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Kairi’s plan comes together in a single, brilliant surge. One minute, she’s racing Sora, struggling to lift herself up from a last-minute fall on the bridge, and the next minute, she’s not even upset about losing, because she has the best idea.

She gives Sora time to savor his victory before announcing, “I think we should go see Riku.”

Sora pauses, grin fading into confusion. “Uh…” He glances reflexively toward their island, where Riku’s mom lives by herself now, where their own parents discourage them from even visiting her too much. Jerks. “I don’t think our moms will let us.”

“We won’t tell them what we’re doing,” she says, rolling her eyes. She’s glad Sora isn’t pretending to misunderstand her, anyway; sometimes, when adults say awful things about Riku, Sora will give them this puzzled look and ask what they mean—it’s devastating, because no one wants to explain themselves, and Sora absolutely does it on purpose. Not with her, though. “We’ll tell them we’re going to visit his grandparents. Maybe he sent them a letter.”

Riku’s told them in general terms what it’s like to go to the ninja world. They should be able to figure it out; he never made it sound hard. There isn’t even a troll under the bridge in his stories.

“Okay…” Sora puts his hands behind his head, adopting a thoughtful look. “So we tell them that. They still won’t like it, you know.”

“I know. But they might let us go just to make us happy.” Kairi’s mom has sat her down and had the ‘I don’t approve of your friend but that doesn’t mean I want you to stop talking to me’ conversation. “We’ll tell them we’re going for a week, and we’ll get homework to do.” Sora groans, but Kairi knows this is critical: if they promise to do homework, they’ll have to do it, and their parents will know they’re serious. “And we’ll take one of the ferries.”

“And what will we tell Riku’s grandparents?”

Kairi grins. “That we’re going to see Riku, duh. They’re not our parents. What’re they gonna do, tell us no?”

“They could!”

“They won’t,” Kairi says, blissfully confident.

///

They do.

The rest of her plan goes off without a hitch: her mom doesn’t even make her pay for the ferry tickets (which Kairi was prepared to sacrifice her allowance for). Riku’s mom goes with them, to introduce them to his grandparents, but Kairi doesn’t let her in on their real plan, so they eat up a day listening to awkward smalltalk before she leaves.

Riku’s grandparents are not as cool as he’s always described them. They exchange frowns and then his grandpa says, “That’s no place for children.”

“Riku’s over there,” Sora argues. “And there’s kids there, too. He’s told us stories about them.”

“Those children belong over there,” Riku’s grandma says, “and you belong here.”

“Does Riku belong there, then?” Kairi asks, and that sure gets some unhappy expressions.

It’s not until after a belligerent dinner that they give in, though.

“He should have visited by now,” Riku’s grandma says. “If something’s happened to him…”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Kairi tells her, “but we’ll tell him you’re worried.”

They won’t need to: the woman sends them with a big fluffy blanket wrapped in a very pretty bow that somehow, through grandma magic, communicates I wish you would visit more often. (Also, she gives them enough snacks, dried seaweed and dried fruit and nuts, to keep them from starving on the trip.)

It’s too early for Riku’s birthday or Christmas, but that’s never stopped Sora from piling presents on Riku, either. Riku gets all pleased and flustered every time, it’s adorable. And Sora looks so proud, especially when Riku’s eyes get big and he gets quiet, which are the signs that Sora handed him something really special.

Every time, Kairi feels full to bursting with happiness, watching her boys be happy at each other. But then Riku disappeared for months, and Sora withdrew, and it’s been awful.

No more of that.

Riku’s grandpa takes them to the bridge, a scowl on his face. Before they step onto it, he hands Kairi—not carrying the blanket—a knife, complete with a leather sheath and a belt much too large for her.

“I gave one of these to Riku when he left,” Riku’s grandpa says by way of explanation. “But he’s grown since then, and he doesn’t carry it with him. You ought to be able to protect yourself, too.” Kairi takes the gift solemnly.

(Riku’s never mentioned many cousins to her—is Riku the favorite grandchild, the way he’s his mother’s whole world? If he is, that doesn’t make up for the way he’s treated by everyone else, but it might make it a little better.)

They walk across, marveling at the changes in the trees around them. It’s so seamless, they spend several minutes in the center, stepping forward and then back to try to catch the change from palm trees to bigger, leafier ones.

Wow,” Sora says, voice full of awe, and Kairi nods.

She hadn’t thought Riku was making anything up, but she hadn’t really known what he talked about, sometimes.

Like the chill. By the time they reach the opposite side of the bridge, both she and Sora have broken out in goosebumps. It isn’t even Halloween yet, there’s no call for the sudden cold!

“No wonder Riku complained so much,” Kairi says, hands crammed as far into her pockets as she can get them. She tucks her arms into her sides and hunches into Sora to try to conserve warmth.

At least they have on pants; based on Riku’s words, they’d expected some cold. Another few breaths of shivering and Kairi, inspired, drops her backpack onto the ground, unzips it, and tugs out a second shirt, which she pulls over her head after tucking the present into the newly vacated spot.

Two short-sleeved shirts are better than one, though not much. Sora brought a whole jacket, and no matter how Kairi pouts at him, he refuses to surrender it.

“I told you to pack better,” he says, snobby and superior. “Now c’mon, Riku said there was a temple nearby.”

There is, and when they approach, they find a bunch of…priests? They’re all wearing simple, light clothes (how they aren’t freezing, Kairi isn’t sure), with identical sashes over their shoulders; some sweep the pathway leading from an elaborate gate to the front of the building, while others practice kicks.

Kairi eyes those with speculation. She recognizes one of the moves, but not the rest. If she could just try a few out…

“Hello?” Sora calls. A bunch of people look over, but only one approaches them—a man with a broom, who looks confused but not hostile.

