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From Outside Eyes

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Shoichi remembers when he was young and his mother was wasting away in front her eyes. He had cried, had said it wasn’t fair. He had begged the gods for mercy. His mother had laughed even though it hurt - he could see it in the tension on her face - and rubbed her thumb over his hand.

 

“Sho, don’t cry,” she had said, “this is the way it should be. The cruelest fate is for a parent to bury their child, that is far, far worse.” He had nodded even though it didn’t feel like it at the time, he knew it was true. He had seen his mother’s face when she buried his brother, that had been worse. 

 

He had understood it to be true, but it wasn’t until he was here, in the neonatal ICU, that he understood. When he had first come into the room, his wife at his side, there had been 25 children in 25 beds. He had watched his daughter, only glancing up from time to time, to realise that some of the children - and parents - were gone. And not because they were out of danger. 

 

In truth the entire hospital was like that. He, himself, probably needed some medical help for chakra poisoning, but that wouldn’t be fatal unless it went untreated for months and there just weren’t enough doctors to help at the moment. It didn’t much matter though, he wouldn’t leave his daughter’s side even if there were doctors available. 

 

Ten. There were 10 children left. 

 

Shoichi clenched his jaw, he knew that the 15 children that were now gone - dead - had been civilian children to civilian parents. Their daughter was neither, she had chakra that showed her shinobi parentage and that could save her life. Beyond that his wife, her family was known for being long lived - that could help. Right?

 

He looked at his daughter, who would remain unnamed until her survival was more likely. (God he hated that tradition, the doctors wouldn’t even bring the birth certificate until it was clear whether or not they would need a death certificate too.) Her skin was so pale it was translucent, he could see her heart fluttering like a sparrow beneath the skin.  She wasn’t crying. The doctors had noted and said in calm, though tense, voices that it wasn’t a good sign. She wasn’t doing much of anything actually. Her eyes were still pale and squinting like all infants. Regardless, she was staring. Just staring and blinking slowly. 

 

Shoichi looked at his daughter, who looked nothing like her brothers but rather a lot like himself. (As much as a newborn could look like an adult at least.) He looked at his wife with her blonde hair and bright brown eyes. He had to believe she would be fine. She had to be fine. They both had to be fine, they all had to be fine. 

 

(Where were his sons? The attack, he hadn’t seen them since the attack.)

 

Nine children left. 

 

His daughter turned towards him and stared at him with blue eyes that would fade darker (if she survived). She looked like a Nara already. He laughed a bitter laugh. She was less than a day old, her skin was still red and face still smashed, but that striking gaze would not change with time. He knew it already. Shoichi swallowed a sob. He almost hated the Nara. He couldn’t though. Not really. They took his mother, his brother, would they take his daughter too?

 

(Not if she dies first.) Eight children left. 

 

He stood, walked five paces, then returned to his seat. He would not leave until he knew whether he had a daughter or not. (He would have daughter either way, but his tears would be the only ones to water her grave if she died now.) His wife, his lovely, sleeping wife. She was a better shinobi than he had ever been able to be. Yoko has always been better at putting her emotions aside and doing what needed to be done. (He remembers when she finally took off her mask, in both a figurative and literal sense. He will always wonder if it was all for show. If she really let go, let him in.)

 

Seven children left.

 

The sounds of crying have gotten quieter. The children dead and the parents gone. The ward is now being invaded by medic-nin who need more space to heal those injured in the Kyuubi’s attack. Shoichi wonders if the high losses will mean that Yoko will have to go back into service. He wonders how she would feel about that. When she revealed that she’d been pregnant he’d been ecstatic. When he learned that she would be taking maternity leave he nodded happily because he had always hoped (dreamed, never truly believed) that his children would get to know their mother. He had been surprised when she got pregnant again instead of turning to the battlefield, to the war, like so many around them. Yoko had always been a woman made for the battle as long as they had known each other. She didn’t enjoy the slaughter, but she did enjoy the battle, the balance, the dance as she called it. 

 

When she had told him that she was pregnant for the third time it occurred to him that either, he had deeply misread his wife, or there was something going on that he didn’t know about. After that it had rather come together. Despite being an illegitimate descendant of the Senju, she was a descendant of a nearly extinct clan. She also didn’t have the political clout or obvious power that would protect her from attempts to ensure that the valuable line of Senju blood didn’t die out. 

 

He wondered if she had secured something in return for whatever deal she had made, or if she had done it purely out of loyalty to Konoha. 

 

Six children left. Five children left.

 

It took a moment to pull himself out the meditative fog of watching his daughter’s delicate breaths to realise that there was a medic standing next to him and his wife was awake. Five children left. From twenty five. Konoha was one of the larger shinobi villages, restricted in size by the natural walls of the area and the scrutiny that faced all visitors and immigrants. Twenty five children and those were the ones who had been lucky enough to be protected from the direct attack of the Kyuubi’s chakra by nature of still being in the womb. (Should still be in the womb.) So many more young ones across the village, especially the orphans and civilians who wouldn’t have seals in place to protect their valuable heirs. (No doubt Shikamaru Nara, the newest addition to the Nara clan was fine and well as long has he hadn’t been visiting the market with his mother, while he was here wondering if his daughter would… It did no good to be angry at those who hadn’t even been alive to have choice in the matter. Why couldn’t he let it go then?)

 

“Sakurai-san?”

 

“Hai?” Shoichi looked up the medic. Long hours and chakra usage had taken it’s toll, the man’s eyes had marks like bruises beneath them and his hair was an oily mess. His clothes appeared to have a variety of dried liquids on them from blood to coffee and the ill fit suggested that it was borrowed. 

 

“Do you have any injuries that need to be urgently attended to?”

 

“Mild chakra poisoning, but nothing immediately life threatening. My daughter needs food however, we haven’t had anyone available to help for a number of hours now.”

 

“Of course, once I’ve spoken with the other occupants of the ro-“ A long scream of a seal with the accompanying red light and sudden loud sobbing told Shoichi all he needed to know as the medic rushed to help. 

 

Four children left. 

 

Worse yet a quick glance told him that the father sitting by the now empty crib was a shinobi. His daughters survival become more unlikely by the minute. He had to hope though, he had to believe that his wife’s blood, known of its longevity, would pull through. That his daughter would pull through.

 

Shoichi had always wanted a daughter, or when he was younger, a little sister. He loved Taro and Hideo, loved that with all his heart and soul, would happily sacrifice to an eternal torment in tho Shinigami’s stomach if it would mean their happiness. He loved his sons, but he wanted a daughter. 

 

Sleep did not come easy through the night, though once Yoko had returned to the hospital after finding their sons safe and alive (he didn’t even notice she was gone) he let himself rest. 

 

When he awoke there were only three beds still in use.

Chapter Text

The doctor had entered the room that morning (three children left) and had told them they needed to leave. Each family was given seals and incubators worth a B-rank mission at least. Shoichi didn’t have to wonder why.

 

It was standard protocol in an emergency to prioritise shinobi and the most likely to survive. In that order. To keep up the fighting force and to prevent doctors from wasting their time. He had never been a fan of it. His brother had suffered from the ruling. His mother had suffered from the ruling. His daughter would suffer from it to.

 

Please let her live.

 

Yoko, who has spent the last few days at home looking after the boys but coming to visit twice a day like clockwork, takes the medical equipment the hospital is letting them borrow and sets it up at home. Shoichi gets a special carrier basket covered in seals to carry his child home in.

 

The doctors (there are so many of them, each one tired and overworked) made it clear that the ambient chakra in the air could be enough to overwhelm his daughter’s systems. They aren’t sure what long term effect the kyuubi’s demonic chakra will have on her. They don’t say it but he knows they aren’t willing to spare a Hyuuga to look at the chakra network of a newborn who will most likely die anyway. (Especially a third born. Maybe it would be different if she was their first child. The presumed heir to the non-existent throne.)

 

No matter his anger, at his village, the doctors, the situation, walking through the village carrying his daughter is… good. Even though she’s less than a week old (5 day, 14 hours, 28 minutes and counting) he shows her the Hokage Monument. He points out the academy, the tree he used to play under. He doesn’t waste time wandering around, but he wants to know a little about the world in which she currently lives (even if it’s not for long).

 

Her current view of Konoha isn’t the finest he’s ever seen. In fact, it might be the worst. Konoha itself was barely touched, in the physical sense of buildings at least, in the last war. There had been a different atmosphere.

 

The one third of Fire Countries total shinobi force had been sent off for their time on the border, “desk shinobi” had been called into action with genin dropouts taking their place where necessary. There had been an aura of forced confidence. What he would call a mix of extreme patriotism and desperation. The general feeling had been one of, ‘we have to win, we’re the best! (Why isn’t this over yet?)’

 

Right now, Konoha provides a difference sight. The buildings are decimated. Entire districts are flattened which is obvious now in a way he hadn’t seen from the hospital. Most of the dead bodies are gone now. The blood stains the still remain. Along the street, on the walls. It looks as if there was a massacre. Crumbled buildings and half-fallen banners make the streets look like that of a ghost town.

 

Every couple of seconds another shinobi runs by. Presumably the civilians are either still in lockdown or are evacuated from this area.

 

“Sir,” Shoichi turns to face the genin’s muddy face, “this area is at risk of collapsing. You may prefer to take a safer route.” The genin gives a weighted look towards the basket, or more likely, the baby inside.

 

“Aah. Thank you. What’s your name?” He shifts his daughter from one hand to the other. He looks the genin up and down quickly but can’t tell who it is. They probably were in the most recent class of graduates. (It’s always a good idea to know the names and faces of other shinobi.)

 

“Kayo, sir.” The genin looks a bit uncertain which makes Shoichi in turn feel more confident. Older genin have learned to hide their nerves better. Although he couldn’t tell from a glance before, Kayo is a girl’s name, and with that he can see the softness in her cheeks and the straps of her sports bra. A practical girl then. Yoko was just complaining the other day about girls wearing bandages instead of sports bras because they ‘looked cooler’ despite the serious injuries one could get.

 

“Thank you for the warning Kayo-chan. I hadn’t known.” Shoichi turns to go back the other way and hears as Kayo takes a hesitant step.

 

“Would you like me to guide you through a safe route? A number of streets have been marked as unsafe.” He can hear in the pause in words and the crunch of debris as she twists her foot in place that she’s unsure. Even if he hadn’t known before, that alone tells him that she is new to this.

 

“I suspect you have a mission you must finish first. Thank you for the offer, but now that I am aware of the risk I can take care of myself. Have a good day Kayo-chan.” He gives her a final smile and pushes chakra to make a leap.

 

A sudden rush of burning pain hit his ankles, but he ignores it and waves as he leaps away. Chakra poisoning is not a fun thing and as soon as his daughter is home safe and sound he is going to go get that fixed.

He stumbled, gently, on the landing as his brain reminds him that. For one, he has chakra poisoning. Two, he hasn’t properly slept in 6 days. Three, he has eaten nothing but a single ration (⅓ of the caloric intake he needs daily) for the past 6 days. He can already hear Yoko admonishing him. ‘Just because you have another focus doesn’t mean you can let go of everything else! It’s your responsibility to keep yourself in good condition!’

 

They don’t have a big house. In fact, they have a rather small house, considering that they have two ranked shinobi living there with what is now three children. It’s pretty perfect though. The red roof with green trimming that is so common make it look bright and cheerful. They live above a small bakery that keeps the house warm (in winter and in summer - it’s a mixed blessing).

 

Shoichi opens the front door, and avoid Yoko’s traps. Down from their bedroom come the boys. Hideo, his second son comes first, running. His blond hair is messy and clearly unbrushed, making it look more like his own course black hair despite the colouring. Hideo crouches down and stares at his younger sister, laying quietly in the basket.

 

“Hello Imouto, I’m your oni-chan!”

 

Taro comes down second, more slowly. He walks down, and though he isn’t taking his time, he’s definitely not running. Taro has the Nara eyes (and oh how it burns that his own children look like someone else’s clan) and the way he looks around the room as if he can see its secrets is a touch unnerving. Shoichi’s own brother did the same, but he’s never gotten the hang of it.

 

“Are you going to say hello, Taro?”

 

“Hai, hai,” Taro says, waving it off his his left hand while he too crouches down to say hello. “Welcome Imouto, I guess I’ll be your ni-chan.”

 

Shoichi smiles and runs each of the boys on the head before picking the basket back up. Yoko sticks her head out of the doorway of their bedroom where their daughter will sleep for the time being.

 

“Well? Come on, let’s get her settled.” Yoko insists with a stern expression. He can hear the smile in her voice though, Yoko and himself differ in their dedication to Konoha, but they both love their children. Yoko would not cry on their daughter’s grave, but she would mourn in her own way.

 

Hideo follows doggedly at Shoichi’s heel as the basket, and the baby inside, are carried away. Taro settles on the nearby sofa, watching intently.

 

The medical equipment is all glass and seals. Each slip of sealing paper is worth a B-rank mission - maybe more. Supposedly the Toad Sage himself wrote each of them, made to the Slug Princesses specification. At least that’s what Kyomi from the hospital claimed. Inside the glass box Yoko has settled in the blankets and tiny pillow that had previous laid in the crib.

 

It breaks his heart, just a little.

 

A short while later all four of them watch as the top of the glass box closes, and Yoko pumps a bit of chakra into the containment seal. It lights up and they all watch as the 15 or so seals light up, one by one.  The main seal turns green and they breath a sigh of relief as one.

 

There is nothing left but to wait. (To see if she lives.)

Chapter Text

The next two days are tense, all five of them in the house. The boys are too young to attend the academy, too young to help. Yoko is retired, and he is reluctant to leave his daughter, in case she dies while he’s gone. Some small part of him wonder if Yoko would be willing to interrupt a mission, no matter how small, to let him know that his daughter has died.

 

Yoko is consistent though, her dedication to Konoha, and to the Will of Fire means that after two days she physical pushes him out the door with the order to help. (He knows that she snuck out the night before to try and help and was immediately sent back home. She should be on bedrest right now, and if attack hadn’t meant that the hospitals were full she would probably still be there under the medic’s careful eyes.)

 

The mission desk is full and busy, manned by only a single chunin and a dozen civilians with academy training. Luckily, he knows the chunin, a fellow orphan called Fusao, who gives him a wave as he enters.

 

“Shoichi! Is your family well?” Fusao pushes his way around the desk and through the crowded line of shinobi. Fusao was unmarried, and proud of it since he took lots of seduction based infiltration mission. He wasn’t overwhelmingly attractive but age had done him well. He had  long dark hair and dark eyes that allowed him to blend into a crowd, but a cheerful manner and sweet smile that made you feel good. Even Shoichi, who had known Fusao since he was 13, still fell victim to it.

 

“They are all alive. My daughter is-” Shoichi choked on the words. Fusao nodded, and gave a soft pat of the back.

 

“You and Yoko are both strong. If she’s survived so far then you might be safe.” Fusao said softly, Shoichi could hear the doubt in his voice though. No one knew what the effects of the monster’s attack would be in the long term.

 

“Regardless, Yoko’s sent me out for a mission.” Shoichi gave his best attempt at a sheepish shrug. Yoko was known to be a bit of rough commander, especially when her directions weren’t followed. No one of their generations would ever forget the time that a genin ignored her command to get help and ended up rebuilding the entire building on their own.

 

“Aah yes! Have you gotten checked over by a doctor or medic?” Fusao grinned as they both thought back to the moment. It had been a awe inspiring. She had actually gotten an invitation to Torture and Interrogation (T&I) following that day. It was a rare day that T&I tried to poach from ANBU, but apparently they’d thought her worth it. (She’d turned them down regardless.)

 

“No, not yet.” Shoichi’s mock embarrassment turned real as he remembered. He’d planned on doing it after settling his daughter… but them. Well she was just so cute (in that ugly baby way) and Taro and Hideo were both there (usually they would be off running around all day) and Yoko was there too- and he’d just forgotten.

 

“Well of you go. If they let you come back today you’ll be stuck on D-ranks until tomorrow.”

 

“What? Why?” He yelped (quietly), he’d done his time as a genin, why did he have to do them again? “I don’t think that’s fair.” He let out a quiet moan.

 

“It’s orders,” Fusao shrugged, “it’s supposed to be a punishment for not getting checked more quickly. You’ve had a week.” Then he paused and added, “supposedly.”

 

“Ugh, fine. I’ll see you in a bit then,” Shoichi said, turned to wade out through the crowd and out of the door.

 

D-ranks truly were the worst punishment. Given to genin, both because no one else wanted them, and to help with ‘team building’. During times of emergency they would be prioritised and removing blood ranked more important than pulling the weeds from some old ladies garden. Even during wartime civilians and genin were the only ones who did D-ranks outside of punishment.

 

Chakra poisoning being what it was, he didn’t exactly have the chakra for a normal mission anyway. To heal chakra poisoning the medic had to use medical chakra to neutralise the dangerous chakra using both the medic and the victim’s own chakra. Shoichi’s chakra had also been partly destroyed by the demonic chakra, the bubbling, hissing, acidic nature of which overwhelmed his own Yin heavy chakra and eaten away at it. Not that it was dealt with his chakra would begin to regenerate, but that would take time, and until then he would be stuck on lower rank missions.

 

Nothing of interest happens on D-ranks, which is funny considering the fact that Konoha as a whole, and a few unlucky victims in particular, suffer from the Curse of the C-rank. Perhaps the reason for the curse was that all the interesting things a young shinobi misses while doing D-ranks builds up, and explodes during their first C-rank mission. That’s what Shoichi likes to imagine at least.

 

They’re still boring as watching paint dry though.

Chapter Text

I know my sister to be odd. Asano is not odd because she used to cry randomly, or because she loves the sound of the human voice above all else. In fact, I couldn’t quite tell you why she is so odd if you asked me straight out.

 

She just is.

 

For one, she shouldn’t have survived. My Tou-san, nor my Ka-san would ever admit it, but Asano should be dead. I couldn’t tell you my explanation for why I knew this. It was a mixture of the many who did not survive. (Yes Tou-san, I can hear you when you talk to Ka-san in the middle of the night. Especially when you’re so loud.) I know it for the surprise in the doctor when we brought her in, alive, a month after her birth.

 

I know it in the way Ka-san treats her differently. More softly.

 

She’s three now. Barely able to toddle about the house. She enjoying going up and down the stairs to mine and Hideo’s room. She babbles more than talks, in truth, most of her ‘words’ no more than random sounds. Instead of putting her a on a ‘training schedule’ like Ka-san had us do, she encourages Asano to rest when she’s tired and sleep often.

 

I didn’t understand why until winter came. The cold crept in through the window and the wood floors became cool to the touch with a whisper of icy breeze freezing my toes. It doesn’t snow in Konoha, but if you left the village walls and walked into the forest you would find a fine misting of white dust, that could, if you were feeling generous, be called snow.

 

Asano gets sick during winter you see. Really, really sick. She starts coughing and her nose starts running. A couple days later her face gets all flushed and then Ka-san makes her stay in bed all day. Asano doesn’t cry very often, not since she was a baby, but last month, when the cold first started, she cried a lot. For hours and hours she sobbed out miserable tears and it made Ka-san sad.

 

Winter sucks.

 

The air is still cold (it’s January! I want it to be warm again!) and I have taken to pumping the slightest amount of chakra to keep warm. I’ve done my best to keep Ka-san from realising what I was doing since any indicator that I would tolerate (or worse, value ) more training would be taken to the extreme. She would probably make me practice hand signs .

 

Hideo laughs at me when I complain of such things, but just because he doesn’t mind running around in the ‘snow’ doesn’t me I should have to. Hideo always has enjoyed running around far too much. He was so excited to start walking, he would move faster than his legs could keep up. Then he’d fall, of course, but he’d get back up and start running again.

 

Perhaps the reason Asano seems so strange is that she isn’t like me, nor is she like Hideo. I learned to walk in the dead of night so I would do so without Ka-san pushing me. Hideo learned to walk by forcing himself to keep trying, even when his legs weren’t ready to hold him. Asano learned to walk by carefully testing herself while held in someone else’s arms. Unlike Hideo (and myself, admittedly) she barely even tried to walk until she could crawl better than anyone else around.

 

Maybe she’ll be a perfectionist. That would suck.

 

At three Asano really should be talking. Ka-san’s getting a bit worried, but Asano seems happy enough to babble at us in her own random way. Her first real word was of course ‘Oni’ since Hideo spent all the time he’s at home saying it to her on repeat. (He’s now trying to get her to say ‘chan’ but so far it seems to be a lost cause.)

 

I told Tou-san that Asano was strange. He laughed at me and said that all babies are strange. That’s when he told me how I learned to walk, I don’t remember it of course, but I believe him and I can see why I would do it that way. Ka-san is a menace .

 

Anyway, Tou-san spent ages telling me about how each person is different, so each baby and child is different. Asano might be more different because her brain might be a little bit hurt by the monster attack that made her get born early. (I can’t really understand what Ka-san and Tou-san say when they talk about it. I remember the monster attack, a little, but what does that have to do with Asano?)

 

“Taro! You better be dressed by now!” Oops .

 

Getting dressed is always rather annoying. It means taking off warm clothing, freezing to death , and then promptly putting on cold clothes. Clothes are stupid anyway. Regardless I pull on a random pair of bottoms and a top. Ka-san hates it when I do that, but it makes Tou-san laugh so I don’t mind. (He laughs mostly because I end up with funny outfits like red bottoms and a green top that Tou-san said made us look like our house.)

 

“Taro!” Ka-san calls again, this time impatient. I go down the stairs, only slightly faster than normal. Hideo and Asano are both already by the door, wrapped up in their winter coats.

 

“Why are we leaving so early again?”

 

“It’s 9 o’clock, it’s not early!” Hideo insists. I, being the mature older brother I am, stick my tongue out at him.

 

“We are going to go see the doctor to get you all checked up on.”

 

“Why?” Asano chirps, ‘why’ is her second word. It’s driving Ka-san and Tou-san a bit crazy since she still hasn’t said their names. She really only says a few things ‘Oni’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Why’, and ‘More’. She calls me and Hideo ‘Oni’ which means I probably need to say ‘nii-chan’ more so she knows what to actually call me. It sounds like a lot of work.

 

“Well Taro’s almost six now so he’ll be starting at the academy soon. Won’t you Taro?” Ka-san finishes with a worryingly sharp eyed glance toward me. I haven’t quite managed to tell her that I’m not really sure I want to be a shinobi. Sure both Ka-san and Tou-san are, but it sounds like a lot of work, and killing people sounds messy. (Hideo insists that being a shinobi means being a hero, but he’s not old enough to remember when Tou-san came home covered in blood. It’s my earliest memory actually. It was the end of the war, and that was when Tou-san came home. He’d gotten ambushed I think, I can’t quite remember.)

 

“Can I start the academy too!” Hideo asks, jumping up and down, making his shoes thump on the hardwood floor.

 

“Hmmm…. I’ll tell you what Hideo…” Ka-san smile in that mischievous way that means trouble, “if you can use chakra to make a piece of wood grow, then of course you can start the academy!”

 

I sigh. Ka-san really wants one of us to be able to use the wood release or ‘Mokuton’ that her grandfather used. He was the First Hokage, but we’re not allowed to tell anyone that. Hideo doesn’t know yet ‘cause Ka-san said she’ll tell him when he turns five. Apparently we’re a secret though, no one is supposed to know that she’s related to him.

 

Personally, I think that if one of can use has it, it’ll be a huge annoyance. And everyone’ll know that we’re related to the First Hokage. (That’s how Ka-san says it , ‘First Hokage’ when dad says it, it sounds more like ‘the First’ or ‘Hokage Senju-sama’ or even ‘first hokage’.)

 

“I’ll do it! I’m gonna go to the academy!” Hideo shouts before opening the door and running outside. Probably to grab a stick to hold on tightly too. Hideo hasn’t quite gotten the hang of chakra yet. He claims he can feel it, but I’m not sure I believe him.

 

Ka-san picks up Asano and I pull on my shoes. I ran out of time to eat breakfast, which sucks, but it was worth the extra sleep I think.

Chapter Text

Yoko is a good mother, despite her sometimes eerie level of devotion to Konoha. She reads stories, trains, and feeds all three of them without complaint, and for that Shoichi is very grateful.

 

Taking missions is time consuming, exhausting, and dangerous. Most of the time they’re pretty run of the mill. Half of mission aren’t even out of Fire Country but instead spent patrolling the border or taking care of the spare bandit. Still, it soothes his mind to know that if something happens to him, Yoko will continue to take care of their children.

 

Beyond that, Asano adores books and stories, and one of his favourite things upon arriving home is listening to her babble about the latest story. She’s a bit low in mastering speech but she’s almost four and has finally managed to speak at an understable level.

 

When he gets home this time Asano comes running from out of her room. (It’s a tiny space, barely more than a closet but she doesn’t need any more at this point in time and it means the boys aren’t disturbed by her regular nightmares.)

 

“Tou! Tou!” She shouts, throwing herself into his arms and causing him to fall back a step.

 

“Hello darling,” he murmurs into her hair, “what did you do today?”

 

“Ka told me a story! And! And! Uhhhhh-” Asano shouts. She often starts a sentence without having the words to finish it so he waiting for her to gather her thoughts. “The boy. In the story!  He! He! He lived before he was him!”

 

“Huh?” Shoichi glances towards his wife who sends Asano an indulgent smile as she approaches.

 

“We read Hitoro,” She tells Asano, who bobs her head enthusiastically.

 

“An! An! Hi-to-ro,” Asano sounds it out slowly, as if tasting the word, “was an adult, and then he died, and he was born again as a baby!” Shoichi smile and nodded, he remembered the story. It was about a boy who was reincarnated over and over until he was able to save the life of a princess of the blood of Mae. It was a rather cute story with the boy making friends with a princess and eventually saving her life.

