waiting room

Anything yet, Saeka? I think we should be coming up on them soon,” Kaisuki asked internally as she and the rest of the rescue team raced through the trees. It was dark out, the only light coming from the moon. It was only barely enough to see, and given the speed at which they were moving, it was actually kind of dangerous for them to be cutting through the trees.

They didn’t have a choice, though. Team 7 would’ve taken Sumi on the paths, but those wound their way north around the hills and mountains. If they followed the paths, it would take far too long for them to catch up.

They were just paying very close attention to their surroundings.

It’s getting clearer,” Saeka said slowly. She sounded extremely tense and Kaisuki wasn’t entirely sure why. Sure, they were about to go up against a demonic entity, but she was relatively certain that Saeka hadn’t seemed this tense when she’d gone up against Teara. “I can feel Naruto and the others. It’s hard to tell where they are exactly…

She heard Saeka hiss softly, a sound of displeasure. Kaisuki clenched her jaw, “What is it?

Feels like Sasuke and Hatake-san are badly hurt. Hatake-san’s chakra is fluctuating a bit and it’s fading very slowly,” Saeka explained quickly, “But Sasuke seems to be on the verge of death. I can barely feel his chakra at all, and he’s about as far from us as Hatake-san.

The Tsubaki’s eyes widened in horror. “Where is everyone?” Khrai suddenly cut into the conversation, “Are they all in one spot?

No,” Saeka replied, “Hatake-san is about five hundred meters directly ahead of us. Naruto is fighting Sumi, by the feel of it, about a kilometer ahead of us if we shifted course about forty-five degrees to the left. Sasuke and Sakura are around six hundred meters from us, about sixty degrees to the right. By the feel of it, Sakura is probably using irou-ninjutsu on Sasuke.

Khrai clicked her tongue agitatedly, “Are you feeling Naruto’s chakra or the kyuubi’s chakra?” She demanded to know.

Feels like the kyuubi’s, for sure.” Saeka replied shortly.

“Kaisuki!” Shizune’s voice caught her attention, and she hummed loudly to let the irou-nin know that she’d been heard. “Are we getting close?”

“Yes,” Kaisuki responded. “We were just discussing that.”

“Can you tell how the situation is?” Gai asked, his voice intensely serious. Kaisuki didn’t think she’d ever seen him with such a grim look on his face.

Let me talk to them.” Khrai suddenly said, “I have a plan.

“Khrai will tell you,” Kaisuki replied, and she stepped back whilst in the air to let Khrai step up and take over. All at once, her night vision was drastically improved. Apparently Khrai had particularly good eyes.

“Sasuke is close to dead, and Sakura is likely trying to tend to whatever injuries he’s sustained,” Khrai began. “Kakashi is fading as well, though not as fast. Naruto is fighting with Sumi with the kyuubi’s chakra, so he’s probably rampaging.”

Something was really, really wrong. Or at least, that was the impression Kaisuki was getting. To her, it seemed as though Khrai was more tense than usual. Her usual sour mood was nowhere to be seen or felt, instead replaced by rather icy calculations and logic. It didn’t suit her at all, in Kaisuki’s opinion. Khrai without her irritability was hardly the same person.

“Shizune, Tenten,” Khrai called out to the other two females on their team. “Head over to Sasuke and Sakura. They’re less than a quarter mile up if you adjust your direction by about sixty degrees to the right.” She paused for only a second before she continued. “Gai, Neji, you’re coming with me. We’re going to see what’s up with Kakashi, and then we’re going to go take care of Naruto and Sumi. If anything happens, use your flares. And for the love of god, don’t any one of you go off on your own for any reason. Utilize the buddy system, folks.”

For whatever reason, despite what Tsunade-sama had said about Gai-san being their team leader, Shizune didn’t waste any time at all taking off with Tenten. Gai-san didn’t bother trying to call after them, either. They pressed forward, racing through the trees as fast as they could, eyes peeled for any signs of Kakashi-sensei. Khrai stepped back to let Kaisuki return to being in control, and she had only just gotten herself situated when Saeka spotted Kakashi-sensei.

“I see him,” Gai-san suddenly said, slowing down. Kaisuki and Neji did the same, and seconds later they had landed on the ground and were running over to where Kakashi-sensei was sitting up against a tree.

Kaisuki’s jounin instructor was not in good shape. His eyes were closed, expression screwed up in pain, one hand pressed over the left side of his neck. His chest was drenched in blood and his face was gaunt. Kaisuki didn’t have to be told to quickly step back and let Izumi take over. The brunette took over in an instant, her eyes sweeping over Kakashi’s still person as she assessed his condition.

“Kakashi-kun,” Izumi called after she had finished her preliminary assessment, “Can you hear me? Are you conscious?”

There was a pause before Kakashi-sensei’s one visible eye cracked open, widening slightly upon seeing them. His lips moved beneath his mask, the shadows shifting just enough to tell her that he was trying to talk to them.

