you can't move. That seal completely suppresses all chakra. It's over."

Riko stays silent, looking around with a frown.

"Ugh!" Chiyo collapses on all fours, and only now Sakura sees the cut on her arm, surely made by a poisoned weapon.

"Chiyo-baasama!" Sakura exclaims and runs toward her. "I'll administer the antidot right away!" She pulls the little syringe from her pouch as she runs.

She dismisses the slight movement to her side.

"WATCH OUT!" Chiyo screams, eyes wide with terror.

Sakura's eyes shift to the side.

A blade bears down on her. Sasori's eyes - but he's supposed to be bound! - shine with madness.

"No-" she whispers uselessly.

And then something smashes into her side and Sakura is thrown to the ground. Metal shrieks above her.

Sakura opens her eyes and stares.

There is Riko, standing above Sakura, sword raised to block an serrated blade. Another blade is pierced straight through her abdomen. Red liquid gushes out as Riko's knees impact the ground and she collapses.

"Riko!" Chiyo shouts. "Sakura! No!"

Sasori chuckles. "If I left her alone, she'd stay alive for three days until the poison killed her miserably. Of course, I have no intention of doing so. All of you will make wonderful additions to my art collection."

Sakura hears Chiyo shout their names again, but she's paralysed with fear. Because Riko just... just... she isn't moving. And she'd always seemed so invincible to Sakura and now-

And then the whistle of a weapon slicing through the air sounds behind her, and she turns, knowing that she won't make it in time, she'll really die this time. Sakura only catches a glimpse of the wicked curved blade flying at her, trailing drops of poison behind it, before her vision is suddenly obscured by red hair, vibrant dark red hair, and something impacts her yet again and throws her back. Sakura's eyes widen in shock as she lands on her rear, because this is impossible, Riko was stabbed and poisoned, she couldn't be protecting her! And she sees it as if it is in slow motion: The large curved blade flying at Riko, the wet sound it makes as it slices clean through her arm, the sound it makes as the severed limb falls on a rock.

The wet gulping sound as the arm dissolves into red-tinged water.

Sakura blinks. "W-what?" she asks dumbly.

Riko turns around and says something. Sakura only nods mindlessly, eyes focused on Riko's shoulder, the shoulder where water is bubbling and churning and forming into a new arm.

"W-w-what?" Sakura asks again.

"What is this?!" Sasori demands angrily. It is the most emotion Sakura has ever heard from him. "What are you?!"

Riko stares at him with a triumphant smirk on her face. "I'm a Reflection Clone," she says.

Sakura's mouth drops open. In the distance, she hears Chiyo yell incredulously. Sasori on the other hand seems to be struck speechless.

Right, Chiyo. The old woman is hurt. She needs help. Sakura jumps up. "Buy me some time," she hisses at Riko, who just nods as Sakura leaps over to their remaining teammate who is babbling in shock. "Impossible! She can't be a clone! She should have dissolved! Clones don't regenerate! And they cannot act the way she does and did!"

Sakura starts healing her, absently listening to Riko talking to Sasori.

"Now why in the world would I ever bring my real body near a fight against a known poison user, when this body is just as strong but immune to poisons?" the girl drawls. "No, my real body remains somewhat safe with my best friend. Or something."

"I see," Sasori answers. "So you merely projected your consiousness into a clone. Your real body is helpless, then."

For some reason, Riko starts to laugh. "Oh, believe me, my real body is not helpless at all."

Sakura believes her. Sasori doesn't. "I will find it and add it to my art collection," he says.

"I don't even want to know." Riko lifts her sword. "It's over."

"True art is eternal," Sasori intones.

Sakura looks up from her healing as she hears Riko sneer. "What you do is not art. It's inhumane slaughter. It's disgusting." The girl looks furious as she glares at Sasori. It's a cold, terrifying, sort of fury. Her eyes seem to glow in the sunlight.

"Foolish girl. What would you know of true art and beauty," Sasori snipes back, eyes narrowed in anger.

"Simple. If you are a true artist..." Riko hisses back, lifting her sword. "Then you will appreciate the simple beauty of red flowers."

Her body dissolves into red flower petals.

And then she's behind him, sword piercing through his body. Right through the kanji spelling out 'Sasori' on his chest.

Hold on...

"Neji told me earlier," Riko says darkly. "That your body is that of a puppet's. That only one part is organic. I guessed that that would have to be the part that needed to be destroyed to kill this guy. Considering you've written your name on this weirdly fleshy-looking piece of your body that is located where a human's heart would be, I figured this might be what I need to cut."

Sakura breathes out. Chiyo stares with wide eyes.

Sasori's lips move.

"I've had enough of you," Riko says coldly.

Her sword cuts through flesh, wood, and chakra, and the fight really is over.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N 2: Because Sakura and Chiyo vs. Sasori is one of my favorite fights ever and I tried to do it justice.

So, question to you, my faithful readers: Where do you think Negi One, communication rabbit extraordinaire, went?

The answer shall be revealed next chapter...

*Chapter 19*: To a close

A/N: This one's for StrawhatLuffy94, whose birthday is the same as Naruto's, which is how I managed to remember it. Happy birthday, my friend!

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

To a close


There is a reason why I hate leaving my place in Riko's mind. Her body is awful. Feels too much, too fast. Hurts all the time because Riko is shit at taking care of herself and doesn't know when to fucking stop fighting. Goddammit, it feels like there's a gaping hole in my chest where there's supposed to be something, and that something is missing because she jumped into the middle of a bijuu-extracting technique.

I prefer watching from the inside. Observing. Analysing. Comprehending. Where I don't have to deal with this. People.

Shiranui Genma hasn't stopped taxing me once. Hyūga Neji as well. Oh, not openly, of course not. We're all ninjas here.

I contemplate the merits of leaving. The one to get shit for that will be Riko, and she deserves it. Stupid, reckless, idealistic brat.

Unfortunately, the merits do not outweigh the risks. If I ran, either Shiranui and Hyūga might fight me. I am not so deluded to think I could fight either of them, not in the state Riko left her body in, and not when I lack the experience, even if I do have the knowledge and skill.

There is also the matter of Uzumaki Naruto. Riko would go insane if he got hurt. No way in hell do I want to deal with that. She's enough of a pain when she's stable.

Hyūga hisses under his breath. There's sweat on his brow. He's at his limit. "Naruto is getting farther away. His pace is getting faster."

"Wonderful," I utter. "Any other bad news?"

My - Riko's - senses pick up a spike in chakra. Great. Great. Angry jinchūriki, that's just what my life has been missing. I jinxed it, didn't I.

"Go on ahead, Genma-senpai," Hyūga utters. "Delay him. I will catch up."

He better. We might need his Jyūken to block Uzumaki's chakra.

"You sure?" Shiranui asks.


A short nod and a jerk of his head at me, and Shiranui doubles his pace. I follow along, eyes narrowed.

"Something on your mind?" Shiranui asks, eyes fixed ahead of us.

I don't answer.

Thing is, he did not argue with Hyūga. I expected a comrades-don't-leave-each-other-behind-bullshit versus I-must-sacrifice-my-spotlight-for-the-greater-good argument.

"You are aware of Naruto's status?" Shiranui casts me a look.

"Jinchūriki," I snap out.

"I don't know if you can feel it, but his chakra is agitated."

Running after an asshole on a bird would piss me off, too. It pisses me off right now.

"I can sense it."

"I am aware you are not Nara Riko, but you do have her face, and if it comes to it, you might have to talk him back to sanity." Shiranui shoots me a considering look. "Can you do that?"

"Is there another choice?" I retort acidly.

"There are always choices," Shiranui answers calmly. "I am skilled enough at Fūinjutsu, and Jiraiya-sama gave me something to deal with Naruto should it come to that. Create me an opening, and I will deal with him. How you do that is up to you, but talking would be preferable. It will boost his confidence to know he listened to you even in a rage."

Great, just what the world needs, a more confident Uzumaki Naruto.

"And if it doesn't work?" I ask.

"Then we will have more important things to worry about than a teenager's bruised confidence."

Amen to that.

"Plus, I want you out of the fight." Shiranui continues. "Your chakra levels are too low, and I doubt you have ever fought in a team."


Explosion ahead.

Naruto's chakra levels rise.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Naruto hurtles through the trees, fast and strong and unstopped by explosions. He would stop that Akatsuki bastard and kick his damn ass, believe it!

The more he thinks about it, the more pissed off he gets. That bastard had taken Gaara, had attacked Suna! And Ri-chan, she looked like crap back there and so tired and angry. Ri-chan shouldn't be angry! It's not her thing! Well, okay, she used to get angry occasionally, but that was more the kind of fury resulting either in tickle-wars or cool speeches and stuff. Not that simmering rage thing that eats away at people. Or gives them split personalities, and just what is up with that?

He doesn't get it. Doesn't get it! Which pisses him off! Nothing makes sense!


The next explosion blindsides him completely. The tree right in front of him explodes, splinters going everywhere. Naruto throws himself to the side where there is nothing but a deep cliff, oh crap when did that get there wasn't there forest just a second ago?!

He goes over the edge with a shout, what to do what to do-

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" he yells. With hundreds of little poofs clones appear, forming a chain that catches him by the arms, with a jarring yank his fall stops. The ground is only meters below him, and Naruto lets himself drop down.

Another explosion shatters the rock face above him. Naruto dives to the side. There are no trees near him, he's out in the open, no cover at all. But he doesn't care. It doesn't matter!

A growl rumbles deep in his chest, and Naruto feels power flooding his veins.

"So you are Konoha's jinchūriki, un. All alone, too," the blond bastard drawls from way above him, the sun at his back so Naruto has to shield his eyes to look at him. "How convenient for me. I'll take you. Then I'll take the kazekage."

"Shut up!" Naruto shouts. "Just because we're - just because we're jinchūriki! You hurt all those people, 'ttebayo! Gaara... and Kankuro... Neji and Ri-chan! I'm gonna - I'm gonna crush you!"

"And after I've captured you... I'll kill them all. The girly guy, the old crone, the redheaded bitch. And after that I'll go back to Suna and finish what I started, un."

Unforgivable. Unforgivable! Not his precious people! Not Ri-chan! No no no!

Red bleeds in Naruto's vision. He feels the burn of his muscles stretching, his teeth lengthening, and he closes his eyes for a short moment to try and fight back because this is bad, he can't lose control here, not with his friends so close what if he hurts them whatifhekillsthem-

When he next opens his eyes, the bastard has vanished. Naruto roars.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬



The orange guy has lost it. He's on all fours and shouting. Deidara smirks triumphantly from his hiding place within the rock face.

Idiot doesn't even notice that he's leaking red, corrosive chakra everywhere. What luck, that Deidara gets to capture another jinchūriki! The Ichibi is lost to him, Deidara couldn't find his trail at all, but if he manages to catch this one, Leader-sama will forgive him. Deidara has met his quota of jinchūriki anyway.

The guy's now covered in a red shroud.

Won't matter if Deidara's art hits him in the right place. This one would be easier than the Ichibi. This one's running on instinct entirely. And he's right in the open, all alone.

"Heh," Deidara smirks. "You're mine, un."

He reaches for more of his clay and scowls. There isn't much left. That little redhead bitch and that girly-looking bastard were so fucking annoying, not to mention the battle against the Kazekage was hell on his resources. Hell on his body, too, but he'll get a replacement for his arm.

Now then... What masterpiece would take down this jinchūriki?

Deidara smirks. He has just the thing.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Without Hyūga slowing us down, Shiranui and I slowly but steadily lessen the distance between us and Naruto, whose path is becoming more erratic by the second, as if he's no longer thinking clearly. His chakra levels are rising steadily also, and judging from the look on Genma's face, that is not a good thing.

On the plus side, it means we're catching up much faster. Then again, on the fly I could think of a dozen things I would much rather do than deal with Uzumaki Naruto, angry or no.

Ahead of us, an explosion sounds and Naruto's chakra abruptly veers to the right. And the good news just keep coming!

Shiranui curses at the sensation of Naruto's chakra shifting from bright and strong to overwhelming and toxic. "Change of plans," he says as we sharply adjust our course. "Forget talking to him. Can't risk it."

Wouldn't have worked anyway. I'm not Riko and Naruto is not incredibly important to me. As long as he doesn't die, I'm happy staying far away. And him not dying is only important because of Riko's inevitable descent into insanity otherwise, which I would have to deal with.

Shiranui holds a piece of paper out to me. "I know you are stealthy enough," he tells me.

"Understatement," I snort.

Between the two of us, Riko is the assassin, but when it comes to stealth, I might surpass her. We might have the same skillset, but we aren't the same person, and we favour different abilities. Which is why she took the sword when she went after Sakura, because I certainly won't touch it.

Riko is the killer, not me.

"Press this seal to his skin. I'll distract him. I doubt Naruto will be paying much attention to his surroundings."

Like the idiot ever pays much attention to anything. The finer points of being a ninja always escape him. Not that he needs it, with someone always around him to pick up the slack. It'll work in my favour now.

Goddammit. I don't even want to be here. Just leave me alone, you assholes.

I grab the seal anyway, commit its design to memory. I'm pretty much out of chakra - thanks for nothing, Riko - so using mist techniques for stealth is out. Looks like I'm doing this the old-fashioned way. While we run, I clamp down hard on my tiny amount of leftover chakra until not the tiniest trickle can escape, then I do the same for my presence. Scent is erased, too. I briefly contemplate using genjutsu for invisibility, but it's not worth the chakra.

We arrive at a cliff, deep below is a ravine, where Naruto rages, shrouded in disgusting red chakra. All my senses tell me to back the fuck out and get away. Genma shoots me a look, probably wondering if I'll do exactly that and if he should take that seal back after all.

No need to worry. If I leave Naruto like this, I'll have a pissed Riko to deal with. Mess with her precious people, and she'll actually make good on her thus far empty threats of erasing me.

I scan the sky for Deidara. Can't see him anywhere. Can't sense him, either, but he's S-class. It'd be a surprise if it were that easy.

Naruto is down there without any cover, and I decide to use the invisibility genjutsu after all. With no cover at all, it'd be suicide otherwise.

It's suicide anyway. How the hell am I gonna get the seal on his skin? He's covered in goddamn toxic chakra! Might as well put a knife in my throat, it'll be a less painful death.

Beside me, Genma stares at the situation with a calculating look on his face. "You'll need to hurry," he murmurs. "Jiraiya-sama said not to let more than one tail form."

I look down at Naruto, who isn't really Naruto anymore, and currently sporting two fucking tails. He punches the ground and the earth shakes. The ensuing dust cloud obscures him from sight, but he's like a radioactive beacon to my senses.

On the plus side, I don't need invisibility anymore, what with all the dust he's kicking up.

"Okay," I only say. "Distraction?"

"Yeah." He flicks his wrists and suddenly holds a number of senbon in his hand. Throws them and slams his palms together. "Senbon Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Five senbon become thousands and rain down with the force of gunshots. And there - there's Deidara, hopping out of a crevice in the rock face. Naruto has seen him, too, and lunges after him. There's nothing human left in his face - fangs are elongated, lips dyed black and pulled back in a mockery of a grin.

"Good luck, Dementia," Shiranui murmurs and launches himself down, right in the path of Deidara.

What a fucking idiot.

Naruto roars and goes after Genma. Another dust cloud rises, covers the entire ravine. "Godfuckingdammit," I mutter, and then sprint down the cliffs since that's as much cover and distraction as I'm going to get.

Dust clouds are a lot more inconvenient to navigate than mist. It stings in my eyes, and my sense of smell is clotted. And for me, who's been outside of Riko's mind a total of two times, it's disorienting as fuck. The heat that comes from Naruto is unbearable, the roars and explosions echo in my head. He moves too sudden and erratically for me to predict, no reason at all to his movements. I can't see him, Deidara, or Shiranui at all. I can only track by chakra and noise.

Naruto jumps around a lot. I crouch down to make myself less of a target.

I can do this. Focus!

Unlike Riko, I am not so hampered by emotions. I do not care.

The Earth shakes and Naruto's chakra surges. There's the location. I pour chakra into my body and shunshin in. Naruto turns, inhuman eyes fix on me, he bares his teeth. My hand with the seal in it snaps toward his face and

the ground is covered in white insects

"KATSU!" Deidara screams from somewhere

I jump up, draw chakra, draw water

The ground under us explodes.

The landing is harsh. I cry out. My arm isn't supposed to bend that way. My legs burn.

"Dementia!" Shiranui lands beside me. He looks like utter shit, Deidara-fucktard did a number on him. "Are you alright?"

"What's it look like, genius? Don't touch me," I snarl when he moves to help me sit. Even as I speak, the water armour laid over my skin slides off. If I hadn't managed that, I'd have been blown to pieces. That'd be just dumb, me who harps at Riko about her utter fucking lack of self-preservation getting us killed.

Naruto roars more ear-piercingly than ever before.

The seal in my hand is burned to ashes.

"Fuck," Shiranui says. "This is bad. We need to get out of here."

"Yeah, sure. My legs are fucked up. My arm is broken. Gonna carry me or what, in your piss-poor state?!" I snap. "Buy me two minutes. Shove the Akatsuki guy at him or something. I'm so fucking done with this bullshit."

"You have a plan?"

"I have a fucking stupid idea now get the fuck moving, Shiranui!" I hiss in pain and anger as I somehow manage to get on my feet, crouching awkwardly.

"It's Genma," he says. "Do your best."

Naruto howls. I can just barely see him through the dust. Dark blots are coagulating in his chakra, looks like they're covering his skin, and there's a third tail fully formed.

I look away. Shut the pain out, the feelings down until only crystal-clear thoughts are left. I've mastered the control of my mind a long time ago.

I can do this. I grit my teeth and focus. Call up the image of what the seal looked like. A rather simple design. Vicious in its simplicity, made to shut down all chakra in a target, activation triggered by a large quantity of it. It would kill a regular person, but Naruto is obviously not regular. I don't recognise all the characters of the seal, I don't understand how they relate to each other, but I don't need to. I just need to how it looks.

I press my palms to the ground, my broken arm protesting, but I reroute the pain signal to the deal-with-later-or-never pile of shit. Then I close my eyes. I've got pretty much zilch chakra left, but there's always chakra in blood, and blood is mostly water anyway, and I'm well capable of controlling both, so this better fucking work!

Patches of the skin of my arms pop open. Blood runs down them steadily. But it doesn't gather on the ground. No, it keeps running. Forms lines. Symbols. Until I sit in the middle of an enlarged version of the seal and I'm so fucking glad it's targeted to large amounts of chakra because that would've bloody sucked if it activated on me.

Now, to get the fucking idiot in here.


▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

"You beat the damn Kyūbi with a kawarimi," Shiranui says incredulously. "You beat the damn Kyūbi with a kawarimi!"

"Shut up and go to hell," I snarl. "And don't fucking touch me, Shiranui!"

"That broken arm needs to be set, and you're dripping blood everywhere," he answers calmly. "And it's Genma, Dementia."

"I don't give a shit."

"I don't believe you."

I glare at him. He gives me an impassive look back.

"You," I snap. "Are incredibly fucking annoying."

"So I've been told." His lips twitch. "Your arm? I doubt you'll want to be carried by me because you passed out from blood loss."

Passing out sounds good to me, then I'd just be bloody done with this shit.

I hold out my arm with a glower. Shiranui sets the bone and wraps it up quickly, then moves on to my other arm. "So Naruto flung that fucktard into parts unknown," I sum up what Shiranui told me so far. "As in, he isn't dead and gone never to bother us again."

"Direct your complains to the Kyūbi," Shiranui tells me. "Which you beat with a kawarimi."

I shoot a look at the passed-out Naruto. The seal did its job, all that chakra he was leaking just evaporated.

"Let him rot," I snarl.

"Do you mean that?" Shiranui asks idly.

"I hate him. I hate you. I hate everyone. I hate this world. I hate Riko most of all. Yes, I mean that." I say icily.

"Then why help at all?"

"Like that's any of your business," I spit out.

"I'm curious. You claim hatred but you still risked your life alongside us instead of running away. You helped when Riko asked. I think you do care."

I laugh harshly. "You think it's so simple?"

"Sometimes it is," Shiranui answers.

"I helped because I wanted to. That's all," I sneer. "Not because I care."

"Why did you want to?"

"What's this, an interrogation?" I snap. "I helped because he-" I jerk my head at Naruto. "Is a jinchūriki."

Shiranui raises an eyebrow in surprise. "I didn't think you cared about that."

I stare at him coldly. "You know what jinchūriki are? They are the very embodiment of shinobi's selfishness and greed. Brought into being to serve, to fight, and to ultimately die for their creators. Meant to sacrifice their mind, body, and soul."

"The Kyūbi was sealed into Naruto to save the village," Shiranui interjects with a frown. "It had nothing to do with greed and selfishness."

"But everything to do with sacrifice, didn't it? They sure didn't ask him for permission. And Naruto's the exception to the rule in that he wasn't created to be a weapon." I counter. There's a slight wince. "Shiranui, what the hell do you think I am? Just like a jinchūriki, I was created out of Riko's selfishness, her greed for power, her darkness, her hatred, her pain and grief. Everything she didn't want to be, that she shut away into one dark place in her mind, except I sprung up from that. A sacrifice I was to her, but I grew. I care nothing for you, or Gaara, or Naruto, or anyone; I only helped because of what Naruto represents. I'd gladly see the world burn, and Riko most of all; because she is the one that created my wretched existence and named it, she is the one that lets it continue, and ultimately, she will be the one to destroy it. The only reason she hasn't is because she feels guilty she created me at all."

Stupid bleeding heart of hers. Makes me hate her even more.

"N-no, 'ttebayo," Naruto coughs, and I freeze.

He's awake. He listened. And judging from the look on Genma's face, he knew of it.

"I know Ri-chan. It's not because she feels guilty." Naruto coughs again, tries and fails at sitting up. His eyes though are strong and fixed on mine, and so full of understanding. "It's because she loves you," he says. "Ri-chan won't hurt you, 'ttebayo."

I throw a senbon at him. It draws a bloody line on his face. "No way in hell," I snap at him. "I'll die before I let you Ramen-Talk me. Fuck it, I'm out of here."

Without waiting for a response, I withdraw into my place in Riko's mind, letting the body slump like a marionette with its string cut.

It feels like running away.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬


Sakura and the old bat are fine. Barely any injuries - Chiyo's got that cut on her arm, but with Sakura's antidote and her medical ninjutsu it's easily dealt with. Sakura herself is basically untouched, merely a few scratches from rock shrapnel.

It turning out this well is pretty much a miracle. Then again, I suspect Sasori was one of the - haha - weaker Akatsuki. Certainly not on a level with Itachi or Kisame. Or even Hidan, which is odd because Itachi said Hidan was the weakest. He probably didn't know about that monster's last trump card, though.

"So," I finally say. "I'm gonna return to my real body. This one's pretty much done for."

I'm really looking forward to getting out of the Reflection Clone body. It just... feels wrong. Or rather, it doesn't feel at all. Not even when an arm gets lopped off, which is highly disturbing.

I hand Sakura my sword, since it's the original and not a clone replication. "I'll need you to give this to me later. Careful with it."

Makes my skin crawl handing it over like that, but it's not like there's an alternative. I can feel the clone body starting to dissolve.

"Of course," Sakura answers. "You have my word."

"Goody. See you in a bit."

The clone bursts.

I return to my body.


"Not a word," Dementia hisses, sounding utterly furious.

"Not like I've got room to talk," I return tiredly before opening my eyes.

"Ri-chan!" Naruto exclaims. I wince at the loudness. He's much, much to close to my ears. My somewhat sensitive ears. Oh shit, I sound like a rabbit.