 

“Hitoro was Azuma! Who was Tou?” Azuma being the troublesome nobleman who promised to save the life of a peasant woman named Mae then failed and thus was cursed by a Kami to be unable to rest until he had saved the life of a decedent of Mae who had married into an old samurai family.

 

“Well I’m not sure,” Shoichi started, crouching down to her level, “some people think they know what happens when you die, but I’m not sure.”

 

“You birth!” Asano insisted, grabbing his hand and leading him to the sofa.

 

“You think you get reborn? That would be called reincarnation, that’s what happened to Hitoro.” Shoichi settled on the couch and held out his arms for Asano to join him.

 

“Asano reborn!” She insisted, scrambling onto his lap. Like each of his other children she pushed and hit every delicate part before she managed to settle. Somethings would never change, and getting hit in the stomach by young children seemed to be one of them.

 

“Oh yeah? Who were you then?” Asano hummed and curled against his chest, her hands seeking his bare flesh. She was always cold and Shoichi tended to act as her person heating unit even if Yoko was always warmer she moved around a good deal more.

 

“Ummm. Ci-vi-li-an.” Asano sat up a bit, and looked around the room, as if looking for how to explain herself better. She often seemed content to be still, but others she refused to sit still. It was starting to look like this time was one of the latter.

 

“You were a civilian? Well you’re a civilian now, how are you different?” He tapped her on the nose with his pointer and smiled at the annoyed face she made. Yoko stood at the edge of the couch and watched with a small smile at Asano.

 

“Gonna be shinobi!” Asano reached for a lock of hair and tugged it softly.

 

“Is that so?” Shoichi gently removed her hand and wrapped his arms around her.

 

“Yep!”

 

“Is Ka-san going to train you?” He asked looking up at his wife. Then he froze.

 

She was rubbing a hand over her stomach with a purposeful look at him.

 

“Ka?” Asano tried to twist to look at her mother.

 

“Are you?” Shoichi whispered, eyes wide. She nodded. “Are you sure?” Another nod.

 

“Hey Asano?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Are you ready to be a big sister?”

 

“Ummm? Bi-g? Sister?”

 

“Ka-san is pregnant, you’re going to have a little sister or brother.”

 

“Little sister! Little sister!” She pulled herself out of his arms and jumped around the room, “big sister! Little sister!”

 

The door opened a crack and Taro stuck his head in, only to be pushed, rather roughly in by Hideo.

 

“Little sister? Ka-san are you pregnant again?” Hideo asked as he pulled off his shoes. Taro sighed and took off his own a little slower.

 

“I am. I’ll be going to the hospital tomorrow to talk to Kyomi-sensei.”

 

“Can I go?” Hideo asked, pulling Yoko into a hug. Asano made one last jump before running over to join him.

 

“I go?” She added, putting a tiny hand to her mother’s stomach.

 

“No, you are both going to stay here and Taro will watch over you both since your Tou-san and I are both going.” Yoko smiled but her voice was not one to argue with. Hideo nodded sadly but Asano pulled on Yoko’s hand and shouted,

 

“I GO!”

 

“No Asano. No shouting or you’ll have to go to your room.” Yoko glanced at Shoichi to make sure he knew to stay out of it and he nodded sadly. He always spoiled them whenever he had the chance but Yoko was in charge of the children when she was present, and they both knew it.

 

“I go?” She tried again, tears gathering in her eyes. He wanted to say ‘yeah sure, you can come’ but she was his third child, and he knew that he had to be strict. Most of all, he couldn’t disagree with Yoko over the children, he would offer an single ryo and they would take 100 yen.

 

“No Asano. Stop.” Yoko took Asano’s hands off her and took a step back.

 

“Little sister?”

 

“You are getting a little sister, or a brother but you can’t come to the hospital with me.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You’ll get sick. And I said so. That’s enough, go to your room.”

 

Asano started crying and screaming as she ran to her room but they all knew she would go quiet in a few minutes. She didn’t tend towards tantrums like Hideo had, but she was still a small child with all that entailed.

Chapter Text

The next morning Shoichi and Yoko left while the children were still asleep. The streets of Konoha never truly slept, but they did quiet down. Uchiha on patrol, shopkeepers opening up, the baker down stairs pulling out loaves of bread.

 

They walk close to each other, but never touching. To Shoichi, who spent his early years growing up outside of Konoha, it still seems odd, but people here never touch in public. It had been the cause of a fight early in their relationship. Yoko is, and always has been a very private person, and for the most part Shoichi was happy to respect that, it had been hard when they had first started dating though.

 

Now, with years of marriage and three children, they’re more comfortable with each other. They married just before Taro was born, so almost 7 years now? Maybe a little more?

 

“Taro will be starting at the academy soon, won’t he?” He asks, watching as a stray cloud drifts across the sharp blue sky. The air is crisp and cool still, though it will likely warm up later.

 

“Indeed. Hideo wants to go with him.” Yoko mentions it in such an off handed way it takes Shoichi a moment to process it.

 

“What do you think?” He finally asks, each word creeping out of his mouth reluctantly. Yoko knows the children better than him, but he still wonders: if she had to choose between her children and Konoha, who is she most loyal to. (Some part of him know, is quite sure in fact, that her first devotion will always be to Konoha. Still, he has hope.)

 

“Hideo isn’t as mature as Taro, but he’s much more enthusiastic about it. I think it could be good for them both to attend at the same time. I am worried it would cause them to be overly dependant on each other though. There’s no way they would end up on the same genin team, and that could be a terrible disappointment.” Yoko says, pausing between every sentence as she looks around. Sometimes she reminds him of Yoshiko, for all that they are very little alike.

He remembers Yoshiko’s fury when they had been put on different genin teams. Yoko, who was already a genin and soon to become a chunin, had been less than sympathetic at the time.

 

He swallows away the knot in his throat and blinks away the heat in his eyes and tries to return to the present. (Her hair, ruffled by the summer breeze-)

 

“Kyomi-sensei is available, just head on up. Ah- Misomi can walk you there,” the receptionist gives a winning smile and waves over a young trainee.

 

“Thank you,” Shoichi says when Yoko turns to leave without a word. The walk to Kyomi’s office is quiet, and grows increasingly tense as they approach. There is always a feeling of nerves when Yoko is pregnant, but it feels like there is an extra edge in the air.

 

Maybe he’s just being paranoid.

 

“Back again already you two?” Kyomi asks with a smile as she welcomes them in. The trainee (Misee? Miomi? Something like that.) gives a tight smile and heads back to whatever she was doing before.  “Hold old’s your youngest? No more than four or five if I remember correctly,” Kyomi asks with a smile and gesture for them both to sit down.

 

“Three, for now at least.”

 

“Yes of course. How is she? She’s under Arata-sensei isn’t she?”

 

“Indeed,” Yoko says, her face softening at the thought of her children, “so far she’s doing okay. She’s gotten a loud stronger over the past year so we’re holding this winter will be better.”

 

“No developmental difficulties so far? Has her chakra started to become active yet? Your other two did so fairly young didn’t they?”

 

“Taro started using chakra at five and Hideo at three and half, but no, Asano has yet to start using it.” Shoichi says with a fond sigh. There’s an old genin tale that your first use of chakra can show your area of strength. It’s complete nonsense of course, but it’s fun to see anyway.

 

Taro first used chakra to stick to his bed when Yoko tried to pick him up. Hideo, who actually did it first, used it to jump high enough to reach to sweets on the top shelf.

 

“Actually,” Yoko says slowly, “I’m not sure if she’s using it yet. But I think it’ll be soon. She’s been complaining of itchiness on her stomach…”

 

“Oh?” Shoichi’s eyes widen, he hadn’t heard anything about that.

 

“That’s great,” Kyomi says with a bright smile, “just keep in mind that her development might not match that of your other children. As I’m sure Arata-sensei has mentioned, we don’t have any previous data to reference so we have no real idea of how her birth will affect her.”

 

“Yes,” Shoichi replies with a tight smile, “we know.” It had been all they were told for months and months.

 

“Great! Now let’s get you check out here!”

 

Shoichi watched as the seal turned bright blue and started to leak across the page, slowly making an image out of indistinct blobs. It didn’t really look like anything to him, but it seemed to mean something to Kyomi.

 

“Sakurai-san,” Kyomi starts, looking at  Yoko, “have you taken part in any missions since the birth of your daughter?”

 

“No? Why?”

 

“Have you done anything chakra strenuous since them?”

 

“Not particularly.”

 

“Did you get treatment for chakra poisoning after The Attack?”

 

The room is silent.

 

“No,” Yoko admits. Kyomi looks away from the indistinct image and straightens up.

 

“My professional suggestion is that you have an abortion. You will never be able to have children again either way. To keep the pregnancy… You could be crippled, or at worst, die. If you have an abortion today then you might be able to return to active duty eventually.”

 

“And- And the ch- fetus?” Yoko asks, her face pale and her hand twitching helplessly at her side.

 

“Even if you try to keep it? The child is at risk of a malformed chakra network. Unlike your daughter this is affecting your child as it develops and is likely to pass on any deformations to their own children.”

 

The room is quiet and Shoichi finally asks,

 

“Can we wait to decide?” Kyomi sighs and runs a hand over her head, over the hair pulled into a right bun.

 

“Yes? I don’t recommend waiting very long. A week, maybe two at most. The demonic chakra has already gathered in your womb.” Kyomi says, then she glances at the bright blue paper before adding, “If you go through with the pregnancy you’ll spend the last couple of months on bed rest. There have been cases of pregnancy when the mother has chakra poisoning. But. Never with demonic chakra. I can’t make any guarantees of you, or your child’s safety.”

 

Yoko and Shoichi shared a glance as Yoko set up.

 

“We’ll need to think about this,” Shoichi said, and walked with Yoko to the door. He didn’t want to hover, but she was looking rather pale.

 

“I understand, please come back with a decision as soon as possible.” Kyomi says from the doorway with an annoying sad look.

 

There are few places in Konoha where you have a good chance a privacy, but that is one of the things you accept as a Konoha resident. Most civilians are barely even aware of it. Shoichi was acutely aware of it as they walked back through the street. He could guess where she way guiding.

 

There is a place on top of the Hokage monument that visitors never get to see. Presumably ANBU are aware that it exist and sometimes look it over, but listening devices (rare and expensive though they are, are used occasionally) can’t hear anything over the wind. You can also see most of Konoha from there.

 

Yoshiko told him this was where Hashirama and Madara stood when they decided to build Konoha. She said it like that, Hashirama. Madara. Yoko used to go crazy over how informal she was. Shoichi let a deep sigh clear his head and looked towards his wife.

 

When they got married he had promised, ‘it’s your body, and I will never try to control it’, it had been his way of saying ‘I don’t mind if we don’t have kids’. Now, although reluctantly, he felt he had to say it again.

 

“Yoko,” he murmured quietly in the morning air, Konoha was finally starting to awaken and the first signs of city life had started to show. “It is you body, it always has been, whatever you choose I will respect and support. But-” But Yoko had a tendency to sacrifice herself. To value herself too little.  “If we want more children we can adopt. And three is a perfectly respectable brood of children!”

 

“Sho, it’s about blood. I am the last person to pass on the blood of the main line of Senju. There are tons of people with Senju blood but not the name, but they won’t stop the clan from dying. Tsunade-hime is already in her late 40s, she’s not going to have children.” She quieted as they left the main part of the city and started walking up the path the Hokage Cliff.

 

“Do you think our children will be welcomed as the new Senju clan?” Shoichi finally asked, disbelief perhaps a little too raw in his voice. Perhaps a little jealous because, no matter how unlikely to was to their Senju blood to be accepted, his own Nara blood was even less likely. His father had promised.

 

The breeze around them sped up in a light wind and the early light of sunrise descended upon the Hokage Monument like a spotlight. Yoko turned to him, almost hesitantly.

 

“I know they will be accepted.” Shoichi froze. “Before she left… before Tsunade-hime left she sent me a letter. Upon her death my line will be recognised as the new Senju clan.”

 

“What.” Shoichi’s voice was barely a whisper. A silent sigh at the betray before him.

 

“Our children will be the start of a new Senju clan. And it is my duty to pass on the Senju line as much as I can. And Asano is fine! Maybe our new child would be lucky and be fine!” The cold devotion to duty Yoko held gave way to desperation.

 

“Kyomi already said that was unlikely. And you could die . Where would our children be then? I would have to take missions and if I died? Then where would they be? The orphanage!”

 

The wind paused briefly and Shoichi heard her voice, soft and heartbroken.

 

“I am going to have this child.” The wind sped up and whistled by his ears, he barely heard her final words. “It is my duty.”

 

Chapter Text

I couldn’t say why exactly, but the house is tense these days. Ka-san acts mostly the same as ever, and same with Tou-san. But something seems different.

 

Hideo and Asano don’t seem to notice but Ka-san and Tou-san are acting funny with each other. Maybe Tou-san doesn’t want to have another baby? Maybe he feels like he never gets any attention with all the new babies? That’s how Hideo said he felt.

 

Hideo’s been acting funny to actually. He keeps trying to make a stick grow because Ka-san said he can join me at the academy if he does. It’s not working, but Hideo keeps insisting he's getting ‘better’ or ‘closer’ each time stares intently at a stick clutched in his hand.

 

He’s putting a lot of work into it.

 

Asano is fun to play with now because she doesn’t mind if I don’t want to run around like Hideo does. Also, Hideo stops getting mad at me for laying around when Asano is laying with me. She always wants me to tell her stories and she asks a lot of questions, but she doesn’t get upset if I don’t answer.

 

She asks a lot of questions though.

 

“Why the sky blue, Oni?” Asano asks, with rather convenient timing. Ka-san is taking them to the park. Usually she doesn’t leave the house very often, the neighbours don’t like her very much, but Asano wanted to come and she’s still too little to be left alone. Or maybe it’s something about Asano because I’d swear Hideo was allowed to come with me when he was three.

 

“I’m not sure why the sky is blue. Maybe it’s the ocean reflecting on it. Or maybe it’s because the Great Sage painted it blue.”

 

“Who the Grape Sage?”

 

“Great Sage. And he’s the guy who invented ninjutsu and chakra.”

 

“In-ve-nt chakaa?”

 

“Invent chakra,” I say slowly. Hideo never needed me to say words slowly, but Asano always does.

 

“Oh!” Asano chirps, looking excited, “what chakaa?”

 

“Chakra. Cha-ka-ra. It’s ahhh- I’m not sure. Ka-san can tell you better but it’s what keeps you alive and let’s shinobi do cool things.”

 

“Ka! Ka! What chakaa?” Asano asks, running up to reach their her as she walks with Hideo. Yoko turns and smiles, but it looks wrong.

 

“Chakra is the lifeforce that every living thing has. It’s a mixture of physical and spiritual chakra. Your ka-san has a lot of physical energy, and your Tou-san has lots of spiritual energy, so all of you will be very strong!”

 

“I strong!” Asano shouts with a smile as Yoko lifts her up. Asano’s kinda small. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t realised how much Hideo’s grown since he was three, but she looks pretty small.

 

“Not yet you aren’t,” Ka-san says, tickling Asano’s stomach lightly. I run up to Hideo, I don’t need to watch Ka-san favour Asano any more.

 

“Are you still working on the stick?” I ask in way of greeting. Of course he’s working on the stick. It’s a bit silly because neither of us have conscious control of our chakra yet, so even if Hideo did have the ability to make his stick grow with chakra, he wouldn’t be able to do it until he could move his chakra on purpose.

 

“Yeah, I think I’ve almost got it!” Hideo says with a bright smile. It sounds like great news except for the fact that he’s been saying it since a week after he started trying.

 

“That’s great. Now what do you think, is Ka-san going to have a girl or a boy?”

 

“I dun know? Why?”

 

“I bet she has a boy.”

 

“Okay? So?”

 

“So if she has a boy you have to clean my room for a week.”

 

“And if she has a girl?”

 

“Uh… then I’ll?”

 

“Then you’ll clean my room for a week!”

 

“That’s not-”

 

“It’s perfect! I can’t wait to find out!”

 

The worst part was the Hideo was being completely genuine. There was a two out of three chance that the kid was a boy. Since ka-san had already had three kids and two of them were boys, a boy was more likely. That said, Hideo’s room was always a mess. It wasn’t even that he never cleaned his room - he did, once a week when Ka-san made us, but it immediately got messy again.

 

Cleaning his room for a week would take all week. (No time for thinking! Or reading! Or naps!)

Chapter Text

On May 1st after months of awkward silences as Yoko and Shoichi try to ignore the expanding swell of her stomach, her water breaks. Shoichi isn’t there when it happens, but Taro tells him about it between sobs. Because Yoko’s water breaks and then vicious demonic chakra fills the air and she screams .

 

As they sit in the hospital with all three of his children curled around him, all three of them crying Asano stutters out that it was ‘scary’ and Hideo murmurs that ‘Ka-san sounded bad. Hurt.’ Taro did his best to keep them calm and get the attention of one of the Uchiha in patrol in the area. (As much as the Uchiha are no one’s favourite clan are still better than telling your children to flag the ANBU when they need help get their mother to the hospital.)

 

Shoichi came back from a mission to find a notice waiting for him upon arrival. There are no words to describe the feeling, like being stabbed in the shoulder with a sword and realising it was poisoned.

 

He thought she was dead.

 

Instead he found all three of his children sitting, alone, outside of a hospital room that you can hear the wails of pain through. He doesn’t even try to enter to room. He won’t be welcome anyway, and his wife is strong. His children need him now.

 

“I’m here now,” he says, and his kids look up to him and Asano throws herself at him and buries her head in his rough mission clothes. Hideo follows soon after, but Taro does his best to pull himself upright and dry his eyes. “It’s okay. Can you tell me what happened?” He murmurs as he sits and pulls them all close.

 

“Ka-san- she- Her water broke,” Taro starts, sniffling.

 

“Ka-sa!” Asano wails, tiny hands rubbing snot up and down her face. The other people waiting in the hallways are no doubt annoyed by he cannot find it within him to care. His children are crying . Now children cry all the time, they get genuinely upset over the stupidest things. This is different though, because he wants to be crying too.

 

Taro, over the next several minutes, explains that the Uchiha called for backup and then took Yoko to the hospital without them. Understandable because Konoha is incredibly safe, even for young children. Then when backup arrived, they took the kids to the hospital. The kids haven’t gotten to see Yoko since the Uchiha took her though and they’re all worried she’s dead.

 

“I’ll go speak with Kyomi-sensei, the doctor looking after Ka-san, okay?” Shoichi said, trying to give a reassuring smile in reply to their teary nods. He knocks on the door before entering and closing the door behind him.

 

The room is in pandemonium. There’s a lingering feeling of pressure and it makes him think of the demon attack. Kyomi is working with several nurses to remove the child by digging through Yoko’s organs.

 

It’s terrifying to watch. Yoko is awake, but behind a curtain so she can’t see what’s happening. They must have given her some strong drugs because she doesn’t seem to feel the breeze from the door against her upper intestine.

 

Kyomi had been clear that there was a chance they would need to manually remove the child from Yoko’s womb but watching it happen is very different. Shoichi’s seen his fair share of dismembered and gutted bodies, but usually they aren’t still alive, and usually they don’t belong to his wife.

 

Yoko is still alive, and though he can’t see her through the curtain he can hear her growl in a low voice to someone. He’s about to go back out to tell the children their ka-san is okay when Kyomi glances back and sees him.

 

“Go to your wife,” she says before turning back to the nurses and whatever it is she’s doing. He doesn’t want to interrupt her nods before leaving to reassure the children.

 

Less than an hour later he’s standing next to his wife, the children are outside still, and Kyomi sighs.

 

“I’ve done what I can. You and the child will both live. Congratulations, it’s girl.” Any possible joy that should be in the statement has been drained by hours of surgery and Kyomi’s lingering feelings that Yoko made the wrong choice to keep the child. An opinion which has become increasingly clear since the start of the pregnancy.

Kyomi sighs and Shoichi is reminded of the various risks that were already established when the chakra that poisoned the mother didn’t belong to a demon.

 

“You’ll never walk again,” Kyomi says with an air of finality, “you no longer have a functional womb, so you’ll never have children again, and the demonic chakra burned through your  chakra channel, so you’ll never use chakra in the lower half of your body again.”

 

Kyomi’s usual friendly demeanor had diminished since they had decided to keep the child to the point of almost icy civility. Her tone said something of ‘congratulations, everything went exactly as I told you it would, I hope you’re happy,’

 

“Thank you Kyomi, may I hold my daughter,” Yoko says, white as lily and shining with a sheen of sweat.

 

“Yes of course,” Kyomi nodded, features softening ever so slightly. She grabbed the bundle from one of the nurses and handed it over.

 

“Shoichi, meet your daughter, Kimiko.” Yoko says quietly, both of them looking intently at her adorable smashed face.

Chapter Text

The Sakurai family was not particularly well respected in the community. Yoko was known for being a coward who escaped her rightful time on the frontlines using back to back pregnancy. Shoichi was thought badly of for never ‘controlling his wife’ (civilians were idiots) and being too informal (again - idiots).

 

Active shinobi almost never used suffix, with the exception of the Hyuuga and the Uchiha. Everyone knew the Uchiha believed others below them, and the Hyuuga were extraordinarily reserved.

 

Taro, who had just turned seven, was too lazy. Hideo, who was five and a half, was too loud. Asano, who was four was born on an inauspicious day (yes, they actually complained about that) and asked too many questions. Kimiko, all of a week and a half old, “shouldn’t have been born in the first place” according one judgmental old fart.  

 

(Shoichi was not one to get upset, but he had needed to take a few deep breaths after hearing that because harming civilians could get him sent to prison or even executed - Konoha took their reputation as safe to civilians very seriously.)

 

Asano in particular was excited about Kimiko, and Taro was surprisingly disappointed by having another little sister. Hideo seemed… almost smug? Children were confusing.

 

Hideo and Taro often paired up, only a year and a half, and while Asano and Hideo were a year apart…

 

Asano was a little bit behind developmentally. It wasn’t that Asano wasn’t intelligent, her actions were often surprisingly deliberate, and she had a strangely good sense of colour theory when she made artwork. She was clumsy and struggled at speaking coherently. She often mixed up the order of her words and had difficulty with several different sounds.

 

Children were each unique though, and Shoichi had to remind himself of this often. He regularly attributed Asano’s actions or behaviour to her birth, but if Taro and Hideo each had their idiosyncrasies.

 

Hideo loved tree climbing, forest, grass, and nature in basically every form. When he was little, he would cry, and cry, and cry. The only way to have him quiet would be to walk around the edge of the Konoha forest, or better yet, Senju Hashirama’s grove. Shoichi personally suspected Hideo was a slight sensor and enjoyed the nature chakra that Konoha’s forest were thick with.

 

Taro showed his Senju blood in the strangest ways. For one, his chakra was amazingly thick, though he was much more likely to able to use the Nara’s shadow technique’s than Hashirama’s wood release. Shoichi had only felt it once, and had never told Yoko, but it was almost like a liquid.

 

For another, his hair was not actually the same shade as the Nara, but of Hashirama. He hadn’t known this until Yoko told him, she remembered from her early childhood pictures of Hashirama. In modern times most people thought of blonde hair like the Slug Sannin’s the represent the Senju clan, but most of the members actually had brown and black hair. Hideo’s blond hair came from Shoichi’s mother after all.

 

For all that Shoichi wasn’t sure Yoko had made the right choice in keeping the pregnancy, he didn’t regret Kimiko. Even when he had to feed her every two hours because Yoko still couldn’t navigate with her wheelchair in the dark. Even he had to find a way for Yoko to get up and down the stairs with her wheelchair. Even when she spit on his chunin vest just before he had to leave.

 

The first few months after Kimiko’s birth were still hard.

 

Taro started at the academy in the spring session without Hideo, which was hard for both of them. Yoko in particular, but all of them, were getting used to her wheelchair and it’s constraints. Asano wasn’t used to being a middle child and was continually annoyed by the lack of attention (but she was adjusting faster than Taro and Hideo had).

 

There was more crying in their house in the six months after Kimiko’s birth than there had been since- well. Shoichi couldn’t think of a time.

 

Then things got worse again because something happened between Hideo and Taro but neither would say what and he didn’t have the time to try and figure it out. Hideo was coming home with chakra exhaustion, which- what? Purposeful chakra usage wasn’t taught until the second year of the academy and Taro was still in his first term, and Taro wasn’t even the one using his chakra!

 

He probably wouldn’t have even noticed if Asano hadn’t tried to sneak out with them causing him to notice how tired Hideo looked. Then he had to give all three of them a lecture on the risks of chakra exhaustion he wasn’t sure any of them understood and he was about ready to pull out his hai-

 

He was almost thankful for the mission. Almost.

Chapter Text

I’ve only just turned eight, and Hideo is a month and a half from turning seven when he manages to make a stick grow.

 

It’s a pretty anti-climatic really. We’re in the park, as usual. I’m watching the other kids run around and play and Hideo is sitting next to me, staring intently at a stick. The first time it works, I don’t even notice. Then Hideo, unable to do anything problematic without getting me involved, taps me repeatedly on the shoulder, hard enough that I fall to the side.

 

“What?”

 

“Looklooklook!”

 

That is when he makes the stick grow. Just a little. Just a tiny, two centimetre sprout out of the side. Still, he has undeniably made the wood grow.

 

Then he has the audacity to be shocked when I knock the stick out of his hand.

 

“Quiet!” I hiss as I pull him to the trees. Hideo is almost two years younger than me (alright a year and a half - close enough) and he’s never been the brightest kid. Don’t get me wrong, he’s smart. He just don’t think things through. He looks at the little picture while it’s my job to look at the big picture.

 

“What’re you doing?!” Hideo near on shrieks as I pull him to the abandoned grove. “We can’t go in here! It’s haunted!”

