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Breathe (Don't Falter)

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When Jasmine Potter wakes on the morning of July 12th 1987 to the shrill demands of her aunt, her hair is no longer the drab brown the woman forced her to dye it the previous day. There's no explanation for the return of the red colour, and even though she loves it, she dreads Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's reaction to this oddity.

Her allotted bathroom time is short. She doesn't waste it by dwelling on the unhealthy pallor of her skin and the dark bruises caused by her cousin Dudley's roughhousing and his parents' grabbing hands. Jasmine can't risk not eating today - for the last two days she went hungry and her stomach already aches from the emptiness. More than that, she gets dizzy if she moves too quickly.

Shower finished and hair hastily braided, Jasmine rushes into the kitchen on quiet feet. The stealth is unnecessary - the sound of the television drowns out what little noise she makes. But it's a habit by now - good girls should be neither seen nor heard.

Today is a Sunday, and it's looking to be a decent one, too. Uncle Vernon is taking Dudley on a father-son-bonding outing to a rugby game, and Petunia is invited to a tea party with the assorted wives of Privet Drive. This means that Jasmine will be sent to Mrs. Figg's house. There, she'll be free to read the old woman's books, eat the too-sweet cookies she bakes, and cuddle her cats.

She finishes cooking breakfast and setting the table in time for her family members to tromp down the stairs. While she cleans up, the dissonant melody of her relatives' conversation drones in her ears: Vernon speaks of his company and complains about the government while Petunia shares the neighbourhood's latest gossip, accompanied by the noises of Dudley devouring his food.

Quiet as a ghost, she finishes up with the dishes and slinks back into her cupboard. Once they're done eating, the Dursleys will spend the morning attending church, a place they forbid Jasmine to go because she's a bad girl and people will talk.

This is fine. Jasmine prefers to stay in the cupboard under the stairs over visiting somewhere everyone hates her.

Not that any places exist where such isn't the case.

At least no one spotted the reappearance of her red hair.

 

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Jasmine gets lucky. Aunt Petunia drops her off at Mrs. Figg's place. Listening to the endless chatter about cats seems a small price to pay for the cookies and the cats she can play with.

Cats are great. Their fur is soft and most like her right back. If they don't, they opt for staying out of her way. It shows consideration no human being has ever bothered to show Jasmine. Not even Mrs. Figg, who only talks about her own woes and never pays attention to what others have to say.

She isn't unkind though, and for that Jasmine is grateful.

 

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Petunia retrieves her niece in the afternoon and puts her to work in the kitchen, expecting that her husband and son will return ravenous after their big day. The number of potatoes she has Jasmine peel while she prepares steak and salad doesn't bode well: There'll be enough leftovers that saving them for tomorrow instead of letting Jasmine have some would make more sense.

At least Mrs. Figg gave her cookies.

Eventually, Vernon and Dudley return, both in a foul mood: Dudley missed a show he likes to watch due to getting stuck in traffic. The ensuing tantrum stressed his father out enough that he goes straight for the liquor cabinet to pour himself a drink while his wife attempts to comfort their son.

Petunia sees Jasmine's longing glance towards the potatoes – just one should be fine, right? – and hisses at her for being so greedy. After that, she does her best to make herself scarce and unnoticed, disappearing into her cupboard as soon as she can.

Falling asleep is impossible. She's hungry to the point of nausea even though Mrs. Figg fed her cookies earlier. Then there's the thirst - it makes her head pound with a dull ache.

Her slightly broken alarm clock, pilfered from Dudley's trash two months back, reads nearly midnight when Jasmine can't take it anymore and leaves the cupboard in search of food. It's a terrible idea, she knows that. But her stomach is eating itself up and her head hurts, she really needs to drink something.

No one paid her much attention all day, and now they're all asleep. So she feels safe enough to venture out anyway even though just sitting up on her lumpy mattress makes her dizzy.

She finds her way to the kitchen. Bumps into a doorframe once, but keeps it quiet. Vernon's snores don't pause.

It's dark inside the room, but she won't risk turning on the light. The neighbours will see and gossip. It might be too risky to even open the fridge.

She has to drink before eating anyway - her throat is far too dry.

The Dursleys keep glasses in a cabinet Jasmine needs a stool to reach. Drinking from the tap would be easier, but the sink is stainless steel and water drops hitting it might make enough noise to wake Petunia or Vernon.

Finding the stool (usually used so Jasmine can reach the stove for cooking) in the darkness is an adventure. Navigating around furniture when she's this unsteady on her feet is difficult. But she manages.

Except the glasses are in the cabinet's back, so she has to bounce on her toes to get that extra bit of height.

Her fingers close around a glass, the stool wobbles, and Jasmine crashes to the ground, her head hitting the floor painfully. The glass shatters on the kitchen tiles.

Whimpering, she clutches at her head, which feels as though it was split open. Bright light suddenly illuminates the kitchen, and she groans when it sends daggers of pain into her brain. Squeezes her eyes shut, but they widen the next moment because a meaty hand is digging into her skull, grabbing her hair, yanking her upwards.

Uncle Vernon is yelling at her, his face an ugly puce colour, spit sprinkling Jasmine's skin. She barely hears a word, her head is spinning, her skull ringing.

The slap he sends across her face makes it worse, and the edges of her vision narrow. The lights flicker to the beat of her pounding heart, and Vernon's skin suddenly goes ashen. By her hair he drags her down the corridor to the cupboard and yanks open the door. Throws her in, the force of it sending her crashing to the opposite wall into the small shelf.

Her head snaps against the edge of it and her vision flashes white and then - nothing.

 

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As far as Jasmine Potter knows, she's always been a normal girl. Odd things happen around her sometimes, but they've never been her fault, no matter what her relatives' opinions are.

Jasmine, while bright and observant for a child her age, was wrong about that.

It might be accurate to say Jasmine Potter dies that night.

For after Vernon Dursley slams the cupboard's door shut, terrified out of his mind and masking it with anger, something wholly unusual occurs.

Jasmine's body lifts off the mattress, a strange power rushing from her. It whirls around her limp form, making a sound like the screech of a door with rusty and unoiled hinges being forced open.

The unconscious girl convulses, her body contorts, and her mouth opens in a silent scream.

Light flashes - and Jasmine Potter disappears.

 

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The meadow is lovely. Soft-looking grass interspersed with little flowers, their star-shaped white blossoms glowing in the moonlight. A large weeping willow's branches sway gently in a mild breeze.

The peace is destroyed by an infernal noise - as if the world itself were screaming.

It doesn't go unnoticed. A moment after it starts, a masked figure blurs into the scene, just in time to shield his eyes from the blinding light shining from a rip in the air, as if someone had torn a hole in reality.

Then it's over, the meadow as peaceful as it was before.

Under the tree lies the motionless form of Jasmine Potter.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The room appears to be a regular hospital room at first glance, housing only one patient. Two things make it stand out from any other room in the village hospital: Its location in the high-security wing and the occupant it houses.

"She hasn't woken?" Sarutobi Hiruzen asks, contemplating the girl that ANBU Hound had retrieved from the site of her sudden appearance.

"Once, during surgery," Shiranui Genma, the guard assigned to her reports. "They put her under right away."

Hiruzen nods, frowning at the motionless redhead on the hospital bed. In all his years, he's never encountered a case like this. At first, he'd assumed her to be an Uzumaki, perhaps sent over by a kind of last-resort seal. But the information Yamanaka Inoichi extracted from her mind as soon as he could safely do so disproved that theory thoroughly.

And as if she wasn't enough of a mystery, lodged deep within her Inoichi had found a parasite, leeching from her very essence.

All of Inoichi's attempts at removing it had failed until Hiruzen had signed off on a highly risky procedure: To use medical ninjutsu to stop the girl's heartbeat so that the leech had no life force to feed on anymore. But to do such a thing to a child... it was a vile operation, and he feels dirty for approving it.
But it was successful. Outside its host, the wretched thing had withered away into nothingness.

"She's not expected to wake for another day at least," Genma adds, drawing him back to the present.

That gave Hiruzen enough time to decide on a course of action. Inoichi extracted enough information from her to determine just how little threat she posed. If she weren't from a different world, Hiruzen would have had her delivered to the orphanage.

But, considering the amount of power she had, leaving her to fend for herself would be unwise. The child hadn't appeared by mere accident. She had tunnelled through the fabric of reality and released enough energy to raise hairs in all of Konoha - and likely even further. It was a nightmare to cover up.

Certain parties were still looking into the incident despite orders to the contrary. Hiruzen needed to keep an eye on that.

But what to do with the child?

It becomes obvious soon that he will have more than ample time to prepare, for the new arrival doesn't wake for quite longer than estimated.

 

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Nightmares haunt Jasmine's sleep. Endless brightness envelopes her, darkness rends her apart, pain drowns out every clear thought.

She dreams of being in a place she knows makes up her own innermost self. It's there she encounters a wretched thing, and when it notices her presence, it lunges for her, fangs lodging in her chest even as chains appear out of nowhere to rip it away. Jasmine screams in pain, attempts to fight it off, yet it only burrows deeper.

And then, suddenly, it goes limp, and so does she. Like puppets with their strings cut, they both collapse. The beast is ripped from her, and even weakened, it tears a chunk of Jasmine with it as it disappears. The wound hurts, and though a strange light comes to soothe it, she grieves the loss.

An eternity she spends in this place, which is both bright and dark, cold and warm, everything and nothing. Adrift in an odd state between sleeping, waking, and dreaming.

She sees her parents dying for her, killed by a monster wielding what can only be magic. Observes as she's pulled from rubble by a man she knows she loves, only to be handed to a large and hairy stranger, who then passes her to strangers. They leave her at Privet Drive, alone for long hours until Petunia finds her.

She spends endless time locked in her cupboard under the stairs, hungry and weak, tiny spider feet crawling over her skin.

Re-reads Mrs. Figg's books while the cats huddle around her, traces her name on the pages, written under the image of a plant.

Relives Dudley hunting her through the streets of Little Whinging.

Over and over, her fingers close around that glass only to topple and fall.

Again and again. There is no end in sight, and Jasmine wonders if she this is hell.

 

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Strange sounds and scents surround Jasmine when she wakes. She lies on a bed and figures she must be in a hospital, for the place she's in isn't Dudley's second bedroom. There are tubes stuck in her skin, and were she not so drowsy, she would panic.

Her room has no windows, she's unable to see the outside. Its white walls are blank, there's not. even a clock.

Perhaps Vernon finally dumped her in a loony bin, like he threatened once or thrice.

Sitting up takes her a few tries. Getting to her feet makes her dizzy, and just standing drains her of what little strength she has. Jasmine decides against pulling out the tubes and walking to the door. Instead, she lays down on the bed again and waits.

It's miserable. The only thing she can do is contemplate her confusing dreams which is frustrating at best since they make little sense, but there's nothing to distract her from them either.

Her parents died in a car accident, they weren't murdered. Plus, things like magic belong in books and movies, not the real world.

And yet.

And yet Jasmine's hair is red when she dyed it brown. It's not the only odd thing that ever happened around her either. All those little incidents that weren't her fault, but which she was always blamed for...

Perhaps this explains the hurtful things the Dursleys always call her - freak, unnatural, evil.

Her fingers rub at her scar as she recalls how dream-Jasmine received it. Green light heading for her, something worming inside. She shudders and imagines a slimy worm squirming in her brain.

Dimly recalls that thing tearing into her.

Not real. Jasmine was dreaming. Motorcycles don't fly, people can't turn into animals, and she's just a normal girl.

Maybe if she keeps telling herself that, she'll believe it.

It's as if a veil was lifted from her eyes, and now that it's missing she wants it back.

At least she's doesn't have to suffer in solitude for long. The door opens and what Jasmine guesses is a doctor walks enters. He wears white and has a stethoscope dangling from his neck. A nurse follows in his wake.

Neither talk as they examine her. Jasmine can't bring herself to speak either, though she can't swallow a gasp at seeing the doctor's hands glowing with green light. Where it touches, the pain fades.

Okay, so magic might be real, and she doesn't want to think about what that means for her dreams.

He says something, a vaguely amused look on his face, but Jasmine has no clue what the words mean.

The duo leaves soon after though the nurse returns promptly with a tray of food. It's not much, rice and soup, a glass of water. She's uncomfortably full soon and almost leaves leftovers. But who knows when she'll get her next meal, so she forces it all down.

Afterwards, she's tired and falls into a deep sleep. Hours pass without dreams.

Jasmine finds herself alone still the next time she comes awake. Someone had to have visited, though, because a glass of water waits at her bedside. Jasmine gulps it down and wishes there were more.

The door swings open and three men enter as if her thoughts summoned them. They look strange, their clothes unlike anything she's ever seen anyone wear. The eldest one has on a red robe, a loose white jacket around his shoulders, and an oddly shaped hat on his head. To his left walks a man with blond hair longer than Aunt Petunia's, who would have a fit if she saw it. The third visitor's hairstyle is no less odd, tied back into a spiky ponytail that reminds her of a pineapple. Two scars mar his face, and Jasmine struggles not to stare at them.

He, same as the long-haired one, wears a weird headband with an unfamiliar symbol on it.

Something about them sets alarm bells ringing, makes her think they're dangerous. It's the way they hold themselves, the way they walk, the way their eyes take in every single detail about her and the room in an instant. Whatever it is unsettles her, but it also piques her curiosity.

The three study Jasmine, and she examines them right back. The silence worries her.

"Hello?" she finally greets.

The two men flanking the older one exchange a quick glance. The remaining man however gives her a friendly nod and speaks a word that has the sound of a greeting though again she doesn't understand.

Maybe she hit her head really hard. A brain injury. That happened in one of Mrs. Figg's novels.

The old man says something to his companions that has them relaxing. The pineapple-haired guy drags a hand over his face, muttering under his breath before focusing on Jasmine. Pointing at himself, he announces, "Shikaku," and introduces the blond as Inoichi. The wrinkly one is Hokage-sama.

"Jasmine," she answers, a little lost.

The man called Inoichi repeats her name, but he's unfamiliar with English, making it sound awkward. She frowns. Perhaps if she... yeah, that seems a decent idea. With her hands, she mimes writing on her hands. Hokage-sama, aiming a curious look at her, produces pencil and... a paper scroll? How odd.

Something's off about this entire situation. By now Jasmine is pretty sure that the Dursleys abandoned her in another country so they wouldn't have to bother with her anymore. Which, fair enough? She broke a glass and would have stolen food.

Jasmine receives pencil and scroll. She enjoys drawing and she's doodled jasmine flowers before, fascinated because a thing so pretty carries the same name as her.

She points at her drawing. "Jasmine," she repeats and gives the men a worried stare.

Hokage-sama's face lights up with understanding. "Riko," he translates.

Riko. That's acceptable, Jasmine supposes. It's still her name. Just a different word. She smiles and nods, trying to mask the confusion over everything else.

Silence follows before Hokage-sama exhales and gestures to Inoichi. The man nods and approaches Jasmine. She eyes him with trepidation.

Can't help the flinch when he raises his hand, the memory of Vernon striking her all too fresh in her mind. Inoichi retreats at once, and whatever he says has a soothing cadence. For long moments he waits, and she realises that he's asking for her permission to come closer.

He's not her uncle. And he showed her more consideration than any other person Jasmine ever met. So she nods.
Inoichi steps forward slowly and again places his hand on her forehead gently. A strange buzzing comes from his palm and Jasmine tries to jerk back, but her forehead sticks to him, she can't get away and then it's too late - clear thought is ripped from her.

Hundreds of foreign words and their meanings flow into her mind. Symbols, kanji, flash before her eyes. Sentence structure, word order, pronunciation. She drowns in information, and pressure builds up in her skull until she's sure it's about to burst and all the words will spill on the floor.

She wants to scream but can't find her voice.

And then the ordeal is over. Inoichi withdraws his hand from her forehead. Jasmine scrambles back, clutches her head, gasps for air. Her breath is coming too fast, she's drowning in words, tossed about like a leaf trapped inside a hurricane.

Something cool seeps through the tubes into her veins, and the world goes soft before it fades.

 

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Jasmine wakes up to miserable pain. Her head is pounding, her mind in chaos.

Inoichi gave her a language.

She laughs incredulously and stops because she sounds crazy. Even given the crazy situation. Magic is real, she's somewhere no-one understands English, and she woke up from a sleep that lasted long enough she was sure she was dead.

Jasmine spends the next few hours attempting to sort out the chaos of her thoughts. Tries to speak sentences, goes hunting for words that are now hiding in her memory. The sheer quantity of knowledge is too vast to grasp, but leaving it as seems a terrible idea.

Plus, she has nothing else to do. At the very least, it distracts her from dreams that might be rooted in reality.

My name is Riko, she practices saying.

Every word she gathers up and puts meaning to tastes like victory.

 

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Some time passes. The nurse brings more food and then helps Jasmine shower.

She can't suppress a distressed whimper upon seeing herself - good lord, her hair - in the mirror. It's that bad.

The nurse, sympathetic, ends up giving her a new haircut. Jasmine feels odd about it - Petunia, for all she complained about her hair, had always refused to make it shorter. It had reached past Jasmine's waist, last she remembered.

By the time the nurse finishes trimming Jasmine's red locks, they only tickle her shoulders. Her head feels oddly light. The sensation isn't unpleasant, and she likes how the strands curl, no longer dragged down by their own weight. Instead of falling in her face - "To hide that ugly scar," Petunia's voice echoes - they frame her features. Her bright green eyes stand out starkly, which distracts from said scar.

She's given clothes that are entirely different from the shapeless dresses Aunt Petunia used to supply her with. A dark t-shirt and grey shorts in her size, or they would be if Jasmine weren't so thin. Losing so much weight - she can count her ribs, can see the blue of her veins under her chalk-pale skin - means that the clothes swim around her.

She still looks like a different person. The difference haircut and clothing make startles her. Jasmine straightens and tentatively smiles at her reflection.

Her relatives won't like her appearance once she's sent back, but she'll enjoy it while it lasts.

 

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Jasmine stumbles out of the bathroom, her body still weak and her legs protesting the movement. She pauses when she's met with the sight of Hokage-sama and Shikaku waiting for her.

Inoichi's absence comes as a relief. On the one hand, he'd given her a language. On the other, it had hurt. A lot. She'd assumed he was okay, but then he caused her pain by merely touching her.

Hokage-sama speaks, voice friendly. Jasmine recognises the words Riko-chan and evening. A greeting? The question he asks after that he has to repeat at a slower pace. Only then does she understand he's asking how she's feeling.

The vocabulary is in her brain, but it hasn't settled yet, and she hasn't figured out just how they fit together in a sentence. It's hard to form a clear thought at all, with her mind in so much chaos.

It'd take time, she supposes.

"Better," she answers, and then adds, "Sir."

He nods and says something else. She recognises the word pretty.

If he's talking about her looks, then he's just saying it to be nice. She's skeletal and far too pale, the shadows under her eyes are awfully dark. Fixing her hair and clothes won't change that.

She wobbles over to the bed and collapses on it. With care and effort, she asks, "Where am I?"

The old man sighs. He speaks slowly, mindful of her poor language skills. "You are in Konohagakure no Sato in the Country of Fire."

Jasmine feels a distance sense of fear. The name is wholly unfamiliar. It sounds like something from a story.

She shrugs with forced calm. "My relatives brought me?"

"Someone found you unconscious on the outskirts of the village. We regret to tell you that we have no way of sending you back."

Perhaps it should be a shock to hear this, but Jasmine doesn't have the energy to care. And it's such a Dursley thing to do, to knock her out and leave her somewhere she has no way to return from. Uncle Vernon had made threats to that effect often enough.

Well, if nothing else, she's rid of them. That's good.

"Okay," she answers quietly, clenching her fingers in the bedsheets to hide their trembling.

The duo exchanges a look. "As you have nowhere to go, I offer you a home in our village," Hokage-sama continues.

As if she even has a choice. Jasmine nods weakly and attempts to seem grateful. "Thank you."

She may not have liked the Dursleys, but being abandoned is still painful.

"Shikaku-kun here has agreed to take you in. For discretion's sake, you will be a distant cousin of his wife who had to move here."

She only understands half of his words at most, but the gist of it is clear. This stranger is supposed to let her live with him. He hasn't even talked to her yet beyond introductions.

Yet staying with him seems a better choice compared to going to an orphanage. The Dursleys had always told her how lucky she was that they had taken her in instead of leaving her at one of those awful places.

"I'm afraid you must stay a few days longer in the hospital." Hokage-sama suddenly smiles. "Welcome to Konoha, Riko-chan."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The days until Jasmine - Riko now, she best get used to that - can leave the hospital pass with agonising slowness. Her saviour is the nurse who brings her books to read, which helps with getting a handle on the language Inoichi crammed into her brain. But it exhausts her.

At least her headache has gotten better. Though it tends to return whenever she reads for longer than an hour.

Jasmine is almost glad when Shikaku arrives at her room and tells her it’s time to go.

Only almost. The man’s a stranger, she doesn’t know him at all, much less trust him.

He gives her comfortable open-toed shoes, so that’s a point in his favour. In the last few days, people have given her nicer things than she’s received her entire life.

Shikaku leads her through several corridors until they reach a lift that takes them downstairs into an entrance hall.

Her eyes grow wide when they exit the hospital. The air smells good, everything looks green and vibrant after days cooped up in her colour- and windowless hospital room. There are more trees than she’s ever seen in one place before, especially such large ones. A wall surrounds hospital and lawn, with a currently opened gate being the only exit. Behind it, she spies a busy street.

It’s beautiful, Jasmine thinks. Peaceful.

Or perhaps she spent too much time in the hospital. Even if that’s the case - she will savour it.

She’d learned to enjoy the little things a long time ago. The quiet and easy moments.

Shikaku holds his hand out to her. Jasmine - Riko - eyes it in confusion.

“The street is busy,” the man explains. “I don’t want you to get lost. That would be troublesome.”

“I’ll be careful,” she mumbles.

“I won’t harm you, little one,” he assures her.

“Didn’t think that!” Jasmine protests, and hopes she didn’t offend him too much.

He crouches down in front of her. Like this they’re almost at eye-level. “I promise not to hurt you,” he says. She stares at him. Why is he doing this? “You’re under my protection. It’s okay to be scared, but you don’t have to be.”

Jas- Riko blinks slowly, attempts to process his words. He stands again and holds out his hand once more.

With trepidation, she slips her cold little palm into his. It closes around hers, calloused and warm. It’s not unpleasant.

He tugs her forward and they set in motion. Down the path towards the gate, and then through it. Jasmine stares and is suddenly grateful for Shikaku’s hand anchoring her. It’s too much. People everywhere, talking to each other, calling out greetings, merchants praising their wares. She sways on her feet when a group of men leaps across the street at roof-level. A gaggle of children runs by, throwing wooden stars at each other.

Shikaku points out shops as they walk past, describes the wares they sell. He indicates people and explains which clans they come from - Inuzuka for example are the ones with triangles tattooed on their cheeks and work with dogs. The folks with the white eyes are Hyūga, who are also nobility. Aburame wear sunglasses and bulky cloaks, and they use bugs, whatever that means.

They pause for a few minutes so Shikaku can exchange a greeting with an Akimichi, who comes out of a restaurant to greet him. The large man studies Jasmine with curiosity, and she tries not to hide behind Shikaku.

He doesn’t seem to expect her to answer him, which is a relief. There’s too much to take in to even begin sorting out the words in her head.

After an endless walk through busy streets (and the realisation that Hokage-sama must be really important, what with his face carved into the rock wall overlooking the village, and just what was he doing, bothering with her?) they arrive in a quieter neighbourhood. Enormous trees shade everything, and the houses, all but hidden between them, are a good distance away from each other, with large gardens surrounding them. The light that falls through the canopy has a greenish tint to it.

It’s silent, the atmosphere peaceful. Relaxed. Jasmine likes it.

“The Nara Clan compound,” Shikaku announces. “Your new home, little one.”

Jasmine looks at him with wide eyes and he gives her a smile before he tugs her along towards a large house hidden between azaleas higher than the building itself.

The interior of Shikaku’s home is kept simple and spacious. It feels comfortable in a way Privet Drive No. 4 with its polished surfaces and carefully arranged furniture never did.

“We’re home,” Shikaku announces after directing her to take off her shoes and leading her to a door. She blinks, wondering who he was addressing.

“Welcome home. You’re late,” is what greets them from the mouth of brown-haired woman with a no-nonsense face, standing at the stove of a spacious kitchen. A boy who looks like a miniature of Shikaku slouches at a large table with what she thinks is homework in front of him.

What table space he isn’t occupying is loaded down with an overwhelming amount of dishes.

“Ah, sorry.” Shikaku scratches his head sheepishly. “But we’re here now. Riko-chan, meet my family. My wife, Yoshino, and our son, Shikamaru. Everyone, this is Riko.” He tugs at her hand, prompting her to step out from behind him, though she stays close. Her cheeks burn as woman and boy stare at her.

Yoshino’s expression goes from unamused to smiling brightly so abruptly that it gives Jasmine whiplash “Hello, dear!” she greets. “Welcome to the family! Why don’t you take a seat, we’ve prepared a welcome dinner-”

“Does that mean I can stop doing homework?” the boy yawns.

“Shikamaru, you’re being rude!” Yoshino hisses. “And yes, we’re eating now. Don’t think you’ll get out of doing it later, though!”

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru mutters, carelessly gathering up his book, papers, and pen and dumping them into a bag at his feet. Then he looks at Jasmine. “Yeah, hi.”

Dinner is awkward. Jasmine - Riko, they call her Riko here, and she really should get used to that - barely speaks, has trouble getting words out of her mouth, can’t even understand half of what they’re talking about. The food is delicious, but she’s full after just a few bites. She’s so tired - the walk and seeing so many new things exhausted her. Plus, her legs hurt.

She’s content to listen to their conversation. Shikaku works in the village administration, she gathers. Yoshino stays at home and takes care of clan stuff, whatever that entails. Shikamaru is a student at an academy, training to be a ninja.

He asks if she will be one, too.

“Don’t know,” she mumbles.

What even is a ninja? The word sounds familiar, she thinks she might have seen it on one of Dudley’s video games before? But it probably doesn’t mean the same thing in this language. And those games are all about the blood and explosions. She doubts Shikamaru does anything like that. He seems nice, nothing like Dudley.

After dinner, Shikaku shows her upstairs. “Your room,” he says, opening the door and turning on the light.

Jasmine stares, stunned, too tired at this point to grasp that the beautiful room - it’s spacious, has a large window, wooden floors, cream-coloured walls and shelves filled with books - is supposed to be hers.

They gave her food and a room, didn’t even make her help with the dishes, though they had so many dirty ones after the meal.

Perhaps tomorrow everything will make more sense.

Shikaku raises his hand, making sure not to startle her. “May I?” he asks.

Jasmine stiffens, but gives him a shallow nod. Trembles when he makes makes contact.

He ruffles her hair.

It’s baffling.

“Good night, little one,” he says. “Sleep well.”

She blinks after him as he leaves. “Good night,” she whispers when he’s long gone.

Even though she’s tired to the bone, sleep is slow to claim her that night.

 

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“So,” Yoshino says, as Shikaku and her share a late-night drink in his study. The children are in bed. “That’s the girl.”

“What to you think?” he asks his wife. She tilts her head.

“Troublesome,” she sighs, and he cracks a grin. The sight of it paints a triumphant smile on her face. Kami, he loves her so very much.

“Indeed,” he agrees, thinking of the wide-eyed waif that he is now responsible for. So confused and off-balance, thrown into an unfamiliar world, in poor health at that. Not to speak of her mental condition - the file Inoichi wrote up did raised concerns.

Children are resilient, though. And he’d see to her safety from now on. As safe as Shikaku could make her, even while directing her towards the life of a shinobi as per his mission parameters.

She’d heal from the damage her former caretakers had wrought. That, too, he would ensure.

Yoshino swallows the remainder of her drink and stands. “Come along. It’s been a long day. You need rest.”

“That coming from you,” he drawls, smirking. “What a rarity.”

“Don’t even start,” she hisses and flicks his forehead. “Get going. Bed time. Chop chop.”

Shikaku wonders how he ever got so lucky, to be blessed with such a wonderful family. He certainly doesn’t deserve them.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t do right by them.

 

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Jasmine never was a heavy sleeper, and she absolutely isn’t used to light shining into her sleep space. As soon as the rays of the sun tickle her nose, she wakes up. The clock on the wall reads five in the morning.

Straining her ears, she determines nobody else is awake, or at least no one is making noise.

If she were at the Dursleys’ house still, she’d start making breakfast. But she doesn’t know if she’s allowed to here. This isn’t her house, and she has no idea how to cook any of the dishes they’d served yesterday.

Plus, there were many a lot of leftovers last night. They might not want to make more food so soon.

For a while, she lies in bed dozing. Then she climbs out to inspect the room that she still has trouble believing is hers. It’s a room. For her.

(Maybe they havdn’t cleared out their cupboard under the stairs yet.)

In the closet she finds an assortment of clothes that had to have been purchased for her. They’re all in her size. All look new, too.

Jasmine ignores the dresses and skirts and pulls on calf-length trousers, shirt, and a hoodie. For a moment she considers finding a bathroom, but she doesn’t want to go wandering in a house that isn’t hers. Instead she inspects the bookshelf - no one said she couldn’t read - before deciding on the slimmest novel. Better to start small because reading in this new language exhausts her.

The windowsill is a comfortable place to sit: the window looks out over the garden, giving a good view of the azalea bushes. She begins to read, soon riveted on the Tale of the Gutsy Shinobi. It’s confusing, has many words she doesn’t understand, and the world is utterly foreign to her. But the characters are engaging and the story is interesting.

Her reading progress is slow. Two hours have passed, and she’s only gotten through the first chapter when a knock at the door disturbs the silence. Jasmine - Riko, darn it - startles, head lifting from the book. “Yes?” she calls out.

Yoshino opens the door and blinks at seeing her curled up on the windowsill. “Good morning, Riko. I’m glad to see that one person in this house besides me is an early riser. I was just coming to wake Shikamaru and you up. We eat breakfast in half an hour.”

Jasmine takes a while to make sense of the multitude of still-foreign words. Yoshino has a quick was of speaking, as if she doesn’t want to waste time on words. “Okay?” Riko answers hesitantly. “Um, I help with breakfast?”

“No need, take your time,” Yoshino answers, but gives her a smile. “Thank you for the offer, but the medics said you should go easy on your body for a while longer.”

She leaves as swiftly as she arrived. Jas- Riko hears her hammering on a door, hollering for Shikamaru. She winces because Aunt Petunia used to wake her up in that manner, and it was never pleasant.

Her muscles are stiff when she climbs off the windowsill and walks over to the door. She really needs to use the restroom now. Fortunately, it’s easy to find.

After Jasmine’s business in there is done, she still has time to spare, so she goes back to her room to read a little more. On the way, she passes what must be Shikamaru’s bedroom, the door of which gapes wide open. She can’t help but sneak a glance inside. A snort escapes her at the sight that greets her.

From the looks of it, Shikamaru crawled out of bed after being his mother woke him. Now he lies on his stomach, sound asleep on the carpet. His hair, not tamed in yesterday’s ponytail, sticks up in every which direction. It looks like a fluffy hedgehog and she feels the strangest urge to run her hand over it.

But she knows he has school today, so she knocks on the doorframe, producing a quiet sound. He doesn’t so much as stir, so she tries again louder. Shikamaru answers with a muffled noise. Jas - Riko looks at the clock on his wall. “Food in fifteen minutes,” she relays hesitantly.

Shikamaru grunts. One of his hands moves and gives her a thumbs up. It falls back on the carpet a moment later.

Jasmine shrugs and takes that as her dismissal.

He makes it to breakfast on time, to the surprise of his mother.

 

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Over the following days, Riko settles into this odd new life of hers. Most of the time she spends in her room reading aloud to herself. All the family members are busy during the day: Yoshino takes care of clan business, Shikamaru goes to school, Shikaku is the Jounin Commander. Jounin, she learns by slogging through the Tale of the Gutsy Shinobi (only understanding about a third of it), is the highest ninja rank after village leader.

Shikaku as the one to command the jounin must therefore be very important to the village. Besides being the Nara clan head. Again, it makes her confused. What is he doing, taking her in? And she still doesn’t understand why the village leader (called Hokage) dealt with her personally.

Maybe it’s just what Hokages do. Jas - Riko doesn’t know how leading a village works, after all.

She’s pretty sure Little Whinging’s mayor never bothered with homeless kids that showed up out of nowhere, though. So it strikes her as odd.

Attempts to think of an explanation remain unsuccessful, so she tables the mystery. She has enough on her plate learning to even speak properly, not to mention figuring out how this place works. Yoshino takes her shopping one day - clothes, just for her, why? They gave her so many already! - and she didn’t realise it the first time she walked through the village, but she has yet to see a single car or bike. And paying attention to it now, everything seems so old-fashioned.

When she looks at a map later that day, she finds nothing familiar. No mention of the UK, or Europe, or America.

That must be why they can’t return her to the Dursleys. From her… dreams, she remembers talk of how the magical world is a secret to normal people. Riko’s seen them do magic here, so if the Country of Fire is a magic nation, then it makes sense she never heard about it.

Again, she leaves the issue for later pondering. Her immediate concerns take priority.

 

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The weekend comes and with it Shikamaru’s one day off from the Academy. Even on Saturdays he has lessons, which surprised Riko, but on Sundays the students can recharge their energy.

Not that Shikamaru attends school as much as he’s supposed to. It was pretty awkward when Riko witnessed Yoshino scolding him for skipping lessons so he could play with his friends. She gave him extra chores - and Riko couldn’t help noticing how few there were and how quickly he finished them, not even coming close to the workload the Dursleys burdened her with.

But those chores are non-existent on a Sunday, apparently.

Riko finds herself rather flummoxed when after breakfast, he asks, “Has someone shown you around the compound yet?”

She shakes her head no.

“Cool, come on.”

Confused, Riko follows him after looking back at Yoshino and Shikaku, both of whom are giving their son approving smiles.

Riko takes less than one minute to decide that she’d absolutely be willing to wage battles on Shikamaru’s behalf. And it’s because he asks her, “Is there anything you want to see?”

He looks rather bemused by her awed stare at being asked what she wants. When he realises no answer is forthcoming - the words just won’t come, and what’s she even supposed to say, she knows nothing about this place - he starts the tour of the compound. Oblivious to the fact that he’s just earned her undying loyalty.

Shikamaru is good company. He walks at a slow pace, making it easy for her to keep up with, and he uses simple words. She gets to see the family dojo, the clan shrine, the cluster of buildings that make up the Nara headquarters, comprising the clan assembly hall, a library, a clinic, and research facilities. Headquarters is where his mom works, Shikamaru tells Riko.

It’s completely different from Little Whinging. Unfamiliar, but she likes it. The big trees have stopped unsettling her, too.

When they leave it behind, she notices an enclosed area. It has to be really big, because she can’t see how far the high wooden fence extends. Behind it looms a meadow leading up to a forest.

“That’s the clan forest. Want to have a look? Can’t go in without permission though.”

Riko nods. The two of them approach the fence and at Shikamaru’s prompt, climb a tree, overlooking the meadow. For a while, they sit in companionable silence. She relishes the chance to rest a bit and enjoy the gorgeous view. Everything in this place seems so vibrant compared to what she knew before.

Little Whinging was a grey town. Even the green lawns seemed drab and somehow artificial.

A small group of deer steps out of the clan forest. Riko’s feels something in her chest clench. She can’t stop staring, before her eye images of her dreams flashing: The man she knows was her father, turning into a stag and back. His friend, her uncle, holding her steady while she laughs, sitting on the animal’s shoulders. Her heart hurts.

“What’s wrong?” Shikamaru asks. She tears her eyes from the deer. Her mouth opens and clothes, the words just not coming, because how can she put into words something she isn’t even sure is a dream or reality?

He shrugs and mutters a word under his breath which she identifies as troublesome. She cringes. Shikamaru uses that word a lot and so does his father, but so far they hadn’t applied it to her.

“Are you okay?” Shikamaru asks, giving her another weird look.

“Fine,” she mumbles. He doesn’t appear convinced, but he refrains from pressing the matter.

They return to the house not long later. Yoshino has lunch ready for them and makes them set the table. Riko is glad she’s allowed to help now - it was unsettling to just sit while everybody else worked.

After the meal, she expects Shikamaru to leave. He has friends, she knows it, a boy named Chouji mentioned pretty often at mealtimes, plus the people who skip class with him. Surely after this awkward morning, he’d prefer spending time with them? It’s his only day off from school during the week.

But no, he grabs her wrist and pulls her outside on the porch that overlooks the garden behind the house. A pair of cushions and a small table wait for them there. Shikamaru makes her sit and disappears only to come back with a wooden board and two little bags. He takes a seat across from her, placing the board on the table. It’s a board game, she saw Dudley play them with Piers Polkiss when he was younger and not aware of video games yet.

Shikamaru pulls several wooden pieces out of the bags he brought and sets them up on the board.

“What we doing?” Jasmine asks, worried because she's never played a game with anybody. The only games she’s played are hopscotch in the schoolyard, late when every other student had left, and tic-tac-toe against herself.

“We’ll play shogi,” Shikamaru answers, giving her a determined look. A stubborn glint in his eye, he explains the rules, and Riko can’t shake the feeling she’s being tested or challenged.

Challenge. That’s new, and she finds she detests the thought of losing. Who cares if she can’t remember the rules for each shogi piece? She wants to win!

Shikamaru annihilates her. Riko glares at the board.

“Again,” she demands.

They play away the whole afternoon. Shikamaru ought to be bored by now, Riko reckons, but with confusion she realises he looks satisfied instead, and she’s sure it has nothing to do with winning because the only thing he asks after a win is, “Again?” unless she’s quick enough to demand the rematch first.

Losing is frustrating, but she likes the struggle. The fight. The triumph of capturing one of her opponent’s pieces. The challenge of working around a problem and attempting to read Shikamaru’s next move from his inscrutable face.

Ever since waking up, confusion was her constant companion. This game, shogi, is unfamiliar and confusing, too, but it’s something she can conquer. It distracts her from all the other stuff that makes no sense.

Yoshino comes out a few times during the afternoon to bring them snacks and drinks, but otherwise appears happy to leave them alone. They’ve played for hours when Shikaku returns from work - earlier than usual, there’s still time until dinner - and sits down nearby. He says nothing, just looks at the board. Riko is successful in not paying him much attention, busy with the game, trying to figure out what Shikamaru’s next move and how she will counter it and how he’ll react and so forth. It’s a little overwhelming, but she’s not giving up. This is fun.

She loses the match. “Again?” Shikamaru asks.

“Again,” she huffs. He grins.

Shikaku clears his throat, drawing both their looks to him. He holds out his hand toward Riko. In it lies a bundle of hair ties in various colours. One even has tiny flowers on it. Another, stars that glitter in the sunlight. “For you,” he says.

She stares at the colourful pieces of fabric. They’re so pretty. Riko’s never owned anything like that before.

She can justify being given clothes as a necessity. This, though, is clearly a gift. And, she considers and reviews the ponytail-hairstyle of every Nara Clan member she has seen so far, it means something.

The three of them pretend that her hand doesn’t shake as she holds it out to receive the hair ties. Like he did before, Shikaku reaches out. She shudders and remains still as he ruffles her hair before he leaves. “I’d enjoy playing a game of shogi with you sometime, Riko-chan.”

She can’t muster a response besides blinking, her thoughts reeling.

Distracted, she suffers a devastating loss in the next match.

 

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Jasmine - Riko, why won’t the name stick - is on her place on the windowsill, once again reading. She’d finished the Tale of the Gutsy Shinobi and started on a book about the Country of Fire.

She thinks her reading skill is getting, if not faster, then smoother. Practising so much helps.

A knock sounds on the door. It’s still novel to her that nobody enters her room if Riko doesn’t give permission. “Come in,” she says.

Shikaku comes in. She gives him a questioning stare.

“How was your day?” he asks.

Riko blinks at him slowly. “Fine,” she replies with some confusion. Why does he care?

But she had a good day. Saw the compound, spent time with Shikamaru. Got to see the deer. Then played shogi the entire afternoon.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Shikaku says. He ruffles her hair once again, and she finally decides she can tolerate how that feels. “Sleep well, Riko.”

“Good night,” she answers quietly.


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Chapter Text

Riko settles into a comfortable routine. Still a morning person, she gets up early and finishes her morning routine before reading until it's time to assist Yoshino with breakfast.

After the family with the addition of Riko have had breakfast together, she'll help Yoshino clean until the woman shoos her out. At which point she's left to her own devices. She uses the time to read outside on the porch or take walks if she's brave enough to leave the house on her own. This is a rare occurrence, but she likes the deer so much that she dares to occasionally, just for the chance to see them from afar.

She usually takes lunch with Yoshino, and after that is taken to physical therapy at the clan clinic, where she has to do stretching exercises and build up muscle. Riko isn't a fan, but it passes the time and the way her body aches afterward is actually sort of satisfying. The rest of the afternoon Yoshino tutors her in various things - reading and writing, Maths, etiquette, tea ceremony. They spend whole afternoons arranging flowers, cooking, or making trips into the shopping districs. On especially hot days they go swimming together, something the Jasmine has to learn beforehand.

Dinner is a family thing, though Shikaku doesn't always make it home from work in time. The evenings Riko has to herself. Sometimes Shikamaru and her watch a movie together or play a game of shogi.

Sundays are a break from the routine - on that day of the week, no activities are scheduled for her. Shikamaru spends most of them with her, though sometimes he'll leave her in order to play with his friends from school. One day he takes her with him to meet his best friend Chouji, which is pretty awkward. The boy doesn't know what to do with her, and Riko has trouble finding interesting things to talk about. In the end, he silently offers her potato chips from his bag. She accepts them, and that's that.

The three of them watch the clouds together that afternoon. It's comfortable, peaceful. Riko figures that Shikamaru is her best friend at this point while Chouji is his best friend - therefore Chouji is now her friend. He's nice enough.

She meets his clan, the Akimichi, later when they invite the Nara and the Yamanaka over for a barbecue.

It's definitely something.

Three clans having a party together is a huge production. The amounts of food served - and eaten - are incredible. So many big people fussing over Riko - who's still thin and shaky on her feet - is scary. She ends up clinging to Shikaku, all but sitting on his lap. He looks terribly amused.

Inoichi is there, too. They exchange no words. Riko settles for giving him a cautious nod.

He gave her a language. Even if it hurt, it was helpful. The problem is that she decided to trust him and he caused her pain. It's hard to shake the instinctual fear after that, but she's trying.

Inoichi has a daughter named Ino. She's cute and cheerful, and Riko spends most of their conversation staring at her in confusion. Why does Ino bother talking to her when Riko has nothing to reply with and can't understand half of what she's saying? Still, Ino seems friendly. Riko would love to be friends with her.

That evening is stressful and exhausting, but she enjoys it anyway. It's nice to be included.

Not many days after that, Yoshino begins Riko's combat training. "Everybody needs to know self-defence," is the explanation she gives her. Which, fair enough? In the beginning, it's not too different from physical therapy, but soon Yoshino has her practising things that would have been really useful the last time she had to deal with Dudley and his friends.

Training is hard, unfamiliar, and she walks away with bruises most afternoons. But Riko enjoys the lessons. They would horrify aunt Petunia, and that makes this taijutsuthing even more fun. Like the games in the schoolyard she never got to join, except more exciting.

Shikaku gives her and Shikamaru lessons of his own. They're focused on learning and adapting: He'll describe scenarios and list resources they have access to. Then they have to decide what they'd have to do to succeed. This, too, is fun, especially since Shikamaru and her are allowed, even encouraged, to work together. Even better, she comes to learn there aren't really any wrong answers here.

Shogi is another part of training, Riko realises. The books she reads, too.

She likes that. It makes her feel like she has a purpose. Like she's wanted here.

 

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One Saturday evening, Shikaku asks Riko to follow him to his study. She has visited it before, but never had the opportunity to explore.

"Take a seat."

She looks around with curiosity as she sinks into a chair. It's an interesting room, lots of books and maps, a large window with a nice view. Mounted on one wall are a set of deer antlers.

Shikaku waits patiently until she's finished taking in her surroundings. Patience seems to be a quality he embodies.

He is so very different from Vernon Dursley.

"You've been with our family for several months now," he says once she's turned her attention back to him. "You've settled in well, Riko."

"Thanks?" she asks, wondering where this is going.

"The new semester at the Academy starts in April."

In other words, classes begin next week. "You… want me to go to school?" she guesses, swallowing hard.

"Only if you think you're ready."

Riko frowns. She's seven years old and living with the Nara family has taught her to think things through. That and figuring out how to word things delays her responses by a few minutes. "Why?" she wants to know.

Shikaku regards her in that way he always does in lessons when he wants her to find an answer by herself. "You tell me."

She gives him the obvious answer. "To learn things."

"What things?"

And isn't that the grand question? But it's not hard to answer. "Ninja things," she replies, and breathes out in relief when he confirms it with a nod.

It wasn't difficult to figure out. The training, the books they gave her, the fact that just about everyone in this place seems to be a ninja or have a life that revolves around the business.

"Why do people become shinobi?" she asks.

"To protect that which is important to them from those who would destroy it," Shikaku answers easily, though his tones is grave.

What is important to Jasmine - to Riko? What does she want to protect?

"It's peacetime," she points out.

"It never lasts. And even in peaceful eras, crime doesn't disappear."

She considers it.

Konoha is for all intents and purposes her home now. She likes it here, loves Shikamaru and his parents, quiet afternoons in the sun playing shogi, long walks to watch the deer.

The village is a good place.

And she's read enough to know it's the exception to the rule on this continent. It needs protection.

And protecting is what shinobi do.

Of course she'll become a ninja if Shikaku requests it.

"Okay," she says with a nod.

"Okay?" Shikaku asks.

"Okay," Riko confirms firmly.

 

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As far as she knows, kids start learning at the Academy around the age of five, earlier if the parents don't have the time to teach them reading and numbers. Sending a child older than six to the beginner's classes implies arrogance and conceit, since it means they think their kid needs less schooling.

Riko is well over seven years old, far from the optimal age. But, she reasons, it's not the first time she's been unpopular in school.

It's comforting that she blends in with the crowding children in the courtyard, even though they're all younger than her. She's small enough and staying in the background is easy considering how loud everybody else is. Not to mention, her red hair isn't all that noticeable among the eccentric hairstyles she sees.

Still, the huge crowd of people intimidates her. Riko would rather just disappear. Go back home to books and shogi.

But no - she wants this. This is about being useful and protecting her home. And even Shikamaru, the laziest boy she's ever met, is learning to be shinobi, so clearly there's a need for them.

A loud crack, and in a large cloud of smoke a group of chunin appear. It impresses Riko more than it should, she's seen Yoshino do far more impressive things.

There's a speech about how important training new shinobi is, how they'll grow to be the pride of Konoha. It's full of tree metaphors: new leaves, growing branches, roots. It doesn't mention what according to Shikaku shinobi are all about. The speech weirds Riko out, and her applause is half-hearted when it ends.

The new students are split into classes. Riko doesn't care much who she'll be in class with - she knows none of the other students anyway. She sees afew Akimichi and a Yamanaka, but no Naras start in this term, and from what she knows, the class assignments are loosely determined by skill level. That means the kids who had prior training are going to one class and the rest to others where they can catch up together. They'll get shuffled around during the term, too, depending on how well they do.

Predictably, Riko ends up in the group with the lowest skill level. She stares up at the board displaying the class assignments with mixed feelings. She starts at rock bottom and that is discouraging on one hand. On the other, nobody has expectations for her to meet. The only way is up.

"So…" she says with forced enthusiasm to Yoshino and Shikaku, who accompanied her here. "This is it."

"Go on, then," Yoshino orders her. "Work hard. We'll be going over your lessons later." Riko is ridiculously relieved at the confirmation that their training together isn't over.

Shikaku ruffles her hair, mussing her ponytail. "You know where to find me if you need me, little one."

Plus, Shikamaru had already assured her that he'd find her during lunch break.

She swallows thickly, manages a smile at her caretakers and turns to disappear into the Academy.

 

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The classroom is large, with a high ceiling and built like an auditorium. Riko doesn't envy the teacher, standing so far below in front of the blackboard with no way to hide.

She picks a seat close to the room's centre. Tries to convince herself that she doesn't stand out as much as it feels like. But now that she's in a class of civilian born children (except for a short Inuzuka and a thin Akimichi clinging to a nervous-looking kid with no clan insignia), her colouring makes it hard to blend in. Her saving grace are her comparatively drab clothes - every other girl in the classroom wears one of those flashy kunoichi dresses.

The garments might be pretty, but according to Yoshino, unless one spends a bunch of money at a shinobi outfitter instead of buying from the rack at a civilian store, the dresses are impractical. Fine for children just starting out, but in the field? Nothing but an unnecessary risk.

Not that it's even certain Riko will make it that far. Many of the aspiring shinobi drop out during schooling. It's not exactly an easy career path.

Their teacher, Hiroshi-sensei, calls for attention. Roll call follows, the sensei examining every single student who answers. Riko attempts to memorise the names of her classmates, but there are toomany.

It could be her imagination, but his eyes seem to linger on her. She figures it'sbecause starting the Academy at her age is so unusual.

After Hiroshi-sensei finishes calling roll, he launches into yet another speech about the glory of shinobi life. Riko is pretty sure that shinobi and glory don't belong in the same sentence, because according to her books shinobi are sneaky and trick their enemies before resorting to combat, but nobody else looks bothered, instead they're following the teacher's words with more than a little excitement.

The speech continues with warnings about how hard the training is going to be. "Not all of you will continue to graduation," Hiroshi-sensei warns them. He gives an overview of skills he'll teach, attempting to make it sound more fun than it'll be in reality, and finishes by announcing that they'll have a quiz right now.

He doesn't even give them time to panic.

1) Name the elements of the shinobi chain of command.

2) List the Hidden Villages and the countries they serve.

3) Consider the diagram on page 5. Which shinobi is most likely to take out the target?

There are fifteen pages. Diagrams and pictures take up a lot of space, but it's still so many questions. Riko has never even seen a test this big. Fifteen pages! She's surprised to find she can answer a lot of it, but several questions remain a complete mystery. What in the world is a bijuu?

Still, she feels okay about the quiz, now glad she spent so much time at home reading.

By the time lunch break starts, they have to hand their papers in. What a relief that it's over - there's only so many times she can bear going over the answers again.

She finds Chouji and Shikamaru under a tree, lunchboxes on their laps. "Hey," she greets and dithers for a moment before Shika rolls his eyes and gestures for her to sit. Chouji gives her a greeting smile.

"Still alive?" Shikamaru asks.

"Mm," she hums, starting on her own lunch. "Had to do a quiz."

"Wish we could swap. We had to run laps and do push-ups all morning."

Shikamaru is two years ahead of her in school. She can only imagine what he's already learned.

Chouji makes a comment to Shikamaru on homework their class has to do, and Riko tunes them out, looking around the chaotic schoolyard instead. Most kids are playing ninja, running and yelling. Several older boys are sparring. A teacher separates a brawl not far away from them. A cluster of girls stands together, giggling and stealing glances at the involved boys.

This is when she sees him - black hair, pale skin, dark eyes. Hands in his pockets, he stares into the distance soulfully. Riko's never seen a boy so enchanting, and isn't it odd, calling someone that? But he is. She bites her lip - maybe she should go introduce herself-

"Sasuke-kun!" a shrill voice exclaims, and a girl with wild brown curls runs past, right toward the boy. She leads a pack of similarly loud girls, without exception wearing expressions of fanatic worship on their faces. Within moments, they surround the boy.

Any wish to approach him dies a vicious death.

"What was that?" she asks, deeply unsettled.

"Uchiha Sasuke," Shikamaru groans. "He's in our class. That was his fan club. Wanna join? Ino's the leader."

"No thanks." She cringes at the thought. Shikamaru sighs in relief.

Lunch break ends soon after.

 

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Riko returns to her classroom. Her entrance goes unnoticed, which she notices with no small amount of relief.

The other class members enter the room in groups. Her new classmates appear so familiar with one another already. Perhaps they knew each other beforehand and wanted to become shinobi together? It must be nice to have friends like that.

Maybe she could join one of the groups. But… she doesn't see herself fitting in. The girls with the lovely hair and dresses have banded together, giggling as though they've known each other for years. A group of boys reminds her unpleasantly of Dudley's gang. Other than that, the groups appear to be determined by earlier friendships that she hesitates to intrude on.

And they're all so young. The things they talk about so inane. They probably wouldn't like her anyway. Nobody wanted to play with her in Little Whinging, and she's sure it wasn't all Dudley's fault.

Hiroshi-sensei enters the room and leads the class outside for a physical text. It's a relief - after being cooped in the classroom for that quiz, she's ready to get moving.

The warm-up exercises aren't too different from those Yoshino always makes her do. Less extensive, actually. It's disappointing.

After that, though, they have to run laps, do push-ups, sit-ups, and squats. They're being timed, too, which puts pressure on them to finish fast.

Riko can barely move after the laps, but she refuses to give up so soon. She keeps going with the push-ups even though her arm muscles hurt like hell. Hiroshi-sensei yells at her because her form isn't correct, and the exercise becomes even harder, but she can do this. She continues with the sit-ups, and she grits her teeth through the squats.

Her legs tremble like jelly. Arms are on fire. Every breath burns in her lungs. She doesn't know how she makes it through cool-down stretches.

Thankfully, school is over after that.

 

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Riko knows Shikamaru's classes won't end in another two hours, so she makes her way home on shaky legs without company.

It's a bad idea. She's never walked around the village on her own, has always been with Shikamaru or either of his parents. That she gets lost shouldn't surprise her, but it does so regardless.

She resigns herself to bumbling around the village - Konoha is so much bigger than the small town of Little Whinging - until she finds something familiar. Maybe if she sees a Nara somewhere, she could ask for the way? An Akimichi might work, too.

"You look a little lost, kid," a voice drawls from above. Riko startles so hard that she jumps and squeals. Combined with her exhausted muscles, this results in her falling on her bum - or it would have if the speaker hadn't reached out lightning-quick to steady her. "Sorry about that."

"It's fine," she squeaks in a high voice she'll later be embarrassed about.

The guy speaking to her is a shinobi. A chuunin at least, he's wearing the vest and all. He might even be a jounin. She can't tell and she doesn't want to ask, because what if he gets offended that she doesn't know?

"I'm Genma," the man says, and she wonders how he can speak with a needle hanging from his mouth without losing said needle.

Riko doesn't reply, instead regarding him with masked suspicion. She's won't tell a random stranger her name. Even if he isa shinobi.

"You're a Nara?" he asks curiously with a look at her book bag, which has a small print of the clan signet on it.

"They're fostering me," she admits reluctantly.

"Well," he muses, "I was going in the direction anyhow."

With that he turns and begins to walk. Riko debates with herself for a moment, but really, she wants to get home. She's already late. So she scrambles after Genma, who grins with considerable smugness when she catches up to him. A scowl forms on her face in response.

"So," he says. "Academy, huh?"

Riko makes a noncommittal noise and wonders how he figured that out.

"It's the reddish colour of the dust on your clothes," he explains. "Not to mention the obvious signs of training. Today's your first day?"

She throws him a deeply suspicious look, and he lifts his hands with a laugh. "It's not a secret that term started today, kid. Everyone knows."

"Uh-huh," she mutters.

"Here's some advice on being a good shinobi: Notice things," Genma continues. With a side glance at her, he adds, "It'll help you not get lost."

Riko glares at him, annoyed because he's right.

"Well, here we are," Genma announces then. "Take a left at the end of the street. Need me to walk you-"

"No!" she yelps, because the thought of him having to walk her to her door and tattling to Yoshino is the worst.

Genma raises an eyebrow and grins. "I'm hurt."

"Then why're you laughing?" she snaps before she can think better of it.

Genma continues to chuckle. "You're adorable, kid. Don't get lost again." He turns to leave. Riko glares after him and grabs his sleeve.

"Thanks," she growls out, and he laughs in earnest.

"You're welcome," he gets out between guffaws. "Take care, kid."

Riko huffs and stomps off to the Nara compound.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Riko's muscles are beyond sore the day following her Academy debut, even though she did the exercises that Yoshino told her would mitigate the worst. At least she's not alone in her plight, her classmates are in similar or worse condition.

She can't help but notice that the class seems smaller today. A handful of students missing, and she should probably know how many exactly. ("Notice things," Annoying Genma's voice echoes in her brain.)

Either the teachers deemed these students unsuitable to shinobi life or those kids decided on their own that it wasn't for them. But it strikes her as stupid to pass judgement on children younger than six years after just one day. Equally stupid to give up so soon.

Personally, Riko thinks that maybe they stayed home because their muscles are killing them and they can't walk. She could certainly relate to that.

Hiroshi-sensei hands the results from yesterday's testing out first thing in the morning. He also reveals a leaderboard for the class members, proudly taking up the back wall of the classroom. "The rankings for all students in your year are displayed in the hallway," he informs them over the chatter of kids comparing their test results and rankings.

The scores are grouped by gender, and it stuns Riko to find her name at the top of both the girls' and the complete class' leaderboard. Her test results are far from perfect. She got 68% of the theoretical exam correct, and her practical scores aren't exactly stellar, either. Akimichi Keiichi, whose metabolism won't let him gain weight, did better than her with the exercises, and so did the tiny Inuzuka and two of the civilian boys.

Eavesdropping tells her that the kids who excelled at the physical stuff scored low in the quiz. She figures she only got first place because she did overall well in both theory and practice.

The jealous looks shot at her are completely unnecessary, in her opinion. The Yamanaka boy nearly beat her score. She isn't even ahead by much, has a lot of room for improvement. There isn't a single thing that a classmate didn't manage better than her - it's only with all the scores combined that she scraped first place.

Riko attempts to become invisible when the whispers of know-it-all and teacher's pet start. One civilian kid is outraged to be outscored by a girl not even from a clan. She elects to ignore it. Trouble too often ends with her painted as the culprit, and she hasn't missed that Hiroshi-sensei seems friendly with this boy.

It doesn't matter though. She'll be a good ninja and so will keep doing her best.