"Watch the volume," I croak. "Ow. What the hell happened?"

"She didn't tell you?" Genma asks.

I force myself to sit up. Naruto helps. "Something's got her in an epic snit."

Genma smirks. "She ended up saving all of us."

I blink at him. "Yeah, that'd do it." I send her a mental message of gratitude. She returns it with a mental door slamming in my face.

"I don't really remember it, but it was cool, dattebayo!"

"Uhuh," I mumble, not missing the sharp look Genma sends Naruto.

Just what the hell happened here? The landscape's all torn up and all of us look like shit. I feel like shit. At least Deidara's gone. Hopefully dead, but I'm probably not that lucky.

"So now what?" I ask.

Genma shrugs. "We'll wait for the others and then catch up with Gai's team." He winces. "Or try to."

Neji is the first to show up. Naruto greets him enthusiastically which means he doesn't get a chance to be bitchy.

Myself, I'm content leaning against Naruto and not moving at all, letting his familiar voice wash over me. It got deeper, I note. He got taller, too.

...I'm going to be the eternal midget, aren't I.

Sakura and the old bat show up some time later, Sakura immediately handing Shingi to Giri over to me and then launching into medic mode, not satisfied until she's gotten us all patched up. Or mostly patched up. She makes Naruto carry me. Good thing too, I see black spots when I try to stand up. I nod on and off while we travel. "Hehe, just like old times, ne, Ri-chan?" Naruto laughs. "You being awesome and passing out afterwards?"

"Oh shut it, I'm still conscious," I mumble back.

"They're right ahead," Neji calls back to us. "It seems they met up with the back-up from Sunagakure."

The supremely useless and slow back-up. Thanks for nothing, Suna.

"And Gaara?!" Naruto asks. "Is he alright?"

"See for yourself," Neji answers, and then we're out of the trees, and there's Gaara, eyes utterly tired, skin so pale it looks grey, Kankuro steadying him. To the side, the rest of Team Gai stands. Gai and Lee are crying emotionally while Tenten is edging away from them.

"Gaara..." Naruto whispers, choking up. I jab his back.

"Let me down," I order.

"You aren't supposed to move, 'ttebayo! Ow! Dammit, no hair-pulling!"

I drop from his back and land in a relatively graceful crouch. Blink the spots away, I've fought in equally as bad states before, I can handle standing, dammit.

"Naruto..." Gaara murmurs, his eyes wide with surprised wonder. "Riko..."

Naruto laughs with undisguised relief. I think there are some sobs hidden in his laughter, too.

He was really worried, huh?

I manage an awkward wave. "Yo. You're troublesome, you know that?"

"Ahh..." he murmurs.

"Take better care of yourself in the future," I add. "I don't like friends getting hurt."

He smiles slightly. "I... thank you. All of you," he adds.

"Hehe!" Naruto laughs. "What're friends for? I barely did anything though, that was all Ri-chan, dattebayo. I gotta step up my training!" He ruffles my hair with a grin.

"Stop that, it's embarrassing," I hiss.

"It was so hard before, but now you're so short," Naruto marvels, not stopping. "It's practically an invitation, dattebayo!"

"Remove your hand or lose it," I threaten, pulling out senbon.

"Uhh, I'm so scared!" he laughs.

Genma's hands land on both of our heads. My knees almost buckle. "Now, aren't you two kids cute?" he asks so mildly it's vaguely threatening. "Kazekage-sama, it is good to see you in fine health. Our medic would be more comfortable if she could verify that for herself, though." He nods to a slightly antsy-looking Sakura, who steps forward.

The Suna-nin don't look entirely comfortable letting anyone near their Kazekage in his current state, but Gaara is fine with it, so Sakura moves to check him over.

"You look dead on your feet," Genma murmurs to me. For some reason, his eyes glint. "I hope I won't have to carry you."

"Don't you dare!" Dementia shrieks in fury in the back of my head.

"Okay, seriously, what happened back there?" I ask.

Genma shrugs, looking smug. "I told you. She saved us."

"And that's all?" I ask doubtfully.

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"No reason," I say blithely. Too blithely, apparently, because Naruto's best-friend-senses tingle.

"What'cha talking 'bout, Ri-chan? Did something happen before?"

"No," I answer flatly.

"Aw, come on!"


"Did she do something? If she's a risk to our team, we should probably know about it," Genma pries insistently.

"No, it's just kind of embarrassing," I answer and immediately inwardly curse myself.

"In that case, we definitely need to know about it." Genma grins.

I roll my eyes. "You really don't."

"Aww, but Ri-chan!" Naruto protests. "Don't you trust us?"

And cue the puppy eyes. Don't look, Riko, your resistance is too low, so even if his cuteness level has been reduced... Damn it. It wasn't reduced.

"She got me a tattoo," I blurt out like the moron I am.

Naruto blinks. "What?"

"What?" Genma echoes.

"The last time I let her use my body," I admit through gritted teeth. "I woke up with a not-removable tattoo of the Flying Mint Bunny."

Naruto blinks. Then he starts laughing. A moment later, Genma joins in.

"It's not funny!" I snap. "You assholes!"

"Bwahaha!" Naruto guffaws. "I wanna see! Ri-chan, show me!"

"It's not in a place I show in public, Ruto-baka!" I snap. Which sets the two of them off again.

"Ri-chan, you pranked yourself!" Naruto is now rolling on the floor, he's laughing that hard. Genma is faring little better.

Don't kick them, don't kick them...

"I didn't prank myself, I was pranked," I say in a measured voice. "And I took horrible revenge for it."

"Revenge on yourself?" Genma asks cheekily.

"I locked her in a room in my mind for a week, with a realistic hallucination of the Flying Mint Bunny," I growl out. "And if you don't stop laughing right fucking now, I will kick you so hard, you'll be singing soprano for a month!"

"Uhh, I'm so scared!"

"You should be!" I feel my eye twitch, looking at the two idiots. They are decidedly unimpressed. "See if I treat you to ramen when we get home."

That shuts him up. Makes Genma laugh harder though. I kick his shin and fall over.

"Not. A. Fucking. Word."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I end up passing out after all.

It's Gai's fault. He offered to carry me. I woke up in a hospital bed.

Apparently I missed the huge welcome back Suna gave us. According to Naruto, pretty much the whole village waited for the victorious heroes at the gates.

Glad I missed that, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed that.

"So that's what happens when you go to track someone," Anko muses. She's been delegated to make sure I actually stay in bed. Better her than her students, I guess. "We should totally team up sometime." She leers at me.

"Nope," I answer. "I'm quite happy with my regular team. Thanks for the offer, though."

"Are you sure?" Anko bends forward strategically.

"Yes," I answer flatly.

The door flies open, Naruto bursts in. "Ri-chan, they don't have ramen in Suna!" he shouts in horror. "Uargh, snake!"

"Now, now, lowly genin, don't forget to knock when the grown-ups are talking," Anko drawls while Naruto attempts to pry off her summons.

"Ri-chan's not grown up! She's a shortie, 'ttebayo!" Naruto manages to shout, now wrestling with the huge snake.

"I know. I could put her into my pocket!" Anko laughs. "Since you just volunteered to babysit, I'll leave you to it." She saunters out, leaving me with Naruto and a huge-ass snake in the hospital room.

~Let him go,~ I hiss.

The snake turns its head to me. ~Speaker,~ it hisses back.

~Return to your den,~ I order it. ~Now.~

It poofs into smoke.

"That was super creepy." Naruto grins at me. "Thanks, Ri-chan!" He sits on the bed next to me. "Feeling all right? We're gonna leave soon."

"I'm fine," I say. "I just want to go home. I'm way late, I was supposed to be back ages ago. Shika is gonna kick my ass."

"Oh yeah, I saw Shikamaru back home! He said to watch out for you!" Naruto laughs. "Not that you need it, dattebayo."

I give him an incredulous look. "Sure. That's why I'm sitting in a hospital bed. Because I'm completely fine on my own. Ruto, I'd have been toast if it weren't for Neji's team and yours."

"Eh," he shrugs. "Don't be a party pooper. You're awesome. No buts."

"This is doing wonders for my self-confidence," I remark. "So, what've you been up to?"

Naruto grins. "Lots of travelling around, I saw tons of cool places! Ero-sennin taught me a bunch of stuff!" His grin fades a bit. "But I was completely useless back there. It's like all that time away and missing you was for nothing."

"So get stronger," I tell him. "There's always gonna be missions where you'll feel like you didn't do enough. It happens. Get over it."

He blinks at me owlishly. Then his smile brightens up. "Yeah, you're right, dattebayo! I'm gonna train like hell and learn a ton of kick-ass jutsu, and then we'll kick Akatsuki ass and I'll become Hokage!"

"That's the spirit," I chuckle. "Missed you, Ruto."

"Missed you too, Ri-chan!" Kami, he looks so happy. "So how've you been? And when'd you get another you?"

"Dementia's been around for a while, remember when I got the Cursed Seal?" I shrug. "I'm pretty sure she's existed for longer than that, but I think that's when she gained awareness. She used to be made up of all that crap in my head that I don't want there, but it's been years and she's... well, not really a person. But a personality, I guess. I don't really know. Getting straight answers out of her is pretty much impossible, she hates me."

"Yeah, she said that." Naruto frowns a bit. "But some of the stuff she said... I get it, you know? How she feels."

...and that explains why she's so silent when Naruto is around. Must have shaken her. It's easy talking trash about him from the dubious safety of my mind, but actually experiencing him first-hand?

"I never meant for her to become so important," I admit quietly. "I should be able to deal with life on my own. I shouldn't need her the way I do."

"Well, she's a part of you, of course you need her, dattebayo." Naruto shrugs. "Anyway, she's cool. Can we take her for ramen some time?"

"No!" she shrieks in my mind.

"Sure," I say, giving her the mental finger. "So, have you heard anything about Sasuke? Seeing as you're here without him, he hasn't made it back yet, right?"

Naruto brightens up. "No, but we met up a few times for training when we were on the road!"

I sit up straight. "You saw him? What did he look like? Did he look okay? Eat enough? Not driven insane by Kakashi's antics?"

He grins. "He looked like his bastardy self. And he might be insane, he set my shoes on fire with my feet still in my shoes.'cause I wasn't in Konoha with you even though I promised I'd take care of you."

I start laughing. "Seriously?"

"Kicked my ass in a spar, too." He pouts. "Kakashi-sensei taught him how to cheat! It sucks!"

I laugh harder. The mental image of Naruto running around with his shoes on fire is just too good. "And Kakashi-sensei?" I ask.

"Eh, he's still the same. Ero-sennin dumped me on him for a few weeks when he had to go do some stuff, so I got some training from him too. The only one missing was you, but he didn't wanna go visit you in Konoha." Naruto pouts.

"Well, I wasn't in Konoha, so you wouldn't have been able to visit me anyway," I admit.

"Huh?" he asks, dumbfounded. "Not in Konoha?"

"I had my own... special training," I say. "In Kiri."

Naruto blinks owlishly. "Kiri... that's where Haku's from! And that guy from Wave, Zabuza!"

"Haku says hi, by the way. He's now ambassador, so you might run into him in the village."

"Cool, dattebayo! So what's Kiri like?" Naruto bounces up and down. "Did you learn a lot? Was it fun? Did you meet lots of cool people?"

I smile, a bit wistfully. "Yeah. To all of that. It was also... gruelling and lonely and bloody. I did some horrible things. I'm probably... not really the same person I was two years ago." I stare at my hands, almost seeing the blood staining them.

Naruto grabs them. "No way. You're Ri-chan. So maybe you're a bit different from back then, but you're still you!"

His hands are warm and callused and familiar. Mine are kind of limp in his. "I got broken," I say quietly. "Still looking for the pieces to put myself back together."

"I'll help!" Naruto's hands squeeze gently.

"I killed a lot of people," I murmur.

"I lost control and nearly killed Ero-sennin," Naruto admits. "I'm... not the same as back then either."

I look up at him. He gives me a weird, slightly broken smile. "It's okay," he says. "We'll figure it out, dattebayo. Best friends, right?"

"Always," I promise. "Hug."

He laughs and obliges. It feels like home. "Missed you. So much."

"Missed you more." I close my eyes. "So much it hurt. I'm glad to have you back."

"Yeah," he says roughly. "Same here, dattebayo."

It's like the old days. When he and I were just two kids trying to survive school life. I miss those days sometimes. So much less to worry about than I do now. But then... the present isn't so bad either. Certainly, I would never trade my friends in both Konoha and Kiri for anything.

Not long after that Hanabi and her team come to fetch us (and I'm not a fan of the plotting looks on their faces upon seeing me hugging Naruto), and we make our way to the gates so we can finally go home.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Naruto and Gaara somehow make a huge deal out of shaking hands. Without talking. It's all in the significant looks.

Hello? We're friends. Friends hug. End of story.

Also, the handshake business seems awkward as fuck, so hug it is.

"Don't look at me like that." I raise an eyebrow at the frozen Gaara. "I fought four Akatsuki and summoned a total of twelve rabbits for you, one of which is a cat. I'm allowed a goddamn hug."

"Eleven of those things?!" someone hisses in the background. "Holy crap!"

"Haha!" Naruto laughs and scratches the back of his head with a giant grin. "Well, if hugging's okay..."

I think I'll treasure the looks on the Suna-nin's faces on seeing Naruto bear-hug Gaara forever. Gaara's tiny smile is nice, too. Gai's manly tears, not so much, but at least we escape a youthful group hug due to him being too emotional to think of it.

Not long after, we make our way across the desert.

"Ri-chan, are you okay?" Naruto asks worriedly. "I can carry you again, 'ttebayo! Or you can ride Gai-sensei!"

Gai turns and gives me a thumbs-up plus gleaming grin. No.

"Yes, Ri-chan," Genma drawls. "You can ride Gai-sensei!"

The not-braindead or underage members of our travel group gag. Minus Anko, she's leering again.

I smirk at Genma. "Oh no," I answer. "I'd much rather ride you."

He face-faults into the sand. Anko falls over laughing.

"Oh kami-sama," Sakura moans, green in the face. "Not another one! Genma and Anko are bad enough!"

"Huh?" Naruto asks. "I don't get it, dattebayo!"

I pat his cheek. "You're so cute, Ruto. Never change."


Laughing, I drag him after me in the direction of home.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: So last time I asked where you thought Negi One disappeared to.

And you all came up with hilarious theories about Negi One's wherabouts... god, you made me crack up.

Top five:

1) In Canada, because he doesn't want to deal with this shit anymore. - fanficobsessed15 (Thumbs up to those who get the reference, you derserve a damn prize.)

2) Negi One is causing havoc among the Varia and adding to Xanxus' paperwork. He might also be helping Iemitsu. - Thinker90 (Because apparently my rabbits are now capable of jumping fandoms... Actually... they might be...)

3) The rabbit is currently getting high as a kite. - orion0905 (Entirely plausible.)

4) Deidara stole him! - Hulkishpower (Deidara obviously isn't very sensible.)

5) Obviously, Negi went on an adventure to destroy the Sword of Kronos in the fiery pits of Mt. Everest. - Snorlax Motive (Nothing is impossible.)

6) And Negi One probably ditched everything and went on a journey to become Pirate King on the Grand Line. - TheBlackBand (Also very plausible.)

And here is the answer!

Side story:
Where Negi went

Rabbits have sensitive ears. It is a fact of life. What kind of shitty idiot doesn't know that?!

Negi One, proud communication rabbit, huffs. His current vehicle-human smells of ramen which is about the only good thing about him. Because he's loud! SO LOUD! Negi wants to bite his ears off!

Another fact about rabbit ears: The bigger they are, the more noise they catch. Unless you're Tomato, but that moron doesn't count.

Negi One has huge ears. He can use them as blankets, actually. Or to slap his idiot younger brother in the face, whichever works. Nothing escapes his ears. Nothing.

Ramen-human shouts at something leader-human says and Negi is just super done. Screw this shit, stupid humans know the way anyway, summoner-human Riko is just ahead, Negi is out of here. And so he hops off of Ramen-human's shoulder gracefully (in his imagination) and scurries off into the underwood.

Ninjas are so stupid, they don't even notice the gloriously magenta coloured rabbit running off into the forest to deal with something that has pissed him off for years and years! Negi's ears flutter in the wind epically as he hops through the bushes with amazing speed and minimal amounts of tripping. He feels like one of the warriors of old! And ouch!

Negi has to take five minutes to free his left ear from where it caught on some thorny branches.

But then he's off again on his epic hunt through the forest! Woohoo! No one can-

He trips over his right ear and bravely swallows a few tears. Big bunnies don't cry! Except the boss rabbit, of course. And Ninjin, but he doesn't count.

But not Negi One! No, his idiot brother might, but not him! Never! No way!

Negi wails when he gets a splinter in his paw. Owwie! This is a stupid forest!

By the time Negi reaches his destination, he's covered in mud all over. His poor sensitive ears are all dirty! And it's all his fault!

The sobbing Fluffles' paw taps the ground rapidly. Negi could run to the edge of the world and he could still hear it! The idiot catbunny even talks in his sleep! This is long overdue!

Oh woe is me. Fate is cruel. To hold this mirror in front of me, is this an omen? A test of courage? This likeness of me, is this the representation of my inner self?


Negi tucks into a ball and barrels straight into Shouga Fluffles. Then he turns to the other Fluffles. The copy.

It stares at the world with blank, dead eyes. It doesn't move. It doesn't make any noise.

Negi is in love.

"Buddy," he says. "We're switching you with the original!"

Congratulations to Gryffindor Rat who actually guessed it!

*Chapter 20*: Reward and Responsibility

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Reward and Responsibility

Konohagakure. Returning here with Naruto by my side feels better than my lonely return months ago. The anticipation of being rid of Genma and Anko makes it even better. The two are utter brats and more than willing to abuse my water-making abilities in the desert.

Our large group attracts more stares than I am comfortable with, but it's fine since it's not concentrated on me.

We make our way straight to the Hokage Tower. Oh yay. Now there's a debrief I look forward to. Not.

Naruto keeps up a constant stream of chatter, but it can't really distract me from everything else. I've been stewing over the mission the whole journey. My utter failure against Kisame, my conversation with Uchiha Itachi. The monstrousness of Akasuna no Sasori, who made himself into a puppet. And Deidara, who we barely managed to even scratch until Naruto went Kyūbi on us.

Also, my injuries. Most of it healed. But there's still that void from where a part of me was sucked into that statue, and it won't stop hurting.

Sakura has checked me over multiple times, but never fofund anything. Not that I told her about that particular problem, but I'm fairly sure if it was something within her abilities to detect, then she would have. But this is a magical problem.

I'll tell Tsunade and Tsunade only, and if she can't do anything, I doubt anyone else can.

"...right, Ri-chan?" Naruto finishes his latest train of thought.

"Yeah, sure," I answer. "Training together, sounds cool."

"Gotta keep up with you, 'ttebayo!" Naruto grins. "Can't stay a genin forever! Hey, you think I can take the Chūnin Exams soon?"

I shrug. "Sure. I guess you need a team for that, though... well, there's Sasuke." I hesitate a bit. "And I might know someone who could take my spot for a bit, but I don't actually know if she's still genin."

I don't think Karin ever mentioned being chūnin, but well, she could be? How do I not know this? She's my flatmate!

Naruto frowns. "No one can take your spot!"

"It would just be for the exams," I shrug. "Anyway, I think you'll like her."

To tell or not to tell him that he and Karin are related? Or maybe he already knows about her? He did run into Kakashi and Sasuke who were the ones to recommend she go to Konoha. Then again, if he knew he would have told me first thing, knowing how excitable he is.

I decide to hold off on telling him for now. It's Karin's business anyway, I should probably warn her first.

"If you say so..." Naruto mutters dubiously.

"I know so," I declare. "She's my roommate, actually. And she loves ramen."

Naruto brightens up. "Okay, sounds cool." Then he frowns. "Wait, roommate? Is she a Nara, too?"

Oh crap.

And here we touch on the stuff I didn't tell him in Suna.

"Uh," I shrug uncomfortably. "I don't live at the Clan Compound anymore. Karin and I share a flat not far from here, actually."

"Eh?!" Naruto exclaims, flabbergasted. "But - why?! You love your family!"

"Of course I do!" I sigh. "It's complicated, okay? I just - it didn't work anymore. I've been gone a while and who I am now didn't fit with who I used to be. I figured moving out was the least uncomfortable solution, at least until I've sorted myself out. Anyway, we can talk about that later."

Because we're amidst a group of shinobi who are all nosy by default and this is my private business.

Naruto frowns. "Huh. But you're okay?"

"Working on it," I answer tightly.

He nods. "Okay then." He points at me. "But don't think this talk is over!"

"Yeah, yeah." I roll my eyes and elbow him. "Anyway, here we are."

"Baa-chan!" Naruto exclaims in surprise.

...he really has an awareness problem, doesn't he. Didn't even notice us entering the tower and Tsunade's office. Something to work on, I suppose.

Tsunade gives us a deceptively neutral look.

Anko bounces forward and does a somewhat indecent hero pose. "Yo! Team Anko has returned after successfully completing the mission!"

"You are days late." Tsunade is does not sound impressed. "Nonetheless, you and your genin acted exemplary when Konoha's allies required help, despite your young age and at personal risk. Well done."

Ah, she received reports from Suna already. Should hopefully shorten this meeting. Then again, knowing my luck, I wouldn't count on it.

"You may return to your homes. Anko, you're staying. Riko, where do you think you're going?"

Crap. "Home? Technically, I was part of their team..." I hedge. Tsunade gives me a dark look and doesn't grace my words with an answer.

Naruto laughs and puts an arm around my shoulder. "Nah, you're with Team Seven, Ri-chan!"

I give Tsunade a pointed look, trying to remind her that Team Headcase better have been a temporary thing. She rolls her eyes at me, almost imperceptibly. "Shut up, you damn brats. I want your reports, now!"

Naruto's stomach growls loudly, causing a very awkward silence.

Puppy eyes. How is Naruto still so good at them?!

Tsunade throws her arms up. "Fine! Go! Riko, where do you think you're going?!"

"But you said-" I begin. She cuts me off with a glare.

"You're worse than Kakashi! Naruto can go since his report is probably useless anyway. You, however, are not going anywhere."


Naruto laughs. "I'm gonna wait for you at Ichiraku's, Ri-chan! See you later, Baa-chan!"

"Scram, brat." He laughs again and then runs out, lured by the siren's call that is Ichiraku Ramen.

"So." Tsunade rests her chin on her folded hands, piercing eyes boring into us, specifically me. "Riko, report."

And so I do. I gloss over the rabbits' antics and my magical exploits, but most everything else I recount accurately, even my letting free Dementia. It seems to take ages, but a look at the clock reveals that it's only a half hour that I spend reporting. After, Tsunade asks a few pointed questions before moving on to the other people present in the room, beginning with Sakura and Genma and then moving on to Team Gai, saving Anko for last. Her sharp eyes miss nothing, and I can practically see the wheels turning behind them. "All right," she says finally. "Tenten, Lee, dismissed. Riko, step outside and wait until you're called."

I suppress a confused blink and do as I'm told. Tenten and Lee follow me outside. "Any clue what that's about?" I ask them.

"Riko-san!" Lee shouts. "I have absolutely no idea! I shall run three-thousand laps around Konoha on my hands as penance!"

"...don't overdo it," I advise, surmising that nothing will stop him, and that I should be glad that he seems to have forgotten the 'hip rival' thing. He gives me a blinding grin and takes off. Tenten sighs, kneading the bridge of her nose.

"I don't know either," she says. "But I'm going home before Gai-sensei comes out of that room and catches on that Lee's already training."

