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Clarity

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I've been told to warn people that this chapter is a 'teaser' with a timeskip, and that chapter one will chronologically go back to where 'Vapors' left off. Apparently, it's an alarming jump if one is left unawares, like a baby in the woods. And you may possibly despise it, irritated and unsettled by the jump. It's just the way it has to be. Crownsoflaurels, I'm sorry I'm such a substandard human. I'm so bad at human-ing. I'll try to get better.

If you think a teaser before you get the chronological content will make your life worse, exit now. You've been warned, so no sobbing in the comment section. I mean it this time.

Be reasonable, fanfiction druggies.


And now to our regularly scheduled programming. (It's not regularly scheduled. I don't even have a schedule oh god)

Clarity


She could almost see 'Obi rolling his eyes at her for getting overly enthusiastic and dropping the cloaking genjutsu that he had painstakingly taught her.

But this was fun too, in a different way.

Aiko smiled absently, tapping her big toe inside her right sandal along with the beat of a rather chipper song. 'Obi hated it, but she thought the theme song for those silly princess Fuin movies was cute. It had been stuck in her head for the last fifteen minutes or so, but she didn't mind. She ducked under what seemed to be a pathetically slow sword slice and twisted under the shocked Ame nin's raised arm to stick him in the gut with an old-fashioned kunai, literally without missing a beat in the staccato she was keeping.

"Sorry, love." She lied casually, stepping in just a little closer and giving a nice, big scoop with some serious elbow action and muscle behind it. His stomach opened up with piteous ease.

He made a choked sound and dropped his weapon with a clatter to reflexively reach for his gut. She batted one arm away with her elbow and used her free hand to grab his right wrist. Immediately she pulled it around his back so that she could brace his torso up with her forearm when his knees threatened to buckle.

In the instant where he was hanging supported by her leverage, frightened blue eyes met Aiko's turquoise eyes, silently begging for mercy.

She shrugged.

"Nothing personal." With deft motions, she pulled her blade out and made a precise jab at the pulsating artery on his upper thigh. He had a minute left by the time she extracted her blade, tops.

The gut wound would have been enough to kill him, of course, but she wasn't a sadist. This had to look messy, but there was no reason to let the man suffer for the hours it would take for intestinal bleeding to finish him.

Excess cruelty served no purpose, after all. It didn't entertain her and it didn't make her target any more dead.

She left her new friend awkwardly collapsed face-up with buckled knees on the cement floor, tucking a bit of loose hair behind her ear with the cleaner hand as she meandered through the storage facility of one of Ame's newly re-occupied border outposts. She'd never been there before, so she would be forgiven a bit of curiosity at the surroundings.

'In a desolate way, Ame is beautiful.' She took a deep breath of heavy, cold hair, feeling crisp condensation coat her lungs.

It was very grey, for lack of a better word. This was one of the few places she'd seen where a cement bunkhouse wasn't totally out of place. The rocks were grey, the long grass was a strange blue-green color she had seen in no other flora, and the sky itself was tinted from low-hanging clouds ambling with the sluggish wind.

Ame was clearly a hard place. Of course, she could have already concluded that by assessing the apparent character of the people who lived there. They were an awfully cantankerous lot, as far as she could tell. Proud and stubborn, Ame refused to admit that they needed military assistance to keep out Kumo.

They were horribly wrong, of course, but it wasn't like allies were lining up at the door to offer help. Ame really only had one country who had expressed a willingness to offer them assistance, but Konoha's help would certainly come at a steep price.

'That's what happens when you don't play well with others,' Aiko sighed, patting down a bit of frizz. 'You try to launch one little takeover of the world, and suddenly nobody wants to play with you after school'.

Not that she had any room to talk, of course, but that was beside the point. She didn't know exactly what had happened a year and a half ago, but she didn't really care, either. She'd been asked to pop over, sabotage Ame's relationship with Konoha, and stop to get milk on the way home. So there she was, slaughtering her way through the more alert sentries at various posts. Dull. But the havoc later should be fun.

She wasn't there to kill everyone, of course. It wasn't like she and 'Obi had anything against these people in particular, just the idea of Ame allying with such a large faction. Besides, it would be awfully impractical to get rid of everyone in the vicinity when she needed the breach in security to be detected soon.