“Are you children lost?” he asks, and Kairi and Sora exchange quick grins—they weren’t completely sure ninja-people would be understandable to them, but success! (The only ninja they’ve ever met is Hinata, who bowed and smiled at them, wordless and polite, before keeping her distance the rest of the trip. She spoke with Kairi’s mom, but Kairi didn’t sit in on that conversation.)

“Kind of,” Kairi says. “We’re looking for a friend, and we know where he is, but not how to get there.”

“I see,” the priest says. “Why don’t you come in and speak with Chiriku.”

///

Like the rest of the priests, Chiriku is a bald man. He looks younger than Riku’s grandparents, but older than Kairi’s mom. He has a distinctive design on his outfit, which is how Kairi knows he’s the head priest.

Well, that, and the fact that the other priest took them to him right away. People always take you right to who’s in charge if they don’t know how to deal with you. Kairi’s learned this from watching people do it with her mom, the mayor.

He’s sitting on the floor when they’re brought to him, and he gestures them to sit as well. There are cushions for them. He has his legs folded under him, like Riku will sit sometimes, but neither Kairi nor Sora can sit like that, so they just cross their legs. No one gasps or looks offended.

They don’t tell Chiriku they’re from another world—back on the Islands, no one really believes Kairi except Sora, Riku, and Riku’s mom. Even her own mother thinks she’s just a shipwrecked orphan with amnesia. She tells him what she told the other priest, and he looks at them gravely.

“I see,” he says, just like the other priest. “And, if I may, where do you believe this friend of yours is?”

“Konoha,” Kairi answers promptly.

At that, there’s some muttering from the edges of the room, where a few other priests are neatening things up and eavesdropping. Chiriku’s expression doesn’t change, though.

“And this is a good friend of yours, that you would come far to see him?”

Sora leans forward, a wide grin splitting his face, his happiness at talking about Riku bursting out of him. “Oh, he’s the best! He comes to see us, usually, so we thought we’d surprise him this time!”

“I…see.” Kairi isn’t sure whether the man’s tone is good for them or bad. His expression is nonexistent; she can’t read him at all. “And your friend’s name is…?”

“Riku,” Sora answers promptly, and Kairi has to add, “Hatake.”

The muttering kicks up, accompanied by a flurry of cloth as one of the eavesdroppers leaves the room, no doubt telling tales.

“I see. Hm. The path to Konoha is not easily walked, for those unfamiliar with it. And it can be dangerous for unprepared children.” Then he calls out to the eavesdroppers, “Send for Sora.”

“Uh,” Sora says, taken aback. “How’d you know my name?”

At that, Chiriku looks surprised, before he smiles slightly. “Ah. A coincidence. One of our disciples is also named Sora.”

The kid who comes in is right around their age or a little older. He looks sullen, with blueish hair falling in his face and one sleeve longer than the other, like how Tidus wears his shorts. He moves quickly and quietly, holds himself like someone might jump at him from any direction.

Bullied, Kairi diagnoses with a budding scowl. Are priests allowed to bully people, or did the priests take him away from his bullies?

If these were priests of Valefor, the bird-god would gobble them up if they bullied a kid. Riku’s ocean god would drag them into the deeps. A temple implies a god, but Kairi doesn’t think much of any god that would allow a kid to be bullied right under their nose.

“Sora, I introduce to you another Sora,” and he gestures at her Sora, who waves, “and…?”

“Kairi,” Kairi says. Since she paid attention to all Riku’s stories, she gets to her feet and bows. Sora makes a face at her like she’s playing teacher’s pet, but he can suck it up. “Nice to meet you.”

New-Sora blinks at her, thrown, before he stiltedly bows back. “You as well,” he says.

“Good,” Chiriku says. “Sora, find these two rooms for the night. Tomorrow, you will escort them to Konohagakure, along with a letter.”

New-Sora stares at him. “You’re…sending me with them? Alone? To Konoha?”

Kairi suddenly has concerns about this arrangement, but Chiriku just says serenely, “I trust you to see them there safely. Unless you would refuse…?”

“No,” New-Sora says, instant and sharp. “I’ll take them. Thank you, Master Chiriku.” And he bows to the head priest. When he straightens, it’s in Kairi’s direction. “Come with me.”

The rooms he takes them to are simple and small, just little sleeping-bag-type bedding on the floor and big windows overlooking a garden. “Will these serve?” he asks them both as they inspect the rooms.

Kairi’s used to things like mattresses and pillows, but Sora chirps out, “Yeah, thanks!” before she can complain. New-Sora looks relieved and says, “If you need anything, ask anyone. Dinner will be served at sundown.”

Based on how low the sun hangs, they have less than an hour ‘til then. They spend it piled on Sora’s floor-bed, debating whether it would be rude to huddle up together under Riku’s present-blanket.

“It probably gets colder at night,” Sora says.

Kairi makes a face. On the one hand, she doesn’t want to offend these priests. On the other hand, if she turns into a popsicle, she won’t see Riku again.

“Fine,” she relents, and they spread the blanket out on Sora’s bed before leaving their things there to wander around in search of a dining room.

///

The priests’ dinner is as simple as their guest rooms, but not bad. New-Sora is happy to explain which gods the temple is dedicated to and all the related mythology without a speck of suspicion at their lack of knowledge. (He doesn’t ask them about their own gods, either, which Kairi finds indescribably rude, but she isn’t about to lecture their guide on proper manners.)

After, he takes them back to their rooms, and since Kairi can’t hear his footsteps, she pokes her head out to be sure the coast is clear before piling into Sora’s comfy cocoon. They haven’t had a real sleepover in years, and this time they’re in a whole new world.

“Soon, we’re gonna see Riku,” Sora says, and Kairi finds her own excitement reflected on his face.

“Yeah,” she says, and hugs him before rolling over and trying to get some sleep.

///

Sora gets along well with New-Sora. At first, Kairi was a little worried; New-Sora looks grumpy in the morning, snorting at them when they take too long repacking Riku’s blanket and huffing as they check and recheck that they aren’t leaving anything behind.