"You do that. Hey," I say. "Thanks for saving me ass back in the mission."

She nods, a small smile on her face. "Anytime. We're both Konoha kunoichi, aren't we?" She takes off after those words, leaving me standing in the corridor, staring at the clock. Tic-toc, it goes. In an attempt to not obsess over what might be going in inside Tsunade's office - why else send me out and tell me to wait if not to talk about me - I try sensing the chakras around me, only to realise that there must be seals all over the tower to prevent just that. Makes sense, I guess, but sucks for me.

After what seems to be an eternity, I hear my name called. Entering, I am rather surprised. Sakura is no longer there, and Anko, Genma, and Neji stand next to Tsunade, facing me with severe looks on their faces. And next to them, surprisingly, stands Dad. Who gives me a reassuring look, but it's not really helping.

I am fairly certain that my poker face isn't nearly as good as theirs are. Silence presses down on me before Tsunade rolls her eyes and throws a flak jacket at my face that I just barely manage to catch. The power of the throw still forces me stumbling back a few steps. "Stop looking like a frightened bunny, no one's going to kill you," she snaps. "There. You're promoted."

"I don't look like a rabbit!" I answer dumbly, also somewhat deeply offended because rabbits. "Wait, what?"

"You're a jōnin now. It's not nearly as much fun as you might believe, brat."

"She's kidding!" Anko jumps forward and puts an arm around my shoulders, the other pointing to a future only she can see. "It's awesome and you get to command people around and everybody has to worship you on their knees-"

Genma joins her. "And you get away with the craziest shit-"

"It's the beginning of the most youthful time of your career!" Gai joins the crazies, teeth gleaming.

" is a position of great honor," Neji says.

Dad pinches the bridge of his nose, Tsunade starts slamming her head against the surface of her desk.

"It sounds stupidly troublesome," I finally say like a proper Nara.

Inwardly I'm like hell yeah let's throw a party but why the hell is this happening?!

"Your performance on your last missions vastly exceeds what we expect of our chūnin and a number of our jōnin," Dad answers my unasked question. A faint smile tugs at his mouth, though his eyes are worried. "And surviving and even winning against numerous members of the Akatsuki organisation is a testament of your skills. You've more than proven yourself, Riko-chan."

"Huh," I say, and finally give up trying to suppress the giant grin threatening to split my face because damn, I liked being jōnin back in Kiri. "Thanks, then. I'll do my best to live up to your trust in me."

"You better," Tsunade says flatly, though there's a tiny grin on her face as well. "Now get lost, all this paperwork isn't going to do itself."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Outside the Hokage Tower, it's kinda hard to shake the exuberant congratulations of Konoha's Most Eccentric, but I manage after telling Neji, "You, me, a bar and lots of sake like we promised, and if you don't show I will hunt you down even in the Hyūga Compound, don't think I won't!"

In reaction Anko and Genma instantly team up, swearing that they'll make sure Neji gets drunk if it's the last thing they do. Gai congratulates Neji on this important step to manhood - it's just sake, man! - and vows to keep Lee away from our celebration, for whatever reason.

I split from them afterwards and make my way to Ichiraku's where Teuchi-jiisan greets me enthusiastically while Ayame is busy cleaning up like a hundred empty bowls and tells me that Naruto headed for the training ground a while ago, not wanting to waste any time in getting stronger. I shrug - the meeting did take a while - and order my own lunch before heading over to the Nara Compound.

Shikamaru is lazing around on the porch. There are no clouds up in the sky so he's just dozing in the sun instead of looking up. He opens an eye at my approach, lazily taking in my uninjured self. The calmness lasts until I speak.

"Hey Shikamaru. During the course of the last week, I have fought two S-ranked missing ninja possessing dead bodies, saved the Kazekage who once tried to kill me, after that ran into Naruto, and fought another two S-ranked missing-nin who weren't possessing dead bodies, though one of them was actually a puppet, so I guess he was technically dead. Also, all of Akatsuki knows my face now; and I think I've managed to acquire a kill-on-sight order. And before I forget, Temari says hi."

Shikamaru buries his face into his hands. "Wow," he says.

"I know, right? I wonder what Temari sees in you. You better hope her brothers aren't too overprotective."

Shikamaru says nothing. I think I broke him.

Abruptly, he gets up and marches off.

"Shika?" I ask, a little worried.

"To make me feel better, I'm going to blow something up."

"Ah, okay. Can I get a hug first?" I ask. "I did get promoted to jōnin just a few minutes ago."

Shika facepalms. "Please stop talking, you troublesome girl."

I grin unrepentantly. "Arms up," I order. He gives me a look. "I outrank you, so you have to do as I say," I add.

He sighs, shakes his head, and lifts his arms. "There. Happy?"

"Almost," I answer and hop up to him so I can hug him. "Now I am."

He closes his arms around me and shakes his head. "So troublesome. You're unhurt?"

"Sizable dent in my chakra reserves but other than that, I'm good."

He sighs deeply. "All right. I have to go work on something, we'll talk later." It's more of an order than a suggestion, but one I'm more than happy to accept.

"Sure. I'm gonna meet Naruto for training. Later, Shika."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Naruto is, as he said he would be, at Team Seven's old training ground. Seeing the bridge and the forest here brings up all kinds of fond memories, of tickle fights, shoving each other into the water, attempted and backfired pranks on Kakashi. I shake my head fondly before Naruto's loud voice distracts me.

He waves at me wildly before one of his many Shadow Clones lands a punch on his face which incites a brawl between the various Narutos currently populating the field. By the time I've walked down to them, only three are left. Then two, and then an epic brawl ensues between the remaining clone and what I think is the original. Yeah, he just took a punch and stuck around, he is the original.

"I win! I'm the best me!" Naruto shouts when it's over.

"Uhuh..." I say. "But if you were a clone, you would've gone poof. You did get hit, you know?"

Naruto chooses to miss my remark and folds his hands behind his head, shooting me his sunshine-bright grin. "Ri-chan! You're here, dattebayo!"

"Yep. Tsunade-sama kept us a bit," I answer.

"What did Baa-chan want, anyway?" Naruto asks guilelessly.

"Oh, you know. The usual. Reports. Paperwork..." I examine my nails.

"Blegh, boring stuff." Naruto scrunches up his face.

"Oh and I got promoted to jōnin."

"Oh cool," he says with a grin. Then he blinks.

And three, two, one...

"Whaaaaaat?!" Naruto shrieks, pointing at me. I smirk. "Noooo!" He starts crying big, comical tears before sitting heavily under a tree, a cloud of gloom gathering over his head. "No fair, I'm still genin!"

I laugh at his antics. "Oh come on! You'll catch up in no time. Chūnin Exams are coming up, remember?"

He jumps up, gloom all gone, and points in the distance. "You're right, dattebayo! I'm gonna kick so much ass at the Chūnin Exams they'll make me jōnin right away! No, they'll have to make me Hokage, I'm gonna be so good, 'ttebayo!"

"That's the spirit," I answer dryly. He turns to me and grabs my hands.

"And that's why! Ri-chan, you have to train me!"

I blink. "Whaaat."

Naruto beams at me. "Come on, Ri-chan!"

I groan. "You're my best friend! It's gonna be weird!"

"Nah," he laughs. "It's gonna be like always! You always tell me about stuff I don't know, 'cause you're smarter than me and stuff!"

...I can't actually argue with that.

"Fine," I sigh. "Okay." I sit and motion for him to do the same. He does, all but vibrating in excitement while I frown in concentration. "What do you want to learn?" I ask.

"Some really cool jutsu! Oh, I know, teach me that move with water that you do! The tornado thing!" Naruto beams at me. I blink.

"Your chakra is water-natured?" I ask.

"Huh? What's that?" he asks.

I groan. "Okay, so you don't know. Can you tell me what Jiraiya-sama's been teaching you?"

"Err..." Naruto deflates as he thinks. "We practiced chakra control a lot. And basic stuff. I can break genjutsu now! Oh, and-" he puts a hand over his stomach. "Tried controlling you-know-what."

"Ah," I say noncommittally.

Basics. Huh. Okay. Naruto certainly needs those. Won't help him in winning against S-class opponents, though. At least, not by much.

"Okay," I say. "Basically, everyone's chakra is different, so different techniques come easier than others. My chakra is water-natured, so water jutsu come more easily to me. Still with me?"

Naruto nods. "But Kakashi-sensei can do everything!"

"And you bet he trained his ass off for that," I snort. "He's got the sharingan, so he can copy hand seals instantly, but that means fuck-all if he can't get his chakra to do what it needs so the jutsu he's doing actually works."

"Oh," Naruto says. Then he frowns. "So, water chakra for water jutsu. But... the Bastard has fire chakra, what with all the fire he spits everywhere, but he can do lightning too?"

"Yeah. You can train to learn a second element, but it won't come as easily. Most jōnin can actually do more than one."

Naruto nods absently. "Which elements are there? Water, fire, lightning and...?"

"Earth and wind. Each one is strong against one and weak against another, I'll tell you later which ones. Oh, and some kekkei genkai allow you to mix two elements. Like, uh, lava is made up of fire and earth."

He frowns. "Why didn't anybody tell me this stuff before? Or was it Academy stuff I skipped?"

"No," I shake my head. "This wasn't covered in the Academy. I guess it was just bad luck? I already knew because Mom is crazy about training, Sasuke probably knew because he's had clan training and also access to a ton of scrolls. It's actually custom to have a jōnin sensei introduce you to nature transformation stuff. And well... Kakashi-sensei was more concerned getting us up to speed with teamwork? And you had to learn better chakra control first, learning nature transformation can get dangerous. Just imagine, if you lose control over fire... well, it's not pretty. Anyway, where was I? Right. Jiraiya-sama probably thought you already knew this stuff so he didn't tell you. Or he forgot." I shrug. "Or, you know, got distracted."

"Oh yeah, he did that a lot." Naruto laughs. "But he got better after he finished his book, damn, I wanted to give it to Kakashi-sensei- err, Ri-chan?"

"Give. Me."

"Ri-chan, you have that really funny look on your face-"

"Uzumaki Naruto," I intone darkly, holding out my hand.

"But it's for Kakashi-sensei!" he protests. "Also, you're not allowed to read it! It's boring anyway!"

I narrow my eyes, then decide to change my strategy. "Fine," I sniff and turn away. Swipe my arm over my eyes. "I-if you like Kakashi-sensei better than m-me... it's n-not like I was looking forward t-to it," I say in an absolutely pathetically weak and trembly voice.

"Wait, Ri-chan, that's not... Oh shit, are you crying?" Naruto instantly panics. "I'm sorry! I love you best! Here! Here's the book! Kakashi-sensei is just a weird old man!"

I take the book and smirk victoriously. "Mine! My precious!"

"Eh?" Naruto stares at me. Then stabs an accusing finger in my direction. "You! You were faking! You meanie! Give it back!"

I stick out my tongue at him. "Nope!"

His mouth drops open. "Ri-chaaaan!" he wines. I beam at him.

"So, training!"

He pouts. "I thought I made you cry!"

"I'm not Kakashi, I wouldn't cry over Icha Icha," I inform him dryly. "I'm not that pathetic, Ruto."

"I thought Sasuke would set my shoes on fire again for making you cry!"

I laugh. I still haven't gotten the full story out of him, but what I do know sounds hilarious. "Learn a lesson from this," I say. "Ninjas cheat." I let the book - haha, mine mine mine - vanish in one of my storage seals.

"I knew that!" Naruto whines.

"Obviously you needed the reminder." I grin at him. "Now, where were we?"

"Err..." he goes shifty-eyed. "Cool chakra-stuff?"

"Eh, close enough." I shrug. "I would teach you water jutsu, but it took me years to even get nature transformation to work, and I have a damn strong water affinity. So if you really want to get stronger fast - nature transformation is not the way. But it will definitely make you stronger eventually, and it's the basis for modifying jutsu, and who knows - you might learn quickly. You did learn Rasengan within a few weeks, so... Well, it's your choice."

Naruto frowns. "My choice?"

"Yeah." I study him. "Up till now, you didn't really get to choose, right? You've had to fight for every scrap of knowledge and techniques you could get."

In the old times, he was happy for every somewhat powerful jutsu he got taught, he certainly wouldn't have asked for a specific one lest whichever teacher he had at the time changed their mind. And then, he wouldn't have known what to ask for anyway.

"Kind of," Naruto mutters, before looking up. "Ri-chan, I wanna learn this nature transformation stuff!"

"Okay then." I nod. "Then what do you think you need to figure out first?"

"Err..." he scratches his head. "Uh... How to transform the chakra? Wait, you have to transform it, right? Normal chakra doesn't work."

"That's right," I confirm. "You can do elemental techniques with normal chakra but they'll be much weaker and you'd have to put a lot more power into them. But before you learn that, what do you have to know?"

He crosses his arms and makes his constipated-looking thinking face. My lips twitch at the familiar sight. He might have grown some... but he's still the orange-wearing brat I remember.

"I've got it!" He beams at me suddenly. "I've got to know what nature my chakra is, dattebayo!"

"That's right!" I grin back.

"Yatta! Awesome!" Then he deflates. "How do I find out?"

"That's easy." I rummage through my kunai pouch. "There. This is chakra paper."

Naruto perks up. "You can draw seals on that!"

"Yeah, that's one of its uses," I say, mildly surprised that he's sort-of familiar with it. "It's sensitive to chakra and can be used to find out chakra natures. Go ahead and channels chakra into it, please."

He takes the paper and closes his eyes in concentration. Moments later, it slices in two. "Huh? Ri-chan, what's that mean? Why did it do that?"

I grin. "It means you have wind-natured chakra."

He looks disappointed. "Not water?"

"Then the paper would have ended up drenched. Earth would have made it crumble, lightning would have crinkled it, and fire would have burnt it," I explain. "And wind cuts."

Naruto still looks unhappy. "But it's not water, so you can't teach me!"

Now, if this isn't flattering, I don't know what is. "Oh, Ruto," I chuckle. "Remember what I said about most jōnin having trained more than one element?"

"Uh, yeah?"

"Ruto, I'm a jōnin."

"...ah!" he points at me. "You can do more than one?!"

"Yep. And guess which one's my second element?" I smirk at him. He starts grinning.


"Right in one." Grinning, I poke his cheek. "So no need to look so down. You having wind is really good. If you were the same as me, it'd get boring. Besides, with Sasuke being able to do both fire and lightning techniques, me having water, and you being wind-natured, we have almost all elements represented in Team Seven. Counting Kakashi-sensei, we actually do."

"That's right!" Naruto exclaims. "So you can teach me?"

I tilt my head. "To an extent. I admit I'm not all that great with wind, but I know enough to get you started and I can show you some basic techniques."

"Awesome!" Naruto punches the air and jumps up. "Let's do this, dattebayo! How do we start?"

I chuckle at his enthusiasm as I slowly get up, grabbing a leaf from the ground while I do so. "Here. Your first lesson."


I smirk and put it between my palms, focus chakra to them, mould it. A tiny slicing sound, too quiet to reach Naruto, sounds. I open my palms and show Naruto the leaf, now cut in two halfs. He looks gobsmacked. "Do it again, dattebayo!"

I laugh and oblige. Then I hand him a new leaf. "Now you try."


"Try it first." I motion for him to begin. "Go on. If you make a nick in the leaf, I'll give you the next hint. And if you manage it within this week, I'll treat you to ramen for a month."

His eyes go shiny wide. "Yatta! Okay! Here goes! Uooohhhhh!"

...Is the screaming really necessary?

Ah, whatever. Drawing my sword and falling into a ready stance in one smooth motion, I focus. I have my own training to do.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Karin's and my flat is a rather nice place. Rather away from the center of the village (and actually pretty close to Sasuke's house), it's on the top floor of an apartment complex which houses numerous ninja. Large windows with seals on them make it impossible to look in from the outside, the interior is spacious and bright. Kitchen and bathroom are modern and rather nice, and my bedroom here is only a slight bit smaller than the one I have at my childhood home.

It also has a number of locks and a blood-locked barrier seal, the reason for which is currently hugging the stuffing out of me.

"You're back!" Uzumaki Karin squeals. "Welcome home! I missed you!"

I grab her by the hair and drag her head away when she begins making weird sniffing noises. "Yep. I'm back. Stop sniffing me. And please don't try to eat me."

"I wouldn't eat you!" Her eyes glaze over a bit. "Just... lick you! Just a little bit!"

I blink slowly.

"I'm not helping my case, aren't I?" Karin asks.

"Nope!" I answer blithely.

"One little lick?"

"Nope!" I eye her. "Are there actually any ramen left in my super secret stash?"

She fidgets.

"I'm going to take a shower," I say slowly. "A long shower. I will check my stash afterwards. Hopefully it won't be empty by that time."

"Ehehehe," Karin laughs before throwing herself around and running out of the flat. "Enjoy your shower, Riko!" she yells over her shoulder.

I shake my head after her, grinning. Troublesome girl.

Shrugging, I go clean up. Needless to say, after the long mission, not to mention the training earlier, I rather enjoy cleaning all the dirt off of me.

Getting dressed is less fun. What the hell am I supposed to wear for getting drunk with a Hyūga, not to mention Genma and Anko and whoever else will happen to be at the bar, to celebrate my jōnin promotion? For that matter, what the hell was I wearing for my last jōnin promotion in Water Country? I don't really remember it, but I do remember being annoyed in the battle the day after over being inconveniently dressed even while dealing with the mother of all hangovers.

Now what do I bloody wear?! "It's a jōnin promotion," I say out loud. "So the flak jacket is a good bet." I eye the jacket. It looks exactly like my old chūnin jacket except two sizes larger because I actually did grow taller, no matter what tall assholes may imply.

I don't particularly like flak jackets. Mainly because when I have to go Cursed Seal, the wings destroy them in such a way that they completely fall off my body, meaning I have to search for whatever shit I keep in the pockets afterwards which is really annoying. Also, they may provide protection but they also feel constricting. Which is entirely my imagination, the damn things are designed to not impede movement in any way, but well. I just don't like them.

So, no to the flak jacket in my outfit.

Actually, wouldn't it be fine if my jōnin outfit is the same as my chūnin one? And the tokubetsu jōnin one? I look fine in it.

"I'm back!" Karin shouts.

"Great!" I holler back. "I need your advice on outfits! Also, you wanna go celebrate my promotion later?"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Summons are a peculiar thing. Not every ninja has them, seeing as it takes quite a bit of chakra to summon an animal from a different plane of reality. As such, the details of summoning contracts are little known to the general populace, even the general ninja populace.

Different summoning contracts have different uses, advantages, disadvantages. Each summoning contract is unique. But what can be deemed as fact for every contract is this: One particular summon will always hold a special place within the ranks of the contracted animal clan. Those individuals are called familiars and share a special bond with the summoner. They even have the power to cross into the summoner's realm without being called, though this ability is generally reserved for emergencies.

For Naruto, the familiar would be Gamakichi, the first sentient toad he summoned, who has now grown to the size of a smaller teahouse from what I hear. For Kakashi, it would be Pakkun, an excellent tracker and strategist. For the Sannin, their familiars are now boss summons of their contracts. In general, it can be said that familiars hold exceptional power and wisdom or the potential for it.


Flash Ninjin Seven crashes onto my head at the asscrack of dawn and shrieks, utterly startled. Ow.

I groan at the shrill noise. "Go 'way, N'jin, you fuck... fuckin', err... bunny!"

Ninjin starts to yammer as he's prone to do. "Shitty summoner! My sister wants to kill me and it's all your fault!" He bats a paw against my head. Owww. "So I'm moving in!"

"Noooooo..." I moan. "Azzie wansa kill every... everybunny, s'no big deal, go hoooome your 'nnoying."

The rabbit starts to cry. "You're mean and you reek of alcohol, you shitty summoner! Azzie's gone crazy and y-you don't even c-care, you s-shitty s-s-summoner!" he sobs. "W-when it's y-your fault t-t-that she broke a n-nail! Take s-some responsibililibitily, y-you, you, you grenade thrower!"

"You take that baaaaack!" I slur. Rabbits are kind of sensible about grenades after the Rabbit of Caerbannog was offed with one. Insults involving grenades are a great offense. "Stupid vegetarabbit!"

"But noooooo!" Ninjin continues, ignoring me completely, and owwww his voice is too shrill. "You don't care that I have to l-l-l-live with the m-most terrifying demon-"

"Your little sister."

"To ever be spawned, and it's all your fault that she's c-crazy and there's t-two Fluffles' now except one is wrong and evil and probably a cat-"

I groan and grab him. Gather him up and use him as a pillow while putting a hand over his mouth. "Shhhh," I mumble. "Sleep. You fluffy green p'llow."



He eventually shuts up, or maybe he faints from the weight of my head, whatever. Soon after, I fall asleep again.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Light hits my face. I groan and bury my face in my pillow. The noise of my own voice causes splitting pain through my head, so I stop.

"Wake up," a familiar voice drones. "Hokage-sama expects us in her office at our earliest convenience."

"'S too early for morning wood," I mumble. "Go 'way."

"Earliest convenience means in ten minutes at the latest for jōnin," Yamato answers blithely. "And it is almost noon."

"Too early. Waaaay to early."

I can almost hear his eye roll. He doesn't deign to answer me.

"I just came back from a mission," I moan.

Instead of answering, he blasts water all over me. I manage to use my blanket as a shield, but I'm somewhat awake now and-

"Goddammit, close the curtains! It's too bright!" I groan, hiding my head in my hands.

"I can breathe!" Ninjin shouts from under me. With his shrillest voice. How and when did he get here?

"Owwww!" I whine. "Inside voice, dammit."

"You ain't the boss of me and uwahhhh there's a monster save me!"

"That's Yamato," I inform him. "He sucks."

"You are delightful," Yamato informs me.

"He also hates noise so be quiet, Ninjin, or you'll be eaten."

Ninjin shrieks and zooms under the bed. One problem taken care of. Now for the next one. I point at Yamato to say something, which is when I catch sight of my reflection and the words go missing. Also, I think something furry died in my mouth and my head is going to explode.

Yamato gives me a look. "Five minutes, then we're going."

I flip him off and trudge out of my room to the bathroom. Nearly stumble over Karin who is sleeping right in front of my door, hugging a drooling Anko. Whaaaaat.

I escape to the bathroom where I proceed to splash water in my face and brush my teeth. My hair is completely hopelessly tangled so I just dump water all over it in hopes of getting at least rid of the smell of smoke and booze that seems to cling to it. It clings to my clothing, too. My somewhat skimpy clothing that is mostly borrowed from my flatmate. Why did I think asking Karin for wardrobe advice was a good idea? I cannot remember. Heeled boots and miniskirt courtesy of Karin, dark red leggings hug my legs because if anyone sees The Tattoo, I will die.

The horrible thing about my outfit is the shirt. Karin said I have some nice cleavage and must show it on this special occasion. Furthermore, the shirt is skintight and bares a rather large part of my midriff. Actually, it's more of a sports bra than a shirt. If Shikamaru sees me in this, I'm dead. If Mom sees me, no one will ever find my body.

At least I looked good yesterday. Now I look disastrous. Skin is peaky, make-up smudges around my eyes make me look like a reject raccoon, hair is still a mess and now dripping wet. I manage to tame it into a ponytail and draw the water from it.

Five minutes are up, but I can't go out like this so I shunshin back into my room which is like, the dumbest idea I've ever had because shunshinning while hungover will make you puke, except I can't because Yamato is right there and it would be really embarrassing so I suppress the urge somehow while I dive into my cupboard and find one of my slightly too-large sweatshirts. My sword is already at my waist because I never took it off.

