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misplace your cities

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chapters 1-3 are in this first part

 

Chapter 1





It would have been really fucking cool to use Hiraishin seals to bring objects to her instead of traveling to objects. Aiko kept that thought in mind, and not how phenomenally the experiment had failed.



Fuck if I know why I ended up where I did. Fucking random. Shouldn’t I have ended up near a seal?’



There was exactly no chance that Aiko had ever left a seal in Mizugakure.



“Bloodline user!”



Especially not, you know, in the reign of Yagura. Who was giving her an unpleasant look, and leaping backwards as his guards moved forward with blood in their eyes.



At least it wasn’t her first time travel mishap. She quickly focused on the important part.



“I was not!” Aiko retorted, ducking under a machete that should have taken off her head. It made a slicing sound when it passed over.



Unfair. What kind of idiot assumed a bloodline was responsible when someone appeared out of the shadows-



Oh. Shit.



She cheesed it, sprinting past the surprised shouts and reflexive projectiles. Aiko went up a building face, scorching the stone facing and accidentally blowing chips off with too much chakra. At least three Mist-nin followed with more grace.



Did I just start the Bloodline Purge?’ she wondered in the part of her head that wasn’t going ‘oh shit oh shit oh shit when the hell am I?’ because history had never been her strong suit.



That would be embarrassing. But at least it wasn’t boring…



Luckily or not, a few days later Aiko managed to track down a newspaper that confirmed she should find a textbook when she went home.



So how long do I have to wait until Mei-nee-chan kills Yagura and I can have a friend with an important hat?’



Ugh. Aiko turned the newspaper to the front page to glare accusatively at the date again. The man selling the papers cleared his throat.



“Have a cold?” she asked, not really caring.



I’m eleven at this point. Or…’ Aiko looked down to confirm that her body was very much that of an adult, as it should be. ‘Well. One of me is eleven.’



It’d be a while until that shitty situation was resolved in Mizu. Not that it was like, Aiko’s problem or anything. She didn’t care.



Aiko scowled, crumpling the newspaper in disgust and stomping off. 



Even in her short-circuited confusion, Aiko had had enough sense to travel west. She’d lost her pursuers when she’d vaulted over the village wall and blown up a cart full of goji berries. She had only felt a little sorry for the tradesperson she’d probably bankrupted, because it had been pretty funny.



She’d had to switch to traveling over the water after only an hour of running after losing her pursuers, at which point she’d relaxed the pace down to a ground-eating lope. Island nations were funny that way. Nothing like Konoha.



Is that where I should be going?’



Aiko sighed and ran her hands through her hair, fingers catching first on a knot and then the tangled mess that had been a braid.



First of all, she should find somewhere to stay for the night and get cleaned up. She was attracting sideways looks. But she didn’t have a change of clothes, damnit, and what she was wearing would not last well through repeated wear.  



But come on, it was normal to do things like seal experimentation in one’s pajamas. If it had worked, she would probably have at most endured the awkwardness of bringing Yamato to her kitchen along with the kunai in his possession. Instead, it had been like… like her sense of her seals had caught, stuttered, and then re-focused on nothing that she recognized. Like she was suddenly on the wrong radio frequency, tuning into someone else’s conversation.



Instead, Aiko was wandering the business district of a smallish city two islands away from the capital of Mizugakure at twilight in puppy-patterned shorts and a wide-strapped tank top. At least she had real sandals on; through they were leather-bottomed strappy affairs and not shinobi grade equipment. She started to keep an eye out for a hotel to spend the night.



Wait. She didn’t have any money with her.



Well, she could just go home and-



She couldn’t. Not really. Her gut churned. At eleven, she was an unfriendly Chuunin with more arrogance than experience. Okay, even if she got past village security, and the Hokage believed her (okay, he probably would, since they had gone through this time travel thing before), what was she expecting? Who was going to leap to help her? Jiraiya could probably help her figure out what she’d done, but he wasn’t in Konoha.



Figuring out what she’d done wouldn’t get her back home, though. It might not even be possible. She couldn’t sense her seals at all. Was she going to have to live out the next nine years until she was back where she was supposed to be?



That didn’t quite make sense. She couldn’t resume her own life, because she would already be living it.



So… do I need to find a new life and live it?’ Aiko wondered. ‘Just… do whatever feels right and will keep me amused?’



Terrifying. Annoying. Also interesting.



The worst part was that no one knew who she was, and her hard-earned reputation was gone. The best part was that no one knew who she was, and she could do whatever the hell she wanted with no consequences whatsoever. Who was going to stop her, Tsunade?



She stopped smiling, because the expression had grown so wide that all her teeth were showing and a woman had just jerked her child out of Aiko’s path with wide, appalled eyes.



You know what would be really funny?’



Yes. Yes, she really did. Aiko took a moment to think it through, coming up with the vague notion of baffling and tormenting people she didn’t like. If she went cross-continental and set up a skeleton of Hiraishin tags, it’d be a lot safer. She plotted out the easiest route to cover absentmindedly, jiggling open a third-floor hotel window and hoisting herself in. She showered first, using all the complimentary shampoo and conditioner. Aiko wrinkled her nose, but laid out the same outfit for the next day, and crawled into bed.



Now that I know my tags are at risk if Obito grabs me through kamui, I just won’t let that happen. If he moves toward me, I’ll just up and go. It’s not like he’ll know who I am, or have the same interest in me.’



Aiko woke up in the dead of the night to go shopping. Whatever city she was in had a vibrant nightlife, but she actually seemed less out of place than she had during the day. Smiling, Aiko nodded at a group of drunks stumbling down the street.



I should get more changes than I think I’ll need. Nothing I can buy here will be the industrial, reinforced materials that I’m used to in Konoha.’



That didn’t bother her, to be honest. That was what she’d made do with when she was running with Obito, and it wasn’t like armor was integral to her fighting style.



When she found a likely looking boutique, Aiko slipped around to the alley and forced the back door open. The clothes she found were a little off-putting, truth be told. Civilian fashion in Mist nine years back had apparently tended toward pastels and very low necklines, cut in dramatic vees. They would look a lot better on soft, curvy civilian women than they would on her. She frowned at them. After a little digging, she found a less unnlikely blue top with a silvery modesty panel, and paired it with a green knee-length skirt. She changed right there on the sales floor, eagerly dropping her day-old pajamas. Aiko walked away from the dirty clothes, keeping an eye out for the next item on her list. She found a reasonably secure and chic pink backpack- a tiny purse sized thing with spindly straps, but at least it wouldn’t flap around like a purse would when she ran.



At the counter, she found a pad of stationary and a pen. She took the whole thing, scribbling storage seals on the first pages and picking out spare outfits to tuck away. Her pajamas went in too, as did all but one of a packet of headbands and some scrunchies. Aiko took a moment to make a pouty face at her reflection on a mirror, taking care to make sure her hair fell nicely around her new accessory.



There was absolutely nothing useful in terms of footwear, unfortunately. Her sandals were drastically out of place, so she packed up and went on search of another, more promising store.



When she thought she had enough equipment (and it was a damn shame that she didn’t have a single weapon of any sort, how annoying) Aiko hefted her little bag and the notepad inside. She set out, taking care to brush not one but three seals into the coastal city she’d ended up in. It seemed like a pretty safe little hideout, truth be told. Then she left over the water, headed for the mainland. She came ashore in Wave Country.



Isn’t this nostalgic?’ Aiko tilted her head, slowing to a walk as she crossed a bridge. She was pulling her hair up into something neater to cope with the humidity and heat when she noticed the first thin, hungry-eyed civilian.



That was what she remembered. Hmm. Yes, she was only about a year away from when her team would swing by and kill Gato, wasn’t she? He must be in his heyday. Curious, Aiko made a detour for the little town she remembered, bending to scoop up a rock, plant a seal on it, and then toss it into the underbrush.



The civilians were already starving, thin and desperate under the despotic reign of someone with no concept of ensuring a capable workforce. Aiko frowned, wondering why Gato was so incompetent. There wasn’t really any point to brow-beating the civilians like this. If he was greedy, why wasn’t he attempting to profit off of this? He was already the only game in town. He could offer jobs with low pay, stifle the competition, especially since there was currently no easy connection to the mainland, and make a helluva lot of money. He didn’t even have to be hated to do it.



I’ll never understand some people.’ Contemplative, Aiko perched on a tree and swung her legs. The town woke sluggishly. A few people kept chickens, and they were up at a decent time to take care of the poultry. Fishermen and women headed out next, craggy and sun-burnt people with scarred hands. And… that was it? She frowned. There should be kids heading to school, businesses opening, that kind of thing. But there just wasn’t.



Boo. Maybe she should do something.



On the other hand, she wasn’t interested in heroics, and they’d be saved in a year anyway. But jeeze, it seemed kind of bitchy to leave them to suffer for so long. Aiko frowned, trying to pick out why she was so reluctant to interfere. It wasn’t like she cared about making sure the mission went as planned when her team came out, so that wasn’t it. Was it? Not exactly.



That’s the first time they’re really out of Konoha- the only location I can reasonably confirm. If I leave this situation fundamentally unchanged, that’ll be my first opportunity to see familiar faces from Konoha.’



And maybe, if she were totally honest, she was a little interested in being scouted by Konoha. She wasn’t a missing nin on anyone’s books, so she wasn’t a criminal. Her stomach rumbled, but she ignored it. She’d stolen from other towns, but she wouldn’t take from already starving mouths here.



She could just be a wandering shinobi- someone who’d picked up their trade from a village outsider. It was no crime to be taught by a missing nin, or a parent.



And Konoha likes Uzumaki. I mean. The Sandaime just scooped Karin up like she was an extra tomato at the market or something.’



She felt cheered, for a moment. Then she realized-



I don’t actually have the traditional Uzumaki looks.’



Okay. When she stood between Naruto and Karin, it was obvious that she belonged. But on her own? Uzumaki wouldn’t be the first thought.



Her hair was red, but not the iconic shade. Her face was too pointy to be the feminine ideal, yeah, but her features tended more toward the sharp eyes, brows, and thin lips of her dad and not the wide cheeks, pointed chin, and sharp-tipped nose of her mom.



Well. I’m close enough. I have chakra chains and I know a lot of fuinjutsu. Anyone who’s familiar with Uzumaki traits would put that together.’



That sounded like another reason to wait for team seven. Uzushiogakure had fallen long enough ago that there weren’t many active ninja left from its heyday. Like, Tsunade was a bit young to have had much interaction, and that was a bad sign. But Kakashi had known Kushina. He’d clue in, if she was obvious enough.



I don’t know if it’s a reason or a pretense, but that’s what I’m going with.’



That did leave Aiko with plenty of time to kill. Sort of.



How do I know when we’re about to come? I’m not going to hang out and wait for a year.’



Not in this dingy little backwater, anyway. Besides, she had plans. She had people to pretend to meet for the first time, people to kill, and, uh, people to confuse. She was starting to notice a theme. Hmm.



Is it possible that I’m just a really rude person?’



Maybe. Oh well. She dismissed the thought for more important matters.



Zabuza. He’s a big enough name that word gets around. If I keep my ear to the ground and pay attention to what he’s doing, I can be reasonably certain of the timing. I’ll just wait for him to move into Wave to work for Gato.’



Feeling cheered, Aiko added several stops to her cross-continental tour to check for information. She stopped in disreputable bars, a harbor with a significant smuggling presence, and one opium den that she was familiar with from her time running illicit materials.



It turned out that it was hard to coast on the reputation of her dangerous terrorist organization whilst

A. the terrorist organization was currently obscure to the point of irrelevance

B. she was not a member of the terrorist organization anyway



Please let me see your books?” Aiko tried, tilting her head to the side.



The information broker looked unimpressed, crossing enormous tattooed arms. “Smiling isn’t going to work. Flirting isn’t going to work. Violence isn’t going to work. If you don’t have the cash, you’d better either leave or just kill me now.” His expression dared her to try.



Sullen, Aiko held up a finger to indicate one moment. “I’ll be back.”



“Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.” He picked his romance novel back up.



Information extracted through torture is the least reliable,’ Aiko reminded herself. Her hand curled into a fist. Instead of leaving, she exited the sideroom into the bar area, taking a moment to primp. She pinched her cheeks and lips. She took down her ponytail and ran her hands through her hair. Then she plastered a glassy, half-drunk-and-happy-about-it expression on her face and sauntered into the bar.



She scanned the room. Forty-two people, one drug deal, seven couples, one group of three who weren’t friends, and-



One man eying her up from behind a nearly empty glass with some dark liquid nestled in ice.



Aiko made direct eye contact, raised an eyebrow, and indicated the bathroom with about the level of subtlety one might expect from drunks.



There was a moment of, ‘Cool, really?’ before the dark-haired stranger excused himself from his friends and started towards the restrooms, glancing at her questioningly. Aiko gave a huge, visible sigh, and walked into the men’s restroom, fully expecting him to follow. She closed her eyes, focusing just enough to force her eyes to filter to the Rinnegan.



When her new friend opened the door, Aiko immediately whammied him with what was probably an unsafe amount of chakra and the compulsion to sleep. He dropped like a fish. Like, physically dropped.



I always forget that part.’



Aiko lunged to break his fall, and wished she’d waited a second longer to jump the guy, because the door caught on the poor chump’s foot. She wheezed, painstakingly dragging her victim out of the way. The door shut sheepishly, cutting off the ambient noise of conversation and distant radio programming.



His wallet was in his back pocket. Aiko picked out what she needed and fished the pen out of her bag to scribble an apologetic face on the back of a receipt. Before leaving, she propped the poor civilian up against a clean-ish wall and hid his wallet in his shoe. Getting robbed once was probably enough.



The stealing is getting old. Besides, it’s sloppy procedure to leave a constant trail like that. People talk.’



With that in mind, Aiko left a meeting with the now pliant-if-not-pleasant information broker with the knowledge that Zabuza had last been seen in Grass and the additional tidbit rumor of a nearby client who could use a hand with something he’d rather not approach a shinobi village for. She felt better with some good, honest work on the radar.



Well. You know. As honest as she felt like being. Aiko didn’t give it too much thought, because serving as some rich bratling’s inconspicuous guard paid pretty well and she only had to step in occasionally when her employer’s drunk kid insulted someone bigger. Besides, the gig came with all the knives she could pocket from the jumpy genin washout who was working as the partygirl’s other escort. Aiko needed them more than he did anyway. He was a genin working outside the village system, for crap’s sake. He wasn’t going to last the year.



Maybe that means he needs the weapons more than I do?’



Well. She could use them better, anyway. Aiko ended the mission with money in her pocket, four kunai and an increasingly paranoid, twitchy coworker.



He stayed.



Aiko considered leaving without saying anything. It wasn’t really her business. But they hadn’t been a bad team- he looked like hired muscle and drew the attention, while she looked like another vapid rich kid slumming and hit the people who were still looking suspiciously at the genin. It wasn’t a bad system, although it was one in which he was tragically disposable if his partner didn’t care to watch his back.



It is not going to be long before he runs into someone he can’t handle. He looks big and scary, but he’s just a baby, really.’



“You should probably get out while you’re ahead,” Aiko commented as she counted up her pay notes. “You’re not cut out for this.” The genin stood abruptly and walked out without comment.



Fine. I tried.’



The next jobs she picked up were head-hunting gigs. They paid without any questions and she didn’t risk making any friends.



Months passed in that way. Aiko slipped around the cracks of human refuse, slumming at the bottom of the barrel and taking missions that were advertised as better for a team. There was increased risk and hard nights without sleep, but she made bank by pocketing pay meant for more people. She saved up a fair bit of money.



It was… Thrilling and satisfying, actually. But lonely, yeah. She tried summoning her dogs- it didn’t work. She could summon other animals, but not the ones she knew and cared about it. That was a harder blow than the loss of her Konoha citizenship, truth be told. She could probably go back if she really wanted to, and worm her way into the lives of people she might eventually miss. But if Mitsuo and Hōseki weren’t answering her call, it meant that they were unable to.



They were never going to be able to.



Melancholy, Aiko spent far too much money in a bar that night. Nothing cheered her up- not the alcohol, not fleecing civilians at dart games, and not throwing an offended patron through a window when she became increasingly buzzed and forget to downplay her aim.



I haven’t heard anything about Zabuza in a while,’ Aiko mused. ‘I’ll treat myself. Do something fun. Just be a real shithead. Then I’ll check in on him.’



Still tipsy, she checked into a dive hotel for the night and tried to judge her location on the decent map of Hiraishin tags she’d made in the time she’d been stranded.



She determined that her geographical abilities were lacking enough that she would not attempt to relocate herself to a safehouse she hadn’t been to in years while buzzed.



Sober, the next morning, on the other hand, Aiko seamlessly tugged on reality. It deposited her in the attic of the Akatsuki safehouse she’d been aiming for.



Aiko shrugged. Close enough. She jogged down the stairs and idly held up a hand in greeting when she passed by an open bedroom door. “Yo.”


Iwa no Deidara grunted in response. By the time he’d jerked his head back up with a, “Wait, what?” Aiko was stepping into the kitchen in search of liquids that would chase off her hangover.



“Morning.” Aiko nodded, keeping her tone bored.



Kisame opened his mouth and let coffee splash onto the table. He gave her a bewildered look.



More cautious than I thought. He’s probably wondering who brought me, and if Pein will kill him for attacking me. For all he knows, I’m a new hire, or someone from management.’



“Need a rag?” Still pretending that she belonged there, Aiko pulled open the top drawer, rolled her eyes at the measuring cups inside, and then tried another drawer down. The ex-Mist nin accepted the cloth she tossed.



Don’t smile. Don’t. It’ll undermine what I have going on here.’



She could feel her lips twitch. It was okay. She was turned away enough that he couldn’t see it. Aiko controlled her expression and pulled down a teacup and saucer. When she turned around, she was all business. “Is there anything half-decent?”



The Mist Nuke-nin nodded cautiously, jerking his shoulder toward a cupboard. “I’d avoid the ocha. It’s old. The rest is fine.”



Uchiha Itachi wandered into the kitchen, made himself a bowl of green tea ice cream, and left without acknowledging her presence. It took half an hour for Pein to notice the intrusion, or to decide to deal with it. When the most familiar Path strode into the kitchen, Aiko was in the middle of checking the math in Kisame’s checkbook.



“Kunoichi.”



Aiko waved him off. “Just a minute,” she said distractedly. “Thanks.”


Inconspicuously, Kisame pushed his chair away from hers. He didn’t reach out to pull away his checks, though.



“I do not repeat myself.” Pein intoned darkly.



Oh god, this is too easy.’



She cupped a hand to her ear. “Sorry, what?” Aiko mimed confusion. “I didn’t hear that.”



“I do not-” Pein cut his automatic response off, giving her a downright vicious glare.



Moron.’



Aiko leapt across the table and tackled Pein to the ground.



Or, like, that was the idea. Instead she smacked into him with about the result she’d expect from charging a wall. The teacup in her hand even shattered from the collision, leaving her holding onto a curved shard the length of her bent finger. Because she was in fact a kunoichi and not a professional wrestler, Aiko flipped away and flung her kunai. They tik-tik-tik-tikt into the walls as he dodged them, moving all the way around her.



Which was, you know, fine. Because she now had two kunai embedded in the east wall, one in the south, and one in the west wall, and they were all Hiraishin.



Pein really literally did not see her coming. She appeared behind him, already jabbing her piece of broken glass forward and up through his brain stem.



It’s not really him anyway.’ Aiko stepped back hastily to avoid the falling body; because Pein’s favorite corpse to puppet around was super heavy with metal and what was probably ten years of slow rot.



The actual Pein was probably blinking somewhere from the sudden loss of sight and kicking at his wheelchair.



I bet he’s so confused.’



She cackled, tossing her head back and letting her blood-stained china fall from her hand.



“Serves you right, asshole,” Aiko wheezed. “With your creepy jutsu and shit.” She controlled herself enough to bend and wiggle out one of the metal piercings powering the corpse. She was kinda curious about how that worked. It wasn’t really her style to be so far removed from a fight (that seemed like it would take the fun out of things) but it never hurt to pick up a technique.



Kisame cleared his throat just as she tucked the jewelry into her bra for safekeeping. Aiko turned around to see that he was holding out a clean teacup with a suspiciously neutral expression.



“Thank you.” She took it. She let him pour her a new cup.



Well, he did come from Mist. I think succession does traditionally go that way.’



“What now?” Hoshigaki Kisame was completely unfazed. Perhaps he could be described as politely interested, but that would be a stretch.



Aiko shrugged. The answer was obvious. ‘Pein will regroup and come charging in here, a lot more prepared this time, at which point I will get the hell out of town.’



Of course, she knew that, and Konan would know that, but no one else would. It wasn’t like Pein went around explaining the fundaments of his techniques and letting the implied weaknesses hang in the air.



“I’m taking command of this boyband,” Aiko decided, spinning her now empty cup around the table with a finger. “You will be the cool one. Kakuzu-kun can be the one with a beard; Deidara-san is the eye candy, and Konan-chan is our manager. Oro- is Orochimaru here? If so, he’s our androgynous, hypnotically dangerous backup singer.” She pretended to think, tapping at her chin. “And Itachi-kun can just go home and think about his life choices.”



Kisame eyed her up for a long moment. He shrugged without offering comment.



There was a snigger. “I am the cute one,” Iwa no Deidara agreed from the door, delighted. He stepped over Pein’s feet and pulled out a chair with an obnoxious scraping sound. “So who the hell are you, yeah?”



“Aiko, pleased to meet you.” She favored him with a nod. Both men stiffened a little when she clapped her hands as loudly as possible. She injected seriousness into her tone. “Okay! So. The actual plan.” They waited. She noted that Uchiha Itachi and Akasuna no Sasori were listening from another room. “You will play the biwa,” Aiko decided, pointing at Kisame with her whole hand. He lifted an eyebrow. “Deidara-san, you’re on percussion. I’m talking controlled explosions, in the crowd, laying down the beat.”



The blonde leaned forward, enraptured. Someone, probably Sasori, made a disgusted sound from the back of their throat. Kisame just shrugged, not protesting or agreeing.



And Pein was moving toward her position fast, angry and covering a lot of ground. Aiko made one last brilliant attempt to baffle them with bullshit, forcing her body language to remain loose and untroubled as she got up to rinse out her cup. “Anyway, eat your vegetables and look both ways before you cross the street. Tell Konan that I’m sorry about her shoes when you see her.” She probably cut off her last word, using Hiraishin to flee the country when Pein blew through the front wall.



She collapsed on the floor to cackle as soon as she was sure she was safe, heart pounding and cheeks aching from repressed smiles.



I’ve only been up a few hours, and I think I’ve raised an impressive amount of hell.’











chapter 2

 

 

“I don’t know.” Naruto’s voice was contemplative. Aiko didn’t bother to look, but she knew that he’d be screwing his face up. That was what he did when his voice was like that. “This seems like a bad idea. The Daimyo have rules about their nobles visiting capitals for a reason.”



Aiko kicked her heels against the side of the building. From her perch, the evening wind was sending spikes of cold against her flesh, raising goosebumps against her flesh wherever it hit. “It’s not that bad. Money’s good. Not even killing anyone.”





What did she care if the Cloud Daimyo demanded his advisors send their wives to live with him for the length of appointments? Okay, having live-in hostages did ensure excellent behavior and keep workers on task. But it wasn’t her problem.



“Who are you talking to?”



Her conscience, duhhhh.



He is a good bodyguard. Nice and forgettable.’



“No one,” Aiko snapped. Aiko rolled her shoulder, joints creaking unpleasantly as she came back to the real world. ‘Maybe it’s time to go in.’



She stood and stretched without making eye contact with her impromptu partner. She pushed past him, letting her bored, disdainful expression speak for itself.



Haru furrowed his brow and craned his head to be absolutely certain that there was no one else around before he followed Aiko inside.



Aiko heard the intentional scuff and tap of his footsteps behind her, sounds as steady as heartbeat. He sounded like a perfectly capable civilian-type retainer and personal bodyguard. Without knowing, she probably wouldn’t have picked him out as some C-list missing nin hastily hired so that no scrupulously honest retainer would have a chance to notice that something was different about the lady of the house lately. Aiko sighed, reluctantly impressed with his commitment to his role. It wasn’t like she was trying very hard.



That in mind, she adjusted her posture to adapt the feminine, shuffling walk that made a woman in kimono look as though she was floating. Since her henge faithfully reproduced the expressions of her real face underneath, Aiko schooled her face as well.



Boring.’



The real noblewoman was living in her husband’s retinue under disguise as a maidservant. They thought it was terribly clever and daring. Aiko fully expected that romantic notion to fail in an ugly fashion when the realities of manual labor set in, or when someone inevitably noticed the switch.



But in the meantime, it wasn’t so bad to be paid handfuls of ryo to wear beautiful clothes, order around a household, and lounge. Going to parties sucked, but it was a mission. It couldn’t be all fun and sitting alone in the dark.



The mission had been a lucky break. It was the kind of thing that the client wouldn’t have wanted to take to an official shinobi mission desk: all governments had to at least give face service to respecting each others’ institutions. It was one thing to infight with other shinobi nations, but Daimyo were a system unto themselves. At least theoretically, shinobi owed Daimyo allegiance. Risking that relationship just wasn’t worth it.


Missing nin, not so much. They couldn’t possibly be any more politically incorrect.



It takes so long to get anywhere walking like this.’



Despite her frustration, Aiko steeled herself to match her pace to the calm rhythm of Haru’s breathing. They went down stairs and passed into the less public areas of the palace.



Haru made a small, surprised sound, and then a rattling inhalation.



Aiko flung her body to the side before she tried to look. The movement barely got her out of another shinobi’s lunging attack path. The hunter-nin had already adjusted, breathing out licks of fire.



For just one second, Aiko took in the scene. Haru’s knees buckled and his ponytail was streaming behind him as he fell, surprise forever plastered on his features. One Mist hunter-nin was behind him- the other’s jutsu was roaring across the last few inches of distance.



She was gone before she consciously thought that she should move.



Well, fuck that job. It clearly wasn’t worth the pay, if- if-



Mist hunter nin were involved? Without paying any notice to the squirrel that chattered in surprise and darted out of a broken window, Aiko sank down to sit.



Mist hunter nin wouldn’t care about some official’s wife. They were there for a shinobi- me, or Haru.’



She didn’t know shit about who Haru really was. Maybe he was a Mist nuke-nin, although she’d honestly guessed he was from Iwa.



But I do know that I startled the Mizukage, and he may be under the impression that I got past all his security and tried to kill him.’





“Oops,” Aiko said despondently. The empty hideout she’d traveled to on reflex did not answer, though curtains rustled in the wind. She sighed, pushing herself up to stand. She took a quick look around the room- that window had clearly broken at least a week back, and nature was attempting to move in- and rolled her eyes.



At least some things could be relied upon. Obito was still a pig.



It probably wasn’t a good idea- he would know that someone had been here, and probably freak the fuck out- but Aiko found it soothing to rummage up the tools to patch the hole with sturdy cloth over the whole window. It wasn’t professional quality, but it’d keep leaves and rain out. Maybe not the squirrels though.



Whatever. I have bigger problems than squirrels.’



Cranky, Aiko tossed the hammer over her shoulder, suddenly done with distracting herself. She did not investigate the ominous clattering sounds that resulted.



I’m probably being tracked. Nuts or not, the Mizukage would probably make the pursuit of a supposed assassin a high priority. He’d be concerned about stopping the security holes that let me in and preventing embarrassment, if nothing else.’



Just bloody typical. She was in trouble for something she didn’t actually do. With all the shit that she actually pulled, it was fucking offensive that she was getting bothered for minding her own business.



Hiraishin was probably the only reason they hadn’t caught up to her before. It was pretty fucking hard to track someone who could travel instantaneously. They must have either been really lucky or ferociously determined to find her at all.



Then how did they find me this time?’ She stopped to consider the situation, brow furrowed. ‘They’d circulate my description, probably hit on the same hotspots that I know of to find unsanctioned missions….’



“Son of a bitch,” Aiko cursed under her breath. “Someone sold me out!”



Only explanation. Either Haru- and if he had, Mist hadn’t kept up their end of that deal- or the broker who had hooked her up with the contract. Or someone else working in that household could have recognized her and sold her out. That seemed unlikely, but she couldn’t dismiss it entirely.



This isn’t going to go away without a damn good reason.’



Like… A new Mizukage, for example? Killing the current Mizukage and leaving Kiri with bigger problems to worry about? Or just unacceptable losses to personnel that prompted the administration to back off?



The little Naruto-ish part of her consciousness tapped a foot against the floor.



“One of these things is not like the other,” he pointed out waspishly. “We should find Mei-nee-chan and help her out, then.”



Aiko shook her head to dismiss the input. “No. No way. Mei was in the Mizukage’s personal guard squad, playing off the loyalists and the rebels. I can’t access her.”



But she definitely could go kill some Mist-nin.



Naruto would find a way to do this peacefully, make the opportunity himself if he had to. But Aiko cracked her neck, stripped off the far-too-fancy kimono she was wearing, and went back to the capital city in the gear she’d had under the dress.



She’d sell the kimono there. If the Mist hunter-nin were worth anything at all, they’d track her down again and follow her to attempt to finish her again. They’d think she was still in the area somehow- anything else was just too unbelievable.



Sure enough, Aiko picked up a tail not long after leaving the pawn shop. She wasn’t surprised: the owner had haggled nervously and stalled long enough that he almost had to have been tipped off.



They didn’t attack her on the streets.



That wasn’t so strange. They were operating in a foreign nation.



They didn’t attack her when she stopped for the night at an inn on the outskirts of town. Her personal shadows stayed far back enough that it was completely plausible that they thought she didn’t know they were there.



That restraint was a little odd, but understandable. It made sense to wait until she was totally alone, if they were more cautious than eager.



When no one made a move after Aiko had been out of civilization for four hours, she had to admit that something else was going on.



New orders?’ She wondered, working down the itch of tension in her shoulders. Even under the security seals and traps and genjutsu that she set up at night, she wasn’t getting much rest under constant watch. ‘Maybe they’re just here to observe for now. They’ve probably figured out that if they show their faces, I slip away. So they’re just watching, staying quiet so that they don’t scare me off. ’



Not like that was a good thing. That was situational analysis- they wanted to figure out who she was and how she kept slipping away.



They’re probably waiting for backup.’



Or…



On a hunch, Aiko altered her path after she stopped for lunch. She’d left the city on the most obvious route, headed towards the next large settlement. It had been what she would have done, if she had really been a rogue nin desperate to make some money and get what resources they had after a mission gone wrong.



(Some part of her mind laughed until it cried because hell, how was that not what she really was, the only difference was that geographical restraints about seeking necessary shelter and supplies and work didn’t apply)



The Mist hunter-nin scattered, falling far enough behind that she actually couldn’t sense them. And then they came back at her from another direction, angry sparks of killing intent heralding an all but literal flight.



Oh shit.’



It was actually pretty intimidating. Powerful. Almost familiar. But that was nuts, how many Kiri nin would Aiko recognize by chakra?



There was really only one thing to do: turn to the course they wanted her to take. Aiko turned and started running in the direction they were herding her. Her pumping heartbeat and nerves were loudly suggesting that she sprint, but her head knew better. No, she needed a pace she could keep up for a long time. A day or more, if she had to, and then still be capable of putting up a fight.



Sometimes, I hate being right.’



Two pursuants, and they were probably the ones she’d encountered before. Aiko tried to remember the brief glimpse she’d gotten- both were slim, but one was so small that they had to be a child or a petite woman. The other was unremarkable, she thought.



They’re trying to force me into a trap,’ she diagnosed. ‘They almost certainly have backup. Or maybe just a situation heavily weighed in their favor. Tiring me out couldn’t hurt, either. Why am I doing what they want?’



Aiko wavered with indecision. It was a bad idea to go ahead with this. She didn’t know what they had planned, but she knew the goal was not to her benefit.



I’m not immortal.’



She shivered, stumbling when her foot landed oddly in an indented rock she hadn’t noticed. But she didn’t stop running.



They really could kill me if I stay. Why act how they expect? I can just up and leave.’



But then she wouldn’t know what she was up against at all. Their next move would be a genuine surprise. If they’d gone for her first instead of Haru, she’d be dead right now.



That was chilling. She hadn’t considered it much, but- she hadn’t heard them, had she? Or smelled them or seen them or-



They’re really good. That’s the kind of silent killing that Mist is actually famous for. I’ve never dealt with that before.’



Aiko clenched her jaw.



I don’t think I can afford to let them catch me unawares again. This team has to die, for sure.’



When they were sure she was on track, the Mist team pretended to lose ground. They fell back, chakra fading. The rate was gradual but sure, a trick to keep her moving but feel safe enough to at least consider that she had outpaced her pursuers.



Do they seriously think I’m stupid?’



Well. To be fair, if she was panicking, desperation and hope might prompt her to hope she’d really lost them.



She couldn’t sense them at all. They could be staying further behind. They could just be really, really good at keeping a low profile.



Either way, she did not stop running. Her feet ached and her chest hurt and her breath was coming in gasps despite her restraint but she did not stop running. Pain began to shoot up her knees with every step throughout the night- She must have twisted her ankle without knowing, blinded by adrenaline.



The air turned cold. The moon was out. And that was when a familiar well of chakra roared to life a few miles from her position. It was nearly ahead- a bit south and east of her position, but too close to ignore-



And-



And she didn’t really have much choice but to drop the game and use a burst of Hiraishin speed to cover the last of the difference, because if the Mist-nin thought they could somehow get two missing nin at once, she either had to leave entirely or assist Utakata before she got pinned against a hostile, irrational jinchuuriki with hunter-nin sandwiching them in.



A deep, distant part of her was reluctantly impressed with that bit of ingenuity. Stressing and pissing off two powerful opponents, knocking them together, and then being there to wipe up the winner was a labor-efficient plan.



And crap on a cracker, the Mist nin had accidentally hit on a tactic to create a situation she was unwilling to desert. Utakata would be killed if he was dragged back to Mist. Was Obito already in Kiri? She couldn’t leave. It’d be delivering him a bijuu. That’d be losing. She didn’t lose, not even when no one else knew they were in opposition.



Utakata was already half-bijuu, leaking poison and sharp bits of shells and screaming a clawed strike through the air.



Somehow, the one hunter nin she could see managed to look surprised even behind their mask. The moment spent gaping at her sudden appearance cost him- a thin, whiplike tail snared his ankle. He screamed, but only for a moment. Utakata bellowed a stream of green-tinged bubbles at the hunter-nin. They melted his mask to his face with a horrible hissing sound and the smell of cooking meat.



Her stomach jolted.



The hunter nin went down with a strangled scream, fingers scrabbling at the molten porcelain before falling into throes of convulsion.



Why did I think Utakata was a delicate flower again?’



She hit the ground, more instincts than person. Utakata tore through the earth behind her, great strains of chakra sludging together into something that was more of a cudgel than a whip.



“I’m not an enemy!”



Aiko flipped backwards, trying to find something human in Utakata. His pupils were blown wide open, and his lips curled up in a snarl.



This is why they provoked him. He’ll attack anyone who gets close by, exhaust himself, and then be easy to pick off.’



She really should just leave. Utakata had survived this before, probably. Or situations like it. Maybe not ones quite that bad. He’d… he’d figure it out. She couldn’t see how he could escape this.  It was probably her fault he was in this situation.



Her brain told her to cut her losses. Her tired body made an alternate suggestion, chakra moving to form chains before she’d consciously had the thought.



Secure him. Make him stop. The less time he’s like this, the less damage to his body. I have minutes before the other hunter-nin get here. I need to make it count. If they didn’t want to fight either of us, I could probably take them by myself if I need to. I can’t afford to be watching fighting Utakata at the same time.’



She caught the largest tail manifestation, but it slipped away, re-manifesting outside of her grip and she groaned. There was roaring and crashing in her ears and the sound of chains clanking, heat pressing her skin and burns welling up and Utakata was a blur of dodging and striking and hell, if he would just stop moving she could-



Latch a chain around his body. Aiko winced when the restraint connected, whipping around Utakata’s torso to wind all the way around. But she didn’t pull back, even when she heard the unmistakable sound of a rib cracking under too-much-pressure, she really needed to practice with chakra chains more often.



She had him down. She forced him away from her and his chakra levels were sinking, forced to recede from contact with her chains but she was working open the straps on her kunai pouch to snag out her kunai. Now that they wouldn’t be destroyed by demonic chakra, she hastily flung three kunai around her so that blades sunk into the dirt, leaving her in the center of a highly maneuverable field.



Using Hiraishin like this is too obvious. Someone might make the association, given time and luck.’



But she didn’t have a choice. She was tired enough that she needed the advantage.



Well. Those hunter nin definitely had to die.



Utakata slumped in his bonds, nearly human again. The faint but hidden signatures of her followers were coming out, probably alarmed and confused by how quickly the demonic chakra had receded.



Aiko waited in her Hiraishin field, with the one kunai she had left clenched so tightly in her hand that it cramped.



“You back with me yet?” she asked Utakata, not really expecting a response.



He made an odd, rasping sound. She realized a moment later that it was the sound of a bloody throat being cleared. “I had six,” Utakata said, and it might have been helpful or it might have been bragging.



“I think I only had two,” Aiko admitted, feeling the stupidest twinge of jealousy that Utakata was considered to be so much more dangerous than she was.



What did dumb old Kiri know anyway.



Well. He was already struggling to his feet, with mussed hair and singed clothes. That was intimidating.



She took a moment to weigh the risks and benefits of letting him get up instead of hitting him while he was down. He was not insensible or evil: Utakata was someone she could work with. On the other hand, he was a sensible missing nin. He wouldn’t trust her.



Well. Had to make a call.



“How fit are you?” Aiko asked, feeling her heartbeat pick up a nervous drumbeat. “I don’t think I can take eight hunter-nin. I’m close distance.”



I can always leave. The chances that Obito will be at any particular safehouse are minimal. I can go to one of those if it gets grim.’



“Seven now,” Utakata pointed out in a voice that was still wrecked by shallow breathing and a warped throat. “I don’t trust myself to use my special chakra right now. Long distance.”



So his abilities were severely compromised.



Good. Makes it less likely that he’ll feel comfortable attacking me afterward.’



“Anything to even the odds?” Aiko asked, very much missing her kit. “This is literally all I have.” She held up the one kunai in her hand. “My chakra is good, but physically I’m hitting a wall.” Admitting that stung, but denying it would be stupid. They were going into a disadvantageous situation together. Lying could get them killed.



Utakata glanced at the weapon, and then his eyes darted to the three in the dirt. He didn’t comment. “I have a fast-acting paralytic, but I can’t distribute it without risking reverting back at the moment.”



Hello!’



Aiko perked up at that. “How fast is fast?” She started walking, not eager to stay too close to the crumpled body and heavy scent of acid. The hairs in her nostrils were starting to singe from the vapors.



“A minute of exposure time will dull reflexes and perception; another minute will all but immobilize anyone who comes into contact.” Utakata’s forehead was creased, but his panting was beginning to slow. “An increased heartbeat and movement will accelerate the effects. Perhaps we will notice results in forty seconds. It’s my own blend.”



She waved off that warning. “I know,” Aiko acknowledged. “But I’m fast. Block me from exposure for even a couple seconds. I can use the gap between when they go and when I go.”



Aiko planted her feet shoulder-width, closed her eyes, and reached into her coils for the chakra that came most naturally to her. Water. She opened her mouth and forced it out, pushing and pushing a spout of water that splashed over her feet and gouged against the peat. Clearly catching on, Utakata tapped his little bubble pipe twice and blew through it. A sickly yellow material gooped out the end, plopping in the decent sized pool of water that Aiko was still working on.



So it’s the bijuu who allows him to make the bubbles?’ Aiko theorized. ‘He actually has the different materials in the pipe and releases them by pushing different parts of the thing.



“Wait until the last second,” Utakata counseled, his dark gaze already narrowing on the direction he had been running from. And then he… began taking off his kimono?



“Now is not the time!” Aiko hissed, confused and upset and just a little turned on.



The look he shot her was absolutely withering. He slipped off the outer layer entirely, revealing that he had a loose white robe on underneath.



“This is water resistant,” Utakata said stiffly. “It should give you a few seconds advantage.”



Oh. Right. Aiko pulled the thing on hastily. He’d said to wait, but they only had seconds, so she gritted her teeth, gripped all the tainted water, and forced it into the atmosphere. The air instantly hung heavy.



She was planning on making more of a fog than a precursor to rain, to be honest. The fog could be an attempt to obscure vision.



Something moved. Aiko jerked her gaze down, registered, ‘Oh, it’s just the fog coming up,’ and went back to her jutsu before she realized something.



It wasn’t her fog.



In sheer surprise, she let her hold on the water slip. Yes, it definitely wasn’t her fog.



They had the same strategy we did. Well. The same tool, anyway.’



Aiko took a moment to exchange an incredulous glance with Utakata, who looked like he might be

stifling a startled laugh.



It really wasn’t funny. That technique probably meant that the Kiri nin were more than prepared to fight without visibility.



The fog that the Kiri-hunter nin were bringing up from groundwater puffed up to hip height in the instant before the first masked figure darted into view.



They faltered, jerking for a fraction of an instant at visual confirmation. Probably surprised that Aiko was standing with Utakata.



But the nin decisively moved for Utakata.



The last of the fog closed up above Aiko’s head, obscuring everything more than three feet away.





Aiko bared her teeth and darted forward. Utakata was swaying, but clearly ready to engage in taijutsu. She got between the two as the hunter-nin brought down a naked blade in an overhead move that would be difficult to block.



They thought I’d be dead. Their strategy was just for Utakata.’



Insulting, but it did present opportunity. Their strategy would be geared towards taking down Utakata, not the two of them working in tandem.



Sparks flew. Aiko grunted, straining with the effort of holding her kunai against the middle of the mid-length blade. She registered that it was a double sided blade.



It had been aimed to cut down Utakata, who was taller than Aiko. Her arms were almost entirely outstretched, directly above her head.



Muscles trembled. She would have been making eye contact if she could see anything through the shadows cast by the ghostly white mask. Her jaw clenched.



The hunter-nin disengaged, sword rearing up and then whipping around as he swiveled, bringing the blade around to his left. Aiko let her knees buckle and her haunches hit her heels. The lightning-fast sideways swipe bit through her trailing ponytail. She rolled forward, coming to her feet behind him. She was going to turn, to cut at him before he could turn around-



Aiko sprang up, over the low swept kick from a second hunter-nin. With her feet off the ground she twisted, eyes wide at the incoming blow from hunter-nin number three.



This sucks.’



She didn’t recognize the weapon. Some kind of spear running wet with droplets of water. She couldn’t dodge it.



The world shifted. She sprang away from the exact center of her three kunai. She zeroed in on the nin with their backs facing her.





Her kunai was out, destined to slip under the place between neck and skull. The nin was turning, but not fast enough.



And then Aiko wheezed, sent stumbling sideways by a hard-packed doton jutsu the size of an orange. Her ribs creaked where the blow had connected. She caught a glimpse of her attacker, barely visible through the mist.



She heard Utakata curse, and the sound of metal connecting, but she couldn’t go to help him.



“The dance floor is pretty full!” Aiko shouted, strain and pain pitching her voice higher.



No one responded. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting.



The nin with the doton had backed off, moved out of sight.



A defensive fighter. No, not exactly. A protective fighter. More like a bodyguard than anything else.’



Aiko huffed and made a tactical retreat away from where she thought the hunter-nin were. She sunk her chakra back into the pooled water, forcing it to dissipate up and replace the other fog. Aiko waited with her heart in her throat, counting off seconds until the crucial moment of Utakata’s time estimate.



There were splashes in the distance. Five seconds. Grunting through the fog. Ten seconds.



There was a whisper of steel cutting air. Aiko whipped to the left, already trying to predict the second, third, and fourth shuriken that came on the first weapon’s heels. She didn’t hear the fifth winging behind the fourth, but she felt it tear through the muscles of her shoulder. The blade kept spinning for part of a rotation, the initial spike squelching out of her flesh and the next digging in only halfway. Its bite was lessened by the loss of momentum but oh hell, it hurt both times it cut. Aiko choked, flinching with the sudden ringing in her ears. She kept moving to evade the subsequent projectiles, but she didn’t even register how many there were.



The shuriken that hit her was flopping, tugging and nearly falling out of her flesh but not coming out.



Bile rose. She was hyper sensitive to every movement of the steel in her skin.



It felt like a hallucination, streaks of light glinting off metal and shadows moving through fog heavy water that weighed down her clothes and hair and-



The moisture got through Utakata’s clothes already,’ Aiko realized. She pulled out the shuriken. She held it between the knuckles of her free hand, since she couldn’t turn down a weapon.



Twenty seconds since she’d poisoned the fog. The time she had between when her muscles would fail and when the kiri-nin would flag was somewhere between ten and twenty seconds.



I need to find whoever is throwing this shit.’



It wasn’t hard to find the general direction- the gouge in her arm pointed back to its origin. Aiko crossed the distance in a second, breathing deep and trying to catch a scent or hear breathing or-



The scuff of a foot. Aiko took the distance at a leap, leading with a two-footed kick and hoping to connect or at least land easily in the poor visibility. She made contact, sandals plowing into a flat chest. She rode the thrower to the ground, bending forward to cut out their throat. She half expected them to be fast enough to block- most of the team had been.


This hunter-nin wasn’t. Her blade opened up an unprotected neck. Heat splattered up her forearms and shins. She was pretty sure it was the small hunter-nin that had been following her before.



Aiko leapt off, flicking her blade clean as she went. She moved away from her kill, aware that the Mist-nin were tracking through the mist somehow.



Six hunter-nin left. Twenty five seconds down.



She turned her ear in the direction of a gurgling breath. A body hit the ground. Aiko held her breath and hastily worked the stretchy headband off her scalp, pulling it up her arm and twisting it to serve as a rough sort of compress. She didn’t hear anyone get up.



Five hunter-nin left? Maybe?



No. Confirm all kills. Don’t assume. Aiko tracked back the sound and nearly stumbled over a kiri-nin. Her mask had fallen off and she was clutching at her chest, struggling for breath. Blood and spit were trailing down her tan face.



Aiko grimaced. Her chest armor was collapsed inward from a blow. The body underneath it had to be dying. Slowly.



The Kiri nin was a bit preoccupied, thin lips working in silent words and eyes creased shut. She didn’t notice Aiko. It was a mercy kill.



Thirty seconds down.



A scream of rage cut the air. Aiko’s neck prickled in premonition. A gust of wind tore across the plateau, pushing open the fog. The hunter who’d summoned it was crouched over the body of the long distance specialist.



Was it the doton user? Looked like.



Must be his partner,’ Aiko thought in the moment before the mist normalized again. She didn’t have time for another thought, because the nin was bearing down. Aiko darted to the side, and pushed away a punch.



The air was suddenly stiflingly hot. The mist nin leapt up, poised for something. The lizard part of Aiko’s brain recognized it. She moved.



Aiko had gone back to her kunai before she understood why. She’d moved before she knew who she was facing.



She couldn’t see the result of that last jutsu, but the area was much, much hotter, and the air was sizzling.



That nin used fire jutsu yesterday. Earth earlier. Wind to move the fog, and something hot again just now,’ Aiko catalogued numbly. ‘That’s a lot of elemental proficiency for one person.’



All the pieces were there. But she didn’t want to cope with the fact that she was facing down Mei. The hunter-nin looked like a man in that unisex armor. What was Mei doing so far from Kiri?



Well. Hunter-nin are the elite. Not a bad place for a kage to come from.’


This was ridiculous. Mei belonged in Kirigakure. She should go back to Kirigakure. Aiko was going to file a complaint.



What do I do?’



Kill Mei in order to keep Utakata and herself safe?



Refuse to fight Mei and instead abandon Utakata to die alone?



Leave Mei alive, to remember Aiko far too early?



The options and considerations were all bad. Utakata wouldn’t let her spare Mei. He would fight until all the hunter-nin were dead or until he was. But she wanted both Mei and Utakata alive.



She’s got to go.’



Mei came barreling toward her again, infuriated but collected enough not to spew lava blindly. This time, Aiko dropped into an athletic stance, tucked away her kunai, and let the shuriken hit the floor. She leapt forward to slap the future Mizukage open-palmed on her clothed thigh and twist away. The sting probably disguised the seal Aiko planted, but she didn’t wait to see. Mei was straightening, turning to come flying at Aiko again.



Aiko inhaled sharply and hiraishin’d twice, clutching blindly at Mei’s hip in the space between travels. This time Mei reacted fast enough for a blow to connect. Aiko couldn’t see what had happened but suddenly she was flying backwards and holy hell her torso was going to be one big bruise tomorrow. She hit a coral outcropping with her side and rolled, body twisting to make some semblance of a landing despite the fact that she couldn’t breathe and her body was stinging pain down to her elbows and fingertips and bursting cold hurt against her ribs.



Somehow, Aiko landed on top of the water. Mei fell in with a surprised splash. The hunter-nin burst out in an explosion of steam, but Aiko was already gone.



Time to never think about how I may have just fucked up the future.’


She shook her head to clear it. Aiko stifled a hysterical giggle and took stock of the situation. The…



The mist was falling. Of course it was. She’d left and lost control of it. It was seeping down and dissipating, only obscuring about five feet above the ground and sinking fast.



Her kunai was in her hand before she thought to grab for it. But that was strange- her fingers were clumsy. They felt numb against the metal.



I stopped counting,’ Aiko realized. ‘It must be past forty seconds. Poisons often affect extremities first.’



The mist was thinner. She could see shapes as far as six feet away- and they could see her too. Someone leapt at her. Thinking of moving as little as possible to keep her heartrate down, Aiko pulled away with Hiraishin.



She didn’t move too far- the nin followed. She snapped away again, stopping in between her poor abandoned kunai this time.



The hunter-nin stepped in her triangle of discarded kunai, a chokuto flashing so fast that Aiko couldn’t actually track the movement. She could see that the movement jerked and faltered. The sword flew out of the kiri elite’s grip.



Embarrassing.’



They might have been staring in disbelief. Aiko didn’t stop to check, concentrating much more than she normally would to whip her kunai out.



It flew straight but not true: instead of sinking into the dip between the clavicle, it fell to the left side of the chest.



It must have scraped the bone. It was so close to an instant kill shot. But it wasn’t. The svelte mist-nin clutched at the weapon and ripped it out. It clattered against rocks and spun to skid into a puddle.



Bad move. He might have lived if he’d left it in until he got a medic. Not that I was going to let that happen, but still. Ouch.’



Aiko winced in sympathy but still tracked the way that her sole weapon fell.



Maybe that’s better. He’ll bleed out faster without that stopping it up.’



She should kill the Kiri nin herself, just to be sure. She should. She was tired. She went after her weapon. She felt slow and sluggish. There was a pressure, like a hand pushing at her chest. No, not a whole hand. Two fingers pressing against the place where she had tried to hit the mist nin, or maybe a little lower. Breathing was hard.



Aiko felt her knees tremble.



The mist was down to her hips at that point. Her vision was blurry, but she could see enough. The hunter-nin who had been so proficient at the start of the fight were slowing and becoming clumsy. They were moving like genin, not elites of the most vicious military culture in the continent.



Utakata took the remaining three nin down in less than ten seconds.



Aiko rested her face in her hands.



Sandals squished softly against vegetation and sodden ground when he turned to observe her. He didn’t say anything.



“Do you keep andi-antidotes?” Aiko asked, rolling her clumsy tongue around her mouth. She blinked. Her eyes were heavy. So were her limbs.



A sigh. “I suppose.”



She had enough presence of mind to crack her eye open and flinch away from the syringe Utakata presented to her. She was on her knees. When had that happened? She let him administer the shot. It didn’t help that much. Her hands stopped twitching and shaking, but she was still tired and dizzy.



“Lack of sleep and bloodloss,” Utakata diagnosed. He sounded bored.



Oh. Right. She should wash out her wound and get liquids. Aiko peeled open her eye to check. Her entire arm was covered in blood, as was a good deal of the left side of her torso.



It could wait. She had lingering curiosity to satisfy about the nin who had been Mei’s partner. As she walked she felt a bit steadier. It was a little tricky to find the body in the fog. All she could see of most of the bodies were feet, smooth white masks, and maybe a bit of chest or oddly bent legs. The rest was still sunk in white twirls of liquid poison.



The mask of that first kill was a clever thing, held to the head with laces of clear string and a weighted curve. Her hand shook when she lifted it, taking care not to let any hooks catch on sweat-tangled hair or one bloody ear. Blue lips, blue hair. Dark grey eyes that were glazing over. The boy was maybe thirteen.



Sometimes, she really hated being right.



Aiko sat back on her heels and contemplated the little corpse in such meaningful uniform. Black ops clothing really shouldn’t come sized for children.



The hems are long so it can be let out. This… this is going to be a lot closer to my proportions than any of the other uniforms.’



She licked the inside of her teeth, feeling the holes between the bits of white bone.



“Are you done?” Utakata’s irritation lifted over the distance between them.



She sighed. “Back off.” She pushed the child’s face to the side so that she didn’t have to see it before continuing to strip the body. She felt slow, and her arms shook from some of the effort. But she got it done alone.



Utakata made a sound of disgust, but didn’t interfere.



“An outfit like this should be in everyone’s closet,” Aiko lilted, keeping the seriousness she felt out of her voice. “There’s one in your size over there.”



It took far too much energy to banter. She needed to get somewhere safe and crash.



“No, but thank you for the offer.” Utakata sounded like he was examining his nails. “Not that this hasn’t been enjoyable, but I should really be going.”



Fair enough.



Aiko set the mask on the rest of the gear and rolled the fabric up. She tucked the sad little bundle under her arm. The poison had probably been neutralized at that point. “You set up for the night?” she asked tonelessly.



“There are probably more of them around here.”



She hoped not. But counting on that would be a bad idea.



The jinchuuriki scoffed. “Of course.” His crisp, rude tone was somewhat undermined by the sound of rustling fabric that came a moment later. Fidgeting? “Are you going to take care of the bodies?”



Somewhere in that prodding question was an offer.



Aiko shot him a look that as more tired gratitude than a smile. “I’d better do it myself. I’ve done a lot of this.”



Utakata backed down immediately, picking up on her implication that she’d had Black Ops training. He stood back and observed without comment as she took care of the mess. The audience was uncomfortable, but Aiko stoically bore through it. She didn’t have much choice- it would be preferable if Kiri didn’t get an opportunity to examine the bodies to determine how they were killed. It was even more crucial that Kiri not realize there was someone wandering around disguised as one of their own. That could come in handy.



I’ll have to wash this first, though.’



Not that it was that bloody. She’d worn worse before. No, it was more the faint traces of personal scent and the dango the nin had eaten and flecks of mud on the hem that told a story about the preteen boy who’d lived in the uniform not so long ago



She shuddered. Which wasn’t like her at all. She didn’t care about dead strangers. Not even preteens.



I need to go to bed. I’m too tired to be sensible.’



Utakata huffed, sounding pissy. She glanced over- and her eyebrows shot up.



His body language was blown wide open- hips and feet pointed toward her, chest aligned- but his neck was twisted so that he could avoid looking at her. The overall effect was striking, but posed.



“If you’re done crying over the sakura blossoms, I’d like to leave,” he drawled. He was looking away and didn’t catch her flinch- it was a common metaphor, but oh god it felt like a slap in the face. “I don’t need your help, but I doubt you’ll make it on your own.”



I get along fine.’



Aiko dredged up enough good humor to almost smile.



She should thank him and send him on his way. His offer was well-meant, but she would actually be better off alone. The Hiraishin was secret. They’d have to hoof it, if she went with him. Traveling like that would take much more time, and she would spend much more money on living expenses than otherwise. Really, it was a stupid idea.



“Thank you.” She brushed dirt off her knees and didn’t sway too much when she began walking. Bed. She was en route for a bed. Tonight she was going to treat herself to a nice hotel, possibly even a spa. She might even pay for it this time.



Utakata sniffed. He walked beside her, close enough that she was sure he could prop her if she wavered. “Don’t thank me. I need my robe back. This is just until you wash it.”



It has a massive hole in it from the shuriken,’ Aiko thought. ‘It will have to be repaired or replaced. Has he not realized that?’



She kept her mouth shut.



“Do you plan on slowly bleeding out?”



Utakata sounded only mildly curious.



Aiko looked at her arm, bewildered about the whole thing. It had mostly stopped, hadn’t it? She touched the skin. It hurt. Of course it did. “Uh. I don’t have any medical supplies. It’ll wait until I can wash it.”



Her companion had apparently mastered an expression other than boredom. Unfortunately, it was, ‘disbelieving.’



“No supplies at- How have you survived on your own? You’re the worst missing nin I’ve ever heard of.”



“But you’ve heard of me?” Aiko raised her eyebrows in surprise, tilting her head to the side.



“No.”

 

chapter 3

 

 

 

“Think there are more mist nin around?” Aiko broached. Immediately, she thought of Mei. That hadn’t been what she’d meant. She wrapped the over-long sleeves of the borrowed robe around her waist and shivered. Funny. It was broad daylight, but she was getting chills.



“I do not know.” Utakata’s steps were steady and untroubled, disguising the pain he had to be in. She’d broken his ribs with her chains, hadn’t she? “I never worked with the hunter-nin. Perhaps they would not have taken the chance of losing the entire team.”



Aiko hummed through gritted teeth. She pressed on, ignoring the throbbing in her arm. It felt like it was swelling up around the band keeping it from bleeding all over.



They had walked two miles before Utakata spoke up again, prompted by the outlines of building on the horizon.



“Uzumaki-san. It might benefit us both to travel together for a time.”



She lifted her gaze to the small of his back. What was he playing at? He hardly seemed the social type. Was he thinking about stabbing her in the back later, so that no one could report on his activities?



“It might,” Aiko agreed neutrally. “Kiri would like to see us both dead.” Her shoulder ached in agreement.



He didn’t react to her suspicion or dry tone. “Any Kiri-nin who held back would be unaware that their comrades found the opportunity to push their targets against each other.”



Oh.

“They’ll be looking for you, not a young man and woman traveling together.”



Aiko felt her tired lips pull into a smile. She could get something out of this. “I see. Well, as long as you’re the considerate type of boyfriend.” She went to move her aching shoulder for emphasis, then thought better of it.



Utakata pushed his hair back. His pale, long-fingered hand was a sharp contrast against his dark locks. She kept looking even after his hand had moved back down to his hips. “In such a small town? It would be scandalous for anyone short of wedded to travel together.”



Aiko snorted, shaking off the strange moment. “Is that a proposal?”



He sounded a little amused. “More of a proposition.”



She rolled her neck. The left side was beginning to strain and twinge, stiff from the abuse that twinged up her muscles from her injured shoulder. “Sousuke, it’s shameful to let your wife walk alone when she is tired.”



Utakata stopped to let her catch up, standing at her right side. He snaked an arm around her waist. His grip was surprisingly firm. She leaned into it, using his arm for support.



“You would feel better if you hadn’t stayed up so late with your sister,” he scolded, but she could hear the smile in his voice.



Aiko went along with the conversation, establishing characters and history through conversation. “Aa, but you know Satoko. She has so much energy, even for a teenager.”



“You’re not nineteen anymore,” Utakata teased solemnly. “You should act your age.” Aiko scowled up at him, but took the opportunity to slip on a henge that made her look a little older. The trees were thinning out and town would be visible soon. It would be foolish to be spotted as herself if they were intending to elude suspicion.



Utakata snorted quietly when she covered the red in her hair with a powder blue shade. The guise she chose was inspired by a Kumo-nin she had seen once. Aiko concealed her injury, turning Utakata’s loose robe to a coat gallantly placed over her shoulders. Underneath, her already civilian outfit lost wrinkles and rips. She didn’t bother to change more.



The muscles in his forearm moved against her back when he made the handsigns for his own henge. He probably felt her shiver.



Aiko stared forward at the road, just fascinated with the point where the street began. She didn’t turn to look at the disguise he had chosen. It didn’t matter.



The town was busy, full of people who appeared to be rice farmers. They smiled and waved as soon as the shinobi walked into town. It was too small to have a proper inn. She stared at the handwritten sign outside the traveler’s restaurant, willing it to change through sheer force of will.



There has to be a real hotel somewhere. A spa. An onsen.’



“Rooms for rent.” Utakata jostled her side. “Isn’t that wonderful, Ami-chan?”



“Yes,” Aiko agreed grimly. She squeezed his arm until the skin turned white under her grip. “You should get us a room.” He winced under her grip and implication. She relaxed her hand, but didn’t let go. “Wouldn’t a rest be wonderful, love?”



“Of course.” Utakata led her in. An older lady walked to them almost immediately, round face stretched in a wrinkled smile.



“Welcome to Setoumachi! Please, may I get you lunch?”



Oh kami, it’s not even three,’ Aiko remembered. She was way too drained for it to be this early.



“Actually, we were hoping to rent your room.” Utakata sounded sheepish, friendliness softening the voice that was usually sharpened with genteel superiority. “Ano, it is so early I do not wish to trouble you, but…” his voice trailed off and he looked down at Aiko. She noted that his hair was now brown, and much less glossy than his usual shade. He looked closer to 25 than 17. “My wife is three months pregnant and finds travel more difficult than we expected.”



What a turd.’



It was a good story, though.



The proprietress melted immediately, giving a not-quite-subtle glance down at Aiko’s midsection, looking for a baby bump. Of course there wasn’t one. Aiko managed a tight smile and held Utakata’s robe shut.



“Of course!” The lady bowed quickly, all smiles and sharp movements. “Poor girl. You must be exhausted, Miss. Please, follow me. Your husband can pay later.”



Pregnant. Ridiculous. I don’t look pregnant at all,’ Aiko thought sullenly.



Outwardly, she smiled and offered a bow of her own. “You are very kind. Ano, I have a question. Is there a shop nearby?” When the woman nodded, Aiko turned doe eyes to Utakata. She didn’t even have a chance to get a question out.



“Hai, hai.” He patted her hand. “I will go as soon as you are lying down.”



She didn’t know what kind of story he’d come up with to explain why he needed so many bandages, but that wasn’t her problem.



When they were inside their room and the door had closed, Aiko raised an eyebrow in challenge at her companion. She was already peeling off Utakata’s ripped, bloody robe to have a better look at her arm. It was swollen. Oh, hell, that band needed to come off. She worked the elastic down to fall on the floor.



Utakata shook out his hair, shedding the affable act. “She did ask less questions,” he pointed out.



Aiko had to concede that. She balled up Utakata’s robe and tossed it at him.


When he caught the fabric, there was an audible crunch of dried blood moving under his fingers. That elicited a reaction. His face was caught between disgust and disbelief.



Hope I don’t have any bloodborn pathogens.’



“You wouldn’t make a pregnant woman do your laundry,” Aiko said, blinking soulfully.



He let the robe hit the floor. “I’ll get a new one.”



He had almost made it to the door when Aiko felt a little guilty. “I’ll replace it.” She pushed open the bathroom door, intent on washing up. “I have funds.”



Funds that were intended to sit safely out of circulation in case of emergency, but, you know. She could make more money. It wasn’t like she was giving a village a cut of her profits. She made bank nowadays.



Utakata didn’t say anything else before the door slid shut behind him. Aiko grimaced her way through a bath, working soap into her scrapes and the one ugly, dirty gash. At least the soap was gentle. Smelled like hyssop, though. Interesting choice. Her body was a mash of bruises- the worst of it was on her torso directly between her ribs, where a black and purple mottle showed what had to be the outline of Mei’s knee. But she also had purple spotted with red scrapes and bits of upraised flesh along her arms, right shoulder, and hip where she must have rolled along rock at some point. Oh, no, that was that coral outcropping, wasn’t it?



It was not the most pleasant bath she had ever experienced, even after she had finished emptying buckets over her head.



Utakata returned before she was done washing up. Aiko walked into the bedroom to see him laying out a futon. She stood back and watched, hair coiled up in a towel and clad in a spare set of civilian clothes.



He glanced up at her, and didn’t speak for a moment. He finished setting up the bedding.



He’s moving really well for someone whose ribs I broke this morning.



Her arm throbbed. “If you treat my injuries, I’ll look at yours,” Aiko offered.



At that, he gave her a wry, sideways smile. “I think you know better than that, Uzumaki-san.” He straightened. “I will bandage your arm.”



She nodded and pretended she knew what he was talking about.



Oh wait, I think I do. He’s a jinchuuriki. It probably already healed.’



Would a jinchuuriki have much reason to pick up first aid?



Must have. He did a thoroughly decent job at patching her up. He didn’t even stick his finger inside the gash once. When he was done, Aiko rolled her arm to check the range of movement. “Thank you. I need to sleep. Will you take first watch?”



Utakata shrugged, listless. “And the second watch. I do not require much sleep.” He was staring at her, dark eyes narrowed. She didn’t know what he was getting at. She turned away.



“All right.”



Aiko crawled under the covers and almost immediately went to sleep. She woke, once, when she tried to shift on her side in her sleep. But she winced and rolled to her back again. When she woke again, she kept her eyes shut. Maybe if she was very still and quiet, she could fall back to sleep.



“It’s been seven hours.” Utakata sounded bored.



Aiko sighed and peeled off the covers. It was dark outside- probably not quite midnight. She leaned against the window. “It would probably be least conspicuous to wait until morning to head on.”



Unspoken was that she would prefer to put some distance between her and any possible Mist-nin nearby.



Utakata took a few moments to gather his thoughts. “Do you believe we should travel together?” He seemed completely uninterested, but he wouldn’t have raised the topic if that were true.



Aiko bit her lower lip. Yes. No. She was lonely. They’d never got on well. He could watch her back. He could stab her in it.



“Am I not what you expected?” Utakata tilted his head to the side, eyelashes covering most of his gaze. “I admit trepidation upon realizing that you forced my bijuu to recede. It seems convenient. However, I cannot ignore the potential value of such a skill.”



Oh. That’s why he cared.



Relief washed over her as soon as she understood that Utakata had an angle. That made sense. She smiled at him, eyes crinkling. He wasn’t friends with his bijuu yet, or at least had to acknowledge that Saiken could be used against him. He thought he could use Aiko’s abilities to counteract that weakness.



Utakata sniffed and turned away, preoccupied with fixing the futon so that he could get in. But when they left in the morning, they left together.



“Utakata-san. How do you feel about onsen?”



For the first time, he looked remotely approving. “I believe we could be at one by this time tomorrow.”



Aiko hefted her little pink bag full of storage seals and stolen clothes, thinking about a long soak in mineral water. “I think we deserve that.”



“After that, we deserve a spa.”



“And then beef for dinner,” Aiko agreed fervently. She’d even pay for that. Maybe.



“Mochi for dessert and then breakfast.”



She and Utakata shared a look.



“This partnership might work better than I had anticipated,” Utakata said thoughtfully.






Team Onsen took two weeks off for well-deserved pampering, and then another week for some gratuitous spoiling in a wealthy coastal town. They didn’t see another hunter-nin, but they spent more than either of them was truly comfortable with. Living the high life necessitated a lot of cold, hard, cash.



“I feel funny about not paying the massage therapists,” Aiko explained guiltily. “Sleeping in empty hotel rooms and sneaking into onsen doesn’t hurt anyone or take up too much of their time. But when it’s something else-”



“I understand,” agreed Utakata, who took the route of actually paying whenever he was the one taking charge. “Even your amorality has to have limits.”



“Does it?” Aiko asked wistfully. She closed her (stolen) wallet. “I guess I know where I could procure some funds.”



It only took a few days to find a supplier. Utakata took one look at the place, gave her an expression that implied, ‘No’, and said he’d wait at the hotel.



“Okay, hime,” Aiko muttered at his back. He stiffened, but kept walking.
It was fine. At least she knew he was going to be queasy about those kinds of things. When Aiko returned without any visible baggage, Utakata seemed somewhere between confused and warily proud.



She did not tell him that the goods were in storage seals, since it seemed a shame to disturb whatever growing faith he might have in her moral character.



“May I suggest an alternate methodology for improving our fiscal state?”



She stood back and let Utakata pick a nice, boring businessman. He helped him come to the conclusion that losing a rival would be worth paying a nice lump sum.



“Because that was soooo much better than what I picked?” Aiko asked doubtfully.



Her temporary partner gave her a dirty look. “Your selection catered to vice.”



What a crotchety old person.’



“Catered to vice?” Aiko shook her head in disbelief. “We just killed a guy. Your priorities are weird.”



Utakata made a show of counting out his money. “Hmm.”



She rolled her eyes and did not tell him that she had actually passed on product while he was sweet-talking their client. Her methodologies worked too.



Their next client was acquired through an information broker. Utakata scowled, but Aiko felt a sort of stubborn pride.



“Doing business this way has always worked for me,” she said under her breath while the paperwork was being retrieved.



Utakata gave her a dry look. “When was that, grandmother? I assure you that things have changed since your heyday.”



Grandmother?’



Aiko couldn’t respond.



Okay, so he was seventeen in this timeline and she was actually a little older than he was. But grandmother?



A scratchy, erping sound crawled up her throat.



“In all seriousness, I am curious. What are you, thirty five?” Utakata asked, sounding polite as anything.



At that, she lost her cool. Aiko whirled around and jammed her finger into his chest. “You’ve got to be kidding-”



“Should I come back?” The broker leaned over the counter, twirling her ponytail around her fingers. She seemed distinctly unimpressed. The brilliant orange and scarlet tattoos up her arms rippled with the fidgeting motion.



Aiko put her hand down. “No. We’re good, sorry.”



When they left, Utakata picked up their original conversation. “These people are risky to deal with,” he reminded. “They will choose the route that will be most financially beneficial. Without the protection of a state government, we are disposable.”



She gritted her teeth.



He wasn’t wrong. But real missing nin did this kind of thing all the time, and got by. Well. Most of them died doing it, but state shinobi died on official missions too. She didn’t need somebody else to arrange things for her all the time. He wasn’t her babysitter.



“It’s not a bad mission,” Aiko said, after a very long pause. “We’re just retrieving an item.”



“We’re crossing an international border.” Utakata sounded strangely nervous about that.



She shot him a look, a bit baffled by that. “What? It’s just Fire Country-”



Aiko fell silent. Right. She wasn’t a Fire Country citizen anymore. That would be a problem if they were apprehended.



Utakata was watching her face, she realized. But she didn’t know what was so interesting. She cleared her expression. He looked away.



“Is it strange that we are required to return to the broker to collect payment?” Utakata asked, uncomfortable. “I would think that the client-” he stopped when she shook her head.



“No, that’s normal.” Aiko laced her fingers behind her back. “When the subject is particularly sensitive, you often don’t meet the client or their representative directly. It provides more protection and deniability.”



The open, thoughtful expression Utakata gave her made him look young and inexperienced. Aiko scowled, looking away to the path ahead.



Thirty five. Honestly.’



They managed to let the topic drop. It didn’t come back up for the next couple of days, when the looming border crossing had their nerves stretched tight.



Her companion tilted his head up towards the sky, letting leaf-dappled light move over his features. Despite his running commentary, he seemed at peace out in the middle of nowhere. “I fear that this is a foolish mission. The possibility of gaining outside attention is too high.”



Aiko rolled her eyes. “You said the last one I tried to pick was below your abilities,” she pointed out tiredly. “And… what the other thing?”



“Dignity.” He paused. “And it was below both for me,” Utakata acknowledged calmly. “I cannot speak for you.” His eyes weren’t even open. “But any mission that involves unnecessary and unidentified parties is nonsense. We should forget this mission.”



Her eye twitched.



“Sleeping in nice hotels is not nonsense,” Aiko rejected. “Just because you want to commune with nature-” here she fluttered her hands mockingly “-doesn’t mean that I should suffer.”



“You think I enjoy living rough any more than you do?”



When he was angry, he spoke differently, Aiko noted. How funny.



“Are you even listening?”



“No,” Aiko said honestly.



Utakata glowered in silence for most of the tragically nature-marred walk to the edge of Fire Country’s borders. They slipped over the border undisturbed.


Some level of Aiko was annoyed by that. Come on, what the hell was going on with border security? Two reasonably powerful and unaffiliated nin just walked into the country without so much as a, ‘Can I see your papers aaggh stop killing me I’m just doing my job?’



The country is too big for entire border to be properly patrolled,’ Aiko reminded herself. ‘It’s not like the perimeter outside of Konoha.’



That still wasn’t quite an excuse for the shoddy job that the Sandaime was doing of information dealing. The fact that team seven went out with no intelligence on Wave’s climate could only be the result of gross incompetency or blind negligence.



At least it’s not a big deal. Zabuza and Haku really aren’t a match for Kakashi. Most missing nin aren’t.’



She did not look at Utakata. She didn’t want to consider that matchup in too much detail.



In a pinch, she’d prefer to turn on Utakata. But really, it would be nice if he survived. Utakata was a jinchuuriki. Now that she was on team ‘Anyone But Obito, That Jerk,’ it made sense to protect all the jinchuuriki she could. Right?



Ew, I’m not getting soft. Am I?’



“I can’t figure it out.” Utakata’s voice was soft, but frustration tainted his words. “You know that I am a Kirigakure defector. Where are you from?”



Aiko blinked, caught off-kilter by the topic change. “I’m not a missing nin.” She regretted that honesty when Utakata gave her a shocked look. She shrugged, breaking eye contact.



He was clearly chewing over what he’d learned. But he didn’t ask.



They completed the mission with surprisingly little trouble. They got in and out, moving back over the border four days later with their gains. They took a hard pace on that first day, but slowed to a relaxing stroll once they were out of sight.



“You are strangely familiar with that household’s architecture,” Utakata insinuated.



Aiko sighed, wishing she knew a little less about Fire Country’s nobility. They were constantly engaged in petty fuckery. “If you’ve seen one Fire Country mansion, you’ve seen them all. They’re in competition to see who can have the stiffest, most old fashioned place. It’s some kind of status thing, antiquity.” She irritably waved away the thought. “Anyway,-”



A tree cracked.



“Missing nin!”



She hit the ground on reflex. She had to get up, because ANBU Tortoise was going to-



Wait. What?



“Dynamic entry!” Lee crowed, bouncing on his heels. Neji and Tenten were at his side, expressions somewhere between belligerent and embarrassed to be there.



Gai set his hands on his hips and beamed, a thumb up. “Dishonorable renegades! I am here to bring you to justice!”



“What,” Utakata said faintly. It wasn’t a question, because there was no question that should have Gai as an answer. Tenten looked away in what had to be sympathy.



Aiko patted the air in his general direction, as she got to her feet again. “It’s alright.”



“Alright?” This time, the bewildered expression he leveled was at her.



Light pinged off paper-white teeth. “Foul miscreants! You will return the stolen property and face trial for your misdeeds!”



“What,” Utakata repeated, voice small and bewildered.



“Shhh,” Aiko soothed. She took a step over to pat his hand. “I have this under control.” She passed over the little pink bag that held their ill-gotten gains and general supplies. Utakata took it numbly.



Then she struck her own pose, arms akimbo. “Shinobi of Konoha!” Aiko bellowed, a stupid grin pulling at her face. She faintly heard Tenten say, ‘Oh god’. “I reject your assessment of my moral character. You, sir, are the scoundrel!”



I’ve always wanted to do this.’



She had never actually seen Gai look so happy. Lee’s eyes were wide.



“I challenge you to a competition, to prove who is in the right!” Aiko pointed at Gai with her whole hand, making a chopping motion. He was frozen, all but quivering with excitement.



“We will prove the righteousness of our cause through strength of arms!” Gai bellowed. Something sparkled.



“No, a race!” Aiko countered. She could feel the instant that Utakata caught on.



Finally. He’s been traveling with me long enough that he should know I don’t do things I can’t win.’



“A-ha!” Gai fist-pumped. Lee mimicked the motion off to the side. “An unwise proposal, my fiendish friend. So you think you are fast? I have a most excellent speed-training regimen.” He flexed. “I never boast, but I run one thousand laps of Konoha in the morning, and 5oo at night. I carry lumber on my back in the morning, and pull sleds full of children up hill in the winter!”



That was actually impressive.



Then he pointed at her. “And you, missing-nin-san?”



“Oh, me?” Aiko pointed at her chest and blinked, lips pouting innocently. “What do I do? How do I practice my speed?”



Gai and Lee leaned into the theatricality of it all. Seemingly unconscious of her own attention, Tenten held her breath. Neji was glaring at the ground, with strangely pink cheeks.



“I run from Mist hunter-nin.” Aiko fanned her face with her hand.



Team nine collapsed in disappointment.



“You run from Mist hunter-nin?” Lee repeated, sounding doubtful.



Aiko nodded agreement. “Yeah.” She scowled, the emotion genuine this time, because hunter-nin were annoyingly persistent. She did expect to be seeing them again soon. “They just show up all the time: I impersonate Mist nobility, there’s Mist hunter nin. I find myself in cahoots with a Mist missing nin, there’s Mist hunter-nin.” She made a fist for emphasis, smacking it against her palm. “I take three hours to select candy from the machine- there’s Mist hunter nin.”



“Okay,” Gai said uncertainly. He exchanged a look with Lee. “Why?”



She shrugged. “The stupid Mizukage may be under the stupid impression that I attempted to assassinate him.” At that news, Utakata made a choked sound behind her. That did sound kind of bad. Aiko hastened to explain, “I didn’t, of course, I didn’t know the guy. I don’t care if he pissed or went

fishing.”



Well. That wasn’t true anymore.



Aiko corrected herself. “Well. I didn’t care then, but now he can go fuck a whole-”



“I of course believe the lady. Back to our race, missing-nin-san!” Gai suggested, smile a bit cracked.




“You cheated,” Utakata accused sullenly.



“Ninja,” Aiko reminded, sing-song. “Besides, I didn’t cheat. Not technically anyway. Neither of us said it was solely a footrace. If he didn’t want me to use ninjutsu, he should have said so.”



“You are a bad woman.”



Aww, he was just starting to think I wasn’t irredeemable. How cute.’



She grinned over at the sulking teenager and threw an arm over his shoulder. “I went back for you, didn’t I?”



There was a long silence.



“So, you attempted to assassinate the Mizukage?” Utakata sounded very tired, and perhaps a bit depressed.



“Not really,” Aiko stalled. She rubbed at the back of her neck. “I was experimenting with a fuinjutsu piece, and one thing led to another, and then I realized I had accidentally pierced past all the feeble security that the incompetents-”



Utakata cleared his throat.



“highly competent professionals that Mist produces presented, through my great capability and not their lack thereof,” Aiko completed seamlessly. “And stumbled into the Mizukage.” She frowned. “Neither of us came out of that looking good. Maybe he’s embarrassed.”



Her companion groaned.

 

Chapter Text

 

“What is your obsession with Zabuza about?”



Aiko flipped the bingo book shut and aimed a scowl at her companion.



Utakata was perched on the table, lounged back indolently on his elbows. He was doing that strange thing where he posed so that his robes fell open at the collar.



She looked away. “I don’t have an obsession.”



He made a polite, ‘Ah,’ sound of comprehension.



I have a good reason to keep an eye on him. That’s not an obsession.’



Bingo books really weren’t enough current information, though. She was starting to get nervous about timing. She didn’t want to be absent for Team seven’s mission to Wave. What if she missed them?



She wasn’t certain what she wanted to do, but she did want to see them. Just to be sure everyone was alright and things were going to be fine.



Maybe I should pick Sakura up like a suitcase and take her with me. If she doesn’t show up for the exams, Orochimaru can’t kill her.’



Aiko winced and put the book away, zipping her bag with a harsh motion.



Utakata followed her with his eyes, apparently content to wait her out.



That would probably make me an actual criminal. Konoha would not be pleased. Plus she would probably want to go home and that just sounds like a bummer.’





“I have been contemplating procuring our next task.” Utakata swung one foot off the table. “There are some large financial institutions in the area. It would not be too difficult to locate a wealthy person who could think of a use for skills like ours.”



“Yeah?” Aiko leaned over the table, resting her forearms. “Anything that could take us to Wave Country?”



Utakata raised an eyebrow, but settled back to think. “Perhaps. I see… As a country without a shinobi village, it would be comparatively safe to operate within those borders. However, there is little opportunity to be found in Wave.”



He paused. “And even less in the way of comfort and stylish accommodation.”



She batted that thought away. “Yes, they’re destitute.” She wrinkled her nose. “There’s gotta be someone off-shore who has an interest in the country. Someone who could stand to profit from, say, increased contact with Wave.”



Her companion frowned. “Increased contact? That depends on what resources Wave has.” He kicked the table with his heel. “It’s an island nation, so they’re probably a fishing culture. There is little profit to be had from those exports.”



That was true. Aiko screwed up her face to think. “Since it’s cut off from the mainland, it’s likely old-fashioned. I bet someone could make a lot of money off of them, if it were easy for them to spend money on modern conveniences.”



It was a neat solution, actually. If she was hired for that purpose, making sure that the bridge went up would be her job as well. It wouldn’t seem at all strange that she was hanging around Wave, and she could lend a hand to team 7 if needed.



Utakata blew out air slowly. “Who could say no to a washer-dryer combo?”



Aiko grinned and slapped the table of their suite. “Exactly. So, the client we’re looking for is someone who already deals in technological exports for civilian production cities.”



Saying that was easier than finding someone who met their criteria. Aiko and Utakata split up. The first thing that Aiko did was change into a kimono so that she looked more respectable. After that, she made appointments at various offices. Two of her potential clients were willing to see her that first day. Neither of them was interested in a potential business opportunity, so she met Utakata at the hotel.



He seemed more disgruntled than usual. “I begin to suspect that Wave has been deemed off-limits to civilian merchants for some reason. You had little luck as well?”



Makes sense. Gato couldn’t maintain strict control over the economy without exerting pressure over possible competition. He has them scared off.’



Aiko sighed, and let that be her reply. She rubbed at her temples. “I have another three appointments tomorrow.”



Utakata eyed her sideways. “I have two,” he admitted stiffly.



Ha. I win.’



The next morning, she tried a little harder on her appearance. Utakata watched, bemused, as she neglected her usual braid in favor of twisting her hair up.



She frowned, anticipating the question. “I think I look a little older and more serious with my hair up.”



That impression was not shared by her first appointment, who apparently mistook her for a prospective secretary. She left in disgust. The second appointment of the day was with a petite lady who had a head crowned with steel grey hair and a hard look. She invited Aiko to leave a resume, but had no interest in an expansion of her business dealings.



Aiko walked into her last appointment with the Rinnegan blazing and more or less informed a hapless middle-aged man that he would be delighted to hire her and an associate to ensure that the land of Wave was made accessible as an audience for product. She picked up a brochure on the way out to see what it was she was eager to sell to Wave. Ah. She had a passion for small kitchen appliances, apparently.



I can get behind that. Rice cookers are great. They save a lot of time and the food is always perfect.’



“This rate is surprisingly generous.” Utakata tilted his head at the contract she had returned with.



Aiko preened, pretending to examine her fingernails. “I can be persuasive.”



He gave her a doubtful look, eyes tracking all the way over her body, but he withheld comment.



What, like I can’t be good at something?’



She glowered. “Pack up. We’re leaving.” Aiko untied her obi with more viciousness than was strictly necessary and tossed it aside. She was tempted to wear the hunter-nin outfit. Even though it was short in the shins, it was the only actual shinobi gear she owned.



But it wasn’t even the standard Special Ops gear. It was the weird optional kimono + turtleneck combination that Mei’s older bodyguard liked so damn much.



It was just really dorky looking.



Aiko cringed away from it for the moment, but she unsealed the outfit and actually folded it into her backpack. It’d be a little easier to access that way. She dropped the kimono and shimmied her way into a skirt, long socks, and loose top.



“You could leave the room!” Utakata snapped. She glanced over in surprise to see that his face was bright pink. He was glaring at the wall.



“No chance, assbutt. I was here first.” She flipped her hair out, feeling a smirk work its way out. Ha. Still got it. When she sauntered out the door, he grudgingly followed on her heels. Utakata fell slightly behind a few minutes later, however, so Aiko gave him a questioning look.



The teenage was lending one last wistful look to the bright lights of the metropolis they were leaving behind.



“Aa,” Aiko murmured, nodding agreement. “Much nicer. We’ll bring our own food and then treat ourselves after we leave Wave.”



Utakata wavered, and then nodded decisively. “It will have to do.”



Reaching Wave through water-walking was somewhat of a conspicuous giveaway that they were shinobi, so Aiko and Utakata waited to make the crossing until the sun had gone down. The day they arrived was unfortunately timed- the moon was a waning sliver. They had little light to use as they picked their way across the surface.



That, combined with the fact that neither of them was truly familiar with the area, led to a bit of unplanned excitement when Aiko fell to her ankle in a sudden shock of tide, grabbed Utakata’s sleeve for balance, and then pulled him down too.



The whirlpool tucked them down, down, down. Aiko struggled, attempting to manipulate the water around her and failing because the natural chakra moving in the current was already gripping all the material and she kicked but she couldn’t get out of the funnel and she couldn’t see the light what way was up-



Bijuu’s chakra tik-tik-tik’d into the water and thrust outward, forcing everything away. In the waterless space, Aiko blinked.



So this is what it’s like inside one of those bubbles.’



Something unpleasant happened in her ears when Utakata’s bubble shot straight up, breaking the surface of the ocean. They splashed out of the water and into cold air.



Aiko caught herself before she fell in again, balancing on the turbulent surface. She shivered. She glanced over at her companion.



The Mist nuke-nin pursed his lips to spit out saltwater, wringing his hair with his free hands. “Uzumaki-san,” he said.



Aiko cringed, feeling the weight of her sodden backpack like a stone on her spine. “Hai?”



Utakata looked at her, expression perfectly blank. “There may be dangerous whirlpools in the vicinity.”



She put her hands over her face and giggled.



Aiko wasn’t laughing an hour later when she slogged onto shore. The sea air was fast-moving and cold. On the bright side, it dried her clothes out after only twenty minutes on shore. But those clothes wrinkled and smelled of salt and she kept finding sand in her hair and once there was a biting insect on her eyelid.



She stopped, clenched her fist, and made a sound like a tea kettle boiling over. Utakata took a step back.



“There are no hotels on this island, are there?”



He sounded just as miserable as she felt.



“No,” Aiko noted bitterly. “There aren’t.”



If I was alone, I would be using Hiraishin. I wouldn’t have to do any of this walking everywhere bullshit. I could do missions out here and still sleep on an adjustable featherbed.’



She pushed the thought away. That was immature. She’d been trained to be better than that. She would work with Utakata to set up a base of operations, sleep in shifts, and hunt local wildlife in order to supplement their supplies. She knew what to do and how to do it.



Every fiber of her being rose up and rebelled.



“No,” Aiko said, shaking her head decisively. “No.” She ignored Utakata’s ‘No, what?’ and held out a hand expectantly. When he didn’t leap to hold it, she glared him down. “I decided no,” Aiko explained, feeling determined. “I was hiding this from you, but that was before we came to mosquito island. I am going to touch that tree-” here she pointed “-and then we will check into the nicest hotel I’ve been in for the night. We can come back to continue working in the morning.”



Utakata was still looking at the tree. His mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything.



She stomped over and touched the tree. She left a seal on it.



Utakata was still looking at the tree. He appeared mildly concerned.



She stomped back to him and took his hand.



“I do not understand your plan, Uzumaki-san,” Utakata said slowly. He did not try to take his hand away. “You have indeed touched the tree. However, I-”



His voice cut off in surprise. He let his mouth hang open. Aiko dropped his hand and pushed past him, intent on the reception desk.



It was an oasis. It was one shining spot of happiness and civilization in the dark night of nature and discomfort. The young man sitting at it seemed alarmed at her approach. He shrank back, holding up a sheet of paper like a talisman against evil.



At another time, she might have wondered what that distressed mien said about her appearance.



“Luxury suite,” Aiko hissed. The clerk soundlessly reached beneath his desk, opened a drawer, and dropped a numbered key into her open hand. The sensation of a ‘kai’ from Utakata rippled across the room, pulling at her attention.  He made a small, offended sound when the scenery did not change, but Aiko didn’t turn to look. “Thank you.” Her teeth clipped when she bit out the words. She caught a glimpse of Utakata standing still by the door.



She swiveled over to him. “Are you coming?” Aiko jingled the keys. “Because I get the bathroom first, but I presume that you don’t want to sleep outside-”



Utakata was already at her side, trotting up the stairs to their room. When the door shut behind them, he drifted over to pick up the hotel advertisements left on the desk. Aiko didn’t take the time to see what he was examining.



She was working on pulling out her contents of her bad and working to empty all the storage seals she’d had clothes stored in. The fabric ended up tossed in a pile to the left, while the ruined, bleeding stationary ended up crumpled into the trash can.



I can’t believe it all got wet. Where am I going to get more paper? This is bullshit.’



A high, confused kind of giggle worked its way out of Utakata’s mouth. She glanced over to see that his face was buried in his hands.



He’d be fine. She went to take a shower.



When she came out, Utakata was staring out the window. Aiko stopped, still sponging off her hair. Some long-dormant instinct for caution was waking up to blink at him.



“The blinds are closed,” Aiko said cautiously. “What are you looking at?”



Aiko blinked. Utakata had crossed the room. His hands were around her upper arms. He leaned down.



“What the hell was that.” He shook her once. “Who the hell are you.” Utakata’s fingers tightened. “And as a tertiary question, why do you masquerade as a moron?”



I may have underestimated the effect this would have on him.’



She leaned back and carefully refrained from peeling his fingers off. Utakata seemed like he might need a physical grip to the real world. Aiko bent her arms to touch his forearms gently and made sure her breathing was slow.



“It’s a special fuinjutsu technique,” Aiko explained in an even tone. “It allows me to place a marker at locations that I touch. I use them to re-orient myself in space and time.”



Utakata blinked down at her. His eyelashes were prettily curved. “In space and time?” His voice was small. His grip loosened.



Aiko laced her fingers through his and tried to be sensitive to his distress. Even though he was being, like, a total drama queen about the whole thing.





“Yes.”



That probably wasn’t good enough. She tried again.



“I should have told you beforehand.”



Utakata groaned and threw his head back, tearing his hands away. He –honest to god- put the back of his palm to his forehead. “The other question, please?”



Aiko had to think back on that a moment. “My-” she faltered. “I never told you my name?” Oh. Wow. “Aiko.” She paused. “Uzumaki Aiko.” How awkward. Her mind was racing, trying to remember because she had to have, sure she’d-  “Did I ask your name?”



Her gut sunk when he shook his head.



Oh, hell.



“You just knew it.” Utakata broke away and sank down onto the bed, facing away from her. “I assumed that you had heard of me.”



No, I just knew you in an alternate timeline. All that I know about you is that you end up banging the Mizukage and we never got along.’



Aiko nodded and lied prettily. “I read the bingo book.”



He grunted in response.

She looked down at her hands and fidgeted.



“You didn’t so much as blink when I called you Uzumaki-san,” Utakata said dully. “From that I could only conclude that you expected me to recognize you, or are otherwise used to being recognized on sight.”



Holy shit. I didn’t think about that.’



Aiko cringed.



“From this, I can only conclude that this information proves you are somehow from a village where your family traits would be easily discerned. You say you are not a missing nin.”



I need dumber friends.’



“Therefore, it must somehow be true that you are or were once a legitimate shinobi, but your exit from your home village did not involve rebellion or excommunication. In any case, you were not trained outside of a village system.”



I treated him like he would already know these things.’



“One of two impossible things must be true.” They made eye contact. Aiko felt apprehensive, Utakata just looked weary. “You are indisputably a shinobi of Uzushiogakure, yet you appear approximately twenty. Either you are older than you appear, or you have somehow skipped the intervening years between the fall of Uzushiogakure.”



Close, but no dice.’



“Initially, the idea that you were disguising your age was much more plausible. By my math, you could be as young as 35 and still plausibly consider Uzushiogakure your home. As Uzumaki are noted for their longevity and youthfulness, your appearance could be natural. Additionally, I have heard of at least one Uzumaki descendant who utilizes a powerful jutsu to remain young.”



“Tsunade?” Aiko asked, feeling the urge to contribute somehow.



Utakata merely nodded. “Just so. However, your reliance on information gathering methodologies that are clearly out of date was notable. That is compounded by your queer statement about accidentally attacking the Mizukage and the fuinjutsu that you used to transport us here. I can only conclude that you were telling the truth.” He gave a sideways little frown. “You were conducting a fuinjutsu experiment that involved space-time manipulation. You made a mistake, and found yourself removed from your own time period and in a hostile situation.”



The theory about where she’d come from was off, but holy hell.



Aiko sank down onto the bed and tangled her hands in her hair. “Wow,” she said softly. “Wow.” She looked up at him. “I’m sorry I ever thought you were just a pretty face.”



Utakata shrugged and ran a hand over his hair. “I can’t decide if you’re the best shinobi I ever met or the most fantastically inept woman alive.”



