Actions

Work Header

Something Ends, Something Begins

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

One night, as Hitomi was falling asleep after spending the day trying to learn how to speak rather than babble senselessly, a terrible feeling startled her fully awake. Since her ill spell after she had realised where she was, her voice had changed, gotten huskier and veiled because of the scar tissue around her vocal cords. The knowledge of that unique pain, of the taste of her own blood in her mouth, didn’t stop her from screaming in her crate against her mother’s bed, still empty. Wild, foul chakra burned against her skin.

She felt so much worse than she had been last time. This was not just her own chakra system trying to work; the other source stimulated hers, aggravating  and stimulating it endlessly. She screamed and screamed in the dark, terrified, unable to stop or think, even for a moment. And yet, by doing so, she would have understood. This chakra could only belong to one entity around Konohagakure, after all.

She heard someone running and, suddenly, the bedroom’s door opened, yellow light pouring in from the corridor. Hitomi, despite her terror and pain, recognised one of her neighbours, a civilian working in a Nara pharmacy who sometimes babysat her when her parents were kept away. It wasn’t the first time the teenager helped herself in their home, so Hitomi didn’t worry about it, even though she would have liked to know why her mother wasn’t there. She was starting to think again.

She’d understand later, but as Anako the neighbour picked her up and started running outside, in Konoha’s streets, she could only contemplate the devastation far away, hear the noises of dozens of men and women fighting, dying, their chakra exploding powerlessly against the titan facing them. The Kyūbi was raiding the village and she was screaming, terrified and decaying, body and mind on fire. Even her Library couldn’t help her this time.

Quickly, Anako reached the closest emergency hiding shelter with her precious, wailing bundle and, after giving their names to the sentinel, she sneaked in the narrow pass that would soon fade into the mountain. The shelter was full already, terrified civilians huddling in little groups where they could.

In the shelter, the itch from the monstrous chakra had lessened, but she could still feel it, and feel with it the chakras of all the defenders , outside. If she focused enough, she could even single out her parents from the huge energetic mess, but she refrained. She didn’t want to feel it if they died.

Somewhere between the house and the shelter, her screams had faded to tired sobs. She wasn’t the only one to cry: a civilian wearing the Uchiha fan embroidered on her clothes was soothing a sobbing infant. Everywhere Hitomi saw it, the despair that parents tried to hide so they could comfort and appease their young. They succeeded sometimes. Sometimes they did not.

Somewhere deep in Hitomi’s mind, a cold power awoke, analysing the situation. If the Kyūbi’s attack, happening not so long after the last war, could put the civilians in such a state of distress, what would it be when the canon would continue to unroll? She had, since her realisation, toyed with the idea of staying a civilian herself, protected from the danger and ordeals coming with a ninja life. But she didn’t want to feel this powerless ever again. She didn’t want her choices to be taken from her, didn’t want to wait in the dark for news of those who fought for her safety.

She had just one possibility left, then, barely safer or more reassuring: she had to follow, as soon as possible, the ninja way. She had to go to the Academy, to succeed in her studies, to become strong and then stronger. As strong as it was possible without dying, even. With that choice, she exposed herself to all the dangers she was aware of and then some, but at least she would never feel that powerless waiting in the dark again, would never be defenceless again. Danger would strike again, but she would be ready.

In the morning, the shelter’s door opened on two obviously high-ranking shinobi. Hitomi didn’t understand all the words they were using, but Anako did. The teenager stood up calmly, the baby secured in her arms, then left the shelter to go home with her. The streets were devastated, a mess of rubble and dust. Had the Kyūbi gone that far into the village’s defences? Some parts were in ruins now. Such a shame…

Hitomi’s house was still empty when Anako went in. All ninjas were probably in the hospital to treat their wounds, or in the Hokage’s office reporting their actions during the battle. Hiruzen was already back in his place. A surge of disdain went through Hitomi’s brain. She’d have to work on that, too. The child hated the silence hovering over the living room, as if life had frozen and waited for a signal to continue. She looked for her parents with anxious eyes, even though she knew they were not home. She felt it. Their chakra, which had become a reassuring strength for her, had grown cold and faint.

Her mother came home alone, far after the sun had reached its peak position in the sky. She was visibly exhausted and the skin around her eyes was red and puffy. As soon as she saw her baby, the young woman hid her face in her hands, nails still encrusted with blood and dirt, and started sobbing, prompting Hitomi to cry too. She understood, as much as she didn’t want to. Kurenai was home – Shikano wasn’t, and never would be again.

She’d always felt thorn between her infant body and her adult soul, but this time all her being cried for the father she had known less than a year and yet loved for his tenderness, his soft, deep voice, his huge hands and his laugh so lively it had made his whole body shake. She mourned with her mother the goatee that had tickled her and the smile powerful enough to light up a whole room, mourned the softening stare, the callused, patient fingers that had sculpted her toys, mourned the way he tucked her in at night and the last glance, so full of love, he always gave her mother before leaving the house for a mission. She mourned and cried until sleep, at last, fell over her.

Later, Hitomi awoke in Kurenai’s lap. Her mother was singing a soft, sorrowful lullaby, the melody a balm on the wounds left by Shikano Nara’s death. A loving father, a rightful son, a brave brother. The lullaby hadn’t awakened her, though. It was the knock at the door.

“Come in, Father,” Kurenai said.

This took Hitomi by surprise. She didn’t know her grandfather was still alive. He had never been in the manga, so she had supposed he was dead, like most shinobi of his generation, but there he was. She stared at him intently, scrutinizing the shoulder-long black hair under his forehead protector, worn as a bandana. His eyes were the Yūhi’s, red with an inner circle of deeper red, and he had scars all over his hands and throat. His face, though, only bore the marks of age and a hard shinobi life.

“I heard about Shikano. I’m so sorry.”

“You should have let me help him!” Kurenai spat. “It’s your fault if none of my unit was on the frontline!”

“And what would have happened, then, Kurenai? What if the Nine Tails had killed you both? Did you think about what your daughter’s life would be without you? Don’t you think there are enough orphans after this night already?”

His angry tone made Hitomi moan anxiously. Adults didn’t shout often under this roof, Kurenai made sure of it. The mourning mother’s hard and angry stare softened as it went from her father to her daughter. The tenderness in her eyes mixed with a nameless suffering and loneliness, feelings so intense and raw Hitomi couldn’t quite grasp them. Ghosts were with her now, and they would never totally leave her. “You’re right, Father,” she answered after a short silence. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have accused you.”

“I don’t blame you. It was a difficult night.”

If she had been able to, Hitomi would have let out a joyless laugh at this bitter euphemism. A difficult night, yes, for the civilians who had left the shelters and helped clean the streets of the dozens of corpses that littered them before going home; a difficult night for kids who, like her, had lost a parent or, even worse, both of them; a difficult night for those who mourned a friend, a lover, a brother, a sister; a difficult night for the Uchiha Clan, which would suffer starting from today the consequences of a greedy, paranoid Councilman’s machinations.

But she knew the real culprit behind the attack. She’d make him pay for the blood he had spilled senselessly, be it in the past, present or future. She’d make him pay by disturbing his plans every step of the way, by being the plague he could never get rid of nor identify. She’d make him pay, yes, until his sick soul devoured itself.

She didn’t have a plan yet, but it would come. Closing her eyes, she pretended to fall asleep in her mother’s warm embrace as she entered her Library. She walked deep into her mind and looked around. The shelves that didn’t concern the canon but all the other information she was learning about this new world were filling in slowly. It was hard to collect knowledge as a baby, after all.

Her determined pacing led her to the correct shelf, to the book labelled Madara . Danzō was on her list, too, but she’d worry about him later. She had always liked the old phrasing “Know your enemy” and fully intended on applying it in this situation. But to the Founders, first. She didn’t have much on them, but what she possessed was enough already to start scheming. Her plan would be void of pity or morality, as Madara surely had neither of those. Whatever else she needed, be it intel or power, she had years left ahead of her to collect it. Silently, she started reading and plotting.

When she came back to her senses, night had fallen upon the village. She was settled in the baby carrier her mother had recently adjusted to her measurements, but it was her grandfather carrying her as Kurenai was busy cooking. The smell of food awoke Hitomi’s hunger each time someone cooked. She couldn’t wait to get past her milk stage. And nappies. Urgh.

All evening, Hitomi listened quietly while the adults spoke. She learned that the Uchiha Clan was well on its way to ostracization, a situation that would probably worsen during the days to come. The village was slowly rebuilding already, thanks to the shinobi adept at Earth Style ninjutsu. The service for those who had fallen during the attack would happen in two days, and all citizens were invited, ninjas and civilians alike. They had all lost loved ones, after all.

Soon enough, it was time for her to go to bed. She hated sleeping all day. At least she wasn’t bored half to death, but she wasn’t doing anything useful either. She far preferred strolling through her beloved Library. A new section had opened, full of Japanese vocabulary and grammar rules. She spent part of the night listening to the new words she had learnt until she could repeat them in the secret of her mind, since her body couldn’t quite do it yet. When the sun came back in the sky, she felt rested, and a little bit of her pain had eased away.

Chapter Text

Until her third birthday, not much happened to Hitomi. She spent a lot of time with her mother, but also with her late father’s clan. Nara Shikaku had a son too, one year her junior, and the man often turned up in the middle of the night for advice before going home to repeat the good word to his own wife. It was fun to see him in such a state of disarray, his ponytail half hanging on his neck while trying so hard to look as dignified as he could, but Hitomi didn’t make fun of him.

He was her favourite uncle, after all, and not only because she needed him and his influence in her plan to make Danzō’s life as shitty as she possibly could. Yes, she needed to be close to him, needed him to like her, but it wasn’t the reason she loved him to bits. He was kind, quiet, far from the lazy image he hid behind. And he was so clever! He had been the one to understand she was too advanced for her age. When Nara Yoshino, his wife, babysat the little girl for Kurenai, she made sure to teach her vocabulary beyond her expected level. Hitomi adored it.

She could walk and talk now, even if the two skills were still raw and difficult. Still, a weight had been lifted from her shoulders and she felt much better. She was freer now, and yet she was safer too. She hadn’t learnt anything that would directly help her in her different schemes yet, but she collected all information preciously, without ever looking down upon any knowledge. You never knew when something would be useful, after all.

The day after Hitomi’s third birthday, Kurenai woke her up far earlier than usual. She wore a dark blue training outfit which fitted her perfectly, something the little girl had never seen her wear. When her mother helped her in similar clothes, she raised her eyebrows and waited until the kunoichi answered the unspoken question.

“There is a huge difference between civilian and clan-born children. Do you know which one?”

Hitomi nodded. “The clan-born children,” she answered in an assured voice, “are trained by their clan way before going to the Academy, while the civilian-born kids start from nothing when they decide to pick a shinobi career.”

“Exactly!” Kurenai beamed. “You may not know it yet, but you’re part of two clans, sweetheart: your father and uncle and cousin Shikamaru belong to the Nara Clan, and I’m part of the Yūhi clan, even if it is almost extinct.”

A smile appeared on Hitomi’s lips. “We begin training, then?” she pipped.

“You got it!”

Enthusiastic, Hitomi helped her mother as she got her ready then stayed still while her long, nimble hands tied her hair in the traditional Nara ponytail. Well, hers was too long to stay up in the rubber band, but she still loved to wear it. In her dark apparel, she looked like the idea most people had of a shinobi. A miniature version, but still.

The obedient young girl followed Kurenai outside. The woman stood in the centre of their garden, firmly settled on her feet. It was the beginning of November, but the air was mild in Konoha: no snow had been seen there for at least ten years, or at least it was the information Hitomi had gotten by listening to the grown-ups who had visited her mother during the last three years. Those visits were precious to Hitomi: she could use them to fill the section of her Library reserved for information about her new world, her new village.

“Let’s start, then. Copy my position, feet apart shoulder-width apart, back straight, arms along your flanks.”

Hitomi did as she was told. She knew this position well: before the hospital, she had been in a theatre club, and it was called the ‘standard position’ there. Despite that background, she realised that she had trouble taking the correct stance. Her brain remembered the instruction, but her body didn’t quite execute them. It took her three tries to get her feet correctly apart, and a full minute to stop fidgeting.

“That’s good, sweetheart,” complimented her mother. “Now, slowly extend your arms and raise them so your fingers draw a circle and join over your head, as high as you can.”

Guided by her mother’s sweet voice, Hitomi discovered what would now be her routine, every morning, before starting her day. Kurenai called the stretching exercise ‘greeting the sun’ and, indeed, it appeared while she taught it to her daughter. When they were done, Hitomi discovered with amazement that she only felt the healthy aches of a physical exercise well executed. All the pains that had haunted her previous body from childhood hadn’t followed her in her new life. She was free, at last.

After only a few weeks of that daily routine, Hitomi felt her body get better already: her young limbs were still malleable and, according to Kurenai, the more flexibility she acquired as a kid, the more she would be able to retain as an adult. Later, she could enhance her body’s abilities with chakra, but she needed a strong foundation to work with before that.

It wasn’t the only skill Kurenai had her work on. After all, she wouldn’t go back to active duty before Hitomi graduated. The little girl started learning endurance running and sprinting – both much more enjoyable now that she didn’t have to spit out her lungs after ten feet – and strength-building exercises. In the afternoon, Kurenai took her to the living room, made her sit in front of the coffee table and talked to her about the history of the Elemental Nations, about chakra, about Hidden Villages, about the Academy. She had obviously spoken with Shikaku; what she told Hitomi, she never repeated, and she made sure to interact with her rather than just teaching her.

Hitomi had never felt better. She learned so much every day, and yet it seemed to her she would always crave more, more knowledge and more new things to discover. Soon, bored by simply trying to draw what her mother taught her during their lessons, she decided to copy the kanji she saw on the spines of books in the living room. She couldn’t read them and she realised quickly that her fingers were far too clumsy to write correctly. As for strength, speed and flexibility, she just needed to work on it, so work she did.

Her daughter was almost four years old when Kurenai realised what, exactly, she was trying to do. She was trying to learn how to write all by herself; she proved then, probably without knowing it, how much Shikaku had been right about her. The young mother immediately took the matter in her own hands, so Hitomi wouldn’t adopt bad habits concerning the order of the strokes, and the girl learned to write, exactly as she had wanted.

It took her a few weeks to master the two kana syllabaries. Her memory was as good as ever, but her strokes lacked the natural elegance one could only achieve through practice. Then she was able to learn kanji. She already knew some, like the one she would see one day on Gaara’s forehead, but she had to learn how to form them, the order you were supposed to use to trace the strokes. It amused her and helped her relax, so she practiced an hour every night before going to bed.

With all those new skills, Hitomi gained in independence, too. With her strange chakra sickness, she had only been authorised to meet Shikamaru from amongst the clan children. Kurenai decided then that she was ready for others: Akimichi Chōji first, then Yamanaka Ino. She could only see them on the Nara lands, the only place in the village where the population density was low enough for her senses. She had to admit she liked the quiet Chōji a bit better, but she got along well with Ino too. One day, they would be part of Shikamaru’s team. Her cousin looked up to her, and so his two best friends imitated him. It felt good, to lead them through games and adventures in their part of the land. And, of course, Shikamaru was her favourite. Family always came first.

One evening, he knocked on her door overly excited, cradling a wooden box against his chest as if it were a treasure. His father was at the corner of the street and walked slowly, his gait flexible and lazy. Most often, he evoked a feline to Hitomi, indolent but dangerous. Anyway, Shikamaru’s excitement was of more interest for the girl, since she rarely saw her cousin in such a state. Without waiting for the adult, she let him in. Immediately, he grabbed her arm and dragged her to the other door, which opened to the garden, mumbling he had something to show her.

He didn’t go to the grass, settling on the patio Shikano had built shortly before Hitomi was born. Behind the wall that separated the garden for the rest of the land, the sun was slowly ending his run across the sky. Its light stained the clouds with pink and orange shades. For a few seconds, Hitomi lost herself in that silent, colourful infinity, finding energy and calm in it.

“Come on!” Shikamaru called, making her focus on him again. “Sit in front of me.” As she obeyed, he set up something that looked like a chessboard without its black and white colours between them. Hitomi knew what it was: so, Shikaku had taught the rules of shōgi to his son…

“Your father talks about that game sometimes, he plays with the ANBU captains! Do you know how to play?”

“Yes, and I’ll show you, Hitomi-chan. My dad is a difficult opponent, I need someone closer to my level to progress.”

She nodded and, just like that, it was settled. He taught her the set-up rules as he put the pieces on the board, then the game’s rules through their first game. It was for that kind of intimate moments that Hitomi loved her cousin to bits. He never displayed boredom when she wanted to talk about something too complicated for their age and offered invaluable little beads of knowledge to add to her collection.

She lost her three first games. No doubt Shikamaru had already made progress by playing against his father. Like her, he soaked in other people’s knowledge, often without their notice. The fourth game was much, much longer. The sun had long settled under the horizon, and yet the outcome was still unclear. Before every single move, they both took the time to think and analyse the situation. Somewhere during the middlegame, Kurenai brought them blankets and hot cocoa, but they didn’t let the board out of their sight, even to drink.

Finally, Hitomi won by the skin of her teeth. She felt such euphoria that she let out a victorious cry and leaped to her feet, a surge of energy coursing through her body. Shikamaru looked at her proudly, a deeply satisfied smile on his thin lips. He had found his opponent.

“We shouldn’t start a new game now. You still have to do your writing, right?”

“I know a lot of basic vocabulary now, so I focus more on reading. But you’re right. Mom was already nice to let me out so late.”

The two adults could be seen through the patio door, sitting on the couch and observing them while talking. They looked relaxed, content. With a happy sigh, Hitomi opened the door and went through it, her mug in hand and the blanket worn as a cape over her shoulders.

“Well, well,” Shikaku drawled with a tender smile, “didn’t take you too long to get it, kitty! A few years of training and maybe you and Shikamaru will manage to kick my ass.”

The girl answered that affirmation by snickering cheekily. She and Shikamaru were geniuses, yes, but so was Shikaku, and he had dozens of years of experience on them, no matter the field. They would probably never be his equal, and especially not in his specialty, strategy. It was perfect that way, in her opinion. Shikamaru followed her inside, his board carried in his arms like a precious baby, and the evening continued under that gentle atmosphere until it was time for the two kids to go to bed. Shikaku, who’d come pick up his son in the morning, would join his wife for a well-deserved one-on-one night.

Chapter Text

On Hitomi’s fifth birthday, a man who hadn’t been seen in the village for years appeared at the doors of the Nara land. He wore the Nara ponytail, his just too long to stay up in the air. His dark grey eyes were underlined by a streak of mossy green eyeliner, giving him a dangerous, wary look. If the stories were true, these two adjectives fully applied to him. His name was on everyone’s lips, the Nara civilian amassed on each side of the street without daring to put one foot on it.

Nara Ensui. Konoha’s Strangling Shadow. The only one daring enough to pay no respect to the Hokage, or even to ignore his orders sometimes – his way of showing that Hiruzen should never have accepted the hat back. That hat should have been Shikaku’s if you asked anyone in the Nara clan. He had never wanted it, true, but he would do it if someone asked. He was younger, fitter, and he wouldn’t bend against the Council. Yes, Hitomi agreed. He’d be a better Hokage.

And she, too, looked as the strange man roamed the streets. She bore the itch from other people’s chakras better now, but this situation was her limit, and she almost never went to that part of the Nara land. If she hadn’t come to see Shikamaru, if Shikaku hadn’t thrown her a birthday party, she would have missed the return of the man that everyone, in the clan, seemed to respect so much.

“How troublesome,” Shikamaru pouted.

The young girl glanced at her cousin, surprised. “You don’t like him?”

“Don’t have any problem with him. It just sucks because I can already see Dad spending way too much time with him and I wanted him to show me how to throw shuriken.”

Hitomi nodded, understanding. Her mother had started to show her how to manipulate throwing weapons a few weeks earlier, deciding she was ready, but Shikamaru had always shown a lack of will in his preparation for the Academy. But that was it: just a show, nothing more. Shikaku always saw through his son’s game. Then again, Shikaku was the Jōnin Commander and the Nara Head. He was incredibly busy, and it was why he had planned on starting with his son close to when Hitomi, one year his senior, had started herself. He couldn’t train Shikamaru all day, every day. “Just come to my place one morning, Mom is teaching me. She won’t mind explaining stuff to you too.”

As they settled on a day for his visit, Nara Ensui faded to a mere silhouette at the end of the road. Storing away the invaluable little bits of   information she had just acquired, Hitomi wrapped an arm around her cousin’s shoulder and convinced him to come with her to the Deer Forest. They didn’t see even a single animal from the herd, but they had fun, exactly as she had intended.

The next day, someone knocked at the door while Kurenai was away grocery shopping. In any other part of the village, a child would never open to a stranger, but in the heart of the Nara land, no one feared intruders. Because she knew that full well, Hitomi opened the door and was left with her   mouth hanging open as she discovered Nara Ensui on the front step.

“I’m looking for your mom, kiddo. Is she home?”

“She’s at the marketplace, she should come back in twenty minutes. If you want, you can wait inside.” That scheme probably wasn’t her most subtle or clever. Hitomi, by welcoming the strange man into her house, hoped he would start talking and give her precious intel. On him, on the world beyond the village, anything would do.

When he accepted, she beamed at him and presented him with a pair of slippers that looked to be his size. While he switched footwear, she went through what her mother had taught her about welcoming guests and, as he settled in the living room, she brought him a tray where she had put homemade lemonade and a variety of biscuits. She was lucky everything she had needed wasn’t stored in the higher cupboards. Thanks to her merciless training regime, she had no trouble carrying the heavy weight.

“Thanks, kiddo,” Ensui said as she poured him a glass of lemonade. He had an amused smile on his lips, and probably saw right through her. Almost all Nara were geniuses, after all. Nodding with a polite smile, she sat on the ground in seiza, at the other side of the coffee table, all the while analysing the way he had settled on the couch, not quite a mess of limbs but not quite the correct, polite stance. All Nara, all the adults anyway, had that kind of quirk. It was weirdly cute – as much as that adjective applied to someone like Ensui.

“You look an awful lot like him, you know.” She stared at him, a question in her eyes, until he continued. “Shikano-kun. You look like him. I’m only a cousin, but his sensei was my shishou. I was his first ever student, so I often tagged along when he had missions with his Genin team. He was a good man.”

Most of the sadness Hitomi had felt when her father died was long gone, locked in a book in her Library. The bitterness, though, had lingered. She had just managed to tune it down enough to be able to pretend, in case she met   with Danzō or anyone close to the ploy that had caused the Kyūbi’s attack. Still, hearing his name awoke all those feelings as fresh as the first day. She couldn’t forget.

“I’m happy that I look like him, Ensui-san. I don’t hear about him much, but I feel like he was indeed a very good man. I’ll do my best to uphold his memory.”

The man’s smile grew larger and Hitomi felt like she had said exactly the thing he wanted to hear. He crouched toward her over the table, extended an arm and gently patted her head. She pretended to frown when his long fingers made a mess of her hair, then pulled away laughing.

“So, kiddo. Shikaku tells me you play shōgi. Got a board somewhere?”

She nodded and went to fetch it from her bedroom. It was a beautiful thing, ornate with kanji and lovingly veneered, a gift from her uncle for her birthday the day earlier. She had barely used it for a few games against Shikamaru, who had never lost on purpose – he knew her well and respected her enough to offer her meaningful defeats and true victories. With the board in her arms, she went back to the living room.

Her movements were almost ceremonious as she settled the board on the table and opened the two little drawers carved into the board, where the pieces were stored. Silently, she and the man set up their side then started playing, only letting the board out of sight for a rare sip of lemonade.

It came almost immediately to Hitomi that her opponent was the strongest she had ever played against, even stronger than Shikaku, and probably the only man in the world to claim that feat. She drank at the source of his knowledge, to all the choices he made, her big red eyes fixated on the board as if it was the most enthralling novel she ever read. In a way, it was. The pieces were telling her a story: who lives, who dies, who wins, who loses. She felt her throat tighten with emotion at some moments. She lost, but she felt like she had won, deep inside.

“I see you play often against Shikamaru-kun and Shikaku.”

“Can you see that, Ensui-san?”

“Of course. Every player, after a while, grow their own style, influenced by those he fought the most, those who taught him to play. Maybe one day you will take after me, too.”

Hitomi nodded in understanding. It made sense. She had heard of similar things happening with chess players. So why not with shōgi too? The two games were awfully similar, after all. As she wondered about it, she set up the board for a new game.

They were in the middle of their third game when Kurenai came home. If she was surprised to see the Strangling Shadow, a lemonade in hand and slippers on his feet, on her couch, she didn’t show it. Without looking up – it was her turn – Hitomi greeted her mother, her mind totally focused on the game and her next move. She had no hope whatsoever to win against Ensui, but she owed him the best version of herself. She owed him that, just as she owed it to every single opponent she had, so their victory was fully deserved and her loss full of dignity.

“No need to beat around the bush,” Kurenai said as the game ended. “I know why you’re here, Ensui-san. Shikaku told me this morning.”

“I’ll get the kid home in one piece, Kurenai-san. You know I will. I take care of my team.”

“She’s not your team, for fuck’s sake, she’s just a child who hasn’t even set a foot at the Academy, and Shikaku decided without consulting me, just because he’s head of the Nara clan!”

This tone from her mother made Hitomi tense, for two reasons. First, she felt on her skin the whiff of killing intent oozing around Kurenai, so weak she probably didn’t even notice it happening, and second because she didn’t get angry often. Such outburst ought to be regarded with particular focus when they came from her.

“Listen, I know it’s not what you want,” Ensui tried, “but there’s no other way. If you want the girl to go to the Academy and become a kunoichi, she has to learn how to muffle her perceptions, and you know I’m an expert on this subject.”

Listening carefully, Hitomi glanced at the man, unable to hide her mix of wariness and interest. She had, of course, worried about the Academy and the rest of her career. She couldn’t stand even leaving the Nara land. She was lucky Kurenai had asked for the authorisation to stay after Shikano’s death. But leaving with that man, even if it implied going through the village to the main gates… Where did he even want to take her? It sounded like a weird, half-baked plan.

“I know!” Kurenai snapped. “I know all that, okay? Am I supposed to give you my only daughter without even fighting it? You don’t even know her!”

The argument continued for a few minutes that Hitomi used to hide in her Library and think about things. She didn’t know much about Ensui Nara, but there were advantages to his proposal. Well, it had been accepted by Shikaku already, but she wanted it to feel like her choice, to be able to support it with sincerity. When she opened her eyes, she had reached a conclusion. She stood up, the two adults immediately focusing on her, and went to hug her mother.

“I’m gonna miss you a lot,” she mumbled, her voice muffled by the dress she was pressing her face against. “But it’s a big deal for me, to be able to go to the Academy in the best possible condition. Please, Mom, if going with Ensui-san can help me, let me go. Please.”

Mother and child exchanged a long look, full of promises and things left unsaid. Hitomi would have gladly died for Kurenai. She loved her unconditionally, and was loved back in the same way, something she had never known in her first life.   She held onto the fabric of her dress and breathed in as deep as she could her mother’s unique scent, all the while focusing on the way her chakra, now at peace again, touched her skin. Without the killing intent, Hitomi only felt pressure and softness, strength and tenderness.

“Okay, sweetheart. I’ll miss you too, my sweet baby… But you’re right. Go prepare a bag. You’ll be gone for more than a year, but I hope for him that Ensui-san will ensure you have everything you need, so just some clothing, your writing set, kunai and shuriken, and maybe one or two books. Got it?”

“More than a year? But I’m supposed to enter the Academy in April…”

“And what I’ll teach you,” Ensui interrupted, “needs far more time than six months to be fully taught. I’ll continue training you like your mother did, and then teach you some more things. When you go to the Academy, you’ll be one year older than your classmates, yes, but you’ll also be far stronger than they are. You’ll have no trouble being the best in your year.”

No trouble, no trouble… That meant she’d go to the Academy in Naruto’s year, and not Neji’s like she had thought initially. It would change some of her plans, facilitate them in fact. She would have less trouble being at the centre of the action that way. Feigning an annoyed sigh, she nodded and went to her room to do as she was told, leaving the logistics to the two adults.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Hitomi and Ensui left the village just after dawn. He’d decided this whole trip would be a new learning experience for her, that it would do her good, and she could only agree with him. She couldn’t wait to discover the world the higher entity had given her for her second chance, couldn’t wait to understand more about the challenges other people faced, from the most powerful shinobi to the most peaceful civilian. Knowledge was power.

It was strange still to see the Gates for real. Going through the village had left her feverish, so sick Ensui had had to carry her, but she had been able to see them before he took her far enough from them that she could breathe again without feeling set on fire. Shikamaru had done his best to describe them and Chōji had drawn them for her but seeing them in all their glory was still something she couldn’t quite wrap her head around.

It was a mild autumn day. The tree leaves all around them were still mostly green, rare touches of yellow and red scattered here and there. The air still smelt of flowers blooming in the area. So close to the village, no one would have dared to disturb the peace and safety felt all around, almost as substantial as honey. It would have been a war declaration, and no one was mad enough to go against Konoha. Not yet, anyway.

“Why are you the one taking care of me, Ensui-san?” she asked after a while. “Yesterday, you hinted that you knew my… my problem well.” Even if her mother wasn’t there to chastise her, Hitomi still intended on being polite with the man who had taken her under his wing without any hope of reward beside Shikaku’s gratitude. The word around was that Ensui had more than his share of that already. This decision meant a huge dedication to their clan. Putting his career in hold for almost two years, just for a brat he didn’t know… Hitomi wasn’t sure she would have done it, and she was all the more thankful that he did.

“Your condition is called Meridian Oversensitivity. That’s what your medical file says anyway – as your shishou, I was able to look through it.”

“How come you’re my shishou?”

“Er… We had to tell that to the Third so he’d let me take you out of the village before you graduated from the Academy. You don’t have to see me as your shishou, but I’m sure you’d make for one hell of an apprentice.”

Hitomi thought about it for a while, silent and focused on the road so she wouldn’t trip like a moron. She thought about the future, when the canon would really start to unroll and she’d need a reputation for some parts of her plan. Apprentice to the Strangling Shadow sounded like a good start, right? The kind of thing that would make someone think twice before attacking her.

“Ensui-shishou it will be, then. But wouldn’t it stop me from getting a sensei after graduating?”

“Only if your class had a number of students that couldn’t be perfectly divided by three. Then, I’d supervise you until you got promoted to Jōnin. But, even if you get a sensei, nothing will stop you from taking another shishou or coming back to me after you get promoted to Chūnin. It’s your career, your choice.”

“You don’t seem to have any doubt that I’ll graduate, then be promoted. How come?”

He shrugged then, after seeing the way she stared at him, he decided to explain. “You’re a Nara, daughter to two incredible shinobi, and your uncle says you’re as much a genius as his own son, which says a lot. I saw his file, too, the kid has as much potential as his father had, and look where he is now. He could be entering the Academy now and rank first with no trouble.”

Hitomi giggled and nodded. They both knew Shikamaru would do his best to be a middling student at the Academy. He wasn’t interested in glory or power over his comrades, didn’t want to attract the teachers’ attention to himself. She was different. Girls needed to work twice as hard for the same result. Kunoichi needed to prove they were strong, and as one, she fully intended to do so. She wanted to be taken seriously, wanted to instil fear in her enemies’ hearts. For that, she would have to work incredibly hard.

“Now, to come back to your oversensitivity… I have the same thing. The sickness runs through our family and has done so as far as our records go. When I was born, I was diagnosed immediately – Tsunade-sama was there, you see, and she understood immediately. Everyone thought I couldn’t become a shinobi, but I wanted it so much. One day, when I was your age, a kunoichi came to my parents and took me away from the village, just as I did for you. When we came back, I was able to turn my sickness into a weapon, and so will you.”

Hitomi nodded, her eyes full of newfound respect. If he could do that… If he could allow her to go to the Academy, to become a ninja the normal way… She’d owe him everything. Even then, even when it was just them and he didn’t use his chakra, she felt it against her skin, itching and pinching it. Going through the village had been torture. Without him carrying her most of the time, she wouldn’t have managed.

“Will you teach me other things too, shishou?” A warm feeling pooled in her belly as she said the word, as she truly used it for the first time. Safety.

“Yes, but I don’t know what exactly quite yet. I need to observe you for that. When I know what your strengths are… Well, let’s just say I think you’ll like my areas of expertise.”

She nodded, encouraging him to continue, her big red eyes full of a hunger he recognised immediately: the girl wanted knowledge, was desperate for it even. She looked at him as if he was an oasis in the middle of the desert.

“First, there’s the Nara techniques, of course. Since you’re half-Yūhi, you probably have good chakra reserves, but you’re still a bit young to learn more than our opening technique. I’m also good at battlefield control, which means I’m probably going to teach you how to set traps and use chemicals to your advantage. It’s not overly difficult stuff, but I can assure you that even Sunajin puppeteers are jealous of some of my babies. Then, and that’s if you’re a really special girl, I’ll teach you fūinjutsu basics. Do you know what that word means? It’s…”

“Seal mastery!” she interrupted, almost shrieking in her enthusiasm. “Oh, I can’t believe it! I want to learn everything so, so much! When do we begin then?”

For the first time that day, Ensui started laughing, throwing his head back to free his intense amusement. The sound was so deep it seemed to come from far, far below, husky and soft like an ancient melody. “Ah, kid, you’re so freaking cute. We’ll see if you’re still so eager this afternoon, when we start training. You’ll probably end up hating me, but it’s still gonna be worth it.”

They continued chatting, about banalities mostly. Hitomi was quivering with impatience, which made her skip more than usual. Ensui, of course, had noticed the change in her behaviour and, internally, was increasingly overjoyed by the decision Shikaku had made. The clan head hadn’t lied about that kid. Of course, Ensui had already suspected as much while they were playing shōgi, but he was now sure that she was the type of apprentice he had always dreamt of. Of course, the Third had bitched about it when he’d seen the papers, but Ensui didn’t give the slightest fuck when it came to the old man’s opinion or feelings. How could he respect him? The man couldn’t even put a leash on Danzō. He should have had him executed after his betrayal, nothing less.

Shortly after noon, they arrived at an inn that offered bedding and meals to travellers. After a quick check through his meridians, Ensui was sure that he was the only shinobi around. He touched his apprentice’s back to make her go inside. They were now in a big room – inns were always big around villages. In a few days, they wouldn’t be able to find one, big or otherwise. Then, he would teach the girl to find shelter, food and water wherever she was. No one would dare say that Ensui Nara hadn’t done his job. This kid was gonna kick ass at the Academy, or he would swallow his eyeliner.

Their lunch was light and tasteful, just as Hitomi liked it. Since her mother left the physical part of training for the afternoon, she had gotten the habit of keeping her meal light before that. That way, if exertion made her puke, she wouldn’t be too sick.

After Ensui paid, they left the inn and walked for about a mile, then he told Hitomi to stop once more. They were in a nicely sized clearing, a fallen tree marking the centre. Flowers were everywhere, touches of white, pink and yellow in a sea of green. It was the kind of place Hitomi liked, quiet and fragrant. She usually only found that kind of peace in the Deer Forest.

“Well, time to start then,” he said. “First, I’m gonna test your writing and reading skills. Your mom would tear me a new one if I were to let her teaching slip. Take one of the books you packed and start reading.”

Hitomi did as she was told, her hands shaking slightly with anticipation. She took a big book from her bag, a strategy manual Shikaku had given to her as a starting point. Her voice stopping at the more complex kanjis she didn’t know yet, she started reading about the specifics of fighting on wet ground, after a few days of rain. Once or twice, Ensui corrected her on the meaning or pronunciation of words.

“You’re doing great, kid. And that book, a very good starting point. Shikaku’s pick?” She nodded. “Well, let’s get to writing, then. Take a notepad and a pen and sit where you can, I’m gonna dictate…”

He took the book, opened it at random and started describing the different uses someone could make of hallucination powder. Oh, Hitomi could see herself doing all sorts of wicked things with that. A grin on her face, she wrote the kanjis trying to respect the stroke order, but she had to leave some space for the ones she hadn’t seen before.

Ensui then tested her on the Land of Fire’s history. Rather than just asking questions, he participated in the exchange by adding clarifications and information she didn’t know about yet. After an hour, having spoken with him about medical procedures, strategy, and literature, she looked at him like he was a hero of the old times. Ensui noticed, of course, but he didn’t say anything. It felt good, having a child looking at him that way. He suddenly got why Shikaku almost kissed the ground his son walked on, if he was the same material as his little apprentice.

The physical part of the day was what Hitomi anticipated the most, waiting with a mix of apprehension and excitement. She didn’t need Ensui’s guidance as she greeted the sun, as she had learned it almost two years ago. Sometimes, Ensui asked if he could touch her to push her limbs harder, testing the limits of her flexibility, and she accepted every time, surprised he even asked. She had been manipulated a lot by doctors and nurses in her prior life. They certainly never asked. They had mostly seen her as a broken thing that needed fixing.

After she was done greeting the sun, he carved a target on a tree and told her to throw some shuriken and kunai as close to the centre as she could. Hitomi wasn’t the prodigy Itachi was in that field, but she managed okay, and she had trained a lot. However, she didn’t put any weapon in the centre of the target. Ensui had to cheer her up so she didn’t brood on that perceived failure.

“I guess your mother hasn’t gotten you started on katas yet. They’re the base for all forms of taijutsu. I’ll teach you that, too. For that, I’d like to test your strength, speed and stamina. Start doing press-ups, please, as many as you can.”

Obedient as ever, she dropped into position and got started. She didn’t really like that kind of exercise, she found them to be boring. She had found something to fight that feeling though: she went in her Library and read a book selected at random. That way, she disconnected from her body, forgot all pains and aches, didn’t feel tired and kept pushing herself while also keeping busy. She always surpassed herself that way.

And she did it that day, too. She surpassed herself so much she couldn’t walk when the night fell on the Land of Fire. Ensui had to carry her back to the inn, but the only obvious emotion in his eyes was an intense form of satisfaction. In the span of time it took him to get them a room, the girl had fallen asleep in his arms. He climbed the stairs as smoothly as he could then decided to give her the only bed, tucking her in as he would his own child before settling on the ground.

Chapter Text

The next day, as promised, Ensui started to teach Hitomi. She woke up incredibly sore and couldn’t quite hide it, which made him give her a sorry look. However, he told her she was going to have to bear with it. Still, he didn’t intend on starting her on the physical part of training until the afternoon – Kurenai had explained how she did things with her daughter and Ensui had thought it was a good plan – he made her a hot water bottle with what they had in the room and showed her how to apply it to the worst aches in her body.

He set up a travel shōgi board on the table he had pushed against the bed and started teaching her about strategy while illustrating it with the game. They ended up playing a normal game where she got her ass properly kicked, but she acquired new moves Shikamaru probably didn’t know about. She couldn’t wait to give him a run for his money.

Then, he showed her the basics she’d need to know for battle chemistry. Hitomi already knew some of that thanks to her prior life, but she couldn’t really show him that without explaining how she knew. She settled for making him believe she just understood very quickly – and, in all fairness, it was already the case for the things she didn’t know about, so it didn’t shock him.

“If everything goes as planned,” Ensui promised, “I’ll let you try to blow up something on your own. It’s the most basic skill of battle chemistry and very efficient if your goal is to take control of the battlefield, be it during a one-on-one fight, in team configuration or during open battle. This knowledge wins war, Hitomi. It’s usually only taught in the Nara, Yamanaka and Akimichi clans, since we’re so closely tied. And even amongst us, not a lot of people master it, they want to focus more on common ninja arts, but since you’re an amazing little apprentice, I’ll make sure you don’t go down that road. Got it?”

“Got it!” she beamed.

The teaching lasted all morning, making Ensui stupidly happy. He had a hard time hiding it, even. He just wanted to go hug his clan leader, to thank him for giving him such a gem. The kid seemed tailored to receive all the knowledge he had to give her, and the pleasure to learn was as clear as day in her big red eyes, along with insatiable curiosity and eagerness to prove herself. She reminded him of the child he had been, once.

He would continue to teach while she attended the Academy and even later during her career. He’d sharpen her like he would his best blade, physically and mentally. She’d become the beautiful, terrifying kunoichi he could see in her. She’d look like her mother, perhaps with the more delicate features that all Nara had. The day she’d surpass him, he’d be so impossibly proud. He was already proud   to see her devour all the technical chemical notions that were usually so hard on students. She was his first apprentice but he wasn’t entirely clueless as to how to teach her, since drunk Jōnin bitched about their own apprentices from time to time.

After a light meal, man and child paid then went outside, the room carefully locked just in case. Hitomi was still sore and limped slightly, but she knew it would have been far worse if Ensui hadn’t given her the hot water bottle. She hadn’t thought about that before, while training with her mother, but this was a trick she was definitely going to use again.

“We’re gonna stay a few days here,” Ensui said that evening, “so your body can adjust to be in the best conditions possible. When you can walk without problems in the morning, we’ll hit the road again. We’ll walk in the morning while going over theory stuff, then we’ll stop to get lunch and stay in whatever area we’re in for physical training. You’ll be working on reading and writing before you go to bed.”

“Where are we going?” she asked as she stretched. He had made her work hard that day, but she didn’t feel as exhausted as last night. Could her body be getting stronger already?

“Probably Suna. I want to show you chemicals drawn from stones you can only find there.”

She noticed he used the short version of the Village’s name, as he would for Konoha, but she didn’t say anything about it. She was too busy wrapping her head around all the things he was teaching her. She didn’t know that man well, and yet she’d felt honoured, yesterday, upon seeing the gleam of pride in his eyes. It was invigorating. She hadn’t thought about the eventuality of getting noticed by a powerful shinobi; she’d thought she’d get in a typical Genin team then advance on her own. How absurdly lucky she was, to have Ensui focusing on her.

As soon as they got to the clearing, serious business began. He made her run for twenty minutes so her muscles could warm up and take what he had planned for her. He had decided that the girl, first and foremost, needed to learn how to fight. He was feared, a shinobi no one in their right mind would fight without a good reason, but he knew anything could happen. Hitomi needed to be able to defend herself.

Katas, fighting moves used as a base to learn how to fight, were usually taught in the Academy from the third year up, Hitomi knew that. She had sometimes watched her mother do them to warm up and they looked easy then. As she tried the first move under Ensui’s watchful eyes, she tripped and fell face first in the grass. She stood back up with a groan and started again from the beginning, as he had ordered her to do if she made a mistake.

It took her an hour to master the opening stance, and her limbs didn’t move as gracefully as Ensui’s had, far from it. Her hands and feet, mostly, were still clumsy, and her balance was highly challenged as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other. It was increasingly frustrating, but she comforted herself by focusing on the fact that she didn’t feel tired at all. Her body had never been this strong, this healthy. She knew she would succeed eventually. And knowing that felt wonderful.

The katas couldn’t be used in a real fight. They were too predictable, too common. But they were the working foundation for every shinobi: they used their favourite katas, modified and adapted to become suitable for battle. Ensui explained all that to her in a soft voice as he corrected her starting stance, his hands careful not to press too hard on hers. He probably knew that a prolonged touch would be painful for her sensitive meridians.

“It’s time now for me to help you work on your oversensitivity. There is no secret, unfortunately, no shortcut that could help you cope until you get it under control. You’ll have to meditate and create a box, hideout, cage, whatever comes to mind the fastest for you, and put the information given by your meridians there.” He sighed then continued. “After that, you’ll need to find out how to manage the opening of that place so you can receive information, but only enough that you’re aware of people around you without being overstimulated. No shinobi at my level or below can take me by surprise, but I’m not writhing in pain either. Got the difference?”

Hitomi nodded calmly. She understood the concept, better than he imagined. The exercise sounded very similar from what she had done with her Library, what she had had to do to automatise the sorting of new memories.

“Your mother said you were already meditating once a day. Show me the posture you use.”

Immediately, Hitomi sat in seiza, the traditional sitting position used by all traditional families in Konoha. She knew that, in the Previous World, this posture was well-known too, but she had never used it then. Shikaku had helped her practice until she got it right. Hands on her thighs, back straight and shoulders relaxed, she closed her eyes and stood at the very edge between her Library and the physical world. It was hard not to go in, to stay between two planes, where she could still focus on Ensui.

“Good. Now imagine the thing you want to use to contain those perceptions. Take what comes first to mind, and get it attached to your mind. This sickness is an advantage, Hitomi. You’ll treat it with the respect it deserves, no less.”

She obeyed him. She saw a cage, a beautiful, delicate thing, made in one block of crystal. As soon as she went inside her Library, she made a column out of marble in the centre of the rotunda around which she had organised her sections. It formed a light well and illuminated the whole place. There, she stopped and thought about what to do next. On the pillar that she had raised to waist-height, she built the cage she had in mind. She carved it with flowers and animals she loved, made sure the crystal captured light and refracted it all around in pretty rainbow colours. It took her an hour to make her vision reality.

In the crystal cage, she tried to put her meridian’s perceptions. It was incredibly complicated, because she didn’t know if she was transferring feelings or memories of those feelings. The line between those two concepts was thin and she didn’t know how to walk it, even after a few tries.

If this difficulty wasn’t enough, Hitomi started feeling a form of fatigue she had never felt before. Her thoughts were weirdly sluggish sometimes, like being stuck in honey, and her breathing was becoming more and more laborious. Her limbs were shaking and covered in   cold sweat. Despite this, she didn’t stop trying, and she wanted to scream in frustration each time a book, a memory, appeared in the cage.

“Hitomi? Hitomi!”

She regained her senses in a start, her pupils extremely contracted in the centre of her red eyes. Ensui’s hands on her shoulders were gripping the joints painfully, but she realised he had no other choice: she would have fallen without his strength, her legs so weak they couldn’t even bear her weight. She shook in the mild evening air, coldness growing slowly inside her. Wherever she looked, it made her nauseous. “W-what’s happening to me?” she whined.

“You spent too much chakra. I’m sorry, kid, I didn’t know you could use it. Most children your age or even older can’t access their reserves.”

She answered with a wordless whine, her shaking getting worse after each passing second spent in that dreadful state. Ensui wrapped her in a blanket he had taken from his backpack, put all their stuff inside it instead then picked her up in his arms like she weighed nothing at all.

“You’re in for a dreadful night, I’m afraid. During the hardest parts of it, remember that everything will be better in the morning. I swear it will be, kid.”

She heard shame in his voice, and it frightened her. She tried to calm the chattering of her teeth by biting her lower lip, hard. She didn’t want to worry him more than he already was, but she could see from his weather-beaten face that it was already the case.

Once they were back in their room, he tucked her in with as much care as he possibly could then heated water up with a wisp of chakra so he could make her a hot water bottle. His dark grey eyes didn’t leave her for a moment. He was ready to act if she took a turn for the worse. He remembered the first time he had been in that situation: he had thought he was going to die but had survived, and learned his lesson. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts never to go through chakra withdrawal again, shinobi didn’t have much choice in the matter. There was always a good enough reason.

The night was difficult, just like Ensui had assured Hitomi it would be. After an hour, she had started to feel her limbs burn, a terrible pressure that made her want to lose consciousness. She muffled her cries of pain in her pillow, biting so hard she tore it apart. Ensui petted her hair, whispering comforting words and meaningless promises.

Then the nausea and vomiting started, leaving her exhausted and haggard. Sometimes in the middle of the night, she got a fever that gave her chills and vertigo, making her lose her grip on reality. She was so dependent on her knowledge and awareness to feel safe that she spent a lot of those hours sobbing, terrified and deaf to Ensui’s tender words.

The night was hard and long for both master and student. The sun rising in the sky found them both asleep, her between the half-undone sheets and him sitting on the ground, his back painfully bent so his head was on the mattress, the rest of his body on the ground. He snored weakly, his unkempt hair slightly moving each time he released a breath. One of his hands was reaching for Hitomi but not quite touching her, as if he had fallen asleep while trying to comfort her.

As he had promised, everything was better in the morning.

Chapter Text

After that mishap, Hitomi couldn’t continue her sensitivity-related training until her reserves were replenished. Children as young as she was weren’t supposed to be able to mix chakra or use it, Ensui explained, and even less to the point of exhaustion like she had. He listened very carefully as she told him about her Library, how it worked and how she had built it. When she was done, he sighed and shook his head, mumbling something about Yamanka bitching when they’d think he had stolen clan secrets to give them to her. Yeah right, as if she would ever be that reckless. The Yamanaka were telepaths , for fuck’s sake.

It was time for Hitomi to put the theory into practice with her chemicals. After a few tries, carefully supervised by her mentor, she succeeded in creating a nice, strong explosion, enough to shake the ground and make dozens of birds fly away in panic. At night, she consulted Ensui’s chemical notebook, where he wrote down all the formulas and procedures he used for his creations. The notebook was locked by a seal that used his chakra as a key, which she found absolutely fascinating.

She couldn’t grasp everything on those pages, far from it, but she still had a lot to learn in that field. Delayed reactions, doses, projections, … The possibilities were endless, and one day they would all be hers. The first step was just reading the notebook, as Ensui had instructed her: she just had to look at the pages to remember them for when she’d be ready.

Ensui made sure she’d seen it all before taking it back. “You won’t always have me around,” he said “when you want to make things go boom. That way you’ll have everything you need in your head, you’ll just need to find the chemicals for the situation.”

A week later, they left the inn behind and hit the road again. Their progress toward the Sunajin Desert was slow, but the weather was colder every night, a sign they were closing in on the border. The first night outside was difficult for Hitomi. She wasn’t used to that kind of temperature, to the hardness of the ground, to the thousand noises that kept her up all night. After that though, she did better.

“The first thing you need to know to survive outside is how to hunt. You can’t expect food to come to you nice and prepared just like in a village. Take your kunai and follow me.”

Hunting was not a problem for Hitomi, but skinning and gutting were another story. She couldn’t prevent her hands from shaking as she followed Ensui’s instructions, the rabbit’s dead eyes looking at her like they could still see her. She had to prepare dozens of preys before she could do it without hesitation. Each of the lives she took, even if they were just animals, made her heart a little colder, a little harder.

She had to be honest with herself: she needed this. It was one thing to plan violent acts and fights in the safety of her Library, and another one altogether to spill blood in real circumstances, to see pain and fear on some opponent’s face. Sometimes, they might even   be kids, just like her.

When she stumbled while training, Ensui showed no mercy. He made her attack again and again, made her pitiless, even if she couldn’t hurt him; it was the spirit that mattered. And when night reached the cave he always managed to find to shelter them from the elements, he hugged her and cradled her until she stopped crying then fell asleep. When she had nightmares, he always woke her up and appeased her so she could get back to sleep.

After a few months, she had mastered all the basic Konohajin katas. To celebrate, he bought her a dark green outfit, nicely cut for fighting, the fabric breathing like nothing she had ever worn and tailored so she had plenty of room to move. He showed her how to tie her kunai pouch to the belt, then got her started on another set of katas only Nara used.

He sharpened her, like he would a weapon. Hitomi liked the idea. He didn’t coddle her, wasn’t afraid to push her just a bit harder. Every morning, she woke up stronger, harder, but, more importantly, she woke up more ready to face the opponents that she would drag back by the hair to face her if need be. They dared to be assholes, they couldn’t whine when they got trouble biting their ass back. Trouble being her , of course.

After almost five months, they reached the edge of the Sunajin Desert. They had been slow, while Hitomi could walk fast for a child, she was no match for even civilian. She wasn’t a ninja yet, wasn’t even an Academy student. It frustrated her to no end, but Ensui always appeased her. They found a caravan, bound for the Desert and equipped to cross it. Those people were merchants, and not only from the Elemental Countries. They hired shinobi so they could be protected: bandits rarely dared to attack a protected caravan. This time, it was a team composed of two Genin, one Chūnin and a Jōnin to lead them. Obviously, they had a lot of experience as a team: they didn’t need to use words to coordinate their efforts and protect the caravane.

“Shishou?” Hitomi asked.

“Hm?”

“I think the Chūnin is a puppeteer.”

He groaned. “Please don’t go harass the man with questions, kid. We don’t need a diplomatic incident.”

With a pout, Hitomi took refuge under one of the tarpaulins protecting the goods from the sun. A ninja only needed a few days to reach Sunagakure from Konoha, but a caravan moved much slower, even slower than a walking civilian. They could only move during the early and late hours of the day, when the air was neither too hot nor too cold. The time spent moving, Ensui used to make Hitomi work on her meridians.

One day, while she was meditating under his ever-watchful eye, she felt something click in her mind, almost like a   touch or the noise of a branch snapping under the pressure. This time, it wasn’t a book appearing in the crystal cage, but a ribbon cut from white light, flowing quietly above its floor.

She snapped out of her trance and fell on all four, trying to catch her breath. For the first time, people around her felt a bit faded. Not enough for her headache to disappear, but still, it was progress, she couldn’t deny it. Beaming, she stood up and looked at her mentor. “I think I’m starting to get it, shishou!”

He smiled too, unable to stop it. To hell with the empty face shinobi were supposed to wear in all circumstances, he couldn’t resist when she looked at him like that, so happy, so full of hope for the future. “Congrats, kid. You’ve done the hardest part. I’m very proud of you.”

She froze, her eyes staring into his own, a red as rich as wine against dark, quiet grey. After a few seconds, she understood how much he meant it, the strength he put in those words, the dignity, the righteousness, the faith. He didn’t know any other way to get them out and she wondered. She wondered if she really deserved them. After all, she was good at fooling people, lying, manipulating her way into their heart with the sweetest smile. But she hadn’t done anything like that to Ensui. She wanted to be worthy of him.

Her progress had been a temporary fix, unfortunately. Sometime in the middle of the night, she woke up with a start as the light ribbon slipped away from its cage and faded away. Ensui was up, as if he knew it would happen. He probably knew, since he’d been through that well before her. She was exhausted – in her case, it seemed that keeping her oversensitivity at bay had to involve using chakra. Yet she knew she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Wrapped in her blanket, she went to join her mentor, who was reading a scroll. “Shishou?”

He answered the question she hadn’t asked, shifting sideway on his futon so she could sit with him and read too. Fascinated, Hitomi stared at the elegant strokes of black on the cream paper. She identified a seal structure, but she didn’t know which one. It was magnificent, so complex it would make any calligrapher pale with jealousy, and her palms tingled with the desire to be the next one drawing it.

“You remember the day when we left Konoha? I told you I’d teach you some fūinjutsu. I’m not a Master like the Sannin or the late Fourth Hokage, but I have some skills, which is more than can be said of almost everyone in the whole world. This knowledge is on the verge of disappearing, and we don’t ever teach it to people who wouldn’t be good at it. I think you’re gonna do great in this field with your memory, kid. Since you’re awake, we can start right now.”

Her eyes shining with adoration, the little girl nodded so vigorously her neck protested. She didn’t care about this kind of pain, not when fūinjutsu was on the table. Since the day he had mentioned the topic, she was obsessed with it. What she knew about the art of seals made it look insanely powerful and the idea of endless possibilities was enticing to her. Imagining herself with such a flexible tool satisfied something deep and dark in her mind.

Whispering so they wouldn’t bother the other sleepers around, Ensui started explaining the basics of seal drawing. Every seal had an outer and an inner circle written with modified kanjis all connected to each other and almost impossible to decipher if one didn’t have the knowledge of the language used to write them. You couldn’t allow the brush to leave the paper even for a moment as you traced them, and the seal would be activable as soon as both circles would be connected, its function hidden in plain sight. Then there were the ornaments, between two and a hundred chains linking to two circles togethers, their number and complexity an indicator of how much power the seal could draw from its surroundings and rely upon. Those ornaments had to be equally spaced or the seal would become unstable and often dangerous. Finally, in the space left between the ornaments, the seal master added characters that looked like simplified kanjis and would define how the seal behaved: how much chakra the user needed to inject, the self-timer if the seal needed one, the area of effect, its shape, … The possibilities were truly endless.

For example, for a storage seal, she would have to trace the two circles using kanjis that could be roughly translated as ‘I store and release at will’, then add enough ornaments for the volume of storage needed. The finishing touch was adding precisions as to the place relative to the seal where things would appear or disappear – two manipulations that needed different characters. It got even more complex if the seal master wanted a precise storage place for each object, so they wouldn’t end up buried in a mountain of clutter each time they wanted one precise item.

Fūinjutsu was rarely an innate skill and, even when a shinobi had such a gift, they had to work precisely and repeatedly to master even the simplest seal. The special ink used to draw them, infused with chakra at least, was only produced in the Fire Temple. Any seal had the potential to fail catastrophically if mistakes were made in its conception. Fortunately, they all needed chakra to be activated, so it was possible to train without blowing up something by accident.

Hitomi was fascinated. Her left hand, the dominant one, almost twitched with impatience. Her whole body called for those yet unknown sensations, the sound of the brush against paper, the heady smell of ink, as if something deep in her knew what it would feel like. If Ensui noticed the urge running through her, he didn’t say. Was he, too, captivated by the seal he was looking at? Did he feel like he instinctively understood how it was drawn, and did he feel the need to lose himself in seal mastery? She couldn’t tell.

The sun was rising when he finished his explanations. He didn’t need to tell Hitomi to get up, she was already jumping on the ground. Her movements slow and steady, a thousand times more at ease than she had been even a year earlier, she started greeting the sun under the amused stare of some of the civilians, used now to her strange behaviour. In the afternoon, when they couldn’t continue traveling, they often sat in a circle around her as she fought against Chiki, one of the Genin the caravan had hired for protection. He had agreed to help her in her training: against him, she could practice her katas and try to adapt them to her future fighting style.

Sometimes, more rarely, she fought against Ensui or Takano, the Jōnin leader of the team, but it was like trying to break a mountain with a blade of grass. Despite this, she was learning, no matter who her opponent was. She also saw the foreign shinobi, or even the civilians when she took the time to look at what they were doing, tense under her focused and voracious stare. Were they afraid she would steal the secrets hidden in their minds? She wasn’t a Yamanaka, for fuck’s sake.

Hitomi’s fighting skills were becoming really impressive for her age. She immersed herself in training without counting the hours or aches. Most of the time, it was Ensui who had to call it a day before she exhausted herself. She had already shown some worrying tendencies in that regard. This kind of instinct was great during a mission, but when she was just training? It was asking for trouble, and Ensui was worried.

The following days, she continued to work on her oversensitivity. She got better and better at it, but the ribbons always escaped their cage after a while. When she explained what she had created in her mind to her mentor, he assured her the space between the bars wasn’t the problem. The only way she would get them to stay there was by practicing again and again. With his constant support and because he never focused her on just one topic, she still felt good about herself.

And it paid off. Slowly, it paid off. In her master’s eyes, Hitomi saw a quiet kind of satisfaction, and it made her feel honoured, more than she could possibly say. When they weren’t training, they talked a lot about their personal lives. He told her about all the missions he had accomplished with her father, described the sensei they had had in common. As a sign of respect, he never toned down his tales: he knew that, like Shikamaru, she had been forced to grow up faster because of her intelligence. He was wrong about this, at least in part. She would have placed her life in his hands without hesitation, but she would never, ever tell anyone about reincarnating. Her safety depended on it.

Fortunately, because he was raising a genius himself and was used to their ways, Shikaku had never suspected a thing. When Kurenai had told him about the fact that Hitomi had tried to learn how to write all by herself, Shikaku had just taken her to have her IQ, and other parameters she hadn’t understood, tested. Those had declared her Shikamaru’s equal. No, Shikaku didn’t know a thing about her previous life. He was just grateful when she pushed her cousin to do more than the bare minimum.

How was he doing back in Konoha? She missed him a lot, but at least he was surrounded by peers and friends from his clan, the Yamanaka, and the Akimichi. She only had Ensui. He was an adult, and she didn’t know him since he was born like she did Shikamaru. She really liked her mentor, but having him around wasn’t the same as having a friend, an equal.

The next day, an hour and a half after the end of their afternoon break, they got their first sight of Sunagakure. They walked the whole evening before really standing in front of its huge sandstone doors, then another hour before they could enter the city. Hitomi had quietly decided to watch and learn. Fortunately, her oversensitivity was manageable enough now that she could spend days without meditating to cage her meridians back in. Curious and giddy, she walked behind Ensui and waited until being given permission to go explore.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Hitomi was allowed to explore, but she had to face the facts: she had devised dozens of plans for this place, and yet she had no fucking idea on where to start. As she left the hotel where Ensui had booked a suite for the entire month, she realised she was standing out, with her traveling outfit. A carefully innocent expression on her face, she reached a little street far away from the main ones then looked for what she needed.

On a clothesline, she found an outfit roughly fitting her size and looking like the one kids wore in this village. She took it and left a bit of money in its place before going to change in an alley and putting her previous clothes in her bag. She could have bought clothes, yes, but it was funnier to do it the ninja way.

Now that she was ready, she could start working on her main scheme for Sunagakure, the one she had not even dared dream of. Finding the Sunajin kids was easy: just like Shikamaru had said about Konoha, they played not so far from their Academy. She looked around but didn’t see the dark red hair she was looking for. A few boys tried to have her play ball with them but she refused with a playful laugh: she had better things to do than run after a fucking ball , thank you very much.

She found him well away from the other kids, a torn ball at his feet. He looked so sad, so small , Hitomi’s heart broke a bit as she approached him. She had done the math while on the road: at five years old, Gaara’s loneliness upset him, but no one had tried to kill him yet – no one had yet pushed him to a killing spree that would leave him scarred for life.

“Hi!” she chirped. “Can I sit with you?”

He jumped so hard when he heard her voice, she had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop her laugh. Obviously, Ensui’s lessons worked if she could take anyone by surprise.

“Y-you want to sit with me?”

Hitomi’s heart broke again, but she kept her feelings at bay. Taking a few steps toward him, she offered him her sweetest smile, the one that made people think she was harmless. She needed more smiles, and quick. “The others are too noisy for me. You look quiet and not too, ah, agitated, so I thought you’d be a better choice.”

Just like that, it was done. The first phase of her plan had been so simple to check off that it shocked Hitomi quite a bit, but not when she started really thinking about what was going on. Gaara was just a little boy, starving for any kind of affection, and he hadn’t yet learned to be wary of people his age. For a moment, she felt guilty about using his weaknesses to her own advantage, but she brushed that feeling off: she knew it was for the greater good.

“So you control sand, uh?” she asked half an hour later. “Do you think you could use it to make sculptures?”

“Doesn’t it f-frighten you?”

She shrugged. “I live in a clan where people control shadows . Way scarier than sand, trust me! Can you make me a camel, please? I’ve never seen one and I’d really like to.”

The little boy nodded, his cheeks a pretty shade of pink, and Hitomi applauded when the sand did his bidding for her. It was so easy to play the affectionate little girl in this situation, although Ensui would have raised an eyebrow then died of laughter if he’d seen her act that way. Since it was what Gaara needed, though, she was happy to do it.

Soon, too soon, the sun started to set, throwing warm colours all over the sand. Sunagakure was a really beautiful village, even if the forced isolation had cost it a lot of luxuries and it showed. Compared to Konoha, this village wasn’t quite as developed, especially in the poorer areas. Hitomi reached to take Gaara’s hand, moving as quickly as she was used to, but his sand reacted without giving her time to back away, violently scratching her hand. She yelped and looked down to the angry red marks, where her skin was starting to bleed.

“O-oh no, I’m so sorry!” Gaara looked almost sick with worry and regret. His hands were shaking, and he seemed to be holding back tears. Hitomi’s heart hurt to see him like that. With her good hand, she touched his arm, careful this time not to startle him.

“It’s okay, Gaara-kun. Ensui-shishou will heal this in no time at all.”

“But I hurt you!”

“And?” she shrugged. “You didn’t do it on purpose. My shishou did worse to me during training, and yet I know he cares for me, a lot. I’m not angry with you, Gaara-kun.”

“Gaara… Only Gaara, please. A-are you sure you’re okay? Maybe we should go to the hospital.”

Frowning slightly, she looked at her hand more closely. Sand had gotten in the deepest parts of the wound. “No, I’m okay, don’t worry. If you want, you can come to see Ensui-shishou with me. He’ll heal me and you’ll be able to see with your own eyes that it’s not a serious wound. What do you say?”

It wasn’t what she had planned, but she could adjust around this new development. This time, she made sure not to take Gaara by surprise as her hand found his. She answered his obvious surprise – he probably wasn’t touched often by anyone – with a soft, encouraging smile, then took him to the hotel where her mentor was waiting, thanking her awesome memory that helped her find her way.

Ensui was not pumped about her being wounded and gave Gaara a dirty look. As soon as she saw the child making himself cower, on the brink of tears, Hitomi stepped in, giving Ensui one of her own stares. She looked almost defiant, her delicate features as calm as the night sky despite the difference of strength between them. “It’s not Gaara’s fault. No one taught him how to control his powers. He’s my friends and I won’t let you scare him, shishou.” Her tone was still respectful but firm. She wouldn’t back down from this.

Her heart ached when she heard the little choking sound coming from behind her. She knew no one ever fought for Gaara; he only had an uncle who hated him and could barely hide it, two frightened siblings, and a father who saw him like a tool and nothing more. It only made Hitomi more certain that she wanted to be this person for him. She stood up a little taller, her eyes looking right at Ensui’s with all the righteousness she was capable of, as she made the little voice in her head saying she was no better shut up.

“I wasn’t going to hurt him.”

As Gaara still hid behind his apprentice’s back, the Jōnin sighed and crouched to their level, trying to reduce the danger he represented. It was hard for him, who was oozing a cold and quiet threat at all times without even trying. He didn’t really get why Hitomi was stepping in like that. She’d always accepted him and who he was. He understood a bit better when he looked at the boy, at the way she protected him.

He was important.

Ensui didn’t know in which way yet and wasn’t sure she would ever explain it to him. He had known from the very first day that his little apprentice left nothing to chance, a common trait amongst geniuses. Hell, he had been like that too. The Nara clan was full of manipulative people, himself included. He gladly left Hitomi toy with him, since she did whatever he asked, always. She was a good enough apprentice that he let her get away with it.

“Listen, Gaara-kun, right? I know children can play a bit rough sometimes. I’m not mad and I’d say Hitomi here isn’t either. Could you please take the sand out of her wound so I can close it?” He could have used a jutsu to do it, of course, but he thought it was important for the kid to participate in the fixing of his mistakes. He didn’t have a lot of experience with children – Hitomi didn’t really count – but it seemed like a nice principle. Once the wound was clean, he wrapped her hand in his, the gesture gentle and careful, then used a surge of minty chakra to mend her skin. It was just a scratch, really, but he felt better now that it had disappeared.

“So, I understand you have spent part of the day together. Please tell me about it. And Hitomi? I’d very much like to know where you put the clothes you left the hotel with.”

The little girl shrugged, trying her best to look guilty – her best wasn’t really good, her eyes were sparkling. She knew what she was doing, did everything for a reason, but he doubted he’d get the complete version of this one right now. After all, they had company, a little boy who followed her around like she was her hero. Ensui trusted her, though, and he had learned to be patient: she would tell him what he wanted to know.

“I just wanted to walk around the town without being noticed, that’s all. I took an outfit from someone who wasn’t looking, but I left money, so it doesn’t count as stealing.” She blushed under his inquisitive stare and even lowered her eyes to the carpet, looking embarrassed. Gaara was shaking his head, clearly astonished. He clearly couldn’t believe the audacity she was showing. “Well, after that, I found Gaara, all alone, and I decided to talk to him because he looked sad. His powers are awesome, shishou! He can command sand . He made me animals that don’t exist in Konoha.”

“And your friend isn’t required to be somewhere at this time? Surely, his parents should be looking for him.”

For the first time since he’d arrived, Gaara spoke. “I can go home whenever I want, sir.” He didn’t say why, but Hitomi signalled to Ensui and nodded in the direction of the window. At his suddenly thin lips, she knew he was probing the area with his meridians and had felt the presence on the roof of the building in front of their hotel. His eyes shone with comprehension for a second and he smiled at Gaara.

“Well, you can stay, then Gaara-kun. I don’t know what Hitomi has in mind for you, but I’m sure it implies…”

“Can you play shōgi, Gaara?”

“Shōgi, yes. I can see you have the situation under control, kid. I need to run an errand in town, I’ll be back early enough to order food. Do you want to stay for dinner, Gaara-kun?”

The child looked up to Ensui, adoration in his eyes. “C-can I?”

“Of course you can!” Hitomi reassured him as Ensui left the suite. “Now, about shōgi…” She taught him the rules then they started playing without caring about the time they spent on it. After a while, Ensui came back with a bag full of local dishes, and Gaara explained everything they were eating. The food was a bit spicy for Hitomi, but still good. The two children continued playing then, sometimes advised by the adult, who tried to stay impartial. Of course, Hitomi led, as she was used to the game, but Gaara was a clever little boy and he held his own.

Alas, it was quickly time for him to go. It was late and Hitomi needed her sleep. She had had a full day of freedom, but her mentor didn’t intend on letting her wander around during the month they would spend in Suna.

“If you want,” she said to Gaara as he prepared to leave, “you can come tomorrow morning. Ensui-shishou has booked a training room in the hotel, I’ll be there to fight and practice with my shuriken. Then, in the afternoon, he’s gonna give me a botanic lesson and make me work on my strokes. I’d like it even more if you were there.”

Gaara’s smile was so bright it had to hurt. Carefully, so she didn’t spook his sand, she came to him and hugged him, bidding him good night. Then, she went back to the little living room their suite had, where her mentor was waiting for her. Judging by his amused and yet impatient expression, he had questions.

Chapter Text

“You have things to explain, young lady.”

Obedient as ever, Hitomi went to sit in the chair in front of Ensui, not at all fooled by his playful, light tone. It was the first time they had a true suite, with its own bathroom, a bedroom for each and a living room. Hitomi wasn’t used to that kind of luxury, but she knew that any Jōnin worth their title could pay for something like this. Ensui had chosen such a place because they were going to spend four long weeks in Sunagakure. They had never spent more than three days in the same place since the week lost at the Konohajin inn, at the very beginning of their journey.

“First of all… The Kazekage’s son? Of all the kids you could pick as a friend, you chose the Kazekage’s youngest?” She nodded, not even trying to deny she had targeted the war chief’s son on purpose. Since Ensui didn’t look like he wanted to tear her a new one, she explained.

“I heard other kids talking about him. Brats, really. I knew who he was when I met him, but I didn’t tell him that. I don’t want him to think I’m nice with him because he’s someone important here.”

“But you are, a little bit at least, right?”

She shrugged. “It’s not the only reason. We talked a lot, today. He’s really kind, as nice as any Akimichi at least, and yet everyone hates him and is afraid of him. It’s not his fault if Shukaku is acting up…”

“Wait, Shukaku? As in Shukaku, the One-Tailed Beast?”

“I know, right? I had a hard time believing it when he told me. He explained when I asked where his powers were coming from. The demon is really mean to him, you know. He doesn’t even let him sleep at all.”

Ensui went limp in his chair. “From all the kids in the fucking Elemental Nations, you’re the only one who would dare… Well, what is done is done.”

“Exactly what I thought, shishou.”

The man didn’t answer right away, standing up to serve them both glasses of water infused with his chakra as he wrapped his mind around the whole thing. It was so easy to get dehydrated here in the Desert, and the public sources of water weren’t the healthiest ones. Even if Water Release wasn’t his main affinity, he preferred giving her water he knew was pure.

“Well,” he sighed as he sat back, “there’s no harm in letting you spend time with the boy, I guess. But, please, don’t tell your mother or your uncle that I let you anywhere near a foreign jinchūriki. I’d like to keep my head on my shoulders, not buried in Kurenai’s garden.”

“So, I guess I can be friends with Uzumaki Naruto too when we get back?” she chirped. Living isolated inside the Nara land hadn’t stopped her from hearing about the Nine Tail and his young host. She had developed a talent for being exactly at the right place and time to collect intel.

“Hitomi, you’re not supposed to know that!”

She raised an eyebrow and looked at him. “Really, shishou. It’s the worst kept secret in the whole village.”

He at least had the gracefulness to appear embarrassed, rubbing his neck with an uneasy smile. She would be embarrassed too if her Jōnin colleagues had been unable to keep a secret. Ninjas were always the worst gossips.

Adult and child talked for a while until it was time to go to sleep. She woke up startled in the middle of the night; her meridians sensitivity was back with a vengeance. She felt like she was drowning in lava and had to spend hours in her Library fixing the problem. Ensui was right: the quiet times between her oversensitivity coming back were getting longer and longer. She could even start to summon this sense as will without getting overwhelmed. It wasn’t a complete success yet, but still a really good start.

In the following days, she got herself into a comfortable routine. In the morning, Gaara brought them some breakfast, something special they would only find in the village. A few mouthfuls provided enough energy for a whole morning of hard work. After that, they went to the training room in the basement of the hotel and Hitomi greeted the sun with Gaara, who had learned the moves by watching her.

Once she was properly warmed up, she worked on the skill Ensui had chosen for the day, often fighting. She wasn’t ready to spar with a real adult partner, so he made her do it against a shadow clone he transformed into a copy of his student with strawberry blonde hair. It was weird to fight against herself, but incredibly efficient: the clone, with Ensui’s taijutsu skills, was impossible to hit at her level, so she could never manage to dissipate it.

From time to time, Ensui asked Gaara to give him a hand in shuriken practice; the little boy was delighted to help by creating targets she had to hit with her weapons. It was hard sometimes, the targets hidden or too high for her to reach easily. Ensui told her he didn’t care how she hit them as long as she did, so she had to put her mind to it. After a really good training session, he even told her he wanted to teach her how to use senbon, the long needles that could be so precise and deadly. Before that, though, she had to master shuriken properly.

After a short break around noon, Hitomi had three hours of free time she always spent with Gaara. He showed her the sights of the city, the places he really loved and the ones that were important to him. She carefully stored each memory she built with him away in her Library. It was easy to entertain Gaara, who always looked at her with stars in his eyes. She was the stranger in this village, but it was ten times easier for her to communicate with adults and get what she wanted – be it ice creams or a pair of cinema tickets. Mentor and apprentice didn’t talk about it, but she was under the impression that Ensui always had his eyes on them.

At four in the afternoon, she came back to the suite, alone most of the time. Gaara was always sad when she had to go, but Ensui had explained to the boy that she didn’t have a powerful demon for protection and that she needed to learn new things, secret things, so she’d have alternatives if she needed such a weapon one day. Hitomi found him really good with special kids. Her, first, then Gaara. It couldn’t be just a coincidence. She wondered why he’d never helmed a Genin team. He would make a wonderful teacher.

With her mentor, Hitomi was learning the subtle and incredibly difficult art of sealing. As he had thought, she was instinctually predisposed to understanding how they worked. The only thing she lacked was experience, the thousand repetitions of a stroke before it was truly perfect, the time to master complicated moves necessary to draw some of them. Of course, Ensui didn’t allow her to use the special ink, only a simple one she could have bought at any store. She used stacks and stacks of paper scrolls. After a few days, her wrist was sore all throughout the day, and the ink stains didn’t wash out anymore. It was a small price to pay, though, for a bit of progress in the field she was so passionate about.

She’d been at Sunagakure for ten days when Gaara asked a question she hadn’t foreseen, his big turquoise eyes looking up to her as if she had an answer to all the mysteries of the universe. “Hitomi-nee, what does pain feel like?”

They had just left the cinema after seeing the most recent adventure movie. The girl wondered why her friend was asking such a question at this exact moment, then she realised that it had to have weighed on his mind for days, perhaps since the day they had met, and he had needed all this time to muster the courage to ask. He was the kind to swallow a feeling for days and days because he didn’t know how to translate it into proper words. She had had to work on him for days to get him to open up slowly, to admit the crushing loneliness that haunted him at all times.

“It’s… it’s a bit hard to describe with words. You see, when you’re in pain, it’s your body telling your brain that there’s danger and you have to back away as quickly as possible.” She let out a big sigh, weighing her words carefully, then continued. “There are two main types of pain: physical or emotional. People sometimes think they’re the same, but I strongly disagree. I’d prefer a physical pain lasting for years rather than an hour of emotional pain. Do you understand how they’re different?”

He nodded but she knew he was only doing so to please her, and was still struggling to wrap his mind around the concepts she was introducing him to. After all, he had never felt any physical pain and lived his life under constant emotional pain without knowing it. Her hand around his, she opened the door to the suite, which was starting to permeate with traces of its inhabitants’ personalities. Ensui didn’t bother packing all his things when he left, for instance: he knew Hitomi wouldn’t use them in a dangerous way.

“I know a way to make you feel physical pain despite your sand, Gaara, and in a safe way, but I have to warn you: it won’t be pleasant at all, if you decide to follow my idea.”

“But you always say that knowledge is a ninja’s most important weapon…”

“I do, and it is. I think you should do it because you have to be prepared to face this sensation if, one day, an opponent manages to hurt you. If you know what it feels, you won’t be caught off guard, you’ll know how to react.” She didn’t say it, but she also wanted him to learn pain so he never became the monster she knew from the first part of the canon. She knew he could have empathy, but empathy came with experience and understanding. He couldn’t see from other people’s perspectives if he never knew similar torments to the ones they faced every day.

“I-I’ll do it,” he mumbled. He looked so frightened it prompted Hitomi to hug him, as softly and tenderly as she could. She breathed in the scent of the sun and sand on his red hair, realising how small he looked compared to her, who wasn’t exactly a tall kid. She fully intended on taking advantage of this size difference when she still could, to deserve the suffix he’d used with her name for a few days now.

“You’re very brave, Gaara. I’ll be with you through this, I promise.” Under his anxious stare, she went to Ensui’s chemicals and looked for the one she needed. He had left them here for her to experiment, mostly on poisons. She didn’t have permission to test them herself, of course, and hadn’t asked what her mentor did to ensure her creations worked. She didn’t want to know.

“I guess you’ve heard of poisons, since it’s a Sunajin specialty. That’s what I’m going to use to make you learn pain but don’t worry, it will just last for a few minutes before I give you the antidote.” She picked a pill in Ensui’s poison kit then its counterpart. He had started desensitising her to common poisons, since she might use them in her fighting style. After pouring water in a glass, she dropped the pill in it and watched it dissolve and turn the liquid white. “You’re sure you want to do this, Gaara?”

She looked him in the eyes until he nodded. He still looked afraid, but there was a new-found determination in his eyes. This would make him an incredible shinobi one day. With an encouraging smile, she gave him the glass and watched him as he drank it in a few fast sips.

A few minutes later, she had to help him lay down on her bed. He had grown excruciatingly pale, his face covered by a thin layer of sweat, his limbs shaking as he hugged his no doubt painful belly. Terrified little moans escaped his lips, tears rolling on his cheeks.

“Take this, put it under your tongue and let it melt,” Hitomi whispered calmly. “It’s the antidote. Everything is gonna be okay, Gaara. You’ve very brave.”

He did as he was told and held Hitomi’s hand in his own, clammy and shaky. She cradled it until it was over and his body was done fighting off the poison – she felt it, in the way he slowly relaxed in her embrace.

“Y-you should hate me,” he mumbled, barely loud enough to be heard, his face drenched in tears hidden against her shoulder. She shifted away, just far enough to take his face between her hands and dried the wet paths on his cheeks.

“Why would I? I couldn’t hate you even if my life depended on it, Gaara. I’m so incredibly proud of you, and proud to be your friend. Friends hurt each other sometimes, physically or emotionally. That doesn’t mean they stop loving each other, and I still love you very much. Do you want to keep being my friend?”

With a hasty nod, he moved back in her arms, nuzzling against her like a tiny animal, and started sobbing uncontrollably. She let him cry, knowing full well how tears could set someone free. Her hands traced comforting circles on his back and did so until he fell asleep. An hour later, Ensui found them both sleeping, still hugging each other. He saw the glass, the traces of poison and disturbance of his bags, but didn’t say anything. Sometimes, he preferred not to know.

Chapter Text

The idea came to Hitomi, with the subtlety of a storm, during a restless night. She sat up on her bed, eyes wide open, her body tensed by a rush of adrenaline, then threw the covers away and stood up, the movement so quick she almost tripped on the cold floor. She had to fight with the desk lamp to get some light, cursed at her fingers, turned feverish by her haste.

She grabbed a notebook, still untouched, and started jotting down ideas as fast as she possibly could, almost afraid to forget something. She knew she couldn’t, but still. She almost felt like flying, pure euphoria pumping through her veins as she saw her pen scribble all the pieces she would need for this project. It was feasible – and she couldn’t understand how no Seal Master had ever thought of it.

“Hitomi?”

Startled out of her trance, she threw her pen in the direction of the voice by reflex. Ensui caught it between his index and middle finger and raised an eyebrow, looking at the tiny thing that could have killed him if he hadn’t been a shinobi. Okay, that was a good reflex to have for a young, future kunoichi, but still. “Wanna explain why you’re up in the middle of the night despite knowing I expect you ready for training at dawn?”

Only then did she look up from her notebook. Ensui couldn’t muffle his laugh when he saw the state she was in, ink staining her skin up to the tip of her nose. It made him look back and reflect on his own training, ages ago. He certainly hadn’t tried to appear clean or neat when he was in a studying frenzy. Once again, he mentally thanked Shikaku and the Hermit for giving him such an apprentice.

“I’m s-sorry, shishou. It’s just… I had this idea , something that could change the world or at least be an awesome tool for us, one day. I can’t go back to sleep now, I just can’t. I’m not even tired, I swear.”

With a sigh, Ensui came into her room, his bare feet producing an almost inaudible pitter-patter against the tatamis. Hitomi had made fun of his shuriken pyjamas, with this gleam in her eyes that meant she did it out of affection. Now, she didn’t even notice it anymore. It was just a cute outfit for a big, terrifying ninja. He tied his hair in a hasty ponytail – he probably wasn’t going to get anymore sleep – then looked at her work, his hand rubbing her frail shoulder when he noticed she was cold.

It took him a while to understand what she was up to. It was very technical, her notes using kanjis and ornaments he had never used and barely remembered seeing in the books he had given her to study. Frowning, he brushed a kanji in particular with his finger then tapped on it, as if to emphasise his deep thinking. “It is possible… But you’d have to work like hell to do it, kid.”

“Can I try?” she asked. “Please, shishou!”

He met her stare and almost stumbled from the strength of those large red eyes, full of supplication, avidity and impatience. He didn’t have a chance against such a stare and he knew it. His hand softly patted her shoulder. She had grown a lot these past few months. He noticed it sometimes, like someone would notice a train hitting them full force. “I think you can succeed. Fine, I’ll allow it, but on one condition: it can’t interfere with your other duties, to me or to your friend.”

She’d have less free time that way, but Ensui knew she would manage it just fine. She wouldn’t break under any pressure, he was sure of it. He didn’t want to test that hypothesis, of course, but she had taken the best traits from the Nara clan and from her terror of a mother. He could already see the girl walk in Kurenai’s steps in that regard and even surpass her. By the time she hit puberty, the whole village would probably have a reason to fear and love her.

It was settled then. That night, Hitomi didn’t sleep, so deeply immersed in her complex calculations and test strokes that she didn’t see the time pass. When Gaara walked in her room the following morning, she was still bent on her notebook, now almost full of notes of all kinds. She rubbed her eyes, staining them a bit more with black ink. She looked a bit like her friend, now, or like a chirpy little raccoon.

“Oh, thank you, Gaara!” She stood up and hugged him. She had discovered he loved hugs but didn’t dare ask for them, so she had taken it upon herself to hug him at least five times a day. He didn’t know how to react quite yet but it was coming to him slowly, and already he understood how to wrap his arms around her neck to hold her close. He almost purred with pleasure. So fucking cute.

“Did you decide to shower with an inkwell, Hitomi-nee?”

The girl looked up, startled, and stumbled upon her reflection in the mirror suspended behind her door. She grimaced when she realised the state she was in. She had ink all over her face and hands, even in her hair. That would be a pain to wash. “Uh… I’m gonna take a shower and change, okay? Go wait with Ensui-shishou, I won’t be too long.”

She was long, but trying to get those stains to disappear from her pale skin involved a liberal amount of scrapping and soap. When she was done and more or less clean, she put on her training outfit and went to join her mentor and friend to the training room, wondering at the way her clothes felt too tight and a size or two too little for her. In this life, would she continue growing and reach a decent size? Five feet seven inches sounded good, for a kunoichi.

In the training room, with Gaara following each of her movements, she greeted the sun with a contented sigh. Her back and shoulders had suffered that night and it relieved her to no end to move once more. Her spine and joints snapped right in place again as she stretched through the routine of the greeting, pushing further than she usually did. She had to find something, a way for her body to stay in top condition even when she worked on theoretical subjects. Her enemies wouldn’t politely wait until she was done creating a seal before beating the shit out of her. She couldn’t allow herself to take it easy, in any kind of way.

That day, she fought against a clone, with weapons this time. Ensui tried to discover which type of blade would suit her the most – he didn’t like her to wander around without steel in a foreign village but knew he couldn’t give her even the dullest kunai. Ensui didn’t like much about Sunagakure, really. The sand annoyed him to no end, all the water around tasted like rust, and the sun burned like hell. Despite the constant unhappy grumble at the back of his mind, he always took care of putting sunscreen on Hitomi’s paler, more fragile skin before doing it for himself. She needed it more, and he could take the pain if he delayed enough to get a sunburn.

Kunai, as main weapons, didn’t suit Hitomi. They were too short, and even with one in each hand, she felt almost unbalanced when she tried to create a safety circle around her body. It wasn’t any better when she attacked: she hated being forced to stick to an opponent like glue to have a chance to land a hit. With a katana, she had another problem: she lacked accuracy, and the length of the blade disturbed the still hesitant harmony of her hits. She almost screamed with frustration when, trying to dodge a punch from the clone, she impaled herself on the wooden katana’s guard.