Kaisuki,” Khrai said, and Kaisuki tore her gaze away from Kakashi-sensei’s incredibly frail-looking person. “Have Gai take Kakashi to Shizune and them. You and Neji will go and take down Naruto.

What are you thinking?” The Yurei asked, furrowing her brow. She would’ve thought that it’d make more sense to bring the strongest fighter with them to ensure that they took Naruto down without having to kill him. If it was just herself and Neji, they might not be able to separate Sumi and Naruto long enough to accomplish anything aside from getting themselves killed.

Neji will hit each one of Naruto’s tenketsu twice,” the blonde woman explained. “That’ll cut Naruto’s chakra supply completely, and then he’ll be down for the count. He can’t miss any of those tenketsu, and he has to hit all of them twice. Underline the urgency here.

Kaisuki nodded, looking up as she heard Izumi call out to them from the front seat, “All done.”

The Tsubaki quickly switched places with Izumi, blinking herself back to reality. She looked over at Gai-san and relayed to him what Khrai had said to her. The jounin didn’t look like he was particularly excited about leaving Neji with Kaisuki, but he didn’t say anything as she explained what her blonde friend was thinking.

“Alright,” Gai-san agreed. “Both of you, be careful.”

Kaisuki smiled, “Of course.”

Neji will probably be the safest out of every single one of them.” Khrai grumbled. “Have a little faith, you piece of-…

Oh, stop it. Last time you and Neji were left to your own devices, you put him in rehab.” Kaisuki chided, and the blonde muttered something under her breath.

Gai-san hefted Kakashi-sensei up, supporting most of his weight, as the copy-ninja could barely stand on his own. Kaisuki looked to Neji in the dim lighting of the forest, and he nodded at her. They both leaped back into the trees and took off, heading in the direction Saeka had said Naruto would be in, neither of them looking back at their jounin instructors.

The atmosphere was loud. Kaisuki didn’t notice it as much until it was just her and Neji – Gai-san had a rather loud vibe, so she could easily chalk the noisiness up to his presence. Neji, on the other hand, was as quiet as they came. His chakra was placid and his presence was hardly noticeable.

So, with just the two of them, the din in the air around them was immeasurable. Despite the silence from the forest itself, Kaisuki felt that if someone had been screaming in her ear, it wouldn’t have been as loud. It was cold and loud and heavy. Kaisuki had never felt anything like it. Not really. She’d gotten a glimpse of that darkness through Khrai’s perception of it when the spirit had showed her the fight she’d had with the demon that had possessed Neji, but it just didn’t compare to what she was feeling now.

Sumi was powerful.

So, what’s our plan of attack?” Kaisuki asked apprehensively, mostly intending the question for Khrai. She was willing to listen to Izumi and Saeka’s ideas, but she knew that Khrai would have the best input.

Attack.” Was the blonde’s rather useless answer.

So much for the best input.

Saeka spoke up dryly before Kaisuki could, “That’s helpful.

Shut the hell up,” Khrai snapped, losing her patience in an instant. All at once, she was snarling at them, despite how minor the offense was, and despite the fact that it was Saeka – Khrai’s favorite – who had done the offending. “Kill her in the first fucking strike, okay? Is that enough direction for you?”

Kaisuki almost didn’t want to reply to that, given Khrai’s sudden turn of mood, but she was immediately concerned with her instructions. “What about her hostess? Isn’t she possessed? Shouldn’t we-…”

No.” Khrai interrupted her heatedly. Something was definitely wrong. “She isn’t possessed. There is nothing human about her. You need to have her dead on the first try, or she’ll kill every fucking one of you.

She swallowed hard, “Alright, I guess.” She conceded. Khrai refusing to tell her things wasn’t new. The blonde was forever leaving out details, whether they seemed important to Kaisuki or not. The woman hadn’t gotten them killed yet, though, so Kaisuki was willing to put a certain amount of faith in her, but this particular situation was more dangerous than any of the others she’d been met with thus far.

But it was in Khrai’s best interest to keep her hostess from dying, right? Or did it not matter? Should she be trusting the oldest and most knowledgeable of her spirits, or should she take Khrai’s words with a larger grain of salt than she already was? Reading the woman’s emotions was easy, but understanding her and how she thought was impossible. Not to mention the fact that Kaisuki didn’t know how much Khrai cared about her, Izumi, and Saeka, assuming she really did at all. She seemed both invested and aloof at the same time.

I can’t sense anything. It’s like a total black out.” Saeka suddenly muttered, sounding uneasy. The air around them was thick with dark energy, some of it violent and angry, some of it as cold as it was purely evil. There was a definite line between the chakra from Sumi and the chakra from the kyuubi. Sumi’s was black and cold and purely evil, whilst the kyuubi’s was crimson and hot and angry. Everyone always referred to the kyuubi as the “demon fox,” but feeling his chakra alongside an actual demoness’ was like comparing water to fire.

