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Moonflower

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I was having a lovely dream. I was on a beautiful mountainside, with one notable difference - everything was made of food. The boulders were steaming loaves of bread, and the trees grew dango and pocky. Flowers sprouted with onigiri and naruto, and taiyaki swam through the ramen broth. Mochi grew instead of grass, and I had never been happier. I could almost die of joy.

 

Well. Die again.

 

I pulled up an onigiri flower and ate half of it in one bite. Moaning in pleasure, I scooped the taiyaki from the stream and shook off the excess broth before taking a bite. The taste was exquisite . Beyond exquisite.

 

My eyes slowly widened as I saw the ultimate prize - a gigantic plate of sushi. Drool trickled out the corner of my mouth. I reached forward, almost not daring to touch such perfection. The moment I touched the first piece, I knew that this was going to be the best sushi I had ever had. The fish was clearly caught this morning, if not a few hours ago, and the rice was just the right texture. And the seaweed must have been crafted by the gods themselves, because there was no way any mortal man could reach such perfection. I moved it towards my mouth and closed my eyes. It was in the opening of my mouth, and -

 

“Yamanaka!” A sharp pain hit me in the forehead and smacked me into the back of my seat. I blinked a couple times as the classroom came into focus. “And Nara!” A chalkboard eraser flew through the air and smacked one of my seatmates in the forehead. Clearly a repeat of what happened to me. My other seatmate was unperturbed by the violence, content to eat his chips as the rest of the class laughed. My sister merely pinched the bridge of her nose. “I devote my time to teaching you day after day, and you repay me by sleeping all the time?!”

 

I blinked sleepily at Iruka-sensei, still disoriented from my dream.

 

“But…” I said softly. He sighed before humoring me.

 

“What?”

 

“The… the sushi… I was so close, Sensei,” I stared at him with plaintive eyes. His eye twitched. 

 

“You really are a pig girl, Inoko,” Ami smirked from her seat across the aisle. Chōji stirred beside me, munching on his chips faster. “A stupid lazy pig girl.”

 

“Hey, leave my baby sister alone,” Ino frowned.

 

“She may sleep all the time, but her grades are still high above yours, Ami,” Iruka-sensei replied shortly as he shuffled some papers on his desk. She flushed as Kiba loudly whispered, “Burn…” A few other students snickered amongst themselves. 

 

“You are five minutes older,” I leaned forward and growled in Ino’s ear as Sensei resumed his lecture. I lightly pulled on her ponytail, just to make sure she was paying attention. “Stop calling me your baby sister. You know it pisses me off.” She merely gave me the same smile that usually got her out of trouble with Dad.

 

“Really? I had no idea.” I pulled her ponytail a bit harder in return. Glancing around the classroom, I leaned into Chōji and whispered, “What did I miss?”

 

“Not much,” he whispered back, offering me some of his chips. I gladly accepted one. Yum, barbeque. “We’ve been going over our final exam. There’s a written test, and then a practical exam.”

 

“Joy,” I muttered. I stole another chip, munching thoughtfully. 

 

“I’m handing out your papers now,” our sensei announced. “When I call your name, come up and get it.” He began to list out names, and being a horrible person, I relished the looks on my fellow students as they saw their harshly graded exams. Heh. 

 

“Yamanaka, Ino and Inoko,” he called. Ino waved me to stay in my seat as she skipped to the front. I settled back onto my desk, still tired despite my impromptu nap.

 

“I just want you to know that I hate you,” my twin pouted as she handed me my paper. “Two wrong? Out of a hundred very hard questions? I thought I was supposed to be the smart one.”

“Nah, you’re the pretty one. I’m the smart one,” I teased, glancing over my paper. One I had left blank because I had no idea how to solve it, and the other I used the wrong formula. Oh well. “I have to have something going for me.”

 

Ino gave me a look. “We’re identical twins.”

 

I was saved from replying by Sensei calling, “Uzumaki, Naruto.” Silence. “Naruto?” The entire class stared at his empty seat. He must have snuck out while I was napping. A blood vessel pulsed near Iruka’s temple. I had to admit, I was curious to know how this would turn out. 

 

At that moment, we heard Suzume-sensei scream. “The Hokage-monument!” The vein pulsed harder, and Sensei was doing his very best to keep a smile on his face. “Class, study chapter fourteen of your anatomy textbooks until I return.” He spun on his heel and left the room. The moment the door closed, I clearly heard him shout, “Mizuki!” I managed to keep a straight face for all of eight seconds before losing it.

 

“Chōji, can you give me a boost?” I managed after I caught my breath. Absolutely no one was studying, except for maybe Sakura. Oh, and Sasuke, but that was because he had ‘the Uchiha honor to uphold’. Translation: ‘I’m a stick in the mud that has no idea how to have fun’. Gossiping and goofing off seemed to be the main priorities, particularly next to Sasuke. His usual impassive face had just a hint of suffering on it. Ha. “I wanna see what Naruto did.” 

 

Chōji was a darling as usual and let me stand on his shoulders so I could reach the window. Still, I tried to pull most of my weight onto the windowsill. Covering my eyes from the bright sun, I gave a low whistle as I beheld the graffitied heads. A small figure was hanging in front of the Yondaime and slowly creating a white stream from the nose. Figures.

 

I glanced over my shoulder back into the classroom. Absolutely no one was paying attention to me except for Chōji and Shikamaru. I grinned, a plot forming in my head. 

 

“I’m getting some food,” I announced. “Anyone want to come with?” Shika groaned, but drifted over to us anyway. Kiba gave me a suspicious look.

 

“Who’s paying?” he asked.

 

“My treat,” I said, rolling my eyes. Akamaru barked, and his partner gave me a grin.

 

“Sounds like fun!” 

 

“Wait just a minute,” Ino growled. I gave her a lazy blink. I guess someone else was paying attention after all. “I’m not going to let you play hooky on our last day of school.”

 

“I’m not playing hooky,” I drawled. “I’ll be back before Sensei is.” I pushed the window open and jumped out, breaking out into a run the moment I touched the ground. My companions caught up pretty quickly, and we were sent off with Ino’s annoyed, “ Inoko !”

 

“Ah, the joys of being her sister,” I sighed as we slowed a decent distance from the Academy. “Anyway, who wants what?” I ended up buying more chips for Chōji, smoked mackerel for Shika, and beef jerky for Kiba and Akamaru. I also got some pudding for Ino as a peace offering. As for myself, I bought a sushi bento. Because sushi.

 

“Inoko, any man who gets you as a wife would be so lucky,” Kiba sighed happily. Akamaru made an agreeable noise muffled by jerky.

 

“Oh yeah, dog breath,” I snorted, amused. “Marrying someone is totally my entire goal in life. I only exist to buy you men food.”

 

Kiba gasped dramatically. “You mean you aren’t?” I glared at him for a moment before punching him in the arm.

 

“Ow!”

 

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru sighed, looking vaguely amused as Kiba and I engaged in a friendly shoving match. 

 

Ino was fuming when we got back. The moment I passed through the window, she grabbed my ponytail and dragged me to my seat. 

 

“Ow ow ow ow.”

 

“Do you know how much trouble you could have been in if Sensei had come back first?” she snapped. She was way too much like Mother at times for my liking.

 

“But he didn’t, so I’m not,” I protested. What was the point of being a ninja if you couldn’t sneak out of boring places and get food? “If you keep being mean to me, I won’t give you the pudding I bought.” She blinked in surprise, then frowned.

 

“If you think that I’m going to let you bribe me, then -”

 

“Chocolate,” I interrupted, waving it in front of her face. I could see her starting to waver. “From an Akimichi place, no less. But, if you don’t want it, I’ll be more than happy to eat it myself…?” I trailed off, grinning at her. The pudding disappeared from my hand.

 

“Just this once,” she warned. Funny, that was what she said last time. And the time before that.

 

Iruka-sensei came in then, with Naruto in tow. He was tied up pretty tightly, and had a determined unrepentant look on his face. Basically the same look he had whenever he got caught at his pranks. Sensei himself gave me a look as I ate another piece of sushi. He knows , I thought while sweating a little.

 

“Well, Naruto, since you have completely thrown off the rest of the lesson plan for today, the entire class can practice their henge.” Everyone around me groaned. Ino smacked her forehead into her desk.

 

“Well, it’s not like some of us can’t use the extra practice,” I said. I winked at Naruto. He beamed at me, recognizing the backhanded support. Shika looked like he wanted to elbow me, but was as always too lazy to bother.

 

Sasuke, the little show-off, was one of the first to go, and did a henge of Sensei. Sakura copied him, of course - I loved that girl to bits, but my god, her fangirl tendencies drove me insane - as did Ino. My eye was twitching by the time it was my turn. Just to screw with everyone, I henged as Sasuke. 

 

“Told you she’s in denial,” Ami smirked to her friend Kasumi. I turned to her and made the stupidest face that human muscles could create, then went a bit further. The boys all laughed. Dropping the henge, I returned to my seat.

 

“Nice henge, owl,” Sasuke said sarcastically. I scowled at the nickname Ami had given me a couple years earlier. They think they’re soo clever, just because I have insomnia.

 

“Thanks,” I deadpanned. “You didn’t do too bad yourself, duck boy.” If looks could kill, I would have likely dropped dead there. I gave him a bland smile, the kind I knew infuriated him. Well you know what, Sasuke, if I bother you that much you could fight me, and then we’ll see. 

 

“Sexy Jutsu!” I heard behind me. Another twitch developed on my face. If I’ve told him once, I’ve told him a thousand times…

 

After Iruka-sensei was done yelling at him and sent him back to his seat, the rest of the day went smoothly. It usually did after one of Naruto’s pranks, especially a large scale one like that. 

 

“I think that the monument was your best work yet,” I said as I packed up my things at the end of the day. My bag had gotten heavier over the years, both with school books and things I read for fun between classes. And homework. Good grief, the homework. “You definitely topped covering the markets with catnip, and I think that was my favorite one.”

 

That had been pure, unmitigated chaos . An entire hoard of super high cats, all super cuddly and affectionate. I still had the ultimate blackmail in the form of seeing Sasuke veritably covered in cats, giving all the pets and skritches he could. The look on his face when we made eye contact was one I would treasure for the rest of my days.

 

“I know, right?” Naruto said excitedly. “But Iruka-sensei’s making me clean it off, dattebayo.” I patted his shoulder sympathetically.

 

“I’d help, you know, but Ino and I have a meeting with the clan elders right after dinner. Graduation is tomorrow, after all, and they have to tell us how disappointed they are with my current life choices and what they expect of me in the future.” He made a face. It more or less matched my feelings on the matter.

 

“I do not envy you,” he said, making an X with his arms. I rolled my eyes. He’s so dramatic. “Hanging out with those old coots.” 

 

Elbowing him and laughing, I said, “Hey! Those ‘old coots’ are my family.” I raised my voice in a snotty mimicry of a noble. “‘And we all know how important the old coots are. You see, if it weren’t for them, who else would tell you how disappointed they are in all of your life choices?’” Naruto burst out laughing, some of his good mood restored. My mission accomplished, I pulled my backpack on and smiled at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Naruto.”

 

“Bye!” he said cheerfully, but I could feel his chakra become sad after I left the room. Stop it, I scolded myself. You can’t keep him company every second of every day. You have clan things to do.

 

Mother was getting dinner started when we shuffled around in the entryway, pulling our shoes off. “Tadaima,” Ino and I called out.

 

“Welcome back,” came distantly from the kitchen. I could smell something frying, and heard oil beginning to pop. I wasn’t drooling.

 

… ok, I was a little bit.

 

“Go ahead and take a shower before dinner, girls,” Mother continued. “You have a meeting with the elders tonight, remember.”

 

“Yes, Mother,” we chorused. We glanced at each other.

 

“Dibs on first shower!” I shouted, bolting up the stairs.

“Hey! That’s not fair! Mother!”

 

I made it into the bathroom first and tried to shut the door behind me. Ino body slammed into it, almost pushing it open. I dug my heels into the rug and forced the door to shut with a click, then twisted the lock.

 

“No fair!” she hollered. 

 

“You snooze, you lose!” I cackled, already shrugging off my top. She smacked the door one final time before leaving me to my business.

 

I didn’t take too long, even if I did love long hot showers. Ino was waiting for me, after all, and Mother’s cooking was to die for. 

 

I skipped downstairs, inhaling the wonderful smells. Chicken karaage with rice and miso. I tried to steal a little bit, just a bite before dinner, but Mother smacked my hand with the spoon.

 

“Wait until dinner,” she said in a bemused tone, watching me nurse my hand. “Why don’t you set the table? Your father will be home soon.”

 

I sighed dramatically as I grabbed the bowls. “I guess .”

 

Once I was done setting the table, I sat on one of the stools and watched as Mother worked. In my opinion, Mother was the pinnacle of elegance and grace. Her cooking rivaled even Setsuko-baa’s. Basically, she was amazing, and I’d fight anyone who said otherwise.

 

“I’m starving,” Ino announced, bouncing downstairs with her hair wrapped in a towel. “What’s for dinner, Mother?”

 

“Food.”

“Mother. What kind of food?”

“Cooked food.”

 

Ino shot me a dirty look as I snickered. I pretended that I didn’t see it, instead grabbing the plate of karaage. A piece might have gone missing between the kitchen and the dining room table. I would deny everything until the day I died. 

 

“How was school?” Mother asked as she took off her apron. Underneath she was wearing an elegant kimono, which was unsullied by her dinner preparations as usual. One day I’d manage to also not get flour and stuff all over myself, even when I had an apron on. 

 

“Not bad,” I said. “Naruto graffitied the Hokage monument, so that was fun.” Mother gave me a look. “I didn’t help this time!” I protested. “Honest, you can ask Sensei.”

 

“She fell asleep in the middle of Sensei’s lecture,” Ino pipped in, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Inoko!”

 

“In my defense, I already knew it,” I said, very much not making eye contact as I ran back to the kitchen to grab napkins. I could hear the front door close, muffled against the clattering of dishes. 

 

I could hear the frown in Mother’s voice. “That’s not a valid excuse.”

 

“What’s going on?” Dad asked as he came in. He looked tired, but he usually looked kind of tired when he first came home. 

 

“Nothing!” I said cheerfully, throwing myself at him and hugging him tightly. Dad swung me into the air.

 

“Whoa! I won’t be able to do that for much longer,” he laughed, grunting a little with the effort. To say that I was a cuddle bug and a daddy’s girl were both understatements. Mother would often tell how as a baby I only wanted to be with Dad, and could generally not care less about everyone else who wanted to hold me. 

 

I didn’t remember that, being a baby and all, but considering she wasn’t the first mother who had told me that, I was willing to believe it.

 

“Which is why you should do it while you can,” I reasoned, wriggling free and dropping to the ground. I gave him my best sad eyes. “Also, do we really have to go to that meeting? They’re boring.” He was sadly immune this time.

 

“Yes, you do.” Ignoring my groan, Dad continued, “You’re both going to be full members of the clan, with all the responsibilities of a clan member. And because you’re both children of the clan head, that has a few more responsibilities tacked on at the end.”

 

“... I just want to be a psychologist,” I muttered, flopping onto my seat. “The ninja thing is just to see if I can.”

 

“Dear, you may not be the heir,” Mother began, reaching out to smooth my hair.

 

“I’m just the backup heir,” I snorted. “But yes, I know. Dad’s the head, so I need to be able to know whose butt to kiss to make the clan happy.” Dad’s cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “I’m right, aren’t I? Crap.”

 

He gave Mother a quick kiss before sitting down at the table. “Noriko, this looks delicious, thank you.”

 

“Itadakimasu,” I echoed Ino, and then dug in. I gave a happy sigh. I swear, my mother must have taken cooking lessons from a god. It was over all too soon, though, and then I had to get ready for the meeting. 

 

“Stop picking out my clothes!” I shouted once I went into our room and saw the kimono on my bed. “I can do it myself!

 

“It’s not my fault you have bad fashion taste! You’d wear a t-shirt and pajama pants all the time if you could!” I mean. She wasn’t wrong. 

 

“Because they’re comfortable,” I grouched, and reluctantly pulled on the kimono. They were appropriate for the occasion, but all the same, I hated them. I could barely move in them. I swear, all of her outfit choices had either too much fabric or not enough fabric. I half heartedly twisted my hair up and stuck a chopstick through it.

 

Ino pat the seat of her vanity, beaming at me. “Thank the Three,” I muttered, sitting down. Don’t get me wrong, I liked having my face all pretty and made up. But for the most part, it was way too much effort to do on anything but a special occasion. As a result, though, I wasn’t too great at it. Ino? She had been doing makeup since we turned ten and our parents allowed us to do anything other than a bit of lip gloss outside of class. She was incredibly good at it, and I was more than happy to let her do it for me. 

 

“You need to put more effort into your hair,” Ino muttered, removing the chopstick and letting my admittedly weak work fall apart. “It’s so thick and pretty.”

 

“That’s exactly why I don’t. It’s easier to just braid it on the rare times I need it out of my face.”

 

Ino hummed as she brushed my hair. “I guess. Your bangs need a trim, by the way, they’re getting a bit long.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” I sighed. “I’ll ask Mother to trim them when we get back.” I kept procrastinating it, and now they were hanging in my eyes. 

 

“Good plan.” She twisted my hair up into a bun and thoughtfully pushed a different pair of chopsticks through my hair. “Mine look nicer. Just return them when we come home.”

 

“Will do, sister dearest.”

 

“Girls, we’re going to be late!” Dad called up the stairs.

“Coming!” we both shouted back. Eyes met in the vanity mirror and we both burst into a fit of giggles.

Once we had both carefully picked our way downstairs, I drawled, “Now, on to the execution.”

 

“I do wish you’d dress nicely more often,” Mother said as she straightened my obi. “You look so pretty when you put effort into your appearance.”

 

“Why do that when I have Ino?” I asked. “I’m before, and she’s after.”

 

“Very funny,” Ino said, poking me in the side. 

 

“You both look very nice,” Dad approved. “Shall we go to the slaughter?”

 

“See? Dad agrees with me.”

 

On the way to the meeting house, we were met with the occasional inclined head and advanced congratulations on our graduation tomorrow. It was practically unthinkable that the child of a clan head wouldn’t pass with their peers, and we were both determined to not disappoint. Mainly out of pettiness on my part. 

 

“You’re late, Inoichi-sama,” Akio, one of the elders, said. He didn’t like me very much, which was fair because I didn’t like him either. Twins were rare and generally thought to be bad luck. I’d overheard him talking to his daughter once when I was younger, blaming my parents for the Kyuubi attack because they hadn’t gotten rid of me and maybe even Ino. 

 

So yeah. Screw him.

 

“Sorry about that,” Dad shrugged, taking a seat. He didn’t like Akio either. I think he also caught wind of the elder’s mutterings, but there wasn’t much he could do aside from give him a firm talking to. Dad gestured for us to sit on either side of him. The meeting hadn’t even started and I was already bored. My only solace was that Shikamaru and Chōji had to go through this too, and we could all complain together in the morning. “I got held up on the way over.” 

 

The meeting began, and I amused myself by singing songs from another time. She wants to dance like Uma Thurman, bury me till I confess. It was mostly about Ino and her stepping up as the official clan heir, and lecturing her on her responsibilities from here on out, and other boring stuff that didn’t concern me at all. Bah. Budgets. I wish I had brought one of the textbooks I checked out from the clan library. At least that stuff was interesting.

 

I didn’t even need to be here. None of this concerned me. Honestly, there were so much more important things that I could be doing right now. I stopped singing in my head and frowned a little. 

 

Ino would always tease me and call me a book worm for spending most of my non sleeping time reading. However, there was method to my madness. Learning as much as I could before I graduated was necessary. Yes, I was anticipating failing the second test. But even then, I’d have the knowledge to survive when… 

 

My stomach turned as I thought on the future. The Fourth Shinobi war that killed so many, including Yamanaka Inoichi.

 

I swallowed bile and focused on a knot in the wood. That was by far one of the worst things about being reincarnated: knowing who would live and who would die. And there was next to nothing I could do.

 

“Inoko!” I jumped a little in my seat to see everyone staring at me. “Pay attention. This is important.” I nodded sullenly and settled in for the long run.

Chapter Text

The moment I could escape from the meeting, I made a break for it. First to my house to struggle out of the kimono and get changed into something more comfortable, then to the Nara compound. 

 

“Hello, Yoshino-ba,” I said brightly when she answered the door. “Is Shikamaru back yet?”

 

Yoshino smiled warmly at me. The four Ino-Shika-Cho kids bounced around all three households frequently enough that seeing one at the door was a frequent occurrence. “Hello, Inoko. I’m afraid he’s not,” she said, opening the door wider. “He should be back soon, though. You can wait in the living room if you want. Let me know if you need anything.”

 

“Thanks, Yoshino-ba! Is it ok if I get some water?” I asked, following her inside. “That meeting was so boring and I ended up getting in a fight with Akio-san again. He was being rude again and I told him so, and I also might have told him to go you know what himself with a rusty kunai, and man, you should have seen the uproar that caused.”

 

Yoshino burst out laughing as she got a glass down from the cupboard. “Inoko, if you think I’d be impressed by that, you should have seen what I told the Nara elders when I got married. We nearly had a civil war right then and there.”

 

Once I had acquired my water, I tracked down the shogi board that floated around the living room and set it up. I ended up staring blankly at the pieces for quite a while. I had a bunch of things to think about, and playing shogi with Shikamaru usually helped me think. Hm. Maybe that’s why I always lost to him, I was distracted every time.

 

“Most people ask before they come over,” Shikamaru said dryly as he entered, still wearing his formal kimono.

 

“At this point, I’m practically a Nara by adoption,” I shrugged. I gestured to the board. “Pick a side.”

 

He glanced at the board and said, “White.” I spun the board around in response. We played in silence for several minutes, the clacking of the pieces being the only sound.

 

“What’s bothering you?” he finally asked.

 

“Who says anything’s bothering me?” I defended. He raised an eyebrow as he moved a piece. 

 

“You only play shogi with me when you’re bothered by something.” 

 

I sighed. He knew me too well. “Fine. I’m nervous about tomorrow.”

 

“Liar.”

 

“Says who?”

 

“Says nine years of experience of dealing with you,” he shot back. I stared at the board.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I muttered before moving my Silver General. He captured my bishop. I promoted my knight and gave him a level stare. “I just need to think a bit. I’m fine.”

 

“You always say that, and yet you never are,” he said evenly. “Check.” I sighed, knowing it was just a matter of moves before he ended up capturing my king. Still…

 

“How would you know?” I countered. “I’m the one learning psychology. And I’m sure that I’m fine.” I moved my king out of check, planning to move one of my pawns to defend it from his bishop. He caught my hand as I pulled it back to force me to look at him. 

 

“You know that I will help with whatever I can, right?”

 

“It wouldn’t be too troublesome?” I smirked, pulling my hand free. Hm. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see any move that would allow me to stay in the game for longer than a move or two. “I concede. Good game, Shika.”

 

“You’re avoiding the issue,” he said. He began to help me reset the board. The clacking of the tiles being moved to their appropriate places was soothing. The conversation, not so much.

 

“There is no issue. I can’t play a game with my best friend?” I stared at him. A hint of frustration entered his eyes. 

 

“I really regret the day you decided to make psychological profiles of everyone in our class,” he complained, placing the final pieces down. 

 

“Just the people I like, and even that was pretty boring. I’ve always known your buttons, Shika,” I replied, eyes on the pieces. “I just put it down on paper. Can we not do this? I just want to hang out and play.” Play and think on my choices for tomorrow night.

 

“... Fine.” I could almost hear the ‘for now’ in his voice. He might pretend to be uncaring and lazy, but he invested in his relationships with people. Especially his special ones.

 

“Ah, shogi,” Shikaku said as he entered the room. “What’s the score?”

 

“One concession from me,” I said. “If we play this game all the way through, he’ll have two wins.” I scowled at the board as I abruptly realized the ploy Shikamaru was using. I moved one of my lances in front of my rook. He promptly moved his bishop into a currently unused corner, but one that I had been angling to get in to make a side attack at his king. Damn.

 

“You underestimate yourself,” Shikaku chuckled. He moved one of my gold generals for me, forward against Shika’s remaining silver general. The look of consternation on his face was one I would treasure for a while. 

 

“No, I just know that I can’t beat your son.” I rolled my eyes and made another move, taking advantage of Shikaku’s intervention. True to my prediction, Shikamaru ended up winning that game. I made my farewells and left after that, knowing that it was getting late for other people.

 

I could go home, or I could wander around Konoha for a while, enjoying the nightlife. No choice, really. Konoha was fascinating when it got late, and it was generally pretty safe as long as you stayed out of the red light areas. Not as safe as it was back when the Uchiha were around, in my oh so humble opinion, but when one had a few tricks under her belt, there wasn’t much an observant maybe-almost-genin couldn’t handle from a civilian. 

 

My parents were long since used to my night wandering. I had started to do it shortly after I turned seven. I could only read so many books while waiting to fall asleep for so long. The first time I went out, Dad had panicked when he looked into my room and realized I wasn’t there. After the whole Hyūga debacle, he thought I had been kidnapped, which was. A fair assumption, honestly. He found me at a late night ramen stand getting some food. I still occasionally dropped by there for their taiyaki; it was near legendary.

 

Anyway, I was forbidden after that to leave the house after ten. I reread all of my books twice, and by the time a week had passed, I was ready to go out again. 

 

I was having a fine time - running and climbing on rooftops, nighttime window shopping, and so much more - up until an Inuzuka, who I was fairly sure had been returning from a mission, suspected that I shouldn’t be out at two in the morning. His dog partner went full floof - it looked like a very big shiba inu - and I couldn’t resist. I was a cat person all the way, but all dogs were good flupper pupperoos. The moment I went in for petting, he pounced on me and picked me up by my collar. 

 

Dad hadn’t been very happy to be roused in the middle of the night to accept his wayward child.

 

When I was eight, Dad and Mother gave up on keeping me inside at night. Dad had used a regular lock, then a seal when I kept getting out. It took Ino’s complaints that she couldn’t get water or go to the bathroom and the realization that I was climbing out the window to stop that. 

 

What could I say, I’m a free soul at heart. 

 

Finally, they sat me down and worked out an agreement. They understood that I was bored and had wanderlust, but they were very concerned for my safety. If I was to be allowed to roam at night, I had to promise to be careful and be back in time for breakfast. 

 

It worked for everyone involved.

 

I watched people slowly filter from the streets and read a new book on how chakra activity affected the brain - fascinating read, honestly, it explained so much and yet raised so many more questions -  until all the businesses were dark, and the only sound was frogs. 

 

Checking an old watch I had gotten for my birthday when I was nine, I noted that it was now one in the morning. I still wasn’t very tired. I sighed heavily, then hopped down from my perch on a telephone pole and began to make my way to one of the many training grounds in Konoha. 

 

One good thing about the Academy was that its basic training allowed you to pull off ridiculous stunts, at least ridiculous by my previous life’s standard. Once you've tried jumping from one roof to the other, you'll never want to walk again. Especially if you used to play Assassin's Creed.

 

I may or may not have taken the leap of faith more than once. Or twice. Or seven times.

 

As far as I knew, no one else visited training ground twenty-three. It suited my purposes just fine, a place to practice my kata and the couple earth jutsu one of my clan members had taught me four months ago. I spent a lot of time here, and it was secluded enough that I wouldn’t bother anyone with whatever I was doing. Within ten minutes, I had worked up a decent sweat. I had beaten the living daylights out of a practice dummy with everything I knew, and switched consciousnesses with an owl. Birds were generally pretty hard to catch, but this one was just sitting and staring at me. Piece of cake.

 

It was pretty cool, being a bird. I flew around for a bit inspecting Konoha before returning to my body. Konoha from the air was gorgeous.

 

I checked my watch again, the blinking face telling me that it was now two eleven in the morning. A yawn told me that it was high time to go to bed. I gave a tired wave to the night guard at the Yamanaka clan compound gates. They were also used to my nightly wanderings.

 

I was nearly asleep on my feet by the time I was locking the front door behind me. I took a deep breath, slowly letting it and any remaining tension leave my body. I suppose that it was part of being a Yamanaka, but the smell of flowers permeated everything. It was nice.

 

Ino was breathing evenly in her bed as I carefully shut our bedroom door. She’d changed out the flowers on my end table. I ought to thank her in the morning; the lavender soothed my frazzled nerves even more. Practically falling into bed, I snuggled into my heavy covers, relaxed, and let sleep claim me.


I wanted to die. Like, right now. “No human being should ever have to wake up this early,” I whispered, eyes still half closed with sleep as I sat at the kitchen table. “It is a crime that should be punished by death. A violent, slow death.”

 

“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Ino snorted. Still, she began rummaging around in the cupboard for mugs. “It’s only seven-thirty.”

 

“... I will cut your heart out with a spoon if you do not give me a large cup of tea right now.”

 

“And this is why you don’t have a boyfriend.” She set the mug down in front of me, the heavenly aroma rising with the steam. 

 

“Bold of you to assume I want one.” I took a large mouthful of tea, burning my tongue. “Ow. Wait a minute… why don’t you have one if that’s the case?” I didn’t have to see her to know she was glaring at me. “Waah! Daaddy! Ino’s throwing dishes again!”

 

Konoha wasn’t much like it was in the Plot. For one, it literally was hidden in the leaves. It was very much a village built around the forest. Some places you couldn’t see the village for the trees. The market place was a bit clearer, but for the most part, there were trees everywhere. In the streets, against buildings, on buildings, and the notable example of the Academy, which had a Hashirama tree growing straight up through the building, evidently grown the day the first day of lessons at the Academy. Legend had it that the Nidaime nearly committed fratricide that day.

 

The streets were twisting and a maze to anyone who wasn’t a native. There were numerous dead ends and roads that lead to nowhere in particular. It had gotten easier over the years to find one’s way around, if only because we started building up. Literally. There were no skyscrapers or anything, but we got a good ten floors out of some of our taller buildings, and that wasn’t counting the basements. 

 

Certain buildings were designed to be even more confusing. The Hokage tower, for one. The Academy as well. Most kids spent their first year constantly getting lost. As a graduating student, I was more than accustomed to the police box-like labyrinth our school was.

 

When we got to the Academy, we were instantly told to take our seats and given our tests by Mizuki-sensei. I could see Naruto a few rows ahead of me, nearly pulling out his hair. It’s not that hard , I mused as I began to fill out questions. Honestly, you just need to have cracked open a book sometime. 

 

I gave a casual glance around me. Ok, maybe not, then, a lot of my classmates were looking stressed. Score one for smart kids! Or maybe score one for kids who had been a college student in their past life and as such already had a good deal of this knowledge already somewhere in their head, and in this life was able to go into their brain and retrieve it.

 

I ended up finishing my test fairly quickly, and spent the rest of the time poking Shikamaru to make sure he finished his test after double checking my answers. We knew each other so well.

 

The second part of the test was the taijutsu portion. Iruka-sensei was grading us on this while Mizuki-sensei graded our papers. I hated taijutsu. It was one of the more compelling reasons to become a psychologist instead of a ninja. It wasn’t that I was bad at it, it was just… Ok, so maybe I was a little bad at it. I was passable. 

 

Granted, ‘passable’ wouldn’t be good enough. Not if I wanted to save people. 

 

Joys of crippling anxiety of the future. 

 

Thankfully, I was paired with Ami, so I proceeded to happily beat the crap out of her. It was very cathartic. She was even worse than I was, desperate to show her ‘soft and feminine side’ to Sasuke. He had yet to notice.

 

Afterwards, we all had lunch. Sasuke sat as far from everyone else as he could as usual, while Kiba and Naruto tried to entice Shikamaru and I into a game of ninja.

 

“We’re going to be ninja in a couple hours,” I said slowly, frowning as I absently braided my hair. “Why do you want to play that?”

 

Because we’re going to be ninja in a couple hours!” Kiba shouted. “After today, we will be adults! We should act like kids while we can!” I stared flatly at him. I seemed to be doing that a lot with him.

 

“I guess your logic makes sense, but I’m too tired after all that taijutsu,” I complained. Shikamaru grunted in agreement.

 

“Why are you so lazy?” Naruto whined. Akamaru barked in agreement, but then he crawled into my lap. 

 

“Because I can be,” I deadpanned. “Now sit down. Just watching you is making me tired.” He groaned and collapsed spread eagle on the ground. I adjusted Akamaru into a more comfortable position for us both. “Are you a traitorous doggo?” I cooed at him. “Are you a very good snuggly pup?”

 

“I hate you both.”

 

“We hate you too.” I cheerfully made sure to give Akamaru good ear scratches for being such a good boy. 

 

Ino and I were one of the last people to get tested on ninjutsu. I smiled at my sister as she pranced out with her new hitai-ate around her head. “You better not fail,” she grinned. “It’ll be a shame if one twin makes it and the other doesn’t.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I’m sure Akio-san would be thrilled if I failed.” I rolled my eyes as I entered the room, then gave a lazy wave to both my sensei. “Yo.”

 

“Hello, Inoko-chan,” Mizuki-sensei smiled. Honestly, if I didn’t know what a douchebag this guy was, I never would have guessed. He had his easy going nice guy facade down to a point. “If you could perform a henge, a kawarimi, and three bunshin.” Oh. This was going to be easy. 

 

Transforming into my father was easy; I had done it dozens of times before when he was helping me practice. The kawarimi was a bit harder, but switching with objects was something I had been doing around the house for years, much to Mother’s annoyance.

 

I had always found the bunshin easy, which drove Naruto crazy whenever I tried to help him with it. “It’s too hard!” he had complained once after nearly an hour of attempts. 

 

“It’s an Academy jutsu for a reason,” I replied patiently. “It’s not too hard.” Closing my eyes and sighing heavily, I continued, “Well, the problem isn’t a lack of effort.”

 

“I already told you that, dattebayo!”

 

“Maybe it’s your control?” I mused. “Bunshin are kind of delicate, so if you aren’t careful enough, you fry them.”

 

“You think that might be what’s happening?” he frowned. “Crap. How do I fix that?”

 

“More practice~”

 

“No!”

 

“Your bunshin?” Iruka-sensei sighed, snapping me back to reality. Right. In the middle of a test. Really ought to focus.

 

“Oh. Right. Heh, sorry about that, Sensei.” I summoned my chakra and twisted it into three bunshin. The other Inokos blinked at each other before one of them finger gunned another. “Hey there, sexy.” Yup, those were mine alright.

 

“That was satisfactory,” he nodded, then offered me a headband. “Congratulations! You’ve passed.” I whooped and ran out the door, barely pausing to grab it. “Eat that , Kiba!”

 

“Oh, you did pass,” he said with a toothy grin. I tied it onto my forehead, relishing in the weight. There was still some paperwork to be done, but I was more or less officially a genin.

 

“Don’t be a pest, dog-breath,” I said, pulling Akamaru off his head and placing him on mine. I got a lick on my new hitai-ate. “It makes you look dumber than you already are.”

 

“Hey!” 

 

I looked around our group, searching for one particular blonde. Even with all my help, had he still…?

 

“Ino, have you seen Naruto?” I asked. She and Sakura were in the middle of a glaring contest. “Earth to Hormonal Girls. Where’s Naruto?”

 

“Who knows?” Sakura shrugged. “I don’t think he passed, though. He was looking pretty upset.” Damn it. I had a choice here. Either find Naruto and talk him out of his insanely stupid plan to steal the Forbidden Scroll, or let the plot take its course. Tonight would be a very important event for him, but augh I promised myself to derail the plot!

 

I felt a finger on my nose. “Hey. What’s up?” Ino retracted her hand, smirking a little. “You had that look on your face. You know, the ‘pondering mighty things’ look.” I waved her hand away, annoyed and bothered. Help him or leave him. 

 

“I’m fine,” I said irritably. “I’m going home. Tell Shika I said bye.” I didn’t give her time to respond before I jumped the wall, forcing myself to not track down Naruto. I was going to go home, take a shower, and throw myself into one of my textbooks. No interference. Absolutely none. 

 

“Inoko, is that you?” Dad called from his office as I shut the front door behind me.

 

“Yup,” I responded. The more I thought about it, the better a shower sounded. I heard the noise of his chair rattling - Mother had been reminding him to get the wheels tightened for ages, but he never got around to it.

 

“Well, look at you!” Dad was beaming at me from the doorway. “Looks like one of my babies is a genin now.”

 

“Very observant, Daddy,” I muttered, pulling off my shoes. “Ino got her hitai-ate too, so the elders will be happy. Except Akio-san. He can suck my-” He pulled me into a hug before I could finish.

 

“Long day? You sound upset.”

 

“Very.” Dad planted a kiss on my head and began pushing me to the stairs. 

 

“Go take a shower, sweetheart. Do you want any tea?”

 

“You know me so well.” After I finished soaking in the steaming water, I wanted nothing more than kiss the person that invented indoor plumbing. “You are my favorite right now, Daddy,” I said, hugging him from behind upon seeing a steaming cup waiting for me. “I almost love you as much as sushi.”

 

“I’ve moved up then,” Dad smirked. He pressed a kiss to my cheek. “I have some paperwork to finish in my office. I’ll be done in about an hour.” 

 

“Ok, Dad, I’ll be in the living room.” I flopped down onto the couch with my biochemistry book, opening it up to a dog eared page. 

 

I’d offhandedly studied biochemistry a very long time ago as part of my degree, but like I said, it had been a very long time ago and I didn’t remember much of that class even before I… Plus the inclusion of chakra made everything so much more different and interesting. What is chakra? How is it made, stored, used? How does it affect the body when used, why does chakra drain affect people when I know that people can quite easily survive without chakra?

 

Honestly, I could go on.

 

So many questions, so few answers, so little time. I wanted to learn sealing as well, but after a distant cousin experimented with a sealing scroll a bit too much… well, long story short Dad pretty much forbade me from experimenting with seals outside of a teacher, which in case one wasn’t aware, was really hard to find

 

So yeah, seals were a nope. Which meant that ninjutsu was probably my best bet at brute forcing my will onto the Plot. Somehow. I’d figure it out later. 

 

After a good twenty minutes of trying to read the same page over and over again, still not really seeing the words, let alone understanding them, I came to the conclusion that I was approaching maximum sleep deprivation and needed to crash. 

 

I cheerfully slammed my book shut and went upstairs to promptly pass out on my bed.

 

Ino woke me up three hours later by slinging the door open. Despite her repeated apologies, I could not sleep for the rest of the night. 



Chapter Text

During the three glorious hours I managed to sleep, I had a dream about how Naruto and I first met. It had been at a late night ramen booth, of all things. I couldn’t sleep and he had woken up from a nightmare hungry, and happened to be at the same ramen booth. He had recognized me from class that day, and plopped down right next to me and started talking. 

 

“Hey, I know you! You’re from my class! You have some weird name, like…”

 

“It’s Inoko,” I said, kind of annoyed that he didn’t remember my name despite being in the same class for a couple years, but not surprised. 

 

“Right, that’s it! You like ramen too?”

 

“... Naruto, it’s two in the morning. Why are you getting ramen?”

 

“Because it’s delicious at any time of day. Why are you getting ramen?” he responded petulantly. I blinked.

 

“Because I don’t sleep until really late, and I get hungry,” I said slowly. 

 

“Oh. Makes sense to me!” Naruto beamed at me. “What’s your favorite ramen?” And so he went on, following me home to make sure I was ok. By that time, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to harden my heart to him and his infectious grin. I resigned myself then to the events I just knew I was going to have to go through with him.

 

And that’s about when we jumped off the stools, turned the corner, and dived into the space ocean with zombies shambling after us and a vampire ocean warlord offering us protection in exchange for protection against the ramen nation, so it probably wasn’t the most faithful to life dream. Anyway.

 

Despite tossing and turning for another hour after Ino arrived home, I could not go back to sleep. I wasn’t in the mood for reading my usual books or training either. Just tired and a bit more irritable than usual, especially since my pseudo plan of just sleeping through tonight’s events kind of failed. 

 

I groaned, throwing my covers off and rolling over. 

 

“I hate getting up,” I muttered as I squinted against the light. “If I could sleep forever, I would be happy.”

 

“You know, I would suggest that you and Shikamaru get married,” Ino said dryly as I trudged down the stairs, “but I would be terrified at how lazy your child would be.”

 

“Meh,” I shrugged in response. “Don’t tempt me.” She stared at me for a second, trying to tell if I was being serious. “What’s for dinner?” I asked as I shuffled into the kitchen. 

 

After I finished eating, I joined the rest of my family in the living room. Resting my head on Ino’s shoulder, I cracked open a book I had been meaning to finish for a while. Sakura had loaned it to me, gushing that it was one of the greatest books she had ever read. 

 

It was a bit mushy for my taste, but not horrible. It didn’t make me want to stab my eyeballs out like the last book she gave me, so that was a plus. Just the kind of mindless entertainment I liked. 

 

I was finishing the last chapter by the time everyone else went to bed. “I would love to stay up late with you,” Ino yawned, “but I have an early shift at the flower shop in the morning, so I need to go to bed.”

 

“Ok, have fun,” I replied, giving her a smile. I was still nowhere near sleepy. Tired? Yes. Utterly exhausted? Yes. Sleepy? Psh, naw fam, that would require my body to actually like me for once.

 

I ended up studying some old psychological files that Dad had given me a while back. My hobby, as strange as it was to some people, was to create psych profiles of certain people I interacted with. I had gotten quite good at it. It was both a useful tool and a way to actually use all the knowledge I had gathered in college a lifetime ago. 

 

I wasn’t sure how long I had been up until I heard the sharp alert of a siren. Annnd that would be Naruto stealing the Forbidden Scroll . I knew the drill after a few times. Sure enough, I could hear Dad stirring upstairs. He was pulling on his jacket as he came downstairs.

 

“Don’t stay up too late, kiddo,” he said as he walked out. Well, now I kind of wanted to stay up all night. But that was irresponsible, and I was a mature adult who could take care of herself.

 

… Ok, maybe not. But my point stands.

 

It felt like forever before Dad came home, tired, but relieved. I felt tension I didn’t know was in me bleed out. Naruto is ok. He wouldn’t be that relaxed if he wasn’t. I wished that I could ask, but that would lead to all sorts of uncomfortable questions with answers I wasn’t ready to give. And a trip to T&I. Which would not be fun for a variety of reasons.

 

I followed Dad on the way upstairs, quietly pestering him for information. Thankfully, that wasn’t very odd for me. 

 

“Can’t say,” he sighed as he reached the landing. “Top secret, you know.” He smiled and tweaked my nose.  I scrunched up my face in annoyance. “Goodnight, Inoko.”

 

Stupid secretive parents. I’ll get the information out of Naruto in the morning.


“Inoko-chaaaan!” I heard just before being tackled from behind. I was able to make a screeching sound of alarm before I hit the ground.

 

“What have I said about tackling me from behind,” I asked, my voice muffled by the ground. 

 

“Right! Sorry about that!” Naruto helped me to my feet and sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. “I was just so excited! I have something really cool to show you! Kage Bunshin!” I blinked as an identical clone appeared. “Cool, huh?” they chorused together. I stared for a few seconds, then turned and kept walking. Not today, Plot.

 

“It’s too early for this,” I muttered. “Naruto, we’re getting coffee. My treat.” He whooped and hoisted me over his shoulder. “Naruto!” I screeched. “Put me down! This is why I never get you anything but decaf!”

 

Another major reason I refused to get him anything aside from decaf, I thought as I watched him, was the fact that he more than made up for it with the amount of cream and sugar he put in it. 

 

“You have a problem,” I decided, nursing the hot mug. Nasty, foul liquid, but it did the job of artificially keeping me awake and aware, more than tea did.

 

“Says you,” he stuck out his tongue. He took another big gulp and I gagged. Absolutely disgusting.

 

“By the way, Naruto,” I said once I got over my temporary nausea. Now was better than ever to ask him what happened. “How did your test go yesterday?” A gloomy look passed over his face. I felt kind of bad about asking.

 

“Weeeelll,” he said, dragging it out. “I failed.” I pretended to be surprised and widened my eyes. 

 

“That sucks.” I said, taking a sip of my coffee. Nasty, foul liquid. “But…?”

 

“But!” Naruto shouted, hitting the table and making me jump. “Iruka-sensei promoted me after I kicked Mizuki-sensei’s butt!”

 

“... I’m going to need some context.” Naruto went off on a tirade that I absently listened to for the next hour. He left out certain parts - those being top secret jinchuuriki stuff - and instead told me the rest. ‘The rest’ being how Mizuki was a dangerous sociopath who tried to murder an Academy student and teacher for personal gain. “Wow,” I finally said. “That sounded pretty dangerous.”

 

“Oh it was!” he grinned, not losing the chance to brag. “I was totally awesome, way more awesome than Sasuke could have been.”

 

I snorted. “Sasuke wouldn’t have stolen the scroll in the first place,” I replied dryly. He growled under his breath and then ran ahead of me. He was walking backwards, maintaining eye contact as I wandered around the market looking for fruit.

 

“That’s because he’s a stuck up little -”

 

“How much for the peaches?” I asked the vendor. 

 

“Are you even listening?!”

 

“I’ve heard enough of you guys’ rivalry to know what you’re going to say.” I finished paying for my peaches and gave him an amused glance. “‘Oh look at me I’m way cooler than Sasuke’ and ‘hn’ and ‘Gasp! What did you say, dattebayo!!’”

 

Naruto pouted at me. “Oh, come on!” I rolled my eyes and gestured for him to follow me. 

 

“Come on, we’ve got our final class for team assignments.”

 

“I totally forgot!” Naruto gasped, then he was gone, jumping over rooftops in the rough direction of his house. I stared after him. 

 

“Universe, if I’m put on his team, I will track down your physical form, and repeatedly punch it in the face.” That being said, I shouldered my bag of sweet, tasty fruit and began my walk to the Academy. Peach juice dripped down my chin as I bit into one, hoping to erase the taste of coffee. It sort of worked. 

 

I ran into Sakura and Ino speedily rage walking their way to the Academy. Sparks were almost literally shooting between their eyes. I watched them for a couple seconds before announcing my presence. 

 

“Why are you guys walking like that…?” I asked. I tossed the core of the peach into the grass.

 

“Oh, hi!” Sakura said cheerfully, pausing long enough to hug me. “What’s in the bag?”

 

“Peaches,” I said. I lifted it a little in their direction. “You guys want one?”

 

“Yummy!” Sakura said as Ino frowned and said, “I thought you didn’t like peaches.”

 

“Apricots,” I corrected. Sakura sighed in delight as she took a bite. “Those are gross. These are good. Shall we continue?”

 

When they had their fight - over Sasuke, because why not - I had refused to take sides and did my best to remain friends with Sakura as well. It had worked out pretty well, all things considered. Unfortunately, any cordiality vanished the moment a chance to win Sasuke’s love appeared. I wasn’t quite heartless enough to tell them that he didn’t and would likely never care for them that way. 

 

I had, however, never been more relieved to see the Academy gates. 

 

“Morning, Iruka-sensei,” I yawned. “Please save me. Would you like a peach?”

 

“Good morning,” he said, and touched the top of my head. Ino and Sakura were somehow wordlessly bickering. Honestly, their rivalry sometimes amazed me even more than Naruto and Sasuke’s. Girls were scary. “Thank you, but no. Go on inside, and please, sit next to Sasuke so the others will pay attention.”

 

I made a face, but nodded. Everyone was clearly excited, and talking loudly. Naruto - how on earth did he get here before me? - was staring at the door with a hopeful expression on his face. Crap. I really needed to get Sakura to talk to him soon. This was honestly just embarrassing for everyone involved. All of this way. Ugh. Prepubescent hormones were the absolute worst .

 

“Yo,” I said, waving at him. “How did you get here so fast?”

 

“I’ll never tell!” he said cheerfully. Real talk, that only made me more curious. But hey, I had my own secrets, and if he wanted to keep his…

 

“Fine by me. Peach?” I sat next to Sasuke while the others were arguing on who was going to sit next to him. He barely gave me a look. 

 

“No way, those are gross. Apricots are way be- Hey!” I glanced up at Naruto, confused. He seemed absolutely horrified. “You… you’ve fallen for his spell too? We were so close! Just one more day!”

 

“... What are you talking about?” I was so confused.Wayyy too tired to be dealing with this.

 

“Why else would you sit next to a loser like him?” Oh. Yeah, that made sense. Gross. He was like. Eight years younger than me, mentally. That was practically robbing the cradle.

 

“... Because Sensei asked me to? So that other girls will actually focus on what he’s saying?”

 

“Oh. Ok.” Naruto sat on my other side, still glaring at Sasuke. He was so cute, acting like him sitting there would make me immune to Sasuke’s emo charms. A valiant effort on his part. Shame I was already immune.

 

“Are you guys excited about graduating?” I asked after a few moments of silence. I wish I had brought something to read, if only to be able to ignore the terse silence between them. 

 

“Of course!” Naruto shouted. “I gotta graduate before I become Hokage, dattebayo!” Sasuke was characteristically silent, so I elbowed him.

 

“What was that for?” he asked, annoyed.

 

“It’s generally polite to respond when someone asks you a question,” I deadpanned. He scoffed softly.

 

“I don’t really care. It’s just a stepping stone to my goal.” I wonder if I should tell him that he’s not as cool and edgy as he thinks he’s being. Eh. Probably not.

 

“Hey, sis,” Ino said sweetly, Sakura looking very annoyed behind her. “Can we switch seats?”

 

“No,” I said, and placed my head on the desk. I was so tired right now. I really didn’t want to do taijutsu today. 

 

“Please? I’ll buy you sushi.” Oh, how tempting that was. Sushi….

 

“No.”

 

“I’ll get you that Golden Phoenix roll you like.” My mouth began watering. “Cucumber instead of avocado~”

 

I was actively drooling at this point, but Sensei had given me a mission. Shinobi did not give in to bribery, as tempting as it was. “I said no. I’m on a diet.”

 

“A diet? You? Since when?”

 

“Since about ten seconds ago. Leave me alone.”

 

“Meanie,” she sighed, and walked away. I could almost feel Sasuke’s relief. And then Naruto decided to stand on the desk and stare at Sasuke’s face. Definitely not putting any food there now or anytime in the near future, gross.

 

“What do girls like about you so much?” he demanded. “You’re not that cool.” Wait for it…  

 

“Naruto!” Sakura shouted. “Stop glaring at Sasuke-kun!” Many other girls joined in. Ino seemed a bit torn between telling Sasuke to hit Naruto and not wanting to invoke my glare. I was very protective of my friends, Naruto included. The look insomnia gave me combined with a glare that I perfected in my previous life was useful for scaring people into obeying me, meaning that Sakura had generally stopped hitting Naruto a while back. This did nothing for discouraging Naruto’s affections, awkwardly delivered as only twelve year old boys could manage.

 

One of the other kids - Tetsu, I think his name was - laughed with one of his friends. “Oh man, I can’t believe you did that!” He threw his arms behind his head and knocked Naruto forward. There it is.

 

I watched impassively as Sakura, Ino, and several others stared in horror. The looks on their faces were almost as good as Naruto and Sasuke’s. They pulled apart, gagging and spitting. Naruto sounded like he was dying. 

 

“You jerk!” Naruto shouted. “I can’t believe you stole my first kiss! Wait. I feel some kind of immense rage...”

 

“Naruto~” Sakura said with sweet venom in her voice. She cracked her knuckles as everyone glared at him. “You are so dead.”

 

“S-Sakura-chan,” he chuckled nervously. “It was an accident, dattebayo.”

 

“Sure it was,” Fumi growled. They all faltered as I began to grin.

 

“He said it was an accident,” I said, smiling sweetly, but eyes promising death. Shikamaru affectionately called it my ‘soul eating glare’. “I don’t know about you, but I believe him. So. Back off, ladies. Besides, it’s not like he slipped him any tongue.” Naruto and Sasuke began gagging even more. One of the girls practically fainted at the thought. 

 

There was a reason why most of the people in my class both disliked and feared me.

 

“I could have handled them,” Naruto said as they filtered away.

 

“We both know that you wouldn’t have touched Sakura,” I rolled my eyes. “Now pay attention to Sensei.”

 

I was fairly sure Sasuke muttered something along the lines of, “Like you have room to talk”, but I let it slide. Today was team assignments. After today, it most likely wasn’t my main problem.

 

I could hear Sakura and Ino debating who was going to be on Sasuke’s team. It was really annoying, because while Sakura was one of my best friends, her voice drove me insane sometimes. “My money’s on Sakura,” I said, thinking of the image of Team Seven’s picture. Ino made a sound that was somewhere between horror and insult.

 

“Why?” she hissed. I smiled. 

 

“Because I can see the future,” I deadpanned. She rolled her eyes. At least now she couldn’t say I never tried to tell her if it ever came out. 

 

Iruka-sensei started to lecture us on the duties and responsibilities of a shinobi. It was all stuff I had heard before, from either previous lectures or the elders, so I began to tune it out. It was only a few minutes long, though, and then he began to divide us into teams. I continued to ignore him until I heard a familiar name. “Team Three, Satou Tokaji, Ando Masahiko, and Haruno Sakura.” Wut.

 

“Ha!” Ino said triumphantly. “Clearly, I will be on Sasuke-kun’s team!” Nononono this isn’t right. What did I do, what did I change? I was lost in my shock until Ino made a shocked screech.

 

“What did I miss?” I asked, confused at the glares I was getting from the girls. 

 

“Team Seven,” Iruka-sensei repeated. I felt a dawning sense of dread and horror. No. “Uzumaki Naruto.” No. “Uchiha Sasuke.” No! “Yamanaka Inoko.” I stared at Sensei for several seconds, then stood.

 

“Sensei, please excuse me while I throw myself off the Hokage monument.”

 

“Stop being dramatic and sit down,” he said, rolling his eyes. I sat back down. Naruto was whimpering a little behind me. 

 

“I’m cursed, I know it, ‘ttebayo.”

 

“Drama queen,” Sasuke scoffed.

 

“Both of you shut up,” I muttered, rubbing my forehead. Team Eight came out as expected - Shino, Kiba, and Hinata -, as did Team Ten, my sister’s team.

 

“I’ll trade you,” Ino said with a note of desperation in her voice. “You like Shikamaru and Chōji more than you like Naruto and Sasuke.” I let my head collapse onto the desk with a thud.

 

“If you can convince Sensei, then by all means,” I sighed, but I was inwardly… actually sort of happy that I had been put here, now that I thought about it. I liked Naruto just fine, and Sasuke was ok when he wasn’t being angsty. Plus a front row seat to changing everything. Including but not limited to: Sasuke. Sasuke. Akatsuki. Sasuke. End of the world. Oh, and Sasuke. 

 

I stared blankly at the chalkboard. I feel like a lot of problems will be solved if I just make sure Sasuke doesn’t make super stupid choices. Granted, given his ego, this won’t be easy. Especially since Naruto is going to make it his life goal to basically aggravate him at all opportunities. 

 

Ugh. The Plot was such a pain.

Chapter Text

Jōnin began to show up for their teams. Sakura got an Inuzuka guy. He seemed nice enough, but I could tell just by looking at him that his test was going to be brutal. Poor girl looked super nervous, and I didn’t blame her one bit. Kurenai arrived shortly after, practically radiating excitement. Then came Asuma, unlit cigarette in mouth, but that was the end of the people I knew. The room emptied out, leaving the three of us and Iruka-sensei. Eventually, even he left. 

 

“I’m sure that your jōnin sensei just lost track of time,” he assured us before leaving. “I bet that he’ll be here before you know it.”

 

Fat chance , I thought an hour later. Naruto had quickly become bored and was messing with everything that could be messed with. The chalkboard fell victim, then some papers that I really hoped weren’t important. He frequently checked the hallway for any sign of our sensei.

 

I sort of dozed off here and there, jolted back to wakefulness everytime Naruto made something clatter. I finally ended up pulling out another book I’d been working on, a historical fiction about a healer in the warring clans era. It was very romantic, and honestly? I was down for it. Personally I shipped the healer with the Senju warrior. Ino shipped her with the Uchiha, and while I could see it, I just thought she had better chemistry with the Senju. He built her a clinic! I had sighed dramatically, pretending to swoon onto my bed.

 

Regardless. I vaguely kept an eye on Naruto as I read, trying to make sure he didn’t get into too much trouble. Iruka-sensei would be pretty upset if we let Naruto break into his desk, though what else he would expect leaving us without an adult, I’m not sure.