Aiko started humming absently, kneeling to pry the lid off what proved to be a container of munitions.

Naughty, naughty. Ame had been dealing with the technology-rich countries outside of the shinobi nation-states. It wasn't a surprise, but it was good to know. She patted the crate companionably, information confirmed. It wasn't crucial, but it was nice to see that Kotaka wasn't useless after all. She made a note to put a little more faith in his reports, although she really would have preferred to know his sources.

The storage area had been a bit of a detour, but she considered it time well-spent, even though it meant she had to move that much faster to her true destination. It was probably a good idea for Ame to have their outpost separated into a few bunkers instead of as one big, internally connected building. In theory, that design protected most of the base when one section was compromised.

In practice, Aiko was mildly inconvenienced because the buildings weren't helpfully labeled but also weren't adequately guarded. She ended up in the barracks by accident, calmly holding her breath and sliding past a pale-faced duo who were talking quietly at a small table. They didn't hear her steps and they certainly didn't notice the slight friction of chakra against reality as the genjutsu wrapped around her like a silk dress let them see what they expected to see.

That was a little thrilling, to be honest. Genjutsu wasn't a strength of hers, but 'Obi had been drilling her mercilessly in using genjutsu to hide for the last month and a half. She'd spent most of that time grouching that she would never get the damn technique down and that she didn't want it anyways. Now that she was suddenly competent, Aiko found all sorts of situations where it was useful.

In other words, she was getting lazy as all hell and she probably owed her friend an apology for being a poor student.

'I'm terrible,' she thought with a thoroughly inappropriate smile at her own expense.

Hypocritical or not, the technique worked like a charm to get herself in the control center. It was pretty nice, for an office in a little outpost. That was thanks to the fact that border control had been one of Ame's greatest priorities after their dust-up with a four country alliance two years back. As a result, they had all but poured their money into the base and lit it on fire.

"Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, moe," she crooned, carefully leaving a sixteenth of a bloody fingerprint on the inside of the door. That was insignificant enough to look accidental. Aiko accidentally leaned a little too close and got a nose-ful of the cloying reek of iron and fear.

' Whoo, that's gonna piss somebody off.'

The inevitable forensics team would know it was from one of their people when the sample was compared. Even Iwa could handle that kind of detective work. Ame should do fine.

She left the office mostly untouched, doing her best to imitate the movements of an agent who was pressed for time, but attempting to ensure that they left no traces. The three bodies in the warehouse would be dismissed as a distraction from the intruder's real aim, hopefully, when all was said and done.

Even if they were really clueless, Ame would only be able to conclude that someone had commissioned an intelligence gathering mission.

If they were incompetent, they would think that Iwa had been the ones to break in, which was a violation of their current but shaky treaty. Ame should be leery about that, actually. A nominal ally sneaking around was much more hazardous than a known enemy. Their closest neighbors would be on Ame's shortlist of suspects, and Aiko had spent the night in a hotel not four hours away wearing the face of an Iwagakure kunoichi. Digging would uncover that and reinforce their paranoia in regards to their northern neighbors.

But if Ame's people were as good as 'Obi hoped they were, they would think that Konoha was framing Iwa in an attempt to pry apart their alliance.

(Aiko didn't bother fretting about the possibility that they would actually figure out that a third party had attempted to frame Konoha for framing Iwagakure. If Ame worked that one out, they deserved a pat on the back, no matter how much 'Obi would scowl and stomp around).

She lazily picked papers up nearly at random, leaving her scent in case Ame would think to check what had been touched that way. It wouldn't matter that it was hers, since they wouldn't know her personally. It took a great deal of time and experience to memorize an individual scent and not just follow a trail. There was no reason for any Ame shinobi to know her off-hand. All they'd know was that a female shinobi had been poking around. She paid special attention to information on orders in regards to the other nations, holding Ame's protocol about Rock-nin at borders and the records of contract for the longest time out of personal curiosity.

It was mildly interesting to see that Ame wasn't treating Rock with more caution than they were Suna or Kiri, who were understandably peeved about their tiff in the not-so-distant past. That wasn't wise of them, was it?