The   tantō, though, felt perfect from the moment she tried her first swing with it. It was shorter, but not to the point of her not being able to defend herself, and lighter as well. It was a short and straight version of a katana, with a guard fit only for a one-handed hold. The   tantō adjusted itself to her, rather than the other way around. She tested it against Ensui’s shadow clone until her shoulders shook with exhaustion. She felt so incredibly good.

“Well, I think we found your weapon, Hitomi. Go play with Gaara and be back in time for your lesson.”

The girl nodded, a smile on her lips. She took care of putting back all the wooden weapons she'd used, respecting of her mentor’s efforts to get them, then she took off with her friend. She knew how difficult it had been for Ensui to gain the right to train her on foreign grounds. She still listened to gossip, wherever she was, and she understood how fragile the peace between Konoha and Sunagakure was. And the situation would get worse before it got better, if she didn’t find a way to change things. Maybe she already had, with Gaara, but she couldn’t be sure, not before events unfolded.

She went with Gaara to a little stand not so far away from the hotel. It sold food that was practical to eat as they walked, and Gaara really liked it. Her own palate had gotten used to the spices Sunajin seemed to throw in every dish in liberal amounts. She didn’t feel hot anymore when she ate, which was really for the best. Gaara, at least, couldn’t make fun of her red cheeks and sweaty forehead anymore.

The two kids had a pleasant afternoon, as always. Sometimes, other children dared to try messing up with Hitomi, but one look at Gaara always made them back away. The girl was glad her friend protected her that way: it would be so bad for the peace if she grabbed one brat and used him to hit the others. The fact they had started it wouldn’t matter then.

When Gaara walked her back to the hotel, she was more enthusiastic than usual and had a hard time hiding it. After all, he’d be the first to receive her secret project, if it worked like she had intended it to. She hugged him, not caring one bit when the sand rose around them. Gaara couldn’t always control his power and she had gotten used to the tiny scratches he left her with sometimes. They didn’t even hurt anymore.

She found Ensui in their living room. He was waiting for her, a chemistry book opened on his lap, his long legs crossed. His hair was still damp from his last shower, probably an effort to fight off the Desert’s heat – a pointless effort, if his discreet frown was any indication. After taking a biscuit from the tray he had left her, she sat on the ground, looking up to him, and the lesson started. It was madly interesting. Hitomi wasn’t satisfied with the colour of her smoke bombs, so he had decided to talk to her about pigments: he explained their origins, their potency, the particular effects she could expect if she mixed them with other chemicals.

After that, he gave her a history lesson, focusing on the last Shinobi World War, of which he had been a big part. It was during those dreadful fights that he had gained his nickname, Konoha’s Strangling Shadow. Now the Bingo Book advised shinobi not to fight him, except if they could count on the support of two Jōnin. Right at the beginning of the lesson, Hitomi understood her mentor hated war, found it dirty and pointless. Yet, he had followed orders, because he was loyal to Shikaku and to the Nara Clan. He finished by telling her about the incident that had made him lose all respect for Hiruzen Sarutobi, Hokage the Third.

“I had a son, a ten years old boy, when ROOT reappeared. He was incredibly talented, a genius even, just like you and Shikamaru. He could master his shadows with an accuracy that even I lack. Of course, we were living through dangerous times. Despite his young age, he was already a Genin and the rumour was he’d be promoted soon. Danzō took him from his team while I was away on a mission and put that dreadful seal on his tongue. He sent my boy to dangerous missions he couldn’t tell me anything about. He always came back wounded – one day, he didn’t come back at all. They told me his body couldn’t be found. I still don’t know why he died, what obscure mission was worth him dying. I couldn’t… I couldn’t even give him a service.”

Hitomi was lost for words. She didn’t know what to say, what could possibly make her shishou’s pain a little bit more bearable. Such words probably didn’t even exist. She had to settle with putting a hand on his forearm without looking at him, because she knew how embarrassed he would be if he knew she could see and hear his tears. He had never cried in front of her. A lot of shinobi found tears disgraceful, a sign of weakness. She disagreed. One had to be strong to cry, to face their own distress.

After that, the lesson stopped. Hitomi got up and brought a glass of lemonade to her mentor, then fetched her books so she could work there, sitting her back against one of his legs. After an hour or so, he got himself back together enough to be able to watch over her shoulder and tell her some piece of information that would be useful to her project. Thanks to him, she advanced a lot on her research that night, even if she wasn’t quite ready for an experiment yet.

“You’ll need a lot of paper for this, I guess.”

She hummed in answer, busy biting on her pen, then answered in more detail. “I think I want to use notebooks for them, so you can easily carry one around but it won’t get crumpled if you rough it up a little. Hardcover notebooks, I guess. Do you think I could find some at a bookshop?”

He considered it for a few seconds then answered, tapping his fingers against his knee as if to help gather his thoughts. “Possible, yeah. Your mother gave me some money for you, an allowance if you will. I was just waiting for you to need it… and I guess you already know how you’re gonna spend it.”

She laughed, a soft, light sound that warmed both their hearts, then looked up to him. “Can I have the money tomorrow, please? I’d like to go around the bookshops with Gaara.” Since it had worked so well last time, she used the Kitten Stare Technique once more. She didn’t use any chakra, so she wasn’t sure she could really call it a technique, but who would complain? Not Ensui, that was for sure: he was too busy drowning in her big red eyes and trying to resist her cute pout. It wasn’t her fault if adults, especially her mentor and her uncle, were so sensitive to it. When he sighed so loud it looked like he was trying to blow away the whole desert, she knew she had won and hugged him, laughing again.

Chapter Text

“I still don’t understand why you need so many notebooks,” Gaara huffed. He wasn’t the only one having a hard time there: Hitomi too crumbled under the weight of dozens and dozens of notebooks. She had bought so many . After a while, her friend had had enough and had used his sand to carry most of the stack, but still, they had their hands full. The Sunajin walking around probably thought they were hallucinating and watched, open-mouthed, as their jinchūriki and this damn foreign girl went back to the hotel.

“I’m working on that fūinjutsu project…”

“I know that! But you have enough to open your own bookstore, where you’d only sell empty notebooks. Don’t you think you went a bit overboard there?”

Hitomi looked at all the notebooks, their colourful spines and white edges, then shrugged. “Nope!”

Gaara sighed, doing his best to follow her. Almost two years her junior, he couldn’t help but admire her – but she walked too fast for the Desert, she really did. “Anyway, you gonna tell me about this project?”

“Sorry, Gaara, it’s a secret. You won’t know a thing before it’s done and I can show you.”

“But you told Ensui-san!”

For just a moment, Hitomi almost gave in. She shouldn’t have taught the Stare to Gaara, he was too effective with those damned big turquoise eyes of his. She shook it up, freeing herself from the ‘technique’, and gave him her most sibylline smile. “I told him because he has at least twenty years on me when it comes to fūinjutsu, so he can help. And I want the project to be ready before I leave. I need all the help I can get.”

“But why ?” he whined.

This time, she burst out laughing. Seeing Gaara acting like a boy his age was pure bliss, a consecration even. She was so happy she almost wanted to drop her notebooks and hug him. She’d get a mean scratch from his sand if she ever did that, and didn’t want to damage her new acquisitions, but still, the desire was there.

“You’ll see!” She started running then, all her ninja agility stopping the notebooks from falling all over the road, thrilled to hear him run after her. She reached the door of the suite before him, but only because she had trained for almost a year now, at least when it came to running. Her body really started to get in a satisfying shape. With a playful laugh, she entered the living room, not giving the slightest fuck about the sand she was leaving everywhere. Anyway, Gaara would do worse than that. Far worse.

Ensui was reading, slouched on the couch like the Nara he was. He looked up from his page when he heard her turn up with such a racket, then raised both eyebrows as he saw the unholy number of notebooks she had bought. Then he saw Gaara’s stack and it took all he had not to start laughing maniacally. If there was just one empty notebook left in any Sunajin bookshop, he’d eat his whole pouch of kunai. Slowly, feigning a laziness that didn’t fit him but went along with the Nara brand, he got up and caught the books from the top of her pile, which were perilously sliding forward.

“If you don’t have enough to get your project ready with all that, I’ll be damned. What will you do if you have some left?”

“Oh, I’ll think of something,” she answered with a mysterious smile.

Ensui let out a resigned sigh then served them both a glass of lemonade. He let them calm down for half an hour, knowing full well how useless and mean it would be to make them work so quickly after living quite the adventure – for their age, anyway. They could have focused, but why take away the tiny joys he could offer them, and what were thirty little minutes to him? He had to admit he liked seeing his apprentice so happy, and he himself had come to like the little jinchūriki who followed her everywhere.

When they calmed down, he started that day’s lesson. For some subjects, he allowed Gaara’s presence. He knew the little boy didn’t have any form of teacher or even authority around, except for Hitomi and now him. What harm would it do to teach him about medicine, like today? It was even a good thing that he was there: that way, Hitomi could practice on someone around her size and weight. The children trusted each other so deeply they didn’t have any problem with letting the other manipulate their body.

After the lesson, Gaara went home, saying goodbye to Hitomi as he always did, with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She knew how hard she would miss him once Ensui decided it was time to go. She had come to know him, really know him, and to love life around him. He was a true friend, someone she could go to if she wanted to speak about anything, be it her day or the fears keeping her up at night. It would be hard, not seeing him every day anymore.

When he was gone, she went back to her fūinjutsu books. Some of them were very old, and she was aware Ensui hadn’t gotten them the legal way. Sometimes, he went away for a few hours during the night and, when he came back in the morning, there were new books on Hitomi’s desk, books that smelled like the Sunajin’s shinobi library and were now missing from it. Quite frankly, Hitomi didn’t give a shit about the fact that her master stole priceless books from a foreign nation. If the public had been able to read them and check them out, he wouldn’t have had to do that. But no , the fūinjutsu section had to be for Sunajin Jōnin only. Ridiculous.

During most of the evening, she worked on her first test of the seals. She went to fetch two empty notebooks from one of the piles in a corner of her room and, under Ensui’s ever-watchful stare, she drew her seals on the inner part of the covers, one book then the other. Her calligraphy had gotten a lot better these last few months, to the insane level of precision asked from fūinjutsu apprentices. She still had a lot to work on before she could aspire to the title of Seal Mistress, but at least she was good enough for this work.

After twenty minutes, her first test was ready. She mixed chakra and infused it in a page after writing a few kanji on it, her eyes full of a voracious impatience. She only owed her safety to Ensui’s prodigious reflexes: he grabbed her and propelled her away from the two notebooks just before they turned into a huge ball of fire. His hand slightly shook as he held her against his torso, his mouth spewing chakra-infused water to extinguish the flames. “That was close. What do you say, Seal Mistress?”

She swallowed the nervous laugh that wanted to escape her lips and put a few strands of hair behind her ear so they wouldn’t get it the way. “The combustion wasn’t planned and means that something is seriously wrong with this seal, that it lacks stability. However, the fact they both caught fire at the same time is a very good sign, right, shishou?”

Ensui couldn’t help but laugh, seeing her in this state of dishevelment and yet so serious, so enthusiastic. She had failed, and yet she didn’t seem affected at all, or only by an impatience to get back to work. He messed up her hair even more, his hand soft on the black curls. She had scared him. “I agree with you, kid. But seeing the strength of the reaction makes me believe it best to have you experiment only when I’m there and ready to grab you. I forbid any test without my supervision. We still have ten days left in Suna. You have enough time to finish it before we go. Alright?’

She nodded, meeting his eyes to show him she took it all seriously. His instructions made sense, after all. She certainly didn’t have the power to extinguish fire with a few hand seals. She didn’t have large enough chakra reserves yet for any ninjutsu training, and even less for techniques that looked around B rank like this one.

After working on it for one more hour, she was ready to try again. Another failure: this time, the two notebooks turned to dust. It was frustrating, yes, but it also gave her valuable information about what had gone wrong. With the help of her books, she could discover why her seals didn’t turn out the way she wanted them to. Still, Ensui didn’t seem to think the number of books she had bought was so insane anymore.

She only had ten days left and she intended on getting the most out of them. She wanted to succeed before leaving Sunagakure. Imagining Gaara’s reaction when she’d give it to him was motivation enough. She wanted to see it for real. She didn’t count the hours, nor the number of books she had to read through to get what she needed. She had chosen another of her notebooks to write down her ideas for improvements. She didn’t really need to, but it comforted her.

The hard part was hiding her work without making it unstable. Ensui had lectured her for two hours about the secret she needed to keep in mind at all times around seals. All masters had to be careful, so their seals didn’t fall into enemies’ hands. She had to find ways to make her seals more complex, impossible to decipher, by using more than one layer of ink on the paper so a curious reader couldn’t tell which one belonged to her seal, all without disturbing the fragile construction that her work was.

During a sparring session, Hitomi understood she had to learn how to compartmentalise her thoughts and activities. She was fighting against a shadow clone Ensui had created, her naked feet pattering against the tatamis each time she dodged, but part of her mind was focused on the last problem she had stumbled upon with her seal. She did her best to focus on her opponent, but she had to admit it: she was doing a pretty shitty job of it.

Suddenly, she was overwhelmed, the clone pressing harder and harder against the weakest points of her defence, so hard, in fact, that her feet got mixed up and she tripped. Usually, the clone backed away, allowing her to regain her balance, but not this time. On the contrary, it pushed its advantage against her and picked up the pace, the wooden blade hitting her hard on the shoulder. She yelped in pain, but that didn’t stop the clone either, nor did it let her time to protect herself or back away.

And then…

Then.

Then her whole world turned into a sandstorm, billions of abrasive grains of sand shifting and flying to form a protective dome around her. The clone exploded in smoke, its wooden   tantō falling on the ground. A hand on her shoulder to assess the damage, Hitomi tried to get up, out of breath and her hair stuck against her skin from sweat.

She couldn’t see it but, outside the sandstorm, Ensui and Gaara had gotten in a glaring match. Everything contrasted them, up to their very attitude: the Nara looked relaxed, as always, but the child was so tense his body probably protested, his two hands up in the air to command his sand to protect his precious friend.

“Call back the sand, kid. Lesson isn't over yet.”

“It is, and I won’t! You hurt her!”

“She didn’t focus ! What do you think, kid, that enemy ninjas will wait for her to give them her whole attention before doing something far worse to her? I won’t watch my apprentice get killed because she didn’t learn she can’t be distracted during a fight, I just won’t!”

A heavy silence settled on the training room. Mortified, Hitomi cowered against the sand wall, still slightly shaking. She knew Ensui was right, of course, but she had worked so hard from the very beginning so she wouldn’t disappoint him; having it happening after so many months made her feel so lost she didn’t know how to react. Her face burning with shame, she forbade her tears from running down her cheeks.

Gaara reluctantly obeyed Ensui’s instructions. The sand crumpled then came back to pool around his feet. When he didn’t use it, Gaara usually gave it the shape of an animal from any part of the Desert, since he didn’t have his gourd yet to transport it. Sometimes, his creations were so vivid they seemed to be the real thing. This time, though, he was too upset to create anything.

Ensui was the first to Hitomi’s side, kneeling to come eye to eye with her. His hand careful and soft, he pulled on her neckline to expose her shoulder and see the wound he had inflicted to her.

His features were frozen in an expressionless mask as his dark grey eyes took in the dark purple bruise on her pale skin. Without commenting on it, he stood up and helped her to her feet, careful to avoid her painful shoulder. “Come too, Gaara,” he commanded calmly.

Without even checking if the little boy was following – he was quite obedient after all, thanks to Hitomi’s influence – Ensui led his apprentice through the hotel, to their suite. In three days, they’d leave the desert and all its hidden treasures behind, as hard as it would be. Hitomi’s training was far from over. He still had a lot to teach her before she was ready to go back. Before he was ready to go back.

In the living room, he made her sit on the couch and asked her to take off her shirt, giving her a towel to cover what needed to be. He knew children her age weren’t really modest, but Hitomi was different. If he could avoid it, he'd rather not intrude or make her embarrassed in his presence.

His features now betraying an emotion Hitomi couldn’t quite define, he brushed his fingers against the bruise then engulfed it under his large, calloused palm. In Hitomi’s eyes, her master’s hands were beautiful, a work of art even, the scars and calluses a testimony of his life as a shinobi. She closed her eyes and sighed with relief when he got to work, minty green chakra pouring out of his fingers to slowly erase the bruise. When he lifted his hand, her skin had turned a fading shade of yellow and it didn’t hurt anymore when she moved, only when she touched it – which she did only once. Medical ninja arts were a true miracle.

“I’m really sorry, Hitomi. Gaara is right, I was too hard on you. You need to learn this lesson, but still, I was too hard. Sometimes, I forget how young you still are. I’m sorry.”

Speechless, her eyes wide open in shock, Hitomi stared at her mentor. Next to her, Gaara acted the same. Neither of them were used to adults admitting when they were in the wrong in front of them or, even worse, accepting that a child had shown better discernment than they had. The girl pulled herself together first and brushed his forearm with a comforting smile. “It’s okay, shishou. Look, it’s almost gone! I know you won’t make this mistake again, I trust you. And you’re right, I have to learn.”

These words didn’t do much to ease Ensui’s guilt. He had never thought he’d ever be that hard on his apprentice, who worked so hard to please him. Still, he was thankful for the mix of kindness and sweetness she offered him. He knew that, with a memory like hers, forgiving was not a small feat. He had lived long enough amongst his clanmates to understand.

After making sure his apprentice was alright, he allowed Gaara to take her for lunch. Later, still feeling a bit guilty, he cut the theoretical lesson short so she could have a bit more time with her secret project. The faster she was done, the faster he could fully get her back, anyway.

Chapter Text

In the middle of the night, a victorious cry woke up a number of people in the hotel, some starting to grumble about the damned girl who had interrupted their night. Not one of them, though, dared to go knock on her door, knowing full well that she was sharing her suite with an adult, terrifying shinobi. They liked their head on their neck, thank you very much.

In the suite’s living room, Hitomi had jumped on her feet and was hopping up and down with excitement. Deep in her euphoria, she leaped in her mentor’s arms. He held her close, laughing with her. He had seen her throw herself in this project, put her whole soul into it, and was just delighted for her to see that she had succeeded in time.

The due date had grown so close he had allowed her to have a sleepless night: in a few hours, at dawn, they would say their goodbyes and hit the road again, leaving Sunagakure behind them. Then, Ensui would have quite some time left for Hitomi’s training before she had to be back in Konoha for the Academy. When his protegee would get in a Genin team and go out again without him, she’d know what to do.

Ensui had to admit it: for her age, Hitomi’s prowess was incredible, the kind even Hokage the Fourth hadn’t been capable of. To be fair, Namikaze Minato hadn’t been taught from as young as she was, but still. Ensui knew full well that he couldn’t have created that seal, even if he had had the idea in the first place. One day, one day so close he could feel it breathing down his neck, she’d surpass him in this field. She’d need someone who knew far more that he did about fūinjutsu. As if Seal Masters were easy to find. Only two of them were still alive in the whole world, and both had left Konoha a long time ago.

Gaara, still very punctual for a four years old child, was at their door ten minutes before dawn. Hitomi hadn’t been able to make him grow out of the fear she wouldn’t be his friend anymore or wouldn’t want to see him if he was even a minute late and, since being on time was a good habit anyway, she had stopped trying.

The suite had been emptied of everything that had made it lively during the past month, clothes, weapons and unholy piles of notebooks back in a storage seal she kept in her backpack, far lighter than it had been when she had left Konoha. There were only two left, waiting on the coffee table – but those were really, really special.

The two kids couldn’t really hide their sadness as they ate the breakfast Gaara had brought. Ensui was too respectful of his apprentice to act like he hadn’t noticed, but they couldn’t be late: the caravan they had come with wouldn’t wait for them as it left Sunagakure. He motioned for her to proceed as she had planned when the time of departure approached.

She stood up then, her eyes shining with restrained tears. She kept her emotions at bay, her back straight, like the future kunoichi he could see in her, in her silhouette, in her eyes, in the way she carried her wooden tantō, in her aerial gait. Her movements almost reverent, she took the two notebooks waiting on the coffee table and went back to Gaara, who had followed her with his eyes filled with such melancholy Ensui’s heart ached.

“I-I’d like to give you a gift before leaving. I know you’ll be alone again and I’ll miss you an awful lot, s-so I thought… Here, it’s for you.” She gave him one of the notebooks, the one with a turquoise spine. She had written his name on the cover in golden kanjis, her calligraphy as perfect and harmonious as ever.

The boy took her offering but stared at it with confusion, biting his lower lip. “You… You got me a notebook?”

She blushed and showed him the one she had kept for herself, red and black, with her name written in silver on the cover. “You see, the project I was working on… well, that’s it. Wait, I’m going to show you how it works.” She opened her notebook, grabbed a pencil and wrote a few words on the first page. When she was done, she infused chakra in the paper; immediately, Gaara’s notebook turned cold, making him suck in a breath. Hitomi had quickly discovered that, with a flammable medium, the opposite reaction was asking for a disaster. “Open it,” she smiled.

The boy obeyed, as he always did when her friend spoke. He raised an eyebrow when he saw that a message had appeared on the first page. He wanted to understand but didn’t dare to, fearing the bitter sting of disappointment if he had gotten it wrong.

“See,” Hitomi chirped, “we can stay in touch that w–“

She didn’t get to finish her sentence: he had pounced on her like a cute kitty cat and was hugging her as strong as he could without hurting her. And how much stronger he had become, even in a short month! Hitomi hadn’t been the only one to work during Ensui’s training sessions. With a delighted little laugh, she hugged him back with her free hand, petting his hair.

“I love you, Hitomi-nee!”

Those words really surprised her. Her eyes widening in surprise, she looked at Ensui in hope he’d have the answer to her silent question. When he gave her an encouraging smile and a nod, she relaxed. “I love you too, Gaara. Don’t you ever forget that.”

She spent the next fifteen minutes explaining everything he needed to know about her invention to Gaara. He could write as much as he wanted before infusing chakra in the paper: the complete message would appear on her notebook. She didn’t tell him, but she had discovered she could link as many notebooks as she wanted to hers, and she planned to use this as a way to create a little net of communication. The notebook grew cold when it got a new message, which stayed until an hour after the notebook had been opened without disappearing from the page. It was more than enough time to copy the message before answering if Gaara wanted to – Hitomi herself would never need that.

The two children agreed to write to each other at least once a day, and to warn the other when it wouldn’t be possible. They agreed on the fact they could send more messages in case of emergency, and that it might be impossible for the other to answer right away. After all, Hitomi would soon enter the Academy, and Gaara would follow his own teaching program, even if he wasn’t sure yet he wanted to go to Suna’s shinobi school. Teachers wouldn’t know how to manage him, and all his classmates would be afraid of him. When she would be gone, there wouldn’t be anyone left for him. She needed to change that.

The goodbyes were bitter, but sweetened by this new possibility, this line of communication. Gaara was still learning to write, but his kanas were good enough for them to communicate. He’d even have a good motivation to learn his kanjis now that he had someone to use them with. Hitomi had never wondered about ninja children and their precocity. It seemed normal to her, now that she was immersed in it. Most clan kids could read and write without problems around the age of six. Gaara was already really good for his age, and she – no, she was a special case.

Some members of the caravan remembered them and greeted them kindly, memories coming to mind of their willingness to help with chores even though they had paid for their spot in their group, of their tendency to stay apart during mealtime, of their training when they stopped because of the heat. This time, it was another team escorting them, three Chūnin. Hitomi was delighted to realise she had been able to keep her perceptions encaged for more than two weeks now. She didn’t need to back down, didn’t need to stay aside. She was free.

Once again, the days became monotonous. They walked slowly on a sea of sand, the sun glaring at them before allowing a cold, cold night to replace its suffocating heat. Fortunately, this time, Hitomi had more things to do to keep busy, and she didn’t have to cope with her feelings coming back like a rubber band breaking. She took a week just to make another notebook for Shikamaru. She missed her cousin dearly and working on this gift for him helped her tone down this yearning.

She had also started drawing her own storage seals. They were so expensive in Konoha, after all. Every ninja who could make their own did, even if it took them hours for the simplest seal. She also knew how to make basic explosive seals but preferred chemical explosions when she had the choice. She was working on the possibility of combining the two types of seals to make one that would create a chemical explosion after storing its components. Her smile as she thought about it made the Chūnin who was looking at her step back with a chill.

During that trip, she also learned survival tactics that would help her if she was ever alone in a desert. One night, Ensui led her far away from the camp, ordered her to wait for two hours then to get back to the fire through her own means. It was harder than she had thought, and she didn’t doubt for a moment that her mentor was following her, his chakra so muffled she couldn’t feel it at all, but she managed after some time spent looking at the night sky. He made her do it every night until he was sure she’d never be lost in such an environment.

The lessons continued, of course. One of the Chūnin was fourteen years old, and quite frail for his age: he soon agreed to be her sparring partner. To make their strength difference less painfully obvious, he was only allowed to use taijutsu, while Hitomi could use her wooden   tantō. Still, she couldn’t even touch him with it, no matter how hard she tried. At least she was good at dodging his attacks. She knew Ensui was incredibly proud of her, and it was all that mattered to her.

One night, bored and not at all drawn to her usual projects, she took an empty notebook from one of her storage seals, sat near the fire and went into her Library. She found what she wanted and started writing the first words of a book she had loved in the Previous World, when she was still a sickly child. It was hard, since she had to translate and adapt it to her new situation, but she really wanted to get all the stories she had loved into this world.

Every night, she waited impatiently for her communication notebook to get cold. She loved it when Gaara told her about his day. He finally had an instructor that didn’t fear him too much and taught him things. Alas, Hitomi feared it wouldn’t last, so she tried to push him to go see his siblings, with no success for the moment. He told her, his writing still a bit clumsy, about what he had learned during the day, and she answered with tales of the Desert and life in a caravan. In the end, what they had to say didn’t matter as much as the fact they were there for each other.

Finally, the Sunajin Desert ended and green replaced yellow in the horizon. The caravan wasn’t as heavily loaded as it had been the first time, which had made it that much quicker. Hitomi admitted this trip wasn’t as boring as the first, but she couldn’t wait for a change of scenery. When Ensui decided it was time to continue alone, she said her goodbyes to the men and women she had come to like, eager still to go back to being alone with her mentor. The fact that he was less grumpy now that they had good grass under their feet was just a bonus.

Chapter Text

Ensui didn’t want to go near any Hidden Village before coming back to Konoha and was very careful to go around the one in the Land of Rivers. When they left the Sunajin Desert, he guided Hitomi south. After a day and a half, they reached the ocean. He watched, moved by a feeling he didn’t quite understand yet, as his apprentice discovered this new scenery.

This ocean couldn’t be more different from the one she knew in the Previous World. This water was a perfect, pure shade of blue, reflecting a sky no cloud troubled. The waves didn’t carry any dirt or trash, gently rolling on the shingle beach. She loved it. She loved it more than words could convey.

With her master’s approval, she had a long walk along the shore, allowing water to tickle her naked feet. The water had been warmed by the sun all day and was quite mild against her skin – and so perfectly transparent. She’d tell Gaara about it and maybe take him here one day. She could already picture the sweet amazement on his face, his turquoise eyes going wide with happiness, and his smile, almost shy but so, so happy.

When she had played enough for her taste, she obediently came back to Ensui, who had gotten a camp ready far enough from the beach, so they didn’t have to sleep on pebbles. He had, though, gotten driftwood so he could show her blue and green flames, and explain how the chemistry behind it worked. That day, they hunted together in the undergrowth a mile from the beach: Hitomi caught a hare and Ensui two birds they ate in a comfortable silence, their legs warmed up by the fire.

Hitomi had to admit that, despite her affection for Gaara, she had missed being alone with Ensui. The boy hadn’t been there all the time but, in the hotel, the relationship between them hadn’t been the same. They had had to adapt, to include her third person in their dynamic, because Hitomi wouldn’t have had it otherwise and Ensui would have been disappointed in her if she had.

Hitomi’s sixth birthday happened a few days later, as they followed the littoral to reach the Land of Fire’s territory. The weather was starting to get cold but, in the south, winters were brief and even milder than in Konoha. The little girl didn’t expect any gift. She knew it wasn’t a priority, for herself or her mentor, and birthdays weren’t really celebrated in her Hidden Village.

However, in the morning, he had something ready for her. As she finished greeting the sun, he bowed slightly and gave her a long package wrapped in a length of dark red silk. Adults seemed to agree on the fact that this was her colour, and she didn’t dare disagree. It could have been far worse, after all. She actually liked dark red, so it was okay. She took the package politely, with her two hands, like her mother had taught her to.

She lost her breath after removing the silk. It was a tantō, a real one, the kind you only found exposed in manors belonging to feudal lords. Unable to hide her amazement, she brushed her fingers against the lacquered black wood, following the red deer silhouettes painted from the extremity of the sheath up to the guard. Slowly, she unsheathed it, the blade whispering against the wood, her movement practiced a thousand times with her practice tantō. This one was so much lighter, and so clean, so perfect. She could see her reflection in the steel. On the brink of tears, Hitomi swallowed the big ball of emotion that had formed in her throat.

“You like it.” It wasn’t a question. Ensui knew, as surely as he knew how to breathe.

“It’s… It’s…” Overwhelmed by emotion, she couldn’t find the words to tell him how grateful she was for this gift. Her mouth hanging open, the little girl managed to tear her gaze away from her new blade to look up at her mentor. There was no need to deny the tears in her eyes. She couldn’t fool him, ever. “Thank you, shishou. I’ll treat it well.”

“I’m glad you like it, kiddo. And I’m sure you will. Tell me, if you decide to name it.”

“I have, shishou. Its name is Peregrine.” She looked at him, then, watched as he understood what the name meant, who it was intended for.

Ensui smiled as she sheathed it and helped her hang it to her belt. In seven years, his apprentice would graduate from the Academy. Then, she’d have to think about a battle outfit, but he had a few ideas for her, if she needed some. He’d have years to tell her about them. He could already dream about them, though, about the kunoichi she’d become. The others wouldn’t be ready for her, even the toughest ninjas he knew. They’d melt and kneel before her, and he couldn’t wait to see it.

The next days were a bit more relaxed. Finally, they got into the Land of Fire, but Ensui didn’t want to go north to the Hidden Village just yet. He still had things to teach to his apprentice, things he wanted her to learn in the security of a seemingly endless forest, rather than in a village where anyone could be a ROOT operative in disguise. He preferred her being here, with him, safe.

He ensured she could find her way from anywhere in the Fire Forest, taught her to hunt from the trees, how to run for hours without feeling tired, even if she hadn’t started on chakra training yet. She hadn’t been ready, not quite yet, but he could feel it when the day came, a deep warmth when he opened himself to her chakra.

One day, a downpour hit the Land of Fire so hard they couldn’t walk far without being drenched and cold to the bone. Ensui often pushed his apprentice to her limits, but it would have been stupid to make her this uncomfortable when he already knew she could manage under rain. However, he refused to waste this precious time so, when he found a cave big enough, he sat with her in front of the fire he had made her light up. She was ready for a half-forgotten training, one only some almost-extinguished clans could make their children follow. Since they were almost gone, no one would really complain about him teaching her their secrets. Anyway, she was the heir of one of those clans. He owed it to her.

“Chakra,” he explained, “is a force present in all living things, but also in the air you breathe. You can’t feel that one yet, but maybe it will come one day. You produce chakra, but that doesn’t make you any different from a civilian. What makes the difference is the capacity to use this energy, to turn it into a weapon. Anyone can work at this and become a shinobi, but clan-born children will always be better at it than civilian-born will. Do you know why?”

She knew it was connected to what Kurenai had taught her. “Kinda. We learn earlier, right?”

“It’s one of the reasons, yes. Clan-born children start training far before the Academy. Your mother followed her father’s and Shikaku’s advice, she started teaching you things other kids will discover at the Academy. It gives you an advantage compared to civilian-born children. At best, they will know how to write and read, but look at what you know.”

It was unfair, of course, but Hitomi was happy to be on the privileged side. Her plan would require everything she had, every advantage she could get. Too bad if it was unfair. Fairness couldn’t win wars. One day, she would.

“The main difference, though, is innate. Clan-born kids have bigger chakra reserves. Some clans, like the Uzumaki and the Yūhi, were even renowned for their prodigious reserves once, before wars had them almost extinct. They were called the Tailless Demons. Once they reached their full potential, they could compare to jinchūriki. This power is in your blood, Hitomi.”

Hitomi couldn’t believe her ears, but she knew Ensui wouldn’t lie to her. She had never heard this about her clan. She wondered why her mother and grandfather had never told her. Were they afraid she’d burn too high, too quick?

“Those two clans are almost extinct, as I said. There’s three members left of the Yūhi clan, and the Uzumaki clan… You know the jinchūriki, Naruto, at least his reputation, right? I can’t tell you about the reasons that led to their disappearance, only that their chakra reserves made them targets.”

The girl nodded, still staring at her mentor. She hung on Ensui’s every word, storing everything he said in her Library. She knew more than he thought about how the Uzumaki Clan had disappeared, but how could she explain where her knowledge came from, so she kept quiet.

“Today, I’m gonna teach you the basis of chakra control. Civilians won’t learn anything about this before their third year in the Academy, and that’s if they’re lucky. It is, though, of the utmost importance that you , my dear apprentice, start today.” He held a leaf between his fingers, one he had carefully dried out with chakra. He gave it to Hitomi, who looked at it, clearly a bit lost. “You’re gonna try to use your chakra to stick this leaf to your forehead without tearing through it. Continue until you master it, or until you can’t mix chakra anymore.”

Hitomi got settled in seiza position and started. She had already used chakra for little things before, and instinctively in her Library, but it usually only left her body through her hand. It was another matter entirely to get it to her forehead, to measure the exact quantity she needed – too much and she ripped the leaf up, too little and it fell on her knees – then to keep the chakra flow steady for more than a few seconds. After two hours and a stack of leaves at her feet, she managed to stick the damned thing to her forehead. She was already feeling the first signs of chakra exhaustion, even if it was nothing compared to what she had gone through when she had first tried to cage her meridians’ perceptions.

It was so difficult to describe how she felt, having chakra in her body. For Hitomi, it was like having hot chocolate coursing through her body, coiling around her organs, enhancing her senses. She often wondered if other shinobi were conscious of this, of the presence of their own chakra system inside their bodies, of each meridian under their skin. She could never totally forget about it.

Sending chakra somewhere in her body was complicated: the energy didn’t comply easily and kept wanting to go back to its normal cycle through her limbs. She probably wasted a lot of it during this exercise, or even when she mixed it. However, Ensui seemed satisfied when another leaf stuck to her forehead for more than a minute. It fell and Hitomi cursed through clenched teeth.

“Do it again. You’re on the right track.”

“Yes, shishou.” Motivated by the compliment, she picked up the leaf and put it back on her forehead, calling her chakra to keep it in place. Her hands had started shaking, but she didn’t stop. She didn’t stop either when her breathing became laborious, when she started feeling dizzy. Her eyes stayed on Ensui’s silhouette against the light. She was waiting for his permission, and too bad if she burned away everything she had before he gave it. She refused to back down.

He waited until the very last moment, catching her when she fell, so out of breath she choked on air. Her heart thundered under her ribs, so strong and fast she feared it was going to break out of her chest. She knew she had a hard night ahead of herself and looked up to her master, confusion clearly written in her eyes.

“The only way to enlarge your chakra reserves to their full potential is to empty them again and again,” he explained in a compassionate and soft voice. “It has to be done when you’re just a child or it’s too late. Like your speed and flexibility, the size of your reserves only expands with hard and painful work. You’ll be in pain, and maybe you’ll hate me, but if you keep it up, one day you’ll be called a Tailless Beast, too. That’s what you want, right?”

Ensui wasn’t stupid. He was aware of her thirst for power. He didn’t see it as a bad thing, quite the contrary. It meant she wanted to learn, wanted to get better, wanted strength. Those were good desires for a shinobi, a motivation that often made the difference between getting a sensei after graduating or being faced with other possibilities. He couldn’t imagine her doing her last year at the Academy again, joining the General Genin Forces or even transferring to another career like medicine or research. She was a shinobi through and through, despite her young age.

He knew , and he never let go of her. Everyday, Hitomi emptied her chakra reserves one way or another, often through control exercises. When she was able to stick a leaf on her forehead for more than an hour, he added one on her right shoulder, then on her left, and cetera. He got the number up to ten, each on a different part of her body. Once she had understood what she needed to do, once she had gotten the exercise drilled up to her core, it wasn’t hard at all to add more leaves. Changing the material was easy too, from the paper of her scrolls to the thick wool of her blanket. She just needed to find the right dosage. The more fragile the material, the more control she needed to apply, since the quantity of chakra was less and less important. When Hitomi was able to get a piece of silk paper stuck on her forehead without tearing through it, he changed exercise.

She was sick every night with chakra exhaustion and, sometimes, she had to admit it, she hated what her mentor made her go through. Oh, she didn’t hate him , could never hate him, because he took such good care of her, sacrificed countless hours of sleep to comfort her and hold her hair back when she threw up, her body burning in agony. She had to admit, too, that she felt her reserves grow day after day, and replenish faster each night. It got harder to empty them.

She didn’t cope just because Ensui was there, though. Somewhere deep in the cold fog which had replaced her chakra inside, a flame burned high and clear, pushing her further and further, refusing her to stop or to yield. Sometimes, even her mentor was worried about the way she spent her chakra as soon as it reappeared in her reserves, but he couldn’t deny that the pain she inflicted upon herself now would help her in the future. Her flame of determination, he would have called it the Will of Fire. She called it her plan, her desire to change things for the better, the list of people she needed to save and the other list, the one of all the people she’d have to kill one day.

When Ensui was perfectly content with her mastery of the leaf exercise, he taught her how to use chakra as a boost when throwing weapons. It hurt like hell in the beginning, when the meridians on her hands and feet fought to adapt to this big impulsion burning through it. She didn’t back down, though, even when her joints started to ache after practice then never stopped.

When would adversity ever stop and wait for her to catch up, after all? She’d pursue this training until there was no more progress to be made and only time could enlarge her reserves anymore. Puberty was a miracle, really. It was for a good reason that, outside wartime, Academy students couldn’t graduate under the age of eleven, and were still strongly advised to wait until they were twelve. Youngsters burned too fast, too quick, when they were sent too early in the field. Most of them never came home.

Four months after her birthday, Ensui deemed her ready to take a new step on the road she had chosen for herself. She took her first full rest day in all that time, sleeping for twelve hours straight and waking up to feel her reserves almost full. She was ready for more, now.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Hitomi was in better shape than she had been in months. She had pushed so hard and so far that her reserves only needed a day to replenish, against a week when they had started training. And yet, they were considerably larger, at least ten times bigger than they’d been before. Most of her progress had been made now, and chakra control exercises weren’t enough anymore to put her in a state of chakra exhaustion, even if she spent the whole day throwing weapons and sticking leaves to her limbs.

She couldn’t wait for time to bring her its own expansion: around her fifteenth birthday, her reserves would be at least ten times larger than they were now. She understood now why her clanmates had been called Tailless Beasts once. If her grandfather and mother could muster such power, they probably never had to suffer from chakra exhaustion. It explained, too, how Kurenai had become a Genjutsu Mistress, able to fool even some Uchiha. Genjutsu, the art of illusions, required a constant flux of chakra from the caster to their victim to disturb the internal circuit of their own chakra through their meridians. Most people couldn’t maintain an illusion in place for more than two minutes, but the rumour said Kurenai could keep one going for days before she got tired. As for Shinku Yūhi, her grandfather, she didn’t know much about him, but she knew he had been a terror on the battleground.

After she was done greeting the sun, Hitomi followed Ensui to a clearing. For the first time in ages, it snowed in the Land of Fire, and the little girl wasn’t sure she liked the drop in temperatures that came with the white snowflakes upon the lands. To keep warm, she had to get her chakra coursing faster through body and wasn’t adept enough yet to do it by reflex.

“Today, you’re gonna tackle an exercise most ninjas don’t practice before being out of the Academy. You’re gonna climb trees without your hands. With each try, mark the trunk with a kunai, as high as you can. Stop only when you don’t have chakra left, or when you master the exercise. Got it?”

Hitomi nodded. She didn’t even need him to demonstrate, since this exercise was so similar to the leaf one. It would probably require more chakra, and better control on her part. She was glad for it. She needed to continue emptying her reserves for at least a few more weeks to reach her full potential. Then she would just have to wait for the years to pass. She probably already had the best reserves in her generation, Naruto excepted. None of the other children had shown really good chakra reserves in the canon.

It had become rare, Ensui had explained one night she was particularly sick, for parents to make their children go through such training. The Hidden Villages weren’t at war anymore, hadn’t been for more than ten years now, and no parent wanted their child to suffer night after night for months, for results that weren’t so great most of the time. This training was truly efficient on kids from the Yūhi and Uzumaki clans, with their predilection for larger reserves. For the other clans, there were other valuable skills to work on: Hyūga children learned the Gentle Fist, Uchiha children trained in Fire Release, Sarutobi children worked on Wind Release techniques… As for the Yūhi, they were gone beyond recovery in a few generations only, burned away by the wars they had helped win. They had been so willing, all of them, to die for their country.

For a moment, Hitomi stayed motionless in the centre of the clearing, convincing her chakra to go in her legs. When she was ready, she ran to the tree she had chosen, an oak rising high over its peers. She only needed a few steps to get to its roots, then an adrenaline rush in her veins to overcome the fear of falling that wanted her to stop and start climbing. A few more steps to adjust the quantity of chakra needed in her feet to stick to the trunk without damaging its bark and she climbed up without difficulty, only stopping when she reached the tree’s summit. She planted her kunai as high as she could then settled on a branch wide enough to support her weight. “Is it supposed to be this easy? Can we start water-walking now?” she chirped.

Her cheekiness made Ensui burst out laughing. He knew this would happen – all the chakra control exercises were similar and, once a student mastered the first, it was quite easy to master the others as well – but he still felt the tiniest bit of surprise. He carefully reached out to the point where he kept his meridians’ perceptions, so he didn’t suffer from them. He then probed in her direction and was baffled to feel how strong her reserves had become. The quiet whisper had become a roar against his skin. He hadn’t expected such progress, not even with her innate advantage. He couldn’t have been prouder.

Water-walking came next, as she had guessed, and it was harder than tree-climbing. She constantly had to adjust the quantity of chakra she used on the water to answer its constant movements, and to strengthen the surface so it could support her weight. She needed a few weeks to master it and, before that, her reserves reached their maximum capacity.

It was time, then, with her reserves expanded and her control improved, for her to learn the first Nara Clan technique. Most clan kids learned that kind of thing at that age and worked on it through the Academy, after classes. The Nara, though, were even more diligent: even the civilians born in the clan had to learn the theory behind the techniques. That way, if a new war was to erupt and kill all the clan’s ninjas, the knowledge wouldn’t be lost. The children would still have someone to teach them. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but already better than most clans had. Who remembered the Uzumaki and their jutsus today?

“Shadows are our best allies,” Ensui started one night, as the fire was declining in the cave they had found for the night. It was raining hard outside but spring was there, giving back their tender green shades to the woods. Ensui didn’t say it, but Hitomi knew they were going to go back in a few months. Before the start of the Academy’s new year, she’d see her family again. This made her happier than she could express, but she also felt something close to melancholy. She wanted to go back, of course, but Ensui had become such a precious person to her. She didn’t want to lose him.

“I know you already know your mind well,” the mentor continued in a soft voice, “and this exercise will push you even further, deeper than the barriers you surrounded your Library with. Go down and down inside yourself, until you get there.” He brushed his fingers against the skin above her navel, but she knew he was talking about her Gate of Wonder, where part of her reserves laid. She shivered, feeling her chakra react to the touch, then closed her eyes and obeyed his command.

She found herself in the centre of her Library and relaxed as she watched over her lair. The meridian cage refracted the light from her lightwell, splashing colour everywhere. It was so pretty… And yet she turned her back on it and walked through rows and rows of shelves until she reached the end of the ground she had imagined to support the whole structure. She had never been there after creating her Library, had never needed a book from this section. It was like discovering it anew.

The only thing in front of her now was nothingness, an infinity of velvety, peaceful darkness. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the ground, letting herself fall into the void. The sensation was incredible, beyond words. She could have stopped her fall at any moment, but she knew she was far, far away from the Gate Ensui had told her to reach. She could see them now, eight stars brilliant enough to light up a whole sky, hearts of blueish pure light lost in a sea of darkness.

Finally, she was able to touch it. She didn’t have a body in her own mind, and yet she was able to sit, to touch, to breathe. She didn’t know how to describe it. Perhaps it was just her thought process trying to wrap itself around a wordless experience. An energy wave hit her and, in the physical world, she started oozing chakra from all the pores of her skin. Without her huge reserves, the effort would have killed her in a mere couple of minutes.

“This is where you’ll find the subconscious link between your shadow and your corporeal self. Find it now.” A voice. Low, husky, like a wave and a hug. A voice she loved so deeply.

Obeying to Ensui had become natural after all this time. Sometimes, his instructions didn’t really make sense at first glance; she had to reach the goal he had set for her to understand what he had truly wanted and struggled to put into words. She had to touch the precise point in her Gate where the line between her body and shadow disappeared to understand, deeply understand, the link he was speaking about.

In the physical world, her shadow reacted violently to her contact, writhing far beyond its natural reach, the one the fire gave it. She stopped breathing for a moment, then the deep and quiet rhythm resumed. She was peaceful, so much so that someone could have thought her asleep if she had been lying down.

“Your shadow is an indolent fire, but a fire nonetheless. It will hurt you if you don’t treat it with the proper respect and carefulness it deserves. From tonight on, you’ll meditate for an hour next to your Gate of Wonder, until you can stretch your shadow at will.”

That first night, and the twelve nights after that, she failed despite her best efforts. The fourteenth night, however, under Ensui’s intense stare, she managed to stretch her shadow until it almost brushed against his. The edges were clearly defined, and the dark shape didn’t seem to want to snap back to her, like an overused rubbed band. She hated the feeling and was happy not to have it this time.

“Congratulations,” Ensui whispered, pride gleaming in his dark grey eyes. “You’re ready for the next step. Tomorrow.”

The following day, he didn’t wait for nightfall to act. Instead of the sparring exercises he gave Hitomi ever since she didn’t need to empty her chakra reserves anymore, he made her stand in front of him, back straight and shoulders relaxed, in a pool of sunshine. Spring had started to settle in the Land of Fire and, once or twice, they had stayed in an inn for the night. She knew what that meant but refused to acknowledge it.

“You’re able to command your shadow when you meditate. It was the hardest part of this training and you managed to do it in a decently short span of time. I didn’t expect anything less from Shikano’s daughter but still, I’m very proud of you.” He hadn’t mentioned Hitomi’s father for months now, not since he had told everything he knew about him to his apprentice. Hearing his name surprised the girl and made her stand a little prouder, a quiet satisfaction on her features.

“You now need to find a shortcut for that ability. You have to be able to connect to your shadow instinctively, to make it answer your commands immediately. I’ll let you find the most appropriate way; it’s your mind, after all.”

With a smile on her lips, Hitomi sank in her Library, a content sigh escaping her chest. She felt safe here. The ribbons made of light floated in their crystal cage, always ready to serve. A deep feeling of peace settled inside her. Her body slowly raised its hands, the fingers from the left curling vertically around the index and middle finger of the right. The Rat hand seal.

She needed something she could touch as soon as she came into her Library. The only object she could reach was the pillar supporting her crystal cage. On the side facing her, she carved the emblematic animals of both the Nara and Yūhi, a deer and a cat supporting each other with a stare. Ensui had told her about the cat, but there wasn’t much more he knew about. The only way to learn more about her own roots would be to go meet her grandfather again. She hadn’t seen him since the morning after the Kyūbi’s assault and she wasn’t even supposed to remember.

“You’re on the right path,” Ensui hoarsely whispered in the physical world. It still felt strange, when she was in her Library. She wasn’t isolated from the outside, could hear, smell, feel, but she could only see the infinity of books surrounding her. She crouched in front of the two emblems and chose the place carefully, halfway between their eyes. It was there. The place she could touch with her mind in an instant, without even having to consciously go to her Library, the place that would summon her shadow.

In the world she had built inside her mind, everything was possible. She could shape her own chakra, make it visible and solid, without losing any of it. A pale blue ribbon made of light appeared between her fingers. When she turned her head, she saw it stretch to the very edge of the floor then fall in the darkness. She knew it was connected to her Gate of Wonder without having to check. It was the most intimate place, the one where she became the shadow and the shadow became her, but she didn’t have time to lose herself there, not now.

She stood up and the ethereal body she used in her Library grabbed the ribbon. Instantaneously, her shadow stretched and caught the one expanding from the Cinder Clone he had left for her to train. Cinder Clones were the Fire Release solid clone technique, and way less powerful than any shadow clone, which allowed her to use her shadow on it without losing all her chakra. She couldn’t catch him , that was for sure. He was so much more powerful, so much stronger, the effort would kill her in a matter of seconds. She fully came back to her senses and tested this new ability, making sure she could use it quickly enough for it to be useful in a fight.

“Looks like you’re ready.”

The young girl tensed and met her mentor’s eyes, her hands slowly breaking the hand seal. Her shadow, obedient, came back to her. “I… Ready, shishou?”

“Yeah,” Ensui sighed. “You didn’t think I’d keep you away from the village forever, right?”

Stunned, she shook her head, the movement stiff and a bit shaky. As if he felt her sudden distress, Ensui knelt in front of her and made her raise her chin with the tip of his fingers, the touch delicate and tender. “I’m not going anywhere, okay? I left active-duty years ago. The Third knows he can’t trust me on the field.”

It was the first time Ensui really admitted to Hitomi how serious his feud with Hiruzen was. His situation in the village was complicated, but she had had time to guess that. It didn’t stop her from taking her mentor’s hand, so much longer and larger, between her own, gripping it with all her strength. Right now, she looked like the child she should have been, a troubling sight for her master, used to a mature mind inhabiting her frail body.

“I’m gonna work for your uncle, for Shikaku, help him manage the clan until Shikamaru is old enough to do it so he can focus on his Jōnin Commander duties. I’ll have all the time in the world to train you, Hitomi, I promise.”

It was the first time he used that word to talk about her, but it didn’t really comfort Hitomi. She realised, sometimes, like she was now, the extent of the dangers she’d face in the future. She needed Ensui right by her side to rise to those challenges. Her shoulders shook, her knees went weak, and then…

And then she felt another chakra touch her skin, a strength she’d identify among a thousand others. Ensui. These past few months, he had given her chakra transfusions to try to lessen the effects of exhaustion. He couldn’t do much, not when she needed to empty her reserves to stress them into expanding, but it had helped. The touch was soft, familiar and comforted her body and her mind alike.

“I’ll always be there to watch you grow, Hitomi. I’ll always be there.”

Whispering those words like a prayer, a promise and a wish, he pulled her in a warm embrace and she closed her eyes, accepting his words and his arms for what they were. The assurance she would never have to face any danger alone.

Chapter Text

Hitomi now had enough control of her chakra and large enough reserves to be able to travel at a decent speed. She needed a few days to master running on trees, the Konohajin way of travelling, but soon she was following Ensui’s steps. The man took advantage of their last days together to make sure she was as sharp as she could. He didn’t admit it, but he sometimes deviated from the fastest route to sleep every night in an inn and therefore stretch their time together.

Hitomi was aware of that but didn’t hold him accountable for it. The same feeling, the same need was burning inside her. It was easier to cope that way. On the road, he made sure she knew everything he wanted her to, then told her about what he’d teach her in the village, when she’d come home from the Academy. They would have access to different resources in Konoha, like fully equipped labs. Hitomi couldn’t wait to learn new ways to make things go boom.

Finally, they reached their destination, the huge Konoha gates standing open in front of them. A hand on his apprentice’s shoulder, Ensui made her stop before she crossed them. “How are your meridians?” he asked softly.

He knew she had no problem with them, hadn’t had one in weeks, months even. It was just his last card to delay their return to the village. Obedient as ever, the girl sank in her Library and checked her crystal cage. “They’re good, shishou,” she assured him when she came back.

He nodded, satisfied, then brushed his hand against her back to make her take her first step in the village. As she looked around, curious, he signed the registry the on-duty Chūnin gave him. When she had left, she was in such pain she couldn’t really pay attention to the village. This time, she could and did so, drinking in the sights, smells and noise that would one day be as familiar as the palm of her hand.

A few minutes later, she walked toward the Nara land next to her mentor. Only the manner in which she held herself, one step behind and deferring to him, betrayed their relationship with each other. They had adjusted so subtly to their new environment and what was expected of them there that only other high-ranking shinobi could notice it, or the ones who had had a master for themselves. Only they could really understand what was conveyed in their quick glances to each other or the song whispered in the harmony of their gait. A few Jōnin greeted Ensui with a nod, but none deemed him popular enough to stop and talk to him. Hitomi clenched her teeth when she saw that. Her mentor was only a hero amongst his own clan. It made her want to punch someone.

Finally, they got in front of her house, away from the main streets of the clan land. A little brush against her crystal cage made Hitomi aware of her mother’s presence inside. Silently, applying everything Ensui had ever taught her in that regard, she opened the door and took off her shoes. Her slippers were still there in the entrance, but they looked so tiny now… She chose to go barefoot, her voracious eyes taking in that environment she knew so well and missed so dearly.

Her mother was in the kitchen, doing the dishes. She had her back on the door, her curly black hair falling like a waterfall to the small of her back, her hands busy drying a plate. Suddenly, it was all too much for Hitomi, the ball of feelings in her throat bursting and bringing tears in her eyes.

“Mom!” She ran to Kurenai despite the sound of broken table-wear, reaching her in a mere two steps. Her mother's discreet perfume surrounded Hitomi as she hugged her. She closed her eyes, not caring one bit about the sharp shard she had stepped on. She knew Ensui would fix this with no trouble at all. All her new strength was focused on hugging her mom, on taking in everything her senses could to fill the void that had suddenly hit her.

Later, man, woman and child sat in the living room. Ensui had taken the couch to heal Hitomi’s foot after she had dried her tears – and wisely decided to ignore that Kurenai was crying too, remembering how reserved she could be about her feelings. He held his apprentice’s foot carefully, light green chakra pouring through his fingers to take care of her cut as he listened to their conversation.

“… and that’s how I discovered you can find water in cactuses. Can you imagine, Mom? I won’t ever be thirsty in a desert now!”

The two adults laughed gently. They were both trained shinobi, used to completing missions all over the known world for their village’s sake, but the innocence Hitomi showed them was a sweet blessing in their eyes, putting their knowledge in perspective, reminding them how everything they had learned could seem precious and extraordinary.

The rest of the day was blissful. Soon enough, Ensui left mother and daughter to their reunion, going to find Shikaku to report on their trip. Hitomi needed help to settle back in her room and to assess everything that would have to change – mostly her clothes, a few sizes too small now. She only had her travelling and training gear, which would only get her so far. They took more than an hour to fold and store everything in the boxes Kurenai would give to the orphanage in a few days.

For now, it was time for Hitomi to discover what a normal life looked like in Konoha. For the first time, she was allowed to go in town with her mother, beyond the Nara land, to buy new clothes. Before, it had been out of question, and it was weird for the girl to walk past the guarded gate of the land she knew so well to the rest of the village. She didn’t need to fear that kind of pain anymore, she was free to roam the streets Shikamaru, Chōji and Ino had told her about, walk peacefully amongst shinobi and civilians alike, without the tiniest discomfort.

With her mother’s blessing, Hitomi chose her own clothes. She liked shades of grey and red, of course. She picked three dresses, two kimonos and a yukata, but most of her choices were angled toward the Academy, training and home-wear. The start of the school year was so close now. She couldn’t wait.

That evening, they ate dinner at Shikaku and Yoshino’s house. Shikamaru had a surprising burst of energy when he saw his cousin behind the door and hugged her so fiercely it probably hurt a bit – she wasn’t sure and didn’t really care. He had grown, too, and towered over her by more than three inches. He seemed to take after his father, tall and thin just like him, but his features had a softness that belonged to Yoshino.

During dinner, she agreed to tell her adventures again. She didn’t go into details about Gaara but, for the rest, she went into extensive details to please her cousin. His eyes went wide with amazement when she described the couple of fennecs she and Ensui had seen during their second trip through the Sunajin Desert.

She had missed him so, so much.

The evening continued through the night, the two children starting a shōgi tournament to assess their opponent’s progress. Shikamaru had got so much better, his style really close to his father’s now, but Hitomi hadn’t lazed around: she had played against Ensui at least once a day and even more often when they were in Sunagakure.

Before going to sleep, she opened her communication notebook and wrote to Gaara.

Dear Gaara,

I’m so happy you’re starting the Academy at the same time as I will! We’ll be able to compare our teachers and classmates, if you want. Today, I got back home, in Konoha. It’s so strange, after so much time on the road. My mom had to get me a whole new wardrobe; rumour is I’ve grown up in a year and a half, but it doesn’t look like it from my perspective.

I understand it’s hard for you to talk to your siblings. I think they know the village gossip about you better than they know you, as a person. Show them the sweet, amazing boy you were with me. You’ll win them over, especially Temari, based on what you told me about her. They’ll be your best allies, Gaara, and you know you need those. Of course, you can always count on me, but I’m too far away to help if something happens to you, something serious and urgent. I’d feel better if you had someone on your side there, in Sunagakure.

At lunch, my mom took me to a gyoza place in town, outside the Nara land. It was the first time I could really go anywhere outside the clan’s territory. Tomorrow, my cousin Shikamaru will take me on a tour of the rest of the village. Gyozas, Gaara… I have to make you try those if you come visit one day. They’re just so good, I promise.

I hope you’re okay. Take good care of yourself and talk to you tomorrow.

Tenderly,

Hitomi.

After sending her letter, Hitomi got in bed. She was exhausted, but it was only the kind of healthy exhaustion she felt after a great day, the edges of her mind softened by a deep, deep feeling of belonging and happiness. In the guest room, next to Shikamaru’s bedroom, she closed her eyes and waited for sleep, smiling in the dark.

The next day, Shikamaru kept his word. Konoha was beautiful, like a gem gleaming under the cheerful sun, and Hitomi was delighted to finally discover the village’s little secrets, the places where kids liked to hang out to play ninja, and the ones where parents waited for them, chatting about politics and their past missions. Children, here, were incredibly free. In the Previous World, it was unthinkable to let a five or six years old walk alone on the streets. But cars didn’t exist in this world – even horses were only used by nobles who wanted to show off – and safety was assured by the joint effort of the Uchiha police force and the General Forces, composed of Genin who hadn’t managed to get into a Genin team after the Academy but had refused to choose another career.

When she was alone with her cousin, Hitomi gifted him one of her communication notebooks. She had prepared it for him, after all. He was amazed by the possibilities this new way of communication offered and tried to convince her to sell it to the Research and Development Department, but she refused. She couldn’t deem the concept ready for shinobi or even civilians, not when she had so many improvements in mind for it.

Then, she showed him other things she had learned. He looked at her tantō with respect but refused to touch it. If Hitomi seemed made for frontline battle, he definitely wasn’t. Hidden behind people like her, he could scheme and plan in peace, and save thousands of lives – win wars, really. Most children didn’t think about that when they were their age, but they were Nara by blood, raised to think about strategy almost from the crib. He was, though, very interested in the new field control skills she had developed. He particularly liked the flash bombs, so useful to naturally stretch his shadow just for a second. It was all he needed to connect it to the person he wanted to catch.

As they talked about their time apart, the two children also established their plans regarding the Academy. Most students shared the same goal: doing their best and graduating. The Nara Clan, though, didn’t raise kids to just do their best. Shikamaru, for example, had decided to hide in the middle of the class, which necessitated a level of cunning, intelligence, and patience far beyond what was asked of any Genin twice his age. Even some Chūnin wouldn’t be able to do it, but Shikamaru would succeed, she knew it, and he’d manage to pretend it was all involuntary. He was just that good.

For Hitomi, though, this strategy wouldn’t work nor fit her ambitions. She was from two clans and knew it made her future place in one of the three teams to graduate in her year almost certain. By elimination, she had deduced she’d take Haruno Sakura’s place in Team Seven, which meant a whole shitload of trouble in her future. Besides, she felt a moral obligation to find an alternate way for Sakura to get where her canon-self had been: Senju Tsunade’s apprentice, and one of the best medics in the world.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, she also wasn’t satisfied with the idea of taking the First Kunoichi place in the ranking of her year. It would be easy to get, what with all the training Ensui had made her go through, but there was no glory in the position of First Kunoichi. All glory went to the boy who was deemed First Genin. She knew it would be Sasuke and wanted everyone in her year to know she was as good as him, or even better – she doubted she would be, though, she knew what crazy shit he was able to do thanks to the canon. She had to leave her mark on her teachers’ mind, and the only way to manage that was to do her very best to be ranked first at both the theoretical and the physical tests, without failing or any sign of tiredness. Fortunately, it was the kind of thing Ensui had shaped her to do these past eighteen months.

She talked about it a lot with Shikamaru. He would be her closest ally at the Academy, after all. He had had a chance to really socialise with his peers, and she knew he would help her find a place she would like in their class’ dynamic. Sure, she only knew Chōji and Ino outside of the Nara Clan, but that would change.

Another problem would appear then: she wasn’t good at direct socialisation. In the Previous World, she had been isolated and laconic, quick to chase people away, led to loneliness by an extreme wariness and loads of disappointment since her childhood. She hadn’t known anything of the sort since her second birth, but those memories still haunted her. But she needed to befriend some people to make her plans reality.

She still had time to prepare for the Academy, though. When the time came, she would be as ready as she possibly could be, and would do her best to reach her goals. It had to be enough. Failure was unthinkable.

Chapter Text

Finally, the school year started. Hitomi was impatient and anxious. She had spent the last two months not only getting back to a sedentary way of life, but also working on chemistry. Ensui had helped her and kept his word: he was always by her side when she wanted to train, to get better at anything. In that span of time, she managed to create several kinds of flash bombs with different stunning potencies and areas of effect, and smoke bombs in six different colours. He had also pushed her to practice her accuracy with throwing weapons, arguing that if she wanted to throw all kinds of nasty things to people’s heads, she had to know how to aim.

The year of training she had on her future classmates would soon reveal itself to be an advantage or an inconvenient: either the other children would think she had a lot more experience – at this age, she remembered how a full year looked like an eternity – or they would jump to the conclusion that she had started the Academy a year later because she was lacking compared to other students her age. All stakes would be on her first days of class, on first impressions. Her skin was still lightly bronzed by the Sunajin sun, which would give her a bit of an adventurous look, but it wouldn’t be enough to impress those kids.

The anxiety that was eating her alive during the first day weakened when she saw her mother, waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Rubbing at her sleepy eyes, Hitomi went to hug her then squealed indignantly when Kurenai picked her up and spun round and round until she started to laugh. She knew, already, how proud the kunoichi was to see her make her first steps on the shinobi’s path. In her opinion, she had made these steps next to Ensui, but it didn’t really matter.

“Go greet the sun, sweetheart, breakfast will be ready when you come back. Your uncle will be there in an hour. We’ll go to the Academy with him and Shikamaru. You want to share this special day with him, right?”

Hitomi nodded, a warm and soft feeling spreading in her chest as she realised, for the thousandth time, how much her mother loved and cared for her. She had a hard time considering herself like the child she was, like someone who needed parents, since hers had never been in the picture during her first life. Sometimes, though, she was reminded how precious Kurenai was to her, or of the extremes she’d be ready to devote herself to, to protect her.

An hour later, Hitomi had her arm linked with Shikamaru’s and made him walk in quicker steps than he had planned to. He tried to play the martyr, but she saw the smile he tried to erase from his lips. For him, though, school would be a pain in the ass. Like her, he wanted to become a ninja and protect his clan, but his mind was wired differently from most others. It was so reactive, noticing too much all the time, that even blinking for too long could make him fall asleep. He would get better with that, she was sure of it, but now he was still raw, perpetually on the edge of oversensitivity.

These last few weeks, to Hitomi’s strong surprise, she had been eager to start bonding with her future classmates, and not simply because she could use the help they would lend her in years to come. She knew that Shikamaru would always be by her side, but she wanted more, she wanted friendship, wanted to be loved, wanted the loneliness haunting her at night to disappear. She was so, so tired of it.

Someone had erected a temporary stage in the Academy’s courtyard. People were already gathering in front of it. There were around a hundred future students, a far larger number than Hitomi had anticipated. Yet she knew that in six years they would only be twenty-seven or twenty-eight to graduate. And, in that group, only nine would become Genin under a sensei’s guidance.

Kurenai, in the middle of the crowd, took her daughter in her arms and settled her on her shoulders so she could see the stage. Hitomi was a bit old for that kind of thing but, since her mother didn’t seem to have any difficulty, she didn’t try to get down. That way, she could see the Hokage perfectly, for the first time in her life. He looked frail, especially in that big white robe that came with the hat. She stared at that hat, the symbol of his power over the village. He didn’t deserve it.

In a respectful silence, the children listened as their war chief spoke about the Will of Fire, of her glorious warmth guiding their teachers’ hands as they made their student into the best version of themselves. Hitomi stared at the stage, at the teachers lined up behind their Hokage. She recognised Umino Iruka, with his tanned skin and the scar running across the bridge of his nose, then Mizuki, taller and silver haired. The bastard had a smirk on his face. Hitomi had to bite her inner cheek to stop herself from glaring at him; she knew he would feel it. Anyway, she didn’t have the slightest chance against him now, and even if she had… She couldn’t interfere with Naruto gaining the Shadow Clone Technique. Too much depended on him having it.

The speech was brief but Hitomi had time to grab all the subtleties hidden in it. When the Hokage spoke, he stopped looking frail and turned into the war chief so many people admired, the hero, the Professor, true to his name. He could summon Death itself. Why hadn’t he done it when the Kyūbi had attacked? The village would have been better off if Minato had survived and Hiruzen had died. Of course, his speech didn’t lack propaganda, quite the opposite. She knew what to expect in that regard: this school was in charge of the education of the Land of Fire’s army, after all. Even if Konoha had a reputation as the nice one that didn’t mean high-ranking officers hesitated before indoctrinating six years olds, so they’d one day give their life for their country.

Once the speech was over – did he write a new one every year? – another teacher took the Hokage’s place, a list in his hand, and started calling children to sort them in three groups. Hitomi was surprised by how unbalanced they were: all the clan kids, herself included, were in the same group, the first one to be called. Civilian-born kids brought the group to thirty kids, but that sorting couldn’t possibly be random.

Iruka led them to a big classroom. Light came from huge windows to the left side of the room. They were big enough for people to go through them rather than doors when need arose, which was a common practice in Konoha. According to Kurenai, students would be able to use those in a few years in case of emergency – otherwise, they would use the door, thank you very much.

Hitomi immediately noticed two children she identified as Aburame Shino and Hyūga Hinata, sitting in the last row of the classroom. It was wise, not lazy. What shinobi worth the title would even want someone in their blind spot? Only clan kids were aware of that kind of thing. The girl grabbed her cousin by the arm – he, in turn, grabbed Chōji to make sure he’d follow – and dragged him with her before sitting next to Hinata. With Ino, they occupied a good chunk of the last row, which was also the highest, the others just a bit lower than the one behind them to form steps. From where she was, Hitomi could survey the whole room.

Their first hours at the Academy were quiet – too quiet. Iruka-sensei’s explanations were typical of a first day at school: timetables, gear, mandatory reading, class rules, … Hitomi ended up bored half to death, and she couldn’t stand it. After a while, she discreetly took her communication notebook out of her back. It had turned cold during the Hokage’s speech, but she hadn’t opened it yet.

Dear Hitomi,

Have your classes started already? Here, they have, and I’m bored. I’m alone at the back of the class and I feel like it’s not a good thing to do, but Ensui-san always told us to watch our back, didn’t he? There’s no one here I trust enough for that, so the wall it is. They all look at me weird, like I’m gonna get angry and hurt them.

Thing is, once, I could have. Before I met you, I was always so angry at them, all the time. I didn’t understand why they left me alone, why they didn’t want to play with me. I never wanted to hurt them, not really, but sometimes, my sand, by accident… You know how it is.

I tried to talk to Temari this morning, when she took me to the Academy. She was alone, it seemed easier that way. I asked her how she was today and thanked her for going with me. She looked so surprised! But not angry, not at all. I guess you’re right about her.

My teacher is a bit weird but I think I’m gonna like him. Okay, it’s boring right now, but he doesn’t look that strict. Less than Ensui-san was, anyway! The guy in front of me is asleep and the teacher didn’t do anything to wake him up.

I can’t wait for your answer, I miss you.

Gaara.

A sweet smile on her lips, she got started on an answer for her friend, describing Iruka-sensei, who was yelling at Kiba and Naruto. She explained how the Big Head genjustu worked, and why the teacher seemed to really like that technique. In her opinion, it made him look funny rather than threatening, but she could see how normal kids would feel intimidated by that. Still, she had to fight an eye roll when she felt a shiver run through the students in front of her.

Shikamaru didn’t follow the lesson any better than she did. He was napping on the notebook his cousin had gifted him, his features childish and relaxed. He was so cute when he was asleep. She turned her head to the left and met Hinata’s eyes, which made the girl blush deeply. She tried a gentle smile to appease her, but she knew, deep down, that the Hyūga heir was far too shy to relax at the first sign of kindness.

At ten, the children had fifteen minutes of freedom before going back to class. Hitomi mustered all her courage and breathed deeply, squaring her shoulders as if to make herself taller. That wasn’t supposed to be this hard, for fuck’s sake. “Hi!” she chirped. “You’re a Hyūga, aren’t you? What’s your name? I’m Yūhi Hitomi!” She knew she probably sounded weird, but most Nara were the same. Their reputation had been built ages ago, after all, and Hitomi had been careful to choose a shirt with the clan’s emblem on it for her first day, just like Shikamaru had.

“I’m Hi-Hinata,” the other girl stuttered.

“Pleased to meet you!” She looked at Shino, sitting between Hinata and the window. “And you’re an Aburame, right? What’s your name?”

“Shino. My father often works with your clan. Some insect species can only be found in your forests.” That didn’t surprise Hitomi. The Nara, Akimichi and Yamanaka clans worked together in and outside the village to recreate ecosystems that favoured the growth of very specific medical plants. They used them to create medicine of all kinds, but mostly for shinobi. It was a colossal amount of work, and a lot of civilians from the three clans specialised in that field, but it was worth it for their shinobi, and so they toiled to create the kind of environment rare species of insects needed to thrive.

In the end, Hitomi felt a bit ridiculous for panicking so hard, seeing how easy talking to others was. The two children followed her when she left the classroom and they spent their break getting to know each other, Shikamaru and Chōji walking behind them. Ino, for her part, had made friends with a group of students from their class, mostly girls. Hitomi knew her friend would soon become the queen of her little court.

After the short break, Iruka decided it was time for the students to introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The teacher started to call them by alphabetical order, starting with Aburame Shino, as Hitomi tried to muffle a new surge of anxiety and waited for her turn. She’d be the last, with her last name. When she got a hold of herself, she focused on the other students’ introductions. They stood up when their name was called; she carefully registered all the information they gave about themselves. Their name, age, hobbies, what they liked, what they disliked, their dream for the future.

Then a blonde boy stood up. She knew so much about him, of course, and yet she listened carefully about what he had to say. “… And one day, I’ll be Hokage, believe it!” The mood in the classroom immediately got lighter, except for a tension point in the stage, where Iruka stood. A lot of boys, the ones Naruto had played with during the break, smiled at him. Their friendship seemed genuine, but Hitomi’s heart ached – she knew it wouldn’t last. When those kids would go back to their parents and would be told about the Nine-Tailed Fox, because that was what you did when you wanted to keep a secret, repeating it to six years old children, they wouldn’t even want to talk to him anymore.

“Yūhi Hitomi!”

Obediently, the girl stood up, doing her best to hold herself straight and proud, her two feet firmly rooted on the ground, her shoulder line relaxed, as Ensui had taught her so she could look taller and fearless. “Hi!” she beamed. “My name is Yūhi Hitomi. I’m seven and my hobbies are reading and training. I like shōgi, my family and my clan, but I don’t like red bean paste or being stuck with a problem. My dream is to become a Seal Mistress acknowledged in the whole world. Nice to meet you!”

Many of those children didn’t know anything about fūinjutsu, but Iruka knew what the field was, like all Chūnin. He couldn’t perfectly hide his surprise as he stared at the girl. She looked back at him then sat up. Shikamaru patted her knee discreetly, knowing how she hated to speak in front of a crowd. Thirty kids definitely qualified as such.

The lunch break started thirty minutes after that. Hitomi woke Shikamaru up with a hand on his shoulder, careful not to startle him, then turned to Hinata and Shino, who were taking their bentō out of their bags. “Hey, I had a good time earlier. D’you wanna eat with me?”

As the two children nodded, she wondered how other people socialised all the time. Weren’t they anxious? One look to Hinata, who was blushing again, gave her the answer: yes, people were anxious, and some hid it better than others. She turned to Shikamaru to make him the same offer but, before she could say a word, he met her eyes and rubbed his neck, looking uncomfortable. “Err… Would it bother you if I went to eat with Ino and Chōji? Our parents want us to grow even closer during the Academy. It’s troublesome, but we’d better start now, or my mom will get all angry and stuff and she…”

She cut him with a gentle nod and a smile. She wouldn’t be alone, after all. And even if it had been the case, she was a big girl, she knew how to cope. “Write if you need me,” she just said while drumming on her own notebook for emphasis. She always had it with her and didn’t plan on changing that today. Since she had two pen pals now, she had created sections and linked each of the other notebooks to one of them. She had prepared more sections for more people and prepared the supplementary notebooks accordingly, but she knew she wouldn’t need them for some time.

After grabbing her own lunch, she followed her new friends to the outside courtyard, the one where the welcoming speech had happened. The stage was gone now, like it had never been there. It was larger and nicer than the inside courtyard, but students were only allowed there during lunch break.

The three children found themselves an isolated tree and settled in its blissful shade. Hitomi sat on one of its roots, her back against the trunk, then opened her bentō as her friends did the same with theirs. The Nara clan had taken on the Akimichi tradition to always cook more than needed if food was to be shared, a tradition Kurenai had made her duty to follow for this special day. She had made sure her daughter would have enough to share with her friends if she wanted to. In the end, they put their three lunches in common and picked whatever they fancied while chatting lightly.

Shino, more talkative now that the rest of their classmates couldn’t eavesdrop on them, told the two girls about his clan, their traditions and the role their civilians played in it. Those things, after all, were different from one clan to the other, and it fascinated Hitomi. After a dozen of minutes, the conversation went to the reasons for her late start at the Academy.

“I have a sickness that affects my meridians and could have stopped me from ever becoming a ninja. Fortunately, one of my clanmates, who was born with the same problem, came home from a long mission in a foreign country and took me in. He taught me how to control it while we travelled… In fact, he taught me a whole lot of things so I wouldn’t be sad to start the Academy later than the other kids.

“W-what kind of things?” Hinata didn’t speak a lot, and even less to say something about herself. Hitomi knew how the Hyūga clan could be, so she supposed they had ordered her to say nothing about the clan at school. As she was already such an introvert, it would have been enough to bully her into silence. With a gentle smile she hoped would calm down her friend’s anxiety, Hitomi ate a mouthful of rice before answering.

“Basis for taijutsu and kenjutsu, a lot of chakra control, fūinjutsu… that kind of thing.” She was careful not to go into details. Ensui had taught her the benefits of secrecy, especially about her own skills. Only her trusted allies had the right to know about them, so they could work with her as a team, but, beside that, it was better to say just enough to impress, but too little to give others weapons against her. She doubted Shino or Hinata would or could threaten her, but still, it was a good habit to build.

They continued talking until the end of the lunch break. Hitomi had time to tell her about Sunagakure and her friend Gaara – no one knew who he was here, and she made sure to leave his demon out of the picture. She told them about Ensui, too, and was so ridiculously proud to notice from their reaction that they knew about his prowess. Of course, they knew nothing about his feud with the Hokage: people usually didn’t talk about their war chief’s failures.

When they came back to their classroom, turned over sheets of paper waited for them, placed on each occupied desk space. A test already? Hitomi exchanged an annoyed glance with Shikamaru as they sat down. While she had been so impatient to start Academy, she had taken care to ignoring this part of the process. She sighed and listened to Iruka, then began.

It took her ten minutes to complete it, against the two hours the teacher had given them. Most questions were there to evaluate the students’ reading and writing skills, as well as their general knowledge. All those subjects had been covered by her mother, then by Ensui during their trip. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her cousin correctly answer the exact number of questions needed for an average score, then give wrong answers to all the others. In the same movement, they crossed their arms and put their heads down on them.

As Shikamaru napped, Hitomi sank in her Library to scheme about that part of her life. The following day, if everything went as planned, she’d approach Naruto and would show him her intention of becoming, then staying, his friend. Getting Shikamaru and Chōji to follow would be easy. As for Shino and Hinata, it might be a more complex matter: both were obedient children, and if their parents told them to stay away from the jinchūriki… That being said, she was resourceful. She knew that, if need be, she could persuade them.

When the bell rang, she opened her eyes and woke her cousin up again. She watched him stretch lazily before putting his things in his bag as she did the same. They placed their tests on Iruka's desk as they left. Hitomi said goodbye to Shino and Hinata, then followed her cousin outside.

Her mother wasn’t waiting alone at the gate, to Hitomi’s surprise. Shikamaru, Ino and Chōji’s parents were there too, chatting quietly as they waited for their children to come out of the courtyard. The girl could guess why they were there. She foresaw a clan party in her near future; what better day for a celebration, after all, than the first step in a shinobi life for four kids from their clan?

At home, Hitomi had to let her mother dress her as she saw fit. Kurenai decided the day was important enough to necessitate a kimono and taught her girl how to put it on. Hitomi’s long black hair was tied in a bun, a few curly strands escaping to brush against her neck and shoulders. When she looked at her reflection in a mirror, she saw nothing that would hint at the kunoichi she would one day become. That was good: a shinobi was more efficient if no one had any idea of the threat they represented.

The Akimichi Clan had restaurants everywhere in the known world, but the oldest was in Konoha’s main street. The only way to get a table was to book it weeks in advance and, even then, one had to open their pockets. The party had been organised there, which meant the restaurant was closed for business and full of Akimichi, Nara and Yamanaka, civilians and ninjas alike. They all wanted to pay their respects to the new generation that would soon protect and honour them.

Ensui was amongst those people. Hitomi saw him almost every day, but it still wasn’t enough, wasn’t the same as how it had been when it was just the two of them. She missed him dearly. Amazed to see him in his Jōnin vest – he only wore it for important occasions – she ran to him and hugged him, a beaming smile on her lips. With a little rumbly laugh, he closed his arms around her and hugged her back.

He listened attentively as she told him about her day. She described the test, the introductions, her new friends… and Naruto. He already knew how she felt about the boy and the way the village treated him. He himself found it incredibly stupid to mistreat the only person between them and the demon fox. How could they expect the kid to want to protect them, protect his village, if they treated him, at best, only with coldness and disdain?

Then dinner was ready. For the first time, the children sat with their parents at the table of honour. It was weird for them, which they commented discreetly between two giggles. The food was amazing, of course – how could it not be, when an Akimichi had cooked it? Sake ran abundantly as the children settled for fruit juice.

An hour or so later, it was time for the gifts. The four children went to sit on chairs on the stage, which a band sometimes used, in a corner of the room, waiting together for the adults to bring them their presents. Amongst other things, Hitomi got a calligraphy set from her mother, a chemistry kit from Ensui so she could experiment without sneaking in the labs; from Shikaku, she received eight fūinjutsu books. They all looked really rare and old. Other people offered her gifts, mostly clothes and weapons, but nothing had more value in her eyes than the ones she got from those three adults she loved so much, not even the delicate hairpin encrusted with rubies that could turn in a mortal weapon with the brush of a finger.

She went to bed late that night, a big smile fixed on her lips, and slept like the dead. It was rare enough to be noticed: her sleep had always been light, especially when she went into her Library to spend the night rather than allowing her mind to rest. When she woke up, she was almost bursting with energy, which was for the best: she had a jinchūriki to befriend today, after all.

Chapter Text

Hitomi had to wait for lunch break to act. Before that, she simply couldn’t see any opportunity to approach Naruto in a natural manner, but she watched him carefully, noting his gloomy face when he entered the classroom and the way he held himself, a bit prostrated over his desk in the first row. She spent that whole morning so angry at the world, at the boys who had played with him the day before, at their stupid, stupid parents. She sat there, her back stiff and her chakra so agitated the students next and in front of her could probably feel it. It wasn’t killing intent, not yet, she was too young, but an intent of some sort, that was for sure.

At noon, she engaged Shino and Hinata in a ninja game. The teachers expected their students to play those kinds of games during their free time, so they could practice what they learned in class. They hadn’t learned anything yet, really, but clan children still had skills to work on. Hitomi’s plan to approach Naruto and persuade her friends to follow, was simplistic. “We need one more player to have two teams of two,” she frowned. She made a show of looking around then to light up as she saw Naruto, alone on a swing. “I have the solution, wait for me!”

She took off before they could answer, hurrying to the boy. She didn’t allow her heart to ache for him too much. Wallowing in compassion for him was useless. She wanted to act, not to watch him stay unhappy. Soon, that sad and lonely look on his face would just be a bad memory, she promised herself that. “Hi!” she chirped. “D’you wanna play ninja with us? We need you so we can have teams of two.”

She had expected to have to convince him but, as soon as he heard her voice, his whole face lit up and he jumped on his feet, clearly excited and amazed. Now that was more like it.

“I’ll be the best ninja you’ve ever seen, believe it!” he beamed before following her back to Shino and Hinata.

With a grin, she suggested doing girls versus boys. She knew Shino wouldn’t be pumped about getting paired up with the loud and energetic Naruto, but she wanted her friends to grow closer to the jinchūriki too, and was aware that Hinata couldn’t manage if she had to work with someone she didn’t know at all.

That game ended with the girls winning, but not by much. The boys had done well, but Hinata was an excellent strategist when she set her timidity aside and her chakra control was as excellent as you could expect from any Hyūga her age. Hitomi, over the moon, congratulated her friend profusely, making her blush and smile at the same time.

Shino was lecturing Naruto – the blonde boy listened with surprising diligence. The two had been a good pair during the game, scoring points often enough that they could have won if Hinata or Hitomi had been just a bit less efficient together. Naruto’s impulsive and daring nature was a good counterpoint for Shino’s reluctance to act without a solid plan ready.

During the afternoon, they got their first taijutsu lesson. Mizuki-sensei – Hitomi hated associating this sign of respect to the man’s name but she had no choice – was in charge of those classes. For the first day, he just wanted to assess his students’ physical skills. He explained the safety rules they would have to follow in his class, listed the supplies they would need, including wooden shuriken and kunai, then got them started.

First, the students had to run a lap around the courtyard. Hitomi was faster than all the other girls, but a bit slower than Sasuke, who finished first, and Kiba, just after the Uchiha boy. Shikamaru had kept to the middle of the group, as usual. After that, Mizuki tested their strength through muscle-building exercises, including press-ups and sit-ups. Most times, Hitomi beat Kiba, but she could never surpass Sasuke. He always had a few seconds on her, no matter how hard she tried.

Then Mizuki tested their stamina, making them run laps for as long as they could. There, Hitomi truly shone, with her travelling experience. Even Sasuke had to stop, well before she started to sweat, his face red and damp. Finally, the teacher realised he wouldn’t tire her out and made her stop. She obediently came back to her classmates, waiting for the next exercise.

Naruto had done well so far. He had no talent whatsoever for the intellectual dimension of the Academy’s program, but he was in excellent shape and had ranked high in all the exercises. Was it the Kyūbi lending him its strength? If it was the case, he didn’t show any sign and the girl didn’t ever feel, even once, the demon’s chakra manifesting.

After that came precision exercises. Hitomi didn’t have an innate gift for that discipline, but Ensui had mercilessly trained her, refusing to let her settle for an average performance. She had thrown those damned weapons again and again, until her wrists were on fire and her arms couldn’t aim anymore. She could even do it with senbon, the long needles most ninjas didn’t like much but she appreciated their true value. She would never be perfect in that field, but she was good , and she intended to show it.

When that class was over, several girls waited for Hitomi in the locker room. She recognised Aimi, a civilian-born student who was trying to overcome Ino as the leader of the crowd. She wasn’t eloquent or pretty, but her size and strength made people respect her instinctively. Wary, Hitomi waited for one of the girls to speak, shifting quietly to a defensive position.

“So apparently you’re better than anyone around here uh?”

Hitomi shrugged, staring down at the other girl. It was a hard feat, since Aimi was a few inches taller than her, but she managed. Fights weren’t exactly forbidden out of taijutsu class, if you didn’t seriously injure your opponent, but she preferred psychological warfare against other children. “If you want to surpass me, Aimi- chan ,” she said with a sweet, dangerous smile, “you should train a little harder. You did okay earlier, after all.”