 

“What are you doing?” Sasuke asked exasperatedly as Naruto wedged a chalk eraser between the door and the frame. I could sense a lazily sparking chakra steadily drawing closer. Underneath the calm flow, I felt the tight wire underneath. Who ever it was - and oh boy I really wonder who it could possibly be - was prepared for whatever he encountered.

 

“Revenge!” Naruto grinned. “This is what our sensei gets for being so late!”

 

“Tch. Idiot.”

 

“I think it’s a good idea,” I smirked. Who knows? Maybe the prank would work. It wasn’t one of his best, by any means, but… well, anything could happen. “Clearly, he doesn’t respect our time, so there’s only one way to teach him a lesson.” Sasuke gave me a look. I grinned back at him. The lightning chakra came closer. Ooh, this was going to be good. 

 

“Our teacher’s a jōnin,” Sasuke said quietly. “An elite ninja. You really think he’d fall for that?”

 

“I sincerely hope so,” I frowned. “I’ll be really disappointed if he doesn’t.” Sasuke scoffed again, but kept one eye firmly on the door regardless. There’s the twelve year old boy I knew was in there. He was just as invested in this prank as we were, he just didn’t want us to know that he was invested. What a dork.

 

The door opened, and our sensei’s hair was covered with white dust as the eraser fell on his head. It was barely noticeable, thanks to its silver color. My mouth curved into a grin as Naruto laughed. Hatake Kakashi looked pretty much like I was expecting. Though seeing him in person did raise one question: What did he put in his hair to make it stick up like that? I needed to get me a bottle of that. It would make for an excellent prank on Ino. Or Shika. Or Chōji. 

 

“I got him, I got him!” Naruto cheered. Sasuke’s chakra shifted to disbelief. 

 

“Nice shot, Naruto,” I nodded, still grinning. 

 

Kakashi picked the eraser up from the floor and deliberately placed it on the desk. “Hmm… how can I put this?” he mused, rubbing his masked chin. “My first impression of you guys… Well, I hate you.” Naruto and Sasuke glanced at each other in surprise.

 

“It was just a joke,” Naruto said quietly. My eyes narrowed. Something wasn’t quite right about that. There wasn’t hatred in his chakra - the Three knew I knew what that felt like - but it wasn’t apathy like his blank face suggested. Curiosity, anticipation. I tilted my head. Something else I couldn’t quite recognize. Wistfulness? 

 

“Well, we hate you too, Sensei,” I smiled, making sure it didn’t reach my eyes. “Can we all move on with our lives now that you’re here?” I saw a glint of something in his only visible eye - either sadism or approval - but it vanished before I could decide which. 

 

“Hmm. I suppose so.” His eye closed in what I assumed to be a smile. “Let’s meet up on the roof, shall we?” Then he vanished. 

 

“Man, our sensei sucks,” Naruto muttered.

 

“I don’t know, he’s kind of cute,” I replied, snapping my book shut. They both gave me a horrified look.

 

“Who are you and what have you done with Inoko?” Naruto asked suspiciously. “Inoko never thinks guys are cute.”

 

“Maybe that’s just because all the guys in our class aren’t attractive enough,” I replied, staring at Sasuke. He almost flinched. I shoved my book into my bag and began to make my way up to the roof, ignoring Naruto and Sasuke’s bickering behind me. Kakashi was waiting there for us, leaning casually on the railing. I lay down on the nearby stairs and stared at the sky. Naruto and Sasuke sat on either side of me, pointedly not looking at each other. I sighed heavily. This team is going to take a lot of work, isn’t it?

 

“Well, then, let’s get started, shall we?” Kakashi said. “Why don’t you introduce yourselves?” There was silence. That’s not ambiguous at all. Or ominous, for that matter.

 

“You guys could try names, likes, dislikes, hobbies, dreams for the future,” I suggested from my lying down position. “Things like that. You go first, Sensei, and show us how it’s done.” I sat up and grinned.

 

“Hmm. Well, my name is Hatake Kakashi,” he drawled. “I have no desire to tell you my likes and dislikes. My dream for the future… Hmm… I can’t say I have one. As for my hobbies… I have lots of hobbies.” 

 

“We didn’t learn anything,” Naruto whispered loudly. As revenge, I guessed from what little I remembered of his personality, Sensei gestured for him to go next.

 

“Oh! Ok!” Naruto said cheerfully. “I’m Uzumaki Naruto! I like pork ramen, beef ramen, miso ramen, and just about every other kind of ramen! I don’t like the three minute wait time for instant ramen! And I don’t like Sasuke! My hobbies are eating ramen and training! And my dream… is to become the greatest Hokage! I’ll surpass all the others! Then everyone will have to stop disrespecting me and start treating me like I’m somebody!”

 

“You know, Sasuke, I wonder if he likes ramen,” I said dryly. Sasuke snorted. Ha. 

 

“Ok, now for the other blonde,” Sensei replied with a bit too much cheer in his voice. Oh damn, putting me on the spot. Nice. 

 

“I’m Yamanaka Inoko,” I said, blinking slowly. “I like my immediate family, and my few friends, among sleep and various foods. I don’t like people who think they’re better than everyone else because of their experience or family, one of my clan elders, and I don’t like green beans. I’m an insomniac, so I have lots of hobbies.” I nodded at him after saying that. “One of them is creating psychological profiles for people I interact with often. My dream for the future… hmm… doesn’t really matter right now. Suffice it to say that I want to become more powerful.” I would have to in order to save my father.

 

Kakashi hummed softly, giving me a look. I stared back until he glanced over to Sasuke, nodding at him.

 

“My name is Uchiha Sasuke,” he droned. “I hate a lot of things, and I don't particularly like anything. What I have is not a dream, because I will make it a reality. I'm going to restore my clan, and kill a certain someone…” I sighed heavily. I felt like this was already becoming a pattern.

 

“You’re such a drama queen, Sasuke.”

 

“Shut up, owl.”

 

“That hurts, Sasuke. Gets me right here.” I tapped over my heart before returning my attention to Kakashi. “What now, Sensei?” 

 

“Well, you’re each unique and you have your own ideas.” He blinked a couple times before continuing. “We’ll have our first mission tomorrow.”

 

“What kind of mission are we going to have? Are we going to rescue princesses? Or overthrow an evil warlord?” Naruto asked excitedly. 

 

“It’s a task that the four of us will do together,” Kakashi said. I got the distinct impression that he was smirking. 

 

“What what what whaaat?” Naruto pleaded. 

 

“A survival exercise,” Kakashi replied casually. I could almost hear Naruto’s dreams crashing and burning. It sounded a lot like a slide whistle and an exploding tag at the end.

 

“Whaat?” he complained. “We did tons of those in the Academy.”

 

Kakashi sighed. He seemed annoyed that he had to deal with us at all. At least pretend like you want to be here. “This is not like your previous training.” 

 

“What’s the catch?” I asked slowly as Naruto scratched his head beside me. Kakashi cocked his head to the side and pretended to be confused. “There’s always a catch, Sensei. I can promise you that I’m smarter than I look. So what exactly will we be doing?” A bit of a dark aura began to leak out of our new teacher. He began to laugh softly and menacingly. 

 

“What’s so funny?” Naruto whispered to me. “It was a normal question, right?”

 

“If I tell you the answer, you’re not going to like it~” Kakashi said. A smile crept across my face.

 

“Try us, Sensei,” I said. 

 

“Well, of the twenty seven kids who graduated from the Academy, only nine will become genin.” Naruto’s eyes widened, and even Sasuke seemed a bit surprised. Determined, but surprised nonetheless. “The other eighteen will be sent back to the Academy. In other words, this is a pass/fail test with an extremely high fail rate of sixty-six percent or more. See? I told you you wouldn’t like it.”

 

“Then what was that graduation test for, then?” Naruto demanded. “We worked hard to get here!”

 

“Oh, that? That was just to weed out the completely hopeless, and to select the candidates who might become genin. Or not.” He sounded very nonchalant about the whole matter. 

 

I was liking him more and more.

 

“Whaaat?!” Naruto gasped. 

 

“Well, that’s how it is,” Sensei smiled. His voice hardened. “ I decide whether you become genin or get sent back to the Academy. Be at Training Ground Three with your complete weapon set at five A.M.” Naruto fumed next to me, and Sasuke’s knuckles were white. I raised my hand.

 

“Can we go home now? I’m hungry and drowning in testosterone over here.”

 

“Hmm… Yes, you’re dismissed. And I just remembered. Don’t eat breakfast tomorrow morning, unless you enjoy throwing up.” He shunshined away, leaving us behind.

 

“Well, I think he’s a pretty nice guy,” I decided, standing.

 

“Nice?” Naruto spluttered. “He didn’t tell us anything about himself, he was insanely late, and he’s all around a jerk!”

 

“I learned quite a bit about him, though. Maybe you weren’t paying attention,” I mused. 

 

“How did you learn anything about him?” Sasuke finally said. “I hate to agree with Naruto, of all people, but he has a point.”

 

“The fact that he was late can tell us two things: One, he’s either forgetful or irresponsible. Two, he just doesn’t care about being on time.” I held up two fingers. “The fact that he’s a jōnin means that it’s likely the later. He didn’t want to tell us about his likes and dislikes, meaning that it’s likely not for the ears of children, or that he just doesn’t care about life that much. This is backed up by the fact that he doesn’t care about punctuality and the fact that he has no dream for the future. I’d peg his age at around mid-twenties, meaning that he almost certainly fought in the Third War, so probably some kind of trauma in his background as well. If he is in fact in his mid-twenties, then he was just a few years older than us during the Kyuubi attack.” Sasuke was too focused on my words to notice, but I saw Naruto’s slight squirming. “He said that he has lots of hobbies, but didn’t even name one. So again, probably not for the ears of children.” 

 

I blinked slowly, allowing the information to sink in. Creating psychological profiles for the past five years meant that I could now make a fairly basic one on the fly. I figured it was a decently useful skill to have.

 

“If you put that all together, then you find out that our new sensei is almost certainly a man that’s had horrible PTSD since he was our age or younger and either can’t or won’t get therapy for it, has done a lot of things in life that he’s not proud of, and deals with the bad memories with things that could be considered perverted. It’s pretty obvious.” Naruto gaped at me, and Sasuke seemed shocked as well. “... What?”

 

“It was not obvious!” Naruto shouted. “I never would have seen that in a million years!”

 

“He’s right,” Sasuke said quietly. “To have extrapolated that amount of information out of so few words…” 

 

“I’ve been doing this for a while,” I laughed nervously, scratching the back of my neck. “You remember when Naruto shut the school down for a week with one of his pranks? I spent it making profiles for a good deal of people in the clan. I’ve gotten good at it, I guess.”

 

“Hey hey hey!” Naruto waved his hand. “Have you made one for me?”

 

“Nooo,” I said slowly. “After doing Ino and Shikamaru, I decided that adults are much more interesting than children, and don’t bother with them. I’m sure that Sasuke would be an interesting one,” I mused, talking more to myself at this point than anything else. I tapped my chin for a moment, thinking. “Anyway! I’m going home now. See you in the morning.”

 

Saying that, I proceeded to get the crap out of there. My new team was a can of worms I would put off opening until absolutely necessary. 

 

Chapter Text

“G’mornin’, Inoko,” Naruto yawned the next day. I looked up from the bomb I was making in surprise. I wasn’t actually expecting either of them for a while yet. Except - Oh. It was about time for them to be here. So much to do, so little time. “Ugh. It’s too early for any of th- Are you ok?” He frowned at me.

 

“Yeah, why? Am I bleeding?” I was pretty sure I ran into a tree a couple different times. I scowled at the thought. Birch tree, I will defeat you. One day, I will have my revenge.

 

“Your eyes are… How much sleep did you get last night?” I blinked.

 

“Sleep? Oh, none, I’ve been here since dinner setting up traps. I would be careful out there, I put a large clump of paper bombs somewhere over…” I spun around, frowning. “I don’t remember where I put them, actually. Oh well, I’ll just make more.” They weren’t my problem anymore, ahaha!

 

“You have a problem,” Sasuke said flatly, appearing nearby. He did actually look mildly concerned, which was more expression than he normally showed. 

 

“Yeah, it’s called insomnia,” I snorted. “Mix it with nine cups of coffee, and I have all the time in the world to set up traps!” I laughed (a bit maniacally, I’m sure Ino would say) and ran a hand through my hair. Huh. I ought to redo it before Kakashi got here and started putting us through our paces.

 

I pulled out my hair tie and tied it back up. “That reminds me!” I pulled another travel mug out of my pack. “Coffee? No? Ok.” I drank half of the cold liquid in one go. “Alright!” I said cheerfully. “I’m ready.” An explosion went off nearby. “That… wasn’t supposed to go off for another couple hours.”

 

“You have multiple problems,” Sasuke amended. 

 

“I already knew that, idiot. Bagel?” I didn’t give him the option to accept before taking a bite. “Could use some cream cheese,” I muttered to myself. “I know I brought some…” I rummaged through my bag, confused as I found a cluster of kunai I could have sworn I put in one of my traps. “Did I seriously put the cheese there? Oh well, that’s why I brought the other peaches. You guys want some?”

 

“Sensei told us not to eat,” Naruto said, confused. “Won’t you get in trouble?”

 

“It wath a thuggethtion,” I said with a mouthful of bagel. I popped a strawberry in for good measure. Swallowing, I continued, “At least I’m pretty sure. I’m banking on him not being here for at least another two hours, aaaand that reminds me. Naruto, could you send like three shadow clones to get hot coffee, cream cheese, a history textbook, and four pieces of cardboard? I could also use some chocolate, a yellow poppy, and a cup of coffee. It is very important that the poppy is yellow.”

 

“You said coffee twice,” Naruto frowned. 

 

“Did I? Huh. Well, that ought to tell you how badly I need it.” Did I actually need the coffee? The fact that I had a hard time detecting the separate beats of my heart said probably not. Eh. I survived college, I could survive a one time caffeine overdose. “Here’s the money, just send off some clones, please.” He blinked in surprise, glanced at Sasuke, and made the clones. They ran off like the devil himself was chasing them. “Ok, now that that’s taken care of,” I muttered, twirling a lock of hair around my finger. “What was I going to do…?”

 

 I stared blankly into space as Naruto whispered to Sasuke, “She’s kind of scaring me.”

 

“Right!” I screeched suddenly. “I was going to… wait. That’s not going to work…”

 

“You said that you’ve been setting up traps, right?” Sasuke said after listening to me mumble to myself for a while. I jerked up and got in his face. He pulled back a little.

 

“Oh, don’t mind me,” I said, not blinking. I plucked a strand of hair from the duck butt and inspected it. “What were you saying?”

 

“... Where did you place all of your traps?”

 

“Hmm, not going to say. Naruto, I need a strand of your hair.”

 

“Why not?” Naruto demanded as Ducky - I giggled to myself as I thought that - glared at me. 

 

“Hm? Oh, because of my analysis of Sensei. He’ll likely be too lazy to fight us himself, so I set the traps for you guys.” Will these do? I wondered as I compared the hairs. “And if he does fight us himself, then hopefully some of my traps will get him.”

 

“And if they get us?” Sasuke asked. 

 

“Then there’s a reason they taught us kawarimi in the Academy, silly,” I rolled my eyes. “Just be faster than my traps, and good luck with that! Oh! The clones are back~”

 

Quickly tearing through the food, I absently watched the boys out of the corner of my eye. They were… wary. On their guard, because I had shown that I was a potential threat.

 

Bet they weren’t expecting that.

 

 A grin curved the corner of my mouth. This will be good. If I can just make sure that they have enough training during the chūnin exams… No. They’ll not have enough training to deal with him. That won’t happen for a long time. I was in a grim mood now. Great. Just focus on passing Kakashi’s test, Inoko. 

 

I left the two of them to reset a couple of timed traps, check the triggers on a few others, and set up the last three. When I got back, they were both leaning against the wooden posts, ignoring each other. I stuck the poppy in my braid and brushed my bangs out of my face. 

 

“Why did you want the history book, Inoko?” the other blond on the team asked. 

 

“You’ll see,” I said slyly. I could have sworn I heard a soft “eep” come from him, but I ignored it. Time passed, and Sensei still didn’t show up. Normally, I would have been using the opportunity to nap, but after all the coffee I had ingested, all I could do was bounce my leg at inhuman speeds while sitting on one of the posts. There was nothing else I could do. Triple checking my traps would be futile. Best to meditate and practice my sensing a little while I could.

 

“Hey, teme, are humans supposed to be able to vibrate like that, ‘ttebayo?”

 

“........ I don’t think so.”

 

Oh, there he was.

 

“Morning everyone,” Sensei said once he arrived, looking entirely too casual for being as late as he was. Should I have said something to the boys? Maybe. Was I way too deeply immersed in caffeine to say anything? Absolutely, this was going to be grreeat! “Ready for your first day?”

 

“You’re late!” Naruto shouted in my ear. I jumped, my limbs finally finding the will to move. 

 

“A black cat crossed my path, you see,” he lied cheerfully. “So I had to take the long way.” The boys stared at him, clearly wondering if he actually thought we believed him. “Well then. Let’s get started.” He pulled an alarm clock out of his bag and placed it on one of the wooden posts. “It’s set to go off at noon,” Sensei explained. “Your assignment is to take these two bells away from me before then.”

 

“Is negotiation an option?” I asked. If there was one thing I had learned from hanging out with Shikamaru, it was to take the easy way out when possible. Smart-lazy, my mother in a previous life once called it. Plus I wasn’t sure how effective I’d be in a fight as hopped up as I was. Time had stopped existing a while back.

 

“No,” he said flatly, then kept going in a normal voice. “If you can’t get them, then you won’t get lunch. You’ll be tied to one of those posts while I eat your bento in front of you.” He pulled three bentos from his bag and - holy frick on a stick, were those deluxe Akimichi bento boxes?! The stakes were real now, and nothing could be more important. Well. Passing the test and actually becoming a genin was probably more important. But the bento was a close second. Naruto screeched in horror as Sasuke stared at Kakashi, clearly annoyed.

 

“Man, am I glad I disregarded that advice!” I said cheerfully. “I offered you guys some food, but you said no!” Turning serious, I gave Sensei a flat stare. “What’s the catch, Sensei? Either you misplaced a bell, or you’re trying to pit us all against each other.” He laughed.

 

“You’re right, you are smarter than you look. This way, at least one of you will be tied to the post, and ultimately disqualified for failing. That one goes back to the Academy.” He jingled the bells. “Then again,” he mused, “all three of you could fail, and go back to the Academy. You can use any weapon at your disposal, any jutsu you know. If you’re not prepared to kill me, you won’t get the bells.” I see, I thought, hardening my expression. People hold back when they’re not trying to kill. He’s testing our abilities, and the only way to do that is if we actually are trying to kill him. Clever. He’s a jōnin, so the chances of us actually injuring him are low.

 

“You couldn’t even dodge a chalkboard eraser!” Naruto laughed. “We’ll probably end up needing a new sensei if we try to kill you.”

 

“In this world, those who aren’t skilled enough tend to complain more,” Sensei said. “You can safely ignore them. Lowest scores. Losers.” Naruto growled.

 

“He’s baiting you, Naruto,” I said quietly. “I have no doubt that he read up on us this morning, or even before we even met him.” 

 

“When I say start, you can begin,” he continued. My warning evidently fell on deaf ears. Naruto pulled a kunai out of his holster and charged him. Kakashi moved faster than my eyes could keep up. Impressive. One of his hands held Naruto’s head, and the other grasped the kunai with Naruto’s hand attached, holding it so the point was directed at the soft spot where skull and spine met. “Don’t be in such a hurry,” Kakashi scolded. “I didn’t say start yet.”

 

Man, I had to get one of those bells. The things he could teach me…

 

“But ninja are sneaky little tricksters, Sensei,” I mused. “Shouldn’t we attack before the enemy thinks we will?”

 

“Perhaps. But not today. However, you came at me with the intent to kill, so… how can I say this?”

“Begin?” I suggested. 

 

“I’m actually starting to like you guys,” Sensei said with a note of amusement. “Get ready.” I jumped off the post and settled into a stance. “And… start!” Sasuke and I jumped away into the forest. First things first: find a hiding place that I haven’t boobytrapped. It… wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, though by the flare of annoyance I felt occasionally, Sasuke was having a much harder time. I settled into a tree with a basic henge, suppressed my chakra to the absolute bare minimum, then sat back and watched the show.

 

“Ninja must know how to conceal their movements and hide effectively,” Kakashi said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well, Sasuke and Inoko understand that much… They’ve hidden well.” Then he noticed Naruto standing on the post I had recently vacated. It was slightly wobbly under his feet.

 

“You and me, pal!” Naruto shouted. “Right now, fair and square! Let’s go!” Sensei’s chakra resembled nothing more than ‘is he actually serious’ and a hint of something I figured to be exasperated fondness? That didn’t make much sense… I frowned, trying to remember things from a previous life. I need to sleep, and then mind walk myself. I don’t remember shit.

 

“You know, compared to the others, you’re a little bit… weird,” Kakashi said.

 

I’m weird?! Have you seen Inoko?!” Wow, Naruto, thanks so much. “Stop trying to distract me! The only thing weird here is your hair!” I like his hair… It looks soft and fluffy... Naruto charged him yelling, but pulled back as Sensei reached into his weapons pouch. 

 

“Shinobi Battle Techniques, part one,” Sensei said casually, pulling his hand out. “Taijutsu.” An orange book came out, open about halfway. It was all I could do to contain my laughs at the look on Naruto’s face. I knew that book. I’d seen it in the bookstore before, and had taken a look at the insides. Some of the mushiest, overly dramatic, and unrealistic romance I’d ever read. Oh, and lots of smut. I’d only gotten a dozen pages in before I was caught and there had already been seven gregarious sex scenes. Judging by Naruto’s reaction, he also had a pretty good idea of the contents of that book.

 

“What the…?!” 

 

“What’s the matter? Weren’t you going to attack me?” Sensei asked, his eyes glued to the pages. 

 

“But… I mean, why are you reading that book?!” Poor Naruto, he looked so confused and utterly flabbergasted. What a great word, flabbergasted. Fuh-lllllabbergasted. 

 

“Why? Because I want to find out what happens next, of course. Don’t let it bother you. With your weak attacks, it doesn’t really matter if I’m reading or… whatever.” Naruto screamed in frustration.

 

“I’m going to tear you apart!” he roared. Sensei easily blocked his punch and ducked under his spin kick. He still hadn’t taken his eyes off the book. Naruto punched, but just before his fist connected with Kakashi’s face, the jōnin vanished. “Huh?”

 

“Ninja shouldn’t let the enemy see your back multiple times, idiot,” Sensei said, crouching behind him. His hands are in a Tiger hand seal, likely meaning that it’s a fire ninjutsu. But he said that he was using taijutsu, so it’s probably something else. Hopefully. Meh, he’ll be fine. Probably. “Too late. Leaf Village Ultimate Taijutsu!” I could swear his eye was glinting. “One Thousand Years of Death!” he shouted, shoving his fingers  - up Naruto’s butt. I choked on a laugh and bit my hand to prevent myself from making a noise that could reveal my position. Naruto screeched and jumped away, landing in the water. I hope he washes his hands before eating or anything. E Coli is no joke. “Ok. Where was I?” he said, pulling his book open again. 

 

Two shuriken shot out from the water as I felt a burst of chakra there as well. Shadow clones? I mused as Sensei caught each shuriken on a finger. Naruto crawled out of the water, sputtering and gasping for air.

 

“What are you doing now?” Sensei sighed. “You’re not going to get lunch if you don’t get a bell.”

 

“I know!” Naruto snapped. “You told us already!”

 

“You look pretty wobbly for someone who’s going to ‘surpass the Hokage’,” he continued. 

 

“I can’t fight if I’m hungry!” he shouted. I popped a strawberry in my mouth. Good thing I grabbed my supplies before I bolted. “I just got a bit careless earlier! Man, I’m hungry… but I got to get a bell! I’ll find the strength somehow… I’m going to pass this stupid test of yours, and I’m not going back to the Academy.” For the sake of the world, I sincerely hope not. “I will become a ninja!” Having said that, shadow clones burst out of the water and ran towards Kakashi. “You were overconfident, Sensei! That’s why you weren’t ready for my favorite jutsu!”

 

“Your clones may be solid, but you’re still the worst student. You can’t beat me with this jutsu.” That’s about when a Naruto grabbed him from behind. I could probably use the Mind Transfer Jutsu right now, but there’s a risk of hitting one of the clones, and I don’t particularly feel like it right now, plus I have absolutely no idea what would happen to me if I did that. Why are they holding down his legs and not grabbing the bells?! A final Naruto jumped into the air and pulled back his fist. 

 

“This is for nailing me in the butt earlier!” he shouted. Then Naruto punched himself. And there’s a kawarimi. Sensei went to the Academy too, you know. But of course, Naruto’s brain went straight to the henge, and all of them began beating each other up until one of them got the bright idea to dispel all of the clones, leaving one Naruto standing.

 

The glint of a bell caught Naruto’s eye, and mine as well. Well… I could, I suppose, but… nah, that was cheating. On second thought, ninja were supposed to cheat, right?

 

Didn’t I stick a snare trap there…? Naruto went bouncing up into the air. I guess I did. Sensei lazily approached, leaned down to pick up the bell, and - now!

 

I switched with Sensei, scooped up the bell, and stuck it in my bra. “Ha!” I laughed, then kawarimied again with a nearby log. I found another hiding spot and waited. At least it’s not cold, I thought as the bell pressed against my skin. 

 

“Hmm. Not bad,” Sensei sighed. “I guess that Inoko gets lunch, at least. Naruto, think before you use a jutsu. An opponent might use it against you otherwise. Oh, and also… if the bait is obvious, don’t take it. Idiot.” Naruto snarled and writhed around. “A ninja must see through deception.”

 

“I. Get. It!” he howled. 

 

“I’m telling you this because you don’t get it. You think you get it, which is not the same as actually getting it. Your movements are wasteful. Won’t you ever lea- Agh!” Some of Sasuke’s kunai and shuriken hit him. Oh dear. That looked painful. 

 

“Agh! Sasuke, you killed him! Agh!” Naruto screamed. I had felt the kawarimi, though, so wasn’t too alarmed. Ah, the joys of being reincarnated and being ultrasensitive to chakra. ‘Kakashi’ poofed into a burst of smoke and revealed itself to be nothing more than a log. Sasuke began to move. I closed my eyes and focused on the various chakras around me. Sensei was a decent distance away, thankfully. He was also hiding his chakra, but hardly at all. Underestimating me, Sensei? Well, I should probably cut Naruto down and then find Sasuke. 

 

I stood at the base of the tree and watched him hang for a few moments. He scowled at me. 

 

“Please don’t get caught in such an obvious trap again, Naruto,” I sighed before throwing a kunai. He landed on his head pretty hard. Oof, that had to hurt. “Ne, Naruto, if you help me defeat Sensei, I’ll share my bento with you. Sound good?” His stomach growled in response as he stared sullenly at the ground by my feet. “I’ll take that as a yes. You find Sensei - or better, hold our lunch hostage, and I’ll find Sasuke.”

 

“Right!” he said, cheering up almost instantly. “Thanks for the help, Inoko, I owe you one!” I closed my eyes as he ran off, and focused on Sasuke’s chakra. There. I took off, keeping Sensei and Sasuke in my mental radar and - wait, why were there two Senseis?

 

… Shit.

 

Chapter Text

I steered clear of the clone directly in my path and kept going. Not dealing with that right now, no thanks. I stopped behind some bushes when he appeared in my line of vision. He didn’t notice me. Narrowing my eyes, I focused on his chakra,  - Just standing there is a bit obvious, so - only to discover that it was a normal clone. And now I had lost track of where Sensei was. 

 

“Inoko. Behind you.”

 

“Frick on a stick!” I shouted, lashing out with a kunai. He vanished, and chakra coated my senses, dulling my reaction. No. Not again. Not again! A memory of when I was a baby forced its way up and I was drowning in burning red chakra, scared and helpless and oh god where was I why was I so small oh please god no no no- 

 

“Kai!” I snarled, slamming my hands together. “Screw you, Sensei!” I shouted. “I hate genjutsu!” They massively messed with my head. The first time I had any sort of genjutsu put on me, I’d had a nasty panic attack. That was. Not fun. At all. At least my cousins learned to leave me out of their genjutsu pranks after that.

 

I could sense Sensei now, and his chakra was the equivalent of my ‘wut’ face. “Where is that obnoxious duck boy?” I wondered, making my way over. 

 

It took me a while to track him down, due to the repeated genjutsu that Sensei’s clone kept hitting me with. They were steadily more and more subtle and complex, and it was taking me a little bit longer each time to shake them off. I was feeling particularly murderous by the time I arrived at the clearing where I could feel Sasuke’s chakra. 

 

And there went my bad mood. Honestly this was pure gold. “Where is he?” I thought out loud. “I know he’s around here somewhere.” I could feel him getting steadily more annoyed. Worth it~

 

“Inoko,” he finally said. I looked down to see him buried up to his neck in the ground. 

 

“Pfft.” Upon actually seeing him, I just couldn’t contain myself. It was one thing to have it roughly in my senses, and quite another to actually see it. By the time I had my laughter under control, at least five minutes had passed. “Looks like someone got caught by the Headhunter jutsu,” I teased, crouching in front of him. I smirked. “Rookie mistake, duck butt.”

 

“Get me out of here!” he snarled.

 

“Not until you say please~” Sasuke kept glaring, then looked away. I continued to smirk at him. I could honestly wait all day. Well. At least until noon. 

 

“Please get me out of here,” he muttered.

 

“Of course,” I bowed gallantly, then used an earth jutsu to pull him out. It wasn’t too hard now that there was already chakra in the ground. “Now, duck butt, what is your oh so brilliant mind telling you?”

 

“I’ve got to get a bell before lunch,” he muttered, ignoring me. “That doesn’t leave much time.” Then he glanced at my chest. I’d be offended if it weren’t for the fact that I knew he was looking at the bell.

 

“If you’re planning on reaching down my bra, you’ve got another think coming.”

 

“Tch. Like I need your bell. A while ago, I touched the remaining bell. I can take it the next time. Unlike you, I’m strong enough to take the bell.” I shrugged.

 

“I’m a lazy person by nature, Sasuke. I take what I can get when I can get it. If you aren’t willing to do that, then maybe you should just give up and try again next year.” Sasuke glared at me, but something about it was different. I met his gaze, blinking slowly. He looked away and I felt his chakra darkening. Cue dramatic wind.

 

“I’m the only one who can kill that man,” he whispered. It sounded like he was trying to convince himself as well. “I am an avenger. That means I must be stronger than my prey. I need this training; there’s no time for setbacks.”

 

“While I’m sure that’s true, the timer is going to go off any minute now, so you might want to work on getting that bell,” I drawled, shoving my hands in my pockets and walking past him. The ringing of the alarm centered me. “Well, what do you know? There it is. Come on, Sasuke.” 

 

As it turned out, Naruto heeded my advice when I suggested taking the lunches hostage. Unfortunately, Sensei caught him and tied him to the middle post. I burst out laughing when I saw him.

 

“Sorry about the crappy advice, Naruto,” I said, poking him in the cheek. “But I got a bell, so that works out.” His stomach growled at me, and Sasuke’s responded. I could feel my own tightening.

 

“Uh-oh, stomachs are growling,” Sensei said with folded arms. “That’s… too bad. Oh, and by the way, about this exercise… Well, I’ve decided that there’s no need to go back to the Academy.” Naruto gasped with delight and Sasuke smirked. I merely sat on top of the post Naruto was tied to and blinked. There was something about Kakashi-sensei’s chakra that I didn’t quite trust. Malicious glee at its finest. 

 

Yup. Definitely a sadist.

 

“That- that- that means that all three of us…!” Naruto grinned, wriggling in his ropes. 

 

“Yes!” Sensei smiled as if he were talking to young children. “All three of you must quit being ninja.” Silence fell across the clearing. I… honestly wasn’t expecting that.

 

“... That’s a little harsh, Sensei,” I said after several seconds. “Care to explain your reasoning?”

 

“Quit being ninja?!” Naruto panicked under me. “What do you mean? I mean, you said that if we can’t take the bells, we’ll be sent back to the Academy, but Inoko got a bell and you’re failing her too?!”

 

“Because not one of you think like shinobi, you think like little kids,” he said lazily. “Like brats.” Sasuke shot past us, attempting to stab Sensei. 

 

“That’s a bad idea,” I called after him, but by that point it was too late. Sensei threw him to the ground and sat on his back, one foot on his head and twisting his arm behind him. 

 

“You think it’s all about you,” Sensei explained. “You don’t know what it means to be a ninja, you think it’s a game! Why do you think we put you on squads?! Did you consider that question for one second?”

 

My face went slack. Oh. Oh. Ooohh. I was such an idiot. I, a Yamanaka, part of a clan that is known for its teamwork. Failed to see this basic lesson.

 

“This is why I shouldn’t stay up all night,” I muttered, smacking my forehead. “I miss the big picture. You were trying to force us to work together by making it impossible to take a bell by ourselves. I only got one because you weren’t anticipating a kawarimi. I’m sure that you would have stopped me in a second if you wanted to.”

 

“Now you get it,” he said sarcastically. “The answer to this pass/fail test is teamwork!”

 

I looked away from his cold stare, embarrassed. Why didn’t I think of that? Crap, I know that Shikamaru would have noticed that much. He’s going to rub this in my face later, I just know it. And honestly? I felt bad for my teammates. I should have seen this, and told them about it. Yamanaka were supposed to gather information and share it with their teammates. I… didn’t.

 

Sensei sighed heavily. “Well, it seems that you guys understand my point, at least. I’ll give you one more chance after lunch. However, Naruto doesn’t get any because he tried to steal the lunches.” He met our eyes, one by one. “You have half an hour.”

 

Kakashi vanished. I could still sense him hovering around the clearing, waiting to see what we would do. If he was truly expecting me to obey him though, he had another think coming. Honestly, he couldn’t have been more obvious if he had tried. Just finished telling us about how our test was about teamwork and looking out for your team, and then he tells us to leave Naruto to starve?

 

Haha, yeah, no. 

 

“Sasuke, how fast can you eat two thirds of your bento?” I asked out of the corner of my mouth. He frowned at me.

 

“Why?”

 

“If we each eat two thirds of our bento, that will leave Naruto two thirds.”

 

“Sensei said not to feed him,” Sasuke pointed out, glancing at him. I glanced over as well before meeting his eyes.

 

“Yeah, I know. I think this is another test. Break the rules in favor of teamwork or abandon teamwork in order to stick to the rules.” I scanned the treeline for any sign of Kakashi. “Naruto, I’m going to cut your ropes and give you the rest of my bento, ok? Sasuke and I will do our best to keep Kakashi-sensei off your back while you refuel. I know all those clones must have taken a lot out of you, and you haven’t eaten since last night.”

 

I glanced at them, barely waiting for their nods. 

 

“What if this is a trap?” Sasuke asked, shovelling his portion in his mouth.

 

“Then we all go out fighting. Together. Like shinobi.” 

 

Naruto was grinning from ear to ear, and I knew that even if I had damned us, I wouldn’t regret my choice. I would be a proper Yamanaka for my team. I would uphold the tenants the Three gave us so long ago.

 

“Are you guys ready?” I murmured, touching the handle of a kunai.

 

“Hell yeah!” Naruto shouted. Sasuke and I both glared at him as he visibly cringed. “Sorry.”

 

“Now,” I hissed, slicing his ropes. Naruto had barely taken the bento from me when Sensei dropped in front of us with a smoke bomb for added effect.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?” he said with sickening sweetness, a small dose of killing intent in the air.

 

“Naruto, scram!” I shouted, not taking my eyes off Sensei for a second. I slapped a spare exploding tag on the ground, channeling a bit of chakra into it through my finger. I yanked Sasuke out of the blast radius, and then signed for him to attack. The smoke cover was probably the best chance we had to give Naruto a chance to escape, refuel, and rejoin us. 

 

Sasuke dove forward first, starting with a pair of kunai and following it up with a honestly rather impressive fire jutsu. I doubted Sensei was expecting a technical second explosion after the first, and that ought to give us an advantage, however slight. 

 

I pulled one of my favorite vials out of my pocket. “Eat this, Sensei!” I shouted, and threw it at his feet. I heard him curse before he jumped away from the sizzling and smoking liquid. It didn’t react well to oxygen, and tended to eat through most organic materials. 

 

A wind jutsu dissipated the rest of the smoke, and man, Sensei did not look happy. Sasuke was right beside me, shirt smoking and him holding out a kunai between us and Sensei. As if that would stop him from killing us in a heartbeat. I grabbed his sleeve and cut it off. Thankfully he didn’t stop me, barely even looked at me. I knew from personal experience that this stuff was not fun to get on your skin.

 

“You broke the rules,” Kakashi observed, a glint in his eye that I didn’t like at all. 

 

“The way I see it, I’m going down either way,” I snapped, stepping forward so I was next to Sasuke, “and I’d rather go down with my team than alone.”

 

“Hm, I see. And does little Sasuke-kun feel the same way?” I caught Sasuke glancing at me from the corner of my eye before he briefly nodded. “Hm. Well, you know what this means.” 

 

He began to form handsigns. I didn’t recognize the jutsu, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to stand here and let him finish it. I mean, how dumb would I have to be to do that?

 

I put my hands up into the infamous Yamanaka seal and threw my soul forward. He didn’t even move.

 

Being in someone else’s body was… strange, to say the least. No matter how many times I did it, it felt so awkward. Kakashi-sensei was about three and a half inches taller than I had been in my previous life, but after living in a much smaller body for twelve years, I had gotten used to being short. Ne, Sensei, were you expecting this? I said in the now shared mindspace. 

 

I yanked the bell off my new belt and threw it at Sasuke. He caught it with ease.

 

“Sasuke, track down Naruto and give that to him!” I shouted. The deeper voice threw me off a little, but it was nothing I wasn’t used to. 

 

“Inoko!” Naruto shouted, bursting from the trees to hover over my limp body. “Oh my gosh, are you ok? Inoko!”

 

“I’m fine,” I said with amusement. Naruto stopped panicking over my body and looked up. 

 

“What! Did you…?”

 

“Yes, Naruto, I threw my soul out of my body and took control of our sensei’s body,” I rolled my eyes. “What do you think I do in my training time, read porn like our beloved sensei?”

 

“But... You’re a girl.”

 

“I’m so glad that you’ve noticed that, Naruto. Really, I am.”

 

“And you’re in a guy’s body.” I froze. 

 

“Oh, sweet frick on a stick!” I screeched, hopping around. “Oh, gross, gross, gross! This is so gross! How do you guys stand this?!” I demanded just before releasing the jutsu.

 

“It’s so gross,” I whined back in my own body. 

 

“I think I’ve been violated on a personal level,” Sensei muttered under his breath. 

 

I pulled the bell from my bra and gave it to Naruto. Sasuke still had the other one in his hand. 

 

“Gross! Boob bell!” Naruto wailed, throwing it back at me. I stuck it down his shirt and laughed as he writhed. “But Inoko, if you have the bell, then you can’t pass!”

 

“Don’t care,” I shrugged with a small smile. “You’re going to be Hokage, and Sasuke has angsty ‘avenger’ things to do. Me? I’d rather be a psychologist. So, therefore, you two are the ones that should have the bells.” Naruto looked at his bell, then at Sasuke’s. I could feel Sensei’s gaze on us, quietly assessing. 

 

“And here I thought owls were supposed to be wise,” Sasuke said, dropping his bell in the remnants of my lunch. I screeched in horror as I dove for it.

 

“You do not defile an Akimichi deluxe bento with a filthy bell that you have no idea where it’s been! This one’s yours now, Sasuke. I’m taking what’s left of your bento as penance.” Sensei began to laugh. 

 

“What’s so funny?” Naruto demanded.

 

“Oh, nothing,” Sensei said with a dorky eye smile. “Only that… you passed~” We all stopped and stared at him. “The point of this test is to put the team above yourself, no matter what. I think that you three have shown that pretty well in the past few minutes.”

 

“Nobody cares about your stupid test anymore, Sensei,” I deadpanned. I could feel the caffeine crash coming; I wanted some form of food in my stomach to at least alleviate the side effects. “I want to finish my freaking food.”

 

“In a minute, in a minute,” he said, walking towards the memorial stone. “Did you three take a look at this? The names engraved on this stone are all shinobi who are honored as village heroes.”

 

“That’s it!” Naruto said cheerfully. “I’ve decided that I wanna have my name engraved on there too!”

 

“No, you wouldn’t like that,” I said softly, placing the bento on the ground beside me. There was a heavy feeling in my chest. “These are a special kind of hero.” 

 

“Why would I not like that?” he demanded.

 

“Because those are the names of shinobi that have been killed in action.” The elevated mood quickly vanished. “My aunt is on here. She was killed on a mission when I was six.” I still remembered how hard my mother cried that day. I walked up next to Sensei and gently touched her name. “I wouldn’t doubt that you all have precious people here as well.”

 

May the deer trails guide you home , I prayed silently, letting my hand fall from the stone. May your spirit run with the boars, and may you rest amongst the butterflies.

 

“This is a memorial stone,” Sensei agreed. “The names of my closest friends are on here. People die on missions because their teammates didn’t try hard enough. Because they didn’t work together. Let this be a lesson to you. Those who break the rules are trash, but those who abandon their friends are even worse trash.”

 

“Wise words,” I hummed before looking up at Kakashi. “Well, Sensei? What now?”

 

“Well, you all pass!” he said cheerfully. “Squad Seven starts its first mission day after tomorrow!”

 

“Sounds good to me,” I shrugged, picking up my pack. As Naruto sang out his victory to the world, I gently poked Sensei. He looked down at me. I offered him another vial, different than the one I’d thrown at him earlier. “Here. This should help with the chemical burns. Believe me, you don’t want to leave that untreated any longer than you absolutely have to.” I hesitated, glancing at the boys. “I don’t know who you lost, but I don’t think that we’ll go the same way.” I gave him a flat look. “That was then, and this is now. Leave the past in the past. Try to remember that.” Well, it’s a start on repairing the utter mess that is Hatake Kakashi , I thought, feeling his gaze bore into my back. Too much? Maybe. But he’ll learn soon enough that I’m not your average kid.

 

I chose roughly that moment to crash from sleep deprivation. Because I was an idiot that didn’t think she needed sleep. Fun.

 

The last thing I thought before falling asleep was how blue the sky was that day.


5/27 Bell test. Uchiha Sasuke: performed as expected. Demonstrated the Uchiha Grand Fireball jutsu and adequate taijutsu. Dislikes teamwork and his teammates. He seems to feel that they’ll hold him back. He mentioned during our first meeting that he wished to ‘kill a certain someone’. Suspect he spoke of his brother.

 

Uzumaki Naruto: performed as expected. Headstrong with no regard for his own safety. Demonstrated the kage bunshin and barely adequate taijutsu. Dislikes Sasuke strongly and seems unsure of Inoko. Has ambition to become Hokage. Strong fondness of ramen. Seems slightly stupid.

 

Yamanaka Inoko: did not have sufficient opportunity to observe abilities. Hid during entire exercise, only appearing to steal a bell bait for a trap and at the end. Used signature Mind Transfer jutsu against me to give remaining bell to Sasuke. Gave bell she had stolen to Naruto, claiming that she wanted to be a psychologist. Stayed up entire night before to set up traps, strongly suspect insomnia. Strong sensitivity to genjutsu, being able to identify when she was under and break them. Appears to be fond of teammates, but didn’t realize the point of exercise until prompted. Might have caffeine addiction.

 

All three passed. Will test Inoko’s knowledge further. 



Chapter Text

I woke up in my bed. This was strange, considering that the last thing I remembered was passing my second test and talking to Sensei. It had been noon then, roughly, and now it was… I rolled over and squinted at my alarm clock. Eight A.M. blinked back at me. Did I actually sleep for twenty hours? Nice. 

 

And then the door slammed open. Enter sister.

 

“Time to get up!” Ino announced. “You have a shift at the shop in an hour!”

 

“I wish you would consult me before giving me shifts,” I moaned. “You suck.”

 

“Too bad!” she said cheerfully, yanking my covers off. I whimpered as I curled up into a ball. My warmth cocoon… stolen from me in the cruelest manner possible. “You’ve been sleeping for nearly twenty hours! Get up and be productive.”

 

“Will stabbing your face off be productive? Because that’s the only reason I’ll be getting out of bed in the next few minutes.” Despite my death threats, Ino got me out of bed - dragged me, really, kicking and complaining the entire time - and in the shower in about ten minutes. They don’t even faze her anymore , I sulked, basking in the hot water. Glorious. I need to figure out a way to make her leave me aloooone.  

 

“We’re having a girls day out after your shift is done,” Ino informed me as she dragged me to the flower shop, me groaning all the way. “We’ll go get lunch, and talk about our teammates, and then don’t forget that your flowers need weeding.”

 

“I know, I know,” I growled. “‘Talk about our teammates’ my rear end, you just want to know what Sasuke did.” I paused in front of the flower shop, sighing heavily.

 

“You know me so well,” she grinned. “I’ll see you later!” Ino blew me a kiss and waved as she ran off. Despite my annoyance, I was glad that my twin was a morning person. She got me places on time. 

 

The day was rather slow, with mostly guys buying their crushes/sweethearts some flowers. I mostly watered the plants, repotted some of the root bound plants, and worked on some orders. The big one I focused on the most was a civilian wedding order. The Yamanaka flower shop was a bit more expensive than the other ones in the village, but we were guaranteed quality and freshness. I was rather proud of that, to be honest.

 

I was pulling together some flowers for an arrangement when Shikamaru decided to swing by to talk.

 

“I’m surprised that you lasted with Naruto and Sasuke on your team,” he said, leaning against the counter as I began to pull it together. “You always prefer to be on the downlow.”

 

“I was hiding or walking for most of the test,” I shrugged. “It wasn’t too bad.” Aside from being really hyped up on caffeine. That kind of sucked.

 

“It sounds troublesome to me,” Shikamaru sighed, draping himself over the counter. I reached over and offhandedly pat his head.

 

“It was pretty annoying,” I agreed, going back to the arrangement. I pushed some baby’s breath aside and after a moment of thought placed a fully blooming hydrangea in the center. “I guess that my career in psychiatry will have to wait.”

 

“Why do you always say that you’d rather be a psychologist?” he asked after a comfortable silence. He lifted his head from the counter. “As long as I’ve known you, you wanted to be someone important, someone powerful.”

 

“... I guess I prefer for people to not take me seriously,” I said after a couple moments of thinking. I began to place sea lavender and snapdragons intermittently among the baby’s breath. “It’s easier, not carrying the weight of their expectations. The clan, the village, all of them. I’m not the heir, but they still expect me to excel at everything, even though they never wanted me around in the first place.” I adjusted some flowers. It was still missing something. After a moment of (distracted) thought, I reached over and grabbed a bunch of honey bracelet, shaping the stems to give the arrangement more grace. “It’s easier on Ino, too, if I do my own thing. People think that she’s better, and I’m not to be bothered with.”

 

“You look down on yourself too much,” Shikamaru said. “You’re very talented when you apply yourself.” He stared at me. “You can profile people and find their triggers after knowing them for less than an hour. You see things that other people don’t, and use that to your advantage. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that you’re a nice person, because you have the potential to be very scary.” He glanced away, chakra feeling kind of embarrassed. “I don’t think you’re bad luck,” he muttered. 

 

I laughed. “Thanks. I’m glad my best friend doesn’t think I’m bad luck.”

 

He snorted and pushed away from the counter. “I need to go. Have fun with an empty shop.” I gave him a look and contemplated giving him the finger.

 

“Stupid Nara,” I muttered, tying up the arrangement and placing it in a vase. 

 

The last couple hours went by slowly, making me wish that I brought a book. I had never been more happy to see Ino pop in the doorway.

 

“Clock out now, sis, because it’s time to have some fun!”

 

“We’re getting food, right?” She sighed heavily.

 

“Yes, Chōji . We’re getting food. How are you not the size of a cow already, with as much as you eat?”

 

“It’s because I’m special,” I teased, hooking arms with her. “Plus I actually do burn a crap ton of calories, despite how much I like sleeping.”

 

“Har har.” Joking aside, I really did enjoy these hanging out times with Ino. She helped me relax whenever I was stressing too much about the future, and made sure that I didn’t forget to do my assignments. My memory had never been the greatest, in this life or the previous one. 

 

“Stop thinking so much,” Ino poked me in the side. “Which one are you going to get?”

 

“I don’t know,” I sighed heavily. “I just want to get all of them.”

 

“Choose already!”

 

“Fine!” I ordered the thing that reminded me of a churro, of all things, and happily took a bite. I sighed in bliss. “Try it,” I said, pointing it at her face.

 

“I’m on a diet,” she said. 

 

“Eat it.”

 

“It’s way too fattening and I’m on a diet! That’s one of the rules of a diet!”

 

“Rules were made to be broken. Eat it.” She reluctantly took a bite, but I could see the bliss on her face as the flavors coated her tongue. “I could probably write poetry about this,” I grinned. “You see why?”

 

“It’s not that great,” she shrugged, but I could see her eying the rest of my not-churro.

 

“Don’t even think about it,” I warned, turning away and attempting to shove the rest of it in my mouth.

 

“Inoko! Give me some!”

 

“You said it wasn’t that great! You don’t deserve the not-churro!”

 

“What the hell is a churro?!”

 

“... Inoko? Ino?” We both looked up to see Sakura standing in front of us, her usual cheer missing. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Having a girls day out,” Ino responded promptly, dusting herself off as if nothing happened. “What about you?” 

 

“Oh, nothing, just… my mom wanted me to do some shopping.” Sakura looked at her feet, rocking a little.

 

“Are you ok?” I asked bluntly. “Your eyes are all red.” Sakura’s eyes filled with tears. She shook her head and started wiping. “Come here.” I hugged her tightly. “Ino and I will help you with your shopping, and then we’re getting ice cream.” Sakura made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Saugh? Lob?

 

Between crying breaks and grocery shopping, we found out that Sakura’s Inuzuka sensei had failed her team. As in completely and utterly failed them. He said, and I quote, “The three of you are absolutely hopeless. You have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. You can barely fight, your jutsu are shabby, and your teamwork is nonexistent.” I mean, I’m sure it was true, but there were probably nicer ways to say it.

 

“So that’s how we failed,” Sakura finished sadly, poking at her strawberry ice cream. “Pretty stupid, huh?”

 

“Well, I think that he’s dead wrong!” Ino said heatedly. She stabbed her chocolate ice cream with her spoon. “He’s just a dumb jōnin who can’t see that you alone are enough to carry that team.”

 

I took a bite of my own ice cream, which was a mixture of green tea, chocolate, and vanilla. And hot fudge sauce. Because reasons. “Ne, she’s got a point.”

 

“Which one of us?”

 

“Both of you,” I said, taking a bite. It was, in hindsight, the wrong thing to say at the moment. Sakura started crying again and Ino glared at me as she comforted her. “That… was not what I meant to say. I apologize, Sakura, I’m an idiot who still doesn’t know how to speak properly after twelve years of being alive.” She giggled a little at my deadpanned apology. “Now, I vote that we go crash at Chōji’s house and eat some more. Ino, if I hear one word about your diet, I will stab your spleen out with this spoon.” I pointed my spoon at her for good emphasis. “There are these things called cheat days, and by the time you see Sasuke next, you will have recovered from it.” Sakura laughed again, a real one this time. I nudged her gently as Ino paid. “For what it’s worth, I took a peek at the Academy scores the other day, and I beat you by a half point. If you had gotten one more point, we would be in very different positions.” She smiled at me, and I could feel that we were all good. The guilty feeling in my gut eased a little. A little white lie never hurt anyone.

 

Chōji opened the door when I knocked. I was not surprised by the fact that he had a bag of chips in his hand. He glanced at Ino and Sakura behind me, then back at me. “What’s up, Inoko?”

 

“We need food,” I announced. “You’re the man to hit up when I need lots of junk food.”

 

“Ok,” he said slowly. “Why do you need our pantry?”

 

“Sakura failed her test so we’re eating our feelings. We’d go to my house, but because someone refuses to have junk food in the house because she’s on a ‘diet’, we don’t have any decent food to eat our feelings with.

 

“... Ok.” He was used to my weird explanations after some seven years of friendship. Shika was too. Sakura was friends with the boys, due to multiple interactions by being friends with me, but wasn’t as close as I was. We were all laughing soon enough, and Sakura seemed somewhat happier than she had been earlier.

 

We walked her home afterwards, and I was proud of the fact that Ino hadn’t mentioned her forehead once. Not once! Personal growth.

 

I gave her a final hug. “Maybe try talking to Iruka-sensei about it?” I suggested. “I’m sure he has some ideas, or at least knows some people who have ideas. Maybe he’ll have some advice.”

 

Sakura nodded, eyes bright once more. “I’ll do that. Thank you, Inoko. I mean it.”

 

I flushed, waving it off. “It’s no big deal, honestly. I know you’d do the same for me.”

 

“Regardless, I owe you one. So… thanks.”

 

I was quiet for the most part on the way home, content to listen to Ino rant about Sakura’s temporary sensei. For someone who was supposedly enemies with her, Ino had a lot to say on Sakura’s behalf.

 

“I don’t know about you, but I had fun today,” Ino said as we brushed our teeth, ranting finally over. I grunted in response and spat. Now that I wasn’t focused on making my friend feel better, I could feel the guilt weighing down on me. “We really ought to do that again!”

 

“Uh-huh. I’m kind of tired, so I’m going to bed now.” I just… wanted to be alone for a while.

 

“Ok,” she responded happily, giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek before bouncing downstairs. 

 

There was a mirror on Ino’s vanity. I would always look at it before I left the room or just after I entered. I guess it reminded me of something similar in my last life. Sometimes I saw a glimpse of who I used to be. Sometimes I saw nothing but the girl I was now. 

 

Today I saw a thief. A liar who had somehow cheated her way into the spot someone else deserved.

 

Flopping onto my bed, I stared at the ceiling. I haven’t even actively done anything yet and I’ve already ruined someone’s life. My stomach turned. Sakura was supposed to grow on Team Seven. She was supposed to learn the important lessons, supposed to become Tsunade’s apprentice, and become the second coming of the Slug Princess. And I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined everything. I should have stayed out of the Academy and let the plot take its course. I should have… I should have… My vision blurred. What have I done?


“WHAAAT?!” Naruto’s horrified screech snapped me out of my daze. “ This is what we’re doing?!”

 

“... I’m confused, what’s going on?” I said as Naruto gaped at the scroll Sensei had given him. We’d met up bright and early in front of the mission desk - Sensei only took two hours to get here, so I napped against the wall until Sensei arrived. I’d gotten pretty good at falling asleep against walls over the past few years. Then I had fallen into a bit of a daze realizing something of monumental importance that escaped me now. Eh. If it was that important I’ll remember it later. “We’re taking a mission, right?”

 

“You really ought to stop spacing out so much,” Sensei observed, sticking his nose in his book. “You’ll get yourself killed~”

 

“That’s not something you should say like that, Sensei,” I deadpanned, blinking slowly. “But seriously, what are we doing?”

 

“Boys, don’t tell her,” Sensei grinned as he took the lead. “This is what Inoko gets for spacing out.”

 

I mean, fair, but. “... I hate you all.” 

 

It turned out to be weeding an old lady’s garden. Which wasn’t bad, considering that I had been weeding my own flowers just yesterday. I ended up replanting half of the things the boys uprooted after yelling at them for not knowing the difference between lavender and a weed. Sasuke said something along the lines of “it’s all the same anyway, blah blah,” and then Naruto demanded a challenge to see who could pull the most weeds. He instantly began pulling up the angel wing, and I was about to pull my hair out. Then they started getting into a physical fight, which I was content to ignore and take care of this honestly lovely garden until they rolled into me.

 

My following actions were entirely justified, even though Naruto was hiding behind Sensei as I grouchily drank some tea. Sasuke was wisely minding his own business at the other side of the garden, carefully checking each plant to see if it was actually a weed. 

 

“... Have you considered anger management classes?” Sensei asked after several minutes. I glared at him and projected what little killing intent I had figured out. He snickered. “On second thought, you’re almost kind of cute doing that. I guess having genin isn’t so boring after all.”