Classes continue to be a challenge. No games and few breaks, the teachers much stricter than she remembers the ones in Little Whinging being, though she supposes preparing kids for life as shinobi is a serious matter. Especially considering that they'll finish their schooling much quicker than British children.

Combat classes start today, no time wasted. Beginning with the warm-up exercises and stretches, then going straight into learning the first kata, and in the last hour, sparring. Those spars naturally look nothing close to professional, seeing as most students have zero experience barring a brawl or two.

Riko is surprised she does well in comparison to many. She can thank Dudley and his gang for that, she supposes, and more than that, Yoshino's self-defence training. The Akimichi gives her trouble, but speed and a feint win her the spar. Inuzuka Mimi would probably best her, but Hiroshi-sensei makes them fight other people instead.

After three days, Riko realises she was wrong about P.E. classes being easier than Yoshino's training. Yes, the exercises aren't too much of a challenge - but they take up five hours every day except Sunday. What they lack in quality, quantity more than makes up for.

By the end of the week, her civilian-dominated class has halved in size.

"That's weird," Shikamaru muses when she tells him. "No one from our class ever dropped out."

"We've all had training before, though," Chouji points out, munching on a snack. "Must be different for civilians, I guess."

Riko shrugs. The constant practice doesn't bother her that much. While it's exhausting, she's used to working hard - some days, the Dursleys made her work outside in their garden all day. Combat training is much easier than that, with lots of breaks, too.

A couple of weeks in and enough students have dropped out to warrant combining the four initial classes into three. The first class - comprising clan kids - sees no change at all aside from a student joining. They split the rest into two classes, the second holding the more promising students and minor clan kids and the third whoever remains. Riko ends up in the second, having performed well enough.

She sees the difference in skill level right away. The theory lessons are the same, but the practical lessons? They're much more challenging. She still manages all the exercises, but in spars initially she gets kicked around a lot.

Only by the boys though, unless they're holding back, which they quickly learn not to do. Except for Inuzuka Mimi, her fellow aspiring kunoichi just don't seem to want to put in much effort. They seem afraid of getting dirty and sweaty, which is weird. Even more confusing, the teacher lets it slide. If anything, Mimi and Riko are frowned upon for their zeal in taijutsu.

Mimi and Riko hold place two and three of the girls' rankings in their class. Number one among the girls - and the entire class - is Uchiha Hotaru.

Hotaru is pretty, smart, and strong. Everything a kunoichi is supposed to be. She wears the Uchiha symbol embroidered on all of her garments, she moves with grace and confidence, and in taijutsu classes she's untouchable. Even at age five, even though she's just started at the Academy, the teachers sing her praises.

The only reason they put her in the second class and not the first is that she was born blind.

A week after the new class assignments, Hotaru sits next to Riko and says matter-of-factly, "Your chakra feels weird and I like your voice."

Startled, Riko only stares at her for a few moments. "Thanks?" she asks. "I don't know how to sense chakra. What is chakra?"

"Oh, it's easy," Hotaru scoffs, waving her hand and then holding it out to Riko. "Take it and close your eyes. There, done. You're sensing chakra."

"Uh, no," Riko answers. "I sense nothing."

"Try harder, idiot, it's not like it's difficult!"

"Yes well," Riko snaps, dropping Hotaru's hand, "I guess that makes you a terrible teacher, you brat!"

Hotaru gasps. So does every classmate eavesdropping on their conversation. For a beat, the classroom is dead silent.

"Well, I never," Hotaru huffs, and then, "I can do it and I'm blind!"

"If I were blind, I'd probably be good at it, too!"

Hotaru pauses. "Maybe. Also, you pass."

"Oh, great." Riko lets out a snort. "And what do I pass, pray tell?"

"You and I will be friends," the five-year-old drawls, a smug grin on her face. Riko is too busy gaping at the sheer stupidity to protest, which means the brat has won.

Uchiha Hotaru, Riko later learns, is endlessly frustrated by the overprotective nature of her teachers and parents, even more so than her clan's dismissal of her talent.

"Just because I'm not gonna have the sharingan," Hotaru complains, because she likes complaining more than just about anything, excluding her pet rabbit and sushi.

"What's the sharingan?" Riko asks, because that's a word she hasn't heard yet and has no translation for.

"See?" Her new friend waves her hand around. "This is why I like you. You're dumb."

Stupid brat. Rude and arrogant. "Classic Uchiha," the Kurama in their class sneers and has a bottle of water upended over his head, courtesy of Riko.

She gets detention for it, but it's worth hearing Hotaru's delighted laugh.

Having a friend makes the whole world different, Riko finds. Even though she's two years older than Hotaru, they get along well. Suddenly she has someone to sit with in classes, someone to team up with for group assignments, someone to mock the boys' ridiculous boasts with. She introduces Hotaru to Shikamaru one lunch break, and the two get into a glorious battle of insults.

Yoshino has Riko extend an invitation for Hotaru to come over for tea. A week later Hotaru drags her to the Uchiha compound to play with her pet rabbit, which carries the uncreative name Usagi-chan.

She might have had a bad start, but Riko can honestly say she's happy with how school life is going now.

 

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One night, a loud knock wakes the Nara household. There isn't even time for Shikamaru and Riko to get dressed. Yoshino bursts into their rooms and hurries them to the clan's assembly hall, where other parents are arriving with kids in similar states. A heavy tension lays over the room, and Riko sits close to a grim-faced Shikamaru who explains to her what they need to do in case of evacuation orders. "We're the clan head's kids," he says, his face grim. "It's troublesome, but the brats look up to us. So we have to stay calm."

It doesn't come to that. Morning comes and a messenger from Shikaku gives the green light for everyone to return to their quarters. Classes are cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Later that day, Shikaku sits them down and tells them, "It's likely that those in the know will be ordered to stay silent about what happened yesterday, but I don't want you two ignorant and no gag orders have been issued yet, so I'm telling you now. Do not talk about this outside the house." He takes a deep breath, and Riko feels dread pooling in her stomach. "Last night, the Uchiha Clan was massacred. The only survivor is Uchiha Sasuke - your classmate, Shikamaru."

The world stops.

Riko… Riko's brain is empty. Blank. All thoughts wiped away.

(Dust particles around her stop moving. Her fingers are shaking, but the water in the glass she's holding remains unshaken. A flower bouquet behind her loses colour.)

"But Hotaru had a rabbit," are the nonsensical words that eventually leave her mouth in a thin, shaky voice.

"Do you want me to go get it?" Shikaku asks her calmly. Riko can only stare up at him, trembling, disbelieving. Hotaru can't be dead. She's five. Who would ever want to kill her?

Shikaku leaves again. When he comes back in the late evening, he sets Usagi-chan down in Riko's arms. He leaves again soon, but in the morning, she finds everything she needs to take care of the animal next to her bedroom door.

She attends the mass funeral held for the Uchiha Clan in a daze.

School starts up again and Riko… Riko just feels lost. The place next to her is empty and cold. The entire school just feels deserted. All the dark-haired, black-eyed students, missing.

Dead.

It's the same in the village. A cloud of grief seems to hang over everything. The Military Police building is closed, the doors barred. Barely anyone smiles, and conversations are hushed.

Yoshino lets Riko get away with lounging on her bed while hugging Usagi-chan for two days, then the woman orders her out of her room and into the family dojo, where they train until Riko can't even stand anymore.

It takes an embarrassingly high number of days for Riko to notice that Shikaku is doing the same with Shikamaru, and she realises Yoshino and Shikaku are worried. Because an entire clan - arguably the strongest clan in the village - was wiped out in a single night.

Riko throws herself into exercises after that. Yoshino runs her through drill after drill, and every single time Riko falls, she rises again. The woman has to order her off the training ground to get her to stop. And afterwards, Riko will study and study until her eyes burn. In class, she writes her notes in code for practice, forces herself to keep track of the classroom at the same time as she takes notes and memorises the lesson contents. When she finishes exercises before the time limit, she tries to sense chakra. She'll absolutely protect the Nara Clan.

Despite being exhausted to the bone when she falls into bed every evening, her sleep is restless. Haunted by nonsensical memories, spectres of Hotaru, and dancing letters before her eyes. In her dreams, she keeps seeing her parents' murder, only it's Hotaru begging for her life.

She rejects any offers of friendship from her classmates, unwilling to replace Hotaru. She tolerates Shikamaru and Chouji - they there before Hotaru and having them around is easy - but that's it. Training and studying take up all her time. It doesn't really help, but the distraction at least keeps her from thinking too much. Even though it feels entirely undeserved, her grades improve, and none of her classmates volunteer for spars with her any longer.

Riko doesn't have the emotional investment to be surprised when towards semester's end, after over a month of consistently scoring the top grades in her class, she's transferred to the first class, the class with the highest skill level.

Again, she notices the difference in skill level upon entering, and the quantity of lesson contents she has to catch up on is overwhelming no matter how far ahead she was in her previous class.

She spends most of the two weeks off between semesters attempting to catch up, only taking a few days' break because Yoshino puts her foot down.

At least in the taijutsu classes she keeps up. Sort of. She ranks somewhere in the lower middle field of the class. No matter how much she's trained, it's only been half a year since she started. The clan children received training for their shinobi career since they were born.

Riko still claws herself up the rankings point by point.

It's hard. Somehow the clan children, even though they are younger than her, can run double the amount of laps she manages, can jump further and higher, can carry much more weight. Are just faster and stronger, which makes no sense when Riko is older than them.

It makes her train harder, she even beats some of them in spars, but never quite reaches their level of strength. Finally, Riko asks Yoshino about the difference in power she just can't seem to make up for.

"Two reasons," Yoshino answers her. "One, they're using chakra subconsciously. Don't worry about that for now, you'll get there. Two, they were born for this. It's not just training - it's breeding. Their bodies are much better suited for this line of work than yours. You were born a civilian, Riko. A proper diet and physical conditioning will mitigate some of your disadvantage, but you'll never be as physically strong as your peers. That's why I've been focusing on your speed and evasion in our taijutsu training."

It's not a satisfying answer in that it doesn't offer a solution. She can't change her body. There's no way to increase her training, as it is she's already toeing the line of too much. And if Yoshino wants to wait with chakra practice, she probably has good reasons for that.

But it's frustrating, knowing that even putting in all that work, she'll still be weaker than everyone else.

Clearly something needs to be done about that. They're shinobi, in a fight anything goes, and there are tons of extra skills that she could compensate with. It's just a matter of finding the right thing. Something that suits Riko.

She wishes she knew more about magic. But all she knows is what she remembers from the dreams. There's no textbook, no teachers, and not once did her parents ever use it without those wooden sticks. Were those wands, like in the kid's tales Mrs. Figg sometimes told? Or were they called something else? Since she has no other option, she'll just go with wands.

Riko doesn't have a wand. She doesn't even have magic like her parents did. Yeah, things have happened around her before, but her father could shape-shift and turn a bathroom into a beach with one gesture. Her mother conjured stars on the ceiling and made flowers bloom in the night. Meanwhile, Riko can't even make a pillow hover, and she's tried often enough that at this point she's sure she's defective.

Better to focus on skills that have a real chance of being useful.

 

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Riko's in her second Academy year. It's going fine. She now scores within the top three despite attempts from the other students to sabotage or badmouth her. Even though she isn't using chakra to help her. Through practice, she's become decent at sensing it, at least.

Yoshino promised to help Riko access her chakra soon, though.

Riko is sure she'll be the top runner for the entire grade, if she's already outscoring most of her classmates without it.

Her schedule is the same as it was in her first year. Some subjects added, some dropped. Taijutsu class now includes kunai and shuriken practice, kunoichi classes have moved on from cooking, tea ceremony and etiquette to flower arrangements and poisons. On rainy days they stay inside for dance practice, which is surprisingly enjoyable.

She doesn't like Thursdays. Other than the kunoichi classes and weapons practice, school is tedious and frustrating these days. Plus, some clan kids don't take kindly to her trying so hard to beat their scores - but at least she has Shikamaru to spend lunch breaks with. Only on Thursdays she doesn't get to see him until classes end, their lunch breaks being at different times.

Sitting under their regular tree by herself makes her feel pathetic since the place is highly visible to everyone else and her classmates have nothing better to do than talking about her in loud voices. So she spends the time wandering the schoolyard. That's how she finds a peaceful spot between some trees where a swing hangs from thick branches. A blond boy around her age occupies it, staring with sad eyes at other students playing, but he seems quiet enough, she'll take what she can get.

"Mind if I sit here?" she asks, just to be polite. "Everywhere else is full."

The boy startles and nearly falls off the swing. Apparently struck speechless, he gapes at Riko. Up close, she notices blood on his mouth - an almost-healed split lip. She frowns and rummages around for a tissue. "You should clean that up or it'll get inflamed," she says, handing it to him. He takes the tissue mutely and stares at it like he's never seen one before. Then he looks at her like he isn't sure she's real.

Riko sinks down and unpacks her lunch.

The boy's stomach rumbles audibly. He doesn't appear to have noticed, stare now switching between the tissue and her, again and again, like he's trying to figure out a difficult Maths problem. Riko doesn't get what the big deal is, but whatever. She found her quiet corner to eat lunch in, so that's what she'll do.

His stomach growls again. She can't see his own lunchbox anywhere.

Okay then. Yoshino always packs a lot anyway, and Riko knows how much it sucks to go hungry. Especially with as much exercise as Academy students do.

"Want some?" she asks, holding out her bento box. "Can't finish it by myself."

The promise of food startles the boy out of his stupor. Her first impression of quiet boy was dead wrong. "Okay! What's that? Is that sushi? I've never had sushi! Or a home-cooked lunch! Do you like ramen? What's your favourite kind? Mine's Naruto ramen, 'cause it's got my name in it and it's also ramen and ramen's the best!"

Two pieces of sushi disappear and find obvious approval before Riko finds her voice. "I've never had ramen."

The boy - Naruto? - gasps in horror. He rambles about noodles for the entirety of lunch break.

It doesn't make Riko miss the silence she so sought, and Thursdays become much more bearable after that encounter.

 

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"And he stared at me like I was some kind of, I don't know, mystery fairy for spending time with him. It was really awkward so I gave him food," Riko recounts to Shikamaru later on the way home.

"Troublesome," Shikamaru comments with dry amusement. "I wonder what that feels like."

Riko really doesn't appreciate not being in on the joke, but no matter what, Shikamaru won't share.

Weird.

Chapter Text

In late November of Riko’s second Academy year, Shikaku teaches Riko to access her chakra. She’d expected Yoshino to instruct her, used to having the woman supervise her training. Her foster father doing it instead is a surprise.

His teaching style is very much different from Yoshino’s. Less physically demanding, but it often gives her headaches from having to think so hard.

Even though Riko has become decent at sensing chakra, especially her own flowing through her body, using it isn’t unlike trying to capture smoke in her fingers.

It takes a while to realise that she’s going about it the wrong way - why would she need to grab her own chakra? It’s already right where it needs to be, inside of her! - and instead tries simply moving it throughout herself. This new approach works much better.

“Good job, little one,” Shikaku says, quiet enough not to break the state of concentration she’s in. “Circulate some to your legs and try running a lap around the house.”

It’s easy, coaxing the chakra to her legs. Keeping it there, however, is tough. It moves, it slips away when she doesn’t stay focused. As if it has a life of its own, testing Riko, almost playfully so. She didn’t expect that using her chakra would be like playing hide and seek with a ghost inside her own body.

No matter how unexpected, she’s still giddy with joy, feels like she could jump ten metres high, run faster than the wind and never get tired. Chakra is fun.

That’s what she thinks until she suddenly has no more left and takes a painful fall. Nauseous, her head spinning, sitting up is impossible for Riko.

Shikaku carries her to the hospital. “Chakra exhaustion can be dangerous,” he explains. “Especially for children.”

“But I was only running laps,” she slurs. It’s hard to form words, almost as hard as following a train of thought to the end is in her state. This is chakra exhaustion? It’s the worst. All of her strength has leeched from her body. “My classmates don’t collapse.”

“Riko, you were born to civilians,” Shikaku points out. “Small chakra reserves aren’t unexpected. You’ve never used it before, nor did you receive preparatory training before you came to live with us. A proper diet, physical exercise, meditation, and continued use of chakra will help expand your reserves. Don’t compare yourself to others, it’s pointless.”

What he says makes sense, but what is Riko if not weak, when she clearly isn’t strong? Physically, she’s already frailer than her classmates. Now chakra-wise, she also turned out to be pathetic.

What kind of shinobi is she supposed to be like this?

 

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No matter how tiny her reserves, access to chakra catapults Riko’s ranking to a solid first place. Even when she isn’t actively using it, she doesn’t need to put a lot of effort in combat training anymore, so much so that her sensei has his teacher’s aide spar with her instead of her classmates.

It’s still something of a surprise when she’s moved up a grade.

Once again, her life becomes a lesson in catching up to her new classmates. They’ve already started on basic ninjutsu, like lighting fires and escaping from bonds. She’s way behind on that.

“What’cha doin’, Ricchan?” Naruto asks, munching on the sandwiches she offered him. He rarely has his own lunch. Though sometimes he brings crackers to share between them.

She glares at the scroll in her hand. “I’m studying.”

“Ugh,” Naruto grumbles. “Boring!”

“I know!” she whines.

“Let’s do something fun instead!”

“No.” Riko clenches her fists. “I refuse to let this idiotic technique beat me and I won’t lose to some stuck-up brats-” She takes a deep breath.

Her new class isn’t happy with her addition to their ranks, sees her as an intruder. If they don’t gossip about favouritism, they whisper about arrogance and cheating. An upstart is what they call her.

She’ll show them an upstart!

“Heck yes! You can do it!” Naruto cheers. “You’re the best, Ricchan! You can be my, uh, you know, when I’m Hokage but I’m sick so somebody needs to do the thing-”

She laughs. “Thanks, Naruto.”

“So what’s this boring scroll about?” he wonders, poking her shoulder.

“Escape jutsu,” she grumbles. “For when you’re tied up.”

“Oh! I know that one! I’ll show you, it’s super easy, believe it!” Naruto scrambles over. “Gimme your hands!”

That’s right, Naruto is two years ahead of her - no, wait, just one year now that she skipped a grade. He knows all this already. Sort of. Riko heard from Shikamaru, who’s in Naruto’s class, that he isn’t the greatest student, to put it mildly.

But if nothing else, learning from him will be fun.

 

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Riko doesn’t acknowledge that the bullying has become a problem until she’s in the hospital with two broken ribs and a black eye.

It was a group spar.

An argument can be made that teaming up against her was a sensible strategy because melee combat is the one area where she isn’t behind her classmates - the opposite, really. It might also have been that they overdid it on accident. Spars can get intense.

Except her notebooks and lunch boxes have mysteriously vanished all month until she figured out storage seals, and after that it was hissed insults and crumpled paper thrown at her, legs stuck out to trip her, and some uncreative pranks.

On the one hand, it’s taught her to pay attention to her surroundings. On the other, it landed her in the hospital. She’s on her own, too - Yoshino and Shikaku are out of the village on clan business, Shikamaru’s class is camping in a training ground for survival exercises this week, which means Naruto’s away, too.

Riko wonders if she’s reading too much into it, but the timing of this accident, right when all of her almost-family is absent, strikes her as suspicious. Like they waited for this opportunity. Though what her classmates fear would have happened had they struck while her caretakers were in the village, she doesn’t know.

Well, some parents have the tendency to show up at the Academy to yell at teachers or other parents, sometimes even students, for more or less asinine reasons. Shikaku and Yoshino aren’t her real parents though and Riko can’t see them doing something like that.

Those idiots probably just wanted her to suffer in the hospital by her lonesome. Well… they were successful, so props to them for excellent planning.

She’s not even mad. Sure, the broken ribs hurt something fierce, but the nurse gave her some painkillers and they kicked in fast, so Riko’s now in a fantastic mood.

Besides, sitting in the emergency ward of a ninja hospital is an adventure in and of itself. In the past ten minutes alone she’s seen a man being carried in by five dogs and an Inuzuka toddler fused to his puppy, much to his mother’s annoyance.

“Now here’s a happy face,” a voice to her left drawls.

“Hi!”

It’s - what’s his name again? Gerry? No, that’s stupid, there are no Gerrys in Konoha. It’s Ger… Gem… Genma!

Riko beams at Genma. He’s got an epic black eye which means he and her match. Plus lots of blood all over him. But it’s fake blood. She knows how to tell the difference, and it’s the cheap stuff too. The colour is nice on him, though.

Whoops, she said that out loud.

“Wow, they got you on the good stuff, huh, kid?” Genma grins. “And for your info, red is great, but you should see me in pink.”

Riko bursts into giggles.

“So what are you in here for?” he asks, making himself comfortable on the bed next to hers and getting fake blood on the sheets. “Got lost again?”

“That was one time,” she whines, not even questioning that he remembers something that happened ages ago. “Group spar.”

Genma whistles, and how is he doing that with senbon stuck between his teeth? “The others look as bad as you?”

“They ganged up on me,” Riko huffs. “Cowards.”

“Take it as a compliment.” He grins at her. “They only do that when they can’t win otherwise. Shouldn’t your sensei be here with you?”

“Eh.” Riko waves her hands dismissively and gets distracted by the ceiling light above her. It casts a little rainbow when it flickers. It’s so pretty.

“Earth to kid,” Genma sing-songs. “Where’s your sensei?”

“No clue!” she answers happily, turning her attention back to him. Jun-sensei dropped her off in the ER and returned to teaching classes.

Genma looks decidedly unhappy though and that sucks. Happy Genma is more fun unless he’s annoying. He was annoying last time she met him, and he was pretty happy then.

She figures it’s okay if he’s annoying, so long as he’s happy.

Genma guffaws. “Kid, you’re a treasure,” he says. He takes several tries because apparently Riko’s confused face is hilarious and he keeps laughing.

“Thanks?” she asks. “How’re you doing that with the senbon?”

“I’ll show you when you’re not doped up to your gills anymore,” he chuckles. She beams at him.

“Thanks! What’s with the fake blood?”

“Mission gone weird. Walked in on the client attempting to fake his own murder. Nobles,” he scoffs, shaking his head in exasperation.

Riko giggles. She has absolutely no clue what he’s talking about. “Do you like being a ninja?” she asks.

“When there’s no cross-dressing involved,” he answers. “I can rock a dress, but high heels are the worst.”

She laughs absurdly long at that mental image. “You’re funny!”

“And you’re adorable. What’s your name, kid?”

“Riko,” she answers. “Does this mean we’re friends now?”

Genma grins. “Absolutely.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

 

A few days of bedrest and Riko is as good as new. Nobody is happy about her training accident, but nobody can prove that it was in fact not accidental.

There’s a simple solution to prevent further training incidents though: body armour. Riko is against it - the light and flexible kind she needs is expensive and has to be custom-made for her size to prevent uncomfortable chafing, which just isn’t worth it when she’s a growing girl. Yoshino puts her foot down however, and she’s not someone Riko wants to argue with.

The skintight mesh us uncomfortable - Riko prefers her clothing loose and airy. But she might as well get used to it - it’s not like she’ll get around wearing armour once she graduates.

Still. It’s unnecessary.

But rather satisfying to see one of those idiot classmates of hers kick Riko only for her to get up and hit back harder with only a bruise to show for it when normally she’d have curled up on the ground gasping for breath.

She probably shouldn’t be casually dispensing violence, but they started it and they remind her of Dudley. She’d fantasised about retaliating against her cousin and never got to do it.

This isn’t exactly the same, but it’s close enough. Besides, they all signed up for a life of violence. No need to feel guilty.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

 

“It’s time for a new stage in your training,” Yoshino tells Riko and hands her a bokken.

It’s heavy and feels awkward under her fingers. She swings it experimentally.

Huh.

Doesn’t feel bad at all.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko has taken to haunting the various libraries in Konoha because of her constant game of catch-up for Academy classes. During free school periods, one can find her in the school library. On weekends, the Nara clan library or Shikaku’s and Yoshino’s personal book collection are where she spends her time, if she isn’t training.

It’s rarer that she’s in the public library due to it being a lot busier than the others and strangers inevitably approaching her to tell her how good it is to see children study for once and asking if she needs any help. She doesn’t like when strangers randomly talk to her. Especially when they call her cute.

However, it can’t be denied that the shinobi section of the public library is well-stocked when it comes to basic knowledge. The clan library has a lot of books, but they’re mostly for niche aspects of shinobi life.

Riko would suspect that she’s turning into a book ninja if it weren’t for the fact that she’s doing so much better in practical lessons than theory ones.

She just figures she’ll do better if she knows more stuff. It’s not like it’s a secret that clan kids have an advantage over civilian born shinobi since they get training and special techniques from their families. As a clanless orphan Riko has none of that to fall back on, she’ll need to compensate with book knowledge – and basic chakra exercises and non-combat jutsu are all available in the public library.

It’s not an uncommon sight to find her sitting in a corner with books and scrolls stacked high around her, glaring at the pages as if she were in a fight to the death with literature itself. There’s a reason that shinobi rarely go to the public library, and it’s because it’s the books there are without exception dry theory and utterly boring. All the interesting stuff either got snapped up by important people or hidden behind a clearance level.

Still. Needs must. As far as she knows, no matter what creepy dreams (possibly memories) say, she’s not blessed with any special powers or privy to any cool moves. Hence, she has to invent her own, but this is easier said than done.

Jutsu theory sucks. It’s like there’s a genjutsu over every single word, telling her she needs to take a nap right now. But she won’t let boredom beat her, no matter how it makes her want to stab the book with a blunt practice kunai.

“Well there’s a happy face,” a vaguely familiar voice above her drawls. She looks up, still glaring, because he snuck up on her which is rude. Riko’s chakra sense has gotten pretty decent, but there’s nothing to sense from Genma. It’s like he’s invisible.

Plus, he’s teasing her.

“What?” she snaps at him. He grins.

“But Riko, we’re friends.”

She valiantly resists the urge to hide under the table at the reference to the hospital incident where she made a complete idiot of herself. Why couldn’t she be blissfully forgetful of what happened in her drugged state?

“Who are you again?” she tries, anyway.

“The guy who promised to show his most adorable friend how to use senbon.” He shifts a little and the senbon in his mouth gleams in the light. “But I guess I have the wrong person…”

His eyes gleam with mirth.

Damn it. He’s got her now.

Well, she can suffer his company if it means she gets a new skill out of it.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ -═══════ι▬▬

 

Side Story: Fun with catapults

(Written for worldtravellingfly’s prompt: “Friendship is when you prank together”)

 

“Goggles?”

“Got ‘em!”

“Balloons?”

“Ready!”

“Helmets?”

“All set!”

“Life vest?”

“You got it!”

Naruto and Riko salute each other. Behind them towers the catapult they built together from logs, rope, and rubber bands. The shovel part is filled with balloons, which have paint and glue and glitter inside. The only thing missing…

Riko and Naruto climb inside. “This is gonna be awesome!” Naruto crows. She grins at him and holds out her hand.

“Don’t let go,” she orders.

“Not for anything!”

Riko draws a kunai and throws it. A rope snaps. The catapult groans and then-

They’re flying! The houses below them pass by at dizzying speed. Riko laughs with abandon and beside her, Naruto screams in joy.

All too soon, the descent begins.

Naruto and Riko plunge into a deep lake. It’s cold and dark instantly, but the life vests drag them up soon enough, and both of them gulp for air before they burst into exhilarated giggles and high-five.

Around them, the angered shouts of civilians whose houses were pelted with prank balloons sounds through the air. “Uh-oh,” Riko snickers. “Let’s run!”

“Way ahead of ya!” Naruto shouts back, already making for the shore.

“Hey!”

She loses the race, but Naruto waits for her, and together the friends run for the hills.

Chapter Text

 

Senbon are incredibly awkward to hold. With kunai, the handles are shaped to provide an optimal grip. It’s nothing like that with senbon. They’re just oversized needles, heavier and more sturdy, but still needles, and they’re not built for convenient throwing.

It's been an hour since her introduction to this weapon, and Riko’s fingers ache. The longer she’s clutching it, the more it feels like her fingers will leave this position.

 “Yeah, time for a break,” Genma drawls. “Here, I’ll show you some exercises for your hands.”

 “This sucks,” Riko mutters under her breath, flexing her fingers and rotating her wrists the way he’s showing her.

 “Yep,” her self-declared friend agrees. “Takes a lot of practice. Any idiot can throw a kunai after a few weeks of training. This? It’ll be months before senbon will be of any use to you, and you’ll have to study your ass off to even know where to hit for it to actually be effective.”

Great. More studying. Ugh.

She can’t even complain because she signed up for it.

 “I think that’s enough for how to hold senbon. Let’s start on throwing.”

Riko blinks. Throwing, already? She can’t even hold the weapons right and now she’s supposed to lob them at the targets scattered across the training ground?

Genma is apparently a mindreader, because he continues, “There’s no right way to hold them. You have small hands, so you can’t grip senbon like I do. You have to figure the details out yourself, and the best way is by using them. You’re never going to hold them for long anyway. If you have them in your hands, you throw them before your opponent can register it. Otherwise your chances of hitting anything effectively lower significantly.”

 “Huh.” Riko tilts her head. “Makes sense.”

 “The trick to throwing them is giving them a little push with your chakra,” Genma begins his explanation. “Air resistance is a bitch, and they’re not going to get far if you don’t add a little boost. Even then, they’re only effective at short-range.”

 “How do I do it?”

A shrug. “You just do it.”

She crosses her arms and scowls. “But how?

That infernal grin again. “You’ll figure it out.”

 “You’re supposed to teach me.” She taps her foot in annoyance. “You promised!”

 “And I’m teaching you, aren’t I?” He chuckles at her. “I’m serious. Practice a bit, and it’ll happen on its own. Little things like that, your chakra will adapt for you. Like with speeding you up in combat.”

Right, Riko read about that sort of stuff. She still shoots Genma a deeply suspicious look. “Fine.”

 “Then let’s get to it.”

It’s an exercise in frustration. Few senbon even make contact with the target, and the very rare one that manages to stick can be attributed to luck. Genma, though, doesn’t seem to think so. “Let’s move onto the next exercise,” he suggests.

 “But I haven’t beaten this one yet,” she protests.

 “You’ve got the basics down, it’s fine,” he waves her off, then unseals a new target. This one is vaguely humanoid-shaped and has lines, circles, and dots painted all over it. “This target indicates the spots you need to hit for senbon to be more than annoying stings. Since you know the basic throwing technique now, you can practice that and your aim.”

She frowns. “Ugh, fine.”

Genma grins and ruffles her hair before leaping away to secure the target a fair distance away.

Distant enough that the lines and dots are too blurry for her to make out unless she squints really hard. Any aiming is going to be guesswork. Dammit, Genma isn’t making this easy at all. She doesn’t exactly mind much, but it’s frustrating.

He watches as she keeps missing. Sometimes she even loses track of her own senbon, especially as the shadows grow longer and the projectiles no longer glint in the sunlight. With the target now shaded, even when squinting she can’t see the lines on it, has to do it from memory.

Genma hums thoughtfully. “This may sound like an odd question, kid,” he interrupts just as she’s about to throw again. “But do you have trouble seeing the lines?”

Riko shoots him an incredulous look. That’s a joke, right? He placed the stupid thing so far away! Probably so she’d be forced to figure out the chakra thing, and also memorise the spots she needs to aim at, she figures. “It’s over ten metres away,” she tells him slowly. “Obviously I can’t see them.”

 “Mm,” he nods. “I thought so.”

She eyes him in annoyance. Why is he always so weird?

 “Well.” He crosses his arms. “What would you say if I told you I could see all the dots and lines perfectly clear?”

 “Are you having me on?” she demands, crossing her arms, forgetting she’s still holding senbon, and dropping them with a curse when she stings herself. Genma chuckles, and Riko glares up at him.

Stupid weird adult. If he even counts as one.

 “You, kid, need glasses,” he concludes with finality, moving towards the target. “Let’s pack up here, and then I’ll take you home.”

She stares at him incredulously. “Glasses. Me.”

 “Yep,” Genma confirms. “You’re obviously near-sighted.”

 “I can’t be a shinobi with glasses!” Riko sputters. “That’s so-”

Genma snorts. “Of course you can. You could even become a shinobi blind. It’s just an extra challenge, is all. You’re hardly the first one. I’ve no doubt you can do it. Especially since you’ve been near-sighted all this time and still managed to be good enough to skip ahead in school. I wouldn’t have even noticed if you hadn’t squinted so hard. You’re good, kid.”

She stares at him, her cheeks heating. “You- but I-”

 “You coming?” he asks, finished with sealing the stupid target away. “If we get a move on, I’ll score an invitation to stay for dinner.”

Riko instantly lobs a senbon in his direction. It sticks in his flak jacket.

 “Huh, look at that,” Genma comments. “Perfect aim.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko isn’t sure she’s buying all this “You need glasses” business until the moment the optician puts the frames on her face.

Her mouth drops open.

Oh, wow. She’s - she can see. Really see. She turns her head, and she can look out the window and identify the plants on the opposite house’s balcony. Can count the bricks, the cracks, can finally understand the shapes Shikamaru sees in clouds.

 “Riko?” Yoshino asks.

 “Hmm?” she hums absently, too busy trying to take in everything she never saw before. “Yes?”

The optician clears his throat, and Riko pulls herself together and pretends she was paying attention all along. “These glasses were made specifically to cater to a shinobi's needs,” he informs her. “They are very durable and the glass itself will crack, not shatter, if hit. It will also be resistant to scrapes, though I do not recommend testing this. The thick frames may seem rather unbecoming, but the material allows for them to withstand chakra-based attacks, though they may become deformed, especially if great heat is involved. If you’ll turn your attention to the nosepads, you’ll notice they cover a significantly larger part of your nose than regular glasses would, this is because you may want to use chakra on them to keep the glasses sticking in place. The material is designed to withstand that kind of prolonged stress.” The man pauses. “The cable temples were tailored to hook optimally behind your ears. Again, contact points for you to secure them with chakra are provided. Furthermore, you can attach a strap to ensure that even if they come off, they will still be on your body. As an extra feature, we provide these clip-on lenses for very bright surroundings.”

Riko blinks slowly.

She’s got the the best glasses ever. Who cares if they take up half her face? She can see!

 “On some missions, you may want to keep the glasses off,” the man tells her. “They indicate you possess the funds to afford them and access to medical expertise, which may endanger you on intelligence-gathering missions. I recommend you also train without your glasses.”

Considering she’s done that all her life (at least, the part she spent in Konoha), that shouldn’t be a problem.

 “Alternately to the glasses, we also provide goggles and monocles,” the optician finishes. “Do you have any questions?”

Riko shakes her head.

 “The maintenance,” Yoshino speaks up.

 “Ah, yes.” And he launches into a well-practiced spiel about keeping the glasses clean and not attempting to bend the frames into different shapes without attending lessons with him beforehand. She’s also not supposed to dip the glasses in acid, though why he even feels the need to tell her that, she has no idea. “Be mindful, in extremely cold temperatures, the frame’s material will become brittle and prone to breaking. I also recommend to keep back-up glasses in any case, and a monocle because preparation wins wars.”

Riko’s not planning on fighting any wars, but she nods anyway. “Thank you, Makoto-sensei. I’ll keep that in mind.”

 “You do that. That will be all. Nara-sama, the bill will be sent to your address.” Riko winces at the reminder that she’s costing her foster family a good deal of money. She better graduate soon and start paying them back.

 “Very well.” Yoshino nods, and steers Riko out of the shop.

Outside, Riko is soon distracted by all the sights she’d missed before. Konoha is like a whole new village now.

 “I suppose we will have to focus your training on chakra control, for the time being,” Yoshino muses. “Oh well, you can never be good enough in that area. And it’ll help your reserves, too.”

Riko nods dutifully.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

While the majority of Riko’s class either actively dislikes her or practices indifference, Tachibana Fumio has recently become the notable exception. He's made a habit of seeking her out to tell her how great she is, ever since she won a group spar. He sits next to her in classes and beams at her whenever she chooses to address him.

It’s sort of nice but also rather troublesome. He talks all the time. And she isn’t exactly looking to make friends - it still feels too much like replacing Hotaru.

(Naruto’s the exception, somehow slipping right through her resolve, but that's okay because they don't see each other that much, being in different classes.)

Fumio is smart and capable. Top five of the class, and working much harder than the others due to being from a civilian family. She figures he’ll make second place by the end of the year, since she will take first place and skip another grade so she can make it into Shikamaru and Naruto’s class and maybe, possibly, end up on a team with either of them.

She wasn’t looking to make a new friend, but Fumio is a good guy, and he’s never done anything to hurt her or make her angry. He’d stopped being friends with the guys who cracked her ribs by the time she came back, and had been looking a little lost and lonely. She’s been in that situation of not belonging, knows how much it sucks, and it costs her nothing to be friendly.

 “So, uh, do you want to get some cake after school, Riko-chan? I know this great little café that you’ll just love!” Fumio asks, looking rather nervous.

On the one hand, cake. On the other hand, she has a very tight schedule and today’s afternoon is reserved for more goddamn jutsu theory or potentially a training session with Genma, followed by taijutsu lessons with Yoshino before dinner. The evening would be spent playing and cuddling with Usagi-chan the rabbit.

 “Ha, who’d want to hang with that freak,” Kurama Akihiro scoffs. “She smells!”

Riko is about to say something ill-advised, but Fumio beats her to it. “No, you smell!”

 “What did you just say?!”

 “I said you smell!” Fumio jumps up. Riko watches incredulously as he shakes his fist like that old pumpkin vendor did at Naruto during the Great Pudding Bomb prank last March. “Riko-chan is cute and amazing and smart and she smells really good, you bas-”

It’s at this moment that Jun-sensei comes in and puts a stop to the impending brawl.

 “Okay,” she says later, when their teacher isn’t looking. “Cake sounds good.”

His smile lights up the entire classroom.

After school, they go to a little café owned by Fumio’s uncle. “My little sister loves the strawberry cakes here,” he chatters. “She’d eat them all the time if she could. They’re delicious! What’s your favourite kind of cake, Riko-chan?”

“Green tea.” She shrugs, and tries not to let on that she’s only ever eaten cake at the Akimichi place. Cake isn’t really a thing in the Nara household. Yoshino makes amazing cookies, however.

They enter the café. Riko instantly has Regrets. The air smells too sweet because there are scented candles and flowers everywhere. Soft music plays from old-fashioned speakers, dainty chairs are arranged around delicate tables, a shiny black piano sits in a corner.

Riko feels vaguely uncomfortable but can’t put her finger on the reason why. Mentally shrugging, she lets Fumio pull her to an empty table near the piano. “I practice here sometimes!” he tells her. “My dad builds pianos, you know? My older brother is learning it from him. I wanted to be a shinobi because that’s so much cooler!” He grins, revealing a gap in his front teeth. “I’ll keep playing piano though. I like it a lot!”

She smiles back. “That’s pretty cool. I don’t really play an instrument. Well, we tried out some in kunoichi classes, but it turns out I’m better at listening.”

“Nice! Which ones did you try out?”

They keep talking. It’s nice. Riko is glad she went for the cake in the end. Even if it turns out to be way too sweet for her liking. But cake is cake, and it’s free too, since Fumio is the nephew of the shop owner.

Who’d ever turn down free cake? Not her, that’s for sure.

Cake meetings become a regular thing that Riko looks forward to. It’s also nice having someone to sit next to in class and share notes with. Even if she still feels like she’s replacing Hotaru.

But it’s been enough time that the ache of her absence has dulled. A wound scabbed and scarred over.

It helps that he’s about as unlike Hotaru as it gets.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The day starts out normally until Shikamaru asks if she wants to come spend the day the Akimichi place with Chouji and possibly Yamanaka Ino, who visits pretty often at her father’s behest.

 “Sorry,” she says. “I’m meeting Fumio for cake?”

Normally she’d pick Shikamaru and Chouji over Fumio and too-sweet cake in a heartbeat, but they’d been trying to find a time that suited both their time tables for the entire week, and Sunday afternoon was the only thing that fit.

 “Oh right.” Shikamaru uncharacteristically scowls. “Your boyfriend.”

Riko blinks slowly.

 “My what?”

 “You heard me,” he answers.

She blinks again. Boyfriend. That’s something the girls in class tend to giggle about, usually while talking about Uchiha Sasuke. It has something to do with marriage. She’s not quite sure what exactly makes marriage so special though - as far as Riko knows, a husband/wife is just a friend whom she’d promise to be together with forever, no matter what. And she’d be allowed to call them hers and vice versa. Which does sound nice, but the ownership of people aspect does not appeal.

Also, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were married, and she really doesn’t want that kind of relationship with anyone. On the other hand, it seems really nice in Yoshino and Shikaku's case.

 “I’m pretty sure I'd know if he was my boyfriend?”

If the boyfriend thing was so important, then it would be something Fumio would talk to her about, right?

Shikamaru gives her a long stare. “You have absolutely no idea what’s going on, do you.”

Riko huffs. “I know you’re acting weird. What’s the big deal about boyfriends anyway?”

 “You’re ten years old, you troublesome kid,” Shikamaru grumps. Like being ten months older than her makes him so much more adult! She glares at him.

 “What’s age got do do with anything?” she demands, throwing up her hands in exasperation.

Shikamaru stares at her with an infuriatingly deadpan expression. “You missed sex-ed classes when you skipped grades, didn’t you.”

Riko blinks slowly. “Missed what now?”

He face-palms before he turns on his heel and shouts, “Mom!”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Yoshino gives Riko The Talk.

Riko usually likes the woman’s blunt way of explaining things, but in this case it’s mildly horrifying. And by the time it’s over, it’s time for her cake appointment with Fumio.

Who, according to Shikamaru, has been bragging about having a girlfriend named Riko. Considering she now knows what that’s supposed to lead to…

What’s she going to do?! She can’t even bring herself to look any male in the face after that info dump!

Cake. Think about cake.

“Hi, Riko-chan!” Fumio’s excited voice greets her.

“Hi!” she squeaks, voice at least two octaves higher than usual.

“Everything all right?” he laughs. His laughter is all bright and friendly, just like his brown eyes. Fumio isn’t outstandingly pretty, with his brown hair and eyes he won’t stand out in a crowd, especially not in Konoha. She likes that about him, just like she likes his laugh.

But he’s not her boyfriend and she doesn’t want to get married!

She’s known him for less than three months! And she's ten!

Riko stares at Fumio’s guileless grin and oh God she can’t do this. “I’m fine!” she answers shrilly and looks for an opportunity to escape, but Fumio’s already taken her hand and now pulls her to their café.

He likes to hold her hand. She likes to hold his. It’s nice, and it never seemed weird before. Naruto and her hold hands all the time.

But now it is weird.

Oh God, is Naruto her boyfriend, too? Riko isn’t a crier, hasn’t shed a tear since she realised she’d only be yelled at for that sort of thing, but in this moment her eyes sting.

Friends. She thought they were friends and now she’s realising that she might have been wrong about that, because boyfriend and friend are a different pair of shoes and the realisation hurts.

Fumio chatters on throughout the date, either not noticing her inner meltdown or trying to reassure her by ignoring it. Riko honestly doesn’t know and she’s not going to figure it out anytime soon with her mind spinning the way it is.

She feels like she’s choking on her sticky sweet cake. The flickering lights stress her out.

“You’re not eating, Riko-chan,” Fumio points out. “Are you-”

Startled, Riko stabs her fork into her cake.

The pastry explodes with a deafening bang just as the lights blow out. She’s not the only one to scream. Chaos breaks out in the café, people panicking. Someone - a shinobi from the looks of it - shouts, “Everyone outside!” and Fumio and Riko waste no time slipping out before the doors get crowded.

“That was crazy!” Fumio yells over the noise, eyes wide. Riko nods wildly, heart beating quickly. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she chokes out. “I’m fine.”

Her hands are shaking. Unbidden, her mind flashes back to her last night at Privet Drive. The lights had flickered then, too.

Was that magic?

She can’t shake the suspicion that this incident was all her fault.

Fumio is still eyeing her with worry. He’s also holding her hand again. Where before it felt nice, now it’s just uncomfortable. “Are you really okay?” he asks. “I mean, you probably are, you’re so cool and smart and everything, and it’s not like was scared, so you definitely wouldn’t be! I’m just asking ‘cause you look a little pale, haha. Probably my imagination.” He laughs weakly.

Now that she’s looking, he’s looking a little pale himself. God, what’s she doing, only thinking about herself? “I guess I freaked out a little,” she admits awkwardly. “Been a weird day…”

“But it’s okay now!” Fumio lightens up. “Because everything seems to be fine and we’re together.” He squeezes her hand and moves closer.

Riko blinks, realising a moment too late what’s happening.

His lips meet her cheek. “I’m really happy we’re together,” Fumio says softly.

A strangled noise escapes her.

Yeah. No. No no no.

“I gotta go,” she chokes out.

“Huh?”

Already retreating backwards, hand snatched from his, Riko mumbles, “Left a deer in the kitchen”, turns around and runs.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Fumio chases her. Riko can sense his chakra closing in on her. More importantly, she can hear him shouting her name.

Using the rooftops is generally advised against unless one is a shinobi on a mission. Alas, desperate times call for desperate measures, and this is an emergency. So she takes to the rooftops. Just a few blocks should be fine.

Fumio isn’t one of the best in class for nothing though. He’s the best in tracking, too. Though to be fair, their class doesn’t have any Inuzukas.

He’s still following her. It’s starting to freak her out.

She launches herself off the roof into a thicket of bushes. Riko knows how to hide her chakra - a skill developed alongside her sensing abilities. She’d always been stealthy enough, known better than to draw attention to herself. Quietly, she sneaks through the greenery and squeezes through an unkempt hedge until she ends up in a light-swept garden that looks more like a meadow. There’s even a pond, surrounded by weeping willows.

In the middle of the garden sits a large house that has a rather traditional look to it. A little bit like the Nara house, but bigger and far less inviting.

Yeah, this is private property and she should leave. She thought she was hiding in a park, but nope, it’s someone’s garden and she just intruded. And are those targets and posts for shinobi training?

Oh boy, she’ll be in so much trouble if she accidentally broke into a shinobi home. Riko nods to herself. Time to leave-

“Riko-chan?” Fumio yells from a distance. She cringes and looks around for the best escape route.

Her eyes catch on Uchiha Sasuke, standing right there in between the targets with a pissed look on his face and a kunai in his hand.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, slowly retreating. “I was just running away, well not really running away, more like, uh, hurriedly avoiding this guy who’s my boyfriend but I didn’t know about that, I thought we were just friends who, okay, ate cake together regularly and held hands and maybe I should have noticed but in my defence, I skipped the relevant Academy classes and anyway, I didn’t mean to break into your property, I thought I was hiding in a park and-”

“Riko-chan?”

“Crap!” she yelps, because Fumio’s voice is way too close now which means he also intruded on private ground in pursuit of her and the entire situation will turn into more chaos once he sees her with Sasuke. Fumio gets weird when she talks to or about other boys.

Well. This is already mortifying enough, she might as well be pathetic all the way. She shoots Sasuke a pleading look. “Can you just please tell him I ran past you? I swear I’ll never bother you again.”

Riko can hear Fumio crashing through the underbrush now. She wastes no time scrambling up a tree and hiding in the foliage.

“Riko-chan?!” she hears him shout. Then, “Oh. Uh. Uchiha. Hi.”

She peers down and shudders at the level of anger Uchiha Sasuke radiates despite being completely expressionless.

Fumio bravely asks, “Have you seen a girl with red hair? I tracked her, I think something’s wrong with her and I’m worried…”

The silence is stifling. Fumio looks like he’s contemplating running away while also not subtly casting searching looks around.

“That way,” Sasuke snaps, jerking a finger in a random direction.

“Thanks, Uchiha!” Fumio yells and takes off again.

Riko waits a minute before she climbs down from her tree, tracking Fumio’s chakra until he leaves her admittedly short range. “He’s gone,” she mutters and aims a smile at Sasuke. “Thank you.

He stares at her stoically, looking all kinds of unimpressed and angry. Riko shivers. “Yeah, I’ll just go. Sorry again!”

She turns on her heel and runs.

Chapter Text

Riko makes it into Shikamaru’s class less than a year before it’s set to graduate. Her last teacher advises against skipping another grade for that reason - it’ll take her months to catch up to her new peers and by then graduation will be imminent.

She takes the option anyway. One, because sensei told her she wouldn’t make it, which annoys her. Two, Naruto and Shikamaru. Three, Fumio.

 If anyone suggested she was avoiding Fumio, Riko would vehemently deny it and she would be lying.

Being around him is just so awkward now! Yeah, after a week of avoiding him after the cake fiasco, they’d had a talk (because Shikamaru tricked her into it, the scheming monkey) and it was every bit as awful as she feared even though they said they’d continue being friends, so now she’s dodging him to the point of moving up another grade.

She kisses her free time goodbye once more.

Riko walks into class feeling as if she’s being released from prison but only to face the gallows. Being the new one in class never got easier, despite it happening rather frequently.

This new class is significantly more… lively than the last one. Two boys brawl in the background. About a dozen girls surround Uchiha Sasuke’s desk, and two of them are one hair-pull away from a full-on catfight by the looks of it.

This kind of chaos never happened in her old class. Riko isn’t quite sure what to think of it, but all that noise is a little overwhelming. 

On the bright side, nobody’s noticed her yet. She slinks past the gaggle of squealing girls and pretends not to notice Sasuke’s glower as he recognises her from the incident.

Now where is - ah. There.

“I’m gonna pass next time for sure, Sakura-chan! Believe it!” Naruto insists to a girl with pink hair. She’s evidently one of Sasuke’s admirers and may or may not have elbowed a girl out of her way, Riko isn’t sure. “Ricchan said I could do it!”

The girl whirls on him, clearly incensed. “Oh, shut up about your imaginary friend, you’re not fooling anybody! Everybody knows you don’t have any friends, dead last!”

Riko’s jaw drops because holy moly. Yeah, she’s witnessed bullying before, but she’s never seen someone be so incredibly blatant and unapologetically mean about it.

“Excuse me,” she says tightly. “Who did you just call imaginary?”

Naruto startles and turns around. His face lights up in happiness. “Ricchan!” Riko braces herself just a moment before she has an armful of Naruto.

God, she loves his hugs so much.

“Hi, Ruto,” she mumbles into his shoulder.

He lets go of her and grins. There’s a gap where one of his front teeth is missing. He didn’t want to tell her how he lost it. “What’re you doing here? Come to visit and see how awesome I am?”

“Nah, I-”

“You exist?!” It’s the pink-haired girl, Sakura. Naruto gushed about her before, the ‘smartest and prettiest girl in the world’. Riko eyes her critically. She doesn’t look so pretty, and she certainly doesn’t seem very smart.

“I’d like to think so,” Riko answers tartly, eyes narrow. Sakura’s mouth opens and closes in triple succession, not unlike a fish’s. “Naruto’s my best friend.”

Naruto beams at Riko. “You’re my best friend, too!”

“But- but!” Sakura protests. “No one wants to be friends with Naruto!” She makes a disgusted face, as if the very idea of it is repulsive. “He’s stupid, rude, and a liar!”

Riko narrows her eyes. “I want to be friends with Naruto, so that makes you the liar.”

The girl glares at her. “What’s your problem?” she shouts. They’re drawing looks, but Riko is too angry to care.

“I don’t know, the fact that you decided I don’t exist? Or are bullying my friend? Ring a bell?” Riko retorts and glares back. She has a fantastic glare thanks to her piercing green eyes. Sakura has green eyes, too, but they’re a soft moss green. She has a pretty significant height advantage, though.

The girl scoffs. “I guess if you’re friends with Naruto-baka, that makes you a loser too. Four-eyes!”

“If not being one means not being friends with him,” Riko snaps. “Then yeah. I guess I am.”

The classroom is silent, everybody staring at the two of them attempting to murder each other via eye contact. They remain in their standoff until the teacher arrives, at which point everybody finds their seats. Riko would have liked to sit next to Shikamaru, but he has Chouji next to him and since there are three seats to a desk, she wouldn’t be able to sit with Naruto.

Iruka-sensei has Fumio in tow. The other boy is all but bouncing with excitement and shoots her a beaming grin. Riko resists the urge to slam her head into the nearest solid surface.

Just great. Fumio skipped a grade to follow her. As if her life weren’t stressful enough.

At least it can’t get that much worse.

“As you have no doubt noticed, we’re welcoming two new students in class today. Fumio and Riko have both moved up a grade. Since graduation isn’t far away, I want two of you to tutor them - you’ll get extra credit, of course. Any volunteers?”

Naruto jumps up and shouts, “I’ll do it, Iruka-sensei!”

“Naruto, your grades aren’t good enough,” Iruka shuts him down mercilessly. “You don’t even show for class regularly.”

Snickers sound throughout the class.

“I can do it,” Shikamaru yawns, raising a hand lazily. Several jaws drop at the sight of Shikamaru actually volunteering for something.

“Look at that, she’s got all the losers wrapped around her finger,” comes a not so-subtle-whisper from Sakura. Riko glares at her. First she insulted Naruto, now Shikamaru? Not. Cool.

“Thank you, Shikamaru,” Iruka says. “Unfortunately, your grades aren’t quite up to par either.” He sighs. “Anyone else? No? Okay, then I’m assigning the tutors. Sakura, you’ll tutor Fumio. Sasuke, you’ll help Riko catch up.”

A second of horrified silence, then all hell breaks loose. Seemingly every girl in the class (plus Naruto) jumps up and cries out in protest. Several shout that they want to tutor Riko after all. She just stares in mute horror.

Sasuke turns and gives her the most terrifying glare she’s ever seen.

“I’m so sorry,” she mouths at him. It does nothing to pacify him.

“Enough!” Iruka shouts. Is his head supposed to be that big? The entire class quails. “You didn’t volunteer earlier, so that’s how it is now. Sakura and Sasuke, come see me after class.”

He starts the lesson then. Riko shoots Naruto a wide-eyed look. “Your class is crazy,” she whispers. “What the heck was that?”

Naruto shrugs sullenly. “Sasuke-teme is a bastard. He isn’t even that great! Hey, you’re not allowed to go crazy over him, Ricchan!” 

“I can go crazy if I want,” Riko answers tartly.

“Yeah, okay, but you can’t stop being friends with me!”

“Why would I want to stop being friends?” She eyes him incredulously.

“Promise, Ricchan!”

“Only if you promise, too.”

“Okay!” They shake on it. Riko is utterly confused but happy. Friends forever. No take-backs. That’s pretty great, right?

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Being the new kid has never been this stressful before. Riko makes a break for it the moment lunch break starts, Naruto loyally following along, Shikamaru and Chouji finding them a few minutes later.

“So that was a thing,” Shikamaru yawns, sinking down and closing his eyes. Riko makes an unintelligible noise around her rice ball, simultaneously rooting around for the storage seal containing her textbook.

There’s no time to waste! The better she does, the less time she’ll have to spend with Sasuke, which means there’s less risk of him murdering her.

“But it sucks that you have to spend time with Sasuke!” Naruto complains.

Riko swallows the last of her lunch. “Is he really that awful?”

“Yes!” Naruto shouts, at the same time as Shikamaru makes an inconclusive noise.

“He’s okay,” Chouji says loyally, but he looks a little worried.

“Who’s okay?” A boy swings into the little nook they all found themselves in. Riko’s eyes zero in on his head because. Tiny dog. “You talking ‘bout me?”

“No, ‘cause you’re stupid, Kiba!” Naruto shouts.

“Shut up, Naruto!” The newly named Kiba turns to Riko and gives her a grin. “Riko, right? I’m Kiba and this is Akamaru.” The dog barks.

“Nice to meet you, Kiba and Akamaru,” she answers. “We were talking about Sasuke.” She holds up her textbook. “I’ll study and hopefully he won’t murder me brutally.”

Kiba barks out a laugh and sits down, ignoring Naruto’s grumbles about it. “A girl who doesn’t like him, that’s a new one. Need help?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like him,” she protests. “I just don’t… uh. I don’t even know him! I guess I don’t dislike him? He doesn’t seem too terrible.”

He did save her from Fumio that one time. 

“He looked like he wanted to kill you,” Shikamaru points out.

“So did Sakura.” Riko shrugs. “Nothing special.”

Shikamaru gives her a look. “It’s not something you should get used to, you troublesome girl.”

“Eh.” She makes a vague hand gesture. “No use worrying about it.”

Kiba’s eyes dart between him and her. His nose twitches as he sniffs the air. “You’re… close?”

“She’s my sister.” Shikamaru leans back against the wall. Riko’s breath hitches.

Sister.

She would kill for Shikamaru.

“Yoshino-san and I are distantly related. I’ve been staying with Shika’s family since I was six,” Riko explains, sounding far more calm than she feels. The lie has been told often enough that if flows off her tongue smoothly.

“Huh, that’s cool.” Kiba drops to the ground in a sprawl, Akamaru hopping off his head and shuffling over to Riko, who is delighted at this turn of events. She holds out her hand for him to sniff.

“Hi, I’m Riko,” she tells the little dog, because she knows enough about ninken to be aware that treating one as less than a person is all kinds of unwise and likely to piss off the human partner. Nevermind the ninken.

Akamaru yips and bumps his head against her hand, clearly demanding scratches. Isn’t that cat-behaviour? Riko mentally shrugs and obliges with a delighted laugh.

“Opportunist,” Kiba tells his dog.

“What, you want scratches, too?” Riko asks curiously, wondering exactly how far the dog characteristics of Inuzuka clan members go.

Kiba looks up at her through his lashes. “You offering?”

“Uh, I-” she begins when Shikamaru interrupts,

“He’s flirting, moron. You’re also flirting.”

Riko freezes. Akamaru whines in protest, and she automatically resumes petting him. “Oh dang,” she says lamely. 

“What the hell, man?” Kiba whines to Shikamaru.

“What the hell, Kiba!” Naruto shouts and launches himself at Kiba. They roll out into the courtyard. Akamaru gives a small bark, licks Riko’s hand, and then bounds after the two brawling boys.

Riko stares after them. “I don’t get it.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

“You. Follow.” Uchiha Sasuke glares down at Riko, who tries her best not to quail in a visible way. 

She’s usually fine if people glare at her, the majority of the female students in the Academy have been glaring at her all day and all it did was make her somewhat grumpy. But Sasuke looks so much like Hotaru. It throws her off-balance. Added to that is the remembered humiliation of having begged him for help in a very embarrassing situation.

