Consciousness returned slowly, like I was swimming up through heavy sludge. Faint beeping grew louder and other senses began to come back to me. Hospital standard sheets wrapping around me, a mask? on my face, hissing softly with every breath I took. Light shone in through a window.
I opened my eyes and turned my head towards the window. Pink clouds floated across the orange and blue sky. Dawn or dusk? I fumbled with the mask, trying to make my clumsy hands figure out how to remove it. Sensors were attached to my arm, and an IV stuck in the vein. I winced in pain as I accidentally pulled on it.
“Moonflower,” I heard Dad murmur, and his warm hands covered mine. His face appeared in my vision, and I thought I might cry.
“Dad,” I wheezed, throat painfully dry. He pressed a kiss to my palm, and the relief I saw in his eyes sat heavy in my chest.
“Welcome back,” he whispered. He scooped me up into his arms and cradled me there, and I cried.
“I wanna go home,” I whispered. I didn’t want to leave his embrace for the rest of my life. I wanted to be here with him, knowing I was safe from anything the world threw at me.
“Soon, my moonflower,” Dad said, gently petting my hair. “They’ll need to run some tests now that you’ve woken up.”
I sniffed and wiped at my eyes. “How long was I out?”
“Only a day. Inoko… what you did for Sasuke…” I stiffened. “It was very brave. But please, never do something like that again. I couldn’t bear losing you.”
I wanted to promise him that I wouldn’t, that I would be safe. But… I had to be real with myself. If it was ever a choice between me and one of my teammates, it would always be them.
I made a noncommittal sound and gripped his shirt. He sighed.
“Both of your teammates are moving on to the third exam,” Dad said, pulling me more thoroughly onto his lap. He was careful to not tug on the IV. I was content to stay there as long as possible. “And your sister’s team as well.”
“What about Kiba’s team?” I asked. I played with the hem of the blanket, absently picking at the loose threads.
“Mh, your sister said none of them made it through.” Oh. That was a shame. I’d have to challenge Kiba to a wrestling match later. Maybe he’d let me have a dog pile in one of the kennels too.
“That’s a shame.” I fidgeted with the sensors. I wanted to take the IV out. I always hated how those felt in my arm.
One of the doctors chose that moment to come in, eyes down at a chart.
“Ah, Yamanaka-san, you’re awake, good. I’m sure you’re eager to get out of here, so we’ll just take a bit of blood and run a few tests, and then you’re good to go.” I made a face.
Do you want me to stay? Dad seemed to ask. I rested my head against his chest, hearing his steady heartbeat resonating through my body, and nodded. I didn’t want to be left alone with a stranger any time soon.
My personal items were returned to me as I was checking myself out in the morning. I put my earrings back through the holes in my ears, refastened my kunai pouch to my leg.
I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, and a strand fell down that didn’t used to fall. I crossed my eyes and tried to look at it. That… was not cut before I passed out. Had it gotten tangled around an earring when I fell, and had to be cut off?
I signed my name with a flourish, finalizing the process. I was no longer a patient of Konoha General!
For now. Knowing my team’s luck, I’d be back here sooner or later.
I heard a whine by my foot, and a wet tongue licked my ankle. I looked down. “Akamaru!” I said, delighted. I stooped down and picked him up. “What a good boy. What a good flupper pupper boy. Where’s Kiba?”
“Right here,” he said, jabbing me in the side with a finger. I jerked away.
“Rude. I literally just got out of the hospital, and you’re attacking me.”
Kiba shrugged. “Well, that’s my job. Beating up defenseless girls. My favorite targets are the ones that just got out of the hospital.”
I snorted, lightly punching him in the shoulder. “Very funny, dog breath. Why are you here, anyway? I didn’t expect anyone to meet me.”
He rubbed the back of his head, and I noticed he had a branch of yarrow blossoms. Huh. “I’m actually here to see Hinata-chan, and I ran into you. Well. Akamaru smelled you and chased after, y’know? Did your sensei take you here after the prelims?”
“Why is she in the hospital?” I asked, feeling kind of concerned. She’d been fine the last time I’d seen her. Plus I… kind of didn’t want to talk about the post prelims thing. Still processing the massive information overload like I hadn’t had since I was little.
