Disclaimer: I still don't own Naruto or any of the people/places found in his home world.

Author's Note: Um, hi guys? No, I'm not dead. I'm still lurking around, buried mostly under schoolwork. I had planned on getting ahead on chapters and back into the flow of things over the summer, but then I had a fight with a cheese grater and lost . . . took my right hand out of commission for a good month. After that I had an internship and was pretty busy ever since. I kept telling myself I needed to work on this but was too exhausted mentally to do it justice. Since there's a big battle coming up (spoiler?), too, I wanted to get several of those chapters (if not all of them) written before I posted any of them, since I didn't want to contradict myself or have to go back and make changes in already-uploaded chapters. Then there was the fact that I was taking a Fiction Writing course in which I had to write a number of short stories over the semester so had little other writing time for Fangrlz... Excuses excuses, right?

I realized, then, that I still had a little more I could do before the actual fight, and I sat down in what little free time I've had lately, reread everything, and then got this chapter out. Hopefully it will tide you all over for a little while and let you know that I'm still alive! Mostly, at least. Thanks to everyone who's still reading and favoriting and all that. Seeing those messages in my inbox is part of what has driven me to get back into the groove of things. I never intended to drop this fic and I want to see it through to the end. I don't want to be one of those stories that people read and love . . . until they find out that it hasn't been updated in years and probably never will be.

So here's to a new year and hoping that everything will fall into place so Fangrlz can continue strong!

WARNING! A little more bad language near the end...

Chapter 20: Final Preparations
KAITLYN

It's all a game, avoiding failure

When true colors will bleed,

All in the name of misbehavior

And the things we don't need.

-Poets of the Fall ("Carnival Of Rust")

-o-o-o-

Gaara is in a horrible mood and he won't tell me why. It started after he went to meet with Tsunade for something. When he returned around dinnertime, he and Kankuro both were fuming. I asked only once what was wrong, and learned better after Kankuro nearly snapped my head off, telling me to mind my own business. Temari advised me after that to just keep my distance, and I have. It's painfully obvious though, that something has changed. The very air in the village is heavy with it and the civilians have begun to be evacuated into the mountain sector by sector, along with stores of food and other supplies for them to survive in there for weeks. Not only that, but I've also witnessed a stream of apparent refugees from smaller surrounding villages flocking for the safety that the walls of Konoha offer.

Other preparations have picked up, and I find myself seeking refuge from Gaara's stormy mood at the training grounds, where the other girls have been meeting when they can to prepare for the worst. I usually keep to the sidelines and watch, only stepping in to practice my deflecting winds. I already know that it's only a matter of time before Gaara shuffles me off to join the non-combatants within the mountain. I'm actually surprised that he hasn't yet.

When I enter our usual meeting place, Jowan glances in my direction. With a smile, she lowers her stone shield back into the ground. "Hey, Kaitlyn! Any news on the Gaara front?"

Her call draws Sam's attention from where she's sitting in the middle of a circle of what appear to be small campfires. "No. He's still in a tizzy, though it's not nearly as bad as it has been. At least his sand has settled some." I heave a sigh and drop down to sit next to Ashley. She glances up from the training dummy she's borrowing from the hospital and offers an encouraging smile. "I wish he'd tell me what's wrong."

"It's probably a Kage thing." Ashley pats my shoulder and returns to the dummy, hands pulsing a healthy green. "You shouldn't worry too much."

I frown and wrap my arms around my knees. "Why not? We're going to war and you're telling me not to worry? If something's got Gaara visibly upset, then it's something big - something to worry about."

"She has a point," Sam calls over. She draws a deep breath and the flames around her shrink. I watch curiously as, when her breath flows from her mouth, the fires spring up higher as if mimicking her motion. "Gaara's not one to freak out about nothing."

Jowan trots over. "If we're supposed to know, they'll tell us."

I rest my chin on my knees. "Yeah, but I hate waiting - not knowing. It sucks."

Sam pops to her feet, the fires sparking about her. "Here here. They better not try to shut us all up when things start going down, too. I want to bust some heads."

My breath catches in my throat and I stare at her in shock. "You what? You-you really want to fight? But Sam-"

"It's better than sitting and doing nothing." She steps out of the ring of fire, and the flames settle back down into their respective pits. "I want to help. I mean, Ashley's going to be working in the hospital, right? Why can't we do something, too?"

I glance from her to Jowan, who's crossed her arms over her chest and is nodded in agreement. "You two - I don't believe this." I push myself to my feet and throw my hands out to the sides. "We're not soldiers! We can't fight! We can't - can't kill."