Well… Aiko struggled to work up indignation. He wasn’t wrong.



“Why choose?” Aiko nudged him with her shoulder.



He knows a lot. Too much, really.’



The teenager made a huffing sound and nudged her back.



I should kill him.’



“I won’t tell.” Utakata sounded more like he was granting her a favor than pleading for his life. He didn’t even know that he should be concerned. He was smirking at her, enamored with his own cleverness.



Aiko felt her lips quirk up.



I don’t want to kill him. He’s funny.’



She slung an arm around his shoulders, ignoring the prissy sniff he let out. “It’s not like anyone would believe that, ne?” She squeezed, giving the closest thing to a hug she could manage casually.



“You’d better come up with another backstory,” Utakata commented stiffly. He raised an eyebrow and leaned away. “Or at least a cover identity. Unless of course you have plans? I assumed that there is no one you can contact.”



Her cringe was real. “No…” Aiko thought of the suspicious bastards that she had associated with. Who on earth wouldn’t be suspicious if she contacted them? The truth would seem like a contrived cover story. “I- I tried to contact Hoseki and Mitsuo, but…” she trailed off, too morose to finish the statement. It was definitely not framed to give the impression that her team was dead.



Dead is more believable than ‘not born yet’ anyway’.



Utakata came to the obvious conclusion and didn’t push. “I see.” He very awkwardly put a sympathetic hand on her leg to sort of pat. He immediately withdrew the limb, clearly thinking better of the motion.



“Yeah, no.” Aiko scooted away and flopped backwards onto the bed. Utakata let her go with unhidden relief.

Neither of them was terribly suited to mouthing platitudes.



“So.” Aiko toed Utakata’s side, smirking when he squirmed and glared. “A cover identity. Do I strike you are more of a Hikari or a Hironori? Maybe Keiko?”



“Aina,” Utakata said flatly.



What.



She stared. “Love vegetable,” Aiko repeated. “You want to call me the Vegetable of Love. That’s- well first of all, that’s too close to my real name. And that’s awful. No. Just no.” She pushed her foot against him again, hard enough that her foot flattened and molded against his flank. It was almost a kick, really, not a playful nudge.



“Nothing for it. You are indisputably a vegetable.” Utakata grabbed her foot to stop her from digging her toes into his backside.



“That’s ridiculo-”



Cabbage.”



Aiko puffed her cheeks up in indignation. “No, st-”



“Daikon.”



“You’rebeingstupid!” Aiko rushed out before Utakata could cut in. Their eyes met in a stare-off.



He looked away first, rolling his eyes upward. “I can’t believe you suggested naming yourself ‘Respectful Child.’ It’s positively absurd. And ‘Hironori’ is a male name.” Utakata released her foot.



She bent her leg to pull it away from his grasp. “Yeah, but I like the sound of it.” At the unimpressed expression he leveled, Aiko pouted. “Fine. Hikari it is.” She gave him a challenging look, but he kept his mouth shut about that one.



“About Wave… We will try again in the morning?” Utakata asked.



Aiko felt her shoulders slump. “We’d better.”


“How do you want to approach?” Aiko made a kissy face at her expression in the mirror, idly massaging lotion into her cheeks. She looked wan, but not nearly as tired as she felt.



Utakata leaned against the bathroom door, immaculate and bored. “Wave has no shinobi. We could go undisguised.”



She uncapped mascara and shrugged one shoulder, almost ready to take an early start to the day. Her plush bathrobe slipped down dangerously far past her collarbone with the motion. “We could. I doubt anyone would share information with us. They’d probably be terrified.”



He gave her a sideways expression, but one side of his mouth was tugging upwards. “But of course, we could instead use the ready-made explanation for two young people traveling together and be perceived as harmless.”



“Well, if you insist.” Aiko held her eyes still and parted her lips just a little, concentrating on slicking the dark paint on her lashes. As soon as she was done, she gave her partner a mischievous look. “Since you’re so set on it and all.”



Utakata looked at his nails.



Aiko capped her mascara and curled her hand into a fist around the plastic tube. “But if you tell them I’m pregnant this time, I will shove my foot so far up your ass that your dentist-”



“I get the point, Uzumaki,” Utakata cut her off. The flustered pink tint to his cheeks belied the lie in his superior tone. “In any case, we will begin with reconnaissance. I trust that you can conceal yourself from civilians to gather information about the island in order to assess what trade impediments exist.”



Oo, I ace this test. The answer is Gato. He’s fending off any competition. Don’t know how, though.’



She considered pushing aside the change of subject and rubbing her point in, just to make Utakata squirm.



He’s kind of naïve. It’s cute how he covers his embarrassment by trying to provoke me. Not very subtle, is it?’



She let it be. Aiko packed up her vanity bag and stalked over to frown at the enormous pile of civilian clothes left in the hotel room. Utakata watched her through heavily lidded eyes, and re-posed so that the excellent line of his neck and jaw was highlighted.



“I kind of want to leave this here.” Aiko heaved a sigh, not happy about the thought of going through and putting away the wardrobe she’d accumulated over months of aggressive consumerism.



Utakata didn’t offer comment. He just watched.



She wilted. “Can you, like, get me some hotel stationary?” Aiko waved her hand in the vague direction of the lobby. “I think the front desk will remember my description, after how we checked in.” And arrest me.



Utakata made a sound of dim recollection. “I find myself surprised that they did not contact any authorities,” he admitted. But he pushed himself to a vertical position and glided to the door. “I will locate enough paper.”



While he was gone, Aiko sorted her treasures. Kimono, dresses, skirts, pants, a truly stunning array of (generally pilfered) jewelry and tops-



I might have a problem.’



She stared. She picked up a kanzashi and slid it into her hair, as if she could make a dent in the trove by putting on some jewelry.



“It didn’t seem like so much when I just bought two or three things at a time,” Aiko defended. The empty room did not respond.



How am I going to get all this crap to Wave?’



Somehow, she sealed away all of her treasures. As soon as that was finished, Aiko took Utakata to the point they had stopped at last night and stopped to get her bearings. Finding the town that the bridge was being built out of wouldn’t be difficult. But…



I’m not sure how I’ll know when I am. Or how I will tell Utakata not to take care of the problem right away, assuming Gato is active but Zabuza isn’t hired yet.’



The logistics were… bad, frankly.



She stole a glance at her partner. Utakata was running his fingers down the bole of the tree she’d tapped yesterday. A faint line was pressed into his forehead.



I’ll make it work. Somehow.’



“You’re not going to find it unless you’re a sensor.” Aiko bent to leap up into a branch, out of casual eyesight. Utakata followed a moment later.



“Is the settlement large enough that we should split to cover more ground?” Utakata glanced over, eyes shadowed by bangs.





She strained to remember. “Not sure,” Aiko admitted. “Not as far as I remember. But things like that can change. We’ll have to play it by ear.”



They stopped talking altogether at the first signs of civilization, falling into grim professionalism. There was a point where forest and animal trails bled into a road, and the brush was scarred and fought away with fire and blades. They passed one abandoned house, but there was movement not too far away. It wasn’t exactly bustling, but there were enough people around that they had to use caution.



She led the jinchuuriki to the edge of town, exchanged a significant glance, and then dashed through the open to spring back up, onto a roof this time. It creaked. Aiko froze, muscles tense, trying to let the shoddily-built construction settle. She held her breath. It didn’t creak again.



I can’t even see him from here.’





Instead of gesturing, Aiko licked her lips and gave the subtlest of chakra pulses.





We need to develop a system. We can’t communicate if he only knows Mist’s tap code and I only know Konoha’s. If either of us was a team player, we’d already have thought of that.’



Aiko tabled the idea for later.



She did catch Utakata’s dash across the open. A grandmother jerked her head when he passed her, but the head-shake she gave indicated that she dismissed whatever she’d noticed. Aiko was still watching the civilian continue on her walk when Utakata shifted on the next roof over. He tilted his head to get her attention, eyebrow raised.



Aiko mimed a shrug and brought her hands together in order to take them apart, miming splitting up. She tapped her chest with her right and then indicated one side of town- the side she knew had the bridge. Besides, the other side of town smelt worse, befouled by something hot and chemical oozing on the wind.



Utakata scowled. But he nodded and took off in the stinky direction.



She was left to blink in mild confusion.



What did I say?’



Weird. Aiko shook off the oddity in favor of exploration. She hid in the shadows of buildings and moved only when unobserved, relying on old-fashioned stealth instead of genjutsu. Anything more sophisticated seemed unnecessary. She didn’t think there were shinobi around yet, but ninjutsu could attract them.



It’s…’ Aiko hesitated, crouched on an overhang. ‘Worse than I remember, somehow. Did I really leave these people like this?’



She strained her memory. But no, she didn’t think so. The civilian inhabitants were thinner, their clothes stained and worn, and she didn’t see a building that was anything other than shabby. The market was pitiful- but still every item sold, and there were lines full of people who didn’t receive any groceries.



Pathetic.’



Her stomach lurched, as if reminded that she’d treated herself to a pre-made bento that morning. She put a hand over it.



The bridge wasn’t started, as far as she could tell. But there were indications that something was going on: significant foot traffic towards the outskirts of town with the bridge-site and less general hopelessness than she remembered.



The whole town is in on it, I bet. They’d have to be. There are a lot more one-handed beggars than there were a few months ago, though. I doubt it’s going well.’



A worker would probably know what was going on. She didn’t remember any one-handed men working with Tazuna’s crew, so they weren’t her suspects.



Aiko waited patiently for a more likely candidate to walk by and then followed the man. He went nowhere interesting, so she tracked back out and tried to guess what preparations for construction would look like. Once she knew what she was looking for, she could confirm her suspicions that the locals should already be stock-piling and starting preparations.



They… need some kind of material, right?’



Aiko strained to remember what the bridge had been made of, but she frankly hadn’t paid much attention at the time. Construction seemed kind of boring. It… it could be done with wood. She knew that for sure. Yamato did that all the time. But wood didn’t seem like the best choice for a bridge that was supposed to last for the ages.



So, what, large rocks? Metal? That doesn’t seem right.’



She slumped.



This is embarrassing. This seems like a thing that most people would readily know. At least I can ask Utakata. He won’t realize I’m inattentive, because he already thinks I’m some kind of stone age throwback.’



The thought was not that reassuring, but it was what she had. So she went back to the place where they had started and waited.



“Cement,” Utakata answered, as soon as she posed the question. “A sort of glue mixed with rock that can be mixed on site and molded in large shapes. They would need large quantities of wood or metal for support, however.” He pulled a leaf out of his hair and frowned disapprovingly at it before he let it drift to the ground. “Why do you ask?”



How can they do that kind of work if they’re starving?’



She shrugged off the question. “It’s what I would do, if I was that near to the mainland,” Aiko evaded. “Someone has to have considered the possibility of connecting instead of risking the currents. It would make our jobs easier if someone was already contemplating a construction project, ne?”



Slowly, deliberately, Utakata turned to face her dead-on. He raised one eyebrow. He didn’t look like he was buying it.



Oh, come on. I’m right, aren’t I? That’s not how I know, but I’m still right.



“I do not believe the currents are the impediment to communication and trade,” Utakata said, after a long silence. “All but one of the harbors have been burnt. The ship docked is a commercial shipping vessel, patrolled and guarded by civilian hirelings. I am more interested in the party responsible for these oddities than the possibility of a land crossing.”



Aiko waited for him to say anything else, or to mention the name ‘Gato’.



When he didn’t say anything else, she forced a flippant smile onto her face. “Aa. Either way, this place is pretty sad, isn’t it?”



Her teammate sort of shrugged and shifted away. “Destitute.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, mouth twisting in revulsion. “You aren’t contemplating doing anything charitable, are you?’



“No, no,” Aiko denied hastily. “But the macro view of the situation hasn’t yielded much information so far. We could befriend someone and get their perspective.”



Utakata hmmd, unimpressed. “The community is smaller than I expected. They will recognize you as an outsider, and then wonder how you arrived.” He relaxed, leaning against a tree. “In any case, I would prefer to focus our attentions on apparent aggressor, rather than speculate about possible resistance from the locals.”



She frowned. He crossed his arms.



They stood at an impasse for a few minutes, watching the sun move directly overhead.



“We should part ways to approach the problem.”



Aiko nodded agreement. “You try your plan, I’ll try mine.”



“Don’t break our cover,” Utakata said shortly. She shot a scowl at his back, but he was gone a moment later.



“What a brat,” Aiko grumbled. She straightened her posture, checked her hair, and closed her eyes for just a moment to try to remember where Tazuna lived.



The builder had a family home outside of the town, not far from what would be the construction site. He probably had a half hour walk to work every day. And… it had been near a heavily wooded area, hadn’t it?



With that in mind, it didn’t actually take Aiko that long to track down the building. She settled in a treetop to watch the perimeter. Tsunami-san worked out in a garden behind the home for about two hours. She left, and returned forty minutes later holding Inari-chan by the hand. The boy’s other arm was occupied by a thin workbook. After that, Tsunami-san painstakingly pumped water up from a well to do washing. Inari-chan was out of sight, likely moping inside. Aiko watched the little family until the sky began to darken, but she didn’t see Tazuna-san at all. He didn’t come trudging along the path home.



Aiko ventured close enough to see that Tsunami-san didn’t even set a third place at dinner.



Her stomach hurt.



Surprised, Aiko put a hand to her gut and looked down.



I must be hungry if that’s looking good even after I saw the market where she got her food.’



She hesitated for a moment, but sprang away to find Utakata. He was already waiting for her, nearly invisible among the shadows of evening. When she held out her arm, he took it.



“Anywhere you’d like to go for dinner?” Aiko asked. She pushed down the uncomfortable feeling of domesticity that statement implied.



Utakata’s arm was tense against hers. “No. Though I would advocate selecting another hotel for the night.”



She took him to a port city that stretched nearly up to Lightning Country. Utakata looked vaguely ill and wobbly, but he set off towards the bright lights unprompted.



In the next morning, they parted ways in Wave Country again. This time, Aiko went directly to Tazuna-san’s home and waited. About five minutes after sunrise, Tsunami-san walked Inari-chan out to town. A few minutes after they were out of sight, Aiko leapt out of her hiding spot and let herself into the house. She did a fast run-through, flipping it over for signs of Team seven or work plans for the bridge.



Tazuna-san had been cautious. There was nothing visibly connecting his family to any rebellious attempt to undermine Gato’s chokehold on the island.



At least, not until Aiko pulled apart Tsunami-san’s cake pans. She cracked a smile, unfolding creased designs.



He’d trusted them to his daughter to hide.’



Tsunami-san had done a good job of it too, so Aiko put the blueprints back where she’d found them. It was just in time- it had been nearly half an hour since the family had left. Aiko hid upstairs until she heard the door open downstairs and then left by a window on the opposite side of the house.



She didn’t strictly need to talk to Tsunami-san now. Aiko had a solid theory: Tazuna-san had left for Konoha to get bodyguards. He had probably been carried out under darkness by a local boatman. In his absence, his compatriots were attempting to maintain the pretense of normalcy. They were likely gathering the materials in secret as well, or concealing them near the site.



But that’s a lot to tell Utakata I just magically know,’ Aiko told herself. ‘Besides, Tsunami-san wouldn’t be a bad in to have. She must know everything.’



So Aiko slipped around. She ran a hand over her hair and clothes to be certain that she still looked respectable. Then she slipped on her Rinnegan and knocked on the front door. She was waiting when Tsunami-san steeled herself enough to unlock and open it with trembling fingers.



“Hello,” she said pleasantly. She was smiling. “I’m your childhood friend Hikari-chan. Invite me in and tell me all about what’s been going on.”



Tsunami-san’s whole body relaxed, thrumming with endorphins and a powerful suggestion. “Hikari-chan! Please, come in. I’m doing some cleaning to prepare for guests.”



Hikari-chan smiled, just like she had as a dutiful little girl with braided pigtails and a pocket full of meadow flowers. “I’d love to help, Tsunami-chan.” She closed the door behind her.



“The situation has escalated,” Aiko reported as soon as she had confirmed they were alone. Tsunami-chan hadn’t recognized that yet, but Aiko could read between the lines. Gato knew that his biggest detractor had disappeared and that the town was covering for him. “I was right- there is attempt to subvert the forced moratorium on trade.” She scowled. “The export company-”



“Gato-san,” Utakata interrupted.



Aiko nodded. “Right, Gato was maintaining a stranglehold with mercenaries. But someone’s upset that by seeking shinobi help. He’s hired his own man in response.”



That made a lot of sense in retrospect as an explanation for Zabuza’s presence, and why Gato would have hired him if he was so unwilling to pay the price for a nukenin.



“Another shinobi- And we are certain this does not refer to us?” Utakata asked. His dark eyes were wide and with a start she remembered that he was really just a kid, not long out of his home village. His breathing was picking up in fast gasps. “It could. Someone is mistaken.” He shook his head. “Our employer has sold us out. We should leave, before hunters-”



“Utakata!” Aiko held up her hands. “That’s not possible.” When he tried to interrupt, she made a warning ‘ch-ch-ch’ kind of sound. “Our employer can’t have sold us out, because he’s under the kind of genjutsu that he is just not getting out of. No one knows about us.” Aiko reached out and gripped his shoulder to anchor him to the real world. “We’re okay. And even if someone comes, we can kill them all. We’re pretty great.” The teen shuddered in her grip, but didn’t pull away.



She could deal with revealing her tactics better than the fear of imminent capture. Fear makes shinobi stupid. He wouldn’t hurt her with the information. Probably.



He seemed to collect himself. “Right.” Utakata inhaled deeply, tilting his chin up. “You are not entirely incorrect. We shall remain as long as the situation does not become too dangerous. At that point, you will use your fuinjutsu to extract us.”



“That seems fair,” Aiko agreed, who had no intention of leaving to flee anything short of hunter-nin or Akatsuki. “The village will hire a Chuunin team, probably.”



They would want to, anyway.



She continued. “We can let them do the work if we hang back and observe. Why endanger ourselves if another team will be working towards the same goal? Lazy and safe.”



Utakata actually laughed. The sound was short and high and she’d never heard it before.



She froze warily.



“You are a terrible person,” Utakata said. But it sounded more like an endearment than anything.


 

Team 7 shows up, and the timing could not be better.




A week later, Gato’s displeasure reverberated around Wave. It manifested as a horde of muscle-bound men sauntering from the direction of Gato’s manor.  They split up into small groups, looming even as the civilians closed their doors or tremblingly pretended to be absorbed in their everyday tasks.



“Market’s closed, ladies!” someone shouted, a half second before a stand was overturned. Rough laughs and an unhappy cry followed.



Aiko perked up, encouraged by the thought of results after so long in observation. She smacked Utakata in the chest.



He came awake with a start and a glower, but rapidly focused in on the spectacle erupting. “This was a long time coming,” Utakata murmured.



Aiko nodded. From their vantage point overlooking the village center, they could see civilian toughs herding the citizens out of their houses.



“That for me?”



She craned her neck, but couldn’t see which jackass had shouted that. Someone was weeping, though. The sound was nearly covered in the clattering cacophony of sandals on cobblestone, breaking glass, and a hundred people being shoved into the village center. Even with all that, Aiko still heard the rolling of metal wheels against stone.



“He has a carriage?” Utakata asked. His mouth wasn’t quite closed, in shock at the gross excess and flaunting of wealth. “On an island this small?”



Aiko patted his shoulder companionably. “Apparently.”



A hush had fallen over the gathered. She was looking in the right place to see a thin man exchange a smirk with another tough and push an ojii-san into the carriage’s path. He fell forward, landing in a sprawl on his belly.



Aiko’s whole body jerked, torn between her reflex to interfere and her intellectual need to maintain anonymity. The hesitation cost. The carriage’s wheel ploughed down the old man, going up and over his back. He gave a horrible twisting jerk and blood painted the wheels.



She pressed her hand against her thigh and felt her jaw clench.



Screams were going up in the crowd, everyone from fishermen to housewives jostling to rush forward or run away.



“I think,” Utakata said quietly, “that I might like to interfere in some respect.”



She shot him a startled look.



His jaw was clenched into a feral snarl and his pupils were dilated. She edged away and thought about chakra chains. Utakata didn’t look much like himself at all.



I need to be the voice of reason, apparently.’



Aiko couldn’t muster up enthusiasm for the prospect. Her rebuttal was lackluster. “We’re hiding, aren’t we? If we’re going to come out of hiding, we can’t afford to wait. I don’t see how we could have enough time to ensure trade could begin safely before we would have to move on from hunter-nin.”



He blinked down at her, dark eyes serious even with his pupils blown open and the obvious signs of demonic possession straining against his features. “I agree that we cannot be seen, but we could blame another party. You have that hunter-nin uniform, do you not?”



He’s invested. If I don’t do something, he will. Then we’d have to leave. And that would be a pain in the ass, since I need to stay in Wave.’



Aiko sucked in a breath and looked down at the crowd one more time. All exits had been blocked off, trapping the citizens inside a ring of mercenaries.



Quite a few of them were squirming to avoid blood on their sandals. The door flew open on the carriage. A squat, grey man was framed in the entryway with a scowl and a cane. He hit it against the steps of the carriage and shouted something that she couldn’t understand over the anger rushing in her ears. Whatever it was, it was directed at the crowd.



Fine.



I think I can do a better job than Utakata at the moment. Besides, he doesn’t have a disguise.’



She turned back to Utakata and nodded. Without speaking, she dashed over the rooftop and into the closest open window, leaving him to monitor the situation and hopefully not kill everyone with Saiken. Aiko shrugged off the pink backpack and twisted, hastily pulling her shirt off over her head. She’d never changed so fast in her life: her outfit and kit were discarded on the floor.



It took precious seconds to flip through her papers, locate the one with weapons that couldn’t be hidden under a skirt, and unseal it to strap on all the glistening steel she could carry.



Aiko was nearly out the window again when she tied the hunter-nin mask on and remembered one other thing: she was too distinctive to go out like that. She put the first henge she thought of over her hair, painting the strands blue.



Now disguised enough, she all but flew back outside and over the rooftiles.



Utakata held a hand out to stop her. She couldn’t help but notice that his nails were jagged bits of glimmering seashells, curling over his fingertips. He pointed three times, indicating certain members of the mercenaries. She followed the motions, committing the toughs to memory trustingly. Gato was pontificating and gesturing some bullshit about respect and discipline.



Utakata leaned over so that his breath was hot against her ear. “I’ve seen this. He’s leading up to a public execution to frighten them into giving up. It is a common technique to secure obedience from a larger populace.” Aiko shivered. She forced her body not to lean into or away from him. It wasn’t sure which one it wanted to do.



Did this happen before?’ Aiko bit down on the inside of her cheek. ‘Is that why so many workers backed out on Tazuna-san?’



Utakata’s voice rasped against her ear, fury dislodging his habitual charm. “Attack the sycophants. They are too loyal to Gato’s coin to be frightened off. The others may be swayed by repercussions aimed at the enthusiasts among them.”



The logic seemed sound enough. She nodded, but asked in a whisper, “Wouldn’t it be optimal to wait until he was right about to make his example?”



He withdrew just enough to give her a hard look, but his tone was only skeptical. “If you must be dramatic.”



“I must,” Aiko confirmed. She shot him a wan smile that he couldn’t see under her mask. The heaviness of porcelain against her forehead and nose felt right, familiar.



People were being picked out of the crowd and muscled up to the pavilion-


No, not people, Aiko corrected internally. That implied a random selection. Young men were being lifted and pushed above the jostle- boys as young as sixteen and men as old as thirty. A stone settled in her stomach. Her hand reached for her ANBU shortsword.



I think I know why Gato’s workmen were all older.’



She didn’t have an ANBU shortsword, Aiko registered faintly. Her fingers slid around the grip of the sword she did have. It was close enough. It came out of the sheath without a sound, thanks to some Mist-nin who had taken excellent care of his tools. She thanked him silently.



A man was struggling, elbowing his captors and shouting red-faced obscenities. He was forced to his knees. She eyed the angle of the longsword being raised above his head, held by one of the men Utakata had picked out as a target.



Sloppy aim,’ Aiko critiqued. ‘That’d get stuck in the bone.’ Then she moved.



She’d beheaded the would-be executioner and whipped around to clinically swipe at the man holding down the prisoner before the first civilian screamed. The second man wasn’t one of Utakata’s targets, but he couldn’t go without repercussion. The cut wasn’t a killing one, but he was huddled close enough to the poor civilian that she didn’t take another swing. The blood spray from a suddenly bisected elbow would be startling enough. She moved.



A bellow erupted behind her- bodies were falling to the ground and tumbling and someone was screaming- but she kept moving, eyes trained on her next target. He saw her coming but didn’t have time to scream before she dug out his gut and used his shoulder as a jumping point to come at her final target from overhead.



His brown eyes opened wide in dismay and fear. She landed with her feet spread wide on his shoulders and brought the blade down through the unprotected space about his clavicles. There was a moment of resistance.



Then the body lost tension entirely, knees collapsing. Aiko rolled her feet to ride the motion, putting her weight on the balls of her feet when the body landed face-down. She quirked her head, surveying the situation from her vantage point crouched on a corpse.

“Get him!” Gato shouted from somewhere behind her.



Which was odd, because she’d pretty well demonstrated that there wasn’t any competit-



She dove, letting her body collapse in a well-practiced fall as hot chips of stone flew up behind her. Aiko completed the roll and sprang away from the missing-nin she really should have expected. Zabuza had brought down his sword with extreme prejudice. Maybe it had something to do with her disguise.



Of course Gato waited until he’d hired his man to make a demonstration. I am dumb. I am really dumb.’



Recriminations repeated in her head as she dodged the stupidly big sword. She was scowling behind her mask, but there was no real fear powering her rapid heartbeat. It had jumped from surprise. The beats began to normalize: Zabuza was fast and deadly, but she was faster. He could have killed her when she wasn’t expecting him, but he couldn’t hope to catch her now.



In a pinch, I can always Hiraishin.’



But that was terribly obvious and a hunter-nin definitely wouldn’t have that ability. So she left town on foot, passing trees in flashes of green and swaying branches. Zabuza was hot on her heels after he’d hefted up his sword-



In front!



Aiko darted to the side, evading another shinobi. She started in surprise when she actually saw him: he was wearing a hunter-nin outfit as well. He had senbon pinched between his fingertips, held up in warning. Zabuza came to a stop behind her. Slow, deliberate steps marked his approach. She twisted enough to keep both of them in her peripheral.



Then a bubble popped over head and Utakata dropped down from the treetops to land between Aiko and the mist hunter-nin who wasn’t attacking Zabuza for some reason.



For one surreally long moment, they all looked at each other.



Zabuza was first to react. She thought his mouth twitched under the bandages across his jaw. Then he threw his head back and barked out a laugh. He wheezed twice, eyes trained on Utakata.



Aiko looked back at the child who couldn’t be a real hunter nin. She couldn’t see his face, but he seemed as baffled as she felt. He crossed the clearing in a shunshin to crouch at Zabuza’s side, clearly protecting his master.



Aiko pitched her voice lower, since they’d already decided she was a boy. “Well, this is awkward,” she said. “One of us has to change.”



The look that Zabuza leveled at her was nothing less than scathing.



“Zabuza-san,” Utakata greeted. His own posture was relaxed. He looked over at her and raised a hand. She almost didn’t believe her eyes when he curled his fingers at her.



He can’t treat me that way. I’m not a trained dog.’



Something in her was phenomenally offended. But he knew Zabuza better than she did. Aiko gritted her teeth and went to kneel at Utakata’s side in the same posture she’d used to wait by Tsunade-sama.



“So that’s how it is,” Zabuza chuckled. He reached a hand out and ruffled his companion’s hair. Aiko curled her lip in disgust as the child leant into the touch.



Pathetic.’



“For a moment there, I thought the kid was actually black ops.” Zabuza jerked his head at her. Aiko fought the urge to snarl and stiffen. “He moves like one. Haku, I hope you were watching.” He bowled over the quiet, “Hai, Zabuza-sama,” that followed. “You’re the jinchuuriki, right?”



Utakata’s hand brushed against Aiko’s shoulder. In warning or silent declaration of protection, Aiko didn’t know. “Utakata.” He sounded bored.



Aiko realized with a shock that she knew better- that tone didn’t signify disinterest. It was concealing tension.



“How awkward. It appears that we have been hired to pursue contradictory interests. It seems a shame that we should fight and deprive Kiri of the pleasure.” His fingers tapped against the curve where her neck met shoulder, movements concealed by her hair.



It might have been nerves or it might have been code: she couldn’t tell. They didn’t speak the same language. She bit down frustration.



We really need to communicate better.’



Zabuza was watching the tendons in Utakata’s forearm with sharp eyes.



Perhaps the tap code hadn’t been for her at all. She bit her lip. A show for Zabuza?



The mist nuke-nin grunted from the bottom of his throat. It somehow conveyed disdain, despite the fact that over half his face was covered by bandages.



Maybe I should kill him again.’



“I don’t see a problem.” The swordsman twisted his fingers in Haku’s hair in a parody of affection. “I don’t care if a bridge is built after I get paid. You can make a bridge out of daisy chains for all the fucks I give.” He leaned forward slightly, as if emphasizing his stature and bulging musculature. “Make a hundred bridges. But after I get paid,” he enunciated carefully. “Then we’ll have no problems.”



I like him. Maybe he should have been the Mizukage.’



Aiko froze at the thought. Okay, that was ridiculous, but-



Utakata hummed from the back of his throat. “How kind of you.”



That’s actually a possibility.’



“Until then, stay the fuck out of my way.” Zabuza turned away in dismissal. He made a handsign and was gone. A moment later, Haku was gone as well.



“That was eventful.” Utakata sounded sullen. “At least I didn’t say you were pregna-”



Aiko dug her thumb into the side of his thigh in warning. His voice cut off in confusion. After a moment of looking down at her, he seemed to catch on.



Zabuza might not actually be gone.’



When she jostled her shoulder meaningfully, Utakata tightened his fingers around the muscle. Aiko took them far, far away, to the hotel room that had become their base of operations. Only then did she shake off her teammate and stand up.



Utakata held out his hands to take the mask she pulled off. That helpfulness was so unlike him that Aiko shot the teenager a startled look as she let go of the porcelain.



Unease prickled up her spine. She kept her tone brusque. “That went well. Good job.”



“Tch.” Utakata scoffed without making eye contact. “Whatever you say.” He crossed his arms, mask dangling from his fingers.



I missed something.’



“Is there a problem?” Aiko asked, carefully neutral.



“No, no.” Utakata breathed. “No problem at all. Everything is wonderful. We’re never in any danger at all because you know things you can’t possibly know.”



He looked back at her. His pupils were vertical slits.



The hair on the back of her neck stood up. When he took a step toward her, she took a step back.



“You knew Zabuza would be there. You had somehow deduced as much from reports that I also read.” He was hissing.



Is he upset that it looks like I noticed a pattern where he didn’t? There wasn’t a pattern. Zabuza is too good for that. I wouldn’t have predicted that he would come to Wave without foreknowledge.’



Utakata didn’t stop spitting vitriol, clearly gaining momentum. “And it is terribly convenient how you tiptoed around manifestation of the six-tails. It was as though you knew how to placate a jinchuuriki. Most shinobi are fearful. But not you.” He took another step. “You know everything, don’t you.”



The pieces fell into place with a jolt. Exasperation washed over her like a tide.



Oh my god, he’s having feelings. Spare me.’



“You’re being pissy and insecure because you lost emotional control,” Aiko accused. She knew she was right when his mouth fell open in surprise. She closed the distance to jab her index finger against his chest. “Guess what kiddo, you don’t scare me. The six tails is nothing to me. Nothing,” she stressed, when he tried to open his mouth. “I’m not going to leave you because he raised his head when you gave him a chance by losing your cool. Your worth more to me as a partner outweighs any potential

harm you could present.”



When he tried to grab her wrist, she let him. His eyes were sliding back to normal. He turned her hand and rubbed his index finger around the underside of her wrist.



Aiko rolled her eyes and let him take her pulse. “If you’re done marveling that I’m really not frightened or about to leave you for forcing my hand earlier, I’d like to remind you that I don’t do things I don’t want to do. I stopped Gato because I found it personally satisfying, not because you were considering throwing a bijuu at his ass.” Her hand darted to catch his wrist, twisting out of his grip. She didn’t bother to take his pulse. “Yeah, Zabuza knows about you now. But so what? We will be fine.”



Utakata pulled away from her and narrowed his eyes.





She’d said the words with utter surety, willing them to be true. Aiko had no doubt. But because Utakata might not run on faith, she added as plainly as possible; “And if he bothers you, I’ll kill him.” It felt like talking to Naruto when he’d been little and needed to know that someone had his back.



His expression softened a bit. His posture stiffened into something more familiar.



Aiko relaxed an iota, because whew, panic averted.



“You sound like someone’s mother. Are you entirely certain that you are not thirty?”



I don’t want to kill him. I like him sometimes.’



Aiko held that reminder against her chest and bared her teeth in something that was not a grin. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She paused pointedly. “I’m eighteen,” she lied, making it sound like a challenge and not statement of fact.



(When else would she get such a golden opportunity to shave a few years off her age? It was too perfect to pass up. Besides, it was, like a family tradition. Tsunade would be proud.)



Utakata’s mouth dropped in shock. “You- you are my age!” He seemed almost offended. “That’s- you can’t be!”



She showed a little more teeth and leaned in. “Why not, dearheart?”



He looked at her sharpened canines for a moment. “I suppose I… could have been mistaken.”



“That’s the spirit.” Aiko companionably hip-checked him as she passed on her way to the bathroom door. He stumbled to the side fuming teenage indignation, but she really did not give a damn. Aiko grabbed the hem of her top as she walked. She didn’t want to spend all day in the clothes she’d pilfered from that Kiri corpse. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to-” she cut herself off in shock, eyes wide.

She let go of the fabric.



I dropped my bag when I changed. It’s still in that civilian’s house. In Wave. Along with all my money and clothes and loot.’



She made a small sound, like a wounded kitten.



Utakata was at her side in an instant. “What’s wrong?”



“Oh… nothing.” Aiko batted weakly at the air. “It’s just- I forgot something.”



Her companion eyed her. He took a step back. He crossed his arms. “You forgot everything, didn’t you?”



She held up a finger. “I’ll be right back.”




“And you’re sure?” Aiko scrubbed harder, working off her pent-up energy. Her enemy resisted with unnatural strength leant from its year-long stay on the kitchen counter.



Tsunami-chan took a moment to respond, preoccupied with re-tying the handkerchief protecting her hair. “Tou-san has traveled long distances before. He seemed certain that I should expect his return tomorrow or the next day.”



Aiko made a noncommittal sound and wiped the ambitious coffee stain out of existence. She probably looked a bit dumb with a clip holding her nose shut, but the cleaning chemicals had been giving her a headache.



This was the second time they had deep-cleaned the house. Aiko had brought over groceries, replaced the china, and done everything she could think of to waste time.  She’d all but walked a ditch around the property with her pacing. Utakata had gotten bored and finally refused to come with her three days back. He was lounging in the hotel.



Now that she was close to seeing team 7, she was fidgety. She didn’t know if she needed more time or wanted to just get the encounter over with. But either way, Aiko felt mildly ill.



What if I fuck this up and they’re suspicious of me? If I don’t do anything, Sakura will die again. I can’t pass up a second chance like this.’



She’d made up her mind: she needed to get into Konoha so that she didn’t fail the girl again.



(But holy hell she didn’t want to go back. It seemed too impossibly strange and unhappy a prospect.)



That was her biggest concern. It would be admittedly strange to see herself, Naruto, and Sasuke as children again. But the prospect didn’t bother her. And Kakashi? He always looked the same.



“Hikari-chan?” Tsunami-chan was tilting her head slightly, a frown pursed onto her lips. “You seem so serious. Let’s take a break.” When she reached out for Aiko’s hand, Aiko let the older woman lead the way to the table. They settled in, taking off their cleaning gear. “Now, that’s better.” Tsunami-chan shot her a bright smile.



Footsteps thumped down the hall, rapidly slowing before they reached the doorway. Both women twisted to see Inari-chan peek around the corner, worrying on his scarf. “Mom?” His eyes darted to Aiko, wary but not too interested. “I had a question. Can you help me?”



She let a placid smile creep across her face and adjusted her posture. She’d never used a genjutsu on him. Doing that to a child could cause an aneurism.



It’s not like he’d know who his mother’s childhood friends were.’



“Of course. Inari-chan, how is your homework going?”



The boy scowled. “Mo-om,” he complained.



Tsunami-chan was hiding a smile. “Aa, sorry. It’s Inari-kun now, isn’t it?” When she opened up her arms, the six year old dragged his feet over to curl up at her side.



“Can you write my katakana out to hiragana?” Inari-chan wheedled, digging his fingers into his mother’s dress. “I’m really good at hiragana. I don’t want to learn the katakana. It’s not working.”



“Tsunami-chan! Inari-kun! I’m home!”



The shout was gleeful but faint. Inari-chan shrieked, tumbling out of his mother’s lap en route for the door. “Grandpa!”



Early? Why would we be early?’



Aiko brushed off her lap and stood, as unhurried as possible. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Have a good day, Tsunami-chan.”



The older woman returned the well-wishes, attention focused on the door.



“Yes, of course. I-”



Aiko was already upstairs, leveraging open the back window. She crossed to the treetops in one leap and hastily worked her way around the house to catch a glimpse of the group before they went inside.



Her heart stopped cold.



“That’s not right.” She didn’t remember deciding to speak out loud. The words felt like they’d come from someone else.



Sasuke and Naruto were carrying Kakashi. Sakura was bringing up the rear with nervous body language. Even from the distance, Aiko spotted light glinting off what had to be a kunai in her fist.



“Where…” She strained, nearly leaning into sight. “Where am I?”



Kakashi lost a fight.’



The only other shinobi around was Zabuza.



Zabuza did that to Kakashi.’



Impossible. He’d been tired after the altercation, yes, but using his Sharingan did that to him. Zabuza should be dead.



Something had changed. She didn’t see how it was possible because she had stayed far away from that encounter but somehow it had and Kakashi looked half dead and she was missing and



Aiko put her face between her knees and focused on breathing.



Her thoughts were jagged fragments and they cut at her in a barrage. She’d done something terribly wrong. Something had gone wrong and she was the only divergent factor so it had to trace back to her.



She needed information. She wasn’t going to get it sitting in a tree.



I wasn’t going to be seen by them yet. I didn’t wear a henge around Tsunami-chan and Inari-chan. If I wear a henge now, the civilians won’t recognize me and I won’t have a cover. Is team seven going to recognize me? Kakashi is passed out. He’d be the most observant one.’



It was a stupid decision. She didn’t care.



She stood up-when had she sat? – and smoothed out her civilian clothing. She fixed her hair, forcing her fingers to stop trembling. When her braid was laying down her left shoulder and her bangs were perfectly positioned to the side, she took a deep breath and pulled on the same bland smile she had used on Inari. She got to the ground. She walked up to the front door in plain sight. When Sasuke pulled the door open with a kunai in hand, she faked surprise and startled, putting her hands to her chest. Her shriek was a perfectly feminine, contained sort of terror.



There was no recognition in Sasuke’s eyes. Apparently civilian clothes and a new hairstyle were enough disguise. Well. That and being years older.



He instantly looked chagrinned and a little ashamed, because his mother had taught him not to terrorize civilians. The weapon disappeared. Tsunami-chan moved over his shoulder. Her expression instantly brightened. “Hikari-chan! I thought you had left.”



“I forgot something,” Aiko explained. Her tone had exactly the right amount of warmth and embarrassment, but she felt cold inside. Her face smiled. “I suppose this is one of your brave protectors, ne? What a tall young man.”



Maybe Utakata is right. Maybe I do talk like an old person.’



Sasuke turned scarlet to the tips of his ears and fled the entryway.



Sakura appeared around the corner, casting a mildly confused look after her teammate. Her attention immediately flickered over to Aiko. It was like she pulled on a mask- her eyes brightened, her posture straightened, and she showed her white teeth.



I definitely don’t want to let her die. What a precious baby.’



“Hello!” Aiko greeted brightly. She leaned down to be on equal height with Sakura and ‘didn’t notice’ the shadow of irritation that passed over the kunoichi’s face. “My, I didn’t know shinobi came so young! You must be strong.”



She cursed herself immediately. Civilians didn’t say ‘shinobi’. They said ‘ninja’. But Sakura reacted to the implied compliment and not the slip. A genuinely pleased look pulled at her face. It was a much shyer sort of happiness than her polite smile.



“Ano, onee-san.” Sakura twisted her ankle prettily and twined like a cat under the attention. “I don’t know that I’d say that.”



“Well, I’m impressed,” Aiko said firmly, exchanging a smile with Tsunami-chan. She needed a gossip session. She needed Sakura to be relaxed enough to spill information and she needed Sakura to fall back on her civilian manners enough to engage in conversation at all.



Tsunami-chan came through, though Aiko didn’t know if it was her own volition or the genjutsu sensing that Aiko wanted an in. “I’m sure you’re thirsty, Sakura-chan. Why don’t you join Hikari-chan and I for tea?” Tsunami-chan probably actually missed the moment of hesitation on Sakura’s face, but Aiko didn’t. Tsunami-chan was nodding towards the sitting area. “Please forgive me, but I need to run some bedding upstairs. I will start the water after that.”



Aiko brushed that off. “Don’t trouble yourself!” She waved her fingers. “Sakura-san and I can handle it, can’t we?” She winked at the girl and god Sakura was cute as hell what a sweet kid she shouldn’t die this time around she should reach fourteen at least.



The kunoichi visibly melted at being addressed like an adult. “Hai!” Sakura chirped.



They made tea. Aiko found snacks. Sakura proudly carried out porcelain and Aiko marveled at how steady her hands were, how much she could carry at once, her mother must be so proud of her.



Then Naruto skidded into the room. Literally.



He caught himself with a jerk on the doorframe and shot a guilty look at Sakura. But not for long because he was lifting his hand to rudely point at Aiko and shout, “Who are you, lady?”



Aiko stared. The cup in her hands slipped. Sakura lurched across the table to catch it before it could fall, already scowling.



“Naruto-baka!” Sakura complained. He quailed when she raised a fist, even from halfway across the room. Despite her ugly tone Sakura set the cup down gently. Not a drop spilled.



Aiko didn’t have the presence of mind to fake awe at Sakura’s dexterity. She was gaping.



He looked wrong. He was Naruto but he wasn’t her Naruto. Her Naruto had never had such thin cheeks or wan coloring or so many rips in his clothing (and holy hell she knew she’d never bought that jumpsuit, she would remember that phase).



Naruto’s smile faded. He rubbed at the back of his neck. “Uhh…”


She snapped back to herself and pulled on a self-deprecating smile. She waved at Sakura apologetically. “Sorry, sorry, Sakura-san! I suppose I was startled. Thank you for your help!”



Sakura was looking at Aiko warily. She had the social skills to remember that odd moment and analyze it. That could be a problem.



Aiko turned to Naruto. “You must be the last ninja!” Aiko beamed a ‘mom’ smile up at him. “Konoha sent three ninja for our little town? I feel so lucky!”



As suspected, Sakura did not volunteer the information that there was another, injured shinobi under the roof. But Naruto…



It was utterly pathetic how Naruto lapped up the smallest hint of positive attention from an adult. He glowed. His back straightened. His chin went up.



He’d sing like a sparrow.



“Sit with us.” Aiko patted the cushion to her left. Sakura stiffed from her spot at Aiko’s right but she didn’t protest. Not out loud, at least.



Naruto hesitated for a moment, then flung himself down. Aiko shifted over the cup intended for Tsunami-chan and filled it for him.



Sakura leapt to her feet. “I’ll get another, Hikari-san!” She was gone before Aiko could gush thanks.



Alone with Naruto, Aiko felt her carefully maintained control begin to crack. She smiled a little wider and pushed her shaking hands on her lap, hidden under the kotatsu. “So. You must be Naruto-kun.” He leaned over, mouth slightly open. “I’m glad that Tsunami-chan and her family have ninja like you to protect them,” Aiko angled.



Predictably, he swelled with the praise. “We’ll keep them safe,” Naruto promised. He made a thumbs up. “It’s my ninja promise! Me and Sakura-chan and sensei and even the teme!”



There was a small, indignant sound from the kitchen that Aiko probably would not have heard if she had been a civilian. So she merely smiled. “I believe you, Naruto-kun.” Then she let her forehead crease in mild confusion. “Ano, did you say your sensei was here as well?”



Naruto flushed, realizing his mistake.



He doesn’t seem like a kid who just left his sister behind somewhere after a fight gone wrong. Maybe something happened way back in Konoha. Maybe I didn’t go on the mission at all.’



Aiko’s tone was perfectly pleasant when she continued. “I’ve never met a grown-up ninja. She must be strong!”



Naruto barked out a laugh at what must have seemed well-meaning ignorance and not a calculated attempt to not raise alarm bells at how much she knew. “Eh, sensei’s a boy!” he half-shouted. Aiko faked embarrassment. “But yeah, I guess he can be kind of cool.” Naruto frowned. He crossed his arms. “Sometimes.”



“Oh.” Aiko nodded knowingly. “Grownups can be silly, ne?”



“I don’t know that I’d call him silly.” Naruto swelled up, indignation puffing his chest out. “Sensei is always late, and he smells like dogs, and he’s a nasty perv-” he cut himself off suddenly and eyed her. His face turned pink. “Ah!” Naruto kind of flailed in place. “I’m sorry, Sakura-chan said ladies don’t need to hear about that kind of gross stuff. And things,” he added in a jumble.



I don’t remember him smelling bad. Dog smell is a good smell.’



Wait.



Did Naruto think I smelled too much like dog and just never said anything?’



That was… embarrassing. Maybe? But it definitely wasn’t what she needed to find out.



Aiko forced out a titter. “Naruto-kun, it’s alright! I’m sure your sensei knows what he is doing.”



Sakura strode back into the room with the requested cup and another pot of water. She gave Aiko a sideways look, as if hoping for approval of her foresight.



They’re both needier than I remember.’



It was getting annoying, but Aiko juggled Sakura and Naruto until Tsunami-chan returned with a harried expression and a pink flush across her cheeks that indicated Kakashi was either awake or shirtless.



Naruto completely missed the over-the-top knowing look that Aiko shot Tsunami-chan. Sakura didn’t. She looked queasy.



“Eto, Hikari-san!” Sakura started too hastily to be casual. “And Tsunami-san, of course,” she added belatedly. “I was wondering if you could provide more information about the situation?”



Good girl.’



Sakura was pinking under the attention of everyone else in the room. Her voice quietened. “Ano, it’s just that Tazuna-san hasn’t been here for quite a while, and things could have changed,” she explained sheepishly.



Aiko let her face display as much approval as Naruto’s and Tsunami-chan’s did.



Why didn’t I like her? She’s so bright.’



“It’s… it’s probably good that you asked, Sakura-san,” Tsunami-chan began. “I wasn’t there,” she hedged. “But-”



“I was,” Aiko interjected solemnly, drawing attention away from Tsunami-chan. The older woman’s mouth snapped shut immediately.



Can’t have her giving too much information about what happened. Sakura is going to tell everything to Kakashi.’



The woman’s eyes glazed in response to Aiko’s correction. Her face stuttered blank for a moment, then returned to placidity.



Naruto and Sakura were both watching Aiko intently. She didn’t think they’d seen the odd shadow passing over Tsunami-chan’s face.



“It was frightening. Terrible.” Aiko tensed her muscles into something that resembled a shiver. She pitched her voice lower, quieter. “Gato-san heard that some of the people were trying to build a bridge. I don’t think he knew who. So he had his people force everyone into the village center- and- and-” She cleared her throat. She widened her eyes so that they would water. “He thought that if there were no workers-”



“You don’t have to finish,” Sakura said. Her eyes were wide. She looked like she wasn’t certain if she was horrified or fascinated.



Aiko widened her own eyes. She looked down and away. The table was quiet.



Naruto bulldozed through the solemn moment. “Don’t worry,” he vowed. “Like I said, we’ll make sure nothing bad happens!” Tsunami-chan stared at his sincerity and Sakura was embarrassed but Aiko managed a watery smile.



That’s as good an opening as any.’



“Thank you, Naruto-kun.” She swallowed. She changed the subject. “So.” She cleared her throat. “Tell me about yourselves? I’ve never met real ninja before.”



The children puffed with pride, eager to please and distract.



“I’m the first shinobi in my family,” Sakura bragged.



A moment later Naruto chimed in with, “I’m going to be the Hokage!”





Aiko smiled at both of them, faking a little laugh. “Oh, my. That’s a big goal. You’ll have to work hard, Naruto-kun. And Sakura-san, that must have been a grown-up decision! I bet your family is proud of you.”



“Oh, yes,” Sakura beamed. Naruto was shrinking back, and that wasn’t right, and Aiko pressed. “Do either of you have siblings? Are they ninja too?”



Both children shook their heads without thinking.



Her chest froze over.



Impossible. It doesn’t make any sense.’



A terrible sort of premonition was building. She didn’t want to face it. She couldn’t consider it. She needed to move. She needed to run.



I can’t stay here. Kakashi is going to sense me as soon as he isn’t unconscious or delirious.’



She glanced out the window. She faked surprise. “Oh! I forgot all about the time.”



Tsunami-chan paused with her teacup at her lips, pupils dilating in response to the prompt. “Oh, and you have such a walk home.” She fussed, putting her china down. “We always do this.”



“We’re terrible gossips,” Aiko confided to Sakura and Naruto with a wink, as though she was imparting some great secret.



“Oh, hush.” Tsunami-chan waved that comment off and stood. “I’ll show you to the door. Will you be back tomorrow?”



Aiko stood and walked out. “No, I don’t think so.” She was in another room, far enough away that a civilian might not realize the acoustics were still good for overhearing, and it was her chance to allay whatever suspicions Sakura might have had about how Aiko had acted when she’d seen Naruto. She almost hated to do it. It would embarrass him. It would probably embarrass Sakura. Neither of them were the people who should be embarrassed about the issue.



She lowered her voice. “Tsunami-chan, doesn’t Naruto-kun look like he could use some vegetables?” Her voice was plaintive. “He’s a little wan, and thin. It worried me.”



Tsunami-chan played along like a champ. “Aa, Hikari-chan, don’t you worry. I’ll get some nutrients in him. They’re sweet young people, aren’t they?”



“Yes,” Aiko agreed grimly. “I just want to scoop them up and take them with me.”

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi-sensei was as still and stiff as he’d been when she’d slipped into sleep after her shift at watch. Only now, his cheeks were pale and he was clammy to the touch. Sakura swallowed hard. She watched sweat well up and join the dampness in his hairline.

His breathing was shallow but steady.

Sakura took his pulse. She confirmed that he didn’t have a fever. She decided to ask Tsunami-san to help her pour some water down his throat later. He hadn’t had a drink in over twelve hours, so he must need some, right?

‘What do I do if he doesn’t wake up? He has to eat still, right? And go to the bathroom and- and other stuff. Right?’

She wiped at her face with her sleeve. Contemplating it was terrifying. She wasn’t trained in this.

‘I don’t know what to do.’

It was so stupid. Everything was stupid. If they’d just gone home when they’d found out their client was a dirty liar, none of this would have happened. Why hadn’t they listened to the rules?

Naruto pushed open the door and slunk in, worrying at his lip like an idiot.

‘He must have used up all his bravado shouting about continuing the mission yesterday.’

Sakura pressed her lips together tightly and didn’t look at her teammate.

“When’s sensei going to wake up?” Naruto sounded small and lost.
Resolutely, she held on to her bad mood, because it was better than admitting that she was scared too. “How would I know?” Sakura glared at Naruto.

He shrugged helplessly. “You know lots of stuff, Sakura-chan.” Naruto showed her his palms.  His voice softened. “I just hoped. That’s all.”

Sakura slumped. “Yeah.”

She thought back to the fight. She’d examined everything she could remember at least twice before. Kakashi-sensei’s fainting didn’t make sense.

That could happen if someone was bleeding a lot, but Kakashi-sensei only had scratches. She’d considered heatstroke or shock- but no, the day hadn’t been hot enough. Chakra exhaustion could cause a shinobi to get dizzy, or pass out and die if severe enough. But he’d only used a few jutsu. Surely an elite Jounin like Kakashi-sensei had bigger chakra reserves than that.

‘But with the fever and pallour, and the fact that he won’t wake up…’

Sakura swallowed her fear and the words, ‘I’m scared that he was poisoned. I’m scared he’s going to die and leave us alone far from home. I’m scared that we committed to this mission and so we have to do it without our sensei.’

Telling Naruto that wouldn’t do any good. Her second theory- that he’d sustained serious head damage in the exchanges that were too fast for the genin to see- wouldn’t be any more reassuring.

Naruto left the room. Sakura sat by her sensei for a while longer, until her legs fell asleep. Sasuke-kun was still resting after taking the second watch shift; the hardest shift.

The sun rose. Tazuna-san pattered around in the adjoining rooms and noisily prepared for work. Tsunami-san was much quieter in the kitchen, but the smell of tamagoyaki crept into the room. Sakura closed her eyes and heard the popping sound of pickled vegetables being opened. Her mouth watered.

Her stomach twisted painfully, rebelling against her ribs.

She went to the table before she could be called. She didn’t want unnecessary noise making it harder for Kakashi-sensei to get the best rest possible. Maybe he just needed to sleep more.

Tsunami-san made a sympathetic noise as soon as she saw Sakura’s face. “Is your teacher still not feeling well?”

Sakura nodded miserably.

Breakfast did make her feel somewhat better. Tsunami-san had offered an impressive spread. The civilized part of Sakura squirmed at the reminder that her hostess had been put out to feed so many people. Sakura hadn’t even offered to help. She was toying with the idea of offering when Sasuke-kun slouched into the room. She eyed him, sucking on a bit of tamagoyaki. His hair was more ruffled than usual, except for the left side. It was completely flat.

“Good morning, Sasuke-kun!” She pitched her voice up and managed a smile.

He made a kind of acknowledging grunt. Her tummy flipped. Sasuke-kun sat down and stared blearily at his plate. He didn’t blink until Tsunami-san encouragingly slid a pickle plate in his direction.

Sakura ate a pickle off her own plate. It was clearly homemade. She felt bad again about failing to offer her assistance in the kitchen.

Naruto joined them last, when Tazuna was on his third helping of fish. Sakura looked up at the right time to see him pause in the doorway with wide eyes.

‘Hikari-san thought Naruto looked like he was suffering from malnutrition. Maybe he really hasn’t seen a homemade meal like this before.’

She put down her chopsticks and tried not to feel queasy.

“Good morning, Naruto-san.” Tsunami-san set down another small bowl filled with vegetables. “I hope you’re hungry. I made a lot this morning.” She gave a wide smile and turned back to the stove.

Sakura winced.

‘She doesn’t know we overheard that conversation.’

She eyed Naruto. He stood frozen for a moment , the same stark humiliation on his face that he’d shown last night. But then he forced on a smile, sat, and served himself a plate of food. It included considerably more vegetables than she’d ever seen him eat.

Sakura didn’t quite understand that response. So she excused herself and double-checked that her equipment was ready to go. Sure, Kakashi-sensei had defeated all three missing nin, but she was still on a mission. She was on a mission far from home, with a lying client who had risked their lives, and with a sensei who might not wake up. But guarding Tazuna-san had been his last order. They had to do what they could.

Sakura made sure her lucky kunai was in the first position on her holster.

“But someone has to stay with sensei,” Naruto pointed out uncomfortably when all three of them moved to follow Tazuna-san out the door. “He’s still asleep.”

“He’s unconscious,” Sasuke-kun corrected scathingly.

Naruto waved his hand irritably. “Fine, whatever. We can’t leave the old guy alone- either old guy,” Naruto amended glancing at Tazuna-san. “He’s our mission, and sensei couldn’t defend himself from a wet blanket right now.”

“Fine,” Sasuke-kun bit out. “Have any brilliant ideas, idiot?” The two scowled at each other. Sakura could feel a brawl building.

And she was so, so sick of being stuck between their bickering.

“You two go.” Sakura dropped her pack. “You’re the ones who wanted to continue the mission anyway. I’ll stay with sensei.”

‘I wish he’d wake up. We won’t get home without him.’

Sakura flung the door open and stomped back into the house. She stopped short in the kitchen.

Hikari-san was sitting at the table with Tsunami-san. She looked strange in Tsunami-san’s little kitchen: the redheaded lady clearly had an eye for fine things and the means to acquire them. Hikari-san was wearing clear gems high around her throat and a fresh manicure instead of the kanzashi from yesterday.

No wonder Tazuna-san had had given Tsunami-san an odd look when she’d mentioned her friend had been over. She couldn’t quite understand the friendship either.

Tsunami-san was a tired and prematurely frail young mother in a well-repaired house dress. In contrast Hikari-san looked collected and sharply pretty, clearly untroubled by maintaining a household or worrying about Kakashi-sensei’s ailing upstairs.

Sakura swallowed envy.

‘If I hadn’t gone to the academy, I could have been like that. My parents have the means.’

Intentionally, Sakura scuffed her foot against the floor. It wasn’t nice to sneak up on civilians.

Hikari-san turned her head, and a smile flooded her face.

‘She smiles like she learned how from watching Naruto,’ Sakura thought, and fought down an unladylike snort. It just didn’t fit the rest of the polished image.

“Good morning, Sakura-san!” Hikari-san didn’t notice her wince. “Are you staying to protect us today?”

Tsunami-san gave the door Sakura had almost left through a sharp look, but said nothing from behind her tea cup.

‘I did need to ask about helping sensei…’

The presence of an extra person made things awkward. She really shouldn’t be displaying weakness or risking a slip of private information.

But Naruto had already spilled the news that sensei was here. And what could it hurt? Hikari-san didn’t care about what shinobi did.

Her heart jumped nervously. “I’m staying, yes. Tsunami-san, I was hoping you could help me get sensei a drink?” Sakura twisted one foot behind her. “I’m sure he needs to but I don’t know how and-” She snapped her teeth together before she could babble anymore. She looked down. Tsunami-san must work very hard. Her floor was glossy and clean.

“Is there a problem?” Hikari-san sounded serious. “Sakura-san. I happen to have some medical training. I’m at your disposal.”

‘She does not look like a town doctor. Is the town big enough to merit a nurse?’

Sakura honestly did not know. What other kind of medical specialist would a tiny fishing town have? There was probably a midwife. And they’d have experience in treating injuries from nets or cold, probably.

She pushed the mystery aside. “T-thank you very much!” Sakura put her palms on her thighs and bowed. “How lucky. Would you mind taking a look at my sensei?”

She let Hikari-san go up the stairs first, and watched her back for any twitching. The offer of medical assistance was awfully convenient. Her heart was pounding all the way up in her throat but she couldn’t pass up the offer. She wasn’t likely to get another one.

Hikari-san didn’t notice the danger she was in. She sat on her legs at Kakashi-sensei’s side and leaned dangerously far into his personal space. Her eyes flicked closed. If Sakura hadn’t known better, she would have said the civilian was smelling sensei’s neck. That was too silly: she was probably listening to sensei’s breathing.

Sakura shivered. She didn’t feel entirely comfortable that close. If sensei startled awake because someone was in his personal space…

Hikari-san went through the same checks that Sakura had. Sakura sucked on her cheek and thought that the academy must have actually taught medical checks authentically. Sakura shifted uncomfortably on her heels when Hikari-san peeled up Kakashi-sensei’s eyelid and peered at the grey iris below.

‘Checking for eye movement?’ Sakura guessed.

She straightened attentively when the woman leaned back on her heels and rubbed at her face with the back of her hand.

“He’s exhausted.” Hikari-san frowned. “As far as I can tell, he’s not in mortal peril.”

Sakura choked on her own spit.

‘What doctor talks like that?’

“I don’t know what he did, but I’d say he overextended. He could be unconscious for days. This isn’t a coma, however.” Hikari-san patted sensei’s chest absently. Sakura was too wound-up to even wince. “He’ll wake up. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with these symptoms to judge whether or not there will be long-term repercussions.”

At the inquisitive look, Sakura mastered herself. “I thought about chakra exhaustion,” she admitted, willing to volunteer any information that could help Kakashi-sensei. “But I don’t know how he could have used that much chakra without my noticing!”

Hikari-san tugged on the end of her braid. “Aa…” A crease formed between her brows. “So, you mean that he didn’t do any flashy ninja things?” She punctuated the question with- was that an attempt to mime shooting lasers from her eyes?

Sakura nodded uncertainly. Was that how civilians thought of jutsu?

“Aren’t there passive ninja things?” Hikari-san tilted her head. “Not the earth and ice things. But ninja things that augment the body?” She rubbed her palm across the back of her eyelids, smearing away nonexistent perspiration.

‘The weird Sharingan thing that he and Zabuza were talking about?’ Sakura’s mouth hung open. ‘Of course! That makes sense. He covers the eye because it uses a lot of chakra. That explains why I’ve never seen it before, even in training.’

With that in mind, she re-examined what she remembered about chakra exhaustion. Sensei must be experiencing severe exhaustion, beyond what the textbooks had mentioned as symptoms to be aware of. Her lessons had been intended to alert shinobi to the early signs. Shinobi were meant to recognize those and stop whatever they were doing.

‘Did sensei not have that lesson?’

The thought was ridiculous. She discarded it.

No, sensei had known exactly what was happening to him. He’d judged it was an acceptable trade off for the benefit the team had received. So he’d known he was going to crash as soon as adrenaline stopped propping him up. Then why hadn’t he told anyone?

Sakura bit her lower lip. He hadn’t had time.

“-kura-san?” Hikari-san sounded as though she was repeating herself. 

“Hai?“

The woman frowned. “Please go get a pot of tea from Tsunami-chan?”

“Oh! R-right!” Sakura stumbled to her feet and hastened out of the room.

Tsunami-san already had a hot pot waiting. She managed a weak smile up at the woman. Tsunami-san and Hikari-san were really in tune, weren’t they? Sakura brought the drink upstairs-

And stopped in the doorway, face hot. Hikari-san had pulled down sensei’s mask. Hikari-san’s eyes were soft. Her hand was at sensei’s jaw, still tangled in his mask.

It felt strangely intimate.

“He doesn’t like people seeing his face!” Sakura shrilled. But still she couldn’t help but stare. Sensei- sensei was prettier than Sasuke-kun even! He had pink lips and a cute nose and oh my god, was that a beauty mark? Naruto and Sasuke-kun were going to-

“Sakura-san.”

The stark disapproval in Hikari-san’s voice shocked her to the real world.

The redhead’s black eyes were hard. “If you are going to be immature about this, you may be excused.”

Sakura recoiled back for reasons she didn’t understand.

“This is not the time for you to ogle or score one-up points on your teammates. Do you understand me?”

‘Ne, Hikari-san is a lot scarier than I thought.’

She nodded meekly.

And the moment passed. Hikari-san smiled again. Thankfully, it wasn’t the toothy Naruto smile this time. “You’re strong, right Sakura-san?” She nodded to sensei. “Could you hold him up so I can give him a drink?”

Oh. Right. Sakura eyed Hikari-san. The redhead wasn’t a particularly large woman. If Sakura had to guess, the heaviest thing Hikari-san ever lifted was new clothes to try on. “Right.” It took some doing, but Sakura wrestled sensei up by his shoulders and propped him up from behind. “Good thing he’s not a big fat guy, or this would be really difficult,” Sakura grumbled to herself.

Not quietly enough, though. Hikari-san snorted unbecomingly.

Sakura gave her an embarrassed smile and became very preoccupied with the back of Kakashi-sensei’s fluffy head. He had terrible bedhead and several leaves tangled behind his ears. Oops. She levered his weight on her shoulder enough that she could pluck out the brambles and forest detritus she found.

Hikari-san was pouring liquid into sensei’s mouth in short, controlled intervals. Occasionally, she rubbed at his throat.

Sakura focused her attention back on the tangles in sensei’s hair. It was surprisingly soft, considering that it looked like the bottom of a broom. He definitely needed to find a good conditioner, though.

“He needs to be washed next.”

Her eyes felt as wide as dinner plates. She- that- no-

Hikari-san made eye contact, mischief pulling the corners of her mouth up. “What, do you want him to marinate in his own filth until he wakes up?”

Sakura nearly let her teacher fall. “You could ask Tsunami-san for help,” she suggested desperately.

“Nope.” Hikari-san popped the p sound. “She would agree, so no one is going to ask her to do more work. We’re not putting her out. Taking care of someone is degrading, hard, and thankless. Tsunami-chan is already housing and feeding four ninja in addition to her family.” Her voice was light, but it was enough to make Sakura feel ashamed.

“Right.” Sakura swallowed. “You’re right. Thank you for helping me, Hikari-san.”

“You’re welcome.” The older woman nodded sharply. “It should be your teammates. They haven’t even thought about this, have they? If no one helps him, he’ll have bedsores and probably an infection. He has to stay clean and hydrated and fed whatever we can manage. If he was left like this for long, he’d be in terrible shape.”

Sakura made a face. She couldn’t see Sasuke-kun or Naruto-baka taking care of their ailing sensei.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Hikari-san said. She was looking at Sakura sideways, eyelashes low. “Don’t. If you take it upon yourself to be the caretaker, they’ll always expect it from you and never understand what a sacrifice it is. You’ll be stuck doing it forever.”

She hesitated. Would… would that really be so terrible? After all, Naruto and Sasuke-kun… Her heart sunk. They seemed to work together so well, even though they bickered constantly. Neither of them had so much as looked at her when they had come up with a plan to free sensei from Zabuza. She…

Sakura bit her lip. She felt her shoulders curl in.

‘I don’t like looking at their backs. Is Hikari-san right? Will that only get worse if I don’t push?’

She didn’t have the mental energy to squeal or squirm too much about helping Hikari-san give sensei a sponge bath. She did note that Hikari-san’s upper lip was curled in distaste the whole time.

She really doesn’t like caretaking either.’ Sakura mulled that over. ‘So why is she doing it? Just because she has medical training and no one else does?’

That… That didn’t seem wrong, exactly. It made sense to use the skills she had to help out.

But what if that was always happening to her? What if this wasn’t a one time thing, and Naruto and Sasuke-kun just got stronger and stronger while she stayed behind smoothing over problems with clients or disinfecting wounds that they could learn how to take care of?

Sakura recoiled from the thought. She didn’t like the taste it left in her mouth.

‘I have a responsibility to sensei as his teammate,’ Sakura tested. ‘But… Naruto and Sasuke-kun have the same responsibility.’

And they were boys anyway. They could be the ones to bathe sensei. They wouldn’t be so-

Sakura blushed bright pink and did not think about anything, especially not the unfortunate glimpse of her teacher’s butt she’d gotten when he was flipped over.

Yeah, caretaking work sucked. It was humiliating. Being unconscious didn’t mean sensei was immune from bodily functions. She was never, ever going to forget the sound of liquid rushing gently against the floor when his bladder decided it had endured enough.

‘I need bleach. For my brain. But also the floor.’

“Well, what’d you expect?” Hikari-san had her nose pinched shut. She was carefully tossing cleaning cloth at the problem as if making a pile of fabric would help.

Sakura didn’t have a better idea.

“You know who would be great at this?” Sakura asked, feeling her voice scrape ominously. “Naruto and Sasuke-kun.” She pulled the blankets that had replaced his filthy clothes up, all the way to sensei’s chin.

Sensei had to poop at some time, after all. That sounded suspiciously like someone else’s problem.

Hikari-san shot her an approving smile. “That’s the spirit. Smart girl. Don’t let them get out of doing their share.” She tossed the sponge back into the tub of soapy water and stood to stretch her back. She braced her hands against her hips, and then there was an audible crack. “In fact, if you can, force them to do it all. If you’re firm and authoritative enough, they’ll do what you want.”

Sakura perked up a bit under the genuine quality of the woman’s voice.

“Hikari-san?” she tried, tilting her head. “Thank you, again. Are you going to stay the night?” She followed the woman out and watched her wash her hands, then claimed the hot water faucet after.

The redhead hissed a breath in through her teeth and indecision flew over her face. “Not likely. I think I’m going to go look for myself for a while.”

Sakura cracked a smile. “Hikari-san, you’re weird.”

Hikari-san looked tired, but she did smile in response. “The best people always are.” When she went to ruffle Sakura’s hair, Sakura didn’t duck away.

She stood for a moment, imagining she could still feel a warm, approving touch on her scalp. Then she followed Hikari-san out and dumped the pile of dirty clothes in a plastic basket gratefully.

“Tsunami-san, I need to wash some laundry,” Sakura asked. “Is there-”

“Aa.” Tsunami-san glanced over at the back hall. “My washer is out there, but it’s full right now. I’ll put that load in after I’m done with Hikari-chan’s load.”

Hikari-san didn’t look like the kind of woman who did a lot of housework. Still, that seemed really strange.

“Does she not know how to do her own laundry?” Sakura asked uncertainly.

Tsunami-san laughed. She didn’t answer.

‘So is that a no?’

Chapter Text

Aiko in Canon Pt 7

“Look, I just need you to help me keep an eye on them. Gato will find out today and be pissed. I just don’t know what he’ll do.”

There was an unhappy grunt.

“But this works for us. If someone else is doing the visible work of opposing Gato, we can stay hidden,” Aiko cajoled.

“Yes,” Utakata agreed unhappily. “I see that. If another team receives credit for our work, how are we to be paid?”

Aiko waved that off. “We will be. Anyway, the team is harmless right now. Their Jounin is unconscious. The remainder is three genin.”

Outrage fled over her partner’s face. His spine straightened. “Konoha sent inexperienced children against Momochi Zabuza.” His voice dropped from flat to subzero.

Of course not! Konoha is merely incompetent enough to have no idea he’s operating in the area.

She made a queasy expression that wasn’t quite a smile. Hmm. She abandoned the expression. “Maa, they’re probably not trying to kill the kids off.”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“You owe me.” Utakata bit that out like it was a statement of fact and not up for debate.

Aiko didn’t quite have the energy to smile at how crotchety he was. She pursed her lips and nodded. “Fine. Just don’t let the kids die while I’m gone.”

Her partner huffed in disgust. “I’m not incompetent.” Utakata tapped the book in his hand against his thigh. “It will be no challenge to turn aside whatever troubles genin might encounter.”

“That’s the spirit.” She rubbed at her face with the back of a hand. “I’ll hurry.”

Aiko left without another word, en route for the town closest to Tazuna-san’s home. There was so much to do that she felt a little nauseous.

She wasn’t with team seven. Not only that, but Naruto didn’t appear to know she existed.

The best response she could think of that was a sort of internal screaming peppered by question marks, so it was best not to linger.

There was no longer any internal debate. She had to get into Konoha, because there was nowhere else she could get answers.

Danzou. I wouldn’t put it past Danzou to snatch up a Hokage’s kid if she was left alone. Or Orochimaru- he was still in Konoha when I was an infant. He’s brazen.’

Actually, there was any number of terrifying things that could happen to an orphan in Konoha.

This isn’t a productive line of thought,’ Aiko told herself, keeping an eye out for a likely looking store. One appeared: a nearly deserted building that was at least thirty years old. She spotted the proprietor reading behind the counter. Perfect.  ‘Focus on what I can affect in the near future.

So. She had to get into Konoha. Her earlier thought still rang true: she would receive far too much scrutiny if she petitioned for entry. They would find that incredibly suspicious and conduct an exhaustive review of her background and psychological profile. Unacceptable.

That meant she had to force Konoha to approach her, so that they would believe she had no agenda and make concessions to persuade her into the fold. She had to be appealing and relatively nonthreatening. And she had to use the resources she had to do it: team seven.

At least I know Kakashi. I know how he works and thinks. I’ll let him discover a shinobi is lurking about, investigate me, and then miraculously find out I am an Uzumaki. He’ll leave, but he’ll take that information to the Sandaime along with whatever impressions he has of me. So they have to be the right impressions.’

She wasn’t going to lie to him any more than she had to. He was too good for that.

When she walked in, the proprietor was attentive and smiling. “Welcome! Can I help you find anything?”

\Aiko demurred. “I’m just looking, shopkeep-san. How long have you been here?” She ran her fingers up a display, watching his reaction out of her peripheral.

He closed his book on a finger. “Well, I’ve been running the shop by myself for the last fifteen years, since my wife passed.”

That’s a long time. Works for me.’

“Oh. I see.” She turned to face him directly. Aiko blinked open the Rinnegan and caught the poor man in a spell. “You remember me. My mother and I bought our groceries from you for years, but you haven’t seen either of us in a while. She came to this island when she was a teenager, but you never really knew her. When pressed, you will be somewhat certain that her name is Kagome or Kaoru.”

The elderly man was frozen stock still. Aiko dug a few coins out of her pocket and put them on the counter, feeling a little regretful. He didn’t move.

Kind of a shame I don’t know a gentler way to weave a long term genjutsu.’

Well. He’d be fine. She left him to digest his new impression.

Establishing a cover was the first step to getting scouted by Konoha. They’d want to know where she’d come from- powerful shinobi didn’t pop out of another dimension fully formed.

She caught several key people around town the same way, seeding vague impressions of generally uninteresting encounters with the woman who lived out in the country with her daughter and no husband. She didn’t have a house out in the country to fit that story, but she couldn’t Rinnegan one of those out of nothing. She’d work around it. Somehow.

Fuck. Well. There’s a stupid dimension full of large, angry kittens. Maybe there is a summoning dimension with houses.’

Aiko snorted, rubbing at her headache.

Okay, so that was a pretty big loose end and it was not going to be solved in any way she could think of off the top of her head.

Aiko gritted her teeth and tried to think her cover through. Maybe she’d missed something. She was an unaffiliated shinobi because her mother had fled Uzushiogakure at- Aiko counted quickly- fourteen and hid in Wave Country. Her mother had been deeply paranoid and only sought out missions when prompted by outright desperation. She had been reclusive- she had no strong friendships in town. Her mother- she’d call her Kagome, Aiko decided, Kagome had started taking Hikari out on missions at about twelve. Before that, she’d left Hikari with Tsunami-san when Kagome had to take missions or starve. That was why Tsunami-san was so familiar with her cover, despite the five year age difference.

I need to get to Tazuna as well. Today, preferably, before he has too much opportunity to think about how strange my presence is or ask Tsunami-chan any questions.’

There was no one else who she absolutely had to put under genjutsu immediately, she thought.

What would Kakashi look into first?

He’d want to meet the fictional mother from Uzushiogakure. Pity, she’d passed away- Aiko squinted at the sun- a year ago. Hikari’d only started taking missions again after a few months of mourning. Konoha could check that work history if they really wanted and verify that a couple of brokers would recognize her.

I need to genjutsu at least one or two job contacts so that they will indicate I have a longer operational history in the area,’ Aiko decided.

She ended up flicking around the eastern coast of the continent, tracking down semi-plausible employers and convincing them that they’d met before. Those stories didn’t need to be complex or complete: no one would willingly give out too much mission information.

If my mother was from Uzushiogakure, I’d know a lot more about it.’ Aiko stopped for late lunch at a roadside stall and ordered karaage. Maybe food would do something to settle the odd flip-flipping sensation in her head. ‘I don’t see how I can resolve that, exactly. I’ve never been there. Would looking around give me a little more legitimacy?’

The chicken was a little too salty, but Aiko ate it anyway. She waved down the shopowner for more tea, frowning darkly at the counter in thought.

Tomorrow. I can try that first thing tomorrow. I’m tempted to take Utakata with me. The whirlpools are supposed to be really dangerous out there. But I can’t quite justify leaving the kids without Jounin supervision.’

She paid her tab with a sigh and stretched.

I’ll just have to be careful. As long as I don’t hit my head and pass out, I can always Hiraishin out of trouble.’

She’d made a lot of progress for one day. But there was one more errand she absolutely could not put off. Sakura-chan seemed surprised to see her back in the same day, but Tsunami-chan let her in without comment.

“Are you here for your laundry?” Tsunami-chan dried her hands on her apron, bustling through the kitchen. “I’m afraid I haven’t had time to fold it-” She sat the full basket on the kitchen table.

“That’s fine,” Aiko assured. She eyed the clean laundry with intense satisfaction. The choice between re-wearing dirty clothes or stealing a new outfit everyday was untenable. Why hadn’t she truly appreciated laundry facilities before? “Really, thank you so much. I’m afraid I’m having problems with the plumbing at home,” she half-explained to Sakura. The girl made a polite sound of comprehension. Aiko fussed, smiling at Tsunami-chan. “I appreciate the help. Please, is there anything I can do?” She gestured to the house. “I know that you have a lot of work right now. I could take Tazuna-san’s refreshments down, for example.”

Tsunami-chan caught on to the prompting and nodded. “Of course, I’d nearly forgotten!” She pulled open the freezer. “I have a cooler that I could use. Sakura-san, do you think your teammates would like a treat? It’s so hot out.”

The pink-haired girl made a rude sound. Then she flushed, apparently shocked her mind-to-mouth filter was malfunctioning. “They’ll love a treat, Tsunami-san!” Sakura flapped her hands. “They’ll eat anything and everything.”

Aiko made herself useful enough that Sakura wouldn’t think anything was odd. In less than an hour, she hefted the cooler of sweetened strawberry treats on her hip. “Ja mata!” She beamed back at the house in the moments before Tsunami-chan let the door slip shut.

She took the walk at a civilian pace. She tried not to scowl too much at the dust and burrs that caught on her shoes. She shifted the cooler around when her arms began to ache.

The sounds of men at work reached her before sight. Hammering, clanking, and distant shouts painted the air.

Aiko closed her eyes and stopped for just a moment. She focused.

“-that right there”

“Watch it!”

“and me that would you-”

Sounds a lot busier than I remember.’

She started forward decisively, a bright smile plastered on her face. “Hello!” Aiko waved at the first men she passed, noting a rather alarming amount of sweat. Ew. She kept her distance.

The workers exchanged glances. “Uh, hello.” A younger man nodded in response, not quite making eye contact. He attempted to surreptitiously pull down the sleeves he had rolled up his shoulders.

Aiko stifled a snort. Tazuna was at the edge of the bay, directing work with a fierce attitude and a rolled up set of drawings. Naruto and Sasuke were harder to spot- she didn’t manage to pick them out without looking too obviously. They were here somewhere. Had to be.

Tazuna-san’s eyebrows shot up when she got his attention. He waved away the man he’d been speaking to, a thunderous scowl pulling his lips down.

“Who the hell are you now, lady?”

Aiko’s eyes darted to either side. No one was positioned well enough to have a direct view of her face. She turned her body a little bit more and blinked on the Rinnegan for the nth time that day, feeling strain pull on her shoulders and neck muscles. “You remember me! Tazuna-san, I used to play with Tsunami-chan when my mother went off to work. I’m Hikari, Kagome’s daughter.”

His eyes glazed over. His face reddened. But he nodded in response. “That’s right, isn’t it? My wife always watched the two of you. I spent too much time working even then.”

Aiko blinked off the Rinnegan. The world moved sideways, colors blurring. There was a hand reaching for her upper arm- she twisted away with a jerk.

“Watch it now!” Tazuna-san let his hand drop, grey brows drawn in concern.

She wasn’t holding the cooler anymore-

What the hell?’

Sasuke had her cooler, she realized. He was stepping backwards, dark eyes warily assessing but not terribly suspicious of her.

“Oh! I’m sorry.” Aiko managed something that probably resembled a smile. “Just- suddenly felt lightheaded, that was all!”

I must have overused the Rinnegan. Casting genjutsu is a much higher drain than just having it on.’

“Hn.” Sasuke grunted, shoulders pulling up defensively.

There was a loud, victorious crowing. “Snacks for me? Share, teme!” And then Naruto was there, tugging violently on Sasuke’s burden.

“Naruto!” Aiko snapped, appalled. His spine zinged into a straight line, along with that of the closest workman. “That was rude and I know you can do better. I don’t want to hear that from you again.”

Sasuke looked at her. Naruto looked at her, eyes wide with shock.

What?

Tazuna-san chuckled. “You sound like someone’s mom, Hikari-chan.” He ruffled her hair. “I think these two are a little old to be adopted. They’re grown up ninja, after all!”

They’re children. They are immature and do not have the technical skills to operate without their Jounin sensei.’

She narrowed her eyes. She let her silence speak for her.

Tazuna-san kind of looked sideways and down, as if re-remembering just how short team seven was on average.

Sasuke looked down at his feet, scowling fiercely.

“Eat your snacks, boys,” Aiko ordered, feeling powerful and adult. “You too, Tazuna-san.” She shook a finger at him. “Tsunami-san is doing a lot of work at home. And so is your teammate.” Her hand re-oriented on an alarmed looking twelve year old. “Thank them both. Someone else is going to stay home with Tsunami-san tomorrow to help around the house and with your sensei.” Her tone left no room for disagreement.

Naruto nodded wordlessly, big blue eyes focused on her.

Sasuke was averting eye contact and his shoulders were pulling up towards his neck. But his body was facing directly towards her and he was clearly paying attention.

Aiko leveled them both with one last stern look and then nodded. “Well, I’m heading back. Have a good day at work.”

The weird thing was that more than three cowed-sounding voices replied, ‘Yes, ma’am’.

Huh.’

The day was getting late enough that she should check in on Utakata and possibly relieve his watch. But… tomorrow. Tomorrow she’d go poke around Uzushiogakure to add some validity to her backstory. She had plenty of time before Kakashi would be waking up, but it would be best to get that out of the way.


His dreams were always the same when he had chakra exhaustion: a loop of great gasping sobs and Minato-sensei’s putting his head in his hands and Kushina-san screaming at the Uchiha clan head and the horrible little gasp that Rin had made when his fist had gone through the back of her rib cage.

Kakashi woke with an aching back and the feeling that something was wrong.

He pushed off someone’s soft futon and sat up.

Two unfamiliar scents in the room, plus all those of his students. A personal home, not an inn or safehouse. Late daylight. One two three unfamiliar chakra signatures in the vicinity and one of his students.

Where are the other two?’

He used the wall to stand up. His muscles were in a pathetic state no med-nin would have allowed- sore and stiff. He patiently and precisely went through the motions of the shortest stretching regimen he knew. The exercises loosened his body enough that walking without giving away weakness was no great difficulty.

I must not have been out as long as expected.’

The stairs were easily found. A female voice filtered up the stairs, diverted and muffled by hallways and paper screens.

“un, why don’t you try the other worksheet first?”

He couldn’t understand the response, but it was a childish whine.

Naruto laughed, boisterous and light.

Something in his spine relaxed at the sound of his student’s voice. He sounded fine. Happy. Safe.

Kakashi frowned, gripping the doorway at the bottom of the stairs. The wooden frame creaked under his fingers. Safe? Why was he worried about that? Zabuza had been killed and then taken away by that hunter-nin. His students could handle interference from civilians. Civilians didn’t operate like shinobi or anticipate-

He let go of the doorway before he caused property damage. Painful spasms ran up the muscle group connecting his fingers and forearm.

Of course. Shinobi operations were on his mind because what he’d seen had been a blatant failure in procedure. That hunter nin had taken Zabuza’s body away. And he had been alone. Hunter nin worked in teams.

Kakashi slouched in pursuit of Naruto’s voice as fast as possible.

“Sensei!” Naruto twisted to beam relief up at him without dropping the knife he held to a red chopping board. “Hey, hey, we were starting to think you were never going to wake up! You slept for almost two weeks, old man!”

The woman who was standing watch over something bubbling on the stove made a vague approving sound without turning around. The other woman in the room, a brunette, was leaning over a wide-cheeked toddler seated at the kitchen table. The brunette gave him a friendly smile.

“It’s good to see you up and about, shinobi-san!” She stepped away from the boy who had to be her son to give him a bow. Kakashi reciprocated automatically. “Your team has been working very hard while you recovered.”

Naruto ducked his chin into her chest and appeared very interested in her work. He was grinning into his collar.

“I see.”

The woman blinked. “Oh!” She turned pink. “Excuse me. My name is Tsunami. I am Tazuna’s daughter, and this is his grandson, Inari.” The child did not wave or acknowledge him. “My father is out working on the bridge. The rest of your team is with him.”

That still left one person unintroduced. Kakashi gave her back a pointed nod, maintaining pleasant eye contact with Tsunami-san.

She smiled back and then went back to helping Inari-kun practice what appeared to be katakana. Odd.

“Yo.” The redheaded woman spoke, holding a hand up for an instant. The gesture did not fit the well-manicured nails and heavily braceleted wrist that made it.

Kakashi gave the space between her shoulderblades a surprised look. “Naruto-kun. Who is your other friend?”

His loudest student blinked and then gestured at the stranger. “Hikari-san, this old dude is my sensei. Sensei, Hikari-san is Tsunami-san’s friend. She has been helping around the house since…” Naruto paused, face scrunched in thought. “Since we got here.”

Naruto still didn’t give my name. Does that mean the kids were attempting information control?’

Excellent. That had been the right decision to make while he had been out of commission.

“Call me Kakashi.” He aimed a calculated eye-smile at the strangers.

Inari-kun still didn’t look up. Hikari-san didn’t turn around. Tsunami-san turned magenta and starry-eyed.

He slouched a little more to look harmless.

“Eh.” Hikari-san was rudely disinterested in his introduction. Or maybe just focused on her task.

His eye twitched.

I’m not used to being so openly disregarded.’

Hikari-san tossed a handful of carrot into the pot and turned around. His chest seized up.

She looks far too familiar.’

“-ad you’re up,” Hikari-san blathered, smiling like she had a secret, Minato’s eyes half-mast. “Naruto-kun won’t admit it, but your team has been very worried for you.” She rinsed her hands, mercifully turning her face away enough that he could think again. But he could see Kushina in the curve of her jaw in profile and the long line of her neck.

Impossible.’

He had to be overreacting. Kakashi managed the focus to dredge up an eyesmile, despite the fact that his heart was struggling against his ribs. “Yes, well, they’re good kids.” He ignored Naruto’s flailing and protestations that he wasn’t a kid.

He watched Hikari-san’s mouth move in a daze. He saw ghosts every day but they weren’t usually a hellish blend of dead people he loved. What did this say about his psyche?

It doesn’t even make sense. She can’t remind me of both of them.’

Kakashi had missed what she’d said. He gave a nervous laugh.

What did I miss?’

Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t really even registered her actual features as a whole. When Hikari-san turned back around, Kakashi catalogued it.

Her hair wasn’t Uzumaki red. But it was still red. Her face was average in shape, but some of her features had a sharp look to them. Really, that wasn’t so much like either Kushina-san or Minato-sensei. Kushina-san had possessed a beautiful, wide-set facial structure that Naruto had inherited, but Minato-sensei had a narrow face. It was ridiculous, really, to see parallels where there weren’t any. Even though her eyes really did remind him of sensei’s in shape. They were black, not blue. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t.

Naruto was staring at him, fingers loose around his chopping knife. The twelve year old looked deeply suspicious.

He gave his genin an intentionally dopey smile.

“I see that I’ve missed out on quite a lot while I was out.”

Now that he was actually paying attention to Hikari-san, something didn’t seem right. She wasn’t dressed anything at all like her supposed friend. She had turned her back to him carelessly, but her feet were always in a ready stance. He narrowed his eye at the woman- there wasn’t an ounce of unnecessary fat on her. The loose clothes gathered at the waist gave the impression of dramatic curves, but he suspected there was muscle hidden there instead.

Kunoichi.’

“I ought to get going.” Hikari-san gave a stretch. “It was nice to meet you, Kakashi-san.”

Tsunami-san’s brows twitched together. “Well, I suppose I will see you in the morning?” she tried.

Hikari-san gave the young mother a smile. But her gaze was boring into Kakashi. “Probably not. Have a good night, everyone!”

“Let me walk you home.” Kakashi kept his tone pleasant for the civilians in the room. “I need to stretch my legs.”

Naruto’s mouth dropped open in outrage, but Kakashi didn’t have time to linger on what perverted assumptions his genin might be reaching.

The kunoichi’s face tightened. “Of course.” She flashed a smile at him. “Don’t worry, Naruto-kun. I won’t wear him out.”

Naruto’s offending squalling followed the adults out. Kakashi shoved his hands in his pockets and slouched even further to disguise how tense and ready his muscles were. Hikari-san shot him an amused expression through her eyelashes as she slipped on little blue shoes that matched her jacket.  

He clenched his jaw. He held the door open. He considered how he would confirm his suspicions.

She walked out in front of him, heading away from the well-beaten path that must lead to what passed for civilization around Wave.

Kakashi checked the skyline automatically. They were headed southeast, away from the coast.

“I’m not a missing nin, nor do I have village affiliations.”

He stumbled over his tired feet. “That’s honest,” Kakashi said uncertainly. Possibly, anyway. He definitely hadn’t expected her to admit that she wasn’t a civilian.

Hikari-san shrugged, looking over at him again. The amusement was gone from her face. The friendly openness she’d directed at Naruto was gone as well in favor of cold disinterest. “I don’t believe in wasting time, Kakashi-san. I merely wish to make clear that we do not need to have conflict. I have no interest in fighting you or your children.”

“What interest do you have?” Kakashi bit back, irritation rising at how dismissive she sounded.

She made a rude huffing sound. “Nothing to do with you or your little flock, so you can mind your own business,” Hikari-san informed, condescension painting her voice. “Tsunami-san is a good friend of mine. I thought it would be needlessly distressing for her to have to find a way to bury the worst babysitter in the world and three preteens.”

She’s right. I could have died.’

“Those three are capable shinobi,” Kakashi interrupted, hackles raised at her insinuations.

“They’re puppies,” Hikari-san dismissed.

He registered the unusual phrasing at the same time that she did, a muscle ticking in her jaw. So that hadn’t been deliberate? He filed the oddity away without letting on that he’d noticed. “I suppose I should thank you.” There was nothing thankful in his tone.

The smile Hikari-san gave him was absolutely wicked. He recoiled from it before he knew why.

“You should, unless you enjoy bedsores.”

Kakashi stood frozen for a step. He felt his cheeks heat. “Well. Ah, thank you, nurse?” he tried. When he started moving again, his legs felt even heavier.

“Oh no, I’m not a medic of any kind.” Hikari-san snorted. “Fuck no. But I was a little less clueless than your genin. Anyway, you’re welcome. Nice freckles, by the way.”

“I don’t have freckles,” Kakashi retorted, feeling his shoulders hunch up towards his chin.

She shrugged in response. She stopped walking and turned to face him fully. “Obviously, we are not walking to my house. I’m not taking you there. Look, can we just call it even and move on?” Hikari-san raised an eyebrow. “I helped you out, now you can help me out.”

“No,” Kakashi rejected. “I’m not making any deals. I don’t know whose agent you are.”

She rolled her eyes. “Moron. No, I mean that your mission to connect Wave to the mainland will benefit me. I would have taken care of it if I’d known Tazuna-san needed protection, but this is better.” Hikari-san eyed him up and down. “This way, everyone knows Konoha took care of things and not me. Gato won’t be harassing you when you go back to Konoha. But I live here.”

That motive was blatantly pragmatic self-preservation. He relaxed instantly.

It fits. Tsunami-san did seem to know her relatively well, although she believes Hikari-san is a civilian.’

But-

“Why did you allow the situation to reach this point?” His voice had an edge. What he’d heard about Wave didn’t imply good things about anyone who could have fought Gato and chose not to.

Hikari-san’s eyes tightened. “I’ve been away from home.” That sounded like the truth. “My mother died. I took her ashes back to where she grew up.” She looked away. That could be a tactic to hide a lie or a fidget indicating discomfort at saying such an uncomfortable thing. “Then I took missions. I was out of funds. I think you can imagine why it is not my habit to seek work from people who know me.”

“Did your mother train you?” Kakashi prodded, trying to figure this woman out. Her story almost fit, but it didn’t feel right. It was possible to grow up shinobi outside of a village system, but it didn’t happen often. There was a reason that shinobi worked together in as large a group as possible.

He could see the moment she shut down, putting up a sneer like armor. Oddly, the expression helped. He’d never seen Kushina or Minato with an expression that openly sour.

“No, you did. Don’t ask stupid questions. You’ll be seeing me around, Kakashi-san.” Hikari-san flipped her braid over her shoulder. She crossed her arms. “Unless, of course, you insist on being a brute. If you mind your own business and do your job, we’ll be fine.”

If his legs weren’t shaking, he would have considered a fight. He didn’t want an unknown quantity around, especially since he suspected Zabuza and an associate were in the area.

She could have been that hunter nin impersonator,’ Kakashi thought, eyeing the woman’s short stature. ‘I had assessed that person as male and young, however. And I believe the voice is different.’

“Are you working with Zabuza?”

Bluntness seemed to be the order of the day.

Hikari-san rubbed at her temple with the base of her thumb. “No.” Her voice was short. “I fought him once, actually. He believes he ran me off. So you’re aware that he’s alive?” She shot him a wry look over her fingers. “I don’t like him much. I think I would prefer that you kill him over the reverse.”