Kiba scowled. “Her cousin is an asshole,” he muttered. “Went way too far in their match.”
I winced. Right. Neji. I vaguely remembered liking him Before, but… well. Beating up a sweet girl like Hinata - well. Beating up Hinata massively crossed the line. We’d never been close friends, but I was still more than down to throw hands with her entire family.
“Mind if I come with?” I asked. I wanted to go home, to be perfectly honest, but I felt like Hinata would appreciate the company.
“Yeah, sure! She’ll be happy to see you.” I gently rubbed Akamaru’s ears as we walked. He was such a good boy, and gave my hand many kisses. What a good boy.
Hinata was awake when we poked our heads into the room. Pale with dark circles around her eyes, but awake, and not in too much apparent pain.
“Hinata-chan~” I sang, gliding into the room, casually trading the dog for the yarrow. “You’re too cute for a place like this.”
She instantly blushed, like I knew she would. Was I mean for brushing up my platonic flirting skills on Hinata? Maybe. Was it hilarious? Absolutely.
“I-Inoko-chan,” she whispered. “Kiba-kun. T-Thank you for visiting.”
“Of course we would,” Kiba scoffed. He dropped Akamaru on the bed, and he instantly made a beeline for Hinata’s lap.
No flowers, not even from her family. I would not kick down Hiashi’s door. I wouldn’t.
… maybe later.
There was a vase hidden away in a cabinet, perhaps from the room’s last occupant. I filled it up from a pitcher and placed the yarrow branch in it. Studied it for a moment. Then snapped a dead twig from it before deeming it suitable.
I spun around with a wide grin. “You know, earlier, Kiba was asking why I was in the hospital.”
“Yeah, you never did answer that,” Kiba said, frowning. “Did something happen?”
Well, yeah, but it wasn’t like I was going to tell him that.
“It’s because I fell for you, Hinata-chan, like really hard and it actually hurts-”
“Oh my gosh!” Hinata squealed, throwing a pillow at me. “No!”
I burst out laughing. “Nah, I was dealing with some massively bad chakra exhaustion. Like, messing with my head kind of chakra exhaustion.” Technically not a lie? Ish?
Silence fell around us as Hinata tangled her fingers in Akamaru’s fur.
“Maybe Neji-nii is right,” she murmured. “Maybe I shouldn’t be a shinobi.”
I blinked. “What?”
Kiba instantly bristled. “Your cousin is a nutjob! Sensei told you, you shouldn’t listen to him!”
“I’m lost, what’s going on?” I looked between them both. “What happened?”
Kiba gave a wordless snarl, grabbing Hinata’s free hand and squeezing it tightly. She didn’t meet my eyes. And then she explained in a quiet voice exactly what her cousin had said to her before beating her half to death.
I took a deep breath. I would not let my anger show. “Ok, first of all, Kiba is right, your cousin is a nutjob. And if Naruto doesn’t kick his ass, then I will.” I pulled her hand free of the dog. “Look at me. You are a wonderful, kind, and strong person. You do not deserve to be spoken to or treated like that.”
“Ah ah ah. No. No buts.” I touched her chin, gently making her look me in the eyes. “Words matter, Hinata-chan. They have the power to wound and bring down, but they also have the power to build up and heal. You have that power. Repeat after me. Speak it into existence; make it reality. ‘I do not deserve this. I deserve better.’”
“I-I… don’t deserve this,” she whispered. I could barely hear her, but I squeezed her hand in encouragement. “I deserve better.”
I grinned. “Louder!”
“I d-don’t deserve this,” Hinata said in a normal tone of voice. “I deserve b-better.”
“Damn straight,” Kiba agreed. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, y’hear me? Akamaru and me’ll beat them up after you beat the snot out of them.”
I stood up and dusted off my lap. “I really ought to be going home,” I said. “I’ll catch you guys later, ok? Rest up, Hinata-chan, and if you want I can bring some books by later.” Not to mention plenty of flowers. This room was far too drab, and if her family was going to be a bunch of jerks and not get her anything, I would.
She nodded, and looked happier than when we’d arrived.