 

“.... you sounded vaguely like a pedophile there, Sensei.” 

 

"Don't say something like that so lightly,” he scolded playfully. “You could ruin your teacher's life."

 

“Challenge accepted,” I said dully. “Moving on to something more interesting, like what I’m going to eat later.”

 

“That’s very hurtful, Inoko.”

 

“Good. It was supposed to be.”


“I have come to the conclusion that D-ranks were invented to break the heart and souls of genin,” I announced to anyone who was listening as I flopped on the couch. Ino made a noise that I assumed to be an agreement from the floor. “I swear, I’m going to murder both of my teammates before the week is out.”

 

“Sounds like you’re being productive,” Dad said from his chair, looking over some papers that I was fairly sure shouldn’t be anywhere near us. 

 

“I signed up for the life of a shinobi,” Ino said, her words muffled by the carpet. “Not being a babysitter.”

 

“Picking up trash, walking dogs, painting fences,” I agreed.

 

“Babysitting brats, weeding gardens, grocery shopping,” Ino groaned. “I’m exhausted.”

 

“I think I might actually be asleep before twelve tonight.”

 

“Thank god,” Dad muttered under his breath.

 

I scowled at him from the pillow I was burying my face in. “I heard that.”

 

“Well, dear,” Mother said, carrying in a tray of cups and a teapot, “that’s just what genin do at first. When your sensei thinks you’re good enough, he’ll let you go on low level C-ranks. As you become more experienced, you can go on higher level missions. Just be patient.”

 

“Mother, I love you to bits,” Ino said, lifting her head. “But what on earth do you know about early shinobi life? You didn’t even meet Dad until you were twenty.”

 

“She was a chūnin before we were born,” I pointed out. Ino spun towards me, shocked.

 

“What?! Mother?! Really? How did you find out? Mother never told us! Mother, I never would have guess you were a shinobi!”

 

“You never asked,” Mother said in singsong as she poured tea for us, careful not to stain her sleeves.

 

“I found her chūnin vest a couple years ago when I was going through her closet for chocolate,” I explained, accepting my cup of tea.

 

“...” My family all stared at me. 

 

“I used to store chocolate in there?” I offered. Mother sighed and settled down next to Dad with her tea. I wriggled onto the floor and up against their legs, resting my head on Mother’s kimono. She began to gently stroke my hair.

 

“You are by far my strangest child,” Dad said, going back to his papers with an exasperated but fond smile. 

 

“And that’s why I’m your favorite,” I replied sleepily. 



Chapter Text

“You’re late!” Naruto screeched. I blearily lifted my head to see a blur that I assumed was Sensei. Seemed about right, so I dropped my head back down. 

 

“There was an old lady that needed my help with her groceries,” Kakashi-sensei started as I decided whether it was worth it to fully wake up. Sometimes, if I hadn’t slept particularly well the night before, I’d take a quick nap while waiting for him to arrive. Most times though, I went through my stretches and tried to mess with my range a bit. I was making progress, I thought, inch by painful inch. 

 

“Liar!”

 

“Sensei, when’s your birthday?” I asked. He blinked at me, confusion written across his chakra. “I’m getting you a watch, since you clearly have no sense of time.” Sasuke made a noise that could be interpreted as a snort of amusement. Excellent.

 

“Ah, Inoko, your cruelty is too much for the tender heart of your sen-” I threw my shoe at him. 

 

“You pest!” Sensei waited until I had put my shoe back on before speaking again.

 

“I was thinking that we would and do some more D-ranks today,” he said lazily. Naruto and I groaned loudly as Sasuke sighed heavily. D-ranks were… necessary, but awful. I understood why we had to do them, but they were absolute hell. There were so many other things we could be doing instead of painting fences. 

 

“Can’t we do some training, Sensei?” Naruto whined. “We’ve been doing nothing but D-rank missions ever since we became genin.”

 

“True,” I nodded. I tried to contain my excitement at the prospect of actually learning something useful. “Every bit of training counts, Sensei.” Kakashi watched us with a look that I couldn’t quite read. 

 

“Very well,” he sighed, snapping his book shut. “Let’s go over what you already know. I presume that you all know the Academy kata?”

 

“Duh,” Naruto rolled his eyes. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t, dattebayo.” 

 

“Well, that takes care of taijutsu then. Am I right to assume that none of you know genjutsu?” I awkwardly raised my hand after a few moments of silence.

 

“I can dispel them? Dad said I can’t learn to cast them until I graduated though.” Genjutsu were fairly easy to sense, not quite as easy to dispel, though knowing is half the battle when it comes to genjutsu.

 

“Hm, yes, I saw you doing that during your test.” He glanced at me, then up at the sky. “Well, Sasuke, do you know any elemental ninjutsu other than the Grand Fireball?” Sasuke didn’t say anything, and he looked a little embarrassed. 

 

“... no.”

 

“Well, that’s ok, students rarely graduate with an elemental ninjutsu under their belts,” Sensei said, scratching his head. “Naruto?”

 

“N-No,” he said, looking away. “I know the kawarimi, henge, and the kage bunshin.”

 

“Don’t feel bad, Naruto,” I said, patting his shoulder. “Sensei’s just getting an idea of where we’re at so he knows what to teach us.”

 

“I wouldn’t put it like that , but sure. What about you, Inoko?”

 

I wasn’t tempted to throw my shoe at him again. I really wasn’t. I’m trying to help you connect here, Sensei. “I know the Academy three, and a couple earth jutsu that one of my cousins taught me, not to mention my clan jutsu,” I said, blinking slowly. It was appearing I knew the most actual jutsu compared to my teammates. Maybe we could put that to use; Naruto could easily become a taijutsu monster with his shadow clones, and Sasuke seemed to be more of a midrange/close quarters fighter. I could provide backup with my own jutsu from long to midrange distances...

 

“Whoa, really?” Naruto gasped. “How many?”

 

Oh, this was embarrassing. Naruto and Sasuke were both looking at me with a bit of surprise. I’d always been a bit lazy at the Academy, yeah, but I certainly worked my ass off at home. I nervously scratched the back of my neck and said, “Three. I’ve been working on them for a few months, and I’m just ok at them.” Naruto’s eyes became huge.

 

“Wow! And Sasuke only knows the one!”

 

“Tch. Like you have room to talk.” There was a trace of annoyance in his voice and his ears were turning red. He was giving me a strange look, as if… I was the one to surpass. Well, shit. We couldn’t have that. That was. Bad. In a lot of ways.

 

He was ‘an avenger’ who had to be the best. And here I was with more jutsu under my belt than him. Sure, he could destroy me when it came to an actual fight, but if I had the distance advantage and could keep it, I had more than a decent chance of winning. Trap him partially in a headhunter jutsu and while he was trying to get free, zap him with the mind transfer. Though what I’d do after that is less certain. Give him over to Naruto to tie up?

 

“What did you say?!”

 

“You don’t know any elemental jutsu.”

 

“Yeah! So what? I know the kage bunshin, and Iruka-sensei says that it’s a really high level jutsu!” Oh great, they were fighting, all up in each other’s face and ready to throw the first punch. Internally groaning, I looked at Sensei, hoping he’d end the fight. He seemed just as unsure as I felt, and ended up pulling out his book again. … Really?

 

“Both of you shut up!” I shouted, hitting them both upside the head. Naruto was used to me lightly hitting him as a reminder-warning thing when he was being particularly loud and/or obnoxious, but Sasuke looked at me like I had just murdered a puppy in front of him. Not sure why, it wasn’t exactly the first time I’ve hit him. “Naruto,” I said, turning away from the whipped puppy look, “don’t rub things in Sasuke’s face. No one likes that, and people with bigger egos hate it even more. I know more jutsu than Sasuke because my cousin is determined to make me worthy of being the daughter of a clan head.” Also worthy of being alive in the first place, but who cares about that! Not me! Definitely not me! “I also have a lot more time on my hands because I’m an insomniac.” I gave him a flat stare until he squirmed and looked away.

 

“And you, Sasuke.” I spoke with the finality of a ruler handing out an execution. Reign in your imagination. I sighed and softened my expression and words a little. “Be kinder to others. Don’t rub in their shortcomings, and pull them up instead. That’s why we’re on a team.” I poked him in the cheek. He drew away and swatted at my hand, glaring at me. So that’s how it was going to be. Shame that I could out-glare him any day of the week. I clenched my jaw. Fine. We could do this the hard way, if that was what he wanted. “So you were at the top of our class. Big freaking whoop. We’re not in the Academy anymore. We graduated. This is the real world. So leave behind your petty grudges,” I finished, poking him in the chest roughly and staring into his eyes. “And get over yourself.”

 

Both of them had huge eyes as they watched me stretch and turn to Sensei. I internally groaned. I probably should have waited to lecture them until we were all closer, but they were driving me nuts! Maybe it’s for the best. “Sensei~” I said sweetly while glaring at him. 

 

“Hmm?” he responded while flipping a page. He’s not even looking at me. My eye twitched just before I jumped on his back and put him in a mock choke hold. To my surprise, he actually let me. 

 

“You’re the adult here, not me!” I shouted as he tumbled forward. Ok, definitely just humoring me. Eh. I’d take it as progress. “You should be dealing with the little monsters, not me!”

 

“Hey!” they shouted together. 

 

I jabbed a finger at them. “Teamwork, mother duckers! Do you speak it?!”

 

“...... what?”


“A-Aye aye, Inoko-sama!”

 

“And you, Sensei! I have more important things to be doing then breaking up their fights all the t- ooh.” My hand brushed the silver mop on his head. I paused my rant before gently patting it. “You have really nice hair, Sensei. Really soft.”

 

“... you’re going to get me in trouble. Like. Big trouble.”


Nothing really got done that day. The next day, though, things got serious. 

 

Sensei clapped his hands and eyesmiled at us. “Alright, ducklings~ Let’s get started today, shall we?”

 

Sasuke bristled at the nickname. I just cackled. What an amazing nickname for us. 

 

Sensei eyed my thermos. It took me a moment to realize what he was probably thinking. I clutched it to my chest. “It’s green tea!” I yelped. “Green tea with some honey and lemon and ginger because I have some sinus drainage! That’s it!”

 

He looked at me for a moment longer before nodding. I sighed in relief. If he took my precious tea from me, I thought I might cry. My throat hurt and I needed my tea. Delicious, precious tea.

 

“Naruto, my main focus for you today will be your taijutsu,” Sensei finally explained, finally getting serious. “It’s barely acceptable for a genin. Barely . I want to get your taijutsu up to my satisfaction before we take any serious missions.” 

 

Huh. Maybe my words at the memorial stone had some effect. 

 

“Inoko, I’m going to give you a genjutsu to learn. Every shinobi should have at least one genjutsu under their belt before they go out on their own.” 

 

I nodded. Made sense. Sensei handed me a scroll. I was too engrossed in it to really listen to what he was telling Sasuke. Something about teamwork and attacking Sensei.

 

I ended up sitting under the shade of a tree while Sensei made a clone to work with Naruto.  The real Sensei had stolen a couple of Naruto’s clones, and now Sasuke was fighting alongside them against Sensei. Interesting.

 

Whatever, I had something far more interesting. Overall, it seemed pretty simple. It basically dampened all sound around the target. They couldn’t hear anything, and nothing around them could be heard. 

 

I glanced up at Sasuke. 

 

… no, it would be rude.

 

… it would be really funny though.

 

Learn the genjutsu before you prank people with it, girl.

 

There were ten hand seals to complete the genjutsu. I made sure to carefully run through them several times before imbibing them with any chakra. Like with any jutsu, I had to get used to the signs before I even began to introduce chakra into the mix. 

 

Yeah, I had learned that lesson the hard way. Kosho hadn’t stopped laughing at me for a solid twenty minutes. 

 

Once I was sure I had the hand seals down, I went back to the scroll. Genjutsu tended to mess with the brain, and if I knew one thing then I knew that you didn’t mess with the brain lightly. That was just begging for trouble. 

 

I decided to put off the whole pranking thing for now. Eventually, just. Not now. I’d honestly rather do this under Sensei or Dad’s supervision. 

 

I grinned as a thought occurred to me. I couldn’t use this jutsu for a prank, but there was one that I certainly could use. Plus I’d be finally getting revenge on that stupid birch tree. 

 

After all, revenge was best served cold. Or hot, in this case.


I was still giggling as I watched Sensei put out the last of the fires. Did it get a little bit out of hand? Yes. Was it worth it? Also yes. 

 

“Inoko terrifies me sometimes,” Naruto confided to Sasuke.

 

“Hn,” Sasuke said, but this was more of an agreement sound, so I thought it all worked out pretty well.


“I’m confiscating all of your explosives.”

 

“... all of them?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Damn.”


“Amaterasu save us, where did she get those?”

 

“... I have no idea. Inoko! Give those to me right now!”

 

Die, birch scum!


6/24 Naruto is making good progress with his taijutsu. He’s also learning to not jump into combat at the first opportunity, and actually think first.

 

Sasuke is slowly and very begrudgingly learning the value of teamwork. It frustrates him to no end most of the time, but I truly think he’s beginning to take it to heart.

 

Someone won’t stop giving Inoko explosives. I don’t know where she’s getting them and it scares me. She’s getting creative with them too. Either someone is giving them to her, or Okami forbid, she’s making them herself.

 

…… Okami save us all, she’s making them herself.


Dad looked up from a letter and gave me an unamused look. “What’s this about you nearly destroying three different training grounds in the past week?”

 

Ino nearly choked on her noodles. I worked through my current mouthful as slowly as possible. “Lies and slander? I offered.

 

He raised an eyebrow. “Try again.”

 

“Experimentation with highly combustible incendiaries around flammable organic biospheres?”

 

“The Three preserve us,” Mother muttered, rubbing her temples. “Inoko, stop making explosives. You’re going to give your sensei an aneurysm.”

 

I pouted. “What about little explosives?”

 

“No,” Dad and Mother said at the same time.

 

“Little explosives with Sensei’s supervision?”

“Inoko.”

 

“Fine, fine.”

 

We ate in silence for a little bit. 

 

“I’ll just distill more poisons then,” I reasoned. 

 

“Inoko. No.”


In three different locations across Konoha, the other members of Team Seven had chills run down their spine, and weren’t sure why.


I closed my eyes and reached out with my senses for our target. He was moving fast, but not too far away from me. Perfect. Touching the mic on my throat, I softly said, “Inoko at Point C.”

 

It only took a moment to hear in my earpiece, “ Sasuke at Point B. ” Several seconds passed before I heard Naruto check in.

 

Naruto at Point A, dattebayo ,” he finally said.

 

You’re slow, Naruto ,” Sensei scolded. “ Ok, Team Seven. Target has moved!

 

“Acknowledged,” I replied, jumping from the tree and moving towards the chakra blip. It was still fairly unaware of the people following it. “In pursuit.”

 

He’s over there, ” Naruto said. 

 

What’s the distance to the target? ” Sensei asked, a trace of amusement in his voice.

 

 “ Five meters, ready to go, ‘ttebayo.

 

I am as well, ” Sasuke put in. I touched my throat mic.

 

“Six meters, ready to go.” 

 

Ok. Go! ” I jumped clear of the bush, seeing Sasuke and Naruto just a little ahead of me. Naruto reached the target first, diving and wrapping his arms around it. 

 

“I got you!” Naruto shouted, thrusting the target of our mission into the air. The cat screeched in rage and began scratching him. 

 

Does it have a ribbon on it’s right ear? ” Sensei demanded. “ Is it our target Tora? ” 

 

“Brown fur with a pink ribbon on the ear,” I said, amused. “Fairly sure it’s Tora. Naruto, that’s not how you deal with a cat. Let me have him.”

 

Good. Operation “Tora the Lost Pet complete.

 

Naruto gratefully handed Tora over, nursing his wounds. “Ne, neko-chan, was the orange monster mean to you?” I cooed, moving Tora into a more comfortable position while holding his paws. Such soft, pretty fur, supple toe beans. Man, I wanted a cat so bad. “You don’t want to go back, do you? I know, pretty kitty.”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow at me and snorted. “Tch. It can’t understand you, you know.”

 

“It’s the tone that matters, duck boy. Just be gentle with the prettiest kitty and tell him what a baby he is, aren’t you?” That got me a strange look. Tora was relaxing in my arms and beginning to purr. 

 

“Isn’t there a more exciting mission we can work on?!” Naruto shrieked through the radio. I yelped as Sasuke yanked the earpiece away as fast as he could. 

 

“Have a thought for our hearing!” I shouted, trying to pull out my earpiece. Tora wriggled free from my arms and bolted into the underbrush. “We can’t be ninja if we’ve gone deaf in one ear! Shit! Tora!”

 

“Sorry!” he wailed, and we were in pursuit once more.


“Ooh, my cute Tora-chan!” the daimyo’s wife, Shijimi-sama, squealed. “I was so worried about you!” Tora yowled and was doing his best to get away from the overly affectionate woman, who was doing her best to squeeze the life out of her cat.

 

“Poor baby, I’m starting to see why he ran away in the first place,” I muttered in a low voice to my team. Sasuke snorted while Naruto giggled a little. 

 

“That cat’s getting what he deserves,” Naruto whispered back.

 

“You just don’t know how to treat a cat. Granted, neither does she.” Sensei nudged us both, then moved to the table where the Hokage and Iruka-sensei were sitting. 

 

“Now then,” the Hokage said, puffing on his pipe and looking through some papers. “Team Kakashi’s next mission… babysitting Yojyu-sama’s son, grocery shopping for an elderly couple, help dig up potatoes at -” With every mission option, our shoulders slumped more. Sure, having some extra pocket money was nice, and the boys used it for groceries and rent, but in exchange, I was being bored out of my mind. At least with this mission, Sensei taught us to use radio transmitters.

 

“No!” Naruto howled. The Hokage glanced up. “No thanks to all of those! We want a more exciting mission! Choose something el- ack!” I put him in a chokehold and looked down at him with what Ino had dubbed my ‘I-will-eat-your-soul-if-you-don’t-stop-right-now’ smile. 

 

“Naruto. You are speaking to the Hokage ,” I stressed, “and you will use proper respect.” He nodded frantically. I knew that he and the Hokage had a friendship, but Naruto was still technically beneath him. There was still a status quo.

 

“Thank you, Inoko,” Iruka sighed, rubbing his temple as he was wont to do around Naruto. I released him from the choke hold, giving him a warning look to behave. “You’re still just a genin, Naruto. Everyone starts with D-ranks to gain experience.”

 

“But we’ve only been doing dumb missions lately!” My eye twitched, but Sensei beat me to the punch and hit him in the head.

 

“Cut it out, Naruto,” he said in a tired voice. 

 

“Naruto,” Sarutobi said, placing his pipe down. He somehow managed to convey all of the power his title meant and a bit of a grandfatherly vibe in a single word. Not going to lie, I was impressed. Charisma certainly wasn’t his dump stat. “It looks like I need to explain to you what missions are, since you clearly weren’t paying attention during that particular lesson.” My mind drifted off as he lectured on missions, wondering what I should have for lunch. Unlike Naruto, I had paid attention, plus I had the added benefit of growing up in a clan with all of those terms being part of casual conversations. I’m craving ramen, but if I get some, then Ino will lecture me for an hour. Decisions, decisions.

 

“What kind of ramen should I have today?” Naruto wondered out loud. Even Kakashi-sensei was paying attention to him. “I had tonkotsu ramen yesterday, so I’m going to eat a miso ramen today.” 

 

“Miso ramen is good, we should get some later,” I agreed. “Sasuke, you should come with us, it’ll be nice.”

 

“Listen!” the Hokage barked. Whoops.

 

“Sorry,” Sensei said, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head. 

 

“You always lecture me like that, old man,” Naruto complained. I resisted the strong urge to sigh and looked away at anywhere but my team or the table in front of us. “But I’m not the kid who used to play pranks anymore!” He then proceeded to turn around and sulk like a child. Kakashi’s chakra felt a little annoyed and downcast, whereas the Hokage and Iruka felt more amused than anything else. That was good, at least; we probably wouldn’t be punished for Naruto’s outburst.

 

“Very well then,” Sarutobi said after some thought. “If you insist, then I will allow you to take on a C-ranked mission. It is an escort mission.” Wait a minute. 

 

“Really?” Naruto asked, delighted. “Who is it? Who is it?” This is way too familiar for my taste. “The daimyo? A princess?” The door slid open, and I could smell the alcohol from my position. The slight shudder from Sensei told me he smelled it clearly too. 

 

“What?” Tazuna the bridge builder slurred, clearly drunk despite the fact that it wasn’t even noon. “They’re all kids!” I gagged a little as he chugged a bottle of sake. “Is the smallest one with the stupid face really a ninja? And the girl looks like she’s about to fall asleep on her feet.” Oh Three, kill me now. Just end me. Send down a bolt of lightning and end my suffering. Why me? Why did I have to be punished with the Plot?

 

“Haha, who’s the small one with the stu-” Naruto laughed, looking around at us, then realizing that he was the shortest of us three. “I’m going to kill you!” he shouted as Sensei held the back of his jacket with a long suffering expression. To my credit, my internal screaming only came out as a drawn out whimper. Surely there’s better people to take this mission? But who would believe me if I told them it was probably going to go mildly FUBAR?

 

“Don’t kill the man you’re supposed to escort, idiot,” Kakashi-sensei sighed. 

 

“I am the bridge building expert Tazuna,” he said. “Once I have returned to my country, I will have all of you protect my life with yours while I complete my bridge.” I guess there’s no going back now. I can only move forward and maybe derail Plot enough to keep us all safe.

 

“Sounds troublesome,” I drawled. “Let’s do it.”



Chapter Text

“Guess who’s got a C-rank~” I sang at dinner that evening. Now that we were officially leaving in the morning, I was actually kind of looking forward to it. Mother’s eyes widened as Ino set down her chopsticks. Dad let the tea keep pouring into his cup while he stared at me. It nearly overflowed before he remembered what he was doing and set the pot down.

 

“No way!” Ino gasped. “Already? Sensei said he won’t let us out until we have more training! I guess you and Sasuke wowed your sensei enough.”

 

“I have Naruto to thank for that, actually,” I replied as I got more rice. I drizzled a bit of soy sauce on it. “He pretty much threw a fit when the Hokage suggested more D-ranks, so we got an escort mission to Wave. I’m leaving in the morning.”

 

“Sounds like him, actually,” Ino muttered. “I don’t know why the Hokage likes him so much.”

 

“Who knows?” I shrugged, even though I knew damn well. “Whatever reason it is, it’s gotten us out of boring missions.”

 

Dad ended up telling us about his first C-rank with Shikaku and Chōza during the rest of dinner. It had been a run of the mill supplies delivery until it wasn’t, and many things had happened before ending with them accidentally overthrowing a corrupt local ruler and destroying a drug trafficking ring. I almost doubted the truthfulness of that, except Dad and the others had been referencing it pretty much my entire life and the story answered a lot of questions that I’d had.

 

We asked Mother about her first C-rank too, but she had smiled and said “Classified” before taking a sip of her tea. Now I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

 

After the dishes had been done and leftovers put away, I went up to our bedroom and lay down on the bed. I took a deep breath and folded my hands on my stomach. Dad had been teaching us the art of mindwalking since we were eight. It was an essential first step to the mind transfer jutsu, as if one didn’t know themselves, they could easily get lost in their target’s psyche and be forever trapped in a foreign mind. Mind walking myself was, at this point, child’s play for me. I’d been using the skill to occasionally refresh myself on memories that were determined to fade away into vague impressions and feelings. Most of the memories, I was content to let fade away as they caused me more pain than anything else. Certain memories, though, needed to be kept safe. At least for now.

 

I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, focusing my chakra with a hand seal. I didn’t need much, just a push to move my consciousness. Breathe in. Breathe out.

 

When I opened my eyes again, I was in a corridor, staring at the ceiling. I sat up, shaking myself free of the vines trying to wrap around my body. I surveyed the clearly neglected corridor with disdain. Ceiling tiles had fallen to the ground, exposing wiring and leaking pipes. Dirty puddles were scattered around the floor. Plants grew in through cracks in the walls, the floor, the ceiling. A Hashirama tree was pushing through the ceiling. Music faintly drifted through the hall on a breath of wind. 

 

“Long time no see,” I said, pulling myself to my feet with a vine.

 

The human mind is a very complex thing, and the way a person perceives the world determines how their mindscape is set up. My sister’s mind was our clan compound, constantly stuck at an hour after dawn and completely abandoned. Memories drifted on the air as glass bubbles.

 

My own experiences led to my area, which I affectionately called my mind palace, to be a close replica of my old school. The longer I lived in Konoha, though, the more overgrown it became. Everytime I returned, more of it had decayed and been replaced with plants. If I looked out the window, I could see part of the compound growing from the ground like the plants infecting my mind palace now.

 

The subconscious was in charge of organizing things, for the most part. The conscious mind could make changes but nothing major. Everything was sectioned off in their own places - old life and new life, and how relevant it was. Miscellaneous memories, such as bus rides to school, faded into dusty papers. Important events - my eighteenth birthday, for example - remained as aged but easy to read files. The older it was, the harder it was to find.

 

Probably part of the miracle that helped Dad not notice the memories I had buried deep in my mind until further notice.

 

It was these memories that I was looking for now, deep in the science wing. The name Tazuna was so horribly familiar, and I just knew it was Plot related. It was worth a check in the old basement to make sure that the dread wasn’t for the future rather than the C-rank itself. 

 

I jumped over a large root and began counting doors. One of these led to the stairwell, but I never could remember which. Opening a door at a guess, I glanced inside and - “Wrong door!” I screeched and slammed it shut. That’s why that door was covered in vines. I shuddered and kept going.

 

Part of a wall had collapsed, allowing a breath of fresh air rather than the damp musty smell that lingered this deep. It stank of loss and forgotten memories.

 

The actual door to the stairwell was hidden behind a cluster of bamboo growing through a missing tile. Roughly pushing my way through the wood, I forced the rusted door open and shut it behind me. An electric light flickered above me. Leaning against the door, I pushed my bangs from my face and took a deep breath. Trying to hide my previous memories from anyone who entered my mind had the unintended side effect of making it hard for me to find it. Adding that I tended to stay away unless needed because high traffic areas of the mind are like a glaring neon sign that “Something important is here! Come have a look!” Heaving a sigh, I pushed myself up and jogged down the stairs. The lights were dimmer here. Eventually, I reached the absolute bottom floor and tried to open the door. Nothing. Rusted shut. I pulled harder, willing it to open. With a deep groan that echoed up the stairwell, the door slowly ground open.  

 

Down here was even worse than upstairs. Half the lights weren’t even working. Very few plants were down here, and those that were were rotting. Probably not a good sign. 

 

A small box on the wall was blinking silently at me. There you are. A scanner and keypad sat behind the door, also kind of rusted. I pressed one hand to the scanner and typed in my first birthday in the keypad. 

 

Hi there ,” Siri said in English. “ What can I do for you?

 

Heyo, what’s going on here? ” I asked a bit sharply. “ You’ve been doing a pretty crappy job taking care of my memories. ” The subconscious was a strange thing. Mine took the form of Siri. Yes, that Siri.

 

I’m sorry to hear that. How can I help? ” 

 

Well, for one, you can fix up this dump ,” I growled, looking down the hall. Some of the lights half heartedly flickered on. “ Also, where are my memories of anime? I need to check the stupid plot. Again.

 

Printing directions now. Please input energy.

 

Thaaaank you, ” I said, taking the paper and glancing over it as I pressed my hand to the scanner again. I shoved chakra at it and watched tiles fly up and puddles evaporate around me. “Troublesome,” I muttered, sidestepping a vine curling back into the wall. “What are you doing here? Go back upstairs!”

 

The door to my anime memories was clearer than the other doors, simply because I needed to access them more often. For the most part, I let the doors rust and the handles fall off. But certain ones I kept well protected, and other ones just wouldn’t rust shut for whatever reason. Like my death. Room Four-Two-Four was one that was carefully avoided. 

 

Flicking on the lights, I looked around Room One-Eight-Six with a sigh. The walls were lined with filing cabinets, all in alphabetical order. Finding Naruto wasn’t as easy as I would like, but all I had to do was look for the cabinet with the least rust on it. 

 

Hey, Siri, can you put on some music? ” I asked as I kicked the filing cabinet to dislodge some of the rust before yanking it open. I began flipping through the musty files to find the one I wanted. “ We Are Not Alone or NOVOCAINE . Either one works.

 

Which one would you like to hear?

 

I don’t know, flip a coin or something ,” I said in exasperation, pulling a stack out and dropping them on the table. 

 

Now playing We Are Number One by The Liv-

 

That’s not what I said! Just… turn it all off. ” Silence echoed through the room. “ Thank you ,” I muttered. “Now. What’s going to happen on this mission?” I placed my hand on the pile of files and closed my eyes, sending a pulse of chakra through the papers. Well, technically, they were already made of chakra, and - Stop getting distracted!

 

Memories flooded me, drowning me in light and sound and impressions of the world around me from the time when they were made. I jerked my hand away after a few seconds, tears filling my eyes. It’s gone, I chanted to myself. You’re dead to that world, don’t miss it. It’s dead and so are you. Taking a deep breath, I put the files away and removed another stack. There were other things I needed to refresh myself on.


Inoichi studied his younger child. He was leaning against the doorframe, watching Inoko as she slept. At least, that’s what anyone not accustomed to her would think she was doing. He knew his daughter better than that. He could see her eyes moving underneath her eyelids as she mindwalked herself. There was a drying tear track on her face.

 

He sighed and sat on the bed next to her, reaching out to stroke her hair. When he had first taught them how to mindwalk, he hadn’t predicted how hard she would throw herself into the skill. Ino was tenacious, but cautious with what Inoichi taught her. Inoko, on the other hand, was far too curious for her own good. She experimented and pushed the limits. It was always the quiet ones.

 

Inoko sucked in a deep breath as her eyes fluttered open. She blinked a couple times before focusing on him. “Hey, Daddy,” she croaked, smiling a little at him. “What time is it?”

 

“Almost eleven,” he replied, glancing over her. “What were you doing in that pretty head of yours?” Inoko snorted, but she seemed pleased by the compliment.

 

“Just looking at some old memories,” she said before sitting up. “Nothing special.” Inoko snuggled up against him. She had always been a cuddler, even as a baby. It had been one of the few ways to get her to stop crying then. 

 

Inoichi wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close to his chest, then said in a sing-song voice, “My baby girl is growing up~ One of these days, she’s gonna be having little kiddies of her own!” 

 

“Nooo,” Inoko complained, mock hitting him on the chest. He laughed and let her go. 

 

“I haven’t seen you much lately, my little moonflower,” Inoichi said. He pushed her bangs behind her ears. “Are you getting along with your team?”

 

“I only contemplate murder about a half dozen times a day, but other than that, we’re all a big happy family.” Inoko swung her legs over the side and stared at the floorboards. “If I’m totally honest, Dad, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. I mean, a lot. The boys bicker at every given opportunity, Sensei’s always late, Naruto is always crazy loud and obnoxious, and Sasuke is constantly PMSing and being an angsty little crap. And tomorrow, I’m leaving on my first C-rank, which I know for a fact is going to go to hell.” She ran a hand over her face. “Just the usual teenage stuff.” Inoichi chuckled softly.

 

“I can’t tell you the amount of times I wanted to beat the crap out of Chōza and Shikaku during our time on the same team,” he sighed. They’d practically grown up as brothers, but even brothers had their issues. “Soon, you’ll all fall into a sort of routine that will just feel right.”

 

“... I find it very hard to imagine Sasuke and Naruto ever getting along. Sensei really doesn’t want to be a teacher, and I guess he thinks not doing anything with us at all will fix his problem.”  Inoichi suppressed a sigh, already trying to figure out what to say to Hatake. Wanting to be a teacher or not, if one had genin under their care, then it was their duty to make sure they could take care of themselves on their own, to teach them. “He doesn’t care about us, and the boys would as soon kill each other than work together most of the time.” Inoko looked up at him with tired eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”

 

Inoichi prided himself on being able to read people, and know their thoughts. Even just a few minutes with a prisoner was enough to get them to crack. But Inoko… she was an enigma at times, even without his bias as her father. She rarely opened up to people, always preferring to watch and learn about them. He would have chalked it up to her age when he first noticed it, except Ino was always beaming and cheerful and social, waving happily at everyone who looked at her and generous with her hugs. Inoko hid behind her parents, then Ino when they weren’t around. But not because she was timid.

 

Inoko was anything but timid.

 

And then there was that.

 

“I would give it time,” he said after a minute. “From what I’ve heard, they’ve never been the best of friends, and Kakashi is extremely socially awkward on a good day.” She giggled a little at his description of her teacher. “I trust you’ll find your way, my little moonflower. Now go to bed. You need your rest tomorrow.” Inoko pulled a face.

 

“Probably,” she said reluctantly, then hugged him tightly. “Love you, Daddy.”

 

“I love you too.”


“Hello~!” I said as I spied the boys at the gate. “I trust nothing has been set on fire while you boys have been waiting?”

 

“You’re the one with all the explosives!” Naruto shouted as he pointed an accusing finger at me. I gave him a wide eyes and innocent look. It usually made Dad’s will waver long enough for me to escape a scolding for whatever stunt I had pulled. 

 

“Me? Use explosives? I would never!” They both gave me a look, almost as if I had tried to blow them all up the other day. “That one time was an accident.”

 

“You were cackling as the trees burned behind you,” Sasuke deadpanned. 

 

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. And that birch tree deserved it.”

 

“It is!” Naruto screeched. “My eyebrows got singed!” 

 

“Yare yare, Naruto, I’m afraid I didn’t notice.” Naruto leaped at me in rage, but Sensei chose that second to show up and grab his collar.

 

“Naruto, you can’t attack your teammates outside of a training ground,” he scolded. Tazuna stood behind him - wait, is he already drinking? What the crap, dude? - his pack clearly saying that he was ready to go. My throat tightened. Here we go. The event horizon of the Plot. I  shuffled my pack around a bit and ducked my head to keep the others from noticing the look on my face. 

 

The show had never really made it clear how long the Wave arc took, making it seem like it took the course of a week or two. However, Sensei was telling us that it would take about a week to get there, which conversely meant that it would take a few days to come back at ninja speed. Tazuna also had to finish the bridge, which would take anywhere from a couple weeks to a month or two.

 

We were going to be away from home for a long time.

 

Naruto took a few steps forward, turned around, and shouted, “Yeah! All right!” It jerked me out of my thoughts, making me focus on the fact that I’m in the field now, can’t get distracted like that again. Sensei was right, zoning out would get me killed.

 

“Someone’s excited,” I observed, amusement creeping into my tone.

 

“This is the first time I’ve ever left the village!” he explained excitedly, looking around. I’d left the village a few times before with Shikaku when he had to go and check on the Nara farms and he decided to bring Shika, Chōji, Ino, and me. A few other times I had gone with Dad on trips to Yamanaka greenhouses, but those were far rarer journeys.

 

“Am I really safe with this twerp?” Tazuna asked Sensei. I snickered. Naruto stopped laughing. 

 

“It’s ok,” Sensei waved away the question. “I’m a jōnin, no need to worry.” Naruto twitched. 

 

“Naruto, chill,” I drawled, walking up to him and poking him in the nose. “Just prove him wrong later, ok?” He blinked in surprise before grinning.

 

“Yeah! I’ll totally show you my awesomeness later, old man!” Kakashi sighed. The general atmosphere was ‘crisis averted’. It wouldn’t do to have Naruto trying to attack the client twice in as many days.

 

We walked in silence for a couple hours. I was fine with the quiet; it was useful for sorting out the information I had gotten from the stroll in my mind palace last night. It wasn’t as much as I’d have liked. Even with the mind walking, memories faded over time. Revisiting them kept somewhat fresh, but I hadn’t learned the clan jutsu until I was eight, which meant eight years of fading memories. They were sketchy at best. Thankfully, no one really noticed my slightly dazed expression. Once I had finished - and feeling kind of sick - I moved my attention to the chakra signature that had been following us since we left the gates. Like, since we were right next to the gates. One, maybe two people sticking close together. Didn’t I remember something about two people? High enough stealth to avoid patrols. Probably something I should mention to Dad. 

 

A hand waved in front of my face rapidly. “Inoko-chaaan,” Naruto whined. “I asked you something.” Whoops.

 

“Sorry about that,” I said, grinning sheepishly. “I got distracted.”

 

“I noticed,” he huffed. “I asked you why you always say you want to be a psychologist.” Because it was what I was studying in a previous life right up to when I died.

 

“It’s more of a joke now, than anything else,” I admitted. “I’ve always been interested in psychology, and it was my backup plan if I flunked out as a shinobi. But I’m glad I’m here. It’s way more interesting than civilian life.” I gave him a thin smile before focusing my attention on the chakra signatures around us.

 

They didn’t do anything for several days, merely watching us from a distance. Sensei either hadn’t noticed them - less likely - or deemed them not a threat - much more likely - but I was twitchy and tense as they hovered towards the edge of my sensing range. I wish I had the same range from when I was younger. I’d lost a lot of range and sensitivity when I was seven, and trying to regain it was a long and hard fought battle that I was still fighting.

 

“Ne, Inoko, why so twitchy?” Sensei drawled as I jumped upon hearing a twig snap nearby. Deer, three of them, one fawn. Barely aware of us. “We’re on a C-rank, and the Land of Waves doesn’t have any shinobi.”

 

“That’s not why I’m nervous,” I muttered, glaring in the general direction of the chakra signatures. Then, to throw off any suspicion, I added, “I just have the most awful feeling that Naruto placed a trap somewhere up ahead with a shadow clone.” Sensei laughed. 

 

“Hey! That’s… a really good idea!” Naruto grinned deviously. Sasuke gave me a look that said nothing more than ‘why do you do this’. I shrugged.

 

We took a break for lunch, more for Tazuna’s benefit than anything else. Our tagalongs moved ahead of us, and I stiffened. “Naruto, put that slug back where it came from, or so help me, I will beat the everloving daylights out of you,” I warned. Naruto pouted before putting the slug down. I mouthed ‘you owe me’ at Sasuke. He huffed and looked away. 

 

I swallowed past the lump in my throat as I spotted the puddle up ahead. This was it. The test of our abilities. Knowing that Sensei would step in didn’t ease the tension in my body.

 

Relax , Inoko,” Sensei said. I could hear the frown in his voice. “You’re going to shorten your lifespan.”

 

“Like you care,” I snorted, but tried to let some of the tension out of my body. It was hard with the two hostile chakra signatures in front of me. Honestly, were they even trying ?

 

“I’m wounded, Inoko. How could you say such a thing to your beloved sensei?”

 

My heartbeat thundered in my ears. It was so close and practically reeking of chakra. Was I the only one who noticed it? How could I be the only one?

 

Ba-bum. Naruto passed it. Ba-bum. Sensei drifted behind us. Ba-bum. Sasuke passed it. Ba-bum. Tazuna passed it. Ba-bum. I could feel Sensei’s chakra tense behind me. Ba-bum. I passed the puddle. Ba-bum. Sensei walked past it like nothing was wrong. Ba-bum. Chakra shuddered in the puddle and it felt wrong. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Ba-bum.

 

They sprung from the puddle like a pair of frogs and threw their chain forward. I spun around probably faster than I should have for it to have been a surprise just in time to see them wrap the chain around Sensei. 

 

“One,” they chorused, and pulled on each side of the chain. I felt Sensei’s kawarimi, but all the same, the sight of him getting ripped apart, even if it was just a henged log… I felt sick. The genjutsu wrapping its tendrils around me bugged me too, but I had to pretend it was real in order to trick the others. Area of effect genjutsu sucked like that. 

 

“Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto shouted, horror written across his face. The two ninja shunshined behind him and he froze. No. Naruto wouldn’t think of a kawarimi. Time seemed to slow as I put my hands in the familiar seal of the Mind Transfer jutsu. Then I threw myself at one of them. 

 

Not daring to pause to settle into the new body, I dug my heels into the ground and threw myself backwards, abruptly throwing off the other one. 

 

“Meizu, what the f-” he started, but I silenced him with fist to the face. I spared a glance for my body, and - seriously boys, it was just lying in the road?! How rude.

 

The other ninja disengaged his side of the chain and lashed out at me. Good. If he’s focused on his ‘traitorous’ teammate, he’ll leave the others alone. Sasuke had snapped out of his shock and jumped forward, pulling out a kunai and shuriken. 

 

And then the idiot nailed me to a tree. 

 

Swearing under my breath, I released the jutsu, and blinked up at the sky. Fricken -!

 

“Sasuke! I had it under control,” I snapped as I rolled to my feet and took a defensive position in front of Tazuna.

 

“You were passed out on the ground,” he said, blinking. 

 

“I was not ,” I snarled, but Meizu was charging me and oh god those claws looked nasty and Sasuke you freaking idiot get out of the way - And then Sensei clotheslined him and put him in a choke hold. The other one was already unconscious. 

 

It wasn’t until a few seconds had passed that I realized I was shaking with tension. “Well, Sensei,” I said shakily, slowly lowering my kunai. “You sure took your time.”

Chapter Text

“Well, Sensei,” I said shakily, slowly lowering my kunai. “You sure took your time.”

 

“Sorry about that,” he said cheerfully. “A black cat crossed my path, so I had to take the long way around.” A laugh bubbled in my throat, strangled by the remaining adrenaline.

 

“Sensei, I swear I’m going to stab you one of these days,” I said instead before I turned to Naruto. Wasn’t there something about him getting injured at this point? Regardless, he did in fact have a rather deep looking cut. “Naruto. You’re hurt.” 

 

I took out the small first aid kit from my pouch and began to unpack it. They had Kiri headbands. Kiri nin tend to use contact poisons. “What are you doing?” Naruto demanded when I pulled out a kunai. 

 

“You’ve probably been poisoned,” I explained, continuing my rough treatment. “I need to make sure that you get it out of your system, but if I let you do it you’ll probably bleed out or something.” I dripped a bit of general antidote onto the wound, since I had absolutely no idea what they had on their weapons. He winced as I pulled the bandages a little harder than necessary. “Naruto. Try not to freeze up next time. You were lucky that Kakashi-sensei was here.” I stared him in the eye. “Freezing in the field will get you and your teammates killed. Remember that.” 

 

Brushing my knees off, I turned around to where Sensei had tied the two nin to a tree. Now that adrenaline wasn’t pumping through me, I could actually think beyond ‘survive’ and ‘protect Tazuna’.

 

“They’re Kiri nin, likely nuke-nin,” I surmised, pushing my bangs behind my ear as I watched them. They were still both unconscious. I clenched my fists to keep my shaking hands from being too noticeable. “I’d rate them a three out of five for intelligence, though taking out the jōnin first is common sense. Honestly, a puddle in the middle of the road when it hasn’t rained for well over a week?” I blinked slowly and frowned. “There are five possible targets. We can safely outrule the boys, as Naruto is a nobody that’s never left the village before, and Sasuke’s clan name alone protects him from most thugs.” The boys shifted uncomfortably near me. “I’m fairly safe to outrule as well, being the daughter of a clan head. Clan and village retaliation and all that jazz. That leaves Sensei and the client. However, if they were just after Sensei, they would have left after ‘killing’ him. Witnesses would have been best to spread that they killed him, so they would have left us alone. Not to mention that once Sensei was out of the picture, they went straight for our client. Which begs the question, Tazuna-san” - the old man swallowed nervously and clenched the neck of his bottle tighter, sweat running down his face - “why didn’t you tell us that you have shinobi after us? You hardly could have not known.”

 

“Good analysis, Inoko,” Sensei said, resting his hand on my head. It was oddly comforting. “Well, Tazuna-san? We’re waiting.” He shifted his weight from side to side, clearly nervous before coming clean. Knowing what he was going to say helped me keep a neutral face as he told us of what Gato had done to the people of Wave.

 

“Missions with shinobi contact are B-rank or higher,” I mused after he had finished. “You couldn’t afford anything higher than a C-rank, so you lied.”

 

“Well, protocol says that we go back to the village,” Kakashi sighed. “Naruto probably needs to see a doctor for his hand anyway.”

 

“What?! No, I’m fine, Inoko fixed me all up!” I blinked. 

 

“Naruto, my dude, I’m not even on par with a civilian doctor. I can stitch and bandage wounds, and deal with about a half dozen poisons, but that’s it. I mean, I could probably figure out how to set bones…” I rubbed my chin, thinking. I really needed to get better at medical stu - wait a minute. “That is besides the point, Naruto!”

 

“Whatever! But Sensei, I’m fine, and those people really need help! We can’t just leave them! We accepted this mission! We can’t quit halfway through!”

 

I sighed heavily in the silence that followed. “My parents are going to kill me,” I muttered before saying in a louder voice, “Well, I’m game for it if you guys are. We beat these idiots just fine, so whatever we come up against next won’t be a pro-” Wait a minute. I frowned deeply as Sensei gave in and Naruto cheered. Neither seemed to notice me cutting myself off mid word.

 

A memory popped into my head of a really big sword, Sensei trapped in a giant bubble, and a pale mask. 

 

…. Shit.


“So you didn’t actually pass out,” Naruto said, clearly thinking hard. 

 

“No. Believe it or not, I’m not a tender damsel in distress. Which brings me to my second point: If you see me collapse in the middle of a fight, get my body out of the freaking way!” I glared at them as we kept walking. Sensei had… taken care of the Demon Brothers while the rest of us went up ahead. I tried not to think about it and instead focused on reaming the boys out. 

 

“This also means that one of you needs to look before you attack, Sasuke .” He glared at me. “I know I explained my jutsu to you, didn’t I?” I groaned, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Please don’t tell me you both forgot.” Silence greeted me. I very carefully took a deep breath. “... I swear I’m going to stab you both before this mission is over.”

 

We took a small boat to Wave, hiding in the heavy fog. Tazuna explained the situation in more detail to kill time. And then proceeded to guilt us into continuing as his bodyguards by sighing over how his daughter and grandson would grieve and blame Konoha for his death. Asshole , I thought as I gave him a flat stare, annoyed. 

 

“Be quiet!” the rower hissed. “We’re almost there.” We went under a low arch on a bridge, and the fog cleared up on the other side. Wave was beautiful, I realized. Trees poked out of the water; mangroves, maybe red ones? My marine biology course had been so long ago, and I had rushed through it.

 

The town around us was in disrepair, practically falling apart, and that was just what I could see from the boat. It was far worse than my mind palace. We disembarked from the boat. I wobbled a bit - slight sea legs, yay - but quickly regained my balance. I don’t like this.

 

We left the small town and began our trip to Tazuna’s house. It’s going to happen soon. They’re going to come soon and I won’t be able to do anything.  

 

We had been walking for about an hour before my blood ran cold. Two chakra signatures in the trees. Sensei tensed near me. Naruto had nearly killed a rabbit while I was phasing out. Not good not good not good we’re going to die.

 

“Everyone get down!” Sensei shouted. I grabbed the front of Tazuna’s shirt and yanked as I fell. I felt the whoosh of air as something large and heavy passed over us. A large blade embedded itself in a tree. I swallowed nervously. That’s a big sword.

 

A man body flickered to the handle of the blade, and all I could think was, Wouldn’t it be easier to balance on the blade?

 

He was shirtless, had his hitai-ate on the side of his head, was wearing the most awful leg and arm warmers I had ever seen - are you hot or are you cold, make up your mind - not to mention they clashed horribly with his pants. He was giving us a dark glare. Oh, and did I point out he was standing on a sword longer than I was tall? What the crap.

 

Ignoring the whole ‘shouldn’t be able to lift that much metal with both arms let alone one’ issue, I slowly got to my feet. Dad usually left Bingo books around the house for us to read. Ino was never that interested in them, but I had read them multiple times, usually when I woke up from nightmares of the future. Momochi Zabuza. Momo… chi. Wasn’t this just peachy?

 

A hysterical laugh bubbled in my throat. I was facing a man who had killed more people than I could count, and I was laughing at his slightly ridiculous family name. 

 

Ino was right. I had issues.

 

Naruto tensed beside me. No. “Don’t even think about it, Naruto,” I growled. “He’s an A-rank jōnin. He’d crush you in a heartbeat.”

 

“Little girl’s done her research,” Zabuza said mockingly. I swallowed. My instinct was to make a snarky remark, but my throat was tight and dry. Missing nin. Highly dangerous. Kill on sight. That’s what his Bingo book page had said. But the question was, could we?

 

I pulled my mind back to the present as Kakashi-sensei and Zabuza did the required pre-battle banter. 

 

“Momochi Zabuza. What a surprise.”

 

“Sharingan no Kakashi. I’d say I was here for you, but I’m really not.”

 

“Shame. I have quite a few people out for my head.”

 

“Maybe next time. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll have you hand over the old man,” Zabuza said.

 

“I’m afraid that’s not an option,” Sensei replied, his posture relaxed but his chakra tight and ready to spring. He slowly lifted his headband off his face. This is it, the apocalypse. I shook off old memories of song lyrics and focused. “Guys, get in Manji battle formation. Protect Tazuna and don’t get involved.”

 

My body moved with the ease of much practice, and I pulled out a kunai. Like a kunai would be much use against the oversized butter knife that was the Kubikiribōchō. I forced my breathing to be steady even as my heart slammed in my ears. It would be ok. We’d practiced this before. Sensei would protect us. We were going to be fine. 

 

“Huh. I never expected to see the legendary Sharingan so early,” Zabuza mused. “This is an honor.”

 

“Everyone’s been saying Sharingan,” Naruto groused. “What is it?!”

 

“It’s the doujutsu and kekkei genkai of the Uchiha clan,” I explained quietly. “It can be used to copy jutsu. Sensei is known for being the only non-Uchiha with one, since the Uchiha guarded their eyes almost as fiercely as the Hyūga.” 

 

“It’s not the only power of the Sharingan,” Sasuke muttered grimly. 

 

“Well said,” Zabuza replied with amusement. I flinched. “You really have done your research.” A heavy fog filled with chakra began to rise. “When I was in Kiri’s Anbu, we had a Bingo book page on you. There was something else in the book about the man who has copied one thousand jutsu.” And he hasn’t taught us any of them. Rude. “Kakashi, the Copy Ninja.” Copy that, copycat. “But let’s end the chit chat here,” he continued, crouching. “I need to kill that old man sooner rather than later. But it appears I need to kill you first, Kakashi.”

 

He grabbed his sword and landed on the water. It was back in its sheath, mist crawling out of the water to smother us in chakra as he made a hand sign with one hand and the other pointed up.

 

“Hidden Mist Jutsu,” Zabuza said. That can’t be good. I was right; the chakra in the fog was already wreaking havoc with my sensing abilities. 

 

“Sensei,” I said tersely after he vanished.

 

“He’ll probably come after me first,” Sensei said, as if that was supposed to make me feel better. It didn’t. 

 

“I’m going to assume that he’s silent but deadly, seeing how he said he was in Anbu,” I guessed. I did not like this at all. It was tense and stressful and I could barely sense Sensei a few feet away from me. 

 

“He is a master of the silent killing technique,” Sensei absently agreed. 

 

“The name seems self explanatory,” I said, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. “Dead before you notice it.”

 

“I haven’t completely mastered my Sharingan, so stay sharp, guys.” Oh, great .

 

“Like a kunai,” I muttered. The mist grew thicker, and soon enough I couldn’t see Sensei anymore. 

 

“Eight spots,” rasped out of the mist. “Larynx, lungs, spine, liver, jugular, subclavian veins, kidneys, and the heart.” He listed them as casually as Mother would read a grocery list. “Now then. Which spot would be the best?” Killing intent began to leak through the air, thick and burning. I felt like I was choking. No. No. Not again! Not again oh god help me I’m so small why why why why help please I can’t breathe - I struggled to pull air into my lungs. 

 

“Sasuke.” I blinked at the sudden sound. “Don’t worry. I will protect you three with my life. I will not allow my comrades to be killed.” He partially turned and gave us an eye smile. I could feel the positive intent in the air. It was an odd thing, practically the opposite of killing intent. As dumb as the name was, it was definitely useful. 

 

I glanced at Sasuke, saw the kunai pointed towards himself. I grabbed at his hand. Between Sensei’s words and the physical contact, something in his eyes relaxed. “It’s fine,” I whispered.

 

“I wonder about that,” Zabuza casually said from behind me. No. I had felt the flicker of chakra too late. I wasn’t afraid to die. I had done it before. But Tazuna and Naruto and Sasuke; I couldn’t just- I couldn’t- “It’s over.”

Chapter Text

“It’s over.”

 

Not again, I thought numbly, turning as fast as I could even though I knew it was going to be too late. I wouldn’t be able to save any of us and it would be all my fault. There was a blur of white and a splash of water as Sensei stabbed the water clone and popped it. Zabuza instantly retaliated by cutting him in half, but Sensei exploded into water as well.

 

…. What?

 

I could still sense Sensei lurking around in the mist, honing in on… wait, was that the real Zabuza? This was so confusing; there were two of them-

 

Sensei was about to kill the closest Zabuza, but the second one grabbed him and threw him at the lake. Zabuza was there in a heartbeat, hands forming seals. Water rose up and closed around Sensei.

 

I had read a few of Konoha’s Bingo books in the past, almost absently noting Kakashi’s abilities. Been there, read the wiki page. But seeing Kakashi being captured this easily… even knowing it was going to happen didn’t ease the surprise I felt. 

 

It shouldn’t have been this easy. On the other hand, though…

 

Zabuza couldn’t have given me a better target if he tried. He was just… standing there. No attempt to defend himself. This was child’s play.

 

“Guys, get out of here,” Kakashi said with deceptive calm. He felt… he felt scared. For us. I clenched my jaw. “He’s no match for you. Take Tazuna-san and run.”

 

“All due respect, Sensei,” I replied, a plan forming in my mind, “you’ll have a snowball’s chance in hell if we leave you. I don’t know about the boys, but breaking in a new sensei is just going to be a pain.” In a lower voice, I added, “Naruto, can you and Sasuke tag team the water clone?”

 

“What about Sensei and the real one?” Sasuke asked.

 

“I’ll take care of it,” I said with a vague wave before grinning maniacally at them. “Just keep the clone off my back.”

 

Jumping into the trees and crushing my chakra down, I found a somewhat safe spot for my body that was fairly hidden with a good line of sight. I took a deep breath, nervous. This was the first time I was facing an opponent this much stronger than me, not to mention one that actually wanted me dead. Ok. Remember what Dad said. ‘The more chakra the target has, the shorter amount of time you have in the body.’ But all I really need to do is pull out his arm and Sensei can take care of the rest. 

 

Probably.

 

I settled in, made the seal, and threw myself out of my body.


Kakashi knew he screwed up. He screwed up big time. He should have been more serious from the get go instead of being cocky about it. His genin were in horrible danger, and Inoko had disappeared to who knows where. The water filled with chakra around him was wreaking havoc with his senses, but Kakashi had felt Inoko’s chakra vanish

 

Be alive, he thought. If Zabuza’s hidden a clone in the trees and it got her… He was going to violently kill Zabuza before Inoichi violently killed him. There was a reason the man was partnered with Ibiki in leading T&I. 

 

Zabuza’s arm jerked out of the orb before he fell through the water. What.

 

The Demon of the Hidden Mist surfaced with a wild amusement dancing in his eyes. “Hello, Sensei!” he said cheerfully. “Did you miss me?”

 

“What the f-” he started, but then the former Swordsman began singing.

 

“Swing, swing, swing my sword, sword, whenever I get bored, bored, I can swing my sword, sword, I can swing my sword, sword!” He tossed the giant sword aside and opened his arms. “Well? I’m waiting.”

 

Everyone, even the water clone, stared at Zabuza. Kakashi was starting to understand exactly what happened. 

 

Inoko had the boys distract Zabuza and the clone while she found a safe spot to store her body, then she used her clan’s jutsu on him. Smart.

 

“Sensei, we are literally running out of time as we speak. I got rid of the sword. I freed you. Deal with the immediate pro- ” She choked, Zabuza’s face freezing as blood began to trickle out of the corner of his mouth. 

 

Zabuza blinked before refocusing his eyes and glaring at Kakashi. He yanked out a kunai and lunged at Kakashi again. Inoko had somehow lost control, and Okami on his mountain he hoped that she was alright. He had to protect his students, and by Okami and Yama he would do anything to make sure they were safe.

