The Jump Chain

World 7: Star Trek TNG – Episode Two

A Conclusion Devoutly to be Wished – Episode Two

GOD & THE STARSHIP

Previously: Episode One – Across the Great Divide

Themesong: Bangarang by Skrillex

Over the next two years, I spent my time rebuilding my networks and trying to deal with Q’s not infrequent visitations. He’d swing by for a little banter and mockery, and sometimes I’d lose an hour or two and find myself oddly… languid? Lethargic? In the shower trying to recall why I was washing up in the middle of the day.

Regardless, it couldn’t have been too worrying on a cosmic scale and, after the fifth time it happened and the records showed nothing and the scans showed that I wasn’t suffering any neurological dysfunction, I set it aside. I had too much to do and far too little time to do it in to be worrying about the occasional lapse of memory. From overseeing Lewis Zimmerman’s work on the Emergency Medical Hologram program in my role as the Federation’s head of Technological Counter-Espionage (i.e. the group in charge of ensuring that cutting edge technology doesn’t end up being sold to our enemies… or even our allies), to overseeing the installation of the Warp Engines aboard Enterprise-D, the first of my Galaxy Class Cruisers… and arguing with the warhawks in the Admiralty who wanted to convert my design into Dreadnaughts (the difference between a Federation Cruiser and a Federation Dreadnaught is a centrally located third warp nacelle designed to cope with the higher energy draw of the spinal laser and to keep the warp bubble stable through more intense combat operations.)

It’s important to point out here that, for all the “We Come In Peace” mentality of the Federation Creed, the Federation (and the Vulcan Exploration Fleet that had come before it) had always believed in what the people of twentieth century Earth would have called “Bigger Stick Diplomacy”… i.e. don’t start the fight, but be absolutely willing and able to end it. Federation Cruisers are hideously overweaponed for all that they carry science teams and families. Designed for long range patrols and exploration, they cruise for extended independent tours between resupply, and are thus tougher than the faster Romulan or Klingon Cruisers and faster than the more heavily armed Cardassian Warships. Kiloton for Kiloton, the Federation’s ships were the best in the sector, having (by best estimate) surpassed the heavily isolationistic Tholians sometime in the last two or three decades. 

Of course, what EssJay knew and S’Janus didn’t was that that technological superiority was soon to be challenged by the Dominion and the Borg, both to disastrous results. I, EssJay, had vivid memories of the wreckage of Wolf 359 and the destruction of Enterprise’s sister, the USS Odyssey, at the hands of a Jem’Hadar kamikaze. Armed with those memories, and the knowledge of a dozen other issues minor and major that would plague the USS Enterprise-D over TNG’s seven year run, I was tweaking the design specs of Enterprise right up until her shakedown cruise despite no longer officially being the head of the project. When a senior Admiral with a full century of technical experience says jump, the junior Admiral just nods and says “I don’t think the deflector dish cycle time can be reduced any further.” before being proven wrong. 

Now, I didn’t use all my best ideas… oh no. Couldn’t have that. Had to have stuff to fall back on when the Borg adapted as they always do or to implement after the Dominion’s spies stole the current state of the art, but I was already deep in 4D chess-master planning mode… or as close as I could get without my precog and with full knowledge that Q would probably screw at least some of my plans up in his efforts to tease Picard and teach humanity a lesson in humility. Of course, had he not, it’s likely the Federation would have been caught completely by surprise by the Borg and fallen as had so many others… so a mild (and snarky) ‘Thanks’ was probably in order there. But fuck it, I’m a Vulcan. We don’t do gratitude.

Like I said, I kept myself very very busy deep into 2363, though I did amuse myself by requesting recent Academy Graduate Ro Laren to become my flag ensign (i.e. scutmonkey / protege), much to the young woman’s confusion. Ro Laren was a Bajoran, the first to feature on TNG and known for having a giant chip on her shoulder that had, to the audience, grated as there wasn’t a clearly established reason for it in the show’s canon. In actuality, she’d had a damn fine reason to be pissed off, considering that Bajor was still occupied by the Cardassians, and the Federation was (apparently) faffing about not smashing Cardassia… but that’s what you get with an emergent plotline at the dawn of the transition from episodic tv to serialized tv (at least in primetime in the US… Babylon 5 had been the first to really do it, but DS9 had experimented with what would, by the time of shows like West Wing, Battlestar Galactica, and Farscape, become the clear future of televised drama in the world’s largest market.)

Anyway, in the original timeline, Miss Laren had been involved in a disastrous away mission and had gotten eight others killed, resulting in being court martialed and imprisoned before getting a second chance courtesy of Jean-Luc. I decided to short-circuit the tragedy and take her under my (often acerbic and occasionally deranged) wing and maybe avoid having her join the Maquis later on in life. If Picard saw promise in her, I wasn’t going to gainsay him… plus, in a rather amusing piece of linguistic humor, she was a repressed jumper… i.e someone who likes jumping on furniture, not a Jumper (someone who jumps from life to life and universe to universe)… but still… like calls to like as they say… I mean Ziggy loves jumping on things too!

Thus it was that, in early 2363, with Enterprise-D’s build finally complete, my party came on board to oversee her shakedown cruise. In addition to myself, my children (not Etrin), my staff (Ro and my flag LT. Stepan Miklosh / Uriel), and Ziggy, there was Dr. Leah Brahms (the head of the Warp Drive Design team) and Commander Gene Quinteros (the construction boss on the Enterprise-D itself), and four of Quinteros’s Bynar computer technicians… probably the same four who would (in a year’s time) commandeer the Enterprise as a mobile backup for their planetary supercomputer. Silly Bynars, putting all their digital eggs in one computronic basket.

In passing, on the shuttle ride over to Enterprise, I commented, “Zero One, doesn’t the pulse front from Sigma Trianguli’s Supernova reach your homeworld sometime in the next four-hundred standard solar?” 

Zero One, one half of the Bynar pair that included Zero Zero, nodded slightly. “It is as you say, Admiral.” The genderless being did not elaborate. Bynars are extremely loath to elaborate if they don’t have to, and tend to think in extremely binary logical patterns.

“Have you prepared adequate shielding for your planetary data-network?” I asked. “If there is any concern, perhaps we can loan you Enterprise as a mobile backup so you can shut down your system prior to the pulse… It might take some work, but I believe her computer cores can hold your network’s primary processes and memory for long enough for the wavefront to pass and your data-network to reboot.”

Quinteros blinked, then glanced to the Bynars. “Oh… of course! Starfleet would be happy to help your people. All you need do is ask.” He clearly wanted to ask the quartet why they hadn’t already requested assistance, but he was diplomatic enough not to raise the issue.

Ensign Ro, on the other hand, had less social niceties, and she whispered (not that quietly) to Stepan, “How does the Admiral know about the Bynar data-network’s vulnerability to a stellar pulse? How does she even know about the supernova? We don’t have any bases out that way… do we?”

Uriel / Stepan chuckled. “Ah. Young Padawan. It is best to remember that the Admiral knows everything.”

“If I knew everything, lieutenant, I wouldn’t need field agents. As it is, I’m wearing too many hats, but they’re hats that need to be worn,” I said as an aside, not looking away from where the Bynars were huddled, discussing our offer in their high frequency sonic bursts. I was relatively certain that they assumed that since the sound was inaudible to Vulcan or Human ears and their language unknown to the Federation that no one on the shuttle could comprehend what they were saying. Indeed, even they need databuffers to deal with the incredible informational overload their comms generate… which is why I had a portable computer core in my luggage. Well, one of several reasons. Trust but verify is a good watchword.

As it happened, they were entirely on the up and up and my offer seemed to have put the plan to borrow Enterprise on hold… I’m sorry. I should clarify. It put the Bynar plan to borrow Enterprise on hold. There was an entirely different plan to abscond with the fledgeling cruiser in the works, one that had very little to do with the Bynars and one which my people had entirely missed because, well, we were looking in the wrong place. That place would be the land of the sane. 

Unfortunately, the people plotting to steal the ship were not of that logically blessed ilk. No, they were far far from it. They called themselves the Brotherhood of Sybok and, as the name might imply, they were Vulcan fanatics. Hippy Vulcan Cultists who’d embraced the teachings of the mystic Sybok, elder half-brother of Spock, who had worshipped the godlike entity known as Sha Ka Ree and embraced the power of sharing trauma to ease the suffering of others. Of course, Sybok had been a nutbar, his therapy very much akin to telepathic brainwashing, and his God a malevolent entity trapped inside the Great Barrier surrounding a large section of the Galactic Core. 

Sybok had died in 2287 when he’d realized his mistake and sacrificed himself to ensure that the Enterprise could escape from Sha Ka Ree. These were details known to me, EssJay, as I’d seen the rather horrible Star Trek V: The Final Frontier more than once. S’Janus hadn’t given a tinker’s damn for the crimes of one deranged Vulcan. His cult, however, had not perished with him, as they’d been safely back on the homeworld, and in the fifty-six years since had only grown in numbers and lunacy.

Enterprise was eight days at warp 6 out of Mars obit, with Lt. Simian at the helm (he’s an orangutan, but I seem to be the only person who notices this fact), doing a stress test on the drive prior to a planned punch to 9.99 for as long as the system could take it, when every human and bynar on the ship’s bridge suddenly locked up, then began acting like they were being controlled by a single mind. At the same time, I felt an intense psychic pressure battering at my consciousness.

I resisted as long as I could, which wasn’t particularly long, but it was long enough for me to put the ship’s command systems into lockdown and the automated security into red alert. I felt a lurch as the ship dropped out of warp as I toppled over, my body bouncing off the navigation console as I lost consciousness. The last thing I saw was a fleeting image of a white robed Vulcan male laughing.

When I returned to my senses, it was nearly thirty hours later and I found myself not only strapped to a hoverchair but looking up at one of said cultists, complete with long shaggy hair and eyebrows that would have made a Mentat envious. He was far too close for comfort, or would have been had I not been Vulcan enough to ignore such petty concerns as ‘comfort’.

“You’re awake,” the madman said.

“And you have a gift for stating the painfully obvious,” I replied. “Why have you detained me?”

“We are the Brotherhood of…” he began, and proceeded from there. I won’t bore you with the details, which were far more detailed than I have recounted to you already, and which he stated with all the fervor of a true and deranged believer, spittle flying from his lips as if he were channeling Kenneth McMillan playing Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, and eyes that particularly wide and fixed look that comes from extreme drug use.

Once I was certain he’d finished, a process which took another five hours, I asked my second question. It was a repeat of my first.

“Why have you detained me?” Nonplussed, he blinked very slowly and was clearly considering if he’d have to repeat the entire screed again, but I preempted that crime against sapiency by clarifying. “Why, in particular, have you tied me up, lectured me, and do you actually think I’ll give you the lockout codes for the computers?”

“We have no need for your codes,” he (his name was Thulok) said. “We had one of our members install a backdoor before the ship even left Utopia Planetia.”

Well… shit. Good plan. Still, that left my primary question unanswered. “Why have you detained me?” I repeated a third time. “Since you clearly don’t need me to give you control over the ship.”

“All in good time, Admiral. All in good time,” Thulok chuckled in that particularly annoying way evil cultists have a tendency to use. And he launched into a reading from the book of Sha Ka Ree, lex 45, verses 12 through 81.

At first I tuned his preaching out… not that I really needed to. I’d read the book once in the last century and thus had it memorized, and instead turned my thoughts to escape… before it dawned on me what the theme of lex 45 was. In that particular section of the Book of Sha Ka Ree, there are two sisters who both set out from home to make their way in the world and to seek knowledge. One sister is worldly and seeks power and control, while the other sister is spiritual and seeks insight and enlightenment. Clearly, a representation of the Vulcan / Romulan schism. Finally, the two sisters face each other and, in true fairytale fashion, the materialist is defeated by the spiritualist.

Now, of course, it was entirely possible that the cultist had chosen that reading because he felt that his Brotherhood represented the enlightened sister and the Federation represented the worldly sister… but in that moment it dawned on me that, since this asshole was (and all his friends were) bugnuts insane, there might be a more immediately concerning meaning. More concerning for me personally.

I looked around myself, taking in the situation. I could, theoretically and given enough time, escape this predicament, but I didn’t think it was at all probable that I’d be able to emerge victorious this round if, what I was growing certain, was about to happen. Good thing I could, and was prepared to, cheat outrageously.

Saying a quick prayer that my friends and family would forgive me, I asked the cultist, “Is she already aboard?” and was rewarded with a wicked grin crossing his lips. “She’s torturing my children, isn’t she?”

“She is showing them the error of their ways,” he began, “but never fear. When we arrive at the Great Barrier, she has promised to sacrifice you to free our-” I assume the next word out of his lips was going to be god, but I guess I’ll never know, because at that point the 20 second timer on the bomb I’d surgically implanted in my own chest went off, causing a single gram of Iron to slam into its CT opposite. I disappeared in a crack of photonic energy, and, although I wasn’t there to see it, ten nanoseconds later, my erstwhile jailor would have died too… and then, perhaps as much as a second later, the Enterprise, no doubt travelling at Warp 9.99, would have come apart as its superstructure shredded by the 43 kiloton blast. Federation ships are insanely tough… but they aren’t really designed to have antimatter weapons explode within the center of the saucer section… note to self, reinforce the central bulkheads for… reasons.

****

“You’re awake,” the madman said.

“And you’re Thulok of the Brotherhood of Sybok,” I said, then used my tongue to activate the transceiver I’d had installed in my lower right bicuspid (it’s a tooth… humans have two bicuspids on each side… Vulcans only have one). We were in the same room we’d been in the last time I’d been here, the Interrogation Room. Yes, the Enterprise has one. It’s right near the brig and on the same deck as the main Shuttlebay… well, one of the two decks since the Main is huge. It does double duty as a courtroom for courts martial.

Thulok looked surprised that I knew who he was. He looked even more shocked when, a moment later, the vents began to expel a greenish vapor. It was a chemical that was incredibly toxic to Vulcans but only mildly nauseating to lifeforms who don’t have copper-based blood (no, I won’t tell you what it is). The same would, with any luck, be happening all across the ship as the replicators that had been triggered by my transceiver went into high production. I (and my children… and Ziggy) had all received an implant that produced the anti-toxin  the previous day in a brief surgery that had definitely not been on the books.

At the same time, the nanite packs I’d installed in the cuffs of my uniform released their loads of tiny machines, and my bonds released. I rose from the float chair and straightened my sleeves, then strode out of the room, passing the hideously asphyxiating guards that had been stationed outside without even a flicker of emotion. Popping a wall panel open, I retried the combat forcefield, the hand phasor, and my tricorder, then followed the ping on it to the captain’s conference room where I found exactly what I’d expected.

I might have installed anti-toxin packs on my family, but I’d also programmed my response to spare any chamber they were in. One of the advantages of a spaceship is that (if it’s designed well) all chambers are air tight and will maintain that state even in the face of hard vacuum unless there is, you know, structural damage. The same programming, not linked to the main computers, but hidden in the comms relays to maximize spread, had deactivated the paging system, meaning that the “enlightened sister” should have no idea I was coming, unless a guard had had the wherewithal to rush into the room where she was torturing my children, all while dying as his blood did much the same thing as iron blood does in the presence of cyanide gas, and alert her.  I was just hoping that the empathically sensitive Brotherhood Adepts wouldn’t want to be in the same room as that was happening.

It turns out I needn’t have bothered. The moment I opened the door, a disruptor blast took me in the chest… and bounced off my forcefield, and my responding shot took the bitch in the arm, blasting it off… yes, it’s true, the shows lie to you. Phasors do not cause the enemy to glow and then fall over. They’re energy weapons, they tend to (when set to kill) blow gorey holes in people. I wonder why that didn’t make it past the network censors.

The romulan, no doubt the same Tal Shiar agent as I’d faced back on Cardassia, gritted her teeth, then hit a personnel transport relay on her chest with her remaining hand and she was gone, no doubt teleporting to the warp capable shuttle that sensor records would eventually show departing the ship at high speed.

“Hi mom!” saved my daughter, looking up from the game of Starfarers of Catan she’d been playing with my nemesis. “Thank the Benefactor you’re here. She’s even more an alpha gamer than you are!”

Ziggy looked up from where he’d been chewing on a shoe, and wuffled. I bent and scratched his head. “Okay everyone… fun’s over, let’s get back to work.”

Strangely, on the bridge behind me, Lt. Simian was still at the helm, somewhat randomly but steadfastly returning us to our proper heading… on the plus side, I guess the stress test for the warp drives was a success.

I was just thinking that when the ship shuddered and Lt. Simian reported, “Admiral, we’re not slowing down. We’re being drawn into the Great Barrier!”

“It’s an illusion, Pongo,” I said, laying my hand on his shoulder. “The barrier is harmless.”

“But only one ship has ever passed through it and survived!” the helmsman complained.

“Two, actually,” I corrected. “Enterprise-A and the Klingon Bird of Prey Vahless under the command of Klaa. And both were unharmed by the passage in or out. But it seems we’ve unfinished business, so take us in.”

“Y… yes Admiral.” Enterprise soared into the barrier, and, as predicted, out the other side without harm… though since the barrier was a fear based thing, there were several screams from the recently freed skeleton crew, most of whom were busy cleaning up the dead bodies of the Brotherhood’s members.

Once we were through the barrier, the ship drifted to a stop near a glowing blue planetoid. It was a familiar sight, but not a welcome one.

“Oh dear. It seems God wants to have a talk with me…” I muttered, then turned to Uriel (Lt. Miklosh) and said, “Weapons ready, on my mark, fire a full spread of photon torpedos at the densest concentration of energy, then phasors on full. Helm, the moment we have control again, get us out of here, maximum warp. And don’t spare the-”

In that moment, a face appeared, swimming out of the blue haze. It was a face I felt I should remember, but for a moment I couldn’t place it… it seemed to be a family member, but I, S’Janus, had not known my biological family, being an orphan raised by the state, or rather in a foster home. Still, the face seemed to frighten me a little.

“Admiral?” Simian asked. “Don’t spare the what?”

“Thrusters, Pongo,” I said, shaking my head and chopping my hand down to signal Uriel. “Don’t spare the thrusters.” The ship rocked as the torpedo launchers went to full auto, ten at a time, then a surge of phasors from the main and dorsal arrays blasted that smirking face right in between the eyes… and we were away.

“Did we just shoot God in the face?” Ro asked, wide eyed.

“Just an imprisoned member of a race of cosmically powerful entities,” I corrected. “No matter how much it might claim to be God, it’s not. Maybe it might be a God, but that really depends on your definition. At best, it’s a trapped deity worshipped only by lunatics and fools. Now, if you don’t mind, please take us home.”

Next: Episode Three

Resources: BuildStar Trek TNG DocumentGeneric First Jump Document

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Level 2: Occult

2362 – 2363

  • 2362 – Warp Engines installed on Enterprise-D, Ro Laren graduates Starfleet Academy
  • 2363 – Enterprise-D completed and Commissioned, shakedown mission

World 7: Star Trek TNG – Episode One

A Conclusion Devoutly to be Wished – Episode One

ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE

Previously: Episode Zero – East is East

Themesong: In Time by Self Esteem

The year was 2360 and by the Earth reckoning, it was the middle of September when I returned to the Alpha Quadrant and the Vulcan homeworld. When I’d left, back in 2274, I’d been a relatively young Vulcan at sixty-seven standard years old. I’d been a Commander with a sterling record, and I’d been serving as Potemkin’s Chief Medical Officer for two and a half years.

Now, eighty-six years had passed and S’Janus’s life had not ended the moment I’d left. Not even a little bit. I/She had spent another thirty-nine years in the fleet, making Captain in 2279, and being given command of USS Ascelpus, a medical frigate and first of her class. I’d done good work there and provided substantial humanitarian aid on dozens of occasions.

In 2291, after twelve years in rank, and three years teaching medicine at the Academy, I’d been promoted to Commodore and been given command of Starbase 4077, nicknamed Hawkeye. It was located in the Sol Sector, and was a plum assignment to be certain, but the job was extremely dull, so deep inside the Federation. Still, I was nothing if not professional, and as a Vulcan, boredom was irrelevant.

Rather than succumb to the monotony of the task put before me, I used the seven years on Hawkeye to write a number of texts on a dozen topics ranging from quantum theory to trauma medicine to the anatomy of giant space fauna. I also wrote and published (under the pen-name of Sunny James) a series of novels for young adults about the adventures of Ziggy, a ferret given command of the USS-Wolverine, a deep space federation scout ship. Sigmund T. Ziggy, who was just a ferret, and lacked such useful things as opposable thumbs or the power of speech, had nevertheless graduated third in his class at Starfleet Academy and managed, almost entirely through pure luck, to gain command of a starship. He communicated entirely in interpretive dance and silent wordbubbles, and the series (comprised at that point of nine books) had sold over two-hundred and fifty million copies and had been optioned for a media franchise, though nothing had materialized by the time I left Starbase 4077 in 2298.

The reason I left was because I was being promoted once again, this time to Rear Admiral and to Earth itself, where I assumed command of Starfleet Medical as the Surgeon General, which (despite the name) involved relatively little actual surgery. It was a five year post, and usually the last one in a medical officer’s career, as the general rule of militaries at command rank is up or out… in that in order to keep a progressively longer lived society from clogging up the upper ranks with ‘old’ fogies and to ensure that there would continue to be places for new people to aspire to, you retired your leadership before they actually became glued to their seats.

Thus, I was deeply astonished (or as much as a Vulcan can get) when, in 2302 (eight lunar months before my term was to expire), I’d been given another promotion (to Vice Admiral this time) and asked to assume the post of Medical Intelligence Director of Starfleet Intelligence. This position, the highest ranking medical officer in the entire federation, served on the Federation Council and set policy for medical security, a vital task for a nation spread across two dozen sophont species and a hundred worlds with multiple hostile nations bordering it.

Only knowledge that this document will never be read inside the Star Trek Universe allows me to commit to unclassified documentation what I am about to reveal to you. As the 24th century progressed, tensions between the Federation and the Romulan Empire began to surge as well, as the Federation slowly curled around the edges of the largely stagnant Empire. More than once provocation had been narrowly avoided but it was only a matter of time before those provocations became acts of war.

It was clear that, while the Imperial Senate didn’t really want a war, the captains of their fleet were practically gagging for one, and if nothing changed, a coup de main against the Federation would almost certainly follow the coup d’etat that would topple the Senate and install puppets in their place. Thus, a daring, and frankly insane, idea was hatched. 

History would recall the result of the conspiracy as the Tomed (toh-med) Incident, as it involved the terroristic crashing of the Romulan fleet flagship, the Ivarix-class warbird Tomed, into Starbase Foxtrot on the edge of the Neutral Zone. The Tomed, under the command of the extremist High Admiral Aventeer Vokar, smashed the base at high warp, where its singularity warp core destabilized, disrupting space-time throughout the sector. Dozens of asteroid bases and the starships USS Agamemnon and USS Tripoli were destroyed, with the Enterprise-B narrowly escaping. Tens of thousands died, and the Romulan Empire was publicly shamed.

Two months later, the Romulan Star Empire, the Klingon Empire, and the Federation all signed the Treaty of Algeron, where the Federation officially foreswore any research into cloaking technology while the Romulans agreed to recall all diplomatic missions and citizens, then withdraw their forces behind their borders, effectively isolating themselves from the astro-political arena indefinitely.

All that is public record… and much of it is fiction. In reality, the only fatalities of the Tomed Incident were Vokar and his five senior officers, and they were all dead by the time the Tomed impacted Starbase Foxtrot. Similarly, everyone on the Agamemnon and Tripoli were deceased, and everyone assigned to the asteroid bases, and to Starbase Foxtrot itself, were similarly either fictional or predeceased.

The entire process took an incredible amount of coordination… and secrecy. As Director of Military Intelligence, it had been my department’s job to slide over ten thousand deaths quietly off the records. It took three and a half years, years in which accidents that resulted in fatality were misrecorded as recoverable, where sicknesses, suicides, and catastrophes were harvested for entire families that could be vanished from the books and reassigned to Foxtrot sector, with existing personnel being shuttled back to more important and less doomed positions in the rest of the Federation. 

As for Agamemnon, a core inversion had flash-killed the entire crew after a blackhole had collapsed into a pinpoint quasar near the Tholian expanse. Tripoli’s crew had been driven insane by, of all things, a telepathic nebular mass, and although the Enterprise-B had managed to destroy the threat, the crew of the Tripoli (as well as a baker’s dozen civilian ships) had already perished. With the help of automation and a staff of gig writers who never knew who they were writing to, Starfleet Intelligence emptied the already sparsely populated sector and repopulated it with the dead.

And so, at the ripe old age of a hundred-and-four, I helped perpetrate a war-crime and framed a dead man who’d had dreams of conquest for mass murder. Three years later, in 2314, I turned over the Medical Directorship to my successor and retired from Starfleet, returning home to Vulcan where I joined the Academy of Sciences and began working on transwarp theory.

That fact was enough to cause me to pause my review of the past I’d both missed and experienced. Transwarp theory should have been exceptionally obscure, and there were pretty much only three reasons I (EssJay) could think of to want to study it in the first half of the 2300s; transwarp Drives, like the ones used by the Delta Flyer and Borg, transwarp communications like those used by the Borg, and transwarp transporters like those developed by Montgomery Scott in 2387 and again in the alternate reality of the Kelvin-timeline.

The problem with all of those is that having any clue that those were important and not the utter dead-end suggested by the failure of ‘The Great Experiment’ aboard the USS Excelsior in 2285 would have required S’Janus to know about the future history of the Star Trek Universe… but there was no indication that she’d retained any such knowledge. Rather than spend the intervening decades pushing advances in multiphasic shielding and phasors, bioscanners that might detect Changelings, or ways to stop the Romulan Sun, 128 Trianguli, from going Supernova, all tasks that might have helped shape the future in large ways, we’d dedicated almost thirty years to the study of an obscure and largely discounted field of study… and to raising sehlat, a highly intelligent ground mammal prized as pets by Vulcan children… effectively the equivalent of having a bear with 15cm fangs as a pet.

I’d also had, much to my surprise, three children… whose real names I will not record here because Vulcan names are effectively impossible to render into any human language, even using a Universal Translator (yes, names like T’Pau, Saavik, and even Spock are more in the nature of nicknames than actual ones), but they were named Gevik (born 3320), Genim (born 3331), and M’Tok (born 3338) to three different fathers, none of whom I’d been in long-term relationships with. M’Tok, the only girl of the three, was half-Betazed, while the other two were technically full Vulcan. I say technically, because Genim’s sire was a reformed Rehansu who’d refused to return to Romulus when the Star Empire had recalled its citizens. 

What’s spectacularly odd about this was that, despite evidence of having been impregnated at least three times… I had no memory of S’Janus ever having had sex. Never. In fact, I realized that, despite my clear knowledge that I, EssJay, had been molested as a child in my original timeframe… I had no memory at all of anything related to sex outside of a purely academic frame work. And even thinking about the mechanisms of reproduction made me a bit… queasy? Like a child who’d been given sex ed but who was too emotionally immature to put that knowledge to any use, good or bad.

Regardless, I might have remained comfortably ensconced in academia and research all the way up to 2360 and the moment of reinsertion… had it not been for the Cardassians. Beginning with their conquest and occupation of Bajor, only five light years from Cardassia itself, in 2319, and rising through their formal annexation of the planet in 2328, the formerly impoverished and republican Cardassians began transforming themselves into a totalitarian military dictatorship and began infringing on numerous systems already colonized by the races of the Federation… many of them human. 

By 2340, it was clear to me (S’Janus) that, unless something drastic changed in the very near future, conflict between the heavily expansionistic and conquestadory Cardassian High Command and the more peaceful but pioneering Federation and the always ready for a fight Klingon Empire would become unavoidable. Had I (EssJay) been present, we’d have known damned well that the war that was about to start would encompass just over twenty years of open conflict and almost a decade more of side conflicts. 

In 2347 the Federation-Cardassian War broke out and in 2354 the Betreka Nebula Incident initiated an undeclared conflict between the Cardassian Union and the Klingon Empire that would end (if everything played out as it had in canon) with the invasion of Cardassia by the Empire and Cardassia’s joining the Dominion. Hopefully I’d be able to do something to avert that… if I still remembered enough of the details. 

Regardless of my own future plans, S’Janus had returned to Starfleet in 2344, moving our family to Mars, where she’d taken the slot as Chief of Design at Utopia Planitia, where she began work on the Argus Class Scout Ship, Archer Class Runabout, and Galaxy Class Cruiser designs, in addition to the construction of the eighteen sections of the soon to be commissioned Argus Array… both scout ships and array being named for the mythological being Argus Panoptes, a being with eyes all over his body.

In 2357, with the Galaxy Class finally approved and the hulls being laid down for the first dozen, S’Janus had once again begun to drift back to theoretical physics, when the post of Provost at Starfleet Medical Academy opened up and she’d been pressured by long time friend Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy into taking the position.

This was to have long lasting ramifications as, during a medical conference in Beijing in late 2359, one where we’d been the keynote speaker, a Cardassian sympathizer had released a bioweapon that had killed three-hundred and eleven thousand before it could be contained. The conference, which had been attended by over 2/3rds of the faculty and student body of the Medical academy, had had a single survivor from among the nearly five thousand attendees, all of whom had been exposed in the initial blast.

Despite an immediate lockdown of the former Chinese capital city, the initial explosion had exposed nearly four million people, but like most contagions, the initial dosage was hugely important in terms of survival. Human, Andorian, Vulcan, Betazed, Klingon, Cardassian, Bajoran… it didn’t matter. The bioweapon blocked ATP receptors and the bodies started piling up. 

ATP, aka Adenosine triphosphate, is a precursor for DNA and RNA and is, more or less, what fuels biological processes in every known carbon-based lifeform, from muscle contractions to nerve impulses, from cellular reproduction to protein production. Without it, you die. Simple as that.

My children had been in Beijing. Two of them, Gevik and M’Tok, the oldest and youngest, had decided that they would spend the day at the Forbidden City, thirty-one kilometers from the symposium center. Genim, all of eighteen, the biological equivalent of twelve, had already decided to become a medical doctor like his mother, and so he’d insisted on attending what would have been dreadfully dull for anyone not a Vulcan. It was, in fact, dreadfully dull even for an eighteen year old half-Romulan as well, but four hours into the day, he’d shown no sign of surrendering to his growing fidgetiness, despite my numerous assurances that it would be entirely understandable if he wanted to do anything else.

We were just emerging from Dr. Hofforth M’k;nz’ik’s lecture on recombinant gene treatments for advanced neuro-muscular degeneration, a topic I had found, in the immortal words of Spock “Fascinating” when the convention center’s early warning bio-scanners started going off. The early warning bio-scanners I’d headed up development on more than sixty years earlier.

The warning was too little too late. An antigen was developed within a week, every survivor treated within ten days, and the entire city inoculated and stores of the antigen distributed within fourteen… but only I, of all the people who’d been in the convention center, had lived. No one could explain how, and I had not been in any fit state to help with the cure, as I’d been in a medically induced coma after the fiftieth hour. A condition I’d been placed in thanks to Doctor McCoy, at a hundred and forty-two, who’d risked his own life to enter the quarantine zone and take over the deathwatch. 

And it had been that. I’d managed to hold onto my Vulcan calm for the first day, taking samples and beginning the process of sequencing and characterizing the pathogen. But by the end of the first day, those hit hardest began dropping, their biosigns redlining despite our best efforts. Genim had been given priority in a medbed, despite the fact that there simply weren’t enough of them in all of Asia for the need. Replicators on a dozen starships and starbases were producing more as fast as they could, but a Medbed is not a simple thing and even an industrial replicator can only turn out ten of them an hour.  By the end of the second day we were seeing more than 40 deaths a minute.

Genim breathed his last in my arms, forty-nine hours, fifty-six minutes, and sixteen seconds after the alarm sounded. To say I went berserk is to put it mildly. Vulcans are creatures of logic not because we are inherently calm. We are creatures of logic because we have had to be to survive our own violent natures. The violence that lies at the heart of every Vulcan dwarfs that of the rage that fills humanity. We all too well understand the drive to mutual destruction that nearly wiped out Humanity in the Eugenics Wars, and that anger is at the heart of the divide between Romulan and Vulcan ideology to this day.

I had not slept in sixty-seven hours, I’d seen friends, colleagues, and students cut down by a cruel act of treachery, cut down in their primes, cut down for daring to maybe offer medical aid to Starfleet armed forces personnel. That the Cardassian High Command would later go on to condemn the attack as the action of a madman and offer reparations even in the midst of open warfare would not bring those people back… would not bring my son back.

So yes, I, S’Janus, was furious. I was also heavily infected, delirious, and a threat to everyone around me. Sedating me was the only correct call. I woke up nearly dead, nine days after the cure had been synthesized from my own system… the sole survivor of the Beijing Bioweapon, Phase 1.

My retreat into grief was understandable. My public statements supporting an intensification of the war? Less so, but still within the normal scope of behaviour for a grieving mother. My absolute fury at the idiots who’d taken command of the Medical Intelligence Directorate? My public, vitriolic, rage-filled diatribe on the floor of the Federation Congress condemning them as criminally negligent and demanding not just their removal but prosecution and incarceration? That might have been a little too far. Attempting to bludgeon Vice Admiral Merrideth Raner to death with the Federation banner? That was going a lot too far.

I was placed on medical leave indefinitely… and that was where I was, sitting in my office writing a very nasty letter to the editor of a news-site… when Insertion happened.

INSERTION

To say it was the roughest I’d ever experienced at that point would be meaningless, since at that point in my timeline I could not remember all my insertions. But from a point of remove (spoilers here for those who questioned if my chain would not continue past a jump I could only fail if I actually gave up? No. I didn’t) many hundreds of jumps further down the road, may I say that this was the worst Insertion to that point, and to this day remains one of the most intensely personal and traumatic. 

I, EssJay, was consumed in the grief of the moment, the intense sense of loss unlike anything in my framework… though later me would of course be able to compare it to more than one death of a child among the Manifest of the Maegi… but none of them had been so tragic. None of them had been so raw. The Maegi had been a supportive people. Vulcan culture is not supportive. It shuns grief like it shuns all emotionality. It shuns the illogic of survivor’s guilt, the sense of failure of a mother and doctor and bio-terrorism expert to protect her child from a disease spread by a madman.

Had I had my full capabilities at that time, who knows what kind of carnage I would have unleashed. Instead, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown… in the middle of already having a nervous breakdown. The joys of being a jumper, let me tell you.

Which made what happened next all the more infuriating.

See, I was not Genim’s only parent. To be certain, Etrin was not particularly involved in his son’s day to day life, but as much as any Vulcan male, he did care for his offspring… probably more so since he’d been born and raised Rihannsu. And, no doubt, because he’d chosen to be Vulcan, he approached being Vulcan with all the zealotry of a convert.

Thus, when he found himself unable to contain his grief and his rage… he did what any convert does when he believes he’s failed the test of his faith… He ran.

“Mother,” M’Tok said, coming into my office followed by her personal sehlat, Grunthos, “Uncle Etrin just borrowed the shuttle.” It was exactly seven minutes after Insertion.

“He did?” I asked, blinking, trying to sort through my paired emotions to focus on the riddle of why the eleven year old (approximately the equivalent of eight in human terms) had felt she needed to tell me that… and then realizing that she’d said the words rather than use telepathy… and remembering that my shuttle was, in fact a Starfleet semi-retired admiral’s shuttle, warp capable, and equipped with a military grade phasor array. 

Etrin, to be frank, was not a military officer. He hadn’t even been a Romulan military officer. He’d been a playwright. Still was, in fact. Romulan Dramas are awful. Vulcan Dramas are worse. Etrin? Was excellent at both. Brilliant. He almost made the fusion of the two tolerable to non-Vulcans.

He also drank too much Romulan ale and couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it. Frankly, it was the only thing that had made it clear he wasn’t a spy… or if he was one, his cover was so deep even he believed it. He’d even apologized for going all Pon-Farr on me after the act… not that I had any memory of it. That he’d apologized implied that it hadn’t been particularly consensual… but to be fair to males of the Vulcan/Rihannsu species, it’s not particularly consensual to them either.

Regardless of her ‘uncle’s’ little peculiarities, M’Tok just shrugged and climbed up on my lap and gave me a hug. After a moment she said, “You feel different.”

“I do?”

“Yes. like you remembered something important… can we have cookies while you yell at people?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why would I be yelling at people?”

“I dunno, but you’re gonna get very angry and do something rash,” the little girl said. “Can we have cookies?”

“We being?”

“Ziggy and me and Gevik if he’s not too busy being a dweep.”

“It’s pronounced dweeb,” I explained, then chuckled. Of course Ziggy had inserted as my daughter’s pet… the question was, where were the rest of my team? Was she one? There was only one member of my team who was a Betazoid, but she wasn’t a half-breed. “Is your name sometimes Francine?”

“Maaaaybe,” she singsonged. “If I say yes, can I have a cookie?”

“I can have the replicators decompile all the spoons you know,” I teased. That earned me a pout, not a confused look. Definitely Francine. “Zaaaaane!” I yelled.

“Whaaat?! I’m busy!” came a cry from elsewhere in the house. Since the only other person in the reasonably sized estate was Gevik, even if I hadn’t known my own son’s voice, I would have known who Zane had incarnated as. Of course, that was doubly confusing, since a) I wasn’t certain about how I felt having my best friend be my son… a son well over a century younger than me, and b)…

“Weren’t you going to be a Klingon?” I yelled back.

“I am a Klingon!” he shouted down from upstairs and then I remembered… well, S’Janus reminded the rest of me of our son’s little… obsession.

“Well, grab your batleth, strap on your battlegarb, and pack a bag. We’re going to find your uncle!” I picked up M’Tok. Although she was twenty-two (approximately the equivalent of sixteen for a half-vulcan half-betazoid) she was small, not to mention emotionally immature, acting like she was the human equivalent of twelve more often than not. Her brother was not small for his age (forty, roughly the equivalent in human terms of nineteen), and was quite muscular for a Vulcan and broad shouldered to boot… which meant that, since Vulcans are nearly 180% as strong as Humans and Humans are, kilo for kilo, about 20% stronger than Klingons, he was close to being three times as strong as the typical Klingon Warrior. In Vulcan terms, he was a meathead. Also, behaviorally challenged, since he had far too much emotionality for anyone’s comfort… S’Janus included.

“I’ll have the replicators get everything ready while you go pack for yourself and Ziggy,” I said, setting my daughter down, then picked up my communicator and pinned it to my blouse. I needed… hmm… “Computer, give me everything we’ve got on Bajoran smugglers… male or female.”

By the time lunch had been eaten and bags had been packed, I’d contacted Starfleet and told them to be on the lookout for my personal shuttle, then asked if they could send a ship to transport me to Starbase 66, the base closest to the conflux of Cardassian, Romulan, and Federation space. I’d also sent a coded message to every less reputable port of call I could think of or find in my Intelligence notes, looking for a piratical duo, one Bajoran, one Klingon Pirate.

It is a testament to how frazzled I was coming into all this that I hadn’t thought to pick a rendezvous spot, or ensure I even knew what names my people would be under. Were they overwhelmed with their own life histories? Zane had imported in Mass Effect, Harry Potter, The Elder Scrolls, and the original Star Trek… though his import into Mass Effect hadn’t had much in the way of memories to speak of… while AJ, Francine, Petra, and RayRay had only been to Harry Potter. Dyna had never imported before full stop, since she’d never had any interest in being human.

The problem ended up partially solving itself not too long after I realized it was a problem. A shuttle from the USS Excalibur arrived within the hour, piloted by one Ensign Stephan Miklosh, who saluted, then asked, “Well? How do I look? Would you believe that in this timeline, Red Shirts are Command, not security? Does that mean Yellow Shirt is the new Red Shirt?” Of course, he asked that with a russian accent.

“Uriel?” I asked. Only Uriel and Zane had been part of the idiocy of being the Redshirt of the week game last time and only an ensign who knew me personally would dare address a senior admiral, even one on the beach, so casually.

“Fresh from the midshipman’s course, Admiral!” he agreed. “I’m the shuttle crew chief for Excalibur. Captain Picard would like you to join him at your earliest convenience and says he’d be more than happy to transport you to Starbase 66.”

“Picard?” I asked. S’Janus knew of him only as a young captain who’d been court martialed over the loss of the Stargazer in the Battle of Maxia against an unknown alien vessel back in 2355. EssJay, of course, knew that he was to be the captain of the Enterprise-D and E, assuming the timeline remained largely intact. EssJay also knew that the unknown aliens were the Ferengi, though first contact with the little capitalistic assholes wouldn’t occur (officially) for four more years. What EssJay hadn’t known was what, exactly, Picard had done for the nine years between the loss of Stargazer and being picked for command of the Federation’s Flagship. The answer, apparently, was commanding the USS Excalibur (NCC-26517, an Ambassador, just like the Enterprise-C, lost with all hands in 2344 at the Battle of Narendra III). I wondered if he still had hair.

Getting up to the ship with my children (and Ziggy) in tow took a little over two hours, which was fine because Excalibur was still taking on supplies when we arrived. There I met up with Lt. Myor, the Caitian who served as third shift helmsman, and Lt. Commander Ajax Sandhurst, the weapons officer… or as I knew them, RayRay (who no one ever seemed to notice did the absolute bare minimum needed to fulfill her duties) and AJ (Who went so far beyond what was needed that he’d been promoted literally that morning despite being the only one of the three who didn’t have the Speedy Promotions perk.

Picard welcomed me aboard his ship, expressed his sympathies for my loss, and asked why I was taking my family so close to the war that had claimed my middle child’s life. Of course, he did all that diplomatically, but one doesn’t have to have a century of intelligence experience to know when one is being gently interrogated.

“My son’s father has borrowed my personal shuttle and disappeared,” I said. “I suspect he’s going to do something foolish. If I know the man, he’s heading towards Cardassian space, full of some romantic notion of avenging Genim.”

“I hope I’m not out of line when I ask if your goal is to stop him, rather than assist him in this hopeless cause?” the frenchman asked (and yes, if one listened, one could hear the Piedmontese French beneath the british of the universal translator… or the Wulnish Nightlands accented Vulcan that I was hearing. Universal Translators are fucking weird.

“Hopeless and helpless doth Etrin wend, but to procrastinate his liveless end,” I said, mostly quoting the Bard. “The agents of that deed are, to the best of my knowledge, deceased. I hold the current heads of Medical Intelligence and Internal Security more to blame than the Cardassians, though of course, their territorial ambitions are entirely at the proximate cause of this war. I have no desire to punish random people.”

“And if you do find the identities of those responsible?” he asked.

“I would do my best to see them brought to justice,” I said calmly. “I was not the only person who suffered because of their actions. My personal desire for vengeance should not outweigh an entire city’s need for closure.” To be honest, I wasn’t at all certain that I was telling the truth, so it would be fair of Jean-Luc to doubt my words, but if he did, his expression didn’t show it.

Instead, he rose from behind his desk, looking faintly ridiculous in the onesie of this era of Starfleet uniforms, and offered me his hand. “Well then, welcome aboard Excalibur, Admiral. We’ll do our best to get you to your destination swiftly and in one piece.”

“Technically four pieces,” I said, smiling slightly. “I would hate to arrive as an amalgam of myself, my children, and our family pet.”

He blinked. “Humor?” he asked.

“I have spent a great many years around humans,” I pointed out. “I understand the need for occasional levity. Live Long and Prosper Jean-Luc.”

****

By the time the ship arrived at the edge of Cardassian / Romulan space, several things of minor import had happened, though I won’t go into the details in depth. Suffice it to say that M’Tok had endeared herself to the captain (as long as she stayed off the bridge) and Gevik had infuriated the captain (largely by refusing to stay off the bridge… and once challenging him to an honor duel). On a less personal front, my contacts had found the pirates I was looking for and left messages for them… and Starfleet’s black bag operation had sent a representative to speak with me.

“Your husband has entered Cardassian space,” the shadowy figure said from the recesses of the shadowy section of the stereotypical bar in the Civilian side of the Starbase when I responded to the request for a meeting some five hours after arriving at 66, also known as Big Bob. I do not know why.

“Etrin is not my husband,” I said calmly. “Merely my former mate and the father of one of my children. Do you know what his goal is?” Considering the lighting technology of Starfleet, this bar was probably in violation of several safety regulations… The bar was known as Big Bob’s Boiler Room and unless the lights came on full during an emergency, it was dark enough to provide a hazard. 

“We might,” my contact said. “But we’d like a little quid pro quo if we tell you.”

“You’d like me to join Section 31,” I corrected. “Assist you in your covert operations to ensure a more stable Federation.” It wasn’t a question.

“We could use your assistance,” he agreed.

“Of course you could. My assistance is invaluable. A strange turn of phrase that,” I said. I was speaking English and neither of us had our universal translators even on our persons, let alone on. “Invaluable… sounds like it should mean ‘without value’ but really it means ‘too good to put a price on’. Strange.”

“If you’re done parsing our language, Admiral?” 

“Indeed. I am not willing to formally swear allegiance to the Section, but perfectly sanguine in assisting you as long as you are open about your motivations and forthcoming with your intelligence to me. I do not take orders from those with no formal place in the chain of command.”

“That is… acceptable,” the contact allowed, then slid an actual dossier over the table. “Nothing electronic. Your… Etrin is heading to a rendezvous with a cell of Bajoran freedom fighters who claim they have evidence of the identities of three Guls who provided materials and funding to the sympathizers who released the bioweapon.”

The agents who’d actually released the weapon had died as a result of it, failing to understand just how deadly it was or willing to sacrifice themselves, it was impossible to determine which. Their control, the actual sympathizer cell, had not been located despite being hunted by both Cardassia and the Federation, but the identities of three of the four members were well known. An Andorian business woman, an Orion philosopher, and a Human religious fanatic had all spoken from their ‘we take credit for this and here’s why’ video. The fourth member of their cabal, a Cardassian biochemist, had also spoken, but hadn’t identified herself and hadn’t been known to any of the intelligence agencies of the area.

 But the question of who’d supplied the labs and transports and funding had been a very open mystery, with the Cardassian High Command claiming that none of their own had had any official role in the strike. But if Guls were involved… The Guls were the work-a-day military leadership of the Cardassian military, ranking just under the Legates, who were the flag officers. A Gul could command a freighter… or be military governor of an entire planet, so there was a huge range in the personal power of a Gul… and as a Military state, a Gul’s personal power and wealth depending on just how lucrative their position was. 

Still… I was having a hard time figuring out what a cabal of Guls might have gained from the attack that had publicly shamed their own government… and the Obsidian Order would almost certainly have publicly punished any Gul whose actions had so shamed the regime. It sounded far too much like a trap… but was it a trap for Etrin? Or for those who would come looking for him? If the second… I’d have to be insane to bring my children into harm’s reach… and I’d have agreed with that assessment if the children in question hadn’t been Francine and Zane and thus technically all but impossible to kill, and even if killed they’d be back… wouldn’t they? 

Doubting fiat… a horrible fate for a Jumper. But once my chain was restored, I’d have the tools needed to retrieve the fallen. Of that, I was certain…. But would I have the strength to go on if, at the end of the twenty years it was down to just me? I’d have to see.

 ****

Once the meeting was over, I retired to the quarters I’d been given by Rear Admiral Crusher (no relation to Beverly or her husband who’d died on the Stargazer) who’d requested I dine with him that evening. After assuring him that I would be pleased to do so, I began studying the notes S-31 had provided, all the while waiting for notification that a message had come for me.

The documents were a series of coded transmissions between Etrin and a Vedik (Bajoran religious leader with rank equivalent to a Catholic Cardinal) Marile, a second set of transmissions between Etrin and a smuggler by the name of Quark (race unknown), and a third set between Quark and Marile, all arranging that Quark would rendezvous with Etrin’s shuttle at a set of coordinates just outside of the current conflict zone, and bring him to Marile’s contacts who would show Etrin the proof and assist him further in his quest for revenge.

There were also profiles on Etrin (S31 pegged him as unreliable but harmless), Quark (extremely mercenary and almost completely untrustworthy), Marile (a fanatic but dedicated to freedom for Bajor), and a dozen Guls from the Bajoran sector, most notable among them Gul Dukat, newly assigned to command of Terok Nor… the space station that would eventually become Deep Space Nine and, for the last fourteen years Prefect of Bajor. He’d been a Legate before begin reduced in rank and transferred to Bajor, at the time little more than a recently conquered and largely pacific planet. The reason for his disgrace was not known. Two other names on that list were known to me, either as S’Janus or EssJay, those being Cazanjain (a Prefect of the sector  bordering Starbase 66) and Darhe’el (a labor camp overseer on Bajor with a reputation for unspeakable cruelty).

The three of them were, notably, on the Bajoran Underground’s most wanted dead list, and if the horrors hinted at by the narrative of Deep Space 9 had been unpleasant to contemplate, the details of the reality were, even reported third hand, horrifying. Millions of Bajorans had died during the forty plus years of the occupation, and the formerly peaceful and ascetic people of Bajor had slowly become divided into collaborators, oppressed masses, and guerilla terrorists willing to kill their own under the belief that anyone who worked with the Cardassians was a race traitor.

As I finished reading the details of Gul Lezzik’s career (command of a mining outpost in the Markovsky system) my communicator pinged. “You have a message from the Klingon Bird-of-Prey Uzbek.”

“Put it through,” I commanded, raising the screen in my desk and thanking the fates or whoever that in this timeline, the Klingon Empire and Federation were allies.

The least convincing Klingon ever appeared on the screen. “This is Captain D’na of the Free Klingon Vessel Uzbek,” the figure that looked like a plastic faced Klingon warrior said. Free Klingon was the Klingon version of the merchant marine, where surplus ships were often given new life as transports and house forces. The Empire was hardly an example of a cohesive military force… Something about D’na’s features made me think, was Dyna a shapeshifter? That would be odd (but not Odd-o… I’m a riot, shut up!).

“Hello Captain,” I said. “You got my message?”

“Uzbek is at your disposal, Commander… how many are in your party?”

“Four… is Petra with you?”

“Mehrit Lahmeth?” D’na clarified. “Yes. We’ll be arriving in three days. Be ready when we arrive.” and he signed off.

****

Nine days later, and six near diplomatic incidents caused by Gevik’s Klingon cosplay, and was certain of two things. One, Gevik / Zane was the Bad Comic Relief and it was entirely in character for Zane… and that I should have taken the Keeper, since he was going to be a pain in the neck for the foreseeable future. Second, Someone was out to get me.