You’re coming up on them,” the eleven-year old girl told her, and Kaisuki reached down and pulled a kunai out of her thigh holster as she relayed the message to Neji. She felt his chakra shift as he activated his Byakugan, listening to Khrai muttering something in the background that she couldn’t hear. She really wanted to inquire further as to what was going on, but…

“I can see them,” Neji cut into her thoughts, and she glanced over at him for a split second before returning her gaze to the area ahead of her. She could see an ending to the tree branches ahead – they were probably coming up on a clearing. There were powerful pulses of chakra rolling through the air like waves off the ocean, cold and hot at the same time. Ten seconds or less later, they broke out of the cover of the trees, Kaisuki sending a thrust of chakra to the base of her foot on her last step, sending herself flying across the clearing.

She landed between the demoness and the half-possessed Naruto, kunai twirling apprehensively in her hand. It didn’t escape Kaisuki’s attention that Sumi didn’t attempt to escape or attack. The petite girl’s eyes widened in reaction to her and Neji’s sudden appearance, but the expression of surprise looked unnatural. She didn’t try to defend herself as the Tsubaki approached speedily, her hand coming up only partway as though to block, but stopping early for some reason. The actions looked false. As though she were simply pretending to be caught off guard. It put a bad feeling in Kaisuki’s nerves, but she pressed it down. She would trust that Khrai would get her out of anything truly dangerous.

Don’t get distracted.” Khrai hissed, cutting into her thoughts. Kaisuki gritted her teeth, adjusting her trajectory and darting in low, swinging out with her kunai aiming for Sumi’s throat.

The demoness didn’t seem to try very hard to get out of the way. Kaisuki’s kunai sank into deceivingly delicate flesh, slicing through her target’s jugular and windpipe with ease. The demoness stumbled backwards, eyes wide in surprise as blood the color of ink spilled out of her fresh injury. She leaned forward, grasping at her neck with shaking hands, chest heaving as she tried to take in a breath while blood rapidly flowed into her opened windpipe. She fell to her knees first, and only a few seconds later, she crumpled the rest of the way to the ground.

Something wasn’t right, and Kaisuki wasn’t sure what it was. That had been way too easy. Sumi had taken out Sasuke and Kakashi with ease, and she’d been fighting Naruto while he was in a berserker state and hadn’t taken a single injury. So why was it that she had been so easy for Kaisuki to kill? Was she really dead? Kakashi-sensei had told her that the demon possessing Neji had continued to use the arm that Khrai had broken, despite how much damage had been done to it. Was it possible that she was only playing dead so she could get away? Or so she could attack them while their backs were turned?

Her chakra flow has stopped,” Saeka reassured her, but she didn’t sound particularly sure of herself. It sounded more like she was commenting on the fact while expecting something horrible to happen. Her lack of confidence only added fuel to Kaisuki’s paranoia.

Cut it out, both of you,” Khrai said impatiently. “If you’re so worried, get your shit together and get the fuck out of here. The faster you get back to the others, the safer everyone will be. Get a move on.

Kaisuki swallowed again, taking a few steps backwards, eyes still on Sumi’s still body, before she finally turned around and jogged over to Neji and Naruto. The Hyuuga was crouched down by her blond friend’s side, looking up at her as she approached.

“He doesn’t seem to have taken any injuries,” he told her as he returned his attention to Naruto. He shook the boy a bit, and Kaisuki silently willed him to wake up. Getting to the others would be much easier if no one had to carry anyone else.

Right when she was about to give in and suggest that they carry him, Naruto groaned, blue eyes fluttering open. He lay there for a long moment, staring at the sky with an expression that told Kaisuki that he was very slowly processing what was going on around him. His gaze fell on Neji, and then Kaisuki, and then his eyes widened and he sat up suddenly.

“K-Kaisuki!?” He exclaimed in shock, “Is that really you? Am I hallucinating? How long have you been…” He trailed off into silence, lips remaining parted as horror crept across his features. He looked to Neji again, and then back to Kaisuki.

“We have to go, Naruto,” Neji said as he stood up. Kaisuki extended a hand out to her friend, and he took it and allowed her to help him to his feet. “Everyone else met up with Sasuke and Sakura. We have to go to them as well.”

Naruto’s face drained of color, “S-Sasuke’s… he was…” He could hardly speak. Kaisuki was getting the distinct impression that Sasuke’s injuries were much, much worse than she could’ve anticipated.

“Shizune-san is with them,” Kaisuki said, trying to be reassuring despite being also extremely anxious. “And another team should be…”

“She gutted him.” Naruto’s voice was barely above a whisper. Kaisuki’s heart stuttered in her chest. The brief silence was deafening. “There was… there was so much blood. Is he even…” He took in a shuddering breath, “… alive?”

I don’t know,” Saeka supplied immediately. “I can’t sense him, but I also can’t sense anyone else. That smog is still really thick.

“Saeka doesn’t know,” Kaisuki told Naruto quietly. His expression was stricken. “She can’t sense anyone because there’s a blanket of chakra over the area that’s so thick, she can’t feel anything through it.”

“We’ll just have to go find out,” Neji supplied, sounding both impatient and uncomfortable. “Let’s go.”