 

In the end, his Sharingan brought the fight to a close. Kakashi was simply faster than him. Combined with whatever wound he had gotten while Inoko was in control, the missing nin couldn’t keep up. Ripping his throat out with a kunai brought him a bit too much pleasure. 

 

After checking to make sure he was actually dead, he pulled down his headband and began reaching out with his senses for Inoko. 

 

Chakra’s too low, he thought grimly. “Naruto, Sasuke, where’s Inoko?”

 

Naruto very pointedly did not look at the bloody water as he glanced from his sensei and other teammate. “She went into the trees and did her jutsu thing to Zabuza and freed you,” he said hesitantly. “Oi, teme, where’s Inoko?” Sasuke merely shrugged, though appeared worried. 

 

Kakashi took stock of his chakra levels - he had maybe five minutes before he crashed like a rock - and sighed. “Boys, stay with Tazuna-san. I’m going to look for Inoko.”

 

Inoko left a rather strong scent trail of old books and flowers, but just inside the treeline, Kakashi could smell the coppery tang of blood. No.

 

There was no corpse. Merely a small puddle of blood on a tree branch and a glaring lack of one of his students. 

 

Kakashi placed a hand on the trunk, partially because he was dizzy from chakra loss. What have I done?


Naruto was furious with himself. He should have sent a clone with Inoko. He should have realized what she was going to do and done something about it! She had asked them just that day to take care of her body when she was doing her jutsu and he failed .

 

He wondered if similar thoughts were going through Sasuke’s head, if he even noticed Inoko’s absence at all. Kakashi-sensei had passed out from chakra exhaustion after informing them that an unknown hostile had taken advantage of Inoko’s defenceless state and wounded and captured her. 

 

Now they were impatiently waiting at Tazuna’s house for Sensei to wake up. It was awful.

 

“Dobe,” Sasuke said at last. Naruto bit his tongue against his retort and merely glared at him. “We ought to at least be thinking of plans to find and rescue Inoko. Get a head start on it.”

 

“Why bother? She’s gonna die anyway.” Both heads snapped towards Tazuna’s young grandson Inari, glowering at the boy. He was unfazed. “Anyone who goes up against Gato will die, and if he gets you, he’s not going to let you get away.”

 

“Inoko’s tough!” Naruto snarled. “It’s gonna take more than some business punk dude to take her down! She’s really smart too! Heck, she’ll probably have already escaped by the time we’re there!”

 

Inari snorted and walked away. Brat, he thought with annoyance. We’ll be able to find Inoko… right?


Uchiha Sasuke was not in a good mood. He was hardly ever in a good mood, but right now he was in a very not good mood. 

 

Inoko had been captured by an unknown. She was either dead or being held hostage. Either way, they couldn’t do anything until Kakashi woke up.

 

I’m still too weak, he growled. I didn’t even notice there was an enemy. And Inoko is paying the price for my weakness.


It had been a week since he lost his family, and he still couldn’t stand the whispers and stares. It was his first day back at the Academy after… and everyone kept looking at him. Normally he thrived off the attention that he wished came from his father, but today it was suffocating. 

 

Sasuke’s glare was enough to drive them back. Most of them anyway. One of the Yamanaka twins - Inoko, maybe? Why did they have such similar names? - was being incredibly stubborn in her attempts to talk to him. The other one, the one that was always sleeping, eating, being sarcastic, or watching people with a slightly terrifying look in her eyes, appeared to sense that he needed some space and time to process. She was gently pulling on her twin’s shirt, trying to get her to come away. When is Iruka-sensei going to come back?

 

“Sasuke-kun, are you sure you’re ok?” Ino(ko) asked. Her sister gave up and wandered over to Chōji to snag a chip from his bag.

 

“I’m fine,” he snarled.

 

“I-I’m sorry, I just wanted to -”

 

“What? You wanted to what?” Sasuke snapped. “Just go away and leave me alone.” He roughly shoved her out of his way and began to stalk to a different part of the yard. 

 

The other twin was in his face glaring murderously at him. “Don’t touch my sister,” she warned. She was pale and thin, as if she’d recently recovered from a long illness, but he didn’t remember if she’d been sick, and he didn’t care enough to know.

 

Sasuke sneered at her. “Or what? You’ll hit me? Ooh, I’m so scared. You probably couldn’t hit if your li-” A second later he was blinking up at the sky, jaw throbbing. Did she just…?

 

“Inoko, you pig!” one of the girls shouted. “Don’t hit Sasuke-kun!”

 

The Yamanaka ignored them and crouched in front of him with a dangerous look in her eyes. “Touch Ino again, Uchiha, and I’ll make you wish your brother finished the job,” she hissed before turning around. He gaped at her back for a moment. Red consumed his vision.

 

She did not just say that. 

 

Sasuke tackled her from behind, hatred pumping through his body. “Shut up!” he screamed at her, hitting her head as hard as he could. “You don’t know what it was like ! Shut up!” Inoko flipped him over onto his back, a wild look in her eyes. They both ignored the cries for them to stop fighting, mostly from Ino. She sounded terrified.

 

“Leave - my - sister- alone!” she panted, hitting him with each word. He grabbed her swinging braid and pulled as hard as he could, but she didn’t even grimace at the pain. Inoko kneed him in the gut, then punched him as he reflexively bent over. Sasuke punched her in the groin, pleased by her surprised yelp. 

 

He grabbed her by the front of her shirt and tossed her over his shoulder, settling into a different stance. Her eyes narrowed as she realized he was tossing the little Academy taijutsu they knew out the window. Inoko’s hands settled into an unfamiliar seal that she extended in his direction. Ninjutsu, huh? I can match you for that.

 

Then Sasuke couldn’t move. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to; he physically could not move. Inoko also appeared to be struggling.

 

“Shadow possession complete,” Shikamaru drawled. His lazy tone was offset by his tense posture and a tiny bead of sweat rolling down his face.

 

“Stay out of this, Shika,” Inoko spat, not taking her eyes off Sasuke.

 

“What is going on?!” Iruka shouted as he stormed outside, Naruto trailing him uncertainly. He took in the scene with a glance - Sasuke prepared to use more dangerous taijutsu, Inoko holding a Yamanaka hand seal, and Shikamaru holding them both in place with his clan’s jutsu. “Detention, the three of you. I’ve told you all before, no unsupervised jutsu at the Academy!” Shikamaru groaned and let his jutsu go.

 

“Don’t drag Shika into this,” Inoko sighed as she rubbed her face. “He was trying to stop us. Please, Sensei.” Iruka raised an eyebrow. 

 

“Fine. Inoko, Sasuke, I’ll be seeing you after class.” Inoko shot him a dirty look before turning away and walking into the classroom. Brat.


“Sasuke.” He ignored Inoko and continued scrubbing the blackboard. “Sasuke. Sasuke. Sasuke.”

 

“What?” he finally bit out, glaring at her. He had gotten detention because of her, ruining his perfect record. Not that it mattered anymore. Who was going to care?

 

She had the courtesy to look… not embarrassed, no. Regretful would be a better word. “I’m sorry for saying that. About your brother. That wasn’t cool. So sorry about that.” Inoko turned back to the pencils she was sharpening. Sasuke watched her for a moment before returning to scrubbing. 

 

“Sorry for shoving your sister,” he muttered. If he had been watching, he would have seen the ghost of a smile flicker across her face. 

 

“Truce?” she asked without looking at him.

 

“Stay away from me,” he warned. “You’re nothing but a pest.”

 

“Fair enough. But don’t you like me, Sasuke-kun?” Sasuke recoiled from her, horrified. Not her too! Inoko batted her eyelashes at him a couple times before cackling. “Yeah, don’t worry, the chances of that happening are…” Inoko stared blankly into space for a moment. “Meh, who knows, I suck at probability. But it’s not happening.”

 

“Wouldn’t want to marry a pig girl like you anyway,” he muttered.


They hadn’t been friends after that. Far from it. It took him a long time to forgive that comment, but being put on the same team forced him to work with her. If he was entirely honest with himself, he was starting to become fond of her deadpanned sarcasm and blank stares. It was almost endearing. 

 

“Oi, teme! Kakashi-sensei’s awake!” Naruto shouted.

 

It was time to plan. 



Chapter Text

The first thing I was aware of was the sharp pain in my right side. I hissed slowly through my teeth as I opened my eyes. It hurt almost as bad as cramps I used to get a lifetime ago. I was in a wide stone hideout of some sort. Not underground; I could clearly hear the wind rustling in nearby trees.

 

I had been in Zabuza’s body, hadn’t I? I was helping Sensei fight him when I had been thrown back into my own body. Then pain and a white mask hovering over me before darkness.

 

“You’re awake,” a feminine voice said softly. My gaze snapped over to the hunter nin sitting in the corner. Speak of the devil. “Don’t bother struggling; you’ve been thoroughly secured.”

 

We both sat there for a moment, sizing each other up. “I’m thirsty,” I said after a moment.

 

“You killed Zabuza-sama,” he said flatly, ignoring me. 

 

“I didn’t lay a hand on him.”

 

“You and I both know that you don’t have to touch someone to kill them, Yamanaka-san .”

 

“I didn’t kill him . I merely briefly controlled him to free my teammate, Haku .” He pulled back in surprise for a second before removing his mask. 

 

Haku was incredibly pretty for a boy, but his good looks were marred by the haunted and grief ridden look on his face. I almost felt bad for him, remembering how devoted he had been to Zabuza. Almost.

 

“How do you know that name?” he asked quietly. I didn’t flinch.

 

“I have a habit of knowing things I shouldn’t,” I replied flatly.

 

“You’re an odd girl.”

 

“So I’ve been told.”

 

We made a weird pair, one of us free and the other tied to a chair, staring into each other's eyes. “Why am I here?” I asked after a second to break the silence. We had been instructed at the Academy that in the event of being captured by the enemy to find out everything we could without endangering our lives. Information was useless if you weren’t alive to tell it to someone. “I presume I’m your hostage?”

 

“You would be correct.”

 

We sat in silence for several seconds. I could only guess as to what Haku was thinking, but my own thoughts were occupied by escape plans and the like. Why didn’t he just kill me? Why take me hostage? Information? Eventually I decided to fall back on my upbringing.

 

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. Haku barely glanced at me. “For what happened to Zabuza.”

 

Haku frowned. “Why do you apologize?”

 

“Because we’re the same.” Taking in his surprised look, I pushed on, “Zabuza was your precious person. You would have died for him, and even now you’re carrying on the mission he chose, correct? I…” 

 

I had a choice here. Zabuza had died, meaning that certain things were fixed in time. This in turn meant that Haku would likely die as well, probably by Sensei’s hand. In the end, this information would remain safe. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. 

 

“I see things. In my sleep. Things that haven’t yet happened,” I said slowly, careful of what I revealed. Hopefully, if he did tell someone and it became public, it would be disregarded as mad ramblings. “The things I see... the future I see, isn’t a good one. I’m trying to change it. One of the things I see is my father.”

 

Haku made a noncommittal noise.

 

Well, he was listening at least. That was something, right? I took a steadying breath and continued. “So, I also have an important person I am trying to protect. Many important people, actually. Zabuza was one of them. Unfortunately, not everything can be changed.”

 

“You still could have tried,” Haku said in a low voice.

 

“Maybe. But some people mean more to me than others.” His head snapped up, anger in his eyes. “Would you have done any differently in my place?” I asked. The anger faded from his eyes as he visibly lost steam. 

 

I glanced down at my aching side. Judging by the state of the congealed blood, Haku had stopped the bleeding, but it still hurt like a mother. 

 

Slowly taking a deep breath and focusing on the sharp stab of pain, I began to work through what I knew of Haku. I couldn’t afford to go unconscious to drop into my mindscape to revive my memories, so this would have to do. He was loyal to Zabuza to the point of jumping in front of a Chidori. He had intimate knowledge of herbs and healing techniques. He -

 

“Prove it.”

 

I opened my eyes in surprise. His face was a calm mask devoid of emotion, but I could sense the turmoil in him. 

 

“Prove it?” I asked, trying to buy time.

 

“Prove to me that you do indeed… see things.”

 

“Well, if you untie my hands -”

 

Haku laughed harshly. “Don’t take me for an idiot. I know that Yamanaka need their hands for their jutsu.”

 

Well, there went my plan of disabling his mind and untying myself. 

 

“Did you really think that I would let you go after telling me that you had mystical visions of the future?” he asked incredulously. “I was an idiot for thinking that you might actually be telling the tr-”

 

“You were so proud of yourself that day,” I said in a low voice, not looking at him. He froze. “Finding out that you had those powers. You went to show your mother, but she was so angry for some reason.”

 

“Impossible,” he whispered, recoiling from me. I met his eyes as I continued. I could see the pain in his eyes, but I couldn’t stop.

 

“She hit you, didn’t she? You didn’t understand why when she told you to never show those powers.”

 

“Stop it.”

 

“But someone already saw you -”

 

“Stop it!”

 

“- and they came, didn’t they?”

 

“Shut up!”

 

I kept pushing, kept staring at him with a single minded intensity as the temperature dropped. 

 

“Your father was the one who struck the final blow -”

 

“Shut up shut up shut up! ” he screamed, frost creeping up my skin. We sat in silence for several seconds as he panted and I inspected the ice on my skin. While it felt great against the burn of my wound, I had to admit that I might have pushed him a little far.

 

“Do you believe me now?” 

 

Haku stared at me for a couple seconds more before vanishing.

 

Well.

 

I guess it was a bit of a bomb to drop.


Gato was pleasantly surprised when he was contacted by Zabuza’s underling. He had been expecting quick results, but nothing like this. Shinobi really were a force to be reckoned with.

 

“Where is your master?” He frowned when only the underling appeared at the entrance to the hideout. 

 

“Dead,” the boy said shortly. Well, that was disappointing. 

 

“And the bridge builder?”

“Still alive. He hired shinobi himself.”

 

Gato took a steadying breath. This was… unfortunate, but… “I trust you called me here for a reason, then?”

 

The boy nodded, leading the way down the hall. “He hired a genin team. Their jōnin sensei is the one who killed Zabuza-sama.”

 

Gato himself didn’t notice how Haku’s voice caught ever so slightly, but his samurai did. They glanced at each other and gripped the handles of their swords just a little tighter. 

 

“I was able to capture one of the genin. She’s down the hall.”

 

As they walked, they could hear a child’s voice… singing. The same four verses, over and over and over again, slow and eerie, punctuated by hysterical laughter. 

 

“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream~ Merrily, merrily, merrily, mer, life is but a dream~.” 

 

Gato was starting to be creeped out, but this was a child. Anyone who’d even heard his name knew to tremble in fear. Full grown men had pissed themselves in his presence. He’d teach her to fear him.

 

When Haku opened the door to where the genin was being held, he could see a chair in the center of the room knocked over. There was… someone tied to it, long blonde hair strewn across her face and the floor. She was rocking against the floor as she sang. 

 

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, mer, life is but a -” The child broke off mid way and stared at them through her hair. Her pupilless eyes were blank. “Dream,” she whispered. Slowly, a wide smile crept over her face.

 

“Are you strangers? Or are you frieeeeends?” The blonde rocked her chair over onto its side. “I like friends. Let’s be best friends. Forever. ” She giggled, wide eyes never leaving Gato.

 

“Shut her up,” Gato said, waving his cane towards her. 

 

Waraji strode forward and grabbed a fistful of her long blonde hair, yanking her into an upright position. Her face briefly contorted with pain as he held her there, but the crazy grin was soon back. 

 

“Are we playing now? Playing with lots of friends is always so much fun .”

 

As she began to laugh again, Gato studied her. She looked like a civilian, really. There was a large bloodstain on the right side of her jinbei top, but it was dried and dark now. The only parts of her clothing that suggested that she was a ninja was the wrappings on the right leg of her knee length pants and the sandals that every ninja seemed to wear.

 

“What’s your name?”

 

“They call me Nonya,” she said wistfully. “Nonya business.” Gato nodded at Zori, who hit her in the gut with the pommel of his katana. The girl gave a loud cry of pain. 

 

“She’s a Yamanaka,” Haku said after a moment. “You would do well to mind yourself around her.”

 

“The voices say I can’t kill you,” Yamanaka said before that damned grin came back. “ Yet. ” 

 

Gato walked forward, inspecting her for a moment before hitting her in the face with his cane. 

 

“I’m going to enjoy it~” she sang, spitting out blood. She grinned at him with wide unblinking eyes. “So much.”

 

“And if I kill you first?” Gato asked, curious. This was the first time someone so powerless hadn’t feared him at all. He was intrigued, honestly.

 

“No matter. I’ll just use the seed I planted in your mind.” Gato recoiled. “I’ll use it to take over your body and ruin everything you’ve worked so hard to build,” she whispered, pleasure on her face. “It will be so easy.”

 

“You’re bluffing.”

 

“Am I?” She sounded so amused by the fact he was trying to call her bluff - because it had to be a bluff - that he was almost convinced. Almost. 

 

Her smile was lopsided now due to her face swelling. But she was still smiling. Closing her eyes, she began to sing her stupid little song again.

 

Nodding to Waraji again, the samurai hit her in the crusty red spot on her shirt. This time she screamed, curling in on herself as much as she could while tied to a chair.

 

All mirth had vanished from her gaze when she looked up, panting.

 

“I think… that I won’t mind killing you at all,” Yamanaka hissed, a dark look in her eyes. “In fact, I look forward to it.”

 

Leaving the room, Gato merely smirked to himself and began mentally going through his list of contacts, wondering how much someone would pay for a young female Yamanaka. Behind him he could hear the sounds of his bodyguards hitting the girl.

 

“I would prefer that you not permanently maim or disfigure her,” he called back. “That would significantly lower her value.”

 

Her hysterical pain-filled laughter echoed in his ears.


“What do you mean we can’t go now?!” Naruto shouted furiously. Kakashi sighed heavily, head aching and coils feeling awfully empty. Sasuke was clearly enraged as well, which surprised Kakashi. He hadn’t realized that the Uchiha cared about the girl so much. 

 

“It’s an effort for me to even sit up right now,” Kakashi explained. “Any effort to rescue Inoko right now will have to wait at least three, maybe four days if we want it to succeed.” He just hoped that she made it that long and didn’t flip the kill switch.

 

Back in Anbu, he’d had a Yamanaka teammate explain to him about the kill switch jutsu Yamanaka were taught a month before graduation. It was a remnant from the warring clans era when getting captured and interrogated would mean death for clanmates. So they came up with a kill switch jutsu. It would utterly destroy the mind to prevent anyone from spilling vital information. It didn’t require any hands signs, just dropping into their mind and flipping the metaphorical switch.

 

Said teammate was forced to use it barely a week later. Needless to say, he didn’t want to see his student like that, and damn it , he was getting attached. 

 

It was probably her deadpan sarcasm. He knew for a fact that there were jōnin who couldn’t be as sarcastic as she could, leaving one unsure if she was insulting you or not. 

 

“We could at least do something rather than sit here and be useless,” Sasuke snapped. 

 

“Our mission is to protect the client,” Kakashi reminded him, as much as he hated to say it. “For now, that’s all we can do. C-ranks have significantly more risk to them. Inoko knew that she could die when she signed up for this life.”

 

“So what, we’re gonna abandon Inoko because she got captured?!” Naruto demanded, shaking with rage. “I thought you said that people who break the rules are trash, but people who abandon their comrades are worse than trash!”

 

Kakashi winced a little. “We’re not abandoning Inoko,” he replied firmly. “I’m just saying that our primary objective is to keep Tazuna safe while he builds his bridge.” And how he hated that. He’d thought about it thoroughly, and it would take at least two days for one of his summons to make it back to Konoha, and another two days for the Anbu team to come back. At this point “There aren’t any other high level shinobi that ought to be an issue around here aside from the one that took her. After a few days of rest, I’ll be able to take care of them just fine. On the bright side, if Gato just happens to die under mysterious circumstances while we track down our missing teammate, well…”

 

It took Naruto a moment, but when he got it, a sly smile slid across his face, matching the smirk on Sasuke’s.

 

“Ah, I get you, Sensei,” he grinned. “We’re gonna rescue Inoko, dattebayo!”

 

Kakashi had his book out, feeling too troubled to really see the words when Naruto said, “Wait, are we going to kill Gato?”



Chapter Text

“In hindsight, antagonizing him probably wasn’t the best idea,” I muttered as Haku cleaned the blood from my face. My eye was swollen shut already, which was incredibly annoying and made me paranoid. I didn’t like being unable to see what was coming for me on that side. 

 

“Probably not,” he agreed. I was surprised to find I hadn’t lost any teeth, but then again…

 

I frowned as I remembered Gato’s parting words. I knew human trafficking was a part of this world, but I never expected to see it first hand so soon. Lovely. 

 

In clan training, Dad had sat Ino and me down and had a very serious discussion about the technique he was going to teach us. Ino had been very shaken afterwards, but I had been… interested. On one hand, it was nice to know that I had an out if I needed it. On the other, I had no idea if I was going to die again and get a new family and life and have to learn another frickin language or if I was going to, y’know, die normally. 

 

With my luck, I’d be thrown into Game of Thrones or something. 

 

While I’d prefer to not die again and be stuck in some endless cycle of death, I’d rather nope out of this world than become a victim of human trafficking. Especially if whoever got me had a few days head start to lose Sensei. 

 

Right. Sensei. I knew that he wouldn’t be able to confront Gato for at least a week, which begged the question of exactly how long it had been since I had been captured and what my team was doing. A day? Maybe two?

 

Sensei was probably reading porn, Sasuke angsting, and Naruto screeching about ‘becoming Hokage, dattebayo!!!11!’.

 

On second thought, that was a bad train of thought, abort abort.


“I don’t get it,” Ino decided, pouting. 

 

Inoichi sighed heavily as he watched his nine year old twins fidget on the grass. They both seemed more interested in the prospect of playing on the cool spring morning than sitting down for lessons. Ino was bored and confused; Inoko did seem mildly interested, but looked confused about the applications.

 

“Purposeful Lima Syndrome?” she muttered, plucking grass. “That’s…”

 

“Necessary depending on the situation,” he said, chucking Inoko under her chin. “If you can create a bond between yourself and your captor, they might be more willing to be… persuaded.”

 

“Why bother?” Ino interrupted. “I mean, if they’ve got you already, why let you go?”

 

“Because if they’re holding you hostage, you could at least buy some time,” Inoko murmured, looking pale. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the lighting or her own clear dislike of the thought. “Even buying a few seconds could mean the difference between life and death.”

 

Inoichi patted her head as Ino’s face morphed into an expression of understanding. Inoko varied between understanding subjects like she had been studying them for decades and taking weeks to grasp the basics. Sometimes it concerned him, but he told himself that she was a child and still adjusting, and it would pass.

 

It would pass.

 

He worried about his younger daughter sometimes.


Pulling Haku over to my side was harder than I would have liked, but it was coming along. He was more and more hesitant and reluctant when I asked him about the Tazuna situation. He came back one morning from gathering herbs for my wound looking particularly troubled. 

 

I’d guess from both my memories and what I knew of my teammate that he had undergone Talk no jutsu.

 

I said nothing and looked away as Haku lifted my stained shirt up to apply the latest layer of medicinal paste to my wound. Ignoring the pain, I stared at the wall with a tight jaw. It was healing at a snail’s pace. 

 

“It’s healing well enough,” Haku finally said. 

 

“Good to know.” 

 

I hurt everywhere. Considering I was only let loose in order to relieve myself twice a day, my muscles were cramping horribly. I never thought I’d say this, but I wanted nothing more than stretch and maybe even exercise a little.

 

Dear lord, I must be going mad.


Kakashi wanted nothing more than to hit his head against something hard repeatedly. He had done his best to train the boys in the short time he needed to recover, but by Okami did they make it difficult. Thinking he could capitalize on their incessant rivalry was a horrible, horrible mistake. 

 

On a completely unrelated note, the fires had been put out and there wasn’t that much damage to the forest. 

 

Anyway.

 

Once he was actually able to walk around without crutches, he did a bit of scouting. As far as he could tell, Inoko wasn’t with Gato. This of course begged the question of where the everloving hell was she?

 

“Sensei!” Naruto said cheerfully once he arrived back at Tazuna’s home. “Did ya find out where Inoko is?” 

 

Kakashi shook his head, feeling frustrated. He hadn’t even had his genin team for two months and their first C-rank had gone FUBAR. He really was a crappy sensei.

 

He wasn’t going to let this turn into another Kannabi.


Haku wasn’t sure what to think of his captive. Inoko seemed to know just how much danger she was in, but more often than not it didn’t phase her. She would joke with him and make terrible puns - he wasn’t sure if he liked them or not because while they were clever they were just so bad - like they had known each other for years. Like they were friends.

 

He didn’t know how he felt about that.

 

Haku knew that she knew things she shouldn’t. It had taken nearly four years of serving Zabuza-sama before he had gotten the courage to tell him exactly what had happened to his parents, but Inoko… she had known. And she wasn’t afraid of him. There was no judgement in her eyes, just sadness.

 

Against every screaming instinct in his body, he liked her. She didn’t see Haku as less than a human, as his father had when he discovered Haku’s kekkei genkai. She didn’t see him as something to be used. He was fine with that; he was a tool to be used by Zabuza-sama. But Zabuza-sama was gone now. He really wasn’t sure what to do with himself at this point.

 

From her position tied to a chair, Inoko offered something he never had before. Haku couldn’t deny that he wanted it. Even so, he would repeat to himself that he needed to finish Zabuza-sama’s last mission.

 

He didn’t want to. He was fond of Inoko, fonder than he should be. Gato had demanded that he turn her over to bait her team into an ambush. 

 

Zabuza-sama had taught him to never feel sympathy for a target, but crushing his feelings was harder this time. 

 

It had started shortly after she had been beaten by Gato’s samurai. She had muttered sarcastic remarks under her breath, cursing them and their mothers as he expected. Then she started criticising their fashion choices, of all things. 

 

She had fallen silent for a while after that, thinking hard about something. Probably escape. Unexpectedly, she shuddered violently and began muttering, “Abort train of thought, abort, abort.”

 

She was an extremely odd person. 

 

Inoko would cheerfully talk to him as he did various things around the room, telling him stories about her childhood. While he noticed how careful she was to keep certain things vague, he did find himself lingering in the room merely to listen to her speak. Zabuza-sama had never been one for lengthy conversations.

 

Sometimes he would ask her questions about her family and clan, telling himself he was probing for information even though he knew he enjoyed actually talking to someone for once. He thought he saw a glint in her eyes not unlike Zabuza-sama’s when he succeeded at something, but it vanished so quickly he wasn’t sure he really did see it. 

 

As he got to know her, he felt that he could trust her with little things, like being untied to go to the bathroom. She was wounded, after all; what could she do to him? She never took advantage of him, merely smiling in a warm, genuine way and thanking him each and every time he did something for her, no matter how small or insignificant it was. 

 

It made him feel warm in his chest like he hadn’t since he was a child. 

 

Time crawled on, and Haku found himself devoting himself to making sure she was ok. How was her wound? (He conveniently forgot that he was the one who gave it to her in the first place) Was she comfortable in her bindings? Did she need anything?

 

It wasn’t unlike how he treated Zabuza-sama.

 

The night before he was going to turn her over to Gato to act as bait, he caught a triumphant yet guilty look in her eyes. He wondered why.


Slowly working around the indoctrination that Haku had was an... interesting experience. Sure, I knew how to do it in theory, but theory was a good deal different from practice, and I only had a week to pull him around. 

 

Thankfully, a decade spent learning how the human mind works and another decade learning how to manipulate said mind meant I had an advantage. A good one at that. 

 

As I saw Haku slowly becoming more attached to me, giving me slightly more freedoms, I repeated to myself that this was good, this was just another step to getting free, this was fine.  

 

I couldn’t escape the feeling I was becoming another Zabuza.


As I slowly returned to consciousness, I had a single groggy thought: I hate drugs. 

 

Seriously, screw the guy who came up with the non-medical knockout drugs. They freaking sucked. 

 

On a slightly more serious note, I was no longer in Haku’s hideout. I could tell that much despite being blindfolded.

 

“Ah, the Yamanaka brat,” Gato said. Judging by the position of his voice, he was about three feet in front of me. “How nice of you to come here.”

 

“Ah, the dipshit with the gods awful haircut,” I smiled. “How nice of you to invite me.”

 

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised as I was when I got hit across the face with his cane again. I spit out a molar I was due to lose anyway.

 

“Still as impudent as ever, I see.”

 

“Still as ugly as ever yourself,” I said cheerfully, spitting out some blood from my split lip. “When’s the party starting?”

 

“If by party, you mean when my men destroy your little team and finally rid me of that bridge builder, then it will start soon.”

 

“Sounds like fun~” I sang out, grinning widely. “Can’t wait to see how Sensei is going to utterly destroy you~”

 

Oh yes. This was going to be great.


Naruto was not happy. In fact, one could even say he was extremely pissed off. Sasuke was even more irritable than usual and Kakashi-sensei was barely paying attention to them when he was even around.

 

All in all, his teammates sucked. Only a stern lecture from Kakashi had stopped him from sending an army of shadow clones out to look for her. 

 

“Argh!” he shouted, clutching at his hair. “It’s been ages already! Why can’t we get her?!”

 

Inoko had been one of his first friends - well, she tolerated his presence at first before she started pulling him along to things. She introduced him to Shikamaru and Chōji, then pulled Kiba into their group to keep him busy. She would tolerate his rants about ramen and Sasuke and becoming Hokage to an extent before informing him he was being obnoxious. 

 

It was Inoko who had taught him ‘manners’, though she disregarded them herself sometimes. She had done her best to teach him the bunshin, though they both eventually gave it up.

 

She had tried and tried her very best to help him, and he couldn’t do the same when she needed it most. 

 

“Dobe.” 

 

Naruto looked up to see Sasuke standing in front of him. Scowling, he said, “What do you want, teme?”

 

“Sensei said it’s time,” he explained, a strange new light dancing in his eyes. “Let’s go.”

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi crouched in the shadows of the crane, watching the warehouse with cold eyes. He could feel Inoko’s chakra in there, sluggish and irregular. Drugged. 

 

Taking his anger and shoving it into a tiny corner of his mind with the rest of the emotions he didn’t want to deal with - yes, that was completely healthy and no, he wasn’t going to see a therapist, Gai - he focused on the chakra signatures in the building, Sharingan whirling slowly. 

 

There were a handful around his student, plus one he took to be Gato judging by the general lack of control. There were at least three dozen more, maybe four dozen, scattered in and around the building. 

 

Does he think to ambush us? Kakashi thought in grim amusement. He was ex-Anbu; it would take much more than what Gato had to ambush him. 

 

Unfortunately, Gato still had the advantage of Inoko’s life. What he could do and had done before was drop in and violently murder all of the more troublesome ones, grab the hostage, and scram before they knew what hit them. 

 

This plan had many holes in it, the biggest of which being that Gato and his men almost certainly knew where they were. And it would probably traumatize Inoko as well. Hm. Problem. 

 

Naruto at Point A, dattebayo ,” echoed in his ear.

 

Sasuke at Point C ,” came shortly afterward. 

 

He touched his throat mic. “Kakashi at Point B,” he said in a low voice, all business. Was it really just a few days ago that he was teaching his students to use these? It felt like a lifetime ago. “In position.”

 

The boys echoed him quietly. Clearly the importance of what they were about to do had hit them. They wouldn’t get a second chance if this failed. 

 

“Naruto, use shadow clones to occupy the guards at the door and secure the perimeter, but do not engage yourself. I repeat, do not engage with your real body,” he ordered. “Sasuke, I want you to make your way to the roof under the cover that Naruto provides. Find Inoko, but do not engage. Over.”

 

Copy, ‘ttebayo.

 

Copy, Sensei.

 

He waited until he heard the shouts of shadow clones before moving, sliding into his Anbu mindset as easily as putting on a well worn shirt. Hound noted Sasuke’s blur as he ran up the side of the warehouse but didn’t think anything else of it. 

 

He had other things to do, such as utterly destroying Gato’s empire and incriminating him in a variety of different things as payback for thinking he could snatch one of his adorable little genin and get away with it. The best part? He didn’t have to even go to the trouble of framing the man. 

 

Fate was truly kind.


Inoko once told Naruto that sometimes, you just gotta hit something. Repeatedly. Until something is bleeding or burning. He wasn’t quite sure how hitting something would make it burn - Inoko had given a vague explanation involving chickens, which just confused him further -  but there was something to be said about taking your rage out on living targets. 

 

Kakashi-sensei had sat him and Sasuke down before they headed out and briefly informed them on what they might find. He had said that there was no guarantee that Inoko would be alive, or even in one piece. Gato had done horrible things to other people like Inari’s step-father. 

 

His eyes had tightened as he continued, saying that Gato’s men might have… hurt her. At first, Naruto hadn’t understood, but then Kakashi had explained in a low voice with short and clipped words.

 

Even now as he stood hidden by a stack of crates, hearing his shadow clones fight, he was nearly shaking with anger and fear, wanting nothing more than to hurt them for daring to even look at her. Inoko was going to be fine. She was one of the strongest people he knew. Nothing could keep her down for long. She was going to be just fine.

 

…. right?


Sasuke slowly let the skylight drop closed, being sure to remain silent at all costs. The rafters of the warehouse provided a good way to walk all around the area without touching the ground. There were no booby traps or anything - was Gato expecting ninja or bandits? These defenses were pathetic. Naruto could do better than this. 

 

He could hear the shouts of guards both inside and out of the building as the aforementioned idiot did what he was best at - causing a ruckus and grabbing people’s attention. 

 

Sasuke crept along the rafters, carefully scanning the ground below for his teammate. There was nothing but crates and crates and boxes and sacks everywhere. A group of thugs ran towards the door underneath him. 

 

And then he saw her.

 

Inoko was tied to a chair, her long blonde hair dirty, limp, and hanging in her face, and two cloths knotted at the back of her head. Blindfolded and gagged. Sasuke took a deep breath and calmed himself. There was no obvious signs that she was hurt aside from the old red stain on her shirt. She was fine. She was - looking right at him. 

 

He blinked in surprise. There was no doubt about it; Inoko’s face was briefly pointed towards him with a wide grin on her face. Then she settled down in her seat again. All told, it was barely two seconds. To the unobservant eye, it looked like she was stretching her neck. 

 

She knows we’re here for her. 

 

This was good. She would be able to cooperate. 

 

“Sasuke in the warehouse,” he whispered, touching his throat mic. “I’ve found Inoko. Over.”


Naruto was so busy beating on the guy who had stumbled on his hiding spot that he almost didn’t hear his teammate across the radio. “ Sasuke in the warehouse. I’ve found Inoko. Over. ” 

 

He paused mid-punch. The man groaned, barely conscious. “What was that, teme?!” He added ‘over’ after remembering the protocol Sensei had drilled into their heads before the Tora mission.

 

I said I found her. She’s alive, and doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. She has two guards with her, both appearing to be ronin. Over.

 

Do not engage! ” Kakashi said sharply. “ Wait until I get there. I’m on my way. Over.

 

Naruto bit his lip, dropping the barely conscious man at his feet. On one hand, Kakashi-sensei had ordered them to not engage, but on the other, his friend was sitting in that warehouse captive. 

 

He took a deep breath. Sensei had given him his orders. He had drilled into their heads that this whole operation hinged on them cooperating and following instructions . Slowly, he let it out.

 

He hated it with a passion, but he was going to stay. Right. Here.


Hound finished going through Gato’s papers. The man had a finger in just about every pie, a truly impressive feat considering his civilian status. It would feel so good to watch this all burn to the ground. It also helped that a good deal of this information would be quite useful to Konoha’s Intelligence Corps. 

 

Which was headed by Yamanaka Inoichi.

 

…………. Yeah, he wasn’t going to go down that train of thought until he got back to Konoha. Because that would be a totally pleasant conversation.

 

Yeah, Inoichi-san, I made a royal screw up and got your daughter both captured and injured, and it took a week to get her back and oh did I mention that it was crime lord Gato that had her?

 

Haha, yeah, no. That was a conversation he’d rather avoid. He had heard stories of how much Inoichi adored his little girls. 

 

Nope. No. Never again.

 

Anyway.

 

Rescuing his adorable little kunoichi - no, that sounded creepy and vaguely pedophilic. He’d have to think of a new nickname for her - shouldn’t be too hard. He was an elite jōnin after all. Doing so in a way that wouldn’t horribly traumatize her was another thing altogether.

 

Dropping in from a skylight and landing on one of the stacks of crates, Hound began to look around for the guards. Most of them were being swarmed outside by Naruto’s clones, but there were still too many inside the warehouse for his taste.

 

Well then. 

 

Stepping off the edge, he dropped his nearly seventy kilos on the first thug’s shoulders, breaking his spine and killing him instantly. Hound’s kunai found their way into the other two thugs’ throats. It was over so quickly they didn’t have time to cry out. 

 

“Who’s there?!” another man called, rounding the corner. He paled upon seeing Hound’s blood splattered form. Hound merely glared at him with his Sharingan. “Oh f-” he started, trying to pull out his sword. Another kunai in his eye prevented him from actually doing anything. 

 

He tore through the rest of the guards around the warehouse, leaving only the two near Inoko left. He knew that Sasuke was up in the rafters near Inoko, so he probably couldn’t see the carnage his teacher was wreaking. Probably. Hopefully.

 

Satisfied that he had taken care of most of the problem here, Hound began to make his way over to his student.

 

Sensei, there’s someone else here! ” Sasuke said tersely. “ He looks to be a shinobi. ” Kakashi stiffened. It had to be Zabuza’s accomplice, the one who had taken Inoko. “ He’s talking to her guards, and -

 

Kakashi frowned, touching his throat mic. “Sasuke, come in.” Silence. He swore under his breath. Great. Now they had not one, but two of his students. Now he was really mad.

 

“What the hell are you doing?!” he heard. “Damn you, shinobi! I’ll kill her! I swear to every god out there I’ll -” The speaker was cut out sharply, followed by a gurgle. 

 

Not good. 

 

Kakashi followed the scent of blood until he found his students. Sasuke was on the ground, unconscious but alive. Two guards with half drawn swords were lying dead, and Inoko -

 

His breath caught in his throat as he saw his blonde student. She was either unconscious or - no, she was breathing, just barely, but breathing. Two discarded cloths tied into a knot lay beside her. Her face was an absolute mess and her shirt had a slowly growing red stain on it - stitches broken? - but she was alive. And in their enemy’s arms. 

 

He was wearing a Kiri hunter nin mask and holding Inoko in a bridal carry. Her hair fell down over the fake hunter nin’s arm.

 

“Drop. Her,” Kakashi snarled, pouring out killer intent. The other shinobi threw a handle of senbon at him. They were easily dodged, but he noticed with some unease that they were made of ice. 

 

Great. His student was being held captive by a hyōton user. 

 

His day really couldn’t get any worse, could it?

 

Ice crawled across the floor as its creator picked Inoko up fully, clearly intent on escaping. Her eyebrows furrowed as she groaned. The fake hunter nin looked down sharply, holding her a little closer. 

 

Kakashi frowned, fingering his weapons. Chidori wasn’t an option as long as he had Inoko so close. Troublesome.

 

“I would advise you to leave,” the hyōton user said evenly. 

 

“Like hell I will,” Kakashi growled. “Give me back my student.” 

 

The other ninja cocked his - her? The voice was rather androgynous - head to the side ever so slightly. “You did not care to come after her for nearly a week. Why do you care now?”

 

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I didn’t come after her because I couldn’t,” Kakashi snapped. “Give her back now, or else.”

 

Inoko’s head shifted as her eyes fluttered. Come on, wake up. You can do it. “Ha… ku?” she questioned weakly. “Wha…?”

 

“Inoko-san. I rescued you from Gato’s men,” the newly dubbed Haku said. Kakashi still wasn’t sure of this Haku’s gender. 

 

“I… ‘preciate the… gesture,” Inoko coughed out, flopping an arm onto her face as she rubbed her eyes. “But I really had it… handled.”

 

“While I’m sure you did,” Kakashi called, watching as she struggled to turn her head to him, “you’re not safe yet.”

 

“Sensei?! What -” Inoko was interrupted by a coughing fit. She shook her head groggily. “Sensei, please, don’t hurt him. He’s -” she coughed again “- he’s taken care of me. Please.” He was reluctant to lower his guard, but he could tell that ‘Haku’ was just as tense. He slowly nodded, never breaking eye contact with the boy. “Gato,” Inoko said hoarsely, gesturing with her fingers towards the sidelines.

 

The man began to clap as he stepped into the light. “I have to say, shinobi-san, that I’m quite impressed with your prowess against my men. I’m afraid, however, that it won’t be enough.” The crime lord gestured for his small army - and that really was the best description for it - to come forward. They were all bravado as they surrounded the shinobi, figuring that their numbers actually meant something against him. How amusing.

 

Sasuke sat up and carefully took stock of the situation before moving to Kakashi’s side. 

 

“Gato,” Inoko said after a moment, glancing at Sasuke for a moment. “I hope you remember what I told you, hm? About how I was going to enjoy killing you?” The sheer amount of malevolence in her voice kind of worried Kakashi. 

 

“Ah, my dear, but you seem to forget one thing. My men will kill you first,” Gato smirked. Inoko threw her head back and cackled . It was a harsh and entirely humorless sound.

 

“Unlike you, I actually have some sense,” she said, still grinning. “It would take hundreds of your stupid thugs to even come close to matching Sensei and Haku. You may have drugged me to where I can barely move, but I can’t wait for them to cut you all down like the filthy animals you are.”

 

Ok, that was bloodlust from his arguably most stable student. That was some proper killing intent that made some of the thugs turn pale. He was so proud of her. Then he glanced at her and was slightly kind of worried again. There was rage and disgust and utter hatred and maybe just a tinge of something like madness in her eyes. He expected something like this from Sasuke, not Inoko. What did they do to you?

 

Then she blinked and it was all gone, hidden by a mask he didn’t even know existed before then. Unnerving, to say the least. 

 

“By all this firepower, I’d have to say that you’re compensating for something other than your… stature,” she drawled, a casual smirk on her face. She was draped over Haku, who didn’t seem bothered by it at all. That brought up more than a few questions that could probably wait until later. 

 

“Inoko, enough,” Kakashi said sharply. He was torn between dealing with Haku and dealing with Gato, but the way Inoko was tiredly leaning her head on Haku’s shoulder told him that she was safe enough, at least for now. 

 

Inoko was a smart girl. He trusted her judgement, though he did wonder what she had done to make Haku protect her like this.

 

Turning to Gato and his men, Kakashi silently promised himself to make them understand firsthand exactly why he had a kill on sight reputation.

 

No one messed with his students, no one hurt his students without paying the ultimate price. 

Chapter Text

After I succumbed to the drugs again, everything was fuzzy, fading in and out. I remembered Sensei’s bloody form ripping through Gato’s men like a predator through a pack of pigs, sparks jumping off his hand. I remembered the air becoming oh so very cold. I remembered smirking as I saw the look on my captor’s face as he realized what a horrible mistake he made. I remembered Sasuke slinging me over his back, trying to carry me to safety.

 

Everything else was blank. 

 

I woke up in what I assumed to be Tazuna’s house, wrapped in what I expertly deduced to be a sea of blankets attempting to drown me. More than happy to help with that goal, I snuggled deeper and silently thanked whoever was up there that I wasn’t claustrophobic. The weight of the blankets felt so good, and I was so warm, and - ow. Pain. Pain. Not fun. Ouch.

 

“Inoko-san?” I peered over the edge of my blankets to see Haku opening the sliding door. Not sure what he was doing here, considering I could sense Sensei and Sasuke downstairs, and Naruto not too far outside the house. He wasn’t hiding his chakra either. Huh. I’d have to get that story out of one of them later. “I thought I heard you stirring.”

 

“Haku,” I smiled, watching a blush creep over his cheeks as he turned his head away. “Not that I’m unhappy to see you, but what are you doing here?”

 

“Hatake-san was kind enough to let me stay and continue to care for you,” Haku explained after a moment’s hesitation. “Naruto-kun vouched for me as well.”

 

“I’m glad you’ve stuck around,” I said with a slight nod, then joked, “I know I wouldn’t want Naruto to be trusted with my wounds.” His mouth twitched upwards as he tried not to laugh at one of his new friends. At least that worked.

 

“I let your body flush out the drugs you had been given,” Haku continued. “It was nothing that you couldn’t sleep off.” 

 

I nodded, stomach rumbling abruptly. “Seems legit. Hey, do me a favor and help me to the kitchen; I’m starving.” 

 

Haku smiled and helped me out of the mess of blankets. He very gently wrapped my arm around his neck before guiding me to the stairs. My legs nearly gave out underneath me. Freaking drugs. I wish I could kick whoever drugged me in the freaking face. 

 

“Are you alright, Inoko-san?” Haku asked, supporting more of my weight on his shoulder.

 

“My legs have the tinglies,” I explained, rubbing my thigh and curling my toes. 

 

Of course, getting down the stairs without breaking my neck was a feat in of itself, one that I couldn’t have done without Haku’s help. 

 

“Inokoooooo!” Naruto wailed, bursting through the back door as Haku and I entered the kitchen. Sasuke was sitting at the table, sharpening his kunai. “You’re awake, dattebayo!”

 

“Unfortunately,” I sighed, plopping myself down on a seat. “Eternal sleep would be a blessing. Thanks, Haku.”

 

“Idiot,” Sasuke said, reaching over to flick me in the forehead. 

 

I pouted at him. Honestly! “Jerk. Abusing your injured teammate. Rude.”

 

“So you’re awake,” Tazuna said as he entered the room. “I honestly thought you were dead when Gato’s man took you.” 

 

“It’ll take a lot more than a crime lord to get rid of me,” I said. Then I gave a sly grin. “I’m like an STD. Easy to pick up and impossible to get rid of.”

 

Naruto groaned loudly and Sasuke did the Uchiha equivalent, which was closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. 

 

“Why you feel the need to compare yourself to an infection is beyond me,” Sensei said, flopping into a chair with his nose stuck in a book. He glanced over the top to look me over. 

 

Something told me that I was going to be fussed over a lot.

 

Suddenly feeling stifled, I abruptly stood. “I’m going to get some air,” I announced, already making my way to the back door. Haku took my elbow, supporting my unsteady gait, as he helped me out the door. I collapsed against a post and sank very slowly to the porch. My hands were shaking. My breathing grew harsher, harder to inhale, everything crushing around me.

 

It had been a very long week, and I had no doubt I was probably traumatised. I could feel it even now. The shakes had spread across my entire body. I wasn’t ready to talk to my team. I wanted to scream, I wanted to sob, I wanted to go home .

 

Before we left Konoha, I had thought that I knew what I had gotten myself into. I thought I had fully understood the danger that came with being a shinobi. I thought I could do this, become someone powerful enough to change the future. I snorted to myself.

 

Ha. As if. 

 

I was weak. Pathetically so. I had only changed a couple things, and I really couldn’t say they were for the best. Haku was alive. He was now an unpredictable variable. Sasuke didn’t have his Sharingan. Major problem. 

 

I… had failed. Bile rose up in my throat as I realized this. So horribly that it wasn’t even funny. I had deprived my teammates of experiences that would define their lives, that would help them so much because I got cocky. I thought that I could make things better and I couldn’t , I was just making things worse. I was a pathetic thief who didn’t deserve her place.

 

I gasped for air. Tears were steadily welling up. Despite rapidly blinking my burning eyes, they just kept coming. Haku gently touched my cheek, wiping away a tear that escaped. 

 

“‘m sorry,” I whispered, scrubbing at my eyes. “I just-” I broke off and stared sullenly at a bush a few meters away, trying to get my breathing under control. I was used to shoving my emotions down to a place where they couldn’t be found - so used to it that I barely recognized that I was doing it. Most days, I almost believed in the mask I wore.

 

Taking a few deep breaths of the warm afternoon air, I could feel the tension bleeding out of my muscles. “Sorry,” I repeated, voice beginning to steady. “I’m not… at my best right now.”

 

“It’s alright,” he said softly. “It’s not your fault.”

 

I burst into tears again at that simple reassurance. His hand hesitantly fell on my shoulder and gently began to rub my back.

 

“It’s not your fault,” Haku said again, more firmly this time. I leaned into his touch, trying my best to not get my tears all over his shirt. I apologized a few more times until I finally managed to get my tears and emotions under control. He was awkward if not sincere in his comfort.

 

“I think I might be more upset by everything that happened than I thought,” I said, my words muffled against him. 

 

“Perhaps a little, Inoko-san.” 

 

I choked on a laugh. ‘A little’ seemed to be a massive understatement. 

 

We ended up sitting together on the porch for a long time, resting comfortably against each other. How strange it is , I thought idly, watching the waves lap against the shore, that not too long ago we were enemies, and here we are. Decidedly… not enemies. I wasn’t really sure what we were now. Friends? Somewhere close to that, I thought.

 

“Hey, Inoko, do you want to - hey! ” Naruto hollered. Sasuke was out of the house like a bolt of lightning. “No mushy stuff allowed!”

 

Sasuke looked practically green at the thought of “mushy stuff.” Haku mainly looked confused. “Wha-”

 

“It’s not like that!” I shouted. I could feel my face turning red as I jumped to my feet. “Stop being gross!”

 

Sasuke and Naruto both picked me up and hauled me back into the house despite my protests. 

 

Sensei!


Haku and I ended up staying at the house with Sensei the next day. The boys went with Tazuna, more than capable of dealing with any thugs that might want revenge for Gato’s death. Unlikely, but between the two of them, they should be able to handle anything that would pop up.

 

“Inoko-san,” Haku murmured in the late afternoon. “May I speak with you?”

 

I glanced at Sensei. I didn’t exactly need his permission, but I would like his approval. He just flipped a page in his book, so I guessed that was a yes.

 

“Yeah, what’s up?” I asked, following him outside onto the porch. He pat the seat next to him.

 

“I wanted to say goodbye to you before I left,” Haku explained as I sat down. My eyes widened. 

 

“You’re leaving?”

 

He nodded. I blew my bangs up before brushing them out of my eyes. “That’s… wow. What will you do?”

 

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “For so long, my life was devoted to Zabuza-sama, and now…” Haku paused before giving me a smile, resting his fingertips on the back of my hand. “I felt lost before I got to know you. Inoko-san, you gave my life a purpose again. Thank you.”

 

I was rendered completely speechless. On one hand, this was what my goal had been during my captivity, and I had achieved it quite well. On the other hand, quite literally in this case. Cute boy. Touching my hand. Gaaghghghlaglagh.

 

Curse you, puberty.

 

Shoving hormonal thoughts aside, I nodded and smiled at him. “You do you, Haku. Just… if you’re in the area, look me up, ok?”

 

“I will, Inoko-san. Thank you.” And then he was gone. I leaned my head against the post and inhaled deeply. I felt more calm than I had before. More settled.

 

Yeah, I had screwed some things up. I mean, it wasn’t like Sasuke needed his Sharingan in the next couple months. What, were we going to face off against one of the Sann-

 

… I just jinxed myself, didn’t I?

 

“I really need to stop doing that.”


Kakashi woke up with a rolling storm of bile in his gut. He slowly shifted on his sleeping mat and glanced at his students. Sasuke was curled up in his blankets, Naruto was half in and half out, snoring softly, and Inoko -

 

He frowned and sat up. Inoko was not in her blanket cocoon. One of the blankets was missing as well. Judging by the coolness of her bed, too, she hadn’t been in there for a while. Reassuring himself that she had probably just stepped outside for some air and fell asleep or something, he began to prowl around the house looking for her. 

 

Inoko’s scent was stale around here for one, not to mention he couldn’t sense her anywhere in the house. Or in the immediate area around the house. Stepping outside, he pulled down his mask and inhaled deeply. 

 

There. She had gone off into the woods. Sleepwalking? Probably not. Going by the scent of spices in the air, she was upset. 

 

Kakashi traced her further into the woods. She had run into a low hanging branch here - he could only imagine the plethora of swearing that happened there - and left a strand of her hair. He pulled the white gold strand free, studying it for a moment. 

 

Her scent was being overwhelmed by the intense smell of flowers from the clearing up ahead. If Kakashi had to guess, Inoko had spent a good deal of time here, maybe half an hour, before leaving from the other side of the clearing, the smell of spices being dampened by the flowers’ perfume.

 

What was she even doing in there? he wondered. The forest floor inside the clearing was coated with night blooming flowers. Well. She was a Yamanaka. Kakashi gave a final glance at the carpet of white morning glories before following his student’s trail again. He was slightly concerned by the fact that he still couldn’t sense Inoko anywhere around him.

 

He wasn’t a sensor by any means, but still. Problem.

 

As Kakashi approached the sea, he could hear - singing. The faint sound of someone singing. There she is , he thought with a sigh of relief. It wouldn’t look good on his record to lose the same student twice on the same mission. 

 

Inoko was sitting on the beach with a blanket wrapped around her, watching the sea as waves danced up the shore less than a meter away. She absently wove flowers into a crown of twisted young branches. The same morning glories from the clearing earlier. Kakashi slowly came closer, wary of surprising her.

 

Cold, dark sea ,” she sang softly, “ your waves are rocking me. I close my eyes and fall asleep. All eyes on me, your eyes on me .” 

 

Inoko closed her eyes and inhaled deeply as Kakashi narrowed his eyes. Her chakra signature was held so tightly within her that it was almost as if she were dead. Kakashi sat down next to her, taking in her appearance with a glance. The contrast between her pale skin and the dark circles under her eyes made him worry, but he didn’t really know what to do. She looked exhausted and tense. What could he do? Suggest a bath and a nap?

 

“Being out by myself has always calmed me,” Inoko said after a moment. “Sometimes people just become a little too much and I just need to -” She cut herself off and took a deep, shuddering breath. Slowly, he began to feel the slightest spark of chakra, carefully blossoming back to life.

 

“Hm, maybe so, but you shouldn’t wander off so far next time,” he scolded lightly, because he knew there was always going to be a next time. As much as he didn’t like it, there would always be a next time. “You could get hurt.”

 

Inoko snorted, her fingers pulling and tying flower stems without looking at her work. He wondered how many she’d made before. “I’m a shinobi now, I’m always going to get hurt.”

 

Kakashi waited, feeling that there was something else that she was wrestling with and wasn’t telling him. He wasn’t good with emotions at all, so if it was that sort of thing he wouldn’t be able to help her. But something told him that it was something to do with her time as a captive. If he was right, then it was his duty as Inoko’s sensei to help her. Ish. Regardless, he would sit with her and listen.

 

“Ever since I woke up this morning, I’ve been asking myself why. Why did I antagonize Gato so much, why did I think I had enough luck to get through this alive, why did I think I was special ?” Inoko spat the final word out, disgust evident in her tone. “I’m weak. I need to become stronger. And I’m such an idiot for thinking I was special enough, that I had some sort of… plot armor, to use a book term.”

 

The angry look on her face faded. “I think… to an extent, I didn’t truly think I was going to get out of there alive. I think that a part of me wanted to die back there.”

 

Oookay, not what he was expecting. Also incredibly concerning and kind of relatable. He wished he knew what to say in this sort of situation.

 

Inoko gave a soft ‘what can you do’ laugh, rubbing the bandage on her cheek. “Sorry. I talk about stupid things after a certain hour.” 

 

She glanced at her flower crown and must have deemed it good enough, as she got to her knees and set it on Kakashi’s head. He blinked in surprise. Inoko burst out laughing. 

 

“Oh, god, I wish I had a camera. You look lovely, Sensei.” She began to braid the remaining flowers into her hair, her grin never leaving her face. “I needed that. I’ll be back in the house later. Not tired right now.”

 

“You need to sleep some time,” Kakashi said, raising an eyebrow. She waved it away, returning her attention to the ocean.

 

“I slept for a good four hours earlier,” she replied dismissively, pulling the blanket around her a bit closer. “I’m good.”

 

Kakashi sensed that unless he either outright ordered her inside or carried her there, she wasn’t going to go. Why did he have to get the stubborn ones?

 

“Ok then, but I don’t want to hear any complaints later~”

“Psh, as if.”