I poked my head back in through the door. “Oh, Hinata-chan?”
I smirked at her. “Are you a Hyuuga? Because you make me go a-woo-ga.”
She gave an embarrassed wail and buried her crimson face in a pillow.
I laughed my way down the hall.
It felt good to be out in the sun again. I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to catch the beams. I wasn’t in pain. I was… content.
I took a deep breath and tried not to scream.
“What do you want, Shikamaru?” I asked, not opening my eyes.
I heard him sigh. “Look, I… I don’t want to fight. And I’m sorry for how I acted before the prelims. I was just… I was really freaked out, ok?”
I cracked an eye open. He was rubbing the back of his neck and staring at his feet. He looked… well, kind of embarrassed.
“I still don’t want to talk about things,” I warned. He glanced up at me.
“I… you know what, fine, keep your secrets if you want. Let’s just… I wanted to -” Shikamaru groaned and dragged a hand across his face. He peeked at me from between his fingers, ears turning pink. “Can I walk you home?”
A laugh bubbled out of my throat before I could stop it. He was so visibly flustered, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him like that. “Sure,” I finally said, offering a smile and a hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, several minutes later. “I was… really scared, by everything that happened. You were hurting, and you weren’t yourself, and… I was really worried about you. But I shouldn’t have pushed like I did.”
I squeezed his hand twice, an old Academy signal for “I hear you, but I need to get my words together”.
Slowly, I replied, “I appreciate the apology, and I forgive you. And… I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have been snapping at you like I did. It was wrong, and not the kind of person I want to be.”
He hummed softly. “Friends?”
“Friends,” I agreed, and leaned into him. I didn’t like fighting with him. This was leagues better. This was how things were supposed to be.
Honestly, this was the first massive fight we’d had in… years, if not ever. I hated every second of it.
He gave my hand one final squeeze before he left me at the Yamanaka compound. I vaguely waved at the cousin who was sitting at the entrance reading a book.
It seemed I wasn’t allowed to be in a good mood today, because I’m barely ten steps in before I run into Akio-san. I tried to refrain from snarling at him on principle.
“I see you survived the Forest of Death,” he sneered.
Nope. Screw this. Wasn’t dealing with him today. “Eat shit and die, Akio-san,” I said flatly, shouldering past him.
His jaw nearly hit the floor, and maybe later I’d laugh at his fish-like face gaping at me. For now, I just wanted to go home.
“I’m home,” I called out, toeing off my shoes and inhaling the scent of home. The air tasted of violets and fresh rice and of home .
“Inoko!” Mother replied, appearing in the hallway with a beaming smile. She swept me into a hug and pressed kisses against my head. “My sweet girl, home at last.”
I let myself sink into her embrace and listened to her heartbeat. I couldn’t feel any emotions coming off her or anyone else anymore, even as I could feel the light of their souls shining onto mine. It was… discomforting.
I buried my face into her neck and tried not to think too hard about why that was.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked. He’d had to leave all too soon for my liking after I woke up the first time.
“He’s at work, my dearest,” Mother said softly, brushing her hand over my hair.
I frowned. “The flower shop?”
Mother laughed, though it didn’t sound entirely normal. “No, T&I. Something came up shortly after the second exam started.”
I tried not to cringe. Gee, I wonder what that was.
“Go get some rest,” she murmured, giving me a final squeeze before letting me go. “I’ll wake you up when it’s time for dinner.”
I hummed and trudged up the stairs. Everything in my room was exactly as I’d left it an eternity ago.
I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I dreamt of Kabuto chasing me down long, dark halls, with golden snake eyes laughing at me from every corner. I could always tell how close he was by the burning in my shoulder, and the echoes of his sickly sweet voice calling, “Yamanaka-sama~”
I woke up when he caught me, arms around my body and his lips on my neck, pressing damp kisses against my skin.
I barely made it to the toilet before I vomited.
I didn’t see Dad until morning. He looked tired, but the moment he set eyes on me, he lit up and scooped me into his arms. I felt nearly suffocated in his love.
“How are you doing, my moonflower?” he asked. “Are you feeling better?”
He tapped my shoulder and whispered, “And this?”