"Done, then?" Yamato asks with a voice as dry as the desert, and I would know, I just came back from one.

"I don't suppose you have sunglasses on you?" I ask hopefully, because this hangover is almost as bad as the one I had after my last jōnin promotion. I'm just really glad no one's setting off explosives and flashbangs right in my face.

"No." He hops out of the window, me right after him.

"Fuuuuck," I whine, trying to ward off the sunlight. Yamato's whole bearing radiates serves you right for getting drunk. "Wait, why aren't we entering Tsunade's office through the window? We're jōnin, all jōnin are supposed to do that."

"All ninja are supposed to use the door because that's what it is for," Yamato snipes back.

"That's not what Kakashi-sensei said back then," I mutter mutinously, but Yamato doesn't hear me.

A random ninja greets me in the corridor like we're best friends. Apologises for not being able to stay and chat. I wave back awkwardly and have no idea who the fuck he is. Oh, wait, that was the guy who ended up dancing on the table with me, Anko, Kurenai, and Neji plus those other three kunoichi when we lost that bet against Hayate and Asuma. I have no idea what his name is.

Someone please kill me. Last night was exactly like my last jōnin promotion.

I follow Yamato into Tsunade's office. She looks as hungover as I feel.

"Do you remember who won the drinking contest?" I ask her. "Because my memories get fuzzy towards the end."

"That pretty boy from Kiri," Tsunade answers. "The sparkly one."

"Fucking Haku," I curse. "Every single time!"

"How did they even find you?" Tsunade mutters.

"Rule of the universe," I answer. "Suigetsu is always there when alcohol and I get involved. It's weird."

"Especially since he's lightweight."

This is true. Suigetsu dropped out after faceplanting in Haku's crotch which was the second-best thing I've seen all year, right after Naruto's sunshine-grin.

"As entertaining as this conversation is, why did you call us, Hokage-sama?" Yamato interrupts. Tsunade straightens in an attempt to look less pathetically hungover and more respectably hokage-like. She's not particularly successful.

"Ah, yes." Her eyes fix on me even though it was Yamato who asked the question. "You may have noticed that Kakashi and Sasuke have not returned from their trip yet."

My body goes still, and the hangover is suddenly at the very back of my mind. "Something happened," I deduce. "And it's not Kakashi-sensei's usual lateness."

"No." She shakes her head. "Early this morning, a dog summon found us, bearing a message from Kakashi, requesting medical assistance to Tenchi Bridge near Kusagakure, meeting time at noon six days from now."

"Shit," I breathe.

"And not a half hour later," she continues. "Pakkun found us, requesting medical and military assistance as soon as possible to Kaede Valley, specifically where the Shirakawa joins with the Kurokawa river. Also near Kusagakure." She folds her hands.

"The first message must be a trap," Yamato states. "Set by whom?"

"Someone went to the trouble of impersonating Kakashi-sensei and even figured out how to imitate summons," I say slowly. "To lure someone to Tenchi Bridge, someone to accompany the medical ninja that was requested The medic would normally be considered a liability in a fight, putting the team at a disadvantage." I pause. "I've been back for months, that's no secret. It's also not a secret that Team Seven is fiercely loyal to its members." My eyes meet Tsunade's. "It's Orochimaru, isn't it? The trap is to lure me out."

"That is what we suspect." She leans forward. "Pakkun was able to confirm Orochimaru's involvement before he lost consciousness."

"Will he be okay?"

"Yes. The Inuzuka are taking care of him."

"Hokage-sama, what do you want us to do?" Yamato asks.

"I'm bait, aren't I?" I ask dryly.

Tsunade folds her hands. "Kakashi and Sasuke were attacked by Orochimaru and separated in the course of the battle. We know that Orochimaru wants Riko's body, but will take Sasuke's if he can't get hers. The fact that he's trying to draw Riko out this way tells us that neither Sasuke nor Kakashi are in his hands." She leans back, studying us. "Find them. Bring them home. Reinstate Team Seven. Any shinobi you want on the team, you can have." Her eyes meet mine. "And if you can - do not engage Orochimaru."

I nod. "You know... this sounds like the exact kind of mission Shizune would convince you not to send me on."

Tsunade snorts. "I know you brats would end up looking for the rest of Team Seven no matter what I say. Besides..." she smirks. "Shizune never could hold her liquor well. She won't show up until early afternoon... by which time you'll be long gone.

"Now then... who will you need to go with you?"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: You can see how mature Riko is by the way she tells everyone she meets that she got promoted. Brat...

Also, Neji totally got drunk and everyone thought it was hilarious. He's a very happy drunk.

Another thing, Riko was nowhere near inebriated enough to not be able to fight anymore or recognise threats, paranoid ninja brat that she is.

If you're wondering where Naruto was while everyone got happily drunk, he was training because he was promised ramen, and fell asleep on the training ground.

Anyway... you guys rock! Until next time!

*Chapter 21*: A relatively reliable team

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

A relatively reliable team

"Now, who will you take on this mission with you?"

"Naruto, of course." I raise an eyebrow at Tsunade. She doesn't bat an eyelash.

"Of course," she only says.

"At least one medic," Yamato says. "Preferably one with significant combat strength. Is your apprentice available?"

Tsunade nods. "She is. I will send for her. You will also need trackers."

"I can track. I have a summon in the village right now." If Azzie hadn't decided to become a tracker and she didn't scare the shit out of Ninjin, he might have joined the tracking unit. Then again, trackers tend to get sent after dangerous things and Ninjin is, to put it mildly, a coward. "I want Karin with us. She's a medic, too, and a very good sensor who is familiar with both Kakashi and Sasuke's chakras. She's from Kusa, so she'll know the area, too."


I bite my lip as an idea comes to my head. It's a bit risky, but... I turn to Yamato. "Can you track down Sai?"

Both his and Tsunade's eyebrows rise. "As in, find him and bundle him up before anyone but us can relay orders to him," I clarify.

"I could," Yamato answers slowly, eyeing me cautiously.

"Why would you want him on this mission with you, considering what happened last time?" Tsunade asks bluntly.

I smirk. "I'm gonna subject him to Naruto."

Slowly, Tsunade starts to smirk, too. She leans back. "This could work... the council will eventually find out about this. If they hear I sent a ninja they personally recommended to me previously on this mission, they won't be able to complain as much..."

"Meanwhile, Naruto gets to brainwash him to the ramen side of things..." I continue.

"Alright," Tsunade decides. "But keep an eye one him."

"Naturally," Yamato agrees.

Tsunade nods. "Anyone else you want?"

Someone with more experience, this team consists of half-baked idiots and crazies, Dementia speaks up for the first time since leaving Suna.

Good point.

"Gai or Genma," I say.

Not Genma!

"Preferably Genma. He seems halfway sane."

I fucking hate you! She does the mental equivalent of slamming a door in my face.

Yamato meanwhile nods. "He's also the most familiar with Kakashi-senpai's tactics and an experienced tracker."

"Very well," Tsunade says. "Genma it is. That all?"

I nod my head, so does Yamato.

"Very well." She fixes us with a look. "I don't have to tell you that this is an S-class mission."

Again, we shake our heads.

"I don't want any casualties. You are all coming home, is that understood?"

"Hai, Hokage-sama!"

She nods in satisfaction. "Good. Then go pack up, gather your team, and get going. I will send Sakura to Training Ground Eleven, meet up there. Riko, you still have smeared make-up all over your face, you may want to get rid of that."

"But it's fashion!" I fake-gasp with wide eyes. She snorts.

"Scram, brat."

I shoot a longing glance at the window, but Yamato drags me after him through the door. Stick in the mud.

He gives me a look that tells me he knows exactly what I'm thinking. "I will find Sai and Genma. You gather Uzumaki Naruto and Karin. Time is of the essence."

"Hai!" We separate and I run back to the flat.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

As fate wants it, Training Ground Seven, the training ground where I left Naruto yesterday to train wind chakra, is on the way to my flat, and Naruto is fast asleep there. Probably fell asleep training, I deduce fondly. I wake him up with some cold water - better he get used to that again, we're gonna reform Team Seven after all - and quickly inform him that we have a mission. He runs off to pack and I make my way to Karin.

I blast into the flat and into the bathroom to take the world's shortest shower. I'm mostly coherent by this time, so I actually remember that there are storage seals on my sword-belt. Storage seals that contain almost everything I need to survive a month-long mission, though hopefully this won't take so long. For now it just means I can change out of the skimpy party outfit.

Hair is still untamable, though. Whatever. I yank a brush through it, thread wires in it that will turn razor sharp with just a bit of chakra, and that will have to do. The make-up is scrubbed off my face so I no longer look like a reject raccoon. More like a regular raccoon with hair like another raccoon died in it.

A minor genjutsu has me looking healthy and fine.

I storm out of the bathroom and try to shake Karin awake, meaning Anko wakes up, too. "Wake up, we've got a mission," I say tightly, then go for the big guns. "Karin, ramen."

She sits straight up. "RAMEN." Then she actually wakes up. "Eh?"

Anko groans. "Five more minutes and turn off the damn light."

"Emergency. Mission," I say tightly. "Karin, be at Training Ground Eleven as soon as you can. Pack for two weeks, we're going near Kusa, you probably know better than I what you'll need. I'm just gonna make a quick run to the store, so don't worry about food stuff. Don't wait up for me."

Karin turns out to be one of those abominable people who don't get hungover. She jumps up and runs for the bathroom because her hair and face look only slightly better than mine did. "Got it."

I make a quick run for the kitchen where I swipe all the ramen cups into a storage seal, then hop out to a store where I get ration bars and enough vegetables to pay off my tracking units. A comfortable grey jacket because wearing Itachi's old cloak while looking for Sasuke doesn't exactly feel right and I'm not a fan of standard ninja cloaks, which are inconvenient for stashing rabbits inside, unlike the jacket which was probably made with Inuzukas in mind. Once I'm done with that, I run back to the flat and grab a snoring Ninjin from under my bed - little bugger stole my blanket and pillow and made himself comfortable - and stash him in the hood of the jacket (putting him under a small genjutsu to keep him sleeping). Karin is already gone and also got rid of Anko, somehow, so I leave the keys to the flat in the letterbox of our next door neighbours, Hayate and Yugao, with a request to take them to my clan so they can take care of it.

It's been barely twenty minutes since we got the mission. Hopefully we've been quick enough. Tsunade heavily implied that should the council find out about this, we won't be able to leave the village so easily. Thank kami for last night's utterly irresponsible drinking binge that apparently took out some key links in the information chain, among them the ever-responsible Shizune.

On the way to the meeting spot (applying liberal use of shunshin) I drop into the Kiri ambassadors' lodgings and nearly get my head blown off by Suigetsu for not stopping him last night from either falling into Haku's crotch or waxing poetic shit about Haku's eyes shortly before that. I don't know what his problem is, Haku was immensely flattered, and for all his intelligence, he's incredibly dense when it comes to recognising romantic notions towards him.

"Riko-san?" Haku asks, sitting primly on his bed, looking perfect as ever, not one hair out of place which is just bloody unfair.

"I need you to occupy Hokage-sama and her council for a few hours," I say bluntly. "Tsunade is in on it, so don't worry."

"Ah," Haku answers serenely. "I've been meaning to discuss Kiri's participation in the upcoming Chūnin Exams in more detail, perhaps even integrate it into our alliance contract."

"Fucking fuck damn it, Midget, the fuck've you gotten into now?" Suigetsu grumbles. I shoot him a grin.

"The usual, plus I'm fucking hungover and want to share the headache," I answer before I shunshin away, not bothering to thank them. They'd just be offended. Besides, they know I'd do the same for them, though I probably wouldn't use politics to distract Mei-chan.

I catch up with Karin at the edge of Training Ground Eleven. "Two chakras ahead," she reports as I seamlessly fall in step with her. "Haruno Sakura and an unkown with a vast chakra quantity."

"That'll be Naruto," I answer. She suddenly stands stock-still.

"What?!" she squeaks. "My cousin?!" She turns on the spot. "I need to change, I look horrible!"

I grab her and steer her back to the meeting spot. "You look fine. He'll love you no matter what you look like, anyway."

"You're right." She walks with me for a few steps. "Except!" And she turns around again. "I should have worn the blue vest!"

"Kami dammit!" I drag her after me. "Come on!"

"I can't!"

"Of course you can!"

"I have a meet-Naruto outfit all prepared! It'll take just five minutes!"


"Yes! It's just like this one, except with-"

I roll my eyes and employ use of shunshin. With Karin struggling, we land in a pile of limbs in front of the reason for Karin's anxiety. "'Sup," I greet casually. Karin squeaks underneath me.

"Ri-chan!" Naruto exclaims, waving his hands around. "What're you doing?" He tries to pull me up, trips, and falls on top of us. I see Sakura stifling a laugh. She doesn't look hungover, which is probably a good thing.

So now there's a flailing Uzumaki under me and another one on top. An Uzumaki sandwich. There is a dirty joke hidden somewhere here, and I feel it is time to kawarimi the fuck out before the rabbit in my hood wakes up and screams bloody murder. I join Sakura in watching Naruto and Karin try to get on their feet, a feat which they are remarkably unsuccessful at.

When they finally do manage, Naruto laughs sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. "Uh, yeah, sorry about that, 'ttebayo."

"It's fine!" Karin squeaks, blushes, and instantly clams up which is completely unlike her.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto!" Naruto points at himself. "Are you going on the mission with us?"

"I - uh -" Karin is lost for words and I decide to help out.

"Yes, she is," I say. "She's the roommate I told you about, she's a medic and a sensor."

"Cool! What's your name?" Naruto asks curiously.

Karin takes a deep breath. "U-Uzumaki Karin."

Naruto blinks. "Eh?" he says. Karin instantly panics and starts rambling on about how she grew up in Kusa all alone, well with her mom, but her mom died and then she was all alone, and how she became a ninja to prove herself and then went to the Chūnin Exams, where she actually saw him but had no idea who he was, she's so sorry about that, at which point Naruto cuts her off with a strangled noise. "Eh? Uzumaki? Like me?" She nods. "You - you're family? I - I have family?"

Karin sniffs. Her red eyes look suspiciously shimmery. "Yes!"

A disbelieving laugh escapes Naruto. His hands find Karin's shoulders. It looks like he'd fall over without holding on to them. "Karin," he whispers. "Uzumaki Karin. Karin-chan. Karin-neechan."

"Naruto-nii," she whispers back, and then throws herself into his arms. He laughs, hugs her back. Ends up falling on the ground again.

Sakura sniffs. I hand her a tissue. I might need one myself, there's something in my eye.

"Is the harpy pregnant?" a mildly curious voice asks. Sai has arrived.

"No," I answer and punch him in the face. He goes flying into a tree. I don't feel even remotely satisfied.

"Oh my." Sai's smile only serves to fuel the anger roiling inside my chest (BetrayalHatePainShikamaruWakeUPdon'tLeaveMe!). He rubs his cheek. "You are ill-tempered today, are you perhaps on your period, Riko-san?"

I tilt my head. "No," I say sweetly, smiling sharply. "Just very hungover, and I seem to recall a nightmare in which the last mission we did together went vastly different from whatever the hell you wrote in your report, Sai-kun."

A nightmare in which my brother died. A thousand punches would not make me feel more peaceful towards Sai. Part of the reason I requested his presence on this mission was to punch him in the face.

"Thankfully it was just a dream," Genma drawls as he joins us, followed by Yamato. Judging from the expression in his eyes, he knows it was anything but. Yamato doesn't look happy either, neither does Sakura.

It's not like they couldn't have stopped me from hitting Sai. It's not like Sai himself couldn't have stopped me. All of us know what he did. Except Naruto and Karin who are still happily distracted hugging each other.

Sai's smile flickers for but a moment before it is firmly locked in place.

"As amusing as this is," I say, my voice like ice, "We have a mission to get to." I look to Yamato. "We're all here."

He nods. "Then we'll head out. We'll brief later."

A quick call to Karin and Naruto and then we're off, only a day after being back in Konoha. Towards Kusagakure in the Country of Grass, towards Orochimaru, towards Sasuke and Kakashi.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

There is no talking as we run. This mission might be sanctioned by the Hokage but it certainly isn't official. Considering it involves the Snake Sannin which automatically bumps it up to upper S-rank, Tsunade going behind her council's back is controversial at best. Especially seeing as she sent me, who Orochimaru most definitely wants for reasons I don't particularly like to think about.

So yeah. Yamato leads us out of the village along a path that I suspect is commonly only known to ANBU, and once we're out, sets a harsh pace that has the added effect of shutting down any conversation. Breaks for rest are short and tense, and Sakura and Sai are affected the worst by the exhaustion. Karin to a lesser extent because she has good stamina, but she's having trouble keeping up with our speed. Hell, even I am feeling the strain in my muscles by the end of the day. Yamato and Genma look unaffected, but then, poker faces are part of being a ninja. The only one I really believe has no trouble at all is Naruto the stamina monster.

We finally stop when night has long fallen, in the middle of nowhere, concealed in a forest. Yamato slams his hands together and creates a wooden house - not as elaborate as the last one I saw him make, more functional. He's conserving his chakra for the upcoming struggles.

"Whoa, awesome!" Naruto and Karin exclaim, echoed by Sakura's amazed marvels. The three of them are the first to enter, followed by Sai and Yamato. Leaving me and Genma outside alone.

"Riko," Genma speaks up, serious for once. "Are you alright? You look grim."

My hand goes up to clutch at my neck, where the Cursed Seal rests.

"This time will be different," I answer quietly.

I won't let Orochimaru take anything more from me.

Genma squeezes my shoulder. "That's the spirit. Come on, the others are waiting." He walks past me, toward the house.

"I'll be just a minute. Go and get the others up to speed, will you?"

"Sure thing."

I wait until he's entered, then I reach into my hood and pull out the snoring Ninjin by the scruff of his neck. A poke with my finger has him waking up from my genjutsu. "Yo," I say.

He blinks, shakes his head in befuddlement. Yawns. Then looks around and opens his mouth in panic. "Mmmmmpph!" He screams into the hand I press over his mouth.

"Everything's fine," I say. "Calm down."

He shuts up.

"Now, I'm going to take my hand from your mouth," I inform him slowly. "And you are not going to scream like that time we were on a stealth mission and you thought there was a leech on your leg. Understood?"

Ninjin nods. I take my hand away. "Kidnapped! I've been kidnapped! This is an outrage!" he shrieks and I smush my hand back in place.

"Well, you can either stay here, with me, as my teammate which means being under my protection," I state, "Or go back home to Azzie preparing herself for her beauty contest. Your choice."

He shakes his paws in panic at the mention of his crazy little sister. "I thought so," I say.

"You are the shittiest summoner in the history of shitty summoners!" Ninjin shrieks in, for his standards, a quiet voice. "This is a kidnapping!"

"Well, you can't exactly build a den under my bed and live there," I answer dryly.

"I was doing just fine!" He sticks out his tongue at me.

"Yeah, by stealing my blanket and pillow and hiding under it," I point out dryly. "Look, I'll make you a deal. You help me on this mission, and I'll help you dig a burrow in our Clan Forest."

"Mission," Ninjin says suspiciously. "I know your kinds of missions. Last time I got chased by a monster!" Oh yeah, I sent Kakuzu on a merry rabbit chase.

"Sorry," I say. "This isn't like that."

"Suuuuure," he sniffs, crossing his paws. "Nu-uh! This rabbit is too smart to - you smell of carrots."

"Yeah, I've got enough vegetables with me to supply the tracking units..."

"Don't call them!" he shrieks. "They always make fun of me! And don't you dare call Azzie!"

"I'm not stupid," I snort. "She'd kill all of us if I did that so close to the competition. Anyway, I'll have to summon the trackers if you won't help me..."

"You," Ninjin narrows his eyes at me. "Are an evil, evil, shitty summoner."

"Carrots. Cake. Eggplants." I boop his forehead and grin at him, without teeth because that freaks him out. "A nice, spacious burrow in the safest forest in all of the Elemental Nations. No predators around anywhere, no other talking rabbits. I'm friends with the forest's protector, you'd be completely safe."

He whines. "Your missions always suck!"

I go in for the kill. "Haku's staying in Konoha a lot, you know? And just think... Where Haku is, Ume-chan isn't far."

Ninjin squeaks. "Ume-chan! My love in pastel pink fur! I'm in! I'm in!"

"So we've got a deal?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever, what do you want me to do, oh shitty one?"

"Track someone. Remember my teacher? The guy with the dogs you were stuck with for two weeks?"

"Oh him. Yeah, sure. Whatever. Easy-peasy." Ninjin waves me off.

"And Sasuke."

"Your boyfriend?" Ninjin rolls his eyes at me. "Can't you do anything by yourself, you loser?"

I snort. "Thanks, buddy. I appreciate the help. I'm gonna introduce you to the rest of the team, alright?"

"Rest of the team?!" the neon-green bunny shrieks. "It's not just you here?!"

"Or," I say dryly. "You can just stay in my backpack."

"I will do that, thank you very much." He points his paw at me. "And there better be carrots and a pillow!"

I roll my eyes and unseal a backpack, specifically acquired to carry around rabbits for exactly this kind of situation, and open it. "Pillow's already inside."

"It better be fluffy, servant."

"And here are your five-star gourmet carrots."

"They look and smell like normal carrots."

"Just get in the fucking backpack!" I throw the carrots in and glare at him.

"No way! You don't scare me! Oww, not the ears! They're sensitive!"

I sling the backpack over my shoulders and adjust the straps before going into the house. Genma waits inside. "I heard screaming," he says, looking amused because he probably heard what was screamed. "What's with the backpack?"

"Bere if nuffim im here!" Ninjin shouts from inside, face apparently stuffed with carrots.

"Your backpack just talked." Genma's eyes are dancing with mirth.

"Mo ip bibm't!"

"It's a magical backpack," I answer dryly. "Don't look at it too long or it'll run away."

"Uh-huh." Genma nods seriously. "A magical backpack."

I roll my eyes at him and begin to say something when noise breaks out on the floor above us and then Sai comes crashing down, an irate Sakura jumping after him. She picks him up by the front of his shirt and shakes him, her other fist brandished. "Insult my shishou again, I dare you," she hisses.

I sigh, ignoring the fact that my magical backpack is squeaking in terror. As much as Sai probably has it coming, this kind of shit on a mission this dangerous is bad and we'll need him intact. I exchange a look with Genma who doesn't look all that happy either. "I'll get Sai," I sigh. "You deal with Sakura." Judging from the lack of noise above, Yamato is busy with Karin and Naruto, which is one relief at least.

"Oh, fun," Genma sighs. I snort. Simultaneously, we move in and grab the two. A shunshin takes Sai and me outside. I drag him with me a little ways into the forest.

We stare at each other. He opens his mouth. I interrupt before he can say it. "No. I am not inclined to engage in sexual intercourse with you."

He closes his mouth.

"So," I begin, crossing my arms before my chest. "What did you say this time to piss everyone off?"

"I do not know," Sai answers. He studies me. "Psycho."


"I read that giving a person a nickname will bring you closer to them." Sai smiles his creepy-ass smile.

"So you call me psycho," I surmise. Sighing, I pinch the bridge of my nose. "Whatever, fine. Stop smiling like that, it's creepy."

It's not the worst thing he could have called me and it's not like he has any evil intentions. I haven't forgotten the things he said back then, about having no past, future, feeling, name; the way his eyes were empty and blank. Yeah, I hate his guts for his betrayal and what happened to Shika, but. It wasn't him. He was merely someone else's tool. The blame lies with Shimura Danzō. Is what I tell myself, but I still want to stick Shingi to Giri into Sai's gut and letting him bleed out right here on the forest floor. And yet, at the same time I feel so sorry for him.