He looked up at the sky, watching the sun creep towards the skyline. “My sentiments are similar.”

It’s too convenient. But I don’t think she’s working with Zabuza. If he’d had two associates, the hunter nin act would have been much more convincing. It follows that even a capable shinobi without a village or backup would retreat when faced with someone like Zabuza.’

When he looked back, Hikari-san was gone. But the uneasy feeling in his gut remained.

I don’t like this. But it might be best to keep an eye on her.’

He frowned slightly.

This might be a good time for a lesson on counter infiltration. I don’t like that my team had no idea there was a shinobi in the house.’

He couldn’t move very well, but he didn’t have to in order to accelerate their training. They wouldn’t learn heavy combat skills in a matter of days, but he could give them the skills to have a chance of staying out of the thick of things.





Aiko in Canon pt 8

This au is a monstrosity and it should be stopped. Here, have about 7000 more words instead. Basically, Aiko and Utakata bitch at each other a lot and criticize pretty much everyone including Pakkun, a rock, and some greenery.


“She can’t have been a shinobi.” Sasuke-teme crossed his arms. “Naruto and I saw her nearly faint after walking two miles with a moderately heavy basket. That’s not a kunoichi.” He sounded almost offended by the suggestion.

Naruto raised his hand and gripped his hair, feeling lost.

Teme’s got a point. But Kakashi-sensei seems sure.’

“She faked it,” Kakashi-sensei said bluntly. “Or something else was going on. This isn’t up for debate. I knew she was a shinobi the instant I saw her. Besides, she admitted it.”

Teme closed his mouth. That was hard to argue with. Sakura-chan looked down at her hands, a line creased between her brows.

Hikari-san didn’t seem like a bad person.’

Sakura-chan twisted her hands and made a small, confused kind of grunty sound. Her eyes were wide. “Eh, sensei? But she- Hikari-san helped a lot. She took care of you, and-”

“Yes, thank you,” Kakashi-sensei interrupted hastily. His shoulders jerked up towards his ears. “I have taken that into consideration. Sakura, I am not saying that Hikari-san is a bad person. That doesn’t mean we can trust her. If she comes around again, I expect you all to act accordingly.”

Naruto huffed, crossing his arms. Then he uncrossed them and stuck his hands in his pockets because he didn’t want to slouch like Sasuke-teme about this. “Hey sensei, why’d she lie?” he demanded. “Did she think we wouldn’t like her if we knew she was a ninja? I wouldn’t care.”

“Idiot,” Sasuke-teme said. “You should care. She’s not a Konoha ninja. She’s not our friend.”

“Yes, she is,” Naruto rejected. “Sakura-chan agrees with me, right?”

Their teammate took a step back and held up her palms, eyes darting between the two of them. “I-uh-”

“You don’t think she’s a bad ninja!” Naruto pushed, victorious. “I know you don’t. You like Hikari-san because she told you to yell at us and-”

“Baka!” Sakura-chan yelled, making a fist. Red rose in her cheeks at an alarming rate. “I don’t yell at you.” She lunged across the clearing and jammed her fist against his skull.

Kakashi-sensei’s eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t stop his female student.

Naruto whined and rubbed at the spot, but he was grinning. Sakura-chan was so playful.

Sasuke-teme had taken a prudent step back and to the side, putting sensei in between him and Sakura-chan.

“Right.” Kakashi-sensei put a hand on his face, muffling his next words. “Sakura, stop tormenting your teammates. Naruto, don’t antagonize Sakura. It’s not good for your health.”

Looking belligerent, Sakura-chan crossed her hands behind her back. But she didn’t say anything.

“I don’t antagonize anything,” Naruto protested, giving his teacher his full attention. “Ne, sensei-”

“We’re done with this,” Kakashi-sensei interrupted flatly like the jerk he was. His hand fell to his hip, twitching towards his pervert book.

He could just feel Sasuke-teme smirking. Bastard. Naruto bristled.

He thinks he’s so smart. Well, he didn’t know that Hikari-san was infiltrating us either. I don’t know what he’s so damn smug about.’

“I want to know what you three remember about counter-infiltration,” Kakashi-sensei said. He looked at Sakura-chan.

Sakura-chan opened her mouth to answer, but Sasuke-teme beat her to it.

“Enough to know that this isn’t infiltration.” He lifted his chin. “Infiltration is an attempt to destabilize an opposing force from the inside. But Hikari-san isn’t exactly behind our lines. We’re not even in Fire Country. If she’s infiltrating Wave Country, that’s not our problem,” teme dismissed scathingly.

“Unless you think she’s working for Gato?” Sakura-chan sounded shocked. “She’s not infiltrating Konoha, but she could be infiltrating us.”

“Good thought. But if she was, I’d be dead.” Kakashi-sensei paused. “Probably. I don’t see why she would allow me to live, but I don’t know her objectives.” He scratched at his jawline.

“Then why are we letting her come back?” Naruto demanded. “Either she’s nice or she’s not. I don’t see why you have to make this so complicated.”

“Maa…” Kakashi-sensei stuffed his hands in his pockets. “She claims that she grew up in Wave Country. If that’s true, then she probably isn’t our enemy. We’re going to investigate those claims before we say anything and risk frightening our clients.” He sighed. “Sakura?”

“We’ll have to go into town,” Sakura-chan answered promptly. “Tsunami-san could be lying for Hikari-san for some reason. But she wouldn’t be able to convince everyone. If we can find people who knew her when she was little, she’s probably telling the truth.”

“We should find her house, too!” Naruto bounced on his heels. “It’s probably not too far away.”

“That’s a stupid idea. How would we recognize it?” Sasuke-teme sneered. “Will she have her name on the front door?”

“No!” Idiot. Naruto scowled, because it was so obvious, duh. “It’ll be the one with a broken washer.” At the uncomprehending stares, he added, “She had Tsunami-san do her laundry, remember? If she’s really all sneaky and stuff she probably wouldn’t do something that weird for no reason. I bet her washer really is broken. If it was the dryer, she’d just hang everything up. So it has to be the washer.”

“Wait, what?” Kakashi-sensei gave him an odd look. “Are you suggesting we just break into houses and try to run laundry until we find one-”

“Yepp!” Naruto said, at the same time that Sakura-chan mumbled, “It’s not the worst idea.” He beamed at her. She looked away.

Sasuke-teme rolled his eyes.

Buoyed by his teammate’s approval, Naruto put his hands on his hips. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go counter infiltrate Hikari-san!”

Kakashi-sensei sighed, very quietly and very sadly. But Sasuke-teme started walking. Sakura-chan bit her lip and glanced between the two of them, but she decided on Sasuke-teme.

“Hey, wait up!” She hurried after the bastard’s heels.

“Why am I getting left behind?” Naruto scowled, and started running. “Oy, it was my idea! Teme! Teme!”



The clearing overlooking a lake was quiet, until all traces of an injured Jounin and his soggy genin were gone. A voice rose before anyone was visible.

“Hatake-san is not as observant as I had feared.” From her vantage point, Aiko could see that Utakata’s face was impassive, but his eyes were hard.

Kakashi probably knew. My genjutsu isn’t that great without using the Rinnegan. But he’d expect me to watch him anyway.’

Aiko tried not to shrug or look particularly knowledgeable about the abilities of specific Konoha nin. “He might have been pretending not to notice us,” she warned mildly. She let go of the genjutsu hiding them and inhaled deeply, enjoying one last reprieve from the muggier air below tree level. Then she tensed her muscles and leapt out from under the boughs.

The thirty feet to the ground passed in a moment. She landed on a rock, flexing her toes. Sure, she was Konoha raised, but that didn’t mean she really enjoyed clinging precariously to the parts of trees thin enough to move in the wind.

Utakata followed a moment later, touching down on the pond surface instead. “Hmm.” Utakata crossed his arms, but still his sleeves pulled in the wind.

Down on the ground level, it was unpleasantly apparent that a hot, wet breeze was pulling off the sea. It was like standing in someone’s salty breath.

“Perhaps. Do you intend to let Zabuza deal with the Konoha team?”

Aiko shot him a dry look, but she didn’t respond verbally.

That question was a trap, wasn’t it? If she said no, then the implication was that she didn’t mind letting children die. If she said yes, then she was interfering with the operations of a shinobi with whom Utakata had already negotiated a cessation of hostilities.

I can’t win with this guy.’

He fell in step when she gave an insolently indulgent stretch and began to saunter towards the bridge site. Utakata glanced in the direction that team seven had gone.

“It wasn’t the best cover,” he commented. “Perhaps it is for the better to leave Hatake-san to his own devices.”

What? Oh. He thought she’d given up on it because she wasn’t following team 7.

Ha. Funny. If Kakashi hadn’t noticed us before, he would notice us following his team around and trying to interfere with their information gathering. I’m not about those kinds of shenanigans. That’s more Naruto’s bag.’

Aiko waved that off. “They won’t find anything that contradicts my story.”

Her companion gave her an interested look from under his lashes. That angle was particularly flattering to his softly curved cheekbones.

She pretended not to notice that a very interested sort of heat was pooling in her lower abdomen. “I was thinking that we should protect our own interests, since Sharingan no Kakashi is wasting his time on a goose chase.” Her tone came out harsher than expected, almost argumentative.

Utakata scoffed softly. “Surely he’ll stay with the client.”

No way. He’ll have the genin go together for the experience, but he’ll shadow them as best as he can. Normally, I’d say that he’d do it personally, and put a clone on the client. But physically weak as he is… He’ll have Pakkun with the kids, a shadow clone with Tazuna-san, and attempt to supervise all at once even though he’s slowed down. He doesn’t deal well with worry or feeling limitations.’

But all that was much too personal and detailed an analysis to share with Utakata. He didn’t need to know she knew that much. And no one outside of Konoha’s power sphere needed to know what made Kakashi tick, anyway.

“Is that how Mist would do it?” she asked idly, not letting anything other than boredom cross her face.

Utakata made an offended sound from the back of his throat, which might as well have been conceding the point. Different groups had different priorities and protocols. Konoha was known for their emphasis on the importance of team bonds and cohesion. Aiko didn’t actually need to know the Konoha nin in particular. There was always a good chance that they would choose to prioritize the safety of vulnerable subordinates over that of a client.

Wave wasn’t terribly large. They only traveled a few minutes before they paused just out of visual range from the construction site’s furthest stretches. That meant that Aiko hadn’t quite figured out how to tell Utakata that she wanted him to go watch Tsunami-chan. Well. She didn’t really care if he went with Tsunami-chan or if she did. The important thing was that they cover all the ground that needed to be covered while team 7 was weakened and out.

Well. No time like the present.

“So.” Aiko clapped her hands cheerily. “Do you want to watch the bridge builder or his family?”

His body language shut her down immediately. “No,” Utakata rejected. He turned to fully face her, leveling the full belligerence of a teenaged criminal on her being. “I realize that you are new to survival as a lone agent,” he scathed. “But I, personally, would prefer to avoid all unnecessary death-”

“Alright!” Aiko held her hands up. “Calm down, you’re getting stuffier by the second.” She kicked the ground. “God.” She glared at the ground. That, right there, was a particularly stupid rock. She kicked at it again.

They coexisted in sullen silence for a long minute. Aiko sighed heavily, lifted her head, and glared up at the sky instead. Utakata upended a bit of foliage with his heel and then ground it back into the dirt until the leaves frayed to threads.

“So, you really won’t be convinced-”

“No,” Utakata said sharply. “I will not.”

Aiko scowled at a cloud that kind of looked like a lumpy turtle. “Fine then.” She forced her body to relax.

I don’t like this. I’d feel better if all of them had a watch. If I were trying to subvert Tazuna-san’s work, I would at least consider using his family as leverage. It’s a smart move. Easy, likely to be effective, and might not require bloodshed at all.’

She wrestled with the situation, aching over the call she had to make since her teammate refused to divide their team and hope to conquer a unified force. She liked Tsunami-chan, but her health simply wasn’t critical to their paycheck.

I could argue that Kakashi almost certainly has some kind of watch on Tazuna-san, making him a lower priority. I’m sure he does. But why would Utakata care? We’re not getting paid to make sure Tsunami-chan lives.’

Well. There was really only one answer.

“Do you really think Zabuza is going to haul his aching carcass out to finish his job soon?” Aiko kind of hoped for a no.

Tsunami-chan probably won’t die.’

Her teammate gave her a wry look, mouth pulled slightly wide. “If Hatake-san is on his feet, so will Zabuza-san. He is not known for his gentle restraint. Have you heard much about Mist jounin in general or the seven swordsmen in particular?”

Aiko blinked innocently. “Mist jounin? Mist nin come in ranks higher than genin?”

Utakata dropped his more mature-than-thou attitude long enough to jab his elbow into her rib. Aiko wheezed in surprise, seeing white sparks. Her teammate gave her an insufferably smug look and cut off her response. “I believe that you were about to impart some tenuously planned and dangerous slipshod plan of action?” He lifted a brow meaningfully.

She opened her mouth to retort but- “Yes,” Aiko admitted. It was a rude assessment, but not divorced from reality. “Surveillance of Tazuna-san is really our only option. That’s not a problem in itself, obviously. Kakashi-san is going to be the problem.”

Man, that felt weird. She’d almost forgotten to use an honorific at all and she probably should have used his last name or something but anyway

“Although I doubt that he is personally watching Tazuna-san, he won’t have left the client alone.” Aiko worried her lower lip. “I suppose he could still be there. I could be missing something.”

Utakata caught on to her trail of thought. “We must determine what type of surveillance he has left in such a way that leaves all unaware as to our presence,” he concluded.

She nodded miserably. “Yeah. Any ideas?”

He tilted his head ever-so-slightly to the side, mouth curling up into something coy. Instead of answering, he held up a hand. In it was-

“A flute?” Aiko asked, despite knowing very well that it was… was…

Well, it was definitely something used for ninja things. Probably not really a flute. Although that one girl from Sound had used a flute, hadn’t she, so a flute could be ninja equipment…

“A pipe,” Utakata corrected loftily. He tapped the end against his palm. “Sharingan no Kakashi is known for his assassination techniques, eye, and dogs. I do not believe he is likely to be utilizing the Sharingan for routine surveillance. The rest of his dossier does not lead me to believe that he is especially likely to notice a single orb hidden in leaves.”

Aiko dropped the pretense of ignorance, because she had definitely not heard about this. “You can use your bubbles like-” she stumbled, because she wanted to say something about the sand eyes that the Kazekage used, but that would certainly make less than zero sense to Utakata- “like an eye? Across distance?”

His eyes narrowed fractionally, but there was no other indication that he’d found her wording and pause odd. “I can perceive the image conveyed by one of my orbs from a distance of slightly less than two kilometers away. The orb itself has a much smaller ranger of vision.” Utakata faltered, seeming almost unsure.

He’s a missing nin. He doesn’t feel comfortable divulging the exact details of techniques that keep him, you know, alive.’

Aiko didn’t take it personally. “So you’ll do the hard work, send out your recon bubble,” she summed. “I suppose that my job will be to keep you safe while you’re distracted?”

Utakata paused oddly. “Yes.”

She considered asking. She didn’t ask.

“Sounds good.”

Utakata nodded, clearly far away in important thoughts.

Uncomfortable for some reason she couldn’t articulate, Aiko forced teasing brightness into her tone. “And when you get us spotted by some half-blind ninken, you can use your flute to play getaway music.” She laced her hands behind her head and bounced.

He turned to look at her. “Uzumaki-chan?” Utakata asked as dryly as was humanly possible.

Wait, chan? I’m moving up in the world. I’ve always been Uzumaki-san before. Sweet.’

“Yeah?” Aiko fluttered her lashes up at him in the most sickeningly sweet manner possible.

“I do not like you.”

She made a kissy face. “I don’t like you either.” Aiko winked.

Utakata made a small, disgusted sound, but he went to work instead of arguing with her. The bubble that he breathed into existence was about twice the size of a human eyeball, and perfectly clear.

Not camouflaged? Or tinted by whatever special chakra imbued it with the ability to see? That was a little underwhelming.

“I thought it might be colored,” Aiko admitted in an undertone, a little too intent on her companions work. The question hung in the air, unspoken.

I guess clearness does make some sense. That could conceivably help clarity of sight.’

Instead of answering, Utakata made a polite little, ‘is that so’ kind of sound and did a strange little thing where he kind of popped his lips? The bubble jerked upwards, level with Utakata’s face, and drifted so close that it was almost touching his nose. He closed his left eye deliberately and inhaled.

Aiko glanced away from the particulars, because even she knew it was poor manners to gawp at the handsigns for someone else’s technique. She wouldn’t be able to replicate it anyway, so there would be no purpose to snooping. She looked back involuntarily at the scent of fresh, hot blood, and then glanced away again despite her burning curiosity when she saw it was only a token offering portion from the pads of his fingers.

It looked like he used a knife for that. Why not bite? I thought that was the standard thing to do.’

Aiko amused herself by trying to recollect if she’d ever seen a shinobi who wasn’t a Konoha nin collect the blood for a summoning with their teeth. She didn’t think she had. So maybe that was a local preference originating from one of Konoha’s early clans?

The next hour or so was painfully still, tense waiting. Utakata’s face became drawn and tight. A line of frustration settled firmly between his eyebrows. When he finally tried to speak, he had to clear his throat with a little cough. “I believe I might have narrowed Hatake-san’s surveillance down to two possibilities.”

“Yeah?” Aiko put her hands on her hips and stretched without letting her head rise above the bushes concealing them.

“Un.” He swallowed. Without thinking, Aiko unclipped her water bottle and passed it over. Then she took it back, demonstrated that it was fine by drinking some herself, and passed it back again. That time, Utakata took a long drink. “Thank you.”

“It was nothing…”

Utakata gives a lot of those assessing looks,’ Aiko mused. ‘Is he really that perpetually suspicious, or does he just not have a terribly expressive range of facial movement?’

“There is a worker who I believe tendered his resignation to Tazuna-san yesterday after the work day was completed.” Utakata shared softly. “There is also an ugly little animal present, concealed in a bag. It is small, wrinkly-”

“Like a pug?” Aiko asked, feeling strangely offended on Pakkun’s behalf.

‘The worker will be Kakashi’s shadow clone. And it’s definitely a shadow clone, he’ll want it to be able to alert him if something is wrong. So that’s two eyes on the bridge. Solid, considering the circumstances. But that does mean I initially guessed his strategy wrong. He’s probably actually with the kids himself.’

“Pug?” Utakata repeated, unsure. He shook himself. “I have little knowledge of canine breeds. However, I suspect that this animal could indeed be some stunted variety of ninken. It is rather large to conceivably be a pest in hiding from the workers. However, it is not dissimilar to rodents that-”

Aiko held up a hand to stop the barrage of unflattering words, and- was that amusement on Utakata’s face?

He’s teasing me,’ Aiko realized, actually surprised. ‘I didn’t know that he had it in him. Or that he’d know I had a soft spot for dogs. I definitely haven’t told him I was a summoner… has he figured that out?’

She leaned down to her sitting teammate and slung her arm around his shoulder companionably, ignoring the way that Utakata grunted disapproval.

“You are too sharp,” Aiko said. She managed to reach around and poke the tip of his nose before he turned away. “One of these days, I really should kill you, before you figure out my life story.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Utakata said, in a tone that was heavy with sarcasm.

“See that you do.” Aiko ruffled his hair.

Oh, how cute. He thinks I’m joking. Like I wouldn’t kill someone just because I liked them, honestly. I mean. If we go by my personal history…’

She worried her lower lip.

It almost seems more likely than not that I’m going to end up breaking his flute, stealing his bijuu, and then giving it back a month later with no explanation. That’s just how things seem to go. Life is funny sometimes.’

Speaking of funny, she couldn’t decide what she thought Kakashi might have planned for his clone and Pakkun. The two obvious functions that they should somehow mutually fulfill would be to get Kakashi in case of trouble, and to stall Zabuza should he appear.

She’d thought earlier that the shadow clone was intended to dissipate at the first sign of trouble and instantaneously alert Kakashi as to the exact nature of the situation. But leaving Pakkun as a stalling tactic didn’t make sense. He was small, quiet, and intelligent, but had almost no combat ability.

If he’d wanted a combat oriented ninken to keep Tazuna-san alive for even a few minutes, he’d have called Bisuke or one of the other large ninken. A few of them, really. But that’d be a lot of chakra to summon and maintain. He’s compromised on that plan with Pakkun instead to save energy. Did he reverse strategy too? Pakkun could end the summon and then immediately get Kakashi’s attention from the summon realm if Zabuza shows up. Kakashi wouldn’t know the exact nature of the situation, but that would leave a shadow clone capable of stalling. If that were to be destroyed before he reached the location or it dispelled itself, he would lose out on re-integrating that chakra. But it might keep Tazuna-san alive.’

“Uzumaki-chan, do you intend to settle down in that bush?” Utakata asked. He was standing a few feet away and regarding her curiously. “Perhaps you might start a family. Live off the land. Found a neighborhood association-”

“I’m coming.” Her joints creaked when she stood, which, ow, that hurt right in the ego. No matter what Utakata said, she wasn’t old.

He edged away from the look she was giving him. Aiko consciously cleared her face and strode to take the lead. It was her turn again, wasn’t it? “Set up a visual perimeter, genjutsu cover?” she confirmed, just to be certain they were on the same page.

Utakata nodded.

Sunglasses would be nice. I could use the Rinnegan that way without risking anyone seeing. A sensor might pick up on the spike in chakra, but other than that, I’d be home free.’

Never mind that sunglasses would look absolutely ridiculous with her yukata. But it was really hot out. She couldn’t be held responsible for dressing in a weather appropriate manner.

Not sure that made sense.’

Aiko frowned, wavering. If she really didn’t want to be seen by Kakashi, then should she risk using the Rinnegan? It was a chakra drain and it was distinctive, even if the Rinnegan was so rare that pretty much no one would recognize it. But Kakashi was hella good. Did she absolutely need to artificially up her game to be certain that she was outmaneuvering him?

She was leaning towards yes.

Damn. Do I absolutely have to go below Kakashi’s radar? Will he be less threatened if he thinks he knows what I am doing? Or will he flip out once I approach Tazuna-san and assume I’m a hostile? He certainly couldn’t let that slide.’

“I didn’t realize genjutsu required quite so much contemplation,” Utakata commented.

Aiko ignored him, feeling her stress levels rise at the increasing likelihood that Rinnegan-directed genjutsu really was her best option. If only she didn’t suck so damn hard without it…

Why am I so lame? I studied genjutsu theory for like, ever, when I was trying to help Fukiko. And I got personal tutoring from Obito in blanket techniques. I feel like such an idiot. I should be able to do it. I should be able to just pick up all the pieces I have and run with them. Naruto can do that with jutsu. Kakashi’s made his own jutsu, which is even harder. I bet he can do it with genjutsu too. Probably lots of people I know are like that.’

Depressing.

The fact that she often failed to master complicated jutsu didn’t exactly make her feel any better about her genjutsu. She’d never managed to turn the Rasengan into something usable- shadow clone crutches weren’t available as an option for her, on account of how shaky her shadow clone technique was.

I could probably learn them properly and use them with the Rinnegan.’

Which brought her back to the same problem.

Well’, Aiko consoled herself. ‘My weapons and taijutsu are pretty solid. And I’m not half bad at fuinjutsu. I can’t be great at everything.’

“Hold on,” Aiko snapped. Only belatedly, she realized that Utakata had been talking again. What had he been saying? It must have been annoying. Still, that was no excuse for being rude to him. She sighed. “Sorry. I was having a pity party. I’m going to have to resort to something I didn’t want to use. I don’t want to risk Kakashi noticing that we’re here halfway through. It’s preferable if he believes that we can’t actually hide from him, you know?”

Utakata gave a sort of loose half-shrug without stopping the fidgeting motion of his left hand. He was spinning some kind of small pendant on a chain.

Tmi, probably. Utakata doesn’t actually care about my problems.’

Aiko rubbed at her temples and pressed her eyes shut. When she opened the Rinnegan, it was pointedly off to the side, because she wasn’t interested in any comments. “Stand close. I’m going to anchor the illusion to myself. I’m doing visual, auditory, and olfactory. That doesn’t mean you should make any loud smells. I’m not infallible.”

He started to repeat something in a questioning tone, but Aiko wasn’t paying attention. Instead, she was funneling out a truly atrocious amount of her life’s energy into a three-dimensional illusion, tapping into the principles of the hell viewing technique that Kakashi himself had taught her. Hopefully, that would show any observers what they expected to perceive. She augmented that with a manipulation of a victim’s color perception that should make both Aiko and Utakata blend in better with the foliage so that the main technique didn’t need to confuse any observers more than necessary. The cherry on top was a blanket technique with a mild sedative effect for anyone who got within range. That should calm most paranoid minds.

Halfway through, her head was pounding. When she secured the last spider webs of manipulation, she was seeing floating spots in her peripheral and there was a distinct possibility that she was going to lose her lunch.

Nope. Can’t,’ Aiko told herself in determination. She wrapped her arms around her gut. ‘The smell would ruin all my hard work. Gotta keep it together.’

“Hmm.” Utakata leaned back, catching the chain he’d been playing with. There was a nearly imperceptible eye twitch. He narrowed his gaze at her work, catching near invisible slivers of chakra thread. His mouth twisted. “Decent work.”

Aiko very sincerely considered killing him. She could reach right into his chest, pull out his heart, and let it squish out between her fingers. He’d be sorry for being a flippant little shit then.

Oh my god, I’m lying to myself. He would not be sorry. He would think it was hilarious that I got so upset about it. That’s the same reason he pretended not to be impressed. He wants a reaction.’

So she smiled sweetly through her teeth. “Thank you.” At his offended sniff, she knew she’d guessed correctly. Aiko tossed her hair, smug victory easing the pain a bit. Some hair hung down in her face, so she brushed it away. And brushed again, frowning when the shadowy lines across her vision didn’t fade. But her fingertips only touched skin.

Oh. This is new.’ Aiko paused. ‘And terrible.’

But it was the kind of terrible thing that she wasn’t interested in sharing. Her vision wasn’t truly that obstructed. She could deal with it. Maybe, if she ignored it long enough, it would just go away.

Utakata frowned, tapping a long index finger against his crossed arms. “Why are you crossing your fingers?”

Aiko shrugged. “Helps me direct chakra,” she lied blandly. “Now hush. We’re going to move closer.”

The banter quit as they approached the construction site. Aiko stopped the forward creep with a hand held up before they could break the treeline. When Utakata looked at her, she cocked her head at him and laid her palm against a nearby tree meaningfully.

It took a moment for comprehension to flash across his face –having the high ground would improve their visibility and take them out of general line-of-sight, but Kakashi was too skilled and they were too close to stupidly risk channeling active chakra to climb normally. Her partner obligingly enough held out laced hands for her to step on, boosting her up without using any chakra. Utakata lifted easily, putting her within arm’s reach of the lowest branch worth standing on. Once she was up, Aiko hooked her knees around the branch and swung down, letting the force of motion bend her body nearly against the underside of the branch before she jerked her fingers meaningfully on the verge of swinging the other direction. Utakata gave her a bland look that implied he had not planned on her assistance, but he took her hands and let her pull.

The slight widening of his eyes when she jerked up with her abdomen and pulled his body entirely off the ground told her that Utakata hadn’t actually believed she could lift him. Despite his surprise, he expertly caught onto the tree and pulled his hands away from her, retreating towards the bole of the tree sulkily. Aiko huffed, rolling her eyes as she clambered to a standing position.

It’s called momentum, idiot. I don’t have to be built like freaking Obito to move one skinny teenager. I just have to be slightly smarter.’

Her companion gave off a distinct air of wounded pride, but he didn’t complain about working together to reach a decent height. Aiko led the way, carefully winding up and across close branches to cross trees. Eventually, leaves thinned and branches parted.

The construction site spread out before her invitingly. Aiko held her hand up for scale, noting that the closest worker visually appeared to be about the height of her pinky finger. It took a minute of silent calculation to work out their exact distance, using that for scale.

And then Utakata leaned over her shoulder and disrupted her attention. His body was curled taut like that of some horrible bird. He didn’t seem particularly stable in his distracted state. She considered putting a hand to his chest and pushing him off to the ground. It would be really stupid, but it’d also be funny.

Another time, perhaps. Today, I am serious.’

From her vantage point, it was apparent that the bridge was coming along nicely. The great pillars looming out of the water were entirely complete, connected with a skeletal metal rigging. The seven closest supports were floored with enormous sheets of something that resembled concrete. It was actually difficult to see the far edges of the bridge that were currently being worked on, due more to rising mist than the distance.

They’ve got a long way to go. The coast is almost a kilometer out.’

Tazuna-san didn’t dream small, though. She’d gladly give him that credit. The bridge was almost unnecessarily wide. Surely it would have been much easier and cheaper, as well as faster, to make a simple two-lane bridge. Tazuna-san’s bridge was wide enough for more than four wagons to pass alongside at once.

In afterthought, it was embarrassing that Kakashi’s clone dropped its henge and shouted for the civilians to hit the ground before Aiko even realized that Zabuza-san was present.

The mist. Duh. It shouldn’t have been that high. Big clue.’

At her side, Utakata all but vibrated with tension. Aiko reached out blindly and patted at his knee to calm him down.

He looked at her, wild-eyed.

He probably doesn’t want to renege on his gentleman’s agreement with Zabuza. I suppose it might be an unnecessary risk, from his perspective.’

Well. It wasn’t like she relished the idea that she might have to step in. It would be optimal if Kakashi handled things. He might get testy about a foreign nin interfering in his mission, even if it was to help him. Her goal wasn’t to piss him off. So Aiko tried to radiate calm thoughts at her partner, tilting her head slightly and blinking slowly. Utakata did not seem reassured, but he did stare at her much longer than usual.

Oh. Right. Creepy peepers.

Aiko felt a little guilty- they were unnerving and that was clearly not what a jumpy nuke-nin needed- but the genjutsu had to stay. She could control it much better with the eyes powered up. If she was going to interfere in this fight, it was going to be once and from a position of absolute anonymity. She was not interested in getting into a dick measuring contest with Zabuza or Kakashi when the option of being, you know, sneaky, was available.

The civilians were howling and screaming and running for cover or just plain running in the incredibly impractical way that frightened people did when a situation was utterly beyond their ken. Zabuza and Kakashi darted around them, flickering in and out of visibility with metal clangs. At each one, Aiko winced.

A shadow clone really wasn’t that sturdy. If Zabuza figured it out, or wore it down, it’d be toast.

She couldn’t hear what Zabuza was saying, but it preceded him leaping backwards dramatically and working through a long series of handsigns. Like, a really long series. Aiko rolled her eyes- and then realized that Kakashi was copying them. Judging by the redness in his face, Zabuza was not amused by the copycat.

Aiko projected as much negativity as was humanly possible at Kakashi’s shadow clone.

Oh my god, this is stupid. Hit him! Hit him while his hands are busy!’

It probably didn’t sense her bad thoughts…?

Zabuza’s water dragon roared up, darted towards Kakashi’s- and then broke course at the last second to attempt to run Tazuna-san down because Zabuza was a man after her own heart, more interested in the mission than posturing. The old man shrieked in fright and threw his flask at it. Pointlessly, of course- Kakashi’s water dragon twisted around to ram Zabuza’s dragon. It connected at the neck, charging through. There was a horrible, entirely audible crash like the collision of two scaled bodies, and then both chakra constructs collapsed in a wave. Zabuza landed easily on top of the resulting eddies. Kakashi’s clone flickered, weakened from that draining jutsu and a series of impacts.

Aiko straightened her back.

Game’s up. Zabuza will know it’s not the real Kakashi. He’ll stop the dramatics and finish the job fast, before Kakashi can get here.’

Surely enough, Kakashi’s shadow clone dissolved in the next series of vicious taijutsu, ultimately felled by an ankle sweep. Aiko snorted into her fist. How ignominious. Then she gave Utakata a vaguely apologetic look, shrugging in a ‘what can you do’ kind of way. She would have to step in before Tazuna ended up dead. It was annoying, but she didn’t fancy having to find another architect of his par to complete the project.

It would be nice to take care of Haku first, but I don’t see him at all.’

Utakata was green, but he nodded.

Aiko took that as permission to pull out a single kunai. She leaned in.

Zabuza was still talking even with his opponent gone. Holy cow, that man was chatty for a master of an art of silent killing. Aiko frowned and cocked her head, listening for just a second.

“….points to hit. Heart. Larynx.”

Whatever you say, buddy.’

Aiko repressed a snort and tuned out of Zabuza’s monologue to frightened civilians, pulling her hand back. Her aim was pure whimsy- a clear, merciless strike from complete silence.

Zabuza’s voice cut off. It was hard to tell from the distance, but the expression on his face might have been a quiet confusion. He lifted one hand to the cheap, standard-issue kunai embedded in his larynx. Then he fell to his knees, gargling blood.

Aiko watched dispassionately, not letting the genjutsu flutter. There was fresh screaming from the closest construction workers, but there was a distinct quirk of befuddlement to the shouts that she didn’t bother to decipher.

“Zabuza-sama!”

Ah. There was Haku, pushing up his hunter-nin mask to display pretty features contorted in fear and horror. Aiko crossed her arms and waited, letting time to do the work for her. Two seconds. Four. At six, Haku fluttered miserably over the prospect of removing the kunai. Zabuza was twitching. The teenager had to know that the metal was the only thing stoppering up blood, but it was also blocking his air and drowning him. Eight seconds. Haku took the risk, driven by panic instead of reason.

Utakata shifted his weight uncomfortably. Aiko shook her head.

Haku’s not a medic. Zabuza doesn’t have a chance.’

Death was quicker with the projectile removed, although not really cleaner. Maybe it was more merciful. Who could say? Aiko assumed that Zabuza’s heart had stopped when Haku collapsed onto his mentor’s chest and wailed, tugging at fistfuls of bandages. Chunky blood bubbled up out of the sopping hole and frothed at Zabuza’s lips when Haku began pounding his fists against the still chest. He screamed nonsense for a while, and then sort of gradually loosened into a slump that might have been a hug, of sorts.

Utakata tapped her arm and gave an inquisitive expression.

Aiko shrugged, telegraphing the motion. If she’d shared a hand language with him, she would have expressed that she’d prefer to let Haku tire himself out. Utakata seemed to get the gist that she didn’t plan to interfere with the kid’s grief, at least.

Nice. He’ll cry himself down, and I won’t have to kill him. That’s just kind of depressing. Team seven is a bunch of bleeding hearts without me. They’ll probably let Haku live.’ Aiko rolled her neck, relaxing in the breeze. The heat of the worst part of the day was finally passing. ‘Once they’re gone, maybe I’ll revive Zabuza, tell him I’m suuuuuper sorry for not holding to our gentleman’s deal on account of being a shitty person, and then offer to split Gato’s cash with him.’

She did still have daydreams about Zabuza as the Mizukage, after all. That’d be interesting. Sure, Kakashi would be fucking baffled if Zabuza popped up later, but, you know. That sounded like someone else’s problem.

Haku’s sobbing faded. Aiko eyed him up, wondering if it was a ploy. He couldn’t have forgotten that someone had attacked Zabuza. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he was hoping she’d just kill him too.

“No such luck, kitten,” Aiko murmured, rubbing at the back of her neck.

Of course, that was when Kakashi darted into sight and stopped abruptly. He gave Zabuza’s corpse a short, bewildered look.

Tazuna-san poked his head out from behind a crate and raised his hands in a ‘hell if I know’ gesture. Whatever Kakashi said in response was too quiet for her to pick up on, but he kept Haku in his peripheral as he scanned the vicinity.

Aiko pressed her lips together and definitely did not snicker at his obvious confusion at how the situation had changed in the minute or so that he’d had no surveillance on the situation. After a while, he ventured to prod at Haku. The teenager didn’t respond, so he cautiously toed away the discarded kunai that Haku’d flung to the concrete edge of the bridge. He wouldn’t find anything terribly interesting, Aiko was afraid. Kakashi picked it up and sniffed at it, but come on. All he’d get off that was blood. Aiko scoffed. What a ridiculous man. He looked back over at Zabuza.

And then he lifted his head and unerringly focused his one eye on her position. Aiko nearly choked on her heart, which had relocated to her throat.

Holy shit! He can see me?’

But no. His expression was tight, but there was no recognition. A second to calm down, and Aiko pieced it together- he’d figured out what direction Zabuza had been facing before he fell and tracked back the trajectory of the projectile. In like, a minute.

Damn, that’s sexy.’

She reached out and hooked her fingers in Utakata’s collar. He was so used to the manhandling that he didn’t even attempt to jerk away. He did let out a sigh in the instant before she used Hiraishin to pull them far away, before Kakashi could come over and confirm her identity.

There was no way that conversation wouldn’t be at least mildly awkward. Better to not be there.



CHAPTER 9



“And you really don’t know what happened?” Aiko rubbed at her arms defensively, eyes theatrically wide. “How do you know he’s – he’s gone?” She had a bit too much fun getting her voice to wobble in fright.

Sasuke cast yet another mildly accusative look at Kakashi, as if to illustrate some point.

Kakashi nodded patiently, for the nth time. “I assure you, the missing nin is gone. You have no need to worry.” His tone was perfectly civil. Outwardly, there was no sign that she was probably his only suspect for Zabuza’s sudden and mysterious case of ‘knife in neck’.

Tsunami-chan nodded. Her hands shook a little at she set down cold barley tea at the table. “Father is not certain what he saw, but he is unwavering on that point.”

Aiko took her tea.

'Are Naruto and Sakura still with Haku?’

Honestly, that seemed a little trusting for the man that she remembered. Haku was still dangerous. He was certainly more dangerous than two fresh genin.

'But he’d know better than I would, here.’ Aiko swallowed tea to chase away the sourness of bile. ’He’s making all sorts of decisions that seem wrong to me, and it’s working out fine. It’s not like home. Maybe Naruto and Sakura are more capable without however I interfered in their development.’

“Hikari-chan?”

Aiko jumped when Tsunami-chan laid a hand on her wrist- not out of surprise, mind, but an aborted attack. Her heartrate jumped. She’d nearly-

It was better not to think about it.

“I don’t feel well,” Aiko confessed. Suddenly, she just felt tired. Even playing psychological games with Kakashi didn’t seem fun anymore.

“Oh.” Tsunami-chan looked dismayed. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She began unlacing her apron. “I’ll walk you home. How would you like some nice okayu?”

Aiko held up her hands. “Oh, no, that’s not necessary,” she deferred. Although okayu did sound lovely. Tsunami-san didn’t really know her. This wasn’t her decision. She was trying to invest her energy into a stranger under a stranger’s influence. Tsunami-san didn’t deserve this. “Thank you, it’s very kind, but-”

'But I have no house and kitchen for you to make that in. And if you walk me home, Kakashi will definitely follow. I won’t be able to expose him without giving up my civilian cover, and I won’t be able to take you to a house that doesn’t exist.’

Maybe it was reflex borne from years of reliance on him, maybe it was just plain stupid. But Aiko found herself giving Kakashi an imploring glance, just for an instant.

His expression didn’t change, but she could sense that he was startled. He didn’t act it, though, standing smoothly. “Saa, Tsunami-san, you are so busy,” Kakashi schmoozed. Aiko could hear the sloppy smile that went with that tone. Tsunami-chan could too, if the faint blush on her cheeks was any indication. “Let me do it. Sasuke-kun will stay with you and help with dinner. We don’t want to trouble you, do we?”

Sasuke and Aiko both nodded. A moment later, Aiko wondered if Kakashi had been referring to just himself and Sasuke. Oops.

Tsunami-chan conceded with good grace. “Alright then. Have a good walk, Kakashi-san, Hikari-chan.” Mischievousness broke into her tone. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Aiko opened her mouth to point out that Tsunami-chan had a son. Then she shut it. It was safer to pretend not to understand that joke.

Oddly, Sasuke was giving Kakashi a dark look that hinted at some kind of agreement.

She took a moment to wish she had a coat. It was getting chilly as the sun went down. But no, she’d worn a yukata today. Aiko let herself out to the genkan and switched her slippers for her outside shoes. Kakashi joined her a moment later.

She eyed him sideways. It was downright remarkable that he could manage to be so graceless when putting on shoes.

Kakashi gave her an innocent look and rubbed his foot along the floor to adjust the fit of his sandals.

Aiko felt a twitch coming on. So she lifted her head. “Please excuse me,” she called back into the house even as she fiddled with the door. “Please rest, Tsunami-chan!” And then she let herself out into the night.

Kakashi caught up with her a few moments later, hands already in his pockets. They walked in silence for a time.

It was oddly pleasant, given that they both knew where this was going.

He broke the quiet first. “You killed Zabuza.”

“Killed is a strong word,” Aiko said mildly. And it was. She’d temporarily un-alived him, pending reconsideration. She may or may not revisit her decision at a later date.

“You have what you want, I presume,” Kakashi continued mildly. “Unless you need Zabuza’s head for the bounty. You watched us bury him, didn’t you?”

She hummed, not really answering one way or the other.

She had watched that. And- she’d rather hoped for that outcome, since it would make reviving Zabuza significantly easier.

But there was also something unsettling about the knowledge. In this time, Kakashi had been kinder. He’d helped the genin give Zabuza a decent burial instead of doing the logical thing and confirming the kill. That had probably been better for the genin’s short term mental health, if she were honest. But it was strange. She was the only thing missing from team 7, as far as she could tell. How had her absence made such a difference? What was wrong here? Was team 7 really so much gentler without her?

'I don’t know if that’s good or bad, even.’

“You should go.” Kakashi’s voice had an unmistakable edge to it now. “I don’t want you around my team.”

That hurt a lot more than it should have. Aiko swallowed. Her eyes felt hot. She needed to get her head in the game. “I haven’t hurt anyone,” she defended, too weak and too late. “Leave me alone.”

Kakashi zeroed in on her weakness. “We don’t need you,” he brutally pin-pointed. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but you need to leave. Do you think Tsunami-san needs a missing nin around? You know the kind of trouble that brings. If you really care, you’ll go and you won’t look back.”

“I’m not a missing nin,” Aiko snapped, actually wounded.

He paused for a moment.

“I’m not,” Aiko repeated more softly. “I just don’t have a village-'anymore’- to live in. That’s different.’

She wondered if he could hear what she wasn’t saying in that pause. Perhaps. He’d never seemed to read her well, but that could easily have been lack of motivation.

"Why are you fixated on us?” Kakashi asked.

Aiko tensed. She instantly regretted it. He’d just been making shots in the dark, but she’d gone and confirmed it. Well done.

Aggressive tension rose, high and angry. He wasn’t playing.

“One of your kids looks like- reminds me of someone I used to know,” Aiko confessed, feeling afraid that she was going to have to actually fight Kakashi. She didn’t want to, she just wanted to go home and she couldn’t go home there was no home for her here-

He moved.

She managed to dodge despite the distortion of dampness in her vision. Kakashi waited a moment, clearly letting her regain her balance before he moved at her again.

'He’s just trying to scare me off,’ Aiko knew. 'He doesn’t really want to fight either.’

Well, fuck him.

Her chakra roared into the air, angry and thrumming and so long coming after the miserable months she’d had. She saw Kakashi’s eye widen in the instant before she charged, already holding the kunai she’d had in her sleeve. He met her blow with his own blade. Sparks flew. He pushed at her- and then leapt backwards to disengage.

She followed, but she flung her kunai to the ground pointedly to make clear that this was taijutsu. Kakashi looked outright confused. His hand wavered. He could go for the killing blow. She couldn’t block a weapon with her bare hands.

He pulled his armed hand away at the last moment and blocked with his left. The motion didn’t completely arrest her force.

'He’s not as strong as I remember.’

Aiko bared her teeth and backhanded him. Her bones shuddered against his jaw. His face flew to the side, shock plain.

In his defense, it was a terribly personal attack to make. He couldn’t understand how much he’d hurt her. But she was tired, and lonely, and angry, and it didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t fair to him. Life wasn’t fair, so she might as well share her pain.

His free hand twisted around to secure her leading arm. Aiko pulled herself back to the thrown kunai, evading the hold.

“What are you-” Kakashi cut himself off for the focus necessary to counter her water jutsu with a similar one. He grunted when they met, a line appearing on his forehead. “And to think I was concluding-” fire evaporated her next blow. “That you weren’t really into this!”

Asshole!’

Aiko reared back and attempted to cut him in goddamn half with a chakra chain. She had to jerk to the side at the last second, a shock of fear jumping up her spine. He hadn’t moved. He wasn’t going to dodge. “The hell?” Aiko demanded, pointing at him accusatively. “You’re supposed to dodge attacks, you oversized radish!” She let her chain recede, curling over her head where he couldn’t stumble over it. “Cotton headed ninny muggins!” she outright screamed, her voice turning shrill and so ugly.

He was staring. At her? At the chain? Hard to tell.

She stomped her foot. “Assbutt!”

That shook him out of it. His tone was- strained. “Thank you for reminding me. Yes. I have quite forgotten how combat works. Another time, perhaps.” And… he turned around?

Aiko gaped.

“But you started it,” she said dumbly.

He waved over his shoulder. “Maa, have a good night, won’t you?”

“Wait.” She said, very quietly to his back. Aiko felt pathetic even as she said it. She didn’t really know what she was asking for, but it wasn’t a fight.

Kakashi heard her. She knew he had. He paused for a moment, but kept walking.

She waited until he was gone to start crying. In that, at least, she retained a little dignity.


She remembered what Kakashi had said. Aiko didn’t go back to the house. She kept her distance to watch the remainder of the construction. It went at remarkable speeds now that the immediate threat was removed. Team 7 joined their labors. Much to Aiko’s surprise, so did Haku.

“He has nowhere else to go,” Utakata pointed out when he caught her staring.

“Yes.” Aiko clawed at the ground, gathering dirt up in her fingers. “He’s probably better off that way.” She glumly let the dirt fall. “Going to Konoha, I mean. Zabuza wasn’t the nicest man. Haku is probably better off like this.”

Utakata leveled a disbelieving stare on her. “You do not understand people at all.”

“I’m sure he misses Zabuza,” Aiko argued. “Or he would if he knew. But Zabuza is violent and angry and now they’re having a much nicer time-”

“There’s something wrong with you.” Utakata sidestepped away from her, brow furrowed in disapproval. “You are speaking nonsense. Haku respected and admired Zabuza. Of course he misses his mentor, regardless of Zabuza’s personal flaws.”

“Really?” Aiko asked wistfully. There was dirt under her fingernails. “But she’s not a very nice person, and Konoha is so nice.” Aiko made a sour face and a fist.

Utakata didn’t respond. After a moment, she looked up. The look her was giving her might have been pitying. He looked away too quickly for her to be certain.

He certainly sounded like he would prefer to be anywhere else in the world. “I believe,” Utakata picked distastefully. “That… Haku. Haku would choose to have Zabuza. Were it his decision.”

Aiko bit her lip. She looked back in the direction of the bridge and measured the distance to Zabuza’s grave. She sucked in a slow breath. “Well. If you’re sure.” She stood and brushed dirt off her legs. “Let’s go.”

“…What?”

Despite his confusion, Utakata easily followed. “I do not understand. Uzumaki-chan?”

“It’s Aiko,” she corrected. “You’re the only person who knows my name. You might as well use it. I use yours.”

He flushed red. The color contrasted in an unbecoming way against the blue undertones of his skin. “Aiko-san,” Utakata decided slowly. “Would you explain what we are doing?”

Something about hearing her real name was comforting enough that she decided to indulge him. “I’m going to show you a jutsu that I don’t use often. I’m…” She paused. “I’m trusting you with this, okay?” And she hoped that wasn’t a mistake.

The awkward part was getting him to help her retrieve Zabuza’s body.

“You think you can raise the dead.” Utakata said it with no inflection. He closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. “That is completely mad.”

Aiko puffed her cheeks out, ready to argue.

“As are most things that you do.” His shoulders sank, but his tone firmed in determination. “Are… I do not dare suppose that you have a jutsu for digging up bodies?”

She sucked in air through her teeth. “Ano… Technically?” She ventured. “But it’s a really bad idea to expend the chakra before I try this. Especially since he’s been sitting for like. A week…” It was going to be a lot of work.

Utakata twirled to give her a disbelieving look. “You have ridiculously over-sized chakra reserves.” He managed to make that sound like an accusation.

Aiko shrugged at him. “It’s not my fault.”

He gave the ground a deeply resentful stare. “Must… Must I engage in manual labor?”

“Um.” She cocked her head. “Maybe a water jutsu?”

“Do you want to chase a rotten and soggy corpse in a mudslide?” Utakata asked pleasantly.

Aiko stepped away.

He sighed. “Pity.” With one last baleful stare to the sword making Zabuza’s head, Utakata took off his outer robes and passed them to her. Aiko folded the material automatically and watched as he pushed his sleeves up. They immediately fell back down. With a picture perfect scowl, Utakata took the time to immaculately roll them up.

She fixed his robe under her arm and stepped in to help fix his clothes. “Maybe if you tie it, like this?”

“That will suffice,” Utakata agreed. “And-”

“Yes, I have a hair tie. Bend down a bit?” Aiko worked the tie off her wrist and stood on her toes. “I think a high ponytail would look better on you.”

“A little off-center,” he decided.

After a moment’s fussing, Aiko stepped back and declared him perfect.

Utakata gave a smug little smile. “Yes,” he agreed. He turned back to his task, visibly ready. Then he stood there.

Aiko checked to make sure that she wasn’t wrinkling his robe, smoothing her hand over the soft fabric.

“Aiko-san?”

“Yes?”

Her partner paused. “Do we have a shovel?”

Several minutes later, Aiko passed off her stolen shovel and perched nearby to watch her partner work. He did so with a mixed air of equally powerful determination and resentment. After what seemed to be an absolute eternity, at least half an hour, he’d unearthed enough of the cloth wrappings that Zabuza had been buried in for her to gingerly step in.

They eyed the corpse with matching trepidation.

“We should pull him up,” Aiko said. “And unwrap him.” Her voice came out oddly, what what her fingers pinching her nose shut and all.

“The alternative will likely prove troublesome and disorienting,” Utakata agreed.

They observed a moment longer.

“Zabuza-san is famously resilient.”

“Yes,” Aiko agreed. “It’ll be fine.” She handed him his robe and stretched her fingers. “You might want to back up, just a bit. The only place to summon is where you’re standing.” She blinked the Rinnegan on.

“Summon?” Utakata asked, but he was already moving.

He’d see.

And see he did. She didn’t sense so much as a flicker in his chakra control when the god of death resentfully stared out at her. This time, Aiko noticed that the god was eagerly drinking in the scenery. It was only her that he seemed to level with resentment.

'That can’t be good.’

“Give back Momochi Zabuza,” Aiko commanded. She waved her hand at the body. “Heal him, first.”

That particular bit of insolence did get a flutter of fear from Utakata.

“Don’t worry,” Aiko reassured without breaking her stare with the god. “He won’t hurt you.” She missed whatever he offered in response when she gasped, body flinching when he took the chakra toll.

She’d been right to ration her energy. Zabuza hadn’t been in any kind of state resembling health when he’d gone to confront Kakashi. Lungs full of dried blood and a torn throat certainly hadn’t helped matters.

“Idiot,” Aiko gasped, hands on her chest for air. “Stupid, what are you trying to prove-” Her vision went white. She came back to herself trembling. The god was gone. Zabuza was struggling and shouting, contorting like a caterpillar in his burial shroud. Utakata wasn’t paying him any attention at all, instead crouched over her. She waved him off. “Help him, would you?” She forced her body to a standing position. She’d been crouching. Funny, she didn’t remember doing that.

The hairline cracks were in her vision again. Good thing she’d turned the Rinnegan off. Oh, she hadn’t. Aiko did that. Instantly, the shadows in her gaze became so much worse. They stretched like a jagged spiderweb, curved lines concentrated in the left sides of her vision. She could see fairly clearly out of the right half of both eyes. That left her concentrating oddly on the left side of her nose and the ocean view in her peripheral.

She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. She didn’t cry. Her eyes were just a little moist from strain.

'Itachi nearly went blind from channeling too much chakra into his eyes.’

No big. All she needed was an elite medic who had devoted years of study to her bloodline.

Aiko laughed, the sound edging into hysteria. The sharp edges cut into the rumbling of Zabuza’s conversation.

“Uzumaki-san?” Utakata sounded careful and distant again. She waved her hand at him mutely and shook her head. She didn’t bother trying to open her eyes. If they were closed, she could pretend everything was normal. It was fine. This was fine.

“Uzumaki?” Zabuza demanded. “The hell does an Uzumaki have to do with anything?”

Utakata’s foot twisted in her dirt. He must have wheeled at Zabuza. “Watch your tongue,” Utakata snapped.

'He’s never rude to anyone but me before,’ Aiko thought, a little disgruntled. 'And here I thought what we had was special.’

“Uzumaki-san is the reason that you are brushing away maggots. You should kneel, cur.”

Aiko cringed. She hadn’t needed that visual.

“I suppose I’ll just fall to my damn knees,” Zabuza countered.

Utakata started to tear into him about disrespect or something, but Aiko couldn’t be assed to listen. Maybe it was the chakra loss, maybe it was her recent mood, maybe it was-

“Oh, right,” Aiko said in an air of revelation. “Not eating means less chakra.” She’d been feeling too down to venture to a restaurant to find dinner. It was still early enough that places would be open. She needed to refuel. She’d feel better when her body had raw energy to convert into chakra.

The arguing paused.

“Perhaps we could discuss this in a more civilized environment.” Utakata crossed the short distance back to her. She could hear his quiet steps, his breathing, and smell the light perspiration from his exertion. When his arm brushed hers, she moved instinctively and found that he was holding her arm, offering support.

Zabuza made a disgusted sound.

'Food now, argue later.’

“Come here,” Aiko decided, holding a hand regally in his direction.

She probably missed some kind of nonverbal communication. There was a sense of begrudging resentment in the rough touch when Zabuza grabbed at her hand.

Aiko didn’t still. She didn’t. She just rather suddenly remembered that he was a large individual, famous for killing a large amount of helpless individuals. And she was currently very weak by her standards. That was all. She was just remembering the situation.

He snorted again. But his hand adjusted in her grip, the callus pulling at her skin in a way that might have been intended to convey there was no cause for alarm.

On the bright side, it was even easier to tune in to the song of her seals without the distraction of sight.

'Oh my god, no. I am not going to become the kind of person who looks for the bright side. There is no silver lining. I am in a winterland of sadness.’

She kept that firmly in mind throughout the mess of getting seating and ordering dinner. When she finally pried her eyes open, it was- better. Not good, but better. The shadows in her vision were the solely vertical lines that she’d initially mistaken for bangs.

That did make her soup a little easier to get down. Aiko picked out the biggest bits of wakame and then lifted the bowl to drink the broth. She was already moving for the tempura on a shared plate, stomach rumbling. Mm, sweet potato. And cucumber. and chewy little bits of octopus with the nice pop of circular suckers against her tongue. After the tempura was gone she devoured the bed of shredded daikon the arrangement had come on. Then hey, a rice ball.

When she finally looked up, Zabuza and Utakata were staring at her with variations of shock and horror. When he noticed her looking, Utakata cleared his expression and lifted his bowl delicately to his mouth.

“If you don’t slow down, you’re going to suck that down the wrong pipe and die, girl,” Zabuza informed. The waitress set down a plate of karaage. The fried chicken was still steaming.

Aiko narrowed her eyes. Without looking away, she reached out and pulled the serving plate towards her. She ate three pieces without looking down at the plate.

Zabuza looked away first. He was weak.

“Do we get to eat?” he asked Utakata, not that quietly.

“There are still riceballs there,” Aiko pointed out. Her stomach wasn’t screaming for attention anymore. Actually, she was starting to feel a little… full. Aiko frowned, putting a hand across her stomach. “I guess you can have the rest of this too.” Aiko pushed the karaage away hardly touched.

“My thanks,” Zabuza snarked. He wasn’t too proud to take the chicken.

Aiko paused thoughtfully on that nuance. Now that she was slowing down, her head was clearing a bit. Her chakra reserves were filling up in drips, brushing the tops of her metaphorical toes now. She laced her fingers under her chin and braced her elbows on the table.

Zabuza halted, three pieces of chicken in his mouth at once. He gave her a suspicious look.

There was probably a diplomatic way to ask, but she just wouldn’t be herself if she looked for it.

Aiko smiled at him. “How was being dead?”

He stared at her. One hand lifted up to his neck. “I didn’t,” Zabuza argued. He lowered his brows and scowled.

“You did,” Aiko countered. She tapped at her throat pointedly.

He might have paled underneath his tan. “You… were the Hunter Nin agent,” Zabuza realized slowly.

Aiko smiled mildly.

Zabuza’s breath was silent, but she saw the way his chest moved when he carefully inhaled. He eyed her up and down with more intensity than before. “I had thought that you made a convincing operative,” he commented.

She tilted her head to the side, not letting her smile slip.

He set down his chopsticks with a quiet clink. “I suppose I should offer my gratitude.”

Oh. Did he think she was blackmailing him or something?

“I don’t require anything from you.” Aiko stretched her foot under the table, bored with the interaction now that it had fallen down predictable lines. “It might be nice if you would get rid of Gato. I don’t like him.”

At that, Zabuza bristled. “If I don’t keep him around, I don’t get paid,” the nuke-nin said slowly. It wasn’t exactly a challenge. Nor was it friendly.

Aiko shrugged it off. “If it’s funds that you need, I can do that. I don’t care about the money. Actually…” She turned her head to change the angle she watched him from. “You only want it for your takeover in Mist, right?”

He froze.

Utakata was still and stiff against her side.

Aiko rolled her eyes, hoping desperately that she didn’t have to justify this because she had no explanation for it. “Oh come on. Do I really have to explain how that is obvious?” She inserted as much condescension as possible into her voice.

Zabuza nodded stiffly. “I suppose it is rather obvious.”

“Wildly apparent,” Utakata agreed.

'Is it actually obvious to them? Or are they just saying that so they don’t risk looking stupid?’

“Anyway.” Aiko physically waved away the thought. “I think it’s a great idea, to be honest.”

She received double unimpressed stares.

“It’s you or Mei,” Aiko explained. “And Mei probably remembers that I killed her hunter-nin partner. And a bunch of other hunter nin.” She frowned at her hand. “And that I was accused of attempting to assassinate the Mizukage. And maybe all the property damage in Mist, what with the cabbage. Or was it a fruit? It’s been a while, but I definitely remember a cart-”

“Enough,” Zabuza interrupted in a strained tone. “I think that I have heard enough.”

“Oh, no.” Utakata leaned back, eyes glittering. “Do go on. I don’t think that Zabuza-san properly understands what an ally he has made. Let us hear about your confrontation with the green Konoha nin.”

Aiko rolled her eyes. “I’m a shinobi,” she argued patiently. “Of course I cheated.”

“And left me there,” Utakata recounted dolefully.

He was still sore about that?

She threw her hands up. “I eventually remembered!”

Zabuza sighed heavily.

“Do not worry,” Utakata continued, the left corner of his mouth twitching upwards. “She will be able to offer all sorts of invaluable assistance at a second’s notice. As you may have noticed-” he gestured politely at the restaurant around them. “We are no longer anywhere within Wave Country. That was no shunshin, Zabuza-san.”

The older nin looked like he might be about to stand up and leave, food be damned. So Aiko reached out and put her fingers on Utakata’s arm.

He fell silent instantly. Like magic. She gave him a mildly surprised look, but tried not to seem too taken aback.

Zabuza had most definitely noticed. His eyes were lingering on the point where her fingertips rested on her companion’s sleeves. Then he looked up into her face. He was reassessing.

“I am not entirely opposed to your suggestion,” the nukenin rumbled.

Aiko felt herself smile.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10





Aiko understands Zabuza a lot more than she’d like to, and Kakashi doesn’t understand what’s going on at all.



“I don’t want to be here all day, kunoichi.”

Aiko resisted the impulse to snort and looked up from the rolls of bandages she’d been trying to juggle. “What other equipment do you need?” It wasn’t like she was the one they were waiting on.

Zabuza looked like he wanted to push her out of the way to get at the shelf. His jaw clenched. Instead, he stepped around her and took an entire box of the rolled bandage. “Basic medical supplies.” His eyes darted to her, small and resentful. “Small weaponry. Rations. Soldier pills, if we can get them.”

It felt like he regretted every syllable he had to say to her. Like he thought she was taking something from him.

She didn’t take it personally. His shoulders had begun to hunch as soon as they’d entered the town, but now, he was keeping his chin up aggressively and giving dark looks to anyone who came too close.

He seemed like a half-feral animal in the peaceful, normal space of a small-town pharmacy. Zabuza was like a cat that had been kicked before, and viewed consenting to being fed as an admittance of weakness.

That might not be far from the truth. Mist has never seemed particularly nurturing.’

For the first time, she wondered about his background. What kind of childhood made someone a killer without attending an academy or any sort of comparable training system?

Well.

'A really shitty one. He’s been desperate and hungry for a long time. I doubt he even knows what he’s hungry for. But he wants to be a leader and fix it. That’s… kind of inspiring. I doubt he’s doing it out of sentimental love for his childhood home.’

“Hmm.” She tossed the bandages into a basket and curled her fingers around the handle lightly. She kept her thoughts off her face. Aiko wasn’t thick enough to think Zabuza would want her sympathy, even if she was the type of person who initiated those kinds of conversations. “The pills will be hard. Unless you know a supplier off hand?”

He gave her a withering look and walked away to disappear down another row of splintering shelves.

Aiko rolled her eyes.

'I didn’t think so.’

Villages had that kind of thing on a tight leash. There was probably big money in moving those kinds of performance drugs, but the formulas were state secrets and the actual items were regulated and watched. It was a rare example of a time when the risks and annoyances outweighed the potential for profit in smuggling. Bit like the difficulty in getting other types of shinobi equipment outside of a village.

At least the other supplies shouldn’t be impossible. Rations really weren’t going to be a problem at all. With hiraishin, she was never cut off from supply lines. It was unfortunate that she might have to play delivery girl again, but hardly the end of the world.

Zabuza rounded the stacks again, expression tight and body language impatient.

'If he wants to go so damn badly, why doesn’t-’

Oh.

'I have the money. He doesn’t want to ask me for an allowance like a child.’

Right.

Aiko yawned, closing her eyes to stretch. “I think I need to recoup.” She didn’t quite look at him. “Would you get Utakata from next door? I’ll go through the line so we can get out of here. We’ll make camp tonight, and figure out how to retrieve Haku and deal with Gato tomorrow.”

Being tired was a convenient excuse, but it wasn’t really a lie. She was still low on energy from reviving Zabuza. Sleep would be best, at this point.

'And isn’t that strange? Fuu’s body was in much worse shape, but I was still fighting fit after that revival.’

She couldn’t entirely explain what the difference was. She’d thought that the main chakra expense correlated to the amount of repair that bodies needed. But if that wasn’t true…

'Maybe it’s time that matters, instead of damage. Zabuza was dead for at least a week longer than Fuu. Maybe… maybe his soul was more reluctant to leave. More acclimated to death.’

Aiko shook that thought off, creeped out. No. That was ridiculously superstitious speculation. It was below her in every way to spook herself so stupidly.

“Fine.” Roughly, Zabuza dropped everything he was carrying into her basket, never mind that it didn’t really fit. A bottle of pills rolled off to the floor with a clatter, but he was already halfway down the aisle.

She tried not to roll her eyes again. Aiko bent to pick that up without sending anything else flying. With a little difficulty, she hauled her burden to the clerk. The man gave a watery smile when he saw her. He repeatedly glanced over her head as she worked.

'Probably looking for Zabuza. He does make that kind of impression.’

Somehow, she didn’t snicker.

'We need to get weaponry next. That isn’t going to be easy, either. Might have to risk making a commission with a weapons smith who can work with shinobi-grade metal. Either that or scavenge. Both options risk bringing contact with a village in some capacity. Not optimal. But of course he wants a full kit if he’s going to go take on the Mizukage’s forces. That seems so… troublesome. Can we not do that?’

Aiko stilled, eyes losing focus as she had an idea. She’d mostly just been whining, but she might be on to something there.

'When Kisame thought I’d killed Pein, he didn’t even think to ask questions about anything other than how I would be as his new leader. Is that… mist-normal?’

“Here you are.” The clerk pushed her bags across the counter and managed to look at her long enough to bow properly.

“Yeah. Thanks.” Absentmindedly, she slid the supplies off the counter and tried not to hunch under the weight. She wanted to talk to Zabuza. He wasn’t in the mood now, but once they were out of town, away from crowds, he might be more amenable.

She tried at the first opportunity, perched close to the campfire. “Hey, Zabuza. Is there anyone other than the Mizukage who needs to die?”

“Lots of people need to die,” Zabuza grunted dismissively.

'Stupid and dramatic.’

Aiko huffed. “No, I mean, anyone in specific.”

He made a rude sound. “Anyone who gets in my way when I go for the Mizukage.”

“Right,” Aiko agreed with patience she didn’t feel. “But is anyone going fight in his name after he’s already dead?”

Zabuza snorted. He finally deigned to look at her, eyes yellow in the firelight. “Doubt it. Fucker’s not popular.”

“Good.” Aiko chirped. She relaxed, nearly melting against a large rock. “That’ll make things easier. We’ll just go directly to the Mizukage and not bother with anyone else. We don’t need to raise an army, if it’ll be yours as soon as he’s dead. Right?” She made a thumbs up.

Her mist-nin companions exchanged looks.

“Yagura-san will not meet an enemy outside the village,” Utakata pointed out. “It will be necessary to fight through most of the village, unless they are persuaded beforehand to stand down. That is likely Terumi-san’s plan.”

'Do they think I’m an idiot?’

Aiko scowled at her companions, which took some doing, since they were positioned on opposite sides of the fire. Neither of them seemed remotely impressed by her glower, but they registered it. When she was certain her displeasure had been expressed, she put her hands on her hips. “Obvious things are still obvious, thanks for the update. If we’re done with that, you happen to know a person who can take you directly to the Mizukage, so that we don’t have to fuck around with making friends or killing perfectly useful people. Does that change anything?”

Zabuza opened his mouth. Then he closed it. He became very interested in wrapping his arms back up with bandages that didn’t have maggots in them.

“I see.” Utakata looked away. “Your backup plan is to sidestep all of a nation’s highest security and assassinate the most powerful man who lives there, to save time and effort.” He shook his head, lips pulled into the shade of a smile. “Perhaps Zabuza-san would find such information useful.”

Aiko blinked. “You’re not planning on coming?” She’d thought it had been weird that he’d wandered off when they’d gone on an equipment run, but she hadn’t realized his participation was in doubt. He was reliable. Dependable. Familiar.

'Stupid. I got too used to relying on him.’

As soon as she thought about it, it seemed obvious. He wasn’t really her teammate. He didn’t have to do whatever she wanted. He probably didn’t want to go back to the village that had failed him.

His expression indicated all that and more. “Indeed.” Utakata tucked his hands inside his sleeves and closed his eyes, earlier amusement gone.

Aiko took the hint: the conversation was over. She passed out easily, eyes closing on distant stars instead of wooden beams. Maybe Utakata wasn’t going to stay, but she trusted that he would watch her back while they were still working together.

She woke up with the sun. Zabuza was already up- or perhaps he hadn’t slept. She didn’t care either way. Aiko stretched, first the lazy, satisfying muscle movements common to the morning. And then she stretched for flexibility, tuning her body like the weapon it was. If they did go after the Mizukage today, she wanted to be in good shape.

He was almost certainly Obito’s creature at this point. Maybe it was foolish, but she couldn’t help but feel that this would make the Mizukage even more dangerous.

'It’s not impossible,’ Aiko reminded herself. ’Mei did it.’

Of course, Mei was a completely different type of fighter. It could be that she’d had some advantage that Aiko and Zabuza lacked.

'If I’m completely honest, I think Mei is a lot more powerful than Zabuza. And more observant. I couldn’t have taken her down as easily as I did Zabuza.’

Aiko gave the Mist-nin an evaluative stare, even as she worked her small kit of kunai against a whetstone.

Would he be able to do what Mei had done? Even aside from defeating the Mizukage, could he hold the respect of a village?

She didn’t know.

He certainly looked imposing, even if he did look a bit like he’d dressed in the dark. That was kind of an admirable caveat to overcome. It could be useful. It was stupid bullshit, but people did react differently to enormously muscled and angry men than they did to people who looked like Aiko. Ninja weren’t immune to that silliness.

'Should I even be doing this? I have no idea what kind of leader he is. It’s hard to see how he could be worse than Yagura, but…’

Aiko wrestled with her conscience. If she got involved in Mist’s internal affairs, didn’t she have some kind of moral duty to not fuck them over? It was one thing to shrug, 'oh, that sucks’, about people she’d never met. But if she’d been the one to change their lives for a selfish reason, that just seemed- no. She couldn’t do that.

'Well. I have some time. I’ll see what kind of person Zabuza is. If I don’t like what I see, I’ll just kill him and deal with Mei. No one else would know the difference, aside from Utakata, and he’s not exactly the chattiest bastard around.’

Zabuza’s irritated voice broke through her thoughts. “You know, I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t a reason that you’re staring at me and fondling your little toys.”

“Ah.” Aiko blinked down at her kunai, which was sparkling in a lovely way in the morning sun. It was perfectly sharp. “I see. Nothing personal.” She slipped the weapon away, frowning at the necessity. She didn’t like wearing the makeshift weapons pouch. It was either difficult to access or terribly unsubtle over civilian clothing. But she couldn’t go to a fight like that completely without weaponry.

'I would do terrible things for a real holster and my shin and arm guards,’ Aiko reminisced. 'And that mesh body armor. And boots. I wouldn’t even care if the shirt and shorts were just flimsy crap. I’d feel more like me.’

Her companion must have noticed her frowning at her uninspired equipment and gear. “Don’t you have that hunter nin outfit?” Zabuza gave her slacks and short-sleeved top a disdainful once-over. “What you have on is shit. It’s not a civilian disguise, but it’s not armor. Didn’t anyone tell you that you need to do one or the other?”

'He’s absolutely right.’

She couldn’t let him get away with that.

Aiko gave him a condescending look, flipping her hair back. “What are your plans as Mizukage, other than critiquing my outfits?”

“Valid policy decision though it may be,” Utakata added. He sat up. His hair lifted behind him in a cloud of knots. He blinked gummily. A hand went up to start picking out knots, as though this was routine.

'Oh.’ Aiko felt her face pull into a demented grin without her permission. 'It was worth it. Sleeping on the ground like an animal was worth it, just to see that bedhead.’

“What is that awful face for?” Zabuza sounded like he didn’t really want to know.

“I was worried that he was prettier than I am,” Aiko explained vaguely. She let her expression settle into a haughty smirk. “He is. But my hair’s better. It never does that.”

“It frizzes in humidity,” Utakata said mildly. “And your split ends are terrible.” He was slipping his fingers through his hair quickly, tangles nearly defeated already. No wonder she hadn’t seen that before. “I remain superior.”

“Fuck you,” Aiko rebutted pleasantly. “Zabuza?”

“I don’t care about my hair,” he spat. He hunched behind his sword defensively.

'I feel like I roll my eyes a lot more in the day I’ve known Zabuza.’

She valiantly kept her thoughts out of her tone. “Policies. I was asking about your policies. Goals. That kind of thing.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. He pressed his lips even tighter together, until they formed a hard line.

Aiko let it drop. “Alright then.” She gave one last stretch, and then swiveled her spine back to a more natural position. “We need a plan on how to deal with Gato and get Haku back. Don’t you have some chuunin somewhere, too?” she asked, tilting her head to the side. Her hair brushed over her shoulder. Oh. Right. She needed to tie that back still. She slipped a hairband off her wrist and-

“We leave him.” Zabuza bit out. He hefted his sword. “I don’t give a shit about Gato. The Konoha fuckers can deal with him. As for Haku, he’s useless to me.”

Aiko stared, hair forgotten.

'That seems harsh.’

“He is your student, is he not?” Utakata surged to his feet, looking more like a wave than man. “As his teacher, you have a responsibility to him.”

'Utakata’s taking this personally.’

Zabuza snorted, an ugly, rough sound. “Teacher? I was never his teacher.” He tapped his fingers mockingly against the hilt of his sword. “There’s a reason I never trained him in this. He doesn’t deserve this legacy. Besides.” He turned away. “Little fucker moved in with Konoha as soon as I was gone, didn’t he? He’s a useless tool.”

Something clicked in her head. Oh.

Utakata’s pupils turned to slits, and the air began to smell like saltwater. “You are the disgrace. Traitor. Embarassment-”

“Catch up to me when your dog has calmed down,” Zabuza shot over his shoulder. Then he leapt away.

Utakata snarled, twisting impotently.

Aiko reached out and didn’t quite touch him. “It’s fine.”

“Fine?” He wheeled on her. Coral was crackling down his jaw. “He is a low and abhorrent creature. How can you condone this?”

'He looks like he’s about to loose his demon.’

Carefully, she raised her hands to show her palms. The pacifying gesture seemed to shock Utakata. He blinked, focusing on her empty hands with intensity. Then he subsided, the pale fury beginning to recede. His pupils swelled. The coral fell away. Morning songbirds began peeping again. Aiko hadn’t even noticed that they’d stopped.

“I apologize,” he said stiffly. “I was… not myself.”

'I think you were.’

“Zabuza is proud,” Aiko said, instead of acknowledging Utakata’s loss of control. “He views emotional attachment as a weakness.”

“That does not excuse his behavior,” Utakata said quietly.

She nodded. “It doesn’t. But I’m not making excuses for his coldness. I’m saying that he wasn’t telling the truth, because he doesn’t want us to know that he cares for Haku.”

Utakata blinked. His mouth opened the slightest fraction. His brows furrowed.

“He doesn’t want to take Haku to Mist.” Aiko crossed her arms. “He’s glad that Konoha took him in. Haku is young and strong, and Konoha is notoriously soft. He thinks that Haku will be happier and better treated there than Zabuza can promise him.”

The reasoning made an uncomfortable amount of sense. If Zabuza were to lose his fight against the Mizukage, his companions would die as well. Zabuza didn’t want that for Haku. Zabuza recognized that even if the coup went perfectly, Mist was still dangerous and volatile. People who might not dare lash out at Zabuza might think Haku was a fair replacement. It was sort of traditional to kill the vassal to send a message.

Utakata relaxed, but he managed a scowl. “Zabuza-san is still an ass.”

Aiko blinked twice. Um. “That’s fair,” she agreed. “He’s not particularly charming. But I’m starting to think that he generally means well.”

He focused on her, eyes narrowed. “Perhaps he will not be an abominable Mizukage. Do you care? Or does his ascension merely support your aims?”

'I could stand to be honest with him. It won’t matter.’

“I’m trying to find out what kind of leader he is,” Aiko admitted. “If I don’t think he’ll do well enough, I’ll kill him and let Mei take over. I’m not interested in putting another violent lunatic in charge of people’s lives.”

Utakata hummed incomprehension. He closed his eyes. “I see.”

She shifted her weight uncomfortably. She rolled her ankle around, digging her toes in the dirt.

He still didn’t say anything.

“Right.” Aiko bent over to pick up her pack. “I suppose I should get going, then.” She cleared her throat, feeling strange and unhappy. “It was… You weren’t a terrible partner. 6/10, would do again if I had no other options.”

“I give you 5/10,” Utakata replied. His eyes flicked open, dispassionately watching her gather her belongings. “Your strange competency is at odds with your occasional bouts of lunacy and inexplicable decisions that seem to have no basis in situations at hand. However, you have some time to improve your score.”

She stilled. “Oh?”

Utakata looked away. “You and Zabuza-san will need someone of reasonable intelligence, if you truly insist on leaving behind Haku-san. I shudder to think of what you might inflict on the unsuspecting populace without supervision.”

Aiko flung an arm over his shoulder. “I like you too.”

He reached out and tripped her.


Konoha, two months later.

“This Hikari-san was a kunoichi, you say?” The Sandaime frowned. “An associate of Zabuza’s?”

'If so, she was a terrible ally. Digging up his body indicates investment in his death. Maybe a bounty hunter. Of course, that doesn’t explain getting involved in Gato’s affairs.’

Kakashi shook his head. “I didn’t get that impression. I believe that she was the one who killed him, though I did not receive confirmation.” He glanced at his genin. “What did you think?”

Sakura squeezed the fingers laced behind her back. “Hikari-san seemed very competent,” she started uncertainly. “She did express sentiments that- that might make more sense in the context of a kunoichi. She attempted to advise me.”

The Sandaime’s face was dark.

“Nothing strange!” Sakura hastened. “Nothing, um. Treasonous. Just little things, about not letting the boys run off and leave me with chores.”

He didn’t say anything, but the oppressive air lifted. “I see. Naruto?”

The boy shrugged. “Hikari-san seemed alright to me. She was clumsy a lot, but she liked to help Tsunami-san. She was always cooking or something when she was at the house.”

“Clumsy?” The hokage seemed slightly amused.

“Yeah.” Naruto put a hand on his hip. “The first time I met her, she dropped her tea. And one time, she was bringing food to us while we worked and she almost fell down.”

“That wasn’t clumsiness,” Sasuke retorted, rolling his eyes. The 'idiot’ was unspoken, but heard loud and clearly. “Her eyes lost focus and her body leaned forward. She was lightheaded, probably from overexertion.”

Kakashi sighed. “Sasuke-kun believes that Hikari-san was likely a civilian,” he explained dryly. “Sasuke, I fought her. She’s definitely a kunoichi.”

“Ehhh?” Sakura perked up. “When-”

“Why?” Naruto burst out.

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “The night you walked her home. She didn’t come back after that.”

'And isn’t that strange?’

It had been what he wanted, but he hadn’t really expected that she would never return. But the bridge was finished, and she had never shown her face again. If she’d truly been invested, why?

“Was she any good?”

Everyone looked at Sakura for that question. She flushed pink and looked at her feet.

“She was…”

'Fast. Angry at me personally. She fights a little like I do.’

Kakashi trailed off. Then he plastered on a bright, fake smile. “Maa, she beat me.”

The Sandaime fumbled with his pipe, nearly dropping it onto his desk.

The room was dead silent.

'It’s highly suspicious that a shinobi of that level was completely unknown to me. How? Who trained her? A Konoha nin?’

Kakashi rubbed at the back of his neck. “She stopped when she realized I wasn’t going to dodge in time. Then she called me names.” He frowned, faintly puzzled. “Including a vegetable.” That still didn’t make sense.

'The fact that she panicked when she thought she nearly hurt me, though. That’s interesting. It’s hard to reconcile that with the way she took down Zabuza. Does she count herself as a shinobi of Uzushiogakure? We are still technically allied. That might explain why she restrained herself around Konoha nin.’

“I see.” The Sandaime was serious, now. “This is no ordinary missing nin, then. If she is a shinobi of such caliber, then she should not be unheard of.”

“She claimed not to be a missing nin,” Kakashi offered. He continued at the politely incredulous eyebrow his superior raised. “I thought she was lying,” he admitted easily. “But now, I’m not certain. I don’t believe she’s a threat, Sandaime-sama.”

At least, not directly.

The old man leaned back. “Oh? And why is that.”

Kakashi glanced at his team, wondering again if the hokage would decide to keep the probable relation from Naruto. “She was in Wave for personal reasons that were not disclosed. I believe that she was the masked ninja who opposed Gato before our arrival. I do not feel that I can offer insightful speculation into her motivations at that point. However, she developed an interest in our team.”

The Sandaime glanced at the genin. Sakura stood a little straighter. Sasuke continued watching the wall behind the hokage, but he tensed. Naruto was scratching at his leg with the toes of his other foot.

None of them looked remotely ready to risk near dangerous foreigners with unknown motivations.

“Yes, that is why I concluded she had to go,” Kakashi elaborated carelessly. He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Maa, she admitted to my face that she was attached to one of the genin because they shared similarities with someone she used to know.”

And didn’t that just open all sorts of possibilities? She hadn’t even claimed it had been someone she’d loved. She could have been out for vicarious revenge on an Uchiha, or Minato-sensei, or Kushina-san. They’d all had bitter enemies.

The Sandaime easily caught his insinuation and hid whatever surprise he felt. “That sounds like an excellent reason not to trust this person,” the hokage pointed out dryly. “We do not know her motivations or history.”

Kakashi hesitated a little. “I think I know some of it,” he said slowly. “I had- the first time that I saw her, I noticed a strong physical resemblance. And in our fight, she used a technique that I am familiar with.”

The Hokage held up his hand. He inhaled deeply on his pipe and breathed smoke in to the room. His gaze trailed over each genin, thoughts transparent. Sakura-chan was civilian born. Sasuke-kun had only one living relative, and Kakashi wouldn’t fail to recognize Itachi. The Hokage offered a guess. “Was it a sealing technique, perhaps?”

Naruto flinched.

“In a manner of speaking,” Kakashi hedged. “Chakra chains.”

The Hokage nodded slowly, laying his pipe down. “An Uzumaki, then.” He said it carelessly, as though he had never considered hiding the information. He met Kakashi’s eye, ignoring the open shock on the genin’s faces. “I wonder… You said a strong resemblance- to-”

“Yes, to her,” Kakashi agreed quickly. He didn’t dwell on the hints of Minato he’d seen in her face. He didn’t. It was illogical. Seeing Kushina made some sense, however. “Red hair. Slight build.” He huffed wryly. “Temper, too.”

“Not the traditional red shade, was it?” the Sandaime asked, leaning forward. “A little lighter, perhaps?”

A line appeared on Kakashi’s brow. “Yes.”

He didn’t ask how the Sandaime knew, but the old man answered anyway. “I believe that you are not the first Konoha team to encounter this young lady.” He nodded at the door. “Sakura-chan, would you mind asking my secretary for the mission report filed by Maito Gai four months ago, regarding an encounter with two rogue ninja?” As the girl left, he explained. “One of his genin produced rather handy resemblances. The male has already been identified. The young lady, however…” He trailed off. “Perhaps.”

“Old man!” Naruto burst out, patience tested. “What do you mean? Who does she look like?” He turned his eyes on Kakashi. They were watering.

'I wouldn’t have told him. This will only make things worse, if Hikari-san turns out to be an untrustworthy person.’

It was an effort not to wince.

“Naruto-kun,” the Sandaime said sternly. “You are an adult, are you not? Surely you understand that there will always be things you do not know.”

Against all odds, that did the trick. Naruto closed his mouth with a click of teeth and looked down at the floor. His bangs hid his expression.

'But he should know. He should know his mother’s name. He should have grown up with her.’

Guilt settled heavily in his gut.

Sakura walked back into the room, holding a file.

The Hokage nodded to her. “Thank you, my dear. Would you look at the third page?”

She flipped it open. Her eyes widened. “Definitely her,” Sakura agreed, angling the paper so that her teammates could see as well. “She wears civilian clothing even when she’s on a mission, then?” She narrowed her eyes, glancing between the sketch and her blonde teammate critically.

“I guess,” Naruto agreed softly. He was staring intensely at the sketch, fingers nearly reaching out to touch.

Sasuke huffed. He was looking away. “That seems impractical.”

Unless a ninja had no need for armor or traditional gear.

Kakashi met the Sandaime’s eyes, wondering the same thing. The jounin shrugged casually, even though no one was looking. “Maa, some shinobi do that. Tsunade-sama, for instance.”

“As well as Hikari-san’s partner,” the Sandaim added slowly. “She was seen with a former Mist-nin known as Utakata.”

'The rogue mist jinchuuriki? That’s concerning. Could he have been around? Could it be that she has an interest in jinchuuriki?’

Kakashi startled at that. “I saw no sign of him.”

“Perhaps they separated,” the Sandaime proposed doubtfully. “However. Two incidents gives us a bit more to work with in terms of constructing a personality profile. Team seven. I would like you to complete as detailed a report on this person as possible, then read the account from team 9. See what consistencies and tendencies you can find.” He fixed his stare on Kakashi. “You have a month. After that, the village will be otherwise occupied.”

Right. The Chuunin exams. They would need all jounin working on security then. Kakashi nodded, even as he herded his genin out.

“Of course, Sandaime-sama.”

 

 

Chapter 11

 


“I don’t really see the problem either,” Sakura admitted. She hated to agree with Naruto, but… “If the Hokage let Haku in to the village, he might admit Hikari-san as well.” She splayed her fingers out. “Probably with similar restrictions and screenings. If she’s not a missing nin, I mean.”

Would she want to come here? Haku is still in the security building, and it’s been days.’

“Of course she’s not a missing nin,” Naruto said. He kicked at the legs of his chair and leaned back, letting it balance on two legs. “She didn’t look like a criminal.”

Privately, Sakura thought that he might be trying to convince himself more than anyone else.

Sasuke-kun huffed. “Don’t get cocky, idiot.” His arms were folded on the ramen counter, arm protectors pushed up to his elbows. He had nice forearms.

Naruto turned pink, all the way to his ears. “You shut up, teme. You’re just mad because you were wrong.”

“You weren’t right either, Naruto,” Sakura pointed out. She sniffed. “Come on, boys. Let’s not do this. We have work to do.”

Naruto groaned and let his face fall to the counter, even as Sasuke looked away. But Sasuke opened the folder he’d been entrusted with.

Well. Actually, he’d picked that one and left Sakura with the other. She didn’t mind. It was more interesting to read about Hikari-san’s encounter with another team.

“Did you find anything out from reading all of our notes together, Sasuke-kun?” Sakura consciously worked not to nibble on her lip. “Kakashi-sensei said some things that made me wonder.”

Sasuke moved sharply, like he’d been about to shrug and thought better of it. “Taijutsu specialist.” He gave the folder a dark look. “According to Kakashi, anyway. He didn’t write much about the attack he recognized her by, or the person she supposedly looks like.” Something in his jaw twitched. “Useless.”

“Oh.” Sakura coughed into her fist. “I see. I do have some new information!”

She sounded stupid. Of course she had new information, she had the folder no one else had read. She looked down at the counter to hide the flush on her cheeks. “The team she met was another genin team, led by a jounin taijutsu specialist. The team encountered Hikari-san and her partner after they had finished some kind of retrieval mission, illegally operating within Fire Country’s borders.”

She cleared her throat, a little confused by the next part. But when she glanced over at her teammates, they both looked interested. She swallowed.

“The report gets really excitable after this, but I think Hikari-san challenged the jounin to a footrace?” Sakura shrugged one shoulder helplessly. “The reasoning isn’t explained, but the jounin accepted. Hikari-san sped away, possibly cheating.”

Naruto snickered.

Sakura shot him a stern look, even though it was kind of funny. “She reappeared about an hour later, apologized to the group at large, and disappeared with her partner, who the team had been transporting back to Konoha for processing.” She tapped a finger to her lips. “Oddly, the other nin didn’t fight them. Unless 'being overcome by youth’ is some kind of euphemism that I’m not familiar with.”

Sasuke-kun raised his eyebrows at that.

“It’s not,” Kakashi-sensei said dryly.

Naruto squawked and fell backwards. Kakashi-sensei stepped to the side to let him. Naruto hit the dirt with a pained oof and a dusty cloud.

Sakura covered her bowl with a hand and twisted to watch her teammate clutch at his head. She gave her sensei an unimpressed look.

He met her with one of his own as he sat in the seat Naruto had recently vacated. “What do you think is the most telling part of that report?” Kakashi-sensei asked in a bored tone. “Anyone?” His fingers tapped against the side of Naruto’s empty bowl.

“She came back for her teammate.” Naruto clambered back up onto a more distant seat, scowling at sensei. “She can’t be that bad.” He rubbed at his head.

Kakashi-sensei pulled out his book. “That’s not it.”

“Her partner didn’t fight.” Sasuke-kun laid his elbows on the counter, chin going the slightest bit up.

“What?” Naruto gave him a skeptical look. “That’s stupid. What does that have to do with Hikari-san?”

“Sasuke’s right, Naruto.” Kakashi didn’t look up from his book. “We don’t know why Hikari-san returned for her partner. It could have been pragmatism, blackmail, anything. That doesn’t tell us about her character.”

Sakura smacked a fist into her palm. “But the fact that he didn’t resist capture before she came back means that he trusts her. Right, sensei?”

He deigned to look at her over his book, eye-smiling. “Yes, but more specifically?”

“He trusted her to return, and he trusted that she would be strong enough to extract him,” Sakura realized. “I mean- either she came back because they have a good relationship, or she came back because she needed him safe. But in either case, it would make sense for him to be nervous. If he liked her, he would be nervous that she could get hurt, and probably try to escape on his own. If he didn’t like his partner, he would at least be worried about the possibility that he might not get away.”

“And when would he get a better chance?” Sasuke commented. “Hikari-san drew off the jounin.” His eyes were glittering. “If he didn’t run them, he wasn’t  going to.”

Sasuke-kun had always liked thought exercises in the academy.

“So, they’re either really strong, or really cocky?” Naruto asked. He scratched at the back of his neck.. “That’s what you mean. Right?”

“Partially.” Kakashi-sensei shrugged. “Hikari-san more specifically. We already know that Utakata-san is dangerous. He’s one of a very small group of shinobi who are uniquely powerful.” He gave Naruto a strange look, like he thought Naruto might bound off to fight this Utakata-san. Naruto made a face in return, but it wasn’t as light-hearted as she would have predicted.

Sakura tried not to contemplate that scenario too deeply. Naruto probably would go after a really strong ninja unless someone told him not to. Maybe even then.

Sensei was still talking. “If he’d fought, Gai would have had to withdraw to keep his team safe. But we’re not talking about that! So. What do we know about Hikari-san from that incident?”

Sakura bit her lip, searching for the right words. “She’s the kind of person that her partners trust?” It didn’t sound right. Didn’t everyone trust their partners? She felt stupid, and in front of her whole team, too. “Ano… I mean…” She fidgeted.

“No, you’re right.” Kakashi-sensei smooshed his hand down on her head, ruffling her hair.

Sakura squawked under the sudden heat of his palm and the darkness of her bangs over her face. She squirmed out of the way, flailing at his arm. “Sensei!” She pushed his arm away and scowled up at him.

“So!” Kakashi-sensei clapped his hands together, looking perfectly innocent. His book was nowhere to be seen. “We need to know one thing to continue this thought experiment. What data do we need, to make reasonably accurate conjecture about this aspect of Hikari-san’s personality?”

Um.

Sakura met Naruto’s eyes. He shrugged. She looked at Sasuke. He was staring determinedly off into the middle distance.

Um.

Sensei sighed. “We need to know how long ago they met. If Utakata-san and Hikari-san go way back, that trust is unremarkable.” He pulled a folder out of his flak jacket. “If they are only recently, acquainted, on the other hand, something more is going on.” The folder made a satisfying slap when he  let it fall to the countertop. “If that’s true, either they’ve bonded through extraordinary circumstances, or they simply identify with the other very well. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what they might have in common-” His gray eyes flicked over the team theatrically. “-Naruto! That’s your job, since your teammates had more input today.”

Sakura turned to her blonde teammate, already expecting a groan that didn’t come. Naruto hated being assigned schoolwork. But he was narrowing his eyes at sensei, clearly working over something that she’d missed. After a long moment, Naruto looked away. “Whatever you say, old man.”

'What? Naruto doesn’t give up that easily.’

The interaction was strange enough that Sakura filed it away for a time when Kakashi-sensei wasn’t around. Naruto would probably tell her if she asked, wouldn’t he?


“I believe our companion think that you could stand to take this a little more seriously.” Utakata’s chin was propped on laced fingers, dark eyes fixed on Aiko’s fingers. She was fiddling with the set menu, internally debating the pros and cons of having a drink before they left. Was there even time? Zabuza had been gone for at least an hour. Surely he’d be back any minute.

She shrugged, kicking her heels against the chair legs. “What do you think?”

The ghost of a smile washed over his face. “I would hate to inflate your head. It is already of unflattering proportions.”

Aiko batted her eyes. “You almost said something nice, didn’t you? Don’t be coy.”

“No flirting.” Zabuza blocked out the light, arms crossed. “Are you princesses ready to go?”

“Ready if you are.” Aiko stood and stretched, smiling as she followed her companions out of the cafe. A fight would be good. Zabuza wanted to kill the Mizukage himself, but-

'I half expect him to need help. That’s fine by me. I haven’t had a challenge in a while.’

and anyway, what would it really matter if she poached a kill from Zabuza? No one would know. And even if they did, she’d just defer to Zabuza.

She valiantly ignored the small voice of reason that asked if she was hoping to impress Obito. That was ridiculous. He didn’t even know her.

'Which would make it even easier to impress him. I know how he thinks, how he fights. If I wanted to… It’d be a bad idea, but I could throw him off.’