But I was far better than you, was left unsaid but still painfully obvious. Hitomi didn’t get any pleasure from pushing another kid around, even if that kid was already showing herself to be a fucking pain in the ass. Still, she wouldn’t hesitate to go harder on her if she didn’t settle down and accept the situation. She would take the first rank, at least amongst the kunoichi of their year, whether Aimi liked it or not. There were very few things she wouldn’t sacrifice for that goal, and the ego of a pitiful little bully wasn’t amongst them. An air of disdain on her face, she grabbed her things and pushed through the girls like they were nothing. Like all bullies were.

Shikamaru was waiting for her outside with Ino and Chōji. Naruto, Hinata and Shino were there too. All looked various degrees of worried, except maybe her cousin, who knew more than anyone what she was capable of when she was in danger, or just crossed, really. After all, they had trained together for the last two months, mostly under Kurenai or Yoshino’s supervision.

The two women were waiting for them at the gate, as if the mere thought of them was enough to summon them. Now that would come in handy during a fight, Hitomi thought with a smile. Kurenai’s thoughtful stare fell on Naruto, who was telling his new friends what he would do to Kiba if he continued ignoring him the next day. Hitomi knew the Inuzuka boy would come around, but she understood Naruto’s wounded reaction.

Kurenai, though, didn’t say anything before she was alone with her daughter, both working on dinner. Hitomi loved gyoza and was humming a tune as she put seasoning in the mix of grounded meat and vegetables that would fill the delicious little dumplings. Her mother had promised to tell her the full recipe one day, since it was an original. “So, sweetheart,” the woman started gently, “you hadn’t told me you were friends with Uzumaki Naruto too. Did it happen today?”

The girl stiffened slightly, glancing at her mother before going back to the filling. She didn’t try to be discreet about it; nothing could really surprise Kurenai. “The other kids have decided to leave him all alone today. Yesterday, I heard parents say mean lies about him. So, at lunch, I decided to ask him if he wanted to play ninja with Hinata, Shino and me.”

“And I gather it went well?”

“Yeah, of course it did! He’s really nice. Well, he’s a bit loud and obnoxious sometimes, but he hasn’t done anything wrong. He doesn’t deserve to be isolated like that for something that was never his choice, something that saved the whole village.”

Kurenai gasped. Hitomi gave her a bored look, like she hadn’t just mentioned an S rank secret. “Mom, everybody in my class knows, even the civilian-born kids. That’s not a secret, or no one should ever trust the adults with secrets again.”

Kurenai burst out laughing and messed with her daughter’s hair with a playful hand. “That bad, uh? Don’t worry, sweetheart, I wasn’t going to forbid you from seeing your friend. You could invite him to dinner here, tomorrow evening. The orphanage is not really the happiest place in town after all…”

Hitomi nodded, a relieved smile on her lips. She wasn’t certain she would have had the guts to confront Kurenai if she had decided to stop her from being around Naruto. She respected her and loved her so much, the mere idea of disappointing her filled her with anxiety. It would have been dreadful, harrowing, to be forced to choose between her mother’s approval and the path she had decided to follow years ago.

The next day after class, Hitomi invited Naruto to dinner and was astonished to see him blush up to the ears. When he got down to it, he could even compete with Hinata. A hand to her lips to hide her smile, she shook her head slightly, moved by the intensity of his reaction. “Don’t worry, okay? My mom just wants to get to know my friends. She’ll be delighted to meet you, you’ll see. And she’s such a good cook!”

That night, after dinner – delicious, just like she had promised – Hitomi settled her guest in the living room. He kept looking around, seemingly astounded, and she understood he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. She did everything she could to put him at ease, ignoring his manners when they got awkward. She knew no one had taught him how to behave in someone else’s house.

“I was wondering, Naruto,” she said after a bit of chitchat, “do you know why you have a hard time with Iruka-sensei’s lessons?”

He lowered his head, obviously ashamed. She put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed it gently to encourage him. “I try to listen, you know, I really do, but I get bored so quickly and I can’t focus on what he’s saying when I get like that. So since I can’t focus in class I tried to read the books he told us to read, but the kanjis keep changing and getting mixed up in front of my eyes. I don’t want him to think I’m lazy…”

“You’re not lazy, Naruto. You just need a little bit of help, and you’re going to get it, you see.” What he described looked like what most people thought dyslexia and hyperactivity were. She didn’t know much more herself, but she could help him. Help him work, help him study, make sure he didn’t fall behind. As long as he was trying, she would be able to support him.

The next day, the ranking was waiting for them in the Academy’s hall. Hitomi wasn’t surprised when she saw it: she was first on the girls’ side and tied with Sasuke, who was first on the boys’ side. Naruto was last in the written test but decently ranked in the physical one. Shikamaru was somewhere in the middle of their class. As Hitomi had foreseen, the children from the two other classes had far lower results than her own classmates. So it was intentional.

This discovery didn’t disturb her. In class, she continued doing her best, always pushing further than what the teachers expected. When she came back home, she made Naruto study by short sessions of fifteen minutes, explaining again to him alone what Iruka had taught them that day. This worked marvelously with the little boy, but not enough to push him to the top part of the ranking in written tests. At least he wasn’t dead last anymore. The tests were still hard for him, but he understood, she could see it in his big blue eyes. And his reading and writing did improve, which was important too.

When Naruto went back to the orphanage – before dinner during the week and after on the week-ends – the day wasn’t over for Hitomi yet. Ensui arrived around that time and trained her too, making sure she didn’t lose any of the skills she had acquired during their journey together. When he wasn’t available, Kurenai trained her daughter herself. She had gone through it first, after all. Even if the village had been at war when she had graduated from the Academy, the competition had motivated her too.

Her correspondence with Gaara – and Shikamaru, too, sometimes, when theoretical lessons were too boring but he didn’t want to nap – was her breath of fresh air. The Sunajin told her, day after day, how he grew closer to his sister, who was starting to warm up to him. He had tried to approach Kankurō, too. To the jinchūriki’s deep surprise, he had just had to congratulate him on his proficiency with his puppets to make his elder brother feel safe with him. The boy seemed happy, calm, and Hitomi was immensely proud of him.

One night, though, those feelings were smashed to pieces, giving space to a cold, cold wave of panic. As she was getting ready for the night, she felt her communication carnet turn cold against her leg, where she had put it after closing it an hour earlier. Her belly twisted into knots by a bad feeling, she opened the notebook and felt like her heart was sinking from her chest.

Hitomi, help me, please! I was attacked by my uncle tonight, he said he was doing it because my father asked him to and I think I killed him, please, help me, I don’t know what to do!

Chapter Text

The few words scribbled on the page by Gaara made Hitomi jump on her feet. She knew it would happen, of course, but not this early. Her heart thundering in her chest so hard it was painful, she took a pen and answered hastily.

Go find Temari and explain. She’ll help you. I’m gonna ask Ensui-shishou to go there as quickly as he can. I love you, Gaara. Be brave. You’re not alone.

As soon as the page was infused with chakra, she put a jumper on over her nightgown and opened her window wide. Her notebook in hand, she jumped to the garden one floor down, strengthening her legs to handle the fall. Without losing anything, she started running. Ensui’s house was on the other side of the Nara lands, not so far from the entrance, but she got there faster than she ever had and started pounding on the door, calling her master in a panicked voice.

“Hitomi? Are you okay? What is it?”

For once, she didn’t notice his pyjamas or his sleepy eyes. “It’s Gaara, shishou! He’s been attacked by his uncle and begged for help. He… He needs help. Please. Can you go to Suna and protect him? Please, I’ll do whatever you want.”

The shinobi stiffened with shock, unable to hide his emotions for a second. He got a hold of himself and put a reassuring hand on his apprentice’s shoulder. Even in the dark, he saw how frantic she was. This feeling wasn’t of any use for ninjas, but she was still so young… she would learn. “Show me his message, kiddo. Calm down, take deep, slow breaths.”

Her hands shaking violently, she obeyed, opening her notebook to the correct page to show him. Gaara’s message hadn’t disappeared yet. It made her almost physically sick to watch the clumsy kanji on the page – the young boy was always so careful to write them precisely, he must have been really terrified to let go of this habit. Hitomi’s powerlessness made her throat constrict, made her breathing shallow and laboured. She wanted to go help Gaara, to go now , but she knew it was impossible. She was too slow… and what could she do, anyway, against trained Sunajin Jōnin?

“Okay… Listen carefully, Hitomi. I’m gonna go prepare and leave as soon as I can. Tell Gaara that I’ll be with him in three to four days. Until then, he has to stay with his sister at all times. If his father is behind all this, other shinobi won’t want to take the risk to hurt her. Before returning home, go find Shikaku at his place and tell him everything. Tell him I’ll come back when your friend is safe. I’ll keep you posted with his notebook. Take care, kiddo.”

Ensui’s voice, so calm and decisive, appeased Hitomi immediately. He always knew what to do. She nodded, her bravery coming back to her like a warm wave, and opened her notebook again as he came back inside.

Gaara, are you with Temari yet? Don’t leave her side. Your father’s men won’t dare to approach you if there’s a risk she could step in to defend you and get wounded. Ensui-shishou will take three to four days before he gets to Sunagakure, just the time to run there. Take good care of yourself, the both of you, and keep me posted.

Hitomi.

The message sent, she turned her back on her mentor’s house. She didn’t want to wait, to see him go. That would be too painful, even if she knew it was for a good cause. She ran to Shikaku’s place, ignoring her protesting lungs and the cold air on her naked legs. He was probably getting ready for bed when she knocked: he opened the door, still in his uniform, except for pyjama pants. Still, he listened to what she had to say, probably worried by the distress he could see on her face.

“I see,” he sighed. “Keep me in the loop, Hitomi, and do your best for your friend.”

Hitomi nodded then went back home. She felt so cold inside, so weak. By the living room window, she saw that a lamp had been switched on and made out her mother’s silhouette, pacing around the coffee table. She had probably heard her go out; not much escaped Kurenai’s vigilance, especially not a first-year Academy student, no matter how good she was.

“Where were you?” the mother asked when her daughter got to her. Hitomi was relieved that she didn’t hear any accusation in her voice, only a gentle and sincere concern. To the brink of tears, she ran in her arms and nuzzled her head against her neck, where the skin was so soft, so warm. She needed this, needed it so much.

“I went to see Ensui-shishou. There’s… There’s turmoil in Sunagakure. Gaara’s father has tried to get him killed. I’m so scared for him, Mom…” She didn’t need to say more. Her mother’s arms wrapped around her and held her close, with gentle strokes against her back. It soothed her a bit: her body relaxed at least, but her mind still agitated. She hated feeling so useless.

“He’s gonna update you on the situation, right? You have already done the best you could by sending him Ensui, sweetheart. He already left, right?”

“Yeah… He told me it was gonna take him three to four days to get there.” Hitomi knew very well how much time it took a shinobi to travel that distance. It felt so short, and an eternity at the same time. In three days, Gaara could die a thousand times. It was terrifying for her to know she had done everything she could and that it could still possibly not be enough.

Gaara would only be six in a few weeks, which meant someone had pushed the Kazekage to act earlier than planned against his son. Could it be her ? What if, by stabilising him, giving friendship and tenderness, she had distracted him from the hatred that was supposed to turn him into a weapon like his father had wanted? A jinchūriki that didn’t obey blindly was no use to such a man.

And yet the idea that she had even the slightest influence on a fucking Kazekage seemed preposterous. She was just a kid, for fuck’s sake! She wasn’t even supposed to have influence over her own family – and, yeah, okay, she had some, but only because she had developed an unfair weapon, the Stare, and not because she had real power over them. The Stare most definitely hadn’t made the Kazekage even more of a fucker than he already was.

“You should try to sleep now, sweetheart. It’s late and you have school tomorrow.”

The girl nodded, understanding. She could have just asked for the permission to stay home, but what good would it have done for anyone? She would, in the long run, be more useful to Gaara if she didn’t miss a class and tried her best to surpass her own performance every day. Staying home wouldn’t bring them any benefit.

However, the next morning, she realised how anxious the whole situation made her feel. She could barely listen to what Iruka was teaching them – fortunately, listening was enough for her to never forget. She kept a hand on her communication notebook at all times just in case it would turn cold, afraid she’d miss a message if she stopped touching it even for a second. She had received one in the middle of the night: Gaara had informed her that he had found Temari and she had taken him to safety, in a disused guarding post along an old border. Now the country had spread a hundred miles further in that direction, so no one ever used it anymore. It was barely a few hours from the Sunajin Gates, so it would be easy for the two children to find Ensui there.

The true surprise, for Hitomi, had been to read that Kankurō had been included in their plans, and was helping them too. One year Temari’s junior, he had just graduated from the Sunajin Academy, whereas his sister had one year of experience on the field. They were only nine and ten years old – according to Gaara, Sunagakure didn’t have the same standards as Konoha about their shinobi – and yet they were brave enough to help their little brother in a time of need.

At least Gaara was in better company than she could have hoped for. Admittedly, his siblings weren’t exactly the kind of strong shinobi she would have liked to guard him, but they could fend for themselves. Besides, they would bring him the kind of emotional support he truly needed. He would feel loved, cherished, more than Hitomi could ever make him feel through their letters.

And never mind her heart screaming that she should get back to Sunagakure. Never mind the feeling of emptiness, of coldness that invaded her mind when she realised how powerless she was to help him. She could at least continue talking to him, and in the long run she’d help more by being stronger, by graduating, by being free to travel through the Elemental Nations without an escort. As for the girls who glared at her because she had beaten their idol once… Well, when they’d be a real threat, perhaps she’d worry about it.

When she got back home, she was surprised to see her mother getting ready to go out, and not only to run a grocery errand. Was she already seeing Asuma or was it someone else? She didn’t dare to ask. Kurenai was secretive about her feelings and her relationships.

“Ibiki-san will babysit you tonight, okay sweetheart? Ensui is away on a mission with your uncle and Yoshino is away with Shikamaru to see her family. Ibiki-san owed me a favour so… You’ll be good, right?”

Hitomi quickly hid any sign of nervousness she could have let slip through the net and nodded in answer with a quiet smile, not even looking up from the book she had to finish reading before the following Monday for Iruka’s class. She still had to explain the last few chapters to Naruto so he would understand them. “Yep, don’t worry. Uh, before you go, could Naruto sleep here tonight? We have to study for the Academy.”

It was the perfect excuse so she wouldn’t have to spend the evening and the night – probably – alone under the same roof with the best interrogator from the Torture and Intelligence fucking Department. To Hitomi’s relief, her mom nodded in acceptance. She closed her book and ran outside, decided to fetch her friend and come back before nightfall.

Naruto wasn’t hard to convince; the two children were already working, bent over their books, when Ibiki arrived. Hitomi had to bite her inner cheek to stop herself from smiling as she caught the very discreet hesitation in the man’s behaviour when he saw the young jinchūriki. It was subtle, because you didn’t end up leading the Torture and Intelligence Department by throwing up your emotions in other people’s faces, but still, she had seen it.

The girl hugged her mother goodbye, watching her leave the house and walk down the alley. She seemed so relaxed, so happy, eager and impatient to join her date for the night. She was so beautiful in her dark green dress, the wind playing with her hair. Glorious, really, in the sweetest way a kunoichi ever could be. When Hitomi couldn’t see her anymore, she focused on Naruto, not caring one bit about Ibiki after he had greeted them both.

“So, the Elemental Nations are called that name because each of their names is one of the elements the chakra can naturally take in a shinobi’s Gates. We live in the Land of Fire; the other ones are the Land of Wind, the Land of Water, the Land of Lightning and the Land of Earth. Those five are considered the most powerful on several fronts, mostly military and economic. They all have a Hidden Village, like Konoha, but other countries have ninja villages that are too small to deserve that title.”

“Ah, I see!” Naruto beamed. “Do they do everything like us there?”

“Uh… No, not exactly. For example, after graduation at Konoha, Genin are paired in groups of three, each under the orders of a Jōnin-sensei. At Kumogakure, Hidden Village of the Land of Lightning, shinobi are often organised in teams of two. Sunagakure, Hidden Village of the Land of Wind, organised its ninjas by squadrons based on their skills until recently, but, at least for their Genin, they started to copy Konoha’s system. They saw it was efficient during the Chūnin exams, which are public.”

“Sunagakure, it’s the Village where you went with your shishou, right?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. Gaara, the friend I made there, would like you very much. You could be good friends! He’s really sweet, just like you.” Without even trying to be subtle – sometimes, manipulating from the shadows was less efficient than throwing her intentions in the face of her victims – she stared at Ibiki, whose posture stiffened somewhat in the chair where he sat. He had listened carefully to Hitomi’s explanations, sometimes nodding with approval.

He cooked dinner for them as Hitomi helped Naruto with his calligraphy. He was still pretty bad at it and hadn’t passed any of Iruka’s tests. In the shinobi world, learning disabilities like the one the jinchūriki probably suffered from weren’t at all taken into consideration. You had to follow the rhythm or be left behind. As if Naruto would ever surrender.

After dinner – which she had to admit was quite good – Hitomi took Naruto to the garden. She felt Ibiki’s chakra behind her back; he had obviously decided to guard them perfectly. Maybe he was afraid of Kurenai’s reaction if something happened to her friend or her. After all, if gossip was to be trusted, her mother had the reputation of being terrifying when she was crossed. She had won her Chūnin exam’s tournament and had only used genjutsu from the beginning of the exam to its very end. All of that meant something in Konoha.

Darkness was falling slowly over Konoha, but that didn’t bother the girl at all. She could feel Naruto’s chakra; before her journey with Ensui, the boy’s very proximity would have made her scream in pain, but now she could manage and only felt a wave of warmth when he stood in front of her. Her voice gentle and confident, she taught him the opening kata Ensui had taught her an eternity ago, correcting his stance again and again. She congratulated him after each bit of progress, each success, and the infinite motivation in his big blue eyes was her reward.

Later, when Naruto was in the shower, she went to Ibiki, determined. “Do you play shōgi?” she asked while looking him in the eyes.

He had a little husky laugh, a deep and gravelly sound who reminded Hitomi of Shikaku. “You really are a Nara, ain’t you? Yeah, I play. Would you like a game or two?”

She nodded and went to fetch her board, settling the pieces in a few quick movements. When Naruto left the bathroom, still drying his hair, he found them both bent over the board, frowning and focused on the game. Of course, Hitomi lost that one, but Ibiki looked at her with interest as she put the pieces away.

“You have a peculiar style, d’you know that?” Ibiki asked.

“Learning to play with Nara Ensui, Shikamaru and Shikaku would do that to anyone, right?”

He laughed again then went back to his duties as the kids focused on their books again. Hitomi foresaw a test just after the weekend and it was out of question for Naruto to fail that one.

Chapter Text

The idea came to Hitomi as she was explaining mathematics concepts to Naruto. It really wasn’t her strongest subject, and she had a hard time finding the correct words to explain the steps to solve the exercise Iruka had given them. She would have liked to have Shino on hand: he absolutely loved maths and was patient enough to explain again and again to the blonde boy until he got it right.

Her thoughts drifted to other students from her class and their specialty. Hinata knew all the subtleties of the Land of Fire’s traditions. Shino was the master of all fauna and flora, and really good at mathematics. Shikamaru was the king of strategy, and Ino never missed a hidden code in any situation. Before graduating, they would all have to master all those subjects, and not only their specialty.

The study group emerged from a conversation during the lunch break. As always, Hitomi, Hinata, Naruto and Shino sat on the roots of their tree but, for once, Shikamaru, Ino and Chōji were there too. Usually, they ate lunch away from the rest of the group and they came back together in class – they were all sitting in the last row now.

“You should include Sakura in that group,” Ino said. “She’s very smart and she works a lot, even if she doesn’t have a preferred subject. She’s good at everything theoretical.”

Hitomi nodded, a smile on her lips. She hadn’t forgotten that Sakura would become Tsunade’s apprentice one day – and if it didn’t happen exactly like in the canon, she’d force the events in another way. She would have her place in the world, Hitomi would make sure of it. “I’d like Sasuke and Kiba too, but I don’t see them agreeing to work with a group. Too proud, the both of them.”

“Yeah but Sasuke is so cool,” Ino sighed.

That made Hinata and Hitomi exchange an amused look. Ino wasn’t a fangirl – she had dignity, she was clan-born, a heiress, after all – but she clearly had a little crush on the Uchiha boy, like a lot of girls from their class. And the other classes. And the other years. Still, it was funny to see them chase him. They didn’t have the slightest chance with him, now or ever.

“We could also get a head start on the program, maybe even free some time to learn things that don’t even come up at the Academy.”

“Like the katas you show me when we’re at your place?” Naruto asked.

“Exactly. Ensui-shishou taught me things we’re supposed to learn during the next few years. Are you in?”

The other exchanged glances before Shikamaru answered. “More work? What a drag… But I guess we have to do it if we want to be the best of our year.” This line released the slight tension in the group. Even Hinata laughed, a quiet, light sound muffled by her hand. She was, without a doubt, the most emotionally fragile person in their group and, since no one could do anything about her family being assholes, it had become a habit for Hitomi and Ino to invite her to spend the weekend at their place.

Hitomi stiffened when her communication notebook turned cold against her thighs, where she had put it so she could eat. She never allowed herself to stop paying attention to it, hiding it as best she could during tests so she would still know when a new message arrived from Sunagakure. Her friends, whom she had explained the situation to, helped her in that complicated undertaking.

Ensui had arrived at Sunagakure and found Temari, who had led him to the place where she and Kankurō were hiding Gaara. Since then, the man taught them, just like he had done with Hitomi. He was more than able to cover the Academy program for the youngest, and to teach new tricks to his older siblings. The siblings had started taking missions again but visited as often as possible, be it to bring provisions or simply keep Gaara and Ensui company.

Shikaku had let out a loud sigh when he learned that his newly found right-hand man was to spend four – or more likely six – years in the Sunajin Desert, since no other solution could be found. Then Gaara would become a Genin and would be able to fend for himself. Hitomi had felt a bit of selfish sadness but had quickly buried the feeling far beneath the surface of her mind. Gaara was safe. It was exactly what she had wanted. She’d miss Ensui, but she could cope with his absence.

And it wasn’t like she couldn’t talk to him: he sent her a message every night, after the one Gaara always sent her. She didn’t even feel that lonely, not with all the friends surrounding her. The boy had a far more urgent need than her for friends and adults. She could share, even if she wanted to see her mentor.

A few days later, she went to the first kunoichi class. It wasn’t exactly mandatory, but only a small part of all female students could graduate without following those lessons. Hitomi didn’t think it was very fair: she lost two hours twice per week, while the boys were free to go cloud watching – Shikamaru – or train even more – Naruto.

Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. Ino and Sakura were there too, but not Hinata, who probably had access to far better tutors at home. Hitomi hadn’t found a way to approach the Haruno girl yet about the study group but a perfect occasion presented itself while Ino was explaining how to choose the best flowers to go with her lily. The blonde girl elbowed her lightly to make her look up and nodded to another part of the Academy’s garden, where Aimi and her goons were surrounding Sakura. That couldn’t be a nice chat. Leaving her bouquet behind, Hitomi stood up and went to them, Ino on her heels.

“What do you know about beauty, Aimi?” she drawled, as cold and cruel as she could be. “Leave more intelligent people alone and work on your own skills, if you even have some, you’ll make everyone happy.”

The girl couldn’t stand the fact that Hitomi had taken first place in the girls’ ranking and always tried to start arguments with her. Usually, one mean comment was enough to make her lose her barely existing wits, and the young Nara exploited that time to get away. But this time Aimi reacted, balling her hands into fists and taking an opening fighting stance. Hitomi adapted immediately, falling in a defensive position between Sakura and the girl.

However, Aimi didn’t have time to attack before Ino moved , throwing flowers in the other girls’ mouths, not only Aimi’s. As her friend explained about the poisonous properties of the flowers in question, Hitomi focused on Sakura. “Are you okay?” she asked gently. “I’m so sorry about Aimi, she’s insufferable. She can’t stand it when someone is better than her, and you definitely are better than her in class. She’s just a pathetic bully who prefers pulling people down rather than fighting to the top.”

And just like that, it was settled. Sakura joined her meetings in the courtyard, and the study group supervised by Kurenai, two hours a day after school and four hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Often, those sessions continued until dinner, especially when Hitomi tried to explain notions that were a bit too complicated to her friends. Slowly but surely, their little group progressed, each of them receiving Iruka’s compliments regularly – except for Shikamaru, perfectly satisfied with feigning mediocrity. Even Naruto had his fair share of encouragement from the teacher, which made him incredibly proud.

One of Sakura’s hidden talents was calligraphy. Her parents, rich kimono merchants who had left the Land of Tea to settle in Konoha a few years before having children, had taken care of teaching her all about it when they saw she had a talent for it. As Hitomi studied a treatise about storage seals borrowed from the Hokage Tower’s Library – it was only available for Chūnin and up, but, eh, it wasn’t her fault if they couldn’t protect their documents – her pink-haired friend looked over her shoulder to see what she was working on. “Oh, those are complicated strokes. You can do that?”

“Not quite yet,” Hitomi sighed. “The seals I created until now are mostly transfer seals, the strokes are easier. Ensui-shishou told me he was gonna help me learn those ones, but since he’s in Sunagakure now…”

“D’you wanna try with me? In exchange, you could tell me how all this fūinjutsu thing works in general.”

Hitomi thought about it for a second then nodded. Fūinjutsu was a disappearing art, despite its usefulness and potential. The girl understood she couldn’t give the precious knowledge to just about anyone but, even in Konoha, the village known for the Seal Masters it had brought into the world, the people able to do more than copying store-bought seals were rare.

That afternoon, after class, the two girls went to the Haruno household. Sakura had to pick up some of her calligraphy books to guide her friend through complicated exercises. As she went to fetch them, Hitomi talked about the Academy with her parents, describing the teachers and lessons. Apparently, communication was complicated in the family: the adults didn’t understand why, of all possible careers, their precious little girl had decided to become a kunoichi.

A bit later, they walked back to the Academy but had to stop in the middle of an alley, far away from the busy streets. A man, mid-twenties perhaps, his brown hair cut short, stood firmly in their way, his big arms crossed over his muscular chest. Everything, from his posture to his stare, darkly satisfied, screamed trouble to Hitomi. This was a trap. She was certain of it when, turning her head to the left just far enough to see, she spotted the silhouette of another man in her peripheral vision. “Sakura,” she warned in a low voice.

The girl hummed in understanding then pressed her back against Hitomi’s, covering the angle she couldn’t see. Ensui had taught her how to react to an ambush of that sort and to hell if she wasn’t going to fight back. She fell in a defensive position, one of her hands finding the kunai strapped to her forearm, inside her sleeve. Her master had shown her how to hide a weapon on her body at all times. Her lips pressed into a thin line, her red eyes analysing the situation. Sakura had just started on katas a week ago and couldn’t send chakra in her muscles. She was a civilian, for now.

And herself… She was good, yes, for a student, around the strength and skills expected of a Genin. She had a weapon and could fight. She stared at the man in front of her; she had chakra to enhance her skills, but she had never beaten an adult, let alone two of them. They were just civilians, but even then… Her focus came back to the threat as the man in front of her pulled out a knife.

“You’re gonna come with us like nice little girls, the both of you. If your parents are clever, we ain’t gonna do nothing to you.”

Hitomi answered by stepping toward him, all her muscles buzzing with chakra, then hit his knee with a side kick. Behind, she heard Sakura getting to work too. Her own opponent groaned and fell to his knees, swearing through clenched teeth. She didn’t allow him to react before punching him in the temple. If she had been stronger, she would have stunned him or even knocked him out cold, but he just groaned again and retaliated. With his knife.

Hitomi yelped in pain when the blade drove in her right thigh. For a dreadful second, she froze, then she overcame the shock and, strengthening her hand with all the chakra she could muster, she backhanded him so hard he fell backward, his head hitting the ground hard enough that he didn’t get up again. She hadn’t even used her kunai. Stupid.

When Hitomi turned to Sakura, her eyes went wide with horror: the other man had a knife too and was slowly getting the upper hand over her friend, whose arms were covered in bleeding slashes. Hitomi hurled herself in that direction but her brain screamed she didn’t have time, she’d be too late, her lips opened on an anguished sob as the knife initiated its descent toward Sakura’s chest. Her chakra went from her hand to her legs so fast it was visible for a second, enhancing her muscles. Still not enough.

And then he was there, his hand stopping the knife easily. His eyes turned from Uchiha black to Sharingan red. Hitomi froze again, shocked to the core, when she understood who , exactly, had saved her friend. She recognised the necklace around his neck, the stress lines on his face that would slowly spread under his eyes, year after year, until he was consumed.

And disappeared.

Except if she could prevent it.

Before she could react, he moved, speed and elegance embedded in a deadly, sharpened body. His other hand hit the thug’s throat and, as he fell to the ground choking, Itachi disarmed him, knocking him out with a fast hit to the head. Then he went to check if Hitomi’s opponent was unconscious too, his arm brushing against hers for a second.

He only relaxed then, his tall silhouette losing a bit of presence as the Sharingan dissolved in the black of his eyes. Using it against two civilian thugs was probably overkill, but Hitomi had heard that the Uchiha activated it on reflex when they were angry. He studied the girls with a long, inquisitive stare, his eyes stopping on each of their wounds. “Come here.” His voice was unbelievably soft and made a shiver run down Hitomi’s spine as she obeyed, limping hard. Sakura looked terribly shaken, pupils contracted to little dots in her green eyes and tremors running through her body.

“I’m going to make sure those two are taken to the police station to be interrogated, then take you both to the hospital. Everything is going to be okay, now. You’ve been so brave, the both of you.” His tone was calm, quiet, comforting. He was obviously used to talking to children – one in particular. Her lips a thin line, Hitomi watched as he used a kunai to nick his index and summoned a raven, ordering him to fetch the policeman patrolling a few streets from there.

Adrenaline was dissipating in Hitomi’s body, its disappearance awakening all the small and large aches of the fight. The worst was, without a doubt, the one burning her leg, where she had been stabbed. She felt blood running down her skin from thigh to ankle, a sickening sensation. Her dizziness became stronger with each passing second, especially when she started going through chakra exhaustion. Her muscles ached, her hand throbbed. She had probably broken a few bones there by hitting the man so hard.

“Easy,” Itachi whispered as he caught her before she fell on the ground. “I’m sorry I didn’t step in faster.”

Hitomi’s eyes met the young boy’s. They were still sharp despite the strain the Sharingan had put on him – she could feel his chakra levels, after all. Quick maths made her realise he was just twelve years old. In a few months, he would kill his entire clan, because no one could stop that chain of events. Hitomi was only seven. There was nothing she could do, not without revealing her deepest secret to the world, and she couldn’t do that. Not even for him.

“Thank you for stepping in at all, Uchiha-san,” she mumbled. “You saved Sakura.”

He gently shook his head, a smile on his lips, and signed Sakura to come closer so he could examine her wounds. “It was my duty. Here’s the patrol. Just hang in there for a few more minutes and you’ll be at the hospital, okay?”

Hitomi hummed in approval and closed her eyes, all her aches fading in a blissful wave of darkness.

Chapter Text

When Hitomi regained consciousness, she was in a hospital room. She took a few minutes to understand, but she couldn’t confuse that smell with anything else. She pressed her lips with displeasure and turned her head, looking around. Shikamaru slept nuzzled against her flank. Her mother sat at her bedside, her eyes fixed to the door as if to guard her. Sakura was sitting in another bed and talking with Shikaku in a low voice while he took notes.

“Mom,” she mumbled in a surprisingly hoarse voice.

Kurenai started and turned her head to her daughter, her hands immediately stroking her cheeks tenderly. The touch brought tears to Hitomi’s eyes – she didn’t quite understand why – and she closed them, fighting against the need to cry. It was stupid. She didn’t have any good reason to cry. She let out a little groan, hating the hard time she had to simply think. She felt like her thoughts were mired in a thick sirup, which was terrifying for someone like her. She shook her head slightly once her mother’s hands were on her shoulders, trying to get her usual efficiency back. “I need to train harder.”

It was probably something stupid to say, since it made Kurenai, Shikaku and Sakura laugh. Hitomi frowned, her lips forming a pout before she could stop them. Okay, it probably wasn’t something people said when they woke up in the hospital after being stabbed, but it was the truth! She needed to learn how to defend herself against all types of opponents, even adults.

“We’ll talk training when you’re up and about again,” her mother said, tenderness and amusement in her tone. She stroked her hair and Hitomi leaned in the touch, fighting to keep her eyes open.

“About that. What’s the situation?” She emphasised her question with a gesture of her hand. She couldn’t see her leg, but she recognised the sensation of bandages around it. It wasn’t painful yet, but she knew it would come. Medical ninjutsu wasn’t miraculous. That was what Iruka repeated each time he told his students about that field, but she disagreed. Medical ninjutsu could do miracles in her eyes; but what ninja skill couldn’t?

“You come home tomorrow and can get back to the Academy in a week. Until then, you’re forbidden from any intense training.”

Hitomi groaned in frustration but fought the desire to roll her eyes. A week just seemed so freaking long… Pouting, she stared at Shikamaru, still asleep against her side. He hadn’t moved since she had woken up, but she suspected he was only pretending to sleep, like he often did. She knew he would bring her homework and notes from Iruka’s lessons but, for Mizuki’s class, she was fucked. She sighed, already planning all the training she’d have to go through once she was cleared if she wanted to stay top of the kunoichi.

“My father will come to see you during the week, to tell you about the Yūhi clan. He should have done so months ago, but it was hard for him to find time… Anyway, you shouldn’t be too bored with all the things he wants to tell you.” Kurenai smiled and took her hand, careful not to press on the bones she had broken. They had been fixed by medical ninjutsu but were still a bit sore.

Hitomi frowned, surprised. Yūhi Shinku was a loner. She remembered a few visits, including the one after her father’s death, but he spent a long time away on diplomatic missions out of the village. When he came back, he rarely took time to see his family, which made his willingness to teach her something a bit strange. But what did she really know about the man? This whole thing would be interesting, no doubt about it.

Her mother made sure Hitomi was resting. For the hospital, she had brought her two adventure novels as well as a language-based puzzle book. Hitomi had discovered those a few months ago and she couldn’t get enough of them. She wasn’t allowed to work on Academy stuff before coming home the next afternoon, and her mother made sure she relaxed. She also brought her food so she didn’t have to eat the hospital meals, so Hitomi wasn’t too mad about that deal.

One afternoon, as she was learning to prepare the lemonade she loved so much under Kurenai’s guidance, Yūhi Shinku decided to pay them a visit. He looked out of place in the peaceful house, with his Jōnin uniform and the tension running through his body without respite, as if he couldn’t see anything but a battlefield wherever he was. It was so rare for ninjas, especially Jōnin, to get to know their grand-children – and yet he was still there. He had probably seen too much to be able to play civilian, even for a few hours.

Hitomi followed Kurenai’s instructions to the T, preparing a tray with tea and biscuits before bringing it to the coffee table. It was included in the kunoichi cursus, but Hitomi had finally decided she wanted her mother to teach her and had dropped out of the class entirely. Her gestures still a bit clumsy, she presented biscuits to her grandfather after pouring him a cup of tea. He stayed silent for a few minutes, content with sipping on his tea, then seemed ready to speak.

“Well before ninjas decided to build the Hidden Villages,” he started in a soft, weary voice, “the Yūhi clan was one of the first to choose the Land of Fire as their home. The members of our clan weren’t as easy to identify as Yamanaka or Hyūga were, for example, and that discretion was their strength. For a long time, they thrived, careful to mingle with carefully selected civilians so they wouldn’t become inbred and weak.” He took another sip of his tea, his red eyes so similar to hers staring right at her, as if to make sure she understood each and every word. Knowledge was power, and she was fascinated by the one he was giving her.

“Our clan’s characteristics were transmitted by the father or the mother, but only the women could awaken the different powers the clan amassed through generations. When the village was founded, some scientists wondered why, but we still don’t know to this day. For a long time, our clan was entirely matriarchal, like the Inuzuka clan. Those were the only two clans with such a power system.”

“What changed?” asked Hitomi in a soft voice?

“My father was born. Since we became part of the village, the clan had started to fade, but my father’s birth was the last nail in the coffin of our lineage and traditions. His mother was an only daughter, you see, and after him, she couldn’t have children anymore. All the other branches of the clan had disappeared, one after the other, destroyed by the three wars. We were, after all, perfect for the frontline.”

Hitomi nodded, fascinated. She was probably a bit unsettling, staring at her grandfather with such avidity, but she couldn’t feign the distant and polite attention that was probably expected from her in this kind of situation – in fact, she had never been good at it. Ensui had told her more than once that he found her adorable when she gave him that look, but she had often seen people pull away when she stared at them that way.

“After that, things just got worse. My father died a short time after I was born, and my grandmother a few months after she had started teaching me. In Konoha, the law states that a clan can only retain that title if it’s composed of at least three members linked by blood. When you were born, we could reclaim the title and, if I survive until you get your own children, we’ll keep it.”

For a moment, tension surged in the room. It wasn’t killing intent, not at all, but an intent nonetheless, so intense that his chakra made it almost physical. Then Shinku sighed and the sensation passed, dissipating into thin air.

“To me, however, our title isn’t the priority. Our traditions and our history are far more important to me. I don’t care if you decide to have children or not, if I get to know them or not. What matters to me, more than anything, is that if you do have children, you tell them what I told you today, and what I still have to tell you, so our clan is never forgotten.”

The child nodded, solemn. She felt her mother’s presence, a few steps behind her. She had probably received the same words from her father when she was younger. Had Shinku dropped all his hopes and her shoulders too? It was a heavy charge but, compared to Hitomi’s other self-assigned missions… Yes, it seemed easy compared to the other things on her plate.

“Our clan,” he continued, “has always been considered minor. Despite this, our characteristics were very useful during the numerous conflicts that happened before the Founders Era, and then during the Shinobi World Wars. Foreigners started to call us Tailless Beasts during the first war.”

“Ensui-shishou told me that,” she said respectfully. “But is it… Is it an accurate comparison? I know I have a lot of chakra for my age, and that my reserves are only going to expand with the years, but compared to jinchūriki…”

“Trust me, it’s accurate. Look through the village’s archives when you have time, particularly for the first two wars.”

Hitomi thought about it for a few seconds then decided it would be as interesting as he hinted. The only man alive to bear that title to that day was Hoshigaki Kisame, former member of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist turned Akatsuki nukenin. If that title meant she was to possess one day the kind of power he had, she had to be warned, she had to prepare, and quickly, so she could pick the shinobi arts she wanted to specialise in, on top of fūinjutsu and kenjutsu.

“Our history often blended, in the past, with the history of other clans. We first were considered a very secondary branch of the Uzumaki Clan but, when Konoha was founded, our clan leader received an offer that was hard to turn down: the hand of a Uchiha son, from the main family. He was only a third son, not much in the inheritance line of his clan, but he gave us so much through marriage and, later, lineage.”

It was commonplace amongst the clans: daughters and sons who couldn’t inherit were married in other clans to forge new alliances. The person wedded in that way gained a little more power for the rest of their life, and their descendants gained all or part of their genetic abilities.

“Is it why we don’t look like the Uzumaki?” Hitomi asked as she poured another cup of tea for her grandfather.

The shadow of a smile appeared on his lips. “Exactly. The Uchiha’s black hair is transmitted to all their children, even in families far away from the main branch. It’s also because of them that we have red eyes, although we could never awaken the Sharingan. Some researchers from the Land of Whirlpools tried to figure out why, but they could only muster that it was an incompatibility between the Sharingan and our own Kekkei Genkai.”

It took all Hitomi had to stop her from choking on her tea. “We have a Kekkei Genkai?”

“We had one. You know what a Kekkei Genkai is, right? They are categorized in several types; the most well-known are the dōjutsu, with the Sharingan and Byakugan, and the Hiden, like the techniques only the Nara clan can use. Our Kekkei Genkai fell in that category. The nature of this power, what it did or meant, has been lost since the end of the first war, when the Konohajin Library burned. No person alive in this world remembers what we could do then, but I suspect…”

Hitomi stared at her grandfather, an all-consuming curiosity lighting up her big red eyes. She was stunned, fascinated by all the things she was learning that day. However, she took Shinku’s assertion about no one alive remembering the Yūhi Kekkei Genkai with the appropriate grain of salt, since she knew of at least two people having survived the First Shinobi World War still being alive. And, one day, she would have to fight them.

She wouldn’t be alone in that venture, though, she knew it. She had befriended Naruto and, if she wasn’t exactly at ease when it came to creating meaningful bonds with people, he had such a talent for it that it made her a bit jealous. She had Gaara, too, and Shikamaru. The three boys were probably the people from her generation she offered the most trust to; Naruto because he wouldn’t betray her even if his life depended on it, Gaara because he truly loved her and was terrified by the mere thought of hurting her, and Shikamaru because he’d been raised to think family was all that mattered, even before the clan or the village, just like she had.

“The most useful gifts the Uchiha offered us, what convinced our ancestor to accept this suitor as her husband, will be offered to you in turn when you’ll start your last year at the Academy. It’s a summoning contract.”

Hitomi’s eyes went wide. She had thought about signing such a contract, especially since Ensui had expanded her chakra reserves with his extreme training regime. She only knew of a few of them, the ones mentioned in the canon, and her research had established they weren’t accessible to her. But if Shinku had one to give her… He answered her question before she could ask, amusement gleaming in his eyes.

“It’s the Nekomadake Forest Cats contract. They are considered minor summons, but don’t underestimate them. They are individually weaker than the serpents or toads, that’s true. However, they only take one summoner per generation for a very good reason.”

“Mom, did you sign that contract?” Hitomi pipped.

“No, I didn’t. Since my childhood, everyone knew I had a strong predisposition for genjutsu and cats weren’t a good pairing for me, but Father made them do awesome things when he was at war. I signed the Dragonflies contract when my shishou offered it to me.”

Were there that many summoning contracts? What was certain for Hitomi was that the canon vision of this whole thing, with the Spiritual World divided in three realms for the three main species of summons, was critically simplistic. After all, didn’t her grandfather just mention a fourth one? She was sure there were even more.

“Hitomi,” her grandfather said, “Nara Ensui did the right thing when he shocked your chakra reserves into expanding, but he couldn’t have known you would get our contract. Unless… Did he offer you another one?”

Hitomi shook her head, lost in thought. She was wondering about the cats’ skills, and how she could mix them with her fighting style, the one she was already starting to develop and would continue to do for years to come. She already knew genjutsu wasn’t the right pick for her. Her mother had talked to her about it a few times since she had started the Academy and, if she acknowledged the power of illusions, the girl’s instinct told her that her own path was elsewhere.

She knew, for example, that she wanted to focus on kenjutsu, even if she hadn’t yet found someone to train her intensely. Her choice of weapon almost made her want to talk to someone who was or had been ANBU, but how could she even explain that she knew about their ties with the secret services? For a while, she’d train with her mother, since Ensui was in Sunagakure.

Then there was fūinjutsu, of course. With the creation of her communication notebooks, she had reached a kind of plateau, one she struggled to overcome. She knew it would pass. After all, all Masters had been capable of far more than just combining a few basic seals – because, really, once she had had the idea, it hadn’t been more complicated than that. The hard part had been stabilising the whole seal, and she knew she’d have to go through that with all her creations. She was currently working on storage seals and explosive seals, which was already far more than expected of even a Genin.

But it wasn’t enough, not for her. She didn’t know her elemental affinity yet, but she knew she would want to use it on the battlefield. Those powers were too flexible, too strong, for her to ignore them, especially with her chakra reserves. She also could count on the Nara techniques, even though she wouldn’t learn the next one before she was a teenager.

And then, there were all the minor but oh-so-useful talents she had: battle chemistry, her sickness turned sensor advantage, the battlefield control skills Ensui had taught her. She also wanted to learn more about psychological warfare, the basis of medical ninjutsu, and make her chakra control good enough to be useful in a fight.

Add the ninja cats to the mix and her arsenal started to look really good. It made for an awful lot of things to learn, to research, to develop, but… but she knew the results would make it all worth it, one day.

Chapter Text

Coming back to class was a bit strange for Hitomi. Her friends welcomed her as if she’d been through war, even if she had just been wounded. Okay, it was a worrying wound for a child but, compared to what she would face as a shinobi, what they would all face, it was absolutely nothing. Hitomi herself only vaguely realised what was awaiting her in the future, and only because she had seen Ensui’s scars, and knew what the canon had in store for her friends and her. She only had an abstract idea of the pain such terrible wounds would make her feel, and the consequences it would have on her mind.

She needed a bit of work to get back in shape for Mizuki’s class. She hadn’t run for a week when she came back, but the teacher didn’t see it as an excuse to take it easy, and she had to agree with him. The opponents she would meet later in her life wouldn’t politely wait for her to be back in top condition before throwing their worst at her, and she would always have to be able to give them her best.

No matter the consequences on her body, her mind, her soul.

No matter the guilt, the “I should have done better”, the physical exhaustion, the mental weariness, the apparently insurmountable difficulties, the thousands of mountains she’d have to cross and the seas she’d have to reroute. Shinobi had a moral duty to always overcome the person they had been the day or even the instant before. It was the reason why children weren’t allowed to skip classes anymore in the Academy. With Kakashi, Itachi, Shisui and so many more, the Third had finally seen the waste and consequences of burning all those flames too early, too fast, too hard.

In the theoretical class, she wasn’t behind, thanks to Shikamaru. Naruto, however, had suffered from her absence. He had come to see her at home almost every day, all cute and careful around her, but he had refused to make her work, even if it was to help him as she wanted to. When she saw the public ranking of their year, the day of her return, she saw how many places he had lost – she wasn’t ranked since she had not been able to pass any test the previous week – and couldn’t help but feel guilty about not helping him. He smiled and pretended not to care, but she knew that, deep down, it affected him.

For that exact reason, she put him back to work with a renewed focus, and herself at the same time. She had to get stronger so that that kind of wounds didn’t happen again, not against opponents that weren’t worthy of her time and of the time she’d spend healing afterward. A similar flame burned in Sakura’s eyes. The lucky girl had only missed two days of school. Hitomi was a bit jealous but also glad her wounds hadn’t been as severe as the ones she had suffered herself.

During Iruka’s lessons, Hitomi had started to take note of what he was saying but presenting it in another form, adding all the related information she had gotten from her family and Ensui on little cards for Naruto. This system had proven its efficacy when she was in college in the Previous World. She remembered full well the money she had made by selling her decks of cards, one per subject. It wasn’t about money, this time. She just wanted to help her friends.

Her cards immediately got a lot of success in her circle of friends. They had even developed a memory game with the decks she started to hand them at the end of each week. They drew a card, read the first five words and the other player had to recite the rest of it. It was a good game that made them memorise all her cards and the valuable information on them.

The game ended up attracting Inuzuka Kiba’s attention. He was friends with Naruto again, but had never really shown any interest in joining their study group, or even just in staying with them all during breaks. He was content enough with the playful rivalry opposing him and Hitomi during the speed tests in Mizuki’s class. The girl hadn’t ever won twice in a row against the Inuzuka boy, no matter how hard she tried, and that only made her try harder.

One day, as Sakura, Hinata and Shino played the memory game – Shikamaru and Hitomi had been forbidden from doing so and usually referred – Kiba approached their tree. Several times during the week, Hitomi’s friends had noticed he was listening to their conversations. Only Naruto, who wasn’t the most observant person, didn’t know. “Uh… Hitomi-san?” he asked politely.

That was uncharacteristic of him. Kiba wasn’t the kind to waste time with social niceties – most times, Hitomi wasn’t even sure he knew the rules in the first place. Staring at him, she slowly nodded, leaving Shikamaru to supervise the game – her friends hadn’t stopped but were on their guard, just in case.

“Yes, Kiba-san?” she answered in the same tone. She could play this game too, after all. She allowed a sweet smile to appear on her lips as Kiba got his dog Akamaru, perched on his head, to go down in his arms so he could pet him. He always did that when he was nervous and probably didn’t have any idea how telling this simple gesture was.

“My ma… My ma says I have to get better in Iruka-sensei’s class. My results aren’t enough for her.”

Hitomi nodded and gestured for him to continue. Oh, she had a rather precise idea of what he wanted, but she was still a bit crossed with him: a few weeks earlier, he had made fun of their study group and hadn’t apologised. Okay, it was commonplace for children to laugh at each other, but she didn’t want to make it easy for him.

He shifted his weight, scratched his cheek, and continued. “Uh… I heard you helped Naruto study and he’s getting better. Could you help me too, please?”

Hitomi had absolutely no intention of refusing, but she feigned a slight hesitation, just to make him squirm a little. She hadn’t liked the way he had laughed at her precious study group. It appeared that a childhood and adolescence spent, in the Previous World, bullied by her cruel classmates had taken its toll in a deeper and heavier way that she had initially thought. After a few seconds, she smiled and gestured for him to come closer. “Of course I can. Here, you can borrow my deck of cards while I create one for you.”

Kiba’s eyes went wide as he took the deck of cards she was handing him. “But how are you gonna make a new one if you give me yours?”

From the root he was sitting on, Naruto snorted loudly. A smirk on her lips, Hitomi pretended to glare at him and pushed him with her foot, just hard enough for him to lose his balance without falling. “Study the set on Kirigakure instead of playing smartarse. If you know it well enough tonight, I’ll convince Mom to cook ramen for us.”

She let him choke on his own saliva then swear he was going to know them by heart, ‘believe it!’, turning back to Kiba. “Trust me, I already know them all. I’ll bring you your deck in two days and, after that, I’ll give you the new cards once a week, like I do for everyone here. Now, listen carefully, here is how the game works…”

Under Shikamaru’s amused stare – the others were either busy eating, playing or frantically studying the Kirigakure cards – she started explaining the rules and briefly went over why she and her cousin only refereed. Before the end of the break, Kiba was perfectly integrated in their group, like he had always been part of it. Just like Naruto, he had that luck, those instinctive social skills that made Hitomi both slightly admirative and secretly jealous.

A few weeks later, Hitomi realised the amazing feat she had accomplished: eight of the nine ‘rookies’ from her generation in the canon presented an united front, and she was a member of that group, seen as a dear friend by each and every one of them, as someone they could count on. She would probably never feel the crushing loneliness that had been constant in her first life. Her family loved her, her friends loved her. She wasn’t alone anymore and, if she had to finish this life in a hospital, she knew she wouldn’t spend her last moments listening to the echo of her weakening breath against the walls of an empty room.

It was hard to admit how much her first life influenced the way she lived her new one. She was frightened by the mere idea of being alone, physically or mentally. When she studied in her room – she far preferred the living room – she couldn’t spend an hour without checking for chakra around her, just to make sure she wasn’t alone in the house; when she was, her gut clenched painfully. At the Academy, she always sat in the last row, but felt uncomfortable if the chairs next to hers were empty, which made her one of the last to sit down each morning.

Shikamaru had understood the unease she felt at the idea of being alone. He didn’t speak about it, but his looks, his body language, were clear and appeasing. He always had an eye on her and, when she had to speak on the little stage in front of the class, mostly for exercises given by Iruka, he stared at her, consciously giving her someone to talk to rather than the group the students represented.

She knew she would grow out of this fear one day. As a shinobi, she would have to, but it was even more important considering the enemies she had chosen for herself. She would have to fight some of them alone, so no one was ever harmed by them again. Her path was still nebulous, hidden in deep and thick shadows, but she already had some certainties concerning her future.

Gaara hadn’t been pleased to learn she had been attacked and stabbed – neither had Ensui, of course. Both had sent her long messages filled with worry and the adult had been very close to strapping the little jinchūriki on his back and taking him to Konoha. The mere idea of the diplomatic incident this would have caused made Hitomi shiver in anxiety. She had managed to reassure them by writing every day to explain the details of her health and remission. Even with that, she could still read the worry between the lines of Gaara’s letters.

To shake off her frustration, Hitomi had started to work on a plan to get Sasuke to join the study group. He was always first in the ranking, but she was always so close on his heels she could have surpassed him by sheer luck. She was slightly better in Iruka’s class but he always had a large enough lead in Mizuki’s class to keep his first place. She approached him when he was leaving the locker room, taking advantage of the fact that he was alone for once. “Sasuke-san?” she asked politely.

“Yes?” he answered with a weary glance in her direction. He didn’t have much luck with the girls in their class. Hitomi and Hinata were probably the only ones to leave him alone. Those kids were only six! How could they even think about having a boyfriend? It frightened the girl sometimes, to see her classmates pursue him with such intensity. As if Uchiha Sasuke was going to even notice them… The only important person in his life was his older brother. Still, her choice of particle, the -san rather than the -kun the other girls used, seemed judicious enough not to make him flee.

“I’d like to spar with you. I know you’re stronger than me, but I want to get better before we start sparring in class.”

He stared down at her, which was easy since he was taller than her; she didn’t step back or let herself feel intimidated by him, though. “What is in it for me?” he drawled.

“I think you will make progress too by sparring with me. I know I don’t look like it, but I’m strong and my shishou taught me how to fight. I could also teach you the basis of kenjutsu, if you’re interested and, of course, I could welcome you in the study group so your results in Iruka-sensei’s class would be even better.” She kept a straight air during her plea. She didn’t want him to think she was begging, it would ruin the effect. She was watching him, though, and she saw the interest he was trying to hide when she told him about kenjutsu.

You know kenjutsu?” he asked warily. She knew how much he admired his brother, and it was a skill Itachi hadn’t passed onto him, but was renowned for. Soon, the boy wouldn’t be able to teach anything to his baby brother. She suppressed a shiver; she couldn’t do anything about it. Not yet, anyway.

“As I said, I mastered the basis,” she answered with a shrug. “My shishou was an ANBU captain once. Before we came home from our trip, he wanted to determine what kind of weapon I would like to use, so I could do okay with it, just in case. If you come home with me, I can show you.”

“You wouldn’t offer me knowledge without a proper compensation.”

“Well, that much is obvious. I only offer knowledge without compensation to my friends. But, as I said, I want to get better at sparring.”

She didn’t mention the study group again. She knew she didn’t need to, since she had Sasuke’s attention. He was still a child, appreciative, jealous of a brother he would never surpass, saddened by his father’s impossible exigences. So easy to play. She refused to feel guilty about it: one day, he would need the support system she was offering him without his knowledge. She knew she was doing the right thing.

She saw him measure her with a stare and did her best to adopt Ensui’s posture, relaxed but vaguely threatening. Maybe she should start using the same dark green eyeliner… Nah, out of the question. She could hear from here the hysteric laugh the on-duty shinobi at the gates would throw at her if she did that.

“We can try, yes,” he said reluctantly. “But if you’re not good enough, I’m not going to waste my time training with you.”

Hitomi nodded, a peaceful smile on her lips. She knew Sasuke was arrogant and a bit of a prick – everyone knew that. And everyone knew, too, that she was even more self-assured than he was. Eighteen months on the road with a living legend tended to do that to a child. If Ensui had been able to see her value, so would the younger Uchiha brother. Her gait a bit jolly – she couldn’t allow for total exuberance, it was undignified – she took the boy to one of the Academy’s training grounds.

They weren’t as large or as interesting as the ones true ninjas could use, but they worked out okay. The one they picked had a little grove and was cut in half by a stream. Almost by reflex, she turned her back to the grove, allowing its shadow to embrace her. The sun was low in the sky, but they still had a couple hours of good light before sunset. Anyway, in case of trouble, she could still use the flash bombs Ensui had taught her how to make. She suppressed a wicked little giggle.

The two children started in a typical way, their still clumsy fingers forming the Seal of Confrontation. Hitomi didn’t waste a second after that, throwing herself at her opponent. Ensui had taught her a style of taijutsu that was fitting her small, delicate build. It was all speed and flexibility, made her hit as close to vital points and nerve bundles as she could without seeing them – not everyone was born with a fucking Byakugan – then backing away as quickly as possible, before retaliation happened.

She managed to hit Sasuke on the right pectoral, her open left hand slamming against the flesh hard enough to leave a bruise, then rolled under his extending harm to dodge the hit coming for her shoulder. He only brushed against her harm, staggering from the impact. The time he needed to recover was enough for her to back a meter away from him and take the opening stance again, her muscles tense and her legs ready to react. Ensui hadn’t put her through an extreme stamina or speed training – all training ended up extreme with him anyway – considering her too young to go through it without risking serious injuries. He had promised to do it after she graduated, and she shivered with impatience just thinking about it.

She hadn’t even recoiled like he had expected her to that day, only beaming at him so hard her cheeks hurt a little. She loved training, even and especially when he pushed her so hard, so far beyond her prior skills, that she was in pain afterward. Deep inside, she had been overjoyed as he had made her stress her chakra reserves into expanding again and again, even if her body had made her feel like she was in agony, because she had felt herself progress every day.

It didn’t stop her, the morning after sparring with Sasuke, from collapsing with a dramatic moan on Hinata, who blushed but caught her and stopped her fall, exactly like she had anticipated. That way, she of course attracted the attention of all her friends who had already arrived in the classroom, Shino and Sakura. A pained groan escaped her lips as she straightened up just enough to lie on her desk, her arm invading Hinata’s space. The Hyūga girl didn’t seem to mind: she patted her wrist, looking quite pleased with the whole situation. Hitomi filed that information away with another groan.

“Good morning to you too,” Sakura said. “What have you done this time?”

Half offended – only half, because everyone knew how hard she pushed herself in training, and how little she listened to people telling her to be careful – she opened her mouth to answer and closed it so fast her teeth clanked when Sasuke walked into class. Without any hesitation, he walked to her, ostensibly ignoring the painful way she bore herself as she straightened up.

“When do you organise your study group?” he asked.

“Every day after class for two hours, and from two to six in the afternoon the Saturdays and Sundays.”

“I’ll be there. Add two hours with me on Tuesdays for kenjutsu and on Fridays for taijutsu.”

She beamed at him then, so bright he recoiled slightly by reflex. Oh, she would love using the Stare on him, she was sure he would be sensitive to its effects. Still smiling, she extended her hand. “Deal!” she chirped.

He hesitated before taking her hand but, when she wiggled her fingers encouragingly, he gave in, his reluctance as obvious as it was overacted. “Deal, then.” Without another word, he went to sit down at his desk, leaving Hitomi still beaming – so much it was upsetting, didn’t she know shinobi were supposed to show dignity, restraint and impassibility? – behind him. He tried very hard not to wonder in what impossible situation, exactly, he had just stepped.

Chapter Text

After that little event, the group Hitomi had had in mind from the beginning was complete. The ideal situation, for her, would have been getting her hands on Hyūga Neji, Mori no Tenten and Rock Lee, but she couldn’t see a way to make it happen: they were their upperclassmen and didn’t want anything to do with younger students, even though Kurenai taught their study group things that would never be tackled through the Academy program.

The young mother made sure all ten children knew how to get checked in at the hospital. For that to happen, she had just let them injure themselves while sparring, then took them to the waiting room and explained the procedure while illustrating it with their own example. It was very informative and Hitomi was sure most Genin would be at total loss when they would have to seek medical attention for the first time.

Kurenai also gave them theoretical lessons. One afternoon at the end of winter, she gathered them around the big picnic table she had paid a Genin team to install at the beginning of the school year, when it became clear Hitomi would bring her friends home very often. When they were all sitting around her, she told them about the payment a ninja received after a mission.

During that talk, Hitomi and her friends discovered how crazy rich the Jōnin were, and how even Chūnin wouldn’t ever fear poverty. Even Genin had comfortable means. They learned that each clan had rules about the part of the pay a shinobi had to give them for maintenance. For example, with the Nara, Akimichi and Yamanaka clans, half the money went to the ninja’s pocket and the other half was used to provide for the clan: its land, but also its children, elderly, sick, and wounded. What was left of that part went to the scientists of the three clans, who worked together to create what their ninja would need for their missions, and thus to bring back more money.

Later, Hitomi and her mother had another talk, just with Shikaku and Shikamaru this time. The Nara Clan was the only one to have a whole infrastructure dedicated to research and development. The Yamanaka had a kind of equivalent for psychology, the Aburame and Inuzuka worked together around fauna – in short, each clan had its specialty and systems to support it. The Nara, with their sharp minds and strange sense of creativity, explosive and lazy all at once, were quite rightly considered the inventors of the village. The Uchiha, for example, owed them all the different shapes of shuriken they liked so much, for instance.

Hitomi and Shikamaru thus learned how to file a patent under Kurenai and Shikaku’s supervision. The two parents demanded that they always did it with the Nara branch of the Research and Development Department rather than using the village’s one, first because they would get better royalties for their discoveries, second because it was an excellent way to support the clan to allow them to commercialise the concepts they had created, third because, if their findings were considered too dangerous or inappropriate, they wouldn’t be punished, just warned – extreme cases excluded, of course. The adults didn’t expect their children to have such a problem, but one never was too careful.

A few weeks after that, they went through the end-of-the-year evaluations. They wouldn’t be determining the young students’ future, but the parents of most children at the end of the ranking took them from the Academy and sent them to the civilian school, estimating that, if they couldn’t face the first exams of their life, they would be killed quickly during real missions. They were right. Hitomi had watched some of those kids. They didn’t have what it took to become a shinobi, and had mostly wanted to try because they wanted to become heroes. The ninjas weren’t heroes. They were the monsters waiting for the good people to fall asleep before they acted. It had never bothered her to think of her future self as such.

The overall ranking of their year didn’t surprise anyone. Sasuke was first, Hitomi on his heel by one point. She had been better than him in theoretical fields, but all the training he provided her with in the physical ones wasn’t enough for her to become his equal. After all, he’d made some progress too there. Mizuki had been reluctant to admit how far the two students had come, but he was that way with everyone, so Hitomi didn’t take it personally. She still hated his guts on principle, though.

Then came, in that order, Hinata, Shino, Ino and Sakura. Chōji and Kiba weren’t as dedicated to their studies than those four and thus were ranked under them. As for Shikamaru and Naruto, they were the only ones to be ranked far below, in the middle, amongst civilians: Shikamaru because he had intended it so, and Naruto because he had started the year dead last and was slowly climbing his way up. Kurenai, very conscious of his efforts, made sure to invite the little jinchūriki to the party she had planned to throw for Hitomi alone at first.

Hitomi,

Congratulations on your second place. I was certain you would make it. Continue to make me proud. Gaara works hard too. I had his chakra affinity tested last week: he got Wind, and Earth as a secondary affinity, the perfect combination for Shukaku’s host. Your mother should do this for you very soon. Depending on your results, I’ll have D-ranked and even one or two C-ranked techniques to teach you once I’m back home. I know it’s supposed to be left to your future sensei, but you are still my apprentice and I want to pass my own knowledge to you.

I miss you, kid. Take care of yourself and of your friends.

Ensui.

Hitomi,

When we see each other again, you’ll be even stronger than you were before. I will be too, of course. Temari decided to teach me Wind Release techniques, but I don’t feel like wandering around with a huge fan strapped to my back like she does, on top of a huge gourd for my sand. Ensui-sensei and I are working on a way to always have some of it around and infuse it with chakra at all times, to see if it does something that regular sand wouldn’t.

Kankurō has started training with the Puppeteers Squadron, but he comes back here every night. He started decorating the walls and crafted pretty trinkets with the scraps of wood he’s got once he’s done creating a new puppet. He’s really good at sculpting animals, but we don’t have a lot of models here in the Desert. Would one of your friends like to draw some animals for us? I know you don’t like drawing much.

I miss you,

Gaara.

Both messages appeared simultaneously as she was getting ready for the party her mother had thrown – rather a diner, though – but Hitomi liked taking care of her appearance in this body. She finished brushing her hair, styling them in a bun, her still a bit clumsy fingers fighting against the rubber band, then sat down at her desk to answer.

Unlike some students around her, Hitomi hadn’t lost time wondering what her main elemental affinity would be, or even what the secondary ones would be. She didn’t want any more than the others: each had their strengths and weaknesses, and each made its master capable of exploits. The affinities didn’t decide the role a shinobi would be best suited for, even if Lightning Release masters rarely went for spy work. Anyway, they were all suited for the frontlines, and that was where Hitomi wanted to be.

Her answer written, she put her notebook away in a little handbag and went downstairs, wearing a pretty dress. Its pale pink shade was matched by the flower in her hair, and it complimented her skin in a way she really liked. Kurenai really had a knack for fashion and loved dressing her daughter up. The girl met her mother’s eyes and smiled before sitting next to Naruto, who was telling a story about paint and… socks? She didn’t want to know.

To her deepest surprise, Sarutobi Asuma knocked at the door a few minutes before dinner was scheduled to start. Hitomi only then noticed the extra plate her mother had gotten ready for him at the table. When she was done berating herself mentally for missing such an obvious detail, she wondered about their relationship. Were they already in love? She sometimes missed being an adult, or even a teenager. At seven, almost eight years old, she couldn’t really tell dirty jokes to tease them.

The holiday month before the Academy started again, for Hitomi, was spent training and honing her skills to a razor’s edge. She mostly worked with Hinata and Naruto, since both children didn’t want to spend time home. Naruto wasn’t allowed more than one night a week out of the orphanage, but it didn’t stop him from spending all his days in the Yūhi garden, working with his friends. As for Hinata, she had obtained the right to stay all weekends, thanks to heavy negotiation and subtle manipulation from Shikaku and Kurenai. It didn’t save either of them, but it softened their daily life to know that they were wanted and loved in at least one place in the village.

Hitomi had really expected her first day of the school year to be predictable, boring even. However, she had to admit that something was weird. Sakura didn’t show up at all that day, nor the following one. It wasn’t like her, not at all. She was extremely dedicated to her studies and, even when she was sick, she went to school. If she really couldn’t make it, then she contacted Hitomi and Shino at least to ask them to bring her notes on the lessons she had missed and the homework they had to do.

After class, Hitomi and Ino decided to investigate. Their arms heavy with their new Academy books, they walked to Sakura’s place, this time careful to avoid alleys and stick to the main streets of the village, even if it was a longer distance to walk. Hitomi still had a kunai strapped to her forearm and wasn’t making any effort to hide it. Her teachers knew why she wore it and they understood – or perhaps Kurenai had threatened them.

Sakura’s mother opened the door. She looked surprised to see them there for a second then her expression softened and she let them in, inviting them to the living room. They obeyed after taking off their shoes. Hitomi’s slippers were a bit too big, which made it hard to walk without tripping. And she didn’t want to trip. It wasn’t dignified for a kunoichi. Yes, she still had five years of Academy before claiming that title, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t start behaving accordingly.

In the living room, they found Sakura sitting on the ground in front of the coffee table, which was almost disappearing under a mountain of books. Approaching, Hitomi realised they were mostly about medicine. She raised an eyebrow, exchanging a quick look with Ino. The Haruno girl seemed surprised by her friends’ presence, as if she had expected to be forgotten.

“Hum, you’re not coming to the Academy anymore?” Hitomi asked. She felt uneasy despite her best efforts to relax. Sakura’s house was lovely, but it was a civilian home, full of dark corners and hiding spots. Even with her sensitivity to chakra, Hitomi didn’t feel safe in there. Ino to her side, she sat around the table too, crossing her legs under it. Her hands went there too, so she could pretend she was alright.

“I thought about it a lot during the holidays,” Sakura said. “With my parents, we decided that medical school would be a better fit for me. You don’t remember because you had passed out from the pain, but a medic nin came to heal our wounds, that time, at the hospital. He looked so self-assured and… Well, I think that’s what I want to do.”

Hitomi made her best effort to stay impassive, but her thoughts started to run full speed. Sakura wasn’t supposed to leave the Academy. She was supposed to become a ninja then bloom under Tsunade’s tutelage. Was it still possible to put woman and child on the same path? Sakura would become one of the best medics to ever exist if she became the Senju Princess’s apprentice. The world needed her, and Hitomi couldn’t take that away from her. She would find a way, if it didn’t happen on its own. She still had years to plan it.

“Do you like it?” Ino asked gently.

Sakura’s eyes gleamed with enthusiasm, giving them all the answers they needed. A bit of Hitomi’s unease disappeared then. After thanking her friend’s mother, who was bringing them refreshments, the girl listened as Sakura described the classes she had had so far. The school that taught the future medics was attached to the hospital and had been founded when Tsunade of the Sannin still lived in Konoha, under her loving care. She had written the program from the beginning to the end and had updated it as new discoveries, mostly hers, made the field evolve. She had only stopped when she had left the village; other, less talented doctors, medics and scientists had continued to take care of her pride and joy.

Tsunade should have been labelled a deserter the minute she had refused to report for duty after a summons from the Third. Only her reputation and her ties to the Senju family had allowed her to remain free, and out of the village. Despite that, she was still a hero in Konoha, especially amongst the kunoichi. It was the Princess, after all, who had developed the contraceptive all the women in the ranks took when their first periods happened to stop having them until they wanted to get pregnant – then, they only had to take the other injection that neutralised the first one. It made it all so easy.

Before that, kunoichi had been forbidden from doing any mission out of the village one week per month, just because the blood made them dangerously easy to track. The cramps, discomfort and mood swings weren’t as deadly but had also been at risk of compromising the most delicate missions. Tsunade had changed that system, giving back their full capabilities to her peers, in all circumstances.

After an hour spent chatting with Sakura, the two girls took their leave. Their day was far from over: in the heart of the Nara lands, Kurenai was waiting for them, a whole back-into-shape session planned to start the school year on a sound basis. Some of them had trained during the holidays, but others, like Shikamaru, had decided to rest so they would be up for the new challenges waiting for them. The two approaches were as good as the other. Hitomi was just always one to choose the restless path.

In second year, the Academy classes intensified but still stayed very theoretical. For the first time, students heard about chakra and how it was used to create ninjutsu techniques that defied the laws of nature, and sometimes even reality itself. Those lessons Hitomi already knew like the back of her hand – Ensui had made sure of it before teaching her how to control her own chakra.

She kept boredom at bay by trying to transcribe the books and stories she had loved from the Previous World in one of her infamous notebooks. She wasn’t at a loss for choices but had decided to pick the first Warriors stories to start. Adapting those wild cats’ stories to the codes of the shinobi world was quite easy, after all. She started working on it at the beginning of the school year, even though writing all day made her left-hand ache.

Shikamaru sometimes read what she was writing over her shoulder. He was trying to hide his interest, but his cousin knew him better than that – so much so, in fact, that when she finished the first book around December, she put it in his bedroom with a note instructing him to suggest edits. He never got to know how she had sneaked in while he was asleep without waking him up.

If she had lacked relational and material happiness in her previous life, she had known the serenity, the gentle and sincere surge of joy from reading stories that echoed deep inside her and equally brought her to tears and laughter. Those stories had never reached her new world, she had made sure to check. If she could do it… Her memory was a perfect tool for that, after all. She wanted to pass on the felicity she had felt one page after the other, and that goal seemed so innocent, so devoid of the violence that would soon fill her shinobi life… Maybe this breath of fresh air would give her the strength, when she needed it, to turn her own heart cold and hard.

Her mind lost in her notebooks, Hitomi barely noticed the months go, until a terrible, heart-wrenching event reminded her that this world wouldn’t wait for her to be ready to fight back.

Chapter Text

She had just spent the worst night of her life. What should have been a joyful celebration had ended up in blood, terror, and tears. She only wanted one thing: to go home, hug her little boys as hard as she could without hurting them, and finally close her eyes. This respite  had been taken away from her, however, by the ANBU operatives who, instead of offering her the help and comfort she needed after seeing Biwako and Taji being murdered, had arrested her and treated her like a criminal.

She had lost two comrades that night, and she didn’t know why she was still alive herself, didn’t know what the masked man had seen in her, what had restrained his blade. That didn’t matter, not really; what he’d seen in her hadn’t stopped him from taking the tiny, adorable baby her friend had just given birth to from her arms as she was cleaning him. She had stayed in the room where Kushina had gone through labour, alone amongst corpses, terrified, until the ANBU had arrived and taken her away.

She only owed her freedom, after a few hours in a cold, dirty cell, to her husband’s influence. He was still there, sitting right next to her, a hand against her back as a rare public gesture of comfort and support. He was dignified, after all, so dignified, so proud. It was one of the things that had made her fall in love with him, even though their wedding had only been a political one in the beginning.

In front of them, the Third breathed deeply then straightened up, his stare hard and serious. “I can’t let you have Naruto.” The sentence was short, cutting, and left the two Uchiha outraged. Mikoto’s heart broke as a rush of panic washed over her. She was Naruto’s godmother, for the Hermit’s sake! Minato had chosen the godfather, and Kushina had… She had chosen Mikoto to watch over her son if something happened to her. But even the formidable, terrifying jinchūriki hadn’t expected the Shinigami to take her so soon.

Before she could open her mouth, try to defend her rights, the man that was once called a god amongst Shinobi talked again. “We still don’t know what happened, Mikoto-san. The only thing we know for sure is that you are the only survivor. Given those conditions, the Konoha Council and I refuse to put the jinchūriki in your care. We can’t guarantee you wouldn’t use it to release the Kyūbi on the village once more, it’s a safety measure, nothing more.”

And suddenly, suddenly Mikoto started to hate that man, who was speaking about Naruto as if he was nothing but a weapon, with all she had. Her eyes burned with the effort to attempt to awaken the Mangekyō Sharingan. Had been burning without rest since last night. She had only fought against it because she knew how this new, terrible ability would only make her even more suspect in front of the rest of the village. The blooming of her hatred, violent and yet so quiet, almost pushed her over the edge despite her best efforts. “I’m his legal guardian now,” she tried. “You can’t…”

“I can!” the Third snapped. “I can and I will. Jiraiya, the boy’s godfather, passed his responsibilities on me before leaving the village for a long trip. If you can make him change his mind, I’ll have to bend. Until then, however, you won’t go anywhere near Naruto.”

For the first time since that dreadful night had started, Mikoto fell apart. It was discreet, because she was still a kunoichi, born and raised to become the Uchiha Lady since she was a child. A lukewarm, bitter tear ran down her pale cheek. She stiffened her hands on her knees to stop them from forming fists, her exhausted eyes looking at the delicate fingers and dirty nails – she hadn’t had the occasion to clean them, to wash away the blood and dirt. She forced herself to meet Fugaku’s eyes.

And there, she saw it.

The perfect reflection of her own hatred.

That night, for the first time, Uchiha Mikoto followed her husband under the Nakato temple, the only building on the clan lands to have resisted the Demon Fox’s fury, and she listened to what the men had to say. For the first time, she became the traitor Konoha saw in her anyway.

Hitomi woke up with a start, her eyes wide open. She shook so hard her teeth chattered, her breath shallow and painful. She had never had a dream that gave her such an impression of reality. She tried to appease her body and her mind and sat down on her bed, hugging her legs with her arms. She was terrified, in a way that even childhood nightmares had never managed to make her.

It took her long minutes to calm down enough to think coherently. The dream, of course, was waiting in her Library to be filed and analysed, but what was she even supposed to do with it? She knew Uchiha Mikoto had been friends with Uzumaki Kushina, but she didn’t know if they had been together during the labour that had led to the Kyūbi attacking Konoha, the death of its jinchūriki and of Hokage the Fourth. Yet, it seemed plausible. With great precautions, she filed the dream in an empty shelf of the section reserved for her new world. Her gut told her this shouldn’t be easily discarded.

In the morning, she was horrified to hear about the Uchiha Massacre, which had happened during the night. She burst into tears in her mother’s arms, her mind still full of the quiet, gentle hatred Mikoto had felt for the Third. Her hands tensed so hard against Kurenai’s back her joints ached, a sensation she perceived somewhere deep and far away inside her mind. It took her more than ten minutes to become calm enough to act.

She sat at her desk under her mother’s ever-watching stare and started writing, her cheeks still wet with tears. She hurt, hurt for Sasuke who was suddenly alone, hurt for Itachi who only wanted peace and abhorred violence, but her words, that at least she knew, were never more beautiful or truer than when her pain took control and spoke for her. At least, for once, they would be useful, really useful.

The funerals happened two days later. The Academy would only re-open the following day – two teachers and seven students were amongst the victims. The endless rows of coffins, some of them so little , made Hitomi shiver and ache deep inside. She still held herself straight and strong, as dignified as a child could be in the de rigueur black kimono. Eight monks had come from the Fire Temple to lead the oration, their deep, solemn voices praying for each of the one hundred forty-nine victims to have eternal peace now that they had departed.

Hitomi noticed Sasuke standing in front of his parents’ coffins. He wasn’t crying, but his fists were so clenched it had to hurt, his dark and tired eyes staring at nothing in front of him. The girl knew him well enough to know that he wanted – and had to – say a few words at least, but didn’t know what to say. He had never been good with words, their beauty and righteousness. She, however, had that gift. Encouraged by her mother’s hand brushing against her back, she went to join him.

Long minutes passed, the children standing side by side in silence. It slowly attracted the adults’ attention, but they didn’t notice it. When Sasuke finally turned toward her, she offered him a sheet of paper with both hands. It was folded twice and covered in her handwriting on both sides – her gift to him. He took it in the same way, slightly bowing by reflex before unfolding it and starting to read for himself. His dark eyes widened slightly when he understood what she had given him and, if he didn’t smile, a quiet relief appeared on his features. It was enough, and so much more than he could have done by himself. Worthy of them. Respectfully, Hitomi took a step back as he straightened and spoke, reading the speech she had written in his name.

When the boy’s voice choked around the words, Hitomi put a gentle hand on his forearm, just for a moment. She hadn’t expected him to become a true friend in the months she had spent training and working with him, but they had too much in common for it to have gone any other way. She had spent many afternoons at his place studying for a test or working on the katas Ensui had taught her and that she had offered him in turn. She had seen Itachi’s features slowly grow gaunt with anguish, the tender and reserve affection uniting Mikoto and Fugaku. She had seen it all, and her heart was mourning too.

Several hours later, when the ceremony had ended and the guests had started to leave, Kurenai approached the two children, noticing their linked hands and the way they drew comfort from each other’s presence. Sasuke’s free hand was clasped around the oration Hitomi had gifted him – a gesture the young mother approved of entirely. She knelt down to look them in the eyes, extending a hand to gently pat the boy’s shoulder. “I spoke to the Hokage,” she announced in a soft voice. “If you want, you can come live with us from now on. We’re very extended family, but you’re still my blood and I would be honoured to take you as my ward.”

Sasuke looked astonished by her proposal. Internally, Hitomi was too. She knew it hadn’t happened that way in the canon, knew that Sasuke had simply lived alone because in the Hokage’s mind it was totally fine to let seven years old kids live alone. When her friend looked at her, as if asking for her approval, she nodded with a quiet smile. Only then did he answer, almost choking on his own words. “I-I accept. Thank you, Yūhi-san. You have no idea how much it means to me.” So dignified, even in sorrow.

“Call me Kurenai, please. Come, let’s go find some food. It’s getting late and I’m sure you’re both hungry.”

Two stomachs growling answered that question. With a sad little smile, the young woman stood up and took both children to a civilian Akimichi restaurant in the area. The meal was quiet, the discussion focusing mostly on Sasuke’s room and how he wanted to decorate it to really make it his own. The topic was voluntarily light. Hitomi sometimes intervened to suggest a shade or pattern that she knew her friend liked.

That night, the boy joined her in her room in the middle of the night, his cheeks drenched in tears. Supposing he probably had had a nightmare – who wouldn’t, in his place? – she didn’t say a word, simply moving sideway in her bed to give him space. He crawled between the warm sheets, as silent as she was, taking refuge in the open arms ready for him, then fell back asleep.

The following days were a challenge. Sasuke, as was to be expected, was deeply affected by his brother’s betrayal and by what he had seen during that wretched night. His visits to Hitomi’s bed became a habit, since it didn’t really disturb her. Sasuke was an agitated sleeper, but she managed to ignore it, sometimes by going to her Library instead of really sleeping. The most important, for her, was that he was getting better little by little. When the third year started, he was able to sleep in his bed all night again.

Hitomi’s nightmares continued to appear every few days to put her in a state of constant anxiety. She didn’t see the past anymore but the future, little pieces of it that, as she well knew, hadn’t been modified by her actions yet. Those dreams reminded her of why she sometimes had difficult decisions to take and how long the path still was under her feet.

Third year began at top speed with Mizuki’s class. Up to that point, he had only made them work on ways to improve their stamina, speed, strength and flexibility without ever applying it to fighting in any way, but it was time for them to learn the basic Konohajin katas. They were different from the ones Ensui had taught Hitomi, the ones she had in turn taught to her group of friends, but they still had an advantage on other students, since they already knew how to work on that kind of exercises.

Hitomi fell into a comfortable routine week after week. She didn’t really like the katas taught in the Academy but mastered them as soon as Mizuki showed them to the class. She didn’t really see what they could offer her: their style was very flat, predictable, polyvalent but without a true advantage in any aspect of a fight. The ones Ensui had taught her were a better fit for her, by far: thanks to them, she had learned to target her opponent’s weak spots and vital points, then back away before they could reciprocate. Fighting like that required astonishing speed she was still far from reaching and a lot of agility, but very little strength. A perfect combination for her.

Before Hitomi realised it, the fourth year had started. Now, the Fellowship, as she liked to call it, was established in the Academy, and the three groups had been reduced to two, still separated by levels. The taijutsu class gathered all the students now and, one month after the beginning of the school year, Mizuki announced that it was time for them to start sparring. Hitomi felt ready and self-assured. She had trained and only feared fighting against Hinata or Ino – because, of course, the teacher had separated girls and boys, as if there was such a gap in strength that pitching them against each other wouldn’t have been good for anything.

The way he organised these duels was obnoxious, Hitomi picked upon it instantly: the teacher picked two weak children for the first match, then selected a student from the ones who hadn’t fought yet to spar against the winner. He claimed he was doing it at random but, very often, the matches opposed a weak and a strong student. He used an Earth Clone to keep an eye on the girls while he watched over the boys.

Hitomi smelled trouble when Aimi overcame her opponent, another civilian girl, and Hinata was called to fight next. The girl couldn’t stand to be excluded from the Fellowship and, rather than trying to join it by being nice and polite, she verbally attacked everyone of its members every chance she got. She especially picked on Hinata, the only girl who didn’t fight back. Most often, Hitomi or Ino stepped in and sent Aimi away with a cutting remark. Seeing their friend climb on the stage the teacher had built with an Earth Release technique made the two girls nervous. Aimi had a violent, vicious fighting style for a civilian, and Hinata… Hinata wasn’t there yet. She hadn’t yet cultivated the aggressiveness she needed to fight against that kind of opponent.

Hitomi clenched her teeth through the whole fight, her red eyes fixed on the little bully who took such obvious pleasure in hurting her friend, one hit after the other. Hinata tried to fight back, but she had never tried to fight outside of katas or friendly spars amongst the Fellowship. Even when she parried punches and kicks, she couldn’t quite hide the pain it made her feel.

And then Hinata tripped and fell on one knee with a pained yelp. One of her cheeks was red and slightly swollen, and the other sported a deep clawing mark. Her hands had taken the worst of it, though. She probably wouldn’t be able to use them for hand seals in Iruka’s class the next day. She opened her mouth to yield, but didn’t even have the time to articulate the word before Aimi’s hand struck her already painful cheek, the impact violent enough to make her head tilt to the side.

An icy anger invaded Hitomi’s mind as she watched her best friend fall unconscious after a last, vicious punch to the temple. She and Ino were the only ones who hadn’t fought yet, on the girls’ side. When the clone called her, Hitomi tried to stay impassive, wiping the blood on Hinata’s split lip before dragging Hinata to the edge of the stage as gently as she could so Ino could take her and wake her up. Only then did she look up and meet Aimi’s eyes, which were suddenly nervous. For the first time in her life, a bit of killing intent bloomed on her skin like a poisonous flower, turning the air around them heavy and stale.

She didn’t care.

Blood called for blood, after all.

Chapter Text

Mizuki seemed totally unaware of the danger Hitomi was to her opponent; Iruka, in his place, would have stopped the fight, and the previous one too, just to make sure his students were safe. An icy wave of fury surged through her mind, quiet and violent at the same time, blooming like a flower in her chest tightened by anger. She had never felt so calm, so detached.

Suddenly, she let energy explode inside her and leaped toward Aimi, feinting with her right hand before slapping her with the left, probably twice as hard as the bully had slapped Hinata. Aimi attempted to counterattack with a knee strike but Hitomi simply faded away from her strike’s path, long black curls floating in her wake until she was behind the bully. A solid kick to the small of her back made Aimi fall to her knees, and Hitomi knocked her unconscious with a hit to the neck. The whole thing had happened in barely more than a second.

She wasn’t even sweating. Her breath was still regular, calm, as if fighting at this speed was natural, as if the blows she had dealt to her opponent had been effortless. It was at least partly the case: Hitomi had sparred against a clone of herself controlled by Nara Ensui, Strangling Shadow of Konoha. A cruel, brutal, crude civilian girl wasn’t the slightest threat to her.

Without even looking back at her, Hitomi jumped down from the stage before Mizuki’s clone could even call on her next opponent. “Sorry, Ino,” she said as she stepped toward her, “I’m gonna take Hinata to have her wounds looked at. We’ll spar next time, okay?” Her tone was still stiff with anger. A few girls whispered as she walked past them to kneel in front of a still groggy Hinata. Slowly, as to not hurt her more, she helped her stand up and guided her out of the Academy, one step at a time.

“N-not the hospital,” Hinata groaned, leaning heavily against her.

“I know. Don’t worry, I have a plan.” If she took Hinata to the hospital, it would be written down in her medical file and her asshole of a father would use this incident to further destroy his daughter’s self-confidence. That was out of the question, and the reason why the girl was leading her friend to the Nara lands instead. Hinata was a few centimetres smaller than her, but she was still heavier than what her still young muscles were used to. Without another word, she strengthened the most solicited parts of her body with chakra and only stopped when she arrived in front of Shikamaru’s house.