What a fucking mess. It makes me sick to my stomach. Especially since I'm going to have to use him.

"Smiles set people at ease," he explains. That's right, he said something like that before.

I force a smile of my own. "It depends on the situation. Let it come naturally, don't force it." This is so wrong. I hate myself for doing it, but- "Dollface."

His fake smile fades and for a moment, there's a look of genuine surprise on his face before he schools it into expressionlessness.

"So what nicknames did you give the others?" I ask. "Did you call Karin a harpy again?"

Sai frowns minutely. "No. I called Sakura-san Ugly," oh god what an idiot, "And Naruto-kun Dickless."

Bursting out laughing is completely and utterly inappropriate. It's also impossible to not do it. Sai looks at me like I've grown a second head. I reach out and squeeze his shoulder. "Oh Sai," I chortle. "You are precious."

He blinks. "I do not understand, Psycho."

I snicker. "Oh, no. Just keep calling Naruto that, yes?" Just imagining Naruto's face, oh kami. I burst into giggles again. "You might want to apologise to Sakura though, calling girls ugly isn't nice."

"The book I read said to pick nicknames based on dominant traits of a person," Sai says, a faint note of confusion in his voice.

And he picked Ugly for Sakura? Huh. "Maybe you should pick something else," I suggest. "Or ask her to pick a nickname you can use. Alternatively you can add -chan to her name, that indicates familiarity, too. But ask permission beforehand, it's rude otherwise."

I better talk to Sakura, too. Sai is going to fuck up again, no question about it.

"I see." He sounds bewildered. "Does it not matter who picks the name?"

I shrug. "People don't make sense, get used to it." Another forced smile on my part. "Dollface, if you don't understand something, just ask me. I'll help you. You can trust me."

He looks genuinely relieved at that. There must be a special kind of hell reserved for people like me.

"You hit me earlier," he points out then.

"Which means we're okay now," I lie. "It wasn't a rational action on my part, but I got it out of my system. I apologise."

"I see."

That's about as much of this conversation as I can take. Assassination is easy compared to this. There's something honest about killing. I could never be a spy or a double agent.

Necessary evils, I tell myself. You want information on Danzō. Sai is the key to that.

"We should go back," I suggest, beginning to walk towards the house. "The others will be waiting for us."

"Yes," he says. But then frowns. "Why am I here? I was told you requested my presence. Yet I know you do not trust me."

I look back at him. Now would be the time for another pretty lie, packed in Naruto-worthy inspirational words.

I go for the cruel truth instead. "I don't. You betrayed us. The team. The village. The Will of Fire. Everything I believe in. Plotted our deaths with a smile on your face." My voice is ice and acid. "Then you had the audacity to tell me that you didn't even exist, shoving responsibility for your part in all of it far from you, and decided to just die in the face of your failure. It doesn't fucking work like that." My eyes narrow. "Live and struggle. Regret. Fucking atone. You are not allowed to die until you have found meaning in your life.

"As for why you are on this mission? Consider it your second and only chance, Dollface." I don't wait for his reply, turn my head and continue walking towards the base. "And I say all that about you not being allowed to die, but if you even think about betraying us again, if you put my friends' lives in danger - you're dead."

("I wanna go home," my stupid magical backpack whimpers, inaudible to anyone but me.)

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

We've gathered upstairs in the meeting room. Thanks to Karin's sensing abilities, we can forgo patrols and guarding until she goes to sleep. By now, everyone is up to speed on the situation.

"I know it sounds bad," I say into the heavy silence. "But we actually have several advantages in this."

"We do?" Karin asks hopefully.

"Yes," Genma answers her. "For one, Orochimaru doesn't know we know about his trap, and he has no idea that we've been in contact with Kakashi."

"But he'll have contingencies for that," Sakura points out uneasily. I nod at her.

"Very likely. Which would be a problem if we were actually going to spring his trap."

"Which we won't," Yamato states seriously. "We will stay away from Orochimaru."

"And if we can't?" I smile grimly. "He has no idea the things this team can throw at him."

"Hell yes!" Naruto clenches his fists. "We'll kick his ass, dattebayo!"

"Unless we can avoid it. We don't go near him. I mean it." Genma looks at us. "We go in, we find Kakashi and Sasuke, we get out. That's it. There shouldn't be any fighting."

"Genma-senpai is right," Yamato says seriously. "If something doesn't go according to plan, we will act as follows: Sai, you will get our medics out of the danger zone. Naruto will go with you and provide cover and protection as needed. Genma-senpai, Riko, and myself will eliminate the threat." Or attempt to, he doesn't add.

"But I want to fight-" Naruto protests.

"It's the most sensible plan," I interrupt. "Ruto, you have the most important job, protecting the medics. If we have to fight Orochimaru or his people, there will be injuries. We'll need Sakura and Karin. Especially since Kakashi-sensei requested medical aid which means he needs them, too."

"I don't like it," Naruto protests. "We fight together, Ri-chan!"

"If everything works out," I smile wryly, "Then we won't need to fight at all."

No one looks particularly reassured. We're dealing with Orochimaru. And we have the collective bad luck of myself, Team Seven, and Team Headcase. We're fucked.

We discuss abilities and formations for a while before the meeting adjourns. I provide food for everyone - ramen for Naruto, Karen, and myself - then we lay out our blankets and camp mats. I end up sharing a room with Naruto and Karin. Yamato-taichō is with Sai, and Sakura rooms with Genma. It seems the most peace-ensuring arrangement. Heaven knows leaving Sai in a room with Karin or Naruto would be a disaster, I myself find that stabbing him in his sleep is, if not a tempting then a rather distracting option. Karin and Sakura don't seem to like each other very much for whatever reason or no reason at all, Naruto insists on rooming with his newfound Nee-chan, both insist on rooming with me. Which is sweet of them, but neither are tired which translates to lots of talking. It takes me a bit to let their voices lull me into a relaxing half-sleep, which is destroyed as soon as Naruto pokes my shoulder. "Ri-chan, are you asleep already?"

"Yes," I deadpan. He and Karin giggle.

"We've decided!" Karin declares, pointing at me. "We're adopting you."

"What," I say.

"You should totally be a honourary Uzumaki!" Karin looks ridiculously proud of herself.

"Yeah! That'll be so awesome, dattebayo!" Naruto adds, looking terribly smug.

"...I'm going back to sleep."

"Nu-uh! Sibling bonding time, dattebayo!" Naruto declares, and Karin attempts to throw herself on top of me. I roll out of the way and get piled on by Naruto. Another Uzumaki sandwich ensues.

"Lemme go!" I whine.

"But Ri-chan!" Shit, Naruto's got puppy eyes going on. "You love us, don't you? So we're adopting you!"

"...can you even do that?" I ask.

Karin nuzzles into my neck. "Sure! You're practically an Uzumaki anyway! I mean, you've got the hair!"

Naruto yelps. "Is the hair important? I don't have the hair!"

"You have the face! That's what counts!" Karin reassures him immediately.

"But I don't have the face," I point out reasonably.

Naruto laughs, "Silly, you have the hair, Ri-chan! You don't need the face!"

"Exactly!" Karin beams. She and Naruto high-five.

Uzumaki logic. Why am I even trying? "Okay then, fine," I sigh, smiling a little. There's a nice warm feeling in my chest. "Honourary Uzumaki, sure, why not. But you get to tell my brother about it."

"Ehehehe," Naruto laughs, sounding and looking so stupidly happy. "I've got two sisters now!"

"We were family anyway," I point out, relaxing into his hold.

"But not officially!" Naruto protests.

"Doesn't this 'honourary Uzumaki' thing make it an unofficial adoption? Because otherwise I'd be an actual Uzumaki." I raise an eyebrow at him.

"Details!" Karin scoffs. "You're officially unofficially adopted from this moment on." She pulls out a pen. Where did that come from? "Now hold still while I write it on your forehead. Naruto-nii, hold her still!"

"I've got her!"

"No you don't!" I squirm. Naruto's arms are like a vice. But I'm not a jōnin for nothing! An instant later Naruto is hugging a log.

"Get her!" Karin shouts, laughing.

"It's on, Ri-chan!"

"You will never catch me, Dickless!" I point at him. He gasps dramatically, clutching his heart.

"You didn't! How could you! Karin-neechan, did you hear that?" Karin is laughing too hard to answer. "This calls for vengeance, dattebayo!" Naruto declares. "Tickle fight!"

"Ha! You can't hope to- good evening Genma-senpai, is something the matter?" I ask politely.

Karin and Naruto snap their mouths shut and attempt not to look like kids who were caught raiding the ramen box.

"No, no," Genma drawls. "Just informing you that Sakura and I are taking first watch - you three should get some sleep while you can. Yamato was annoyed at the noise, and he and Sai have second watch. They'd like to sleep, you understand."

"Yes, yes," Karin giggles nervously, looking terrified. "I wouldn't want to annoy Yamato-taichō, haha."

"Hahaha," Naruto laughs mechanically, sweating bullets. "Hahahahahaha."

"...what am I missing?" I ask.

Karin gives me a wild-eyed look. " Taichō doesn't need a flashlight anymore."

"Ah." I nod. "Okay." I turn to the now vastly amused looking Genma. "I believe we will go sleep now. Have a nice night, senpai."

"Night, kids." He leaves.

I give Karin and Naruto a pointed look. Within the space of moments, they're wrapped up in their sleeping bags, as stiff as if they were laid in coffins.

It kind of gives me hope that I'll get through the night without Karin attempting to eat me.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Night rest seems entirely too short (and Karin did attempt to eat me. In her sleep.) Probably because it is too short, but we can't exactly afford more than a few hours of rest on the off chance that someone followed us.

Also, we need to outrun the messages Orochimaru's spies, if they do exist, will doubtlessly send about our departure. Any bit of information he doesn't have is an advantage for us.

Question is, will it be enough?

We have five days until Orochimaru comes looking for us should we not appear at his meeting spot. We must find Kakashi and Sasuke until then.

If we don't... things will get complicated.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: Merry Christmas to you all! Happy Hanukkah! Happy holidays! I actually managed a Christmas update, yay! With lotsa fluff!

Forgot to mention this last chapter, but I've got a facebook page now, link's on my profile. First chapters of my otherwise unpublished stories will go up there first, there's two already in my notes. So yeah, go check that out! :D

*Chapter 22*: Kaede Valley

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Kaede Valley

After a night of too-little sleep, our group is on the move again. The pace is gruelling and I'm not the only one glad when Sakura asks for us to halt because she saw some rare herbs that she'd like to collect - we're probably going to need medicine at some point during this.

"A half hour," Yamato decides. "Which herbs are we looking for?"

Sakura explains, and then we're pairing up to look around. Naruto is volunteered to guard our belongings since he's pretty much useless when it comes to telling plants apart. Sai is stuck with him because no one trusts him.

Karin's been shooting me stricken looks, so I partner up with her.

"What is it?" I ask, once we're out of earshot.

She bites her lip, eyes worried on me. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, sure," I shrug. "Stressing out, maybe, but that's nothing new."

"That's not what I meant," she answers. "It's - I didn't notice at first, but your chakra, there's something-" She reaches out, hand hovering just in front of my chest. "Right here. Like, I don't know, a bleeding wound."

"Oh," I murmur. Her hand is right where I've been hurting since jumping into the bijuu extraction technique to save Gaara. "Shit. You can sense it?"

"What is it?" Karin asks, looking scared. "It feels wrong! You aren't dying, are you?"

"Of course not," I snort. "There hasn't been any change since I got it. It's - from my last mission. I meant to go to Tsunade-sama about it, but then the promotion happened and I completely forgot between everything. I promise I'm fine. It just stings a little."

Understatement, but having her distracted by worry isn't something we can afford on a mission this dangerous.

"If you say so," she murmurs, retracting her hand. I'm not sure she really believes me, but there's nothing I can do about it. "Just, humour me and be careful?"

"I can do that," I answer, giving her a smile. "Now come on, these herbs aren't going to pick themselves."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

We reach the border to Grass Country the next day. The area has been changing as we travelled, the lush forests of Fire Country slowly being replaced by endless grass fields. Further in there are forests again, but they're far denser than what we're used to. The trees look odd and foreign, with thin trunks unadorned with branches except for higher up. The ground level is littered with mushrooms of all colours and sizes - some as bit as houses. Karin warns us not to touch any. Having grown up in this country, she's familiar with the local flora and fauna.

"It gets better further into the country," she promises during a short rest. "There are normal forests. Kaede Valley houses a maple tree forest. It's beautiful, especially in fall - if we're lucky, the leaves will already be changing colour!" She smiles at the prospect.

"We aren't going there to sight-see," Sakura says curtly. Karin scowls at her, but refrains from snapping at her.

I still don't know what the deal is with the two of them. It's probably none of my business anyway, so long as it doesn't interfere with the mission.

"How long till we get there?" I ask in an attempt to disperse the tension, silently glad that Naruto is distracted with attempting to cut a leaf with his chakra. I've given him an extension on our bet what with us being on a mission that may require stealth. Naruto as per usual uses far too much chakra in the exercise, and it's noticeable. He's going to have to stop soon, before he draws attention.

"Two or three hours," Karin answers. "The valley is large, so another hour after that before we reach the Shirakawa."

The Shirakawa being one of the rivers mentioned in Kakashi's message. The other one being the Kurokawa river. We're supposed to meet Kakashi where the two join - but it's been several days since he sent the message, and it's almost certain he'll have changed locations since then, provided he was even able to move, and isn't that an uncomfortable thought.

"Let's get going, then," Genma decides. "Everyone got enough rest? Good."

We move. Just like Karin said, we reach the valley not many hours later, or rather, some cliffs overlooking it. And like she said, it's beautiful. The maple leaves' colours range from pale yellowish-green over flaming orange to deep red, it looks incredible in the sun. It's not like the forests of Fire Country with their large tree and dense undergrowth that can swallow a person whole two steps in, or the swampy assemblies of creeping trees in Mist Country where one can barely two meters far because of mist and swamp fumes and whatnot. This forest is light-swept and has a young feel to it, and it seems there's barely any undergrowth. It's nice, and if we weren't on a mission I'd have loved to take a stroll through it.

Karin may have been understating when she said it was large, though. It stretches on and on, and I can't even see the rivers, though I can faintly hear them when I channel chakra to my ears. We climb down the cliffs.

"Well then," Genma says. "Let's go find Kakashi." He looks at me, I nod and shake my shoulders, thus rustling my backpack.

"Oi," I say. "You awake in there?"

"No!" Ninjin shouts.

Karin shrieks and jumps away from me. Ninjin shrieks in reaction, which makes Karin shriek again, which causes Ninjin to-

I reach into the backpack and pull him out by his ears. "Not the ears!" he shouts. Karin stops shrieking.

"Oh, it's just a rabbit." Then she realises what she just said and points at him which has Ninjin attempting to hide behind his hands. "A talking rabbit!" she yells.

"It's a summon," I answer. "Of course he talks."

"Let go of my ears!" Ninjiin shouts. "They're sensitive! You, stop that!" he then squeals at Naruto who is poking him with a stick.

"Really, Naruto?" I ask with a raised eyebrow. "Really?"

"He's funny!" Naruto laughs.

"Ahem!" Ninjin snaps. "Shitty summoner! Ears!"

...Genma look like he's trying not to laugh. Yamato just looks done. Sakura is staring incredulously and Sai has his default smile put on. There goes whatever reputation I had with these people. Bloody rabbits.

I roll my eyes and grab Ninjin by the scruff of his neck before letting go of his ears. Otherwise, he's likely to run off and into a tree. "Buddy," I say. "Remember our deal?"

"Yes, yes." He sticks out his tongue at me. "How the heck do you lose two whole persons anyway? Humans are so stupid."

"Beats me," I snort. "Find Kakashi-sensei first, please." I kneel and set him on the ground.

"Payment in advance!" Ninjin demands, holding out his paw. I unseal a carrot and break it in two.

"You get the other half when you've found someone," I say.

"Hmph!" Ninjin devours the carrot half. Does this count as cannibalism?

"Riko, can he really track?" Sakura asks doubtfully. Ninjin jumps at the sound of her voice and I can only just grab him before he runs off. He changes his mind about fleeing and clings to my hand instead.

"Yep," I answer. "Better than I can, anyway. And I'm not half bad, actually."

"I wanna go hooome," Ninjin whines.

"Remember our deal," I answer. "Do it for Ume."

"Ume! My lady in pastel pink!" Ninjin yells. "I will do it for love!"

" need to let go of my hand for that," I point out after half a minute.

"Don't wanna!"

"Fine, I'll just summon a tracking unit."

"No! I'm going, I'm going! Shitty summoner!"

And he runs off in a neon green streak. I get to my feet, nodding in satisfaction. "It's all about the right motivation," I say, and turn to the rest of the team who are in various stages of disbelief, save for Naruto who is laughing his ass off.

"Ri-chan, he's worse than Gamatatsu!" he laughs.

"He's awesome!" I snap. Only I get to badmouth my rabbits, thank you very much. "He'll find Kakashi in no time, just you wait."

Or disappear in some dark hole because a butterfly startled him. Or run into a tree and pass out, who knows.

Naruto just laughs harder. I roll my eyes. "Let's just get moving."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

We reach the Shirakawa after about half an hour of stealthy travelling. I can easily see why it was named the 'White River', for one there are white stones and rocks lining the shores and jutting out of the water in the middle, and for another the river is wild and foams white. And the sun reflects off of it, so it shines brilliantly.

It's also loud as hell. The river roars. If I wanted to contact Ninjin using Rabbit Morse, well, think again. It drowns out everything, and even the Negi twins would have trouble receiving messages in this place.

Our group follows the river. It's lined by rocks and cliffs, caves looming every so often. If I was worried about Kakashi not having an adequate hiding place, I am not anymore. Rather, now I'm concerned there are too many and we won't find him.

We make for the place Kakashi indicated in his message, the place where the Shirakawa meets the Kurokawa, a river that's the complete opposite of the Shirakawa, lined by black stone, the water traveling leisurely and calmly. The terrain here is flat and there's no sign of Kakashi anywhere. There are, however, signs of Ninjin having been through here, having left wet paw prints here and there. In a forest, no ninja would look twice at those, rabbits are common and them visiting rivers for water is nothing out of the ordinary. However, I'd recognise Ninjin's paw prints anywhere. No rabbit paw is the same.

There's also the occasional neon green rabbit hair on his trail, which is a pretty good indicator as well. It also tells me he has so far not run into a tree or fallen into the river.

"This way," I say quietly.

About four minutes later, Karin suddenly gasps. "His chakra! I can feel it!"

Naruto's gasp masks my own deep sigh of relief.

"Lead the way," Yamato-taichō orders Karin. He too looks relieved, as do the remaining team members save Sai.

"Yes!" Karin turns and hurries east, all of us following. She occasionally stops, making the Ram seal to focus her chakra. The third time, she stops. "It's supposed to be here," she says with a frown.

Around us is forest. Nothing else... except the quality of sound is off, just a tiny bit of an echo to it.

"Genjutsu," Sakura speaks what I just realised. I nod to her.

"Eh?" Naruto asks, looking around in confusion.

I proceed to break the illusion, first on me, then on Naruto who's still looking around as if he can spot a high level illusion that way.

The surroundings barely change, except there's now a pile of large rocks to our right.

"Shitty summoner!" Ninjin launches himself at my head. I catch him and stuff him into my backpack in one motion. "Aiiiihhhhh!" he shrieks. "Kidnapped!"

"Ignore him," I tell the team who are looking at the proceedings with varying levels of either amusement or disbelief. I cast a genjutsu of my own on the rabbit in my backpack. He stops shrieking, and a moment later starts snoring.

I'll be getting an earful for that later, no doubt about it. Eh, whatever.

"Ah! Kakashi-sensei must be under the rocks!" Naruto exclaims, and heads for them.

"No, wait!" Karin shouts, but it's too late.

"Waaaiih!" A bit of rope snags Naruto, and then he's hanging upside down.

"Naruto-nii!" Karin runs after him and gets caught in the exact same trap two trees next to him.

"I bet you think that's funny," I say, and stare up a large tree that is no doubt riddled with traps. "Huh, Kakashi-sensei?"

He's there, lounging on a branch as if it was the comfiest couch in the world, book in his hand. His normal eye is big, round, and innocent. "Lies and slander. Maa, Riko-chan, how could you think that of your dear old sensei? So cruel."

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto exclaims, still dangling like a piñata. He points at him. "Found you, dattebayo!"

"Senpai, please come down here," Yamato sighs.

"But it's comfortable."

"Just leave him up there," Genma says. "It'll be less troublesome."

"But I need to treat his injuries," Sakura protests.

"Well you're welcome to try climbing up," Genma answers dryly.

"Amateurs," I scoff and step forward. "Kakashi-sensei, I have a rabbit and I'm not afraid use it!"

He's down in a split second. "Riko-chan, that's so mean," he complains.

"Uh, hey, can anyone get me down?" Naruto yells. He's somehow managed to tie himself up even worse while Karin just managed to cut herself free.

"I'll help you, Naruto-nii!" Deeming her capable of helping him, I turn back to Kakashi.

"It's good to see you," I say, giddiness spreading inside me.

Kakashi eye-smiles. The sight is so familiar and nostalgic, I smile back. "It's good to see you too," Kakashi answers warmly.

And then he keels over unconscious. I jump forward to catch him. Sakura's right next to me, hands already lighting up.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Hatake Kakashi

He feels significantly better upon waking up. The scents around him spell home and pack-family. The sounds are familiar. There's Naruto's chatter, Genma's amused drawl, Tenzo's occasional dry remark. Other voices are less familiar, but he recognises the Uzumaki-girl's voice, far happier than the last time he heard it.

"You don't have to pretend to be asleep, you know," another very familiar voice remarks from right next to him. It doesn't sound quite the same, a little deeper now and there's a drawl to it that wasn't there before, but overall it's easily recognisable. Her scent as well.

He opens his eye. Riko sits next to him, leaning against the wall of a house that was obviously made by Tenzo's Mokuton. There's a faint, fond smile playing around her mouth as she looks not at him but at the antics of the group further in the room, though he can tell that mostly her attention is on him. She just isn't looking, probably understanding that he might not be comfortable with being looked at while he's vulnerable.

He isn't fooled, she's attentive in the manner of an experienced shinobi who never really lets her vigilance go.

Kakashi studies her. She hasn't changed too much, looks-wise. Her hair is a bit longer and no longer held in a pony-tail, the top sections neatly braided back to keep it out of her face, and the lower parts jagged as if she hacked it off with a kunai. She's a bit taller now but still looks delicate physically, though he's sure the impression is misleading as ever. There are lines to her face that weren't there before, there's something harsh and drawn about it now.

The changes are more in the way she portrays herself. First, there's the clothing - her outfits used to be well-thought out, fashionable, and full of storage seals. Now she's just wearing a loose short-sleeved grey shirt with long-sleeved mesh armour underneath, plus her belt with sword around the waist, black leggings, and boots. No colour to speak of, very basic, and cheap. The kind of outfit ninjas begin to wear when they figure it'll just get destroyed in any case, and have no care on if they look attractive or not. A bit unusual for kunoichi for whom looks and appeal are weapons of their own, but then Riko's gotten pretty enough to pull it off, and it doesn't look like she needs her looks to get by in any case.

It's in the way she holds herself. On first look, she's just slumping against the wall. But looking closer, it's the kind of slumping a cat of prey does: Completely aware of the surroundings, and always ready to strike. Kakashi's eyes linger on the scar on her left arm, he's seen the kind before, made by a human jaw but with teeth like a shark. She's showing it off, pride of the survivor, he guesses.