There had been altogether too many accidents that could have seriously injured me if I hadn’t been preternaturally fast. A falling lighting unit, a malfunctioning door, a pressure valve blowing hard enough to send a chunk of self-sealing stembolt rocketing down the corridor. All entirely deniable, but too much coincidence… Yet, was this Q being his creepy Archmage trickster or the Secret Society or the Alien Threat? Couldn’t be a crazy technician with an irrational hatred of logic since those nine days had been spent on three different space stations (a Starbase, a Klingon Deep Space outpost, and a Cardassian civilian trade depot) as well as aboard Uzbek, which was much better lit than a typical Klingon Bird-of-Prey… but also sixty years old and showing it.

The Deep Space outpost, Mawron Base, was where Etrin had left my shuttle, moving deeper into Cardassian held territory through transportation arranged by the forces that had lured him into this mess. After reclaiming the shuttle from a parking attendant that hadn’t been above gambling other people’s property we followed the ion trail of the transport Etrin had left on. The task had been just hard enough to almost set aside the suspicion that we were being guided to a desired destination. Almost.

The trade depot, Narmok Par, was run down, half derelict thanks to damage suffered in one of the actions of the war, but its key position kept it going, even though it hadn’t gotten the repairs it so desperately needed. We arrived, thanks to the difference in speeds between a tramp freighter and a cloaked Bird-of-Prey, just as Etrin’s vessel was docking and I transported over, ready for anything, arriving in an area my scans told me was likely not to be under direct observation.

What I found was Etrin, blind drunk, railing at the station security who (for some reason) didn’t want to allow a Federation citizen aboard. It was looking like an arrest was imminent when a Cardassian merchant bribed the guards and escorted Etrin deeper into the station. I followed as stealthily as I could, hooded and silent.

“Are you having fun yet?” Q asked, clearly invisible to everyone around us as he phased through solid matter.

“No. Go away,” I hissed.

“Are you certain?” he asked. “I could just snap my fingers and you’d all be safe at home back on Vulcan.”

“You aren’t serious,” I said. “You have never once gotten people out of trouble. It’s not your thing.”

“True… True… But are you certain you know what you’re doing?” 

I didn’t answer for several moments as my whispering had attracted a shopkeeper’s attention and I needed to wind around some crates and boxes that were almost blocking the main passage. When I finally did, it was with the curt statement, “Yes. Walking into a trap. Now hush.”

It was, in fact, a trap. Big surprise. But not a trap for me. It wasn’t even a trap for Etrin. Etrin was the bait. The trap had been set up by the Bajoran underground for the Obsidian Order. The idea was simple enough; bring a bumbling outsider in to meet with terrorists, have the secret police learn of it and send in an extraction team to perform Rendition on the outsider and shoot the rebels… then shoot the extraction team and maybe scoop up their leader.

It was, all things considered, a clusterfuck waiting to happen. It would have been too, had it not been for my presence, since the Cardassians had brought more troops than the situation entirely warranted. I, on the other hand, had brought Ziggy, D’na, and Gevik… and the very pissed off Mehrit. Petra was a combat beast at the best of times, but as a Bajoran pirate she had decades of hatred built up for the monsters who’d conquered her homeworld.

The combat spilled out into the halls of the station, and in less than an hour, the Underground was (technically) in command of Narmok Par, with fifty Cardassian military personnel and six Obsidian Order officers in custody or dead. 

Etrin, shamefaced, broke down and wept, alternating between begging me for forgiveness for his foolishness, angrily blaming me for… something…, and thanking me for coming to his rescue. After sedating him, I turned to the Bajorans and demanded answers and the evidence against the Guls they claimed to have.

It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to warrant further exploration. I can’t say I trusted the Vedik, who was clearly playing his own game and had crazy eyes, but over the next few months, I investigated the three Guls to see if they had done more than supply backing for the bioweapon action cell. I also participated in a number of raids against Cardassian outposts while staying one step ahead of the Obsidian Order… not terribly difficult when you’ve got two cloaked vessels and they have no way of detecting either.

My companions did insist I change up what the snack of the week was because eating it for multiple meals a day did get old fast… for them. I was more than happy to stick with my beef and egg rice bowl. The need for variety is for the weak. 

All the investigations kept bringing up a name, a Dr. Magrot Vess of the Cardassian Institute of Biosciences. She’d had contact with each of the three Guls, and they’d arranged for shipments of contraband and suspect materials to reach her, in addition to just over a thousand Bajoran test subjects.

Unfortunately, she never left the Cardassian homeworld… so that’s where we ended up, slinking through the underbelly of the third largest city, temporarily looking like Cardassians (I am a medical officer, in case you’d forgotten). 

“Took you long enough to get here,” Magrot said, stunning me from behind when I entered the lab space under her estate. She had done very well for herself.

“Uhhhnnn,” I managed to groan from the ground. That wasn’t a Cardassian stunner… it was an Agonizer. 

“Yes yes,” she said, voice mocking. “I’m certain you have all kinds of questions, but the biggest should be ‘why?’ Am I right?” She knelt in front of me, tapping the device against her lips. Her eyes were too dark to be Cardassian, though she otherwise fit the bill. Tall, gracefully limbed, black hair. “To pay you back for your little trick at Algeron,” she whispered in Romulan. “The Tal Shiar sends its regards.”

“And my brother sends his from the grave,” said M’Tok, standing in the doorway and shooting the scientist-cum-double-agent with a phasor set to stun.

“You’ll have to try harder than that,” the Romulan agent said, an emergency transporter engaging. It was a pattern I didn’t recognize, but I’d bet you latinum to lollipops that it was a Romulan one. A moment later, a charred and smoking body was transported back into the lab and I knew that the military police would have been notified and would be on their way.

A communications blackout meant that we couldn’t just call for extraction, so, leaning on my daughter (small but, you know, half vulcan) we made our way back to the lot where the stealth runabout would be parked.

“I guess that… that’s the scaling enemy,” I commented. It made sense. A medical doctor and spy… she’d probably also have engineering background and clearly had the support of the Tal Shiar. Well, that explained why both Romulan and Cardassian State Security agencies were coming after me… this would be a very interesting twenty years.

I passed out from the pain just as Mehrit lifted off, sending signals to detonate under the five nearest military barracks in the city. Oh good, I was now accessory to terrorism. Good thing there was a state of war, right? Military targets are military targets, even if they’re home world police force.  Had the Cardassians really been framed by the Romulans? Or was this Magrot playing her own game? I guess I’d have to catch her to find out.

Next: Episode Two

Resources: BuildStar Trek TNG DocumentGeneric First Jump Document

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Deltoren, PlateGlassArmor, bearblue, and Sonic0704, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain)And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.

Level 1: Adventure

2360 – 2361

2360 – Gul Dukat assigned to command Terok Nor

2361 – Lewis Zimmerman begins working on Holo-Doc, Jupiter Station

That One Drawback [+300/900]

Fantasy: Archmage’s Interest [+200/3600][RV=+100]

Adventure: Secret Society [+100/2200]

Adventure: Bad Comic Relief [+200/2400][RV=+100]

Adventure – The Quick and the Dead [100/1650/3850]

Tragic Past: Almost everyone will question your stability 

Recurring Character: Cross paths with the Enterprise / DS9 at the worst possible times

Alien Threat: targeted the Cardassian Obsidian Order and the Romulan Tal Shiar

Black Coat Society: Section 31 wants me

  • Ziggy: Pirate, Sehlat, Stealth, Combat, Espionage, Honorary Xeno, Cosmic Awareness, Mental Alarm, Space Pirate, Our Darkest Hour, Latinum, Universal Translator
  • Zane / Gevik: Defense, Vulcan, Weapons, Combat, Investigator, The Anti-Worf Effect, Our Darkest Hour, Overpowering Authority, Speedy Promotions, Universal Translator
  • Francine / M’Tok: Health & Science, Betazoid, Physics, Robotics, Surgeon, I Am Not God, Augmented, Mental Alarm, Cosmic Awareness, Universal Translator
  • AJ / Lt. Comm. Sandhurst: Defense, Human, Espionage, Stealth, Investigator, The Anti-Worf Effect, Augmented, Universal Translator
  • RayRay / Lt. Myor: Command & Operations, Caitian, Navigation, Engineering, Speedy Promotions, Would Follow You into a Supernova, Augmented
  • Uriel / Ensign Stepan Miklosh: Command & Operations, Human, Piloting, Communications, Speedy Promotions, Would Follow You Into a Supernova, The Corbomite Scam
  • Petra / Mehrit Lahmeth: Pirate, Bajoran, Weapons, Piloting, Navigation, Honorary Xeno, Cosmic Awareness, Grand Theft Starship, Runabout, Cloaking Device, Universal Translator
  • Dyna / Captain D’na: Pirate, Klingon, Combat, Weapons, Communications, Honorary Xeno, Space Pirate, Augmented, Cosmic Awareness, Universal Translator 

World 7: Star Trek TNG – Episode Zero

A Conclusion Devoutly to be Wished – Episode Zero

EAST IS EAST

Previously: Another Ancient Lolita,  War Comes to the Thousand Acre Woods, Finale: Time and Tide

Themesong: These Dreams by Heart

AN: This chapter has been a loooong time coming. I’ve been plotting this for several years, and the massive bulk of the Solace of Manticore, Undertale Isekai, and Naruto Arcs are testament to just how… nervous I was about it all. I know it frustrates some of you that I haven’t finished those chapters of EssJay’s story, but I had so much fun writing each of them that I didn’t want to just do short form synopses like I normally do. That said, I have those synopsis written and will post them once the TNG arc is over. The reason I haven’t posted them already will become obvious as you read this. And despite the title, this is not the end of the EssJay chain, but following this I’ll be going back to shorter pieces once for the most part. Long form fiction is fun, but massively draining. I do hope to continue with new chapters of the three novels (Solace, Undertale, Naruto), but not until I’ve concluded the thing that necessitated their creation in the first place. And now, Episode Zero.

I woke up knowing something was very, very wrong. Everything hurt… or at least, everything didn’t feel right. I was laying, face down, on something very hard. Harder than any matter had any business being. It was very dark, wherever I was, and my body felt heavier, more mortal than it ever had at any time in the past… I tried to remember how long and found my memory an absolute mess. Fifteen thousand years were jumbled and fragmented, the immaculate order of my Mental Palace a shattered ruin, empty and abandoned.

I rolled over. Still darkness. Darkness all around me, oppressive and yet weightless. I lay there, breathing slowly, waiting for something to happen, and as I did so I reviewed the last thing I had clear memory of.

I’d been Sochizuka Jouya, Grand Duchess of … I couldn’t remember exactly, and I’d set out on a solo quest, just a few days of relaxation by myself, something my wives and concubines and familiars had all insisted I needed… they were up to something. That was clear. I’d gated to a remote watch-tower that had overlooked the foothills of the world’s largest volcano, something that almost rivaled mighty Olympus Mons of Mars. In long teleporting jumps, I’d scaled the mountain until I reached a cave near the top… and… and then I’d fallen. Fallen into darkness… and here I lay. 

I was no longer Sochizuka Jouya… I could sense that. I was too logical, too calm. She was fiery and energetic. I was not. Somehow I could tell that whatever drawbacks she’d been under, I was no longer bound by. This was the space between jumps… but not my Warehouse. No… this was colder, darker… this was the space the Warehouse should have occupied… a giant hole in the firmament.

Firmament. Well then… why not.

Inhaling deeply, I bellowed, “YEHI OR!!” It was an old, old Hebrew phrase, more commonly known to the western world as the Latin Phrase “Lux Sit”… or even more commonly “Fiat Lux”. Before Latin, it had been the Greek phrase “Genēthētō Phōs”. In English, it was translated as “Let there be LIGHT!”

With a bloom like the dawn of the very first day, there was light. I beheld it and… it was okay. It was shaped like a young woman and hovered in midair above me, slowly descending until it landed, toe first, on the nothingness I was laying upon.

“Hi!” I said to myself.

“Hello,” I responded. I recognized her; she was me from when I’d been a teenager. The original time. “Wanna tell me what the hell is going on?”

“Kinda… can’t,” my younger self said. “Not cause I don’t wanna, but because a) it doesn’t make any god damned sense, and b) because I was told not to.”

“By who?” I asked.

“My Benefactor. Look…” she took a deep breath and softened in the face of my irritated expression. I’ve never been fond of mirrors or pictures of myself, but I’ve seen that expression far too often, and knew the expression that provoked it. “I’m this thing called a Jumper. Zed the Jumper. The Silverlady is my Benefactor. I’m hoping you still remember what a Jumper is? What a Benefactor is?”

“I do, yes,” I agreed. I’d never heard of the Silverlady… but sure. I didn’t think this Zed was lying to me, but it was clear she didn’t have my ‘speak truth and have it be believed perk.’ Then again, I was fairly certain that, at the moment, I didn’t either. “Do you know who I am?”

“You’re EssJay the Jumper, and your Benefactor was The Banker. Then Mensarius and The Banker. Then The Chamber or Jump-Chan as you called her. Then yourself… Then God… and now… no one.”

“So my Chain is broken?” I asked. “Time to go home?”

“Broken,” Zed agreed. “But not failed. Higher, that is the whatevers that empower the Benefactors, is trying to figure out what happened in somewhere called the HonorVerse… sounds ghastly. Anyway, too many factors there didn’t make sense there or something. They had my boss, Silverlady, send me into your Warehouse… and boy is it a lot less fun than my Warehouse and disconnect it from the HonorVerse. That was all I could do before I got booted by your security… I should have some of that… but all I have is about a hundred-thousand ghost ferrets… so same thing I guess… what was I saying?”

I groaned. This was definitely me at sixteen or seventeen. “You were admitting to violating my personal space for reasons unclear before getting bounced because while you’re a me you’re not the right me?”

“Right! Right! Anyway, apparently Silverlady recruited me in the first place to do this but, like picked me from all the potential versions of you because I’m the craziest? Which I can get behind,” she said happily enough. “Anyway, I’m you, but, like… actually fun.”

“And you’re here to rub my nose in it?” I asked, somewhat archly. This wasn’t even close to being the craziest conversation I’d ever had… wasn’t exactly certain what was at the moment, but I was pretty darned certain of that fact. “Or is there anything you actually can explain?”

“Oh. Yeah. Totes,” she said. “Like… Your chain is completely borked. You’ve got no Benefactor any more and exactly no access to the Console… I’m sooo envy by the way! I want one! It’s no fair that you have… had… anyway… right,” she shook her head to clear it. “No Console. No Benefactor… you’ll have to do this the old fashioned way.” She tossed something at me.

I caught it. It was a backpack… not a large one and not particularly heavy. “What’s this?”

“I snagged it before I was booted,” she said. “It’s a document.”

She was beginning to fade, but I understood what she meant, so I didn’t waste any time. “Where are my companions?” I asked.

“Safe!” she replied. “Safer than you are. This space is collapsing. You don’t have much…” but then she was gone and I was alone in the darkness again.

I sat on the floor and opened the backpack. Inside was a Star Fleet issue pad. On the display it said “Star Trek: TNG & DS9”… and below that “CHOICE BALANCE: ZERO” Next to that were several touch screen buttons: Status, Skills, Perks, Items, Companions, and Drawbacks. And, in the corner, so faint it could be easily missed, was a tiny rotating letter ‘Q’.

Sighing, I tapped it. What the hell; I was already boned six ways to Sunday. “Hiya John,” I said as a starpoint of light flashed and I found myself on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise D. I was wearing my S’Janus form and a seriously outdated Starfleet uniform.

“Please!” the being who looked like John DeLancy said. “I’m not him, you know.”

“Yes, I know. You just look like him, but it amuses me to call you that,” I said, utterly deadpan.

“Vulcans shouldn’t be amused,” he chided, “But that’s neither here nor there. Space: the final frontier. Blah, blah, blah. Voyages, blah blah. Mission to explore whatever. Anyway, it seems as if you’ve been abandoned by your Benefactors or whatever it is that you call them. Normally I guess they’d be doing this whole introduction thing, but I find it all so fascinating that I figured I’d step in and fill the void. What do you say?”

“You providing the Choice, or just the narration?” I asked, quirking one of my very arch eyebrows.

“As it turns out,” he grinned even more archly. “I am! I happen to have a way for you to get some extra Choice… I won this,” he held up a scroll, “from this very interested Arcturian. Normally, someone such as you wouldn’t be eligible… but in your current state, divested of all those lovely Jumper Perks of yours… you’re perfect for this.”

“What, exactly, do you mean by that?” I asked. I had to admit, I was intrigued by anything Q thought I might be perfect for.

“Every epic story has a beginning,” he said, tugging down his red command tunic just like JeanLuc did. “Every long journey has a first step.”

“Yes?” I questioned. “What’s your point?”

“Just as every franchise has its first installment, every jumper has a first jump!” he crowed, looking pleased with himself.

“I know,” I agreed somewhat grumpily. “I had mine. It was Pokemon.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” he said all too cheerfully, waggling his finger at me. “But you, my dear Jumper, are in a bit of a pickle! Your chain is broken, and in order to reforge it…” he left the idea hanging.

“I have to restart it… oh, by the lords of logic… you’ve got to be kidding me!”

“I don’t!” he almost giggled. “This will be ever so much fun!”

“I seriously doubt it,” I snarked. “So… what? The idea is that S’Janus will get her own chain?”

“Exactly! But instead of going to all those other places, we’ll do it all in this galaxy!”

“What do you mean, ‘All those other places’?” I asked with a growing frown.

“Well… this isn’t so much a starter jump as a survey… ten micro-jumps, scenarios if you will, in order to properly prepare you for the wide variety of environments and settings you’ll be encountering going forward,” he said, all too cheerfully.

“You’re waiting to drop both shoes,” I rolled my eyes as I realized what he was doing.

“Well… because this is something of a tutorial, you won’t be dying on any of these little adventures… Well… you might, but that will just restart the scenario from the beginning. The only way to really fail is to give up. If and only if you don’t retry will you wash out for good and all.”

Very, very calmly, I smashed the datapad against my own forehead. “Oh. for Spock’s sake. You can’t be serious!”

“I can! And since you don’t have a Warehouse, you’ll not be taking anything with you that you haven’t paid for! Now… does this sound like a deal, or what?” He offered me his hand.

“No,” I replied with a grumpy growl. “It sounds like I’m being screwed, but you’ve got a deal. What doesn’t kill me…”

“Only makes you stranger!” the cosmic being agreed, shaking my hand… and then the world flashed again and we were in the Vulcan Academy of Sciences, in a testing pit. I was 10 years old again, standing there in a grey robe, looking at twelve screens surrounding me. “STATUS, DRAWBACKS & COMPLICATIONS, SLICE OF LIFE, SURVIVAL, HORROR, MILITARY, ADVENTURE, HEROICS, OCCULT, HISTORICAL, FANTASY, SPECULATION.”

I looked up, and yes, wearing the robes of an Academy Invigilator was a Vulcan John DeLanQ. “Very funny,” I snarked. 

“It seemed apropos,” he agreed.

Turning away from him as being irrelevant, I checked the STATUS Screen. It said

  • Species: Vulcan
  • Background: Drop-In
  • Skillset: Medical / Engineering / Physical Sciences
  • Perks: Body Mod, Scientific Mind, Highly Logical, Treknobabbler
  • Equipment: TR-580 Tricorder
  • Current CP Balance: 0

Well, that was interesting. I had, effectively, everything I’d bought as S’Janus and the Body Mod and, it seemed, nothing else. Even my memories were no longer fully reliable, and I realized that, of all the vast jumbling, the only periods I remembered clearly were my original life, my stay in TOS, and my time in God’s World with My Smartphone. Weird how useful that had been… I still remembered the general swaths of other things, but the specifics of the past… how long had it been?I was no longer certain. Millenia certainly… they were all hazy at best.

“So? How do we do this thing? Normally I have a pool of points, but since you aren’t providing, I’m guessing this will be funded with Drawbacks?” It wasn’t much of a challenge to figure that out… had I done something similar once before? It seemed likely but my memory was currently as broken as my chain.

“That’s correct, my dear finite creature!”

I smirked, cocking my head as I looked up at him. “Vulcans do not gloat, nor do they preen. Are you certain you are not Rihannsu?” I asked, using the Vulcan word for the Romulans. 

“I am whatever I feel like being,” he said, then leaned down over the pit and grinned hugely. “Do you want to start with the general or the specific?”

“Logic dictates the General, so tell me what you have in mind and stop wasting my eternity.” I would have given him the finger if I thought it would mean anything to him.

The Complications panel lit up and a complex logic problem appeared on it with a timer. As I struggled to solve it (it required thinking in seven dimensions), Q launched into his litany of harassment. “I’ll give you 200 Choice if you allow me to randomize the order of the scenarios,”

“Done,” I said before he tried justifying his reasoning.

“I’ll give you 300 if you sign up for ten of each scenario?” He was practically drooling at the idea of subjecting me to a hundred episodes of hell.

“Next,” I replied, not even humoring the idea.

“Aww…” he pretended to pout. “You’re no fun. Two Hundred if I ensure you’re unprepared for each scenario?”

“So I’ll have to react as things drop into the pot?” I asked, then shrugged. “How unprepared?”

“It’s a tutorial, so in this case you’d normally get whatever special abilities, traits, backgrounds, and skills are required for basic participation in the scenario you’re entering,” he said with a slight mieu of distaste at having to take on the role of lecturer. “The Occult Scenario would normally come with general knowledge of that world’s supernatural milieu, and perhaps a boost to psychic power if needed to bring you up to the average. The Fantasy Scenario might grant magical powers or prowess with some archaic melee weapon.”

“So I’d be giving up a bunch of minor power boosts and skills?” I asked. “That would normally be free? That sounds like a bad deal there, bo-buddy!” I’d almost called him ‘Boss’ but even sarcastically I wasn’t going to admit that Q was actually in charge.

“Not really,” he said with a shrug. “You wouldn’t get to keep the upgrades anyway. They’d be trial-size as your people put it. Well, Earthlings.”

“So, they go away at the end of the Scenario?” I considered, then nodded. “Why not. Prior Planning leads to Analysis Paralysis.” It wasn’t wise, perhaps, but to be honest, in emergency planning, the biggest issue is keeping a level head. New information would always be coming in and adapting to that calmly and rationally was worth almost any level of prior planning. And frankly, I’d had it up to high heaven with losing bits of myself. Better to not have and not lost in this case. “What’s next?” I asked. Not only was I ready for the next offer, but I’d finished the logic problem.

“Two hundred for a Power Loss Drawback?” He offered.

I frowned. “I don’t have any powers at the moment! That’s kinda the problem… one of many to be honest. What would you take away? My Vulcan Emotional control and telepathic abilities? My ability to bend the rules of physics with technology?”

“No… but each Scenario has specific perks. Take this and those perks will only be available during that Scenario.”

I thought about that for all of two seconds. “I’d get them back at the end, right?” He nodded. “Sure. I’ll take it. Next?”

“Amnesia for two-” he began.

I didn’t let him finish. “Next!”

“Total Amnesia for-”

Again I cut him off, but not to reject the offer. “Okay… you have my interest. What’s the difference between Amnesia and Total Amnesia?”

His grin would have done the Joker proud. “The first means you’d forget the details of each Scenario once you’ve finished it. The second means that you’d lose all memories from before entering this little adventure. No memories at all… especially none about Jumping.”

“Ah,” I said, feeling better and more clued in. “Next!”

He blinked. “But you asked!” He looked as if I’d stolen his candy.

“Just for clarity,” I pointed out. “Sometimes I want to know. Doesn’t mean I care.”

“Ugh… Mortals,” he muttered. “How about a scaling enemy?”

Well… that was a thing. “One who has all my powers? Or just one that’s roughly as powerful as I am?”

“One that is as skilled and as powerful as you are. One that will pursue you through each scenario. And if you manage to kill your enemy, they’ll just respawn in the next scenario.”

I frowned. “That sounds ghastly. How much is it worth?”

“Three hundred… and a garment that bears the legend ‘I survived a scaling enemy drawback and all I got was 300 Choice and this lousy T-shirt!’? That can’t be right.” He pulled out a script and checked it over. “Who wrote this!?”

“Someone with a sense of humor,” I said. “Sure. Not like I can really die. Groundhog Day, Hunted Edition. Let’s do this!” And like that, I had nine-hundred Choice and all it cost me was at least a decade of uncertainty, confusion, and (probably) dying a great many times. Still, a scaling enemy is really just a fifty-fifty chance… and unlike said enemy, I had a potentially unlimited number of coin-flips. My victory might not be easy or fast, but as long as I remained steadfast, it was inevitable.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Aside from Scenario Complications?” Q replied, “I suppose you might want some of the Drawbacks from the original as well… though you can’t combine the Choices. Each to each and never the twain shall meet.”

“You quote human cultural touchstones far too much for an alien quantum being who claims a disdain for humanity,” I pointed out, then plucked up the hovering tablet. It felt heavy in my smaller hands. “And you’re going to return me to adulthood before this whole thing begins for earnest, right?”

He just grinned.

I sighed and opened the Star Drawbacks section. Well, that was interesting. There were thirteen of them, and I knew that without counting because, for the first time (yes, I could remember all the other documents somehow… but not what I’d bought… arrgh) they were numbered. The first two were toggles, with the first offering to make the supplementary material… i.e. the novels and animated series that had come between TOS and TNG canon. I passed. I also passed on ‘Ensign Mary Sue’… when a fanfiction is so notorious it gives rise to an industry term for bad writing, you know it’s a bad idea. 

Coming out of the toggles was ‘Temporal Anomaly’ which had, helpfully, been selected for me. It made my previous tour of duty canon to my visit. So at least I started with a hundred Choice… a far cry from the thousand I should have had.

Next up was ‘TNG Era’ which was a hundred Choice simply for opting to stay for an additional decade… though it meant I’d start four years before TNG had. Hopefully this would mean I ended up on Voyager and stuck in the Delta Quadrant. I loved Janeway as a character… but in person I’d be forced to throttle her… and Nelix. Grudgingly, I took it. I needed the options more than I needed safety from the Kayzon Ogla.

The last hundred pointer was called Hybrid and it was greyed out. Makes sense. I was a Vulcan in this timeframe, not a half-and-half like Spock, Deanna Troi, or B’Elanna Torres… or Alexander… that was Worf’s kid? Or was he three-quarters Klingon? Can’t remember. Most frustrating. 

Number six was ‘Tragic Past’ and number seven was ‘Black Coat Society’, both for two hundred shiny Choice. The first meant that I’d been involved with some well documented incident that continued to haunt me to the current day. Since that was technically true of several of the events that I’d experienced as S’Janus… especially a certain act of nucleaic terrorism and a plague, both of which had killed millions and worn me to the breaking point. Taking it would mean that my reputation would be connected to that incident and there would be distrust of my stability or suitability for leadership roles… though with time and effort I’d be able to prove myself and earn their trust… if I could be bothered to.

The second meant that Section 31 would be trying to recruit me for my entire time here and, like a bunch of yandere stalkers, they’d keep coming after me no matter how many times I said no. Sure sure, they wouldn’t actually hurt me, but I could expect to be abducted or manipulated by them on a regular basis… what’s that? You don’t know who Section 31 are? They’re the Federation’s version of the Romulan Tal Shiar or the Cardiassian Obsidian Order… or, in more mundane terms, they’re Starfleet Intelligence’s Extraordinary Measures department, pledged to do whatever it takes to safeguard the security of the Federation.

There was, of course, one minor problem with the drawback. It assumed I’d turn them down. I have absolutely who would look at my history and think, “There’s a girl who wouldn’t join a secret organization dedicated to preserving freedom by less than nominally ethical means if needed!” But there it was. Effectively free points.

Then there were the three hundreds: ‘Recurring Character’, ‘Tortured Character’, and ‘Do Not Energize!’ The first meant that I wouldn’t be a crew member of either the Enterprise, or DS9… or Voyager! So… yeah. I took it, even though it meant that every time I crossed paths with Enterprise it would be at the worst possible moment and every time I was forced to visit DS9 something bad would happen. As for Tortured? I had no desire to become the next Reg Barkley… the universe’s punching bag. So… no. And DNE means that teleporter tech would kill me. So fuck that noise. 

I was at nine-hundred Choice… close enough to what I should have started with for government work… but there were still three more options… though two of them were just not going to fly. At six-hundred was ‘Resistance is Futile’ which would have the Borg invading the Alpha Quadrant early, and have Picard, Sisko, and Janeway all be dead. No. Just. No. At four-hundred was ‘So Disappointed in You’ which would make me the most wanted criminal in the Federation… which could be fun, but I didn’t really feel like spending the best part of two decades running from the Feds or sitting in a prison cell waiting for the Scaling Enemy to kill me.

And that left ‘Alien Threat’ (also at four-hundred). This was the flipside of Section 31… now the Tal Shiar and Obsidian order would be doing everything in their power to capture or kill me… so… sure, why not. Let’s test just how good of a spy I could be. Thirteen-hundred Space Choice! It was almost like being on a legit chain instead of loading myself down with penalties just to survive.

My face showed none of this, so I have no idea how much of my inner monologue Q was getting. As far as had been shown, Q were not mind readers, and their ability to read facial expressions from humans, let alone Vulcans was… questionable to say the least.

With stoic regard I contemplated the black walls of the testing pit, the questions I’d been solving without really thinking about the answers as I’d run through the permutations of self-inflicted punishment. Ten scenarios to plan for? Or one overarching setting. Clearly, the setting had to come first.

There were multiple Backgrounds in the Datapad, but I’d been locked into Drop-In, so Defense, Health & Science, Command & Operations, and Pirate were little more than data points for my calculations… unless there was a companion import option? There hadn’t been in my first jump… but the tutorial was an overlay on top of this, not this document. Then again, there hadn’t actually been a companion import option in the original Star Trek Jump either… had there? I didn’t think so but, like much else, I was no longer certain. 

“Is there a companion import?” I asked. “And can any of my companions actually be located?”

“I… might be able to do something about that,” he agreed, smirking. “After all, you had companions the last time you visited here, correct? It’s a simple matter of locating them in the time-stream from the moment before you last left, then…” he snapped his fingers and all eight of my companions from the moment before the Star Trek Original Series jump ended appeared standing around the edge of the pit looking confused as to how they got there. Well, technically not all of them looked confused. At that point, Dyna had never had a human form and a Deoxys had no facial features with which to express any emotion, let alone confusion. And, of course, Ziggy is always confused… or asleep. But there they were, as they had not been in millenia; Zane, AJ, Francine, The Zig, Petra, Dyna, RayRay, and Uriel Septim VII.

“Does this cost me anything?” I asked, holding up a hand to signal that the others should wait one moment. Zane and Ziggy both ignored me, with the big guy smirking as he slid down the side of the pit and Ziggy leaping at me to land on my head… he missed and plowed right into my ear. Oww… silly goober. I caught him as he started skidding, then turned to face Zane.

“Why didn’t you wait?” I asked.

“Wanted to make certain you were you. You did that whole commanding finger thing, but you look like you’re twelve so… It’s her,” he said, waving to the others.

“I’m psychic,” said Dyna. “I know that.”

“We’re psychic,” said Petra, AJ, and Francine. “We know that.”

“I’m not psychic and I don’t care,” said RayRay.

“What in the name of Oblivion is going on?” Uriel snapped.

“Yeah, Babe,” Zane drawled. “What’s the dealio? I thought we were leaving Trektopia behind.”

“Uh… this isn’t going to make much sense but we did leave, and now we’re back, and we’ve had… oh… a few adventures and all that but things have gone pear shaped and all our other friends are lost in time and space and it’s up to us to rescue them… only, technically, you eight are also lost in time and space… me too, probably. We’ve all been pulled out of our normal timeframes and brought together to see if we can save… well, ourselves.” I looked around their faces. None of them understood… how could they. 

Uriel frowned. “This is like a Dragon Break?”

Zane said, “Are we… the we’s from the future timelines, going to remember any of this?”

“I sincerely doubt it,” I said, but looked to Q. “Will they?”

“Eventually? Yes. once the two timelines merge once more… assuming they do, of course, poof,” he snapped his fingers and now all eight companions were dressed like Vulcan initiates… which was silly because Petra was a quadrupedal metal crab, Dyna was an orange war-drone, and Ziggy is a foot and a half long and not bipedal no matter what he might think. “But to answer your question, fair Jumper, no. You do not have to pay for your companions importing. Unfortunately, I can’t provide them with any Choice.” He tried to look disappointed, but it wasn’t working.

“No Choice Budget,” I confirmed, feeling disappointed. “Do they at least get a background free of charge?”

“Yes yes yes,” Q snapped, sounding a little impatient. “And their choice of human, bajoran, trill, andorian, caitian, or tribble for free.”

“Tribble!?” Zane asked, aghast. “No! No tribbles!”

“Ziggy will be a ferret thank you,” I told Q. “No. No tribbles. Now, if you’d kindly go off and look at your own testing wells, I have to finish what I’m doing.”

Zane sighed, climbing out of the pit. “Yay! Vulcan mind games and we don’t even get to be Vulcans.”

“You want to be a vulcan?” I asked, shocked.

“Noooo… But I don’t want to do vulcan logic puzzles either, so it balances out.” He left, sulking a bit, leaving me with Q and Ziggy… hard to say which of the two of them was crazier.

“Shall we continue?” Q asked, and Ziggy nodded. He is good at nodding when he hears a question. He’s very agreeable for a fuzzybrained goober.

“Sure,” I agreed as well, though I at least had (I hope) the faintest idea what I was agreeing to. I skipped over the skill section. As a Drop-In I didn’t get any for free, and I wasn’t really keen on paying a hundred CP for stuff I probably already knew how to do. After all, I was still plenty smart and I had all S’Janus’s memories.

Without the skills sections, there were fifteen perks, three from each background, at one-hundred, three-hundred-and six-hundred… This wasn’t promising. All the jumps I’d seen that had that kind of distribution were far from excellent. But maybe I was wrong this time… but then again, that very first one, Pokemon Trainer had had this pricing structure, hadn’t it? The Item section on that one… sigh. Early days. How nostalgic. No. I’m not getting bitter in my old age. Just cranky.

Regardless, my current balance wouldn’t allow me to get more than two expensive things, three at the outside… but that still seemed the best place to look… after I checked the drop-in slate, since I got the discount there… and in doing so, I paused.

“You haven’t read the contents of this, have you?” I asked Q, looking up at him. He was currently playing the maracas and wearing a fruit hat… but not, you know, earth fruits. Vulcan fruits… desert fruits. The Vulcan language has 800 words for desert… it’s an agglutinative language, like Earth’s German… lots of compound words, so there is literally “Cold, Wet Desert” and “Dry Sandy Desert” and “Reddish Semi-Sandy Arid Highlands”… ugh. It’s like Arrakis without the nightlife or sense of existential dread.

“Whyever would I do that?” the Continuum’s Clown Prince asked. “It’s dreadfully boring. Shields up! Shields down! Make it So! Aaaaa Borg! Aaa Crystal Entity! Aaaa I can’t breath in spaaaaace.” He frowns. “Humans are so… fragile. So predictable.”

“Ah…” I said, very carefully selecting the last entry on the list. It was called ‘Buy This’ and cost six-hundred… discounted to three-hundred since I was a Drop-In. The description said, “I am not supposed to take sides in your adventures, but you did me proud when Mensarius attempted to use you as a pawn against me. If you are reading this, it means that something worse has happened and that I am no longer able to watch over you as I should be doing. You will need this, especially in that universe, and so I arranged for it to be here, just in case you ever arrived there without me. I also arranged it so that, if your chain ever completely derailed, you’d end up in that Universe. You’re clever, and dedicated. You’ll find a way to survive. This should help. With this perk, you can disable the supernatural powers of any single reality warper as long as you’re in direct contact with them. Use it wisely. If you’ve managed to bring any companions with you, each of them will gain a Choice stipend equal to three quarters of your own. Obviously, they won’t be allowed to purchase drawbacks or other companions, but they will be sent concealed purchase guides and warned not to speak of it. That information, as well as this, will not be readable from your memories. This recording is memetically encoded for your eyes only.”

The moment I finished buying it, the screen shimmered and the Drop-In 600 now was labeled “The Corbomite Snare”… and, as any fan of the show would expect, it had transformed into a very nice, but hideously overpriced bluffing perk. “The more outrageous the lies you tell, the more the foolish are likely to believe them.” As I said, Nice… but overpriced.

I quickly looked through the other six-hundred pointers, but saw no need for a perk that allowed me to steal any ship regardless of how complicated it was, nor for legendary inspiration… not charisma, just the capacity to inspire others to do really crazy or stupid things… like supporting treason. Likewise, I saw little reason to become one of the genetic supersoldiers (a la KHAAAN) or their spiritual descendants, the augmented (a la Dr. Bashier). And the Anti-Worf Effect offended my sensibilities too much to even consider it.

On the flip side, the three-hundred pointer for Drop-In wasn’t anything special. It was the ability to sense when people were trying to read my thoughts or emotions… but included no defenses against either of those things. Two of the others were equally pointless. The Pirate one ensured that none of my crimes would earn the death penalty… yay… if you get caught, you’re doing it wrong… while the Defense one was one of those where “you get stronger the more desperate the situation”… which is a holding action. This one doubled physical abilities… what if the situation was three times as bad? Four? Twenty? Yeah… waste of purchasing power.

But then there was the Science one, ‘I Am Not God’, which (while not great) was interesting enough to be worth the cost. It would allow me to not only communicate with any sentient being, but to teach them, no matter how primitive. It came with the ability to understand obscure languages. So… yeah, I took that one.

I also purchased the Command one, ‘Overpowering Authority’ which would make me extremely intimidating to anyone who actually outranked me. Not particularly useful, but funny as hell when the entire Federation Council is like ‘Sorry Romulans, we can’t control her… she’s craaazy.’ and the Romulans are like ‘Fine! We’ll kill her ourselves!’ and the FedCouncil just laughs nervously and says ‘Okay, you try that… let us know how it works out for you.’ Probably a waste of Choice in the long run, considering that (normally) I don’t really have bosses that I want to intimidate… I don’t think I do at least, but keeping command from bothering me could be more useful than not over the next twenty years.

That just left the cheap stuff… and no perk was as cheap as Cosmic Awareness. Unfortunately, it wasn’t free… yeah, I’d noticed that skimpy jumps tended to discount the cheapest things for Drop-In rather than give it free… cheapskates… but whatever. It was sooo worth the fifty Choice. How so? It gave me the ability to perceive any alterations in the fabric of Space-Time, be that normal alterations from events, illusionary alterations from technology, temporal manipulation, or even outright reality alterations. Hell, it even covered the effects of mind altering artifacts and giant energy beings. So that was nice.

Nicer still was ‘Honorary Xeno’, which meant that non-humans (or was it non-vulcans?)… Aliens, that’s it. Aliens would naturally like and trust me, and see me as an equal no matter what kind of bad blood might exist between their species and mine. A well spent hundred Choice there. 

Possibly less well spent, but hopefully useful was ‘Investigator’ which not only would provide a knack for discovering secrets and other useful information, but it would allow me to sense traitors almost immediately, thanks to my newfound ability to see clues where others couldn’t. It was no Soul reading… where had I gotten that again? Couldn’t remember… anyway, I was hoping it would also work with infiltrators and doppelgangers. This universe had no shortage of any of them.

That left me with a hundred and fifty Choice and no perks I cared about taking, so I left the sunny lands of Perks for the gloomy land of Items. The Universal Translator was free for everyone besides drop-ins… but I could requisition one from Star Fleet… assuming S’Janus was still Starfleet… so I wasn’t too chuffed. Also, I already spoke Romulan, Cardassian, Orion, Klingon and a lot of other languages… I think. Hard to say if I still can use many of my skills with my memory full of holes.

Latinum was a worthless buy, as it was enough to live comfortably for a few weeks… yeah, that would be useful over a period of twenty years! Not. The medical kit was pointless, offering nothing that a standard kit didn’t besides refilling on its own. In fact, most of what I could afford was kinda useless. I really wanted my own Runabout… but they were way too expensive… so fuck it. I bought the TR-116 Sniper Rifle. 

Said rifle fires a 7.26 mm diameter tritanium (a material three times harder than diamond and easily capable of punching through personal shields) bullet at just under 1200 m/sec. Despite the enormous muzzle velocity, this rifle has virtually no recoil and is utterly silent. The weapon has (as was demonstrated in an episode of DS9) been fitted with an exographic scope capable of scanning through bulkheads and a micro-transporter capable of beaming bullets directly to the target. I’d have to experiment to see what the micro-transporter’s range was exactly… but I could do that later… though the rifle appeared in a case on the lip of the testing pit the moment I purchased it… and that was me out of Space Choice.

Of course, now I had to deal with Ziggy’s purchase… and get him to stop getting tangled in the ridiculous robe he was swamped by. I tickled his belly and make him a Pirate. I gave him Cosmic Awareness and Mental Alarm… not really certain what good they’d do, but daybed he’d bite the cosmic trickster or something. I also got him Space Pirate, because no one should ever punish a ferret for any crimes. And Our Darkest Hour, because in his case, crazy buffs when things get tough would make for humorous reactions. He only had fifty Space Choice left, so I got him some Latinum… maybe I could use it with the metal eating… I had metal eating? What good was… oh… right… Mistborn. Duh.

By that point, everyone else had supplied their own detailed builds. Zane and AJ were Defense, Francine Health & Science, Petra and Dyna Pirates, and RayRay and Uriel were Command & Operations. Zane & Dyna were Klingons, AJ and Uriel were humans, Petra a Bjaoran, RayRay a Caitian (maybe she figured that since she lays around all the time she she should be a feline of some kind), and Francine was Betazoid. There were a lot of little things in their builds that I won’t go into, but the notable things were the capstones, so I’ll mention those.

AJ, Francine, RayRay, and Dyna all took Augmented. Great, I wasn’t Khan, but my followers were clearly from his people… well, not really considering that only AJ was human from that batch. Both RayRay and Uriel took the ‘Would Follow You Into a Supernova’ perk, which was the previously mentioned inspire treason thing. Petra took ‘Grand Theft Starship’ and a Runabout with the Federation’s future tech Cloaking Device… and Dyna, who couldn’t be killed had taken the perk that kept people from executing her for her crimes. Still, since I wasn’t at all certain they could respawn if killed, I was far less sanguine when I remembered Zane and Uriel’s Redshirt competition the last time we’d been in this universe. I just hoped they didn’t realize the importance of the fact that TNG used Red for Command and Gold for Security and Weapons instead of the way TOS had done it.

*Still, hopefully, if I did lose one of them,and then died myself, triggering a loop would respawn the dead companion? That would be… worrying. But right now, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Either it was or wasn’t going to be an issue… though I was beginning to wonder just how many loops I’d be doing. The Year of Hell was not a fun pair of episodes and Q was going to have me run through it not once but ten times. Yay.

I was getting hungry, but I pushed that aside. The sooner this whole nightmare was over the real nightmare could begin. Mind ignoring the discomfort, I turned to the Origins offered by this bizarre tutorial… had The Banker arranged it to fall into Q’s hands as well… just in case the worst happened? I’d have to find him… them… to ask. But I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t free to continue my chain, so… 

There were four Origins: The Tourist, The Collector, The Creator, and The Power Gamer. Sounds about right. Probably matched a near one for one for the Role Playing Archetypes… or were there more than one system… gah! I hated these holes in my memory! Diamonds, Spades, Hearts, Clubs was one… Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers… but that wasn’t the one I was thinking of… Power Gamer, Roleplayer, Wargamer, Storyteller… That was the first… wasn’t it? Wish Fulfilment, Drama, Simulation, and Experience. I was probably overanalyzing.

Each of the four matched me to a degree… a high degree, to be honest. I was a min-maxing munchkin. I was obsessed with invention for its own sake. I was a packrat. But above all, I was on this insane quest not for power, not for the ability to craft whatever I wanted, not even for the shiny things that came with all these travels. No. I was here to play the game. The greatest game, with the greatest stakes, and the greatest prize imaginable… getting to play the game longer.

Tourist it was. I saw each new world as a chance to experience new things, visit my favorite settings and tweak them or my least favorite settings and kick the crap out of them. Either way, I was the very definition of a Tourist.

Signing on the dotted line, metaphorically speaking, got me two options that I had to laugh at. Definite Tutorial material these. ‘Body Like A Jumper’ and ‘Mind Like A Jumper’… the first curing any physical ailments or disabilities, making the taker as physically fit as an average healthy athletic person… and keep them at that level forever… or keeping them at any higher level if they achieved it by actual training. The second would make the taker aware of any mental malfunction and give them the option to remove them, but didn’t grant immunity to the malfunction being caused by new stimulus in the future.

I was about to blow them off when I noticed a strange little bear-head icon at the bottom of the obsidian black screen. I pressed it with my toe (the screen was almost six feet tall), and an anthropomorphic bear’s head appeared. “Greetings, Queen of Ferrets. Welcome to the Generic First Jump. As a reward for completing this, all perks and items you buy from this document will be considered part of your Body Mod. You will still have them even if otherwise powered down, even by a Power Loss Drawback. Further, you’ll gain the ability to summon any of your possessions from your Warehouse to you, or send objects directly to your Warehouse, as long as they are not heavier than you can personally lift. All sent objects will be properly and safely stored, assuming you have the facilities to store them safely… and you’ll always know what is in your Warehouse and where it is located. Have fun, and remember… we’re pulling for you.”

Ooooh… okay… I had a talking bear on my side… was he one of the Crafters? The beings that shaped the Jumps in the first place? That seemed… odd. But fun. I like bears. Bears are big and grumpy, but you can stack like… thirty ferrets on one bear if the bear lets you.

Hell, the two were free. I took them. I immediately felt slightly better… and then the litany of all the things wrong with me, mentally speaking, hit. Wow. I… was a mess. Apparently I was schizophrenic, had PTSD out the wazoo, a tendency to low grade mania, obsessive tendencies, mild sadomasochistic tendencies, and a prurient mind. I was also suffering from a martyr complex, a survivor complex, and a saviour complex. And I had a thing for teenage girls. Well, duh. I confirmed all that, then accepted all of them besides the PTSD. That I cleared. No point in keeping trauma just to be difficult. My wives… oh good lord, Mini and Franky were going to murder me… my wives could testify to just how much I enjoyed their… company… and all of them had the bodies of teenage girls. Then again, at the time, so did I. Even though ten years had passed. Magical power that couldn’t retard aging just wasn’t trying hard enough.

Pausing to think about it, I tried a simple magic. [ILLUMINATE] I said. Nothing happened. Damn. Ah well. It was worth a try.

After the general freebies were a bunch of basic boosters for fifty Choice each. The perfect things to make any Jumper a nicely rounded individual. A basic appearance booster (10/10 even if you’re a rotting zombie level) with evercleansed baked in… plus perfect teeth and the need to never shave unless one wanted to. That all cost fifty, and the bear had tossed in a pleasant voice and body odor free of charge. Great. I was now sexy and I knew it. Course, I was that already… but it was fifty Choice… I could afford all the little tweaks to my body mod.

Rather predictably, I passed on Common Sense. Contrary to what my friends and family might insist on, I actually do have this already. I just choose not to employ it if I don’t have to. Life is more fun that way… but that might just be my emotions clouding my judgement. Honestly, if you know you need this perk, you don’t need this perk. Which is, of course, a catch twenty-two. But regardless, I passed on it.

I didn’t pass on the basic luck perk. It wasn’t much, but it did guarantee that random odds would tilt a bit in my favor and that bad luck alone wouldn’t cause the end of my chain. Clearly it hadn’t so far… but I’d had a lot of defenses for bad luck to get through before. Now I was running on empty.

Next up were ‘Self-Motivation’ and ‘Life Skills’. Good things to have. Really good. Especially since I was missing all the other perks that ensured I wouldn’t goof off or get distracted by my rampant ADHD… yeah, I’d kept that too… maybe I shouldn’t have passed on Common Sense? Heh. Fuck it. My companions would be weirded out if I stopped acting like a ferret on meth. I considered taking Life Skills… you know, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, ironing, driving, basic maintenance… that kind of thing. Sure, I (in theory) knew how to do all those things… but my memory was currently more swiss than cheese… then figured that I could either learn these things with a little Self-Motivation or get someone else to do them for me… okay… right, taking Common Sense instead of Life Skills. See? I can learn. Better safe than sorry.

I passed on ‘General Knowledge’ as it was stuff any local average citizen would know. If I wasn’t a Drop-In, that would be included in the Jump Persona normally, and if I did go Drop-In, it was because I didn’t think I needed the data. I also passed on ‘Friendly Sort’ which was the basic charisma thing. I’d long since gotten over being shy or having social anxiety… my mental report said so. I was just easily bored by most people.

Which is why I didn’t pass on ‘Boredom Immunity’… which was, as far as I could remember, the first perk from this tutorial that I hadn’t had prior to coming here. It even came with the ability to fast-forward through any simple repetitive task, leaving me on autopilot unless anything came up that would require my attention. Good lord. How had I lasted 15,000 years without that! Had it really been fifteen millenia? Gosh I was old!

After that was ‘No Matter Where You Go, There You Are’… long way of saying PTSD immunity, but it also came with a guarantee that my priorities, morales, and ethics couldn’t change unless I allowed them to. But the PTSD immunity was the real prize. I’d just gotten rid of it. Didn’t need it trying to sneak back in thanks to repeatedly dying in the same spot sixty-thousand times. Not that I was planning on passing the one time mark. But Prior Planning and all that.

I passed on the last two hundred-pointers, ‘Veteran’ (never lose your cool), and ‘Non-Human Race’ (I was already a Vulcan, thanks)… but took the last of the general perks, the four-hundred Choice ‘Try, Try Again’. It was a once-every-jump 1-Up, and it instantly negated and reversed any injury, attack, or action that would result in me failing my chain, rather than just death. Nice! And it wouldn’t be blocked by… well, anything, because it was (once I survived this madness) to be part of my baseline. That was worth every single one of those Choice coins… not that I currently had them in coin form. I miss the coins. They had nice chunky weight to them.

So I was eight-hundred down… of my nine-hundred… and I hadn’t even gotten to my own Origin… oh dear. Thankfully, each Origin only had three perks, and they were priced at one-hundred, two-hundred, and four-hundred… so getting all three of what Tourist had to offer would only put me two-hundred in the hole… But who knew what that might mean having to take to balance it out. For the time being, I took only the freebie, ‘The Road Goes Ever On and On’ (a Hobbit reference… nice) and ‘Seeing The Sights, All The Sights’, which saw me at break even for the time being.

“Don’t worry,” the Clown Prince of the Cosmos said, appearing over my shoulder. “Complications in each scenario can get you some more of those sweet,” he bit into a peach, “luscious,” he chewed. “Options.” I snapped my fist back, stopping a millimeter from his nose.

“Rude,” was all he said.