Riko kind of wishes Naruto were here, but he’d yelled something about there being an event at Ichiraku’s and skipped the last hour of school to be there.

If he were here, there would be a brawl and chaos and even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t be able to trot after Sasuke like a prisoner about to face execution. 

“Where are we going?” she asks.

He gives her a look for thinking he’d be stupid enough to give her an answer out loud when there’s like a dozen girls trying to shadow them without getting noticed. Riko feels a stab of annoyance, rolls her eyes and gives a look of her own.

He could always lie. That would get rid of at least some of them.

She makes a mental note to touch up on her illusions. They would certainly be useful in situations like this. But training with Yoshino has been all about ninjutsu lately while Genma’s been drilling her in the use of senbon and mentioned something about getting started on immunising her against at least two kinds of poisons before graduation. So the only thing she can do with illusions so far is break them.

Riko can do a really good clone though, so the next time they turn around a corner she flicks through the necessary seals and a perfect if immaterial copy seamlessly takes her place and walks down another street.

Sasuke glares at her, presumably for thinking of something he didn’t, and copies the manoeuvre. 

They end up at his house. Riko has the strong suspicion that she’s the only girl in the village who knows where he lives because there’s a distinct lack of fangirl siege surrounding the high hedges around it. 

Less witnesses when he murders her, she figures.

“You know, you don’t have to do this,” she tries when he unlocks his door. He turns and glares at her, but she continues bravely, “It’s not the first time I’ve skipped a grade. I’ll catch up on my own time, no problem.”

“Shut up,” he snaps, opens the door, and enters.

The door remains open.

“Well then,” she mutters. “Let it be known I was last seen in his company by about a dozen girls who will all cover for him if I mysteriously disappear.”

She comforts herself with the knowledge that with that number of people covering up her demise, there’s bound to be conflicting stories. Those girls didn’t seem to have much in the way of common sense, and seemed to get more stupid the more of them shared breathing space.

Riko still has a senbon ready in her sleeve when she finally follows Sasuke into the house.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Sasuke is a terrible teacher. Absolutely awful. Horrendous. It’s kind of incredible, really. Riko is a little bit in awe of how he just utterly fails at explaining things.

Even more impressive, he is completely oblivious to his own shortcomings. 

Naturally, when he realises the tutoring session isn’t going to plan, he instantly blames her.

Two hours in, they’ve silently come to the agreement that Sasuke will just write Riko a study schedule, supply her with the necessary books, and look over her homework assignments. All of it can be done without talking. It can even be done with a minimum of glaring, not that he seems to understand that.

On the upside, he reminds Riko less of Hotaru with every passing moment. 

 “That’s enough studying,” Sasuke finally decides, done with his own homework. Riko eyes him dubiously but nods. She’ll continue her studies at home.  “Come on.”

He leads her outside to the small training space where he falls into a fighting stance.

 “Rules?” Riko asks.

 “No weapons.” He gives her a derisive look. Not that they’d help you, his eyes seem to say. You’ll lose.

She refrains from bristling. According to Yoshino, kunoichi are above such displays. Make them eat their words through skill, she advised.

Riko does have the skill. Her abilities in combat are the main reason she keeps getting bumped up in the Academy.

Sasuke attacks first. He’s fast, almost too fast for her eyes to follow. The only warning Riko has is the look in his eyes just before he charges.

But she’s fast, too. She has to be, at age ten her physical strength is low, and she only weighs sixty pounds soaking wet. Taijutsu-wise, she’ll never be a heavy hitter, but she makes up for it in speed and evasion. 

Again and again, she weaves around Sasuke’s attacks. Small and slippery, she ducks and dances, darting in with quick attacks and jumping away when he blocks and counterattacks. He’s good, leagues better than anybody else her age that she’s fought before. Her one advantage is that he telegraphs his attacks - it’s the look in his eyes, the way he draws back to gather momentum.

It’s lucky he doesn’t attack her glasses, to say the least, but then she loses them anyway to a hit that gets a little too close, but she keeps on going. Pushes her chakra sense to the limit, and every time he launches another assault, she knows just a tiny moment in advance because his chakra jumps.

The two of them whirl around each other faster and faster, an intricate dance of punches and kicks, blocks and counters. Bruises bloom on her body, but he’s accumulating his fair share, too. Her arms start to ache, her breath beginning to come short. Sweat lines Sasuke’s brow, and blood drops from the split lip she gave him at the cost of a twisted arm.

It feels good. Fighting like this. Neither of them are holding back, not anymore. It’s magnificent.

Finally, Sasuke sweeps his leg behind Riko’s. She grabs him as she falls, and they both tumble to the ground. Him sitting on her chest, a hand at her throat. Both of them breathing hard. His eyes are wide, stunned. Riko’s are the same.

It’s over?

It’s actually over. 

Somehow, the spar - though that word feels inadequate - had felt like it would never end. Like it should never end. But now it has.

Sasuke stands up with jerky motions and walks away. Riko stays on the ground, still catching her breath. “See you tomorrow?” she croaks after him.

 “Hn,” he grunts, and she can’t tell if that’s a yes or not.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko hobbles back to the Nara compound. She pulled something in her leg during that spar. Serves her right, they hadn’t even stretched beforehand. Stupid. She kicks an empty juice can and immediately feels guilty for not picking it up and disposing of it properly.

 “Well someone’s grumpy,” a familiar voice drawls. Riko jumps to the side, but unfortunately Genma is a jounin with very good reflexes, and a moment later she finds herself picked up and tucked under his arm like a sack of potatoes. She attempts to stab a senbon in his leg. It doesn’t work. “You look like you got run over by a cart, punched in the face,  and then rolled in the dirt.”

Damn it. She was hoping the hit that grazed her wouldn’t turn into a black eye. Naruto is gonna blow his gasket. 

At least her glasses are intact, if bent out of shape.

 “Found a sparring partner,” she explains blandly. Genma begins to walk, carrying her dangling under his arm. “We may have overdone it, but it was awesome.”

She is so going to spar Sasuke again. 

Genma sighs. “You might want to look into medical jutsu if you’re planning a repeat.” He’s walking in the direction of the hospital now. 

The medics know her face by now. She’s there a lot. It’s not her fault! Training is just hard and her teachers are overprotective, and she’s a bit of a messy fighter. As in, she ends up messed up despite doing everything mostly by the book.

Also, fuinjutsu is a little hazardous even at beginner’s level.

And then there’s the chakra exhaustion, which Riko finds herself suffering from at least once a week.

…learning medical ninjutsu is probably a good call. 

Actually, it’s a really good idea because her chakra reserves are tiny. Not quite as pathetic as they used to be, with the constant exercise they had to increase, but it’s becoming apparent that Riko’s going to have to pick a specialisation that doesn’t bring with it a need for high-cost techniques and keeps her from high-level frontline combat.

Medical ninjutsu seems perfect, honestly. And now that she’s thinking about it, she really likes the thought of healing people.

Genma hands her over to the faintly exasperated medic that Riko is pretty sure was assigned to her. Nara Shiori has those huge brown eyes that always look utterly disappointed when Riko comes in with a new injury. It makes her feel ten inches tall. “Sorry,” she mumbles.

 “I’m sure you are,” Shiori-sensei says mildly. In her thirties, her hair is already lined with white strands. “Stay off that leg. I’ll notify your family and the Academy to keep you out of taijutsu classes. Your black eye should fade in a few days.”

Damn it.

 “I’ll have your mother bring you by for a checkup on the week-end.” Shiori-sensei gives Riko a stern look. “Now, tell me what you are going to do in order to get healthy.”

“Stay off my leg,” Riko responds dutifully, and then continues, “Take it easy, don’t jump around, don’t study fuinjutsu unsupervised, don’t climb trees, eat my greens, drink the yucky shakes.”

Shiori-sensei nods, satisfied. An expectant look at Genma has him promising to keep an eye on her.

 “Hey, Shiori-sensei,” Riko speaks up. “Where should I start with learning medical ninjutsu?”

The medic’s eyes light up. “Oh, wonderful!” she exclaims. “Did you know, Riko-chan, that medical ninjas aren’t allowed to get hurt because they need to be able to heal their comrades?”

 “No,” Riko answers. “I didn’t know that! Medical ninjas are pretty amazing, huh?”

 “They are.” Shiori-sensei gives her a warm smile. “I’ll make arrangements for you.”

 “Thanks!” Riko beams at her. “Healing seems like a neat thing to know, as a ninja.”

Shiori-sensei smiles back.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Because he insists on being helpful in the most annoying way possible, Genma carries Riko home. “Shiori said to stay off that leg,” he insists cheerfully when Riko glares at him. “It definitely doesn’t have anything to do with the prospect of Yoshino inviting me in for dinner.”

She sticks out her tongue at him.

Entirely by his design, they arrive at the Nara house just in time for dinner. Shikamaru is lying on the porch with Usagi-chan the rabbit napping on his chest. Next to him sit Ino and Chouji. 

 “Good evening!” Genma greets cheerfully. “I come in peace bearing a gift!” He holds Riko out in front of him.

 “Hi,” she says dryly. 

 “Still alive, I see,” Shikamaru drawls. “Nice black eye.”

 “I gave him a split lip,” Riko reveals triumphantly. “You can put me down now, Genma.”

Genma obliges. The moment he does, Ino darts forward and grabs Riko’s hands. “Riko-chan! Let’s have a girl talk!” She pulls Riko with her into the house, up the stairs, and into her room. How Ino knows where Riko sleeps is a mystery and should probably remain so. 

Somehow, they end up holding hands on Riko’s couch. “Tell me everything!” Ino commands with eager eyes.

Riko blinks owlishly. “About what?”

 “About Sasuke-kun!” Ino leans forward, eyes gleaming. “Come on, what was it like? What did you talk about? Oh, did he mention me at all?”

 “Erm,” Riko says. “No? He didn’t mention you. And we didn’t really talk. Just studied, and then had a spar-”

Ino gasps. “A spar!”

 “Yeah, and now I have a fracture in my leg and a black eye.”

 “I’ll show you how to cover that up,” Ino waves her off. “Come on, give me all the details! What was he wearing?”

 “Same stuff as he did in school? Why would he change?” Riko leans away from Ino. The look in her eyes is freaking her out a bit. 

Ino continues interrogating her. One day, Ino is going to take over the I part of T&I. Maybe even the T, who knows. Now the handholding makes sense - Ino has her fingers on Riko’s pulse so she’ll be able to tell if she lies.

 “Last question,” she announces. “You aren’t interested in Sasuke-kun, are you?”

 “Interested?” Riko blinks in confusion. “I mean sure, he’s interesting I guess? He’s not not interesting. He’s not boring?”

Ino giggles. “Oh, you’re so cute. I keep forgetting that you’re a kid!”

 “You’re only a year older than me!” Riko protests. 

 “Uh-huh.” Ino snickers. “I mean, you don’t like like Sasuke-kun, right?”

Oh. Ino wants to know if Riko wants to be Sasuke’s girlfriend. “No!” she exclaims, horrified. She doesn’t want to be anybody’s girlfriend. The whole thing with Fumio was awful. She’ll take friends over boyfriends any day.

 “Good!” Ino grins and hugs her. “Then we can be friends!”

It’s not like it is with Naruto’s hugs. Ino is softer and smells like flowers. Her hold isn’t as tight either. It’s different, but it feels just as nice.

 “Okay,” Riko nods. “Friends sounds nice. What does that have to do with Sasuke though?”

Ino pulls back and for a moment, a shadow runs over her face, her eyes pained. Then the look is gone. “I’ve lost friends over him before.” She shrugs and laughs. “Not taking the risk again.”

Riko wants to ask more, wants to hug Ino again because that’s awful, losing a friend, but just then Yoshino calls them for dinner and the moment is lost.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Because Riko has to stay off her leg, taijutsu training is on hold. Instead, she gets to go home from school earlier. 

Just because taijutsu is out doesn’t mean Yoshino won’t train her, though. Her foster mother holds out a piece of paper towards her. “Channel chakra into it,” she orders.

The paper ends up drenched in water. And sparkling, for some reason. “That’s odd,” Yoshino mutters. “Well, at least we know your nature now.”

 “Water, huh?” Riko looks down at the paper with some surprise and a little disappointment. She’d expected wind. Or even fire, that could have been fun. Water is… well. It’s just water.

 “Just like me,” Yoshino confirms, a pleased smile on her face. Riko looks up in surprise. Yoshino is the strongest woman she knows. Water suddenly sounds a lot better.

What follows, however, is utterly boring. And annoying. Sitting under a waterfall for hours while trying to make her chakra mirror the water’s movement is not her idea of fun. Why couldn’t it have been fire? She’d get to sit in the sun then.

After several hours, she all but crawls back home, looking and feeling like a drowned kitten. Shikamaru and Shikaku are sitting on the porch, playing shogi. Both look amused at her appearance.

 “Water nature?” Shikaku asks, obnoxiously mirthful.

Riko tackles him. Shikaku laughs and catches her and wow. First Ino and now Shikaku, Riko’s getting all the hugs and she likes it. There’s something about Shikaku’s arms around her that makes her feel small and precious.

Water really isn’t so bad after all.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Life takes a bit to settle into a new routine, but eventually it does. There’s of course the Academy. Tutoring sessions with Sasuke with spars once a week. Medical training. Learning water-natured ninjutsu. Training with Genma. 

And, of course, studying in every bit of free time Riko can manage. At least now that they’re in the same class, she gets to spend a lot more time with Naruto. And since becoming friends with Ino, the girls in class have left her alone, only shooting her looks full of loathing when Ino isn’t looking.

It’s nice, having a friend who is a girl. There are so many things Ino knows. She’s witty and cool. Kunoichi classes are a lot more fun with her around.

And it’s not just Ino - the number of friends Riko has keeps rising. Kiba, Shino, Hinata…

School is suddenly something she looks forward to.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

 “Welcome back to your last term at the Academy,” Iruka welcomes the class, which slowly settles down.

Naruto, bouncing up and down on his seat, punches the air. “Yatta!” he shouts.

 “Troublesome,” Shikamaru.

 “No, just trouble,” Riko giggles. It’s true. Not a week passes that Naruto doesn’t get chased around by a mob of angry villagers for some prank he pulled. He never gets caught, however. Unless ninjas are involved, but Naruto rarely pranks those.

It’s good to see him in high spirits. He’d been pretty down the last week, having failed the graduation exam for the second time. No matter how hard he tries, the bunshin no jutsu gives him trouble.

Third time’s the charm. Naruto can do it, Riko has no doubt about that. And then they’ll be on a team together and go on adventures. It’s gonna be awesome.

She’s been training hard and studying even harder. She’ll be a good shinobi, she’s sure of it.

All her hard work is once again paying off. Riko’s climbed up the ranks, right now just a step above Ino’s, but she’s sure she can get close to Sakura’s level, too. The graduation exam would influence the final rankings quite strongly, and from what she’s heard from Naruto, they’re heavily focused on the practical skills. Sakura’s rank is built on theory.

Riko really wants to beat that girl, both metaphorically and literally. Sakura hasn’t gotten any more bearable. Loud, rude, arrogant. But blushing and sweet the moment Sasuke comes near. To be fair, that is a thing almost all the girls in class do.

(She doesn’t get it. Sure, Sasuke’s pretty okay when it’s just the two of them and they get to beat each other up, and he’s very nice to look at. But why nearly every girl - and even a whole lot of grown women, what the heck, creepy - become idiots around him remains a mystery.)

At the front, Iruka continues his lecture. It’s boring. He’s an interesting teacher, but ninjutsu theory is boring even when one hasn’t studied it before. Which Riko has. 

…would anybody notice if she replaced herself with a water clone?

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

 “Someone’s motivated,” Genma comments from behind where Riko keeps hitting a training post.

Her knuckles hurt, and if they weren’t bandaged for protection, she would have started bleeding a long time ago.

 “I’m not good enough!” she growls, and launches into a spinning kick. The training post barely trembles. In training today, Sakura shattered one.

Her foot hurts. Tomorrow she’ll have a bruise from landing that kick.

 “Okay.” Genma picks her up and carries her away from the training post. “Let’s talk about this.” 

He sets her down on a fallen tree. Riko crosses her arms and glares at him defiantly. “What about training?”

 “Talk first.” He sits down next to her.

She looks away.

 “Why do you think you’re not good enough?” Genma presses. “Someone say something to you? Because they’re wrong.”

Riko sniffles and hates herself when tears start to fall. “I really wanted to be a medic, okay?”

 “Yeah,” Genma says cautiously. “You were pretty excited about it. Classes not going well?”

 “Classes are fine,” she snaps, and hiccups. “Were fine. They kicked me out!”

He stiffens, features smoothing out and eyes hardening. “They what now,” he asks flatly.

Wiping her sleeve over her wet eyes furiously, she chokes out haltingly, “I didn’t do anything w-wrong! They just - they have these test seals for chakra control, you know? Channel in specific amounts or increase chakra input at a steady rate, and they light up, and if you can do that, you’re qualified to begin supervised treatment on human patients. And my control is good, I did it, but then they were suddenly saying the readings were off, did a ton of tests which ended inconclusive, and then they t-told me I can’t be a medic because my chakra is weird and they’re can’t spend resources on my medical training if I won’t be able to work at the hospital anyway! ‘Cause they’re worried my chakra might be harmful, but it’s not! Every animal I’ve ever healed was fine! This isn’t fair!”

She’s sobbing in earnest now, and she hates that she can’t stop the tears, which makes them come even stronger.

 “A-and my reserves are tiny so I c-can’t do a lot of ninjutsu, and my body’s constitution is weak s-so taijutsu mastery is out, too, and I’m not a genjutsu type either! I’m not good for a-anything!”

Genma puts an arm around her shoulder and tucks her against his side. Riko clings to him, tears leaking into his flak jacket. More than sad, she’s angry. Impotent rage roiling in her chest, and she hates feeling like this. So helpless. Ikeda-sensei just relayed the information, demanded her access badges, and then she was escorted out. Nothing she could have done, and she’s wasted so much time and energy on a specialisation that’s now locked to her.

He takes a while to say anything, taking deep, controlled breaths for a minute.

 “That’s not true,” he answers eventually. “So what if you have limitations? You’re still good at a lot of things. Your chakra control is good enough to use the Mystical Palm technique, and I’ve seen you heal your scratches and bruises, which is more than what most shinobi manage. I can’t even do it.”

 “It’s not enough!”

 “You’re eleven,” Genma snorts. “You haven’t even graduated yet. And for the record? You’re getting really good with that sword of yours, and I know your chakra sense is going to be in high demand one day. Konoha doesn’t have many sensors. There are a ton of things you can do.”

She sniffles. “But I really wanted to be a medic.”

 “I know.”

 “It was like I got a purpose. Felt g-good. Like I found my place.”

  “Sorry,” he says. “Life’s like that sometimes. Kicks you right in the balls. And you know what? You can still heal, you know how to do it. Someday, you’ll save someone’s life with that.”

For a while they sit in silence. Finally, Riko leans away and gets to her feet. Takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Training,” she declares with a forced grin.

 “You got it, kid.” Genma ruffles her hair. She catches his hand.

 “Thanks,” she says quietly.

 “You’re welcome.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The day starts out normal enough. Riko sits in the classroom between Shino and Kiba, dozing with her head resting on her arms. She’s exhausted. Ninjutsu training has left her depleted of chakra, and she studied until after midnight.

Naruto hasn’t arrived yet, and neither has Iruka. If there is a connection between their absences, it will be troublesome-

There they come. Naruto’s chakra is loud, she knows where he is the moment he enters Academy grounds, and it almost drowns out Iruka’s steady and subtle signature. It doesn’t take long for Iruka to burst through the door of the classroom, dragging a tied-up Naruto behind him and setting him down at the front for everyone to see. Riko winces at the expression of wrath on his face. “Tomorrow is the graduation exam!” he shouts at her friend. “This is no time to be causing trouble, you idiot! You’ve already failed the exam twice!”

Ouch. Harsh.

Wait a minute.

 “The graduation exam is tomorrow?” Riko squeaks. Half the class turns to stare at her incredulously. The rest are too busy witnessing the ongoing lecture from hell Iruka is delivering upon Naruto. Heads are not supposed to be that big.

 “The exam is indeed tomorrow,” Shino says. “Why? Because it is the end of term.”

Riko whimpers. Akamaru jumps off of Kiba’s head and burrows into her lap.

 “What do you have to worry about?” Kiba asks incredulously. “And how do you not notice that you’re about to graduate? My mom hasn’t shut up about it all month!”

 “Yoshino-san expects me to keep track of things like that on my own,” Riko moans, fingers curling in Akamaru’s fur. “But I forgot and I’m going to fail. I haven’t studied at all-”

Actually, she hasn’t done anything but study, but not for the exam! 

Below, Iruka shouts, “Class, line up. Time for a review test on the henge! I want you all to transform into me.”

Whining about this being all Naruto’s fault, the class does as told. Riko manages to place herself next to the now untied Naruto. “What did you do?” she asks in a desperate attempt at distracting herself from impending doom.

He scratches the back of his head sheepishly. “Painted the Hokages’ faces,” he answers with a proud grin.

Riko blinks slowly. “You painted the what now?” she asks.

 “The Hokages’ faces, on the mountain!” Naruto beams at her. “It was awesome!”

No wonder Iruka was so mad. 

 “Are you insane?” she hisses, then pauses. “How’d it look?”

Her best friend doesn’t get to answer, Iruka calling his name. Naruto runs forward, grinning mischievously. Oh no.

 “Henge!” he calls out, and smoke bursts around him. Where Naruto stood is now a woman with an impossible figure, completely naked, smoke only barely covering the essentials. Her hair is dark red and her eyes are green. Iruka’s nose starts bleeding.

Riko hides her face in her hands, shaking her head in denial. Nope. Nu-uh. Absolutely not. Noooo.

 “Is that yo-” Kiba begins. Riko knocks him out, runs forward, and dropkicks the naked woman who transforms back into her best friend, whom she drags out of the classroom.

“Ricchan!” Naruto beams at her full of pride. “I call it the Sexy Jutsu!”

She makes a strangled noise. 

 “Are you okay?” Naruto asks, smile dropping and damn it. Puppy eyes.

Riko clears her throat. “Uh. Yeah. Just thinking that it would look better with blond hair. Not everybody likes a redhead.”

 “No way!” Naruto exclaims. “But you’re so pretty!”

She laughs weakly. “Thanks. It’s just. A little weird. A naked girl that looks kind of like me.”

Except tall and adult and with curves, so really, not like her at all.

 “Freaked me out a bit,” she adds.

 “Okay! I’ll make her blonde!” Naruto grins at her. “I just thought you’re the prettiest girl in the world, so I based it on you, ‘ttebayo.”

Riko stares at him for a moment, cheeks heating up. She opens her mouth and closes it again.

…she’d rather he never use that thing again, but. Baby steps.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

After school, Naruto is dragged off to clean the defaced monument. Personally, Riko prefers the painted faces. They look much more cheerful after their makeovers.

At home, she goes straight for the training fields. Never mind her exhaustion, she has to review all Academy-taught jutsu and go through all the kata.

 “Nervous?” Shikaku interrupts. Riko startles and spins on her heel. Her foster father gives her a mildly curious look. “Would you like to play a game of shogi?”

It doesn’t sound like a question. She bites her lip, but relents. “Sure. Why not. I only graduate tomorrow.”

Shikaku huffs a laugh. “It’s that time already?”

She gives him a withering look and sinks down on the cushion. “Evidently.”

 “You are not going to learn anything new the afternoon beforehand.”

 “But I can improve my skills.” She moves a piece forward.

 “I have no doubt that you’ll do well,” he says calmly. 

  “But it’s too soon! I’m not ready!” Riko clamps her mouth shut, but the words are out.

Shikaku sighs quietly, reaches out, and ruffles her hair. His eyes are warm. “You are. We made sure of it. Yoshino sings your praises. And I’ve watched you work day and night. You’re going to be an exceptional shinobi, Riko.”

She sniffs a little. “Really?”

 “Really.”

 “Thank you,” she mumbles. He smiles and opens his arms. Riko doesn’t waste any time and shuffles closer, leaning into the hug.

 “I’m very proud of you,” Shikaku tells her. “Now, I do think you need a break and some sleep. You need to be well-rested tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

The day of the graduation exam comes bright and early. Riko wakes up well-rested, her mind clear. Yesterday’s panic is now cool determination. She can do this.

 “This is so troublesome,” Shikamaru complains as they walk to school together. Riko bumps his shoulder with her own.

 “Cheer up,” she says. “Last test we have to take. No more lessons and rivalries. Only extensive training with jounin, teamwork drills, and missions!” She pumps her fist.

Shikamaru gives her a withering look.

 “You can’t fail on purpose,” Riko adds. “Think about Ino’s reaction. Think about Yoshino-san’s!

They both shudder. Evasion drills with Shikamaru’s mother and her favourite jutsu, the water whip, come to mind.

The two of them walk into the classroom. They’re among the first ones to arrive. Several students are already occupying their seats, heads in their books in desperate bids to cram in some last-minute knowledge. Others are muttering to themselves with vacant looks on their faces.

Naruto is one of the latter. Face pale and sweaty, hands pulling at his hair, he’s clearly panicking. 

Riko sinks down in the seat next to him. “Are you okay?” she asks.

 “Haha! I’m fine!” His grin is bright and fake. “I’m not scared! An awesome ninja like me won’t fail!”

 “Of course not,” she agrees soothingly, sounding far more certain than she actually is. Naruto doesn’t do well in tests. “You got this, Ruto. You passed the written test last time. The rest is a piece of cake.”

Naruto perks up. “Yeah! I’ll definitely pass!”

Unless they’re testing the bunshin. In that case… well. She hopes they won’t.

Soon enough, the remaining class members trickle into the classroom. When Iruka finally enters, it’s like a switch flipped. Instant silence.

The graduation exam begins.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The written portion of their (hopefully) final series of tests takes up the better part of the morning. It’s difficult, but she knows the answers to almost all the knowledge questions and she knows how to solve the rest, or can at least make plausible guesses. Riko has a good feeling when she finally sets her pen down after double- and triple-checking her answers.

After lunch break, the practical part begins. First, they have to throw senbon and shuriken at targets from an increasing distance, then they switch to moving targets. Riko’s never been exceptional with shuriken, her hands are kind of too small for her to hold them comfortably, but she makes up for it by showing off her skill with senbon for extra credit.

Following target practice, they have to clear an obstacle course during which they have to demonstrate their grasp on survival skills. Lighting a fire, building a shelter, identifying edible plants. A spar against Iruka’s assistant is the finale of the physical portion.

 “A two-minute spar,” Iruka explains. “You don’t have to win against Mizuki. The spar ends if either of you leave the ring or if the time-limit is met. If you drive Mizuki out, you get bonus points.”

She nods, examining Mizuki. Keeps her chakra sense sharp on him. He’s a nice enough teacher, but she’s noticed his chakra getting agitated when Naruto is nearby in a way that unsettles her. It only makes her more motivated to give this her all. 

He’s tall. It’ll be inconvenient for him to bend down to hit her, so she needs to look out for kicks. His legs and arms are long, it gives him much longer range than she has. She’ll have to get close if she wants to get a hit in.

So all that isn’t optimal for her.

On the other hand, she’s seen him walk around the village with a shuriken big enough to cover his entire back. Chances are he’s a ranged fighter, so his taijutsu might not be amazing.

“Begin!” Iruka shouts, and she lunges for Mizuki instantly, to his surprise - normally, she tries to get distance at the beginning of fights. But she knew that was what he’d expect.

He still manages to block her first punch. She weaves around it and hits a pressure point on his arm - not a debilitating hit, but painful. 

Either he’s holding back a lot, or he’s not that skilled. Sasuke would have already thrown three punches and/or kicks.

Mizuki darts forward with a fist aiming for Riko’s face, but she’s already rolled out of his range. He takes step in her direction, and she moves. His leg becomes her stepping stone as she catapults herself upwards, running up his body, then landing on the ground behind him in a low crouch.

In her hand she holds his hitae-ate. A clear enough sign that she could have hit any of the soft spots on his head and neck.

“Stop!” Iruka calls out. She straightens. “Well done. You pass. You should be careful about going for the hitae-ate though. It’s fine in this setting, but keep in mind that most ninja would be very enraged to have theirs stolen.”

 “I understand,” Riko answers. “Sorry, Mizuki-sensei.”

 “No problem, no problem. I shouldn’t have let you get your hand on it,” Mizuki waves her apology aside. Somehow, his words aren’t  reassuring.

It’s his chakra. He’s tense, agitated, no matter how easygoing he makes himself out to be.

She makes a mental note not to touch any opponent’s hitae-ate again.

 “Thank you, sensei,” she says before she goes back to the classroom to await the ninjutsu portion of the exam. The final stage.

She sits with her friends and watches them leave without returning one by one. Riko doesn’t have a surname, so her name is called only a after everyone who does is gone. It means she’s the third to last to go into the test. Forcing herself to hold her head high, she walks into the examination room. Her mouth is dry and she has to hide her hands in her sleeves to hide the shaking of her fingers, but Iruka and Mizuki, sitting behind a desk with lines of neatly arranged hitae-ate in front of them don’t know that.

 “Please demonstrate the bunshin no jutsu,” Iruka orders her.

Her hands form the seal and a likeness of her pops into existence next to her. Iruka stands up, inspects it, then sits down again.

“Just one, but executed excellently,” he comments. “Congratulations. You pass.” 

Iruka holds a hitae-ate out to her. Riko feels a smile spread on her face when she takes it eagerly and wraps it around her forehead, where it covers her lightning-shaped scar.

Riko did it.

She’s a kunoichi now.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

When Riko steps out of the Academy, her foster parents are already waiting for her. She’s too giddy to hesitate and throws herself at Shikaku, who catches her and twirls her around like a little girl. When he sets her down, Yoshino hugs her.

 “I’m proud of you, dear,” she says warmly.

 “Oi,” Shikamaru speaks up. “What about me?”

Riko laughs and hugs him, too. 

 “Troublesome girl,” he sighs.

Chouji’s family passes by and more congratulations are exchanged. Riko is so happy that she hugs even Shino when he walks past, causing him to freeze and replace himself with a log as soon as she lets go. Kiba drops by and tries to hug her, but Akamaru jumps into her arms before he has a chance.

She can’t remember ever being so utterly happy.

Then she sees Naruto sitting on a swing by himself, and her stomach drops at the look on his face. 

He didn’t pass. Riko makes a beeline for him, but someone steps in her way, and once she has a clear line of sight again, he’s gone and she can’t see him anywhere. When she remembers to use her chakra sense, she only feels his presence fading out of her range. Riko’s shoulders slump.

She should have trained with him more. Should have studied with him. Shouldn’t have been so caught up in her own training so much. He might have passed if she’d just made time for him!

Riko grits her teeth and swears to herself that he will pass the next exam, she’ll make sure of it.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The Akimichi are holding a joint celebration with the Nara and Yamanaka at their compound. Yoshino and Shikamaru make their way there, but Shikaku holds Riko back. “We need to go see the Hokage first,” he says quietly, seriously. “Follow me.”

Riko frowns. Did she do something? What’s this about? The only remarkable thing about her is that she skipped a few grades and graduated at age eleven. She’ll turn twelve in five months, though.

The Hokage tower is next to the Academy so the walk is short a short one. Shikaku leads her straight into the Hokage’s office. Safe for the village leader himself, it’s empty.

 “Hokage-sama,” Shikaku greets. Riko repeats the word greeting and bows.

 “Good afternoon,” the old man says. “Congratulations on your graduation, Riko-chan.” He smiles at her warmly. Riko flushes and can’t suppress a proud grin.

 “Thank you,” she mumbles.

 “Please, have a seat.” He gestures to a chair. Shikaku pulls it closer for her and she sits down. Hokage-sama speaks again. “You have now graduated, and thus the time has come to entrust to you some rather sensitive information.”

She sits straighter, mind whirling with questions. Sensitive information? She’s a genin!

The Hokage leans forward, fingers steepled against one another. Riko does her best to look calm and ready for whatever he’s about to tell her. The tension in the room is thick, and she’s worried now.

 “I’m sure,” he says gravely. “That you have wondered about how you came to be with us. Why it is that you cannot find the place you called home on any of our maps.”

She blinks. Whatever she expected, it wasn’t that. 

Riko swallows. “It did cross my mind, Hokage-sama,” she answers just to fill the silence that follows his words.

He leans back. “The truth is, until you arrived, none of us had ever heard of your home. Of vehicles that traverse the air, of countries without shinobi, living in peaceful coexistence.”

 “I don’t understand,” she whispers, shaking her head. Shikaku’s hand finds her shoulder and squeezes lightly.

 “What I am saying is that four years ago, you appeared in Training Ground 3 out of thin air. One of my jounin was nearby. He described it as a rip in space that ejected you.”

Riko goggles at him. Opens her mouth. Closes it again. What.

 “You had a serious head injury, leading to brain haemorrhage. You would likely have died had the shinobi not taken you to the hospital immediately.”

 “But you told me I was found on the outskirts of the village,” she protests weakly. Training Ground 3 isn’t exactly central, but it wasn’t on the outskirts of Konoha either. 

They lied to her? 

This is also the first time she hears about how severe her injury was.

 “Not knowing if you were a threat, Yamanaka Inoichi examined your mind.”

Riko closes her eyes. The dreams she had while she was floating in darkness, the memories of her parents, their deaths, of life at Privet Drive that repeated over and over until she wanted to scream.

She saw them because Inoichi was rooting through her memories.

 “He verified that the anomaly was caused by you. You are not of this world, Riko, and you hold a kind of power that we have never seen before.”

Her eyes are locked on him, and she’s trembling. Magic, it has to be, but… it isn’t supposed to be like that.

 “We determined that you were merely a civilian child, however extraordinary your talent. Inoichi also found a kind of parasite resting inside of you, which he swiftly removed.” The Hokage’s voice seems to come from far away.

She remembers it. That thing, clinging to her, ripping her up as it was yanked out of her. Tearing a piece of her away.

The room is shaking, or maybe she is. No, there’s a definite rattling sound, and the picture frames on the Hokage’s desk are shaking, the paper stacks rustling.

 “Calm,” Shikaku murmurs to her, crouching by her side. “You’re safe with us, little one.”

Shikaku. Shikaku.

 “Shikaku-kun here has agreed to take you in,” that was what they’d told her back then, after she woke up.

But it doesn’t work like that. Whatever is inside her, it’s messed up, and they thought she might be dangerous. And no shinobi would take in something dangerous to raise within their own family. And that means…

She was a mission. The Hokage gave her to Shikaku as a mission. He thinks she’s some kind of super-powered freak, so he placed her with his trusted advisor and his family, who had steered her towards shinobi-hood. Who’d made her love them until she never wanted to imagine a life without them.

 And it was all so she could be a weapon. It was a lie.

The overhead light bursts. Cracks form in the window and the glass coverings of the pictures in the room. A glass of water on the Hokage’s desk freezes. The plant in the corner withers.

She stands abruptly, Shikaku’s hand falling off her shoulder, and she’s glad that it does. Can’t stand the gentle touch, even though she misses it the moment it disappears.

“I need to think,” she says, and her voice sounds high and thin. She doesn’t wait for permission, just runs for the door and then she’s in the hallway outside, speed-walking past doors, not really seeing where she’s going, just know that she has to get out of here-

The world closes in on her. Squeezes. 

When it spits her out, she’s in a meadow. Grass interspersed with little white-blooming flowers, a weeping willow at the centre. The Hokage tower is nowhere in sight.

Right. Super-powered freak.

Riko sits down heavily and stares blankly at the willow.

Now what?

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Eventually, Riko gets up from her spot on the ground. She has no idea where she is, but coming across stumps marked by kunai and wire she figures that it’s probably a training ground.  

Something tells her that it’s Training Ground 3, the place she supposedly landed in when she… arrived. 

She walks slowly, breath carefully measured, and comes upon a river, which she follows to a wide clearing. There’s a man there, standing in front of a large slab of stone. Definitely a shinobi, going by the flak jacket he’s wearing he’s got to be chuunin or higher. Which means he’s definitely aware of her, she wasn’t exactly stealthy. 

Riko makes her way over to the stone. It would be rude to ignore him now, and literally any distraction from the latest revelations is one she’ll cling to with a death grip.

She steps up next to the man. Is sure she’s never met him before, she’d definitely remember that gravity-defying hair and the mask. He’s just standing there, looking at the slab of stone. Riko follows his gaze, squinting at the tiny script on the stone surface.

It’s all names. There must be hundreds of them, and for a moment they blur into one big mass. Then she picks out one in the middle and starts reading at random. She recognises some of the surnames - Akimichi, Uchiha, Hyuuga. Nara. 

She studies the names more closely, scanning for more Naras, until finally she stumbles upon Nara Megumi. Riko knows that name - she was a cousin of Shikaku’s and sometimes came by for tea with Yoshino. Her funeral was a year ago, she was killed on a mission. 

It takes a minute to single out another name she knows. Again, a shinobi killed in action.

It’s not hard to figure out what this monument is for, then. A place to remember fallen comrades. Riko lowers her head and clasps her hands together, mumbling a few prayers for the deceased before she turns and walks away. Ten minutes later she returns with an armful of flowers. She’s not exactly great at flower arrangement and pretty sure she got some flower meanings wrong, but she did her best and anyway, aesthetics aren’t the point of leaving flowers before a memorial.

 “Sorry for intruding,” she says quietly to the silver-haired shinobi, whose scrutiny she felt sharpen the longer she took to place the flowers just right. Then she leaves. The urge to smash something into pieces has drained from her. 

Now she’s just tired.

Exiting the location, a sign tells her it was indeed Training Ground 3 she landed in, and she definitely isn’t going to consider if the location is in any way significant. It was coincidence she landed there, is all.

Riko shuffles through the village slowly, no particularly destination in mind, though the thought of returning home - no, the Nara compound - makes her queasy. 

Someone falls into step beside her. Riko can’t find it in her to be surprised. Genma has a habit of just showing up when she’s out and about in the village. 

Is that a coincidence? Or is it just more mission orders? The thought hurts. 

Did anybody even spend time with her because they wanted to? She bites her lip, her eyes stinging, but shinobi aren’t supposed to cry, at least not where anybody can see.

 “So,” Genma speaks up eventually, after she refuses to acknowledge his presence for several minutes. “I see a hitae-ate there. Congrats on making genin.”

Riko doesn’t reply. Why does he even insist on talking to her? He doesn’t have to, if he’s guarding her or whatever.

 “Ah,” he murmurs. “They told you. Right. Makes sense to do it after graduation.”

She shoots him her worst glare. Just go away, she thinks, even though she wants him to stay, but at the same time just can’t stand his company right now.

“Scary,” he comments on her glare, then grabs her before she can react and tucks her under his arm before the world disappears in a several shunshin jumps. He sets her down in front of an apartment complex, a hand on her shoulder preventing her from running.

 “Are you kidnapping me?” she asks listlessly, wondering it she should run. Her mind spits out a list of procedures to stick to in cases like this but she just doesn’t care. What’s the point?

“She speaks,” Genma comments. “It’s a friendly kidnapping. I’m pretty sure we should talk about this.”

 “Oh yeah?” She shoots him a look. “What’s there to talk about? I’m just mission orders. Got it. Gonna leave now.” She turns on her heel. 

Genma turns her right back around.

The pissed face he’s making shocks her right out of her apathy. Genma never gets angry. She’s stabbed him in training, she’s tried to (non-lethally) poison him, there was an incident with an explosive tag, and not once has he ever done anything but laugh it off or egged her on.

He smooths his facial features out with the ease of training.

“You’re wrong,” he says with chilling calmness. “You were only my mission when I guarded you in the hospital when you were about this tall.” He indicates about knee height. Ass. “Everything else was of my own free will. Anyone who says otherwise is lying and trying to hurt you. Got that?” He’s nearly growling by the end. There’s a weight to his words that leaves little doubt that he’s telling the truth.

She nods, words failing her.

 “Good,” he says. He leads the way into the apartment complex, not bothering to check if she’s following. She could leave now, he’s giving her that choice. 

Riko follows him in. They stop in front of a door, which he unlocks. 

His place is nice. Surprisingly spacious, a large open kitchen, a cozy-looking couch. Nice big windows with security seals on the frames. “You eaten yet?” Genma asks. “The graduation exam had to be exhausting.”

She shakes her head. “Shikaku took me to the Hokage right after.”

 “And you panicked and ran.” Genma sighs and shakes his head. “They could have waited one day and let you be happy.”

Riko shrugs, hugging herself. Genma gets busy in the kitchen.

 “Thanks,” she says quietly.

 “You’re welcome,” he answers. 

 “I don’t want to go back to them.” She sinks into an armchair, which is so soft it all but swallows her. 

 “You can stay here,” Genma offers without hesitation. “Eventually you have to talk to them, though. And just so you know, Yoshino has no idea and neither does her spawn. It’s highly classified information.”

Riko nods tiredly. Genma comes over and places a plate filled with food on her lap. “Eat. Then sleep,” he orders.

 “You aren’t the boss of me,” she mumbles, but begins to eat and nods off when she’s done. 

Only to jerk awake when sirens start to blare. A fuzzy blanket falls off of her. Genma shunshins into the room. 

 “Okay, kid,” he orders briskly. “Stay here, I’ll see what’s going on. Weapons are in the storage seals under the kitchen sink, in that closet, and that scroll over there. Anyone comes in who isn’t wearing a Konoha hitai-ate, you get out of here and find help. Got it? I sent a message to your family so they know where you are.”

She nods mutely. He leaves through the window.

The wait is agonising. Through the window she sees shinobi heading to the Hokage tower. The sirens keep ringing, instructing everybody above genin rank to report to their superiors. 

She’s only got two kunai and a handful of senbon on her right now plus her bokken in a storage seal. It’s nowhere near enough, so she goes through the stores Genma indicated to stock up.

He comes back in less than twenty minutes, a guy with a scar all over his face in tow. “Hypothetical question,” he announces. “Suppose there’s a scroll with incredibly powerful forbidden techniques in the Hokage’s office and your friend Naruto heard about it. What would he do?”

Uh. What. She blinks at him, but from his demeanour, he’s asking as a higher-ranked shinobi, rather than her friend.

It’s easy to answer. “Badger Hokage-sama to let him look at it because he’s an awesome ninja who needs all the awesome jutsu to become the best Hokage ever. He’d keep it up until Hokage-sama treated him to ramen and told him that he can’t look at it until he’s jounin, which he can’t do unless he eats his vegetables like a grown-up. Cue pointed look at Naruto’s Miso Ramen bowl.”

Genma gives her blank look. “That was specific.”

 “Why do you ask?” Riko gestures outside. “What’s going on, are we under attack or something?”

Genma’s companion clears his throat. “Uzumaki Naruto supposedly stole the Forbidden Scroll from the Hokage’s office. His whereabouts are currently unknown. It’s suspected that he did it because he failed the graduation exam.”

Riko stares at him incredulously.

What.

It makes absolutely zero sense. “

He’s failed the graduation exam twice before and the only thing he ever did was mope for a few hours, eat ramen, and throw himself into training. Not go on a stealing spree. Also, if he knew about that scroll, he’d never have shut up about it. 

 “You sure it wasn’t an imposter?” she asks, a sick feeling beginning to pool in her stomach. 

 “Hokage-sama was certain it was the real Naruto,” Genma says. “We have to find him and bring the scroll back. Would he leave the village, Riko?”

She shakes her head wildly. “Never. He’s never been outside, not even on training excursions. And he loves Konoha so much.”

 “Okay. Where would he go, then?”

Riko bites her lip, mind racing. “Somewhere he can train. A training ground, one of the more secluded and deserted ones where nobody can glare at him. Not Training grounds 21, 33, or 55. He doesn’t like them.”

Genma nods. “Thanks. We’ll find him.” And he and his friend are gone.

Riko waits for a minute.

They’re hunting her best friend. Who is hated by so many people for inexplicable reasons! If the wrong person found him, he could get hurt.

She takes a deep breath and draws her chakra deep into herself. The trick to masking chakra is not to draw everything in - a void space will get noticed by any tracker worth their salt.  One has to draw in just enough to blend into the environment, and keep adjusting it. Like a chameleon. Civilian chakra level in a populated area. Small animal in the shrubbery. Hashirama tree in the deep forests around Konoha, though imitating plants is hard, almost impossible for anybody who isn’t a decent sensor. Riko’s practiced for years, though, to keep that reminder of Hotaru.

Stealth is going to be important here, nevermind that she isn’t trained in it. The sirens had stopped wailing, but the curfew would stay in effect until morning arrived or a different signal indicated otherwise. As a genin, she really has no business being out and about.

With all the jounin looking for Naruto, this would be hard. Unless… yeah. That could work!

 “Henge!” she whispers, and the jutsu settles over her. She recalls the way Iruka-sensei’s chakra feels - it’s not exactly easy to make her puny reserves broadcast chuunin level chakra signature, but it’s not impossible. Her chakra sense was most frequently practiced during boring school lessons, so his is a chakra she knows well. 

Riko pastes on a suitably urgent expression, slips out the window, and goes to find her best friend.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Training Grounds 17 and 22 are a bust. No trace of Naruto there. He’s good at traditional hiding, but his chakra is a beacon, bright and loud.

The training grounds he usually frequents, the ones close to his neighbourhood, are deserted as well. What’s more, there are people searching them.

He’d go somewhere nobody would expect him, she reasons.

The only place that comes to mind is Training Ground 44, otherwise known as the Forest of Death. A restricted area, but she knows where some of the entrances are located. It’s not even that far, and with all the shinobi out and about, nobody looks twice at her speeding past at ninja speed.

It should be impossible for a place to emit killing intent. Yet the Forest of Death seems to do exactly that. The area is fenced in, signs telling people to keep out. But somehow, it feels more like the fence exists to keep the forest in, rather than curious visitors out. The trees seem to strain against it, yet not even a root reaches through the chain links.

There’s definitely some fuuinjutsu at work here. Riko swallows dryly.

Naruto wouldn’t really go in there, would he? She casts out her senses, but it’s like the forest gives off its own chakra that lays over everything like a blanket. She senses things moving in there, old and cruel and hungry. Beckoning her to go inside.

Naruto has no sensing abilities at all. He’d charge right in.

Well then. She takes a step forward and-

“All right, that’s as far as you go.” She squeaks out a decidedly non-Iruka like noise and tries to run. Genma lands in front of her. “He is not in there, kid.

Oh, damn him! How did he know?

 “I figured you’d go look for him the moment my back was turned,” he explains dryly without prompting. “I also figured you wouldn’t lead me to him if you knew I was following you.” 

Riko cancels her henge and glares at him. “You followed me?” she demands, outraged.

 “You disregarded orders! I told you to stay put!” Genma throws up his arms. “You have no leg to stand on here, brat! And you were about to go into the Forest of Death! Do you have a death wish? You nearly gave me a heart attack! And what were you thinking, impersonating a chuunin?!”

 “That it would work? Which it did, until you ruined it,” Riko points out.

Genma mutters something unflattering under his breath. She huffs.

 “Well, I’m busy,” she snaps. “Bye.”

Shunshin isn’t Riko’s strongest technique but she uses it anyway and falls over the moment she lands, dizzy. Genma lands on a tree above her, looking incredibly unimpressed. “You done?” he asks.

 “Nope.” She shunshins again and nearly throws up. Genma applauds slowly.

 “You really need to practice that,” he comments. “I’ll be watching. With a camera.”

 “Oh screw you!” She uses a kawarimi this time. Much better. Why didn’t she do that in the first place? Behind her, Genma curses, but she’s already hidden her chakra by now. 

Finding Naruto takes a bit of a backseat to getting away from Genma, which is why it comes as an utter surprise when her best friend’s chakra comes into her sensing range. She freezes in place.

Genma lifts her by the back of her shirt. “Got you,” he says blandly. She slaps a hand over his mouth.

 “Shut up!” she hisses and aims a kick at his midsection. “Naruto’s here somewhere!”

He curses and drops her. “Where?” he asks. He’s staring at something on the ground. She follows his eyes.

Blood. Kunai and blood and a huge shuriken. Bile rises in her throat. What if that’s Naruto’s blood? 

Above her, the trees groan.

“Hey,” Genma whispers. “Calm down. We’ll find him, okay?”

She takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Okay.” Her eyes catch on the big shuriken. It looks familiar. She was thinking about it just a few hours ago. “Mizuki-sensei has one like that,” she says slowly.

He’s probably not the only Konoha ninja to use a weapon like that, though, so she could be wrong. She hopes she’s wrong, because that looks like a lot of blood. Mizuki-sensei isn’t her favourite teacher, but the thought of him bleeding out somewhere is sickening. And what about Naruto? Did he get attacked here? And Mizuki defended him, but they both got taken away?

How does that tie in with the supposed theft of the scroll?

 “An Academy teacher?” Genma questions, eyes stormy. “Damn it. Stick close to me. If you can, you grab whoever got injured, get them out of danger, provide first aid.”

 “Understood,” she answers tersely. Standing perfectly still, even though she feels like she’s vibrating out of her skin.

The two of them follow the trail of blood. It’s not obvious, but it’s clear that whoever hid the tracks did a rush job. Plus, Riko can sense the direction Naruto’s chakra is coming from.

When they get close enough to hear voices, Genma signals for them to halt. Riko lands soundlessly on a large branch next to him.

 “Don’t touch Iruka-sensei! I’ll kill you!” Naruto’s voice. He’s okay. But angry, angrier than Riko has ever heard him, his voice actually sounding dangerous. His chakra feels different, angry, and it’s so potent that it drowns out everything else.

But wait — Iruka-sensei? What?

 “Idiot!” That’s Iruka-sensei. “Run away!”

 “I’ll kill you in one shot!” 

Mizuki-sensei.

She’s never heard his voice sound like that. Unhinged. Angry. Smug.

Her mind reels with realisation. Betrayal.

Genma holds up three fingers. Two. One. The two of them launch into motion, just as Naruto’s chakra flares.

She bursts into the clearing just as it turns orange, filled with hundreds of Narutos, all of them looking half-feral with anger. Riko can’t even see Mizuki. But she does spy Iruka, surrounded by a guard of Naruto lookalikes. His clothes are stained with blood, and she wastes no time in dropping down at his side.

It’s hard, calling up medical chakra in this situation, when she’s scared and determined and angry all at the same time. Medical techniques require a clear state of mind and absolute focus and control. In this moment, Riko has neither.

She takes a shuddering breath and shuts all the chaos in her head out. Green chakra blooms under her fingers. Iruka-sensei says something, but she ignores it. Focuses only on mending the damage to Iruka’s body.

By the time someone shakes her and draws her out of her almost trance-like state, the clearing is empty of clones. 

 “That was fun,” Genma says. “Let’s never do it again.”

Chapter Text

Mizuki tied up and Iruka’s wounds treated to the best of Riko’s mediocre healing ability, they make their way to the somewhat crowded Hokage Tower. Genma has to carry her since she’s feeling kind of dizzy - it was a long and exhausting day, and she’s not made of chakra. 

He sets her down once they arrive, so at least that bit of indignity has a minimum number of witnesses.

In the Hokage’s office, they give their reports.

Riko kind of feels like hugging Genma when he bullshits some story about how he took her with him to track down Naruto instead of revealing how she ran off in the guise of Iruka against direct orders to stay. 

Naruto rambles his report with enthusiasm, still riding the high of his victory over Mizuki. Finally, the whole thing is explained: Mizuki lied to Naruto about a hidden graduation exam that entailed stealing the forbidden scroll in order to become genin.

It’s not exactly what Riko would call a believable lie, but then, their teachers are supposed to be trustworthy. And Naruto’s never been the brightest and was emotionally compromised after failing the exam.

Halfway into the story, Mizuki wakes up. “He’s a demon!” he screeches, barely coherent. “He’s a demon and he has to die-”

Riko’s stares at him because, uh, what, and the force of his sheer malice stuns her.

Someone knocks him out again. “Take him away,” Hokage-sama orders. He sighs deeply. “It’s been a long day. Iruka, go to the hospital. Raidou, escort Naruto-kun home, please. Riko-chan, the jounin commander is waiting for you outside. Everyone else, return to your posts.”

Shikaku is standing in the hallway when she steps out of the office. Riko swallows dryly. 

The last time she saw him was after storming out of the meeting where she… found out the truth.

She’s so tired. Far too tired to be mad and hurt at someone she cares about so much.

They stare at each other before he crouches down and picks her up. “Let’s go home,” he says quietly.

She wraps her arms around him. “Okay,” she mumbles.

His arms are still as warm and reassuring as she remembers, and soon she’s asleep.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko wakes up in her own bed, the events of yesterday still fresh in her mind.

It takes herculean effort to get up and face the music. It’s early still, surprisingly so, after the late night she’d expected to sleep into the late morning. But the sun is barely up and here she is, wide awake.

Dithers several minutes, weighing the idea of slipping out of the window and just spending the day elsewhere. But.

There’s a hitae-ate tied around her head. Riko’s a ninja now, and she’s not about to start her career by running away from inconvenient truths.

…technically, she started her career by disregarding direct orders and breaking the rules after running out of the Hokage’s office, which… isn’t optimal. But at least it wasn’t cowardly? Maybe?

Well, no need to continue the negative trend. With a grimace, she leaves her room, brushes her teeth, and then shuffles down the stairs.

Shikaku is sitting on the couch, waiting for her. He looks up at her approach. “You’re up early,” he comments, stating the obvious.

Riko swallows. “That’s my line.” She eyes him warily but comes closer, sitting down in the armchair across from him.

He slides papers towards her. Riko picks them up with a slight frown and stares uncomprehendingly. “What are these?” she asks in a strangled voice.

 “Adoption papers,” he answers nonchalantly. “Hokage-sama, Yoshino and I already signed. It’s just missing your signature, then you’ll be a member of the Nara Clan.”

Riko makes a strangled noise.

 “I couldn’t do it before,” Shikaku explains. “Conflict of interest while the mission was still ongoing. It annoyed Shikamaru to no end. He asked what was taking so long every other day. Very troublesome.”

A blank stare is all he gets from Riko. 

 “Do you need a moment?” he asks. She nods mutely and continues to stare at him.

Adoption. Her. Into the Nara Clan. By Shikaku. Can he do that? 

Right. Clan head. Duh. Of course he can. But. “Why?” she croaks.

He raises a brow at her. “You’re a part of this family. Have been for years. It’s just a formality at this point.” He holds out a pen. “Please sign it. Shikamaru is plotting, and he has his mother’s ruthlessness. I’m actually quite sure Yoshino is planning to help him. It makes me a bit worried.”

She takes the pen and stares at it for a good while. It’s a very nice pen. Shiny. 

The clock ticks in the background.

Her hand moves without her telling it to. The pen meets the paper and leaves a crooked signature. Something snaps, and her hand is her own again.

Riko turns and eyeballs Shikamaru, standing behind her. His shadow retreats into its regular shape.

 “You were taking forever,” he says unrepentantly. 

 “Is that signature even legal now?” she asks blankly. 

 “So long as none of us tell the administration that it’s technically not yours, it will be fine. Shikamaru, don’t do that again, it was Riko’s choice.” Yoshino swoops down out of nowhere and scoops up the paper. “I’ll go file this, then. Welcome to the family, Riko-chan. You may call me mother.”

She skips out the door, humming to herself.

Where had she even come from? For that matter, when did Shikamaru get so stealthy?

 “Mom’s gone, I’m going back to bed,” Shikamaru announces. “Later, sis.”

Riko makes a noise like a teakettle. Shikaku gives her a fond grin.

 “Welcome to the family, Nara Riko.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Hours later, they sit in the sun, Shikamaru and Riko with Shikaku in front of them. Their father. The thought sends a mixture of elation and panic down Riko’s spine and she doesn’t know if she’ll ever get used to it. If she ever wants to get used to it.

She’s now part of the clan, part of a family, and she never wants to forget how incredible that is.

Sure, she had a family before. But she never knew her parents, even if she remembers them from her dreams. There’s a little shrine that Yoshino helped her build to remember them by, but they’re the past and the Nara are her future.

And she really is a Nara now. Not just fostered, but legally.

Her fingers clasp into a seal and she attempts to direct chakra into - it’s hard to describe, and she’s not entirely sure she understood it. It’s not so simple as to focus the chakra through her feet into her shadow. It has to go into a void, sort of, and then she can feel her shadow. Connected to her. Like an added limb, or rather, a second body. 

Her shadow twitches on the ground, just the tiniest bit. She can feel sweat lining her brow as she tries to move it the way she wants to. How hard can it be to make her shadow wave a greeting?

On the ground, her shadow hand sort of melts. She glares at it and loses control of the technique. Her shadow turns into an undefined murky blob.

Shikamaru’s shadow pokes it with a shadow stick. “I think it’s dead,” he says.

 “Then stop poking the corpse,” she answers.

On the ground, her blob shadow swallows up the stick. Then grows limbs and human-ish proportions.

 “Oh no,” Shikamaru drawls. “It got resurrected.”

 “And now, vengeance!” Riko mutters, scowling in concentration. 

Her shadow is supposed to punch Shikamaru’s. Instead, it turns into some kind of… thing. With very long arms that are sort of melded together. It looks vaguely unsettling.

 “Wow, you’re bad at this,” Shikamaru comments blandly. His shadow has grown another stick and once again pokes hers, which tries to defend itself weakly and goes back into blob shape.

 “You killed her!” Riko gasps in outrage. “You monster!”

 “It was an abomination,” Shikamaru says solemnly. “It had to be done.”

 “But she didn’t to anything to you!” Riko turns away from him. “How could you be so mean?”

Shika’s shadow pokes hers. 

Nu-uh. Her blob turns blobbier. Shadow Riko is not home. Shadow Shika can go poke someone else.

He pokes again.

And again.

A single lance shoots out from Riko’s shadow and pierces into shadow Shikamaru. 

 “Ow,” he says blandly, the clown.

 “How do you like it now, hm?” She says triumphantly.

 “I see your control is improving,” Shikaku says mildly, eyes twinkling with amusement. “Don’t worry about the shape - it takes practice. You can work on it in your own time. I’ll teach you the next stage of the technique once you can make your shadow run your Academy katas.”