And then there's her face. She hadn't really had any chubbiness left when he last saw her, but now her face is drawn to the point of almost-gauntness. There are lines on her face, a harshness to her mouth. She's gotten paler and it makes the shadows under her eyes stand out more. And her eyes itself... there's a hardness to them. They're still bright with intelligence but don't sparkle as much as they used to, and the innocence they held once is gone completely. She looks at the world as if - well, not as if it's an enemy, that's not quite it. As if it's a dark joke and she's expecting the punchline, he supposes.

"I went undercover in Kiri," she informs him. She turns her head and finally looks at him. There's wry amusement in her face that tells him she's perfectly aware that he's been analysing her. "Wasn't a whole lot of fun, but achieved what it should."

"I see," he answers quietly. Kiri, huh? That would explain it. But whose idea was it to send her there of all places? Or rather, what had to happen to make them think that this course of action was appropriate?

She smiles at him, the hardness in her eyes replaced by warmth and fondness. Riko has some of the most expressive eyes he's ever seen, along with Naruto's. "It's good to have you back, sensei," she says sincerely. "Please appreciate the fact that I kept Naruto from prying off your mask and drawing on your face while you were asleep."

"Maa, that's why you're my favourite," he teases. "You're the cute one." Even if she's evil and has rabbits.

"And don't you forget it," she smirks. "Really, why would anyone want to see what's under the mask? It'd be like seeing you naked. I don't want to see you naked. Eww."

"Riko-chaaan, you're mean." His look shifts to Naruto who's currently choking on a rice ball, apparently it's dinner time. "But still my favourite," he adds, because honestly. The competition are Sasuke and Naruto.

"I bet you tell that to all your students," Riko answers impishly.

"Maa, so long as you don't bring out your rabbits..." Kakashi remarks. "Ah, but he's dismissed now, isn't he?" he then asks hopefully.

Riko gives him a long-suffering look and points at the backpack next to herself. "Nope, his little sister's gone crazy so he's hiding out with me for the foreseeable future."

"Rikoooo," he whines.

"Sorry," she answers apologetically, and pats him on the head. "There, there."

He feels slightly mocked.

"So do you want to hear about your injuries?" she asks.

Kakashi whines. She snickers at him and pats his head again. At his offended look when she keeps doing it, she shrugs unrepentantly and says, "Your hair feels funny." A bit more serious, she tells him, "Sakura fixed your injuries, and the poison had mostly worn off, anyway. The effects of blood loss are another thing." She gives him a look. "But seriously, next time be more careful draining out the poison. There are medical techniques for that."

Like there would be a next time. Kakashi wouldn't be caught by the same trick again.

Riko fidgets, looking as if she wants to ask something. He can easily guess what it is.

"Don't worry," he says, smiling her. "He can take care of himself."

The crooked grin she gives him is fondly exasperated. "He better," she answers.

"And you?" he asks.

"I survived Kiri," she scoffs. "And I got promoted to jōnin in both villages, that should count for something."

"Maa, Riko-chan, well done," Kakashi answers, chest warming with pride. She's his student, after all.

She softens, a tiny proud smile on her face. "Thanks, Kakashi-sensei." Her eyes flicker towards the noisy group. They still haven't noticed that he's awake and talking, Kakashi suspects genjutsu. He also suspects Genma is well-aware of it. "Feeling up to facing the inquisition?" Riko asks.

"Maa," he drawls out, giving her another smile. "I'll enjoy the quiet company a little longer."

She smiles back, and for the time being, they sit in peaceful silence, and Kakashi revels in the feeling of his little pack being complete again.

Mostly complete, anyway, he'd not seen hide and hair of his wayward little apprentice since they got separated. But ah, thinks are looking up, and Kakashi loathes to spoil a good moment with needless worry.

He's made more than sure that Sasuke could protect himself, after all.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Nara Riko

"Bad idea. Really bad idea," I stress.

"I agree with Riko," Yamato pipes up. "We absolutely mustn't go near Orochimaru's trap."

"Oh, I just said that it was a bad idea, not that we shouldn't do it," I clarify.

"Bad idea," Kakashi speaks up. He's not disagreeing.

"We've been scouring the forest for days now and still haven't found Sasuke. And that's with Ninjin and Kakashi-sensei's dogs sniffing around," I point out, keeping my voice neutral. Despite Kakashi's reassurances, I'm beyond worried.

Kakashi's injuries were nothing to scoff at. And he's Kakashi. It's not unlikely that Sasuke got hurt as well.

Not unlikely being an understatement. Orochimaru and his people specifically targeted Kakashi and Sasuke. Kakashi couldn't tell us how they were tracked down, they'd been travelling in disguise and rarely went near any human settlements at all. The day the attack upon them happened, they'd been exhausted from training, and then the ground blew up under their feet, the air filled with thick smoke that made their eyes tear, their noses clog up, and their throats constrict. They got separated once Orochimaru's soldiers moved in en masse. In quality, they weren't a match for Kakashi and Sasuke, but in quantity?

I'm well aware how easy it is to lose track of people during the chaos of battle, which is exactly what happened. Of course they'd had plans for exactly those kinds of events, and according to Kakashi Sasuke shouldn't have had any trouble with getting out of that situation and make his way to the previously agreed-upon meeting spot.

But Sasuke didn't. He never made it to the meeting spot. There wasn't even a trace of his scent, according to the dogs Kakashi sent.

Hence why we, the assorted jōnin, are having this discussion. Genma brought up the fact that tomorrow is the day of Orochimaru's trap, and suggested that we might have to spring it to find out if Orochimaru got his hands on Sasuke. Yamato is firmly against it, Kakashi reluctant.

Like sane people with common sense.

"Personal attachments to Sasuke aside," Genma says blandly. "Even the mere possibility of the sharingan being in Orochimaru's grasp is something we cannot let slide."

"That doesn't require us to walk into Orochimaru's trap," Yamato answers stubbornly. "There are other ways."

"We don't have time," Kakashi points out. "Orochimaru set his trap for tomorrow. There is no telling what he will do afterwards. It might be a bad idea, but we only have this opportunity now."

I frown, my mind running through different scenarios, possibilities. Biting my lip, I speak up. "I have an idea."

"Let's hear it, then," Genma drawls.

"You're not going to like it," I warn.

"Let us be the judge of that, Riko-chan," Kakashi teases. "Out with it."

I nod. "We split up."

Kakashi nods resolutely. "I don't like it."

"Told you so," I comment. "Here's the plan. Three groups. Team Decoy goes to the bridge and distracts Orochimaru. Team Search & Destroy infiltrates Orochimaru's hideout that we have yet to find, and looks for Sasuke while Orochimaru is away. Team Air Support will fly around with Sai on his ink birds and be able to provide back-up or quick extraction to either team as needed."

Silence follows. Genma is the first to speak. "It could actually work."

"Maa, Riko-chan, one could almost think that you've planned operations before," Kakashi muses.

"I used to, back in Kiri," I admit, mind briefly flashing to planning sessions with Ao. Fun times. Not. Ao is an asshole. "This is way nicer, though."

"Of course it is," Genma huffs, "We're not like those barbarians." I breathe a laugh at that.

"All in favour of Riko's idea?" Kakashi asks. "I'm in." Genma nods.

Yamato sighs deeply. "Fine," he says curtly. "Who'll be on which team?"

"I'll have to be on Team Decoy," I say immediately. "Orochimaru wants me. Chances are he'll want to test my abilities, so I might get a chance to use that to stall for time. I'll need a medic there as well, the fake message requested medical support." I bite my lip. "Sakura would definitely be better in a fight, " I admit. "But as Tsunade-sama's apprentice, she's too high-profile, there's a chance that Orochimaru will think we're onto him once he sees her. On the other hand, Team Search & Destroy could definitely use Karin's sensing skills." I shake my head. "Or just keep her on air support."

"Kakashi-senpai should be on Team Search & Destroy," Yamato says.

Kakashi looks decidedly unhappy at this statement. "I should be on Team Decoy."

"No, you definitely should not," Genma interjects before I can. "Orochimaru's whole trap was about faking a message from you. If you show your mug, the whole gig is up."

"And Sakura advised that you should avoid serious fights for a while," Yamato continues. "And with your tracking skills, it will be far more easier for you to find Sasuke once you've infiltrated the base." He turns to me. "On that note, I think Karin should stay with you instead of Sakura. Orochimaru is tricky, and she'll be able to warn you of traps or incoming reinforcements."

"Agreed," Genma nods.

"I'm only agreeing to being on Team Search & Destroy if you join Team Decoy, Tenzō," Kakashi says cheerfully.

"I was going to do that in any case," Yamato agrees. "Naruto will have to be on it as well. I highly doubt he'll agree to be anywhere but on Riko and Karin's side."

"Plus, he's highly distracting," I pipe up. "And that's the whole point of Team Decoy."

Genma and Kakashi nod, Kakashi far more reluctantly than Genma.

"I suppose that leaves me on Team Air Support with Sai," Genma decides. "And Sakura with Kakashi. That's good, Sasuke might need a medic if he's indeed Orochimaru's prisoner, and she's damn handy in a fight, too."

"That settles it, then," Yamato says in a final tone. "Team Decoy will consist of Riko, Naruto, Karin, and myself; with the purpose of keeping Orochimaru busy for as long as possible."

"Sai and I will be on Team Air Support, providing backup as needed," Genma continues.

"Team Search & Destroy will be Sakura and I, looking for my cute little apprentice," Kakashi finishes.

"Plus assorted rabbits," I add. "I've got some that should be really helpful in finding a secret base."

"Riko no," Kakashi whines.

"Riko yes," I reply, grinning at him. "Besides, you love my rabbits. And I promised to summon some just for you, right before you left. Remember?"

Good times those were. I'm an awful and petty brat.

"No," Kakashi answers flatly. "That never happened. You made no such promise. It is all in your imagination."

"If Riko's summons will be useful, then you should really accept her offer," Genma pipes up, grinning impishly.

"I agree," Yamato says innocently.

Kakashi stares flatly at us, Genma and I grinning and Yamato having a faint aura of vindictiveness around him. "All of you are awful people."

We share a laugh at Kakashi's expense, and I revel in the feeling of camaraderie and peace.

I'm a hundred percent certain that it'll be the last laugh I'll get to enjoy for a while. Tomorrow, we spring Orochimaru's trap… and I'll be right at the centre of danger.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

A/N: Easter update! The Easter bunny brought it. It's probably one of Riko's summons. Sorry for the long wait?

But yay! Kakashi's back! Riko's sane this chapter! But where's Sasuke? Hmm...

Hopefully next the next update won't take as long... and what this one lacks in action shall be rectified then, be warned. *insert evil laughter*

Happy holidays!

*Chapter 23*: Tenchi Bridge

Disclaimer: I own neither Harry Potter nor Naruto.

Tenchi Bridge

An unspecified location, Orochimaru's hideout, Country of Grass

Pain wrecks his body. He can no longer tell if it is the poison or if his body is simply protesting being pinned to a wall by chains and seals for so long. Orochimaru had been thorough in ensuring his inability to escape.

The snake's first mistake had been not breaking his legs - but he wanted Sasuke intact for when he'll make him fight her to see exactly what their abilities are now, two years after their last meeting. It just provided extra motivation. The second mistake was that the snake had come to gloat about it. Now he knows exactly how he's being held here. And even with his chakra sealed and the sharingan inactive, Uchiha eyes see well in the dark. He's still able to turn his head and look at the seals holding him.

He knows seals well enough. There is a certain beauty to them, a cold and logical one that rings well with him. He always did like it when they had to solve equations in the Academy back home, and seals are like an extension of that, though they use symbols, words and geometric components instead of numbers, making them infinitely more-dimensional. He appreciates the challenge.

And quite possibly the ability to make his own explosive tags, as well. Not to mention the storage seals. He likes those the best. They remind him of her.

He wonders what she would say if she knew that. Call him a sap, maybe. But she would do it with a smile and a happy flush to her cheeks.

He misses her. More than he thought he would. Misses the rest of the team, too, being part of Team Seven had meant something to him. Like he had a family again. Sasuke of Team Seven, that had been him, and he should have been back to being that weeks ago. Instead he's rotting away in Orochimaru's prison.

But he won't be for much longer. He can only move his arms by millimetres, wiggle them just the tiny bit.

The only thing that means is that it'll take longer for him to wear away at the ink of the seals by rubbing over them. All he needs is that one symbol disrupted and he'll have his chakra back. And then he would be out of here. And if he happened to run into the snake...

Orochimaru truly would learn the consequences of using Uchiha Sasuke as bait for his girlfriend.

If Riko didn't teach the lesson herself, that was.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Team Decoy, Tenchi Bridge, Country of Grass

Nara Riko

My nose itches. I resist the urge to sneeze.

My part in our plan banks on stealth. I've been tucked away in a tiny space within the rock face almost directly below the bridge for half of last night and all of this morning, not moving an inch. Definitely the worst part of the mission, the wait. Being forced to do nothing. It's a technique I learned from a veteran in Kiri, slowing my bodily functions down to the point of breathing only once every five minutes, cooling down my body temperature to match the surroundings, just slowing down everything. Invented to imitate the hibernation of animals, to wait for rescue when supplies are low and an escape is all but impossible, but also quite useful in stealth. Extremely uncomfortable, though, lowering my body temperature is highly unpleasant.

Just two hours to go until noon, I think.

Far worse than the physical discomfort are the worries. Not just for Sasuke and the rest of the team. But for me. I'm terrified of meeting Orochimaru. After this long... I've trained for years to be able to not have to fear him anymore, but will it be enough? The fear churns, and it feels like a constant urge to throw up.

And I just can't shake the feeling that there's something I'm missing. That there's something I've overlooked. Because, why did Orochimaru set his trap for today? He has to know that Kakashi is still alive. Yet he set the meeting for late enough that a team from Konoha could easily sweep the area, or that Kakashi could recover enough to pull something on his own. We had days of downtime. Why did Orochimaru risk giving us that? The longer I sit in my little crevice, the more uneasy I get.

I wonder how the rest of the team is doing.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Uzumaki Naruto

"Miso is the best," he insists to his Karin-nee. And how great is that, he's got a sister!

"No, it's definitely pork. It just rounds off the flavour!" Karin-nee insists stubbornly. She's so weird. Everyone knows Miso ramen tastes the bestest!

"Silence!" Yamato-taichō hisses. They obey immediately. Yamato-taichō is scary.

Even when he's disguised as Ri-chan. Who also likes Miso the best, and Ri-chan is the smartest girl in the world, so she would know!

"Sorry!" Karin squeaks to Yamato, half-hiding behind Naruto. "But pork is better!" she hisses into Naruto's ear, and he has to keep from grinning. Having a sister is awesome! Two sisters, really, since they adopted Ri-chan which is honestly the best idea he ever had. Though Ri-chan's been his sister since forever.

"Miso, dattebayo!" he whispers back.

"Riko, how long do we still have to wait?" Karin whines.

"Kakashi-sensei's message said to come at noon," Yamato-taichō answers. He's pretty good at impersonating Ri-chan, he's gotten the annoyed tone just right. Naruto still thinks he could have done better, but eh. Then he wouldn't be able to discuss ramen with Karin-nee.

"Why can't we just go look for him?" Naruto complains. Mostly for show. Karin-nee says they're being watched, so they have to put on a good show and act like they don't already know the message was fake and that Kakashi-sensei is perfectly fine.

"I doubt we'd be able to find him," Yamato-as-Ri-chan huffs.

"I bet I could, dattebayo!" Naruto shouts.

"Not so loud!" Yamato hisses.

Stick in the mud. The real Ri-chan would be way more fun to have a stake-out with. They've been sitting behind a boulder and staring down at the bridge for over an hour now. It's so boring!

And he can't even see Ri-chan. He knows she's there, Karin-neechan can still sense her (though why she begins drooling every time she checks in on Ri-chan Naruto has no idea), but he just can't spot her anywhere! She sure is sneaky!

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Team Airbomb, Skies over Kaede Valley, Country of Grass

Shiranui Genma

Sharp eyes survey the forest below. Conveniently, it's the sort of light forest that allows for decent visibility. Even more convenient, the rabbit in his lap is afraid of heights and hasn't said a peep so far.

It really is unsettling, Genma decides. To fly above the forest on constructs of ink and chakra, dependant on the will of someone Genma barely trusts. Thankfully, they aren't flying high enough that a fall would seriously hurt Genma - they couldn't risk going too high, not when any ninja would be able to tell that one, those birds are far too big, and two, there are people riding them. No, they're just sweeping about five metres above the treetops, covered with illusions. Anyone that notices them will be close enough to be noticed in return, and unless it's the snake himself, Genma will deal with them.

Nara Riko isn't the only assassin on the team.

"Genma-san," Sai speaks up.

Genma carefully keeps his face neutral. He dislikes the boy, not because of anything personal but because of what he represents. Tenzō - no, he's called Yamato now - had informed him of Sai's background. It makes Genma angry, that the village has failed children so badly.

It has to be said, Genma knows far more about the goings-on behind the scenes of Konoha than the average shinobi. Not only is he an elite jōnin, but was also part of the Hokage Guard Platoon under Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime Hokage. The Sandaime had his own preferred guards, and Genma had become ANBU instead during his second reign, joining the elite Anbu unit of Team Ro. This was where he met Tenzō for the first time, and it was also where he learned of Root.

If he could have, he'd have shut that disgusting operation down, on his own if he had to. The problem is, Root is everywhere and nowhere, only a handful of members are known, and Genma can't even begin to estimate the numbers. Danzo has been around since the first shinobi world war, and he is damn good at covering his tracks.

He's been getting bolder lately, though. Pushing Sai out into the open and onto Nara Riko's new team was the most drastic action he's taken in a while, but there were more. Genma suspects he's been getting increasingly dissatisfied with Tsunade's way of leading the village. She's nowhere near as peace-loving as the Sandaime used to be, and definitely not as passive and forgiving. A fact that the council, that group of old fogeys, loathes. Genma's seen some of their attempts to chastise her while he was on guard duty, and he's honestly impressed no one's died yet.

He himself has had to curb his desire to destroy those wrinkly bastards. But of all of them, Danzo is the worst by far. Root had been bad back then, and Genma knows that it was ordered disbanded. He also knows that that never happened, after the Kyuubi Attack the village was so severely weakened that Root was actually needed. Oh, the Sandaime never rescinded the order to disband - but he certainly never enforced it either, and with people like Danzo that's as good as giving permission. But regardless of that, even if Root was still operational, there should never have been recruitment going on.

And absolutely no recruitment of children. Twisting their minds, conditioning them to be unfeeling - that is everything Konoha stands against. All Konoha ninja fight to make a better place for the future generation to live in. It's the very foundation of the Will of Fire.

Genma is generally a rather easy-going man, but this? He's livid. And ashamed, for he had failed to protect children of Konoha.

"What is it?" he answers Sai.

"What does 'teammate' mean?" the boy asks, frowning faintly. "A team is a group of shinobi who are sent out to achieve an objective at all cost. Yet when Riko-san and Naruto-kun speak of Uchiha Sasuke, they do not talk of missions at all. And Riko-san saved my life despite the fact that I was a hindrance to her mission at the time, solely because I was her teammate. I do not understand."

Genma feels a sort of vindictive glee. Turns out, Danzo didn't destroy the kid's psyche completely, and being around Riko had torn down some of the war hawk's work. He wants to congratulate the girl. Turning Sai to their side might just be what they need to get the information they need on Danzo.

...Was this why Riko had insisted he go with Sai, instead of accompanying Kakashi and leaving Sakura with Sai? Having their main medic up in the air away from the danger, with high mobility, would have been more logical than the plan they went with. Genma thinks back to what he knows of Riko's traits. She's highly intelligent. Highly emotional too for better or worse, to the point that she unintentionally created a separate personality in order to be able to gain emotional distance.

And he'd spoken to Dementia. Interesting, very interesting, that one. And his words must have had some effect on her, there'd been comments from Riko. Perhaps that was why she'd stuck him with the emotionally stunted Sai, to do the same for him.

He has to suppress a chuckle. Devious girl.

"All right, kid, buckle up," he drawls. "Let me tell you something about the word 'nakama'."

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Team Search & Destroy, forests of Kaede Valley, Country of Grass

Haruno Sakura

The atmosphere is tense enough that even Riko's rabbits are silent. The green one she'd had with her from the start, Ninjin, is absolutely terrified, hiding in Kakashi-senpai's rather voluminous hair. It looks ridiculous, from behind only the bushy green tail is visible, and the floppy ears stick out at the side. (Sakura is pretty sure they don't actually need this rabbit, Kakashi-senpai's nose is good enough. More likely is that Riko simply didn't want to deal with her own summon, which in Sakura's opinion is rather disgraceful.)

The other rabbit sits on Sakura's shoulder. It's a smaller one, with ridiculously large ears, purple fur, and magenta paws. His name is Negi Two; the brother to the one she met in Suna. This one is actually somewhat cute, Sakura has decided. And actually useful.

"Incoming patrol, two humans, one large and heavy, another light and fast," the rabbit speaks up. "They are arguing. Stupid humans."

He's really good at hearing people's steps on the ground, especially if they use chakra. Sakura remembers how the Rabbit Morse system works, but she had no idea that it was applicable to other things as well. Negi has been a great help so far, and he said he already has a pretty good idea where Orochimaru's hideout is. ("Lots of humans underground?" he'd sniffed. "More like elephants! Summoner makes less noise than a landing butterfly with her every step, they could learn from her!" Sakura had to refrain from pointing out that elephant steps are actually rather soft, considering the way elephant feet are built.)

"Kakashi-senpai?" she speaks up. "Shall we ambush them?"

"No!" Ninjin protests shrilly. (It's really weird. The voice comes from Kakashi's direction, and with the mask obscuring the man's mouth, it almost seems like he's the one squeaking.)

Kakashi twitches oddly.

"No," he echoes tonelessly. "They are going somewhere."

Sakura's eyes widen in realisation. "We can follow them!"

Kakashi-senpai nods curtly, causing Ninjin to squeak again. "I want my backpack!" he declares. "You, dog-man! Summoner gave you my backpack, I demand to be carried. I will not be subjugated to this abuse!"

"Cram it, Ninny!" Negi growls. "You're too loud! Almost like my stupid brother!"

"Eeek!" Ninjin hides in Kakashi's hair again.

Kakashi looks very sad, somehow, as he unseals the requested backpack. Ninjin is too busy hiding in Kakashi's hair to flee into it, though.

They lay in wait, and the arguing shinobi pass them by with nary a glance in their direction. Sakura's heart is beating hard as she and Kakashi-senpai silently ghost after them.

Kami-sama, what if they really find Sasuke-kun? What will she do? What will she say? It's vastly inappropriate, but she's simply so excited to see her childhood love again!

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Team Decoy, Tenchi Bridge, Country of Grass

Nara Riko

A half hour to go, and I'm gradually releasing the hibernation technique so I won't be hindered by chilled muscles once the action starts. A part of me wants to obsessively check over my equipment, survey the area once again, just move a bit. I shut it down. Stealth, I remind myself. Orochimaru is surely watching, and if he isn't then he has someone doing it for him. I heavily doubt I'm alone here.

That's where the need to do something comes from, after all.

I busy myself by recalling everything I know of the area again.

Tenchi Bridge is a rather simple construction, compared to others I've seen, like the Great Freedom Bridge in Wave. The walkway is made from simple wooden planks, reinforced by red-painted metal. The railing - more red metal - doubles as means of suspension, making it an odd hybrid between a suspension bridge and an arch bridge. It doesn't inspire much faith, all in all, but then I'm no expert.