Kaisuki looked over at him, nodding slowly. He seemed very bothered by their surroundings. Was there something going on that she was missing? Was there another threat incoming? Or did he just have a bad feeling because of the chakra that was still all around them?

He’s hyper-sensitive to demonic energy,” Khrai explained quietly. The anger from earlier had faded, leaving her sounding wary and tired. “People who’ve been possessed tend to be.

Kaisuki internally hummed in acknowledgment as she, Naruto, and Neji started back the way they’d come. She glanced over her shoulder one last time, but Sumi’s corpse was still right where it had been a moment ago. She still felt like something was wrong, but she couldn’t place it and she didn’t want to stick around to try and play detective. They needed to get to Sasuke. If he was as badly hurt as Naruto had said, Shizune-san was going to need help, and the only other fully-fledged irou-nin in the area was Izumi. The faster they could get back, the more likely it would be that Sasuke would survive.

She cleared her mind of the catastrophizing that immediately started up, pushed down the paranoia that still lingered in the aftermath of her short battle with Sumi, and concentrated on what was in front of her. She could fret later. Right now, she needed to get Izumi to Sasuke.

.

She hated waiting.

Sure, she had Saeka to keep her posted on the state of Sasuke’s chakra (“if it suddenly disappears, you’ll be the first to know”), but it didn’t really help. It just meant that she’d know when Sasuke was dead before the rest of her team did. The state of his chakra signature wouldn’t tell her how the surgery was progressing. It wouldn’t tell her if he was coding. It wouldn’t tell her if he fighting to stay alive, or if he was trying desperately to just die.

Kakashi-sensei wasn’t with them. He was still unconscious in a recovery room somewhere on the floor below them, having received a transfusion to replace the blood he’d lost. Apparently, he’d lost a lot. Gai-san was with him, so far as Kaisuki knew. He’d promised to let them know if Kakashi-sensei woke up while he was standing vigil over his bedside. The black-haired man had seemed very distressed by the state of his “rival” (best friend, really), even though he had tried to play off his fretting by being eccentric as usual. Kaisuki was sure that Naruto and Sakura had picked up on his act just as quickly as she had. They hadn’t stayed particularly long, deciding to leave Gai-san to worry over Kakashi-sensei in private, so that he wouldn’t have to be his usual hyperactive self.

Kaisuki sat up and leaned against the wall behind her from where she’d been slouching over her knees. Sakura was sitting on her right, Naruto on her left. Occasionally, one of them would say something and another would reply, and they might talk for a few minutes after that, but they would inevitably fall back into excruciating silence. Kaisuki had seen Sasuke when she, Naruto, and Neji had gotten to the rest of their group. As Naruto had said, there had been a lot of blood. Kaisuki had seen the damage as Izumi assisted Shizune-san in their attempts to keep him alive until the rest of the rescue team arrived with their ticket back home.

Sakura had apparently been holding the bleeding at bay until help arrived. Kakashi-sensei had gotten the message about Sumi and gotten back to the campsite a few minutes after Naruto had run off after the demon. Neither Sakura nor Naruto had been able to tell her the events that had transpired after Kakashi-sensei had gone after their blond teammate. She would have to wait until their jounin instructor woke up to hear that part of the story.

Izumi had been completely silent since Sasuke’s care had been taken out of her hands, whereas Saeka and Khrai were talking in hushed tones that Kaisuki couldn’t decipher. The Yurei herself hadn’t been able to muster the emotional fortitude to attempt to talk to any of them, and they seemed to understand that, so Khrai and Saeka were leaving her alone. She was eternally grateful for it.

She was a little worried about Izumi, though. She seemed to be even more distressed than the conscious portion of Team 7. Kaisuki had been hearing her intermittently crying for the past seven hours, during almost all of which the Tsubaki herself had spent sitting in the waiting room, awaiting news of Sasuke’s condition. She still didn’t know a lot about Izumi, and she’d gotten the impression that Khrai and Saeka didn’t either, so she didn’t know what about the situation was triggering such a strong emotional response from the irou-nin.

Kaisuki was, at times, a little saddened by the lack of trust between herself and the spirits she hosted. She had been doing her best to be as patient as she could, because she knew simply by common sense that she couldn’t force soul-baring. She couldn’t make them like her, or trust her, or anything really. She just had to be consistently herself, and at least try to be patient with the slow progress. They were damaged, even though she didn’t like to put it that way. All three of them probably had some kind of trust issues.

She did her best to concentrate on the fact that she was happier than anything about the progress of her relationships with her spirits, but there were still a great many things about them she didn’t know. And it was during the helpless moments when she couldn’t figure out what she could say or do to help the spirits within her that she recognized just how much she really didn’t know. She was sure that none of them took it particularly personally when she couldn’t think of what to do to help, but she still felt terrible that she was unable to do anything.