'This Konan woman must not be much of a politician. Too straight forward, I think,' Aiko decided disinterestedly. It was true on the surface, at least, that it was logical to be most wary of the countries that Ame had recently engaged in armed conflict with. Rock had been the only one out of the great shinobi nations who had stayed out of that scuffle, so Ame must have decided that Iwagakure was their most probable ally.

Stupid, and one-dimensional to overlook Rock's long and friendly history with Kumo, who was the primary antagonist that Ame had to worry about. Since Konoha had broken ties with the Raikage and attempted to keep Ame from being invaded by Kumo, Rock was free to support their oldest ally without having to make nice with Konoha. Ame was doing a surprisingly good job of keeping Kumo at bay, but if Rock joined in, they were pretty well doomed.

It all seemed rather infantile to Aiko, but 'Obi thought it was funny to watch them squirm. If she were honest with herself, there was some amusement value in sitting back with a bowl of ice cream while grown men and women squabbled like irritable toddlers.

That was why she was pretending to be a Konoha-nin framing a Rock-nin for illegally entering Ame and trying to assess their current information. Shame that the theoretical Konoha nin was going to make one tiny mistake that undermined their attempt to frame Rock.

Speaking of that…

Aiko dug around in the left-most pocket on her hip pouch and extracted a tiny glass bottle. She held it up to the light to see the dry corpse inside one last time.

' How on earth did he get one of these?'

She pursed her lips and shrugged, carefully tipping out one kikai bug onto the thin carpet right by the edge of the desk she knelt in front of.

The bug had died of natural causes—old age. They occasionally just did that, and fell wherever their master was. Any shinobi who looked around this room would be able to tell that there had only been one intruder, a female with a petite build. The bug clan was notoriously sneaky. So Ame wouldn't be surprised to 'discover' that an Aburame had gotten in the premises, though Ame wouldn't be pleased about it either.

'And there goes Konoha's hope of convincing Ame that the threat from an Iwa/Kumo alliance is more important than their pride,' Aiko sighed. She didn't really care one way or another, but it was a little shocking that the lives of so many people could be affected by something so fragile.

Or not. Maybe it wasn't that fragile, judging by the faint presence she was noting flicker on the edge of her awareness. Maybe Konoha had actually planned a mission like the one 'Obi was having her fake. Wouldn't that be funny?

She repressed a snort as she crossed her way across the lines of barbed wire and miles of icy marsh that made up the no-man's land between Ame and River Country. That was awfully convenient, but then, Konoha and Ame were running out of time for their respective goals.

She'd left a slight scent trail leaving Ame to River (although only an expert would be able to tell) because a Konoha nin wouldn't have gone directly through the border at Fire Country, but they wouldn't really go through Rock Country either. Nice neutral River country left plausible deniability for any party. Coulda been a Suna mission, even, if it weren't for the fact that Suna and Kiri were outright refusing to take part in Konoha's less than selfless efforts to keep Kumo from taking Ame. If Ame didn't formally ask for Konoha's protection, then Kiri and Suna couldn't be forced to take part in helping them. Konoha was crippled, until Ame pulled their collective heads out.

' Ugh, why am I wasting time thinking about this? It's not really my problem.'

Apparently, 'Obi was operating on the same wavelength as the Hokage, because there really was a Konoha-nin creeping towards Ame.

Or at least, she assumed it was a Konoha nin heading north through River. Aiko stopped leaving an intentional trail at all when she veered off course to meet with the approaching chakra signal. It would be a pain if this asshat managed to make it into the Ame border-post and do damage control.

'Like what?' Aiko snickered at her own dramatic thoughts, licking her lips. 'I don't even know how he would figure out what happened. Still, it's an unnecessary loose end.'

As soon as she saw him, she circled downwind, to the west of the traveler. He wasn't marked, but Konoha wouldn't have sent a hitai-ite on a mission like that anyway.

'No one I recognize,' Aiko thought wryly, wishing she'd made a cleaner kill earlier and hating the obvious stink on her arm and shirt. There was always a risk of running into a dog-nin when dealing with Konoha, and blood carried a strong scent.