I suppose I'm just concerned that the whole thing sways and creaks when stronger gusts of wind hit it.

The construct spans over a deep ravine in the ground, too wide for even ninja to leap over. At the bottom of the ravine is, to my pleasure, a river. The Shirakawa, to be precise. A bit too far below to be of immediate use, but it means that due to evaporation, the moisture in the air in the ravine is higher than average.

The bridge itself is surrounded by dense forest, the spacious-feeling maple tree forest having gradually made way for almost an claustrophobia-inducingly close-standing mixture of trees in this part of the area, what little space there is between them filled with dense shrubbery, perfect for hiding any number of shinobi. But that's what we have Karin for.

The seconds pass by agonisingly slow.

It's five minutes before noon when the rest of Team Decoy finally moves. I hear them chattering as they approach the bridge from the end that I'm not hiding under. Naruto and Karin are arguing over ramen.

"Honestly," Yamato-taichō drawls with my voice. "Save it for later, we're on a mission."

"But Ri-chan!" Naruto whines. It sounds completely genuine.

"I'll treat you to ramen," Yamato promises.

"Really? Awesome!" Naruto cheers. Yamato better keep that promise...

"Can I have ramen, too?" Karin asks earnestly. "Pork ramen is my number one!"

Number one, that's the number of people she senses around. A simple code we agreed on before.

"Sure," Yamato agrees easily. "I've got some money to burn anyway."

The banter continues on the bridge, and my tension rises to almost unbearable levels. If I weren't controlling my breath and heartbeat, I'd be hyperventilating right about now.

Three, two, one... noon arrives. There's a moment of utter dread inside me.

And it passes. Noon has come and gone. Up on the bridge the others are silent, but then Naruto laughs boisterously. "Ha, Kakashi-sensei sure is late!" he crows.

"Y-yeah, that must be it," Yamato gives my voice almost palpable relief at the easy explanation.

And maybe it is the explanation. If Orochimaru has someone imitating Kakashi, of course they'd be late. But it just... doesn't sit right.

Why noon today? I ask myself again.

"Uh, so that's normal?" Karin asks tremulously.

"Kakashi-sensei's always late," Yamato answers dryly.

My fingertips are trembling.

What is it that we missed?

"Oh! There! Is it him?" Karin suddenly exclaims, and again the wording is a code, indicating she senses a jōnin level threat. I steel myself. Channelling chakra to my ears, I attempt to follow the barely audible steps of the new arrival, but the wind around the bridge drowns them out easily.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto shouts, and I can just imagine him waving wildly. He's an exceptional actor when he wants to be. "Oi! Kakashi-sensei! Long time no see! You're late, dattebayo!"

The dread churning in my gut intensifies. Keep it together, Ri, I tell myself.

"Maa, I got lost on the road of life." The imitation is so well done, I almost believe it.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Yamato exclaims in my voice. "It's so good to see you - are you alright? Your message said you needed medical assistance?"

"Ah, Riko-chan, did you worry about your dear old sensei?" I almost throw up. This enemy sounds like Kakashi so much, it's sickening.

"Considering your track record? Yes," Yamato says in exasperation, though I imagine the words are accompanied by a wry grin. Yamato isn't a half-bad actor either. "Good to see you, sensei."

"And you, too. I'm quite interested to hear what you've been up to the past years."

Yeah, I imagine Orochimaru would be. Is he lurking nearby? Ah, but Karin would have given a signal in that case.

"It's quite the interesting story, too," Yamato deflects smoothly. "Let's get going. We've secured a location nearby."

"Maa, so diligent, Riko-chan," not-Kakashi chuckles.

An instant of silence. And then-

He's here!, Dementia hisses, her mental voice loud and venomous enough to blast every other thought from my head. Orochimaru!

My heart just about stops. The - her - urge to kill kill kill is overwhelming. The Cursed Mark on my shoulder burns.

No, this isn't me, stop it. I cannot let it control me. I will not let it control me. I'm going to kill Orochimaru - but I won't do it out of this mindless hatred. I will do it for Fumio, for Suigetsu, for the Sandaime, for everyone that abomination has ever killed or hurt, for everyone he will kill or hurt in the future, myself included. Recall what this destructive rage does to you, Bloody Flower, I remind myself desperately.

I make myself focus on the happenings on the bridge, blending out Dementia's vitriol. I don't seem to have missed anything in my instant of distraction, because not-Kakashi speaks, "Lead the way then-"

Karin gasps in terror.

"Kukuku... What an interesting conversation. You wouldn't mind if I joined in, would you?" the hoarse voice from my nightmares speaks, and the force of Dementia's sheer rage nearly sweeps away everything Riko.

But my comrades, my team, are up on the bridge with that monster, and they need me. So I steel myself, and creep out from my hiding place without any noise. Climb up the rock face until I am just below the foot of the bridge, and then, slowly and steadily, on all fours, creep up on the underside of the bridge, passing beneath Orochimaru and coming to a stop in the space between him and the rest of the team. My sword is already in my hand, having been drawn without noise, a paste rubbed on the blade to keep the shining metal dull so it won't reflect the sun. While I do this, a part of my attention is split to follow the conversation atop Tenchi Bridge.

The impersonator is still pretending to be Kakashi. "Get back, I will handle him," and voice and vibration of the ground tell me he's switched positions to stand in front of the team, as if to protect them. Yeah right.

"Well... hello Riko-chan, my dear," Orochimaru pronounces slowly. My breath hitches, old panic rising, and I realise shamefully that I am despite all my training in no way ready for this. "What a pleasure to see you," the sannin continues.

"The pleasure is on your side entirely," Yamato returns evenly, far braver than I am. "You followed Kakashi-sensei?"

"He must have intercepted my message," the Kakashi-impersonator murmurs, while I surreptitiously plant seals on the underside of the bridge.

"You bastard!" Naruto growls, voice low and threatening. His chakra levels are rising in response to his rage.

"Kukuku... the Kyuubi boy... ill-tempered as ever. I have no interest in you," Orochimaru drawls. "Now, dear Riko, on the other hand..."

Naruto growls again.

So does Dementia in my head.

She holds a grudge larger than Fire Country against Orochimaru, for taking her over when I got the Cursed Seal, and controlling her. And he'd almost succeeded in making her take me over, and if it hadn't been for Lily it would have been his win. Her rage has only grown over the years. Kill him! she hisses at me.

"Sen'ei Tajashu!" Orochimaru intones. A hiss of snakes-

I can't see what happens, and hearing Karin's terrified yell is torture. I can feel the vibrations of the wood as my three teammates bring distance between themselves and Orochimaru, the impersonator moving along with them and lands right in the middle of them, oh no-

The impact of blade against chakra-scalpel isn't a forgettable sound. "Oh, so you figured it out, Riko-chan," the impostor says, sounding friendly and harmless in a way that makes me go cold inside, makes me want to throw up, makes me want to hurt. "What gave me away?" The poof of a henge being released-

"You!" Naruto growls gutturally. "Youuuu!"

Yakushi Kabuto.

"Kukuku... such a smart girl," Orochimaru chuckles. Kabuto jumps back, to Orochimaru's side. Lands directly above where I'm crouched on the underside of the bridge, and it's so tempting to just rip through the wood and tear out his throat, string him up by his intestines, stab him again and again until he no longer has the chakra to heal himself, but I can't give the ruse away, not yet, my team is relying on me. "It is unfortunate," Orochimaru drones. "The individual I had meant to test you against doesn't seem to be arriving... Sasori is never anything less than punctual, he must have been delayed..."

What does that freakshow have to do with this?!

Ah. That was what we didn't know. Sasori was meant to be here for something at exactly noon, and if he'd encountered us, we'd have been forced to fight him. Oh, but that's devious, and deliciously hilarious because we - Sakura and Chiyo and I - already killed Sasori and Orochimaru has no idea.

"But I suppose I can test you extensively to my satisfaction when you are safely in my custody... come here, my dear," Orochimaru croons. I shiver in disgust, and close my eyes against the almost teasing wave of pain that erupts from the Cursed Seal.

While that thing no longer corrupts my very psyche with hatred and despair, it is still very much capable of affecting me physically. But physical pain, I can blend out.

"Over your dead body," Yamato - he's doing a better job at being Riko than I am right now - snarls over Naruto's worryingly heavy breaths.

How close to losing control is Naruto? I feel nauseous.

Orochimaru's Killing Intent erupts up on the bridge. Karin whimpers in terror and damn it, why did I bring her here? We should have disguised Genma, or picked Sakura. All of this was a bad idea, which all of us knew and decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Sasuke, we're doing this for Sasuke.

Orochimaru chuckles. "Why, don't you wish to be reunited with your team?"

"...Do you have the real Kakashi-sensei?" Yamato asks in a deadened voice.

"And not only him," Kabuto answers. Liar. Kakashi is fine.

"Liar!" Naruto growls gutturally. "You're lying!"

"Are we? Kukuku..." Something small hits the surface of a bridge, hitting with a clatter. I frown, it didn't sound like any weapon I recognise.

Naruto's breath hitches. "I see you recognise this, Naruto-kun," Kabuto says smugly.

"That's - Ri-chan - the good luck charm she gave-" Naruto stutters in shock.

Oh no.

Orochimaru has Sasuke. Something inside me goes very, very cold.

"Kukuku... I can see you still refuse to come willingly. Very well," Orochimaru's voice is darkly gleeful. "I've been in a playful mood all day, my dear."

Pain explodes in my neck, and I almost fall off the bridge.

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Team Search & Destroy, Forests of Kaede Valley, Country of Grass

Hatake Kakashi

"This is it?" Sakura asks, her voice betraying a mixture of trepidation and excitement to Kakashi's well-trained ears.

"Yup, definitely!" Negi Two nods.

"Can I go home?" Ninjin whimpers.

"Maa, Ninjin-kun," Kakashi says hopefully. "No one is stopping you."

"Don't tell me what to do, Dog-Man!" The green rabbit pulls harshly at his hair. Why, oh why, did Riko stick Kakashi with this one? Or rather, why had this damn rabbit decided to go with Kakashi of all people? What did he ever do to deserve this torment?

"Uhm... shouldn't we be silent?" Sakura asks hesitantly.

"Eek! Yes!" Ninjin squeaks, and falls silent. Kakashi feels blessed. Sakura is a lovely human being.

"Eh, stupid humans are practically deaf!" Negi crows. "Besides, I've got a sound bubble around us!"

"That would have been nice to know," Sakura grumbles.

"But then Ninjin wouldn't have shut up!"

"Wait, I can talk?" Ninjin asks. Kakashi's heart drops.

"Shut up!" Negi shouts.


Negi is Kakashi's favourite rabbit now.

"This place isn't going to be easy to sneak into," Sakura murmurs, frowning in worry. She's right. The hideout isn't even obviously placed. All that's visible is a formation of rock in a field of grass that Negi says hides the entrance, impossible to approach without being seen. "Negi-kun, how many people can you hear?"

"Uh... a bunch."

Ninjin snickers. "Negi sucks at counting! He's so dumb!"

"Shut up, moss-licker!"

Sakura gives Kakashi an exasperated look. Yeah, he agrees. The rabbits are pretty much useless. Well, not Negi. Ninjin on the other hand... How to get rid of him, that one's going to get them caught within a split second once they infiltrate the hideout, besides he's the most annoying thing Kakashi has ever encountered.

Ninjin hops off of his head and dives into the ground, Earth spraying up like a fountain in his wake. "Wha-" Sakura gasps, shielding her face from the dirt with her arm.

"You coming or what, Dog-Man and Pinkie?"

There Ninjin sits, in front of a decently sized tunnel he'd dug in a matter of moments.

"What kind of dumb architecture is that," Negi gripes. "Is that supposed to be a Beaver Style tunnel or what?"

"It's Avant-garde!" Ninjin shouts. "I'm an artist! See my vision!"

"You're stupid and stop shouting!"

"No, you're stupid!"

"Maa, let's all be quiet, yes?" Kakashi lets out a bit of Killing Intent. Ninjin faints immediately. Whoops, totally not intended. Negi squeaks and burrows into Sakura's hair.

Stuffing the green rabbit into its backpack, Kakashi eyes the tunnel.

Well, it'll save them the chakra of using a doton technique, at least.

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Team Decoy, Tenchi Bridge, Country of Grass

Nara Riko

"You... you... give Sasuke back!" Naruto growls. I reach for the seal in my pocket. Drawn from memory, it's the one that Dementia used to stop him last time. I'm going to have to use it, Naruto's not going to calm down otherwise.

It'll have to be quick.

"Kukuku... perhaps if you give me Riko-chan in return..." Orochimaru chuckles. "Or perhaps I'll simply... keep them both!"

The next moments are chaotic. A hiss of snake from behind the team, a warning cry from Karin, people moving, the impact of something human-sized and wooded on the bridge-

"A kawarimi using a Wood Clone..." Orochimaru murmurs. "How interesting. Now where is the real Riko?"

This is when Karin screams in pain. "I think we'll take this one as insurance," Kabuto says lightly. He tsks. "Now, none of that-"

Several things happen at once.

Karin gasps, a wet and gurgling sound I know all too well, her chakra levels falling in an instant.

Naruto roars, and his chakra levels explode.

I burst through the wood of the bridge right at Kabuto's feet, sword in one hand, seal for Naruto in the other. But instead of leaping backwards and slapping the seal on Naruto before he goes berserk, I stare at Karin. Karin, who is on her knees at Kabuto's side, arms slung around her middle, fingers pressing desperately against her stomach to keep her intestines in, eyes panicked, breathing far too hard, sweat staining her skin. Blood drips on the wood below her.

I can't shunshin her out. Kabuto's hand is in her hair, yanking her head back, a kunai, already stained with the blood from her abdomen, at her throat. He chuckles, as does Orochimaru. "There you are, my dear," he says with almost fatherly pride while Kabuto smirks.

I snarl, a quieter echo of the roar of rage from Dementia in my mind. "Now now, Riko-chan," Kabuto tuts. "That really isn't the way to greet old friends, isn't it?"

Hrrr, hrrr, goes Naruto's breath, and I know without turning that I won't find much human in his face. That he's on all fours, claws digging into the woods, only held back from attacking by that one last shred of humanity that knows that Kabuto will end Karin if anyone so much as twitches wrong.

This situation is bad.

And I can see it in Karin's eyes. That she's going to do it. That she's going to jerk her body, her neck right onto Kabuto's kunai, to take herself out from the equation and the choice from us. Because she's already bleeding out, and the feeble green light on her fingers isn't enough to save her.

As if to mock us all, a stronger and steady green light extends from Kabuto's hand, like a glowing half-transparent slug, stopping just short of Karin's wound - a taunt, a promise. "Would you like me to heal your dear teammate?" Kabuto asks kindly. "I could, you know. All you have to do is come over to Orochimaru-sama."

I don't dare look at him. At Orochimaru's face, his greedy eyes, his grotesque tongue licking his lips. "I..." I say, hesitating, rocking for and backward on my feet as if indecisive, shuffling my feet. Feel the enemies' focus sharpen on me.

"Don't, Riko!" Karin shouts, a shout that is cut short by a pained gasp as Kabuto yanks her head back further, the kunai pressing harder, a merry line of blood dripping down her neck. She can't move any longer, so won't be able to end her own life - a small blessing.

Naruto's roar is deafening. But still, he doesn't attack. Though the heat his chakra emanates burns, and the bridge creaks and groans in protest. "Give... Nee-chan... back..." he forces out.

Karin's eyes meet mine. Panic has made way for determination. Neither Kabuto nor Orochimaru are looking at her as her finger twitches in the shadow of her own body - they're too focused on Naruto and myself, watching with clinical interest as Kabuto paints our options with casual words, as if Karin's fate is no more significant than a falling leaf.

Her finger dips into the blood pooling around her. Softly runs over the wood as she holds my eyes with her own. Writes a number. And another.



Her finger spasms as Kabuto pulls her head back too far for her eyes to be on mine anymore. He asks, "Well? What will it be, Riko-chan? Her... or you?"

Both of us. All of us.

1, Karin writes.

And all hell breaks loose.

I dive into shunshin dizzyingly fast, one moment here, the other there, Orochimaru's tongue missing me by a hair's breadth, my sword slicing up, up, up, from deep below, Kabuto yanking his kunai back from Karin's neck before he can plunge it in. Just fast enough. But I don't stop there, because his other hand is still in Karin's hair. And now... there are chains holding it there, made from her own chakra.

Kabuto is quick though. His hand lights up with a scalpel, and her chains - not very stable yet, she hasn't had anybody to teach her about them - break. Kabuto snatches his hand back as fast as he can. But not fast enough. Because while his wrist, his hands get clear of Shingi To Giri's steel, the wind chakra I coated it in extends wider than that. I slice through skin, flesh, and the bone, and half of Kabuto's hand goes flying into the opposite direction Kabuto launched himself back into, eyes wide with shock and painful surprise as Karin's severed hair rains down around us - conduit for more of her chains, to catch his ankles, his wrists, and I'm this close to plunging my sword into his heart like I promised myself I would someday, this close - but then a hissing mass of snakes is in my way and I have to defend myself instead, until the wood comes alive beneath at my feet forms a wall between me and the reptiles.

And Karin... Karin gives me one last smile and throws herself off the bridge.

For one moment, the world stops. As if all the noise has been sucked from it. And then...

On the other side of the bridge, a bird made from paper and ink flies, and Karin is on it, held securely in Sai's arms, ink snakes wrapping around her bleeding middle. The boy gives me a nod and signs something with his hand - nakama. And flies, to where Kakashi and Sakura must be heading for us now, their objective abandoned.

Because. When I rocked on my feet and shuffled them as Kabuto attempted to blackmail us, it wasn't indecision. It was distraction. From Yamato as he tapped out the codes for both Negis, one accompanying Sakura, the other Genma. To come to aid us, Sai going to our side, Genma retrieving Sakura, our medic.

And now Orochimaru's leverage is gone and his most useful pawn short three fingers and a significant part of his hand, likely getting out of dodge at this very moment. Not dead... but imagining chopping him apart piece by piece is satisfying as well.

Now... now is the time to press this little advantage. Because the others still have the chance to look for Sasuke, all but a confirmed captive of the snake sannin.

I steel myself, the cold in me drawing up and cocooning my mind, quieting the terror. Turning the pain of the Cursed Mask into a tool to sharpen my mind. And with a flick of my fingers, I activate every single seal I planted on the underside of the bridge.

It splinters apart under the force of what breaks free. Not fire and explosions - but water, for they were storage seals, containing dozens of lakes worth of both pure water and mist.

And Naruto roars - and goes for my throat.

*Chapter 24*: Fox fighting Snake fighting Flower

A/N: Yeah... hi. It's been a while! Between uni bullshit, new fandoms, new stories, and one hell of a writer's block, this took a lot longer than I thought it would.

...let's all just pretend this wasn't supposed to be a Christmas update, okay?

Anyway, thanks for all your support! Now... onwards with the chapter!

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Fox fighting Snake fighting Flower

Naruto goes for my throat, cloaked in vile red chakra. Eyes burning red, canines turned to fangs, lips pulled back and stained black.

Far too fast for me to do anything but coat as much water as I can over my skin before his clawed hand smashes into me.

I crash into trees, through trees, through a rock, impact after impact after impact, then tumble over the ground with no control at all, turning over and over and over before yet another tree stops my movement, the water armour long stripped off if it wasn't already shattered by Naruto's attack. For a moment, it's all I can do to just lie there.

Bugger. Bugger.

I'm going to die, a part of my laughs incredulously. Die, slain by the hand of my best friend.

I slap my hands against my cheeks. Stupid defeatist attitude! Ain't helping!

Status check. Everything hurts. But a quick inventory tells me that I'm not dead and that nothing is broken. My wrist is fractured, though. And where Naruto hit me, the skin is burnt and blistering. Worse than that, though, both sword and seal fell out of my hands.

I grit my teeth, stand, and call Shingi To Giri back to my hand. But the seal... well, I'm going to have to redraw it. Which means I need time. To heal my wrist and to draw the seal.

Shingi To Giri comes flying to me, and in one smooth motion I sheathe it. It won't do much good here. The sword is a weapon for fighting humans.

A crash up ahead. Trees falling. Naruto's - no, the kyuubi's - overwhelming chakra presses down on me, approaching rapidly. Gritting my teeth, I cloak the area in mist and start running, clamping down on my chakra automatically. Stealth has always been my friend, and fighting the kyuubi without it?

Highly unwise.

From my kunai pouch, I draw the comm-unit, stuffing the in-ear speaker where it belongs and pressing the button for transmitting my words. "So we might have a bit of a complication," I force out.

"Riko, status report," Yamato orders.

A crash up ahead. An infernal roar follows, and the force of it is enough to topple over trees and move rocks.

The sound of its roar alone is enough to rearrange the landscape. Kami. This is not good at all.

"Last mission," I choke out, powering on. "I tricked the Kyuubi and kawarimi'd it onto a seal. I think it hold a grudge."

"Oh shit." Genma's voice.

"Riko-chan, I'm on the way. Sakura is heading towards Sai and Karin," Kakashi's voice says. "Your rabbits are continuing the search for Sasuke on their own."

I might be imagining it, but he sounds way too cheerful about that.

"What in the world made you think that to be a good idea? I'm just gonna finish with the Kyuubi and try to stop that disaster," I choke out. "Holy fuck, do not leave my rabbits to their own devices. I can do this."

"How long can you hold out?"

"Depends," I answer, "On how easily distracted the chakra monster chasing my ass is. I'm heading back towards the bridge. I'm thinking Orochimaru will make a fabulous meat-shield."

Genma barks out an incredulous laugh. "You're crazy."

"ETA four minutes," Kakashi relays.

So little faith in you, Dementia sneers. Let me out!

No. Take care of the Cursed Seal, it bloody hurts! I reply angrily.

The Seal is fine, she snarls back. Lily is containing it. You shouldn't even be noticing anything.

Well, guess what, I fucking am! The mist around us thickens - we're nearing the bridge where I released the storage seals filled with water and mist. The water will have fallen into the river by now, pity that, but the mist still lingers. Go help Lily, I can't think.

If she replies, I don't hear it. And that is because Naruto is suddenly in front of me. There's little humanity left in his face - his teeth have shifted into fangs, the whisker marks on his cheeks have as if they were carved into his skin with claws, his eyes are those of a monster. The horrible Fox chakra is wreathed around him, cloaking his skin, and blood is mixing into it. Three tails wave about behind him.

"Riko, status?" Yamato's voice in my ear says. There's no way for me to reply. I'd need to touch the comm-unit for that, but one twitch and the Kyuubi will kill me.

Naruto is right in front of me and I can barely stand in the face of the force of his killing intent bearing down on me, the toxic chakra permeating the air and making breathing hard. He - the Kyuubi through his eyes - is looking at me in a way that makes me feel helpless and terrified, like an ant that knows it could be crushed at any moment.

I'd never forgive myself for causing Naruto the pain of dying at his hands. He'd never come back from that.

And Sasuke…

I swallow hard. "Ruto," I say softly. There is no reaction from him, but he's also not biting my head off. "Hey, buddy. You really look like you could use some ramen. Need a hug?" I continue, weaving a genjutsu around us, a subtle one that mutes colours and softens sounds, that creates a sense of security. The words I say are ones that I know Naruto associates with comfort.

They won't bring him back, but they might keep him from attacking.

"There," I murmur. "Everything is fine. Ri-chan's here. I've got you, Ruto. Sweetheart, come back for me, won't you? The team is almost back together. We're going to find Sasuke and Kakashi and Karin-neechan and go home to Konoha. Doesn't that sound nice? We'll have dinner with Iruka-sensei at home."