 

“No it’s not,” I wave off, “that’s just so that people don’t come here. Mostly teenagers come in here together. You just don’t notice ‘cause you’re busy doing other stuff.”

 

“Well why are we here anyway? We need to go tell Ka-san so I can come to the academy with you!” Hideo says, looking genuinely shocked. Sometimes I wonder how my brother can be such. an. idiot.

 

“Didn’t Ka-san tell you that people can’t know we’re related to the first hokage?” I say, trying to sound patient. I’m mostly failing.

 

“Yeah? So? We only have to tell Ka-san, it can still be a secret!” Hideo insists, he pulls his hand out of mine so he can cross his arms.

 

“So you weren’t just doing it in a public space where anyone can see us?” The vast expanse of the problem is starts to reveal itself to me and I groan. “Look Hideo, do you remember when the Snake Sannin abandoned the village?”

 

“No?”

 

“Neither do I.” Hideo looks confused so I add, “I was too little, but I hear about it sometimes.” The things you hear when people think you’re asleep. “He stole children! If he could do it and still be a respected public figure for years-”

 

“Respected public figure? Everyone knows he’s evil!” Hideo says, voice getting loud enough for me to wince.

 

“No, they don’t. Most kids don’t even know about him.” I explain, “Ka-san told us about him right? Most people’s mother’s don’t warn them.”

 

“Why not?” Hideo asks as he wanders toward a tree.

 

“The Snake Sannin was obsessed with power, and the Senju were known as the strongest clan ever.” Well okay, I don’t know exactly why, but I can figure it out. Ka-san maybe didn’t say it, but I can figure it out.

 

“Oh! So… if…” Come Hideo! You can do it! Think it through! “If I can make trees grow what does that have to do with the Senju.” I avoid facepalming (it makes Hideo upset) but only barely.

 

“Making trees grow is the Senju kekkei genkei. Therefore, if you have the kekkei genkei you are obvious related to the Senju and have one of the strongest kekkei genkei that Konoha has ever had!”

 

“Is this something you learned at school?” Hideo asks, narrowing his eyes.

 

“No!” I shout, throwing my arms up in the air, then I pause and lower them slowly. “Okay, it might not be obvious to you. Ka-san warned us about the Snake Sannin and even showed us his picture in the Bingo book right?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“And Tou-san warned us that just because some is strong doesn’t mean they’re good.” I say, trying to lay out each piece of evidence is exhausting. There are so many different pieces.

 

“Yeah?”

 

And Ka-san told us about the first Hokage who, and I quote ‘was the strongest shinobi to ever live since the time of the Great Sage’.”

 

Yeah?

 

“She also said that a great deal of his power was attributed to his ability to use the kekkei genkei known as mokuton.” I pause, if I have to be this clear maybe I better spell everything out. “You know that the mokuton is making wood do what you want with chakra right?”

 

“Oh! Uh- Yeah! I knew that!”

 

“Right,” I sigh and rest my lower face in my hand. It’s as close to a facepalm as I can get without offending him.

 

“I get it!” Hideo lights up, “so if I have the same power as the First Hokage some people might think that I’m as strong as him and the Snake Sannin might kidnap me!”

 

“...Basically.” It’s almost right. Close.

 

“So… I have to keep it a secret?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Even from Ka-san and Tou-san?”

 

Yes .”

 

“Why?”

 

“You aren’t very good at it yet, so it’s not very useful. Ka-san’s hurt and Tou-san’s busy. They can’t protect you if someone wants to steal you away so telling them would only make them upset.” Well. It would make Tou-san upset. Ka-san still thinks Konoha is amazing and perfect.

 

“So you want me to keep it a secret until I’m good at it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“But- but if I do that then I can’t go to school with you!” Hideo cries out. I frown, that’s right. I wasn’t sure about what to do about it though.

 

“Only until you’re good at it. As soon as you’re good at it then you can tell them and come to the academy.” It’s taken him years to make a stick grow. Without a teacher it’ll take years to improve too much, and by that time he’ll be eight and able to join me anyway.

 

“Fine! Then I’m gonna learn how to do it now!

 

It turns out that children don’t have very much chakra. Also using the mokuton uses a lot of chakra. Also, Hideo’s not a very good judge of when he’s out of chakra. Good to know.

Chapter Text

Hideo, reluctantly, doesn’t tell Tou-san or Ka-san, but Asano finds out surprisingly fast. She sees us come in as we run up stairs so Ka-san doesn’t notice that Hideo is covered in scratches from passing out. Ka-san still can’t get her wheelchair upstairs so it’s Asano’s job to be her mouthpiece, and that includes letting us know that dinner’s ready.

 

The next morning she tries to follow us out the door, but Tou-san catches her. Luckily he doesn’t say anything about the fact that Hideo looks like he lost three sparring matches in a row despite it being morning and myself being completely disinterested in fighting. (Why am I becoming a shinobi again?)

 

After I finish at the academy Hideo is waiting for me outside the gate. I ignore the usual crowds and unattended children as we make our way to the ‘haunted’ forest. This, in the end, is my downfall. I'm sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree offering 'moral support' to Hideo while he puts his hand against a tree and tries to push chakra into it. I'm almost asleep when Hideo succeeds in making a twig sprout and Asano jumps out from behind a bush.

 

I would normally notice such a thing- no actually. I wouldn't damn. It's really only made worse by the fact that the academy is really long and I have to spend all day resisting the urge to shout at Uchiha Miko that I'm the descendant of a founding clan too!

 

"I knew it!" She shouts, pointing a finger at Hideo.

 

"Ahhhh!" Hideo shouts. Because he's an idiot. He promptly rips the twig off the tree and hides it behind his back. Because that's not suspicious at all.

 

"Oh no," I say, deadpan, "you've caught me. I'm having a nap. In a forest." Asano glances at me in annoyance before turning back to Hideo. Shame, it would have been funny if she'd fallen for it.

 

"I'm not an idiot! You're doing something interesting!" She insists looking as if she's just caught us in a huge conspiracy instead of being vaguely aware that something is happening.

 

"Well yeah?" Hideo attempts to taunt her, but mostly he just looks confused. "Good for? you?" He trails off and even Asano raises an eyebrow. (She only just mastered raising an eyebrow at five and is very proud of it. It's super cute.)

 

"And what, exactly, did you catch us doing?" I ask, sending her a pointed look. There is no evidence of anything interesting, even if Hideo hadn't ripped off the twig, it was a twig, on a tree.

 

"I! I'm not. I'm not really sure." Asano admits, before adding, "but it looks like you're sneaking around so if you don't let me in on it I'll tell Ka-san!" Damn.

 

"Fine. Just sit down." I say, and wave for her to come sit down. "Do you want to join us Hideo or are you going to get back to practicing?" Hideo almost jumps at the realisation that he's 'wasting time' and turns back to the newly mutilated tree. (And the twig - lost so young.)

 

"So what're you doing?" Asano asks, throwing herself onto my lap and making me wheeze. Because really she's the devil even if she pretends otherwise.

 

"Hideo has a special power. He can make wood grow using chakra-"

 

"HIDEO HAS THE MOKUTON!" Asano shrieks, then she pauses, and more quietly adds, "is he gonna get taken away? I don't want him to get taken away." She looks quite upset at the thought and I sent a purposeful look at Hideo's back. She got it.

 

"No, Hideo's not going to be taken away. That's why we're keeping it a secret, and that's why you can't tell anyone, because he might get taken away if you do." Asano looks shocked at the idea and puts her hands over her mouth, supposedly signalling her silence.

 

"Does this mean we're sharing secrets?" Asano asks a few minutes later, sounding curious and not at all like one who is (seemingly) offering their secrets should.

 

"If you want to," I say, because what sort of secrets could a five year old have. Asano's odd, it really cannot be denied, but she's five. Five years old is practically a baby. Asano looks up at me and stares intently for a minute.

 

"I don't think you're taking this se-ri-ou-s-ly." She sounds out the word like she can't remember how to say it all the sudden. She does that sometimes. Usually with the more complicated words but not always. One time she called me by a random series of sound as if she forgot what my name was and just put a random one in its place.

 

"I'm not." I admit and turn back to my thoughts. Whatever else she says is lost as I wander through my memories and try to piece interesting things together. Like, I think Tou-san had a sibling. Maybe.

Chapter Text

Hideo starts at the academy at age 8, supremely frustrated by his perceived failure. Apparently that means that it's now Asano's turn to cry loudly at being left alone. Since she found out about Hideo's mokuton she's been around a lot more often and is upset when Ka-san says she can't start at the academy under any circumstances until she's eight.

 

I can understand why, she still gets sick during winter and although each year is better than the last, she isn't as good at speaking as Hideo was at her age. She's also a little lazy, and weird. As we spend more time together it becomes increasingly obvious that whatever secret she offered to share was a lot more interesting than I assumed.

 

That said, it's been over a year since then so I rather missed that opportunity. I'm starting my fourth session at the academy, there's two session each year. Hideo's starting his first. I'll be in my last year, second to last session by the time that Asano starts and Hideo will be almost halfway done.

 

Asano was born on October 10th so she can either start a little young in the Autumn session, or little late in the Spring session. She's pushing to be allowed to start during the Autumn session which is only a year a bit to go. Maybe she'll be able to convince Ka-san to let her start in this coming spring term, but that would require her to stay healthy through the winter. Ka-san would never suggest Asano not be a shinobi, it's basically unthinkable, but letting her join early? That's a different story entirely.

 

Ka-san doesn't talk about it much, but I'm pretty sure Ka-san knew someone who graduated early. Or maybe it's because she grew up in a war, I can barely remember the time before Konoha was at peace - I was only three when the war ended after all, but I can vaguely remember a series of caskets going up to be burned. I don't remember how many or when this happened. But. I remember a tiny casket, no teenager would fit in it. Maybe they weren't even a shinobi. Maybe they were a civilian casualty. Maybe that was the only casket size available.  I don't know the story. Really it's not even worth getting upset about. (So why do I feel so angry and sad and furious anyway.)

 

Some part of me hates Konoha. I don't want to be a shinobi. I don't want Hideo, or Asano to be shinobi either. I don't want Kimiko or Tou-san to be shinobi. Shinobi die. I. I don't want my family to die.

 

(Am I evil for being l glad my mother can never return to active duty? For being glad she will never take another step under her own power?)

 

Asano is not happy with being left alone with Ka-san and Kimiko. Kimiko, at a year and a half old, still takes a lot of work, and Ka-san hasn't coped well with being restricted to a wheelchair. Asano has moved into the bedroom I used to just share with Hideo, and it's getting a bit crowded.

 

Asano isn’t as messy as Hideo, and is pretty good at taking care of her own stuff, but she hates not having any time to herself. Which, now that Hideo and I are at school the whole time, she'll have plenty of.

 

And really, all I have to say to her is:

 

"But what about me?" I have to go to school all day. They make me take part in sparring. Uchiha Mito is more insufferable than ever since she got to move up to the year ahead and is planning on graduating at the end of this term. Because it's not enough to be part of a famous and recognised clan but she also has to go and graduate early too.

 

The academy, by the way, is the worst sort of stupid. All the history lessons are 'oh Konoha did awesome at this' or 'Oh the Hokage is so perfect' I didn't mind in the start, but to be honest every word they say for Konoha makes me like it less.

 

I don't mind as much with Hideo coming with me though.

 

We're in different classes so we don't see each other all the time, but lunchtimes we get to spend together, and we both know most of the teachers. It's a lot better than when I was alone for sure. A couple weeks ago a teacher actually asked me if I wanted to take part in the kunoichi class... which I said no to, obviously. (Why would I want more work?)

 

Regardless, I love Hideo being here, I don't love the fact that teachers have started to compare me to him. 'Oh Taro!' they explain, like the sycophants they are, 'why can't you take part in lessons like your brother?' as if the fact that, no matter how much I love Hideo, he's not as clever as I am. It's nothing against him, and there's nothing great about being smart, mostly it just annoying. The thing is, they tell you what the answer to every question is. It's not even worth participating it’s such a joke.

 

As the year goes on it gets worse because the academy always starts simple things like making sure everyone knows how to read (look kanji is hard) and everyone knows the shinobi code (which is utter nonsense).

 

Really if I was Hokage I would do a much better job.

 

Seeing the Hokage speak in front of the students was weird. He's old. For some reason I hadn't expected that. It was that day that I realised. The Hokage is human. And this. This is disturbing because The Hokage (capital letters) is a god. A genius. Perfection in a human form. The Hokage can Do No Wrong and Is Always Right. But.

 

But the Hokage is an old man. A tired, sad, old man with a face lined like a wrinkled piece of paper. His eyes are not wise and omnipotent, but sunken in and have deep bruises beneath them.  The Hokage that I saw was not The Hokage. He was a human being, and if he's a human being then he can make mistakes.

 

I'm not sure I can trust his decisions. (Who lets a man old enough to be a grandfather run a Hidden Village?) And If I can't trust his decisions, well whose decisions can I trust?

 

Ka-san's? Well. No. Of course not. Ka-san has faith in the village above all else, and she also must have done something wrong to lose use of her legs.

 

Tou-san? Probably not. I love him, but he's emotional. Don't get me wrong, emotions are great, I have them and so does everyone else. But. (There's that word again: but) But his decisions are too often based on how he feels. He thinks that Asano is the most adorable child ever and, don't get me wrong, she's not as ugly as Mito Uchiha, but she also a bit. Odd. As I have mentioned. And Ka-san notices. I know she does, but Tou-san doesn't.

 

Asano asks questions on topics she has no right to even be thinking about? Well the Nara were known for being smart. (And yes, I am aware that Tou-san is related to the Nara. What do you think I am? An idiot. Watching Tou-san choose to go to a different restaurant than the head of Nara clan is there is one thing. Talking - rather loudly - to Ka-san about it in the middle of the night is another.)

 

Here's the thing that only Asano has even started to realise (and hey, maybe this is part of the reason I know she's weird) I sleep all day long. I sleep through breakfast (regularly), through lessons (actually everyday without fail), through the afternoon (the 'haunted' forest doesn't have any particularly interesting features but I am genuinely concern Hideo would disappear if I left him alone.) I sleep all day long. I don't sleep much at night though.

I'll admit, I'm not entirely sure why I do it. I just. Well I always have, as long as I remember. And the night is better than the day anyway. The dark is soothing while the light is harsh. I couldn't enjoy the warmth of my bed if I was asleep. And on the nights that I sneak out, you can learn so many interesting things as night. (I'll admit, I don't sneak out often - the ANBU are terrifying.)

 

I don't think I trust anyone else. Not even Asano, because for all that she is surprisingly good at learning things I would rather remain hidden, she's six.

Chapter Text

Despite Tou-san’s greatest attempts (mostly limited to ‘please’ and ‘students who are younger than their peers do worse on average’) Asano joined the academy during the Autumn term. Notably with something like six clan heirs. Which was ridiculous.

 

Tou-san’s objection mostly stemmed from the fact that Shikamaru Nara, heir to the Nara clan, would be in the class. Not that he said those words out loud. Hideo and Kimiko were the only ones who were really fooled by it though. And I’m not completely sure when it comes to Kimiko.

 

On her first day we walked as a pack, myself, Hideo, and Asano riding on Tou-san’s shoulders.

 

I figured, it was fated for us to ‘just happen to’ meet with Shikamaru and Shikaku Nara. It's just about exactly as awkward as you imagine it would be.

 

In part because Shikamaru didn't even know who we were. Which considering that as far as I can tell, Tou-san has his illegitimacy as a staple in Who He Is as person, it's a little insulting. To him at least.

 

Asano seemed excited to meet a new person, but also a bit shy. She was fidgeting and clearly wanted to do something and instead was just watching. Tou-san looked incredibly tense, which, considering he's a trained shinobi who's been taught to hide all his feelings forever, is almost impressive. Hideo, as usual, wasn't entirely sure why Tou-san seemed so upset all the sudden.

 

Alright, maybe I'm treating Hideo as stupider than he is, but I swear he's getting dumber each day he goes to school. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, it wouldn't make sense for the chunin teachers to be idiots independently. Clearly school actually makes you stupider and therefore I remain smarter than my peers (including stupid Mito Uchiha even if she has already graduated) because I never pay any attention at all in lessons.

 

On the other side of the conversation, Shikaku seemed mostly awkward, and maybe a touch embarrassed? Unlike Tou-san, he wasn't too upset to restrain himself so I'll admit that I'm not exactly sure. Shikamaru just showed bland confusion and a heavy sense of apathy. This is partly explained by the pillow that he was holding in an iron grip.

 

I can't say much about Shikaku-san, but Shikamaru seems to be a clever fellow at least.

 

Eventually Asano gets bored of the mind numbing chit-chat that is 'how is your wife?' 'no how is your wife' and so on, and grabs Shikamaru by the hand and leads the way into the school building.

 

Someone chuckles behind us, and although it sounds a bit like Tou-san, I would place my bets on Shikaku-san.

 

"So! Shikamaru! Or should I call you Shikamaru-san? Or kun? I never know. Tou-san never uses suffix... suffixes? suffice? Anyway, Tou-san never uses them, but the name 'Tou-san' uses one itself, and my Ka-san always uses them. Tou-san always says that active duty shinobi never use suffix...es? but I'm not sure if being an academy student counts as active duty. I wouldn't think so but maybe I should follow the same rules anyway to build good habits?"

 

"Sano, calm down." Hideo says, patting her on the shoulder and causing her to freeze and release the death grip she had on poor traumatised Shikamaru's shirt. It's not that I'm jealous that Hideo calls Asano by a nickname, it's just. Nicknames are stupid and I could use it if I wanted to - which I don't!

 

"Right," Asano says, stiffening slightly. She turns and bows to Shikamaru formally, "I apologise Shikamaru-san. I am very nervous to start attending the academy and this has caused me to act inappropriately. Please forgive me."

 

Shikamaru continues to look as though he has suddenly run into a Kumo ninja who thinks he has a valuable kekkei genkei. (Look, I don't really get the joke, but I heard Ka-san make it and Tou-san laughed and called her terrible to it must be a pretty good joke.)

 

"It's fine. Let's just get to the assembly," he says after a minute. However it doesn't escape my notice that he walks the rest of the way standing at least an arm's length away from Asano. Mostly by walking next to me.

 

I'm 11, and I realise that I'm walking into the academy with two eight year olds and a nine (almost  ten!) year old, and I look supremely uncool. Then I remember that the only people to judge me here are all my peers who I don't respect at all and do not care one whit what they think of me. It's a reassuring thought.

 

The assembly is exactly as boring as it has been for the past three years, and Shikamaru, although not snoring, is rather obvious pretending to be asleep.

 

I'll admit, I am ready to be out of the academy. I will also admit that I am terrified at the idea of being an active duty shinobi. I don't want to. (Please. Please don't make me.)

Chapter Text

I knew from the time that Dad told me that I had to attend the academy that it would be a drag. The other children my age are all so excited to be shinobi, so excited to have superpowers. I wonder how many of them are aware of the cost. None of them probably -  don't even know the cost really.

 

Our teacher's name is Nao-sensei. Which I remember for all of a minute and a half before I mark it as 'vaguely important' and put it aside until I need it. I'm not sure when I'll need it, but names are always good to know. Mom whispered that it was a good way to pretend to care and Dad agreed with her (by smiling because he was pretending he couldn't hear her).

 

Even with Choji sitting here I wonder who it was that Dad was making strange remarks about meeting. Presumably it's the Ino of the Ino-Shika-Cho, but I've never met them. I'm not even sure if the Ino of the group is a girl or a boy.

 

Maybe the blond boy at the front of the class? Maybe that girl with blonde hair already surrounded by other little girls? Maybe the girl with pink hair? It's hard to tell because usually a kid looks like their parents, but not always.

 

Like the family from this morning. They were weird. Their dad... Shoichi? was super weird. Maybe he was just stressed? I can't be sure really. Either way the kids all looked pretty different, only the oldest kid looked much like his dad, and even then, they didn't look that similar.

 

Maybe it's because clan kids look more like their parents? Like Choji looks like his dad (expect that he has a different hair colour) and I look like my Dad (minus the scarring) and I don't remember hearing about a Sakurai clan. I'll hold onto the idea and see how well it sticks, three points of information really isn't enough to draw a conclusion.  

 

Speaking of the family from before, the girl, Asa? Sano? Something like that. She's sitting the row ahead of me. She seemed really nervous considering she has two brothers already attending, if anything I should be the one who's nervous since I know nothing about attending the academy.

 

Funnily enough, much like myself, she's not exactly paying attention. Admittedly the only thing that's happened so far was the blond boy was late. (he's probably not the Ino of the group, most clans would never let their kid be late - though each clan is different so who knows. Mom would never let me be late.) Sensei introduced himself and told us that we'll mostly be doing book learning for the next six months. (Not in those exact words of course.)

 

"Alright class, now we'll each take a turn to introduce yourselves. Say your full name, and one interesting fact about yourself."

 

I would love to take a nap right now, but I think it would be best if I waited a few days to pretend I'm a good student first. Sensei seems like a new teacher so he might not know that Naras always sleep through lessons.

 

"My name is Ino Yamanaka and an interesting fact about myself is that I can do a handstand for five minutes!" After an appropriate pause for oohing and aahing the class moves on. I guess I found my Ino.

 

I'm not entirely sure we are compatible at this point in time. I'll give it a shot of course, but at eight years old we are still going to change a lot before we are actually on a team together. So it's not the end of the world if we can't be friends yet.

 

I mostly zone out for most of it. Obviously I'm cataloguing all the names like I forgot to during the assembly, but I'm not particularly listening until it gets to the girl from before.

 

"My name is Asano Sakurai and I have three siblings." The kids from civilian families don't see what's so special, neither for the clan kids really. "Both of my parents reached the rank of chunin." She adds, and the clan kids take a moment to pause. Her parents aren't famous, or jonin, so she's not likely to end up on teams with any of them unless she gets top marks. Nonetheless, it's hard for female ninja to have children. Having three siblings is a pretty interesting fact to the clan kids at least.

 

It passes around to a few more kids before it's my turn.

 

"My name is Shikamaru Nara and I can remember everything I hear," I lie. It's not that I have anything against the kids in my class, but it doesn't set a good precedent as a shinobi to be overly truthful. And it's not far from the truth. Eventually will be able to remember everything I hear, once I master the Shadow Archive, officially the lamest clan technique of all time.

Chapter Text

The academy is boring. I knew it would be, but it has surpassed my wildest dreams and I know try to find interesting in anything I can. This meaning Ino Yamanaka and Asano Sakurai.

Ino looks like she models herself after her dad. I've met Inoichi before and he has darker blond and a different shade of green eyes. Despite this, their attitude and the shared ponytail suggest that maybe she models herself after her father? Maybe it's just that they find the same things appealing.

Asano looks like her dad. Actually if she had thinner eyes she could look a bit like a Nara. She doesn't act much at all like a Nara though. At first her disinterest seems a lot like my own, but her every action seems tinged in anxiety or confusion or distrust. It's hard to tell what motivates her, but the more I watch the more I know there is something wrong with her.

She feels disconnected from the rest of the class. Sometimes she comes in, clearly having not slept the night before, and continued on as if she was used to such a thing. I don't think she sleeps enough. I'm not sure what to make of this, but I take note anyway.

Her brothers are weird too, if in different ways. Her blond brother, Hi- something seems to have extreme mood swings and is the most active of the three. He seems to enjoy physical activity (like I said - weird).

The oldest brother. Well. He makes bets all the time which isn't that weird. What's weird is that usually he seems like a pretty smart person. Not a genius or anything, but definitely ahead of the curve, but when he gambles. I don't think I've seen him win a single time. Yet, despite the clear evidence of his bad luck, and his smarts, he continued to place bets on everything.

Of the three, I would probably say that the oldest brother was the most interesting, Tao or something like that. Unfortunately, he's three and a half years older so I don't see him very often. Asano on the other hand shares a class with me.

Around three months into attending the academy, it hits me. Asano is strange. But. She's disconnected. Almost broken. Like she's watching the academy through a window. Most of the time, she seems pretty normal. Others it feels as though she is pretending to be a real person.

I don't think I like her. (It feels uncomfortable to watch her. There's something wrong with her. Is she even human?) I decide to avoid her.

Choji never asks why I decide to change where we eat lunch and for that I am grateful.

Chapter Text

Sakura is… well not a huge fan of the academy so far. The lessons are really interesting, and attending means she can read more of the library books which is great! It’s just - well - the other kids aren’t very nice.

 

She’s doesn’t even know that some of their names are. She knows Ami (of course) but most of the others aren’t even in her class. (She has noticed that her class is smaller than all the others.) They laugh at her hair and her forehead mostly, but also about her lack of friends and her tendency to cry. And it’s not like she believes them - they’re bullies in the most obvious sense so she knows they’re probably lying.

 

But.

 

Not a single person in their class has tried to stop them. No one. Admittedly, it’s only been a few months and some of them probably haven’t even noticed. (Kiba and Naruto are always too loud and self centred to notice anyone else, for one.) Still, growing up she had heard about how awesome and amazing clans and their children were and, well so far it’s been a bit of a disappointment. Mostly they seem bored, lazy, or obnoxious.

 

She’s not sure she likes who she’s becoming at the academy. One thing that Sakura likes about herself is that she’s always very honest with herself, even if she’s not honest with anyone else. The second part has become more common. She wants to scream and shout and punch and hurt Ami and her little gang. She doesn’t though, because if she gets revenge it’ll be more subtle than that.

 

The more she holds herself back though, the more that thought process starts to comment on every part of her life. She likes that she has excellent self restraint, that was how she got spotted for the academy actually. So when her mother tells her to eat her vegetables and go to bed she does, because she knows that her mother is looking out for her. More and more though the inner commentary matches what she wants to be doing. She never does though.