She could have killed the sentries without the fuss, of course, but it was supposed to look like a hack job by an infiltrator who accidentally drew too much attention. Aiko hadn't had a problem with the men she'd run into, and could have ambushed them like an infiltrator should. But that didn't fit the profile she was attempting to imply. An Aburame who was canny and practiced enough to pull off a mission like this would already be well-known, and there wasn't one of those with Aiko's physical profile currently active. So she was portraying someone talented but inexperienced, a girl who managed to sneak past most of the security but had to fight for her life against a rather good Chuunin.

' This guy is definitely not a Chuunin, though. I wonder what that scarring is from. Very distinctive.'

In an odd way, the horizontal lines marring her new find reminded her of 'Obi. Except this guy's scars made a sort of rough triangle with a tip across the bridge of his nose that stretched and expanded over his left cheek, instead of decorating a neat half of his face. Odd, though not particularly important.

But the Konoha nin didn't seem to be a dog-man. No matter how obvious the stink of blood was to her, he was visibly ignorant.

He was skilled, however, even if he did have beady black creeper eyes. He picked his way rather expertly through the marshland, not leaving a physical trace of his presence. Like a veteran, actually.

'He has a lot more experience than me,' Aiko noted, more interested in an accurate tactical analysis than her ego. 'I can't afford to let him have a fair shot. It would be pathetically cliché for the young shinobi to underestimate someone cannier.'

It was almost a shame to unceremoniously kill someone that good, but she couldn't have him undermining her work. Aiko shrugged, picking a single senbon out of her leg holster and twirling it between her middle and forefingers as she examined her target to pick her shot.

'All that muscle might be enough to put the needle penetration off if I get the wrong spot. He's not in bad shape. What is he, in his mid-thirties?' Aiko gauged, eyes flicking over his lithe form for weaknesses. 'Definitely from Konoha, with that chest armor. They really prioritize that.'

Her target stopped suddenly, clearly alert.

She didn't know how, but he knew he was being watched. Did he have a chakra sense that was better than her suppressing? That would be odd, since his suppressing wasn't as good as her sensing. It was more likely that indefinable seventh sense that occasionally pricked the back of your neck for no apparent reason that had alerted him he was in danger.

' Oh, pooperscoop.'

Aiko pressed her lips out in a pout, slipping the senbon behind her ear like a schoolgirl would store a pencil. Now that he was alert, it would be a pain to get that perfect shot. And she hated unintentional messiness. There was no point in doing something sloppily when she could expend minimal effort and still get precise results by switching tactics. Her next tactic wasn't hard to choose, seeing as there was one obvious resource all around her, curling into her lungs and kissing her lips damply.

'Well, do you know where I am or not, sweetheart?' she wondered curiously, circling just a little bit as the sluggish wind shifted. She was still wearing her genjutsu, but no technique was perfect. A fellow infiltration shinobi was more likely to be able to spot the cracks in the technique than a random nin.

"Kai!"

Aiko jerked in mild surprise as the burst of chakra washed over her. Usually she could maintain her technique through one of those disruptions, but he'd really gone full-out with the power he'd put into the technique. Not bad. She was right, he was experienced. Special Jounin at least, if not a full Jounin. Konoha's Jounin were nothing to sniff at. Their standards for promotion seemed to be set higher than many other countries'. She should be wary and professional. Still…

"That's cheating!" Aiko faux-pouted, cocking her head slightly and letting him drink the sight of his killer in for just a moment.

Oddly, the man outright gaped. She might have thought he was leering, if it weren't for the fact that he seemed stuck on her face and hair and hardly glanced below the collarbones. (Not that there was anything to see, clad as she was in a high-necked but sleeveless top with pants). He looked more surprised at seeing her than he really had any right to, considering he'd just attempted to disrupt a genjutsu. Had that been luck? Did this guy just occasionally freeze like a startled deer and check for genjutsu?

'I'm definitely not telling 'Obi I got caught out by a complete lunatic,' she thought morosely.

Now that he'd seen her, he definitely had to die. She wasn't much good to 'Obi if the whole world knew about her, after all. Her hand slipped into her hip pouch for a smoke pellet.

Wow, he didn't even tense. Was he an idiot or what?