“Your breath smells like the crab nebula,” I snarked, turning back to my purchases. The Hobbit Reference Goes On and On meant that I’d be able to find joy and satisfaction in everyday life no matter how long I lived and be able to adapt to new cultures with ease… mostly, it was an ennui protection for immortality. Good thing to have… better thing to not have to pay for.

Seeing the Sights? Well… that was just a perfect memory perk. I used to have at least one of those. I’m pretty certain anyway. Maybe two or three. A new one couldn’t hurt, and since I could (and had I remember correctly) lost them when powered down… like now, having one I couldn’t lose was more than worth a hundred Choice. It was tamper-proof, protected against harmful memories, had perfect indexing, instant recall, and unlimited storage… and was fully retroactive too, so I was hoping it would fix some of the damage that had been done. Not so much, as it turned out. Sure, the scattered ruins of my once grand palace were now instantly searchable… but they were still scattered ruins. On the plus side, I could now erase the confusing memories, leaving knowledge that I’d erased stuff (and a basic description of what I’d erased), then restore those memories at a later time… you know, when I was able to cope with them or when all the other bits that made them not liable to drive me bonkers were restored.

STSATS even gave me memory protection, in that no one could read my memories without my permission, nor force me to restore deleted memories. So, like I said, it was (Probably) an upgrade.

I promptly used it to lock away some of the more disturbing and out of context memories. I didn’t need to wonder what, for instance, the Maegi Empire was or the New Maegi Empire… or the New… New Maegi Empire? What the hell me!? STOP MAKING EMPIRES!

Now, since I was out of options… I had to go into a Scenario… but which one? “Don’t suppose you can tell me which order they randomly shook out in, can you?” I asked Q.

“Nooope,” he said. “The list isn’t predetermined. After you survive your first random scenario, a second random one from the remaining list will be generated.”

“Drat.” I looked down at Ziggy and said, “Pick a number between zero and eleven.”

“OOk?” he replied.

“Flimpteen it is,” I agreed, then kissed his widdle nose. Purely randomly, I picked a digit of pi and used that to randomize the Scenario List. 

=OH THE HORROR=

There were no details on the Horror stele, just two perks (both priced at one-hundred) and three Complications… drawbacks that only would be in play during the year or so of the scenario. Each of the Complications could be boosted to a General Drawback, meaning it would apply to the entire jump, not just the Scenario, for another fifty Choice. Curious, I switched over the Occult Scenario. Same set up. Switching to the Historical, again, I found an identical set of options. Nicely organized. I returned to the Horror.

If I was going to buy anything, it would have to be paid for first, so I looked at the Complications first. ‘Monster Bait’ would mean that any monster present… and there would be monsters present, would target me over any other person. That was fair enough, considering that I was likely to be the one in the best position to deal with the monster. 

‘Born to be a Victim’ said it wasn’t blatantly suicidal, but I had my doubts. Not only would it slightly impair my common sense, both native and perk augmented, but it would strip away any genre-savviness I had… and as someone who wasn’t a fan of horror movies in the first place, most of my genre-savvy came from the film Scream. No thanks.

That left ‘Scripted Encounters’, which merely meant that I’d run into whatever threat I was dealing with more often. By itself, it wouldn’t make me a priority target… but with Monster Bait… yeah. Terrible idea… I took it. Better than going looking for the trouble. Much easier to have it come looking for me. As I’d once told a child… whose child? Should I forget them for the time being? I decided not to. As I’d told them when they’d warned me against the monsters in the dark… “I am the monster in the dark.” I just had to prove that it was still true.

That left me flush enough to buy ‘Be Not Afraid’ (a biblical reference… it was what higher tier angels said to assure mortals that, sure, they might look like eldritch abominations, but they were (technically) friendlies.). That would render me immune to spiritual corruption, as well as the mind-bending / mind-destroying effects of fear or beings man was not meant to see/hear/smell/play canasta with. And I had Choice left over. Excellent.

As for ‘Run Like Hell’? I didn’t plan on running. Those who ran, died.

=OCCULT LAHOMA=

Since I had points to burn, technically I didn’t have to go to Complications first for the Occult Scenario, so I looked at what was on offer first. ‘Screw the Devil’ would make me immune to any form of possession (mental, physical, or spiritual)… and yes, there were possessive entities in the TrekVerse. ‘Psychic Intuition’ did exactly what it sounded like. I took the first and passed on the second.

The Complications included ‘Masquerade’ which would force me to uphold the fiction that the supernatural wasn’t real, ‘FedInt’s Most Wanted’ which would make the mundy authorities hunt me down for OCCULT reasons, and ‘UPP’ which would make controlling my supernatural abilities (such as psychic powers) difficult in stressful situations. I took the last two. I hate Masquerades… the feathers tickle and not in a good way.

Ah… the sweet sensation of having a positive balance. It wouldn’t last. It never does.

=HISTORY IN THE MAKING=

In the History section, I decided to be a little more circumspect, signing up for only one of the Complications… ‘Historical Inconveniences’… which would mean dealing without all the modern conveniences that we so enjoy… like toilet paper, proper sanitation, or adequately balanced nutrition. I ignored the two that would have put me in an arranged marriage or kept me from adjusting to the Scenario’s setting. Adapt is the first part of the survival triad. Not getting rid of that for anything… though for a year it might be worth it. I stuck a pin in it. Maybe, if I needed the points later.

The first perk for Historical mirrored the Complication perfectly, ensuring that there would never be a need to use the little Jumper’s room since it was essentially a perpetually clean field for clothing, equipment, and body… and eliminated the need to, well, eliminate. Thankfully, I already had those from my body mod, so I didn’t really need to pay for it again. 

I did shell out the Choice for ‘Student of War’. Normally I had a stack of perks that made me a tactical and strategic mastermind (two of them were even called ‘The Art of War’), so spending points to get a half-rate expertise in those things (plus similar skill in logistics and organization, the unsung aspects of victory nine times out of ten) might not seem like a great idea, but it was better to cover my bases than not… plus, I wasn’t actually certain how good those perks, whose text I couldn’t recall, made me at logistics or organization. Looking back on my military careers, what little of them I could look back on, I don’t actually recall ever paying attention to formal hierarchies, preferring a more ad hoc structure to things… or just letting my Companions handle those details.

I’d probably do that again, if the chance permitted, but an ounce of prevention and all that.

=IF LIFE IS PIE, HAVE AS BIG A SLICE AS YOU CAN=

The idea that Slice of Life could be, somehow, threatening, seemed a bit far fetched to me. Boredom seldom kills… but it was, potentially, possible I might get into a torrid love dodecahedron and be murdered by a jealous cat or something. Regardless, I proposed to take the concept as seriously as it was possible to do, and so I took ‘Expertise’, which would make me a top-notch professional in one real world profession of my choice. Since I still had S’Janus’s training in physics, engineering, and medicine… fields I’d worked very hard to get even better at over the decade I’d been her, I decided not to go with one of them.

I also decided to ignore the arts, as I was reasonably certain that I’d picked up more than a few of them in my travels and they were unlikely to be super useful in my stay in this universe. Which raised the question of what, exactly, I should take. Odds were good that anything I took would be something that my missing memories already contained knowledge of; I vaguely remember having some kind of super-accelerated learning curve, so if there was a thing the rest of me had been interested in learning, she would have, right?

Shrugging, I selected fashion design. Yes, I know I said no arts, but fashion design is a) a craft, and b) practical. Someone has to make uniforms, and by being general, I gained expert level in sewing, embroidery, color theory for fabrics, knowledge of fabrics, and (in my own case) safety protocols. See, I was now an expert in survival and hazardous climate wear design and testing. Useful? Hopefully. If not, I could kill time doing needlepoint or something.

I considered getting ‘Friendly Friends’ but I’m already a pretty good listener. Ziggy says so and he’d know. Sometimes I listen to his heartbeat for hours when he’s sleeping. It’s very soothing. Being a good friend is largely about being fun to be around and being supportive. See? Easy peasy. Just saved you 100 Choice. Aren’t I nice?

The Complications for Slice of Life were… weird. After the monsters promised for Horror and the lack of sanitation promised for Historical, the prospect of having to work a series of new minimum wage jobs every few weeks seemed almost laughable, and the idea of suffering from a serious of minor (inconvenient, painful, or embarrassing) accidents wasn’t fun, but it wouldn’t kill me. That bad luck might plague any plans I might make would be annoying, but all in all, very dealable. The only one of the three I rejected out of hand was ‘Homeless’. Slice of Life should not be Survival, thanks.

=NOW IN PRIME TIME REALITY TV=

Speaking of Survival, I went all out, accepting all three of the Complications there. Why the hell not, I figured. It wouldn’t be a true Survival story if I couldn’t count on being strapped for resources life food and water and shelter… while suffering from some physical disability such as lost or crippled limbs or a missing eye… in horrible weather?

Yes, yes, Common Sense and all that. But honestly? A true survival scenario needs adversity, and while I had no doubt I would not enjoy struggling each day to continue living, I could try as many times as it took to succeed.

Also, there was a perk that would make the whole thing much simpler… ‘Eagle Scout’, which would make me an expert in all things survival and give me luck at finding materials and resources. So it would be a struggle… but not an insurmountable one… even if I was being hunted by some crazy enemy. They’d have to deal with the horrible weather too… as well as whatever traps I had worked out for them to encounter.

The other perk, ‘Lone Survivor’ just helped deal with loneliness and isolation. That I didn’t really need. I was a Vulcan, after all… or at least currently. That fact was actually what made the whole survival thing a bit interesting, since Vulcans, as a desert species, can survive without water for considerably longer periods than humans can… and go without sleep for as long as two weeks.

=ADVENTURE OF 200+ LIFETIMES=

The Adventure Scenario offered a reaction speed booster (peak human) with a thought speed enhancer (3x what they otherwise would be), and Clue-O-Vision. I took the first and ignored the second, even though Clue-O-Vision is kinda cool. I also wasn’t certain that the peak human reaction speed would stack with the similar boost baked into my body mod… but the thought speed enhancer was 3x whatever I already had, so that was worth the Dosh right there.

The Complications all sounded like fun… but RED (retired, extremely dangerous) would make me literally ‘too old for this shit’ and I wasn’t certain how that would work out in the context of the larger jump… would I get prematurely aged? Or actually aged… I’d been fifty-eight when I’d started S’Janus’s adventures… way back in 2265… and this jump was starting in 2360. By the time it ended in 2380, S’Janus would be a hundred-and-seventy-three years old. That might seem like a lot, but in Earthling terms, that was the equivalent of being about seventy. Not terrible, but definitely enough to make a difference. Two-twenty was about the limits for Vulcan lifespans, roughly the equivalent of a century for Earthlings. Sarek, Spock’s father, had lived… will live to be two-hundred-and-two and the outer limits of the species longevity was about two-fifty. With my enhanced health I could probably last that long… if I was stuck here. I’d rather not. I liked being immortal. 

In fact, only my Vulcan emotional calm was keeping me from freaking the fuck out. Immortals do not, as a general rule, like being threatened with mortality. It kinda sucks.

So no, I didn’t take RED even though, quite frankly, I could have pulled it off with aplomb. Instead, I took ‘Bad Comic Relief’ so that Zane could get maximum annoyance points… well, really so that I could get points when he inevitably said or did the wrong thing almost constantly, required rescuing on a regular basis, or (in general) proved more a hindrance than my actual enemies. Sure, odds were he’d be doing it the rest of the time I was S’Janus as well, but at least I was getting some Choice for it. To test if he was really as bad as all that, I didn’t take the keeper version of it. Let’s see if he’s less aggravating when that aggravation isn’t fiat backed.

I also took the ‘Secret Society’ Complication. I was already being stalked by three secret societies… what was one more? Seriously considered making that a keeper… but frankly I was considering if it was the proverbial straw and didn’t want to push it too far.

=LUNCH TIME MIGHT BE ILLUSORY, BUT ILLUSIONS NEED FOOD TOO=

I was really getting hungry now… and a bit thirsty… which, as I’ve indicated, as a Vulcan was saying something, but I pressed on. Just a bit more. Four more… and then… then…” I may have passed out at that point and woken in the Academy’s medical bay. Q was dressed as a nurse. A female nurse.

“How long has it been since you ate?” (s)he asked. It was a curious question, not a mark of concern or compassion… curious as in Q was clearly unable to determine and that made the entity more than a little confused.

“In all likelihood,” I said, “It has been the better part of at least fifteen millenia since this body has eaten anything.” As far as I knew, it was true. I don’t remember eating a single snack in S’Janus’s body in all that time. It was entirely possible I had, but… you know… memory problems. Weird having memory problems and a perfect memory at the same time… but there you go. It’s like ADHD being both a lack of focus and hyperfocus or something.

“Well… that shouldn’t be possible,” Q said. “Maybe you should fix that.”

“Great,” I agreed. “Feed me, Seymour.”

That earned me a long hard stare, and then it was pointed out, “You are not a carnivorous xenobiotic Spatium Peaereptor.”

I sighed, then sat up. “Very good, genius. But I’m also in some kind of null space populated only by whatever you put in here. You, then, control the only source of food.”

“Not true!” he said, as the room transformed into a street corner with him leaning out the window of an Ice Cream van. On the side of it was the Tutorial’s Souvenir section in place of a menu. At the top it said “All items can be purchased multiple times, and if lost, stolen, or destroyed will be replaced with twenty-four hours. Ask your vendor for your new customer coupon book.”

“Okaaay,” I hazard, “Give me my coupon book, buddy boy.”

“That’s not asking,” Q said, wagging a finger at me. I bit it. He winced, then glowered and tossed me a small packet of coupons. Looking inside, I found a $2 off any purchase or purchases coupon, a coupon for 1 free purchase of Bare Necessities, a similar one for a Camera or a Security Pass, and a coupon for 50% off any number of other Cameras and Security Passes.

“Well… that’s very nice I guess… but I don’t see anything to eat in here,” I commented, voice dry as the sands of the St’kor Basin. “I’m not a camera-vore… does Bare Necessities include food?” The name sounded familiar… maybe I had a perk or item with the same… Yess… Generic Roleplayer. That was where I’d picked up an income of two-billion USD a year. Had it been two? Or twenty? Couldn’t remember… but something like that.

“Not in the least,” Q said. “At least not directly. A home of some kind, a cheap but decent vehicle of appropriate type, and the basic sundries needed to establish and maintain life. Also a job that pays enough to live on.”

I nodded slowly. That tracked with what I remembered. “And if I pay-” I looked at the menu board, “a dollar, it becomes 200,000 a year with a nicer home, nicer vehicle, etc. another dollar and it becomes 2,000,000 and so on and so forth, right?”

“Indeed!” he agreed jovially. “It’s almost as if you’ve done this before.”

“I have done this before, dolt,” I muttered, scanning down the menu. “Soundtrack? Not edible. Pictures from home? Not edible… or at least not nutritive. Wardrobe? I’m not a moth. Your Best Friend? Would probably protest if I ate him… or, you know… be terribly embarrassed if I did it the non-standard way. Smartphone? Again, not edible… Favorite Treats?” I paused at that item. “What is this? Is it food?”

Giving me a look that was very much like a doting uncle giving his favorite niece an incredibly patronizing pat on the head, he grinned hugely and said, “It is an unlimited supply of any one food-”

“Charcuterie board from a high end Argentinian place,” I snapped at once, not even letting him finish.

“One food item… any type of food, candy, or beverage,” he finished. “A charcuterie board is not a single food item.”

“Ah…” I frowned. Darn. “Combo Supreme Pizza from Uno’s Chicago Grill with extra parm times seven.”

He blinked, then nodded. “Very well. But you don’t have to tell me.”

“I don’t?”

“You just think about it and it will appear.”

“So I can change my mind at any time?”

“A brief period of meditation is required to change what you summon, and you may not change it more than once per week,” he explained, but I was only half listening as I was too busy scarfing down the piping hot za. Oh… goddess… I’d missed this. Sooo good!

“Now, shall we continue? I don’t have all eter-” he began, but I threw an entire second pizza at him. Splat, it covered his face in red sauce and cheese and bits of meat. “Picard never threw a pizza at me,” he muttered.

“Damn… now I need a soda,” I sighed, then bought Favorite Treats again, this time setting it for a lime coke slurpee. Clearly such a thing could, in theory, exist… so now it did. I took a sip. “Aaaaagh… Brainfreeze! Brainfreeze!” I did it again. “AAAAAAAGH!”

“How is it that you’ve managed to last for fifteen millenia when you clearly are suffering from some undiagnosed form of insanity?” Q asked, staring at me in deepest concern for his own safety and the safety of all who dwelt in this universe.

“Magical ferret powers,” I said, scarfing down a truly unhealthy amount of carbs, meat, cheese, and sugar.

”There’s no such thing as magic,” Q asserted in what might, just, be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard a transcendent being say.

“Of course there is,” I shot back. “What else would you call what you’re doing when you alter the fabric of reality?”

“I call it asserting my will upon the universe,” the petulant god-being asserted. “It’s not magic.”

“Meets every definition I’ve ever heard,” was my reply. “Now, let’s get back to buying items.” It was clear that, for the time being, I was more than flush with Choice to spend… and some of the menu items were intriguing me, now that my hunger was, temporarily, sated.

Checking the pockets of my robe, which had been growing heavier and heavier with each Complication I’d signed on for, and then lighter with each Perk I’d purchased, I found that I currently held twenty-eight shiny Fifty Choice coins, with the phrases “In Q We Trust” and “E Continuus Unus” stamped around the edges, giving me a total budget of fourteen-hundred with which to buy additional Perks and Souvenirs… and odds were I’d pick up another thousand, give or take, in the remaining four Scenarios… depending on how good the Perks were and how evil the Complications. I also still had a hundred in… let’s call it ‘store credit’

First, I went back over the stuff I’d passed over as being inedible, but still had no interest in having my own soundtrack. I like music, really. I listen to it near continuously when I’m not listening to something else, like a movie or audiobook or game dialogue… and that’s assuming those don’t have background music of their own. I even have special meditation enhancing music… or had… but I could, you know, just use a music player if I needed something to listen to. And if I didn’t have music? I’d cope.

Pictures of Home were equally useless to me. Either I could remember everyone I needed to remember or I couldn’t, but I’d long ago gotten over feelings of homesickness.

But then there was Wardrobe, an extensive collection of clothing that would always include the perfect outfit for any occasion (including accessories), but limited to mundane clothing, so no armor or magic… and I couldn’t sell any of it.

“Is this stuff self-sizing?” I asked.

“Of course,” Q avered. “It would hardly be ‘the perfect outfit’ if it wasn’t, now would it?”

“You’ve obviously never been in the wish granting business,” I muttered. Still, it seemed like an extremely useful item and one that, had I had it in the past, would have made many an emergency shopping trip unnecessary. 

That ate half my remaining store credit, and I spent the rest on ‘Your Best Friend’, which would give my Warehouse (once I regained it… hope springs eternal in the Jumper’s breast) proper housing, care facilities, and supplies for all my pets… including a veterinary version of the Medbay. It would even regress any pets I acquired that might be past the prime of their lives back to said prime and keep them there. I’d been using my link to… something… to… how had I been keeping my pets from aging in the past? Had all my pets been fiat backed? That… might explain why I could only remember a few. I was very fond of small animals… Why did I only have one ferret? Back as a mortal I could have sworn I usually had three to five at any given time.

Regardless, the PetBay would keep them alive and healthy and respawn any pet (non-sapient bioform registered with the Bay) within twenty-four hours. What was more interesting than that was that I could register any of my pets from home… even ones that had passed on before my chain had even begun. 

Look, I’m not a hugely sentimental being… even less so when I’m being S’Janus… but I’d lost a number that I couldn’t currently remember of pets in my first life. Each of those losses had hurt to a degree that makes what I’m about to say entirely understandable… I’d have paid all the remaining Choice I had and taken more Complications than was entirely safe, let alone sane just to get my favorite pets back. Only the death of… of… someone… someone important… had had a more profound impact on my mental health… but I could no longer remember who… just the hole that passing had left in my life. And no, it wasn’t a memory I’d deleted purposefully.

So, yeah? Fifty Choice in store credit? I lept all over that. “Will they show up if I don’t have a warehowww-” was as far as I got before five dogs (a toy poodle, a collie, a border-collie-dalmatian mix, a golden retriever that was quarter wolf, and a brown mini-pinscher), seven ferrets (three pandas, a chocolate, a siamese, a sable mask, and a sable mitt), a pair of guinea pigs (one abyssian and one self black), a fishtank full of snails, another full of gold-fish, a third with a small turtle, a horse, an american wirehaired cat, a fluffy siberian cat, and a gerbil all made their presences known.  

“Okaay…” I said, nonplussed. This was more than I’d been expecting for… like… four reasons. First, the poodle, Tucci, had belonged to my grand-mother before she passed away (the grandmother, not the dog… the dog had gone to my aunt and had (as far as I knew) still been alive when I’d started my Chain). Similarly, the Pinscher, Asuffie, and the Siberian, Mitzy, had belonged to my mother, although both had been laid to rest by the time of my departure… but they’d joined her household long after I’d moved out. The snails were what had happened to the fish tank that had previously held the last of the gold-fish, who’d been, one by one, given to me and then flushed down the toilet as they did as goldfish usually do when not in a high end tank.

So, that was pets that weren’t technically mine, or animals I’d barely wanted… at least none of the insects I’d caught in jars or mice / rats I’d caught in traps were included. But the weirdness didn’t stop there.

No, the grey furred wirehair not only didn’t belong to me, but it didn’t belong to anyone in my family. No. It had belonged to a woman my mother was house sitting for one summer when I visited her from school. The woman’s cat had had kittens and the grey, all of maybe three months old, had latched onto me and slept with me every day for two weeks. I’d wanted to adopt the cutie, but my sorority hadn’t allowed pets… and, you know, technically I had been allergic to cats. I didn’t even know the kitten’s name. I’d just called her Calli, short for Calliope, because it was similar to Calico… not that she was that color in any way.

So that was oddity three… but the biggest oddity was the horse. Her name was Raincloud and she was a gorgeous grey roan, sixteen hands high, with a black mane and a starburst in the middle of her forehead. The problem wasn’t that she wasn’t mine. The problem was that, technically, she didn’t… or hadn’t, existed. As a little girl, I’d wanted a horse of my own so badly (I grew up near farm country in… in some place with mountains) that I’d invented my perfect horse in my mind… and now she was right there, eyeing me calmly before she lowered her head and began eating from a barrel of oats.

Still, the oddities aside, I looked around the collection of pets I’d owned, and at least three I’d never wanted… The collie, Brandie, chief among them. She had been my aunt’s (different aunt) but left with us since said aunt lived in an apartment that didn’t allow pets. Brandie had clashed with Kiva (the goldie) but I’d taken care of her for nearly two full years, so yeah, she had been mine for a time. The gerbil, Blackie, had bitten me continuously and wasn’t any fun to play with. And the Abyssinian Piggy, Copper, had belonged to my step-sisters… but when their mother had gotten custody of them, Copper had become mine by default. Squeaky little goober.

But the others filled me with joy. I didn’t remember the black piggy, though her cage said “Erika” or the turtle “Min of the Mississippi” or the border-collie “Girl”… had I named a dog ‘Girl’… that seemed unlikely. But I did remember the ferrets… Metropolis, Ragamuffin, Melissa, Warlock, Fujiko, Samantha, and Reginald Grimble (aka Archie)… I was certain I’d had more ferrets than that… names and fuzzy faces floated up out of the haze of my memories… but I was somehow certain that all of them still lived back in my original timeline… maybe they were curled up with… with… someone? Waiting for me to return? No. Not waiting. Frozen in the moment I’d left.

“Heya, kiddos,” I said, kneeling in the swarm of noses and paws and bright shining eyes. My own eyes were full of tears, for I’d said goodbye to every one of these precious souls… well… some less precious, and one imaginary, and some were snails and goldfish. Immortal snails and goldfish. “No,” I said, snuggling seven wiggling resurrected weasels to my chest as the five dogs tried to investigate them. Only Tucci and Archie had known each other… and they were nearly the same size since Tucci was tiny and Archie was massive for a fuzzbutt, but I didn’t need any trouble at the moment. 

“No,” I said again, looking to Q. “Send these back where they came,” I nodded to the snails and fish. “If I never named it, it’s not a pet.”

“Technically you named the snails ‘Mine’,” Q pointed out, but I just glared at him and they vanished, followed by the fish. If I ever decided I wanted more goldfish I could just, you know, buy more goldfish. We had not been emotionally attached.

The next few minutes were dedicated to getting everyone back into their various cages… or in the case of the big dogs, a large backyard with three dog houses, and in the case of the cats and small dogs, a large bedroom / living room combination. Oddly, the seven ferrets, who’d never lived together in numbers greater than three, were getting along okay in the absolutely gigantic cage that looked like a hybrid of the four different ferret cages I could remember having… more remarkable, because Ragamuffin and Warlock hadn’t gotten along three-quarters of the time when they’d been alive. 

My cheeks were still slick with tears. So many of these little ones (or not so little in the case of Kiva) I’d seen last when they were aged and infirm… Kiva, I’d last seen when we’d both been seventeen… he almost made it to eighteen, but he’d been blind and arthritic then. Now? He was frisking in the yard like he was three again. I half expected him to start barking at hot air balloons.

“Okay, Q,” I said, once I’d gotten my emotions under control. “I owe you a debt. For what that’s worth. One favor. Not unlimited, but close. Once I’ve got my full power back… ask, and if it doesn’t violate my honor or ethics and is within my capacity to grant, it’s yours.”

“I…” he paused. Was sincerity so alien to the Continuum? I suspect that it very much might be. “Thank you?” He definitely looked bemused by the concept of ‘debts’.

I smiled slightly, then nodded, “No problem… Now, why are there two prices listed for the Smartphone and Laptop?”

“If you pay the extra fifty, they’ll always upgrade to match the best equivalent device in each new jump and will automatically upgrade to have all the abilities of any similar device that you purchase with Choice,” he explained. “Either way, they’re top-of-the-line for what they are, never need to be recharged or maintained, are instantly self-repairing, immune to malware and hacking, and always get a signal. They have unlimited storage and memory.”

“Well…” I considered. “I don’t see how I can say no to that! Is that upgrade retroactive with every fiat backed smartphone or laptop I’ve ever gotten?” I was thinking of the Laptop I’d gotten in my first jump and the smartphone I’d gotten in the last jump I could remember.

“Once you bring them into contact with each other, I’d imagine so,” he confirmed, “but that would be something to take up with your Benefactor when you have a chance.”

That cost me two-fifty, but it was well worth the price.

Neither the ‘Franchise’ or ‘Vehicle’ options really interested me. I didn’t feel the need to pay for comic books, cartoons, or movies about my adventures, and I didn’t need a real world civilian vehicle, even if it was one that was self-cleaning, self-maintaining, and never needed to be refueled. What was I going to do with a minivan in space. Hell, even if I abused it to the absolute limit… what was I going to do with the History Supreme, Streets of Monaco, Azzam, or Eclipse… the four mega yachts that were worth more than half a billion dollars. History Supreme had, assuming my memory was correct, cost nearly five billion and had been made from five tons of solid gold. Streets of Monaco… if she’d ever been actually built, was a floating city almost, and Azzam and Eclipse were traditional yachts scaled up to be more than a hundred fifty meters long or roughly half the length of the USS Enterprise Aircraft Carrier.

All of them were, of course, obscenely fancy… but they were watercraft. Hell, the only civilian space-craft I could buy with that was… well… a space shuttle. I briefly considered having my very own Enterprise… but rejected it, and for a very good reason.

The next menu item was called ‘Generic Souvenir’ and for one hundred Choice it could be anything from this universe. Well, okay, not anything, but like… any minor but useful tool from this verse… with all the bells and whistles… self-cleaning, self-maintaining… unlimited fuel, power, and ammunition. Sooo… you know… the Delta Flyer. Or the freaking Time Shuttle from the year 28xx or something. Or the Genesis Device. You know… a planet killer… or, technically, an unlimited supply of them.

I set aside a hundred Choice while I considered what I might want to get from all the possibilities… then remembered that I could buy more than one Generic Souvenir and added a second hundred to the pile… you know, in case I had more bad ideas.

That was it from the general section, and that meant there were eight menu items left, two from each of the available Origins. Tourists were, as the coupon had hinted at, ‘Camera’ (which wasn’t really a camera, more the ability to receive a snapshot of any moment the taker wanted to remember, from any angle, just as it actually happened, and framed just the right way) and ‘Security Pass’, which actually was a name badge that was always the appropriate credentials to bypass any security… though it wouldn’t create any background records or add my name to exclusive lists or anything like that. Since I got one of them free, I used the coupon on a Security Pass. No point in having more than one of that, so the discount on more would be useless. I also saw no reason to get the Camera. I mean, sure, it could, potentially be useful… but… eh… maybe (if I had fifty Choice left over)… though, quite frankly, right at that moment I was considering using fifty just to get these really awesome Tanen-Donburi (steak & egg rice bowl) that I’d eaten as often as I could back in college… or maybe I could wait a week and switch my favorites and not waste points like that!

Instant gratification! My old enemy!

Very briefly, I decided not to get The Collector’s ‘Catalogue’ (a list of all the objects I would want in each world I visited with hints towards their location and how I might acquire them), The Creator’s ‘Workshop’ (pretty much what you’d expect it to be), or The Power Gamer’s ‘Jumper Total Fitness’ (a workout facility which would scale to safely allow effective training for any ability I might possess). I passed on the first because dear lord was that an invitation to compulsive packratism and wasted time, the second because I could pretty much build any workshop I needed once I got my warehouse back, and the third because, well, ditto for training rooms.

I did, however, splurge for The Power Gamer’s ‘Ultimate Book Of Ultimate Brain Teasers’ which contained an unlimited number of puzzles, games, riddles, and other activities guaranteed to be both always fun and the best possible way to train my mental abilities. I fucking love puzzles, and (quite frankly) with the Survival Scenario, I suspected I might need the distraction. 

Similarly, I opted to buy The Creator’s ‘Simulation System’, which was a system that could perfectly simulate and test anything I could design. Like… wow. Nice. Useful. No more annoying prototyping phase. I immediately installed it on my laptop. Incidentally, my new smartphone had been fused with my tricorder… much better form factor.

Last, I looked at the (potentially) holy grail of Collector items. It was called ‘The Stamp of Fiat Approval’… and for one-hundred choice, it would allow me to apply a mark to any one item of my choice that hadn’t been acquired from a jump document and give that item fiat backing, meaning that it would function anywhere and be restored twenty-four hours after it was destroyed. If the stamp was used on that item again, it would remove the mark and I’d be able to place it on a different item… though only once per jump.

I added a third hundred to the growing pile… I was definitely getting at least three of either Stamps or GenSouvenirs… or some mix of the two… I just hadn’t decided yet. That left me with six-hundred-fifty Choice… and I shrugged and bought the ‘Camera’… just in case. Six-Hundred.

“I think that’s it for the time being,” I told Q. “Let’s head back to the testing pit, for now.”

“What’s with these?” he asked, pointing to the six coins on his truck’s counter.

“Earmarked for when I’m more decisive,” I said, scooping them up and putting them in a pouch on the belt I’d just pulled from my Wardrobe.

=T’PLANA-HATH AND THE MATRONS OF VULCAN PHILOSOPHY=

Ziggy was napping in the center of the testing pit when I returned in a flash of Q-Light. He didn’t stir until I placed him on my shoulders, at which point he yawned hugely, licked my ear, and went back to sleep, head tucked under my chin and claws clinging to my robe.

“More scenarios?” Invigilator-Q asked.

“I thought I’d get some perks from some of the other Origins first…” I tapped my finger against my lips, trying to decide if I wanted the final Tourist option, now that I could afford it. It was called ‘Ride The Rails To See The Sights’ and would allow me to keep from disrupting canon events as long as I didn’t deliberately cause large scale changes. It would, in affect, allow the narrative to self-adjust for any minor alterations I might have made… somehow, I suspected I already had something that did something like that, but I couldn’t be certain… it seemed like the kind of thing I’d pick up… but I just wasn’t sure.

For the time being, I passed on it. It didn’t seem all too important… After all, what could I butterfly away in this universe? The Dominion War? Sisco finding the Wormhole? Voyager being sent to the Gamma Quadrant, helping the Borg fight Species 8472 and thus save the galaxy from a biological version of themselves, then destroying the collective permanently? Okay… yeah, technically there were quite a number of ways I could bork up this reality with foreknowledge and ignorance. I’d consider it, if I had Choice left over.

But before that, there were nine other perks I didn’t have a discount on to consider. ‘The Collector’s Eye’, which would allow me to instantly determine if something would fit in my collection and what its value was, didn’t interest me. The Power Gamer’s ‘Oh, The Possibilities’ which just would have made me clever and inventive in using my assets was something I already had, thank you very much. But the Creator’s ‘Inspiration’, which would make me immune to writer’s block or any similar affliction, in addition to granting me unlimited inspiration and the potential to excel in any creative field? For a hundred? Who knew how many times over fifteen millenia I’d been afflicted with the curse that was writer’s block… but I was guessing the total time was in the centuries. 

Five-hundred left and I looked to the expensive stuff. The Creator’s ‘Form’ and ‘Function’ were… eh… okay? But not ideal for me. Form would mean that everything I created always carried the visual appearance I was aiming for and that its form never interfered with its function, while ‘Function’ meant that everything I created would always work as intended… yes, even if I founded a nation. Seemed kinda… boring actually. I enjoy a little unpredictability, as a novel experience if nothing else.

The Collector’s good stuff, ‘Seek and Ye Shall Find’ and ‘Harmony’ were much more intriguing and potentially useful. The cheaper, SAYSF, would endow me with a specialized form of luck for finding things, be that clues to solve a mystery, leads to track down a person or object, or just random change under vending machines. It also came with talent as an investigator and tracker. For two-hundred, it wasn’t ideal, but hardly a bad price, so I got it.

Harmony, on the other hand, would keep any of my abilities, possessions, companions, or in fact anything else that belonged to me from harming, corrupting, or altering me against my will. The price, four-hundred, was bloody great for what it did… but again my sense of ‘Well, that doesn’t seem like much fun.’ kept me from buying it. I like the unexpected and such a fiat protection against my own folly? Too much like cheating even for me. Also, that was a hefty chunk of Choice for something that could essentially be covered with a little common sense and a lot of proper testing procedures.

Which left The Power Gamer’s remaining options. ‘What’s Mine is Mine’ (which prevented my abilities from fading or degrading over time from disuse, and guaranteed that I’d age gracefully) was discounted because a) actually using one’s abilities is a much more cost effective way of keeping them from degrading, and b) I had very few plants to age at all once this jump was over and I was restored to my former glory.

So that was out, leaving only ‘Hard Work Pays Dividends’. For four hundred points, it would make all forms of training or advancement work five times faster for me than it otherwise would… that was it. A quintuple training booster. Fuck yeah I bought it… though that meant I had to dip into my Souvenir fund. I still had two-hundred Choice left for Stamps or Shuttlecraft… if Q even signed off on them as “tools”.

“Alrighty,” I said, turning back to the Scenario walls. “Time to punish… I mean challenge myself some more.” 

=JOIN TODAY, ASK US HOW=

The seventh Scenario I accessed was the military one, and (for the first time) I had no interest in either of the two Scenario specific perks, ‘Advanced Infantry Training’ and ‘Military Occupational Specialty’. Military skillsets, be they combat oriented or support, were not what I considered a worthy thing to spend Choice on. Not that I had anything against the military, but anything short of field-grade operative wasn’t going to even rustle my jimmies… whatever the hell that actually meant. Even if I hadn’t been a Starfleet Academy Graduate with doctorates in Particle and Theoretical Physics, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, Medicine, and Xenobiology… I still wouldn’t have spent points on truck-driving, military cooking, vehicle maintenance, or law enforcement. I might have considered AIT… but I hadn’t been sitting on my hands while I’d been S’Janus, and I still remembered the thousands of hours I/She/We had put in training in armed, unarmed, and ranged combat drills and against targets both living and machine.

As for the Complications? Well, ‘War is Hell’ would keep my newly purchased PTSD immunity non-functional for the entire Scenario, leaving me to face the horrors of combat with no more insurance than the next time looping combat medic might have. I’d faced PTSD before as S’Janus… if need be, I could do it again. Not that I was at all looking forward to survivor’s guilt or shellshock.

‘The Meat Grinder’ would ensure that the traumatic experiences were all but unavoidable, as taking it meant signing up to spend the entire period of the Scenario at the tip of the proverbial spear… not only in wartime but in frequent, grueling combat. R&R opportunities would be few and far between, with beds largely being a thing of myth and legend… and not even soft beds… a proper bunk would seem like an angelic reward by the end of the tour.

Still, both of them were doable, and better than ‘I Have Truly Found Paradise’ which would grant me the joyful gift of a spectacularly incompetent chain of command. I passed on that one not only out of a sense of self preservation but out of the faint hope that not taking it would spare even one Federation citizen or Starfleet member from having to actually be part of such a suboptimal hierarchy. The other two boned me and (mostly) only me. But chains of command branch outward from on high. Multiple bad links wouldn’t just be the problem of one subordinate. No… a bad commander could doom thousands… and with enemies like the Borg, the Dominion, and the Uncaring Void of Space to deal with, it was entirely possible that a single bad command decision could doom the Federation and potentially the entire Alpha and Beta Quadrants with it.

That got me another three hundred, two hundred after I resupplied my Souvenir fund, all at the cost of hardship and personal suffering… but no actual Choice, which is nice.

=POWER FANTASY=

Similar to the Military Scenario, the Fantasy Scenario offered the opportunity to purchase the skill sets (but not magical abilities) of fantasy rpg classes… you know, like a Ranger’s tracking ability and archer, or a Rogue’s mastery of picking pockets and locks, or a Paladin’s ability to be judgemental without worrying about the actual facts on the ground… no, sorry, that’s unfair. Real paladins only occasionally act like fanatical Knights Teutonic. Sometimes they act like Knights Hospitaler and are only a bit fanatic. Still, I wasn’t sold on the utility of any of those skillsets, so I passed, especially since they came without any of the laying on hands, wildshaping, or turning undead.

But there was magic available, of a kind… a very very limited kind. Cantrips. Dungeons and Dragons Edition 3.5 or Pathfinder tier cantrips. Wooo… 1d3 acid / cold / electrical damage, floating lights, minor tk, basic repair, and cleansing powers… or at least the equivalent. But considering how depowered I currently was, I snapped that shit right up! Momma didn’t raise no fool… did she? I was having a great deal of trouble remembering which of the mother figures I’d had over the ages was my original one… I was pretty certain I had one though, and I suspected that she hadn’t raised me to be a fool… if she’d raised me at all… she must have… at least part of the time. I remember her being annoyed when I taught my dog, the border-collie named ‘Girl’, to stand on her back legs with her paws on my shoulders… which meant on mom’s boobs when Girl showed her the new trick. Mom had not been pleased. I remember there being a lecture… had someone else been there? I vaguely remembered another little girl… maybe that was me in the mirror? I shook my head to clear it.

That wasn’t the only thing Fantasy had to offer. What it provided in power was largely dwarfed by what it provided in opportunity, in the form of three very interesting Complications, and the Choice they offered in recompense. Case in point, ‘Bandits’, which was a string of bandits, bullies, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, pedophiles, train robbers, bank robbers, asskickers, shitkickers, and evangelists… essentially everyone who might want to beat me down and take my stuff, at the rate of one attempt a week. They wouldn’t be powerful, but would be persistent and (most likely) ugly. Probably not led by that witness wonder ‘Hedley Lamarr’ though, which would be a shame.

‘Siege At Jumper Fortress’ would force me to take part in an epic blockbuster movie set piece battle at least once in my stay in that Level… I tended to enjoy that kind of thing, so I wasn’t going to turn down some nice flexible Choice over having to face the enemy charge or whatever.

The third Complication was, rather tellingly, marked with a sticker… yes, an actual sticker scrolled up my screen as I brought up the details. It had ‘Q Approved’ on it, and I peeled it off the datapad and, staring right at the entity in question, chewed it up and swallowed it. Why, you ask? Well, the third Complication’s name was ‘Archmage’s Interest’ and, there wasn’t really any way I wasn’t going to have to deal with it anyway, so I might as well get the points for it.

The text says, and I quote, ‘A very powerful, well-connected, extremely handsome, all wise, roisterously funny, suave, debonair, charming, and influential being of impeccable taste has taken an interest in your sad, pathetic, limited adventures. They don’t hate you, but they’re not exactly on your side either. They mostly just find amusement in your antics and want to keep things interesting for as long as possible.’

I frowned. “Does that mean that you’re going to cause me to fail Scenarios just to watch me repeat them ad infinitum?”

“Would I do that?” He asked, then cut me off. “No. No I wouldn’t. I’m not cruel, no matter how capricious I might come across or how inscrutable my actions might be. If I started doing that, you’d begin to repeat actions to the point where each loop became identical and then where would the fun be. No. I promise, you won’t be hit by… how to put it…” He paused.

“Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies?” I asked. “Diabolus Ex Machina?”

“Yess…” he almost hissed. “That. I promise to only be puckish, not actively malevolent.”

“Fine,” I sighed, taking the Complication with Drawback Keeper, since I knew he wouldn’t limit himself to just the Fantasy Scenario, even if he wanted to. He was far too much a rogue agent, playing by his own twisted rules. But he would, mostly, follow those rules. Not because he had to, but because they were his. Breaking them would mean going against his own nature and fundamentally changing who he was. When you can do anything, giving yourself limits is the only way to remain who you want to be. At least that’s what I seem to remember from being nearly limitless… or maybe not. But if he was going to screw me, he was going to screw me, points or no points.

=GUESS WHO, HERO=

That left only two Scenarios, and I was way over what I figured I needed… but if nothing else, I could always dump leftover Choice into food or funds, so I wasn’t too worried. I flipped back and forth between the two remaining Scenarios, looking at the last six drawbacks and figuring out if any of them were worth taking just to pad my purse a bit more. 

Speculative… which I guess was a way of saying Science-Fiction, was a weird category… I mean, after all, Star Trek is a Sci-Fi setting. How much more speculative could it get? Time Travel? Done that. FTL drives? Done that. Psychic Power and Ascension? Done that. Dimension Travel? Quantum Chromo-Dynamics? Tachyon Theory? Utopian Ideology? Dystopian Nightmare? Aliens? Giant Space Widgets? Dyson Spheres? Wormholes? Bioships? Things Man Was Not Meant To Know? Sexy Alien Babes? Done it, done it, done it. But whatever, I was going to get some points here even if the first two choices sounded like the end all be all of insanity to take in the Star Trek Universe.

‘Three Seashells’ was a reference to that movie that had that actor… oh, for fuck’s sake… the one from the movie about boxing! Dolph Lundgren! That’s it! Dolph Lundgren and… and… crap. I was drawing a blank. Anyway, it was the cop frozen in ice for like forty years only to come out in a world where all the toilet paper had been replaced with these silly shells that no one would fucking explain… like… don’t be jerks, EXPLAIN! Ugh… anyway, future full of confusing technology. No thanks. I like my technology comprehensible… especially since, you know, I’m an Engineer… and a Doctor. I’m Scotty and Bones rolled into one… Spock too, come to think of it. With a bit of Uhura for sass and swagger. And I can fence… and am ambiguously sexual. I’m almost the entire crew! Go me! Now I just need to brag about Russia and seduce at least five babes a season.

The second, ‘The Glitch’ was even worse. Instead of being techno-illiterate, I’d become techno-jinxing. It might not be instantly fatal but it wouldn’t be wise for me to spend time on a spaceship. No thank you very much.

But the third? That was ‘The Blockbuster’… a major event such as an Alien Invasion, First Contact, a Robotic Uprising, or some other world changing event. It would pose either a significant risk or challenge to me… and there was zero reason not to take it. Look, this is the Star Trek Universe. There were all of those things coming. Borg, Dominion, Holograms, Replicants, Romulans, Supernovae… it wasn’t just likely… all of those things were freaking canon! I’m not even certain that I shouldn’t just take it with the Keeper attachment… but that might be adding more shit than was already planned, so no thanks.

On the other side of the divide, the Heroic Scenario also had two that would be spectacularly unwise to take, those being ‘Massive Collateral’ (as in damage whenever I got in a fight) and ‘PR Nightmare’ (as in me making a hash of any public speaking or policy making attempt). Unwise and or unconscionable, since they could, probably would, threaten other people in unpredictable ways.

But Nemesis? Well, that was an enemy I couldn’t get rid of. No matter what, they’d be dangerous enough in some way to at least require effort to beat, always survive any take down, escape any confinement. It would be someone I’d be dealing with repeatedly over the course of a year or so. I seriously considered making this a Keeper… but at that point I’d probably end up with my own version of Lore or the Borg Queen. That I didn’t need.

I had a feeling I was forgetting someone… but I’d been having that a lot over the last few hours, so I tucked the feeling away for later contemplation. My memories were trashed and it was just a good thing that I remembered all of S’Janus’s previous adventures as well as I did.

Unfortunately, there was even less I wanted from the two Scenario’s Perks. ‘Fists of Justice’ was expertise in a martial art, which I already had. S’Janus had studied Suus Mahna, the semi-precognitive vulcan martial art based upon reading the opponent’s movements to anticipate attacks and weaknesses. ‘Secondary Superpowers’ was a dial for any ability I had… not something I currently needed and something I was absolutely certain I’d picked up in Young Justice. It also came with the guarantee that all powers I gained would come with all the auxiliary support powers needed for the primary to function… but in more than eighty jumps, I had no memory of a power that didn’t, so I wasn’t worried about incomplete abilities.

I almost passed on both Speculative Perks as well, since one was Universal Translation, and that was almost too good and would take away the fun of learning new languages, and the other was called ‘Engineer’. I already was an engineer. I didn’t need a perk to make me good with machines… except it’s a good thing I actually read the text, because that wasn’t what it did.

Rather, it guaranteed that once I knew how to use a piece of tech, I’d be able to figure out how to fix it. Didn’t come with the tools or materials needed, but the know-how alone was a great synergy with Treknobabbler… especially since more than once in Star Trek, an alien device ended up being destroyed just after they figure out how to use it, because keeping it functional would destroy the status quo… except ‘fix’? Yeah, that includes ‘Rebuild From Scratch’ if you have the know how. Or at least should. In actual practice, the whole Perk might come down to Duct Tape, WD40, and Super Glue.

Still, I had the points. I was taking it.

=CLEANING UP=

That left me with enough Choice to pick up the final Tourist Perk, ‘Ride the Rails’, after all, and enough to get the Tanin Donburi I remembered so fondly… and I still had seven-hundred remaining, though three-hundred of that was reserved for stamps or toys.

“I’ll take the Timefleet Timeshuttle,” I said to Q.

“No,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“It’s not on offer.”

“Not even with Souvenir?”

“No,” he said firmly. “That’s for small things… hand held things.”

“So not the Delta Flyer either?”

“The Transwarp shuttle?” he asked. I nodded. “No.”

“Genesis Device?”

“Not that either.”

I snapped my fingers, “Drat!” then had to deal with Ziggy trying to burrow up inside my robe to see if I’d hidden treats for him to find. Once the Zig was calmed and distracted with a ricebowl… sugar and carbs aren’t good for ferrets, but he was immortal and had a guarantee of perfect health, so quite frankly, if he wanted to eat arsenic lace cookies and drink lead-fortified wine I wasn’t going to stop him unless it actually made him feel like crap… and as dim as he is, even he would learn from that experience pretty darn quickly. 

Girl (the Border-Collie) had originally died from eating grapes. Metropolis’s lifespan almost certainly hadn’t been lengthened by my family giving him Corn-Pops and dried cherries, but he’d loved both and we’d been ignorant fools in the early days of the interwebs. For those of you without immortal pets in perpetual perfect health, be careful about what you give your goobers and fuzzbutts. They may like it, but (like humans) they often like stuff that’s not good for them.

Of course, lead-fortified wine is actually excellent if you’ve got a system that shrugs off heavy metal toxicity, and if your ferrets can’t develop insulinoma, it’s pretty safe to give them carbohydrates and fruit… it’s just irresponsible as hell. Hmmm… I was a medical doctor… maybe the Trek Verse had finally figured out what about grapes did a number on dog kidneys. When I’d left Origin, the toxic element hadn’t been identified. Maybe I’d have to do some research. Ethical and non-invasive, to be sure.

Girl had liked grapes and never had a bad reaction until the grapes killed her, so minor exposure wouldn’t be an issue… why had I named her ‘Girl’? Couldn’t remember… had it been my mom? That didn’t seem likely. Mom favored cutesy hebrew names for pets. I think. I was getting distracted.

“Right… right…” I sighed. “Small things… if I get the Stamp of Fiat Approval and put it on the Time Shuttle, a Genesis Device, or the Delta Flyer? Would that work?”

“I am not the arbiter of such, but I’d guess so,” Q allowed.

“Excellent. I’ll take seven.”

“SEVEN!?”

“I have seven-hundred Choice left and nothing else I want… unless you have a suggestion?”

“What about your Companions?” he asked.

“What about them?” I asked. “There’s no companion fund in this document.” It was true. I’d checked.

He frowned, then took the Star Trek Pad from me and brought up the options. There, toggled off, was something called “Global Companion Import Rule”. It rang a faint bell, but I couldn’t remember if I’d seen it before. I tapped the information icon and read, “Four-Hundred Choice buys eight Imports, each with six-hundred Choice and a free origin with cost not to exceed two-hundred, plus all applicable freebies and discounts.” And there was a serial number in symbols I only half recognized. Interesting. That had definitely not been something that had existed back in the time my memory was clearest for. Maybe it was new? Or maybe It had always been there and I hadn’t thought to ask.

There were a couple of other items there, something called ‘Baseline Import Rule’ (it meant that all non-imported companions would gain an identity with basic memories and background in each jump if they wanted it, though their powers would be downgraded for the duration.) and something else called ‘Single Shot’ which meant that companions that died in a jump would stay dead until the end of the Jump if they didn’t have a 1-up or weren’t resurrected somehow. It provided a bonus hundred Choice for each Companion in each jump. Huh… that had definitely not applied back in S’Janus’s first decade… maybe it was because the Banker was missing? Weird, but it did make sense. Uriel and Zane would have to actually watch themselves if they didn’t want to miss the fun.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to resurrect any of my Companions who get their dumb asses killed,” I asked… 

“Not really,” he said, yawning dramatically and examining his fingers to show he was bored.

A thought occurred to me then, and I chuckled. It didn’t matter for any of them. Seven of them were Pokemon, unable to be anything besides KO’d and one was technically dead already… was he? Oh, yes. I’d assassinated Uriel. He was a ghost… soul? Spirit of Warehousegarde. Something like that. Hard to kill at the best of times… worst of times… this metaphor isn’t working.