 

She wonders, briefly if she’s going crazy and decides that she’ll figure it out later. Right now she has homework to do.

 

***

 

Sakura only met with her friends from the civilian school once after she joined the academy. She wasn’t sure why, but they felt different. More likely she was different. They kept talking about games and books and all Sakura was thinking about was the economic situation in rural Fire Country and Shinobi Rules #25: never show your tears.

 

They felt like children. Like they needed to be protected. Which was odd, because Sakura felt like she was in need of protection too.

 

So for now she was lonely, and while it wasn’t great, she would only be in the academy for 4 years - max. She could handle 4 years, after that she’d have a genin team and they would have to be her friend. (Four years was a pretty long time at 8 years old, but she figured that at 12 it would feel a bit shorter, hopefully.)

 

That said, arriving at the library and seeing a girl from her class there was… a surprise. Despite her best attempts a small blossom of hope sprouted. The girl looked up, eyes widening in surprise.

 

“Hello,” she smiled, it looked a bit fake, but not in the mean way. More just tired. “Sakura- right?”

 

“Yeah, I’m Sakura.” Sakura said, rather embarrassed she didn’t know who the girl was. She did know that the girl wasn’t one of Ami’s friends, but why they weren’t friends wasn’t clear. She had never seen the girl outside of class at all actually.

 

“I’m Asano,” the girl said, sticking her hand out for a handshake. Sakura took it, feeling a bit mature. She’d never shaken the hand of someone who wasn’t a patronising adult before. “Sorry, I want to finish this book before I go home, maybe I’ll see you later though?”

 

“Oh yeah- later!” Sakura mumbled before trying to discretely flee. Her inner voice was swearing in a way that would make her mother rather upset. She really shouldn’t have gotten her hope up.

 

The library building wasn’t very big, and the sections about shinobi, especially those available to non-shinobi, was rather limited. So despite her best attempts to avoid Asano, Sakura ran into her at the library again a little under a week later. It felt a bit unfair since Sakura had purposefully avoided the library so Asano could finish her book.

 

Regardless, unless Asano was going to cause trouble (in which case she would get kicked out), Sakura was going to get used to reading in the same area as her.

 

“Oh! Welcome back! Are you okay? Were you sick? You ran out so quickly I didn’t get the chance to ask you if you wanted to sit with me.” Asano said with a gentle smile. Sakura thought that the girl was acting a bit patronising, but she had been acting like a baby by running away. (Her inner commentary added that it was mostly the girls fault and Sakura imagined crossing her arms in annoyance. She hasn’t meant to run away, okay ?)

 

“I’m fine,” Sakura said with a tight smile. At the awkward pause, she added, “what are you reading?”

 

“Chakra theory. Both of my brothers can use chakra but I find it really difficult.”

 

“Are they the same age?” Sakura asked, a touch surprised, she couldn’t remember seeing Asano with any boys. (She would never under the pain of death - or maybe when they were closer friends - but she had spent the last week watching Asano in class. She seemed kinda lonely too. It was oddly encouraging.

 

“Nah, they’re both older, but Hideo has been controlling his chakra since he was seven.” Asano said with a sigh and a stretch, “Hideo’s a bit of a genius actually. His teachers keep on trying to get him to graduate early but my Tou-san won’t let him.”

 

“What about your other brother?” Sakura said, mildly curious despite herself. As an only child she’d never thought much about comparing herself to family members.

 

“Taro’s really smart. But he doesn’t like fighting. I’m not even sure he really wants to be a shinobi.” Asano said, “I hope he becomes a medic instead. He could be good at that.”

 

“Why a medic?” Sakura has been to the hospital for a checkup and such, but she’s never really thought of it as a job what. You know, people did. It was like a merchant. Yes merchants were people, but did people really become merchants?

 

“Well…” Asano started, paused, and started again. “He is pretty good and memorising stuff and sticking information together. He has decent chakra control, though he’ll need to improve it. Mostly cause I think he’d like it better than being an active duty or desk shinobi.”

 

“Huh, well I want to be an active duty shinobi.” Sakura said. Mostly because she wasn’t sure how to add to the conversation, but also because how awesome would be to do stuff like the Hokage!

 

“Then do that! There’s nothing wrong with being active duty. I just. I worry that he’s unhappy,” she admits with a small frown. Something Sakura can’t recognise washes over her face, the other girl stiffens slightly then immediately relaxes. “Would you like to read with me, either by sharing the book or by grabbing one of your own?”

 

“Sure!” Sakura grabbed Theory of Dissolving Chakra by Leiko Matsuya , mostly because it was easy to reach and looked vaguely interesting (unlike Treasey on the Development of Beginner Chakra Signs as are Used in Modern Time by Maaya Uchiha used an old version of the word modern and was Sakura’s first introduction to irony that she actually understood.)

 

This was the start of an eternal, and sometimes rather quiet friendship of Sakura Haruno and Asano Sakurai. Later we will get to the non-quiet part of it.

Chapter Text

 

Shoichi was, for the most part, rather content with his life. He had four children, three of whom were in the academy and one who was five and seemed to be constantly adorable. (How she maintained this adorable facade while at the same time throwing a tantrum because the window was cold, he will never know.)

 

On top of that, while Yoko was finally adjusting emotionally to being ‘fucking useless’ (her own words - and utter lies) he would admit (only within his own head) that he was kind of taking advantage of it.

 

The academy wanted all three of their kids to move up at least a semester, and Shoichi would never, ever tell his wife. She would want them moved up, for Konoha most likely, and he would not let that happen. Asano was less than a full term in and although she was rather advanced in most subjects (her worst subject being that her writing was rather awful, though sometimes artfully so) she had finally found a friend. At this point he would rather die than tear them apart.

 

He hadn’t actually met the friend yet, but a girl named Sakura had to come up quite often in her tales from the day. Taro, who was lonely since his only friend (“rival Tou-san! She’s my rival!”) Mito Uchiha had graduated was the most likely for him to allow to skip a grade. That said, Taro was, well he was arrogant. It wasn’t always noticeable, but it were there, and if he was arrogant and he didn’t get on with his peers, he would die. Shoichi couldn’t force him to be friendly with his fellow students, but he could force Taro to spend time with them.

 

Hideo…. Something was strange. Years ago now, Taro and Hideo had hidden something from him and he had never gotten the chance to figure it out, between Kimiko and a month long mission patrolling a dangerous border. Now he was starting to wonder if it was more important that he had first thought. He had rather assumed it was that Hideo had figured out how to use conscious chakra, and he had.

 

It was starting to be evident that something else was going on. (How long had he ignored the way that Hideo’s bed was slightly green and the floor had grown around it?)

 

Anyway , Kimiko was adorable. She was perhaps the most articulate of his children yet, and best of all, the fastest potty trained. She was, of course, unhappy with being at home while her siblings were at the academy, but she didn’t actually seem to understand what the academy was.

 

Shoichi’s thoughts were markedly focused on this while he jumped home from the mission desk and felt a vague sort of happiness over the view of Konoha at sunset.

 

He came in the house, through the window as he always did when there was a chance Kimiko was taking a nap. (She adored naps, much like Taro on that front.) He heard Asano whispering to Kimiko through a crack in the door, and unconsciously listened in on it.

 

(He unassumed Asano was talking to Kimiko, since they often seemed thick as thieves when they weren’t fighting and it was in Kimiko’s room, which remained on her own as she went to bed early and was prone to leaving an absolute mess behind her. Like, Shoichi had thought that Hideo was messy, and while he wasn’t wrong, Kimiko was on a different level.)

 

“The difference,” Asano whispered, “is that Tsunade is Tobirama’s granddaughter, not Hashirama’s. Which is strange because it means that Ka-san is the first born grandchild of the older male sibling, but Mito Uzumaki - Hashirama’s wife - never had children,” it sounded like she had been looking into their family history.

 

It rather hurt his chest to hear her explain to Kimiko, who had recently learned of her ancestors, why they had to be a secret. The rule that Yoko had himself had come up with was that at five they would tell the children (or child, as Shoichi had assumed at the time) about their parentage and at twelve, or whenever they graduated, they would get the full story.

 

He was not looking forward to such a time, coming in only a few months for Taro.

Chapter Text

Sakura and Asano are not a perfect pair, and the world doesn’t dissolve into a flurry of golden sparks because of their friendship. Which Sakura sometimes thinks is unfortunate. Asano had described how in romance books everything was perfect once the love interest and the main character got together properly. Sakura wished that would happen.

 

Since they’ve started spending time together, they started spending lunch times together and leaving the academy together. As a result, for one glorious week, Ami and her friends left her alone.

 

Then the week ends, and they’re back again. Except, now they’re doing it in the middle of the yard where Asano sits. From here, Sakura has her back to the tree with another kid sitting on the swing which hangs on the other side. The ground is still dusty but under the tree it’s a bit bumpier and the yard is loud.

 

Actually, it’s a bit hard to hear Ami when she first arrives.

 

“So I’m thinking about this book I read - it’s about a boy who lives in a world where only some people have chakra-”

 

“Don’t you need chakra to survive? It’s like, your life force right?” Sakura interrupts. She has to, from time to time or Asano won’t stop until they go back to class.

 

“Umm. I’m not sure actually. I guess if you get bad enough chakra exhaustion you can die so maybe?” Asano murmurs, looking thoughtful before sitting back up rather abruptly. “Anyway! So he lives with his Aunt, Uncle, and Cousin - none of whom can use chakra. Except when he’s twelve he has chakra so he gets to attend the academy.”

 

“That’s pretty late to start learning,” Sakura starts, feeling a touch sceptical. That’s when they will graduate after all.

 

“Well yes… But in the book there aren’t any shinobi because the Fire Country isn’t at war in it.”

 

“Oh… So why does he need to attend the academy?”

 

“You know when you were young and you accidentally used chakra.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Well he did it a lot, and if he didn’t go to the academy it would get worse.”

 

Sakura nodded in a rather confused manner. That wasn’t how chakra worked, but okay.

 

“I said ,” someone says nearby, “look, forehead made a friend!” Sakura turns to face Ami, who is standing on her right. She reaches out to grab Asano’s hand to the left behind her, in case they have to run.

 

“Anyway, Sakura,” Asano says, either ignoring or not hearing Ami’s words. It’s hard to tell. “So this boy goes to the academy, except it’s not really like other academies.”

 

Ami says something, but the words are lost in the noise of the yard since she’s standing a couple metres away. After a couple minutes of Sakura giving Ami nervous glances, and Asano mostly ignoring the whole thing, Ami sort of explodes.

 

She runs forward and grabs a wad of Sakura’s hair and pulls on it. A couple of the other girls come join, although a few wait behind. Sakura is a bit preoccupied by the pain and terror. The tugging means she’s forced to look at the ground and there are other girls all around her and it’s loud and it hurts and-

 

There is a feeling of terror. Like Sakura is the mouse before the cat. She is nothing. Worthless. Dead already. She doesn’t even notice the hands letting go.

 

A hand grabs hers, and she is tugged away.

Chapter Text

I was pretty sure the Sakurai family wasn’t a clan - I even asked Dad, who seemed unpleasantly startled by the question. (Though I was probably reading him wrong, he could have also been recently awoken from a nightmare or fed some of Grandma’s green tea rice pudding.)

 

So why did Asano know so much about the clans?

 

It was strange because the clans in general are rather secretive, yet she somehow knows more about some of them than I do. Like the fact that Itachi Uchiha is Sasuke’s older brother. I had heard Sasuke talk about how amazing he was, but until Asano had mentioned it to her new friend Saka (or something like that) I hadn’t even remembered his name. (Saku maybe?)

 

I also hadn’t known that the Slug Sannin was Senju Tsunade, often called Tsunade-hime. I knew that both of them existed, and I knew that the Slug Sannin was best known for her great strength, especially considering she was also a medic. I knew that Senju Tsunade was a famous medic who had retired years ago after the war (which was however, was unclear). I hadn’t known they were the same person, and Asano did.

 

I felt a bit competitive about it. Which was odd as I had never felt competitive about anything other than shogi before.

 

Regardless, I still didn’t like Asano, at all . There was still something creepy about her, especially when we were paired together, like every action she took was deliberate. There was always a millisecond pause in her actions and reactions that no one else seemed to have.

 

(I had not yet had the chance to test her brothers though, so it might be genetic. Or maybe they were told horror stories about the Nara clan. Kiba - that was his name right? Seemed to think that a Nara’s shadow ate people. While a Nara’s shadow could eat people, it would never do so by accident . Kiba seemed unhappy when I suggested that eating too many people would make a shadow fat.)

 

Also, we were starting to learn Ninja Walking (which was something no one except for Hina - the Hyuuga - and Sasukua - the Uchiha - already knew how to do). I was definitely not watching any of the other students and certainly not Asano was she laughed, perhaps a touch manically? (Or was she tired? Maybe she had been poisoned?)

 

Ninja walking was a lot of work, and I’ll admit I slept though at least half the lesson. Dad, however, indicated that it was important enough to work on, while thoroughly destroying me at shogi. It was a great night.

Chapter Text

Sakura’s parents were both chunin. Her mother was actually a diplomat, or something like that, and required a lot of time away. Father was busy, but never away, so it was a bit of a trade off. As a result the house was quiet, even when everyone was home.

 

Sakura had never mastered any of the instruments her mother played, and her father’s ability to dance to any song rather excluded her. Which was too bad, Sakura didn’t mind the quiet, but it sometimes got a bit creepy.

 

Asano’s house was. Very different.

 

Sakura’s house was a two story apartment on the edge of a residential district, a marriage gift from her grandfather. It was a beautiful place, with windows that could be closed and locked shut to activate the grand number of seals throughout the walls. The walls outside were painted off white and the roof was green and it wasn’t that she didn’t love it, but it often felt. Well, it felt empty.

 

Asano’s house, distinctly did not. It was on top of a bakery. The stuff they sold was actually delicious, and considering it was midwinter and it cost a fortune to keep a house warm time of year, well it seemed a great benefit.

 

She had three siblings, not just the two she had mentioned when they first started talking, and her mom was always home. Asano’s house was warm, and loud, and a little bit crowded. None of them played any instruments, or made poison like Sakura’s parents did, but Asano’s mom did cook. She hadn’t actually seen Asano’s dad yet, and was a bit to nervous to ask if he was… you know… alive?

 

Asano sneaks her into the house while Sakura is still mostly unresponsive. Her head is stuck in a loop of ‘ I’m going to die’ and her inner voice isn’t helping by echoing it back. When she comes back to awareness, she’s in a room she doesn’t recognise and someone is brushing her hair. It only takes a second to realise that it’s Asano who’s brushing her hair.

 

“What happened?” Sakura asks, hesitating, she’s unsure she wants to know the answer.

 

“I’m sorry. I- I was really mad that they were doing that, but I didn’t know how to respond. And. I -uh- just. Did .” Asano says. It takes Sakura a second to realise that… she thinks Asano might be lying? She’s not sure, but. It sounds a bit like lying.

 

“Where are we?” Sakura looks around the room. It’s a bit of a mess. A bedroom for three people.

 

“I’ll tell you what, let’s go downstairs and come in properly, instead of sneaking in. Then you can meet my family.” Asano says, starting to sound excited. Asano puts the hair brush to the side and pulls Sakura up.

 

“Alright,” it sounds interesting at least.

 

Asano’s little sister, Kimiko, is adorable . She has soft golden hair and softly blushing cheeks. Most of all the way that Asano gave her a great big hug and when they saw each other made Sakura wish that she had a perfect little sister like Kimiko.

 

Asano’s brothers were… Well Hideo was awesome. He was funny and smart and if Sakura liked blond boys she might have a crush on him. She doesn’t like cheerful blond boys, so unfortunately Taro is more her type. Despite his being incredibly patronising and treating her like a complete idiot, he’s really damn cute. He’s eleven and his dark hair, striking gaze and quiet manner seems like the sort of person she would eventually like the date.

Asano figures this out almost disturbingly quickly. The moment Taro says hello and sees Asano she glances at Sakura. Then as he walking into his room and looks between us, quickly snapping her head back and forth. And then she knows. Just like that. It’s almost rude, really.

 

Sakura decides that, really, she should never talk again. Mostly because Asano introduces Sakura to her mom, and Sakura’s inner voice takes advantage of Sakura’s consciousness being mostly vacant still and says,

 

“Oh, your mother’s a cripple!” Which. Is perhaps literally the most embarrassing this can every remember dong. Wetting her pants when she first started civilian school was less embarrassing than this. Sakura’s consciousness then returns, again out of shock. “Oh my Kami I am so sorry! It’s that there’s anything wrong with being a cripple - or not. I just- My brain just-” Sakura doesn't really have the words to describe that it wasn’t her it was the voice in her head and no, she wasn’t crazy. Instead uses a hand gesture for puke which she found in a text about basic shinobi signs. Word vomit. Beautiful imagery. Her mother would be proud.

 

“And this is?” Asano’s mother says with a pointed raise of a single eyebrow.

 

“This is Sakura Haruno. She’s a civilian trainee in my year group.” Asano says, Sakura eyes her friend who is speaking more slowly and clearly than she ever has before. She’s also standing up straighter. She looks almost like what Sakura imagines standing at attention looks like. She tries to discreetly straighten up, but mostly fails in the discrete department.

 

“I don’t suppose you have started to receive class statistics yet?” Asano’s mother asks, looking rather a lot like a queen in a throne or a hokage in her office from her wheelchair.

 

“Not yet, we’ll start getting them at the end of this term.” Asano says before adding, “I am unsure of where she’ll place now, but I believe that by graduation she will be top of the class. Sakura is quite clever and even more motivated.”

 

“Very well then. I am Yoko Sakurai, thank you for befriending my daughter.” Asano’s mother looks rather like she just sucked an egg and like she’s pretending she hasn’t. It mostly just looks awkward to Sakura, who gives a shallow bow.

 

“My name is Sakura Haruno, it is an honor to meet your acquaintance.” Sakura says, trying her best to sound formal without sounding stiff, something she’s not actually terrible at because of her own parents.

 

“Go on then, I have dinner to make,” Asano’s mother says, shooing them both from the room.

 

“Yeah, yeah Ka-san! We’ll be upstairs!” Asano says, the slouch suddenly returned. Asano grabs her hand and drags her upstairs.

 

It’s an open floor with three beds, all of which are covered in clothes and books and various other messes. At the end of the room is a wardrobe between two windows and next to each bed is a dresser, also covered in clothing.

 

Asano’s older brothers are both sitting on their beds ‘doing homework’. Well, actually, Hideo appears to actually be doing homework. Taro looks like he’s… asleep? Sakura damns herself to thinking that his wispy dark hair looks fluffy and she really wants to run her hands through it.

 

“Come on, let’s go to the roof.” Asano says, pulling open one of the windows. Hideo makes a quiet sound of protest as warm air is replaced by it’s cool winter counterpart.

 

Sakura follows Asano onto the slanted window covering, the wood has been sanded by feet and is almost slippery to the touch. She rather expects Asano to close the window and for them to sit there together. Instead Asano pulled open the other window from the outside and uses the shutters as a step to reach the actual, straw covered roof.

 

Sakura does her best to follow, and admittedly, doesn’t fall. It’s still terrifying and she’s pretty sure she’s pulled something. She can hear Hideo yelling to close the window but even if she doesn’t want to make them hate her, she wants to fall off the roof less. She doesn’t close the shutters.

 

The roof is actually mostly covered by a fenced off concrete flat space that Asano explains can be used by shinobi to jump from roof to roof. Asano sits with her back against the concrete, and Sakura follows her example. The straw beneath is cold, and possibly damp. Her inner voice is complaining but also rather excited to get to see something that is personal to her friend. Mostly her inner voice want her to hug Asano for warmth.

 

So she does.

 

Asano jumps slightly at the touch, before slowly returning it. Asano is really good at giving hugs. They sit like that for a little while before Sakura pulls back and really looks at the view from the roof. Looking straight cross the road just shows you another building, but if you turn to right you can see the academy’s sign with the kanji for fire on it. If you look past the academy you can see the Hokage Monument.

 

“Hey Sakura?” The sun is starting to set and threads of golden light stream down onto the Monument, which has never looked so beautiful before.

 

“Yeah?” It made Sakura think of her civilian friends. In need of protection. Worth protecting . A soft feeling a warmth emanating from her chest. This was why she was willing to be a shinobi.

 

“Thank you for being my friend.” Sakura smiled, still gazing at the Hokage Monument reached out a hand to hold on to Asano’s.

Chapter Text

It doesn’t rain often in Konoha, but when it does, it pours.

 

Shoichi is at home, for once. He’s be going on missions so often that when he picks Kimiko up, she looks surprised to see him. She’s five and a half and if he wasn’t a shinobi she would feel dead heavy, as it is, he could carry her around all night and barely notice. His other children are all hiding in their room upstairs where Yoko can’t easily get to them.

 

Then the alarms start blaring.

 

Shoichi throws on his chunin vest and is out of the door in less than five seconds. (Kimiko placed safely into her mother’s lap.

 

He arrives at the mission desk where chunin will get their commands (jonin see the Hokage himself). You can tell who knows what’s happened by the looks of vague shock and intense horror.

 

Perhaps the worst part is not being able to tell what’s wrong, if his family is in danger. There is no smoke, no visible invaders, no giant demon. Just a soft patter of rain, slowly increasing in intensity and an eerie silence.

 

The whisper reaches his ears.

 

“The Uchiha are dead.”

 

Shoichi’s stomach rolls and his thoughts immediately go to the Shadow Clan of the Uchiha. His own family is the most recent Shadow Clan for the both the Nara and the Senju. (A prettier way to say the replacement clan, if worst comes to worst.)

 

They are sent out to clean up the bodies and burn them.

 

Are there any survivors ?” Shoichi wants to ask, but can’t. There is no one here who knows the answer. And regardless, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s better if he doesn’t know, then enemy forces cannot make him tell them. “ Has anyone else been murdered tonight? ” He wants (needs) to know. Only the head of the clan, and the clan heir know who the Shadow Clan members are.

 

There are bodies in the street, their blood running together in the rain into a red stream. It’s cold, and wet, and all Shoichi can think as he carries the sometimes eye-less bodies to the pyre is disbelief.

 

He didn’t like the Uchiha, as a whole. They were arrogant, they believed that any shinobi lower than jonin was a child. They stole jutsu that hard working shinobi created and copied it perfectly with barely any effort.

 

(They didn’t do enough to stop Madara.) It was an old grievance, one that his own mother had lamented. It held true though. Surely such an important part of the village could not plan mutiny without someone knowing? Surely a member of a clan could not decide to change the course of history without anyone noticing in advance?

 

Surely?

 

He didn’t like the Uchiha, but they were a force of Konoha. They had saved Yoko’s life when they took her to the hospital when Kimiko was born.

 

Despite the fact that he was carrying Uchiha bodies to an already full funeral pyre, he still couldn’t believe the Uchiha were dead.

Chapter Text

Mito is dead.

Chapter Text

Sakura’s not sure what’s going on. No one will tell her, but the adults all look grim and something is missing. She’s trying to spot the absence because she can tell something isn’t right, but she can’t tell what it is.

 

It starts with the alarms to assemble going off one night. Everyone knows what the alarms mean, it’s taught to every man, woman, and child from birth and this one means: civilians stay inside. At the academy they learned a week ago that it also calls for chunin and above to assemble and for genin to stay inside but be alert in case of further commands.

 

The next day they don’t have school and are told to stay inside.

 

The day after that Asano’s not in school along with Sasuke and a couple other kids in other classes. The streets feel oddly empty. She can’t see the Uchiha in uniform like she usually can so they must be dealing with whatever’s happened.

 

Neither of her parents are home so she can’t ask them. Her inner self (who she is tentatively calling Inner) tells her to go see Asano, so she does. Asano’s mother - Yoko - greets her at the door and silently gestures upstairs before rolling back to another room. She had looked a bit grey so Sakura starts moving up the stairs quickly.

 

Asano’s face is streaky with tears and honestly she looks like a mess.

 

“Asano?” Sakura can’t help the way her murmur sounds so surprised. Asano, even just from their short acquaintance, isn’t a cry baby like she is.

 

“Go ‘way.” Asano says, putting her heads against her knees. The blankets are wrapped around her shoulder and judging by the waste basket, she’s been crying for a while.

 

“What happened?”

 

I SAID GO AWAY!”

 

Sakura freezes. Asano has never yelled at her before. Not in joy or in anger and this. This was far closer to a scream. But- what does one do when a friend says go away in a manner that is begging for help?

 

Sakura hesitates, then says,

 

“Will you be at school tomorrow?” When Asano says yes, she leaves, and wonders if she made the right choice.

 

Sakura wanders home, the absence of something important nags at her, but goes unlabeled. It rained the night before, poured, to be more accurate. The hair smells fresh and clean, although there is a hint of something Sakura can’t quite identify. Metallic, almost. It smells like her mother’s pots.

 

The next day Asano is at school. It’s odd, her face and voice are clear and there is no evidence that she had been crying, in appearance or attitude. It makes Sakura wonder about how often Asano cries.

Chapter Text

In the wake of the Uchiha Massacre all civilians have been put on a curfew. Without the police force everyone is short staffed, currently chunin are covering for the police, but that’s a full time job for a force of 1,000 officers, and the chunin office can spare 100.

 

Shoichi sees his wife three times in the week following the massacre, and each of his children once. He sleeps in the bunks provided since he is only there for a few stray hours.

 

The Uchiha District still smells like blood when the first civilians start saying they deserved it. They toss their hair, mention a time a Uchiha was an uptight ass, and use it as a reason it’s okay they were all murdered in their homes - on their streets. They use it to explain why they are safe, because they aren’t smug, nosy, and rude shinobi. It would baffle Shoichi, if he wasn’t so aware of the ways that civilians could turn faster than the wind.

 

There is one small thing that gives him hope.