Riko smiles at him and sets to work.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

In the evening, Riko goes to find her best friend, a basket full of food clutched in her hand. He’s not home, however, so she disables his paint bomb traps, picks his lock, and goes inside.

As always, it’s messy.

Riko is by no means a neat freak, but she likes to keep order in her room. Naruto, however - well if there’s an opposite of keeping order, he does it. She pinches her brow.

There’s just something about Naruto’s place that triggers whatever obsessive cleaning instinct runs in both her and Petunia Dursley’s blood. She’d told him multiple times how important living in a clean environment is, but it has yet to stick.

The fridge is her first victim. There’s so much expired food there. The milk carton makes odd muddy sounds when she shakes it, so with a disgusted grimace she seals it away into a haphazardly scrawled seal, to be destroyed later.

She can’t find any vegetables at all. Riko ends up throwing all the expired perishables out and places the food she brought into the fridge.

His cupboards are at least stacked with cup ramen, and she figures while that’s not exactly healthy, Naruto won’t give himself food poisoning from that.

Naruto’s kitchen is tiny and the fridge was the worst of it. It doesn’t look like Naruto ever uses the stove beyond cooking water, so at least that’s easily cleaned.

There are some dirty dishes in the sink, but those too are done quickly.

Everything could do with a good scrub, but it’d do for now. She doesn’t have that kind of cleaning equipment on her right now.

Riko goes back into his living room. Takes in the chaos and decides she’ll just get him groceries instead of taking that on.

Naruto is still not back by the time she’s stocked his fridge with fresh groceries and the space under the sink with proper cleaning supplies, since he clearly can’t be trusted to get them on his own.

And then she does end up sorting through the piles unsorted clothes, scrolls, and snack wrappers despite not particularly wanting to, since it’s bothering her.

But it’s getting late and he rarely stays out after dark, so she sets to warming the food.

She calls out “Welcome home!” when she hears the door.

 “Huh? Ricchan?” Naruto runs into the kitchen. He’s all muddy and dusty, apparently having trained all afternoon.

 “I made you a graduation dinner,” she explains. “Wash up.”

He looks at her with misty eyes before he shakes himself. “Okay!” he shouts and takes off toward his bathroom.

Dinner is cheerful. Naruto chatters a mile a minute and praises Riko’s cooking to the heavens until she’s red in the face, even though it’s nothing special. 

It’s good to see him all right. She was a little worried. The whole Mizuki thing was awful. Their teacher, a traitor! With access to Academy students! The thought is unsettling. Riko wasn’t particularly fond of Mizuki-sensei, but he was an okay teacher and not in a hundred years would she have suspected him of turning on the village.

 “Let’s have a sleepover,” she suggests, and Naruto’s grin is blinding with the happiness it broadcasts. 

 “Awesome!” 

It’s late by the time they’re tuckered out from excitement and chatter. Curled up in Naruto’s bed, neither asleep, but both content.

“I got adopted,” Riko whispers.

Naruto sits up straight. “What?” he shouts. “You - you got a family now?”

She laughs. “I guess. It feels so weird. Nara Riko.”

 “I could have adopted you,” Naruto grumbles, laying back down. “Not stupid lazy Shikamaru.”

Riko bursts into giggles and wraps her arms around him. “You’re my family, too,” she decides.

Naruto sniffles and burrows into her. “I’m not crying!” he insists.

 “It’s okay.” She tightens the hug. “I don’t mind.”

She wants to tell him. About the power - magic? - she supposed has, which brought her to Konoha. About being manipulated into a military career. About being someone’s mission and how much that hurt to find out. 

But she can’t get the words out.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

A day later Riko drops into Sasuke’s garden. It’s their designated sparring day. She’s not exactly sure if that’s still a thing now that they’re both graduated, but they didn’t stop after he didn’t have to be her homework tutor anymore, so maybe they won’t stop now.

He’s already waiting, so she figures she got it right.

 “Hi,” she greets, waving, “Congrats on graduating.”

Sasuke grunts and observes as she does her stretches and wraps her knuckles. Once she jumps up and gives him a nod, he wastes no time attacking.

After almost a year of sparring together, fighting him is instinct. She knows how he moves, knows his tells, and he’s the same where it comes to her. It’s become familiar and comforting, even though kicks and punches and throws have bruises appearing all over their bodies.

She never feels more in the moment and herself than when she’s trading blows with Sasuke.

Over the passage of months, the way they fight has changed. Riko’s taijutsu, flighty and evasive previously, has become much harder and vicious. Sasuke is the opposite - where his style was confrontational and straightforward before, he’s adopted a number of crafty moves.

The spar ends when Riko manages to get him on the ground, only to lose the ensuing grappling match.

He rolls off of her and they just lay there on the ground, catching their breaths. 

She rolls to her knees and concentrates. Pale green blooms from her hands and she offers them to Sasuke, who shifts close enough for her to repair the scratches and bruises on his skin. Then she does the same for herself.

 “Are we gonna keep doing this?” she asks. “I mean, we’re gonna have missions and stuff. And training. So… will we have the time?”

Sasuke shrugs and rolls to his feet. Riko does the same.

 “I’m just gonna keep coming by if I’ve got the time,” she decides. “If you’re not in the mood, you can always kick me out.”

 “Fine,” he grunts, and she stares at him in astonishment, because hey! Verbal acknowledgement! 

Maybe she isn’t the only one who sort-of enjoys the time they spend together.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

 “Oi. Riko. Wake up, you troublesome girl.” Shikamaru pokes Riko insistently. 

She groans and bats his hand away.

 “Go away,” she whines, before her brain catches up with her. Because. It’s Shika waking her up. Shika, who won’t get out of bed willingly before noon, while Riko tends to rise with the sun.

So either this is an imposter or she missed something important.

 “We’re supposed to be in the classroom for team assignments in fifteen minutes,” Shikamaru tells her.

Riko freezes. 

Oh no. She slept in. On one of the most important days of her life.

She shunshins straight to the bathroom and nearly cracks her head open on the sink when she falls over.

It’s a stressful start to the day, and she runs the whole way to the Academy, running into class without taking a breather beforehand. If she had, maybe she would have noticed the dead silence inside and been a little more cautious. As it is, she has absolutely no warning as she comes face to face with the sight of Naruto crouching on a table, kissing Sasuke.

It’s.

What.

She moves backwards out of the room, shakes her head, then walks in again. Naruto is no longer on the table and the females of the class are surrounding someone laying on the ground, all screaming over each other.

Riko uncaps her sizeable water bottle, draws out the content, and then with a pulse of chakra disperses it all over the screeching gaggle of girls, making it rain over them.

Squealing, the girls look up, and pale when they meet Riko’s cold glare.

 “You’re done. Scram,” she orders tonelessly. “You should be above this. We’re genin now.”

They skedaddle.

Riko picks Naruto up and winces. Ouch. 

She takes him to the back of the class, once again calling up the Mystical Palm Jutsu and running it over Naruto’s face. 

 “That’s so cool, Ricchan!” Naruto beams at her, which has to be painful, what with his swollen lips and the black eye.

There has to be rules against injuring fellow shinobi, right? Those girls were way out of line. 

Unless Naruto kissed Sasuke against his will? It’d looked accidental to her though, now that she’s thinking about it, and the girls only screeched about how dare Naruto touch Sasuke rather than about assault.

Oh damn, did anyone ever talk to Naruto about consent?

She’ll have to remember to ask for the full story later.

 “Don’t distract me,” she mutters to him. “Healing stuff is really hard and I’m not great at it.”

 “Hey, what are you doing?”

Riko winces and loses focus. The green chakra disappears.

Well, Naruto looks good enough, she supposes. He’s easy to heal.

 “Uh,” she mutters. “Hi Fumio.”

Her one-time friend and accidental boyfriend gives her a shy grin. “Hey, Riko-chan. What was that jutsu just now?”

Riko figures she can just… act normally. “Medical technique. The one medical ninja use the most. Works on most injuries.” She shrugs, wondering how long it will take Iruka to arrive.

Oh damn, what if she ends up on a team with Fumio? That would be so awkward.

 “Are you going to be an medic?” Fumio asks eagerly.

Riko winces. Medical ninjutsu is still such a sore spot. “I’ve considered it. I really admire medical shinobi,” she replies.

It’s the truth. He doesn’t need to know that she got kicked out of the program ages ago, despite all her hard work.

Because of her chakra being odd. And yeah, she really doesn’t want to think about that matter right now, so soon after the incident in the Hokage’s office.

 “That’s cool!” Fumio says. “I’ve been thinking of becoming one myself!”

 “Really? Good for you.” She gives him a strained smile. “Good luck.”

 “Hey, hey, Ricchan, can I be a medic, too?” Naruto tugs at her sleeve. Riko doesn’t get to reply, Iruka-sensei choosing that moment to enter.

He doesn’t waste any time.

 “Beginning today, all of you are real ninja, though you are still merely rookie genin. The hardest part of your life lies before you.” Iruka stares them down. The class is silent, hanging onto his every word. “You will be assigned duties to fulfil. But you won’t have to do this alone. Today, you will be split into teams of three, and each team will have a jounin-sensei to guide and train you on your path to becoming outstanding shinobi Konoha can be proud of. You will follow your sensei’s instructions as you complete your duties.”

Riko notes how a number of her classmates looks negatively surprised at the prospect of being placed in teams. She doesn’t get it - she herself is pretty happy about not having to do this alone. And really, how didn’t they know about team placements?

“Now, the teams are as follows…” Iruka starts listing names and team numbers in no particular order. As expected, Shikamaru ends up with Ino and Chouji on a team. Kiba is teamed up with Hinata and Shino. That’s the majority of her friends out of the running, but on the plus side Naruto is still free.

And then Iruka announces, “Next, Team Seven: Nara Riko, Uzumaki Naruto,” - Riko’s heart jumps, and an wide grin spreads on her face - “and Uchiha Sasuke.”

Chapter Text

“Team Seven: Nara Riko, Uzumaki Naruto, and Uchiha Sasuke!”

Riko blinks, stunned. Sasuke. On her team. Huh.

Could be worse. She’s okay with it. 

Everyone else is not. 

 “Iruka-sensei! Why does a great ninja like mmph-”

Riko slaps her hand over Naruto’s mouth and gives Iruka-sensei a fixed smile. That’s right, everything is fine here. Naruto was absolutely not going to say anything rude about their third team member.

(Riko knows Naruto’s opinion of Sasuke pretty well. He has a specific tone of voice just for complaining about him.) 

 “Iruka-sensei!” Haruno Sakura jumps up, her face furious. “Why is she on Sasuke-kun’s team?!” She points at Riko. “Im the number one kunoichi in the class! I should be with Sasuke-kun!”

Iruka is unimpressed. “Sakura-kun, Riko-kun beat your scores in the final exam. She’s now ranked first among the girls and her practical scores are among the best overall, unlike yours.” 

Wait. What?

Sakura jerks back as if Iruka had slapped her.

 “Furthermore, she has displayed a more mature attitude concerning Sasuke than the majority of the girls here - despite being a year younger.”

Well, if they didn’t hate Riko before, they do so now.

 “Any more complaints?” Iruka asks. “No? Then we’ll go on. Team Four, Tachibana Fumio, Haruno Sakura, and Ota Eiji. Team Twelve…” 

On and on he goes. 

Then, finally, “Your jounin sensei will pick you up after lunch break. I recommend preparing for skill assessments. Class dismissed - and good luck to all of you. I’m proud to have been your teacher.”

Riko wastes no time jumping out of a window because the girls look like they’re seriously considering murdering her.

 “Ne, Ricchan, where’re we going?” Naruto shouts, catching up to her.

 “Lunch, Ichiraku, my treat!” she yells back.

 “Awesome!”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

One by one, teams get picked up by their new sensei after lunch break.

Team Seven is the last one left.

Ten minutes pass.

 “He’s gonna show up, right, Ricchan?” Naruto asks anxiously.

How is she supposed to know? They don’t even know the name of their new teacher. Or their gender, for that matter.

But if she doesn’t do something, Naruto will get antsy, and that would be bad for everyone involved.

 “Okay!” she says brightly, clapping her hands. “Who here wants to learn how to make explosive tags?”

Naruto instantly forgets all about their jounin sensei and goes starry-eyed. “I do!”

Even Sasuke perks up in interest.

Riko pastes on her best confident smile because to falter is to lose his respect, and she worked very hard to gain that. At least, she thinks she gained it at some point, just a little bit. 

A quick jump takes her down to the space Iruka usually occupies when he’s teaching. There’s pieces of chalk neatly lined up on the desk, cut to perfect throwing size. She grabs one. “I’m actually a lot better at storage seals, but explosions are more useful in a fight, so I’ll show you those first. They’re pretty fun, too! Grab a piece of paper and take notes, yeah? Uh, use a pencil. No ink for now. Seriously, it’s important.”

Iruka-sensei would be so mad if they blew up the classroom.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Three hours. It takes three whole hours before their jounin sensei deigns to show up. A time span filled with Riko sweating bullets while trying to answer Naruto’s numerous questions.

He’s. A terrible fit for fuuinjutsu. Even for a beginner. His penmanship is a nightmare and he just doesn’t get that leaving out the squiggly lines will destabilise the whole seal and make it go boom.

 “But that’s the point of explosion tags!” Naruto insists stubbornly. “Why can’t I just write fire on the paper and be done? This is stupid!”

 “Right,” Riko concludes. “You’re not allowed to make your own tags without me there. If you do, I’ll make you eat vegetables instead of ramen for the rest of your life.”

Fuuinjutsu and impatience are a bad combination. She definitely should have started with storage seals, after all.

Actually, she should have begun with calligraphy, but that would never have kept his attention.

Naruto stares at her in horror. “No!”

Riko nods heavily. “Yes. Don’t think I won’t.”

 “Ricchan!”

Someone clears their throat. Riko spins around.

It’s a man.

She can’t sense him. How long has he been standing there?!

He also looks familiar. Silver mop of hair, mask, standard jounin uniform - it’s the guy she saw staring at the memorial stone.

 “My first impression,” he announces, “I’m terrified. Please don’t play around with fuuinjutsu. It’s irresponsible and dangerous.”

Riko narrows her eyes. She isn’t playing. She knows what she’s doing, she’s studied a lot! Anyway, where does he get off about being responsible when he took three hours to get his butt here?

 “Meet me on the roof in five minutes,” he orders and disappears in a puff of smoke.

Five minutes. They’re on the ground floor. The Academy building has six floors. There’s no central stairway and the corridors are a maze. Getting to the roof in five minutes is impossible.

Unless one walks up the side of the wall. Riko could do that.

Naruto tears out of the room, yelling, “Come on, Ricchan!”

Sasuke runs after him.

Riko stares after them, shrugs, and takes her time cleaning up the blackboard. Then makes her way out the door and navigates the numerous hallways at a leisurely pace. She arrives five minutes later than she’s supposed to.

 “Ricchan, what took you so long?” Naruto whines.

She gives him a deadpan look. “I got lost on my way to the toilet. I’m so sorry you had to wait for me a whole five minutes, time you will never get back during which you could have done something important."

Naruto stares at her blankly. 

Their new sensei coughs. “Right. Let’s start with some introductions.”

He looks at them. They stare back.

 “Likes, dislikes, hobbies, dreams,” he prompts.

Riko plops herself down between Sasuke and Naruto and crosses her arms.

 “I’ll go first,” sensei announces cheerfully when none of them cooperate. “My name’s Hatake Kakashi. I have no desire to tell you my likes and dislikes. Hm, dreams for the future… and I have a lot of hobbies.”

The three of them level unimpressed looks upon him.

 “Your turn! Let’s start on the right.” He motions at Naruto, who perks up.

 “I’m Uzumaki Naruto! I like Ricchan and ramen! Especially when Ricchan and Iruka-sensei eat together with me! I don’t like the three minutes you have to wait to cook them! My dream is to be Hokage and make all the people in the village acknowledge me!” He pauses. “Hobbies… pranks, I guess?”

No surprises there, though Riko is rather flattered that she ranks before ramen in his likes.

 “Next,” Kakashi says.

Right, that’s her.

 “I’m Nara Riko,” she says. “Um, I like my friends and family. I don’t like bullies. Hobby… I like drawing, I guess? I don’t do it a lot though. Dream…” Riko pauses.

What is her dream? To be a good kunoichi? No. Not really. It’s something she wants to be, but not a dream.

When she thinks of things she wants in life, what comes to mind is the Nara home, her and Shikamaru feeding the deer, playing shogi, hugging Shikaku, studying with Yoshino. Eating ramen with Naruto and plotting out his next prank, giggling with Ino, training with Genma, even her slugfests with Sasuke.

 “I guess I’m already living my dream,” she says finally. “So I figure I want to protect it, now.”

Kakashi nods. “Your turn.” He looks at Sasuke.

Sasuke’s introduction sends chills down Riko’s spine. ‘To kill a certain man,’ echoes in her head.

How can someone be so sure they want to kill? She can’t even imagine taking a life. Riko never wants to do it, ever.

 “Right.” Kakashi claps his hands together after a tense and awkward silence. “We start our duties tomorrow. But first, we’ll do something, just the four of us.”

Naruto bounces in excitement. “What? What is it? What are we doing?” 

Kakashi stares at them from a droopy eye. “Survival training.”

 “S-survival training?” Naruto stutters.

Kakashi chuckles darkly. A cold wind blows, making all of them shiver. The sun no longer seems bright. A sense of uneasy fear creeps up on Riko.

The feeling of something foreign poking at her.

Genjutsu. It’s a genjutsu. She should break that-

 “Out of the twenty-seven graduates, only nine will be chosen to become genin. The rest will be sent back to the Academy. In other words, tomorrow’s training will be a text with a sixty-six percent failure rate, and I will be your opponent.”

Well.

That’s. Dreadful.

Naruto breaks out into vehement protest, which Kakashi promptly ignores. “Meet me at Training Ground 3 at five in the morning. If you’re smart, you won’t eat breakfast. Anything else you need to know is on these papers.” He hands over said papers. Then he disappears. 

So does the genjutsu.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Team meeting over, Sasuke leaves without a word. Naruto in contrast shouts something about preparing and training before he, too, runs off. Leaving Riko to figure out her own plans for the next day.

She really doesn’t want to go back to the Academy.

Desperate times call for drastic measures. 

Genma is not in his apartment, which isn’t a surprise but was still worth checking and also pretty much her only lead as to his whereabouts. It’s usually him who finds her, unless they have a pre-arranged meeting for training.

She bites her lip.

Well. He did tell her where to ask if she really needed him, and this is an emergency. Her career depends on it!

Riko feels vastly out of place, walking up to the jounin lounge. The people that she passes in the corridors eye her with varying mixtures of amusement and confusion. Some even with disapproval, and a few make to talk to her and probably tell her to get lost, but Riko is slippery when it comes down to it. Dodging around a few corners and walking closer to the nicer-looking people discourages the pursuers.

The “Are you lost, kid?” question is asked quite a few times anyway.

“Nope!” she answers every time, with an added, “I’m visiting someone.”

Considering she knew the codes necessary to even get onto this floor, they let it go.

The door to the lounge is open, which saves her the trouble of having to knock and wait for an answer. Before she can even let herself think about chickening out, she walks in. 

Almost instantly, every eye is on her. Riko’s hands start sweating, but she pastes a smile on her face. Kunoichi lessons said that happy smiles would lead to being dismissed by the most males. The room is occupied by men almost exclusively. 

 “Are you lost?” some guy asks.

It’s getting old. She knew the bloody codes, damn it! It’s not like one can walk into the jounin lounge by accident!

 “Who cares?” a voice crows, and a moment later a weight drapes herself over Riko’s shoulders. She nearly stumbles, the sudden necessity of supporting a fully grown woman’s weight throwing off her balance, but chakra is a wonderful thing and she manages. “She’s cute!

Riko eyes the woman. She’s fully aware of her own lack of height, and the position this lady has chosen to assume, leaning on Riko like that… “Okay, that can’t be comfortable.”

 “Aw, are you concerned about me, honey-pie?” the woman croons into her ear. “I could just eat you up.”

 “Thanks?” Riko asks, refusing to let the feeling of deep unsettlement show on her face. “I’m looking for Genma.”

 “And got me instead.”

She licks Riko’s cheek.

Right. Long live the inventor of the kawarimi. The woman squawks when she’s suddenly holding onto a floor lamp.

 “I’m generally down for hugs anytime,” Riko tells her, heart pounding. “But that was gross.”

The woman throws her head back and laughs raucously. 

 “I’m looking for Genma?” she tries, eyeing the window on the other side of the room.

Someone clears his throat. “Sorry, he isn’t here.”

Riko turns her head as much as she can without losing sight of Anko. “…Raidou-san?” That was the name of Genma’s friend from last week, right?

He gives her a friendly nod.

 “Do you know where I can find him? It’s kinda urgent.” She wouldn’t be here otherwise.

 “Sorry, kid. Anything I can help you with?”

Well. If he’s offering, and Genma off who knows where…

 “My team’s jounin-sensei said he’s going to test us tomorrow and I don’t think he wants us to pass.” Riko makes her eyes wide and worried. “I don’t know what to do.”

 “Aww,” the woman from before inserts herself into the conversation. “Do you want Anko-neechan to convince him?” She cocks her hip to the side. Her honestly awesome trench-coat falls open, revealing armour that leaves nothing of her proportions to the imagination.

 “Anko,” Raidou sighs. “Behave.” He turns back to Riko. “Can’t help you with the test itself, and if your sensei doesn’t want you, you’re better off without him. Who did you get?”

Hm. If she says the name, it’ll probably get back to Kakashi.

Then again, he’ll probably hear about this anyway. She’s pretty sure she’s the only redhead in Konoha, with the exception of Akimichi Chouza, so the moment anybody tells him a red-haired girl visited the jounin lounge and asked about the test, he’ll know it was her. So, she’s got nothing to lose.

It’s not like he forbade them from asking for help.

 “Hatake Kakashi.”

The jounin lounge goes silent. An unholy expression of glee spreads over Anko’s face.

Genma walks in at that moment, looking around in confusion before his eyes fall on the vaguely unsettled Riko. “Okay, what did you do?” he asks.

 “I got Hatake Kakashi for a jounin sensei?”

He gapes.

Then he starts grinning.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

It’s early evening. Riko knocks on Sasuke’s door frantically before she darts around the house and finds him in his training space. “Get your supplies,” she orders. “Team meeting at Training Ground 3.”

He shoots her an incredulous look. Considering she just barged in, fair enough.

 “Look,” she says. “I asked around and Kakashi failed the last seven teams he was given. I also learned that literally every jounin in the village lowkey hates him, even while they love him.”

 “…What are you on about.”

Sasuke’s voice is flat and judging.

Well, his bad mood is his problem. Riko just had to sit through what had to be every jounin in the entire village bombarding her with advice and telling her just what kind of horrible things Kakashi had done to them. “Haruka-san from Intel has to hunt down his reports personally because he won’t hand them in for at least a week. Once, on a mission, he was gifted a terribly ugly hat by an old lady and wore it for three weeks, and he told everyone that it was a gift from Aoba-san. He invited countless people for meals and then disappeared halfway through, leaving all manners of decoys, from straw puppets to giant plushies. For ten years, Anko has been trying to look beneath his mask, and every attempt at failed miserably. Also, they think a team will be good for him. Even though we will suffer likely greatly. But they say it’s worth it for the things he could teach us.”

Riko folds her hands primly.

 “Then I went to find the teams Kakashi failed before and they laughed at me and said we’d fail just like them and also that I’m a stupid little girl playing at being ninja. It pisses me off and I’m gonna stick it to them. Aside from that, Naruto’s my best friend and you’re pretty okay sometimes, so I really want to make this team work.”

She gives him an expectant look.

 “So. Team meeting at the Training Ground. Whatever happens, we’re in this together, so we might as well prepare together. And I think trapping the hell out of that training ground is a good idea. So get your supplies, I’ll get Naruto, and we’ll meet there.” Riko turns on her heel and throws a wave over her shoulder. “See you in a bit!”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko is absolutely tired the next morning, and her body is stiff and achy due to camping out in the training ground. But they got done so late that she just wasn’t in the mood to walk back to the Nara Compound on the other side of the village. Even Naruto’s place seemed too far away. The only one who lives anywhere close-by is Sasuke, and while he might have let her crash in his garden shed or something, he’d never have agreed to house Naruto in any capacity.

So that’s how Naruto and her ended up sleeping curled around each other on a thin blanket. Thankfully it was a mild night, but it couldn’t exactly be called warm, which is why she spends a few hours doing stretches and warm-up exercises after waking up. Naruto, bless him, sleeps soundly and is as loose and limb as always when he wakes, in addition to being completely awake.

Riko is a morning person, but Naruto’s on another level entirely.

Sasuke arrives, even grumpier than usual, not even giving a nod in response to her greeting. 

Considering it was her idea that kept all three of them awake until well past midnight, fair enough. Provided he fell asleep instantly, he’ll have gotten four hours of sleep at most. On the other hand, they trapped the entire training ground. As a team. And she’s pretty sure even Sasuke found it in himself to be impressed with the stuff Naruto came up with. Not that he or Riko are slouches themselves, but Naruto is an inspiration.

They eat breakfast together - well, not together, just at the same time, but Riko still counts it as a win, even if it’s just bland and dry ration bars. 

 “They should make these ramen-flavoured,” Naruto grumbles.

 “You can always send out a clone and get proper breakfast from Ichiraku,” Riko suggests, silently agreeing.

 “But Ricchan!” Naruto exclaims, “Kakashi-sensei is gonna be here in like five minutes and he said not to eat!”

She shrugs. “I’ll seal the food, then, and we can have it for lunch. It’ll even still be warm.”

That’s all it takes to convince Naruto, and twenty minutes later his clone is back with five bowls of ramen. “Teuchi-jii says it’s on the house and good luck to Team Seven!”

 “Ramen,” Sasuke says judgementally. “For breakfast.”

 “If you don’t want them-” Riko begins.

His baleful glare when he snatches a bowl is a work of art.

The three of them munch on their breakfast ramen in silence.

It takes another three hours for Kakashi to arrive. It’s eleven. He said to be here at five. 

 “You’re late!” Naruto shouts at him, all the outrage a twelve-year old is capable of echoing in his voice. Riko opts for giving Kakashi her best neutral look, while Sasuke glowers darkly.

 “Maa, you see, a black cat crossed my path, so I had to take the long way,” Kakashi reveals cheerfully. 

 “Liar!” Naruto screams. 

Even more obscenely cheerful, Kakashi continues, “It also told me this training ground is cursed, so we have to go to another one. Training Ground Sixteen, last one there’s a slowpoke!”

He disappears in a puff of smoke.

Riko’s mouth drops in outrage. “He changed the location! That ass!”

With a murderous look on his face, Sasuke throws a kunai with unerring accuracy. It hits a buried explosive tag which promptly explodes, setting off a chain reaction and a minor flood.

 “He’s going down,” Riko says, deadly calm. 

 “Ricchan, come on, we’ll be late!” Naruto yells and makes to run.

Nu-uh! She grabs the back of his jacket. “We’re going together,” she growls. “All three of us, so nobody is a slowpoke, and then we’ll bloody show him that we’re not playing his stupid game.”

 “Game?” Naruto asks.

 “He’s trying to prank us,” she explains, setting into motion at a slow pace. “We’re pranking him back. He made us wait and then he tries to make us look stupid by running to the next location like complete idiots. Anyway, let’s go slow, he can wait for us. We can get dango on the way or something.”

 “Sweet!” Naruto cheers, clearly not understanding all of her reasoning but going along with it anyway. Sasuke’s apparently pissed enough at Kakashi that he’s willing to make him wait as well, even if it means spending time with them.

Kakashi gives them the worst disappointed puppy eyes when they finally get there.

Riko doesn’t feel guilty in the least.

This training ground resembles the one they just left in that there’s a lot of forest, a river, and even a large clearing. But it’s entirely different in that the river is utterly wild and loud, and the trees here are gnarly mean things that seem to whisper threats every time a gust of wind blows through them. The kind of forest that belongs into a ghost story. It’s interspersed with tall and sharp rocks.

Kakashi sets an alarm clock down on one of those rocks. Then he holds up two little bells. “Here are two bells,” he says. “Take them from me before the alarm sounds. It’ll go off in an hour. Any of you who don’t have a bell by that time will be tied to a tree and I’ll eat lunch right in front of them.”

Again with the killing intent. Riko swallows harshly, and when Naruto squeezes her hand she squeezes back.

 “And the person without a bell fails the test and will be sent back to the Academy,” Kakashi finishes.

Well.

Shit.

Chapter Text

Riko should be staying calm and making a plan.

Instead her heart is beating too hard and she can’t think past But I only just got my team, you can’t split us up!

Naruto appears as shocked as she feels. Sasuke’s face is inscrutable, but the look in his eyes is angry. She can’t tell if that anger is directed at Kakashi or if he’s already planning on ditching Naruto and her.

 “You can use your weapons,” Kakashi continues. “You won’t succeed unless you come at me with the intent to kill.” 

Yeah, Riko doesn’t think she’s going to have much of a problem with that. Naruto is her best friend. Sasuke sort of is, too! Kakashi can’t take them from her!

She can totally get them a new jounin sensei. Either talk Genma into it or any of the dozens giving her advice yesterday. Heck, she can ask Shikaku to help get them someone else! There’s got to be an advantage to being the adoptive daughter of the jounin commander.

Riko must have missed part of the conversation, because Naruto is suddenly charging at Kakashi with a kunai in his hand, subsequently ending up with that same kunai pointed at his own neck. She didn’t even see Kakashi move!

Dammit, this isn’t going to be easy.

 “Don’t get so hasty,” Kakashi says. “I haven’t told you to start yet.”

 “Didn’t tell us not to either.” She glares at him, eyes on the kunai that’s far too close to Naruto’s skin. 

Something’s boiling under her skin. It’s powerful, but it doesn’t feel good. It just feels scary and overwhelming and Riko doesn’t want it to come out, but if he doesn’t let go of her best friend-

Kakashi releases Naruto and surveys them. “Seems like you’re in the right mindset now,“ he muses. “I guess we’ll start…”

The three of them fall into ready positions.

 “Now!”

As much as Riko would love to launch herself at Kakashi and kick his face in, that’s not how it works. She leaps back, hiding in the underbrush close to the river, rolling through the mud to obscure her scent. At least she doesn’t have to worry about being noisy - the river drowns out every other sound.

It’s not exactly comfortable, crouching behind a rock in the water, but she doesn’t have chakra to waste for water-walking and this is the best place to observe what’s going on in the clearing.

Her jaw drops, and it’s decidedly not because she’s awed by her friends’ display of cunning and skill.

Riko stares in horrified disbelief at Naruto who’s standing there and shouting about fighting Kakashi fair and square to get the bells for himself and her.

Her best friend, she reckons, is a bloody moron.

Kakashi beats him and his dozen clones while reading a book with a light blush on his face. He’s not even looking. Riko swallows heavily.

Naruto’s might not really be great at taijutsu, but he doesn’t suck this bad and- oh crap that’s a hand seal for a fire jutsu! Riko lurches forward, reaching for her senbon, but she loses her footing in the water and spends precious moments trying to remain standing, only managing it by sticking a hand to the rock with chakra.

By that point, Naruto’s already gone flying into the river, unfortunately a ways down from Riko, into the shallower parts. If she wants to reach him, she’ll have to leave her cover.

He’s at no risk of injury and seems to have a surplus of idiocy that needs to be let out, so she stays where she is. Observes Naruto jumping out of the river with a multitude of shadow clones, and Kakashi somehow makes him look even more incompetent despite his use of such a high-level ninjutsu. 

Soon, Naruto dangles from a tree by his feet after falling for an extremely obvious trap. Kakashi lectures him until he’s hit by a hail of shuriken, coming from the direction of Sasuke’s chakra. He replaces himself with a log, somehow making it look like he was actually wounded for a heart-stopping moment.

He could be anywhere now. Logically, he’d go after Sasuke or her next, since he’s supposed to test them. Or he could wait for them to find him, which they kind of have to, to get those bells. Which will be all kinds of impossible to do, if he’s even half as good as Genma claimed.

On the bright side, she knows where Kakashi isn’t, which is in the clearing he left Naruto. She’ll have to be quick, but she can definitely get Naruto down.

 “Behind you, Riko,” Kakashi says.

She spins on her heel and hurls a barrage of senbon at him, but again he replaces himself, this time with a straw puppet. 

 “Too slow,” he says, and when she turns to look, his hands are forming the rat seal.

He’s not the only one who can use kawarimi, though, and a moment later she’s on the edge of the river, leaving a rock in her place. Now on stable ground, her fingers twist into seals. From the water, slightly glowing chains burst out, speeding at Kakashi.

His hands are still forming his seal.

The surroundings lurch. Blur. Nausea takes ahold of her. Thousands of water drops envelop Riko and the sound of the river has become unbearably loud. Her legs give out under her, and her water chains burst as her control breaks. 

She falls. Distantly, she hears Kakashi say something about genjutsu skills, but she can’t make out the words. It’s all she can do not to just let the beckoning darkness sweep her away.

Riko grits her teeth and waits the initial disorientation of the genjutsu out. She can’t muster the control to break it right now.

The world is silent when it stops. Shakily, she draws herself to her feet. Crams a ration bar into her mouth, hopefully that’ll make her feel less drained and disoriented.

 “Riko,” a voice moans from the river. She looks up.

There, his clothes drenched in far too much blood, floats Shikamaru.

The world stops. All she can hear is her heartbeat. Her perception narrows down to the boy in the river. Her brother. “Help me,” he pleads.

 “Not real,” she whispers. “Not real, not real, not real!”

She can’t sense his chakra, can’t sense Naruto’s or Sasuke’s either, she’s still disoriented, this is definitely the genjutsu, but it doesn’t matter because her brother is dying and she has to help him. A stumbling step forward, another. Shakily, she stands on the water’s surface. It’s too wild to find a secure stance, so she runs forward, using the rocks jutting out from it as footholds. Reaching out just as he floats past. Her fingers brush his body and he just.

Disappears.

 “Riko,” he says from behind her. She spins - he’s standing right there, blood dripping from his mouth, and this clothes, she can see the awful wound in his chest. “It hurts, make it stop.”

Her hands light up green with medical chakra and she reaches out. Again he dissolves, reappearing to her left. “Help me, please,” he begs desperately. A dry sob escapes her.

 “I’m trying!” she cries, reaching again, but he’s suddenly too far away. “No!”

 “Help me, it hurts, I don’t want to go,” Shikamaru keeps saying, but no matter what she tries, she can’t get to him.

She falls to her knees, hands covering her ears. “Stop,” she whispers. “Stop, stop, stop!”

His voice isn’t muffled in the least, in fact, it seems to get louder the harder she tries to drown it out, and she just - it hurts, it hurts so bad, and she needs it to-

 Stop!” she screams, and something inside of her tears apart.

Like a howling wind, it rips through the fabric of the illusion, of rocks and trees. She curls up, ducks, protects her head with her arms.

It’s silent now. She feels drained, and she’s almost too scared to look up, terrified of what she’ll find. But she has to.

Riko finds herself sitting in a circle of destruction. Splintered rocks, a tree upside down, another shredded, gouge marks in the grass. Her breath hitches. 

She did that.

And right now, she can’t deal with this. Whatever she did. Oh hell. 

Slowly, she gets to her feet. She can sense her team again, she notes distantly. Quite far away. The illusion had lured her away from them. Sasuke’s chakra is agitated, wavering, fighting.

A deep breath. “Just an illusion,” she whispers to herself. “Not real.”

Shikamaru will be home, waiting for her. Or with his team, far away from here. He’ll be fine. This isn’t her first genjutsu experience, Yoshino specialises in that discipline, and damn, Riko should have been able to deal with this.

She needs to focus on the present. She’s got to move. Sasuke’s fighting, and if he’s put under a genjutsu like that, then she doesn’t know what will happen, but it won’t be good.

On his bad days, he doesn’t even see her when they spar, and it’s awful every time it happens.

Riko gets moving. The first few steps are shaky, but the movement evens out soon, the physical action strangely soothing. 

When she finds Sasuke, he’s buried from the neck down in the ground, and for one heart-stopping second she thinks it’s just his head, but his chakra says he’s alive and her chakra sense doesn’t lie while her eyes are clearly absolutely unreliable. 

And he’s talking. “Riko,” he says. “Get me out of here.”

She nods numbly and gets paper and ink out. The mini-explosion tag is the work of half a minute. With a kunai, she digs a small hole in the ground, takes a step back, and sets it off.

It loosens the ground, makes it a lot easier to get Sasuke out.

 “Are you hurt?” she asks, scanning him.

He looks okay, if a little dirty and annoyed. No terribly blank and lost look in his eyes, and that’s - that’s good, isn’t it?

 “Hn,” he grunts, watching her with narrowed eyes. “You?”

She waves him off. “Just a genjutsu,” she answers, and her voice almost doesn’t shake at all. “Let’s get those bells, yeah? We go there, I distract Kakashi, you free Naruto, we improvise from there, sound good?”

 “We don’t need Naruto,” Sasuke says.

Maybe he doesn’t, but Riko does. However, explaining that is beyond her right now and they’re on a time limit, so she just shrugs. “Free him anyway?”

He grunts. It’s not a no, she’ll take it.

They run to the clearing together. Naruto is for some reason tied up in a different place with Kakashi standing next to him. 

 “Right, here goes,” Riko mutters while Sasuke scurries off into the underbrush.

Okay. She can totally distract Kakashi. 

Riko strolls into the clearing. “Ricchan!” Naruto shouts, beaming, like everything’s gonna be fine now that she’s here.

 “Yeah. Hi,” she answers with a small wave.

Well, Kakashi’s attention is on her, so that’s one goal accomplished. Now to get him away from Naruto and keep him distracted… urgh.

 “Are you giving up?” Kakashi asks curiously.

She shrugs and walks closer. “I suppose it might look like that, huh?” Stopping next to the alarm clock, she jerks her chin at it. “Since we only have… two minutes left? Wow, time sure went by fast. What was it you said? ‘Take the bells from me before the alarm sounds to pass the test?’”

 “To sum it up, yes.” He tilts his head curiously. “What are you up to?”

 “Buying more time.”

Her hand snatches forward, grabs the alarm clock, and smashes it against the rock. Kakashi blinks. 

 “No alarm, test doesn’t end,” she announces triumphantly. “Loophole!”

Naruto cackles in the background. “Go, Ricchan!”

 “Riko-chan, that was my favourite alarm clock,” Kakashi complains.

 “Sorry,” she answers unrepentantly. “You’ll have to find another one to put on your shelf and never use.”

 “You wound me.” He gives her a sad look. Like a puppy. She almost feels bad. Almost, but he’s a mean old man and he tied up her best friend, made her think her brother was dying, buried Sasuke alive, and she’s not feeling at all friendly towards him. “That sounds like a you problem.” She starts walking backwards.

 “Mean.”

He disappears. Riko throws herself to the side and flings half a dozen senbon, spread out wide and aimed at the area she just left. Kakashi lands next to where she stood a moment ago, batting the needles away.

On the periphery of her sensing range, she registers Sasuke’s chakra moving with purpose towards Naruto, and she knows Kakashi notices, too, by the slight tilt of his head. She has to keep him occupied!

Physically, Riko’s not particularly strong. So she unseals her bokken from storage and attacks Kakashi with that, not giving herself a moment to hesitate. Her lack of strength she makes up with speed, agility, and timing. Jumping around, rolling, evading. 

She can’t win against a jounin, she knows that, but that’s not the point. All she has to do is keep him busy so he won’t stop Sasuke from freeing Naruto. None of her attacks connect, but at least Kakashi hasn’t got time to read his book or mock her. 

Her style is evasive, which isn’t optimal for this job, but she won’t let that stop her. She’s got a bag of tricks, or rather, a pouch full of storage and explosive tags, she can do this.

She launches herself at Kakashi again, bokken swinging. He steps aside, way too fast for her to follow, but the moment he disappears she drops and rolls so he can’t grab her, coming up slicing in an arc around herself and following with a spinning kick which ends up smashing against the metal guards of his gloves. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she gives herself momentum by aprubtly twisting her hips, swiping one-handed with her weapon, with the other reaching for one of the seals stored in her pocket.

In the heat of the moment, she’s not quite clear which seal her fingers find, but that’s okay. It’ll do something and they can all be aimed.

Kakashi grabs her wrist and twists. Riko’s bokken goes flying in one direction and she in the other. Still airborne, she slaps the seal on her palm and points it at him, channelling chakra.

A hail of senbon comes flying out with the speed of bullets.

Kakashi turns into a log again, which doesn’t even surprise her anymore. She’s got no idea where he is now, but that’s not important - what matters is that Riko stops him. She sticks a senbon into her mouth in preparation. Sasuke’s almost at Naruto’s side now, and the ropes binding him must be made of stern stuff because a thrown kunai just glances off.

Dust picks up as air begins to curl in a spot beside Naruto.

Shunshin. Kakashi’s going to appear there. Riko’s too far away, but.

He’s not the only one who can do shunshin.

She’s never managed the technique as fast as she does now, the world blurring, one moment here, the next there, landing right in front of Kakashi with none of the disorientation or unstableness she usually feels from it.

Kakashi jumps back to dodge the senbon she spits at him with a tiny push of chakra from her mouth. Sasuke reaches Naruto and pulls at the knot holding him secured. With a shout, Riko’s best friend runs forward, clones poofing into existence at his side as he launches himself at Kakashi.

The jounin defeats them as easily as he did before, but it gives Riko time to get out another seal, this one containing water. The ground floods and once more she forms chains, dropping to her knees at the awful chakra drain, but she doesn’t cancel the technique.

This time, she manages to wrap one around Kakashi’s foot, slowing him down just that little bit. “Sasuke!” she yells.

He’s close enough and he’s faster than Naruto by a lot, and he’s almost there, has almost got the bells, he’s reaching out-

Kakashi disappears.

An alarm clock rings. 

 “I had a back-up alarm!” the man informs them cheerfully, holding up the ringing clock. “I guess that means…”

She’s going to kill him, him and his stupid schemes and back-ups.

 “We pass,” Sasuke says smugly and what. Riko stares in disbelief at the bells dangling from his hand.

She drops the chains and sits on her bum, not caring about the muddy ground. Dirt’s already crusted all over her, what’s a little more?

 “Ha!” Naruto cackles. “We beat you, Kakashi-sensei!”

 “Maa, I’m not your sensei yet, Naruto-kun,” the man answers, eyes crinkling. “Now then, Sasuke, you have the bells. Which of you goes back to the Academy?”

Sasuke’s eyes widen, like he’d forgotten the stakes of the test. Riko sure did, and now that she’s reminded of it, her stomach drops. She looks to Naruto, who’s definitely Sasuke’s last choice for a teammate and knows it by the crestfallen look on his face. 

There’s no way she’ll let him go back to the Academy, absolutely not, so she turns back to Sasuke and jerks her chin toward Naruto. “Give it to him,” she says, eyes stinging, because damn it, this isn’t fair and she liked this team in those few moments they worked together.

 “Eh?” Naruto asks dumbly. Then, “No! Ricchan gets a bell, it’s not fair if she doesn’t, she smart and cool and strong-”

 “I’m not! I did like two techniques and I’m all out of chakra and I fell for a stupid genjutsu like an idiot-”

 “I’m an idiot, I should go back to the Academy, I dunno what a genjutsu is!” Naruto shouts.

 “You’re both idiots,” Sasuke snorts and lobs one bell each at her and Naruto. 

Naruto stares at him, slack-jawed. Riko blinks slowly. 

What.

 “Are you okay, Sasuke?” she asks. Maybe it’s not Sasuke. It could be an imposter! “What was the last assignment Iruka gave us?”

Sasuke gives her an annoyed look. “Give me back the bells,” he says, and yeah, it is Sasuke.

 “No take-backs!” Kakashi answers cheerfully. “So let’s see. The rule of the test was that at least one of you would fail. Shinobi must follow the rules.” His hands form seals, and dark clouds gather in the sky above, lit up by flashes of lightning. Killing intent falls over them.“Are you prepared to face the consequences?” Kakashi asks darkly.

Naruto draws a kunai. Sasuke’s got shuriken out so fast, she can’t even see it. Riko tries to stand up, fails, and settles for palming a stack of seals.

 “Bring it!” Naruto shouts.

 “Then…” Kakashi intones. “You pass!”

The clouds fade away, the sun shines merrily upon them. Kakashi smiles, his eye closing happily, no threat at all.

 “Hah?” Riko asks intelligently.

 “Huh?” Naruto continues.

 “Hn,” says Sasuke, which Riko supposes means about the same thing.

 “In this test, your teammates became risks to your own future. To pass, I needed to see if you’d abandon them to save yourselves and therefore fail, unable to accomplish the objective on your own - or work together and pass.” Kakashi pauses. “On missions, you’ll be constantly threatened, and your team is going to be your lifeline. If one member abandons it, all of you could die. Do you remember the stone in Training Ground Three?”

They all nod.

 “The names of heroes to the village are carved into it. My best friend’s name is on it.”

Riko winces. That’s - considering the specific kind of heroes that are being honoured with that memorial…

 “So cool!” Naruto shouts with stars in his eyes. “My name’s gonna be on there someday!”

 “No!” the word escapes her far more sharply than she means to, but. “It’s for shinobi who were killed in action, Naruto.”

Her best friend’s face falls.

Kakashi nods at her. “She’s right. In the shinobi world, those that break the rules are called scum, but those that abandon their comrades are worse than that. You proved that you understood that in this test. So all of you pass. Congratulations.”

Naruto looks at him with a face as if he’s going to cry. “I’m a ninja,” he whispers.

 “All of you are,” Kakashi corrects, and strikes a pose. “Starting tomorrow, Team Seven will begin its duties!”

Chapter Text

Kakashi dismisses the team for the day and Naruto runs off to train immediately, hollering “See ya later, Ricchan!” over his shoulder. Sasuke dithers for a moment, but whatever made him hesitate to leave is trumped by the need to not let anyone beat him in anything, even the quantity of training.

In the general spirit of celebration, Riko pretty much forgot that she’s kind of injured and also very exhausted, and gets a rather unpleasant reminder when she tries to stand and follow her best friend. 

Her leg hurts, which isn’t surprising, considering she slammed it against a jounin’s armoured glove.

It’s probably a fracture, she realises morosely, prodding at the forming bruise. 

She should start wearing guards on her legs. Arms, too. Her body can’t take a whole lot of damage, isn’t built for it. 

For now - ever since learning storage seals, she pretty much stopped putting back stuff unless people asked for it, which means she still has a pair of crutches somewhere on her person, and probably a splint, too. 

Yep. She finds the things she needs pretty quickly.

Now - hospital or clan clinic? Hospital’s a detour on the way home, clan clinic means every Nara clan member will know about her injury (and the events leading up to it) by dinner time. She really wants to see Shikamaru, though, and she might see him faster if she picks the clan clinic.

Then again, it’s only noon. He’s unlikely to be home, busy with his own team. And at the hospital, they’ll fix her up faster, without much fuss. The medics at the clan clinic believe in natural healing, she’d be off duty for the rest of the week.

Hospital it is. Luckily, she’s got practice in walking with crutches.

Kakashi clears his throat.

 “Oh,” Riko says without enthusiasm. “You’re still here.”

 “Yep,” he answers, eyeing her as she pushes herself up with the help of the crutches. 

(They’re nice and heavy and she can totally use them like she does her bokken.) 

 “I’m going to the hospital,” she tells him and begins hobbling forward.

Kakashi walks beside her. Thirty seconds pass before he picks her up and walks with triple her speed. Stupid tall people with their stupid long legs.

 “I can walk,” Riko protests and attempts to hit him with her crutches, but it’s a bad angle so she only succeeds in waving them.

 “If we walk at your pace, we’ll reach the hospital in three hours and you’ll be in pain the entire time,” Kakashi points out cheerfully. “But we can do that if you want to.”

 “No one’s forcing you to walk with me.” She glares at him. His eyes crinkle in a smile. Amusement practically wafts off of him, and damn it. She’s stuck with this ass for a jounin sensei now. 

 “My cute student is injured, I could never leave her behind.” They’ve made it out of the training ground already, are drawing looks from pedestrians.

 “Creepy,” Riko mutters. Kakashi gives her a hurt look that instantly makes her feel guilty even though she’s mad at him. She changes the subject. “What was that book you were reading?”

His eyes widen with glee. She leans away when the book in question appears in his hand with a puff of smoke. “Riko-chan, my dearest student,” he says. “Let sensei tell you about this book… but always remember, lightning jutsu does not work like that.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Icha Icha apparently contains mind-blowing action, superb drama, intense mystery, exquisite worldbuilding, extraordinary characters, and heart-stopping romance. Book one is now in Riko’s hand, she herself a little dazed from Kakashi’s passionate lecture on its amazingness. But hey, she likes reading, and maybe this’ll tell her something about what kind of person Kakashi is, so she opens it to the first page.

She’s instantly hooked. Doesn’t even realise when they arrive at the hospital until a familiar voice wheezes, “Kakashi, you didn’t.”

 “Hm?” Kakashi hums. He’s definitely reading along with her. She’s absently batted at his face away twice already.

 “Go away, Genma,” Riko mutters, eyes glued to the pages. “Busy.”

 “I recommend putting that away before the nurses see,” Genma comments.

 “Sound advice,” Kakashi agrees, grabs the book, and stuffs it his pocket. She gives him a pleading look. The female lead was just about to throw down with the creepy guy! “You can have it back after we’ve seen the medic.”

Genma snickers. “So, got yourself a team, huh?”

 “What’re you even doing here?” Riko grumbles.

 “Figured you’d manage to land yourself in a hospital bed again, so I waited here,” he answers, and yeah. That’s fair.

 “Again?” Kakashi repeats.

 “Problem child,” Genma explains, pointing at Riko. She sends him a glare. “So they passed your test? I’m asking because there’s a betting pool.”

 “I didn’t know you were friends.” Kakashi blinks curiously. 

 “Accident,” Riko mutters. “I was on the good painkillers and now I can’t get rid of him.”

 “She adores me.”

 “Great!” Kakashi beams, and before she can blink she’s suddenly in Genma’s arms with the book on her stomach and a log where Kakashi was just now.

What the heck.

Since when are people allowed to kawarimi out of a conversation?

 “That technique should be banned,” Genma comments sourly.

 “Put me down, I can walk,” Riko demands.

 “No,” he answers. “The medics would murder me.”

Yeah. Exactly.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko wakes at dawn the next day, sore and starving and kind of tired. She’d managed to read half the book (skipping the sex stuff because it’s weird) and is maybe having regrets about it, what with the night before having been seriously short as well, setting up traps in Training Ground Three. What’s going to happen with that, anyway? Should they go and clean it up? Do they have to book the training ground for that?

She resolves to ask about it later. For now - food.

When she shuffles downstairs, she finds breakfast all prepared in the fridge, along with a chakra-replenishing pill and a note saying “Well done, little one.” It makes her feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

After breakfast, she decides to enjoy the early morning on the porch. Just relax a little bit, look at the clouds, listen to the birds singing… she makes it for four minutes before the book’s in her hands again.

 “What’re you reading?” Shikamaru plops down next to her. She stiffens. 

The last time she heard his voice was in the genjutsu. Her heart starts beating harder, and she keeps her eyes glued to the words in Icha Icha. Too terrified to look at him.

He hadn’t been home yet when she got back yesterday afternoon, and despite her determination to see him she’d fallen asleep almost immediately. Chakra exhaustion sucks.

 “Book,” she answers.

 “Duh.” They sit in silence together. “Heard your sensei tested you.” He pokes her leg. The medic had fixed it yesterday, but it still sort of itches and she’s supposed to take it easy.

 “Yours didn’t?” Riko asks, turning the page. Sex stuff again, eww. Isn’t using lightning jutsu that way dangerous?

 “Nah. Asuma’s pretty cool. Team treating you okay?”

 “Fine. Kinda troublesome,” she answers, skimming over the next scene. Yikes, fire jutsu is definitely not applicable in that situation. Can she skip this? Where does the plot start up again? “Kakashi’s weird, Sasuke’s grumpy, and Naruto’s Naruto.”

She should really look at Shikamaru. Her brother.

 “You okay?” he asks. Riko closes the book slowly and turns her head.

Reaches out and pokes his chest. It’s intact. She breathes out.

He’s fine.

 “Yeah,” she answers. “I’m great.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko arrives at the training ground their team has been assigned right on time. 

Her leg aches. The medic had mended it yesterday but had sternly reminded her to take it easy. She was going to listen to him, but that book was just impossible to put down right on time, so she ended up having to run in order to not be late.

Sasuke’s already there, standing on a pretty red bridge over a small river, glowering down at the water. If his fangirls could see, they’d melt into puddles.

She frowns. Riko likes to think that she knows Sasuke decently well, or at least more than the average person. But she doesn’t know much about him. He likes tomatoes - she figured that one out because his fridge is full of them and he grows tomato plants in his garden. She also knows he can’t cook, because he didn’t kick her out of the house when she started bringing or making dinner as a thank-you for putting up with her during their study meetings. 

That’s about the extent of what she knows about him, if one doesn’t count her familiarity with his taijutsu. It’s definitely not enough.

She joins him on the bridge, sits on the railing so she doesn’t have to stand on her leg. When she shoots him a side-glance, he’s still glaring down at the water.

The silence is uncomfortable.

 “I like playing shogi,” she announces. “And pranking villagers with Naruto, but you can’t tell anybody about that. I think it’d be really cool to have a summoning contract someday, preferably one with wings.”

Sasuke looks at Riko as if she’d grown a second head. She grins back nervously.

Before he can answer, Naruto comes running, shouting, “I’m not late!” at the top of his lungs.

 “Morning!” she answers with a wave. Naruto beams at her and doesn’t slow down in the least, arms reached out to hug her.

Not noticing the fact that she’s sitting on the railing of a bridge. They all end up falling off, right into the river. How Sasuke got caught up in it, Riko doesn’t know. He glares at them, but because he’s soaking wet just like her and Naruto, it looks far more adorable than intimidating. 

 “I’d help you dry that,” she says — it’s one of the first applications of basic water manipulation she taught herself — “But the medic said not to use chakra until I’ve recovered more of my chakra.”

Like she doesn’t know by now how chakra exhaustion works, but they always feel the need to lecture her.

 “Hn,” Sasuke sneers, and she translates it to ‘Whatever’.

It might also mean ‘Thank you Riko, that’s so nice of you, I hope you recover soon,’ but she isn’t that optimistic.

 “Should be fine by tomorrow,” she adds.

 “Okay! D’you need anything?” Naruto asks. “I can get you ramen!”

 “It’s morning,” Sasuke gripes.

 “It’s ramen, bastard!” Naruto bristles. “It’s got protons!”

Protein. He means protein. At least Riko thinks he does, but she’s not about to correct him in front of Sasuke. Who looks at Naruto with the most expressionless face that Riko’s ever seen before turning away and staring at the water again. 

 “I wonder where Kakashi-sensei is,” she muses to nobody in particular.

 “Right?” Naruto crosses his arms in annoyance. “It’s our first day! I wanna show everyone how awesome I am!”

Sasuke makes a condescending noise. Riko rolls her eyes heavenward. And three, two, one…

 “You got something to say, bastard?!” Naruto yells.

 “Problem, dead-last?” Sasuke sneers.

Yep. That’s what she thought they’d say. They’ll end up brawling in the next ten seconds, and the day won’t get better from then on. 

Riko should probably do something about that. 

 “I wonder which of you is better at using chakra,” she says, rubbing at her chin. “Naruto has more, but Sasuke’s more skilled…”

Naruto gasps and points dramatically. “I’m better! I’m an awesome ninja!” He pauses. “What’s chatra?”

She stares at him blankly. Did he just — he seriously just asked that? What? Is he for real? How did he get through the Academy? How can he even use ninjutsu?

 “He doesn’t have more.” Sasuke gives her an offended look.

Riko shakes herself.

 “Uh, yeah, he does,” Riko tells him, ignoring Naruto’s preening. “I’m a decent sensor and his chakra’s basically the freaking sun. His control sucks, though. Really sucks. Anyway, Naruto, chakra’s the stuff that makes jutsu work.”

“Oh, okay.” Naruto settles down for a moment, then brightens. “If I’ve got more, I’m better than the bastard!”

She eyes Sasuke’s steadily darkening mood with some worry. “If you can’t use it, it’s useless, though, so I’d say right now Sasuke wins. But! Let’s test it.” Riko forces a grin on her face. “Whoever can learn tree-climbing with chakra the fastest wins!”

Wait, Sasuke might already know that exercise-

Naruto squints at her. “But we can climb trees already.”

Riko grins at them and walks onto the training ground, picking out the closest tree that allows for decent visibility. Just this little bit of chakra should be fine, right? Sending a silent, guilty apology to the medics, she walks up to the first larger branch a few meters above the ground. “Like this,” she says, sitting down, grinning at their awed faces (though Sasuke’s better at hiding it, and whew, he doesn’t know the exercise). “Focus chakra on your feet and walk up. It’s easier if you run first - means you don’t overthink what you’re doing.”

At least, that’s how it had worked for her.

 “Anyway!” she announces. “First to make it to the top wins!”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko’s sprawled out on her tree branch, dozing lightly in the sun.

 “Not reading?” Kakashi’s disappointed voice asks right next to her. She startles and the only reason she doesn’t fall off the tree is because he grabs her by the back of her shirt and hoists her up again.

She gives him a disgruntled look. “Finished the book in the three hours you made us wait.”

Kakashi’s eye crinkles. “And did you like it? Who’s your favourite character? What did you think of the plot? Don’t you agree that Taiki is such a dream-”

 “Give me the next book,” she demands tartly. He chuckles and ruffles her hair. Irritated, Riko bats it away. “Stop that.”

 “You’re a great kid. I think you might be my favourite,” he muses, peering down at the boys who are busy running up trees, occasionally stopping to glare at the other’s (limited) progress.

 “Because I like the book?” She eyes him dubiously. 

Happy eye-smile. “It’s a sign of good character!”

Right. Kakashi is clearly full of crap. She knew that already, thanks to Genma and all the other people, but still. He’s ridiculous.