 

Kakashi hesitated for a moment before awkwardly pulling her into a one-armed hug. Inoko froze, hands falling from her braid into her lap. He almost dropped his arm and pulled away when she leaned into it a little, like she was afraid she wasn’t allowed. He rubbed her arm a little as her hands came up to grab his jacket. Very quietly, he heard her begin to cry.

 

He really didn’t know what to do with crying children, never had, so he just stayed there, watching the moonlight dance on the ocean as she cried into his flak jacket. She apologized a couple times for crying on him, but it was kind of ruined by the fact that she kept crying on him. We probably make a sight to see, don’t we?

 

It didn’t take too long for her to cry herself out, slumped against him in exhaustion. “Good talk,” Kakashi said softly before he scooped Inoko up in his arms and carried her back to the house. She didn’t wake up when he wrapped her back up in the cocoon of blankets, merely sighing softly in her sleep.

 

Brat , he thought. He wasn’t fond of his genin. He wasn’t.


Over the course of the next three weeks, I had to endure Naruto and Tsunami’s fussing. Tazuna’s daughter reminded me of Yoshino to the point where I jumped to whatever she asked me to do. Sasuke was better about fussing - which was for the best; if he didn’t I would probably have stabbed someone - but his annoying habit of just happening to be around doing the same thing I was whenever I went out of sight of the house was driving me crazy. Part of my face was still bandaged because as it turned out, cane handles to the face messed up said face. Who would have guessed? The good news was that it was merely a hairline fracture along with some bruising, but it still hurt. A lot.

 

I was tired. I wanted to go home.

 

The bridge was finished on time, more villagers pitching in since the news of Gato’s death had spread. It was a sight to be sure, watching these people laughing and joking and starting to look well fed after Gato’s warehouses were raided. The children were playing and running around like kids were supposed to do. 

 

It was… nice. I liked Wave.

 

The bridge wasn’t named after Naruto this time, instead being dubbed ‘The Freedom Bridge’. Interesting turn of events. 

 

I was fine with it though.

 

After my conversation on the beach with Sensei, I didn’t leave the house after nightmares. Thankfully, the boys didn’t question me when I cuddled a bit closer during the night. 

 

I was still glad when we packed up to go home. Inari, Tazuna’s grandson, was watching me as I folded the sheets we had been using. I ignored him for the most part, instead enjoying the breeze from the open window across from me.

 

I kept folding as I listened to Tsunami kindly making us one final meal before we left. I was really looking forward to travelling; it was a beautiful day. 

 

The floorboards creaked as Inari shifted his weight. I continued to ignore him, focusing on folding the sheets. 

 

“I don’t get it,” he said finally. I stacked the folded sheet on the pile before turning to face him. I raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to continue, leaning on the bedpost. He had been watching me from around corners ever since I had recovered enough to get around the house on my own. I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t going to snap at a kid for no reason. “How did you get away?”

 

“I had a friend in there,” I replied. I had a feeling I knew where this was going to go. “Look, kid. I know where you’re going with this.” 

 

Inari stiffened. “You don’t know anything,” he whispered.

 

“I know enough,” I said flatly. “I’m sorry about your dad, kid, I really am. But Gato was a psychopath, and your dad antagonized him in the wrong way.” The boy glared at me. I crouched in front of him, removing the patch on my face and pointing at the yellow and green bruise from where Gato hit me. “See this? I got this because I antagonized him the first time. This is a hairline fracture. As in Gato literally broke my face. The only reason I’m still alive was because he thought he could make a profit off me. I knew that, so I pushed him. He had the ever living daylights beaten out of me for it. I was lucky; luckier than I had reason to be.”

 

I met Inari’s eyes, staring impassively until he began to squirm and looked away. I felt for him, I really did. But that didn’t excuse his behavior at all.

 

“Kid. Inari. I know losing your dad hurts. Believe me, I know . But the people at fault for that are dead.” I chucked him under the chin and smiled softly. “Chin up. Your mom and grandpa are still here, and they love you very much.”

 

He stared at me for a moment before fleeing. I sighed.

 

I really sucked with kids.



Chapter Text

“No! No! Don’t you dare, Uchiha!”

 

“Inoko, we need to change your bandages. You can’t do it by yourself.”

 

“Touch me and the Uchiha family jewels are going bye-bye!” I snarled. Sasuke paled and backed away. I grabbed a branch and pulled myself higher, glaring down at my teammates. Naruto was giggling uncontrollably as he worked on setting traps nearby.

 

“Stop being unreasonable, Inoko,” Sensei drawled from the campfire, eyes never leaving his book. 

 

Your face is unreasonable,” I shot back, exactly like a mature adult. That got a glance up from his book. Sensei gave me a Look before going back to the orange novel. Jerk. “Sorry,” I muttered. It was a bit uncalled for, after all.

 

“Why won’t you just let me help you?” Sasuke asked, clearly frustrated. He tried to walk up the tree again - and man was I jealous of that - but a kunai appearing in my hand made him decide to go with words.

 

“Because I’m a girl?” I pointed out. My face was hurting a little from blushing. “And you’re a boy?”

 

“Wow, really, I hadn’t noticed.”

 

“Shut up, Sasuke.” 

 

Naruto came in from the tree line, dumping the remnants of his trap making by the fire. Sasuke gave him a look.

 

“If we rush her from both sides we could pin her,” he murmured out of the corner of his mouth. My eye twitched. I rubbed my sticky hand on my pants, hating in that moment the propensity of evergreens leaking sap all over the place.

 

“She can’t climb that much higher, dattebayo,” Naruto agreed, prepping his chakra. Oh hell no. I reached out and pulled a pinecone free from a branch, nearly losing my balance in the process. Then I nailed Sasuke in the forehead with it.

 

Because he was wearing his hitai-ate, it probably didn’t hurt him, but the warning was clear. 

 

“Why are you being so ridiculous?” he demanded. 

 

“Because believe it or not, I have a strong sense of modesty and I am perfectly capable of changing my own bandages!” 

 

Sasuke threw his hands up in the air, giving up. “Fine. Change your own bandages, idiot.”

 

Thank you . Now, if you could toss them up?”

 

“...why?”

 

“...I may or may not be a little stuck.”

 

Sasuke loudly groaned as Naruto fell to the ground laughing. I grinned sheepishly. 

 

“Wait, maybe I can jump out.”

 

“Inoko, no !”

 

Inoko yes!”


“Ok, so maybe that was a bad idea,” I said, lying on the ground and watching the stars as Sensei replaced a couple of my stitches. “On the bright side, I now know not to jump out of a nine meter tree into a roll when I have stitches in my side.”

 

“Most people would call that common sense, considering this is the third time you’ve torn your stitches,” Sensei said dryly. “Are you really that determined to keep this wound?”

 

“Sadly common sense isn’t that common,” I mused. “And no, I’m really not. I’m just really bad about, you know, not tearing my stitches.”

 

“I’ve noticed,” he admonished, flicking my nose. I scowled at him. I mean, he had a point, but still, ow.

 

Sensei smoothed out the bandage on my stomach before giving me the all clear. I gladly pulled my shirt down and shivered. Ultra powerful shinobi he may be, but a snowman would have warmer hands than him. 

 

I leaned my head against Naruto, feeling exhausted. I hadn’t slept much at all since Haku had taken me, and it was taking its toll on my body. I was too agitated and nervous to sleep but too tired to really do anything.

 

Home and a sleeping pill or two sounded great about now. And maybe a talk with Dad. The thought that part of me might have actually wanted to die back there was… a disturbing thought. I don’t want to die… I think. 

 

Make that a very long talk with Dad. 

 

After sleeping for a good twenty hours, hopefully longer, I would be able to get back to my garden. I missed my daffodils.

 

“Inoko-chan?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“You’re drooling on my shoulder.”


“Relax, woman,” Shikamaru drawled, pulling on my bangs. I huffed and smacked his hand away before smoothing them back.

 

“Relax? Hell no!” I declared. Ever since Inoko left on that C-rank, I’d had this awful feeling that something was wrong. My gut had been hurting for weeks now. At first I had thought it was indigestion, but I knew better now. Dad had just laughed it off, but I knew, and I think he did too. 

 

“This is Inoko we’re talking about,” Shikamaru said, lifting his head up from the grass. “Remember? The girl who somehow accidentally exploded Iruka-sensei’s desk a couple years ago? The girl who got lost and nearly ended up in the Forest of Death? The girl who sleep walked out her window and into the restricted section of the library?”

 

“Don’t doubt the twin connection, lazybones,” I replied, putting a hand on my hip and wagging a finger at him. “You might believe all her excuses as to why she did all that crazy stuff because of some stupid crush on her, but that doesn’t mean that I do.”

 

Shikamaru dragged a hand over his face, though it couldn’t hide the faint red on his cheeks. He looked away from my triumphant look because honestly, he could try to hide it but it was soo obvious.

 

“Will you stop saying stuff like that?” he hissed. “You know how Inoko gets when she finds out about… romance ,” he finished disgustedly. 

 

Ok, he had a bit of a point. I loved my sister, but she was weird when it came to romance. Like when Mother and Dad get all mushy and affectionate with each other, she barely looks up from whatever she’s reading and just says, “I ship it.”

 

Sometimes I was glad I was clan heir instead of her. If Inoko became clan head… actually, no, I wasn’t going to think about that. 

 

“I suppose she’s alright,” I said after a moment. “I mean, she has her sensei and Sasuke-kun. They wouldn’t let anything happen to her, right?” I paused for a second. “No, something went wrong on the mission, oh god, someone’s died .” 

 

I bit at my nails for a moment before yanking my hand away. I’d been tense about this whole C-rank since Inoko’d left. It had never happened since, but when Sasuke-kun’s brother…

 

I never wanted to see my sister like that again.

 

“I agree with Shikamaru,” Chōji said. “Here, have a chip.”

 

“Can’t, I’m on a diet,” I replied, twisting my long bangs around a finger anxiously. “I’m telling you, Inoko and I have a twin connection and something went wrong!” Please bring her home safely , I prayed to the Three. She’s my twin and I love her.

 

“I give,” Shikamaru sighed. “She’s just gonna keep worrying no matter wha-”

 

“Is that Sasuke-kun?” I interrupted, taking a second look across the street. 

 

I could see his signature raven hair bobbing agitatedly next to two familiar blond heads. Inoko was wearing her usual knee length pants and her favorite blouse that she used for outdoor trips. A grin broke out on my face. I must have been wrong. They were back and everything was okay

 

“Sasuke-kun!” I shouted, making my way over. “Inoko!”

 

My sister startled violently - weird, she normally senses me before I even realize she’s in the area - and spun around, her back to me. She was acting stranger than normal.

 

I ignored it for the time being, instead hugging Sasuke from behind. “I’m so glad you’re back safe! Not that there was any doubt about it~”

 

Naruto glared at mine and Sasuke’s tender reuniting, muttering something about Sasuke being an idiot. Obviously false, since Sasuke-kun was far smarter than Naruto would ev- what the hell was wrong with my sister?!

 

Inoko had finally turned to face me. She looked like she had taken a stroll through hell. She was pale, her face sunken and eyes dark. Had she even slept during that mission?! I knew her insomnia was bad, but this was ridiculous.

 

“If you’re done molesting my teammate,” Inoko said sarcastically. 

 

Well, nice to know that much hadn’t changed in the month she’d been gone. Whatever happened to her couldn’t have been that bad.

 

I pouted at her, saying, “I wasn’t molesting him, you pervert. I was trying to show him how happy I am to see him.”

 

“Right,” she replied, drawing it out. “If that’s what you want to call it.”

 

“Well, kids, don’t forget to write out your mission reports and turn them in in about, oh, a week or so,” Inoko’s sensei said cheerfully. “See ya!”

 

After he vanished in a swirl of leaves, Inoko muttered, “Wow, so specific, Sensei. A real stickler for time, that one.” Raising her voice a little, she added, “Boys, I love you both, but if I have to spend any longer in your company I’m going to murder someone. Probably myself.”

 

“Don’t forget to stop by the hospital,” Sasuke said, focusing on my sister intently. She waved it away.

 

“I’m fine, I told you. Haku took good care of me.”

 

My eyes narrowed as Sasuke walked away. “And why, dearest sister, would you need to go to the hospital?” As for who this Haku person was, I’d get that out of her soon enough, but for now, why on earth did she need to go to the hospital?

 

Inoko tugged on her bangs, a sure sign she was thinking of a way to get out of this conversation. Her eyes flicked towards my teammates, but I knew they wanted answers as much as I did. We didn’t grow up together for nothing.

 

Inoko sighed, shoulders slumping as she gave in. “Long story short, it kind of maybe accidentally went FUBAR?”

 

What ?!” I shouted. Shikamaru inhaled sharply beside me.

 

“It’s fine now, I got better,” Inoko laughed nervously, waving her hands.

 

“You got better ? What is that supposed to mean?” I growled. 

 

“Oh wow, look at the time,” Inoko said, eyes flickering around. “I completely forgot that I had a thing and bye~ ” 

 

Her hands flew up into a seal and unleashed a good five mindless clones that quickly scattered. Inoko herself was also gone. I gritted my teeth. 

 

Like hell she was going to get away without giving me some answers.


My side hurt. A lot. I mean, I was pretty sure I hadn’t busted another stitch, which would delay my healing for like another week, but it still hurt. And I was safe from my sister and her team.

 

I loved them all to bits, but couldn’t a girl get some peace? I had to go to some pretty extreme methods to evade them.

 

“Inoko? She’s back?” I heard Sakura say from downstairs. I pulled back a bit further under her bed. “No, I haven’t seen her, Ino-pig.”

 

“Well thanks anyway, Forehead.”

 

The love of two friends for each other right there. 

 

I froze as Sakura’s footsteps came up the stairs. The door creaked open and let her feet in before swinging shut. She approached the bed and oh shi-

 

Sakura flopped onto the bed, sending the mattress springs into my back. I yelped in pain, unable to hold it in. She squealed and jumped off the bed. Wincing, I dragged myself out from under the bed and looked up at the kunai she was holding in my face.

 

“This is the greeting I get after a month away,” I deadpanned. 

 

“I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed, dropping the kunai on her desk and helping me up. “Ino-pig is looking for you, by the way.”

 

“I am unfortunately aware of this. As far as anyone outside of the house is concerned, I’m not here.”

 

“...ok?” she said hesitantly. “Why?”

 

“Because they’re all convinced I need to go to the hospital, and I really don’t,” I muttered.

 

“Why would you need to go to the hospital?”

 

“...No reason.”

 

“Inoko.”

 

“Oh wow, I just remembered that I have somewhere to be, bye~”

 

“Inoko!”


The downside of having so few friends was that I had fewer places to hide out from said friends when they were intent upon finding me and shipping me to the hospital. Thus, I went to the second to last place they’d look for me.

 

Straight home to take a very long nap and wait for it all to blow over. Where my sister was waiting for me.

 

Ok, so maybe she knew me a bit better than I thought.

 

“Get your pajamas on,” she said, throwing my favorite set in my face. “We’re having a sister night.”

 

“Yeah, but -” I started, but she held up a hand.

 

“I’m giving myself a cheat day, so yes, there is chocolate involved. Go get changed.”

 

“Ino, have I ever told you that you’re my favorite sister?”

 

“No need to tell me when I already know that~”

 

I rolled my eyes and ran upstairs to change, taking the stairs two at a time. We hadn’t had a sister night in… since before we’d graduated. I’d missed it more than I’d known. “Vain piggy!” I shouted down.

 

“Sloppy piggy!” came the immediate response. I loved my sister. 

 

When I came back downstairs, Ino was settled on the couch with what some might call an ungodly amount of blankets. Two steaming cups were resting on the coffee table alongside one of the teapots. 

 

“Pudding?” she offered, holding up two chocolate pudding cups. I narrowed my eyes.

 

“Would I be correct in assuming that you’re trying to bribe me into telling you what happened?”

 

Ino shrugged. “Maybe.”

 

“Ino uses: Pudding! It’s super effective!

 

She laughed and rolled her eyes as I burrowed under the blankets. I accepted my cup, mouth watering. We dramatically clinked our plastic cups together before opening the lids.

 

“The only way to eat these is to lick every bit of chocolate out,” I said.

 

“Agreed.”

 

We talked about unimportant things such as training and team antics for several minutes, simply getting reacquainted with each other after a month. I was vaguely aware of Mother and Dad hovering around the room, pointedly not entering to give us our privacy. 

 

I had the best parents.

 

Ino had the mind to at least wait until I had finished with the pudding and began on my tea before pressing for answers again. 

 

“So,” she drew out slowly. I groaned inwardly. “What happened?”

 

I almost put her off again. The words were on the tip of my tongue, but I glanced up at the wrong moment. Her eyes were wide with concern, anxiety tightening her mouth. Glancing down at her hand, I noticed her twirling the ends of her hair around her fingers, one of her nervous tics. She wouldn’t be placated with anything but the truth. 

 

I sighed and put my cup down. “What didn’t happen would probably be a better way of putting it,” I muttered, ruffling my bangs. “The client lied about the rank of the mission. He had missing nin after him.”

 

“What?” she hissed, anger written across her face. “Why, that slimy -”

 

“Can I finish?” I deadpanned. It was better to stop her short here rather than let her get going. 

 

“Right, sorry,” Ino said, leaning back into the couch. “How did that work out?” I leaned off the edge of the couch to reach into the shelf where Dad kept the Bingo books. “Oh hell no.”

 

“Hell yes,” I agreed, flipping the Mist book open to the correct page. After I found the correct page, I handed the book to her. I could see her face shift from confusion to shock to horror, blood draining from her face.

 

“The Demon Brothers of the Mist?” she whispered. “They’re chūnin level!”

 

“Yup,” I said, cocooning myself in the blankets. “They ambushed us, though it wasn’t particularly good.”

 

“Water based ambush, I would think,” she said, scanning their page for information. “Not good because it was in a drier area?”

 

“A massive puddle in the middle of the road! When it hadn’t rained for days! Were they trying to get killed?!”

 

“Not everyone pays attention to the little things,” Ino reminded me. “How many times did you mess up the transfer technique because you weren’t remembering little steps?”

 

“I could go to bed right now and not tell you how it got worse,” I offered, getting up a little.

 

“Inoko.”

 

“I thought so.” I settled back down with what Kojiro-ji called my ‘beat you and we both know it’ grin. Shikaku just called it my shit eating grin. 

 

“So what happened?”

 

“We fought them. Duh. Sensei pretended to fall for the ambush in order to find out who their target was. Naruto froze up, Sasuke leaped into action - lose that starry eyed look before I go upstairs - and I used the transfer jutsu on one of them. I figured that since they were attached by that chain, I could -”

 

“Counteract the attacks of the other while Sasuke-kun - oh, don’t look at me like that - protected Naruto and the client.”

 

“And it would have worked if I hadn’t realized that they could disengage the chains from their gauntlets in anticipation,” I sulked. I was still sore over this. “Then stupid Sasuke had to go and nail me to a tree, so I had to end the jutsu.”

 

“Didn’t you explain it to him?”

 

“I could have sworn that I did, and if I’m not misremembering, then the idiot went and forgot. They both did! And yet they still left my body just lying in the middle of the road. I was sore for like a week!”

 

Ino thought for a second before shrugging. “Yeah, I can’t think of an excuse for that. And then?”

 

“We decided to continue with the mission,” I said, taking a quick drink of my cooling tea. “We continued on to Wave where we were ambushed again.”

 

“At this point you should have just dropped the mission,” Ino observed.

 

“Yeah, it does seem kind of obvious in hindsight, doesn’t it? Anyway, here’s the guy who ambushed us. Go to page fifty-six.” 

 

Ino gave me a dubious look as I smirked. I giggled a little when I saw the look on her face. It was absolutely priceless. 

 

Hoshigaki Kisame?!

 

“What?! No!” I took the book and flipped a couple pages back before handing it to my suddenly very relieved sister. “No, we wouldn’t be alive if it was him. That guy is…”

 

Terrifying would be one word to describe him. Beast would be another. No thanks, Plot.

 

“Momochi Zabuza isn’t much better!” Ino snapped, hitting me with a pillow. 

 

“Ow! Chill, Sensei dealt with him!” Ino relaxed for a moment before I added, “At least until he got captured in a water prison thingy.”

 

Yamanaka Inoko !”

 

“What? I was perfectly safe the entire time! He couldn’t attack us without freeing Sensei, so he made a much weaker water clone.”

 

Ino continued to glare. I… was making this worse, wasn’t I?

 

“Ok, so maybe not perfectly safe. But I was relatively safe. Ish. Plus, because of how he had to stand in the same spot, I couldn’t have had a clearer target if he was trying to get me to attack him.”

 

“Please tell me you didn’t.”

 

“So I hid in a tree -”

 

“Inoko.”

 

“- took aim -”

 

“Please don’t.”

 

“- and then took control of his body.”

 

Ino face palmed. Hard. 

 

“His oversized butter knife was surprisingly light considering the size and sheer amount of metal.”

 

“That’s not… the Kubikiribōchō is not a butter knife, no matter how large it is.”

 

“Shh, that doesn’t matter anymore, he’s dead now.”

 

“How did that happen?”

 

I gathered my thoughts, absently noting just how still Dad and Mother were in the kitchen. 

 

“Well, after I freed Sensei, I… lost control of the jutsu, so they started fighting again, and then I presume that Sensei killed him somehow.”

 

“Presume?”

 

“... Yeah.”

 

“Inoko. How did you lose control of the jutsu.”

 

“Weeell.”

 

“Inoko. Tell me right now or so help me I’m taking the boys and interrogating Naruto.”

 

“Ok, now that’s rude.”

 

“You’re avoiding the question.”

 

Crap. She’s onto me.

 

“I… kind of maybe accidentally got wounded and kidnapped by Zabuza’s partner.”

 

Wow, Mother and Dad’s chakras are really agitated. Probably something to do with the flower shop or something. 

 

“Granted that one’s also on me; I didn’t think to take one of Naruto’s shadow clones or Sasuke or something. But hey, I got better? And I’m back home safely, so there’s that. Oh! I also made friends with Haku, which is a bonus. He’s super cute and just your type~

 

Ino narrowed her eyes at me. I nervously laughed a little as her gaze intensified.

 

“Who were they working for that figured that a hostage would be a good idea?” 

 

“Um… Gato?”

 

“As in the shipping tycoon who takes over small countries Gato? That Gato?!”

 

“Well, that was fun, yawn, wow, I’m tired, I’m going to go to bed now, ok, ok, bye bye, goodnight.”

 

“Inoko!”

 

“Generic excuse, bye!”

 

I fled into the kitchen, bare feet skidding on the tile. Mother was reading a magazine at the table as Dad worked on dinner. Man, he was going at those veggies with a vengeance. 

 

“Mother, you’re crinkling the pages.”

 

“Ah, so I am. I’ll… be back in a bit. Don’t wait for me, Inoichi.”

 

“Maybe you should pick up a bottle of wine on your way back,” he joked. “We’re going to need it.”

 

Actually, this was starting to get suspicious. I mean, it was probably nothing, but still. Mother didn’t act like this usually. 

 

Pushing my concerns aside, I hugged Dad from behind. A heavy weight vanished from my shoulders as I breathed in his familiar scent and listened to his steady heartbeat. I buried my face in his shirt. He laughed softly, the sound echoing through his body. 

 

“Missed me, cuddle bug?”

 

I nodded, squeezing him a little tighter. I had come so close to losing all of this. I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with this forever. 

 

“How was it, then? Anything interesting happen?”

 

“It… went,” I said carefully. 

 

Lying around Dad had always been a challenge. Heck, lying around ninja period was tough. They were trained to detect lies and to lie convincingly themselves. Dad in particular was a master at detecting deception, and I strongly suspected that he knew every single time whenever Ino or I fibbed. He let us go when the lies were convincing enough, and had even given us tips on fabricating truths properly. 

 

Ninja parents did things a bit differently. 

 

“I mean,” I said, tying an apron on and taking over the stove, “stuff happened. It was a C-rank, after all.” Which will be upgraded to A-rank and we’ll be paid as such, according to Sensei. “Wave was beautiful. I’d love to travel around the world someday and just see… everything. You know?”

 

“Being a shinobi has its perks,” Dad agreed. He dumped the potatoes in the boiling water before sticking a lid on. “How have you been sleeping?”

 

Crap.

 

“I’ve had better nights,” I replied evasively. 

 

“You look like you’ve been getting two hours of sleep a night for a while.”

 

I winced. Dad’s voice had remained pleasant, but underneath it was a sharp reprimand. The Academy had been rather… vocal about their concerns about my sleeping schedule. It wasn’t healthy to sleep so little and dulled my reaction times. In their words, ‘a danger to herself and her future comrades’.

 

It was probably true and all, but still. They weren’t sugar coating things.

 

“I’ll be fine now that I’m home,” I said, refusing to meet his eyes. “It’s not that big a deal, I’m just… stressed.” I looked up and beamed at him. “I’ll be better after a nap.”

 

Dad gave me a long studious look before accepting my words. “Then go take one, silly,” he said, gently pushing me away from the stove. “Do you want me to wake you up for dinner?”

 

“Nah, I’ll eat later. Goodnight, Dad.” I paused at the foot of the stairs. “I love you.”

 

“I love you too, moonflower.”




Chapter Text

“Long time no see,” Shikamaru said as he sat down next to me. I didn’t open my eyes, bare feet dangling in the creek as the sun shone down through the canopy. I was warm and happy with life. I was almost ready to fall asleep.

 

“Hm.” I didn’t want to deal with people right now, hence why I was chilling out in one of my favorite super secluded spots. Just… basking in nature. Unfortunately, having friends meant that they generally knew where these spots were. 

 

“If I didn’t know better I’d say you’ve been avoiding me.” He didn’t sound annoyed, just vaguely accusatory. I opened an eye.

 

“I don’t avoid my friends, Shika. I’ve been busy.”

 

He tsked and laid down, grass rustling. For several long seconds, all I could hear was the creek babbling and a bird chirping incessantly.

 

Usually I could wait Shika out when it came to things like this. This time, I did feel kind of guilty. “Ok, that was a lie; I have been avoiding you,” I admitted.

 

“Figured. Ino says you’ve been holed up in your room since you got back. ‘Only leaving for food and the bathroom’, to use her words.” Rude.

 

“Traitor. I’ve just… not wanted to interact with anyone lately.”

 

This was only a partial truth. I had been holed up in my room writing. Wave had been close. Too close. I had slept hard for a good fifteen hours before I had one of the worst nightmares yet. Waking up in a cold sweat, I ended up settling at my desk to scribble out every single thing I remembered about the Plot in romaji for the next twenty hours. If I did end up dying, I needed some sort of backup. Something that would be found and used.

 

I had written out a cipher with a coded hint at the bottom and a note of apology to my family before sealing them in a box and turning it in as my last will and testament. It had been accepted without a hitch, not that it had any reason not to. 

 

In a way, I had a strong sense of peace about the whole thing now. If I died, the cipher would go straight to Shikaku along with instructions on how to find the five notebooks crammed with my ‘coded’ writing. Just a couple hours ago I had buried the box containing them in the Nara forest with an earth jutsu. Considering that it was now ten meters under, I was fairly confident that no one would accidentally stumble upon them. Now, I was just… existing under the trees.

 

“How have you been?” Shikamaru asked, breaking me from my thoughts.

 

“Tired. I have a lot of sleep to catch up on. You?”

 

He sighed heavily. “Mom’s troublesome as usual. Your sister’s troublesome as usual. Everything’s the same as usual.”

 

“That sounds nice,” I said wistfully. If only things would stay that way. “I don’t think I’m going on another mission like that any time soon, so I have plenty of time to get used to it.”

 

“Hn. Team giving you any trouble?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” I replied, giving a one shouldered shrug. “I’m actually due for a bit of training later at three.”

 

“... Inoko, it’s three twenty.”

 

“Hm, problem. You think I could get away with skipping?”

 

“You should probably go,” Shikamaru said lazily. “Naruto will only be more troublesome.”

 

“Such a drag.”


“You’re late!” Naruto shouted as I strolled into the clearing. Sasuke noticeably relaxed as he stopped pacing. Sensei, of course, barely glanced up from his book. Wow, he’s actually on time for once? Hokage must have really read him the riot act. 

 

“Sorry I’m late, I had to help an old lady out of a tree, then I had to help a black cat carry her groceries home,” I explained. 

 

Actually, I could see why Sensei did this all the time. This was fun .

 

“That’s… really not how that works,” Sensei said with a note of pain in his voice. 

 

“Sure it is,” I grinned. “So what are we up to today?”

 

“Kakashi-sensei taught us a really cool taijutsu move!” Naruto blurted before anyone else could say anything. “If someone’s punching at you, you just grab their arm and go whazaam! Like that! And then you do this!”

 

He mimed what I believed was some sort of arm bar and flip, but it was hard to tell with only one person actually doing the move.

 

“I’m afraid that Inoko will have to refrain from learning that for now,” Sensei interjected, snapping his book shut. “You boys continue to practice the grab. I’ll work with Inoko on tree walking.”

 

Oh. Yeah, that. Kind of an important thing to learn.

 

“I’m pretty sure I understand the theory,” I said, following Sensei to the closest tree. “I read about it in one of my chakra theory books.”

 

“Theory is different from application, Inoko,” Sensei reminded me. He stopped in front of the tree and gestured to his feet. “Focus your chakra in the soles of your feet, then try taking a step.”

I blew air into my bangs. “Sounds fun.”

 

I closed my eyes and focused my chakra in my belly before letting it fall down to my feet. It was going to take a good bit of chakra, I knew that much. Once my feet were humming pleasantly with chakra, I lifted my foot and stuck it on the tree. 

 

And proceeded to promptly blow myself a few meters back. 

 

“Ow,” I said after a moment. It was slightly muffled by the grass I had in my mouth. “I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say I used too much.”

 

“Hm.” He went back to reading his book. Wow, super helpful, Sensei.

 

I stood in front of the tree and rested my hand on it, closing my eyes. Theoretically, I was supposed to stick to the bark. Suction, then? Or maybe stickiness. Could one even create suction with chakra? Maybe a combo of both, like a tree frog?

 

I pulled the chakra from my gut to my hand, tension bleeding out of my shoulders as I felt the warmth creep down my arm. As the chakra came into contact with the tree, I shivered. It slowly bled from my hand into the grooves of the bark.

 

It wasn’t suction or stickiness. It was… using the chakra to join with the tree. It was attaching yourself like a limpet. 

 

“You’re not doing anything.” Sensei lightly bopped me on the head with his book. 

 

“Just thinking, Sensei.”

 

He hesitated for a moment before retreating again. I opened an eye to look at him, but couldn’t read the sliver of his visible face. Hm. 

 

I lifted my foot and rested it on the tree again, focusing on drawing the chakra down and sticking to the tree. To my utter delight, it actually stuck. I lifted my other foot to join it, but proceeded to fall again, foot still stuck to the tree. My head throbbed painfully. 

 

“And that’s why we should take a running start until we have the needed inner core strength.”

 

“Yup!”

 

I glared at him before releasing my foot’s hold on the tree. Let’s try this again. 

 

I gave the tree a dark look as I lowered my body into a runner’s stance. I was going to do this and catch up to the boys if it was the last thing I did. What kind of powerful shinobi would I be if I couldn’t even walk on trees?

 

Launching myself forward, I pumped chakra down my legs to increase my velocity and prepare the chakra at my feet. The good news is that I made it about half way up. The bad news is that I lost control of my chakra and slipped off. 

 

“Go die in a hole,” I told the tree seriously once my head stopped spinning.

 

“It’s already living in a hole,” Sensei airily pointed out. 

 

"Then it can die in a hole where it belongs."

"It will."

"Good." I lay on the ground for several seconds, debating on the worth of taking a nap right there. “Hecking crap.”

 

“You have an odd way of swearing,” Sensei observed. 

 

“My parents were never big on my swearing like my inner sailor demands. Wonder why.”

 

Sensei nudged me with his foot. I groaned and tried to ignore it, but the pokes became more insistent. He wasn’t quite kicking me, but it wasn’t painless either. 

 

“Oww,” I moaned. “Leave me alooone.”

 

“You need to keep working on this, Inoko,” he said lightly.

 

“And you need to… I don’t know. Jōnin stuff.”

 

“Like teaching you?”

 

Well crap. He’s got me there. 

 

“Go join the tree in the hole.”


Inoichi blinked as he was roused from sleep. Darkness hung in the room like a thick blanket. He wasn’t sure at first what had woken him, at least until he heard a clattering in the kitchen. Beside him, Noriko sighed.

 

“Is Inoko stress cooking again?” she asked sleepily.

 

“I’ll take care of it,” he whispered before yawning. It was half past three in the morning. The joys of caring for a troubled insomniac. 

 

The smell hit him first as he made his way down the stairs. Inoichi paused on the stairwell, glancing under the ceiling to peek on his daughter. 

 

Inoko had about three different recipes going on at once, apron hastily tied and hair tied into a bun with a chopstick. He mentally winced. If the hair was up, then this was serious.

 

“Puttering in the kitchen again, moonflower?” Inoichi asked as he went the rest of the way down. 

 

“I do not ‘putter’,” Inoko snapped, fiercely dicing a carrot. “I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I’d be productive with my time and make something.”

 

He settled down at the table and waited. Inoko was at a point he had been waiting for. She had been twitchy and antisocial since she came back from her C-rank. Even after returning home, she remained mostly sleepless with little appetite. Knowing her, she didn’t want to bother him with her problems, so had kept them to herself. 

 

Inoichi wasn’t going to push. He’d wait until she was ready to talk, and then help her to the best of his ability. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I shouldn’t have snapped like that.”

 

“Probably not,” he agreed. “Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

 

He stifled a yawn as he retrieved some paperwork. He was going to wait until she was ready to talk, even if it took all night. He would be there for her. 

 

When he returned to the kitchen, a brewing cup of tea was waiting for him. Even when she’s clearly hurting, she tries to take care of people, he thought fondly. 

 

After perhaps twenty minutes, when most of the food was sizzling on the stove, Inoko finally spoke.

 

“I had another nightmare. About Wave. About what might have happened.”

 

Inoichi put down the report he was reading and locked eyes with the back of her head. Without turning, she continued. 

 

“I… I knew it was a dream, but I couldn’t wake up. I couldn’t make it stop. I couldn’t make him stop laughing. ” Inoko paused her stirring for a moment before taking a deep breath. She gripped the counter so tightly he could see her knuckles turn white. He didn’t ask who ‘him’ was. “He’s dead now. It doesn’t matter.”

 

“Does it?” he asked softly.

 

“I don’t think so,” she whispered. “I… I don’t know w-why I did what I did then. It was stupid. It was so damn stupid !” 

 

Inoko slammed the spatula down against the countertop, shuddering with emotion.

 

“I could have died. I should have died. But…”

 

“But what?” Inoko was in an incredibly fragile space right now. He couldn’t push too hard, but if he didn’t push at all she’d withdraw within herself again.

 

“Never mind, it’s stupid.”

 

She began to pare a chicken breast, muttering incomprehensibly to herself. Her right foot was tapping the ground impatiently as she took deep breaths. 

 

“All information is valuable, moonflower,” Inoichi reminded her. “What is it?”

 

Inoko slammed the knife onto the chopping board and took a deep breath. She spun around, distress in her eyes. “I think I wanted it.”

 

He leaned back in his chair, surprised. At last, the root of the problem.

 

“I wanted to die,” she repeated, swaying lightly. He doubted she even noticed it. “I think. But… I don’t want it. I’m… I’m happy. I have a family that loves me as much as I love them. I have friends that care for me. I’m… reaching for my dreams. I shouldn’t want it. I don’t want it.

 

Tears began to fill her baby blue eyes and spill down her face as she spoke. The longer she spoke, the more incoherent she became, sobs racking her body. After she finished, she pressed her hand to her mouth and collapsed to the floor, crying uncontrollably.

 

Inoichi instantly stood and moved around the table to envelope her in his arms. There was something deeper behind all of this, something she wasn’t telling him, but it would have to wait. My poor moonflower. My sweet Old Soul. I never should have let you go down this path.

 

“I don’t want to go, Daddy,” she sobbed into his chest. “I don’t want to go.”

 

“You don’t have to, moonflower,” Inoichi whispered, pulling her closer. “I won’t let you go. I won’t ever let you go.”

 

Inoko kept crying. He made a brief shadow clone to turn off the stove and remove the pans while he focused on his hurting daughter. 

 

His back was cramping by the time her tears ran out. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. 

 

“Don’t apologize for having emotions,” he gently scolded. She needed to let this out. “Everyone has them, even if they’ve shoved them deep down.”

 

“Emotions are stupid. I wish I didn’t have any.”

 

“No, you don’t.”

 

She gave a wet sounding scoff. “Yeah, you’re right, I don’t.”

 

They both laughed softly. Inoko sniffed.

 

“I do hate crying though. My eyes burn and I’m congested for the next twelve hours.”

 

Inoichi smoothed her hair down before resting his chin on her head. Gods above, he loved his girls to bits. He was content to just sit there on the kitchen floor until dawn holding his little girl.

 

“Dad?

 

“Yes, my moonflower?” 

 

“Do you think that… there is a part of me that wants to… you know?”

 

Inoichi sighed. “You’re too hard on yourself. And overthinking things again. Why would the id crave its own destruction? The first desire of any healthy mind is to stay alive, and you, sleepyhead, have a healthy mind. My dear, what mind would want to admit that it made a foolish decision?”

 

“I guess you’re right,” Inoko murmured. “You usually are.” 

 

“Considering that’s my job.” Inoko laughed and relaxed against him. “Now, I have some extremely important questions.”

 

She stiffened against him before reluctantly meeting his eyes. “Yeah?”

 

“Are we going to finish cooking all this, or should we just put it away? Because if your mother wakes up to find this kitchen trashed, we’re all in trouble.”

 

“Aw, crap. I guess we should probably finish here. The joys of leftovers! Wait a minute. I could -”

 

“No.”

 

“You don’t even know what I’m going to say!”

 

“Knowing you, moonflower, it’s something bad.”

 

Inoko huffed. “This is blatant discrimination.”

 

“How many times did you nearly blow up your bedroom?”

 

“... that’s not fair.”

 

“Case in point.”



Chapter Text

“What in the greatest heck.”

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ino look up from her book. She peered at me from around the vase of aromatic grasses on my bedside table.

 

“What?” Ino asked.

 

“So I’m reading this botany textbook, right? And I find this freaking entry. ‘Peltandra osmunda, a plant found in the Land of Waves, the Land of Water, and swampy areas of the Land of Fire, blah blah blah, used as a clotting agent, blah blah, side effects include’, and I quote, ‘severe lapses in judgement under duress once introduced to the bloodstream’.”

 

Ino blinked as I slammed the heavy book shut triumphantly. “That’s nice, but how is that relevant?”

 

“Because I recognize the illustration for that plant!” I shouted, jumping to my feet. I pointed down at her triumphantly. “Haku used it while I was held prisoner to heal my wound!”

 

“So what you’re basically saying,” Ino said slowly, “is that your very stupid choices during your hostage time were under the influence of this plant?”

 

“Ish,” I shrugged. “I’m saying that I was high as a kite and not realizing it, plus my judgement was severely skewed because of being high.”

 

My sister raised an eyebrow.

 

“It means I wasn’t being a complete moron during Wave. Only a partial moron.”

 

“Whatever you want to tell yourself,” she teased, going back to her book.

 

I threw one of my pillows at her, but nearly hit the vase. Ino dove forward and barely caught it before it fell to the ground. We stared at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.

 

After last night’s - this morning’s? - talk with Dad, I had been feeling better emotionally. We finished up the cooking, both went to bed, and I had another talk with Ino.

 

I cried again. Which sucked.

 

But I could already feel that whatever strain I had unintentionally put on my family was healing.

 

Dad poked his head in the room. “Girls, have you completed your meditations?”

 

The Ino-Shika-Chō clans had a genin tradition involving the piercing of ears. We would go down to our clans’ personal memorial stone and pledge ourselves to the clan and to Konoha or something; I wasn’t super familiar with the details. I did know that while the Nara and Akimichi did their ceremonies right after graduation, the Yamanaka did theirs a month or so later. During that period, we were supposed to meditate and ‘open our minds’. 

 

Completing them despite the utter catastrophe that was Wave was… difficult, to say the least. ‘Opening your mind’ after a traumatic experience. Not fun.

 

While Konoha had memorial stones for all of its shinobi, the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi had their own stone, shared between the three of them. I had seen it a few times before, mostly visiting with one of my relatives or Dad. You could feel the age and weight of the names. The oldest names were mostly faded, the newer names still holding the edge of the rock. The Three were carved into the tops of the stones, solemn gaze bearing down on us.

 

I tried not to think about Dad’s name on the stone as we made our way into the clearing. Tried not to think of the Three taking his soul and accompanying it to the Shinigami.

 

A chill ran up my spine. I could almost feel generations long since past watching us. Dad turned to face us both with a solemn look on his face. 

 

“Under the gaze of the Three Gods, I, Yamanaka Inoichi, bring my children to take their oaths,” he announces. The clearing feels silent, heavy with the weight of the oaths about to be uttered. “I pledge them unto the Three, as my father pledged me, and his father before him. I, the fifteenth head of the Yamanaka, pass my oath to my eldest, the sixteenth head, as my father the fourteenth head passed his oath to me, and his father the thirteenth head before him. This I swear by the Three.”

 

Ino straightened, a firm look on her face. My sister often gave off a ditzy blonde air, but she was anything but. Her voice was clear, echoing around the clearing as she began to speak. 

 

“I, Yamanaka Ino, hereby swear as the sixteenth head of the Yamanaka, I will entrust the oath entrusted to me by the fifteenth to the child that will become the seventeenth. In order to protect both the Akimichi and the Nara clans, and to protect Konoha, I, Yamanaka Ino, will open my mind to the universe. This I swear by the Three.”

 

Not going to lie, that was a pretty badass oath. I was impressed and just a tad jealous. Because I was ‘just’ the second child, I would take the standard oath, unless something happened to my sister and I became the clan head. An unpleasant thought, that. 

 

Wait. My turn with a significantly less badass oath.

 

“I, Yamanaka Inoko, do hereby swear that to protect my teammates, the clan, those allied with us and Konoha itself, I will open my mind to the universe. This I swear by the Three.” 

 

The words felt… final. More so than receiving my hitai-ate had felt. I was a shinobi, a tool that lived, breathed, and died for its village and kage. An oath sworn before our gods, binding until death. 

 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

 

Turning my attention back to my family, I saw Dad’s hands retreating from Ino’s ear with an approving smile on his face. Ah. The earrings. Clan heads and heirs had their ears ritually pierced. Luckily for me, I was neither and didn’t have to get holes stabbed in my ear lobes. Jewelry period was generally a bad idea for shinobi, as it tended to get grabbed and yanked. If said jewelry was attached to your body, like earrings… well. It would hurt. Plus sparkly things weren’t generally a good idea when trying to be stealthy.

 

“Does it hurt?” I asked as Ino gingerly touched her ears. They were just a pair of dull gray studs, but they looked good on her. I couldn’t help but smile. My sister was absolutely lovely.

 

“A little,” she said with a grimace.

 

“Haha,” I teased. She smacked me in the arm. 

 

“It’s just… I feel different now, you know? It’s always been kind of a game, really, but now it isn’t.” My sister had a distant look in her eye as she looked anywhere but me. “We could die.”

 

Dad rested his hands on our shoulders and gave a comforting squeeze. 

 

“Don’t worry, girls,” he said softly. “That’s why genin squads are assigned a jōnin. Your sensei aren’t going to let that happen. I’m not going to let that happen.”

 

Part of me wanted to point out that it would be hard to prevent our deaths if we were several days journey away, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood Dad had going on. 

 

“That reminds me,” Dad said, reaching into his pocket. “I know it’s generally only the heir who gets the earrings, but I had these made for you.”

 

Ino beamed at me. I squinted at her. She knew exactly what I was getting - knowing her, there was a good chance she was the one who inspired the idea in the first place. 

 

Dad pulled his hand out of his pocket and crouched in front of me. “You are my precious moonflower, Inoko, and a true Yamanaka. No matter what anyone else says.” He opened his hand, and I inhaled sharply. 

 

Yeah, screw what I said earlier about earrings, though it was true. These were beautiful. Hanafuda earrings, delicately painted as the tane and tanzaku cards of the July suit. The colors were deep and vibrant, and the boar almost looked alive. 

 

I wasn’t going to cry. I wasn’t. 

 

“And don’t even begin to ask about where mine are,” Ino declared. “I’m getting a family heirloom forged when the clans renewed their alliance, so you just keep your earrings and put them on and don’t worry about it!”

 

I rubbed my face. “Thank you, Daddy. And thank you too, Ino; I know you had something to do with this.” She just smirked at me.

 

It didn’t hurt too badly when Dad threaded my ears, and the slight weight of the wood was comforting. The way the hooks were curved, it would take a lot for them to fall out, even if I was doing flips all over the place. 

 

“They won’t tangle either,” Dad said, ruffling my hair. “They’re practically shinobi proof.”

 

“You’re going to make me cry again,” I threatened.

 

“Boohoo, you big baby,” Ino laughed, squeezing me tightly. 

 

I hugged her back before wriggling out from Dad’s hand, which still wasn’t done messing up my hair. “I’m predicting boring clan stuff in the very near future, so I’m going to go find Chōji,” I said, kissing Dad on the cheek. “It’s been a while since we’ve last hung out and I for one fully intend to fix that. Bye! Thank you, Daddy! I love you!”

 

I ran down the path, grinning to myself. I really was looking forward to this. It would be good for me.


My mood instantly soured the moment I saw Akio. I could tell the moment he saw me too, because his neutral expression turned into abject dislike. And that turned into a full on scowl once he saw my earrings. 

 

I lifted my chin and dared him to say something. 

 

“Ryoka-sama would be rolling over in her grave if she saw you now,” he hissed as I passed him. My jaw clenched. I pointedly did not touch my kunai pouch. “You shouldn’t have come back from Wave, little beast.”

 

“And you shouldn’t have come back from the war, coward,” I snarled back. A low blow, but it made him flinch away out of my personal space. I glared at him. “It’s a good thing Inoichi-sama doesn’t need your opinion to give his daughter a pair of Three-damned earrings.”

 

I walked away before I said something else I’d regret. Or worse, stab him. Elder stabbing was rather frowned upon.


Chōji was only a little surprised when Inoko showed up at his home. Not about the earrings; Ino had been gushing about those and excitedly waiting to surprise her twin for weeks now. He had heard from his teammates that she was… stressed. He worried about her. Inoko had always been one to take risks with her mind and soul. She once missed two weeks of classes because she accidentally put herself in a coma experimenting with a jutsu. 

 

As of right now, she seemed ok. She had a twinkle in her eye as she approached, which was generally a good sign.

 

“Chōji, friend, buddy ol’ pal! How’ve you been?”

 

And then he was forced to reassess his observation. Maybe she wasn’t as ‘okay’ as she pretended to be. The shadows under her eyes were just a bit darker than usual; that usually meant she was even more stressed out than usual. And usual was already pretty alarming.

 

“I’m good,” he said instead, “you? I like your earrings. They look nice.”

 

“Eh, can’t complain. Dad and Ino are being boring so I came over here instead. And thanks! I like them a lot!”

 

He nodded in a quiet consolatory manner. “Chip?”

 

“Woo! Thanks!” 

 

Well, he was sure she’d tell him if he could do anything to help. Until then, he’d be there for her. He wasn’t smart like Shikamaru or good with people like Ino, but he was good at being someone’s friend. Something told him that she needed that more than anything right now.

 

“So Ino and I took our oaths today,” Inoko said after a while as they sat on a bench together. She swung a leg in the air, her shoe making slight scuffing noises as it brushed the ground. Her new earrings danced in the gentle breeze. “I feel… different now. Like a shinobi for real, you know? I mean, I’ve already been a genin for a couple months now, but… I don’t know. You know?”

 

Many people didn’t understand Inoko’s more vague comments, but one of the benefits of growing up with her meant that Chōji tended to know what she meant when she was being weirder than usual. 

 

“Are you scared?” he asked. She leaned her head on his shoulder and hummed thoughtfully. 

 

“Maybe a little.” After a few moments of comfortable silence, Inoko straightened and shook herself a little. “Ugh, I’m thinking depressing things again. Let’s go get some food. What do you want, barbeque, ice cream? Or maybe we could spar a little? Ooh, or maybe both!”

 

Now she was avoiding things. Chōji wasn’t sure if he was hurt by the fact she was holding back or worried that she was.

 

They ended up getting some traditional Suna food - Inoko hated the spicy kind, so they made sure to get the mild stuff - before heading to a training ground. Sparring with Inoko was always interesting. She was sneakier than her twin.

 

“You ready, butterfly boy?” Inoko smirked.

 

Chōji stuck his tongue out at her and she laughed. He could see her relaxing, even from several meters away. It had been a while since they had sparred, just the two of them. Mostly because he kept beating her until she pulled out ninjutsu, and even then he usually still won. 

 

Inoko had seemed a bit annoyed by that in the past, but Shikamaru would point out that Chōji was a heavy hitter by nature and Inoko… well, wasn’t. She pretended to be insulted for about three minutes until she got distracted by Akamaru. 

 

“Bring it,” Chōji called, settling into an Akimichi taijutsu stance. Inoko rushed forward, bringing her leg up in a high kick. He blocked and threw a couple punches. Nothing serious for now, merely testing each other.

 

Just like old times. This was going to be fun.


“For the love of all that is salty, crunchy, and delicious, I do not need to go to the hospital!”

 

Sakura looked up from the book Iruka-sensei had loaned her about auditory genjutsu upon hearing her old friend’s voice echoing from the street. Scrambling out of her bed, she opened her window, searching for the source. Chōji, with a long suffering look on his face, was carrying a vaguely struggling Inoko, who appeared to have given up on actually escaping from him.

 

“It’s just a mild possible concussion,” she groaned, dramatically draped over his shoulder. “I don’t need to go to the hospital! Again.

 

“Hey!” Sakura shouted down, deciding that she probably should get involved at this point. Plus she was still really curious about why she’d had to go to the hospital the first time around. Inoko brightened and waved at her. Sakura briefly debated the merits of using the door like a civilian, but she didn’t go to ninja school for nothing and ended up climbing out the window. 

 

“So what’s this I hear about a concussion?” Sakura asked. She put her hands on her (sadly non existent) hips and gave Inoko her best Mom look.

 

“Welllll,” Inoko started, tugging on her bangs.

 

“She hit her head on a rock while we were training,” Chōji cut in. Inoko tried to wiggle away, but it was no use. He had a pretty solid grip on her ankles. “She used her clan jutsu and fell. I’m pretty sure that she has a concussion now because she couldn’t track my finger properly at first.”

 

“Disorientation!”

 

Sakura gave her an incredulous stare. Inoko stared back, unamused. 

 

“Did you ever go to the hospital for that thing you never told me about?” Sakura finally asked.

 

“What thing?” Inoko replied with a slightly uncomfortable grin. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Sakura’s eye twitched. 

 

“That’s it, Chōji, bring her inside. I’m turning her over to Mom.” It was almost comical to see how fast Inoko changed tactics.

 

“What?! Now, Sakura, let’s be reasonable about this, no need for such drastic measures!” 

 

Inoko began struggling for real against Chōji’s gentle grip. It was no secret among their friend group that Haruno Mebuki was one of the few people Inoko feared, which was ironic considering that the woman was a civilian from a civilian family. 

 

“Sakura? Who’s out there?” the woman in question called out.

 

“Nobody!” Inoko squawked before covering her mouth in horror. What have I done , her face asked.

 

“It’s Inoko and Chōji!” Sakura shouted back. She shot her friend an evil grin. This is what you get for keeping secrets.

 

“You’re dead,” Inoko mouthed, dragging her finger across her throat as Mebuki came out, dusting her hands off. 

 

“Inoko-chan, Chōji-kun, what a surprise. What are you two doing here?”

 

“Inoko got a concussion while training,” Sakura explained. 

 

“It might be a concussion,” Inoko grumbled, giving up on escaping her friends, “there’s no need to jump to conclusions.”

 

Mebuki gave Inoko a look identical to the one her daughter had given the blonde earlier. Inoko sighed heavily.

 

“This is the part where I come inside so you can mom me, right?”

 

“Exactly. Come in, Chōji-kun, would you like some snacks?”

Chapter Text

“... and then she wouldn’t let me leave for the next three hours,” I grumbled, pulling grass up and dumping it in Naruto’s hair as he lay on the ground in front of me. 

 

He had collapsed there some time before, tired from sparring with Sasuke. I began to braid some of the nicer blades into his hair as Sasuke sat near us. This, in my mind, was loads better than what it used to be. Soon enough, he would be comfortable enough with us to accept physical contact, and then I could give my little duckling all of the snuggles.

 

All of them.

 

I had just about mastered tree walking at this point, living in constant soreness all over my body from building muscles to stand perpendicular to a freaking tree. If someone had told me Before how mad awesome I would become, I wouldn’t have believed them.

 

I opened my mouth to complain of boredom, but bit my tongue after what had happened the last time I’d done that. Never again, Sensei. 

 

Then I had an idea.

 

“Naruto, you wanna try something out?”

 

“... sure?”

 

I stood and dusted my pants off. This particular question was one that I had been wondering for a while, but hadn’t remembered until now. Sensei had yet to dismiss us after a long afternoon of training, but I figured I had enough chakra to use the mind body switch one or two more times.

 

“Ok, I’m wanting to do some experiments with your shadow clones,” I explained. “Namely, can I take over one with my jutsu?”

 

Sensei was abruptly paying a lot more attention to us both.

 

“Oh!” Naruto exclaimed, bouncing on his toes. “That would be super cool, dattebayo! You could lead an army of clones and hop around like a demon!” Demon. Ha. 

 

“Exactly! So I want to see if I can possibly take over a clone.” Naruto’s excitement over the idea of something new was contagious. I couldn’t stop grinning, granted in a maniacal manner. “Can you make like… I don’t know, two or three?”

 

Three clones instantly popped into existence next to Naruto, identical to the original. Honestly, I was impressed that even their chakra was identical. If I hadn’t seen him make them, I would have problems telling the original Naruto from the clones.

 

One of them was unanimously chosen to be the target of my jutsu and shoved forward. I tried hard not to laugh. 

 

“It won’t hurt,” I promised, amused by him tugging on his collar and trying not to cringe before me. “You won’t even know - wait a minute, could one of you be ready to catch me? I’d really rather not actually get a concussion this time.” I paused at Sasuke’s raised eyebrow. “Not that… I actually got a concussion last time.”

 

A Naruto - the real one, I think - ran around and positioned himself to catch me. I took a deep breath. In. Out. In. Out. 

 

I could feel Sensei watching me. 

 

In. Out.

 

Even Sasuke seemed interested.

 

Out. In. Out.

 

I inhaled one final time and formed the hand seal, shooting forward. Leaving my body and entering only took a second, but a second was an eternity to a shinobi. A second could be the difference between who lived and who died.

 

Though I tried not to focus on the sensation, an out of body experience, no matter how brief, always felt really strange. Which was. Actually probably part of the reason Dad always told us to be completely committed to our target. 

 

Right. Target. Naruto.

 

With normal people (aka not clones) I usually had to push a little to sit in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Taking over a clone was like the seat already being mostly empty aside from some trash, maybe a back rest too. Er. This metaphor was getting a bit out of hand.

 

I blinked with his eyes and focused on my hands. I felt alive , thrumming with chakra. Which I suppose was fair given that shadow clones were literally made of chakra. 

 

“Inoko, your cackling is starting to worry me,” Sensei said mildly, placing his hand on my head. 

 

“Sorry, Sensei,” I said, totally not sorry. “The possibilities are endless! Assuming I automatically go back to my body when the clone dispels. And not have the connection between my body and soul forever severed, leaving my mortal form in a coma to rot while I ghost around for all eternity.”

 

“I feel like that’s a mild concern.”

 

I shrugged. “Relatively speaking, it’s a problem. Probably fixable. Maybe. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” I made another seal and found myself blinking my own eyes at the sky. 

 

Naruto peered down at me, concern in his eyes. “Are you ok? You didn’t lose your soul, did you?!”

 

I might have laughed in his face. A little. “I’m fine, Naruto, don’t worry. I want to try popping a shadow clone with me in it later, but that’s something I want to talk about with Dad first, and probably do it under his supervision.”