Aiko took a moment to imagine waving at the Mizukage and chirping, 'Yo, Obito!’ He’d probably wet his pants. She wanted to. It would probably cause trouble down the line, though. He wouldn’t be able to let that go.

'Ha. It’d be fun to shock him like that, but nope. I need to be serious. Gonna kick some ass today.’

She was all but humming as the three did final checks of their equipment and ran through optimal objectives.

“The Mizukage is mine.” Zabuza looked sternly over at the two of them. “He’ll probably have guards. Uzumaki, you-”

“Uzumaki-san,” Utakata corrected. He didn’t raise his voice, but Zabuza gave him a wary look.

“Uzumaki-san.” Zabuza narrowed his eyes. “Will take us directly to the Mizukage. He will almost certainly be in his office. He doesn’t spend a shit ton of time out with the people. We’ll only have minutes before people in the lower levels realize that this isn’t the Mizukage throwing another fit and act. Keep 'em out until I’m done.” He unsheathed his sword, hefting it over his right shoulder. “It shouldn’t take long, either way.”

'He’s not wrong.’

Aiko shrugged, mind wandering to the seal in Mist. It hadn’t moved- at all, actually. Did Obito just have the Mizukage sitting at his desk all day? That didn’t seem very interesting. “Alright. Are you both ready?”

Instead of answering, Utakata heaved a put-upon sigh and held his arm out. Bemused, Aiko hesitated a moment before slipping hers on top delicately.

'We all need to touch, but that’s kind of a weird way to do it.’

Zabuza snorted. He might have been smiling under the bandages. He mimicked Utakata’s gesture with exaggerated gentleness, cruelly intent eye contact with the other man the whole time. When no one moved, he fluttered his fingers and made a motion that might have been a hair flip.

Aiko pretended not to notice that Utakata’s face was darkening in a scowl. She pressed her lips together to hide her own snicker as she put her right arm on Zabuza’s with equal flourish.

He was kind of right. The body language was dead-on. But they didn’t really have time to bicker- there was a murder scheduled for the middle of the midday break, when most of the Mist administration building would be emptied.

She took all three of them directly to the seal she felt. Zabuza tore out of her grip as soon as he saw the office, striding forward. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen holding her arm.

The Mizukage stood smoothly, pushing away his desk. The expected bodyguard melted out of genjutsu against the wall. Just one? Piece of cake. She’d let Utakata have him, and play second for Zabuza. That way, she’d be ready to interfere if he struggled.

“Stand down!” Zabuza snarled, not bothering to really look at the masked operative. “This fight is between me and the Mizukage.”

The Mizukage blinked. His pale, childish face did not otherwise react.

'Creepy, dude.’

“That is acceptable.”

Aiko froze.

That low rumble was very familiar. And it wasn’t coming from the Mizukage’s closed lips.

“I am not interested in a fight, Zabuza-san. I was waiting for someone to show up.”

Aiko didn’t breathe.

Utakata moved ever so slightly in front of her, sliding his right foot between her body and Obito. Like, Obito. Who was here in person. Himself. Not really far away where he couldn’t hurt anything. Not that distance really meant anything when it came to Obito. But it sure seemed a lot safer.

'Fuuuuck. Fuck, alright. I didn’t expect him to actually be here. That doesn’t have to ruin anything. Keep calm. I can do this.’

And then he looked right at her. “Yo, Aiko.”

'He stole my joke,’ she thought  in disbelief, before it really sunk in.

Her soul leapt out of her feet, leaving them heavy and wooden on the ground. At least, that was what it felt like. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t pretend not to understand.

'I can’t. Even. What?’

Aiko shook her head, disbelieving. “That doesn’t make any sense.” But in a way, it felt like she’d been expecting this. Of course he was here. Obito was preternaturally good at being where he had no business being. That was, like, his thing.

'It’s really him. The same him. The him that shouldn’t be here. Why? Why is this?’

Her head was full of question marks and incoherent sputtering. She opened her mouth to ask a question. She had a dozen. She couldn’t think of one. She left her mouth open.

Classic Obito. Not being dead when he should be and wandering in and out of secured villages and god, Obito, what was even happening? Okay, she was kind of a jerk sometimes, but did she really deserve this?

He seemed to shrug. “I was rather disoriented to find myself in Mizugakure some time earlier than I recalled. When I saw you set explosives on that fruit cart and run off, I assumed it was somehow your fault,” Obito mused. She didn’t see red glinting in the eyeholes of his mask, but that didn’t mean anything. “Was I correct?”

Yes.’

Aiko shut her mouth and resisted the impulse to cross her arms and look away. “No,” she lied sullenly.

'Well. I was trying to bring a seal to me in the original experiment. I just also did another thing. As a bonus. I brought Obito to me at the same time that I brought me to a different Obito with a similar mark. A rousing technical success.’

Being right wasn’t bringing her the warm fuzzies that it usually did, for some reason. Maybe it was because she was about to have to fight one of the few people who could really hand her ass to her. The last time they’d fought, she’d betrayed him, dug out his eyes with her thumbs, and forcibly incarcerated him in a mental health facility where he couldn’t hurt anyone. He’d been there for… kind of a long time. He probably hadn’t appreciated that.

Aiko’s mouth was dry. She licked her lips, but it didn’t help.

'He’s going to kill me.’

Wait.

'Is he still blind? I can probably win that fight.’

She’d found that her situation was different in this world. Either she hadn’t been born here, or she was…uh,  probably dead, to be honest. Was the same true for Obito? If so, she could reasonably assume that he’d come exactly as he was. That would mean blind.

But he couldn’t control the Mizukage without his sharingan. So either the Mizukage was acting of his own volition, or Obito somehow had his eyes again. Or still. It was a little confusing. She needed more information.

“I don’t suppose you feel like taking off your mask so we can have a heart-to-heart?” Aiko tried, cocking her head to the side. Her heart was pounding. It needed to calm down. It was going to give away that she was panicking.

“Not really,” Obito said flatly. He crossed his arms. “I’d say nice try, but that was actually pretty pathetic.”

“Uzumaki?” Zabuza’s eyes tracked between Obito and the Mizukage, not letting either of them out of his sight. “The hell are you on about?”

She’d forgotten there were other people in the room.

Maybe Obito had, too. His head turned slightly, mask pointing towards the head of the room.

The Mizukage leapt at Zabuza. Zabuza cursed, barely swinging to the side in time. Foul, furious chakra burst into the air with enough force to rattle Aiko’s teeth and sting like acid in her gums.

'Time to not be in this room.’

Aiko lunged at Utakata, grasping his robes. He threw his arms out in reflex, but restrained from attacking her at the last moment.

The three-tailed bijuu roared, swinging a tail downward. It connected with the floor, tearing away wood and evaporating the goddamn carpet, leaving only a broken rafter separating them from the room below. The spiked trail of chakra behind the tail gouged a line in the ceiling and left plaster drifting. The beast was still growing, swelling grotesque bubbles of flesh up on the Mizukage’s face and out in lumps from his limbs, while the chakra flooded out of his mouth and eyes.

Someone shouted below.

She moved, dragging Utakata out of the building with her, concentrating more on 'up’ than 'away’. They landed on the roof. Obito was already dissolving into place, arms still crossed. He seemed politely interested in the goings-on.

'He’s just going to watch?’

Glass shattered. The window? The window and the wall, apparently. Zabuza came swinging up, Yagura’s bijuu ridden body right behind him. It brought with it a hot wave of the smell of bloated corpses rotting in a river. Also, a fishy scent.

For one strange, delirious moment, Aiko remembered that she’d felt sorry for the three-tailed bijuu when she’d sealed it.

That had been a bad decision. Nope, squishy feelings rescinded. It could suffer in a box forever. Who had a box?

Aiko halted. She forgot how to breathe.

'I don’t know how to put it in a box.’

She didn’t know how to seal a bijuu in anything other than a person. The seal she’d learned had relied on an active chakra system.

'That was a really big problem to forget about.’

She didn’t know who had sealed the beast after Yagura’s defeat. She’d known that he was a jinchuuriki, and she’d known that his bijuu had been imprisoned after his death. But she hadn’t quite made the connection there.

Those two facts didn’t make sense together. When a jinchuuriki was killed, their bijuu was supposed to go with them, at least temporarily. How would you even begin to design a seal that released a bijuu when the jinchuuriki died? What kind of jackass would do th-

'Obito. God, does anyone else ever do anything? It’s always Obito.’

“Don’t kill him!” Aiko struggled to be heard over roaring, eventually pitching her voice into a shrill scream. “Don’t kill Yagura!”

Zabuza gave her an incredulous look. That was all he had time for before Yagura-bijuu tore across the roof at him, pulling up tile and shedding sharp slivers of shells, white and iridescent on one side. He was getting bigger. A lot bigger. Yagura’s body was mostly obscured by a cloud of solid chakra, dotted with shells and sand and ominous red bits that looked suspiciously like innards where they glinted soggily in the light. And the cloud was growing thicker.

'It might not matter if we don’t kill Yagura. The bijuu is on the verge of taking over his body.’

She’d come prepared to fight a jinchuuriki. A jinchuuriki could be neutralized by killing them. A bijuu couldn’t be killed. It could only be reasoned with -unlikely- physically moved -it’d just kill other people where she left it- or sealed.

The nay-saying voice in her head was silent at that option. Which sucked, because she really did not want to do that, it was unethical and horrible and difficult and it didn’t really matter what she wanted, did it?

It needed to be sealed, or a lot of people were going to die. She needed to do something. She needed-

“Ink.”

And she didn’t know where to get it.

Utakata didn’t look at her, so she pulled on his arm urgently.

“What?” His voice was low and sharp. He still didn’t look at her.

A horrible feeling rolled in her gut. She leaned forward.  Her partner’s pupils were blown wide open. He was inhumanly pale and beginning to sweat.

'His bijuu is very interested in this.’

“Oh, hell.” Aiko physically shook her partner as hard as she could, fisting her hands in his robes and rocking with her whole body weight. “Snap out of it!”

He shook her off, letting her fall back and rip his outer robe. He didn’t even react to the damage, which was not like him at all. Shit, he was far gone. She dropped the fabric and lunged back at him, desperate to shake the person back to the surface.

It was not a wise decision. The only thing she really saw was distended, swollen knuckles steaming with demonic energy as he backhanded her away. She was too shocked to evade the blow. She was aware of a horrible crack in her cheekbone and white flashing across her vision and then she was tumbling, streaks of bloody pain down her arms and legs where she hadn’t broken her fall against the tile roof and she was tumbling down the side, how tall was the building again-

She pulled away, reluctant to leave Mist but needing some amount of space from danger. She wasn’t exactly sure where she was. Probably still in city limits. She was aware of screaming in the distance and the crash of debris. A roar tore out of a throat as wide as a full-grown man’s waist. The sound shook the ground. But it was nothing compared to the thunder of two bijuu meeting. Her head echoed with the sound, around and around.

'Zabuza’s probably dead. Yagura is definitely dead. The plan is shot.’

Aiko forced her body up. She opened her eyes. It hurt like utter hell, but other than that, she seemed alright. Her vision wasn’t any worse than it had been for the last week, at least. She swallowed.

'I need ink. A brush. And a sacrifice.’

The two bijuu in the distance were enormous. If she squinted, she saw a lump that might have been Utakata’s body melding into his bijuu’s bulk. A small group of Mist-nin were already attacking the two bijuu. Was that lava? Mei?

Mei didn’t look like she had things under control, if Aiko were to be brutally honest.

Aiko took a moment to pray that the seven-tails would release Utakata once it realized it wasn’t in mortal danger from the three-tails, because she didn’t know how to seal that one.

Some coward sprinted past her, running for the mainland. They hit the harbor with a splash and kept going for safety.

“Wait!”

They didn’t. She couldn’t blame them.

'How am I going to do this?’

She needed to calm down. She had to think. Aiko swallowed. What exactly did she need?

'Time to make the seal, without getting attacked while I work. To get close enough to force it into the seal. Ink. Brush. Sacrifice.’

Hiraishin. She’d make the seal while she was at a distance, and then hiraishin close enough to pull the beast in. Of course, she’d need to not get killed while doing that. Chakra chains would hopefully hold one bijuu and keep it immobilized while she dealt with it, but she definitely couldn’t handle two at once. So she’d have to grab the three-tailed beast, hiraishin away with it and her jinchuuriki, and hope to god that Utakata didn’t kill too many people while she was busy.

She ran down a street that looked like a business area, desperately checking over every building that she passed for something remotely likely. Homes would have ink, offices would too, but she might waste precious minutes searching. A store- she crashed in through the large window, barely avoiding knocking over a shelving unit. She found what she needed and ripped open packages with her teeth. Her hands were shaking too much for anything else.

That, too, was unacceptable. The realization hit her with a shock.

Something rocked the village. No- it rocked the island. There was an impossible boom, and then the ocean spilled over the island, a wave that crested in the distance and swept through. Aiko leapt to a high spot before the wave reached her. She closed her ears to the screaming. She closed her eyes to the sight of a dog pulled away into the ocean, yipping piteously and struggling for life. She breathed. Slowly. In. Out. Someone screamed nearby and her heart jumped again. She forced it to calm. In. Out. She centered herself.

When she opened her eyes, her hands didn’t shake. She wasn’t thinking about people dying around her. She was only thinking about what she should do next. Her eyes tracked impassively over the village. She saw plenty of people now, clinging to rubble or running away into an ocean that they couldn’t cross now, or trying to attack the bijuu. None of them stood out as likely candidates.

'A suitable host will have compatible chakra or be able to accommodate the influx.’

She didn’t have time to go run tests on chakra to determine compatability. That left her with the second option. That left her with the option of finding an infant, the younger the better, or-

an Uzumaki. Aiko breathed out. You don’t exactly find those under every rock. Not many options. She did not let her fingers tremble, with fear or anything else. She drew a kunai down the front of her shirt to cut it in half, baring her canvas. It had to be her. The alternative was too ghoulish. She could do it, she could find an infant, but she wouldn’t.

It required concentration. Her angle was different than she remembered. She struggled to keep her lines perfect. Since she wasn’t laying down, the drip pattern would be different. She compensated by keeping her brush as dry as possible, not allowing any extra ink to pool or slip. Circle. Whorl. Twist. Gate here. Whorl. Anchor it. Anchor. Gate. Flick.

She had absolutely no idea how long it took. She kept her torso perfectly straight, because bending would ruin everything. She turned away from the fighting and let the wind dry her paint, flapping her hands at her gut like she was trying to dry nail polish. She waited. It had to dry. People were dying behind her, and she had to wait.

It dried.

Aiko looked over to the bijuu. The three-tailed bijuu was flailing, venting fury on the other bijuu. The seven-tail might have just been defending herself.

Good. She was taking the more aggressive one away. Where to? Far away would be good. But away from people.

'Sorry, Suna. You’re probably not going to appreciate this, but it worked out okay last time. As far as these things go, anyway.’

Aiko took a deep breath. She let the ink bottle slip from her fingers, shattering into the rocky torrent working down the street. She bit her lip and readied her chakra, feeling her chakra chains shudder at the edge of being. Then she re-positioned herself behind the three-tailed beast, forcing the chains out at the same instant. They rocketed up and out, coiling and grabbing at the turtle before it knew to resist. It bellowed, rearing up. Utakata darted forward and scored a painful blow against its soft underside, but Aiko wasn’t paying any attention to that. She was wrapping the beast as tightly as she could, trying to catch and trap every tail and she had two pinned but the last was evading her and the turtle demon was teetering on the edge of falling back onto her-

She screamed with the effort of moving all that chaotic, struggling chakra. It wasn’t like slipping through dimensions to Suna. It was more like tearing through reality with her fingernails, ripping her fingers to the bone to do it. But it worked.

Sand flew, pelting her with a painful shards of heat, but at least she’d avoided the worst of the cascade resulting from the bijuu’s fall. When it bellowed, it sounded more like a wounded cow than anything else.

Aiko chanced a glance and forced down the insane urge to sink into the burning sand and let hysteria take over. It was trapped on its back. Like a real turtle.

She was tempted- like, really tempted, to sit back and watch it struggle.

Instead, she made a seal. Just for focus. She closed her eyes. And she started to pull on the turtle’s chakra. It went utterly silent. Shock? The first tendrils of chakra hit her skin, began to burn and sizzle, and resisted her pull. She forced the fire into her belly and groaned in pain. It felt like being bored open, like slowly pressing her body into an enormous blade.

All was still.

And then it wasn’t. The seal hooked hungrily onto the chakra it had been fed, pulling on the source. The turtle bijuu shrieked, seagulls and crashing waves and something angry and incomprehensibly ancient in the deep. It thrashed, kicking up sand.

She didn’t let go.

It began to convulse, leaking boiling water. Some caught Aiko, but most splashed harmlessly onto the sand, rolling away and beginning to seep into the desert.

She didn’t let go.

The demon roared. The sky itself shook. It was raining- not just rain, but acid. It was raining acid. Aiko  turned her face down and threw her free hand above her head. She felt the water run down her back, along with blood and oh god, was that clump of hair?

Somehow, that was the most disturbing part. Her hair. She could feel her hair pulling out of her scalp and falling down her back. She bent over further, forgetting the fear that covering the seal on her belly would prevent it from working. The seal didn’t seem to care, tugging greedily on the bijuu. The bijuu was screaming now. Like a child. It sounded like a frightened child. One last claw struggled for purchase in the desert, losing grip and sending sand flying. It sucked into her skin just as the upset sand rattled her body and threw her to her back, partially submerged in a dune.

It wasn’t even a pretty day. Aiko frowned up at the grey sky, feeling cheated. It wasn’t even a blue sky.

That was the last thing she thought before darkness took her.


She woke up to a peeling sunburn from her neck to her hipbones and manacles around her wrists. Someone gasped. Heels clicked against linoleum.

Aiko peeled one eye open, noted the aghast Suna medic holding her clipboard up like a shield against her pale face, and groaned.

'I was captured? Of course I was. I gave off a ton of chakra and then passed out. I didn’t even think to move. Embarrassing.’

She pulled herself far away. Like, really far away, where sand wouldn’t get in the peeling burns on her chest. She sat up. Only then did she feel a spark of self-consciousness over her bared front. Where was her kit? Without her kit… she had no money. No medicine, or clothes, or weapons.

She didn’t remember putting it down. It should have still been strapped to her back.

'They confiscated my things when they brought me in. It’ll be long gone. Probably being processed.’

Aiko snorted. There was absolutely nothing useful or incriminating in her bags, with the exception of three stolen kunai and Jiraiya’s complete works. Damnit. How many times was she going to have to replace that collection?

“Suna probably won’t even enjoy it. Assholes.” The raspy, ugly quality of her voice startled her for a moment. She sounded like she’d been screaming. Had she? She didn’t remember that.

She leveraged her body up. Her muscles pulled and ached. The bones in her knees creaked. For a moment, Aiko stood still, trembling with effort. Then she put one foot in front of another.

'Sun is almost down.’

Maybe it was the same day. Maybe it wasn’t. Did it really matter?

'Businesses will be closing soon.’

She’d find a place. Break in, get dressed. Then she’d see what, if anything, was left of Mizugakure.

Her hopes weren’t high.

 

 

Chapter 12

 

 

In which it is made clear that Obito could stand to work on his communication skills, and Aiko is realizes that she causes a bit of trouble sometimes. Mei is  considering the many benefits of assassination.

Excerpt:

It just wasn’t a thing anyone planned for. What lunatic would anticipate being attacked by themself?

Hmm.

Obito frowned. He made a mental note to come up with a plan to counter his own techniques. Like, soon. Sure, getting dragged back to his own past had only happened to him once, but that was still a significant statistical increase over the likelihood he would have assigned the possibility before.

Fall into my past once, shame on Aiko. Do it again…’

Still probably Aiko’s fault, actually.



(The night prior)

Sometimes, Aiko was a really frustrating person, Obito ruminated.

“I mean, I did literally say that I didn’t come to fight.” He crossed his arms, feeling a scowl coming on. “I was friendly. I said hi.”

The jinchuuriki that she’d brought with her rippled, open-mouthed screaming at the three-tails. He was quickly losing form, skin bubbling out into oozing red sores that popped into soft, demonic flesh.

And honestly, it was insulting that Aiko would trust him before Obito. That stupid kid had lost it when confronted with another jinchuuriki. He’d struck at Aiko. What kind of ally was that?

He considered that for a moment. Then he peered over the roof a bit nervously, just to make sure Aiko wasn’t standing behind him or anything.

Well. Okay. Maybe there was a reason or two that Aiko could be a bit grumpy with him still, even if they really should just call it even at this point. Yeah, yeah, he wasn’t perfect but- but he’d never stuck his fingers in someone else’s eyes. Petty. She was so petty.

'Is she still pissed about her eyes?’

Obito squirmed guiltily. He, uh. Was beginning to suspect that he wasn’t going to find Zetsu had stored them away somewhere. So he probably couldn’t manage an apology bouquet complete with her original body parts- his best idea so far. That was about as far as he’d gotten with unpacking that bothersome business.

Fine! He admitted it, that had been kinda rude on his part. He was sorry. With some time and distance and a little bit of medication and a lot of counseling, yes. He recognized that had been not okay. He was really sorry. But…

'I want my friend back.’

Judging by the way all the color had bled out of her face when she’d seen him, maybe waiting around for her to show up hadn’t been the best idea. He’d been confused, okay? Disoriented. Out of sorts. He’d been pretending not to sense Bakashi waiting uncomfortably outside the clinic room on one of his super uncomfortable late night 'Is Obito really here?’ panic runs. And then he’d been standing? In Mist? The air on his face was damp and he could smell heavy salt. All he’d heard had been sharp breath and felt chakra swelling and then Aiko’d spoken up-

'She’s so rude,’ Obito remembered fondly.

She’d had the audacity to be indignant that reality hadn’t done what she’d told it to. This was definitely her fault, there was no doubt in his mind. He’d paused, torn between the urge to hide and the desire to follow after the most familiar person in this madhouse.

He could have followed the inevitable clattering cacophony and outrage that followed Aiko wherever she went. Probably.

But he’d felt his own chakra. He’d sensed himself. It was the creepiest, most fucked-up feeling he’d ever encountered, and he never wanted to experience it again.

It wasn’t a dream. Not a memory. Not a hallucination. He was feeling his own chakra, twisted and angry in ways that he didn’t remember. He’d felt like that? He’d been in that place?

How much damage had he caused? He was like a rabid animal. He’d hurt so many people, and killed sensei and poor Kushina-san and so many people, just for nothing, for nothing because the perfect world was never going to happen and-

Obito hated the man that he was. He hated the man that he’d been more.

It was a stupid idea. He’d been on forced inactivity for two years. Only in the last months had he been allowed to do more than mindless physical drills, only four months back his chakra had been unsealed as a concession to good behavior and noted improvement from that frightening psychiatrist woman.

But. You know. No one really expected that their older self would step up behind them using a jutsu that no one else had ever used and-

It just wasn’t a thing anyone planned for. What lunatic would anticipate being attacked by themself?

Hmm.

Obito frowned. He made a mental note to come up with a plan to counter his own techniques. Like, soon. Sure, getting dragged back to his own past had only happened to him once, but that was still a significant statistical increase over the likelihood he would have assigned the possibility before.

'Fall into my past once, shame on Aiko. Do it again…’

Still probably Aiko’s fault, actually. Now that he thought about it, it was really only surprising that this had only happened to her one time. Sure, she seemed to have some kind of intuitive knack for interdimensional fuinjutu, but, that didn’t really inspire confidence in her tendency to improvise.

'I should get her in some kind of tutoring. Is there an after school program like that?’

Speaking of Aiko, what was she- Obito squinted the one eye that he had, blithely looking past the hell that the two bijuu were unleashing on each other. Twits. He’d just wanted Yagura to keep the chumps Aiko’d brought out of the way so that they could talk. It was embarrassing how things had escalated, really.

Oh. He squeezed his eye shut, chewing over this development. That was her plan, huh? What a weird kid. It was just Mist. And it’d been an accident anyway, they could sort it out. Was Aiko really trying to take control of the situation? Why would-

salt brine roiled out of Rin’s open mouth, spilling down her chin to mix with foamy flecks of her own blood and small glistening lumps of something he couldn’t identify. Her shoulder blades felt so small in his hands, her body cold from the sea and-

Obito shuddered the memory away. He swallowed. He breathed in deeply, remembering where he was. He was now. That was then. Back. Ago. Unchangeable. Aiko wasn’t Rin and the three-tails wasn’t cursed and Bakashi wasn’t even here right now for things to be his fault.

He fisted a handful of his hair and dug in sharp, jolting breaths through his nose.

He couldn’t do this right now. He couldn’t talk to her now. She was busy, he’d come back later, he’d try again a little differently and she’d take a minute to listen to him and she’d realize that he was right, that he needed her to work with him right now. She’d understand. There was so much to do. There was so much set in motion that she’d hate too.

After all, she was here, wasn’t she? Not in Konoha. It made sense. Aiko had family, friends. It would be significantly harder to replace yourself if anyone was around to know or care. Aiko had to have realized that things were better off if she stayed out of Konoha, away from her little self.

It would have been helpful if she hadn’t exposed herself to Akatsuki as an enemy. There went his five best plans about how to get rid of them. But…

'We’ll figure something out.’


Present

She looked out into the dimly lit coast town and realized that coming there was a mistake. An extra stop to equip herself just wasn’t worth it.

Aiko looked down at her bare feet. She felt naked, exposed, unarmored. She was in her underwear, with dried ink crackling over her stomach and hipbones.

'It doesn’t matter right now. For all I know, Utakata’s dead. I know a lot of people died. I need to know what happened.’

She swallowed. She went to wrap her arms around her chest and then thought better of it, pushing her shoulders back. Aiko took a steadying breath that quietened most of the trembling. And she went.

Her geography had never been the most accurate, unfortunately. Without the seal on the Mizukage to use as a precise guide, she found herself on a remote stretch of Mizugakure’s outlying islands overlooking a rocky beach. She blinked at the patched, dingy boat tied up at a log. She tried again. This time, she found herself on the incline of an impact crater, less than a foot away from a mangled, stinking pile impacted into the ground that had probably been a person before a bijuu had stepped on them. It was hard to tell more than that in the dim light afforded by a half moon.

Aiko didn’t let herself look away too soon. She looked until she thought she could remember the way it looked, the spill of blood and crushed flesh and the splintered rib bone curving in a ghastly, eyeless smile on the canvas of the dirt.

'I did this. I saw Mist after Mei’s takeover, and this hadn’t happened. If I hadn’t been so cocky, this person would be alive.’

She was hailed down before she reached the top of the crater, by a hard-eyed man with hollowed cheeks and a broad jawline. He reached down to help her out. It wasn’t necessary, but she took his hand and let him haul her to the lip of the hole.

He let go as soon as she was on her feet, freeing his hands to unwind a length of bandage from his arm. He tossed it to her, politely looking no lower than her jaw. “Have you checked in yet?”

She took the bandage and used it as a hasty chest wrap, because it was a nice offer even if modesty was low on her priorities. When she was done tying the end, Aiko pressed her lips together and shook her head. It took a second try to speak over the dryness in her mouth. “What happened to Utakata?”

Now, he looked at her critically, gaze traveling up and down to check her lack of gear and state of general disarray. “You’re looking for the jinchuuriki.”

She honestly did not know what that lack of inflection signified. So she nodded.

They stood for a moment before he seemed to make a decision, jaw working silently. “I’ll take you there.” He lead her to an intact building, but stopped at the lobby. “I need to continue to look for survivors. You’ll have to take it from here.”

Aiko nodded. It felt like she’d been doing that a lot. Belatedly, she realized she hadn’t gotten her guide’s name. She cleared her throat. “Thank you…”

He gave a perfunctory nod that was not quite a bow. “Noguchi Hiro.”

“Noguchi-san,” Aiko repeated, holding the name in her memory. “Uzumaki Aiko. Good luck.”

In she went. The power was out, but the main hallway was marked with a trail of far-flung candles, not enough for any reading, but adequate for marking a path. Before too long, she heard voices.

Familiar voices.

Her hand actually shook as she slid aside the door. Utakata looked exhausted, hair unusually lank and dark circles ringing his eyes. The moonlight coming in the window revealed that Mei didn’t look much better. Her left arm was bleeding through a sling.

Relief hit Aiko. It felt more like being doused in cold water than muscles relaxing, but she felt her limbs tremble and sink as the adrenaline cut off.

“Aiko.” Utakata stood, eyes wide.

Her head hurt like she might cry. She blinked instead, forcing it down. “Utakata.” Thank god.

Mei might have looked sullen if she were less exhausted. “Uzumaki, is it? Sit down. I don’t have the stomach for watching you make eyes at each other right now.” She gestured at a cushion with her injured elbow without even wincing.

Aiko sat seiza, folding her numb legs under her body.

Utakata looked down at her, and then glanced away quickly. His jaw twitched. Then he reached for the fabric sash fastening his under-robe shut.

“Don’t bother.” Aiko waved him off. She managed a smile. Or, at least, she pulled up the sides of her mouth. “You can’t trust me with your clothes. I don’t know what happened to the robe I borrowed earlier. You’ll end up naked if you keep that up.”

Mei huffed. She gave Aiko a very deliberate once-over. “I suppose you might be the expert on that.”

Just maybe.

Aiko swallowed again and tried to summon some moisture in her mouth. It was so dry that her tongue hurt. She wondered how long she’d been laying in Suna’s deserts before a patrol had picked her up. “I saw that people are searching. Are you two taking a break?”

No one answered for a moment. Then Utakata lifted one shoulder elegantly, trying to summon up the nonchalance that usually seemed so natural to him. “Terumi-san has recently completed a shift moving rubble. She has kindly decided to spend her break time keeping me company, for the continued comfort of concerned citizens.”

Tired as she was, it took way too long for Aiko to parse that. “Mei-san has chakra exhaustion and you’re basically under arrest?” she summarized bluntly.

Utakata gave her a half-hearted dirty look, but deigned to nod along with Mei. He finally sank to a seat again.

“Right.” Aiko rubbed her palms against her thighs. “Who’s… who’s in charge?” She glanced between them. “The Mizukage is definitely dead, right?”

Stupid question. Of course he was. She had his bijuu.

“Yagura is dead,” Mei confirmed flatly. “What did you do with the Sanbi?”

Aiko lifted a hand and touched her fingers to the seal on her gut.

The older kunoichi’s expression tightened. “Of course.”

When she didn’t say anything, Utakata cleared his throat. “As for the matter of leadership… That has yet to be resolved.” He exchanged a meaningful glance with Mei. “There is a noticeable dearth of suitable candidates.”

But… the answer was so obvious.

Aiko tucked her fingers under her knees. “I see two S-class Mist nin right now. One of you should do it.” She looked right at Mei as she said that to drive her point home. “I thought that you wanted it.”

Mei gave her a look of pure hatred that shook Aiko back a little. “I am widely opined to have failed in my capacity as the captain of the hunter-nin division. I’m afraid that I lost the public’s trust in my capability to protect my own. No one would support my ascension to more responsibility after a catastrophic failure such as being the only survivor of four teams.”

'Oh. Right. How many people did Utakata and I kill that day?’

She didn’t even remember. If Aiko had to put a number on it, she’s say it was definitely more elite operatives than you could lose without accusations being pointed at the leadership involved.

“Politically, her career is over.” Utakata philosophically ignored the look Mei turned on him. “However, I must also remind you that losing control of my bijuu and transforming in the village center inspired no confidence in my abilities. If the new Mizukage does not simply prefer to execute me, I will face court-martial.”

Aiko blinked and responded without thinking. “Or you could run away.”

There was an ugly silence. Utakata was tired and far older than he had any right to. Mei gritted her teeth, looking at Aiko with utter revulsion.

'That… I can’t believe that was my first thought. That it was okay to run from the consequences. I fucked up just like he did and caused so much harm, even if it wasn’t me who killed anyone. I’m not… I’m not the kind of person who runs away from that. I’m not.’

She swallowed. “Sorry.”

Utakata inclined his head, accepting the apology with some grace. “Your return presents… a possibility.”

Wait, what?

Mei picked up where he had left. “No one knows what happened, but you were seen.” Her lips were pale. “There has been talk of identifying the person who sealed the three-tailed bijuu, which is what I can only assume to have happened when it suddenly disappeared from the field of battle.” She eyed the ink on Aiko’s skin. “And now you have the bijuu. You are unknown, but that power is as respected as it is feared. The people would accept you.”

What. Aiko stared, mouth slightly open.

Mei gave a small sound of disgust and turned away.

Aiko startled back to her senses enough to point out- “I’m not a mist-nin.” That was kind of important.

“It is easier to believe that an unknown from the hunter squads is being put forward as a candidate than an outsider.” Utakata’s smile twisted wryly. “The idea is self-evidently mad. Terumi-san can corroborate the story.”

“Besides, who capable of contesting that cover would be stupid enough to say anything?” Mei added. She huffed. “No one wants to be the village without a jinchuuriki. Now that one has returned, it would be pure foolishness to drive away the other. Giving you a position binds the ostensibly stable jinchuuriki to the village.”

Her head was spinning. It was too much. This wasn’t her home, this wasn’t her village. She had to get back into Konoha- she was working on a plan to get offered an invitation.

“There has to be someone else.” Aiko’s voice sounded strange. She didn’t quite feel like it belonged to her. “Mizugakure has powerful shinobi.”

“Dead or traitors,” Mei rejected. “The seven swordsmen are scattered. One apprentice remains, but he is not the caliber of shinobi that we need. Perhaps a strong candidate might return, but it would be unwise to wait and hope for the best.”

Mei was right. But no, no, no, she wasn’t ready to give up yet.

“This situation is in addition to the risks inherent in a regime change.” Utakata sounded less confident than Mei did- this was theoretical knowledge for him.

He didn’t remember a change of Mizukage, did he? Mei would remember before Yagura’s reign. Aiko remembered the Godaime Hokage’s installation and the problems it had presented, both domestic and international.

People would think Mist was weak. They would see a target.

'And they’re right. Mist is weak, and lacking a strong kage makes the problem much worse.’

Mei’s eyes bored into Aiko, dark and unforgiving. “If a candidate is not put forward, unrest will develop. We cannot afford to be internally divided.” Her hands curled into fists on her lap. “You have caused this. You must fix it.”

Utakata gave Mei a sidelong look, but he didn’t disagree. He didn’t disagree because Mei was correct, and it would be stupid to deny it.

She’d done this to them. She’d set off the chain of events that unleashed two bijuu on a city center. She’d ruined Mei’s career and prevented her from being the savior Mist’s people needed. She’d led Utakata into a situation he didn’t want, and he was going to face the consequences.

'It’s not even the first time that I accidentally set bijuu on someone else’s country. I never even apologized for that, much less faced the consequences. I just… I just moved on with my life, tried to re-integrate into Konoha. Is that the person that I am?’

The guilt sat in her stomach like she’d eaten rocks.

'I’ll never be able to go home to Konoha. They’ll never trust me. They shouldn’t.’

Aiko felt like crying. She closed her eyes, but this time she let it seep through her lashes. “I’ll do it.”

“Finally.” Mei stood, steadying herself with her good hand when she swayed on her feet. The kunoichi gritted her teeth and exhaled slowly. She was clearly forcing down pain. She had other injuries. Broken ribs? After a moment, Mei continued as though she’d never stopped. “We’ll have to find you some clothes. I’ll see what I can do about gathering upper level shinobi to swear you in and witness. The rest will fall in line, once everything has been passed around and you’ve been see. Where you would like-”

“I don’t need to get cleaned up.” Aiko stood too. “Where are the bodies being brought? That’s where we’ll meet.”

“What?” Mei gave her an odd look, but Utakata was shaking his head.

“Absolutely not!” He rocketed to his feet, white teeth bared. “Have you forgotten last time?”

No. But. They shouldn’t be dead. It didn’t matter what had happened last time, because this wasn’t a whim. She had to do it. Aiko couldn’t quite manage to find the energy to explain why this was important, so she just looked at him.

Utakata faltered. A muscle twitched in his neck. Then he looked away.

That was answer enough. Aiko swallowed. “I’ll need something to drink before I go. And I’ll need a few minutes to contact- to try to contact the Sanbi.”

On her own, she didn’t know how far her chakra would get her. Mist’s dead were a lot fresher than Zabuza had been, or anyone else she’d raised. Hopefully she could do it. But borrowing chakra could only help.

“Uzumaki?” Mei sounded cautious. “What are you planning?”

“You’re right. This is my responsibility.” Her feet felt like lead, but she kept moving towards the next candle in the darkness. “I owe Mizugakure my service. I prefer to make my case through action.”

Unnatural, sick and wrong action that she hated, but she owed them. She did. She’d do it for them. She reached deep down, clutching at the chakra shielding her gut. She knew this seal. Jiraiya had explained his reasoning to her and forced her to practice it until she understood the consequences as well as he did. Once she contacted the Sanbi, the connection would go two ways. She would hear its voice.

The thought gave her a shiver, a cold rush up her spine. She remembered encountering it when she’d sealed it into that Mist chuunin. Or was he a genin? She didn’t even remember his name, anymore. It had been a long time ago.

But she remembered how it had felt to brush up against that alien intelligence. She remembered desperation and fear so potent that it might have been hers, all sunk to mingle in a pool of bleak, hopeless despair. She’d be opening herself up to that. Permanently. She wouldn’t be able to get away.

'Sanbi-san? I need to talk to you.’

The world dropped out. She had no feet to catch her, no hands to steady herself with or channel chakra to escape. It was just her and the turtle demon.

It was crying out of the one visible eye, but there was no sadness otherwise visible. Its beak was sullenly impassive, a hard line.

She realized that impression was stupid a moment later. A turtle’s face didn’t move like a human’s did. That didn’t mean there was no sign of misery on the Sanbi’s face. It just meant that she couldn’t interpret it.

“Jailor.”

Aiko winced. “I’m sorry.” It was inadequate, but it was all that she had. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You didn’t mean to come prepared with a seal, tip me on my back, and eat me?”

It did sound like a flimsy defense when it was summed up that way.

“I couldn’t let you hurt anyone else.” She swallowed. Her mouth was dry even here. That was unfair, she didn’t even have a mouth. “I hadn’t planned to have to seal you. I didn’t realize that the Mizuage-” Aiko paused. “I don’t even know what happened, actually. Why you took over his body. I didn’t know that could happen that way.”

The Sanbi lashed its tails against the ground. “His,” it corrected peevishly. “His tail.”

Wait, what?

“The shared perception goes both ways. Stop referring to me like I’m a tree.”

Oh. Right. That was fair. Aiko nodded. “Sorry. Sanbi-san. Is that okay to say?”

“It’s terrible. But for now, it will do.” He turned away, claws digging into the blackness around them.

Aiko shuddered, feeling the movement like a gouge actually inside her gut. Wait. How was that- was that normal? It- he, he could hurt her from inside her?

“Why are you here?”

Right. Focus. “I need to use some of your chakra.”

The Sanbi eyed her suspiciously. “How much?”

She had to admit she wasn’t sure. “I’m… I’m going to try to revive everyone who you and my friend killed last night. If not, as many as I can.”

He gave her a long look. “Humans can’t do that.”

Aiko thought of turning her Rinnegan on to show him- but that didn’t make sense. She wasn’t in her body, she was in her body. She couldn’t show him right now.

“Rinnegan?” Sanbi asked sharply.

Oh, right. He heard her thoughts, didn’t he.

“Where did you get-” He sucked in a breath and paused, interpreting the information that her mind pulled up without trying. Obito, Pein, betrayal and releasing three bijuu and being rescued by Naruto and Kakashi- “I know that human.”

What? Which-

“Two.” The Sanbi settled down, tucking his legs underneath his shell like a comfortable cat might sit on his paws. “The Uchiha. He came for me. He changed me, and he changed my jailor. I also know the pale human.”

That didn’t really-

“The one with the lightning hand,” Sanbi elaborated impatiently. It seemed displeased with how slow she was- agh, she’d did it again, he, he, he, not it. “That one- Kakashi? Kakashi killed one of my previous jailors.” His tails lashed again, but this time it seemed more thoughtful than angry. “She was perhaps a host and not a jailor,” Sanbi amended. “She was… not willing.”

There was something ugly and familiar about that scenario. A female jinchuuriki that Kakashi had killed. It seemed plausible enough- but the detail that she was an unwilling host let the hairs up on Aiko’s neck. That didn’t sound like a mist-nin.

“I believe Kakashi was a nestmate.” Sanbi seemed to be working hard to remember. “It has been a very long time, and our partnership was brief. I, too, was not at my best. That was another…” He started again. “The seal was particularly provocative on that occasion.”

“Nestmate?” Aiko felt a headache coming on. That sounded like a sibling, but Kakashi hadn’t had any siblings. She was pretty sure. Who else would be close enough that-

Oh.

'It’s a good thing I gave up on Konoha. It’ll be a miracle if he can stand to look at me now.’

“That’s rude!”

Aiko waved that off. “It’s not you. Not really. He blames himself for killing her.”

The Sanbi was quiet for a moment, as if he was considering the extenuating circumstances and ramifications. “He did kill her.” He sounded mildly bemused that this could be debated.

Well. Fair enough, she supposed. In the literal sense.

What other sense is there?

“I’m not sure, exactly,” Aiko replied before realizing that she hadn’t heard the question aloud. She froze. Then- no. No, she wasn’t going to worry about it. The rules didn’t apply here.

“You may not be the most foolish human I have encountered.” Sanbi sighed. “Do as you will. I cannot stop you from taking my chakra. You must know this.”

“I know.” Aiko rubbed at her eye. Wait- was that her real body she was moving? She stopped, because the sensation was too confusing. “I won’t do that to you. It’s wrong. I’m sorry for what I did to you. I couldn’t think of another solution, but that doesn’t make it right.”

She thought the Sanbi might have been touched. He seemed to waver for a moment. When he spoke, he sounded a little teary. “I… appreciate that.” He cleared his throat. “In that case… No. No, you may not use my chakra.”

But she needed it!

Aiko physically bit her tongue to keep from protesting like a child. Couldn’t he see it was urgent? Lives were at stake. She owed Mizugakure to do as much as she could.

'Operative word there being 'me’. I owe them. Sanbi doesn’t owe them or me.’

It took a long moment to master herself.

'It’s not his fault that I got them killed. It’s not his fault that Obito and Yagura used him like that. I can’t- I can’t abuse him to fix my mistakes. I am- I have to be better than that.’

Slowly, shakily, she nodded. “Right. I need to go.”

And she was back in her body, slumped against the wall with blood dribbling out her mouth from the bite in her tongue. Utakata was kneeling over her, checking at her pulse.

Wearily, she pushed him away. “I’m fine.”

When the words came out garbled and wet, Aiko paused. She swallowed blood, hot and metallic. It slid unhappily down her throat, but her voice sounded better when she tried again.

“How long was I out?”

Utakata ignored her protests and helped her stand, only letting go reluctantly. “Minutes. Terumi-san has gone ahead to make preparations.” He swallowed visibly, looking away. “Did you- I assume that you made contact?”

Made contact. Yeah. Aiko nodded, before she remembered he wasn’t looking. “We had a talk.”

He made a small, relieved sound. “Ah. It is good to know.”

Aiko glanced at his face in profile. She decided she didn’t have the heart to tell him. He’d only worry.



Chapter 13



She’d expected a morgue. Stupidly, perhaps, considering the scale of destruction. Kirigakure shinobi were piling the bodies in a spot on the outskirts of town near the crematorium.

That’s efficient, but still depressing. Sounds exactly like Kiri at its best, I guess.’

Aiko moved a little faster, and hoped that the smoke coming out of the building was just from warming up the ovens and not evidence that they’d already started. She was… She was nervous about this. She had a lot, but she didn’t know how far her chakra would go.

'I wish Sanbi-san had agreed to help.’

The grizzled civilian woman who was directing things looked up from her attempts to label bodies. She scowled at Aiko’s questions, but must have decided that it wasn’t worth arguing with the type of person who showed up to interrogate someone in her underpants.

“We’ve just gotten started,” the old woman said flatly. “It takes time to heat up, and it is preferable to be able to contact survivors or at least know who we are burning.”

“So, how many have you burned?” Aiko pressed. She finished her coffee and passed it off to Utakata wordlessly.

“Three, so far.” The woman scowled up at her. “Now, go away. I have work to do. There are too many bodies to waste time talking. I must work, or we will all be breathing in corpse rot. Rubble will be the least of our problems if we allow such sickness in the village.”

“Good point, stop working on it anyway.” Aiko swallowed, ignoring the indignant reply. Three. She… She’d leave those for last. She didn’t know if she’d have the energy for them. It was better to save as many people as possible, right?

Every way that she considered it seemed highly unethical. She didn’t think she could save everyone. She wanted to, but she didn’t think it was possible. How could she choose who should live?

'Honestly, I should be strategic about it. Get profiles, give preferential treatment to upper level shinobi and more valuable citizens.’

It seemed the most intelligent option. But that would waste time. In trying to optimize the aid, she would actually sabotage her efforts. Besides, it would… it would be really shitty to choose some people as more valuable than others.

So. Whoever she saw first, really. Possibly whoever was least damaged, so as to save her energy to help as many as possible. Luck of the draw, as it were.

Mind whirring, Aiko ignored the protestations and strode into the furthest section, where bodies had first been laid. She took a moment to glance back at her audience. Mei stopped, arms folded, and stayed back a distance. The gaggle of jounin she’d found were looking rather unimpressed at being called away from their work to watch a half-naked madwoman poke around corpses, but Aiko paid them no mind.

Utakata seemed most nervous. It might have been for her sake, or it might have been because of the black stares he was getting. He stood closest to her, but pressed his back against the fence border in what she recognized as an attempt to make sure she had room to conduct her summoning.

'Right. I should start.’

She clapped her hands together, and was a half second from beginning when a young jounin stepped forward. “So you’re the new jinchuuriki?” he pressed. Aiko stiffened at the pointed once-over he gave her, skimming deliberately over the seal on her stomach. “I don’t know your face. Why would we want a stranger to be our leader?”

'He’s willing to point that out before Mei calls a vote?’ Aiko paused. 'That one’s not a total idiot. I should remember his face for later.’

She considered lying. Mei and Utakata had suggested it. It would smooth the transition.

'On the other hand, if they categorically refuse me, they might accept Mei. Better a failed Kiri nin than a triumphant foreigner, I would think.’

“No,” Aiko said finally. “You don’t know me because I’m not a Kiri nin. I’m an Uzumaki.”

Mei didn’t quite grit her teeth, but the sentiment was there.

The way the audience reacted to that was odd. Aiko had expected outrage. Derision, perhaps, or even disbelief that anyone would put forward such a ridiculous candidate. That was mostly how she felt, after all.

Most of the on-lookers had very purposeful lacks of reaction. The young man who had been questioning her looked shocked when her words seemed to register- maybe a little fearful.

'Wonder what he thought I meant. I can’t quite tell what that reaction was.’

Just for the hell of it, she flickered the Rinnegan on without looking away and watched him recoil. But she didn’t want to use that for longer than necessary so she quickly turned away, pulling her teeth across her palm for the blood sacrifice. By the time it dripped, her fingers already working through familiar seals. She slammed her palms into the ground and-

someone screamed. A civilian, possibly. She’d forgotten they were around. Aiko swallowed, not breaking eye contact with the death god as he grew up, up, up. He had emerged higher than she’d seen before. Not only his head and neck were above ground, but she could see his shoulders and half of his torso.

'What does that mean? Does he come up further every time that I summon him?’

She didn’t know what that meant. She didn’t really want to know. It didn’t seem like it would mean anything good.

'Doing this with an audience is weird. I’ve only ever done this in front of… Actually, in front of Utakata both times. He doesn’t count.’

“Good morning, kami-sama. Normally, I’d use names.” Aiko gestured at the area around them, feeling a little stupid but trying to keep it off her face. She didn’t look at anyone but the death god. “You don’t need them, though, do you? I want these people back. As many of them as my chakra can buy.”

His eyes bled purple, filling the white spaces between the concentric rings in his eyes. She couldn’t breathe, she was inhaling but there was no air and the sky was shockingly vivid.

Someone gasped. She heard what sounded suspiciously like a weapon being drawn, but nothing came of it.

Aiko swallowed. Her head was spinning. The world was too bright and she was having an enormously difficult time keeping her eyes open. She must have lost several seconds there- dead people were sitting up and making questioning sounds, or staring as the late-bloomers began to breathe. A child on the ground was growing skin. The enormous man who had been shoved in the corner looked even bigger when a new bone shot out of his shoulder joint, jostling his neighbor. She blinked and focused on that. It was like what had happened to Fuu. The bone came first, then veins and cartilage sprouted. Muscle bled into place in the gaps and then grew over before changing consistency into adipose tissue and finally dermis.

She turned back to the death god. He was regarding her, sullen and implacable as ever. Aiko pressed her hands into her thighs and managed a decent bow. Somehow, she straightened without falling.

The death god might have given the slightest tilt of his head before he dematerialized.

Kirigakure was quiet. She surveyed the area. Almost all of the corpses were breathing now. Some were on their feet clinging to each other. Others were in what seemed to be a deep, healing sleep.

She counted four. Four people who still weren’t moving.

'I failed.’

Plus the ones who had already been cremated. That was… There was no possible way. It would take days before her chakra returned to even half strength. By that point, all the bodies would be in such a poor state that it would be a struggle to restore even one.

And what about Zabuza? She hadn’t even heard what had happened to his body. Probably nothing good.

'People are going to resent me for this. It seems unfair. It is unfair.’

There was a scuffling sound behind her. Wearily, Aiko turned.

The jounin who had questioned her was pale as marble and trembling. The sound she’d heard had been his knees hitting the ground. The others were following suit, but the person who stuck out was Mei.

Mei’s mouth worked silently. She swallowed it quickly, but for a second she looked absolutely furious. The woman who should have been Mizukage faltered before she bowed. “Godaime-sama.”

She was sworn in there, with blood congealing against her left hand and the weight of failure on her shoulders. It didn’t seem real.

The rest of the day was a blur. There was screaming and crying when the formerly dead shinobi and civilians came stumbling out to help pull survivors from rubble and catalog damage. Word seemed to get around relatively fast, judging by the staring and whispers, but Aiko didn’t have time to linger on that. With Utakata’s help, she commandeered Yagura’s family home as a base of operations. She would have preferred to spend time helping people, but it was apparent that she needed to sit down before she lost consciousness.

The things that helped with chakra exhaustion- bedrest, a talented medical ninja, nutritious food- were in short supply or just plain unavailable. Resources had been scarce even before two bijuu had toppled part of town. With the dire situation, she couldn’t spare the time to lay down and sleep for a day, and Kiri’s medical experts were inexpert enough that Aiko might not have visited them even if they weren’t over-busy.

'I’ll need to do something about that,’ she decided tiredly. 'It’s unacceptable. Konoha’s medical care is much better. We don’t have Tsunade, but we can be better than we are.’

Of course, other things were just as important. Housing had to be completed immediately. Businesses needed to be restored and staffed- something must be done about the food shortages, post-haste. They desperately needed an influx to the population- they needed civilians even more than they needed shinobi. And the Academy system would need to be re-designed from the ground up. There was no trust in the institution, which was probably why the enrollment numbers that Aiko found were so pitiful.

Kirigakure was being crushed under its own weight. It was a wonder that this wasn’t common knowledge. How had Mei done what she’d done without letting on to their internal weakness?

'It took her years to gain healthy self-sufficiency. That’s probably why she had so many dissidents. No matter what she solved, the other issues were just as pressing.’

What to prioritize? What could help the village cling to life while other improvements were in the works?

'Food,’ Aiko decided. 'Food and social welfare. I can’t rule over a city where people are starving in the streets.’

In the long term, Kirigakure needed to revitalize the seaweed gathering and fishing industry that had historically been their lifeblood, and restore trade for the many products that were not viable to produce internally. In the short term- they desperately needed an infusion of life-sustaining trade. Pity they didn’t have the money to buy it.

'I’m getting off topic.’ She fisted her hands in her hair and breathed deeply through her nose. She needed to focus. It was- that was hard, when all her body wanted to do was refill and rest.

It would probably help if she deactivated the Rinnegan.

Aiko stifled a snort at her own expense. Chakra exhaustion made her rather slow on the uptake, it seemed. Luckily, no one else was in the room at moment. “I’m such a bonehead,” she mumbled. “No wonder I feel just as bad as I did then.” She closed her eyes to shut off the Rinnegan chakra feed, and then opened them.

She froze.

In her mind, Aiko knew perfectly well that it was around noon. The sun was high overhead, and painting licks of heat across her shoulders from the open window. But the room was nearly pitch black. When she focused, she could see the papers that she had been reading. And by that, she meant that she could see white blobs with dark blurs of text.

'So that’s not great.’


Things continued to be not great.

Once all the work for the day was done and she was finally alone, Aiko turned the Rinnegan off again and laid in the dark. It was night. She wouldn’t have been able to see anyway. And yet, it was terrifying. She felt nauseous. She felt tempted to turn the Rinnegan back on, even as she slept.

'No. That’s stupid. I’ll regenerate chakra much faster without it.’

It wouldn’t matter when she was asleep. It wouldn’t matter once she was asleep. Aiko repeated that like a mantra until she did drift off. It was an uneasy sleep, punctuated by several brief periods of waking. She didn’t know if it was day or night- so every time, she used the Rinnegan. It was still dark.

When the sun finally did rouse her, she knew it. The room had warmed and she could hear gulls.

“We need a solution.” The chuunin administrative assistant put her hands on her lap to keep from fidgeting with the paper splayed out. “The numbers suggest that we will have to switch to half-rations sooner than later, unless you wish to re-open the borders.”

Aiko pressed her lips into a thin line.

That was… not ideal. They desperately needed an influx of trade, yes. But the longer it could be put off, the better. Mist didn’t have strong allies, and she was weak- another village could easily try to get rid of competition, or to make a name for themselves by crushing one of the major centers of power. The normal, common-sense thing to do would be to appeal to the Daimyo.

Pity that Yagura had murdered him and his household. The islands were only subject to the Mizukage, now. There was no one to go to for help. Any appeal to another nation would come at great risk, and it would not come cheaply. Since Mizugakure was unable to pay, she didn’t want to think about what concessions they might have to suffer.

“Godaime-sama, there are other matters regarding upcoming international events.” The chuunin paused for approval.

Aiko waved her on.

If it weren’t for the way the younger woman never looked near the Rinnegan, Aiko might have thought the chuunin was perfectly at ease.

'She did work for Yagura. Most of his staff probably have excellent poker faces.’

The woman nodded. “Your predecessor committed to sending one genin team to the chuunin examinations being held in Konoha. It will be difficult to withdraw without losing international standing. People will wonder why.”

Of course they would.

“We won’t withdraw,” Aiko confirmed distantly. Konoha. Whatever problems they might have, they’d never experienced widespread hunger in her lifetime. Fire country was blessed with more rich farmland than any other nation. They didn’t cultivate it all, of course, but they certainly used enough to keep their people fed and trade a significant portion.

'That would be the country I would look to, optimally. I don’t think it’s just my history biasing me, either. Under the Sandaime Hokage, Konoha is unlikely to commit to aggressive action. They’re less dangerous than the other powers, in that respect. And they’re prosperous.’

It was amazing, in a way, that Orochimaru had managed to convince Sand to turn against them at the invasion. They had become strong in twelve long years of peace. But perhaps Sand had been desperate- they were not rich in resources, either. It could be that they had seen the raid as worth the risk.

'It did work out for them, to be fair. Even after they committed to the invasion, Konoha forgave them because they needed the allies. They ended up getting plenty of assistance after the fact. That hospital exchange program, and trade, and…’

Her thoughts trailed off.

Oh, no. It was too terrible. Sand was a good ally for Konoha, in the end. Once Gaara straightened his head out, he became a temperate ruler and a powerful friend. Interfering with that would definitely harm Sand, and probably benefit Konoha less than Sand could.

'But I’m not looking out for Fire country, or for Sand. I’m looking out for Mist.’

And what Mist needed was exactly what Konoha had.

She knew up-front that it was unethical. But it was her job, wasn’it it? And it seemed remarkably viable. All she had to do was be in the right place at the right time.

Honestly… It should be simple.

Konoha would certainly prefer to ally with Mist than Sand, after the invasion. They had only turned back to the former ally the first time around out of desperation. How easily would the Hokage jump at a good-faith offer by someone who hadn’t recently colluded with Orochimaru?

With the kazekage dead, Suna would need that alliance desperately.

But that sounds suspiciously like someone else’s problem.’

“Saito-san,” Aiko said. The chuunin startled when she realized Aiko knew her name. “Tell me about the genin team going to Konoha.” She paused. “And their jounin sensei.”

Saito gave her an incredulous look.

It turned out to be a good thing that she wasn’t posing as a Mist-nin. A local would have known that genin cells under a jounin were not the default arrangement in Kiri. Mist still favored apprentice and master relationships to a larger degree than Konoha did.

'I should have realized,’ Aiko thought with some chagrin. ’All the Kiri nin whose educational history I know anything about were either an apprentice or had one.’

She didn’t know anything about Mei, of course. But Utakata, Zabuza, Haku, and Kisame had all come from that type of system. That seemed to indicate that was how things done in the upper echelons, for certain, and possibly on down throughout the system.

As she found out, apprenticeships were important precisely because they weren’t guaranteed. In order to catch the eye of a powerful sponsor, a genin had to be promising in some regard.

The team they were sending to Konoha was not considered promising. They were an all-male cell ranging from 16 to 19 years of age. They were certainly chuunin level shinobi, but that was matter-of-course: Kiri would not send anyone to represent them who seemed likely to fail.

'I don’t even remember them from the exams. They must not have performed well.’ Aiko frowned up at the teenagers in her home office, cataloging the features she could see behind aquatic breathing masks. Not water chakra types, then.

They seemed… Well. To be perfectly frank, they seemed terrified. But that was most likely attributable to the fact that Yagura was the only Mizukage who they had served.

'Also, I did release bijuu that tore up the administrative and business districts,’ Aiko thought fairly. 'That was three days ago. They probably remember.’

“I will be accompanying you to Konoha.”

That statement, however mildly delivered, caused the tallest genin to break out in a cold sweat.

Aiko somehow resisted the urge to roll her eyes. That would probably be incredibly creepy with the Rinnegan. The awful, chakra-draining, headache-giving Rinnegan. The eyes that made her look like a total freak, but also allowed her to see.

“I will be acting in a capacity as your jounin sensei,in line with Konoha’s sensibilities.”

And at that, all three of them startled. Saito-san jerked as well, fingers white against her folders.

She did roll her eyes. “This is no longer about the Chuunin examinations. I have reason to believe that Sunagakure and a smaller village will be launching an attack on the event. Likely, at the culminating tournament. I expect at least one of you to make it through the elimination rounds to give us a reason to remain.” Aiko looked at them, one by one. “We can use this opportunity. Be aware that the change in Mizukage is classified information. You will give no one reason to suspect that leadership has transferred.”

Two of them nodded a little too enthusiastically. The last one couldn’t seem to look away. The whites around his eyes were showing.

'I suppose an invasion might be a little shocking. They are genin. They probably haven’t seen large-scale conflict.’

Because that made her feel a little bad, but mostly to seal the deal, Aiko sweetened the pot. “This mission is critical to Kirigakure’s continued survival. If you impress me, you can look forward to more than a promotion.”

And that was all it took.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

 

Mist wasn’t happy to see her go. But there was very little comment, given that they were generally under the impression that she would only be gone for the time it took to escort the genin to the exams.

Mei and Utakata knew a little better, given that they would be the ones updating her on progress whenever she checked back in with Hiraishin to give new orders.

Aiko had generally little guilt. They wouldn’t miss her presence too much, now that Mist was still working on getting caught up with emergency measures and evaluating their resources and situation. Mist was a terribly lean beast these days- genin and even chuunin were spending much more time working with civilians to catch fish and gather seaweed, while jounin were caught up escorting merchant ships and containing anyone who left the boats to very strictly regulated areas that obscured the situation.

In terms of policy and government action, she couldn’t do much more at the moment except monitor the declining monetary resources, build food stores, and try to get people off the streets despite lacking in adequate facilities or the raw material to supplement them. They were hemorrhaging money with every day that they didn’t take more than the bare minimum of outside missions, but sending a team to the exams did save them some face internationally. There wasn’t much more they could do until they had some measure of stability and food security.

Anyway, she didn’t need to be in Kirigakure all day at the moment. Her inner circle was perfectly capable:

Utakata could use the time alone to mope about how he’d fallen in with disreputable company that had first made him a weapon against his home village, and then, far worse, committed the sin of forcing him back into gainful employment there.

Mei would find it was a prime opportunity to work on whatever seditious power-mongering she was undoubtedly working on for her inevitable attempt at a coup.

They’d be alright. She trusted they would entertain themselves well enough in her absence, even if work didn’t keep them busy.

If for no reason but her pride in the homeland she’d never be able to claim, Aiko was quietly pleased to confirm that Konoha was rather efficient. Her papers had been accepted at the first outpost on the border of Fire Country, official declarations and identifications studied and returned in short order. And why not- they were all legitimate, marked with the Mizukage’s seal of office and in perfect compliance with regulations.

At least, in compliance aside from the bit where she was a kage illegally operating within an ally’s borders. Whatever. Let’s not be petty about it.

The border guard had commented on the fact that the jounin escort for the team had been changed since the last communication, but he’d let her pass. She’d breathed a sigh of relief, but been mildly disappointed.

It was the second outpost that detained her team. Politely, of course- they were invited inside and separated. Aiko splayed her fingers in a lazy wave at her genin and followed the interrogator into a private room.

She had the distinct impression that she hadn’t been deemed top-priority just yet.

The room was plain- four walls bereft of privacy seals, one moderately reinforced window, and three wizened chairs whose cushions had seen much better days forty years ago. And the other woman was no one she recognized, despite wracking her brains for names in the appropriate age range . Sandy, light-brown hair threw her speculations off until the older woman pushed up her sunglasses to reveal familiar blue.

A Yamanaka. How uncomfortable.’

It figured. Well. At least she knew not to make eye contact.

“Uzumaki-san, is it? We just have a few questions for you, since the personnel change was so last-minute.” The Yamanaka pretended to consult Aiko`s papers, as if she might possibly be stupid enough not to realize Konoha had recognized her name and detained her on someone`s orders. “Is there a first name to go with that?”

She didn’t want to answer that, so she smiled pleasantly and went through the motions of an introduction that pointedly left out the information. The Yamanaka woman paused a moment before folding her hands and bowing in return, introducing herself as Honon. Just Honon- no family name.

Aiko was deeply, deeply tempted to show off what she knew by using the woman’s clan name. She somehow resisted.

“I have some questions, if you wouldn’t mind.” Honon moved further into the room and incidentally away from the window. She sank into a chair- and therefore, into shadow. To Aiko’s eyes, the older woman all but disappeared.

She’s letting me look down on her to control the way my eyes point and to make me feel more powerful,’ she decided, leaning against the wall. ‘At least for now, they want me to underestimate Konoha, or feel at ease.’

She didn’t think that would work. The psychological effect of that sort of maneuver was a bit hampered when the observer was half-blind.

In the end, they let her go after a few hours of polite questioning that she stonewalled with her impeccably manufactured credentials and artful misunderstandings of questions. By the end, Konoha seemed to be certain that she was legitimate- which she was, aside from the thing where she was actually committing a pretty big crime. But what Konoha didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Or her, more relevantly.

Konoha was probably too annoyed by her declaration as an asset of Kirigakure to wonder if she maybe was a secret kage. If the Sandaime had Uzumaki-snatching ambitions, they would be complicated by an existing affiliation to another great nation. But that wasn’t necessarily a death knell to the idea: countries did occasionally poach nin. You couldn’t do that to your closest allies, but if your countries were hostile enough that your obligations were reduced, really the only consequence would be the nin’s guaranteed spot on several bounty lists.

“Mi-Sensei?” Keisuke’s gaze darted nervously between her and the looming forest. Maybe he sensed their observers. She’d have to ask later. “Is everything alright?”

She considered reaching out and ruffling his hair, but it would have been suspicious if he’d involuntarily flinched. She was portraying his teacher, but they didn’t really have that kind of relationship yet.

“I’m walking on sunshine.” She winked at her students and gestured for them to walk ahead of her. “We’ve lost some time, let’s see if we can make our reservation. It’d be troublesome to have to explain to the Mizukage that we spent too much time admiring the beauties of Fire Country’s flora to get our deposit back.”

One of the boys made an uncomfortable, high-pitched giggle. They ran a little faster than she’d seen before.

Did that sound like a threat?’ Aiko wondered as she hung back, watching her pack. 'It was a joke. It was obviously a joke. It’s ironic, isn’t it? And it’ll give the wrong impression to Creeper McLurkface over there.’

If she wasn’t mistaken, their observer was a senior ANBU from one of the home-guard teams. Jackal, maybe? No one she’d worked with in a team, but she knew the man’s chakra well enough from time spent trading shifts on patrol and Hokage watch.

'Did they have to reassign shifts for the chuunin exams?’ Aiko wondered. ’It could be that he was on long patrols and got transferred to the short patrols about the time I entered the department. But it would make some sense that they had to pull back from international operations and stiffen up security within borders for this. They don’t know about Sand and Sound, but inviting hundreds of foreign nin into the country would put anyone on edge.’

By the beginning of sundown, her genin were breathing rapidly enough that it probably didn’t seem strange that she ordered a halt to set up camp as she became nearly blind. It took a little longer than it should have- she would have split the team on tasks, but there was no way to know who else was around. Perhaps Jackal would interfere if one of Mist’s enemies stumbled on a chance to reduce the competition; but perhaps he wouldn’t.

So she took them to the nearest of Konoha’s little rivers to fill up on water, and then trekked uphill to find a campsite clearing. The going was painfully slow- ostensibly for her weary genin’s benefit, but more because she couldn’t see the ground more than a foot or two in front of her feet. Her genin had unwound enough, or were tired enough, to forget to be intimidated.

“Sensei, we’re Mist-nin.” Ryuusei clicked his fingernails against his breathing apparatus pointedly, as if he thought the foreigner kage might have forgotten the august company she was honored by. “I’m not worried about camping near a river in Konoha.”

She considered educating him in the degree to which living on an island had not prepared him for flashfloods, but it would be a shame to shut them down too harshly when they were starting to relax around her. She settled for, “Humor me.”

They grumbled at that, but did what they were told. She stood back and squinted through her headache as they assembled camp- putting up tents, scratching out boundaries and traps, digging a latrine and firepit.

Considering that they would need to do this by themselves in a few days in hostile conditions, she wasn’t impressed with their performance. Honestly… “You’re way too slow,” Aiko critiqued. She put her hands on her hips. “Stop, this is disgraceful. Take those tents down and throw dirt over that pit. We’re trying again. Look alive this time. I want to eat eventually.” She paused, because the sun was nearly set, and it would be difficult to critique something she couldn’t see . “Leave the fire.”

There was just enough light for her to see that Yuusaku’s glare bordered on mutinous. He began shoveling dirt over the latrine with jerky movements that implied he might like to be burying her.

'Aww. It’s hard to be a baby genin. They’re so grumpy. Was I ever that grumpy?’

They did move faster the second time. It wasn’t an inspiring performance, but it made her a little less worried about the likelihood of them being ambushed in the ten whole minutes they were distracted setting up camp in the Forest of Death.

She opened her mouth to remind them of that- and then pretended to yawn instead.

'Right. I’m not supposed to know about that, and neither are they.’

With ANBU Jackal within hearing distance, it would be particularly foolish to give into the worry that made her want to triple-check that they remembered all her advice. Aiko drifted away in thoughts, tracing and re-tracing tired plans.

She felt absolutely no guilt about helping them cheat on this test. Her team wasn’t there to take a test, they had a more important mission that required that pass the exam. They needed to succeed not to prove themselves, but to give her legitimate reason to linger until the tournament. If they didn’t make it through the Forest of Death…. What would she even do? Escort them home, then hiraishin back to Konoha, steal an ANBU uniform, and try to go unnoticed?

Well.

Actually, she’d done unlikelier missions for pettier reasons.

Still.

It wasn’t the worst plan she’d ever come up with, but it would just be much better if they completed the exam.

To that end, she’d told them to stick it out through the paper exam and not risk cheating more than twice even if they had no answers correct-

“So I could just draw birds on my paper?” Yuusaku asked, bemused.

“No, you have to pretend to try.” Aiko rolled her eyes. “Otherwise they’ll know that you know the grades don’t matter. Answers first, birds second. Possibly cheat sometime in between if you have a good strategy.”

-and avoid the hell out of the Konoha teams, as well as Sand. She wanted them to do well, but it wasn’t worth tangling with Sand or- god forbid- Orochimaru. Sand was supposed to break the record in this examination, and she was fine with that. It had been a flashy move that had turned all eyes on them. She wouldn’t mind if her team was second, however.

The last thing she’d told them had been cautionary.

“Spark chakra against this seal if you need me,” Aiko had explained. She’d painted one onto different items in each genin’s equipment so that the pattern was less obvious. “That’s last resort, do you understand me? If I’m caught interfering, you’ll be disqualified. Don’t do this unless it looks like you’re about to die or be eliminated. If you call me, I’ll probably have to kill any witnesses, and it could cause trouble for my alibi depending on what I’m doing at the time. Besides,  there are some areas under live camera observation.”

…Hopefully they wouldn’t need her. She didn’t like knowing that she was going to abandon Sakura to Orochimaru’s mercies. The thought of actually killing genin didn’t sit well with her.




Agent Rabbit peeled away from his post once the woman and her genin were checked into the hotel, trusting that the short patrol would have the situation under control. The Hokage’s waiting room wasn’t empty, but he only had to wait for two teams before he was called in.

He knelt in the habitual position, not bothering to rehearse what he would say.

Sandaime-sama glanced at him once, and then pushed away from his desk. “Report.”

“Hokage-sama. Uzumaki does not appear to be especially suspicious at this time, but I recommend maintaining observation.”

“Oh?” The Sandaime tapped his pipe. “How did the questioning go? What kind of person is she?”

“Questioning was inconclusive,” Rabbit admitted. “Yamanaka-san believes she was recognized. The target refused eye contact and denied an opportunity for covert interrogation. Uzumaki appears amiable, but seems to be secretive and demanding upon further observation. She is also highly familiar with the local weather patterns. For example, she expressed concern about the possibility of a flash-flood and forced them to march further than necessary before setting up camp to her specifications. She sets high standards for her genin team. The genin are nervous and unhappy around her in a way that is inconsistent with exam trepidation.”

If he’d looked up, he might have seen the Sandaime’s eyebrows raise. “Well now, that’s not encouraging. Is it simply that she is an unforgiving teacher, or is there something more sinister there?”

Rabbit’s jaw worked under his mask. “Unknown at this time,” he had to admit.

“Hmm.” He took a long puff, exhaling a cloud that drifted toward the open window. “That will be all for now.” He glanced toward the window. “You’re dismissed. I believe my next appointment is here.”

Rabbit thought about the six teams sitting in the waiting room, but inclined his head without comment. It must be good to be so important.




When he climbed in the window a minute later, that wasn’t exactly what was going through Kakashi’s mind.

“I knew she was suspicious,” he said mildly before the Hokage had an opportunity to say anything. “This is me, being correct. The suspicious person is now a mist-nin, about whom 'suspicious’ is so readily apparent that it doesn’t need to be specified.”

The Sandaime gave him a withering look. It was all bluff. He was really very fond, Kakashi was certain. “I believe that you actually said that she appeared to be telling the truth about not being beholden to a village.”

He spread his hands palms-up. “I was wrong? Or that changed very recently.” He slouched, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “It’s not implausible, actually. She mentioned being on the outs with Mist, but then she went and killed Zabuza.”

“Yagura doesn’t seem like the kind of man who appreciates someone getting rid of his missing-nin for him,”  Sandaime commented ambivalently.

Kakashi shrugged. “But is he the kind of man who would pass up the chance to recruit a nin strong enough to do it, if she dropped into his lap?”

Hiruzen sighed. That was all the answer he offered.

After a moment, Kakashi shifted his weight, trying to figure out what his Hokage was waiting for him to say. It took a minute. “You still want to try to recruit her,” he said flatly.

The Hokage offered him a smile. “Now, I didn’t say that.”

He gave his liege-lord an unimpressed look. “Of course you didn’t. I suppose I’ll be watching her for unrelated reasons that require exposing her to Naruto and trying to figure if it was family loyalty that brought her for this exam.”

“I’m sure she is as invested in the welfare and performance of her students as would be any teacher who has worked with them for such a considerable length of time,” the Hokage dismissed.

“Two months at most?” Kakashi huffed. “You’re right. She probably doesn’t care if they drown in the bath.”

“Well, that’s not exactly what I hear.” Hiruzen took another drag. “But I’m sure it’s close enough to the truth. Which makes it all the stranger that all of team 7’s reports indicate signs of immediate attachment and investment, wouldn’t you say?”

Kakashi’s nose twitched. The tobacco was offensively strong, even though the mild filtering of his mask. “She’s a good actor,” he tried.

The old man hummed noncommittally.

“Or she’s desperate for family and latched onto us, as the best example of familial affection she’s ever seen,” he suggested drolly. “She looked beneath Sasuke-kun’s thorny exterior and saw a caring heart. Perhaps I am the father figure she’s never had.”

The Sandaime snorted, amused despite himself. “I’m not certain that Uzumaki-san would be your child, in this surrogate family scenario. If her appearance reflects her age, she is your peer. If she is displaying the famed youthfulness of the Uzumaki, she might be old enough to be your grandmother.”

Kakashi wrinkled his nose. He couldn’t see it. But then, that was the point, wasn’t it?

“Test it,” the Sandaime suggested helpfully. “Work different methods of address into conversation. Try 'Obaasan’ the next time you meet and see if her head turns. If she attacks you, you’ll know that you were either correct, or that you have offended her.” He stroked his beard. “Yes, this could be most useful and amusing for me.”

He leveled his leader with a hard look. “I refuse.”

'I don’t want to fight her unless I have to. She already seemed too familiar with my fighting style. And she outran Gai- this woman is too dangerous to have in the city.’

“Boy, this is your Hokage’s order!” The Sandaime faked offense, scowling ferociously. “You’ll do as I say.”

“Never.” He glanced toward the window. “Is there anything else, sir?”

Hiruzen paused. “There is one more thing. I’ll be having someone with more than one social skill working on turning Uzumaki herself to Konoha, but there is something I would like for you to do with Gai-kun.”

Kakashi groaned.


She didn’t see anyone she knew until the second day in Konoha. She’d signed her boys up for one of the few training fields available to the visitors for several consecutive hours. Aiko was leaning against the fence and not really paying much attention to the maneuver her team was practicing when she smelled- old blood. Dust- no, sand. Unwashed clothes.

Without turning, she sighed. “Hello, Suna nin. I’m afraid I have the field reserved for my team for another-” she glanced at the sun -“hour.”

There was a nervous chuckle. “Lady, it’s really a better idea if you move.”

At Kankurou’s voice, she turned around and made eye contact. “It’s really not.” She flicked her gaze over the three- Gaara was standing furthest back, arms crossed, but Temari and Kankurou were conspicuously not standing in between his path to her. “I hope you’re not insinuating I should be intimidated by you. Or that it would be at all beneficial to instigate a fight while we’re here on Konoha’s good graces.”

'On the other hand, shit. I probably should just have moved,’ Aiko realized. 'Is Gaara the type to hunt down my genin because I told him no?’ A glance at him wasn’t enough to tell either way. 'Either way, too late to pacify. If he’s that kind of guy, he’s seen my headband and he’ll already know there’s only one Mist team.’

“You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to.” Temari’s voice was firm. Aiko didn’t believe the lie of confidence, however. She knew Temari well enough to see this was bluster.

It might be better to scare the team off. Gaara didn’t listen to his siblings, exactly, but they weren’t without some influence over his behavior.

Aiko heard her genin stop in the distance, quiet curses and the sound of running water cutting off. “Did I give you permission to call it a day?” she called a little louder, putting irritation into her tone. Aiko looked back at the Sand genin as her team resumed practice.

Well. Calling them genin was a bit of a farce. Temari was jounin-level, or perhaps tokubetsu jounin. Kankurou could easily be a chuunin. And Gaara… on his own, he was chuunin level with a nearly impermeable defense. With the Ichibi, he was a powerful, if incredibly imbalanced, jounin.

She was a lot stronger than any of them.

Aiko yawned, letting her eyelids fall to half-mast. “The Kazekage’s kids, Temari, Kankurou, Gaara. Youngest one’s the itty bitty ichibi jinchuuriki. You know, I recently spent some time in Suna. I think you could stand to be a little nicer to jinchuuriki, don’t you think? You have some funny ways of treating people who could eat you for breakfast.” She looked at Temari- who was most likely to have heard that they had captured a jinchuuriki who had then proceeded to escape.

If a Konoha-nin was watching- likely, although whether or not they were close enough to hear was debatable – they wouldn’t come to the right conclusion from that.

But the girl from Suna paled. Message received. Temari took a step back. “G-Gaara, why don’t we eat before we train? Like she said, it’s only an hour. I could use a drink.”

He was giving his older sister a strange look, eyes narrowed. Gaara… he was bright, for sure, but he lacked the information to understand the situation.

It was a long, tense moment. But he turned on his heel with a scrape against the sand.

'I’ll have to watch the exam,’ Aiko concluded with a sigh. 'I can’t have Gaara throwing a fit and pulling the heads off my tickets to the finals.’

She recognized that thought was incredibly callous a moment too late and winced. It wasn’t that she didn’t care if the team died, of course. She just… wasn’t that invested in them as people. She cared in the sense that it was her responsibility to take care of Mist nin, a category that included them.

'What am I going to do about them, anyway?’

It had been a total goddamn fluke that team 7 had gone up against Gaara, and she wasn’t going to let it happen. Sakura’s death had been two months before the tournament- the grace period for grief decommission was over. Team 7 very well could have been out on mission with a replacement, earning some of the money Konoha was losing while tied up with the tournament. The only reason they hadn’t been doing something useful, in all likelihood, was that Kakashi had gone off the fucking rails and disappeared into ANBU.

Unacceptable. She might not be able to prevent that, but she could leave Konoha and convince someone to request the team specifically for a mission. Someone they’d met before would be met with less suspicion and more likely to be catered to- Tazuna, perhaps? With his bridge completed, he would be a wealthy, influential client who Konoha would cater to. And after giving up the team for so long to see it made, Konoha would want to protect that investment.

Team 7 -or what remained of it- would be safely away from the trouble. That left a rather large hole in the events of the invasion. The Hokage and Jiraiya-sama had been caught up with Orochimaru, and others were caught between invaders and the snake summons. The threat presented by an ostensible genin would be overlooked until too late.

Which, conveniently enough, would be an adequately conspicuous way for her to prove her loyalty was with Konoha and not the treacherous Suna-Sound-Grass alliance.

What to do with him, though, she hadn’t exactly decided. She could truss him up in chakra chains and bang him around until he fell unconscious- but that would allow Shukaku to take over his body, right? Not really worth it. The chakra chains would still be an acceptable plan, but it would be tedious to hold him indefinitely. And then what- say she kept him from doing any damage throughout the invasion- he’d just be going back to Suna, without the perspective-changing conversation with Naruto that had led to his eventual rise to Kazekage and -much more importantly- actualization as a human being who was treated with basic respect.

But Konoha couldn’t and wouldn’t keep him in custody forever. Absolutely no one would support her if she claimed he should be kept in protective custody due to the incredibly inappropriate way he was treated in Suna. At best, it’d seem like an obvious ploy to gain control of a jinchuuriki. At worst, it would rally other countries against the notion that their poor treatment of state assets was anyone’s business and side with Suna to cover their own asses.

'I want to take him home with me, actually.’

That would be… would it be irresponsible? She knew he wasn’t beyond hope of redemption. But he could still do a lot of damage with his bijuu, even if he wanted to come. And she couldn’t just kidnap him for his own good. That wasn’t much better than what Suna did.

'Ugh. Caring about people’s human rights is difficult. It would be so much easier to just put him in a sack.’

Her vision whited out. Her gut churned. She was staring at the three-tailed bijuu.

His tails flailed unhappily.

Aiko swallowed. “I was joking?” she tried weakly. “Also, wow, how did you do this?” She turned around. “Is this – what is this?”

“I am merely demanding your attention for the moment,” the Sanbi dismissed. His gaze was hard. “Am I understanding correctly that my brother, the Ichibi, is nearby?”

Oh. Right. Of course that was what he cared about, not an off-color joke about child abduction.

“I am not a fan of that either,” Sanbi observed dryly. “Focus. My brother?”

“He’s sealed inside the little one I saw a moment ago,” Aiko explained.

“I did not see,” Sanbi snapped. “Your seal does not allow me that privilege. Tell me about this jinchuuriki. What manner of person has imprisoned my brother?”

Um. “Gaara is twelve,” Aiko pointed out. “His jinchuuriki status was non-consensual. If I remember correctly, it was an experiment performed while he was still in the womb. It killed his mother, which led to him being treated very badly. The seal is terrible and he’s very confused.”

“Confused?” Sanbi asked sharply.

Aiko grimaced. “He should be dead,” she admitted frankly. “His seal malfunctions whenever he loses control over it. That means he can’t sleep. He literally does not sleep, which would kill him except that the Ichiba won’t let him die. But it-” she stumbled. “I mean, she? He?” At the nod, she continued. “he doesn’t heal Gaara, so his condition is poor, and he’s irrational in addition to being poorly socialized. He’s operating under the assumption that the Ichibi is his mother. Actually.”

Sanbi closed his eye for a long moment. “That is… I see.” He seemed pained. “My youngest brother has never been the most….” He trailed off, apparently lost for words.

“Not that most maternal, I gather,” Aiko offered gingerly.

Sanbi winced. “That’s true, but somewhat of an understatement. It is always unacceptable to enslave a sentient being, but in my youngest brother’s case, I am a little sympathetic to a human’s plight in coexisting with him.”

“Yeah.” Aiko slumped. “I mean. You, the eight-tailed, definitely the seven-tailed, she’s very reasonable and I quite like her-”

“Please make your point,” Sanbi said, long-suffering.

She glowered. “Right. I was saying that many of you could and should be released to essentially function as person-states of your own right, able to travel and ally with shinobi nations as you will. I don’t disagree with you- jinchuuriki are symptomatic of deeply fucked up cultural shit. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to do to bijuu, and it’s wrong to do to bijuu. But I still wouldn’t feel comfortable setting the Ichiba free.” She slumped. “Especially without someone who was willing to supervise him and make sure he won’t hurt anyone.” Aiko made eye contact- and noticed for the first time that her vision was perfect again here- and licked her lips. “He’s hurt a lot of people in Sand,” she explained. “As far as anyone can tell, for the fun of it.”

Sanbi sighed. “That… sounds about right.” He curled a tail around to rub at his temple. “What a mess.”

“Yepp,” Aiko agreed. She sighed, too. “I’d probably make the same decision I did with you.” She cast him a sideways look. “I acknowledge that it is and was morally wrong, and I don’t want to.” Aiko swallowed. “But I won’t prioritize one person’s freedom when it comes at the cost of many lives.”

There was silence for a moment. Then the Sanbi snorted. “You lie,” he countered. “You absolutely would, for yourself, or the blonde boy who you miss, or perhaps even the jinchuuriki with whom you associate.”

Aiko mulled that over. “I’m a hypocrite,” she admitted with a laugh. “Yes. Fine. In those rare circumstances, I absolutely would damn the world for one person.”

His laugh was ugly, and perhaps bitter. “You are not a nice person, little one. Be gone.”

 

 

chapter 15

 

 

Konoha kind of sucked.



At least, it sucked when you were pretending not to know any one in town or how to locate any key locations. Being under constant surveillance by an ANBU team didn’t exactly help Aiko get jollied up, either. By the day before the test, her nerves were strung out.



It wasn’t so bad for her genin team, as far as she could tell. Konoha must have determined that they weren’t high-level plants. Or, like, higher level plants than was expected. So the three-man ANBU patrol team (she wasn’t fucking bitter that she apparently didn’t merit a full-team with a captain. Of course not. Why would she be bitter about that? Being underestimated was a tactical advantage that someone who was fucking stupid enough to accidentally become the Mizukage wouldn’t get often.)



- anyway, the team stayed on her ass like a tight pair of pants and occasionally signaled to each other in super-secret Konoha chakra pulse code which she definitely didn’t detect or understand and wasn’t fucking irritated about, okay?



She may or may not have spent nearly half the day in her hotel room glowering at the staticky tv while one of her ANBU watchers pointed out something that wasn’t actually suspicious in what had to be a fit of optimism that something exciting would happen soon. Apparently they had a long shift. God, she remembered that grind. Patrolling at nights, under the open sky, sprinting over the rooftops- that was fine. But daytime surveillance of some dignitary or other mildly important personage was tedious.



“Poor bastards,” Aiko said to herself.





One of the ANBU’s chakra honed in on her, apparently augmenting their hearing to catch what she said next. Perhaps they thought she had some kind of communication device.



That kind of ability was a clue she latched onto out of boredom- that meant there was no one on the team who had augmented hearing normally. So there no Inuzuka around. But being able to temporarily sharpen senses with chakra implied practice in a similar skillset or above-average ability in chakra manipulation. A Hyuuga? A medic? Maybe even a Nara, actually. The team was either a bit green or a bit relaxed, judging by the fact that they hadn’t seen fit to go chakra dark. Someone must have pegged her as lacking sensing abilities.



To be fair, that was true- but she was attuned to the type of cues that Konoha used from years of personal experience. Still. A truly cautious, paranoid team would have gone to the extra effort. She wasn’t exactly being tailed by veterans here. Again, she was being underestimated.



Or maybe’, Aiko thought optimistically. 'Maybe Konoha is intentionally pretending to underestimate me in order to slip something more covert past my attention, or to try to pinpoint my abilities. Maybe-’



She sighed.



'This is getting stupid. Those are all possibilities, but I’m just wallowing now. I’ve got to get out of this room.’



Telling herself that didn’t make venturing out to be a pariah in her hometown any more attractive. If she’d worn nearly any other headband, the reception would probably have been less pointed. But no. She’d had to fall in with Mist. She’d pledged to protect and serve the country with the honorable distinction of producing the most basketcases per capita in the goddamn continent.



'Well,’ Aiko thought with dark humor. 'I commit like a motherfucker, at least. I ruin lives like nobody’s business. Mostly mine, but hey.’



That didn’t exactly bode well for Kirigakure, but she couldn’t possibly be worse than Obito.



Probably?



Whatever.



It was the scent of spices and heated sauces clawing their way through her window that finally drew Aiko out into the streets. She followed her nose to festival-type stands set up for the exams. Aiko slipped into the crowds with only a flinch at the press of bodies. She was aware, too aware, that proximity to strangers was made even more alarming and dangerous with her reduced vision. Her heartbeat climbed from the effort of concentrating enough to offset her blurry, dark vision with what she was hearing to navigate. More than once her reflexes were tested by the effort of quickly but smoothly retreating from the brush of fabric or the heat of skin when she accidentally stepped too close to someone else.



It was unexpectedly exhausting. Unless she was pretending to be in such a bad mood that she was purposefully bumping into people, she had to be careful. She was being watched.



'They probably can’t see that much.’ Aiko felt a muscle flex in her neck. She suppressed the urge to look around and pinpoint where her observers had moved to as a vantage point- they would know that she would suspect she was being watched, but confirming that she was aware enough of her observers to locate them would provide data about her abilities. They’d probably send a better team.



That would be better for her pride, to be honest, but it was safest if she could be semi-certain that she could ditch the observers if needed.



Dried fish and the scent of octopus steaming in batter rose temptingly above the crowd, but she found it too hard to pinpoint the takoyaki stand. She took a chance on a queue where the air was tantalizingly mingled with savory scents. By the time she was close enough to pick up on the warm notes of soy sauce and frying chicken,  it was a bit late to duck out of the line unseen.



That was fine. Festival karaage was the best. There was absolutely nothing like it. Her mouth watered.



She was nearly at the front of the line when something changed. Aiko kept her face blank, but her attention was turned backwards.



The noise of the crowd had changed- louder, although the tone and quality of the sounds hadn’t changed. It was closer? Yes. Something on the far edge of the road was causing people to crowd away, forcing the slow stream of bodies to press closer.



Aiko focused on the area, just for a moment.



'Ah,’ she thought simply.



The man in front of her moved away. She stepped forward unthinkingly and chose the medium-size serving when prompted.



'Now that I’ve noticed him, it’s hard to imagine I didn’t sense him approaching before now. He’s not subtle, is he?’



Seeing -or detecting, rather- Gaara as an adult, Aiko reflected, made it difficult to believe that anyone had failed to notice he was a jinchuuriki. He oozed bad news. Even civilians could tell, judging by the way the crowd parted around him as he skirted the edges of the street on the way to the training grounds allotted for the foreigners. She didn’t look at him as she left coins on the counter tray, but the grip of her left hand on the steaming cup was a bit too firm.



It was quite likely that a more obvious jinchuuriki had never obvioused. Gaara was, like, the prototypical jinchuuriki. Looking up the definition of a jinchuuriki would lead to a list of his most distinct traits and a warning to stay away.



How had he slipped by unnoticed?



Gaara was a classic case study of weak sealing- the steady fog of malevolent intent incongruous with his calm-faced exterior was a bit of a giveaway. The obvious fear displayed by his teammates made it painfully apparent that something was amiss, if absolutely nothing else.



What the hell was Konoha doing? Had they all collectively forgotten how to ninja, or was there a reason that they would allow an obvious jinchuuriki to wander the streets, undeclared?



No. Konoha had to know. Maybe… maybe it was a case of him coming into Konoha unremarked, rather than undetected. That fit the evidence better. But why would Konoha tolerate that?



'Sand is a traditional ally,’ Aiko allowed. She stabbed a piece of karaage with the wooden pick and lifted it to her mouth. Hot juice spilled across her lips when she bit in, hastily licked away before it could make a mess. 'Maybe they’re willing to go further than I thought to preserve that relationship.’



That… that possibility certainly fit in with what had happened after the chuunin exams invasion, that was for sure. Aiko frowned.



She needed to think more deeply on that. Just in case. She’d taken Konoha’s quick assent to mended bridges as proof of Konoha’s forgiving nature, as well as their desperation for any ally among the great nations when the largest two countries were Fire Country’s dedicated enemies.



If that hypothesis was false- if the treatment of Suna was due to something intrinsic about their relations rather than desperation- then her goal might be harder to meet. It might require more drastic action than simply leaving Suna out to flap in the wind.



Well. There was always the several hundred kilometer long conclusion about why Konoha would prefer Suna to Kiri.



Her jaw clenched. The street food felt dry and tasteless in her mouth.



'I should go make sure my team is ready to go. The exams start in 14 hours. Is there anything I can do for them at the last minute?’



Aiko considered possibilities and discarded them just as quickly. With team 7, she’d sponsored bonding time- dinner, a sleepover, and one last check of equipment. But that didn’t seem appropriate now, with a team that was nervous around her. It would be counterproductive. She’d already had her genin confirm their prepared status at the local office and….



Huh. She couldn’t sense her ANBU team. Aiko felt an eyebrow raise, hidden in her bangs. Had they fallen back to a distance? Had her guard been lifted- no, that was ridiculously unlikely. It was possible that the team had simply been given shift relief by a more experienced or paranoid unit.



Well. It shouldn’t matter. If she didn’t 'know’ anything about her observers, than she certainly shouldn’t react to changes in their patterns.



After the karaage, she managed to find takoyaki hot enough to burn her mouth and make the proprietor joke about her having a cat-tongue. It settled in her stomach and left her feeling lazy and satisfied. She could go back and lay down, but it seemed like the spell would break and she’d go back to feeling like a caged animal in a place that should have been hers. Aiko was already walking, so she tossed her trash and let her feet carry her unthinkingly.



She did make one errand that lifted her spirits when her wanderings took her past a bookstore. Clever, clever Jiraiya. It really was a good time to schedule a release of a special edition- people would be in Konoha from the many countries with embargoes on his work. He’d make bank, not the black market that moved his work across borders.



'To be fair, he’s probably involved in the black market as well.’



Aiko admired Jiraiya’s business acumen even as she purchased her copy and sealed it away in a scroll. The proprietor gave her an odd look and put away the blue plastic bag she’d offered, but Aiko was done fucking around with the security of her Icha Icha.



The Icha Icha situation was, quite frankly, becoming ridiculous.



The last copy she’d dared to carry around had been confiscated by Suna when they captured her in the desert. The one before that she’d been forced to abandon due to Obito’s sudden onset of jackassery, and then it’d been taken as evidence by Konoha before she got back.