The priests see them off, and Chiriku gives them some food to take with them, along with the letter he mentioned yesterday, a little scroll the length of her hand with a wax seal holding it shut. “When you reach Konoha,” he tells Kairi and Sora, looking serious, “hand this to the chuunin at the gate. Do not lose it.”

Kairi very carefully puts it in her backpack, with no protest from either Sora, despite the time it takes her to make a safe place for it. When she slings her backpack over her shoulders again, they say their goodbyes and set off.

It takes less than a minute for Sora to start asking New-Sora all sorts of questions. Sora has an endless curiosity for everything around them: he asks about the names of plants and trees, what kinds of animals live in the forest, whether they see any in the temple, what it’s like living in a temple, how long he’s been there, what the other priests are like when there aren’t visitors…

For his part, New-Sora seems flustered. Kairi takes it upon herself to blunt or redirect the questions that most unsettle him, asking instead what he does in the temple, whether he likes it there, what his favorite parts are. At first, he’s reluctant to say much, but around when they break for lunch, Kairi can tell they’ve worn him down. (To be fair, it was mostly Sora’s efforts.)

“Tell me about your friend,” New-Sora asks when they start walking again. He sounds a little curious, a lot desperate to get the conversation off himself. (But he’s still talking, not falling into silence.) “You’re traveling a long way to see him. He must be special.”

“Yeah!” Sora agrees happily. “Riku’s great!” And he proceeds to sing Riku’s praises.

Kairi elbows him and talks over the few times he almost lets slip that Riku’s taught them about chakra and jutsu; Riku was really clear that he wasn’t supposed to do that, and they’ve kept it secret from their parents, but Sora’s excited and Kairi doesn’t blame him much for the mistake. New-Sora doesn’t push, so either he doesn’t catch Sora’s slips or he’s willing to let them slide without questioning.

Konoha is a lot farther than Riku ever made it sound.

When the day creeps toward evening and then nightfall, New-Sora suggests they keep going for a little bit, and Kairi isn’t too tired. She and Sora get to ask about the constellations overhead, and that takes them back to mythology, which they all can agree is cool, especially when the stories are exciting.

New-Sora wants to hear the story of Valefor and Ixion, and then how Bahamut nearly burned the world down in a rage, and then how Leviathan created all the oceans of the world, until Kairi and Sora have talked themselves hoarse. New-Sora’s eyes are wide, his expression awed.

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” he tells them solemnly.

After that, they settle down to rest for the night; New-Sora assures them they’ll reach Konoha the next morning, and that it’s safe enough, this close to the village.

Sleeping on the ground in a forest isn’t like sleeping on a beach; there are twigs and bugs, and all the sounds are unfamiliar. Kairi jolts awake three separate times she almost dozes off, unlike Sora, who’s out like a log as soon as his head hits the ground.

She spreads Riku’s blanket out and cuddles up next to him, like the night before, and that helps her drift off. If New-Sora notices, he doesn’t say a word.

///

Village is not the term Kairi would use for Konoha. Freaking huge city comes closer.

The wall alone is massive. She and Sora were prepared for that; Riku had said it was big. They didn’t realize he meant mountain-big, but after a wide-eyed, dry-swallowing moment, they got past that.

What’s worse is the glimpse they get inside as they stand at the gate, waiting for two men with the same metal plate as Riku to read through Chiriku’s letter and let them through. It’s so crowded.

The one whose metal plate is on a bandanna tied around his head finally finishes and says, “Well, we’ll need to verify this.”

The other one, who has a bandage running across his face and over his nose even though he doesn’t look hurt, says, “With who? Sarutobi’s out of town.”

With a shrug, the first guy suggests, “The kid?” At first, Kairi thinks they mean New-Sora, but then he goes on, “He’s a chuunin, now,” and that can’t be right; New-Sora is an apprentice monk, he’d told them so. Plus, he adds, “And his uncle’s in town.”

Kairi doesn’t know what that has to do with anything and says so. The men exchange a look, and the bandanna-one says, “Hatake Kakashi is a respected jounin. He can give you clearance to enter the village.” Then he disappears in a body flicker, and Kairi’s quick glance around doesn’t show her where he landed, so he must have gone far with just one of those.

“No offence,” bandage-guy says. “You look like good kids. We just can’t be too careful.”

New-Sora takes it personally, though; he scoffs at this and says, “Master Chiriku wrote them a letter. Does that mean nothing to you?”

“Letters can be forged,” the guy says, and New-Sora looks even more mad at that. The guy tries to placate him, adding, “Hatake will be able to take them straight to his nephew, anyway. I’m guessing you two don’t know where your friend lives?” Kairi and Sora both shake their heads. “See? This works out better for everyone, trust me. You’ll just have to wait a couple more minutes.”

New-Sora looks mutinous, crossing his arms over his chest and muttering about paranoid, disrespectful ninja, but he relaxes when Sora bumps shoulders with him and says, “Hey, don’t be like that.”

Finally—five excruciating minutes later—the bandanna-guy returns, with another man, this one with the same hair as Riku, though much shorter and messier. Kinda like if Sora dyed his hair silver and smooshed it flat on one side. His headband covers one eye, and a mask hides the lower part of his face.

This can only be Hatake Kakashi, Riku’s mysterious uncle.

“Ah,” he says as he spots them. “My nephew’s adorable little friends have come in search of him.” He waves at the other two ninja. “You can let them through.”

New-Sora puffs up at this declaration, pushing himself in front of Kairi and Sora. “You’re going to take them to their friend?”

Kakashi eyes him, and sounds amused when he says, “Yes. And you are…?”

“Their escort, from the Fire Temple,” bandage-guy says. “Master Chiriku sent him, along with this,” and he holds out the scroll Kairi gave him.