Anyway, the worst that could happen to them was probably losing their humanoid form for the Pokemon and their corporeal body for Uriel. Though I imagine that would be frustrating for them and probably inconvenient for me. But I wouldn’t have to worry about having to trigger a loop just to save Ziggy or Zane from their own foolishness.

I took just three stamps, then paid out the last of my Choice so the octet could get their tutorial on as well, but I won’t go into what they bought. It was all pretty much some facet of what I’d already gotten.

I will comment that RayRay was annoyed that there was no Origin which matched her prefered method of dealing with adventure… i.e. sleeping through it. For those of you interested in what they purchased (or what I got for the Zig), I’ll include it as a footnote below. It was, at last, time to get my Trek On… Again.

To be continued in Episode One…

Next: Across the Great Divide

Resources: Build, Star Trek TNG Document, Generic First Jump Document

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Deltoren, PlateGlassArmor, bearblue, and Sonic0704, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain)And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.

World 79: Naruto – Part 2.6

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 5: War Comes to the Thousand Acre Woods

Previously: Testing 3 – So Much For Subtlety

Themesong: Unstoppable – Sia

I know you’re dying to know the seeds for the Finals, even though they could not conceivable matter less, and so I guess it behooves me, gentle readers, to provide them. With thirteen competitors, three “lucky” Genin got byes in the first round: Yokumo, Shikamaru, and Kanna. That meant that the first five fights were slated to be: Kankuro vs Shino (as had been canon, with the winner facing Shikamaru, which hadn’t been canon), Naruto vs Neji (as had happened in the original timeline), Sasuke vs Gaara (as had been scheduled to happen in canon but had never happened), Choji vs Zenji (with the winner facing Kanna), and Kiba vs Ichika (with the winner facing Yokumo). 

Given my knowledge of all the fighters, that pretty much guaranteed that the second round line up would be Kankuro vs Shino (Shikamaru had elevated taking the lazy way out to an art form); Naruto (unless he flaked, Naruto would clean Neji’s clock but good) vs no one since the Gaara / Sasuke fight wouldn’t happen for plot reasons; Zenji vs Kanna (since there was approximately a zero percent chance that Zane would lose to a one-trick-chubby-pony like Choji unless he threw the fight to keep from facing Kendra… and she’d murder him if he wussed out like that), and Ichika vs Yokumo (because my Maggy would not lose to dog boy).

The winners of Zenji / Kanna and Ichika / Yokumo would, in theory, face each other, while the winners of Kankuro / Shino and Naruto / ? would… in theory, face each other… and then there would have been a final round to determine the winner of… well, nothing. Totally pointless. But it would never get that far.

And, as you’ll notice, I was not going to be fighting, and so I had a month to prepare for the coming invasion. That meant making certain that as few Leaf Villagers died during the Konoha Crush as possible. To that end, I accelerated the healing of Rock Lee and Hinata, then spent time training Rock in non-chakra based martial arts and Hinata in aura based fighting techniques. As a Leaf Ninja, Fire Dust might have seemed the natural choice, but given her personality, I focused more on Wind Dust, and began teaching her the Air Nomad fighting styles that would complement the Byakugan and the Hyuga Clan’s Gentle Fist taijutsu techniques. 

I was certain that what Hinata needed more than anything else was praise and a teacher who lifted her up, rather than breaking her down. She was a sleeping lioness, one who had nearly been broken by her father’s cruelty, but if coaxed into her own, she possessed all the inherent might of one of the most powerful clans in the setting and was not lacking for personal strength. Her father (and sister and cousin) all saw her gentle nature as weakness, when all it was was an unwillingness to hurt those she cared about. Give her an enemy to face and her self imposed restraint would vanish like the morning dew from a desert rose at dawn. Her power potential was excellent, easily rivalling that of Neji. The only thing she was lacking was a goal. As is so often the case, that lack was the thing that separated an underachiever from a genius.

There is an old saw that says “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”… and it is never truer than when applied to inherent talent. If there is no need to shine, far too few of us ever bother to. Neji and Rock, with their need to prove themselves, were geniuses because they saw no other option. Naruto, with his need to be noticed, became a clown… but also someone who reached out to everyone around him, trying to connect. Gaara, with his need to justify his own existence, became a killer. Sasuke, with his need to assuage his own survivor’s guilt, filled himself with dreams of revenge. Really, Kishimoto did a bang up job with the motivations of his male characters… or at least some of them. 

On the flipside, Orochimaru’s quest for Immortality was a bit suspect and Kabuto seemed like a traitor for the lulz… And I say that not just as someone who read about the characters, but who has looked at their actual souls. Fear of death mixed with curiosity and a lack of morality can only partially justify what was very close to madness in Snakeboy’s case, and Kabuto didn’t actually seem to know why he did what he did. It just… occurred to him to do it. Not that he really cared. 

Anyway, Hinata lacked Necessity until I awoke the momma-bear hidden inside her by convincing her that the safety of her loved ones, her little sister Hanabi, her mother, Naruto… even Neji and Hiashi (her asshole father)… and indeed, of the entire village would be at risk and soon, if she didn’t step up. It was a lot to put on a twelve year old girl, but if there is one thing I’m good at, it’s finding the right people for a job.

“How do you know I’m strong enough to protect them?” she asked, gazing out over the sleeping village from the lookout above the top of Fourth Hokage’s head.

“Can you keep a secret?” I asked her in turn. She nodded, biting her lower lip. “You know how your eyes can see Chakra?” Again she nodded, hugging herself defensively. The Byakugan had caused her little more than pain in her short life. “Well, I have my own Dojutsu…” Her face showed incredulity, but I continued, “No. Really. It’s called the Satorigan, and it can see into people’s hearts and minds.” 

“You’re teasing me,” she half-whispered.

“No,” I said, voice firm. “I’m not. Look at me, Hina,” I told her, then, for the first time since coming to this world, fully opened my third eye… and staggered back as so much more information than I was used to flooded into me. Normally, I didn’t actually have a third eye, just a metaphorical one. Normally, I just… well, it’s hard to explain what it’s like to see someone’s heart and mind. It’s not like seeing someone’s organs… it’s colors that have no descriptions, only meanings that I have always understood simply by looking at them, it’s shapes that flow and evolve as one looks at them… or it always had been before.

Now, as I opened my literal third eye fully, it was Mandalas. Glorious, huge, impermanent, changing, twisting through dimensions beyond reckoning. I wasn’t just seeing Hinata’s heart and mind… I was seeing her Soul… her very essence. I was seeing who she was, who she had been, all of who she could be, though the paths to those future Hinatas weren’t included. It was as if something had evolved inside my third eye, somehow merging it with a fragment of a Kwisatz Hadderach’s ability to map the future to craft something that even my fifteen millenia had never prepared me for. 

If I was shocked by what I was seeing, that was nothing to what Hinata was experiencing. With my normal eye, I saw a girl transfixed, as if staring a cobra in the face, but rather than fear, it was wonder on her visage. Her entire face was lit up, both figuratively and literally. Awe had brought color to her cheeks, and a light like dawn breaking across the landscape caused her to almost glow in hues of pink and orange and colors that must have had names in the languages of spirits and angels, but not in the tongues of man.

I snapped my third eye closed, and almost flinched as, from deep inside me, Chara asked, “What was thaaaaat?” Her voice was full of wonder, as if she’d never seen anything like it… which, yeah, that’s fair because neither had I. Landscapes of a thousand worlds I had seen, dreamscapes from ten thousand more, futurescapes of uncountable billions… and nothing could compare to the soulscape of a single young lady about to blossom into womanhood.

“I don’t know,” I told her, “We’ll figure it out later. Shhh.” I was hoping no one had seen that brilliant glory… a faint hope if the light was visible to anyone not looking at my eye, considering that this was late at night and the place we’d been standing wasn’t exactly hidden.

“What?” Hinata gasped. “Wh… what was that? It… it was like… there was… it was beautiful, and terrible. Like… like… gazing into the source of all things.”

“Did it gaze back?” I asked, not knowing which answer would be better. I felt, in that moment, like the Untempered Schism, that thing in Dr. Who lore that merely looking into it was what gave a Time Lord so much of their power and majesty. Or perhaps it was more like peering into Keter, the Crown Sephiroth of Kabbalistic lore. Or was it merely that, if an eye is the window to the soul, she was seeing all that my soul contained? Or maybe she was seeing the hole in the fabric of reality that was all that was left of the vast panoply of what had once been the Jumper EssJay within me.

“I… don’t know,” she admitted. “But it scared me. It would be all too easy to get lost in that light. It was like looking at the sun, unable to pull my eyes away. Please don’t… don’t do that again.” 

Oh… shit. I’d all but forgotten about that. The Third Eye of Satori had an offensive aspect to it as well, one I’d very very seldom used. With it, I could (in theory) manipulate the conscious thoughts of those I used it on, effectively hypnotizing them. I say ‘in theory’ because I’d gained it after having already been a telepath for more than ten thousand years, so I’d never used it on those rare occasions when I felt it necessary to screw with someone’s memories or perceptions. I also say ‘in theory’ because with my powers as screwed up as they currently were, who could tell if it still had that capability.

“I hadn’t planned on doing it at all,” I assured her, “but it was important that you trust me in this. I know you have greatness within you, strength that your father and Neji could not dream possible.” And then, from deep within me, another voice spoke.

“The world stands on a precipice, daughter of Hyuga,” said the deep voice, “And your strength is needed. Twelve monsters will rise in the shadow of the Tree of Death, and The Sage, The Betrayed, and The Walker of Worlds will stand against the End of Days, and you will be there. Listen well, and heed my words; a choice will come, a choice you will not want to make, and if you make the wrong choice, the choice your heart tells you you must make, then the fate of worlds, not just this one, but worlds beyond counting, will be as dust on the wind.”

I gasped, coughing, as the voice fled, and it took me a moment to realize what had happened. Chara had spoken… prophecy? But not Chara the child. No, this was an older, wiser, sadder but calmer Chara. This was… was what Chara could be in time.

“Was… was that an omen?” she asked. “Or… or a warning?”

“There is no prophecy but providence,” I said cryptically. “A thing cannot be changed simply by seeking to avert it, but fate is merely a chance to seize the future for our own. I don’t know why I said what was just said, but remember it. In time it will make sense… I think. Anyway… study those texts I gave you and I’ll see how you’re doing tomorrow. For now, I have to go stop an Assassin.”

Before she could protest or ask what I meant, I was moving out of sight, crossing the village in leaps so fast that even sensor ninjas would not even have been able to process my passing before the ghost of the sonic boom I should have been making but wasn’t because of chakra washed over their scout platform. I know, because there were many sensor ninjas scattered through the village and they never even twitched as I flowed past them as I headed to the colonnade facing the Imperial Hall. 

It was the formal residence reserved for the Lord of Fires when he visited the village. It was also a blatant copy of Nagoya Castle with its golden dolphin roof decorations. I’d loved that place ever since I’d been a child for the first time. A relative had given me a book called “The Dragon Kite” in which a thief builds a magnificent dragon kite with which he plans to steal the golden dolphins to feed the poor. He spends four years learning to make the kite, and in the end it comes to life and saves him. Gorgeous art, charming story.

It thus pained me to see the bloody rents covering the rooftop. Gaara had just killed Dosu… or rather Shukaku (Gaara’s Jinchuuriki) had just killed the Sound Ninja. I had to wonder what had provoked the sound ninja to try attacking the Sand Heir. In the canon timeline, it had happened because Dosu believed that by killing Gaara he’d get to fight Sasuke, but it wasn’t as if he was still in the contest in this timeline… but I wasn’t going to be able to soulgaze a mostly eat corpse for that information, and I wasn’t about to go memory diving in Gaara to find out if he knew. The Third Eye’s memory dive power only worked with non-resisting targets.

Anyway, in that colonnade I mentioned earlier, there was Kabuto and Baki (a Sand Jounin and member of the Sand Village’s ruling council). They were setting up the final details of the invasion, and a few feet from them was (a not particularly well concealed) Hayate. AJ and Toph had been unable to capture Kabuto when he’d gone after Sasuke (though they’d saved the Anbu guards that Kabuto would have killed… Conservation of Ninjutsu is a bitch), but he was here now and I wasn’t going to let him run about without at least making an effort to curtail his murderous nature.

I would also like to keep Hayate from being killed by Baki. Not that I had much affection for the specialist, but letting him die when I could save him would be miserly of me. Now, the question was, could I save him.

See, it’s not an easy question. Once upon a time, it would have been. Once upon a time, I had stood with the mighty, faced foes like Mongo of Warworld, like Yhwach of Bleach, like Trigon, Excalibur, and Porky Minch. I had fought heroes and villains in a Fate tournament. I had fought Kaiju. But that had been when I had had my full might. Here? I didn’t know how I stacked up.

As Sakura, I was a fledgeling Ninja, even if I did have ages of (somewhat spotty now) fighting experience in dozens of techniques. Was I strong enough to face Jonin by myself? This world was full of OP bastards… and it wasn’t as if I was considering fighting just one Jonin… no. I was considering fighting both Baki and Kabuto. Sure, officially Kabuto was a mere Genin… but that was a lie. In the original canon he’d killed multiple Anbu Black Ops members without causing an outcry. Not only that, but I was hampered by the fact that I couldn’t kill either of them. Not just because of the Chosen One drawback, but because they could be important to the plot going forward.

But my Boiling Blood wouldn’t let me back down, and the longer I spent prepping, the more time I’d have to psyche myself out. Thus, it was now or never. Well, now or later, but I hadn’t fought someone full bore in who knows how long.

“Hello, boys,” I said, dropping down between the two spies. “Which of you wants to have your ass kicked first?”

Neither of the two older ninjas had been expecting to be interrupted in their murderous scheming by a prepubescent ninjette, nor had they sensed my approach, but Kabuto had nerves of steel and Baki had tons of experience dealing with the unexpected.

“Go home, Sakura,” Kabuto said. “This isn’t something you should be worrying about.”

“Yes,” Baki agreed. “It is unwise to meddle in the affairs of your elders.”

“I agree. Which is why I’m giving you two treacherous youngsters a chance to surrender before I have to get medieval on your backsides,” I replied, smirking as I limbered up, already tapping into my unruly Chakra Pool. Fine control I might not have, but when you plan on delivering a smackdown and have nearly unlimited energy to draw on… well, they do say there’s no kill like overkill.

“Treacherous?” Kabuto asked, feigning innocence. “I’m a humble-”

“Oh, can it, you murderous wanker. Kakashi told us all about your attempt on Sasuke and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you’re working for Orochimaru. And you, Baki, should know that Orochimaru’s planning on murdering your Kazekage and replacing him.”

“She lies!” Kabuto snapped. “There’s no way she could know that even were it true!”

“I have faith in Kazekage,” Baki said. “But this is ridiculous. Leave child, before I get angr-” he was cut off as I moved then, driving my swords into his shoulders. Unlike what I’d done to Gaara, there was no sonic shock, nor were the tips of my blanks refined to needle points. These were chunky oversized katana points and they sheered through armored jacket and flesh with incredible ease. 

They just didn’t get very far. Not only could I not take the time to drive them through him, as that would have left me open to an attack from Kabuto, but Baki was exceptionally fast, well into the superhuman range, and even as my blades were cutting through the fabric of his vest, he was already moving backwards, extracting himself from the threat radius.

My hair was floating behind me, my aura suffused with Chara’s crimson rage as I pursued him, driving him back and back and back with a flurry of sword strokes, my blades shortening, thickening, transforming into veritable cleavers as I hammered his defenses. If I could just get him disarmed before Kabuto…

At the very last moment, I jerked out of the path of the Leafy traitor’s stroke, feeling a poison-tipped needle graze my skin. It burned like fire even with that tiny contact, but my system was already burning it away. It would not degrade my performance.

Letting my senses flow outward, I felt for Hayate. Why wasn’t he moving!? Damn it! If he was going to lend me his unwanted aid, he should have done so already! If not, he should have fled to report to Hokage… oh, for the love of… he was trying to gather information on my fighting style, wasn’t he? 

“Chaara… if you don’t feel like dying again, now would be an excellent time to help me,” I said inside. “You take the old guy.”

“THey’re both old,” Chaara protested even as I pulled the eyepatch off to reveal the burning red of my hidden eye. Her voice came not from my throat, but from the horrific creature forming out of my battle aura and for a moment, Kabuto paled in the face of the murderous intent baking off of me. Then, like the little bitch he is… he ran.

Baki too paused, not stunned, then (seeing Kabuto fleeing one way) fled the other. He had the information he needed and his mission was to get it to his leader, not fight an insane monster.

I considered following one or the other of them, but I’d already tagged them both with transmitters far more technologically advanced than they could dream of. If I was in a killing mood, I could send a few hundred hypervelocity HK missiles after either of them.

“You can come out now,” Chaara said, the reddish thing with several hundred eyes and mouths said, stretching out to peek over the bush Hayate was crouching behind. “For a spy you’re not very good at concealing your presence.”

“Be nice, Chaara,” I said, walking over. “You got too close,” I told the older… but not that old, special jounin. “If it hadn’t been for my interference, you’d be dead. Some information is better than none.”

“I could have-” he began.

“Would have died,” I said. “Trust me. Baki is a match for Kakashi. You’re not.”

“You managed to tag him and you’re just a Genin… what’s so funny?”

“Chaara, pick him up… but don’t hurt him,” I said, barely able to control my desire to punch the haughty young man. He was only in his early twenties… how horrible was this world that he was old enough to be in a trusted position like Exam Proctor.

Hayate tried to fight the might of the Thousand Tails, but he didn’t have the power to break free. “Put me down, Sakura.”

Ignoring his request, I said, “It took almost all of my self control not to chase after Kabuto. Do you know why I did so?” He scowled but allowed that he didn’t. “Because I was worried that if I did, you’d have followed Baki rather than taking the information to Hokage. You should have run the moment I had both of them distracted. But you didn’t. So you’re a fool. If you’d come to my aid, you’d at least have been a compassionate fool, but instead, you’re merely a loyalist.” 

Chaara shook him violently without me telling her to, but I decided not to chastise her for it. “Badbadbad suspicious nasty mind,” the many mouths gibbered madly.

“I am a Genin because I choose to be a Genin, Hayate. Rank is irrelevant to one such as I. My goals have so little to do with the politics of village or nation that, were it not for lingering sentimentality and a basic compassion for those I grew up with, I might saunter off and leave everyone to their fate. But I do have that lingering sentimentality, so I have decided to save Konohagakure from its doom. And that includes you.”

With another shake, Chaara laughed menacingly, then flowed back into my eye, dropping Hayate on his ass. “Gekko… Gekko… Gekko,” she chirped, making a mockery of his given name as she faded back into me. I’d given her a chance to be partly free and while it wasn’t much, she could sense the greater fight coming soon.

*****

On the day of the invasion, it was bright and clear, a wonderful day for a martial arts tourney, even if the area set aside for this event was terribly designed. There were tiers of seats, even though the combat floor was three stories below them and the tiers were not steep enough for those even in the second row to have a good view. Even the Kage Box, where Sarutobi and Kazekage… or at least those pretending to be them were seated wasn’t equipped with the best views considering how far back the thrones were. 

The only place that had really top level views were the private dignitary boxes, with their floor to ceiling reinforced glass walls. There, the rich and powerful of all the neighboring lands were gathered, standing close to the windows to watch the show being put on especially for them. There were also servants with platters of canapes and Anbu black ops teams scattered around the building, of course, but that was merely to be expected.

What wasn’t to be expected, and what was known only to a very small and very elite cadre (and it’s pronounced cah-dray, no matter what the brits say… cah-du… baaaah) of ninjas who had plans that ran counter to all three of the nominal factions in the upcoming fight. But that was only fair; Sand had secretly allied with Sound to take down Leaf… it was only just that Leaf had hidden allies of their own. Call us the Village Hidden in the Warehouse. I know, I know, the Village Hidden in the Snows would be more poetic, but Warehouse has two advantages. First, it’s more accurate, and second… It’s funnier.

Regardless, the day began as it originally had, with Neji, proponent of unchangeable destiny, facing Naruto, proponent of claiming your own path. With nothing to throw them off, and with Neji’s treatment of Hinata driving him, Naruto of course put the arrogant Hyuga in his place, with a little cheering from Hina-chan to spur him on, her health improved to the point where in this timeline she didn’t collapse and require medical attention. I didn’t even need to help there. Good to know that in one on one, Naruto still had whatever he’d been stripped of by my arrival in this world. 

It was also good that this meant that Kabuto didn’t get his grubby, Anbu disguised hands all over Hinata, not that I know if he’d done anything hinky while healing her in the original timeline… but some of the Warehouse Crew were watching him very closely… though not my three brats… I have no idea where they were, but the shadow clones they’d left behind to watch the show weren’t fooling me one bit.

The second fight should have been Gaara and Sasuke, but since Sasuke was running late (as he had been in canon) the second bout of the day would (in canon) have been Kankuro versus Shino… but Shino was to be just as frustrated in this timeline as he had been in the original (at least for a time) because Kankuro forfeited the match. Why, exactly, Kankuro had forfeited when the entire point was to draw things out as long as possible so that Sasuke could arrive to fight Gaara I’ve no idea… but it wasn’t as if the readers didn’t get to see just how boss (and creepy) Shino could be in a few chapters time anyway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The third match in canon had been Shikamaru versus Temari… but their courtship would have to wait because Temari wasn’t in the finals thanks to a loss to my Ichika / Maggy. Instead, this time the third match was Choji against Zenji / Zane… and it went about as well as you could expect. Choji, who didn’t really want to be in the fight, facing off against Zenji who wasn’t taking the fight at all seriously? It was a chubby clown facing a duffus… but a duffus with fifteen millenia of fighting experience. Look, I might be having memory problems, but Zane wasn’t and he’d been the Magi’s God of Justice… he was not going down to a half-trained kid whose ninja way was dominated by caloric manipulation and meatball impersonation… yeah, the Akimichi family might be freaking Kaiju-class warriors when they went Super-Ninja, but Choji couldn’t do that yet. His best attack was a Sonic the Hedgehog knock off.

Still, at least the audience had a bit of fun with the show, though it reminded me quite a bit of a rodeo I’d been to as a child in my first life, with a clown running from an enraged bull. I’ll leave it to your imagination which was which. At least it was shorter than the fight between Shikamaru and Temari had been.

Fight four should have been Kiba against Ichika / Maggy, but it was at that point that Gaara had finally exhausted his patience and demanded to know where the Uchiha was hiding. A swirl of leaves rustled through the arena floor, and coalesced into the forms of Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei, which was a hell of an entrance for a culture that lacks teleportation (as far as I know… maybe there’s a jutsu for it).

Kakashi grinned, saluted the Kage Box, and said, “Where else would we be hiding but in the Leaves?” Which was, you have to admit, a good line.

The fight played out exactly as it had on paper, with Sasuke royally pounding Gaara, making a mockery of his so called “Perfect Defense” right up to the point where Sand Boy retreated into a cocoon of sand and began transforming into his beast form. 

Then, just at the moment the crowd was most on the edge of their seats, war came to the Hidden Leaf Village. First, Kabuto, standing behind the common seats in the viewing stands, used the moment of fixation to use a sleep jutsu on the crowd. Second the “Sand” Ninjas guarding “Kazekage” leapt into action, setting off smoke bombs as a signal and obscuring the fact that their leader was in the process of kidnapping Sarutobi-sama from his very own box.

And third, an absolutely massive three-headed snake appeared just outside the walls of the village. Just how massive? Well, the walls of Konohagakure are ten stories tall. This snake was, I kid you not, at least twenty-five stories tall and that wasn’t even in full rear-up. Laying flat, its heads were six stories tall… and, believe it or not, the fucking thing as wearing bibs! Big black-flag looking bibs tied around its necks, right behind the flared horns of its eye ridges.

It was at this point that the plan my darling children had put into motion without telling me when into effect and El Gigantico Snakico found itself being tractored right off the forest floor by the combined lift capacity of three former Orion Syndicate smuggler shuttlecraft equipped with fifth gen Maegi cloaking technology. The air didn’t even visible ripple around them. It was, quite rightly, a sight to behold and even Orochimaru, currently standing atop the roof of the Central Watchtower with Sarutobi in a half-nelson had to pause, the eyes of his disguise bugging out a bit.

“That isn’t possible,” he muttered, then shook his head to clear it. The summoned snake was merely one of many distractions. All that mattered to Snake-face was proving to Sarutobi that the student had surpassed the teacher… oh, and kidnapping Sasuke so he could transmigrate into his body once it aged up a bit. Good lord but Orochimaru gives off creeper vibes, but apparently auto-hebephilia is beneath him. I think once you’ve gotten to wanton murder and gross betrayal of allies, you’ve sacrificed any symblance of respectability or morality, but if he wasn’t going to cross that line I wasn’t going to encourage him to change his mind.

All across the village, Sand and Sound Ninjas were pouring across the walls… and running into ambushes of Leaf and Snow Ninjas. It was almost as if they’d been expected. Inside the arena, Gaara had just fled and Sasuke had followed. Kakashi and Gai called upon “Sakura” and Shikamaru, both of whom had resisted the sleep Genjutsu, to take Naruto (who hadn’t) and a summoned nin-dog named Pakkun to follow the two and recover Sasuke. And if you’re wondering why I said “Sakura” and not “Me” well… let’s just say I was somewhere else at the time and someone else was standing in for me.

Atop the tallest building in the village, which is actually more like a small city or very large town, Orochimaru’s four top freaks… I mean Lieutenants, really… were throwing up a shield to keep the Anbu Black Ops surrounding them from interfering with Orochimaru’s idiotic reinactment of the Forbidden Palace Duel of Destiny.

“So pretty, isn’t it old man?” he hissed, “An alliance of fools, betrayed by the foolish.”

“Your forces have walked into a trap,” Sarutobi said, “This is all meaningless.”

“Yes… meaningless,” Snakeface agreed. “This was only useful as camouflage to make you relax your guard. The stupid fighting games end here. Here, where history changes.”

The old man laughed. “You think this is going to start a war? Really?”

“You’re going to harp on about how things should be solved through negotiation, aren’t you?” Orochimaru chuckled. “Do we become peace-loving fools when we age? You’ve forgotten what it means to be a Ninja.”

“You young pup,” the ancient one said with a heavy sigh, “I have seen more deaths than you can imagine. I have killed and killed and killed until I was swimming in lakes of blood and still I killed until I alone stood on a mountain of those I’d slain. I’ve seen the fires of war and been burned by them to an extent your febrile depravities can scarce encompass. The atrocities I have committed in the quest for victory are so vast that yours would barely be a footnote if I’d done them. You haven’t the faintest clue what real war is.”

“You ramble on and on and on, old fool, but it is your foolishness that has caused the Leaf to weaken and granted me my victory!”

“It’s not over until it’s over. One would think your teacher would have taught you better,” the ninja leader said to his captor.

“I told you that you should hurry and pick the Fifth,” the gloating snake-sage said as he peeled away the false face of the assassinated Kazekage. “But it’s too late now because you, The Third Hokage, will die here, today, by my hand.” He released the old man from his grasp, facing him and pulling the Kazekage hat from his head. “It’s a good day to die.

“Ahaahh… hah… heh. That’s funny,” I said. “Really. I mean it.” I tossed the Hokage hat from my own and, as my voice rose from the old man voice of Sarutobi-sama, I transformed back into myself. “Because I was think that today was a good day to hunt a snake. Though you’re not Naked, Solid, or Venom.”

“You think you can save Sandaime from me, little girl?” the traitor ninja said. “It will take me mere moments to dispose of you and then I’ll hunt down the old man wherever you’ve hidden him and- gaaah!” He grunted, looking down to where the butt of my sword had slammed into his sternum. “Okay… two moments.” He looked slightly impressed by how fast I’d managed to launch it from its scabbard.

“Yawwwn,” I said, “Less chatter, more batter.” I cricked my neck. I’d been looking forward to this. Fuck this laying low. I wanted to test myself against the biggest, baddest around… and if that wasn’t Orochifuckface, at least he’d be a good warm up.

In the canon, he’d summoned the First and Second (and attempted to summon the Fourth) Hokage to fight the Third. Why? Just for the humiliation factor of it. But here he was, with the wrong Kage in his trap, and he wasn’t about to waste his necromantic trickery on a mere child.

Which was fine, because I wasn’t going to summon the Monkey-King to fight him as Sarutobi had… nor even one of my many ferrety minions. No, I was going to kick his butt the good old fashioned way… with my boots… and maybe some swordplay.

****

Far off, in a part of the forest seven kilometers from the town, Shikamaru was leading the Sand Ninjas that had followed the Sasuke Interception party astray as Snake and Ferret launched themselves at each other, our fists a flury of blows as he tried to poison me and I tried to rip his face off.

A further nine kilometers from the town, Kankuro was discovering just how bad an idea it was to use Chakra Puppetry against a master of Chakra eating bugs when Orochimaru managed, at last, to catch my arm in a clench and attempt a joint lock. Both of us were breathing hard by that point and each of us had more than a couple of cuts, but none of them were serious and if either of us were worried about the poisons the other was using, neither of us were showing it. I twisted away from him, deliberately dislocating my shoulder in the process as I dropped to the ground and drove both my heavily booted feet up into his groin in a massive donkey kick that launched him backwards a good thirty feet and cracked his pelvis in at least three places. It also caused me to smash, face first, into heavily reinforced roofing tiles. Ow.

By the time each of us had managed to recover from the blinding pain, Gaara was well into his transformation into full Shukaku and had trapped “Sakura” (three guesses as to who that was… I’d told the old man that his entire task was to be supportive but not to interfere any more than a typical twelve year old ninjette would). 

Right at the moment when Naruto unleashed his explosive Thousand Years of Pain (a kunai with a boom-rune on its handle shoved up Shukaku’s asshole… yes, literally), Orochimaru succeeded in running me through with Kusanagi. I admit, I was impressed with his swordsmanship… but mostly pissed off because I’d forgotten to look out for the smaller snake he’d summoned. I say smaller, but it was still the size of that fucking Anaconda from the movie of the same name and this was no constrictor. 

Its venom surged through my body and fighting it back out with an explosive blast of Chakra slowed me down for half a second, and that was enough for the fucking thing to wind between my legs, tripping me up for a moment… and that caused my dodge to turn into a stumble and then there was a mystical blade sticking through my left lung right through the fourth intercostal space. 

I did what I had to do and opened my third eye for a split second, the glow of it locking the two of us in that frozen tableau for what seemed like eternity… but was really more like a blink of time.

As Gaara finally completed his transformation into the great Sand Tanuki, I moved. First, I sealed the holes through my body and let Chara pin the serpent to the roof with the sword on her side of the body, then she shattered Orochimaru’s hand and took up Kusanagi as I began the process of teaching Orochimaru, whose whole schtick is wanting immortality so he could learn ALL THE JUTSU, my own personal branch of Kung-Fu.

It’s called Rumble Fu. It has such lovely moves as “Boot to the Head”, “Punch Me Pull You”, “Rome Falls”, “The Flying Nun”, and “Piranha Something”. I’d go into the details, but they’re rather graphic and not for the tenderhearted… or those who’ve just eaten. I bounced him off the inside top left corner of the Four-Cornered Ninja Barrier his minions were still maintaining with “Rising Lunch Punch”, then caught him with “Terrible Things” as he fell, turning it into “That’s Gotta Hurt” just before we impacted on the roof. 

Without the Chakra barrier keeping it from collapsing, the entire building would have suffered serious structural damage from the blow, but before he could get up, I plastered him in place with “Hell Freezes Over” and then, for good measure, used the second most deadly (and less risky) of the art’s two finishing moves. Leaping into the air, I screamed “Blood Makes the Grass Grow!” and, as I landed on his spine, Chara added “Kill Kill KIIIILLLL!”

As the massive bulk of Shukaku rose over the forest, the four corner ninjas finally realized that their boss wasn’t winning this and lowered the shield, knocking me off their fearless — and currently spineless — leader and spiriting him away. Which was good, because, quite frankly… I may be a titan of Chakra… but I currently had a broken foot, a broken hand, a punctured lung, a torn rotator cuff, eleven cracked ribs, a serious case of being poisoned at least three different ways… oh yes… and I was running on empty. 

I tottered there as the Anbu chased after the fleeing Sound Ninjas, watching the fight between Gamabunta (Yakuza Boss of Frogs) and Shukaku, then turned to where I could faintly sense two powerful sources of Chakra… one of whom was Sasuke’s brother Itachi, the other an unknown, both of them in the robes of what I knew to be the Akatsuchi, the secret badguys of the second (unwatched by me) series… and flipped them off. Then I fell backwards into my daughters’ arms. “Owww…” I said, then passed out.

Okay, okay, so, technically, I did become Hokage… but only, like, for three hours. And it totally wasn’t official.

Next: Sakura Shippuden Part 1 & Star Trek TNG: Episode Zero

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I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain)And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.

World 79: Naruto – Part 2.5

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 4: Testing 3: So Much for Subtlety

Previously: Testing 2 – Eclectic Boogaloo

Themesong: Bodies by Drowning Pool

Between the Third Test – which was (as I’ve said) a month off – and the Second Test was a seldom used eventuality called The Preliminaries. Normally, you’d figure a single elimination tournament (as so many shonen manga have) would worry about creating a functional bracket, you know, one in which some power of two was an ideal, but not in the NarutoVerse. 

In the original timeline, there had been twenty-one genin to qualify for the Third Test, with Kabuto bowing out to keep his “boiling blood” from giving away that he was a spy for Orochimaru, which necessitated ten one on one fights to bring the final number of matches in the Third Test down to (theoretically) nine. Two fights between the seventh and tenth seed / eighth and ninth seed with everyone else getting a bye, then four matches in the standard round of eight, then two in the round of four, and one in the round of two. Nine fights.

But the arrival of me and mine had cocked that all up. Kabuto still bailed, leaving twenty-six genin, which still didn’t add up to a power of two. It also necessitated some shuffling of fights since the randomization of matches automatically blocked team-mates from fighting each other. And yes, it was random, even if (in the original timeline) Hinata and Neiji (cousins with a bitter rivalry) and Sakura and Ino (tween girls gaga over the same boy) had ended up paired by the force of narrative or something. Since the number of matches in single elimination is always one less than the number of competitors (unless there is a runner up match like in the olympics) then that would mean twelve matches on Third Test, with five fights in the round of thirteen… and thirteen in the preliminaries.

Still, I had no idea who was going to be paired with whom in this new timeline… but I had suspicions. If I was right that Sasuke’s course was (effectively) set, he’d have to fight Akado Yoroi, one of Kabuto’s fellow spies, and probably in the first round, just as he had in the canon. If canon was binding me, I’d have to fight Ino. The other big fights had been Naruto vs Kiba, and Gaara vs Rock Lee. And Shikamaru would ultimately emerge as the big winner. Now? It was anyone’s guess what would happen and I was, for once, looking forward to the Chaos… and wondering just how random things would be. How much was Narrative playing a role here?

But first, we had to listen to Sandaime Hokage give us this utterly bullshit speech about how this Chunin Exam system had replaced war and how it was entirely about demonstrating the strength of the village to foreign heads of state. Good lord… no wonder this world is in such a crap state if they believe this garbage and foist such nonsense on their younger generations. All this shitshow did was perpetuate the vicious rivalries that had led to the previous three world wars.

Unable to remain silent, I spoke up. “Uhhh… you do know that people will sit still to watch potential death matches all day, right? If you really wanted to demonstrate the so-called power of the villages, you’d have Ninja who were already Chunin selected from among the best in the village, fighting to subdue their rivals without killing or crippling them. Have each village… no I will not shut up, Ino,” I snapped, “Have each village select their four best, regardless of the size of the allied village.”

“Nonsense, child!” Orochimaru, now pretending to be the Sound Village Jonin-in-Charge, scoffed. “What good is fighting not to cripple or kill?”

I scowled at him as if he was the slowest member of the British House of Lords. “Clients aren’t usually looking for indiscriminate mayhem. They want skill, finesse, tactics. We’re ninjas, not the fucking army. Not killing is usually harder for people like us. Rock?”

The love-addled boy snapped to attention. “Yes Sakura-chan?”

“Make a skylight,” I commanded.

Without pausing to check if it was okay with anyone else, the bushy-browed kid launched himself at the ceiling of the fighting chamber we’d been gathered in. It was a reinforced concrete structure and the ceiling was forty feet straight up. He blasted a ten foot hole into it with a single punch, then landed without showing that he’d broken a sweat.

I looked to Orochimaru with an ‘oh please’ look on my face. “Know many humans who can withstand a blow that shatters rebar-reinforced concrete?” The senin frowned at me.

The Hokage also frowned at me. “We are not here to discuss international diplomacy with children,” he said, clearly intending to continue.

I cut him off. “No. You’re much more interested in having us children throw away our lives in service to your precious war economy than actually working to make a lasting peace. I may be fully willing to punt every member of every rival village’s team… and some from our own village, to be honest… from here to the Land of Iron, but I’m not killing anyone for you. You want to eliminate me for that, go right ahead.”

“Me too!” Amy / Yokumo called, thrusting her arm into the air. “I’m not killing anyone either.”

“I could kill people if I wanted to,” Kurushita / Darkseid said. “But I don’t feel like it, and I’m certainly not doing it for you. It’s bad enough I have to take orders from you incompent old farts.”

“We’re not eliminating anyone who doesn’t eliminate themselves!” Anko-Sensei snapped. 

“Certainly not,” Hayate, the Proctor for the Third Test stated. “Those who won’t fight with all they’ve got will eliminate themselves. Now, if there are no more political rants from the testees?” No one said anything… not even me, “Then we’ll begin?”

“Sasuke’s injured,” Ino said. “He should sit this out.” Oh… huh. Interesting. In the canon, it had been me, Sakura, who had tried to get Sasuke to eliminate himself due to the pain and weakness the Cursed Seal was causing him. It had been a tearful moment on the part of my counterpart, and a completely unwelcome irritant to Sasuke. Things went pretty much exactly the same way this time, except with Ino playing the tearful maiden. She was welcome to it… and him… I can’t remember if I know who she’s canonically paired up with in the Babies Ever After sequel, Boruto. Probably Sai or someone equally uninspiring. Though it would be awesome if she ends up with Kiba. Ino and Inu… heh. Sorry, that’s Wild Boar and Fang the Dog Boy. Languages amuse me. I speak over ten thousand of them… more than all the languages on Origin Earth… all of which I can speak… or could. Not certain I can still do that.

Anyway, once Sasuke had repeatedly insisted that he was fine and that he was an avenger (but not in the cool Marvel Trademarked way) and he wasn’t backing down because he really wanted to fight Naruto, Hayate grunted in approval and the big score board rolled back the first match to reveal that it was, surprise surprise, Sasuke vs Yoroi. Even less surprising was that Sasuke absolutely trounced the far more experienced Yoroi even with the Curse Seal actively flaring up and Yoroi draining his Chakra to try to force Sasuke to use the Seal’s power.

As the match came to an end, and Orochimaru was drooling over how lovely Sasuke’s luscious form was, I stepped up next to the Senin, erasing my presence until I was right next to him, then whispered, “Letting your lusts show, Old Snake? Really? I expected better of the fearsome S Rank Threat, Missing Nin Orochimaru.”

He rotated his head around too far on his neck, his slitted snake eyes regarding my uncovered blue one. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You’re a murderous monster who betrayed his friends, who betrays his followers, and who, ultimately, betrays himself. You are a snake eating its own tail, and unlike the Oroborus, you are not endless. Your experiments have only weakened you, fool.” And before he could even try to issue threats or justifications or plead his innocence or righteousness, I walked away, just in time to see the second match announcement.

In the canon, it had been Shino the Bug Ninja vs Abumi the Sound Pressure Ninja. In the new timeline it was a second canonical match, but not the right one for this round. No, this was Hinata vs Neji [AN: Yes, really, the matchup generator paired the two completely at random. I laaaaughed.] which had originally been the eighth prelim bout. Still, eighth or second, there really wasn’t any way that gentle Hinata was going to defeat highly aggressive and angry Neji, especially since he had a year’s experience on her and would do anything to win. The things Naruto yelled to buck up Hinata weren’t word for word the same, but since Neji was still being a fucking tool about predetermination and how people can’t change, they boiled down to the same thing. Neji still had to be stopped from killing Hinata… and the moment he stepped up onto the raised viewing platform, I snapkicked him in the head so hard he landed next to the stretcher they were carrying Hinata out on, then bounced into the far wall. 

Everyone stared at me. “Sorry,” I said. “Apparently, I was predestined to kick him. Nothing that I could do about it, right Neji?”

He glared daggers at me, but I ignored him, leaping down to where the medic ninjas were working on stabilizing the injured girl. I like Hinata. She’s probably the most interesting character from a baseline standpoint in the series. Shame they didn’t really do enough with her… but then again, they really didn’t do enough with any of the female characters… at least in the first half of the series. If the creator improved on that in the second half, I don’t know.

“Get away from her,” one of the medics snapped. I have a bit of a reputation in town, obviously.

“Go blow your own mother,” I replied in a conversational tone. I may not be able to use Chakra-based Medical-Jutsus (had I known any) thanks to the flares, spikes, and other control issues I had with my Chakra… but even though I didn’t have my full range of powers, I still had enough of them to help. I had sorcery from the BuffyVerse and there was some magic in this world, though not a lot. I had psi powers from Metal Gear and my mind was, mostly under control when Chara wasn’t being a little bitch. Both of them could have healed Hinata to some degree… but again, they relied on manipulation of power and right at the moment I was a little too emotional to try that. 

What I wasn’t too emotional to try was giving Hinata another tool that might help her recover faster. I couldn’t exactly stuff her into my Warehouse to give her the full Medbay treatment… but that facility had been expanded over the years with all kinds of wonderful technology. Like Nanites. Such useful things, Nanites.

Palming a hypospray, I injected her with eighty million quick-heal nano-robots, two CCs of an advanced anti-inflammatory agent, seventy-six micrograms of a regenerative booster, and a mild sedative that would keep her from going into shock but wouldn’t interfere with anything the local doctors would do for her. I then injected her with a small pulse of Aura (from RWBY… thanks free manual!) to give her just a bit more durability than she otherwise would have. 

Although Aura and Chakra are both spiritual, they’re not the same thing. Chakra doesn’t appear to be entirely native to this world as far as I can tell, while Aura definitely shouldn’t be native, but the fiat backing seemed to have grandfathered the potential in, though I hadn’t yet figured out if any of the locals would develop their own Semblances yet. I certainly wasn’t able to manifest mine.

Once Neji was back on his feet (I hadn’t hurt the jackass that much, mostly just bruised his pride with a sucker punch… sucker kick? And maybe cracked a few teeth.) and Hinata had been safely evacuated, it was time for bout three. Originally that should have been the third member of Team Kabuto vs Gaara’s brother Kankuro, but now it was Tenten (from Team Guy) versus Yokumo and I was eager to see how my little girl did in a “real” fight. 

The answer was surprisingly well. In the manga, we didn’t really get to see Tenten’s fight against Gaara’s sister Temari, merely the aftermath with all of Tenten’s weapons scattered around the arena and Tenten herself unconscious and half-broken on Temari’s giant war fan. Unfortunately for the weapon-master, Yokumo had access to the Byakugan, which meant that she could anticipate every move Tenten made as she was making it. No matter what the older girl threw at my Amaryllis, Yokumo just blocked or dodged, keeping up an impenetrable defense while forcing Tenten to divide her attention between my daughter and her Nindog, “Hitsuji”… it means ‘sheep’ in Japanese.

Tenten clearly needed better training. She had potential, but was too scattered in her approach. In some ways, she reminded me of Mousse from the RanmaVerse, another master of hidden weapons who suffered from a lack of specialization and an over-reliance on a huge arsenal. A little focus would do her a world of good, and some lessons in battlefield geometry would help immensely. It was clear that, with Rock and Neji in her group, she’d been used more in a scouting role on missions rather than in combat. Which is, of course, fine. Ninjas are supposed to be spies and scouts and assassins… not frontline combatants.

I did have some feedback for Yokumo as well, but I could give that later. Instead, I just patted the shorter girl on the head when she cleared the floor. Thankfully, Dysfunction Junction wasn’t making my relationship with my little girl rocky… although she very much didn’t approve of “Papa’s Evil Eye Parasite” as she insisted on calling Chara. Chara, on the other hand, insisted on calling Amaryllis “Sheepface”. It wasn’t much of an insult, but then again Chara’s really not much more than a childhood tantrum wrapped in a cloak of trauma and genocidal hatred. Creativity is a bit much to ask of her.

Fight four ended up being an interesting twist on the canon. As I’ve mentioned, the original match up for Rock Lee had been Gaara, where Rock had actually managed to hurt the Sand Boy by nearly killing himself. This time Rock was paired with a different one of the Sand Ninjas. Had it been Temari, Rock would almost certainly have forfeited, seeing as he’s enough of that protectionism version of sexist to not want to fight girls… but Kankuro? The Master of Puppets? Rock had no problem going all out with him.

It didn’t help. Kankuro might not have his brother’s overwhelming defenses or murderous psychopathic attitude, but he’s still a killer and what he lacks in raw power he makes up for in cunning and trickery. Rock, being Rock, still opened up the Fifth Gate (of Eight) in a fight he was utterly outmatched in tactically, and succeeded in destroying Kankuro’s Puppet… well, damaging it to the point it couldn’t work any more, but in the end, the Sand Ninja won… but who was going to fight Gaara.

The fifth bout announcement distracted me from my contemplations, for it ended the question of whether I’d be paired with Ino. The answer to that question was no. Ino, as it turns out, was paired off against Kanna… i.e. Kendra. I’m honestly not certain which side of me, Jumper or Local, was cheering Ino on more fiercely. All the animosity that existed at the best of time between Kendra and myself-the-jumper was augmented by the dysfunctional drawback drama and while Sakura and Ino had their issues, it was of the “No one gets to beat up my rival but me” variety. I might not really care about Sasuke… no really, and would have gladly handed him over to Ino… if only she asked like a reasonable person instead of engaging in tweenage romantic angst… ugh…

Anyway, Kanna had centuries of experience on Ino, and a huge speed advantage, compounded by the fact that Ino’s primary attack vector, her possession jutsu, is slow! Kanna/Kendra is a frontline fighter who broke her fighting cherry against the enemies of mankind. Ino is in no way geared to face a vampire, Kendra was and is.

With Kendra out of the way, it was time for her teammate / boytoy to shine. Zenji / Zane was placed up against Zaku… yes… World War Z… heh. Anyway, Zaku was one of the Sound Ninjas, the one who had metal tubes inside his arms. Originally they’d been filled by Aburame’s bugs and his left arm had been blown off by the reverberating sound trapped inside his body. Zenji didn’t bother with bigs. Instead, Zenji defeated Zaku with a variation on Bugs Bunny defeating Elmer Fudd’s shotgun… he grabbed Zaku’s hand, slamming their palms together just as Zaku hit the afterburners. In the manga, one of Zaku’s arms had been severed by the explosion… in this timeline, both of them went flying… when Zenji tossed them skyward in celebration of his victory… hey, Zane’s an idiot… but he’s my idiot… even if I have to share him with Kendra… in a usually platonic way (at least for me).

Fight seven was completely unfair. Once again, Temari (the third Sand-Sibling) was faced off against a Kunoichi… a female ninja. But where Temari had rather effortlessly crushed the inexperienced Tenten, this time she was faced off against Ichika / Maggy. It’s hard to say if Maggy is a better fighter than Temari… but one thing’s for certain, Maggy’s a much better Kunoichi that Big-Fan Sand-Girl. A proper Kunoichi should use subterfuge and seduction as much as brute force… and Maggy had both aspects down pat.

Yes, she won by flirting with Temari. I’m not saying that Temari fell for the seduction. Oh no. Temari is exceptionally hetero… so much so that Maggy’s flirtations actively threw her off balance long enough for my eldest to stunlock the massive fan-wielder with a lightning blast (the fan’s spine was metal… ouch… and then used Possession to force her opponent to surrender. A slow Jutsu is fine if your target is a jerking, smoldering mess whose central nervous system is still rebooting. So that was one person who’d been in the Third Test who’d been eliminated… fascinating.

Up next was the last of my kids, as Mamoru / Alex faced off against Choji von Chubby Meatball. In the original timeline, Dosu had kicked Choji’s ass, and I was pretty much expecting Alex to play basketball with the boy whose most powerful move was expanding into a sphere and rolling at the enemy. Instead, after a prolonged fight where Alex passed up a dozen chances to end the fight, Alex conceded the fight to a clearly winded Choji who had been, at the last, going above and beyond and still hadn’t been able to land a solid hit against my boy.

“Why’d you give up?” I heard Maggy ask her brother. 

“Didn’t want to risk having to fight you or Yoku…” he said with a shrug. “Not like any of this really matters. It’s all politics and posturing.”

“Wimp,” she said, but it was said fondly.

“That’s me,” he agreed without rancor.

The next bout was where things got… interesting. Let’s not forget here that this is Naruto’s story. He’s got to have his time to shine, right? Well, at least mouth off and show how determined he is. That came in round nine of the prelims, when Naruto’s name appeared on the board… facing off against Kurushita… better known as Darkseid. I held my breath.

Darkseid might be crippled by the layers of drawbacks I installed on him, by the restrictions and powering down and separation from his home universe… but he’s still huge, imposing, violent, sociopathic, vindictive, and freaking hard to fight. This is a guy who could tank a punch from Superman without flinching. 

Naruto, by comparison… is a loud mouthed punk who thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. But he has a lot of Chakra and can take a beating.  Which is good, because the fight was long and exceptionally brutal. Naruto’s hands were bleeding from punching Kurushita, who wouldn’t stop getting up, relentlessly pursuing the younger ninja and trying to smash his face in. 

With each passing minute, you could see Naruto’s will to continue flagging. This wasn’t a fun fight against a hated foe or a detested rival. This was a slogging match against a determinator, an enemy that wouldn’t stop until they were put down… and Naruto was clearly beginning to doubt he could put Kurushita down.  

Even the proctors, Hokage, and Orochimaru were beginning to mutter about how much damage Kuru was ignoring. It was unnatural. It was like a boss fight in a bad video game, one where the boss had an entire rainbow of health bars. And throughout the fight, Kurushita was silent, unwilling to engage in banter aside from the growling. Well, I guess I’ve cured the villain of Monologuing? Or maybe he just didn’t see Naruto as worthy of a This is Why You Suck speech.