She sighed quietly to herself, ignoring the feeling of Naruto’s gaze turning towards her. Outside, the sun had risen, and she was exhausted. If she hadn’t been so gripped with anxiety as she was, she would’ve fallen asleep in her seat long ago. Aside from Sasuke, she was still fretting about Sumi, even though she had plenty of reason to believe the girl was dead. She didn’t quite understand why she had such a bad feeling about it, but she felt like she ought to have trusted her gut and attempted to kill Sumi in a more definitive way, such as decapitation, or dismemberment, or something.

Sasuke had been her target, for whatever reason. She had grievously injured him and then made to disappear, only to be chased by Naruto. If anyone else had been her target, she would’ve attacked them as well as – if not instead of – Sasuke. The only question was why Sasuke had been her target. Kaisuki hadn’t stopped to ask any questions, and she doubted she would’ve gotten a truthful answer anyway. What could Sasuke possibly have done to piss off a demon enough to warrant an attempt on his life?

She wasn’t even entirely sure that it would matter, in the end. It was still distinctly possible that he would die on the table. He’d lost a notable amount of blood, what had at least seemed like his entire abdominal cavity had been shredded, and he’d had that wound open for at least half an hour. Even if he survived the operation, he might still end up with an infection and die from that instead.

She didn’t know if it made sense to hope that he’d make it. She’d never been particularly optimistic (nor pessimistic, really), instead opting to be as realistic about any potential outcome as possible. If it didn’t make sense for her to hope, she would presume the worst would come to pass and simply try to steel herself for the bad news when it came. And to many of the kids her age, she came across as a complete pessimist, but only because the best (or at least decent) outcome wasn’t usually the realistic one.

But it was because of that realistic approach to the situation that there was an ache in her throat that had been threatening to choke her for hours while her stomach was did acrobatics. Her eyes would burn on and off, but she had yet to actually burst into tears. Sakura had been silently crying periodically the entire time they’d been seated in the waiting room, and Kaisuki could feel the anxious tremor in Naruto’s body as though it was her who was shaking.

Khrai and Saeka’s whispering fell silent suddenly, and because they had been doing that periodically, Kaisuki hadn’t thought anything of it until the youngest of her spirits spoke up loud enough for her host to actually hear. “He’s moving,” she told Kaisuki, Izumi, and Khrai. “I think they’re moving him. I think they might be done. Seems like he lived.

She heard Izumi suck in a sharp, stuttering breath as Kaisuki’s vision started to blur. All at once hot tears were spilling out of her bright red eyes, and she was trying to make herself stop almost as quickly as she’d started. She quickly reached up and wiped her eyes on her sleeve, taking in several shuddering breaths. She could feel Naruto and Sakura’s eyes on her; she needed to pull herself together before they assumed their teammate was dead.

“What… what is it?” Naruto asked, sounding defeated. Kaisuki shook her head as she looked over at him, and then at Sakura. Her lower lip was trembling fiercely as she fought to hold in her emotions.

“He’s alive,” she barely managed to say past the lump in her throat. “Saeka said that they’re moving him. He’s… I mean, I’m sure there’s other things to worry about even now, but… the worst is over, I think.”

Sakura’s eyes widened in surprise, eyes filling with tears that rapidly began to fall. She opened her mouth several times to speak, but she evidently couldn’t find her words. When Kaisuki looked back over at Naruto, he was grinning uncontrollably at her. She smiled back helplessly as he let out a relieved laugh, unable to settle her own tsunami of emotions.

“I see you already know,” the three of them looked up at the sound of Tsunade-sama’s voice. She was walking towards them with a very slight smile on her face. She looked exhausted, and Kaisuki didn’t blame her – she had probably dipped pretty deeply into her chakra reservoirs, and she’d been awake and operating on a trauma patient all night.

The three of them stood up as Kaisuki replied, “Saeka told me when you started moving him.”

The blonde woman nodded, “He’s in the ICU, and he’s going to have to be closely monitored for a least a few days to make sure there’s no infection, but at least for now, he’s alive.” She told them. “I wish I could tell you that you can see him, but for at least the first twenty-four hours, he’s going to be in a clean room, and nobody but the minimal number of necessary irou-nin and nurses will be allowed in.”

“Oh,” Sakura sounded impossibly disappointed. She probably wanted more than anything to be able to see him breathing with her own two eyes. It was sort of hard to believe that Sasuke had survived such a critical injury without being able to see him themselves.

Naruto, being the optimist that he was, stepped around Kaisuki so he could pat their pink-haired teammate on the shoulder, smiling reassuringly at her when she looked over. “Well, think of it this way: since you can’t see him anyway, you might as well go home and get some sleep, right?” He suggested. At first, Sakura looked a little unhappy, but after a moment the resolve in her eyes hardened and she nodded, smiling back.

“Yea, you’re right.” She agreed without an hesitation. “I trust you to take care of him, Tsunade-sama.”

“You’d better,” the Hokage said, smirking despite her fatigue. “If you don’t trust me with him, how could you trust anyone with anything?”