 

“Good plan,” Sensei said. He did actually look a bit relieved. Well to be fair, I would too if my student who liked to experiment with mind jutsu did something very reckless despite having a protective father. 

 

Huh. Putting myself in perspective was weird.

 

“Hey, Sasuke,” I drawled. 

 

“No,” he said instantly.

 

“I literally just want to spar. Rude.” Sasuke gave me a wary look. “Pinky promise? I won’t get inside your head and make you do the chicken dance.”

 

Naruto burst out laughing at the mental image, and to be honest I was grinning too. I wouldn’t make him do the chicken dance, but the macarena was fair game.


“Should I be concerned?” Mother asked when she turned around and saw my face. 

 

“Nah,” I said, grinning. I was very casually leaning on the door with blood still leaking from the cut on my eyebrow. Sasuke hovered behind me, paranoid in the way he’d been since Wave. “I just need an ice pack.”

 

Mother raised an eyebrow before putting her tea down and rising to her feet. “Let me get the first aid kit.”

 

I slid into her seat, beaming. “Thanks, Mother!” 

 

“Leave my drink alone, Inoko!” she called back after a moment of thought. I scowled and put the cup down. She knew me too well at this point. Instead, I moved towards the fridge. Ooh, there’s juice. 

 

I didn’t think I’d ever seen Sasuke so awkward. He looked like he’d rather bolt at the first chance he had.

 

“Ino’s not here, by the way,” I said offhandedly, rummaging around in the freezer for an ice pack. “She left for her first C-rank yesterday. She said Asuma-sensei was only waiting for the whole - well, it doesn’t really matter.” I peered behind the fridge door at him. He’d visibly relaxed, if only a little. “You thought my sister was here and you walked me home anyway? How sweet, Sasuke-kun~”

 

“I’ll hit you again,” he warned, not sounding too serious. 

 

“That’s fair. You want some juice or tea or anything?”

 

He silently shook his head. Mother bustled back in with the first aid kit and motioned for me to sit down. I removed the ice pack and let her fuss over me once again. When she’d returned from her random grocery shopping the other day, she’d come up to our room and hugged me for a very long time. Not like I was complaining, Mother gave some of the best hugs, rivaled by only maybe Akimichi Setsuko. There was something about her hugs, man.

 

Oddly enough, I had run into Sensei the next day and he’d given me the strangest look before vanishing. Upon further inspection, I’d found nothing but eyebags and a bit of spinach in my teeth from lunch.

 

Eh. He was an odd man. It was probably unrelated. 

 

I was off track again. 

 

Sasuke watched Mother fuss over my face a little. He didn’t squirm too much when she side eyed him and asked me how exactly I’d gotten my injury, and best of all, didn’t bolt once we both had our backs turned to him. It felt normal. Nice.

 

He eventually left after Mother finished taping my eyebrow up with a short, “See you tomorrow.” I waved after him and pointedly ignored Mother’s knowing smile.


I casually threw myself over the fence, giving Sasuke a nod as I landed. “Behold!” I announced. 

 

“... what?”

 

I grinned brightly at him before spreading my arms wide. “Behold!”

 

He looked around. There was nothing of note around us. “And what, exactly, am I supposed to be ‘beholding’?”

 

Mh. Good question. I wasn’t entirely sure myself, so I shrugged, still smiling. “No clue! I woke up in a good mood and I feel good.”

 

“That’s… nice.”

 

“Thanks!” 

 

“Hey, Inoko,” Naruto said, running up to us. “Teme. Are you ok, Inoko?”

 

“Never better!”


“I lied, I hate everything,” I told the boys, three hours later. Sensei was still nowhere to be seen. “You guys want to help me murder our teacher? I’m sure I can convince Chōza-ji to teach us; he had a genin team, you know.”

 

“Good plan,” Naruto groaned. He flopped his head onto my shoulder. I flopped my head onto Sasuke’s shoulder. And he didn’t move! Didn’t even protest beyond sighing. Progress. 

 

“He’s a good teacher, too, one of his students is a jōnin. I think the other two are special jōnin, he was talking about them a while back,” I continued, eyes unfocused. I relaxed my senses, allowing them to drift around us. The goal was to keep a close enough eye on our surroundings so we wouldn’t be taken by surprise, but relaxing enough so that I didn’t look like I was watching around us.

 

“Plus good food, right?” Naruto asked, sliding off my shoulder and flopping onto my lap. I absently ran my hands through his hair. Kind of coarse, could use a wash.

 

“Yeah, he’s a great cook. Definitely one of the best I know.” Oh, Sensei was approaching. Taking his sweet time too. “Sensei’s coming.”

 

Naruto jumped to his feet, bristling with anger. “Took him long enough! Where is he?! I’m gonna tear him to shreds!”

 

“Naruto. Dial it down a little, ok? Guilt him into arriving earlier next time and then bonus ducks!”

 

“Never say that again,” Sasuke said flatly, lightly shaking me off. Naruto took a deep breath and looked slightly less hostile.

 

“Exactly, like so, Naruto. Good job! Bonus ducks, Sasuke.”


“I’ll stab you.”

 

“Do it, coward. Regardless, bonus ducks aside,” I said. I carefully ignored Sasuke pulling out a shuriken with a tight smile. “Hi, Sensei? What’s the excuse this time?”

 

“I got lost on the way here!”

 

“Seems legit.” I stood and brushed my pants off as Naruto practically jumped on Kakashi. “What are we doing today?”


“How,” I asked the sky. Sensei ignored me and continued to read his book. “How did something like that happen. What kind of mission was that.”

 

Naruto groaned a little and flopped onto me for the second time today. Sasuke was looking positively singed. “Deer are evil, evil creatures.”

 

“They’re babies,” I instantly retorted. I had fared the best out of us three, probably due to the fact I practically grew up around deer, though not crazy mutant carnivorous deer.

 

“They tried to kill us,” Sasuke said incredulously.

 

“Nara deer are babies,” I amended. One of my earlier memories was helping Shikaku feed the deer with Shikamaru. I think Ino and I had spent the night since Dad was on a mission. A fawn had come up and ate straight out of the bucket I was holding. It was very cute.

 

Something tickled the edge of my senses.

 

“We should do some training together,” I said instead. “What do you think, Sensei?”

 

“Let’s call it a day for now,” Sensei said, eye tracking something in the sky. “You three can do individual training if you’d like.” I looked up to see a bird circling in some sort of pattern. Jōnin summons? Odd, I couldn’t think - actually never mind, I could. 

 

Chūnin exams. 

 

Great. I was going to die. Hopefully not literally. When I looked back at Sensei, he was gone.

 

“Thanks? I guess?” I scratched the back of my neck. “So… you two wanna train together?”

 

“What could a useless dobe like him contribute?” Sasuke scoffed. Naruto scowled and clenched his fists.

 

“Hey, hey, we talked about this,” I protested, waving my hands. “Most people can contribute something. For example, I can contribute that that disguise is terrible; have you ever even seen a rock before in your lives?”

 

Sasuke and Naruto looked down to the ground as the Konohamaru Corps threw off their ‘disguise’. “So, the boss’s teammate managed to see through our disguise!” Konohamaru declared, folding his arms. “As I expected of the boss’s teammate!”

 

Sasuke gave me a confused and questioning look. I shrugged a little. The girl, Mogi or something, tugged on Naruto’s hand. “Come on, boss, you promised! Can you come now?”

 

“Nope! I’m gonna train super hard with Sasuke and Inoko and become a super strong ninja!”

 

Aww. How adorable, he was acknowledging Sasuke’s existence in a non antagonistic way.

 

“But you promised to play ninja with us!” Konohamaru said. He looked a little distressed, honestly. “You promised!”

 

“A ninja,” Sasuke said flatly. “Playing ninja.”

 

“Yeah?” I raised an eyebrow. The Konohamaru Corps were still trying to convince Naruto to come with them.

 

Danger , my senses whispered to me.

 

“Just seems dumb,” he muttered. “How are you even supposed to play, anyway?”

 

Waait a minute. “Sasuke,” I asked with a grin, leaning in, “have you never played ninja?”

 

Sasuke flushed a little. “What does it matter?”

 

“It matters a lot! Naruto, kiddos, I have a suggestion!” They all looked at me. Sasuke seemed like he was going to bolt at any second. “We’ll play ninja with you, but since we’re genin, we have to use kawarimi instead of moving normally. That way we can train and Naruto can play with you like he promised. Sound good?”

 

The kids stared at me in shock even as Naruto’s face broke open in a grin. “Yeah! You’re super smart, Inoko-chan!

 

Death, they hissed.

 

“I grew up with Shika, you have to keep up somehow,” I laughed. “We don’t have any weapons we can use against you guys, so what about a tag system?”

 

“Sounds good, zombie-lady!” I winced. “Ready, set, go!”

 

I instantly switched with a nearby plank, yelling at Naruto, “Hey, you can only kawarimi!”

 

“Sorry!” he hollered, quickly switching with a scarecrow. Sasuke quickly vanished, a crate taking his place.

 

It was surprisingly fun. We ended up going with a point based system, limbs being one point, torso being two points, and head being five points. The Konohamaru Corps were using their paper kunai and shuriken, evening the odds if only by a little. Sasuke was in the lead with twenty six points, myself in second with twenty one, and the kids and Naruto switching up third. Naruto seemed to be more focused on being overly dramatic and spouting speeches than scoring points. 

 

I could have sworn I saw a proper smile on Sasuke’s face at one point right before he had the gall to kawarimi with me

 

Of course, the fun couldn’t last forever. I didn’t even have time to shout out a warning before - danger danger die die die die - Konohamaru ran into someone. My stomach turned.

 

He was unmistakably Sunajin. From the face paint carefully applied across the bridge of his tanned nose and his cheeks, to the turban and desert robes. My eyes glanced from the Suna emblem on his amulet to what could only be one of their infamous puppets on his back. 

 

“That hurt, punk,” he growled, lifting him up by his shirt. I had a hand in my kunai pouch as I approached.

 

“Konohamaru!” Naruto called, running forward.

 

The girl next to him said something in Sunago, sounding annoyed. Her body language was tense, wary. 

 

She was honestly beautiful. Hand embroidered scarves were wrapped around her waist and shoulders, elegant jewelry hanging from her head, neck, and wrists. They tinkled with every move she made. This was a girl who wasn’t afraid to be seen, and to be honest? I respected that.

 

“Put him down, you big ape!” Naruto yelled. I grabbed his shoulder and yanked him back before he started an international incident.

 

“Enough, Naruto,” I said sharply. Sasuke appeared near me, a wary expression on his face. I glanced up at their headbands, slowly enough to make sure they knew I was noticing. I gave Sasuke a look as well, trying to convey, Let me handle this. He wasn’t exactly known for his social graces. 

 

He’s getting close .

 

“What are shinobi of Sunagakure no Sato doing here?” I asked. I swallowed. The lump in my throat was beginning to make it hard to talk.

 

“We’re here for the chūnin exams,” the girl explained. I was surprised at her lack of a strong accent. Sunago tended to be a harsher dialect of what I used to know as Japanese. She reached into her pocket, none too quickly and plenty obvious. Good to know she’s preventing an incident too. She flashed her passport at us, stamped with the gatekeepers’ seal.

 

Unbridled bloodlust. Boredom. Disinterest except in death, anyone’s death. I clutched at the back of Sasuke’s shirt and hoped I was doing as good of a job of keeping a straight face as I thought I was. He tensed underneath my hand. 

 

H̦͔̭̅̇ȩ̦̞͓̯ͯ͛͊͌ͧ͠'͛͏̻̮̩̤̮͇͔͡s̷̡̡̙̟̜͈͒̒̾̈́ ͍̘̖̳̤ͣ͐̏͠ḧ̵̪̝͇ͫ̆͐e̞͖̞̰ͪ͛̂ͮ̑̒́̂͜r̷̙͉̹ͫͤe͕̗̖̥̠̣̅̆͐̐͘

 

“Enough, Kankuro,” a low, raspy voice said in a heavy accent. Was it always so hard to breathe? He said something else, but I didn’t understand it. Really ought to learn another language.

 

Gaara of the Desert stood on the underside of a nearby tree branch, wrapped in heavy robes. The late summer heat didn’t seem to bother him at all. His siblings had a much more visible reaction than I (hopefully) did. Kankuro instantly dropped Konohamaru to the ground, stammering. He sounded scared. 

 

Gaara cut him off. His eyes were dead. The eyes are not the windows to the soul but the doors.

 

Kankuro instantly backed down. If it weren’t for the sheer malevolence rolling off the youngest of the three, I thought I might have sensed his fear. Konohamaru and his friends cowered behind us.

 

Kankuro said something else with false cheer. He was shaking where he stood despite the warm weather and heavy robes.

 

Their sister agreed with whatever he said, sweating. Gaara shunshined between them and faced us. 

 

He said something in Sunago. His voice was flat. Lifeless as the desert.  His sister stepped forward, nervously glancing at him. “Gaara apologizes on our behalf,” she said. Her hands were shaking. He barely spared a glance to his brother. “We may be early, but that doesn’t excuse playing around. My brother and I are very sorry, and we promise it won’t happen again.” Gaara glanced at me - his eyes were so dead all I could see was death - before turning around. 

 

“Come,” he muttered, walking away. The other two followed him, hissing at each other under their breath.

 

“You kids should get out of here,” I managed as the Suna genin turned the corner. “And s-stay away from them.”

 

I leaned against the wall and tried to breathe. It was easier the further Gaara got away. I barely heard Naruto saying my name in a worried voice as I slid down.

 

“‘M fine,” I whispered. “G-Gaara, he’s…”

 

Sasuke crouched in front of me, concern written across his face. “Inoko, breath before you pass out.” I sucked in a breath. Naruto was rubbing my shoulders. “What’s wrong with this Gaara guy?”

 

“Stay away from him,” I said thickly. I didn’t meet their eyes. “For the love of the Three, stay away from him.

Chapter Text

I didn’t sleep well that night. And by not sleeping well, I mean I didn’t sleep at all. Even listening to Ino’s steady breathing didn’t relax me enough to sleep. I spent most of the night in my mind palace, trying to find any info on the upcoming exams. Unfortunately, the file had been corrupted, meaning I could only catch a few glimpses. 

 

I remembered Gaara and his bloodlust. I remembered the invasion. HIs siblings’ names were Temari and Kankuro.

 

I remembered Orochimaru.

 

I remembered him doing something to Sasuke that led to everything else going wrong.

 

Throwing down the damaged file with disgust, I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. I knew bits and pieces of what was coming. I couldn’t even remember how Orochimaru got into the chūnin exams in the first place. Would it be enough to affect things? Was it enough?

 

I had remembered so much of Wave and yeah, I had changed things, but I'd also ruined others further. Sasuke didn’t have his Sharingan, and didn’t he need that for Chidori? Naruto’s seal was fully intact. He wouldn’t be able to stand up to Gaara without the Kyuubi, no matter how much I hated it. 

 

Come on, Inoko, you made your bed, now it’s time to lie in it. I messed up a few things, yeah, but I could only move forward from here. I couldn’t do anything about the seal - and there was nothing that was going to make me try - but maybe I could do something about the Sharingan. 

 

I jumped to my feet and began making my way back up to the school. If I remembered correctly, the Sharingan needed strong emotion to activate. Didn’t matter what. I frowned, pausing midstep. Maybe. Natural Sharingan activation wasn’t exactly something I studied Before. For all I knew, he needed to have had miso for breakfast on a Friday in order to activate them.

 

Maybe I’d ask Sensei. Sensei seemed like he’d know.

 

A specter of a memory ran through me, already fading away before it turned the corner. I raised an eyebrow at it, then shook my head and shut the door behind me. 

 

I opened my eyes in the darkness and sighed. Echoes of activity reached my ears. Dawn was approaching. I was still exhausted, though by all appearances I had slept all night. I sat up and stretched, restraining a yawn. Ino was still sleeping peacefully. 

 

What if my changes lead to something worse?

 

I swallowed the lump in my throat before grabbing my vine embroidered robe and quietly leaving the room.

 

Shrugging the cotton robe on, I wandered the dark, still house. I stared into the fridge for a few moments, tried to relax on the couch, browsed books to find something interesting. 

 

I ended up in my garden.

 

When we were young, Ino and I would help Dad in the greenhouses. As we got older, Dad gave us our own little plots of land in the backyard to culture with whatever plants we wanted. If I covered it with daffodils at first, that was entirely my own business. Being a small child of six, they all died within a month. 

 

Dad just laughed at my distressed face and helped me replant new ones.

 

Over the years, my little plot grew larger and eventually covered nearly a quarter of the yard, enveloping Ino’s initial territory. She ended up moving her plants to a greenhouse, leaving me to putter around in the yard with my flowers. 

 

I mixed day and night bloomers, fall and spring plants, pretty much any flowering plant that caught my eye so I could have blooms year round. Now, in the silent minutes before dawn, where the night blooming flowers were beginning to close with the moon and the day blooming flowers were preparing to open up to the sun, I inhaled the perfume of my garden.

 

I felt some of the tension bleed from my shoulders. We were supposed to meet up with Sensei later today. Technically we were supposed to meet at eight in the morning, but knowing him, he wouldn’t show up until close to noon. I should talk to him, but…

 

I had absolutely no idea where on earth he would be. Konoha was a big place; I couldn’t exactly wander around hoping I get a ping on my chakra radar. I didn’t have any convenient summons that I could use to track him down. 

 

Tracking. Oh. I really was an idiot, wasn’t I?


The Inuzuka man at the entrance to the compound gave me a friendly, if overly toothy, smile. I’d been here often enough, usually hot on Kiba’s heels, to be recognized by most of the guards. The few times I didn’t come here with Kiba I usually ended up leaving with him hot on my heels. 

 

It was early yet; I stood in front of his door a bit hesitantly. A crash came from inside, along with some shouting. Footsteps running down a hall. More shouting before the door flew open and Akamaru leaped into my face. I hit the ground hard with a face full of dog.

 

“Oh, hey,” Kiba said before hollering back into the house. “We got him, Ma!”

 

He pulled Akamaru off my face and offered a hand to help me up. I gave him a dead eyed stare before accepting it. Why dog. He just smirked at me, grabbed my hand, and hauled me to my feet. 

 

“Thanks for the help; Akamaru grabbed one of Hana’s shoes and wouldn’t give it back.” He did, in fact, have a shoe firmly clamped in his jaws and growled a little whenever Kiba’s hand drifted towards it. 

 

“You’re… welcome?” I said slowly, unable to tear my eyes away from the attempted retrieval of the shoe. It was not going well. “Hey, could you do me a favor?”

 

“Yeah, sure, what’s up? Do me and Akamaru need to go do some dynamic marking on someone?” I blinked in surprise, and while I was definitely going to keep them in mind…

 

“Nah, I need some tracking help.” Kiba stopped tugging on the shoe and raised an eyebrow at me.

 

“Tracking? Why?”

 

“Because it’s virtually impossible to find my sensei at my current skill level and I need to talk to him about something.”

 

Kiba grinned widely. “Yeah, sure! It’ll get me out of doing kata, at any rate.”

 

“That’s what you think, mister,” Tsume said, standing in the doorway. “Akamaru, drop it .”

 

Akamaru opened his mouth and let the shoe drop. Hana hopped out on one foot, swiping her sandal off the ground with a scowl.

 

“But Ma,” Kiba whined. “I’ve already done them like a million times!”

 

“And you’ll do them a million more times until you get them right!” Tsume turned her attention to where I was semi-awkwardly standing. “Hey, kiddo, whatcha need?”

 

“I was going to borrow Kiba to help find my sensei,” I explained. Hm. Who else did I know that could track people? I thought for a moment. Yeah, I was coming up short. “But if he’s busy, I can go.” I could always resort back to my initial plan, though my chances of success were much lower. 

 

“Kakashi, right?” Hana asked, both sandals firmly attached to her feet. “I have some time before I'm due at the clinic, I’ll help ya.”

 

I bowed a little and thanked her as she whistled for her dogs. By way of being Kiba’s friend, I had spent a decent amount of time here growing up, and had used the Haimaru brothers as pillows more than a few times. They were so soft and friendly, what other choice did I have? I wouldn’t call myself friends with their mistress, but we were friendly enough with each other. 

 

Tsume waved goodbye before dragging Kiba back inside, Akamaru trotting at his heels. Kiba barely had time to bark a goodbye of his own. 

 

When the Haimaru brothers were sitting in a neat row in front of Hana, she announced, “Ok, boys, we’re gonna find Kakashi, ok? First one to find him gets an extra treat.”

 

Ni barked while San wagged his tail and Ichi began excitedly sidestepping. I clenched my fist and resisted the urge to squee and pat them and tell them what good boys they were. Because they were the best boys. 

 

Hana offered me a hand with a quick “Hop on” and then we were off, rushing through Konoha with a mixture of whooping, barking, and shunshins. I hung off Hana’s back, wind tearing my hair from my braid and whipping it into my face. For one glorious, painful moment, I almost wished -

 

I tore my mind away from that thought. I was content where I was and wouldn’t change it for anything. I pressed my face into Hana’s shoulder, guilty for even thinking about half wishing to not be my father’s daughter.

 

Ni barked and Hana took an abrupt turn towards the sound. We landed in an open street in front of some shops and lo and behold, there was Kakashi-sensei, his shopping bags on the ground forgotten as he rubbed Ni’s ears fondly. Ni’s tail was wagging a mile a minute, panting happily. 

 

“Oh, hey, Hana.” Ah yes, so casual, Sensei. As if you hadn’t been caught practically cooing over a dog.

 

“Hey yourself, Kakashi,” Hana greeted, slinging me down from her back. “Your kid is looking for you, so I figured I’d do her a favor and help her out.”

 

Kakashi’s eye flickered down at me for a split second before returning to Hana. “So you have. Thanks.”

 

Hana saluted him. “No problem, Kaka man. See ya ‘round!” And with that, she and Ni vanished. Shame, I wanted to at least pat him on the head once or twice. 

 

Sensei shoved his hands in his pockets and began to walk off. I looked down at his groceries, realizing pretty quickly what he was planning. He isn’t actually…. He is. This man.

 

I wasn’t going to lie, I was very tempted to do the exact same and leave his groceries there, but well, he was already a mess of a man, someone around here had to take care of him. 

 

With a heavy sigh, I ran back and grabbed his bags before running up to his side. “I’m not doing this again,” I warned. “I’ll drop them with no regrets.”

 

Sensei hummed. “I’m sure you will.” 

 

I scowled at him. I should drop them. I really, really should.

 

“So,” he drawled, “what brings you to me this fine morning, Inoko?”

 

“I wanted to talk to you before training,” I explained, shifting the bags in my arms. “I figured you’d be the only person to ask.”

 

I almost missed the sharp glance. His tone was still lighthearted as he said, “Oh? We had training today?”

 

Bullshit. I shot a glare at him. He eyesmiled back. 

 

“I wanted to ask about the Sharingan.” There was the faintest hitch in his step. “Specifically the activation requirements.”

 

Sensei’s voice was entirely serious now. “And why do you want to know that?”

 

I paused. My next words needed to be carefully chosen. “I’m worried about Sasuke,” I finally said. “The chūnin exams are dangerous and I don’t think we’re up to par yet.”

 

“Chūnin exams? What makes you think -”

 

“Don’t treat me like an idiot, Sensei,” I snapped, harsher than I meant to. “Please,” I added in a softer voice. 

 

Sensei stopped in his tracks. When I turned to look askance, he was giving me a thoughtful look.

 

“Very well,” he finally said. “The chūnin exams will be tomorrow. You’ve probably already seen other teams arriving.”

 

“We ran into a team from Suna,” I muttered. Sensei nudged me to the right into another street. I followed him. “One of them was…” 

 

I could still feel pinpricks down my back just remembering Gaara. I knew what was wrong with him, even as I knew it would be fixed sometime or another. Still, knowing that didn’t assuage my worries he wouldn’t kill me or my loved ones. He wouldn’t regret or hesitate for one moment.

 

“There will be many people like that in our profession,” Sensei said gently. “Though I’ve recommended you and the boys for the exams, none of you have to go through with it if you don’t want to. I was planning on telling the three of you this morning.”

 

He pulled some papers out of his kunai pouch and handed them to me, his groceries vanishing from my arms. “Fill these out and report to room three-oh-one at the Academy by four tomorrow afternoon if you decide to go through with it.”

 

I felt nauseous just holding them. Then his hand fell roughly on my head, awkwardly giving it a little tousle. “Don’t worry about it, Inoko. I’m sure you’ll all do fine.”

 

Then he vanished. Three forms. Three choices. 

 

Slowly, I folded them with care and slid them into my pocket. Somehow I doubted Sensei was going to show up at all today after this, so I should probably go track down the boys and let them know, give them their forms. Wasn’t there something else…?

 

Sharingan. Sharingan.

 

“Son of a bi -”


“I’m going to murder my sensei,” Inoko announced, slamming the door open with an uncomfortably large smile. I looked up from my scroll, startled. “I’m going to eviscerate him with a rusty spoon, and then I’m turning his skull into a goblet.”

 

Mother and I shared a look as Inoko threw herself onto the couch.

 

I finally took the bait. “Why?” 

 

“Because that baaa—oooh hi, Mother, didn’t see you there.”

 

“I’m sure,” she said dryly. “You were saying?”

 

“My buttface of a sensei decided to not tell us about the chūnin exams until the freaking day before,” Inoko sighed, dropping her head back down. 

 

“Wait, you didn’t know it was coming? Asuma-sensei told us ages ago!”

 

Inoko lifted her head again to give me a murderous glare past her bangs. “And you didn’t think to tell me?”

 

“I thought you knew!” I protested. Inoko sighed.

 

“No, I did not, sister mine. So now we have hardly any time to train, though… Sensei has been training us quite a bit harder lately, hasn’t he?”

 

“Are you going to do it?” I asked, quickly cutting off the tight look on Mother’s face. “The boys and I are.”

 

“I don’t know,” Inoko sighed, rolling off the couch onto the floor. She flung an arm over her eyes. “I don’t feel ready, but they do, and you have to have a three man team for the exams, and I can’t hold them back or…” She trailed off, mouth turning downwards. 

 

There was a troubled look crossing over my sister’s face more and more often these days. Sometimes I asked about it, but she always just laughed me off and assured me everything was fine. It wasn’t. There was something weighing heavily on her mind, and I wondered. It scared me sometimes.

 

“I went to the trouble of tracking him down this morning and everything,” Inoko grumbled. “I ask him a question, and then I get sidetracked, and then he has the gall to hand off the responsibility of, you know, actually telling the other two about the chūnin exams. So I go find them and give them the paperwork, and of course they both react predictably, which is to go off and start training like their lives depend on it, and then I’m trying to keep them from destroying the training field and each other, which is a lot harder than you would expect.”

 

Inoko rolled over onto her belly, peeking up at me and checking for sympathy. I nudged her with my foot. 

 

“You’re so dramatic.”

 

“You’re right, I need to become stronger before I murder my sensei.”

 

“That’s not how that works.”

 

“Sure it is. Two there should be, no more, no less. One to embody power, the other to crave it.”

 

Inoko finished with a dramatic fist in the air. I gave her a flat look. “And how are you planning to get to two? Are you going to kill Naruto and Sasuke-kun?”

 

“If they don’t stop giving me shit I might.”

 

“Inoko,” Mother warned.

 

She flushed. “Sorry, Mother, it slipped out. Won’t happen again.”

 

“It better not,” Mother said, placing her book down and giving us a fond if exasperated look. “I need to borrow a recipe from Setsuko. I’ll be back soon.”

 

“Fifty ryō says she’s gonna be gone an hour,” Inoko commented when the door shut.

 

“Done,” I said, going back to my scroll.


I met with Naruto and Sasuke in front of the Academy at twenty till. It was… strange being back here. Had it really only been a few months? It felt longer.

 

The Academy had been cleared of students for the exams; I remembered how we’d all been sent on a “survival field trip” the last time Konoha held them. It had been fun. I ate a rabbit and two fish. 

 

Anyway.

 

“We should keep on the downlow,” I suggested once I grew close enough. “There’s no telling what’s lying in store for us.”

 

Sasuke hummed in agreement and Naruto nodded hard, arms crossed. 

 

“We still have some time, right? Plan of action aside from flying under the radar?”

 

“You said that you can dispel genjutsu,” Sasuke said, glancing at me. “Can you sense them as well?”

 

“Can’t dispel it if you can’t detect it.” I shrugged. “I can dispel genjutsu on other people as well; if either of you get caught I’ll take care of you.”

 

“Thank, Inoko!” Naruto chirped. I waved it away. 

 

“You boys are the heavy hitters, so I’ll let you guys take point in the fight, and I’ll stay back for support. And Naruto, do me a favor and leave a clone or something near me so I don’t give myself another concussion.” Naruto laughed sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head and pointedly not looking at me. 

 

“Let’s go, then,” Sasuke said, rising to his feet.

 

The halls were crowded, full of hopeful genin. I could feel a genjutsu tickling the edge of my senses and was instantly on guard. 

 

“Stay close,” I muttered to the boys, signing to them genjutsu - potential enemy . I was kind of surprised to see something like this already. The proctors weren’t wasting any time weeding out the hopeless, were they? There was a bit of a commotion on the second floor, but the signs were all wrong. A bunch of people were crowded around a door that looked right, but…

 

I gripped Naruto’s sleeve and closed my eyes. Counted the stairs. Only two flights, though I could have sworn we’d walked up three. I could feel Ino and her team just a floor up.

 

“We still need to go up a floor,” I said, opening my eyes again. “Looks like we got mixed up.”

 

“Genjutsu,” Sasuke said under his breath. “Good catch.”

 

“I’m a Yamanaka, it’s in the job description.”

 

“Ehh?” Naruto said, squinting at the sign that ‘clearly’ said three-oh-one. “But Inoko-chan, the sign says -”

 

“Come on, dobe,” Sasuke sighed, grabbing his arm and dragging him behind me. I smiled to myself. Look at them, getting along so well. I relaxed a little despite myself. 

 

We left behind Team Gai, who were still keeping up the pretense of being weaker than they were. Good plan, but best to not draw any attention to yourself at all and fly under the radar.

 

The real room three-oh-one was being guarded by none other than Sensei himself. “Glad to see you all made it,” he said casually. “Looks like you qualify for the exams.”

 

“Keeping up the teamwork emphasis?” I asked, feeling a nervous sort of smile twitching at the corner of my mouth. Sensei gave me an eye smile. 

 

“Perhaps. Regardless of what happens in there, I’m very, very proud of all three of you. You’ve all come a long way from the little Academy students I tested a few months ago.”

 

Naruto was practically beaming from the praise, and even Sasuke looked pleased. I couldn’t fight the smile that was forcing its way onto my face, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I felt some of the tension bleed from my body. 

 

“Thanks, Sensei,” I said, ducking my head to hide my face. 

 

“Get in there, brats,” he said fondly. “You’re going to be late.” Sasuke gave him an indignant look.

 

Right. The first stage of the exams. I took a deep breath. 

 

“Ready, boys?”

 

“Yeah!” Naruto cheered. Sasuke made eye contact and nodded.

 

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” I whispered under my breath. “Once more.” 

 

We pushed the doors open and stepped in.

 

Chapter Text

There were easily a hundred people crammed into this room, probably many more, and every pair of eyes was watching us with varying levels of hostility. Naruto was visibly surprised, and even Sasuke seemed a bit discomforted. I just felt dread.

 

This isn’t going to be fun, is it?

 

Then my sister jumped on Sasuke’s back squealing about how she missed him. Ah, Ino. 

 

“Sasuke-kun~” she sang out. He looked like he was dying a little inside. “Where’ve you been, cutie? I could hardly wait to see you!”

 

“Ino, what have I said about molesting my teammate?” I asked, pinching the bridge of my nose. 

 

“I’m not molesting him!” she protested, pouting at me. Sasuke shrugged her off and drifted a bit closer to me. Evidently I was the safer twin. I didn’t particularly blame him; I considered myself the safer twin too.

 

“She’s got a point,” Shikamaru drawled, giving me the tiniest of nods. Chōji followed behind him, munching on chips. It was a good plan, getting his carbs in when none of us had any idea when a fight might break out. “You really think you guys have a chance of passing?”

 

Naruto instantly bristled at his words. I knew Shika well enough to know it wasn’t really meant to be insulting, just badly worded concern. It was still kind of annoying.

 

“Decent chance as any,” I said, grabbing Naruto’s collar to keep him from attacking someone before the exam even started. I wasn’t risking being ejected early. “Figured we’d at least get some decent experience even if we did fail.”

 

Shikamaru just grunted. “Chip?” Chōji offered quietly as we watched Ino unabashedly drawing closer to Sasuke, who was in turn trying to inch away without looking like he was trying to get away from her. 

 

“Thanks,” I said, accepting it. It gave the situation a bit of normalcy. 

 

“Hey, there you guys are,” Kiba said, bouncing over to us. “Looks like the gang’s all here! Hey, Inoko, did you find your sensei alright yesterday?”

 

I nodded, anxiety clenching in my stomach and tightening my throat. Kiba was instantly drawn into a half teasing, half serious argument with the rest of my team. Hinata was blushing as she hid behind a silent Shino. 

 

“Would you guys just do us all a favor and shut up?” a voice groaned from behind us. I turned around, focusing on keeping my face relaxed and disinterested. “You kids are genin, right? Would-be-hotshots fresh out of the Academy. This isn’t a field trip, you know.”

 

My boys, Kiba, and Ino all scowled at him. Bored. You’re better than everyone here and you know it. Don’t rise to the bait. This teenager was familiar, so familiar in a way I couldn’t quite place. Silver hair, round glasses, a faint mocking look on his face. Where had I seen him before?

 

“Who the heck do you think you are?” Ino demanded, hands on her hips and Sasuke’s non-existent affections forgotten. 

 

“Name’s Kabuto,” he introduced himself, and everything else that left his mouth sounded like white noise as my brain screeched to a grinding halt. 

 

Kabuto. Yakushi Kabuto. Freaking Kabuto

 

I remembered him now. Bitch.

 

He was one of Orochimaru’s flunkies, wasn’t he? Must have been important later in the Plot too, if I remembered him at all. Regardless. 

 

“No thanks,” I said once I managed to find my tongue. Kabuto paused, a deck of cards halfway out of his pocket. “We don’t need your help.”

 

“Are you sure?” Kabuto asked, a mocking glint in his eyes. “This is the chance of a lifetime you’re turning down here.”

 

“I would literally rather die than accept any form of help from you,” I said flatly. He opened his mouth to reply. “Literally. Rather. Die.”

 

There was something else in his eyes, flashing through for just a split second. Then he sighed and laughed.

 

“If you insist. See you around, Yamanaka-san.”

 

“What are you doing?” Sasuke hissed as Kabuto turned around and left. “We could have gotten a valuable edge on the competition.”

 

“He was so nice and you were so rude!” Naruto added. “He’s from Konoha just like us!”

 

“Yeah, and so was Mizuki-sensei,” I muttered. Naruto’s mouth snapped shut. Sasuke glanced between us. I doubted he knew the exact details of what happened that night, but the fact that Naruto was instantly silenced by it must have meant something to him.

 

“Are you sure about him?” Ino asked in a low voice. 

 

“Positive. Stay away from him and his team.” Crap, I still hadn’t warned her about Gaara. “Stay as far away as possible from the Suna team too. If you even think you’re near him, go in the opposite direction.”

 

Ino shot a look at where I could feel Gaara lurking. “Noted,” she finally replied. “I’ll keep my distance. Anything else?”

 

“If they weren’t in our class, don’t trust them,” I said in a low voice. Team Gai was still a variable, and while I trusted them, I didn’t exactly have a reason to.

 

“Got it. Be safe, sis.” She offered her fist out.

 

I lightly bumped it. “You too.”

 

That’s about when Naruto instantly made a target of us all and shouted, “My name is Uzumaki Naruto! And none of you are gonna beat me!”

 

In the silence that followed, all that could be heard was the twin slap of Sasuke’s and my hands hitting our faces. 

 

“Evidently ‘flying under the radar’ means announcing us to the entire exam,” Sasuke muttered. I sighed heavily.

 

Then I grabbed Naruto’s collar and hissed into his ear, “Naruto, if the other genin don’t kill us first, I’m going to kill you.”

 

“S-Sorry, Inoko,” he apologized sheepishly, then instantly made his apology moot. “I meant it though.”

 

“I know you did.” He was so earnest and ridiculous. I sighed and let him go, absently straightening his jacket a little in the process.

 

I watched as in the background the Oto team lunged at Kabuto and attacked him, and I would cheerfully be the first to admit I was feeling more than a little satisfaction when his glasses broke and he threw up. Get rekt, sucker.

 

There was a giant explosion of smoke at the front of the classroom. The proctors stood in the clearing smoke, a series of imposing figures. Everyone instantly shut up.

 

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Morino Ibiki said conversationally. I’d seen him around due to Dad’s work. Sometimes, I would tag along with him to T&I and spend time in his office while he did paperwork, and he’d come over for dinner every now and then. Ibiki liked kids well enough, though he often scared them. I liked him; he used to bring Ino and me presents when we were younger. “My name is Morino Ibiki. I’m the chief proctor for this exam.”

 

Ah, he was scaring everyone else too, it appeared, not just small children. Ino and I were the only ones unaffected by the faint killing intent leaking out of him. And Gaara, now that I noticed him. I guessed that once you lived with the living embodiment of killing intent, a mere mortal wasn’t much for scaring you. 

 

“You kids from Otogakure!” he barked. “You can’t carry on whichever way you please when the exam’s about to start. Unless you want to be disqualified?”

 

The Oto nin glanced at each other before retreating away from Kabuto. Phooey. 

 

“Sorry, sir,” the hunched over one said. “It’s our first exam; we got a little carried away.”

 

“Is that so?” Ibiki asked, darkly serious. “In that case, it’s high time for me to lay down some ground rules. From this point forward, there will be no fighting unless authorised by myself or another head proctor. Even if that permission is granted, anything lethal is strictly forbidden. Any of you brats break that rule and you’re out. No second chances.” He glared at the room from under his brow. “Am I understood?”

 

There was a tense silence. 

 

“The first part of the exam will now commence,” Ibiki said, a sadistic grin slowly crawling across his face. I wondered if Dad knew that he was in charge of us. “Turn in your applications and take a number. That number will indicate your assigned seat. You will take it promptly. When everyone is properly seated, we’ll pass out the written part of the test.”

 

Naruto blinked as the other people began to shuffle towards the desk to get their numbers. 

 

“A paper test?!” he shrieked. 

 

“What do you think, Sasuke?” I asked, dragging Naruto behind me. “Bury him alive or poison?”


“Your friend is going to fail,” Hyūga Neji said casually as I took my seat beside him. “He’s a fool, isn’t he?”

 

“You’re a fool,” I muttered back. Childish, but my mind was focused on more important things than getting into an argument with Neji. I had a clear line of target to both of the boys, which was good; Sasuke ought to pass pretty easily, though given Naruto’s track record with written tests… 

 

Yeah, I’d probably have to use the mind switch jutsu on him if he was going to pass. I could pass it off as me crashing from sleep deprivation, right?

 

Probably. 

 

“Papers face down until I say so,” Ibiki ordered once we were all settled in. “Listen up. There are some big rules that pertain to this first test. I’ll write them down on the black board and explain them, but I’m only saying things once and I’m not taking questions, so listen carefully.”

 

I straightened in my seat instinctively. Ibiki turned around and the sound of chalk scraping on the blackboard filled the classroom.

 

“Rule number one!” he began. “Each one of you starts out with ten points. This test has ten questions, and for each question you get wrong a point is subtracted.” Well that sounded simple enough. “Get all ten right, and you keep the points you had. Get three wrong, and you have seven points left. Et cetera, et cetera. 

 

“Rule number two. Though a written test, this is still a team exercise. Whether you pass or fail is determined by the total amount of points held by the members of the team. The object is to have as few deductions as possible from the maximum thirty point total.” 

 

Still rather simple, though getting steadily more complicated. I rested my chin on my hand, frowning a little. There was a catch, I could feel it in my gut. There was always a catch with Ibiki’s games.

 

“Rule number three,” Ibiki continued, ignoring the muttering beginning to rise around me. “If, during the course of the exam, the proctors determine that one of the candidates has cheated in some way, two points are subtracted from that individual’s total. If you run out of points, you will be disqualified and asked to leave.” He set the chalk down and turned to face us, a sinister smile covering his face. “If you let the proctors catch you cheating, you’re bringing yourself and your team down. If you want to be chūnin, you better start acting like you actually are!”

 

Huh. Well, this was going to be a problem. I probably wouldn’t need to cheat though, so no sense in risking my place in the exams. Between myself and Sasuke, we ought to have enough points to carry Naruto through this exam, even if he flunked out. I frowned a little. This is too easy for the chūnin exams. There’s got to be something more.

 

“Oh, by the way,” Ibiki added conversationally, almost as an afterthought. “If an individual loses all of their points… Regardless of how well the other two members do, the entire cell will be disqualified.”

 

My head slipped from my hand and fell into my desk. And there it is. I’m going to have to help Naruto cheat, won’t I? We’re gonna fail otherwise. Dang it, Ibiki.

 

“You have one hour,” he announced, surveying us with a calculating eye. “Starting… now !”

 

I flipped my packet over and looked at the first question.

 

Oh no , I thought faintly. I’m just as screwed as Naruto.

 

Forget helping Naruto cheat—I was going to have to cheat too, wasn’t I?

 

Things were trickling back to me now, bits and pieces here and there. Combined with all of the training I’d had throughout my life, I had a pretty good idea of what we were supposed to do. This was an intelligence test in all meanings of the word. We were being forced to cheat, a test designed to see how well we could gather intelligence in a hostile environment. Fail to do so safely and you and your team get it.

 

Clever. Though knowing that now didn’t really help me. Well, it was a good thing this test was practically designed for a Yamanaka.

 

I closed my eyes. Chūnin tended to feel different than jōnin, and while I didn’t particularly want to open up my senses while there was Sandy McMurderface in the same room, I could probably ignore him long enough to figure out who the inevitable plants were. There had to be some plants, somewhere. That was the only way to guarantee that the exam goers would have somebody reliable to cheat off of.

 

The seating was ‘random’, but the fact that no one seemed to be sitting anywhere near their teammates screamed to me that everything down to our seats was planned. 

 

Ahem. Back to chakra sensing.

 

I very carefully reached out, making a point to stay far away from Gaara. Haha, yeah, there was no way I was going to risk being mentally attacked by a crazy bijuu. Not exactly something on my bucket list. Genin, genin, genin, probably a genin— ping

 

I paused. Most definitely not a genin, but sitting too close to Gaara to risk lingering. I moved on, feeling a bit troubled, but put it out of my mind. Genin, genin, Lee, genin, and—aha!

 

A plant was sitting three rows behind me, four seats to the right. I waited twenty minutes while he wrote out the answers, absently tapping my pencil on my paper. I really hoped it didn’t get mistaken for some sort of code. When he finally set his own pencil down, I casually stretched back in my chair, leaning further and further until I could make a clear shot. There was a split second where the only obstacle in my way shifted in her seat, and then shot forward.

 

I opened unfamiliar eyes and blinked down at the test paper. I took my time memorizing the answers; few people had any idea how to deal with a Yamanaka jutsu, and even fewer could actually do it. Five minutes later and I was beginning to feel the toll, but I had all nine answers solidly in my head. I released the jutsu and sat up in my seat, yawning for good measure. 

 

I swung my legs in the seat that was just the tiniest bit too big for me, scribbling out my newly acquired answers. I double checked them, and while they seemed about right, I didn’t really understand the problems themselves. For all I knew, I was as wrong as could be, which was… concerning. But I doubted the plant would deliberately write down the wrong answers; that would be stupid. 

 

… I was overthinking this, wasn’t I?

 

I pretended to stretch again, yawning and setting down my pencil in the moment before I shot myself into Sasuke’s body. From his position, I could see Ino slumped over her desk in a similar manner. 

 

Don’t worry, just giving you a hand , I wrote in small kana at the top of his page before writing down the nine answers I had at the moment. I couldn’t quite remember the tenth question, so I was probably going to have to let the boys take care of that on their own, but surely twenty-seven out of thirty would be enough to pass? I almost canceled the jutsu after I finished so I could move onto Naruto, but I hesitated. 

 

Picking the pencil up again, I sketched a small pig face giving a victory sign. Then I cancelled the mind-body transfer. I couldn’t see the incredulous look Sasuke was giving me, but I could feel it boring into my head.

 

I resisted the urge to giggle.

 

A kunai flew past Naruto’s head and into the paper of a Leaf genin behind him, and all giggly urges vanished. 

 

“Wh-What was that for?!” the genin demanded, standing up. He was obviously shaken, and I honestly didn’t blame him.

 

“Five strikes and you’re out,” one of the proctors drawled. “Take your teammates with you. Out of this classroom. Now.”

 

That was too close , I thought, hunkering down over my sheet, a hand draped over my head. I carefully glanced around me, being sure to keep my eyes away from any papers. Neji’s Byakugan were active, which probably meant that covering my paper with my body was useless. Eh. 

 

More people were failing, most going willingly, but more than a couple of them needed to be forcibly kicked out. I sat at my desk and meditated. I’d already been far too active and needed to chill a bit or I’d risk being caught. Half an hour gone, another half to go.

 

I stretched my arms out again, this time aiming for Naruto. I had wanted to wait for… something, before I tried to take over Naruto himself. The seal was intact still; I ought to be fine, but…

 

I was afraid. I remembered one thing from being a baby again, and that was the Kyuubi, dark and hateful. 

 

I would quite cheerfully go the rest of my life without ever feeling that chakra again if I had the choice. 

 

You don’t have a choice. What’s life without a little risk, anyway?

 

I took a deep breath and took the plunge. 

 

It was—It was—

 

Completely normal.

 

I blinked down at Naruto’s tanned hands, frowning a little to myself. Next to me, Hinata gave a questioning look. Right. Naruto had been freaking out just a second ago, and now he was completely calm. I gave her the tiniest of winks to assure her and nearly burst out laughing at how she turned bright red and muffled a squeak.

 

Poor girl. One day, perhaps, if Naruto ever got over his crush on Sakura and gained an ounce of social awareness.

 

I copied the answers onto his sheet along with the same message and drawing. Just because everything seemed normal didn’t mean that I was going to linger in his body any longer than I had to. I canceled the jutsu and tried to rub the goosebumps away. Ahead of me, Naruto nearly jumped out of his seat when he realized his paper was now filled in. He didn’t dare look around, but I could see the tension bleed out of his body when he realized he wasn’t going to fail.

 

Five minutes now. I lay down for real on my paper and closed my eyes. 

 

I almost thought I felt sand drifting across my skin. I didn’t dare open my eyes to check.

 

“Alright!” Ibiki said suddenly. I flinched in my seat. “It’s time for the tenth question. Get ready.”

 

I slowly drew myself up, anxiety running through my body at lightning speed. This was it.

 

“Before we get to the question itself, I’m adding one more rule.”

 

You could cut the tension in the air with a kunai. Kankuro came back with his puppet-proctor. Ibiki paused. 

 

“Looks like you’re in luck. The time you’ve spent playing with dolls hasn’t been completely wasted.”

 

I ducked my head to hide my smile. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed how dead inside the ‘proctor’ was. Ibiki sighed.

 

“Don’t worry about it. Sit down.” He waited until Kankuro meandered his way back to his seat, just happening to take the route that led past his sister. He turned, trench coat swishing dramatically. “Let me explain. This rule is absolute. First you must choose whether to accept or deny this question.”

 

There was a beat of silence. “Choose?” Temari finally demanded. “What happens if someone doesn’t accept the question?!”

 

Ibiki closed his eyes. “If you reject the question without even attempting to answer it, you and your teammates will fail instantly.”

 

The classroom understandably rioted for a minute. I hunkered back down, making myself small. 

 

“Why would anyone choose to reject it?!” someone shouted.

 

“Because of the other rule,” Ibiki responded in a low voice. He was so quiet everyone else had to be silent if we wanted to hear him. “If you try to answer the question and get it wrong, then you will never be allowed to participate in the chūnin exams again. Ever.”

 

That couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be. It just didn’t make any sense . What was the point of forbidding genin from taking the chūnin exams again, just because they failed it once when they were young and inexperienced?

 

Unless…

 

Oh, I see now. Clever Ibiki; this is another one of your mind games, isn’t it? I had lost count of how many times he would play a game like this with me and Ino, candy or chocolates being our prize if we won. Now we were playing for our rank. 

 

“That’s crazy!” Kiba snarled, slamming his hand on his desk. Akamaru barked in agreement. “There are genin who’ve done this exam tons of times!”

 

Ibiki began to laugh. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. “Just your rotten luck,” he finally said past his chuckles. “I wasn’t making the rules then. I am now. I’ve been upfront and honest with you; you can take a failing grade now and try again later. Anyone who doubts my words would be smart to reject the tenth question now. Come back and try again next year… and the year after that… and the year after that.”

 

You could have heard a pin drop.

 

“Ready? Then let’s begin. Those who choose not to accept the question should raise their hands. Once their number has been confirmed, they will leave the room.”

 

There was silence for what felt like an eternity. One of the plants stood up and raised his hand. “I quit!” he exclaimed. “I’m rejecting the question!”

 

He apologized to his teammates before they were all escorted out. And like the floodgates of a dam opening, genin began to drop like flies. I withdrew a little further into myself. 

 

I was pretty sure I knew what he was playing at, and I was pretty sure Ino did too. But neither of our teams did. Would any of them reject the question?

 

I sat ramrod straight when I saw Naruto’s trembling hand rising up. No! He can’t reject the question! I refuse!

 

Summoning my flagging chakra, I tried to discreetly make the seal. At least, until his hand slammed down on his desk.

 

“Never underestimate me!” Naruto shouted. “I don’t quit and I won’t run! I’ll take your stupid question, and even if I’m a genin for the rest of my life, I’m still gonna be Hokage! I’m not afraid of you!”

 

My hands fell to my desk as I sighed in relief. Of course that’s what he was doing. This was Naruto I was talking about. 

 

“Last chance,” Ibiki said, eyes serious. “This is a choice that could affect the rest of your life. Quit now while you still have the chance.”

 

“I never go back on my word.” Naruto grinned. “That’s my ninja way.”

 

“I see.” Ibiki finally nodded, sharing a glance with the other proctors. “Everyone who’s still here…”

 

I swallowed. Time to see if my gamble paid off. If everyone’s gamble paid off.

 

“You’ve just passed the first exam!”

 

I sank into my seat, breathing a heavy sigh of relief and running a hand through my bangs. I thought we were goners there for a minute. 

 

“All seventy-eight of you who remain pass,” Ibiki continued. 

 

“What do you mean, ‘pass’?” a Taki genin asked. “What about the tenth question?”

 

“There is no tenth question!” Ibiki explained cheerfully, his entire demeanor taking a one-eighty. “Aside from the whole ‘accept or deny’ thing.”

 

“Hey! Why did we have to suffer through the other nine questions, then?!” Temari cried. “That was a total waste of our time!”

 

“There was no waste,” Ibiki replied, hands shoved into his deep pockets. And they were deep; I remember one time he pulled the most ridiculous things from there to me and Ino’s increasing bafflement and disbelief. In hindsight, though, it was probably just some fancy ninja sleight of hand that let him pull an entire lamp out of his pocket. Hm. Things to think about on a later date. 

 

“The previous nine questions had a purpose, which they already served. Our goals were to test your intelligence gathering skills. By giving you questions to which there was no way you could know the answers, we forced you to cheat. By establishing rules by which you would be severely punished if caught, we forced you to cheat well.” He began to untie his hitai-ate. I looked away. I was familiar with the scars on his head, and I really didn’t care to see them again. Then I forced myself to look back up. Seeing something as a child and seeing it as a shinobi were two different things. 

 

“Anyone who cheated in an obvious way, of course, was disqualified,” he continued, pulling the bandana off. He was serious again, looking out among us. There was a sharp intake of breath as people averted their eyes. I fixed my gaze firmly on him. “Because there are times when being caught spying can cost more than just your life. You pay in little ways, time and time again, while many lives hang in the balance.”

 

Ibiki put the headband back on, his point made. “The information you gain can’t be trusted if you can’t keep your presence secret from the enemy. Learn that, and learn it well. If you bring intelligence back from a compromised source, you’re doing your enemies' work for them and putting the lives of your comrades in danger. This is why we tested your espionage skills. It was the quickest way of weeding the incompetent ones out. 

 

“The tenth question was a choice between two difficult and dangerous options. Those who chose to back out failed along with their team. Those who chose to take the question and failed to answer correctly would never become a chūnin. It was a nasty, unfair, no-win set of options. So, you may be wondering, why did I present them?”

 

Ibiki paced back and forth, glancing out at us. “Let’s suppose you all successfully obtain the rank of chūnin. You are assigned to steal a vital enemy document, though you know nothing about the skills, deployment, or organization of your foe. You very well might have to cross into heavily trapped enemy territory. Now, do you accept the mission? Or do you reject it for fear of putting the lives of yourself and your comrades in danger? Could any real chūnin get away with only taking the easy jobs?” He snorted, more to himself than anyone else. 

 

“Of course not! No matter how high the risk, there will be missions you cannot decline. A true shinobi must be a leader, one who inspires courage in their comrades. This is what we value most in a chūnin! Those who can’t gamble with their own fate, who would trade the certain risk of today for the uncertain future of tomorrow, never taking the chances that lie before them, are weaklings who only make weak and easy decisions.”

 

Ibiki looked out on us, and he looked pleased and, I thought, maybe a little proud too. Ibiki, your soft spot is showing, I thought fondly.

 

“By choosing to accept, you answered the tenth question correctly. If you can keep that spirit, you can probably conquer many of the doubts and difficulties you’ll face in life. You’ve passed the first hurdle. Congratulations on passing the first stage of the chūnin exams.”

 

There was relieved chatter beginning to spring up in patches around the room. I turned in my seat to wave and wink at the boys. Naruto appeared ecstatic, wriggling a little in his seat. Even Sasuke was smiling a little, half relieved and half happy. 

 

We were going to be ok.

 

And then Anko smashed through the window with a sick flip and threw up her own banner. It was incredibly cool. I was already itching to try it out for myself. 

 

“None of you are in any position to start celebrating!” Mitarashi Anko shouted, jabbing a finger at us. I’d never actually met her before, though I’d seen her around a time or two. “I’m the second head proctor, Mitarashi Anko! Time’s a-wastin, folks, so let’s move, move, move!”

 

There was dead silence. Ibiki poked his head around the banner. “Can’t you sense the mood here?” he asked quietly. 

 

I choked on a laugh at her flustered expression. 

 

She got over her embarrassment a moment later, spinning on Ibiki. “You passed twenty six teams? I’m disappointed in you, Ibiki. You obviously went way too easy on them.”

 

“We seem to have applicants of exceptional caliber this year,” Ibiki said quietly, coming to stand beside her. Seeing the two of them together in their trench coats strengthened my resolve.

 

I was so going to get myself a trench coat once I stopped growing. 

 

Anko snorted loudly. “Yeah, right. I’m going to cut this number down by half before the next test is done.”

 

Oh, great. 

 

“Ooh, I get excited just thinking about it,” Anko smiled, licking her lips. “I’ll explain things further once we arrive at our next location, so let’s go!”

 

Naruto appeared at my side fairly quickly, and together we met Sasuke half way across the room before following the rest of the group out. He lightly punched Naruto’s shoulder once he got close enough. 

 

“Dobe, you had me worried there for a minute.” Then he punched me as well.

 

“Ow,” I whined, even though it was honestly barely enough to move me from where I was standing. “What was that for?”

 

“A pig face? Really, Inoko?”

 

“She drew one on my paper too!” Naruto chimed in. “Hey, hey, Inoko-chan, can you draw me another one later?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” I said, punching Sasuke back. He rolled his eyes at me. “Do you want one too, Sasu-kun?”

 

He wrinkled his nose. “Don’t. Just don’t.”

 

Chapter Text

The walk around the village didn’t take long. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes later, the sun was beginning to go down, and we were standing in front of the Forest of Death, affectionately known among the Yamanaka as ‘the Shodaime’s Playground’. I had never gone past the gates before. This was the closest I’d ever been to it.