Kakashi takes it from him, not bothering to open or read it before he tucks it into his vest pocket. “Well, consider your duty discharged. I’ll take them to my nephew.”

“I have your word?” New-Sora presses.

Kakashi, if anything, seems even more amused by that; the two guys behind the desk look shocked. “Of course.”

New-Sora nods, then turns to Sora and Kairi. “I hope your friend appreciates your visit,” he tells them.

“Thank you for bringing us,” Kairi says, and Sora nods along and adds, “We’ll come visit you sometime!”

They’re going to be grounded until they’re thirty, but Kairi supposes it won’t be too hard to sneak out and see New-Sora, now that they know the way.

New-Sora looks touched, and bows to them; they return the gesture, and then he leaves, body-flickering back the way they came like a ninja.

“Come along now,” Kakashi says, and Kairi and Sora follow him.

///

He doesn’t lead them straight to where Riku is. Instead, he ambles through the village, peppering them with questions and observations. Like:

“Over there is where Riku first met my students,” with a broad wave that could indicate any one of four buildings or a stretch of empty field punctuated by a river. “I don’t suppose he’s mentioned my students?”

“He’s talked about Naruto,” Kairi says cautiously. Riku’s talked about them all, but he’s the most positive about Naruto.

“He said Naruto reminds him of me,” Sora adds, grinning at Kakashi’s sudden scrutiny of him. “In a good way!”

Kairi suppresses a giggle and says, “Except when he complained about how Naruto couldn’t cook.”

Kakashi hums. “Because the two of you can?”

“Nope!” Kairi’s giggles refuse to be suppressed as Sora starts to pout. “Riku made us start learning because he said we’d be just as hopeless, especially this klutz here!”

She’s not gonna add that they’re still pretty hopeless, because Riku’s version of “making them learn” was to make faces at them and try to coach them through about one meal per visit. The weeks between visits—back when those were regular events—proved long enough for Kairi and Sora to completely forget everything Riku showed them.

“Ah, I see,” and Kakashi chuckles. “Do you always listen to my nephew?”

“Most of the time,” Sora says, folding his hands behind his head. “Riku’s always got good ideas. Hey, are we getting close? I’m pretty hungry.”

“Let’s stop for a snack,” Kakashi says, and takes them to a place that sells noodles in broth, with a bunch of different flavors and toppings.

It seems more like a meal than a snack to Kairi, but Kakashi waves at them to sit, and the big man behind the counter smiles at the two kids before eyeing Kakashi.

“You aren’t replacing my favorite customer now, are you?”

Kakashi shakes his head, laughing nervously. “No! No, of course not! These are friends of my nephew.”

At that, the man is all smiles. “Oh! Well then. I can’t say I see Riku that much, but he’s always been pleasant. Friends of his are welcome here.”

Sora and Kairi exchange a look; in all their lives, they’ve never heard an adult call Riku pleasant before, not even his mom. Not because he’s unpleasant, necessarily, just… He’s confident, full of ideas and plans, always thinking through things even though he’s not really thoughtful. He’s clever, and too much for the Islands, and most of the adults don’t like that much.

Plus, Riku has what their teachers call an “attitude problem,” and a “backtalking problem,” and Kairi doubts either of those went away when he moved to Konoha.

The man sets them all up with “miso ramen,” which is salty and delicious; Sora orders some “beef ramen” while Kairi goes with chicken, for variety. They sample each other’s bowls and decide that Sora’s is definitely the best. Kakashi starts making noises like he’s gonna hustle them out before they can order a third round when the flaps behind them part and someone steps inside, panting.

Kairi turns to look, curious, and sees Riku in his ninja getup for the first time.

It’s unmistakably Riku, even though he has a mask like his uncle’s, black to the man’s navy. His metal plate is where it usually is, pushing his hair out of his face, and as usual, a few silver strands have escaped near his temples. A bandana covers the rest of his hair.

His shirt is a faded gold color, much less vibrant than the yellows he preferred on the Islands. Long sleeves that Kairi instantly envies tuck into his gloves, also black with dull steel plates on the backs. His pants, too, are black, a shock of white on his thigh where he’s wrapped bandages and tied a weapons-pouch. It isn’t the only one, either—Kairi spots two more pouches on his belt, a lot more prepared than his grandpa gave him credit for.

She can’t say the same for his shoes; her toes would mutiny if she wore sandals in this chill, but somehow, his haven’t frozen off yet. Unlike some of the other ninja Kairi’s passed, Riku doesn’t have bandages wrapping his pants tight at the bottom—he has little buckles, a miniature belt around each ankle.

Mostly, he looks like a Halloween ninja costume, but she recognizes him by his eyes, and the pearl necklace hanging around his neck. Unable to help herself, she laughs, tries to cover it with her fist and only succeeds in grabbing Sora’s attention.

Sora recognizes Riku, too. He falls off his barstool in laughter.

///

“Maa, I was just bringing them to you,” Kakashi says, defending himself for the eighth time as Riku stomps along, leading Kairi and Sora to his apartment.

Riku’s having none of it. “You should’ve brought me to them. I was just training.”

“You were officially training,” Kakashi corrects. “With your superior officer.”

“Who gave me permission to leave as soon as I explained the situation!”

“Which was generous of him,” Kakashi says, “and not required.”

Riku’s eyeroll and silence speak for him. He would have walked out of training; he knows it, Kairi knows it, Kakashi knows it. Kakashi came to get Kairi and Sora without telling Riku for precisely that reason, and not only does Riku not appreciate it, he’s mad at his uncle.

“As soon as you heard they were here,” Riku says, stubborn and seething, “you should have told me.”

So,” Sora cuts in, “who do you work for now? I thought you were at the hospital.”

It sounds like Riku isn’t there anymore, which makes no sense; Riku always sounded happy and excited about working there, no matter how gross or tiresome the job sometimes was.

But Riku doesn’t look like a medical student, and he showed up sweaty and out of breath at the ramen stand.

