It was amidst chaos and noise – weak, muffled, but noise nonetheless – that she regained consciousness. Her last memory was of a hospital bed with a stiff mattress and abrasive blanket, never enough to keep her warm, as well as a high-pitched, never ending sound, both dissolving slowly into a mild, soft obscurity. Her last surge of consciousness before that still soaked her distressed soul, a numbing mix of regrets and despair. She hadn’t done anything really bad during her life, but nothing really good was born from her hands either. She had been one of these bland, countless souls that wandered through life without purpose or will, without hope or radiance.
And she regretted it. She regretted it so much… She hadn’t left anyone thinking about her, wouldn’t stay in anyone’s memory. In that respect at least she was unusual, but what a sad irregularity it was. She knew that, within a few years, she would only be a name on a damaged tombstone, surrounded by others that were covered in flowers and love.
She died alone, as she knew she would, in a little hospital bedroom reserved for dying patients – of course, they never used such words here. Her only friends had been a laptop, loyal to the end, and an e-reader she would have liked to use more often. They would probably be seized by the government to try to pay her hospital bill, since she had no parent, nor child or lover. She didn’t know and couldn’t bring herself to care. But still, it hurt, in an ethereal way.
At the very last moment before closing her eyes, that blurred and tired moment engraved in her mind forever, she had used her last conscious thought to beg for another chance. She had never believed in God or other deities . Wars of faith had always seemed so vain to her. And yet there she was, pleading for something she didn’t quite understand, to an unknown and all-powerful entity. And yet, there she was, her wish granted.
She didn’t understand what was happening around her, the noises still so muffled that they mingled together in her ears, an agitation that she felt only because it made the air move around her body. She couldn’t see, and her sense of smell was all messed up as well.
The hands were the first thing she recognised – or rather their touch on her, their warm skin, their calluses smothered by time, and their size… their unnerving enormous size, the way they picked her up like she weighed nothing and had become minuscule. Startled, she opened her mouth to speak, but only a long, long cry escaped her lips. She could only stop to breathe, and then cry some more.
And then the hands placed her on something soft, something warm and safe and right. The feeling was so striking it appeased the cries ringing in and out of her. The same instinct that had made her scream now made her let out a different noise , an animal keening sound full of satisfaction. One of her legs twitched, and then…
Sleep, at last, came to her like a blessing, as if she had just run an impossible marathon.
It took her a stupidly long time – months – to understand what had happened to her. She’d never thought it was possible. For her, reincarnation was just fiction. But wasn’t it what she had begged for, in a way? Wasn’t this a sign that this higher entity, whatever they were, had heard her last and only prayer, and had decided to give her another chance? One had to be careful while wishing something: sometimes, you got exactly what you had asked for, but in a way you hadn’t quite foreseen. There was always a pitfall.
And, for sure, she had not foreseen reincarnation.
She appeared to have all her previous memories, a fact which came with its own inconveniences. The worst of them was certainly boredom. She was almost certain that babies, normal babies at least, didn’t know boredom. They didn’t know much at all, in fact . For her, boredom was a pain. She slept a whole lot, sure, but she still spent way too much time lying or half-sitting depending on her parent’s will, staring at a world still too blurry to be seen by her infant eyes. Her meals started and ended, each one similar to the one before, always right at the time she started to feel hungry. That probably meant she was well cared for. She hoped so, anyway.
Still, boredom couldn’t explain the feeling that had started to haunt her a few days after her birth. It felt like something was swarming under her skin relentlessly, pinching, tugging and tingling to no end. It would have driven her crazy if she hadn’t quickly realised that focusing on her previous life’s memories could help her manage and ignore the feeling. In a way, she had to direct all her thoughts on her memories and on filing them in a space she had started to create inside her mind, motivated by ennui and the terrible desire to flee that excruciating feeling eating under her skin.
Her mind, in a few months, had become a vast library, each memory a leather-bound book with a relevant title, all filed with loving care in shelves, then rows for a precise subject; the rows themselves were put together in sections by discipline, and for each very large theme – languages, fiction, sciences, personal life and such – she had built a floor. The tower climbed high in the fog of her own soul, already designed to welcome all the new themes that would overlook her life to come.
She had already possessed a wonderful memory in her previous life, able to stick to the tiniest details and never quite forgetting anything. She remembered being envied for it, as if being able to forget wasn’t an awesome advantage when someone tried to build meaningful relationships. She couldn’t forget when she had been hurt. The resentment, anger and sadness laid festering in her mind, unable to leave. Each of the pardons she had given had been lies and, after some time, people realised it. She wasn’t good at putting something behind her – or leaving it there.
Now at last it was useful. When the mysterious itch was too strong, since she couldn’t make it go away, she scavenged deep in her Library for memories she hadn’t re-lived for a long time. Some things weren’t unpleasant, even in her flavourless life. She stayed there until sleep found her, telling herself the beginning of a novel she had once read, or re-seeing a beloved movie, like a lullaby. It worked, to a point, but her skin was still haunted by this faint and irritating disruption. Her parents seemingly didn’t notice.