Still, someone had to say something, and it looked like I was up. “Sasuke would be embarrassed at how long this fight is taking youuuu!” I laughed mirthlessly. “If you lose here, Naruto, you’re not a man! How will you be able to face Sasuke-Kun then!?” 

I have no idea what went through Naruto’s head at my words. No idea if he was buoyed by my scorn or by his infatuation with me, or if he just got his second wind when Kurushita snarled “Stay out of this, Demon Bitch!” but a moment later, Fox-Naruto was savaging Ninjaseid… as in literally chewing on his face. 

Naruto was declared the winner shortly thereafter once Kurushita demanded that the orange-haired boy be stopped from trying to eat his head. That was viewed as a concession and the two were separated. It took Kakashi a bit to calm down Fish-Cake boy and Kurushita had to sit down to have his many, many wounds tended to.

That left eight of us “rookies” and I was beginning to suspect a rat… or at least that a narrative trick was in the offing. See, of those still in the mix, only two were even vaguely important to the canon as far as I knew; Shikamaru and Gaara. And Shikamaru could not face Gaara with any chance of victory.

Fight ten was something right out of the manga; Shikamaru vs Kin, though that had originally been fight six. It went virtually identically to had it had gone in the canon timeline… all the differences could be easily chalked up to adapting a static 2D medium from a live action 3D one. So that was Shikamaru down and Gaara to go.

The next fight was one I really didn’t care about particularly, it being between Kiba (who I liked simply because I’m fond of doggies and Akamaru, Kiba’s canine partner, is pretty cute as far as dogs go) and Tsurugi, the final member of Team Kabuto and another one of Orochimaru’s spies. In the Canine, both had lost their fights pretty decisively, Kiba to Naruto’s trickery (a nice change from Shonen Protags winning by pure might) and Tsurugi to Kankuro’s puppet trickery. Tsurugi’s shtick is a rubbery body, with an attack pattern reminiscent of a snake, but with more neck snapping. It was a great style for ambushes against a single target… but never give a dog a rubber chew toy and expect the chew toy to emerge victorious. It was almost laughable as the dog and his boy practically ripped Tsurugi’s body apart… if, you know, there had been less blood and screaming.

What I did care about was that that brought the number of contestants down to four… and I was well past suspecting that this had all been, to some extent, scripted. It could not be a coincidence that Gaara and I were in the final four. And indeed, the next match up confirmed that I’d be facing a Jinchuriki with a serious sociopathic rageboner in the final preliminary bout.

You see, round twelve was Dosu, the leader of the Sound Ninja team, versus Leaf Village’s creepiest rookie, the bug loving Shina Aburame. In the canon, Dosu had fought Choji of the Akimichi and won, while Shino of the Aburame had fought the Sound Ninja Zaku, filling the sonic tubes in his arms with bugs until they exploded. Dosu’s thing was using the speaker attachment on his arm to generate killing sound and rocket propel his arm. Shino’s thing was chakra eating bugs. Unsurprisingly, a tactic that worked against one sound ninja worked pretty well against a different sound ninja and Dosu’s arm-speaker went up like a claymore, shredding the half-mummified assassin’s limb, side, and scalp into hamburger.

Once again the Medical-Nin were called in to pull a body off the fighting floor, and it was anyone’s guess if Dosu would live or not. If he did, he’d be missing an ear and fingers. 

While the floor was mopped, something that hadn’t featured in the manga or anime, but was very much necessary, everyone in the chamber looked back and forth between the two remaining contestants. Both of us were feared and hated in our respective villages, but a weapon is a weapon, and that’s what both of us were. The terms “demon” and “bakemono” had been used for both of us and we were the least human looking duo in the chamber (at least as long as Orochimaru remained in disguise.)

“Pft…” Gaara said, looking at me. “Normally I don’t like fighting women, but in your case, there’s not much that’s feminine.”

“Woo,” I drawled. “Feigned sexism. Really?” I hopped down into the arena area. The logical part of me had absolutely no desire to fight this fight. It was pointless, a showing off for merchants of death… and this wasn’t even the main show. Fighting for training or in a life or death situation was one thing… but this wasn’t that. In all my many many many centuries of life, I’d never participated in a fighting tourney where death had even been a realistic potentiality for any of the contestants, and to do so for stakes as paltry as this offended my sensibilities… but Gaara was a worthy foe and my boiling blood demanded I show this child (who was older than my current incarnation) how much smirking at me like that was a bad idea. Also, he could use a reminder in what pain felt like.

“How do you know it’s feigned?” he sneered.

“Because I know you lack enough respect for humanity to give a crap whether I’m female, male, or an animatronic doll wearing a human-skin suit,” I replied coldly. “But I couldn’t be happier to be able to face you so soon. Knocking you out of the contest entirely before you can show off to a crowd? That will be suitable humiliation for your pissant Sand Village, won’t it?”

He ground his teeth, eyes burning with hatred. “I’m not in this for the Sand Village!” He didn’t even twitch a finger as a fist of sand punched out of the giant gourd on his back and flew in my direction… only to skid off the flat of the section of stone floor I’d elevated with Earth Release. 

“You’ll have to try harder, sand boy… grit may wear away rock, but it takes centuries and I don’t think anyone here has that much patience,” I taunted, throwing up another panel to block his second sand punch.

“Your tricks will not thwart my victory,” he said, voice calm on the surface, but I could tell he wasn’t used to be stymied at all, and certainly not so casually. The splattered sand around me surged up at the word victory, forming hands that grasped my ankles. “Gotcha,” he gloated… then grunted in shock as I just smirked at him and the sand blasted away from my boots as if it had been magnetically repulsed. It hadn’t… it had been flung back because I’d allowed my Chakra to flood into my clothing and the sand, containing Gaara’s Chakra, had recoiled from the burning hatred that seethed and roiled in mine. 

Eyes wide, he grunted, “So… much… anger…” It was almost a whisper, something only those with highly refined hearing would have been able to perceive at anything more than a couple feet’s distance, but I didn’t need to hear it. I could read his lips.

“You think you know what hate is, boy,” I said, shaking my head. “I have to contend every day with genocidal rage. Your tormented childhood pales in comparison to the suffering I have experienced and so I know that your petty desire to prove yourself superior to all others does nothing but prove the others right in fearing you.” I slashed my swords through the twin spike flurries he’d sent my way. “Also, your lack of finesse is amusing to me.”

“You talk a good game, Fire Demon,” he said, his black-lined eyes narrowing. “But all I see you doing is defending. An unbreakable defense is worth nothing if you can’t use it to attack.” Flowing scythe-blades of Chakra-Hardened Sand swung towards me, and I could tell that he’d designed them to flow back together around my blades rather than be blown apart upon contact. He was learning quite rapidly. Excellent.

My eyes flashed with the joy of battle, and I shook my head in mock sincerity as I cartwheeled backwards over one blade and under the other, “Oh, Grit-boy… you don’t want to see me attack. Things would not go… smoothly for you.” 

“I think I can take it, if you think you can dish it out,” he shot back, recalling his sand to create a swirling ripple pattern of sand on the floor. “Or are you all words and no action?”

Oh… it was on. Back and forth the action swirled as we traded blows. For the first time since… I can’t remember when, I wasn’t holding back. Sure, I wasn’t going all out, and I wasn’t showing off all the things I still could do, but I was actively pushing myself, testing the limits of what I could do and what he could stop me from doing. That sand defense is no joke. It had just the right balance of compactability and resilience, able to ablate much of the force of a blow even as it hardened to near concrete when pressure was applied. Had my blades not been reinforced with Chakra, they’d have dulled to uselessness in just the first three minutes of the fight… but, to use a quote that only some will get, “I’m not left handed.”

Slowly, I built a rhythm for him to learn, a battle tempo for Gaara to fall into, and reinforced it through more than a dozen phrases of the conversation we were having. Words were extraneous at this point; we traded them, but they were almost irrelevant in the face of the moves we used on each other. My point about not being left handed is simply thus… Gaara was a savant, a brilliant young man who’d spent more than a decade, more than two thirds of his life training to master his particular gift and use it to win fights. I, on the other hand… well, let’s not start with me.

Sakura (yes, currently me, but only a small part of me) had spent eight years… also roughly two thirds of her lift, training in combat… but not in nearly as darwinian a school, and not to kill. Chara had spent centuries being a murderous ghost, but her fighting style was mostly stab and slash. Neither of them were savants of the fighting arts. Sakura was an informational genius, Chara was DETERMINED… had the two of them faced Gaara, they’d have lost… yes, even if Gaara had been bound by the rules of fighting inherent in the UndertaleVerse.

But Gaara wasn’t facing just NuSakura. He wasn’t facing just Chara. He was facing what can only be described as a Demon. A true Demon. A being far beyond his comprehension, and while at no point in my very long lifetime had I been a savant of battle, murder, or sand control… I had been a genius long before I’d heard of Jumpchain, and I’d been at this a very, very, very long time.

Even with holes in my memories large enough to drunkenly pilot the Deathstar through without scraping the sides, I had fought in more battles than Gaara had had breakfasts… and so, I wasn’t really fighting him. I was fighting myself, but not in the way you might think.

I was testing how well I could adapt to his fighting style, learning to fight him on his terms, using the techniques of this world alone. As bearer of the Senju Bloodline, I could duplicate to a lesser extent his Sand Release, which gave me a degree of resistance to having it used against me, and a potential ace in the hole should I need to punch through his defenses, but realistically, his command was so far greater than my own, and the sand so saturated with his own lifeforce that I’d only get one chance at such a strike and, since I had no desire to kill Gaara, I wasn’t going to use it in this meaningless fight.

And it was meaningless. I had no desire to win, but also a burning need not to lose… a catch twenty-two if ever there was one. So I built up the rhythm of our phrases, a term here that means a sequence of moves and counter moves in a fight. A phrase is distinct from other phrases by the pauses that naturally form in the action, the slight mutual retreat where advantage can change hands, or equilibrium be restored, at least for a moment.

It was in one of these pauses, the sixty-third of our combative dialogue, that I changed things up. I faltered in an exchange, just slightly, a down-tempoing step that took me ever so minutely too far to one side and a little forward, and Gaara, assuming no doubt that the fatigue was getting to me, struck like a desert viper. 

I took the blow, hard, knowing that (with his Sand Shield) such a small opening was easy enough for him to exploit without opening himself up at all. And so, I bounced, skidding, across the hard floor, a gasp going up from the other Leaf Ninjas, especially Naruto. No doubt, Lee would have been horrified, but he was in the infirmary at the moment. Ino was incensed and yelled, “Don’t let him hit you, Forehead!” She’s a good friend even if she is a tweenager and thus a moron. All tweenagers are morons. It’s a fact of life. Too much unwarranted confidence mixing with the first taste of growth hormones… how could it be otherwise?

Teenagers like Gaara aren’t much better. Case in point; I groaned, struggling to rise, a line of bloody spittal trailing from my mouth to the floor, and I was clutching my ribs as if he’d broken four of them. He certainly had felt them snap when he’d punched me with a sand reinforced fist…

Or thought he had. What he’d actually felt was eight chopsticks wrapped in sweat-damp cloth and hidden in my jacket, but close enough. He’d hit me exactly where I’d wanted him to and done exactly no damage to me except to my pride… but, hey, if a Kunoichi doesn’t have acting skill, what does she have? Well, in my case, an ace up my sleeve.

As I pretended to struggle to rise, Gaara unwisely stepped forward, eyes narrowing, clearly intent on making me eat my words. In that moment, his defenses were down as he prepared for an all out assault that might just have killed me… well, might just have killed Old Sakura.

But in that moment, before Kankuro and Temari could react to stop their murderous brother’s killing blow, before Gaara could even understand that he’d been played, I released sixty percent of the limiters I’d had on my speed and seventy percent of the limiters on my strength. A simple piece of physics that most people know instinctively: Force = Mass x Acceleration. I couldn’t (at the moment) increase my Mass… but I could narrow the point of impact… and I did so by making the two meters of my swordblade lengthen and narrow as I lunged to meet the One-Tail’s host.

I was moving at nine-hundred and twenty-six kilometers per hour, two-hundred and fifty-three (and a half) meters per second, three quarters the speed of sound, and my blade’s tip was extending at the rate of another five-hundred and three meters per second by the time it plunged into Gaara’s Sand Shield… but the tip was a needle instead of its former kissaki (the formal name of the tip of a Katana) and it was slowed only minutely before it plunged into the boy’s chest.

I’d calculated the strike to pass through the soft flesh of his shoulder, knowing that the sonic ripple of impact would bruise all the flesh around the entry and stun all the nerves in the area. It would be, in a word, excruciating, but hardly fatal. In fact, with a bit of physical therapy, it wouldn’t even be crippling… but in that moment, the pain would be incandescent… and Gaara, who’d been protected from harm almost his entire life by the Sand Shield, would not have the wherewithal to deal with it.

Of course, some people react to overwhelming stimulation not by shutting down, but by fighting all the harder, and since Gaara had done exactly that when Lee had managed to hurt him in the canon, it came as no surprise that he did virtually the same thing against me… but I wasn’t nearly as nice a person as Lee, and even if I hadn’t known what was coming, I wouldn’t have hesitated to press my advantage.

As Gaara tried to extract himself from the hyper-tensile needle (it was made of nano-carbon steel at least a thousand years more advanced than anything on this entire planet) in his shoulder, I was already airborne, and I came down, feet first, into his gourd, my body supercharged with Chara’s Chakra… and the sand exploded across the room.

There it was. Gaara’s control and power meant that the sand would collapse back towards him in less than two seconds, but for that singular moment, I had him laid bare, unable to stop me from doing anything I wanted to him. I leaned in and kissed him right on the place he’d carved the Kanji for Love on his forehead, then dropped a note in his hand before leaping away from the inrushing sphere of sand.

“I resign,” I said, tossing up a hand and shocking everyone in the chamber.

Gaara growled, trying to crush the noted but it was in the hand that I’d mostly paralyzed. “You can’t! The fight’s not… not… ovurrrrr…” and with that he slumped sideways and collapsed, asleep before he hit the floor. Mmmm… narcotic lipstick… exactly one use, but damned good at it.

Sarutobi glared at him, then at me. “You resigned before he passed out, so technically he won.”

“Yup,” I agreed, crossing my hands behind my back. “I told you, I’m not killing anyone just so you can show off for the other villages or clients who think of us as nothing more than expendable pawns. These wars only happen because there are Ninjas willing to die for other people’s money. I’m not. I’ll protect people, I’ll get the job done… I’ll even spy on people knowing that information can be used to harm them… but I’m not an assassin, and I’m not dying for a cause I don’t believe in.”

I strode out of the hall, whistling softly, Naruto looking between my back and Kakashi… until he finally rushed up to me and asked, “Where are you going? And what was in that note?” 

“We,” I said, smiling. “Are going to see our friends. The contents of the note are merely a seed for a future as yet unharvested.”

“Huh?” fishcake boy asked. “Are you being cryptic? And what friends?”

“No, I’m being deliberately obscure, and what do you mean, ‘What Friends?’ Sasuke, Hinata, and Lee are all in the hospital!” I frowned, spinning around to walk backwards. “I’m going to go visit them. You should go shower. You smell like a dog that’s been rolling in a week old skunk carcass.”

“Yeah… well, you smell like a,” he sniffed, then blinked. “Why don’t you smell bad? You were fighting for a while too!”

“Call it girl magic,” I said with a chuckle, then smirked. “I can teach it to you, but then you’d have to become a girl for real!” I waved my hands at him in a pseudo-spooky manner, and he flinched. He actually flinched.

Then he blushed and snapped, “You can’t really turn me into a girl!” He paused. “Can you?”

“That’s for me to know and you to worry about,” I replied, spinning back around and resuming my whistling as we headed to the medical center where Toph and AJ were standing guard over Sasuke, having replaced his Anbu guards before Kabuto could show up and kill them. No point wasting half-assed faceless special forces when we could just as easily replace them with people Kabuto would be hard pressed to beat if they were in comas, let alone waiting for him to show up.

=======

“What does she mean, ‘You’d be cute if you smiled more.’?” Kankuro asked, peering between the note and his siblings. Gaara was in the medical center, still feeling woozy from the powerful narcotic effects of the lipstick and the painkillers the medical ninjas had given him.

“It’s something mean boys say to girls all the time,” Temari replied, “So maybe she’s flirting with him? She seems pretty mean.”

“She’s crazy!” Gaara fumed, glaring at his traitorous arm. It refused to move.

“She let you win,” Kankuro pointed out.

“Maybe she likes him?” Temari suggested.

“She mocked me!” the defeated boy snarled. “I’ll make her pay for that.”

“She sent flowers,” Temari pointed out. Technically, they were Cactus Roses… don’t ask where I got desert flowers in the middle of a boreal forest, I just did.

“Ooooooo!” Kankuro grinned. “She does like you!”

“I’m going to kill you all,” Gaara muttered, or tried to. He was too busy yawning for his threat to make any kind of impact.

======

“You’re an idiot,” I said fondly… well… half fondly… barely tolerantly? Something like that.

“I am not,” Rock Lee said, doing a one armed push up despite being extremely injured from his fight. “It was important.”

“To whom?” I said, hanging upside down from a branch of the tree hanging above his head. “You risked your life and health in a fight that doesn’t matter in the slightest. They were never going to elevate you to Chunin this time around. None of us have the experience and even those of us with the technical tactical savvy aren’t really ready to lead a team… well, except me, of course.”

“Of course, Sakura-Chan,” he agreed, grunting through the agony. “But it mattered to me.”

“And that’s why I said that you’re an idiot,” I replied, placing an apple on his head. It wasn’t an apple tree, just to be clear. “It shouldn’t have mattered to you. Being a Chunin isn’t about combat skill, which is all you have going for you. Being a Chunin is about leadership, logical thinking, ability to plan ahead and adapt on the fly. Demonstrating that you’re able to punch good and take a beating is like trying to show your qualifications as a pastry chef by screaming opera lyrics in the faces of every customer that walks in the door.”

“But it’s good for the village,” he said. “We get more customers if we show that we can handle ourselves.”

“Rock… we practically have a monopoly on the services we provide. We’re subsidized by the government, we’re the only Ninja village in the Land of Fire, we’re the largest Ninja Village in the world, we’re the leading Ninja village of an alliance that includes two of the five biggest villages in two of the five largest lands… and we’ve been stealing the Sand Village’s business for more than a decade. It’s actually a threat to the peace how well we’re doing.” I added an orange to the apple, making a small stack. “Don’t drop them,” I warned him. It wasn’t an orange tree either.

“Then what should I have done?” he asked, taking a breath to steady himself. He really shouldn’t have been pushing himself, but I was far from the right person to tell anyone that hard, potentially obsessive, work was a bad idea. “Give up?”

“No. Just not risk burning yourself out or killing yourself for what amounts to a pointless award. You were never going to win the whole tournament. Never.” I added a cherry to the top of the orange. It wasn’t a cherry tree either.

“That Gaara guy isn’t that tough,” he grunted. “I could have taken him.”

“No, you couldn’t have,” I said. “And it has very little to do with how tough he is, though he is very tough indeed. It has to do with how crazy he is. He’s very seldom felt any physical pain in his entire life… if you managed to hurt him, and I’m certain you could have, you’d just have driven him into a murderous rage. And you, for all that you’re a genius of hardwork, Rock… you’re not a killer. He is. He’s a merciless, brutal, heartless killer. At least for now.”

The boy blunder opened his mouth to protest, but the cherry fell off the stack and bounced off his nose. Before he could catch himself, he lost his balance and collapsed to the ground on his injured arm, the three pieces of fruit rolling off in random directions. Quick as a flash, the ninja-ferrets lurking nearby pounced on the fruit and claimed them as their prizes. Just to be clear, it also wasn’t a ferret tree.

I flipped down to land in front of him, not offering him a hand up. He wouldn’t have taken it, anyway. “But that’s not why I said you couldn’t have won.”

“Then why?” he asked, rolling over onto his back to catch his breath.

I crouched in front of his head, my knees spread so I could look him right in the eye as I said, “Because of who the other fighters are… or rather, who three of the fighters are. Ignoring the fact that you might have to face Neji, Zenji, Gaara, Sasuke, or Naruto… all of whom have far more skill with Ninjutsu than you do… can you even bring yourself to fight a girl? Do you really think the odds are good that Yokumo, Kanna, or Ichika is going to be eliminated early? Because I don’t.”

“I could beat Naruto,” he said, changing the subject.

I snorted, then explained, “Naruto fought Kurushita to a standstill and Kurushita is like you only tougher and with less finesse. Naruto’s Shadow Clone Jutsu means he can wear you out with near limitless supplies of targets. His endurance is higher than yours and his Chakra reserves are so large he heals practically as fast as you can damage him. Sasuke learns any technique you use against him… as you saw in his fight with Yoroi. Neji… well, you know how hard it is to fight against anyone with the Bakugan. And Zenji is just as hardworking as you are and insane.”

“I’m not giving up,” he said fiercely.

“You absolutely shouldn’t,” I agreed, placing a fig on his nose. “You need to get better. You need to find a way to fight that doesn’t kill you almost as fast as it kills your opponent. You are not a bomb, designed for single use.”

He grinned. “Do you know such a technique?”

I smiled. “As it happens… I do. It’s called Musabetsu Kakutō Ryū.”

He frowned at that, the action causing the fig to roll into his mouth. He chewed it carefully, then said, “Anything Goes Fighting Style?”

“Something like that… and I think I’ll start with three techniques you’ll be able to use very well… But first, you need to heal up. Can’t have you feeling pity for yourself if you’re going to master the Moko Takabisha, and your body just isn’t up to the strain of the Bakusai Tenketsu or the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken.”

His face screwed up as he translated Japanese into Japanese… “Pride of the Fierce Tiger… Breaking Point Technique… Divine Fiery Chestnut Fist? Did you make up these names to tease me?”

“Nope… in fact, I can demonstrate each of them for you… though I think the hospital staff might get mad if I do Breaking Point around here.” I said, then whistled. A dozen ninja-weasels appeared from the surrounding bushes and hooked the injured boy to a series of cables before he could protest. In a moment, we were rocketing into the sky as the Ninja-Ferret Micro-Zeppelin reeled us upwards and we headed for the hills for a demonstration of rock explosions (Bakusai Tenketsu), punches fast enough to grab fish out of water without getting wet or chestnuts out of a bonfire without getting burned (Tenshin Amaguriken), and a chi (not chakra) blast fueled by staggering overconfidence (Moko Takabisha).

“Should I be calling you Sensei?” he asked, eyes wide, as I assured him that exactly none of the techniques I’d just demonstrated took even the slightest amount of Chakra to use. 

“I prefer to be called Sifu,” I replied with a grin, single eye twinkling. Ranma would have liked this kid… so would Cologne I suspect.

====

“Do you think it’s okay that we’re doing this?” the smaller of the two girls asked.

“What dad doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” the boy responded.

“What an incredibly stupid thing to say,” the eldest of the trio grumbled with a resigned sigh. 

The small girl nodded enthusiastically, “Yeah! What a person doesn’t know is almost always the thing that hurts them the most.”

“That too,” the larger, older girl agreed. “But I meant the whole part about dad not finding out… she’s a master spy. Finding things out is what she does.”

“Fiiine,” the boy groused. “You two take the fun out of everything. Can we just get back to the task at hand?”

“Oh,” the eldest said. “Sure. I love watching you make a mess of things. Proceed.”

“Thaaaaanks,” the boy drawled as they banked the trio of cloaked Orion Assault shuttles around one of the Fire Village’s Early Warning Scout Towers and arrowed for the small clearing they’d selected. The vessels had started life as smuggler craft, and had been retrofitted into assault craft, and each bore a strange name that meant nothing to the trio of “youngsters” (none of them really had any idea what age meant, having been born immortal, but they were younger than their parents and that was all that mattered). 

Who or what “Zeppo”, “Pete Best”, or “Shemp” might be, they hadn’t the faintest idea… but like many things related to the eccentricities of their family, they really didn’t question it. Their brother had complained that Zeppo was a stupid name, and that meant that, of course, he’d been saddled with that ship. The older girl, who figured that if Best was in the name, it had to be hers, had assigned the youngest of their cadre to command Shemp… mostly because it sounded like Sheep. The youngest didn’t really mind; she was just happy the others were letting her play… though, preparations for war weren’t really her favorite activity. Why couldn’t everyone just settle their personal issues and dreams of global conquest with a nice card game and some hot cocoa? Or hot vanilla milk… she loved hot vanilla milk. And sheep. And her family… probably not in that order. Sometimes her brother annoyed her… like when he called vanilla a boring flavour. He actually liked mint, the heretic.

====

Ziggy was a good ferret. He’d followed momma across the stars, and the worlds, and the places in between. He’d been a thing… and another thing… and sometimes, sometimes, he’d been a third kind of thing that he didn’t really understand, but it was much bigger than the other things he normally was. But in all those times, he’d been a good ferret. Momma had said so and Momma knew best. 

But Momma had a bad thing inside her and it was making her cranky, and there was a bad man-shaped-thing in the home-place… Ware-House momma called it, and he made momma cross… and the man who gave momma her Momma Treats… Ceee Peee… had disappeared and been replaced with the sleepy lady who smelled of plants who cried a lot… and that had made momma worried… and then Momma had vanished and it had been up to Ziggy to find out where she’d gone!

Only, Ziggy wasn’t certain she was gone. He smelled her all around… so many mommas… all the mommas there had ever been and more! There were more mommas than Ziggy had toes! He’d checked three times! He could count to three… he was a very smart boy. Momma said so and Momma knew best! But she’d gone and even though Ziggy hadn’t really remembered being Ziggy, he’d remembered enough of who he was to squirm out of who he was… a flying Ziggy named Sven… and wriggle through a small hole in… in the place where they’d been for longer than usual and back into the Houseware… that wasn’t right, was it? Ziggy didn’t know. Probably. Didn’t matter.

Only, the Ware-House was a Where House… cause it wasn’t where it shoulda been! Get it?! Ziggy is very clever with the words and things! Anyway, there was just a space where the Space-box should be… but Ziggy was expert at finding where things were when they weren’t where they should be, so he followed his nose. His nose always knew… plus, it was at the end of his face! So he went where it pointed and followed the scent of Momma… not the Momma who was back there in the place where Momma was Solace and Ziggy was Sven… He followed Momma, and, because he was Ziggy and he was a good boy (Momma said), he would find Momma and make certain she was safe… and then he would get treats.

Next: War Comes to The Thousand Acre Woods

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I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain)And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.

World 79: Naruto – Part 2.4

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 3: Testing 2 – Eclectic Boogaloo

Previously: Testing the Night Away

Themesong: Into the Woods by the Cast of Into The Woods

The moment Morino-Sensei finished wishing us luck on the second test, the window of the examination room smashed in and a genki-girl sensei named Mitarashi Anko introduced herself as the Proctor for the next part of the exam… of course she did it by using two Kunai impaled in the ceiling to hang a banner, but that’s a genki-girl for you. “Let’s Go! Follow me!” she cried, thrusting an arm skyward in a way that was excessively enthusiastic… almost Narutonian. Then she noticed how many of us were left and chastised old scar-face for making the first test too easy.

“There were a lot of outstanding candidates,” he said smugly.

“It’s fine. Fine… I’ll winnow at least half of them out in my test,” she said, waving his comment away. Of course, she would. The nature of the second test was that no more than half the teams could actually finish it, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

As an aside, in the Manga, there’s a scene that always bothered me right here. See, once all the Genin have left, Morino-Sensei is alone in the now empty exam room, and he goes around picking up the pages. He’s surprised to find Naruto’s paper completely blank, and thinks to himself how remarkable it is that Naruto made it through without answering any of the questions besides the tenth. He thinks that Naruto is a very interesting guy. I get that Naruto is the MC, and that Sasuke (like many of the others in the testing chamber) got all his answers from someone else… i.e. the two hidden chunin, either directly or indirectly. But Sakura got none of the answers from anyone else. As far as we the readers could tell, Sakura is the only person in the entire room who knew all the answers. Now, Kabuto and other veteran takers might have known them too, probably did in fact, and would be aware of the trick nature… but no one ever remarks on how incredible it is that a twelve year old can be smart and informed enough to breeze through the exam like Sakura did. Yes, she’s this story’s Hermione, but at least Hermione gets credit in Harry Potter for being the brightest witch of her age. 

Sakura is repeatedly given the short end of the characterization stick… but it was as if some force was now pushing me to be more important, to correct the imbalance. I’d have done that anyway, most likely… hell, any story is usually imbalanced simply because of the POV. Few people are supporting characters in their own biographies. But something was abrading Naruto’s mojo just enough to give me space to do it without resorting to one upmanship… or so it seemed. Was this accidental? Or was it to do with the Nemesis Challenge?

Anyway, if the first section of the testing was stupid, the second test made the idea of the first test look like the work of an inspired genius. I may be a bit biased here, but… look, tests where prospective students die is a staple both in the real world (see ancient Sparta’s Agoge) and in fiction… oh so much in fiction. But what most of the fictional versions fail to understand is that deaths in the real life versions were rare. Not unheard of, but exceptionally rare. Less than one in twenty would have been tolerated by the most militant cultures, and the usual was less than one in a hundred. Prospective warriors are valuable and throwing them away is insanity. It’s a waste of the resources needed to rear them, the time needed to train them, and usually harmful to the morale of their friends. 

And if it’s not harmful? Oh, holy shit do you have a problem, because esprit de corps is fucking everything in war. Loyalty to your comrades is the single most important element in whether a group of soldiers stands and fights. Making your soldiers not care about each other isn’t just going to destroy their loyalty to the body politic, it’s going to destroy the cohesion of units. Warhammer 40K may be fifty kinds of fucked up, but holy shit do they understand esprit de corps and the importance of maintaining morale. They suck at it, but it’s a dark as fuck universe.

So what does Test 2 do that’s so mind bogglingly stupid? Well, let me start by telling you the name of the test location. Officially known as Area 44, it is more commonly known as The Forest of Death. Why? Because it’s a zone filled with monsters? Well, sure, that’s part of it. But the test ramped it up in a huge way. How you ask? We’re getting there.

Each team was given a scroll. Some of the scrolls had black borders (Earth Scrolls), others had white borders (Heaven Scrolls). A team could only pass this test by reaching the center of the Forest with one of each. Thus, half the teams would be eliminated. See, I told you I’d get back to it.

Sooo… you’ve got twenty-six teams, meaning that of the original fifty-one half had been eliminated, and only thirteen could possibly finish. That part? That’s entirely reasonable. But we’re talking about twenty-six teams of trained spies, bodyguards, and assassins… and the one thing no one said was “Don’t kill each other.” Careers are made based on one’s success in the Chunin Exam and at least half would fail. Of course competition is going to be high… but you know what would actually bring out the best in your people? Telling them that they weren’t allowed to kill each other. These are fucking Ninjas! If they can’t steal a scroll from rival teams without killing them, they’re not very good Ninjas now are they?!

Fucking moronic, that’s what this whole thing was. Just… spectacularly dumb. Like… say two teams from the same village threw down and someone died? Oh, yeah, that would be good for internal harmony. And if the ninjas of one nation killed the ninjas of an allied nation… why, in the name of the entire Shinto Pantheon, would you risk an international incident like that? This was less than 25 years from the last world war! FUUUUUCK!

Anyway, the remaining eleven Konohagakure teams were Teams Kakashi (mine), Team Kurenai (Hinata, Shina, Kiba, and Akamaru the doggo), Team Asuma (Ino-Shika-Cho), Team Guy (Neji, Rock Lee, and Tenten), Team Kaito (Zenji / Zane, Kanna / Kendra, Kurushita / Darkseid), Team Reo (Yokumo / Amaryllis, Ichika / Maggy, and Mamoru / Alex), Team Kabuto (Kabuto and others), Team Who Gives a Crap (important only because Manabu Akado was in it… and he’s only important because this was his eighteenth try… seriously, the dude had been in the same Academy Class as Kakashi… but, you know, older since Kakashi finished at age five.)… Team We’re Only Here to Demonstrate What Happens If You Cheat in the Second Test, and two teams there only to fill out the numbers I guess. Serious, I didn’t know those eight losers from Adam and I know everyone. Shocking, I know, but it was as if someone couldn’t be arsed to give background characters any damned personalities. Either that, or Chara’s presence in my mind was making it so that I was being actively disdainful of staggeringly dull people. Hard to say.

That aside, I’m as astonished as you are that Kurushita didn’t fuck up and get his team bounced from the first part of the exam, but he didn’t. I guess DS’s ego wouldn’t let him sabotage things. 

Meanwhile, Team Sakuhasu (Shinohana / Vita and the Shimura Triplets / Levi, Sterns, & Dearche) had gotten themselves eliminated because Vita of all people had gotten caught cheating. Sigh. Summoning a bat to spy on others? How do you figure a bat flying around the test room isn’t going to be noticed? It was broad freaking daylight. My fault, I know. I have yet to spank some subtlety into Vita’s bottom.

The remaining fourteen teams were Otogakure (Sound)’s bullshit fake team, both teams from Kusagakure, one team from Takigakure, five teams from Amegakure (Rain), and six teams from Sunagakure (Sand). Of them, most were doomed to fail… and one team, the Kusagakure Team that had straw hats tagging them as Crime, Evil, and Punishment, were already dead, having been killed and replaced by Orochimaru’s agents prior to the events of the First Test. How I regretted that I wasn’t allowed to kill these replacements myself… but maybe that was Chara? No. Probably not. Being honest with myself, I probably would have buried these murderous fuckers in unmarked graves even without Little Miss Psychopath in my head. 

Another team, one of the ones from Amegakure was also going to die for even less reason. See, since no one had bothered to make it a rule not to kill others to get their scrolls, Team Baki… aka Gaara and his siblings would just kill the first team they came across that had the Heavenly Scroll they needed. 

And that’s the basic setup, as told to us by the Genki-Girl herself. “You have five days to get to the tower at the center of the forest with both scrolls or your team is gone, gone, gone,” she chirped. “But don’t think it’s going to be easy. You’ll soon find out why we call it the ‘Forest of Death’.”

Naruto, apparently unphased by his moment of apprehension at Test Site 1, mimicked her words in a whiny voice, then snapped “You think that scares me! I’m not afraid of any stinking trees!” Then he flinched as Anko-Sensei threw a kunai past him, cutting open his cheek.

Before he could so much as squeak, she was behind him, licking the blood from his face. Let me tell you, seeing it in live action? Sooo much creepier than seeing it in black and white on the page of a manga. But that’s not why I mentioned it. 

Remember how I said that the Kusagakure Team in the straw hats had been replaced with Orochimaru’s agents… well Shiore, the one with the hat that said “Evil” had been replaced with Orochimaru himself, and that Kunai had cut a few strands of Shiore/Orochimaru’s hair and the Snake Sage moved up behind Anko-Sensei almost as smoothly as she’d moved up behind Naruto, holding the Kunai in his prehensile tongue.

I wasn’t concerned evil von creepy dude would attack Sensei… not that I’d have cared after the freakshow bloodlicking… nor attack Naruto. Instead, I took advantage of the crowd’s attention being on the budding conflict to open my third eye just a crack, getting my first glimpse of the heart and soul of one of the three great Sennin of the Sannin… sigh. I didn’t just make that up. Sennin means Sage, while Sannin means Three Ninjas… there were three of them, Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Orochimaru… I may have mentioned it before.

I’d seen the Chakra-flows inside normal ninjas often enough, always from hiding to avoid revealing my locally unknown eye power, but never before had I seen those flows augmented by the third component of the chakra wheel. Normal ninjas mix Physical and Spiritual energy to produce Chakra… a Sage, using Senjutsu… Sage techniques, add “Natural” energy to the yin-yang flow of chakra, creating a three magetama wheel… Physical flowing into Natural flowing into Spiritual flowing back into Physical again. It was a balancing act, a fact I could see as plain as the nose on my face… well… most people can’t see their own nose and I’d never picked up a perk specifically to allow it, so technically I couldn’t see the nose… anyway, I’m getting off topic. 

I didn’t know what would happen if the balance wasn’t maintained, but it was clear that, since the Natural Energy, the Anima Mundi, was an external thing, if would have potentially catastrophic effects if too much was absorbed… and too little… probably wouldn’t do much if anything. It had to be slipped into the cycle in just the right way, in just the right amount… now if only I could find a source for it. Unfortunately, that my Third Eye couldn’t show me. I’d have to figure it out… or learn it from one of the three known masters… but preferably not Snakeface.

While I’d been busy, the situation had been resolved, and I had to snap myself out of my contemplation and slip my headband back over my forehead before anyone noticed… had it been too long? Had I cracked it open too far… I’d wanted a better look, a longer look, but hadn’t dared. Was I being paranoid? Was there such a thing as too paranoid in a world full of assassins and spies? Hard to say, but I’ve never liked giving potential enemies too much information. Bragging should only be done over the enemy’s corpse.

Regardless, Anko-Sensei was all too Genki-Cheerful-Psycho as she had us sign the release forms agreeing that, if we died, (and she assured us that there would be deaths in this test) it wasn’t her fault. Good, fucking, christ people! Why did you let this batshit crazy woman proctor your exam! I’d had a look inside her… it was impossible not to since she was right next to Orochimaru, and oh… sweet mother of man… she was soooo twisted it wasn’t funny. Entire parts of her memory had been scrubbed and altered. Her loyalty to the village was fanatical, but there were parts of her that screamed and gibbered and writhed inside… and rejoiced in the madness. Parts of her resonated like parts of Orochimaru… and I could see the traces of his Chakra all over her soul. That green Natural glow was telltale, and she had the markings I’d come to recognize as a Seal of Heaven.

It wasn’t the same as the Purified forms that Amy, Francy, Vita, and the triplets had, so I was assuming it was the original… which doubled up the whole connection to Orochimaru since, as far as I knew, he’d created the fucking things. I had no idea how the two differed, but I’d paid hard CP to be a Fuinjutsu Prodigy, which meant I knew a thing or three about Ninja Sealing Techniques… and hooo boy, this Seal of Heaven was a doozy. Also fucking insane. I’d guess that less than one in twenty ninjas implanted with that seal would survive the process, and three in four of them would be driven insane. The pain alone should be crippling, at least initially.

Sensei, at least, seemed perfectly healthy, at least physically, and her Chakra flows were fine… so was her body, if you know what I mean. Chara ewwwed inside my head. I ignored her. Not my problem if she was eternally stunted emotionally. Angry ghosts don’t get to determine who I leer at. Hell, my own harem didn’t get to determine who I leer at.

Anyway, back to the test. The Forest covered roughly three hundred and fifteen square kilometers in a near perfect circle around an observation tower built near a fork in the river Narhanja, a tributary of the River Sokkarana which flowed through the center of Konohagakure. Ringing the forest were forty-four gates, equally spaced. By random lot we were assigned to a gate and given three hours to get to our assigned gate. Easy peasy if your gate was right near the main entrance… suuuuuck if your gate was on the far side of the circle… you know, thirty-kilometers away. The manga had said half an hour… I chalk that up to authors not understanding scale… or physical exercise.

There were three ways to lose; open a scroll, lose a team, or fail to get to the center with both scrolls by the time limit. No quitting would be tolerated. Only she didn’t mention that opening the scroll was a crash and burn offense, just that it was forbidden. Fair enough on that count; a ninja who couldn’t control their curiosity about the contents of a missive wasn’t an ideal courier. There should have been a third rule… no helping anyone outside your team. Seriously… did they honestly think teams from the same village wouldn’t help each other? No, they clearly didn’t because these gormless oiks knew nothing about esprit de fucking corps!! 

We entered through Gate 12 and almost immediately were attacked by a single member of Team Oboro, one of the Amegakure teams pretending to be Naruto (who was off taking a piss), but Sasuke drove him away. Sasuke came up with a stupid password system to draw out another ninja who was lurking nearby, submerged beneath the ground and breathing through a hollow bamboo tube. 

It’s a classic image, I’ll give you that, though a single, clean-cut bamboo tube poking out of a body of water when you’re in the middle of towering trees with no bamboo in sight pretty much screams “I’m spying on you!”. What makes this even dumber? The ninja in question was Fake-Shiore… i.e. Orochimaru. Like… did he think so little of us that he was just fucking around? Or, like… no. Nope. Can’t think of a single fucking reason why Orochimaru, who had done countless horrible experiments on himself, would even need to breathe anymore, but especially not in such an obvious fashion.

I, however, wasn’t paying nearly as much attention to the scene as I should have been. I knew that, elsewhere nearby, Naruto was probably being attacked and swallowed by a kyodaija… a Giant Snake, one of Orochimaru’s summons. In the original timeline, he’d break free of its gut by shadow-cloning himself six ways to sunday, cause it to explode from the internal pressure. My fear was that, given his recent spate of slightly less over the top Main Character Shenanigans, he might be having trouble and thus need a bit of a hand.

An easy choice, right? Stay with Sasuke to face Orochimaru, potentially leaving him vulnerable to being kidnapped (as he would be eventually anyway) and us losing this highly unimportant test or go save the Boy Who Would Be Hokage from a fate he might not need saving from. Clearly I should go, I hear you saying. I certainly heard my own better angels saying it. 

But then there was the part of me that wanted to, needed to, was required to prove herself. That part yearned to face one of the big bads… hell, the Big Bad of the first half of the series… mano y duo. If I could have gotten rid of Sasuke without Orochimaru, who wanted Sasuke’s body for his own (but not in a pedo way) following…

“Maybe you should go check on Naruto,” I suggested.

“If you’re concerned about the idiot,” Sasuke snapped, “You go check on him.”

“No need to check on me,” Definitely Not Naruto said. “The password is-” Orochimaru pretending to be Shiore pretending to be Naruto began, then yelped as three kunai raced towards his face. He dodged, snakelike, then snapped, “Why’d you do that!” or at least that’s what he started to say. He got as far as “Why’d you-” before the explosive tags I’d stuck on the throwing knives exploded, blasting him off his feet and shredding the illusion.

“Naruto wouldn’t let Sasuke call him an idiot without retort,” I growled, leaping into the air, drawing my blades as the Snake-Sage rolled and flipped back to his feet. 

“You’re not as useless as I’d been led to believe,” Shiore-but-not-really said, barely keeping the hiss out of his voice. “If only you weren’t corrupted, it might be interesting to-” He dodged backwards as I drove the point of my overly large blade into the ground where he’d just been standing. Fucking hell he was fast. I’d been faster, once upon a Bleach, and he wasn’t going all out, but in this lifetime, down-checked as I was, he was faster than I was, if just barely. “A fight… how excellent. Let’s begin the battle in earnest then,” he swallowed his black-bordered scroll, pulling it down his bulging throat with his obscenely long tongue. “With our lives on the line.” It was right out of the manga… if I was a fan girl, I’d have squeed. It was pretty bad-ass in a tween fiction kind of way.

What was also right out of the manga was the overwhelming murderous aura he generated, his Sakki, his Killing Intent radiating out of him like waves of semi-solid fear. As much as it might seem like a genjutsu, complete with the potential to paralyze an opponent and (at this strength) induce visions of gruesome demise at the hands of the killer, it was not a technique at all, but merely an expression of the killer’s soul. It hit Sasuke like a ton of bricks… but not only did it not bother me in the slightest (I’d faced Kenpachi Zaraki’s Spirit Pressure without flinching and killed actual greater demons and suplexed the fucking Eye of Terror. I was not flinching from an overgrown snake) but it actually tickled.

It also made Chara positively giddy and, before I could stop her, my eyepatch blew off and her crimson mist began pouring out of me, splitting again and again as it clawed its way out of my soul. “HAAATE! FEAR! DEATH! MURDER! KILL! KILL! KILL!!!!!!” she sang in a dozen voices, then a hundred voices, then more, more and more voices pouring out of her with each passing word and, believe it or not, Orochimaru flinched.

“What in the name of Kami?” He gasped, his Killing Intent shattered by the presence of a living spirit of murder made manifest. 

Sasuke, already shaken by Orochimaru’s initial attack, had backed against one of the titanic lianas littering the forest floor and he looked too shocked to move. I don’t doubt that, had any of us been in complete control of ourselves at that moment, I would have won the fight, but the Burning Blood warred with the Chosen One and I had to stop Chara from killing Orochimaru. I didn’t really know why I should bother, but he was probably important to the story, a part of the threefold symmetry of Sages and chakra parts and all that… but more than that I had to keep Chara from killing anyone… at all costs. Not because of the Drawback, but because each time she killed it would be harder to save the wicked child from herself… and since she was bonded to me on the spiritual level, if she fell I did not doubt that I too might fall. And if Chara unleashed was a terrible idea… The Jumper EssJay Fallen? Universes would quail in terror before their light was expunged for the crimes of not meeting my too high, impossible to meet, standards.

My hands tangled in the screaming, thrashing thing that I clearly needed to have more than a few words with, pulling it back into myself, the pain agonizing, as Chara’s thousand mouths ripped and tore at Shiore’s flesh. The last I saw before I collapsed to the ground of Orochimaru was him fleeing into the distance. I could only hope that Naruto had survived, though I’d left him a fail-safe… I’m a loose cannon… not an idiot. 

****

“Use the Force, Luke,” said a small squeaky voice as Naruto found himself in the gullet of a giant creepy-ass snake.

“The what?” the orange-haired boy gasped as he slid deeper. “Who said that? And who is Luke?”

“I said that, the force, and you are Luke,” said the voice and Naruto felt something squirming inside his jumpsuit. A moment later, a small pink nose poked out of the neck of his top. “Hi! You are Luke, right?”

“Nooo,” Naruto grunted, thrashing helplessly. Why was there a weasel in his shirt? “I’m Naruto… Who are you, and how did you get in there?”

“I’m Metropolis the Super Ferret,” the weasel said proudly. “And the seal to summon me was placed here in your shirt, to be triggered by snake saliva. I was told to tell Luke to use the Force. Do you know where Luke is?”

“Nooo… stop squirming!”

“But it’s damp here! You really should get out of here before we’re digested,” Metropolis pointed out.

“You’re the Super Ferret, can’t you get us out?” the boy grumbled.

“Oh… I can get out… but I can’t take you with me. You’re not cleared to enter the Infinite Warrens,” the small creature said, checking a small notebook. “Oh. Wait… Naruto?”

“Yeah?”

“It says that, if Luke lies and says his name is Naruto to tell him to use the Shadow Force,” the silver furred creature said proudly. “Do you have any dried fish?”

“You’re a very weird dude… dude…” Naruto said, then blinked. “Shadow Force? Heh. Did Sakura send you?”

“I’m not at liberty to say… but if you bribe me with fish I might tell you anyway,” the ferret allowed. “But then again, I might not. I’m fickle. Now? Are we getting out of here?”

“You Better Believe it!”

******

“Sorry Sasuke,” Naruto said, looking down from a tree branch, covered in viscera, “I forgot the Password.”

“I’m actually glad to see you,” Angst Boy said, “Something came out of Sakura’s eye and it ate one of the Kusagakure Ninjas who was trying to kill us… do you see her eyepatch anywhere?”

“I’m fine,” I grumbled, trying to sit up, blood covering my right hand as I kept it pressed over my traitorous eye. “We need to get moving. Team Baki will have reached the center already.”

“Baki?” Naruto asked. “Which one is that?”

“The three Sand Siblings,” Sasuke said with a sigh. “You really need to work on paying attention.”

“And remembering what you hear,” I agreed, much to Naruto’s chagrin. The teacher in me wanted to pull Naruto aside and give him some pointers, but the pragmatist inside me felt that trying was almost certainly pointless. Not only was fishcake boy a Shonen Protagonist, but he was the designated comic relief. If the Dysfunction Junction drawback hadn’t guaranteed we wouldn’t get along all that well, maybe it would have worked, but he was hardly going to listen to me, and the odds of me keeping my temper when he ignored me were not favorable.

Now that we were looking for another team to beat up, finding one became a problem. Orochimaru had taken his scroll with him, but I suspected he’d be back sooner or later, since he was pretty obsessed with Sasuke. How important the Cursed Seal was to Sasuke’s future I didn’t know, but becoming the disciple of the Snake Sage probably was important in some way. I wanted to be out of the forest before the creep came back.

To that end, we were stalking one of the teams from Sunagakure, one led by a Genin named Jyari, trying to figure out if they had an Earth Scroll. Of the first three teams we’d scouted, Toitsu’s Team (Konoha) had turned out to have a Heavenly Scroll, Shigeri’s Team (Kusa) had an Earth Scroll but they were defeated by Team Kabuto (Konoha, also Earth) and their scroll burned, and Team Kawaki (Sunagakure) not only had a Heaven (no help there) but it was eaten by an extremely nasty Hogscorpion… along with the hand of the team member who was holding the scroll.

We’d been stalking the Sand Ninjas for half an hour by this point, while they secured their camp for the night — what kind of Ninjas don’t hunt at night? — when there was a rustling in the brush behind us and Team Dosu dropped out of hiding. Clearly, they’d used some sound technique to hide the sounds of their approach until the last moment.

The three Sound Ninjas moved with the coordinated efficiency of people who’ve worked together for two years, and it struck me painfully just how young and stupid they were. Fourteen year olds murdering each other was bad enough, but that they were doing it for a shitstain like Orochimaru who was perfectly willing to sacrifice their lives just so he could kill the Third Hokage with the corpses of the First and Second Hokage? What a fucking joke.

As Sound Ninjas, each of them used some specialized Sound Jutsu even though Hidden Leaf Ninjas certainly didn’t all use wood or fire Jutsu. Hell, Naruto used a wind attack as his primary. Or was Rasengan lightning? He hadn’t learned it yet and thus I hadn’t seen it in person, just in the manga and anime and no, that didn’t help me figure out how to do it because I didn’t understand what, exactly, it was doing. Or rather, I understood what… not how. Copycat is weird. Live action with special effects? Works fine, as in the case of Force Lightning, which anyone who has seen Return of the Jedi or Revenge of the Sith has seen being used. Anime? Video games? Nope. Very odd. Apparently the actor was the big thing. It’s also important to note that the people of this world, like all Anime world’s I’d been to, didn’t look like Anime Characters. They looked as close to it as possible for normal humans. Okay, yes, their hair was still weird colors and occasionally had waay too much body, but their eyes were normal size, they didn’t have antennae hair, they didn’t explode blood from their nose when they got sexually aroused, and they didn’t manifest massive sweat drops when worried.