Sakura chuckled, her mood cheered by Naruto’s thoughtful optimism. Kaisuki couldn’t help but wish (as she often did) that she could be half as optimistic as her blond friend, and that she could use that optimism to cheer people up and make any situation brighter. Naruto was incredibly good at it, and she would probably always be a little jealous of his innate ability to look on the brightest side in the face of any amount of darkness.

“Well, I have a bed to go sleep in,” Tsunade-sama sighed out, interrupting Kaisuki’s train of thought. The Tsubaki blinked herself back into the present and turned her attention back to the Hokage. She definitely needed to sleep. “Good night, you lot.”

“Goodnight, then, Tsunade-sama.” Sakura bid the blonde woman farewell as she turned away and started back the way she’d come.

Kaisuki smiled slightly as she watched the Godaime Hokage leave. She was still struggling to maintain her composure in the face of such good news when she was as tired as she was. She reached up a hand to rub at her excruciatingly dry eyes. The tiredness that had been gnawing away at her for the past several hours was making itself known with extra vigor, draining any and all of the energy she’d had left. If she didn’t get back to her bed soon, she was going to collapse.

“I don’t know about you two,” she said, helpless to stop herself from yawning. Both her teammates looked over at her. “But I’m gonna head out. I’m about to fall asleep standing up.”

She took a few steps in the direction that would eventually take her outside, glancing over her shoulder. “What about you two?”

Naruto grinned, “I’ll walk out with you. I’m beat, too,” he winked, his smile shifting into something a little more playful. He was definitely over-tired and becoming manic. “If you can even imagine that. Are you coming, Sakura-chan?”

The pink-haired girl in question smiled, suddenly looking every bit as tired as Kaisuki felt. The wall of fatigue must’ve hit her as well. “I will after I swing by Kakashi-sensei’s room. I’ll let him know what’s up if he’s awake.”

Kaisuki bobbed her head, covering her mouth as she yawned again. “Alright, then I’ll see you later for sure.”

“Yea, for sure.” Sakura agreed, turning to head in the opposite direction from her two teammates. They waved one last time before Kaisuki turned away and started down the hall with Naruto following beside her.

She still felt like she wanted to burst into tears, but she swallowed it down and smothered it with reminders of how tired she was, of how comfortable her bed was going to be, of how the sound of her and Naruto’s footsteps were perfectly synchronized. She didn’t want to cry.

Kaisuki lifted her tired gaze from the ground a few feet in front of her as she and Naruto continued down the streets together. People were starting to come out of their homes, yawning and stretching and waving to one another.

“Well, here’s my turn,” Naruto suddenly spoke, startling her a little. She looked over at him, noting that they had, indeed, reached the point where they split up. She managed to muster a smile, and he chuckled at her. “You look dead. Go get some sleep, yea?”

“Yea,” she replied, stifling another yawn. “I’ll see you later.”

“Sleep well.” He said, and she nodded at him before he headed down his street.

She continued on alone, gaze falling to the ground a few feet ahead of her again. She couldn’t wait to get into her bed. She hadn’t been this tired before in a long time.

.

Once she was asleep, it was always much easier for her to wander into the depths of herself and find the room with the kotatsu that she knew Khrai, Izumi, and Saeka would be in. Kaisuki stepped into the slightly cluttered space, noting immediately that Izumi wasn’t present. She furrowed her brows, glancing around as she walked further in and closed the door behind her.

Where’s Izumi?” She asked as she was sitting down.

Khrai waved off her concern, “She’s not in a good place right now. I’m sure she’s fine, but she probably won’t be joining us today. Anyway, so now that we’ve gotten past the crisis,” she scowled as she changed the subject immediately. Kaisuki wondered if she knew any of the details about what was up with Izumi. “Where the fuck were you?

I have no idea,” Kaisuki replied sheepishly after a brief pause in which she tried to remember what had happened. “I don’t really remember what happened. Or how I got to… wherever I was.

The blonde looked like she was about to start cursing her out when Saeka spoke up quietly. “I threw you too far back.

Khrai scowled. “No shit.

The black-haired girl lowered her head and sank into her shoulders. “I didn’t mean to. I… I panicked, and I didn’t want any of you to… I accidentally threw her to where I usually hang out.” She explained with a notable tremor in her voice.

Which is where, exactly? And you didn’t want us to what? Spit it out.” The blonde demanded, her tone growing impatient. Kaisuki dug her knuckles into her eyes. Khrai had obviously been holding in her irritation for the better part of however long Kaisuki been gone. She didn’t handle anger particularly well, that was for sure. But if she didn’t stop snarling at Saeka, the eleven year-old was going to run away and hide again.

Kaisuki’s earliest memories,” Saeka mumbled, completely ignoring Khrai’s second question. “The Spring Festival before she turned five.

Kaisuki blinked, surprised. That seemed like it would probably be a ways away in her head. “Why would you go that far back?

Because you never think about it, so none of you would find me there.” Was the reply she got. Saeka sounded extremely anxious. She had to be expecting Kaisuki to be angry (if not hateful) because of whatever it was she was about to tell her. “When I want to be left alone, I go back to the things you’ve mostly forgotten about.