 

The shadow clan of the Uchiha lives on. Despite the fact that the murderer was Itachi Uchiha, who would know the names (at least) of the shadow clan, there were no murders that night outside of the Uchiha district.

 

There are a couple reasons they may not have come forward. The Uchiha might not have a shadow clan. Most clans do, but because of their doujutsu, the Uchiha might not. There might be a high risk of Itachi coming back to murder them if they step forward. They may have been instructed to stay hidden for a period of time, a month, year, or generation.

 

Or Itachi might not be the murderer.

 

The thought is sticky and spins around and around in his head. What if? What if? What if? Why is Itachi gone then? Who did kill the Uchiha? It seems incredibly unlikely, but- What if ?

 

It would make more sense if Itachi had killed the clan. He was described as precise. Calm. Self contained. A perfect shinobi. The last person to have been so widely described as the perfect shinobi in Konoha was Kakashi “Friend Killer” Hatake.

 

Everyday that he spends patrolling Konoha the thought reverberates through his head, until the morning the ANBU come to replace them. He returns to his normal life, and he stick the thought far back, locked up tight and away. It’s a dangerous thought, and not very likely besides.

Chapter Text

Sakura learns about the Uchiha massacre from Asano, who explains it to her several days after. Asano never mentions crying, but her voice gets rough at points in the story. Asano explains that there are, as of yet, no declared survivors.

 

That Itachi Uchiha was Sasuke’s older brother and the heir to his clan. She explains that Itachi was a prodigy, and that no one knows why he cracked, just that he did.

 

A week and a half later, Sasuke is back in lessons. (Sakura had thought he was dead . Asano had shrugged at the accusatory look, and later explained they might have been worried he would die, or that Itachi would come back to kill him.) He has always been proud, and sometimes mocking. Before he had been closer to Kiba in behaviour though, now he is silent and focused. His already pale skin is near of greenly translucent and there are deep bags under his eyes. His hands twitch and he seems to forget where he is.

 

Asano has to point out how closely Sakura watches Sasuke. The thoughts that had been creeping in about how soft his hair was. How smart he was. How cool he was. They all vanish under the realisation that he has just had his brother kill his entire extended family .

 

Before the massacre, Sasuke hadn’t been unpopular , now though he is ‘dark and brooding’ as Asano puts it. The girls in their class flock to him, slowly building up.

 

By the end of the term, Sakura is one of maybe five girls who shows no interest in him.

 

That’s not to say that he’s not cute, and if he offered she wouldn’t date him. But she’s pretty sure he’s got other priorities. Asano also explains that his wife will probably need to be very strong (which Sakura isn’t - yet!) and will need to retire to have lots, and lots, and lots of babies. Which. Sakura’s eight (almost nine) years old, and she doesn’t know a ton about having kids, but she’s not sure she wants to raise lots and lots and lots of them.

 

Sometimes Sakura wishes that Asano had never said anything, that Sakura had been allowed to slowly fall to whatever illness it is that plagues the other girls in the class. They have a group of friends and competitors, a hobby, and a goal, all in one. And, while Asano is a good friend, the winter term is lonely.

 

After the Uchiha massacre, starting around three weeks after, Asano had started coughing. Then she’d been gone for a week and half and Asano’s mother wouldn’t let Sakura in. She was back in for a week, then out with a fever for a week. Most of the month of December was spent like this.

 

Term break is in March, and while Sakura’s class has never been large, five students dropped out at the end. Which as Asano put it, is not an insignificant margin.

 

The next term is a lot more fun, in some ways. The first term was all boring academic stuff, the active pieces are starting to get introduced. Half of the day is now spent playing team games like ‘Protect the Kingdom’ and ‘Shinobi vs. Samurai’. Asano introduces a game called ‘Dodgeball’ which is basically just trying to hit people with balls. It becomes a very popular game that Asano hates playing.

 

She hates a lot of the games. She enjoys them, but before and after them she laments ever going to the academy.

 

Having been Asano’s friend for almost six months, a few things have become clear.

 

The first: Asano is smart. Like really smart. Sakura has always known that she was clever, but Asano- Sometimes it feels like Asano already knew the information in advance, and just needed someone to remind her. Sakura is proud of her, but also rather jealous. As a female entry into the academy who has received limited training from her parents, she relies on her academic grades to hold her place.

 

Second: Asano sometimes tries to act less smart than she is. When the scoreboards went up, first week of the second term, Asano was only third. She rarely raises her hand in class. She falls asleep in lessons (occasionally).

 

Third: Asano is terrible at focusing and getting the work she needs to, done. At first Sakura had thought that she spent time at the library reading because she enjoys it, which she does. But she also does it to avoid homework. Asano regularly turns in homework where the ink is still wet. It never her best work either, sometimes random markings are crossed out and there are always smudges.

 

Asano’s kanji is terrible and so is her grammar honestly.

 

Asano is also really good at finding hiding spots. Anytime either of them want to talk about something private, Asano takes the lead. Her hiding spots aren’t traditional hiding spots, they aren’t the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ sort of hiding spots, but rather, ‘the places you don’t look’ hiding spots.

 

To date, they’ve hidden, in restaurants, on roofs, underground, in trees branches, in tree trunks, in the teachers room of the academy, and in Sakura’s parent’s bedroom. To name a few.

 

The most awkward time was when they arrived at an alcove and Naruto, a kid in their class, was already hiding there. Asano said they couldn’t leave because it would be obviously suspicious, and Naruto said he couldn’t leave because then the ANBU would find him. Sakura said that they couldn’t talk about anything interesting while Naruto was there, and anyway, it wasn’t very comfortable.

 

Despite Sakura’s complaints, the next hours was spent in conversion drifting for awkward to enthusiastic and back again.

 

Afterwards the two of them laid together in a civilian park - one of Asano’s favourite hiding spots, and talked. The park covered a playground, some green field, and a river in between two banks. One bank was covered in blankets and in civilians who enjoyed pretending that winter was over and summer was here. The other side, which could only be accessed by going through the river or jumping across from a high tree branch, was limited to them. The river wasn’t loud but it did provide enough background noise that it wasn’t easy to overhear anyone else’s conversation.

 

“Hey Sakura,” Asano said, looking up at the sky with her arms crossed behind her head.

 

“Yep?” She asked, fiddling with a piece of grass.

 

“I think you should make another friend.” It was so casually said that it took Sakura a moment to discern what Asano had said.

 

“Are you like? Friendship breaking up with me?”

 

“No! But. I know that I don’t listen to you enough.” Asano pulls herself up and looks past Sakura down the green bank. “Either I want it to be quiet, or I want to share my own thoughts with you. I don’t listen to you very often. That’s not fair to you. So I was thinking you should make friends with someone who will listen to you.” Asano’s gaze refocused and she grabbed Sakura’s hand. Her hands were a bit sweaty and uncomfortable, but Sakura didn’t let go. “You have to stay my best friend though.”

 

Asano’s tone was desperate in a ridiculous way, as if Asano was the one who needed friends. Sakura had known, has always known, that she was the weak one in the relationship. Sakura was clever, but not as clever. Sakura was awkward, while Asano was just reserved. Sakura’s biggest strength over Asano was that Sakura didn’t get sick. Which wasn’t a very helpful strength.

 

“Who would I become friends with?” Sakura asked with her best attempt at a wry smile, “I’m happy enough just being friends with you.”

 

“I don’t know! Ino maybe! She’s pretty and smart and great at conversation!”

 

“Weren’t you the one who explained to me that interrogation and torture were often different because interrogation was when the victim told their interrogators willingly, which was the Yamanaka speciality?”

 

“Well yes…”

 

“So… you want me to get interrogated?”

 

“No! But. Ino would be a good friend. I don’t want you to miss out.”

 

“Ino could be my friend, maybe. But you and her are pretty similar and you both prefer talking about yourselves - except when she listens it means she might record it to hold over my head in five years. You, on the other hand, just don’t listen. Or have fallen asleep.”

 

“Hey, I do listen to you occasionally.”

 

“I know you do. You maybe aren’t the best person to monologue to, but you are decent at conversation.”

 

“Am I?”

 

“When did you get so unsure of yourself?”

 

“The Uchiha Massacre.” Asano says immediately. The joking, conversational tone is absolutely destroyed. Sakura pauses to think about it.

 

“Are you strong enough or convincing enough to stop Itachi Uchiha?”

 

“Um. No? Probably not. But there are other wa-”

 

“Are you of a high enough rank that, assuming you noticed, you could notify someone that Itachi Uchiha was acting strangely.”

 

“No....”

 

“Assuming you knew the massacre would happen in advance , do you have a way to stop it?”

 

“No,” Asano whispers, looking terribly heartbroken. Sakura sighs, and lets it go. Instead wrapping Asano up in a hug.

 

That’s another thing about Asano. She adores hugs. It’s sweet because the academy is clear that touching someone you don’t trust is amount to suicide via stupidity. Which isn’t very nice but after how clear they’ve made it, well it’s not wrong.

 

“But back to the matter at hand, I have no need or interest to find other friends.” Sakura paused, and in a tart tone added, “Thank you very much.”

Chapter Text

At the end of each school year it is the job of the teacher to meet with the parents of their students, or in the case of orphans, either the head of of the orphanage or the hokage. After second year this shortens to each term. Nao yawned and stretched.

 

The academy classrooms were made to wide and open with large windows and high ceilings. The academy building was actually one of the few in the city that utilised seals. The Uzumaki had, understandably, been rather protective of their knowledge and had been reluctant to leave it outside of their control. Uzumaki Mito had been willing to put seals on the academy, the village walls, and the Hokage’s office, from what Nao had heard.

 

The sound of wheels on wood reached his ears and Nao straightened. It was time to talk to Asano Sakurai’s parents. Yoko Sakurai was the sort of quietly famous Kunoichi that the younger generation would not remember, Nao had taught her though, for half a year several decades ago. It had been during those six months that he had learned of the joys of teaching. The memory left him smiling fondly as he opened the door.

 

Shoichi Sakurai was not famous, in anyway. He was almost the epitome of normal. He had no specialisation, he used to no special weapons, he was proficient at ninjutsu, genjutsu, and taijutsu - with a small strength at genjutsu.

 

Nao considered it his job as a teacher to know both his students, and their parents, so he could be sure to cover any weak points they may have left. Which was why Asano confused him so much.

 

“Come in, have a seat,” Nao said gesturing for Shoichi and his wheelchair bound wife to sit in front of his desk before taking a seat himself. “How competent do you think Asano is?” He asks. It’s his usual question for parents. It tells him a lot about both them and their relationship with their children.

 

“I’m not sure,” Shoichi professes, “I spend a lot of time on missions so I don’t see her very often.”

 

“I see,” Nao hums noncommittally before turning to Yoko. As an ex-ANBU member Nao would expect her to do her best to keep her children safe. (Nao makes sure to keep track of his old students, and being the oldest teacher in the academy has some benefits when it comes to clearance.) It makes this situation all the more confusing.

 

“Asano is not particularly well suited to being a shinobi,” Yoko says, in a very similarly dull tone to the one she would use in class. Some people change quite a lot while growing up, others do not. “She is slightly underweight and lacks any significant muscle mass. Her taijutsu is weak, despite having not yet started on kata.”

 

“Why haven’t you started her on kata?” Nao interrupts, plenty of parents choose to wait to train their children until they attend or graduate the academy. From what the other teachers say of her older children, she didn’t do the same from them.

 

“Asano will need a different taijutsu style to the one that I use, which I have taught to Taro and Hideo. She’s naturally fairly flexible but lacks strength, which would do her no benefit in the Strong Arm style.”

 

“I see, and her ninjutsu, genjutsu, and technical understanding.” Nao asks, making a note of Yoko’s comments. The notes are written in code of course, but it’s one that he’s been using since the start of the term so it’s almost as easy as writing it in plain text.

 

“Her chakra is… a bit odd. It’s strongly in favour of Yin. Perhaps as a result of her birth.” Yoko says, reminding Nao that Asano was born the day of the Kyuubi attack. Perhaps he’ll teach Asano to use her chakra similarly to a Nara, since they also favour Yin chakra.

 

“Have you checked her for an elemental affinity?”

 

“No,” Yoko pauses and the tension between her and her husband rises sharply. A disagreement clearly. “ We decided to wait until they have graduated from the academy,” she says in a tone that she begrudges Shoichi the decision.

 

“That’s fine.” Nao dismisses, most children don’t learn their affinity until they graduate. Not even the Uchiha tested it until they graduated (although they did assume that the child had fire affinity until proven otherwise). Elemental chakra work required more chakra than most children had before the age of 13 or so. Although that Uzumaki boy might have enough, it might be worth thinking about at least.

“She could go into genjutsu breaking,” Yoko admitted, an almostly questioning tone in her voice. “She has a very clear idea of what’s reality perhaps, most the genjutsu I’ve cast she doesn’t break, but she does recognise that they are there.” Shoichi stiffens at the mention of Yoko casting genjutsu on her children, for good reason. Most parents try to avoid it, since it can have a destabilising effect on the brain. He can be pretty sure the effect it had on their daughter.

 

“Yoko, did you know that your daughter can use killing intent?” Nao mentioned offhand. Killing intent is… well it’s rare. It’s not even particularly useful at a low level, except against children. Even civilians would be unaffected by the level of killing intent Asano had managed to create months ago. There was a lot of interesting theory as to why children were so vulnerable to killing intent, but that wasn’t particularly relevant at the moment.

 

“I,” Yoko paused, hesitated, “did not.”

 

Neither did I ,” Shoichi said, his jaw clenched, “shouldn’t we have been informed about this?” He asked, as if daring Nao to explain it.

 

“Of course not. There was no proof that Asano used killing intent. Merely that some bullies were targeting her friend, the supervisors felt a small ripple of chakra, and both the bullies and Sakura Haruno fell to the ground, partially unresponsive. Asano then pulled her friend away. There was no proof what so ever.” Nao wanted to be clear. Asano did do it. Everyone involved knew that Asano did it. A lack of proof just meant that she would get extra marks for being more discreet than her peers might’ve been about it.

 

“I didn’t know know she could do it, but,” Yoko paused again and Nao saw a flash of the steel that allowed her to work in ANBU for years without breaking, “I can’t say I’m surprised she’s able to utilise it. I didn’t expect her to use it so early. However she’s always been very… deliberate.” Nao allowed himself to nod a centimetre. That was a good way to describe her. Deliberate.

 

“And her technical skills?”

 

“She is very weak at writing, and while she’s rather slow she quite enjoys reading. Other than that she’s above average.” Yoko said, putting a gentle hand on her husband, who looked uncomfortable at the criticism of her reading.

 

“Above average is putting it mildly,” Nao agreed, “if she was as good at taijutsu as she is at the technical component I would attempt to have her ranked as a prodigy. The speed at which she learns to skills is close to unprecedented-”

 

“About that,” Shoichi interrupts. Nao sends his a short look of disapproval - manners matter. “Asano has always read a lot. Before she could read herself, she would insist on being read a wide variety of books. I wanted to ask you, how likely is it that she had already read about the concepts that she is learning so quickly.”

 

“That’s not… impossible,” Nao pondered, it would make a lot of sense actually, “even if that was the case though. Her ability to understand and comprehend abstract concepts is several years above what I would expect at her age. Her logical reasoning skills are the same. If she played shogi, well, she could be a Nara!” Nao laughed, the girl had dark enough hair and similar enough features that she could pass as a branch member of the Nara clan. Her attitude in class was similar enough!

 

Yoko and Shoichi laughed, but not enough for such a joke. He’d forgotten that Shoichi was noted as being slightly Anti-Clan.

 

“Regardless, thank you for your insight Yoko.” Nao continued, straightening up to wrap up the conversation. “Asano is progressing well in class. Her class ranking has gone down with the start of physical lessons, however I am optimistic to her ability to improve. I am aware that she possesses physical limitations that are stricter than her peers and as such it has been agreed that as long as she can reach the physical standard by the end of each year, a lower speed of improvement will not be marked against her.”

 

Yoko smiled at that. Nao noted that although she seemed similar, she had changed at least a little.

 

“As her parents you should encourage her to practice strategy games  and otherwise sharpen her logical reasoning skills. If you wanted, you could find her an official genjutsu teacher, but that isn’t needed or recommended until she graduates. If you would like to learn more about genjutsu and children you can find it in the research section of the chunin library.” Nao stood and opened the door for them.

 

“Thank you both for coming, I know that Shoichi usually attends on his own so thank you for coming when I asked Yoko. It’s been good to see you again,” he smiled and closed the door behind them.

 

Now to prepare to see the Takagi family.

Chapter Text

I know, logically, that there is almost no chance that I will not graduate. I am near the top of my class. All that’s left in fact is the ninjutsu exam. I can smell the tension in the room. I stare at the wooden floor as if it will reveal the world’s secrets because something terrible as occurred to me.

 

I could fail.

 

I would never fail because I am unskilled, but I don’t want to be a shinobi. Ka-san would be… disappointed of course, but she’s never been to the meetings with my teachers, so she wouldn’t know how unlikely it is. Tou-san would understand. Probably. Hideo might not even notice. Asano would, but as far as I can tell, she’s never shared ay secrets.

 

There’s a lump in my throat and I feel? Disconnected. I can see my fellow students (my ‘peers’ for four years, but I can’t remember their names,) each nervous and obvious in their own way. They would know. My teacher (what is his name again?) would know.

 

Does it count as treason to purposefully fail?

 

Do I care if it’s treason? (I do if I get caught.)

 

“Taro Sakurai,” my teacher calls, opening the door. It’s a rather interesting door. Both metaphorically and physically leading to my future.

 

“Please create a clone.”

 

Slow as molasses I run through the hand signs, stumbling - purposefully - on two. When it’s time the channel the chakra I make it a little thin and leave the image of myself a little vague around the legs.

 

As I expected, it’s horrific. At first glance, it’s almost passable, but the legs are shadowy and eerie. The more I look at it, the more horrific it looks. The shadows on my clone’s face are all wrong, leaving my clone looking ill.

 

“Taro,” my teacher says, far to calmly for someone about to fail me, “I know you can do it. Try again.” I can feel the threat in the tone. They know .

 

I swallow my regret and run through the handsigns at normal speed, channelling my chakra perfectly.

 

My clone is perfect, although the ill look on its face remains.

 

“Congratulations on passing Taro, come grab a forehead protector. Remember to register before the team assignments next week.”

 

“Yes sir.” I nod and make my way into the harsh light of the yard. The cool dark of the building giving way to the heavy heat of a late summer day. Today is likely to be one of the last hot days of the year, yet I could not enjoy it.

 

I have signed my life away.

 

Asano had told me, a little over 4 months ago, that the all of the longest survivors of shinobi life aren’t in active service. This isn’t a surprise persay, but to hear her describe: the Hokage, the village elders and advisors, and the Legendary Sannin as the oldest famous shinobi. The only one (presumably) on active duty, is the Snake Sannin and a traitor, and even then he might’ve moved to a small fishing town - I don’t know.

 

I walk, slowly, down the street. I only live a couple of blocks away from the academy but each step takes an eternity. My arms and legs and body tingles as I watch my body from just above my head. My limbs move automatically and all I can do is watch as I walk to my death.

 

All I can do is watch as I open the front door and my Kimiko runs out of her room and into my legs.

 

“Ka-san’s a stupid head!” Kimiko whispers, presumably because Ka-san is making her clean her room again. She says it quietly though, because Kami forbid Ka-san hear her.

 

“Is that you Taro?” Ka-san calls from the kitchen. Taro wonders what she does there, she can’t spend all day cooking, there are aren’t enough meals or food to make. Yet whenever he sees her, that’s where she is.

 

“Yep, I made it,” I say. I can feel the tight smile, the mask sliding over my face . I am a shinobi. I am happy. I have reached my dream. The smile loosens and by the time Ka-san has rolled out of the kitchen I’m grinning and carrying Kimiko (huge and heavy though she is now) on my back.

 

“I’m so proud of you Taro,” Ka-san says, eyes shining and a scarred hand reaching up to rub my cheek. I am a shinobi. I am happy. I have achieved my dream . I don’t know what to say to that.

 

“Who do you think I’ll be paired with, for my teammate?”

 

Ka-san fussed slightly over Kimiko’s stained dress silently while I stared into the distance. (I am going to die.)

 

“Well, it depends, I expect. You’ll either be placed on a long term or short term team, depending on whether they expect you to stay with your team once you become a chunin. Sometimes T&I and other departments will choose to apprentice new graduates.” Ka-san looked up at me and smiled softly. (The tightness in my chest softens slightly, the aching is a little weaker.) “I suppose you’ll get your grades when you register, so I’ll expect we’ll know better then.”

 

“Oh right, that sounds. More complicated than I expected.” I say, my mouth working mostly without thinking about it. My hand twitches on Kimiko’s shoulder but I am otherwise still. (I am going to die .)

 

“Regardless of where you end up, I’m proud of you Taro.” Ka-san says, and to my ears it sounds like a death sentence. Ka-san is so proud, so dedicated, so loyal to Konoha that her ideal death has always been in its defence. But Ka-san will never die on any battlefield or mission. I will. And Ka-san loves me for it.

 

“I’m going to go up to my room.” I release Kimiko’s shoulder and walk (far too steady) to the stairs. The floor is silent, and slightly yielding below me.

 

“Alright, your tou-san and I will need to talk to you tonight, so don’t fall asleep.”

 

“Hai, hai,” I nod and make my way out of sight. The students who weren’t attempting (and succeeding, in my case) to graduate today got to start their Autumn break a day sooner. Perhaps it says something about the shinobi system that the children graduating only get a week long break while teams are sorted. After that I will never have another two week break twice a year.

 

I am now, technically, an adult (of sorts), though most the rights that come with that only come when I reach chunin level. I could move out, though a genin salary isn’t particularly large. I work. I will have to pay taxes. ( Great. ) I am considered, by Konoha, an adult, with an adult schedule. No more spring or autumn breaks for me. (Great.)

 

Civilian kids get to attend school (and follow its break schedule) until they’re 16 or 18 (something like that). They don’t have to pay taxes at 12 years either. God. Don’t you love being a shinobi.

 

I promptly fall asleep, because no number of warnings on my Ka-san’s behalf will be enough for me to stop trying to escape this absolutely beautiful life that I have found myself in.

 

When I wake up, it’s to Tou-san, sitting over me. The light from the window is gone, it’s night time. I stumble downstairs and find only Ka-san waiting for me. Asano, Hideo, and Kimiko are all elsewhere. Asano and Hideo are presumably out doing something, but Kimiko rarely leaves the house, since she spends all her time with Ka-san, and Ka-san rarely leaves the house.

 

“What’s going on?” I mumble, pulling my blanket tighter around my shoulder and stumble into a wooden chair in front of the kitchen table.

 

“I told you earlier, Taro, not to fall asleep,” Ka-san sighs, running a hand through her hair and giving Tou-san a significant look. He too takes a seat. “Now that you’re a genin, it’s time we tell you the full truth of our family’s history.”

 

“Oh. That,” I nod, almost relieved at how much I don’t care . Why would it matter to me that Ka-san was (maybe) distantly related to the first Hokage or something like that. I haven’t thought much about it in years, not since Ka-san told me about it when I was five. Honestly I can’t even remember much about what she said.

 

“Taro, you could be considered Hashirama’s heir. As his eldest great-grandson, born to his eldest son’s eldest daughter. Tsunade Senju will accept the title, since she was born to Tobirama and his wife, and adopted by Mito Uzumaki.”

 

“What? Ka-san, you aren’t making any sense.” I say, raising an eyebrow. What? So the famous, all perfect, amazing Hashirama Senju had a illegitimate kid? He cheated on his wife? Yeah right.

 

“Mito Uzumaki was the first container of the demon fox, the Kyuubi, right?” Ka-san said, speaking much the same way I did when Hideo was being an idiot.

 

“Yeah? So?”

 

“Mito made the first seal of it’s kind, from nothing, on the stop. It was effective, but it was in no way perfect. Having children would weaken the seal too much, and would risk releasing the Kyuubi. At that point in the village’s history, if the Kyuubi attack then the village would have been destroyed and Konoha would be nothing more than an idea.”

 

“Oh, okay. So she couldn’t have kids.” That makes sense.

 

“Hashirama wanted kids though, and Tobirama too a very long time to get married. So long, in fact, that Hashirama and Mito agreed that Hashirama would bare, and raise two children. They would be born of another mother, and unless no other heirs could be found, they wouldn’t inherit the Senju clan.”

 

“This is the important bit,” Tou-san added, “the condition for the acceptance of the illegitimate children was that there were no other Senju who could take up the line, or at least, not one that was pure enough. At this point in time there was upward of 200 Senju, although many of whom were already marrying into other families and losing their name.”

 

“So when Tobirama finally got married, and eventually had children, and those children had children, it seemed that the illegitimate line would never inherit. Since Hashirama’s time though,” Ka-san paused, her voice hitching slightly as her hands grip the arms of her wheelchair. “The number Senju alive has gone from upward of 200 hundred to,” she pauses again, “one.”

 

I had never thought about it much. Tsunade-hime was the Senju princess, everyone knew that. I had never thought about how she was the only Senju.

 

“The Senju were often specifically targeted why enemies because of the Senju legacy,” Tou-san said, laying a gentle hand on Ka-san’s back. “Many Senju have married into other families and given up their names for safety, but because of this, there aren’t many left. Which is where we come in.

 

“After Hashirama had children, it was kept mostly quiet, but over the years the clans all learned of it, one way or another. What he had done became known as a Shadow Clan. The other clans used to as a back up. Before Konoha had formalised most clans lived in small, but very safe villages, made up entirely of the clan. Clan members would often be travelling or away for one reason or another. When the clans came to Konoha it became obvious with the destruction of the Taka Clan-”

 

“The Taka Clan?” I echoed, mostly in shock at the information. There were so many puzzle pieces that this affected.