Anyway, Abumi Zaku was a black haired orphan thief that had been indoctrinated into the cult of Orochimaru at age eight and surgically modified with hollow air tubes in his arms that allowed him to expel focused blasts of air and sound powerful enough to deafen or cut flesh. Tsuchi Kin, the team’s sole female member, used acupuncture needles and bells to disorient and disable with nerve attacks and sonic illusions. Kinuta Dosu could manipulate and bend sound, and had hearing accurate enough to figure out what someone was writing simply by listening to the sounds made by their pencil on paper. He was also a Tech Ninja, relying on the armguard-speaker combo on his right forearm to generate the sound he used in his attack. Although all three were highly overconfident, murderous, sadistic, and cruel, at least Dosu demonstrated some intelligence and none of them deserved their lot in life… though few people really do. Dosu was the only one of the three not sacrificed by Orochimaru in the original timeline. Rather, Gaara would rather summarily slaughter him during the Konoha Crush.

My sympathy for their plight, alongside my desire to reform a similarly murderous youth living inside me… if you can call it living… slowed me down. I hadn’t really had a plan for how to deal with them… I know, odd for me, but I was mostly flying by the seat of my pants here. I didn’t really know how to help in this world and didn’t want to fuck things up. Mostly, I just wanted to survive until I could figure out how to put myself back together… and figure out what had stolen some of Naruto’s Mojo… and whether or not that boded ill for the world around us. 

That said, I still had far more fighting strength and experience than all three Sound Ninjas put together, and I figured one way to keep Orochimaru from sacrificing them would be to disable them and hide them someplace he couldn’t find them. 

I readied myself to strike… and Chaara chose that moment to steal all our Chakra… or horde it I guess. The cycle of physical to spiritual just… stopped as she refused to give her half up. 

“I want to kill them!” She demanded! “They’re mean and icky and bad! They’re bad people! Let me out so I can kill them!”

“You can’t!” I raged, gasping out the words, well aware that I was sounding like a crazy person. “You’re bound by a Drawback not to kill people!”

“Nuh huh! I didn’t take that one! You did!”

“You’re not allowed to kill anyone anyway!” I shot back, struggling to pull the Chakra out of her metaphysical grasp while fighting off Kin… why the hell was the only girl going after me? Is this fight gender coded? 

Naruto was holding his own against Dosu, while Sasuke and Zaku were going at it like snake and mongoose… when a giant snake appeared in the clearing, smashing through the branches with Orochimaru sunk to the hips into its skull. Sasuke and Naruto were thrown off their rhythm by the new attack, as was Chaara, but all I could do with that moment of distraction was pull some of the Chakra cycle back into order before Kin managed to disable my right arm with a nerve strike.

Things quickly spiraled from bad to worse, with Naruto managing to stun the snake but quickly being KO’d by Orochimaru, who wasn’t even pretending to be Shiore any more, and Sasuke being double teamed by Kin and Zaku as I fought my own inner demon-brat. And then, to make matters worse… Rock Lee appeared to save me. Just… kill me now. Well, no, don’t. But oy. I am not a damsel! I hate that trope almost as much as I hate Lee’s bushy eyebrows! Dude needs some manscaping.

Anyway, within moments, Orochimaru had bitten Sasuke, inflicting the Curse Seal upon him, and the rest of Team Guy (Neji and Tenten) showed up to fight Orochimaru and Ino-Shika-Cho had shown up to fight the Sound Trio. Yeah… I’d manage to change a little of the story, but not much. At least I didn’t have to worry about cutting my hair since I didn’t cover my forehead with my bangs and didn’t care at all if Sasuke liked girls with long hair, girls with short hair, or you know, girls at all! Ugh. Teenage Boys are idiots!

Look, long story short, we passed the test. Orochimaru and company had no intention of killing us and his agent Kabuto was in place to help ensure that, even crippled by a demon, the growing Cursed Seal, and just being Naruto, we would win through to victory eventually. 

I’ve experienced the disgusting nature of a setting on rails (Final Fantasy VII) before, and this wasn’t that. There was too much give for us to be plotbound, but there was too much snap back for us to be entirely free of destiny either. It was as if some events had to happen and some were optional… and I was beginning to suspect that Sasuke was the determinant. Anything bound to his storyline seemed locked in, something that could be changed only with great effort and likely to change back. If that was the case, I was probably fighting a losing battle about ending up with him, an idea I was less than pleased with… though to be fair, I didn’t want to stop Sarade, Sasuke and Sakura’s daughter, from existing. I hadn’t planned on being her mother, but she was (from what little I’d seen of her) a cute kid. 

But my fate and Naruto’s? Those seemed more flexible. It was as if Naruto had been given room to fail in order for Sakura’s role in things to become more vital. Was it that simple? Was that the nature of the test? If so, did that make Naruto my Nemesis? Or Sasuke? Or was there some character out in this world that I didn’t know about that that was my Nemesis.

Princess Kaguya was a world walker and evil… maybe she was the Nemesis? Was that it? Did I have to be the one to bring her down? I had no idea how she’d been defeated but I knew she was the Big Bad of the series. Or was Chaara my Nemesis? She certainly was giving me enough problems. The more control I gained over our combined Chakra, the more she fought me. It was all deeply frustrating to say the least.

One thing that had changed was that, instead of seven teams passing the Second Test, an unprecedented nine had, with Team Kaito and Team Reo both making it through with relative impunity. The only thing that kept Kurushita/Darkseid from gloating over the fact that his squad had managed to finish in under four days while it had taken my squad almost exactly five days was the fact that the team with my kids had finished the exam in even less time than it had taken Gaara’s team. 

The old record had stood at four hours, a time that Gaara’s team in canon had shattered with a blistering ninety-seven minutes. Team Reo had crossed the ten kilometers between gate and tower in eighty-four, thanks to the Bakeneko that Mamoru/Alex had summoned providing speed, Yokumo/Amaryllis’s Nindog zeroing in on a scroll for them to steal, and Ichika/Maggy using her Yamanaka Possession Jutsu to have one member of the rival team attack his team mates. I’m so proud that even Chaara being a grumpus inside my head couldn’t completely ruin my mood.

So that was two tests down, one test and an invasion to go, but there was a month between now and those events, plenty of time to (hopefully) work on my communication with the beast that lay within. Crispy-crackers but it was like having my very own Jinchuriki… Chaara, The Thousand Tailed Weasel of Hate. I could have done without the honor, to be honest.

Next: Testing 3 – So Much for Subtlety

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World 79: Naruto – Part 2.3

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 3: Testing the Night Away

Previously: A Bridge Not Far Enough

Themesong: Just an Illusion by Julia Zahra

As I’d said they would, Temari and Kankuro showed up in the village one day a few months after the Great Naruto Bridge incident, just in time to run into Konohamaru (the boy named for the village)… or rather for said boy to run straight into them. 

Kankuro, charming people person that he is, immediately snatched up the eight year old “honored grandson” and snapped, “That hurt, you little piece of-”

He didn’t get any further before I crossed the four large paving stones that separated me from the Sand Siblings and grabbed his wrist with just shy of crushing force. “Hospitality has limits,” I whispered so that only the two boys could hear me. “The child’s rudeness does not give you license to harm him. In the name of peace, I’ll give you a chance to release him, and the two of you shall exchange apologies.”

“I’m not apologizing-” Konohamaru began, but then he saw how my one visible eye was blazing and he wisely shut the hell up.

Kankuro, who (for those who do not know of him) is one of the most iconic of Naruto characters. He wears a hooded black bodysuit in the Bunraku Puppet Theatre style that covers him from head to wrist and ankles, black fingerless gloves, the same black toeless boots that everyone seems to wear in this universe, and Noh Theatre style facepaint. His hood has weird animal ear-like shapes on the top and drapes that hang on the side of his face, and on his back is a large bandage-bound shape that is, in actuality, a man-sized puppet that he uses in battle, hence the puppeteer outfit. He often has his eyes squinted almost closed, as he did when he turned his head, and only his head, to face me.

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” he asked with a trace of menace in his voice, the sunlight shining off the Sand-Village Hitai-ate headband he wore (his elder sister wore hers as a torq for some reason). “And what will you do if I don’t, Leaf Genin?” The rank was said as an insult, as if he wasn’t also one. Not surprising since he and his siblings were Chunin in all but name already.

“I have no desire to illuminate you,” I said, barely keeping my calm as Chara raged inside me to kick his ass… well, Chara and the Boiling Blood need to fight. “But I am more than willing to prove to you that you do not want to underestimate the Leaf Village.”

“Yeah!” Naruto snapped, “So let go of Konohamaru, Fatass!”

“A fight?” Kankuro said, smirking to cover the pain my grip had to be causing as I ground his radius and ulna together. “Very well… we have time to play a little before the boss arrives.”

“Bastard!” Naruto yelled, charging forward to rescue his little playmate, but before he could take more than a pair of steps, Kankuro did something I couldn’t quite see from my position that caused mister impetuosity to fall flat on his butt. 

“I hate midgets,” Kankuro said smugly, “Especially rude ones. Makes me want to kill them.” He balled his fist as if to punch the kid, though it was clear he was referring to Naruto as much as Konohamaru.

“Yeah?” I asked. “Well, I hate people who think it’s okay to bully those weaker than themselves.” Yes. this is me, the Pot, calling the Kettle black. At least when I do it it’s to defend others… usually. Sometimes I’m just a bitch. “So put the kid down or I promise you, Kankuro, that you’ll be controlling your toy with one hand and I’ll be apologizing to Temari and Gaara for weakening their team a week before the Chunin Exam.”

His eyes flashed wide as I named him and his siblings, and he glanced to his older sister in shock.

“I’m not involved in this,” she said. “Beat him up, don’t beat him up. I don’t care. We’ll do just fine without him in the Exam.” I’d never actually been a big sister in any of my jumps… that I could remember at the moment at least, but I recognized the combination of big sisterly resignation and annoyance in her body language.

“You heard the lady,” I said, pulling Kankuro’s arm straight forward so that he either lost his balance and stumbled forward or dropped the kid (fulcrums are great kids), just as I performed a backflip, the tip of my toes flashing a millimeter from Puppet-boy’s nose as he jerked backwards, landing on his own ass. I caught Konohamaru with one hand, doing a handstand with the other, focusing my Chakra into keeping my balance in that improbable configuration.

Kankuro leapt to his feat, ready to retaliate, but a stone bounced off his headband, rocking him back and all eyes looked up to see Sasuke, being all angsty and handsome in a nearby tree… shut up stupid teenage hormones!

Of course, this pissed Kankuro off more than my standing up to him… or maybe he’d been so thoroughly cowed by Temari growing up that he didn’t even think about fighting a girl. Either way, he swung the puppet off his back and growled at Sasuke, “Get down here, punk! I hate show-offs like you the most!”

Before Temari or I could react, a new voice snapped out in command, “Kankuro, stop it! You’re disgracing our village.” All eyes turned to see the new comer, my own included. This would be the first time I was seeing Gaara, Jinchuriki of the One-Tailed Tanuki Shukaku. He was hanging, upside down, from the branch of a tree opposite Sasuke’s, and I hadn’t felt him approach. Stupid stupid stupid… My senses were as screwed up as everything else, clearly, but Gaara had clearly suppressed his chakra… impressive as hell for a Jinchuriki.

Kankuro visibly started sweating, and even Temari looked a little worried… or maybe aggravated? Hard to tell. “They started it!” Kankuro said, point at me. “I was just…”

“Losing control of your temper,” Gaara and I said as one, and it was hard to tell which of us had more disdain in their voice, though mine was hot and Gaara’s cool as a cucumber. The sand-boy with black rings around his eyes and the kanj “Ai” meaning love scarred into his forehead were stark against the paleness of his skin… how anyone could live in a desert and be that pale I just don’t know.

“Hello, Tanuki,” I said, smirking up at him. “You just saved me the bother of wiping the street with your brother and his toy. You’re the boss… you should really teach him the rules of hospitality.

“Would not!” Kankuro protested

“Shut up,” Gaara said without emotion. “Or I’ll kill you.” It was hard to tell if he was talking to his brother or me or both of us… though he’d used that threat in the comic on just Kankuro, sooo… take your pick.

“So… sorry,” Kankuro mumbled and even Temari felt the need to add how sorry she was.

“I must apologize to you all,” Gaara said, spinning out of the tree to land between his brother and sister. “It looks like we arrived a bit too early, but we didn’t come here to play around.”

“No. You came for the Chunin Selection Exam,” I agreed. “Though you should treat your team-mates better… even if they weren’t your siblings.” He ignored me, turning his back (which was covered in a giant gourd covered in seals) on me as if I hadn’t spoken. Without thinking, I flash-stepped in front of him. I may have lost a step or two… but I’m still fast enough to beat anyone who’s not a dedicated speed ninja… I did skid a dozen paces too far as my Chakra flared as I pushed myself to speed and couldn’t stop myself as soon as I wanted to, but I spun, dropping into a combat stance as though I’d meant to do that, my white hair billowing in the breeze of my motion, leaves swirling past me. “Sand and Leaf might be allies, but that doesn’t allow you to go wherever you please and assault our citizens. Your brother hasn’t apologized.”

Gaara just growled and Kankuro swallowed hard, then bowed and muttered something that might have been “Kokorokara owabi moushiagemasu”… which was the kind of thing a businessman might use to apologize for incompetence. Well, that said a lot about Gaara’s relationship with his brother.

Naruto waved his hand as if in class. “What’s the Chunin Selection Exam?”

While Gaara and I stared at each other, Temari explained for the attention impaired that, as the name implied, the CSEs were the method by which Genin were elevated to Chunin… where most of them would normally remain for the rest of their ninja career. Genin made up the Seiki Butai, the “Regular Forces” of each village, with Chunin and Jonin as officers. In general, one in three academy students would be selected to become a Genin, with most dropping out of the program if they hadn’t graduated by the time they reached the age of sixteen. Technically, another third would graduate and be given the rank of Genin, but these individuals typically held administrative and support duties and knew that, unless they markedly improved somehow, they would never be granted higher office. It was a brutal system… but in times of war, even Academy Students could be conscripted to fight and potentially die for their villages.

Of those Genin who were actually on the mission-active list, one in five would normally reach Chunin, with half those who didn’t either dying on mission or being too traumatized or crippled to continue. If one didn’t reach Chunin by the age of thirty-two, it was generally accepted that it was never going to happen. 

Of those who reached Chunin, one in six would be elevated to Jonin, though in Konoha Village there was a specialist rank called Tokubetsu Jonin which lay between Chunin and Jonin. It was reserved for those who focused on one area of ninjutsu, taijutsu, or genjutsu to the extent that they could match or even exceed a Jonin in that area, but were largely Chunin level in everything else. Most often, TokuJo (as they were somewhat patronizingly called… think “Butter Bar” for the US Armed Forces equivalent) were Sensor Ninjas or Medical Ninjas… though Messenger and Quartermaster Ninja were also on the list of those given such rank.

All in all, it was a terrible system, the kind created by a civilian who had never so much as cracked a book on military theory… but this was fantasy and, for all its ridiculousness, it had all the hallmarks of a society that had also never written any books on military theory. Perhaps a logical state of affairs as the extreme power difference between a normal and even the weakest of ninjas was far far greater than mere force of arms could compensate for. Who needed a full fledged army when a handful of super-soldiers could smash a town flat in minutes.

Was a simplified command structure then ideal for a military that relied on independent units operating deep in the shadows, out of contact with home for weeks, months, or even years? Yes and no. Without a huge force of standing soldiers, there wasn’t a need for the sixteen to twenty or so ranks of various “modern” militaries, but there was a need for more flexibility than the Ninja Ranking system had.

It was a system built on waste; wasted lives, wasted potential, wasted energy. The Academies… or at least the one here in Konoha Village would have benefited greatly from a better structure, one that actually prepared the students for what life would be like as a field Ninja… with focus on team-building exercises, early Chakra development, and mock battles. What we had now relied too heavily on the family unit providing most of that, meaning that the clans with long traditions would continue to dominate, which was good for core strength, but allowed no expansion, and prioritized loyalty to clan far more than loyalty to friends and village. 

It meant that new blood was harder to cultivate, that the students who came out would be more likely to fail the graduation exam simply because they’d not been molded into people who would pass. InoShikaCho kept having incredible success at this because their teams were incredibly loyal to the concept of Team itself, for example. It was trained into them by their families from an early age.

The other problem was that the Academy was the only institution of education in the village, and it didn’t provide education that would be useful for those who flunked out of the Ninja programs. I can hear you saying, “But EssJay! This is a Ninja Village! Surely all they need are Ninjas! Ninninnin!” To which I say, “Hush.” 

Look, the fighting / reconnaissance / get er done end of any military only functions because of the support network behind it. Research and Development and Logistics might seem like minor concerns in a world where individual power is enough to destroy most defenses, but trust me, there’s still plenty of theory you want studied and the villages themselves need logistics and administration. Having people who aren’t specialists in these fields doing the tasks is how you get massive messes… like every fucking Village in this world as far as I can tell. 

And while all the Ninjas are, in theory, Intelligence Agents, this society doesn’t have dedicated Intelligence Analysts, doesn’t have dedicated Historians, doesn’t have dedicated Infiltration Counter-Agents. It’s all the flash but none of the substance. Medical Ninjas but no Doctors, Instructor Ninjas but no Teachers, Builders but no Architects. Everything in this world has a ramshackle feel about it… even the defenses.

Following the Second World War back on good old Origin, twenty years after being reduced to rubble, Berlin was a thriving world class city. The same with Tokyo! Here? Twenty years after the Third Ninja War? Everything looks like it’s slowly falling apart. The hodgepodge of new and old, opulence and slum in the same buildings often is staggering. Oh… and NINJAS SHOULD NOT BE WEARING ORANGE!

Anyway… I’ve drifted far afield, and had done so as I studied the boy who in just a few short years would be running one of the Great Ninja Villages. Did he ever find someone to love him? Was there another generation of Gaara? Did all three Sand Siblings live through the Fourth War that was coming?

I blinked and shook my head to clear it as Temari finished her lecture to Naruto, and Gaara frowned slightly at the motion, as if wondering what it meant, his hand shifting back towards the plug on his gourd. My own left hand, the hand sinister, the one that Chara was able to control if I didn’t stop her, had drifted towards the handle of one of the pair of dai-chokuto (straight-bladed cousins of a nodachi) I had taken to wearing. I reined my hand in, forcing down the desire to wipe the non-existent smirk off of Gaara’s face.

Sasuke jumped down between him and me, as if anticipating an attack, and snapped, “What’s your name?”

Temari blushed and stammered, “Me?” Oh good lord. It’s not bad enough that Ino is lusting after Sasuke, but this girl three years our elder was doing it to0? He’s not thaaat sexy! He’s an emotionally unavailable ass!

“I told you what his name is, you idiot,” I snapped. “It’s Gaara. And those are his brother and sister, Kankuro and Temari!”

“Wait,” Sasuke said, glancing over his shoulder at me, “Those are their actual names?” I nodded, he looked back at Gaara, and asked, surprise evident in his voice, “Those are your actual-” He didn’t get to finish the question because I’d karate chopped him in the middle of his thick angsty skull.

“Sasuke no Baka!” I growled. “I wouldn’t just randomly give them names! I’m not an idiot!”

“Sasuke, hmmm?” Gaara said, but he wasn’t looking at him. “And your name?”

The yellow-haired imbecile leaned into frame, pointing his thumb at his face. “I’m Uzumaki Naruto, you better believe it!”

Gaara didn’t even glance at him. “Not interested.” His eyes were still fixed on me, though with SasuTo in the way it was hard to tell that.

“Haruno Sakura,” I said. “And I don’t care if you believe it or not.”

He nodded, then turned, motioning for his siblings to follow him. “Let’s go.”

As he walked away, I turned and looked for the Sound Ninja team hidden in a third large tree nearby. Because that was how everyone entered this scene, it seems, by standing in a tree. “You three idiots can fuck right off!” I snapped, glaring one eyed at them, letting my Chakra boil out of me, tinging the air crimson. I barely managed to keep from blurting out that they could tell their serpentine boss to go screw himself too. Didn’t need to give away the fact that I knew where their allegiance lay. 

Their leader, the heavily bandaged Dosu, sneered at me. “We’ll go where we want to, little girl.”

Sasuke looked where I was looking, then asked, “You know those three?”

“Sound Ninjas,” I agreed. “Their names are Doomed, Dead Meat, and Aaaa Mommy I don’t wanna die!” I said, loud enough to be heard by the trio who, if everything went as it had originally were, in fact going to die… two of them (Kin and Zaku) being sacrificed by Orochimaru to return the First and Second Hokage from the grave as his puppets. I still hadn’t figured out if I was going to try to save them yet. On the one hand, they were assassins in the service of an evil mad scientist… on the other hand, they were fourteen year old child soldiers raised to be murderous fuck-heads by someone old enough and introspective enough to know what he was doing was wrong.

“Now you’re just mocking me,” Sasuke said dryly.

“Nope. I’m mocking them. They think they’re so superior, lurking there like lurking lurkers… I mean, see how they’ve arranged themselves so their faces are in shadow?” I thumbed my nose at the trio in the tree and yelled, “Sound and Fury signifies nothing! It is a tale told by an idiot!” Hey, if Kin could quote Hemmingway, I could paraphrase the Bard. Before they could respond, I turned and walked away, leaving Naruto and Konohamaru to talk about how Naruto was anything but intimidating.

*****

The next day, Kakashi-Sensei had us meet up, bright and early. So early that Naruto hadn’t had time to wash his face or brush his teeth. I mean, part of that was because he’d slept in, but mostly because he was lazy. I hadn’t bothered brushing my teeth either… in fact the last time I’d done so had been… uh… hmm… my last day in Pokelandia. Once I’d gotten my Body Mod, my teeth were never less than perfectly clean… body too for that matter. It was as if I’d just gotten out of the shower… well, and dried myself off. My hair was pretty much always perfect too, which — omg — saved just sooo much time. Never having to shave my legs… or anything else for that matter… was just the bee’s freaking knees! No waxing, no plucking… I didn’t even need makeup to look my best… though sometimes I wore it just because sometimes a person likes to feel pretty… prettier. I say person, because I’d been known to wear make-up even in some of my male forms. Maybe I should be a futanari someday… wow… focusing is really hard for some reason…

Anway, we’d been called to meet with Kakashi the next morning, whereupon he (big surprise) told us that he’d nominated us for the Chunin Selection Exam. Naruto, overcome with joy, flung himself at Sensei and professed his love for the older man. I could almost hear the shotacon shippers writing their slash-fics.

Once Kakashi had freed himself from the boy-blunder, he handed out application sheets, and informed us that, though he’d nominated us, it was our choice to determine if we were ready. Then he gave us the day to think about it, telling us that the applications were due by mid-afternoon the next day. (The manga had said 4pm, but in actuality, the world of Naruto didn’t use a western time schedule at all. Instead, the day was divided into six watches, each of which were in turn divided into thirty turnings, each of which was divided further into a thousand countings that very nearly equaled half a second each. This meant that the day of Naruto’s world was actually almost exactly half an hour longer than an Earth day… no idea why.

As it turned out, when we arrived to hand in our slips, every one of the teams for our year had, as expected, been nominated, and all of our classmates, all six teams (plus Might Guy’s team from the previous graduating class) of the Konoha “11” (in reality twenty-six strong since the original “11” actually contained 14 members (Sai, Sasuke, and Akamaru are not included in the count, but are considered part of the group) and my own group included ten “humans”, one dog, and Chara… wait, if Chara counted, did Kurama count? This is getting complicated… Anyway, there were a total of eighty-seven entrants from Konohagakure (The Village of Flaaaaaame), thirty from Sunagakure (Sand Village in the land of Wind), twenty-one from Amegakure (Rain Village… not one of the five great villages), six each from Kusagakure (Grass Village, also not a great village) and Takigakure (Waterfall Village, still not a great village), and three from Otogakure (the Sound Village, yet another not great village). 

All of these freaks and weirdos from Konoha’s alliance of “theoretically” peace-loving villages were gathered outside of the building that housed room 301… though the reason they were all outside was because two idiots were blocking the doors to the room, beating up anyone who tried to get inside. Said idiots were known to me through both my spies and my knowledge of the manga. They were two chunin disguised as genin, trying to discourage those trying to enter the room where the first part of the CSE would be given.

One of them, Hagane Kotetsu, had just backhanded Tenten, a member of Might Guy’s Team of 13 year olds when we arrived, and Rock Lee, Might Guy’s protege, was on the floor nursing a bruised cheek as well. “You should quit now,” his partner, Kamizuki Izumo, said. “You’re just little kids. The Chunin Exam isn’t easy. Some end up quitting the Shinobi Life completely after taking this exam. Some die. We’ve failed three straight times and seen it all.”

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Yeah, well… that’s ‘cause you’re losers!”

“You kids really think you can pass?” Kotetsu sneered, looking very much like a snotnosed sixteen year old despite being in his mid twenties. “Chunin often are placed in charge of military teams; the failure of a mission, the death of a comrade… all that will be your responsibility! You really think you can…” he trailed off as he felt the heat of my gaze.

“We’re just thinning out those who will fail anyway,” Izumo said, not realizing why his partner had stopped talking.

“That’s all well and good,” Sasuke said, “But you’re going to let me pass, and you’re going to quit it with the genjutsu.”

“Oh?” Izumo said. “Somebody finally noticed.”

I hopped over the intervening crowd, landing between the duo, draping my arms over their shoulders, my feet suctioning down to the floor, pulling the duo, who were twenty centimeters taller than me, downward. They gasped at the sudden pressure, stumbled into each other, headbands smacking together, then rebounded, landing on their asses.

“You’re all idiots,” I snapped at the crowd. “These two are Chunin, and this is the second floor. Can’t you fucking count staircases? Jizu!” I stopped off, then paused to look back as the sound of a superhumanly fast kick hitting Chakra-reinforced flesh reached my ears.

Behind me stood Rock Lee, his arms spread, blocking a kick from Kotetsu that had been aimed squarely at the back of my head and another from Sasuke that had been aimed to intercept that kick… okay, that was somewhat sweet. Good on Sasuke, defending a team mate like that… and good on Rock Lee for getting in the way.

“I thought we weren’t drawing attention to ourselves,” Hyuga Neji (the only person in the series less fun to be around than Sasuke) aka “The Man Without Pupils” said. 

Lee ignored him, clenching his fist in determination… and then he came up to me and, swear to god, asked me out and promised to protect me with his life all in the same breath. I relieved him of the rest of said breath by shrieking like a girl and punching him in the gut… I might need to work on my anger issues… well, Chara’s anger issues. To be fair, my other reaction would have been to tell him exactly why I wasn’t going to date him… starting with his eyebrows and working my way through his haircut, lack of anything approaching fashion sense, the fact that I was twelve and he was an idiot, and finishing up with the fact that YOU DON’T FUCKING ASK SOMEONE YOU JUST MET IN A SCHOOL HALLWAY TO GO OUT WITH YOU!

Fucking… doi!

And of course, as Naruto, Sasuke, and I walked away, Tenten’s eyes were fixed on Sasuke’s butt. Save… me… now. Teenage… hormones… suuuuuck. Like… suck worse than Orochimaru!

We’d only gotten about a hundred meters down the corridor when Lee caught up to us… and, having recovered from the suckerpunch with the speed of long practice dealing with being pounded like a tough steak on a daily basis, challenged Sasuke to a fight, right there in the middle of the hallway. Christ… I know why I was a hothead, but was everyone around here infected with testosterone poisoning, estrogen overload, or the Creeping Narutos? Symptoms of the Creeping Narutos include constant use of a singular verbal comma, failure to think things through to their logical conclusion, and a tendency to attempt to eat one’s own feet.

Anyway, Lee challenged Sasuke… giving his name and everything, then explained that he wanted to fight a member of the famous Uchiha Clan… and then took the opportunity to flirt with me some more, going so far as to blow me a kiss. I dodged and (for good measure) made a snide remark about how someone who couldn’t be arsed to ask a girl’s name before asking her out didn’t deserve to be taken seriously as suitors.

Naruto, seeing his chance to impress me and show up Sasuke at the same time, charged Rock Lee… and promptly had his ass handed to him. “You guys cannot defeat me,” he said, all trace of joviality and silly cutesy flirting gone. “Because right now, I’m the strongest Leaf Genin.”

“Second,” I said. “And strength matters less than skill… and you’re not even third in that regard, eyebrow boy.”

“You have that much faith in your teammate?” Lee asked.

“Oh… no,” I said, smirking. “Go ahead and kick his ass. I’ll wait.”

Sasuke frowned. “I’ll make you eat those words, Haruno.”

“Yeah yeah,” I waved him towards the other boy. “Do it and I’ll give you a cookie, but all I’m hearing is big talk. Let’s see some punching. We’ve still got thirty minutes.”

“It won’t even take me five,” Sasuke said. He was right. It took him less than two to be completely overpowered by Lee, despite using his Sharingan. The only thing that saved him was the timely arrival of a talking Tortoise named Ningame, the personal summons of Rock Lee’s mentor, Might Guy. After the reptile delivered a stern tongue-lashing, his master appeared in a puff of smoke, standing on the creature’s symbol marked shell.

The Jounin berated his student for giving away his secret techniques in a fight that didn’t matter, decked him hard enough to kill a normal person, then hugged him close, both of them crying manly tears of manly manliness! (trademark pending). “You’re a good kid, Lee. Youth and mistakes go together… but you did start a fight and almost broke my rules… so after the exam, you’ll have to run five hundred laps around the practice range!!” the older man exclaimed, doing what looked remarkably like a disco-pose, right knee cocked forward, left leg back, left hand on left hip, right arm punching the sky. Ugh. 

“Yes Sensei!” Lee said, snapping to attention and saluting.

The chastisement of the idiot concluded, Guy turned his attention to us. “Hey! How’s Kakashi doing?”

“You know Sensei?” Sasuke asked.

“OH, for fuck’s saaake, Sasuke!” I bellowed. “Of course he fucking knows… they’re both Jonin! HOW THE HELL WOULD TWO LEAF JONIN NOT KNOW EACH OTHER!” I might have been letting Chara influence my actions there, but come on! There are some questions that are just too fucking dumb. No… sorry, that’s not right. There are no stupid questions… just stupid people not fucking thinking before asking them!!!

Sasuke looked taken aback by that, and Naruto looked torn between hiding from scary Sakura and smirking at his rival’s discomfort.

Might Guy just smirked at us… then vanished, appearing behind us. Even though I’d known it was coming… it was still damned fast. I mean really fast. Fast enough that, had I not previously been to Bleach and Tenchi Muyo, two places where fights routinely happened at c-fractional speeds, I’d have been struggling to conceptualize. Sure sure, I’d also been to Teen Titans and Young Justice, places where fights occasionally happened at superluminal speeds… but even as bizarro Supergirl I couldn’t move that fast without manipulating time… and in none of those cases had EssJay Prime been a Drop-In, so there was no fucking way I could even come close to that level of speed right at the moment.

Still… I was fast, and experienced. I’d had more fights than Might Guy had done push-ups and while Naruto and Sasuke were still flinching and Guy was explaining to us that people refer to Kakashi and him as “Eternal Rivals”, I was already in motion. I didn’t even turn around, merely falling forward onto my hands and pumping both legs backwards in a donkey kick that caught the unprepared Jonin square in the crotch.

He made a funny little choking sound, went crosseyed, clutched his family jewels, knees together, and crumpled, slowly, sideways. Still, even in what was apparent agony, he managed to gasp out, “fifty wins… forty-nine losses… I’m… str…onger… th… than Kakashi.”

Give the eyebrow-team credit, they recovered fast, and a minute later, they were gone, vaulting up to the third floor as if stairs were for chumps. I dunno… I’ve been able to fly for most of the last 14,000 years… and I still like taking the stairs. Or walking up the walls. Jumping is so… lacking in finesse. Especially the way Rock Lee did it. Then again, everything Lee did was lacking in finesse.

When they were gone, Sasuke turned to me and asked, “Not even third? Who’s stronger than bushy-brows?”

“Well, for one thing, Hyuga Neji is on his team… and Lee knows Neji is stronger than he is. That’s one,” I said. 

“Who are two and three?” Naruto asked, clearly hoping I’d say him.

“Well… Nara Shikamaru is pretty lazy… so you wouldn’t know it, but he’s the second strongest in our class,” I allowed.

“Aaaaaand?” He asked, bouncing on his toes.

I looked at him with an “oh please” expression, then sighed, shaking my head. “If you have to ask who the strongest genin in the village is, you’ve not been paying attention.” and with that, I walked up the stairs, because jumping is just showing off to gravity… and gravity doesn’t fucking care.

***

I know I’m covering things in more detail than is my usual wont, and I will skip ahead soon enough, but let me just say this… the Chunin Selection Exams are idiocy of the highest degree. Not only are they full of ‘Gotchas!’ but they are inefficient, prone to killing off valuable agents, and wildly skewed towards those that cheat. And I don’t mean the prospective ninjas who cheat… I mean the villages that cheat. The assumption that lesser villages would play fair with the secret “do not tell the genin taking the test” rules is so laughable as to sail past the border of naivety and into the land of delusion.

Forgive me if I must elaborate, but I must and so I shall. The little prank down below with the senior ninjas pretending to be past individuals who took the test and failed and are now discouraging others? This is stupid. If you want to discourage the genin, have a wall of pictures of everyone who has died in the twice yearly CSE in the last twenty years… you know, even the slowest genin’s lifetime. People who were probably friends of their parents, or of their elder siblings, or maybe even of theirs. Or have their own Jounin just flat up tell them “I was one of only three who passed the CSE out of more than a hundred, and a third of those who failed died. This isn’t a joke.” 

What I’m saying is, played straight, you could have gotten better results. And it goes deeper, for as we reached the testing room, Kakashi showed up to drop the bombshell that, had any one of us decided that we weren’t ready, all three of us would have been disqualified. This is stupidity too. Yes, team-work, rah rah. (she says with tone as dry as the Namib Desert). No. Just No. Holding back someone because their friend and team-mate is nervous, not ready, or prudent? This is a great way to ruin teamwork. Especially considering the fact that, ultimately, the CSE often selects no one for promotion.

Yup. You heard right. This CSE is that level of bullshit. Takes a few weeks to a month out of the productivity of all the proctors and Kages and working genin, has a death rate of unacceptable even for combat troops, and all that will come of it is one… yes I said one… promoted genin… and that’s not always a guarantee, though this year’s big winner had proven himself worthy of the promotion. Sure, the Sand Trio would be promoted outside of this… hell, Gaara would be promoted all the way to Kazekage following the death of his father… but that’s the thing. The CSE isn’t really a promotion test. It’s a way for allied villages to test each other’s genin against each other and, incidentally to that, see who might… might… be worthy.

See, the first test is that all three members of the team have to agree. Assume that that’s fair. The next test is even stupider. This is the first formal part of the exam, a ten question test that varies from year to year, but always takes the form of something that seems to be a straight forward paper exam… but it’s always a trick. For example, this year’s trick was a ten question exam that featured nine questions that were harder than the average genin could deal with, to be answered in an hour’s time. Forty-five minutes in, everyone who hasn’t been disqualified for cheating will be given the opportunity to answer the tenth question. If they answer that one correctly, they pass. If they answer incorrectly not only do they fail, they’ll never be allowed to take the exams ever again. If they forfeit, an act which disqualifies their entire team, they’ll be able to try again next time. They must decide before hearing the question.

If you can see what’s moronic about this, you’re doing better than all the so called wise ninjas of the NarutoVerse. Because just being willing to move on is the test. Just saying that you’ll stay in, risking being disqualified forever, rather than just getting your team booted for six months? That’s the test. The rest is just smoke and mirrors. See what I mean about villages cheating to get an advantage?

This is important because of the teams from Konoha (29), Suna (10), and Ame (7) there were teams that were disqualified for cheating… but only Konoha had teams that forfeited. Of the five teams from Kusa, Taki, and Oto? No disquals for cheating, no forfeits. Suspicious? Or just that the smaller villages sent their best? Well, without Third Eye of Satori, I would not have been able to tell, but I cracked it open just a little, just a tiny tiny amount, unwilling to show off my dojutsu (yes, it’s an eye power, and in this world? It’s actually a third eye in the middle of my forehead… weird… but hey, that’s what you get for bringing alien eye powers into a setting full of the damned things) to everyone, and scanned them.

Oto’s team was, of course, a plant. All of them were Chunin already. Kusa’s teams were experienced and had been through CSEs before. Taki’s teams were one team that had been through five previous CSEs and the other was a veteran team that had been doing missions for four years, though they’d never been through a CSE before. Suna, despite being about to betray their allegiance with Konoha, had sent mostly expendable genin. They had three teams that actually knew what was going on, including Gaara’s team, of course, since it was both pivotal to the planned Konoha Crush and made of the children of the current Fourth Kazekage.

And, of course, one of our own teams, the one that included a Konoha ninja named Yakushi Kabuto and his two accomplices, Akado Yoroi and Tsurugi Misumi, were secretly Otogakure spies. I scanned the rest of the crowd, looking for those radiating duplicity. With my eye just barely cracked, it took more time than normal to scan each individual, and I couldn’t do more than get a surface scan, but looking for emotional states was easy enough.

I briefly considered just stabbing Kabuto, but this was hardly the time or place for such murder, and then I remembered that I wasn’t allowed to kill people… and that it would be setting a bad example for Chara and siiighed. Being a paragon of rectitude was annoying. Much less fun than just offing the evil morons what needed offing. Still, when Kabuto tried to psyche us (meaning the freshmen graduates of the Academy) by pointing out how accomplished “elite” genin like Lee and Gaara were, I had a little to say.

“Sooo, we should just turn tail and hide like frighted puppies, is that what you’re saying,” I scoffed, getting right up in foureyes’s face. “Because the only failure is not trying. If we don’t succeed this year, we’ll succeed next year or the year after. And each time we try it, we’ll learn more… unlike you, who’ve failed what… six times? Oh wait, no… it’s seven times because you’re going to fail this year too, aren’t you? I know medical ninjas aren’t the best fighters, but really, shouldn’t you have passed by now? Or are you just not trying very hard?”

He frowned at me, something everyone else would assume stemmed from the insulting tone I’d used, but which I at least knew was because he was extremely uncomfortable with me knowing so much about him. Spies usually don’t like being noticed for some inscrutable reason. My hint that I at least suspected that he was planning on dropping out before finishing this year’s exam had to be gnawing at him and he seemed more than a little taken aback, uncertain how to proceed.

Naruto however had (apparently) taken my words to heart, because he pointed to the gathered so-called ‘elite’ genin and, introducing himself in his normal boisterous tone, announced that he’d beat them all. Good to know someone so brainless can succeed later in life. I just hoped that success didn’t come with too high a price. Some shonen stories got really dark. Of course, the word he used to describe everyone else was ‘Bastards’ so that forced me to decide between throttling him and making things worse. Since I’d been saddled with the Boiling Blood Drawback, you can guess what I did.

“They’re not Bastards, Naru-chan,” I said with mock sweetness, “That’s an insult to those whose mothers didn’t marry their fathers. I’m certain that in most of these colorfully attired losers’ cases their mothers couldn’t have married those fathers had they wanted to… After all, most nations have laws against marrying livestock.”

The room, which had been full of glaring, muttering comments about how the orange-haired pipsqueak shouldn’t run his mouth off, suddenly went silent and I could feel the murderous glares focusing on me. I turned and favored them all with a big smirk, cocking one hip definitely. “Anyone who thinks they can make me eat my words is welcome to try. You can all attack me at once if you’re too chickenshit to come at me one on one.”

Before any one of them could attack however, there was a flash-bang at the podium and the Examiners had arrived. Their leader, Ibiki Morino, was well known around the village, a tokubetsu jonin (specialist… in Morino’s case of interrogation), and a generally nice guy… his wife was part of Sakura’s mother’s gossip circle.

“This is as good a time as any to say this,” he stated bluntly, smirking at the crowd. “There will be no fighting without direct permission from one of my staff.” He motioned to the dozen Chunin behind him. “Even if permission is granted, killing your opponent will not be tolerated. Anyone breaking the first rule will be immediately disqualified. Anyone breaking the second rule intentionally will be punished to the full extent of Ninja Law.”

Then he had us draw lots to determine where in the room we’d be sitting for the written part of the CSE before going over the rules… which, to be fair, I hadn’t really paid attention to the wording of when I’d read the manga or watched the anime. There was a rather obvious clue in them that I hadn’t noticed the first two times around and which hadn’t dawned on the rules lawyer in me until I heard them and saw them written at the same time.

“Pay attention, because I won’t be answering any questions,” he said as he started writing on the blackboard without even looking at it. “First, everyone starts with ten points. The test is made up of ten questions and each of them is worth one point. Get a question wrong and you lose a point. This is a team test; passing will be determined by the combined score of your team mates. Anyone caught doing anything sneaky, namely cheating, will have two points subtracted for every offense. Anyone who loses all their points during the exam will be asked to leave. Those that lose all their points during the test and don’t answer any questions correctly will fail along with their team-mates. That’s it. You can begin. You have one hour.” 

See what I mean by bullshit? I mean, don’t get me wrong, a test you can only pass by cheating is very very ninja… but this was all a trick. The clue, the big huge clue… was that you started with ten points and only lost points for either getting caught cheating or for getting a question wrong. Note that this implies that only one right answer per person was needed. One question each. And anyone looking at the paper could see that there were only nine answers. The tenth question just said “This question will be revealed 45 minutes into the test. Listen to the examiner closely before answering.” Such nonsense.

I looked at the test, chuckled, and wrote “Fuck your trick questions. The answer to question 10 is ‘Bring it on’.” on the paper in large block letters, then folded it into a paper airplane and sailed it across the room to land on Morino-Sensei’s head. He looked at me and I smiled back, waving cheekily. Plucking it off his head, he read the note I’d written and frowned, but simply folded it up and stuck it in his pocket. I leaned back, unworried.

Sure, I could have answered the questions even if Naruto and Sasuke couldn’t have. Even Vanilla Sakura could have answered seven of the nine without too much trouble. They were challenging… but hardly impossible. Sasuke would be cheating using his Sharingan to copy the answers from one of the Chunin hidden in the classroom as genin. 

So why didn’t I just do that? Well, a) the answers to 1-9 were meaningless, a filter and nothing else, but b) the big worry was that Ino, Sakura’s ex-best friend, would have tried to use her family’s bloodline talent for taking over another person’s body while leaving their own unconscious. I really didn’t feel like letting Ino’s spirit anywhere near Chara’s, and I wasn’t certain if I could block her or not… but certainly didn’t want to give away any possible advantage if I could. Better she find someone else to copy.

Finally it came time for the 10th question… and something weird happened. In the normal course of events, a couple people would drop out rather than risking being stuck at Genin forever, and then Naruto, who hadn’t answered a single question, would have given a defiant speech about how he wasn’t going to quit, how even if he was stuck as an eternal-genin he’d will himself to become Hokage. This would have happened just before Sakura could have surrendered to save Naruto from himself, for though she’d been confident in her ability to answer the 10th, she’d known Naruto almost certainly couldn’t and didn’t want him to risk his dream. Me? I knew the trick, and even if I hadn’t, I was experienced enough to know that a master of Interrogation and Torture would be playing mind-games.

But I wasn’t about to resign… and Naruto was just shuddering as if caught in his own mind… I sensed I could let the clock run out, leaving the poor kid in this by default, but also sensed that that was the wrong course of action. Someone needed to give the speech… and if it wasn’t Naruto, it had to be me.

“Oh, get on with it and stop trying to frighten everyone, you scar-faced thug,” I snapped, and everyone in the room gasped. “WHAT?!” I growled at them, standing up and doing my impression of a Tokyo Biker Gang Boss by Captain Morganing the desk and leaning forward to glare at everyone around me. “It’s not like we lose points for being rude! Stop being cowards and act like Ninjas, Kami damn your eyes!”

That produced nervous chuckles from some, squeaks of protest from Hinata and Ino, and a loud braying laugh from Naruto who finally snapped out of his fuge and did his whole “I’m Not Afraid!” speech, then turned and gave me a thumbs up. What the hell hero?! Are you broken or something? This was the second time he’d been… slow? Where I’d had to take some action to ensure he arrived to the battle… There was something fucky going on here, I just knew it. This couldn’t have been because of butterflies I’d caused… could it? I’d fucked with things larger than this before and things had kept on ticking… down to individual story beats most times. There was a kind of force of destiny in most narratives… and I’d seen it enough in this world to know it was still working… but somehow it wasn’t keeping Naruto as tightly locked to the canon as it should have been. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of bad things to come… but I was all too certain that that hope was in vain.

Anyway, so, we passed the first part of the CSE. Big surprise. You knew we would. I knew we would. It had just taken a last minute hail mary from me to bring it about… and I was, for the first time I could recall, unhappy about being the star of my own show. I didn’t want to save this world… I didn’t even know what I was saving it from! Then again… I’m pretty certain neither did Naruto and or Sasuke? Was Sasuke important to saving the world? Had Canon-Sakura leveled up to actually plot relevant? Curse Origin-Me for giving up reading Naruto! I needed more information!!!

Next: I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 4

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World 79: Naruto – Part 2.2

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 2: A Bridge Not Far Enough

Previously: I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 1

Themesong: The Mariner’s Revenge Song by The Decemberists

Our first mission was to protect this gormless old jackass named Tazuna who, I kid you not, described himself as “The Super Expert Bridge Builder, Tazuna” and insisted that we provided him with “Super Protection until I get back to my country and complete the bridge.” He also called Naruto “The shortest one with the super stupid-looking face.” So, you know… he wasn’t a complete tool.

So, I sense some questions from the gallery, and thus I’ll try to anticipate what they might be: A) What country?, B) What Bridge?, and C) Why would anyone want to hurt / kill a Civil Engineer? In answer, I would then reply a) The Wave Country (think The Water Country, but less important and off the coast of the Fire Nation), b) the bridge connecting The Wave Country to the mainland Fire Nation, c) because a shipping magnate named Gato was trying to seize economic control over the area by monopolizing the trade to and from the island, and d) (in answer to your new question, D) why the hell didn’t Wave or Fire ninjas protect this bridge if it was that important?) Wave has no Ninjas at all and Fire apparently doesn’t fucking care. I mean, sure, we were going, but we were essentially mercenary bodyguards in the pay of a civilian, not soldiers being sent by a government that gave a fuck about its neighbor.

I should also point out that the Land of Waves should in no way have been able to afford to build a six mile long, four-lane wide causeway bridge, whose cost must have run to the equivalent of at least fifty million dollars, which is a lot of freaking money for a supposedly impoverished nation to pull together, but hey, I’m just a dumb twelve year old, what do I know about economics, right? Though I guess that’s why they could only afford a C-Rank squad… good thing for them they got one with me on it… oh, and Kakashi I guess.

Anyway, the reason this was only a C-Rank mission was because Tazuna had convinced the Hokage that he was only worried about Gato sending bandits and thugs to rough up him and his crew, that there would be no rival foreign ninjas involved. In fact, as we walked down the road in the middle of the wilderness (why we were walking when this world has automobiles I have no idea… the coast is several hundred miles from Leaf Village) Kakashi even uttered the words “Don’t Worry, there won’t be any ninja combat in a C-Rank Mission.”

I groaned, and immediately fell into a combat stance, scanning the area for the threat. Would it come from the trees? Hah. No. Of course not! I’d read this issue, but even if I hadn’t, I’d have had to be comatose not to be able to sense the presence of powerful Ninja Chakra in the piddle next to us. If you’re wondering why, if I’d read this issue of the comic, I hadn’t already been in combat alert, the reason is simple… the comic doesn’t indicate where along the three hundred and ninety-four mile walk the attack came, and these weren’t exactly paved roads. A puddle less than a meter across wasn’t exactly an uncommon sight. But those words? Even if they hadn’t been a Tempting Fate Phrase, they were the words in the comic that immediately preceded the arrival of a pair of Chunin-class ninjas from the Mist Village who instantly ambushed Kakashi, seemingly dispatching him in an instant (haha… no. I mean, seriously, no. How they didn’t see through the illusion, I don’t know… must not have had any Sensor Ninja training. Of course, I saw through it because I knew it was an illusion… but again, I’m twelve.

Anyway, they attacked Naruto, who froze, then went after Tazuna, who I’d already moved to defend… when Sasuke interposed himself between them and me. Fucking sexist jackass. They didn’t reach him.

There were two reasons for this; A) Kakashi, not being dead, pretty much OHKO’d the duo just before their clawed gauntlets could close on Sasuke’s flesh, and B) I’d pulled an overly large (read man-sized… well, Naruto-sized) scroll out of my hip pouch (hurray for hammer-space!) and flattened the wangsty jerk from behind.

“What was that for, you crazy bi-” he began, but I put my boot in his face.

“Don’t call me crazy!” I bellowed like an emotionally unstable tween. “And if you ever try to white-knight me again, I’ll fucking stab you in the spleen with a sharpened spoon! I’m your partner, not your protectee!”

It had always bugged me that Sasuke gets credit from Naruto for being able to fight the Mist Ninjas, but that Naruto completely ignores the fact that OG-Sakura was totally able to draw a kunai and throw herself in front of the person we’d been hired to protect. Why I (who had more combat experience than… uh… all the ninjas in the world combined pretty much) also moved to defend Tazuna instead of attacking… I wasn’t really certain. Instinct I guess. I no longer had access to the diagnostic techniques I’d have used to probe my own subconsciousness. 

My point though is that Naruto almost immediately shifts from “I want Sakura” to “Sasuke is my rival!” Like… what the fuck dude? Maybe I should beat him up too. Little jerk. Though he did stab himself in the hand to get the Mist Ninja’s poison out, so at least he’s brave… right? It’s bravery not stupidity, right? Right??! Of course he came damned close to bleeding out, so I’m leaning a bit towards stupidity. Problem with being the smartest entity around, everyone’s stupid by comparison… but some people are knuckleheads even without me and some of my friends blowing the bell curve. 

Fast Forward a week and we arrived, by stealth, in the Land of Waves, a land of 20th century-style construction equipment and 17th century wooden boats. This world is weird. Almost immediately, we were attacked by Zabuza, a renegade Mist Village Jounin, and Kakashi unveiled his Sharingan, thus introducing the readers to one of the franchise’s biggest recurring themes… EYES!! OF!!! POWAAA!!!

At the most basic, the Sharingan allows one to copy and counter most ninjutsu, genjutsu, and taijutsu techniques as they’re used. It’s pretty damned handy, though draining to use. Kakashi’s eye was a transplant from a dead friend, as the Uchiha Clan are the only native possessors of the Sharingan and Kakashi was no Uchiha. And yes, in this world apparently eye transplants are as simple as sticking someone else’s eye in your eye socket. Seriously? Apparently Ninjas can use Chakra to simply reconnect severed nerve bundles and fight off rejection… and regrow ripped connective muscles. Ewww…

Anyway, the fight was… eh… I give it a 6 out of 10. Interesting technique usage, but Kakashi was hampered by his need to protect us and Zabuza was hampered because he wasn’t taking the battle particularly seriously since he was clearly suicidal. As much as I wanted to kick his ass… I’d taken the Chosen One Drawback and it kept me from killing anyone deliberately. Also, this was the fight that taught Naruto not to be a coward, so I figured I’d let it play out as it had initially unless there was a good reason for me to get involved in any capacity except for guarding Tazuna. He was a good guy, even if he was also an asshole at times, and carried about his people. Still, if Zabuza somehow got near him, I was going to have to get medieval on his ass.