Kaisuki furrowed her eyebrows. “So… when you found me…

You were reliving your memories starting from that festival. That’s probably why you don’t remember anything; your memories overlapped, so it’s like nothing happened since you were last seen at all.” Saeka answered her unfinished question. Her eyes were on the surface of the kotatsu table. “You’ve been gone for about a month.

The Tsubaki blanched, eyes wide in a mixture of shock and horror. “A month?!” She repeated incredulously and with increased volume. “Why didn’t you get me sooner?!”

Saeka didn’t reply immediately. For a moment, Kaisuki was wondering if she would answer at all. She looked like she was contemplating running out of the room to hide somewhere until things had simmered down. Kaisuki sincerely hoped she wouldn’t. She needed to know what was going on. It wasn’t like Saeka’s moments of panic were for no reason. If something happened to persuade her to come out of hiding as suddenly and as frantically as she had, it had to be an important detail.

I…” She began, her voice barely above a whisper. She sounded terrified. “I didn’t want to tell you what happened. I was hoping Khrai and Izumi would find you so I… wouldn’t have to come back.

Khrai’s hand, which had been sitting on the table, slowly curled into a fist. Kaisuki watched her for only a couple seconds before she returned her attention to Saeka. The girl’s shoulders were shaking slightly, her head still lowered and her shoulders still hunched. She had to be thinking that Kaisuki and Khrai were going to “stop liking her” because of what she’d done. She had to be terrified that they were going to reject her.

The Tsubaki saw Khrai’s mouth opened, saw the flashing in her eyes, and she cut her off before she could speak a word. “It’s okay, Saeka.” She reassured gently.”I’m sorry I raised my voice. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not mad. Will you tell me what happened? You don’t have to if you’re not ready.

She could feel Khrai’s eyes on her, but she refused to look at her, instead choosing to remain engaged with the youngest in the room. Saeka didn’t reply as she lifted her head just enough so she could see Kaisuki’s face. Khrai didn’t fill the silence with any cursing and or snarling, and the hostess of the spirits was endlessly thankful for her being able to read the situation. The last thing they wanted at this point was for Saeka to disappear again.

As it was, the girl appeared to be deep in thought, likely weighing her options and considering the possible outcomes. Kaisuki couldn’t tell which direction she was leaning in. She expected Saeka to decline to explain herself, and she was fully prepared to assure her that it was fine if that came to be the case.

I…” she started and stopped with the one word. Kaisuki waited patiently, watched as she took several stabilizing breaths. After a long couple of minutes, she finally continued, “T-… Teara was… around. I went to… chase him off, I guess.” She paused, sucking in another shuddering breath. “I… I didn’t want to come back at all. But I couldn’t… I mean, I… I thought he was… tailing someone… but I don’t know who.

Something about the way she ended her explanation suggested to Kaisuki that there was a detail she was leaving out, but she didn’t pry. Telling her even as little as she had marked a lot of progress, considering the apparent depths of Saeka’s trust issues. She would take what she could get.

Are you mad?” Came a whisper so quiet, she almost didn’t hear it. Kaisuki blinked, looking up from where her gaze had fallen to her hands as they rested on the table. Saeka was staring at her, stricken.

No,” she replied, smiling sadly. “I’m not mad. I was just thinking.” Kaisuki turned her attention to Khrai, “What do you think we should do? Who do you think he’s tailing?

The blonde looked over at Saeka from where she’d been scowling at the wall, the agitation in her expression fading into something a little gentler. She sighed heavily, turning to Kaisuki and replying, “I have no idea. It’s depends on what you want to do. If it was up to me, I’d want to tail him and find out what he’s up to. He seems to like coming around these parts, even though I’m sure he doesn’t live anywhere near here.

Kaisuki nodded in agreement. “That’s probably…” she halted mid-sentence, looking down at the table again. Tailing Teara sounded like a good game plan, but she clearly remembered what had happened when Saeka had tried to fight him during the Chuunin Exams. They were outmatched by a long shot. Even if she were to bring Team 7 along with her (and she wasn’t sure she wanted to), it was highly likely that they’d get slaughtered if he cottoned on to the fact that they were following him.

Saeka was enough to take out several chuunin, jounin, and ANBU members more or less at the same time. If she couldn’t beat Teara, there was no way four genin and Kakashi-sensei would be enough. Tailing Teara would probably be classified as an S-rank mission.

What are you thinking?” Khrai asked. “Worried we can’t take him?

Kaisuki looked up at her and nodded. “I don’t know if I’m really qualified to tail someone as dangerous as Teara.

You’re definitely not,” the blonde replied with raised eyebrows. “So it’s a damn good thing you’re bringing three dead people along to help you.

But do you think I should ask my team if-…”

Khrai shook her head, silencing Kaisuki immediately. “When it comes to reconnaissance, the fewer the better. If there’s five of you, you’re that much more likely to be caught. And do you really think Naruto could do a mission like that?” She explained flippantly. “Naruto would want to engage him as soon as he did something horrible to someone – which we all know he will – and that’s the last thing we need.