 “Thanks, I guess,” she deadpans. “The book?”

 “After training.” He picks her up and shunshins down. Then calls, in the most stupidly chipper voice Riko has ever heard, “Maa, my cute little genin are practicing all by themselves! Sensei’s so proud!”

 “You’re late!” Naruto yells. Sasuke crosses his arms and nods, clearly agreeing, which, wow. Riko lives in a time of miracles.

 “Sorry, sorry,” Kakashi apologises in the least apologetic tone of voice possible. “I got lost on the road of life-”

 Liar!

 “Hey,” Riko says. “Put me down.”

 “But you need rest, Riko-chan!” He blinks down at her. “Genma said I should carry you everywhere.”

She gives him a flat stare.

Soon as she can, she’ll stab both of them. Ridiculous old men.

 “Let’s go on a mission!” Kakashi announces cheerfully. “Are you ready, Team Seven?”

Naruto instantly forgets that he’s angry and whoops. “Yes! I’m gonna kick ass! Let’s go, let’s go!”

Even Sasuke smirks in anticipation.

Riko’s teammates are way too easily manipulated. And they clearly don’t know about D-rank missions. Peering up at Kakashi, she wonders what new fresh hell awaits them.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

 “Team Seven,” the Sandaime Hokage says gravely. “Are you ready for your first mission?”

He puffs on his pipe with gravitas suited for a war council. Beside him, Iruka looks faintly exasperated.

 “Heck yes!” Naruto punches the air. “What is it, Jii-ji? Escorting a princess? Solving a murder? Protecting a village? I’m ready for anything!”

The Hokage’s eyes twinkle. “That’s good to hear. Your mission is-” he makes a dramatic pause. “Weeding the Soma family’s gardens.”

A pause. Then Naruto screams, “Whaaaat?!” loud enough to be heard in all of Konoha.

 


 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬


 

Side story: What happened in Training Ground Three

It’s been two hours after Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto, and Nara Riko passed the bell test. Kakashi’s handed off his adorable kunoichi student to Genma. He’d guessed there was some kind of mentorship between them, seeing as Riko had spat a senbon at him during the test - Genma’s signature move.

He fully intends on finding his friend later and grilling him on the details. And ask what the deal with Riko and the hospital is, while he’s at it. Look into her medical records, if necessary.

But for now, he has a report to give. 

 “They passed,” he tells the Sandaime, who regards him intently.

 “I see. Your opinion of them?”

 “The boys are as expected. The girl…” he pauses thoughtfully. “Has come a long way.”

He remembers finding her, bleeding, too small and thin, signs of neglect all over her. Her hair Uzumaki-red. Kakashi now knows she’s not a member of that clan, had been informed of that fact when he was assigned this team. But he didn’t know back then, and if nobody had told him, he’d never have guessed either. She uses fuuinjutsu, and those chains she formed from water…

Clearly Yoshino had made the same assumptions as to her heritage and trained her accordingly. It’s not a well-known fact that the Nara matriarch is distantly related to the once-famed Uzumaki, though not a direct descendant, but those that were aware had clearly connected Riko’s red hair to Nara Yoshino’s distant cousins.

Kakashi’s going to need to figure out which disciplines the kid had been trained in.

More importantly, he needs to analyse the dynamic of the team. It’s clear to him that Naruto and her share a friendship. Less obvious is the familiarity between Sasuke and Riko, which is a pleasant surprise.

 “Very well. Keep me updated, Kakashi-kun,” Sarutobi tells him pensively. “Dismissed.”

 “Ah, Training Ground Three needs to be cleared of traps. Kids got creative,” he adds fondly.

 “It will be taken care of,” Sarutobi replies and makes a note on his papers.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Tenten and her team wait for their sensei at their usual training ground, all three of them already hard at work: Neji gracefully performing his katas, Lee doing crunches and counting them out loud, and herself training her accuracy with kusarigama. She keeps an eye on her teammates to make sure they don’t strain themselves, as Gai had promised them to get them another C-rank mission, or else he’d walk four hundred laps around the village on his hands, and if he failed to do that, he’d do one thousand push-ups on one hand, and if that didn’t work…

She sighs. She loves her team, she really does, but sometimes…

Her sigh doesn’t go unnoticed. Immediately, Lee jumps up. “Tenten! What troubles you? I shall-”

Tenten (thankfully) doesn’t get to hear the feats Lee will accomplish in her honour baecause Gai-sensei appears in a plume of smoke. “Yosh! My youthful students! Today, we shall be departing on a C-rank mission!” He strikes a pose and gives them The Smile.

“Yes! Gai-sensei! I’m burning with the Flames Of Youth!” Lee shouts, mimicking the pose.

Tenten and Neji exchange a long-suffering glance. Hers is resigned, his annoyed more than anything. 

Personally, she thinks he really should accept his lot in life. They’re stuck together, and neither herself nor Lee nor Gai is ever going to give up on their team.

 “Just tell us what it is?” she cuts into Gai and Lee’s antics. The sunset background hasn’t made an appearance yet, but it’s only a matter of time and she’d love to avoid it if at all possible.

Fat chance of that. Gai-sensei appears to be even more motivated than usual. “Our mission has been requested by my Hip And Eternal Rival Hatake Kakashi himself! We shall not fail to win this challenge with the Power Of Our Youth!”

Neji and her straighten. How interesting - a challenge from their sensei’s rival? They’ve heard about Hatake Kakashi, of course - Gai-sensei recounts their challenges often enough. They’ve seen them from afar, too, though only Lee was impressed with the drawing contest.

Neither man was particularly skilled.

 “Yosh!” Lee shouts. “We shan’t fail! What is this most perilous of tasks, that your most respected rival must ask for our aid?”

 “Traps have been set in Training Ground Three! We shall protect our fellow comrades by disposing of them!”

She deadpans. “So… we need to clean up after your rival.”

 “Oh no, Tenten! My rival has finally taken on the most youthful challenge of teaching a team, and it was his students who set the traps! It is clearly a competition between our teams!”

 “…he can’t have had them longer than a day,” she feels the need to point out.

Those kids probably don’t even know of Gai’s existence yet, never mind any rivalries!

Also, none of that changes that they have to clean up after Gai’s rival and his brats.

 “I see!” Lee’s train of thought clearly doesn’t mirror hers, as his eyes begin to shine. “We shall compete with your most honoured rival’s team! We shall make you proud, Gai-sensei!”

Gai’s eyes fill with tears. Behind him, the sun sets over a peaceful ocean, even though it’s noon and they’re in the middle of the village. “Lee!” he sobs.

 “Gai-sensei!” Lee begins to cry as well, staring at Gai in absolute worship.

Gah, it never gets any less awkward to watch.

 “Lee!”

 “Gai-sensei!”

Even Neji never managed to figure out how the background scenery appeared every single time this happened. Nor has he found a way to see through it, not even with his byakugan.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Training Ground Three looks mostly normal. A bit of a crater and some rather big puddles, but otherwise Tenten can’t spy anything off.

Neji, though, clearly sees something else when he activates his doujutsu. “Who are the members of Hatake’s team?” he asks, a faint note of interest in his voice that has Tenten perking up.

Neither of them entertain the possibility that Gai-sensei might not know the names of his rival’s students. It’s Gai.

Gai rubs at his chin. “The Uchiha boy, Uzumaki Naruto, and the top-scoring girl in their year - Riko is her name, I think.”

 “Uchiha Sasuke? Of the Uchiha Clan?” Lee asks, as if there are any other Uchiha around. 

Tenten shakes her head in exasperation. Lee’s obsession with defeating geniuses descending from famous clans is becoming unhealthy, if he’s about to strike up a rivalry with some kid he’s never met.

 “People call him a prodigy,” Neji speaks up, considering. “The other boy must be the dead-last of their year, then.”

Typical. Of course they focus on the boys. But Tenten has kept an eye on the girls set to graduate after her. “The girl was a surprise. Everyone thought it’d be Haruno Sakura who’d take the top spot,” she recounts. “She dominated the class for years, had top scores. But Riko beat her in the final exam.”

A surprise. The girl, in Tenten’s opinion, looked like a strong gust of wind could blow her over. Perhaps her success was owed to excessive studying and booksmarts? Maybe Sakura had an off-day?

 “So Uchiha’s team left this behind?” Neji nods towards whatever he’s seeing that Tenten doesn’t, and gives a rare smirk. “This should be interesting.”

Tenten is rather surprised at the investment Neji’s showing the situation. It must be because both Neji and Sasuke are supposed to be geniuses. She has to admit, she herself is curious as to who of the two is stronger. Though testing it now wouldn’t be fair - Neji clearly has experience on his side.

Then again, the opponent is an Uchiha.

 “Yosh!” Lee shouts with determination. “Let’s win this challenge!”

It’s clean-up. Tenten rolls her eyes. This wouldn’t even be remotely taxing on them, her team was practically made for this mission: Neji with his byakugan can locate all the traps, she herself is more than skilled at disabling them, and Lee and Gai can deal with springing those traps that could otherwise not be dealt with.

The only reason this task isn’t D-ranked is because of the weaponry involved and the location being a shinobi training ground.

 “Yes! Neji! Lead the way!” Gai-sensei prompts.

They follow Neji into the forest. The Hyuuga bends down and swipes a few branches on the ground away, revealing strands of ninja wire leading in different directions. “Cut them. It’ll disable five projectile-launchers.” He points to where those are located. Tenten inspects the traps and confirms Neji’s assessment.

 “The traps themselves aren’t bad,” she says critically, “But it’s never a good idea to connect so many. Look, they can all be disabled at once, and if you find one, you find them all.”

Gai-sensei nods, pride shining from his eyes. “Then let us not waste any time!”

Tenten nods and unceremoniously cuts the wire. Immediately, a series of clicks and snaps follow, and suddenly, dozens of kunai come flying from everywhere. 

The four of them have excellent reflexes, however, and the projectiles are deflected without too much difficulty. Tenten is still relieved when the bombardment stops. “Must have overlooked something-” she begins, but then Gai-sensei throws her out of the way of a volley of burning arrows. Neji and Lee, meanwhile, have to deflect shuriken. She tries to get to them, but just that moment, the arrows hit a tree nearby, and the tell-tale hiss of an explosive tag fuse burning down has her fleeing as fast as she can - almost running into a rain of senbon that... trail glitter after them? Neji, meanwhile, has a pitfall opening beneath him.

 “Back to the clearing,” Gai yells, but. How?

This is so not a C-rank.

Why the hell weren’t they told about a trap specialist being on that team?!

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Sarutobi Hiruzen raises his eyebrows (he never could control just a singular one at a time) at the sight of the team of the team he sent three hours earlier to clear Training Ground Three. All of them, even Gai, even the Hyuuga, look as if they fought a war against clowns and lost. Caked in multi-coloured dirt, covered in cuts. Tenten’s hair, tangled in ninja wire, is undone and parts of her outfit burnt off, revealing charred armour underneath. She supports Rock Lee, the usually energetic boy so exhausted he can barely keep his eyes open, his green outfit covered in obnoxiously pink glue. Hyuuga Neji - dear kami, if he laughs, the Hyuuga clan will take political action.

Gai covered in orange glitter is fairly tame in comparison.

 “Hokage-sama!” Gai booms, a beaming smile on his face. “Our team was regretfully forced to retreat due to injury! We recommend sending a team of trap specialists to clear away the remaining traps. To make up for our failure, Team Gai shall-”

 “Take a trip to the hospital,” Hiruzen finishes for him. “Thank you for your efforts. Please hand in your reports within the next three days.”

Gai and team leave. Hiruzen puffs his pipe in contemplation.

How curious.

(Tenten, Neji, and Lee came to the conclusion that Uchiha Sasuke’s genius wasn’t exaggerated. Him specialising in traps was unexpected, but it couldn’t be anyone else — the majority of those weapons had been too high quality to belong to either of his teammates, both of them no-name orphans.)

(Team Gai decided that redemption could only be accomplished by beating Team Seven, specifically Uchiha Sasuke.)

(It took two more teams going over Training Ground Three until it was once again deemed safe to enter.)

Chapter Text

Things sort of settle into a routine, for as much as they can when the new routine is so, well, new. Mornings are reserved for team meetings - a minimum of two hours spent waiting for Kakashi, followed by some D-ranked mission once he finally shows up, and team training for what’s left of the afternoon. Though some days they skip either training or missions. And Thursdays they have off completely.

It’s pretty fun, in Riko’s opinion. She likes it. Her team’s pretty okay, so long as Sasuke and Naruto aren’t left to their own devices. Especially not Naruto.

They can’t be left together, either. Stupid rivalry jeopardises D-ranks. It’s rather stupid, but on the other hand, they’re both working harder when the other is there to compete with.

On her own time, she continues to train in shadow manipulation and whatever else she feels she needs to improve on. Added to that is the occasional sleepover with Ino (“I spend too much time with boys, and your hair is out of control!”), spars with Sasuke, hanging around with Naruto, and being whisked away by Genma for more training.

It’s exhausting, but fulfilling. Riko wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Today’s training is different from the usual. Normally, it’s the three of them having to do something and Kakashi making it even more difficult than it already is for training and entertainment purposes. They never know what’s coming next. That one time they simulated an escort mission, and suddenly they were ambushed by a swarm of squirrels.

Riko’s team learned a lot that day, most notably the fact that their jounin sensei is insane.

Other times Kakashi pits them against each other because according to him, they’ll get more familiar with how they fight that way, which will improve teamwork.

But today, it’s completely different, at least for Riko. Not in what they’ll be doing but in the fact that she’s blindfolded. For the rest of the week, Kakashi said. There’s a sticking seal on the thing, too, so the black piece of cloth is practically fused to her skin.

 “Don’t worry, Ricchan!” Naruto babbles from her left. “I’ll show you where to walk! Gimme your hand, it’s gonna be fun!”

Riko holds out her hand into the vague direction of his voice and chakra. Kakashi grabs her wrist. “Nope!” he cheerfully says. “This is training. Sasuke and you will treat Riko as you would normally. She needs to hone her sensing ability, and this should teach her some tracking as well.”

 “But why her?” Sasuke asks mulishly.

 “Yeah!” Naruto agrees. “I wanna learn, too!”

 “Because her chakra capacity is far below average,” Kakashi reminds them dryly. “And she’s not blessed with great stamina either. Between you three, she needs that edge the most. May I remind you of the last four hospital visits.”

Riko huffs. “Only one was actually necessary, but you just had to panic-”

 “Anyway,” Kakashi talks over her loudly, “You can learn after Riko’s got the basics down. I’m not dealing with more than one of you walking around blind.”

A beat of silence. Then the sound of ripping cloth. “You can’t stop us, Kaka-sensei!” Naruto declares.

 “Hn,” Sasuke agrees.

Kakashi sighs deeply. “Well, I suppose if you really want to do this…”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

 “Hey Riko!”

 “Hi.”

A bark.

 “And hi, Akamaru,” she adds. A tiny weight hits her chest and she clutches the small dog on reflex. He licks her chin and she giggles.

 “So…” Kiba says. “You’re walking the puppies.”

 “D-rank,” she explains.

In the background, Naruto wails. Sasuke is swearing. It probably has something to do with the amalgam of various dog chakras piled around them. Some of them are really big. Hers reaches her hip, and he feels small in comparison with what she can sense Naruto wrestling with. And those are supposed to be puppies?

“And you’re all three blindfolded,” Kiba points out the obvious.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Riko answers. “Because I can’t see.”

The dog whose leash she’d wrapped around her arm runs in a circle around her in an attempt to tie up her legs. Smart little shit. She spins along with him so this ploy of his won’t succeed.

She only got one dog. The boys decided they’d split up the rest between them.

Riko’s okay with that, all things considered, though she would have liked it if they’d asked her opinion on that plan.

 “But why?” Kiba asks in confusion.

 “Sensor training. The boys felt left out, so they blindfolded themselves. Then sensei made it so they can’t take the blindfolds off. Something about learning about consequences.” She pauses. “I’m like 99% sure it’s just for his entertainment.”

Loud splash. Naruto shrieks. Dogs bark in elation. “Damn it, Naruto!” Sasuke yells before his voice is muffled, presumably by an overabundance of dogs.

Riko’s dog pulls at the leash in order to get in on the fun.

“They just fell into the water, didn’t they?” she asks idly. She hasn’t visited the Inuzuka that often before this, just a handful of times on Kiba’s invitation or to bring Usagi-chan to the vet, but she remembers the little ponds the dogs like to use for bathing.

Kiba snickers, which is answer enough. “Sensor training, huh?”

 “And some tracking.” She’s supposed to sharpen her nose with chakra. On her first try, she nearly passed out from overload.

 “Cool,” Kiba says. “Gotta go to team training, but come by later and I’ll give you some pointers. Dinner sound okay?”

She shrugs. “Sure. Sounds great.”

Akamaru barks happily and gets more slobber on her face.

 “Sure buddy, sleepover’s okay, too,” she agrees. “Thanks!”

 “Sweet! Come on, Akamaru, we’re gonna be late! Later, Riko! Hey you! Yeah, I’m talking to you!” The dog she’s supposed to walk give a startled whine. “Don’t be a brat, she’s my friend.”

Dog barks back unrepentantly.

 “Her sensei promised you what?” Kiba asks incredulously.

Riko groans. “If we get to talking about Kakashi-sensei, you’ll definitely be late. I’ll fill you in later.” Akamaru licks her one last time and launches himself at Kiba.

“Yeah, okay, later!” he yells and runs off. She tracks his chakra as best she can. It’s hard — there are a lot of other people around, and their chakras are really similar to his.

In the background, it sounds as if Kakashi is giving unhelpful advice to the boys. Something about, “To beat the dog, you must become the dog.”

Her annoying charge barks. Riko crouches down. “Okay, here’s the deal. I’ll walk you and we can play after, and I’ll get you treats, too, and we can even splash around in the pond together, but it’s super crowded in there right now, so we’ll wait until the others are gone. Okay?”

Dog huffs.

He drives a hard bargain, clearly.

“I’ll give you scritches every time I come by,” she promises. “Who’s a good dog?”

The dog’s chakra goes happy and eager instantly. Puppy, she reminds herself. She reaches out a hand and a cold, damp snout bumps it. Yay, more dog slobber.

 “Okay,” she tells him. “I can’t see right now, so you gotta show me where to go and not, like, lead me into a ditch somewhere. In exchange, I’ll owe you a favour.” 

Puppy barks happily and takes off. Riko lets herself be pulled along with him.

She better get out of dodge before Kakashi throws yet another character-building obstacle at her.

It’d be very hard to fend off squirrels while blindfolded.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

When Riko returns from walking her new puppy friend, Naruto and Sasuke still haven’t managed to make it out of the Inuzuka compound. They did make it out of the pond, though.

The spectators at least seem to be having fun. “Ten on the Uchiha,” she hears someone say.

 “No way,” another guy laughs. “Yama outweighs him ten to one.”

 “Hey,” Riko says. “Aren’t you mad? We got hired to walk the dogs and they haven’t even made it off the compound?”

 “What? No, they’re just supposed to exercise with them,” the guy laughs.

 “Bloody Kakashi!” she swears. Then she adds, “Ten on the dog. The small mean one behind Naruto.”

 “Good eye,” the probably-Inuzuka says. 

 “Oh haha,” she mutters. Her puppy friend paws at her leg and whines. “Aw, you wanna go play, too? Yeah? Okay!”

Riko unclips his leash. He barks happily and leaps into the fray. Bowls Sasuke right over. He trips over a dog and lands on Naruto. It’s highly satisfying to observe, even blindfolded.

Her Inuzuka companion catcalls. He’s not the only one.

Naruto makes gagging sounds. Both of Riko’s teammates’ chakras feel disgusted. “Did they accidentally kiss again?” she asks curiously.

 “Happens a lot?” 

Riko shrugs. “Um. Yes.”

At least four times that she knows of.

Guy guffaws. “Yo, Tsume! Can we hire them again?”

From somewhere, Kiba’s mum bellows, “Hell yes, but you’re paying! Yo, is that Riko there? Heard you’re staying over, so get your ass over here, I’m not making dinner alone!”

 “Okay!” she yells back. “Sensei, I’m going!”

Kakashi’s usually somewhere nearby. If he wanted to, he could stop her.

 “Have fun!” he replies cheerfully from… above? Above. Maybe a rooftop. A tree? Eh, whatever. He’s okay with Riko calling it quits for today, she’d not wasting any time getting out of dodge.

Then she considers how to get to Tsume. The boys vs. puppies battlefield is kind of in the way, and it’s everywhere.

That’s probably why Kakashi sounded so happy. Stupid sensei.

Okay then. She focuses on her chakra sense. Lots of dog chakras, moving too fast and all over each other to keep track of, but she can figure out the general direction of their movement. And Sasuke and Naruto’s chakras are obvious amid the chaos. Sound tells her that the ground has long since turned to mud. Everything smells like wet dog.

If she’s quick and silent, she can probably make it across unbothered. All the dogs are distracted.

Nothing for it. Here she goes!

Instantly, her puppy friend barks in excitement. She can just hear it. “New friend coming to play!”

All dogs zero in on her.

 “Oh fu-” she manages to get out before she’s buried alive under dogs.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko is attempting to chop carrots. It’s pretty hard to do while blindfolded, and she’s got to keep a cooling pack stuck to her head with chakra at the same time as well. She hit her head in the scuffle with the dogs.

The puppy from before’s sitting at her feet, pressed to her leg. One upside to being blindfolded: She’s finally found a way around puppy eyes.

 “You done with those carrots?” Tsume yells from the other side of the kitchen.

 “Yep!” Riko replies. “But they’re probably really ugly.”

 “Eh, brats will eat anything I put before them and you’re currently blind, so who cares?” Riko hears her voice coming closer, and the soft pads of her partner Kuromaru’s paws following in her wake. She’s pretty sure they’re making those noises for her benefit only. 

Dull rustling noise of something being dumped before her. “Sort through these,” Tsume orders.

 “Uhm,” Riko says awkwardly. “And those are…?”

 “Figure it out yourself.” Kiba’s mum bustles away.

Great. Riko carefully channels chakra to her nose - not too much! - and sniffs experimentally. The scent is familiar, but it’s too much, too multi-faceted, for her to place it. Cautiously, she reaches out and feels with her hands.

 “Beans!” she exclaims.

Puppy friend barks in confirmation. She really should find out his name.

So. She knows it’s beans now. But how will she sort through them without her eyes? 

Well, Tsume wouldn’t have given her an exercise impossible to solve, so it’s probably to do with her nose. Is she supposed to sniff out the bad ones? But she doesn’t know how the bad ones would smell, and picking out the scent of one individual bean when there are so many others is going go take forever.

“Hey buddy,” she says to the puppy. “You know how to do this?”

A proud bark. That’s a yes. 

 “Wanna help?” she asks.

Excited tail-swishing sound. Awesome.

And that’s how she ends up showing beans to a puppy, who tells her if it’s a good or a bad one. After a while, she gets the hang of it herself, committing the scents to memory. She’s only wrong half the time!

After the beans, it’s tomatoes and then mushrooms. It gets harder because Tsume’s started to actually cook, and the scent of meat frying is pretty strong. 

A door slams. “I’m home!” Girl’s voice. Smells sort of like Kiba, chakra is also pretty Kiba-ish, and smells like dogs. Multiple dogs. “Hey Riko! How’s that rabbit of yours?”

 “Hana?” she asks. 

 “Who else?” Kiba’s sister laughs. Behind her, her ninken shuffle into the kitchen. 

 “Usagi-chan’s fine,” Riko answers. With a twinge of sadness, she adds, “Doesn’t do much of anything anymore.”

Not that Usagi ever did much besides sleeping, but nowadays, that seems to be all he’s doing. Hotaru’s old pet is getting on in years.

 “Huh. Bring him by sometime, yeah? Mum, I’m taking a shower!”

 “Shower your dogs, too! They stink!”

 “Mum!” Hana whines.

 “Move it, brat!”

Hana and her ninken-entourage leave the kitchen. Not too long later, Kiba and Akamaru come barrelling in and are almost immediately kicked out to clean up.

Dinner with the Inuzukas is lively. “Where’d your team get off to?” Kiba asks. “Figured Naruto’d at least insist on sticking with you.”

Riko shrugs. “Sensei grabbed him and Sasuke and disappeared. Something about survival training while blind in an onsen. I’m only half sure they won’t get their asses eaten by mutant koi fish.”

Tsume guffaws.

 “What the hell, Kurenai-sensei doesn’t give us fun training like that,” Kiba grumps. “It’s all formations and rules and babysitting missions with her.”

 “Wanna swap?” Riko asks hopefully. Okay, she can do without babysitting, but she’d hands-down trade it for chasing that goddamn cat again. Kiba would probably have a lot of fun with that mission.

 “Nah,” Kiba says. “Team’s pretty cool. Sure, Shino’s creepy and Hinata’s shy, but we’re doing okay. What about yours?”

She shrugs. “We. Get along. Sometimes? I mean, I get along with the boys. But they suck at working with each other. And Kakashi-sensei’s the worst. It’s never boring, though.” 

Riko actually likes her team very much. It’s fun. Even when she wants to punch the them a lot. She wouldn’t trade her team for the world.

Akamaru, who commandeered her lap much to the puppy’s displeasure, whines and pushes his little head into her stomach. She giggles and scratches him behind the ears the way she knows he likes.

 “Okay, kids, all done? Then get lost!” Tsume announces. “Hana, you’re helping me with cleaning up. Kiba, get Riko settled.”

 “Got it!” Kiba grabs Riko’s hand and pulls her along. “You okay with sleeping in my room? I mean, Akamaru’ll be there, too, and Momo’s gotten attached to you, so it’s not like it’ll be just us, but you’re a girl and girls get weird-”

 “Where else would I sleep?” Riko asks in confusion. “And why would it be weird? I crash at Naruto’s place all the time, it’s not like that’s any different.”

 “I dunno!” Kiba exclaims. “It’s just, Hinata nearly exploded and Kurenai-sensei was super scandalised when I wanted to have team sleepover in my room, and she gave me this super long talk about propriety. I didn’t get it and it didn’t make sense, but I guess girls and boys are supposed to sleep separately.”

 “Weird,” Riko mutters. “Boy and girl stuff is stupid.”

 “Yes!” Kiba agrees emphatically. A door opens and she’s pulled into a room that has his and Akamaru’s scent all over it.

 “Like, Naruto still talks about Sakura all the time!” Riko tells him. “And she still tries to stalk Sasuke all the time when we’re out on D-ranks, and it’s really annoying. How does she have so much time? And what is the point?”

Kiba groans and lets go of her hand. A moment later what feels like blankets are shoved into her arms. “So glad Shino’s too creepy to have fangirls and Hinata’s too shy to get crazy about it.”

 “Hinata likes Sasuke?” Riko asks in surprise.

 “Nah, not him.” Kiba rummages around. “Er, you want a mattress or something? Akamaru and I sleep on furs on the ground, but I can totally get you something!”

Riko waves him off. “That’s fine.”

 “’Kay, then I guess we’re done. C’mon, sit, let’s talk noses.”

She sinks down. Instantly, she has a lap full of dog. Momo, Kiba called her puppy friend. As she promised, she begins running her finger through his fur. Huh, he’s kind of fat. “It’s hard,” she admits. “I keep losing track of the stuff I smell, and I never know what I’m smelling!”

 “Huh, never had that problem. Guess it’s a practice thing? I mean, I’ve been doing it forever.” Kiba laughs. “But there’s some tricks when a scent is too strong or two weak, or when there’s just too many scents. I’ll show you!”

 “Awesome. I really appreciate it!” she says gratefully, and resolves to do something nice for him at some point. Maybe draw him some storage or explosion seals? But the Inuzuka clan probably keep a supply ready for members. 

Maybe some food pills, then. The Nara clan makes the good stuff, and Yoshino made it clear that she could take some any time, as long as she wrote down in the log how much would need to be refilled.

Something to think about later. 

 “Eh, no problem!” Kiba’s chakra gives the impression of a happy grin. “It’s cool talking with a friend again! I never see the Academy crowd anymore!”

 “Me neither,” Riko agrees. “Aside from Shika’s team, of course.”

 “We should get everyone together again!” Kiba decides. “Like, uh, let’s meet up Sunday evening. At Yakiniku Q. Your team, mine, Shikamaru’s. No senseis allowed.”

 “Deal.” Riko grins. If she plays her cards right, she might even trick Sasuke into going.

 “Okay!” Kiba claps his hands. “Training time! Let’s go to the training grounds and get your nose going!” He jumps up. “Last one there’s a loser!”

And he runs off.

Not fair! She doesn’t even know the way!

Chapter Text

 “Why Yakiniku?” Naruto complains mulishly. “Ramen’s better!”

 “Because three teams won’t fit into Ichiraku’s,” Riko points out reasonably. “Anyway, mostly we’re meeting up to bitch about our jounin sensei-”

 “Sensei can hear you,” Kakashi says sadly. 

Riko gives him a thumbs-up. “-and brag about who learnt the coolest stuff and did the most missions. It’ll be fun. Besides, they’re our friends, we should keep in contact. It was really fun meeting hanging out with Kiba again, you know?”

 “I guess,” Naruto grumbles. “Kiba’s lame, though. And we’re totally the coolest team!”

 “But if you two don’t show-” She points at Sasuke and Naruto’s chakras, would have added a pointed look if she weren’t still blindfolded- “Then we’ll be the lamest.”

Sasuke’s chakra feels stubbornly opposed to going. Naruto doesn’t seem too happy either, which is pretty unexpected. She figured he’d be happy to be invited somewhere, but apparently not.

 “I can’t show how much ass I kick in a restaurant!” he exclaims. Riko facepalms. Of course that would be the problem.

This seems like one of those times Ino would roll her eyes and huff, “Boys.”

 Boys,” Riko huffs. “It’ll be fun, so I’m going, and if you don’t show we’ll have a great laugh about the at least four times you accidentally kissed. That I know of. Who knows what you do while I’m blindfolded.”

 “No,” Sasuke says. “You won’t.”

 “Watch me.” Why do they think that’s a secret anyway? There were witnesses every time.

 “Ricchan! You wouldn’t!” Naruto gasps in horror. “And we don’t do nothing just ‘cause you can’t see!”

The boys were both rid of the blindfolds after a day. Riko didn’t ask.

 “Uh-huh,” she says doubtfully. “Anyway, you know the time and place. Your choice if you show up or not.”

 “You should,” Kakashi backs her up unexpectedly. “You’ll be working together with them soon enough. They might save your life someday. Plus, enjoying your downtime is important.”

His voice sounds like he’s smiling.

 “If you all go, I might let you go on a C-rank,” he promises.

Instantly, the boys’ chakras sharpen with determination. “We’ll go!” Naruto shouts. “We’ll definitely go! Bastard, if you don’t go-”

 “If you forget the meeting time, dead-last-”

 “I won’t! I bet you’ll forget!”

Riko pinches the bridge of her nose.

Well, at least they agreed to come.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

That evening’s get-together presents Riko with a heretofore unprecedented problem.

She doesn’t know what to wear! And she’s blindfolded, so she’s very unlikely to figure it out anytime soon!

Yakiniku Q isn’t the kind of place one has to dress up for — Shika’s team goes there all the time after training. But most of the others, she hasn’t seen in weeks, and she really doesn’t want to look like a colourblind monkey, which is what the kid they had to babysit yesterday called her.

(It’s not like she can see what she’s putting on in the morning! So if she leaves the house in the old orange hoodie Naruto had given her for some birthday, paired with sleep pyjama shorts, and nobody tells her, then it’s not her fault!)

Riko huffs in frustration, grabs a bunch of clothes and tosses them into her backpack, then jumps out the window. Her landing is smooth. She’s gotten better at sensing chakra. Or, well, not better but more skilled. The grass below has very little chakra, but it’s there, like a thin carpet of light there.

Luckily, the way to Ino’s house isn’t far, and it’s easy to find, too - the scent of flowers is noticeable enough. 

Even more lucky, Ino is home, Riko can sense her in her room.

 “Hello, Riko,” Inoichi’s voice greets when she enters the flower shop. “I see sensor training is going well.”

 “I’m not tripping into everything anymore,” she confirms. “I’m here to see Ino?”

 “Upstairs.”

 “Thanks.” 

Now where’s the damn door? She treads carefully. Flower pots are really, really hard to avoid walking into. 

If she remembers correctly, it was a wooden door, with a metal doorknob. But it she tries sniffing it out, she’ll end up sneezing because of all the flowers around.

 “Little bit more to the right,” Inoichi says helpfully.

 “Thanks,” she repeats gratefully and feels for the doorknob. There! “Later, Inoichi-san!”

 “Have fun.”

She finds Ino easily. The scent of perfume is intense, and Riko pulls the chakra from her nose. “Ino?” she calls out, knocking on the door. “It’s Riko!”

The door opens. “Hey Riko, how are you do- what are you wearing?!”

 “I need help,” Riko whines pathetically. “Please help me?”

 “Yeah, obviously,” Ino says dryly. “Come on in. Please tell me you didn’t walk around like that.”

Riko stays silent.

 “Sasuke-kun must have been so embarrassed!” Ino laments. 

 “No, he was definitely having fun,” Riko corrects her. “I heard him and Naruto snicker.”

 “He would never!” Ino gasps. “You’re wearing a yellow hoodie with pink polkadots and dog ears! And purple leggings!”

It appears Riko’s closet has been pranked. So that’s what her team had been up to that night she’d stayed over at Kiba’s.

Someone would pay for this.

She empties out her backpack full of clothes. “What of this is wearable?” she asks.

Ino’s silence and the horrified feel of her chakra do not bode well.

 “My team is nothing if not committed to its idiocy,” Riko states into the silence. “Ino? Will you please point out to me the most horrifying combination of the assorted clothes?”

 “Why?” Ino asks warily.

 “I’m going to really embarrass them now,” Riko answers darkly. “They will rue the day they decided to mess with my clothes. Is there anything with glitter?”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko makes her way to the restaurant on her own because Ino refused to be seen with her in her current get-up any more than necessary. Fair enough.

Inoichi had choked when she’d walked past him, and now, walking through the streets, she’s definitely drawing looks as well.

According to Ino, she’s wearing an orange thing that’s less shirt and more sequins, a shiny gold jacket, and a rainbow skirt paired with white leggings embroidered with frolicking dogs. And to top it off, Ino had given her a giant purple bow to tie her hair back with.

Someone better take a picture of this because she’d really like to see herself right now.

Yakiniku Q’s scent makes the restaurant easy to find. Shika, Chouji, and Kiba are already there, so Riko walks in.

They freeze when they see her. The familiar sound of Shikamaru facepalming follows. Kiba starts howling with laughter.

 “Hi Riko,” Chouji greets, as if this is perfectly normal. 

From the feel of his chakra, he finds nothing off about how she looks, which makes her rather concerned for his sense of aesthetics.

 “Hi,” she greets. 

 “What happened to you?” Kiba gasps out. Akamaru barks.

“My idiot team pranked my closet,” she explains cheerfully. “I’m getting them back. I am blindfolded. They have to be seen with me.”

 “But so do we,” Shikamaru deadpans. “So troublesome.”

Kiba snickers. Then he perks up. “Yo, Shino! Hinata! Over here!”

Riko frowns. She can pick out Hinata’s chakra, but only faintly. Shino’s, however, is barely there, and… it’d always felt odd before, but now? If Kiba hadn’t called him by name, she wouldn’t have known a human had just entered.

She files that bit of information away to examine later. At least Shino still has a scent. Hasn’t learned scent-erasing jutsu yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time, with Kiba on his team.

They exchange greetings. “You look nice,” Hinata tells Riko shyly, and seems to mean it. For whatever reason.

 “Thanks. You smell good,” Riko replies, since she can’t exactly compliment Hinata’s appearance right now.

Hinata makes a tiny squeaking noise that might be distantly related to a thank-you.

Ino is the next to arrive, but not two minutes later the rest of Riko’s team bursts in as well. Well, Naruto bursts in, Sasuke ambles after him as if he were just strolling in.

 “Sasuke-kun! You came!” Ino squeals. Riko startles at how the feel of her chakra shifts, going bright and excited with genuine happiness. It’s a lovely thing to witness, so pure and innocent.

So that’s what it means to be in love, Riko realises. It makes chakra go like that.

It’s beautiful.

 “Hey, hey!” Naruto shouts. “We’re here, the most awesome - Ricchan?!”

 “Hi!” Riko greets cheerfully, jumping up in all her shiny and sparkly glory. “I saved you seats!”

  “Riko looks great, doesn’t she?” Ino gushes, vengeance in her chakra. Riko kind of wants to hug her because she’s awesome. “Her new look is so inspiring!”

 “Yeah, those leggings are great!” Kiba agrees. 

He’d think that. They’ve got dogs on them.

 “Hahaha, yeah…” Naruto laughs awkwardly. Sasuke pushes past him and unceremoniously drops down next to Riko, nodding tersely at the greetings aimed at him. Naruto sits on his other side with an annoyed mutter about having wanted that seat.

 “Cool, that’s all of us!” Kiba laughs. “Let’s order!”

 “Yes! Food!” Chouji shouts, his usual shyness completely disappeared at the prospect of food. It’s like his chakra’s been set aflame.

 “The cool thing,” Shikamaru speaks up, “is that we’ll get discounts for being shinobi, showing up with our teams, and having an Akimichi here.”

  “Sweet!” Kiba decides, and Akamaru barks in excitement.

It’s a pretty great evening. Loud, fun, everybody shouting over each other in an attempt to out-brag the rest.

(“We have the worst sensei, believe it!”

“Don’t be proud of that, you loser!”)

  “Now don’t look,” Shikamaru says quietly-

 “Okay, I won’t,” deadpans Riko.

 “-But our stupid senseis just took a table across the room. Don’t look, I said!”

 “Ow! Don’t kick me!”

 “What do we do?” Ino hisses. “And I can’t see them!”

 “You can’t recognise them. Why? Because they’re in henge,” Shino elaborates dryly.

 “Except Team Seven’s sensei,” Hinata, who surprisingly had managed a tiny bit of conversation today, continues.

 “Yeah, your sensei just has a fake moustache.” Kiba snickers. “Glued to his mask.”

A moment of silence. And then…

  “Yeah, Kakashi-sensei is so lame!” Naruto yells.

 “So lame,” Riko agrees instantly.

 “Yeah,” Sasuke finishes.

They high-five.

 “Asuma-sensei smokes all the time!” Ino catches on. “It’s so unhealthy! Try getting that smell out of your clothes!”

(“You smoke around the kids?” a woman’s voice hisses in the background.

“Not in closed quarters!”)

 “Ha, suckers. Kurenai-sensei’s the best!” Kiba brags, sticking out his tongue at them.

(In the background, someone radiates extreme smugness.)

 “Yeah, but I bet you wouldn’t know what to do when an army of squirrels ambushes you, so who’s the real winner here?”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

It might not have been the best idea to roast Kakashi in his hearing range, but in Riko’s opinion, it was worth it.

Even if he’s got them chasing that stupid cat again after gruelling training all morning. And he still hasn’t let her take the damn blindfold off.

So that’s not much fun.

 “You promised us a C-rank,” she grumps at him while Sasuke attempts to wrestle the cat into submission. Naruto throws a few shadow clones into the mix, which makes the task quite impossible.

 “Hmm…” he muses. “I did, didn’t I?”

 “Yes!”

Glaring at him while blindfolded is pretty futile, but she tries anyway and gets her hair ruffled for her effort. It’s not exactly the optimum outcome, but it’s not the worst it could be either.

 “Maa… let’s see if the Hokage’s got a good one for us, then,” Kakashi decides. “I can’t tell you no when you’re wearing a Puppy #1 shirt. It’s too adorable.”

She files that bit of information away for later consideration. Out loud, she says, “You’re being a creepy old man again, sensei.”

Kakashi makes a wounded noise. “So mean. Sensei’s not old.”

 “C-rank,” she reminds him. “Let’s go, chop chop, we don’t have all day.”

In the background, Naruto shrieks when Tora the cat pops his shadow clones.

Right.

They should definitely deal with that first. It’s a good thing she’s gotten better at using her shadow! Now it even gives sensory feedback, which is pretty awesome when she’s blindfolded.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The Hokage tower is crowded, and it’s absolutely annoying that just about every jounin can hide their chakra. Plus, in closed quarters it’s hard to locate people by scent. At least her shadow is more helpful, but only in very short range - if some jounin comes that close to her, she’d be dead if it were an enemy.

Sasuke gives an annoyed huff and grabs her wrist, dragging her with him. As far as guides go, he leaves something to be desired in attitude and care, but is still better than Naruto, who’s busy attempting to wrangle the (now tied-up) cat.

 “Sasuke-kun!” Ino’s chakra is bubbly and excited as she runs up to them, coming from the direction of mission assignment. Her team follows behind at a more leisurely pace. “Guess who got a C-ranked mission?”

Sasuke stiffens, his hand on Riko’s wrist tightening. 

Right. Ino’s exuberance makes him uncomfortable. Riko’s going to have to talk to her about that, but for now - she pokes her head out from behind her teammate. “Hi Ino! Congratulations! We’re getting one, too!”

 “Oh, wonderful!” Ino’s chakra does this beaming, warm thing that Riko has learnt means smile. “Let’s meet up when we get back and compare notes!”

 “Okay!”

 “Might be a while,” Shikamaru grumbles as the rest of Ino’s team comes closer. “We’re guarding this bridge-builder guy for a few weeks at least.”

This guy, Riko guesses, is the person following in Team Ten’s wake. Civilian, unwashed, stench of alcohol. 

She doesn’t scrunch her nose up in disgust, but it’s a near thing. But they’re supposed to treat clients with respect and good manners.

As if on cue, the man sniffs disdainfully. “These brats are even smaller. They’ll let anyone become a ninja, huh? I suppose I lucked out not getting them, even if the blond girl’s completely useless. At least she’ll be pretty in a few years.”

Ino takes in a sharp breath, coupled with a tiny sound of hurt. It’s only a tiny reflection of the pain her chakra reflects.

In the space of a heartbeat, the atmosphere in the room shifts to polite hostility. Sasuke slowly takes his hand off of Riko’s wrist, chakra roiling. Only Naruto is oblivious, still busy with Tora.

 “Ino’s worth twelve of you.”

Riko doesn’t realise it was her who spoke for a good moment, and even afterwards she can’t bring herself to regret it no matter how rude it was. Not when Ino’s chakra quivers in gratefulness.

That thing is bubbling under her skin again.

She was hoping that it disappeared. It hasn’t shown since the bell test.

Kakashi’s hand is suddenly on her head, and huh, is she shaking? “Best get going, Asuma,” he advises cheerfully. “The day’s not getting younger. And Ino-chan? He needs you more than you do him. Just something to think about.”

Riko could really hug her sensei right now. She settles for fisting a hand in his flak jacket.

Ino’s chakra goes still. Then it sort of jumps, similar to what it did when she noticed Sasuke.

 “Come along now, team,” who must be Asuma-sensei speaks up after a small, awkward pause. “Have a good one, Kakashi.”

 “Have fun on your mission,” Shika mutters to Riko in passing, his shadow passing hers. It feels like a fleeting embrace.

 “You too,” she whispers back.

Team Ten leaves, the now sweaty bridge-builder in tow. Riko breathes out and slumps against Kakashi, just a bit. She feels strangely exhausted.

 “Argh!” Naruto shouts. “You stupid cat!”

Things go back to normal. They hand the cat over, get their cheeks pinched in thanks by Tora’s owner Shijimi-sama, who by now is pretty familiar with their faces. “Such sweet and dedicated children,” she gushes to Kakashi. “I wished my own were a little more like them. Here, dears, have some sweets!”

“Thanks, lady!” Naruto exclaims, Tora-troubles instantly forgotten.

Riko isn’t sure he ever caught onto the fact that Shijimi-sama is the wife of their country’s leader.

The lady pays the mission fees and leaves with her cat clutched to her. Riko would bet that Tora will be escaping again sometime next week.

 “Hmm…” the Hokage muses. “For your next task… helping with groceries, the potato fields need to be weeded and-”

 “Actually,” Kakashi speaks up, “I think they’re ready for a C-rank.”

 “We totally are!” Naruto agrees.

Sasuke doesn’t say a thing, but she imagines him giving one of those stubborn looks.

 “Same,” Riko says, just to have said something.

 “Hmm…”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

It’s only two days later that they finally get their hands on a genin-appropriate C-ranked mission. Unfortunately, the last available one was given to Shikamaru’s team, so it was two more days of D-ranks for Riko.

At least it was just one per day, and the rest Kakashi spent drilling them on formations and basics.

Riko finally got freed from the blindfold.

Readjusting to that is surprisingly hard.

  “All right, team,” Kakashi says seriously. “We meet back here in an hour. And we only leave if I’m satisfied with the supplies you packed. Dismissed.”

They don’t waste any time in taking off towards their respective homes. Riko needs little time to pack - at Yoshino’s advice, she’d prepared storage scrolls for missions in advance. Only a few odds and ends need to be grabbed, plus one of the Nara med-kits that are kept ready for active shinobi.

The house is empty. Sadly, Riko doesn’t have the time to track down her adoptive mother, who could be anywhere in the compound, so she leaves a note instead.

Shikaku, at least, is easy to find, he’s in his office like he’s supposed to. She’s a bit hesitant in knocking on his door — what if he’s busy? He’s an important man! — but then she does it anyway. 

 “Come in,” he answers, the door muffling his voice.

 “Hey,” she says awkwardly after shuffling in. “I got a C-rank outside the village.”

He probably figured that out from one look at her. She’s all packed up and ready to travel, hair braided back and pinned into a bun with senbon, wearing a sturdy hoodie, and the leggings that fully cover her legs are thick and and lined with mesh armour.

 “Message run?” he asks, confirming that suspicion. She nods, and he gets up from his chair. “Nervous?”

Riko shrugs, stuffing her hands into her hoodie’s pockets. “Not really.”

It’s the truth. She’s excited and tense, but not particularly jittery. There’s very little risk of combat on a message run. Even then, she doesn’t think she’d be very nervous.

It simply feels like she’s finally doing what she trained for all those years. Nothing more, nothing less.

 “Take care out there,” he tells her quietly. A bit of rummaging, and then he’s holding out a notebook for her. “If you have downtime.”

Riko takes it. She’s not an artist by any means, but she does like drawing and doodling and it’ll allow her to jot down notes on whatever comes into her head as well. 

It just seems like an odd thing to give someone before their first mission. Wouldn’t a weapon be more appropriate?

 “Sometimes,” he tells her, as if the thoughts were written on her forehead, “a shinobi needs something to focus on that isn’t fighting. I had a shogi set when I still operated outside the village — I gave it to your brother when he left on his first C-rank. Inoichi used to pick flowers and press them. Chouza collected new recipes.”

 “Oh.” The word feels inadequate, but she can’t think of anything else to say. She stares down at the notebook. “Thank you.”

 “And this is from your mother.” From beneath his desk, he retrieves-

 “A katana?” she breathes, stunned. Numbly holds out her hands for the weapon. It’s surprisingly heavy.

 “It’s not seeing much use these days,” Shikaku muses. “So Yoshino wanted you to have it. ‘Swords want to be used,’ she said. She’d have liked to give it to you herself, but I suppose that’s just life.”

Riko swallows heavily and withdraws an empty storage seal. A puff of smoke, and the weapon is stashed within. After a second’s contemplation, she tucks in one of the hidden compartments in her belt, meant just for keeping paper seals in them. Silently resolving to figure out a more permanent location on her body to store it in.

It’s a real katana. And with how high Yoshino’s standards are, even when kenjutsu isn’t her specialisation, it can’t be anything but high-quality. It’s very likely going to be Riko’s main weapon, so it’ll need its own space where it’ll always be when she’s not using it and where she can retrieve it from at a moment’s notice.

Something to figure out later. She should get moving.

 “Tell her thanks?” she asks quietly. “I have to go.”

Shikaku nods. “I’ll see you when you get back, little one.” He holds out his arms. Riko doesn’t hesitate to hurry into the hug.

“I’ll see you when I see you,” she mumbles. It’s much harder than she thought it’d be, to step out of his arms and to the door. “Bye.” And before she can chicken out, Riko quietly adds for the first time in her life, “Dad.”

She runs before she he can say anything.

Chapter Text

In an instance of surrealism, Kakashi is already waiting at the gates when Riko arrives. So is Sasuke, who’s eyeing him with no small measure of bewilderment.

 “Hi,” Riko greets. “Sasuke, is he who he pretends to be?”

Her teammate eyes Kakashi dubiously. “He claims to know about the squirrels.”

 “We told that one to the others in a restaurant full of people,” Riko argues. “Anyone could’ve overheard.”

 “My students are adorable when they’re suspicious,” Kakashi gushes. His eye crinkles up in a smile.

Yeah, it’s definitely Kakashi.

 “Ricchan! Bastard!” Naruto comes running at an impressive speed, considering the incredibly oversized backpack on his back. He halts abruptly and points at Kakashi. “What! Who are you?”

 “Claims to be Kakashi-sensei,” Riko answers doubtfully, eyeing him critically. “Personally, I think the hair’s a bit off.”

Naruto whips out a stick and pokes at Kakashi. “I don’t buy it.”

 “Me neither.” The three of them exchange looks. “Let’s set him on fire.”

Sasuke pulls an explosive tag from his pouch. 

“But not inside the village,” Riko adds reasonably.

 “Agreed!” Kakashi announces. His one eye is smiling at them. “Naruto. Your backpack looks heavy.”

 “Yeah! I packed extra stuff I’ll definitely need!” Naruto beams proudly. “But it’s a secret what’s in it!”

Riko and Sasuke exchange a deadpan look and nod.

It’s definitely ramen.

 “I have the stuff from the list you gave me, too! Except I couldn’t get a compass that points north. And they were all out of rations at the supply place. But I got other stuff, and rations are terrible anyway!”

Sasuke, Kakashi, and Riko stiffen.

The supply office exists for the sole reason of providing shinobi leaving for missions with basic supplies - first-aid kits, blankets, rations. They never run out.

Something is very wrong with what Naruto had just told them.

 “I see,” Kakashi says cheerfully. “Don’t worry.” He ruffles Naruto’s hair. “Sensei will take care of it. Why don’t you three wait for me a little?”

And gone he is, leaving awkward silence in his wake.

 “Let’s go, then.” Riko forces a grin and holds out her hand for her best friend, who beams at her and takes it.

 “Hey Ricchan? Are you okay? Are you nervous? Because you’re making a weird face!” Naruto gives her a thumbs-up. “Don’t worry! I’ll definitely protect you! And think of how many new ramen flavours we’ll find!”

Riko sighs. Forms her smile into something that feels more natural, and she hugs Naruto right there, in the street. “You’re my best friend,” she whispers into his ear. “I don’t need you to protect me.”

 “Eh?” Naruto asks, hugging her back. “You’re my best friend, too, Ricchan! Are you really okay? We can… we can wait with the C-rank if you’re scared!”

She laughs. “I’m fine. I am.” Clearing her throat, she steps back. “I bet Kakashi will take at least one hour to do whatever he’s doing.”

“Two,” Sasuke snorts.

“He wouldn’t!” Naruto shouts. Then he stops. “Forty minutes.”

The three of them exchange looks. 

“I have a card deck with me,” Riko reveals.

“I got potato chips!” Naruto exclaims. They high-five before staring at Sasuke expectantly.

He returns the look. Time stretches.

“Tea,” he finally caves.

And that’s how Team Seven ends up having a picnic at the village gates.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Shimogo is a little port town in Fire Country. Parts of it are picturesque and well-kept, like the house of the noble they’re delivering their message to. It’s over with quickly, Kakashi handles the talking efficiently. Within an hour of arriving, they’re already leaving the noble’s mansion.

It feels anticlimactic. She was hoping for something interesting, considering the days of tedious travel through tree-tops.

This was, all in all, surprisingly boring, considering Riko has yet to experience a D-rank without some kind of hiccup.

At least it’s not baby-sitting.

Kakashi books a room in a hotel. “No need to camp in the woods,” he claims. Smiling at them, he suggests, “Why don’t you three head out to have some fun? But no going off by yourself.”

 “Ramen!” Naruto cheers. “I saw a stand down the street! Can we go? Let’s go! I bet it tastes different from home!”

Riko grins. “I’m in! Sasuke?”

 “No thanks.”

 “Okay! See you later!”

 “Be back before eight,” Kakashi adds. “Have fun!”

Holding hands, Naruto and Riko head down the street. The ramen shop is easily found. As far as ramen go, it’s better than cup ramen, but not as good as Ichiraku’s.

 “Well yeah! Ichiraku’s is the best,” Naruto explains when Riko puts that observation in words. “Hey! This is a port town, right? Let’s go see the ocean!”

The two of them head towards the dockland area. 

 “It’s so big,” Riko marvels when they find it and suddenly come face to face with the sea. The air tastes of salt and smells of fish. Wooden pontoons creak, water gurgles constantly.

No pictures or descriptions do justice to what she’s seeing in front of her. A part of her urges to take a step onto the water, just to see what it feels like to stand on the ocean.

 “Yeah,” Naruto agrees. “I’m glad we get to see it together!”

For a while, they just stand there, two genin staring at the water. It’s starting to get dark and chilly, however, and - “Something’s off,” Riko mutters, looking around uneasily.

There’s nothing to see with her eyes. But her chakra sense tells her something rather different. Some people are interested in them, and they don’t feel at all friendly.

Nobody here besides Naruto feels friendly, actually. Not just in this part of the docks, but in the entire city. She’d chalked it up to the citizens’ unfamiliarity with shinobi, but now, with the light of day waning, she’s no longer so sure.

 “We should go back to the hotel,” she suggests quietly. “It’s getting dark.”

 “Okay!” Naruto happily trudges alongside her.

When he turns to go back the way they came, Riko pulls him in another direction. “Not that way,” she says tightly. “Crowded.”

Deeper into the dockland area they venture. There’s got to be other exits. If not, there’s always the rooftops.

At least with darkness falling, they don’t draw as many looks. Just two kids scurrying around. There’s a lot of children here, dressed in rags, their hands dirty and calloused from work.

The fishermen and merchants look more like pirates than anything.

Riko doesn’t like this at all. Even Naruto’s caught on to the uneasy atmosphere.

The docks are crowded, but certain areas people don’t go near - the warehouses with the Gato Corporation logo on them are heavily guarded, and the people just hurry past while averting their eyes.

There’s just something really off about all this.

 “Over there! Grab that redhead!” somebody orders behind them.

Her and Naruto start running, diving into the crowd. A bunch of Naruto’s clones pop into existence and cause further confusion. Riko pulls her hood over her head, but hands are already grasping for her, and what is even going on?

She channels chakra to her legs, grabs Naruto, and launches both of them into the water. The cold is a shock, and Naruto’s struggling, dragging her down. But she’s a good swimmer and her skills with water manipulation are well-trained. With some effort, she manages to drag Naruto and herself to the surface. “Quiet,” she hisses.

Above, people are looking for them. Why, she has no idea.

Tiny sound of something hitting the water. Splashing steps. Riko pales.

Somebody is walking on water. A shinobi is looking for them.

This is bad. 

She pulls her chakra tightly into herself, but it’s futile - Naruto’s chakra is a beacon,  loud and bright, and even a low-level sensor will find him in a heartbeat.

The wooden piers creak in tandem with her heartbeat. The water around her shivers.

Riko wraps herself around Naruto. She’s never carried a passenger when using shunshin, but she can’t think of any other way to get out of this.

Her and Naruto land in an alley, not far from where they were before. “Ricchan, why did he want you?” Naruto asks after stumbling in disorientation, eyes wide, and Riko’s sure she’s not looking any better.

 “I don’t know,” she breathes. Her breath is coming hard. By some miracle her glasses are still on her face, and she hastily wipes water droplets off.

There’s nothing special about her! Aside from the… the stuff that there’s no way people here would know about! She’s just some random genin - why would this person go after her and completely ignore Naruto, who’s way more remarkable?

She chances a look back, glasses back on her nose. There, on the water surface, a dark figure stands. A flash of light catches on the metal of their hitae-ate. Kirigakure, but the symbol is slashed through.

A nuke-nin.

What business does a nuke-nin from Kiri have with Riko, of all people?!

 “We’re going back to the inn,” Riko mutters, grabbing onto Naruto’s hand.

Except Naruto’s hand isn’t where it’s supposed to be. Neither is the person usually attached to his hand. 

 “Hey you! What do you want with Ricchan?!” he shouts from the exit of the alley.

She’s going to kill him.

 “Look at that. Another rat from Konoha.” The missing-nin takes his time walking up to Naruto, who gulps but stands his ground. The area clears of civilians quickly. “I’ll make you a deal,” the man suggests in a conversational manner, as if he and Naruto were old friends coincidentally meeting in the street. “Tell me where the redhead is and you get to live.”

 “W-what? I’m not gonna do that! What do you want? I’m not letting you touch my friend!”

The shinobi chuckles. “Cute. And here I thought the others would be getting all the fun with that bridge-builder while I was stuck here…”

Riko sucks in a sharp breath.

Bridge-builder.

Shikamaru.

 “What do you want with Ricchan?!” Naruto yells again, taking a step back. 

 “Hmm… I guess I’ll just go find her myself… but what to do with you?” The man chuckles roughly. Cold killing intent seeps from him, feeling like hands cutting off her air. Naruto appears frozen.

The nuke-nin’s holding a tanto now, strolling closer.

No. No.

If anyone asked her later, she wouldn’t be able to tell them how it happened. One moment, she’s standing in the alley, watching in terror as the man makes to kill Naruto for the sole reason of killing him.

The next, she’s leaped over Naruto right at the shinobi, and her new katana clangs against the tanto he’d raised on reflex, his eyes widened slightly before his mouth twists into a smirk. “There you are, sweetie.”

He grabs her wrist and flings her into an assortment of barrels. She gasps in pain, and at the moment of impact, every light in the vicinity just. Blows out. Gone.

It’s completely dark, but Riko - she’s trained for that. She doesn’t need her eyes. Naruto’s where he was before, chakra horrified and scared and want-to-move-do-something-but-can’t. The shinobi’s chakra is all but invisible now, but she can smell him, can hear him cursing under his breath about fucking red-haired demons and this is her chance. He’s distracted!