She had quickly left behind the weak and muffled hearing she had inherited by being born again. Sounds were sharp and clear now, and she was under the impression that her perceptions evolved sometimes, as if something in her brain had clicked. First, she had recognised her mother’s voice; she was the one talking to her most often, after all, even if the language was unknown to her at first. Her voice was soft, warm, emotions clearly displayed for her to hear despite the meaning of her words escaping her. Then it was her father and his deep voice, striking in spite of its rarity. Her instinct told her they were her parents, and it was confirmed when she started understanding the meaning behind their words.
She didn’t speak Japanese, but she had been very interested in manga and other Japanese media, which had helped her pick up some basic vocabulary. She had always wanted to learn this language, in her previous life, but had lacked will and focus, all alone in her hospital room. To whom would she have spoken, and about what, anyway? Maybe she had been called back to life in this family to be able to do so. Fortunately, her exposure to the japanese language in her previous life through anime had allowed her to learn some basic words and she quickly sought her Library to refresh them in her mind.
A few weeks after getting back her hearing, she understood her name, Hitomi. She didn’t know what it meant but remembered that, in the Japanese culture, parents chose the meaning of a name very carefully. She couldn’t wait to see it, to learn it. Would it be something pretty, something that would show her parents’ love for her even before she was born? She couldn’t help but hope it would.
After a few months in existence, Hitomi’s sight cleared enough that she could see her surroundings. She understood, then. She understood, like a punch in the gut, in what kind of deep shit she was. The higher entity was probably cackling like crazy right now. Sending her to a world where civilians were acceptable casualties and ninjas, the only ones to possess true power beside the Daimyō, could literally kill with a stare… That had to be a terrific joke.
Oh, how she had loved this manga. She had devoured it from the first to the last page, e-book copies instead of paper when she couldn’t have a lot of books to her name, after going to the hospital to one day die there. Naruto had been one of those stories to offer her little bubbles of oxygen, of happiness, to help her sleep at night, a smile on her lips even after she had truly understood that no one would ever come and see her, doctors and nurses excepted. The staff had welcomed her whim with an indulgent smile, and she had invested a lot of her voracious, starving feelings in its paper characters and ink voices. Yes, she had loved Naruto, as a manga.
But having to live in this world? That was a disaster. When Hitomi saw the insignia on her dad’s forehead protector, the itch under her skin became fire and she started to scream, beyond breath or thought, so loud and long a taste of blood, unforgettable, bloomed in her throat. She heard her mother’s voice over her screams, the woman distressed and powerless to sooth her. She could only take her shivering body to the hospital, her screams gathering the on-duty ninjas who only gave way to more screams and fire inside her as the feeling grew, absolute and never-ending. Finally, she lost consciousness, exhausted by the sheer intensity of it.
Not a moment later, she shot through her Library, finding the floor and row where she had put everything she knew about Naruto. She extracted it from its place and put it in a new floor that became the main one. She renamed the row “canon knowledge” and started consulting every memory stocked there, so they would be as fresh as they could.
When Hitomi woke up, she had the seed of a plan. Her mother’s hand was on her forehead; the woman seemed so worried for her little girl. She was a beautiful woman, tall and slender, with black curly hair falling to the small of her back and stunning red eyes. Hitomi had never noticed the colour before she was able to see beyond the neonate blur. She only knew one woman with such eyes in this world. Kurenai Yūhi was her mother, which posed a problem – because Asuma Sarutobi was definitely not her father.
He didn’t smoke, for a start, and didn’t look like the character Hitomi knew from her previous life. She had only seen her face clearly once, before blacking out, but she knew he couldn’t be Asuma. Kurenai looked strikingly like her ink-and-paper counterpart. Her voice was different from the one she had seen in the few anime episodes she had watched, as was her body language, but the basics were there.
“Boys!” she called. “She’s awake. You can come in, rather than pacing up and down the corridor and scaring the nurses half to death.”
Hitomi couldn’t stop the happy babble coming from her mouth in answer. Okay, she really needed to start talking, and fast. At least now she understood most of the words she heard. Somehow, her gut told her learning to write wouldn’t be such a piece of cake. Perfect memory didn’t apply to muscles.
When her father came in, a man looking very much like him in tow, Hitomi forgot how to breathe. Because she knew that other man. Tall and slender, his gait carefully relaxed, he wore his black hair in a short, spiky ponytail. His neat goatee accentuated his sharp features, as did the two scars barring his face. Over his Jōnin vest, he wore a deer coat she would have identified at the first glance.
Her father looked like a brother to Shikaku Nara. A brother. Shit. Shikaku Nara, tactical genius without peers in Konohagakure and probably in the whole fucking world, was her uncle . She was in the deepest shit and it looked to her like each new discovery she made about her new life just kept digging in the shithole. Soon someone was going to tell her that Morino Fucking Ibiki would be her nanny for the night, and she wouldn’t even bat an eye, because she would already be in such a mound of shit that even that couldn’t make it worse.
She slapped her mind-self, already halfway in her Library. She certainly didn’t need to add panic attacks to the never-ending list of her problems, now, did she? She couldn’t tell if she would be fine, if it was for the best, but she wasn’t defenceless. She knew things people didn’t. Okay, she couldn’t throw lightning bolts or fireballs at will like some shinobi she knew about, but she had weapons. Knowledge was power, after all.