Frankly, she didn’t fucking trust anyone to leave her books the hell alone. What was up with that, even?  She loved her books, but they weren’t that valuable or unique. There was no reason that this should keep happening to her. It was weird, that was what it was. Just plain weird.



Walking became easier as the dinner rush ended and people streamed home. She haunted the streets until curfew forced her in, although she kept to back streets to avoid the crush of bodies. Surely she was still being watched, but merely wandering the city wouldn’t betray excessive familiarity, as long as she avoided shortcuts and retraced her steps to return to the hotel instead of taking another route.



Her genin were already abed when she checked in. Yuusaku stirred when she slid the door open and counted bodies, but the others were fast asleep. He blinked heavily and made eye contact. Then he made a displeased sound and disappeared back under the covers. Aiko smiled wryly and closed the door.



It was all rather endearing, but it didn’t bode well for their survival odds.



Well.



'Let them rest,’ Aiko decided. ’They’ll need it. And perhaps they just feel safer here. They should be more alert sleeping outside. If nothing else, they’ll set a watch.’






If nothing else, the following morning brought the relief that her brats were at least sensible enough to make it to the exam room. She stood outside the exam center just long enough to see the poor fools who’d failed that pre-test stream out, dejected.



It took a surprisingly long time for events to commence. She didn’t remember that, but then, she’d been busy with Anko at this point in her..  She’d been with Anko at the time before.



The foreign adults mostly milled around, waiting for further information. When the jounin were finally invited to observe the proceedings of the first event, Aiko joined nearly all the other teachers. She fell to the back of the line filing into a room that resembled the jounin lounge.



There was something a little odd, though, she noticed. There were certainly Konoha jounin in the room- but most of them weren’t the genin teachers. There were a few teachers for older teams, she saw, but.. Kakashi, Kurenai, Gai, Asuma… nowhere in sight.



'Why would they separate the Konoha sensei, I wonder?’



Aiko slowly unwrapped a piece of gum and bit into it. She crushed the silver wrapper in her fist before tucking it in a pocket. Genma, who happened to be standing next to her, gave her a curious look.



His lips worked where he would normally have a senbon, and something brightened in his face. “I’ll buy you a coffee in exchange for a piece of gum,” he offered casually. He leaned into her personal space, just close enough for her to feel the heat of his body through her left sleeve.



Aiko was already reaching for the pack when his words registered. She glanced up at him incredulously. Was he flirting-



oh.



Oh.



Her gaze fixed on his smile, slightly crooked and displaying teeth that perfectly straddled the boundary of 'white’ and 'too white’. Her heart shuddered uncertainly in her chest.



He smelled like the reinforced padding in his flak jacket and the same weapon’s polish she’d always favored, paired with the 'scentless’ Konoha type soap that actually had some notes of pine. He smelled like home and safety.



There had always been rumors about Genma being a flirt, but she’d never seen evidence before. Of course, he was… what, fifteen years her senior? So that previous lack of evidence made sense. Only a true, Jiyaiya-level creep would be so shameless as to flirt with someone who he should see as a child.



'Well. Actually. He’s not that much older than me now,’ she reasoned. 'Four years isn’t a significant different for two people in their twenties.’ When Genma reached out to take the candy from her, warm, calloused fingers accidentally brushed over hers. He was quite attractive, actually. God, look at those shoulders.



The look he gave her was entirely too pleased. That snapped her out of it.



It was probably far too late, but she rearranged her expression back into studied disinterest. “No need. Sometimes a person really needs gum.” Pointedly, she wrinkled her nose and turned away from his breath slightly.



Genma’s eyebrows rose slowly. Someone nearby snickered but she couldn’t see who.



That was when the lights dropped.



Aiko tensed, shoulders drawing in. She cursed the reaction immediately but it was too late to do anything about it. How dark was it? How impaired was normal vision? She had no idea from her own senses. But logic told her the room was probably only dim enough to make viewing a screen easy.



…Genma, at least, had definitely seen that reaction.



Well.



'He won’t know what to think about it. He’ll probably just think I’m easily startled. Maybe even that I’m on edge about sudden environmental changes when in a small room full of high-level shinobi without a single ally.’



Actually.. yeah. That was a much more plausible explanation than secret night blindness.



A screen flickered to life- no, it was wavering, undulating along a loosely hung sheet. It was a projection. Aiko leaned back against the wall and watched what she could see. The display was bright enough- the problem was more that taller jounin were blocking the bottom part of the screen. Still, she saw her genin file into view, along with a whole host of others.



Her eyes darted across the distant room, cataloging genin mostly by hairstyles and what little could be discerned of their clothing from the ceiling camera. Team 7 bounced in near the middle of the group, in a mob of Konoha shinobi. Others filed around, spilling into the corners of the room and perching on desks.



Her genin had been some of the first in, and secured a desirable position against the wall. It was pointless, since Ibiki would split them and make them move, but Aiko still felt a little proud of how sensible her brats were being.



Ibiki entered like a hurricane, sending genin scattering in fear. She repressed a snort.



'Pity that there’s no sound. I wonder what he’s saying.’



The genin took seats according to verbal instructions. As Ibiki paced and pontificated, Aiko felt her attention wander. Her eyes were adjusted enough that she could make out darker silhouettes in the room around her, but not much more. The assembled jounin were quiet, breathing nearly in unison with nary a fidget. She could smell-



Aiko didn’t let herself still, turning her face in continued perusal of the room she couldn’t actually see.



She smelled mint. Genma was breathing in her direction, which meant he was watching her even as she was turned away from him. Surely the back of her head wasn’t too stimulating, no matter how much of a flirt he was. She focused her attention on him without looking over. Aiko tried to hear his breathing, to pick up on the subtleties of his chakra to guess at his level of agitation or interest. Nothing came of it- he was too good, of course he was.



Well. Of course the Konoha jounin are here to watch us. Is he here to monitor me in specific?’



The skin on the back of her neck prickled. She had the oddest impression that she could almost hear someone talking in the distance, a voice distorted and low. Aiko swallowed. Okay, that was weird. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with her hearing. Was it her imagination acting up? She was more than a bit on-edge. God, she was so paranoid that she was trying to convince herself that she was hearing things. She needed a break, desperately.



She turned her attention back to the screen, portraying obliviousness to Genma’s attention.



The test had started. Ryuusei was staring down at his sheet, pencil still as if he was waiting for the answers to the universe to bubble up in the answer space.  Yuusaku was making lazy, sure markings that would certainly draw someone else to cheat off of him. If she knew him at all, he was marking wrong answers. She felt her lips curl into a smile. And her last duckling, Keisuke, was-



Aiko felt a deep sigh rise in her chest.



Keisuke had flipped his sheet over and was drawing a slightly wobbly kunoichi with improbably shaped breasts and… demon horns. Her hair and clothes were uncomfortably familiar, although shocking liberties had been taken with the neckline. The hip holster was spot-on, though.



'Little shit. Honestly. He seemed so quiet and well-behaved.’



That phrase caught in her mind, ringing like a bell. Shit. That was classic, wasn’t it? Textbook misdirection. Aiko tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling mournfully.



'I can’t believe I fell for that crap. I didn’t notice a genin leering at me because I thought he was the least troublesome one.’



Pride aside, it was… It was kinda gross, Aiko reflected. Children are gross.



“Children are gross,” she said aloud.



Someone gave her an odd look. A few people might have taken a step away from her. Probably wasn’t personal. Certainly they were just trying to get a better view of the projection as it cycled through camera feeds.



Her brats made it through the test, along with about half of the teams. When the screen focused on Sakura’s beaming relief as results were announced, Aiko looked away.



'She’s going to be dead before the end of the day.’



It would be nice to forget that. It would be really, really nice to forget that.



An anomaly in the crowd drew her eye. Genma. He was too still in her peripheral. He was definitely watching her, not the screen. Had he caught the image that had prompted her to look away? He shouldn’t have, but she had shit luck. Who else had been displayed at that moment? Could her motion be attributed to boredom or distraction, given her careless statement minutes ago about distaste for children? How should she play this off?



'Deflect. Make him think that something else is going on in my head, that it wasn’t about the video feed.’



Deliberately, she turned her head and made eye contact as if sensing his attention had been what prompted her to look away  from the screen. His features started to shift into false sheepishness, a hand moving to the back of his neck. Aiko tilted her head minutely, let her mouth twist into a wicked little smirk, and then slowly, obviously, ran up and down his body. When she made it back up to his eyes, the pretense of embarrassment at having been caught staring was gone, replaced by something sly and hungry.



She had just thought to deflect by leering- not to actually do anything. But.



He looked like he wanted a chance to get her naked and mouth at every centimeter of her flesh. He looked like an excellent distraction.



A warm thrill simmered in her body, too low for her to pretend the sensation was in her stomach. She lifted her head just slightly in challenge, flashing her neck.



Then she broke the stare and walked for the door.



Her pulse quickened when he followed.



His gaze was towards the exit when he stepped into the hallway, clearly looking to follow her out the building. He was looking the wrong way. She shut the door and slammed him into the wall, one hand in his collar and the other curled around the wrist that had reached for a weapon. There was a tense moment, then he let her press his wrist against the wall by his head.



“Not that I mind-” his amused tone hitched when she put her teeth to his neck to shut him up, deflecting from his mouth. She didn’t want to kiss him-that was too personal. She licked. He made a sound she wouldn’t have heard if she hadn’t been against his throat. Something fierce uncoiled in her chest even as she was pressing a knee between Genma’s legs.



She could feel his pulse jumping through her lips. She’d done that. The knowledge was intoxicating. Aiko smiled, and then scraped her inhumanly sharp teeth gently against his Adam’s apple. Casually, she moved a finger to the underside of the wrist she held, checking at his pulse. It was just as fast- of course it was, but that was somehow thrilling. Was he intimidated, or just excited? Did he know that she could rip out his throat with her teeth, if she wanted?



“Uzu.-” He swallowed.



She smiled against the skin. Instead of answering, she squeezed his wrist.



It took Genma a moment to gather himself. “There’s a- room upstairs,” he managed.



Aiko really did not give a single shit. But she liked the way that his breath hitched. “What kind of room?” She moved her hand from his collar to the zipper, pausing a moment to check his expression. Genma’s pupils were blown wide open and fixed on her hand. She tugged it up pointedly, then tilted it down as if she was going unzip the jacket.



“Yes.” Genma twitched against her, as if he wanted to push her off and take control. He seemed to remember that hadn’t been the question. “Control room. Or something.”



Aiko huffed. “Konoha,” she drawled, the irritation of the last months welling up again. “How welcome am I near classified material?” She pulled the flak jacket open and pushed it halfway off his shoulders. Yes. They were as nice as she’d thought. Aiko ran her fingers up and greedily squeezed at the muscles.



Genma sucked in a breath, and that was when she realized it’d been a test. God only knows what would have happened if she’d taken the chance to get close to sensitive equipment. Little shit. It was probably a trap. She’d walk in and ANBU would drop from the ceiling, and she probably wouldn’t get to get anyone naked at all. Aiko bared her teeth and pushed him further into the wall, irritated. He finally spoke up again. “Utility closet.” Genma jerked his head left.



That was a better suggestion.



“Come on.” Aiko tugged.








“I have to disagree with Hatake. She’s definitely an aggressive personality,” Genma described. He slumped against the wall , picking idly at his teeth with his senbon. A truly brutal bruise was starting to bloom above the collar of his flak jacket, but he didn’t seem to care. “Maybe she was having an off-day in Wave, or sticking to a role. She’s quiet enough to get the drop on me and put me against a wall. Fast enough to catch me from reaching for a weapon- the thing with Gai wasn’t a fluke.” He nodded in acknowledgment to the other jounin, who was looking uncharacteristically serious. “I agree that she’s dangerous, in theory at least.”



“You did take a long while to report. I suppose she was also strong enough to keep you captive,” Kakashi drawled without looking up from his book. “Next time we’ll send a rescue team into the utility closet. Did she use the mop to incapacitate you? I bet it was the mop.”



Genma shrugged. “It isn’t fraternizing with a target if they initiate. I was told to get close, not how.” He paused. “She’s fairly hot, too. How certain is the Sandaime that she’s secretly fifty years old? I don’t buy it. There’s no illusion that holds up to that much contact, unless she’s got a Tsunade-level physical transformation going on.” He sucked air in through his teeth. “If so, don’t tell me. I want to keep that memory the way it is.”



Kurenai made a disgusted sound at the crude basis for his analysis, but didn’t disagree. She wouldn’t know, really. She’d been watching the real-time exam with Asuma to call out camera shots to look for while Gai and Kakashi watched the foreigners watch the time-delayed version. But she’d paid enough attention to tune in when Kakashi let out a heavy sigh. She’d watched disbelievingly as Genma had followed his target away from the cameras too eagerly for a semi-public makeout session like a horny teenager. She’d nearly laughed, though, when Genma tried to trick Uzumaki into walking into the control room. That would have been… Well. It hadn’t happened, in any case.



“While I, too, am overjoyed for our comrade’s wealth of energetic activities with many new surprisingly youthful friends, perhaps we might address the matter at hand?” Gai gave an incongruous thumbs-up. “The safety of our beautiful young comrades is paramount! I, for one, am not yet convinced about the presence of such a mysterious person with a demonstrated interest in Konoha’s bright blooming youths.”



Genma eyed Gai suspiciously. He was never certain that the younger jounin wasn’t just fucking with him. “Well,” he started slowly. “I’m not a miracle worker. I determined that Uzumaki-san knows I was there to observe her. I don’t yet know if she knows that I know she knows I’m her watch. I need to spend more time with her to narrow that down and determine a course of action and whether it’s going to be plausible to turn her.”



“She isn’t attached to her team,” Kurenai opined. “I read her as being more dutiful last night. If she wasn’t lying about having no prior commitment to Kirigakure, they have something on her now. Unless we can eliminate that element, persuasion is irrelevant.”



Asuma shook his head. “Maybe she just doesn’t like kids. That’d explain your impression that there’s little to no team connection. I don’t buy that Kirigakure sent an unknown to represent them in Konoha. Yagura’s a wildcard, but he’s not insane. Unless he wants to provoke war, which would be particularly…” Asuma sucked in air through his teeth.  “Imprudent,” he decided.



“Is there another way to reconcile those possibilities?” Genma pulled the senbon out. “What circumstance could lead to a shinobi not being an unknown that Kiri wouldn’t risk sending as a representative, but still make it plausible that she told Kakashi in good faith that she had no village attachment?” He nodded in deference towards the other jounin, who was both younger and more experienced.  



He didn’t think that Uzumaki had slipped a direct lie past Kakashi. She was good at deflection, at making someone look the wrong way for the trick- but he didn’t peg her as an especially skilled infiltrator. No. She was something else, unless this was a helluva long con in action.



Kurenai crossed her arms and hummed. “Some sort of contractor situation?” she guessed, unenthusiastic about the theory. “Uzumaki could be a free agent who has worked with Kirigakure before.”



“Or she could be on the outs with Kirigakure,” Asuma said. He looked out the window, clearly bored with re-hashing what they’d all witnessed and discussed. “Kiri doesn’t exactly have a high satisfaction rate. It could be that she feels the current administration is no place where she belongs. God only knows there’s ten or so different factions of opinion on Kirigakure’s reformation.”



Kurenai nodded slowly. “That would fit, but not explain why she is here now. Unless Kirigakure recently had a change of administration leadership or policy that brought her back into the fold.”



There was a moment of quiet.



Kakashi sighed, lifting his head. “That’s where my money is. In order to determine the level of threat and likelihood of poaching Uzumaki from Kiri, we need to find out who is holding her leash and why she’s cooperating with them.” He shut his book and slipped it away. “The only thing to do is wait for our agent to return with information. But in the meantime, I don’t like the way she flinched when the camera was on my genin. That looked like guilt to me.”



Genma snorted. “I can’t say. I wouldn’t have known that was what had happened from watching her. Are you sure about the volume on these things?” He indicated the tiny black machinery that had been fished out of his ear with senbon and a prayer. “She tensed up when Asuma told me which shot was coming up next. I could swear she’d heard.”



Kakashi’s brow wrinkled. “Extremely unlikely. An Inuzuka could at that distance. I might pick out the communication, if I was paying attention. But we don’t have any reason to assume she has augmented hearing capabilities.”



He let the corollary hang.



Asuma said it anyway. “Don’t have any reason to believe she doesn’t, either, aside from it not being an Uzumaki bloodline.” He snorted, disgusted. “That we know of. Whose to say? That’s not exactly the kind of fabled ability that goes down in history, and the Uzumaki that any of us have personally known could hardly be called representative samples.”



Genma’s mouth twisted to the side. True enough. “That raises the question again of why Kiri had an Uzumaki, assuming she’s not either an independent contractor or improbably well-preserved.” Distaste colored his tone. “I gotta say, the only option coming to mind is unpleasant.”



Kakashi looked away. No one else seemed to want to respond to that.



Kiri’d been one of the countries that destroyed Uzushiogakure- no Uzumaki in their right mind would have chosen to go there. It made much more sense that Kiri had captured some in hopes of making a more stable jinchuuriki, or gaining some kind of sealing knowledge.



If they went by appearances, this woman was about twenty- she wouldn’t have been born when Uzushiogakure fell. That meant she hadn’t been taken prisoner- she’d be a generation removed. It seemed like the kind of thing that Kumo had tried on Kushina and even the little Hyuuga princess. They’d probably taken a young woman or two captive and tried to manufacture their own loyal Uzumaki.



It made the target’s slightly less proto-typical Uzumaki features take on an unpleasant pallor, to say the least. One parent with white or blond hair and dark eyes could explain how her features deviated from well-recorded clan norms.



Well. Genma shoved his hands in his pockets. “This is pleasant and all, but I’ll see you tomorrow.” He made a face. “We have a long day of surveillance tomorrow.”



Kurenai huffed agreement. “I am exceedingly fond of training ground 44,” she said in a dry sort of tone that implied the exact opposite. “I look forward to the opportunity. I only wish that you were so lucky as to join us, instead of your current task. I know how you suffer watching Uzumaki.”



Genma didn’t manage to hide a grin. He did have the better assignment.



“That’s the spirit.” Kakashi ambled to the door, happy to leave the building. The genin were getting briefed, and the foreigners had all been cleared out and escorted to their accommodations before they’d dared to begin this discussion.



Frankly, it was time to go home.






The signal came during that first night of the test in the Forest of Death. Aiko startled awake, reaching for a weapon. She’d trapped the absolute hell out of her quarters, now that there was no risk of genin stumbling into them for the time being. She could hiraishin to her students without much risk of someone getting into the hotel room. At least, not without leaving signs that-



She paused in the middle of adjusting her weaponry.



The seal calling for her attention wasn’t in the Forest of Death. It was in Mizugakure.



“That seems… bad,” Aiko said to herself. Her tone across dubious even to her own ears.



That meant Utakata or Mei. Both options meant there was a fairly good chance that she was talking into either a disaster they couldn’t deal with, or a trap to kill her and replace her.



Well. Utakata was less likely to kill her, unless he was still really hurt. He thought that she’d consciously tricked him into helping her avenge herself on Mizugakure, and honestly, that made so much more sense than what she’d really done that there didn’t seem to be much point in attempting to exonerate herself.



She suited up quickly, not bothering to wear the Kiri-style uniform since she wasn’t representing anyone in Konoha at the moment. It was the work of a moment to pull herself across a distance that would take a lesser woman a good week and a half to cross, if that lesser woman happened to be an elite ANBU.



“As punctual as ever,” Mei greeted calmly, and that didn’t make much sense. Were they pretending to have a rapport? Was that what was happening?



Mei was in a uniform, hair pulled back professionally. Two hunter-nin were standing at opposite ends of the room. The interesting thing, however, was a prisoner bound on his knees at Mei’s feet.



Aiko rolled with it, nodding graciously to her nominal subordinate. “How lovely to see you. Is this a social call?”



The prisoner looked up.



'Ah,’ Aiko thought, closely followed by, ’Holy fucking shit.’



“Konoha has kindly sent someone to express interest in our political affairs,” Mei explained cooly. She looked as though she might give the poor man a kick for good measure. She wouldn’t, though. Not her style. “I was wondering what sort of accommodations you would like to offer our esteemed guest, and what length his stay might be. It is considered most polite not to invite guests long-term without input from the head of the household,” she breezed, and if that didn’t sound pointed, Aiko didn’t know what would. It was probably some kind of follow-up joke to a conversation she’d had with the prisoner before.



Aiko looked at the poor bastard and didn’t rub at her temples. She didn’t. She just really wanted to. “Have you checked for wood clones?” she asked Mei wearily.



Yamato shot to his feet in unison with the fake hunter-nin who lunged at Aiko from behind, swinging. It was an exceedingly foolish move- Yamato was damn good, but he wasn’t good enough to pick a fight in a room with two kage-level kunoichi and a hunter-nin. Aiko put down the clone with prejudice, but winced when Mei wasn’t terribly gentle with the real man.



He hit the ground hard, bleeding from the back of his head. He’d probably have burns around his arms from the material that Mei had used to bind his arms in front in a way that had to be painful.



Typical.



The older kunoichi scowled at Aiko, calm facade thrown off. “I can’t believe that. You just happened to know this specific Konoha nin?”



She considered and dismissed several obnoxious responses, including, “I know everything,” and “I always ask that question, don’t you?” In the end, Aiko settled for sighing and rolling a shoulder. “Oddly, yes.”



Mei eyed her suspiciously a moment before she accepted the answer as it was. The older woman sighed. She crossed her arms. “Well. What do you think?”



Aiko toed at Yamato’s leg. He didn’t move. “I think that this is going to be a diplomatic nightmare.”

 

 

Chapter 16

 

 

“Do I have to do this now?” Aiko asked the world at large.



She actually wasn’t sure what part of that she was stressing. Did she want someone else to do this now? Did she want to do something else? Did she just want to crawl back into bed and deal with the problem later?



Mei, sweet, kind Mei, answered the question. “Yes.”



Aiko gave her a dirty look. Nobody asked you shit, Mei. God.



Mei didn’t seem to notice. She finished personally securing Yamato’s hands to the interrogation table and then patted the metal-and-gauze combination that prevented his hands from making any sort of handseals. “You really do have to do this now,” she specified.



Aiko thought about the way that Yamato could channel chakra merely by clapping and sighed. She gestured. “Might wanna- yes, like that,” she approved, as Mei apparently read her damn mind and turned his palms to face away from each other. She tightened the binds again.



Mei gave Aiko a wry look when Yamato’s fingers twitched, not quite capable of hiding his desire to fight that movement.



Haha, busted.



Her mind caught on belatedly to what exactly she was approving of. She felt very tired and a bit resentful that she had to be here.



This would have been a great day to not get out of bed. It was only two in the morning and she was calling it now- today was a bust. There was nothing good about today.



“Here you are.” Mei adjusted the lighting brighter and poured a glass of water. Just one. Were they withholding that from Yamato, then? He was going to have a dry mouth. That’d be mildly uncomfortable. That would sure show him to infiltrate Kirigakure.



“Thanks,” Aiko said dully. She took the seat on the other side of the table. “I’m afraid I don’t have that much time. It would be beyond awkward if someone realized I’m not where they think I am.” She ran a hand over her hair, frowned, and then pulled it out of the now-messy braid she’d slept in. It took a minute to put it up in a severe ponytail. That wasn’t a good look for her, to be honest, but there wasn’t a lot she could do without a mirror and a shower.



Mei paused at the door. “It is late. Would you like a coffee or tea?”



Aiko nodded. Yes, did she ever want something with caffeine in it. She didn’t open her mouth, because she might tell Mei that she loved her. Mei was so competent.



When the door shut, she took a long minute to just look at her former comrade. Well. Future comrade, sort of, in that she hadn’t worked with him when she was 13. Past-future comrade. Future past comrade?



This isn’t productive.’



She honestly did not know what she was going to say. The possibilities were just too goddamn exhausting. She did not want him running back to make public information about the current state of Kirigakure’s affairs. On the other hand, it would be difficult to become Good Friends with Konoha if their relationship started of with “here, this box has what’s left of that spy you sent me. You’re welcome!”



That was even before she took into consideration that she actually liked Yamato. Mostly. Some of the time.



She didn’t want to kill him, anyway. He was a genuinely good person. Almost a suspiciously good person, really, considering his primary role model. How did that even happen? Kakashi was a gigantic asshole- it was one of her favorite things about him.



Whatever. That was beside the point. Aiko rubbed at her head.



Of course, the fact that Konoha had sent Yamato as a spy complicated things and prevented them from having a moral highground. Even if she killed Yamato, it probably wouldn’t break an alliance if she managed to get it before Konoha knew he hadn’t gotten out in time. Konoha couldn’t demand him back without admitting that they’d sent him to spy on an ally nation, however tenuous that relationship might have been at the time. And he was only one soldier. That was the way it went- if you failed, you were on your own. Kirigakure would probably just get out of any repercussions by blinking and saying, “Yamato? Who?”



Metaphorically, of course. Because Konoha wasn’t going to ask, 'Hey remember that guy who we sent into your city to gather information? His name was Yamato and we want him back, pretty please.’



Yamato knew this as well as she did. He must be banking on a miraculous escape or resigned to torture and death. The traditional answer would be to try to make him decide that betraying Konoha was worth it in exchange for retaining his life and limbs, but she wasn’t interested in that. It probably wouldn’t work, and it’d be a huge bummer besides.



Resentfully, Aiko eyed the top of his fluffy head as he continued to fake unconsciousness. He’d been awake since Mei had secured his ankles to the legs of his chair. He’d probably decided his best chance to escape was after she and Mei left. Which, no. She forbid it.



She picked up the glass of cold water and took a sip. Aiko made a face. Tap water from someone else’s well never tasted quite right, unless you were really thirsty. She looked around to see if Mei was watching- she wasn’t, Mei was still outside the room.



Aiko leaned over and upended the water on Yamato’s head. He came up sputtering, looking at her with shocked indignation.



“You are a shit spy,” Aiko accused immediately, because there didn’t seem to be any point to dicking around. She set the glass out of his reach and then crossed her arms as she settled back in her chair. “If you’re going to infiltrate a foreign country, for god’s sake, don’t get caught.”



He snorted. “That’s hypocritical.” Yamato shook his head, sending water flying. His nose twitched. “Konoha knew when you entered the borders. I made it all the way to your center of administration.”



Aiko made an indignant sound. “That’s hardly the same thing!” She leaned forward. “I wasn’t sneaking in. The next time I need to sneak into Konoha, I’ll tell you so you have an accurate point of comparison. Because honestly, your security is terrible and you’d never know I was there.” She tilted her head back and mockingly mimicked an ANBU callsign giving the all-clear.



His expression didn’t change. Well, perhaps he looked even more mutinous. “I don’t know why I’m arguing with you.” He looked away. “Whose to say you’re even who you look like?”



“That depends on who I look like,” Aiko countered nonsensically.



“You should be in Konoha,” Yamato accused. He was inconspicuously working his arms, trying to loosen his bonds.



She considered that for a moment, and nodded. “True,” she agreed. Truer than he realized.



“But you’re not,” he stressed, as though he was proving some point.



Aiko looked around the room, and then at herself. “I’m not?” she asked mildly. “Isn’t that the Hokage monument?” She widened her eyes at some water damage in the wallpaper. “It’s everything I dreamed of and more.”



His face twitched. “You’re not in Konoha,” Yamato repeated slowly.



“Okay,” Aiko agreed. “You’re the expert here. I’m not in Konoha.”



“But you should be,” Yamato said triumphantly. “You checked in 6 days ago.”



“Oh.” Aiko looked up, pretending to consider that. “I must be in Konoha, then.”



He made a strangled sound.



She cracked a smile, warming up to the conversation. “This is fun,” Aiko decided. She tapped a finger against her face. “I’m glad I got out of bed for this, whether that bed might have been in Kirigakure or in Konohagakure.”



Yamato’s eyes narrowed. “Where, more specifically, might that bed in Kirigakure be?”



Aiko faulted. She opened her mouth. She closed it. She looked at him suspiciously. “Is that a line? I’m flattered, but honestly now’s not a good-”



“No!” he burst out, pinkening. “Why are you interrogating me? Not three months ago, you claimed you had no allegiance to any state. Who are you really?” Yamato looked like he wasn’t entirely certain he was the one tied up for interrogation. He leaned forward aggressively until metal clanked. “You’re a hunter-nin. You were in Wave for Zabuza, and you’re in Konoha for another target.”



She paused.



Who on earth would I want from Konoha?’ Aiko wondered.



He looked victorious.



No one. There’s no one who would be that important to Kiri there. Bit of a self-centered conclusion, Konoha.’



Her face contorted in an effort not to laugh. “You got me,” Aiko said solemnly. “I’m a hunter-nin. Here, in Konoha. It’s getting difficult to keep up with where we are, though. Could you maybe help me draw a map? I have a crayon here somewhere.”



He gave her a disgusted look. “No, that’s not it then. Who are you?”



Aiko gave him a guileless smile and adjusted her posture to look as relaxed as possible. “I’m a nobody, really.”



Yamato snorted. Then his gaze darted to the side, hearing the footsteps that Aiko had already detected. Mei had been standing there for a few seconds.



The door slide open. Mei took three sharp steps in and set down a full coffee set for one on the table. “Mizukage-sama,” she said politely. Then she backed away, as if she hadn’t just ruined Aiko’s fun.



'She did that on purpose.’



Aiko was left speechless, watching the door as Mei slid it open again. She only mustered, “You’re demoted!” at the last second.



“Of course, Mizukage-sama,” Mei agreed blandly. She bowed and shut the door. She walked away with casual heel-clicks on the tile, unlike her stealthy approach earlier.



Aiko took a deep breath. She rubbed at her temples. She said to no one, “That woman is out to get me.” She looked to Yamato. “You ruin a person’s career just once, and they never let it go.” Then she poured herself a coffee and filled the cup with 4 cubes of sugar and two of the little cups of syrup sweetener. Then she added some milk.



Yamato made a disgusted noise.



She frowned at him, holding the cup covetously against her chest. “What,” Aiko said. It wasn’t a question, because she didn’t want his opinion.



He rolled his eyes. “Are you going to throw that at me, too? If I get an opinion on this, my opinion is no.”



“Because it’s hot?” Aiko guessed. She wouldn’t want hot liquid thrown at her.



“Because I’ll never get all that sugar out of my hair,” he countered. “You eat like an unsupervised child.” His expression was insolently pleased. Of course it was. She’d walked into that.



Her fingers tightened on the cup. She wanted to consider it, but she couldn’t. That would be painful. No one should have hot liquid thrown at them. After a long moment, she rolled her eyes. “Throwing this at you would be a waste of sugar.” Defiantly, she took a long drink.



She didn’t like the look that Yamato was giving her when she looked back at him. He looked like he hadn’t bought that.



'He was provoking me on purpose to see what I would do. He’s making judgments about my personality. He’s probably assumed I’m not likely to actually hurt him personally. Which does rhetorically defang me, a bit.’



Typical. Well, he was a consummate professional. He hadn’t been distracted from his desire to gain information, either, even when she tried to put him off-balance. Aiko pursed her mouth and considered the problem. She wasn’t willing to torture him, she wasn’t willing to let him go to ruin her plans, and she didn’t want to poison her future relations with Konoha.



She couldn’t afford to keep talking with him, really. She was baffling him with bullshit, but she didn’t have unlimited time. Even if she did- the more time they spent together, the better he’d get at extracting information from her. She had to pass him off to someone else, and she had to find a way to keep him stuck in Kirigakure that wouldn’t piss Konoha off too much.



There really weren’t a lot of reasons it might be plausible for a shinobi to spend time long-term in another nation’s capital. Just the one, really, and it hadn’t applied to Konoha and Kiri in a long time.



Well. Where there was one rhetorical option, that had to be her solution, no matter how stupid it was. And boy, was it ever stupid.



“I’m glad we had this talk,” Aiko said, making her decision. She gave him a painfully false smile, thinking of Sai. It must have worked- Yamato recoiled instinctively. “I’m terribly sorry about the misunderstanding, but I’m sure you know how it is. People sneaking around get brought to interrogation. Bad habit, we’ll work on it.”



He gave her an odd look.



“Actually, I quite look forward to working with you,” Aiko said instead of anything that made sense, tilting her head. “You’ll be a nice addition to Kirigakure. I can only assume that Konohagakure sent you as a diplomatic ambassador for a long-term assignment, we haven’t replaced the old one. For some reason. Probably paperwork.”



(The permanent ambassador at residence in Kirigakure had been vacant since Kirigakure had the ambassador assassinated 9 years ago, actually.)



She kicked back in her chair. “Shame that you forgot the paperwork and that it’s traditional to make an appointment before you come to visit administration to begin your work. You’ll have the finest suite available while we get around to verifying your credentials. You’ll understand that you must remain under supervision until the mistake with your paperwork has been cleared up. I’m so embarrassed. I’ll get that resolved as soon as possible. A month. Two. Three, tops.”



Yamato was looking at her like she was an alien. That was strangely comforting. Good: he was the reason she was up at such a ridiculous hour. If she couldn’t be happy, he shouldn’t be either.



Aiko stood and smiled, nodding down at him over her coffee cup. “Sorry about the mix-up, I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Tomorrow you’ll start your full tour. I have just the guide in mind- Mei, you remember Mei, I’m sure.” Her smile turned vindictive. “She’ll be happy to show you the cultural highlights of our fine city.”



“Your city is a mess,” Yamato said blankly. “Half of it’s under construction.”



She gave him an admonishing look. “That’s a rude thing to say, isn’t it?” She clicked her tongue. “Don’t hurt Mei’s feelings, I’m sure she’ll be so happy when I tell her I’m assigning her to you. Which I can do,” Aiko said dryly, “Because I am the Mizukage, as she so helpfully pointed out.”



'Repeating it like that makes it sound like I’m lying,’ she noted. ’Good. That’s fine. It’ll keep him guessing. He should know as little as possible, until I know he can’t do any harm by sharing information.’



He made a noise like a teakettle. She reached over to pat at his hand, thought better of it, and the withdrew her hand. She nodded officiously. “Welcome to Kirigakure, Yamato.” When he looked up sharply, she gave him a pointed little smile. “Or is it Tenzou?”



Confusion was now fighting with fear on his expression. That wasn’t fun to see, exactly, but it’d sure give him plenty to think about. More specifically, it would give him plenty to think about that would occupy him with dead-ends instead of something more productive.



She swept out without waiting for a reply.



As soon as she stepped out, two masked nin bowed and went into the room she’d exited. Mei was waiting in the next room with a mutinous expression.



“It’s not me being petty,” Aiko explained without waiting for the accusation. Mei’s eyebrows ticked up. “I don’t trust anyone else to be able to contain him long-term. Yamato is well-suited to fighting Utakata to assign him instead of you. We can’t afford to let Yamato escape before we’re officially allied with Konoha, but we don’t need resentment poisoning our relations. We have to treat him fairly well.”



There was a pause. Then Mei nodded. Her expression was inscrutable.



Aiko eyed the older woman and figured that was the best she’d get. “He could be very useful,” she added. “If you present things well, he may be amenable to helping with reconstruction. He’s a very sympathetic personality, and talented with mokuton. You won’t be able to trick him into adding to Kirigakure’s military capacity or anything like that, but public works- he might even enjoy the occupation. Establish some rapport, and then walk him past the camps full of orphans and homeless we’ve got,” Aiko said bitterly. “He might jump to offer.”



She didn’t like showing off that weakness, or asking for pity. But pride came second to what could be beneficial. She wouldn’t be a leader who cut off her nose to spite her face.



Wha-



Someone was signaling via hiriashin again. Now that she was fully conscious, it was easier to identify the source- definitely Konoha.



'I told them not to bother me unless they needed to. So. It’s probably Orochimaru or Gaara.’



“Fuck,” Aiko groaned. “I really don’t think I deserved this kind of day. I’m a good person, aren’t I?’



Then she realized Mei was the only other person in the room. She did not want Mei to answer that question.



“I have to go.”



'I can’t be seen. The team would get disqualified and this would have all been for nothing.’



Mei’s mouth opened in question, but Aiko was already flying through the handsigns for Jiraiya’s chameleon jutsu.



“The genin need me,” Aiko half-explained. She pulled the disguise on and moved to the problematic seal within an instant.



The stench of blood. Heavy breathing. One, two,- six people, including her team. Also including Gaara. That wasn’t ominous or anything.



…And that was all that she could tell, because, oh yeah, it was dark and her vision was shit.



Aiko blinked on the Rinnegan, hidden behind the genjutsu, and took an instant to breathe in the tableau.



Yuusaku’s back was to her in a defensive posture- it must have been him with the presence of mind to call for her. The other two boys were -



She twisted.



-they were behind and to the left. One of them was bleeding heavily. Figured- it looked like Temari’s work. Streaks of blood painted the ground in front of them.



She couldn’t see over Yuusaku’s shoulder, but when she leaned to the side she could tell that Gaara was staring at her team, eyes glinting in the dark. Something was shifting inside the gourd he carried on his back. It sounded more like a cat waking up on a bedspread than murder-dust stirring, but it was probably not a cat on a bedspread.



'He is the type to carry a grudge after all,’ Aiko noted, somewhere in the back of her mind. Then she hooked her  hand into Yuusaku’s collar and pulled him away to the first place she could think of before he could react.



She should have taken him to the hotel room in Konoha, but she was standing in front of Mei again. Aiko dropped the genjutsu and held her hands up into a new seal before the startled genin could whip around to look at her. He turned just in time to see her henge into his face, taking an instant longer to try to nod to the disheveled state of his equipment in her disguise.



Then she was back to the forest, ten feet to the right of where she’d been before. That hadn’t been intentional, but it was good. It’d take the focus further from Keisuke and Ryuusei.



Gaara blinked at her, registering her new location much faster than the others. She didn’t wait for any of the genin to catch on to what had happened- she ran at Kankuro. He didn’t even see her before she hit him, sending him skidding to the ground and crashing into a jagged shrub. Temari stepped at her, fan splayed, but Aiko kicked her legs out from under the girl, twisted, and was on top of her back before any of the genin could react.



Temari grunted as her head was yanked backwards. Aiko pressed her foot a little harder into the space between the teen’s shoulder blades and tightened her grip around a spiky blonde ponytail.



Well. She had Gaara’s undivided attention. Her genin were inching away, Ryuusei supporting Keisuke’s weight in a way that implied the news was bad.



'You can’t fuck with my team, assholes. I don’t even like them that much, but they’re mine.’



She felt her lips pressed into an ugly expression. “This is downright unfriendly,” she commented. She directed her words toward Temari and gave an unfriendly tug of her own, not appreciating the damage to her genin. “I think you might have hurt my teammates’ feelings, Suna-san.”



Temari’s hand scrabbled on her fan, but she had no leverage to swing it. It moved a few inches, digging into the moss coating the forest floor.



Kankuro had regained his feet and was eyeing her warily.



“You should go,” Aiko advised. She didn’t think they’d take her up on it. But it would draw way too much attention if someone beat the shit out of Gaara.



Gaara swiped, a fist of sand that would have broken bones if it had connected. Aiko let go of Temari to leap out of the way. Just to be ostentatious, she did a flip while she dodged. Because really, no matter how big and bad Gaara thought he was, he was fucking 13. This was ridiculous. He needed to be put in detention and given a hug. There was no call for these dramatics.



'I should end this interaction and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I can’t beat Gaara without risking interfering with Suna’s invasion plans, so I just need to separate the groups.’



“You’re a little stormcloud, aren’t you,” Aiko observed, nodding at the darkness of Gaara’s expression. “Look, I’m not interested in fighting you. I’d thought that your team would try for the record. Why are you wasting your time? You could have been to the tower already.”



His eyes were furious. She knew what was coming before he made a motion. Aiko let her gaze dart over to the genin on the ground, calculated the difference, and used the Konoha-classic wood substitution jutsu when the sand coffin came crashing down like a fist of a god. There was a fraction of an instant when the jutsu closed on her where she had time to be surprised at the sensation of sand digging into her skin. It wasn’t pain, exactly, not at that point. It was more of a scratchy all-body hug.



Well. It wasn’t a good place to linger, most likely.



Ryuusei had just opened his mouth to scream when she landed in a crouch behind him, grabbed both genin, and removed them from the altercation altogether. Fuck it. If the hiraishin jump was caught on camera there’d be some questions, but Konoha couldn’t force for answers. They’d have to wonder.



When she let go of Keisuke’s arm, something tacky and warm squished in her fingers. He moaned in shock. Aiko grimaced at the feeling and stood. She wanted to shake her hands, but that’d just send it splattering.



Ryuusei rounded on her. “What the fuck was that?” He reached out and gave her a shove. Bemused, she let it happen. It’d been meant for someone heavier than she was, so Aiko had to step backwards quickly to keep her balance. The teenager was paper-white. “That wasn’t the plan- that was-”



“Ryuusei,” Aiko interrupted. “Let’s take care of Keisuke and then argue.”



She could see the instant he realized that she wasn’t his teammate. Actually, it was a bit irritating to see that flash of terror on the face of someone she’d just saved. She gave him a pointed smile. His mouth dropped shut. He ducked his head.



'I suppose that explains why Yuusaku was the one to call for help. One man was down, and one is more afraid of me than the Ichibi. Fucking idiot. I told them about Gaara specifically.’



“Yuusaku?” Keisuke’s voice was lower, disoriented. “What happened?”



“I used shunshin to take us away,” Aiko lied calmly. That was highly improbable for a genin- she couldn’t do that, actually, but then she’d never had reason to hone her shunshin to those heights. It wasn’t impossible, strictly speaking. Just improbable. “I don’t think we should fight them. Let’s hurry and get through this forest so that we don’t encounter them again. Remind me what scroll we have?”



“Wha…” Keisuke swayed. She steadied his shoulders unthinkingly, and then thought better of it to gently lay him down flat. “Don’t you have it?”



His tone was odd. She cast a look at Ryuusei.



He blinked slowly. A finger twitched towards his own hip holster. Then to the ground.



Ah. Keisuke realized that she was acting oddly for Yuusaku, but didn’t know it was Aiko yet. He was testing her. He wasn’t half-bad, if he could try something like that while bleeding out.



Aiko felt her lips quirk into a smile. “Did you hit your head? I need a look at your arm now. Ryuusei, med kit.” She kept up a running commentary as she cut off his sleeve and the arm-bands securing hidden weaponry. “I was testing you. Ryuusei has the earth scroll, obviously.”



He relaxed, pliant in her grip. “I want an explanation later,” Keisuke slurred. “You’ve been holding out on us.”



“Hmm.” She let that hang in the air. He’d probably figure it out later, but no way was she going to verbally acknowledge that she wasn’t a genin in this forest. She didn’t sense anyone, but that didn’t necessarily mean shit. Especially since it was trapped with cameras and sound equipment. “Good job earlier,” Aiko said. She assumed, anyway. Keisuke had probably tried to take a blow for his teammates, judging by the bloodspray and his position earlier. Aiko hissed in sympathy when she saw the full extent of the problem. Temari could be vicious.



'But I didn’t expect her to be ready to make a killing blow. Is she blooded already? It could also have been a miscalculation. She is just a genin. Or she could have assumed it wouldn’t matter what she did, since Gaara wouldn’t let them live anyway.’



“What?” Keisuke asked when the silence was a little too long.



Aiko blinked. Well. “She clipped your artery. You’ll probably be fine, as long as we get it taken care of.”



She’d survived a lot worse. But he was going to need medical attention. Like, as soon as possible, by someone a lot more competent than she was.



Keisuke startled. Ah. That probably wasn’t something you should say to a patient, was it?



Whatever. She wasn’t interviewing for the hospital.



Aiko held him down. “Stay still, we want your heartrate down.” Businesslike, she cleaned the wound- that she could do. Then she bound it tight. When she was done, she levered him to his feet and guided the arm to his chest. “Put pressure on it with the other hand,” Aiko instructed.



Keisuke gave her a wounded look, obviously confused. “Why?”



'So you’re distracted and feel like you’re doing something.’



Instead of answering, Aiko made a grabby hand motion in Ryuusei’s direction. “Water,” she commanded.



He fumbled for a moment, then passed it over. Aiko held it up to Keisuke’s mouth and gave him a stern look until he started drinking.



Actually.



“Ryuusei, help him get hydrated,” Aiko ordered. She let him take her place. “I’m going to scout out a team to get a scroll from. We’re going to the tower tonight.”



She cast her gaze up, checking the moonlight.



Hmm. What was it, five am?



No wonder her team was flagging, if they hadn’t camped down for the night. Most teams would have, Aiko decided.



'They probably thought they could make it through the forest in one go,’ Aiko realized. ’That’s the only reason not to sleep the first night.’



Prideful twits. They weren’t that good. They were too incautious- it was the same hubris that had compelled them to think they knew better than she did about setting up camp in Konoha’s forests on the way in.



But it was better to stumble on Gaara then to have him find you sleeping, she supposed. The first time around, the Suna team would have been finished with the test about an hour ago, smashing the test record by five hours. They’d gone looking for her team, probably because she’d hurt their pride.



Annoying.



Also entirely her fault. It was fitting that she fix this.



But, of course the nearest team she found was a Konoha team. Aiko frowned at the genin on watch, safely ensconced on an overhanging branch outside of the barrier of their traps.



Kiba was dangerously close to nodding off, one hand curled in Akamaru’s fur. Hinata was curled up nearby, nearly touching Shino.



'Puppies,’ Aiko thought, and felt something tug in her chest.



They shouldn’t be in this situation, really. They’d get out of it alright, but…



'Hinata fights Gaara,’ Aiko remembered suddenly. 'She’s really not strong enough to beat him.’



Well. She survived that- barely. Of course, that was the catalyst towards her ousting as Hyuuga heir, Aiko realized. After that, she’d been an outcast. After that, she’d started staying with the Uzumaki household. It worked out in the end.



But.



There wasn’t an Uzumaki household here. There was no Aiko to take on duties as the most farcical, technical sort of clanhead. There wasn’t even Karin, as far as she’d seen. Not yet. No one would trust Naruto, a genin, to watch over a foreign genin once she was converted. He certainly couldn’t protect Hinata socially and politically.



Shit.



Well.



'I might actually be doing Hinata the biggest favor of her life, if I keep her from that tournament. And the opportunity dropped into my lap.’



Well. If that was decided, where would the scroll be? Aiko sucked on the inside of her cheek. During the day, it could be in anyone’s possession. But at night? Kiba probably had it, since he was awake-passing it off to the conscious teammate would be the most logical choice. And a team that contained Shino would probably take that route.



She eyed the genin in question closely. His chest was moving slowly. Every once in a while, a muscle tensed in his jaw, as if he was nearly grinding his teeth. He had his oversized coat… and Akamaru was resting on his lap, instead of inside the coat as was customary. No one would think that odd unless they knew Kiba’s habit of cuddling his dog. So. The scroll was inside Kiba’s jacket, and Akamaru had wiggled out because the metal-edged scroll was uncomfortable.



God, Kiba was actually sleeping, wasn’t he?



No, not quite, Aiko determined on a closer look. He was just relying far too much on his ears and letting his eyes rest. There was a very good chance that would lead to him actually falling asleep, leaving the team unprotected.



He didn’t hear her touchdown in the camp. He didn’t startle when she leaned over him. His eyes flew open when she yanked his coat zipper down and snatched the scroll in one smooth motion. Akamaru barked in the same instant, picking up on her scent as she left her position downwind. Their eyes met, inches apart. Kiba yelled something incomprehensible that had Shino all but flying upright, winging a shuriken at her.



Aiko was already gone. She paused for a moment in the undergrowth, listening to the team awaken and panic. She shook her head.



Well. Kurenai must be a good teacher- that team had some sense. It had been impossible to grab the scroll without alerting the one guarding it. They couldn’t be faulted for failing to realize a jounin would be the one coming for their prize. That was ridiculously unfair, really.



'But life isn’t fair,’ Aiko thought with the deep satisfaction who was often on the other side of that unfortunate truth. She flickered back to her team before she took a good look at the scroll.



It was another earth scroll.



Aiko leaned her head back and took a deep breath. Goddammit. She’d wasted half an hour surveilling them and gotten a useless scroll out of the deal.



“You’re back already?” Ryuusei whispered. He was holding one arm around his teammate. Concerned, Aiko realized that Keisuke’s eyes were closed and that he was shuddering. Not good.



Wordlessly, Aiko held up the scroll and watched the genin’s eyes fall.



“He’s cold.” Ryuusei sounded frightened. “What do I do?”



Aiko gritted her teeth. “Start a fire,” she ordered. “It’ll draw attention if anyone is near, but he needs the heat. I’m hurrying. Call me if you need help.” Wait. Her team had been so slow at setting up camp. It wouldn’t be any faster with one worried genin doing the work. She hesitated a moment, and then scrambled to help start the campfire. It was a hasty, ugly attempt that wouldn’t burn more than an hour, but she lit it on the first try and hauled Keisuke closer. He was clammy.



Shit.



Aiko closed her eyes and concentrated on the closet chakra signatures. It took some straining- she’d never been good at this without using rain. She could do that, but there was 'that person is suspiciously advanced for a genin’ and 'there’s no fucking way that’s a genin.’ Demonstrating more than one high-level skill was veering sharply into the second territory.



“Ten minutes south,” she decided a full minute later. She cast one last look at the teenagers. “I’ll hurry. Keep him warm and be ready to move out.”



She couldn’t take them all the way to the tower with hiraishin, and she couldn’t be with them when they went in. Someone would verify their identities.



'Get the right scroll, bring those two within easy distance of the tower, and then switch myself out for Yuusaku so that he can get them to the medic,’ Aiko determined. 'I have to go fast, and without letting anything potentially incriminating get caught on camera.’



The cameras had probably caught at least some of what she’d done so far already. Anyone who watched it would know that her actions were far above what her genin should be capable of, even though they would mistake her hiraishin for shunshin. Poor Yuusaku would be in the hotseat when Konoha decided he was not a genin level shinobi. But everyone stacked the teams for these events. As long as that was all that Konoha could assume, they’d be fine.



They’d be just fine.








Thump. Thump. Thump-thump.



Aiko dug her head a little deeper into the blankets, but her eyes were wide open. She scowled. She considered pretending she’d heard nothing.



Thump. Thump.



She considered killing whoever was on the other side of the door, dropping the body in the ocean, and going back to sleep.



Thump-thump.



Ugh. “Just a minute,” she called without caring that her words would probably be unintelligibly muffled. Then she struggled out of bed. She wasn’t dressed for company, but that was fine. Maybe it’d make them feel uncomfortable and leave faster.



Barefoot, messy-haired, and in her underpants, Aiko opened the door. “What,” she said in her most uninviting tone. She’d had a long night. She deserved sleep.



The chuunin on the other side was completely unfazed. He seemed a bit bored, even. “Your genin cleared the second exam,” he said. “It was a record, actually.”



She allowed smugness to creep into her expression- she couldn’t fake surprise.



“They’ve been seen by a medic, but you need to see the person responsible for their treatment and sign off.” He sniffed, as if he had a runny nose. “Liability.”



Her mouth was a flat line of disapproval. It might have been better for her to mimic concern, but it was too late for that now.



What he was saying didn’t make sense. It seemed benign to ask a minor’s temporary guardian to approve of medical paperwork and waive responsibility, but it shouldn’t be necessary.  No one would take on the liability of hosting an exam if the participants’ home villages hadn’t already waived all right to complain about damages and deaths beforehand. What were they trying to pull? She’d been a coordinator for this event. Foreigners had been quickly appraised of deaths and life-threatening injuries on their teams, but her students hadn’t had anything like that when she last saw them.



'Either they were attacked after the exam, or Konoha is trying something with me. I should be careful with whatever it is they want me to agree to.’



She kept the calculation off her face. “Where do I go and when?”



“They’re in the tower, of course,” the chuunin said breezily. “Please hurry.” His chakra roiled, and she sensed the shunshin before he appeared to break into a cloud of leaves.



Aiko slammed the door shut, but some leaves still got in. Perfect. Near-violently, she went about getting ready for the day, still considering possibilities. She really couldn’t see what they’d get out of this, unless they were going to try to trick her into signing something, or if they wanted to surprise her with something at the tower and needed an excuse to get her there. She pulled on the uniform that she’d eschewed last night, grimacing at the weight of the armor. It put her off-balance. She took a few minutes to smear concealer under her eyes and apply mascara, so that her lack of sleep was less obvious. She frowned into the mirror for a second, wrestling with the sensation that she was missing something, but nothing came to mind.



So Aiko hurried across town to see what was going on, jumping fences but mostly sticking to the most obvious, conventional route to training ground 44. Aiko pulled up short when she saw the figure leaning against the fence, waiting for her.



Kakashi took a moment to look up, apparently as exhausted as she felt. “Ah,” he drawled. She forced her feet to carry her onward, and kept her face impassive. “Did you fall back to sleep? At least you made it on your own.”



She was instantly on guard. She knew Kakashi- she knew how he thought, how he worked, and that he was provoking her for a purpose. And that, from him- that was him inviting her to walk into a verbal trap. If she responded with something that came to mind, like, “Why would I need help to find a place less than an hour from my hotel,” he would say something like-



fuck.



'They didn’t specify what tower,’ Aiko realized with horror. 'I’m a foreigner, remember? I should have assumed that chuunin was referring to the Hokage tower, unless I knew that my students were supposed to go to another tower as the conclusion for their test. They hadn’t told me that yet. The teacher’s aren’t invited there until the end of the test.’



FUCK.



She’d just confirmed that she knew a lot more about Konoha than she should- or that she’d been in the forest of Death last night. Yeah. Someone had definitely seen some incriminating footage, or at least wondered at the fact that her team had been the first into the tower despite not having been flagged as a team to watch.



Kakashi was still waiting for her to respond.



So she opened her mouth and pitched her voice into a chirp. “You look tired this morning, Hatake-san. Did you have a late night?” Aiko intentionally made her expression as guileless and sweet as possible, because he’d find that really irritating.



“No.” Then he looked away, apparently bored. Conversation was over.



She couldn’t see his frustration at being brushed-off, but she knew it was there. And that was about all she was likely to get. He’d tricked information out of her (and it probably had been him, this had Kakashi written all over it), but at least she wasn’t giving him the satisfaction of rubbing it in her face.



Sure enough, he maintained sullen silence all the way to the tower, where he guided her without meeting any of the genin still struggling in the forest.



Keisuke was fine. She signed the paperwork presented to her. She pretended not to know what had actually been important that morning.



Inside, she seethed. That was a stupid, rookie mistake, and she’d walked right into it. Now she was left with two options that weren’t great.



Should she hope Konoha thought that she was overly familiar with the city- perhaps that she’d been spying on them- or hope that they conclude she had cheated?



When she was safely ensconced in her hotel room once again (the genin needed to remain in the tower until the exam was completed) she bit at her lip.



They probably suspected that she knew how to locate the tower because she’d helped her team cheat. Their lack of trust in her integrity was, of course, an arrow in her heart, but she’d somehow soldier on.  Of course she’d cheated. Duh.



It’s not like they could do shit about that.



Cheating was expected at these sort of things. They could suspect her of anything they wanted- unless she confessed or they could prove it by catching her in the act, that wouldn’t cause any complications like getting her team expelled. Boohoo, Konoha would conclude that someone from Kirigakure wasn’t a terribly honest person. It wasn’t exactly a shocking conclusion.



The real problems were that they would want to know how and why she had evaded her supervision and interfered in the exam.



They’d tighten surveillance of her, that’s for sure, now that they could be reasonably certain that she’d snuck past them somehow. But they wouldn’t figure it out. Probably. They might guess, but she doubted it- Konoha was too caught up in the mythology of the fourth Hokage to admit that if he’d invented something like the hiraishin, then so could someone else.



…It wasn’t like she had re-invented it, but the possibility was still real. And they definitely wouldn’t come to the conclusion that Jiraiya had given her the notes to reconstruct and modify it, so that first thing was a close to the truth as they could reasonably be expected to get.

All she could really do was wait it out, then, and try not to do anything suspicious again. There was more chance she’d get caught doing something she shouldn’t if they were on guard. As for the other matter-



'The simplest explanation for my motivation is the best,’ Aiko decided. ’Mizugakure needs the boost to their reputation from a sterling chuunin exam showing. That’s relatively benign, and also true. It’s better than  Konoha assuming I’m pulling the same kind of shit as Suna or Oto. They probably wouldn’t think that waiting for someone else’s invasion is much better than participating in it.’



So. She’d work to give that impression, then.



The other thing that she needed to address… Aiko grimaced.



'People will expect the team that broke the record to be better than my genin are. I painted a target on Yuusaku especially by using his face. If they perform badly or even just average… it will look beyond bizarre, and undermine the fiction that I’m doing everything and anything to impress prospective clients.’



She was going to hold her breath and hope like fucking hell that they made it through the elimination round, if there was one, and that she could somehow whip them into shape.



Or help them cheat. Whatever. She wasn’t picky.

 

Chapter 17

 

On the day that Aiko returned to the tower to retrieve her team and find out the tournament schedule, there was a somewhat unpleasant surprise and one that was incredibly confusing but probably good, overall.



So, that’s definitely Orochimaru pretending to be a Grass nin.’



Okay, there were two unpleasant surprises and the one weird thing.



“A pre-tournament,” Aiko said distastefully, folding her arms at gross surprise number 2. “Lovely. I got out of bed to watch genin scuffle.”



Asuma, who was close enough to hear, gave her an inscrutable look that somehow felt incredibly disapproving.



She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him.



It was, predictably, a hot mess. The part that was not remotely predictable and that she was internally screaming about was that Team 7 was there for it. It took Herculean effort not to react when they struggled in dead-last, looking haggard as hell.



Of course. Of fucking course. What the hell was going on?



'Orochimaru is here, is he supposed to be here? That’d be bold if Konoha knew he’d attacked a team in the forest. Maybe… Maybe he didn’t for some reason?’



Aiko watched Sasuke clutch at his neck out of the corner of her vision, and wondered what had happened. She couldn’t quite manage to look at Sakura without feeling creeped out and vaguely guilty, like she was looking at a walking corpse.



'That is intensely hypocritical. I am a walking corpse. I make a lot of them too. And presumably, she didn’t die at all. Why is that creepy to me?’



Oh, wait. Two weird things for the day.



That wasn’t the only interesting change. Karin was there. Had Karin made it to the tower last time? She didn’t think so…



'Well. Her team probably got taken out by my team in the first timeline,’ Aiko reasoned. ’But I took scrolls from different people and got them out in much less time. There are probably at least a couple fights that didn’t happen or that happened with different people because encounters went differently or because I took from Team 8 and ….whoever those other kids from Sand were. No one important, clearly.’



She had more time to wonder when the matches finally began.



A great deal of the fighting wasn’t interesting to her. Naruto beat Kiba, but Aiko wasn’t exactly worried about the outcome- even if Kiba won, he wouldn’t hurt Naruto. It was just a spar, really. Sasuke acted like a little lunatic and took out an older genin before collapsing and being taken out of the building by Kakashi. Naruto followed, missing the next matches. Karin lost to Kankuro, and then Yuusaku’s name came up with Temari’s.



Her genin gave the Suna-nin a polite nod when she met his stare with wide eyes. He began jogging down the arena stairs.



Aiko valiantly resisted the urge to cackle. Yuusaku didn’t know that she’d worn his face to smack Temari around, did he? So he was rather surprised when Temari gritted her teeth and forfeited the match. Baki was obviously displeased, but Temari had actually made the right choice. She had correctly made the assessment that she could not defeat the person she’d fought in the Forest of Death. That was a mature decision.



'She would have absolutely destroyed Yuusaku, though. Good thing we didn’t test it.’



The person choosing the matches must have been interested in a possible Suna-Kiri rivalry, because the next in the line-up was Gaara vs Ryuusei.



Gaara used some sort of sand substitution to enter the ring immediately, but Aiko’s genin took a moment to mull it over.



Aiko looked at Ryuusei. Ryuusei looked at Gaara. Gaara looked murderous.



Ryuusei nodded, expression determined. “I forfeit,” he called, leaning over the railing instead of even bothering to go down.



That was… embarrassing without context, but a good decision. And it wasn’t even half as embarrassing as the fight between Ino and Sakura. That was…



'Well. If you’re not dead, you have an opportunity to begin to suck less.’



Perhaps that would be a comfort to the two of them in the coming weeks. She had other concerns, especially after Keisuke beat Chouji to the finals in the last match, after which the match-ups for the rest of the tournament were announced.

Keisuke probably wouldn’t beat Shikamaru if Shikamaru actually wanted to win, but Yuusaku would tear through the last grass nin in the competition like paper. The problem was that he’d face the winner of the Sasuke-Gaara match, and Aiko wasn’t certain enough that it would be Sasuke. Which was heart-stoppingly terrifying if she stopped to think about it, but she couldn’t. Not her country, not her kid, not her problem. She had her own wayward genin to worry about.



Which, frankly, kept her up late night and busy the next day drawing up plans, when she could find the time.



A month hardly seemed like enough time to turn 'he’d be a half-decent chuunin’ Kiri no Yuusaku into the kind of monster who could survive Gaara. Aiko found that a disgraceful portion of her plans to deal with this were 'hope the invasion starts before that fight.’



'It seems fairly likely. He’s scheduled to fight Sasuke first, and Gaara is not a precision instrument.’ Two days after the match-ups had been announced, she stabbed her pen a little too forcefully and tore a hole where she was making notes above the transcripts that Mei had sent. Aiko cursed, but there wasn’t anything to do about it.



She glanced up from her update on the increasingly desperate state of Kiri’s emergency provisions to

check in on her genin, eyeing their practice. Yuusaku was making good progress on the water jutsu she’d given him. He was currently struggling with siphoning water off the little river and using it to coat his body. It was a worthwhile exercise on its own merits as an all-body chakra control exercise, but she was hoping he’d show some affinity for the using the water as a protective cushion. If his control was high enough, and he could manage that, then maybe…



Keisuke grunted, dripping with sweat. Aiko craned her neck, squinting to check that he wasn’t hitting the dangerous edges of overexertion yet. He was on a more physical regimen to increase his hitting power. He was light enough on his feet that he could be a real hazard in close-combat if he worked at precision and power.



He was definitely unhappy with the 'moving heavy things’ portion of his training, but he wasn’t about to hurt himself yet. Still…



“Ten minute break,” she called. The genin hit the ground almost instantly, Keisuke half-crawling to his third water bottle of the day. Ryuusei muddled up from the puddle jutsu he’d been hiding in, giving her a soggy glare for having him work on maintaining the jutsu. Aiko tapped her stack of papers against the ground to line up the edges and then carefully rolled them to slide them into a tube for safekeeping. She fastened the document holder to her right thigh, within easy reach, since she didn’t have one of the Konoha flak jackets with the convenient scroll holsters.



The genin looked a bit more grateful for the break than she thought was entirely reasonable. They’d only been on the training fields since 5 am- she’d given them the day before off the recover from the elimination pre-tournament.



Hmm.



She tilted her head back, checking the position of the sun against the Hokage monument, which was easily visible from the training grounds assigned to her team for the month-long preparation period. It wasn’t quite noon, probably around 11:20.



Aiko pursed her lips, considering it. “Alright, listen up.” Keisuke’s back stiffened with dread, but Ryuusei looked more resigned than anything. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, because Kiri really needed a rehaul of their mentoring programs if these kids had honestly expected to design their own training regimens. “You’ve got eight minutes of free time left, Yuusaku, keep an eye on that. When that’s up, I want a best out of three spars from you and Ryuusei. All taijutsu this time, and be sure to stretch. Keisuke, move on to forms. Watch your ankles, and if anything is hurting, stop right away and do some throwing practice instead. You still pull to the left on the release when you’re not focusing. Don’t smirk, Yuusaku, because you’ve got some serious improvements to make on your blocking if you want to use that sword against anything more dangerous than a tree.”



“And are you going somewhere?” Keisuke asked, looking a bit cheered by seeing his teammate’s snickers cut off.



She nodded. “There’s a convenience store nearby. I’m going to get us all a light lunch. More of a snack, really,” she qualified over their happy sounds and the victory sign that Ryuusei threw up. “A salad and an onigiri type thing, probably, because I don’t want any heavy food that’ll upset your stomachs. If we’ve made enough progress by four thirty, we’ll take twenty minutes to clean up and then get yakiniku. Sound like a deal?”



Apparently it did. And hopefully they would feel a second wind on their training after their break, which she extended five minutes before leaving. She took the walk at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sounds of her hometown bustling in the middle of the day. At the convenience store, she checked a wall clock as she picked a basket off the stack. 11:13. She’d been off in her guess by nearly twenty minutes- maybe she was looking forward to a break more than she’d admitted to herself.



Well. She might as well carve out some time she’d enjoy for herself. There was so much to get done today, and it was going to be a late night.



“You really like apples,” Genma peered into her basket, because of course he had incredibly coincidentally walked into the store a minute after she had. Wow, what were the odds.



Subtle, Konoha was not. Of course, they didn’t know she knew he lived on the other side of town and usually did his training in this time period, so maybe she wasn’t being entirely fair.



Aiko put a sixth fruit on top of the tuna onigiri and didn’t dignify that inanity with a direct response. “Good morning.” She gave him the barest glance. “I assume you’ve taken my advice and come to buy mints? The spearmint is strongest.”



He scowled.



“Oh, no. A toothbrush, then?” she suggested airily, and brushed past him to the cold section. Hmm. There was a fair selection of salads, but some of them were as low as 48 calories. The upper range was about 200. She’d said a light lunch, yes, but training burnt a lot of calories. She picked up three of the noodle-based salads with a green sauce to pour over the vegetables, and then a plastic container with some chicken and tomato over plainer lettuce for herself. Then she backtracked to add one more onigiri for each boy to the basket, because they’d need the calories.



“You’re so cold to me.” Genma said mournfully, trailing down the other end of the aisle for a hot tin of coffee. “Aren’t we friends?”



Aiko gave him a mildly incredulous look because, yes, he’d seen her naked, but that certainly didn’t make them close. “You’re moving a bit fast there, don’t you think?”



His lips twitched. “Maa, so mean.” He flipped the senbon to the other side of his lips, which did remind her… well. He had a clever tongue, that was true.



He was looking smug. Oh, hell.



“It’s one of my charms,” Aiko agreed a little belatedly. She chose to pretend that he hadn’t caught her daydreaming and dragged two bananas off the shelf to finish off the meal. “I need to get back to my team. We’ve got a busy day.”



“And they’re going to be hungry,” Genma shook his head at her. “What’s that? I think I might have cried if my sensei brought me such a light lunch in the middle of intense training.”



“You pay per person at yakiniku,” Aiko pointed out blandly. “They might as well fall upon it like starving wolves.”



He made a choking sound that might have been a laugh. “I see,” he managed. Genma walked past her to stand in line, unfortunately managing to finagle it so that she followed him- she had all her items now, so waiting would be weird. He set his coffee on the counter with a clink and turned enough to look at her while the cashier scanned it. “Well, that’s such a noble cause. I’m moved enough that I would be honored to be allowed to accompany you. My treat, of course.”



“Oh, that’s romantic,” Aiko hummed. “Just you, me, and some incredibly uncomfortable genin wishing for a quick death.”



His smile faded just a little. “Is that a no?”



“No, I think you owe me a meal just because this conversation happened.” She set the basket on the counter as soon as he stepped to the side. She nodded at the cashier who Genma had ignored. “Good morning.”



The girl ducked her head, her response quiet as she rapidly sorted the food and began bagging it.



“It’s a date.” Genma stepped in just a little too close. He still smelled good, the bastard, and his eyes crinkled when he smiled. She resisted the urge to jam her fingers into his throat to watch the smugness leave his posture.



“Have a table for five ready by five tonight,” she said instead. “Tenzama, the one nearest my hotel. I’m sure you know where that is, because you’re creepy.”



He didn’t deny it, but he did shoot off a lazy salute as he stepped back, apparently reconsidering his strategy. “Of course.” Genma inclined his head, and then turned out the door.



There was a moment of quiet, interspersed by quiet beeps of the register’s scanner.



“He’s cute,” the cashier ventured.



Aiko glanced up and read 'Aoyama Natsuko’ off the nametag on the purple-striped uniform shirt. “Not as cute as he thinks he is,” she disagreed mildly.



Natsuko made a soft huffing sound, sorting the salads and onigiri into a bag separate from Aiko’s coffee. “If you decide you don’t want him, I can eat enough beef for three and be his date. He’ll hardly know the difference.”



Aiko took a moment to consider that scenario and cracked a smile. “That’s a noble offer. I’m tempted. I’ll call you in my hour of need, if I decide I’m not strong enough to let him buy me dinner.”



“I’m here for you,” Natsuko said gravely. “That’ll be san-zen yon-hyaku en. Do you have a store card?”



When she got back to the training field, Aiko was pleased to hear that the boys had managed to finish a round of spars without any worrying aches or pains. They talked quietly while they ate, sitting a fair distance away from her.



Aiko eyed the careful ten feet between them and the tree she was sitting under and repressed a sigh. Well. They weren’t really a team. She ate much more gradually, working on her food one-handed while she read and occasionally made notes.



Kiri wasn’t going to make it until Konoha could be convinced to help out. They were still handing out emergency rations, rice cooked communally with wakame and sesame to provide a bare minimum of nutrients and calories to keep people going. But the supplemental food, like fresh vegetables and protein, would run out the day after tomorrow. The rice and seaweed would probably last another week.



She ran her hands through her hair and tried not to scream. It was so frustrating. Kiri desperately needed help from outside sources, but couldn’t afford to reveal the weakness without the benefit of gaining a strong ally. She could look to an ally in a smaller nation for some assistance, but it would come at a steep cost, if anyone even took her up on it. And if they didn’t, she would have let the information slip herself. If she approached anyone, she’d have to be certain that they would be amenable.



'I’ve got a few hundred man-en saved,’ she mulled. 'That’s not a long-term solution, but I could do supplement the emergency supplies at least. I can’t let anyone know where it’s going, so I’ll have to transport it myself. And probably stagger where I get the food, so that no one goes home wondering about why anyone would need enough rice for a village.’



They would be better off if the civilians who did fishing and seaweed-gathering weren’t being hampered by damaged waterways and equipment. Everything was a catch-22-: it was all important and it was all time-sensitive and there just wasn’t enough skilled labor even if there were materials.



Maybe half of the fishing industry’s equipment and infrastructure was still functional, but the workforce was compromised by the need for huge masses of labor to get the streets passable and homes repaired enough to be livable. A good deal of the apartments that had been abandoned over the years of Kiri’s decline had been scoped out and re-occupied, but there was still far too many people sleeping communally in community centers and schools. For one thing, they desperately needed to get the schools running again. And-



“Fuck!”



Aiko was halfway across the field, supporting the log that Keisuke had nearly been crushed by before he finished the profanity. She heard paper flapping in the wind where she’d abandoned her work in her haste.



“Thanks,” Keisuke said weakly, pink-faced and sweaty. Belatedly, Ryuusei scrambled over to help her shoulder the load.



Aiko nodded, helping lever the wood safely to the ground. “Muscles give out?”



Keisuke grimaced. “I forgot to lift with my legs, and my arms are tired,” he admitted. A muscle in his neck was twitching. “I can go again, I just need to use good form.”



Her lips twisted, not liking the idea. “Put that off for tomorrow. It’s better not to push this. Why don’t you work on the fog jutsu? I know you can do it reliably, but let’s try expanding the area of affect while containing it low to the ground. Say, within 60 centimeters.”



When he nodded, she went off to collect her scattered documents. It took a few minutes to get them back into order, but they were all there. She considered going back working on reading, but ended up putting the papers away for now and eyeing up her students. Some of them looked fresher than others.



“Ryuusei, when that jutsu gives out, start running laps. Yuusaku, switch to running sprints,” Aiko decided. “How much chakra do you have left?”



He made a face, considering the question. “About thirty percent. What distance?”



“To the treeline and back, ten second breather, and repeat. You have your- yes, good,” she approved when he pushed up his sleeve to show his watch. “Time it. It’s not as precise when you time yourself, but do your best. Do three sets of ten reps, and mark your times to map your fatigue.”



“After that?” he asked warily, pulling off his long-sleeved shirt. It got caught in his hair for a moment, floofing in a static cling when he finally threw the fabric to the side.



“Work on your flexibility and falling.”



His sigh was probably all the response she was going to get, so she took it. “I’ll be back in about two hours,” Aiko guessed. “If I’m longer, you three can choose your next exercises and another ten minute break. Stay hydrated, it’s turning into the hottest part of the day about now.”



“Yes, sensei,” they droned dutifully.



The ANBU watching her were probably wondering what she was doing, but she paid them no mind and made her way back to the hotel room. She unsealed a huge stack of bills in the privacy of her room and tucked them away in different pockets so that she didn’t have to take out a suspiciously large amount at any point in time. Then she took herself to a series of markets- staying outside of Fire Country, keeping to civilian centers. She bought family-sized quantities of rice and vegetables, carried it out of sight, and then took it back to the temporary office in Kirigakure after each market trip. No one was in at the moment, so she took a moment to wonder what Mei and Utakata were doing. Mei was probably watching Yamato, actually, and hopefully persuading him to work.



Aiko had agreed that he should be kept to humanitarian efforts- residences. He’d gain insight into infrastructure and the changing city layout, yes, but not as much as he would if set to build bridges or administrative buildings. Perhaps at a stretch he could be trusted to repair shrines or civilian schools, but even that exposed a surprising amount about community movements.



She was setting a paper bag full of onions by its fellows when the door opened.



“Oh. Good afternoon,” Mei said.



Aiko managed a nod in her distracted state, surveying her bounty. “Carrots don’t keep as well as onions, but the nuts will last,” she said. “What other vegetables do you think? Who is in charge of cooking? It’s short notice for today, but I was thinking about arranging for a special meal tomorrow to keep up morale. That’s what the tomatoes and peppers are for- I know those won’t keep long, but they’ll be a good treat. And they’re cheap.”



“And the fruit?” Mei barely glanced at the packages of umeboshi, but she was giving the mikan oranges a mildly incredulous look. Those definitely were not cheap. Vegetables were a great value, but the fresh fruit had cost her a good third of the money she’d spent.



“Scurvy,” Aiko said darkly. “We need salt, too, or we’ll have a huge problem with goiter. And we need other sources of protein if we can’t get our fishing to support at least one serving a day per person. I’m not a nutritionist, so I’m probably missing other concerns. We need someone knowledgeable to help design this program, if we’re going to have to maintain it more than a few more weeks. We don’t have the medical care system to deal with systemic malnutrition.”



“Have you considered buying plants?” Yamato asked, apparently unconcerned by the chuunin watching him while he was behind Mei. “It’s an initially steep cost, but a fair few varieties will be producing well at this time of year. Producing food within the village can save you a lot of money.”



“Manpower, water source and transport, and suitable soil,” Aiko rejected. “I’m not entirely ready to dismiss it, but there’s a lot of problems.”



“Oh, yes, the soil here is rather nutrient-poor,” he agreed ruefully. “I forget.”



She made a face. “And it tends more toward clay than anything suitable for general farming,” Aiko sighed.



“I didn’t come prepared to talk like an onion farmer, so I’ll just be on my way now that we know who alarmed the people downstairs by stamping around in here,” Mei said dryly. “I take it that you’d like to have all that brought to the distribution center?”



“It can stay here for tonight if someone from the center comes to do inventory and then has it moved in the morning.” Aiko tucked hair behind her ear, wondering if she should do one more run. She wasn’t out of funds yet- she’d accumulated quite a lot while running independent missions in the months she’d had nothing better to do. But she’d made an ugly dent in her savings, and this was only a stopgap measure. “What time is it?”



Mei pointedly looked at the clock above the desk. “Ten til four.”



Aiko rubbed at her eyes. She’d taken longer than she should have. “Right. I’ll be off, then. What time do you expect to be ready to meet tonight?”



“Seven,” Mei said. She glanced at Yamato. “You’ll be glad to see the plans being drawn up for an apartment complex. We also have a single residence completed as a model that should be ready for residence, although without electricity or plumbing.”



“Your work?” Aiko asked Yamato.



He nodded warily.



“I look forward to seeing it. Did you take the soil type into account in those floor plans?” she asked.



He took a moment to consider his answer. “I can make adjustments to the frame and base easily enough, and it won’t matter in the single-story that’s completed,” Yamato decided.



Aiko nodded, trusting him at his word. He wasn’t her ally or friend, but he was more knowledgeable than she was, and he wouldn’t resort to the open hostility of sabotage. At least not uncontrolled sabotage. He’d do nothing that would fall down on their heads without Konoha’s say-so. But he was probably doing a lot that he could use to cripple them later if necessary.



She pushed an errant rice bag over enough so that she could open a desk drawer and take another pen. She was always losing the damn things.



“How is Konoha today?” Yamato asked casually, watching her movements.



She glanced up. “Is that where I am?” Aiko asked. She stuck her pen in her pants pocket.



He made a face at her.



Mei’s eyebrows pulled down and together, glancing between the two of them.



“I’m off, possibly to Konoha and possibly not.” Aiko nodded at the two, considering how best to make her exit. She didn’t want to just use hiraishin in front of Yamato.



So she strode towards the nearest door, stepped inside, and turned around to wave. “Goodbye. I’ll see you tonight.” She shut the door.



There was a moment of quiet. Then Mei called out, “Mizukage-sama, that is the supply closet.”



“I know,” Aiko called back. Then she went to the hotel room, washed her hands, and let the baffled ANBU super-secretly follow her back to her students after apparently wandering off for a midday nap.





XXX





“I really hate that woman sometimes,” Mei told the empty conference room after she finally gave up on finding a secret passage attached to the mop closet. She held up coffee in a toast to her own statement, because no one else was going to.



After checking to make certain that the sudden silence really did mean that the Mizukage was gone, she’d hustled the prisoner out of the temporary office and back to work. He’d been obviously distracted for the rest of the workday, despite the fact that construction was clearly a personal passion.



Well. Still, she had more to show for her efforts in the days since the last check-in than Utakata did. Being assigned the prisoner wasn’t as debilitating as she’d feared, although it did mean that she’d had to let Utakata take more charge over vetting internal affairs than she would have liked.



He hadn’t seemed yet to cotton on that there seemed to be contention as to which one of them would be the Mizukage’s right hand. As long as he didn’t know there was a competition, he couldn’t outmaneuver her.



That wouldn’t last, though.



The Mizukage was late, entering the conference room at 7:23. Not that Mei was counting. She bowed at the woman’s entrance, keeping her irritation off her face. “Good evening, Mizukage-sama.”



“Good evening, Mei,” came the… oddly familiar response. Mei resisted the urge to bristle. Then she wrinkled her nose. Was that-



“I smell like smoke and meat?” Uzumaki half-asked, face wry. “I apologize for being late. Konoha is trying to wine and dine me. I’m a hot commodity.” She set a scroll case on the table and pulled out a chair.



“Oh?” Mei kept her tone light. But.. the idea of someone trying to recruit the Mizukage was amusing. Konoha was going to be terribly embarrassed when they figured that out.



The smile that the younger woman gave her implied she was having similar thoughts. “Yes, but I’ve not been charmed into changing alliances just yet. Now, first. Did that inventory get taken?”



Mei had to take a second to pull out the correct report and hand it over for perusal. The Mizukage gave the paper a dark glare- no, a squint. Mei leaned over and turned on the overhead light, despite fairly strong daylight coming in the windows.



“Thank you,” Uzumaki-san said absently, reading the report that Mei had only managed to get in the last hour. “It’s not as much as I hoped, but another week is better than nothing.”



“I’m told the lack of meat is the most immediate concern,” Mei agreed, knowing that the Mizukage would be reading about that now. “Did you have ideas?”



“We need outside help, but I think it would be better to hire a contractor to repair the damaged harbor than import and rely on outside sources.” The Mizukage tugged on her hair, still reading. “It’ll hurt the reconstruction to take able hands away from building, but it’s worth it. We need to re-establish as much self-sufficiency as possible. God knows I don’t want to go into any negotiations in a position like that. We’ll get eaten alive.”



Mei eyed the younger woman, wondering again about where she had come from. She fought like a covert operative but she talked like a politician or at least someone who was intimately familiar with administration. Where could she possibly have gotten that experience?



“I’ve got an architect who works with waterways in mind, and I think he could also be used to rebuild that fallen bridge and draft the repairs for the pedestrian one by the west temple.” The Mizukage finished the report and handed it back. “Thank you. I’ll try to make contact tomorrow, but it would create logistical issues. He and his crew would have to be housed somewhere, we’d need materials, and they couldn’t be allowed to leave until the project is finished. Hopefully not until we’re out of this weakest point in the rebuild.”



“And that will be expensive,” Mei added.



“I can afford to hire him and a small crew, I think,” Uzumaki said grimly. She flexed a hand on the table. “But that will be a huge sum, you’re right. It’ll nearly drain me. But I think it’s better to ensure an internal source of food supply rather than spend it on stopgap measures. If we can supplement it with some trade or philanthropic relief, we’ll get by.”



Mei crossed her arms, mulling that over. “The trade…. That’s not possible until we open the borders. But the borders must stay closed until we are less vulnerable. And we’d have little to offer. The treasury is all but drained, and we’re not producing any great industry.”



“But philanthropic aid from a shinobi nation requires less of a security drop,” the Mizukage said, not sounding best pleased about it. “I’m… not glad that you agree, but it offers some peace of mind.” She rubbed at her head. “I was thinking about Nadeshiko.”



“Nadeshiko?” Mei felt her eyebrows shoot up. “They’re… an incredibly minor player, and not conveniently located.”



“And would have to pass through several countries to get here, which would draw attention if it happens with any regularity,” Uzumaki-san said. “It’s not ideal. People would notice the movement, and wonder. But they’re also not likely to be concerned about the prospect that we’ve allied with such a weak nation. The great nations won’t worry and spy the way they would if we were in talks with Grass, for instance.”



She… didn’t like it, exactly, but it had clearly been considered. “What industry do they have?”



“Not much.” Uzumaki-san pursed her lips and finally seemed to notice the coffee pot. Her eyes lit up. “In terms of agriculture they have rice fields, they preserve fruits, and they’re fairly well-known for spinach.”



“Are they,” Mei said flatly. She’d never heard of this. But judging by the way the Mizukage had easily talked dirt and vegetables with the prisoner, it might be mainlander common-knowledge.



Her liege-lord eyed her sharply, but the effect was a bit undermined by the four sugar cubes she dropped into her cup.



Still, Mei looked away.



They took a moment to drink, considering what had been said so far. The Mizukage broke the silence.



“The fact that they’re a minor, weak nation even among the minor states is actually why I think they might be amenable.” Her spoon clinked when she laid it down on the saucer. “We have little to offer in trade or financial recompense, but we have the prestige of being one of the five great nations. However weakened we are, we are more powerful and respected than they are. I believe that coming changes in that region will have smaller nations feeling…” she considered her words. “Nervous. We may be able to buy assistance with merely the promise of our reputation’s protection. Or we may have to interfere in territorial disputes.”



Mei sighed. It…. There were not many options.



“If you don’t like that option, we could always travel back in time ten years, prevent the Sandaime Mizukage’s assassination of the Daimyo, and then come back to now to appeal the court for assistance,” Uzumaki-san suggested in a tone that sounded more serious than it should.



Mei gave the woman a dirty look just on principle. “I believe that ship may have sailed.”



“He screwed us out of civilian aid, you mean?” The Mizukage leaned back more than was entirely dignified, holding her coffee with both hands. “Maybe not. We might actually be better off because of that assassination, long-term.”



“We are less limited than other nations,” Mei acknowledged. “With no need to balance power between a kage and a Daimyo, the office has more leeway and ability to act quickly than our counterparts.”



“That’s true.” Uzumaki-san stared into her coffee. “But I was actually thinking about Wave.”



Mei almost asked, and then she took a moment to consider. Wave was a non-player, a relatively poor civilian state with an isolationist Daimyo, most known for his disinterest to govern the areas outside his capital, other than taxing them.



“You want to conquer it?” she asked, mulling over the idea. It wasn’t terrible. They certainly had more land that seemed suitable for agriculture, and could be used for trade that didn’t directly expose Kirigakure to outside sources.



The Mizukage shook her head. “I don’t think that’s necessary or even wise. I think we should work together.”



Work together. With a civilian nation of no affluence or cultural significance to speak of.



“I think we can offer each other a lot,” the Mizukage disagreed with whatever she was reading off of Mei’s expression. “A Daimyo could offer international respectability to our affairs and advocate with other Daimyo, as well as provide peace of mind to our civilians. We have a systemic problem stemming from my predecessor’s callous treatment of the civilian population and the divide between the civilian and military interests. We need immigration, especially of skilled labor, but we’re more likely to see a mass exodus when the borders are opened.”



She couldn’t speak, too shocked. That was a radical policy shift. “What you’re proposing,” Mei started, and then she stopped. “Are you….”



The Mizukage waited patiently, eyebrows politely raised in mild interest.



Mei managed to get it out on the third try. “You want to propose becoming one country. Taking military possession of Wave, but allowing him to take possession of land resources and administration of other affairs.”



“I wouldn’t allow him total administration,” Uzumaki-san said thoughtfully. “Frankly, he’s not very good at it, is he? I don’t think he’d even want it. I think he’d want the prestige and protection we can offer, and the international boost in standing from increasing his territory so much. He’d also like the opportunity to assign nobles and officials off the mainland- that’s ripe opportunity for court games and power plays. There’s always a person or ten that any Daimyo would like to go live on another continent.”



“You’ve been thinking about this a lot.” Mei felt a headache coming on. “It’s… It’s not immediately viable by any means.”



“It’s not. We couldn’t even begin work on it until the international community knows that there’s been a change in leadership. And it would take years to make happen, in all likelihood.” Uzumaki-san sighed. “It’s… it’s just something to consider for our long-term growth. Think about expanding our border out there, having secondary academies on the mainland to recruit from a much larger population pool.”



Larger population pool….



“You are very concerned by Kiri’s low population,” Mei acknowledged carefully. “We have had many desertions in past years, and the previous administration’s dim view of bloodline talents did not help the problem.”

“The graduation exam certainly didn’t help increase our military or encourage enrollment in the Academy either,” Uzumaki said dryly. “Yes, as you’ve noted, our military strength is concerning. But the civilian population is a dawning problem as well. They’re crucial for our economic stability, trade power, and as a source for replenishing the military. We simply don’t have the bodies we need, and it’s going to get a lot worse very soon. Incentives to improve the birthrate and ways to keep people in the workforce when they have children would help, but we need an influx of new blood. And I’d like our old resources back. That, at least, I have the power to do.”



Mei put her face in her hands, because this meeting was supposed to have been about the progress she’d made on the housing situation and the final count of condemned residences.



“I’ve written up the executive order and a draft of the press release.”



There was a rustle of paper.



“I’d like you to take a look when you have the time. Presumably we’ll be able to perform information control, but the change in administration might well come out before we’d like. If the news breaks, I’d like this ready for release. There’s no sense in waiting.”



Resentfully, Mei took the paper, but she didn’t try to read it yet.



“This is a broad stroke, I know. But the majority of our missing nin are political dissidents, not normal criminals. A unilateral pardon could bring a lot of them back in. We’ll figure out who is who and keep the ones who could be dangerous away from any responsibility or crucial roles, and there’s certainly no second immunity.”



“The international community may not like this,” Mei had to point out.



The Mizukage shrugged. “It’s our prerogative to reject and pardon our own people. They can’t say anything.”



“Alright.” Mei glanced over the hand-written document, suppressed the urge to rub at her temples, and tucked it away for later consideration. “I’ll assume that you will tell me when to release this, unless something goes wrong. If we have an information leak, I’ll send this information out to update the bingo books and friendly nations.”



“Good.” The Mizukage looked insufferably pleased, although now that Mei was looking closely, she looked tired. “Is there anything else?”



Mei felt her jaw tighten, because yes. Obviously. She opened the folder she was holding and drew out the first three documents. “Yes, a few things. First, I want to show you the plans that the prisoner has drawn up. I believe that three such buildings could solve the housing crisis, and he claims that he could construct them at a rate that is frankly rather shocking. Within two weeks.”



“Oh, he can,” the Mizukage agreed absently, looking over the plans. “He must be thrilled. Ask him about furniture, he’ll probably set up a shop and just cry over how beautiful benches are. How is that going, by the way? Any more escape attempts?”



“Just the two, so far,” Mei said grimly. “It’s a drain on resources to keep the number and quality of nin necessary to contain him when I am not available. You’re certain that Utakata-san is unsuitable for this task?”



Uzumaki-san snorted. “Oh, yes,” she agreed. “Yamato would wipe the floor with him. It’s an unfavorable matchup for any jinchuuriki, really.”



She considered that. “Even you?”



The response was a surprised look. “You know, I forget about that,” Uzumaki-san said. She blinked a few times. “But… no. No, not me. He poses no threat to me. Although I might have a solution for you to loosen the surveillance costs. I can put a seal on him that will let me know if he moves too far from the capital. If you believe he’s not going to be a significant threat, that is.”



Mei breathed deeply, mulling it over. She would like to say that he was predictable enough. But… “I can’t be certain just yet,” she admitted. “I’ll need more time. He does not have a vicious temperament, but I can’t say for certain that he would not take the opportunity to disable or damage our people if unsupervised.”



Uzumaki-san hummed from the back of her throat. “I see. I’ll put the seal on him, then, and leave his level of supervision to your discretion and judgment.”





XXX





She managed to leave Mei by nine. Aiko’s head was beginning to throb, but there was nothing for it. She returned to the office to file away request forms and anything she’d approved or rejected over he course of the day, picking up new papers from the inbox now that the workday was done. Then she backtracked to Konoha, entering her hotel room and walking down the hall to check in on the genin. They hadn’t quite made it in yet, so she waited six minutes until an incredibly unamused Konoha chuunin ushered them in, and made a pointed reminder about curfew.



They looked only mildly shamed.



“What were you doing?” Aiko asked, more weary than upset that they’d embarrassed her. She leaned against the door, fully aware that the ANBU team on the other side would be thrilled to finally be able to hear a conversation. Poor bored kids.



They exchanged a look.



“We went to a bookstore,” Yuusaku said carefully. She noticed his hands were empty.



“We love books,” Keisuke added.



Ryuusei took over. “And learning. We thought it would be relaxing to have something to do at night when we’re tired, but not tired enough to sleep.”



She considered that steaming pile of horseshit for a moment. “You’re too young to buy Icha Icha, and you didn’t have the brains to use a henge,” Aiko concluded.



Yuusaku slowly flushed a burning rose shade, but Keisuke managed to shake his head. “We thought being foreigners using jutsu in public spaces was riskier than trying to convince them that Ryuusei is eighteen,” he admitted. “He looks older than me.”



Aiko felt her eyebrows shoot up. Well. That was actually a good point. They’d been stupid, but not as stupid as they could have been. Half points, she supposed. “If you embarrass me by being out past curfew again, I’m going to break your fingers off, feed them to you, and make you compliment me on my cooking. Understood?”



Yuusaku was now green.



She waited a moment for a response. She didn’t get one, but it looked like they understood. “Good, that’s settled. Good luck getting hold of an Icha Icha on this trip. I don’t mind, but I don’t think you’ll be able to do it. Your best bet is convincing a sympathetic adult to do it for you and giving them your money.”



Keisuke gave her a speculative look.



“Any money you give me, I’ll spend on ice cream,” Aiko rejected flatly. “Or maybe sex, I’ll rent a love hotel with that nice jounin you liked so much at dinner.”



“He was sleazy,” Yuusaku said, horrified. “Oh my god, don’t.”



“You’ve got to have better taste than that.” Ryuusei’s nose wrinkled.



Aiko considered it a moment, because, actually, she didn’t think Genma was that bad. “Already done it. Him. Fairly good. Maybe six out of ten, not completely uninspiring but not world-shaking either.”



That was a lie. 8/10 was fairer. But ANBU gossiped, and she liked the thought of the look Genma would have on his face when that assessment got back to him.



There were twin sounds of disgust and a “Sensei, gross! Don’t tell me that,” as she turned around. “Goodnight,” Aiko said, putting a hand on the door. “Stay in your room. I’m not going to tell you when to go to sleep, but know that you’re going to be up at 5:30 and working at 6:00.” That done, she pulled the door shut, went back to her room, and then went back to Mizugakure.



Utakata was waiting, leaning against a wall in the area that had been designated as her private quarters.



“Hello,” Aiko greeted, making a beeline for what had been Yagura’s receiving room.



“We need more competent leadership in our outer border patrol,” he replied. His dark eyes glinted in the darkness.



Aiko gave him A Look for his theatricality and sat down on the sofa. “Why? It’s a skeleton crew, I don’t expect them to keep everything out. The closer border is going to have to do for Kirigakure’s security for now.”