She wastes no time attempting to push herself out of the crushed barrels, instead replacing herself with a clay jug some homeless guy had used to collect money in. It shatters when it falls to the ground, shards and a meagre amount of coin clattering to the ground.

Riko leaps forward. Swings her sword with a hoarse cry.

It hits only metal. A powerful kick sweeps the legs out from under her and a large hand wraps around her throat. Riko chokes, her katana hitting the ground. She claws at the hand, but he’s wearing gauntlets.

 “Did you think that would work?” he croons. “I’m from Kiri. I don’t need light.”

Her blood’s boiling under her skin, and she’s too small for her body, she needs air and - she needs to do something, she’s trained for this, they had classes for situations just like this, but it’s like it all disappeared from her brain and she can’t breathe - crap - do something - hidden sleeve pocket-

Shaky fingers find a wad of paper. Chakra, how does chakra work again, come on-

Missing-nin howls as the flash tag goes off right in his and Riko’s face. He clutches at his eyes and Riko, having closed her eyes just in time, scrambles to her feet and before she can even think about it, kicks him right in the face, scoops up her katana, and runs. Grabs Naruto and just flees.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

She’s not sure how they make it back to the hotel. Just remembers falling through the window with Naruto in tow, breath going hard and hurting in her throat. When she tries to say something, her voice comes out as garbled nonsense and it hurts.

Kakashi’s hand settles on her head. “Calm,” he orders her. “Sit.”

Her legs give out beneath her. Her back hits the bedframe behind her.

 “Naruto, report,” Kakashi commands.

 “Is Ricchan gonna be okay?!” Naruto asks, panicked. “There was - there was this guy? We were just walking home and he yelled ‘Grab her!’ so we started running? And we sort of fell into the water, and then we weren’t in the water anymore and this guy, he wouldn’t tell me what he wanted from Ricchan! And Ricchan was all scared and stuff-”

She punches his leg. Glares up at him. He flinches. “Ricchan, your eyes are all red!”

Popped blood vessels. Great. “You,” she rasps out, and crap, that hurts so bad, like she’s using sand paper on the inside of her throat. “You idiot.”

 “Riko, no talking,” Kakashi orders tersely. Sasuke pushes a glass of water into her hand and she gulps it down greedily. It hurts even more than talking, but feels a little better after. “Naruto? Slow down.”

 “So we got out of the water,” Naruto recounts. “And the guy was there and I asked what he wanted and he wouldn’t say! And then he got out a sword but Ricchan attacked him and he threw her, and then everything went all dark and I couldn’t see anything? Heard stuff happening, and then we were running and now we’re here and Ricchan’s hurt-”

Riko glares at him.

She’s absolutely furious.

 “Riko, you attacked this man?” Kakashi interrupts Naruto’s rambles. “That was rash.”

Her eyes snap to him. Mouth opens and closes.

He can’t possibly believe-

 “We,” she begins, ignoring the pain in her throat. “Got away. Shunshin. Safe.”

 “Write it down.” Kakashi pushes pen and paper at her. “No talking.”

She grabs the paper, rips it up, and throws the pen at him.

 Naruto,she growls out. “Left hiding place. To ask a nuke-nin from Kiri why he was hunting us. Was going to be killed. So yeah. I attacked.”

 “Ah.” Kakashi pauses and turns back to Naruto. “That was very stupid.”

Naruto gasps in outrage. “But he was after Ricchan!”

 “And now she’s injured because you decided to confront him when you and her were relatively safe.” Kakashi’s voice has steel in it. He suddenly looks impossibly tall and unforgiving. 

Naruto shrinks. He looks at Riko. “But I-”

She glares and looks away.

 “You placed yourself and your teammate in very grave danger,” Kakashi continues. “Think about what you’ve done. You’re in time-out. That means you sit in that corner over there and your team doesn’t talk to you. I’m going to take care of this.” He moves to the window.

 “Wait!”

There’s something she needs to tell him, but what was it again? Something - something that nuke-nin said! It was — something to do with Shikamaru? Her brother, who’s guarding a-

 “Bridge-builder!” she rasps. “He said… something about a bridge-builder. That he got left here but his — his friends get to have fun with a bridge-builder.” She gives him a pleading look. “Shikamaru-”

 “I’ll see what I can find out,” Kakashi promises. “Sasuke, you’re in charge.”

He disappears through the window.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Sasuke drags Riko to the bathroom and helps her clean up. She’s got wooden splinters everywhere and feels bruised all over, but luckily her body armour protected her from the worst of being thrown into those barrels. No broken bones.

She coughs every so often and swallowing is difficult. Mild nausea persists, but she’s not vomiting or feeling particularly light-headed, though she keeps drooling, and she just knows that Sasuke is filing every detail of her physical condition away, though he doesn’t say anything beyond ordering her where to move and asking which storage scroll she keeps clothes in.

As soon as she can manage, she uses a diagnostic jutsu on herself, checking for internal injuries, like lungs filling with fluid and what other consequences of strangulation she can recall. Silently resolving to look up this stuff once she gets back home. Maybe look into medical ninjutsu once more, because the small amount she remembers feels so very inadequate right now.

She got lucky, so very lucky, that the stranger had made the mistake of gloating, because it’d given her the time to set off that flash tag. If he’d wanted to, he could’ve had her unconscious in moments, and death would’ve followed soon after.

This - she came so close to dying - Naruto could have died - 

 “Riko,” Sasuke’s voice snaps her back to reality. “Do you have medicine for this?”

She shakes her head and signs a no for good measure. Kakashi had only just begun teaching them Konoha standard sign, so she only knows a little bit. Sasuke, surprisingly, already knew it fairly well.

Why it wasn’t taught to them in the Academy, she has no idea.

Now she’s got a good reason to learn. It’ll be days before she can talk again without pain, she’s pretty sure.

Sasuke and her leave the bathroom. Naruto is sitting in the corner as Kakashi ordered him, resembling a small orange heap of utter misery, shooting her sad looks from his blue eyes.

Riko grits her teeth and looks away, ignoring the faint stab of guilt. She’s still mad at him, damn it! No matter how sad he looks right now!

 “I’m sorry, Ricchan,” he whispers. “Please don’t stop being my friend!”

Her head whips around. She stares at him incredulously. “What?” she croaks and ends up coughing painfully, hard enough that she doubles over.

 “No talking,” Sasuke orders, throwing Naruto a pissed look.

 “I’m not-” she begins, and he slaps a hand over her mouth, glaring at her.

 “She’s not going to stop being friends with you, idiot,” he sneers at Naruto. 

 “But-” Naruto begins.

 “She’s pissed because you’re an idiot and she’ll get over it.” Sasuke rolls his eyes. “You’re supposed to know her better than this, dead-last. Now you both shut up!”

He gives Riko a glare. Can’t believe you made me say this sappy shit out loud, he seems to say.

She licks his hand that’s still on her mouth. Sasuke yanks it back with a horrified face. Riko beams at him.

Sasuke is her friend, and the realisation brings her a giddy sort of joy.

But she’s still angry and in pain, so that fades.

 “Is Sasuke right?” Naruto asks her, heartbreakingly hopeful. Riko nods grumpily. Sasuke throws his hands up and stomps over to the luggage.

Kakashi doesn’t take that much longer to return. Half an hour at most, though it feels like eternity.

He climbs in through the window, a grave expression on the visible part of his face. “Are you all still awake? Okay. Sasuke, what’s the state of Riko’s health?”

 “Nothing broken. No internal injuries. Shouldn’t be lasting damage, so long as she doesn’t talk.” He glares at her. She pokes out her tongue at him.

Fit for combat, she signs clumsily.

 “Good,” Kakashi says. “Rest the night. We’re travelling to Nami tomorrow to back up Team Ten.”

Riko forces herself to take a deep breath when the implications hit. That there are indeed missing ninja after the bridge-builder her brother’s team is guarding, and they don’t know.

It might even be too late already. That — that genjutsu from the bell test flickers through her head, Shikamaru’s lifeless body, and she shudders.

But she can’t think like that! They’ll go and save them. Shika’s smart, Ino’s a great kunoichi, and Chouji shouldn’t be underestimated either! They’re a good team, and the nuke-nin won’t know what hit them.

It’d be fine.

 “Unless one of you is against it,” Kakashi continues and adds gently, “This will be dangerous. Nami no Kuni isn’t a good place right now. We can go back to Konoha and ask the Hokage to send reinforcements.”

 “What? No!” Naruto exclaims. “That’s Ricchan’s brother’s team, and they’re lame so they definitely need help!”

Sasuke crosses his arms and glares at Kakashi.

Riko has the best team.

Kakashi eye-smiles at them. “Good. Then get some sleep, we move early tomorrow.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

After a cup of ramen for breakfast (except for Sasuke, who’d rather eat a ration bar than breakfast ramen, weirdo that he is), the four of them are on their way. While they travel, Kakashi briefs them on the situation.

Megalomaniac entrepreneur took over the small island state of Nami no Kuni by controlling by building a monopoly on import and export. The bridge-builder’s project - a bridge connecting Nami to the mainland - threatens his monopoly. 

As if an insanely rich man employing nuke-nin and a small army of civilian mercenaries couldn’t take control of the bridge and go on as before. 

 “Riko, if you use your voice again, we’ll gag you. And it’s not just about the bridge,” Kakashi tells them when she points it out. “Gato forbade the people of Nami to build that bridge. If Tazuna finishes it, it becomes a symbol of hope and defiance, a sign that Gato couldn’t prevent them from building it. He needs Tazuna and that bridge destroyed to crush the people’s spirits once and for all.”

 “But we won’t let it happen!” Naruto punches his fist in the air. “We’ll kick Gato’s ass, right, Ricchan?”

Riko gives him a thumbs-up back.

This morning, things between them were back to normal. A long hug before breakfast and that was that. 

Kakashi had merely watched with a sharp eye.

 “Okay,” he announces. They’ve reached a drab little beach not too far from a tiny fishing village. From a scroll he unseals a little rowing boat. 

Because apparently he has one with him at all times. That item definitely wasn’t in the Academy guide to packing for missions.

Maybe she should get one herself. It certainly comes in handy now.

The four of them climb in, all grabbing the oars and beginning to row. If Riko ever does acquire a boat, she’d like it to be one with an engine.

Then again, in a situation like this, that would be too noisy to avoid garnering the wrong sort of attention. Aside from their rowing and the sound of the waves, there are no noises out here. 

The longer they row, the thicker the fog seems to become. Damp cold seeps into Riko’s bones until she’s shivering.

At their slow pace, it takes hours to reach the shore of Nami no Kuni. Finding Tazuna’s house doesn’t prove too difficult, thankfully. Everybody knows him, and Kakashi turns out to be very good at asking questions without raising suspicion.

The information that Tazuna made it back to his house and had even worked on his bridge since his return, has a weight lift off of Riko’s heart.

Shikamaru must be fine, then, right? His team had safely gotten the bridge-builder back home?

Still the doubt and fear persist.

Kakashi leads them to their next location. It feels a little weird to just stroll up to it, but their sensei claims that no enemy spies are nearby. Somehow, that doesn’t feel particularly reassuring.

The door flies open before Kakashi can knock. Ino, hair askew, stops just before them. Opens her mouth and can’t seem to get words out, which, considering it’s Ino, can’t mean anything good. “Hello, Ino-chan,” Kakashi says calmly. “Team Seven, ready to back you up.”

Ino bursts into tears. Kakashi freezes. “Riko,” he hisses.

Riko stares back helplessly.

Ino doesn’t cry. It just - it just doesn’t happen.

 “Hey!” Naruto pushes past them. “Hey Ino! Are you okay? What happened? Do you need a hug?”

Ino throws herself at him, sobbing with abandon. Naruto sort of pats her hair and babbles friendly things at her. 

 “Let’s go inside,” Sasuke suggests, warily eyeing Ino and Naruto. Kakashi nods sharply, but just then Shikamaru comes to the door. He, too, looks tired.

But he’s alive. He’s fine. She can breathe again.

Shikamaru looks at her. “We need a medic.”

She stares back and says, “Oh shit.”

Chapter Text

Shikamaru ignores the rest of Team Seven and his own sobbing teammate. Instead, he grabs Riko’s hand and pulls her into the house. She can smell the blood, the sickness, the rot long before they reach the makeshift sickroom. 

Team Ten’s jounin sensei lies there on the bed, skin so sallow it appears grey. His upper body is wrapped in blood-soaked bandages. For a long moment, Riko can’t even tell if he’s breathing, the sound so quiet it’s inaudible and his chest not rising or falling.

And his arm - his hand - she has to take a moment to just. Breathe and swallow down bile.

 “The sword cut through his forearm and continued into his torso,” Shikamaru recounts flatly. Emotionlessly. “He took heavy hits before, but was able to avoid debilitating injury until then. We transported him here since he wouldn’t have survived the trip home. Tazuna’s daughter is experienced in treating injuries of that sort and was able to stop the bleeding and administer first aid.”

Riko nods dazedly before she takes a deep breath, slaps her hands against her cheeks to knock herself out of it, and hurries over to her very first serious patient.

Her chakra capacity is low. She got kicked out of the medic program before she could learn to mend much more than bruises, minor burns, and cuts. There’s not much she’ll be able to do here, so she has to prioritise. The most life-threatening problems first and then hope for the best.

Not even when she was shadowing Shiori-sensei at the hospital had she seen an injury this bad. She swallows harshly. 

There’s no place here for insecurity and second-guessing. Asuma-sensei’s very life depends on her.

Her hands light up green on the first try. She runs them over his torso in a broad sweep, information on the damage echoing in her mind. The sheer magnitude of the injuries is almost overwhelming.

 “Kakashi-sensei,” she speaks up absently. “There’s a med-kit in one of the storage seals in my pouch. Can you-”

 “On it.” She barely even feels him releasing her pouch from her thigh, too focused on trying to — on just trying to make a difference.

The most she can do is a shoddy patch job, and it’s only going to cover the absolute worst as she perceives it. Infection, sickness, fever - the only aid she can administer for that is medicine, the rest his body has to do on its own, Riko lacks the knowledge and skill to treat it with ninjutsu. 

At least Asuma’s chakra is strong. It will, hopefully, boost his healing speed.

There’s damage to his lungs. His ribs. A huge flesh wound in his side that someone - Tazuna’s daughter? - had stitched closed, but it’s inflamed and leaking pus. Several more deep lacerations, an infection that comes with a fever, severe internal bruising, and, of course, half of his arm missing. 

In the end, the most she can do is heal the bruising, clean out the the wounds and disinfect them, stop the worst bleeding. She doesn’t even know where to begin with healing the infection or lowering the fever beyond the old-fashioned ways. 

With the remainder of her chakra, she attempts to close the most severe wounds. Any real medic would kick her ass for the scarring her hack job will leave behind, but Asuma doesn’t have any other options.

Finally, the green light on her hands begins to fizzle. Even then, she pushes it just that bit further, pours everything she has into healing just one tiny bit more, and maybe another, and then-

Lights out.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Sunlight tickles Riko’s face. It drags her from the murky darkness of confusing and restless dreams into awareness.

It takes her a long time to muster enough energy to open her eyes. She feels so wrung out that it hurts. Nauseous, too, and so, so cold. 

The light hurts sends stabs of pain through her head. 

She can’t hear anybody else in the room. Hasn’t got the chakra to enhance any of her senses. 

Can barely scrounge up enough focus for one brief activation of her chakra sense in short range. Enough to tell her that Ino is somewhere below her plus two civilians, and that’s it. She’s completely spent.

No Asuma. A tiny noise escapes her, close to a sob.

He was dying. He could be dead right now, probably is, and she can’t — she can’t do anything right now, she’s completely useless, she failed-

It’s with those thoughts that she passes out again.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The next time Riko wakes up, she feels little better and her stomach is eating a hole into her body. It feels like hours that she’s just lying there on her bedroll, feeling too awful to do anything at all. Eventually, though, she hears a door slide open.

With monumental effort, she turns her head. It’s a kid, a boy wearing an unflattering blue overall and a bucket hat. At finding her awake, he glares at Riko. “You’re gonna die.”

She blinks slowly. Is he… threatening her?

 “Gato’s gonna kill you!” the brat insists, clearly not pleased with her lack of reaction.

Riko is mostly just confused. Who is this kid? Why is he talking to her? And isn’t Gato just going to order someone else to kill her? Being filthy rich and presumably employing an army’s worth of mercenaries?

 “He’ll kill you!” the boy repeats.

 “Hi,” Riko croaks and crap. Ow.

Her throat. Shit. She forgot about getting choked by that nuke-nin, and she’s parched, too, which doesn’t make it better. 

To her embarrassment, her eyes tear up. It just really hurts and she feels so wrong and bad and she’s helpless and of her senses only her eyes and ears are working, which isn’t enough-

The kid pales and runs away, door slamming behind him. Riko stares at the empty space.

Okay. That happened.

His mad dash must have caught some attention, because not a minute later Ino enters the room. She looks… tired. Sad. Nowhere near as well-groomed as usual.

 “You’re awake!” she exclaims. A few hurried steps and she’s at Riko’s side. A loud kiss lands on her forehead and one of her hands is grabbed and squeezed. Ino smiles at her, eyes suspiciously shiny. “Hey.”

 “Hey,” Riko rasps. Ow.

 “I’ll get you something to drink. And eat,” Ino instantly announces and jumps up and makes for the exit.

 “Wait,” Riko manages at a volume just above a breath, which hurts a lot less. “Asuma?”

Ino pauses, shoulders slumping. “Not dead yet.” She turns her head and forces a grin. “I’m sure he’ll be fine! He’s, he’s strong! Formerly one of the Twelve Guardians, you know? It’s got to count for something!” 

With that, Ino runs out of the room. But soon she’s back, helping Riko sit up and hand-feeding her a helping of fish soup since Riko can’t so much as hold a spoon right now, isn’t even strong enough to sit without leaning against Ino.

 “What happened?” she asks in a whisper once the food is gone. She’s already drifting off into sleep, but clings to awareness stubbornly.

Ino swallows heavily. “We were attacked by these two nuke-nin from Kiri, they called themselves Demon Brothers. We’d only travelled for a day at civilian pace! But even though Tazuna lied about mission parameters and difficulty, we continued anyway because… because.” She laughs bitterly. “We thought we’d be fine. Asuma said we could handle it, and he, well, he’s Asuma. Of the Twelve Guardians! But then that — that Zabuza showed up, and he — I could barely even move. I was so useless! Chouji hit him good in the end, but then this fake hunter-nin showed up and took him away. And here we are, I guess. We didn’t even know how to send for back-up, but then your team showed up.”

 “Mm,” Riko hums, lulled by Ino’s fingers carding through her hair. There’s something about the name Zabuza that sounds familiar, that’s important, but she can’t put her finger on it, and Ino’s touch feels so nice.

 “Rest,” Ino orders.

Riko falls asleep.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

It’s dark the next time Riko wakes up. She feels better, the food must have helped, she can even turn her head without feeling like crying at the nausea. 

Naruto is sprawled out on one side of her, one leg thrown over hers and, as a quick glance tells her, an arm over Sasuke’s chest. On her other side, Shikamaru lies wide awake, watching her.

 “Hey,” she whispers hoarsely. 

He barely even blinks. Riko bites her lip, not knowing what else to say. Is even kind of relieved when her stomach growls. He instantly gets up, returning with a bowl of rice and an apple that he peels and slices for her with meticulous accuracy, as though no other task is as important as this one.

She forces the solid food down and feels uncomfortably full after. Exhausted once again. Before Riko slips off into dreamland, she manages to grab her brother’s hand.

It’s warm, and he clutches hers so hard that she has to suppress a wince.

The next few days pass in a similar vein. Wake up, eat, sleep. Talk to the various people that happen to be around. Most of the time that’s Ino or Tsunami, the bridge builder’s daughter. Kakashi drops in frequently, though, and he’s put the boys to work, either guarding the bridge or training in the nearby forest. 

Two dog summons and Ino meanwhile guard the house.

Slowly but steadily, Riko recovers. Keyword being slowly. She still hasn’t recovered enough to safely use chakra again — after how drastically she depleted her reserves, they’re slow to refill. But at least her throat is healing.

The wait, she thinks, the wait is the worst. Kakashi said that Zabuza — presumably still alive — would go after Tazuna again, that Kiri shinobi were known for their persistence. But there’s no way to tell just when he would strike. 

 “As soon as he can,” was all Shikamaru said about that.

 “He seemed the eager sort,” Ino had added.

It depended on how good he was at ignoring injuries, they concluded.

Asuma’s condition remains unchanged. Riko had been to see him every day, but there’s nothing she can do beyond feeding him medicine and smearing ointments onto his wounds. 

She’s worried. They’re steadily running out of medicine. Shikamaru’s already had a severe dent in his supplies when Team Seven arrived. Riko’s own stock is dwindling quickly, and Kakashi’s weren’t as extensive in the first place.

That’s why she asks Shikamaru to gather herbs in the forest in the morning.

He’s all too eager to get out of the house.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

His steps barely make a sound on the soft forest ground. Shikamaru isn’t trained in stealth, but moving quietly always came easily to him. He enjoys the silence.

Here, in the woods, it’s peaceful. For just a little bit, he can forget the events of the past day. Can pretend that he’s home, in the Nara forest.

The notion is laughable, though — he can taste the ocean on his tongue, hear the cries of the seagulls in the distance.

But at least he’s alone. It’s only past sunrise and just about everyone else had been asleep, save Riko and Kakashi. Who had, surprisingly, let him go into the forest on his own.

Shikamaru finds himself stupidly grateful for that. Here, there’s no one to pretend for. No need to cut back the biting remarks that want to spring to his tongue all the time, now. 

He likes his team, he does — but they’re soft, and all Shikamaru has inside of him right now are barbs and edges. The last thing he wants is to hurt them, so he stays away from Ino and Chouji. Both of whom seem to agree on giving him space. He avoids Riko, too, unless she’s asleep. Otherwise, Ino keeps her company, alongside Naruto if he was available, whom she seemed to have struck up a surprising tentative rapport with. Chouji either sat with them or spent his time around Tsunami.

Shikamaru, surprisingly, had found an odd new kinship with Sasuke.

He hadn’t sought his sister’s sparring partner out, but somehow they had drifted together anyway. If anyone had told him he’d one day come to appreciate Uchiha Sasuke’s company (however reluctantly), he wouldn’t have believed it.

Yet, of the various group members, Sasuke was the easiest to be around.

It’s logical, he supposes. The same thing that had made him so wary of the other boy, that dark anger and uncompromising drive to be better, the not wanting to be around anyone - that’s in Shikamaru, now. Every second he doesn’t spend on training, on getting stronger, on doing something, feels like he’s failing his team. Again. 

Once more, he replays the fight against Zabuza — one man versus the four of them, but even though they had numbers on their side and their opponent fell in the end, Shikamaru’s squad was the clear loser.

If he’d just been better, if he’d just-

Logically, he knows that it would’ve made little difference. He’s a genin. Ino and Chouji are genin. Momochi Zabuza is known as the Demon of the Mist and one of the Seven Swordsmen, as Kakashi informed them after they’d given their report to him. 

The only one who had stood a chance was Asuma-sensei. But Asuma had been arrogant, had underestimated Zabuza. Hadn’t even known who he was and not cared either, just dismissed him as a threat — and he’d paid the price.

It makes Shikamaru so angry. Every time he checks in on his sensei, he’s torn between wanting to cry and wanting to shake him and demand what in the world he was thinking. 

He can guess easily enough. Asuma returned from his service at the daimyo’s court less than a year ago. Where he’d been one of the strongest, most respected men. Admired, fawned over, and he could handle any of the tasks the daimyo required of him with ease. 

Some nuke-nin from Kiri — that was just scum compared to someone like him. Couldn’t possibly be a threat.

Shikamaru had, until that fight, appreciated Asuma’s easygoing nature. It had been very compatible with his own. Now - now it makes him shake his head in disbelief, how irresponsible it was in retrospect.

He takes a deep breath, the clean air smells of grass and wood and the sea. Not like home, but soothing enough.

Finding herbs, that’s what Riko asked him to do, with that worried look in her eyes that told him they were running out of medicine and that Asuma’s condition wasn’t improving the way she’d like. Her anxiety was palpable.

So was her worry about Shikamaru.

Yesterday, when he returned from training, she’d asked if he wanted to watch the clouds with her. It was all he could do not to yell at her. He’d just. Turned around and gone.

With a scowl, he crouches down and begins searching for useful plant life. The manual labour is familiar, and he finds an odd sort of temporary peace in doing it.

His mother will be pleased when he returns with such an improved work-ethic, he thinks darkly.

A soft noise sounds behind him, a shuffling step. He spins around.

It’s a girl. Wearing a pretty, if impractical and rather worn kimono, sporting silky and well cared-for hair, with a face Ino would rave about for hours. She takes a startled step backwards, a delicate hand rising to her mouth, a soft “Oh!” escaping her.

Shikamaru takes a step back as well. “Sorry,” he mutters.

He didn’t - he didn’t mean to scare her. Or anyone. He’s just… not himself these days, and he hates that, but he doesn’t know how to go back to normal.

 “It’s okay,” the girl answers shakily. “You’re- you’re a shinobi?”

Shikamaru nods jerkily. 

 “I’m very sorry for disturbing you,” she mutters with a short bow. “I’ll leave-”

 “You don’t have to,” he interrupts. “You’re here to pick herbs, right?” He eyes the basket hanging from one of her arms. “Here’s a good spot. What are you looking for?”

 “That’s very kind of you,” the girl answers, some of her tension fading. She smiles lightly. “Merely something to help against pain, and whatever else I can find for eventualities. In this country, being prepared is wise.”

Yeah, he can see that. 

The people here don’t deserve what’s happening to their country. And what happened to Asuma, no matter the man’s faults and blunders, won’t go unanswered. Gato is going down, that, Shikamaru swears to himself.

Killing Zabuza would be satisfying as well, but he’s not the true evil here. Rationally, he knows that. 

But emotionally? He wants to slaughter Zabuza and everyone who works with him, raze Gato’s entire corporation into the ground, and then burn down Tazuna’s damn bridge and house.

 “Over there.” Shikamaru points at a patch he hasn’t gone through yet. “The blue-veined leaves. Make tea with them.”

 “Thank you very much,” she replies politely, and follows his directions.

He gets back to his own work. For a while, they work in silence before the girl speaks up again. “Forgive me,” she murmurs, “but I can’t help but notice that you seem troubled. I’ve heard of a recent altercation between shinobi, revolving around Tazuna-san, and to see you searching for medicinal herbs…”

 “You want to know if some of us are injured,” Shikamaru deduces.

 “Forgive me for overstepping,” she whispers. “None of us have any love for Gato. The rumours of Tazuna receiving aid from shinobi — it gave us hope.”

And now she wants to know if she should give up that hope.

 “Gato is going down,” he promises darkly. “Then we’re all going home and live long lives.”

 “I see,” she murmurs. “May I ask you another question?”

He checks himself before he can let out an annoyed breath. She doesn’t deserve his anger, not when it’s not directed at her, when she’s done nothing to harm him. 

 “I might not answer,” he only replies. “And if I do, you answer a question of my own.”

 “Fair enough,” she concedes with a smile. “Why did you become a shinobi?”

Unexpected. 

He eyes her sharply, though his expression doesn’t slip. They had classes in the Academy about social interaction with civilians, and Ino supplied lessons of her own. This question is too personal to fit into the conversation or persona she’d projected so far. 

Her guise was nearly perfect until now. He might not have noticed anything off if she hadn’t gone down that line of conversation. 

If him catching on will make any difference is up in the air. Shikamaru isn’t a combat shinobi.

 “Because my family and friends are,” he answers with a shrug, like he isn’t priming his shadow and compiling strategies. At the very least, the forest terrain is to his advantage. “It gives me hives to imagine them fighting without me to watch their back.”

 “Yes,” the girl murmurs with a faraway look, “It’s when we protect those precious to us that we are truly strong.” She shakes herself, returning to the present. “You had something you wished to ask me?”

Anything he’d like to ask would reveal that he’s caught onto her ruse. And then he’d most likely die. It’s the logical conclusion.

 “Not really,” he answers. “It was more about a fair trade than anything.” He laces his fingers together behind his back and looks at the clouds peeking through the canopy. “Eh, a deal’s a deal.” He looks back at her. “Do you like cloudwatching?”

She blinks, startled. “I - I don’t know.”

Shikamaru turns and strolls back in the direction of Tazuna’s house. “Try it sometime. It’s peaceful.” 

A lazy wave at the enemy shinobi, and he makes his way back to his team, all the while expecting — preparing — for a kunai in his back.

But it never comes.


 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬


 

Chapter Text

“The kunoichi only looked for pain-relieving herbs, not any with true healing properties,” Shikamaru informs the assorted members of Teams Seven and Ten grimly. They’ve all assembled in Asuma’s sickroom. “Zabuza will make his move in a matter of days. Maybe even today.”

Next to Riko, Ino clenches her fists.

“Very well,” Kakashi replies evenly. 

How can he be so calm? Riko feels like she’ll vibrate out of her skin. 

He continues, “No more training. Naruto and Chouji, we’ll go to the bridge tomorrow. Shikamaru and Sasuke, you’ll follow at a distance, use stealth. Ino and Riko, you’ll guard Tazuna’s family and Asuma. I’ll leave Uhei and Akino with you. Riko, try to stick to support skills. You’re not recovered enough yet for combat.”

All of them nod, Riko uneasily so.

It’s her team’s first real battle, their first true test, and they’re splitting up. It feels utterly wrong. 

She wonders if Ino feels the same, but her friend’s face gives nothing away. 

The next day, the two of them stand next to each other, staring after the group as it departs. 

Wondering in what state they’ll return.

If they’ll return at all, but Riko refuses to acknowledge that niggling worry.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ  -═══════ι▬▬

 

Their comrades do come back in the evening after an eventless day that Riko and Ino spent mostly in silence.

Riko’s fellow kunoichi kept busy. Pacing, stretching, helping Tsunami with any number of menial tasks the woman could think of. 

Meanwhile, Riko sat on the patio and attempted to sense for potential attacks while meditating. 

Meditation is supposed to help recover from chakra exhaustion. Riko doesn’t even have much to refill, and still it’s taking so long that it’s beginning to worry her. There’s chakra exhaustion, and then there’s chakra exhaustion. After a certain point — which she most certainly passed when attempting to heal Asuma — it can have unfortunate consequences.

She should be fine, this is the first time she’s suffering from exhaustion to this extent. It’s the chronic chakra depletion one needs to be wary of, because without treatment there’ll be lasting damage. Much like malnutrition — one skipped meal isn’t healthy but wouldn’t hurt much in the long run. Chronic starvation however would ruin a body. 

She’s already short enough, damn it.

 “Everything calm here?” Kakashi asks her after everyone’s finished discussing the day’s lack of events and scattered to rest. He sinks down to sit next to Riko and joins her in looking over the ocean. Both she and the dog on her lap — Uhei — get a pat on the head. 

 “Yeah,” Riko answers. 

She almost wishes something would happen. The tense wait, the dread and anticipation, the not-knowing…

 “I just want this to be over,” she finishes quietly. 

 “We’ll be back home by the end of the week,” Kakashi promises. His eye crinkles up in a smile. “It’s going to be okay. With any luck, the back-up I requested will be here soon.”

Transporting Asuma without the help of a medic would be impossible, after all.

 “I have a question,” slips out of her mouth. “Back in Shimogo. Why did that guy go after me?”

 “Ah…” Kakashi sighs. “Because you have red hair.”

She blinks, a hand going up to self-consciously run over her ponytail. “Huh? What’s wrong with red hair?”

He makes a sound of wry amusement. “Nothing. But once, there used to be a clan renowned for their strength, determination, and exceptional skill in fuuinjutsu. So greatly were they feared that in the Second Shinobi World War, Kiri and Kumo joined forces in order to destroy them. It just so happens that most of their members happened to sport red hair.”

 “Oh.” Riko considers that for a moment, her brows furrowing. “He thought I was one of them.”

 “Yes.”

 “But I’m not.”

 “That doesn’t matter. You can’t prove it. Enemy shinobi won’t give you the time to, anyway.” Kakashi’s voice is grave. “Those that remember that clan will hunt you. To them, you’ll be a higher-priority target than Sasuke.”

Riko swallows dryly.

What clan is he talking about? She’s never heard of anything like this, and she’s read the history books about all of the big wars.

A clan more feared than the Uchiha sounds absurd. And Riko of all people being mistaken for one of them?

She’s nothing special! 

 “How do I stop it?” she asks unhappily. “The assumptions. I’m not from that clan. What clan was this, anyway?”

 “I can’t tell you that.” 

Riko gives him a blank look. “What?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Just be hard to catch. Problem solved.”

She huffs. Typical. “You’d know.” 

Team Seven’s jounin sensei makes a point out of kawarimi-ing away from anything remotely bothersome. Restaurant bills, kunai to the face… it’s an extraordinarily aggravating habit.

 “Your sensei is wise.” Kakashi nods sagely and smiles down at her. “Now, I do believe it’s dinner time, and it’s rude to make people wait.” He stands up. 

Riko grabs his leg and attempts to trip him into the ocean for having the audacity of lecturing her about not being late, but he doesn’t budge, is rooted to the planks.

It’s totally uncalled for to lift her by the back of her hoodie and carry her into the house like some unruly kitten. Uhei, dislodged from her lap, is equally displeased. They trade a commiserating look, one which forges a pact between them to achieve vengeance on Kakashi.

Someday.

She’ll make him wait for it.

Dinner is awkward. Uncomfortable. 

Shikamaru broods, eats in silence with a dark expression on his face. 

When he and the others came back, he’d been in the worst mood she’s ever seen him in. Hadn’t even returned her greeting.

Frustrated that their enemy hadn’t made his move today.

Chouji and Ino sit next to him, Ino whispering into his ear urgently. Shikamaru’s listening to her, a neutral expression on his face, and Riko resists the urge to eavesdrop. Instead, she focuses on Naruto’s chatter and what she’s pretty sure is Kakashi messing with everyone by flirting with Tsunami. Tazuna twitches every time Kakashi so much as moves a finger.

Riko approves. 

She doesn’t like Tazuna in the least. Can barely bring herself to look at him. His deception — the consequences it had —  she can’t forgive him that.

Except for Naruto, they all seem to be in silent agreement on that.

The awkward dinner becomes even more so when Tazuna’s grandson has a meltdown and begins yelling at them for even trying to fight, since they’ll all die anyway.

 “But that’s our job,” Riko points out in confusion. “We even get paid to do it.”

In the second of stunned silence, an amused snort escapes Shikamaru, and it’s definitely worth the screaming match the brat and Naruto get into after.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ  -═══════ι▬▬

 

The next morning passes in a similar vein. Staring at the backs of their comrades as they leave. Off to fight one of the Seven Swordsmen and his partner, who’d been good enough to fake being both a harmless civilian and a hunter-nin.

It’s not exactly reassuring.

But there’s no better option. Riko isn’t recovered yet and they can’t leave the family without protection.

 “Let’s go over our supplies again,” Ino suggests wearily, and Riko goes along with it easily after Uhei nudges her toward her friend.

Upstairs, in their designated room, they split up the available kunai and shuriken between them. Riko crafts a few additional flash tags and a handful of explosives, but those are for absolute emergencies only. Using them might mean compromising the structural integrity of the house.

(The sheer impracticality of building a house on stilts into the water is enough to give Riko a headache. From a strategic viewpoint, it’s an absolute nightmare. Far too easy to sabotage.)

Uhei’s partner Akino, who’d been sleeping in the corner after a shift of night watch, suddenly jumps up, growling lightly. 

Riko tenses. Sharpens her chakra sense, which she hadn’t been able to keep up continuously.

Shit.

They have visitors.

As if on cue, a crash sounds downstairs and Tsunami screams in fright. The kid shouts for his mother.

Akino takes off like a rocket, Ino hot on his heels. Riko quickly pulls her hood over her red hair, sticks a senbon into her mouth, and hurls herself out the window and lands lightly on the wooden walkways.

She allows herself a relieved grin when a man inside howls in pain, and Uhei’s growl is low and triumphant. As soon as she can, Riko will give him a treat.

There’s no warning. No noise, no chakra, and the scent of the ocean drowns out just about every other one. One moment there’s nothing and she thinks they’ve won. The next her head is pulled back harshly and a kunai is at her throat. “One sound,” a woman croons softly into her ear. “One sound, and you’re done.”

Riko stands frozen, her heart racing. They’d snuck up on her. Even now, she can’t feel their chakras!

And Ino doesn’t know they’re here. Ino is inside, talking to Tsunami and her son gently, calming them down, checking them for injuries.

“Just kill her,” a man hisses. “Too young to be useful.”

“Oh no,” the woman purrs. “Look at this!” And she pulls Riko’s hood down. “She’ll fetch a good prize, don’t you think? Such nice hair.”

“Fine,” the man snarls. “I’ll get the target. Knock her out.”

He disappears from view, as if the surroundings had swallowed him up. But then she sees the shimmer in the air where something vaguely human-shaped moves.

The woman snickers softly. “Now, if you don’t move, this doesn’t have to hurt.” Riko feels her move her hand. Then the smell of something sharp and herbal hits her nose, strong enough to overtake even that of the sea.

Poison.

Heedless of the knife at her throat — someone needs to warn the others! — Riko shouts, “Ino, watch out!” and slams the back of her head into the woman’s face. She stumbles back, momentarily distracted, and Riko stabs a senbon from her sleeve through the woman’s wrist, making her drop that kunai.

Distance, she needs distance! Riko lunges forward, away from her attacker-

 “You little bitch!” the woman screeches. Grabs at Riko’s hood and pulls sharply, and the collar bites into her throat and cuts off her air.

Presses painfully against the bruises where that nuke-nin tried to choke her to death. Riko gasps for breath uselessly, a brief second of panic paralysing her.

But she decided on including a hood in her outfit for a reason.

The fabric comes off with a snapping sound. Riko spins on her heel to face the kunoichi.

Watches, gasping painfully, as the tall kunoichi attempts to fling the hood to the ground. It sticks to her fingers like glue, won’t let her move them. Tiny little seals glow on the fabric.

 “What?” the woman hisses, then focuses back on Riko. “You!” she snarls. “You redheaded demon, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill your family, I’ll kill your little blond friend, I’ll-”

Riko believes her. Sees the rage, the murder reflected in those pale blue eyes.

But it’s not going to happen, because Riko will stop her right now. 

Her mind is calm and smooth, and she forms a seal with her fingers without hesitation.

The hiss of an explosive charge priming cuts into the enemy kunoichi’s litany of threats. The woman curses and lunges to the side, and then realises where the sound is coming from. Her eyes widen in horror. “No, don’t-”

Riko’s hood, stuck to her fingers, explodes. In that moment, Riko’s mind spits out every modification she’d made to the regular explosive seal before she’d embroidered it into her hood: To be triggered only by her own chakra via handseal, limited in range, not particularly powerful. 

But enough to cripple the woman’s fingers and sear her arm and side in order to stop her from doing ninjutsu an also impede her movements.

That’s what was supposed to happen. 

Instead, the kunoichi is completely engulfed in white flame. Riko stumbles back, startled, and raises a hand to protect her face, ducking against the scorching heat.

Finally, the woman’s grip on her stealth slips and Riko can sense her chakra — cold like deep water and fluttering in panic and pain. 

A high-pitched, agonised scream sounding from the pillar of white-hot flame.

Riko stares in shocked horror at the sight of a charred body falling onto the wooden patio. 

Heavy, rasping breaths, sounding like it’s trying to form words even now. The woman no longer has eyes to stare at her with, and her face — her entire body — has become unrecognisable.

Riko stands, frozen. Stares at what she’s done. The scent of burned flesh and hair sears her nostrils, and absently, she thinks it may never leave her nose.

The horrible sound of the kunoichi struggling to breathe stops after a minute, and what little chakra she had left winks out. She lies still.

Dead.

A crash from inside snaps Riko out of her motionlessness. 

Ino! There was another shinobi, she’s got to-

Riko launches herself through the window and lands in the ground floor bathroom. Crosses the room, throws the door open. Stops. There’s a hole in the wall, two thuggish men - civilian - on the ground nearby. Tsunami’s on the ground, too, on the opposite side of the room, clutching her stomach as blood leaks out. Her kid is unconscious in a corner, Akino sprawled out next to him, Uhei in another corner with his front legs bent awkwardly, but still attempting to drag himself forward. But Ino and the man - they’re not here, where are they — there! 

Asuma’s room.

Asuma, who has a bounty worth millions of ryo on his head, his head but not the rest of his body. Asuma, who’s completely helpless.

No. No, no, no!

She needs to be there right now-

(The world squeezes in on her)

-and then she suddenly is. Crouched on his bedpost, watching Ino, bloodied and with a ferocious expression on her face, her hair scattered all over the floor, hold the remaining attacker back with binds made from pure chakra. 

Binds that are flickering. Failing. 

The seals come so easily, and even though there’s no water, chains slip into existence, lifting from Riko’s shadow and shooting for the would-be killer, but he’s not going one step further, he’s never hurting anybody again-

She has him, she’s got him bound, the chains immobilising him. Ino’s binding technique releases with a snap, and with a hoarse cry, the Yamanaka drives a kunai right into his throat.

 


▬▬ι═══════ﺤ  -═══════ι▬▬


 

Chapter Text

Ino doesn’t pause for a moment. With a vicious twist, she yanks the kunai out of the man’s throat, and he crumples to the ground with a wet gurgle. Not a minute passes before he’s dead. Ino watches the entire time.

Riko topples off the bedpost and only just manages to catch herself. For a moment, the world goes black, but it passes and she keeps herself upright, a hand clinging to the bed for support. 

Ah, she thinks, Right. Chakra exhaustion.

Kakashi did tell her to pace herself and stick to support skills. Which, technically, she did. Sort of. With the kunoichi earlier, she only activated low-cost seals, and with this one, it was just a couple of chains. 

 “Do you have any body scrolls?” Ino asks with a blank look on her face.

Riko shakes her head mutely. 

Ino looks at the mess to her feet. The blood from the enemy shinobi’s throat is soaking into the thin layer of blond hair there. Only now Riko registers that Ino’s ponytail is a whole lot shorter than it used to be. She must have used it as a sort of conductor for those chakra binds.

 “Normal storage seals will do,” Riko mutters. She’s tired and her mouth feels slack. “Are you injured?”

 “I’m fine,” Ino answers curtly, despite the way she’s hunched over and has blood leaking from her shoulder. “You?”

 “Not a scratch,” Riko replies and wow, that’s ridiculous and she almost has to giggle. She should be injured. But the only thing she’s missing is her hood.

With clinical precision, Ino seals the corpse away. “Is yours dead, too?” she asks.

 “Yeah.”

 “Okay.”

They make their way back into the living area. It looks just like Riko left it, except for the fact that Tsunami has lost consciousness and Uhei crawled a good bit of distance further on his injured legs. Also, one of the thugs is waking up.

Ino sneers, stalks over, and slits his throat. His companion is already dead, Riko realises blankly, his throat a torn mess.

Explains the blood on Uhei’s snout.

None of that is important right now.

Riko hurries to Tsunami’s side and kneels down. The wound on her stomach isn’t too bad, rather shallow, but she’s losing blood, and with how unsanitary the surroundings are right now, she might get an infection. “We need to get her into a clean room.”

And then Riko is going to have to swallow a chakra pill, sterilise the injury, and heal it up as much as she can before wrapping it.

Ino helps carry the woman into her room and watches with sharp eyes as Riko treats the injury to the best of her abilities. “She jumped that man,” she recounts slowly. “Jumped on his back and screamed and tried to scratch out his eyes. Bought me time.”

It’s a miracle Tsunami didn’t die.

 “What about the kid?” Riko asks.

 “Just a bump to his head. Doubt he even got a concussion.” 

Ino shrugs carelessly, eyes still on Tsunami.

Riko nods and tries not to consider how cold Ino is being right now. “Come here. We need to wrap your shoulder.”

Ino complies easily, not even flinching when Riko cleans out the wound, disinfects it, and wraps it tightly. “I need to take care of the other bodies,” she says. “And fix up that hole in the wall. And, and-” She takes a deep breath. “I’m starving.”

Riko shrugs. “Kitchen’s still intact. I’ll cobble something together. Or dig up a ration bar. Should have some somewhere.” She rummages in her pockets. Yep. There’s a ration bar alright. She hands it to Ino, who gobbles it down.

 “Okay.” Ino squares her shoulders. “Okay. Clean-up, then real food. I’ll come to the kitchen when I’m done.”

 “I’ll have a look at the brat and the dogs,” Riko volunteers. 

 “Right.”

Ino almost runs out of the room. Riko follows at a slower pace.

It takes several hours to put things back to rights. Both Ino and Riko are exhausted, but neither even consider resting. Instead, they clear away the rubble, scrub away blood, patch the hole in the wall where the thugs entered, replace the scorched planks from Riko’s… well, she wouldn’t call it a fight. Furniture must be put back in place, pictures hung on the wall, dinner prepared. And the injured need to be checked upon regularly. 

The manual labour is mindless and distracting.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Eventually, there’s nothing left to do. Riko finds Ino standing in the living area, staring blankly at the spots where the floor is scrubbed clean. 

“We need to scrub the whole floor,” Ino announces. “It looks weird with those light patches. You can see where we cleaned, and that means you can see where it isn’t clean, and that’s embarrassing when guests come over.”

 “Ino,” Riko mumbles. “Are you okay?”

 “I want to clean,” she snaps. “It’s messy.”

 “It looks fine,” Riko says. “You need rest. I need rest.”

They both know that they can’t rest. Another attacker might come after them, or Gato might send more thugs. It’s the reason neither of them had hurried to the bridge, where their teams might be fighting for their lives right now. 

Aside from the fact that in their conditions, they’d have been more hindrance than aid.

 “I’m fine!” Ino spins around to face her and nearly loses her footing.

She’s very clearly not fine, but she’s also obviously not listening.

 “I’m not,” Riko answers. “I need a shower but I don’t think I’ll manage alone.”

Ino falters.

 “And to be frank? You need a shower, too,” Riko adds tiredly. “Come on.”

Her friend looks down at herself. She’s still got blood on her clothes and skin, is sweaty and dirty from cleaning. Riko doesn’t look too much better, minus the blood, but she’s pale enough to rival a corpse.

Ino only seems to realise this just now. Before Riko’s eyes, she seems to deflate, almost crumble. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “Alright. Shower.”

They go to the upstairs bathroom, grabbing clean clothes on the way. Their old ones don’t seem salvageable.

Riko knows she’d rather never see her hoodie again.

She also knows that she can’t exactly throw it away. There are still intact seals sewn into it. They’ll need to either be rendered unusable or cut out of the whole garment.

Ino helps her wash up in silence and then orders her to wait in their quarters.

 “Eat something, you look terrible,” are her parting words.

Riko obeys with no protest, but keeps an ear out. Even if she hadn’t, she’d have heard Ino’s sobs not long after the shower stops running. With a quiet groan, she forces herself to her feet and knocks softly on the door. “Can I come in?”

There’s no answer.

 “I’m coming in,” Riko decides, and gives Ino a few moments to protest before she cautiously enters.

Ino is staring at her reflection in the mirror. “My hair,” she sobs.

Her formerly lustrous blond mane reaches only past her ears now, forming a messy, choppy halo around her blotchy face. 

 “I can try to even it out,” Riko offers tentatively, not knowing what else to say.

It’s not like Ino’s breakdown is actually about her hair. 

 “But you don’t know the first thing about fashion!” Ino cries. “All your hoodies are formless bags!”

 “They’re comfy and hide tons of tricks,” Riko defends. “And the hood can hide my face! They’re useful.”

 “Ugh.” Ino sniffles and stares at her reflection. “Get me some scissors. I’ll do it myself.”

Riko roots around in her storage seals and eventually finds the requested scissors. She has three pairs: a tiny one meant for nails, the other one for cutting wires and pretty big and unwieldy. The third one is for cutting paper in zig-zag lines. Riko doesn’t know why she has them.

All three are in top condition, however.

 “Do you just carry random stuff with you everywhere?” Ino mutters, eyeing the available choices.

Riko musters a tired grin. “Storage seals rock.”

She can just hoard everything and never run out of space.

Ino huffs. “Can’t argue with that.”

And she grabs the biggest pair of scissors and just. Chops all her hair off at the sides, leaving little more than stubble. Leaves it a little longer on the top of her head. Riko stares because… Ino’s hair is her pride, she loves it, loves caring for it, and she’d thought Ino would want to grow it out as soon as she could?

Ino eyes herself in the mirror with a critical look. “Good enough,” she decides eventually. “What do you think?”

Riko stares at her. “Looks nice.” She bites her lip. “Are you okay?”

 “What’s it matter?” Ino snorts, turning away from the mirror. “It doesn’t change a thing if I have long hair or not, enemies are still going to try and kill me.”

 “It matters,” Riko mumbles, looking away. Staring at her own hands. “Maybe I should cut my hair, too. That’s twice it’s gotten me in trouble.”

Or had it actually kept her alive? The woman would’ve probably killed her if it weren’t for her red hair. So that she could sell Riko later. She shudders.

 “I’ll cut it for you,” Ino offers, “If you want to. You’ll just mess it up.”

Riko frowns. “I don’t want to.”

That would mean letting those people win. Same with dying her hair.

Ino shrugs. “Suit yourself.” She walks out of the bathroom and makes her way downstairs, with Riko trailing after her at a slower pace. Checking on the injured again. Akino had dismissed himself in a moment of consciousness once he realised it was safe to do so. Uhei remains, his legs splinted. Neither Tsunami nor her son have woken up so far, and Asuma’s condition is unchanged as well.

That done, Riko sinks down on a couch in the living room, Uhei shuffling over to rest at her feet. Ino, meanwhile, paces. Circles the living room, out of the front door, patrols around the house, checks upstairs again. The entire time, her eyes are uncharacteristically hard, with occasional flickers of confusion, and she keeps running a hand over her cropped hair.

Riko doesn’t have the energy to argue with her that she should rest. Feels herself slipping off into an odd state between sleeping and waking. Her mind is blissfully empty, idly registering sensory input but not analysing it. Ino throws a blanket over her at some point, and then she’s even comfortably warm.

The moment she feels her teammates’ chakra on the horizon of her chakra sense, it’s like a switch has been flipped.

Team means safety.

Riko drifts off into sleep.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko is a pretty active sleeper, and she has weird and confusing dreams all the time. That’s why she’s pretty sure she’s still asleep when she wakes up with her head pillowed on a sleeping Shikamaru’s lap and her legs sprawled over Genma’s, of all people.

 “Rise and shine,” her mentor says upon finding her awake.

She stares for a moment and then decides that she’s not dealing with him right now. It’s her dream. Riko closes her eyes again.

He pinches her big toe.

Damn it. Not dreaming after all. 

More out of habit than anything, she tries to muster up the energy for a glare and comes up empty. “Our medic wants to yell at you,” Genma tells her, entirely unimpressed, and he carefully puts her glasses on her nose. Huh, someone must have taken them off at her at some point.

 “I’m not injured,” Riko protests tiredly. 

Just very, very exhausted.

But all in all, she’d gotten more scratches from cleaning up the house than from the actual fight.

 “You’re the back-up Kakashi-sensei called?” she asks.

 “Yep.” Genma eyes her seriously. “Raidou, Iwashi, Iyashi and me.”

Aside from Iyashi, she knows those names thanks to her visit to the jounin lounge.

 “He’s a medic,” Genma answers her unspoken question.

Riko blinks slowly. She should be relieved, since they really do need a medic, but everything feels so distant right now. 

 “He’s looking at Asuma right now,” Genma continues. “Well, has been for the past, oh, five hours? If you’re lucky, he’ll be too exhausted to yell at you, actually.”

She can’t think of an answer to that. Five hours, huh? “Is everyone okay?”

“Yeah. Little scratched up, but everybody who needed to be dealt with was.”

“Gato,” she surmises. “Zabuza?”

“Gato’s dead, Zabuza and his apprentice decided not to continue their mission after their employer kicked it. Kakashi worked something out with them. They’ll clear Nami of Gato’s cronies and walk free.”

That’s a relief, huh.

 “Heard you got into a bit of a scuffle yourself,” Genma says lightly, but his eyes are intent on her. “Yamanaka Ino had quite a report.”

Riko shrugs.

What’s there to say?

 “I killed someone, yeah,” she confirms what she figures Genma wants to know. “Body’s in storage. Didn’t have a body scroll, so normal storage.”

 “How’re you feeling?” he asks quietly, looking at her inquisitively.

Riko looks away. “Not much of anything. Tired, I guess.”

Which is — isn’t that weird? She should be… she killed a person. Somehow. 

And yeah, killing is a thing most shinobi eventually end up doing, she knows that. Academy lessons sort of talked around it, but Yoshino was pretty clear that it would happen at some point.

Just. It was an accident. It went so fast.

 “Where’s sensei? And the others?” she changes the subject.

Genma eyes her for a moment longer before he answers, “Sleeping, helping at the bridge, scouting the town, preventing angry mobs of recently liberated people. The works.”

 “The dogs?” 

 “Fine.”

She breathes out. “I’m tired.”

 “You look tired. If you’re even half as tired as you look, I’d figure you shouldn’t even be awake right now. Tell you what, you get something to eat and zonk right back out. Iyashi can just yell at you next time you wake up. Sound good?”

 “Yeah,” she whispers. “Thanks.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko is still on the couch when she wakes up next, but it’s Kakashi who sits with her this time. Neither Shikamaru nor Genma are anywhere near, as far as she can tell. There’s a chakra resting upstairs and Tsunami somewhere in the kitchen, but that’s it.

 “Where…?” she mumbles.

 “Naruto and Sasuke are guarding the bridge,” Kakashi reveals easily. “Raidou is helping your brother’s team with training, Genma and Iwashi are having a look around town. The medic is upstairs.”

Riko nods slowly.

 “Do you want to talk about it?” Kakashi asks quietly.

She looks at her hands. “Not really,” she answers.

 “Alright. But you’re going to see a Psych operative when we get back.” His tone brooks no argument. Riko swallows heavily.

Genin aren’t required to have regular check-ups with the Yamanaka-dominated Psych division, and neither are chuunin unless they worked certain types of missions. But a jounin sensei could make sessions mandatory, if they thought it necessary.

She’s eleven and burnt someone to death. It probably is necessary. But how it’s supposed to help, she can’t imagine.

 “What’s Psych like?” she asks quietly.

 “Well,” Kakashi answers brightly. “I see my shrink once every two weeks, if missions allow it, and she gives me cookies and I bring her flowers, and she lets me summon my dogs for her to cuddle. Pakkun’s her favourite.”

 “That sounds nice,” Riko whispers.

 “I’ll introduce you when we get back,” Kakashi promises. 

She nods in thanks.

It doesn’t seem as daunting now.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Recovery is slow. Iyashi the medic is not happy with Riko’s everything.

He’s the huffy sort. It makes her uncomfortable, so she avoids him. Sticks with her brother and friends instead, though during the day they tend to train in the forest, if they aren’t scheduled for a guard shift. 

It rankles that Ino can take part in that now, her injury all but healed by Iyashi, whereas Riko’s chakra exhaustion keeps her too tired and drained to do much of anything. At least after a few days, she’s finally allowed to walk around again, and Kakashi summons a big dog with the rather fitting name Bull, who can guard her if she wants to go on walks and carry her back if she overestimates the distance she can walk.

The freedom to walk where she pleases comes as a great relief. The house had started to feel like a prison.

Long, slow walks along the beach are nice for unwinding. And light exercise where nobody, especially not Iyashi, can see - that makes her feel better as well.

She just… wants to avoid people for a bit. Alone time is good. 

That’s how the days pass. Slowly, peacefully, until one day at the beach Bull starts growling while she’s slowly working through a kata with Yoshino’s katana that she’s trying to familiarise herself with. 

Riko falls into a ready stance, even though her legs are already shaking from previous exertion.

The man doesn’t even make an attempt at stealth. He’s just right there, tall and lanky and radiating danger. 

He fits the description of Momochi Zabuza perfectly.

This is probably a very bad situation, she realises distantly. But for some reason, she doesn’t feel like her life is at stake here.

 “D’you even know how to use that, brat?” he growls disdainfully, glaring at her katana as if it personally offended him.

Her mother gave her that. Riko narrows her eyes. 

Her hood is up, hiding her hair from view. She’s still got red eyebrows, though. “Last time someone from Kiri talked to me, they wanted to sell me into slavery,” she says in a clipped tone. “You gonna pull something like that?”

Zabuza snorts. “Pathetic. No. Answer the question.”

 “You gonna kill me?” Riko continues.

 “Think I’m stupid? Think I don’t know who your teacher is?” he snaps back.

 “Great.” Riko eyes at him warily, one hand running over Bull’s fur. “Then I’m going home.”

She takes a step backward. Another. Zabuza tracks her every move. “Didn’t answer the question, brat,” he grunts. “Fucking rude.”

 “You’re suspicious,” Riko points out tartly. “Ever heard of stranger danger?”

 “Heh.” And he grins, revealing many sharp teeth. “I’ll just find out for myself.”

Her eyes widen when he’s suddenly gone and it’s more instinct than anything that has her spinning on her heel, katana up to block his weapon. The force of the giant butcher knife sword thing he wields almost bowls her over.

It should have thrown her all the way across the beach. 

 “You suck,” he concludes.

In the blink of an eye, Riko shifts her weight and stance and his stupidly oversized sword slides off of hers, leaving her free to stab forward. Next thing she knows she’s launched into the ocean.

Crap, the medic’s going to kill her. 

Grimacing, Riko wades back to the beach, where Bull is still growling at Zabuza. But not trying to kill him, which is nice, since the last thing Riko wants is another death battle. “What do you even want?” she demands from the stranger.

Zabuza grins. “I’m fucking bored and you have a sword.”

Fog begins to thicken around them.

Bull presses close to her. She runs a hand over his fur. “Go get sensei,” she murmurs.

The dog makes a noise of protest, but they don’t have any other option here, seeing as Riko is in no shape to run anywhere. Bull himself isn’t the fastest runner, and that’s without carrying her. Plus, Zabuza is clearly not looking to kill her, just… playing around? So she should be fine on her own for a little while.