There, she released a spike of chakra in the air without letting Hinata go – the girl would have fell if she had had to stand alone. In a short distance, chakra spikes worked a bit like a distress flare, but one only shinobi could sense. A few seconds later, Nara Yoshino threw the door open, a kunai in her other hand. She only needed a second to understand what her niece and the Hyūga heir were going to ask her. She negligently threw the kunai on a wall behind her back and took Hinata in her arms, lifting her up effortlessly.

 During the following minutes, Hitomi didn’t say a word, only watching with a slight air of anguish as her aunt healed Hinata’s bruises and wounds. When she was sure her friend would be okay and all the traces of the fight would disappear, she went to the kitchen, still moving on autopilot mode, and prepared tea for all three of them. She slept over often enough – her cousin and her always tried their best to fool Yoshino’s vigilance so they could play shōgi until dawn – to know where everything she needed was.

When she came back, a tray in hands, Yoshino and Hinata were talking softly. They stopped when they saw her approach. With a little smile, Hitomi put the tray on the coffee table then went to face her friend, who was still sitting on the couch. She raised her chin with the delicate pressure of two fingers so she would look at her, then her red eyes searched for any trace of damage. When they didn’t find any, she let her expression soften and hugged Hinata, pressing her forehead against her friend’s shoulder. “We’re gonna make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again, okay?”

And, the following weeks, she focused on that goal. She talked about it with Sasuke for hours, seeking his help to find a way to train her best friend. Obviously, Hitomi didn’t at all function like Naruto: she had a formidable will, but this quality was hidden deep inside her, and pretending she wasn’t up to the challenge would only break her, not motivate her to prove them wrong.

The solution was more complex than it had been for Naruto, because Hinata was a really good fighter. Her taijutsu was far better than average. What she lacked was the aggressiveness to use it, and this, she wouldn’t learn in her clan. To develop that characteristic in her, the children decided to put her in carefully controlled situations of danger, under Kurenai’s ever-watchful eyes.

Hinata needed time to adapt but, once she started to progress, she didn’t have any more problems during the sparring matches Mizuki organised several times a week at school. As for Aimi, she was keeping to herself now. She had lost a lot of her popularity after her match against Hitomi, whose win had been painfully obvious, and she seemed frightened by the Yūhi girl… rightfully so. Unable to forget, Hitomi maintained a stubborn grudge against the opponent she had already beaten.

Hitomi was still writing every day to Gaara and Ensui – she had even exchanged a few letters with Temari and Kankurō, on their younger brother’s insistence. Sasuke was used to his new life now, but still spent a lot of his free time visiting his parents’ memorial stone. At least one evening a week, Hitomi joined him, bringing food as an offering to their spirits and one of her current projects. They stayed there until the sun set, soothed by the distant sounds of the village and the repetitive grating of her pen against paper.

In fourth year, the students finally heard about the shinobi arts other than taijutsu. At the beginning of the year, Iruka had started using one hour a day to teach them hand seals. It was difficult to form them perfectly, even for their hands turned nibble by dexterity games. The only one Hitomi mastered prior from the class was the Rat Hand Seal, since it was the one she needed for the Shadow Manipulation Technique. As for the eleven others, she trained every day to form them under her mother’s intransigent supervision, until her fingers turned stiff and painful.

During Kurenai’s unofficial class, the children had started to learn chakra control. Of course, they started with the typical Konohajin exercise, sticking a leaf on their forehead. It was highly symbolic, and yet subtle enough to blend perfectly in the village’s propaganda. Since Hitomi had already mastered that exercise and a few others in that field, her mother had something else in mind for her. “You’ll start with a kunai,” she said after the other children had started working with their leaves.

Surprised, Hitomi looked up to her, tearing her eyes away from Naruto’s efforts. “A kunai?” she repeated, trying and failing to hide her confusion. Her mother answered her unspoken question by showing her her left hand, opened palm up. In its centre, a kunai stood on its point, perfectly balanced and immobile. Hitomi raised her eyebrows and called upon her meridians to try and understand what Kurenai was doing. Kunai weren’t supposed to have the kind of gravity centre that would allow them to stand like that.

“You won’t understand just by looking at it and feeling it,” Kurenai said with a playful smile. “This exercise is far beyond the level we ask of even a Genin, because you have to give your chakra a physical form, something that the techniques you’ll learn at the Academy don’t need to work. As it is now, this kunai is enclosed in a chakra cocoon, and that’s what allows it to stand like that. If it moves, the exercise is not mastered. Have fun, sweetheart!”

It took weeks for Hitomi to bend that exercise to her will. She trained at it for hours every day, until her hands burned. Sometimes, her mother forced her to stop, but Sasuke knew very well that she continued once she was in her room. He didn’t tell Kurenai, though – he understood far too well the need to get stronger that was pushing her forward. The first step was to apply a sufficient strength on the kunai to make it stand on its point. All the exercises she had trained on, except the throwing one, had taught her to stick to a surface, not to push it away. The reason suddenly seemed obvious to the girl: pushing constantly, and not in one quick burst like she had learned, was a hundred times more complicated, and way more chakra intensive.

After mastering that first step, she had to find a way to hold the kunai still, which meant applying an accurate and constant pressure all over it. She quickly realised that she lost her focus after a few seconds, just enough so part of the chakra cylinder she had enclosed the kunai in, weakened. Before going any further with the exercise, she decided to research the meditation methods applied to ninja arts.

Ensui and Kankurō helped her a great deal with that, giving her a list of books she would find in any library and that could point her in the correct direction. Hitomi was surprised the Sunajin volunteered to help her. One night, when her left hand couldn’t stand even the tiniest spark of chakra, she wrote to him about it through the notebooks. With a reserve and modesty that surprised her greatly, he explained he wanted to please his baby brother and the only way he knew how was to help her.

She was softened by it all, she had to admit it. She spent several hours, that night, writing to Kankurō about her month in Sunagakure and all the things she had learned about Gaara during that time. She told the puppeteer about his brother’s habits, his favourite candies, the sand sculptures he only showed to his loved ones when he started to feel at peace. In turn, Kankurō told her about their routine at the forgotten border post that sheltered them. They had to move three times just that year to escape new murder attempts, and that filled the girl with a soft, ferocious rage.

The books she needed found themselves a very nice place on her desk. She always had at least one of them in her Academy backpack; she spent as many breaks as she could reading through them under the benevolent and slightly amused eyes of her friends. Her Library, for once, couldn’t help her to find in her inner-self the focus and detachment she would need to keep that damned kunai up on her palm. It wasn’t an impossible goal, and she knew it. She had to succeed; she would need this.

She spent a lot of her free time meditating in seiza, kneeling on the floor, her back straight and yet relaxed, hands folded in her lap, her eyes staring at nothing. She had tried a few exercises proposed by the books, but the one she favoured made her imagine herself slowly sinking into a quiet, bottomless ocean. The only sport she had been allowed to practice, in the Before World, had been swimming – then, the disease had taken that away from her, too. She had been more at ease in water than on the ground. The plenitude she had felt during those rare occurrences still lived sharp and clear in her mind.

Sasuke always came to fetch her in the garden when dinner was ready. He brushed a careful hand against her shoulder – she had long ago stopped tensing when he touched her. He was family now. Her brother. She couldn’t fear him, only for him. During the meal, the two children told Kurenai about their day, then she got out again to practice the tantō katas Ensui had told her an eternity ago.

In Mizuki’s class, Hinata had quickly turned into a little demon and Hitomi dreaded the inevitable moment they were pitched against each other. The Hyūga girl used the Gentle Fist even against her friends now. That style of taijutsu, unique to her clan, used chakra to close the tenketsu, three hundred and sixty-one intersections of meridians through the body. Shutting them off disturbed the flow of chakra through the victim’s body. Even when it was opened immediately afterwards, a sealed tenketsu still hurt like a bitch, and her best friend often managed to hit her a dozen times before the end of a fight. Hitomi had to sweat for the first place of those tournaments now.

Ino was a difficult opponent too: Yamanaka Inoichi had obviously decided it was time to speed up his daughter’s training. She got better and better at analysing the movements and intentions of her adversary. Psychology applied to fighting was often overlooked… and yet Hitomi could testify of its efficacy. She had numerous bruises to prove it.

Shino and Shikamaru had started learning more about their respective clans’ techniques. It wasn’t rare to see the first trying to control his bugs as the second sat in the shadow of a tree and tried to stretch his own. The two boys had discovered they got along well, in the same way Chōji and the Nara heir did.

Hitomi progressed too. She was able to keep a kunai up on her palm for longer every day. Kurenai had told her she would have mastered the first stage when she would be able to keep it that way indefinitely while doing something else on the side, and that the next levels would be easier to bend to her will.

When the fifth year at the Academy started, the two remaining class groups in their year were merged into one. Guests came to Iruka’s lessons and told them about their specialities or department in the hope that the children would want to join them. Kiba’s mother, for example, came to talk about the Hunting Department, which handled the most sensitive tracking missions. It had always been led by an Inuzuka, but one didn’t need to be born in that clan to join their ranks. The Bunke-born Hyūga and Aburame, for example, were often good elements of that department, their Kekkei Genkai helping them to find their mark.

It wasn’t the only novelty the students had to face that year: from then on, two hours a day were devoted to ninjutsu and genjutsu. Iruka had hammered on the theoretical aspects of those two ninja arts during their whole fourth year – Naruto had needed Hitomi’s help for that part – and had decided his students were ready for a bit of practice. However, learning actual techniques was still out of the question – that would have to wait until sixth year.

There was something inherently cruel about the way the Academy worked, something that quickly separated the students who would be able to keep their Jōnin-sensei, and the ones who would have to rethink their future after the sixth year – either the General Forces, reorientation or retrying the graduation and the following test. Those who failed that following test but still entered the General Forces would struggle even to get promoted to Chūnin and often try out a new, more fulfilling career after a few years, while the ones who had succeeded would get a real shot at getting promoted at least to Chūnin. The best of them could even get to Tokubetsu Jōnin or Jōnin, or even be recruited into the ANBU, the service so secret civilians believed it to be a legend.

The difference between those two groups of future ninjas was made clear as early as the first year of Academy, and rare were the weaker students able to get to the better part of their year group. Even the resources they had out of school to work and train were different : the students at the top of the rankings were either from a ninja clan or a very wealthy family that could afford private tutoring. Hitomi’s class was no exception: From the nine students of the Fellowship, seven were ranked in the top ten. The students ranked eighth, ninth and tenth were the rich heirs of noble families, who dreamed of adventure and heroism. They would get very disappointed very quickly.

It was unfair, yes, but a lot of things were that way in a Hidden Village, even the one most foreigners called ‘timorous’ and ‘pampered’. For now, those injustices played well in favour of the Fellowship, so Hitomi wasn’t planning on protesting. Her plans only focused on saving lives and ending others. She didn’t care about justice, only about the greater good. And too bad if it was unethical. Ethics didn’t win wars. One day, she would.

Chapter Text

Long after that scream-worthy night, Hitomi would wonder how exactly an exercise had turned into such a mess. She would only need a few seconds of contemplation – her gloomy stare fixed on nothing tended to give shivers to some students – to realise, again and again, that everything was Naruto’s fault, and that realisation would make her glare at him until he gave her the Stare. He was the only one able to beat her with that technique and she regretted teaching it to him every day.

Everything had started a few days before that damned night, when Iruka had announced that the class would spend a night on training ground number six, usually forbidden to students, for a survival exercise. It was a first for the Academy to organise such an event, and students owed this opportunity to a suggestion from Inuzuka Tsume, Kiba’s mother, who thought the students weren’t crafty enough outside of the classroom.

The students had been divided into teams of three by Iruka. He had pretended to pick them randomly, but he couldn’t fool Hitomi: he had formed Team Eight and Team Ten as they would be after graduation. The Yūhi girl was paired with Naruto and Sasuke, which probably meant that, in less than two years, she would be part of Team Seven instead of Sakura. Would they follow similar paths? Like all kunoichi, Hitomi deeply respected Tsunade, and would be infinitely grateful for everything the Sannin would like to teach her, but she was no medic and didn’t intend to become one.

Fortunately, in this version of the universe, Sasuke and Naruto got along well. The Uzumaki boy was sometimes jealous of his friend-turned-rival-but-still-friend, be it about his unwanted success with girls or about the grades he got seemingly without any effort. There was conflict between them sometimes, yes, but they often trained together, shared their lunch at least twice a week, and they had often gone to see a movie together, several times this year alone. Their relationship was as lively and shifting as a flame, but it made them progress and, if they had a problem, the other was there to help. Sasuke had handled a civilian bully who had decided to pick on Naruto when the little jinchūriki hadn’t stood up for himself; Naruto was always there when Sasuke needed to talk about his parents, about the void they had left in him when they died.

The true conflicts, the ones that could have set them apart with no turning back, Hitomi had handled them by stepping between them. She was the only student in their class group to be able to form a bit of killing intent around herself, as well as a softer version that allowed her to threaten them without even opening her mouth or touch them. One time, though, she had had to trap them in her shadow. She hadn’t been happy about it and they had felt it, the both of them. Since then, they did their best to avoid going through that ordeal again and pouted rather than getting angry with each other. Wise, wise boys.

The three days following Iruka’s announcement had been devoted to intense preparations. Hitomi had made sure, on the first day, that her two friends knew how to behave in a hostile forest. They probably didn’t need all that information to make it out okay, but one never knew when knowledge could come in handy. The second day, she had approached Shikamaru’s and Shino’s teams and proposed a non-aggression pact they had both accepted on behalf of their teammates, which was a relief for her.

Spending a night in the forest was just the first goal. Each team had to keep the flag they had gotten before entering the training ground, then steal at least one from another team. The exercise looked a lot like the one she had read about in the Previous World, during the second part of the Chūnin exam. At least this forest didn’t have giant tigers and chakra leeches, and the students weren’t allowed to kill each other.

The third day, Hitomi focused on packing. Since she had already been out of the village, she was the person to talk to about traveling gear in the Fellowship. Shino and Kiba had a good idea about what was necessary too, but they didn’t have real experience in the matter so, when it was brought up, they all looked at her. “Take a blanket, but not a sleeping bag. It’s warm enough to go without a tent, and they are too easy to spot anyway, even in the middle of the night. As for sleeping bags, well, it’s hard as hell to get out of them in a hurry and it’s gonna be a problem if you’re attacked in the middle of the night. Take a coat or something like that for when you’ll have to stand watch. No need for a change of clothes this time, but make sure you don’t forget your weapons and usual gear.”

Then she had focused on her friends’ specific needs. She made sure, for example, that Shikamaru had as much ninja wire and smoke bombs as he could possibly need for the traps he was starting to love so much. It had been months since he had stopped buying them: Hitomi made him far better tools than what he could get in the armoury: it was better quality, more varied, and probably far more dangerous than what the Academy students were authorised to shop for anyway. She was working on a lot of projects at the same time, including smoke bombs that wouldn’t disturb Kiba’s smell. She hadn’t gotten far with it yet, though. The Konohajin scientists had been working on it for years, so it wasn’t likely that she would find a solution any soon.

On Wednesday afternoon, instead of going home, the students gathered in the Academy’s courtyard, each of them wearing a backpack. Hitomi was the only exception: she had chosen to take storage seals instead, since Ensui had advised her to work some more on them. She was also heavily armed for a simple student, with her tantō, her two pouches of senbon and her trapping gear. She had added a few novelties to the kit Ensui had helped her assemble in Sunagakure, an eternity ago.

After Iruka reminded them of the rules, the children were led to the entrance of the training ground. Five Jōnin, including Maito Gai and Shiranui Genma, would supervise the exercise with Iruka and Mizuki. Their role was to make sure that the rules would be followed dutifully by the students, especially the one that forbade the different teams from attacking for the first two hours of the exercise. Hitomi fully intended on exploiting that time to make a secure and easy to defend little camp in their corner of the forest.

From the moment teams had been announced, she had taken the lead of hers, with an  ease that almost shocked her. She was, after all, the most experienced, and the oldest. She felt good when her two teammates looked at her, waiting for her orders, both focused and calm, so sure she would lead them well. With a sign of her hand, she instructed them to follow and went deep inside the forest without any hesitation.

It took her twenty minutes to find the perfect place, a clearing that was several metres wide, marked in its centre by a big oak. If she perched on its branches, she could observe her surroundings without too much trouble. The tree was old enough, its branches sturdy enough, so that a camp could be established comfortably far above the ground. The following hour was spent trapping the hell out of their clearing. Hitomi’s hands had become nimble with the cables, mechanisms, and springs that would help her trigger her traps with the edge of a kunai, safely linked to her branch of their tree. Very quickly, their tree had become a true fort. She straddled her branch, Sasuke and Naruto sitting right under her.

“Sasuke, you’re the most offensive of us three. You’ll be in charge of finding Aimi’s team and stealing their flag. If you have to harm them for it… Don’t hold back too much but still play by the rules.”

“Why Aimi?” Naruto asked, picking on her icy tone.

A vaguely cruel smile appeared on Hitomi’s lips and made the two boys tense slightly. Their years around her had made them wary of her memory, of how it made her warped and resentful sometimes. “I’m not exactly done making her pay for what she did to Hinata,” the girl said with a wicked gleam in her eyes. “And I will feel a little less bad if we take hers since she makes the other civilian students’ lives a living hell.”

“What do I do if I find another team on the way?” Sasuke asked while standing up.

“The examiners didn’t forbid us from taking more than one flag. Take as many as you want but leave enough for our allies.”

The Uchiha boy nodded, already focused on his mission and, a few seconds later, he had disappeared amongst the leaves, perfectly silent. He still had around forty minutes before he was authorised to attack anyone, but looking for a target before that time wasn’t against the rules. Other students had probably had the same idea.

Sasuke gone, Hitomi turned to Naruto, who was almost hopping up and down on his branch with impatience. “Here, take the flag. Tie it to that branch and stand watch. I’m gonna continue working on our traps. When night falls, I’m gonna take your place and you’re gonna sleep for three hours. Then it’ll be my turn.”

If there hadn’t been a rule forbidding teams to hide their flag out of the training ground, Hitomi would have just sealed hers away. She couldn’t, since, technically speaking, the dimension where sealed objects went was… elsewhere. More than once, the girl had wondered if life was possible there. She had seen more surprising things than that.

Naruto nodded and obeyed, leaving Hitomi to her preparations. She had learned to draw explosive seals and thought about using them. Maiming and killing were forbidden, Iruka had been very clear – and perhaps he had been looking in her direction when he said that. Her seals were of an average potency, so it was probably enough to kill a child, future shinobi or not. With a pout, she put those away where they couldn’t be found and worked on other traps.

Night had fallen an hour ago when Sasuke came back to camp. One moment Hitomi was alone on her branch; the next, the Uchiha boy was there, already leaning away to dodge the kunai she had thrown by reflex. He answered to her frown with a smirk, so obviously full of himself he could have died if he had jumped from his ego. Brat . He had two flags hanging around his neck: the pink one was Aimi’s, and the green Kakeru’s – one of the top ten kids who wasn’t from the Fellowship.

“Well done,” she whispered with a nod to the flags. “Ours is hidden there. Use the green one as a lure on another branch and tell me how it went.” She couldn’t suppress a snicker when he told her, after obeying her orders, how he had used the several storage seals she had given him before the exercise. Imagining Aimi furious and covered in mud made her almost regret she hadn’t been there to see it. Once he had taken them by surprise, Sasuke had just had to surpass them physically, which hadn’t been hard, then he had tied them up and watched as a Jōnin had retrieved them before leaving.

While coming back to the camp, he had stumbled upon Kakeru’s team and hadn’t hesitated before fighting them. One of the team members had managed to trap him in a genjutsu, which was surprising considering that Sasuke’s clan was specialised in that shinobi art, but Uchiha Sasuke could never be fooled for long. He had beaten his three opponents, tied them up, and left even before a Jōnin appeared with their flag. Maybe he was a bit pissed at them.

Hitomi could see how he had enjoyed fighting: his dark eyes gleamed, hungry for more, his body was as tense as a bow, still bursting with formidable energy. It had to be difficult to stay furtive when he was in such a state. Without a word, the girl tossed him one of the rations she had stored in her storage seals. The Akimichi had the best ones according to the whole village, and she agreed. She was glad to have access to them without being overcharged like people out of the clan alliance were.

“In an hour, I’ll wake Naruto up so he can stand watch. You’ll come and sleep too.”

“But…”

“If it was a mission, you wouldn’t protest. Sleeping is important for a shinobi.”

You ’re the one saying this? Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”

That word, so short, so simple, paralysed Hitomi on her branch. Her eyes wide, she stared at Sasuke, the jab about her numerous sleepless nights completely forgotten. A warm sense of belonging bloomed in her chest, her hands stiffened around her own ration. He had never… She knew he was seeing her like family, and Kurenai too, but he had never put their new relationship into words. Respectful of his modesty and the memories of his clan, she hadn’t either.

She was lost for words, so they just sat there, silent and staring into the dark, until it was Naruto’s turn to stand watch. Hitomi took a few moments to wake up the little jinchūriki then climbed on a higher branch, wedged herself in a split comfortably and closed her eyes. She couldn’t afford to sleep during a mission, even as simple as this one, not with her nightmare problem, but working in her Library allowed her body to rest just as well as sleeping did. That way, she stayed alert, ready to react if a problem appeared.

And, of course, problems appeared around an hour later. A noise tore through the night; Hitomi needed a few moments to understand, her mind still half-lost in her Library, what it was. Naruto knew how to choose the perfect moment for everything, including a fucking sneezing fit. It was so grotesque, so improbable, and yet so very much happening. Purely running on instinct mode, Hitomi activated her main trap when she perceived chakra and movement at the edge of their clearing.

With a terrible roar, flames appeared from nothingness and circled the tree where they were staying. The collar of oil pockets she had placed around the roots made the blaze even fiercer – in the centre of all this fire and smoke, Hitomi, Naruto and Sasuke stood proudly, goading the two teams at the border of their clearing to come and get them.

Hitomi had taken the highest position, sword unsheathed and kunai ready to spring more traps. Being surrounded by fire and perched on a tree probably wasn’t the best situation, but no one would dare get to them before she decided otherwise. Water Release was the second rarest affinity in Konoha, and Sasuke was probably the only student to have mastered any elemental jutsu in their year yet anyway. Kurenai had even taught them a few more than the ones he had learned with his father.

Searching around with her meridians, Hitomi cut a cable, sending a salve of kunai flying in the direction of one of the two teams lurking in the dark. Naruto and Sasuke were protecting their flags – the lure and, without looking too much like it, the real one too. A member of the second team took a step towards the flames but was stopped by Sasuke throwing three kunai in his direction, and then…

The disaster, the real one.

Sasuke’s movement had thrown Naruto off-balance. He fell from his branch – none of the two boys had good enough chakra control yet for tree-climbing. Sasuke was close to it, but Naruto had a hard time, what with the Kyūbi messing with his chakra control.

Hitomi jumped, but even her chakra-enhanced reflexes weren’t enough to catch the boy. She froze, paralysed in horror, and watched her friend plunge towards the flames, a distressed cry on her lips. Its echoes were still ringing in the air when Sasuke moved . She had to re-watch her memory of it in her Library later to understand what happened then. A shadow brushed past her, so close and so quick her black curls followed the movement and blinded her for a second.

When she could see again, Sasuke was hanging in a neighbouring tree, Naruto shaken but safe under one of his arms. His other hand was bleeding, cut by the ninja wire he had used for that formidable jump. That wire, once filled with chakra, became a thousand times sturdier and extremely sticky. However, his jump and reflexes weren’t the source of Hitomi’s shock. She had prepared far too well for that kind of situation to ignore that Sasuke was better at improvisation than she was.

No, what shocked her was the pair of Sharingan she was staring into. Deeply shaken, she felt her whole body tense, hard enough to cause pain later. Sasuke couldn’t have already awakened the Sharingan. It was too early. Things didn’t happen that way in the canon, not at all.

But this universe wasn’t the canon. She had thought about it again and again, tried to stick to what she knew, to assume everything worked like she had read it in another world, and had never stopped to think about what she was changing, about the consequences of her actions. She had thought she had years before doing so. She couldn’t even, at this moment, try to go back through the chain of actions and reactions that had led Sasuke to this unplanned development.

Once she had overcome her stupor, Hitomi straightened up and moved, too. Shadows would be useless here, but they weren’t her only resources. Crouching on her branch, she brushed her fingers to the ninja wire lying at her feet, infusing it with chakra. Immediately, the largest seal she had ever drawn activated, raising a translucid barrier inside the circle of fire. This wouldn’t let anything go through without eating away at them like an acid. It was probably the most dangerous seal she knew, one capable of blowing up the whole training ground had she drawn it poorly. It consumed her chakra really fast, but she trusted Naruto and Sasuke to come back, to protect her.

Even though everything was Naruto’s fault.

“Do it fast, boys. I want to finish the night in peace and quiet.”

Of course, they understood what she couldn’t say out loud, the light pins and needles in her fingers telling her she had already spent a quarter of her chakra reserves. They hadn’t been full when she had entered the forest, and were even less so when the attack had started, but this seal was still a demanding creation.

Fortunately, Naruto and Sasuke had her back. In a few minutes, their six opponents were all beaten and tied up, and she could relax. Two thirds of her reserves were gone, an uncomfortable situation, even though she had known far worse when Ensui was training her. With a rigorous care and slowness, she cut the influx of chakra towards the wire and her feet, then straddled her branch.

She was trying to hide how taxing maintaining the barrier had been, but the look on Naruto’s face as he climbed up again and put his orange vest on her told him she hadn’t been able to fool him this time. Sasuke joined them too but stood watch behind her, looking around with his still activated Sharingan. The horizon was turning orange and pink in some places. Dawn would come soon.

“Well, boys… What mistakes did we make during this exercise?” This sentence had become a ritual amongst their peers during Kurenai’s classes. Often, they relied on Hitomi’s mother to tell them why they had had such a hard time with the exercise and advise them on how to make it easy next time, but they always had to start the process. It was just the three of them this time, though. The two Jōnin picking up their last opponents, who had been stripped of their flags before attacking, didn’t really count – although Hitomi didn’t doubt they could hear them.

“Everything started when I sneezed. I should learn to do it silently, that’s probably how they found us.”

“I shouldn’t have been so near Naruto, so I wouldn’t have surprised him while throwing my shuriken.”

“Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised!”

“And I shouldn’t have chosen a trap that could turn on us so easily just because it was easier to set up,” Hitomi concluded. The three children watched each other in silence for a long time, then Naruto started snickering and Hitomi followed, unable to resist. Even Sasuke was smirking, and trying very hard to hide it.

“We still kicked a lot of butts so that’s good, believe it!”

“The Sharingan is probably a blessing in disguise, but you’ll have to get it looked at, Sasuke, just to make sure it works correctly and you don’t risk harming yourself by using it. Mom or Grandfather may know something useful about dōjutsu, I could ask.”

“Hm… Anyway, we should go visit my clan lands too. No one went there since I went to live with you, I gave orders that they wouldn’t disturb anything, just in case I needed to go back one day.”

Hitomi nodded, acknowledging how wise this choice was. She couldn’t help but feel dread at the idea that everything was still exactly like Itachi had left it, years earlier. Would she be able to feel the echo of his chakra? Would she see where his tantō had hit? She had learned how to read such signs under Ensui’s care, but right now… No, she couldn’t say she would have liked not to know. She would never disregard the knowledge her mentor had given her like that.

“You won’t have to face it alone, Sasuke, believe it!”

Hitomi muffled a laugh to her friend’s enthusiasm, even that simple action leaving her slightly breathless. She didn’t need to put her support for Sasuke into words. Their eyes met for a moment and it was enough. They were family, after all. The most important thing for the Nara clan.

When the sun had completely risen, Hitomi slowly straightened up, sending enough chakra to her limbs so as not to fall from the tree. She could still hang on for a few hours if she was just doing it, but she didn’t need to: the exercise would be over for their team once they managed to leave the training ground. The children gathered their things, except for the traps they hadn’t sprung; a Genin team would probably have to disarm them and Hitomi wished them good luck with that.

Barely half an hour later, they were out – they had had to take a large detour to avoid another team. Hitomi had seen how Sasuke loved fighting and wanted more, but he wouldn’t have put her at risk by looking for trouble while her chakra reserves were low.

“Hitomi, debrief!” The dry and demanding snap in Iruka’s voice made the girl jump and stiffen, almost at attention. She spent more than an hour arguing her case to the teacher, justifying all her choices. He saw her as the team leader – and thus the one responsible for everything that could have happened under her care. He was right, of course. Such authority on her peers couldn’t come without that. At least, he was satisfied when Sasuke gave him their three flags. Still, during the following weeks, Hitomi glared at Naruto a lot, just on principle, and because she didn’t like it when Iruka lectured her.

Chapter Text

During the following weekend, the children planned their expedition into Uchiha territory. Kurenai had decided to let them do their thing and go there alone: after all, in eighteen months, they would graduate, and Sasuke and Hitomi were the brightest students of their year, to such an extent that they were compared to Hyūga Neji and Mori no Tenten, who were expected to become First Genin and First Kunoichi of their own year. Additionally, the Uchiha lands were under high surveillance from an ANBU team who stopped anyone from entering without authorisation, except for Sasuke.

Kurenai had been the one to get this authorisation from the hands of the Hokage himself. No one was overtly talking about it, but Hitomi had eavesdropped on a rushed conversation between two Nara, about how the relationship between her mother and the war chief was strained. The young Jōnin had felt insulted by the fact she had had to fight tooth and nail to obtain Sasuke’s wardship, and the Third had felt insulted by how all his mistakes – like the monumental one he had made with Kakashi, by forcing him to live alone in the house where he had found his dad after his suicide – were brought up. He had only been six years old. The Copy Nin wasn’t exactly an example of balance and stability.

Friday evening, the Yūhi family invited Naruto to sleep over. It had become kind of a habit – the orphanage staff was relieved to leave the little devil in their care during the weekends, and he was always calmer when he came back. A lot of civilians in the village thought Kurenai had some kind of magical power in addition to her talents for ninja arts, to be able to take care of nine children like it was no big deal, including the dreadful Demon Fox brat.

After dinner, Kurenai settled on the couch, a book on her knees. She already knew she would get a Genin team, and who her future students would be; for each of them, she had to learn a lot of things. She had decided to start with the law books specific to each clan, three heavy tomes full of judicial talk that she had already seen Hitomi sneak away, when she thought she was alone. Kurenai sometimes watched the three children sitting around her coffee table, listening distractedly as they quietly discussed their preparations.

Over the course of years, Kurenai had seen her daughter shift into a leading position amongst her peers. She would probably be one of the first from her generation to graduate to Jōnin once they became Chūnin, because she had the natural authority and the cool head necessary to take decisions even in a dire situation. Of course, the young mother had read Iruka’s report concerning her children’s performances during the field exercise the Academy had organised. She had had a good laugh at how everything had spun out of control, but she was very proud of the three students, and of the way they had behaved that night. She had seen, most importantly, what kind of unit chief her daughter would become, and had hurried to go show the report to Yoshino and Shikaku, not really hiding her pride and the rush of satisfaction running in her veins.

The new Nara clan generation tended to elicit that kind of reaction, she had to admit it – and so did  the whole freaking clan.

Kurenai hadn’t been as keen to learn that her two kids and Naruto would be placed under Hatake Kakashi’s care. She liked the guy and respected him a whole lot, even going as far as considering him a friend, but… she had seen what damages the last war had done to him. He had lost his teammates and master in such quick succession that it had destroyed him, far beyond what Maito Gai’s sunny friendship could mend.

“I have enough ink for several storage scrolls for each of us, but I’m gonna need to buy more very soon. And I’ve spent most of my winnings from the trip with Ensui-shishou… I can’t wait to be a Genin.”

This attracted Kurenai’s attention. She knew the special ink Hitomi used for fūinjutsu was expensive, probably expensive enough to burden her daughter’s finances, since she only had a weekly allowance for her gear and one or two outings with her friends. Until she was a Genin, she would have a hard time earning money, but Kurenai had decided to limit her financial means to teach her the value of money and the pleasure of spending what she had earned for herself. Of course, clothes and books were limitlessly financed: her allowance was only for her kunoichi gear and occasional little pleasures.

“You know,” Sasuke started, “I know several students, even the older ones and a few Genin, who would pay for your bombs and seals. I would pay for sure.”

“Me too, believe it! The armoury ones are always crazy expensive and really not practical compared to yours. When we’re all Genin, we should at least pay for what it costs you to make them.”

The young mother looked at her daughter as the girl thought about it, her features void of all expression as her eyes focused on a random point in front of her, meaning she had dived in her Library. Probably for some maths, if Kurenai had to bet on it.

“I… I think you’re right, boys. I could try to sell some of them. But not to you, of course, nor to people from the Fellowship.”

“You should at least charge us for the raw materials,” Sasuke insisted. “It’s not fair that you pay for all of it and spend all your earnings trying to equip nine people alone.”

“What do you think, Mom?” Hitomi asked after a moment of silence.

Kurenai suppressed a laugh when she saw all three children look up to her with their big, cute eyes in the middle of a serious face. They were adorable, even Sasuke, who had started opening to her through the years. He had broken her heart the first time he had called her ‘Mother’. In his mind, ‘Mom’ would always be Mikoto, which was perfectly fine in the Jōnin’s eyes.

“I think it’s a good idea, sweetheart. When you come home tomorrow after visiting the Uchiha lands, you could try to determine how much each of your seals and bombs costs to make for one unit. For your friends,I would suggest that price, with adjustments if they can’t afford it when they need it – it can happen, you know it. For the others, you would add a margin that would be your benefit. If you don’t start replacing the armouries, the civilians shouldn’t have a problem with your little business.”

“Well, if they have one, they should sell better products!”

They all started to laugh, Hitomi putting an arm around Naruto’s shoulders to get him closer to her. He still felt insulted, rightly so, by the way civilians and some ninjas treated him. Kurenai had had a memorable argument with Hiruzen, trying to convince him that Naruto had to learn what was inside him for his own good. She had spoken in vain. The Third didn’t listen to anyone anymore, except for his Councilmen, and everyone knew they didn’t have the villagers’ interests at heart anymore, only their own. Danzō’s poisons had reached too deep inside them, for far too long.

“Well, that’s decided then. We’re gonna do this tomorrow evening, and Sunday morning if we’re not done before that.”

With a smile, the girl focused once again on the preparations her team needed for their trip. After all, it could be considered a mission. Her movements confident and fluid, she dipped her favourite brush in ink and started to draw her first seal with a precision that would make Ensui proud. He had drowned her with questions when she had written to him about the field exercise, and Gaara had apparently begged him to organise such exercise for him and his siblings, who would be a team once Gaara graduated from the Academy. He didn’t need to be enrolled to pass the exam, not in Sunagakure. Anyone could just come in, succeed at the exam and become a Genin. Some legend-worthy shinobi, like Akasuna no Sasori, had followed that peculiar path.

“Naruto, could you make us some bentō, please? That way we won’t have to leave the clan lands to eat.”

The boy nodded enthusiastically and jumped to his feet. A moment later, he was in the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboards and the fridge to find everything he needed. Kurenai didn’t even feel the need to go supervise him: from the three kids, he was the best cook by far, even when he had to do something other than ramen. That innocent passion had given the young mother the idea to offer him a cookbook for his last birthday. He had loved it and thanked her by jumping in her arms. So cute.

“Okay, so food and transporting the things we’re gonna take from there are handled. Do you have a suggestion for weapons, Sasuke?”

“Let’s take our swords. I don’t think we’ll encounter problems, but you’re never too careful. The ANBU team I hired in the name of the clan to watch upon the land only manages the human threats. I wouldn’t want to have to fight a bear without weapons.”

Bears, uh? Hitomi nodded, slightly impressed. “That’s right, the land has an opening on the Fire Forest… Yeah, let’s take our swords. And for Naruto?”

“You can fill his pouch with kunai. He’s still not so good with shuriken. We’re gonna have to work with him on that before graduation.”

Hitomi nodded again, deep in thought. To pass that part of the exam, a student had to prove their mastery of at least one throwing weapon. Most students stopped there and chose kunai, easier to hold and throw. Sasuke had put his priorities on shuriken. He and Hitomi could add the kunai to that list, and the girl was working on senbon too, but she wasn’t sure she would have perfectly mastered them by graduation: their lightness made them very hard to throw correctly without hundreds of hours of training.

For each weapon a student showed mastery of, the Academy gave bonus points. Neither Sasuke nor Hitomi needed them, but Naruto couldn’t afford to turn his nose on them. He had gotten much better in the theoretical classes, thanks to the card game the Fellowship used, but he had stumbled upon a new difficulty when Iruka had started teaching them about chakra control. Hitomi, of course, knew his problems were due to the Demon Fox’s chakra inside him, an energy he couldn’t incorporate in the exercises since he didn’t know it was there. For most students outside the Fellowship and teachers as well, though, Naruto just sucked in that field, no matter his efforts and his slow, indisputable progress.

An hour and a half later, all three children went to bed. They had decided it was better to have a good night sleep before such an important mission – the fact it wasn’t official didn’t make it any less crucial in their eyes. Hitomi smiled when she heard the boys bicker for toothpaste in the bathroom. In the canon, most unhealthy aspects of their brotherly relationship had bothered her, but she couldn’t find anything of the sort now, only two friends, two brothers, who loved each other without shame.

That night, Hitomi dreamed again. She saw rows upon rows of scrolls, cupboards brimming over with weapons that time had started to erode, stains of dried blood and walls scarred by fights. She woke up at dawn, her body covered in cold sweat, her breathing shallow and burning through her lungs. It was too late to go back to sleep, or she would have sought refuge in Sasuke’s bed. Even when Naruto was there, she wasn’t afraid of hiding in her brother’s arms for comfort. One day, she would probably need to find a true solution concerning her nightmares. One day… Later. When she managed to tell Kurenai about it, perhaps.

The rest of the house slowly woke up when the scent of breakfast started to float around in the air. Naruto was the chef of their little group, but Hitomi wasn’t bad herself once she got started on it. She liked cooking traditional dishes, even if some of them were still far too technical for her.

“Well, boys, we should take off for the Uchiha lands in about an hour. The ANBU who stand watch have been warned of our arrival. Sasuke, you have the Hokage’s signed authorisation, don’t you?”

“You already checked, nee-chan. Stop fretting and breathe, everything is gonna be okay.”

Swallowing nervously, the girl nodded and obeyed. Sure, last time she had led her team had almost become a disaster, but that didn’t mean it would happen again. She could trust the boys, they had her back. “Well, I’m gonna get dressed then. Your gear awaits you next to the door. You know how to strap the big scrolls to your backs, right?”

“For the Hermit’s sake, Hitomi! Go change before I kick your ass until you get that we already know this! Come on!”

The girl rolled her eyes but obeyed again. Death by Uchiha wasn’t in her plans for today. In the corridor, she met her mother coming the other way, already radiant. Kurenai had always been a morning person. Hitomi suspected some Jōnin hated her for it. Stories and gossips were spreading around the village and the girl had learned to listen to them. She knew so much about the ninjas surrounding her now… The story of Shikaku falling asleep halfway through his report to the Third always made her want to scream with laughter when she thought about it.

An hour later, just like she had planned, the three children were ready and walking to the gate of the Nara lands, their impatience so obvious on their features and in their gait. They greeted the clan members who were waking up and starting their day – the rest of the village was already quite busy. The Nara clan had always been one of the late risers. It didn’t stop Yoshino, who they met a few hundred meters from the gate, from dragging a barely awake Shikamaru while mumbling about new pants and kids who didn’t want to stop growing. Poor him.

They took around twenty minutes to reach the Uchiha lands. Once, Shikaku and Hitomi’s grandfather had told her about the injustice that had pushed the clan to its old lands from before the Founders Era, in the border of what had become Konoha. Because of this new place in the village, they had been isolated from the rest of the population, and the police services, under their care, had started to crumble and lose their quality. Year after year, their resentment had settled in and grown amongst the clan, until the massacre had stopped them from staging their coup.

Sasuke was the one to unlock the iron portal that was the only access to the lands, after the ANBU cleared them to enter. His hands shook hard enough that he had to try four times before inserting the key in the lock, but neither Naruto nor Hitomi commented on his difficulties. The two children followed the last Uchiha as he took his first steps beyond the gate, silent and solemn behind him.

The first house, really a manor that towered over its surrounding, was the masters’ domain, the one where Sasuke had lived his first years, the one that had heard his first words, the echo of his first steps. This time, he gave the keys to Hitomi without a word. He didn’t need to talk for her to understand the ghosts living before his eyes, the feeling of emptiness and pain so tightly blended, the muffled buzzing in his ears threatening to become a groan, then a long scream of anguish. She understood, because it was her role in their Fellowship – the pillar, the guide, the empath.

She opened the door and stepped in first. The hall was relatively intact. The only witness of the time that had passed was the coating of dust on the tatami and on every object. She extended her hand and grabbed Sasuke’s, as Naruto put an arm around his shoulders. All three touching each other, they contemplated the room where they were standing, trying to overlook the slight shaking agitating the youngest Uchiha.

“You can go, Hitomi,” he said in an empty voice. “If you wait for me, we’ll still be there in three hours.”

Before complying, Hitomi exchanged a look with Naruto and only stepped away when he nodded, his eyes more serious and solemn than what the scandalmongers in the village would have deemed him capable of. People were so quick to turn a blind eye to Naruto’s sweet, gentle, compassionate nature. They didn’t see his loyalty or bravery, only the occasional prank he pulled on people who, by being nasty to him, practically begged for it.

Hitomi froze in the living room, her breath stuck in her throat. Everywhere her gaze went, there were traces of the massacre, up to the point she could reconstitute Itachi’s steps in the room. No one had taken the time to even clean the blood off the floor. She took a few faltering steps inside and knelt on the stained tatami, her fingers brushing against the spot where Itachi’s blade had gone through Mikoto’s chest and stopped its course in the quilted floor. He had killed her first, probably because it was the most painful one – he had always been closer to her than he had to his father.

She looked up and suddenly she could see him, as clear as if he’d still been there, his feet soiling the tatamis, his tantō already bathed in the blood of his clanmates gripped in shaking fingers – only that would explain the pattern of droplets there. She could see the place where he had knelt behind his parents, almost heard the terrified, lonely note in his voice as he promised them to protect Sasuke. She didn’t need to have been there for that. Her mind reconstructed the scene with an acuity and perfection that made her want to scream, to curl up under her bed and disappear.

The girl stayed there for a moment, her head bowed respectfully, ignoring the distant ache of the old tatamis under her knees. She had no prayer to offer them, no abstract faith to call upon for herself and for the souls of all the people who had lost their life during that cursed night – no one to beg for mercy in Itachi’s name.

In this universe, they hadn’t been close. He was the older brother of one of her best friends, it didn’t go any deeper than that. And yet she had been able to observe him. She had seen, week after week, how anxiety took its toll on him, on his body, his face, and had found an echo in the loneliness she had read in his dark eyes. She had asked Fugaku for advice about kenjutsu, and Mikoto had helped her master complicated strokes for her calligraphy and fūinjutsu. But it was Itachi who had saved Sakura and her, who hadn’t made fun of the two students overrun by their civilian opponents.

In the Previous World, when she had read this story, Hitomi had grown fond of Itachi. It felt so far away…

Slowly, her body bearing the weight of all the deaths and the blood that had once impregnated the walls and stones of this forgotten land, she stood back up. Her hands and mind got to work automatically, while her consciousness observed, cold and detached. Such a beautiful mask. Deep inside her Library, an anguished howl rang out, so deep and strong it made the whole foundations and anchors tremble. Already, she was learning to tune it down, to ignore it.

She kept going like that for more than ten minutes, opening drawer after drawer to sort through their content and decide what they would take home, before her mind yielded. She staggered, her hands hanging onto the closest chest, a strangled sob fighting its way out of her throat. She immediately muffled the sound, a fist against her lips to keep it inside. Sasuke couldn’t hear this. In her state, she wasn’t sure she would be able to pretend she was fine. And yet, she couldn’t explain to him how she mourned his decimated clan and his brother too, the way he had been before his slow fall from grace. He didn’t know. Itachi’s sacrifice had been kept secret from him.

She had to make him uncover the truth before it was too late.

She would have loved nothing more than just go back to the hall and explain everything to him. But how would she have justified her knowledge of it? If the rumour broke out of her awareness of the future – if her actions hadn’t modified it anyway – and her village’s past, Danzō, the son of a bitch, would put his dirty hands on her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to resist the torture he would put her through to steal her secrets, just like she knew such information couldn’t be given to anyone without him learning about it sooner or later.

No, she couldn’t do that. She had to be patient, subtle, to discreetly feed him , vague clues, month after month, year after year, until she could finally tell him the truth and pretend she had deduced it. That way, her own secret would be safe, and perhaps Sasuke could forgive his brother. If, in that process, she could make Itachi live and Danzō die… Two of her goals would be reached.

After a slight shake of her head, she put herself back together, rubbed her damp cheeks and puffy eyes, then got back to work. She was only filling a little scroll first, with trinkets Sasuke might want to take back. The interesting part, however, was in the shelves along the wall opposite to the window. The sun had faded the colours of those books, but their content was still untouched. Of course, she wouldn’t find anything secret here, exposed to sight, but she still wondered what the Uchiha family had read once.

The lower shelves were filled with children books that had probably belonged to Sasuke. She took them without hesitation: if her friend didn’t want them, she would suggest he gave them away to the orphanage. The higher shelves contained a complete encyclopaedia she didn’t even touch – Kurenai already had one – and, the two highest, a set of all law books for Konoha’s clans, and even some about foreign ones. Those she took immediately, since they were very precious resources.

She had still so many things to see and take before going home – the real home, for all three of them.

Chapter Text

The sun had almost reached its peak when the three children reached a house built aside from the others. Hitomi had ended up taking care of Sasuke’s house entirely, except for his bedroom. She’d felt like an intruder, going methodically through his family’s things. In Itachi’s room, she had found a poetry book he had written. She had hidden it away in one of her scrolls, one that already contained her own things and wasn’t used to collect what they wanted to take from the clan lands.

She would read it, one day.

“Whose house is it?” She had asked that question each time they had gotten ready to cross a threshold, and Sasuke answered, giving the names of the people who had lived there and then a few information about them, as if to introduce living relatives to his friends. Naruto was listening, his blue eyes darkened by a touch of seriousness and maturity that felt almost out of character for him. Fortunately, he still spoke with excitement when he discovered something, providing his two friends with the lightness they needed to handle their conflicted feelings and the weight on their shoulders.

“Uchiha Shisui. His father died when he was fourteen and his mother followed not so long after that. When he found himself alone, he couldn’t bear to live so close to their ghosts. My father gave him this house and turned the other one into a dojo for the police force. He was known for his usage of the Shunshin. He turned it into a weapon, just like Hokage the Second wanted to.”

Hitomi’s eyes went wide. The Shunshin was one of the techniques she wanted to learn the most. Until she could use it, she would settle for the Substitution technique, more restrictive but taught at the Academy. Kurenai had mentioned wanting to get them started on the basis of these techniques during the holidays, before sixth year started. The girl had no trouble picturing an offensive usage to these two techniques. Their applications and limitations were different, but with some training…

She shook her head and filed those thoughts away in her Library. The section reserved for her projects would soon burst with them if she continued having new ideas. She could have created more shelves, but a bit of chaos seemed fitting for that part of her mind. Back in the physical world, she took the lead and opened the door.

“I’m taking the living room,” Sasuke said. “Naruto, take the kitchen. Hitomi, the bedroom and library?”

The girl nodded. It was the way they usually did it since they had started in the morning. Naruto also took the basement and bathroom, and Sasuke often came to help his sister finish with the library or office. She was most at ease with entering the intimacy – bedroom – and mind – library – of people she had never even met.

This was their eleventh house and, after all this time, Hitomi had found a routine. For example, she didn’t take the clothes. She would later suggest to Sasuke that he gave them all away, but she had no space for it. The shinobi gear, however, she never left behind. It would have been stupid to do so; they would find a use for it, without the slightest doubt. Of course, the blades needed cleaning and sharpening, the grips tightening, but nothing a bit of care couldn’t provide.

Shisui had been the kind of guy to care for his interior design. For his bedroom, he had chosen pale blue shades, incredibly soft and soothing, that made Hitomi feel safe, like she was inside a bubble. His furniture was a very light cream, almost white, under all the dust. The girl had kept a straight face when Sasuke had said his name. She hadn’t known the man when he was alive, but she knew he had been Itachi’s best friend, and he had died offering him the eye he had left.

She knew his other eye was in Danzō’s body.

A flash of anger burned through her veins, the sweet melody of vengeance promising her a thousand marvels for the day when she would finally act. Whatever the fall from grace that would break the cycle of violence and manipulation in which the councilman was sweeping up people, she would take part in it. She would make him fall, she would break him. And if she couldn’t do so herself, she would be there watching, making sure all his victims were finally avenged. And that was why she couldn’t, without hypocrisy, reproach Sasuke’s desire for vengeance. She, who couldn’t forgive without lying at least a little to the person in question, understood how bitterness corrupted the mind slowly, day after day, until it reached a point where everything, except revenge, faded. There was a way out of that kind of darkness, but it seemed so far out of reach. She understood.

Her eyes went to the trinkets and paintings decorating Shisui’s room. He had obviously loved animals. Some of the species represented there didn’t appear in the Land of Fire. Hitomi notably recognised a fennec fox that had probably been drawn in Sunagakure, and a salamander that could only be found in the Land of Iron. As for the rest of them, she couldn’t even say where they were from.

Resolute, she walked to one of the two wardrobes in the room. The other contained clothes and trapping material she had inspected before packing  away. She pouted when she heard the door creak so loud it ringed in her ears. A tantō occupied the middle shelf and, even without unsheathing it, she knew it was a masterpiece, the kind that could only be found in houses where nobles lived, or where shinobi brave enough to steal them did.

The sheath was the purest shade of black, smooth and carefully lacquered. Feathers painted in blood-red ink fell from the guard to the tip, each detail painted with striking precision. Until his death, Shisui had possessed the Crow Summoning Contract, Hitomi knew. She found it sweet that the fierce shinobi had chosen such a pattern for his weapon of choice. Slowly, as reverently as she could, she took the weapon from its stand and wrapped her fingers around its guard, getting a feel for the braided silk that reinforced it, its shade of red matching the paint perfectly.

She drew the blade out in a swift move – too swift, in fact. All the swords they had found so far had been gripped by rust, almost impossible to unsheathe. It wasn’t the case this time. Careful not to harm herself, the girl got the edge of the blade closer to her face and inspected it. It was absolutely perfect, as sharp and formidable as it had been in the first weeks of its service, without any usage mark. Even her tantō had those. The sword’s name was carved on its blade. Ishi to Senrigan, Determination and Clairvoyance. It was said that blades were named after the virtues they offered to their masters as they lived, battled, and travelled together.

“Sasuke?” she called in a soft voice.

He joined her in the room a few seconds later. She had often called him, in other houses, to ask about a particular item, so he had grown accustomed to it. His dark eyes went wide when he saw the tantō in her hand. The light pouring through the window reflected coldly against the edge of the blade. The last Uchiha, as he was called in the village, hadn’t thought he would see this weapon ever again, he who had only glimpsed it once, the day Shisui had received it from his clan leader.

“Do you know why this weapon looks like it had just been purchased and placed here yesterday? Hitomi asked to make Sasuke focus on her again.

Sasuke shrugged off the shock he had just felt and squared his shoulders, taking a step in the bedroom. He didn’t dare touching Ishi to Senrigan, only eying it respectfully. “It’s a chakra blade. That steel can resist anything, including the passage of time and its master’s chakra. This tantō has been in my clan for at least as much time as Shingi to Giri.”

Shingi to Giri, Loyalty and Honour, had been Uchiha Fugaku’s katana. When he had been fighting with that sword in his hand, the blade enshrouded in chakra flames, not many foreign shinobi had been able to face him. The rumour said he had been the one to remind his clan of their old kenjutsu style, based on flaming swords – that tradition coming back in fashion had terrified the enemy during the last Shinobi World War. Sasuke had found the katana in his father’s office and decided he would wield it rather than the one he had bought when he had started training with Hitomi.

“What do you want me to do with it?” she asked. “Do you want to keep it too?”

“You can take it,” he said with a shrug. “I’d rather you have it and use it than any alternative. If we find another, you could give it to Naruto and teach him to use it. Could become the special thing our team does or something like that.”

The two children exchanged a knowing look. They were very aware of the fact that they would form a team later and didn’t understand how others, like some civilians, could miss it. Iruka and Mizuki always prioritised making them work together, even if they still made sure they could work with most people of their group. The two teachers knew what Hitomi had done with the clan-born kids and the jinchūriki, but they hadn’t tried to stop her, since it fitted so well with the Academy’s goals.

“Do you think they’d call us Team Sword? That sounds good. Maybe when we’re promoted to Chūnin…”

“Who knows. I just think it’d be neat to have a skill in common. We’re all more or less frontline-oriented, but we don’t have something special, something that would make people remember us as a team.”

Without giving it any more thought, Hitomi tied the sword to her belt, switching it with her old one, which went in one of her seals. This weapon had served her well, and she loved it so much – Ensui had given it to her, after all – that she preferred keeping it safe rather than risking breaking it.

The children finally found a sword for Naruto around the end of the afternoon, but it didn’t look like anything they had seen before. Hitomi, with her knowledge from the Previous World, would have called it a claymore. It was almost as tall as the little jinchūriki and had a seal allowing it to adjust to his wielder’s size, but the boy would have to build up serious muscles to use it. That sword was made for titans more than men, and if Naruto was still a scrawny kid, his chakra and willpower would do the trick. He immediately fell in love with the sword and swore he would learn to use it before graduating. Hitomi knew he would.

Sasuke told them, during a break they had, with a shy smile, that this sword had belonged to Uchiha Takami, Fukagu’s mother. She had been the Lady Uchiha then, until her husband had died on a mission. Then, she had taken control of the clan, since her son had been too young to do so. She hadn’t been a gentle ruler. Mikoto had told her sons about that time in a low voice, as if she still feared being heard by the woman’s ghost. Hitomi hoped she would never have that kind of cold and cruel power over people. She was determined, not heartless.

Finally, they found the thing that had led them there in the first place: the collection of techniques scrolls the Uchiha clan had kept for teaching and archiving purposes. It was hidden under the dojo just next to the main police station. Hitomi took them all, no matter the subject. She didn’t care, she just wanted the knowledge and knew it would be useful in one way or another anyway.

When they were finished with the scrolls, they found a strongbox in one block of black stone that only opened when Sasuke touched it and focused chakra in his palms. There were the scrolls about the Sharingan itself. Of course, they would just introduce the basic knowledge – Hitomi remembered the sacred stones under the Naka temple, and what Sasuke would need to do in order to access them. He still had a lot to learn to get to that point. He could summon the Sharingan at will, but it used up a lot of his chakra and he couldn’t do much with it yet. Hence the need for the scrolls.

As the sun slowly set on the village, their many storage scrolls full to the brim, they decided it was time to leave this painful place and go home. They would come back, in a few weeks maybe, to take care of all the clothes that filled wardrobes and were never worn. No one would miss them, and Sasuke, despite his attempts on the matter, couldn’t quite hide his need to be useful.

Kurenai welcomed them with a daimyo-worthy feast on the table. As soon as the three children were home, she drowned them in questions about their unofficial mission. Some things, they told her without the slightest hesitation. Others they barely dared whisper, their postures defeated, and their eyes filled with a dull sadness no kid should ever feel. Others yet, they didn’t say at all. A team knew how to keep its members’ secrets.

The dinner was quiet; even Naruto behaved as perfectly as he could, as if the day spent rummaging through the Uchiha lands had spent part of his amazing stamina. It didn’t stop him from bickering with Sasuke like usual, but the way the two boys were smiling stopped Kurenai from asking them to stay civil. Hitomi, too, refrained from kicking them in the shins so they would calm down. Wasn’t she nice?

Once the table was clean, the three children settled in the living room just like the day before, and just like the day before Kurenai sat on the couch as they claimed the coffee table. It wasn’t time yet to sort through the tremendous volume of things they had brought back from the Uchiha lands, but they had other work to do. In one of her pockets, Hitomi found a pen and a notebook. She never went far without that very useful pair of items. She didn’t ever forget anything, but it wasn’t the case for Naruto, far from it, and even Sasuke didn’t have her eidetic memory. If they were captured with written information somewhere on them, they could still swallow it. Good luck to their opponent then to have that back.

They had a very lively conversation that lasted the whole evening. Establishing the cost of a product was hard enough as it was; adding the production cost and a margin could turn in a real nightmare, especially when Sasuke and Naruto had to fight tooth and nail against Hitomi’s instinct to devalue her own work. The girl had a hard time understanding why her friends were fighting so hard so she would have more money since it didn’t change anything for them. She ended up giving in, though. Somewhere deep inside, she wanted that income.

When the night came, Hitomi had a lot to think about and, when she finally fell asleep, a dream came to her once more.

Chapter Text

His bloody hand wrote the kanjis for his name on the parchment, then applied his prints carefully. Ready at last, he focused his chakra and formed the necessary hand seals. An Uchiha should have been impassive in all circumstances, but he had never managed it: he couldn’t stop his body from jittering with impatience and his eyes from gleaming, full of anticipation. When his hand touched the ground, all the chakra he had been able to gather was spent in an instant, and a crow bigger than a horse appeared in front of him.

Probably surprised by the summon, the bird spread his wings and stared down at the boy. His pearl white beak slightly open, he towered over the child who had just dared to summon him just as he was going to tuck in for dinner. Humans never thought about that kind of detail. Especially shinobi. In former days, centuries ago, when chakra and ninja arts were just a rumour amongst the tree, the Crow Summoning Contract had belonged to the monks living in a temple hidden deep in what would become the Land of Fire. They had been so much more respectful of the Crows.

“Well, kid, what do you want? Speak, I don’t have all day.”

The Crows had always been this way, incredibly intelligent but impatient. Their thoughts ran far quicker than any human’s and only age gave them the ability to settle down and wait for their summoner to decide what they wanted to do. Shiromaru was still a child in the eyes of his race, though. Waiting was like a burn on his nerves.

“I’d like to become one of your summoners, Crow-sama” the child said softly.

The crow threw his head up and started laughing, the sound dry and jolting but not devoid of humour. No one had ever called him that. When he’d tell Nee-chan about it… “Our contract comes with a price, kid,” he said when he calmed down. “We won’t let you use us without the compensation we ask of any summoner.”

“What do you want from them then?”

Shiromaru stared at the human child for a while, trying to decide if he was the kind to accept the compensation. That rule had been installed when the Hidden Village had stolen the scroll from the monks the Crows had loved so much, in hope the humans, disgusted, gave it back to its rightful owners. Alas, the ploy had failed and, since then, the birds had simply learned to profit from the deal. “We want your opponents’ eyes, kid. Each time you kill, you’ll do it without damaging the eyes, and then call the one who decided to assist you while the corpse is still warm so the crow can take them back to our realm.”

The boy tensed, surprised. He had found the scroll in the clan archives, well hidden behind the most boring treaties, the ones no one ever read. Who expected to find such a treasure there? He had learned from his parents that the Uchiha had guardianship of several summoning contracts: the most famous were the Crows and the Rams, which only the clan head could use. Others, less powerful, were also in their hands, but most had been forgotten. After all, they mostly kept them so no enemy could have them. “I agree to your terms,” he said politely. “What do I do now?”

“Now, kid, I will observe you for fifteen days and fifteen nights, then I will share what I learned about you with our Elder, who will decide who your companion will be.”

The boy nodded and, his gestures precise and respectful, wiped his bloody hand clean before closing the scroll he had signed. Shiromaru observed him, trying to assess him already. During these two weeks, he would have to discover his brightest qualities and his deepest weaknesses, so his report to the Elder was as complete as it could possibly be. He would finally be able to explore the Physical World… Natsutaiyō had bragged so hard about it during the gatherings. It would soon be his turn to do so.

“Alright, then,” the boy said. “If you plan on staying with me for so long, stop calling me ‘kid’. My name is Shisui. What’s yours?”

Hitomi jerked awake, her heart racing in her chest and her breathing shallow. When she raised her hands to rub her face, she found her cheeks damp with tears. She didn’t understand why she dreamed of the past so much. Because it could only be the past. Shisui was dead, he had committed suicide to stop Danzō from taking his remaining eye and offered it to Itachi instead. A tormented moan escaped her lips and she quickly muffled it, her fist against her mouth, trying to calm down.

Even when they weren’t frightening, just like this one, the dreams always made her body react to such an extent that being terrified or not made no difference. She felt as if she had just run a marathon with her former body, something she would have been happy never to go through again. Her joints ached, her lungs burned. Nothing would have pleased her more than going out and running, feeling free, strong, healthy, but the reminder of what she had been in the Previous World always put her in an unsettling morosity, which was difficult to hide.

Even Sasuke, who welcomed her in his bed each night she had a nightmare, didn’t know what they showed her exactly. He didn’t need that to understand she couldn’t stand her dark, empty room once she woke up. After all, he was going through something similar, had been since the Massacre. She had just told him she didn’t want to talk about it and it had been enough for him to never ask about it again. It was better that way: she couldn’t really tell him about her dreams of the past, some showing her members of his decimated clan. She couldn’t tell him that, sometimes, she saw his brother too.

With a slight shiver, she left the bed and stumbled to the bathroom, barely avoiding a painful meeting between her pinkie toe and the corner of a book she had dropped there. Why was she always doing that? It was stupid. She had enough shelves for all the books she could possibly dream of. Maybe she needed a bit of mess around her to feel like she belonged. Once she was in her bathroom, she freshened up a bit and looked at her reflection, her stare cold, tired, detached.

She had changed a lot these last few years. If she was still little for her age, lean and wiry muscles gave strength to her limbs, to her whole body. Her black hair, wavy like her mother’s, was still untied, but she quickly grabbed a hairbrush and a red rubber band to tie them Nara-style. They were too long to stay up on her head, like Shikamaru’s or Shikaku’s; untied, they reached the bottom part of her shoulder blades. Still, the gesture meant a lot to her.

Her red eyes were still a bit too large for her face, the rich colour complimenting her black eyelashes and pale skin. She had lost the tan her trip to Sunagakure had granted her years ago: now, her skin was freckled, especially on the nose and the cheekbones. She was slowly losing the baby fat she had had around the lines of her cheeks and chin. Her cheekbones would be high and salient, just like any Nara’s.

She really didn’t look like much when she had just left the bed. It was different at the Academy, where she was one of the rare girls to wear an appropriate outfit for the training the children went through every day. She was small, stunningly fast, and if she lacked strength compared to the boys in the Fellowship, she was clever enough to still be their match during sparring exercises most of the time – except when she went against Sasuke, because he was one little devil when he fought one on one. With a heavy sigh, the girl turned away from the mirror and looked at the clock on the opposite wall.

What could she do to pass the time? It was too early to wake someone up and train. Idle and grumpy, she came back to her room and turned the light on to write a letter to Gaara. He too knew she had nightmares. She had wanted to tell Ensui and had figured it wasn’t fair to hide things from her friend since they were both using his notebook to talk to her. She hadn’t told either of them about the content of those dreams, though. She fully intended on having this secret die with her.

It had become usual for her to end her letters to Gaara with a few words for his siblings. Temari had a knack for riddles so the two girls played a game with them that had lasted for months now without a clear winner. With Kankurō, she talked about the fauna and flora of the Land of Fire. The boy dreamed about building his own puppets one day and was looking for inspiration there.

Once she was done with the letter, she stood up once more and went to the kitchen. Kurenai and the boys would be up in two hours. It was too early to get started on breakfast, but she wanted to cook a little something for herself. Eating always brought her comfort. She understood why the Akimichi, empaths in a world of violence and blood, needed it so much. When Chōji had told her their jutsus weren’t the only reason behind that behaviour, she had nodded in comprehension and shared the onigiri Kurenai had made for her. For the Akimichi, sharing food was a gesture of deep friendship and trust.

When boredom threatened to engulf her again, she decided to go out, even if the night would still last for a bit more than an hour. Sitting on the porch, she watched the starry sky, revelling in the peace and quiet all around her. She breathed in deeply and allowed her muscles to relax. She was safe here. Her gaze followed the dance of three fireflies around a flower, then went to the silhouette of a clanmate walking to the gate of the lands. A mission, probably. He looked fast and lazy at the same time, which made her smile tenderly. Only Nara could pull that off.

She turned around when she heard noise behind her, a kunai finding its place in her hand, and felt a bit dumb when Asuma opened the door… from the inside… She raised her eyebrows and blushed slightly when she understood, finding comfort in the obvious embarrassment he was showing himself.

“Err… Hi, Hitomi-chan.” He scratched his neck, looking ready to shunshin away at the first sign of anger from her.

“You know, you don’t have to sneak around when you want to spend the night here. I’m sure I can convince Sasuke to leave you alone and in one piece.”

“Uh… Actually… I’m more afraid of you . The Academy’s reports say you’re a wicked little demon.”

Well, that explained why he had been muting his chakra. A startled laugh escaped Hitomi’s lips as a wave of heat bloomed in her chest. She was so happy people noticed. She also hoped to cut the ‘little’ part of it, but ‘wicked demon’ sounded good as a reputation.

“Who, me? Nah, I’ve known for ages now. I don’t need to remind you that shinobi are gossips, since I heard you tell Shiranui Genma about the woman Morino Ibiki sees after his shifts, three days ago.” Her smile turned almost feral when surprise came back on Asuma’s face. Oh, she loved that power. Sasuke and Naruto thought it was terrifying – how could she know Mizuki’s shoe size and that Iruka hated pickles without any research? – but she was very satisfied with her ability to listen and to be in the right place at the right time. It was an excellent weapon for a shinobi.

“On the other hand, if you hurt my mom… Well, you probably can imagine far more horrible punishments than I can, being Jōnin and all that, but whatever it is, do know I’ll do it to you. Even if I haven’t thought about it yet.”

The powerful shinobi, son of Hokage the Third and former member of the Twelve Guardians in service of the daimyo, stiffened so obviously that she couldn’t help but laugh, the sound wild and lively, her eyes gleaming and her mind at peace for the first time that day. With a light-hearted gesture of her hand, she patted the man’s forearm and tried to appease him. “There, there. I’m sure you don’t have anything to fear. For now, you’re doing well with Mom.”

She didn’t need to repeat her threat, even if toying with Asuma that way was incredibly easy. Since she had so much power over him, she might be able to make him quit smoking… But, in that case, she would probably need Shikamaru and Naruto’s help, and a lot of time. You couldn’t go headfirst against a Jōnin, not for something like that. She liked her head attached to her shoulders, thank you very much.

A comfortable silence settled between man and child; they didn’t feel the need to fill it in anyway, content just to enjoy it. They watched the slow arrival of dawn together, her sitting again, him standing up a few steps away from her so as to avoid bothering her with his cigarette. As the last beams of light extracted themselves from the horizon, Hitomi stood up and started greeting the sun, not at all surprised when Asuma joined her, the nicotine stick firmly stuck between his lips. Once the stretching routine was over, she shook herself and rubbed her arms, only noticing how cold the air was.

“Well, I’m gonna get started on breakfast. You should go back to Mom and tell her that no, you haven’t suffered ‘death by Hitomi’. Get downstairs in half an hour and take the boys, they should be ready by then.”

She nodded to him then got back inside, a wicked smile on her lips. Asuma was indeed an easy prey, mighty Jōnin or not. Maybe it was because she could pressure him that Hitomi was so tempted to tease him all the time… After all, he wasn’t wrong when he feared her turning his life into a living hell if she decided she didn’t like him or the way he treated her mother. She couldn’t really hurt him, but she had the skills needed to annoy him to no end: she was dangerously intelligent and, if it wasn’t enough, she had Naruto as a secret-not-so-secret weapon. Dangerously intelligent was good, but dangerously intelligent and unpredictable? Even better.

Humming quietly, she settled in the kitchen to cook. A lifetime ago, she had been a talented singer, but hadn’t had the health or desire to practice and get better. Who would have listened anyway? Her voice wasn’t the same but, in a strange happenstance, she had kept that little talent, even after damaging her vocal cords as a baby. She was very careful not to sing in either of the two languages she had known in the Previous World, that knowledge locked away deep enough inside her mind to never be used by accident. She didn’t want the Jōnin surrounding her at all time to focus on her in the way an unknown language would make them.

Kurenai and Asuma were the first to arrive in the kitchen, just in time to sit in front of their breakfast. It was a mystery how Hitomi managed to only give the man things he enjoyed, leaving the nori and green tea away from him. When he looked up to her, she just gave him her sweetest smile. He couldn’t know, of course, that she was playing shōgi with Shikaku every week and that her uncle was particularly chatty when he was immersed in the game. He and Asuma were good friends, but they didn’t play yet. It would only start when Asuma would get his Genin team.

When Naruto and Sasuke arrived, she served them breakfast too then sat and started eating. It was still too early for the blonde boy to go from a sleepy bundle of cuteness to overexcited battery, but she knew it would come, and soon. It was perfect: after the dream she’d had, she couldn’t wait to train. The energy buzzing inside her wanted to come out, and the slow stretches of the sun greeting weren’t enough.

“Naruto, today we’re teaching you the basics of kenjutsu. Asuma-san, do you think you could help?”

“Well, I probably could. The Twelve Guardians have to wield a katana. That’s not the same as Naruto-kun’s sword, but I should be able to help.”

The girl nodded, thrilled to have convinced Asuma without even really trying. A part of her wondered if he was doing it so she would be pleased and support him in his courtship of Kurenai. The other part didn’t care, since she was getting what she wanted anyway. When she was finished with her meal, she started to put the dishes in the sink for the adults to clean. Sasuke followed her every move, as if he could read something she wasn’t saying in them. This thought made a surge of anxiety surge in her mind, but she muffled it. It was so stupid. Allowing her nightmares to make her paranoid was out of the question.

“As for you, Sasuke, you have things to read. The scrolls we took from the Uchiha lands are in my room, I’m gonna bring them to you before going with Naruto. Sounds good?”

The boy nodded but didn’t look away. It wasn’t like she was forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do: he wanted to master the things that had elevated his clan amongst the most powerful in the whole world. He had to, if he wanted to kill… no, he couldn’t think about him, not under this roof. He didn’t want to bring that kind of damnation upon the household that had given him love and safety again. Hitomi, the girl he had come to see as a sister, already had shadows carved deep enough under her eyes. He often wondered about her nightmares, but he understood. He didn’t want to talk about his, after all.

She didn’t need to talk for him to understand, as he didn’t need to say how the power in his eyes frightened him sometimes for her to get it. They understood each other.

Chapter Text

Several days later, Yūhi Shinku was back in the village after a long diplomatic mission in Sunagakure. He was well past the age of retirement but, as he admitted himself, he was driven by the deep and sharp need to be useful to his village. He had missed his grand-daughter’s birthday and hadn’t found Ensui during his mission, which was to be expected – he didn’t want to draw any attention to the place where he was hiding with the Kazekage’s youngest son.

“Hitomi-chan,” he said when he came to see her that day, “you’re twelve now. It’s time for you to be introduced to the spiritual creatures who lend us strength in battle. Today, I’m going to make you sign the Nekomadake Cats Summoning Contract.”

Hitomi, who had greeted her grandfather and had been ready to go back to the book she had to read for the Academy, stopped her gesture, her features showing her astonishment despite her efforts to hide it. She hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly, even if, she had to admit it, she had thought about this honour more and more often. Her dream about Uchiha Shisui had helped her understand the deep peace that had motivated him, so gentle and comforting. She wanted to take that feeling for herself, to find strength in her own convictions despite the gut-wrenching fear that inhabited her when she projected her thoughts on the many battles to come.

Slowly, his movements suffused with extreme respect, Shinku took the contract and unrolled it for her to see. Perfectly silent, Hitomi stared at the names and prints succeeding each other on the parchment. It was a very old scroll, only preserved by the chakra that had impregnated the paper for generation after generation. Uchiha shinobi first, then Yūhi. Her ancestors.

“Let’s take it outside,” Shinku said with surprising gentleness. “You can’t even imagine how big those creatures are!” His voice was full of tenderness for them and a thin smile played on his lips. This was incredibly rare for him. Kurenai followed them to the garden, settling in a chair to continue reading. She wouldn’t miss an occasion to see her father’s cats. She had signed with the Dragonflies, and was quite satisfied with them, but she liked the felines too, with their witty tongues and surprising love for cuddles. They would be an amazing fit for her daughter.

“Before we get started, I have to explain how the Cats Contract works.” Elder and child sat in seiza simultaneously, staring ahead at nothing in particular. They didn’t need to see each other to talk. Hitomi was surprised at the contemplative tendencies a lot of shinobi were showing, especially the oldest, the ones who had known war and found in this placid attitude a necessary counterpart to the horrors they had seen and taken part in.

“The most important thing to know is that the Cats Contract is a set contract. It means you won’t have a bond with only one cat, but several of them. This one is based on generations: I had all the warriors who had been recognised as such since I took possession of the contract, but all the apprentices, kittens and cats not yet born of the clan are yours, until you decide to transmit the contract to someone else.”

Hitomi nodded, a grave expression on her features. She had read an article in the Academy’s library that explained the different categories of contracts; the set contracts bonded the summoner to several specific creatures, the individual contracts to only one of them, and the exclusive contracts, like the Toads one, gave the summoner the right to summon any creature linked to the contract they had signed. Of course, the canon had never explained all this: you just had to accept that Jiraiya could summon any toad and Kakashi had a pack of dogs.

“Don’t ever summon a cat that isn’t bonded to you, except if it’s a case of extreme necessity. In that case, you can contemplate summoning a healer or the clan leader, but don’t choose that option lightly: you will have to justify it, and if the summoned cat decides the situation wasn’t dire enough, you will gravely offend the whole clan.”

Her eyes gleaming, Hitomi drank her grandfather’s words, struggling to hide her eagerness to learn more. She was captivated. How had customs morphed in that ironclad rule? She would have to ask, one day, if she had the occasion. If you could do it without insulting anyone.

“If Tsurī, the cat I’m going to summon for you when you sign the contract, deems you worthy, she will go back in the spiritual world and come back with the first litter of apprentices you will be allowed to summon. They will stay by your side for six months and learn everything you think they need to learn, then go back to their home. From then on, you’ll have to summon them regularly to work with them, but they will continue learning things in their world with their mentors.”

The girl nodded once more, and her grandfather continued talking. He explained the theory behind the summoning jutsu, describing the way she would have to manipulate her chakra, the hand seals she would have to use, and the principle of signing in blood. He was looking at her now. Under his heavy, attentive stare, she unsheathed her new tantō and used the edge of the blade to open her palm with a quick, self-assured move. Her nerves screamed their protestations immediately but she ignored it, ignored the pain and feeling of unease to focus instead on the gestures of her other hand. She used her own blood to write her name and sign by appending her prints under the kanjis.

This time, she didn’t have to spend the chakra necessary for the summoning jutsu, and she was relieved when the cloud of smoke dissipated and she saw a tortoiseshell cat, as big as a pony, appear in front of her. Despite her huge reserves compared to other children, she wouldn’t have been able to maintain such a summon in the physical world for even a few minutes, and the effort would have left her exhausted or even sick. She never wanted to go through that again – and yet she knew she would, a certainty carved deep in her meridians and gates.

“Tsurī-sama,” Shinku said as he bowed to the cat, “I present to you and your ancestors this apprentice, so they can decide if she is worthy to run and hunt by your side.” The way he said them, not quite rehearsed but close, told Hitomi the words were part of a ritual. Was it common with other contracts? She drove that question away from her thoughts, since she couldn’t answer it.

Hitomi shivered but tried to hide it, to project the perfect image of serenity and dignity her grandfather dreamed she would be one day. Under the intense, green stare of the cat, she refused to bend, to break, to fidget with embarrassment or impatience or fear. She was a true shinobi, and always eager for new knowledge – Tsurī could see it in the shadows and sparks swirling in her red eyes. The healer raised her head and inspected the sky, painted orange and pink with dusk.

“My ancestors looked upon you, Yūhi Hitomi,” Tsurī said, managing to show tenderness and dignity in equal parts, “and they deemed you worthy. From now on, you will be known amongst us as the Lady Summoner; our children and the children of our children will answer your call until, in turn, you choose one amongst your successors to run and hunt by our side. Hold us dear, and may you walk with us for many years to come.”

The imposing cat slightly bowed her head, until her muzzle touched the shoulder of the child who stared at her, stars and night sky both in her eyes. The clan would have to monitor her gaze closely, to preserve it from the threats of dark and pain as much as it would be possible – which wasn’t a lot where a shinobi was concerned. Tsurī had faith, though. Her clan would never abandon the Lady Summoner’s.

“It’s time for me to go fetch your first litter. You’ll learn together in the physical world, then separately when the time will come for them to get back to us. Be prepared, child, I will use your chakra to create the bridge this time.”

Hitomi nodded; Tsurī was gone even before she had the time to raise her eyes. A few moments later, she was back, five kittens in her wake. The girl really couldn’t call them anything else: they still had a fluffy, messy coat, and short, round legs. She didn’t wait for permission before kneeling in the grass and looking at each of them. They were clearly separated in two groups: ginger, grey and black kittens to one side, and two tabbies to the other, one a pale shade of ginger and the other grey with black stripes.

“Lady Summoner, here are your companions. May your hunt be long and fruitful.”

Upon those words, Tsurī disappeared, leaving Hitomi with five unknown cats who, while obviously young, were already bigger than a small dog. They looked around with obvious interest, their big eyes gleaming with a quiet curiosity. The first to shake it off was the ginger cat, his green eyes stunning in contrast to his fire-coloured pelt. He walked toward Hitomi, his gait supple and perfectly quiet against the blades of grass, then sat in front of her.

“Greetings, Lady Summoner, I’m Hoshihi. The black cat behind me is Kurokumo and the grey one Haīro. The two cats there together are Sunaarashi, the sable one, and the tabby is Hokori. We’ll stay here for six months, right?”

“Very nice to meet you all,” Hitomi answered softly. “My name is Hitomi. And yes, you’ll stay here for six months and train with me.”

“If they want to hunt,” Shinku pitched in, “the Nara Forest is vast enough. Disturbing the deer is forbidden, but all the other animals are fair game.”

“Wow, it’s the Lord Summoner!” the grey cat, Haīro, exclaimed.

“The former Lord Summoner. Have you listened to what Tsurī-sama just told us? This girl bears the title now.”

The voice came from both tabbies at once, which was slightly disturbing for Hitomi. Since none of the cats seemed shocked and Shinku just nodded with approval, the girl decided to take it as an established fact and move on.

“Well,” she said as she stood back up, “now that we’re done with introductions, let’s go for a tour of the clan lands. I’ll also take that opportunity to assess your physical abilities. I hope you like to run?”

The cats looked at each other, then Hoshihi and Kurokumo burst out laughing seeing Haīro dramatically devastated expression. Obviously, those three didn’t mix that much with the two others, and Hitomi was set on changing that. Working with the Fellowship, she had understood the capital importance of teamwork, the strength of the group compared to the sum of all its individuals. And they would have the same realisation, she would make sure of it.

As they walked to the fenced-in part of the Nara Forest, she tried to gauge the stamina and speed of each cat now in her care. They were still young and would get better, but she still had to hide a grimace when she saw how far they were from the standards she had to follow at the Academy – standards she had long surpassed. While they explored the hunting grounds, she started planning the necessary training sessions. It meant suspending her research on battle chemistry, amongst other fields, but she accepted the sacrifice without any difficulty. The world wouldn’t crumble into itself if her smoke bombs were grey instead of red – even if red was cool .

The next morning, the child woke her five cats up and got ready for the Academy. She caught Sasuke staring at her with supreme amusement a few times and had to fight her instinct to answer this provocation. She would make him pay the next time they’d spar: she was working on a way to use her shadows in close combat, and that would be an absolute pain in the ass for any opponent. Since she finally managed to call on her shadows without using the Rat Hand Seal, she was ready to try – she couldn’t wait to see if her idea was doable and really applicable to a fight.

She had gotten to know her new friends a bit better during the evening, to her greatest joy. Those cats were young, yes, but incredibly clever. Kurokumo was so clever it made her want to smile, Haīro had a razor-sharp tongue and had made Kurenai giggle until her muscles ached, and Hoshihi was incredibly aware of his litter-mates needs, and adapting to them constantly.

As for Sunaarashi and Hokori, the brother and sister, they were peaceful companions who still had trouble mixing with the other three. They had a form of telepathy that allowed them to see through the eyes and thoughts of each other and often talked in the same voice, but they were still distinguishable: Hokori was placid and observant, and his sister Sunaarashi had such a panache Hitomi couldn’t help but admire her.

As the cats went to hunt their fill – Kurenai had offered to give them meat but they had refused, claiming they were old and strong enough to catch their own food – Hitomi dressed up and checked she had everything she needed for the day to come. She didn’t have the right to take her sword with her but still had a kunai for self-defence, if needed, and her wooden tantō to spar with Sasuke after class.

Once she was ready, she left for school, collecting her cats at the rendezvous point they had agreed on so she could lead them through the village and to the Academy. She showed them the Tower where the Hokage worked, attached to the school, and the Torture and Intelligence Department just across the street. She also described her typical day, and told them what she had planned for them after class, relieved to see how eager they were to learn.

Troubles started when Hitomi stepped in the classroom. Immediately, her cats reacted to something she didn’t understand right away and deployed in a triangle formation in front of her, Hoshihi at the point, hissing and spitting. When she identified the thing they perceived as a threat, she threw herself at the ginger cat to grab him by the scrape of his neck before he jumped on a very surprised Akamaru, her shadow stretching to freeze the four others. Trapping an animal – or more than one – with that technique felt wrong , and the fact she couldn’t move made it even worse. Still, allowing them to attack wouldn’t have attracted the Inuzuka Clan’s sympathy to Hitomi, and she knew it.

When she felt Haīro and Sunaarashi fight against her grip, she spoke, her voice snapping like a whip. “Enough! Kiba and Akamaru are our friends . I know dogs and cats don’t get along, and you perhaps have quarrels with some mutts in the spiritual world, but you will learn to be civil with the Inuzuka dogs! Is that clear?”

The whole class was focusing on her now. She instinctively answered their attention by releasing a bit of killing intent in the air, just enough to make it thicker and run a shiver of anxiety down everyone’s spine. That kind of reflex was more and more frequent for her, but Ensui had told her it wasn’t unheard of in children her age, like a new defence mechanism testing itself in weak danger situations so it would be ready to operate when it would be really needed. It at least had the advantage of pacifying her feline companions, who all stopped fighting. Slowly, she let them go, her shadow pooling back under her.

“I’m sorry, Kiba, I should have thought about it and warned them. Are you okay?” she asked as a frown creased her brow.

The Inuzuka child looked absolutely stunned, but his dog was just quietly wagging his tail, perched on his shinobi’s head. Then the boy got himself back together and beamed at her, maybe teasing her a bit. “I’m okay, don’t worry. What did you bring us today?”

“Oh, nothing in particular. My grandfather just made me sign the Summoning Contract our clan uses.”

“What? But that’s awesome!”

She lit up then, bouncing up and down with barely contained exaltation. “I know, right? We’ll have to train a whole lot for the next six months, but I’m really happy!”

“And you’ll have to resolve that problem with the clan dogs, too, right? I guess you’ll go to Hana-nee if your cats are hurt during training.”

“Yeah, that too. And of course I’ll go to your sister’s. She’s the best.”

He grinned and they would probably have continued to chat if Iruka hadn’t entered the classroom, asking everyone to calm down and sit. Hitomi obeyed, settling her things at her usual place in the last row as her cats found a place on her desk. They didn’t leave her much space to write, but she would still be able to do it, so she didn’t protest. Hoshihi went over the edge of Hinata’s desk but the Hyūga girl didn’t seem to mind: she started petting the cat distractedly as Iruka started the day’s lesson.

The teacher didn’t say anything about the five cats present in his classroom: either someone from the Yūhi-clan had told him about the Summoning Contract, or he had just stopped wondering about the weird things coming to, or happening in, the Academy as long as his students continued taking notes dutifully and didn’t disturb the class. As a teacher for future shinobi, he had learned to go with the flow when it was possible.

That day’s lesson explained what medical protocols were to be followed when it was possible without dropping the mission, if a teammate was wounded. Of course, the teacher reminded the class, the mission was always a good shinobi’s priority – it made Hitomi boil with outrage on her chair. She kept silent, because she knew better than trying to convince people otherwise. That was just so stupid. Who was to take care of the mission – of any mission, really – if all ninjas were dead because of their wounds? Fortunately, Iruka quickly went to the interesting part of the lesson and Hitomi took notes for the new memo cards she would offer to her friends at the end of the week.

Some time before the first break, her attention snapped to what was happening in front of her. Iruka had just thrown a piece of chalk to Naruto, who had stopped focusing. Before the projectile could touch him, Kurokumo jumped from the place where he had been sitting just a moment before and caught the piece of chalk on the fly between his jaws before spitting it on Naruto’s desk with a disgusted face. An astounded silence fell on the classroom.

Hitomi silently counted to three.