It's there - just a flicker of something. Confusion, longing, hesitation - something that can only come from Naruto. He's in there, he's fighting to get back out, there's still a chance-

And then a giant snake comes out of nowhere and swallows him up.

Well then. It was worth a try.

I don't look around for Orochimaru. Instead, I reach for that tiny thread of the Cursed Seal that is connected to him. Just like that, I know he's on my seven, behind a cluster of rocks.

In front of me, the snake starts to swell, vile red light shining through the scales before it is ripped apart from within and the Kyuubi is back, roaring infernally. I blast water in its face. Steam erupts as it evaporates against the chakra covering him, and then-

Through the steam a claw made from pure orange-red chakra comes shooting for me.

I touch the thread of connection and replace myself with Orochimaru.

The sight of him getting a face full of Kyuubi chakra would be rather enjoyable under different circumstances. I only allow myself a grin as I swiftly heal my wrist as best as I can. A quick and dirty fix that the next medic to examine me will yell at me for, but if it works, it works.

The pain in the Cursed Seal finally goes down to a manageable level. The overwhelming demand to kill Orochimaru disappears as well. I breathe out. I'll do my best to kill him, I think to my alter ego.

Up ahead, Orochimaru with a hole in his chest stands up, chuckling. His mouth opens wide, two hands reach out, and-

I have to stop myself from gagging as a fully intact, if slimy, Orochimaru steps out of the mouth, leaving an empty shell of a body behind. "You're using the power of the jinchuuriki," he says to Naruto, "and this is all you have to show?"

A fourth tail forms on Naruto's rear. His skin begins to flake off, blood mixing in with the chakra cloak. I reach for the comm-unit. "Good news is I'm still alive," I say.

"Congratulations," Genma answers.

"Bad news is Naruto's up to four tails now and it looks like that chakra is eating him up. His skin's flaking off." I swallow down bile. "And he's gathering up chakra now."

"I can… that from o… re," Yamato says, voice interrupted by crackling static as the Kyuubi's chakra permeates the air. "Get ou… now."

"No can do," I answer grimly.

There's no way I can block what's coming. No way to get away before it hits. I sense even Orochimaru getting clear of the area, but I'm not that fast, not after being tossed around like a rag doll earlier. "Mizutamari no Jutsu," I mutter, and my body dissolves into a puddle of water, slipping into cracks on the ground.

Just in time for hell to visit Earth.

The next few moments are… indescribable. Out of this world in all the worst ways. The power, the noise - it drowns out everything. For a moment, I am nothing, my self erased in the face of the force of nature above. The Earth itself screams as the Kyuubi rips a gaping wound into it. The seven feet of ground above me are stripped away like sand blown by the wind, the shockwave blasts my puddle-body away, too.

The toxic chakra battering against me aches, but for once there's no physical damage to me as I'm tossed through the air, dissolving into thousands of microscopic droplets.

But I once used this technique inside a fucking lake without losing myself. Compared to that… it's not nothing, but it's nowhere near as bad.

When the shockwave stops, I'm at the edges of a large crater. In the middle crouches the Kyuubi. There's no hint of anything human anymore. The body is that of an animal, four tails swishing about behind it. Black-red chakra covers the creature in an imitation of fur, eyes are like glowing white holes.

I stop myself from considering the fact that my best friend in the entire world is somewhere inside of this creature. Right now, I need my wits about me more than anything. The fucking Kyuubi is right in front of me and then there's Orochimaru to consider.

On the upside, the risk of accidentally killing Naruto is around zero. The Kyuubi seems practically invincible.

A twitch of chakra and I'm back in my human form. The Kyuubi's unsettling stare locks onto me. I remember the last time I saw a transformed jinchuuriki - Gaara, years back.

A different time. A different Riko.

I give the Kyuubi a wave and shout, "Hello Fluffball! Long time no see, like, ten whole days! You know, I'm late offering this, but please be aware that you can surrender at any time."

It growls, a sound that sends shudders through reality itself.

"Bad boy," I say, waggling a finger at it. "You need to cool down. Suiton: Suishouha!"

Water rises from the ground, quickly filling the crater and forming a small tidal wave speeding towards the Kyuubi. A swipe of its arm, and another shockwave destroys it, blasting water everywhere, flaying what little trees and rocks were still intact.

If I'd still been standing there, I'd have shared that fate, but shunshin and afterimage illusions are a lovely thing.

"Over here!" I shout from behind the fox, a good distance away. The crater is still half-full with water. It's boiling and contaminated with fox chakra, but it's still there and it's still mine. Not that it helps me much.

This seems like the kind of thing Dementia should be yelling at me for.

I know what I'm doing, though.

The Kyuubi roars so loudly that the Earth shakes. I cover my ears with water-cloaked hands, but it's pointless. The noise goes right into my brain, hitting the exact part where fear comes from, or at least that's what it feels like because my legs give out and I can't move, I can't breathe, and when a chakra-claw bursts from the Kyuubi's stomach I can only watch helplessly, barely grasping the fact that this is how I die-

Teeth bite into my shoulders and hurl me away, right as the claw slams into the ground where I was just before, digging deep into the Earth. Hissing snakes releasing my skin and retreating into his sleeves, Orochimaru looks down at me. "Fooli-" he begins to say. I drive a Rasengan into his stomach. Shock clouds his features as he's blasted back.

Right into the Kyuubi's pissed face.

Here's the thing. Sasuke's out there somewhere, presumably locked up in one of Orochimaru's dungeons with my rabbits looking for him. Every moment Orochimaru is here, Sasuke and my summons are safe from him.

And every moment I am here is one Orochimaru can't leave because he needs me alive.

Which means as long as I stick around to piss off the Kyuubi, I'm buying Sasuke - and my rabbits, apparently - time.

Orochimaru is only caught off-guard for an instant. He twists around in mid-air, snakes bursting from his sleeves, snakes that bite into and wrap around the Kyuubi's arms and immediately begin to smoulder on contact. It doesn't bother the sannin or the snakes in the least. He vomits up another version of himself leaving the - clone? Empty shell - to hold the Kyuubi while he goes on to punch it in its face.

Except it never connects because it's not like I'm just gonna stand there. The water in the crater rears up, chains snaking up Orochimaru's legs and binding him, and the tailed beast swipes one of its tails and slices Orochimaru in half.

There's no time to celebrate. The Kyuubi turns its attention to me. Its stare makes me feel small and powerless, an ant in the face of a god.

I've killed a god before.

"Suiton: Suiryuuben!" I hiss out. The Water Dragon Whip forms around my right hand, the eyes of the serpentine dragon glowing ominously. It's gotten more detailed, I notice. It has scales now.

I swing the whip, fast and strong. It crashes into the Kyuubi and disperses with a loud boom. But the beast is driven one meter to the side. Which doesn't do much, but it means that my attacks aren't completely without effect, which is something.

The downside is that it's seriously pissed off. And its entire attention is focused on me.

It slams its hands onto the ground, which breaks open, cracks spreading and spreading. Then - cracks under my feet.

I shunshin, leave an afterimage behind. Behind me, clawed hands made from chakra burst from the ground, ripping through my illusion. And then I'm running because those chakra arms are hunting me and there's no time to think. My chakra sense goes into overdrive, sensing for the smallest hint of intent, instinct screaming at me where to move, where to throw myself. There's no time for shunshin, no time for much of anything besides fleeing, but somehow, somehow I still manage to form the hand seals for-

"Suiton: Kirisame!" I shout, and a rain of thousands of glowing water blades comes down.

The Kyuubi screeches.

And it's not in rage. It's screaming in pain. Wherever my glowing rain drops hit its body, the glow seems to be absorbed by its chakra, seems to make cracks in it.

My mind flashes back to when I jumped into Akatsuki's extraction technique, back when I saved Gaara. The cracks that appeared in the statue that they used to extract the bijuu chakra.

That is interesting.

Not something I have time to analyse right now because a spike of slimy chakra builds and builds, and of course Orochimaru wasn't down, I never believed that, and now he's vomiting up an entire tsunami of snakes who all have swords coming out of their mouths. What the fuck. What the fuck kind of technique is that supposed to be.

They don't all have swords, actually, only the ones heading for the Kyuubi, the ones heading for me are sword-less, but their fangs drip with poison.

This, at least, is something I can deal with. "Suiton: Mizu no Tatsumaki!" The spinning water vortex rips any snake apart before it can even get close.

They can still get in from above, however. So I draw my sword, giving it a mental apology as I cut through snake after snake, soon covered in the strange black goo they are made from, skin numb and burning because they might not get close enough to bite, but drops of poison still hurt on my skin, and the goo turns out not to be pH-adjusted either.

That is bad because if my arms stop being useful, I'm screwed.

The onslaught of snakes stops then because an enormous shockwave blasts them and me away. The mass of chakra in the air dissolves the snakes instantly. I'm more resilient, but still feel the toxic chakra tear and rip at me. It's all I can do not to scream, but then it'd get into my mouth which would be all kinds of bad.

I get to my feet when it's over, worse for the wear but not down. Yet.

For someone who's supposed to know hundreds of techniques, Orochimaru is a fucking one-trick pony. He's got giant snakes on the battlefield again. One goes for the Kyuubi, the other is headed for me, and my arms are slow, like there's a time delay between them and the rest of my body.

It doesn't matter because the snake is about to swallow me, which means its maw is wide open. I'm about to throw an explosive tag in, but then realise that the Kyuubi is about to let loose another shockwave and I'm not going to get through another one. Not after the last ones, considering the state I'm in.

So I jump right into the snake's mouth and it swallows me on reflex.

I've been in more awful places than a snake's stomach, but not many. It's tight and squeezing, and fluid is all around me so I can't breathe and my skin burns.

Even with the flesh barrier between me and the outside, I hear the noise. Feel the snake being tossed around, hear it screech, and decide that however awful being swallowed is, it's better than whatever hell is going on outside.

And then I'm tumbling out into the open along with the serpent's innards because Orochimaru cut the dead snake's stomach open. I'm on my feet instantly, sword ready in a by now almost completely unresponsive and also very sticky hand. Orochimaru does not look impressed, which I blame on the snake guts covering me.

I get ready to expel boiling hot steam into his face. Snakes travel down his sleeves.

Chakra explodes from the Kyuubi. Not in a shockwave, but in bubbles of both red-black and blue chakra. Actual, physically manifested chakra, visible to the human eye. Even Orochimaru looks alarmed now.

I adjust my priorities to getting the hell out of here when the chakra bubbles begin to gather in front of the Kyuubi's face, merging and condensing into one, small orb. The potency of it makes the hair on my arms stand up.

The sheer potential destruction it could cause would make Sapphire Lake like a joke.

"If you wish to survive, my dear," Orochimaru addresses me, "Then you will have to come with me. You are in no state to withstand the force of this much condensed chakra. Even I would die from a direct hit. And the poison will render soon you paralysed and unable to use chakra." He chuckles. "There is no shame in doing what you need to survive, Riko-chan. Join me."

Now there's useful information. So my knees aren't just weak from terror, it's poison. I can barely feel my arms anymore and the non-feeling is spreading. "Go die in a trashcan," I growl at him. My fingers can still sort-of move, and while my chakra has become sluggish, it's still responsive.

I wouldn't be able to form full hand seals, but one-handed seals? That's doable. And my hands are already bloody.

The Kyuubi swallows the orb of chakra and I feel myself pale. That much chakra could rip Naruto apart.

I can only hope that the beast knows what it's doing. Right now, I just need to get out of here.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

The rabbit that appears is red with green ears and of a size that even Naruto's boss toad would be hard-pressed to match. Most of it is fur, however. Tomato is 90% floof and 10% rabbit. Which is great, the less rabbit, the better.

I jump on Tomato's head. "Fox alarm!" I yell. "Run!"

Tomato blinks slowly.

He's not very bright even by rabbit standards, is the thing. And we need to get out of here. The Kyuubi's body has swollen to grotesque levels. On the positive side, this means Naruto isn't gonna be ripped apart by all that energy. On the negative, all that energy needs to go somewhere, and I'm definitely on the wrong side of the field.

"Fox…" Tomato repeats. Then his eyes widen to comical levels and his voice goes two octaves higher. "Fox! "

"Run!" I shout.

Tomato takes off like a rocket, and not a moment too soon because the Kyuubi finally releases the chakra it swallowed.

I feel the incredible power of it, the infernal heat. Feel the water flash-evaporating in an instant. I try to look back once, but the brightness burns in my retinas and I have to look away from the destruction.

Holding onto Tomato's fur with my slowly numbing body proves to be difficult. Rabbits rarely run in a straight line when they are fleeing from something. The twist in mid-air, they take sudden turns, they panic. They forget they have a passenger.

Tomato is mountain-sized, which means the leaps he takes are huge.

When I fall off, I have absolutely no idea where I am anymore.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Flash Ninjin Seven

Ninjin takes a sniff at a wall, deep down in a secret hideout that stinks infernally of snakes, which makes him wanna run so bad, but he's a brave rabbit! He can do this! Even if the Earth keeps shaking.

Cousin Negi scoffs. "There's nothing there!"

"Shut up!" Ninjin hisses back. "My nose is better and the wall smells like ink!"

"So someone did graffiti, big deal! There's a ton of people downstairs, let's look there for Summoner-sama's boyfriend!"

Cousin Negi is an insufferable suck-up. It annoys Ninjin to no end!

Flash Ninjin Seven is the fastest rabbit, he's handsome, and his nose is amazing. If his sister weren't completely crazy, he'd totally have joined the Shouga Tracking Division!

He's totally the coolest rabbit ever. That's why he's his shitty summoner's familiar. And he knows exactly how shitty she is, the things he's seen her do! Cousin Negi would cry if he snitched! But he's not gonna do that because shitty summoner promised him a nice home in a nice peaceful forest. Also, shitty summoner is shitty, but she's the only person in the world that believes in him no matter what. Shitty summoner is a friend.

Also, she promised him a carrot if he found her boyfriend.

"It's sealing ink, you catnip-smoker!" Ninjin hisses. "Summoner uses that all the time! To blow up stuff or to protect it! Or to hide something!"

"Ohhhh!" Negi says. "You think there's a seal hiding Summoner-sama's boyfriend!"

"Yes!" Ninjin exclaims, completely exasperated. Why is everyone around him an idiot?

"Nope," Negi announces haughtily. "Absolutely impossible. These ears cannot be fooled!"

"Technically, you use seismic sense and your whiskers to detect vibrations," Ninjin points out haughtily. "Our ears serve mostly for thermoregulation."

"Stupid know-it-all!" Negi gasps, clutching his own enormous purple ears. Ninjin is planning to stomp on them as soon as he can. "Go sniff your stupid walls all you like! I will find Summoner-sama's boyfriend, and then she'll like me better than you, you rude grenade thrower!"

Ninjin gasps. "Screw off, then!" Grenade thrower! He's never been so insulted! Except for the last ten times someone called him that. Everyone's jealous of him being the familiar of their summoner.

Hundred carrots says Negi is gonna get caught in like five minutes.

Unlike Ninjin!

He can totally do stealth, he's been on enough missions with his shitty summoner that he's pretty good at staying hidden. All he needs is a small space to burrow into, like a backpack. Then close his eyes, pray, and voilà! He's hidden.

He taps his paw against the wall and nods to himself.

It's definitely a wall.

You never know with humans.

Well then! There's a seal on the wall, so it's gotta be an important wall. He's so gonna get that carrot, and then he can shove it in Negi's face. Grenade thrower, his fluffy scut!

How to get in there is the question. He's not getting through that wall, and messing with seals is just stupid without knowing sealing.

Ninjin groans. The things he does for carrots! He starts digging. Digging is the only Earth jutsu he knows. He's super good at it, too! Really fast and all!

He pops out of the floor behind the wall a few moments later.

If he could whistle, he would. Now this is a hidden room! Lots and lots of seals on the wall. Really cool-looking ones, too.

Oh, and his shitty summoner's boyfriend. "Yo," he greets, because that's how cool rabbits do greetings these days. It's boring, and Ninjin would prefer more pizzaz.

The guy blinks at him.

He doesn't look so good. Smells like he's been stuck here for a while. Ew.

"You better shower before you go find my shitty summoner," Ninjin advises.

"You're Riko's," the human rasps.

"No! She is mine!" Ninjin declares. "No one owns the Green Flash! Anyway, I was promised a carrot for finding you. I've found you."

He and the human stare at each other.

"Guess I'm going, then," Ninjin hops back into his tunnel and collides with Negi's dumb head. He shrieks.

"Oww!" Negi shouts. "You stupid head! Stop screaming!"

"This is my tunnel! You can't use it!" Ninjin whines.

"And be killed by the ton of shinobi following me? I think not!" Negi huffs.

Ninjin shoves him back in the tunnel. "Go and face it like an adult before they come in here!"

"No! They'll kill me! There's like… a lot of them!"

"Then you'll have learnt a valuable lesson!"

Negi starts wailing.

Shitty summoner's human clears his throat.

"We're having a conversation!" Ninjin glares at him.

"Let me down," he says. "I'll take care of the enemies."

Ninjin blinks and stops attempting to sell out his cousin. "Oh. Well then."

"If you take me to Riko."

"You wantsa bargain?" Ninjin demands. "Here's a bargain! You name one of your kits after me!"

"No," the human says.

"Oh come on!"

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

Nara Riko

All in all, this situation isn't optimal, I reflect as I fall through a tree and land harshly on the ground.

My mountain-sized rabbit hops off into the sunset.

Well, no, it's only afternoon.

It's a good thing Tomato is headed into an unpopulated area. Otherwise some people might freak out.

He'll calm down eventually and go back home, I'm sure.

But all things considered, for facing both Orochimaru and the Kyuubi, the whole thing turned out rather well. The whole poisoning thing kind of sucks, but I'm not dead while Orochimaru will at least be injured. Hopefully. Maybe.

Now to deal with the poison.

I activate the Cursed Seal. The familiar burn spreads over my skin, and my chakra surges. Instantly I feel better, healing accelerated. Poison burnt away. I can move again.

Wings spreading, I take off. I lost track of time on Tomato's back, more busy with holding onto his fur than counting seconds. I have no idea where I am now in relation to where I was before, and how far I've been transported.

I cannot sense the Kyuubi's chakra anywhere - so perhaps Naruto is back in control, at least I hope he is. If I rose higher, perhaps I'd be able to see the scar the Kyuubi's last attack left in the Earth, or I could trace Tomato's path of destroyed trees back to where it started - but if I fly too high, then Orochimaru or his minions might very well see me. And they might use Tomato's path to find me.

I put distance between myself and the spot where I dropped for that reason. Drop down once I find a small river - chances are that its source is the Shirakawa, which will take me back to where I last saw my team.

Even better, I can wash off poison and snake slime off of me. Change clothes while I'm at it - the stench does nothing for my stealth skills.

My chakra is depleted and hurrying back into battle would do more harm then good. But sneaking up with sword and kunai brandished? That I can do.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

I progress at a slow pace, diving through the river against the current, rarely coming up for air.

Worry churns in my gut. Is Naruto okay? Karin? Did anyone else get hurt?

Considering what the Kyuubi was like - it's far more likely than I would like.

Patience, I tell myself.

As long as everyone is alive, it'll be fine. And we still have a mission - bringing Sasuke and Kakashi back. Reuniting Team 7.

In irregular time intervals, I leave the water and tap out a message in Rabbit Morse. That's all I can do to let my team know that I'm okay. The comm-unit in my ear is long dead.

Sucks, but whatever. We never needed fancy stuff like that in Kiri.

The river seems endless, and it's winded like a snake.

I'd be so much faster if I just used the trees… but no. I'm not- enemy!

Water chains have Kabuto wrapped up before he can do anything. I send a water clone up and remain below the surface.

He looks surprised.

Then again, he's the best liar I've ever had the displeasure of meeting.

"Riko-san," he greets. "It is good to see you. Impressive, that you can still move… We were worried about you."

"Where's Sasuke?" my clone asks.

"If you'll just come with me-"

My clone twitches her fingers, and I make the chains tighten. Kabuto shuts up.

"Where's Sasuke?" the clone repeats.

"You won't find it with just a description, I'll need you to-"

The chains tighten again. Kabuto looks very uncomfortable now. I'd be surprised if he could draw breath at all, but then, who knows what modification he's made to his body. Wouldn't be surprised if he breathed through his asshole, what with all the shit that comes out of his mouth.

I fling a genjutsu over him. Another, then another. Layer over layer over layer.

Watch his eyes glaze over, then clear again as he thinks he's broken it, but I've trapped him under so many layers, under a sheer maze of illusions. On his own, he'll never break it.

He realises this soon enough.

He screams.

It leaves me entirely unsatisfied. This isn't the real Kabuto. It's just one of those corpse possession things. He wouldn't come out in person after losing a few fingers. And he smells of decay. Easy to figure out.

"Suiton: Mist Decomposition," I mutter out.

It's the technique that the Kiri Hunter-nin use to get rid of corpses. Kabuto is currently little more than an animated one.

I breathe out Mist, which envelopes the bound corpse-Kabuto.

It eats him up.

Nothing left at all.

I let the river carry me back the path I came for a while, then take off into the woods. Kabuto knows my location now - I need to get away.

In this case, choosing speed over stealth is the sensible option. I'm still lost as hell, but whatever. I know the general direction I came from. I'll track my team once I get to the Shirakawa - or they can track me. Karin could find me anywhere, provided she's conscious. So could my rabbits.

Night falls.

The light was already murky in the thick forest, but as the sunlight dims, it becomes hard to see anything at all. It's good that I have other senses I can use, but smell or chakra sense don't help much when jumping from branch to branch.

Down to the forest floor it is.

Progress is slow, and the night is cool even with a fur-lined jacket on.

The cold comes from within me. Chakra exhaustion does that. And I suspect that I'm not entirely recovered from the poison. Just weakened it enough to keep moving.

Plan? Retreat. Regroup. Rescue. Return.

Not necessarily within that order.

In that odd dark stretch of time in which the sun has set but the moon has yet to rise, I decide to take a break. My body needs rest, and I can neither see the hand in front of my eyes nor muster up the chakra to do much of anything besides Silent Killing. Which is far easier to do when the enemy comes into my territory.

I sit down on a broad tree branch, sword on my lap, and drop into a state somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness. Ears and nose sharpened, chakra sense focused.

So I'm not exactly surprised when two rabbits hop into my face. Ninjin could have surprised me if he'd been on his own, he's picked up enough stealth from me. Negi, however… none whatsoever.

"Well, I'm gone, Summoner-sama," he announces magnanimously after enjoying a few exasperated pats. "I expect at least eleven kits!"

And he poofs away.

I don't even want to know what he's talking about.

"Report, Ninjin," I sigh.

Ninjin's wiggled into my jacket, where he's apparently found a carrot. "Ask that asshole, shitty summoner," he answers, mouth full. "And this job was worth at least five carrots!"

"You'll get a stomach ache."

"Five. Carrots."

"I'll give you more carrots tomorrow."

Ninjin huffs and falls silent while I get up. It's still dark as hell, but I should find out what my idiot rabbit meant by 'ask that asshole.' Plus, Negi's not stealthy - he'd have been easy to track.

There's this quiet sense of anticipation hanging in the air.

An oddly familiar tension filling the atmosphere.

I don't dare entertain the hope. Yet I still find myself whispering, "Sasuke?"

Just a whisper of air, the lightest of rustles. And he's there.

Barely an outline in the darkness, but I recognise his scent, his warmth, his chakra. It's so utterly familiar, like a half-forgotten song becoming complete. Nostalgic.

"Hey," he says.

I laugh, a smile splitting my face. So wide it aches.

"Hey," I reply. "It's been a while."