“Technically, I still work for the Hokage,” Riku says, sidestepping like he keeps doing to all Sora’s questions. Then he catches Sora’s face falling and his own shoulders sag. “I’m in the courier corps now. I’m basically a delivery boy.”

Kairi blinks at him. “That sounds important.” Couriers on the Islands are allowed everywhere; they bring news of pirates’ movements, letters to and from the pirate hunters, and trade deals between the leaders of various Islands, on top of the regular mail.

Riku shrugs. “It’s boring, so far. All I’ve done so far is stamina and endurance training.” He turns to include his uncle in his next statement, more grudging than Kairi’s heard him since the last time a teacher assigned him detention: “Takashi says I can start training with the other new kids by the end of next week, though, if I keep it up.”

Kakashi hums. “And you’re going at a healthy pace?” His one eye seems to bore into Riku, even though the rest of his face doesn’t so much as twitch. Then he breaks out in a smile, his eye crinkling shut. “Of course you are! Someone with medical experience wouldn’t push himself too hard, after all.”

Sora opens his mouth but shuts it again and looks at Riku. “Are you pushing yourself too hard?” His voice is quiet when he asks, but despite the bustle of the street around them, Kairi can hear him fine.

Riku can, too, by the flash of guilt that crosses his face, quickly replaced with a grin. “Nah, of course I’m not. I know my limits.” And he casts a hard look at Kakashi, though whether it’s for doubting Riku or for upsetting Sora, Kairi can’t tell. There’s a tension between them she can’t quite place; Riku was one of the few kids who never got grounded, really, who always got along with his mom.

(She thought he was close to his uncle, but on reflection, Kakashi didn’t feature in many of Riku’s stories after Riku’s first trip back home, did he? Almost like Kakashi left the village when Naruto did, without regard for the nephew he left behind.

That…changes things.)

Besides, Riku’s lying about pushing himself too hard. She files that away for now. (This is a fact-finding mission.)

“Why’d you decide to switch?” Kairi asks, leaning into Riku on the opposite side from where Sora’s still giving him worried looks. (Leaving no place for Kakashi to eel into.) “I thought you liked the hospital.”

Another shrug. “I did, but my—boss, I guess—she said I couldn’t stay. I’m not good enough with chakra.” And Riku gives a self-deprecating laugh that Kairi hates. “Not that that’s news. It doesn’t matter for courier work, anyway—most of that’s just running, and I’m good at running.” The smile he flashes at that is more genuine, although not carefree; Kairi bites back a frown in response.

There are worry lines between his eyebrows. New ones.

Sora is carefree when he declares, “You’ll be the best they’ve ever seen!”

In response, Riku gives the first sincere smile Kairi’s seen from him yet. “That’s the plan.”

They make it to Riku’s apartment—which he shares with Naruto, except Naruto hasn’t been in the village since Riku’s first visit back to the Islands, so all that means is Riku has to water some houseplants and can’t change the furniture.

The building isn’t in great repair; the handrail is rusty in places, the steps worn in the middle, though not so bad they’re unsafe. As they pass each floor, Kairi looks down the hall from the landing. The doors and windows look neat, without trash or litter, for all that most of the paint seems peeled or faded. Nothing looks broken, just old and rundown.

Kairi and Sora trudge up the steps; Riku shows off, going all the way to the top and then back down to meet them three times, all without body flickering.

Kakashi shows off more by being inside waiting for them when they arrive.

“Take your shoes off here,” Riku says; Kairi makes a face at Sora’s mismatched socks, but the boy just shrugs, unselfconscious, so she lets it go.

Her own socks are a faded pink and, honestly, she’s lucky they don’t have holes. If Riku ever mentioned not wearing shoes in the house, she doesn’t remember it. (Then again, on the Islands, most people wear sandals they kick off as soon as they get in the door anyway; this just doesn’t feel the same, though. For one thing, Konoha is cold and Kairi’s not a fan of the way her feet are losing heat to the floor.)

Riku’s place is cute, but small. He barely has enough chairs to seat everyone, and once he gets Sora and Kairi sitting, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. He tries to offer lunch, but they just ate; his stomach grumbles and his cheeks go red, and then redder at Sora’s raised eyebrows and Kairi’s giggle.

With an air of wounded pride, Riku grabs a fruit off a bowl on the counter and bites into it as he settles into the third chair at the little table. (Kakashi perches on the bench to side, under a window and with the scroll Chiriku gave them out, like he isn’t eavesdropping on them. Kairi pretends to ignore him, inwardly frowning.)

“So…” Sora says, into the empty air. “Uh. Surprise?”

Riku grins around the fruit, licking the juice off his fingers. Kairi frowns at that, too, more for the squirmy feeling in her stomach and less for his lack of table manners. (Does he not have napkins or towels…?)

“Some surprise,” he says, and he’s still grinning. “You two came all the way here? On your own?”

“Well,” Kairi temporizes. “One of the monks at the temple brought us here. We’d have gotten lost, otherwise.”

Riku nods at this, while Sora adds, “His name’s Sora, too! He had some pretty cool stories.”

“It took us over a day,” Kairi says. “I can’t believe you’ve been going that far every time you come home.”

For a second, Riku falters, mouth tugging down at the corners. He rallies quickly, so quickly even Sora doesn’t notice. “It doesn’t take me more than a couple hours,” he tells them.

On the bench, his uncle makes a small humming sound, turning a page in his book. It could be innocent, except Riku hesitates again and clams up.

Sora, oblivious, says, “It’s still really far. And the trees are so big! And it’s so cold. Oh, hey, that reminds me, we have a present from your grandma.”

Riku oohs and ahhs over the present, running a hand over the warm blanket when Sora exclaims about how soft it is. He dutifully inspects Kairi’s new knife, too, and with a sideways glance at his uncle, says, “Maybe I can show you how to use that later.”