“There was an incident.” He followed her to the couch and sat primly, sitting with a few hand width’s between them.



She took the opportunity to immediately lift her feet off the floor to lay her legs across his lap. “Was the backup that Yamato-san seemed to be expecting?”



“Perhaps,” Utakata allowed. “All we know is that there was an unauthorized entrance. The intruder subdued a border guard and entered. Due to confusion and absent leadership, the decision to pursue the intruder was not made until it was too late. The trail was lost. We are in a state of alert at the inner ring of security, but we cannot be certain of anything more.”



She bit down the urge to say that she would pick up this person’s trail. She couldn’t. She couldn’t do everything, she was already stretched thin. “Alright. So, there should be some reassignments and evaluations, but these things do happen. Who did you have in mind for this posting?”



“Ao-san,” Utakata said without a pause. “An older man, experienced in leadership. He has had similar postings and acquitted himself admirably.”



Aiko considered it. She was quite certain that he would do a competent job. “Alright. You can reassign him there. How’d he piss you off?”



Utakata gave her a look that she supposed was meant to convince her that he would do nothing so petty.



She lifted an eyebrow in response, because, come on. She’d once framed Itachi for killing Obito because it would get him sent to another country. She knew what she was looking at.



“Terumi-san directed him into my office in order to gain information on my activities,” Utakata said sourly. “I attempted to convince him that it was unnecessary to report on me. He remains unconvinced.”



“Yeah, he’s too loyal to Mei to turn,” Aiko agreed. She wrinkled her nose. “He’ll work for us as long as she does, and she’ll work for me as long as she thinks I’m doing well by Kirigakure or she thinks she can definitely kill me. You might able to pull Chojuro to your side, though.”



…. “Who?”



Oh, right. Ao and Chojuro weren’t a set.



“Another strong shinobi who I believe would have fought for Mei,” Aiko explained. “Trained as one of the seven swordsmen. He’s young, idealistic, and he probably wants that organization back. You’re in more of a position to make that happen than Mei is.” She sighed, stretching her toes. “This rivalry between the two of you is stupid, by the way.”



He looked mutinous.



“I don’t care, as long as it’s constructive,” Aiko warned. “I’ll allow Ao’s transfer because he really will do a great job in that position. But if it interferes with our operations-”



“It won’t.” Utakata set a hand on her leg, as if to calm her. “I understand, Mizukage-sama.”



She blinked. “Wow,” Aiko said. “That was… respectful.”



“You are my Mizukage,” he said in a soft tone. “You are also a colossal idiot with slip-shod plans I must constantly repair.”



Aiko leaned back. “That’s more like it.”



“Bringing civilian contractors to perform work will present significant financial and security challenges.”



“Mei already sent you a memo on that?” Aiko asked, honestly surprised. “I left her less than an hour ago.”



“She is efficient,” Utakata said stiffly, because he was probably butt-hurt that Mei was so terrifyingly competent. “Do you plan to pay these people up-front? You must realize that they cannot be permitted to leave until the crisis is over, but that any one person or group of people cannot be allowed exclusive knowledge of any of Kirigakure’s infrastructural systems.”



“I’m not that thick,” Aiko pointed out wearily. “I’ll need to find a couple of different contractors for different concerns, and yes, I know that it would be best to keep them all completely separate so that they don’t know who else is working in the area on what projects. I need to research this. It’s just that I know one person off-hand who could rectify our immediate food supply problem by addressing the collapsed harbor that’s crippling our fishing and seaweed-gathering industries. With shinobi cooperation, it could be finished very, very soon. But designing and supervising something like that is best left to experts, so we don’t have our city falling apart again five years down the road. The bijuu did a lot of damage, yes, but it wouldn’t have been nearly so bad if our buildings were well-done or newer.”



He gave her a black look, but nodded after a moment. “As long as you’re giving it proper consideration and not assuming it will be uncomplicated. You mentioned shinobi cooperation? I suppose that it would be easier to work on sea-adjacent structures with the assistance of water-users,” Utakata said thoughtfully.



“Yes, Mei’s lava or a stone user might be more directly useful for materials, though,” Aiko pointed out. “And I don’t know how else we would get them, to be honest. We don’t have a quarry.”



“This is not Iwagakure,” Utakata said dryly. “And I would not recommend asking them to send us a high-quality stone user. That is likely a security risk. It must be Terumi, then. She will be pleased to be useful, but I fear that the logistics are difficult and that her time is limited. Will her lava even be suitable for such a task?”



“No, no. I think that I can do it if lava is unsuitable.” Aiko rubbed at her temples. “If there’s no one else of high caliber as a stone-user in the village, I’ll make the time. I hope it won’t take long, and we’ll have to muddle out a date and time when we get there.”



“Oh.” He paused to consider that. “I was not aware that you had a doton affinity.”



She gave him a tired smile, because… no, actually, but Rinnegan could make things happen. She could do all kinds of things that she’d never truly learned if she had the Rinnegan activated. She might even be able to replicate some of Pein’s repertoire, if she was so inclined.



'And if I ever have the time.’



“I’ll attempt to make contact tomorrow. I’m fairly certain that the builder will accept, and if the work goes quickly enough we might be able to just keep them ignorant about where exactly they’re working rather than holding them for an indefinite period of time.” She felt the hand on her leg begin rubbing at her stiff muscles, which was the only reason she noticed that she’d tensed her muscles. “I know you don’t like that, but they’re civilians. They wouldn’t have much reason to know geography well enough to figure out where they are exactly. They’ll know within Mist, of course, but 'I did work somewhere in Mist’ is not really information worth selling.



He sighed, but his other hand came up to continue the massage. “Absurd. I shall do my best to find accommodations and ready the area, on the assumption that you are successful and that we will see them within the week.”



Right. She paused for a minute, and considered just taking a nap right where she was. It would be very nice, and frankly, the idea of going back to Konoha and doing this all over again was exhausting. Doing paperwork all day while she trained genin and dodged Konoha’s attempts to spy on or turn her, meetings with Mei and Utakata and hopefully Tazuna, and… well.



“What else did you discuss with Terumi?” Utakata asked.



Aiko considered it, feeling tired. “Nothing worth re-hashing, really. There were a few things I picked her brains on that I’ll be asking you about before implementation, but nothing that will be coming up soon.”



“I see.” His thumbs ran up the insides of her legs gently, tracing light shapes around her knees and calves. “Nothing critical, then. You may be pleased to note that we have established a satisfactory system of day care and temporary schooling with a civilian staff. It has freed up more capable people to  perform labor, and is returning some normalcy. It will quickly become a problem for the schools that are serving as emergency housing due to crowding concerns, but I believe that Terumi-san is adequately addressing that concern.”



“That is good,” Aiko admitted, letting her head loll back against the couch. It was a relief to see things starting to pull together. “Just little stuff, I assume?”



“Literacy, mostly,” Utakata admitted. “We do not have the teachers for a full curriculum, but it is easy enough to find adults who can teach kanji and some writing or low level maths to children younger than twelve. Anyone older is working, so higher education is not yet a concern.”



“I see.” She closed her eyes and relaxed for a moment, but her guilt wouldn’t let her drift off. “If there’s nothing else, I should get going,” Aiko said regretfully. “I picked up a bundle of independent contracts last night, and I need to make some progress on them.”



“Oh?” Utakata asked, tone light.



“We need money,” Aiko said wryly. “And we’re not doing many missions with the state of things. I have a narcotics shipment to move, but tomorrow is probably the earliest I can do that without really surprising the client. There’s something I should retrieve and someone I could kill tonight, though, and do the drop-offs tomorrow night.”



He made a disapproving sound and pushed her legs off of his lap. “It sounds as thought your night is scheduled to be quite busy.”



“I know,” Aiko said mournfully. “But you sleep well, yeah?”



“I will, of course. Like a child.” He stood, tall in the moonlight. “I shall see you tomorrow night?”



“With the update on Tazuna-san,” Aiko agreed. She leaned over and patted his hip, because he’d withdrawn awfully quickly. “I’m sorry. I’d rather be here too. I bet you’re not exactly thrilled with your sudden career change.”



He sighed. “Good night, Mizukage-sama.”



Well… Alright, then. “I’m off to work.” She stood, checking that she had everything, and then took a moment to remember her mission details.



Fuck everything, basically.

 

 

Chapter Text

chapter 18

 

 

Is it really necessary to have me approve office supply acquisition?’ Aiko wondered, scanning through the lists for anything that seemed odd. She wasn’t saying it was extraneous paperwork, because she really didn’t know. Maybe it was good procedure to know what had been done with public funds even in such small accounts, so that larger possibilities for abuse didn’t go unnoticed. Or maybe it was just that the public funds were currently so low that it was a reasonable exception in procedure.



She rubbed at her eyes.



The purchases seemed to be in order, anyway, for a small office. She really needed to get some staff assigned to help with organization. But now wasn’t the time to take anyone away from other projects. Everyone was overworked and everything was time sensitive, so the fact that she was overworked wasn’t an excuse to take resources from anything else going on.



She looked up sharply before she knew why.



Nothing was outwardly wrong- the genin were still working on their warm-up exercises, and dawn had nearly broken over Konoha, bringing with it enough light for her to work by.



But there was something coming. She could feel it. Wary, Aiko stood.



There was a rustle in the trees, an ominous wind that pulled smaller branches to the point of bending.



“I HAVE COME FOR A REMATCH!”



Aiko closed her eyes. She put her face in her hands. She did not look at where she knew Gai-san would be standing, teeth gleaming in the sun and expression one of absolute determination.



“Sensei?”



Ryuusei’s voice was impossibly meek.



She sighed. “Keep working,” she told the genin. There was nothing to do for it, so she faced the jounin head-on.



'He brought Lee. He came to challenge me, and he brought Lee. Why? Surely he doesn’t bring Lee around with him all the time. He certainly doesn’t always bring his students when he wants to compete against Kakashi.’



“Shinobi-san,” Aiko greeted. “Have we met?”



His face fell, just for a moment. “Surely you remember me!” Gai was certainly standing in a heroic manner, backlit marvelously by the rising sun. “The last we met, you defeated me in a foot race. But I have been training hard, shinobi-san! I’ve come to regain my honor. Perhaps through another competition. What do you say?”



'He’s either teaching Lee a lesson on perseverance, or he’s trying to make me regard this interaction as harmless and dismiss him as a threat,’ Aiko decided. ’Probably both. Gai is clever, and he’d be able to give a very good gauge of my abilities after even one spar. He’s not doing this for the hell of it, although he probably would spar me for the sheer fun of it.’



“Ano…” She tugged on the end of her braid. “Sorry. I don’t recall. And I’m pretty busy anyway, I don’t think I have time in my schedule for a competition. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to say no. Perhaps another time.”



She was, in fact, too busy to get into a spar that would quite possibly put her in the hospital. But that would look like a bald-faced lie to Gai-san. She regretted that a bit.



To his credit, he looked only a little downfallen. “Another time, then!” Gai gave a bow. “I will try again another day. Lee! We must begin our training.”



“Yes, Gai-sensei,” Lee agreed cheerfully. “Goodbye, Kiri-san!”



Aiko waved. “Goodbye, Gai-san, Lee-san,” she said, nearly stumbling over the honorific for Lee. Her habitual, reflexive honorific would have been inappropriately friendly.



They made no reaction, but Gai would have noted the oddity. Who knows what, if anything, he would think of it.



Her genin stopped pretending to be absorbed in their stretches. “Wow,” Ryuusei said. “That man was really weird. Why did he think that he knew you?”



“He was telling the truth, obviously,” Aiko responded absently. “We met in Fire Country months back. When I was traveling with Utakata.”



“Why’d you pretend that you didn’t know him, then?” Yuusaku asked. He sat up straight, giving up on reaching his palm past his toes.



“So she didn’t have to spar with him, obviously.” Ryuusei gave a little laugh. “What would be the point? She’s far stronger than he could be.”



That… might not be true. She would probably win in an actual fight, if she was the one to start it. But that was no reason to be dismissive. In a spar, when neither of them were playing to kill, he would probably win 4 times out of 5. She could surprise him once, or maybe twice, but after he knew her tricks… He was good enough to counter her and win.



“Don’t be foolish,” Aiko said sharply. “I’m a taijutsu specialist, and he’s my superior in that by far. I wouldn’t fight with him unless I had no other option.”



Yuusaku made a face like he thought she might be joking. Ryuusei and Keisuke exchanged skeptical looks.



“Why would you make the assumption that he’s weak?”Aiko pushed, irritated by the arrogance of that lazy thinking. “Because he’s loud? Because you think his clothes are strange for a shinobi?”



“Because he’s weird!” Keisuke burst out. “He’s really weird and not stealthy at all.”



“He’s not?” She let her eyebrows raise. “How do you know? Do you think he was trying to be stealthy right now? And as for weird, so what? If anything, that should make you wonder if he’s not more than you would otherwise assume. Eccentricities are more easily afforded to the powerful. An administration will excuse more irritations or oddities for an especially valuable resource.”



“Jeeze.” Keisuke huffed, shrugging. “Alright, we won’t judge books by covers.”



“Thank you,” she said. “And with that in mind, let’s try again. Why do you think I refused to engage?”



Keisuke rolled his eyes, but answered quickly. “Foreign jounin comes looking for a spar, he’s probably trying to gather information. Which we didn’t think because of our assumptions, which means that by being loud and weird he was in fact being stealthy. Yes, I get it now, sensei.”



Aiko blinked. “Yeah, you kinda cut off my next point,” she agreed. “I was on kind of a teacherly-roll there, couldn’t you let me finish? The other two didn’t think that far ahead in the conversation, did they?” She looked at Ryuusei and Yuusaku for confirmation.



Yuusaku shook his head, a little embarrassed by the failure.



“Not for a minute,” Ryuusei said honestly. “I was thinking about lunch.” He did not look shamed at all.



“It’s five thirty,” Keisuke said incredulously. “We just ate.”



Ryuusei shrugged.



“See?”Aiko asked Keisuke, who was giving his teammates withering looks. “Let me finish next time, don’t spoil it for the others.”



“The short version is fine,” Yuusaku disagreed. “Feel free to cut sensei’s lectures off. I don’t understand half of them anyway.”



Aiko tossed the scroll she’d been reading at his head, slowly enough for him to dodge but with enough force that it rolled a while. “No,” she said firmly, shaking a finger at him. “Bad.”



He raised his hands, palms-out. But he was smiling, so she hadn’t gone too far and frightened him or anything.



She sent them all back to work. Aside from a nap between 8 am and 10 am, she worked diligently as well, approving requisition notices and going over the reports of the disturbance that Utakata had mentioned as well as other security notes. It probably was Yamato’s backup… Who would that even be? ANBU, for certain. Which of Yamato’s ANBU peers would be doing missions out of Konoha at the moment? Not Kakashi or Genma, for certain.



'Oh, crap.’ Aiko nibbled on the end of her pen, getting ink on her lips. 'I have a suspicion.’



They broke for lunch a little late, but this time Aiko actually shelled out for a hot lunch that she and Yuusaku carried back to the others. This time, the students sat a little closer, which was a nice expression of progress. Maybe they’d make a team after all.



She didn’t want them to know that she was pleased or draw attention to it, so Aiko kept up with her work while she ate again.



The next papers she found were dossiers from the outgoing genin class that would be graduating in a month’s time. Really? It was her job to look at these folders and decide how the teams would be made up? That was…. shouldn’t their teachers have input in that? They’d know better than she would how the students interacted on a personal level.



A little worried, she flipped through the stack to see what kinds of teacher comments were given to each student. They were briefer than she would have liked- each student got a sheet of paper with the class rank, skill levels, and a few comments about personality and work ethic. Some of them didn’t have more than a half-page of writing. This seemed… it made her nervous to make this kind of decision. She wanted a lot more information than this.



There was some general things about the composition of the classes that she noticed, however. It was considerably smaller than Konoha’s graduating class, with 3 classes of twelve students rather than 4 classes of 36. If enrollment had dropped that low, no wonder they’d had to get rid of that graduation death-match tradition, they’d have no shinobi at all otherwise. The general demographics were sharply weighted towards water-natured shinobi with better skills in blades than any other specialisation, there were no students with any type of special ability noted, and the male-female ratio was the same as it was in Konoha.



“Oh.” Aiko tilted her head. “So we’re kind of an odd team then.”



The genin exchanged a look, their conversation trailing off. “Sensei?” Ryuusei ventured.



She waved the papers. “I’m looking at the new team assignments,” Aiko explained. “Looks like the gender ratio is about 2 to 1 male to female, so that’s the usual team breakup. I guess we’re an anomaly.”



The genin looked deeply, deeply uncomfortable and didn’t look at each other. Ryuusei strategically shoved an entire dumpling in his mouth. Keisuke opened his mouth, and then closed it.



“O—kay,” Aiko said uncertainly. “It’s not that interesting, I know. Wanna go back to talking about how to hit things really hard?”



“This team was intended as a standard formation,” Yuusaku said carefully. “Is that a problem?”



What?



Oh.



She blinked. “No.” For a moment she wondered which genin had been- but no, it didn’t matter. “Of course not. I don’t care what your birth certificates say, I care how much you improve your running times this month. Speaking of which, some of you are making more progress than others. Some people could stand to daydream less when they should be sprinting. Not naming any names, Keisuke.” She paused pointedly. “Oh, damn.”



“I’m not daydreaming,” he argued. “You said not to push myself if my ankle hurt.”



“Wait, your ankle has been hurting and you didn’t tell me?” She felt a headache coming on. “You’ve gotta be fucking with me here.”



“It’s not that bad.” He looked mutinous. “Just a twinge sometimes.”



“Don’t sass me, we’re in the country with the best medical care in the world.” Aiko scowled at him. “It’d be stupid not to make sure things are fine.”



“Are you my mother?” Keisuke asked. He crossed his arms. “Because you sound like my mother.”



“Your mother sounds like she knows what’s up,” Aiko retorted. She sat up straight, putting her paperwork away. “Maybe I’ll bring her along next time we have a long mission and she can help me. I’d love to hang out with your mother. We’ll be friends.”



“Please don’t bring his mother,” Ryuusei said under his breath, stabbing at a piece of chicken.



Keisuke gave his friend an offended look.



“What? You don’t want her to come either,” Ryuusei defended.



“Yes, but you can’t just say that about someone else’s mother,” Yuusaku pointed out, incredulous. “What would you say if I said I didn’t want to spend time with your mother?”



“I’d say-”



“Boys,” Aiko interrupted. “This was a half-decent attempt at distracting me from the hospital trip and all, but we’re leaving in four minutes and anything you’ve not eaten is going to be my snack while you all do pushups. I won’t even enjoy eating all your food, but I’ll do it. It’ll probably make me sick. Do you want to make your poor sensei sick?”



Yuusaku sighed, pushing his hair out of his face. “It was a good try,” he said philosophically.



Ryuusei started scooping rice into his mouth with rude haste. Luckily, they all finished their food before her imposed time-limit.



The hospital in Konoha was a somewhat awkward experience as a foreigner. The civilian staff didn’t seem to care much, but there was a definite chill to the air with which the student medic-nin took Keisuke’s initial questioning before a matronly doctor did his exam and said he’d strained the large muscle up the back of his ankle.



The doctor pushed her rolling chair backwards to give the genin some space, blinking behind square glasses. “If you’ve no hurry, it would be better to heal the natural way. I’ll get you a brace and have you ice and elevate. But if you’ve got to get back to your work in the next week, I’ll find one of the shinobi interns and have them soothe you right up. What do you think?”



When Keisuke looked at her, Aiko shrugged. “Your medical treatment is your call,” she reminded. “You’ll lose some conditioning if you heal slowly, but you’ll probably have a stronger ankle in the long term. It’s not a huge risk, though. Either decision is fine by me.”



“Um.” His jaw flexed.



“I’ll give you a moment to think about it,” the doctor said. “You there, young man. Yes, you.”



Yuusaku stiffened.



“You’re breathing rather shallowly. Since you’re here, why don’t you hop up on the table and let me have a listen to your lungs?”



Aiko suppressed a smile at the dumbfounded expression on her genin’s face. This was the kind of medical environment that she remembered. “Yamaguchi-sensei?”



The older woman didn’t entirely turn. “Yes, shinobi-san?”



“I’m going to go to the restroom. Thank you for your excellent care.” She threw her genin one last look. “Do as the good doctor says.”



“Yes,” Ryuusei answered cheerfully, echoed a moment later and with less smugness by his peers.



“Good.” She slid the door quietly behind her and took off to the right. She hadn’t been lying about her destination, although she was more interested in washing her hands after lunch than using the facilities. Aiko checked her reflection, grimaced, and made a conscious note to put some makeup on tomorrow. Her skin was not exactly glowing after the sleepless nights she’d been having.



It was pure coincidence that she was leaving the room when someone familiar went to step inside.



“Hey.” On impulse, Aiko nearly reached out to take Karin’s sleeve and only thought better at the last moment. “Uzumaki Karin?”



“What?” Karin whipped around, sneering. She gave Aiko an up-and-down without showing the slightest hint of intimidation at a foreign jounin, because of course Karin wouldn’t.



Aiko felt a fond smile threaten to come out. “Uzumaki Aiko. I see that incredible good looks are genetic.”



The look Karin gave her now was longer and kinder, lingering on the set of her jaw and her nose. It was a little uncomfortable under that stare, but Aiko endured it knowing that Karin was looking for hints of shared heritage.



“Good looks are genetic,” Karin allowed generously. “Some of us get more than others, but there’s not much to do about that.”



“Sad but true,” Aiko agreed, letting her mouth curve into a bitchy little smile and her gaze rest on Karin’s chin judgmentally. Karin occasionally worried that it was too pointy.



Her itty bitty cousin began coloring pink.



“It’s nice to meet you,” Aiko said, seriously meaning it. “If Grass doesn’t work out for you, come find me.”



Karin gave a cutting little laugh. “Me? In Kirigakure?”



“I don’t have a lot of family,” Aiko said, not rising to the bait. “If you get into trouble, or maybe if you’re just not seeing your career going anywhere, tell a Kiri-nin you’re my little sister. They’ll probably curse at you, but they’ll take you to me.” She nodded goodbye and stepped away while Karin was still looking for a response. “Please excuse me.”



She could feel the teenager staring at her back.



'Nostalgic.’ Aiko flexed her fingers. 'Maybe I should find Sakura and see how she is, since I’m here. Would she still be in the hospital?’



Probably not. And actually, no one would be happy about her presuming to visit one of Konoha’s genin. Kakashi was more protective than he seemed- he might actually try to drag her out of Konoha himself. He’d already warned her off of his team once.



It was, on some level, a relief that he would take care of the rotten little bastards, since she couldn’t do it.



'He’s doing better without me anyway. I’m the only difference, and Sakura survived this time. That probably means that I fucked up somehow in the test design or administration. There was some weakness that Orochimaru exploited last time that he couldn’t now.



“No, brain,” Aiko told herself. “We’re not doing that recrimination today.”



A passing medical ninja pretended not to be watching her intently. Aiko privately acknowledged that she, too, would be somewhat wary of a Kiri-nin talking to themselves in a hospital. She kept her mouth shut until she reached her genin again. They had acquired suckers in the time that she’d been gone, and Yuusaku had a blue bandaid with ducks on his arm.



“You went with the chakra healing, then?” Aiko asked, because Keisuke didn’t have a brace on his leg.



He nodded. “I’d rather work hard while we have your undivided attention. Who knows what time you’ll have when we get back to the village?”



She opened her mouth. She shut it, because actually she couldn’t say that she would make time for them. Although she was starting to like them, and she did like training sweet baby ninjas. It was so sweet watching them try to be deadly. But no. She had a job. A full-time job.



'Tsunade trained Sasuke while she was Hokage.’



Yeah, well, Aiko wasn’t Tsunade. Also, Sasuke was just one genin.



…but he was one genin who was younger than these ones, and needed more individual attention. But he’d still become perfectly terrifying in good time, and he’d gotten an excellent education in leadership and administration that would give him valuable job prospects.



Hm. Something to consider. And not just for these three- what training opportunities did Kiri’s genin and chuunin have? Autonomy was needed, yes, in order to begin branching out and working as an adult. But these three had been working without supervision far too early in their careers. Was that the norm in Kirigakure for children who didn’t catch a powerful sponsor’s attention? How could she begin to change that?



'Oh my god, stop,’ Aiko told herself. 'No. No, no, no, I can only have so many projects at once. Mark that in a folder labeled 'consider later’ and just leave it be until I’ve put away what I’m doing now. I can’t do everything at once.’



Outside the hospital, Aiko stopped to consider what needed to be done now. It was 2:30… Far too early to stop training for the day. But she needed to head to Wave. Her impulse was to set the boys to training on something that they could do without supervision. But they’d all done muscle-building exercises yesterday. It didn’t make sense to push that two days in a row. A rest day, or some other kind of growth day was a good option.



“Sensei?” Ryuusei laced his fingers behind his head. “What now?”



'I want to take them with me to Wave,’ Aiko decided. 'Can I do that without anyone getting really suspicious?’



Probably not. If there were no noises coming from the hotel rooms that supposedly had four people, the ANBU might risk peeking inside.



'I can take one, and leave the other two to watch tv or something. Read a book, play a game.’



It’d be hard to do that without singling a student out. The other two would feel excluded, and then one who went would probably resent missing a chance to relax.



She sighed. “Here.” Aiko unfolded her wallet and pulled out man-en. Yuusaku took it on reflex, eyes wide. “I think you should take a few hours off. Do whatever you want. There’s a movie theater, a bowling alley, or a game parlour. Ask around, maybe spend time with some foreigners. You’ve got to be getting bored with me by now, find someone your own age.” She used a hard tone on the end that hopefully made clear that 'make a friend’ was the assignment for the day.



Keisuke opened his mouth, probably to ask her what she would be doing. Then he realized that of course she wouldn’t and shouldn’t answer that. He shut his mouth sheepishly and shrugged. “Alright. We’ll find something to do. Is that our budget? Can’t you find a little more within your heart?”



Ryuusei gave him a scandalized look.



“You’re going to have to live with that,” Aiko said dryly. “I know you three have some money of your own. You got a budget for this trip, you rotten bug, and you’ve been letting me pay for it all out of pocket.”



'Did he forget that I assigned the budget? Honestly, trying to pull one over on your kage. Cheeky.’



“It was worth a shot.” He shrugged. “What time should we be back?”



“Curfew,” Aiko said firmly. “Eat without me, I’ll make my own plans.” She paused, knowing an ANBU was closer than usual and they would wonder what she intended to do all day. “Or maybe I’ll just sleep through it.”



“That’s not healthy,” Yuusaku scolded. He frowned down at her. “Sensei, how are you ever going to get big and strong if you don’t eat your vegetables?”



Her eye twitched. “I’m going to throw you in the river, see if I don’t,” Aiko said in her most reasonable tone. “I’ll lean over the bridge and laugh.”



“Can you see over the railing?” he asked. He actually looked concerned, the little bastard.



She took a moment to check their surroundings, and determined that there were too many civilians milling by for her to sweep his feet out and put him on the ground. It would be unfortunate to cause an accident.



“Be good, children.” She reached out and punched Yuusaku’s arm. “I’ll see you in the morning, if not tonight. Practice is at 5:00 am, and I’m not waking you up this time. Meet at the field.”



“Hai, hai,” someone muttered, but she was already walking away.



XXX



“Hikari-chan!” Tsunami actually hugged her as soon as she realized who was in her doorway. “Oh, what are you wearing?”



“Hello, Tsunami-chan,” Aiko said fondly. She returned the squeeze, careful not to use too much strength. “I’ve found myself working for Kirigakure lately, actually. I was hoping to talk to your father on their behalf.” She glanced down at the drab uniform that had surprised Tsunami- it was black slacks, white socks, and a black high-necked shirt with subtle grey stripes. It was meant to go under the flak vest, but Aiko hadn’t managed to scare up a vest that was truly in her size yet. The one that she’d brought to Konoha for when she absolutely had to have one was large and, of course, fucking heavy. The design really was unfairly preferential to shinobi with a lot of upper body strength in the same way that Konoha’s were. It was just so incredibly shitty.



“Is that so?” Tsunami barely seemed surprised, but then, she was under a helluva genjutsu. Aiko didn’t think she could end it now if she wanted to. “Well, that’s interesting. We are very close to Kirigakure, so that makes a lot of sense. I’m sure Inari-kun will be excited to see you dressed like that. He’s been playing ninja since that team from Konoha left.”



“Oh?” Aiko followed the older woman into the house, noting with pleasure that it looked less shabby. The water-marked shoji had been replaced since she had last visited. “I can imagine. He had a very good experience with shinobi.”



“Haven’t we all?” Tsunami asked absently. She put on some water for tea. “Would you believe that after you left, Hatake-san told me that you were a shinobi?”



Aiko froze, because, awkward.



“He thought I didn’t know!” Tsunami had a sweet laugh, genuine and a little hiccupy. “Honestly.” She shook her head. “I told him that we grew up together. Oh, we didn’t talk about it, but we knew there weren’t many reasons for a woman like your mother to travel for work the way she did.”



'She’s been filling in the gaps of the genjutsu I gave her with whatever makes the most sense,’ Aiko realized. ’Well… It’s a good story. And Konoha will believe it, coming from her. Kakashi probably put as fact on my record that I grew up in Wave with a single parent and worked as a solo contractor.’



“I’m happy to have a village to work for now,” Aiko said, steering the conversation back to the present. “It’s a lot more secure, although a large cut of my mission earnings have to go to public funding and other things. It’s not quite as lucrative, but it’s safe.”



That was all true. The bits about losing her earnings to fund public works was true to a hilarious degree that Tsunami would not assume.



Tsunami hummed. “Oh, I can imagine,” she agreed. “Although it’s hard to imagine Kirigakure being secure. They don’t have the best reputation. There’s a reason that Father went to Konoha.”



Aiko winced.



“Partly that they wouldn’t know there were Mist-affiliated rouges in the area,” Tsunami allowed thoughtfully. “He didn’t want to pay for that.”



…She didn’t even want to get into that discussion, although she was aching to burst in with an educational lecture about how wrong that was. No. Now was not the time.



“Do you think your father would be interested in working a contract with Kirigakure?” Aiko asked, a little strained. “I’m empowered to negotiate salary considerations and can provide a little information on the project. We would also offer shinobi assistance, assuming he believes water or stone jutsu would be helpful to provide materials.”



Tsunami paused, looking up from pouring the boiling water over leaves. “We,” she said thoughtfully.



….what?



“You said we,” Tsunami explained. “You really are considering yourself part of Kirigakure already, aren’t you? How long have you been working for them?”



Aiko strained to remember a date, but couldn’t. “Since after you saw me last,” she said. “I met a Kiri-nin and became friendly. We went there together and I ended up getting a position that I think I’ll keep for a while.”



“Hmm.” Tsunami’s eyes narrowed, but she seemed to shake away whatever trepidation she was having. “Well, father might like another story to tell, since this project went so well. And I know that several of the men who were on his crew would like some work. Would Kirigakure want to hire them too?”



“As many workers as possible,” Aiko said honestly. “The skilled manpower that Kirigakure can direct to this project is low.” She took the tea she was offered, though it was still a bit too hot.



“I see.” Tsunami tapped her fingers against her cup. “Father won’t be back for hours. Will you be waiting for him?”



Hours? Aiko shook her head. “I can’t,” she apologized. “I could try to return at a more convenient time tomorrow?”



“He leaves pretty early most days. How about 7am?” Tsunami suggested. “I’ll talk to Father tonight and see what he thinks. We’ll have breakfast together and talk business after I take Inari to school.”



She tried not to be too obvious in her relief. At least, until she remembered that Tsunami wouldn’t judge her for it or run to tell anyone about Aiko being suspiciously exhausted. “Thank you,” she stressed. “I really appreciate this. It’s the first big project I’ve meant to get going, and Tazuna-san was the first person that I thought of.”



Tsunami smiled brightly. “It’s no trouble at all. I was going to do some sewing- would you like to stay and just talk for a while, or should you be leaving soon?”



“I can spare an hour.” Aiko ran her fingers over the scroll in her thigh holster. “Actually, there’s something I could work on.”



“Oh?” Tsunami asked politely. She reached to the counter for a basket of oranges and began to peel one.



Aiko watched the way the peel came off in one long spiral and enjoyed the scent released into the air. “I need to write a letter. A few quiet minutes to sit down and think about it could be very helpful.”



Not to mention a place to write where there was no one trying to see the paper or waiting to dig around in her garbage for clues. She didn’t want to try writing her letter to Nadeshiko sitting outside while someone used binoculars on her.



She got her first draft done, and was rather pleased with it. Carefully, Aiko blew to dry the ink, and then rolled it back up.



“I’m heading out,” she told Tsunami. “I’ll see you in the morning. Is there anything I can bring?”



“Oh, no,” Tsunami demurred. “We have enough on hand.”



Aiko waved that away. “How about fresh fruit? Maybe some melon?”



“Well… That would be very nice.” Tsunami brightened. “I look forward to seeing you, then. Please have a safe trip.”



“Thank you, I’ll do my best.” Aiko gave her friend another hug, and then stepped into her boots. “Please have a good night. Excuse me.”



She stepped out of the house, shut the door, and  immediately moved to her office where she bumped into her desk. The lights were off, and the shutters drawn. She grumbled under her breath and flipped on the light.



The Konoha shinobi who had been standing very, very still in the hopes that she continued not noticing him gave her an alarmed look.



Aiko sighed. “Hello,” she said unenthusiastically. She tossed the envelope she was holding onto her desk. “Please consider yourself a guest of Kirigakure as of this moment, Konoha-san. Unless of course you would prefer to fight?”



He looked at her, really examining her. She could see him calculating the odds. “You’re the Mizukage, aren’t you?” he asked, somewhat awkwardly.



She nodded. She sat down at her desk and held out her hand.



Raidou carefully put the letters he’d been reading into her waiting grip. “I, ah. I’m looking forward to my stay,” he said in a tone heavy with irony. He put his hands behind his back.



“Lovely.” She indicated the seat across from her desk. “Let’s talk about how you’ll be helping Kirigakure while you’re here.”



He blinked.



“Yamato-san is very skilled with wood-working,” she said blandly. “Do you have any similar talents?”



“Um.” Raidou reluctantly sat, eyeing the entrance in her peripheral. He folded his hands on his lap. Someone had heard voices and was knocking on the door. “I’m afraid not.”



“That’s fine. We’ll find something you can enjoy until Konoha gets around to sending the paperwork explaining that you’re meant to be here for diplomatic reasons,” Aiko said dryly. “I imagine that yours are just as lost at Yamato-san’s?”



He didn’t blink for slightly too long, clearly wondering if this was the story Yamato had given her. “Must have left them at home.”



“Probably in your other pants,” Aiko agreed. “Do you like bridges?”

chapter 19

 

 

 

“So, this is what you’ve been doing for the last month?” Raidou rubbed the back of his neck. “Gotta admit, I was expecting more thumbscrews. And less…” He squinted at the compass Yamato was using to change a detail on his plans- they were adding lateral braces to increase the likelihood of the building making it through a tsunami intact. “Less whatever that is.”



Yamato’s brow furrowed. “Me too,” he admitted, drawing the addition carefully and scratching out a bit of math to figure out what that would do to the load-bearing wall adjacent. He glanced at Terumi, who was probably close enough to hear. “I think that was on the schedule, but there was a change of strategy. Welcome to your indefinite working vacation. Today we’re making the first foundation. Are you helping me? I’ve not been assigned a lot of assistance for some reason. Almost like they don’t trust their genin around me.”



“That would be hurtful. You’re a very trustworthy guy.” The older man shook his head. “So, our working vacation, huh?” Raidou’s mouth twisted. “That sounds familiar. You spoke to the….” He glanced at their Kiri escort and clearly decided against whatever he had wanted to call Uzumaki-san. “The Godaime Mizukage?”



If Yamato had to venture a guess, he’d say that Raidou had been leaning more towards ‘the slightly crazy person’ than the term of respect. Or maybe he was projecting. Maybe Raidou had had a perfectly reasonable interaction and she hadn’t done anything creepy or abruptly nonsensical in the time they’d spent together. He did notice that the Kiri ninja didn’t seem to know Raidou’s name yet, so probably not.



“Yes,” he answered belatedly. “That’s the one. You know, she’s been bringing me books.” He paused. “From a library in Grass. I’m not sure what to think about that. I didn’t know they had an architectural college, to be honest. That seems like a thing that I would know. I’m a little embarrassed that she knew and I didn’t.”



Raidou paused, probably wondering the same things. How was this person apparently all over the continent? Could that woman actually be the Mizukage, kami, who would have voted for a person like that to rule their country? When had that happened, anyway? Why had she chosen to fight the Yondaime Mizukage in her city and cause so much damage? Why was she pretending to be in Konoha?



Or… the other way around, maybe the one in Kirigakure was the body double or whatever was going on?



He didn’t see her frequently enough to say definitively. And one would think that long-term visitors to Konoha would enjoy at least half the scrutiny that long-term visitors to Kirigakure did. Someone should have noticed whatever was going on if it wasn’t more convincing in Konoha.



“When I was enjoying the city,” Raidou said, dryly side-stepping around the espionage-y truth that all of them knew, “I did hear rumors that the new Mizukage defeated the fourth in battle and sealed away the Sanbi. It all sounded rather heroic. She’s pretty directly credited with saving a lot of lives. People get a bit poetic about it.”



Well. Actually, that was a pretty good reason to approve of someone’s nomination to kage.



But was it true or just propaganda? Terumi’s posture didn’t change at all, making it impossible to gather any information from a reaction.



“Sealed the Sanbi?” Yamato wondered. “I hadn’t heard that bit. You would think that we would know about a seal master of that caliber.”



'Jiraiya-sama would, for certain. That could be very useful information. If I can get it out. If they don’t kill me once I’ve outlived my use.’



If she was a seal master, that was probably how she was doing… whatever it was she was doing that allowed her to practically be in two places at once. Was it some type of clone sustained through seals that allowed her to continually feed chakra to it? Or.. Well. The only other explanation he could think of would be some kind of transportation technique. He wasn’t an expert, but it was difficult to see how sealing could work to overpower a shunshin or anything like that safely. How had the fourth Hokage’s transportation technique worked? There must be some way to do it if he’d done it, but…



Yamato had a horrible, sinking feeling.



It was just… The Uzumaki were supposed to be legendary seal masters, right? And if both the Nidaime and Yondaime Hokage could come up with hiraishin, then maybe it wasn’t so crazy to think that a determined Uzumaki could be inspired by them and replicate it, or come up with something similar.



It wasn’t- it didn’t seem likely, but none of the options he could think of did. If she truly did have an instantaneous travel technique, that would account for the few and odd hours that she seemed to keep in Kirigakure, as well as the surprising amount of autonomy that Terumi seemed to have.



Working with that theory, the most compelling question was why she wanted to be in Konoha so badly that she would delegate reconstruction that she was obviously invested in. That… couldn’t possibly be good.



“That’s enough gossip.” Terumi’s voice was hard, but she wasn’t looking at them. Was that- was that Kirigakure’s rogue jinchuuriki approaching?



Yamato blinked hard, but the well-coiffed man really did appear to match up with his memories.



“Terumi-san,” Utakata said, voice cold. “Good morning.”



The smile she gave him was equally icy. “You must be very pleased that Mizukage-sama has decided you are fit to assist with something that matters.” She indicated Raidou. “Try not to lose track of him, or banish him to the borders while he is in your care.”



'That is incredibly unfortunate.’ Yamato kept his expression blank throughout the sniping. 'If I’d been the one assigned to Utakata, I would have been out of here weeks ago, and Raidou wouldn’t have had to stay and get captured himself. Bad luck.’



The blue-haired young man at Utakata’s shoulder shifted uncomfortably, not looking directly at Terumi. Yamato could sympathize a bit. He wouldn’t like standing between, say, Kakashi-senpai and Nara Shikaku, if they were acting like this.



Why was Utakata even here? He wasn’t a recent deserter- he appeared to have left for personal reasons, not Kirigakure’s political maneuverings. So there was no reason that the death of the Fourth would have brought him back into the fold, as far as Yamato could tell.



'Which means that there’s something I don’t know.’



Well. That was nothing new. Glumly, he watched Raidou leave with the jinchuuriki. They hadn’t gone very far before Raidou obviously tried to strike up a conversation, body language friendly and open. He was rebuffed.



'Maybe he’ll be able to get something out of Utakata.’ Yamato turned his attention back to his work, making sure everything was in order before he would begin actually working with his jutsu. He didn’t like the idea of using it for Kirigakure, but they couldn’t seal away his chakra if they wanted him to use it. 'Terumi is far too clever for me to learn anything useful from her. But Utakata is younger, and seems less experienced.’



To be honest, one of the most intimidating things about the Godaime Mizukage was the fact that Terumi Mei seemed to take orders from her. He’d never seen Uzumaki-san in a fight, but he knew enough about Terumi to be very, very nervous. What that implied about the holes in his knowledge was concerning.



Really, in this line of work, it was what you didn’t know that would make you miserable down the line. For example, what the Kirigakure shinobi didn’t seem to know. He hadn’t dared ask Raidou what had happened to their third, but he could guess. A guy like that would be halfway to Konoha by now, since the mission had ended with both of the senior members captured.



He couldn’t be too smug, or relieved that things would work out. The thing that Yamato didn’t know, sadly, was whether their junior member would be reporting to the Sandaime or to Danzo.



XXX



Gai stopped with the chopsticks halfway to his mouth, caught in a rare moment of open calculation. Kakashi glanced over to see what had caught his interest when food was on the line.



Oh.

He leaned over and stole some of Gai’s soba on principle. Genma was staring shamelessly through the windows, and it was starting to become incredibly unsubtle. Didn’t matter. She wouldn’t be able to see in, anyway.



“Oh look, it’s your incredibly shifty friend,” Asuma said, noting what they were looking at. “The children-hating one.”



Kakashi considered expressing his derision for that. “Whose friend?” he asked, legs tense under the table. “She seems to respect Gai a lot more than Genma.”



Genma’s nose crinkled, but he didn’t actually disagree.



Gai practically beamed. “I am pleased to hear of the assessment you overheard! It was quite flattering.” But he went back to polishing off his food, giving only a momentary frown when he noticed that he was missing noodles.



“It was suspiciously flattering,” He ignored the wounded look Gai shot him. That wasn’t what he meant, and Gai knew it.



“It’s not exactly a secret that Gai’s exceptional with taijutsu, but it’s a little odd that some random Kiri-nin would know it off hand,” Asuma agreed. His eyes were narrowed in dislike, even though Uzumaki had disappeared into the crowd. “They’re isolationists. I know she could have investigated him after her initial confrontation, but the way she acted that first time is… concerning.”



“By her behavior, it would not surprise me if she had heard of me before,” Gai agreed. His brows were drawn low. “It was done so casually that I did not think to be suspicious when she redirected me from a fight to a race. In retrospect, this does fit very well with her recent admission that she would not like to fight me. It was cleverly done. She reminds me of my very excellent Eternal Rival, in fact.”



Kakashi felt his back stiffen.



Asuma choked. Genma threw his head back and actually laughed.



“What.”



“It’s true,” Gai protested, enjoying it just a little. “She is not as Cool and Hip-”



Asuma started laughing too.



“but she took similar postures, and she certainly feels the fire of a competitive spirit!”



“I can see it.” Kurenai sat down, back from the restroom. “She does act like Kakashi-san on the clock. Maybe more when he was a little younger- a bit cocky, on edge. Before he mellowed a bit with age.”



None of that was at all flattering. He glowered, feeling his shoulders creep upwards.



Kurenai was entirely unaffected. “She uses similar misdirection in conversation, although I think her general attitude may actually be worse than Kakashi-san’s.”



Asuma stopped laughing long enough to posit, “So, she’s the female version of Hatake. Only she threatens her genin a lot instead of ignoring them to read when they irritate her.”



Genma made a speculative face. “I really wouldn’t be surprised if she was into Icha Icha. She just seems like the type, you know?”



That set Asuma off again.



Kakashi kicked him under the table. When Asuma made a wounded sound and looked over, he was already hiding his face behind a book. “Fascinating,” he said, in his least interested tone.



“Do you think it’s time to try again?” Genma fiddled with his senbon, picking at his teeth. “For Gai, I mean.”



“I don’t think there’s any reason to wait longer. Our window isn’t unlimited.” Kurenai casually reached over Asuma and took his tea. “If Genma can’t convince her to stay in Konoha, we should gather as much information as possible while we have her in the city. She is a figure of some concern. We should know about anyone who could compete with Gai or Kakashi.”



“So, don’t challenge her to a spar,” Asuma said sensibly, taking Kurenai’s cake in retribution. “She’ll turn that down. But if you try smaller things- things that she thinks are harmless- you might be able to work her towards something more telling. And you could still learn about her personality and problem-solving to construct a profile.”



“I had been thinking the very same thing,” Gai said gravely. “I will try in the afternoon, once she has eaten with her team. Is it not noble that she spends so much time with them? It is inspiring.”



“Is that what it is?” Kurenai asked under her breath. She didn’t exactly approve of pushing your genin into a river. It had appeared to be completely unprovoked.



In Uzumaki’s defense, Kakashi had contemplated the same thing many times. And the kid was fine, anyway. His teammates had laughed themselves nearly to hysterics when Uzumaki leaned over the bridge railing and made a rude gesture. It had seemed to help the team dynamic, actually. He was leaving town with Sasuke tonight for concentrated training, but perhaps once they were all together again he could give that a try.



The only hard part would be deciding which genin to dunk. Water might improve any one of them.



“She’s got quite the routine planned for them,” Asuma pointed out fairly. “She’s clearly thought towards advancing their skillsets in a complementary way that plays to each of their strengths. I know she doesn’t seem like she’s been their sensei for a long time, but-”



“She’s an experienced teacher,” Kakashi agreed absently, drawn from considering the benefits of pushing each genin in a river. Maybe he’d just soak all three of them. It’d be satisfying. But would it serve the same purpose? Probably not.



Kurenai nodded, conceding the point. “And she’s invested, in a way she wasn’t just two weeks ago when she came here. That speaks to responsibility, doesn’t it?”



“Like she’s so used to being in charge that she couldn’t help it.” Genma leaned back, tipping his chair off the floor. “Maybe I’ve been trying the wrong tactic by trying to romance her.”



“She does seem more interested when you’re not acting invested,” Asuma agreed. “Casual.”



Genma shook his head. “No, not that. I meant that if she’s really the type of person who accumulates responsibility wherever she goes, she’s gotta be incredibly stressed. She doesn’t confide in people- at least, no one here. So what she’s been doing with me was just letting pressure out of that toxicity when she’s about to boil over. That’s why she wasn’t interested in the dinner- romance isn’t in the cards.” He grinned, like a shark. “What she needs is a friend. A controlled release of that stress, by someone close enough to sense when she’s weak and prod it out.”



“Kami wept,” Kurenai said under her breath. She might have rolled her eyes, if she was a less controlled person. “I never want to hear you talk about making friends in that tone again. You sound very strange, Genma-san.”



He shrugged. “I think I’m right,” he said. “I made romantic gestures, and I tried implying that I could help her by feeding her students and empathizing with them. She doesn’t want or need a partner in that, or a love interest. She won’t want my help. I think I’d be better off trying something that distracts from all that instead of convincing her that she’d have a support system in Konoha. Or if I let her think that I would take orders from her, but I don’t think I’m that good of an actor. It’s hard to imagine that she gave up independent work for a village- she’s controlling. I’m not sure what Kirigakure offered her, but I hope we can match it.”



Kurenai sighed. “I’m choosing to believe that you are not quite this calculating about your interactions with that lovely chuunin in Intelligence. Michiko?”



Genma made a noncommittal sound.



This wasn’t a productive area of discussion, so Kakashi laid his chopsticks down. “Come on, Gai.” He dug in his back pocket for enough to pay the bill and began meandering to the counter. “Try challenging her again, while I can watch. I’ve got to leave soon.”



“YES!” Gai shot to his feet, and then actually jumped over the table to beat Kakashi to the counter. “That is an excellent suggestion. Surely this time she will accept.”



Asuma reached for a smoke, shaking his head. “I know you’re not going to let her see you, but that might be interesting,” he said amiably. “She was twitchy about your team, and she deliberately spent that time with you in Wave. She wants something from you.”



Kakashi gave him a bored look. “Surely you’re not implying there’s some reason that no woman would spend time with me without an ulterior motive. That would hurt my delicate feelings.”



“I’m straight-out saying that,” Asuma agreed. “I imply nothing.” Then he winced, which was probably Kurenai digging her heel into his foot.



She gave the two leaving a polite smile, resting her chin on her palm. “Good luck.”



Kakashi let Gai go ahead once again, being the flashy one drawing attention while he came in a moment later from another direction. Uzumaki had made it back to her training area and was sprawled on the grass. She was clearly in the process of picking up papers to keep them out of view, her attention focused on Gai as if she’d predicted his arrival.



'Is she a sensor? Or did she just react quickly enough that it looked like she knew ahead of time that he was approaching?’



Kakashi tuned out Gai’s bellowing in favor of watching the Kiri-nin. The genin were watching Gai with more interest and less incredulity than before, so they weren’t entirely hopeless. The pointy-faced one was actually looking a bit unfriendly.



It was Uzumaki’s body language that was odd. She seemed comfortable enough around Gai. If he hadn’t heard her admit that she was wary of him, he wouldn’t know that she considered him anything other than a mildly pleasant acquaintance.



'She didn’t categorically deny that she was stronger than Gai when her genin claimed that,’ he considered, thinking over what that might mean. ’She just said that he was better than she was at taijutsu and that she doesn’t want to fight him. That doesn’t mean she thinks she would lose in a fight with Gai. Was she boasting? Or downplaying her abilities to teach her students the lesson about underestimating enemies?’



To be fair to everyone involved, her taijutsu was sharp. He’d not been at his best when they’d fought, but it was still clear to him that she was formidable in that regard. She considered herself a taijutsu specialist- but did that mean it was her only advanced skillset?



“an invigorating test of strength and perseverance!” Gai finished bellowing.



There was a moment of shocked silence, as the genin worked to process the fullness of Gai’s enthusiasm. Uzumaki’s face was calm, professional, distant.



Until it wasn’t. She broke out into an incredulous smile, though her body language didn’t warm. “Konoha-san. Do these look like the arms of someone who does more than a hundred push-ups for any reason other than direst necessity?” She pushed up her loose sleeves, revealing the outline of a muscled but slim bicep. Kakashi had seen less muscle on shinobi before- genjutsu and ninjutsu specialists, mostly.



But she absolutely did not look like she could perform exceptional feats of upper body strength.



“I would not presume strength by such a thing!” Gai put his hands on his hips. “I am well aware that the most graceful form can conceal strength. You need not think further than the emitable Tsunade-sama, or indeed, many of my lither coworkers and peers!”



Uzumaki’s eyebrows moved up as she made a little pout, seeming to concede that he had a fair point. “Still, I prefer not to.”



Gai hummed, which was the first time that Kakashi realized that he had suggested that competition fully expecting it to be rejected. “Then let us do glorious battle with cartwheels! I can do them with perfect form, until-”



“No, thank you,” she interrupted, almost sounding bored.



“Jumping jacks! Tic-tac-toe! Janken! Or perhaps we will race-”



Her mouth opened-



“in the trees,” Gai finished mischievously, which was a competition hilariously biased towards a Konoha nin. He was hoping she’d pick one of the games, then, and begin to relax.



Uzumaki made a considering sound and tilted her head. “Can’t touch the ground, three times 'round?” she asked casually. “I think that the full village circuit would be an enjoyable run. And I’ve been sitting a lot today.”



Kakashi frowned. Was she truly so cocky about her speed that she would agree to a race in an environment where her opponent had such a large advantage? Did she think she could win?



Gai was similarly surprised that she took him up on it, taking a minute to nod in furious agreement. “As you say!” He began stretching. “From the gates.”



“Why don’t we add a friendly wager,” Uzumaki said genially. “Loser brings the others’ team lunch tomorrow. I think it’s fitting, since you’re interrupting mine.”



Gai actually flushed, because it was entirely possible that he had failed to notice that Uzumaki was in the middle of eating. He rallied quickly. “Acceptable!”



“We eat a lot,” Uzumaki said, and for the first time, Kakashi realized that, actually, she was not being pleasant. This was her retributive streak.“And I think that we’d like steak.”



Her genin had developed concerning shark-like grins with the crudely sharpened teeth you could expect from Kiri-nin.



She was intending to wreak revenge for being interrupted, possibly because she was well-aware that Gai would continue to return unless she truly put him off.



'She absolutely believes that she will win,’ Kakashi realized. His jaw clenched. 'That’s… is it arrogant?’



It was not. It was not arrogant, because he knew she would win by the second lap. He wasn’t sure how she did it, because he couldn’t expend the chakra necessary to keep up in the race without being noticed. But she definitely did something.



He saw it once- she was running neck and neck with Gai, teeth gritted and limbs flying. Then she was simply ahead- no handsign, no chakra rising. She was keeping pace with him and then she was four inches ahead. Gai roared, gained speed, and gradually began to gain ground again, feet pounding.



It wasn’t that it was an effortless victory- she was clearly working hard, and he would have said she was exceptionally fast even without…. whatever she was doing.



'And when he catches up, she’ll do it again. She’s doing that again and again to rub it in. Or maybe so that he can’t say she cheated by leaving the route. She’d lose without it, but not by much. I think Gai’s setting a personal best right now.’



He waited by the gate, leaning in clear sight with his book up as if he was waiting for Sasuke already. So he was in good position to see the finish. Uzumaki went a good ten meters past the finish line before dropping out of the trees and swinging in a slightly wavered walk towards the city line. Her fingers were trembling, a bit, when she lifted the hem of her shirt to mop at her face. He looked away so she didn’t catch him staring.



Gai had barreled a good forty meters past the line in his failed charge to regain the lead, so it took him a moment to make it to the gate.



“Gai-san?” She cut him off before he could begin a speech about the nature of defeat and how he would learn from this experience. “I’m not changing my mind about the steak, but I want ice cream tomorrow, too.”



“Are you certain you wouldn’t like bath salts instead?” Kotetsu said under his breath inside the gatehouse.



His partner huffed. “Or a hospital stay,” he muttered back.



“Those would be good too,” Uzumaki allowed. She was too busy trembling and trying to breathe to notice them startle at the fact that they had been overheard at that distance.



Kakashi felt his mouth curve into a humorless smile. That was an interesting piece of information. They’d learned a lot from this.



'And it lends credence to what Genma said earlier- that it seemed like she could hear us on his headset. That means that we can’t trust her reactions were as real as they seemed. She could have been feeding us information. And she’s almost certainly realized she’s under surveillance.’



“Hatake?”



She’d noticed him, and her expression was calculating enough that she’d probably guessed it wasn’t a coincidence he was there.



He rallied by waving his book at her. “Afternoon,” Kakashi said lazily. “Waiting on a student. So lazy. Late. Very inconsiderate to his poor sensei.” Then he went back to his book as if he didn’t care in the slightest.



There was a slightly hysterical giggle from one of the gate chuunin.



XXXX



She felt like hell. That was the best run she’d ever had, and she apologized to Hoseki in her mind for even thinking it. But it was true, she’d never ran that hard in her life. By the time she’d started to need that kind of speed, she’d been able to compensate with hiraishin. And she’d done that just a bit today, but only just a little. Just enough to be sure that she’d win.



Aiko stretched again, putting her forehead directly on the cool grass between her spread feet, arms sprawled over head. She pretended not to hear Yuusaku asking Keisuke if they should find a doctor.



Oh, wait. That required a response.



“I’m fine.” She turned her head just enough to make the words clear. “I’m going to be recovering for the next two days, but I’m fine. Go back to work. You should be inspired. That’s the kind of speed I want you to aim for.”



“I would die,” Yuusaku said matter-of-factly. “I would rather die. People aren’t supposed to do that.”



Work, child.”



They went back to working. Or at least they stopped chatting, which, whatever.



“I think I bought us a few days without Gai-san,” Aiko said to the grass. “He’s only a human, too.” That wasn’t said with quite as much confidence as she’d like. “He’ll take some time to reevaluate and think of a new challenge. If he comes back. Maybe he’s done.”



She paused.



“Or maybe he’ll propose a new challenge when he brings lunch tomorrow,” she allowed. It was hard to tell with him. “Anyway, be proud of sensei. I got you a great lunch, I bet. A Konoha nin would know the best places to go, and he seems like he’d be generous in defeat.”



She considered getting up. Briefly, she considered dying instead, because it would take less effort. But somehow she managed to pry herself to a sitting position, and then to standing. Aiko surveyed her team. “How is that jutsu coming, Yuusaku?”



“I think I’m going to get it today.”



Aiko nodded weary approval. “Good, good.” Before he could get too proud, she continued, “That’s the first part of the technique I want to teach you. The easy part. The part that when I learned it, I spent about an hour on. I’m a little concerned,” she said, words spilling out easily. “Once you’re done, I want you to practice your control. I was thinking that running in the trees would be good practice for all of you, actually. It’s a good control exercise, and faster travel in this environs. Plus, when else will you get the chance to practice it? If you need to fight a Konoha nin in the trees, you’re not in a good place to stop and ask for tips.”



“Oh my god,” Keisuke said quietly. But no one actually argued, so she considered it good enough.



“Do that after I leave.” She somehow picked up her knapsack. Her back was aching. “Until six. Once you all finish your current exercises. I’m going to go shower.”



“And collapse?” Ryuusei asked.



Aiko nodded. “That too.”



She didn’t really remember the walk back to her hotel. It was a little embarrassing, but she was actually tired enough that she couldn’t sense her observers. She was definitely not going to finish reading the last of those reports before five. Some of them were just going to have to wait.



A shower helped, a bit. She might have fallen asleep standing there if someone hadn’t knocked at the door.



“No,” Aiko said mournfully.



The knock came again, a cheery little tap-tapa-tap.



She sighed and turned off the water. She wrung her hair out, and wrapped herself in a towel without actually toweling off. When she opened the door, she immediately realized that she should have expected this.



“Heard you raced Gai.” Genma seemed spectacularly amused. “Thought you could use some painkillers, dinner.” He held up a brown box, spinning lazily from twine. “Maybe company.”



Aiko considered it.



“That’s…really thoughtful,” she said slowly. It was suspiciously thoughtful. She knew perfectly well that he had ulterior motives for spending time with her, but it was still… too nice. She didn’t trust it.



His face started to lighten, tension she hadn’t noticed lifting.



She reached out, snatched the box, and slammed the door shut. Just to see what he’d do.



Genma coughed. “That’s how it is?”



She narrowed her eyes. He sounded like he wasn’t really that phased.



His sigh was heavy, but resigned through the door as she opened the box to see if it had what he said it did. By the heft and smell, it was probably dinner- for two people. “You know, I’m really not sure I deserve this kind of disregard. If you don’t want me around, say so.”



“I don’t want you around,” Aiko said absently, leaning back and beginning to untie the twine. “You’re spying on me.”



“Am not.” Genma actually managed to sound indignant, though he kept his voice low. “My job is to convince you to stay in Konoha, not to report on  your activities. I certainly haven’t said anything about all that paperwork you’re getting from nowhere, or the fact that you weren’t in your hotel room when I tried last night. The ANBU probably think we had sex last night, by the way. It would have been pretty suspicious if I’d left instantly.”



Was he telling the truth? Aiko felt her jaw grit and she set the box aside without getting the flaps open. “That’s ridiculous.”



“Which part of it?”



“All of it,” she lied, but she opened the door and gestured for him to enter. “I think that someone would know if I was leaving my hotel room. Unless Konoha shinobi don’t watch all the exits. Or you think I’ve dug a tunnel out underneath the bed?”



“I don’t think that,” Genma agreed genially. He reached into a pocket as he stepped in, bringing out a little bottle of pills with a clatter. “I don’t know what I think, other than that you’d spook and my mission would be a bust if I came clean to Konoha about what I think I know.”



She felt her lips twist into a smile that lacked humor. “You’re terribly candid.”



“I think it’s been proven that you’re a valuable resource,” Genma corrected. He tapped the bottle against his palm twice, letting it rattle. “Too valuable for me to alienate over standard chuunin-exam espionage.  You said you were a free agent just months ago.” He raised an eyebrow. “And here you are, wearing a Kirigakure uniform. I think you’re flexible.”



“I’m wearing a towel,” Aiko pointed out, but it was obvious that she was on the defensive.



“That’s a pretty weird way of answering the door,” Genma acknowledged, tone light. “Would you like to take a moment to get dressed?”



She considered it. Honestly… she was so sore that the thought of dressing was miserable. And it wasn’t that she felt threatened by Genma. If she needed to fight him, weaponless, in a towel- well. She’d come out on top, or at least be able to leave.



Besides, he’d seen more. So had half of Kirigakure. Whatever.



“Too much effort,” Aiko said bluntly. “I was hoping that nudity would make whoever was at the door uncomfortable enough to leave.”



“Plus you’re sore as hell?” he asked bluntly.



She didn’t want to admit weakness. But yes, obviously.



Genma made a tsk sound. “I’d offer a massage, but I imagine that you’re not in the habit of letting near strangers sit on your back and do things you can’t see.”



Her expression must have been answer enough.



“Why Kirigakure?” Genma opened. He leaned against the wall. “Any of the five great nations would provide more security than a smaller one, or none at all. But Kirigakure- they’re isolationists, they’re in political turmoil, and they’re not friendly to bloodlines. Not very friendly at all.”



“I’m not worried about that.” Aiko took a few steps away, considering doing something about her dripping hair.



He smiled. “And that’s interesting, because it really wasn’t that long ago that Kirigakure came to Uzushiogakure and killed nearly all your clan.” There wasn’t anything kind about the way he said that unfortunate truth. “Even if you’re not holding a grudge, they can’t possibly trust you.”



Aiko remained silent. No, they didn’t trust her, exactly. But they were in too desperate straits to protest against semi-competent leadership. If she was going to have problems with dissidence and sabotage, it would come after the worst had settled down.



“Konoha is traditional allies with the Uzumaki.” He tapped the pills again. “And you’d know that we weren’t just hoping to stick a bijuu in you- we’ve only got one of those. And as I’m sure you’re guessed, it’s nicely sealed away in an incredibly appropriate host.” Genma raised his eyebrows. “A host who you’re interested in. You have family in Konoha. Do you have family in Kirigakure?”



No. Aiko felt her lips thin, because that was a low blow. “It’s pretty of you to say that Konoha is preferable based on old treaties with a country I’m obviously too young to have lived in,” she parried. “Tell me again of what good friendship with Konoha did for Uzumaki in the last hundred years?”



He looked uncomfortable enough at the hostility that she had a thrill of victory. He’d made it personal, but he hadn’t been ready for her to take it personally?



“Poor Kushina-san met a sticky end in Konoha,” Aiko said, knowing she was going too far even as she did. But this was an old bitterness, something she’d been choking on since her cradle. “She made a sacrifice purely for Konoha’s benefit, and what did that loyalty get her? Had she stopped breathing yet when someone made the decision to put that bijuu in her infant? Kushina-san consented to a terrible burden, but that child never did. He was just convenient, a subhuman vessel for Konoha’s burdens and bitterness. Why would any Uzumaki want to live here, seeing how that boy is treated? I knew he was malnourished and unloved the moment I saw him. Do you ever wonder what Kushina-san would say?”



Genma was pale.



It felt like she should be shaking with fury, but her tone was low and cold and perfectly steady. “Keep that forked tongue behind your teeth, Konoha. Don’t talk to me about how Konoha loves the Uzumaki.”



'He looks like he’s never considered that an Uzumaki might be bitter about the jinchuuriki business,’ Aiko thought incredulously. 'Like he’s never empathized with Naruto long enough to realize how monstrous it is to make that decision for an infant.’



And that, more than anything, was the final straw.



“None of you deserve to wear that.” She nodded at the shoulder spiral standard to the Jounin uniform of Konoha, Uzushio’s mark proudly displayed on people who callously used her family. “Get out.”



His jaw clenched. She could hear the metal senbon click against his teeth. Slowly, Genma set the pills down on her bedside table and put his hands in his pockets. “Alright, then. I’ll leave. I’m sorry that I took the conversation there.”



She watched him, dislike heavy in her chest.



He waited a moment or two for a response. When he didn’t get one, he gave her an awkward little nod and let himself out.



Aiko stood, simmering for a time. She could feel the Sanbi paying attention, rising to the upper limits of her consciousness in a way that he hadn’t deigned to for weeks. He was angry too, he was the tempest and the fury and he was darkly satisfied just as she was to have lashed out at someone representing the hellhole where her kind had first been imprisoned, bound to this path by the actions of someone who hadn’t the right to make that decision for so many, no right to set that precedent.



She blinked. She took a moment to sort through that feeling, not entirely certain if it was hers or if it was the Sanbi’s. It…



'It applies to both of us,’ Sanbi said definitively.



Aiko couldn’t disagree.



In that moment, with fury giving her energy, it was clear that she couldn’t sit around for the rest of the day. She considered her options. It wasn’t terribly difficult as a choice- she got dressed in a cold, precise anger. She put on full makeup, she put her hair up, she pulled on the dress uniform and took a moment to check the full effect. Professional, polished, impressive enough for what she needed to do today. It ought to strike the right first impression.



There was actually very little chance that Konoha would think she had any energy to go sneaking out today. Not with the way she— she didn’t hurt, actually. She didn’t hurt at all.



Aiko paused, straightening her back just a bit.



'Don’t get too used to it.’ Sanbi wasn’t friendly, exactly, but the old hostility wasn’t there. 'It costs me nothing to help you heal. This doesn’t mean I’ll be giving you my blood and bones for your jutsu.’



Slowly, she nodded. “Thank you.” Her voice struck the still air more loudly than it really should be.



He made a low sound that might have been a grumble, a deflection of the generosity he’d displayed. 'Don’t you have a village to visit?’



“I do,” Aiko said under her breath. “I think it’d be politer to deliver this letter in person, don’t you?”



Fuck Konoha. They were slow, and she couldn’t afford to wait on them and choke on their hypocrisy. Kirigakure was going to be leaner and meaner and they were going to get that way with or without Konoha’s help.





XXX





When they got into the office, Sandaime already looked tired.



Genma slightly regretted that.



“Is she gone again?” the Sandaime asked, sounding like he expected very little.



He nodded. “Probably. And no, we don’t know how yet,” he added deprecatingly, before that could be asked. “We did, however, get an outpouring of information.”



“Oh?” The old man was giving his full attention, eyes brighter. “What kind of information?”



“Our first emotional response,” Hatake butted in. He looked and sounded about a hundred times calmer than he must be, because that was how he reacted to stress.



Genma didn’t sigh, but it was close. “I got her angry,” he admitted. “That wasn’t my intention, but it was a significant break from the public face she’s been presenting. I believe it was legitimate. I also believe that we now know why she went to Kirigakure, and that it was largely that it was the first opportunity she had to ally with a village she had no grudge against.”



The caveat there was obvious. The Sandaime’s gaze flicked to Kakashi, who had encountered Uzumaki before she’d joined Kirigakure.



Hatake shoved his hands in his pockets, apparent disregard rising in proportion with how uncomfortable the topic made him. “Uzumaki-san has comments about how we might improve our treatment of Uzumaki in general and Naruto in specific.”



Lines slowly deepened on the Hokage’s face.



“She was rather familiar and well-informed,” Genma added. “Referred to Kushina-san by first name. She appears to have strong opinions about the relative morality of an adult choosing to become a jinchuuriki and an adult making that choice for an infant.” His lips twisted, remembering the tongue-lashing. “Her feeling about the latter is 'no’.”



“With a side of 'fuck Konoha,'” Hatake mused. “Her strong feelings cannot be emphasized enough.”



“But she knew enough about the situation that I can only conclude she investigated.” Genma steered the conversation back on track. “She was interested in Konoha. What she found made her angry and disillusioned, but she wants to be here.” He paused, because this bit was risky. “If only for Naruto. She only lost her temper once I brought up the fact that she has no family in Kirigakure. She’s very aware of that. I think that she could be convinced to tie herself to Konoha, if we allay her fears.”



Her discomfittingly accurate fears, unfortunately. The track record between Konoha and Uzumaki that she rattled off had been well-considered.



Hatake sighed. “Well, I’d better be off.”



The Sandaime eyed him incredulously, and Genma felt himself doing the same. Dismissing yourself from a meeting with the Hokage was rather impudent.



“Oh, it’s nothing important.” Hatake fluffed up his hair. “Sasuke-kun can wait a little longer if you prefer. He’s a the gates, waiting to leave for training.” He paused. “Probably. It’s only been an hour.”

XXX





It took some doing to get herself into a meeting with Nadeshiko’s leader. They were small, and didn’t have the large administration or -apparently- an especially busy day.



It was still, however, rather ballsy on her part to even hope to meet with the country’s leader on the first day that she made contact. So Aiko was entirely blasé about being asked to wait four hours, shuffled from building to building and taken on one flustered tour of a historical landmark just to kill time.



She didn’t have anything better to do in Konoha. And so what if they dared open the door and discovered she wasn’t in there- were they going to accuse her of something? What grounds did they have?  



'When we attempted to invade the privacy of a foreign delegation that we allowed in under strict treaty conditions, we couldn’t locate them or any proof that they were engaged in any activities counter to our interests. We cannot speculate about how they escaped our notice, but we can’t outright disagree if they say we must just have not noticed them walking out the door.’



Mm. That’s the kind of statement every country wants to issue. Everyone else who caught wind of that would laugh themselves sick. The only thing that would accomplish would be making Konoha’s security look weak.



The thought that the ANBU might have dared check in by now and that Konoha would be running the same calculations she had kept Aiko in a fairly good mood.



The meeting went well.



“I would not call you a liar, but I would need some assurance.” Shizuka was hiding her nervousness, but not quite well enough. “It is… rather fantastical to think that Kirigakure’s administration has changed so much in such a period of time. One of the great nations has never had a female leader. Among the smaller nations, Nadeshiko still stands alone. Have the times changed so much?”



Aiko didn’t let her irritation show, because the other woman was being perfectly reasonable in thinking she was possibly an opportunist. “I understand your caution,” she said. “I’m afraid that for a variety of reasons, we are not yet ready to publicly announce the change in leadership.”



Shizuka eyed Aiko in a way that implied she could think of a reason or two that might be true. She probably didn’t know that Aiko was pretending to be a jounin in Konohagakure in hopes of taking advantage of the chaos Orochimaru’s invasion would cause. So she probably was not thinking of the correct reason. Still, she could think what she liked.



“We could, however,” Aiko shifted on her zabuton, “make public that the Yondaime Mizukage has perished and that the Godaime has been decided. Would that be enough reassurance?”



The other woman took a moment to think it over, swallowing.



Nadeshiko wanted an alliance with one of the great nations. She was wavering. But she was suspicious of Kirigakure’s motivations and honesty. It would not be the first time that a great nation used and discarded a smaller country.



“You are suspicious,” Aiko said, ignoring the polite deflection that came. “That is reasonable. Without transparency in our agreement, you lack the protection of the international community’s awareness of Kirigakure’s proposed responsibility to Nadeshiko.” She smiled, and it was a pleasant one, because she actually wanted a respectful, mutually beneficial relationship. “I propose a bonder. The nation of Iron is honorable, powerful, and removed from shinobi politics. Together, you and I, or our representatives, will deliver a copy of our agreement to the great samurai lord of Iron. He will keep it in trust, and know if Kirigakure is remiss in our duty.”



Shizuka was still, calculations flickering behind her eyes. “Iron.” She flexed her fingers slightly. “Iron is acceptable. I understand that this is a matter of some haste? We could draft up a preliminary agreement today and begin the exchange of humanitarian relief as soon as Mifune-sama has the papers.”



“We can do that tomorrow, if the draft is made satisfactory in time,” Aiko said, because keeping hiraishin a secret was not worth the human cost that would be lost by delivering the communication by foot. “I possess some small skill at crossing great distances quickly.”



From the look on her face, Shizuka might not believe it. But she would when it was demonstrated. And she would see the benefit of tying herself to Kirigakure even more.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

 

 

Aiko heard running in the hallway seconds before any of her students did.



Stupidly, her first thought was that someone in Konoha had heard the news that Kirigakure had announced there had been a change in leadership and that all burnt personnel were invited to return. But she’d only told Mei to take care of that yesterday… The information had probably been released in the afternoon or late morning. Konoha wouldn’t know less than 4 hours after the fact.



Maybe they’d know tomorrow.



“Hikari-san! Hika-gah!”



Oh. I should have predicted this.’



A scuffle ensued what seemed to be less than a meter from her hotel door. Someone yelped.



Keisuke and Yuusaku looked at each other, but Ryuusei just sighed and leaned back on his cushion.



There was a sound suspiciously like someone whispering furiously right outside the room.



Aiko closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head. This was an obvious set up. But Naruto wasn’t aware of that. If she expressed her displeasure, she’d hurt his feelings. Fucking Konoha. “Yes, Naruto-kun?” she called.



The door to their hotel room slammed open triumphantly. Iruka still had Naruto by the collar, but that didn’t appear to be dampening his enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you were in Konoha!” He pointed at her accusingly. “Why didn’t you tell me, ne? Ne?”’



“I thought that Hatake-san would tell you,” Aiko passed the buck innocently. Kakashi didn’t get enough shit from his team. He could use some more. “Hello, there. You’re energetic today. I saw your match- congratulations on making it to the finals. Is this the jounin who is helping you train for the tournament?” She nodded towards Iruka.



The chuunin reddened. That was bizarre for a moment until she remembered that she was suddenly in his age group now. Being guessed a rank high by a foreign jounin could inspire mixed feelings, she supposed. Was he flattered or embarrassed about being outranked?



Naruto didn’t seem to notice any of that. “Nah, this is Iruka-nii!” He dragged the young man into the room for show and tell.



The suffix hit her like a needle, sinking through her skin and scratching at the hard edges of her heart. That wasn’t…



She kept her smile fastened on. “It’s very good to meet you, Iruka-san. I’m flattered that you wanted to come visit.”



“It’s nice to meet you,” Iruka said, a little stiff in his bow.



“She’s my relative,” Naruto told Iruka in a way that Aiko was absolutely certain meant that he’d already told Iruka that several times.



'This is not subtle at all. What are the odds that Naruto just happened to find out I’m in town on accident? Zero?’



The Hokage wouldn’t risk her alone with Naruto. But if he’d let Naruto figure out she was in Konoha when he was with Iruka-san, then, well, there was no chance that Naruto would be alone with Aiko. The ANBU nearby were probably paying careful attention. If Iruka was too distressed, they’d be able o step in quickly.



She indicated that the guests should sit, because what the hell else could she do?



“Hey, who are these guys?” Naruto plopped down next to Yuusaku, as if he’d only just now noticed them as more than scenery.



“Her genin team,” Yuusaku responded. His expression wasn’t entirely friendly. “And you are?”



“My distant relative, Naruto-kun,” Aiko said. She let just a bit of steel slip into her tone. “We’re not sure of the relation. We met in Wave.”



“You were a civilian then.” Naruto frowned at her uniform. “I thought you didn’t wear ninja stuff. How come you’re in that now?”



Well. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but the poorly hidden amusement on Keisuke’s face could be a problem. “I prefer other clothing, but I’m currently representing Kirigakure,” Aiko explained. “It’s most appropriate to wear a variation on the uniform.”



Naruto scrunched his nose, but he didn’t contradict her.



“I’ve heard a little about how you met.” Iruka had finished checking out the room and was seated just a little too close to Naruto, keeping himself between Aiko and the genin. His smile was slightly lopsided and wow, how had she never noticed that he was actually really cute? “Were you vacationing in Wave, then?”



There… there really was no good answer to that. She smiled back just as pleasantly. “I do love the country.” Lie, a damned lie. The countryside could kiss her ass. She liked some nature, but nature that was more along the lines of gardens and parks. Not sunburn and bugs and the way a shirt stuck to your skin in muggy heat. Fake nature, basically. “How about you? What is your job, if you’re not Naruto’s teacher?”



“I was his teacher, actually.” Iruka was still tense. “At the Acade-”



“Kakashi-sensei says that you’re fast!” Naruto bounced on his zabuton. That was something of a feat since his legs were crossed and he was leaned over to clutch at his ankles. “How come you didn’t help right in Wave? Sasuke-te-” here he glanced at Iruka “-Sasuke-san said that he thought you weren’t strong enough. Are you strong? Do you like to fight? Can we spar sometime? Hey, there’s this jutsu I could show you, I’m really-”



Iruka bopped Naruto on the head, expression long-suffering. “Naruto-kun, Hikari-san can only answer so many questions at once.”



Aiko glanced at her genin team, who were spectacularly unamused. There was really no need for them to sit through this conversation, was there? Not least because Iruka was watching their reactions and they were not as subtle as they thought they were.



“It’s Aiko, actually,” she corrected. “Keisuke, Yuusaku, Ryuusei. Why don’t you go entertain yourselves? You’ve had a long day.”



Yuusaku and Keisuke stood up quickly, but Ryuusei took a moment to give the Konoha shinobi an unfriendly look.



She met his eye and raised an eyebrow.



“Would you like coffee?”



He directed his question to Iruka, the clever little bastard, so she couldn’t tell him no.



The chuunin blinked, flustered. “Oh. That would be lovely, thank you.” He glanced at Naruto. “But…”



“Apple juice for the short one,” Ryuusei agreed. “I’ll be back shortly, Konoha-san, genin-san, Sensei.”



Aiko watched him go with grudging respect, because he was probably going to weasel his way into the conversation by bringing himself a drink too. That had been fairly well done, without any explicit disrespect or disobedience.



“Why is it Aiko?” Naruto’s brow was furrowed.



She blinked. “Because that’s what my parents named me?” Aiko said dumbly, before she realized what he meant. “Oh, Hikari is a childhood nickname,” she lied. “Sorry, I mis-understoood what you were asking. Tsunami-chan prefers it. I use Aiko professionally, however.”



Naruto nodded. “Hikari-san,” he said firmly.



Which was sweet and well-intentioned. Damn. She wasn’t going to be able to get him to use her real name without making him feel that she was telling him they weren’t close enough for him to use 'Hikari’.



'I should take a vow of silence. How do I do talk myself into these corners again and again?’



“I didn’t know that Naruto-kun had relatives,” Iruka brought the conversation back on track, because he was a dog with a bone like that. “How is the rest of your family? Do they live in Kirigakure?”



There was a heartbeat where she realized that it was fairly logical to assume that she had come from another branch of the family tree and there was no particular reason to assume they were all dead.



She glanced at Naruto. The blunt, honest answer was, 'Everyone I’ve ever known is gone, with the exception of a distant relation (with whom my relationship is complicated and possibly antagonistic and involves more eyeballs than two people usually have),’ but that was rather dark territory to get into. Plus it would require far too much exposition.



Naruto looked very interested in the answer.



She tried not to wince. “Ah…”



The genin seemed disappointed, but not surprised. Well. He hadn’t expected to find one relative, so he was probably still counting his luck as good.



“I’m sorry, that was rude, wasn’t it.” Iruka rubbed at the back of his neck, looking sheepish. He wasn’t, he’d gotten what he’d been digging for.



'Wait. It’s Iruka, not Kakashi. He’s looking to protect Naruto’s well-being, but he’s not out to fuck with me just to see where I’m sore. He probably does regret having to ask. He’s only doing it because he cares.’



“Ne, Hikari-san, maybe you could train me too.” Naruto’s eyes were bright. “Iruka-nii is busy and Kakashi-sensei only cares about stupid Sasuke and the guy he found to train me is a real jerk. He’s a loser and-”



Chakra roared on the table. Aiko grabbed Naruto’s arm and pulled him backwards with her.



'Shit, shit, what is-’



“So you ditched your training to chase after a woman, huh? Maybe you’ve got some potential after all.”



Naruto groaned before the smoke had parted enough to reveal Jiraiya posed dramatically on Aiko’s low table.



Slowly, her eyes ran down, past his smug expression, wild hair, crossed arms, boldly spread legs, and landed on his sandals.



His sandals, which were on the table where she ate. His outdoor shoes. The shoes with which he walked. Outdoors.



“You!” Naruto pointed rudely. “No one wants you here. Leave!”



Unthinkingly, Aiko reached out and pushed Naruto’s arm down.



Naruto might have glanced at her a moment for the correction of manners, but he was more invested in picking a fight with the Sannin.



“Show some respect, brat!”



Her stomach lurched. She was still looking at the shoes on her table. There was a dead bug on the side of his left shoe, dangerously close to touching Jiraiya’s second to last toe.



'That’s disgusting.’



“To a guy like you? No way!”



She let go of Naruto, and belatedly noticed that Jiraiya had already dismissed the summoned toad he’d used to reverse-summon into the room, like the drama king that he was.



“What could that mean? You don’t know enough about how lucky you are to know me to even be grateful!”



She wanted, dearly, to reach out and pull his ankle so that he came toppling down in an undignified heap.



But she was a foreigner, and he was a very highly placed and decorated Konoha veteran. His godchild could scuffle with Jiraiya with impunity. But she had to be more careful.



“Ha!” Naruto scoffed. “For what, wasting my time and-”



Aiko looked up to try to catch Jiraiya’s eyes. He just looked jovial, barely seeming to notice her while he bickered with Naruto.



“Shinobi-san,” she said, and he focused on her too quickly to hide that he’d been paying attention already. “Would you mind taking off your sandals when you enter my hotel room?”



She sounded a lot calmer than she felt. Because she felt like breaking those shoes over his head.



Jiraiya blinked at her, nonplussed. “Eh?” He lifted a foot to look at it, as if he’d had no idea that he’d been so terribly rude. “Well, would you look at that?” He gave his shoe a vaguely betrayed expression. Then he seemed to shake it off, ignoring her request. “Hey, hey!” Jiraiya pointed at her and …hopped? “Don’t you recognize the great Toad Sannin when you see him?”



He was just fucking with her.



In that moment, she knew what she had to do.



Aiko let her face convey only polite confusion. “I’m sorry. Who?”



His face fell, but only for a moment. “I see it’s time for an introduction!” He clapped his hands and, oh god, how had she forgotten that he’d choreographed a dance while he introduced his accomplishments? “er of fine literature, master of fuinjutsu, lover of beautiful women, the fabulous, the unmatched, the only Jiraiya!” He finished, hovering in the air expectantly, leaned to the side.



She very deliberately fixed her face into mild confusion. “I’ve never heard of you,” Aiko said apologetically. “That all sounds very nice, though. I hope that one day you’ll be famous.”



Jiraiya blinked. “What.” He looked stricken.



“Good luck,” Aiko said in her sincerest tone.



He was very quickly turning red.



“Naruto.” The genin looked thrilled by the turn of events when she looked back at him. He was grinning toothily, rubbing at the fabric of his left sleeve with his right hand. “Is this the person who is training you?”



“The person who is training you,” Jiraiya repeated numbly. “The person… who…. a genin….”



Naruto nodded, sparing Jiraiya only a glance. “Yeah!” He quit fiddling with his sleeve so that he could cross his arms. “I told you that he was terrible! And he’s a huge per-” Naruto’s squawk was cut off by Jiraiya lunging to put a hand over the genin’s mouth.



“He’s delirious,” Jiraiya said apologetically. “Doesn’t know what he’s saying.”



Naruto struggled, but she could hear that his rebuttal was high-pitched and furious.



“Is he,” Aiko said doubtfully. “What are you teaching him, then?” She gave the older man a once-over that was brief, dismissive, barely interested. “You’re… a taijutsu specialist?” She let her voice convey nothing but polite inquiry, which in itself was verging on an insult by virtue of how pointedly polite it was. He certainly did look like a taijutsu specialist…



Well. He looked like a bear, actually. He was so big and hairy.



He made a sound like a teakettle. “I’m a sage,” Jiraiya stressed. “And a seal master. The best in the world!”



Her expression didn’t waver, still fixed into not much of anything with a tiny hint of a smile. “Ah.” She let her brow furrow slightly. “You’re teaching him fuinjutsu, then?”



Jiraiya frowned. “Well, no,” he said. When he moved to scratch at the back of his neck, Naruto escaped and loudly gasped in sweet, sweet air. “He’s a bit young to teach anything that dangerous.”



“Oh.” And she finally smiled, sweetly and stupidly. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. Seals seem kind of difficult, you know?” She brought a hand up to her mouth and made a deprecating shrug. “I don’t think I could do it.”



He bought it, puffing up with pride. “Well, you know….” Jiraiya smirked. “It takes a quick mind and years of study. It’s incredibly difficult! But anyone could do it really, anyone could do it.” He waved off the compliment vigorously, but he was basking in it.



'Holy shi- I can’t believe he bought that. He really wants to believe that women will fawn over him, doesn’t he?’



Option one: he would underestimate her long-term, giving her leverage in which to act without Konoha’s knowledge of her abilities.



Option two: he would remember this conversation a month or so down the line and feel like the world’s biggest, dumbest ass.



Both would bring her amusement in the coming months, so she hardly cared which.



She blinked, doe-eyed and sweet, pulling on the Hikari persona. “Can I see something?”



Naruto made a choking sound.



Jiraiya tossed his head back and laughed. “Well, now, I don’t know about that!” He leered, and it was supposed to be sexy maybe but she felt like cackling. “You could be a quite an inspiration, but I’m afraid I don’t know you quite well enough for that, sharing fuinjutsu is so personal. Maybe we could spend a little time together…”



“Okay, time for us to go.” Iruka scooped up Naruto from behind like an errant puppy, flashing an exceptionally false smile. Naruto squawked as his feet came off the ground. When Iruka bowed, he brought Naruto with him like a surprised, life-sized doll.



It should have been adorable, but it actually made her skin crawl because, ew, she was thinking about puppets now and she didn’t need that kind of negativity in her life.



“Well, how about what you’re teaching Naruto-kun?” She tilted her head. “I’m very interested. I think he has a lot of potential.”



Of course she hadn’t said that just to see Naruto perk up. That would be ridiculous. She wasn’t so sentimental.



Jiraiya’s face fell a bit, but he seemed to think that wasn’t enough to put him off. “You really like the kid, huh?” He leaned over and snatched Naruto by the collar and pulled him out of Iruka’s grip before the chuunin could back away to safety. “Me too, we’re very close, me and this kid. You know, we have a lot in common, you and I- I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. Naruto, don’t you know you’re supposed to make introductions if you know a pretty girl?”



Naruto hissed. “I wouldn’t introduce you to-”



When Jiraiya’s hand clapped over his mouth again, this time, Naruto bit. Aiko could only tell because of the vaguely grossed-out look on the Sannin’s face. His hand didn’t so much as twitch.



'This is tiring. I know the idiot act works for him, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to put up with it.’



“Uzumaki Aiko,” she said. She bobbed into a bow. “It’s good to meet you. I’m looking forward to seeing what you teach Naruto-kun.” She made an apologetic face. “Unfortunately, I need to go find my students, so…”



Iruka, who knew perfectly well that she was lying, met her eyes and seemed relieved.



'God, did he think I was going to flirt with Jiraiya? He was worried about having to sit through that?’



Well.



'Maybe I did, but in a joking way. Let’s face it, it’s pretty funny to have Jiraiya fawn over me. He’ll never know why that’s fucked up and weird.’



“Of course!” Jiraiya gave a gallant bow, backing towards the – the window? He pushed it open with the hand that wasn’t restraining Naruto. “Do you know the onsen on the west side of this district, it’s very close, I was thinking that the boy could use some water-walking practice. Let’s meet there at 9, don’t forget to bring a swimsuit.” He bowed again, grinning. “I’m sure that a lovely Kiri nin like yourself could have all sorts of useful pointers about the fine art of fighting on water that even this one can understand.”



'Good god, that’s condescending. Does he think before he talks?’



She resisted the urge to rub at her temples. A slow understanding of Tsunade’s methods was beginning to wash over her. “Have a good night,” Aiko said, instead of anything she wanted to say.



He crowed something back and leapt out the window. It was probably meant to be dramatic, but Naruto wailed protest when the Sannin dragged him with and that really killed any cool that might have been established.



Finally, Aiko let her posture slump and put her face in her hands. “That man,” she began, and then didn’t have anywhere to go with it.



The wind pulled on the curtains, a gentle rustling the only sound. After a moment, a socked foot made a whisper against the tatami.



“Yes,” Iruka agreed, sounding tired. “That man.”



They stood in silent empathy for a moment.



Iruka sighed. He fidgeted.



Aiko opened her eyes to see that he was still looking at the table ruefully.



The look that Iruka gave her was heavy with meaning.



“Yes,” Aiko agreed. She shook her head. “I hope he doesn’t teach Naruto those awful manners.”



“Naruto’s manners aren’t great in the first place,” Iruka said mournfully. “He doesn’t stand a chance.”



“He might improve, just to contrast with Jiraiya-sama,” Aiko disagreed.



Iruka gave her a quizzical look. “I thought that you didn’t-”



“Of course I do,” Aiko said factually. “I have all his books. I’ve been to the last three film previews. I just choose not to encourage bad behavior.”



He seemed to struggle with this information, mouth working over the words, 'bad behavior’ disbelievingly. He gave her an incredulous look, as if he was about to point out some hypocrisy.



“I’m a grown woman,” Aiko warned. “I hope that you’re not about to imply-”



“No, of course not.” Iruka held up his hands, because his parents hadn’t raised a fool. “I would never.” His face flushed pink.



She subsided. “Good.”



There was a knock and the fusuma slid open. Ryuusei blinked at Naruto’s absence, but he let himself in. “I brought the drinks,” he said, holding coffee up as if to stave off Aiko’s temper with it.



She stepped over and took two of the four drinks before he could set them on the table. “Thank you, you’re such a thoughtful student.”



Ryuusei paled at the smile she flashed him, which was a little weird. She was being nice. Watch her, being nice. She wasn’t hitting anyone at all. That was an accomplishment.



“Anyway, here you are, Iruka-san.” She put the coffee in his hands and ignored the 'erk’ sound he made in surprise. “Oh, and you brought sugar too, how thoughtful.” With her newly free hand, Aiko took the container from Ryuusei. She smiled brightly up at her too-tall-genin. “Thank you, but as you can see, Naruto-kun left. It’d be a shame to waste his drink- why don’’t you go find your teammates and see if one of them wants it?”



He hesitated a moment, clearly on the verge of protesting. But Ryuusei took the order for what it was. “Yuusaku loves apple juice,” he said. He gave Iruka a resentful stare. The expression made his narrow face look pointier than usual. “It was very nice to meet you.”



Iruka made a sound of agreement that actually seemed incredibly dubious about the pleasure. His eyes darted between Aiko and the genin. He managed a weak smile.



“Goodbye,” Ryuusei said, somehow imbuing the word with malice. “I hope you have a lovely evening.”



Aiko stood a moment after he’d left, wondering.



“Ah.” Iruka cleared his throat. “Your student is a little…. protective, then?”



“I’m not actually sure,” she said thoughtfully. Aiko shook it off, because it didn’t really matter right now. “Let’s just-” She remembered that the table was defiled in time to head off that suggestion. She frowned, because she wasn’t willing to risk the tatami and there weren’t many places in the room where a spill wouldn’t have expensive consequences. “We can sit on the futon and have our coffee.”



He made a high, embarrassed sound.



“Just don’t spill,” Aiko ordered. She took the head of the mattress and gave him an imperious look while she sat the sugar container between her legs and opened the top carefully.



Gingerly, Iruka sat down as far from her as possible while still sitting on the bed. He was holding his coffee like it was a shield.



She eyed him, a little amused at how weird he was being. She put four spoonfuls in her coffee and then offered him the sugar.



Iruka declined with a headshake.



Her eyebrows shot up, but she didn’t comment. She dumped in another spoonful of sugar and then sat the dish aside. They drank in silence for a moment. She glanced at the chuunin under her eyelashes… he was steeling his jaw, as if he was about to face terrible odds on a mission or go to a parent-teacher conference or something.



Aiko was starting to feel guilty about how powerfully uncomfortable he seemed to be. And a little insulted, but mostly guilty.



It was so bizarre- he’d never been intimidated by her before, and he’d known a lot more about how dangerous she was.



'Then again, he’d known me as a student. Even though my rank became higher than his, we still had that history. That makes a difference, I’m sure.’



“You can relax, you know,” she offered after a moment. “I’m not about to leap over and ravage you just because we’re alone in a room.” Well. She considered that. “Unless you want to be ravaged? Because, actually, I was thinking earlier that you’re good-looking. Do the kids keep you in that kind of shape, or do you also run missions?”



He gave her a trapped look and attempted to drown himself in his coffee.



“Alright.” She held up her hands, one still holding her coffee. “I can take a hint. No ravaging.”



Iruka finished in record time and practically leapt to his feet to awkwardly hover over her. “It was very nice to meet you.” He bowed, holding the empty cup to his chest. “I’ve heard so much about you from Naruto-kun. I’m sure you understand why I wanted to come along.”