 

“The Taka Clan was destroyed overnight by Madara Uchiha with his defection. The Taka Clan had taken pride in the the fact that they had killed hundreds of Uchiha despite not being at war with them. This was before Konoha of course, but with it’s founding, the Taka Clan all moved into a Clan Compound. The night of Madara’s defection he snuck into the clan compound and massacred them.” Tou-san said, his tone and face grave. Ka-san had straightened herself up and with a few deep breaths looks as impenetrable as usual.

 

“Like what happened with the Uchiha?”

 

Exactly . It was exactly like what happened to the Uchiha. You might start to hear about it now that you’re a genin, but some say that Itachi was Madara re-born. Or else had been inspired by Madara’s act.” Tou-san finished, Ka-san placing a hand on his leg, nodding slightly.

 

“As an effect from the massacre and Hashirama’s actions, many clans decided to have illegitimately, naming them Shadow Clans. The existence of these clans are secret, and the identities of the members of each Shadow Clan, and which Clan they care connection to is a secret only known by the head of the clan, their partner, and the heir.” Ka-san said, leaning over the table slightly.

 

“There are a number of rules or guidelines that go along with Shadow Clans, though most are irrelevant to you right now.

 

“The Senju Clan however, is important right now. With Tsunade’s death, our family will come forward to become the new Senju Clan. Tsunade has never formally acknowledged this, but unless she states otherwise, you will become the next head of the Senju Clan.”

Chapter Text

By the start of their third term at the academy, Sakura and Asano have successfully become Sakura-And-Asano, which is perhaps a dubious achievement. Sakura’s happy with it though. She’s not completely sure she deserves it, since she’s pretty sure Asano continues to keep some pretty big secrets from her.

 

At the start of the year, Asano drags Sakura to the front the crowd to read the score board. Sakura is number three out of the girls, and Asano has dropped to tenth, out of 15 girls. Mostly because Asano is… well she’s slow. Not mentally! But running… She’s slow.

 

“I guess I’ll need to get a bit better,” Asano says with a smile before pulling Sakura back out of the crowd.

 

“I don’t get it,” Sakura says as they walk into their new classroom, the room number having been on the top of the chart. “You’re definitely top of the class in technical knowledge, by is your score so low?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Asano hums, Sakura waits, because even if she claims not to know, Asano has an idea at least. “It’s probably that they’re weighted differently. So the first year it was all about technical knowledge and how hard you tried - or something like that. Then last year was mostly about pre-existing, or the speed of improvement, when it comes to physical prowess.”

 

Sakura pulls Asano into a row halfway between the teacher and the back of the room. At the end of last year Nao-sensei had said he was retiring, but he didn’t mention who would be their new teacher. Asano, if given the chance, will falter for several minutes before choosing a seat three row from the front. Which really is far too close.



Sakura sit, and when Asano doesn’t she looks up to find Asano staring at her intently.

 

“What?”

 

“Can I sit next to the window?” Asano asks, in a surprised tone, as if she assumed that Sakura knew that Asano would want to. Sakura stands, and they do the awkward shuffle so Asano can sit next to the high windows that show a stretch of Konoha. Thinking back, Inner points out that it should be rather obvious, Asano always chose the seat by the window. Sakura herself thinks that the fact that Asano thinks it’s obvious should probably tells Sakura something about how Asano thinks. Asano notices patterns maybe?

 

After a few minutes, other students start to trickle in. Sakura’s never spoken to most of them. Shikamaru and Choji, two clan kids who always sit at the back, come in first. Shikamaru is a bit weird honestly, but Choji sends a friendly wave that Sakura returns. They could speak, it’s quiet in here and they aren’t far apart. The quiet of the room is calming though, and Sakura doesn’t want to break it.

 

A few minutes later Kiba, who has an adorable puppy that Sakura sometimes thinks he doesn’t deserve, and Ino, the girl Asano thought she should befriend, enter together. Kiba and Ino are fighting rather loudly, apparently Sasuke is top of the class?

 

It seems kinda obvious that he would, to Sakura at least. He’s from a Clan (even if they are dead now). He doesn’t have any friends  (or family) to waste time with. His brother killed his clan (if Sakura were him, she would train really hard). Maybe he wants to be able to protect himself if his brother comes back?

 

The two of them fit near the front of the class, but Ino makes sure that she’s closer to the aisle so she can sit next to Sasuke when he arrives. Sakura knows this because Ino announces it loudly and then adds,

 

“So you bitches don’t be getting any ideas!” Which Sakura thinks might be a joke from the way Kiba laughed? But it also definitely wasn’t one by the warning glare Ino shot her.

 

Hinata and Shino and the civilian kids, Karu, Etsuo, and Atsuhiko enter. All five of them are quiet, not so much walking together , as walking in the same direction simultaneously, upon entering the classroom they scatter and sit on different benches.

 

Hinata sits near the front, Shino sits near the back. Karu sits the row diagonally behind Asano and herself. Etsuo and Atsuhiko  both sit on the same row as far apart from each other as possible.

 

By now there are enough kids that Sakura feels content in the knowledge that they are definitely in the right classroom. She could talk to Asano, but a glance shows that she’s content staring out the window with a pensive look on her face, and honestly Asano is pretty terrible at conversation when she’s like this…. Asano is always terrible at conversation admittedly.

 

Asano was silly for thinking she wasn’t a good friend, she is, Asano is very dedicated and all that. Just. Either she doesn’t want to talk at all, or she has something to share and she doesn’t really want to listen. Every couple of days she’ll be happy to have an actual conversation, and Sakura’s okay with that . She just doesn’t want to fool herself into thinking that Asano is good at conversation.

 

“Hello class, my name is Iruka Umino, you can call me Iruka-sensei. I am a chunin and your new teacher. I know most of you are familiar with each other, but let’s go through the class and introduce yourself. Just your name and your goal. Let’s start with you,” Iruka-sensei says, pointing to Hinata, who turns pale and stands up.

 

“My name is Hinata Hyuuga, my goal is to honor my family and be a good clan head,” the ending sounds like a question.

 

“My name is Ami, my goal is to be an awesome ninja!” Ami is an orphan, Sakura realises, she’d thought about it a while ago, but that confirms it. In Konoha only orphans don’t have last names. She also uses the civilian term ‘ninja’ despite starting her second year at the shinobi academy . Sakura’s inner self pities her, because it feel a bit cruel, while also making her feel better about herself. Sakura herself just dislikes her.

 

“I’M HERE! NARUTO UZUMAKI HAS ARRIVED!” Sakura sighs quietly to herself, while Asano lets out a violent twitch.

 

“Have a seat Naruto-kun,” Iruka-sensei says after taking a deep calming breath. Sakura’s inner self gives him a gold star not punching Naruto in the head for being such an idiot!

 

The introductions go around for a while. Sakura is surprised by how many people say things like “I want to own a bakery” or whatnot. They’re in a shinobi academy ! Why are they here if they don’t want to be shinobi?!

 

“My name is Sakura Haruno, and I want to be strong.” Sakura says, she’s not entirely sure it’s the truth. It is, kind of. She wants to be strong enough to help Asano prevent things like the Uchiha Massacre. She want to be able to decide that what someone is doing is wrong, and then be able to stop them. She wants to be strong enough that her parents are proud of her. She wants to be strong enough that she stops feeling bad about her huge forehead and silly hair.

 

That seems like too much information to share though.

 

“My name is Asano Sakurai and I want to-” Asano freezes, quietly she finishes, “I’d rather not share.” When Sakura reach out to touch her hand, is shaking.

 

Sakura misses most of the rest of them, but no one could avoid hearing,

 

“MY NAME IS NARUTO UZUMAKI AND I’M GOING TO BE HOKAGE!”

 

She feels a bit disappointed later that she missed them, but mostly she just wants to know why Asano suddenly looks terrified.

 

Unfortunately, it’s the first day of school and they have a new teacher, so Iruka-sensei will probably be hyper attentive to any “trouble making”. So instead of leaning over and asking Asano what’s wrong, Sakura keeps her mouth shut and faces her teacher.

 

Iruka-sensei explains that this year they will start learning sparring and hand signs, and girls will start kunoichi class, which everyone is welcome to be a part of. Next term they will begin to learn to consciously use chakra. This earns a derisive snort from Sasuke, which Sakura thinks it pretty unattractive, especially considering how very attractive he is normally. Mostly it’s because Sakura knows that all the clan kids will know how to do it already, but shinobi born kids sometimes, and civilian kids usually don’t.

 

Sakura, for one, doesn’t know how to consciously use chakra because a couple years ago when she asked if she could, her dad said she didn’t have enough chakra. He said that if she tried to do it now, she could get hurt or die. At the time that had seemed like a terrifying concept, right now Sakura thinks she’d be willing to risk it. She wanted to be a shinobi so that she could do cool jutsu and stuff like that, so far all they’ve done is sit in a classroom and run around on a field.

 

Admittedly she’s really enjoying learning things at the academy, it’s significantly more interesting than civilian schooling had been.

 

That afternoon, Sakura pulls Asano out of the school and towards the Hokage Monument. Near its base there’s a tiny little tea shop that Sakura adores. It has the frozen mochi balls and since it’s already October, it’ll be too cold for them soon.

 

The matron of the store (she calls herself the matron, Sakura will admit to not knowing what that really means or entails) is a stout middle aged woman who greets them cheerfully then nudges them inside to warm up.

 

The tea shop (technically called Cherry Tea, but Sakura never calls it that because it’s kind of ridiculous for Sakura and Asano Sakurai to drink at Cherry Tea) is cozy inside.

 

The air is warm, and slightly humid, similar to the weather in the summer months. As they it the smell of flowers and tea waft in. Sakura (or at least Inner) will punch anyone who says tea doesn’t have a smell. It so totally does ! Asano looks out the window towards the village says,

 

“Konoha’s pretty big… How come it qualities as a village instead of a city like the capital?”

 

“The capital where the Daimyo lives?”

 

“Yeah, the capital where the Daimyo lives, where else would I be talking about.” Asano says, looking at her aggrieved.

 

“I said it like that because the capital is a city because the Daimyo lives there .”

 

“Oh,” Asano smiles, and sips from the water placed before them. The matron knows what they like, so she’ll bring it when it’s ready without making them order it again.

 

“So why were you acting all weird today about your goal?”

 

“I’ve always had a pretty clear goal. But my goal is no longer to survive to the age of 10. I’ll do that in a little more than a year.”

 

“You’re almost nine now?”

 

“Yeah? So are you?” Asano raises an eyebrow in confusion.

 

“But you didn’t tell me it was your birthday!” Sakura exclaims (quietly). Last year they had met after Asano’s birthday.

 

“Oh, I don’t really celebrate my birthday or anything.” Asano shrugged, sipping her water awkwardly.

 

“Why not?!”

 

“It’s on October 10th.”

 

“Oh.” October 10th is a day of mourning. At night fireworks will go off to tell the story of the Yondaime killing the Demon Fox, but during the day everything is quiet. The graveyards are always be packed, incense sell out in stores. People (civilians) start crying on the streets. October 10th is not a great birthday.

 

It gets so bad sometimes, that people who are too cheerful get attacked by grieving civilians. In years past the Uchiha would stop any fights. (“That’s not exactly an option now is it?” Inner says, a morose grin on her face.)

 

“Yeah, I don’t really care much about my birthday anyway.”

 

“Well next week I’ll bring you a present anyway.” Today is October 8th. There is a holiday on the 10th. Then it’ll be the weekend. Asano usually sleeps through those, from what Sakura understand.

 

“If you want to, it’s never been very important to me.” Asano shrugs as the matron delivers their pots of tea with a smile, and small ruffle of Sakura’s hair ( since she’s the one who’s closer today).

 

Sakura sips her tea, content in her thoughts. It was something she had rarely felt before she had met Asano. Her thoughts has always been rushed, half formed, and often not very kind. Now, they are softer. She’s not perfect at it, but Asano always preaches mindfulness and mediation, and Sakura has done her best to follow.

 

“Do you know why I joined the academy in the first place, Sakura?” Asano asks in the deceptively light tone she always uses when sharing important, and often devastating information. Mostly for drama, Sakura imagines, Asano is a bit of a drama queen sometimes.

 

“No,” Sakura obliges, ”I don’t. Why did you join the academy?”

 

“Because when I was younger, six to be exact, I went to the doctor with my parents, and I got an exam. After the exam was done, and my parents had left the room, for one reason or another, my doctor - a Hyuuga - told me if I didn’t become a shinobi, I would die. He said that if I didn’t join the academy, and improve my physical level of skill as well as increase my chakra levels, I would die. I would start to fade by the time I was ten, and be dead by 15. He said that it would be mostly painless, but it would be slow. And that I would die young without a doubt.”

 

Asano takes another sip of her tea, while Sakura looks at her in blank horror, echoed by Inner.

 

“He said,” Asano continued, “that if I became a shinobi, there was still a 50% chance I would die. But, that I would almost definitely live longer. He said that if I became a shinobi I would die painfully, whether it was on the field or in my bed, it would hurt. He summarised it by saying ‘if you want to live past 15, become a shinobi and suffer through the pain’.”

 

Asano paused again, and glanced out the window.

 

“I think he meant to be poetic with the last part, but it’s stuck with me. He told a six year old civilian girl that she could be shinobi or die, and purposefully didn’t include my parents in the conversation.” Asano sighed deeply,

 

“I’ve spoken to him a few times since, I see him every six months, and he said that he wouldn’t tell my parents because it is my choice. That he wouldn’t fault me for choosing to die young, to die easy. He also said that my chances of survival go up to almost 75% if I can have jonin levels of chakra. Which is a possibility, considering how much chakra my Ka-san has.”

 

Asano has slowed down, is speaking more clearly, as if lovingly shaping each word as it comes out. Sakura doesn’t know quite what to say.

 

“I’m going to be a shinobi, I just need a dream beyond surviving, or graduating.” Asano pours herself some more tea, “I think,” Asano continues, voice calmer than before, “the problem is that I have a lot of things I want to do. I’m terrible at prioritising them. I need to decide what my overall goal is, and then act accordingly.” Asano leans slightly, so their shoulders brush and Sakura smiles to herself.

 

“That sounds like a good idea.” Sakura agrees, “I said my goal is to be strong.” Asano looks away from her tea, towards Sakura as she continues talking. “I want to be strong, but I want to be strong so that I can do things. Maybe your goal needs to be like that. Less specific, you know?”

 

The matron brings out the mochi balls and Asano grabs the chopsticks. It’s so silly, you’re supposed to eat mochi by hand! Asano insists that it’s better to savour it, and have clean hands. Sakura thinks she just fussy.

 

“I like that,” Asano nods, poking at an ambiguously yellow coloured ball. The matron makes her own mochi and asks that they guess what flavours they were after eating them. In exchange they get the mochi for half off.

 

When the mochi is gone, and the bill has been paid, and Asano and Sakura are standing to leave, Asano speaks.

 

“My dream is to make the world a better place. I want to make a difference”

Chapter Text

Shoichi liked to think he was a pretty average guy. He worked very hard to reach such a state, after all. So it’s never a good sign when his team head comes to find him. Usually it’s because it’s his turn to play Runner during training, but he can already tell that it’s something important.

 

Shoichi’s team captain is Seo-taichou, she’s much more formal than most shinobi, and he can’t actually remember her first name. Which. Is not great.

 

“Sakurai! You need to go to the Academy.”

 

“Hai Taichou, do you know why?”

 

“No. Just that it’s urgent. Get going.” Sao-taichou jumps away, knowing that he’ll go. Which he does. Obviously. As anyone who survives more than a single year as a shinobi knows, there’s a sixth sense that you start to build. When something is going to go wrong, you’re rarely surprising. That feeling, like a suiton jutsu building up behind you, grows in the back of Shoichi’s mind as he makes his way to the academy.

 

In the front yard there is a giant, and obvious fake, tree. It’s made of real wood, but it looks more like a cartoon tree, than one found in nature. A sinking feeling makes its way through his chest. His oldest is out of the academy, and his youngest isn’t yet in it. So either Asano grew a tree, or Hideo did. Personally he’s voting for Asano, because she was the one with the crazy, never re-creatable birth, because that would really make things much easier.

 

That said, his life has never been easy. So when he enters the front door, and is led to the head teacher’s room, and Hideo is sitting there. He knows what’s happened, in essence at least.

 

“Follow me, we are going to the Hokage’s office.” The head teacher, Rei Yamanaka, says from behind her desk. Shoichi gives his son a significant look, full of, ‘ what did you do?!’ because it’s one thing to many sort of have a dead bloodline, and another thing entirely to draw the Hokage’s attention .

Shoichi has been in the Hokage’s office before, for his rise to chunin for example. Unlike jonin though, chunin don’t regularly meet him. Sometimes he will hear a jonin joke about the Hokage, full of respect, but still a joke. Shoichi never has, and never will feel that way about the Third.

 

He is called God of Shinobi and Grandfather, his children have each called him ojii-san at one point or another. For himself, personally, he can never forget the fact that the Hokage has lived through multiple wars, and taught Orochimaru himself. Shoichi doesn’t doubt that the Third is great, he does wonder why people think he is good .

 

“You many enter,” the secretary at the front desk says, with a tired smile. She stands and opens the door so can get in. After bowing and waiting for a minute, the Hokage looks up from his paperwork.

 

“Rei-chan, what brings you here today? Ah, a student!” The Hokage smiles and Shoichi is reminded that, like all shinobi, he must have been taught how to put others at ease, “and a parent too! Oh my!”

 

“Hokage-sama,” Hideo’s teacher bows again, “my student, Hideo Sakurai, grew a tree at the academy.” The Hokage’s cheerful shuffling of paperwork pauses, ever so slightly, and he puts the papers he was moving down.

 

“Is that so?” The Hokage asks, when she nods he turns to Hideo, “Can you grow trees?”

 

“Yep!”

 

“I see. Can you show me?”

 

“Um? Do you want a tree in your floor?”

 

“Fair point, fair point, let’s go to somewhere foreign diplomats won’t see,” the Hokage gives a gentle smile and Hideo giggles.

 

The Hokage leads them into a large, bright room that Shoichi has never seen before. It is too big for a the space available, which is explained by the seals placed along a seam bisecting the room.

 

“Could you grow a tree for me here?”

 

“Yeah? I depends, do you want a tree that’ll survive, or one that is just. There. For now. The one at the academy will wither and die pretty soon.”

 

“I see, could you grow one that will survive?”

 

“I think so? Those ones are harder.” Hideo knelt to the floor and placed his hands firmly on the dirt. Or a minute or so, nothing happened, despite the light sweat breaking out on his face. Then the ground shook a little, and a small crack appeared. Hideo stopped and laid down on the ground, shaking slightly.

 

“Man,” he gasped, “I’ve never grown multiple trees in a day. Gimme a minute.” After several heaving breaths he sat back up and placed his hands against the ground once more. This time, quite quickly, a small sprout appeared.

 

The sprout turned into a sapling and the sapling turned into a tree, and the tree grew up until it brushed the rather high ceiling of the room.

 

Shoichi turned from the tree to his son, now pale white and shivering despite the layer of sweat.

 

“He’s got chakra exhaustion.” Shoichi pointed out, he wouldn’t do anything without the Hokage’s permission. Most of his emotions were dulled by shock anyway, so he couldn’t quite grasp the same urgency he normally would.

 

“Ah, a medic is coming to do an infusion.” The Hokage said, having not even twitched as he prowled around the tree. “Did you know that your son could do such a thing, Sakurai-san?”

 

“No!” Shoichi gasped, for some reason surprised by the question. It was one thing for Hideo, a 10 year old boy, to hide such a thing, and quite another for an adult chunin, father of four, to do so.

 

“I didn’t imagine you did, but it felt prudent to ask. And Yoko-san, does she know?” The Hokage asked, fingers gently tracing along the bark of the tree.

 

“She’s never mentioned such things to me, but I can’t imagine she does,” Shoichi said, uncertain. She might not have told him, but she would have told the Hokage.

 

“Shall I call for her?” The Hokage asked, glancing up at him.

 

“You could,” Shoichi said, adding, “she won’t be able to make it up the stairs on her own.” So many people forgot about her wheelchair, stuck in memories of Yoko as a young unmarried kunoichi.

 

“That can be dealt with. This however, is a very serious situation. You understand that your son has been learning the mokuton for a while now, months at least, but I suspect years.” The Hokage looked past Shoichi and nodded before a medic rushed to Hideo’s side.

 

Oh . Shoichi paused, realising he had left his 10 year old son lying on the ground in chakra exhaustion.

 

“Hokage-sama, may I take him to the hospital?” The medic inquired, when the Hokage nodded both Hideo and the medic disappeared in a puff of smoke.

 

“Let us return to my office. Rei, you are dismissed,” the Third made his way back out of the room. Shoichi followed, only partially out of terror (mostly because his mind had completely evacuated his body).

 

A few minutes later Yoko rolled into the office, making Shoichi pause. It should have taken her longer to get here. The streets of Konoha weren’t made for wheelchair users, full of cracks and constantly uneven as they were. The Yoko he remembers from years ago did impossible, or at least implausible things regularly, so he shrugged it off.

 

“Yoko Sakurai, were you aware that your youngest son, Hideo Sakurai, possessed the wood release jutsu known as mokuton?” The Hokage asked, leaning forward slightly in a way that made Shoichi’s breathing speed up.

 

“I was not.” Yoko said, looking around the room and nodding slightly before she slid into place beside Shoichi. Shoichi turned to give her a smile when she added,

 

“But I married Shoichi because Nara blood increases the strength of other bloodlines.”

 

Shoichi didn’t freeze. He was a shinobi. Shinobi didn’t freeze. He reminded himself that he had told Yoko when they married that he was the last remains of the Nara Shadow Clan (or, had been before Shikaku had his own children). He has told her anyway, what did it matter if she had known in advance?

 

Well. Actually. I was pretty important. It meant that there was a leak and she somehow learned from her own sources. Which meant someone knew the identities of at least one Shadow Clan. He had never even told Yoshiko.

 

Furthermore, the effect of Nara blood on other bloodlines was definitely a secret. He only knew it because he was warned not to marry into any bloodlines with obvious physical traits like the Uchiha or Hyuuga as it could have… dangerous consequences.

 

The Hokage sighed.

 

“I feared such a thing. Very well. I am about to share an A rank secret with you both. There is another mokuton user within Konoha’s ranks. He will identify himself as Yoko’s brother and will teacher Hideo to use the mokuton with the understanding that he will be joining ANBU, should he be suitable.” Should he be loyal .

 

Shoichi twitched as a figure appeared on the Hokage’s left. He had eerie black eyes, a mockery of Yoko’s own dark wide eyes. His hair was only a shade or two darker than Asano’s. He wore a faceplate like the one worn by the second Hokage. He looked like Yoko’s brother.

 

“During his time with you, he will go by the name Yohei. He is your younger brother and has been a dedicated shinobi since your eldest child was born. Yohei spends most of his time working long term missions in distant countries. He is almost 10 years younger than Yoko, so you have never been close, which is why they hadn’t met him and you don’t know very much about each other.”

 

“Hai Hokage-sama,” Yoko and the so called ‘Yohei’ said in unison. Shoichi echoed it a moment later.

 

“He will move into a nearby building within a week at which point you will introduce him.” The Hokage continued, more tense than Shoichi had seen him since the war when he stood on the balcony and declared to Konoha that they were at war.  “Shoichi, you may go,” The Hokage said with a brief nod while Shoichi moved towards the door, pausing momentarily if he would say the same to Yoko. He did not.

 

Sometimes he forgot that Yoko had been part of ANBU. Most days she was his wife, the mother of his children, the woman he came home to. In his day to day life he forgot that she used to have use of both her legs. That she had likely murdered hundreds. He forgot that she was so dedicated to Konoha that when Yoshiko went rogue, Yoko killed her.

 

Yoko killed her sister.

 

Sometimes it was easy to forget the worst parts of a person when, in so many of their interactions he saw only the best parts of her.

 

Shoichi walked home slowly, trying very very hard not to think about the changes that were coming into his life. (It was impossible, his brain was analysing the new information without his consent. That said, he could try be purposefully obvious to the outcomes he arrived at. The important thing would be that he tried .)

 

“You found out, didn’t you?” Asano asked. Shoichi’s left foot twitched in surprise (he had worked very hard to train his foot to be one of his biggest tells). Somehow he had already arrived home, and Asano was waiting at the door?

 

“I found out what?” Shoichi probed, dark acceptance sinking into his gut as he remembered the secret his children had been hiding from him years ago. Hideo’s chakra exhaustion. Taro’s childish attempts at secret keeping Asano, trying to sneak out with her brothers. He had expected (hoped) it would be something easy - like Taro being gay! Or Hideo accidentally using chakra in a fight on the playground. Or Asano having the renown bloodline.

Asano was a good secret keeper. If she had the mokuton he wouldn’t have ever had to learn about it because she would have never used it in public.

 

Most of the time Shoichi liked to pretend that his daughter didn’t have nightmares every night, that she recognised references she had no right to recognise. Most nights he pretended that she didn’t murmur, and whimper, and plead in gibberish as she laid in bed between him and Yoko. Shoichi sometimes indulged in self deception.

 

“Tou-san! I’m not silly!” Asano said, using a more childish tone than she ever used naturally. “Nao-sensei said to never tell anyone what you think that they think until they’ve told you what they think.” Then she paused, as if realising that she had made no sense what so ever. “Anyway! Where is Hideo?”

 

“Hideo is at the hospital, sweetheart.” Shoichi said, laying down the sofa, knowing that Asano would take the opportunity to crawl onto him, which she did.

 

“Why is Hideo in the hospital?” Asano murmured, her head resting on his chest.