Kakashi offers, “The Third Training Ground is free today.” A pause. “And the Forty-Fourth.”

Riku narrows his eyes at his uncle. “The Forty…? Wait, isn’t that—Kakashi!” He splutters; Kairi genuinely doesn’t believe she’s ever seen Riku splutter before. “I can’t take them there!”

Sora perks up at that. “Why not?”

Kakashi’s eye creases into a smile. “It’s also known as the Forest of Death.”

Sora deflates, pouting as he realizes Riku’s uncle just teased them all. Not a nice, friendly tease, either.

“The Third Training Ground isn’t bad,” Riku says, pointedly turning away from Kakashi. “It’s a bit of a walk, but if you don’t mind that…”

“You can tell us stuff along the way,” Kairi says, and that’s what they do.

///

Kakashi goes with them.

He turns out to be both a looming presence and a font of information, such as when he lets slip that Riku hasn’t been allowed to leave the village for the last month, “And you were busy with your Exams before that…”

Of course, Kairi and Sora latch onto that. They’re not supposed to know anything about the Chuunin Exams, and honestly, Riku hasn’t told them much. At first, he seemed opposed to the whole idea of them, since kids fought kids and all the battles ended in severe injury or death. Later, when he first floated the idea of participating, he talked about them like his first impression was just an exaggeration. They’re dangerous, he’d admitted, so I’ll have to be really good before I try.

It’s pointless and dangerous, but it’s important to Riku. (It’s the Ninja Problem all over.)

“Is that why you didn’t come back for so long?” Sora asks. “Because of your Exams?”

Riku shakes his head, looks away. (Classic guilty Riku; next, he’ll clench his fists—and there he goes, shoving them in his pockets to hide the tell. Riku’s strongest emotions are always written on his face and body, even when he thinks he’s being so sneaky.) “It wasn’t just that. I…” He breaks off, swallows. Says, “Can I tell you when we get to the training ground?”

“Of course,” Kairi says, and the way Riku’s eyes flash over to her, gratitude spilling over his face even before Sora chimes in with his agreement, tells her it’s something about her. She waits for him to look away again before she bites her lip, hands in her own pockets so he won’t see how her nails dig into her palms.

If Riku’s absence has to do with her, Kairi will fix it, even with his uncle watching everything, even in this strange city with its buildings all twisted around the trees, no salt in the air and a constant thrum of conversation just out of intelligible earshot. Even behind this city’s miles-high wall.

///

They get to the training ground in good time; the sun has just begun to dip toward the horizon. Riku leads them off the path and through yet more trees, until they reach a clearing bordered by a river.

Riku takes them all the way to the edge of the water and sinks onto a rock, folding his legs beneath him. Kairi joins him on one side, tucking her feet as well; Sora, on the other, just tugs his shoes and mismatched socks off, rolls his pants up, and lets his feet dangle in the water.

Kairi waits, gives Riku time to collect his thoughts. Sora hums tunelessly, splashing his feet and glancing at Riku sporadically.

Finally, Riku sighs and reaches up. Kairi’s worried he’s about to take off the necklace (The Necklace: it might as well be the only one that exists) and offer it to her, but instead he just wraps his hand around it and says, “Kairi.” He sounds more serious than she’s ever heard him. “I need to apologize. I—I didn’t mean to, but I lost your necklace, and I couldn’t go back to the Islands and face you after that.”

Her eyes drop, briefly, to his closed fist resting just below his throat. He swallows, and she pulls her eyes back up to meet his.

“I got it back,” he says, in explanation, “but it took a long time, and I didn’t know that it would happen. I was a coward. I was too afraid to go back and tell you what happened, and I’m sorry.”

It takes a moment for Kairi to find her voice. “I forgive you,” she says, and feels a stab of indignation at the relief that washes over him. “Riku. Of course I forgive you. I would’ve forgiven you even if you hadn’t gotten it back.” She bites her lip before she says, The necklace doesn’t matter, what matters is that you’re okay and you aren’t angry or bored or done with us.

Riku glances at Sora, tentatively, and Sora lets out a gusty sigh. “I’m not mad at you either, dummy. Even if you did make us worry about you for months while you were perfectly fine, you jerk.”

“Well,” Kakashi says from behind them, and then coughs, and Kairi’s already looking at Riku, so she sees the look of panic shoot over his face before he slams a blank expression up.

Kairi’s eyes narrow. “Riku,” she says, warningly.

Riku flushes. Says nothing.

Sora glances from her to Riku, then takes a different tack and turns around in his seat to face Kakashi. “Riku hasn’t been okay?” he asks, and Kairi can hear the big wet eyes and wobbly lip in his voice.

Kakashi, unlike Sora’s parents, is immune; he says, “I’m afraid I have some things to take care of. It was nice to meet you. I’m sure I’ll see you again before you leave. Later, Nephew!”

Then he disappears.

Riku’s shoulders slump as Sora turns the puppy eyes and boo-boo lip on him, in conjunction with Kairi’s steely gaze. “Look, I’m fine now, can’t you two leave it?” At their clear, unspoken refusals to leave it, Riku sighs again and says, “Fine, fine, I’ll tell you, stop looking like that.”

///

“I’m telling your mom you almost got killed by a kraken,” Sora says, still smug to be proven right about something.

Kairi elbows him. “Don’t worry, Riku, we won’t be telling anyone back home anything. Will we, Sora?”

Sora pouts at her, but Kairi glares back and he surrenders. “Fine, I won’t say anything. Except I told you so. Because I did, and I was right! I was probably right about Santa Claus, too, just you watch.”

Kairi lets that argument happen; it isn’t serious, and makes the boys feel better. While they snipe back and forth, Riku intersperses instructions on how she should stand, how she should hold her knife, how she needs to move with it.

“I’m not the best teacher for this,” he says, after the fifth time she’s failed the first lunge he tries to show her. “Academy students here learn how to use knives, but I skipped most of that.”