She decided not to stand up as well. He might find it a bit intimidating, in the flustered mood he was clearly in.



“The same reason that someone made sure Jiraiya-sama tagged along?” Aiko asked dryly. She didn’t indicate her Kiri headband. She didn’t need to.



He gave an apologetic grimace, despite the fact that she was absolutely certain he’d had nothing to do with that. “Yes, well…” Iruka moved to fidget, and then stopped.



She took pity on him. “Yes, I understand.” Aiko raised her eyebrows incrementally. “Thank you for your interest in making certain that Naruto-kun doesn’t end up kidnapped or murdered by a strange foreigner.”



Iruka turned bright red.



“I’m being serious,” Aiko dismissed. “That kind of thing happens, and he really doesn’t seem like he’s wary enough. I don’t plan on killing him, but he shouldn’t be putting his hopes on the benevolence of someone he just met. It’s good that you have his back.” She did stand up then, so that she could give him a bow in thanks. “I don’t have a lot of relatives, so it’d be a shame if his good nature ended up getting him in trouble.”



Iruka was still red, but it was a different kind of embarrassment now. He glanced at his feet. “Well… I’m glad that you’re so understanding, Aiko-san. I do worry about him. He doesn’t have much family, either….”



“And his teacher is kind of…” She trailed off politely, because there was no where she could go with that statement without crossing into rudeness.



“Jiraiya-sama?” Iruka asked warily.



She shook her head. “Hatake.”



Iruka winced. “Yes,” he agreed wearily. “He is.” He gave his empty cup a mournful look, and then seemed to look about for a place to set it. When she indicated the ruined table with a nod, he winced but complied. “Well, have a good night. I won’t intrude any longer.”



“Good luck teaching Naruto-kun manners,” Aiko said, because she was newly invested in this. What kind of barbarian might he end up, in a world where she wasn’t there for him? His role models were Kakashi and Jiraiya and that was just plain concerning.



Iruka sighed. “I do my best.”



“If you can keep him off the furniture and using doors, you’re doing good work,” Aiko encouraged. She moved to open the door and stepped aside, letting him out. “It’s very nice to meet you.”



“Of course, of course.” He moved past her, and bowed out the door. “The same.”



She let the door shut on that awkwardly polite end to the chaos that had interrupted a rare team bonding moment.



'It feels premature to assume that I’m done being invaded for the night.’ She gave her door a wary look. 'But… that’s probably all. Konoha isn’t a completely blunt instrument. Anything more than that would stretch incredulity that anything could have been a coincidence.’



She wasn’t totally convinced that Konoha would live up to her prediction. But either way, she had to leave, and the sooner the better. Shizuka had asked for a day to go over their rough agreement with her advisers. That was completely reasonable, weighing both her need for caution and Aiko’s need for haste.



'Of course, that urgency does mean that they know I’ll be under pressure to agree to any changes, just because I need this done as soon as possible.’



Shizuka seemed a bit soft for that kind of power play against a more powerful country, but you never really knew about a person. And Aiko could see circumstances wherein she would take advantage of that sort of leverage, so she couldn’t truly resent the possibility.



It just… made her nervous. That was all.



Despite wanting to just get it over with, she took her time getting ready. It wasn’t too early, exactly, but it was better to run more on the 'punctual’ than the 'early’ side of the spectrum. Showing up as early as possible without being rude would make her seem desperate.



'No,’ Aiko corrected. ’Being desperate makes me seem desperate. There’s no point in playing these games- they know that I need their help.’



Her expression, caught in the middle of pulling her hair into a braid, was rueful. She scrunched her nose at her reflection and finished quickly. The only thing left- would it be better to wear shinobi gear or civilian? She gritted her teeth, weighing the rhetorical statement that different outfits would make. If they did make it to Iron, as she hoped, coming in armor might give an unintentionally hostile impression to her hosts. Or would it convey more power and authority?



“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes and pulled the awful striped sweater over her head. She threw it on the floor. “I’m thinking too much about this. I’ll pick something that I like.”



She’d brought her entire wardrobe in seals- and why not, it wasn’t heavy or anything- so she managed to find a kimono that should be suitable in short order. She went with red and gold motifs on blue fabric and paired it with a pink and red obi. Aiko took a step back to admire the effect. She frowned.



'This is either a really good outfit, or a really bad one.’



For a moment, she missed Karin like she would a rib. Karin would have an educated opinion. Or Naruto, actually, he’d always been better at this than she was. He probably hadn’t had to learn that in this world- he’d had no sister who wanted to cheat on the stupid tests. Shame. Sakura was missing out- she could have used a second opinion too, her choices were always so painfully dull.



Well…



There were worse crimes than being bad at pairing kimono. At least she’d tried, and she didn’t look intimidating. She shrugged it off and concentrated to find the gatehouse outside Nadeshiko where she was expected.



“Ah!” That was a voice she didn’t know.



Aiko dodged the kunai on reflex, blinking at the person that she’d startled. Ah. Right. They were expecting her to walk up, probably. Walking was rather traditional. “My apologies.” She nodded to the guard, noting that the young woman’s brown eyes were wide. “That was a bit rude of me.”



“I am so sorry,” the guard breathed. Her hair was frizzing in the humidity. Oh, no, was that going to happen to Aiko, too? She should go somewhere less wet as soon as possible.



“No, no,” Aiko waved off. “You reacted well. I wasn’t thinking about how that would appear. Here you are.” She leaned over to pry the kunai out of the wooden wall and hand it back to its owner. “I believe that I have an appointment?”



“Yes.”



Both Aiko and the gate guard looked over. And then up.



She had already known perfectly well that Tokiwa was intimidatingly tall, but that somehow didn’t diminish the effect.



“Good evening,” Aiko said after a pause to process just how big the other woman was. “Will you be taking me to Shizuka-sama?”



Tokiwa nodded. “Please follow me,” she said. “I’m afraid that you will be seeing her in a different location today.”



That turned out to be a private residence fairly near the gates. Shizuka was dressed for travel, in the most workmanlike shoes Aiko had ever seen on a kunoichi and carrying a full set of gear.



Aiko and Shizuka took a moment to eye each other, caught in a mutual moment of slightly unpleasant surprise.



“We picked opposite strategies,” Aiko said after a pause. She ran her fingers over her kimono. She hadn’t brought weapons at all, hoping to present a peaceful front to the civilian. Mifune-sama was reasonable and intelligent, but he was not over-fond of shinobi.



Shizuka glanced down at her armor. “Perhaps I have overcompensated.”



“No, no, I’m too casual,” Aiko disagreed to be polite. She looked at the ax on Shizuka’s back. She really, really wouldn’t have expected that choice. “I feel under-prepared now.”



Tokiwa sighed.



Shizuka startled. “Oh, yes. We made a few changes to the contract, as you’ll see.” Her fingers shook a little as she handed it over.



Wary, Aiko settled back to read through the wording, looking for any traps or tricks. The meat of the agreement all seemed to be there:



Kirigakure was offering their military and political protection to Nadeshiko, in exchange for economic contracts and humanitarian relief. Kirigakure would be bound to intervene in Nadeshiko’s conflicts for the duration of the treaty, but Nadeshiko had no such obligation to Kirigakure if Kirigakure was facing another of Nadeshiko’s allies. It was set to last for a year, at which time it would be formally revisited. The contract would compel Kirigakure to escort any civilian shipment of desired goods upon request for reduced rates, and import fees would be waived for the year.



Ah. They’d been reduced import rates before. Aiko looked up, raising an eyebrow.



Shizuka looked a little embarrassed.



Well. She would have agreed to worse.



“Let’s sign this, then.” Despite her words, Aiko carefully rolled the treaty up and tied it with the red ribbon that had been on top. “In front of Mifune-sama, I think. If that is acceptable?”



“That is reasonable,” Shizuka said. “How, ah, if I may ask…”



“It’s a transportation technique similar to Hiraishin,” Aiko explained. That sounded like a lie, but it would be a stupid one to say right before offering to use it, so hopefully Shizuka would delay judgment a moment or two. But of course- “How would you like me to demonstrate proof, before I may escort you to Iron?”



Shizuka hesitated, glancing at Tokiwa. Her expression was mildly rebellious. “No demonstration but that will be needed.”



“I will, of course, be accompanying you.” Tokiwa interjected.



Shizuka’s jaw clenched.



'There’s something weird going on here and I need no part of it. Sticking my nose into other peoples’ business only ends in tears and accidentally annexing a country. I have no idea what I would do with Nadeshiko. What is their economy like? Oh, god, I’m just not ready for that.’



For her sanity’s sake, Aiko valiantly pretended not to notice any tension at all. “Alright then. I need to be in physical contact. And I’m afraid that this errand might take some time, since I haven’t done more than send a letter to his office that I planned to come. I can’t be certain that he found time in his schedule, but I hope that for a meeting involving emergency relief, he’ll forgive the breach in protocol.”



Shizuka blinked. “Oh.” She seemed to rally. “I had wondered if you had managed to send word in such a time frame.”



Well. Truthfully speaking, leaving a letter in an envelope marked 'Urgent: To Mifune-sama, From the Godaime Mizukage’ on the gate guard’s desk when he looked away was not any sort of proper protocol for arranging a meeting.



But it seemed a sort of middle ground from 'giving no notice at all before showing up’ and ’leaving the letter in a more convenient but creepy location, like in his personal office’.



And it was the kind of letter that you would at least look at, because you were alarmed if nothing else. That had probably been an alarming experience for all involved. She was a little sorry.



The smile she gave Shizuka back was queasy. “Of course.” To forestall any more awkward questions, she held out an arm. Shizuka delicately laid her soft palm on the back of Aiko’s hand. She felt oddly like she was on a romantic walk.



Then Tokiwa stepped over and took Aiko’s other hand before it could be offered. She wrapped her fingers around Aiko’s wrist with just a little too much force.



That felt a little less romantic. It felt a little like a reminder that Tokiwa’s hand could reach around Aiko’s neck, too. She glanced up at the blonde woman dubiously.



The expression she got back was too blank for comfort.



'Right…’



She forced on a smile. “Let’s go, then.” Well. “We might have to duck,” Aiko shared. “People are often twitchy when you just appear in a place. Be sure not to strike back on reflex, that only escalates the situation.”



“That seems reasonable,” Shizuka said, her words split between the entryway and the space outside of Iron’s capital city where visitors could be received. She jerked in shock, pulling her arm back. Tokiwa squeezed Aiko’s arm, and then let go as well.



The man sitting at the gate might have been the same one she’d seen yesterday. It was hard to tell- she’d only seem him from behind. But he didn’t seem happy to see three shinobi appear, and it was the same shift, so, probably? “Nadeshiko, I assume?” He held up a sheet of paper.



“And Kirigakure,” Aiko corrected, holding up her hand. She stepped away from the other two to make it clear that there were two groups. “Does that mean that Mifune-sama could find the time to meet with us?”



His eyes, deeply set under his brow and shadowed with lines, narrowed. “Yes.” The samurai examined them all. “I’m afraid that any weapons must be left at the next check point.”



Shizuka made a perturbed sound and touched the handle of her ax, but she didn’t actually protest.



“Of course,” Aiko agreed. She folded her hands in her sleeves. It was chilly in Iron, much colder than it had been in Nadeshiko. Snow was actually falling. “Is there anything else that we should keep in mind?”



“No.” He waved them on. “You are expected at that building, with the red tiled roof.”



Aiko craned to see the building he was pointing at. Ah. That should be easy enough.



“Your appointment is for 40 minutes from now.” He continued sourly. “Please hurry. It is best to go through security and be at least ten minutes early to the waiting room.”



Shizuka bowed gracefully. “Thank you. We will see ourselves out, then.”



Aiko found herself trailing the other woman a moment, before she made an effort to keep up.



'How is it that I’m the one in a kimono, but she seems all delicate and princessy?’ Aiko wondered. 'She has an ax as long as her arm.’ She pursed her lips. 'Maybe I could have asked her about the obi. She seems like she might be better at that than I am.’



Next time, perhaps.



In contradiction to every experience she’d ever had with bureaucracy, Mifune-sama was early to the appointment.



She felt a tinge of guilt. Mei was expecting her in an hour. That probably wasn’t going to happen.



“Good evening.” He nodded to all three of them, gracious and formal. “I know your face. Nadeshiko no Shizuka-sama. I’m afraid that your companions are a pleasant mystery, however.”



“Yes.” Shizuka bowed low. “This is my assistant Tokiwa, a jounin of Nadeshiko. She completes my party.” She gestured to Aiko. “I have the honor of introducing Kirigakure no Uzumaki Aiko, Godaime Mizukage.”



Mifune didn’t hide his surprise quite well enough.



'To be fair, he probably expected a famous Kiri-nin. People always do. Can’t imagine why.’



“I see.” He turned to Aiko fully and gave the same sort of bow he had given to Shizuka. “I had not heard of the change in administration. I admit that I am surprised.”



Aiko bowed back. “It is a recent honor,” she said delicately. “The announcement that the Godaime has been chosen was made this morning. However, my appointment is not yet public knowledge. Outside of Kirigakure, only those gathered here can claim knowledge.”



Shizuka blinked twice quickly at that.



Mifune’s eyes narrowed, but he seemed more puzzled than displeased. “I am honored.” His mustache quivered as his mouth moved, looking for the perfect way to phrase the question. “Iron has had regrettably little to do with Kirigakure in past years. I confess to some surprise.”



In other words, this was a very strange group and he wanted to know what the hell she was doing. Aiko liked him.



She smiled. “One of my first hopes is to establish good relations with Nadeshiko.” She nodded to Shizuka. “Shizuka-sama has kindly agreed to a partnership to address Kirigakure’s current situation and move towards a future relationship of a more stable nature.”



Shizuka took over. “We were hoping to ask you to act as witness when we sign the preliminary agreement. Aiko-sama opined that Iron’s oversight would provide international legitimacy and make clear to all that both parties intend to honor the treatise.”



Mifune shifted his gaze to Aiko, considering the request. For a moment, he didn’t speak. “May I see this agreement?”



“Of course.” Aiko pulled it from her obi and held it out with both hands. He took it with a polite murmur and a small bow.



He gestured towards the table. “Might I-”



“Of course,” Aiko repeated. A moment later, Shizuka added, “Please, do.”



He gave them a look she couldn’t interpret, but at least it wasn’t hostile. “Please, have a seat.” Mifune waited until they had before finally slipping off the ribbon and unrolling the scroll. His lips moved just a little as he read.



It was rather short, so far as these documents went, bare of legalese and layers of protective clauses. But it was, quite clearly, written to be a preliminary agreement. So that wasn’t too unusual.



Aiko squirmed a little as his eyes clearly moved down the page. Mifune was clever enough to read between the lines and realize that the document was not what Kirigakure would have written if they were doing well. She knew he would have to be appraised of the current situation, to some extent, but it was still viscerally uncomfortable to knowingly reveal her country’s weakness.



It felt like an eternity, but it was likely about four minutes before he set the paper down and returned his attention to his guests. “It all seems to be in order.” Mifune looked at Aiko, hard. “What has happened in Kirigakure, if I might ask?”



She fought the urge to look away, or to close her eyes. “The Yondaime Mizukage saw fit to release the Sanbi within the village when he was challenged,” Aiko explained. “We are in considerable distress due  to infrastructural damage, interruption of normal operations, and the effects that my predecessor’s policies had on our economic production.”



Mifune nodded, drinking that in. “How are your hospitals?” he asked.



It seemed a bit of a non-sequitor, except for the part where Mist’s healthcare was abominable. The recent struggles had given her a bit of a schooling in the many things they were not equipped to deal with. The injuries from damaged buildings or jutsu crossfire were on that list: the sheer scale would have overwhelmed them even if their personnel had been better-trained. And the fight had taken out powerlines, leaving much of the city without electricity at all, which compounded the problems facing the many households who could not access running water. Things would get worse before they got better as cleanliness went down and Kirigakure began to face the hottest parts of summer without electricity to cool buildings or store food safely.



And. Two weeks ago, a hospital generator had given out. Three infants on artificial respiration had died before it could be restored. She’d brought them back, but how many times could she do that? She couldn’t revive everyone who should have survived Mist’s hospitals.



Some of that might have shown in her eyes. Her answer was a more diplomatic, “I hope to make improvements to our facilities and begin training more medical personnel in the near future.”



Which was honest, but not as honest as, 'I don’t want to think about it because it’s really terrible and there’s not much to do until we stop the other ways the city is hemorrhaging. And I’m not qualified to do anything about it, anyway. I want Sasuke to come and fix my life but he’s currently twelve and useless.’



Mifune seemed to have been expecting that answer. “I see, I see.” He stared at her. “I do not know if you are aware, but Iron has fine schools and medicine.”



Aiko blinked, considering what he might be implying, but he was already moving on.



“That is a discussion for another time, I suppose. Forgive an old man his digression.” Mifune pressed the scroll flat. “I believe that I would not be hard-pressed to witness this agreement. I imagine that you are eager to begin the work at hand.”



“Nadeshiko has begun some preparations in hope that this meeting would go well,” Shizuka agreed. “We are eager to lend our assistance to an ally. We believe that an initial relief shipment might depart tomorrow, or the day after.”



That was news to Aiko. Good news. She blinked off her surprise, feeling her stress begin to subside.



Mifune nodded approval. “Very well. Shall I call for a pen?”



They were patient for a moment as he did just that. His assistant returned quickly with the aforementioned pen, as well as a stamppad. Mifune thanked her with a bow. “Tea, I think,” he said quietly. The woman nodded and left.



Well, then. When he looked at her, Aiko gestured politely towards the treaty.



Mifune’s lips twitched. He shook his head. “You should go first, I believe.”



Oh. Fair point. Aiko inked her name and title carefully. She took a moment to lift the pen tip, admiring the way “Godaime Mizukage” looked next to her name for the first time. It was surreal, but it looked good. She put down the pen and pulled out her inkan.



Mifune set down the little round stamp-pad quietly. It was red- she made the stamp in red and then drank in how it all looked together.



Before anyone could think she was being odd, Aiko bowed out of the way and set the pen down on the table. Shizuka took it up next. Mifune examined the signatures for a moment, checked the seals, and then left his own. He held it up for perusal, and then to let it dry. “If business is concluded, perhaps we might enjoy tea and then conclude this meeting?” he asked.



Aiko and Shizuka both agreed.



'I might actually make it to Mei on time. Or close to it. Mifune doesn’t waste time, does he?’



They made pleasant conversation that none of them enjoyed, in all likelihood. But it was blissfully free of politics, so Aiko soaked it up. Mifune saw them out personally when they were done, wishing them both the best of luck in their endeavors and promising to send a notarized copy of the agreement.



Aiko took Shizuka and Tokiwa home, and thanked them for the success of the meeting and the efficacy of their relief efforts. Her watch was burning a hole in her pocket, but she was successful.



It was 9:28 when Aiko took herself to her office in Kirigakure and let Mei in. Mei was already waiting, of course, but at least Aiko had managed to be punctual.



The expression on Mei’s face was grim enough that she might need to hold onto that small sense of accomplishment to help her get through the night, however.



“What do you have to report?” Aiko asked, fairly certain that she didn’t want to know.



Mei sat down and crossed her legs at the knee. “Let’s start with the good and work our way through the mundane to the worrisome, shall we?”



“I like that plan.” Aiko agreed. “Please tell me good news, and I’ll tell you mine.”



“The foundation and first level of the first complex are completed.” Mei managed a tired smile. “With the exception of plumbing and electrical wiring, of course, but they will be easy to add.” She paused. “So far as these things go, in any case. It will still take quite some time.”



Aiko nodded. “That makes sense. And Yamato-san is…?”



“Not as affected by his teammate’s capture as we might have hoped.” Mei’s lips tightened.



“You think that he’s managed to contact someone?” Aiko asked, feeling a line of stress appear in her forehead. This job was aging her like crazy.



Mei hesitated. “I do not believe so. However, it may well be that the second shinobi-”



“Raidou?” Aiko asked for clarity.



Mei blinked, unsure.



“That’s the second Konoha shinobi we captured,” Aiko explained. “That’s who you mean, right?”



“Yes.” Mei clearly decided not to ask why Aiko knew so many Konoha nin. “That one. Raidou-san may well have been able to send word before he was captured. We do not know what information he managed to gather, but I am fairly certain that your identity was not among it. Other nations may be aware of our weakened state, however.”



“And the vultures will come.” Aiko wrapped her ankles around one of the legs of her chair. “Nadeshiko signed the agreement tonight, with Iron no Mifune as signatory witness. We can expect an initial delivery within a week, although I do not yet know exactly what it might contain.”



“That should provide some reason to at least consider the wisdom of assuming Kirigakure is weak enough to act against,” Mei agreed. “Nadeshiko is not strong, but they are active. And Iron is fairly strong, as well as respected. Until it is clear that our relationship with them is minimal, others may be wary of upsetting Iron and risking an embargo or other repercussions.”



Aiko smiled. It was tired, but it was genuine. “Any more good news?”



Mei shifted slightly in her seat. “Your contractors arrived on our outermost island this evening,” she said. “From Wave- a master bridge-builder and a staff of ten.”



“Ten?” Aiko tapped her fingers against the desk. “It’s not as good as I hoped, but it’s not as bad as I feared. If they’re on the outermost island…” She tried to think of how long that would take civilians- a large group of foreign civilians who would need to pass layers of customs. “Not tomorrow, but the day after?” she said, half-asking.



“I believe so, yes.” Mei’s eyes narrowed in the way they did when she was moving on to the next topic. “The sewer mainline on the west district has been repaired to functionality.”



“Thank god,” Aiko said with feeling. That had not been an enjoyable supervisory visit. “A few buildings in the area were cleared for habitation once that had been addressed, right?”



Mei nodded.



Aiko searched a memory. “A few residences, a bank, and…” she trailed off, frowning.



“A convenience store,” Mei prompted. “We’ll see what can be done with that, perhaps they can help supplement the food distribution system.”



Aiko nodded. “I look forward to seeing what you do with it, then. Oh, I have all that paperwork.” She fished it out, but opened the folder instead of handing it over. “There was something strange- a Kida-san was mentioned in the office personnel-”



Mei hummed acknowledgment. “Yes, I transferred him to deal with the problem of finding housing and routes for the civilian contractors.”



“Hm.” Aiko frowned. “That wasn’t what I intended, but.. that’s fine, then.” She laid the folder on the desk. “The new requests and reports, please.” She blinked at the stack Mei handed over- mostly because she didn’t hand it all over.



“This,” Mei waived, “is our strange and concerning item. It was left in your office. No one admits to leaving it. And as you can see-” she flipped it around- “it is addressed with what might be considered inappropriate familiarity for a letter to the Mizukage’s office,” Mei finished dryly.



Aiko felt a headache coming on. She knew the handwriting, of course, but she didn’t need to. There was only one person in the world who would write her a letter and draw little cartoon representations of them in the 'To’ and 'From’ spaces. Obito’s face was a sworl, which Mei had probably interpreted as pointed anonymity and not an incredibly distinctive calling card.



“Whimsical.” She felt like going to bed and never dealing with this.



Mei offered the envelope up.



She didn’t want to take the envelope. She took it anyway and held it gingerly. “I’m going to be honest with you- I know who sent this, but I have no idea what they would want, or how hostile they are.”



Mei frowned. “Leaving it in your office is an inherently hostile gesture,” she said.



'That’s what I thought when he met me in a park at night and sent flowers to my apartment and any number of weird things. And it never turned out to be accurate- sometimes the interaction was an absolute disaster because he’s such a screwed-up person, but he wasn’t intending to be hostile or intimidating.’



“No, not for him. Not necessarily.” Aiko shook her head. “He has a long history of failing to understand boundaries like that. It’s not necessarily malice.”



Obito was just seven different kinds of fucked-up. It didn’t mean he was safe, but it did often mean that he meant well. The problem was that what he thought was good and helpful was often bafflingly insane.



“So… You are good friends, then?” Mei ventured. She seemed disinterested, but she was probably wondering if she would get a clue as to where Aiko had actually come from.



Aiko winced. “We were,” she hedged. “And as things are, we might be even so far as wronging each other goes. I’m not sure where we stand. I think that putting him in prison for three years and gouging out his eyes sort of balances the kidnapping and surgery, but he might feel differently. The last time we met, he wasn’t…” she trailed off. “He wasn’t as hostile as I had feared. Admittedly, I didn’t give him much chance to demonstrate good or bad faith.”



Mei actually rubbed at her temples. “That is probably for the best, when dealing with someone who might be holding that type of grudge,” she agreed. “Those pictures were not drawn by a blind man, are they?”



'I appreciate that she doesn’t sound certain about that. I like to think that I bring excitement into her life.’



“No.” Aiko pursed her lips. “He’s picked at least one eye up somewhere, which means- well, I think I know who did the surgery for him. He’s more than capable enough, and they’d be in contact.” She scowled, thinking of Zetsu. What a creep. “Well.” She glanced at the envelope. “Might as well.”



Mei leaned forward as Aiko ripped it open and pulled out the letter. It only took a moment to read.



“Thank you for fixing my window,” Mei read aloud, because Aiko’s voice had failed her completely. “Let’s see a movie.”



Frogs were calling outside the window, keeping the cicadas company. There were the only things that Aiko heard for a few minutes.



“It’s some sort of code,” Mei said. “Do you know-”



“Yes,” Aiko agreed. It was better to let Mei think that was code. The inverse would involve far too much explanation. “I think I know what he means.” She slid the letter back into the envelope and put it in the pile with her papers. “Thank you. Is there anything else that we should deal with?”



Mei gave Aiko a dark look, clearly unhappy about being left out of the loop. She was silent a long moment. “No.” The older woman leaned back in her chair, flexing her ankle. “I don’t believe that there is.”



Mei’s attitude left a bad taste in Aiko’s mouth, but she chose not to comment. “Alright, then.” She raised her eyebrows. “I won’t be able to meet tomorrow until 11, I’ll be taking care of something else before that- procuring more funds. Please pass this on to Utakata-san-” she laid out a sealed envelope- “and direct Chisato-san to make the arrangements I’ve outlined here for the Nadeshiko delegation that we’re likely to see within four to six days. I’d like her to meet them at the outer gate, as you can see, so Ao-san will be supervising the interaction.” A piece of stationary went on top of the envelope.



It felt like there should be something else. She took a moment to think- but no, there wasn’t. Aiko sighed. “You may go. Thank you.”



“Thank you,” Mei echoed, gathering up her papers. “Have a pleasant evening.”



“Of course, you as well.” Aiko waited until her subordinate had left the room to begin to frown.



'Mei is starting to take liberties. I’m not certain that I like it.’



Something should be done, but not tonight.



'One thing I can do is limit her influence- I need to balance her out, promote someone trustworthy and competent and divide responsibilities. If Mei is starting to think she can make decisions without telling me, or that I need to tell her what I’ll be doing…’



It just didn’t bode well.



She blinked. “Wow,” Aiko said. She frowned, examining her feelings. “I’m more worried about Mei than Obito. That’s… that’s a change in priorities.”



To be fair, Obito had dropped off the map for a long time. He was unpredictable in many ways, but she was still fairly certain that he would have contacted her in a much more dignified, dramatic way if he had a fight in mind. Something like slipping out of the shadows when she brought Zabuza and Utakata to Kirigakure, for example. That was classic drama-king Obito. This?



She looked at the sketches again, mildly amused by the scowl on her own cartoon face. Obviously inaccurate, she had an incredibly sunny disposition, thank you very much.



He was communicating that he wanted a ceasefire. By thanking her for a favor she’d done him, and by calling on their shared recollection of fun times they’d spent together, he was invoking the best of their relationship.



'A movie, huh… Icha Icha’s not out at the moment, but I bet that if I looked, I’d find one of those ghastly princess movies playing at the theater in Iwa that he likes. That’s where he’ll be watching for me.’



It was too late tonight, and she was too busy tomorrow. But the day after- she could give that a try.



“I’ll see what he wants, at least.” Aiko held the paper out, giving it one last look. Then she thought back to the feeling of fire, how it coursed through her blood when she used the Rinnegan. She gave it a try, breathing out a simple lick of katon on memory and without a handsign. It caught the paper aflame, but sputtered and died in her mouth too easily.



Well. She spat water out before her fingers could get singed and dropped the smoking, dripping remains of paper into the bin.



“I’ll practice that.”



Aiko stretched. Involuntarily, she yawned.



Oddly, she didn’t want to leave. The office wasn’t luxurious, but it was fairly comfortable. And no one was attempting to spy on her here. She didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. It was exhausting, dull, and frustrating, frankly.



“I’d better get back to Konoha,” she told herself, hoping that would somehow make getting up easier. “I’ve got to arrange a break in training the boys for me to spy on Jiraiya. And maybe get a swimsuit- he’s going to get me wet if he can. And he probably can.” Aiko sat expectantly for a moment, waiting for the urge to be productive to wash over her. It didn’t come. “Ugh.” She tilted her head back. “Okay, I sit for two minutes. Then I go back to Konoha.”

 

 

chapter 21

 

By the second day that she dropped by to see Naruto during training, Jiraiya had pretty well given up on coaxing her into a bathing suit. He was sulking on the other edge of the pool, occasionally giggling over whatever he was trying to write. Also at Naruto’s failures, he liked laughing at the little irritated screech Naruto made when he fell in the pool. The onsen had been cleaner, but it had only taken Jiraiya a day to get thrown out.



Aiko kept one eye on Naruto and one turned to the surroundings. She’d felt watched all day, in a way that couldn’t be attributed to Jiraiya’s wandering eyes.



I’d say Konoha, but I can sense that team. So they’re not the ones giving me the creeps. Unless it’s a different Konoha interest- Danzo? Bu why would he care about me?’



“I heard some interesting news this morning.”



Aiko glanced over. “Oh?”



Jiraiya looked uncharacteristically serious. “Kirigakure announced they have a new Mizukage.” He met her eyes. “I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”



Oh. She gave an enormous stretch, feeling the skin on the back of her neck prickle. After a moment she decided, “That’s very surprising.”



He looked unconvinced, surprisingly enough. “Is it?”



For other people, probably.



“Very.” Aiko couldn’t contain a yawn. “Politics are so interesting. I wonder if this change will affect my life?”



“Ha!” Naruto splashed over, apparently unconcerned with the fact that he was sopping wet. “Maybe you should be the Mizukage! That way, when I’m Hokage, we can be friends.” He cheerfully climbed back onto the edge, gave a whoop, and flung himself back into the water. She wasn’t entirely certain he’d even tried to water-walk that time.



Aiko let the water hit her, because what the hell. It was a hot day and she liked water just fine.



Naruto was half-wincing, watching for her reaction to being drenched.



She peeled her hair away from her face and gave him just enough of a smile that he would know she wasn’t angry. “Actually, I am the new Mizukage. Are we already friends?”



Jiraiya made an irritated sound and lowered the arm he’d used to keep the wave of water off of his face. “Stop messing around.”



“Yeah, yeah.” Naruto gave the Sannin an unimpressed look. “It could happen. I’m definitely going to be Hokage, you know!”



“I know,” Aiko agreed. She leaned back against the side of the pool. “You should master water-walking first, though. I’m pretty sure that Mizukage’s friends should know water-walking.”



He blew a raspberry at her, but he didn’t disagree.



“If I can do water-walking for hours, how much chakra do you think it takes?” Aiko prompted



Naruto hesitated. “Do you have a lot of chakra?” he asked.



She shrugged. “So-so.” That wasn’t true, but her chakra reserves weren’t that relevant. And compared to Naruto, everyone was so-so at best, really. Comparing himself to other people was functionally useless in most cases.



It took him a minute to come up with a better question, face scrunched in thought. “Could many people do that?”



Aiko nodded. “Pretty much any shinobi in Kirigakure, including many genin.”



“Oh.” Naruto sat on the edge and kicked at the water. “I guess that water-walking doesn’t need to use a lot of chakra.”



She nodded again. “Good, that’s one possibility. It’s not quite right, though.”



There was silence while he mulled that over. Aiko waited patiently, closing her eyes and leaning her head back. The wind was pulling at the short hairs on her neck. It tickled.



“I don’t know what you mean.” Naruto sounded sullen.



“The key phrase is ’doesn’tneed to use a lot,‘” Aiko explained. “It’s more like, 'walking on water has to use…” she trailed off.



He jumped in quickly this time. “It has to use a little?”



“Right.” She peeled her eyes open to give him an approving look. “That’s exactly right. What counts as a 'little’ chakra varies from person to person, so you’ll have to figure out the rate that works for you. But until you manage to hit the right amount, it’s a good bet that you’re using too much. Start from there.”



“Oh.” Naruto sounded dejected. “That’s…” He inhaled. “That’s great! I can do that! Just watch, Hikari-san!”



“Of course.”



He went back to his more timid approach, face screwed up in concentration and repeatedly jabbing a foot into the water from the rim. Aiko watched for a minute, and then turned her head to Jiraiya. “It’s still rude to stare. In case you were wondering.”



“I’ll keep that in mind for future reference.” Jiraiya scratched at his chin. “You… you like kids, then?”



She thought she might know where this was going, so Aiko raised an eyebrow and let her gaze go back to Naruto. True to his word, he seemed very industrious and conscious of being observed. “Not enough to have one of my own.”



'Conventional wisdom says that I should, to be jinchuuriki after me, if nothing else. But I could have a dozen kids and no guarantee that any of them would want that. I need to find another solution. If Sanbi doesn’t totally freak out and start killing people when I die, I’d say he should just be left alone to do whatever the hell he wants. But even if Mist respected my wishes in that, no one else would.’



I can hear you thinking about what to do with me,” Sanbi said dryly.



“What?” Jiraiya’s eyes widened. “I mean- because of your work, right? Now isn’t a good time?”



'Oh, sorry,’ Aiko thought back snidely. 'I’ll just do my villainous plotting in that other headspace I have.’



Aiko snorted belatedly when she caught up with what Jiraiya had said aloud. He was right on that- the Mizukage did not have a lot of time to spare. “That too,” she said. “I’m working on my career right now. But also in the general sense.”



There is no call for such attitude,” the Sanbi said primly.



He gave her an odd look. “Doesn’t everybody want kids?”



“Clearly not.” She raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t have any,” she prodded.



'Having an attitude is always appropriate.’



The wink that Jiraiya gave her was so lascivious that he had to be hiding something unpleasant. “Whose to say I don’t? I’ve loved many women, after all.”



“No need to brag,” Aiko said mildly. “I have too.”



Sanbi snorted. “I have only seen you cavort with that foolish Konoha warrior.”



'I’ve cavorted before, Sanbi dear. And would you let that go? Yes, I get it, he’s kind of a douche. I’m done with him.’



“What?” The sannin blinked. “Oh….” Jiraiya’s shoulders slumped. “That explains why you’re immune to my charms, then.” His tone was sorrowful. “It’s just not to be, is it?”



She choked down a laugh. “We’re star-crossed,” Aiko agreed as solemnly as she could manage. “Another time, another place, if you weren’t quite so hairy…” She trailed off. 'If you weren’t my godfather in another universe, if you weren’t so much older than me, if I was attracted to you.’



He gave her a wounded look, and then brightened. “I’m incredibly manly, you mean?”



“Exactly what I meant.” She slapped her left foot against the surface of the water to make a splash. He sputtered in indignation, but she was already getting up. “I should get back to my students. Good luck, Naruto. I’ll look forward to seeing your progress tomorrow.”



Said students were going back to regular training, although they hadn’t realized it yet. Thinking that they might have to fight for their lives in the tournament and subsequent invasion was enough to really light a fire under their asses in terms of work ethic.



Aiko almost felt a little bad about it.



But what’s the alternative?’ she asked herself. ’If I could teach it to him in time, and if he could perform it quickly enough, Sen Tsurara might be enough for Yuusaku to survive Gaara. But he’s not going to get it in time.’



Besides.



Why the fuck would she let her genin participate in the invasion of Konoha? It wasn’t their city to defend. Aiko would be perfectly fine, but the invaders would not count many genin among their numbers, so her team would be facing a disadvantage. She wasn’t going to risk her people against Orochimaru’s forces.



'Of course, Konoha would probably prefer every able body helping them out, but I’ve noted before that it sucks to suck. They’re just going to have to deal.’



“Sensei is being weird again. See the faces she’s making? I wonder wha-”



Aiko threw her pen at Ryuusei without looking up. She was rewarded with a yelp. “What’s that?” she asked.



“I said-”



“You’d like more practice running in the trees?” Aiko held up a hand for her pen. The return toss was mediocre, but she caught it anyway. “How industrious, Ryuusei-kun. Please, go ahead.”



He groaned, but he began cleaning up his equipment.



Placidly, she looked at his teammates. Yuusaku was frowning slightly, Keisuke smirking.



After a moment, Yuusaku sighed. “Oh, damn,” he said quietly. He raised his voice. “Wait a minute, we’re going to try that race again.”



“We’re what.” Keisuke crossed his arms.



“We’re going to race in the trees,” Yuusaku repeated. He dropped the water he was manipulating and walked over to his reluctant teammate. “We wouldn’t leave Ryuusei to have that much fun by himself, would you?”



“Yes,” Keisuke hissed. He gave both of his teammates a beady, resentful stare. But he began yanking his senbon out of the target and putting them away.



Aww. Aiko gave Yuusaku a nod of approval. The little bastards were learning. “How long did that take you last time?”



Keisuke gave his taller teammate an aggrieved look. “One hundred and Forty minutes.



“Oh.” Aiko blinked. That… actually, that wasn’t completely terrible for a village circuit by genin. Maybe she’d make runners out of them yet. “Good. And what will you do afterward?”



They blinked at her.



She waited.



Ryuusei sucked a breath in through his teeth. “I think I should do those strength exercises again,” he suggested slowly. “It’s been two days.” He looked to Yuusaku.



“Ah.” Yuusaku ran a hand through his hair, leaving it to stick up like a bird’s plumage. “Taijutsu forms? Or- actually, I could use some strength training too.”



“I’m already far too powerful,” Keisuke said loftily. “I should see if I can replicate that trap you showed us last time.”



Aiko pursed her lips. “You’re doing strength training tomorrow, I think. Don’t worry, your sheer power isn’t intimidating the rest of us quite yet. But all that sounds good- Yuusaku, your first instinct was good. Go with the forms.” She stood, giving a stretch. “We’re going to do a team training exercise the first thing tomorrow morning- you three against me. So I’m leaving tonight up to your discretion: do what you think will prepare you for that. Understood?”



They nodded, so she felt free to head out.



She hadn’t had a chance to check out movie showing times yet, after all. It was better to go a bit early and be sure she wouldn’t miss the start time. Aiko took a minute to look around when she’d found the right street- it wasn’t quite busy yet, but it would be soon.



'If I were the one staking this location out…’ She worried at her lower lip. 'That coffeeshop is a good vantage point and reason to hang around for quite some time. Or that window up there- it looks like a vacant apartment.’



Well. Maybe she’d see where he came from. She had to take the bait first. Aiko firmed up her shoulders and walked over to the ticket booth to check the times. The woman behind the counter was a knock-out, but she had the kind of severely unimpressed look that didn’t usually help a person in customer service.



That sort of bad attitude was actually more attractive, so Aiko had to consciously keep interest off her face. “Good afternoon,” she greeted. “I was wondering about showings for the Princess Fuu movie tonight?”



“I was wondering when you would deign to show up,” the ticket woman said back. “A moment, please.” She began to pull something up on the machine.



“Alright,” Aiko agreed. She blinked. “Wait. What?”



She got an unimpressed look back, one perfectly shaped eyebrow lifted. Good lord, those eyelashes were to die for-



Wait a minute.



Inside the lobby, a graying manager noticed Aiko with a start.



“Sorry about being a little slow. I’m a new hire,” Obito said blandly. “Temp work. The usual girl is sick.” He leaned back, apparently absorbed in whatever he was doing. “The first showing is at 5:45, the second at 7:20, but if you’d like the final one it’s at 9:40 for a special price, just today.”



Aiko gave him an incredulous look. “Oh my god.” She paused, realizing something. “What did you do to that poor woman?”



The manager was walking closer. What a good dude. What exactly did he think he would do if a  foreign shinobi was harassing one of his employees, though?



The black-haired beauty that Obito appeared to be gave the sort of fluttery “oh, it’s nothing,” gesture that Aiko would expect from Ino. “She’ll feel better tomorrow,” he said lightly.



'I’m not dealing with this. Any of this.’



She folded her arms and leaned back, trying to look more bored than aggressive or dangerous. “Thank you,” she said, loudly enough for Obito’s manager to hear. “The last showing sounds fine. I think I’m going to go rest for a bit, first.”



“That will be 1300 yen.” Obito said, disinterested. He did something to his machine and it began to make some awful noise. “And I see. All the way home?”



“A friend’s house.” Aiko took the ticket he offered. “It’s a nice place, with an herb garden in the back.”



He had a lot of safehouses, but only one had a terrible tangle of overgrown lavender where the porch had been, once upon a time. Honestly. That man needed to hire some caretakers.



“That sounds lovely.” Obito gave her a vaguely queasy smile, tone polite and distant. “Thank you for your patronage.”



“Of course.” She glanced at the ticket before she put it in her purse- it was actually for the 7:20 showing. Well, of course, there was no 9:40 showing. He was probably saying he’d be there at 9:40 at the latest.



As soon as she was far enough away, Aiko ducked into an alley and hiraishin’d to the safehouse she’d chosen. She eyed the front door cautiously- he had so many that he probably wouldn’t have been able to guess which one she would choose as a private rendezvous point, but he did know how she thought.



Rather than risking an entry, she took a minute to wish she was a sensor. Obito wouldn’t have many allies to ambush her with, but there was always Zetsu. Maybe Kisame-



'I think I would know if Kisame was lurking around.’ She nibbled at her fingernails. ’His chakra is unreal.’



Obito didn’t show up within half an hour, which was bordering on rude. Was he really going to stick to that time?



'I don’t have all night. And I don’t have to play by his rules,’ Aiko decided. She was considering leaving a note when the front door swung open.



Obito walked out, bare of any henge. “I apologize.” He looked directly at her, and Aiko had to work not to wince at seeing the one sharingan in his face. Ah. Just one… Well, there wasn’t the Danzo surplus kicking around just yet. He must have taken it from his counterpart.



He was still talking. “I took the liberty of a shower. I thought that the popcorn aroma would be distracting.”



Fair enough, actually. “It clings,” Aiko agreed. She blinked quickly, as if that would get rid of the hairline cracks in her vision or the fact that he was the reason she was going blind. She didn’t take a step closer, but she didn’t move backwards either. He stopped about ten feet away.



It didn’t mean anything except as a gesture. The distance was nothing to either of them.



“What do you want?” Aiko asked. It was blunt, but…



He gave her a reproachful look, but didn’t scold. “We have an aligned interest. I would like some measure of coordination so that we aren’t working against each other.”



She raised an eyebrow. She thought she knew what he meant, but…



“Akatsuki is a beast that I unleashed on this world as much as ours,” Obito said. The skin around his eye was swollen, red, and shiny. Still? When had he taken the eye? “I… I’ve lost the taste for revenge. And you have a very personal interest in stopping a threat that the rest of the world doesn’t know to look for yet.”



What, Naru-



Oh.



'I keep forgetting I’m a jinchuuriki now. That’s… so weird.’



“Akatsuki is formidable.” Obito showed his palms slightly. “I wouldn’t trust my strength against any two of them,  but they will surely react to outside attacks. Dismantling the entire organization will take more than one person, more than one set of resources. And there are at least two in their number who I think that you do not want to face alone.”



Two? Which two would he mean? Konan had been a difficult opponent in past, but Aiko would probably do better in that match-up now than she had before. She thought for a moment. “Pein and Itachi?”



Obito gave her a pitying look. “Itachi-kun’s legend is exaggerated. I was thinking of Hidan.”



Aiko scrunched up her face. She didn’t know much about him… He had a foul mouth, he’d somehow mortally offended Sasuke through persistent survival, he was a close-quarters specialist….



He was clearly watching her thought process. “If Hidan manages to touch you, no amount of distance fled would save you.”



Well. That was a pretty big clue. And ominous as hell.



'My survival strategy is pretty dependent on fleeing if things go badly. I don’t like how that sounds.’



“My plan so far was just to kill people as they became annoying,” Aiko said. That was the general life plan, really, she hadn’t bothered to come up with a plan for Akatsuki at all yet.



Obito hummed. “So, Kisame and Itachi, then?”



What? Oh. “They come and put Kakashi in the hospital soon, don’t they,” Aiko remembered. “And then Jiraiya rebuffs them from taking Naruto.” She frowned. Well. Kakashi’s hospitalization was fucking terrible and he didn’t deserve that. But it was important as a reason to coax Tsunade to return to Konoha. And Jiraiya would keep Naruto safe….



“Are you willing to trust that?” Obito sounded disbelieving. “This isn’t our world, Aiko. Is everything here the same as it was before?”



Sakura.



Her expression might have been enough information, because he nodded. “Right. You’d better do something, then. I’ll help if you want. I don’t think you would do well against Itachi and Kisame together.”



Aiko winced. She didn’t think that would end well, either. And now that she was a jinchuuriki, she was risking worse than a sticky end.



But…



'I don’t trust Obito at my back. I’d rather face hard odds than backup I can’t trust.’



“It’s hard to imagine how you could help, if Jiraiya really is nearby,” Aiko deflected. “Unless you want to make yourself known to Konoha?” She didn’t let her bitterness color her tone. Much. “They’ll welcome you back with open arms. They’ll be confused, but you were never a criminal until years from now. And I don’t imagine you have a living counterpart here who could ever contradict your right to the welcome.”



Obito made an ugly snort. “Aside from how that would limit my options and end with Bakashi plastered insufferably to my heels apologizing to me for the rest of my life, it sounds like an excellent idea. I’ll consider it if becoming useless and miserable ever looks like a valid tactic.”



Ah, yes. Kakashi’s devotion to Obito was depressing and horrific, but when viewed from the lens of the irritation it provided Obito, it was actually pretty funny.



'I hope that he’s telling the truth about his intentions there. Konoha doesn’t need to take in that kind of danger. Would they find out about everything he’s done, or just treat him as a victim? Either way, he’s the kind of ally you don’t want too close. He murdered his teacher- that wasn’t mind control, it was just anger and manipulation. Anyone who is capable of that can’t be trusted not to change their mind again.’



“Your loss.” Aiko shrugged. “Maybe you can go off Orochimaru and take over his village, then. Get some resources for your fight against the Akatsuki.”



“Because my previous attempts at village administration went very well,” Obito said dryly.



She didn’t bother to respond to that, because she didn’t buy it. He’d been the shadow ruler of Ame for a very long time. Yes, he’d brutalized Kirigakure, but it hadn’t been out of incompetence. It had been because he wanted to, or more likely, because it served one of his agendas somehow.



“What do you want?” Aiko repeated. She took a step back.



“I’ll keep an eye out,” Obito said instead of answering. He closed his eye, shiny and painful-looking. “I won’t butt in, since you clearly don’t want me to.” Was the eye infected? “A tip, since you seem concerned about Itachi- the Sharingan can’t catch the Rinnegan in an illusion. Itachi relies far too heavily on those. He won’t make the mistake twice, however, so use it well.”



She pressed her lips together to keep from asking a stupid question.



'If it’s true that the Rinnegan is stronger than the Sharingan, he just handed me a weapon against himself. He’s bright enough to know that. Why would he do that? Is it a goodwill gesture, a lie- or is he somehow an exception?’



Obito seemed to take the silence as a hint that the conversation was over, because he sighed. “I don’t want to be your enemy, Aiko. I think we’ve both got better shit to do.”



'And I’ve kicked your ass before,’ Aiko thought pettily. She had the brains not to say it out loud, at least. Obito might take that as a challenge. And she wouldn’t be able to trick him in the same way again, regardless.



She honestly didn’t know who would win in a death-match between the two of them, and she didn’t like her odds well enough to press the matter. So she opted for the minimum levels of diplomacy.



“We both do,” she agreed. “I’m not holding many grudges anymore. What’s the point- I hurt you just as much, and our whole damn world is gone.” Aiko had to swallow. “What happened there isn’t relevant here.”



Tentatively, he smiled, and it hurt something in her chest.



“But the person who hurt Kirigakure in this world was another version of you,” Aiko continued. Her mouth was dry. “I would feel more comfortable if you stayed out of my country. When you need to contact me, you can send me a letter. I’ll get a post box and give you the information. If it’s urgent-” she  slipped a hand into her holster and froze.



Because Obito had moved for his own weapon.



She met his single eye and pulled out the blade with pointed slowness. She moved her grip to the sharp edge and used her left hand to put a seal on the handle. Aiko managed a bitter smile as she extended it to him like that. She raised her eyebrows.



“Of course.” Obito said stiffly. He looked a little ashamed. “That seems fair enough. I won’t interfere with Kirigakure, under your protection as it is.” Her weapon looked like a toy in his grip, sized as it was for a woman’s hand. He was a bulky monster of a man, besides. The contrast was ungainly.



Aiko looked away.



Obito cleared his throat. “In the interest of full disclosure, I was watching in Kirigakure,” he said. “Using that Konoha nin… it’s helpful, but risky for anything important.”



“I’m well aware,” Aiko said, voice tight.



“Right.” He sighed. “It’s just that…. shouldn’t you be able to use Mokuton too? Along with stone, so really, the reconstruction should be going faster.”



She blinked and turned to look at him for clarification, but he was gone. Which…



“That’s a good point,” Aiko said, personally offended. “Fuck.”



Sanbi cackled. “I was waiting for you to figure that out.”



Aiko hissed, straight-up hissed. Because what other response to that could there be?



So grumpy,” Sanbi chided mockingly. “Why must you always look for a fight?”



“You’re no prince of peace yourself,” Aiko said grudgingly. She uncurled the hand that had made a fist at some point. She moved to her office in Kirigakure.



On the contrary, I am extending an olive branch.” Sanbi’s tone was confident, but there was something about it that made her ears prick up. Something that made her think he wasn’t as unaffected as he wanted to convey. “For the good work of restoring housing and structure to those who I was used to harm, I would share my chakra with you.”



The door to her office swung open and the chuunin secretary was saying something, but Aiko couldn’t hear it over the pounding in her head.



The mokuton child is acceptably skilled, but has no stamina at all,” Sanbi critiqued. “He must stop every hour or so for a rest, amounting to perhaps 6 hours of actual mokuton production over the course of a day. With your ability and my reserves, we can accomplish much more.”



“sorry, I’ll just-”



“Bring me the bridge-builder,” Aiko said. Then she realized how rude she was being. She blinked and turned to actually look at her nominal assistant. “I’m sorry, I was distracted. I would like to speak with Tazuna. I can go to him, actually. Where is he?”



The man’s expression was carefully diplomatic. “I believe he can be found discussing details of his plan with a representative in the third meeting room.”



Aiko gave him a sideways look. “From your expression, it’s not going well,” she stated.



He opened his mouth. He closed it again. He sighed.



“Alright, then,” Aiko muttered. “Excuse me.” She pushed out of the room and left her assistant standing awkwardly a moment, before he hurried behind her.

She would have found Tazuna by following the drunken bellowing, even if she hadn’t remembered how to find the room. She had to smile.



“shoved so far up your ass-”



The chuunin sighed again.



“Ask for an expert, asked by a family friend, on the Mizukage’s orders, but he can’t come tell me himself that-”



Something shattered.



“What’s the point? Why ask for the best if what you want is so shoddy and-”



“He’s lively, isn’t he?” Aiko said cheerily.



Her secretary gave her an incredulous look.



'What was his name again?’ Aiko wondered. 'Damn. I need to find these things out. I need to develop personal relations with my staff, as well.’



She managed a smile. “Come on, then. Let’s calm him down.” She knocked on the door, but no one seemed to hear over the argument inside. So Aiko just pushed it open and stepped inside.



It took a moment for her to be noticed. Tazuna’s face was bright red with indignation and drink, but the dark-skinned young man who had been trying to placate him was calm-faced.



“Tazuna-san,” Aiko greeted warmly.



Tazuna blinked. He gave her an up and down. Then his expression brightened. “Hikari-chan! Come tell these people that they need to let the architect make the decisions about what to build.”



“Mizukage-sama, the purpose of hiring civilian contractors to repair the dock was to enable our people to get back to work with haste,” the shinobi said calmly. He bowed to her. “I do not believe that constructing-” his eyes darted to Tazuna “-the finest harbor in the world, at a completely different location from our current harbor, is the most expedient course of action. One might even say it could be somewhat time-consuming.”



'I want to promote him, just for saying that with a straight face.’



“The money and prestige that it will bring in the long run are worth more than any of that,” Tazuna rebutted fiercely. “If you want someone to put plywood patches over your current mess so that you can tie up a damn canoe, well, you’re going to have to find another architect-”



Aiko rubbed at her temples, because, ah. Perhaps she should have predicted that Tazuna’s ambitions would not be satisfied with smaller projects after his great success in Wave. “Tazuna-san,” she interrupted. “Let me see your plans. Perhaps we can come to an arrangement.”



He frowned slightly. “Do you have the authority?” Tazuna asked. “Because I’ve been trying to go to the top to argue my case. Everyone is either disagreeing or saying they don’t have the authority to approve the plans.” He was already unrolling his drafts on the table.



Aiko stepped in close and tried to remember enough local geography to understand what she was looking at. She had to use the Rinnegan to read it in the poor lighting.



There was the old harbor location on the west of the island, sheltered between Kirigakure proper and the island that sat between it and the mainland. The proposed harbor had been moved north, to a natural insweep of the islands curvature that was less drastic but much larger than the original location.



“I think I can make it happen,” Aiko answered belatedly. “Tazuna-san, what is this?”



He beamed. “We want what’s called a floating dock,” Tazuna explained. “That’s a way of protecting boats at harbor from storms and changing tides. You control the water-tight entry point, here, so that the water level is always equal to that of high tide. It allows more and bigger ships to take to the harbor.” He traced the  line with a finger, callous rasping against the page. “It’d be good policy to leave the gates open at high tide so ships can come and go quickly, but at other times this place here, the entry point-” he stabbed the paper with a finger. “It’s called a lock. The ship leaving enters it and the water proof gates are closed behind it. Then the water level inside the lock is drained to equal that outside. You open the outer gate, and the ship can leave safely at a lower elevation than that of the harbor. The process is reversed to enter.”



Aiko frowned, because the problem there was obvious. “Wouldn’t that drain the water in the harbor?” She tapped the paper. “With one ship, it wouldn’t be drastic, but it would add up, I’d think.”



Tazuna beamed down at her and ruffled her hair.



Aiko stood stock-still in shock.



“Not bad,” he said cheerily. “And that brings us back to this here.” He indicated the construction she’d originally asked about. “It’s a reservoir that you open to the outside at high tide to fill it as well. When water is lost from the lock, you open this mechanism here-”



She leaned in closer to see, as if the notations would suddenly make sense to her.



“And then you replace an equivalent amount of water from the reservoir into the harbor, which keeps the levels at the same height.” Tazuna sounded exceedingly pleased with himself. “It’s a neat little system, don’t you think?”



Aiko thought it over for a while, until the silence stretched out to be uncomfortable. “I do like it,” she decided. “But it creates logistical problems- I assume you’ve made sure that these waters are safe for ships, especially ones with deeper bellies that you would want to come here, but I’d still like to be certain. And the fishing industry will have support buildings and things located by the old location. New ones would have to be constructed, or else the industry would be crippled by a new need for transport and the increased time delay in getting the fish processed would reduce quality and safety.”



Tazuna made a 'well, that’s fair but I don’t like it’ sort of face.



She pursed her lips. “This area here- what is it being used for?” She glanced at the sassy man of indeterminate rank and qualifications. “Is it housing, farmland…” She trailed off.



“I’m not certain,” he admitted. “But I can find out.”



“I like your attitude.” Aiko nodded. “Please do.” As the man bowed his way out of the room, she looked back at Tazuna. He was frowning slightly, but more out of confusion than displeasure. “There’s also this area,” she said thoughtfully, indicating the outer arm of the harbor that would shelter from the sea. “You’ve made it fairly narrow here in the plan, just enough to tie up the boats and form the harbor. But if we’re going to do this, we might as well significantly broaden it. It could be used as a center for warehouses for trade, and for processing some of the food on location. This arm of the harbor could be a walkaround- it’s not safe to try to use the lock that way, right?”



“Definitely not,” Tazuna agreed, surprised. “The rest is good, though. But aren’t these people concerned about the time and materials?”



Aiko pursed her lips at the way he said 'these people’. But the fight wasn’t worth it at the moment- it wasn’t an intentional slight. “I can approve it,” she said. “And I think that we’ll all be pleasantly surprised with the time frame. Is there anything that could be built today, if you could just wish it into being?” she asked. “Or do you need to go back to the plans and make major adjustments to change the size of this?”



Tazuna scoffed. “You mean well, lass, but there’s always something to do.” He was beginning to grin. “If I could just wish and have it be done, I’d say that we could begin installing the outer line of the harbor. It should be done first to protect the latter work from tides and weather. The skilled work, like the gates and reservoir and drainage- that’ll come at the end. Well, actually, the end will be outfitting with places to tie up ships,” he corrected.



“Alright.” Aiko leaned back, feeling interested and excited about having a project. “Let’s go make the magic happen, then.”



“My crew is repairing some footbridge that collapsed,” Tazuna rejected good-naturedly. “Today isn’t good, girlie.”



She patted his shoulder. “It’s fine,” Aiko said, with confidence that felt like it was coming more from the Sanbi than her own lack of experience with large-scale stone work. “Just tell me where to start- solid stone is fine for material, right?”



Tazuna gave her a long look. He reached for the flask at his hip. “I suppose so,” he said, more wary than pleased. “If you can manage that. Is this some of that ninja nonsense?”



“It’s ninja nonsense,” Aiko confirmed pleasantly. “I have some small skill with stonework. I believe I can provide the majority of the materials and do the vast majority of the construction, leaving the skilled work to you and yours.”



As they were walking out, the secretary still on their heels, the man assigned to Tazuna caught up with them. “Yes?” Aiko asked.



“Mizukage-sama,” he greeted.



Tazuna startled and hid it very poorly.



“I’ve pulled the most recent map from archives. There are two residences within the immediate area, but it’s not very high quality land for farming, so it’s mostly left to nature.”



Aiko frowned. “What’s wrong with it?”



“Ano…” He flipped a paper, reading as he walked. “I believe it’s a mixture of a sandy, rocky soil and an uneven terrain.” He cast a sideways glance at her, under blonde eyelashes. “An earth ninjutsu user of your caliber could adjust the terrain to allow for roads and building development easily enough, if I might offer a suggestion.”



She sighed. “That sounds reasonable. Who would be qualified to come up with a design for that plan?”



He swallowed. “I don’t know,” he said in the same tone as earlier. “But I would be pleased to find out.”



Aiko gave him an odd look, because he was a suspiciously good employee. “What’s your name?”



“Sakurai, Mizukage-sama.”



“Alright.” She sighed. “It’s your job now, Sakurai-san. We’ll want to get on it quickly- schedule yourself a meeting with someone who will know what the fishing industry will need, make projections, then talk to a contractor for ideas. Make a preliminary sketch, and take that expert out to get it approved. Once it’s approved, put it on my desk.”



Sakurai gave her a deeply offended look, but he nodded. “Yes, Mizukage-sama.” He drifted back to walk behind her, along with the chuunin whose name she had known at one point. Yama-something?



Tazuna watched her new city development official go with a bemused expression. He leaned into Aiko and said in what he must have thought was a whisper, “Why does that ninny think you’re the Mizukage?”



Aiko leaned back, covering her mouth with a hand conspiratorially. “Because I am. Weird, right?”



The old man nodded. “Strange.” His wrinkles deepened. “Very strange. How is…” He trailed off. “How do you like your new job?”



“Um. It’s good,” Aiko said cautiously. “I’m settling in, you know, and just keeping busy.”



“Right, right.” He nodded. “That’s… good.”



They managed to exchange mutually uncomfortable smiles. They were probably both relieved to arrive at the site, which took an excruciating half an hour at Tazuna’s pace.



Sanbi was stirring in her chest, picking up the pace and force of her heart. She tapped her fingers against her thigh and carefully listened to Tazuna’s instructions about how to begin, but she was itching to start.



He seemed to realize that. “Just… Start here, aim for a wall from the seafloor to about 2 meters above the water level right now,” Tazuna said. “You can always make it broader, right?” When Aiko nodded, he scratched at his head. “Alright, then. Try for about 2 meters in width, then, and we’ll see how it looks.”



She stepped out into the water and looked down. She couldn’t actually see the seafloor- the water wasn’t clear enough. But when she reached out, she could feel the water moving, ready for her to grasp, and below it- sand, useless land, she couldn’t do anything with that- and below the sand was good, hard rock. Once she had the feeling of it, she closed her eyes.



Aiko began to pull on that feeling, putting her fingers into a seal she didn’t even know, what was it, sanbi?



“Not me,” he replied. “Rinnegan. Someone has done this with those eyes before.”



“Odd.”



“What’s that?” Tazuna asked.



She breathed in. Out. When she breathed in next she flexed against the rock she was holding and began matching it, building, replicating the material and shaping it up like clay, pulling and molding and when it was nearly to the top she began walking, making the shape of the wall without letting it breach the water yet. She should ask Tazuna, she should get better directions but she thought of the curve she’d seen on paper and there, that jutting rock was parallel with the widest point she needed and beyond that, the dead tree leaning into the water would match where the gate would be.



All she thought was her work. She breathed it. If she’d looked at the wall forming behind her she would have seen confused fish and octopi fleeing one way or the other over the few inches of water left over stone, but she didn’t look.



When she reached the end point, she turned back.



And blinked in surprise.



“Whoa.” Aiko put a hand to her head, wavering. “When did….” She frowned. “It’s later than I realized.”



You may have gone into something of a trance,” Sanbi commented. He didn’t seem terribly interested. “You were relying on someone else’s experience, after all. You will probably have more control if you ever independently bring your stone-jutsu to this level.”



Aiko looked back at what she’d done and gaped. Tazuna’s plans had not been modest, and she’d just…. she’d just done a big chunk of it. “I don’t think I can,” she said slowly. “I don’t have the right chakra type. Or the time, really.”



The chakra type doesn’t matter,” Sanbi rejected. His tails flicked- how did she know that? She couldn’t see him. “The Rinnegan allowed you to use any type of nature manipulation. The Rinnegan is also like the Sharingan in that it recalls and can replicate usages it has recorded. The two functions are separate. Relying on the first doesn’t not condemn you to relying on the second.”



“Oh.” She wrapped her arms around her body. “I see.

She could see back to where Tazuna was waiting- he’d sat down and was watching her. He was probably tired. How many hours had it been?



“I should get back to Konoha,” Aiko said regretfully.



The bizarre thing was that she wasn’t tired. She was- maybe she was a bit disoriented from the long trance state, and from having inhuman levels of chakra pumped through her body to keep her producing stone- good lord, she’d been making it out of nothing, not manipulating existing material. That chakra drain- that was ridiculous!



She gave Tazuna her apologies as she took him back to his suite, but he was actually in a good mood, if drowsy.



“I get to say that the Mizukage personally came to my door and asked for my help,” Tazuna mused. “And with your crazy ninja magic- just think of what I can do! I won’t be so modest in my next projects, I’ll tell you that much. Hey, that Terumi-san, she was talking about other projects after this one. I can’t wait to get started. We’ll finish this in a week, if you keep that up. We’ll need more time for the lock and the drainage system- you can’t do that kind of detail work, can you?” He continued on without waiting for an answer. “I’ve been thinking about that- there’s a special kind of lock that’s more watertight, it gets a seal if there’s even the smallest amount of difference in water pressure. We could-”



“Good night, Tazuna-san.” Aiko squeezed the old man’s hand for a moment, getting his attention. She smiled, woozily if not wearily. “I’ll see you tomorrow, ne? I need to get to bed.”



“Oh, of course.” He nodded, and then drew her into a hug goodbye. What was going on in that genjutsu? First head-patting, now hugging?



Aiko bore it until it was over, bowed her goodbyes, and pulled herself back into Konoha.



The full ANBU team waiting in her room turned to look at her. “Uzumaki Aiko,” one of them greeted. “We have some questions. Please come with us.”

 

 

chapter 22

 

“I was on the toilet.” Aiko lied baldly. “When I heard your ANBU loudly stumble into my room, by complete accident and stoogish incompetency, I assume, since they are obviously forbidden from invading the privacy of a foreign diplomat, I was so embarrassed that I used a genjutsu to hide. What else was I to do?” She met his eyes, deadpan.



Her interrogator might have sighed- it was hard to be certain. “For 34 minutes?” he asked. His gravelly voice could have dried up the onsen. “You hid under genjutsu from an ANBU team for 34 minutes? On the toilet. That must have been quite the genjutsu.” He paused. “That must have been quite the bowel movement.”



Aiko nodded. “I have a little skill with genjutsu,” she said in a way that was completely honest but would let them think she was underselling herself. “Anyway. Have you ever tried to poop completely silently?” she asked in the most serious tone she could manage. “It takes careful execution.”



Ibiki’s face was like stone. “I can’t say that I have. But you managed?”



Aiko ducked her head to hide her face behind her hair, curling her shoulders in to make herself small and timid. “You ask such embarrassing questions, ne….”



I think that he would like very much to hit you,” Sanbi observed neutrally.



She was glad her hair was covering the smirk she couldn’t stop, although there wasn’t much point. Ibiki knew she was lying, obviously. ‘They can’t do anything to me that could be reasonably construed as an attempt to harm me, unless they have evidence that I was engaged in espionage or sabotage. That’s really hard to prove. Ha, ha.’



Sanbi huffed. “You are terrible in every way,” he approved. “Please, provoke him further. I enjoy watching this human work to restrain his temper.”



“I was worried about plopping sounds,” Aiko said mournfully. “But the truth was even worse. I had some bad fish, I think. Kirigakure’s seafood is much fresher, much better, you just can’t tell when something is going to be too old in a backwards, barbaric country. No offense meant, of course, Konoha is so quaint. Anyway, I was experiencing gastrointestinal distress because of the subpar-”



“I am sorry to hear this,” Ibiki gritted out.



Sanbi howled. It was probably his version of laughter.



“Do you often have such problems, or are you people accustomed to eating expired products?” Aiko asked, trying her best to sound concerned. “I suppose that Konoha shinobi are notoriously… hardy,” she said delicately, implying that the reputation was more along the lines of 'garbage-eating dog-people’. “It’s fascinating to see what conditions a person can become accustomed to when there’s no other option. Your culture is so interesting.” She widened her eyes into a facsimile of innocence.



Ibiki was breathing very carefully.



Aiko leaned forward as much as she could without putting undue pressure on her hands, bound as they were on the table in front of her at an awkward angle. “Are your bowels quite alright?”



“They are as well as can be expected,” Ibiki allowed. And god, he was brilliant, he deserved a medal for that poker face. She wanted to promote him. “Thank you for your concern.”



She wanted to wave his comment away, but settled for a one-shouldered shrug. “It’s no problem. You can talk to me about anything. I won’t tell anyone.”



“I will keep that in mind.” He pushed his chair back with a shriek of metal against the bare floor.



Aiko pretended to be surprised, pushing her eyebrows up theatrically. “Oh no, you aren’t feeling well suddenly?” she asked as he turned towards the door. “Remember to wipe from front to-”



The door slammed,



“Back,” she finished sweetly. For a moment, she looked down at her bound hands, letting the smile come out. Then slowly, pointedly, she looked towards the stretch of wall like any other that was actually a window hidden under seal-based genjutsu. She widened her smile to a grin exposing teeth that were slightly too sharp.



She couldn’t actually do anything to dispel the genjutsu as she was- if her hands were free and she could walk over, she could disable the seal. But as she was, unless she was willing to try the Rinnegan, she had no way of actually knowing who was on the other side.



'There’s no reason to let Konoha know that I can’t see through it, of course. Letting them think I’m a genjutsu master will give them the explanation they want for how I’m getting around, and keep them from looking in the right direction.’



You are a terrible person,” Sanbi repeated.



Aiko batted her eyelashes, although he couldn’t see the gesture. ’You sound just like Utakata. You’re both very sweet to me. I’m beginning to be very fond of you.



That is not as comforting as you might assume,” Sanbi muttered.



She shrugged for response. The conversation petered off without anything to comment on and she waited in silence for Ibiki to return, or someone else to enter. There was no way to track the time. For a while, she managed to keep a dignified, professional demeanor.



It might have been hours- god, she definitely wasn’t going to get a chance to sleep. Maybe she should have tracked time by counting heartbeats, but it seemed useless by the time she thought of it. She began to fidget, tapping her foot under the table. They would be able to see that from their angle if they were watching, and someone probably was.



'Oh well. They know I’m an Uzumaki, and I’m portraying an airhead. They’re not going to expect me to wait in dignified silence. And actually, it might be better to show them what they expect.’



Aiko let her head fall back, boredom unconcealed. But to be blatant… “Can I get a book or something?” she called.



There was no response.



“How about a movie, or some music?” she tried. “A magazine.” Aiko jostled her left leg as best she could with the metal restraints. It was irritatingly silent.



Shockingly, no one leapt to entertain her. Aiko waited until her neck began to ache from the angle- half an hour? Or just fifteen minutes? She pouted, straightening back up as best she could with her legs bound to the chair legs and her hands in front of her. They had not taken the precautions she’d taken with Yamato, she noted. So if she was really in a pickle, she could try that mokuton that Obito swore she should be able to use.



I would think that slipping your bonds would be less revealing,” Sanbi said. “And more practical.”



'Not sure that I agree. Mokuton would be shocking to them, but if they know that I can just move from this position, they’ll know that they can’t keep me captive at all. Then they’ll have to wonder why I’m allowing this, and they’ll almost certainly make the hiraishin connection. I’m an Uzumaki- seals are implied. If they don’t think I’m just exceptionally stealthy or have some kind of bloodline, they’re going to have to come to the right conclusion.’



Sanbi took a moment to respond. “All warfare is based on deception,” he said dryly.



'You like the classics?’ Aiko smiled, because that stratagem wasn’t exactly what she was thinking of. 'If they think they know my measure, I’ll have more latitude to move in ways they can’t anticipate.’



Sanbi let out a long, contemplative sigh. “How unfortunate for them. If only you would be so kind as to reveal the correct self, Konoha might have a chance of seeing the viper at their feet.”



The amusement slipped out of her expression, though she didn’t let her smile drop instantly. 'Bit harsh.



No,” Sanbi said thoughtfully. ’I do not think it is.’



'I’m hardly a viper,’ Aiko argued, barely managing to keep the words from coming out of her mouth.



He huffed, amused. “Do you know how a viper cares for her children?” Sanbi asked.



“Probably eats them,” Aiko said sullenly.



Careful,” Sanbi mocked. Only then did she realize that her last words had been aloud. Konoha would wonder about that. “And no. Not at all.”



'What is that supposed to mean?’ Aiko forced herself to relax her jaw, to begin fidgeting again. She’d gone still.



Sanbi didn’t answer, his presence fading from the forefront of her consciousness.



'Is there a quote about children?’ Aiko wondered. 'It seems significant, in the context that he brought it up.’



She’d need to find that book and read the 36 stratagems again. And…. maybe she’d need to read about vipers, so that she knew what point Sanbi had been making.



Ugh. He was making her learn about snakes, really?



Click.



Her attention turned to the door the instant that the handle began to turn. She’d snapped back to readiness, which was the only reason she didn’t let her face fall when she saw who was coming in.



'Shit.’



Inoichi Yamanaka gave her a pleasant, ditsy smile. He flipped his hair as he sat down. “Uzumaki-san, right? I’d like to talk.”



Her guts were churning for real this time. The smile that she offered him might have been a bit sickly. “I don’t feel very talkative,” Aiko deferred. She leaned back. “Actually, I was thinking-”



Inoichi’s smile slipped away, face becoming harder than she’d ever seen and he was so big, he was too close and he was looming over her. He slapped his hands together. He was in her head.



Aiko reared back.



She was standing on a building, watching the Sanbi rage against the -



under water and someone had a grip on her hair was it Konan who was she fighting now



weightless terror, blue blue sky and the long fall and the tiredness in her limbs



water



sand and she was b u r n i n g her skin wasn’t enough to hold it in n o n o no make it make it make make it stop



.



She was leaning over until her forehead brushed the table and her loose hair was hanging over her face.



There was a piercing pain in her head, stretching from the base of her spine to curl needles into her eyes.



She was shuddering. Because she was too dignified to tremble, obviously. So it wasn’t that moving her body.



“Uzumaki-san,” Inoichi said carefully.



She consciously turned off the Rinnegan, which dimmed some of the painful brightness flooding her vision. Had he seen? Had anyone seen? When had she turned them on?



“Uzumaki-san,” he repeated, in perfect calm.



Aiko put her hands flat on the table- she’d managed to twist them in her panic. Her left wrist- was it out of the socket? She thought so. She swallowed. “Yes, Konoha-san?” she managed politely.



He paused. “You have something on your face.”



She blinked wet eyelashes. She looked at the red smudges on her hands, blood smeared on her fingers and the table where she’d convulsed. Blood was still trickling down her cheeks like tears. Ah.



'So it turns out that the Rinnegan does not trump a Yamanaka’s technique, but it sure tries.’



“Uzumaki-san,” he said yet again, with that annoyingly neutral inflection.



You are losing minutes of time,” Sanbi informed. “Is that usual?”



Oh. Maybe. That… that would explain some things.



She had no idea how much time she had sat still and silent, but she responded to Inoichi’s statement. “These things happen,” Aiko said calmly. The shaking wasn’t stopping. Actually, it might be getting worse. “To all of us, I’m certain. Unavoidable.”



“They do?” Inoichi might have been a bit freaked out, the slightest bit of surprise or revulsion or something in his tone. She glanced up at him, but couldn’t read his face. It was too bright, blurry and pale until his features blended together. He should get that looked at.



'Has he never seen this before? Is my reaction to his jutsu really that unusual?’



Her stomach was really churning. The lights were too bright despite being too dim, Inoichi’s breathing far too loud and the people talking behind the window (Ibiki and the Sandaime? One more, but who?) were too loud they needed to stop and god, Inoichi could really use a breathmint and to switch to a less obnoxious shampoo-



She threw up on her hands, gagging and jerking helplessly. She tried to pull her hands away but she couldn’t, they were fastened, and she couldn’t move her head because her head was pressed against the table, forehead dimly aching from the force with which it had hit.



“You may not be faking that,” Inoichi said, sounding a little perplexed.



Aiko groaned, head lolling.



“Oh.” She heard him stand. “Are you… back, then?”



What a stupid question. Aiko rolled her head to the side, grimacing at the way her hair pulled at the bile weighing it down. She gave Inoichi her dirtiest glare.



“I think you are,” he said dryly.



She rolled her eyes. “I have a team practice scheduled at 5am,” Aiko complained. She sat up, and did her best to pretend that she had no idea that vomit was dripping off her face, down her neck and onto her shirt.“Are we done here?”



Inoichi took a while to respond, probably communicating with someone else. His breathing was normal now, the volume dialed back down to manageable levels with other stimulus. “Yes,” Inoichi said, extremely belatedly. “We apologize for the inconvenience.”



“Of wrongly interrogating me?” Aiko tried to wrestle up some indignation.



“For the bad fish that caused all this,” Inoichi said glibly. “How embarrassing. This is the first time that stomach problems have been severe enough to cause a diplomatic incident. Perhaps the Mizukage might send a hardier jounin next time. It’s unfortunate that you are so delicate, Uzumaki-san.”



She gritted her teeth, hard.



“It’s 4:20,” Inoichi said, sounding mildly surprised. “Oh, dear. I hope that you’ll have an opportunity to shower and change before your appointment.”



Aiko breathed carefully.



“We have a shower and a change of clothes,” he said innocently. “To apologize for the inconvenience presented by the fish. We will look into this, of course. Where was it purchased?”



She closed her eyes. Her eyelashes clumped together with coagulating blood, like it was shitty old mascara. “I’m in a hurry, so please remove my bonds.”



Inoichi paused for a moment.



'HA.’



“Of course.” He freed her legs first, and opened the vomit-splattered cuffs as gingerly as he could.



Somehow, her wrist hurt worse once it was released- because the angle had changed? Aiko drew it to her side gingerly as she stood, keeping the pain off her face. Inoichi glanced to the limb- swollen and turning purple already- but he refrained from comment. “This gentleman will take you to the shower, and then wait to escort you to your training grounds.”



She hadn’t noticed the ANBU enter- well. Of course not, she’d been having a seizure or something. Aiko glanced dismissively- slight, unmarked mask- a junior member, probably. She walked past him without a second glance- and jerked when she sensed something she’d nearly forgotten.



Inoichi paused, holding the door open. He seemed to be expecting her to have another episode.



Aiko gathered her wits and kept walking. Sai stepped in behind, that fucking seal pinging against her nerves now that she was within two feet of him. It felt like insects crawling up her neck, like a senbon trailing carefully up and down her back, like a serpent around her ankle.



'This is not a coincidence.’



It was not comfortable to shower, knowing that Sai was on the other side of the door. When she turned the water off, leaving her filthy clothes in a wet pile, he slung plain and ill-fitting clothes over the top of the door without comment. She pulled them on. She rolled up the pants at the ankle. When she came out, she silently accepted all of the equipment that had been confiscated from her when she had been processed- her holsters, her weapons, the necklace she had been wearing. They didn’t give back her hairtie, which was a little petty.



'He’s only Danzo’s.’ Aiko took her time to get ready to leave, checking her equipment in a way that must really be irritating to the woman from inventory waiting to go home. ’It’s not that he happens to be on this shift- he’s here because Danzo slipped him in. There is absolutely no way in which Danzo expressing interest in me is good.’



Sai never quite touched her, but it was obvious that he was steering her out. God…. he was what, 14 now? He was almost exactly her height now.



They didn’t leave the way she’d entered the facility- they crossed through back doors, hallways that were somehow empty. It was the dead of the night. She did not like having Sai at her back and stubbornly slipped back time and time again to keep him within her peripheral.



So she saw it when he went to stab her in the back.



He was good, but he wasn’t on her level. A half-dozen possibilities ran through her mind, counter-attacks and dodges and blocks- but no, the sound of kunai catching a sword would ring out in this place. No one who came running would take her side of that of an ANBU.



Aiko side-stepped, swinging around to grip his sword arm with her left hand and curl her right around his neck. The movement swung her wet hair to cling against her face and neck and collarbones. He tried to jerk away, to sweep her feet out from underneath.



The moment of surprise when he realized they were standing in an office cost him. Aiko twisted his arm viciously, forcing the sword to drop and keeping going with strength that she didn’t know she had to make a clean break in his forearm.



You don’t,” Sanbi muttered, sounding a little smug. “You are welcome, for that and your wrist. Were you even going to thank me, rude little girl?”



Sai gave a little cry in his throat, barely anything she could hear even with her heightened senses. She jerked her head to dislodge her stupid hair from her face and transferred her grip to a hand on each upper arm. She crowded him into the wall, using her hips to pin him from any good kicking leverage.



He went still, dark eyes carefully blank.



Aiko leaned in from her very slight height advantage. She bared her teeth. “Hello, root.”



At that, he jerked.



Someone knocked. “Mizukage-sama?” the secretary called out, long-suffering. Fuck, she really needed to check on his name.



Sai was too well-trained to inhale sharply, but she was close enough to feel his breath.



“Come in,” Aiko called, as pleasantly as she could with the tightness in her throat. Sanbi had mentioned it, but for the first time she actually realized that her wrist was… god, it was fine already. That was amazing. And she wasn’t tired at all, despite being kept up all night.



'You’re amazing,’ she thought to Sanbi. 'I’m not joking. Really, what you can do is marvelous.’



The door swung open. The chuunin appeared completely unimpressed. “Ah.” He gave Sai a sullen look. “Another one for the indefinite vacation?”



Aiko clicked her tongue, considering it. “I’m afraid not.” She tightened her hold on Sai, because she didn’t trust his passivity. “This one is a runner.”



Sai tried to jerk away, managing to lever several inches away from the wall. She leveraged her body weight and slammed him back into the wall again. His head banged against a painting of a deer in a forest. God, who had decorated?



“This one will require actual incarceration,” Aiko continued, as if nothing had happened. She kept her eyes on Sai’s pulse point- he wouldn’t let anything show in his face. “We might be able to ransom him to Konoha in time. For the moment, he made an attempt on my life, in what I can only assume was a private decision.”



Because if she didn’t know about Danzo, that probably would be the conclusion she could come to. Sai relaxed in her grip, apparently relieved.



She knew better. He knew that Konoha would never come for him. This was a terrible outcome for him. Distantly, Aiko knew that he would probably do his best to escape, or to die.



With that in mind, she met his eyes. He betrayed a startle when the Rinnegan flickered on, but he didn’t have time to do anything at all before she focused chakra in her eyes – it was the crudest level of genjutsu but it was what she could do- and ordered him to sleep.



He fell like a rock. Aiko let him go, because his dead weight was too heavy for her anyway. She gingerly stepped away and brushed off the wrinkles in her clothes.



The chuunin was giving her a carefully neutral expression, clipboard against his chest. “Will that be all, Mizukage-sama?” He asked.



Aiko sighed, running a hand through her hair. Her fingers caught in a snarl of tangles. She made a face. “Get me a ponytail or a ribbon after he’s been taken to a holding cell, have him searched thoroughly,” Aiko decided. “Check his mouth- Root has been known to use pill capsules in false teeth. I don’t want him dying.”



“As you wish.” The chuunin looked at Sai, crumpled like a doll. “And when will he be awakening?”



Honestly? With a jutsu like that?



Aiko grimaced. “Maybe the day after tomorrow?” she guessed. “Maybe a week. Who knows. Depends on how resilient he is.”



Longer,” Sanbi said absently. ’You should learn your strength.”



Her secretary swallowed hard. “Would you like a brush as well?”



She pointed at him, barely remembering to use her whole palm to stay polite. “Yes, good idea. I’m starting to like you.” Aiko crossed to sit down at her desk and waved him off. “Get someone to help you carry him out, I’ll just work on some correspondence while I’m here.”



She opened a letter, but she didn’t see the words for the longest time. Even when she did, her mind was elsewhere.



'I need to do something about Danzo. He is going to react, as soon as he realizes that Sai failed and I’m alive.’

Ah. It was something from Mifune-sama. How odd.



'That was his play alone- he didn’t agree with the Sandaime’s decision to let me go, thought it was too soft.’



Mifune was writing to express his congratulations on her appointment. That was kind of him.



'So if I disappeared, the obvious conclusion is that I was spooked and ran after the interrogation. They know that I can leave when I want, so it would be believable enough. No one would look for me. The blessing, of course, is that no one is going to look for Sai, either. You can’t start a search for a ghost agent.’



Mifune-sama had- Aiko blinked, fully focusing on the letter for the first time. He’d sent an inaugural gift- a new seal of office for her, and a sample of newly developed antibiotics for her hospitals. He was… That was remarkably, unusually friendly. Was he looking for a trade agreement? Well, obviously, but did he want a relationship beyond that? Aiko frowned. He was famous for his refusal to interfere militarily in the affairs of the shinobi world, but that didn’t preclude other possibilities.



She swiveled back to the depressingly substantial pile on her desk, looking for the seal. The medicine shipment was probably outside her office somewhere being secured, but the seal- Aiko unlatched the bright brass clasp holding shut a plain wooden box. Sure enough, a seal sat inside, cushioned on a light blue pillow. She turned it in her hand, checking the kanji. Uzumaki Aiko, Godaime Mizukage- it had to be rather large to fit all those kanji, but it looked nice.



'I want to use this. I want to use this on everything.’



Please do not.” Sanbi sighed. “It is not subtle. This sort of ostentatious marker of status is better left to civilian pageantry. I promise that your predecessor used no such thing, and nor did the foreign shinobi leaders with whom he corresponded. Not even the Raikage.”



Aiko flicked her eyes up to the ceiling and really, truly, tried to recall if she had ever been accused of subtlety. Subterfuge, secrecy, paranoia, but subtlety?



Sanbi seemed incredibly sour. “Your point is fair. You’ll do as you wish, you awful, willful child.”



Obviously.



She dug a red inkpad out and tried the stamp out on an envelope. Just a couple times. Three, five tops. It was nice and crisp, but she’d never been great at getting a stamp perfectly aligned upri-



A footstep.



Utakata pushed the door open and gave her a curious look.



Aiko blinked innocently up at him and gently shut the desk drawer, as though she hadn’t just shoved anything out of sight.



He eyed her for a moment, then clearly decided not to ask. “This is a surprise.” He cast the briefest glance at poor Sai, raising an eyebrow. “Will we be seeing you around more soon? I saw the work that you did last night.”



'Why are all these people so efficient?’ Aiko wondered. 'It’s 5 am. He should be in bed. When did he even have a chance to look at that?’



She paused.



'Oh hell, it’s 5 am. I should be training the kids. And making an appearance in Konoha.’



Aiko sighed. She stood up. “If I’m going to be around more, it won’t be right now,” she said grimly. “I had to put out a fire- someone in Konoha wanted me dead, some secondary faction working against the Hokage.”



Utakata made an alarmed sound.



“It’s fine for now,” Aiko dismissed. She looked down at Sai. “I know Konoha well. I’ll likely see the next threat coming, as long as it’s from the same group.” She shook her head, because she’d been glad to see the back of Danzo the first fucking time. “I’ll tell you more- hopefully tonight. But I’ve really got to run.” She flexed her fingers.



Utakata closed his eyes. “I will see you for a debriefing, then?” he asked, resigned. “I will take care of… this,” he said. He didn’t bother to gesture at Sai. “I don’t assume he’ll be a danger anytime soon?”



Aiko snorted. “Probably not.” She only felt a twinge of guilt about that. “I’m letting him think that I plan to ransom him to Konoha- he’s a ghost agent, he knows that they’ll deny knowing him. I’ll figure out what to do with him later, just keep him contained and from doing anything rash.” Her tone raised in a question.



Her friend- really, probably her only friend in this world- nodded. “Of course,” Utakata acquiesced. He made a wry little smirk. “I live to serve.”



She stepped close enough to give a playful, super-slow punch to his shoulder. “You do not,” Aiko reprimanded. “I like that about you, you dissident garbage can.”



He put a hand over hers, dark eyes sparkling. “You have terrible taste in this, as in all things.” He pointedly looked up and down her outfit, ill-fitting and aged black slacks and shirt meant for a chuunin under-uniform.



“Nope. Sloppy and dingy looks going to come back into vogue, and you’ll be sorry for second-guessing me.” Aiko jabbed him with a finger before drawing her hand back. “I’ll see you as soon as I can. I’d like to do more work on that dock, get it finished.”



“Safe travels,” Utakata murmured. He tucked his hand away inside his kimono.



She nodded in response, and then moved to her reserved training ground. It wasn’t optimal, but… well. There wasn’t any prudent course of action to take. Going back to where Sai had taken her was a bad idea, and being seen out on the streets without that ANBU wasn’t any better. The only thing to do was trust in whatever hole in security that Danzo had arranged, and be ready for the possibility that Konoha would be looking to treat her as a enemy of state if someone had noticed something was odd.



A flicker of excitement was her only hint before her genin launched a surprise attack.



Of course, they were genin, so she stepped to the side and bemusedly watched the net trap slam into place, empty. She’d showed them how to rig that, of course she’d-



drop flat and roll, because they’d followed up with a hail of kunai from two angles, one from a spring-loaded trap but that other one had to be Yuusaku, damn him, he was still pulling to the left on the later releases.



'I told them to be prepared, so I shouldn’t be surprised they took initiative,’ Aiko acknowledged internally. ’I guess they didn’t even realize I was late.’ So she didn’t feel too guilty about moving to Yuusaku’s position to take him out. He saw her coming from above, eyes wide- and released his water clone an instant too early, giving it away for bait. She managed to catch hold of a branch and swing around to change her momentum, avoiding the pit trap filled with-



Aiko just looked for a moment. Because yes, her genin really had taken the time to populate it with trout. They poked around morosely, bumping into each other in the small space.



“You better put those back where you found them,” she raised her voice sternly. “They’ll die outside of moving water.”



There was a rustle in the branches somewhere to her left, from above. Ah, they were using the trees. Finally.



She briefly considered laying out objectives,  but there didn’t seem to be much point. Her genin had set up to ambush her. And… Well, it was a little fun to see what trouble they had come up with.



XXXXX





“Some kind of seal,” he guessed, rubbing at his temples. “Something analogous to a seal of silence?”



Even as he said it, Inoichi didn’t really believe it. Ibiki grunted in response, face stormy.



“I have never heard of someone bleeding from their eyes while under the shintensen,” the Sandaime said dryly. “But you say a seizure isn’t entirely unheard of?”



“It’s rare, but possible. Sometimes people who’ve had extensive exposure will have an odd reaction,” Inoichi tried. “One way or the other- either they become incredibly pliant, or they develop an ineffectual but dangerous form of resistance.”



That was a much better theory, if he could think of any reason to believe that Uzumaki-san had been subject to repeated or hasty Yamanaka mind-work.



“You’re willfully ignoring the obvious.” Ibiki shoved his hands into his pockets, the strong lines of his shoulders tense.



“The bijuu theory?” Inoichi asked dryly. Hells, his head was killing him. “I don’t think that’s it. I’ve done quick scans over Naruto-kun and there was no reaction.”



“That’s a dormant bijuu,” Ibiki rejected. He was staring at Uzumaki’s processing paperwork again, scowling. “You said you saw her facing it down-”



“I didn’t see that it ended up being sealed in her.” Inoichi pointed out. “This is all just speculation. For all we know, Yagura is still the jinchuuriki, he was only replaced as Mizukage.”



“That seems unlikely,” Hiruzen commented. He was leaned back, watching the younger men pace like lions. “If Kirigakure has deposed their Mizukage and suddenly brought an Uzumaki into the fold, it seems highly likely that she has become their jinchuuriki. The only questions that remain are who could have done such a thing, and why she would accept the role.”



“But we don’t actually know that,” Inoichi protested. “That’s a large assumption to make. If only I’d been able to dig deeper, we would know.”



Hiruzen sighed. “I believe that you made the correct choice to cease your efforts,” he said gently. “If you assessed that further investigation could cause permanent damage, I trust your judgment. It would serve no one’s end to damage a foreign asset without extremely reasonable backing, not least because I would like to recruit her.”



The Yamanaka swallowed. “As you say, Hokage-sama.” He didn’t sound like he forgave himself for the failure. Inoichi averted his eyes. “If Uzumaki is a jinchuuriki, Kirigakure would offer her more safety and security than being on her own.”



“Kiri isn’t well-known for their good treatment of jinchuuriki,” Ibiki said sourly. He cast a glare back at the chair where the prisoner had sat so recently.



“No, but they’re not particularly egregious,” Hiruzen acknowledged. And it rankled, but, “And Uzumaki-san has expressed explicit critique of Konohagakure’s historical and current treatment of jinchuuriki.”



Ibiki hid his surprise better than Inoichi. “That is an oddly specific topic to address with a Konoha shinobi who could report that to you,” he said after a silence.



Inoichi let his eyebrows twitch up, but made no other concession towards a smile at how accurate that assessment was.



“In her defense, it was provoked,” Hiruzen said. He smiled, bitterly. “And the critique was actually framed as a reference to the treatment of Uzumaki in Konoha. But they amount to much the same thing, I’m afraid. And in light of this possibility, a connection can be drawn.”



They let that hang in the air, because there really wasn’t much more to say about it.



“It’s a reasonable assumption that the new administration is more friendly to jinchuuriki.” Inoichi said thoughtfully. “If Utakata’s returned, and Uzumaki-san joined them-”



“Not to mention the sudden leniency for political dissidence and bloodline users,” Ibiki interrupted. He was scowling. “That doesn’t sit right- it’s a drastic shift. The bloodline users being accepted- that’s good evidence for the theory that this 'Shukujo-sama’ is Terumi after all, a bloodline user would have a lighter stance. But she’s a hardline loyalist, she stuck it out long after it was obvious that the Yondaime needed to be put down.”



Sandaime sighed, eyes darting to Inoichi to wait for his assessment.



The blonde man obliged. “It is very odd that Terumi would be popularly referred to that way, if she is the Godaime,” Inoichi agreed. “But it remains the only theory that fits at all- what other female candidates of that caliber did they have?” He pursed his lips, answering his own questions. “One of the seven swordsmen, but she’s deceased.”



“That could be a cover-up.” Ibiki didn’t seem to believe it.



Inoichi frowned. “Nothing fits perfectly,” he complained. “Terumi is enough of a household name that she would probably not be referred to with that title. But- the Lady?” He tapped his fingers against his kunai holster. “Who else could it be?”