I nodded. “It’s fine. Sensei did a good job.” Dad visibly relaxed, some of the tension leaving his face.
“Good,” he said warmly, pressing a kiss to my forehead. “I’ll be taking over your sister’s training until the third exam. If you want to join us, you’re more than welcome to; just make sure to get your sensei’s permission.”
“Will do,” I said, seating myself at the table. “Thanks for the meal, Mother!”
After breakfast, my first item on the agenda was tracking down Sensei. Firstly, to figure out if there was anything in particular that I needed to do to maintain the seal. Secondly, to get some sort of training plan out of him that I could mash with Dad’s. I had… a vague but pretty good idea of what was going to happen at the chūnin exams come August.
Haha, yeah no. I was not going to be defenseless for that.
I checked our training ground first for him. No luck. His favorite food place - zip. Hospital? Nada. Which figured; he avoided that place like the plague.
I stopped at a taiyaki joint, partially to refuel, partly to think about where he could be.
… there was someone sitting on the roof. The taiyaki stuck in my throat, and I choked down the rest of my tea. It all tasted like ash in my mouth.
I tried to not think of my dream last night. It’s not him , I chanted to myself. It’s not him, I’m in a crowded area, it’s probably just some regular shinobi taking a lunch break on the roof. Perfectly normal.
They followed me as I left. I couldn’t tell if it was Kabuto or not, but who else would be following me?
Whoever it was, they were keeping a constant distance away from me. I didn’t want to test if they’d get closer in less populated areas.
There! At the edges of my senses, I could feel Sensei. I bolted from a casual walk into a full-on run in his direction.
The stalker instantly took off after me.
My heart pounded in my ears. It was a race of time - would I reach Sensei before they reached me?
“Sensei!” I shouted, launching myself at him.
“Inoko?” He dropped his basket barely in time to catch me and frowned once he saw my face. “Not that I’m unhappy to see you, but -”
“Someone’s following me,” I blurted in a whisper. I dug my fingers into his arms, glancing in the direction of my stalker, who had stopped a few yards away. Sensei followed my gaze and gently pushed me behind him.
It was Kabuto, wasn’t it? I couldn’t make myself let go of Sensei, and followed him as he approached the tree with the stalker in it.
“Huh,” he said. I tightened my grip on his vest. “I didn’t know you’d been assigned to her, Tenzo.”
A shadow shifted in the tree, and I could see the cat-shaped Anbu mask. A sigh came from behind it.
“Taicho, please. I’m on duty.”
“Duty, schmuty. Have you met my adorable little genin yet?”
Not Kabuto then. I rested my head against Sensei’s back and gave a shaky exhale. Sensei knew this person.
“Would have been nice to know I had an official Anbu stalker earlier,” I muttered. As close as I was to him, I could feel his back muscles shake. Bastard , I thought, biting back a smile.
“Maa, didn’t anyone tell you?”
“ No , no one thought to tell me. You’re a jerk, Sensei.”
I closed my eyes and familiarized myself with his chakra, just in case.
“I’m sorry for thinking you were a stalker, Anbu-san,” I said. “I had a bad experience with a stalker last week.”
I couldn’t see Sensei’s face, but I could almost feel his raised eyebrow.
The Anbu gave a polite sounding cough. “It’s alright, Yamanaka-san. Forgive me for not knowing you were aware of my presence.”
Sensei pat my head none too gently. “Why, Tenzo, I’m wounded you’d think that I would take on anyone without rare talent.”
Resisting the urge to preen under rare praise from Sensei was easier when he was aggressively patting my head without any sign of stopping any time soon.
I could almost hear Tenzo rolling his eyes as he replied, “Of course you wouldn’t, Taicho.” He vanished in that moment, though I could still sense him lurking around the area.
“Yes, my adorable little genin?”
“Please stop patting my head.” He stopped. “Sensei?”
He pulled out his book and began casually walking. The basket remained on the ground, half filled with wild raspberries. This feels familiar.
Eh. Leave me with delicious fruit, can’t be surprised when it goes missing.
I grabbed the basket and jogged to catch up with him. “Why do I have Anbu assigned to me?”