I still was barely competent with my new abilities, having only had a month and a half to practice Fuinjutsu and Wood Release, and the only ferrets I’d summoned so far were of the small kind which I used to scout and map the Leaf Village. Of my Senju Bloodline abilities that weren’t Wood Release, I still had yet to explore, but it was early days… and I was still mostly focused on keeping my Chakra under control. As far as I could estimate, I had about eight times as much resting Chakra was Naruto did… whether I could match him when he tapped into his Jinchuriki Kurama the Nine-Tails was anyone’s guess… but raw power is like penis size… it doesn’t matter how much you’ve got if you can’t control it… and hoooo boy could I not control mine.

“When I was about your age, these hands were already dyed red,” Zabuza claimed through his water-clone (his real body was busy keeping Kakashi sealed in a bubble in the middle of a local pond) as he menaced Naruto and the simple tryhard angst of that statement snapped me out of my contemplation.

“Yeah?” I asked, pointing to my hair, “Well, when I was your age, my hair was already white with enough wisdom to see that you’re talking instead of fighting… when faced with three genin!” I laughed. “I mean, seriously? You’re a Jounin! If you’re going to fight, fight! But if not… stop posturing or we’re going to think you’re scared of us!”

Naruto glanced at me, then back to Zabuza and sneered, “yeaaah! What’sa matter? Chikkin?”

“Is it wise to antagonize him?” Tazuna asked.

“Well, he’s planning on killing you anyway, and would probably kill us to get at you, so it’s not really like we can make this worse. What’s he going to do, murder you twice?” I said, smirking at the young man with the half-covered face and the sword big enough to give Cloud Strife (of Final Fantasy VII) envy issues. And he was young. Only 26, though at age sixteen he’d killed more than a hundred students at the Mist Village Academy to prove himself worthy of getting that sword. Yeah. He’d murdered a hundred plus eight to twelve year olds who had ninja training while he’d had none… though that killing spree was all but sanctioned by the Mist Village, who at the time were calling themselves the Blood Mist and routinely culled half their graduating class in duels to the death.

“I’ve killed genin like you many times!” he snapped.

“Yeah?” I retorted, “I’ve heard of you. Devil Zabuza… but here’s the thing… you aren’t killing us. You killed all those students without pause or hesitation… so why are you waiting now?”

“Good question,” Water-Buza said, then attacked, body-checking Sasuke then body slamming him into the ground hard enough to send blood spraying from the boy’s mouth. Moments later he was buried under a pile of Narutos and a moment after that, Naruto and Sasuke had forced Real Zabuza to release Kakashi… whereupon the two Jounin decided it would be a good idea to each summon a watery dragon to attack the other… or rather Zabu decided and Kakashi mirrored perfectly. 

Zabu’s feat, performing forty-three hand-signs in less than twenty-five seconds wasn’t half bad. Kakashi, using the Sharingan, was able to perform the same technique, at the same time, even though he’d never seen it used before, let alone performed it. That’s pretty damned impressive.

The storm surge of the two Water Dragon Blasts hitting each other sent a four meter wall of water rushing towards where we three (Tazuna, Sasuke, and I) were standing. Sasuke was in front of where I was standing, so there wasn’t much I could do for him, but as the torrent crossed the twenty meters between the two jounin and me, I slammed my fists into the ground and forced a wall of tree roots to surge out of the hard-packed soil before me, their spearlike lengths rapidly interlacing and swelling into a wedge-shaped sluice that barely flexed as several tons of brackish water slammed into it… along with Sasuke, who rapidly climbed out of the water and perched atop the structure.

“Nice trick… isn’t Mokuton a dead art?” he asked, staring at me intently, Mokuton being the japanese term for Wood Release.

I blinked. “Is it?” I didn’t know. If that was covered in the lore, it was in something after the Timeskip… or for those who watched the Anime, in Shippuden, which I hadn’t. That said, my local memories contained no knowledge of anyone having used Wood Release since The First Hokage, Hashirama Senju, had used it to create the forest that was home to the Hidden Leaf Village.

“Uhh… yeah,” he said. “Not even the Second Hokage (also a member of the Senju clan) could use it!”

“Oh. Huh,” I said, shrugging. “Oh look, Kakashi-Sensei’s beaten the crazy man.”

Zabuza was, at that moment, leaning back against a tree, kunai sticking out of his right arm and both legs. They weren’t in that far, but they were all the way in to the bone, and trust me… that shit is not pleasant. “Can… can you see the future?” he asked Kakashi.

“I can!” I said, waving a hand from near the way and ignoring Kakashi’s quelling half-glare. “You’re fucked, Buzabase! It’s like Bouillabaisse, but made of suuuuuck!” It was a really lame taunt, and I couldn’t help adding, “You know? Instead of fish?” I blame the moment of uncoolness on Chara’s contaminating presence.

At that moment, as I’d known they would, two razor-sharp needles flew across the clearing, plunging into Zabuza’s neck and the big guy collapsed, face first, onto the soggy ground.

A masked Ninja, wearing the mark of the Mist Village appeared, chuckling softly. “You’re right. He’s dead,” said the girlish boy whose name, I knew, was Haku. The mask marked Haku as a Hidden Mist Hunter-Ninja, one tasked with bringing down traitors to the Mist Village. Traitors like Zabuza… and Haku himself, though there was no way for Sakura to know that fact. No way for Kakashi to know it either. Revealing my foreknowledge at this point would have been foolish, and the repercussions of allowing the charade to play out were completely acceptable, so I didn’t say a word as Kakashi verified that Zabuza was dead (he wasn’t) and spoke with Haku. 

Instead, I snaked a leafy tendril out of the tree Zabubu had been leaning against and wrapped it around the handle of Zabuza’s redonkulously massive chopper, one of the seven magical swords of the setting. It was called Kubikiribocho, or the Decapitating Carving Knife… or Danto (Seversword) for short. Waiting until Naruto threw his total hissyfit about how young Haku was (about our age) and how bullshit it was that he’d killed someone as strong as Zabuza, I gave my tendril a mental command, knowing that my uncontrolled chakra would make the result dramatic. 

With a tug, it wrenched the blade away from the “corpse” and into the woods, smashing off trees and through bushes and surprising both senior ninjas, who had not seen whatever had pulled the sword away, but had certainly noticed nearly thirty kilogram sword shooting into the woods as if possessed. 

“What was that?!” Kakashi asked, then jumped back as Haku landed on Zabuza’s body from the tree he’d been standing in.

“I do not know,” the Hunter-Nin said, “But for now, I must dispose of this body, as it contains too many of my village’s secrets to be allowed to fall into other hands. As for the sword… it will be found in due course.” and with that, he vanished.

Kakashi looked at me, clearly suspicious… said, “We should get Tazuna-san home now,” and then fell facedown, sweat dripping from his face and unable to move. He’d used the Sharingan too much, and now his body wouldn’t respond.

Figuring that this was too good an opportunity to pass up, I knelt in front of him and poked him with a twig. “Sensei? Are you okay? Does this hurt? Does this hurt? Does this hurt?” I kept poking him in various places until he groaned something about revenge. I turned to look at the others. “He’s fine. I’ll carry him… you two idiots protect the old-guy.”

It would be a week I knew from my reading before either Kakashi or Zabuza would be able to move about again, as they recovered from the fight, but it only took Kakashi about a day to be able to think clearly enough to realize that Haku had almost certainly duped him. He also glowered at where I had Danto leaning against the wall of the room he was recovering in.

“Body erasing teams usually dispose of the body right there. They don’t carry it off… and why did you steal that? And since when have you been able to use Wood Release?” he said, still sounding groggy.

“Because we won the fight. No reason to hand over a magical sword to the Mist Village just because Zabu-rama used to work for them. It’s ours by right of conquest,” I replied, smirking. “And I dunno… a couple of months? I just realized that I could make flowers grow when I wanted some to make a daisy-crown. And if I could do flowers, why not wood? Is it important?”

“What do you mean, ‘we’ won the fight?” Sasuke said. “You just stood there and blocked some water.”

“We’re a team,” I replied, sticking my tongue out at him. “All victories are collective. And anyway, what if Zabuza had had a second water-clone? Or had thrown the chopchop sword at Tazuna-san? Would you have been in position to defend grandpa?”

Sasuke frowned, but didn’t say anything else. Kakashi sighed. “Well, no harm in you taking the sword I guess, though if Zabuza is still alive, he’ll want it back.”

“He’d want revenge for you defeating him anyway,” I pointed out. “Not like he’d leave us alone.”

“True… but you might want to be careful about who knows you have Wood Release… only one Ninja besides yourself is known to have that ability, and there are many who would want to experiment on you to figure out how you managed to gain it.”

“I’m the Demon Princess,” I commented. “I can do anything.”

“Yeah?!” Naruto jeered. “Prove it.”

“Okay!” I snapped, kipping to my feet. “I will!” and with that I stepped out onto the porch. Tazuna’s house was built on stilts over the water of a small inlet. “Watch this!” and I repeated the 43 hand signs of the Water Dragon Blast Jutsu. For a moment, nothing happened, but I wasn’t relying on my Senju-given ability to use pretty much any technique at lesser power. I had both the local Water Release ability and Copy-Cat Technique, and I’d witnessed both jounin performing the attack. So… for a moment, nothing. And then a dragon of water, twenty-five meters tall and five meters wide, surged out of the bay and shot into the sky. At the height of about half a kilometer, it exploded, showering the house in heavy droplets.

Turning back to Naruto, I grinned and drawled, “An-Y-Thing.” His jaw just dropped and Kakashi started laughing.

“I guess I’d better make certain you’re all trained up a bit for when Zabuza comes back, since I won’t be able to do much else for the next few days,” the copy-ninja said. “You’ve all got a lot of potential… especially you, Naruto. You’ve improved the most.”

I wasn’t certain of that, but it was possible. Sasuke had barely improved at all, since (smug little shit that he was) he had barely been practicing. I had been, but most of what I’d been practicing I hadn’t shown off… and I already had a reputation for being a problem child with far too much power and far too little control. Naruto? He was just a fuck up, but he worked his ass off to improve, so maybe he had improved the most. He had the furthest to go.

*****

The next day, bright and early, with Kakashi using crutches to get around, we gathered in the local forest to discuss Chakra. Well, for Kakashi to hand off explaining Chakra to Naruto (and the home audience) to yours truly. And so, here’s “A Beautiful Young Girl’s Lesson on Chakra.” Simply put, Chakra is the energy a shinobi needs when performing a jutsu. That energy has two parts: the physical energy that is in each of the billions of cells in our bodies and the spiritual energy gained through training, meditation, and other experiences. In Chakra, these two foces are combined, and so, by bringing out and releasing Chakra, you can use a jutsu such as Fire-Breathing or Water Dragon Blast, though the process of performing a series of hand-signs called a Seal.

“Sounds complicated,” Naruto complained. “Isn’t it something we can already do?”

“Naruto is right,” Sasuke said, “We can already use Jutsu. We don’t need training in that.”

“You guys are not using Chakra properly,” Kakashi said, ignoring Naruto’s gasp of protest. “To release Chakra is to summon up physical and spiritual energy then mix them together within your body, then temper them with one of the five elements based on what Jutsu you plan on using. None of you are using Chakra Effectively yet. Even if you are able to release a large amount of Chakra, like you two (he raked me and fish-cake face with his eye) do, unless you control it properly, the Jutsu will be weakened, or not work properly.”

“Or explode,” Sasuke added grumpily. Kiss ass.

“Or explode,” Kakashi agreed. “And worse, since you’re wasting energy, you won’t be able to fight as long or hard as you should be able to. Thus, it’s vital you all learn how to control your Chakra through very tough training.”

Said training was, it turned out, learning how to use Chakra to walk up walls or along ceilings without climbing. We were to do this by walking up one of the tall trees using nothing but the soles of our feet. Not running up the tree; walking up it. Slowly. And hanging off the bottom of a large branch with nothing but Chakra connecting the bottoms of our feet to the underside of the treelimb. “This is a challenging task for even a skilled ninja,” Kakashi assured us. “The amount of Chakra needed to climb a tree like this is very small, but must be exactly balanced… and the bottom of the foot is the most difficult area of the body to gather Chakra in.”

That said, he then tossed us Kunai with which to mark how high we could get and advised us to get a running head start, which I assumed was a bit of a red herring to see how dense Narboxo was. 

Sure. I couldn’t exactly control my chakra all that well… or like… at all… but Naruto was hopeless, falling off the tree with the first step. Sasuke’s control was better, but he only got about three meters up the tree before he fell back to earth. Me? My first step blasted a hole in the tree… as did my second step. In fact, by using what was effectively a series of shaped charges beneath my feet, I made it to the lowest branch where I sat watching the others fail dramatically.

“That’s not really what I had in mind,” Kakashi pointed out, glancing one-eyed at the seriously structurally unsound tree. “Can you try it without damaging the tree?”

I shrugs, then hopped down, then leapt back up to my previous position, all of eight meters straight up. “Like that?” I asked, being deliberately obtuse.

“Okay… you’re just showing off now,” he commented. “Push out the smallest amount of Chakra you can and see if that helps. Walk… one foot at a time, without shattering the bark, up this tree.”

“I’ll give it a try,” was my reply. Of course, even without having purchased the perk “Genius of Hardwork” I had more than a hundred centuries of training under my belt; I knew how to focus, how to get the most out of every repetition. So much of trial and error is not really learning from one’s errors… well, after a while… a lifetime or three, you begin to learn how you yourself… well… learn. Whatever problem I was having with power was clearly a more extreme version of what Naruto had had to deal with in the canon, namely that he had more chakra than was at all controllable. Turn on the tap and instead of a stream from a faucet, it literally was exploding out of my pores… which I guess would have made the faucet my nose? This metaphor doesn’t work. Curse you, Perfect Communications! How have you deserted me!?

Oh, right, everything is fucked up. I “forgot”.

Anyway, it took me a couple of hours to dial in the whole chakra control tree walking thing… and by the end of the day, I was convincing the trees to make footsteps for me and retract them as I passed. Now, technically, I was cheating on the task, but it did take more refined chakra-control than merely clinging to a surface, so I didn’t get into trouble.

Of course, for my success, I got stuck baby-sittign Tazuna and his bridge the next day as Kakashi did more work with the terrible twosome. The bridge is that weird hybrid of modern and old fashioned. Like… the materials included steel and concrete and they were using modern construction vehicles… but also using nuts and bolts instead of rivets and welding… weird. At noon, Tazuna called it quits for the day, telling the workers who were afraid of being killed by Gato’s hired thugs that they needn’t come in to work the next day. After that, I escorted him through the town, feeling odd as bodyguard for a man two feet taller than me… yes, really, Tazuna was almost seven feet tall and had clearly been powerfully back when he was younger, though time and care had rounded his shoulders somewhat.

The town too had clearly seen better years, as many of the locals had that desperate hungry look that only the toxic combination of poverty and hopelessness can truly give a person. We passed more than one fellow wearing a sandwich board promising that they do anything for the money to feed their families. They radiated that aura of profound shame that comes when someone who only thinks of themselves in terms of their duty to support others knows they have failed and now doubts if their existence has any meaning any more.

There were also a great many gaunt looking people, showing just how scarce food was here, and we, in a town of less than 8,000 people, passed literally dozens of homeless people just walking to the store… a store that turned out to have barely anything to buy. As in the entire grocery had less than 20 individual vegetables in the entire place. Six daikon, five cabbages, four pears, two carrots, and a bundle of gyochi, a local edible yucca-like leaf that tasted a lot like a hybrid of basil and artichokes with just a tiny hint of horseradish. The owner had a shotgun not particularly well hidden behind the counter.

I was just pondering what I could do to help alleviate this economic disaster when I remembered that what came next was a desperate fellow in a long coat and hat that totally didn’t match the local fashion would try to grab my bag. I turned and glared at him. “Don’t even try it,” I said to the man who was willing to rob a teenage girl on the off chance that there was any food in her satchel… why was I wearing this thing again? 

Oh well, It might be a Sakura-ism to carry around a large purse, but it did have one useful quality. I reached into it and opened a portal to my Warehouse, calling to my hand a bag of fish jerky (made in Yu-Gi-Oh but still perfectly fresh thanks to the Eternalizer I’d purchased for the Warehouse… useful thing that).

“Here,” I said, thrusting it at him. “Now get lost.”

As Tazuna and I walked back to his house, I would hand out small food items to anyone who asked and if the old man noticed that I was pulling far more than could possibly have fit in my bag out of it, he said nothing about it. Instead, he spoke of how the bridge would bring hope and prosperity back to the island, hope that had vanished as Gato worked to gain absolute control over the area by crushing the populace.

That night, over dinner, as the idiot boys competed to see who could make themself sicker by overeating, Tazuna and his daughter, Tsunami, spoke of his former son-in-law, a man named Kaiza who’d been a local hero and had been murdered by Gato’s Samurai bodyguards… though Gato had claimed it was an execution for terrorism.

Inside me, I felt Chara stirring, her murderous rage rising at the injustice of it all, and looking around the table I realized that everyone else had stopped speaking and now everyone was looking at me with growing alarm. Reflected in Tazuna’s eyes, I could see that my long white hair was floating in a nimbus around my head and a glance at my hands confirmed that my nails had lengthened into talons that were even now digging into the hard wood of the table top. My breathing was rough, heated, and a growl was coming from my lips.

Slowly I closed my right eye… I still had no control over the left one, which remained covered by an eyepatch at all times… and inhaled deeply, forcing down the rage-filled creature within. Gato would die soon enough, and it wasn’t as if I could have killed him myself… I wasn’t even certain I could have willingly sent one of my minions to do the task… Not that I often delegated murder. If I felt a killing was justified, I usually did it myself.

Anyway, the days passed, as they have a tendency to do, and soon enough, a week had gone by. Kakashi was healthy enough to do one finger pushups with me and Tazuna-san sitting on his back, and that meant that, assuming everything was still on-track, plotline wise, Zabuza was back in fighting fit as well.

Accordingly, I readied myself for the showdown between the Mist Village Ninjas and our little cadre on the bridge, knowing that things wouldn’t get too heated until Naruto arrived… but he didn’t. Wait… what? That’s not how the story goes! What the fuck? I’d waited until Sasuke had been trapped in the dome of Haku’s ice mirrors and thrown a Kunai to try and distract Haku just as had happened in the story… and Naruto’s flashy entrance had failed to manifest. Shiiit.

Fuck fuck fuck. Where was he? Had something gone wrong? He should have made short work of the Samurai idiots who’d gone to take Tsunami hostage. Had I changed something? Even then, the twit was the main character! He should have plot armor enough to show up at scripted key moments!

“Sensei…” I said, “I think something’s happened to Naruto…”

Kakashi, who’d told Naruto to stay in bed since he’d worn himself ragged training the day before, only grunted, never taking his eyes off of Zabuza who’d promised that if Kakashi interfered with the Sasuke-Haku fight he’d kill me and Tazuna. I wasn’t personally afraid of Zabuza, but even lacking his monster sword (it was tucked away in my Warehouse, so there was no way he was getting it back) I wasn’t at all certain I could fight the Jounin without losing control in a disastrous way… and protecting Tazuna-San was the number one task.

Wait… no it wasn’t! Fucking hell Sakura! Number One Task… personal survival. Number Two Task, keeping the Chain Going! Number Three Task… keeping your Team Alive. Tazuna’s the customer, that’s true, but no… his life is not worth Naruto’s, Kakashi’s, or even Sasuke’s. Even if the fate of the world didn’t (in some way I wasn’t really certain on, but knew it had something to do with someone named Kaguya-Hime) depend on them, even Tazuna wouldn’t put his own life before the lives of youngsters. The bridge was more important than Tazuna to even Tazuna.

What Tazuna would care about was his daughter (Tsunami) and grandson (Inari)… and if Naruto wasn’t here, that could mean they were in trouble. Good thing I’d seen Naruto using the Shadow Clone Jutsu… I tossed down a smoke bomb and, in the moment where no one could see me, spawned a couple dozen clones. Shadow Clones were instantly dispelled by any blow pretty much, and their experiences didn’t flow back into me until they were dispelled, but I needed to get someone on site to wherever Naruto was ASAP and that meant scouring the possible locations between the bridge and their house and Gato’s HQ in a minimal amount of time. Then I’d have the clone who found them self terminate, letting everyone of the remaining clones, as well as myself, know where they were and what was going on. It was a desperation move, but it was all I had at the moment. 

Then, as the smoke cleared, I turned to Tazuna and said “Sorry about this…” and stabbed him in the chest. “Now you can’t threaten the client,” I said to Zabuza, leaping forward to back up Sasuke as the old man crumpled slowly forward, gasping as a pool of blood spread from the clearly mortal wound.

“Holy shit!” Zabuza said, “Your girl is crazy!”

Kakashi could only nod. “We’re going to have to talk, she and I, about appropriate behaviour. Once we’ve dealt with you two, of course.”

****

I didn’t exist for very long. I was merely a clone of the original, but for seven glorious minutes, I was alive, unique, a form given purpose. Do not weep for me, for I was never more than a fleeting idea, a firefly burning bright as I leapt across the island, eyes wide for traces of the missing Naruto. If he was dead, too much of the story would change. If he hadn’t saved Inari from the Samurai, the kid would be dead and there’d be no one to rally the villagers to come confront Gato’s army of thugs. She that had made me couldn’t kill them, nor even defeat them knowing that the villagers would assuredly kill them in revenge once they were unconscious, and in her much reduced state, could not be certain of defeating Haku, Zabuza, and the army of Thugs will safeguarding Sasuke and Kakashi. 

The tiny ball of Chara’s Chakra that had come with me when we’d been created seethed to turn back, to question why we should die simply to protect the friends of the one who viewed us as nothing but a disposable asset, but I shushed her, having no desire to explain to the selfish child that I was not distinct from all that I was part of. I was an EssJay, one of many, but not the totality. When I expired, I’d be part of the whole again, as would she. It was as it had to be. I’d emerged from the sea of EssJay’s soul, and to it I would return. World without End.

Then I saw them. Naruto looked… bad. He was joking, of course, but limping hard, a gash in his leg barely closed by his incredible regenerative abilities. He was being supported by Tsunami as Inari fretted. Good, he’d rescued them from the Samurai, but he had clearly fared worse than in the comic or show. That… was somewhat worrying. 

I dropped down in front of him and snapped, “There’s trouble on the bridge. Zabuza and Haku are attacking and Gato’s on his way there now, with a hundred murderous thugs.”

“Sakura?” the orange-haired brat gasped. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you, Idiot!” I snapped, then smacked him. “Hopefully, I’m doing okay keeping Haku from killing Sasuke, but that means no one is protecting Tazuna-san.”

“You’re doing okay?” Tsunami asked, shocked. “But… you’re…”

“Shadow Clone,” both Naruto and I said at the same time. 

“Yes. And I’m going now,” I replied. “The Real me needs to know what’s going on…” and with that, I poofed out of existence.

****

“Naruto’s running late,” I gasped as Sasuke and I dodged yet another flight of metal needles having been launched by Haku out of his Icy Mirror Prison. Sasuke had yet to activate his Sharingan for the first time, something that had happened in this fight, and Naruto needed this fight and the conversation with Haku to begin developing his own Ninja Way. I was fairly certain both were pivotal events, and that meant I couldn’t just swat Haku back into his mirrors no matter how much I wanted to. Also, this fight was the first where Naruto had really tapped into the nine-tailed fox’s chakra… this little setback was screwing up the story! I didn’t want to have to deal by myself with whatever world-ending threat the plotline ended on (I knew it was linked to the Fourth Great Ninja War, but the details were far sketchier, stuff I’d only read about on a wiki-walk). Lacking knowledge of the intricacies of the plotline, I had no idea how to shape a better future… or not to fuck everything else up.

Sure, I could try to seize global power… might succeed, but without so many of my vital perks, I suspected that my reign would be both short lived and disastrous. I might be more powerful than the average Shonen Protagonist, but I wasn’t nearly at my full power at the moment.

I staggered as Clone sixty-one’s experiences hit me just as I was about to dodge one of those needles, slowing me a fraction and allowing the needle to punch into my throat… ouch. Like… ouch. I crashed to the ground, gagging as my airway flooded with blood. I’d be fine in a moment or two, but I was very much missing my more advanced forms of regeneration and kinetic-reactive picocites that my body was normally impregnated with. I hadn’t figured out how to make them work with chakra at the moment, and filling a body that wasn’t fully grown with them could unfortunately cause side effects. (as I’d learned to my annoyance many centuries ago). Of course, without Treknobabbler and Maddest Science Yet, I couldn’t even make picotech work… machines that small just couldn’t exist without bending the laws of particle physics.

Things got back on track after I went down, thankfully. Sasuke defended me long enough to activate Sharingan, then “died” just as Naruto showed up to “avenge us”. That got him to confront the nice boy he’d met in the woods (I found it interesting that, at least in this version of reality, Haku was female to male transgendered and not biologically male) and discover the fundamental quandary at the heart of being a Ninja; that to be a ninja was to live to die in the service of the village.

Then, alas, Haku died saving Zabuza… who had, somehow, managed to get his sword back… I would later check with my warehouse and have it verified to be exactly where I’d ordered it be left. And then Zabuza died avenging Haku by killing Gato. All very sad, and something I’d considered trying to fix, but without knowledge of how things would play out, I couldn’t in good faith do so. Also, while Haku was an innocent, Zabuza was a murderous monster and Haku had willingly sacrificed himself for his friend. To deny him that agency of self-determination would have been most unkind of me.

“You make no sense,” Chara muttered inside me as I slowly worked the needle out of my throat as Kakashi-sensei came over to me. I ignored her.

“You’re lucky Zabuza didn’t see through your trick,” he commented, steadying old man Tazuna whose outfit was soaked with blood, but who was ‘miraculously’ alive.

“He didn’t see through the Sharingan hypnotism until Haku pointed it out to him,” I coughed out, clearing my lungs of blood. “And he wanted to believe that the world was a dark place, one where a ninja would betray a client. I just fed into that belief. Sorry about the shirt.”

Before I’d stabbed him, I’d whispered ‘Act like you’re dying.’ to the old man, then had actually stabbed him… with a collapsing Kunai (great for parties!), into a balloon full of blood pulled from my Jar of Blood… Transdimension Warehouses, a million and one uses, am I right?

And of course, they named the Bridge after Naruto… because apparently, Sasuke and Kakashi and I are just along for the ride. Then again, Naruto did proclaim himself to be the Main Character… what an idiot. Doesn’t he know that the MC is almost always the one who suffers the most? I did, however, manage to keep my twelve year-old self from asking Sasuke for a date… I am not a shotacon, thank you… though technically even the adult Kakashi is less than 1/500th my age… not that I was planning on sleeping with him either. Being a Jumper is full of all sorts of weird ethical issues. Still, the perks are definitely worth it.

Naruto, on the other hand, had less restraint. “Since you came looking for me… does that mean you care about me?” he asked hopefully.

“Sure,” I agreed offhandedly. “You’re like a puppy I worry is going to get run over chasing a cart.”

“Puppies are cute,” he confirmed, missing the point. “Want to go on a date with me when we get home?”

“Sure,” I agreed.

“Really!?” his eyes were wide in shock and happiness.

“Yeah,” I said. “Why not. Iruka-Sensei could buy me a Ramen too.”

Fishcake boy’s face fell as I reminded him that he didn’t really have the funds to take anyone on a date. He was still too young to understand that money wasn’t important in the face of romance… but to be fair, a great many beings went decades or even centuries without learning that fact.

Still, I draped an arm over his shoulder, since I am taller than he is, and said, “Look. I’m not interested in a romantic relationship with you. But I don’t mind being friends with you.” I looked over to Sasuke. “With either of you. And really, you two shouldn’t spend so much of your time fighting. We’re a team and we need to rely on each other. Compete all you want at training, but get over yourself. All three… four,” I corrected, glancing at Sensei, “of us have had traumas in our lives, hardships to overcome… and if you two knuckleheads don’t stop acting like the other has stolen his favorite shuriken, I’m gonna knock your skulls together until you’re seeing stars for a week!”

As I skipped away, Naruto muttered to Sasuke, “Demon Princess is scary.” Sasuke only grunted in agreement.

*****

Of course, the next couple of months were far less exciting, though for me that just meant there was time to practice my new techniques and refine my control, something I did by taking a page from my time as the Manifest One, way back in the land of Avatar. Sure, I couldn’t remember all the details that well, but I’d spent an awful lot of time learning to modulate the energy flows within myself, and if I could do it then when my body was literally ripping itself apart, I could do it here in this world. 

One of my favorite techniques was to use Wood Release to cause a bed of tree shoots to spring up from the ground and then walk on them. No. Not trample, you absolute barbarians! Walk on them… while using my chakra to keep them from breaking… or eventually to keep them from bending either. I’d tried it with grass and dry leaves, but my control wasn’t nearly fine enough to make that even vaguely possible. The leaves simply exploded when I applied my Chakra to them and the grass? Well… apparently grass likes chakra a lot because it kept growing and growing and growing wherever I stepped using that technique. Like… what the hell? It was as if the local plantlife was a chakra-sponge. Which didn’t make any sense since the Sand Village had absolutely no foliage around it… unless the area around Konoha Village had been turned into the verdant near jungle it was by a Senju… the Senju family had helped found the village, along with their cousins the Uzumakis and Uchihas.

So… maybe.

I also had to deal with this psychopath showing up in the village trying to kill me. He was clearly a Samurai from the Land of Iron, but also completely mad. Kept raving about the end of the world and how a hundred trees would sprout from me and engulf the universe or something. Like… what? I mean, I don’t think he knew I had Senju blood. Kakashi had told only Sarutobi-Sama (The Third Hokage, head of the Village) and sworn Naruto and Sasuke to secrecy on the subject. 

Anyway, Crazy-man McSwordguy was less than sane and his sanity completely shattered after his first slash, which took me totally by surprise, cut my eye-patch free. Chara’s Chakra flowed out of me, a half formed maelstrom of crimson hatred that raved and snarled, a spider thing made of vines and flowers clutching the Danto in two of those limbs and three of her signature knives in others. 

The Samurai screamed and screamed and kept screaming long after he was dead… which was… um… creepy. I mean, sure, I hadn’t killed him… exactly. But the thing that had come from within me and it had taken far more effort than I wanted to think about to wrestle Chara back inside me. It was as if she’d grown more powerful somehow… was she feeding off the colossal amount of hatred present in this world? That was a terrifying thought. Or maybe she’d just been resting, storing up energy within me, no longer drained of her DETERMINATION simply to keep herself alive. Her LOVE was off the charts, I’ll tell you that much.

So, Months passed and (although none of the other genin in the village were aware of it, not even my companions since I had decided not to tell them) the Chunin Selection Exams were coming.

I didn’t have a firm date… but I knew the signs to look for. Specifically, the arrival of the three Sand Village Genin, the siblings Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara (Jinchuriki of the One-Tail). Until they arrived, I continued completing missions with my team, and learning to summon my ferrety friends in new and hopefully (to my enemies) annoying ways. 

I also did some research into the families of my companions. The Mezanin Clan (AJ and Francy) were a small family noted for their work training messenger birds. They had a similar, if less combat focused, role as the Inuzuka Clan, only with hawks instead of dogs. Spending time with the family was… unsettling as they tended to communicate almost entirely in bird calls and there were always birds around, staring at you with their birdy eyes. Shudder.

The Yamanaka family was a canon family, a member of the Ino-Shika-Cho tripartite alliance of senior clans (an alliance going back a whopping fifteen generations), with the Ino in the name being why the canon member of the Yamanaka family in the show was named Ino… the name for the alliance comes from a game called Hanafuda, where they are the names of three cards: Ino (Boar), Shika (Deer), and Cho (Butterfly). The fact that Cho refers to the Akamichi family (renowned for their rather impressive bulk) is somewhat amusing. The heirs of the three families were always given names that started with their respective syllables: Yamanaka Inoichi and Ino, Nara Shikaku and Shikamaru, Akamichi Choza and Choji.

Maggy, in her role as Yamanaka Ichika, was not (thankfully) Ino’s sister. Rather, she was the daughter of Inoichi’s first cousin, Yamanaka Santa, who had a very strange sense of humor that focused entirely on posing dolls in odd positions and places and then laughing when other people discovered his dolls and reacted accordingly. Ichika found her father deeply embarrassing… and as Maggy’s sire I got to hear all about it!

The Senbei family, which did, in fact, include Saku Hasu (i.e. Toph) as well as Mamoru (Alex) were simple spice farmers who did exceptionally well cultivating the local rarities… you know… by manipulating plants to provide exceptional yields and making certain that all possible pests died unpleasant deaths. Toph was somewhat chagrined to explain that Saku was her married name. Her husband, Saku Mochi, was a marshmallow of a man who treated her excellently and doted on her to a degree that Hasu found endearing and Toph found… umm… somewhat stifling but also cute. Mochi was a spice merchant and could have been defeated by a steep flight of stairs, let alone a ninja. 

Mamoru, on the other hand, haaated everything to do with farming and would only go visit his family when I badgered him to. They were clearly worry warts who wanted their little boy to stay as far away from combat as possible. It was clear that the Senbei branch of the Senju family had avoided eradication by going so deep under that they’d forgotten that they were once the mightiest of warrior families.

The Uzufumis (Zane’s new family) were nice enough, lacking the Uzumaki brashness or just old enough to keep it under wraps better. Nobuchika and Odamaru (Zenji’s mother and father respectively) were both in their late fifties, with Zenji / Zane being the youngest of their seven children. All of them were ninjas, though all seemed perfectly comfortable being chunin or specialist jounin, and thus most of them were assigned to jobs that kept them in and around the village.

The Motabi family, of which Kanna / Kendra was a member were porters, people paid to run packages and messages all over the place. Her innate speed seems to have come from her parents, both of whom could run as fast as a galloping horse despite not being ninja-trained in any way. They were also extremely talkative, and more than once I found them in conversation with my / Sakura’s gossipmonger mother… though the conversations always ground to a stop the moment they noticed my presence. Yay. always nice to be welcome. Sakura’s parents were fine, great, doting! It was the rest of the village that needed their faces… no! Down Chara! No murdering people for being ignorant prejudiced smallminded fearful tools! Hell, no murdering people!

Vita, as Nara Shinohana, was the daughter of Nara Maen, one of Shikamaru’s twin uncles (the other being Nara Daen). The twins were… well, they looked gruff and tough and no nonsense, but in actuality, outside of their jobs as village protectors, they were actually a pair of goofballs and pretty much giant teddy bears. They were even nice to me, slipping me candy when I was younger. Then again, the Naras are actually pretty laidback folks.

So those were the good family reports. Now for the… unpleasantness. Amaryllis had only paid to be a branch-family member of the Hyuga clan, rather than fork out a hundred Choice more to be a main-family member. She was also the youngest of our entire class, being only nine years old. She was Neji’s little sister, and as unlike him as it was possible to be. While Neji was full of rage and hate for the abuses the main-family heaped upon the branch-family, and for the pain Hinata’s father had put Neji’s father (his twin brother) through… Yokumo / Amy was (as expected from my youngest daughter) sweetness and light.

She was also still bound by the horrid slave-seal that forever bound every member of the branch-family to serve the head-family… on threat of agonizing torment or outright death if the seal was invoked. I’d dedicated several days study to that seal, but had yet to find a way to remove it… but I swore that any main-branch asshole who used it on my Amy would experience the feeling of my boot upside his or her head the moment… the very moment, I found out. Until then, I made certain to give her a hug and a kiss on her forehead whenever I could. She’s my best girl.

Kurushita / Darkseid, was, for reasons I couldn’t explain, a twenty-seven year old thirteen-time failure of the Academy Graduation process. He was also a Sarutobi who’d been disowned by his family for being a total fuckup. But he was absolutely dedicated to proving that he wasn’t one… a fact that made his routine failure to perform even the simplest tasks without messing something up all the more pathetic. It was as if old stoneface was incapable of admitting there was anything he couldn’t do and every failure just made him more stoney-faced, angry, and angsty. Still, one had to admire his relentless if nothing else. 

Somehow, against all odds, his group (like the other two groups containing my companions) had managed to graduate to genin this time, and (equally unlikely) Zenji / Zane and Kanna / Kendra had managed to keep his bumbling incompetence from ruining their missions, though (to be fair) they’d only had Rank D missions… though technically they’d had more missions than my group had. Team 7 (my team) had barely completed the eight missions needed to qualify for admission to the Chunin exams (normally it took considerably more than eight to be allowed to apply, but that was entirely up to the Jounin Sensei in charge of your group). Team 9 (AJ’s team) had completed more than one mission a week in the three months since graduation. Of course, our single B-rank (it had been upgraded retroactively) had taken the better part of a whole month, what with travel times and all that. Bridges aren’t actually finished in that short a time. Who knew!?

That left only the Material Girls of Squad Zero (Levi, Sterns, and Dearche) and their mysterious uncle, Danzo Shimura. A man who was all together too good at avoiding observation. At first, I thought it might simply be because my ferrety spies weren’t used to the village, but as they mapped more and more of it for me, I began to realize that there were entire sections of the village with unusually high security. Not the areas that should have had high security, but a second set of structures that didn’t seem to be part of the normal security arrangements or those belonging to the Anbu Black Ops division of the Village hierarchy. 

I didn’t know what it meant yet, but I was going to find out… especially after learning that Danzo had been part of the downfall of the Uchiha Clan… and that his organization, an ultra-covert division of Anbu, had been disbanded in the wake of that calamity. 

That piece of information I picked up personally… by invading the office of Sarutobi-Sama. Turns out that, yes, the Thick Drawback specifically only applies to Books… actually it only applied to anything highbrow or informative. I could still read trashy light novels (probably thanks to my Super Pervert drawback), as well as scrolls (which is odd because Naruto had trouble with scrolls and he was clearly the inspiration for the lame drawback), signs, comics, and (this is the important bit) files. Couldn’t read them as fast as I could have with my Princess Diaries touch-reading power (and boy did I miss that one) but I still had a near perfect memory and comprehension speed that verged on the supernatural. I could literally read pages as fast as I could turn pages… which is very fast indeed… even in the dark.

Chara, on the other hand, made focusing on reading anything extremely annoying, since she constantly complained that words were borning and stupid and we should be out beating people up. I pointed out, yet again, that being in Sarutobi-Sama’s office was against the rules and we’d probably have to fight his guards once they caught us… especially since I was wearing his Hokage hat at the time.

When the old man finally did show up to ask me exactly what I thought I was doing, I lambasted the old fart for never telling Naruto who his parents were (His father, Namikaze Minato, was the Fourth Hokage, and his parents had died the day he was born defending the village from the Nine-Tailed Fox that had been sealed inside Naruto’s mother, Uzumaki Kushina)… and that his parents had loved him very much, and that they’d sealed the Nine-Tails inside him because they knew he was strong enough and brave enough to safeguard this precious treasure even though he was only minutes old.

“You shouldn’t know such things!” the old man snapped, glowering at me. “And where do you get off lecturing your elders.”

“No one on this planet is my elder Haruzen,” I said with a laugh. “You were right to name me the Demon Princess. I have seen civilizations rise and fall, caused it more than once in fact, but I am your Demon Princess, and my loyalty is to the causes of life and justice, and I believe that Konoha is more dedicated to those causes than any other force in this violent and bloody world. And so I will help you even though you let the villagers treat the child of your friend as if he was garbage. I had my parents to love and cherish me. He had nothing, and you allowed it. For that alone, I should kick your ass all over this room… but there is danger coming, and I cannot afford to weaken your sickly old wrinkle-infested backside demonstrating to you the error of your ways.”

“Danger?” he scoffed. “What are you talking about, you mad child?”

“The Sand Village and Sound Ninjas are planning to attack Konoha during the Chunin Exam. The Sound Ninjas are secretly under the control of Orochimaru, who seeks revenge against you, and the Kazekage blames our village for the funding cuts his village has suffered because the lord of the Land of Wind is a cheapskate… so yes, this too is your fault.” I sneered at him. “Did you really think undermining the Sand Village by underbidding their costs was a good way to make friends? By the gods, you are a terrible leader… but you’re what we’ve got and you’re a powerful old fogey even if you should have retired again years ago. Tsunade wasn’t a good enough replacement for you? Or was it because she’s not a dude? Jiraiya? Well, okay, he’s a perv, and so is Kakashi, but any of them could have taken over. Kakashi freaking graduated the Academy at five! What were you waiting on? Or were you just afraid that he’d share Minato’s fate?

The old man’s eyes had grown wider and wider as I rattled off far more information than any child should have had. “Y… you… you are most impertinent… and… and how do you know these things!?”

“I have a contract with the Great Ferret Sage,” I said with a shrug, motioning around the room to where a dozen pairs of bright eyes peeked out of every hiding space. “The little ones tell me a great many things in exchange for treats.” I tossed a handful of peanut butter clusters into the air and not one of them hit the ground.

“So… since you seem to know everything,” he said, eying me with somewhat grudging respect, “What do you recommend I do about this attack?”

“I think you should use it to set an ambush. Obviously it will be risky, but for their plan to work, they have to come to you. Bringing your enemies into your net is the best way to destroy them. Among other things, Gaara… the youngest son of Kazekage Rasa, will make a far better Kazekage than his father will. And Temari and Kankuro will make excellent allies for Konoha… they’re his older siblings and will help secure his reign I imagine. Also, Orochimaru will probably murder Rasa for you if you allow this attack to proceed. It’s also the best way to bring Orochimaru here for you to deal with him… though I don’t think you’ll live through the battle if you face him alone. He’s bad news.”

“You know the future?” He asked, clearly trying to figure out if I was just guessing or had more information than I possibly should.

“Only a bit of it. The next few weeks really. I know that Tsunade will replace you if you do fall. And that Naruto will be the Seventh Hokage… but who will be Sixth I do not know… but I’m hoping for Kakashi-Sensei. He’s got the right mindset… and all three of them will be better leaders than you were,” I rubbed that last in.

He laughed. “You’ll have to try harder than that to annoy me Little Miss Ferret Sage. Every good leader dreams of being replaced by those greater than himself.” I blinked at that. Damned if he wasn’t right. “In fact, I thank you for the prophecy. It makes knowing that my time is coming to an end all the sweeter. Do me a favor?”

I tilted my head, his hat falling off to flump to the floor. “If I can,” I said after a long moment.

“Tell Naruto I’m sorry… once you tell him the truth,” he bowed low, a formal and somewhat disturbing sensation for the part of me that was Sakura and who’d looked up to the old man her entire life.

“Alas,” I said. “It’s not my story to tell. I’m certain he’ll learn it in time, but I’m not the one who can tell him. It has to come from someone who knew his father. Like Kakashi-Sensei or Juraiya-Senin.”

“You know that too?” he asked.

I hadn’t known it before I’d arrived in this world, but my research had had some interesting results. Namely that Sarutobi-Sama had been the team leader for Orochimaru, Tsunade, and Juraiya’s Team; that Juraiya-Senin had been the team leader for the team that had included Minato-Sama… and that Minato had been the team leader for the team that had included Kakashi-Sensei… and Obito Uchihara, whose Sharingan Kakashi had. Of Nohara Rin, the third member of the group I could find no record of that she’d died in combat at age fifteen. Of Arikase Shinobu and Yamagatchi Dogu, Minato’s teammates, one had retired due to crippling injuries and the other had died in the Third Shinobi war.

“My mother is the master of all gossip. If there’s a fact about someone that is known by four people in the village, she’s one of them,” I said with a sigh. “Want to know who’s sleeping with whom? Ask her. Honestly, she probably is better at gathering information than the entire Sensor Ninja division.”

“Does she know-” he began.

“That Asuma and Kurenai are knocking boots?” I asked. “Of course she does.”

“Ah well,” he sighed. “I hope they have a girl… I’d love to have a grand-daughter.”

“Hopefully she won’t be as big a headache as your grandson, eh?” I teased. “What were his parents thinking, naming him after the village? That’s like naming a kid… never mind, you wouldn’t get the reference.”

“Are you really a Demon?” he asked. 

“What is a Demon but a being that isn’t understood by those around it?” I replied. “Some might call me one, though I have never been one. I have been a great many things over the millennia… but never a Demon. So many of those things are ones you’d have no concept of, but I am not, in this time or place, here to bring ruin. There is hope for this world yet, and as long as hope endures, I shall strive to keep its flame burning bright. And no, for the record, I will not be Hokage. Not the Eighth, not the Ninth. Never.”

He chuckled. “I think you may be the only young ninja with wild hair that has ever made that claim.”

“What can I say, I’m a simple girl. All I want is a cute daughter who wears adorable glasses… and to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their shippers.”

“I have no idea what you mean by that,” he commented.

“It’s okay, my readers do.” What? You thought I was unaware of you? I can totally channel Deadpool if I want to! I even have a second voice in my head. It’s legit! 

Next: I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 3

Resources: BuildDocument

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain). And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.

World 79: Naruto – Part 2.1

I WILL NOT BE HOKAGE, Part 1

Previously: If I’m not Me, are You?

Themesong: Chop Suey! by System of a Down

Okay… I was not expecting this. The moment of insertion is usually a bit fraught, new memories slotting into place with old identities, a new form to get used to, waking up in a room you’re both familiar with and yet have never seen before. This was… much worse.

For the first time, I awoke as someone I already knew, someone I thought of as another person, someone distinct from me. Or rather, someone EssJin thought of as another person. Haruno Sakura thought of herself as… well.. Haruno Sakura. Yes… for the first time ever, I was a canon character… well… kinda. I was a Sakura… just not the one normally seen in the manga or anime. For one thing, she didn’t have an eyepatch. For another… her hair was much less… manelike. And pink. Mine was white. But other than that… I/we were Sakura. If Sakura had… errr… issues.

What Issues, you ask? Well, for one thing, the canonical Sakura was not referred to behind her back as “Demon Princess Sakura”… because she didn’t have a demon inside her. My Demon was called “The Beast that Comes When You Speak Its Name” and… uh… apparently people thought that meant if they spoke my name I’d appear. So it was a lot of whispered “it’s her!” and “why do they let her stay in the village?” and “who’d win in a fight between you know who and her?” Yes… wonderful. Just… fucking wonderful. If Team 7 was formed just as it had been in canon, it was going to contain the Nine-Tailed Fox, The Demon Princess, and the boy whose family was murdered for betraying the village.

At least I didn’t have the Jinchuriki problems of Naruto. I could exert chakra no problem… No… My issue was the exact opposite. Everything I/Sakura did with Chakra was too much. Create a clone and end up with three, and they tended to explode when dispelled rather than just puff to dust. Use Chakra to boost a jump and I was liable to go much further than I anticipated. While Kurama (Naruto’s inner monster) was apparently stingy with the power, my Chara was more than happy to “help”… in the most frustrating and inept fashion possible.

That and my tendency to challenge everyone to a fight… which I’d been losing pretty steadily against anyone who had either an ounce of self-control or any serious training, hadn’t been helping my reputation around the town. Just… freaking… lovely.

Also lovely was the fact that I/Sakura was 12 years old and had one monster of a tweenage crush on Sasuke… which was a problem because I/EssJin was… either in her mid thirties or more than fifteen thousand years old and I’d found Sasuke to be an annoying dickbag since I’d been in my twenties and first read the first issue of Naruto and every issue that had followed had made me want to punch Angsty McNinjaEye in the shnooz… which meant that, day one, I lost a small amount of control at the wrong moment and did exactly that. Then I accused him of being a baka and having stupid hair and told him I hated him and then ran off crying… oh… goody, moodswings. Violent, Chara-Fueled, moodswings. This was going to be oh sooo much fun.

Thankfully, the part of us that wasn’t Sakura had spent millenia learning to meditate and even Chara and tween hormones and an insatiable lust for combat couldn’t completely fuck over my control. Still, I was really missing Vulcan calm… Yes, perks are a crutch, but I’d had my perks go missing enough before (either through drawbacks or gauntlets… or even toggling it off deliberately) that I had some measure of practice at controlling myself without them. And I still maintained the ‘Calm & Steady’ perk I’d gained when Mensarius had sent me to Firefly. It let me assume a Zen-like state of tranquility… but it wasn’t automatic. I had to actually have time (and focus) enough to get into that state… and with my speed, a lot of punches could be thrown in a a very short period of time.

Unfortunately… either due to whatever was fucking with my chakra control… and even though I hadn’t picked the ‘Out of Control’ Drawback I was fairly certain that it had been included somehow in the Nemesis Retest Package… probably to see how I reacted to Chara (among other stressors)… and even though said Drawback wasn’t supposed to hinder my other abilities (I checked with Squad Zero, who despite being twits, could still remember the phrasing of a Drawback… if separated, forced to write it out, then one compared the three samples and… and then remembered that the others would have read the Drawback even if they hadn’t taken it… yes.. Yes… I facepalmed hard. I’m clearly not doing my best.)… what was I saying? Oh yes, Unfortunately, ‘Out of Control’ seemed to be making it hard to control any of my supernatural abilities that I still had. I won’t go into the entire list… it’s mind bogglingly long… but of all the Perks and Powers that EssJay had purchased, gained, or learned over the ages, I was able to access less than 20% of my total perk-list.

We’d been a Drop-In a fair few times, which meant that I had access to most of the perks purchased by those individual incarnations of EssJay. For instance, I still could dig through the ground as if my hands were shovels or create burstone shards when I destroyed things, both abilities I’d gained as SkyJumper in Bastion… but sometimes I scooped out a kiddy shovel of dirt… and sometimes a snowshovel, and the burstone shards had a tendency to hum ominous when I held them and I couldn’t get them to combine.

I still had Sunset James (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers)’s ability to project my voice without an amplifier, and Sylvia Jane Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)’s Slayer, Sorcerer, and Flight powers… but the Sorcery experienced annoying inaccuracies and the Flight was more rocket powered than I was entirely pleased with. Joyous Snake (Metal Gear Solid)’s Psychic powers were great as a hammer, but not ideal as a scalpel, which meant that if I turned on my telepathy the din could give me a migraine pretty damned fast. Silver Jade (RWBY)’s WinterTide Semblance had not only an unpredictable area of effect, but an irregularly shaped one as well. I hadn’t even bothered experimenting with Shoftiel (Dresden Files)’s Necromancy or Sojourner Violence (Demon’s Souls)’s Soul Gathering, but Sunny D Jammer (One Piece)’s Dook-Dook Fruit powers didn’t seem to be working at all, while her Conqueror’s Haki seemed to be on overdrive.