On the mark, everyone burst into laughter, except for Shikamaru who didn’t even crack an eye open, Sasuke who almost never laughed, and Hitomi who hesitated between mortification and proudness. All her muscles went stiff. She extended an arm, grabbed Kurokumo gently and picked him up, placing him on her desk again. Her cheeks a discreet shade of pink, she scratched him behind the ears to make him understand she wasn’t mad, then stood up. “I’m sorry, Iruka-sensei. It’s the first time those kittens come to school, they still have to learn how to behave.”

The teacher, who was obviously struggling to believe what had just happened – and he wasn’t the only one, Hitomi mused – waved his hand to make her understand it wasn’t a problem and picked up the lesson again. Around ten minutes later, the mid-morning break cut all students free, and the Fellowship started walking to the interior courtyard. Hoshihi had settled on Hitomi’s shoulders and Kurokumo on Hinata’s, while the other kittens just padded around their summoners. “I didn’t know you were that fast, Kurokumo,” Hitomi said as they all settled around a bench. “You held yourself back yesterday.”

“Y-yeah, I didn’t want to leave my friends behind and…”

“I understand. But training is different. You have to give me your best, so I can help you focus on what you need to improve. That way, you’ll get as strong as possible, and quickly. Your mentors had to mention it, in the spiritual world.”

“Err… Something like that, yes. They mostly made sure we could hunt for now, but we’ll have fighting training when we get back there in six moons.”

Hitomi nodded, satisfied. Of course, she fully intended on training those cats in taijutsu at least, before the end of the six months, because they had to know how to support her in battle. She would have to ask the Inuzuka clan for advice. Sure, their companions were dogs, not cats, but there had to be common ground between all ninja species, things she could learn to help her summons get better by her side.

The girl spent the break very close to Hinata. They had chosen a tree not too far from the bench where the others had settled to lay their backs on, and their arms constantly brushed against each other. It wasn’t the first time it was happening, nor the first time Hitomi surprised herself by blushing and stuttering slightly when the contact threw her inner self off-balance. At least she wasn’t the only one reacting that way: Hinata, too, was sensitive to the closeness they were creating, without even thinking about it, it seemed. The Yūhi girl liked the feeling of intimacy and warmth that spread in her chest when they were talking like that, so close their body heats mingled, their eyes often meeting without ever daring to seek each other.

She had never dared wonder about how Hinata made her feel, about that sweet, gentle impulse, the deep peace she couldn’t ignore when her friend was close. Why would she have wondered, anyway? Hinata was the Hyūga heir, and then… Hitomi didn’t know if that thing was requited or not – didn’t know how she would know, anyway. They were still so young… She forced herself to think about something else. Finding new objections to her heart’s desires was painful, she discovered that day.

Despite those doubts, when the two girls and their friends went back to class, Hitomi realised her heart was light and at peace again. A simple chat with Hinata had that effect on her. Even her cats seemed to pick up on it: Hoshihi and Sunaarashi, the two Hinata had got on her knees during the break, were the striking image of intense satisfaction. Seeing this, Hitomi shook her head, an indulging smile on her lips. She knew what to do, then, if they decided to become agitated.

And then, it would give her an excuse to be near Hinata.

Chapter Text

One week later the kittens were already getting better. Hitomi didn’t go easy on them, making them train until they were exhausted. Then, it was her own turn, between her mother’s very capable and loving hands. Asuma sometimes helped her too, and they were often surrounded by members of the Fellowship. The end of the fifth year grew nearer and nearer, and Hitomi fully intended on keeping her title of First Kunoichi until graduation. Even if Hinata and Ino weren’t exactly breathing down on her neck, her personal pride pushed her to surpass herself again and again. That would make her an exceptional shinobi, one day.

One afternoon, Kurenai gathered all the kids in the garden, while Hitomi’s cats were trying to enhance their stamina by running laps around the house until they couldn’t take even one more step. The woman wasn’t alone: behind her stood Asuma, who had gained the respect of the whole Fellowship. Well, they were still teasing him exactly like Hitomi did, but they were grateful for his presence and help, and they let him know.

“Like you all well know, Iruka-sensei is waiting for your last year at the Academy to start to teach you the E-ranked techniques you will have to master to graduate. He has decided to work that way with you so the ones in your class that don’t get special training are ready to learn when the time comes, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait too.”

If the children were excited, they tried to hide it out of respect for the woman they had learned to almost revere as the years went by. She was nice with every one of them, remembered details about them that made them feel special and appreciated. Even Naruto always obeyed her, so desperate to keep her attention and favours – he should have known that he would never lose her. Kurenai wasn’t the kind to play stick and carrot. She never pushed her own austerity too far, settling for a kind of authority that was as quiet as it was indisputable.

“We’re going to start with the Substitution Technique. Hitomi, can you explain what it is?”

The girl nodded, an eager smile on her lips. “The Substitution Technique creates a link between the shinobi who’s using it and an object of similar size placed in a five meters radius from the shinobi’s position, then swaps them in space.”

“A very good definition, if you don’t explore further than what you can find in the Academy’s books. However, it’s a bit limited. Shino, give us an idea of another application for this technique.”

The Aburame straightened up, surprised to be asked to speak, as he always was. “My clan possesses a secret technique that will allow me, when I’ll have mastered it, to create a clone of myself out of insects from my hive. I guess I could substitute with the clone?”

“Excellent! All solid clones allow for that move, and it can greatly confuse your opponent. Anything else? Yes, Hitomi?”

A crazy idea in mind, the girl had just shily raised her hand. “Uh… Would I be able to swap two objects of similar size and mass?”

“Yes, exactly! You really have to master the technique well to be able to do it, and have excellent reflexes, but it’s possible to use it that way indeed. That’s how Hokana Minami, the Iwagakure Secret Services Commander, was beaten by Uzumaki Mito, a century ago. She was married to Hokage the First, as you well remember. She swapped Minami’s katana with a simple branch, then took advantage of the surprise to knock her out and capture her. Minami had been the first prisoner to be exchanged, which allowed us to get Mito’s sister back.”

A wily smile twisted Hitomi’s lips as she assimilated that information. The possibilities were… they were staggering, really. She stayed there smiling, her mind twisting and prodding that new concept to shape it exactly like she intended.

She was so focused she probably started oozing a bit of killing intent again, just enough to attract Naruto’s intention, and then the others’, because the blond boy wasn’t one to react discreetly. “Aaah!” he exclaimed. “Stop smiling like that! You always smile like that when you plan on doing something awful!”

His whining attracted Hitomi’s attention and dissipated the aura around her. She straightened and, surprise and offense mixed on her features, brushed her fingers against her lips. “What do you mean? I don’t understand why you’re scared when I smile.”

“Because,” he sniffled, “when you smile like that, it always means you’re preparing something mean for our next training session. I don’t wanna run after a ramen cup for three hours without ever managing to catch it…”

The entire group giggled then. That had happened in the very beginning of their association, when Hitomi had still trouble motivating Naruto to train – he was so sure he was already an amazing ninja. Tired of having to berate him, she had waited for him to fall asleep, had tied a perch to his back and stuck a ramen cup to it with ninja wire. He had started to run as soon as he had woken up, and had never understood the trick she had played on him.

“Come on, children. You’re very far from using the Substitution Technique in that way, but if you train hard, you’ll be able to do it.” Kurenai’s voice, soft despite the amusement she couldn’t quite hide, got the attention of her students back. They listened attentively to her instructions then trained their hands to reproduce the hand seal chain necessary to use the technique, until they didn’t need to look at their hands anymore to be able to do it quickly enough.

They were very careful not to use chakra – they would have wasted it, and even Hitomi had to be thrifty despite her big reserves now that she had to maintain five summons in the physical world at all times. They helped her by paying part of the tribute the technique asked for with their own chakra, but she could still constantly feel the strain on her reserves.

Then, the children could start practicing the technique for real. Kurenai had prepared a log for each of them, and they were spaced out enough in the whole garden that they weren’t at risk of getting in each other’s way. Chōji was the first to get it and do a successful substitution. To reward him, Kurenai gave him a ‘all you can eat’ coupon for Ichiraku Ramen. With Naruto as a student, she had learned to have those ready at all times. You never knew when they could become useful.

Then it was Ino and Hitomi’s turn, exactly at the same time. The sensation was disturbing: one moment she was there , the next she was elsewhere . She was sure her brain could adapt, but she would need to train first. Each new piece of knowledge, each new skill, came with a price to pay before mastering it. If it was just time and a bit of effort, Hitomi accepted the deal without any second thought. Focusing once more, she did the hand seals but didn’t succeed in substituting this time: the flux linking her chakra and her log wasn’t perfectly smooth. It was just about control. She could master it.

It took her ten more irregular attempts to be able to do it systematically, and she was starting to feel her reserves decreasing. However, Kiba, Naruto and herself were the only ones still standing. The others, their reserves smaller than theirs, were resting in the soft grass, their muscles spasming with exhaustion. The girl’s cats were shaking, as spent as the kids were, but had just started a battle simulation and, even if they were fighting with their claws carefully sheathed, the paw swipes they were throwing at each other were still powerful enough to stun.

Catching her breath, the girl went inside with her mother and helped her get refreshments for everybody. Asuma was there too, but was distracted by the three kids he would teach after graduation. He wasn’t even subtle about it, Hitomi mused as she was kneeling next to Shikamaru and helping him to sit.

“Tch… I was really happy napping, you know.”

“Yeah, I know, but you need to drink. I can feel your chakra levels, silly. You shouldn’t have pushed so hard.”

“Hm… I wanted to master this technique. ‘could save our lives one day.”

“That’s for sure. I’m gonna continue training with it. I really want to be able to do that thing with objects.”

The boy let out a tired snicker then dropped his head on his cousin’s shoulder, his water gourd still firmly gripped in his right hand. She saw the tension in his muscles, an instinctive response from his body to the violent effort it had just gone through. Shikamaru would never change in some ways: he would always like lazing around and avoiding what was too troublesome for him. But it wasn’t a major trait of his personality anymore – it was more of a gift, a luxury he offered himself when the situation allowed for it. He had explained one night that he wouldn’t stand the consequences if his team or family had to pay for him not working hard enough.

The following weeks were entirely focused on learning the E-ranked techniques: substitution, transformation, cloning, rope escaping and genjutsu reversal were the five techniques required to be part of their arsenal before graduation, a year later. They could only get a pass on one if they were able to show mastery of a superior technique with similar effects.

The one Hitomi struggled the most with was cloning – and suddenly she understood why Naruto had absolutely no chance of mastering this one ever. The simple cloning technique required such a tiny spark of chakra he just systematically overloaded the technique, which made it fail. Hitomi herself had trouble with it, especially when she couldn’t quietly focus on what she was doing, and her chakra control was exceptional for any kid her age. Their reserves, Naruto’s and hers, were simply too huge for it.

That assessment led the girl to go see her mother one night, after a particularly challenging training session with her cats. Sasuke was immersed in one of the scrolls about the Sharingan they had gotten in his clan’s lands. Kurenai was preparing bentō for her two kids’ lunch the next day. Silently, Hitomi joined her in the kitchen and started cutting carrot slices to a star shape with a little knife. She really liked pretty bentōs but always used the rests for other things – the bits of carrots would be great in the gyoza filling for the next evening’s dinner.

“Mom,” she said after a few minutes, “I think Naruto won’t master the cloning technique. Ever.”

Kurenai looked up from her own cooking space. “What’s making you think that, sweetheart?”

“Hm… Did Ensui-shishou mention a secret of the village… that I would have discovered by hearing adults of the clan talking about it?”

A heavy sigh from Kurenai pushed her girl to focus even more on her hands, so she wouldn’t be tempted to look at her mom. “Yeah, he told me, and added that you would discover it anyway between your friendship with Gaara and your oversensitive meridians. You can’t tell anyone, alright? Hokage-sama doesn’t want Naruto learning about it.”

“That’s dumb. This information could allow him to train accordingly, with full knowledge of his difficulties. It’s dangerous to keep him in the dark.”

“I agree, you know… But when he graduates, he’s gonna be considered as an adult, since he’s an orphan. I’ll tell him the next day, when I’ll invite him to come live here.”

Hitomi’s eyes went wide. “Really? Mom, that’d be great!

“Of course! A twelve years old child, living all by himself, without any adult supervision or support? Out of the question. The only problem is that we lack space here… But now that you have your meridians under control, we can probably buy the house next to Shikaku’s. It’s been empty for ages and no one needs five bedrooms in the clan.”

Hitomi snickered. “Except us, obviously! Can we afford it?”

“I think so. I still have a nice part of the money your dad left me when he died – by the way, you’ll have your share when you graduate – and savings from when I still was on active duty as a Jōnin. If it’s not enough, your uncle will lend me the rest and I’ll be able to pay him back once I’m a sensei and going on missions again.”

By the longing on her mother’s face, Hitomi could tell she was missing active duty an awful lot. She got it, more than she wanted to: if she had listened to her own frustration about staying in the village and sitting at a desk all day, she would have clawed the walls like one of her cats. She sighed and touched Kurenai’s elbow to get her attention. “You’ll have to tell Sasuke soon. It’s a lot of change, he needs to prepare for it.”

Kurenai brushed her hand against her daughter’s cheek, a sad smile on her lips. The Uchiha heir, her beloved ward, still had nightmares from time to time – how could he not? – and she knew moving out and changing the family dynamic would disturb him. “I will, sweetheart. Don’t worry.”

Satisfied, Hitomi nodded. After a while, though, she thought of something and had to fight a wily smile. “About Naruto… When Ensui-shishou was training me, he sometimes used a technique that could replace cloning. He called it the Shadow Clone. Could Naruto learn it?”

If she was surprised by the casual way her daughter was mentioning a secret technique, Kurenai didn’t show it. “Well… It’s on the forbidden jutsu list, so I can’t teach him without the Hokage’s permission, but he wants Naruto to graduate above all else. I’ll handle it tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Mom, you’re awesome!” So Naruto wasn’t destined to miserably fail his exam. It was a relief. Hitomi couldn’t protect him against all the threats in the world, but she remembered the cruel, casual way Mizuki had told him about the Kyūbi. It had probably conditioned the way Naruto perceived the demon. But if he never saw it as a threat to the village, rather like a potential ally, how powerful would he get?

The next afternoon, after class, even if it wasn’t a Fellowship training day, Hitomi managed to get Naruto to come home with her. She didn’t really need much effort for that – he loved Kurenai and each moment he spent with the Yūhi family, their ward included, healed some of the wounds the village’s rejection caused him. Kurenai and her children accepted him unconditionally and without hesitation, even when he was agitated, tiring, noisy – Hitomi, Kurenai and even Sasuke went out of their way to make him feel wanted.

“Naruto,” Kurenai started, “I spoke to the Hokage about your difficulties with the cloning technique.”

The boy lowered his head, a very familiar shame blooming in his chest. Amongst his friends, he had been the last to completely master the E-ranked techniques, but the cloning… He felt like he would never get it right. He didn’t even understand what it was he was doing wrong.

“Hokage-sama and I agreed on a solution. It seemed stupid to us that you would stay stuck at the Academy or in your ninja career because something as insignificant as an E-ranked technique. That’s why I found another jutsu, a similar one that you won’t have as much trouble mastering.”

Naruto looked up to her, his big blue eyes gleaming with a quiet kind of hope. Hitomi’s heart ached as she saw the anxiety below the surface, because she knew Naruto still had trouble understanding that people were willing to fight for him, for his dreams and goals. Before the Academy, the only person showing him kindness had been the Hokage, and the girl knew the man was acting that way because of the worst reasons possible: not for Naruto’s sake, but for his parents’ ghosts.

“This jutsu is called the Shadow Clone Technique. It requires a lot of chakra. At this stage, only you and Hitomi have a chance of mastering it, but you’ll have the best results out of you two.”

“What? Why? Hitomi is way better than me in ninjutsu!”

“I don’t have as much chakra as you have, Naruto, far from it,” Hitomi said with a gentle smile. “My reserves have been extremely stretched when I was traveling with Ensui-shishou, and grow bigger everyday because I’m right at the age where potential develops… But, in the end, you’ll always have a lot more chakra than me. I can feel it when you’re close to me. This technique is really perfect for you, and I don’t mind it at all that you’ll be better at it than me.”

“Hitomi is right, Naruto. Now, kids, here is the hand seal chain for the technique. As you practice, you’ll be able to reduce it until only the Cross Hand Seal remains. When you’re there, you’ll have mastered the technique.”

The two children nodded and listened to the rest of her explanations. That technique required, as she had told them, a lot of chakra. It cut the reserves in halves and gave one to the clone – when you only created one – but, with reserves too small, not only would the caster put himself at risk because the energy was then lost, but the clone would also just appear for a moment before puffing out of existence. It was because of that risk that the Shadow Clone had been deemed a forbidden jutsu. No one under Chūnin level could learn it without the Hokage’s approval. Hitomi was really lucky her mother had included her in her request to Hiruzen… And she had probably terrified the old man again to get him to accept.

Hitomi was the first of the two children to have a viable result with the technique. The sensation of half of her chakra leaving her body unsettled her; she would have fallen on her knees if Naruto, alarmed, hadn’t caught her by the shoulders to stabilise her. In front of her was a perfect copy of herself, her big red eyes staring at her with a quiet self-assurance. So that was what she looked like? The mirror wasn’t accurate then. She smiled and the clone did the same. She felt the other half of her chakra, the way it ran through this other body and anchored it in reality. Briefly closing her eyes to focus, she tried sending it a thought, a fragment of her will – then giggled when the clone, reacting to her command, went behind Naruto and threw itself at him to tickle him.

When she ordered it to dissipate, the clone obeyed, disappearing in a puff of smoke, and most of the chakra she had sent it came back to her. The sensation made her dizzy again; surprised, she had to put all her weight on Naruto not to fall, to allow her body to absorb the energy back. Even for such a short appearance, the clone had consumed a chunk of her chakra, which obviously was gone. A few moments later, she was stable again, ready to try once more.

Barely two minutes later, it was Naruto’s turn to succeed: a dozen clones appeared around him, beaming and victorious. He didn’t look frazzled at all by the sensation of his divided chakra, or even by the fact only a thirteenth of his chakra still ran through his body. Seeing him so astonished and proud, Hitomi knew she had done the right thing by speaking about the technique with her mother. Even if it implied she had to flee, howling with laughter, as thirteen Narutos were chasing her for a chance to tickle her back.

Chapter Text

When the sixth year started, the students immediately felt a change of atmosphere. Their two teachers were more demanding, less tolerant of mistakes, and rewarded success in a more concrete way – they often liked to explain how the one to master an exercise first would be an incredible shinobi thank to the skills that they did their best to acquire and work on, and how these skills would probably save their life many, many times. Surprise evaluations had become something of a norm, just like presentations from active duty shinobi who came to class to talk about their specialty in the hope of inspiring vocations in most promising students.

The students were now all able to communicate with the Konoha Sign Language: Iruka assured them that, after a few months in their Genin team, they would have adapted it to take their specificities and needs into account. Hitomi made sure her cats could also understand it, even if they obviously couldn’t answer her. Her felines formed, after almost six months of hard work, a very fine team, able to fight without any word exchanged, coordinate even when they couldn’t see what the others were doing. Hitomi was particularly proud of Kurokumo, who had gained in self-assurance, and of Hokori, who mingled enthusiastically with the others now.

A Saturday morning, as Hitomi was preparing to go run with her felines, her mother stopped her in the kitchen. She was wearing a training outfit, her hair gathered in a ponytail, her weapons strapped to various parts of her body, where the hand could grab them easily. It wasn’t rare nowadays for the girl to see Kurenai in such an attire: the Jōnin wanted to be in top condition for her future team and the time was approaching quickly.

“Today, you train with me,” her mother said with a smile. “It’s time for you to discover your elemental affinity.”

The girl’s eyes went wide with joy and she started bouncing around, overexcited and suddenly so full of energy she caught Hokori by surprise. The young cat couldn’t suppress a hiss but settled down next to her. “Really?” Hitomi chirped. “I can’t wait! Is that chakra paper?” she added, pointing to her mother’s hand.

The young mother let out a little laugh, endless tenderness in her eyes. “Yes, it is. Come, let’s go in the garden. If you have a fire affinity, I don’t want you to torch the house.”

They found themselves on the little patio overlooking the garden. Hitomi loved to sit there, her legs hanging over the wooden edge, to watch as the sun set. She feared she would be too tall one day to be able to do that.

“Now, take this,” Kurenai said as she handed her a sheet of chakra paper, “and infuse your chakra inside. If you have a fire affinity, it will make it burn. Wind will cut it in halves, lightning will crumple it, earth will crumble it and water will drench it.”

Hitomi knew how that paper worked but allowed her mother to explain. She had read books about how the Hashirama wood was prepared to create it. Sometimes, she wondered about the shinobi world and its dependence on legends and their heritage. What would the world be like if Hashirama Trees had been infertile, or if they hadn’t existed at all? With a smile, the girl took the almost translucent sheet of paper her mother was handing her and, without any real need to focus, she obeyed her instructions. A delighted giggle escaped her lips as the paper filled with water and turned into a little squishy ball in the palm of her hand. All the affinities would have been nice for her, but water? Water was awesome.

“What do I need to do now?” she pipped.

“Now, you’ll have to learn to infuse your chakra with your water affinity so you can use it for Water Release techniques. Wait here, I’ll go grab the scroll you’ll use to train.”

Quivering with impatience, Hitomi obeyed under her cats’ interested stares.

“Water, uh?” Haīro said. “You know cats don’t like water, right?”

She beamed at the grey cat, enthusiastic beyond belief. “And I don’t like to find balls of cat hair under my pillow, and yet it happens at least once a week. You’ll learn to deal with it, I’m sure. Anyway, do you know how to swim?”

Four horrified pairs of eyes met her scarlet stare. As for Sunaarashi, she just licked her paw and rubbed it against her ear. “Of course I know how to swim. I love fish.”

The logic couldn’t be disputed, that was for sure. Hitomi decided not to push further, seeing her mother coming back to her, an ornate scroll in her hands. It looked brand new. Had Kurenai bought one scroll of each affinity, just in case?

“Here, those are the instructions you’ll have to follow to create water chakra. This scroll also contains a few D-ranked techniques you’ll be able to learn once you’re past the first stage. For the rest, you told me you and the boys had found scrolls for all the primary affinities in the Uchiha library, right?”

“Yeah, we did! I’ll consult them once I’m done with this one. Thanks, Mom, you’re the best!” The girl then moved to the side and started to read. She had needed some time to grow accustomed to reading from scrolls, but she didn’t even notice it anymore. She learned water chakra needed prolonged contact with water. The first step was to go find a big enough pond, lake or river and float there, meditating as the body gave in to the current and other forces there.

Worrying her lower lip, Hitomi went to find her mother, who was reading a scroll about team strategies. “Mom, I think we need to go shopping. The last swimsuit I have is from when I was eight, it doesn’t fit anymore.”

Looking up from her scroll, Kurenai stared at her daughter. Hitomi wasn’t in the habit of asking for that kind of thing: oh, the young mother wasn’t stupid, she could see her sweet girl loved spending time in shops, trying out outfits and clothes until she found what she was looking for. And yet, she didn’t ask that often, as if the idea of frivolity was upsetting to her. A quiet smile on her lips, the Jōnin closed her scroll and got on her feet, taking Hitomi by the shoulder to make her follow. “Come on, sweetheart, don’t look so embarrassed. You can say it’s part of your training, hm? After all, you’re gonna spend quite some time in water for some of those techniques…”

A good part of the afternoon was spent looking for the perfect swimsuit. Hitomi was still far too young for a bikini – anyway, it wouldn’t have been comfortable – but most one-pieces were conceived to appeal to civilians: their cuts were impractical, or in bold colours. Finally, they found what they were looking for in a little shop in the Aburame lands, open to Hitomi because of her friendship with Shino. It was a dark red one-piece, its simple cut leaving plenty of space for the body to move but still fitting enough that it wouldn’t slip as she swam.

“Do you still want to do this today? If you want to practice kenjutsu today, we can go to the river tomorrow.”

“No, Mom, I’m okay. Swimming in the dark doesn’t bother me. Besides, you’ll be watching over me, right?”

The sun was setting when mother and daughter reached the part of the Nara lands where a decent river could be found. The current wasn’t that strong, but the river was deep, too deep for Hitomi to be able to walk. It wasn’t any bother for her. She sent chakra running in cycles through her body to keep it warm, entered the river one step at a time then started floating. She had tied a rope to her wrist and given the other end to Kurenai, so she didn’t have to worry about anything and could just lose herself.

“Shikamaru would like this,” she mumbled before falling in her Library, her eyes closing on their own. At the highest point, where her mind looked like the sky at dawn, she sat on a rocky spire and started meditating. She had no difficulty whatsoever finding her Gates; their warmth made her want to curl up against them to sleep, but she couldn’t. She had work to do, had to find the peculiar spark that would infuse her chakra with her main affinity. She tried a lot of things during the following three hours but, when Kurenai brushed a hand against her shoulder to make her come back to the physical world, she hadn’t found a solution to the mysterious equation her mind was presenting her with.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, even during the night, as she roamed through her Library on the lookout for something that could help her succeed. Unfortunately, she had to admit her defeat some time before dawn. The canon hadn’t given enough information about that, but it was her fault too, since she had never really studied affinities beyond what the Academy had taught her. It had seemed so uncertain, so far in the future…

With a little sigh, she left her bed in the quiet light of dawn, waking her five cats up with the whisper of fabric against her skin. She dressed up, her swimsuit dried by a bit of fire chakra from her mother the previous night under her clothes, she watched the felines woke up and stretched languidly. Sunaarashi had been lucky – or clever – and laid down where the sun was pooling now, and took solace in the warmth and light.

Wearing a light yukata in a lovely mint colour, she walked to the place where her mother had led her the previous day. She hadn’t wanted to wake Kurenai up today: she knew that, the next day, she would have to pass an aptitude test in the Tower, and would need all the energy she could muster. The mere principle of that test was stupid in Hitomi’s opinion. A ninja’s power didn’t matter when it came to raising kids to follow his footsteps. If they didn’t have any educational skill, their students wouldn’t learn anything. That was why people like Ebisu were so valuable: they didn’t have any flamboyant jutsu, weren’t even incredibly good in one particular skill, but they knew how to teach, really teach. And yet the Hokage persisted on testing his Jōnin’s strength and power like a fucking moron.

Once she was at the river, she shrugged off her yukata without fear of being spied upon. She had five brave warrior cats to protect her, and she knew how any Nara would react if someone was seen ogling a woman – or worse, a girl. An angry Nara was terrifying, because fury provided them with a motivation they never had otherwise, a motivation that allowed their sharp mind to focus all its incredible strengths against one problem. No one wanted to become the enemy of such a phenomenon.

Once she was floating on the water, the rope stuck between Hoshihi’s jaws, it only took her moments to find her Library. Like the previous day, she climbed on the summit of the rocky spire, crossed her legs and started meditating, trying to perceive the natural current of chakra through her body. The influx was warm, peaceful, comfortable. She could feel the places in her limbs where it was a bit weaker, like behind her right calf, and the ones where it was particularly vigorous, like her hands and feet.

Suddenly, a reflection far beneath her attracted her attention. She looked down and a shiver of horror ran down her spine when she realised the two first floors of her Library were completely immersed in water. The only thing stopping her from jumping to save her books, her precious memories, was a feeling of strangeness. No book floated at the surface, and there was no way the ones that were already under the waves rising faster and faster could have stayed in place if this had been real.

Perched on her stone spire, the impossible equilibrium maintained by constant tension and iron will, she waited. The water was slowly, regularly rising, and soon the fresh liquid was lapping at the edges of her spiritual form. She stayed still and allowed it to engulf her. In this mental world, she didn’t need to breathe and could open her eyes; her movements didn’t meet any resistance like they would have if she had been swimming. She relaxed from her meditative stance and let her whole being rest easy in the ascending current.

And then.

Then she felt…

The water wasn’t just water. Her chakra was so tightly mingled in it she couldn’t determine where the liquid stopped and her energy started. She opened her eyes, her real ones this time, and the river exploded around her, its water reacting to her every subconscious solicitation.

“Oi, careful, Lady Summoner!”

Haīro’s annoyed hiss made her giggle, the sound wild and exalted; the power running through her meridians was tumultuous, fresh and pure like water, and she had the impression that she would never see the end of it. The euphoria sung inside her high and clear, her heart thundered blissfully in her chest – she felt powerful, unstoppable.

And that last feeling allowed her to go back to herself. She wasn’t unstoppable, far from it. This impression of imperviousness could only lead her to one end, the most sinister of all, and she didn’t want it. Her loved ones expected better from her than complacency. She closed her eyes again, isolating herself from what her body was experiencing, and meditated for several more hours under the sun’s warmth, until she had gotten control of her mind back.

It took her several careful attempts to successfully create water chakra at will without losing herself in this attractive new skill. Only then did she leave the water, dried her body and dressed up again, indicating to her feline team it was time to leave. They had spent most of the time taking turns hunting as she was mastering her affinity, respectful of her efforts to bend her mind around new concepts and dangers. Well-fed and happy, they were chatting about the preys they had caught, tail and whiskers held high in pride and satisfaction.

“Hitomi, there you are!” Kurenai sighed with relief when she saw her daughter coming home. “I should have known you had gone back to training. Next time, leave a note to tell me where you are, alright?”

Caught out by the request, Hitomi nodded. She hadn’t even thought about doing it. Usually, Kurenai knew where she was, without her needing to tell. She just knew, and Hitomi hadn’t even considered that leaving without warning could worry her mother. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said as she lowered her eyes. “I’ll tell you next time, promise.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart. Let’s talk about your training instead. Did you have any results this time?”

“You could say that, yes!” Hitomi grinned and focused water chakra on her palm, making water ooze from her skin. Without a technique to make anything of it, the result wasn’t that impressive, but it was the first step they needed to get back to work. The afternoon was already well-advanced, so they didn’t have much time for a new technique before dinner, but each moment could be used in a smart way and they fully intended on doing just that.

Chapter Text

The first Water Release technique any shinobi interested in that affinity would learn was the Hiding in Water jutsu. It was a D-ranked technique that allowed its caster to hide in any liquid by becoming part of it. However, it had a huge weakness: the person hiding that way could still be perceived through their chakra, which meant most of the experienced Chūnin and almost all the Jōnin could still notice someone was there even if they couldn’t see them. Besides, the bigger the body of water was, the more difficult the technique became, because the caster was at risk of losing themselves under the surface, and never coming out again.

That explained why this technique wasn’t used often, but it still was the mandatory first step to learn Water Release techniques. As Kurenai often said to Naruto, you couldn’t build a house without laying out its foundations first. The same logic applied to learning any new skill. When she mastered a few D-ranked techniques, Hitomi could start working on more interesting jutsus, not before.

“The scroll says you have to cover your whole body in the thinnest layer of water chakra you can possibly manage while touching the surface of the body of water you want to hide in, your hands forming the Dog Hand Seal. Ready to try?”

The girl nodded to her mother’s words, a determined frown creasing her brow. She wasn’t tired yet, after all, and even if she had to keep a bit of chakra to maintain her cats in the physical world, she could still train for a few hours before making a significant dent in her reserves. Her hands formed the Dog Seal, the movement as natural as breathing, and started projecting the relevant chakra around her body.

It took her a few tries to finally experience her shape melting slowly, attracted to the little puddle she had stepped in, and finally she became tiny, compressed in the liquid, her field of vision going all around but unable to focus on a precise spot. To come back to solidness, she stopped feeding the layer of chakra around her body and immediately got back to the shape of a little twelve years old girl. “Well?” she asked her mother, who had been staring at her. “Did I do it correctly?”

“Yes you did, congrats! You’re ready for the next technique, but not today. You’ve got to go to school tomorrow.”

The world wouldn’t stop running just because she wanted to train and Hitomi understood that, but it was always a bit frustrating to have to stop because of an obligation she would sometimes have liked to forget. Despite that, she liked the Academy, that school where you learned to run on walls and clone yourself – Naruto wasn’t dead last anymore now that he had his Shadow Clone to show Iruka when the teacher decided to test the class. As for Hitomi, she had decided it was wiser to hide her own knowledge and mastery of the technique.

The next morning, Hitomi had a hard time hiding the eagerness clawing at her mind at all times. She could perform as expected in class, but part of her mind was jumping up and down in her Library – if such concepts even existed in her beloved refuge – as she tried to decide what to learn next. From the technique she knew, she could learn the Water Clone or the Hiding in the Mist jutsu, both opening their own list of possibilities.

Seeming to sense the underlying tension in her friend, Hinata made sure to stick around all day, often pushing her bravery to brush against her hand, her shoulder. The Hyūga girl blushed intensely at each of the touches she was initiating, but they seemed to appease Hitomi up to a point. In her mind, a few spikes of shyness were worth the warmth blooming in her chest each time she did it.

The heiress’ constant presence by her side that day led Hitomi to invite her to her place, after class. They often slept over at the Yūhi household Friday and Saturday night, anyway: Hinata was always welcome, Kurenai made sure of it, and the girl’s father didn’t dare forbid her from going, fearing the very risky possibility of insulting the Yūhi clan. On a whim, Hitomi took her friend’s hand rather than just walking beside her. Hinata’s cheeks blushed beautifully, and once she was over her confusion, a small, tender smile appeared on her lips. Maybe Hitomi wasn’t imagining things after all.

“Make yourself comfortable, okay? I’m just gonna tell Mom you’re here and that I’m cooking tonight. Do you want something to drink?”

“S-some tea would be lovely. Thank you for inviting me, Hitomi.”

“I’m the one who ought to thank you for coming. I love it when you’re here. I’ll have to train during the week-end, I’m working on my ninjutsu, but I know it won’t bother you so…”

“I’ll just train with you. Thanks a-again…”

“Stop, I told you you don’t have to thank me. I’m always glad to have you with me, you know that. I'll be back in a sec!” With a smile and a little wave, she left the room and walked to her mother’s office. She knew that, at this time, she would be working on accounting and paperwork for the clan. She knocked and opened the door, finding Kurenai… and Asuma… half… No, she didn’t want to see this! How in hell could she have missed his chakra?

“Mom!” she yelped as she closed her eyes, the memory already carving itself a nice little book in her Library. “Hinata’s home and I’m cooking, oh hi Asuma-san, bye!” Her heart thundering in her chest, she slammed the door closed and hurried down the stairs, a whine of anxiety constricting her throat. She leaned against the corridor wall and breathed deeply a few times to regain her composure then came back to the living room, where Hinata was sitting all stiff and nervous, toes of one foot rubbing against the talon of the other. “Are you okay?” Hitomi asked softly.

Hinata jumped a bit, turning her head to her. “What? No, I mean yes! Yes, I’m okay. I’d just like… Could I speak to you about something? In private?”

They were alone in the room, but Hitomi understood perfectly what her friend meant: a place where she would feel safe and at ease, where an adult wouldn’t just walk in unannounced – the Yūhi girl had been impressed by the discretion and respect her mother offered her, and so was Hinata, who was used to the way of the Hyūga clan. Without a word, Hitomi took the other girl’s hand and led her to her bedroom. There, she closed the door without locking it, sat on her bed and invited her to do the same.

“Well?” she asked as Hinata settled next to her. “What did you want to tell me?”

“I-I… It’s difficult…”

“I can see that. Take your time, okay? Whatever it is, I’m here for you.”

“It’s… For a long time now I have been…”

Hitomi stayed still and silent, but not inactive, noting Hinata’s quickening breathing, her eyes catching the way her friend fingered with the hem of her shirt. If she listened closely, she could even hear her thundering heart. In that situation, it was best for her to stay silent and wait for her friend to overcome the anxiety constricting her throat. She knew it would come.

“I-I started… I started noticing you, in a way that… Well, I want to do things with you that are not… appropriate… between friends… I think?”

Hitomi gave a light, tender chuckle. “Would you like me to kiss you, Hinata?” She felt warm, her heart was fluttering, but she knew she could handle it. Shyness, or what little of it she had anyway, never got the best of her, even when it hit her full force. Her dark red eyes, quiet and affectionate, met Hinata’s pale lilac gaze, so expressive and vaguely nervous. Her proposition was met with a shy nod, and a smile appeared on her lips. She had never kissed anyone, in this life or the previous one, but she was ready to try with Hinata, since the surges in her heart weren’t unanswered after all.

Slowly, so as to not frighten her, Hitomi shifted to a seiza position and leaned toward her, keeping her balance easily on the mattress. She took Hinata’s chin between her fingers, her grip light and delicate, then turned her head so they faced each other, their lips a breath away from each other. She crossed the distance without hesitation nor rush, her mouth brushing against Hinata’s. Comfort and tenderness fell into place in an emptiness she hadn’t been aware of before, somewhere deep under the surface of her mind. Her first kiss, willingly given to a person she had feelings for – not love, not yet, but a fondness she wouldn’t have for just a friend.

The kiss was soft, long, quiet. Hinata’s hand found a place, after an adorable hesitation, against Hitomi’s neck so she could bring her closer. Neither of them had any experience in that field, so there was awkwardness, noses bumping, breaths forgotten, each of them bringing them to low giggles. When they separated enough to watch each other in the eyes, Hitomi caressed Hinata’s cheek, pressing her forehead against hers, then spoke again, her lips reddened and puffed by this new, and no doubt interesting occupation curving into a playful smile. “So, Hinata, those were your inappropriate things you wanted to do? If so, do know we can do it again, whenever you want.”

“I-I think I’d like that, yes.”

“Really? Well, in that case, I will ask: Hinata, will you be my girlfriend?”

“I… Yes!”

They were both beaming, happy beyond measure like only teenagers in love could be. They were only twelve and thirteen, but this ageless joy made them feel mature, so sure of what the future held. Hitomi, not thinking about training at all for once in her life, straightened just enough to go get a kiss on Hinata’s lips once more. Her girlfriend. It sounded so good, so sweet. She took solace in brushing her dark hair with delicate fingers, the locks as soft as silk against her skin, then kissed her again, and again.

When they left the room two hours later, the two girls were positively glowing with happiness. It was time to get started on dinner, so they went to the kitchen, Hitomi suddenly remembering her five cats, who had been waiting this whole time in the living room. She went to get them, and understood as soon as she saw the wicked spark in their eyes that they had heard them talking – kissing.

“Well, congrats you two,” Hoshihi said with an amused flick of his whiskers. “You’re cute together.”

“Yeah,” Haīro added, “and we couldn’t stand you both beating around the bush for so long. Enjoy being a couple now that you’re decided, alright?”

Hitomi laughed heartily as Hinata blushed and hid her face against her new girlfriend’s shoulder. With a contented sigh, she walked towards the kitchen, Hyūga heiress in tow. She was in the mood for tempura and she had seen her mother put shrimps away in the fridge. Humming quietly, she started preparing the breadcrumb coating while Hinata got her hands on the vegetables that would come as a side for the dish.

When Kurenai came back, wearing a light pink yukata – tightly closed this time – Asuma just behind her, the two girls were completely focused on the kitchen. Even then, their arms constantly brushed against one another, and Kurenai raised an eyebrow when she saw her daughter put an arm around Hinata’s shoulder, then kissing her cheek with an enamoured smile. She had missed something. Several somethings, more like. But could she really protest, she who had tried to hide her own romance from Hitomi?  Asuma had told her about their talk in the dawn light and how her daughter had closely woven threats and approval. Kurenai was incredibly proud. “Congratulations, you two!” she exclaimed with a wide smile.

Hitomi and Hinata jumped at the same time, but didn’t draw away from each other. Living with shinobi helped them get used to being taken by surprise, especially when the shinobi in question were so much stronger than them. The Hyūga heiress blushed and tried to answer, only able to stammer an unintelligible answer, but Hitomi straightened with a cheeky grin. “That’s right, Mom. I’d introduce you to my girlfriend but, well, you already know each other.”

And just like that, it was settled. Hitomi hadn’t been the slightest bit worried about confiding in her mother. Most people in Konoha were totally open to the idea of lesbian relationship – of all consensual relationships, really. Ninjas lived like a flame would, intense and slowly burning to their end, confronting death during all their missions outside the village. Their relationships could be light and ephemeral, long and tender, monogamous or polyamorous, almost no one would judge. And then there were the traditionalist clans, like the Hyūga.

“Well, congratulations, you two. Hitomi, Naruto and Sasuke won’t be there tonight, they have been invited by Inuzuka Tsume for a game night with Kiba.”

Hitomi hummed in approval, taking the tempura out of the frying oil with an ease that only came with habit. She had sustained enough burns to learn how to handle herself in the kitchen, even when she had to use more complex tools. Quickly enough, dinner was ready, the two adults and two children sitting around the table to tuck in.

Half an hour after dinner, when the dishes were done and put to dry on the rack, Hitomi took Hinata’s hand and led her outside under Kurenai and Asuma’s discreet supervision. They were too busy cooing over how cute they were to really keep an eye on them anyway. In the middle of the garden, her mother had placed a little pool full of water so she could train. It was only two meters wide and three meters long, but it was enough at her level. Not too far from it, she had piled storage seals full of water, just in case she needed to add some in the pool.

“Water Style: Water Clone Jutsu!” she said once she was standing knee-deep in the water. She had never understood why ninjas said the names of the techniques they used out loud in the canon, but she got it now.  Most of it was just the habit they had built in the Academy – such a deeply rooted reflex couldn’t be suppressed easily. But there was something to be said about the shinobi code of honour: by using the name of the technique out loud, ninjas indulged in the mix of pride, achievement and respect they felt while fighting properly. A lot of foreign shinobi froze in terror for a second when they heard the name – or loud chirping – of the Chidori, Kakashi’s legendary technique. But she could use any of her techniques without using its name, if she wanted to. She had made sure of it.

Halfway through its formation, the water clone Hitomi had tried to create fell back in the pool and the chakra she had used dissipated into thin air. She hadn’t expected any other result: it was far harder to shape water than to lose herself in it. Breathing in slowly, she allowed her hands to form the mudras once more and focused her chakra again. This time, the clone almost appeared completely shaped before falling.

“You’re getting there, Hitomi.” Hinata’s gentle, encouraging tone drew a smile on Hitomi’s lips. She met her eyes and thanked her with a nod before going at it again, totally focused once more.

Hinata was right. She was getting there.

Chapter Text

After six days of hard but careful work, Hitomi mastered the Water Clone Jutsu. After that, creating a fog thick enough for the Hiding in the Mist Technique was child play. She was very good at it when she had enough water around. The hard part would be trying to navigate through the mist, to walk through it in perfect silence. She respected Momochi Zabuza far more now that she knew how difficult that was, since it was the basis of the assassination technique he was renowned for.

She presently had two D-ranked and one C-ranked elemental techniques in her arsenal. It was far more than any student outside the Fellowship and even inside the group only Sasuke surpassed her, with all the Fire Release jutsus his clan had taught him. He had started working on the Wyvern in Flight Technique a few days earlier; that jutsu was almost B-ranked, according to the scroll from the Uchiha lands where they had found it described and explained. The boy had been essential to Hitomi’s training regimen, since he had gone through something similar before her. Fire and Water Release couldn’t be more different, but some tips worked with all elemental affinities.

When Shinku arrived at his daughter’s house one evening just before dinner, he found the two children training in the garden. Hitomi was trying to create and manage two clones at the same time while Sasuke spit fire at regular intervals, attempting to shape the long and thin flames so they looked like wyverns. It was way harder to create something approaching a real animal form. In the Previous World, wyvern didn’t exist – but here, they didn’t exist anymore .

Around Hitomi’s pool, he saw something that surprised and impressed him: a thick patch of mist covered the grass, as thick and dense as the girl had been able to create, and he could see her five felines moving inside it. From time to time, a quicker movement than the rest saw two of them meet, and he heard hissing and spitting when that happened. Obviously, his granddaughter had taken the instructions she had received from Tsurī very seriously. His own familiar, Aotsuki, leader of the Hikari clan cats, would be very pleased.

“Grandfather?” she asked with a respectful bow of the head.

He focused on her rather than her cats. He really liked the spark of intelligence, cunning even, gleaming in her red eyes at all times, and liked the way her calm demeanour made her look non-threatening. Those attributes would be unquestionably useful when she was ready to take part in her own missions. He smiled and walked towards the pool where she was still standing, the water reaching her knees. She didn’t seem cold, which meant she had her chakra cycling through her whole body to keep it warm. One day, she would be able to do it automatically, but he was already very satisfied, knowing full well that most Genin couldn’t do it even when they stood still and focused.

“I’m here to tell you and your companions that the time has come for them to go back to the spiritual world. You will not be able to summon them for two weeks, as their mentors will use that time to test each of their new and improved skills extensively. After that, they will be available to you as you see fit, of course.

Hitomi flinched and lowered her gaze to the ground. Of course, she had been aware the moment was growing close, but she didn’t want to say goodbye. Even knowing they would come back, be with her soon, she ached at the idea of not having them around, be it for one day, two weeks, or longer. They had become an important part of her life, from their weight on the blankets when she was waiting to fall asleep to the training sessions where they pushed her to grow better and better. Her eyes couldn’t hide how lost she was as she looked at them – they had left the mist to rub against her legs, frightened of water no more. Hoshihi was the tallest; he could reach above her knee with his head.

“Don’t worry, Lady Summoner,” Sunaarashi and Hokori exclaimed. “You won’t even have time to miss us before we’re back. Work hard and make sure we can hunt fish from the river, alright?”

Hitomi simply nodded, not trusting herself to speak without dissolving into ugly sobs. She left the pool and knelt on the grass, her cats soon surrounding her to press their lean bodies against her. She brushed a caress against each of their backs, trying to fight the ache tearing her heart apart. Her grandfather had stepped back to allow her space: when it was time, he sliced his thumb open and composed the hand seals to summon Tsurī.

The tricolour cat licked her shoulder then nodded at her summoner. “Shinku-kun. You called me for the apprentices, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Tsurī-sama. They spent each day of their stay here with Hitomi-chan, exactly like we had asked them to.”

“Good. Children, say your goodbyes, we’re leaving. Aotsuki got me a pigeon and I don’t want someone to take it from me.”

Kurokumo, obedient as always, stepped in front of Hitomi and rubbed one last time against her legs. “Goodbye, Lady Summoner. You’ll see, we’ll be back soon.”

After each of her cats had said their farewell to her, they disappeared, escorted to the spiritual world by the strict but benevolent care their elder provided them. Hitomi stayed still for a few moments, her eyes staring at the place where they had been just a minute before. Finally, she shook her head and went back to the pool, ignoring the tears that wanted to run down her cheeks.

As she raised her hands to create Water Clones – she was still struggling to control more than one at a time and was training by making them throw kunai to various targets in the garden – Shinku stepped towards her. “I understand your sorrow, Hitomi-chan, I went through it too once. The separation is as important as the six months you spent together. It reminds you that you can function alone as well as you did with them. They will benefit from the time they spend in the spiritual world, learn skills that are specific to their species, and you will be able to train freely, without fearing to hurt them. Those cats need to become your allies, or even your friends, but it’s not your job to protect them.”

Averting her gaze, Hitomi nodded reluctantly. Oh, she knew he was right. A lot of shinobi saw their summons as mere tools. But she had spent six months training, playing, failing, winning by their side. She couldn’t see them as just an addition to her arsenal. Without answering, she formed the hand seals for her technique and managed to create three perfect copies of herself from the water, sending them to throw kunai on their targets. She would be satisfied once each of her clones would be able to throw twenty of them accurately as she was working on her shadow jutsu.

When Hinata saw her coming alone in the classroom the next day, she hugged her without a word, her hands rubbing comforting circles against her back. The Hyūga heiress had spent a lot of time around the five cats who had followed her girlfriend like miniature shadows, seen their bond strengthening day after day.

Hitomi had spent most of the evening curled up on the couch, writing to Gaara and Ensui. She had exchanged with Temari too: the older girl had signed the Weasel Contract, and formed a very deep bond with her familiar, so much so that the weasel in question demanded to be able to see her at least once a week in the physical world. Hitomi was glad to read that she wasn’t the only one going through such sorrow, that her friend had been through something similar and had handled it. If Temari could do it, so did she.

During the following days, Hitomi saw herself focus even more on training. She fulfilled each task she was given by her teachers with a dedication her peers couldn’t help but admire, their behaviour even adapting to hers. They were more determined, more involved, and the whole class’s atmosphere shifted because of it. Even the teachers followed the subconscious trend.

Or maybe they did so because the final exam was to happen very soon. After all, this particular class gathered children from all of Konoha’s major clans, a jinchūriki, and Hitomi herself, who had to be noted because of her Nara father and because she was the Yūhi clan’s last hope to come back to its former position of power. They had never been a major clan, but they had been invaluable to win wars. This generation bore on its shoulders all the hopes of grandeur Konohagakure could possibly have and they fully intended on honouring each of them.

Sasuke, Naruto, Shikamaru and Hitomi didn’t bother with hiding deep in the Nara territory to train anymore. If the Nara heir was often seen with his future teammates, he also took the time to spar with her, with taijutsu and shadows only. Because of that, they could each work on their own fighting style relative to those two skills: he liked keeping the opponent away from him with his shadows, while Hitomi sought close combat to throw her adversaries off-balance with hers.

It had taken her years of disjointed training between her other obligations to come up with that fighting style, to be able to catch someone’s shadow with hers quick enough to use it in a taijutsu spar. She just caught it for an instant, barely enough to shift her opponent’s stance, then released them and tried to exploit the unbalance to force through their defence. That fighting style was particularly effective against adversaries who were slower than she was. For the faster ones, she could still use the Shadow Binding Jutsu in a more classical way.

It was becoming more and more common for sixth grade students to train brazenly, in the outside courtyard of the Academy or in empty classrooms when they didn’t have access to proper training grounds – some couldn’t wait for their forehead protector just to get that little advantage. Hitomi and her friends had seen it from their upperclassmen during the former years, and now it was their turn.

The day before the exam, Hitomi invited Shikamaru over for the night. The two children had never stopped playing shōgi at least once a week, but they rarely spent time together without their other friends around outside of that. After telling her mother about their guest, she took her cousin to her bedroom and immediately started setting the shōgi board up. They had both gotten so much better over the years – and yet, neither of them was able to beat Shikaku still.

“So… You and Hinata, hm?” he asked with the shadow of a smile. He was really starting to look like his father, and to behave like him as well. Did he even notice? She doubted it: Shikamaru was incredibly observant, but he had a big blind spot about himself.

Hitomi nodded as she considered her options to cover her knight, threatened by her opponent. Neither she nor Hinata had wanted to keep their relationship a secret amongst the Fellowship: they trusted their friends not to go repeat it to any Hyūga who could in turn tell Hiashi, Hinata’s father, about it. The patriarch was so conservative he would be better suited in a fuckin museum – and Hitomi didn’t dare thinking about his reaction if he learned his daughter and heir wasn’t heterosexual. “Yup,” she finally answered. “Surprised?”

“Not really. I have been wondering for a while if you were going to figure out that you liked each other or not. For a genius, you’re pretty slow, uh?”

“I may be slow, dearest cousin, but I am the one with a girlfriend, aren’t I?” On those words, she decided to act and placed her dragon king in the way of his gold general. She answered his vaguely annoyed scowl with a grin, then the game could resume, interspersed here and there by jokes and playful banter. It was part of the things she liked so much about Shikamaru: with him, no need to fill each second of silence, but if she wanted to talk, be it about complex, intimate problems or about the latest gossip, he was there and eager to participate.

The following day, when the two children arrived at the Academy, Hitomi was incredibly calm and focused. She perceived the tension around her but didn’t react to it, even dissipating it for some of her friends, the ones who were particularly receptive to her influence. In six years, Hitomi had slowly but surely become a leader amongst her peers, and even the students who weren’t part of the Fellowship reluctantly looked up to her.

The day started with two hours of written tests, which were done in barely twenty minutes for Hitomi. With her memory, she just needed to blink to find the information she needed, somewhere in her Library. She spent the remaining time staring at her friends, noting amongst other signs the way Chōji flinched when he got to the second page – and his discreet sigh of relief when he realised he knew the answer to the complicated question.

Then came the genjutsu test. The students were put under a harmless illusion and had to free themselves from it. Students didn’t learn any genjutsu technique during their Academy time, since most of them required far too mature a mind for a twelve years old child. The students were graded on the quickness with which they broke the illusion. With Kurenai as a mother, Hitomi could only excel in that test.

After a short break, students walked to the gymnasium for their throwing weapons test. Three children at a time, they aligned in front of the targets and demonstrated their mastery in that field. Sasuke, Naruto and Hitomi were far above average in that exercise: all three of them had worked very hard, the Uchiha and his sister to support their blond friend in his own training, and it had been worth it. They were the only students able to use three types of throwing weapons accurately, each with their favourite: Sasuke loved the shuriken, Naruto was more at ease with the kunai, and Hitomi’s small, thin hands were perfect for the senbon.

Finally, the students were allowed to have their lunch break. Most of them were exhausted and famished, freed from part of the stress that had blocked those signals from reaching their brains. Chōji had brought enough food for everyone, and they had all decided to add their own bento to the mix for a true feast. When they were summoned to the Academy’s training ground by their teachers, they were all more at peace.

The taijutsu test made them fight against Mizuki-sensei for three minutes in a circle six meters wide. Weapons were forbidden, of course. In that circle, Mizuki had an advantage with his long limbs, but he would restrain himself, fight at Genin level, so his students would have a real chance to stay in the circle during the whole time if they were good enough. Three minutes granted the student a top mark, but a minute and a half were enough to pass the exam. Hitomi watched, calm and collected, as a few students failed. She was proud when her friends handled themselves against the teacher – Sasuke even fighting for the whole three minutes.

And then it was her turn. She stepped in the circle perfectly calm, each of her movements pondered and collected. She crouched slightly, her feet solidly grounded and her arms up in a guard position, just like Ensui had taught her, then waited. As soon as Iruka gave the signal, she stepped to her right to dodge Mizuki’s extended arm, her open hand hitting him right at the centre of the chest. He coughed with the strength of the impact as she sneaked under his arm and got behind him, out of reach. The fight continued in that way, the girl targeting the teacher’s weaknesses then dodging with as minimalist a move as she could when he retaliated. She wouldn’t have been able to handle herself much longer, not with the way breathing burned her lungs and the slight tremors in her muscles when Iruka whistled the end of the three minutes. At least, if Mizuki turned traitor and she had to fight him, she would have more weapons at her disposal.

The ninjutsu test came last. The students were called in a room one by one and had to demonstrate one of the techniques they had learned during their time at the Academy. This year, the subject was cloning, just like in the canon. Hitomi wasn’t worried at all. Not only did she master the basic technique taught in class, but she also had two variants in her arsenal and could show them to the examiners for bonus points. When Iruka announced the subject, she met Naruto’s eyes and answered his confident grin with one of her own. He wasn’t worried either. He had got the confirmation that the Shadow Clone was an acceptable technique for the exam months ago. After all, it was way harder to master than the typical clone technique for most people.

When she was called, after all the other students, Hitomi stepped inside the room without the slightest apprehension, be it for herself or her friends. She stood proud in the centre of the room, her back straight and her arms relaxed along her flanks, waiting for her teachers to give her orders. Iruka was the one to speak, a deeply satisfied grin on his lips. “Hitomi-san, I know you’re the one we should thank for the astounding results your year group got during this exam, but also during the past six weeks. Please, do your comrades the honours by showing us how good you are.”

The praise made Hitomi smile. She didn’t blush, didn’t avert her eyes with a shy look on her face, simply accepting the congratulations from her teacher for what they were: the recognition of six years of hard work, which would finally pay off that day. She formed the Cross Hand Seal, and two solid clones appeared at her right and left. Perfectly synchronized, the two clones and their master summoned a Water Clone each. It was a bit risky, but Hitomi had enough chakra to manage it, and to manage the cost of her five copies and herself each creating a standard, E-ranked clone, which made them twelve identical girls in the small room.

“Well, I didn’t expect that,” Iruka said with a playful grin. “Congratulations, Hitomi. Starting today, you’re a shinobi from Konoha.” On those words, the teacher stepped around his desk and handed her a forehead protector with a respectful bow. She took it with both hands, as one should in such circumstances, then stared at it, incredibly proud to be there, to have achieved that. When she was able to wrap her mind around it all, she tied the forehead protector at its rightful place, on her head.

“Thank you for the knowledge you offered me, Iruka-sensei, Mizuki-sensei,” she said with a deep bow. She left the classroom with her head held high, a faint smile on her lips, leaving her clones to dissipate in her wake. Only when she was alone in the corridor did she allow her body to slouch against a wall and an exhausted sigh to escape her lips. The chain of techniques had taken its toll on her reserves with the demanding edge she had been expecting. She had wanted to impress them and had done so, but there was always a price to pay.

When her dizzy spell passed, she decided it was time to go to the Academy’s courtyard, for the last time as a student. She wondered if she would be one of those shinobi who came back every chance they got, this time to teach rather than learn. In a way, she hoped for it, but what precious knowledge could she even give the new generation without putting the lives of the children at risk? She still needed to grow up before she even thought about the future. For now, she could only focus on the next obstacle in her way, and the different ways she could go around it or knock it down.

“Hitomi!”

The young girl’s head snapped in the direction of the voice. Kurenai, Sasuke, and Naruto in tears were waving at her. Beaming in pride, she ran to them. The two boys were wearing their new forehead protectors – she was so incredibly relieved she had been able to spare Naruto, to protect him against one of the ordeals he had been confronted with in the canon.

“Hitomi,” the blonde said with a quivering voice, “your mom said I’m coming to live with you now, that she has filled the papers at the orphanage and I just have to go back there once to get my stuff then never again .” His eyes shone with unshed tears, his hands fidgeting nervously with the hem of his obnoxious orange jacket.

Hitomi had a moment of stupor, then a giant smile appeared on her lips, so wide it hurt a bit. She hugged Naruto, allowing him to crush her with his arms in return. “Welcome to the family, Naruto,” she whispered in his ear. “Mom, does that mean we’re moving out?”

“Yeah,” the woman answered, a hand brushing against Sasuke’s back when he stepped towards his two friends and now siblings. He didn’t join the hug, but she was happy to see that he didn’t shy away from the public manifestation of affection. “I made an offer on the house next to Shikaku’s and it was accepted yesterday. We’re starting to move the furniture tomorrow, so we can make the best of the weekend. Monday, you’ll be busy little Genin and I’ll have a team of my own, so we’d better be done with it before that.”

Those words only made Naruto hug Hitomi tighter, which in turn made her feel lightheaded. She understood the storm of feelings that was falling on him right that moment, the fight in his mind to wrap it around the idea that it was over , that he wasn’t alone anymore, that, for the first time for as long as he could remember and even longer than that, he had a family. When he finally released her, she patted his shoulder gently with a side glance to Sasuke. He looked rather satisfied about the whole thing – the little smirk on his lips was more telling than he thought. As for Hitomi, she was trying to evaluate the thousand ways the canon had just been fucked, and failing.

“I’m very proud of you three,” Kurenai beamed. “You have worked hard for the last six years, and look at you now. It was all worth it. Akimichi Chōza is throwing a feast and party for your little group. We’re gonna go home, change, and tonight I’m counting on you to have fun. Sounds good?”

Obedient and glowing with pride, the three children nodded and followed her home. Home for all four of them, finally.

Chapter Text

No one was surprised, the following Monday morning, when Iruka announced the teams. Hitomi, who had never understood why it was a surprise in the canon, found solace in the certainty of her teammates’ identity. The Genin – then students – had been separated into teams of three, always the same ones, for about twenty exercises throughout the last two years. On rare occasions, when they had to work in pairs or in larger units, their usual teams would be broken and rearranged, but those were exceptional occurrences.

This way of doing things was just so much more logical. The children had learned to work together, their solidarity forged and tried in the fire of hardships – sometimes very literally, like during the field exercise when Sasuke had awoken his Sharingan. Of course, their individual qualities had been developed too, but not to the detriment of teamwork, and that was the detail that mattered the most in Konoha, a Hidden Village renowned for its powerful shinobi teams. The ninjas who couldn’t work in teams were condemned to stay at the very bottom of the social and military ladder for years or even their whole career, if they never gave in or died trying.

For Hitomi, the weekend had truly shed light on the team dynamic that was developing between Naruto, Sasuke and her. Saturday morning, the three teenagers had been made to rise with the sun by a very enthusiastic Kurenai and had discovered their new home in the warm light of a spring morning. It seemed big despite its two floors. The old bricks and wood had been neglected and the polish was falling out at some places, but those details didn’t matter; they could be fixed.

All four of them had gotten to work immediately. Hitomi and Naruto had created solid clones. Despite the girl mixing Shadow and Water clones, her new brother had drowned the street in blond boys. After complimenting them for their initiative, Kurenai had also joined in with five copies of herself. Only Sasuke didn’t know any solid clone technique, since his chakra reserves didn’t allow him to learn the one Naruto would become famous for yet and the Fire Style cloning technique wasn’t very well-known.

Taking all their belongings from one house to the other, with the help of such an army, only took three little hours. When their new neighbours had woken up and understood what they were doing, they had joined in – even Shikamaru, who only grumbled for show and made Hitomi promise that she would come and play shōgi with him in the evening – Shikaku making sure everyone was well fed while Yoshino and her Earth Release Clones pitched in with the Yūhi army.

Once their former house was empty, Kurenai and the three children went to a furniture store owned by several members of the Nara clan. A lot of the wood the village used came from Nara civilians who worked either in the Deer Forest, or in the land the clan held everywhere in the Forest of Fire and in the Fire Country in general. When ninjas had still been nomads, the Nara were already renowned for their mastery of wood – and of medicinal plants, of course.

Naruto needed a whole bedroom’s furniture, as well as objects to decorate it. As for Hitomi and Sasuke, their new bedrooms were larger than the old ones, which also implied buying a few things to fill and arrange them like they saw fit. Hitomi had enough money to pick whatever she fancied: during the Friday feast in the Akimichi restaurant, one of the two gifts Kurenai had given her had been a thick file filled with all the relevant documentation about the money and properties her father had left her with when he passed away. Since she was a Genin, she was allowed to access and use it at will. Sasuke had received the same kind of file, since he had become Uchiha-sama the very moment he had been given his forehead protector. Naruto probably had an inheritance too, and thinking of it between Hiruzen’s rotten hands made Hitomi ache. One day, he would get it back, she promised herself.

Once they were done shopping, their new things safely taken to the house by very diligent clones, they separated to organise their own room like they wanted to. One of Hitomi’s walls was occupied by a massive window, which brought a generous amount of light inside. She decided to make the best of it by putting her king size bed right under the window, so she could lounge and read there when she had the time. She also knew her cats would love that spot.

She also found the perfect place for her desk and shelves and unrolled an absurdly thick and soft rug in the middle of the room, its pearl grey shade perfect with the pale wood floor and the lavender paint on the walls. Next to her door, she hung the pictures Chōgi had drawn for her over the years as well as a few pictures of her friends. She took the time to look around then. Her bed was still bare and her shelves and desk empty, but it already felt like home.

Somewhere along the line, Yoshino came to fetch everyone for lunch in the Nara household, which Kurenai accepted immediately. They ate, drank and laughed in the cramped living room, filling the time with light banter. Hitomi knew immediately that this memory would hold a special place in her mind, that she would try to relive it when hardship would come for her, when she would need comfort far away from home.

The meal and their last chores over, the three teenagers and their mother went to the most renowned armoury in Konoha. As Genin, they needed far more gear than they had as students, and they also had access to new weapons and traps that made Hitomi shiver with anticipation. She would also be able to get access to the labs, without adult supervision, between missions and definitely had work to do there.

The shop Hitomi was most eager to get to was the tailor’s. When it was her turn, she climbed above the armoury, in a room whose walls were covered in mirrors, trying to look as expressionless and self-assured as a ninja should. A stool marked the centre of the room and two civilians, a man and a woman, were waiting next to it. “Yūhi-san,” the woman greeted her, “come in. Your mother made the appointment for your brothers and yourself weeks ago. We’re most honoured to create Kurenai-sama’s daughter’s outfit.”

“You know my mom?”

“We come from a merchant clan from the Land of Earth. During the last war, we decided to move to Konoha and were attacked by Earth shinobi who, as long as we stayed in Iwagakure, had sworn to protect us. Your mother saved us.”

Hitomi could understand that kind of gratitude. She felt something very close to it for Kurenai, who loved her without expecting anything in return. She had never known anything like that in the Previous World, and for the first years of her new life she had really struggled to simply understand . Her mother loved her because she was loveable. Because she deserved her love, despite any mistake she could ever make. It didn’t mean her mistakes would be instantly forgiven, but it meant she would always be listened to, considered, and that in case of a great mistake a chance to fix it would always be given to her. It made her feel safe.

“We’re going to start with a classic,” the man said, “steel fishnet. Most new Genin neglect that piece of equipment, but it’s very useful to deflect most projectiles and shocks. At your level, you shouldn’t encounter opponents strong enough for steel netting to be a real help, but you never know.”

Hitomi couldn’t suppress a nervous giggle. At Sasuke’s and Naruto’s side, she was sure to have the worst of luck. She had had time to psychologically prepare for it, but this simple sentence reminded her that the Demon of the Mist was the next significant adversary she would encounter. She knew what she needed to do if she wanted to save him, to save Haku – in fact, she even had several plans, depending on how the situation would evolve – but, to get there, she would still have to fight against them. A terrifying perspective.

With the help of the two tailors, the girl put on a steel fishnet shirt and the matching leggings. With that, she’d be protected from the collarbones to the ankles against light to middle shocks and superficial cuts. It wouldn’t save her life, but it would spare her from little inconveniences that could hinder her focus and lead her to death on the battlefield. The feeling of steel against her skin was strange, smooth, cold and surprisingly light. She would get used to it with a bit of training – training that would be mandatory anyway so she could grow accustomed to her whole battle outfit.

“Your mother said you want to become a Seal Mistress. A popular feature for our shinobi who like to use seals in battle is to hide them in layers of strengthening bandages around their limbs. Would you like to try it?”

Hitomi nodded, trying and failing to hide her interest. She had managed, with Ensui’s help, to find a few seals she had been able to adapt to her needs and fighting style. Nothing, though, would be more useful in her opinion than having a shitload of storage seals filled with water at her disposal, so she wouldn’t need to waste chakra creating it for her Water Release techniques. She wasn’t Senju Tobirama, after all: generating water from the air or summoning it from way below ground was costly. She extended an arm and the man wrapped a bandage around her wrist, slipping a blank piece of paper between two layers so a little corner would stick out.

For a few minutes, the girl practiced pulling out that fake seal in a fluid gesture. She would need to repeat it until it became instinctive, but she had made up her mind. “Okay, I want those in my outfit. As for its general appearance, I’d like a short battle kimono, with sleeves large enough to hide my hands when I’m preparing a jutsu or an attack. Would it be possible?”

They knew their craft and started talking her through enough options to make her dizzy. She decided on a light leather kimono cut above the knee, the first layer a dark shade of grey while the second one was the exact same red as her eyes. The obi was red too, with a thin braid of black silk that would bear part of her tools while the rest, including her tantō, would be stuck between her obi and kimono. The cut fitted her closely, but was still comfortable enough for her to move around without problems. The sleeves were as wide as she had wished for and added flair to her movements. She was sure they would distract some of her opponents, at least a little.

Sure, she would have to come back to the tailors often to fit the whole outfit again, but it was a small price to pay to look like she did with those clothes on. The obsession with appearances had always been prevalent in the shinobi world, despite what some traditionalists tried to pretend. A ninja had to make an impression within the first moments of a confrontation and, for that, a well-chosen combination of outfit, hairdo and makeup could be very efficient. Sure, no one would be afraid of Hitomi wearing a battle kimono, but fear wasn’t her goal. She looked like a little puppet, harmless and sweet, her wide sleeves and dark kimono emphasising how small and frail she was. Even the boots she chose, with their flat soles, insisted on the picture she was drawing of herself for the benefit of her adversaries: a fragile and superficial little girl. The very opposite of a threat.

When she went back downstairs, her usual clothes on her back and the new ones in a bag, Hitomi felt deeply satisfied. She had spent good money on this outfit plus variations for warm and cold weather, but she still had enough on her to pay for fūinjutsu equipment. Since she didn’t need to pay for her friends’ seals, bombs and such, she could afford to experiment with the pricey ink she fancied, and it would even be truer now that missions offered an added source of income.

Then it was Naruto’s turn to go upstairs and come back the owner of a steel net shirt, black pants and a long, dark grey coat. The hems of the coat were decorated with orange flames, because Naruto wouldn’t be himself without his favourite colour on his clothes. Sasuke took twice the time his siblings had spent upstairs, only to get down with the exact same outfit Naruto had picked, minus the flames and with an Uchiha fan on the back. The two boys seemed proud of their choice and were right to be: they looked young, yes, but they didn’t have this “fresh from the Academy” look about them anymore. As for Hitomi, one would think she had never even stepped in the shinobi school in the first place. Perfect.

“Well, now that you have everything you need, we should head home. The first dinner in our new house is an important matter for the family.” Kurenai was smiling, obviously satisfied with her children’s choices.

“In that case, Mom, you should invite Asuma-san.” Hitomi’s words made her mother freeze. The woman stared at her child as if she was speaking a foreign language; but she had those in check: there was no way they could break free of her Library. She answered the look with her most innocent smile.

“Asuma? But…”

“Mom, please. I know it’s really serious between you two, even if you try to hide it. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s as much about us children than it is about the fact you’ll both be leading a Genin team starting Monday.”

“But how do you…”

“Asuma-san and Shikaku-ojisan meet at least once a week for months, and often more than that. Shikamaru mentioned it and I could see it by myself a few times. So, as I was saying, I understand why you don’t want the whole village to know, the timing is not the best. But I know it’s very serious between you, you really love him, and I can see how he loves you too when he looks at you. I’m not saying you should marry tomorrow. I’m just saying that, if you want to, you should really invite Asuma-san to have dinner with us tonight.”

“Hitomi’s right, Kurenai-san! Asuma-san is awesome, right Sasuke?”

“Hm.”

“You see, Mom? Everyone agrees. As long as Asuma-san behaves, I swear I won’t tease him too much. I’ll even stop Naruto from pranking him.

“Eh!”

“Yes?” the girl asked him with her sweetest smile, her eyebrows slightly raised as if to dare him.

“Ah… Eh… N-nothing?”

Once Asuma arrived, dinner could start. Exactly as Hitomi had imagined, the evening meal was delicious. After dinner, she spent a few hours playing shōgi with Sasuke and Naruto, who teamed up to try to defeat her. The good strategy instincts of the former and the unpredictable tendencies of the latter weren’t enough in the end: after all, Hitomi often played with her cousin and her uncle, both incredibly gifted, and her playing style was still impregnated with Ensui’s pitiless and flexible style.

Gaara,

I hope your exam went well. Today, I went with my family to buy my ninja gear. I realised how much I’ve changed physically these past few years. Would you recognise me? I miss you terribly. I want to introduce you to my brothers, my mother, my girlfriend, my friends. I can’t wait for them to be able to meet you and realise what an extraordinary person you are. When we were at the Academy, they often asked what I was writing in my notebook, and to whom. I didn’t tell them about my creation, but I will tomorrow morning: I want us all to stay in contact. I hope a mission will lead me to Suna soon. I miss the desert, and I miss you even more.

Yours truly,

Hitomi.

Hitomi,

My exam was a mere formality. Ensui-sensei prepared me well and, thanks to Temari and Kankurō, I knew what to expect. I think the Academy students had the fright of their life when they saw me in the classroom. My reputation is still bad around the village. I hope it will change one day.

Your shishou, as you know, grew close to several Jōnin from the village who don’t approve of my father’s politics and general behaviour. One of them, Baki, will become the sensei for a team composed of my siblings and myself. It’s very rare to have Genin teams in the village, but we want to try the Konohajin system because your mortality rate is much lower than ours for Genin. Ensui-sensei has decided it was time for him to leave us, since we’re safe and able to look after ourselves. He’s probably right. He’ll leave tomorrow morning and should arrive in Konoha in three to four days, depending on the weather. I’ll miss him, of course. He’s been very good to us three. He made sure we would have a future within the village.

I miss you too. I want to see what you describe in your letters, to meet the people you love so much, to understand how your bonds with others work. Thanks to you and to my siblings, I think I understand bonds better – but there’s always more to learn and discover in that field

Yours,

Gaara.

Seeing that message the following morning made Hitomi’s heart soften. A quiet smile on her lips, she dressed, greeted the sun in the garden and, for the first time, tied in place the forehead protector that designated her as a Konohajin shinobi. During the weekend, her mom had sewn it to a strip of dark red fabric in accordance with the rest of her outfit. Her brothers came downstairs as she was filling their pouches with throwing weapons. Naruto was already brimming with energy, while Sasuke was frowning and pouting as he did every morning.

“I can’t wait to start missions! Everyone will see that we’re the best team!”

“Ah, Naruto, we won’t exactly be able to show our talents to the village right away.”

“Uh?”

“Well, the D-ranked missions we’ll have to do in the beginning will be more like chores than real missions. Weeding a garden, delivering groceries, that kind of stuff.”

What? ” He looked more crestfallen than angry, thank the Hermit. “But why do they give those kinds of missions to ninjas? We’re ninjas !”

“For several reasons,” Sasuke intervened. “The village wants to make sure we can be trusted before giving us more important tasks. They also help us learn how to function as a team in real conditions, but with low stakes.”

“Sasuke’s right,” Hitomi continued. “We’re the first generation of Genin who worked in teams in the Academy already rather than after graduating. We’re test subjects, if you will. We know we’re ready, but they don’t and we have to show them. Besides, we’re gonna get paid for those missions and become part of the village’s economy. We pay for the services our civilians provide and, in return, when they need help, they hire us. Those missions aren’t fun, Naruto, but I promise they’re useful.”

Naruto stared at the floor, scratching his neck with a pensive expression. “I get it, I think.” He sighed then smiled, looking at Sasuke, then at Hitomi. “Bah, as long as I’m with you, I could even sort through rice grains for a whole day without feeling tired!”

“Aaaaw, Naruto, you’re so cute!” Hitomi chirped as she hugged the living hell out of him. “Right, Sasuke?” She threw the Uchiha boy a look, raising an eyebrow with her sweetest, most threatening smile. He jumped slightly, an expression of fright appearing on his face as he frantically nodded. His eyes were so wide he looked like a hunted deer.

“Hitomi,” Kurenai intervened as she walked down the stairs, “stop upsetting your brothers this early in the morning.”

“But Mom, it’s so easy !”

“Exactly. Find yourself tougher prey to play with. That would be more gratifying. Come on, children, it’s time to eat breakfast if you don’t want to be late for the Academy.”

The three new Genin obeyed, sitting around the table to enjoy the breakfast Hitomi had prepared after greeting the sun. Even Sasuke had a hard time hiding his impatience under his usual impassive mask: his eyes were gleaming, his movements were quicker and less precise than usual, signs people who knew him understood sometimes better than he did. Naruto, of course, was far more obvious and easy to read. He was twitching in his chair and spoke loudly, exuberant and joyful to finally advance towards his dream.

He had had a talk with Kurenai, as the woman had promised her daughter they would, during the week-end. She hadn’t told him about his family – this secret was still foolishly protected – but she had explained about the demon fox inside him, about the way it would perhaps manifest in times of dire need. She had tried to show it under a positive light, with mixed results: at first, Naruto had been tense and ill at ease around Sasuke and Hitomi, as if fearing they would reject him. The girl had hugged him the way he liked, hard enough to squeeze the air out of his lungs, whispering in his ear that she knew, that it didn’t change anything – and Sasuke had smirked, this discreet expression as clear as words.

They arrived at the Academy a bit before Iruka entered the classroom. They immediately went to mingle with their friends, welcomed with enthusiastic exclamations. Everyone knew Naruto had passed the exam: he mastered the tested techniques, except for the cloning, and he had something even better than it. No one was surprised to see him there, amongst his friends.

When the teacher walked in and asked for calm, everyone obeyed. No one wanted to disturb that final day at the school, after all. As usual, the Fellowship occupied the whole last row of desks. Iruka met Hitomi’s eyes and smiled. She nodded in response, mutely thanking him for everything he had taught her, and he was thanking her for everything she had accomplished with her peers. Without her willingness to unite the most influential students within her year, the experiment he had attempted to make future teams start working together before graduation wouldn’t have worked. The other students, once they had understood they wouldn’t enter the Fellowship because they didn’t want to work as hard as Hitomi made her friends work, had formed other groups. The teachers just had to look at their students to form teams.

There was no problem or protest as Iruka formed the teams. Quickly enough, the new sensei came in, called their teams and left, until Team Seven was alone with its former teacher in the classroom. Time slowly stretched from minutes to hours while Hitomi read a book and the two boys sharpened their weapons. Finally, Iruka let out a heavy sigh and stood up, disapproval clearly appearing on his features. “Well, children, I have to go. Can I leave you to wait for your sensei?”

“It won’t be a problem,” Hitomi answered. “If we make sure not to miss him coming in, can we please use one of the training rooms while we wait?”

He seemed to hesitate then, probably remembering that Hitomi was his most serious student, he nodded. “Sure. Here, take the key to Room Two, it should be empty right now. I’ll come and get it tonight, just give it to Kurenai-san when you get home.”

“Thank you, Iruka-sensei! See you later!”

The three kids watched as their former teacher left the room. When he was beyond earshot, Naruto turned to Hitomi, visibly curious. “How do you want to watch out for our new sensei while we train in another room?”

“Oh, that’s right, I didn’t tell you… Last week, I was training with the Shadow Clone technique and I noticed something weird: when my clone disappeared, I always received feelings and memories that didn’t belong to me. I asked Mom about it and she explained it was one of the things the technique can do. Since you have the most chakra, you’ll leave a few clones next to the entrance of the Academy, on the roof and in the corridors and if one spots an unknown ninja, he’ll just have to dissipate and you’ll know.”

“Woah! The Shadow Clone technique is the coolest of all!”

“Don’t you say that in front of Kiba. He’d be so wounded that you think any technique is better than his clan’s.”

On those words, the children left the classroom behind them, Naruto creating clones who’d stand watch for them.

Chapter Text

By the time one of the clones saw a shinobi it didn’t know enter the building, the three children had already spent two hours training in Room Two. They were slowly starting to tire, especially Sasuke, who had the least stamina amongst them – although Hitomi was barely better than he was. They had focused on kenjutsu, since Hitomi always had their training swords in a storage seal wherever she went. The boys had quickly gotten used to that little eccentricity: it wasn’t the craziest thing she had in those seals she loved so much and hid everywhere she could: in her pockets, under her bandages, against her skin even, stuck there with chakra, if she lacked space.

“Time to go back to the classroom!” Naruto announced, his eyes widening in surprise. Was he doubting Hitomi’s words before getting proof she was telling the truth? If so, she was happy. It was more than time for her friend to start doubting what people told him.

When the sensei walked in the classroom, he found them sitting at the back, in their usual seats, quietly eating a light meal Naruto had been clever enough to prepare and take with him in the morning. Hitomi only had rations in her seals, which weren’t exactly pleasant to eat. Even the variant prepared by the Akimichi, which she could afford thanks to her late father, didn’t exactly taste good . It wasn’t their purpose.

“My first impression of you,” Hatake Kakashi drawled, “is… better than I would have thought based on your files alone. Meet me on the roof in five minutes.” He shunshined away in a puff of smoke before they could answer, addressing them the first eye-smile of a long series to come.

Five minutes was a short time for such a distance – the Academy was seven floors high – but they were ninjas, so they couldn’t complain. Such a speed wasn’t beyond their abilities, only slightly annoying when the guy asking for it had just made them wait five fucking hours.

When they arrived on the roof, Kakashi was waiting for them, sitting on the edge with his body facing the door they came through. The wind was toying with his hair, and the silver mass really defied gravity. Hitomi had never met the man, who was smiling at them behind the mask hiding almost his entire face, but she knew he was her mother’s kind-of-friend. Despite that, he was the only one amongst the Jōnin-sensei who had never visited them in the Nara land. Even Gai had come once or twice – and yes, he really was as eccentric and dynamic as the canon showed him to be, losing himself in long tirades about the virtues of youth and effort at the slightest provocation. Cute, in a way.

“We’re going to start with introductions. The important stuff: name, what you like and dislike, your hobbies, your goals in life. Girlie, you first.”

“Err… Couldn’t you go first, please?”

“Ah… Well, yeah. My name is Hatake Kakashi. I don’t really want to tell you about my likes and dislikes, and my hobbies are, well… As for my goals for the future… Nah, you’re too young and innocent to hear about that. Come on, your turn.”

“Fine. My name is Yūhi Hitomi. I love my family, my shishou, reading and learning. I don’t like people who abuse their strength or power, treason and wasabi. My hobbies are training, reading, experimenting and learning fūinjutsu. My dream… My dream is to become a Seal Mistress.”

“Well, kid, that’s ambitious. That title hasn’t been granted to anyone since…”

“The Fourth. I know. Doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though.”

“Ah, we shall see,” Kakashi concluded with a dismissive shrug. “Now, the Uchiha. Your turn.”

“My name is Uchiha Sasuke. I like training and spending time with my family. There are a lot of things I dislike. I don’t have any hobbies outside of training, nor do I have a dream. I just have a goal: to kill a certain man… to stop him from destroying the people I love and the things I believe in.”

When she heard that, Hitomi shifted so her shoulder pressed against Sasuke’s. She didn’t feel at ease enough to do anything more in front of their sensei. As for Naruto, he didn’t hesitate and hugged Sasuke – it was always fun to watch the Uchiha try to escape even if his eyes gleamed with pleasure. The Yūhi girl couldn’t help but think about Itachi at that moment. She wanted to change his destiny, but she was still far too weak as a shinobi to be able to intervene in any manner.

The sensei seemed unfazed by what he had just heard. If the gossip was to be believed, he had been part of the team that had found Sasuke after the massacre, under his ANBU mask. He had to know who the boy was talking about, and yet he only nodded to Naruto. “You, blondie. Your turn.”

“Okay! My name is Uzumaki Naruto and I love my family more than anything in the world! I also really love the ramen from Ichiraku! I love ramen, swords and cooking! I hate when someone I love is sad, and waiting when I’m cooking. My dream… It’s surpassing all the Hokage, so the whole village will have no choice but acknowledge me!”

Kakashi, despite his surprise – Naruto had been described by the Third in quite the caricatural manner and he hadn’t thought about asking Kurenai about the boy – managed to see the other two children’s reaction to his declaration. The Jōnin, by observing them, had a brief idea of a possible future: if Naruto showed himself to be worthy of the position he coveted and accomplished his dream, his adopted siblings would stand right by his side, as councilmen and armed hands of his will.

He hadn’t been surprised when he had seen that his team included the last Uchiha. After all, he was the only shinobi loyal to Konoha to have a Sharingan, and he was expected to teach the boy how to use it, even though he hadn’t had anyone to teach him about it. Uchiha Sasuke would probably get married very young to a woman deemed able to give him as many children as possible – probably a civilian with a history of twins in the family – in the hope that his clan would be reborn from the ashes.

Getting Naruto under his wing had been somewhat logical too. He was the only student of Namikaze Minato to still be alive and knew his and Kushina’s fighting style quite well. If the boy was to awaken the Uzumaki Chains, Kakashi would be able to teach him how to use them. Naruto had also been placed under his nose as a reminder – a reminder of what Konoha’s enemies could do to the people he loved. Kakashi had understood the message and didn’t plan on getting attached to the kids. He would accomplish his duty and, when they all became Chūnin, he would quickly take back his Hound mask and hide in the ANBU. His place in the secret force would wait for him to get back.

No, having the two boys didn’t surprise him. The girl, however… Since she was the daughter of one of his few friends, he had kept a distant eye on her. She was clever, cunning, a born leader who would jump all her life from one incredible feat to another. He was surprised she hadn’t been taken by the shishou Kurenai had told him about, the one who had taught her to turn her illness into an asset. She would have bloomed faster if she had been the sole focus of an accomplished Jōnin, someone who would lead her step by step on her way to the unthinkable summits she was shamelessly aiming for. Kakashi couldn’t do that for her. He wasn’t capable of such devotion anymore. “Well, this was all interesting, but I know enough about you now,” he said with his typical eye-smile. “Before we get started on missions, I want to be sure you’re good enough. For that, I planned a little exercise we’re gonna do, just the four of us.”

“Uh? An exercise? What kind?” Naruto asked.

“Why, a survival exercise, what else?”

“Ah, just like the Academy!”

“Yeah… Well, not exactly like the Academy. Who knows, maybe having done that will help you. This exercise isn’t like any you’ve done before. You’ll have an opponent unlike any you’ve fought before: me.”

“Eh?”

Hitomi desperately wanted to calm Naruto down, but she knew she couldn’t intervene. She had known this would happen and had prepared accordingly, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t nervous, on edge even.

“That’s not all, kids. Ah, the heads you’re gonna make when you’ll understand the stakes of this exercise…”

“The stakes?” Sasuke intervened. “What stakes?”

“Amongst the twenty-seven graduates of the year, only nine will keep their sensei. All teams will face a challenge that will decide if they are worthy to continue being Genin. In other words, this is a hyper-selective trial with a failure chance above sixty-six percent.”

Hitomi felt her adopted brothers tense next to her and, yeah, they were probably making funny faces right now. She put in the effort to seem rather anxious, but she wasn’t afraid. She had a plan. Her goal wasn’t to kick Kakashi’s ass – although she could see the appeal in that – and she knew it wasn’t what he wanted from them anyway.