The face he makes when he says the part about students gives Kairi hope. It’s an unhappy face; disapproving, even. Kairi makes a thoughtful noise and asks, “Well, of course you did. You were thirteen when you started, and they were, what, ten?”

“Six,” Riku says, and that face is back, is worse. Then he shakes his head and says, “Let’s try the move without the knife, first, and see if that helps.”

Kairi sheathes the knife at her hip, where Riku adjusted how the sheath hangs until her skin fairly buzzed and his expression went from determined to satisfied. She repeats the movement without it. Riku steps into her, corrects her elbow placement, nudges her feet into better positions. It’s clinical, professional, but Kairi’s breath catches anyway.

Her eyes flash to Sora, and he shoots her a grin and a thumbs-up behind Riku’s back. Kairi waits for Riku to move behind her and mouths you’re next to Sora, which makes him go pink and wide-eyed.

Once she’s gotten the lunge down to Riku’s satisfaction even with the knife in hand, she innocently suggests that Sora learn, too, and Riku falls on this suggestion with such obvious pleasure that Sora’s protests die on his lips. Kairi can see the moment he gives up and accepts his fate; his blush goes from dusty to distinct, and Riku even lays the back of his hand on Sora’s forehead, feeling for a fever.

Sora’s splutters—unlike Riku, Kairi is very familiar with Sora startled and flailing—and claims that he’s fine, really Riku, all fall on skeptical ears, but Riku gets him into position and then demonstrates the lunge, moving Sora around just like he did Kairi.

The tips of Sora’s ears are gonna turn red permanently, Kairi thinks. When Sora casts a pleading look at her, she just mimics his thumbs-up.

Somehow, Sora—who has much more experience with weapons than Kairi does—messes up the movement so badly that Riku has to puppet him through the motions, barely an inch away. Kairi’s eyes narrow; if that was on purpose, it’ll put Sora dangerously in the lead, and if it was accidental, she needs to step in before Sora dies from embarrassment.

Besides, the sun’s barely orange on the horizon. “I think it’s dinnertime, boys.”

Riku breaks away with one last pat on Sora’s shoulder. “I think you’ve got it now, anyway,” he says, warm approval in his voice, and Sora swallows before grinning back.

///

Riku shows them how to make ramen. “The ramen shop makes their own noodles,” he says, “but that’s a lot of work. Most people just buy ‘em, but you won’t be able to on the Islands.”

“You could bring us noodles,” Sora points out, “and we could do the rest.”

Ramen doesn’t seem too hard when Riku does it, and Kairi seconds Sora’s promise just to see Riku’s face light up a little. He’d…really been worried about them being mad, huh. Her especially. Stupid boy.

Riku starts to set them up with sleeping bags in the dining room, after they clean and put away all the dishes.

“Where are you gonna sleep?” Sora complains. “It’s not a sleepover if you’re in a different room!”

Riku hesitates, and then shows them the bedroom, with a bed gathering dust and a mattress on the floor.

Kairi puts her foot down. “That can’t be good for your back,” she says, repeating what her mom tells her when she falls asleep on the couch. “And there’s a bed right there.”

“It’s Naruto’s bed.”

“He’s not using it,” Sora says, ruthless. “I don’t think he’d mind.”

Riku’s expression says maybe Naruto would, which lowers Kairi’s estimation of the boy.

“Besides,” she adds, “it’s not like he’s coming back tonight. He doesn’t have to know.”

The look on Riku’s face now says that he thinks Naruto would know, somehow, but either they get through to him or he just gives up on fighting, because he says, “Fine, fine, let me…swap out the comforter.”

Naruto’s bed is big enough for a single person, but a tight squeeze for three. Kairi doesn’t mind. She changes into her pajamas in the bathroom while the boys change in the bedroom, and then she and Sora get Riku settled in between them.

Riku isn’t squishy enough to make a good body pillow, but with his grandma’s fluffy blanket draped on top, that doesn’t register. Kairi drops off to sleep nearly as quickly as Sora.

///

Riku gets nightmares. She’d known, of course, but she hadn’t seen, not up close.

He doesn’t cry out or anything. Just goes ramrod-tense, sweating profusely, face twisted up in distress.

Sora wakes and notices before Kairi. His own face is tense and unhappy, uncertain what to do. Kairi watches Riku for a long minute, then grabs a fistful of the blanket and brings it up to Riku’s face—not pressing in to smother him, but hopefully near enough that he can smell the Islands on it.

Sora slips off the bed, goes for their backpacks, comes back with a couple shirts they haven’t worn yet. They don’t smell like much to Kairi, but she doesn’t have Riku’s nose.

It doesn’t seem to be working right up until it does, Riku relaxing sweetly as he slips into real sleep, the lines on his face smooth and his body sinking into the bed.

Sora and Kairi have a quick conference in the bathroom, where they won’t wake Riku up.

“Think that happens every night?” Sora asks, concern all over his face. “Or was it because of us?”

Kairi winces. “We can’t ask.” It’ll just make Riku feel awful, and he won’t give them a straight answer anyway. If it’s because of them, he won’t want to say and hurt their feelings; if it’s a normal occurrence, he knows they’ll worry, so he won’t tell them that, either. “I don’t think he gets them on the Islands, or at least, not as much.”

That makes Sora’s expression turn hopeful. “So maybe we can talk him into coming back with us?”

Kairi dashes those hopes. “He can’t, remember? He has orders to stay here.” And she knows she’s scowling as she says it; this is the Ninja Problem, and it’s hurting Riku. Now that he knows he won’t hurt Sora like he did before, he shouldn’t have any reason for nightmares. And yet.

“Oh.”

“Maybe he’ll be able to come soon,” she says. “And stuff from the Islands seems to help. His birthday’s coming up. We could get him more things.”