Some others seemed to work just fine. Sun Jia (Disney Princess)’s song abilities and personal trainer skill set appeared to be intact, as were the martial arts and swordsmanship perks fro Joyous Snake, and the technical insight from Senet (Firefly) and Dr Saj (Gargoyles), plus the ability to make delicious food out of practically anything and my Life Fiber Hybrid regeneration from Shu Jin (Kill-La-Kill). Also working just fine were Savant, Freerunner, and Physical Fitness from Pokemon… because those were my perks, Dog Gamn-It!

I even retained some of my signature abilities, those I used all the damned time… such as Third Eye of Satori (from Touhou), Mental Palace (from Great Detective), and Copycat Technique (from Ranma ½), but not other abilities linked to the same personas such as Hakutaku’s Gift (also Touhou), The Look (also Great Detective), and Hidden Weapon Space (also Ranma). I also didn’t have other signature perks such as Civilization’s ‘No Gods or Kings’ or ‘Art of War’.

And I didn’t have access to all the Drop-Ins… mostly those post Tortall for some reason… probably due to the disappearance of the Banker and Mensarius and the beginning of this whole mess. In fact, I didn’t seem to have any perks at all from after that period except for whatever I’d picked up in Undertale… and maybe whatever I’d bought Jouya, though since I had no idea what that might have been, I really couldn’t use any of it, now could I?

Anyway, That pretty much brings us up to the end of the first week of my Naruto Experience… i.e. me mostly trying not to go crazy and hurt someone while Naruto got his dumb ass tricked into stealing the Scroll of Forbidden Jutsus from which he learned his signature “Shadow Clone no Jutsu” move… which allowed him to create hundreds of non-illusory copies of himself and which he would then combine with his signature “Sexy no Jutsu”(which turned him into a naked babe wreathed in seductive mist) to make “Harem no Jutsu” (which did both things at once). And which I promptly copied at the first opportunity because I’m a thief baby… and a Super Pervert!

Also, it really annoyed Chara, so win-win! Not that I really needed it. The full me could totally spin off homunculi and then use Shard Administrator to shift one of my Astral Layers into the Homunculi… but still, Shadow Clones were quite a bit faster and more easily replaceable… and could be made into sexy naked ladies! Or dudes. I might not have my Jusenkyo gender-shifting powers any more… but copying and modifying a technique created by Naruto? Please. He’s no genius and I am smart enough to scoff at those with mere genius level IQs. Scoff, I say! Ahem. Sorry, got a bit carried away with my own excellence.


So it was that, on the morning of the first day of the second week, all those of us who’d just recently graduated to Genin (lowest of the ninja ranks) all gathered in one auditorium at the academy. I, who’d read the comic, of course knew they were going to assign us to teams of three now… and how freaking odd is it that Sasuke (the best student in our class), myself (up until the day before the exam a fairly mediocre student, to be honest), and Naruto (who was lazy, a goof-off, and hampered by ADHD and poor chakra control) all managed to graduate at age twelve… especially since Naruto had canonically failed the Genin Exam twice! Shouldn’t he have been fourteen? But then again, technically, the youngest ever graduate was like six… so why hadn’t Sasuke graduated early? No fuckin clue, but that’s the force of Narrative Necessity for you.

Anyway, we all moved to take our seats, with me arriving about halfway through the gathering, having absolutely no intention of sitting anywhere near either the idiot or the moper… when Yamanaka Ino, Sakura’s ex-best friend and current (in her own mind) rival for the attention of Sasuke’s affections, happened to think, “Oooh… look! It’s Sasuke! I’m going to sit next to him… maybe I can even steal his first kiss!”

Now remember, she hadn’t said that outloud… and I was still struggling to get a hold of my powers at this point (a struggle that would take a good long while, let me tell you). So in the time it took the Jin part of my consciousness to tamp down the psychic-snooping, the Sakura part had confronted Naruto (currently sitting next to Sasuke) and demanded he move so that we could have that coveted spot. This of course prompted Naruto to glare at Sasuke, who did his best to ignore the other boy, despite the fact that Naruto was doing said glaring from approximately twenty centimeters in front of Sasuke’s face, while crouching like a toad (ooo foreshadowing!) on the desk in front of Sasuke.

Having read the manga and seen the entire first season of the anime, I knew damned well what was about to happen, but as I tried to stop it (not certain why I bothered, to be honest) time seemed to slow to a standstill as the nameless (I’m serious, we’d attended the school for eight fucking years and I’d never seen this kid before and I never saw him again after) genin sitting right in front of Sasuke accidentally bumped Naruto in the butt with his elbow… causing Naruto to lose his balance and fall, lips first, against Sasuke’s own lips. Sexy-Kissy time it wasn’t. Both boys were, of course, horrified because they’re almost painfully heterosexual and this was not a world high on the LGBTQ acceptance… though not nearly as bad as many other shonen titles are.

All the girls in class were also horrified, because twelve year old girls really care about who gets the hot boy’s first kiss. I can tell you right now, no. They don’t. I have been a twelve year old girl a lot of times. Including in Japan… we very much don’t care. We’re much more concerned about who we give our first kiss to. And even then, we’re pretty much aware that it doesn’t actually count as a first kiss unless it’s intentional on at least one of the two party’s part. So yes, stealing a first kiss counts… accidentally falling into liplock? Not counting!

Of course, no one had told any of the girls in the room that, and I was across the room and roundhouse kicking Naruto into the far wall before I could even think about restraining myself. Only the arrival of Iruka-Sensei, our chief teacher and the proctor of the Genin Exam (as well as Naruto’s only real friend at this point), stopped me from pounding the main-character into hamburger long enough to give myself a mental slap… oh… good god… I’m Inner Sakura!

Okay, short aside… Sakura as shown in the series has two… let’s call them personalities. The outward Sakura is somewhat shy, doubts herself quite a lot, and is far too polite most of the time, hiding what she’s really feeling behind a mask of civility. Inner Sakura on the other hand is shown to be an almost separate entity that voices what Sakura really thinks and feels, but usually only inside Sakura’s mind. Inner Sakura is shown to be extremely willful, and able to repel being possessed by Ino… whose primary ability is possessing others and who is able to take over ninja who seem far more confident that Sakura does. Anyway… apparently, I’m the Inner Sakura. Of course, I’m also the Outer Sakura… and we’re all in this one body together with Chara, queen of stabity.

So, while I-Jin was keeping Myself-Sakura from obsessing about the kiss and wallowing in doubt about how Sasuke would never be interested in a girl with such small breasts and non-existant butt and far too large a forehead… never freaking mind that we’re twelve and haven’t exactly hit our growth spurt… (Oh, lord of all that is! Save me from tweenage body-issues!!!) Iruka-Sensei began reading out the names of those in the first six groups.

Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered paying attention to this… a) because I could just check my memory later if it became important, b) because I’d be able to see the whole list when they posted it publicly, and c) because if he wasn’t saying my name, who the hell cared? oh, and d) because I was pretty damned certain that the universe was rigged so that I’d end up with these two idiots on Team 7. I say normally, because when Iruka got to Team 4, he said names that were important to EssJun… namely Nara Shinohana and the Shimura Triplets… apparently, Team 4 would consist of four genin instead of the traditional three, under Saku Hasu-Sensei (apparently they’d dropped the Senju since according to Sakura’s memories, there aren’t any living Senju… apparently only distaff members of the family still exist… or they all changed their name to avoid attention… the first two Hokage were both Senju Clan members). Maybe they hadn’t wanted to split up the triplets but hadn’t wanted to saddle a Jounin-Instructor with just those three twits? Anyway, the names were important because Hasu-Sensei was Toph, Shinohana was Vita, and the Shimura girls (Makiko, Machiko, and Mikiko) were Sterns, Levi, and Dearche respectively.

Okay, so not that important, but the names made connections that I hadn’t made before in the Sakura side of things. Turns out that our mother, Mebuki was something of a gossip hound, and kept talking about all the big deal families of the village… like the Shimuras… And the current head of the Shimura Family, the reclusive Danzo Shimura and his history of taking things too far. What things? Well, as a twelve year old, I didn’t know, but given that this is a Ninja Community we’re talking about… I’d say the odds are pretty good that we’re talking war-crimes here.

So, of course, I-Jin was mulling that over when Iruka-Sensei read off the names of the members of Team 7 (Haruno Sakura, Uzumaki Naruto, and Uchiha Sasuke of course) and thus I-Jin was unable to restrain My-Sakura-Self from cheering “Hell Yeah!” when Sasuke’s name was spoken. Oy. I hope I don’t end up actually having this tool’s kid… though the art I’ve seen of Uchiha Sarada is pretty cute… okay, maybe for the kid’s sake. But Sasuke better fucking be a better man than… oh who am I kidding, I slept with Draco Malfoy… I have nooo standards. So Sasuke has eight years or so to become as bangworthy as ferret-boy… he’s not even close at the moment, no matter what the Sakura-Side has to say about it. Of course, she’s all about a kiss and maybe holding hands. Not going all the way. You know. Twelve year old.

Team 9 ended up being Uzufumi Zenji (Zane, name changed from Uzumaki as the family was in hiding apparently), Motabi Kanna (Kendra), and Kurushita (Darkseid) under the leadership of Mezanin Kaito (AJ). Likewise, Team 16 was headed by Mezanin Reo (Francine) and contained Hyuga Yakumo (Amaryllis), Yamanaka Ichika (Maggy) and Senbei Mamoru (Alex)… how anyone didn’t see through the name changes of Senju/Senbei and Uzufumi/Uzumaki, I don’t know. For those who don’t know the japanese writing system known as Kanji, allow me to explain. Uzumaki is written in Kanji using two very complex symbols (the first, Uzu, meaning Swirl, has twelve strokes, while the second, Maki, meaning roll or winding, or volume of a book, has nine strokes). The Fumi in Uzufumi also means volume or chapter… and is written with a Kanji having fifteen strokes. So far so confusing, right? Well… Kanji have multiple readings. That is, they can be pronounced multiple ways depending on if they’re being used in words or in names usually. That’s why there are often pronunciation guides over the Kanji in your favorite manga… Also because there’s a chance the readership hasn’t gotten to those lessons or needs a reminder because there are a lot of Kanji. Anyway. The symbol for Fumi has four different readings. Hen, Fuda, Fumi… and, you guessed it, maki.

Senbei was at least trying! Senju is written using two symbols meaning 1000 and hands, referring to the Senju Clan having “a thousand skills”. Senbei was written with the same first symbol, and the second symbol being the one for sleeve… as in a thousand sleeves… as in nothing up my sleeve. Why Sakahasu had been divided into two names instead of being a member of Clan Senbei I don’t know… but what all that told me was that someone clearly sentient was doing the tweaking to make certain everything fit as neatly as possible into the world building. There was someone working for Higher whose job it was to keep things running smoothly… and I doubted it was God.

But, I have this cellphone with his number on it… all the other contacts are missing, but it was on my / Sakura’s nightstand when I/we woke up, and if he didn’t want me to call, he shouldn’t have left me his number.

“Hey… got a question for you… I mean… Hello, this is EssJin, how’s your day going? Do you mind if I ask you a question? A game of Go? Sure, I’ve got some free time right now.” Long story short? I had a nice chat with God about the role of Mediators (the functionaries brought in to settle canon-jumpbuild disagreements) and in the process avoided having Naruto, disguised as Sasuke, act like a jerk while trying to woe me, then have to run off to the bathroom due to spoiled milk ingestion (idiot)… then having Sasuke act like a jerk because he is a jerk trying not to woe me. I also managed to avoid myself being an insensitive tool to Sasuke when talking about the fact that Naruto was the way he was because he didn’t have parents (Naruto being an orphan since his mother and father died sealing Kyubei the 9-Tailed Fox inside Naruto)… insensitive because Sasuke’s brother Itachi murdered their entire clan besides Sasuke back when Sasuke was eight… and Itachi was thirteen… how a thirteen year old murders an entire family of trained ninjas I do not know.

Regardless, I emerged from my game with God just in time for our meeting with Kakashi-Sensei… i.e. the junior pervert (senior pervert being Juraiya-Senin). Naruto, being Naruto, put a chalk-board eraser in the door so it would fall on Kakashi’s head as punishment for Sensei being late to the meet up. Unlike the canon, I did not lie about trying to stop him. Instead, I just smirked at the dust-covered Jounin and commented, “Apparently, juvenile traps aren’t worth avoiding?”

He called us annoying. That’s fair. Then he demanded we introduce ourselves, our likes, dislikes, dreams for the future and things like that. When Naruto asked for an introduction from Kakashi first, I couldn’t help myself but follow the script and point out that Kakashi does come across as pretty damned suspicious looking, what with his headband over one eye and most of his face covered by a nose-and-mouth mask. One eye, one ear, and half an eyebrow is not much to go on, visa vi the whole trust issue. Of course, I could have used Third-Eye… but in this world, that would require actually opening my third eye and would be as subtle as a box of hammers flung into a glass fan. I’d do it later.

As for his introduction, Sensei said, “Oh? Me? Well, my name is Kakashi Hatake and I have no desire to tell you my likes or dislikes. As for dreams for the future… hmmm… And I have lots of hobbies…” Which, you know… wasn’t any information at all besides his name. Which we already had. “Now, it’s your turn. Let’s start on the right.”

Right being the idiot, Naruto gave his name and then said, “What I like is cup ramen, and what I like even more is when Iruka-Sensei pays for my ramen. What I dislike is waiting three minutes for the ramen to cook, and my dream is to Be Hokage and have the people of this village acknowledge my existence.”

I interjected. “Better that they don’t acknowledge you at all than they acknowledge you only with fear and hatred.” Yeah, I/We weren’t bitter at all.

Naruto opened his mouth to call me something rude, then remembered that he was infatuated with me and turned back to Kakashi and said that his hobbies were pulling pranks.

Then it was Sasuke’s turn and he was all angsty and depressing. “There are lots of things I dislike and I don’t really like anything. I don’t really have a dream… but I have an ambition; the resurrection of my clan and to kill the man who destroyed it.”

That was slightly more information than he’d given in canon, where he’d just said “Kill a certain man.” but I guess this wasn’t the author keeping us readers in the dark about why Sasuke was a moody little shit.

I found myself blushing about how cool Sasuke was and mentally slapped myself, then glared at Sensei as he said, “OK… and lastly, the girl.”

“I don’t know if you’re being a sexist dickbag intentionally,” I said, “just to push my buttons or if you really do have your head so far up your ass as to use that tone, but you know my damned name. You visited Naruto’s apartment with Sarutobi-Sama right before this meet up and you were picked specifically to be Sasuke’s instructor because you’ve got a Sharingan eye. I’m not ‘The Girl’. I’m Haruno Sakura, the Deamon Princess of the Hidden Leaf Village, even if my family isn’t one of the important ones, and you don’t get to dismiss me as the third wheel just hanging out in the shadow of these two. I’m not less important just because I pee sitting down.” I pushed down Chara’s attempt to summon a knife and adjusted my eyepatch. Three eyes and I could use one of them… great.

“Oookay,” Kakashi drawled. “I stand corrected. Want to tell us anything else besides that you’re a strong woman who don’t need no man to define her?”

“It would be extremely rude of me to try to smash your face in on our first meeting, and your use of stale feminist rhetoric implies that you’re just trying to get on my nerves, so I’ll play along… and smash your face in tomorrow,” I said, smirking. “The things I like are ferrets and fighting people, and the things I dislike are people who think they know me without having ever actually bothered to find out anything about me… especially Naruto here.” that last slipped out before I could stop it, but I continued as he facefaulted… eh, worth it. “My dream for the future? To kick the asses of every other ninja and prove myself the undisputed Queen of the Ninja World.”

Sasuke snorted… I punched him in the foot. He glared. I glared back.

“Hobbies?” he asked.

“Reading porn,” I responded. “Especially books by Juraiya-Senin.” When you no longer have fiat-backed lying skills… take refuge in audacity. Also, watching Naruto’s jaw hit the floor was deeply amusing.

“Well… good introductions,” Kakashi said. “Tomorrow we’ll start our duties as shinobi.” When Naruto asked what duties, the response was “Survival Training… with me as your opponent… oh… and I should tell you… of the forty-nine graduates, only sixteen will be chosen to become genin. The rest will be sent back to the academy… this is your real final exam, and there’s a failure rate of more than sixty-six percent.”

“Sixteen… that means the Shimura triplets are already guaranteed a pass,” Sasuke said. Apparently he could do basic math. Good.

“Oh… I forgot about them,” Kakashi said, lying his ass off. “Might just be seventeen then.”

Interesting, I thought. The original/canon graduating class had only had twenty-seven students get this far and only nine were supposed to pass. Of course, it was a lie. The complete membership of four of the nine canon teams had passed, resulting in the creation of the Konaha 11 (so called because Sasuke defected for a time). Tenten, Rock Lee, and Hyuuga Neji on Team Two (always referred to as Team Guy); Yamanaka Ino, Nara Shikamaru, and Akimichi Choji on Team Ten (aka Team Asuma); Inuzuka Kiba, Aburame Shino, and Hyuuga Hinata on Team Eight (aka Team Kurenai); and the three of us on Team Seven. Clearly, the Mediator had added more teams… and don’t ask me why there was a Team Ten with only nine teams, there is no Team One, I assume to keep anyone from claiming to be the best?… so that there could still be enough slots with three entire new teams almost guaranteed to pass. Of course, that took the total from twelve in nine slots to twenty-two in sixteen or seventeen… but it was still a lie.

“Is that a guaranteed number?” I asked, “Or are you just saying that the odds are one in three? Because the second way seems like a waste if you’re just going to pick the nine best. What if only Neji and myself are any good. I mean, Motabi and Tenten are pretty incredible, and Ino-Shika-Cho are pretty much guaranteed slots because they’re leading families and every generation has at least one trio from them… but I’m guessing they don’t get a bye unless nepotism is more important than actual talent.”

“You talk too much,” Kakashi said and Naruto laughed at that.

“It’s my Ninja way,” I snarked. “That and punching people in the face, but — as I already established — it’s rude to do that to someone you just met unless they’re the enemy… or a tool. So are you just trying to scare us or is the number actually fixed.”

“Mostly just scare you. Bring your A game tomorrow or you’re all going back to school.” And with that he rolled over the railing behind himself and disappeared… only to pop back up a moment later. “Almost forgot: Bring all the shinobi tools you have and skip breakfast. You might throw up.” He tossed a stack of papers at us and said “The details are there. Don’t be late.”

Of course, it was Kakashi who was late the next morning… and he showed up to see me eating riceballs. Quirking his visible eyebrow, he said, “I thought I told you to skip breakfast.”

“You phrased it as a suggestion, and said that we might throw up. Might throw up is not a reason to go into battle unfueled. Rice is good for medium range energy. The plum jam in here is good for the longer term, and the bean paste for endurance.” I took a looong pull of my drink. “And this is decarbonated cola, good for immediate energy. Want one?” I offered the bento that had two more in it. “You said bring all shinobi tools… a proper diet is the foundation of all shinobi tools… and since Choji is on one team, I’m assuming he didn’t leave food behind.” Choji, an Akimichi, gained power from being… well… extremely fat.

Kakashi’s actual expression was impossible to read, but he looked somewhat annoyed… then amused. Then he took one of the rice balls and tucked into it while I ate the last. Naruto looked aghast that he’d skipped breakfast… and annoyed that I hadn’t given him the last one. Idiot. “Well then. I guess two of you have more motivation to succeed than she does,” he said, pulling out an alarm clock showing the time as 10:10 in the morning (in arabic numerals no less). “This is set for noon,” he said, holding up a pair of cat-bells on strings. “Your task is to take these from me before the time’s up. “Those who don’t have a bell by noon get no lunch. I’ll not only time one of you to those stumps, but I’ll also…” he paused, blinking when he realized that he was only holding one bell. Well, I assume he blinked. He closed his one visible eye.

“I don’t know how you did that,” he said to me. “But please give it back. The exam hasn’t begun yet.” I tossed it back. “There are only two bells, so the person who doesn’t take a bell fails. And that means at least one of you will be sent back to the academy.”

“Liar,” I coughed. He frowned at me.

“You have an attitude problem,” he told me flat out.

“So they tell me,” I shot back. “So they tell me. But please, continue trying to motivate us when Sasuke is going to go all out no matter what because he’s driven to avenge his family and Naruto wants to prove he’s worthy to be Hokage. Clearly fear of being held back is what motivates us.”

“It’s easy to use words to make claims. Harder to back them up,” the Jounin said. “But if you don’t come at me intending to kill, you won’t succeed.”

“And there we go, more hyperbole,” I sneered, limbering up. “Killing you isn’t the mission. Getting the bell is.” I was deliberately goading him. The entire point of this exercise was about teamwork, not any of the nonsense either of us were spouting.

“Not like this will be hard,” Naruto scoffed. “You’re so slow you couldn’t even dodge a blackboard eraser.”

“In the real world, those with no talent often bark loudest. Ignore mr. Deadlast and start when I say…”

Naruto didn’t even wait for him to finish, so enraged was he by the name calling. He drew a Kunai, a ninja throwing knife, and was drawing back his hand to throw it when Kakashi moved faster than the human eye could follow (not mine, but it was faster than I could have moved back in the Pokemon Days.) and grabbed Naruto by the back of the head and the wrist.

“Calm down. I haven’t said start yet,” he said. The Sakura part of me was impressed… she hadn’t really realized how much we’d changed in the last nine days. Sasuke just looked smug… as always… jerk.

Anyway, Kakashi gave the word and we sprang away from him. Sasuke hid in a bush, I concealed myself in a tree… not expertly, but good enough for a twelve year old… I probably could have done better, but I’ve not exactly focused on Stealth on the Ninja level. I was, without most of my powers, about as good at stealth as Solid Snake if he’d had a few centuries of practice.

Naruto, on the other hand, stood in the middle of the exam area (a semi-open patch of wilderness with nothing to recommend it besides three wooden posts arranged in a line and an old memorial to Konoha ninjas fallen in the line of service) and challenged Kakashi straight up. Kakashi pulled out Come Come Paradise (one of Juriya’s books) and began reading it while largely mocking the boy’s attacks (even going so far as to use Kancho… a weird double hand ass poke thing that the Japanese and Koreans like doing… though the Koreans call it ddong chim… on him.)

Give Naruto credit, he did go all out, but eventually ended up hanging by his ankle from a tree. Probably some kind of tarot significance there, though he’s clearly the Fool, not the Hanged Man. It’s not that he’s inept. That kind of thing reflects more on his teachers than him, I fear. The education system in this village is honestly pathetic… but the same can be said for the entire world and I, for one, have little desire to improve it. Creating a system that turns out more effective killing machines isn’t my idea of fun, and I doubt anyone would listen to me if I tried to reform the education system to prioritize teamwork and mental health. I doubt they’d have listened to a saint, but certainly not to the Demon Princess.

Once Naruto was more or less out of the running, Sasuke thought he saw an opening and rushed forward to attack. He did better, actually forcing Kakashi-Sensei to take him semi-seriously and pulling off a firebreath jutsu, but in the end, he was no match for superior training, tactics, and experience. Which was, of course, the point.

While the Kakashi-Sasuke match was going on, I considered following the script and falling for the genjutsu trap Kakashi had set up to snare me, the one that featured an illusion of Sasuke, riddled with kunai and shuriken, bleeding, begging me for help… but I mean, come on. That scene had pissed me off no end reading the manga for the first time. No way was I going to be the guuuurl who passes out and doesn’t even fucking get a fight scene. Not a chance in hell.

Instead, I dropped out the tree at roughly the appointed time and confronted the illusion, saying “Oh. nooo… Sasuke, what happened…” in the loudest, most sarcastic tone I could manage. “Did you get a paper cut from Sensei’s unsigned copy of Come Come Paradise? The one that’s not even the limited edition with the author interview at the back? I wonder if Kakashi knows that Akane has been seeing Yume behind Satsuma’s back?”

From the other side of the trees that were now blocking my sight of the ‘battle’, I heard Kakashi-Sensei yell, “Hey! No Spoilers!” and Sasuke snap, “REALLY!?” I just chuckled and waited until it was my turn.

Once Sasuke had been buried up to his neck in the ground thanks to Kakashi’s Inner Decapitation Earth Release Technique, and Naruto had been captured by Kakashi for trying to steal the lunches, I emerged from the treeline and sat on Sasuke’s head. “Having a hard time there, killer?” I teased.

“Get off me! There’s not much time left until lunch! I’m going again!” he snapped as he wormed his way out of the ground.

“This is pointless, you know,” I commented.

“No, it’s not,” he growled, “I already touched the bell once; next time I’ll definitely get one.”

“Wow… you really are incredible Sasuke-Kun,” I said, mirroring the canon, but using a far less flattering tone. He just glared at me, I smirked back, but waved him off towards where Kakashi was tying Naruto to one of the three posts.

“I told you,” Sasuke snarled, “I cannot… will not be sent back to the Academy. I have to be the one to kill him. Only I… the crying…” his back stiffened as he relived the trauma that no one in this fucking village had bothered to get him therapy for over the last four years.

“I know,” I said sympathetically, “But this is the wrong way-”

“It’s my WAY!” he roared, then flinched as the alarm rang. His shoulders clenched and he balled his fists and groaned, “Damn! Wasted too much time.”

Kakashi had us gather around the posts to say his piece. “There’s no need for you guys to go back to the Academy,” he began.

“We passed?!” Naruto crowed, “Yaaay! We paaaasssed!”

Kakashi just looked at the blond twit for several long moments before saying, “No. You should all quit as Shinobi.”

“Before you go into all the reasons why you think that,” I said, pushing myself away from the post I’d been leaning against, “I think you should give me a go.”

“Why should I?” Sensei asked. “You didn’t even bother to come after the bells at all while the test was going on.”

“Of course I didn’t,” I replied coolly. “You’re Kakashi of the Sharingan Eye. You’re a master of anticipating attacks and countering them. You graduated the academy at age five, were elevated to chunin at age six, and have twenty years of experience on everyone in our class. You’re on the shortlist to be Hokage someday. The only way we’re getting a bell is if you let us.”

“So you’re too much a fangirl to even try?” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not an admirable trait in a-”

“Oh shut up,” I snapped. “I knew from the start what your goal was. I also know you’ve never passed a student before.”

“You do, do you?” He sounded intrigued. That last wasn’t common knowledge. “Okay, what was my goal, if you’re so smart?”

“Not smart, though I am the smartest person in this village. Informed. There’s a difference between knowing and understanding,” I cracked my neck and my knuckles. “I’ll tell you what your goal was… and then you can share that information with these two chuckleheads, but I felt it was important for you to understand something about me.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I’ll tell you after you make a serious attempt to keep the bells away from me.”

What followed was an honest to goodness fight. I didn’t go all out, but merely pushed my new form to its current physical limits. Say what you want about perks and the knowledge of ages, we were still in a twelve year old’s body, albeit a twelve year old at peak human stats, and my knowledge of ninjutsu techniques was effectively limited to Anything Goes Martial Arts and CQC. Now, that’s nothing to scoff at, and Ranma would have washed the floor with Kakashi’s stupid hairdo, but he’d have been banged up in the process. With a sword, I could probably have taken Kakashi myself, and I did deliver a couple of telling blows to the older (biologically speaking) ninja before jumping back and holding up three fingers of my left hand, the two bells between them, as I wiped the trickle of blood from my cheek with my right.

“I left a note with your goal in your pocket,” I said, “and the thing I wanted to tell you…” I tossed the bells at the boys. “I am not the third wheel. This is my god-damned story as much as it is theirs.” And with that, I dropped, lotus style, to the ground next to Naruto.

Kakashi seemed taken aback, as well he should have. A raw genin should not have been able to get the better of him, but in the heat of battle, I’d forced him to treat me as an actual threat for a second, and that tiny window had been enough for him to forget that the bells were the real prize. He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out an origami frog. On its back was written “Teamwork”. It’s important to know that that word doesn’t actually exist in japanese. Oh there are close cognates. Solidarity, unity, cooperation, collaboration… but there’s no actual japanese term for teamwork in classical japanese. Their word for the concept is Chimuwaku… a loanword from english. There’s a reason why these Ninjas have a problem with solidarity, and it boils down to the same problem that plagued Japan during the feudal era. Even the most loyal of cause-followers still was, ultimately, looking out for their own personal interests.

He chuckled. “I guess you did understand… and I’m impressed. So you pass, but the other two? They’re just punks who don’t deserve to be ninjas.”

Sasuke growled and charged Kakashi at that, screaming a wordless battle cry of frustration and rage, but the older man flattened him instantly, pinning him to the ground, one foot on the back of Sasuke’s head, the hand with which the boy had been attacking wrenched painfully behind his back.

“You really are underestimating me,” he sighed. “Why is it that the only one of you with the sense to understand why you were divided into teams to further your training is the one with the biggest problem working with others? Why is the Demon Princess the only one who understands the answer?”

“Answer?” Naruto asked. “What answer? What was the question?”

“The answer that helps you pass this test,” Sensei replied, “And no fair looking at miss smarty-pants for a hint.”

“Ah! Damn it! What’s the Answer Already!?” Naruto bellowed.

“It’s Teamwork,” was the reply. “Working together, the three… well, the two of you might have gotten the bells.”

Since someone had to say it, Naruto stole my line (not that I was going to be the audience proxy this time.) “But there are only two bells! Why should the three of us cooperate if one of us will fail?”

“Why indeed?,” Kakashi said. “This test is deliberately designed to make you fight amongst yourselves… so at least you didn’t do that. I’ll give you credit for not actually coming to blows. The purpose is to see whether you can set aside your own personal interest and successfully work together. Sakura, you were more concerned with showing off… though you did that quite well, than actually teaming up. Naruto, you were just running around by yourself. And Sasuke!! You simply assumed the others would get in your way and tried to do everything yourself. Superior individual ability is important in our line of work… but it doesn’t matter a hill of nato if you’ve got all the talent in the world if you can’t work with others to achieve a greater goal. Individuals who can’t set aside their own ambitions put everyone else in danger; your comrades, your family, our village. Being a ninja is all about risking your life in the pursuit of a greater goal; it’s important to be able to trust those you work with to have your back.”

He rose then, unaware that only Naruto was really listening to his words, that they were bouncing off Sasuke’s impenetrable wall of loathing for everyone and everything… including himself. Survivor’s guilt is a hell of a thing, especially when combined with murderous rage and abandonment issues. “Look at the names carved upon this stone,” Kakashi said, patting the memorial. “These are ninjas recognized as heroes of the village.”

Naruto, missing the point completely, immediately proclaimed that his name would be on that stone someday.

“Idiot,” I said quietly. “They’re not the kind of heroes you want to join.” My voice carried far more weight of memory, much of it bad, than any twelve year old could possibly encompass, but Naruto was oblivious and Kakashi too caught in his own memories to notice.

“What?” He said, looking back and forth between me and Kakashi. “What kind are they then?”

“They’re the ones who died in the line of duty,” Kakashi said softly, no heat and loads of regret in his tone. “This is a memorial… my best friend’s name is carved here… I’ll give you one more chance… after lunch. But this time, I’ll make it even tougher to get the bells.” He held them up from where he’d managed to retrieve them from the duo without either of them noticing. “Sasuke, if you want to give it a go, you can eat your lunch now… but don’t give any to Naruto.”

“Eh?” the idiot said.

“It’s punishment for trying to steal the food. Anyone who gives him any food fails immediately. Even you Sakura,” Kakashi instructed. “I’m the law here. Got it?” and with that he vanished without even a puff of smoke to hide his passage. Dude is fast, I’ll give him that.

“Heh! Shows him!” Naruto chuckled. “I don’t need any food! I’m fine!” his stomach rumbled loudly at that moment. Excellent timing.”

Sasuke tucked into his box, and I did likewise, waiting for angst boy to do the right thing. I’d give him this moment, since I’d already been showing off, and to be honest, I was wondering what exactly I was achieving if I proved that Sakura wasn’t useless while using my own abilities, gained over the ages that she would never have seen in the normal course of events. What will I have proven, since I gave her/myself a build that was unreal, more frontloaded with paths to success than even the most broken of shounen protagonists?

“Here,” Sasuke said, handing his half-eaten bento to the boy still tied to a post and unable to eat it.

At that moment, I realized… it doesn’t matter what I prove. This isn’t a fixfic, nor is it a feminist reconstruction of Naruto. I’m me, and I’m the one who’s here now, in this place and at this time. No matter what I’d said to Kakashi, this was my story, EssJay’s story. Not Naruto’s. Not Sasuke’s. Not even the original Sakura’s, and the only person I really had to prove anything to was myself. Well, and Higher. But while I had no idea what Higher was looking for, what I had to prove was that, as diminished as I was, crippled by the loss of so much of what I’d come to think of as parts of myself, that I still had what it took to be a Jumper.

With a chuckle, I cut the ropes holding Naruto to the post with the talons I’d suddenly grown, then handed him the rest of my bento as well, the talons already having retracted. Dook-Dook Fruit for the win? Yes. inanimate hemp rope… such an adversary.

Of course, Kakashi-Sensei chose that moment to bamf back into the area, grinning behind his mask. “You guys all Pass!”

“Pass?” Naruto asked. “But why?”

“You guys are the first. Everyone else just did whatever I told them.”

I snorted, “Morons.”

Kakashi gave me a look that spoke volumes. “Those who break the rules and codes of the ninja world are garbage,” he began.

“But those who don’t take care of their friends and comrades are worse than that,” I finished for him. “They’re a sickness. One that’s slowly killing the world.”

“Whoa, don’t get too dark on me,” Kakashi said. “That’s Sasuke’s job!” The boy in question snorted in derision at the snide aside. “Anyway, this ends today’s training. All of you pass. Starting tomorrow, Team Seven begins its official duties.”

Of course, our first mission was recovering the missing cat of the wife of the Lord of the Fire Nation… no, not the Avatar Fire Nation. The Naruto Fire Nation… that would be a weird crossover. Our second mission was babysitting an elder’s grandson, running some errands, and helping out with the potato harvest… or would have been but Naruto threw a hissy fit about the lameness of those D-Rank tasks, so we were given a C-Rank one… though only I knew that, technically, it should have been B-Rank… but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Next: I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 2

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Author’s Note: My deepest apologies for the rather prolonged delay between parts of this log… and indeed for the near total silence from me over these last few months. As with most of the rest of the world, I’ve been dealing in my own way with the current COVID Crisis and the societal meltdown that has been 2020. I was stranded out of the country for nearly three months and not in a good place (either physically or mentally) to write anything. Even once I got back home, the demands of real life and the stress of everything made it exceptionally hard to focus on my writing, even though I love it and love giving you stories to read. It was also complicated by the fact that I’d fallen out of practice and so getting back in the groove was a challenge. I was hoping to get more written, but I thought I’d give you a taste… and it’s a decent sized one, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Don’t worry, I have no intention of making the Naruto Log as long as Honorverse or Undertale Isekai are becoming, and I haven’t forgotten about them.

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain). And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3 Omake

GIFT OF THE MAEGI

A Solace of Manticore Omake

Previously: Fox Hunt Chapter 5

Timestamp: Winter Solstice, 1902 PD

Queen Elspeth of Jewel stretched her back until it popped and groaned. “Are you certain this is entirely necessary?” she asked her erstwhile tormentor. The queen, only four months into her reign, had spent most of the time since her disastrous coronation party visiting the major cities of her realm and speaking to the people, assuring them of her dedication to them and (of course) showing off her ‘magical’ powers.

Much of that was an attempt to distract the media and citizenry from the quiet removal of all Bellweather partisans, and to assure the people that the former regent’s plans for the nation were not supported by the royal family. Interviews and interrogations of Sophia’s people (the difference being determined by whether or not criminal charges were likely) had revealed that even as the Storting and Prime Minister had been building up the system’s defenses, the Regent and her cabal had been planning to buy Jewel’s independence by not only giving Haven free use of the junction but paying the Legislaturalists what amounted to little more than Danegeld. That the amount needed to ‘assure the liberty of Jewel’ would have reduced most of the system’s sixteen billion commoners to crushing poverty or virtual serfdom was apparently something she’d been willing to accept in the name of ‘freedom from tyranny’.

Despite what had happened, and despite the invaluable assistance of the Manticorans (or Andermani, the media and government were of differing opinion on that front) the Storting was still firmly in the neutrality camp, believing that a large enough defensive fleet would keep Havenite aggression away from the system. Elsa’s personal opinion had, unfortunately, remained just that, since her reign was, by no means secure enough to push her own favored agenda over that of her uncle and his peace at all costs followers.

Her relationship with the young Manticoran woman who’d saved her life was part of that. Too many of the hardliners saw Gillian Andros-Smythe as a Manticoran Agent at court, and many of the tradition minded old-timers (who were fine with their monarch being secretly gay) were deeply upset by Elspeth’s very public dalliance with someone who couldn’t help provide an heir the traditional way. Never mind the ease with which a child could be produced with bioengineering techniques so old they predated the diaspora by roughly a century. Never mind that marital equality was enshrined in the Jewelian Declaration of Fundamental Rights. If Elspeth wanted a mistress, that was fine… but for Goddesses’ sake, couldn’t they have a little discretion!? And a Prince Consort who didn’t have breasts?

The not even yet engaged to the Queen subject of that debate laughed, and tossed Elsa a towel. “Yes. It is. You didn’t just inherit mental powers and a kingdom. You also inherited a perfectly good set of combat augments. The fact that you seem to think throwing a punch with your fingers wrapped ‘round your thumb is appropriate shows just how shockingly lax your education has been.”

“I did that once!” Elspeth sighed, mopping her brow with a hand that felt like it weighed three times normal. Which it did. As the Yule season approached, the grand tour had wound down and the court had returned to Kronorberg, where a variable gravity exercise room had been installed in their absence. Sapphire’s 1.12 G gravity had been boosted to 1.5 G for the workout and the horrible wench had insisted that Elspeth wear a weighted bodysuit that covered everything besides her face and fingers.

The room was also swelteringly hot, which meant that the queen had to maintain concentration to keep herself chilled even as the woman who was officially just her good friend tossed her around the room as if she weighed no more than the towel did. All this was in service of making certain that, should the need arise again, Jewel’s monarch would have an ace in the hole, as it were.

“Yes, yes,” Gilly said, giving Elsa a hug from behind and pressing her cheek against that of the older woman. “You’re very good at making mistakes only once or twice… but you’ve got a lifetime of bad habits to unlearn. And you!” she glared at Anna who was getting a drink, “You’re even worse!”

“What did I do?” the Jewelian Heir demanded, looking confused. “I’ve actually landed blows on you!”

“By accident, and never ones you could capitalize on!” Gilly retorted, not letting Elsa escape. The feeling of physical contact with the cryokinetic was delicious… and not only because she was significantly cooler than the rest of the room. Both she and Anna were wearing chiller units in their exercise gear, but it could only do so much. “You’ve got great instincts, kiddo,” she said, shifting into instructor mode and ignoring the tongue the princess (who was a year older, technically, than Gilly… and a year younger legally, than Gillian Andros-Smythe) stuck out at her. “But you need to focus. Your attacks are still too haphazard, too aggressive.”

“I thought aggression was good!?” Elsa said, then gnawed playfully at Gilly’s bicep. The graceful bunching of muscles beneath the other woman’s skin was always a bit distracting, more so because they hadn’t even been together… not in a biblical sense anyway.

“Only in a very limited sense,” Gilly said. “You only want to be aggressive enough to overcome timidity. Every action you take should be deliberate, even when you’re responding reflexively.”

“That’s not possible!” Anna pouted. “Reflexive actions aren’t conscious… by definition!”

“I didn’t say conscious. I said deliberate,” Gilly said, flicking a drop of sweat across the sall at the princess. “You have to train yourself to take the appropriate action, and to not hesitate when the time for action comes… but you have to recognize when that time, that moment, has come. When do you throw a block?”

“Uh… when someone tries to punch me?” Anna said, confused.

“No. Not specific enough. First, you’re forgetting that you only can throw a block when you realize that a blow is coming. So you have to be able to read an enemy’s body language to know when they are winding up to throw that punch. If you’re good at it, like Solace is, you can probably see the blow coming almost as soon as your enemy thinks of throwing it… or even goad your enemy into throwing the punch in the first place… but for now, you’ve got to learn to recognize the moment of musculature since neither of you are empaths.”

“What’s the moment of musculature?” Elsa asked, tilting her head back to brush her lips across the edge of Gilly’s Jaw. Anna pointedly ignored her sister’s flirtations, well aware that she and Kristoff were just as bad.

“It’s the twitch that signals that a nerve has delivered a specific impulse to a muscle. The grosser the motion, the greater the twitch, and physical blows are fairly gross motions. Lots of force behind them… stop giggling, El. Not that kind of gross.” Elsa squeaked as Gilly pinched her someplace tender and Anna stifled a giggle of her own as the Manticoran raised an eyebrow at her. “But even when you recognize the moment, you’re not going to throw your block right then, right?”

Anna considered, then ahhed, “I get it. You mean that I shouldn’t block until I can do so with the least effort. Right?”

“Close. Least effort, greatest result. The specific point in time when those two lines meet is optimal. If you can block with almost no effort, but it doesn’t give you an advantage… or worse, leaves you open, it’s not a good trade off. If you can find an instant to act in which you’ll both protect yourself and gain an edge, you should act then. That’s when you want to be aggressive. You need to be willing to act in that instant, to recognize your chance and to take it.”

“Don’t forget that that lesson applies to more than combat,” said a new voice as the intercom crackled to life.

“Hi Mom,” Gilly said, releasing Elsa. “I assume you’ve come to fetch us?”

Minerva Andros-Brandyne’s chuckle filled the practice room, and she said, “This is my first chance to play mom for Christmas for more than just Gilly and Barnabie.” With Solace back in Manticore and Chanukah over, Minerva had decided to spend Yule with Gilly and the Jewelian royals. “I’ve been slaving away.”

“We’ll be right out,” Gilly called.

“Shower first!” Minerva snapped, “I don’t want you spoiling my cooking by showing up to dinner smelling like a gymnasium. Kristoff is setting the table like a nice young man and Barnabie has been told that if he snitches any of the food before we sit down to eat, he gets no dessert for a week. Also, I have armed guards stationed to watch the turkey.”

“I can’t believe your mother is making such a big deal about this,” Anna whispered to Gilly as the trio headed into the locker room to take off the heavy suits. “Don’t you have more servants than we do?”

Gilly laughed. “Only if you count the staff of all our properties. We don’t have a giant palace… well, not since Solace gave up her place on Midgard… the house in Jason Bay would fit in your courtyard. But yes, we do have a couple of chefs… okay, four of them… not counting all the ones who work in our restaurants… and you guys have like fifteen, but this is a holiday meal. She wants this to be special.”

“But why?” Elsa said, “I mean… is this normal? I’ve never dated before.”

“I think part of it is because we’re all orphans,” Gilly said, tapping the Queen’s nose. “I’m adopted, Solace is adopted, Kristoff’s parents are dead, your parents are dead… even your grandma’s adopted.” The Queen-Grandmother was, of course, adopted for much the same reason that Solace and Gilly were, and was the only other member of the royal family living in the collosal castle at the heart of Kronorberg Palace. There were hundreds of rooms… and only seven royals.

“Well, I think it’s nice… but weird. Why is she doing the cooking herself?” Anna said, stepping under the hot water.

“Not entirely by herself,” Gilly pointed out, then oofed as Elsa elbowed her.

“Stop staring at my sister’s butt,” the Queen humphed.

“It’s a perfectly nice butt,” Anna giggled, giving a little shimmy. “She can stare as much as she likes.”

“Anyway, I’m pretty certain that your brother and Kristoff were helping her,” Gilly said, ignoring the teasing as she stepped under the spray herself.

====

Elsewhere in the castle, a crime was being perpetrated. “Bleek. Bleek-Bleek,” whispered one of the criminals as he pried the slats of the vent cover back just enough to allow his partner to squeeze through.

“Dooook,” agreed the other as he squirmed through the gap, wings folded tight to his slightly pudgy frame. Anyone looking at the crook would have been astounded to see so much fluff slide through such a tiny hole, but the crook made it look easy. Once out into the room beyond he flared his wings and gave a little squeak to confirm he was clear. His partner began to lower him down towards the waiting prize.

“What do you two think you’re doing?” asked Prince Felix, setting down a platter of cheddar-broccoli squares. He booped the Flygia named Sven on the nose, then looked up at the Treecat named Barnabie. The smaller of the two was dangling from a drop harness twenty centimeters over a pineapple and clove studded ham that was resting on a sideboard. The fifteen year old brother of Jewel’s monarch had just come into the dining room to deposit the last of the food. “And where are the guards?”

“We were distracted,” Ariel and Beatrice explained from the otherside of the room where they were pulling O.L.A.F. out of the tinsel and popcorn covered pine-tree in the corner. “He got stuck.”

“It was a trap,” the robot said, “Several of her majesty’s pets were trying to eat the candy hooks.”

“Canes,” Ariel said, “Candy Canes.” She was holding five of grandma’s flying weasels, all of whom were squirming to try and get away. Thankfully, all of them were smaller than Sven, who, at five kilos, was twice the size of his more domesticated male cousins. The females were even smaller… which made them all the better at causing mischief. The wild Flygia had quickly established a kind of pack-leader position for himself among the Queen-Grandmother’s flock, and if Arto or Kristoff weren’t around to discipline him, Sven usually could convince the others to assist him in whatever foolishness he was up to that day.

The Sjora in question, now the official representative of her people at the court, was curled up in front of the fireplace, covered in the limp forms of nearly two dozen bat-weasels (who were only behaving themselves because they were sleeping). She was watching a holiday drama on a dataslate and giving the rumbling purr that was her people’s version of a belly laugh. Sjora and human comedy weren’t even close to being the same thing. “A cane is a stilt-slithering aid, yes?” she asked.

“Walking,” Ariel said pedantically, “It’s called walking. Not stilt-slithering. And yes, a cane is a walking aid. But candy canes are simply called that because they are shaped like canes.”

“Negative,” Olaf said. “They are shaped like hooks. Thus, candy hooks.”

“But that doesn’t have the same wordflow,” Beatrice pointed out as Felix pulled the cord tethering Sven to the vent free and used it to leash the little pest to the post that had been set up to try and keep the wild Flygia from divebombing meals to scoop up tasty treats. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Barnabie had untethered him and literally roped him into some fuzzbrained scheme.

“It does if you speak with an Emeraldian accent,” Grandma Patrice said from her easy chair. “Hkandy ‘hook,” she said, by way of demonstrating, using the guttural Emeraldian pronunciation of C and the glottal-stop that preceded the almost swallowed H to almost make the two words have the same initial sound.

“Grandmaaaa,” Beatrice sighed. “Nothing in Emeraldian has wordflow.”

“Yes yes… now put those children down and go wash your hands,” the matriarch said, climbing to her feet as the Manticoran businesswoman returned from fetching the older girls.

“Bird’s coming out,” Kristoff called from the kitchen, manhandling the massive turkey backwards through the swinging door.

=====

“Joyous Yuletide,” Elsa said, raising a glass of spiced wine in a toast, and the rest of her family (either by birth or choice) raised their own, echoing her words. “To those we love, be they present in flesh or merely in spirit. On this, the symbolic longest night, we come together to celebrate all that we have and honor those who came before. Times may have been tough, but we’ve survived another trip around the sun… and for that, we are profoundly grateful.”

“Hear, hear,” said Minerva from the far end of the table. “Now, everyone dig in… yes, even you, you little beast,” she said, grinning at the ‘cat in the highchair.

Barnabie bleeked sadly and shook his head. Everyone looked at him in stunned silence.

“B? You okay?” Gilly asked, ruffling his ears.

He twisted in his chair, bleeking and pointing with a true-hand and a hand-foot at where Sven was perched atop the post, watching them.

“You’re not going to eat unless we invite your friend over?” she guessed.

“Bleek!” Barnabie insisted, pointing more and leaning over so much that his highchair nearly toppled over.

“Mom?” Gilly asked, and everyone looked to Minerva.

“Only if the little monster agrees to behave himself… and that means only eating off his own plate and not scampering all over the table,” the industrialist said in her boardroom voice.

“We can shorten his teather and hook it to the back of Barnabie’s chair,” Felix suggested. “Then they can sit together and Sven won’t be on the table at all.”

And so it was done. The family ate and ate and ate until everyone, human, sjora, flygia, and treecat, were stuffed. There were, of course, plenty of leftovers for midnight snacks and lunch the next day… that was the best part, as everyone knows. One by one the dishes were carried into the kitchen where the household robots (who wouldn’t have known what to do with the night off if it had been offered) would pack up the rest of the food and clean the dishes, and everyone retired to the sitting area, wrapping themselves in blankets and each other’s arms, and accepting mugs of hot (and lightly spiked) cocoa (except Felix, who prefered eggnog), and they sat, listening to gentle strains of holiday music written more than two thousand years earlier on the only inhabited planet in human space where this truly was the longest night of the year (baring the quirk of timing that meant that Beta Trianguli Secundus just happened to line up this year).

As the humans fell asleep one by one, a small furry face rolled a small bronze sphere across the rug until it bumped up against the semi-comatose bulk of a larger furry creature. Barnabie opened his eye and regarded the bell, then bleeked softly and rolled onto his paws. Stealthily, he ooched his bulk under one of the divans, then (after a moment) slid back out, clutching a vacuum sealed container. Being ever so careful to open it silently, he reached inside and withdrew a slender chunk of brownness, then sealed it back up and slid the container back into its hiding spot. Picking up the bauble, he flumped down in front of Sven and offered the Flygia one of his prized pieces of rabbit jerky.

Silently, Sven sniffed at it, whiskers fluttering, then he chittered quietly and took it in his forepaws. Gnawing on the meat, he curled up against his friend and soon, the only sound in the room was the gentle snoring of Kristoff and the crackling of the fire.

Next: Cat and Mouse

Author’s Note: Thank you all for reading this. You’ve given me the best gift a writer can get (aside from, you know, a publishing contract and a five movie deal) and I just want you to know that this story literally would not exist without you. I appreciate you all and hope you’ve had a wonderful year. If you haven’t, I’m sorry, and hope that next year will be better, for all of us. From Me, EssJay, Solace, Gilly, and all the rest, from Barnabie and Sven to my real life ferrets who are sleeping the sleep of the truly naughty but utterly clueless… Happy Holidays, Chappy Chanukah, Joyous Yuletide, Sweet Solstice, Merry Christmas, and Kickin Kwanzaa. All the best, SJ-Chan.