“But it’s stupid !” Naruto yelled. “Why did we just spend six years of our lives in the Academy if you can throw it all away like that, diploma or not?”

“Ah, yeah, the diploma. It’s just a kind of preselection, to sort through the kids who want to become ninjas and stop the ones that would die during their first mission on the job, that’s all. You’re not even forced to go back to school if you fail: you can enter the General Forces, start a formation in the police or the hospital, or even find a shishou willing to train you… But being in a Genin team is your best chance of getting promoted one day. Now, that’s enough. I’ll decide tomorrow if you’re worthy of my tutelage or not. Bring your gear and don’t eat breakfast before coming. You’d puke it all anyway.”

Once again, Hitomi feigned fright, but she was rolling her eyes hard internally. Kakashi obviously liked toying with the minds of children, and scaring them wasn’t below him. If she hadn’t had her precious knowledge of the future, she would have been terribly anxious, terrified by the idea of failing that test.

“Well, you’ll find everything you need to know about the exercise on those papers,” Kakashi concluded as he gave the documents to Hitomi. “Don’t be late!” He then disappeared in a puff of smoke, eye-smiling once again.

Hitomi stood up with a groan of annoyance and shook her head in disbelief. What a good start… Under her brothers’ perplexed stares, she minutely stretched, warming one muscle after the other. “What? Worrying is pointless, boys. We won’t make incredible progress before tomorrow, right? Let’s head home. Mom is with Team Eight today, and it’s Naruto’s turn to cook. After dinner, we’ll talk about strategy.”

The following day, the team arrived on the training ground two hours before they were supposed to. All three had had very little sleep, but the survival exercises at the Academy had gotten them used to the effects of tiredness. They were able to work around them or despite them with a rather stunning efficiency for children their age. Training ground number three was still plunged in darkness – Kakashi-sensei’s document had ordered them to be there at five in the morning. That didn’t bother them either.

Hitomi hadn’t needed to insist much for her brothers to take breakfast with them. Kurenai hadn’t been able to tell them anything about the exercise, but she had listened in on their preparations with a proud little smile on her lips. Her daughter knew her responsibilities as the implicit leader of her team for the mission to come and was planning accordingly. Kakashi really didn’t know what a hornet’s nest the Third had given him. Poor him.

“We’re gonna start with traps, alright? Naruto, a clone please. Good… The original goes with Sasuke and the clone with me. Let’s trap the hell out of this training ground, boys.” They snickered and went their separate way. In their team, Naruto created improbably complex traps. Hitomi worked on logistics and creation, which was already interesting on its own, but Naruto? Naruto had a particular fondness for chain reactions and random triggers. There was only one trap that Hitomi absolutely wanted to set up herself, because this particular thing wouldn’t be used to harm or disturb their teacher, but strengthen the one skill she possessed that might help them accomplish the goal Kakashi would set for them.

At five, as touches of pink and orange started to appear on the horizon, the three children met again in the central clearing of the training ground. Each of them sat with their back against one of the three wooden poles aligned in the centre of the clearing, sharing a quiet breakfast. Nothing would have worried them more than not feeling ready for the test to come, and Hitomi was willing to let them think, for now, that they could beat a Jōnin by working together. She had spent enough time training with Ensui to know they didn’t stand a chance of kicking his ass.

But, once again, the goal here wasn’t to beat Kakashi, which her brothers didn’t know yet. Fortunately, their true goal would be easy to reach. This year’s students had insolent luck, being the first teams trained to work as one for years before graduating, and Hitomi could only try to guess how this change from canon had even happened.

Since their sensei still wasn’t showing up, they started warming up after finishing their meal and stretch in prevision of the physical intensity the test would probably include. Naruto had recently decided to focus on taijutsu and kenjutsu, and it showed: his shoulders were becoming wide, his arms were growing stronger. Sasuke was going to the opposite process. He too was focusing on sword skills, but had decided to improve his speed rather than strength. Hitomi had trouble winning against either of them in a spar when only taijutsu and kenjutsu were authorised. She was managing to when ninjutsu was allowed, though – Sasuke looked so offended when she forced him to go to close range, where his Fire Style techniques were useless!

When Kakashi finally arrived, Naruto had just thrown Hitomi to the ground and she was starting to stand back up while stopping Sasuke from immobilising her feet. When they were fighting to be the last standing, the two boys had taken the habit of teaming up against her until she was out then focusing on each other. Both of them knew that, if they didn’t take care of her very quickly, they would have a greater problem than any they could create for each other. After all, she fought dirty as hell, her little strikes with the tips of her fingers or her open palm always hitting exactly where it should to send pins and needles or outright pain down their limbs.

“Yo!” the teacher drawled as he shunshined on top of the centric pole. “Feeling good?”

“You’re late!” Naruto whined.

“Come on, Naruto, did you really expect anything else?” Hitomi said with a snicker before he could answer. “In the village, they say our sensei is the least punctual man of the whole Elemental Nations. I’m even surprised he remembered to show up!”

“Aw, so mean, Hitomi-chan. Your poor sensei is sad now…”

“But you’re not really my sensei, right?” she challenged with a rise of her eyebrows. “So I don’t care about your feelings yet . We have to beat you first.”

“Ah, right, the exercise. See those bells? You have to take them from me before noon.”

With a sigh, Hitomi watched the man as he tied the jingling trophies to his belt. It was almost ten in the morning. Two hours seemed kind of short to accomplish the goal he had set for them. It was still possible, but she would have liked a little more time just to be sure.

“The ones who won’t succeed in taking any of the bells before then,” Kakashi continued, “will not eat lunch. They will be tied to one of the poles and I’ll eat their lunch just under their nose.”

Only Naruto reacted to that idea; out of all three children, he was the most recent addition to the family, the one who had known mind-numbing hunger, the need to fight to eat and muffle the icy emptiness that filled his belly with pain and darkness. He sometimes forgot that food would always be there for him, be it on Kurenai’s table or inside one of the numerous seals Hitomi always had on her.

“As you can see, kids, I only have two bells. It means one of you will miss lunch. Furthermore, the ones who fail from taking a bell will also fail the exercise. It means at least one amongst you will inevitably fail. You’re allowed to use weapons. If you don’t come to me with the intent to kill, you don’t stand a chance against me.” He punctuated this last sentence with a faint whiff of killing intent, just enough to make a shiver run down Hitomi’s and Sasuke’s spine. Naruto, as always, was oblivious to it.

Steady and coordinated as one body and one soul, the three children straightened up and squared their shoulders. Hitomi and Sasuke stroked the guard of their swords. Naruto’s was sticking to his back with a constant influx of chakra, but it would find its place between his hands as quickly as they would unsheathe.

“Are you ready? Start!”

The three Genin immediately used the Permutation Technique to switch with logs they had placed all over the training ground during their preparations earlier that day. It had been Naruto’s idea, based on what Sasuke had told them about Shunshin no Shisui’s exploits. The idea was brilliant: it wouldn’t be enough to efficiently flee from an Jōnin, but it was a good attempt, and Hitomi knew deep down that it was what the man expected of them.

Only when they were out of reach did they stop, all three hidden in the thick undergrowth near the border of the training ground. Hitomi used her meridians to locate the sensei. He hadn’t even taken a step in their direction and his chakra was peaceful. He was probably already reading and waiting for them to make the first move. Good. The time he spent doing anything but coming after them was an advantage for them.

“Naruto, Sasuke,” she whispered, “go watch him but stay in the forest. I’m gonna send my cats with you.” As she spoke, she quickly summoned her three fighting cats. The twins had no place in such an exercise. Her summons had grown during the last few weeks and were on their way to reach her hip with their shoulders in less than a month. They immediately understood how serious the situation was and silently nodded to her in greeting before sitting next to the humans, waiting for instructions.

“Hoshihi, you’re the strongest, so you’re gonna team up with Naruto and Sasuke. Haīro and Kurokumo, you’ll drive Kakashi, the man we’re fighting against, to the point Sasuke will show you – you remember, Sasuke, right? I’ll wait there. We have to act quickly. Go!”

The two boys and three cats immediately obeyed, leaving her alone as they ran without hesitation nor fear towards an opponent who surpassed them in all possible skills.

Chapter Text

As her teammates and summons were running towards the clearing, Hitomi went to the trap she wanted to use against the Jōnin. Fortunately, she had found another clearing, smaller than the first, almost at the fence of the training ground. Without that, her only trap to have a small chance of working against the sensei would have been unusable. Even this way, she was tense and anxious at the idea of using it. But the alternatives…

“Well, well, leaving all the work to your teammates, uh?”

The girl tensed and, before she could even think, a pair of senbon flew from her hand to the source of the voice. The Jōnin dodged by leaning in slightly, the two needles embedding themselves in the trunk of the tree behind him. The killing intent she didn’t seem able to control yet started to bloom on Hitomi’s skin, thickening the air around her.

“What a welcome,” Kakashi drawled. “Breathe, Hitomi-chan.”

Her eyes wide, she watched him form the Tiger Hand Seal and disappear, slowly dissolving in a storm of dead leaves. It didn’t look like a shunshin, nor like any substitution technique she knew. She took a few hesitant steps, in the hope of discovering what he had done, when a scream tore through the air. Unable to breathe, she ran to the source of the sound, not caring about the low branches whipping at her cheeks and neck.

When she arrived at the place where the scream had come from, she froze, icy sweat rolling along her spine. Her eyes wide in disbelief, she fought, fought to understand what she was seeing. On two spears planted in the ground Naruto and Sasuke were impaled, their blood already watering the soil beneath their feet.

“Hi-Hitomi… Help…”

“Save me… Please… Hitomi… It hurts!”

Tears bloomed in her eyes and rolled on her cheeks, burning her skin and blurring her vision, as her dark red stare registered every detail of the situation unfolding in front of her. She took a trembling step towards them, then two, then kneeled next to the spear going through Sasuke’s chest, her throat so constricted she could barely breathe. How did it happen? Even if Kakashi had decided to fail them from the beginning, they were Konohajin citizens, he owed them protection, he…

She broke the illusion so violently that the rush of chakra burned through her arms. Her surroundings immediately shifted, the broken shapes of her brothers dissolving into nothingness. Killing intent was now buzzing so hard around her that the animals of the forest had started running away from her. It had probably attracted the attention of the closest patrol, but she didn’t care. She was furious that she had to see such a scene, to feel her mind anchoring this memory in her Library. She had to breathe deeply a few times before she could even enter her refuge. She grabbed the book containing the memory and took it far, far away, deep under the surface, where anything that couldn’t see light was kept. She needed a better place for those memories, something guarded and protected.

The number of chains she wrapped around the volume before putting it next to the one containing her knowledge of foreign languages was probably excessive – but so was the cruelty of the vision Kakashi had imposed on her mind. She left her Library still furious, but the abject terror that had haunted her when she had seen her adopted brothers agonising in front of her had somewhat dissipated, smothered by the weight of the chains that stopped it from paralysing her.

She was close to the meeting place and, when she arrived, she was more focused than ever. Not once did the killing intent fade around her, and her logic whispered that a patrol should have arrived and checked what was going on – but she doubted even one shinobi in the village was unaware of what was happening that day for the newly graduated Genin. A bit – a lot – of killing intent on a training ground probably wasn’t out of place under those circumstances.

Naruto appeared first, three clones behind him, and froze for a second when he felt the tension emanating from her. Since he wasn’t the target for her will and anger, he didn’t exactly feel the effects of it, only a strange distortion in the atmosphere around her. Sasuke, who arrived just after him, met Hitomi’s eyes; his dreary expression made her understand that he knew what it was, and that she was doing it. She nodded and signed to them, her hands telling them to go hide in the undergrowth behind her.

She seemed alone when Kakashi came. Before he could even talk, because she would probably have lost control of her emotions if he had said anything, she formed the Rat Hand Seal as she took a step back. Her shadow came alive; one moment later, her chakra went through the holes she had drilled in the soles of her shoes and activated a seal she had drawn there long before dawn. Barely a meter behind her, flames appeared with a terrible roar and extended towards the sky, brutally giving fuel and power to her shadow, which connected to Kakashi’s. She had control.

Immediately, she understood she had made a mistake. The sensei’s strength was monumental in comparison to her own, his reflex of trying to step back and his body brimming with chakra threatening to tear away the bonds that kept him in place. Unable to stop herself, Hitomi screamed in pain, her mind trying in vain to push back the pain she felt from just keeping the Jōnin still. In barely a few seconds, almost all the chakra she had had left before evaporated and she was forced to let go. She fell on all four, shadow and flame disappearing at the same time, and threw up her breakfast on the grass.

He had stopped resisting immediately after his reflex to step away from the flames, but Hitomi could still feel the places where tension had turned to fire in her muscles, her bones, and even on the deep and intimate level of her nerves themselves. Her cheeks were wet, her limbs shaking and spasming, her breathing ragged and shallow. She was so dizzy she couldn’t even sit up.

Piercing the wall of pain and brutal exhaustion raised between the world and herself, her brothers’ footsteps approached quickly. She managed to open her eyes and saw them standing in front of her, like a shield between the sensei and her body, too weak to continue fighting. In front of the two boys were her three giant cats, hissing and growling with their fangs and claws ready to maim.

“Well,” Kakashi said, “you three are a surprising bunch. To say I had prepared a whole speech about how important teamwork is… I see the Academy has now decided to do all the work for me. Congrats, you pass!”

“What? But we didn’t get the bells!”

“But, Naruto-kun, the goal was never for you to actually get the bells. In the beginning, I thought you and Sasuke had decided to ditch Hitomi, but I understood she was still with you when I saw the cats.” The man stepped around the cats and boys without much resistance then kneeled next to Hitomi, his large hands helping her to sit up. His only eye registered the cold sweat, the sickly pale tone, the spasms running in the muscles under his fingers. “As for you, young lady, nicely done. If I had been your equal, your plan would have worked. You still have a lesson to take from this: against an opponent that is immensely stronger than you, direct confrontation rarely works.”

“Ugh…”

“Yeah, I know, it hurts. Naruto-kun, Sasuke-kun, I’d like one of you to go warn Kurenai that her daughter is at the hospital for chakra exhaustion. She’s with Team Eight on the training ground number five.”

Sasuke ended up handling it. In an instant he had disappeared, his legs faster than they had ever been before. Kakashi’s hand started rubbing comforting circles against Hitomi’s back as she felt her eyes close against her will. “Good. Now that that is handled, Naruto, take her stuff and follow me.”

“What about us?”

Hitomi recognised Hoshihi’s voice and a little smile appeared on her lips. She wanted to cuddle against him and nuzzle against his neck, where the skin was warm and the fur so soft. One of her hands twitched harder than before, probably in answer to the longing she was feeling. Her smile turned to a mask of pain.

“No,” Kakashi growled softly, “you stop trying to move right now, young lady. You’re just going to hurt yourself. As for you three… I don’t know. Do whatever you want, I’m not your summoner and she isn’t available to decide right now. You can follow if that’s what you want.”

Those were the last words Hitomi heard before her eyelids won the battle and closed down, the sounds and feeling softly fading around her until they were only silence and comforting obscurity.

She regained consciousness in a hospital room, which she recognised by smell long before opening her eyes. She wanted to take her time before fully waking up, savouring the heat of the three heavy bodies on the covers. Finally, when her thirst became too pressing to be ignored any longer, she blinked and grimaced when light stabbed her eyes. A sigh of relief escaped her lips as soon as the feeling stopped: Naruto had just closed the blinds, and the room was now comfortably dark.

“Ah, Hitomi-chan, finally. We were starting to worry, your friends and I.”

“K-Kakashi-sensei?”

“Hm hm. Niji-sama, the girl is awake, as you can see. I think her mother would like to know. Hitomi, your mom couldn’t leave her students in the middle of their own test but, as you can see, she still wanted to be kept in the loop.”

The girl nodded and watched the huge dragonfly, Niji, taking flight and leaving the room, his wings shimmering even in the semi-darkness of the room as they brushed against the frame of the door. “I had never seen my mother’s summons,” she whispered hoarsely.

When he heard the pain in her voice, Naruto jumped to her side and presented a straw to her lips, so she could drink effortlessly.

“Niji is Suisei’s eldest daughter, and Suisei is your mom’s familiar. Trust me, you do not want to meet Suisei, Kurenai only summons her when her ninjutsu needs an enormous boost, and the results are terrifying. Now, let’s get back to you. When were you deprived of chakra to the point of disturbing your growth?”

“I… What ?”

Hitomi looked so shocked, her eyes wide and her shoulders tense in a way that had to be painful for her exhausted body, that it made Kakashi reconsider and stop himself from scolding her. “Naruto-kun, can you please leave the room for a moment? I have to discuss private subjects with Hitomi-chan. She can tell you about it afterwards if she wants to, but right now I’d prefer it if it stayed between us. Maybe you should go find food for her.”

The blonde boy obeyed, but not without throwing a suspicious look at his sensei as he walked past him. Once he had closed the door behind him, silence settled on the little room and stretched for a few moments, until Kakashi decided to break it. “As a sensei, I have been granted access to your medical file. Naruto’s and Sasuke’s too, of course. When I brought you here, the nurse who reversed the damage caused by chakra exhaustion, especially in your arms, told me she felt traces of repeated scarring in some places, especially in your muscles and around your organs.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“Chakra exhaustion is a very dangerous state for the body. When it only happens once in a while, it’s not that big of a deal, but this nurse says that you have been in that state countless times during your childhood. And yet, you’re a Yūhi, which means you have massive chakra reserves, larger than any of your peers, except for Naruto. I just want to understand, Hitomi-chan, why your health has been put at such a risk.”

“I… What… I don’t think Ensui-shishou knew about… all this.”

“Ensui… Nara Ensui, right? Kurenai told me you had left the village with him for a year and a half before entering the Academy.”

“Yeah. I have an illness that could have stopped me from becoming a ninja. It’s been in the clan for generations, according to Ensui-shishou. Until he took me out of the village, Mom and I lived in a house in the Deer Forest, as far away as possible from the rest of the clan, because I felt like I was caught on fire with too many people around.” Hitomi sighed and rubbed her hands on the blanket before petting Kurokumo, who purred softly. “Once he taught me to muffle my meridians, so I’d only feel chakra to a useful level, Ensui-shishou taught me other things. He told me about a method that would stretch my reserves by emptying them again and again.”

“Ah, yeah, that method… I understand, now,” Kakashi assured in a calming tone. “The research on the long-term consequences of chakra exhaustion is recent. Your shishou probably hadn’t heard about it, or he wouldn’t have put you through that training. When he comes back to the village, I’ll have a talk about it with him.”

“Am I… Am I gonna be in trouble?” She hated the way her voice betrayed her fear, but she couldn’t have hidden it. She wasn’t strong enough, not yet.

“You’ll have to be looked at by a doctor regularly, especially once you hit puberty. You’ll stay tiny all your life and will have trouble gaining weight or building muscle mass. You won’t ever be a taijutsu specialist… But I don’t think it’s a problem. You have a lot of other interesting skills, after all. The most important thing to do now is to make sure you don’t get chakra exhaustion too often in the future.”

Frowning, Hitomi nodded. Her eyes glared at nothing in front of her, but it was only an expression of focus, not anger. She knew Ensui had meant well. He wouldn’t have wanted her to suffer any long-lasting consequences from his training – even seeing her in pain then and knowing it would pass had been hard on him. Besides… It was probably the best choice in the long run. All the fields Hitomi was interested in implicated the use of chakra, kenjutsu excepted. She needed her reserves as they were and as they would be. Staying scrawny all her life seemed like such a small sacrifice to receive what she needed to fight.

“Don’t worry, Hitomi-chan,” Kakashi said after a while. “We don’t know each other yet, but you’ll learn that I look after my team. Besides, your mother would skin me alive if I neglected one of her precious children. Even without that threat, I want to see all three of you become accomplished shinobi. That weakness of yours we just discovered isn’t more serious than Naruto’s impulsivity or Sasuke’s stubbornness. Yes, I already noticed that.”

“Thanks, sensei,” she whispered as her eyes softened. “Uh… You can leave, if you want. You probably have other things to do.”

“Not at all. Making sure one of my cute little students isn’t left without supervision in a hospital is the top item on my to-do list today.” On those words, the teacher left the wall he was crouching against all this time and sat at Hitomi’s bedside. From the pouch where he should have stocked shuriken and kunai, he took a novel the girl immediately recognised: Icha Icha Paradise. While he started reading, she sat up with a pained grimace and guided Hoshihi, the closest of her cats, even closer. She put her head on his shoulders, ignoring the way his fur tickled her nose, then stayed like that for a moment, a warm and soft body pressed against hers.

“You know most of our warriors would never accept that kind of cuddle, right?” he said playfully after a while.

“But you like it, right?”

“Yeah, I like it. We all like it here. Please don’t tell the adults?”

“Okay,” she whispered after a while against his pelt. Her eyes closed and she stayed in that position for a long time, cradled by a concert of purrs. After a few moments, Haīro and Kurokumo joined in – when Kakashi looked up from her book, he couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow as he saw his little student under a pile of giant cats.

When a nurse left her room two hours later, after chewing her up about her chakra exhaustion, Hitomi still hadn’t moved, only exchanging a few words with Kakashi from time to time. It wasn’t much, nothing extraordinary, but it still was enough to appease something hidden deep inside her, something that had grown agitated these last few weeks.

Chapter Text

For two days, Hitomi was totally forbidden from using chakra, even for things as easy as activating a seal. When her team took its first D-ranked missions, she thus had to limit herself to supervision and logistics. She would have loved to do more – fuck it, no chakra was needed to weed a garden or transporting a bag of groceries – but her teammates didn’t indulge her, and the only time she had gotten angry and rebuffed Naruto, he had hit her right in the feels with The Stare. She regretted more than ever teaching him this technique that day.

As for Kakashi, he was observing this whole affair with something that looked like a mix of amusement and approbation. While he gifted the two boys with advice concerning their taijutsu, he dove deep in Hitomi’s work on fūinjutsu and annotated her recent attempts to create a flash bomb seal – but ten, maybe twenty times more potent than the real thing. As long as she confined herself to theoretical material, he didn’t see any trouble with helping her. If he hadn’t done it, he knew she would have tried all by herself. At least this way he could keep an eye on her and make sure she didn’t use chakra.

When he arrived on training ground number three the third morning, he found her alone, her feet in the river that ran through the clearing, obviously trying to learn a new technique. He was surprised to see her: he had come very early on purpose to greet Obito before starting his day. The fact that that day generally started by making his cute little students wait for hours was just an added homage to his departed friend – and to the sensei who had loved teaching as much as teasing his students. “Morning, Hitomi-chan. Water Release, hm? What are you trying to learn?”

The girl jumped and lost her focus, the water that had started to rise in front of her falling and splashing impressively around. When the disturbance was no more than a ripple in the river, she answered her sensei, her tone probably far too joyful for someone who had just failed at something. “The Ambush of Moving Water, sensei! I don’t know yet why I can’t do it properly, but I’ll find the answer!”

The Copy Nin nodded in approval. This technique, while quite neglected by most shinobi in possession of a water affinity, was very useful in battle. Since it wasn’t shown much interest, not a lot of opponents with a different affinity knew it even existed, and the ones who actually knew wasted this advantage away by still being surprised when they were trapped in its effects. The technique was a stepping stone towards learning the Water Prison, and in essence was a weaker, but also less chakra intensive, version of that infamous technique. It immobilised the opponent up to the knees in water made thicker by chakra. Yes, he could see Hitomi doing wonders with that. “Well, you won’t succeed this way. Some jutsus need a living target to be mastered.”

“Sensei!” she whined with a pout. “I told you I’d find the answer!”

“Why waste time and chakra by groping for success blindly?”

The girl didn’t answer, frowning and pouting, but she turned away from him with an annoyed huff.

“Aw, come on, Hitomi-chan, don’t be mad at your poor sensei. Will you forgive me if I’m your training dummy?” She turned to him again, cold and careful consideration gleaming in her red eyes, and he stepped in front of her with an eye-smile. He was careful to stay on the surface of the river, since his boots were open at the front. Kakashi didn’t like his shoes much, but almost all the shinobi he knew – except Hitomi, damnit – wore them. He wanted to belong somehow.

Hitomi mastered the technique just in time for her brothers to see her using it perfectly as they arrived on the training ground. She let out a victorious exclamation and immediately let go of the water before running to Naruto’s arms. The boy welcomed her with a laugh before handing her a bento box decorated with jasmine flowers.

“Really,” Sasuke teased, “with a memory like yours, how can you forget such simple things?”

“Hm?” Kakashi stepped in. “How is her memory special?”

“Ah, Hitomi is a genius! She never forgets anything, never! She helped me so much with Academy stuff, sensei, believe it!”

“Really? Well, Hitomi-chan, such a skill isn’t mentioned in your file.”

Hitomi snorted dismissively. “Of course it isn’t mentioned. I was very careful to hide it from the adults at the Academy. I didn’t want to be required to go to the Encryption and Decoding department, thank you very much!”

Kakashi couldn’t help but freeze when he heard the quiet certainty in his student’s voice. The fact that a child entering the Academy at seven years old had been able to think clearly enough to understand how showing certain skills could lead her down a route she didn’t want to follow baffled him. Hitomi lived with Nara and was a Nara herself though. Her clan was known for producing genius after genius, so much so that a lot of clans had tried for an arranged marriage between their heirs and members of the Shadow Clan to make this propension theirs as well – without success. The Nara were one of the very rare clans to refuse that kind of match.

“I see,” he said after considering his options for a moment. Well, in that case, I’m gonna test your memory now to see how we can use it for our team strategies. Do you think your memories are reliable?”

“Depends. When a memory is linked to powerful feelings, it’s hard for me to dissociate the former from the latter. When I revisit the memory, I feel the emotions I had while living it all over again. It’s weaker, but still… Some of my memories are tainted, altered by my own feelings…”

“And despite that?”

“Despite that, my memory is flawless. I remember everything I ever experienced without any problem. All my readings as well. I can access those memories at will.”

“Is that really so? Well, let’s see. Recite page 247 of the Shinobi Rulebook, starting from the second paragraph.”

“The shinobi’s duty goes to their village first, then their clan, and to his family and friends next in a lesser measure. If one of your friends turns traitor to your village, your duty as shinobi is to collect proof of their treachery and bring them to your Kage, who’ll decide their fate. You’ll have to prepare your soul and your arm, if needs be, to…”

“Stop there.”

Hitomi obeyed so promptly that her teeth clicked uncomfortably against each other. She had never told Sasuke and Naruto about that aspect of a shinobi’s life. They had both read and learned about that rule, of course, but her blonde brother was too pure and too naïve to understand exactly what it meant. As for the last Uchiha… It sometimes seemed to Hitomi that he felt a weak, distorted link between what that principle and what had happened to his clan. So many suspect circumstances surrounded the night of the massacre… She was surprised she had never heard him ask questions about them.

“Did you read the clans’ law books?” Kakashi asked, pulling her away from her thoughts.

“Only the ones from the Yūhi, Nara, Uchiha, Uzumaki, Hyūga, Aburame and Inuzuka clans. It’s not easy to access them so for the others, I’m waiting for an opportunity.”

“Very well. Uzumaki lawbook, chapter five, article six, paragraph two.”

“Growing medicinal plants in a private garden on clan territory grants the owner the right to request a five percent exoneration from tax on their pay for missions B-ranked and higher, on the condition that one fifth of the harvest from those plants is given to the Uzumaki administration. To obtain this exoneration, one has to meet the clan’s clerk, who has to give the applicant the correct paperwork to file and give back in the following seven days. An inspection of the garden shall be conducted in the following month and a decision shall be given to the applicant within sixty days after introducing the request.”

“When did you read that lawbook?”

“Uh… It was when I was telling Naruto about his clan, so five years ago.”

“I see. We’ll test your memory further in real situations in the weeks to come. It can become a very good asset for our team.”

Hitomi nodded enthusiastically. She had already had her fair share of tests from the Nara clan, but they had never been geared towards her career as a shinobi. She had been too young then, and everyone had thought she wouldn’t be able to become a ninja because of her illness – who could have blamed them? Even being in presence of her clanmates had been a torture before Ensui had taken her in.

During the following hours, they worked on the first D-ranked mission Hitomi was allowed to participate in. They had to sort through the new books ordered by the Central Library, something any civilian could have done with a bit of practice, but that didn’t stop Hitomi from being happy to work, to contribute to her team. The fact she was doing it surrounded by piles of books taller than herself was just a nice bonus. With the clones she and Naruto could produce at will, the mission was done in little more than an hour.

After they had written and given their reports to the Genin Liaison Bureau, Kakashi decided to take them to a restaurant. Naruto had pleaded for Ichiraku, but the teacher resisted and led them to one of the barbeque restaurants held by an Akimichi cook. They were soon settled around a table, strips of marinated meat happily sizzling on the grill. As she was putting her share on her plate, Hitomi heard a voice that made shivers of sheer joy run down her spine. “Kid, the next time you send me in the fucking Desert for six years, I promise on Hashirama’s head that I’m taking you with me.”

“Shishou!” Her loud exclamation attracted the attention of all the other patrons, but Hitomi couldn’t care less. She pushed her chair back and, in a mere two steps, she found herself drowning in a hug that smelled of pine and cinnamon – her shishou was finally home. She held him as close as she could, her face pressed against his neck, her nose touching the place where his carotid artery pulsed quickly. She had missed him so much. So fucking much.

The girl knew shinobi weren’t supposed to cry. She found this rule stupid, useless, hurtful even in some situations, but she had never publicly protested against it and had followed it with grace, sometimes even helping her friends to manage their own emotions. And yet, pressed against her shishou, she burst into loud, heavy, relieved tears. Despite her extended vocabulary, her intimate knowledge of three languages rich in nuances, she couldn’t find words to express the feelings dominating her mind now.

“It’s okay,” he whispered against her hair. “I’m here. I missed you too, Hitomi.”

A child once more, the Yūhi heir was grateful for her teammates and sensei, who let her have this moment uninterrupted. She could hear Sasuke explaining to Kakashi, in a low voice, the intense correspondence exchanged by master and student during the past six years. Naruto pitched in with an anecdote from the Academy, when she had answered Iruka’s complicated question without even looking up or stopping writing. The two children and the adults kept away from her, letting her have the bubble of intimacy and comfort that separated her from the rest of the world.

“Everything is okay, Hitomi,” he assured her with a brush of his hand against her wet cheek. “I’m okay. I’m just tired and famished. Would it bother you if I joined in?”

Just like that, it was settled: Ensui took Hitomi’s chair next to the window and Sasuke pushed his aside so she could sit between them. The table was a bit crowded, but she couldn’t have cared less, not with her master finally home. “Shishou, let me introduce you to my team. Naruto and Sasuke are my brothers, adopted by Mom these past few years, just like I told you. Hatake Kakashi is our sensei.”

The two men exchanged a long look, the tension between them suddenly lifted. Of course, the façade they put on for the public were in opposite factions of the village: Kakashi was Hiruzen’s man, linked to him by a succession of masters and students, while Ensui had never hidden his thoughts about the way the village was led by the old man. Despite that, they had no trouble finding common ground: children they intended on protecting, at the cost of their life if necessary.

Later, when it was time for Team Seven to go back to their training ground, Kakashi suggested Ensui joined in. Despite his exhaustion, the Nara accepted. He didn’t have enough vocabulary to express it, but he had deeply missed his apprentice. The mere vision of her, older, wiser, alive , filled his chest with a warmth he had been yearning for during all those years away from her. The letters… They had helped, without a doubt. But nothing she could have put into words could even compare to the relief and tenderness he felt when he looked at her, listened to her.

He had never wondered about the place she had taken in his life, because it had seemed so natural, so easy and simple. Once he had left on his mission, separated from her, with no way of protecting her and the people she loved… The questions had come, one after the other. He had had enough nightmares where he had found her tiny, broken body, lying in a pool of blood, to know it had become his greatest fear.

Ensui had had a son, an eternity ago. A son he had raised alone as he still mourned the woman who had brought him to the world, a son he had carried in a sling all around the village, a son who had quickly been stolen away by Shimura Danzō’s dark influence. Oh, how Ensui had hated this spider made man when his son hadn’t come home . How he had hated Hiruzen for the weakness of his ageing soul. He couldn’t bear, then, to even look at the land he had loved so much, the land that had taken the one thing he had loved even more.

His return to the village, almost eight years ago, was supposed to be temporary. He had intended on fleeing again, far away from all the memories walking in his shadow to meet him at night, but Shikaku had stopped him. Ensui had always respected his clan leader, the only one who had always known to hold the High Council away from his own business, so brilliant, so wise, and yet benevolent, compassionate even when Ensui had appeared in front of him a broken man. He had listened as his clan leader told him about a little girl, his niece, sick as he had been at the same age, a little girl who didn’t want anything more than to become a ninja like her mother and her late father.

He had agreed to take her in, more as a favour to Shikaku than because of a drive to teach. He had to admit he had immediately felt a fair amount of curiosity as he had listened to the man describing the kid. He had sounded so proud of her, as much as he was of his own son, when he had told Ensui about her, her intelligence, her talent with shōgi. And then he had taken the girl away from the village and realised each praise he had heard from her uncle’s mouth had been well-deserved. Yūhi Hitomi was an exceptional child but, more than that, she was his ideal student.

He who had never really expected to pass on his knowledge had quickly found in her the perfect recipient for it. He was sure she would surpass him one day in more than one field, and prayed to all the gods he knew that he’d be alive to witness it. He wanted to see her, grown up and triumphant, accepting from the Hokage – whoever it would be then – the title of Seal Mistress, just like she wanted.

Even if he didn’t have a natural child to take over once he was too old and tired, Ensui had Hitomi. He had her sweetness, her liveliness, her laughter and that terribly accommodating smile when she was preparing a wicked stunt. He had the way her voice dragged slightly on vowels, her flexible greetings to the sun, her love of convoluted speech and the smell of ink in her hair when she fell asleep while working.

He had a daughter, and he was back home to protect her and help her grow up. This conclusion had been painful in the beginning – accepting a child like her felt too much like betraying his son’s memory, maybe. He couldn’t care less now, as she was hanging on his arm and told all his achievements, real or not, to the two boys she called her brothers. This vision seemed so precious to him that he would have wanted to possess his apprentice’s eidetic memory to be able to live it again and again.

“So, here you are, finally,” Kakashi drawled. “Hitomi speaks very highly of you.”

“And she speaks highly of you as well. In any other circumstances, we would have probably found each other on opposite sides of a battlefield one day. But making you my enemy would break Hitomi’s heart.”

“And we wouldn’t want that now, would we? It’s funny, I thought this sensei thing would be the worst thing happening to me as I am today, but when I saw them working together… I had to reconsider. Those changes at the Academy are for the best.”

“Oh, trust me, she had started working with those boys far before the experiment started. Hitomi told me about every progress she made building her beloved Fellowship.”

“Her Fellowship?”

“Yeah, the name is a bit weird, but the concept itself… It’s an alliance, or rather a friendship, between the members of your team as well as Kurenai’s and Asuma’s teams. Those children have been working together for… I don’t even know how long. First or second year at the Academy, I’d say. They help each other, learn from each other, train together, seek support from the group when their life becomes complicated. I know the Hyūga girl, for example, spent a lot of weekends at Kurenai’s.”

“Ah, yeah, the Hyūga…”

“Indeed.” Ensui snorted dismissively, his distaste for the clan’s leader barely hidden. “Anyway, it’s probably because of all that that your two boys are so well-adjusted and performed so well at the Academy, especially Naruto. Hitomi told me about all the research she had to do to get around his learning difficulties. Without her efforts, who knows what he would have become?”

“Sounds like Hitomi, yeah. When I tested them, I noticed the authority she had over them. It looked really natural; they obeyed her instructions without even thinking about it. They always do.”

“It’s a good team dynamic. And it almost worked that day, didn’t it?”

“Almost, almost… It would have worked if I hadn’t had so much more chakra than her that even standing in her shadow emptied her reserves in two seconds.”

“Of course. She still struggles to understand the difference in power between herself and her opponents. In Suna, her first friend was the village’s jinchūriki…”

Kakashi almost tripped. “What the fuck ?”

“Yeah, I freaked out too. She just came back to our hotel with him in tow one night. He had hurt her by accident, and when I tried to intimidate the boy as payback, I thought she was going to claw my face off.”

“Hermit’s balls, what did I get myself into…”

“Troubles, that’s what. But honestly? Those kids are worth every second of it. I never thought I’d want to teach before Shikaku-sama asked me to, and now look at me, I absolutely love it. Sometimes, it’s hard, and you’ll suffer since the kids will go through puberty on your watch, but trust me, that pride you’ll feel each time they succeed at something, each time they make any progress… It’s worth it.”

“I’m not even good at teaching.”

“Nor was I! But you’re lucky to have had the Fourth himself as a sensei, and if someone was good at teaching, it was him. You’ll do well, I’m sure of it. In case of doubts, you can still ask Kurenai for help. She knows her kids, knows how they work. She’ll give you the best advice.”

“And you? Will you stay around this time?”

“I don’t intend on setting even a foot outside the village without Hitomi if I can prevent it. Those six years in Suna… It was for her, and I’m happy I did it, but I really missed the kid, and it wouldn’t be careful of me to take any mission from Hiruzen.”

If Kakashi tensed at the lack of respect Ensui showed to their Hokage, he didn’t show it. “Well, in that case, I’ll be able to ask you to help as well. And if something happens to the kids during training, I’ll tell Kurenai it’s your fault so she tears you a new one and not me.”

Ensui burst out laughing, attracting the attention of the three Genin who, a few steps in front of them, were holding their own conversation. The kids exchanged slightly surprised looks, tried to obtain explanations, failed then went back to their own business. Adults were weird anyway.

Chapter Text

During the following days, Team Seven settled in a comfortable and interesting routine. In the morning, while they were waiting for their sensei to arrive, the three children had breakfast on the still damp grass, then sparred in various configurations and analysed each other’s performances. Naruto’s comments were always a bit complicated to understand; because he lacked the necessary vocabulary to describe precisely what he meant, but decoding his approximations was also part of the exercise.

When their sensei arrived, they all went to the Tower to receive their first mission of the day. For the time being, Kakashi kept them on D-ranked missions, which Naruto had a peculiar talent to complicate. Despite that, and despite the ridiculously bad luck that seemed to stick to them like glue, they had never failed a mission that had been assigned to them. After lunch, Kakashi took them to the training ground number three. Often, Ensui was waiting for them there.

He and Kakashi seemed to have found a common interest in training the three kids. It wasn’t rare, after training, to see them both headed to a bar to discuss the following day’s program. Despite how rigorous training could be for the three Genin, none of them complained. It would be incredibly foolish and ungrateful to do so: two Jōnin knew more than one, and thus had more to teach them.

In the evenings, after dinner, Ensui met Hitomi in her bedroom and worked with her on her fūinjutsu and chemistry. Thanks to him, she managed to create her flash bomb seal and quickly filed a patent in the Nara Clan armoury and gave them authorisation to recreate and sell the seal in exchange for a commission. That way, even her most distant cousins would have access to her creation. For people who turned shadows into a weapon, light was a precious resource.

Sometimes, Hitomi managed to steal a few hours away from her duties and spent them with Hinata, be it to watch her train with her team or to take her somewhere in the village. Sasuke and Naruto frequently collaborated to make those outings happen, by taking her work from her and insisting she went to see her girlfriend, all under Kakashi’s and sometimes Ensui’s amused eyes. Hitomi only protested for show: it was sweet and liberating at the same time to have feelings, and she intended on savouring what she could of her relationship with Hinata.

After a week of that regime, they were assigned their first C-ranked mission. Hitomi had to admit her surprise: Naruto hadn’t tried to push the Hokage to assign them a more ‘ninja-like’ mission. In fact, Hiruzen wasn’t even there. Trying to hide her puzzlement, the girl glanced at two shinobi who could only be Shiranui Genma – forehead protector worn as a bandana over chestnut shoulder-long hair, a senbon between his lips – and Yamashiro Aoba – spiky black hair, sunglasses, always frowning – sitting behind a desk. They were the only high-ranking officers present outside of Kakashi.

“Team Seven,” Genma greeted with a grin. “We were expecting you.”

He pulled out a document and handed it to Aoba, who quickly read it before grabbing a green scroll. Green meant C-rank and a shiver ran down Hitomi’s spine. Could it be the Land of Waves already?

“Yūko-sensei, from the Academy, is sick today and needs to be replaced. Your mission isn’t to teach, only to supervise her students in second year. Here is the mission order.”

To Hitomi’s great astonishment, Aoba didn’t hand the scroll to Kakashi but to her. She raised her eyebrows, her hand half-extended towards the order hesitating to cross the last few centimetres.

“The request comes from Iruka-sensei,” Aoba explained, “and he specified he wanted you to lead the mission, Yūhi-san. According to him, you have experience watching over children, especially Academy students.”

The young girl couldn’t help but blush up to the ears, her long, thin fingers finally reaching the scroll and taking it. Once she got it, she stared at it, unable to hide her amazement, then realised her teammates were waiting for her. Her posture slowly stiffened, a perfect picture of dignity and self-assurance – such a pretty façade. Honour and fright mixed inside her, almost intense enough to make her choke and collapse under pressure. Was she good enough, the best possible leader for this mission? She had to be. She refused to fail.

“I accept the mission,” she firmly said. “Team Seven will go to the Academy as quickly as possible.” She bowed and left the room, her teammates docilely stepping aside before following her, Kakashi walking behind his students. It didn’t stop Hitomi from hearing the two Tokubetsu Jōnin laugh gently. Before they closed the door, Genma mumbled something like “I can’t wait to tell Kurenai about it.”

The pink shade on her cheeks turned to bright red but she didn’t falter. She truly felt honoured by Iruka’s choice to request her to lead the mission, and at the same time, she was intimidated by the importance of the event. It was her first mission as unit chief, and her whole career probably depended on its success. It was hard to mess up a C-ranked mission: if it happened, she would probably never be given a unit to lead again.

The team arrived at the Academy very quickly – the main building was linked to the Tower so it was easy to defend in case of emergency, and all the vulnerable students and civilians could evacuate together, protected by paperwork ninjas. Hitomi took the time to correct her stance, to emanate quiet self-assurance, which she was very far from feeling at that moment. She entered the classroom first and heard the students calm down as soon as she stepped in, just like her own group had when she had been a student herself.

“Hello everyone!” she started. “Yūko-sensei is sick today and won’t be able to attend. We’re here to replace her. We won’t be teaching, but we’ve recently started our own careers as shinobi after graduating, so if you have questions, we can try to answer them. The ones who aren’t interested, feel free to do something else, but stay quiet.” She let a solid second pass so the students would process the information, as she had seen Iruka do so many times. “My name is Yūhi Hitomi. To my right is Uzumaki Naruto and, to my left, Uchiha Sasuke. The man hiding behind his book over there is Hatake Kakashi, our sensei and commanding officer.”

The students politely greeted them, then a young Akimichi raised her hand. “What is it like, being part of a ninja team?” she asked with a slight blush.

“It’s awesome, believe it!” Naruto beamed.

“It can be surprising,” Sasuke nuanced with a smirk.

“It’s like working with an extension of your family,” Hitomi concluded. “Well, Sasuke and Naruto are my adopted brothers, but working as a team has brought us a lot closer. During training, it’s easier to progress when you’re driven by the idea that you’ll be able to protect your teammates. And when training becomes hard, because you’re hungry or tired, because you feel like you’re not getting better despite all your efforts, the others are here to pick you up, to stand by your side, to make sure you don’t stay behind. For me, that’s what it feels like.”

The silence that settled on the classroom after she was done answering the question only emphasised the sweetness and affection that had played in her voice. She exchanged a look with her brothers as they subtly adjusted their stances so their body heat would brush against hers. She smiled, a tender, discreet expression, refusing to feel shame for showing emotion to all those kids. They were always told that ninjas had to make themselves numb, to be impassive in all circumstances, to turn their heart cold. She disagreed.

In her opinion, a shinobi was never stronger than when he was animated by an emotion, no matter which one. Be it anger, revenge, protectiveness, loyalty, bravery or love, emotions were a driving force, a secret and infinite source of energy that made her stand back up again and again, even when Kakashi-sensei was afraid he was pushing her too far in training. More than once, Ensui had put a hand on the teacher’s arm and stopped him from trying to stop the exercise she was doing. The Nara knew Hitomi better than anyone and knew the concept of limits was only a challenge in her eyes.

“Did you fight foreign shinobi already?” The question came from a boy who looked civilian-born, sitting at the back of the room. The whole class looked interested in the answer and looks from Sasuke and Naruto enjoined her to handle that one as well.

“No, we didn’t have a mission leading us outside the village yet. I have already fought against Sunajin shinobi, but it was in friendly spars.”

“How are the Sunajin ninjas?”

“I think they are a bit like us. They want to protect their village, their family, their secrets, and are ready, just like us, to offer their life for it. We didn’t go to war with them because of real differences in the past, but because of conflicts, and you’ll have to learn how and why before you get your forehead protectors.”

The questions went on and on for the better part of an hour. When she wasn’t busy answering, Hitomi watched her teammates attentively: Naruto beamed each time he spoke and, if Sasuke didn’t show such obnoxious joy when it was his turn, he was clearly liking this exchange with the students. The girl was always surprised and moved when she saw the last Uchiha interacting with children: it happened from time to time since they were living next to Shikaku’s house, in the heart of the clan’s lands. Each time, he had been perfectly at ease, considerate, delicate, a discreet smile adorning his lips.

“Can you show us a ninjutsu technique?” The question came from a young girl sitting on the front row.

In the space of a second, Hitomi foresaw what would happen if Sasuke used his Fire Release ninjutsu, or if Naruto drowned the classroom in clones. She stepped forward before her brothers could even react. “Sure, no problem! I’ll do it. Watch closely.” She sliced her thumb open with her sword then formed the hand seals for the summoning jutsu before slamming her injured hand to the ground. When the puff of smoke coming with the technique dissipated, only Kurokumo stood there, looking a bit surprised that he had been called without his companions.

“Oh, hi, Lady Summoner!” he chirped. “Do you need me?”

“I just wanted to introduce you to those future shinobi. Children, this is Kurokumo, one of the giant cats I signed a summoning contract with. They help me in battle and with some missions, where their skills can be useful. However, before being warriors obeying my orders, they are my friends, my comrades, as all Konohajin shinobi are. There are a lot of summoning contracts in the world, and several among you will probably sign one of them one day. If it’s the case, remember that the creatures you summon also have an identity, a personality, and that you can’t treat them like mere weapons.”

Without waiting for her to stop talking, Kurokumo had jumped on the first row of desks and, despite his large paws, managed to wander through the students’ things without disturbing a single object. He obviously liked being, for once, the centre of attention. Amongst the summons, he was always a bit occulted by Hoshihi’s commanding presence and Haīro’s easy-going demeanour. Hitomi had chosen well in summoning him.

They finished their mission without any problem. Hitomi secretly admitted her relief when she guided her team back to the Tower to get their payment. It wasn’t a lot as far as C-ranked missions went, since neither fights nor excursions outside the village occured. Still, it was a comfortable income.

The day was still far from over, so the three children and their sensei naturally went to their training ground. Ensui was waiting for them, sitting in the shadow of a large tree. His hands, perfectly still, were forming the Rat Hand Seal, and his eyes were closed, his whole face frozen in an expression of quiet focus. Around him, the shadow was quietly rippling, slowly leaving the ground to take the shape of a deer. Still under the Jōnin’s rigorous control, the animal took a few steps around the tree before melting back in two dimensions against the ground. Ensui opened his eyes, the hint of a smile on his lips.

“New technique, shishou?” Hitomi greeted as she sat just next to him.

“Yeah. I’m trying to create a technique that could be used with rather small reserves but a very good chakra control.”

“For Shikamaru?”

“His birthday is in two months and I think Shikaku will have my head on a spike if I gift another shōgi board to his boy.”

After a few minutes of chatting, Hitomi walked back to her teammates and training could start. Ensui and Kakashi had decided it was time for the team to create strategies adapted to their strengths and weaknesses. Since Hitomi’s summons were an asset in the same way as the kids’ techniques or kenjutsu, the ninja cats were always part of these particular sessions. Their summoner had also decided to work them through different ways of communicating non-verbally.

Hoshihi was in the middle of a sudden growing spurt and, if it didn’t stop soon, Hitomi would be able to ride him like she had seen several Inuzuka shinobi with their ninja dogs. It would be an interesting asset for their teamwork, a possibility to anticipate just like any other that would present themselves to the Genin as they evolved, with each new progress and spark of maturity they would acquire.

When the sun started to dive behind the horizon, Kakashi granted them a well-deserved rest. All three Genin were exhausted and dirty, but the beaming smiles on their faces betrayed the solace they found in training with their sensei. Hitomi’s expression softened with a touch of tenderness when she noticed Hinata waiting for her next to the entrance of the training ground. Without hesitation, the Yūhi heiress went to her girlfriend, hugged her and dropped a soft kiss on her lips, her fingers brushing through the long violet strands of her hair.

“Would you like to go out tonight?” she asked on impulse. “Dinner, on me.” After all, who had decided that she had to spend all the money she was getting from missions on gear and fūinjutsu supplies? She had been dying to take Hinata out to a nice restaurant for two weeks. She wanted a real date, in the civilian part of the village where they would most likely not be spotted by the Hyūga clan. Hinata deserved the efforts. She deserved everything Hitomi could give her. Was it love? She wasn’t sure, and that told her a lot.

Later that night, wearing a black summer dress decorated with pale pink orchids, Hitomi went to pick Hinata up at the entrance of the Hyūga lands, under the pretence of only going to meet their other friends to watch a movie. When they were deep enough in the civilian part of the village, she took her girlfriend’s hand and led her to an Akimichi restaurant. She had gotten a reservation through Shikaku, even though people had to wait for weeks to get to eat there.

They ended up in a park close to the Akimichi land after dinner. The sky was marvellously clear, and Hinata seemed fascinated by the stars. Sitting on a bench, the two teenagers were huddled together, Hitomi’s head on her girlfriend’s shoulder. She breathed in her discreet perfume and shivered as the Hyūga girl’s fingertips danced on the sensitive skin of her neck. She wished she could stop time and make this moment last forever.

After around an hour, spent kissing, cuddling, whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears, the two girls left their little bubble behind so they could go home. As she was standing up from the bench, Hitomi tensed and froze, but, when she looked in the direction that had attracted her attention and extended her meridians towards that point, she couldn’t see or feel anything. She was probably just on edge because she knew they were doing something Hinata’s father wouldn’t approve of. She stayed, for a few seconds, attentive and immobile. When nothing happened, she took her girlfriend’ hand and led her out of the park.

They took their time on the way home, but soon enough they were too close to the Hyūga lands to act as close as they wanted. Hitomi walked Hinata to the entrance, where a guard stood watch. She said goodbye to her girlfriend, very conscious of the scornful look the Chūnin on duty was giving her. Despite this lacklustre conclusion, the mere memory of the evening put her in a state of deep satisfaction. Once she was home, she fell asleep with a smile on her lips, the ghost of Hinata’s perfume leading her to the realm of dreams.

“Hitomi, get down!”

Her mother’s call made the teenage girl snap out of sleep. More by reflex than anything, she jumped out of her bed, ran down the corridor and the stairs under Naruto and Sasuke’s dumbfounded stares. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Hinata in Kurenai’s arms but worry quickly surged over the puzzlement: her girlfriend was crying, her frail shoulders shaking with sobs she was trying to muffle without much success.

“What- What’s happening? Hinata?”

“M-my father…”

Without even asking for permission, Hitomi took Hinata from her mother’s arms so she could hold her instead, cradling her against her torso. “Explain,” she encouraged softly.

“He… A member of the Bunke saw us last night… He told Father and he p-promised that if we didn’t stop seeing each other immediately, he w-would seal my Byakugan.”

A freezing anger invaded Hitomi’s chest. Killing intent slowly bloomed on her skin, thickening the air, but it wasn’t all that was happening within her body. Under her skin, an ominous tension was building up, so intense she had to push it down to be able to think clearly. Bitter tears came to her eyes and she took her decision then, in a heartbeat. She offered herself the luxury of an embrace, breathing in Hinata’s scent, her hands brushing against her neck, her shoulders, her back. Her eyes met Kurenai’s. Mother and daughter had probably reached the same conclusion. “You’re not ready to defy him, Hinata, are you?” she asked in a soft, sad tone.

“B-but I… I…”

“I know, Hinata. But I can’t… I can’t put you at such a risk or put myself between you and your family. I can’t force you to choose.”

They were both crying, lilac eyes lost in a sea of dark red. Hitomi ached and a thousand times damned Hiashi for what he was forcing her to do. He had won, of course. The threat he had used could only make her react one way, and he knew it.

“I don’t want…”

“Me neither, Hinata. But we don’t have a choice, you know it as well as I do. Perhaps… Perhaps in a few years, when we’re stronger, we could… But trying to plan it out in advance is not worth it. It’s over. He has won.”

“I’m so, so sorry, Hitomi…”

“It’s not your fault. You’re a victim of all his schemes, not guilty of planning them with him. And, well, it won’t stop us from being friends, right? I’ll always be there for you, you know it.”

With those words, Hitomi’s heart closed itself to the feelings that had started blooming and growing inside up until that point. Only the anger stayed, cold, patient, unyielding. One day, Hiashi would suffer the consequences of his actions. She was just a Genin, insignificant, dispensable, but one day… Yes, one day she would make him pay for the pain he inflicted upon his own daughter.

Chapter Text

That afternoon, as if he had been told about the whole affair – maybe by Naruto and Sasuke, or even Kurenai herself – Kakashi arrived alone on the training ground. Like a lot of people around Hitomi, he had witnessed a few sweet moments between the two girls but, unlike a lot of other adults, he was versed enough in clan politics to know this relationship was doomed before it even started. Hitomi and Hinata wouldn’t have been able to hide their relationship much longer and, as a member of the Sōke, Hinata had the duty to produce children. Hiashi was cruel, but maybe he would have been softer on the girls if the Hyūga Council hadn’t been watching him like a hawk.

“Hitomi-chan, come here. I have a technique to teach you, I think you’ll really like it.”

Her sensei’s voice helped the teenage girl shake off her furious torpor. Her feet in the river, she had gone through all the Water Release techniques she knew again and again, imagining more than once what she would do to Hiashi once she caught him alone. As if she stood a chance… The village’s archives had told her he was a Jōnin, and had been one for years. He was probably in Kakashi’s league in terms of power, or maybe a bit lower.

Slowly, begrudgingly, she left her attack stance and left the river, one step after the other. She was still shaking with rage, chakra and whispers of vengeance seething silently under her skin as she tried to clear her mind. The air around her was almost unbreathable, her killing intent so tight and thick it was driving all the animals away, but Kakashi didn’t seem affected one bit. It wasn’t surprising: no matter how good that skill of hers was, Hitomi was just a Genin. She lacked the years of cruel experience, of terror and powerlessness beyond words, to be able to form an intent potent enough to affect a veteran such as him.

“Come on, I swear it’s gonna be interesting,” Kakashi cajoled in a tone that was almost too soft compared to what she was used to from him.

One breath after the other, Hitomi managed to push back the storm that was building up inside her, and finally her eyes were lucid enough for the Copy Nin to pull his hand away from the pocket of his jacket where he stored his ninja wire. He didn’t like the idea of forcing one of his cute little students to listen to him by tying her up to the nearest pole or tree, but he had received that treatment from Minato enough times after his father’s and then teammates’ deaths to know how efficient it was.

When she stood in front of him, Kakashi gestured for her to sit on the ground and handed her a towel he had just pulled from a seal so she could dry her naked feet and put her shoes back on. She didn’t need to take them off, usually, to train with Water Release techniques. That she had needed to today only showed how angry she had been, how upset she had felt. He was worried they were only in the eye of the storm, but what could he offer her besides knowledge to distract her, to make her feel better?

“Alright,” he said when she was done, “the technique I want to teach you today is a bit peculiar, you could say. In some parts of the world, people clench and tense in fright just by hearing its name. That means you’ll have to be careful when you use it, be sure to master it before calling upon it in battle. Do you understand?”

The girl nodded, docile and focused. Her sensei’s deep voice had managed to wake inside her a spark of interest that was smothering, as well as it could, the rush of anger drilling holes in her mind. Oh, it was still there, pernicious, well-hidden under the surface of her drive to learn, in the shadow of eyes clear and sharp once more, only waiting for a new occasion to hit – and to do it cruelly, again and again.

“This technique is called the Water Whip. Have you heard of it?” When she shook her head, the sensei continued. “It’s part of a trio of techniques that force water to take the shape of a weapon you can use in close combat. You will learn all three of them, but that one comes first for you, since it’s better suited to your fighting style. Watch, those are the hand seals you’ll have to use. Your chakra will have to go through your Gate of Limit, then turn to water affinity and take the shape of a whip. Wanna try?”

Relieved to find a diversion to her unprecedented anger, Hitomi dived deep into the exercise. After an hour, she only managed to form the vague shape of a whip that fell with a splash to her feet after a mere second, and her hands were aching with the repeated rush of chakra in her meridians. Kakashi had already suggested a break, but she had refused in a dry, stubborn tone. She wanted to master this fucking technique.

And then her will won the battle. She was breathless, her spasming fingers wrapped around the handle of a whip, its point dancing at her feet. She gestured to hit the Earth Clone Kakashi had created for her, and the weapon responded instantly – but hit the air far above the clone’s head. She frowned, thought about what she could possibly have done wrong and tried again. This time, she was closer. Once more and she hit her target, the clone dissipating in a pile of dirt and mud.

“Congratulations! Well, it’s enough for today. I wouldn’t be happy if you managed to injure yourself the day before our big mission…”

“A mission? What mission?”

“A C-ranked mission in the Land of Waves. Ensui-san didn’t take you there, right?”

“No… No, we didn’t go there.” Hitomi’s voice had turned thoughtful, her impassive features hiding her sudden, sharp interest perfectly. She had had doubts about this whole arc of the story when another C-ranked mission had first been assigned to her team – but apparently the Land of Waves still needed help. Fortunately, she had prepared for this years ago. Her plans were ready, as were their variations in case of problems.

“Since you worked so well today, let me take you to the tea house. I’ll use that time to brief you on the mission so you can repeat the information to your brothers.”

In the end, she indeed had to pay, Kakashi having shunshined away just before the bill came, but at least he had stuck to his word and given her all the necessary intel concerning the Land of Waves and the goal of their mission. It followed what she had read in the canon a lifetime ago. She was still disturbed by an unanswered question: how had Hiruzen been fooled to that point on the mission’s parameters? None of the hypotheses she had made were really reassuring.

The first one, the obvious one, was that he didn’t know anything about the real situation in the Land of Waves. In that case, either Danzō had to hold a considerable power on the intel that reached the Hokage’s desk, or the old man had stopped listening to his spies – stopped listening to Jiraiya. Her second hypothesis supposed that Hiruzen knew what was really happening in the Land of Waves and had still chosen to send Team Seven there. And, in that case, he had to have a goal by picking them for that dangerous mission. Could he want Naruto to open himself to the Kyūbi’s power?

None of those ideas were comforting to Hitomi, but she didn’t have any choice. She had to put this question aside for the moment. It wasn’t time yet to go after the Third, and even less so to go after the Councilman hidden in his shadow. She still had a whole universe of progress to make before she had even the slightest chance of overcoming either of them. But she wouldn’t forget. She couldn’t forget any harm they had and would cause to her loved ones. She didn’t care about their reasons; she would make them pay one day. The monstrous genocide they had organised was only their largest offense. They had  a lot more blood on their hands, and she would make them pay for every drop of it.

When she came home, the sun was setting behind the horizon, and the mood in the living room was quite subdued. Naruto and Sasuke were whispering in a corner while Kurenai was sharpening a stack of kunai. Hinata had left soon after the breakup; Hitomi had walked her to Kiba’s house on the Inuzuka lands before going to the training ground. She was sure Tsume and Hana would be a great help to her ex-girlfriend. Thinking about her in those terms hurt.

Hitomi didn’t even think she had been in love with Hinata. She had felt for her a tenderness far greater than what she felt for any of her friends, that at least she was certain of. It was the reason why she was so angry: this relationship hadn’t even had the time to bloom that it was already a thing of the past, buried under political games far above them. It was unfair, and they were powerless against it.

“Boys, we have a big mission starting tomorrow and Kakashi-sensei told me to brief you and help you prepare.” She knew she had interrupted their talk, but she lacked patience and delicateness today. Everything that could have softened her seemed far below the surface of her mind, unable to reach her conscious actions and thoughts. She knew it was distress speaking, that she still had in her the ability to be sweet, kind, attentive, but she just wanted to drown in the fire of her anger. In a voice that was probably stiff and distant, she started listing the parameters of the mission, her perfect memory taking over where her dull fury made her want to scream wordlessly.

She spent the evening helping Naruto and Sasuke prepare for the trip. She crafted them several storage seals, replacing the ones they had overused. The repetitive dance of paintbrush against parchment and the smell of ink helped her reach a state of fragile peace, probably too precarious to fool anyone. Of course, the boys knew what had happened with Hinata, the reasons for her dark mood, and reacted in more or less subtle ways: Naruto was sitting so close to her he kept brushing against her, and Sasuke’s eyes didn’t leave her for a moment.

That night, she had a nightmare about the Land of Waves, dreaming of a little motor boat attacked in the middle of an estuary, then jumped awake – just to find Kakashi crouching on the frame of her open window. She reacted without thinking, throwing the kunai she kept under her pillow to him. He simply made himself smaller, the weapon whistling just next to his ear. Usually, he would have smiled at this attempt at self-defence. The fact that he didn’t made a chill of unease run down Hitomi’s spine.

“Dress up, Hitomi-chan. The Hokage ordered that I take you with me for a quick mission before leaving tomorrow.”

As she obeyed his instructions and dressed in a whisper of fabric against skin, Hitomi glanced at her alarm clock, on the bedside table. One in the morning… A mission that took less than nine hours to be accomplished didn’t bode well, especially when it involved an elite Konohajin Jōnin fetching one of his students from her bed.

“It’s an assassination mission. Around midnight, a member of the Encryption and Decoding department turned rogue. We have to find him before he reaches the border. Your role will be to follow my every move – you are not allowed to intervene in any way or to make your presence known. Understood?”

She nodded, struggling to keep an impassive face as a wave of ice took over her heart. Why her? She was only a Genin, why… The realisation made her want to vomit. Hiruzen could have two objectives by sending her so young on such a mission. Either he wanted to divert her from a shinobi career, or he wanted to prepare her to accomplish such missions once she would be promoted to Jōnin. Even though neither of those hypotheses sounded pleasing, she still hoped for the second one and found it more probable as well. After all, the skills she was developing were fitting for the Assassination Brigade.

“Let’s get going,” Kakashi ordered softly.

Without a word, Hitomi followed as her teacher took off, her frail shadow perfectly melting into the darkness of the night. The new moon had risen two days ago, so the only light came from the distant stare of the stars, and a silver crescent so thin it was barely visible. A bit of focus, a mild rush of chakra, and Hitomi’s eyes adjusted to night vision. She learnt that trick in sixth year, during one of the last survival exercises Iruka had assigned to her class. She couldn’t have imagined using it in such a situation, not so soon.

After running for an hour, the teenage girls started to have a hard time following. In normal conditions, she would have kept going far longer, but she had spent hours training earlier in the day, and Kakashi pushed her to a far more demanding pace than what she was used to. A pale fire lit up in her flanks, spreading in dull beats each time she breathed in. She refused to give in or slow down – it would be too much of a failure for her liking, really too much. Since she didn’t have a satisfying way out, she just ignored that alert signal, focusing on the tenuous and regular sound of her feet against the tree branches. That way she could ignore the pain.

Kakashi attracted her attention after thirty more minutes. In sign language, he ordered her to hide in a bush and observe. He himself stopped at the border of a clearing, his chakra barely muffled. Did he want to give a fighting chance to the target? Hitomi didn’t know, but she obeyed his commands to a T, hiding her chakra to the best of her capabilities as her body faded into the shadow of the bush that would give her the best view of the clearing.

And of this view she didn’t miss a thing. The man, the deserter, had brown hair and a small frame, the lower half of his face flecked with scars that looked like shrapnel or sparks. He looked out of breath, frightened, his widening eyes searching for an escape route. He wouldn’t find one. He wore a Chūnin vest – and didn’t stand a chance against the Copy Nin anyway. Kakashi stepped in the clearing, stoic and vaguely threatening. Killing intent slowly formed on his skin, a sun to Hitomi’s candle flame. If this intent had been targeted towards her, the Yūhi girl wouldn’t even have been able to breathe.

Kakashi stood as a rampart in front of his target, indisputably strong, gifted with a crushing presence, thin and streamlined as the hound that had once given him his code name in the ANBU. He got a kunai from his back pouch then took a fighting stance under Hitomi’s stare and attacked. In other circumstances, maybe he would have offered the man a chance to surrender, but people from the Encryption and Decoding department weren’t given such opportunities. They were supposed to be tailed by ANBU if they took even a step outside the village; their mere existence was at the same time essential and a terrifying threat for a Hidden Village. In their memory laid secrets of the village and the key to access much more. A traitor from that department… Death was the only possible way out of service for him.

Hitomi realised she was hyperventilating when Kakashi formed the hand seals for the Chidori technique and the blue pale light appeared in the clearing, followed by the thousands of bird’s chirping that gave it its other name. Curled up in a ball under the damp leaves of her bush, Hitomi tried to calm down but had to bite her fist hard enough to draw blood to muffle the little panicked whimpers that were escaping her throat. Never, during the past few weeks, had she considered Kakashi as what he really was: a merciless killer, so good in that field it was almost laughable. Never had she thought about the blood staining his hands or the blood that would one day stain hers, not with such acuity, not having under her very eyes the proof that it was indeed what she had been taught to do.

All the panic and terror rushing through her veins did nothing to change the outcome of the fight, the way the hand surrounded by lightning dove into the deserter’s torso and existed through his back, shattering his shoulder blade. At least the man died instantly – a meagre comfort for Hitomi, who left, despite her sickly shivers, the bush where she had been hiding to enter the clearing. She only took two trembling steps over the treeline before falling to her knees, her breathing still shallow and painful, blood slowly dripping from the bites she had inflicted on her fingers in the hope of forcing herself to silence.

Kakashi didn’t turn to her right away. First, he unrolled a storage scroll specially conceived to hold corpses and activated it after putting the paper over the dead shinobi’s body. He only left a stain of blood on the ground where a bleeding corpse had been a moment before; at any other time, this would have fascinated Hitomi, she would have begged to examine the scroll. Then, Kakashi took a cloth in one of his pockets and used it to wipe out the blood on his hands, face and torso, his cautious and meticulous gestures erasing the liquid as well as they possibly could.

Only then did he turn to her, look at her, his hands about as clean as they could and his eyes acute and full of sorrow. She couldn’t help but stiffen, even though she knew he wouldn’t ever raise a hand against her. She wasn’t a deserter, didn’t intent on ever turning rogue – except maybe if she couldn’t stop Danzō from taking power. It was irrational, she knew it was; knowing so didn’t help her manage the unstoppable fear running deep inside her.

Hitomi needed a few moments to register her sensei’s arms around her, his embrace, his large, powerful hand turned soft and comforting against her back, his deep, soothing voice whispering senseless promises of safety in her ear. Several minutes later, she realised he was apologising, explaining that he had had to follow orders, that he had tried to make Hiruzen understand she wasn’t ready but the war chief hadn’t listened to him. He was sorry that he had made her see that, sorry to know that, one day not long from now, it would be her turn to do it.

When Hitomi calmed down, the man relaxed his embrace but didn’t let go of her. His two hands, warm and sturdy, enveloped the one she had wounded by trying to stay quiet. She perceived the caress of his chakra against her skin and, when she saw her fingers again, they were intact, the small bite marks erased like bad memories. This gesture, maybe, comforted her more efficiently than the hug had, for a reason she couldn’t quite grasp.

He took her by the shoulder and led her out of the clearing, then lifted her in his arms as if she weighed nothing – and it was probably not so far from truth for him – before walking back towards Konoha. He was so much faster now that he didn’t have to worry about her being able to follow. Despite that, his every movements were fluid, precise, free. It was the gait of a man who had been everywhere in the world without his legs ever going weak. Almost without noticing, Hitomi closed her eyes.

She dozed off during the journey back, her anxiety muffled now that adrenalin had stopped enhancing it. She would have probably fallen asleep properly if the memory of the very moment her teacher had killed that nukenin hadn’t played on repeat in her mind. Kakashi seemed to understand: each time she tensed, his arms went tighter around her, and a deep, soft sound rose from his throat, soothing her again.

When he put his student in bed, Kakashi decided he couldn’t leave her alone. He had been in her place once, and loneliness had been the hardest part of it after seeing his first corpse. The fact it had been his own father had only made things worse, but Kakashi didn’t think about those very painful memories if he could avoid it. Still, he knew how that kind of silence and isolation hurt, and the way a psychological wound could become infected, how it gangrened the mind day after day, year after year.

He wasn’t the person Hitomi could talk to about her trauma and the many more to come – the ones a ninja could only escape by dying prematurely. He had learned all too well to accept his own wounds, something he didn’t want for any of his students. That night, in the privacy of his mind, the Copy Nin lost a bit of the respect he had always held for Hokage the Third, linked to him by a chain of masters and students, once so great and now so far sunk in his mistakes. “I’m gonna leave you with Pakkun tonight, alright?” he whispered in as soothing a tone as he could manage. “He’ll wake you up and take you to the Gates in a few hours. See you tomorrow, Hitomi-chan.”

He didn’t wish her a good night or pleasant dreams, because he knew she would probably stare at her ceiling for a good part of the several hours of rest she still had before going back on a mission. Hiruzen was crazy to have ordered him to take the girl with him so close before her first real, long mission, the first outside the village – as if he had forgotten the damages this first encounter with death caused to a young mind, or the time it needed to heal afterwards.

When the Copy Nin left her room, Hitomi opened her eyes on the silence that was slowly settling back around her. She couldn’t close her eyelids anymore, despite Pakkun’s warm and comforting weight against her side. Right at that moment, she felt like she couldn’t do anything, anything at all.

Chapter Text

In the morning, since she was unable to sleep anyway, Hitomi left her bed a few minutes before dawn and took the scrollpack she had prepared for the mission, her movements rushed and numbed by the exhaustion that was seriously starting to weigh her down. The first hours of the morning were always the hardest after an almost sleepless night: she would feel better in the afternoon, physically at least. Her mind was a whole other story, one she had decided to ignore for as long as possible.

She left the house before anyone was up and was very careful to avoid the tea room where Ensui went to properly wake up every morning. At such an early hour, the only people awake and around were shinobi going home after their latest missions and the ones that were leaving for their next one. Her back stiff, she stood next to the Gates after nodding in greeting to Izumo and Kotetsu. Pakkun had left her halfway to meet with Kakashi and probably report to him. This idea slightly unsettled Hitomi. She hadn’t exactly broken down hysterically but being unable to sleep after seeing her first murder was probably something a sensei would want to monitor.

Naruto and Sasuke arrived almost an hour later and seemed to realise immediately that something wasn’t right with their adopted sister – maybe from the way she was standing, the tension in her shoulder line poorly hiding her discomfort. Naruto walked to her and shifted so their forearms would brush against each other; Sasuke stood to her other side but didn’t touch her. After a few minutes, he gestured to get her attention and put a fresh little apple in her hand. She raised an eyebrow and he shrugged. “No dishes in the sink this morning, nor any smell of soap, which meant you didn’t eat this morning. Eat now.”

The command was said in such an impassive voice she obeyed without thinking about it, the first mouthful bursting with tart juice on her tongue. She drank a sip from her gourd and continued eating slowly under Sasuke’s vigilant stare; when she was done, she threw the apple core on the ground, as all Konohajin did in hope that a tree would grow there. The Land of Fire didn’t lack trees, quite the opposite, but all the shinobi who had been raised there agreed on at least one thing: you never had enough trees in front of you.

Kakashi arrived not so long after that, the client in tow – that the two men shared a lack of punctuality didn’t surprise Hitomi, and nor did the scruffy, already sozzled look of the bridge builder. His clothes betrayed a wealth long past, and his hand was wrapped around a bottle of alcohol like his life depended on it. It had probably helped him lie when he had requested the mission. Only liquid bravery could make someone stupid enough to lie to a high-ranking shinobi.

“Are you fucking kidding me? This is the team Konoha gives me for that super important mission? They look like brats, especially the runt in the middle!”

Hitomi was already opening her mouth to defend Naruto, since he had been the one insulted in the canon, but then she realised she was the runt in the middle, with her adoptive brothers flanking her. Any other day, she would have probably laughed it off, but exhaustion had always aggravated her temper. She stepped towards the man, killing intent already blooming on her skin, but Kakashi’s strong hand on her shoulder stopped her. His thumb was pressing slowly against a knot of nerves, threat or promise of pain if she attacked Tazuna. “Come on now, Hitomi-chan, you can’t attack the client who hired us to protect him, alright?”

“Yeah, that’s right!” the bridge builder boasted. “You’re all gonna take me to the Land of Waves, and you better do a good job! I’m very important an’ all.”

Hitomi resisted the impulse to roll her eyes, allowing her body to relax slowly under her sensei’s hand to make him understand she had regained control over her anger, that she wasn’t gonna turn berserk and make a pair of shoes and a pile of minced meat out of their client. After a few seconds, he patted her shoulder and let her go. That simple gesture of affection made her understand he knew what was making her react so badly. She knew he had been in her shoes once, another sensei patting his shoulder in a silent promise everything would be okay. Had he known, too, that it was a lie?

A few minutes later, the four shinobi and their client left the village. Their first day on the road was eventless, which threw Hitomi off-balance. Since the canon had never been very clear on temporality, she should have assumed such things would happen, but she was really disconcerted, as always, when time tricked her into thinking something would happen earlier or later than it really did. She had spent the whole day looking for the first sign of the ambush waiting for them somewhere, terrified by the idea, unable to control the tension affecting her every reaction – in vain. The Demon Brothers were just so lazy .

She put herself forward for first watch but Kakashi wasn’t having it, and both Sasuke and Naruto supported him on that decision. Irrational anger invaded Hitomi’s mind for a moment. She pushed it down severely, refusing to act childishly during her first mission outside the village. This was also an important step in her career. And if that reason wasn’t enough of a muzzle, she knew, deep inside, that she was being unreasonable: she had to sleep if she wanted to be strong enough for the ordeals to come.

She dreamed of blood and tears, of the taste of iron and salt on her lips, of an endless sea and a mountain in the mist. Sasuke was the one to wake her up, a hand against her mouth to muffle the yelp that always escaped her when she woke up from a nightmare. He had learned those uncontrollable habits that clung to her skin, he who had spent so many nights in her bed, he who expected similar demons to meet him in his sleep.

Despite the nightmare, most of the exhaustion that had wrapped around her bones like a second skin was but a memory. She left the bundle of blankets she had used as a bed, shivering in the cold air, and sat on the tree stump her brother had chosen to stand watch. The ghost of his body heat lingered there, as well as a hint of chakra, discreet and appeasing. She sighed, a puff of white mist escaping her parted lips. When she had been on the road with Ensui, an eternity ago, in the icy nights that the Desert threw at them, she had loved trying to decipher shapes in their breaths. That time seemed so completely over, and she didn’t miss anything more than the feeling of being minuscule and safe, wrapped in the benevolent and feral shadow of her master.

Silently so as not to wake up her companions, Hitomi unsheathed Ishi to Senrigan. The tantō was still so magnificent it was almost painful to look at, still deadly sharp, still very slightly infused with Shisui’s chakra, although it had started to fade. She had never really used it, had never brandished it with the intent to kill her opponent. In a few hours, or maybe a few days, she would have too, and the mere idea tied her stomach in knots.

Nothing could protect her from that unavoidable development, nothing in her power anyway. All she could do was make sure she was ready. Her fingers snatched the whetstone without her even thinking about it and started sharpening the blade. The rhythmical, long strokes soothed her, as did the soft fiction noise each time stone kissed chakra-infused steel. She couldn’t help but touch that sword like lovers touched each other, with care and tenderness – and love, too.

Could she, just like this blade, grow sharper in Kakashi’s care? He was so different from Ensui, so loyal to the village and its power that it almost blinded him. If she went to him with her secrets, he would probably repeat them right away to Hiruzen, so sure of doing what was best for her, unknowingly sealing the fate of a child he had sworn to protect. After all, like everyone, he thought ROOT had been disbanded. If even the Hokage didn’t know that it had reformed, how was he, loyal and keen to please the man he admired so much, to know the village’s darkest and best concealed secret?

Hitomi, however, was unaware that Kakashi’s faith in Hiruzen had irrevocably wavered. He had been torn by the attribution of his Genin team, since he hadn’t been ready for such a charge, but he had accepted it because it had been his duty, because there were only a handful of shinobi in Konoha good enough to teach and the others already had their own team to care for. He had accepted, because Hiruzen had always taken good decisions – hadn’t he? It was one of the things that made him a great leader, one of the reasons the clans still trusted him and followed him despite the disasters and conflicts that had hit the village under his rule.

Some of those disasters and conflicts hadn’t been his fault. Others had been.

Other decisions had continued gnawing at the absolute trust he had offered to the man. More of such decisions had only been avoided by Kurenai’s lucidity. Minato’s son, alone in a flat, without any supervision, at barely twelve years old? It would have been a folly, even the Hound could see that. As for Sasuke… Kakashi had heard, in a bar Jōnin liked to patron, that the Councilmen had pressured the Hokage to refuse her wardship request. A little boy, not even out of the Academy, would have been forced to live alone where his family had been massacred, if his sister in arms hadn’t received support from the Nara, Akimichi and Yamanaka in her request. Just thinking about how things would have turned out in that eventuality made Kakashi shiver in horror. The boy was already messed up as it was; his sensei had gotten closer to him and knew which path he would have followed then. Even with a loving adopted family, he wasn’t quite saved yet. They all had a long road ahead before reaching that destination.

As for Hitomi… Hitomi was such a thorny problem. She was the unknown variable in Team Seven, the only one of the three children who didn’t remind him of the team he had once been a part of. Most of all, she was unpredictable, he had realised it many times at his own expense. Sometimes, she behaved in accordance with her age, laughing carelessly with her adopted brothers, and sometimes… Sometimes, redoubtable intelligence gleamed in her eyes, a feral power that wouldn’t concede victory to anyone or anything. Kakashi was afraid when he witnessed that look in her eyes. It reminded him of the boy he had been once – so self-assured, so certain to be right in whatever he did.

The mission he had taken her along for had landed a heavy hit against Hitomi’s assurance, Kakashi saw it. He had expected it to – she was so sweet deep inside, so little prepared, a child. Akin to a stormy sea, a quiet, cold fury had ragged inside him when he had seen her so broken and terrified afterwards. That feeling had washed away more of the respect he had once blindly offered to the Third. Kakashi’s duty went to his entire village and its wellbeing; the village needed a strong, healthy generation to protect it. Kakashi only had distaste for the rotting roots hiding far below the surface.

He was the first to wake up that morning and stared for a while at the young kunoichi. The unsheathed tantō, a true work of art in the Copy Nin’s opinion, was carefully laying on her legs, the recently sharpened steel throwing cold reflections where the light was shining upon it. He couldn’t see the girl’s face, only long, wavy strands of her dark hair dancing in the wind, and the dew shining around her.

She turned her head towards him when he stood up and greeted him with a slight nod, silent as to respect their teammates’ sleep. Her eyes had changed, a subtle evolution he couldn’t miss. If she didn’t overcome the numbness that had come after the shock, she would grow cold, distant, would slowly lose her taste for the relationships so dear to her heart, for any type of feelings. Kakashi was ready to resort to extremes he didn’t quite comprehend yet to stop that from happening to her. Konoha didn’t need one more killing machine. “At ease, Hitomi-chan. No one will attack us here, now that the sun is up. Come and help me make breakfast.”

Docilely, she sheathed her weapon and left her seat. In her gait, the ninja she would one day become was already apparent. She still lacked the perfect silence, redoubtable flexibility and quiet assurance that inhabited her shishou’s steps, but, one day, it was unavoidable, he would ensure she inherited each of those characteristics, and Kakashi could see it better than anyone, he who had had one of the best teachers the village had ever known as a master. “Say, Hitomi-chan, how do you feel being out of the village again?” he asked as she approached him.

“I had missed it,” she said with the slightest hint of hesitation. “I love Konoha, but the world is full of things you can’t find in our village.”

“You loved the Desert too, right?”

“The sand was annoying, slipping everywhere and all. But the smell of dunes and sun… The best friend I had there smelled like that back then. I wonder if it’s still the case.”

The girl’s hand briefly brushed against the bump in one of her pockets, where she kept her communicating notebook. Since she was out of the village again, she wrote to Shikamaru as well as Gaara, and had given notebooks to her mother and Ensui so she could talk to them too. During the hour of free time Kakashi had granted his Genin the previous night, she had written to each of them to tell them about the beginning of her mission and what she had seen in the Forest of Fire. With the civilian pace they were forced to take for Tazuna’s sake, she had plenty of time to look around.

When Naruto and Sasuke woke up, she had had time to prepare eggs, to cut thick slices of bread and to garnish them with leftovers from the previous day’s meat, quickly reheated in what was left of the fire. Managing a camp was very different with four shinobi than it was with only three, and having a civilian charge disturbed their habits as well. She had had trouble adjusting but felt better that morning, without exhaustion to numb her senses and thought process.

They broke camp an hour after the sun had risen. Two hours later, Hitomi finally saw that sign of an ambush she was expecting and fearing at the same time. Her eyes spotted the puddle, ten centimetres in width, that was laying in the middle of the way, and she had to suppress a sigh: this was just so fucking stupid . There had been no rain whatsoever in days in the area. Since they had left Konoha, they hadn’t seen anything akin to traces of a past shower, and yet here that puddle was, so limpid it looked like it had formed barely a few minutes earlier.

She tapped her thigh in a seemingly erratic rhythm, using the Konohajin morse. She had learned that at the same time as the sign language, at the Academy, and had made sure her friends and cats could use it as well. The noise was weak, but she knew that Kakashi, with his hearing akin to a dog’s, heard it. “ Suspect element , she said. Probable ambush. Orders?

The answer came quickly. “ Stand down. Ascertain target.

Therefore, she pretended she was shocked, terrified even, when the two ninjas sprung out of the puddle in the middle of their group and sliced Kakashi in three pieces. She didn’t have to look too deep inside herself to find those emotions: her heart was throbbing in her throat in anguish. She just gave them time to move clearly towards Tazuna then unsheathed her tantō and sliced her thumb open before slamming her hand against the ground. “Ninpō: The Iron Claws Brigade!”

Her three cats built for fighting appeared in a puff of smoke. Hoshihi stood in the middle, the tallest and most ferocious of their group, and immediately threw himself on the closest of the Demon Brothers, the one who was attacking Naruto. The two other cats followed, black and grey fur turning to a blur and a storm of feral hisses. At the same time, Hitomi stepped in front of the other assailant, Sasuke with her. She exchanged a glance with her brother and, without a word, they decided what to do.

With a brutal shove of her sword, Hitomi bought Sasuke the distraction he needed to stick that terrible shuriken chain the brothers were renowned for to a tree with a kunai. It didn’t stop the duo for more than a second, just enough time to shed the now useless weapon. Despite that, they were still heavily armed, and the one Hitomi and Sasuke were fighting against seemed extremely offended to have been forced to abandon his favourite toy against mere Genin. He rushed towards Sasuke, steel claws extended, approaching his exposed throat.

“Water Style: Water Whip!” Hitomi didn’t lose a second and made the weapon snap in the air, wrapping it around the enemy ninja’s throat so she could pull downwards with all her strength to make him lose his balance. On Naruto’s side, Haīro yowled in pain, dark red splattering his grey pelt. Fury exploded in her summoner, anger and failure mixing inside her to create an unstable and dangerous gush.

Hoshihi didn’t give her time to be distracted or upset: every bit as furious as she was, he hit the nukenin so hard at the base of his spinal cord that he made the man scream with all he had. The first of the brothers fell on the ground, the cat immediately jumping to his throat mercilessly to end his life with a miserable, wet gurgling sound.

The last brother hissed in anger and doubled his efforts against the two children facing him. Hitomi’s attack had barely annoyed him and he was slowly getting the advantage on them, one hit after the other. Suddenly, he managed to make her trip and to push Sasuke away. He raised his steel claws, the gleam of a cruel smile in his eyes, and…

And a kunai went through his hand like butter, stopping him from killing the girl who had his brother’s blood on her hands. His eyes widened with sudden terror and with the pain rushing through his arm, he realised, far too late, that he had never had the slightest chance of killing Hatake Kakashi. Neither he nor his brother had been strong enough for such an opponent, and yet they had thought… The last of the Demon Brothers was thrown against a tree, his spinal cord breaking with a sickening snap, and he stopped thinking forever.

Deep silence fell on the road all of a sudden, its soil already drinking blood. Hitomi tried to catch her breath on the damp patch of grass where she had fallen so close to her own demise. She was slightly dizzy, her muscles sorer than they had ever been in any training. The knee the other ninja had hit to make her fall hurt and throbbed, a bruise already blooming on her skin. Tazuna, who had been protected all that time by Kurokumo and Naruto, was as pale as a corpse behind the sea of clones the jinchūriki had used to shield him, but he was alive and well.