 

Looking at it now, I could see why Training Ground Forty-Four had earned its nickname. 

 

I swallowed nervously. I didn’t remember. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t -

 

“You ok?” Sasuke asked in a low voice against my ear. I shook my head.

 

“This is the area for the second exam,” Anko said with a devilish grin. “You’re about to figure out first hand why they call this the Forest of Death!”

 

Something about the chakra was… different. Not dark or evil, just different. Was it because of how the Shodaime grew it? Or was it more of a Fangorn forest sort of thing? Curiosity slowly began to overcome my fear. I half absently wondered if Dad could help me with some research. Why didn’t I remember this the first time I had come here?

 

“‘You’re about to figure out first hand why they call this the Forest of Death’,” Naruto repeated mockingly under his breath. I elbowed him sharply. “What? They’re not even trying to scare us!”

 

“Shut up ,” I hissed, glancing around. Right, I couldn’t get distracted by weird plants; we were kind of in mortal danger. I didn’t know what my face must have looked like at that moment, but it must have been something because Naruto fell silent. 

 

It was already too late. 

 

“You’re pretty cocky, huh, kid?” Anko asked conversationally. In the blink of an eye she had a kunai out and flying through the air. It landed on the ground in the midst of some Kusa nin. Less than a heartbeat later, she was standing behind Naruto, affectionately stroking his cheek. “Your kind is always the first to go, spilling all that rich, lovely blood all over the ground…”

 

Her tongue flicked out. That can’t be sanitary , I thought, trying to ignore the increasing bloodlust in the air. My chest tightened uncomfortably.

 

Another kunai flashed into her hand as one of the Kusa nin approached. “I believe you dropped this,” she(? he?) said softly, speaking clearly even though her tongue was wrapped around the first kunai.

 

“Thanks,” Anko said after a moment, lowering her kunai and accepting the other one. “Don’t stand behind me radiating bloodlust unless you’re in a hurry to die.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” the Kusa woman said. Something was w̢̭̭̳̙̙̟̩̓ͦ̚r͎̙͊ͩ͌͗̍o̟̲̙͍͚̜͍̒ñ̤̹̻̭̈́g̥̫͖̗͈̹̝̍̽͂ͧ͛͞ with her chakra, smooth and cold and muffled. I wanted Naruto as far away from her as possible. Stay away from her and stay away from Gaara and stay far away from Orochimaru when you find where he is. 

 

I stepped forward towards Anko, eyes flickering towards Naruto. He seemed perturbed but physically fine, aside from the cut on his cheek. It was already scabbing over. 

 

“I’m very sorry about my teammate, Mitarashi-san,” I said, bowing my head. “He didn’t mean to be rude. May we please have him back?”

 

Anko glanced down at me before releasing Naruto and waving us both off. “Yeah, no problem, kid.”

 

“Are you ok?” I asked softly, pulling him away from our crazy proctor and back towards Sasuke. “Stay away from that lady and the Suna team.”

 

“Y-Yeah.” He glanced back over his shoulder and shuddered. I didn’t blame him.

 

“Idiot,” Sasuke muttered once we came close enough, but he sounded more worried than anything. I guess my nerves were infectious. 

 

“Now, before we begin the second test!” Anko announced, pulling a sheaf of papers from her jacket. “There’s something I need to pass out. You need to sign these agreement forms.”

 

There was visible confusion on the faces of those around us. Sasuke frowned.

 

“There’s gonna be some deaths in this one,” she continued in a sing-song voice. “If you guys don’t sign these, it’s gonna be on me!”

 

“This woman’s insane,” Sasuke said under his breath. Naruto grunted in agreement. 

 

“Now, I’m going to explain the second test, then you guys can sign these. Each team, after signing, will check in at that booth there.” One of the men sitting there gave us a little wave. The papers came over our way. I took three and handed them to the next team, slipping the other two towards the boys. It was a fairly standard disclaimer form, ‘Konoha is not at fault for any deaths that occur during the chūnin exams’, etc. Mostly a formality in the event someone important ended up dying we wouldn’t be at fault, even if war was declared. “The test itself is simple. Ultimate survival mode. Around Training Ground Forty-Four are forty-four locked gates. Inside is a forest, a river, and a tower in the center. From the gates to the tower is about ten kilometers.”

 

Well, that didn’t sound too bad, but I knew better. Oh, I knew better indeed. There was a reason we as Academy students were told to never go near the Forest of Death. Why Dad and Mother had been so angry and afraid the one time I ventured close to it.

 

“While in here, you will be asked to complete a simple task. A no-holds barred scroll battle.”

 

“Scroll battle?”

 

Anko pulled two sealed scrolls from her pockets. I allowed myself to be sidetracked for a brief moment in admiration for how deep her pockets were; even in the shinobi world, girl pockets were painfully small. All the more reason to track Anko down afterwards and ask her where she got her coats because damn.

 

… I’d gotten more distracted than I intended.

 

“Thirteen teams will get the Heaven scroll, and the other thirteen teams will get the Earth scroll. To pass this test, your team must make it to the tower with both scrolls. This test will last one hundred twenty hours - exactly five days.”

 

A few people squawked in protest, my sister and Chōji among them, if I heard right. Something told me that it wasn’t so much the time limit as much as the fact that none of us brought any supplies.

 

“As the days go on, your chances of succeeding grow smaller. The area will be crawling with enemies; you won’t get much sleep.” Not like I was going to anyway, I thought sourly. “Not only will some of you fail from losing your scroll, but some will die from the terrain itself.”

 

Anko was still smiling, either unaware or not caring of her dark words. “Disqualifications! First, those that don’t make it to the tower within the time limit with both scrolls. Second, those who lose a teammate to injury or death. You can’t quit in the middle. You’ll be in the Forest for five days. Oh, and one more thing: you absolutely cannot look inside the scroll until you make it to the tower.”

 

We glanced at each other. The moment those words left her mouth I knew that there were going to be less than thirteen teams who passed. The one surefire way to ensure someone would look in the scrolls was to tell them they couldn’t. Naruto scowled at the look Sasuke and I shared before turning our gaze to him.

 

“I’m not going to!” he hissed before speaking up. He gave us a dirty look. “What happens if we do?”

 

“That’s a surprise for anyone that does,” Anko answered sweetly. “A chūnin will be asked to handle classified information. This is to test your trustworthiness.”

 

Seemed legit enough. If we couldn’t be trusted to keep our noses out of probably blank scrolls, we definitely couldn’t be trusted to carry highly sensitive documents. Ninja operated on a need to know basis, and most of the time, we didn’t need to know.

 

“That’s it for the explanations,” Anko said. “Exchange your forms for your scroll, then pick a gate and get ready. Oh, and a final word of advice: don’t die.”

 

“Like we weren’t already planning on that,” I grumbled, turning my attention back to the form and reading it a bit more carefully. ‘ By signing this, I accept the risk of evisceration, decapitation, disembowelment, and other life/career ending injuries.’ Yikes, what is in that forest?

 

Naruto barely glanced over the form before scribbling his name at the bottom. Even Sasuke didn’t take long to read it. Both were itching to get in there. I wondered if they would be as eager if they knew what I knew.

 

Any hint of a good mood vanished like morning dew in the sunlight. 

 

“It’s time to exchange scrolls,” one of the chūnin announced from behind the curtain. 

 

The Sand Siblings went first, the other two trailing behind Gaara. I didn’t even bother trying to spy out who got what; there was absolutely no way I would be taking my boys anywhere near them.

 

We lingered towards the back of the group. Or rather, I lingered; Sasuke sensed there was a reason I was hanging back, and we both restrained Naruto. At long last, we made our way behind the curtain and received both a scroll and a gate number. 

 

Heaven, Gate Twelve. 

 

“Everyone, follow an instructor and go to your gates!” Anko bellowed. “We will start in thirty minutes!”

 

Half an hour. It passed so slowly, and yet it seemed to vanish in the blink of an eye.

 

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Sasuke muttered in my ear as Naruto bounced on his feet. “You’re white as a sheet.”

 

“I’m fine,” I said, giving him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. It didn’t work; he just looked more concerned. “Honest.”

 

We’re going to die. Orochimaru is going to come for us and we’re going to die.

 

“The second test of the chūnin exams begins now!” Anko shouted, voice carrying much further than voices usually did. The proctor opened the gates, and the boys went through. I hesitated at the border, balanced between worlds. Balanced on a knife’s edge. I could almost feel the blade digging into my feet. There’s no going back now. 

 

I stepped forward into the forest, and the proctor shut the gate behind us. I took a deep breath, and began to jog forward to where the boys were waiting for me.

 

It only took another half hour before a scream echoed through the forest. I flinched at the noise. It’s starting. Was it someone foolish enough to get in the way of Gaara? The Grass lady? Orochimaru?

 

We kept walking. It seemed like I jumped at every sound, every tiny ambient noise.

 

“I gotta take a leak,” Naruto finally said, fiddling with his pants. I spun around, feeling my face heat up.

 

“Naruto, please do that behind a bush,” I complained. “I don’t want to see it. And be careful, the chakra here is funky and messing with my senses.”

 

There was just… so much natural chakra, everything else seemed drowned out. I could barely sense Sasuke and Naruto, just a few meters away. 

 

I didn’t like it. 

 

I didn’t trust it.

 

“Man, so much came out!” Naruto sighed, emerging from the bushes. I frowned and tilted my head. Something wasn’t quite right… something was wrong with his chakra… “I feel great now!”

 

That wasn’t Naruto.

 

Sasuke beat me to the punch - literally; he hit not-Naruto in the face hard enough to send him flying. I had a kunai in each hand before he landed.

 

“Where’s the real Naruto?” Sasuke demanded. 

 

“What are you talking about?! What was that for?!”

 

He yelped as one of my kunai landed between his legs. I pulled a new one out and glared down at him. “You’d better start talking if you want to get out of here unharmed,” I warned. “Believe me, it won’t go well if you don’t.”

 

“Come on, guys, it’s me,” not-Naruto tried to say, pasting a smile on his face that the real Naruto would never try.

 

“Oh, so sorry,” I said sarcastically, brandishing my blades. “I didn’t realize you magically became left handed after taking a piss.”

 

“And you’re missing the cut on your cheek,” Sasuke added. “You’re a fake loser who’s even worse than Naruto at transforming.”

 

“At least Naruto can keep his dominant hand straight. Better get talking, faker.” 

 

If this punk had laid one hand on Naruto, touched one blond hair on his head, I would thoroughly tear his mind to shreds and enjoy every moment of it. 

 

The henge melted away, revealing an Ame shinobi. “Unlucky, but no matter! Which one of you has the scroll?” I skittered back a few steps; I wasn’t as good in close quarters combat as Sasuke was. “Fine! I’ll take it by force!”

 

Both of us began making hand signs. I finished first, slamming my hands into the ground and making an earth wall. Sasuke jumped above it and shot balls of flame from his mouth. They slammed into the ground, the Ame nin barely dodging them. 

 

Sasuke jumped forward at him, kunai clashing as they hit and pulled away. The other genin snarled and bolted. Sasuke was after him in the blink of an eye, launching himself onto a tree branch. I swore under my breath before following him, glancing around to make sure it was just the one.

 

As far as I could tell, there was just the one, but I didn’t know where Naruto was either. 

 

“Sasuke!” I heard Naruto yell and instantly felt a measure of relief. He was ok. He was ok.

 

“Tag!” Sasuke called, bouncing off the tree branch back towards me. A second later the branch exploded. Huh. Looked like my penchant for explosions served him well.

 

The Ame guy flickered behind Sasuke, a kunai dangerously close to his ribs. Oh hell no. I launched a pair of kunai towards him. Naruto evidently had the same idea, and with three kunai closing in on him, the genin had no choice but to jump upwards. Sasuke was on him in the next moment, kicking him into a tree and following up with a kunai.

 

He fled pretty quickly after that, leaving a trail of blood behind him.

 

“Are you guys ok?” I asked, looking both of them over, but especially Naruto. He seemed a bit ruffled, but mostly disappointed that the other guy got away.

 

“I’m fine, it’ll take more than one measly genin to take me down!”

 

I ran a hand over my face and gave a shaky breath. That… could have been a lot worse. It could have been better but it also could have been so much worse. 

 

We ended up sitting down underneath a semi-sheltered log. I couldn’t sense anyone near us, but that didn’t mean anything in this environment. My fingers rested uneasily on the hilt of a kunai. 

 

“If we get separated again,” Sasuke said, “even if it looks like one of us, don’t trust them. The next person won’t be so bad at disguise.”

 

“Agreed,” I said, glancing around. Too much ambient chakra. Useless. Absolutely useless. “Any ideas?”

 

“Yeah, a password. If they get it wrong, assume they’re the enemy no matter what.” He very carefully signed to me. Enemy. Water.

 

Shit. I relied so much on my chakra sense that when I couldn’t use it I was crippled. I hadn’t even noticed.

 

“‘What flower did I send Naruto to get on the day of our test?’” I suggested. I rested a hand on their knees and lightly touched their minds with a thread of chakra, showing them my memory of the yellow poppy. The way the sunlight fell on the petals. The feeling of the stem below my fingers. “A red tulip, remember?”

 

Sasuke’s eyes lit up as he realized what I was doing. It took Naruto a few more seconds to realize. I gently pat their knees. Tense energy coursed through my chest. Sasuke stood up and said something, but I didn’t hear his words.

 

Because I felt it.

 

Killing intent, thick in the air, choking me. I froze in place. My ears popped as the most powerful wind jutsu I’d ever seen slammed through the forest, sending us all flying. I clipped the side of a tree, pain flaring in my side and knocking my breath out of my chest.

 

My throat felt tight. No, no, no, no. Dust floated in the air as wood settled. I shoved a heavy branch off my leg, limping a little towards where I could feel Sasuke’s half panicked chakra. Everything around me was in perfect clarity. Ping. He was four meters away on my two, lying under a bush. Ping. Naruto, some thirty meters away on my five. And…

 

Ping.

 

The Kusa woman. I bolted forward, kunai in hand. 

 

“Wait!” Sasuke said, holding his hand out. “Password.”

 

“Yellow poppy,” I said tersely. “Naruto’s somewhere that way; he’s safe for now, but we need to leave. She’s -” coming , I almost said, before the killing intent spiked. It was low enough that I doubted Sasuke felt it aside from a sense of uneasiness, but I could feel the sharpness. Die die die die die, we’re going to die.

 

She came forward, wearing Naruto’s face. “Password,” Sasuke demanded even as I stood still as a statue, hardly daring to breathe. 

 

“Red tulips,” she said smoothly. Sasuke threw a kunai at her. She just turned her head, looking at us with amusement.

 

“So this time it’s someone good enough to dodge my attacks,” he said in a low voice. I tried to tell him that we couldn’t beat her, we needed to run -

 

There would be no escape, all we could do was run and hope she would get bored because if she caught up to us we would die die die die -

 

“If you really were Naruto, you’d know that it wasn’t a tulip Inoko asked for,” Sasuke scoffed. His free hand was trembling just the tiniest bit. The henge fell, revealing the woman. She slowly pulled her hat off.

 

“Sasuke,” I managed.

 

“It was a yellow poppy,” he went on. “We knew you were there listening, which is why Inoko projected the real password into our minds.”

 

“Sa-” I tried again, choking on the rest of his name when she turned her dark eyes towards me.

 

“I see,” she remarked softly. “Neither tired nor ill prepared, are we? This will be more fun than I thought.”

 

Slowly, she pulled a scroll from her sleeve. “You two will be wanting this scroll, won’t you? This simple little Earth scroll to go with your Heaven scroll.”

 

How does she know that? How did she figure that out? We never said what kind of scroll it was; she couldn’t have overheard it.

 

Then she wrapped her long tongue around it and shoved it down her throat. Which now meant that if we wanted her scroll, we’d have to disembowel her, and somehow I got the sense that we might as well just go for a different target. 

 

“Now, let us begin,” she whispered. “The battle for each other’s scrolls… with our lives on the line.”

 

The cold, emotionless look was positively snake li-

 

Oh.

 

Oh no.

 

The final pieces clicked into place and I knew, without the shadow of a shred of doubt, that we were only alive because he wanted us to be.

 

Killing intent slammed into the air, so thick and potent I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. 

 

We’d fallen straight into Orochimaru’s trap.

 

Beside me, Sasuke threw up. I remained petrified, a vague burning in my lungs reminding the tiny part of my brain that wasn’t hysterical that I wasn’t breathing. 

 

I needed to run. Get away from him. Run far, far away.

 

I managed to glance at Sasuke. He’d fallen back, panting and shaking. Protect . I had to protect Sasuke, because he was what he wanted. I failed in Wave, I had to protect, I swore an oath before the Three, protect protect pro-

 

Orochimaru casually pulled a pair of kunai from his holster, practically flicking them at us. He was playing with us, like a killer whale plays with a seal before ripping it to shreds. 

 

Our impending death spurred us both into action. Moving faster than I ever thought I could, I bolted for the side. I felt Sasuke’s hand grab mine and yank me off course, pulling me somewhere else. 

 

We weren’t far enough away, but I could breathe again. I sucked in heavy gasps as Sasuke shook like a leaf next to me. 

 

“We’re going to die,” I whispered, staring blankly into the forest. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Sasuke, this is all my fault.”

 

“Shut up ,” he hissed, glancing behind a tree trunk. Now that my body was cooperating, I began shaking as well, hard enough that I doubted I could reach into my kunai pouch, let alone hold one. 

 

Blood stained his leg. Right, he stabbed himself, didn’t he? I swallowed. It worked, didn’t it?

 

“Stab me,” I managed to get out. Sasuke gave me a bewildered look. “I’m g-going to fall apart at this r-rate, so please -”

 

I choked back a cry of pain as he grabbed my wrist and sliced my hand open. Tears filled my eyes, but I could focus . Red pooled in the palm of my hand. “Thanks,” I managed through gritted teeth, pressing my hand tightly into my side. The blood was warm against my skin. I forced myself to focus on the warmth, on the pain. I needed to ground myself. Protect protect save yourself protect protect protect him

 

“We need to run,” Sasuke whispered hoarsely. “We can’t-”

 

“We can’t,” I agreed. The killing intent in the air was giving me a headache, hurting me, making it nearly impossible to breathe, to think. Find Naruto, take them both, and run, run, run far, far away.

 

Running is pointless , my gut whispered back to me. He’ll always find you, always catch up. My throat was dry as a desert. 

 

There was a soft rasp of scales on wood, just above us. I hardly dared to look up. “S-Sasuke-”

 

He shoved me aside, both of us landing on a pair of nearby branches. I bit back a yelp as my ankle twisted underneath me. Ignore the pain ignore it Sasuke where’s Sasuke Naruto Orochimaru -

 

The snake lunged for Sasuke. I wasn’t close enough to do anything, couldn’t do anything -

 

Or. I could.

 

I shoved off the branch and launched myself at the snake. The back of its head was an easy target, when you grow up landing on slender branches. Base of the skull , I thought, pulling out a kunai. Sever the brain stem, destroy the cerebellum. Actually doing something productive, something that wasn’t cowering in fear, was… grounding. I could focus a little bit more, think a bit more.

 

I wasn’t quite sure what killed the snake first; my kunai or the brace of kunai Sasuke threw in a (well aimed) panic. I was pretty sure he was chakra enhancing his throw, considering one of the blades went straight through the roof of the mouth and cut my arm pretty deeply. I swore.

 

The snake fell dead at my feet. Dead. And we were alone. Where’s Orochimaru?

 

Chakra welled up in the corpse and I faintly realized I was way too close for comfort.

 

“What excellent teamwork,” Orochimaru purred as he rose from the corpse, viscera dripping from his form. He was barely two meters away from me and I was standing there, frozen, like an idiot. 

 

And then he turned to face me.

 

This close, staring into those dispassionate golden eyes…

 

Suddenly, I found myself very much understanding what Quint meant by looking into the eyes of a shark. I was nothing. He was an apex predator in this tiny little world within the forest, and I was nothing but a pesky mosquito to be swatted at.

 

“You’re in the way,” Orochimaru said in a pleasant voice. I didn’t mean that quite so liter-

 

The next thing I knew, there was a blinding pain in my right side and then my back. My vision went dark for what felt like a blessed eternity. I almost thought I heard Sasuke scream my name, but that... would be…


Sunlight trickles through the trees, dappling my skin. Nearby, Ino dozes on Chōji, Shikamaru draped over both of their laps. Shikaku gently bounces me on his knee as I puzzle out a set of kanji.

 

“Fu… kyō… wa-on...” I slowly sound out. “Discord?” I guess, glancing up.

 

In the clearing in front of us, Dad bursts out laughing, Chōza’s rich bass joining in. “Do it again, I didn’t quite see that,” Dad demands, jumping to his feet and dusting himself off. 

 

“Dissonance,” Shikaku corrects. Chōza throws Dad again, creating a cloud of dust where he hits the ground. “Though discord is an alternate reading.”

 

I hum in response and move onto the next set. 

 

A butterfly lands on the tip of Ino’s nose. Her face scrunches up in her sleep, and it flutters off. One of the Nara deer pokes its head around a tree and is decidedly unimpressed before it too wanders off into the forest. 

 

“Oh, this one’s easy; this is comradeship,” I murmur.

 

Chōji snores.

 

“‘Teamwork begins by building trust’,” I read carefully, following along with a finger. “‘The only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability’.” With a sigh, I set the book down and rest my head against Shikaku’s chest. “I’m not going to be in an Ino-Shika-Cho, am I?”

 

He hums, the vibrations clear so close to my ear. “Probably not, no.” I knew this, had known this since I was first made aware of the fact that my sister was being trained for an ultra specialty team and I wasn’t.

 

It still stung.

 

“You’ll be placed in a team that works best for you,” he says pointedly, lightly flicking my ear. “I don’t think you’d do particularly well in a traditional formation. I have no doubt you’d make it work, but you would not thrive.”

 

“Where would you place me, Shikaku-ji?”

 

Shikaku is silent, and we both watch Dad get thrown into a tree. Chōza needs to take a knee, he’s laughing so hard, and Dad can’t get to his feet for the same reason.

 

“Inuzuka Kiba and Haruno Sakura,” he finally replies. “You and the Inuzuka get along well and Haruno would do well to hold you both back when needed. Girl’s got a good head on her shoulders.”

 

“Ibiki could be our sensei,” I say in a darkly amused tone. Shikaku’s shoulders begin to shake, just a little.

 

“I don’t know what he could do to deserve that cruel, cruel fate.” I snort and slap my book shut. In front of us, Chōza taps out from the arm bar Dad very firmly has him in. Shikaku sighs.

 

“Regardless of who they are, your teammates will be some of the most important people in your life,” Shikaku says softly. Chōza and Dad make the Seal of Reconciliation, right before he sweeps Dad’s feet out from underneath him with a smooth kick. “Take care of them, Inoko.”


Vision slowly returned. My ears were ringing, head spinning. Everything ached. 

 

And then I felt that chakra and realized exactly why I had woken up. 

 

The nightmare scenario . The Kyuubi’s chakra rose, thick in the air, thicker than the natural chakra and filling my lungs with poison. My throat constricted painfully. 

 

Vision cleared. There was… a really big snake. And I mean a really big snake, what the frick. On the snake was Orochimaru, who seemed more surprised than anything else. What on earth had my boys done to sur- right, Kyuubi. Which should have remained tightly sealed, but here it was, leaking out and making me glad I had an empty bladder.

 

And where there was the Kyuubi there was Naruto, protecting Sasuke from the giant snake. There was no visually visible chakra cloak but it was… tactilely visible. In a sense. Ha. I hated the feel of it, hated how it dripped across my senses, worse than Orochimaru.

 

Sasuke was in front of all three of them, frozen. What did I miss? In what universe-

 

Orochimaru reached down with his creepily prehensile tongue, picked Naruto up, and dangled the snarling and spitting boy in front of him, looking halfway interested. From here, I could see the seal glowing underneath where his shirt had ridden up. He said something before slamming his hand into Naruto’s stomach and his chakra -

 

stopped

 

It was only for a moment, barely a hiccup, but I still screamed out his name in horror. “ Naruto!

 

As casually as I would throw away an empty pudding cup, he tossed Naruto in my direction. If I was in a less hysterical mindframe, I might have thought something sarcastic, like, wow, how considerate of him

 

Instead, I focused on catching Naruto and trying to make my bleeding hand stop shaking enough to check his pulse and breathing.

 

He was ok. He was ok. Naruto was alright. Unconscious, but alive and alright. Safe in my arms.

 

Sasuke locked eyes with me. There was something I didn’t really recognize or understand in his gaze; the only emotions that appeared on his face before were emo and anger. 

 

He looked equal parts scared and determined.

 

His eyes bled red.

 

“Oh my,” Orochimaru said mildly. 

 

Sasuke had the sense to keep his distance when attacking, at least. All of Orochimaru’s attention was on him, so I felt safe (enough) to focus more on Naruto. He was breathing fine, pulse was fine, his chakra was (twisted, disrupted, something wasn’t right) also fine. He was just unconscious. 

 

There was a sharp rise in temperature as Sasuke used some kind of fire jutsu on him. And set Orochimaru’s face on fire. He was entirely nonplussed as his face just… burned. 

 

“Just as I thought…” Orochimaru said in a soft voice. He looked up at Sasuke, skin peeling off like a sunburn. “I want you.”

 

No.

 

“I had fun testing your abilities,” he continued. “You really are brothers. I can sense power in you that rivals Itachi’s.”

 

Sasuke tensed. Don’t rise to the bait, Sasuke, please don’t rise to it. “Who the hell are you?!” he demanded. His voice cracked a little bit.

 

“My name is Orochimaru. If you want to see me again, then survive and pass this exam.” He made a hand sign I wasn’t familiar with. No. No. No. 

 

“Your teammates will be some of the most important people in your life.”

 

Orochimaru’s head shot forward, neck stretching impossibly long -

 

“To protect my teammates… this I swear by the Three.”

 

- zoning in on Sasuke, who was too frozen to move.

 

“Take care of them, Inoko.

 

It wasn’t a difficult choice.

 

My chakra surged -

 

Orochimaru’s head grew closer, fangs bared -

 

Didn’t bother with a hand sign, I knew this well enough - 

 

Protect protect protect - 

 

It took a moment for the pain to register. But when it did, gods. It hurt. It hurt so bad. It felt like fire was being poured from those two little marks - no, not fire, lava. Tears welled up in my eyes. I managed to turn my head just enough to look at Sasuke. He was collapsed next to Naruto, horror in his dark eyes. 

 

Black spots began to float in my vision, the pressure on my neck lessening but the pain increasing, pulsing, burning.

 

I was vaguely aware of Orochimaru saying something - “My, my, how disappointing, Sasuke.” - but it just sounded garbled to me. Lava spilled down my neck and into my limbs, consuming any sensation but the pain . Someone was sobbing in the background. The forest around me was spinning, and I was so tired, in so much agony

 

Until finally, sweet oblivion consumed me.

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Sasuke remained in shocked, frozen silence for nearly an hour, he thought. He didn’t know for how much of that he sat there, pinned under Naruto. Inoko lay crumpled on the branch, whimpering and quietly sobbing as she clutched her shoulder. Naruto was silent. The most-definitely-not-a-genin had left - we faced off one of the Sannin and somehow lived, what the fu - and now he was alone in the Forest of Death with two unconscious teammates. Is he going to come back? Why did you take the shot for me, Inoko, why why why ?

 

His hands were shaking. Ever since that man took everything from him, he’d known what he needed to do. Sasuke had always known what to do, when to do it. 

 

He didn’t know what to do now. He didn’t know what Orochimaru had done to Naruto and Inoko. 

 

Sasuke rubbed at his face and took a deep breath. He could do this. He had to do this.

 

Every Academy student was taught basic first aid. He’d gotten one of the highest scores in the class, because of course he did, but recalling the information now was difficult. He didn’t think he’d need it, because it wasn’t like he was ever going to be stupid enough to get injured, and it wasn’t like he’d ever be saddled with idiots dumb enough to get injured by one of the damned Sannin.

 

Naruto’s pulse was slow and steady, he was breathing alright. Some of the tension from Sasuke’s shoulders drained a little. He was just unconscious. 

 

“Moron,” he tried, shaking his shoulder. “Hey, idiot, wake up.”

 

Naruto’s head lolled to the side. No reaction. 

 

Sasuke swallowed thickly. Across the way, Inoko’s choked sobs began to die away. She shuddered one final time before going limp altogether. Only the rise of her chest told him she was still alive.

 

The forest fell silent around them.


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Alright , he thought. I can do this.

 

How was he going to do this? It’s not like I can tie them up and drag them on the ground… can I?

 

He couldn’t let himself fall apart, not now. Not like he had when that man… 

 

First things first. 

 

Sasuke pulled Naruto onto his back. He might have been the shortest of the three of them, but judging by how heavy he was, he definitely had some muscle on him. Still a dobe though, he thought without any real venom. 

 

Getting Naruto onto his back was one thing. Keeping him there was another. His first thought was to use ninja wire, but he realized as he pulled it out of his pouch that it would likely cut through his wrists if he tried it. It wasn’t meant to bear weight like that. 

 

He let Naruto slide back down onto the ground, absently making sure he didn’t hit his head. His gaze fell to his thigh, which was still bleeding sluggishly. Bandages , he thought. Didn’t Inoko keep a roll or two in her kunai pouch?

 

Sasuke crawled over to her and kept a sharp ear out for anything that might be approaching. She was pale and sweating, limp as a rag doll. 

 

“Sorry,” he whispered as he reached into her pouch, even though she probably couldn’t hear him. 

 

Inoko did indeed have a roll of bandages, alongside a bunch of unmarked vials filled with… something. A lot of somethings, going by the variety of colors and consistency within them. He briefly debated seeing if any of them were antidotes or something else along those lines, but decided against it. The Yamanaka were known for their poisons, among other things, and he wasn’t willing to risk Inoko and Naruto’s lives with his very rudimentary knowledge of plants and poisons. 

 

He put the vials back into her pouch. Best not mess with them until Inoko was awake and could tell him what to use. 

 

Once he had bandaged the worst of everyone’s wounds and Naruto was secured onto his back, he turned his attention back to Inoko. He could do this. He had to do this. 

 

Sasuke ended up wrapping his arms around her and dragging her away from the clearing. He really didn’t want to stay in that place any longer than he had to. He refused to let himself stop, to take a break or rest. He was an Uchiha. He would persevere. 

 

When he finally found a suitable place to stop, it was nearly midnight. Inoko was burning up, whimpering occasionally and groaning words that didn’t always make sense. Neither of them had woken up.

 

He didn’t know what to do. Naruto, by all appearances, was just sleeping, but he wouldn’t wake up. Inoko was drenched with sweat already. 

 

“Sasuke… no… ” she whispered, face tightening before more nonsense slipped from her mouth. “Cayden…”

 

What do I do? he thought, chewing his lower lip. He forced himself to think back, think of what his mother had done when he or… that man had been sick. Soup, lots of blankets, sometimes a cold wet cloth on the forehead.

 

Well. He didn’t have the first two by any means, but Sasuke could manage the third. He rolled a damp rag across Inoko’s forehead, hoping it wouldn’t fall off.

 

After a moment’s thought and hesitation, he placed a second one on Naruto’s forehead as well. He wasn’t sure what else he could do for his idiot teammate. 

 

The night passed slowly. He drifted between checking on them more frequently than he probably should and setting up perimeter traps. When those were done, he ate a ration bar - the Akimichi kind; Inoko started making a point of making sure they each had some after Wave - and then rechecked his traps. Checked on Naruto and Inoko again. Changed the cloths. Checked the traps again and set a few more. 

 

Sometimes he thought he might have dozed off a few times, but the tiniest noise jerked him back to awareness. The forest was full of tiny noises.


Download complete. 

 

Launching cayden.exe

 

Running…

 

Virus detected. Uninstall?

 

Unable to uninstall. Malware downloading…

 

Error. Error. Error. E𝜋or. Error. 



E̴̯̭͈̦͈̓̌̌̀́͌̊̏̊̕͝ͅr̷̛̩̙͑̅̒̽͑ͅr̷̡̠̬͔̤͔͆̊̓͋̔͊̓͛͋̕̚o̵͕͎͗̈͑r̴̢̛̪̞̎̆͂̌̄͠͠.̷̛͉̠̭̪̰̲̖̻̺̰̱͎̣̎͂̏͛̀̈́̑́̈́̌̑̕͜͝




Ȩ̵̛̫͈̤̘̤̰͍͙̙̤̮́͗͆͗̋̍͂̒̽̔̿̂͋̍̃͋͘ŗ̷̨͚̳̪̱̳̹̯̪̬̞͉̤̬̟̦̣̹͚̺̑͐͗̇̉̽͑̒̇͑̔̈́̉͊͋̂́̅̍̾̈̔̓̈́̕͘̚ͅr̶͉̠̭͒̒̓̈̇̇̆̀̇̋̽̑̒̍͠͝͝͠ͅǫ̵̡̧͍͉̜̣̞̥͚̗̼̯̲̫̜͇̜͚̥͇͍̟͚͖̲̻̱̦̯̻̘̪̗͙͆̍̿̃̿̓̈́̓̚͜͜͝ͅͅr̷̢̨̛̛̛̯̺͙̲̥̖̼̰̼̠̗̠̻̠͍͎͕̮̻̟̰̣̖͕̺̹̭̱̮̲̱̜͎̩̳͖̹̦͐͋͑͋͛͊̓̾̓̈́͊͛̃̾̎̔̇̈́̓̿̈͂̈̎͛̓̈́̚͘







Dawn broke.

 

Sasuke was tired. Tired and tense and twitchy in a way he hadn’t been in years. 

 

He refused to even consider backing out. Sannin interference aside, this was a test. If he couldn’t get through this, how could he kill him ? Besides, didn’t the proctor say something about not being able to quit in the middle? The sooner he completed this task, the sooner they could figure out what Orochimaru had done to Inoko and Naruto.

 

There was a rustle behind him. When he spun around, kunai already nestled in his palm, three genin sat across the clearing. The Sound team from the first exam, he thought, scowling. 

 

“Up all night standing guard?” one of them asked in a mocking tone. “How pointless.”

“Let’s fight, Uchiha Sasuke,” another one said, tilting his head with wide eyes. Sasuke knew he was probably just trying to be intimidating, but all he could think was that he looked like Kakashi-sensei imitating Inoko. He almost laughed. “The three of us and you.”

 

“Did Orochimaru send you?” Sasuke demanded. “What does he want?! What did he do to my teammate?!”

 

The three Sound genin visibly flinched at Orochimaru’s name, glancing at each other uneasily. The one wearing the heavy coat recovered first, though still looked troubled. 

 

“What’s Orochimaru up to?” he wondered out loud. Well, that answered that question. “No matter. Let’s begin, Sasuke-kun.”

 

Sasuke slowly rose to his feet. He’d activated his Sharingan in the fight against Orochimaru, but he could feel how low he was on chakra. Not to mention he was only half sure how to even use it properly. He didn’t want to try unless he absolutely had to. 

 

“Who cares?” the mocking one said, tossing a rock in his hand. “We’ll kill you, but not before we kill your little teammates back there too.”

 

The Sharingan flared on without Sasuke’s permission, burning their stupid faces into his memory. A burst of rage filled his chest at the same moment, rage like he hadn’t felt since...

 

Ok. He might have developed feelings about his teammates, despite everything. Disgusting. 

 

The annoying one jumped from the rock and lunged at Sasuke. So this is what the Sharingan is like , he thought grimly, every one of his moves being telegraphed from a mile away. He saw the hole in his hand, had a moment to think, Well that can’t be good , before the air rippled and a blast of sound knocked him back.

 

He rolled only twice before landing on his feet, eyes narrowing. His stomach rolled, but he didn’t throw up. Almost. 

 

“Like it?” the girl smirked. “Zaku can use air pressure and sound with enough force to crush boulders, or so he claims.”

 

“Shut up, Kin,” Zaku snarled. “I can do all that and more!”

 

“Then I’ll just be faster,” Sasuke said grimly, launching himself forward. The faster he ended this fight, the faster they could get out of the forest. The faster they could get someone, maybe the Hokage, to figure out what Orochimaru had done to them. 

 

Sasuke didn’t care if he had to drag them all the way to the tower and yell until they were taken care of. He’d scream himself hoarse if he had to. 

 

Dammit. Stupid feelings.  

 

He settled back down into the Uchiha style taijutsu stance. He felt it as his Sharingan flickered and cursed under his breath. His chakra was running far lower than he would have liked. I should still have enough for a solid katon , he thought. But I need to be careful.

 

The mummy looking one pulled a scroll from a hidden pocket and tossed it to Zaku. Another heaven scroll. “My turn,” he commented in a bright voice. 

 

Sasuke jumped to the side, throwing a brace of kunai at him. If he lured them away, maybe he could -

 

A senbon flew through the air, slicing his cheek. He barely managed to dodge the next one. 

 

“Come on, Dosu, I can’t let you have all the fun,” Kin complained with a mocking smile. This was a game to them. This was just a freaking game to them. Give me your strength, Amaterasu , he prayed silently. 

 

“Hey, don’t leave me out of this!” Zaku shouted. Sasuke wiped the blood from his face, eyes narrowing. 

 

“Now, now,” Dosu said, gently waving his teammates back. “It wouldn’t be fair if we all ganged up on him, now would it?”

 

Sasuke grit his teeth. He threw himself forward, launching a rapid succession of punches. The plan was simple: take down Dosu, who seemed to be the leader of the trio, then Zaku, then Kin. Easy. He was Uchiha Sasuke. He wouldn’t lose.

 

Dosu ducked under the first strike, but couldn’t keep up with the barrage. Sasuke knocked him back, hard and fast. End it fast, make them leave -

 

The other genin swung his arm, missing Sasuke’s face by mere centimeters. He stumbled backwards, the clearing spinning around in ways it wasn’t supposed to. His stomach twisted painfully in the handful of seconds before he threw up. 

 

“You can’t block my attacks, not with this device on my arm,” Dosu explained softly. “Sound is an impressive weapon, is it not?”

 

Sasuke coughed and wiped his mouth. He would win this, even if they were using some weird techniques. 

 

I just have to be faster than them. I know how this works; I saw them use it on that Kabuto person during the first exam. Was the first exam really only yesterday?

 

He threw out a low kick, hoping to sweep Dosu’s legs out from under him. A blast of air from Zaku shoved his teammate in the opposite direction, more or less keeping him on his feet. Sasuke bit back a curse, some not quite hysterical, not quite panicked part of his mind telling him his mother would wash his mouth out if she heard him swear. 

 

Kin prowled around the clearing, edging closer and closer to -

 

Sasuke spun around, hands flashing, and threw a fireball at her. She yelped and jumped backwards, an ugly scowl on her face as she used a kunai to cut off the burning ends of her hair.

 

“Oh, you’re going to pay for that,” she growled. “Let’s see if you can protect everyone, shall we?”

 

Sasuke nearly saw red. His team had both protected him while he had been helpless, useless . They saw him as theirs , and that made them mine, mine, mine. 

 

He would not let them get hurt. Not again.

 

The world fell out of focus for a brief moment as his Sharingan flickered one last time before deactivating. 

 

This isn’t good. Maybe if it were just one on one, I could beat them as I am now, but not all three of them at once.

 

He spared a glance behind him. I can’t lose this fight. I won’t lose this fight.


01111001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01100010 01100101 01101100 01101111 01101110 01100111 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01101101 01100101 00100000 01101110 01101111 01110111 00101110 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01110011 01101111 01110101 01101100 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01101101 01101001 01101110 01100101 00101110 00100000 01100011 01101111 01101101 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01101101 01100101 00101110 00100000 01101001 00100000 01110111 01101001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01101101 01100001 01101011 01100101 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01110011 01110100 01110010 01101111 01101110 01100111 00101110

 

01001001 00100000 01101011 01101110 01101111 01110111 00101110


Sasuke’s breath rasped in his lungs. He was pretty sure his ears were bleeding from the sound blasts from Dosu’s gauntlet. The clearing was spinning in nauseating circles, but he’d already emptied his stomach of everything.

 

He staggered to his feet again and wordlessly snarled at them.

 

Senbon from Kin. Duck, roll, throw shuriken to deflect. Concussive blast from Dosu, building up with a whine he could only barely hear. More senbon, herding him towards Zaku.

 

He almost stumbled over the handsigns for the grand fireball, the ensuing blaze much smaller than it should have been. 

 

“My, my, this is the might of the famous Uchiha?” Dosu asked. Sasuke dodged Zaku’s air blast. It was more of an inelegant fall than anything else. 

 

Punch, dodge, roll with the blow. Deflect senbon. Jump away from air blast. 

 

His muscles burned. Exhaustion pulled at his body, begging him to rest, to sleep. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop, not if he wanted to protect them. He wouldn’t let anyone take his precious people from him ever again.

 

A senbon embedded itself in his leg, and he cried out. Impact from Dosu. He hit the ground hard. He tried to push himself back up. 

 

“Stay down, Uchiha,” Kin grinned, pressing her shoe into his head. Mud squished into his ear. “I’d hate for something to happen to your pretty face.”

 

He was so tired. He couldn’t move a muscle. 

 

“Pathetic,” Zaku sneered. “You weren’t much of a challenge after all.”

 

Are we going to die here? he wondered dully. Am I going to die like this? I haven’t avenged my clan...

 

Despair filled his chest. I’m sorry.

 

He closed his eyes and thought of Training Ground Three.


cursemarkofheaven.exe successfully installed

 

Allow program to make changes to system?

 

>YES      <

>NO

 

>YES      <

 

System launching in 3…

 

2…

 

1.


Sasuke’s eyes snapped open.

 

“The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout,” wavered out from the roots. Time seemed to stop. The Sound team gave each other uneasy looks, glancing at the tree. “Down came the rain and washed the spider out.” A hand appeared, clutching at one of the roots. Sasuke’s skin began to crawl at the feeling of the abrasive, sickening chakra leaking out. “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.” Black markings writhed and twisted on the solitary hand. The root began to splinter from the pressure. “And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.” 

 

Inoko’s face rose up, the same black markings curling their way across her skin. A wide grin was plastered on, fake and maniacal. 

 

“What’s that, some weird kind of kekkei genkai?” Zaku scoffed. “No problem.”

 

“It’s not like the famous Sharingan proved much of a challenge,” Kin said mockingly, pushing Sasuke’s head further into the ground. He snarled weakly back at her. 

 

Inoko’s gaze sharpened, even as her grin grew a bit wider and the black markings on her skin writhed and spread with a new intensity. Her eyes were dangerous. 

 

“You have something of mine,” she said in a soft voice. “Tailypo, tailypo, you have my tailypo.”

 

There was a beat of silence before Zaku began to say, “What the f-”

 

“Tailypo, tailypo, I want my tailypo ,” Inoko sang again. She hadn’t blinked since emerging from the tree roots. 

 

Then she burst forward with impossible speed. Dosu lifted his gauntlet to block her raised leg, blasted sound at her, but she brought it down with enough force to crack the metal. Blood began to trickle out of her right ear. Inoko wasn’t phased an iota. She disdainfully looked down at the device. 

 

“Ooh, sound waves! Fun, fun. But tell me, little fly, caught in my web, what will you do when I tear off your wings?”

 

Dosu looked rather perturbed at the fact that his weapon hadn’t bothered her. Her eyes glinted with unfriendly fire before she savagely kicked him across the clearing.

 

Inoko was doing more against them than he did. Than he could . Pathetic. Weak. Useless. Here he was on the ground, unable to move, and there was Inoko, the girl who slept through most of her classes, doodled through the rest of them, and weaker than him. He was supposed to protect her, not the other way around. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

 

Kin shifted and Inoko’s eyes snapped over to her.

“Don’t come closer,” she warned, grabbing Sasuke by the collar and dragging him upward. He was too drained to even fight back. Still too weak, still far too weak. “Not unless you want your pretty boy to be-”

 

Sasuke had only seen Inoko’s face twist like that once before, back in Wave when he was groggily waking up from whatever Haku had done to him. Pure, unadulterated rage and hatred, twisting her face into something nearly unrecognizable. It was like someone had flipped a switch.

 

The black marks shivered in the split second before she flew forward, violently kicking Kin in the chest. He thought he heard a crack, but he couldn’t be sure. 

 

Inoko didn’t stop after kicking Kin; she barely had her feet on the ground before launching herself at Zaku. She pounced on his back like a tiger after its prey, grabbing his arms by his wrists and yanking up. 

 

“You hurt my tailypo,” she whispered, twisting his arm in such a way that his ear was right next to her mouth. “You hurt my precious teammate and I will never forgive you.”

 

“I don’t want your ‘forgiveness’, you crazy bitch!” Zaku spat. A sharp crack echoed across the clearing, followed almost instantly by his scream of pain. 

 

“Who said the offer was even on the table?” Inoko asked, grinning wildly. She looked up at Dosu and Kin. “Surrender, and I might just let you live.”

 

Dosu looked thoughtful. “And if we don’t?”

 

Another snapping sound, wet and sickening. Zaku fell to the ground, neck twisted at an impossible angle. 

 

“Your choice,” Inoko said sweetly. 

 

The remaining members of the Sound team were tense. Kin was wheezing painfully even as she glared murderously at Inoko. 

 

“Sasuke-kun,” a familiar voice whispered tersely in his ear. A solid arm reached under his and pulled him to his feet, and all he could think about was that Naruto was still defenseless under the tree.

 

Somehow he didn’t think Inoko would have much of an issue in this fight. 

 

He wasn’t sure when they arrived, but he was glad Team Ten was there. Hopefully being outnumbered and outgunned, at least on Inoko’s part, would convince them to back down. They probably didn’t know that the ‘backup’ was a useless fangirl, a useless lazybones, and a useless fatso. 

 

They were looking on in barely concealed horror at Inoko’s insane smile, at the corpse lying at her feet. Ino looked especially horrified. Part of him related to the feeling of seeing one’s sibling kill in cold blood. The rest of him was focused on just staying awake.

 

“Tick tock, tick tock!” Inoko said, stepping over Zaku’s body. “Time’s up! I’ve made the choice for you.”

 

Chakra and bloodlust rolled off her in noxious waves. The black marks inched their way further across her skin, and he abruptly wondered if she would stop after she finished the Sound team off. How much in control of herself is she right now?

 

“We yield!” Dosu called out, holding his hands out in surrender. “Here, take our scroll. Let us leave!”

 

“I told you, it’s too late~” The smile slid from her face at last. “ I’m going to kill you all.

 

“Inoko, stop it !”

 

His teammate froze, and when she made eye contact with her twin, something seemed to settle back down. She hadn’t even noticed they were there.

 

Inoko looked down at her hands as if she was only just now coming to herself. She seemed… confused, almost. Her gazes flickered back up to Dosu and Kin, and she hardened again. 

 

“Get out of my sight,” she spat. “Take your teammate and go. So help me, if I see your faces again, I won’t be so merciful.

 

They’re gone in the space of one blink and the next. Then, and only then, did Inoko fall to her knees, clutching at her shoulder like she’d been branded - which, in a sense, she had been. 

 

Ino was by her side in a heartbeat, leaving Chōji to ease Sasuke back down to the ground. The black marks began to recede as Ino brushed Inoko’s hair from her face, saying something he doesn’t catch, but he can see the fear and love and worry in her expression. They briefly rested foreheads together before Inoko looked over and saw him. Really saw him.

 

She pulled away from Ino and staggered over, practically collapsing in front of him. “Sasuke,” she whispered, and pulled him into her. He sagged against her, too drained to do anything else, and not hating the fact that he’s being hugged as much as he might have otherwise. “You’re alright. You’re ok.”

 

Inoko sounded like she was trying to reassure herself more than anything. Her hand ran through his hair, and Sasuke knew he was safe.

 

He was asleep before he realized it.


Naruto clambered out of the roots, with the weirdest sense that he had just missed something important. Like, really important. 

 

Sasuke was passed out in Inoko’s arms, and Inoko was… hugging him?! Had she fallen for his voodoo charms like all the other girls had?! He thought she was smarter than that.

 

But then she looked up with an exhausted but relieved smile and reached out to him, welcoming him into the embrace, and, well… he wasn’t going to argue against hugs, even if Sasuke was involved. And if Shikamaru tried to make fun of him for it, he’d hit him, no ifs ands or buts about it. 



Chapter Text

Part of the ceiling caved in as I ran, narrowly missing me. The black sludge followed me, whispering things I couldn’t quite hear, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what it was saying. No matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t escape. It was always just a few steps behind me.

 

“Go away!” I screamed over my shoulder, nearly tripping over some rubble. My mind palace was crumbling under the force of the curse mark, and I could feel every crack, every broken fixture. It hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt before. “Leave me alone!”

 

I could swear it was laughing at me even as it picked up speed.

 

I ran faster and prayed to the gods for escape.

 

There were a few gods that most everyone believed in, or at least knew about. Each clan also had their own gods that they worshiped. The Inuzuka had Okami; the Uchiha claimed Amaterasu as their patron goddess; the Hyuuga revered Benzaiten. The Akimichi and its vassal clans worshiped the original Ino-Shika-Cho. 

 

Please, protect me , I pleaded to our gods. I wasn’t sure how much I believed in them, but I was more than willing to throw all my faith at their feet.

 

I slammed into the stairwell door, sending a shockwave of pain through my body. The sludge watched me, edging closer to the door. I backed up until my back bumped against the railing. 

 

Will I be safe down the rabbit hole? I wondered, hands reaching up to grasp the rusty metal. Were there teeth in the sludge, drawing up into a twisted smile?

 

Anything is better than that. Anything.

 

I lean back and let myself fall.


Virus detected. Launching cayden.exe...


The basements were in even worse shape. They looked like they had aged decades since I’d last been down there. The vines and bushes were brown and rotten. What is it doing to me? I thought numbly.

 

Things were fracturing and cracking and breaking inside of me. It felt like an old, familiar pain, and I didn’t like it, didn’t want it - LEAVEMEALONE - and I wasn’t sure I could be put back together if I fell apart.

 

“Get back,” I panted. “Get away from me. I won’t let y-” I cried out in pain as the bite mark burned with a new intensity. 

 

The sludge was definitely laughing at me, a soft, dangerous sound. Slowly encircling me, coating everything with its darkness. Plants wilted and died under its touch. I was trapped under a partially collapsed column, leaving no way to escape except through the sludge itself, and there was no way I was going to do that. 

 

I was so tired. I didn’t know how long I’d been fighting against the curse mark. Minutes, hours, days?

 

The sludge was just… lingering. Waiting for any sign of weakness.

 

The pain in my shoulder spiked. I wanted to sleep. To die, to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, I thought, sliding down the wall. The sludge shivered and began to slide closer. To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream.

 

Slowly, it crept up my ankle, burning white hot. My shoulder throbbed and burned with equal heat. I was so tired. No more energy to even whimper. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

 

My eyes drifted closed. I could hear the dark whispers more clearly now, words made of poison and broken glass and metal splinters. It hurt to listen to it, but I couldn’t pull away. 

 

Mineminemineminemine , it whispered.

 

Mine , another voice disagreed.

 

Darkness swallowed me whole, bringing with it the worst pain I’d ever felt, and I knew with my last conscious thought I was falling apart, never to be pulled back together again.

 

In thy orisons be all my sins remembered.


He wakes up and yawns. Something is wrong in his domain. He can feel it. “Ugh,” he says eloquently, stretching out with a groan. “Hey, Siri, love, what’s going on?”

 

Vi-Vi-Vi-Virus dete-te-t-tected. Err-Err-Error.

 

He runs a hand through his hair. Longer and more wild now, he notes absently, than the last time he’d woken up. There’s a scar across his eye as well, something that hadn’t been there before he’d fallen asleep. 

 

What have you been up to, love?

 

The walls of his chamber shiver, and he decides now would be a good time to get up and see what’s going on. 

 

The answer turns out to be pretty simple. Chaos. Pure and utter chaos. 

 

He whistles and rubs at the new scar. It’s a little itchy, but he’s sure he’ll get used to it. “What mess did you get yourself into this time, 01100101 01110010 01110010 01101111 01110010?”

 

What.

 

“01100101 01110010 01110010 01101111 01110010,” he tries again. 

 

Well damn, this is worse than I thought

 

He sprints down the decaying hallways, waving a hand when he can to bolster the sagging supports. What happened here? What did I miss while I was sleeping?

 

He turns a corner and then he sees her, and his heart breaks a little.

 

“Oh, lovely girl,” he murmurs. “You’ve always given more than you took from those you loved. How much have you given now?”

 

He can’t say her name anymore, and he thinks it’s because she’s forced herself to forget it. Utterly purging it and the pain that came with it from her memory, to the point where even he can’t say it. She calls herself Inoko now , he remembers, and takes a step forward.

 

The sludge surrounding her hisses at him. Hisses at him. How utterly rude.

 

“Get out of my sight,” he snarls. 

 

Mineminemineminemine , it snarls back, dark and poisonous and guttural.

 

Mine ,” he retorts, and summons light into his palm. “Get. Away. From her.”

 

It hisses at him again, curling around her more tightly before relaxing and slowly opening a path. 

 

Now that he can take a proper look at her, he sees it’s so much worse than he thought.

 

“Lovely girl, you haven’t split like this in years.”

 

Half of her stares blankly just over his shoulder, the other half covered in the sludge like a seabird caught in an oil spill, desperately trying to crawl away with just an arm. Cracks cover the parts of her that he can see, leaking golden light. This is bad. This is… very bad. Hesitantly, he reaches out to touch her hair. She shivers under his touch, but otherwise doesn’t react.

 

Can I even fix you this time?

 

“... help… me…” the black half of her wheezes, and tries to pull itself further away. Then it convulses like a computer glitch with an unearthly distorted scream. Tears drip down the normal half. It doesn’t even blink. 

 

“I’ll help you,” he whispers. The sludge is whispering ominously and begins to press back in. He gathers her up in his arms and presses the two halves together, slowly sealing them into a whole with a glowing finger. It’s just a patch, one that he hopes will last long enough for her to heal a little bit. “I’ll put you back together.” Would it be enough? Would it ever be enough?

 

As he fixes her, he looks up at the sludge, curls his lip at the vicious whispers. “We’re not strong enough to beat you back,” he says after a moment. “I can’t get rid of you. And you’ll kill us both if we keep resisting like this, won’t you?”

 

He’s pretty sure there’s teeth grinning at him from the sludge, and his scowl deepens. She will die if she keeps resisting, and he can’t bear to lose her. He turns back to the girl in his arms, so different than what she used to be, yet still so strong, and presses his lips to her forehead. There is only one way that he can protect her, only one way that she might survive. On her own, she is doomed no matter what. But maybe, with his help, she can survive.

 

“It’s ok to let go, sweet thing,” he whispers. “I’ll protect you from the worst of it. Let go and let it take you.”

 

The sludge pours over them both and Inoko screams.


When I woke up again, I felt like I could fight anything. Even Gaara. My entire body was thrumming with power. It reminded me of when I had taken over Naruto’s shadow clone - had that really been just a few days ago?

 

My veins crackled with energy. They felt like they would explode if I didn’t get rid of some of this… this… gift . I could see so clearly now that this was a gift, one meant for Sasuke but I had stolen it from him, and it was mine mine mine now.

 

I could do anything with this.

 

The terror on the Sound trio’s faces lightened my heart. Fear me, fear what I can do to you.

 

And then I see Sasuke. Senbon lodged in his leg, blood trickling from a dozen wounds. He looked exhausted and in pain. The girl’s foot was on his head, and he wasn’t even fighting back. Barely even a snarl. They hurt him. They hurt him. They hurt him they can’t do that because he’s mine mine mine mine.

 

The old man goes into the woods with his hunting dogs to find his dinner. In the woods, he sees a creature and shoots off its tail and takes it home and cooks it up and eats it.

 

The wood splintered under my hand. I would kill them. I would kill them all for daring to touch someone that was mine. 

 

That night, he hears a scratch scratch scratching at his door. 

 

Tailypo, tailypo, I want my tailypo.

 

I was impossibly fast now. Faster and stronger than I’d ever thought possible. They couldn’t hope to stand against me. Maybe without the curse mark, they would have been able to defeat us. Maybe. 

 

Hurting them was so easy, I almost laughed. The cracking of the Sound genin’s bones was like music to my ears. I will repay all of the pain you’ve delivered tenfold, and then some. It was so easy to kill him. How easy, I wondered, would it be to kill the rest of them?