"That's not going to stop them from killing you." With a gasp, I whirl to find Kakashi emerging from the shadows along the edge of the training grounds. His black eye sweeps over us, settling briefly on Ashley before focusing back on me. "Whether you know how to fight or not - be you shinobi or civilian - the enemy, if given the chance, will end your life. Jowan and Sam have as much a right to fight - to defend themselves and those they care about - as anyone. The same goes for you."

I flinch and bow my head. "I know, but . . . I just can't do it."

He puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes slightly. "That is your choice. This is theirs. No one blames any of you for them." His hand drops away. "Lady Tsunade wishes to speak with the four of you. I'm here to escort you to meet with her."

"To make sure we're late?" Jowan teases as she wraps an arm around my shoulders.

Kakashi chuckles and offers a hand to help Ashley to her feet. "Something like that."

Surprisingly, when he leads us away, we don't head toward the village proper - the Hokage's Tower. Instead, Kakashi seems to be following a path that leads between training areas. Unease settles in my stomach. Why would Tsunade want us to meet her at a training field? Were we going to be tested or something? I can't bring myself to focus on the girls' chatter around me, my mind consumed by the unknown prospects waiting for us at our unspecified destination.

Soon, I start to make out the sound of clashing steel from ahead of us. Jowan pauses mid-sentence - having been telling Sam about her interactions with Jiraiya over the past week - and tilts her head to one side. "What's that?"

Sam frowns thoughtfully and states the obvious, "Sounds like a fight."

A not-so-faint explosion makes me start and cast a nervous glance in Kakashi's direction. The silver-haired jounin continues walking, unbothered. "It's just a spar - nothing to be worried about."

I follow obediently along with the other girls, admittedly curious despite my fear. If we were going toward this spar - if it was our destination and Tsunade was there watching - then who could be sparring? Who could be so important that Tsunade had - or wanted - to oversee them? If they were sparring, and Tsunade had summoned us, then would she want the rest of us to do the same?

As the trees begin to thin, I spot Karin seated against a trunk and watching something - the fight, most likely - with a decidedly unhappy frown. If she's here, then maybe it's Suigetsu? Maybe Tsunade is testing their skills? No. I quickly spot the shark-water-boy leaning against Zabuza's sword, just past Karin, with a wide and almost hungry grin on his face as he watches the clash of arms as well. Fire blooms beyond him, and I shift closer to see, managing to catch sight of a flash of raven hair. Ah. Sasuke. He was probably fighting a jounin or something to test his strength and prove his loyalty to some extent.

With an annoyed scowl, the Uchiha darts into the cloud of smoke his fire blast left behind and the clearing is once more filled with the sounds of battle. I find myself wishing I could see through the dust and smoke to witness what's happening. It certainly sounds epic.

It takes me a moment to realize I've been left behind. I quickly scurry after Kakashi and the other girls to join Tsunade, Jiraiya, Gaara, and - oddly enough - Ibiki. I give the last a bright smile and wave, and he grins back before returning his attention to the fight. My own gaze shifts as well, moving to focus on Gaara. I do not make any attempt to speak with him, though, deciding against that course of action as soon as I spotted the sour look on his face as he, too, appears consumed by the unseen spar.

I try not to let the fact that he didn't seem to notice me sting too much.

After glancing over us, Tsunade clears her throat, claps her hands, and calls, "Alright. That's enough."

The sounds cease and the dust slowly settles to reveal the two combatants - Sasuke and a female figure whose golden blonde hair was pulled up into a high tail to stay out of her -

I draw a sharp breath. "Katie!"

Gasps of surprise sound from the other girls as Katie straightens from her defensive crouch and lowers the slightly curved short sword that - oddly enough - she is holding in a reverse grip. She offers us a tentative smile and lifts her free left hand in greeting. "Hey . . ."

In less time than it takes to blink an eye, I have her in a bear hug, burying my face in her shoulder. "You're alive!"

She stumbles back slightly at the force of my near-glomp. "Whoa! Careful! Careful! I'm holding a rather sharp sword here, Kait." Despite those words, I don't let her go and she slowly relaxes in my arms, moving her left to pat my back while her right held the short sword well away from me. "Can I at least put the sword away before you suffocate me or I accidentally impale us, please?"

I giggle and release her. "Okay." As soon as the short sword snicks into the sheath strapped horizontally across the small of her back, I latch on to Katie again. This time, she gives an almost helpless laugh and returns the hug. I have to eventually let go so that the other girls can have their turn, but I stay close, bouncing between feet as I wait for them to finish so I can reclaim her neck.

That's probably the only reason why I heard Sam all but growl in Katie's ear, "We need to talk." When she pulls away, Katie's smile is thinner - tighter - strained - and some of my enthusiasm leaks away.

Tsunade clears her throat. "The evacuation of the civilians both in and around the city is almost complete. Soon everyone will be safe within the mountain. All that remains is the matter of what to do with you five. If you have any thoughts, voice them now. We will keep your wishes in mind when we make our decisions."