They aren’t too far away from their base. Kakashi can be here within ten minutes. 

She’s pretty sure Bull has figured out the same thing, because he takes off. Leaving Riko alone in the fog with a bored Kiri nuke-nin.

Damn, but she’s so glad for the blindfolded training back home now, because without sharpened hearing, she would be done for. 

And he’s still playing with her. He could’ve killed her ten times over in the first minute, but instead he keeps letting his sword slice through the air audibly. Giving her that one moment to react. To evade, to redirect his strikes, to attempt a counter. She pulls on every bit of technique Yoshino has taught her, because she has too little chakra to work with to even make herself a tiny bit faster.

She’s on the ground in three minutes, arse thoroughly kicked, and she can’t get up. Her body too heavy to move. Even when Zabuza towers over her with her katana in his hand. “Entertainment’s over,” she informs him. “You can go now.”

 “Heh.” He carelessly drops the katana on the sand next to her. “Fucking brat. Red hair, huh?”

 “Got a problem with it?” she snaps, which is a stupid thing to do, but she’s just so done with people obsessing over her hair colour.

 “Don’t give a fuck.”

Then why is he still here?

 “Tell your teacher the Gato Corporation has been dismantled,” he adds before his body bursts into water. Riko gets a face full of it, sputtering.

A bloody water clone! And he calls her rude!

Kakashi appears a moment later, and crap - that’s probably the end of her nice and relaxing walks with Bull.


▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬


 

 

Chapter Text

After her encounter with Zabuza — she can’t believe one of the Seven Swordsmen of Kiri singled out her — Riko still gets to take walks, but only if Kakashi or Genma accompany her. In addition, she can no longer take a step without at least two of her peers jumping up to coincidentally go wherever Riko’s going.

Privacy is all gone. But at least she gets the occasional hug in exchange. 

Zabuza doesn’t show his troublesome mug again.

Still, she’s relieved to hear that they’re all going home the next day. The bridge is all built and Iyashi declared Asuma safe for transport, which Genma’s squad will be taking care of with some sort of transportation jutsu. 

Kakashi would be walking the genin home, though Riko, who isn’t in any shape to travel at ninja speed, will have to ride piggyback the majority of the way. 

At least they let her walk across the damn bridge on her own two feet. It’s a huge thing, awe-inspiring, and the entire town is there to cheer the Konoha-shinobi on as they are given the honour of being the first to walk across the structure.

They’re celebrating, have been doing so for days and days, and all Riko can think about is the fact that she took a life. Whenever she closes her eyes, she sees the fire and hears the screams, smells the burnt flesh. It keeps replaying on an endless loop.

She’s so glad to see the last of Nami no Kuni .

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Genma and his team have already relayed all the relevant details to the Hokage by the time Riko and companions make it back home, so reporting to him is a mere formality that requires little time. 

Unsurprisingly, Kakashi takes them all to the hospital after. Riko really should have seen it coming.

She lets the medics administer their techniques in silence and takes the pills and injections they give her without protest. Soon she slips off into a sleep that should have been dreamless but isn’t. Something’s at the edge of her mind, intangible, disappearing when she tries to look closer. But it’s there and it unsettles her.

It’s not a restful sleep. But whatever the medics did while she was out, it took the edge off of the chakra exhaustion.

Shikaku is in the room when she wakes. “Hello, little one,” he greets quietly when she notices his presence.

 “Hey,” she croaks with a bit of delay, the sight of him at her bedside not immediately computing.

He eyes her intently and she waits with trepidation for whatever he’s going to say. There’s no way he doesn’t already know about the mission and how it went. Probably knew as soon as Genma’s team came home.

 “The medics say you can come home with me, if you promise to take it easy.”

Riko exhales. They’re not going to talk about it right now. Good.

 “Okay,” she croaks, her voice hoarse from sleep, and sits up, wincing at her stiff muscles. How long was she asleep?

Does it matter?

Shikaku’s eyes are heavy on her, but he makes no move to help her. Riko is grateful for it. She feels weak enough already without someone rubbing it in.

 “Are the others okay?” she asks.

 “Kakashi sent them home.”

Riko frowns.

Both her teammates are orphans. Neither have anyone waiting for them. The thought of Sasuke in his big house and Naruto in his cramped apartment, alone, is depressing. 

She’ll visit them as soon as she can.

Just… not now.

The house is silent when they arrive. At her questioning look, Shikaku informs her that, “Your brother is with his team and your mother should be home soon.”

Riko nods.

 “Do you want some time to yourself?”

 “Yeah,” she mumbles, and immediately feels guilty for it because she hasn’t seen him in weeks and she should spend time with him, shouldn’t she? It’s only right. And it’s only early afternoon - he took time off from his job just to sit at her bedside in the hospital. “Sorry, I-”

 “It’s fine, Riko,” he sighs and ruffles her hair with a wry smile. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Take all the time you need.”

She ducks her head and scurries off into her room where she falls onto her bed and just stares blankly at the ceiling until a rustle pulls her out of her thoughts. With a groan, she rolls to her feet. “I’m back, Usagi-chan,” she murmurs, kneeling beside the rabbit, who has free reign of her long since bunny-proofed room. 

He mostly sleeps all day, anyway. She’s flattered when he expends the energy to crawl into her lap and boop her hand.

 “Sorry,” she tells him, “Took longer than I said I would.”

Her first C-rank mission was supposed to take up to a week at most. Instead, it was almost a month in total.

For a while she sits there in silent, running her hand over the bunny’s fur.

She doesn’t stop petting him when the tears begin to fall.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

In the afternoon, Shikaku comes up to bring her food. Riko has no appetite at all, even though she hasn’t eaten lunch yet, but she forces it down anyway.

Food helps with chakra exhaustion, and she needs to be healthy if she wants to start training again anytime soon. In the meanwhile, her old medical textbooks are now stacked on her desk, three lying open.

If she’d only just been a bit better…

 “You know,” Shikaku muses, “Your brother and his team all went to the hospital this morning to request lessons in medical ninjutsu.”

Riko looks up from her food. “Oh,” she says softly. “I - what will happen to them? Is Asuma-” Her voice trails off.

She doesn’t know if the medics can fix an injury of that magnitude. And even then, he’ll miss a limb.

Team Ten is down a sensei, no matter the outcome of his treatment.

“Sarutobi Asuma is receiving the best treatment the village can give,” Shikaku tells her after a small pause. “His genin will be transferred to the care of another jounin.”

 “Who?”

The Ino-Shika-Cho formation is traditionally under the care of a teacher from the Sarutobi clan. But she’s pretty sure there’s only the Hokage himself, Asuma, and some kid Naruto told her about a while ago left of the Sarutobi shinobi. 

There might be more, she supposes. Ino’s mom was born a Sarutobi, though she’d remained civilian. 

“It’s still in discussion,” Shikaku answers. “Done eating?”

Riko nods.

 “Good.” He stands up. “The clan clinic needs herbs from the forest. Want to help me find some?”

She blinks.

Right. The clan head, running a D-rank errand. Sure. “Why not,” she shrugs.

Riko’s never gone into the forest before. Only Nara clan members have access. They can bring visitors if necessary, but Riko vaguely recalls someone mentioning hefty restrictions on that.

It doesn’t matter anymore, she’s Nara Riko now, so there’s no hindrance to her visiting.

The forest is beautiful. Peaceful. The feel it gives off - it’s like the opposite of the Forest Of Death, and even though Shikaku and her walk for hours as they pick herbs, she doesn’t feel as exhausted as she should by the time they sit down in a clearing. 

Shikaku unseals two bento boxes. “Dinner,” he announces before explaining, “Your mother is dealing with a few things. Shikamaru and Ino are staying over at the Akimichi compound.”

Probably something to do with their joint venture into medicine, Riko would wager. Shikamaru had been scarily not-lazy the past weeks.

It’s beginning to worry her. Some days, he barely looks himself anymore.

“Thanks,” she says quietly. “Not just for dinner. For-” she gestures around them, at the forest, at the basket filled with herbs. “Just, thanks.” A pause, and she adds, “Dad.”

“You’re welcome, daughter,” he answers, smiling.

Riko sucks in a startled breath.

“Dinner?” he asks.

She nods mutely, and he unpacks the food.

After eating, they play a few rounds of shogi until visitors arrive.

The deer look bigger up close, not quite as delicate as they did when she observed them from afar, before she was allowed in here. A tall stag with spiralling antlers leads them, and his eyes reflect a strange, inhuman sort of intelligence.

 “His name is Rikumaru,” Shikaku murmurs to her as the stag walks towards them. He comes to a stop in front of Riko, eyeing her curiously, and she stares at him with widened eyes, heart beating quickly.

 “Hi,” she chokes out. “I’m Riko.”

The stag studies her for a bit longer before he brushes his snout against her forehead. His breath is warm on her skin, her glasses fog up.

She reaches out with her chakra sense, and just like that, she isn’t so anxious anymore. Rikumaru’s chakra — feeling unlike any animal she’s ever sensed before, like he’s not quite of this world — radiates warmth. Welcome. Friendship.

A smile forms on her face and, moving slowly, Riko raises a hand and begins petting his fur carefully until he bumps against her again and walks over to Shikaku. The two stare at each other for a long moment, as if they’re holding a silent conversation, then the man gives the stag a respectful nod — a bow, almost — and as sudden as they arrived, the herd leaves.

“He likes you,” Shikaku muses thoughtfully.

Riko answers, “I like him, too,” though that doesn’t quite cover it. Whatever just happened had a weight to it.

Like it was important.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Team Seven was given the week off so its members could recover their reserves and health. And in addition, to make time for therapy appointments.

Konoha’s Psych division, headed by the Yamanaka clan, is one of the things that sets the village apart from the likes of Kiri or Suna. No other country’s shinobi administration spends much thought on the mental health of its fighters - some even take pride in having their forces be loose cannons.

Not Konoha. Konoha takes care of her people. And that entails regular psych evals and contact with a representative of Psych. “As long as you’re on a genin team, your jounin sensei determines if you’re fit for active duty. Once you reach chuunin rank, you’ll be taking documented psych evals with the Psych division,” Kakashi tells her, and when he looks down, his eyes crinkle reassuringly. “It’s not as scary as it sounds.”

Riko shoots him a deadpan look from where she’s dangling under his arm while he walks. Carrying her around like a sack of potatoes. “Not as scary as some weird old guy climbing in through my window and carrying me across the village while I’m still in my sleepwear.”

Which at least isn’t as embarrassing as it could be. An oversized T-shirt with a pink rabbit on it and shorts with a kunai pattern is still pretty terrible, though. And she’d really like some shoes. But she looked worse during her blindfolded training.

“Maa, Riko-chan, you really should’ve been better prepared for your first therapy appointment.”

She pinches Kakashi. He aims a wounded look at her that could’ve put actual puppies to shame. “My cute students don’t appreciate their poor old sensei,” he laments.

 “Did you do this to Naruto and Sasuke, too?” she asks curiously. 

 “Not yet!” he answers cheerfully. 

Yeah, she’s absolutely swinging by Sasuke’s and Naruto’s places to warn them about this. Chances are Kakashi will spring psych appointments on them in completely different ways because he’s annoying like that, but they should know to expect shenanigans.

 “Here we are,” Kakashi announces, stopping in front of a modest two-story house on one of the blocks that unofficially belongs to the Yamanaka Clan. It’s not that they have a claim to this part of the village, it’s just that somehow only Yamanaka inhabit it. “Look sharp, you want to make a good first impression, Riko!”

He doesn’t set her down, so she can’t exactly follow his advice while he knocks on the door.

A few minutes later there’s a shuffling sound before the door opens. A young woman with blond hair stands in the door frame.

Her nightgown definitely beats Riko’s pyjamas in taste. So does the haori thrown over her shoulders. “You knocked,” she says. “I’m so proud of you, Kakashi.” 

She sounds genuinely happy, too, and her smile is a thing of beauty. 

Kakashi crinkles his eyes at her. “Good morning, Fuji! Riko, say hello to Fuji. She’s the best, and she helped me with my own first experiences with death.”

 “Hello, Fuji,” Riko says dutifully, adding a little wave. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

 “It’s nice to meet you, too, Riko. I didn’t know Kakashi would be bringing you by at six in the morning.”

 “Neither did I,” Riko tells her.

 “And neither did I!” Kakashi seconds cheerfully, the moron. “We have so much in common already.” He sets Riko down. “You two have fun now.” And he disappears, leaving Fuji and her alone in their sleepwear.

Does this count as a pyjama party? Possibly. 

Fuji sighs softly. “Oh well. Do come in.” She steps back, and Riko follows the invitation. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

Riko shakes her head, casting a look around. It’s a nice house, from what she can tell. Polished wooden floors in the hallway, same in the cozy living room Fuji leads her to. Couches and a tea table stand on a fuzzy rug on one side, a dinner table with matching chairs the other. An assortment of odd knick-knacks and figurines sit on shelves. In the corners stand a bunch of plant pots. There’s a huge cactus, a palm, and proudly displayed on a little pedestal stands a blooming wisteria bonsai.

Fuji excuses herself for a few minutes and returns with tea and stretchy slippers for Riko’s feet. She takes a seat on the armchair opposite Riko, pulling up her legs and sitting in a curled-up position. “We’re both in our nightwear,” she says at Riko’s curious look. “We might as well get comfortable.” She sips at her tea.

Riko shrugs and sits cross-legged on the couch. She nearly burns her mouth at the tea. “Your house is nice,” she says, just to break the silence.

 “Thank you. I like it, too.” Fuji chuckles at her. “I’m sure you have questions, Riko? Are you comfortable with me calling you that?”

 “Yes?” Riko asks, because that’s her name, why wouldn’t she be? “I don’t know how this works. The therapy thing. Are you a shrink? Kakashi said he was taking me to my first session, so I guess you must be? Just, uh.” Her brain catches up with her mouth and she gestures vaguely. “Unexpected.”

She sort of figured it’d be someone like Inoichi. Maybe even Inoichi himself. At least someone old. Instead, it’s this pretty lady who looks younger than Iruka-sensei.

Fuji gives her a knowing look, and Riko’s cheeks heat. She fiddles with her tea cup. 

 “That’s alright,” the woman says calmly. “It’s your first experience with the Psych Division, and you only just graduated.”

 “I thought it’d be in some big building,” Riko blurts, “With someone scary.”

The woman smiles at her. “Common misconception. We’re not T&I, don’t worry.” She sets her cup down and folds her hands in front of her. “Let’s introduce ourselves, shall we? My name is Yamanaka Fuji, I’m nineteen years old and a member of Konoha’s Psych Division. I work primarily with children in and around your age group, Kakashi being the glaring exception. I enjoy taking care of my plants and baking.”

Riko blinks at her. Nineteen. Kakashi said she talked him through his first kill.

Either Fuji started her career young or he had therapy late in his life.

Fuji looks at her expectantly. Riko jolts and hastily introduces herself. “I’m Riko, the Nara adopted me a while back, I’m almost twelve and a genin. I like drawing.”

 “That’s a lovely hobby,” her new shrink comments encouragingly. “Okay, I’m not sure if Kakashi has told you what to expect beyond the bare basics, so here’s how I work. Our goal will be to ensure that you can handle personal hardships and work-related stress in a healthy manner that allows you to enjoy your life. Simplified, this means that I will both help you find healthy ways of coping and attempt to find and minimise the source of what causes you mental distress.”

Riko nods uncertainly, and because she doesn’t know what to say, takes another sip from her tea.

 “That means the two of us need to agree on a few rules, if that’s okay with you,” Fuji continues. “In an ideal world, we’d promise to be honest with each other. However, that’s not very realistic, considering our careers. So instead, we’ll use a password if there’s something we can’t or don’t want to talk about. Mine is Merrythought. Sound alright?”

 “Isn’t the point of therapy to talk things out?” Riko asks in confusion. “And then you get better?”

Fuji tilts her head. “Talking about things isn’t always helpful,” she explains. “In case of traumatic events, it can even be harmful. It depends on the patient. The difficulty is realising when you’re staying silent because you’re not ready to talk, or because it’s easier that way. But that’s what I’m here for — to help you with things like that.”

 “I’m not traumatised,” Riko mutters, looking away.

 “And I didn’t say you were.” Fuji gives her a soft smile, and Riko flushes even more. “I’m only trying to answer your questions.” 

 “Sorry.”

 “No worries. Next rule: If, at any point, you feel uncomfortable with me, I need you to notify me or Kakashi. You can terminate therapy at any time if you feel like I can’t help you, but in that case it’s imperative that you continue with someone else. It can seriously hurt your career if you don’t.” The young woman fixes Riko with a grave look. “And don’t hesitate because you think you might hurt my career. This is about your well-being.” She pauses. “Now, if I feel like I can’t continue your treatment, I will refer you to someone I feel would be the best fit.”

Riko clears her throat. “Is that likely? Does it happen a lot?”

 “Not so far in my career,” Fuji assures her. “I’m quite proud of that, to be honest.”

 “What are the other rules?”

 “Just two more things.” Fuji holds up a finger. “One, do the work. Therapy is an active process and requires effort and emotional labour. I may also give you homework in some form. It doesn’t have to be successful — I just want you to promise you’ll try.”

It sounds reasonable enough. Why wouldn’t she do the work? “Sure. What’s the last rule?”

Fuji grins. “Be on time.”

Riko blinks. “Uh… what?”

 “If we have an appointment, try to be punctual. It’s a little thing, but it will get you into the habit of thinking of therapy as a serious matter.”

 “How’s that working out with Kakashi?” escapes Riko. She slaps her hands over her mouth and wishes the ground would swallow her up.

But Fuji only laughs. “Oh, that’s a work in progress.” She shakes her head exasperatedly. “Do you have questions?”

 “Er… not yet?” Riko thinks hard. “I don’t think so. Uh, do we start right now?”

 “Nah.” Fuji stands. “Today’s for getting to know each other, and I don’t know about you, but I could use some breakfast. I was planning on baking cookies afterwards. Do you want to give me a hand?”

Riko jumps up, already nodding. “Yes!”

 “Then let’s go wash up. I think I have a spare tooth-brush somewhere you can use…” Fuji taps a finger on her lip thoughtfully. “My clothes won’t fit you. You know what, we can just do this in pyjamas. Like a slumber party.” She giggles mischievously and startles a laugh from Riko, who instantly decides against getting a change of clothes from Ino’s place.

This whole therapy thing is looking pretty okay, all things considered!

Chapter Text

Riko leaves Fuji’s place in the early afternoon after a hearty meal, a box of the best cookies she’s ever eaten tucked under her arm. She’s still in her sleepwear, but now wearing a dark haori over it. The garment is way too big, but it covers the rabbit shirt, so she doesn’t look quite as ridiculous as before. And Fuji even gave her geta sandals to wear, which are the type of shoe she favours. They’re too big for Riko and hard to walk in, even when she cheats with chakra to stick them to her soles, but it’s still better than running around barefoot. 

Luckily Sasuke’s house isn’t far from here, and if she plays her cards right, he might loan her some shinobi sandals. She and him do have the same shoe size.

Riko’s teammate isn’t in his private training ground, which surprises her. Sasuke trains day in, day out, unless he’s doing homework. Which doesn’t happen anymore, now that they’re genin. As far as she’s aware, she’s the only one who committed to learning a theory-based skill like fuuinjutsu. Not that she has time to do it full-time or look into anything more complicated than storage-related seals.

Sasuke takes a while to answer the door, but eventually it swings open. “Hey,” she greets.

He takes in her appearance and rolls his eyes, but it’s not like he has room to talk today. Sasuke is looking weird. Riko’s never seen him wear anything other than his shinobi gear and it throws her off. “What do you want?” he asks flatly in that I’m busy and you’re annoying tone that he usually defaults to, if he bothers with verbal answers at all.

Riko figures that a truly annoyed Sasuke would have just closed the door in her face, so he’s not actually too busy to deal with her.

 “What’cha you up to?” she asks, because that’s less rude than enquiring about his messed-up hair, the ink-smudges that made their way from his fingers onto his face, the lack of arm- and leg warmers, his bare feet, and the shadows under his eyes. He doesn’t even have his kunai pouch secured to his leg, instead it dangles from his hand as though he’d grabbed it as an afterthought. His scent is off, too, he smells like fish rather than campfires, she’d suspect an imposter if his chakra didn’t mark him as the real deal. “And I just wanted to check on my teammates, it’s weird not having you in sensing range after the mission.” She frowns, absently fiddling with the haori’s wide sleeves. “Visiting Naruto later, wanna tag along?”

 “I’m busy,” he brushes her off. “You’re not supposed to be taking long walks.”

Right, the joys of chakra exhaustion. “I didn’t, sensei dumped me on a therapist this morning. Her house is just a few blocks away,” Riko explains hastily. “Reason number two for visiting you! Be on the lookout for sensei-related chaos.”

Sasuke snorts and ties his kunai pouch around his leg before going back into the house. He doesn’t close the door behind him, so Riko takes the silent invitation and shuffles inside after him, trailing his steps to the kitchen. 

Her jaw drops when she enters. The normally organised and clean space is in chaos, and the odour of fish nearly makes her tear up before she dials her sense of smell down. The kitchen island is a mess of books and scrolls, loose paper filled with notes covering every otherwise free surface. Some are even pinned to the kitchen cabinets.

Riko nearly chokes on her spit when she sees what they’re about. “You’re learning medical ninjutsu?!”

It explains the dead fish on the counter. And the box filled with live fish to the side, which he must have gotten from the market.

Shikamaru and his team are one thing, but Sasuke? Learning healing, of all things?

When the heck did the world turn upside down?

 “Hn,” he grunts, which is the least satisfying answer he could give her. She stares at him expectantly, motioning for him to go on as she sits in the one chair that isn’t occupied by study materials. 

He doesn’t say anything further, though. 

 “What brought this on?” she prompts finally. “You weren’t interested in medicine before.” At least, not that she can tell. The books and scrolls are all beginner’s material, so he can’t have been at it for long.

Sasuke grunts uncomfortably. “Team needs a medic.”

Riko blinks at him. “I have that covered, though.” For all that she got kicked out of medic training. Doesn’t mean she can’t read the material and train on her own time. She can say with confidence that she isn’t complete garbage.

 “You give yourself chakra exhaustion most of the time.” He gives her an annoyed look. “It’s stupid and unsustainable, and the only other option is Naruto.”

Riko shudders at the thought of Naruto as a medic. Yikes.

 “Besides, what happens if you get hurt, stupid?” he demands, crossing his arms.

Oh.

 “The team would be without a medic,” she answers quietly.

Okay. He has a point. She looks at Sasuke with wide eyes. He huffs and turns away, glaring at a dead fish.

 “D’you wanna study together sometime?” Riko asks. “I have loads of books and notes. We can keep them here. And, uh, set up a room for practice. Exploded fish is really hard to clean, so maybe don’t do that in the kitchen.”

 “I don’t need your help,” Sasuke snaps, suddenly glaring at her. She raises her hands.

 “Didn’t say you did! It’s just, learning this stuff takes a lot of time, and I think it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done! I don’t want it to cut into your regular training time more than it has to, is all.” Riko stares at him. “We’re a team.”

A tense silence follows.

 “Hn,” he finally agrees tersely. Riko beams at him.

 “Great! I’ll go get the study materials, and you can pick out a room for studying and another for practice-”

 “You’re supposed to rest,” he reminds her sharply. “Go home.”

Riko’s mouth snaps shut.

Right. She completely forgot.

 “Come over for dinner,” she blurts. “I’ll tell Naruto, too. And sensei, if I can find him. It’s weird not having you around after Wave.”

Sasuke stares at her, frozen.

 “Shika has his team over all the time,” Riko insists. “Think about it? It doesn’t have to be today. Come over whenever you want.”

She pushes back to her feet and scurries out of Sasuke’s house, nearly tripping over her feet in Fuji’s geta sandals. It’s only outside that she notices she forgot to ask Sasuke for sandals, crap, but if she goes back inside now she’ll look like a moron.

 

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Riko is halfway to Naruto’s apartment when her body begins protesting the exertion and she instead turns in the direction of home. He’s probably not at his place anyway, training instead.

By the time she’s reached the village’s main street, she’s really exhausted, and she still as a ways to go. The Nara Compound and Naruto’s place are on opposite sides of the village, and Sasuke’s place an equal distance from both, but not in a convenient way.

Contemplating the merits of just sitting down and taking a minute or ten to rest, Riko eyes a bench under a tree nearby. Unfortunately, an old lady and her gaggle of grandchildren are faster. 

She looks up when someone clears their throat politely. The woman’s standing a few steps away and clearly a kunoichi. Looks vaguely familiar, too, and… yeah, she was there when Riko looked for Genma in the jounin lounge. Stayed in the background, though, preferring to watch. 

 “Can I help you?” Riko asks curiously, examining her. She’s beautiful, with her purple hair and warm brown eyes. The standard uniform looks good on her, and Riko perks up in interest when she sees the katana strapped to her back.

 “I was going to ask you that, Riko-chan,” the woman answers. “You look like you should be resting.”

Riko grimaces because this is embarrassing. “I’m on my way home and misjudged the distance, uh…” She eyes the woman and tries to remember if she’d ever been introduced.

 “Uzuki Yugao,” the kunoichi offers, crouching down. “Would you like a ride home? Or I can take you to your father’s office, if you want. I would really advise against you walking. That looks like a nasty case of chakra exhaustion.”

It takes a moment of hesitation, but Yugao seems sincere and her chakra feels friendly and open. Riko nods and climbs on her back. “Shikaku-san’s office is closer,” she says.

Yugao shrugs a little. “I have time. If you want to go home, it’s no trouble.”

Riko hesitates again, but… yeah. Shikaku is working, and he’s important. She really shouldn’t interrupt. “Home would be nice, thank you, Uzuki-san.”

 “Yugao is fine, Riko-chan,” the woman replies warmly, beginning to walk. “You’re welcome. I’m happy to help out a fellow kunoichi.”

For a few minutes, she carries Riko in silence, apparently quite happy to do so. 

 “So, um,” Riko speaks up. “You use kenjutsu?”

 “I do,” Yugao confirms. “Are you interested?”

Riko nods, then remembers the kunoichi can’t see her do that. “I’ve been learning for a few years. Yoshino-san teaches me.”

 “You must be quite good by now.” She tilts her head. “Would you like to train together sometime? Once you’re better, of course.”

 “Erm.” Riko blinks at the back of Yugao’s head in confusion. “Sure? That would be nice, but we don’t really know each other?”

Yugao sighs. “There are only a handful of kenjutsu users in Konoha,” she explains. “It’s more of a Kiri and Kumo specialty. We like to support each other and train together. And besides… being a kunoichi is different from being a shinobi.” She glances back at Riko. “And we don’t necessarily receive the training we need before it becomes relevant. I like to watch out for my fellow kunoichi.”

Yugao smiles at her gently when Riko gives her a completely lost look.

 “When are you cleared to train again?” she asks. “I’m stationed in the village until the Chuunin Exams are over.”

 “I have the week off,” Riko answers, still confused. “After that. Wait, Chuunin Exams are in Konoha this year?”

 “Coming up next month,” Yugao confirms. “New graduates are rarely nominated, though. Your team would have to work very hard to impress Kakashi-senpai enough to convince him.”

Even as exhausted as she is, Riko feels a spark of excitement. Chuunin Exams! They might get a promotion! No more D-ranks!

Then reality catches up with her and she remembers how her one non-D-rank went. How far she’s outclassed chakra-wise. That her team might be disbanded if one of them does make Chuunin. That’s not to mention Kakashi-sensei possibly being reassigned.

Riko likes her team. It’s a good team for the most part! Plus, she’s nowhere near ready for a promotion. 

Chuunin are supposed to be able to lead teams. Riko just barely survived the last week. She can’t be responsible for other people’s survival.

 “I don’t think I want to take them yet,” she says finally. 

Yugao hums neutrally. “You may not have a choice, considering your teammates and your looks. It will be years before the exams are held in Konoha again, and I rather doubt you’ll be allowed to take them in a different village. Some may advise you strongly against waiting. You should be prepared.”

They’ve reached the Nara compound, and the kunoichi crouches down to let Riko slide off her back. “It was very nice to meet you properly, Riko-chan,” she says. “I look forward to training with you.”

Riko nods slowly, reeling from that last bit of advice. The warning that she might not have a choice. That can’t be right, can it? 

 “Yeah,” she answers slowly, cautiously. “Me too, Yugao-san.”

 

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Yoshino is busy in the kitchen when Riko comes trudging in. Raises an eyebrow at her state and points at a chair.

 “Food will be ready in a few,” she informs her. “Did you spend all day in your sleepwear?”

 “Sensei kidnapped me,” Riko defends.

Her adoptive mother gives her a look. “And what does that teach you?”

Riko sighs. “To sleep in clothes I can fight in and keep supplies on my body even while I rest.”

 “Very good.” Yoshino nods. “Try to keep up your sensing during sleep as well.”

A bowl of soup lands in front of her. Riko begins eating dutifully. “I invited Sasuke for dinner,” she remembers. “I don’t think he’ll actually show up, but he might someday. Was gonna ask the others, too, but. Uh. Can’t walk that long.”

Yoshino gives her an approving smile. “Shikaku and I would both like to meet your teammates. Team is family, remember that, Riko.”

Riko smiles, something warm curling in her stomach that has nothing to do with soup. “Yeah,” she agrees softly. “Uh, this kunoichi helped me get home. Uzuki Yugao? She says she uses kenjutsu, too, and we might train together sometime?”

 “Hm.” Yoshino hums, busying herself with cleaning the stove. “She’s quite capable, and I’m running out of things to teach you with the sword. It’s not my specialisation. You could learn a lot from her.”

 “I’ll do my best,” Riko promises. “Can I ask something?”

 “You can ask me anything.” Yoshino gives her an amused look. 

 “Okay.” Riko hesitates. “I heard the Chuunin Exams are taking place here soon.”

The woman pauses for a moment, then resumes her cleaning. “That is true, yes.”

 “Do I have to take them?”

Yoshino sighs and sits down across from her, abandoning the stove. “It’s your choice, Riko. You can say no.” She fixes her with a serious look. “But it will be at least two years before the exams are held in a safe location again. Plus, your team is high-profile and this is a very public event — it will improve your status and that of the village if you make a good showing, which I know you will.” A pause of consideration. “And there’s the matter of your Uchiha teammate. The name alone will draw crowds.”

Riko frowns and looks at her hands. “What’s Sasuke got to do with anything?”

 “In most villages, you’re required to sign up for the exam as a team of three, and Konoha is one of them. Many people will want your teammate to take part in this one, which means you and Uzumaki-kun will also have to.” Yoshino eyes her seriously. “I can’t tell what will happen. Nobody can force you to take these exams, and they’re not the only way to get promoted either. What I do know is that you’re capable and it will be a good experience in a more controlled environment than you’ll find on a mission.”

 “You think I should take it?”

 “I think there are a few weeks to go and you should rest. Make your decision when it becomes relevant. Your sensei might not even nominate you.” Riko’s adoptive mother eyes her shrewdly. “Do you have other questions?”

Finished with her soup, Riko leans back, frowning. “Yugao said something. About kunoichi being different from shinobi.” She gives her mother an uncomfortable look. “And the training being insufficient, or something.”

 “Ah.” Yoshino, too, leans back. “I see.”

 “What does that mean?”

Yoshino frowns heavily before she seems to come to a decision and looks at Riko seriously. “It means that our system is based in privilege. You have noticed preferential treatment towards clan children during your education, I’m sure.”

Riko nods.

Wasn’t like it was subtle. But it seemed sensible, to divide the students up by the level of prior training.

Still, it did rub her the wrong way that clan kids got free passes for yelling during classes or brawling when those from civilian families got scolded for the same thing.

Then there was a difference in lesson quality. Moving up the class ranks, Riko had noticed that as well. 

 “Shinobi are divided in categories,” Yoshino’s voice cuts into her reflections, “Clan and not-clan. Stemming from a shinobi family or a civilian one. Certain specialisations are regarded higher than others. And gender matters as well. There are many that value kunoichi less than male shinobi.”

Riko blinks at her in confusion. “Like… saying girls can’t fight?”

Yoshino chuckles, but it’s not a joyful sound. “At the most base stage, yes. It goes a little deeper than that. Things have gotten better since I was a genin, but not to a satisfying level. Stagnating right now.” She shoots Riko a more reassuring smile. “Perhaps your generation will change that, who knows. You’ve got a lot of potential and a very promising work ethic, Ino-chan is quite capable and motivated…” Her voice trails off. “As for advanced kunoichi training — you’re eleven. It’s neither appropriate nor relevant right now.”

She stands and goes back to the stove. This is clearly all she’s willing to say, and it’s only opened up new questions.

 “You look tired. Go rest.”

It only occurs to Riko later that she never did get an answer what kind of training she’s neglecting.

Chapter Text

Riko is curled up on her therapist’s comfy sofa two days later, nibbling on cookies. “Does it really matter a lot whether you’re female or not as a shinobi?” she asks. “They always told us in kunoichi classes that girls are just as strong as boys.”

She feels a little guilty about asking when Yoshino had reminded her about inappropriate and not relevant after Riko tried to get more details out of her, but not guilty enough to let it stop her. How can it not be relevant, when Riko’s a kunoichi herself?

Yamanaka Fuji hums, sipping her tea. “It matters less for some and more for others.”

Riko gives her a questioning look.

 “For members of certain clans, it doesn’t matter at all. The Inuzuka are an example, or the Aburame.” She tilts her head. “Members of the big clans are generally spared the worst sexism, at least from outsiders. Nobody wants to risk offending someone with a powerful clan at their back. I suppose it’s worse for women from civilian families… especially since among civilians, the term kunoichi still carries certain rather antiquated implications.”

 “Like what?” Riko asks, frowning.

 “Like them all being trained in the art of seduction and manipulation,” Fuji replies bluntly. “Many civilians feel that sex should be reserved for the marriage bed. Women’s purpose in general is to get married, is the common opinion.”

Riko stares at her, cookie forgotten. Cheeks heating up at the mention of sex, but ignoring that… “But that’s so… I mean. What if I don’t want to get married? It’s not their business!”

 “It’s not,” Fuji agrees. “You’ll find that traditional societal values are incompatible with a shinobi’s, and especially a kunoichi’s, lifestyle.”

Riko frowns. “So civilians don’t like kunoichi? I don’t… I never noticed that.”

Mostly she just gets comments on how she’s cute and how lucky she is to be on a team with Sasuke. 

Okay, there’s the occasional incident where she’ll get yelled at by the less friendly clients, but that’s not because of her being a kunoichi. Right?

 “Not all kunoichi,” Fuji answers. “Medics are exempt. Clan kunoichi, too. Physical clan characteristics make them unsuitable for seduction and infiltration, and then there’s bloodline issues… but the clanless kunoichi face a lot of prejudice.”

Riko shivers uneasily. She’s not clanless, but she used to be. And what if the Nara hadn’t adopted her?

 “You don’t have to worry,” her shrink says gently. “Your father’s the jounin commander, and your colouring is striking enough that clan heritage is simply assumed by anyone who looks at you.”

 “But what about everyone else?” Riko stares at her. “It’s not fair. And, I mean, do kunoichi really, uh, do that for missions?”

It came up in Icha Icha, but those are fictional, and also, the people always fell in love before anything ever happened. 

 “Have sex?” Fuji asks. “Sometimes, yes. A lot more than that goes into seduction, though. Reading the target, the situation, playing your role. Gaining their trust, distracting them so thoroughly they won’t notice anything but you, making them forget what the word secret means…” She pauses. “You’re uncomfortable.”

 “It’s just.” Riko is so utterly confused. “Sex is for when you’re in love, and…”

Fuji sighs softly. “Riko. You don’t need to be in love to have sex.”

 “I… what?”

The blonde woman sets her cup down and leans forward and gives her a serious look. “Sex and love have only to do with each other in that it’s nicer to do it with someone you trust and whose touch you enjoy. Friends can have sex. Strangers can, too. What matters is that you’re comfortable and safe.”

The clock on the wall ticks away for quite a while before Riko can digest that. “I. But. As a mission?”

 “Seduction is a mission.” Fuji pours herself new tea and takes a sip. “So are assassination, extermination, infiltration, and espionage. A shinobi who has the skills will be asked to use them.”

She looks at a speechless Riko and softens. 

 “You’re eleven and a genin. It’s not going to matter to your career for a long time. These missions are also not given to the untrained. And before any training is offered to you, there will be careful consideration of the individual’s personality and suitability. Even then, it’s simply that — an offer. Nobody is obligated to take it.” Another awkward pause before she murmurs, “This bothers you.”

 “I’m…” Riko’s voice trails off. “I don’t. It’s.”

 “No hurry,” Fuji tells her gently.

 “It just makes me feel so stupid!” Riko bursts out. “I don’t - I don’t know anything, even after Yoshino-san told me about sex and stuff!”

 “You’re eleven,” Fuji reminds her again. “Learning is a part of life.” She smiles at Riko. “And knowing about sex is an entirely different thing from figuring out what you’re comfortable with.”

 “I just don’t understand,” Riko mumbles. “I thought you were supposed to be in love.”

 “Riko.” Fuji gives her a serious look. “That’s how it normally works, yes, but it doesn’t for everyone, especially not shinobi. Sex isn’t necessarily the act of consummating a romantic relationship. It can simply be a recreational activity between friends. Stress relief, physical comfort... and it can be a weapon, yes. We’re shinobi, and we use what we have at our disposal.”

Riko looks down at her hands.

She’s already taken a life, using a mere piece of clothing. Even if she didn’t mean to, she did.

 “You’re young,” her therapist says quietly. “I’m answering your questions because you asked, but you need to understand that right now, it isn’t relevant to you. In an ideal world, you won’t have sex for at least four years, and I’ll question the character of anyone who’ll ask you before that age. That said, if you never want to have sex at all, that’s fine. And if you never fall in love in a romantic sense, that’s also fine. What matters is that you’re happy and comfortable in your future physical and emotional relationships.”

A few minutes of silence follow, during which Riko attempts to sort her confused thoughts out.

Mostly, she realises after a while, she’s relieved. Because the whole romance circus was bothering her. The thing with Fumio, the constant fangirl drama Sasuke has to deal with, Ino’s rambles about boys.

Riko doesn’t have to deal with that. She can just go on as she has, do her thing.

Fuji clears her throat. “It might reassure you to read up on the regulations of mission assignment. You’ll find they’re quite thorough, covering everything from minimum age and rank, training requirements, and the intel that must be disclosed to the operative before they can be assigned any such mission.” She pauses. “Additionally, there are laws that protect you if you refuse to do a mission on grounds of personal beliefs and morals.”

That sounds a whole other can of worms. “I’ll read up on it,” Riko agrees quietly. “Can we talk about something else now?”

 “Of course, Riko. Would you like more tea?”

 “Yes, please.”

 

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Riko is rather proud of herself for thinking ahead and putting her study materials into storage before her therapy session.

Sasuke’s flabbergasted face when he beholds the small mountain of books, scrolls, and notes she withdraws would be kind of funny, if Riko weren’t a little insulted on behalf of medics everywhere. 

 “What,” she asks, “You thought this would be easy?”

He gives her a blank look.

 “Medical ninjutsu is one of the most difficult disciplines a shinobi can learn,” Riko informs him, eyes narrowing. “You’ll study your ass off for years, you’ll be asked to stay behind while others fight because medics need to stay alive to heal others, and you’ll draw people from the brink of death and not be thanked for it because it’s your job. It’s not something you can half-ass or learn on the side while you train cool stuff.”

A tense silence follows her little rant.

 “Sorry,” she apologises finally. “I really wanted to be a medic. They kicked me out because my chakra’s weird. I’m still mad about it.”

 “I can handle it,” Sasuke snaps at her. “Shut up.”

Riko gives him a long, sceptical look. Her teammate answers with a stare of deepest loathing, grabs a scroll, and throws himself into an armchair to read. Completely ignoring her existence.

Well. At least he’s motivated. She grabs a scroll of her own, but can’t focus.

 “Hey,” she speaks up. “Do you have the legal frame for mission assignments somewhere here?”

Sasuke grunts. “Why.”

Riko shrugs. “Some stuff my therapist said I should read for reassurance? And honestly, after how the last mission turned out, I do want to know how misclassified missions are handled after they’re over.”

 “Hn.” He stands up and walks out of the room, and Riko scrambles to follow him. Down the corridor, up multiple sets of stairs, and holy crap.

Sasuke’s house has a huge attic, and it’s filled with stuff to the brim. Stacks and chests full of weapons, scrolls, piles of clothes that look like they’ve never been worn. Jars with random items inside, she sees one filled with sand, another with cat-shaped buttons. And a quarter of the whole place is all books, crammed in shelves, stacked in chests, or piled in stacks.

It’s all terribly dusty, though she can smell that Sasuke visits frequently enough, and there are foot prints on the filthy floor where he’d gone to retrieve things.

He gestures at the library portion of the attic. “Somewhere in there.”

Right. Riko eyes the mess dubiously. There’s definitely no system to how the books are shelved.

She can always look this stuff up at home, but she’s here now and the attic just makes her itch. It’s probably not all stuff that was used by people that are long dead, but the books and scrolls… some of the weapons…

It’s creepy up here.

 “Thanks,” she says. “Do you mind if I sort the books a little?”

Sasuke shrugs stiffly. “Whatever. When you’re not on rest anymore.”

And he stalks out of the attic, leaving Riko alone in the gloom. She swallows and steps over to the books, boggling at the sheer quantity. From Physics essays to children’s books, there seemed to be some of everything.

Not ordered in the least, unfortunately, so it takes a lot of rummaging before Riko finds what she’s searching for — a dusty, yellowed book that looks like it eats smaller books for breakfast. She blows some of the dust away and makes her way back downstairs, shooting a long glance at the remaining books.

Later.

Sasuke doesn’t look up when Riko sits back down with the law book and begins reading her way through the yellowed pages. He’s too busy glaring at a list of chakra exhaustion symptoms.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

It’s a little surreal, being in the hospital without an actual injury. 

Also surreal to be talking to the medic who years ago told her point blank that they couldn’t keep her in the program because of her chakra being odd, without actually informing her how it was odd.

It was before she knew about the whole inter-dimensional relocation thing, which she still doesn’t like to think about because it just brings up uncomfortable questions and suspicions. She did wonder if her weird chakra had anything to do with what she remembers her parents could do, but there was no way to find out.

Still isn’t, really.

Riko is pretty sure that the magic her parents wielded so gracefully is defective when it comes to her. Only when she’s upset does she see the evidence of its existence, but the scale on which it shows is frightening to the point that she’d rather not have it at all. She’s got zero control, and it actually killed someone in Nami no Kuni.

But right now, it doesn’t seem to matter because Ikeda-sensei is excitedly rambling about taking her back into the program and also making her his apprentice. She stares at him in a daze.

 “What a marvel!” he’s saying. “This chakra of yours — it kept Sarutobi Asuma alive and stable, locked in a stasis until he was transported here! The potential applications… we must explore this!”

Riko opens her mouth and closes it again. Just yesterday, she’d told Sasuke that she’d wanted to be a medic. And today, the chance is just handed to her.

The same thing that got her kicked out is now her way back in.

Ikeda is gushing again, and it’s so strange. She’s never seen him be anything but stern before. “If we can figure out how you did it, oh, and we need to find out the limits. Yes, of course. Goodness, so many tests we’ll need to run, I must admit I’m rather excited, my dear.”

 “Tests?” Riko repeats confusedly.

Ikeda waves her off. “Oh, nothing too invasive. We’ll map your chakra system, extract some chakra for analysis, will have to draw some blood and bone marrow, that’s all. Test if we can replicate what you did with Asuma, then expand on the results, see what else your chakra can do…” He makes a note on his clipboard. The file there looks brand new and has a photo of her on it.

She has a really uneasy feeling about all this. On the one hand - she would love to be a medic.

On the other…

 “You said full-time apprenticeship?” she asks apprehensively. “I can’t leave my team. We’re preparing for the Chuunin Exams.”

Well, would prepare for them, once their week of leave was over. 

 “Your team?” Ikeda blinks at her. “They’ll find a replacement. It’s no big deal, though I commend your character for thinking about them. Very considerate of you. I’ll see to it personally that they’ll be given a capable kunoichi to replace you.”

Riko stares at him, brain momentarily fuzzy before the words sink in. “Excuse me?!” she demands. “You can’t be serious! The Chuunin Exams are coming up, I’m not leaving my team!”

Ikeda frowns lightly. “If you’re concerned about the difficulty of getting promoted as a medical shinobi, I suppose I can pull some strings. You’ll be chuunin within the year, provided you work hard.”

Her mouth has dropped open. She jumps up from her chair. “I don’t want to leave my team!”

The medic huffs. “Calm yourself. Do you not understand the gift you’ve been given? The importance of what I’m trying to do? The difference you could make to this hospital, to Konoha? Whatever your genin team is doing, I assure you, here is where you will shine. They’re only holding you back, girl.”

 “They’re not!” Riko yells, and her blood is buzzing now, but she doesn’t care. “They’re my friends and I’m staying with them!”

Ikeda jumps up himself, and he towers over her. Riko takes a step backwards. “Foolish girl! Cease your shouting! Do you not understand the chance I’m giving you?”

 “What is wrong with you?!” she shouts. “You kicked me out! Then I do something cool and you suddenly want me to quit my team to be your good little apprentice, and I’m supposed to be grateful about it?! Fuck you!”

The window of Ikeda’s office flies open by itself, and Riko wastes no time flinging herself outside. Keeps running until she finds herself alone in some abandoned training ground, breathing hard. 

Her fist impacts a tree and it shatters apart. Riko jump back in surprise, staring with wide eyes first at the heap of splinters, then at her unharmed but slightly glowing knuckles. 

She keeps staring and her hand keeps glowing even when she opens it and shakes her fingers out.

Riko makes a high-pitched noise when someone behind her clears his throat. She stuffs her hand into her sweater’s pocket and punches right through the fabric.

 “Relax,” Shikamaru’s voice says. “It’s just me.”

She turns and forces a grin. “Oh. Hi.”

He gives her a long stare. “Heard you yelling and then saw you tearing out of the hospital like you had hunter-nin chasing you.”

 “Right,” she says weakly, “You take medicine lessons in the hospital now.”

 “Uh-huh,” he confirms, eyeing her hand until she hides it behind her back. “You’re not supposed to be running. No strenuous activity.”

(It’s got to be a conspiracy, everyone being up in her business about resting. First Sasuke, now Shikamaru.)

 “Are you going for actual medic specialisation or just field medicine?” she asks.

Field medics are more focused on practical lessons. Trained to treat wounds quickly and efficiently to keep comrades alive in the field. It isn’t like the in-depth training the medics at the hospital have to finish — field medicine is patch job work.

On the other hand, field medics have more freedom to fight and time to train other skills.

…might be a good option for Sasuke, but with the way his kitchen had been overflowing with study materials, she’d just thought it obvious he was going for the full medic ride. Maybe she should ask about that?

 “Field medicine,” Shikamaru answers. Then jerks his head at her torn pocket. “You need help with that?”

 “You have lessons,” she points out.

 “It was almost lunch break anyway,” he shrugs, walking over. Riko jumps back because what if she hurts him.

Shikamaru sighs and sits on the grass. Points a the ground in front of him. “Sit, you troublesome girl.”

Riko dithers for a moment, but sits eventually. A decent distance away. Well out of touching range.

 “Show me,” he orders, and after a moment of hesitation, Riko pulls her glowing hand from behind her back. “This the first time it happened?” 

Riko cringes. “Not like this.”

Her brother rubs a hand over his face. “Okay. What is it supposed to do?”

She’d like to sink into the ground right about now. “I don’t know. It’s… nothing like what my parents could do.” She looks away from his sharp eyes. “Something’s wrong with it, I’m pretty sure.”

Shikamaru sighs, and for a moment he just looks tired, but it passes and he’s all business and seriousness again. He hasn’t been sleepy or lazy since she found him in Nami no Kuni. “What’s it done so far?” he asks.

Slowly, she recounts the previous incidents. Glosses over Kakashi’s test and only hints at her first kill, and she’s sure he notices it, but doesn’t pry. But the Fumio thing, the time she was told the truth after her graduation to genin, and what happened just now in Ikeda’s office — those events she can talk about in more detail.

 “So every time it happened so far,” Shikamaru says slowly, “it was when you were scared, angry, or feeling trapped.”

She grimaces and nods. “I don’t like it,” she admits quietly, staring down at her still glowing hand. “It shouldn’t — I don’t think it’s good to have something this dangerous that’s activated by feeling… by feeling like that.”

He makes a considering noise. “Kids tend to activate their kekkei genkai in high-stress situations. Self-defence mechanism. Control comes later.”

Riko blinks at him. 

Can this really be called a kekkei genkai? It’s different - she’s not from here, her thing isn’t from here, so the rules don’t apply, do they?

Not like she can explain that, though, and she doesn’t exactly have any other information to work with. 

 “Troublesome,” Shikamaru mutters under his breath. “Fine. Are you okay with people knowing about this?”

Riko jolts and looks at him wide-eyed. He stares back patiently.

 “I…” she begins and trails off. “No.”

How could she be okay with word getting out that she has some freaky kekkei genkai but zero control over it? No. Absolutely not.

 “Sensible,” her brother by adoption comments. “Shouldn’t spread information about your abilities around. Gives you an edge.”

Abilities. Right. Like she can actually use it. She’d rather be rid of it altogether.

 “First things first,” Shikamaru continues. “Turning that off. How did it happen last time?”

 “It was just a quick thing then,” Riko mumbles. “Boom, done, gone.”

He nods. They both look at her glowing hand. “And you’re calmer now,” he points out. “But it’s still going. Maybe if we distract you? Or we could try breathing exercises. It should go away if you relax.”

She gives him a doubtful look.

 “It’s not like it’ll go away if you ask nicely,” Shikamaru points out. “Just try.”

Riko shrugs. “Okay.” She looks at her hand. “Please stop?”

Shikamaru huffs. “Not what I-”

He falls silent when her hand glows a little brighter and then goes back to normal. It feels tingly now. Oddly sensitive, and when she pokes it — ow.

 “Huh.” Riko blinks, then looks at Shikamaru blankly. “That was easy.” She flexes her fingers. Crap, that hurts.

 “You are so troublesome,” he grumbles. “Try turning it on again.” 

Her mouth drops open. “I only just got it to go away!”

 “And how will you learn to control it without using it, huh?” He gives her a deadpan stare. “Sometime today, sister.”

Huffing at him, Riko glares at her hand. “Please do that again.”

Nothing happens. Riko stifles her disappointment while Shikamaru groans. “Of course it couldn’t be that easy. Fine, we’ll work on it later.” He eyes her sharply. “If you want this kept secret, you need something to explain away the weird things that happen around you. The explosions, fine, no problem, you draw your own explosive tags all the time, just use them more frequently and people will draw their own conclusions.” He pauses, frowning. 

 “The window today didn’t explode, it just flew open,” Riko points out, grimacing. “I guess… I could learn chakra strings? To explain that away?”

 “Good idea.” Shikamaru rubs a hand over his face before he flops over and lays on the grass with his arms spread out on other side of him. Stares up at the sky blankly.

Riko scoots over carefully. “You okay, Shika?”

He makes a grunting noise. “Not really.”

 “Do you, uhm.” She pauses, not entirely sure what she’s doing. “Do you want to talk about it?”

A bleak look is what he answers with. “What’s there to talk about? Sensei overestimated himself, got arrogant, and then nearly got us all killed and himself crippled. You gave yourself Stage Four chakra exhaustion to save him. Then you got attacked and both you and Ino were forced to kill while the rest of us were away.”

Riko winces, searching for anything to say.

Shikamaru heaves a sigh and looks away, focusing on the clouds above. “If you want to help, give me a hug.”

Okay. That she can do. She stretches out next to him on the ground. Rests her head on his shoulder and carefully wraps her arms around Shikamaru. Some tension drains from him and he pulls her in tighter.

They stay like that, and neither mention that he’s skipping an entire day of lessons just to cuddle her in an unused training ground.

Chapter Text

The day after the disastrous and insulting offer from Ikeda, Riko gets up early. Chokes down her awful-tasting ‘Will definitely cure your chakra exhaustion, you’ll see’ protein shakes before leaving the house.

She has a jounin sensei to track down. 

There’s every chance he’s still asleep at this hour, which means he can’t run away. She just has to find his address first.

Riko tries Genma’s apartment first, but he doesn’t answer her knocks. Either he’s still sleeping or not home. Not on a mission, though, she’s pretty sure about that. He usually notifies her beforehand, though sometimes he gets sent out on short-notice and can’t do it.

The Chuunin Exams are coming up, though, and since Riko heard about it, she’s begun to notice that the jounin presence in the village is noticeably higher than she’s used to.

It’s even more obvious when she enters the jounin lounge. The last time she was here, just a handful of people were present. Now, it’s crowded, and she feels eyes following her progress through the various rooms.

Someone steps in her way. A man dressed in dark blue from head to toe, a bandanna covering his hair and sunglasses over his eyes, giving her a stern look. “This location is reserved for shinobi of rank tokubetsu jounin and above, little girl. You aren’t supposed to be here.”

Riko blinks up at him in consternation, annoyed at his patronising tone.

 “You should be in the Academy,” he lectures, righting his glasses. “In fact, I shall escort you. Skipping is irresponsible and shouldn’t be tolerated-”

 “Whoa, Ebisu,” a vaguely familiar voice interrupts, and a hand lands on the man’s shoulder. It belongs to Genma’s friend, Raidou. “Cool down. Riko’s okay. She’s also a genin, did you overlook her hitae-ate, or what?”

The guy flushes. “Well, her height-”

Riko is so tempted to kick his shin, but bad idea. “I’m looking for Kakashi-sensei or Genma,” she cuts in. “Do either of you know where they are?”

Raidou pushes Ebisu a little to the side and gives Riko a friendly look. “Haven’t seen Kakashi today, but Genma’s over there.” He points to where Genma’s sitting on a sofa, talking to a green-clad man who’s standing on his hands.

Riko squints.

Nope, that’s actually happening.

Okay then. 

 “Thanks, Raidou-san,” she says gratefully, sketching a quick bow, and shuffles over to Genma. Passes Yugao on the way and gives her a small wave, which is returned.

Genma notices her as she approaches and looks away from his friend. “Hey, kid. What’s up?” He pats the space next to him, and Riko sits down with a small sigh of relief. Stupid chakra exhaustion. “This is my old genin teammate, Gai.”

 “Old!” the man exclaims, hopping to his feet and giving Riko the most cheesy thumbs-up she’s ever seen with the addition of a grin so gleaming she suspects genjutsu involvement. “I assure you, I am in the Springtime Of My Youth, young kunoichi! It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance!”

Riko blinks at him, taking a while to digest the vehemence of that statement. He’s so sincere, it feels like a brick to the face. 

 “It’s nice to meet you, too, Gai-san,” she answers then, giving him a tentative smile. He beams at her like she handed him his weight in gold.

 “And Gai, this is my friend Nara Riko,” Genma continues, like this is all perfectly normal. “She’s on Kakashi’s genin team.”

Gai’s smile intensifies. “How wonderful, to meet my Eternal Rival’s student and teammate’s friend! Truly a glorious day! I shall run four-hundred-”

 “Yes, yes,” Genma waves him off while Riko stares owlishly at the man. 

Rival? What?

 “What did you want, kid?” Genma asks her. “You alright?”

She pulls herself together, flushing at being caught staring. So rude. Yoshino would scold her. “I’m looking for sensei, actually,” she says quickly. “Ikeda-sensei made me an offer to become his apprentice yesterday.”

Genma frowns, and Gai’s enthusiasm is dialled down by a lot suddenly. 

 “The head of the medic training program,” Genma says. “Well. Congratulations. You’ve always wanted to be a medic.”

 “Yes, well, I’m not taking it.” Riko scowls down at her hands, still so angry. “He wanted me to leave my team so he could do tests with my chakra, blood, and bone marrow. I said no, he got really pushy, told me my team could replace me with any kunoichi, that he’d get me a promotion within the year and he was giving me the chance of a lifetime.” She pauses. “I told him the F-word and jumped out the window.”

When she looks up at Genma again, he’s staring at her, his face blank. “Ah,” he says. “Good job.”

 “And now,” Riko adds firmly, “I’m going to find Kakashi-sensei and tell him what happened, because he’s my jounin-sensei and I don’t think Ikeda talked to him about apprenticing me, which is against the rules. Also sensei will kick his butt.”

 “Mm,” Genma hums absently and stands aprubtly. “Well, I have work to do. Gai, do you mind helping Riko find Kakashi?”

Gai, who was staring thoughtfully at Riko, snaps to attention and gives another blinding thumbs-up. Riko blinks owlishly. Are those… waves in the background? “I shall help young Riko-san find her teacher! If I can’t, I shall do A Thousand Push-ups on my pinky finger! If I fail at that, I shall walk A Thousand Laps around the village on my hands! And if I-”

 “Sometime today, Gai.” Genma pokes his friend’s shoulder before he grins down at the somewhat dazed Riko. “Don’t worry about anything, kid. See you later.”

 “Have a nice day?” Riko asks, and then she’s alone with Gai. Plus the jounin crowd, some of whom are definitely listening in.

This is totally fine. Everything is great. Not awkward at all.

 “Yosh!” Gai strikes a pose. “Let us go, then, young Riko-san, to find My Eternal Rival!”

He gives her an expectant look.

Okay then. He’s Genma’s friend, so this should be fine. Riko gets up from the sofa and, because Gai is still in his pose all by himself, experimentally punches up in the air and adds a determined, “Okay!”

Gai gives her a beaming smile that makes her feel ten feet tall and warm and gooey inside, so it was definitely the right action. She grins back, deciding that Gai is totally alright in her book. His chakra feels nice, too, so warm and friendly.

 “Forgive me, young Riko-san!” he says. “I couldn’t help but notice that your Youth is diminished by exhaustion, and we may have quite a walk in front of us! May I have permission to carry you?”

 “Er.” Riko shrugs. She is exhausted “Sure, okay? Thanks. And just Riko’s fine.”

Instead of crouching down and letting her climb on his back, Gai picks her up and sits her on his broad shoulders, which. “Whoa,” she breathes, staring, because this is how tall people see the world. Wow. “This is awesome. Thank you, Gai-san!”