Everything Sora’s piled on Riku is somewhere in the apartment: the photo album is on the nightstand next to the alarm clock, the shark-tooth bracelet laid on top. One of the blankets Sora got for Riku before is draped over the mattress where he usually sleeps, the others doubtlessly folded away somewhere in whatever storage the tiny apartment has. A handful of other knick-knacks are scattered throughout, a pooka-shell necklace flung over the top of the mirror, a few carved figures lined up atop a different cabinet in the corner of the room.

The bed, when Kairi surveys the room critically, was the last unconquered vestige of the long-absent Naruto. Even the walls have photos of the Islands and medical diagrams pinned up alongside posters of noodles.

She’s not sure how many more things they could realistically fit into this space, but, well, that’ll be Riku’s problem. And if he has nightmares now, with this much, surrounding himself completely with objects and memories from the Islands might be the only solution. (Besides leaving the ninja city and all its problems behind, but he won’t go for that. Not yet.)

“Let’s go back to bed,” she tells Sora quietly, and they do. Riku barely stirs as they rejoin him, and he doesn’t slip back into nightmares for the rest of the night.

///

The Ninja Problem is worse than she thought.

She knew Riku was traumatized. She knew the ninja weren’t dealing with it. She hadn’t realized they were making it worse. She doesn’t know what else it could possibly be, that Riku threw himself into some stupid test so hard it nearly killed him. Twice! He could have died twice, and she would’ve never seen him again.

Would the ninja even tell them what happened, if Riku is ever killed? They haven’t exactly kept anyone on the Islands informed about his injuries, not even the serious ones. Will Kairi have to wonder and worry after every visit whether it’ll be the last?

On the other hand, Riku’s now looking trapped in a way she caught glimpses of, back on the Islands. Stuck behind these walls, nowhere to go. Kairi mentally kicks herself—she should have gotten a plan lined up to bring Riku home on this trip, instead of thinking of it as an information-gathering mission. She should’ve realized the long silence meant something bad had happened and Riku would be ready to listen to her.

Now, nothing’s ready, and even if she asked, they couldn’t take Riku. Not if he’s not allowed out of the village. Not without a getaway strategy.

(Kairi’s seen the route from the Islands to the temple to the village. Her memory’s not the best, but she’s sure Riku has that path memorized. If she can figure out how to smuggle him past the walls, they could make it.

She’d rather get Riku back home and burn the bridge behind him, even if it meant never finding other worlds, than leave him here. Not just for his own sake—that too, of course, but also for her own, and Sora’s. Seeing Riku in pain breaks their hearts. She can’t stand it.)

She swallows. They can’t take Riku back with them; they’ll have to leave him here, with no guarantees that he’ll stay in one piece. He won’t be at the hospital anymore, either—no, now he’s going to be running around all over the place, into Valefor only knows how much danger, and they can’t do a single thing to help.

Over breakfast the next morning, Kairi reaches across the table and grabs Riku’s hands. “You’ll stay safe, won’t you?”

He looks her right in the eye, caught off guard, and says, “Of course I will.”

She nods, squeezing his hands, and lets go. “Okay.” Riku takes promises seriously; that was why he didn’t come back, because the necklace was a promise and he’d kind of broken it, by not being able to return it.

(Her necklace and that promise were more important than his feelings or Konoha’s enemies, though. That’s what really tells her that, when the plan is ready, Riku will say yes.)

///

Kairi and Sora make Riku show them more of the village. Every place he’s mentioned that they can remember, and a few that one of them recalls along the way. Riku feeds them things they can’t get on the Islands: dango and takoyaki and more flavors of ramen, all sorts of fruits and vegetables they’ve never seen before.

Finally, Riku says, “Isn’t it time you two headed home?”

It’s barely early afternoon. Kairi bites back a frown.

Sora whines, “Do we have to?”

Riku pulls him in and gives him a noogie, talking over Sora’s flailing and protests, “Yes, you have to go back. Your parents won’t let you stay here.”

Kairi lunges forward, throwing her arms around them both. Riku, not anticipating the attack, buckles and goes down, so they all wind up in a laughing, hugging pile on the ground in some forgotten corner of Konoha. Kairi gets a hand behind Riku’s head to keep him from banging it as he goes down, and then just…leaves her hand there. Riku’s hair is so long now, and soft.

While they’re still like that, the sun overhead casting shadows of leaves over Riku’s face, Riku says to the sky, “God, I missed you so much.”

“We missed you too,” Sora says, burrowing into his side, one hand wrapped around Riku’s shoulder while his other hand finds Kairi’s free hands and tugs it over to lay atop Riku’s heart.

Kairi nudges one of Riku’s legs so she can more comfortably lay on top of him. Unlike when they’ve slept over at each other’s houses in the past, she’s the one starfished on top, rather than Sora.

Riku keeps her in place with an arm around her hips, solid and comforting; he’s got an arm around Sora, too, his big hand splayed out on Sora’s back, between his shoulder blades. Keeping them close.

///

When they do leave, Kakashi escorts them to the temple. If he knows about the scrolls they each have, he doesn’t mention it.

(The scrolls each have a brand-new set of knives and a first aid kit sealed into them, and Riku made them practice sealing and unsealing until he was sure they had it down. This way, their parents won’t freak out and they’ll be able to keep up their target practice even though Riku’s visits are going to be sporadic for a while.)

Monk-Sora spots them as they get close to the temple and comes out to see them, shooting suspicious looks at Kakashi all the while. He can’t go to the bridge with them, so they say goodbye again at the gate to the temple, and then walk to short distance to the bridge.

“Take care, now,” Kakashi says, waving as they start to head across.

“It was nice meeting you!” Sora calls back, and Kairi smiles and waves.

(Her plan is gonna need some work. She runs a hand along the railing of the bridge. It looks solid, but it’s wood. Now she knows what she’s up against.

She’s not gonna let the Ninja Problem eat Riku whole.)