Sensei idly flipped a page. “Because of what happened in the forest, of course.”
I scowled and pulled the stem off a raspberry before tossing it in my mouth. “But I wasn’t the target, Sasuke was.”
I tried to toss another one in my mouth, but he snatched it away from me mid air. “There was an incident in the hospital,” he said idly, contemplating the fruit. “You’re to be under Anbu supervision until the investigation is completed.”
My feet refused to move. A hand drifted up to the shortened ends of my hair, strands roughly broken by a blade.
I felt sick to my stomach. How close did he get to me? What did he do before he was caught?
“You’ll be in good hands with Tenzo,” Sensei continued. He was either oblivious or just pretending to be. I swallowed my nausea down and forced myself to keep walking. He turned around and gave me an eye smile. “Try to stay out of the hospital in the future, ok?”
“Oh yeah, because I just love getting hospitalized,” I muttered sarcastically. He pat my head again. “Sensei, if you’re not busy-”
“Afraid I am,” he said, flipping a page. “You won’t be seeing much of me over the next month; I’ll be focusing on training Sasuke for his match.”
Well shit, there went that idea. “Who’s he fighting? I haven’t seen the match ups yet.”
“Gaara of the Desert.”
Today was just a series of gut punches, wasn’t it?
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I must be going deaf. Did you seriously say Gaara ? The crazy jinchuuriki from Suna?”
Sensei paused. “How did you know he was a jinchuuriki?” His tone was light, but something felt off. Eh. Who cared? Not me.
“Are you kidding me? It’s been radiating murder ever since he got here. I’d eat my hitai-ate if he was mentally stable, let alone his seal being as good as-” I bit my tongue. Technically not supposed to know that Naruto was a jinchuuriki. It was kind of an S-ranked secret.
Sensei crouched in front of me. He was as serious as I’d ever seen him before, even during his fight with Zabuza. “Inoko, I want you to answer me honestly. As good as what?”
I swallowed and looked away. What could I even say?
“Naruto,” I whispered. He continued to look at me. “As good as Naruto’s seal,” I amended.
Sensei sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Shit,” he said. “ Shit . How long have you known? How did you find out? Did someone tell you? Who else knows?” He had a very firm grip on my shoulders at this point, and if I didn’t know that he had a personal stake in Naruto’s wellbeing and safety, I would now.
“N-No,” I stammered. “No one told me, I figured it out by myself.”
Sensei muttered something under his breath that sounded an awful lot like “Hokage” and a handful of choice curses.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. I could not, would not lose my head here. “I could always feel it in him,” I tried to explain. “Ever since we were kids.”
“He isn’t the Kyuubi,” Sensei said with a sigh. He pinned me with a hard stare. “You realize that, don’t you?”
I raised an incredulous eyebrow at him. “Of course he’s not. What kind of idiot would think that he is?”
“You’d be surprised.” He released my shoulders and began walking away again.
Eh. I’d worked in retail. I could believe how stupid some people were.
“He doesn’t know that I know,” I said, trying to catch up with him again.
“Good. Keep it that way.”
“I’m not stupid,” I huffed. “ Anyway , back to what I was trying to ask you earlier. If you can’t supplement my training, do you know anyone who can?”
I waited for his response.
“It would depend on what you’re looking to improve. Your taijutsu could use some work. Track down Maito Gai and tell him I sent you. He’ll be able to bring you up to par.”
Oh, lovely. Getting my ass kicked six ways from Sunday by a jōnin. My perfect idea of a relaxing month off.
Well, I had quite literally asked for it, and it was something I needed serious work on.
“Thanks, Sensei,” I said before shoving his basket back at him. “I’m not going to ask why you’re picking raspberries out here.”
“... you know what, I’m not going to ask, because that’s exactly what you want.”
I was right about two things when it involved Gai-sensei.
One: he was loud. Like. Really loud.
Two: he completely and thoroughly kicked my ass six ways from Sunday. No. That wasn’t a good enough descriptor for just how thoroughly he kicked my ass.
I could not freaking wait to learn from him.
I dragged myself home, feeling like one giant bruise, and I just knew it was going to be worse in the morning.