The Tsubaki didn’t reply right away, furrowing her brow and frowning. “So, this would be something I’d have to do alone, huh?” She muttered hesitantly. If it was just her, it would be that much more dangerous. It wasn’t like she had a whole mess of contacts all over the place to help her in any way.

You’re not alone, god damn it. Did you hear anything I just said?” Khrai snapped impatiently. “Look, I’m nine hundred and fifty-three thousand, three hundred and eighty-three years old. I’m the most powerful person you’re going to meet in your life, probably, and that’s because I’m not human.

Saeka and Kaisuki both looked up at Khrai at that, alarmed and bewildered. Not human? How could her spirit have wound up in a human Yurei if she wasn’t a human spirit? Did that even make sense? Kaisuki was well aware of how deceiving Khrai’s slender, shapely body was. She knew that one punch had basically destroyed Neji’s arm, but there were plenty of people in the world who could do something like that.

Not… human?” She repeated slowly, disbelievingly. “How are you not human?

Khrai’s expression, which had been relatively neutral, shifted back into a scowl. “By not being human, you jackass,” she spat unhelpfully.

Then what are you?” Saeka asked in a small voice, as though she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to speak to the blonde yet. At first, Khrai didn’t reply. She didn’t look like she particularly wanted to. In fact, she sort of looked like she was regretting giving up that piece of information. But, after a moment, she let out a noisy sigh.

I’m an elf.” She replied, flicking her fingers at herself. Instantly, an illusion that Kaisuki hadn’t realized existed was dispelled, revealing the long, pointed ears that were definitely not that of a human. The Tsubaki, for a long moment, couldn’t take her eyes off them.

An… elf? I thought that was just old folktales or… something.” Kaisuki breathed, blinking several times to ensure that she wasn’t hallucinating. Elves were, so far as she knew, nothing more than lore and legend. They’d never been documented as anything more. So for an actual elf to be sitting across a kotatsu from her… it was kind of amazing.

Why are you so surprised?” Khrai grumbled, and Kaisuki locked eyes with her. She looked pretty unhappy. “It’s not like there are no non-human beings that share a lot of physical features with you people.

I know that, it’s just…” She began, trailing off into silence. She didn’t really know why she was so struck with awe. Khrai had told her that she was almost a million years old. It was entirely possible for elves to have been replaced by humans in that amount of time.

Sorry,” she said quietly. “I don’t know why.

Khrai snorted, waving her off. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not really a sore spot. I get that every time I tell people about it. So don’t tell anyone, okay? Not unless I give you explicit permission.

Kaisuki nodded, “Of course.”

Soyou’re not human and you’re really strong, I get that,” Saeka spoke up again, sounding uncertain about the whole thing. Khrai and Kaisuki looked over at her again, expectantly waiting for the punchline. “But are you really strong enough to take on Teara?

At that, the blonde snorted.”If I can catch him, I can kill him. Trust me. That doesn’t really matter, though, because we’re not going to be fighting him if we can avoid it. We’re strictly talking about tailing here. But, in the event that he decides try and kill Kaisuki,” Her expression darkened, a look that sent chills up Kaisuki’s spine. It was a whole different level of anger from usual. “I’ll be more than happy to rip his head off his shoulders.

Saeka nodded stiffly, dropping her gaze back to the table again. Kaisuki knew Khrai wasn’t lying, simply by her expression and tone of voice. It wasn’t hard to tell blustering from honesty. She probably didn’t have to worry too much about Teara successfully killing her, but that didn’t make the decision she was trying to make any easier. She’d have to spend long periods of time far away from home. She’d have to put her goal on hold, at least until she could figure out what Teara was up to. She didn’t want to have to leave her team behind, but she knew that chasing the white-haired man ought to be her top priority.

You don’t have to decide right this second,” Khrai’s voice cut into her thoughts. “We’ve already lost his trail, so if we do go after him, we’ll have to start from scratch anyway. So take your time and think about it.

Kaisuki looked up at her, frowning. She didn’t really need to spend all that long thinking about it. Her goal could wait. She could return every now and then to visit home. She could keep her team posted on her findings and movements, and she could take the opportunity presented by traveling alone to spend more time with the spirits residing within her. It wasn’t like she’d never get another chance to see any of the people she’d be leaving behind, and she didn’t expect that she’d run out of time to achieve her ambition, either.

No,” she finally spoke after a long moment, determination clearing away her worries. Any insecurities she had about the task before her could be brought to Khrai and Izumi’s attention, and she knew that the two of them would help her work through the kinks. Saeka could guide her to where Teara was. It wasn’t like she’d be alone. It wasn’t like she’d be helpless in case of battle. It wasn’t like she didn’t trust Khrai, Izumi, and Saeka.

I’ve decided. Let’s do it.”

It wasn’t like she only had one team she could turn to.

Final Chapter