Generally, one took evasive action when an opponent was possibly reaching for a weapon. This man must be particularly clueless. Or trusting. It wasn't as if she had a mark of affiliation on her person. Maybe he wasn't willing to attack a stranger met within a country that was technically on peaceful terms with his own, if loosely.

That was… somewhat reasonable, actually.

Didn't matter. He'd kill her in an instant if he knew the mission she'd just completed. It wasn't particularly sporting to make the first move, but should that really matter in a fight to the death? Having had a chance to fight back wouldn't make the loser less deceased. Aiko had no plans of being that deceased shinobi.

Ah, well. Philosophy later, fighting now. Her hand darted like the head of a snake, snapping the pellet down with enough force that it burst open and spat a fat billow of scentless purple smoke. Aiko didn't bother repressing a smile and a cheeky wave in the instant that her upper torso was still visible, before she faded into genjutsu again and let the smoke cover her.

She didn't move an inch. No one other than a total idiot would expect someone to remain in the same position after using a smoke pellet. It was an absurd, just plain stupid strategy. Sure enough, as the smoke dissipated, the poor reasonable bastard of a Konoha nin clearly thought she'd merely moved into hiding.

'He really shouldn't be surprised that I would use the same trick twice,' Aiko assessed critically. 'Silly. Are Konoha nin just showboats or something? No point in re-inventing the wheel when you have a technique that gets the job done.'

No wonder 'Obi had been careful to keep her away from Konoha nin. He probably didn't want her to pick up bad habits.

With preternatural ease, she took hold of the mist clinging insistently to the air as a preemptive strike. It was almost too easy, really. It was a second's work to condense it into actual water—a trick that was nicely timed with the instant that her unknown opponent opened his mouth wide. "U-"

'It's like he wants to help me kill him,' Aiko thought, bemused. That didn't stop her from taking control of her element and bastardizing a water bullet to send it shooting down the Konoha nin's throat before he got out more than a syllable. His jaw clamped shut and a hand shot to his neck, but she was already flooding his lungs. Clinically, she tilted her head and watched as panic set in. He wasn't even looking for her anymore, preoccupied as he was with the fact that he was about to drown.

Dispassionately, she waited and watched while consciousness fled and the poor sap collapsed. He had the presence of mind to turn his face to the side when he fell, probably in hopes that she would get sloppy and bored. If she were in too much of a hurry to wait until he was actually dead, he might cough up the water even in his unconscious state. With his head to the side, it would spill out. It was a little trick, but it would have saved his life, had she been careless or rushed.

'That's a tactic straight out of the warnings about passing out drunk,' Aiko thought, charmed by his hopeful attitude. He was a cutie. 'Well, buddy, that was a nice try.'

She let the genjutsu slip away and stepped forward, delicately tilting his chin up with her clean hand so that he faced skyward. His eyes had fluttered shut when oxygen was cut off to his brain, and he almost looked peaceful. He laid still and quiet on his back without so much as a scuff or wrinkle on his clothes.

That was the way she preferred to operate. Nice and clean. Aiko gave his shoulder a fond pat as she rose, finally releasing her hold on the water and glancing curiously at the rings on his hand. She had waited long enough that he was definitely dead, so it had merely been her impulse towards perfectionism that had led her to thwart his last-moment plan and not any practical reason.

Finished, Aiko cast her senses out. She wasn't sure if she thought Buddy was operating alone or not. On one hand, Konoha nin did tend to travel in groups, so he very well could have back-up. Then again, it was often easier to get in and out on a stealthy mission with as few people as possible.

She didn't sense anyone… There could be someone who was very sneaky, but it didn't seem likely. Aiko wasn't a half-bad sensor.

'Well, if he had someone who was meant to help, I think they're running late,' she decided perfunctorily, tossing her head and distractedly unclipping her hair. It was going to kink up terribly if she left it like that for long, and she had plans for the night that didn't involve a bad hair day. She didn't give it another thought, casually loping back on her path to the point where she'd diverted to meet Buddy.

'If Ame really has anyone as good as me available to check this out, they are going to be so fucking confused when they find that body,' Aiko thought with unkind amusement as she went through the motions of leaving a slight trail in the direction she had initially intended to go.

Of course, that would be more amusing than the original plan. She half-hoped that Ame was more than competent, just for the entertainment value.