That much couldn’t be said of the Demon Brothers. In the canon, they had survived this encounter. As she recovered, Hitomi couldn’t tear her gaze away from the body fallen under Hoshihi’s body, still bristling in anger, and more specifically from the dark red wound on his throat. For her cat, this hadn’t been more than taking out a particularly feisty prey. For her… It was the first death she was truly responsible for. The fact that this responsibility was indirect didn’t matter.

She sat up, her eyes wide and her skin sickeningly pale, her hands contracting like talons around the guard of her tantō. Something balled like a fist inside her chest and she realised, as if she was out of her own body, that her breathing had turned hoarse, shallow, painful. Her shoulders tensed weakly, a buzzing sound invaded her ears, and she stayed there trying to understand, unable to calm down or stand up.

Suddenly, Kakashi’s hands and chakra were on her. She lost her eyes in his, both of his, one black and the other red, red… A shudder ran through her whole body like a ripple through still water and her eyelids dropped down. 

Chapter Text

When Hitomi came back to her senses, night had fallen on the Land of Fire. Camp had been installed not so far from the road, but the spot was different enough that she couldn’t recognise it with sight alone. Without the smell of blood and water that hit her when the wind changed, she wouldn’t even have guessed that they were still on the same road. Naruto was sitting next to her, a hand on her shoulder to feel for the first sign of her waking up – he beamed, so obviously relieved that she was opening her eyes. “Hitomi, finally! Kakashi-sensei told us everything was normal, but Sasuke and I, we were still worried! What happened to you after the fight?”

The girl answered with a careful shrug. She didn’t want to tell her brother that she didn’t know, because it would have been a lie. She was still able to recognise a panic attack when she was going through one. After sitting up, she looked around the camp. Sasuke was using his chakra to stoke the fire and work on his chakra control at the same time, Tazuna next to him staring at his sake bottle down to the last quarter with hesitation. Behind them, Kakashi was making sure his kunai were sharp. Her three cats were patrolling in the shadows of the woods surrounding the little clearing where her team had decided to settle. On her lips, Hitomi forced a smile and gestured for Naruto to help her up. “Don’t worry. Whatever it was, it’s over now, I feel better. You should go help Sasuke with this fire, and perhaps get started on a meal. It’s your turn, isn’t it?”

“Aaaah, you’re right! How do you always remember?”

She let out a half-genuine chuckle then got up and stepped away from Naruto, still weak on her feet. She grabbed a blanket tossed on the ground and draped it over her shoulders. A quick whiff told her it was Sasuke’s. He wouldn’t mind, he who was never cold. She arrived next to Kakashi-sensei, who stared at her for a few moments before going back to checking his weapons.

For a long time, they didn’t say anything, then the teacher started, in a low voice so only she could hear him. “You’re not the first to have such a reaction after a real fight. It’s only a problem if it becomes your systematic response, but I’m gonna watch you closely starting from now.”

“It’s just… The mission with you, and now this… It’s a lot.”

“I understand that, Hitomi-chan. That’s why I think it’s not a serious problem and that you can overcome it. Your mind is strong enough to take it. But, no matter if it happens again or not, I want you to see a therapist. Normally, Genin don’t need it, but you’re not just any Genin, are you?”

“I didn’t ask for it…”

“That you asked for it or not isn’t important. The village uses you as it sees fit, and in turn you use the resources laid down for you depending on your needs. It’s best for you to start therapy now, when your mind is still in quite a good shape. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here.”

Hitomi didn’t q. When Kakashi had been her age, he had already been drowning in his own demons, between his father’s suicide and the war that hadn’t allowed him to mourn properly. When would he have had time to go to therapy? She was already extremely surprised that he was bringing it up. Where was the Kakashi with no real mentoring skills from the canon?

“I wouldn’t know what to say to a shrink,” she mumbled.

“You don’t have to speak right away. Mine started by telling me about her, to make me feel more at ease. Would you want me to make an appointment with her for you?”

For several seconds, Hitomi stared at her teacher without any visible reaction. She could only see one of his eyes now, the one so black she couldn’t make out the pupil from the iris. Still quite hesitant, she finally nodded. She had seen more than her share of therapists and psychiatrists in the Previous World, to put words on some of the things that had turned her life hard, cold, tasteless. She was happy in her new life, so she hadn’t thought she’d need that help again. Stupid and presumptuous, without a doubt.

“It’s decided then,” Kakashi said in a gentle, comforting tone. “ I hope it’s gonna help you, to have someone to talk to about those things. I discovered it was important for me, anyway…”

His thoughtful tone made Hitomi understand it was time to leave him to himself. After a slight hesitation, she went to sit next to Sasuke. He was done working on the fire but hadn’t stepped away from it. He greeted her with a nod and shifted to make room for her.

“I was worried for you.”

“I’m sorry, Sasuke. Do we know why those ninjas attacked us? This was supposed to be a C-ranked mission, but ninjas are at least…”

“B-rank, yeah. Apparently, the man who owns most of the Land of Waves’ industries wants to stop Tazuna from finishing his bridge at all cost, even if he has to kill him for that, just so he keeps the monopoly over trade. The bridge would break that monopoly. We can expect other enemy shinobi, but probably not right now.”

“And Kakashi-sensei decided to continue anyway?”

“He didn’t want to but Naruto convinced him. He said you wouldn’t want us to give up on it, and I quite agree with him. We were right, weren’t we?”

“Yeah… I wouldn’t want to give up on this mission, or on any mission, if I can help it. I just would have liked to not kill that man…”

“You didn’t, Hitomi. Hoshihi did. And, for him, it was probably just like killing a rabbit or a rat. Okay, you summoned him, but that doesn’t make you responsible for his actions, nor for your other cats’ actions. They are almost adults now, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. According to Kurokumo, they will soon be considered warriors, and will be able to take apprentices that will add to my summons if they want to.”

“That contract is really good. I’d like to get my hands on my clan’s contracts, the Rams and the Falcons, but I have no idea where they are hidden.”

“Shikaku-ojisan said the Uchiha had weapons and storage hideouts all over the Land of Fire, and even outside of it just in case they had to flee. Apparently, some of those hideouts are even older than Konoha. Maybe we can go see some of them during our next missions?”

“I’d like that, yeah. I’m not even done going through everything we got from the clan lands in the village, but I’d like to get everything I can before…”

He didn’t finish his sentence, but he didn’t need to for Hitomi to understand what he meant: he wanted to get everything before Itachi could get his hands on those objects, books, scrolls, everything that could make the nukenin even stronger. She wasn’t even sure the older Uchiha was interested in any of those things. A much more powerful adversary, armed with a Sharingan as well, haunted Hitomi’s mind. She had no way of sharing that secret with anyone – how was she even supposed to know? No, the time wasn’t quite right yet.

Naruto joined them a few moments later, handing them steaming bowls of food. If the blonde was the best at cooking, Sasuke was their hunter; even without his Sharingan, he was able to kill his prey with a kunai right to the eye, and more than once the three young Genin had skinned his kills and sold the hides to Konohajin civilians. It was only a small part of their income, but no one frowned upon ryōs honestly won. “Kakashi-sensei told us that in three days, at our current pace, we’ll reach the beach. Have you ever seen the sea?”

Sasuke shook his head, but Hitomi nodded, her head filled with memories of the time she had spent with Ensui on one peculiar pebble beach. She had been so happy, so free, so innocent back then.

“Really, Hitomi? How is the sea then?”

“You’ll know you’re getting close before you can even see it if you focus on smell. It’s blue or grey depending on the colour of the sky, and it looks infinite. When you bathe in it for a long time and then leave, it’s like the movements of the waves follow you for a few steps, so you have to be careful not to fall.”

“I really can’t wait!”

 Hitomi couldn’t suppress a small giggle, more sincere and light this time that she had been after waking up. No one could make darkness retreat from people’s minds like Naruto could. She shifted slightly, just enough to press her shoulder against his for a moment, then straightened up and started to eat the rabbit stew he had cooked. The food warmed her up from the inside just like the fire did from the outside, and she thanked Naruto with a smile.

The following morning, they got on the road again. The weather stayed merciful: summer was approaching, as shy and distant as the beautiful Does haunting the Nara forest, who only showed a flash of brown pelt in the corner of the eye before disappearing out of sight. Day after day, Hitomi looked better, even if she spent long hours in deep silence. Kakashi had given her a lot of things to think about.

As the trees grew sparser and the smell of iodine grew stronger, they had to fight off a group of bandits. After the Demon Brothers, those civilian thugs hardly were worthy opponents, so Hitomi didn’t summon her cats that time. Under Kakashi’s satisfied stare, the three children tied their attackers up, then they all went out of their way to drop the five men to the police station of the closest village, since it was a ninja’s duty.

And then they reached the sea. That day, the sky was such an extraordinary shade of blue that Naruto’s eyes almost looked dull in comparison, and that amazing colour reflected in the water. The blonde boy let out an amazed exclamation but, instead of running to the waves like he would have done a few years earlier, he was content just to look, beaming so hard Hitomi’s cheek ached just glancing at him.

Tazuna had apparently prepared better than Hitomi had thought based on his initial lie: he guided them along the beach to a small fishing village – rather a group of six tiny houses than a real village – where a man who had agreed to take him back to the Land of Waves was waiting for him. They arrived at the village in the evening and were scheduled to take to the sea in the morning, which meant they had the time, around a big fire, to hear the story of the place.

“We’re from the Land of Waves, too,” a young woman with pale grey eyes said. “My family has always lived there, but today… It’s just too dangerous.” She put a hand on her belly and her companion, a sturdy man sitting on her left, wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Hitomi understood what the woman wasn’t saying, and she probably wasn’t the only one to make the connection.

“Everything is hard there,” the woman continued. “The men are forbidden from fishing or hunting without Gatō’s authorisation, and the women and children are starving. He hired rōnin from the Land of Iron, all kinds of mercenaries, and even nukenin, to make sure everyone obeys his law. If it’s a man breaking the rules, he’s whipped publicly or worse. If it’s a woman… If it’s a woman, her punishment is private, but everyone knows what happens. If it’s a child, Gatō either hands him to the men who pleased him, or the child gets a public whipping.”

Another man, half his face devastated by an old wound, spoke then. “My father told me before he died that our country wasn’t always like that. We had efficient orphanages once, and the people who didn’t have a job could feed themselves and their families without hurting anyone. Now, everything is a struggle there. What you have, you take from someone. If you live, it’s at the cost of another person inching closer to death.”

The three young Genin listened attentively, their face serious and sober. Those fishermen were barely a dozen, but each of them had some cruelty of the regime to add to the tale. One had to be immensely lacking in morality to push a whole country to its ruin for personal gain. For a moment, Hitomi thought about the leaders of the Previous World, who had acted that way on many occasions during her short lifetime.

“We left around a year ago. We were supposed to be twentyish, but some of us didn’t make it through the guards who patrol the villages to make everyone obey the law.”

“If the situation in the Land of Waves got better,” Hitomi started in a thoughtful tone, “would you want to go back?”

The answers to that question were unanimous. Each of those people had left behind relatives or memories they wanted to get back to. There were terrified fugitives, broken by the horrors they had escaped. Hitomi and Kakashi shared a meaningful look. It wasn’t the objective of their mission, but if they could do something about it… Ninjas weren’t anything like righters of wrongs, but they had an honour code. It was different depending on the villages, more or less righteous, more or less oriented towards a particular value. Konoha’s value was the Will of Fire, and Team Severn bore it high and strong, no one could doubt it.

At the first light of dawn, they took to the sea on a tiny motor boat belonging to the elder of that little community. His hands were scarred in a way that didn’t fit his job, but none of the young ninjas asked about it and the adults had enough scars, psychological and physical, to know that it would have been rude. Hitomi showed Naruto how to put his hand under the water so it splashed in its wake; it kept him busy for a while. At other moments, she used her chakra to make faceless water characters rise from the waves and dance to work on her control. During a mission, one didn’t try to learn new techniques, but training in other ways was fine.

The mist grew thicker each hour that went past and, when the coast of the Land of Waves appeared in sight, their little boat had become invisible and quiet, its motor shut so they wouldn’t attract unwanted attention. In a silence full of respect, they went under the first part of the bridge, its piers going deep into the sea, as sturdy and full of people’s hope as Hitomi had imagined. She had never really understood what the creation of wood and steel had represented for the people living on the island, but she got it now. Even before it mended their failing economy by allowing them to trade without Gatō’s interference, it was a symbol of resistance and bravery, of infinite possibilities. They needed all that.

They had landed only for an hour when it happened. Naruto, more than the others, was tense and looking for traces of the enemy in every bush, behind every tree. Who could have blamed him? Hitomi barely contained her own reactions, and their nervousness was slowly infecting Sasuke too. When the blonde boy threw a kunai at a bush and the only thing to run away was a terrified snow rabbit, Hitomi knew what it meant.

“Get down!” Kakashi yelled.

He didn’t give time to Hitomi, who was the closest, to obey his command before he tackled her to the ground to shield her against the attack he had felt coming before anybody else. Sasuke had done the same with Tazuna; Naruto, who was only two steps in front of them, had lost a strand of blond hair to the giant sword that was now stuck in the trunk of a tree, a menacing silhouette standing on its guard as if it had always been a perch.

Zabuza was as tall, muscular and sinister as the canon had depicted him. His skin was sickly pale, his bare torso built as though the muscles had been directly carved on it, and she could count his ribs even from where she stood. The lower half of his face was hidden under bandages yellowed by use, and his grey eyes were cold, cruel. Around him rose a blithe killing intent, promising blood and brutality.

Hitomi shivered but didn’t back down, standing up next to her sensei. Already she had unsheathed her sword and blood ran down her thumb, but she didn’t dare act first. She was afraid of making a mistake – terror clawed inside her belly like a harpy. Sasuke and Naruto didn’t do any better: even the Uzumaki, usually so unaware of that kind of thing, had noticed how out of their league this adversary was. The enemy ninja smiled, his expression visible under his thin bandages.

“Momochi Zabuza, Kirijin shinobi turned deserter…” Kakashi’s voice sounded like a bad omen and was enough to stop Naruto in his rush of stupid, stupid bravery. Naruto didn’t know if it was the Demon Fox or the Uzumaki blood that made him so oblivious to danger, but it was worrying.

The blonde boy turned to his adopted sister, his perplexity not quite erasing the fear from his face. “Hitomi, who’s that guy?”

“Momochi Zabuza,” Hitomi repeated, her tone almost soft, “also called the Demon of the Hidden Mist. He wasn’t even an Academy student yet when he massacred an entire year worth of students. They were going through their graduation exam, they were supposed to be much stronger than he was. He killed them all.”

“The girl did her homework, that’s good.” The nukenin’s voice was mocking, cruel, but this time Hitomi didn’t take offense – she was too busy trying to hide her fear. She obeyed Kakashi’s discreet sign and took Naruto by the arm, walking him back to Sasuke’s position in front of Tazuna, taking her place at the point of their triangular formation, as she had always done before. The Jōnin straightened his forehead protector, and Hitomi felt more than she saw the Sharingan awakening inside his newly uncovered eye.

“I don’t have time to fool around, Kakashi,” Zabuza growled. “Give me the old man and I’ll let the kids and you go unarmed.”

“Aah, I’m afraid I can’t do that, Zabuza. What kind of example would it show to these youngsters if I abandoned a mission at the first hindrance?”

The assassin barely looked offended by Kakashi’s barb. Around him, the killing intent thickened, so intense that the three Genin started choking, an instinct inside them screaming for them to run and hide. This instinct was right: after all, Zabuza was dangerous, terrifying, deadly, bloodthirsty. He didn’t know mercy and would smash them to a pulp effortlessly if they opposed him… Hitomi swallowed nervously, took control over her breathing and straightened into a guarding stance. The following moment, she felt the boys do the same behind her. If they hadn’t been exposed to her own accidental killing intent, as weak as it was, they wouldn’t have been able to ignore the little voice in their head that begged them to flee.

“Children, don’t intervene in this fight, okay?” Kakashi ordered without looking back at them. “You are no match for him. I trust you to watch over Tazuna; it’s teamwork, just like I taught you.”

“Ah, Kakashi… Such a pleasure it will be to beat you. Did you know that, in the Kirijin Bingo Book, they say you have mastered over a thousand shinobi techniques? It’s an honour for me to be the one to end you.”

“Now, now, Zabuza, don’t sell the bear’s hide before you’ve killed it, alright? They mention you in my Bingo Book, too. They say your assassination techniques are perfectly silent. Let me warn you, they won’t be any use to you today.”

Hitomi, when listening to tales of older shinobi, had realised such behaviour was common when two enemy shinobi met. Unless it was a secretive or urgent mission, ninjas liked to chat before they tried to kill each other, to compare their respective strength and reputation for a bit. It was a way to show mutual respect, and to acknowledge the honour it would be to win such a fight. The ninjas had long ago walked away from the samurai lifestyle, when chakra had appeared in the heart of the world, but they hadn’t forgotten everything about what they used to be.

“Enough chit chat then. Since you won’t let me have it my way, I don’t have a choice, Kakashi.”

And in a blink, he disappeared from the tree he had been perched on, his huge sword gone with him. Standing on the water of the river that ran a few meters away from the road and that the team had planned to cross, he formed a hand seal and thick mist started to spread around him. It was colder, more oppressive and more opaque than the one Hitomi could create. She couldn’t see more than three meters away – even sounds seemed to be muffled in it.

“He disappeared!” Tazuna choked.

Hitomi herself was staggered. If the mist was that different from hers, what else changed in his version of the technique? In Zabuza’s hands, it seemed to exceed its D-rank with laughable ease.

“Don’t panic,” Kakashi intervened. “I’ll probably be his first target. Stay focused and remember the assassination techniques I mentioned earlier, but remain in control of yourselves, alright?”

How could they even have the slightest chance of seeing it coming? Zabuza was a Jōnin, for fuck’s sake, a former member of the Swordsmen of the Mist, and they were mere Genin – better than average, but still… He had power of life and death over them, and they all knew it.

“Eight possibilities,” a discarnate voice whispered in the mist. “The pharynx, the spinal cord, the pulmonary artery, the liver, the jugular veins, the collarbone, the kidneys… And the heart, of course. Which one to pick, hm?”

The killing intent intensified, screaming in their veins that they had to run or die there, now, a quick and clean death to avoid the terrible pains to come. The kunai in Sasuke’s hand slowly rose to his neck.

“Calm down, Sasuke-kun,” Kakashi ordered without looking back at his team. “I’ll protect you, even to the cost of my life. I’m not the kind to let my teammates die.” Only then did he slightly turn his head in their direction, and the Genin could see that strange smile he could make appear only with his eye. The two boys relaxed a little, but Hitomi didn’t. She knew what was coming next.

When Zabuza appeared between Tazuna and them, she reacted, not allowing fear to paralyse her body. She fell on her knees with a snarl, crawled between the nukenin’s legs and tackled the bridge builder to the ground just in time to save him from a decapitating blow. In the same movement, she extended her leg and managed to kick the deserter, who clearly hadn’t expected to miss, so close to the balls that his air of surprise and eyes blown wide for a second almost made her laugh.

He immediately got over it and changed target, focusing on Kakashi instead. They exchanged a few hits and, as the sensei almost had his opponent where he wanted him, a second Zabuza appeared behind his back, holding a kunai to his throat. The Copy Nin’s own blade stabbed the clone in front of him, making it dissolve into a puddle of water in the grass. A second later, Kakashi was cut in half… and dissolved too. The original appeared behind Zabuza, another knife already making its way to the deserter’s throat. “Don’t move. It’s the end.”

The whole thing had happened so fast Hitomi had only really seen half of it. Next to her, Sasuke had activated his Sharingan and probably followed everything better than she did. As for Naruto, he seemed astounded and maybe a bit afraid too, his shoulders tense and his eyes wide.

“Hehe… The end, uh? Do you really think you can beat me by copying my techniques with your stupid eye? Come on, Kakashi… I admit it was well done, taking advantage of my mist to clone yourself. And those words, so convincing, perfect to attract my attention while you hid and tracked me. Clever. Alas for you, I’m not quite done yet.”

One more Zabuza appeared behind Kakashi’s back as the Konohajin killed the clone in front of him. This time, the Copy Nin dived to dodge Zabuza’s sword, probably realising it was the real one this time. They engaged in a brutal taijutsu fight, both moving so fast Hitomi couldn’t track their movements. Suddenly, Zabuza managed to kick the sensei so hard he sent him flying into the river. Hitomi, terrified, watched her fears become reality, powerless.

In an instant, Kakashi was held prisoner in a chakra-infused bubble of water.

Chapter Text

Powerlessness was probably the most intense feeling saturating Hitomi’s limbs, overshadowing even her fear, as she watched Zabuza capture Kakashi in his Water Prison technique. She hadn’t mastered this technique yet but knew how it worked and the power a shinobi needed to use it. She wasn’t there yet, and even less so for the version Zabuza was using, with pressure so intense inside the liquid that any movement was impossible.

“Ah, what a fool you are, Kakashi! You shouldn’t have allowed me to throw you in the water. Breaking out of this prison is impossible. Everything is gonna go smoothly now that you can’t intervene.” The renegade closed his eyes for a moment and composed a one-handed mudra, his other hand keeping the Water Prison active. Between the Genin and the riverbank, where Kakashi had banished a clone just moments before, another one formed slowly. “I’ll kill you later, Copy Nin. First, I want you to watch as I massacre your brats.”

It was the clone who spoke next, his voice just as cold and animated by scathing irony. “So, kids, you want to play ninja, with the forehead protector and all that stuff, uh? But, you know, a real ninja stands alongside death all the time. As long as you’re not in the Bingo Books… Well, we can barely call you ninjas. For me, you’re just as weak and useless as civilians.” The clone then moved, faster than their eyes could follow, and suddenly Naruto fell, hurled over more than three meters away by a fist that split his lip open. Hitomi knew Zabuza was toying with them or holding back big time. He could have just killed them, there and then, with less effort than what it took to wield that damned sword of his. Under his foot laid Naruto’s forehead protector, probably his most cherished possession, already stained with dust.

“Kids, listen to me now!” Kakashi commanded from the Water Prison. “Take Tazuna and run! You don’t stand any chance against Zabuza, but he can’t move as long as he holds me in the prison, and he can only control his clone over a few meters. Leave me behind and run, now!”

For a second, Kakashi’s words and the killing intent that was drowning the area as surely as the mist almost got the better of Hitomi. She felt so weak, so insignificant, so conscious of her own mortality and filled with the need to survive that, for a moment, she considered following Kakashi’s orders, considered leaving him behind, taking her brothers and Tazuna and run as fast as she could. Then shame invaded her at the idea of abandoning a teammate, the scathing feeling fighting off her fear with merciless efficiency. Slowly, she straightened up and tightened her grip on her sword’s guard.

“Kakashi-sensei, you’re giving up too soon. Sit back and watch the show, we’re coming for you.” Her voice’s firm, tranquil tone seemed to give back courage to Sasuke and Naruto. The latter formed the Cross Hand Seal and formed his own clone, who quickly took Tazuna with him out of sight – Hitomi felt his presence even through the mist as he stopped several dozen meters away, to safety. Now the Genin could fight without worrying about their civilian charge. However, Hitomi didn’t summon her cats: they were mortals in this world, even if they were hard to kill, and she didn’t want to risk them. They were far too precious to her. Besides, she knew she didn’t need them for this.

When Naruto smiled and ran straight to Zabuza’s clone, Hitomi and Sasuke followed, their swords, tarnished by the mist, raised in menace. The girl took the lead: she was the weakest, but also the fastest of their trio, and she was the one to engage with Zabuza’s clone to create a diversion while Sasuke attacked on the flanks – Naruto would get his forehead protector, and they would be done with that particular threat.

For a moment, it looked like they were going to get the upper hand, but in one move the clone overwhelmed them, shoving Sasuke away as he kicked Hitomi hard enough to make several of her ribs crack or even worse. He then sent Naruto back to them with a careless push of his arm, as if he was just an annoying fly. Like a meagre victory, the blonde’s fingers were tightened around his forehead protector and he quickly put it back on, his knuckles skinned and breathing too quick.

“You can write my name down in your book, shitface!” he grinned. “I’m the future Hokage. I’m Uzumaki-Yūhi Naruto, from Konoha!”

It wasn’t the first time Hitomi heard her name added to Naruto’s, but it moved her as always. Even here, in this dire fighting situation, the small spark of pride and joy warmed her up like a hug, reminiscent of calm and peace, of the reason why she was fighting. That simple push allowed her to lock the pain in her ribs deep under the surface, where it wouldn’t bother her. “Sasuke, Naruto, I have a plan. Come here.”

They obeyed and Zabuza’s clone let them. Despite the bandages covering half his face, amusement and curiosity appeared clear as day on his features. He obviously wanted to see what the brats were capable of, he who thought of himself as invincible – and he wasn’t so far from the truth on that account.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Kakashi yelled from his prison. “Now that I’m his prisoner, the fight is over, you have to flee! Our mission is to protect Tazuna, remember? Run, it’s an order!”

“Ah, shut up!” Hitomi snapped, her voice whipping through the heavy air, through the killing intent and mist, effortlessly. “Hatake Kakashi has the reputation of always taking his team home. We won’t shame our sensei by leaving him behind, so shut the fuck up and let us work on saving your sorry ass!”

She had never dared speak like that to an adult, but she was reaching her boiling point. She had lived too much, in too few days, to tolerate an added pressure if she could make it stop. She glared at Kakashi then turned to Naruto and Sasuke to explain what she had in mind. She was happy to have this knowledge of the canon, because she wasn’t sure she would have had this idea on her own, and she knew this one would work.

“To say that when I was your age, my hands were already soaked in blood… You Konohajin brats are so mellow!”

Hitomi turned her glare to Zabuza, not even trying to hide her disdain. Her fear, by disappearing, had allowed her other emotions to bloom like many explosive flowers inside her mind. “Massacring children doesn't make you a shinobi. It’s loyalty to the values you have sworn to protect, to your Kage, to the missions and your teammates that are at the core of what makes a good ninja, not oceans of blood you leave in your wake. If the ability to kill alone was enough, samurais would be as much shinobi as we are.”

She knew she had a point, because everyone nursed a mixture of disdain and resentment towards the warriors of the Land of Iron. They returned the favour during rare encounters with shinobi, only allowing them to enter their country at the cost of a heavy tribute. Still, traditionally, the Gokage Summit, which had only been organised once in the history of the Hidden Villages, was to be held there, no matter the price to pay. It was the only perfectly neutral land in the known world. They had that power over the other nations, one that could stop them from uniting against a common enemy.

And then, Zabuza, as if refusing to tolerate that insult, charged and attacked them. Oh, he didn’t target Hitomi, but Sasuke, as if he knew that going after one of her brothers would be worse than any hit he could land on her. She shuddered as she watched the youngest Uchiha fall under the renegade’s blow, spitting a mixture of blood and saliva.

Naruto reacted immediately with Shadow Clones and ordered all his copies to throw themselves at the deserter. Hitomi took advantage of the confusion and used this moment offered to her to clone herself and metamorphose her replica, thus taking Naruto’s place in the canon plan. She had better accuracy than him with kunai, and had carefully taken note of all the little changes in this fight so far. She wouldn’t risk it.

When Zabuza rid himself of the clones and launched himself at Naruto with a snarl, Hitomi stepped in with the Ambush of Moving Water, forcing him to freeze for a second before his titan-like strength broke through the technique. This moment was enough for Sasuke, to deploy his Fūma shuriken and throw it so it would go widely around the two Zabuza, Hitomi’s metamorphosed clone in its shadow.

There, safe and unexpected behind her first real opponent, the clone snapped back to her original form and, instead of throwing the kunai like she had originally planned to do, she stabbed Zabuza in the biceps with it. Pain and surprise tensed the renegade’s arm, making him break contact with the Water Prison just before he threw himself at the clone, making it disappear in a puff of smoke. With a bestial scream, the Demon of the Hidden Mist hurled himself at the three Genin, his sword raised to cut Hitomi in half, and…

And suddenly Kakashi was there, soaking wet and surrounded by his own killing intent, his hand on the wrist that was holding the sword gripping down hard, harder, everything to stop Zabuza from harming one of his precious students. Later, he would allow himself to feel flabbergasted that his three little Genin had managed to wound a fucking Jōnin . First, though, he had to get rid of the threat that the man represented to their survival. “Well done, children. Your plan was excellent. This play with the shuriken… It was you, Naruto, right?”

The three kids nodded. Hitomi hadn’t even had time to propose that idea in particular, Naruto had had it first. She had only given them their role and handled logistics. Everything had rested on Sasuke’s shurikenjutsu, far better than his teammates’. They had all been essential to that plan – teamwork allowed them to equal or even surpass adversaries that were otherwise impossible to beat.

“I was stupid,” Zabuza sighed. “Anger got the better of me, and I forgot the Water Prison.”

Hitomi took advantage of the short break in tension to head back to her teammates, the Fūma Shuriken long forgotten in the river. She didn’t really want to go get it right now. After all, they had many other weapons left. Her features soured by pain, she stepped between Naruto and Sasuke, unsheathing her tantō again. She knew this fight wasn’t over yet.

“Admit it, they kicked your ass this time,” Kakashi nagged.

The deserter answered with a recalcitrant grunt. His dull eyes stayed on the three kids for a while, then came back to Kakashi, the main threat.

“You won’t get me twice with the same technique, Zabuza. What are you hoping to do now?”

And suddenly they were at it again, stepping away from each other in perfect synchronisation to stand, ten meters away from each other, on the river, their movements so controlled their feet didn’t even disturb the surface of the water. The two shinobi formed hand seals at the same time, faster than Hitomi or even Sasuke with his Sharingan could follow. It was the longest chain Hitomi had ever seen; when it ended, two twin dragons sprang out of the river and clashed against each other, creating a wave so strong it collided against the three Genin who were watching from a safe distance. Hitomi couldn’t stop the rush of admiration that surged in her mind as she stared, dumbfounded, trying her best to stay aware of everything around her. She could still feel Naruto’s clone, safe a few dozen meters behind them with Tazuna. If it came to it, she had to stop Zabuza from walking past the line she formed with her brothers.

“… copy every one of your moves.”

As she heard her sensei’s voice, Hitomi understood that the psychological warfare had started, and that he was leading, slowly overcoming Zabuza’s mental shields. Kirijin didn’t encounter the Sharingan often – and even if the Demon of the Hidden Mist had had any experience when it came to fighting against the Uchiha, the true secrets surrounding their eyes had been jealously kept somewhere even Sasuke hadn’t been able to find them – yet.

“Enough! I’m gonna make you shut up once and for all!” And yet Zabuza froze midway through his hand seals, which allowed Kakashi to outpace him with the Great Waterfall technique. And that technique looked like that , Hitomi definitely wanted to learn it. If only A-rank hadn’t been so chakra-hungry that even attempting it would empty her reserves and kill her… Maybe she could try it in a few years. She had a twinge of worry when she felt how much chakra Kakashi was putting into the technique, in addition to the steady stream of energy his Sharingan required. She knew to her core what chakra exhaustion inflicted upon a shinobi’s body. If only there was any other way…

As soon as the formidable wave-whirlpool was over, Kakashi threw several kunai to Zabuza, stabbing him with each of them until he couldn’t move anymore. Blood streamed down his limbs then washed away in the torrents of water that had been diverted from the river. Hitomi watched and carved that moment in her memory, unable to do otherwise.

“How is it even possible, Kakashi?” Zabuza rasped. “Does your eye allow you to see the future?”

“Yes. And I can see your death.”

He had barely said those words that two senbon seemed to appear from nowhere and pierced the deserter’s throat. Zabuza stiffened with a weak gurgle then slumped like a puppet whose threads had been cut. Hitomi understood what had fooled everyone there in the canon. He really looked dead. One more dead body in her wake. She mercilessly pushed down the anxiety that attempted to rise inside her with that thought. She couldn’t allow for the slightest distraction; the fight wasn’t over yet. And if all her opponents were to be such powerhouses… But then, Team Seven’s legendary bad luck had only started to appear during this mission. She knew there were many, many more occurrences to come.

“Ah, he’s dead at last.” The voice, soft and quiet, came from the  thick foliage of a tree a few meters away from the place where Kakashi was standing over Zabuza’s limp body. Hitomi looked up and finally discovered Haku, one of the first characters from the canon she had really connected with, in the Previous World. He was slender but taller than she would have thought, his stature enhanced by the black wooden geta he wore instead of the open boots ninjas tended to prefer. His face was hidden behind a white mask decorated with Kirigakure’s emblem and a red swirl, his long black hair kept in a tight bun covered by a cream-colored little cap. He didn’t look like a typical threat. Hitomi didn’t let that fool her, however: he was dangerous, perhaps even more than Zabuza had been. “Thank you,” he continued with a subtle shade of respect in his voice. “You have been a precious help. I’ve been hunting Momochi Zabuza for a long time, waiting for an occasion to kill him.”

“That mask, it’s from the Kirijin Hunter Nin Corps, right?” Kakashi drawled. His question seemed a bit ridiculous, now that Hitomi was witnessing the exchange for real. He knew the answer to that question – he had the same kind of mask at home, probably in a drawer or a chest under his bed, or even a secret stash. Hadn’t he been called the Hound? He was one of the very few amongst the ANBU to have acquired a worldwide reputation, and to have survived said reputation.

“Exactly,” Haku said with a slight nod.

“What’s a Hunter Nin?” Naruto prompted.

Sasuke was the one to answer his question, a gleam of reluctant respect in his eyes. Hitomi remembered he had studied the subject at the Academy, when he was still very young, before Itachi had betrayed the village. He had wanted to walk in his brother’s steps. “It’s a brigade in the Kirigakure ANBU division, tasked with hunting down rogue shinobi from the village and killing them before destroying the bodies.”

“Eh? Why destroy them?”

“Because a body,” Kakashi stepped in, “is full of secrets and information about the life a shinobi has lived. For example, if I came to die, people would fight over my corpse to dissect my Sharingan and try to decipher its many mysteries, or even just attempt to get all the techniques I know into their hands. Each village has medics whose only job is to read the meridian web of the bodies that are brought into their care.”

Hitomi knew a Nara who was working in that division in particular, an impossibly tall and thin woman whose pale grey eyes seemed to examine everything as if she could discover their every secrets, destroy their surface and reveal their core. Since she had learned of that woman’s job, she stayed at a respectful distance, just in case. If the creation of her Library was visible on her meridians… It could become a problem. A problem she wouldn’t have to worry about since she would be dead, but still.

“B-but I…” Naruto stammered. “But… How… How can that guy be so strong? How could he kill Zabuza, who seemed invincible to us?”

“I understand it’s a lot to take in, Naruto,” Kakashi said in a soothing tone, “but things have always been this way. In our world, there are children younger than you and yet stronger than me. There will always be someone, somewhere, that will be better than you.”

That shard of truth could be deeply unsettling for shinobi, often confronted with their own mortality. In this world so prone to quarrels, a stronger opponent often meant a meeting with death, and even ninjas cultivated, somewhere deep below the surface, a fear of their own demise. Without that fear, after all, they wouldn’t have any survival or preservation instinct, and a lack of those would have been a real nuisance to their missions. Even at the Academy, children were taught that their life was precious – but that the mission was even more so.

“Your fight is over, you can rest now.”

The masked boy shunshined from his branch to a spot next to Zabuza’s lifeless body. Hitomi really wanted to learn that technique. If she could use it in combination with her other skills… She would be worthy of the unofficial title of pain in the ass to fight she proudly held in the Fellowship.

“I’m going to destroy this body. Thank you again, Konohajin shinobi.” On those words, the masked shinobi disappeared, taking Zabuza with him.

Hitomi had thought, at length, about what she was supposed to do about this. She could have alerted Kakashi before Haku left, but it would have meant the two deserters’ death, and the young Yūhi still hoped to change that. She was sure that man and child could play a major role in future events if she played her cards correctly. That was why she had decided to let events unfold for now, even if it meant another terrifying fight was to come.

Tazuna and Naruto’s clone came back, then the blonde puffed out of existence. The bridge builder seemed a bit shaken, but he didn’t even have a scratch on him. Kakashi watched him approach impassively, pulling his forehead protector back over his Sharingan. “Well, we still have to escort Tazuna-san to his place. Let’s get moving.”

“Yeah, you’ll be able to rest soon, we’re almost there!” Tazuna grinned.

Even Hitomi, who knew what to expect, barely reacted in time when Kakashi fell, cushioning him with her back. She moaned, the pain in her own body awakened by the end of her adrenalin rush and the sudden impact. Her ribs radiated a furious fire and breathing didn’t seem worth the suffering it provoked.

“Aah, Kakashi-sensei, Hitomi!” Naruto jumped, fear unmissable on his features. “What’s happening?”

“Ngh… Kakashi-sensei, chakra exhaustion, I’d say. Me, ribs, Zabuza’s kick…”

“Hand him to me,” Sasuke ordered. “You’re wounded, which means you don’t get to carry the other wounded. Come on!”

The girl obeyed and took a few steps on the road, arriving at Tazuna's side. He looked at her with worried eyes, as if she was in charge now that her sensei had dropped unconscious. The sigh that almost escaped her hurt enough to make her swallow a pained sob. Even if the house was as close as the bridge builder had said, it would still seem stupidly far away.

Chapter Text

When Team Seven finally reached Tazuna’s house, Hitomi had grown sickly pale, her forehead covered in cold sweat, and seemed ready to pass out. Tsunami, the bridge builder’s daughter, didn’t let that happen: once she had Kakashi laying on a futon in the living room, she approached the young Yūhi with a serious and severe look on her face. Her movements, with the Jōnin, had been direct and sure, showing an experience in healing. A nurse, maybe? She put a hand on Hitomi’s shoulder and inspected her from top to bottom with a stare. “Ribs?”

“Hm hm. A mean kick. But you should have seen the other guy…”

The woman had a brief, dry laugh, still with a trace of humour, then had her untie her kimono and helped her out of her steel fishnet shirt. Hitomi had long ago lost any notion of modesty, a luxury no one could afford during a mission except in very rare occasions. Anyway, she lived with Sasuke and Naruto. They had seen everything there was to see and hadn’t manifested the faintest interest.

Tsunami’s fresh and inquisitive fingers started prodding at her ribs. On the right side, an almost black bruise had bloomed under her skin and, when the young woman brushed against it, Hitomi couldn’t help but stiffen with a pained moan, half-choked before it reached her lips. After a few moments, satisfied, Tsunami wrapped her ribs in bandages and helped her back into her kimono. She left the steel fishnet untouched, since the wounded girl would probably have a whole lot of trouble putting it back on. “Absolute rest for a few days, just like your sensei. Dad, go get her another futon in the attic! I’m gonna bring your meals here, and until I give you the okay, I don’t want to see you train, alright?”

That no-nonsense tone wasn’t the kind you disobeyed, so Hitomi nodded docilely as Tazuna unfolded a comfy-looking futon at her feet. Naruto and Sasuke helped her lay on it and made sure she had everything she needed within easy reach. Okay, she couldn’t do much while staying in bed, but at least she could read. She was a bit jealous that her brothers were free to move and train, since they hadn’t been wounded during this fight. With a quick gesture that lit up a fire of pain along her ribs, she stopped Sasuke before he left the room. “Train when Tazuna-san is home, but follow him everywhere. We have beaten a powerful opponent, but… Something isn’t quite right here. I’m gonna try to understand what the matter is while I’m stuck here.”

“Okay. Keep an eye on Kakashi-sensei and don’t worry too much about us, Hitomi-nee. If we have a problem, Naruto will send one of his clones and ask that you summon your cats. Deal?”

Hitomi nodded and let him go, her eyes staying for a moment on his silhouette as he walked out of the room. She would have far preferred being amongst them, but she was paying the price of her own recklessness. If she had been quicker, or if she had fought better, she wouldn’t have been wounded, it was as simple as that. She still had to train. She had survived Zabuza, but the next event in the canon, the Chūnin exam, would be far more demanding.

A small, muffled noise, close to a moan or a whine, attracted her attention to Kakashi. Under his blanket, he was shaking, and his only visible eye, still close, was twitching in pain. His hair was damp, probably in cold sweat similar to the one she had known so well in such a state. After a moment of hesitation, Hitomi put one of her hands out of her own blanket and extended her arm until her fingertips touched the naked skin of his wrist.

Ensui had explained how chakra transfusions worked. It wasn’t very complicated to do, but missions rarely made that gesture doable. She had to mobilise pure chakra, not tainted by affinity nor Kekkei Genkai, and make it flow slowly from her Gates to the skin of the person she wanted to help. It was as simple as activating a seal. She closed her eyes and focused for a moment, just enough for the flow to start circulating between them. She could only help him a little – despite her training, her reserves were still too small to fill even a quarter of his – but it was still better than no help at all.

The man opened his eyes two hours later, and his first reflex was to clasp his hand around Hitomi’s wrist in an iron grip. She let out a pained little whine in protestation, caught by surprise. The procedure was monotonous, repetitive, so much so that she had started to slip into a daze, pacing in her Library while still maintaining the transfusion. She hadn’t expected him to wake up yet.

“What are you doing ?” he growled.

“I-I didn’t use a lot of chakra during the fight and you were almost dried out, sensei. You’ll be on your feet sooner if I help your reserves.”

A heavy silence fell between them for a few seconds then he let go of her wrist and, when she saw him relax instead of sliding out of reach, she touched him again and resumed the transfusion.

“Where are the boys?” he asked after a while.

“Training. Tazuna and his daughter Tsunami are preparing dinner.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“Zabuza cracked my ribs with his fucking kick. Tsunami said I was bedridden for a few days.”

“I see,” he said in a softened tone. “I’m sorry, Hitomi-chan. It shouldn’t have happened.”

“Come on, sensei. We all know the risks we’re taking when we go on missions. Zabuza is a formidable adversary. If anything, I should be proud I survived his kick. You did your best and you still won the fight. Without you, we’d all be dead.”

“Is? Not was ?”

“Err… Yeah. That’s bad news and I’m sorry, sensei, but I really don’t think Zabuza is dead.”

“What’s making you think that?”

“Well, the boy who stepped in… He’s a Hunter Nin, right? But, in general, according to Ensui-shishou, the hunters destroy the bodies on site, so as to minimise the risk of being intercepted by enemy forces. But he took the body with him, which is the first inconsistency.” He didn’t protest so she continued, keeping her voice as low as possible so the civilians wouldn’t hear. No need to frighten them. Fear was a shinobi’s business. “Then, there’s the problem of the senbon. You know I use them, and they are not commonly used for the killing blow. I would need an anatomy treaty to be sure, but I think… I think the shot could have made us believe Zabuza was dead and, in that case, it means the boy is really his ally and wanted to stop us from killing him for real.”

Silence took back its place between them, this time tense and nervous. Kakashi seemed aghast to have missed something that big. He was too hard on himself, Hitomi couldn’t have reached that conclusion for a long time if she hadn’t known about it beforehand. She too needed time to put her finger on the inconsistencies of a situation when she was confronted by it, a weakness Kurenai had exploited mercilessly when she had taught her daughter to notice and break out of genjutsu when she was subjected to it.

“Fuck, I think you’re right,” the teacher sighed after a few minutes. He seemed so exhausted she wanted to hug him but refrained. Somehow, she doubted he would know how to react to a hug, even though he could definitely use one. Or ten. Or a thousand. “In that case, he’ll need the better part of a week to get better. As for my own recovery… It should be faster, if you continue to help me.”

“Do you want us to work on something during that period?”

“Sasuke and Naruto will have chakra control exercises. They aren’t quite at the level I want to bring them to. Since you’re bedridden, our options are limited. I think I’m gonna have you work on your fūinjutsu, maybe look at what you have been trying to create lately and see if I can help, or maybe give you symbols you don’t know about yet, if such a thing even exists.”

The girl nodded, a surge of warmth and excitement washing over her at the idea of working on her favourite subject. That choice was the best Kakashi could possibly have made, and not only because it made her absurdly happy: working on seals didn’t require a lot of physical effort or chakra, which would allow her to transfuse to him more.

“You need rest as much as I do, perhaps even more since you’re so young. Close your eyes and focus on the flow of chakra between us for a moment. I’ll take control of it so it continues while you sleep, and I’ll cut it when your reserves are half-emptied. Sounds good?”

She hummed in affirmation and obeyed his orders. She was tired, just as he had said, and the pain was slowly starting to dull, leaving her sleepy and numb. She only took a few minutes to fall asleep. Immediately, her mind floated to one of her nightmares. She dreamed of Kirigakure in the time of the Great Purge, of a woman with long, long black hair, crying and begging a man to let their son live. Hitomi only understood who said son was when ice spears pierced the house in all directions, leaving only him untouched, and the man and woman in pools of blood on the floor. Haku.

She woke up with a start, Kakashi’s hand pressed on her mouth to muffle the cry of distress she was letting out. Their eyes met for a moment then he carefully let go of her and sat up. He had left his futon, but she could still see exhaustion hanging heavily off his shoulders.

“Those nightmares, you had them for how long?”

“Since… I’d say since the Uchiha Massacre? Anyway, that was the first to really hit me.”

“Why that one in particular?”

“I…” She hesitated and let her voice dry out. Could she tell Kakashi about it? It was… It was dangerous, but then, she had learned to trust that man by spending so much time with him. She had never told anyone in her family; only Ensui and Gaara knew, because they had been together in Sunagakure and putting it in writing had seemed so much easier. “In that dream, I was Uchiha Mikoto, Sasuke’s and Itachi’s mom, and I was speaking to Hokage the Third. Fugaku was beside me. The Hokage refused to grant us guardianship of Naruto despite me being his godmother and was accusing us of the Kyūbi’s attack on the village.”

She saw the spark of alert in Kakashi’s eye. Had he been part of the ANBU team guarding the Hokage’s office that night, even as his sensei had been killed a few hours earlier? She hoped not. Even ANBU needed time to mourn.

“And you had other dreams like that after that one?”

“Sometimes. Most of the time, my nightmares are just typical nightmares, but sometimes… I find myself in other people’s bodies. Some of them I can identify, some of them I can’t. It’s always during a significant event in their life. In one of those dreams, I was Uchiha Shisui and I was signing the Crow Summoning Contract, for example. I know I was him, because I introduced myself to the Crow I summoned. He was one of Sasuke’s cousins, before…”

“I knew him, yes. And today?”

“Today, it was… I think I was on an island because there was a lot of mist and the smell of salt in the air, just like here. I saw a woman begging for her son’s life. A man stabbed her to death and, as I saw her draw her last breath, I did something with ice that killed the man too, and I realised I was the little boy she had attempted to save. It was terrifying…”

“I can imagine. Do you think those dreams bear any significance?”

There, Hitomi shrugged, feigning a dismissal she wasn’t feeling at all. “Those dreams with the Uchiha happened the night of the massacre and just after I got my tantō from Sasuke. It belonged to Shisui before his death. There’s a connection, no doubt about it. But I think it might be my mind making it all up on its own, even though there’s a chance something bigger is at play here. I really have no idea.”

Kakashi nodded, a thoughtful expression on his features. He didn’t look surprised about the whole thing. In this world, there were things far stranger than possibly prophetic dreams. Deep inside, Hitomi was relieved that she could tell him about it while keeping control over what she was sharing with him: she had just planted a seed that would, later, strengthen her so-called intuitions, a complex move she hadn’t dared try until now. But Kakashi, who had once been a ROOT operative, wasn’t very likely to spill the beans to Danzō.

“I want you to tell me about those dreams if they happen again. They could become useful.” He sighed and visibly relaxed, a spark of pain gleaming in his eye for a second. “Well, since you’re awake now, tell me where you keep your fūinjutsu work, I want to see what you’re trying to create these days.”

Hitomi gave him that information without a fuss, and infused her chakra into the storage seal when he handed it to her – it was one of the several she kept locked from any chakra but hers. After a puff of smoke, around a dozen books and notebooks filled with her neat handwriting piled up on Kakashi’s lap. Not willing to wait anymore, the teacher took one of them and started reading in silence.

“Sensei?”

“Hm?”

“I wanna read. Can I have Icha Icha Paradise, please?”

She was delighted to see Kakashi choke on his own spit and lose himself in a coughing fit, his only visible eye damp and his face an interesting shade of red. When he calmed down, she hit him full force with the Stare, which she had practiced a lot to strengthen it on the very willing victim Ensui presented.

“A-alright. But please don’t tell your mother. I don’t want her to slit my throat and bathe in my blood.”

She beamed at him and nodded as enthusiastically as she could as he handed her the first volume. A few moments later, they were both deeply immersed in their own reading, and Hitomi discovered why Kakashi loved that book so much. From the very first page on, she was drawn into the scenario and attracted by the female main character’s charisma like iron to a magnet. Her eyes devoured page after page – she had always been an incredibly quick reader.

“D’you think Jiraiya-sama would be interested in reading what I write?” she asked after an hour of silent reading, her voice quiet and soft.

“You write?”

“Hm hm. Well, not erotica, but stories that are on my mind. I’ve already completed three novels and I started a fourth a few days after the Academy ended.”

Thanks to her eidetic memory, she only had to go look for the books she had read in the Previous World and work on adapting them to the codes of her new society. She was still deeply convinced that literature shouldn’t be exclusive to one universe, and if she could help it navigate her new world freely, it was a pure delight. For the time being, only Ino and Sakura had read the novels she had written, their favourite being a contemporary romance between a daimyō’s daughter and a nukenin.

“The master isn’t in the village right now, but I could ask him for you, if you want. I’m sure he’d be eager to discover a new Konohajin writer before anyone else in the industry.”

“Thanks, sensei,” she smiled before going back to her book.

Tsunami found them still reading after the sun had set, him sitting on the ground, his back against the cushions of the settee, and her still lying on her futon, the arm of her non-injured side holding the book to her eyes. The woman smiled with satisfaction as she contemplated this quiet scene, she who missed her work so dearly. She had had no choice but to quit when Gatō had started threatening her family. One day, maybe, she could get back to it, but for now this make-believe was good enough. “Dinner is ready,” she announced as she stepped in the room. “Stop reading for now, I’m gonna bring you your plates. Sensei, you can help your student to sit up, but go slow and easy.”

The man obeyed without objections, closing the book on the Reduction Theory heavily annotated in Hitomi’s handwriting that he had been reading. His movements slow and careful, he supported her to a sitting position just next to him, her back against the settee as well. “What you wrote in your notebooks is really advanced. Your seals are Chūnin-level at the very least, which is surprising for someone as young as you are and will probably draw a target on your back if shinobi from other villages notice.”

“Because Seal Masters are so rare?”

“Yeah, and because you have the potential of becoming one. You’re not there yet, though, and that means I can still teach you a few things about fūinjutsu. Soon enough, however, you’ll become far better than I or Ensui are in that field.”

When Tsunami brought them dinner, they were busy discussing the very complex Reduction Theory, which allowed someone to create very small seals that were almost impossible to decode if they weren’t safely expanded. It was the kind of seals the ROOT operatives had on their tongues, but Hitomi didn’t bring that up, since she wasn’t supposed to know anything about a rogue organisation inside the ANBU. She was attempting to go around the lack of stability that seals bore once that theory was applied to them, for a design she was working on that could be useful in battle. She didn’t want it to fall into the enemy's hands, so she had to reduce it.

When night came, Hitomi was still exhausted enough to fall asleep almost immediately. Sasuke had insisted on spending part of the night in the living room with Kakashi and her – well, especially with her. He told her how he and Naruto had met Inari, Tsunami’s son, and the certainty in the child’s mind that the shinobi were going to die rather than successfully accomplish their mission. Hitomi was happy she hadn’t interacted with the boy herself. She probably wouldn’t have reacted well to such a discourse, and pain had always made her short-tempered and snappy.

The next day, she already felt better and well-rested, even if another nightmare had disturbed her night. It had been about her B-ranked mission this time – she couldn’t wait for Kakashi to take her to his therapist. If that woman could help her get rid of her nightmares, she would be a hero in her eyes. She hated the moment of terror and confusion she had each time she woke up. The compassionate stare Kakashi had had for her that day, as if he knew exactly what was on her mind, had made her want to burst with shame.

The next two days were spent training and working. Naruto and Sasuke were trying hard to make a kunai stand up on their open palms, and Hitomi was working on her seal. It was almost done now, tested again and again on the rabbits Sasuke captured for her. At least, this way, Tsunami never lacked meat for dinner – her failed seals had a propension to burst aflame.

Five days after their first battle, Hitomi and Kakashi were back in good shape, even if Tsunami had ordered the girl to take it easy and to be careful of her ribs, still quite tender. After researching the topic at length in medicine treaties, the Yūhi heiress had discovered that chakra and convalescence were tightly linked: a shinobi with full reserves could get better up to five times quicker than a civilian, while a ninja in a state of chakra exhaustion healed at the normal speed and even risked getting sick or his wounds becoming infected, which never happened when chakra was present aplenty. By transfusing her chakra to Kakashi, Hitomi had known she was slowing down the process a bit for herself. Worth it.

When she was allowed to stand up and even leave the house, Hitomi went into town with Tsunami to protect her and help her with the groceries. She had reluctantly left her forehead protector at home: shinobi, in this little country without a Hidden Village, were rare; she didn’t want to get noticed. Her Konohajin insignia made her proud, but pride couldn’t justify putting a civilian and her mission at risk.

What she saw in that town shocked her, even though she had known what to expect. Misery was everywhere, carved onto the bodies of frail children whose bellies were distended on delicate bones, branded on the adults whose faces were wrinkled with worry. There were more beggars on the streets than she had ever seen, including in the Previous World. Somewhere before the horizon stood Gatō’s manor, and Hitomi started to hate him, a sweet and quiet feeling that burned through her veins and weighed her mind down. Without any hesitation, she opened the purse attached to her obi and started giving money to everyone around her without them noticing, dropping it in their pockets with a brush of their fingers. She couldn’t do anything more and it pained her. She prayed to the Hermit and all the deified entities the ninjas honoured that, once the tyrant fell, the country would stand back up.

Since her mood was gloomy when she came back, she decided to seek comfort in summoning her team of ninja cats. She was relieved to see that Haīro was better, the wound he had gotten against the Demon Brothers reduced to a red line under his pelt, which was already growing back. However, this wasn’t her greatest surprise: a little bundle of dark grey fur was hiding between Hoshihi’s paws. The girl questioned her fire-pelted familiar with a look.

“It’s my new apprentice, Hai-chan,” he said with a gleam of pride in his eyes. “Aotsuki-sama gave her to me yesterday. When I sensed that you were summoning us, I decided to take her with us so you could meet her.”

Hai was tiny, with the scruffy pelt of a kitten and big, pale blue eyes. Hitomi extended her hand to allow her to sniff the smell of chakra, steel and ink that always mingled with her own. After an understandable moment of hesitation, the little cat rubbed her head against the offered fingers, a faint purr in her throat.

“Hello, Hai-chan. Welcome to the family.”

The five other cats went to rub against the youngest to congratulate her in their own way under Hitomi’s affectionate stare. Her heart did need that kind of cute scene. Even during her convalescence, she had constantly been anxious – at least her plan was ready now.

“Hokori? I’d like you to go somewhere, and for Sunaarashi to stay with me at all times. The others told you about the fight against the Demon Brothers, right?” The pair nodded and she continued. “It was just the beginning. Another powerful ninja, Momochi Zabuza, attacked us after we made shore at the Land of Waves. I was really afraid he would kill you all if I summoned you.”

The cats sobered up when they heard the anxiety in her voice. Kurokumo stepped towards her then pressed his whole body against her in a gesture of comfort. He had grown, too, but he was still a bit lighter and thinner than the other, as if to mingle better with the shadows.

“Those shinobi were all hired by a man called Gatō, who oppresses the whole country, to stop the construction of a bridge between the main island of the Land of Waves and the coast of the Land of Fire. We have defeated Zabuza, but we weren’t able to kill him, and there’s a good chance he’s gonna attack again soon. Hokori, I need you to find and watch Gatō, and to warn Sunaarashi as soon as he gets close to the bridge. Can you do that?”

The pale brown cat nodded and a knot of anxiety eased in Hitomi’s mind. With the help of her trusted companions, she had a chance to prevent one of the macabre events to come. A chance was maybe all it took.

Chapter Text

On the seventh day after their arrival in the Land of Waves, the sky was incredibly clear and the sun reflected on puddles everywhere with cheerful insolence. Hitomi had told Kakashi about her surveillance of Gatō and kept Sunaarashi with her at all times. The cat kept her updated on the tyrant’s movements, which could become useful. When the man wasn’t busy threatening or blackmailing people, he had a boring life.

This time, the whole Team Seven went to the bridge to watch over Tazuna, except for Naruto, who stayed home to protect Tsunami and Inari. After a moment of hesitation, Hitomi left one of her water clones and Haīro behind as well. She didn’t like dispersing her forces like that, but cat and boy got along well and Naruto could order the clone around if he needed to. With the bridge builder’s family as protected as possible, she felt more at ease.

Even if she knew what to expect, a ball of anxiety and shock alike formed in her throat when she saw the bridge littered with inert bodies. She walked to the closest man and took his pulse: he had only been knocked out. The needles sticking out of his limbs told her it was Haku’s work – Naruto had told her he had met ‘a boy who was even prettier than a girl’ the previous day, during his morning training session, and it could only be him.

“Hitomi-chan,” Kakashi ordered, “summon two water clones and send them to evacuate the civilians. This is a diversion, which means…”

“That the welcoming committee is already there,” Sasuke finished.

After obeying her teacher, the girl sliced her thumb open and summoned her other two fighting cats, trying very hard not to worry about them. Hoshihi and Kurokumo had promised they would be very careful, and that they would go to the spiritual world immediately if they were wounded, so she had decided to trust them. The ginger cat and his black-pelted companion appeared in a puff of smoke, Sunaarashi joining them at their summoner’s feet, obviously ready to fight.

All of a sudden, a thick blanket of fog fell over their group. Sasuke, Hitomi and Kakashi surrounded Tazuna in a triangle, swords and kunai unsheathed, as soon as the teacher gave the order. Behind Hitomi’s back, the Uchiha seemed to be shaking, but she could almost feel the anxiety turn into jubilation inside him – maybe because the same was happening in her own body.

“Yo, Kakashi,” started a deep, well-known voice in the mist. “Still dragging those brats around, uh? Look like they’re shaking, the poor little things.” And suddenly a dozen clones were surrounding them, all terribly threatening – and yet Hitomi wasn’t afraid anymore. She even felt serene, as if nothing wrong could happen to her.

“Now, Sasuke-kun!” Kakashi ordered.

The Uchiha heir started moving immediately, his silhouette fading in the mist as he ran to one clone after the other to return them to a liquid form, his katana never stopping in its deadly dance. Water fell around them in a perfect, supernatural circle, and Sasuke stepped back to his place, in a defensive stance once more.

“Ooh, you beat all my water clones, eh? You’ve done some progress, kid. They are dangerous opponents, aren’t they, Haku?” Even in compliments, his voice was still biting with irony, but Hitomi didn’t let that get to her. No, she couldn’t, not when she was hearing the masked boy’s name for the first time, his identity hammering one more nail into the coffin of pressure and stakes Hitomi had engrossed herself from the beginning of this mission.

“So Hitomi-chan was right, and this boy is your accomplice. At least, this time, it’s obvious.”

“Let me handle him,” Sasuke growled.

Hitomi didn’t need to ask him why he wanted to fight Haku. She knew how important honesty was for him. She just tightened her and her cats’ position around Tazuna to fill the void her adopted brother left as he stepped towards the adversary he had chosen for himself. Her eyes didn’t leave Zabuza for a moment. She didn’t have the Sharingan that was turning Sasuke’s eyes red, but she wanted to be ready when the deserter attacked.

The two teenage boys collided in a clash of steel against steel. Sasuke seemed to have an advantage with Shingi to Giri, the katana he had inherited from his father, but Hitomi knew how fast Haku could be – she knew this advantage wouldn’t last. She couldn’t stop a rush of worry from washing over her, even knowing Haku loathed killing and would try to knock him out, to neutralise him.

“Hitomi-chan! Leave Kurokumo and Sunaarashi to protect Tazuna-san. You and I are fighting Zabuza. You’re only doing support if you can help it, is that clear?”

“Yes, sensei!” Hoshihi following her like a shadow made of fire, the girl stepped toward the renegade. The gentle warmth of adrenalin was brushing her fears off, making them slide along her limbs and pool at her feet like a cloak she had shouldered off carelessly. She felt calm, focused, and in her dark red eyes laid a strength, an intensity that maybe hadn’t been there a few days prior. She knew what was going to happen, and everything would be okay. She held on that truth like she would embrace a loved one, allowing it to slow her heart down and sing the melody of battle under her skin.

“Can’t do anything without your brats, can you, Kakashi? Afraid you can’t win without them?”

“Aah, you’re so wrong, Zabuza. See, Sasuke is the best Genin in Konoha, and Hitomi is just behind him. And then, of course, there’s Naruto, who’s so unpredictable it becomes a strength of its own… Anyway, just to say that I don’t need their help. I’m just using you as a training dummy.”

The deserter seemed a bit offended by Kakashi’s words, and Hitomi could empathise with that. She, too, would have felt insulted if she had been a Jōnin and one of her opponents had used her as a dummy for their Genin. She shifted nervously, tightening her grip around her tantō as she waited for Kakashi to act first. It happened in a flash, in the clash of steel against steel, her teacher’s kunai against Zabuza’s monstrous sword. She had to stay focused on her goal.

As he parried with an easy move, Zabuza laughed. “Did you hear that, Haku? Those kids are so strong.”

“Yes… We have to be wary of them.” There was no mockery in his tone, Hitomi realised as he formed a hand seal that turned water into ice. Hitomi’s distraction would have cost her her life if Hoshihi hadn’t jumped on Zabuza’s arm from below to deflect the blow that would have cut her in half. The hit went over her head, so close it took a strand of her hair with it.

“For fuck’s sake!” Kakashi groaned. He ran towards the other fight, Hitomi behind him, but Zabuza stopped them, standing in their way as mirrors formed a cage around Sasuke and Haku, hiding them from view. The smile on Zabuza’s face, perfectly visible despite the bandages hiding the bottom half of his face, made Hitomi bristle. She snarled, killing intent blooming by reflex on her skin like its own kind of fog, invisible but toxic.

“Not so fast, you two. I’m your opponent.”

Sasuke screamed in pain behind the mirrors and Hitomi’s anxiety came back with a vengeance. In answer, from beyond her killing intent that had never been stronger, a soft, cruel and enchanting voice started whispering and crawling under her skin, all bloodlust and promises of massacre. Her pupils contracted extremely in the centre of her dark red eyes as Hitomi forced the voice to retreat so she could focus on the fight. She couldn’t fail.

“Come on, think about it, Kakashi. If you go help your student, I’ll kill the girlie and then your client, but you can’t let her go alone for fear that she’d be trapped too.”

The teenage girl could see the moment her sensei decided not to risk helping Sasuke. Just like her, he prayed that the young Uchiha handled it on his own, for his skills to be enough. Zabuza and Kakashi picked up their own fight, Hitomi taking the opportunity to throw a kunai towards Haku in the hope of distracting him. She wasn’t surprised when he dodged, but the big puff of smoke appearing before the mirrors did surprise her – until she understood it was Naruto, Haīro in tow. With an affectionate smile, she let the boy sing his own praise as he saw fit while her cat walked to her – and then the blonde entered the circle of mirrors and Sasuke and he started arguing immediately.

“Boys!” she called in a light, almost playful tone. “If you don’t start focusing on the enemy right now, I’m gonna have to punish you!” They immediately obeyed her and she could feel Kakashi’s approval of her. They could now concentrate their own efforts on Zabuza and pay him back.

“Tell me,” Kakashi started, “where did you pick up that boy exactly? Weren’t the Kirijin clans massacred?”

“It wasn’t easy, let me tell you that. He survived one of those massacres and he was begging in the streets like a mutt. I waited for him to kill another beggar over a slice of bread before taking him with me. I wanted to be sure he had what it took.”

For a second, Hitomi allowed herself to feel immensely sad for Haku, who had to have been broken-hearted to have to kill that unnamed person. Then Naruto howled in pain and part of that feeling disappeared deep inside her. She parried a hit from Zabuza, rolled under his huge sword and replied with a kick that totally missed its target. She wondered if he had had a bruise, where she had hit him during their last fight. Part of her hoped so.

“Sorry, Zabuza, but this time I’m the one with no time to lose.” Kakashi was tugging on his forehead protector when the nukenin attacked. His sword in one hand and one of the strange Kirijin kunai with only one cutting edge in the other, he rushed towards the teacher and stabbed his hand so deep the blade clicked against the metal plate on the Copy Nin’s glove, on the other side. It had to hurt like hell, but Kakashi didn’t even blink. “Not so eager to see the Sharingan again, are you?” he taunted as he finished his movement.

“Hmph. You should know that a ninja only uses his best weapon with parsimony.”

“And you should feel honoured! You’re the first of my opponents to see it twice. There won’t be a third, though.”

“And? Even if you beat me, you can’t win against Haku. I taught him everything I know, forged him like a blacksmith forges a sword, until he became the perfect weapon. His techniques are even better than mine, thanks to his Kekkei Genkai! He’s nothing like those weaklings you drag around.”

Once again, Hitomi allowed the insult to fly over her head. He wasn’t wrong, after all, when he said Haku was more powerful than they were. His knowledge of death had probably made him tougher, and his ice techniques were incredible. But the Yūhi heiress wasn’t to be overlooked either, and she was lucid enough to know intimately each one of her strengths and weaknesses. She shuddered when she felt the Sharingan awake.

“You’re making a mistake,” Zabuza continued, “by showing me your precious eye again. Like you said last time, ‘you won’t get me twice with the same technique’!”

Suddenly, the mist thickened and Zabuza vanished into it. Hitomi closed her eyes for a second, just enough to focus some chakra in her nose and ears. When she’d come home, she’d ask Kakashi for senses enhancing training, she felt terribly exposed in this situation, even with her meridians. She needed to get better. She moved, reflexes taking over her body, and five shuriken fell to her feet, parried with a slash of her tantō. She saw a shadow in the fog then heard multiple clashes of steel against steel that told her Kakashi had faced a similar attack.

She remembered what was coming next, and Kurokumo’s cry of alarm gave her the impulse she needed well before Kakashi understood Zabuza’s next move. Already she was standing between Tazuna and the deserter’s blade, and a line of fire and blood slashed across her torso, from left shoulder to right hip. If Hoshihi hadn’t stopped the renegade by biting him behind the knee as hard as he could, she would have died, disembowelled, but she was lucky: the wound was impressive but superficial. It still hurt like a bitch, though, a burn that awoke in Hitomi’s body and spread to each and every nerve. The pressure and whisper under her skin crawled in response, stopped at the last second by a surge of pure will.

“Hitomi!” Kakashi had just arrived, too late to protect her.

The girl’s breathing was heavy, laborious, but got better when she forced the pain to retreat in a dark corner of her Library, ignoring the feeling of blood rolling down her body and staining her clothes. If she stopped to think about how the fabric clung against her skin, she’d be sick, and this definitely wasn’t a good time for it. She clenched her teeth and attacked with her tantō, forcing Zabuza to parry and step back. Hoshihi joined her, while Tazuna and Kurokumo walked out of reach. “I’m okay, Kakashi-sensei. I have a plan, follow me! Haīro, Hoshihi, you know what to do!”

They had repeated this manoeuvre over and over, often on poor Ensui who hated playing the training dummy. Hitomi had evoked the possibility of using it against the swordsman, because it worked particularly well against taller and heavier opponents, just like he was. Ignoring the pain like it was just a phantasm, a product of her mind, she danced around Zabuza, Hoshihi and Kakashi helping her force him to parry from every side, while she closely monitored Haīro’s position. As soon as she sensed him in place, she slid under the nukenin’s sword, as fluid as the water under the bridge, and hit his torso as hard as she could with her open palm reinforced with chakra, leaving her blood on his naked skin. Totally taken by surprise, he couldn’t stop the impulse she had given his body and took a few steps back, tripping on Haīro, who was waiting behind his legs.

Thus the big swordsman fell; before he was over his surprise, Hitomi was sitting on his torso, her tantō against his throat, while Hoshihi bit the hand he was wielding his sword with hard enough to stop him from using it, his heavy, ginger paw immobilising the man’s shoulder. The girl was shaking, weak, out of breath, and yet she fought with all her might to keep the renegade submitted to her will, her knobbly knees pressing hard against his ribs. Soon enough, Kakashi came to her help, putting his foot on their opponent’s stomach, his Jōnin strength managing to pin Zabuza to the ground. The two men looked equally as dumbfounded, and Hitomi had to admit she herself was astonished to have succeeded. She had expected Zabuza to dodge, but now she would be forced to…

“Step aside, Hitomi-chan, he won’t move. I’ll kill him for you.”

Reluctantly, the girl started to obey, but froze mid-move when she heard Sunaarashi’s voice, clear and firm in the mist. “Gatō is approaching, just like you said, Lady Summoner! He plans on killing Zabuza so he doesn’t have to pay him, and he has a little army of civilian mercenaries with him.”

Everything went still around them. For a second, Hitomi wanted to collapse in relief, but she resisted that impulse, preferring to stand up slowly, her tantō still threatening Zabuza just in case he tried something.

“It’s… It’s a lie,” the man growled.

“What would my cat gain by lying to you now ?” she challenged in a harsh tone. “I was expecting something like this to happen, that’s all. I heard whispers in town, when I went there with Tazuna’s daughter, and I decided to send one of my cats to spy on him. He wouldn’t have any reason to lie, and especially not now that you ceased being a threat to me.”

“Do you have any shred of evidence to support your claims, girl?”

Hitomi had to think about it for a moment, then a terrifying, probably quite cruel grin slowly stretched her lips. “Actually, I think I have exactly what you want, Zabuza-san. Kakashi-sensei, is your genjutsu good?”

“Well, quite, wh- oh, I see. Let me handle it.”

She was beaming, almost as bright as Naruto, because she had succeeded . Neither Zabuza nor Haku would have to face the destiny that had been theirs in the canon, except if something went horribly wrong from this point on. As the buzzing of a genjutsu surrounded them, she kept the deserter under close watch, her sword still grazing his throat, and her cats acted accordingly, even if Hoshihi had stopped chewing on his sword hand.

A few minutes later, trapped in the illusion that was showing Zabuza’s defeat, his now useless arms dangling along his flanks, Gatō stepped on the bridge, his group of mercenaries in tow, and started to mock the swordsman, boasting about the plan he had conceived to use him without having to pay for his services – after all, a shinobi as strong as he was, even a nukenin, was worth three times the army the man had behind him. Still hidden by the genjutsu spell, Zabuza exchanged a look with Kakashi and spoke in a voice full of muffled anger. “You can let me go and call your fluffballs back, kid. We aren’t enemies anymore. Haku!”

As if he had heard everything – which was probably the case, he was a genius, after all – their other opponent ended his Demonic Mirroring Ice Crystals technique, revealing Sasuke and Naruto standing back-to-back, their swords raised in front of them like shields. They were both wounded, but nothing too worrying. Even from where she was standing, Hitomi saw that her adopted brother’s Sharingan now had two tomoe each. “Zabuza-sama, your orders?”

“One does not get away scot-free after trying to ensnare me. Gatō is dead, and his small fry with him. Kakashi, girl, will you help me?”

Taken by surprise, the teenage girl looked to her sensei before giving any answer. When he nodded, she squared her shoulders and nodded, too. “I will, and I’m sure Naruto and Sasuke won’t want to be left out of it.” Just as she said that, her brothers arrived next to her, looking absolutely fuming, like they had just heard the whole conversation. They looked well enough, and it was all that mattered. As for Hitomi, she was starting to feel her strength leave her body. She reinforced her limbs with chakra, still enough at that stage to chase her exhaustion. After signing for them to get ready, Kakashi interrupted the illusion.

“You’re dead, Gatō!” Zabuza screamed as he charged, sword first, at the flabbergasted tyrant. Several mercenaries immediately stepped before his target, and it was the moment the Konohajin shinobi chose to join in. Hitomi’s blood sang in her ears, the voice whispering more seductively than ever its promises of death and agony, but she resisted it with dignity, her sword hitting and parrying again and again. Twice, her cats saved her by diverting a mortal blow – nothing could make up for the blood she had lost and was still losing. In one instance, it was Haku who saved her by running a spear made of ice through the torso of a man who had attempted to jump on her from behind. After a second of shock, she thanked him with a nod and got back to the battle.

It happened in a flash, the flash of her blade on an exposed throat, and the cold reflection thrown by the sun on the blood that suddenly splattered her face. Her eyes open wide in shock, she watched the man fall at her feet, the taste of his life dripping on her lips, her cheeks, between her lashes, and in her eyes. She had just taken a life, all by herself, with her own hand, without the intermediary of one of her summons. A killer.

For a short, very short second, the voice that was whispering terrible oaths in her ear took over, pushed back the remorse that was suddenly choking her, burning it until only bloodlust and violence remained. When she took the upper hand again, Hitomi wasn’t paralysed by the consequences of her actions anymore. Her heart was beating fast in her chest, her movements were muddled, rendered messy by exhaustion, but one after the other the men surrounding her fell.

She raised her head just in time to see Zabuza break Gatō’s neck with a careless, effortless swipe of his arm. It was over. They had… They had won. She had succeeded .

Suddenly reaching the end of her strength, she fell to her knees in the sea of corpses and hid her face in her hands to cry over her innocence, murdered as surely as she had just murdered her first human being.

Chapter Text

As soon as Tsunami saw Hitomi, in Kakashi’s arms and covered in blood, she ran to the girl to examine her, frowning and cursing in a particularly creative way. She ordered the Jōnin-sensei to take his student to the living room, without a look at the two shinobi with a Kirijin forehead protector who followed the Konohajin team around like lost puppies. One problem at a time.

The girl was unconscious and the wound barring her torso provoked several shocked exclamations, from her adopted brothers and Tsunami herself. With the tip of her cold fingers, she assessed the injury to determine how deep and serious it was, then decided stitching was the best course of action. The kid was lucky she was already unconscious… “Dad, go fetch my first aid kit. Sensei, take everybody out, I don’t want anyone to distract me.”

She bossed everyone around like a head surgeon would, which made people obey as quickly as they possibly could, leaving her alone with the passed out young girl bleeding on her sofa – which she didn’t care about one bit. Stitching was a long, repetitive and laborious process, especially when it wasn’t done on a flat patch of skin. At least her patient wasn’t moving around. She tied the last stitch, bandaged the wound and stood back up, her spine creaking in protest. The girl would have a scar, but maybe the medic nin she had heard about could erase it, or maybe the kid would wear it as a mark of pride, a trophy. You never knew with shinobi.

In her Library, Hitomi was hiding under a reading table, drowning in a fear beyond words. The pale, usually so clean ground of her dear sanctuary had disappeared under several centimetres of fresh blood. Even from where she was, she couldn’t escape its metallic smell and sticky feeling against her curled-up shape. She couldn’t help but sob, her shoulders agitated with spasms and her throat constricted. She didn’t understand what was happening and that was enough to terrify her. Usually, a mere thought allowed her to adjust the appearance of the place, to control it down to the last detail, but it didn’t seem to work this time.

She knew the reason behind such a mess, but she should have been able to control it. Killing wasn’t supposed to be such an ordeal for shinobi, she should have been insensitive or close to it. Besides, it wasn’t fair, she had done her job, she had behaved well, this man would have gutted Tazuna without breaking a sweat if Gatō had paid him to do it. Anyways, she had been paid, or would be paid, for that mission, for the life, lives, she had taken. It was the same, just the same, so why did the thin line between intentions and actions make her feel like she was slowly dying?

And she’d still have to kill in the future, she knew it, knew it couldn’t be helped. Maybe she’d have to do it as soon as the Chūnin exam, or even earlier, if a mission required her to do it. Despite all the reproaches she could have towards her village, Hitomi was loyal to it, not out of patriotism but because so many of her loved ones would have given their lives without any hesitation for Konoha. She couldn’t allow herself to be weak, not now, not in front of the very first threat to her mental stability.

Her throat constricted, she left her hiding spot slowly. Her hands and legs were covered in blood. The frown and incredibly hard look in her eyes were like a scar in the middle of her exhausted features. She breathed in deeply and raised her arms, mobilising chakra and pure power to bend the place to her will. Several meters away, like a spark in the shadows, a door appeared. It was such a pure white that looking at it hurt, locked with barbed wire ready to bite the skin of anyone trying to approach, or leave the room it was guarding.

A bitter crease on her lips, Hitomi grabbed the book that contained her memory of the first murder and what it had made her feel. She tore out the page that contained the act itself, cold and free of any emotional reality, and bound it to the book containing the previous memory. The rest of that damned book, she took it to the white door. The barbed wire retreated before her, but still scratched her arms as she pushed the panel made of light open. A simple emotional wound – nothing serious. It was just the first of a very long series. She had chosen this path, this life, she knew what it cost.

Behind the door was a small, dark room. On a bookshelf that seemed ready to collapse, dozens of used books piled up. The cover for one of them was a face in relief, silently screaming. Another was bleeding, the thick red liquid dripping along its pages to pool under its spine. After one last look at the book she had taken there, she tossed it on the table in the middle of the room, grabbed a length of chains and wrapped it around the book until it disappeared under the iron.

When she left the room several minutes later, the floor was clean once more. The white door closed silently behind her and disappeared into the shadows, where it could lay forgotten. Even if her mind didn’t allow for forgiveness.

Hitomi woke up as the sun was setting, in the orange and red light flowing in the living room. She tried to sit up and hissed as pain bloomed where Zabuza had wounded her. Carefully, she relaxed her muscles and let her body go limp against the cushions. She felt tired, but relieved that this crisis was over, at least until Kakashi took her to his therapist. Her hesitations on that matter had thawed like snow under the sun. She needed that help, she knew it now. She just hoped that the woman his sensei was consulting would be as efficient and good for her as she had to be for him: the Copy Nin wasn’t the kind to waste time with a useless doctor.

“Ah, you’re awake,” Kakashi said as he popped his head through the window. Don’t move, I’m coming.” At least he had the decency to go the long way, through the door – Tsunami probably wouldn’t have liked it if shinobi had left scratches and footprints all over the frames of her windows by going through it carelessly. Anyway, if she had been a civilian, Hitomi was sure she would have been pissed about such a thing.

“Zabuza and Haku?” she asked when he entered the room.

“In the garden. Haku seems fond of Naruto and Sasuke, and Zabuza stands watch and glares at everyone. Don’t tell anyone, but I saw him pet Sunaarashi.”

“And she didn’t claw his hand raw? Surprising!” Hitomi snickered weakly.

“I heard that, Lady Summoner,” the she-cat remarked from outside.

Teacher and student shared a look then started to laugh. He approached and, carelessly leaning over the back of the sofa, gently messed with her hair. “You’re in for one more week of bedrest, maybe one or two days less if you don’t use too much chakra. Fortunately, this time you don’t have to transfuse your poor old sensei, hm?”

“No, but I do have a good excuse to read the next Icha Icha. Can I please have it?”

He obeyed with a sigh and she soon enough got the red book between her hands. She had come to really like the characters she had discovered in the first book. Without any actual reason, she had always thought in the Previous World that Jiraiya’s novels were a bit like the 50 Shades of that universe, but it wasn’t the case at all. The Sannin knew his craft. He had a real talent for character development and the emotional scenes he had written had, more than once, made her eyes shine with unshed tears.

“What’s gonna happen now, sensei?” she asked, resisting the urge to open the book and start reading immediately.

“This night, I’m going to the headquarter of Gatō Corp to dismantle the part overseeing the Land of Waves. It’s an A-ranked mission of its own, so no way I’m taking any of you kids with me. They’re gonna try to gather their assets and reinstall themselves in the area, but the Land of Fire will have more than enough time to place one of their men at the head of the company in the chaos that will ensue. The Land of Fire will still profit from marine activity, but its politic will be a lot softer on the people than Gatō’s and they’ll be allowed to live their lives in peace.”

“What about Haku and Zabuza?”

“Part of the loot I’m gonna get tonight will go to them for their role in the battle against the mercenaries. They decided to stay with us until Tazuna finishes the bridge, then we’ll go back to Konoha, and they… I guess they’re gonna go back to Kirigakure to try and stir up a new rebellion, now that they have the funds to do it properly.”

Hitomi needed time to digest all that. She didn’t dare go back in her Library yet, not since it was still adjusting to the presence of one more book in the forbidden section, but she was wondering how the future would be affected by all those changes from the canon. A spark of euphoria brushed against her mind – so it was possible to make things better, nothing was carved in stone, she was finally sure of it. How many other tragedies could she prevent? For a second, she felt almighty.

The following days were peaceful, especially for the wounded who took a well-deserved rest, read with all her might and slept enough for four. The meds Tsunami had procured her, paid with Kakashi’s money, made her sleepy and probably a bit loopy – Naruto and Sasuke had looked aghast when she had told her first smutty joke ever in front of them and she had been wheezing in laughter, almost falling of the couch in hilarity. She’d pay good money to see those faces again.

And then there were the other, darker moments, when Kakashi muffled her nightmares with a hand on her lips as she woke up jumping in fright, and listened to her retelling them in silence, not caring a bit about his own tiredness. In the morning, everything was brushed off by a cheerful sun pouring its light in the living-room that was temporarily her whole world; if forgetting wasn’t a possibility for her, she could at least keep her mind busy with sealwork.

She had just finished the seal she had been working on with Kakashi when Tsunami cleared her for training. The first thing she did was to run along the beach, with her cats like ducklings behind her, for hours on end, without any chakra to support her muscles, until she couldn’t even put a foot in front of the other. Then she had let the sea take her and floated until she felt ready to walk again, and then come back home, exhausted, happy and whole once more. People often forgot that physical exercise wasn’t only a necessity for ninjas, but an outlet as well.

Her first confrontation with Zabuza happened that very night. The deserter was standing watch in front of Tazuna’s house, titan-like and vaguely threatening – he probably couldn’t tune that down no matter how hard he tried. She stopped in front of his tall silhouette hidden in shadow, reassured by the presence of her cats behind her. They had all spent quite some time with the deserter while she was healing, and none of them had been harmed in any way.

“I wanted to tell you, girl… Nice fight, on the bridge.”

She froze, astonished, her eyes slightly wide. For a moment, she thought she hadn’t heard him right, because the Demon of the Hidden Mist wasn’t the kind to hand out compliments. He stared at her, almost challenging her to protest, his shadow wavering over her. She had to fight her instinctive desire to capture that shadow; she had learned her lesson with Kakashi, and Tsunami would gleefully behead her if she injured herself again. “Thank you, Zabuza-san,” she said with a small smile. “It was an honour to get to fight against you, and with you as well.”

He nodded, his eyes never leaving her, then extended a hand towards her. “Hand me your sword,” he grunted.

It was an order and Hitomi had learned the importance of obedience, so she did as he said without question. Her fingers wrapped around Ishi to Senrigan’s guard and she unsheathed the blade slowly, each inch of freed steel catching the weak light of the moon. She couldn’t suppress a small twinge of reluctance as she handed the tantō to Zabuza, staring at him as he studied it closely.

“Very good blade. Forged by the masters from the Land of Iron?”

“I don’t know. It’s a gift Sasuke gave me. It used to belong to a member of his clan.”

“Hm. And you can fill it with chakra. D’you know the trick?”

Hitomi shook her head, the few strands of hair escaped from her ponytail cheerfully following the movement.

“I’m gonna explain it to you, to thank you for the lesson you gave me on that bridge. I won’t neglect the people who look weaker than I am anymore, and you’ll be able to tear through your enemies with what you’re gonna learn. However, you train on your own, I’ve no fucking wish to become like your old sensei, dotting over brats. Deal?”

“Deal!” she beamed with something looking like frenzy in her eyes.

He raised the tantō so she could see it up close. The sun had set long ago, so only the moon was throwing its light over the edge, as perfectly sharp as it had been the first day, beautiful and deadly. A spark of chakra tasting like ocean floated in the air, and suddenly water surrounded the blade, compressed to an incredibly thin flow and rotating like a chainsaw along the edge – even though such tools didn’t exist in this world. It even had teeth, for fuck’s sake. Hitomi’s eyes went wide. Even without seeing it in an actual fight, she understood how much damage this could do to any target.

“See, girl, water is the hardest nature of chakra to infuse in a weapon. In Kiri, we even decided to go with creating legendary swords rather than teaching it to all our young, and yet many decided to learn, because it’s worth it. If you do this correctly, a simple brush against an opponent’s skin will tear away whole chunks of flesh.” He looked absolutely over the moon as he was telling her that, and Hitomi had to admit that she was in turn fascinated, her red eyes never leaving the blade of her sword. Since the memory of her first kill was locked out of reach, she wasn’t so appalled by violence anymore. If such barbarism was what it took to ensure peace and happiness for her loved ones… She wasn’t sure she would refuse to join in.

“First, you have to call upon your water chakra, gather it in your arm, then compress it far beyond the pressure real water could bear. The coat you cover your blade with can’t be any thicker than half a millimetre on each side, and even thinner than that along the edge. Basically, the thinner it is, the more it cuts, and the more damage you can cause. Mizukage the Second was able, according to the legend, to reduce the thickness of his bladecoat to a single molecule. For that, you have to compress the water chakra between two masses of pure chakra as hard as you can.”

Hitomi didn’t need to put his instructions into practice to know it would require a strength she didn’t possess yet. But, like everything that was part of the shinobi arts, she could work on it, and she would . She was sure she could master this skill if she put enough effort into it. After all, she was really good with control, precisions. What she lacked yet was the raw strength, a bridge between muscle, power and will that she didn’t know how to build and cross yet.