“As a popular title, it implies a gender, dignity, and level of anonymity that are difficult to assign to a personage in Kirigakure of enough strength to serve as kage,” the Sandaime finally weighed in. He stood. “Perhaps the Godaime emerged from the Black Operations- someone who we would not know of except by deed, someone who would have enough respect from the upper ranks to be given the highest office despite lacking popular support.”



Inoichi and Ibiki picked up their belongings, Inoichi folding the report he had to finish and tucking it into a jacket pocket. They exchanged a look.



“As you say,” Ibiki said, finally. He opened the door and bowed as the Hokage shuffled out. “I’ll see what I can dig up. We’re still working on an extraction for our agents in Kirigakure- I expect they’ll have valuable information, if Raidou was caught making an attempt on the Mizukage’s office.”

 

chapter 23

 

Aiko took one last look around the hotel room before she headed out the door. A heavy finality hung over the teacup left waiting on the table and the toiletries she wouldn’t be retrieving from the bathroom.

It wasn’t like she’d ever loved this stupid hotel room. It was under constant surveillance and plagued by an older air conditioning unit that limped more than it ran. It wasn’t a home. But it was probably the last place where she’d ever sleep more than a night or two in Konoha.

You’re not getting sentimental on me now, are you?”

She rolled her eyes and slammed the door shut behind her. She considered the key in her palm for a moment as she led her team out through the lobby. She wanted to toss it to the counter, but that would be a slight hint that she didn’t intend to return. Might raise alarm bells, that was all. She put the key into  the same pouch as her money.

You certainly showed me,” Sanbi drawled. “Most casual and unattached.”

Fuck  you too, reptile.’

Pointedly, she yawned and pretended not to hear his sputtering. She led her brats through the crowds, not pushing despite how eager the genin were to hurry up. They stopped for yakitori and yakisoba on the way. Aiko managed to babble something vaguely dad-ish about needing fuel, but the boys were too wound up to properly groan about it.

The stadium was enormous, teeming with bodies. The lower levels, about 2/3 of the space, were lined with seats. The upper reaches were a series of pavilions cordoned off with ropes and filled with seating cushions. At the very top, several special seating areas were boxed off and air-conditioned for the most important people.

Aiko craned her head and watched them fill, seeing who she recognized. That was one of the Fire Daimyo’s cousins, with her constant companion, the minister of transportation, a woman in her mid-thirties. There, to the left- that person and his entourage had to be from one of the smaller countries. She didn’t recognize them but the group composition and clothes marked several of them as royalty. Oh, the Daimyo’s wife was joining her cousin-in law. And, of course, the Hokage filed in with ANBU bodyguards early enough to receive the Kazekage.

Well. Orochimaru, rather. But he was wearing the robes of the Kazekage and accompanied by the Kazekage’s bodyguards, which was apparently enough to get past security. Aiko would say that seemed a bit lax, except that she wouldn’t put it past Orochimaru to literally be wearing the Kazekage’s face. It was both practical and horrifying, so of course he would.

Practical?” Sanbi asked, disbelieving.

As a solution, face-stealing both created and solved problems. So….

Aiko shrugged. In a way, yeah? Whatever. She dismissed the train of thought, because other things were catching her attention. Keisuke was agonizing over the perfect seating while his teammates were staring into the area where contestants would wait with varying levels of nerves.

Well. Aiko scanned the crowds, hands in her pockets. She knew where she wanted to deposit her genin. If they were going to insist on fighting, she would like for them to not die horribly, or at least be near someone responsible enough to point out their corpses so she could revive them and laugh at them forever. She needed an adult.

…Well, her students needed an adult, really. They had her, but they currently required an adult who was adultier than she was.

Ah, there. She hooked one finger around the closest child’s collar and began towing him along. The other ducklings followed. She let go of Yuusaku and let him slip behind her once they’d got going properly. They went up two rows, across an aisle, and then down eight rows, at which point the genin probably thought she was fucking with them. When she stopped suddenly, Yuusaku walked into her.

“Oh.” Aiko gave her worst impression of surprise, blinking slowly. “How nice to see you here.”

Neji gave a disbelieving look without turning his head, but Tenten was leaning shamelessly to gape at the woman who had initiated a conversation with Gai of her own free will. Lee sparkled. Gai leapt up, grinning. “Greetings! I am pleas-”

Aiko sat down. “Do you mind,” she said. “Everywhere else is full.” She desperately wished she could pull out a book to indicate that the conversation was over, but she was not going to risk her precious babies here. Replacing an entire series was not cheap, and she had other demands on her funds.

Tenten made an incredulous gesture towards the wealth of open seats around- the tournament didn’t even start for an hour. And the contestants among them would need to move down to the ring-side waiting area anyway.

These were all reasonable points that Aiko wasn’t interested in debating.

Aiko raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. She made eye contact. Tenten blinked. Her mouth twitched, and then opened. She looked down at her lap, brow furrowed.

Is a staring match with a genin really worthy of the dignity of a Mizukage?” Sanbi asked, pained. “Uzumaki, please consider utilizing some decorum. I am embarrassed for you.”

“Of course you may join us!” Gai beamed, not sitting back down yet. “And who are these fine young people?” He sparkled at Aiko’s team.

'That sounds like a personal problem,’ Aiko shot back to the Sanbi. 'Sad for you.’

She hooked a thumb towards the kids. “These short people?” Aiko asked. They were all taller than she was. One of them made an indignant sound. She shrugged. “They follow me a lot. I forget their names. Maybe one of them is named Hirota? Something like that.”

Keisuke made an indignant sound and bit it off just as quickly. There was a full three seconds of stiff silence. She did her best to keep a straight face.

“…I see,” Gai said, not sounding like he understood at all.

Ryuusei sniffed and brushed off the front of his slacks as he sat down. He introduced himself, ignoring Aiko entirely. The other two exchanged glances and then followed his lead.

She slouched in her seat and brought one foot up onto the chair. She let one arm dangle off the chair. Aiko did her best to pretend to be somewhere else.

The genin collectively seemed to decide to ignore this. Tenten started a stilted conversation with Keisuke, and managed to drag Neji into it somehow. After a while, things flowed more naturally. Aiko stared resolutely into space, keeping how pleased she was off of her face. It was good to be around people who were normal and healthy enough to bond easily when the conditions were right. It was convenient.

Gai struck up a fairly one-sided conversation that Aiko nodded along to, especially at the parts she disagreed with. He seemed cheerful enough. After a while she relaxed enough to sit more normally. She didn’t spend too much time analyzing his motives- he was Gai. He was probably the most well-adjusted adult shinobi she’d ever met. She wasn’t that worried about what he would conclude from her actions. He tended to see the best options.

He did quiet a bit when the matches began. One of his students and two of Aiko’s made their way down  to the contestant’s seating. Neji glowered. It was all very predictable.

She tried not to perk up in her seat or look too disinterested in Naruto’s match, when he came out first. Then she wondered if trying to modulate her reaction would result in behavior more suspicious than just doing what she felt like doing. It was the first match. She’d be justified in an interest level above 'conscious’ even if she didn’t know Naruto at all. And it wasn’t a secret that she knew Naruto, jus-

Cease your infernal squirming.”

Aiko covered her mouth with a sleeve. 'I think you’re getting grumpier. You seem much older and more crotchety than you did when we met.’

I try. Thank you for noticing.”

Wait, what?

But then Naruto was yelling, and Aiko cringed hard enough to bring her back to the outside world.

“I don’t care! I’ll never give up.” His voice was thin, but the crowd was quiet enough that it carried up.

Tenten just stood there. Aiko imagined her expression was carefully neutral, but she couldn’t see at this distance. Luckily, the huge display screens flickered on a second later. By that time, any surprised reaction had been concealed.

A shinobi that Aiko only vaguely remembered seeing around gave a resigned check of both genin. “Alright, then.” The sound system was… not great. His voice crackled through the speakers. “Begin.” He leapt out of the way, which seemed a bit dramatic because nothing happened beyond Naruto dropping into an athletic stance.

Metal creaked. Aiko glanced over to the left and her eyebrows shot up. Lee was gripping the railing so hard that his hands were white.

Well then.

Gai caught her looking and flashed her a grin. “This match is most significant.” His tone was confidential. “One of my students is competing against one of my rival’s students. It is, by proxy, perhaps our greatest competition yet.”

Aiko thought about that. It was… well, yeah. That seemed fair. Kakashi and Gai weren’t the ones in the ring, but there was something terribly vulnerable about sending their students off to fight.

“I hope little Tenten wins,” she decided.

The other jounin tilted his head slightly.

“She seems like a good kid,” Aiko explained. “Plus, Hatake is a dickhead.”

Neji gave her a scandalized look, which was sort of adorable and also a dead giveaway that he’d been eavesdropping.

“A… dickhead,” Gai repeated slowly.

There was something in his tone that made her wary.  “Oh right, he’s your friend,” Aiko said, as if she’d just remembered. It was more that she’d forgotten she didn’t have a relationship with these people that would put them at ease. She gave Gai an easy smile. “He hurt my feelings and I’m going to make him rue the day.”

This does not seem to be a line of discussion that will soothe fears,” Sanbi said doubtfully.

Gai rubbed at his chin. “What day will he be ruing?”

That was not the question she would have asked and she wasn’t prepared to answer it off-hand. Aiko made a face. “I’ll let you know when I’ve figured it out. I mean, he was pretty rude to me in Wave, so there’s that. But he also tricked me yesterday into revealing that I’m either a cheater or sneaking around or just way too knowledgeable about Konoha. So I’m not happy about that. I mean, I didn’t let him rub my face in it, but we both knew that he knew I knew what he’d won, and that cannot stand.”

He was giving her a look that was no longer contemplation. It leaned more towards disbelief.

“I’’m not telling you which nefarious option is accurate,” Aiko pointed out. She sniffed. “But I don’t see the point in pretending not to be aware of the byplay.”

“You would never do that,” someone agreed from behind in a tone that was so sincere it was readily apparent that it was a lie.

Aiko didn’t jump to her feet because she was startled or anything. She didn’t. It was just that she still believed, on some level, that Kakashi would have a hiraishin tag on him, and she occasionally forgot what a sneaky bastard he could be.

He looked far too smug as he took the last step down to their level. He was also henged to appear as Genma, for some reason that she chose not to contemplate deeply. He was avoiding someone, probably.

This is a clone,” Sanbi identified. “I can taste it in his chakra. It is too thin.”

Of course. The real one was probably more accessible to his students. Keeping an eye on Sasuke, possibly?

She sat back down and rolled her eyes. “You’re lucky you’re cute,” Aiko said as bitterly as she could manage.

And that- that might be a good tactic to keep in mind, because Kakashi covered it well, but there was an instant where he froze at the implication that she was interested in him. Oh, yes. She could use that.

“Am I cute as well?” Gai asked seriously. Because he was a total bro, and if anything might have made her forget about Kakashi’s blunder, that would have been it. He was such a good person.

Um. Aiko blinked to buy a moment to think, but no great answer came to her. She relied on honesty, which was a desperation tactic if she’d ever heard of one. “You’re a little frightening. To be candid.” He slumped a little, so her tone was apologetic as she went on. “I’m warier about people who might be stronger than me.”

Kakashi made an offended sound.

“Yes, I know you’d kill me too if you needed to, and in the right situation you might be able to do it,” Aiko soothed. “Maybe. I mean, I’m a lot stronger than either of you are, let’s be honest. But Maito-san is a much worse match for me.” She crossed her arms and leaned back. “And I think he’s an actual adult and that freaks me out. I mean, I’m mostly faking it, but I get the impression that you are actually the same on the inside as you are on the outside.” She jerked her head toward Gai to belatedly indicate she was no longer talking to Kakashi. “I’m basically screaming in my head and hoping things work out, so. Bit intimidating. Well-adjusted people, I mean. I get the uncomfortable feeling that you might actually know what’s going on and I don’t like that.”

She grimaced.

No one said anything for long enough that she felt like she might have to defend her statement. Aiko crossed and uncrossed her ankles.

Still silent.

What is wrong with you?” Sanbi asked. “I genuinely want to know. Why did you think that was a good and useful thing to say?” He paused. “Who hurt you?”

Oh look, Naruto was resorting to the Kyuubi’s chakra. She pretended to be interested for a moment, and then realized that was actually mildly concerning. What had she missed?

“That is not good,” Kakashi said under his breath.

Aiko snorted. “Not really, no.” She tilted her head. “Are you going to do something? How much control does he have? Because it’s really not fair to little Tenten if he loses his temper and uses force more appropriate for a deathmatch.”

Kakashi gave her a sharp look.

She had to fight not to roll her eyes. Instead, she pointed at her nose. “Uzumaki,” Aiko reminded in a dry tone. “You people are not subtle. At all. Of course I know.”

“Know what?” Neji asked sharply. “Gai-sensei. Is Tenten in danger?”

“Of course not,” Gai said. He flexed. “I would never let one of my beautiful students become harmed. The situation is under control.”

He looked as though he didn’t entirely trust that, but Naruto was actually fighting down the chakra that had been tinting the air red. He seemed to be entirely himself when he leapt directly through a barrage of kunai to punch Tenten out.

Aiko winced, for both of them. Tenten was going to feel that for a while- she didn’t lose consciousness, but with a headblow like that, the match was clearly over. But Naruto wasn’t much better. He’d blocked with his arm, but that meant that the worst of the damage was concentrated there. She counted six kunai embedded in his forearm and one on his right shoulder before the screens changed to show the tournament match-up format being amended to show Tenten’s name crossed off and Naruto advancing to the second round.

“That was ugly.”

When no one responded, Aiko turned her head and noticed that Gai and Kakashi’s clone were both gone.

Typical.

The next match was boring and she didn’t pretend to care about it. The most interesting thing that happened was when Gai came back, a little grimmer but clearly not too upset. The third match on the board was Sasuke and Gaara.

Gaara was the only genin who walked out. The proctor waited a polite thirty seconds before calling for Sasuke over the loudspeaker.

Aiko covered her face with her hands.

They went to calling for Kakashi on the loudspeaker.

'This is mortifying. I know he’s here. Why is he doing this?’

“In Uchiha Sasuke’s absence, I have no other choice but to-”

Aiko cracked open an eye to see that Kakashi and Sasuke were, in fact, standing in the arena. They were being a bit dramatic about it, actually.

The proctor sighed and didn’t actually seem happier about the interruption than he’d been about the announcement. “Very well,” he said, as though things were not remotely well. “Hatake-san, please leave the arena.” He waited a moment for compliance. In front of the Daimyo and god and everyone, Kakashi pulled out his book and ambled away at a painfully slow pace. The proctor gritted his teeth. Kakashi hadn’t entirely cleared the arena when the man clearly decided he’d had enough. “Please begin.”

To his credit, Sasuke did at least make an effort to provoke Gaara into the first attack. She didn’t hear what he said, but the little smirk projected on the enormous screen was provocation enough.

There was no reaction. It was like Gaara hadn’t even heard. He stood with arms crossed, feet in a neutral stance, and basically just looked like a bad-tempered cat on the verge of falling asleep.

Gradually, the cockiness slipped away as the genin realized it wouldn’t accomplish anything with this opponent. Aiko could see the tell in Sasuke’s posture before he made the first blow. A wall of sand rose up. Sasuke nearly ended up smacking straight into it.

Titters rang out across the stadium, and that… yepp. Aiko sighed, watching Sasuke’s expression go from wary analysis to that damn temper of his. He tried charging Gaara again and again, throwing kunai and shuriken and wires and fire jutsu. None of it connected. He couldn’t get close. And Gaara still wore the same ambivalent expression. He didn’t even have to uncross his arms.

There had never really been a chance of this match being anything but a shitshow, but somehow it was still frustrating to watch just how outclassed Sasuke was. Aiko put her hands in her pockets so that her white-knuckles didn’t betray tension.

Sasuke was stupid, and Kakashi was worse for pitting him against a lethal jinchuuriki for no real reason.

Letting your subordinates fight a stronger opponent with a penchant for unnecessary force: well, it had its place as a tactical resort, but that place wasn’t some stupid exhibition match that wouldn’t accomplish any other aim. That was a tactic of desperation. That risk was worthwhile to protect a client or a tactical position, to buy time or to try for some important aim.

It wasn’t worthwhile when the only thing at stake was the chance to show off in front of a crowd and maybe earn a promotion.

This stubbornness was about misplaced pride, but whose? Sasuke was definitely not yet mature enough to back down from an opponent he couldn’t handle. But if he’d been the only one with clouded judgment, Kakashi would have forced the forfeit… or just not brought him back to the tournament at all. He’d think that was funny.

'Does he think Gaara really can’t kill Sasuke? Or just that he can stop Gaara in time to save Sasuke’s life if needed?’

Honestly, Aiko wouldn’t fucking count on being able to do that herself, and she was faster than Kakashi at this distance.

“What do you think?’ Gai asked, and it might actually have been casual.

Aiko considered ignoring him. It seemed pointless to dissemble or be rude, though. “The Uchiha is faster than I expected, but he can’t win.”

Gai puffed up, but it wasn’t with indignation. “I have found that it is best never to underestimate my rival. His student, in turn, may prove to be more than we see.”

That was of course when Sasuke, finally tired of his pointless charges, went through a familiar series of handsigns. Aiko felt her eyebrows shoot up. Really? He’d taught that to-

Sasuke’s chidori went screaming through Gaara’s shield. For the first time, Gaara actually had to physically dodge. Caught by surprise, he moved too slowly- the attack grazed his arm.

Sasuke let the lightning spark away. He was saying something again, but it would never had been heard over the approving roars of the crowd at finally seeing some blood spilled.

It was Gaara that Aiko was staring at on the screen. He was staring down at his shredded sleeve in disbelief. Slowly, he touched the cut with his left hand. He brought the blood on his fingers up to his face and just looked at it.

'Here we go,’ Sanbi said glumly.

Gaara threw his head back and screamed, mouth wrenched open until the seams of his lips must be straining. He began backing away from Sasuke, stumbling in confusion like a wounded animal.

Ah. Was that Ichibi-san’s typical reaction to something like that? Aiko swallowed down a shudder. Even if she hadn’t known what he was, she would have been disturbed by that painful sound.

Sasuke hesitated for one moment, something like common sense warning him away. And then he rushed the other genin to finish the match before Gaara could gather himself enough to turn that anger against him.

Which was an utterly ridiculous time for people to be slumping in their seats.

Aiko felt affronted before she realized what must be happening. It was a long, strange moment: Gaara lurched towards the wall and burst it open. He escaped into the forest. Sasuke sprinted after him while thousands of people collapsed like abandoned puppets.

'I didn’t even feel the genjutsu. That doesn’t make sense, it’s got to be a strong one to put down so many chuunin. I’m not immune to genjutsu with the Rinnegan deactivated., so..?’

Absently, she raised her left hand into a fist and punched at Gai’s shoulder. He caught the fist, eyes blinking open in confusion.

You are a jinchuuriki,” Sanbi pointed out. “Even if you faltered, I would not allow an external force to take control.”

Well, fair enough.

“Something weird is happening,” she said mildly. She didn’t try to pull her hand away by force- that just wasn’t gonna happen.

Gai let her go and said something that was not youthful at all. Frankly, she was surprised he knew those kinds of words. By the time she’d twisted to stare, he’d woken Neji and Lee. Aiko shook Keisuke and pushed him toward the other genin.

Neji gave her a wary look.

She looked back at him blandly. “Hyuuga-kun, keep precious little what’s-his-face safe, would you?” Aiko didn’t wait for an answer- she jumped up onto the seat in front of her for a better vantage point. Gai would make sure his team was fine- and they were all strong. The children would seek each other out. A group of 6 chuunin level candidates under the supervision of an elite jounin should be fine… or at least leave recognizable corpses, if the worst happened.

Much of the crowd was still down, still or groaning in disorientation. Someone gave one high scream that cut off too quickly and sent a few people jerking up. Among the rows, some people were visually standing out by standing and moving- oh god, two rows down, a woman in plain clothes was dashing along the row making opportunistic slashes at sleeping spectators. A genin got his hand up in protection-

Aiko flinched at the scream. He hadn’t gotten a weapon up. She was moving before she could think.

It was too late. The infiltrator didn’t try to pry the impaled hand off her blade- she brought the whole thing back down towards the boy. Aiko kicked the woman in the teeth, but rich, hot blood was already spurting out. The infiltrator’s head flung back with a painful crack that Aiko felt in her sandal. The woman’s arms flung out to the side- she didn’t even have the right reflexes. Must be why her assignment was killing children.

Aiko bared her teeth and twisted her weight into a sideways kick that caught the bitch in the neck. It broke, but the force of the attack sent the body flying downwards to catch several sleeping spectators in the head before rolling to a stop on someone’s feet. It left a muddled path of people waking up in confusion.

The jounin were acting now, countering the vanguard who had tipped their hands and made the enemy clear. Steel clashed. People were shouting orders and warnings. Aiko heard Asuma shouting out “Suna!” Someone followed suit with “Sound!” It was a few moments before a high  voice added, “Grass!”

But right here, right now, the genin she’d come too late to was trying to hold his neck shut with both hands, white eyes fixed on Aiko. He inhaled wetly.

She closed her eyes to break contact. “You’ll last longer if you don’t take out the kunai.” Aiko licked her lips. She looked back at the terror on that young face. When  she put her hand on his sweaty head, he leaned into the touch. There was a horrible sound from above, the kind of thing that could only mean massive destruction of the building. Orochimaru and the Sandaime, probably.

Are we going to stay with him until he dies?” Sanbi asked, doubtful. “That could take several minutes.”

Of course not. Aiko managed a smile. “Look at me.” When he did, begging for help, she leaned forward so that her hair would hide what she was about to do. She turned on the Rinnegan and caught him in genjutsu- nothing complicated. Just warmth, sleepiness, and pleasant feelings.

She caught him before she cut off the chakra to her eyes. She leaned the boy against his deceased neighbor. She glanced at the person to the other side- another genin? A teammate, maybe. There was no way her wakeup call was going to be pleasant. Aiko cringed in commiseration.

Honestly, this arena was a deathtrap for genin. Getting them up would give them a chance to die on their feet, but not much else. If they were sleeping, they were likely to suffer incidental casualties at worst now that the jounin were countering the invaders. And at least it’d be quick.

Aiko turned back to the hole that Gaara had opened. She might have missed it, but it didn’t look like anyone had followed.

She went after, because Sasuke was going to get his fool self killed. And if he did, Naruto would be close behind. It was what he did.

It wasn’t difficult. She didn’t need to do anything that could really be called tracking- Gaara had burned acidic chakra in a mostly straight line out of the arena, taking occasional chunks out of anything he got too close to. There was one bush that was actually on fire, which was baffling until she realized that Sasuke had probably been throwing attacks at his fleeing opponent.

She saw Sasuke’s back through the trees first, stiff and arched like a cat’s as he refused to entirely back down. Gaara was twenty feet beyond on his knees and one hand. The other was pulling at his face. He convulsed.

'This is clearly an untenable tactical position for a human child, is it not?” Sanbi half-asked.

Well. Yeah, but that was Sasuke for you.

Aiko leaned forward and peered at Sasuke’s face, which was when he noticed her. He startled.

“You’re a brave kid,” she told him honestly. He was pale, but he looked determined.

His brow furrowed.

“I’m going to take over.” Aiko felt like patting his head, but they probably didn’t have that kind of relationship. “Do you know what a jinchuuriki is?”

Gaara’s shrieks cut abruptly in volume, replaced mostly by harsh breathing. She glanced over to see that he was watching her now with slitted eyes.

Well that wasn’t creepy at all. He really needed someone to sit down and have a talk with him. And if she wasn’t going to let Naruto do it, it sort of fell to her. Ugh. Not her strength, really. She wanted an adult. But there wasn’t one and there was never going to be one, so she was going to have to fake it.

“No,” Sasuke said, resentful. “Just stay out of this. It’s my fight!”

Aiko made a fist and booped him on the head, complete with sound effect. Sasuke’s eyes went wide and red in outrage. He choked.

Gaara flung himself at her, sandy claws reaching out. She pushed Sasuke to the side and moved towards Gaara, flanking. He saw her, but couldn’t keep her from grabbing his wrist. She moved them.

She didn’t consider the relocation, because it was just so obvious. Suna’s great desert was the trashcan of the shinobi world. It was just a vast sea of scorching sand, bereft of anything useful or bystanders.

That sea of sand rose up and closed around her body like a glove, smothering into her mouth and nose.

Hiraishin saved her from being crushed. She touched down behind Gaara, the mistake she’d made flickering to light in her brain. Sand trickled out of her nose, but remained crusted in her eyelashes until she roughly rubbed it away with her fingers.

Embarrassing.’

She dodged the next barrage with pure speed, but there was really nothing to do about the great waves other than hiraishin. Gaara wasn’t turning to look at her- he didn’t even have to. As soon as she touched the ground it recoiled and struck at her.

This is tiresome.”

Aiko rather agreed. And she was aiming to be a responsible adult, wasn’t she? It was something to try.

“No,” Aiko said firmly, trying to make eye contact with the wayward genin. The next attack was small enough for her to cut it aside with suijutsu. The sand slopped to the ground, a dark lump oozing over the otherwise graceful, unhindered environment. His jutsu was beautiful, actually.

Gaara snarled, teeth yellowed. His eyes didn’t look entirely human, but at least he was conscious.

“Bad,” she stressed. She thrust out three middling-sized chains and batted aside the next tendrils. “We need to have a talk, Gaara-kun.”

A line formed in between his eyes.

She chose to think that was encouraging. If he was confused, that meant he was at least listening.

“I’m not afraid of you,” Aiko told him, making certain her tone was calm and nonjudgmental. “And I won’t hurt you, either. Please calm yourself.”

His eyes rolled back and his body collapsed. He didn’t hit the ground before the Ichibi burst out of his flesh and the sand around, rocketing to a size that blotted out the skyline.

Good work,” Sanbi said dryly. “Does anyone like being told to be calm?”

“Oh, shut up.” Aiko puffed her cheeks out as the Ichibi let out a hyena laugh and fixed yellow eyes on her. It pounced. She scissored her chakra chains on it, easily getting it encircled.

Well. Sort of. The Ichibi kept moving, half of its body seeping through the bounds, but the laughter changed to an angry scream that hurt her teeth.

She tightened the chains, gritting her jaw. She had to dance out of the way of a grasping claw, but refused to move too far and lose control of her chains. She needed more- no, she lengthened the ones she had, forcing the tips to wrap around again and again, trying to catch all the bijuu’s legs and secure the head. She caught the hind legs easily enough. She managed to snap the Ichibi’s jaw shut, which did cut back on the noise. But the hands kept lengthening and bending, evading her attempts to secure them.

He is most powerful in the desert.” Sanbi sounded completely done with her idiocy.

Well. That made sense. Aiko flipped to the side and thought of the wide open sea- she didn’t have anything decent off Suna’s west coast, but she wouldn’t approach Kirigakure with this bijuu. Resources forced her to choose the east coast, but she went as far south as she could manage, hoping that any waves would be redirected out into the open sea, below the elemental nations.

She was prepared. Aiko transitioned to expending the correct chakra expenditure instantly and landed on the choppy surface. The Ichibi’s eye went wide in mild surprise as it plopped into the water. That was funny, until the abrupt downward motion exhausted the slack in her chains. Aiko hit her knees on the waves, body shuddering with the weight she was suddenly supporting. Her muscles burned. She tossed her head back and screamed from the strain, because she just didn’t have another response to the way her bones were creaking with effort to hold all that weight.

The rapidly lessening weight, as it happened.

She tightened her chains around the bijuu she couldn’t see, trying to contain without breaking Gaara’s body at the center. The sand was falling away, the dry heat holding it together failing as the Ichibi’s chakra faltered in control of the suboptimal material.

Her chains jarred against each other. She wasn’t holding anything.

She wasn’t holding-

Aiko took a breath and contorted to dive down, holding her eyes open and following to where her chains were coiling, confused serpents in the deep. The clouds of sand stung and blinded her- she couldn’t see anything, she couldn’t see Gaara, he was unconscious and even if he woke he wouldn’t be able to see where the sun was, he was-

Sanbi burst through her skin and she had just enough presence of mind to balk. He pushed. She let him take control.

Her lungs were burning in the deep, her body was being compacted by the weight around. Her ears creaked uncomfortably, she was completely blind in the black depths.

Still down they went- her arms were powerful flippers cutting through the water and creating her own current. Her blunt nose bumped against something. She nosed it, trying to use her one eye to see if it was the human child- the dark didn’t bother her, but the cloud of sand was bothersome. It must be. She stole one moment to luxuriate in the water on her back and the feeling of millions of small lives above and below in the warm places and dark alcoves and the great forests of kelp.

And then Aiko was back, head screaming in pain. She latched her arms around the body in front of her- it had to be Gaara, his skin was incongruously hot in the chill water. She moved them.

They slopped against the sand with a grotesque sound. Right, not Suna- she moved them to tea country. Aiko let go of Gaara and rolled to her side, coughing up water. It came and came, painful in her lungs. Oh, Gaara was on his back- She scrambled to turn him over and pounded on his thin back. He shuddered- and then began to cough, convulsing in the scraggly grass.

She patted his back, and then pushed up to a sitting position. Aiko tried to wipe off her face. It didn’t do much, but wringing out her hair made her feel a little better.

Gaara was shaking, edging away from her like a cornered animal. She let him. She drew her knees up to her chin and watched him.

Her heart twisted.

Aiko tried to look nonthreatening. “I didn’t realize you would sink like that,” she said. She made an apologetic face, trying to get eye contact. He wouldn’t look at anything but her hands, watching for an attack. “I’m sorry. I meant it when I said I wouldn’t hurt you. I wanted to neutralize the Ichibi in a more controlled setting,” she apologized. It seemed like a time for honesty. “I made a mistake by taking you to the desert- I’m sure that made it more difficult for you. I’m sorry.”

His mouth worked. “I don’t want to die,” Gaara rasped. It sounded painful. He was frozen in place. “I don’t want to-”

“You’re not going to,” Aiko soothed. She lifted up to her knees and held a hand out like she was offering her scent to a skittish animal. He watched without flinching away. So she ran it across his back and then leaned in to wrap him in a hug. Shaking, he let her. “Shh, shh. It’s alright, Gaara.” She pressed her lips against his forehead, something burning in her chest at the people who had made him this fearful. This so easily could have been Naruto. Could have been her, in another world. She kissed his hairline, missing the love kanji by just a few centimeters. “I understand.”

Gradually, in bits and pieces, he relaxed. His spine lost stiffness. His head leaned into her. One hand crept up onto her back, like he was imitating something he’d seen once. When he realized she wouldn’t stop him he flung both hands out, digging bony fingers into her skin so hard that his hands were shaking.

It hurt. She let him and kept the grimace off her face, because she didn’t want him to feel it. She bent her neck enough to nose into his hair. She sunk to rest her weight on her bent legs and half-gathered the genin onto her lap. He was light enough that it didn’t take much work to do.

She really hated Sunagakure. She thought about how easy it would be- how a great wave would wash through the city and bring down buildings, washing the ants along their twisting streets, breaking their bodies against stone and washing them out into the desert for the pleasure of the many poisonous beasts.

The Ichibi answered her anger, a comprehending roar that felt like a clasped hand. Gaara opened his teeth against her shoulder, shaking. He latched on.

This child is broken,” Sanbi said, because he was actually the sane one present. “Some beasts are too dangerous to raise, Aiko.”

Oh. Aiko came back to the moment, murderous fantasy ended by pain and the resurgence of responsibility. She cut off the Sanbi’s chakra, winding down the codependent twine of fury that she’d been feeding. “No teeth,” she said, keeping any judgment out of her tone. Gaara didn’t know any better- violence was the only way he’d learned to interact with the world. He certainly didn’t know what to do when someone who should know better encouraged his bijuu to act up. He was just a little boy.

His jaws relaxed, but he didn’t let go. It felt like he was waiting for her to lash out at him in disgust or fear.

But, like, she’d had a mean cat before. She wasn’t going to freak out about pointy little teeth, because that was never an effective response. “That’s not how we use mouths, Gaara. Mouths are for eating, screaming, and kissing,” Aiko decided. She made her point by dotting another kiss into his hair, complete with sound effect. “Be gentle.”

Gaara let go and turned his face against the wound he’d made. His little cheek was warm against the blood.

It might not have been entirely well-adjusted, but she’d allow it for now.

“You’re like me,” he said, in a tone of wonder. His grip tightened possessively. “How?”

She rubbed at his bony spine. “There are nine of us,” Aiko said. “You’ve had a rough time of it, haven’t you?” She didn’t let out the sigh she wanted, exhausted for his sake. “Your seal isn’t good. That’s why you have such a hard time controlling yourself.” She  frowned. “That and you’ve been treated badly.” It took some willpower not to tighten her grip too much. “It’s not your fault,” she said viciously. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

He gave a broken little laugh devoid of humor.

“You’re perfect,” she disagreed. She gave into the urge to pull him entirely onto her lap and rocked him. He wasn’t small enough to curve into her body naturally, but he melted into her as if he wanted to merge into her body. He was touch-starved. Poor baby.

She’d decided against it earlier. It was not going to make her any friends. It could fuck her over on a grand scale. But Aiko made the offer.

“I want to take you home with me. Do you want to come?”

Gaara twisted back to stare, wild-eyed.

“You can say no,” she soothed. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go. You can go to Suna. You can go to your siblings- they do love you,” Aiko added, because it was only fair. She knew they could eventually have a good relationship.

He swallowed. He twisted his fingers in her shirt. “Why do you want me?”

God, she wasn’t equipped to talk about feelings like this, but a child shouldn’t ask that.

“Because you deserve to be loved,” Aiko said firmly. “I’ll take care of you if you let me. I can keep you safe and I can try to fix your seal. You don’t have to join Kirigakure. You can leave whenever you want. You can be a civilian.” She stroked his back, feeling awkward. “Whatever you want.”

His breathing was ragged. “Are they afraid of you?” Gaara demanded. His nails were ragged, they snagged on her clothes. His little face was a thundercloud. “The normal people in Kirigakure.”

Aiko grimaced, because it would be dumb to lie. “A little?” she admitted. “It depends on the person. But that’s a fair response to me, because I entered the village by killing the Mizukage.” She paused. “The previous Mizukage, I’m the current one.”

He stared. “You’re a kage.” His tone was too flat to read much into. Might have been shock, or it could be disapproval.

“It was kind of a surprise,” Aiko said. “But when a friend urged me to declare my intentions, the senior jounin supported my bid.” Sort of. That was a more generous interpretation of events, but not an entirely inaccurate one. She chewed on her lip. “I was the only candidate, really,” Aiko admitted. “There were two other people with enough power to do the job, but one of them was regarded with suspicion for spending a lot of time as a deserter. And for loosing his bijuu on the city,” she added in the interest of fairness. Gaara perked up. “And the other, Terumi Mei- have you heard of her? - she was leading an opposition group against the previous regime, but lost public confidence after a mission to eliminate a threat went south.”

“They made a jinchuuriki their kage?” Gaara sounded incredulous, and a bit scornful. “It’s just because they’re afraid of you.”

Aiko considered it. “In large part, yes. It is.” She fidgeted. “But I’m also doing my best to do right by them, and we’ve got a lot of interesting programs going on in order to improve quality of life in the country. They’ll get used to me.”

'Or they’ll kill me. There’s always that. It is Kirigakure, after all. It’s a proud tradition at this point.’

“Are you collecting jinchuuriki?” Gaara demanded. “Is that why you want me to come with you?”

She cocked her head at him. “Should I be?” Aiko asked mildly. “We tend to have shitty lives, and there are dangers out there that you don’t even know about yet. I think we should stick together, especially if our countries choose to pursue idiotic policies that aren’t in our best interests. I’ll still have your back even if you return to Suna, as long as you want me to.”

He considered this. “Temari knew you were a jinchuuriki.”

What? It took her a moment to remember what he was talking about. But he was right. Aiko felt a grudging respect at how damn fast his mind was.

“You were in Sunagakure.” Gaara sounded furious. “Why?”

She… wasn’t following his train of thought. Why would that make him mad?

Aiko couldn’t think of a reason not to respond with the truth. “I was fighting the three-tailed bijuu in the desert.” She fidgeted her foot. “I suppose it’s my habit to take my most dangerous opponents here. No bystanders and all.”

He leaned back enough to give her an incredulous expression.

“It’s convenient,” Aiko defended. “You’ve seen my transportation technique. It makes sense.”

Why did she feel so judged by a 13-year old?

Perhaps it is because you fear his wisdom surpasses your own.”

She very maturely did not tell either of them to shut their cake holes, but she did have a good idea that was tangentially related. It maybe wasn’t very mature of her, but it was appealing. “I want cake for dinner. And coffee.”

Gaara stared.

“If you come home with me you’ll find out anyway,” Aiko dismissed. “I just realized I want cake. I’m going to deserve it after the rest of the things I have to do.” She leaned forward, encouraging him to move off her lap so she could stand. He was reluctant, so Aiko ended up hauling him with her. Gaara was more compliant when he realized she wasn’t moving away from him, which almost made her feel guilty. “I’m not taking you back to the conflict in Konoha, sorry.” She patted his head. Wow, his hair needed a good conditioner. He allowed the petting in what seemed like a state of mild shock. “You can go to Sunagakure or you can go wait at my house, but I’m not leaving you unsupervised in a war zone. Where are you going, kiddo?”

“What are you going to do?” He somehow made the question an accusation.

Aiko grimaced. She started running a hand over her sides, checking her equipment was in place and that water hadn’t damaged anything. “Hopefully make sure that Orochimaru gets crushed into the dirt. And then try to trick the Hokage into giving me nice things.” Kunai, check, ugh that storage seal with her hairpins in it might be salvageable? - oh, thank god, the waterproof case had protected the scroll with her new copies of Icha Icha in it. Thank god.

Well, everything is alright, then,” Sanbi said, voice absolutely poisonous. “You have your novels. We may die at peace.”

Gaara’s glower drew her attention back. “I don’t follow.”

Jeeze, eventually she was going to have to start taking that tone personally. Aiko sighed, mussing her hair. “Politics, kid.” She sighed. “I’m not great at them but I’ve gotta try.”

He looked completely unimpressed, and Aiko gave up. She really needed to get moving. “One last time, Gaara.” She made her tone stern, but she was still petting his hair. “Where do you want to go?”












She returned to Konoha as quickly as she could, not doing more than tucking Gaara in a safe corner and making sure he had a snack before using hiraishin to return to the forest of death. From there, it took a few moments to decide where to go. She wanted to go check on her students, but… it really was more practical to try to endear herself to the Hokage.

So she glanced around, and found the biggest, baddest chakra expenditure going on at what appeared to be snake-y ground zero. Orochimaru’s summons were causing plenty of damage, and he was at the epicenter. She ran past several fights with minimal guilt and went towards the higher ground, where the drama must be going down. They’d all be ok. Probably.

They will certainly not be,” Sanbi said, disapproving.

Aiko rolled her eyes and finished scaling the building, landing quietly at the far edge from the fighting. Her genin all had hiraishin anyway. If things were desperate, they could call on her.

'Are you saying you think I should go help them, instead of working towards my goals?’

Aiko immediately noticed that the barrier keeping the Hokage and the Snake Sannin isolated was powered by enough energy to heat the surrounding air and waft the stench of burning matter. That was interesting- the four Oto-nin supporting it from the inside must be formidable. And Orochimaru’s trust in them was demonstrably strong- he expected them to hold the technique for as long as it took him to kill the Hokage. Why hadn’t the Hokage attacked them? That should break the seal, right?

She didn’t notice any sign that Orochimaru or the Hokage had noted her arrival, but they probably had.

I don’t care what you do,” Sanbi said. “It is your persistence in dishonesty to which I object. To what purpose do you deceive yourself?”

An ANBU she didn’t recognize turned his mask towards her, chakra flaring in hostile warning.

Aiko carefully splayed her hands at her side, just enough to show they were empty. Then she deliberately broke eye contact to examine the seal work in further detail. It was lit up, practically glowing in a way that made it possible, if not easy, to pick out some of the notations refracted along the domed edges. It was just a physical barrier, really, that contained the combatants in what appeared to be a dome, but must be an orb extending underground. That was all well and good, as long as you weren’t dealing with anyone who could move themselves to another point by bypassing it. So. Her and Obito, really.

'It’s powerful, but not worth learning, I think. Not for me, anyway.’

She’d never seen this fuuinjutsu, and she hadn’t heard much about it either. The chuunin exams had been a particularly bad time in her life, in between Sakura’s death and the encounter with Itachi not long after.

'I don’t see Jiraiya anywhere.’

Unease stirred, but she brushed off the worry and made her way towards the ANBU maintaining a cordon around the area. Most were uniformed, but she made eye contact with Kakashi. His face was as hard as she’d ever seen, and he didn’t disguise the displeased wariness at her approach. Aiko had the distinct impression that he was ready to kill her if she made a wrong move.

'Right. Mist-nin. Nobody trusts 'em.’

“This group would do more good combating the summons, don’t you think?” she said in an undertone, not quite willing to draw much attention.

No one bothered to answer her.

Orochimaru was doing something, flashing through an ostentatious sequence of handsigns. His voice was muffled through the barrier in a way that distorted it, elongating vowels and eating up his quieter words.

It didn’t look like the fight was going well for the Hokage, to be honest. She didn’t remember hearing that he’d sustained serious injuries in this fight before Jiraiya intervened. Where was he?

'Maybe he’s not here?’

Aiko closed her eyes against a sudden headache, because of course. Why was she still assuming that minor variables would play out the same way they had last time? She’d done something or not done something that had somehow lead to Jiraiya fighting elsewhere in the village, or maybe not even being present. Fuck, for all she knew he’d left the day he’d been done with Naruto’s training.

That sounded exactly like Jiraiya, actually. Yeah. That’s what he’d done.

“Is there a reason that no one is working to take down the seal barrier?”

When no one moved to respond, Aiko nearly elbowed Kakashi before remembering they didn’t have that kind of relationship. She cleared her throat. “Hatake-san?”

A muscle jumped in his jaw. He didn’t look away from the fight. “We’ve tried unsuccessfully. The Hokage ordered us to stop. He prefers Orochimaru be contained.”

There was some logic to that. But..

She eyed the contestants. “The Hokage might not win. Orochimaru has had a long time to counter his teacher’s repertoire and plan this confrontation.” Somewhat diplomatically, she decided to leave off the more truthful, 'plus the Sandaime is older than dirt.’

There was a creak of leather. Her heart jumped, recognizing it as the sound of his gloves protesting the excessive force pushing them into fists.

'Okay then.’

She could… Was there any point to being here?

No, that was the wrong train of thought. What would happen if the Sandaime lost? She fought her knee-jerk reaction of now-misplaced loyalty -protect the Hokage, as a symbol if nothing else!- and considered Mist’s benefit.

'If the Sandaime dies, his replacement is likely to be Tsunade. She’s not as sympathetic to outsiders as he is. And how long would it take to convince her to take the job? The Council would be in charge in the meantime. Danzo, Utatane, Koharu… They’ll probably still choose to ally with Mist rather than Sand as long as Sand is defanged, but they’ll drive a hard bargain. And they’re probably not going to be very forgiving about the fact that the Mizukage is in their country under false pretenses- the Sandaime might pretend to believe the polite fiction that I was instated after the Chuunin exams and so wasn’t breaking any treaties. Danzo will cackle backwards into hell if he realizes he could litigate the Mizukage for trespassing, and I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.’

So. It was in Mist’s best interests for the Sandaime to survive. She could feel free to interfere, from a cost-benefits perspective.

Still, she wasn’t exactly eager to face Orochimaru. Aiko bit her lip and narrowed her eyes in concentration. She held back, watching the smooth play of his muscles as he pushed the Hokage onto the defensive in taijutsu. She was damn good, but she didn’t want to fight him that way. He was physically strong, but he was also fast and inhumanly flexible. She couldn’t be certain enough that she would win that way.

'I’m faster than he is, but not so much faster that he can’t hit me. He’s clever. I have more chakra, and I have access to powerful techniques through the Rinnegan. But I would have to use the Rinnegan to face him for certain. The seal is reflecting sunlight back out- that means it’s filtering. Inside that dome, it’s darker. I can’t afford anything less than 20/20 to face a Sannin.’

That was unfortunate. She didn’t like making that public.

'But it could work psychologically in my favor for the fight, anyway. He worked for Akatsuki- he’s met Pein. And he lost in a fight to Itachi: Orochimaru is definitely a lot weaker than Pein. The Rinnegan will probably freak him out.’

That thought was… oddly cheering, actually. She didn’t stack up too badly against Pein, as long as he was surprised. So she was probably stronger than Orochimaru if you believed in that transitive property? But he was… he was just so slippery, in addition to being vastly more experienced than she was. Brute strength didn’t guarantee victory against an opponent like that. She couldn’t count that she would be able to kill him.

Could she live with that? Compromise by lowering her aim to driving him off, but letting him live with potentially harmful information about her abilities?

'I’m going to have to,’ Aiko noted grimly. 'I don’t know what he’s doing now, but he looks smug about it. He’s sure he’s going to win.’

Fine. She’d need to misdirect him. Let him come to the wrong conclusions and conceal her abilities as much as possible.

She hovered a moment, long enough for- were those blurry shapes coffins? Orochimaru was summoning coffins? What was the point-

“Oh, fuck no,” Aiko spat, ignoring the startled reactions from tense, tragically unhappy Konoha nin nearby as two of the three coffins cracked. They were marked with numbers- 1, 2, and 4. The first shinobi to come out was a shock, the second reinforced the depths of Orochimaru’s depravity, but that last coffin-

That was her dad! It wasn’t open but it had to be, oh god. That was- Orochimaru had-

had failed to resurrect him? Minato wasn’t coming out of the last coffin- Orochimaru was gritting his teeth and pretending not to care. But the other Hokage were moving, iconic silhouettes that clashed with the initially rough movements they made stepping out of the coffins. Were they aware? They seemed to lack the control to so much as turn their heads. If it were her reincarnated in Konoha and being used as a puppet, she would wonder what was going on. So, like. They were probably minimally cognizant.

She should probably do something.

'At the very least, I should steal his thunder. He’s about to say something really dramatic, I just know it. I would if I were him and he’s at least as dramatic as me.’

Aiko flicked open her kunai pouch to drop one on the ground- and then quickly changed her mind. She had to use hiraishin to get in, but kunai were Minato’s trademark. She didn’t want to risk Orochimaru making a correct inference about her abilities.

The seals she had on her genin team were distant and troublesomely close together instead of in a neat triangle, so it took a moment of teeth-gritted concentration to correctly orient herself inside the barrier. She chose to stand in between the Sandaime and Orochimaru for maximum drama, casually pretending to examine her nails. Yeah, it was darker than she’d hoped.

“What?” An ANBU half-shouted. There was something she could only describe as a ringing in the air- like tapped glass. What was that- it wasn’t a sound, it was chakra. Had she fucked up one of Orochimaru’s jutsus? The barrier was a seal, it was entirely possible that her fuinjutsu had interfered with it in some way. So…. the barrier wasn’t just to keep the fights separate or to be dramatic- Orochimaru had needed a carefully modulated environment for his jutsu. Sterile, in a way.

Belatedly, she realized something about the voices she was hearing outside the barrier.

Huh.

'The seal muffles only in one direction. I can hear them just fine.’

Well. Orochimaru probably hadn’t wanted to miss any possible plotting going on outside the barrier, Aiko reasoned. She stuck her hands in her pockets to hide the nervous twitch they wanted to make towards the sword on her back. “Yo.” She nodded towards the Sandaime. “Nice weather we’re having.”

'It’s not that dark but I should turn on the Rinnegan no I should wait, that’s my best intimidation tactic I need to wait-’

There was enough light to see that the three Hokage and Orochimaru were staring at her with what she supposed must be varying degrees of shock. She wondered what Kakashi was thinking. She didn’t dare turn to look. She blinked slowly, which probably looked like sleepiness when it was more like an attempt to adjust to the lighting change.

'The Nidaime is definitely looking at me- that’s inconsistent with what I noted earlier. That’s what went wrong- I did something to Orochimaru’s control of the Hokage. So that means there was multiple techniques at work- the revivification, and fuinjutsu-based control, probably? At least.’

When Orochimaru broke the silence, he was quiet and considered with the barest hint of a hiss under the civil tones. “How, I wonder, did you do such a thing?”

His voice felt like a ribbon sliding over her spine, towards her neck. Aiko shrugged and tried not to think about garrotes. “Is that inconceivable?” she asked, channeling Kakashi at his most irritating faux-boredom. She managed a pitying smile. “Your seals are… well, they’re alright. Nothing to write home about.”

'I could figure them out. Probably. If I had a month and nothing better to do. And collaboration with Jiraiya.’

The Snake Sannin was fast on the uptake, drawing an obvious connection between fuinjutsu and bijuu and Uzumaki. “I suppose you’re to thank for the sudden disappearance of one of my tools. You killed the one-tailed jinchuuriki, didn’t you?”

'Oh, no. Hands off my baby, I claimed that one. Holy shit, deflect, deflect I need to throw him off-’

She didn’t know what she was going to do until she did it. Aiko patted the sealing scroll fastened against her right thigh, which carried a rather unsubtle implication. “You know, they used to keep that one in a teapot?” She managed to bare her teeth- it wasn’t a grin, but that hopefully wouldn’t ring any bells as she desperately spun a web of bullshit. “Yet another point goes to me, who remains better than everyone else everywhere. Does being inadequate ever make you sad?” She managed a real grin that time, because she was pretty fucking great.

You could bluff,” Sanbi suggested. “frighten him, and let him take the scroll in a scuffle. If he thinks he has a valuable prize, he will be less reluctant to cut his losses on this venture.”

Unacceptable.

'No. Absolutely not, fuck you, fuck that, fuck him. Orochimaru can’t have my porn.’

Sanbi sighed.

From the direction of his pale, pale face, Aiko thought Orochimaru was looking at the scroll that did not actually have any bijuu in it. Before he could say anything else, he was interrupted.

The first Hokage had a boyish laugh, light and easy. “You must be an Uzumaki,” he declared fondly. “Am I right?”

Aiko considered him for a moment, and then managed a short nod.

Then he noticed her headband. He managed to look puzzled in her blurry vision, mouth opening in a question she really didn’t want to be the one to answer- and then Orochimaru seemed to strengthen his grip on the Hokage, long fingers twitching. The first Hokage’s mouth clicked shut. He gave Orochimaru a resentful stare.

'Well, at least that saved me from having to open the whole 'UZUSHIOGAKURE IS A SMOKING HOLE IN THE GROUND’ topic.’

“I wonder…” Orochimaru trailed off. And the Nidaime leapt at her, electric chakra sparking on a short blade that he held across his body. He slashed, but she was kicking off against the dome several feet away. He pivoted instantly, orienting towards- what? Her scent? Was he sensing her chakra? Or was it the fact that she was still in Orochimaru’s range of vision? On her next dodge, Aiko tested the hypothesis by moving out of Orochimaru’s vision. She was close enough to one of the sound nin to hear his surprised grunt.

And-yes. Tobirama turned towards her quickly enough for an S-class nin with reflexes of storied speed, but she thought the move lacked the preternatural immediacy of his earlier maneuver.

'He used the Hiraishin before dad did,’ Aiko remembered. 'Tobirama might actually be as fast as I am, if Orochimaru can make him use it. He certainly has the reflexes that it encourages.’

She couldn’t be blatant about using the hiraishin- if anyone recognized it in a different form from Minato’s, it would be Senju Tobirama.

'That’s fine. They know I’m an Uzumaki. So this technique-’

Aiko turned midair to watch the Hokage hurtling towards her instead of looking to her next landing. His eyes widened in comprehension too early for her tastes- and he twisted to kick away from her chakra chains against the chains themselves, managing to evade the grab she made at his left ankle. And just like that, they’d changed roles. Aiko whipped to the side, helping her chains chase after him and-

'Incoming!’

Shit, she couldn’t dodge one Hokage and chase another! But she didn’t have to. Something intercepted the first Hokage midair, batting him away. She didn’t have time to wonder what the Sandaime had done- it had to have been him, though.

Tobirama had managed to move far enough away to buy time to flash through handsigns she didn’t know and come at her again despite the chains. No- not despite, he was aiming for-

Aiko dissolved her weapon hastily, heart pounding. She had no idea what he was going to do, but she suspected she didn’t want it to happen. He was a seal master too, wasn’t he?

He shook off his jutsu quickly enough that he might have predicted her response, and now she had no time to dodge the sword he was bringing down at her head. Aiko edged her feet apart and whipped her sword up barely before he brought down his blade. It clashed, hitting at an angle that made her teeth ache and her arms held for a moment but he had the better position and she couldn’t hold, she couldn’t hold-

'He’s too strong.’

She turned her blade and let his force help speed the twist and roll of her body, darting past and behind him. He lead with his blade as he turned, making a horizontal swipe.

It came close enough to biting through her forehead that Aiko felt a thrill of fear like nothing she’d had before. She’d never- a fight like this was-

She hiraishined to his other side, by his right leg where the back of his head was now facing, solely because that was out of the natural dodging direction she’d had before. He’d need a moment to re-orient. She didn’t give it to him- she didn’t have time to summon a more damaging jutsu.

So Aiko only made a desperate lunge with her sword to savage his leg. Her angle was bad- it slid in the back of his right thigh to the bone, but the far tip reached just a bit too far and glanced off the armor protecting the back of his left knee. She twisted and kicked, meaning to swipe his legs out from under him and tumble him to the dirt. It should have been easy- he should have been disabled and unstable from her blow. She knocked him off-balance, it was true, but he jumped up and over her kick instead of falling. And-

pain. She controlled her fall, hurriedly flinging her blade away because the way she was falling it was going to impale her and she couldn’t change her hold fast enough.

She skidded against the ground, kicking up dust. Tobirama was coming at her again with one arm out as if he’d just thrown something, and holy shit, what was this man made of that he didn’t feel pain-

He stopped midair, caught on chakra strings she couldn’t see. She considered being ill, but she couldn’t take her eye off the weapon to see what was Sasori doing. Would the next blow come from the side or-

Orochimaru gave an evaluative hum.

Right.

Orochimaru.

Not Sasori. Not puppets. Not really.

Aiko swallowed. She flipped her bangs out of her face. She tried to look impassive as she straightened to a normal standing position and glanced over at the snake sannin. He was standing with crossed arms,     the fingers of his right hand against his lips. Something moved in his throat.

Her right hip was aching. Cracked- it had to be cracked from the force of the puppet’s- of Tobirama’s hit- and how had he done that? She hadn’t seen.

'Well. He is a kage. They tend not to fuck around.’

Actually. She was a kage too, wasn’t she?

We. We tend not to fuck around. I am also a bad ass. I can do this. I don’t need to panic.’

She stood a little straighter.

“Well.” Orochimaru sighed heavily. “How embarrassing.”

There was an awkward quiet. Aiko risked a glance around the dome and wondered what the hell had happened in the last four seconds. Five seconds ago, things had been good. Or okay, maybe. Funny how it all changes so fast.

The Sandaime wasn’t about to answer, posture cautious and muscles trembling with the force needed to hold back the first Hokage. Well. He’d had a long time to get used to Orochimaru. He probably knew as well as she did that it was a verbal trap of some sort.

There was no way to answer that that wouldn’t make her look like an idiot when Orochimaru finished his statement, was there? She remained stubbornly silent for a moment before she remembered that she actually didn’t have a reason, besides pride, to try to seem cooler than Orochimaru. She unstuck her jaw and took the bait. “What is?”

His eyes glinted. “I don’t even know your name, Mizukage-sama. I’m terribly sorry.”

'Okay, how did he-’

The Sandaime Hokage bit out, “What is this foolishness? Uzumaki-san isn’t even from Kirigakure.”

Aiko rolled her eyes and tapped at her headband. No one paid the least bit of attention.

Orochimaru gave the old man a pitying look. “You poor old fool. I’d heard that the new kage was a woman and a seal master…” He inspected her. “I must admit, I expected Terumi-san simply had abilities I had not heard of, rather than the existence of a new party. As I said, how embarrassing. No wonder my letters have gone unanswered. It is rather rude to address them to the wrong person.”

“Yes, that’s the reason,” Aiko said dryly. “My feelings are hurt.”

'He didn’t actually send letters. Right? That’s just banter? Because otherwise someone was keeping important information from me.’

She… wasn’t actually sure. Orochimaru was a complicated person. He might have thought it would be beneficial. Or maybe just that it would be funny. S-class shinobi tended to be strange.

“Pity.” Orochimaru tilted his head, letting silken hair fall to the side. “You need not align your lot with this dying village. Konoha has never been a friend of Kirigakure. I am certain that our differences need not impede a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Aiko rolled her eyes, because she wasn’t stupid enough to ally with Orochimaru, especially after she’d gotten in his way. He wasn’t famed for his forgiving heart. When she opened her eyes, they were Rinnegan.

It was completely satisfying to see the way Orochimaru went still in her perfect vision.

That caution was an overreaction, really. Obito had taught her quite a few good-utility B and A level jutsu, but nothing she’d turn against a sannin outside a spar. She could summon powerful animals that she could not control, call for the powerful burning chakra of Susanoo that would roast the Sandaime alive with a distressing amount of witnesses if she tried the technique in this confined space, or summon the death god to revive someone, how useful in a fight-

Wait.

She wouldn’t have had the thought if she hadn’t been facing revived souls. But.

'Does the death god take souls too?’

…She had no idea. But Orochimaru probably didn’t either.

Aiko gave the surroundings a pointed look. “It’s hard to deny that you’re a great and loyal friend to have, as I stand here in your hometown. But if I may respectfully offer an alternate proposal: you can go straight to hell. Now, I think.”

'Oh my god, I sound like a cartoon villain. Give up, hero, I’ve come for your girlfriend. All shall weep and despair.’

“What?” the Sandaime muttered, but she was whipping through handsigns and slamming her palms into the ground. Orochimaru’s face was bloodless, pale with fury and just enough uncertainty for her to work with.

The god of death blossomed from the ground, pushing his way up until his head brushed the dome. One of the Oto-nin screamed- it might have been fright, but from the bright sparks dancing along the domed seal to his hands, Aiko thought it was pain. There was a ruckus outside from the gathered observers.

'I really hope this works.’

She turned her gaze towards Orochimaru. Their eyes met- he was terrified. Aiko felt a genuine thrill at the power she had over such a man, even if it was contingent on a guess and superstition. “Kami-sama,” she began. “I want you to-”

Orochimaru flung a blade into the back of his closest bodyguard and leapt out the resulting opening in the seal. The two dead Hokage fell without his support, clay faces cracking even as the second Hokage started to say something undoubtedly mocking to Orochimaru’s fleeing back.

Kakashi immediately bounced after the traitor, followed by four ANBU. The others spilled into the dome. Two of the remaining sound-nin were dead before they had a chance to disengage from the jutsu. The last snarled in the face of the man who killed her before she fell.



“Oh, thank god,” Aiko muttered. She slumped. She’d really been hoping he wouldn’t stick around to call her bluff.



“Yes?” The god of death prompted, tone as even as ever.



She glanced around in a quick survey- the Sandaime was alive and mostly uninjured, the other Hokage were properly dead again, and she wasn’t going to spend precious chakra to try to raise any theoretical Konoha dead she didn’t see without prompting. “Nothing. Just wanted to say hi. You can go now.” She waved him off with a deep bow.



There was a sense of a glower. She couldn’t help but notice that his right arm twitched toward her -And that it was nearly freed from the ground: she could see his wrist.



'When I first summoned him, he only appeared up to his neck,’ Aiko remembered. 'I… I should definitely stop summoning him. I don’t think I want to know why he’s coming up further every time, or what would happen if his hands were free.’



The Sandaime cleared his throat and waved off the medic nin who was trying to do something about the bleeding on his chest. “Well. The weather’s not terrible, but I prefer some cloud cover.”



“What?”



He lifted one eyebrow, patiently waiting for comprehension from the slow youngling.



Aiko blinked and waited for the world to make sense.



Then she remembered. Oh. Right. The only thing she’d said to him had been some smart-assed comment about the weather, hadn’t it been?



'It’s only been a couple of minutes since I came into the seal barrier,’ Aiko realized. And the death god wasn’t leaving. Why wasn’t he leaving? He’d never lingered before.



She snorted, shaking her head slightly. “Think it’s going to rain? I might have to borrow an umbrella.”



The Sandaime eyed her up. “I think you might have to borrow a hospital room. Tobirama-sensei broke something when he took that scroll.”



What.



She glanced down, dreading what she was going to see. Ah. That… explained some things. The scroll with her new Icha Icha in it was gone. Orochimaru- he’d eaten it when she’d looked away, hadn’t he?



Ugh. She was never going to get to read that damn book, was she? Fuck- first sand, now Orochimaru. What was wrong with these people? “Why don’t I get to have nice things?” she asked the world at large. “I’m a good person.”



Sanbi snorted.



“Fuck you!”



That was when her leg buckled under, taking her down with it. Her knee hit the roof and pain spiked up, white-hot.



She would have liked to wallow in self-pity. But the god spoke up in a voice that shook her bones because he was inconsiderate like that.



“That person who stole souls from my realm,” the death god began contemplatively. He paused. “Kill him, and discover by what means he has perpetuated these crimes.”



Aiko balked.



'He’s talking? He talks? And he gives orders. This is new and horrible. I do not feel confident enough to tell him to fuck off.’



Sanbi hissed, “Do not tell a god to fuck off!”



'I wasn’t going to!’



Aiko swallowed. “We might learn something by looking at the corpse that he failed to revive?” she tried, because she really did not want to have to hunt down Orochimaru. There were risks worth taking, and then there was being a stupid jackass. Trying to corner Orochimaru felt like a sharp detour into dumbassery. “Try that?”



The death god cast a baleful eye over at the closed coffin. “What mortal is it?”



She struggled back to her feet, ignoring the hand that the Sandaime offered. Aiko staggered over to the coffin and resentfully stared at the kanji on the outside. She’d been too panicked to fully consider it earlier, but… “Either the yondaime Hokage or the yondaime Kazekage.” Both were possible. One would have been readily available, the other a psychological coup. She had her suspicions as to which Orochimaru would have chosen. But she would prefer not to find out.



“Open it.”



There was absolutely no room for disagreement in that tone, so Aiko steeled herself. She braced her weight on the side of the coffin with her left and tried to force the lid open with her free hand.



It didn’t move, but there were outraged protests from the peanut gallery that she duly ignored.



She heaved again. It creaked a little, which was encouraging.



“Would you like some help with that?” the Sandaime asked, sounding uncertain.



Aiko waved him off, frowning. “No, I can get this.” She gave one last heave and then gave up on that. She shifted to lean her good hip against the coffin to free up her hand and then called up Sen Tsurara. She then proceeded to smash into the coffin’s lid, skimming across in a way that destroyed the lock and a lot of the bulk of the door before her jutsu fizzled out. With a grunt, Aiko levered the splintered mess open. She peered past the mess. Her head was curiously empty.



“Yondaime Hokage,” she reported. God… Just, fuck.



He was taller than she remembered, alien stiffness in features that had been reconstructed from clay or… something. How had Orochimaru done that? Make a facsimile, certainly. But how had it been infused with enough of Minato’s essence to theoretically be capable of his jutsu, to use his chakra, to contain his being? What had gone wrong with this one that had worked with the other two hokage?



“Touch it.”



She hesitated at that. It felt ghoulish. It wasn’t her father’s corpse but it was, it really was.



Uzumaki.”



Aiko jerked to obey, poking her index finger against Minato’s nose. At the instant that she touched the cold face, Sanbi leapt to awareness. “No!” he howled.



If he said anything else, she couldn’t hear it over the roaring in her ears and the energy flooding out of her. Her world lit up in red and it burnt- that wasn’t the death god’s work, that was Sanbi? Sanbi was forcing his chakra through her much more violently than he had in the water. Aiko screamed, body frozen into place. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t stop it, she was just a conduit for the electricity passing through and scorching her skin on the way out.



It stopped. She latched on to the splintered mess she’d made of the coffin. Her fingers were bleeding for some reason. Aiko panted and trembled. Her legs wanted to give out.



Someone cleared their throat. Right in front of her. Aiko looked up and disbelievingly made eye contact. With her dad. Her dad. Right there. Being all dadly and stuff.



Minato looked really and truly confused.



The death god spoke up, irritated. “You there, mortal. Has this Orochimaru risen you from my realm before? Tell me of his process.”



Minato blinked. “Uh. Hello.” His brow furrowed. “K-kami-sama?” He tried to bow in the confined space. “Um. Ah. No, sorry, I don’t know anything about this. I was just doing-” his eyes darted to the death god and then respectfully away- “things that dead people do, and then I was here. The last time I was in the mortal world was the  day I died.” He fidgeted. “Obviously, I mean, that’s how it works. You’re only in the mortal world if you’re alive, and I was definitely not ali-”



“Minato-san,” Aiko interrupted, feeling just a bit hysterical.



He focused on her. “Aiko-chan?”



What.



His tone lilted up a little in hope, like he thought she was going to give him an explanation. But that one word had just fucked up so much for her that she did not want to help him. At all.



'If I was never born here, why does he know me? Why is everything terrible, why does nothing make sense?’



Every fiber of her being absolutely revolted against contemplating this. It only lead to madness. “Minato-san,” she said again, trying desperately to establish distance and a foothold on a world that had made sense. He nodded. “Please shut the fuck up.



He made an offended sound.



The ground shook. Aiko and Minato both jerked to stare at the god, who was intensely displeased. His enormous mouth was a flat line.



Aiko felt her spine straighten. She was holding her breath.



There was a boom that shook the building they were standing on. Silently, resentfully, the god gave her one last meaningful look- and then he was gone.



She swallowed.



Minato took the moment to stare out around the area, clearly dazed and disoriented by all the damage and fighting visible in the distance. Someone was crying not too far away, the kind of contained little gasps that would shake your shoulders but not lead to tears. Probably all the dead people walking around were a bit traumatizing for career soldiers. She’d found it creepier at some point, hadn’t she? She vaguely remembered that horror about the unnatural, though she felt distant from it. Aiko scanned the crowd, but couldn’t pick out who it was.



The Sandaime was bending to murmur something to a group of four ANBU. One peeled off at high speed in the direction that Orochimaru had gone- the other three split and began talking to the jounin milling around. Gai had shown up at some point, as well as a passel of other senior shinobi. Yamanaka Inoichi was giving Aiko a deeply unimpressed look, arms crossed with such force that his fingers were white.



Minato cleared his throat.



She turned to look at him.



He raised an eyebrow.



Feeling incredibly old and tired, Aiko lifted one shoulder and gave her best 'fuck if I know’ expression.



He seemed to get her meaning. Minato sighed. “I know what you mean.” He rubbed at his temple, inadvertently making a mess of his hair. “So, ah. Am I just… not dead anymore? Is that what’s happening now?”



Apparently,” Sanbi said, in a tone that was absolutely acid. “Feel free to cut off the obscene chakra drain of your eyes at any time. Regrettably, my earlier impulse was to keep you alive. I have never met such a waste of chakra as you, you insolent ridiculous little dirt person.



Oh. That’s what had happened. The god had used her to raise Minato… Yeah. She definitely did not have enough chakra for that.



Her chest felt tight. ’I knew you were warming up to me. You saved my ass twice today. That’s statistically significant.



Hardly,” Sanbi grumped. “Had I contemplated it, I assure you that I would have chosen the oblivion of a hundred years of unconsciousness and an ignominious reentry to the world over being trapped in your foolish skin.”



“Aiko-chan?” Minato frowned slightly. He rubbed at his face. “Ah. You’ve got a little something…”



She gave him an ugly look, because obviously she knew. She didn’t bother to swipe at the blood under her eyes.



He showed her his palms. “I was just saying.” He fidgeted. “So…”



Aiko watched him struggle for words, and her irritation melted into exhaustion. He looked so young. He wasn’t much older than she was- he’d died at 28. Holy shit, he was only two years older than this version of Kakashi.



That thought led to an unpleasant realization.



'Oh my god, no. Kakashi is going to come back. I cannot deal with how he’s going to react to this. I need to leave. I need to get out of here.’



The Sandaime took a few steps closer, cautious but clearly hopeful. He was keeping his body between Minato and the jounin. He wore a pleasant expression. “Minato-san,” he greeted.



Minato bowed back, smiling faintly. “Sandaime-sama,” he responded. “It is truly a pleasure to see you again.”



“Dear boy, the pleasure is all mine.” He was clearly watching for Minato’s body language to shift into aggression, but he didn’t look tense at all. He glanced over at Aiko, probably feeling her stare. His mouth was upturned, and the wrinkles around his eyes bent the right way. But his eyes were cold.



She offered a weak smile.



“Minato-san, do you know Uzumaki-san?” The Sandaime nodded to her. “You seem quite familiar with each other.”



Minato was very, very still. He slowly turned his head to look at Aiko, at the Sandaime, at the crowd. She could almost see the wheels turning. “Yes,” he said slowly. “You don-” he cut himself off, and gave a sheepish smile, eyes squeezed closed. “She was much younger when I last saw her, that’s for sure.”



Either 14 or less than a day, depending on how you count the chronology,’ Aiko thought. She tried to catch her dad’s gaze, but he wasn’t looking at her. ’At least he hasn’t said anything disastrous. He has some discretion. And implying he knew me as a small child can kind of excuse the inappropriate honorific. Because otherwise the obvious explanation is an affair, and that’s too gross to contemplate.



“So true, Minato-san..” She cleared her throat and gave her dad the sunniest smile she could muster. “It was lovely seeing you, we should do this again sometime.” Blood was sticking her collar to her skin. “But you know, it’s getting late, and I’ve got a bit of a walk home. I should really be going.” She gave a perfunctory little bow, trying to back away.



“To Kirigakure?” Minato asked, sounding pained. “When did that happen? Wait.” He shook his head and stepped out of the coffin, giving it an unsettled glance on the way. “I have a more relevant question. You’re not a Konoha ninja.” It was half a question. It was a fair question, from his perspective. Incredibly reasonable.



“Well-spotted,” Aiko bit out, as if it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard. She tried to infuse as much scorn as humanly possible into the word so that no one contemplated that too deeply.



Minato just nodded, brow furrowing. “Yes. That’s- well.” He shook his head. “Then what are you doing here?” He straightened officiously. “I’m going to need to interview you about your intentions before you leave.”



Aiko gaped. She just stared, mouth open. The fuck. What the fuck. “You’re-” she struggled for words. “I am here legally-” wait, no. “I- I was so helpful-” mostly? Yeah, she’d been fairly helpful. “You asshole,” she hissed. That one she could fully commit to.



He rubbed at the back of his neck. “That’s probably all true,” Minato said, in an incredibly doubtful tone. Because he was an asshole. “But I couldn’t help but notice that the situation is strange. And high-level shinobi in Konohagakure are a matter for concern.”



“Is this person a danger, Minato-san?” the Sandaime asked sharply.



Her traitorous dad gave a sad little shrug. “If she wants to be?” he tried. He looked a bit guilty. “I mean no offense, Aiko-san. You are a good person and an exemplary shinobi. I have nothing but respect for you.”



'It does not feel that way. It feels like you’re fucking with me. Everyone is fucking with me.’



The Sandaime made a sound of comprehension. “An exemplary shinobi who is working for Kirigakure,” he completed dryly. “I see.” He seemed to stare right through Aiko. “If my wayward student was correct, you are in fact the Godaime Mizukage.”



“What.” Minato sounded bluntly shocked, and like a bit of an idiot, to be honest.



I was about to say that he says that the way you do when you have been taken by surprise,” Sanbi commented, pleased.



Aiko gave her dad the shittiest look she could manage, because she hated everyone and everything at the moment.



'Just. Just fucking say something, asshole. I’m begging you.’



Are you speaking to me?”



'Him, you idiot. Any. All.’



Minato groaned. He closed his eyes. “Probably,” he said without looking at either of them. “You probably are the Mizukage. I don’t know why I didn’t predict that. That’s the most predictable thing you could do.”



“There was no way you could have predicted that,” Aiko shot back, oddly offended. She crossed her arms, feeling she’d lost the plot entirely. “And this is bullshit that I don’t have to deal with.” She bared her teeth- a wasted gesture, with Minato’s eyes still closed. “Do you think that you’ll really be able to keep me here if I don’t want to be?”



The Sandaime made a sound that might have been a laugh. It might also have been a sob.



Minato put a hand on his face. “Probably not,” he admitted. It sounded exceptionally stupid with his palm pressed against his lips. He cracked one eye open. “But I think that you need Konohagakure, or you wouldn’t be here. And you like me reasonably well.” He made a face. “This isn’t fair at all. The last time we met, you were upset with me for not taking you seriously. And now you’re angry that I’m acknowledging you?”



He has a good point.” Sanbi sounded too cheerful about that. “I like this human. He upsets you. Who is he?”



Aiko wanted to stomp her foot. She wanted to scream. She wanted to be anywhere but here.



“Uzumaki-san?” the Sandaime prompted. “Will you please join us for a few questions, after this situation has been resolved?”



She shrieked and threw her hands up. She whirled as dramatically as possible with one leg in excruciating pain, and began to hobble away. It was not fun, it was probably not a good idea. She should hiraishin, except was Minato going to give that away if he saw it?



The Sandaime made an odd sound in his throat.



“That’s a yes,” Minato said from behind her, not quietly enough.



“Yes,” Aiko said, biting out the word with vicious hate, because hiis assessment had been good and she needed to work with him. “You take care of your shit. I’m going to get my puppies, and then I have to go get cake. And then we can talk.”



“Puppies, talk, and then cake,” Minato countered sternly.



Fuck you,” Aiko said with feeling. The feeling was mostly pain, her body was screaming at her and she was shaking. “Fuck you, and fuck your cake twice.”



“Get her puppies- students,” Minato corrected. She didn’t turn to see who he was ordering around. “Bring them to the third-”



“Fourth,” the Sandaime corrected.



“The fourth conference room,” Minato continued smoothly. “You, escort the Mizukage to the hospital before our meeting. I’ll go check on Orochimaru, and Sandaime-sama, secure the…” He trailed off, as it became clear that he didn’t really know what was going on.



“The stadium,” the Sandaime agreed. “It’s the Chuunin exams.”



“Really?” Minato sounded pleasantly surprised. “Is Naruto-”



“Kill me now,” Aiko said, very quietly, as she put her foot down and everything hurt.



Yamanaka Inoichi, who had apparently been told to take her to the hospital, snorted. It might have been commiserating. He offered her his arm.



She gave it an offended look. She didn’t want help. She didn’t want their stupid hospital room. Okay, she did, but she didn’t want to be told to go there.

“Aiko.” Her dad sounded absolutely done. He gave her a stern look, and then continued giving out orders to rapidly dispersing ANBU as the Sandaime left.



Her jaw clenched, because he was right that her physical well-being trumped her pride.



'If I’m choosing my comfort over my pride, then I might as well actually be comfortable. I should not be walking at all.’



So when she turned to Inoichi, she wrapped one arm around his neck and grabbed at his shirt with the other. He caught on quickly enough not to overbalance when she rested all her weight along that arm and lifted her feet off the ground so that he had to princess carry her.



He gave her a shocked and confused look, as though he wasn’t quite certain he understood how she’d gotten to be in his arms.



Aiko raised an eyebrow and dared him to comment. She dared.



He did not dare, as it turned out. Inoichi sighed and bounced once to shift her in his grip, and then he carried her all the way to the hospital.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 24

 

A tile broke underfoot with a loud crack. His knee jarred.



Ahead, Orochimaru made a great leap.



Shrew copied, assuming the Sannin was dodging something. He collided with something invisible midair and screamed. Boar dropped off pursuit to catch Shrew before he could fall.



Hound didn’t allow himself to falter. Rabbit and Jackal were still with him.





He pushed harder, muscles screaming to get him, to stop him. Orochimaru had to be stopped. He had tried to kill the Hokage. He had brought ruin to Konoha. He had defiled the dead. He had to be stopped.



He was gaining.



Orochimaru changed course, avoiding the north-east main district area. Or heading towards the mountainous training areas?



He was gaining.



Even Orochimaru’s monstrous chakra reserves could be drained. Was that why he was not attacking?



He hadn’t managed to desecrate Minato-sensei’s corpse. He would have planned to have enough chakra for that. Orochimaru was a genius. Another man might have run out of chakra by mistake. But Orochimaru?



Hound didn’t trust it. He caught Rabbit’s eye and made a signal. He pulled out wire. Jackal made the feint- He went for Orochimaru’s back with shuriken. Rabbit caught the other end of the wire and ripped off the weight. Orochimaru dodged the shuriken to the left. Rabbit was using her shunshin and she was there, she went past his point and Orochimaru’s own speed should have had him cutting himself open on the wire.



He hit it, but skin didn’t break open. Hound’s gloves shrieked as metal bit through wire but he didn’t let go because he needed to be touching it to send electricity down the wire. Rabbit shunshin’d again, trying to catch Orochimaru, to wrap around.



The Sannin fell into the ground. Earth jutsu. He wasn’t out of chakra, then.



Hound dropped the wire. He shuddered chakra through his veins, forcing it to change from the lightning to earth nature and dove in after.



Orochimaru leapt out of hiding, back into the air. He’d rather fight above ground. Had he been hoping for a chance to do something unseen? Had he managed it.



The Sannin’s mouth was red and wide, and his body undulated far too much as he avoided Jackal’s sword. His shoulders moved before his lungs did- a deep breath, a-



Hound barked, a sound that Jackal reacted to on instinct and leapt away before the sword came out of Orochimaru’s throat.



“Kusunagi,” Orochimaru hissed. “Come, then, if you want to play.”



They circled him. Hound took the lead position and when he was behind Orochimaru it was Rabbit who went in for the strike first. She went high, Hound low, Jackal for the liver. Orochimaru met Rabbit’s blade with Kusunagi and Jackal’s with a shuriken in his left, and he danced away from Hound’s blade with a kick that connected and broke a tooth. But Hound had scored a blow, a gash up the back of Orochimaru’s calf and nearly into the delicate tendons behind the knee.



Hound’s head shot back and he loosened his body to use the momentum instead of holding firm and incurring damage. Jackal was twisting his blade past the kunai and into the deadwood that Orochimaru substituted with.



Where.



The snake burst out of a tree trunk, twisting and snarling for Hound. He bared his teeth in reply. His sword was ready to take off the snake’s head, the only way to put a snake down was to-



Hound flinched. The genjutsu shuddered off. He dodged instead of attacking. He pulsed his chakra violently to shred the chakra hanging in the air.



Boar stopped attacking Hound- when had he arrived. Boar let his sword drop. Rabbit went careening past, unable to halt her jutsu but managing to change her trajectory to keep from running her comrade through.



Jackal was on the ground, still.



Orochimaru was gone.



Kakashi came back. Of course he did. He’d failed. That was much more Kakashi’s style than Hound’s. He swallowed, hard, and summoned his pack. Boar hefted up Jackal and took him for medical treatment. Rabbit followed Kakashi without comment, ready to track Orochimaru down even if it was just the two of them. But there was nothing- he’d shed his skin and scent.



They went back to the city center with cold and empty hands. Everywhere he looked, fallen buildings, spattered blood, abandoned weapons, bodies of summons and attackers and defenders. He walked past a man pretending to be a corpse and Rabbit hauled the enemy off to custody.



The arena was a bloodbath. It was dripping down the stairs. He could hear it under the quiet conversations of restoring order.



“Kakashi-san.” Gai clasped his arm. “I have news.”



Dully, he met Gai’s eyes. They were serious. “Your students are well,” Gai said, and Kakashi remembered he had students. Right. He’d sent them after Sasuke and Sasuke had gone after the Ichibi and the Ichibi had been captured by Uzumaki-san and stolen by Orochimaru.



“Uzumaki.” He cleared his throat. “Didn’t damage the genin when she attacked the Ichibi jinchuuriki?”



Gai shook his head. “I do not believe any of your students, save Uchiha-kun, even encountered young Gaara-san. No body has been found yet. There is a curiosity- she entrusted her students to me. They remained under my team’s eye, until they were summoned to the Tower.”



That was… either she did not care about the Kiri genin in the slightest, or she was allied with Konohagakure, then. He didn’t feel an emotional response, but he noted it. The Sandaime had been more correct, then. She wanted Konoha’s good grace.



“My Rival.” Gai hadn’t let go of Kakashi’s arm. He held it a little tighter. His voice was rough. “There is… something else. Something important that you should know.”



He waited. He couldn’t muster the effort to prompt Gai.



Gai cleared his throat. “After Orochimaru left, the Nidaime and Ichidaime fell.”



That made sense.



“The-” Gai paused. “The being that Uzumaki-san summoned spoke. Presumably. Uzumaki-san reacted as though there was a voice she could hear.” He hesitated. “Under what appeared to be orders, she opened the Fourth’s coffin.” His hand shook. “She touched the Yondaime, Kakashi. She touched him. And he woke.”



Kakashi jerked away from the horror of that.



Gai was still holding his stare. “He is with the Sandaime now, under close supervision.” He took a deep breath. “His mind appears to be his own. He… He has asked for you.”




“But they’re bleeding.” The older woman indicated the biohazard trash can before picking up her clipboard.



Aiko leveled her with a hard look that was probably actually fairly creepy. She ignored the trash can. Instead, she folded the hand towel and stuck it in her pocket, ignoring the outraged look that action earned her. “It happens. And they’re done bleeding for now, anyway.”



Apparently the medic had seen far worse, because she was unimpressed. “Can you deactivate them?” the woman tried. “Your entrance documents indicate you have black eyes, so I can only assume you can use your eyes in a less stressful way.”



She chose not to hear that, because she wasn’t interested in responding to it.



She is not mistaken,” Sanbi spat. “It is damaging. Your arrogance is astounding. If I would choose to rescind my generous chakra gift, you would die.”



Are you going to?’ Aiko asked. She couldn’t work up the energy to make the question a challenge.



He was silent.



'I didn’t think so.’ She had a headache she ached to rub away, but the pain beneath her eyes was gone. Had been gone since the death god had used her to revive…. Had put that stress on her body.



Sanbi didn’t make a sound, but there was a quality to his silence now that indicated he had come to the same conclusion she had.



She swallowed. There wasn’t time to deal with that. This wasn’t a place to be more vulnerable than she already was.



“Don’t stress your leg,” the medic decided, grudgingly. “Keep your weight off of it for a week, or you’ll delay your recovery and risk undoing the work I did today. You’ll need a physical therapy regimen, but I don’t imagine you plan to continue your treatment in Konohagakure?”



“Not likely,” Aiko said shortly. She took the proffered crutch and tried to stand. Mm, not fun, and not dignified. Lovely. But… she cast a guilty look back at the medical ninja filling out paperwork with a hard set to her mouth. “Thank you,” she said, without looking back. “for your time and care. I’ll keep your advice in mind.”



The older woman was silent for a moment. “I’ll have the relevant information sent to the general hospital in Kirigakure.”



'Good fucking luck. I seriously doubt they’ve prioritized emergency generator power to non-essential functions like the fax machine.’



Sanbi snorted, but it really wasn’t funny at all.



Inoichi was waiting outside the hospital door, because of course he was.



“Puppies,” Aiko said shortly. She glanced down to watch the crutch’s placement, trying to find a rhythm. At least the rubber-tipped aid was quiet on the tile floor.



He gave her a perturbed look. “Your students have been located in good health, but they must go through some questioning before we can release them into your custody. I regret to say that it might take some time to compile a timeline on their actions and conduct interviews on the events of the day.”



'They do have the right to secure foreigners involved in combat in their city. They can’t do much to a foreign head of state without litigation, but the rank and file don’t have that kind of protection.’



A power play?” Sanbi questioned. “Retaliation for the Konoha ninja who you have in custody?”



Probably. But they would also genuinely take the opportunity to try to gather information about the new state of affairs in Kirigakure, and genin were easy targets. If three genin who had spent an extended amount of time in close contact with the new, unknown Mizukage fell in their lap? Yes. Konoha was not going to pass on their right to keep them in custody for a time.



“I still need to see them.”



“Of course.” Inoichi sounded businesslike. “It will have to come after your meeting with Hokage-sama, I’m afraid.”



She gave in and rubbed at her temple. She should have stopped walking, because she lost her rhythm with the crutch and put way too much weight on the bad hip. Two hairline fractures- it wasn’t exactly debilitating, but the Nidaime had a good kick.



'He was actually pretty cool. 9/10, dreamiest Hokage to date.’



Oh?” Sanbi asked, sounding as if he was just indulging her. “Why is that statement so deliberately open?”



'Tsunade is still out there somewhere,’ Aiko pointed out. ’She might never become Hokage if dad takes the job back, but you can’t forget her. She’s there. Somewhere. And she’s so crush-worthy. You’ll see.’



There was a shocked silence in response, which was the kind of thought that really made her wonder about how insane her life had become. It used to be that a lack of conversation was normal in her head.



Dad.” Sanbi said. “Dad?” His voice raised in question. “You cannot possibly mean.”



'I do mean.’



He took a moment to consider this. “Your life is very odd.”



It was hard to disagree with that. She couldn’t even work up indignation. She mostly felt resigned to it.



And on that topic, she needed to figure out a working strategy for Minato, and now.  And that was kinda hard to do without knowing what he would know about her and how that would affect his response to her. Three options came to mind-



Option one- He was the Minato from this timeline, and he had miraculously identified her despite having only seen her on the day of her birth.



This theory was interesting, if only because it would prove that she had been born, but that somehow no one knew about her or what had happened to her. Except that would require him to have still somehow encountered another version of her in Rouran, because she didn’t know what other encounter he could have been referencing when he’d accused her of treating him unfairly.



So this premise would be contingent on a timeline existing where she had been born, disappeared from public Konoha in unknown circumstances, and then still had a time-traveling incident that would have allowed him to meet her as a teenager and have a disagreement. And was either dead now or in an undisclosed location, being very quiet and pretending she did not exist.



Unlikely,” Sanbi agreed. “Your demonstrated skills are not heavily weighted towards quietly sitting out of sight. Assuming that we use the premise that you are not mad and have actually originated in another timeline, it seems most likely that you are the only version of yourself in this world.”



'I’m fairly attached to that premise.’



Option two- He was the Minato from her timeline, and he remembered her only from the context of their meeting in Rouran, as well as who she was in relation to him.



Your life is strange,” Sanbi repeated sullenly. “What is Rouran? Were you of a comparable age, such that his instant recognition would be likely?”



She’d been … fifteen? He’d probably make that connection, yeah. But if that was how he recognized her, it was odd that he hadn’t expressed the slightest surprise at her eyes. That was why she was leaning towards…



Option three- He was the Minato from her timeline, he must still remember their encounter in Rouran, but he also had knowledge of her beyond that. Because at this point, she was not ruling out the possibility that he would have been able to somehow watch over her life from death.



'It’s possible that he was either overwhelmed and genuinely didn’t notice the Rinnegan, or that he concealed any reaction,’ Aiko admitted in the interest of fairness. 'But…’



This final theory would introduce the most uncertainty.” Sanbi hummed. “You have no way of supposing what knowledge he might have of your motivations and history, or how sympathetic he may be.”



'The scenario that makes my life hardest is probably the right one. So he’s probably been watching me from the afterlife, but, like, only at the times that I make the worst decisions. Because fuck me, that’s why.’



Sanbi didn’t disagree, which was as good as agreeing, really.



Inoichi cleared his throat. She tore her attention back to the outside world enough to realize that he was giving her a hard look, and that they were standing outside the correct meeting room.



You forgot to let him lead you,” Sanbi guessed.



'At this point, I don’t give a shit.’ She ignored the byplay and slid the door open. Ugh, she was the first one there. She hobbled to a chair and sat as gracefully as possible. The crutch clacked when she leaned it against the table. She eyed it resentfully.



It will make your life easier,” Sanbi said, in an entirely reasonable tone. “It will take me several hours to repair the damage to your leg, unless you stop using my energy for your eyes. In the meantime, it is good for you to use this tool.”



'I’m going to use it for evil,’ she thought back impulsively. And then she considered the idea. Huh. There was potential, there.



Sanbi seemed more baffled than anything. He chose not to offer a response.



“Can I offer you a drink while you wait?” Inoichi asked.



Aiko grimaced through the pounding of her head. “Coffee, please, if there is a god.”



He raised his eyebrows. “I’ll see what can be done.” He leaned out the door, and must have signaled someone. She tuned out of whatever conversation was going on.



It turned out that the breakroom coffee machine was a casualty of the invasion, because Orochimaru was the actual fucking worst. But someone managed to procure a cup of truly vile instant coffee. It was brought in a white mug with designs of fish and black cats. She suspected that it had been stolen off someone’s desk. She finished it in approximately two minutes and watched it be taken away sorrowfully.



The next person to come by was the Hokage’s actual assistant, a bit ruffled, but carrying an actual tea set. She set it down and whisked out the door as Minato and the Sandaime entered.



From their faces, she might not have known that this was anything more interesting than a meeting with accounting.



“Let’s make this quick.” Aiko wrapped her hands around her tea. Her fingertips were numb. “I’ve got  cake to order, and you just can’t get anything after 4. Isn’t that outrageous? How am I supposed to feed my family if I can’t get cake after working normal office hours?”



She received a long-suffering look in response from her dad, but no one took the bait of the distraction. Which was fair, but it was also true that bakeries had shit hours of operation.



Minato sat down across from her, which was clearly closer than the Sandaime would have liked. The acting Hokage remained standing, arms crossed.



“Aiko-san,” Minato tried. His nose wrinkled, as though he didn’t like the way the honorific tasted. “It seems fairly clear that you and your team offered your assistance to Konohagakure today, so the first order is to extend my official thanks.”



“Yours,” Aiko said, which was rude but she was feeling cranky. She looked at the Sandaime. “Not the Hokage’s?”



Minato’s mouth opened and then he looked befuddled. Perhaps he’d forgotten the awkward situation.



The old man gave a wry smile, as if he couldn’t quite help it. “Until such a time as Minato-san crumbles into dust or reveals himself to be a tool of Orochimaru, you may assume he speaks with the weight of our shared office.”



Okay, then. If that worry was on the table, then Kakashi hadn’t killed Orochimaru. Not that she’d expected he would. He needed to get stronger here to be able to keep up with the type of shit that was coming.



“I take it that Orochimaru got away, then?” Aiko snorted. “It’d be hard to imagine how Orochimaru could be controlling Minato-san, unless he’s playing a really long game.” She paused. “One I would almost have to be in on. Do you think there’s a chance that we’re cooperating?”



'Fat chance. Neither of us would have engineered a conflict that embarrassing.’



The Sandaime’s expression didn’t say anything in particular.



She gave a humorless laugh. “I suppose it’s plausible enough, if you assume he would be willing to endure the humiliations of deliberately failing in his invasion, and of turning tail to run from a fight. I’d also have to be dedicated enough to this ploy to let the Nidaime take something dear to me.” Her expression flattened.



Minato didn’t look confused, which was a good sign that he had been briefed already on what had happened before his resurrection. Well. Of course he had.



“A pity.” The Sandaime gave her a friendly smile that she didn’t believe in the slightest. “It’s conceivable that in the case of such a plot, you might have contrived with Orochimaru in order to retain possession of the Ichibi.”



The Sanbi made a horrific scraping sound that might have been his version of a chuckle.



She didn’t know what the Sandaime would make of the smile on her lips, but there was no point in hiding it. She leaned forward and lowered her tone. “I assure you, that’s not the case.” She shrugged with one shoulder. “I have a novel idea.” Her voice was dry. “How about I help you bring your rogue to justice. That should demonstrate that I have no desire to take advantage of your weakened state.”



“Wholly selfless,” the Sandaime agreed in just as dry a tone. “After all, why would anyone think you had a cause to turn on Orochimaru?”



Aside from the very public and scary marching orders from the god of death, yeah, yeah.



Minato coughed, and drew her attention back to him. He looked sheepish. “Well, I can see how it would benefit both of our interests to form a task force to apprehend Orochimaru, and I thank you for opening the process. But Sunagakure is, of course, interested in reacquiring the Ichibi. It is difficult to promise that anything recovered from Orochimaru might be able to go with Kirigakure.”



'Can’t help but notice you didn’t actually say you had intention of getting the Ichibi back to Suna. Subtle.’



She gave him an unimpressed look. “Oh wow, it’s almost like it would help my public image to disclaim any right to the contents of the scroll that was stolen from me.”



“It would remove the tinge of implication that your actions were out of self-interest,” the Sandaime said, as if he’d just thought of it.



“You can’t expect me to agree to that.” Aiko crossed her arms. “I’ve already told you that the contents of that scroll are of great value to