Once this month is over, I’m going to be able to destroy the boys , I thought gleefully.
“I’m home!” I called once I limped through the door. “Sorry I missed dinner, I got caught up with training. But I grabbed some onigiri on the way home, so I’m not hungry.”
“Welcome home, sweetheart,” Mother murmured, pressing a kiss against my forehead. “Goodness, did you fall off a cliff?”
“I got beaten up by a jōnin in the name of training,” I explained. “I’ll be going back pretty early tomorrow, probably.”
Mother glanced away from me for a moment before giving me a warm smile.
… Didn’t like that. What was going on?
“Your father is in his study,” she said instead. Pointed remark understood, then.
Did I do something wrong? I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything that would have gotten me in serious trouble. The last time I was called into the study was when I helped Naruto switch all the sugar in the Hokage tower for salt, and I knew I hadn’t done anything like that lately.
Unless I’d developed sleepwalking. Unlikely but not impossible.
I gently knocked twice on the door. “You wanted to see me?”
He gave me a strained smile, which told me I wasn’t in trouble. Something else then. Hmm.
“Moonflower, come in. You’re late tonight, did something happen? Normally you don’t miss dinner.”
I shrugged and flopped into the guest chair as he poured us both a cup of tea. I could not for the life of me figure out why I’d been summoned here, especially if I wasn’t in trouble. “I tracked down Sensei, got ten years of my life scared out of me, tracked down a friend of his for taijutsu training - by the way, is it ok if I only do afternoon training with you? Gai-sensei is mostly available in the mornings.”
“Gai,” Dad said flatly with a note of disbelief.
“Yeah? Is that a bad idea?”
Dad rubbed his temple. “He was Chōza’s genin student. I’m honestly surprised you two haven’t met yet.”
“Isn’t he great?” I asked with a grin, leaning forward in my seat. “Tenten-san says that he’s insane, but I thought he was pretty neat.”
“That’s… one way of calling it.” He pushed a cup of tea towards me with Yamanaka pink roses and chamomile wafting from it. Bedtime tea , I thought with delight. Dad had been brewing this for me since I was little to help me relax and sleep. It didn’t always work unless I was utterly exhausted already, but I had a strong feeling that it would work like a charm tonight.
“So is it alright?” I asked, sipping at the steaming tea. Rose petals brushed against my lips.
He sighed. “That’s part of the reason I wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh.” I tapped the hand rest. “Did Gai-sensei already talk to you about it?”
Dad set his teacup down. “I want you to request a discharge from the forces.”
I blinked, unable to comprehend his words. Quit being a shinobi? I… I couldn’t do that. There was absolutely no way I could save everyone, save him if I wasn’t a shinobi.
I set my own teacup down and refused to let my hands shake as I looked him in the eye.
“No,” I said simply.
“No,” I repeated, a bit more firmly. “I can’t, Dad. There’s no way I can.”
“You nearly died,” he reminded me. The pleasant aftertaste of tea soured in my mouth. I’ve died before. I got over it.
“But I didn’t.” There was too much at stake here. Winter was coming. War was coming. And the only way I could see the Spring the way I wanted to was to become stronger.
No matter what.
What would you give to taste eternity?
“I’m not asking this as your clan head, I’m asking this as your father,” he said softly. “I don’t want to ask as your head.”
“I can’t,” I repeated.
Dad sighed, and he looked so sad. “Alright. But I want you to promise me to be careful. And don’t be late tomorrow afternoon, you hear me? And don’t train too hard; Gai goes to a whole different level when it comes to taijutsu.”
I grinned. “Promise, Dad.”
I dreamed of a full moon, bigger than anything else in the sky. The stars were massive and beautiful, slowly dancing across the Milky Way. I stood on the edge of a cliff, with waves crashing against the rocks. Earth fell around me into the ocean below, leaving me alone on the precipice.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the moon. It whispered to me, asking me to come closer. Just one step forward, off the cliff. To trust that I wouldn’t fall.
Lightning cracked across the sky, though no clouds were in sight.
The earth was falling all around me. The moon shines brightly as it grows bigger, and I know that it’s falling.
I stepped forward and let the wind catch me.