“Then,” Zabuza continued, “you have to add the rotation. Once your chakra coat is in place and as compressed as possible between your two masses of pure chakra, you have to give the coat rotation, and maintain it indefinitely. You have to find a trigger in your mind to make this automatic or the technique will be useless in battle. That way, you won’t even have to focus on it. Any question?”

After half a second of hesitation, Hitomi shook her head. Zabuza’s explanations were rough, abrupt, but clear. They made sense when one knew how chakra worked, when it became an additional limb, and that was a feeling the Nara shinobi were very familiar with, thanks to their Kekkei Genkai.

“Good. My debt to you is paid, then. Take back your sword and train.” He handed her her sword, dripping water on her hands by accident, then went inside the house, leaving her alone on the porch. At first, she simply tried to infuse water chakra in the sword. It was easy, no more complicated than activating a seal. A blob of water surrounded her blade, utterly useless. Before trying the next step, she practiced several kenjutsu katas to make sure the mass stayed in place without any additional effort. As long as she didn’t interrupt the flow of chakra, it worked like a charm.

When she started to compress, though, things got far more complicated. Creating neutral and water chakra at the same time wasn’t something that was done often by shinobi. In fact, she hadn’t ever tried, not even once. All her techniques required either one or the other, and that was it. There, she had to cut her focus in at least half, something she would need time to get accustomed to. She would be able to reduce the part of her mind dedicated to that task in particular until it became second nature, just like Zabuza said, but she would need time for it. Time, time… Time was always the matter – and the unavoidable toll to pay for knowledge and mastery.

She went inside the house after two long hours of repeated failures and tentative progress. She had started to get the compression thing, but couldn’t maintain it for more than two seconds before the water collapsed to her feet or returned to its original shape. She had persisted until she got pins and needles in her hand and decided not to push to pain. Harming herself wouldn’t help her get where she wanted quicker, but it did risk upsetting Sasuke and Naruto who hated seeing her in pain.

In the kitchen, Haku was busy doing the dishes. Without a word, Hitomi stepped next to him, grabbed a towel and started drying what he was washing. They exchanged a look then went back to their own task, a kind of quiet camaraderie floating unsaid between them. Sasuke had explained to her how the situation between the young deserter and his mentor was very tense. Hitomi hadn’t expected that problem to arise. How easy had it been to brush off that, in the canon, Zabuza’s epiphany about how precious Haku was to him had only happened after his student had died to save him! She had to fix this shit.

During the following days, she spent a lot of time with the boy, one year older than she was. He was incredibly kind and sweet, starving for affection and knowledge. Hitomi had loads of both and gave them to him without holding back. They had started the habit of going to lay down on the roof at night to watch the stars. The sky was usually clear in the Land of Waves these days – the warm season was growing near. During those astronomy sessions, they often discussed things they didn’t necessarily bring up with their respective teammates. Sometimes, Haku’s quiet presence and his warmth against Hitomi’s side made Hitomi think of halcyon days, when everything was simpler, easier.

The idea came to her one afternoon, while everyone was gathered on the beach. Tazuna and Tsunami had decided to throw a barbeque there, to Naruto’s utmost joy. Hitomi was happy too, but she longed for different parties, with her friends in Konoha, in her garden, under Kurenai’s supervision. After graduation, those gatherings had become rarer. They didn’t have so much time on their hands now, and not all at the same time. She still had to learn how to find home in herself, in her team, rather than in places and in people who couldn’t be with her most of the time. Ensui had assured her it would come. She believed him, of course. How could she not?

She watched Zabuza sparring with Kakashi, and wasn’t the only one doing so: not too far away, Haku stared at his mentor, his eyes filled with such loneliness and reservation it made her heart ache. The teenager’s dependence on his master wasn’t healthy, but it would get better, without a doubt, if the man learned to treat him like a person, with his strengths, weaknesses, and his own mind. Her face empty, Hitomi interrupted the spar between Sasuke and Naruto and attracted the latter in a hug. There, her mouth against his ear, she whispered a few words that made him blink in surprise then frown.

As soon as she let go of him, he walked to the other spar, yelling. “Oi, Zabuza! It’s more than time that you stop treating Haku like a weapon! He’s a person, too, and he loves you enough to put up with you behaving like a asshole, and you, you’re giving him nothin ’ in return!” As the others watched, dumbfounded, the young jinchūriki threw himself in the spar and grabbed the swordsman’s shirt with his little fists, all but screaming his mind nose to nose with him.

A wily, maybe quite proud smile slowly stretched Hitomi’s lips. Sasuke walked to her, as surprised as the others. “What did you tell him to get him to react this way?”

“This, my dear brother, is a secret I intend on keeping to myself. Just remember I can do this at will.” The look he threw her was made of pure fright, making her throw her head back and burst in a wild laugh, as beautiful and tempestuous as the sea. She rarely laughed like that, with such abandon, such delight, and this touch of cruel joy that made shivers run down people’s spine if they weren’t sure to be safe by her side. In that laugh, there was a hint of the redoubtable opponent she would one day become, when there would be power and strength in her to back up her endless plotting.

“You’re fucking terrifying.”

“I know, Sasuke, thank you. I call that the Peace, Love and Ramen Bowl technique.”

“A… fitting name. Thoroughly ridiculous, but fitting.”

“I know, right?”

During the following days, Hitomi was able to see her plan bear its fruits. The tension between Zabuza and Haku started to ease as their bonds became gradually more natural. One night, after they had gone up on the roof, the teenage boy hugged Hitomi for the first time, whispering thanks in a choked voice against her ear. His eyes shone with tears in the dark, but his beaming smile could have lit up the whole sky. “Zabuza-sama asked me to stay with him after training, today.”

The girl nodded: she had noticed the two deserters’ absence during dinner. They had only come home when she was doing the dishes after the meal, so she had silently heated up two plates of food for them then cleaned those as well when they’d been done rather than going back to her book like she wanted to.

“We… We talked a lot. He said he loved me dearly, even if he didn’t know how to show it, and he’d try better in the future. He even promised that, when things will get better in Kiri, he’s gonna officially adopt me.”

“That’s awesome news!” she tried exclaiming while keeping her voice down.

“Yeah,” the boy whispered in a trembling voice. His tears started running then. Hitomi couldn’t see them, but she felt them dampening the fabric of her kimono. Without a word, she wrapped her arms around the teenager and started cradling him gently. She understood how happiness could make him cry, understood that a page of his story was done and how going to the next one frightened him. Yes, she understood.

“You know, Haku, we should do something a bit crazy to celebrate,” she said after a few minutes.

He raised his head and met her eyes, surprised. “You have something in mind?”

“Actually, yes. Come with me!” As soon as the words left her mouth, she stood up and jumped off the roof, Haku just behind her. The boy in tow, she ran to one of the cliffs, not so far away, where she liked to go to write her letters since she was allowed to leave the house. The marine air eased the words she bore so close to her heart and helped her put them on paper. When they arrived, only the moon and stars watched them, their reflection dancing on the sea far below.

“I wanna jump,” Hitomi announced without any hesitation, “and I think you should jump with me.”

“Aren’t you afraid of getting injured? It’s quite the fall.”

“Pff, we’re ninjas, such a little dive won’t hurt! And where will I find cliffs like those in Konoha, anyway?” She let out a little giggle, raising her chin to look him in the eyes. “Tempted?”

She saw Haku think about it, weigh the pros and cons carefully. She waited, tuning down her own eagerness, because she knew that, in his shoes, she would have done the same. Finally, he nodded and started undressing, peeling off layer after layer of clothing until a simple piece of fabric shielded his modesty. Hitomi mimicked him, leaving her grey kimono, legging and steel fishnet in a little bundle at her feet, only satisfied when she was only wearing a thin sports bra and a pair of panties. They exchanged a look and started running towards the edge in silent concert.

It was glorious, an exaltation beyond words. Hitomi screamed her joy and freedom as she fell, the body perfectly prepared for impact. Said impact happened in a tremendous splash but without any pain, just like she had predicted, her chakra rushing to reinforce her limbs and protect them against her spark of folly. She went down, down, far below the surface, her laugh muffled by the sea making her swallow big gulps of salted water, and suddenly Haku’s firm, gentle hand grabbed her wrist.

With his free arm and legs, he made them go up again, and soon enough their heads broke through the surface. Raised in the Land of Water, he was probably a better swimmer than she could ever dream to be. Hitomi was still laughing when she started breathing air again; he laughed with her, his cheeks red and eyes gleaming with sheer pleasure. Then their laughs died out, their hold of each other turned into an embrace and they edged closer. Hitomi laid her head against his shoulders and took a deep breath, confident he would keep her above the surface.

For the first time since she had killed, a knot inside her eased.

They went home long after midnight, so soaked they had abandoned the idea of putting their clothes back on, even if they had indeed been back to the cliff to get their gear. Fortunately for the Yūhi girl, it was Zabuza on watch that night, not Kakashi; the swordsman only smirked when he saw them and sent them to bed with a firm nod towards the bedrooms. Not once had Haku let go of Hitomi’s hand since they had found each other in the sea, but he had to when he left her at the door of her room – being the only girl, she slept with Tsunami now that she was back in shape. The two teenagers stared at each other for a long time. Hitomi had to raise her head for that – Haku wasn’t so tall, but anyone except for children looked tall next to her.

“Thanks for tonight, Hitomi-chan. I’ll miss you dearly when it’s time for us to go our separate ways.”

“Oh, Haku,” she whispered with a smile. “I don’t think your ways will be as separate as you think.” With those words, she tiptoed to his level and kissed him, chaste and gentle, just a brush of her lips against his, before disappearing to the other side of the door. After a moment spent frozen in amazement, she went to lie down on her futon, her heart racing so loud it was a wonder Tsunami didn’t hear it.

Chapter Text

Soon, too soon, Tazuna was done building his bridge, and the two teams, Kirijin nukenin and loyal Konohajin, stood side by side on its stones despite the differences that should have pitted them against each other. The bridge had been named in Naruto’s honour: Hitomi had heard that, before joining them in battle, he had gone door to door in the city to give the people their courage back, in a way only Naruto could. They hadn’t forgotten and didn’t want to forget it.

The Land of Fire’s representative who had just taken the lead of what had once been Gatō’s company had arrived three days prior, escorted by a Chūnin team Hitomi didn’t know. He had a redoubtable kind of cleverness in his eyes and, when they had been introduced, he had told her he knew her uncle quite well. She would have to ask Shikaku if she wanted to learn more about him, which she did, just in case. She knew she’d have to swim in political waters if she wanted to destroy Danzō completely, if she wanted his fall out of grace to be unquestionable and unquestioned.

She never quite lost sight of that goal.

Haku and Hitomi had decided to keep what had started to grow between them secret. It looked like a relationship, but they hadn’t dared name it that. Hitomi wasn’t emotionally ready to love someone fully and she knew it. She loved, yes, Haku’s kisses and his surprisingly strong hands on her hips, the sweet smell of his hair, the tender music of his voice when he whispered her name in a sigh brushed against his lips like her fingers would. But this was nothing like loving him the way she wanted to, the way she was reading about in novels. She couldn’t, not so close to her break-up with Hinata, not when she was due to go back to the Land of Fire, where he couldn’t follow.

So they settled for seeing each other in secret, holding hands when they watched the stars on the roof, often after a midnight dip under the moon and stars’ benevolent watch. Kakashi suspected something: one morning, he had caught a strand of Hitomi’s hair and taken a good whiff of hit, before watching her with a false severity in his eyes. However, he hadn’t said anything, and she preferred for things to stay this way – for her link with Haku to stay theirs, and theirs alone.

He was there, of course, standing on the bridge next to his master. Just like Team Seven, the duo had decided it was time to go back home – if there was even a home for them. They had received funding, probably from Jiraiya, to launch a new coup against the Mizukage in place and bring someone else to power. Had the Hozuki brothers fallen into Orochimaru’s hands yet or did they have time to join the rebellion? Kisame, Hitomi knew, had turned rogue years ago, several months before Itachi. The adults hadn’t wanted to talk about it in front of their children, but Shikamaru was a master eavesdropper and had heard his father discuss the matter with his former teammates. The Seven Swordsmen of the Mist were no more.

Sasuke’s farewell to the two deserters was quiet but warm; he didn’t quite know how to tell people he was going to miss them, or that he was going to worry about them. As for Naruto, he didn’t have that problem and hugged Zabuza with all his might – the swordsman looked like he needed rescuing, but Hitomi and Kakashi were too busy snickering to help him.

“Hitomi-san?”

A faint blush on her cheeks, the teenage girl turned to Haku. She walked to him – he had stepped away from Zabuza and Naruto’s effusive farewell with a grace that only he possessed – and stopped at a polite distance from him. Now that they were leaving, appearances didn’t matter that much anymore, but it was hard to change a habit. “I’m gonna miss you, Haku,” she said with a sad smile. “But, first, I have a gift for you.”

He looked at her curiously as she unrolled a tiny storage seal, not larger than her little finger. She had worked hard on the compressions as Kakashi tried, without knowing the proper vocabulary, to explain how they added up to what she had already mastered. A spark of chakra and one of her communication notebooks appeared between her hands. For him, she had picked one with a dark blue cover, his name engraved on the spine in silver-foiled kanjis. She had had a hard time finding a craftswoman willing to do that work on such little notice, but a heavy purse of ryōs had been enough.

“What is it?” the teenage boy asked.

“It’s a way to stay in touch. I left you a letter inside to explain how it works. I’ll write so I can tell you what’s happening in Konoha and, if you want, I’d like for you to write back.”

The boy was clearly dumbfounded by such a gift. The last Seal Masters had disappeared very long ago from Kirigakure and, unless a miracle happened, the art was forever lost to the village. Even an ally village wouldn’t offer its own Masters, if it even had some, to an entity that could one day become an enemy once more. Nothing could compensate for such a risk. He shook off the surprise and smile, his brown eyes softening as he stared at the girl he liked so much. “Thank you, Hitomi-san. I’ll take great care of it.”

She nodded in approval and watched as he put the notebook in one of his pockets then fidgeted, for once unable to keep his nerves in check.

“I-I have a gift for you as well,” he finally said. From his other pocket, he took a little pendant on a steel chain. The pendant itself was a delicate-looking flower in whitened silver, with a transparent jewel in its centre. Hitomi had never received a piece of jewellery before in her life. She couldn’t help but blush when Haku walked the polite distance she had left between them, so close she wanted to kiss him. “My clan once lived at the base of a mountain that was renowned for its chakra stones. I got a little reserve of those, just in case Zabuza-sama or I need money urgently. Those stones absorb chakra, no matter its nature, and preserve it for later use. They can’t store much, however. I’m not sure you could use it in battle.”

“I won’t want to use it in battle, silly,” she said tenderly, trying to overcome her astonishment. Those stones had to be very rare for her to never have heard of them. “If your chakra is inside this stone, it’ll be like you’re never too far away from me.”

He made her turn with a small touch of his hand. She had to suppress a shiver when she felt his fingers brush against her neck, his breath caressing her cheek. A moment later, the silver flower and its chakra stone rested against her skin, catching the sun’s light delicately. Haku’s fingers lingered on the nape of her neck as she turned back to him and, suddenly, as if he had decided something, he pulled her in an embrace.

The kiss he gave her was nothing like the ones they had exchanged until then. This one tasted like farewell, tenderness, hope, and the smell of Haku’s hair as a few strands escaped his bun and rolled on gentle waves along his cheeks. When Hitomi parted her lips to give him access to her mouth for the first time, he let out a hoarse moan and that sound intoxicated her with power. When they separated, they were both breathless, their cheeks red and eyes gleaming. Behind the young Yūhi, Kakashi was firmly gagging Naruto, his infamous eye-smile flashing.

Their hands brushed against each other for the last time, then Hitomi forced herself to turn away from him. Haku and Zabuza would go by the sea to Kirigakure – the swordsman would have probably been able to make a boat obey him in his sleep with that uncanny mastery of water jutsu of his – but Team Seven couldn’t afford such a luxury. The representative from the Land of Fire had ordered them to go back by the bridge: this symbol would be very strong for the people they had contributed to save by killing Gatō. Hitomi just selfishly wished she could spend a little more time with Haku.

“Don’t look back,” Kakashi ordered gently as she stepped next to him. “You have to appear strong and proud. Don’t forget how important symbols are.”

She obeyed him, her heartache soothed by his quiet, assured voice. She fought her desire to look back, to see even one last glimpse of long black hair or dark teal fabric, focusing on one point on the horizon instead. In the Land of Waves, she left the delicate shadow of a burgeoning romance, around a litter of blood and the memory of an exalted jump off a cliff. Her adopted brothers, by her side, gave her the strength to say goodbye, to renounce without bitterness nor distress what had defined her life on those beaches.

For a long time, the quartet stayed silent. They didn’t feel the need to fill the void with words, which, considering Naruto was amongst them, betrayed a particular, shared mood. They had all left some piece of themselves behind. Hitomi worried it would be this way each time they went on any mission outside the village, at least for her blonde brother. He was so quick to create friendships everywhere he went, and at least out of Konoha no one knew he was a jinchūriki. Without that stigma, he was just an adorable bundle of joy. Alas so easy to hurt.

“I’m sure we’ll see them again,” she said after a while.

“You can’t wait to see Haku again, can you?”

Hitomi couldn’t help but blush. She knew she couldn’t deny it, not after the show she had put on for her teammates with the boy. “I wouldn’t have anything against it. At least I can keep in touch with him through the notebooks.”

Silence came back then, for a long time. Naruto was the one to break it, by asking Hitomi about a flower he thought was pretty. Hitomi answered his question, Sasuke added something she didn’t know about and Kakashi confirmed. It happened several times: they were now free of a client to protect, which allowed her to share her knowledge about the Land of Fire without a risk of distracting the boys from their task.

Night found them at the border of a lake. They took some time to reaffirm the team dynamic they had carefully built through training and previous missions, now that they were on their own again. Quickly enough Sasuke got them two rabbits and Kakashi joined in with a pheasant he taught them how to prepare. Hitomi added that knowledge to her Library, a shudder running down her spine. She hadn’t spent any more time than necessary in her mental sanctuary since her first murder, but she missed it dearly. She had to trust herself; her mind wouldn’t betray her again and, even if it happened, she knew how to handle it now. She had grown, she had learned.

She took the first watch that night and no one disputed her claim this time. Sitting next to the fire, she created a shadow clone that kept its eyes open and took her notebook out of her pocket. She wanted to write – she knew which one of her pen pals would read her letters no matter how late the hour was.

Dear Gaara,

We’re heading home. I told you about our mission when I had time to write, but there are things I didn’t put in my previous letters. I didn’t feel ready then, but I think I do now. Remember Haku, the youngest deserter of that team we fought against then bonded with? We spent a lot of time together during the last days of my stay in the Land of Waves. I really like him and I think he likes me back. We even kissed a lot.

Despite that, despite how cute and gentle and easy to talk to he is, I don’t feel really open to the possibility of another romance, and especially not a long-distance one. I don’t even know when I’ll see him again. He understood, as you may have guessed, and didn’t try to force me or even to convince me. He just kissed me harder when it was time to say goodbye.

I don’t think I have a right to be sad, because I made this separation happen, but my intellect doesn’t seem able to make my feelings bend. I can’t stop touching the necklace he gave me, just to feel the chakra he left for me there. I really wanted to allow myself to fall in love with him; it’s like something could have happened but didn’t, and I’m left to wonder. I know you’re even less experienced in relationships, but would you have any advice to give me?

Kisses,

Hitomi.

After sending her letter, she stood up and walked around the fire to stretch her legs. She was hungry again, so she snacked on some leftovers while lost in thoughts before going to see her clone, who confirmed with a nod that everything was alright. She should have been tired after such a day of traveling, but her heart was beating fast and her mind was alert, no matter what she tried to appease it. When she sat back next to the fire, her notebook got cold between her hands.

Dear Hitomi,

I can’t tell you I understand what you’re going through, but Temari is standing over my shoulder and she told me to repeat this to you: in Suna, and probably in Konohagakure as well, shinobi live their love stories as if tomorrow didn’t exist. They decide with their hearts rather than their brains, because they know death is never very far and don’t want to have any regrets when the time comes. I have to say I agree with this vision. It’s too late to go get this Haku but, if you meet again, you should make sure you don’t have any regrets.

I can’t wait to see you again.

Love,

Gaara.

No matter how concise this letter was, it gave Hitomi a lot to think about. The morality she had followed so far on the subject of love and relationships belonged to the Previous World, even if she hadn’t ever experienced them there. She had wished for someone to love until the end and hadn’t had any interest whatsoever for temporary arrangements.

But this world was different, so different from the one she had lived a whole and yet short life in. She couldn’t bring herself to see her few days with Haku as bad or even futile. Their stolen moments mattered to her, as if she had loved, even though she knew it wasn’t quite the case. She had liked being in his arms, having his lips on hers, and she knew that, if they had both been older, they wouldn’t have stopped at kissing. Could she forget the morality that had guided her, admit that the principles she had followed so far weren’t coherent with the world that was now hers, and could she find new, better fitting ones? Was she capable of that form of forgetfulness? She hoped so. It would make her life easier.

A faint smile on her lips, she stared into the night. The kind of agitation that had hunted her since her feet had left the Land of Waves wasn’t totally at peace yet, but progress had been made, she couldn’t deny it. She could now sit still, her eyes lost in darkness quietly tracking any disturbance without finding any. When Naruto took her place next to the fire and she closed her eyes under her blanket, sleep found her easily.

Going back home was far quicker than going to the Land of Waves had been, now that no civilian slowed them down. In merely two days, Team Seven had covered almost all the distance separating them from Konoha, and Naruto was starting to show serious signs of impatience to the idea of seeing his friends again. Hitomi had heard that he had become friends with Hiruzen’s grandson, Konohamaru, and that the kid was developing, towards his self-assigned mentor, feelings of rivalry and admiration. The whole thing was putting a smile on the lips of any tough and experienced Jōnin who saw them interact and plan pranks.

In the morning of the third day, Team Seven finally walked through Konoha’s gates. Izumo and Kotetsu were standing watch in the post that had almost become their second home. Their faces lightened up when they saw Kakashi, who greeted them with a nod. The three Genin learned to file the appropriate paperwork for the end of an out-of-village mission, Kakashi patiently guiding them through the process. Hitomi didn’t have much trouble with it: no matter the subject, paperwork was paperwork, it worked all the same. Once they had signed and completed all the necessary documents, they were free to go. Despite that, Kakashi held the young Yūhi back with a hand on her arm, stopping her from following Naruto and Sasuke right away. “I’ll come and get you at 4PM for my session, you’ll take my spot today and then make your own appointments if you like her. Be at home at that time, I don’t want to have to hunt you down through the village.”

She nodded and only then did he let her go, watching her walk away until she disappeared in the flow of civilians who were roaming the streets, busy with their own problems. He was relieved that things had mostly gone well during this mission, even if the lack of information about the politics in the Land of Waves had almost cost them their lives. He would have to dig up some dirt on that. It wasn’t normal for shinobi to be put in such situations for a lack of information – they provided the intel, for fuck’s sake! No, Kakashi was afraid it had been done on purpose, and in that case… In that case, he could only hope to be a match for the threat.

Without even needing to think, Hitomi took the path towards training ground number six. She knew that, at this time, she would find her mother and Team Eight, immersed in their morning training session. Kurenai believed in the importance of a healthy routine for her students, and even more so when they weren’t working on a mission – Hitomi missed her dearly. Yet, when she arrived at the training ground and saw the four silhouettes of her mother and peers, she didn’t go to them, content enough with sitting against the fence and watching them.

Shino and Kiba seemed to have teamed up against Hinata. Hitomi knew that, in the canon, the mere idea of fighting them both would have paralysed the girl with fright, but even from where she was sitting, Hitomi could see the determined crease between her eyebrows and the power in her stance. She got Kiba in the sternum with the Gentle Fist, eased her shoulders to dodge an attack from Shino and took advantage of his momentum to make him trip. The rhythm of her movements looked perfect; the fact that Hinata didn’t rush to her teammates’ side apologising was another sign of her immense progress since their first year at the Academy.

She had only been gone for a month and yet everything seemed changed, her former girlfriend as well as the pain she had expected to feel upon seeing her. The feeling was still there, but numb, more melancholia than real sadness. Maybe the mission in the Land of Waves had happened at the perfect time, after all. Without looking away from the fight that was starting again, she took one of her notebooks and started throwing ideas for a seal on the paper.

“Like what you see?”

Hitomi looked up with a jump, her left hand ready to unsheathe her sword, then relaxed. It was only her mother, staring at her with obvious amusement. The young Yūhi had known, of course, that she couldn’t go under the radar, not with a Jōnin to stand watch. It was her fault, for letting her guard down. “I missed you, Mom,” she said with a smile.

“I missed you too, sweetheart. How was the mission?”

“Hard. The intel we had was completely wrong and we ended up fighting ninjas several times. I think the whole mission will be upgraded to A-rank.”

“Oh, fuck! And you and your brothers are fine?”

“Yeah, we were lucky. I was injured twice and the boys got a few scratches and bumps, but we had time to heal.”

“I’d like to know more. Report to me, please.”

Since she wasn’t in the habit of disobeying her mother, Hitomi did report to her. She started telling her about the Demon Brothers, and how Hoshihi had killed one of them without hesitation, then she talked about the first fight against Zabuza, and then the second one. She told her about Haku, too, blushing and hesitating all the while. Kurenai’s eyes on her were gentle and understanding the whole time. When she was done, the woman wrapped an arm around her shoulders tenderly.

“I see… I’m relieved to hear that nothing too serious happened. I took Team Eight on two C-ranked missions, true ones, while you were gone. We didn’t have any problem, but perhaps it was because we didn’t leave the Land of Fire.”

“Hinata has made a lot of progress. The others too.”

“I know, right? They’ll be awesome ninjas when I’m done with them, it already shows. I’m particularly proud of Hinata. I thought your break-up and the circumstances surrounding it would break all her confidence, but it was the opposite.”

“It’s the best thing I could wish for her.”

On those words, mother and daughter went to meet up with the Genin of Team Eight, who were enjoying a well-deserved break from their unending spars. Akamaru yipped happily when he smelled her, attracting the three ninjas’ attention on her. She smiled and waved at them, suddenly intimidated. Why did she feel so shy out of nowhere? She couldn’t think about it further: Kiba was hugging the living hell out of her, strong enough after a month apart to pick her up and make her yelp in surprise when her feet left the ground. The sound was so piercing it made poor Kiba whine as the others laughed. At least, it made the damned boy release her.

“Hum, welcome back, Hitomi. Do you feel good?”

The girl answered Hinata with a grin and a nod. She wasn’t even lying, not really: with her family and friends, safe behind Konoha’s walls, she could pretend to forget what was to happen in the days and weeks to come and, for once, she felt really at peace.

Chapter Text

Apparently, there were engagements Kakashi didn’t dare being late for. Was he afraid she would run if he didn’t show up at the exact time? Sure, she was nervous, but she knew how to ignore or overcome that feeling, depending on the situation. The way she preferred was simply to keep busy, in a pertinent way if possible. She had discovered, when she had gone home as Team Eight had to go fulfil another mission, that Shikamaru had left a note on her desk. There, he had regularly noted the stocks of seals and gear for his own team as well as Hinata’s, thus telling her what she needed to craft for them. After taking the time to put order in her own gear, she had gotten to work, and Kakashi found her in the middle of it.

“Are you ready?” the teacher asked in a surprisingly gentle tone.

The question took Hitomi by surprise. She didn’t answer for a few seconds, staring at him silently. When she finally spoke, her voice wasn’t any louder than a whisper. “I’m not sure.”

“You’ll be when you get there, Hitomi-chan, trust me.” He watched as she put on her shoes, easily noticing the tremors going through her fingers stained with ink, as well as the way her knuckles went white when she tightened them too much on her tantō’s guard. “Come on, follow me.”

No one really noticed them in the streets, with the exception of a Chūnin who greeted Kakashi and stopped to exchange a few words with him as Hitomi waited politely, a few steps away. It didn’t stop her from hearing every word they said; she smiled, almost tenderly, when she understood her teacher was firmly rejecting the other man. No, he didn’t want to go get a drink to catch up, not now nor in the future, and he was busy, so… “You’re more popular than I would have thought, sensei.”

“What’s making you say that?”

“Well, I’m old enough to understand that man was hitting on you, sensei, and it didn’t seem to be the first time.”

Kakashi answered her words with a low chuckle, his right hand patting her gently on the head. He usually kept that gesture for Naruto, or, more rarely, for Sasuke. They were, in their team, the most susceptible to say something surprising to their sensei. Hitomi was in no way predictable, but she didn’t pry where she didn’t belong, and her sensei’s personal life was something she usually stayed away from. “Happened a few times since I became a sensei. Maybe they like the responsible ones? Who knows, thanks to you, I could perhaps find myself a nice ninja to take care of me!”

“Sensei!” she shrieked, blushing furiously. She wasn’t exactly embarrassed by what he had just said, it was more the fact that Kakashi was telling her that, he who was so reserved he didn’t even show his face. Her cheeks burning, she looked away, staring at her feet like they could take her far away from him.

“And that, my sweet Hitomi-chan, is a lesson you’d do well to remember: you don’t toy with someone that can toy right back with you if you’re not certain you can get the better of them.”

With a false huff of anger and a pout, the teenage girl picked up the pace, trying to put some distance between them. He didn’t let her, of course, with those stupidly long legs of his. She couldn’t even run, because he would have started running too. Or he would have used the Shunshin to appear just in front of her and put dead leaves in her hair, perhaps. She never knew, with him.

“Come this way. And stop pouting, or Fukuda-sensei will think I’m being mean to you.”

“Fukuda-sensei?”

“My therapist. Didn’t I tell you her name? Hm, weird.”

Hitomi shrugged but didn’t answer. They both knew that, if he had told her, she wouldn’t have been able to forget. They stayed silent until they arrived at a little house with a cute porch painted in spring green and invaded by so many flowers Hitomi thought, for a moment, that she was in front of a Yamanaka shop. Kakashi held the door as she stepped inside, then went to the secretary to explain the appointment was under his name but he wanted his student to take it, and wanted a new one for himself as well. Hitomi was surprised by how casual the whole affair was but, after all, someone who worked with ninjas had to be quite flexible with schedule and appointments.

“I’m gonna leave you here, Hitomi-chan. When the lady calls your name, you go through that door and you explain to Fukuda-sensei that I’m sending you here. You’ll see, I’m sure it’s gonna help you.”

Her expression serious, the girl nodded and let him go. Suddenly, she felt nervous, thrown off-balance. She had learned more meditation exercises than she could count to enhance her chakra control, but none seemed to work now, as she tried to regain her internal balance. After a few minutes, she decided to give up and open a book. She hoped Jiraiya would finish his third novel sooner than in the canon: his stories always helped her relax. Since she couldn’t read more from him right now, she settled for the poetry collection she had taken in one of her seals.

“Yūhi-san? It’s your turn.”

Her nervousness came back with a vengeance, unsettling and vicious, but she pushed it back like she’d just slammed the door in its face. She didn’t want to play mind games with herself right now. She put her book away in one of her seals and walked the short distance between her chair and the door with the impression that she’d never manage to reach it. She put on a trembling smile for the secretary and walked through the entrance of the office.

The afternoon light poured inside the office. There was a walnut wood desk in the centre of the room, so clean and neat it could have been an exposition model in a shop front. In the pool of light were two shapeless poufs and a big sofa. Oh, to be a cat and lie there without a care for the rest of the world… A dark-haired woman in her thirties was sitting at the desk. When the woman looked up, Hitomi saw black eyes behind her red eyeglasses and a kind smile of her soft features.

“I’m sure I had an appointment with Hatake-san and he wouldn’t be foolish enough to use a transformation jutsu again in this office. Who are you?”

“One of his students. We had problems during our last mission, and I was… I was more affected than my two teammates. He said you’d be able to help me.” She could barely whisper the last sentence, with all the uncertainty Hitomi never dared to show. She lowered her head, anxious and ashamed at the same time.

“I see. Very well, come in and close the door. You can sit wherever you’d like.”

Hitomi obeyed, choosing one of the poufs to sit. She had almost tender memories of the Previous World, of the hours spent reading sprawled on a similar thing, sometimes until she fell asleep in a position that wasn’t exactly comfortable.

“Okay, young lady. Before I ask you to introduce yourself, I’m going to start, if it’s okay with you.” When Hitomi nodded, the woman continued. “I’m Fukuda Aemi. I’m from a family of doctors, but I decided to learn psychology rather than medicine. I’m bound by professional confidentiality, of course, but since we’re in a Hidden Village, my oath goes further than that.” Slowly, the woman rolled up her sleeves, exposing seals around her wrists that Hitomi recognised immediately. “I have one on my tongue, too. They stop me from repeating what my patients tell me, even by accident or under torture, in writing or speech. You’re safe here. What you’re going to tell me is not going to leave this office.”

Hitomi nodded but didn’t speak right away. She knew those seals could be broken. There was always a way. A determined enemy could also put listening devices in this office, there were so many possible hiding spots for a tiny bug… No, she couldn’t tell her about everything . But maybe she could tell her enough to feel better afterwards. “I’m Yūhi Hitomi. I’ve been a Genin for two months and, a little over a month ago, my sensei was ordered to bring me along during a B-ranked mission, so I could watch. I think everything started to go wrong that night.”

For more than an hour, the woman and teenager talked. It was a dialogue, really. The therapist didn’t just ask questions or guide her in a specific direction, she spoke about herself too, in discreet little touches that helped Hitomi relax and open her heart. She spoke about her first kill, but not only that. With shy, hesitating words, she confided in the woman about her relationship with Hinata, and then about her brief fling with Haku in the Land of Waves. When the session was over, there were traces of tears on her cheeks, but the weariness washing over her was healthy, healthier than she would have thought, as if she could just fall asleep and in the morning all her problems would have disappeared.

“It’s time to go, Hitomi-chan. So, do you want to see me again?”

She nodded without the slightest hesitation. She finally understood what Kakashi had tried to explain to her, and knew she needed this in her life if she wanted to stay stable enough to take the punches the future had in stock for her. She dried her cheeks with a firm hand and left the pouf she had sat on until then.

“Very well. In that case, you can come back next week, same time. Would it be okay with you?”

“Yes, sensei. Thanks a lot.”

“Thank you for your trust. Take care of yourself until next week, alright?”

Still quite emotionally fragile, Hitomi left the house. The sounds and colours seemed slightly dulled to her, as if someone had put a filter over her senses. It was almost soothing. She took a few unsure steps, breathed in, then jumped on the roof of a shop. After all, she was allowed to travel above the ground, now. A few blocks away, she saw Morino Ibiki, walking towards the Torture and Intelligence building. Wasn’t he done with work already? She knew he could tell she had cried, but she still waved to him. He replied with one of his weirdly cute smiles, so surprising on his scarred face, then continued walking without looking back. Hitomi decided it was the best thing to do and acted the same.

Sasuke was cooking when she arrived home. He greeted her with a nod and she did the same before heading to the office, where she could feel her mother’s chakra. This time, she was alone, and Hitomi thanked the kami for this little blessing. She knocked and, when she got an answer, entered the room. Kurenai was sitting at her desk, bending over some paperwork, probably for her team, and fidgeting with a pen.

“Hitomi? Is everything alright, sweetheart?”

“Uh… Not really. But I’m working on it. Kakashi-sensei took me to see his therapist and… I mean, I’d like to continue seeing her until I get a bit better. C-can I?”

“Sweetheart, you’re practically an adult in the eyes of the village. You know you don’t need my permission.”

“Yeah, I know, but… I dunno. I just wanted your approval.”

“You have it. Of course you have it. Everything that can help you heal is a blessing to me.”

A relieved smile appeared on Hitomi’s lips; her mother smiled back with that tenderness only she could show. She gestured for her to approach and, when her daughter obeyed, she wrapped an arm around her thin waist.

“I really missed you. How are your wounds?”

“I’m probably gonna have a scar where Tsunami stitched me up. The Land of Waves doesn’t have any medic nin so I was lucky she had medical skills, even civilian ones.”

“Can I see the scar?”

Hitomi untied her obi without hesitation and folded it carefully before putting it on the desk. She did the same with her steel fishnet shirt, keeping only her sports bra. She didn’t need to take it off for the scar to be visible, from her right shoulder then down in diagonal to her left hip. The thick skin was already turning white, the places where the stitches had been easy to spot. It wasn’t pretty by any means, but scars rarely were, and ninjas weren’t supposed to be vain.

“Looks like it hurt a lot,” Kurenai whispered as she brushed her finger against her shoulder.

“Right then, not really. Adrenalin was pumping through my body, and I was focused on my plan. Smelling my blood made the cats furious, stronger and… maybe it allowed us to win. If it was the price to pay, I think I can accept it.”

“Oh, sweetheart… You’re far too young to think that way. Sometimes, I forget you take after your dad too… Take care of yourself when you’re on a mission. If you’re wounded, your teammates will be upset, and they could make a mistake that could be deadly to them because of it. You’re as important as they are to your team. Do you understand?”

“I… Yeah, I think I do.”

“I will only be at peace when you’re sure you understand, but you still have time for that. You should go take a shower before dinner, if you don’t want Sasuke to take all the hot water. See you downstairs?”

Hitomi nodded and, after kissing her mother’s cheek, left the room. She put her latest advice to practice, locking herself in the bathroom for some time alone, and understood that Kurenai had been right once more. When her hair was clean and smelled of the flowery shampoo she only used when she didn’t plan on leaving the village, when her skin was damp and warmed up by the shower, when her crimes and worries had all washed down the drain, she felt lighter, softer.

Hitomi had learned in the Academy that shinobi who left for missions longer than three days were granted a certain number of holidays directly after the end of the mission. Outside of wartime, they were even forced to take those holidays, because an exhausted shinobi would be useless for his village. It was when weariness reached the body and mind, when it impregnated every movement, every thought, that a ninja made mistakes that could mean death. When war happened, of course, villages couldn’t afford such a luxury, but why go without when they had a choice?

After their month-long mission, Team Seven had to take four days off work; they couldn’t go to the Mission Attribution Bureau without getting chased away by one of the paperwork Chūnin working there – and terrifying people with their nervous tics when someone handed them messy papers. Even Kakashi didn’t dare challenge them, but Hitomi supposed that, as a member of the ANBU, he could still go to the ANBU Commander to keep busy.

However, he didn’t have that option anymore, not with a Genin team to supervise. Every morning or afternoon, the team met on training ground number three and practiced old or new skills depending on what the teacher had in mind. Ensui, upon hearing about their return through the communicating notebook Hitomi had given him, went with them when his other obligations with Shikaku allowed him some free time, and was often very insightful to both teacher and students.

Hitomi continued working on her water jutsus. She was now very good with her whip and had started working on the Shield, the variant of that technique that could deflect most projectiles effortlessly. In parallel, she was still trying to bend the chakra blade to her will, dutifully following Zabuza’s instructions. She had finally understood how to create both neutral and water chakra at the same time, but she was still working on making it an reflex.

Naruto and Sasuke had decided to focus on taijutsu. It was a field Naruto excelled in when he put his head to it: he had incredible strength and stamina, and his speed only needed a little work. As for Sasuke, he was taking advantage of his own speed, Sharingan activated to try to overcome his limits. Such an incredible eye was useless if he couldn’t exploit it fully. Most times, Ensui was working with Naruto, and Kakashi with Sasuke. It was an obvious and easy way to organise their training. Sometimes, however, to throw the students off-balance, the two men switched places.

Hitomi hated the twinge of jealousy she felt some days when she saw her brothers receiving Ensui’s attention. She was his apprentice, their pact still held and hadn’t ended when she had become a Genin. She didn’t doubt that, not at all. She would have just liked to spend time alone with him, like they had during their trip. However, she never voiced those feelings, because she knew it wasn’t right. Neither Naruto nor Sasuke had gotten the total focus of an adult on them before Kurenai had adopted them into the family. They were craving it, she could see it, even if the young Uchiha hid it better than their blonde brother. She didn’t have any right to envy them, she who had been loved unconditionally for as long as she could remember.

And, without her needing to ask, Ensui came back to her. It happened after a training session that had been maybe a tad too intense: Sasuke and Hitomi had sparred, less careful than usual. He hit harder, hard enough to cause bruises where he had managed to hit her, but she was more vicious as well, and the water of her whip had made his wrist bleed. They both had to go to the hospital to make sure that the damage was as superficial as it looked to be. Kakashi had taken Sasuke, but Ensui decided to ensure Hitomi went there himself, an arm around her shoulders.

He was still far taller than she was, and his smell was exactly as she remembered. As discreetly as she could, she turned her head and breathed in deeply, even closing her eyes with an expression that looked like melancholia. She quickly redirected her attention to the road in front of them before she could trip and make a fool of herself, but it was too late: Ensui hadn’t missed anything of the emotions swirling inside her mind.

“I miss it too, Hitomi. You have no idea how much I miss it. My life was far easier when I only had you and the road in front of us to keep me company. But I don’t regret coming home with you. Do you?”

“No, I don’t either,” she said with the faintest hint of hesitation.

Soon enough, they arrived at the hospital. The whole second floor was dedicated to short term healing for shinobi, and the third housed the ones who needed more attention than a quick fix-up. With a smile that was perhaps a bit charming, Ensui walked to the counter and asked the receptionist if she could direct them towards an examination room and send a doctor there for Hitomi. His charm didn’t work on the woman, but she still did as she was asked.

“Sakura?” she called out in surprise when her childhood friend stepped in in her hospital uniform, her pink hair cut at shoulder-length. She looked sure of herself and her own skills, totally at ease in that environment; her whole face lighted up when she smiled.

“Hitomi! I’m so happy to see you. I heard you had returned from your mission in the Land of Waves a few days ago but I didn’t want to come and be in the way of your training. How are the boys?”

“They’re okay. It was hard, sometimes, during the mission, but we all came home in one piece.”

“That’s the important thing! So, why are you here?”

“I sparred with Sasuke and he didn’t exactly go easy on me. Ensui-shishou is worried I could have more than bruises, especially to my ribs – I was injured there during our mission.”

“I see. Nara-san, could you please step outside so I can examine Hitomi?”

The Jōnin nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him. Hitomi didn’t doubt for a moment that he was on full alert and eavesdropping, even if he couldn’t see them. She couldn’t swear it, but she would have done exactly that in his place, using her meridians to make sure everything was alright on the other side of the door. They were often very much alike, even now that they didn’t spend as much time together. Slowly, the girl untied her kimono then took off her steel fishnet. Sakura stayed impassive even as she stared at her scar and torso covered in bruises, but a crease finally appeared between her eyebrows, a sign that she did worry.

“It looks very painful… I’ll take care of it, alright?”

“Thank you. Sasuke doesn’t go easy on me, but it motivates me to dodge, at least, and I didn’t exactly let him use me as a punching bag. I think we’re getting stronger, and Naruto as well, of course.”

“It means your training regime works. Say, I was wondering…”

“Yeah?”

“Do you know how to draw a weight seal?”

“Depends. What do you have in mind, exactly?”

“I’d like a seal that adds weight on my limbs and back, to build up muscle faster. Once I’m officially a doctor, I’d like to apply for the medic nin training course. The entrance examination doesn’t only test our medical knowledge but our physical skills as well. The Academy is far behind me and it’s gotten hard to train since I’m not part of a team or anything like that.”

Hitomi didn’t answer right away, rubbing her hands together as if to help her think. “I’d have several tests to run before giving you anything but, yes, I think I can. Can you come to my place tomorrow? I’ll give you what I have then, if it works.”

“It would be awesome, thanks! Okay, let me heal those bruises now. You’ll be as good as new in a sec, I promise.”

With a little hum of approval, Hitomi laid down on the examination table and let her friend tend to her wounds. The medical chakra, fresh and sweet, kind of reminded her of the taste and smell of mint. When Sakura was done, Hitomi felt as clean as after a long shower, her relaxed muscles rolling effortlessly under her skin.

“Avoid coming here every day, alright? I like having you around, but medical ninjutsu loses in efficiency when used too often in a short period of time on the same body part. You have to dodge in priority, and only if it’s not possible you can think about parrying and taking the hits coming towards you. Got it?”

“Easier said than done when it’s Sasuke, Naruto, or even worse both of them trying to hit you, trust me! But I’ll do my best, I can promise this. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, see you tomorrow. Thanks again, Hitomi!”

Ensui was waiting for her outside, pacing like a caged lion. She smiled when he looked at her and didn’t wait for him to move before she started walking out, forcing him to catch up to her. “How did it go?” he asked, trying to hide his worry. Unfortunately, the crease between his eyebrows betrayed him, as clear as day.

“You already know how it went, shishou. And since what Sakura asked me to research and perhaps create is fūinjutsu work, I could use your help.”

“Nothing would make me happier. Your place?”

“Yeah. Mom isn’t home and Naruto is babysitting Konohamaru or something so we’ll have the whole house to ourselves.”

They worked late into the night, absorbed into that project that probably would be useful to more people than just Sakura. Perhaps Hitomi herself would use it if she needed a boost in her muscle-building training. She was right on track so far, but anything could happen and divert her from it. And who could refuse an efficient training device? When Sakura came to see her the following day after dinner, Hitomi handed her ten pieces of paper and explained how to sew them inside her clothes and how to activate them. She was happy she could be useful to one of her friends.

The next morning, Team Seven was finally allowed to take missions again. Naruto seemed to have missed it dearly: he was hopping up and down with excitement in front of Iruka’s desk. He started pouting as soon as he heard their mission, though. Fixing the fence around one of the Yamanaka parks wasn’t exciting at all but, at least, with all the clones the team could summon, they were done in less than two hours. When they left the Tower again, their money in diverse purses, the village was sunny and buzzing with activity.

And, several steps before them, his back to them, was someone Hitomi would have spotted even in the middle of a crowd.

Gaara.

Chapter Text

A cry escaped Hitomi’s lips without giving her any chance to stop it, attracting Gaara’s attention to her. His big turquoise eyes went wide when he saw her. They met in the middle ground between their teams, quickly hugging as intensely and naturally as they had once. The Yūhi girl was now quite a bit shorter than the Son of the Sand, the top of her head only reaching his chin. He took advantage of each of his supplementary centimetres to close up around her like a protective cocoon, his smell of sand and sun invading her nose. There, in the secret of his arms, she couldn’t help but burst into tears, clinging to his clothes like a child to a parent.

She hadn’t understood how much she’d missed him until then. Being in his arms brought it all back, giving her a piece of her she hadn’t known was missing. She cried and cried against his shoulder, soothed by the deep hum playing in his throat, quiet enough that only she could hear. Once her tears dried up, she closed her eyes and listened to the melody of his breathing and beating heart.

“Aah, Hitomi-chan,” Kakashi said after a while, “wanna introduce your friend?”

She reluctantly stepped back, staring at Gaara. He had changed, obviously, but not in the way she had feared, the way the canon had condemned him to. “Kakashi-sensei, Naruto, Sasuke,” she said in a voice that was choking with a tenderness beyond words, “let me introduce you to Sabaku no Gaara. He’s a very dear friend of mine, and I want you to treat him as such.”

Gaara smiled, an expression as hesitant as it was brief, like he was surprised by the affection she was showing shamelessly. He gestured for his brother and sister, who had decided to wait a few steps away, to come closer. “Kankurō, Temari, come. I told you a lot about Hitomi-nee, and here she is. She’s family.” His last word was full of unsaid implications, too intense for the girl to be able to fully grasp them.

Her eyes met Temari’s, which were the same colour as Gaara’s. She nodded in greeting, beaming so enthusiastically she could have rivalled Naruto’s smiles. “You didn’t say you were coming to Konoha. Had I known, I would have waited for you at the gate.”

“Well, I meant for it to be a surprise. It’s only once we got there that I realised I didn’t have the foggiest idea of where you live.”

“You’ll know soon, all three of you. My mother loves having guests.”

“Hm,” Kankurō intervened, “I think Baki-sensei has gone to fetch the key to our hotel room. He won’t like it if we stay in another part of town.”

Gaara’s eyes hesitated for merely a second before he turned his back, resolve in his stance, to the entrance of the Tower, following Hitomi instead. Not once had he stopped touching her since their hug; it satisfied her more than she could possibly tell. “D’you know if Ensui-sensei is in the village, Hitomi-nee? I’d like to catch up with him, if he has time.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s there. He’s been hella busy these past few days with Shikaku-sama, but he’ll be happy to see you three. If he hadn’t spent so much time bitching about the sand he can still find in his stuff, I’d swear he misses the Desert.” With those words, she started walking towards the Nara land hanging on Gaara’s arm, Kankurō and Temari following them without asking any question. As for Sasuke and Naruto, they seemed a bit dazzled. Kakashi was walking behind them, exposing his usual laid-back demeanour at first glance. However, his only eye gleamed with unspecified threats towards anyone looking at their group of one Genin team and one foreign team. He knew, more than anyone, how fragile the relationship between Konoha and Sunagakure was. He wanted to see a real peace appear between the two Hidden Villages, and a friendship between the Kazekage’s son and a young heiress from a Konohajin clan seemed like an excellent start for such peace.

“You’re here for the exam, aren’t you?” Hitomi asked once they were all piled up in her living room.

The room went dead silent as soon as the question escaped her lips. Traditionally, the ninjas of the hosting village for the Chūnin exam were the last to know it was happening. A Chūnin had to be able to handle situations they weren’t prepared for, and keep their wits about them no matter the adversity.

“You… do know you’re not supposed to know that, right, Hitomi-chan?”

“Kakashi-sensei, the day the village will want to keep a secret, it’ll have to try harder. I live with one of the sensei who will have to decide something soon. Or did you forget that?”

The man had at least the decency to blush and look away. She grinned as Gaara answered her question, his voice serene and as deep as an adult’s already. “Yeah, we’ve been selected for the exam. You don’t know yet if your team will be part of it, do you?”

“It’s Kakashi-sensei’s decision to make. I entirely trust his judgment.”

Her eyes met her teacher’s. He nodded slightly, as if he approved. She smiled in return, then her attention returned to her guests. She had served them refreshments and little snacks, typical of Konoha. Temari seemed to enjoy them a lot. They were all sitting where they could find room around the coffee table, except for the adult of their group, who stood alert next to the patio door. He looked thoughtful, even though his hands never went very far from the pockets where he kept his weapons.

“I’m really happy to have you here, all three of you. I missed Gaara and, after talking with you through my notebook, I couldn’t wait to meet you.”

“Do you think you could take me to see the plants you had told me about?” Kankurō asked with a grin. “I’d like to see if I can enhance my poisons, but I already tried everything in the greenhouses in Suna – in the ones Genin have access to anyway.”

“I’m not sure you can see much of them, but sure, we can do that. Oh, and I have to take you out to eat gyoza!”

“And ramen!” Naruto intervened.

“And ramen, yeah. So many things to do!”

She was hopping up and down on the couch with impatience, a big smile on her lips. Gaara put a hand on her arm and they exchanged a meaningful look, which made her relax. Then Temari spoke, and her heart started racing again. “What I ’d like is to spar with you. Just a spar, mind you, not a real fight. Would you like that, Hitomi-chan?”

“Are you kidding? Of course I’d like that! Gaara told me you were awesome with your fan!”

“In that case, should we say tomorrow at ten in the morning? Do you have a training ground in mind?”

“You can use the training ground number three,” Kakashi drawled. “In fact, I insist you use that training ground. I’ll be there to referee, with a medic ready to step in, in case of emergency. Don’t forget the exam starts soon. Trust me, you want to be in top condition when it starts.”

The sensei’s word was law, especially when he spoke with that tranquil authority that seemed able to bend steel. Hitomi answered him with a beaming smile then her eyes met Temari’s, who looked as impatient as she was. She hadn’t had a true challenge since her fight against Zabuza, and would welcome the adrenaline rush that an unknown opponent would bring her, especially since it would be a low stakes fight. She knew Gaara’s sister was intelligent, too intelligent to feel overwhelmed by Hitomi’s little tricks like Naruto and Sasuke often were.

Dinner was a particularly joyful affair that evening: the guests were so numerous that Kurenai had taken Ensui along and ordered him to bring his dining table. Shikamaru’s family had done the same as well, Hitomi overwhelming her cousin with her own excitement. She remembered acutely the time when Shikamaru and Gaara had been her only close friends; to have them meet, finally, was very precious to her. Even the adults looked relaxed as they celebrated the reunion of two teams, from two different countries yet so much alike.

The next morning, Hitomi was serene and ready to fight as she stepped on training ground number three. She had decided not to use Ishi to Senrigan and had given it to Sasuke: close range weapons were no use against Temari, she already knew that. However, she had chakra and seals in abundance, as well as help from her summons and little inventions. A vicious grin floated on her lips when she thought about the last bombs she had created. They may not be of use during this duel, but she couldn’t wait to make an opponent’s life a living nightmare with them.

Kakashi stood in the centre of the main clearing, his back straight, with a martial air about him. Temari arrived a few minutes later, her giant fan already between her hands rather than strapped on her back. Behind her, the male members of her team, as well as Ensui and Baki, settled at a safe distance to watch the show. Hitomi and Temari positioned themselves ten steps away from Kakashi, one to his left and one to his right, after forming the Seal of Confrontation, and waited for the signal while facing each other, the same impatient grin on their lips.

“Hajime!” Kakashi commanded as he jumped out of the way.

Immediately Hitomi jumped out of the way of the wind blade that slammed towards her. This spar would continue until one of them conceded defeat or was seriously injured, which meant it could last long. She sliced her thumb open on the edge of a kunai and ran through the hand seals, brushing her hand against the ground. “Ninpō: The Iron Claw Brigade!”

Her three attack cats appeared in a puff of smoke and immediately had to disperse to dodge yet another wind blade. Hitomi had decided against using her shadows so she wouldn’t compromise Shikamaru’s possible future duel against the Sand Princess, but she had many other resources, even if she couldn’t access an entire part of her skills. In a burst of chakra, she created three Water Clones from nothingness and hid amongst them. Against any other opponent, she would have spat out a big patch of mist, but she knew Temari could dissipate it with a wave of her fan.

As her clones and cats charged, she frequently used the substitutions with her copies and, wherever she landed, slammed flash bomb seals on trees, on the ground, everywhere she possibly could. Those seals were heavily compressed and would be lost between two blades of grass, forgotten until she activated them. More than once, a wind blade came near enough to tear her kimono, and even scratch her once or twice, but that didn’t stop her. “Water Style: Water Whip!”

As soon as the whip appeared in her hand, she swapped places with a clone, appearing just next to Hoshihi. Her whip wrapped around Temari’s ankle; she pulled the limb brutally, but the kunoichi, her lips in a thin line, slammed her fan in the ground through the whip, effectively destroying it. Hitomi swore and had to back away, hiding behind a tree to avoid ending up as minced meat.

Temari was powerful and clever, but she relied far too much on her fan. With a smile, Hitomi left the protection of her tree and closed her eyes, activating all the seals she had placed everywhere in a chain reaction. The flash of light was so violent that even their public let out yelps of pain. Hitomi navigated blind without any problem: locating Temari’s chakra was all she needed to know where to hit, an exalted, wild laugh escaping her as she did so.

When the light drizzled down and everyone could see once more, they found Hitomi sitting astride Temari’s torso, her left hand open on her fan. Under her fingers, five explosive seals had deployed, easy to recognise even for foreign ninjas. The young Sunajin looked quite shocked, her eyes wide and her mouth parted open, her body still as tense as a bow. She let her head rest against the grass, suddenly beaming. After a moment, she burst out laughing, Hitomi soon joining her, rolling over her to lie by her side, the sleeves of her kimono badly torn and her arms covered in little scraps and cuts that had started bleeding.

“Ah, fuck, we’ll need to do that again.”

“I agree. You’re an awesome sparring partner, Hitomi-chan!”

“Well, so are you, Temari-chan!”

On those words, they stood back up, supporting each other. They were breathless, their hair was a mess, but the same exalted expression lightened up their features despite Hitomi’s wounds and Temari’s defeat. Kakashi approached and inspected his student’s arms, frowning with worry. “Ensui! Come heal your apprentice before she bleeds half to death on my training ground!”

Soon enough, Ensui and Baki were standing next to their respective students, and Hitomi felt her master’s chakra, fresh, clean, comforting, wash over her skin. “You held back, didn’t you?” he asked in a whisper against her ear.

“Of course I did. But so did she. Her attacks can be deadly, but she didn’t want to kill me, only to stop me from running around.”

“It’s fortunate your cats could serve as a diversion.”

“Yeah. Hoshihi, d’you want me to take you to Inuzuka-san for that cut?”

“That’d be great. If Aotsuki-sensei sees me bleed when I come home, she won’t be happy with me.”

With a smile, the girl lost her hand in her familiar’s ginger fur. He was tall enough that his shoulder brushed against hers now, tall enough to be mounted. However, they had decided together that they wanted to wait for him to build a bit more muscle in his back and shoulders so he wouldn’t get injured. He was becoming quite the terrifying beast and didn’t seem to stop growing up, unlike Haīro and Kurokumo, who had reached their adult size and were just a few centimetres smaller than their ginger friend. The three cats gathered around their summoner. They were always happy to go to the Inuzuka lands, since they had overcome their fear of dogs: Tsume made the best treats for their hunter palate.

“Before you go, Hitomi, I need to talk to you and your brothers.”

“Sensei?”

“It will only take a moment.”

Without adding a word, the teenage girl followed her teacher to the treeline and waited, her red eyes still gleaming with adrenalin. Naruto looked over-excited by the fight he had just seen and would have probably challenged Temari to a spar if Sasuke hadn’t severely gagged him, a smirk on his lips. Once his three students were gathered around him, he spoke again. “As you know, the Chūnin exam is starting very soon. In fact, the first stage is scheduled for tomorrow, four in the afternoon. I put your names forward to the Hokage, which means you can register, but don’t have to if you want to wait. However, I think you three are ready.”

They all nodded without hesitation. Hitomi was still high on her victory and her brothers couldn’t wait to prove themselves. The girl too, of course, but her motives weren’t as pure as theirs. She wanted to taste her potential opponents’ strength, to find herself at the heart of the events as they unfolded, to have a chance to act . She couldn’t guess if the invasion would happen. Gaara wouldn’t be part of it, not without warning Hitomi first to give her a chance to protect and defend herself. And even with that… He was a pacifist, like Uchiha Itachi had once been. However, he had only been a diversion in Orochimaru’s plan. The damned snake could very well find another one.

“Very well, I expected that much from you. Here is the paperwork you have to fill. Take it there before four, tomorrow. Don’t be late or the exam will start without you.” Before Hitomi could taunt him about telling others to be on time, he disappeared in a swirl of dead leaves, several of which got stuck in her hair.

“… Bitch. Boys, I’d like you to take care of our guest until I’m done with my cats, if it’s alright with you? I’ll meet you at home in two hours, and then we can talk strategy and prepare.”

“No prob!” Naruto beamed. “We’re gonna take them to eat ramen and then show them places, don’t worry about it!”.

With a nod and a smile, Hitomi walked away, her three cats in tow. She had thought she’d be agonizing in terror when the time came, but it simply wasn’t the case. She felt at peace, focused, the opposite of defenceless or vulnerable. She didn’t know if it was because her mission in the Land of Waves had been hard enough to prepare her, or because she was still riding the wave of her spar with Temari. What she did know, however, was that it probably wouldn’t last. She had to appreciate the little blessings when they were granted to her.

When she came home two hours later, alone, she was welcomed by a booming laugh that could only be Kankurō’s, followed by Naruto’s yelp. Curious as to what was happening, she swapped her boots for slippers and went to the kitchen, entering in the middle of a… catastrophe. It was really the best way to put it. She didn’t know what her brothers and guests had attempted to cook, but she was fairly certain it didn’t imply making a bag of flour explode . Even the ceiling was covered in the damned stuff, and Naruto was chalk-white from hair to toe. “I… What, and I can’t emphasise that enough, the actual fuck happened here?”

“Kankurō bet he could lift anything with just one string of chakra,” Sasuke said, “and Naruto threw a bag of flour to his face. This is the result.”

The shadow of a nervous tic agitated her left eye. Her hands curled to fists then relaxed. She breathed in and out, trying not to cough as flour happily coated her lungs, then offered them her sweetest smile. “I’ll start making dinner in an hour. I don’t need to explain the consequences if the kitchen isn’t squeaky clean by then, do I?” Just to make sure they got the idea, she projected a bit of killing intent in the air, then turned away and walked to her room, grabbing Gaara by the arm as she left. He was the tacit leader of his team, just as she was the tacit leader of hers; they had many things to discuss before the exam started. Fortunately, a pair of glasses and a bottle of lemonade had been spared, being in the living room instead of the kitchen, so she took them and went to sit at her desk once they were in her room, as he settled on her bed.

“Would you agree to an alliance between our teams during the first two stages of the exam?” she asked while pouring him a glass of lemonade.

“Why only those?”

“Because the third is traditionally a tournament organised in front of the leaders of the different countries that could send us new mission orders. An alliance is impossible in that kind of setting. The two first stages, in the village’s archives I examined, are often centred around collecting or spreading intelligence for the first, and survival for the second one. In those cases, we can help each other.”

“I understand. I don’t have any reason to refuse that alliance. We’d exchange intel and go to each other’s help whenever possible. Do you want to include other teams in that system?”

“Hinata’s and Shikamaru’s teams. They could handle it on their own, just like we could, but I think they’re gonna want it. In Konoha, we learn that strength is in numbers.”

“I’m okay with that. I have to discuss the precise terms with my siblings and I think you’ll want to reach out to the two other teams to discuss it with them as well.”

“You’re right, but I can do that without stepping out of this room.” She sliced her thumb open on a kunai she kept on her desk and slammed her hand against the wood. “Ninpō: Echoes in the Field!”

Where she had put her bloody hand appeared Sunaarashi and Hokori. Apparently, she had summoned them midway through their toilet; the female licked her brother’s ear one last time then straightened up and stretched. “What can we do for you, Lady Summoner?”

“I’d like you to go bring messages to Shikamaru and Hinata. Hokori will stay with me and transmit their answers through you. Just wait, I have to write the letters.”

She grabbed two sheets of paper and a pen Gaara was throwing at her and started writing. During that time, the boy looked around the room, his eyes stopping on the notebooks she kept on one of her shelves. “So you still had some of those damned notebooks, uh?”

She looked up from her letter to see what he was speaking about and smiled. “Yeah. And many more. The ones on the shelves are the ones I filled.”

“What do you use them for?”

“Some of them are communicating notebooks I plan on giving away. If that alliance thing happens, I’ll hand one to Hinata so her team can keep in touch with me. I should have done so long ago but, after our break-up, it seemed… well. Apart from that, I have others that I use to get ideas on paper for seals and such, and the ones that are with my books are novels I wrote.”

“It’s funny, each time you tell me you’re a writer I kinda forget. It’s so obvious when you say it like that, and yet…” He shrugged, but she understood what he meant. Writers were usually peaceful people, civilians, with the notable exception of Jiraiya of the Sannin.

The girl smiled as she handed the two little scrolls of paper she had just sealed shut to Sunaarashi, allowing her to stick them to her fur with chakra so they wouldn’t bother her as she ran through the village. Thoughtful, the two teenagers watched her jump through the window then over the roofs until she was just a ginger spot on the horizon.

“Would you let me read one of your novels, Hitomi-nee?” Gaara then asked.

Hitomi’s eyes went back to the boy. At first glance, he was as expressionless as usual, but the girl knew him better than that: she had learned to decipher the almost invisible tensing of muscles on his face like they were clear, obvious facial expressions. He looked sincerely curious, and a bit impressed as well. “Let me see if I have something you’d enjoy,” she said with a gentle nod. Slowly, she stood up and stretched, Hokori purring as she scratched him behind the ear, and went to her shelves. All three were overflowing with books, far less impressive than the Library in her mind, but she loved them just as much. Her fingers brushed against the spines of the books tenderly while she weighed her choices. She ended up picking a blue notebook with a white silver pattern on its cover and handed it to Gaara.

“The Cat’s Return. What is it about?”

“It’s the story of a teenage girl, Haru, who saves a cat that is able to speak. The cat’s father is the king of all cats and, as a reward, decides she is to marry his son, so she has to seek help from the Cat Ministry. It’s more of a story for children, but it’s very sweet and I think you’ll like that. You can then tell the story to Sunajin children if you do.” Hitomi had put that movie into writing exactly for that reason: being able to tell it to young minds who craved beautiful stories. She remembered each image of the first time she had watched the movie, remembered how amazed and enthralled she’d been. She wanted other people to experience the same thing.

“Thank you,” Gaara smiled. “I’ll take great care of it and give it back before we leave Konohagakure.”

They then oriented the conversation to lighter subjects. Hitomi asked her friend if he liked her village, what he had already seen, if he’d enjoyed the ramen Naruto loved so much. She wasn’t surprised to hear that he was getting along well with her brothers, especially the sunny blonde. It was hard not to love Naruto once he started to show how sweet he was. Despite the villagers’ wariness of him, each and every member of the Fellowship loved him to bits. One day, he would become the Hokage, and his awesome personality would help him make his dream a reality. And Gaara could understand such a dream, even if he didn’t know yet that he and Naruto had it in common.

“Hitomi!” Hokori called from where he was, curled up next to the boy.

“I’m listening. Do you have an answer yet?”

“From Team Eight. Hinata accepts the alliance without any conditions. I’m on my way to go find Team Ten, I think they’re at Yakiniku again.”

“Thank you, Sunaarashi. Keep me posted.”

Finally, just like she had anticipated, Shikamaru joined the alliance as well. They all decided to meet fifteen minutes before the exam, in the exam room, to work on a strategy around what they could guess of the first stage. Only Hitomi knew exactly what that part would be about, but she had no way of explaining how she obtained such knowledge and thus couldn’t share it in any way. It didn’t mean she didn’t have a plan, just that she would have to put it in place without revealing her hand.

After dinner, the teenage girl went back to her brothers and Team Baki in the living room. Kurenai was home but had decided to leave them the space so they could work in – relative – peace. As a Jōnin-sensei with a team in the exam, she knew what the two first stages were but couldn’t say a word. She would probably watch them as well when possible, through cameras or something similar, amongst her peers, if she wasn’t part of the first stage as a monitor altogether, under a solid illusion.

Hitomi remembered that, in the canon, there wasn’t any break between the two first stages, so she wanted to plan for both. Under the pretence of wanting to be ready for anything and everything, she finished filling her brothers’ stocks of seals and weapons, then offered her guests some of her creations. Without any surprise, Kankurō was the one most interested in them, especially her smoke bombs, since they would allow him the cover to switch places with one of his puppets. When she was done, Hitomi had sore hands, but at least that part of her preparations was done.

Then, she went back to her room and coerced her brothers into helping her find anything useful and sealing them in one of her scrolls. It went from weapons to changes of clothes, including rations and even books – she never went anywhere without a few books. To Gaara’s team, she offered her resources as well: her clothes would be too small for Temari, but it was better than no clothes at all if she dirtied them. They looked surprised that she made sure they were as ready as possible, except maybe for Gaara. Finally, she picked the communicating notebook she wanted to give to Hinata the next day and felt ready, as ready as she possibly could.

Around her, the lights went off one by one. Temari was sleeping on a futon next to her bed, since she had categorically refused to take it from her host, an open book face down on her belly. She had wanted to continue reading, her hand illuminated with chakra so she could still see, but sleep had won the fight. In the next room, Hitomi heard the snoring contest going on between Naruto and Kankurō, who could both obviously sleep despite the noise they made. A surge of affection for them warmed up her chest and she smiled as she climbed on her windowsill and slipped outside.

Gaara was sitting on the roof, his eyes searching the sky. He welcomed her with a small nod upon seeing her approach; without a word, she sat by his side, looking above too. The stars were pretty that night, intimidating in all their quiet beauty.

“I think the Desert has the prettiest sky.”

“Konohagakure’s sky is pretty, too. Peaceful.”

“I-I may be nervous about tomorrow. So many things could happen, bad things… I’m happy I don’t have to face it alone. I’m happy you’ll be there with me.”

“I’m happy too. Thanks to you, I have many things that give me a reason to live today. I wouldn’t dare imagine the person I would be if you hadn’t come to talk to me, that day in Suna.”

A peaceful silence settled between them and stretched into eternity. Their shoulders were touching, their bodies relishing in the other’s warmth. The nights were a lot milder in Konoha than in the Desert, but nothing could imitate the warmth of a friend’s presence. They had confided in each other on so many subjects through their letters; it made speaking in person almost hard. How could they find the correct words, the ones they needed, when they didn’t have time to think about them and weigh them before using them?

“You were right, you know? I loved your gyozas.”

“I told you so. And wait until you can taste the Akimichi’s. I never ate anything better than that in my life.”

They continued discussing trivialities until dawn painted the sky orange and pink. Only then did they stand up, Hitomi going one way and Gaara the other, to go back to their own room. Temari had moved during the night, her book now lost next to her legs. Hitomi used her meridians to spot the page she had read last and put a bookmark there, so her friend could pick up her reading without any difficulty. In silence, she stepped over her and threw a dressing gown over her pyjama and left the room, closing the door behind her.

She went downstairs, mingling seamlessly in the shadows and silence of the morning, and found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in front of her. A smile on her lips, Hitomi greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and started working on breakfast, her hands going through the routine without engaging her mind. That way she could allow it to wander, to dwell on her plans, to make sure she hadn’t left anything out.

“Are you ready?” Kurenai asked, as if reading her thoughts.

The answer came to Hitomi, so instinctive, natural and devoid of any doubt she almost laughed in relief. “Yes, Mom, I am.”

Chapter Text

Team Seven arrived in front of the Academy, which was hosting the first stage of the Chūnin exam, at three in the afternoon. Their guests had decided to go there earlier, so they could find their sensei and tell him about their strategy. Hitomi expected to see them in the classroom, but they had agreed to keep their alliance a secret: seeing the nine rookies unite wouldn’t surprise anyone, but a secret pact between the Leaf and the Sand? Everyone would think they cheated, and not in an acceptable, ninja way. They wouldn’t even be that far off but, like Ensui said, cheating was practically part of the job description anyway.

Hitomi went inside the building first, her brothers in tow. She climbed the stairs, reached the second floor and felt a genjutsu pull her in that corridor in particular. A smirk on her lips, she decided to engage and followed the mental injunction. Sasuke pulled on her sleeve, as if to reason with her, and she quickly signed ‘everything is okay’ to appease him.

They heard a hit landing on flesh, someone falling, then a boy’s voice. “And what do you think you’re gonna be able to do in the exam? You’d better quit while you still can.” 

The girl elbowed her way to the front of the crowd, and there she spotted a guy on the ground who could only be Rock Lee, with his unmistakable haircut and green jumpsuit. Then, the two teenagers behind him could only be Mori no Tenten and Hyūga Neji. Silently, Hitomi watched Izumo and Kotetsu, disguised but still easy to identify from their chakra signature, mock their victim. Tenten pleaded with them – Hitomi couldn’t help the wave of killing intent that made people around her choke when Izumo punched the older kunoichi in the face. Tenten was almost a legend in the Academy, the first of the First Kunoichi to equal the Best Rookie in the rankings… Which made her Neji’s equal.

“Sasuke,” she called.

He hummed in approval and stepped forward, instantly becoming the focus of everyone. As for Hitomi, she hid in his shadow, doing her best to look vulnerable and mellow. After all, she was so tiny compared to all the other Genin, so fragile, as pale as a doll, with freckled skin and big, big red eyes. Ensui had howled with laughter the first time she had tried that subterfuge in front of him, then congratulated her profusely when she had managed to convince a Chūnin to give her a mission she preferred to the one he had wanted to hand her.

I ’m going to go through,” Sasuke affirmed, his tone purposefully arrogant. “It’s a nice trick you have there, but illusions don’t work on me. After all, we’re supposed to go to the third floor.”

“Oh?” Kotetsu, still disguised as a Genin, said. “You’re the only one who noticed.”

“If you say so.”

“But playtime isn’t over yet.” The guard suddenly swooped on Sasuke, who prepared to parry and retaliate, sneering down at his attacker. Hitomi could see how much he wanted to fight – part of her coveted the same thing. She made sure to step aside so she wouldn’t be attracted in the two boys’ fight, refusing to take a stupid errant hit. Anyway, Lee would soon… Yeah, there he was, standing up and stopping the two attacks with his bare hands, staring at…

Oh.

Oh no. Fuck .

He was staring at her . She blinked and looked away, thrown off-balance by the intensity with which he was looking at her. She certainly hadn’t accounted for that when she had decided to play little doll; people were supposed to want to crush her and brush her off, not have fucking crushes on her!

“Lee!” Neji snapped. “It’s not what we had decided!”

“I know, but…” The green-clad boy walked up to Hitomi, who made herself as tiny and non-threatening as she possibly could. Why wouldn’t the ground open and swallow her down? She was ready, fuck it. “Hi!” he chirped when he stood in front of her. “My name is Rock Lee. What’s yours?”

“Hum… Yūhi Hitomi. Pleased to meet you?” She couldn’t help but turn that polite greeting into a question, because he was suddenly so close, and she hadn’t prepared for her personal space to be invaded that way. At that moment, he beamed so bright he could put up with a Naruto patented smile and she relaxed instinctively, even though she just knew what he was going to say.

“Go out with me! I'll protect you until my last breath!”

“Uh… No? I’m very flattered, but I only know your name. That’s not a solid enough base for a relationship.”

His eyes went wide, as if she had just granted him with immensely wise words, and tapped his fist against his open hand, the beam coming back like the sun from behind a cloud. It was actually almost blinding her. “Ah, you’re totally right, Hitomi-san! I ought to do a hundred laps around Konoha on one leg to make up for that obvious mistake.”

“No need for that, now. How about this: when all that Chūnin exam stuff is over, we could go eat something and talk. You look like an interesting person to be around. But just as friends, alright?”

“Ah! You’re serious? Okay, I’ll come and see you for that when the exam is done, Hitomi-san!”

The girl let out an amused sigh, relieved she could navigate around that reef without wounding Lee’s self-esteem or lying: she truly wanted to get to know him. She smiled and waved at him before stepping away, without even looking back to see if her brothers were following – she knew they would. They had her back, always, just as she had theirs.

“Why did you agree to go out with that weird guy?” Naruto whined.

“Because he looked kind and genuine. If my impression of him is wrong, well, I can handle myself, now, can’t I?”

“I’d think twice before answering that, Naruto,” Sasuke stepped in with a smirk. “Not a good time to make Hitomi-nee angry. She’d kick your ass, exam or not, and I won’t help if you start asking for it.”

“Uuh…”

Hitomi burst out laughing, light and careless, then led them towards the staircase. Before they could even reach it, Hyūga Neji stepped in front of Sasuke. “Hey, you. What’s your name?”

“Politeness requires that someone introduces themselves before demanding someone’s name. Even your teammate knows as much.”

“You’re one of the rookies, aren’t you?” Neji insisted, ignoring Sasuke’s cutting remark. “How old are you?”

“Again, I don’t see why I’d answer your questions.”

As if everything had been said, the two boys parted ways, going back to their respective teams. Hitomi exchanged an amused look with Sasuke, but didn’t move. It was useless: she knew what was happening next.

“Hey, you, with the haughty look! Fight me, right here and now!”

Sasuke looked up to Lee, seeming far more interested than he’d been about Neji. The corridor was empty now that the Uchiha had unveiled the illusion for everyone, other groups reaching that same conclusion themselves. As for Hitomi, she frowned, glancing at the clock suspended over one of the class’ doors.

“Let’s spar!” Lee continued. “I’m dying to test my techniques against the infamous last Uchiha.”

“So you already know me.”

“Of course! I’m interested in the Genin who graduated this year.”

“Well, since you seem to want it so badly…”

Hitomi extended her arm to interrupt Sasuke, stopping him from taking even one step towards Lee. “Out of the question. You’re our best fighter, it would be stupid to have you injured before the exam even begins. I ’m going to fight Rock Lee.” A serene expression on her face, she stepped forward.

Lee looked absolutely dumbfounded, his eyes wide and a vague spark of fright in his big black eyes. “B-but I… I don’t want to harm you!”

“Oh, Lee,” she smiled with the air of the cat who just caught the mouse. “Why presume I’m not strong enough to handle myself against you? Fighting is just another way to get to know each other. Don’t you want to get to know me better?”

He very obviously took the bait and the whole fishing rod with him, so she got ready, her hands forming the Seal of Confrontation. Suddenly, he disappeared, incredibly fast, but she was ready: her fingers adjusted to the Rat Hand Seal, and her shadow awoke like a hungry cat, stretching brutally at her feet. Lee had no chance, he who didn’t expect an attack coming from the ground: he was instantly frozen in his tracks. He was fighting, his strength struggling against the shadow since his chakra couldn’t, but she forced him to step toward her, one step after the other, until they were at arm’s reach from each other.

Then, she rummaged in her belt, forcing him to imitate her movements against the air. When her fingers found the seal she was looking for, her predator smile sharpened and a vague expression of fear appeared on Lee’s face. Delicately, as if careful not to hurt him, she stuck the seal on his forehead and activated it with a weak spark of chakra. Immediately, the boy’s eyes rolled in their orbits and, when she let go of his shadow, she had to catch him as he fell unconscious before he could hit his head.

“Ouah!” Naruto exclaimed. “What did you do to him, Hitomi-nee?”

“I used a seal I created not so long ago. I call it the Knockout. Practical, isn’t it? You just have to put it on someone’s forehead and activate it to make them go nighty-night for five minutes.”

Her brothers stared at her for a few moments then Naruto started whining again. “You’re bloody terrifying, that’s what you are…”

She couldn’t help but laugh, flattered. “Well, thank you, I’m doing my best.” She loved the idea of terrifying people, even though she knew Naruto was exaggerating when he said that. Neither he nor Sasuke really feared her, they loved her far too much for that – and she loved them just as much. She would have given her life away to protect them. Without those two boys, her family would have been incomplete. They were part of her now, part of her most precious memories and of the hard trials she expected to go through in the future.

“What are you gonna do with him anyway?” Sasuke drawled.

“Just wait for him to wake up. I’d feel bad, leaving him like this. We still have time.”

“Poor chap, you didn’t even let him show us what he could do.”

“I have a feeling we’ll have plenty of occasions to see his skills during the exam. Why, Sasuke, jealous I stole your fight?”

“Hm.”

“Seriously, do you think you could have fought him without being wounded? Without my shadows, he would have snapped me in halves. You saw how fast his charge was, and I don’t doubt for a moment that his strength is just as good. You’re too important to get gleefully beaten up before the exam even starts.”

“I know you’re right, alright? I’ll make up for it later.”

They waited in silence afterwards, almost bursting with impatience. All three of them were eager to prove their worth. Finally, Lee started to twitch at Hitomi’s feet. He took a few seconds to understand where he was – only then did his eyes start gleaming again and he stood up carefully. “I… I made an utter fool of myself, Hitomi-san. Would you please consider forgiving me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive, Lee-kun. Just do your best during the exam. I’ll be watching you.”

Her words seemed to be enough to energise Lee once more: he stood back up, the Will of Fire burning in his eyes. His master would have been so impressed, but Hitomi couldn’t help but worry. He was still so young, so unprepared for the ordeals Konoha would soon face. “I’ll be watching you too, Hitomi-san, and I’ll make you proud!”

Slightly stunned, Team Seven watched him run to his own teammates. Finally, Hitomi got back to her senses, an amused smile on her lips. “Time to go for us too. The others are probably waiting for us in the examination room.”

“Ah, that’s right!” Naruto exclaimed. “With everything that’s happening, I almost forgot!”

Going to the examination room, the correct one this time, only took the better part of a minute. No one could have suspected, when they arrived, what had just happened on the second floor. The air was vibrating with a faint killing intent, which didn’t belong to anyone in particular but to at least ten different ninjas, scattered through the whole room. Hitomi didn’t let it get to her as she walked through the crowd, looking for the other rookies.

She found them close to the platform where, usually, a teacher stood in front of a classroom full of students. Apparently, the Chūnin exams always happened during the weekend, no matter which country was hosting them, so as to not disturb the life of the village around it. As for the final tournament, it happened during a weekend too, but the goal there was to allow as many people as possible to see it. A Chūnin exam often meant a lot of tourism and a lot of money for the village that organised it, so while the cooks and merchants didn’t spend the whole day watching the matches, but they often arranged to see at least several of them.

“Hello, you three! Did you have trouble finding the place?”

“Come on, now, Ino,” Sasuke drawled with a playful smirk, “you know us better than that. A little illusion wasn’t going to fool us.”

“Kurenai-sensei wouldn’t have been happy with you if it had been the case,” Shino commented in his usual soft tone.”

They continued chatting idly for a few minutes, all nine of them forming a circle with their backs to the rest of the room, so no one except for them could see the way they were really communicating, with the sign language of Konoha. Once, to cover the fact Hitomi was handing her communicating notebook to Hinata, she, Kiba and Naruto burst out laughing, as if they weren’t in danger of losing their lives during the exam – everything to appear dumb and harmless in the eyes of their potential opponents. As for the Children of the Sand, they were all sitting in the first row and watching, but they didn’t step in, following the plan meticulously.

“Hey, you! You should really keep your voices down!”

Hitomi looked up to the one who had just spoken to them in that disrespectful way. He was standing a few steps behind Sasuke, immediately recognisable with his silver hair tied in a ponytail and round glasses. Yakushi Kabuto. The Yūhi girl was unable to totally hide the disdain he inspired her, but her sneer was fortunately hidden behind her brother’s shoulder.

“You’re the nine babies who just graduated this year, aren’t you? Stop that ruckus, you’re not on a school trip!”

Ino and Hitomi exchanged a look, twin ferocious smiles on their lips. No one talked that way to anyone in the Fellowship without painful consequences. It wouldn’t happen right away, but neither of them would forget this insult. “And who are you to talk to us this way?” the blonde girl asked, looking at him like he was a smear on her shoes.

“My name is Kabuto, but it doesn’t matter. Look around.”

Hitomi instinctively did. It didn’t surprise her to see that several groups were glaring at them like they were prey, a gleam of sadism in their predatory eyes. The killing intent intensified in the air. Unable to stop herself, she answered by allowing her own to bloom, as vicious and unyielding as a storming ocean. The only students affected were the ones sitting in the first row but even they didn’t seem able to identify the origin of that cold force. It was better that way: she wanted to hide her hand for a bit longer.

“See those people there?” Kabuto continued, nodding towards a team in the third row. “They come from Amegakure and aren’t renowned for their patience. Before an exam, everyone is tense, ready to fly off the handle. I’m just warning you before another team decides to turn you into minced meat.” Kabuto sighed at them, almost compassionate, and it was only thanks to her iron will that Hitomi didn’t snarl and hiss at him like her cats had shown her. “Well, it’s normal you don’t know how to behave. It’s your first time, after all.”

“Which doesn’t seem to be your case,” Sasuke noted.

“Well spotted. It’s my seventh time this year. The exam happens twice a year, so my first was four years ago already.”

“Ooh, then you know a lot about the stages, don’t you?” Ino all but cooed. Behind Sasuke’s back, she and Hitomi exchanged an amused look. If they could get free intelligence because a stranger had decided to show off…

“You’re lucky. Since I like you, I’m gonna give you some information that could help you. Everything is on those ninja cards,” he added as he brandished a deck of cards, their back branded with the kanjis for ‘shinobi’. He showed them the first while explaining his security system and how they worked. Hitomi could spot fūinjutsu work when she saw it. As for her friends, after years of seeing and even receiving her creations, they weren’t so impressed by Kabuto.

He showed them a card with a map of the Elementary Nations and the number of Genin each had sent to the exam this year. Of course, Konoha had the most, followed by Sunagakure. Kirigakure, since the first coup, hadn’t sent their Genin to any foreign exam. Kumogakure had sent one team, just like Otogakure. Takigakure and Kusagakure had sent two each. The most surprising was Amegakure with its seven teams. As for Iwagakure’s absence, it was expected: since the last World War, the Land of Earth didn’t send their Genin in foreign countries anymore, and often the other way was true as well.

“Do you have cards on specific contestants?” Sasuke asked innocently.

“Of course. I have cards on almost all contestants, and on you as well.”

Hitomi didn’t even dare think about what he had done to obtain all this intel. She wanted to shake her friends to make them understand how worrying the whole thing was, how dangerous this young man was behind his stupid glasses and non-threatening air. Alas, she had no tangible proof, only memories from another life she couldn’t explain. She stared at the Lee card, then the one on Gaara, the pressure of her killing intent thickening the air. Gaara had spent six years out of his own village. Kabuto shouldn’t have had access to such information about him. The fact he had meant Orochimaru had already planted spies in Sunagakure – meant that the invasion would probably happen.

“Are all the contestants as strong as Lee and Gaara?” Naruto asked.

“Most of them are, especially those who come from a foreign country. They wouldn’t come here for nothing, after all. The competition will be tough this year, as always! The exam won’t be a pleasure cruise, you can trust me on this.”

“Bah! I’m Uzumaki-Yūhi Naruto, and I’ll crush them all!”

Behind Sasuke’s back, Hitomi hid her face in her hands with a long, tortured moan. She had known it would happen, he’d end up saying something that would attract the other teams’ attention on them, and not only the ones looking for easy prey like she had originally hoped. She walked aroun