 

“He got chakra exhaustion, he’ll be fine tomorrow.” Shoichi replied, running a hand through his daughter’s hair. It looked so much like that of ‘Yohei’ that some part of him wondered if Yohei truly was Yoko’s brother, and the all that had been said there had been an act specifically for him. As a shinobi, it was important that one accepted the reality to which they were presented though. Killing enemies is good. Enemies killing allies is evil . We are the good guys.

 

“Hideo recovers from chakra exhaustion really quickly.” Asano said, tapping a pointer finger gently on his shirt over a scar on his shoulder from a poisoned attack.

 

“Is Tou-san home?” Kimiko called from her room. Shoichi reached up to protect his ears.

 

“YEAH! HE’S OUT HERE ON THE SOFA!” Asano called from less than a metre away from his ear. Asano was weak in a lot of parts. Her skin was sensitive, her digestive system was sensitive (although improving), her immune system was weak. Her voice was not weak, not in the slightest.

 

A few moments later Kimiko climbed on top of Asano.

 

“I’m an Asano-sandwich,” Asano laughed and Kimiko giggled. Shoichi took a deep breath, causing Asano to clamp her arms around his sides as she and Kimiko wobbled unsteadily. He could deal with this. It wasn’t the end of the world. He loves his family.

Chapter Text

Two weeks previously

 

The thought rings in my head for days . Head of the Senju Clan. Heir to the Senju Clan. Leader of the Senju. But behind it all is a growing thought that there was more . That there were parts of the conversation left unsaid in favour of what was (hopefully) the most important. So I goes to Tou-san, on one of the rare occasions he’s home instead of just stopping by. (Ka-san is easier to talk to, by virtue of always being home, but Tou-san is more likely to actually tell me, especially if it doesn't paint the village in a particularly bright light.)

 

“Tou-san,” I say, suddenly nervous in a way that is totally unlike my anxiety before the final exam. It tugs a little inside that maybe I don’t want to know . Still, I continue, “was there more you had to tell me, after being part of the Senju Clan?” Tou-san looks up from the book he’s reading.

 

It’s late. Everyone else is in bed. The autumn chill means Tou-san is covered in blankets. I myself have the blanket from my bed wrapped around my shoulders. The air is soft and still, and still smells faintly of dinner, even now that my mouth is minty fresh.

 

Tou-san nods.

 

“Your mother is from the original Shadow Clan. I am from the Nara’s Shadow Clan. I am the half brother of Shikaku, the current Clan Head.” Tou-san pauses and sits up, gesturing for me to sit beside him.  “However, unlike the Senju Shadow Clan, most clans have each Clan Head start a Shadow Clan of their own. So while we are the current Shadow Clan of the Nara, there will be another family, with a son or daughter a little bit younger than Shikamaru - the current Clan Heir.

 

“When it comes to being an old Shadow Clan, there are two choices, basically marry and procreate carefully while never carrying the Clan name until the amount of blood from the clan is minute. Or, you fold into the clan as a ‘vassal family’. No one uses vassals anymore except for Shadow Clans, but everyone pretends otherwise. Basically you get the Nara name, but not the rights until something like three generations later.”

 

I lean against Tou-san, slightly confused.

 

“Why does it matter then? We aren’t going to be a vassal family of the Nara, so why does it matter?”

 

“Because, of the ‘marry and procreate carefully’ bit. The Nara Clan has a clan secret which you must not tell anyone .” Tou-san pauses, so I nod and murmur,

 

“I promise.”

 

“The Nara blood… it strengthens all other bloodlines. This is important for several reasons, partly because if everyone found out it would be highly problematic for the Nara, and for you it’s important because it means that you have to be carefully who you have kids with. You can’t have kids with anyone who has physical evidence of their bloodline, basically. No doujutsu, no people who turn to water, no people who turn to rock. All of those will backfire on your offspring, in a really powerful way.”

 

“Oh okay,” I say, mostly in shock, although part of me doesn’t care because I’m not sure I want kids anyway. Tou-san smiles and nods, then he pats my hand and leaves the room. I sit in the living room of the house I’ve spent my whole life growing up in, and I wonder. What is in my future?

 

Tomorrow morning I will meet my teammates. I’ll admit to being a touch nervous, I’ve been told many times that my genin team will be my second family, my home away from home. I am a great many things, smart, attractive, and cunning. I can almost profess that I am also lazy, antisocial, and on occasion, arrogant. The closest I’ve ever gotten to a friendship was a rivalry with Mito, and she’d dead anyway.

 

I’m worried that they’ll be weak, or creepy, or friends already. I’m worried I’ll be the useless, creepy, loner.

 

These thoughts, occasionally interrupted by the shocked echo in my head that tells me I am from two different clans, are how I fall asleep.

 

In the morning, Ka-san wakes me from my place on the couch, and she rubs my hair and tells me that even if I don’t like my genin team, or they don’t like me, it’ll work out. She says she’s never heard of a genin team that starts of smoothly. She pulls me into an awkward hug and promises that even if my genin team doesn’t work out, I can still thrive, as a person and as a shinobi.

 

The she goes to make breakfast, and I am left with the reminder that I adore my family.

 

My Ka-san is loyal, and loving, and fierce. My Tou-san is calm, and logical, and caring. Hideo is optimistic, emotionally intelligent, and strong in a way I will never manage. Asano is resourceful and cunning, as well as loving each and every one of us, to the bottom of her heart. Kimiko is soft and civilian, in a way the rest of us have never managed (not since we thought Ka-san was dead in the hospital). She’s also sneaky and manipulative, in a way that doesn’t match her appearance.

 

I love each of them, so, so much.

 

My breakfast tastes more strongly than I can remember it ever tasting before. The rice is warm and fluffy and the miso is delicious and cleansing. The fish is perfect, despite being slightly over cooked and the vegetables crunch fantastically in my mouth.

 

Before I leave, I hug each and everyone of my family members, even Tou-san who isn’t working today and is therefore still sleeping.

 

Today I meet my genin team, made up of Koji, an orphan, and Sachi Inuzuka. Koji is dead last, with is not great, he’s rather loud too, but I maintain optimistic over the fact that he doesn’t seem stupid, just distractible. Sachi is, like most clan children, pretty arrogant. Which is strange considering I’m the one who ranked top of the class, not her.

 

Our team leader is Noritaka Hoga, a jonin. In fact, Nori-sensei is a really impressive jonin. He’s super into following the shinobi rules, and said that he would take us on as a team as long as we could spar with him for 30 minutes straight.

 

Koji ended up being both super useful, and incredibly useless. Which is an impressive mix. After Nori-sensei told us what we had to do, I suggested that we each spar him for 10 minutes, in two five minute segments. He was convinced that he could fight Nori-sensei for the whole thirty minutes on his own. Which was good for getting Sachi to step up and do her part, but when it came to the actual fighting, Koji was pretty useless.

 

Ka-san had spent hours drilling Hideo and I on her taijutsu style, which used a fair bit of brute force. The style worked better for Hideo, since he’s naturally a bit stronger and more active than I am, but I’m older and taller, which evens the two of us out.

 

Against someone who is so significantly better than I am, I know I’ll be pretty useless. That said, I can use the three basic jutsu, I’m not terrible at taijutsu (for my age), and I can break D-rank genjutsu. As I expect, it’s all pretty useless.

 

We pass, in the end. But it wasn’t much of a spar, more like, ‘ can you stand getting utterly destroyed for five minutes and still be willing to go for another five?’ Afterward Nori-sensei criticised that we each took turns instead of working together, and although I pointed out that we had never worked together before, he said we had to start somewhere.

 

One week before Special (the previous chapter)

 

On one hand, Team 13 is going a lot better than expected. Sachi, Koji, and myself don’t get on great , but we can work together, and that’s what’s important. Nori-sensei trains up daily, although we haven’t be allowed to start missions yet.

 

I can’t see a lot of improvement yet, but it feels like we’re getting better.

 

On the other hand, I still don’t really want to be a shinobi. I’ve decided that I’ll get to chunin and then get a desk job, which Ka-san looks down on… a lot. But I’ll be alive, and hopefully not a traitor. Also, Nori-sensei trains up hard .

 

Every damn morning I am sore.

 

He doesn’t let me nap, so I’ve been sleeping through the night. It feels a touch unnatural, I’ll admit. Koji is getting more annoyed the longer we go without a mission, and Sachi has finally introduced us to her partner. His name is Uekibachi, which means flower pot, but she calls him ‘Bachi’ most of the time. Bachi is basically adorable. He’s small and brown with a wrinkled face. Sachi said that he’s a Tosa Inu, which means exactly nothing to me.

Bachi is unanimous the favourite teammate. He enjoys chasing butterflies and getting belly rubs.

 

One day after Chapter 29: Special 

 

When I woke up, I realised Hideo wasn’t in bed. Which was not particularly strange, classes started half an hour before I had to meet Nori-sensei. What was strange, was that his bed was made.

 

Hideo was a creature of habit, for the most part. Each morning he would roll out of bed to get breakfast downstairs. Then he would force me awake, because if he was awake, then we should both suffer. Then he would dress and get ready for his day and just before he leaves, Hideo makes his bed.

 

I mostly thinks it’s unfair that Hideo doesn’t wake Asano, but Hideo claims Asano needs the sleep.

 

The realisation that Hideo isn’t there is just a prickle in my mind though. I pull my blanket over my shoulders and shuffle downstairs for breakfast. The floorboards are warm from the bakery downstairs and it’s ever so tempting to go back to sleep on top of them.

 

“Taro? Is that you?” Ka-san says, voice drifting from the kitchen.

 

“Yeah, it’s me. What’s for breakfast,” I ask with a smile. Breakfast is the same every morning.

 

“Taro, please come into the kitchen for a moment.” Ka-san says, sounding almost tense. I wander in a collapse into a chair, resting my head onto the table. I pull my blanket over my head and everything is blissfully dark. Now if only I could just remove the muscles from my body. That would be good.

 

“I think I need to take an ice bath before I leave.” I tell Ka-san. Ice baths are supposed to help with aching muscles, but I’ve been putting one off because it sounds miserable. Unfortunately, I have now reached the point that I would rather be frozen than in this pain.

 

“Did you know that Hideo could grow trees?” Ka-san asks from the side of the kitchen.

 

“Hideo has the mokuton? No, I didn’t,” I say, before promptly changing my mind because no one would ever believe Hideo chose to hide it. “Of course I did!” I say, trying to put all of the sarcasm I have available into those words.

 

“Then why didn’t I know?” Now Ka-san has is this special voice that Asano affectionately calls the “ You’re in fucking trouble voice” I have no idea where Asano learned such language! But it’s pretty fucking true.

 

“Because I told him to keep it hidden until he was better at it.” I say, trying to sound scornful and dismissive. Mostly my thought process is just a series of repetitive swear words because I’m panicking to much to use more variety.  “Why do you think you know now?” I say, as if Hideo revealing it to someone at some point somewhere was my idea.

 

“Oh?” Ka-san says, in that voice.

 

I am so screwed.

Chapter Text

Less than a week after Hideo revealed his gift (and I had to pay Asano since I’d bet he wouldn’t share it unless one or both of us told him too), Ka-san’s brother arrived. She’d warned us that her brother had spent most of his life on the frontlines, and sometimes had odd behaviour because of it.

 

He arrived in the evening with a quiet knock on the front door that only Hideo, who had been sitting nervously nearby, heard. I had been upstairs sulking because the pay from my first C-rank mission would go to Asano. (Why, you ask, would I offer the pay of my next C-rank mission in a gamble, you ask? Well… I’d been confident. Hideo had successfully hidden it for years before we made the bet. I hadn’t placed it until Asano joined the academy after all.)

 

“Taro! Get down here!” Ka-san called from downstairs. Staying upstairs was a good way to avoid Ka-san, but she wouldn’t stand it when she wanted us to come down. And she could get herself upstairs, but it was very slow. She had to balance the wheels on each step before using rather a lot of upper body strength to to up. More commonly she would get off her wheelchair and just go up on her bottom. The way Kimiko and Asano did when they were toddlers. (Hideo and I probably did it too, but I can’t remember.)

 

“Coming!” I shout down, wandering downstairs. This time without my blanket around my shoulders since Ka-san told me if I made a bad first impression she would lock it away (she also specified that carrying or bringing a blanket would count too.) The only reason I’m not more upset is that Ka-san did the same for all of us - even Kimiko who’s like. Six. (Basically a baby.)

 

“Hello, I am Yohei, Yoko’s younger brother.”

 

“Nice to meet you Oji-san.” I say, giving a slight bow. I think I’m supposed to? I can never remember Ka-san’s instructions on culture, since she hasn’t bothered to give them in years.

 

“Oji-san?” Asano says, peeking out of Kimiko’s room. Upon seeing our new uncle’s face she lights up and runs out, pulling a reluctant Kimiko along with her. “Oji-san! Oji-san! What do you do? Are you a jonin? Do you know any super strong shinobi? Are you in the Bingo book?”

 

I watch as this bizarre facsimile to my sister launches an avalanche of questions onto someone who is practically a stranger.

 

“Asano.” Ka-san says sternly, shutting Asano up promptly. “Don’t be rude Asano, he’ll be visiting for the next few years at least.”

 

“Right,” Asano says, voice back to her normal, not at all a screech, pitch. She sighs, bows slightly, “Nice to meet you Oji-san. I am Asano, the eldest daughter, and this is Kimiko, the youngest child.” Kimiko sends Asano a venomous look before bowing awkwardly.

 

“Ah, Yoko always did love the older, formal ways,” Yohei observes, he smiles and returns an incorrect bow. We’re all used to it though. The only other families that really use the proper names and bows are the Uchiha and the Hyuuga. Or rather, just the Hyuuga, who are actually more formal.

 

“Come Otouto,” Ka-san calls. After a pause and a brief look of confusion, Yohei answers. As soon as he leaves the room, Asano turns to me and whispers,

 

“He’s not Ka-san’s brother.” The look of absolute certainty on Asano’s face makes me hesitate. I don’t disagree with her though. For one thing, Asano has a way of knowing these things. Much like she learned about Hideo’s mokuton only a day after me, she was also the first to know about the Uchiha Massacre, and when one of the teachers at the academy was fired.

 

He acted… off of what I would expect from Ka-san’s brother. I could imagine having not met him until now, I probably would never see Ka-san if she had a choice. She’s a strong believer in working as hard as possible after all.

 

“Dinner!” Ka-san calls, Asano turns and Kimiko tugs her hand out of Asano hold. Hideo’s already in the kitchen waiting for us. He looks a little bit miserable. But in a discrete way so Ka-san won’t get mad at him.

 

“I’m home!” Tou-san shouts, presumably from where he’s throwing himself in through the window. For some reason he almost never uses the door. We all settle around the table. A new chair has been placed at the now crowded table. I don’t remember much from before Asano’s birth, but I remember that the house was very large and very empty. Now I’m bigger, and there are more people. Fitting in seven people to our table… it’s too many.

 

“So,” Ka-san says, settling in between Tou-san and our new Oji-san. “We’ve been thinking of moving. You four are getting so big now, and it’ll be years before you start leaving to get married. Now with Hideo and Yohei here needing space to practice, your Tou-san and I will be looking for houses on the edges of Konoha.”

 

“But Ka-san!” Asano moans, “then the walk to the academy will be even longer!”

 

“You always need more exercise anyway, Asano.” Ka-san says with a pointed look. Asano is without a doubt the least active of us. Oji-san looks like he feels guilty for something.

 

“And since my darling Otouto is here,” Ka-san says, smiling teasingly at Oji-san, who looks embarrassed. “We’ll need an extra room anyway.”

 

“It’s fine… Ane-”

 

“Don’t bother, I know you prefer the more casual, modern terms. I don’t mind.” Ka-san gives dramatic sigh, “even my darling Kodomo call each other by name.”

 

Ka-san only calls us Kodomo when she’s joking or referring to all four of us these days, so Asano and Hideo grin. It used to drive Ka-san mad that we never called each other by our titles. It was too confusing for poor little Asano with two older brothers. Even though we tried to use different names.

 

I give a small sigh, put my hand on my chest, and promptly feel Asano’s hand on my face, keeping me from sharing the story.

 

“No!” Asano says sharply. I nod, grin, then ignore her.

 

“It’s only ‘cause when we were little Asano couldn’t tell us apart. Except Hideo wasn’t allowed to hold her after he dropped her. It was a huge fiasco for a while.” I finish, with a nod. Tou-san is smiling softly at the memory. Only because he wasn’t there when it happened though. Ka-san, having been there herself, is scowling. There had been so much crying . On both Asano’s and Hideo’s part.

 

The discussion of housing is completely lost in the fray as Asano takes revenge by telling Oji-san about the time that I slept through my own birthday, only to have tantrum upon realising I missed it.

That night, as Ka-san sends off to bed, she adds,

 

“Tomorrow we’re all going to the doctor.” Along with the hugs and kisses and murmurs of love. Great .

Chapter Text

That night Asano has a nightmare. Not an uncommon occurrence, and like all the others it’s absolutely silent. She rolls around for a minute, freezes, and wakes up. Usually she’ll just go back to sleep. Tonight must have been a bad one though since she goes downstairs to sleep with Ka-san and Tou-san.

 

I wonder if her nightmare is because of our new ‘Oji-san’.

 

True to Ka-san’s promise, the next morning we are all bundled up, including Tou-san and Oji-san and all seven of us mobbed Konoha Hospital. Strangely, upon arrival, a nurse almost immediately arrived to deliver them to a doctor. A new doctor.

 

“But Ka-san,” Asano said, tugging on Ka-san’s sleeve where it rested on her armrests, “what about my doctor?”

 

“Not today Asano, today we’re seeing a special doctor.”

 

“Oh,” Asano made a quiet, sad sound that Ka-san ignored completely.

 

“Alright, we all need a turn so we’ll go by age. Me, then Tou-san, then your Oji-san, then Taro and so on.” Ka-san said, making her way into the examination room. The doctor closed to the door and all six of them were left in the hallway. Standing. Awkwardly.

 

“Tou-san?” Asano asked, “don’t I need to go to school today?”

 

“Nope, you’ve got the day off, Darling.”

 

“Oh okay.”

 

And then silence. It wasn’t common in their house, given that both Kimiko and Hideo were fairly loud, but Kimiko was asleep in Tou-san’s arms, and Hideo was looking rather a lot like a zombie. Oji-san seemed the most awkward.

 

“So Oji-san,” Asano started, I didn’t resist the massive sigh which was completely ignored. (Well, except for Oji-san who just…. looked at me for a second.  Like one whole second. It was kinda creepy.) “Can we meet your teammates?”

 

“No.”

 

“Oh. Do you know any famous nin- shinobi?” Asano tripped over her words and I did hold back the eyeroll. Asano hadn’t accidentally tripped over her words since she started at the academy.

 

“No.”

 

“Do you know the Toad Sage?! Or Ahhhhh-” Shinobi, being as secretive as they are, don’t have a lot of ‘famous’ character among them. Especially when it came to ones civilians knew. “The white fang? Do you know him?”

 

“He’s dead, idiot,” I say, lovingly nudging Asano with my shoulder. She falls over and glares at me for a moment before getting ‘distracted’ by Oji-san. It’s too bad Tou-san isn’t home often enough to recognise what she’s doing. Especially since the same thing happens to him.

 

I think Tou-san forgets that Asano is nine, not three. (Not that Asano helps in the matter with her actions. Always cuddling. Like a child . Ew.)

 

“Oh. Um. None? You don’t know any famous shinobi?”

 

Oji-san shook his head. Asano drooped. Tou-san gave a significant look at Oji-san. Probably something along the lines of ‘ if you upset my daughter, you better make it right or I’ll decapitate you and offer her your head’ . Something like that. Tou-san is wrapped around Asano’s little finger.

 

“My senpai is a very strong shinobi,” Oji-san offered weakly.

 

“Can I meet him?!” Asano asked, looking ecstatic, then a moment later added “or her!”

 

“Um..”

 

“Please? Pretty please? With a kunai on top?”

 

Asano said things somethings… They just didn’t make sense. Why would the appearance of a please make a difference? Why is she using the formal please? Why would there be a kunai on the please?

 

“He’s very busy…-”

 

“Then he can come after a mission and Ka-san will make him dinner! ‘Cause all his food’ll have gone bad probably!” Asano insisted, before mock whispering to Oji-san, “Tou-san said that if Ka-san didn’t make food, he would’ve starved after missions ‘cause he wouldn’t have any food and he wouldn’t want to go out.” Then a pause and Asano’s eyes widened theatrically, “do you think that your senpai starves after missions?”

 

Even though Oji-san clearly knew what Asano was doing (it was obvious to any shinobi that wasn’t Tou-san), the thought still seemed to alarm him.

 

I do a small quiet sigh, for variety.

 

“I will ask,” Oji-san says finally, “but he doesn’t like people very much.”

 

“That’s okay!” Asano chirps (chirps? It should be illegal to chirp after you get older than… like seven.) “I don’t like people either!” Oji-san looks vaguely alarmed and Asano looks a bit like a cat that’s caught the canary.

 

There’s a moment of silence before Ka-san rolls out of the office and holds her arms out for Tou-san to give her Kimiko.

 

“You’re turn,” she tells Tou-san who smiles, places a kiss on her forehead (which she looks vaguely alarmed at) and goes into the mysterious room.

 

“Why aren’t there any chairs,” Asano says, breaking the silence. Yet again . Oji-san gives her a brief glance, then I watch as he decides to ignore her and turn straight forward. After another few moments of calm, relaxing silence, Asano interrupt again.

 

“Why won’t any of you answer me?” Hideo, who had leaned against the wall, and then slid down into a ball against the wall, shushes her loudly before readjusting a bit and going back to sleep.

 

Asano sent Hideo a face that… well it could be best described as a dramatic frown. Like her lips turned into… like an upside down smile? And her eyebrows furrow? She looks either angry… or maybe grumpy? It’s a strange look.

 

“Do you have anything I can read, Oji-san?” Asano asks, slipping past Ka-san and tugging on his green chunin vest.

 

“Uhhh-” Oji-san gets a slightly panicked look and turns to Ka-san. Asano, bolstered by the lack of an immediate denial, starts to open one of his vest pockets. Oji-san grabs Asano’s hand and stares at her for a moment. “Don’t go into my vest. Bad .”

 

Oji-San even shakes a finger at her, like he’s scoulding a puppy. It looks… rehearsed maybe? Asano takes a couple of steps back, a genuinely upset look appearing on her face.

 

“I’m not a dog ya’ know. Ya’ could’ve jus’ said ya’ didn’t wanna share.” She said, crossing her arms and tucking her chin down against her right shoulder. Then she moved around Oji-san towards the back wall Hideo was leaning against, and joined him. Or rather, also leaned against the wall, several metres away.

 

Oji-san sent another look towards Ka-san who had watched the entire thing with a blank face.

 

“Don’t worry about it Yohei, she wouldn’t have actually listened to you saying you didn’t want to share.” She paused before adding, “and getting over dramatically upset over small things is a family trait.”

 

The feeling of doom emanating from Asano’s piece of wall turned sharply to annoyance before shift back into doom. Ka-san wasn’t wrong.

 

After a few, gloriously peaceful minutes of silence I moved behind Ka-san to lean against the wall to get lost in my thoughts.

 

The next thing I know, Oji-san has a hand on my shoulder, telling me it’s my turn to go in. I just have to say, from an arm's distance away Oji-san’s faceplate is a lot scarier. It’s got cuts and marks all over it, but the Konoha symbol plate is perfectly clean.

 

What does that even mean ? Mostly it just looks like he got the plate replaced. But what if if it means something? It also makes him look a bit like the statue of Second Hokage, Tobirama Senju, on the Hokage monument.

 

“Taro, it’s your turn,” Ka-san says from a metre away. I jump. Pulling myself out of my thoughts and back into a reality of movement where other people can’t read my thoughts.

 

The check up is actually pretty boring. They ask about any previous check ups I’ve had, take a blood sample. Use a little pokey thing to look at my chakra channels. They (I say they because the doctor is completely androgynous in appearance) use a giant piece of machinery to look at my chakra points, making a few notes on a clipboard along the way.

 

They have me channel chakra into what looks like? A giant fat thermometer? Like the old fashioned kind? I grab the ball end, push some chakra into it, and the ‘temperature’ goes up. It doesn’t go very far, which is a little disappointing. They test my chakra balance using a seal which they place on my forehead then don’t let me see the results of (rude).

 

Then they push me out the door to get Hideo. In the hallway Asano is sitting against the wall reading a book that still has the bookstore logo on it. Clearly she has gotten her way. Hideo looks actually awake now, and so does Kimiko who is crouched next to Asano and doing her best to read it.

 

It takes another hour before we’re all finished, by which time we are all starving . I barely remember to notice that the doctor never told us the result of the test.

Chapter Text

A day after the exams, Yoko and Shoichi are called to the Hokage’s office where ‘Yohei’ is already waiting.

 

“Hokage,” Yoko says, chest dipping even from her wheelchair. After a pause Shoichi give a deep bow and sit beside her in the comfortable seats provided.

 

“I have gotten the results of the examination. As expected, neither of you possess the mokuton. Your eldest,” The Hokage checks his file, “Taro, has a fire affinity like Shoichi. Same with your youngest. Hideo, as expected, has the mokuton. Your eldest daughter though. There are a number of special things about her.” Yoko nods,

 

“She was born prematurely because of the Kyuubi attack. The doctors said that there were a number of things that could be wrong because of it.”

 

“First and foremost, her chakra channels are far too wide, and they’re quite brittle. I have been informed that this phenomenon is likely what is causes to to become ill.” The Hokage paused, and in a sympathetic voice said, “It also means that she will not live to see old age.”

 

After a moment of silence the Hokage continues.