He laughs, a deep, booming thing that goes through his whole body. “You are very welcome, young Riko! Let us depart now!”

They get a lot of odd looks when Gai walks out of the building with her on his shoulders, but the moment they recognise Gai, they seem to shrug it off and just go about their business. Even when the man pretty much shuffles through doors on his knees so Riko won’t get knocked off of him.

It’s pretty fun.

 “So, uh,” she speaks up after he’s fallen into a light jog, clearly knowing where he’s going. “You’re rivals with Kakashi-sensei?”

Gai grasps at his chest, over his heart. “He has not spoken about me? Kakashi! How could you!” Riko stares down at his face in horror because those are tears what does she do. Also, wow, those are some bushy eyebrows. But then he composes himself and chuckles a little. “As expected of my rival! That hip attitude of his…” He focuses back on a somewhat unsettled Riko. “Indeed I am! We have been rivals for a long time. Forty-eight wins, forty-nine losses… he is stronger than I! But I shall not rest until I have caught up!”

 “I don’t know,” Riko muses. “I mean, forty-eight wins is amazing, and the numbers are really close? Can’t be that much of a difference in levels.“

He laughs. “An insightful thing to say, young Riko! Kakashi is teaching you well!”

 “Uh-huh,” Riko agrees. “He’s pretty great. So you two are friends?”

 “Indeed!” He spreads his arms. “Friends! Rivals! Comrades, Partners! We have known each other for a long time, and he has made my life infinitely richer and enjoyable! I am glad and honoured to have met him!”

She blinks, taking all that in. “Wow. You really like sensei, huh?”

Gai chuckles and shoots her a warm look. “I do.”

They reach a cheap-looking apartment complex not far from one of Konoha’s cemeteries, and Riko looks around curiously when Gai strides up to the door. “Kakashi-sensei lives here?”

 “He has an apartment here, yes,” Gai answers, entering the complex and jogging up the stairs until they’re on the third of five floors. He knocks on the door of an apartment at the end of the hallway, Riko now on his back instead of shoulders because the ceiling is low. “Kakashi, My Eternal Rival! Your student is in need of your assistance!”

 “Maybe he’s asleep,” Riko speculates when there’s no answer. It’s still early in the morning.

Gai hums, produces a key, and unlocks the entrance door, Riko blinking at the casual evidence that he’s good enough friends with her sensei that he can enter his apartment uninvited. 

It’s empty inside, though. No Kakashi, very little furniture, but bunches of pillows and blankets, and it smells like dog.

They leave the apartment complex and Gai heads in another direction, clearly having a good idea where he’s going. On the way, he stops at a flower shop and gets two nice bouquets.

 “Do you want one, too, Riko?” he asks.

She blinks, momentarily thrown. “Uh, you really don’t have to.”

 “I want to!” he answers easily, considering the selection and then pointing out a bouquet of daffodils. It looks nice and cheerful. Riko can’t quite remember if daffodils mean respect or friendship, only that the leaves and especially the bulb are poisonous, but either way, her adoptive mother will be happy about getting some flowers.

 “Those are nice,” she agrees. “Okay. Thank you, Gai-san.”

She seals the bouquet away after he gives them to her and then they’re on their way again. A few minutes later, she realises where they’re going — the memorial stone.

That explains the flowers, she guesses.

Kakashi-sensei is standing in front of the memorial like he was doing the first time Riko encountered him. He doesn’t look up when they approach, and Gai doesn’t call out. Just walks up to the stone, coming to stand beside Kakashi silently, and lifts Riko off of his shoulders.

She follows his example when he places the bouquets he got on the ground in front of the memorial. One is dogflowers, the other a mix of asters and anemones.

For a few minutes the three of them stand in silence before Kakashi steps back and clears his throat. “Hello, Gai.” His eye crinkle at Riko when he turns to her. “And hello, Riko. I wasn’t aware you two knew each other.”

 “Your Youthful Student and I met just this morning, my hip rival!” Gai gives Kakashi a beaming grin and a thumbs-up. “She was looking for you, and my dear teammate Genma asked me to assist!”

 “Oh?” Kakashi sensei’s hand ruffles her hair, and he crouches down in front of Riko with his eye doing the smile thing. “And what does my precious student need her dear old sensei for?”

Riko looks up at him. “Precious student needs sensei to kick someone’s butt,” she tells him solemnly.

His hand grows a little heavier on her head. “What did they do?”

Riko swallows. “Want to pull me from the team to be a research subject,” she whispers, and where she was righteously furious before, now she just feels more sick than anything. “Said I was replaceable.”

Kakashi keeps smiling, and there’s something very reassuring about it. He sits down on the spot and pulls her with him to huddle against his side. “Maa, Riko-chan, why don’t you tell me the whole story,” he prompts. “And sensei will take care of it all.”

So Riko takes a deep breath, orders her thoughts, and recounts the entire conversation. Paraphrases some parts because she doesn’t remember the exact wording, she should really work on memorising things better.

Her teacher listens to it all, occasionally asking for clarification or context about her medical training and the end thereof, and she can tell he’s as angry as she is, but not once does his arm around her shoulders tighten or his smile waver. 

Gai is listening in, but the way he’s facing the memorial instead of them gives the illusion of privacy, and she doesn’t mind if he hears anyway. He already heard it this morning. Probably along with several other jounin.

 “And then I ran out of there,” she finishes, frowning.

Kakashi ruffles her hair. “I’ll take care of it.”

 “Okay,” Riko agrees quietly, ducking her head. “How?”

Because she may have asked him to kick Ikeda’s butt, but. That’s not how it works. Violence doesn’t solve the problem, and then Kakashi might get in trouble, and there are rules and stuff…

Beating someone up is what kids do. And they’re not, none of them are, legally at least.

Kakashi’s eye blinks at her. “I’ll file an official complaint.”

Riko gives him a blank look.

 “In fact!” He stands up. “I’ll do it right now.”

 “A complaint?” she asks incredulously. “That’s…”

Kakashi smiles down at her. “It all depends on who you complain to, Riko-chan!” he tells her cheerfully before he turns to Gai. “Would you mind taking Riko to Fuji for her appointment, Gai?”

Riko doesn’t actually have an appointment today.

Gai turns and gives Kakashi a beaming grin, and Riko realises with horror that tears are streaming down his face. “Kakashi! Your love for your disciple is beautiful and heart-warming! I shall let it inspire me to show my own students the love I feel for them! And if I fail, I shall carry them on my back a thousand miles!”

 “Gai,” Kakashi prompts patiently.

The tears disappear in favour of the gleaming smile and thumbs-up. “I shall bring Riko to Fuji-san right away!”

 “Thank you, Gai,” Kakashi tells him and picks Riko up to hand her over like some kind of helpless kitten. Then she’s sitting on Gai’s shoulders again and Kakashi ambles away with a lazy wave.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Gai sets Riko down in front of her therapist’s house.

 “I must be going now, young Riko!” he announces regretfully. “My students are awaiting my arrival! I wish you the best of luck, it was a delight to meet you! May your Youth shine brightly!”

 “…yours, too?” Riko manages, still a bit taken aback by the force of his enthusiasm and sincerity. “Have a good day, Gai-san.”

He beams at her, teeth gleaming and his thumb up, and disappears.

Riko blinks because was that a sunset in his background? But then she gets her bearings back and rings the doorbell, hoping that Fuji won’t mind that she’s here without an appointment.

The door isn’t answered by Fuji but by a tall man with hair more grey than blond. His eyes are the pupil-lacking Yamanaka blue. He gives her a mildly curious look. “Good morning,” he says. “Can I help you?”

She stifles the surprise. “Um, yeah, good morning,” she answers. “Sensei sent me to see Fuji? I don’t have an appointment today, though.”

 “My daughter is with a patient right now,” the man — Fuji’s father! — informs her calmly. “She should be done soon, however. Please come in.”

He steps back, and well, it’d be rude to refuse an invitation and Kakashi had told Gai deliver her to her therapist’s house for a reason, so. Riko slips into the house, the smell of breakfast hitting her nose. “Sorry to intrude,” she mutters politely, slipping off her shoes. “I’m Nara Riko, it’s nice to meet you.”

 “Yamanaka Toge,” he returns. “Have you eaten breakfast already?”

 “Yeah,” she fibs. Riko did have her awful protein shakes. They don’t really count as a meal, but they fill her up so much that nothing else goes down. She was planning on eating breakfast later.

Yamanaka Toge nods. “You can keep me company while I eat.”

Riko nods and follows him to the kitchen. Sits down on the chair he indicates and doesn’t protest when he puts a plate in front of her.

 “Help yourself,” he says, making a small gesture at the spread of food.

 “Thank you, sir,” she mumbles and does as told. They eat in silence for a while.

Toge is the one to break the silence. “You’re one of Maito Gai’s students?” he asks.

He must have heard the man outside. Wasn’t like Gai was being quiet.

 “No,” she replies. “I’m with Team Seven, our sensei is Hatake Kakashi.”

 “I see.” Another bout of silence. Riko chews her rice slowly.

 “Explains why I’m with Fuji, huh?” she mumbles awkwardly, because the silence is making her somewhat uncomfortable. “Since she’s his therapist, too.”

He hums. “She is. We’re very proud of her.”

 “She’s great!” Riko says emphatically. “Really good at explaining things and putting me at ease and it’s really fun baking cookies together!”

“That’s good,” he comments. “Having a comfortable relationship with your therapist is very important.”

She nods along, even though she doesn’t quite get it, but she only just got her therapist. It’ll probably come with time.

Toge starts clearing the table when she’s finished eating.

 “Can I help?” Riko asks, felling kind of guilty because she showed up uninvited and got served food and is being waited on. 

 “If you want,” he agrees easily, and she jumps up in relief and starts doing the dishes while Toge puts away food, which she can’t assist with because Fuji is peculiar about how her fridge is ordered. When he’s done with that, he grabs a dish towel and they work side by side in silence.

 “Thank you for your help,” he says when they’re done. “Has Fuji shown you the library yet?”

Riko shakes her head, and he motions for her to follow him down the hallway to a wooden door. The room behind it is spacious and bright. Shelves filled with scrolls and books line one wall, large windows overlooking a small garden another, couches and plant pots the rest. One corner has a large desk with a small pile of opened scrolls on it.

Toge gestures at the shelves. “Go ahead.”

He himself pulls a scroll from his pouch and sinks down in an armchair. Riko hesitates for a moment before she approaches a shelf. They’re all scrolls about plants, which is interesting, but she’s read a lot of those already, so she figures she can look at the other stuff first.

On the next shelf she finds A Genin’s Guide To Promotion.

Riko grimaces. Right. Chuunin Exams are coming up and her week off will be over the day after tomorrow. She needs to start figuring out how to train for the eventuality of being signed up for the exams.

No time like the present. Riko pulls the book from the shelf and ambles over to one of the  couches relatively close to where Toge sits, but still a respectful distance between her and him.

She can just tell that she’ll hate this author by the end of the first page.

 There are several ways for a genin to reach promotion. The most common is the successful completion of the Chuunin Exams [see pg. 34]. Genin who show the necessary qualities of a chuunin but are barred from taking part in the exams [list of reasons see pg. 37] may be promoted by the village administration. Finally, a genin may be field-promoted by a superior in high-stake situations [see pg. 156].’

Riko leafs through the pages until she reaches the section about the Chuunin Exams. Gulps at seeing how thick a chunk of the book it makes up.

But maybe… she checks out the list of reasons that’d potentially exclude her from the exams. It’s a bust, however — it’s mostly to do with non-combat specialisations and villages Konoha shinobi refuse to enter. With the exams being held in her own village and her decidedly not going into medicine, she’s got no ground to stand on if she does get signed up and wants to refuse.

To make matters worse, it turns out Konoha only lets genin sign up in teams of three. Which, okay, it’s reassuring not having to do it alone, but on the other hand if it weren’t for that rule she wouldn’t need to be stressing about the exams at all.

And since Sasuke definitely falls both into the People We Don’t Send Into Foreign Villages and People Who A Promotion Would Look Super Good On categories, she as his teammate is pretty much screwed.

So’s Naruto, actually. She’ll have to warn him, for all the good it’ll do — he’ll just be more excited than anything. Doesn’t mean she won’t tell him anyway.

Okay then. Looks like she’s doing this, after all.

 “Um, Toge-san?” she speaks up timidly, and the man raises his head from his scroll to look at her. “Do you know the exact date the Chuunin Exams begin?”

He hums. “They’re scheduled to begin on the 1st of July. Nominations can be handed in during the week before.”

Riko mulls that over, frowning. It’s the end of May, she’ll have about a month to prepare. Less when she accounts for team training and missions. Her health needs consideration, too.

What skills can she reasonably acquire or increase during that amount of time? Maybe the book will have some tips for that?

 “Thanks,” she tells Toge absently, already leafing through it again, and yep, her hunch was right. 

She’s not all that happy with what she’s reading, because according to the author, aspiring chuunin need to show at least the beginnings of a specialisation. Not only that, but the showing a genin makes in the exams significantly influences their future career — demonstrate tactical skill and look forward to leading missions, exhibit expertise with traps and expect an increase in capture assignments.

So now she suddenly has to decide what kind of shinobi she wants to be and figure out how to look and act the part within four weeks, while still doing missions. No pressure at all.

At least it doesn’t require a specific specialisation — more like broad directions, the book conveniently providing a list for the reader. Things like tactics, combat, Intel, or medicine, and she can forget about all of those for various reasons.

Her eyes catch on stealth.

 “You expect to be nominated for the Chuunin Exams?” Toge’s voice asks so peacefully that she doesn’t even startle at having her thoughts interrupted.

She looks up, finding him eyeing her curiously. “I hope not,” she answers.

He gives her a questioning look.

 “Not ready,” Riko explains, tapping her finger on the book. “But it might not be up to me, so I’m preparing.”

 “Sensible,” Toge comments. “Some would say that would make you a good candidate for promotion. Why do you think you aren’t ready?”

She blinks at him in bafflement. “I’m… just not?”

His expectant stare and silence make that answer seem silly and inadequate.

Why doesn’t she want to be a chuunin? She was excited when she first heard about the exams. Chuunin get to do real ninja stuff.

Real ninja stuff didn’t work out well for her or anyone last time.

The moment that thought comes into her head, she can smell that woman burning again, hear her scream in agony, remember how her chakra felt in that moment.

The way it disappeared.

 “Riko.”

And then after, holding the second shinobi in her chains, watching Ino drive a kunai into his throat.

 “Riko,” the voice repeats sharply, and then Toge is crouching in front of her. “Breathe, child.”

She sucks in a shuddering breath and lets it out shakily.

 “Well done. Again.” His tone brooks no argument, and there’s a hand on her wrist now, his fingers on her pulse.

Her breathing slowly normalises, but her heart is still beating far too hard.

 “Where are we?” he asks her calmly, like this is all fine and normal.

 “Konoha,” she chokes out. “Fuji’s house.”

 “And why are you here?”

 “Therapy.” 

Toge leans back, looks at her seriously. “Was this your first flashback?”

Was that what it was? Riko nods, her hands clenching in her sleeves so she won’t feel the trembling of her fingers. “Killed someone.”

Saying it out loud makes it real, and the words hang in the air between them. She can taste the smoke on her tongue.

 “A reality almost all shinobi have to face,” Toge informs her bluntly. 

 “I didn’t mean to kill her,” she whispers. “But with the other one, it was easy holding him down for Ino, and it went so fast, and I’d do it again, but I can’t get it out of my head, and they’re dead and I’m not sad.”

 “You defended yourself and your teammate,” he says. “Of course you don’t.”

 “Don’t even feel guilty!” She stares at him and her eyes sting. “I killed people and the only one I care about is me.”

He looks at her evenly. “You saved lives. There’s no shame in that, Riko.”

A hoarse, unintelligible noise tears itself from her throat. “I feel dirty. I feel different.

 “That only proves you’re human,” Toge tells her quietly. “It’s when you feel nothing that you need to worry.”

She stares at him in silence.

 “Taking a life is a serious matter,” he continues. “Every shinobi deals with it differently. Some accept it as yet another part of life. Others try to forget.”

 “I don’t want to forget,” Riko whispers.

 “And there’s nothing wrong with that.” He considers her. “You need to find a healthy way of handling the memories, especially as more accumulate. As for the flashbacks, there are exercises that will help you pull yourself back to the present. Do you want me to teach them to you?”

She hesitates, and a part of her is pointing out that he’s not her official shrink, she should be doing this with Fuji, but he’s here and offering, and it feels like he gets it.

So the only thing she says is, “Okay.”


▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬


 

Chapter Text

It’s Riko’s last day off after the mission and she finally scrounges up the energy to visit her best friend. Her physical state is still less than optimal, but she manages the stairs in his apartment building without having to sit down. It still winds her, but there’s no comparison to what this would have done to her body at the beginning of the week.

Since it’s morning, he’s actually still home when she knocks, his chakra bright and awake on the other side of the door, and she can smell the familiar scent of instant ramen.

The door opens and a pyjama-clad Naruto stares at her, his adorable nightcap still on his head, a cup of ramen in his hand. “Ricchan?” he asks. Then brightens. “Ricchan! You’re here!”

 “Hey,” she greets. “Good morning.”

Naruto beams at her, sticky hand grabbing hers and pulling her inside. “I missed you! Come in! Let’s eat ramen!”

Riko chuckles and lets herself be dragged into his tiny, messy kitchen that always awakens her cleaning urges. Her fingers are already reaching for dirty dishes while he scampers for the little stool he needs to get at the higher cupboard, where the nice instant ramen are.

 “How was your week?” she asks and lets the ensuing enthusiastic chatter flow over her.

Played with Konohamaru and friends, saw Iruka-sensei, ate at Ichiraku’s, trained a bunch with his clones. His life is so wonderfully simple. “You bet I’ll kick Sasuke-teme’s ass tomorrow!” he declares, so utterly convinced of his ability that she almost believes him.

Experience has taught her differently, though. She’d bet anything that tomorrow’s brawl will end in another accidental kiss.

 “Looking forward to it,” she comments.

 “How was your week?” Naruto asks her, all but bouncing in place. “Kakashi-sensei said we should let you rest and stuff, and you were so sad when we came back, so I was worried!”

She really wouldn’t call her week restful.

 “It was fine,” Riko answers. “Met some people, started therapy. I’ll be in the clear for light training starting tomorrow.”

 “Awesome!” Naruto grinned. “We can kick Sasuke’s ass together!”

She chuckles. “I wouldn’t call that light exercise.”

 “Uh-huh,” he shakes his head, “With someone as awesome as me, you won’t have to lift even a finger!”

Riko laughs. “Okay then.”

 “What’s the-ra-pay?” he asks her curiously. “Is it a hobby? Is it fun? Can I do it, too?”

Her mind blanks.

What.

How does Naruto not know what therapy is?! A significant part of any Konoha-shinobi’s life? Has he never heard of Psych evals, either? The Psych department?

She knows he’s not quite as stupid as most people think he is, but good heavens.  Times like this, it’s hard to remember that. Skipping all those Academy classes was so dumb of him. Her fingers pinch the bridge of her nose.

 “Therapy,” she says, fighting to not sound completely judgemental about it, “Is not a hobby. It’s when you go to see a specialist from the Psych division and they help you deal with stuff in your life that makes you so unhappy that your head goes weird.”

Naruto makes a confused face. Then it turns into horror. “Ricchan, you’re unhappy? What’s wrong? Are you okay? What do you mean your head goes weird? Is it because of the mission?” He gasps. “You don’t want to quit the team, do you?”

 “Naruto!” she snaps, then has to take a deep, calming breath. 

He looks at her with big, hurt eyes.

 “I’m not quitting,” Riko says, her voice tight. “And I’m not unhappy, I’m just working through some stuff, and sensei thought it’d be good if I started going to therapy. Because of the mission. So my head doesn’t go weird. It’s preventative.”

“Oh.” He looks down at his empty ramen cup. “Ricchan, what happened on the mission? Kaka-sensei wouldn’t say, and he wouldn’t let us ask, either.”

Kakashi is the best sensei.

Riko doesn’t answer for a while. “We got attacked,” she says finally. “And I killed one of them.”

His face falls. “Oh,” he says again. Looking lost and small.

 “It was self-defence,” she explains in a small voice. “I didn’t mean to.”

Which doesn’t make anything better. Killing people by accident is bad. Definitely worse than doing it on purpose. Or maybe not? Because that would be murder. Except it’s not bad in combat, it’s just. A thing that happens.

She should talk to Toge again about it. Who’s apparently her therapist for anything death-related now, and Riko still has no idea how that happened. Fuji, however, was entirely unsurprised and completely cool about it, and Riko has both of them for shrinks now.

Anyway.

Naruto’s still looking lost and helpless. Riko doesn’t like it, and she’s maybe a little hurt, too, because… yeah. 

He’s good through and through, and she’s his best friend, but now she’s killed someone and doesn’t really see anything wrong with it. It doesn’t fit. It’s also not something he can smile away.

She doesn’t want it being smiled away.

But she’d rather he try that than treat her differently now.

Riko turns back to scrubbing dirty dishes, waiting for him to say something. 

It takes him a while to work through his thoughts. He doesn’t do that a lot, never has to do it. Naruto just doesn’t think much, his world blissfully uncomplicated. 

Hers used to be less convoluted, too, when they were still in school.

 “Self-defence?” he asks finally.

 “Mm,” she confirms.

He frowns. “So… they would have hurt you if you hadn’t fought back?”

 “Not just me,” Riko says quietly. “Ino, Tsunami, Inari, Asuma, the dogs, all of us.”

Another pause, and he’s thinking hard.

 “Then,” he says slowly. “Then I’m glad you’re okay, Ricchan, even if you had to kill. I mean, they were bad people! And you didn’t do it on purpose! So, um. It’s okay.”

Riko looks at him blankly and doesn’t know what to think. 

On the one hand, nice, he doesn’t hate her. On the other hand, she wasn’t apologising. Or looking for his approval, or anything like that.

It just happened and she wanted him to know, that’s all.

 “So anyway,” she says, “That’s not really why I’m here. Two things.” She holds up a finger. “One, open invitation to dinner. Two, the Chuunin Exams are starting in four weeks, so we should prepare. I’ve figured out a tentative training plan and reading list for me, and I think we should do the same for you, figure out what specialisation-”

 “Ne, Ricchan, what’re the Chuunin Exams?” Naruto interrupts, his face basically one big question mark.

Riko stares at him and takes a deep breath because wow.

Just. Wow.

Her team is going to crash and burn in those exams.

 “They’re a series of tests for genin,” she explains slowly. “If you pass, you get promoted to chuunin.”

If he scores a promotion, she’ll eat her hitae-ate.

After a moment of parsing her answer, Naruto goes starry-eyed. “Chuunin?! Oh man, I gotta take those exams! Everyone’s gonna see how awesome I am, and then they have to make me chuunin, and then I’ll be one step closer to becoming Hokage, and it’ll be awesome! Ha, I bet the old man’s gonna make me Hokage right away!” 

He snickers, lost in his fantasies, not noticing her entirely unimpressed face. 

 “Yeah, anyway,” she speaks up again, “We’ll need to figure out a training schedule-”

 “Don’t worry, Ricchan!” He focuses back on her and gives her a thumbs-up. “I got it! I’ll train super hard, believe it, and I’ll kick everyone’s ass and become chuunin!”

 “It really isn’t that easy,” she begins, but he’s way too excited to listen.

 “Oh man, I can’t waste a minute!” he exclaims. “I gotta go train! C’mon, Ricchan, let’s go!”

She digs her heels in when he grabs her hand to drag her to the nearest training ground. “Can’t, I got chakra exhaustion, remember? Also, you’re still in your pyjamas.”

He laughs sheepishly. “Right! Almost forgot!”

 “Completely forgot, more like,” she comments. “Ruto, you really gotta prepare for the exams, seriously, they’re no joke.”

 “I will!” He shoots her another thumbs-up. “Thanks for telling me, Ricchan, you’re the best!”

Riko manages a weak smile. She’ll just try talking to him again and it’d be fine, right?

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Sasuke takes the news of her first kill with a disinterested shrug. “You’re alive,” he says, as if that’s all there is to say, and returns to his medicine studies.

Riko blinks at him for a moment.

Maybe it is all there is to say. Shinobi kill. She isn’t special for having done it. 

Only needs to process it. Deal with it in a healthy way, whatever Toge means by that.

 “Chuunin Exams are coming up,” she moves on to the next point of business that brought her here after leaving Naruto’s place. “We got four weeks. Since they’re held in Konoha and you’re you, we’ll probably get signed up.”

He looks up, eyes gleaming with interest. “Hn,” he says.

 “I recommend preparing,” she adds. “My schedule will be tight, we’ll have to forgo our spars, sorry about that.”

Sasuke shrugs and goes back to the scroll he’s reading. When she peers at the content, she sees the instructions for chakra scalpels.

Trust Sasuke to go for the combat-suited medical jutsus first. Riko really isn’t surprised. Or impressed.

 “You need better chakra control for that,” she comments and digs out another scroll from the pile she donated to his learning endeavours. “Here. Master those exercises first.”

He gives her an annoyed look. 

 “Don’t give me that face, chakra control is a basic and necessary skill.” She raises an eyebrow. “Not just for medicine. It’s going to make you stronger in general. Make your taijutsu faster and stronger, your ninjutsu more efficient and precise, will also improve your speed in learning new techniques.”

 “Whatever,” Sasuke huffs.

Riko throws the scroll at his head and stands up. “I’ll see you tomorrow for team training.”

 “Hn.”

At least he isn’t giving her a damn stress ulcer like Naruto, but she has the beginning of a headache now.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko comes home around dinner time, having visited the Academy library for more information on the Chuunin Exams. Didn’t find much, since the materials there are meant for prospective genin rather than chuunin, but did find a guide to using chakra strings, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

She’s surprised to find a visitor at the dinner table.

 “Hello, Raidou-san,” she greets, nonplussed at his presence.

 “Riko,” he returns with an incline of his head. “Good to see you.”

 “Likewise.” She sinks down into the chair next to a sullen-looking Shikamaru.

Yoshino drops a plate in front of her. “Raidou-san is Shikamaru’s new jounin-sensei,” she informs her briskly. “He saw fit to introduce himself to us promptly.”

Her voice rings with approval.

 “I see no reason to waste time,” he says calmly. “Team Ten has a lot of potential. I’ll do my best to help them reach it.”

Riko shoots a questioning glance at Shikamaru, who’s eyeing the man with sharp eyes.

 “I’m quite glad to hear it,” Yoshino comments. “Enough time has been wasted.”

 “We didn’t waste time,” Shikamaru objects in annoyance. He turns to Raidou. “We’re not dropping field medic classes.”

The man nods, eyeing him consideringly. “I wouldn’t ask you to. I’m impressed all of you are taking them. If you give me your schedule, we’ll work around your lessons. It’ll be hard work and you won’t have much free time, however.”

 “Good,” Riko’s brother says curtly and stands. “I’ll get the schedule.”

He walks out of the kitchen. She stares after him for a long moment before turning back to her meal.

 “That boy, honestly,” Yoshino sighs. “Please make sure he has some free time.”

 “I will,” Raidou agrees sombrely. “Let me know who his therapist is, too, and when his appointments are scheduled.”

 “Of course.” Yoshino’s mouth twists in displeasure. “Asuma really did his team a disservice.”

Shikamaru’s new sensei coughs delicately. “He tried his best, I’m sure.”

 “I’m not,” Riko’s mother scoffs before her eyes fall on Riko. “How was your day, dear?”

 “I saw my teammates, visited the library, and made a tentative training schedule for the upcoming month,” Riko reports dutifully. 

Yoshino nods approvingly when she shows her. “Appropriate. Let me know if you need help with anything.”

 “I will.”

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

Riko doesn’t fist-pump when the clan clinic clears her for light exercise the next morning, but it’s a near thing. 

 “Good luck,” the old lady who runs the clinic says amusedly and hands her a piece of candy. “Off you go, Riko-chan.”

 “Thanks, Sayuri-sensei!”

She’s got four hours until her team meets, another two until Kakashi is likely to show, and she’s going to use them. Her month is going to be busy, there’s no time to slack off.

Her glasses go into a storage seal in her sleeve, the world becoming blurry and uncertain. It’s not as good as the blindfold, but far less obvious. Riko sharpens her senses.

She’s gotten way too used to relying on her eyes again over the course of the mission and the following week. Sloppy. From now on, she’ll only use her glasses for reading, and that’s it.

That done, she heads to the clan armoury to stock up on supplies. The old man in charge, incidentally Sayuri-sensei’s husband, observes while she picks through senbon and kunai. “Might want to pick up something to store them in,” he recommends sedately, pointing at a shelf full of storage scrolls.

 “I’m good, I can make storage seals myself,” she says absently, eyeing a tanto with interest. “Thanks, though.”

She’s got Yoshino’s katana, but the tanto looks so pretty.

 “Oh?” He sounds interested. “Show me. You any good, we’ll work out a deal.”

Riko looks up, blinking at him. Deal? What’s that supposed to mean?

Old man holds a sheet of paper and an ink brush out to her. 

 “That’s the wrong kind of paper,” Riko points out.

Old man (she doesn’t know his name, should really learn it) swaps out the paper without a word. She grabs both it and the ink brush. “What kind of storage seal?” she asks.

 “Standard.”

Simple enough. She’s finished four minutes later. He examines her work before he nods abruptly, pockets it and stalks over to the really expensive storage scrolls to throw one at her. 

Just touching it, she can tell that it’s high-end. Currently inactive chakra lock, reinforced, proofed against the elements.

 “Open it,” old man grunts at her, and she follows the directive and her eyes go wide. Beautiful, intricate seals stare back at her. The professional kind that she’s definitely not able to draw right now. Her seals are more like homemade cookies compared to expertly baked gourmet pastries. 

 “I’m not the youngest anymore, kid. Help me out a few hours a night and I’ll show you how to make those and more. Will let you look at the nice stuff I get in here before it hits the shelves, too,” old man tells her gruffly.

Riko blinks at him.

She was just visiting to buy some senbon, and now she’s getting a part-time job? Just like that? “Uhm,” she says, thrown.

But hey, this could be good, right? Useful new skills, even if they aren’t quite relevant to her exam preparations. And her current schedule is open space at night.

 “You get paid by the hour,” he says gruffly. “Plus bonus for special commissions you finish.”

 “I don’t have a lot of time,” Riko warns him. “Might only manage a few nights a week.”

He waves her off. “I’ll draw up a contract and send it to your house.”

 “Cool. Thanks.” She flounders for a moment, then goes back to her browsing when he huffs dismissively. 

She picks up several senbon and kunai packages and takes them to the counter, where the old man notes down her acquisitions so the costs can be charged to the clan funds. Perks of being part of a clan shinobi, she gets a monthly budget to cover work- and health-related expenses, in exchange for being part of her mission pay going to the clan. It balances out in her favour.

Old man reaches below the counter and puts a really nice hunting knife on top of her small pile. 

Riko blinks. “Uhm.”

 “Every shinobi should have one of those,” he grunts. “Now get lost. No, don’t just take it, you daft girl, test the balance and quality first, or do you just trust every weapon handed to you?”

 “Right.” Riko winces because yeah, he has a point. At least Yoshino covered how to do it in her training, otherwise she’d really embarrass herself here.

Old man observes her sharply and doesn’t say anything more. At this point feeling seriously lost, Riko tests the knife (really nice), packs up her new stuff, and scurries away with a muttered goodbye.

So that was… something.

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

The jounin lounge is as crowded as it was the last time Riko visited, and she suspects that they’re all just hanging out there in the early mornings to gossip before the day’s work begins. It’s kind of nice, seeing this kind of casual camaraderie.

Yugao is sitting in a corner next to a vaguely familiar man who carries a sword just like her and doesn’t look all that healthy. It takes Riko a moment to place his face — he’s the jounin sensei assigned to Fumio’s team. Huh. She nods a greeting at him.

 “Hello, Riko-chan,” Yugao says, eyeing her curiously. “Your week off is finally over?”

 “Hi,” Riko answers. “Yeah, it is. Still need to be careful about chakra use and heavy exercise, but otherwise, I’m good.”

The woman smiles. “I’m glad to hear it. When do you have time to meet up?” She turns to her companion and explains, “Riko-chan is a kenjutsu user.”

He gives her an interested look. “Gekkou Hayate,” he introduces himself, his voice hoarse and the words followed by a cough.

Doesn’t sound healthy at all, and his breaths rattle in his chest.

Riko resists the urge to squint at him to figure out if he’s got any visible symptoms of illness beyond the pastiness of his skin and the shadows beneath his eyes. Maybe she should have kept her glasses on.

 “Nara Riko,” she answers politely. “It’s nice to meet you.” She turns back to Yugao. “Early mornings and evenings would work, and I can probably get sensei to give me some afternoons off.”

Unless Kakashi drilled them in chakra control and formations, team training usually consisted of spars. Where he mostly focused on Naruto, who had the most to catch up on. Riko isn’t strictly essential for that. Tended to stretch and run katas while that went on, most of the time.

 “Early mornings work for me,” Yugao says after a moment of consideration. “Do you know where Training Ground 48 is?”

No, and Riko distantly recalls that all training grounds with a four in their name have some kind of restriction on them, so she might have some trouble finding it. She shakes her head and listens carefully to Yugao’s instructions.

 “I look forward to working with you,” the older kunoichi finishes.

 “Me too,” Riko answers honestly, ignoring the flutter of nervousness. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 “Absolutely. Have a good day, Riko-chan.”

 “You, too. And you, Gekkou-san.” Riko nods at the man and scurries away, scanning the room for Genma. Which, considering he usually hides both his scent and chakra, isn’t successful until he speaks up in another corner of the room she’s searching. “Over here, kid.”

She weaves her way through the room and drops down into a seat next to him. “Hey.” Then she blinks. “Sensei?”

It’s indeed her jounin sensei, sitting in an armchair opposite of Genma and her, Icha Icha in his hand. “Yo!” he greets, obnoxiously cheerful.

 “Hi,” she returns, giving him a mildly suspicious look. But hey, he has a life outside of Team 7. “How’d the complaint go?”

Kakashi gives her a serene eye-smile. “He’s facing an inquiry and won’t trouble you or anyone else again.” 

Huh.

Genma nudges her. “What’s up, kid? Need anything?”

Riko shakes herself a little. Right. She’s here for a reason. Actually, it’s pretty convenient that her sensei is here, since he’s got the final say in anything to do with her training.

 “Chuunin Exams are coming up,” she says, there’s no way they don’t already know that. “I want to learn stealth.”

Kakashi sniffles. “My kids are growing up.”

She rolls her eyes at him.

 “Let’s discuss this somewhere more private,” Genma suggests. “Come on.”

They end up in a meeting room. Riko’s beginning to wonder how big the jounin lounge really is.

 “So, going for a promotion, huh?” Genma asks.

 “Just preparing,” she answers, shrugging, trying not to let on how uneasy the thought makes her. 

He hums, and she’s suddenly certain he’s aware of the whole involuntary nomination possibility. “Good thinking. Why stealth?”

She was expecting that question, so her answer is prompt. “It ties in well with my low chakra capacity and sensor abilities and will allow me to end fights before they even begin. I don’t necessarily plan on specialising in stealth, but it definitely is a very useful skill to have for any shinobi.”

Plus, she isn’t built for much else.

And then there’s the whole thing about her hair colour making her a target for murder and kidnapping, but she’s so not getting into that right now. Really should figure out a way to hide it, though, before the village starts crawling with foreign shinobi.

 “Any other skills you want to learn?” Genma asks her.

 “Chakra strings.”

Genma chuckles. “Finally got sick of having to jump to get books from high shelves?”

Riko kicks his shin. “Other than that, I’ll work on improving my existing skills and study a lot.”

Kakashi ruffles her hair. “This is why she’s my favourite,” he tells Genma proudly.

 “Bet you tell that to all your students,” Riko grumbles, shooting him a glare. Her hair had looked decent for once, and he ruined it. “Anyway? Stealth training?”

 “You got it.” Genma gives her a lazy thumbs-up. “The usual afternoons?”

Riko shoots a questioning glance at Kakashi. “If that’s okay?”

 “Maa, Riko, you seem to have it all worked out.” He crinkles his eye at her. “Leave Thursday afternoons for individual training. Your sensei’s still got a few tricks to teach you.”

She blinks at him because Thursdays are her team’s day off, so they can rest and take care of personal business like groceries and restocking on supplies. “Okay?” she asks. “I will. Thanks.”

Riko gets another hair ruffle for that.

 “Do you want to see my schedule?” she asks, because it does concern him and the team. They’ll have to work around each other a lot. Or, well, Kakashi and she would, the boys just seem content to suffer through team training and missions and then take off to do their own thing, with the exception of going for food together on rare occasions.

Kakashi hums in consideration when she pulls out her schedule.

She looks at it and realises how inaccurate it is after this morning’s developments and begins drawing a new one, now including Yugao and her new part-time job. 

 “You’ve been busy,” Kakashi comments, steals her pencil, and draws big henohenomohejis on her Thursdays.

 “Well, yes,” she says, because obviously. “The Chuunin Exams are no joke and we only graduated just over two months ago. We’ll be behind everyone else.”

 “At the pace you’re going,” Genma drawls, “I’d say no one should underestimate you.” He stands up. “Got work to do. I’ll see you around, kid.”

 “Mm, have fun,” she replies absently, eyeing Kakashi who’s now crossing titles off of her reading list and adding new ones. “Sensei, I’m pretty sure that one’s not accessible to genin.”

People tend to be weirdly fussy about fuuinjutsu.

 “No worries,” he answered cheerfully, “I’ll get you the books you need.”

That sounds like a bad idea, but she’d wanted to read that book since forever, so. 

 “Thanks, sensei.”

The month is shaping up to be a busy one.

Chapter Text

By the time her teammates arrive for their first team meeting since the return from Nami no Kuni, Riko has run through all the Academy taijutsu kata and is now doing the kenjutsu forms she learned from Yoshino. Only this time, she’s not using a bokken but her katana, the weight of which is still unfamiliar.

She’s barely used it since she got it — there’s been so little time to train with it.

Sasuke is the first to arrive, sinking down on the ground and watching her exercise while doing his own stretches. Naruto shows up soon after. He smells like dirt and sweat, so he was probably training before the meeting, just like her.

 “Whoa, Ricchan!” he shouts. “You look so cool! It’s a real sword!”

Seeing as she’s in the middle of a kata, she can’t reply.

“I could learn to use a sword!” he chatters. “Hey, Ricchan, where can I get a sword? Can you show me where? It’d be so cool, us two, sword-fighting side by side!” 

The fantasy is a nice one.

It’s kind of shattered by his next words.

 “Ricchan, you can teach me how to use a sword!” he exclaims, like it’s the best idea ever. “Then I’ll have something cool for the Chuunin Exams!”

Riko takes a deep breath and ends her kata. Puts the katana away, takes another deep breath, and lets it out slowly.

Gotta stay calm. It’s Naruto. He doesn’t know any better because he’s been alone most of his life. In his head, it probably is that easy.

It just rankles, not the least because he’s seen her practice with a bokken often enough, but only when she brings out real steel, he suddenly thinks it’s cool. Nevermind that her skill is far less with the unfamiliar katana than it’d been with the wooden bokken.

 “No,” she says, and her voice comes out surprisingly even. “I can’t teach you.”

 “Eh?” he asks. “Why not?”

She manages a tight smile. “No time. I’m training for the exams, too, remember?”

There’s so much more she could say here. That it took her years to get to this level of skill. That she’s still nowhere near good enough to teach anybody. How he’s being all kinds of disrespectful, not even asking if she wants to, and simply because he wants to look cool for exams he didn’t even know existed until she told him yesterday.

But she keeps it inside because a part of her is afraid he’ll say something like, “Eh, I bet I can do it in a month, I’m the man who’ll become Hokage!” and she just knows she’ll end up doing or saying something she’ll regret.

Naruto laughs sheepishly. “Right, yeah. I forgot! Just, it’d be so cool!”

 “Yeah,” she agrees. “Sure. ‘Cool.’” Damn it, she desperately needs a subject change. “You look like you were training, how’s that going?”

He instantly launches into chatter, interspersed with varieties of “I can’t tell you, it’s secret training, but it’s so awesome”, and she barely catches Sasuke’s quiet scoff.

The only thing that surprises her about it is that she almost agrees with him, and that doesn’t bode well. 

They used to get along, and now… now it feels like Naruto is just.

Is just the same as always. 

It’s her who’s different. Who just can’t seem to see how his cheer and adoration make up for the sheer carelessness of the things he says and does anymore.

Riko shakes her head. 

No. No, she’s just tired, and her head is a little messy from the mission, and she’s stressed over the Chuunin Exams, and… and it’ll all go back to normal once that’s over.

 

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The moment Kakashi arrives, Naruto jumps up and shouts, “You’re late!”

 “Maa, a mime needed directions to the market, but he wasn’t a very good mime, so it took him a while to explain what he wanted.”

 “Liar!” Naruto yells.

 “So mean.” Kakashi shakes his head sadly. “But you’ve been training! Sensei’s so proud.”

Riko, currently twisting her body into a pretzel because flexibility is useful, manages a sarcastic salute. Sasuke, head stuck in another medicine scroll, barely looks up.

 “Kaka-sensei!” Naruto plants his feet. “Teach me a cool jutsu so I can become chuunin!”

And here they go again.

 “Mm, Riko told you about the exams, then?” Kakashi blinks at them. “I haven’t decided yet if I’ll nominate you, you know?”

 “Eh?” Naruto blinks. “Nominate me?”

Sasuke looks up.

Riko sighs deeply. “You can’t just show up for the exams. If you’re part of a genin team, your jounin sensei has to vouch that you’re ready. If not, you need a letter of recommendation from whoever your superior is.”

 “Exactly!” Kakashi smiles at her. “Well said, Riko.”

 “Ricchan’s the smartest!” Naruto gives her one of those grins that make the world  seem warm and bright. “So Kaka-sensei has to tell the old man that we’re totally chuunin-material?”

Not quite how she worded it, but hey. He got the gist of it.

 “Which you’re not,” Kakashi tells them bluntly. 

Silence falls over the group.

 “Only one of you is anywhere close to ready,” he continues.

Riko eyes Sasuke, who sits a little straighter. Naruto beams, “It’s me, it’s me, right, Kaka-sensei?!”

 “It’s not,” Kakashi shoots him down mercilessly. Naruto deflates, then aims a baleful glare at Sasuke. 

Their sensei speaks up again. “It doesn’t matter who I’m talking about. If you want to take part in the Chuunin Exams, convince me you can do it. You have four weeks.”

Well, that’s a relief, a part of her thinks. She can just… not convince him. And at this point, she has her doubts Naruto will succeed. Only Sasuke stands a chance.

Then her brain catches up with her. The convince me line… that’s definitely a motivational tactic. And he said four weeks, but nominations are in three — he’ll make them work hard to the last last day, rather than risk any of them relaxing once they’ve got the nomination under their belt.

Damn it. The hope that she’d get out of the exams after all shrivels up and dies.

At least her teammates are all determined, their faces set in fierce glares, eyes locked on Kakashi.

 “I made training schedules for all of you,” their sensei continues. “I expect you to keep to them. If you don’t, you’re out. If you fail a mission, you’re out. Is that understood?”

Naruto gulps, and even Sasuke looks wary. 

Riko is just resigned to her fate now. “Yes, sensei,” she says.

The other two echo her after a pause.

 “Good.” He claps his hands and the grave atmosphere vanishes when he smiles. “Now go and catch Tora, my cute little students!”

 

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It’s Riko’s first session of stealth training. She’s already pretty exhausted - Kakashi stepped up his game with team training and aside from the Tora mission, they got sent on message runs all over the village, and she was the only one who actually had any idea about the procedures of entering certain places.

Well, Sasuke might have known, but he left it all to her, since he hates talking and is too busy studying.

 “What do you know about stealth?” Genma asks her when he arrives. “What is stealth?”

 “The art of moving about unnoticed,” she answers, frowning, because the answer feels somehow inadequate.

He hums. “There are different types of stealth,” he begins to explain. “Depending on your environment and the type of enemy you’re evading. The classic is invisibility — sneaking around, hiding yourself from perception. But in a crowd, you don’t want to do that, you’ll want to blend in instead. Another thing you need to consider is your objective — if you’re evading someone, you’ll need to be fast. If you’re infiltrating somewhere, you need to be careful.”

Riko nods, thinking it over. “So… where do we start?”

 “The classic.” Genma suddenly smirks, and she eyes him warily. “We’re playing hide and seek. And for every time you get caught…” He reaches into his pack and withdraws a headband with attached rabbit ears in neon pink. 

She stares in horror.

 “You’ll have to wear these for an hour,” he finishes. With a glint in his eyes, he adds, “For this week, I’ll still give you time to get ready. You have a minute to hide. Go.”

Riko blinks at him for a moment because — that’s it? That’s all the instruction she gets? What about learning actual stealth jutsu?

 “No crutches,” he answers her silent questioning. “Forty-five seconds.”

She wastes another second staring and then runs.

 

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Training Ground 48 is well-hidden. Without Yugao’s instructions, Riko wouldn’t have found it. As it is, she has to navigate through several layers of genjutsu and cross two barriers to get inside.

But if she thought it was some super dangerous, intricate, challenging training ground, she was wrong. It’s just… empty. A wide area with no trees, no grass. The ground is paved stone in uniform grey, completely flat.

Yet by no means is it ordinary or boring. Whatever barriers and genjutsu are set up here, they make the area seem like it goes on forever. It’s just Riko, the stone ground, and the endless sky above her. 

Making her feel small and insignificant and like she’s the only person in the entire world.

 “It was built for privacy,” Yugao’s voice says from behind her. Riko is ridiculously relieved to see another human being. “And to allow you to focus only on your training with no distractions. Also, the genjutsu people wanted to show off.”

She gives Riko a serious look and doesn’t comment on the rabbit ears stuck to her head.

 “It will be just us and our swords in here.”

Riko suppresses a shiver and nods.

 “Are you ready?”

Swallowing under Yugao’s grave stare, Riko forcibly relaxes her tense muscles. Takes a deep, calming breath. Only then does she nod.

 “Then let’s begin.”

 

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Yugao walks Riko to her team’s training ground after their session. “How long have you been training in kenjutsu?” she asks.

Riko, body aching, she’s sure to have so many bruises tomorrow from evading by rolling on the paved ground, has to think for a moment. “Two and a half years,” she answers and has to blink.

It doesn’t sound long at all. She feels like she’s been learning the sword all her life, somehow.

Yugao tilts her head in consideration. “I see,” she comments thoughtfully.

The woman looks as fresh as she did this morning, not a scratch on her, and Riko doesn’t think she even broke a sweat. She’d been so graceful, so quick, so incredibly skillful, while Riko jumped all over the place trying to get through her guard. It was like trying to cut smoke.

Up until today and not counting Momochi, Yoshino had been the best kenjutsu user Riko had ever met. Yugao, though, is on an entirely different level. 

It’s a humbling experience, to say the least.

 “You have potential,” Yugao’s voice interrupts her thoughts. “Do you plan on specialising in kenjutsu?”

 “For combat, yeah, I think so,” she admits. “I like swords a lot.”

Yugao hums. “I can see it. You look comfortable with a katana in your hand. I can tell you have solid foundations and you know how to move. However, you need to work on stamina and speed. More importantly, you waste a lot of energy with unnecessary movement.”

The criticism rankles, mostly because Yugao is right. “Thank you,” Riko mutters, trying not to sound sullen. 

The other kunoichi shoots her an amused look. “It comes with experience, and you’ll get plenty this month. If you want, I can show you a few useful moves as well.”

 “I want,” Riko instantly says, then flushes because wow, rude. “Sorry, I-”

Yugao laughs. “Prepare to work hard, then, Riko-chan.”

 

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It’s surreal to get to the training ground and find her team already assembled. 

 “Ricchan!” Naruto waves wildly, turning from where he was watching Sasuke attempt to get in a hit on Kakashi. “Get this, Kaka-sensei’s already here! Huh, who’s that pretty lady?”

Riko cringes a little because manners.

 “I’ll see you tomorrow, Riko-chan,” Yugao says quietly. 

 “Yeah, uh, have a great day,” Riko answers. “Thank you very much for helping me with my training.”

 “You’re welcome. Thank you for allowing me to help. I find myself pleasantly surprised at how rewarding teaching is.” She smiles briefly before she disappears.

 “Ricchan! Ricchan, who was that?” Naruto asks her eagerly. “She looked pretty!”

Riko fights for patience. “We train kenjutsu together,” she explains. “Naruto, please don’t talk about a stranger’s looks where they can hear, it’s rude.”

Naruto gives her a confused look. “Eh? Okay. Why’d she leave?”

 “Because,” Kakashi is suddenly behind Naruto. Sasuke has collapsed in the background, laying on his back and is , from the sound of it, attempting to catch his breath. “Yugao is a very high-level kunoichi with many duties, and it’s very generous of her to spend free time on helping Riko with her training.”

 “Oh.” Naruto mulls that over before he brightens. “I guess Ricchan’s just that amazing! Hey, d’you think she’d train me, too?”

 “Here’s a lesson, Naruto,” Kakashi answers. “If you want training from someone, show respect for them and their skill, prove that you’re a good fit for a student, and approach them yourself.”

He walks back to Sasuke and puts him on his feet.

 “Either way,” he says, “Right now, no one will teach you any special skills because you’re lacking in all the basics, and correcting that is my job.”

Naruto grumbles. “I bet I could get someone to teach me something cool!”

Sasuke scoffs. “As if, dead last.”

They’re brawling within moments. Riko makes to step in, but Kakashi’s hand lands on her shoulder, holding her back. “Sensei?” she asks in confusion.

 “We’re going to play a game,” he says seriously. He makes a shadow clone. It henges into her, complete with rabbit ears. “Today, you’re not joining missions or training. You’re just observing. Put on your glasses.”

She frowns up at him, but retrieves her glasses from the pouch. The world becomes clear and sharp when she puts them on.

 “Make sure they don’t notice you following,” he adds.

 “But why?” Riko asks, eyebrows pulling together.

He pats her on the head. “You’ll figure it out. Now go hide.”

Still frowning, she runs off into the trees.

Her brawling teammates don’t notice a thing.

 

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Watching her team interact without her taking part in it is weird. It’s like they’re in their own bubble, and Riko’s looking on through a glass window. Kakashi’s clone looks and acts exactly like her. 

It separates the brawling boys exactly the way she would, tells them not to fight until missions are over for the day and they’re allowed to spar. 

Sasuke and Naruto stare at each other resentfully and sulk until Kakashi claps his hands and informs them of their duties for the day. “Today, we’re painting Maeda-san’s fence and shed, weeding her garden, and mowing her lawn. Chop chop!”

He disappears in a smoke cloud, which is pretty normal for him.

 “He says we,” Riko’s doppelgänger complains, “but he always disappears.”

Crap, she sounds so bitchy. Does Riko sound that bitchy? And Kakashi has overheard it? Is that why she’s observing? Because she’s rude and Kakashi is making a point?

 “Hn,” Sasuke grunts his agreement.

 “Yeah!” Naruto waves his arms. “Why do we have to do stupid D-ranks? We did a C-rank already! He never teaches us anything cool!”

Something flickers over the clone’s face, but it’s gone before she can identify it. Does her own face do that, or is that just a Kakashi-reaction?

 “Sensei teaches us plenty,” the clone says.

 “But it’s just Academy stuff and formations,” Naruto whines. “No new moves!”

Riko’s counterpart sighs. “Let’s do our mission. The sooner it’s over with, the sooner we can train. Anybody know where Maeda lives?”

Both the boys look at her expectantly.

It makes the real her uncomfortable somehow.

Clone-Riko is the one to lead the way into Konoha proper. Is the one to ask at the mission desk for the address and the one they tell, “Remember to ask your sensei next time, girl.”

Clone-Riko handles talking to the client, a middle-aged woman who looks at her like something she found stuck to the bottom of her shoe and gives her so many specific instructions to remember that it makes the real Riko want to throttle her. “And no funny business!” Maeda finishes. “I’m not paying for a shoddy job!”

She slams the door when she goes back into her house.

The fake Riko turns to her teammates, who are a step behind her and glaring at each other. “You got all that?”

 “Ehehehe, of course, Ricchan!” Naruto fibs, scratching at the back of his head. Sasuke merely shrugs.

Neither look repentant under her unimpressed stare.

 “The dark green for the shed,” the clone says in a clipped tone. “White for the fence. Don’t touch the flowerbeds with the roses. Don’t break the lawn mower.”

At this point, Riko is feeling uncomfortable because she knows how this’ll go.

It’s just so much worse watching it like this, when she doesn’t have to focus on keeping her team in line and working.

The clone assigns herself the weeding because no one in their right mind would want Naruto to do it. Sasuke gets to do the painting since she’s not trusting Naruto to get the colours right either. Mowing the lawn should be relatively safe for him to do, at least.

Riko wants to sink into the floor, watching the disaster unfold. Or rather, not unfold, because the clone does exactly what she’d do — keep an eye on the boys’ behaviour and double-check their work in between doing her own. Keeps Naruto from running and crashing with the lawn mower. Jumps in before he can accidentally give one of the flowerbeds a new look. Shows him how to rake the loose grass together because lawn mowers in Konoha neither run on fuel nor collect the grass automatically.

Clone Riko then inspects Sasuke’s job and makes him do it again because he might have finished quickly, but he did the work sloppily — all so he could sit down and stick his head into another medic scroll, and even then she has to paint over patchy parts of wall and fence.

The client still ends up yelling because look at that, fake Riko overlooked some weed.

The real deal feels like crying, watching her apologise to the client and keep Naruto from yelling back while Sasuke glares mutinously.

 “Finally done!” Naruto cheers. “Man, that took forever!”

 “Hn,” Sasuke grunts. “We’re wasting time. Let’s get to training.”

Riko takes a deep, calming breath when the boys take off, Naruto grabbing the fake’s hand and pulling her along.

She’s… she’s not going to cry, she isn’t, this is… this is fine, it’s just. Shit.

From her vantage point, she can clearly see the moment the flowerbeds catch on fire.

 

▬▬ι═══════ﺤ    -═══════ι▬▬

 

The boys plus the fake Riko are waiting in the usual training ground. Kakashi appears in a puff of smoke, as he usually does.

 “Kaka-sensei!” Naruto jumps up. “You’re late!”

 “Mm.” Kakashi peers down at them. “I’m going to teach you something today.”

 “Awesome! Is it something cool? Is it a super powerful jutsu?” Naruto bounces up and down. Sasuke looks at their teacher with anticipation.

 “It is very cool,” Kakashi confirms. “Have any of you noticed something off today?”

Sasuke frowns, and Naruto squints. 

Fake Riko disappears in a puff of smoke, startling both of them. Kakashi goes rigid for a moment, letting out a slow, controlled breath before he looks at where the real Riko is hiding. “You can come out now,” he says.

Riko slowly shuffles over to them, not looking at either of her teammates, though she can clearly hear Naruto’s confused “Eh? Eh?” and the rustling of his clothes as he looks between her and Kakashi.

 “Riko, do you have anything to say to your teammates?” Kakashi peers at her. “And before you do, please imagine any of your friends suffering through that kind of treatment.”

She freezes.

Has to take a deep breath when an image of Ino going through today flits into her mind.

 “Ricchan?” Naruto asks, his tone one of utter confusion.

Riko looks at Kakashi.

 “Today,” he obliges her silent request, “Riko wasn’t on the mission with you.”

Silence falls. “What?” Naruto asks confusedly. “Ricchan?”

She’s still not looking at him.

 “I told her to observe,” Kakashi continues neutrally. “It was past time to deal with an issue that has been steadily getting worse. I was hoping that after the Nami mission it would have gotten better, however, yesterday’s message runs proved that it didn’t.”

Another pause.

 “Riko?” he prompts.

She takes a deep, shuddering breath and turns to face her team. Her face feels weirdly numb. 

 “Ricchan?” Naruto eyes her with his large, blue eyes. “Are you okay? You look sad! D’you need a hug?” He takes a step towards her.

Without thinking about it, she takes one back, and his face falls even more. She instantly wants to hurry to him and tell him everything’s okay.

 “Riko?” Sasuke asks, sounding vaguely unsettled.

Another deep breath rattles in her lungs. She lets it out slowly. 

Words. What are words.

 “Today was…” she says. “Not good.”

There. Good beginning. It’s words. Success.

 “I got to watch. Us. You. Doing a D-rank.” They know that already, Kakashi told them. 

Naruto opens his mouth to say something.

 “Let her speak,” their sensei cuts in, his tone brooking no argument.

 “It wasn’t…” She frowns, looking down. “Watching you talk to me. The fake me. I…”

Words gone missing again, damn it. Riko stares at her hands as if they might be written there, but nope.

No convenient speech written there.

 “Were you comfortable, watching your teammates interact with you?” Kakashi prompts, and she’s stupidly grateful that she doesn’t have to fill the silence by herself.

She shakes her head. “I hated it. I… you. You both. I don’t know. We’re…”

Riko looks up again, and her voice is small and fragile.

 “We’re a bad team,” she concludes, and she’s staring at Sasuke now, who looks frozen in his position. “You only care about your own training. I have to handle all the talking on my own, even when the clients are assholes. The moment you can, you disappear into your scrolls and leave us hanging. I can’t rely on you and you make me feel like a stepping stone.” She turns to Naruto and hates herself for every word that tumbles from her lips, but his watering eyes aren’t enough to stop them. “I can’t trust you to do any simple thing. You don’t listen to instructions, you don’t pay attention, your rivalry with Sasuke interrupts training and keeps getting in the way of our missions. I can’t do my own work because I have to do yours. You’re loud and careless and you don’t think, and the worst thing is, you don’t try to do better. I’m not your caretaker but missions fall apart the moment I stop doing it. I can’t rely on you either.”

Her arms wrap around herself. “Right now, it feels like I’m carrying the team by myself, because it doesn’t seem like either of you care about more than your own progress. I’m very tired.”

Riko looks at Kakashi, whose eye is unreadable.

 “Sensei, I’d like some time off from Team Seven,” she requests quietly.

 


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