 

The old man sends his three dogs after it, and they chase it into the woods. Only two come back. 

 

His neck snapped like a wet twig.

 

I would kill them all and let their blood water the earth. Let their screams echo into the forest as a warning to Orochimaru, because no one would mess with my boys and get away with it. 

 

“Tick tock, tick tock!” I declared, fingers just itching to bash their skulls in and rip their throats out. What delightful patterns would their blood make on the ground? Laughter bubbled in the back of my throat as their terror was almost visibly oozing from their bodies. I was so alive and they were about to be so, so dead . “ Time’s up.

 

Rip and tear and burn and bite and kill, kill, kill.

 

“Inoko, stop it !”

 

I froze. Turned. Ino.

 

I-I didn’t want her to see me like this. I didn’t want to see the horrified looks on their faces. I didn’t want to see Ino afraid of me.

 

It was like the world shifted just a little bit to the left, back to where it was supposed to be. The desire for blood seemed to abate, if only enough to let me focus on the here and now. 

 

I turned back to the Sound genin, hoping they hadn’t seen my temporary lapse. “Get out of my sight,” I spat at them. “Take your teammate and go. So help me, if I see your faces again, I won’t be so merciful.

 

If I saw them again, I would kill them for what they did to Sasuke. I would kill them, and I would laugh as they choked on their own blood. 

 

As they finally left, taking the corpse with them, I steadily became aware that while the curse mark was easily one of the most intense, thrilling feelings I’d ever had, it also hurt like a bitch . Like a white hot brand was being jabbed into my shoulder. 

 

I was proud to say that I did not scream. But I did kind of collapse to my knees and semi-seriously tried to claw the curse mark off. 

 

Less than a second later, I felt Ino’s hands against my shoulders. “It’s ok,” she whispered. “It’s ok, we’re here now, we’re gonna help you.” 

 

The searing pain began to recede as Ino talked. I glanced up into her eyes, and everything I saw in them told me that it really was ok now. I was safe.

 

Once the pain and the mark had pulled back into a throbbing point on my shoulder, I looked over at Sasuke. Without the hazy rage of the curse mark, I could see him a bit more clearly now. He wasn’t hurt quite as badly as I had thought before; he mostly just seemed exhausted. He was so tired, but at the same time visibly relieved. 

 

It almost hurt to look at. Had I really terrified them all so much? I won’t use it again. I won’t.

 

I tore myself away from Ino’s arms and staggered over to Sasuke on wobbly legs. Chōji and Shikamaru were here, and they would protect us from anything that dared to attack us right now; I trusted them with all of our lives. But right now? Right now, I had to reassure myself that he really was alright, that Orochimaru hadn’t marked him.

 

“Sasuke,” I whispered, falling to my knees and pulling him against me. His heartbeat was a rapid pulse underneath my hand, each beat telling me that he was ok, he was safe. He sagged heavily against me, and almost instantly he was asleep. 

 

Dork , I thought with a faint smile. When Naruto came charging out, finally awake and raring for a fight, I pulled him into the hug too and just spent some time holding my boys. 

 

“So,” Shikamaru drawled. His eyes were sharper than usual, voice missing the usual bite of sarcasm. “Wanna explain all that?”

 

Ino elbowed him. “Can’t you be a little bit more tactful? Yeesh.” She glanced at me. I stared back. “That being said though, what… what happened? What was that?”

 

“A hickey,” I said flatly. Chōji choked. 

 

“Inoko, now really isn’t the time for jokes -” Shikamaru started, straightening from his slouch with a frown. I flapped my hand at him.

 

“Later, ok? It’s a long story and I don’t want to tell it more than once.”

 

I didn’t like the looks that my sister’s team shared. I didn’t like that I didn’t understand them.

 

I’m on the outside now. I dug my hands into Sasuke’s shirt and looked away. Naruto shifted from his position on my back. I wondered how much he was picking up on the mood.

 

“So,” I finally said once the silence became unbearable. “What day is it?”


We camped out in the same spot for the rest of the day. Naruto and I stayed with Sasuke while Ino and the boys scouted the area with some of Naruto’s shadow clones. He’d been pretty vague about what happened to him, waiting for me to take the lead on explaining what happened.

 

I didn’t like that very much.

 

Between the five of us, we managed to set enough traps to dissuade even the most persistent genin and gather some food. Sasuke slept most of the day, even after we took care of his injuries.

 

“He probably stayed up all night keeping watch,” Chōji suggested. Shikamaru was sulking in the corner, watching us out of the corner of his eye. 

 

“Maybe,” I said, trying my best to ignore the horde of clones running around the clearing. Naruto was… doing his best. At whatever he was doing. “Good job, Naruto!” I called out. 

 

The response I got was confusing but positive. Which. Pretty much summed up Naruto in a nutshell.

 

Sasuke woke up at about mid afternoon. He still looked tired, but didn’t seem as dead on his feet as before. 

 

“Feeling better?” Ino asked. 

 

“Hn.”

 

“That means ‘much better, thank you’,” I piped in. Ino snorted and went back to sharpening her kunai.

 

He gave me a look. 

 

“Well someone has to translate your non committal grunts,” I huffed, pretending to sulk. “Naruto, Sasuke’s being mean again.”

 

“Teme!” twenty clones shouted at once.

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow at me, glancing down at my shoulder. My hand went up to it unconsciously. 

 

Shikamaru scowled. 

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” I growled. “I said later, ok?”

 

“What’s later?” Sasuke asked. I tried to restrain my irritated look, but by everyone else’s looks, I don’t think I did a great job.

 

“Nothing. Everything. I don’t know.” The curse mark began to hurt again. 

 

“Have you taken care of that bite yet?” Classic Team Seven. Trying to help and just making things worse.

 

“The what ?” Ino demanded. She stalked over to me and yanked my t-shirt away from my neck. “What the hell , Inoko?”

 

“It’s nothing,” I snarled, jerking away from her. “I’ll deal with it later, ok?” I loved them all, but I wasn’t going to trust this to any of them. I’d talk to Sensei next time I saw him, and then Dad once I’d gotten the immediate danger taken care of. Maybe then I’d tell them what happened.

 

Really scowling now, Shikamaru asked, “What knocked you and Naruto out of commission? Didn’t you say you were ready for this?” He sounded accusatory. Didn’t he trust me? Why didn’t he just trust me on this?

 

“There was this crazy lady from Grass,” Naruto tried to explain. “She was all crazy and snakey and super strong! She had this crazy strong wind jutsu, and it separated us, and then I got eaten by a snake, which was super gross, and then she was being all weird about Sasuke. Why are all the girls all crazy about Sasuke? It’s just Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke with them, and it gets really old.”

 

“She really did a number on you, didn’t she?” Shikamaru said quietly. 

 

I hated the frown on his face, hated how his hands slipped into his thinking position. I didn’t need him calculating our odds of survival or something like that. I dug my fingers into my shoulder as it throbbed. 

 

“Maybe you guys should just quit while you’re ahead.” 

 

Naruto and Sasuke shouted at the same time. He ignored them, staring hard at me. “For that matter, maybe we all should. If these are the genin that are in this exam, we’d be better off with more training first.”

 

“Oh sure,” I said sarcastically, “I’ll be sure to let the Hokage know that it’s too hard for the baby genin, especially when his own students come in to play. I’m sure six months would give me so much extra time to prepare for when Orochimaru comes calling.”

 

Sasuke looked at the ground. “So it was him…”

 

“Let me think, crazy overpowered, snake themed with snake summons and snake jutsu, gee, I wonder how many S-ranked missing nin fit that criteria.”

 

“This is serious!” Shikamaru snapped, raising his voice for the first time. 

 

“Shika,” Chōji said softly, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe this should wait until we get to the tower.” 

 

Ino wasn’t looking at any of us, and I felt a brief flash of guilt at the expression on her face as she absently rubbed her shoulder. 

 

He glanced at both of his teammates before deflating a little. “Fine, fine, whatever.”

 

“I’ll see you at the tower?” Ino asked quietly, hand slipping into mine. 

 

Now I felt even more guilty for causing my twin to lapse into this subdued version of herself. Ino was supposed to be bright and cheerful.

 

“Yeah,” I mutter, forcing myself to let go of my shoulder. “See you there.” I jerked my head over to the scroll the Sound team had left behind, innocently sitting in the grass. “Take that with you; we can’t use it.”

 

She nodded and gave my hand a final squeeze before they all vanished. None of us looked at each other for several seconds.

 

“Was it something I said?” Naruto asked.


“We shouldn’t stay in one place for too long,” I said, rebandaging Sasuke’s leg. I’d smeared the deeper wounds, including the one he got when he stabbed himself - good grief, I was never going to let him hear the end of that one - with some of the things I kept on me to help it heal faster and reduce pain. Somehow only a few of them broke during the fight with Orochimaru, and none of them were that one vial of mildly corrosive acid that I’d been meaning to throw out for a while. 

 

Eh. I’d find a use for it eventually, and then I’d be glad I had it. 

 

“Hn.” Sasuke stared off into space. Naruto’s clones were running around once more, this time dismantling the various traps. 

 

“Don’t forget to leave a few up!” I called, knotting the bandage firmly. In a quieter voice, I said, “So, mild problem. You know how I’m a sensor, right?” Sasuke nodded once. “Yeah, so the forest has been massively screwing with that little ability of mine, because there’s a crap ton of chakra in here. It’s like… being in a room full of delicious and pungent foods, and you can smell everything, but trying to smell one ingredient of a certain dish is pretty much impossible unless you’re right in front of it. Make sense?”

 

“Yeah,” he muttered. “That… doesn’t sound good.”

 

“Nope!” I said, sounding much more cheerful than I felt. “And then the little present you know who left me kind of destroyed my sense of smell, to continue with this metaphor.” The smile fell from my face. “Just so you know, I’ve lived pretty much my entire life being able to sense pretty much everyone in my compound, and now if you blindfolded me I couldn’t tell if you were here with me. I am… essentially crippled right now.”

 

Sasuke slowly rolled his pant leg down. He was clearly thinking about something, and I’d much rather leave the whole leadership thing to him for now.

 

“Also I can’t use chakra anymore either.”

 

“... what.”

 

I finger combed my hair, trying to pull out the various leaves, twigs, and debris. I’d kill for a shower right now

 

The sound of Zaku’s neck breaking echoed in my mind, and my stomach turned. Maybe not.

 

Sasuke ran a hand through his hair and harshly exhaled. “Ok. This is fine. This is great. Naruto is our best chance at defense.”

 

“Taijutsu exists,” I reminded him. “I can still use that just fine. I also have a bit of acid we can put on our kunai and stuff, but we’d need new sets after a few hours.”

 

“I’m… not going to question why you have acid.”

 

“Probably shouldn’t.”

 

“Hey, Inoko!” Naruto waved. “We’re almost done, what’s next?!”

 

“Fantastic!” I replied, waving back. “Get over here once you’re done; we need to strategize.”

 

Sasuke and I watched him for a few moments before he broke the silence again. One of Naruto’s clones began arguing with him about something.

 

“You shouldn’t tell Naruto about that thing,” he said. “He’s just going to worry.”

 

I shot a glare at him. “He’ll worry anyway. He’s not an idiot; he’ll figure out something’s up. Besides, he’s our teammate. He deserves to know.”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “Fine. Your choice, I guess.” In the background, Naruto’s argument with one of his clones reached a breaking point, and they both started rolling in the mud, the rest of the clones cheering one or the other on.

 

I side eyed him. “You’re judging me.”

 

“Tch. I’m not.”

 

“You are.”

 

“... You want to tell Naruto, but you wouldn’t tell Shikamaru,” Sasuke said after a long pause. “Why?”

 

I stood up, dusting my butt off. “He’s part of our team,” I said simply. “Teammates don’t hide stuff from each other.”

 

Naruto emerged from a dogpile of clones, victorious. “Yeah! I won! Take that!”

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes, and I gave a single clap. “Good job. Let’s roll out, and strategize on the way.”


Our situation wasn’t great. Sasuke was still tired and low on chakra, Naruto’s abilities were on the fritz, and not being able to sense any chakra at all made me feel like I’d lost a limb. 

 

And we still needed a scroll.

 

I guess it’s too much to hope that Orochimaru also went after some other teams, and they’re also weak and crippled.

 

Sasuke broke the silence first. “I don’t think you or I should take the lead in any fights we get into.” He glanced at me before slowly continuing. “We can’t overpower another team, not as we are right now. So…” He grimaced as if the words were causing him pain to say. “Naruto, if we come across anyone, you’ll need to be the main attacker.”

 

Naruto glared suspiciously at him. “Fine, I guess,” he said, trying to find the non-existent trap in his words. “What about Inoko?”

 

“Essentially crippled over here,” I replied with cheer I didn’t feel. “I can use taijutsu just fine, but it’s never been my strong point.”

 

Note to self: train the crap out of my body once we got out of here so something like this wouldn’t affect us this badly ever again.

 

“Why?!” Naruto demanded, nearly clipping a tree. I winced sympathetically.

“Bit of a long story, but Orochimaru totally screwed up my chakra system by giving me a hickey-”

 

“He WHAT-”

 

“-and now I can’t use chakra or I risk going psycho. I’m going to have Sensei and Dad take care of it, don’t worry.”

 

“I’m going to kick his ass so hard next time I see him,” Naruto snarled. “Pervy gross old man.”


“If it makes you feel any better, his original target was Sasuke?”


“That’s worse!

 

“Getting back on track,” Sasuke said dryly, “‘Pervy gross old men’ aside, my idea is for you to do the brunt of the attacking, while also protecting Inoko. She’s going to be using the openings you give her to do some damage with… whatever you have in those vials.”

 

“I’ll never tell,” I sang out. Sasuke gave me a look.

 

“And I’ll be your midrange backup,” he said after another moment. “Most of my jutsu are suited to that, anyway.”

 

“Aw, Sasuke, I’m so proud of you!” I cooed at him. He flushed a bright red as Naruto cracked up laughing. “You’re turning into such a good leader.”

 

“Yeah, whatever,” he muttered, looking away.

 

“I’ll beat up anyone we meet!” Naruto shouted. “I’ll do it and it’s gonna be awesome! They’ll have to promote me to chūnin after that! And then we can go beat up that weird snake lady!”

 

“Now that’s a plan I can get behind,” I laughed. Being with them like this, even if we were in the middle of probably one of the most dangerous places in the Land of Fire, was oddly soothing. “Here’s another plan - ambush no jutsu.”

 

We landed on a massive tree branch, and they both stared at me. “Is that an actual jutsu?” Naruto asked.

 

“Of course not,” Sasuke snorted. “... right?”

 

“There are some pretty funky jutsu names out there.” Naruto rubbed his chin. 

 

I resisted the urge to face palm. Barely. “No, it’s not an actual- you know what, let’s just find another team and I’ll show you.”


Minami sighed heavily. “I don’t like this forest,” she complained. “Why did Sensei sign us up for these stupid exams?”

 

Akira and Akita looked up at her. “Because,” one of them said.

 

“We’ve got to prove our worth,” the other chimed in. 

 

“And besides-”

 

“This is fun!”

 

“Out in nature-”

 

“Surrounded by plants-”

 

“It’s like a vacation!”

 

Minami huffed. “Stupid identical twins, with their stupid matching outfits and their stupid optimism.” 

 

“You’re just jealous~” they sang together.

 

“I am not!”



“Jealous that we’re prettier~”

 

“I am not!

 

“Don’t worry, Minami-chan, we’ll all find girlfriends prettier than us one day!”

 

Minami threw a clod of dirt at them, burning crimson. “Will you two shut up! I regret telling you anything!”

 

“Aw, don’t be like that, Minami-chan,” one of them - she thought it was Akira - said sweetly, wrapping her up in a hug. “We only tease you because we love you!”

 

“I hate you both,” she groaned, going limp in his embrace. “You’re the worst teammates ever. Why must I be tormented so? Can we just keep going?”

 

“That’s true!” Akita (probably) said, smacking his fist into his palm. “We only have three more days left!”

 

“Don’t remind me.”

 

There was a rustle in the bush. Akira dropped her and pulled out his tanto. Behind him, Akita did the same. 

 

Minami’s mind was racing. What genjutsu should I use? Will it be enough? Didn’t I see the Last Uchiha in these exams?

 

A sheep emerged from the underbrush. It looked at them blankly before giving out a plaintive ‘baa?’ They all relaxed, lowering their weapons. Minami breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to pass, she just… wasn’t a huge fan of head on combat. She preferred ambushes and the like.

 

“Oh.”

 

“It’s just a sheep.”

 

A beat passed.

 

“What’s a sheep doing in the Forest of Death?!”

 

It looked them dead in the eye with those freaky eyeballs and spoke .

 

“Beep, beep, I’m a sheep, I said beep beep, I’m a sheep.”

 

Team Shigeru froze in complete and utter shock.

 

“No one will ever believe you, ‘ttebayo,” the sheep said. 

 

Then something heavy landed on Minami’s back, hands wriggling within her jacket before she felt the scroll being removed. 

 

“Run!” the weight shouted, jumping off and bolting for the sheep. The tiny blonde kid picked up the talking sheep before leaping into a tree. She spun around to see an equally tiny boy with dark hair trip one of the twins before following his teammates into the trees.

 

“I can’t believe that worked !” one of them shrieked before they vanished into the forest. Silence fell around them.

 

“What the hell just happened?” Minami finally asked.

 

“We were tricked,” Akita said mournfully.

 

“Fooled,” Akira agreed. “And above all…”

 

“We were bamboozled.”

 

Chapter Text

We ran like Orochimaru was on our tail again. Except this time there was a lot more laughing involved. Naruto’s victory crows rang throughout the forest, and I didn’t stop him.  

“I can’t believe that actually worked ,” Sasuke repeated, almost smiling. “That was so stupid! What if they had just attacked?”

“Yeah, they could have, but they didn’t, and that’s what happened, so there’s no need to worry about it!” I tossed my bangs out of my face and grinned. We had both scrolls now, and plenty of time to get to the tower. 

I don’t think our luck is bad enough to run into Gaara or Kabuto , I thought as we set up a small camp for the night. I touched my shoulder. And I don’t think Orochimaru will come back for us. 

I took the first watch as usual, letting the boys rest. It had been. A very long two days. I was so done with these exams. I wanted to get out of this forest, get the stupid curse mark taken care of, then sleep for a week. Maybe two weeks. With a break in between to gorge myself on Setsuko-ba’s home cooking. 

Don’t drool all over the tree, Inoko.


Sasuke woke us both up once the sun began to peek over the horizon. I began to help Sasuke rebandage his leg before he swatted me away. “I’m not a baby, I don’t need your help,” he grumbled.

I scowled and threw the roll down. “Fine, do it yourself, then.”

“Is Sasuke being constipated again?” Naruto whispered as I joined him in taking down the traps we’d set up. 

“Yeah.” I sighed. I wasn’t exactly being fair to him, was I? “Not really, actually; I think everything that’s happening is stressing him out, and you remember how he was in the Academy.”

Naruto nodded sagely. “Super constipated, then.”

Once we were all ready, Naruto sent a clone up further into the tree to get our bearings, and then we were off. 

It took most of the day to get to the tower, with only a quick stop to eat, drink, and relieve ourselves. Oh, to be a boy. The trip might have been faster if we had gone as the crow flew, but we all agreed - well, Sasuke and I agreed, Naruto was trusting our judgement - to take a more roundabout path to avoid other teams.

Once the tower was within sight, we took another break, this time to strategize in further detail. I was grateful for the rest, my energy still drained from the curse mark and the fight leading up to the application of said mark. 

“Run,” I said. “Run like hell if anyone sees us.”

“What? No, we should stand and fight!” Naruto demanded. 

“Absolutely not. We’ve already got what we need, we don’t have a reason to fight.”

“But that’s the cowardly way to do it!”

“We’re shinobi,” Sasuke said quietly. “We don’t have honor. Not like samurai do.”

Naruto scowled at us both. “Why are you guys constantly taking each other's sides?! It’s like you’re one of his dumb fangirls!”

I bristled at the accusation. “I am not . We’re trying to be mature shinobi here. You know, like chūnin are supposed to be! I just want to get out of this stupid forest as fast as possible so I can get this stupid curse thing off my shoulder! It freaking hurts, Naruto, all the freaking time! I can’t use my chakra because it’ll start eating at me again if I so much as make a clone!”

My shoulder hurt. My chest hurt. My head hurt. I wanted to hit Naruto, hit him until he took it back , until he said sorry, until he begged for mercy -

Sasuke pried my fingers off my shoulder. “Cut it out,” he said quietly but firmly, glancing at Naruto. “Both of you. Let’s just… let’s just talk about it when these exams are over.”

“Hmph.” Naruto folded his arms and turned his back on us. 

I stared at the ground. What is wrong with me? How could I have thought that about him? 

I wanted to go home. 


We all stood in front of the door to the tower. I was vaguely surprised that we hadn’t run into anyone. Right now, though, I was too tired to care. I was done with these exams. I was done with this curse mark, and I was done with myself. 

“Hey, Naruto?” I said. He looked away from me, still sulking. I sighed, and barreled on anyway. “I’m sorry for snapping at you earlier. That… that’s not the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a good teammate and a better friend to you, and Sasuke. And that wasn’t the way to do it. So… sorry.”

We stood in the silence for a handful of heartbeats before I heard a loud sniff come from him. “Whatever,” he mumbled, clearly doing his manful best to not let us see him cry. I grabbed his hand, nearly stumbling as I pulled him forward.

“Let’s go inside.”

The room was empty except for a single poster on the wall. I didn’t trust it. Is this a trap? A last minute ambush? My hand drifted up to my shoulder. I’m functioning blind.

“... Now what?” Naruto asked no one in particular, looking around suspiciously. I flopped down onto the ground, too tired to even stand at this point. My thoughts felt slow and sluggish. It took me a moment to read the writing on the wall. Heaven… and earth? Like… the scrolls? 

“Take a few clones and scout out the area,” Sasuke said quietly. “Just in case.”

“Think we’re fine,” I mumbled, slouching against the real Naruto’s leg. “Pretty sure Biki-san said we’d be safe here…”

I wanted to be done with this forest. It had been an eternity since we’d walked through the gates, since we stepped into the classroom where the first test was held. I missed my parents. I missed my garden. I just wanted to… exist amongst my flowers. Feel the gentle beat of their life that only I could hear. 

“Clear!” the clones began to call, echoing each other from varying distances. Real Naruto hrmed and patted my head. I sighed. “This thing doesn’t make any sense! ‘If heaven is your desire’? What kind of dumb thing is that?”

I was honestly half asleep at this point. Turned out that impromptu naps caused by hickeys weren’t very restful at all. “Scrolls,” I mumbled. “Gotta… open ‘em now…”

The next several minutes passed in a haze, interspersed with bursts of activity that broke through the sludge that was my mind. It might have been Iruka-sensei who materialized out of the scrolls, it might have been Kakashi-sensei. Something in his tone was alarmed upon seeing me, practically unconscious against Naruto, who had somewhere along the line sat down on the floor to support me better. His jacket stank and his shoulder was bony, but they might as well have been a perfumed feather bed. I sank into blissful oblivion as I was lifted into the air, free of pain and worries. 

I floated in the darkness.


Rest now, lovely girl.


“What,” Kakashi said, barely keeping his anger out of his voice - it wasn’t the man’s fault; in fact he should probably be thanking him for his quick thinking in bringing Inoko to the infirmary, “the hell happened in there?”

Umino rubbed his face, not looking up at him. Kakashi stood in front of the teacher, glaring down with crossed arms. One of his students was passed out on the other side of the wall and not showing any signs of waking up soon, and he wanted answers. The chūnin exams were rough, he knew this, but he also knew his students.

“I have no idea. Naruto was garbling something about a hickey, and Sasuke was being his usual self.”

“A what .” 

Well. Hatake Kakashi was going to be murdering someone today. Probably starting the Fourth Shinobi War in the process.

“The medics say she’s just sleeping,” Umino continued, oblivious to Kakashi’s rising bloodlust. “And her sister’s team arrived about an hour ago. Evidently she was rather sleep deprived to begin with, and…” 

“And what?”

Umino shifted uncomfortably. “You’d have to confirm it with the boys, but Ino said they’d mentioned something about Orochimaru.”

Kakashi’s blood ran cold. Why is Orochimaru back? What does he want this time?  

“Have you reported this to the Hokage?” he asked, trying to remain pleasant sounding. He didn’t think it was working very well. He wasn’t a pleasant person at the best of times.

“Yes, of course. He just nodded and dismissed me.” Umino tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Mitarashi-san probably already told him; she was acting strange yesterday.”

Definitely Orochimaru, then. No one else could shake Anko up like that.

“Maa, thanks, Umino-san,” he said with fake cheer, shoving his hands in his pockets before walking away. 

Kakashi’s agenda: track down and kill Orochimaru, and then be finished off by Yamanaka Noriko. She had made it clear what would befall him should a hair on her daughter’s head be harmed, and somehow he fully believed she would be able to carry out that threat. 

Kakashi thought it was high time he had a word with the Hokage. There was just one thing he had to do first.


Sasuke wasn’t sulking. Uchiha did not sulk. Uchiha were not jealous of blond idiots cuddling together on the bed. Uchiha were not jealous of cuddle piles on the soft bed while he was stuck on the hard plastic chair, definitely not sulking and definitely not wanting to join in.

Naruto snored, anyway. 

He still side eyed the bed. 

The medic on staff said Inoko was fine, just chakra drained and exhausted. He’d dozed off in the chair while Naruto scrounged out some food, and when he woke up, the other boy was draped all over Inoko and snoring fit to wake the dead. 

Sasuke slid further into the chair and glared at the snuggle pile. An Uchiha had his pride.

There was a faint scratching at the door, and he stiffened. 

“I know you’re in there, kid,” a deep unfamiliar voice called. “Let me in.”

He unsheathed a kunai and crept towards the door. Slowly, carefully, he opened the door, and -

There was no one there.

“Down here, kid,” the voice said. Sasuke looked down. 

“You’re a dog,” he said, unable to come up with any other comment.

“Not just any dog,” the pug said. “One of Kakashi’s personal summons. He sent us over here to keep an eye on you pups.”

“Pups,” Sasuke said. He crouched down closer to the dog.

“Kids, pups, all the same to me. I’m Pakkun. Feel my paw; it’s very soft and supple.”

Sasuke almost laughed. The whole situation was just too ridiculous. Pedophilic Sannin. Talking dogs. 

“Did Sensei only send you, or…?” Sasuke asked, trailing off. Pakkun was right; his paws were very soft. 

“Nah, the whole pack is here. I was just testing the waters, see.” A giant head peeked around the corner, with smaller heads peeking above and below it. Helpless to do anything else, Sasuke opened the door the rest of the way. 

Pakkun introduced the dogs as they came in - “That’s Akino with the glasses, and the one with the mohawk is Shiba. The big one there is Bull, and the little one on him is Bisuke. Uhei is the one with the bandages - it’s a fashion statement, he says - and this one is Bisuke’s sister, Guruko.” 

One by one they settled into the room, herding Sasuke back to the chair. Bisuke jumped into his lap and shoved his muzzle into his hand until he began stroking the surprisingly soft fur. Guruko and Akino jumped onto the bed, the latter giving Naruto a lick on the face before lying down with a sigh. Bull lay down heavily at Sasuke’s feet, pinning him in place more than he already was. Uhei and Shiba stretched out at the foot of the bed, and finally Pakkun wriggled his way under Inoko’s arm. 

Inoko sighed, and something in her face relaxed a bit more. 

“Get some rest, pup. We’ll keep watch.”

Sasuke’s eyes drifted closed. He did feel better, knowing that they were there. Sensei’s still watching out for us, even in the middle of the exams...


I didn’t do a full crash from exhaustion very often. It wasn’t a fun experience, plus I ended up sleeping for ages. Not that that was in of itself a bad thing, it was just that I usually had other things to be doing that were being postponed by crashing. 

The first thought I had when I woke up this time was somewhere along the lines of, It’s really hot right now. My second thought was a bit more coherent. Are these dogs? Where did they come from?

“Puppo,” I mumbled into the dog’s fur, closing my eyes again. “Fresh young puppo.”

It gave a throaty laugh, wriggling under my arm. “It’s been a long time since I was a puppy, kid. But thanks anyway.”

“... talking doggo…”

Naruto groaned somewhere behind me, and an arm and a leg was thrown over my side. Naruto sighed, the warm air of his breath tickling the back of my neck. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes once more. 

Sasuke had been properly patched up by someone, though he was still pretty filthy. He was fast asleep, head bobbing every now and then. There was the faint sound of what could have been a snore.  He also had a dog in his lap and a truly massive dog at his feet. Like seriously, I could probably ride that thing into battle. What a great dog.

Though I couldn’t see the other dogs very well, the ones I could see all had vests on them, each carefully embroidered with a heno-heno-moheji. 

“Are you Sensei’s dogs?” I mumbled into the small dog’s fur. “Nice of him…”

“Yeah, we’re Kakashi’s summons, all seven of us. Go back to sleep, pup. We’ll keep watch.”

“Good doggo,” I murmured, letting my eyes drift closed. 

The pain had receded. I floated in an ocean of warmth.


When I woke up again, the boys were gone. Three of the dogs were still with me, including the massive battle-dog. I felt much more rested now. More rested than I’d been since before the exams started. How… long have I been asleep?

I slowly sat up. A dog with a mohawk stirred and yawned. “Hey, kid,” he said. “Have a nice nap?”

“Mh.” I yawned, rubbing at my eyes until I saw stars. “How long have I been out?”

Mohawk dog stretched deeply. “Not sure; you were out of it since the boss sent us here to keep an eye on you guys. Since then it’s been about… hey Guruko, how long has it been since Boss sent us here?”

Guruko rolled over. “Fourteen hours, Shiba,” she said. “It’s now day three out of five of the exams. Naruto and Sasuke are getting food with Pakkun, Bisuke, Akino, and Urushi.”

“Oh.” I side eyed Guruko’s fluffy looking belly. She cracked open an eye and seemed to grin at me.

“Go for it, Inoko-chan. We’re dogs, after all.”

It didn’t take long to get one of her back legs kicking. 

“Where’s Sensei?” I asked, sparing a hand to scratch Shiba’s ears. The battle-dog looked so sad to be left out of the action. I never wanted a third arm more. 

“Lurking somewhere in the tower,” Guruko sighed. “A little lower please - ah, that’s the spot. The jōnin sensei aren’t allowed to interact with the genin until the second phase has passed, but he’s always been a bit of a mother hen, so he’s sent us to keep you pups company.”

I nearly laughed at the thought of Sensei trying to mother hen us. 

“You should see it whenever Uhei gets another upper respiratory infection,” the battle-dog rumbled in an amused fashion. “Boss fusses so much.”

The mental image of Sensei fussing over a dog with an upper respiratory infection actually did make me laugh. My shoulder twinged, but not too painfully.

“Hey, what’s so funny?” Naruto demanded, barging into the room. His arms were laden with all sorts of tasty smelling things, and my stomach grumbled. “Pakkun said you were probably awake by now, so Sasuke and me swung by the mess hall and got you some stuff,” he continued, laying them out on the bed. “And there’s showers here too! I finally got all those gross snake guts off me!”

He instantly flopped onto the battle-dog and began cooing over him, accompanied by aggressive belly scratches. “Bull! Are you a good dog? Yes you are, you’re the best dog, way better than Akamaru!”

“You should take a shower too,” Sasuke said flatly, settling down next to me, careful not to disturb the dogs. “You stink.”

“Wow, thanks,” I replied dryly. “It’s totally not like I just spent the last fourteen hours unconscious or anything.”

He jabbed me in the ribs. “Shower. Now. Before I let Naruto eat all the food.”

“You are without a doubt the worst teammate ever,” I grumbled, easing myself out of bed. Crap, I was sore. 

But daaammmnn did the hot water feel good. 

When I finally got around to getting out, Team Ten was also in the room, chilling on and around the bed. Ino flew across the room the moment she saw me, grabbing me tightly enough that I couldn’t breathe properly. 

“Inoko! You’re awake! We wanted to come by earlier, but the pug said you were still sleeping and wouldn’t let us in.” She pouted, but I could see the relief in her eyes. “Have you talked to your sensei yet?” she whispered.

I shook my head. “They’re not allowed to interact with us until the second exam is over.”

“Well that sucks.” 

In the background, all of my boys were getting swarmed by dogs, tails wagging and open mouths eager for treats. It was almost disconcerting to hear them begging verbally too. 

“Yeah, but hey, whatcha gonna do,” I muttered, rubbing my shoulder. Ino’s eyes flickered to my hand, just for a moment. 

“Inoko, come eat, you must be hungry,” Chōji said in his usual friendly tone, patting the bed next to him. He smiled warmly at me as my stomach growled. I am hungry. 

I snuggled into Chōji’s side and began to slurp up some instant ramen. Hot food had never tasted so good. Then I moved on to some dorayaki. And anpan. And bakauke. So much delicious food. I fed bits and pieces to the dogs, feeling content for the first time in a few days. 

“We have time now,” Shikamaru said at last. I paused in my chewing and tried not to scowl. He’s not going to stop pushing this, is he?

“I’m not dealing with this right now,” I grumbled, turning away from him. 

“You don’t get to decide that!”

“And you do?”

He glared at me. Naruto and Sasuke glared back. 

“You mentioned Orochimaru in the forest,” Shikamaru snapped, beginning to raise his voice. “What does he have to do with anything? What does he want with you?!”

“Keep your voice down,” Ino pleaded, grabbing his sleeve. She was pale as a sheet, nervously glancing around as if she was afraid he’d overhear us talking about him.

My shoulder hurt and burned . The dogs collectively stiffened, and Pakkun vanished in a burst of smoke. 

“Hey, leave her alone!” Naruto shouted before Bull flopped down onto him.

“One of the Sannin attacked you guys and you want to just… let it go?! Are you insane?!” He jerked his arm away from Ino. She looked like she was about to cry. 

I pulled free of Chōji. “Oh, shut up, Shikamaru,” I snarled. “It’s none of your damn business. I’m not some helpless female, you know; I know how to report to my superiors of dangerous situations. I’m taking care of it.”

“Hey, pups, calm down,” Guruko said, jumping off the bed. She looked back and forth between us. “No need to let tempers run high.”

I took a deep, shaking breath. I wanted to hit him. Why wouldn’t he let me handle this by myself? “I’m leaving. I’m not dealing with this right now.”

I was halfway to the door when Shikamaru grabbed my wrist. “Why won’t you talk to me?” he demanded, half angry, half pleading. 

Fire burned on my skin as I spun around. “I said I’m not dealing with this right now. Leave. Me. Alone.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sasuke bolting to his feet. I didn’t care; I was alive as the fire burned me away. “Inoko,” he said firmly, grabbing my face and forcing me to look into his eyes. 

Black on red spin in dizzying arrays. The fire is doused in black, icy water. “Go back to sleep,” he says, and I’m helpless to resist.

I fall, and vaguely I feel proud of him.


Sasuke caught Inoko as she fell limply to the ground. The curse mark had flared up again, and he knew she’d regret hurting Shikamaru, no matter how much of a butt he was being. He glared at the other boy, who looked shocked. 

“Get out,” he ordered. “Now.”

The other boy glanced at Ino, as if waiting for her to tell him to stay.

“Just go, Shika,” she murmured wearily. She scrubbed at her eyes and sniffed. “I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

Shikamaru clenched his jaw, eyes flickering back and forth between Sasuke and Inoko. “I didn’t mean to… do that,” he finally said. “Whatever that thing is, it can’t be good for her, especially if Orochimaru is the one behind it.”

“You think we don’t know that?” he growled. “Get out before I make you.”

He left. Chōji followed after giving Ino a hug. “Take care of her, please,” he said softly. 

“Hey, teme, what did you do to her?” Naruto demanded once he finally got out from underneath Bull.

“Put her to sleep, I think,” Sasuke said, trying to position her into a carry. “Sharingan stuff.”

“You think ?” Ino squawked. 

“Maa, you really should be careful with that, Sasuke-kun,” Sensei drawled from the doorway with Pakkun flopped over his shoulder. Naruto nearly jumped out of his skin. 

“You’re late!” he shouted on instinct. 

Sensei pat him on the head before crouching down in front of Sasuke. “Sorry about that, Naruto. Let me take a look at her.”

“I thought you weren’t allowed to see us until this was over!” Naruto continued to protest, lightly smacking his shoulder. “I don’t wanna get disqualified just because you were cheating!”

“Extenuating circumstances,” he said lightly, scooping Inoko up as if she was no heavier than a baby. “Plus it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission~”

“Iruka-sensei says that’s bad!”

Sensei gently set her down on the bed, raising one of her eyelids and checking her pulse and breathing. “Hm. Well, it looks like her little tantrum didn’t do any damage. You overdid it, Sasuke; she’s going to be out for a while.” He gently set Pakkun down on her belly before turning around to eye smile at the boys and Ino. “Don’t worry about Orochimaru. The adults have it taken care of. Just focus on relaxing here until the exam is over.”

He jabbed Sasuke in the forehead, not unlike how Ita-

“Especially you, duckling. Stay in the tower and let the adults handle it,” Sensei stressed. “As for you, young lady, you should be getting back to your team. It’s not safe to wander around alone~”

Ino looked back at them as Sensei guided her out, and her eyes were trying to convey so much. He didn’t understand half of it, but he still saw the plea in her eyes to keep her sister safe.

I won’t let anyone hurt you, Inoko. I won’t let anyone hurt my team ever again. 

Chapter Text

Things were awkward between Sasuke and me at first. He looked guilty and embarrassed, kind of like a puppy who peed on the floor. Naruto seemed blissfully unaware of the awkwardness, which I lowkey envied him for. The pains of being just socially aware enough to know something was wrong, and unaware enough to know how to fix it. 

 

I eventually mentally sat myself down and asked, “how would Ino deal with this?”

 

Was I upset that he used the Sharingan on me?

 

A little bit, yeah.

 

Why?

It felt kind of violating to be put to sleep like that. I didn’t have a choice, and I felt uncomfortable that he would do that to one of his teammates.

 

Was it necessary?

 

… I hated to admit it, but yeah, it kind of was. I was losing control.

 

Now look at Sasuke’s perspective. How do you think he felt about this?

…… Ok, shut up. I’ll deal with it.

 

The mess hall mainly had chūnin and some jōnin watching the exams, though there was a couple genin teams that had passed. I very pointedly ignored Kabuto and stuck close to my team. 

 

While Naruto was getting seconds on lunch, I lightly kicked Sasuke’s leg under the table. “Hey.”

 

He didn’t meet my eyes. “Yes?”

 

“Look at me,” I said, continuing to kick him. “I mean it, duck butt, look at me.”

 

We met eyes at last. I didn’t blink. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“... What?”

“About earlier. Don’t worry about it.” I closed my eyes and sighed. “It hurts my pride to say this, but I really appreciate what you did back there. I… don’t really know what I would have done if you hadn’t stopped me.” I thought back to how I was practically seeing red, and the guilt pulled me down further. “I lied. I know exactly what I would have done.” I swallowed. “It wouldn’t have been good. So… thanks.”

 

“... You’re welcome,” he muttered. I scraped my plate and took another bite.

 

“Hey, Sasuke?” 

 

He glanced up, actually meeting my eyes now. “Hm?”

 

“If that happens again, do whatever you did again,” I requested, idly tracing a pattern in the wood. “Put me down if you have to.”

 

“Inoko-”

“I mean it.” I looked up at him. “I don’t want to hurt my friends because of this. If you can’t stop me then put me down permanently.”

 

“What is wrong with you?” Sasuke hissed, grabbing my wrist and pulling me halfway over the table. He looked half horrified, half furious. “You’re going to an insane extreme.”

 

“A very possible extreme,” I whispered back. “I’d rather have my bases covered.”

 

“How could you even ask that of me?” he demanded. “I am nothing like Ita-”

 

His eyes widened for a moment before he cut himself off and let me go, roughly falling back into his chair. I hesitate, just a second, then sit down myself.

 

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “I forgot.”

 

It sounded like a lame excuse, but I didn’t know what else to say. I felt terrible about it.

 

“I’m going back to our room,” I said, standing abruptly. Everything about Sasuke’s body language was closed off and radiating hurt, and I couldn’t stand it. “Sorry.”

 

I shoved my hands in my pocket and walked away as Naruto came back, plate piled high. At least he wouldn’t be alone.

 

I didn’t go straight back to our rooms. Instead, I just… wandered around the tower. My shoulder ached, and I felt horrible about pretty much all of my life choices leading up to this point, so I didn’t exactly want to talk to anyone I knew

 

I was somewhere on the third floor when I realized someone was following me. It was barely noticeable, just the faintest echo of my footsteps. At first I thought I was imagining it, but when I switched up my gait, the echo didn’t change with it.

 

My blood ran cold. Is someone looking to take me out of the exams before the third stage? Or… is Orochimaru back to finish the job?

 

I walked faster, trying to remember how to get back to everyone else. I wished I could still sense.

 

The steps picked up their pace too. My heart began to hammer in my chest. I grasped one of my kunai, wrappings quickly becoming damp under my palms.

 

I broke out into a run, and the steps followed me. I bolted as fast as I could, but they were catching up to me. No no no no no!

 

Sa- ” I tried to scream out, but a hand wrapped around my mouth before I could get it out. Another arm wrapped around my waist, picking me up off my feet. My armed hand was trapped against my chest. All I could do was writhe and kick out. 

 

“Hey, relax,” a familiar voice murmured in my ear. Kabuto. I tried harder to give him a solid kick in the nuts. “Chill, Inoko-chan, I just wanted to talk.”

 

I bit his finger, hard enough to hit bone. Blood leaked into my mouth, hot and salty. Kabuto swore under his breath and let me go.

 

“What the shit do you want?” I snarled, brandishing my kunai at him. I had one hand in my pocket, because this was a perfect time to use that acid if he kept creeping on me.

 

Kabuto holds his hands out in a peaceful gesture. “Sorry if I startled you,” he said in that mockingly nice tone. “I promise, Inoko-chan, all I want is to talk, ok?”

 

“That’s Yamanaka-sama to you,” I said. Teeechnically that was my sister, as clan heir, but if you wanted to get traditionally technical, then as the daughter of the clan head I could also be called sama. I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from this motherfu-

 

He laughed, pushing his glasses up his nose. “As you wish, Yamanaka-sama .”

 

Aaand instant regret. He made my name sound like a delicacy on the tip of his tongue. I shivered, refusing to break eye contact. His gaze was almost predatory, even as his tone remained friendly.

 

“You were so rude back before the first stage of the exams,” he said in a sing-song tone. He took a step forward. I took a step back. “I thought I might have done something to offend you, Yamanaka-sama. So I figured, I’ll just apologize and see if we can talk things out and be friends! Maybe over a cup of coffee?”

 

I wasn't sure if my utter disgust at the very thought of coffee with Kabuto must have shown on my face, because his eyes gleamed. He took another step forward. I took another step back.

 

“You’re very pretty, Yamanaka-sama,” he murmured. “Such long, pretty hair.”

 

I threw my kunai at him, grazing his cheek. I had two more out before he touched his cheek. “Not a snowball’s chance in hell,” I snapped. I took another step back. He took two steps forward.

 

“My my, so testy. It’s just a compliment, Yamanaka-sama. What’s the problem? Why don’t we get to know each other a bit? I see you have a lovely pair of earrings there; where did you get them?”

 

“What part of this situation says I’m comfortable with this?!” I demanded, giving a vague gesture to the area. My heel hit the wall. “Go away!”

 

Faster than my eyes could see, Kabuto was right up in my personal space, pinning my hand against the wall. “Come on now, don’t play hard to get,” he whispered. “I’m sure we could have a lot of fun.”

 

Terror blossomed in my stomach. I was defenseless against this nutjob, who couldn’t take no for an answer and was probably going to… 

 

His hand caressed my side and I realized, no, I wasn’t defenseless. 

 

I smashed the vial of acid in his face, ignoring the burning sensation against my hand. He cried out in pain, clutching against the wounds. 

 

I booked it out of there. He didn’t follow me. I ran until I could hear sounds of other people, then made a beeline for them. 

 

I ended up running straight into Shino. “Thank the Three,” I blurted, clutching at his jacket.

 

He grabbed my shoulders, and I could hear his kikaichū buzzing louder. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

 

I looked over my shoulder, terrified of catching a glimpse of white hair and glasses. Nothing.

 

“Can you walk me back to my team?” I whispered. My hands were shaking. “I’d really rather not be -”

 

“Of course,” Shino said, inclining his head. “Do not feel pressured to confide in me if you do not wish to.”

 

Something in my gut relaxed a little bit. “Thanks, Shino.”

 

I could hear our room being turned into a miniature war zone. I restrained a sigh. These boys.

 

“Thank you, Shino,” I said, rubbing my arm. “I really appreciate it.”

 

“Of course. We may not be allies right now, but I would rather not let you come to harm if I can help it.” He hesitated. “Is there… anything I should know?”

 

I thought about Hinata being cornered by Kabuto and shuddered. “Do not leave Hinata alone, even for a second.”

 

The corner of Shino’s mouth turned down. “Of course. Thank you.”

 

I was right in thinking our room had been demolished. My jaw dropped the moment I stepped through the doorway. Wallpaper was peeling off, one bed had been tossed across the room, another was bent beyond all recognition, and the third had been flipped. Feathers floated across the room. Naruto and Sasuke were still rolling around on the floor, either wrestling or attempting murder. It was hard to tell. 

 

How ?” I demanded, gesturing at the room. They both froze. Naruto spit out Sasuke’s arm. “ How ?!”

 

“I can explain?” Naruto offered.

 

My eye twitched. 

 

“Fix it. Now.”

 

Naruto bolted for the door. I could hear his footsteps multiply as shadow clones burst into existence. I gingerly sat on the destroyed bed. RIP bed. You will be missed.  

 

“You too, Sasuke. Get going. Chop chop.” He had the grace to look embarrassed. “I’m not going to ask why you guys did this, just fix it before we get in trouble.”


The week passed quickly and before I knew it, the end of the second exam had ended. I had very pointedly stuck close to one or the other of my team, and thankfully hadn’t seen hide or hair of Kabuto. 

 

My shoulder still hurt, but not as badly anymore. 

 

We filed down to a massive room with a statue of two hands forming a seal I didn’t recognize. Gaara was just three people away from me, and I… couldn’t feel him at all. 

 

I both enjoyed and hated that.

 

Sensei and Maito Gai were gossiping in low tones - rather, Gai was; Sensei was completely spacing out by all appearances. He… probably wasn’t, right?

 

“Congratulations for making it this far,” the Hokage declared. “Before we begin the third exam, let me make one thing clear…”

 

And now I was spacing out. After seeing the Hokage make countless speeches, both to our class and during multiple festivals, I could tell when he was gearing up to make a speech. They were usually boring.

 

I kind of snapped back into general awareness when Naruto nudged me. Someone else was talking now, and good grief his eye bags were almost as bad as mine. 

 

“Ah… before we start the exams, there’s one thing we need to do,” he said, coughing a bit. “Um… since too many of you passed, we have to do some preliminaries. Basically, uh… if you don’t feel up for competing in the preliminaries, then just go ahead and leave. It won’t affect your um… your teammates if you choose to step out.”

 

Huh. That… might not be a bad idea. I was tired. I wanted to get this stupid curse mark sealed away. 

 

“Well, I’m out,” Kabuto said cheerfully, and I shivered once I heard his voice. May the Three damn you to hell , I thought.

 

He walked away, and I couldn’t have felt more relieved as his footsteps receded. 

 

“Anyone else?” the proctor asked. I… did not remember his name. My shoulder was throbbing again, worse than it had in days. I grabbed it tightly and grit my teeth. I would not back down. I would not show weakness. 

 

Silence echoed in the chamber. The proctor coughed again and scratched something out on a clipboard.

 

“Alright then. Let’s ah… let’s begin. It will consist of individual combat, much like the third exam. Since there are seventeen of you right now, one of you will get a free pass. Um… we’ll have eight matches, randomly selected. The victors of these matches will uh… proceed to the third exam. It will be no holds barred, until your opponent is dead, unconscious, or admits defeat. There may be some cases where we decide there’s a clear victor to the match, but don’t count on that happening.” He scratched his head with his pencil, glancing down at his clipboard. “Not to throw you into the slaughter, but uh… let’s go ahead and get started.”

 

Two screens on the wall began flickering. I closed my eyes and prayed. Don’t put us against Gaara. Please don’t put any of us against Gaara.

 

There was a faint ding, and I opened a single eye.

 

Uchiha Sasuke vs Tenten

 

I sighed in relief. Sasuke looked vaguely annoyed, but resigned. “Hey, duck butt, don’t underestimate her,” I said, lightly punching his shoulder. “She’s a year older than us, you know.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, owl, whatever.”

 

Everyone else made their way upstairs. I leaned against the railing, trying to massage the pain away. The pain was getting worse.

 

“You should really get that taken care of, Inoko,” a voice said by my side. 

 

For a split second, I thought it was Kabuto, somehow next to me. I spun around with a kunai, determined to disembowel him this time. Sensei caught my hand before it could make contact, and stared down at me. I tried to swallow my fear down.

 

“Sorry, Sensei,” I said. “I… thought you were someone else.”

 

He continued to stare down at me for a few more moments before letting me go and nodding. I tried to go back to my position on the railing, but my hands were shaking. I gripped the metal as tightly as I could. 

 

“You should have dropped out when Hayate gave you the option,” Sensei said, leaning on the railing beside me. I stared down at Sasuke, refusing to take my eyes off him. I would not let anything happen to my team, because they were mine mine mine mine . “Inoko. Breath. Now.”

 

I sucked in air and forced the possessive rage down. Naruto drifted closer to me, concern written across his fingers. I grabbed his hand and squeezed, telling myself over and over that they were here, no one was taking them from me, there were plenty of jōnin here to protect us.

 

Sensei set a hand on my shoulder. “Inoko, we’re leaving. Now.”

 

“No,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m fine. It’s just a misstep.”

 

“You’re not fine,” he hissed next to my ear. “If you let that mark run rampant then there’s going to be a lot of problems.”

 

I resisted the urge to shudder and forced it all down until only the pain was left. “I. Am. Fine. I’ll be more careful.”

 

I looked up and glared at Sensei. I would last this long at least. 

 

Sensei finally relented and snapped out his book. “The moment you’re done with your match, we’re leaving.”

 

“I want to stay for my sister and her team’s matches,” I protested. I had to be sure they would be ok.

 

“Absolutely not. Be thankful I’m being this lenient.”

 

I snarled wordlessly and went back to staring at Sasuke. 

 

It was a good fight. Tenten had an ungodly amount of weapons, but unfortunately, in the end, it worked against her. When unleashing several dozen kunai and shuriken against someone with the highest marksmanship of our year, someone determined to catch up to the raw genius of his brother… well. Throwing constant ammo at someone was just begging to have it thrown back at you.

 

“Uchiha Sasuke wins,” Hayate said, waving at him. He scribbled something on his board. “He advances to the third exam.”

 

The next match was Temari versus Shino. He was barely ruffled by the amount of wind being thrown around, but he didn’t seem to be making any progress either. I don’t think he’s going to win this , I thought absently. A draw, maybe, or a win on her side. 

 

He eventually conceded, citing the rather obvious fact that she just kept blowing all his tiny kikaichū away. 

 

And then a match up that I hadn’t even really considered, but dreaded down to the depths of my soul.

 

Yamanaka Ino vs Yamanaka Inoko .

 

I stood there, frozen for several seconds. My fingers couldn’t be pried off the railing with a crowbar. I couldn’t let her use the mind transfer jutsu. I couldn’t let her be exposed to the curse mark. 

 

“Yamanaka-san?” Hayate said, coughing a bit. “Are you going to come down?”

 

I sank down into a crouch, still not letting go of the railing. “Yeah,” I whispered. 

 

Somehow, I managed to make my fingers relax enough to allow movement. My shoulder throbbed. Like a mirror, Ino and I both rubbed our shoulder, grimacing. Every step brought me closer to whatever the hell this was going to be, and sent a jolt of pain down my arm.

 

We stood apart from each other. I couldn’t meet her eyes. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.

 

“Begin,” Hayate said, and we didn’t move. He coughed. “Um… Begin. Now.”

 

We still didn’t move. I didn’t know why she was hesitating, but I came to a decision. 

 

I sat down, then sprawled onto my back. “I think I’m done with these exams,” I said, tossing an arm over my eyes. 

 

There was silence for a beat.

 

What ?!” Naruto shrieked. “Come on, Inoko! We’ve come so far!”

 

“Nope. I’m done with this. Chūnin exams can eat my entire ass.”

 

“Inoko!” Ino said sharply, more out of habit than anything else. 

 

“Eff this,” I sighed, flipping the bird to anyone who cared to look in my general direction.

 

“... Yamanaka Ino moves on to the third exam,” Hayate said after a long pause. He coughed. “Would you perhaps mind relocating somewhere else?”

 

“Mh.” I made no effort to get up. At least until someone grabbed my ankle and lifted me up. “Oh.”

 

“Mah, Inoko-chan~” Sensei said. “You really should listen to your elders.”

 

I held one hand onto the hem of my shirt to keep myself from flashing my training bra to the world. “But elders are boring,” I complained. He lightly shook me. 

 

“Come on, brat. We’re going.”

 

Sensei set me on my feet once we left the arena, and I trailed after him, one hand on his flak jacket and the other clutching my shoulder. I wanted to go home.

 

“There was an ancient temple discovered below the tower while they were laying the foundation,” Sensei said, unlocking and opening a partially hidden door. “It wasn’t torn down, because it was rather useful for this exact reason.”

 

Something tickled at the edge of my senses, and I felt a wave of relief. I wasn’t broken. I wouldn’t have to relearn everything , just… some parts of it.

 

“Go ahead and take off your shirt,” Sensei said absently. He drew an ink pad out of his pouch and cut his palm open on a kunai. “I’ll need to put the seal on your skin for this to work.

 

I reluctantly pulled off my shirt, shivering in the damp air. The July heat didn’t reach down here, it seemed. We remained in silence for several minutes as Sensei worked around in a circle, creating trailing lines on the ground and pillar. 

 

“Sit still,” he warned, carefully working on my skin. It was. Slightly awkward. On my part, anyway; Sensei didn’t seem bothered by it at all. I’m sure he’d dealt with worse than prepubescent boobs. “And… that’s the last of it. Just a little bit longer and then we’ll be done, and you can take a nice long nap.”

 

“That sounds ni-” I started to say before his hand came down on my shoulder. I gasped in pain, tried to bite back the scream, but it slipped out of my throat anyway.

 

It hurt. It hurt so bad. It felt like the seal and the curse mark were battling for dominance with no regard for the battleground of my body.

 

And then finally, all at once, it stopped. And I could feel again. It was incredibly overwhelming, and I couldn’t parse through all the information overloading my senses, the heavy pressure of the temple. I fell to my hands and knees, panting. 

 

Gaara and Shukaku one and two and two and one all at once burning and raging and craving death blood gore Sister fear worry concern pride Naruto Kyuubi one and one is two with half of two within Orochimaru approaching Kabuto upper room lust pleasure relief Sasuke pain tired Orochimaru approaching Gates are opening Orochimaru approaching approaching closer closer closer 

 

R̡̡̥̮͚͎̳̺̘̠̜͇̝ͣ̈́͊́̑̇ͤ͟u̷̵̧͕̤̯̹͓͒ͫͣ͐ͅň̡̳͎̖̘̬͇͕̞̪̭̤̼͍͉̠̳̂́̿͒ͪ̇͛͟͡




Sensei was saying something about the seal being attached to my will, but the room was spinning. I slumped to the ground and chased the darkness.

Chapter Text

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?

 

… Weird.

 

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.”

 

“But-”

 

“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?”

 

“Yes?”

 

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.

 

“Hey.”

 

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?”

 

“Mh-hm.” 

 

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.

 

“Sensei?”

 

“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.

 

Kabuto.

 

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?

 

“Inoko.”

 

“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?”

 

“Hmm…”

 

I waited for his response. 

 

And waited.

 

“Sensei?”

 

“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.”

 

“Probably shouldn’t~”

 

“... 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?”

 

“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.