"I think I can speak for all of us when I say we want to help," Jowan says, lifting her chin.

Sam glances at me. "Well, almost all of us."

The Hokage inclines her head, her eyes shifting to Gaara and then back to us. "You all have definitely shown a lot of improvement and promise as shinobi. We need all the help we can get, but those of you who wish to fight will not be on the front lines. Understand, you are - in a way - our trump cards. Though your knowledge of events is not valid any longer, your knowledge of people can still be used. We cannot afford to lose you to the enemy." She pauses. "Or death."

I shudder and hug myself, and Katie lifts a hand to rub between my shoulder blades. When I look her way, she gives a comforting smile. I swallow. "I don't want to fight." Everyone's attention shifts to me. "I really don't. I don't like violence or - or death a-and I know it's kind of weak and lame and all that, but I just can't do it. I'm sorry."

Tsunade shakes her head. "That's alright, Kaitlyn. You don't have to fight. Gaara has already insisted that you be evacuated with the rest of the civilians. You can defend yourself should the need arise, but you do not have to actively fight."

I shift closer to Katie. "Thank you."

"As for the rest of you . . . Ashley, you've shown aptitude with healing, so I want you to be with the stationary medical team at the hospital. Sam and Jowan, you two will be stationed with the back guard, keeping an eye out for anyone that might slip through our defenses and serving as runners, even, should one of the lines need assistance from the others." Tsunade's expression turns slightly guarded when she focuses on Katie. "As for you . . . I will be entrusting you with the safety of the civilians. The genin and a handful of low-leven chuunin will be guarding the few entrances to the bunker since they are not of a level that can handle full-out combat and we are hoping they do not even have to see combat. We will not allow anyone to reach that far into the village, but should it happen, we need someone level-headed and capable of handling themselves. Your spar here with Sasuke proved that of you, so despite everything, I am trusting you with this task. Do not fail me."

What does that mean? I look to Katie, concerned and confused, as she dips into a low bow. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

"You all will be outfitted accordingly. Do what you need to for the rest of the day, but Kaitlyn, you must be in the bunker by sundown."

I nod, eyes still on Katie. I hardly notice when Tsunade and the others make their exit, leaving just us five "real world" girls. To be honest, a part of me wonders if we can call ourselves that anymore. This is as "real" to us as Earth - even more so, sometimes.

"Alright." I jump slightly at Sam's sharp tone. "Explain."

Katie glances at her, expression guarded. "Explain, wha-?"

"You know very well, what. The ring. It disappeared the same time you did. You vanished, too, when Deidara and Tobi did after the fight with Sasuke. Why were you even in that area? You weren't traveling with Kumo-nin, were you?" Sam's gaze was dark and her words held a tone of accusation rather than question.

I glance at Katie, suspecting her answer but dreading it all the same. She seems to slump as she looks away. "No. I wasn't."

"Fuck, Katie. What were you thinking?" Jowan drags a hand down her face. "You could have been killed while you were with them, and you just went back? Why? You know as well as any of us that they're the bad guys."

Katie winces. "Yeah, I know. I just - I thought I could do something - anything - to help. Maybe find a way to stop all of this from happening. I thought maybe if I could figure out the why behind it all then I could find some other solution that wouldn't involve war." She takes a shaking breath. "I guess I was wrong."

Silence fell around us, awkward and tense, with Katie avoiding looking at any of us. I don't think I've ever seen her look so . . . defeated. Back home, even if things were bad, she always seemed to have this confidence about her. Now, though, she just looks so small and broken and I can't bring myself to be angry at her.

Ashley's voice breaks the tension. "What did they do to you?"

We all look at Katie, but she doesn't answer for some time. Finally, when Sam shifts and takes an impatient breath to speak, Katie breathes a single word. It's barely loud enough for me to hear but clear enough to recognized and send a chill down my spine. "Tsukiyomi."

There's a collective intake of breath and no one has a comeback for that. Shock and horror settles on my chest, and though I want to hug her tight, my arms feel like lead. No way . . .

"I don't - I don't remember everything, but . . . Tsunade said it was bad and Inoicihi . . ." She draws in a slow, measured breath, wrapping her arms around herself. "He had to help her bring me back. My mind was in pieces - shattered - chaotic. Whatever he did to me . . ." Katie trails off into silence once more, and after a beat, Sam growls.

"That bastard. If I see him on the battlefield, I'll -"

"No." Katie lifts her gaze to Sam, expression sharp and tone firm. "If you see him on the battlefield, you won't do anything but run as fast as your legs can carry you. This isn't a game, Sam. All of you need to see that. There are no lives. There is no re-spawn. You die and it's over."