 

“Asano’s chakra nature is wood, which we know by looking at her blood. If you look at her chakra points though, they’re so burnt her chakra type is indistinguishable. If her chakra channels were smaller, she could probably work around it, unfortunately there is a third piece working against her.” The Hokage shifted some paperwork around, pulling on piece of paper up and handing it over to Yoko. Shoichi glances at the paper but the markings on it mean nothing to him.

 

“Asano’s chakra is strongly out of balance. Her yin chakra is nearly three times that of her yang. This is from Shoichi I believe, although it’s much stronger in your daughter. Shoichi, your chakra is a balance of two units of yang chakra to three units of yin chakra.”

 

There are words unspoken in that statement. The Nara generally have a balance of one unit of yang to two units of yin. Shoichi’s blood is diluted so it makes sense that his balance is closer to normal. Asano’s though is even more unbalanced than a full blooded Nara’s.

 

“Functionally, Asano has no elemental nature. It’s been suggested that she may not be able to use elemental chakra at all, for the three aforementioned reasons. That said, she possesses the mokuton gene which means that it will likely be passed down to her children.”

 

Both Yoko and Shoichi stiffened. Konoha was not the type of place to turn Asano into a broodmare, but not all of the people within Konoha agreed with this. Asano would be at risk. Unlike Hideo she didn’t have the advantage of the mokuton, just the weakness.

 

“Asano’s information has of course been kept private. Only those of us in this room and the doctor know of it.” The Hokage didn’t say the doctor was ANBU, but Shoichi could read it in the way Yoko relaxed ever so slightly.

 

The Hokage sighed,

 

“Unfortunately, this is all speculation. The effects of her special situation are unknown as nothing like this has ever happened before, therefore Asano will join Hideo in his training until Yohei is satisfied.”

 

All Shoichi could think was that such a thing was cruel indeed. To tell Asano that she almost had something but didn’t, and then force her to watch as Hideo mastered something she would never be able to touch. Why did the Hokage want her to do this?

 

“You may go Shoichi,” the Hokage nodded as Shoichi bowed and left the room. Confusion made his head feel fuzzy.

 

Would he lose two children to ANBU? Why would Asano need training? Who was ‘Yohei’? Why was Asano’s chakra so out of balance? What was the Hokage thinkings?

Chapter Text

Afterwards Asano wanders through the wild forest outside of Konoha’s walls, grieving. Her fingers brush the rough bark of the trees as she walks by and the nature chakra she can hear within makes her heart hurt . She will never be able to move the trees, but she could’ve, in a another world, in another universe she would be able to. But then… she wouldn’t be who she is, would she?

 

____

 

Sakura needs to see Asano, who left school early that day because ‘I think it’s important to bunk at least once in your life. And we aren’t doing anything important today. Sakura’s not sure that Asano really understands the spirit of bunking… but Sakura doesn’t mind, Asano seemed a bit distracted anyway.

 

Sakura really wanted to rant to her best friend right now, and she couldn’t find her! After wandering around for a bit in an heartbroken/angry/betrayed/frustrated rage, Sakura goes to her house. Hideo meets her at the door. He leads her to a park and points her towards the forest.

 

Sakura thanks him, for the help finding Asano, and his help the other day. Then she goes to find her best friend.

 

In a haunted grove of trees Asano is standing, looking for forloren, but not teary. Sakura goes up and gives Asano a huge hug. That’s when Asano starts crying.

 

Now, despite being an absolute cry baby, Sakura didn’t have much of an idea of how to deal with this. The best she could come up with (well…. Inner mentioned it actually) was ‘do you want me to punch someone for you?’ but that didn’t really seem to fit the tone of the crying.

 

Does crying have a tone? You might wonder. The answer is yes, yes it does. (At it’s simplest there’s happy crying and sad crying and angry crying and it can be hard to tell even those three apart without context, Inner explains, looking quite a look like Nao-sensei in front of the chalkboard.)

 

After a few (awkward) minutes, Asano’s tears stop, and she pulls a handkerchief out of nowhere. (What the heck?! Inner makes a big show of looking around for where it came from. And comes up empty.)

 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Asano says, gazing at Sakura shirt. Sakura looks down to find it covered in tears and snot.

 

“Eh, it’ll be fine. Want to come over to my house?” Sakura says, waving it off. “We can talk about it if you want, otherwise you can just reorganise the bookcases.”

 

“Yeah. I- S- I’d love to.” Asano finally manages. Sakura grabs her hand and pulls her (gently) towards Sakura’s district. Asano had visited before, but they both tended to prefer the Sakurai household (food make itself there).

 

It’s early evening, so the streets are busy and loud. Sakura always finds it interesting, she’ll often see her classmates at the market near her house. It’s pretty fancy, so Sakura herself doesn’t go there. Instead she goes to the tiny row of streets just a few rows always. The builds are so close together you can’t even fit a single cart.

 

Asano’s never been down here. Not because Sakura’s hiding it, they’ve just never had a reason to. Tonight though, Sakura pulls Asano down the street and into the store that sells the best ice cream in all of Fire Country.

 

For some reason Choji is inside...  ?

 

Here’s something Sakura and Asano agree upon. It sucks to see people you know, outside of the context you expect. (Sakura mostly feels this way because she tends to run into the mean ones, but regardless.)

 

“What’re you doing here?!” Inner says. It must be Inner. Sakura would never say something like that.

 

“Oh.” Choji looks appropriate surprised, so Sakura’s pretty sure it isn’t just an evil conspiracy theory to make Asano feel uncomfortable. (How such thing would work, Sakura has no idea, Asano has just repeatedly insisted it was a thing with some… interesting… evidence.)

 

See ,” Asano hisses into her ear. Dear Sage, Asano is definitely going to take this as evidence.

 

“I was buying ice cream. They’ve got the best stuff you know.” Choji says, like it’s obvious. It kinda is, since if Sakura bothered to read the labels of the containers in his arms.

 

“That’s why we’re here too!” Sakura says, trying her best to smile and sound casual. Choji seems nice. He probably won’t care if she’s awkward. Right? Right?

 

“I thought that the Akimichi made their own food,” Asano said, looking at Choji closely, “as well as for most of Konoha.” Choji smiled brightly, ignoring the accusatory tone.

 

“We do! But ice cream was invented by this lady in Snow Country, and she’s the one that makes this stuff! She even gave us the recipe and everything, but her stuff is better.”

 

“Which flavour’s your favourite?” Asano asked, leaning forward in a way that would be intimidating if Asano wasn’t… like half Choji’s size.

 

“Hmmm. Well they’re all really good,” Choji said slowly, “but I’d have to say that cookie dough is my favourite. It’s really unusual and the chunks of cookie dough makes the texture more interesting.”

 

“Oh that’s my favourite too!” Sakura says, trying to break up the tension. Asano gives her an exasperated look before saying,

 

“You both have terrible taste in ice cream, chocolate chunk is clearly the best. That said, Choji, would you like to join us for ice cream?”

 

“Ehhh?” Choji and Sakura say in unison. Asano is… rather intensely private for the most part.

 

“Or- ah- if that’s okay with Sakura, since we’re going to her house.” Asano adds, blushing slightly and glancing at Sakura who waves it off.

 

“I’m fine with it!” Sakura genuinely doesn’t mind, but right now ? She hadn’t told Asano she wanted to talk though, and it’s probably not fair to assume Asano can read her mind. (You never know with Asano, Inner points out. She knows things like magic sometimes.)

 

Choji looks a touch stunned.

 

“If you’re busy or don’t want to, don’t worry about it.” Asano says with a fake smile before moving past Choji to pull out a couple boxes of ice cream. “Oh shoot, Sakura I don’t have any money on me!” Sakura sighs. Asano hates not having a job, but no one will hire a nine year old (she tried).

 

“I’ve got some,” Sakura says, pulling the wallet full of ryo she found on the table this morning. Her dad must have stopped by the house at some point last night. Sakura pushed the bitter lump in her chest down at the reminder that he hadn’t even said ‘hi’ and pulled out enough for two buckets of ice cream.

 

“So, what’d you say?” Asano asks again, poking a frozen Choji in the side with her elbow.

 

“Sure?” Choji says, looking a bit confused, “I don’t need to be home for a few hours, and Shikamaru’s busy today anyway.”

 

“Sweet, come on then,” Asano said, waiting as Sakura paid the lady behind the counter who looked completely zoned out of reality.

 

Once they were down the street, Choji walking between the two of them, Asano started complaining about how cold the ice cream was. When Choji, being the nice person he was, offered to carry it, Asano paused and leaned in, again .

 

“Are you like? A real person? Because most people just laugh at me when I say that.” Asano grinned, straightening up and continuing forward, “you’ve ruined it now. ‘Cause I would feel guilty for making you carry my ice cream, so I can’t complain about it anymore. Which stinks, cause I love complaining.”

 

“Like Shikamaru?” Choji suggested with a secretive smile. Asano stumbled over nothing before smirking.

 

“Yeah, something like Shikamaru.” Asano says smiling, Choji sends her a look that Sakura doesn’t understand.


It’s great that Asano’s being more social, but does she have to be more social now ?

Chapter Text

Choji knows that he not special or interesting. He’s just Choji. Shikamaru is smart, Asano is interesting, and Sakura has the coolest hair. And her’s just. Choji.

 

So when Asano invites him over, he’s surprised. When she jokes with him, he’s startled. When he realises that maybe this is the Asano that Shikamaru sees, he can sorta understand his friend’s crush.

 

Sakura is quieter, and Choji in the Shikamaru/Choji relationship perhaps? It’s hard to tell, since their interactions are different from how Choji talks to Shikamaru.

 

Sakura’s house is quiet. It feels lonely, especially in comparison to the compound. The air smells like disinfectant, the air is silent as the graveyard Choji visits three times a year. The food Sakura pulls out has slight freezer burn and the chairs in the kitchen have dust on all but one.

 

Everything about Sakura’s house feels cold and empty.

 

Except for Sakura’s bedroom, where they all pile in. Somehow, it’s not as awkward as Choji worried it would be. It’s rather pleasant actually. They all eat a bunch of ice cream, and neither of them say anything other than ‘I’m glad you like it’ when he eats four bowls more than either of them. (Although Sakura got a slightly sick look on her face, which would probably because she looked like she couldn’t eat that much if she tired. That least, that’s what Choji tried to think it was.)

 

Sakura’s bedroom was very… pink. The bed, the ceiling, and the curtains were varying shades of pink. In contrast her walls are covered in books, floor to ceiling. A lot of them look like they’re silly books, with picture of girls wearing civilian schoolgirl outfits and holding sticks with stars on the end. Others though have thick spines and look heavy .

 

Choji wishes Shikamaru was here. But at same time, he’s almost glad he’s not. Shikamaru wouldn’t have enjoyed being here, he would have been too tense, being so close to Asano. At the same time, Choji kinda likes talking to them. There’s no feeling of ‘like like’ that Ino jokes about (they had only known each other for a year, and already she was telling him how she would marry Sasuke).

 

Instead Asano asked about clan training, moaned about needing to start running in the morning. Sakura had admonished Asano for talking to much (which made Asano blush, a sit quietly on her hands for a few minutes). Choji didn’t really mind Asano talking all the time to be honest, be he enjoyed listening to Sakura too.

 

Sakura recommended a series of fictional books called The Kind Ninja which apparently was rather silly, but really funny.

 

Honestly, as Choji left Sakura’s house, he felt like he was in a bit of a daze. They lived in a whole different world from him. His family would never let him sit in his room without snacks for more than a couple of minutes. They both seemed to be surprised when he talked about all the time he spent with his older and younger cousins.

 

They seemed almost confused by the exercises his family did together each morning, or the weekend lunches they shared, all 500 of them. (Not all in the same place, that only happened four or five times a year. It was a cycle and everyone met up in groups of 15 or so they changed groups each week so they could see everyone.)

 

It had been interesting to be in a room so quiet, even sitting with Shikamaru outside had more background noise. After a while though, it seemed quite lonely.

 

When Choji entered the compound he was glad to be home. Especially when he saw his Aunt waving at him and invite him to dinner, a cousin on each hip (not hers, Aunt Mana had no kids of her own, but she looked after Aunt Ren’s kids when she was on a mission, which was quite often).

 

 

Chapter Text

“Asano,” Sakura says after Choji leaves.

 

“Hmm?” Asano hums, laying on her back looking at the ceiling.

 

“My dad came home.” Sakura says, trying to ignore the tears already gathering at the corner of her eyes. Asano sits up and wraps her in a hug immediately.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Asano asks, “or do you want me to distract you?”

 

“Can I talk about it, for a few minutes?” Sakura says as Asano pulls back, but sits so that they have several points of contact.

 

“As long as you want.” Asano assures, pulling Sakura’s hair out of it’s ponytail and rubbing her head. Asano’s hair was short enough not to tie it up, something Sakura encouraged because Asano kinda sucked at doing anything with her hair. For some reason she enjoyed playing with Sakura’s though, which she didn’t mind at all.

 

“He didn’t even come to say hi. I haven’t seen him in almost a month! I saw Mom a couple of weeks ago, and she’s been over on the edges of Fire Country!” Sakura starts off, continuing and repeating a rant that she has gone over hundred times now. Each time Asano listens, mostly patiently, having finally learned to stop trying to fix it. (No, she will not booby trap her house so that her Dad gets caught. No matter how tempting it may be!)

 

After several minutes, Sakura feels empty. Tired, and lonely, and no matter how often Asano sleeps over her house has become a tomb.

 

“Do you want me to distract you now?” Asano asks softly, starting on a braid. Sakura nods. This is a tradition that isn’t particularly old yet, but it makes Sakura feel warm inside. Asano could talk a lot without saying anything much at all, but she was happy to listen when Sakura needed it, even when that may not be her strongest area.

 

“Well let’s see,” Asano starts off. “I missed school, you may have noticed, because we went to the doctor. It turns out I have the mokuton, like Hideo. Except,” Asano’s voice sounds a bit high, like she’s about to cry, “I don’t have it. Or, I can’t use it rather. I-” Asano’s hands pull back and she’s quiet for a moment. “I’m all sorts of messed up. So it turns out that being born like, four fucking months too early only to immediately feel the chakra of a demon can fuck someone up.”

 

And now Sakura knows that Asano’s really upset. Not because she’s swearing, she does that sometimes, somewhat randomly. She knows because Asano’s voice is high and shaky and she’s crying but still talking and this has only happened once before.

 

“So my chakra channels are fucking huge which is also why I get sick because my chakra is too small and so much fucking scientific shit I don’t understand. And I just-” Asano pauses to blow her nose, a loud wet noise that makes Sakura hold back a shudder. “I don’t even care that much about having the wood release,” Asano says in a quiet voice, “I just don’t want to feel like the whole fucking world is against me. Like goddamn, I don’t want to be here either.” There’s a short pause that makes Sakura worry before Asano says, “that’s a lie. I love it here. Way more than I should. Who gives a fuck about video games when you can have magic? Right? Like fuck off Xbox.”

 

Sakura has no idea what Asano’s talking about anymore.

 

“On the plus side I know why I can detect genjutsu now.” Asano says, and Sakura look at her. It’d been a mystery that Asano had pondered over several months before. “It turns out that my chakra spills a bit and it makes me a little bit chakra sensitive. I didn’t realise though since I thought I’d be able to see it.”

 

“So how do you-?” Sakura cuts herself off. It’s hard to resist questions sometimes, and Asano likes the encouragement. It’s better though if Asano just keeps talking until she runs out of steam, which takes longer when Sakura asks questions.

 

“I hear chakra. Which would actually explain a number of things. But on the fucking miserable side, it can make it really hard to hear. Not very often because my radius is about,” Asano hold her arms out to their full extension, “that far, and I’m not looking to make it any wider. No thank you headaches, but still. Good to know.”

 

There is silence for a few minutes, and Sakura wonders if Sakura’s mom will care if she spends the night. Probably not.

 

“I think we should start running together in the mornings. Let’s start tomorrow.” Asano says, before jumping up to go brush her teeth.

 

***

 

And Sage fucking murder Asano, they fucking do. Fuck. (Inner is sleeping . So Sakura gets to think this herself. It feels somehow less fulfilling, but when she shouts it into Asano’s face it is very satisfying.

Chapter Text

I am on my fifth C-rank mission, and I hate it, I remind myself. They manage to be both stressful, and boring simultaneously. Nori-sensei feels strongly like we should do as many as possible, both to help Konoha and improve their skill simultaneously. He makes us practice splitting up and getting to Konoha independently, in a case a future mission requires them to split up. He is doing this for a good reason, I repeat.

Nori-sensei sends them each with a seal that they can trigger if they need to that will give him their location. I am safe. (Ish) Besides that they are genuinely on their own though, and it’s pretty terrifying my brain reminds me, which is not very fun. Every rustle of a bush is a monster and every shadow is a missing-nin.

I make the very logical decision to keep running until I get home, because Ka-san will make me soup if I look sad and cold. Which will not be hard because I am hot from running and already sad (because running, duh), and by the time it is night the air will be cold enough to chill me.

Around hour five though, I am genuinely contemplating if a missing-nin can just become farmer and live the rest of their lives happily. I could do that.

I have a future I can see for myself.

I pass the chunin exams and get a job at the mission desk. I meet a pretty civilian in five years, and five years later we get married. Even desk work plays pretty well, so she wouldn’t have to work if she didn’t want to, in which case we could have kid. (Or not, I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but kids are what come after marriage right?) I’ll abdicate the family name to Hideo, who’d like it better anyway. Asano will stop trying so hard to be a shinobi and learn to live a safer life, she’s not made to be a shinobi. Kimiko will be a genin or chunin when she falls in love and retires to raise her own brood.

My family will be safe. (I will be safe.)

(Some bitter part of me points out that I’m not even needed anymore, Hideo can become the next Senju head, he’s better fitted for it anyway. Much to my disgust he’s even noble. After several days of pushing to understand why he would reveal himself, Asano admits that her friend was being bullied and Hideo had protected her. Some girl. As if Hideo’s life was worth less than Asano’s friendship. And that’s what it was, his life. He’s doomed, even if he doesn’t know it yet.)

I am- I am alarmed at the bitterness I can feel growing inside me. It’s normal, I imagine, to feel some level of annoyance and bitterness when you are the only one of your siblings who definitely won’t pass on the bloodline to their children. Even Kimiko, who had no hint of it in herself, shows that her children have a 25% chance of developing the mokuton. Apparently it was in her blood or something like that.

My chakra lashes about within me, cold and viscous. (Shadows with weight, with power.) Fire affinity would be useful if I was part of the Nara clan. I could learn to blow a fireball overhead and stretch a shadow out below, but I’m not. I’m not, and so I’ll never learn their shadow tricks. All I can do is light a campfire.

(Even my poor orphan teammate is improving faster than me. Driven perhaps, by his desire to reach jonin.)

(On my best days I just want to be a paper ninja, on my worst, being a missing-nin doesn’t seem so terrible at all.)

I think it says something about how paper ninja are viewed that they are called ‘ninja’ like civilians and children, instead of ‘shinobi’ like the Sannin. Like real shinobi. Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive though. I am, after all, ‘ninja running’ through Konoha forest at this very moment, and a civilian sure as hell couldn’t do this.

Language, as Asano always reminds me, is important though. And ninja running is barely even considered a ninja skill, genin can do it after all. Even some academy students can.

Now that I think about it, Asano is kinda weird about language. She used to be terrible at grammar. (Though now that I think about it, she got over it really quickly once she was at the academy. Maybe she just did it to be cute?) She is terrible at writing, mostly because he never remembers her kanji, though her hiragana and katakana is pretty good. Actually ignoring her grammer, her writing is pretty awesome. What she’s shared of it at least. Maybe she’ll drop out the academy and become an author. That would be nice.

The forests always make my thoughts go funny. Or maybe it’s the running. The sky is dark now, though it’s hard to tell through the thick foliage, and if I hadn’t been raised by Ka-san who has always been a firm believer in training early (well, before Kimiko was born she was). When Hideo was a baby they used to walk through the forests…

It’s one of my favourite memories of Ka-san. She taught me about the forest and the trees and the life that was hidden there. They hadn’t gone very often, maybe every month or so, but it had been peaceful. Even though it meant he had to get up and leave his blanket behind.

That’s why he can’t be a missing-nin farmers have to wake up early in the morning, and I just don’t want to do that. I would probably starve to death. Maybe I could be a prostitute. They work at night. It probably wouldn’t be that hard. The thought of it makes me feel dirty though, so I put it aside.

The light breeze brings in the smell of city, and I know I am close to home.

Most of my thoughts are just that, ramblings in my head to distract myself from the long journey and the longing I feel for home and warmth. But some tiny part of it is more. A bitterness, a desire to escape. It the the cold angry part of myself that all people have and I, although smarter than most, can fall victim to it as well.

As the walls of Konoha come into view the dark part of be recedes and I just feel… tired. (An aching deep into my bones, an exhaustion no amount of sleep seems to cure. A feeling of emptiness, like my psyche is cracked and no one has bothered to help me put it back together. Cracked is the best way to put it. Under stress, but not yet broken.)

I don’t like C-ranks.

Checking into the village is annoying because the chunin at the gate love to make jokes about ‘baby genin all alone’, but it’s fast enough so I don’t mind too badly. They say that Nori-sensei wants us to meet at the mission desk tomorrow, early afternoon, so I’ll have time to sleep in a bit. That’s at least one good thing. I’m not sure who else is back yet, since the gate chunin said it would be better to leave a bit of suspense.

Next weekend the Sakurai family will be moving to a house on the edge of Konoha, the building used to be a large family home. The kind where the whole ‘clan’ would stay in one building. The Nohara Clan home I think? They died out in the last war, but the building has been empty since then. In part because it needed a good deal of fixing up and in part because most people prefer to be in central Konoha, which is better protected in case of attack.

The Nohara Clan home, soon the be the Sakurai home opens up on the small forest training ground that is rarely used, and Ka-san sent in an application for it to become private property.

The rebuilding was mostly done by Oji-san, Asano, Hideo, and Ka-san since they aren’t running missions. (Kimiko ‘helped’ with the paint apparently, but she’s only six, so how much could she really have done?)

I haven’t actually spent any time there since it’s been patched up since Nori-sensei wants us to be ready for the chunin exams coming in 9 months. We’ll have only been genin for 15 months, less than a year and a half at that point.

I’ll admit, I’m nervous. It’s not that I don’t trust in my own skill, but rather, the chunin exams are quite dangerous. Also, I really want to pass. It’s not that I don’t like Sachi and Bachi, or that I don’t like spending time with Koji, but they have very different goals from myself. Sachi wants to be the first Inuzuka ANBU captain who keeps her dog (how she knows she would be the first, I have no idea). Koji wants to be a jonin strong enough to protect everyone (though mostly the orphanage).

I just want a steady job, time to find a romantic partner maybe? I want to be safe, mostly.

“I’m home!” I call, before pausing to realise that it’s fully dark outside and everyone might be asleep. I make my way upstairs, peeling my clothes off as I do. I’m hot and sweaty, and the cool April breeze. The weather will be warmer soon, but not quite yet. Hideo bet it would be two weeks, I bet it would be a month. Based on past years it doesn’t actually get warm until the start of May.

I don’t want to take a shower, so instead I go to the bathroom and use some water from the sink to wash off the worst of it. Asano is giving me a knowing look over her notebook when I enter our room, mostly devoid of worldly objects which already got moved while I was on mission.

“Oji-san’s senpai is coming for dinner tomorrow.” Asano says when it’s clear I’m not going to start a conversation. I grunt, quietly though because Hideo’s asleep. I want to be asleep. It’s been 23 hours since I’ve closed my eyes longer than a blink, since our camp got scouted.

I pull on some pajamas and glance at Asano’s notebook which contains some wobbly looking seal work.

“You’re not going to actually try and use those, are you?” Nori-sensei and the my academy sensei had been clear that imperfect seal work was incredibly dangerous, despite the fact that no one I knew had even tried it.

“Nah, not until they’re perfect, I’m not using sealing ink or paper until them.” Asano says, dipping her brush into ink again and making a small, and slightly blobby mark.

“Are you sure you should be doing this on your bed?” The bed moves slightly as she leans forward to make more markings, and the ink sloshes slightly in the bottle.

“Nope, it’s probably a horrible idea,” Asano agrees, “but it’s much more comfortable than the floor.”

“It won’t be when your bed is covered in ink.” I remind her. I don’t particularly care either way, but she’ll be in a lot of trouble if it does happen, which could be annoying for me if Ka-san’s in a bad mood.

“Eh, yeah. But then I’ll just sleep in your bed.” I start to make a sound of protest. “You’re not here most nights anyway.”

“And what if I am here?” Also she’ll probably have ink all over her. Asano is not a messy person in most things, but if she’s used ink in the last week, you can tell because she’s covered in it.

“Then I’ll share with you?” Asano says, scratching her cheek with any inky finger that rather proves my point.

“You’ve got ink on your face.”

“I figured.”

It’s calm as I crawl into bed, but despite exhaustion my brain whirls in cowardly thoughts of fear and betrayal.

“Asano?”

“Yep?”

“Why are you learning sealing?”

“Well it’s a long story, but mostly because the chakra control for it is very easy. And at this point in time I think I’ll need to focus on genjutsu, since I can’t really become a master at ninjutsu without elemental transformations. I’m not really strong enough at this point to focus on taijutsu, and I’d prefer to avoid being a close contact combatant. Therefore genjutsu, and some point of support, which made me think of sealing.”

“That is… very well thought out.” Better than I expected for sure. (Better planned out than I had been at her age.)

“Also, I like stuff where if you do the right thing, then the right thing happens. Sakura’s looking into a book about biology and experimentation - I should show it to you another time, it’s really cool - and it says that sometimes even if you do everything right, the experiment or medical procedure will still fail. And I- I don’t think I could do that,” Asano whispers. I open an eye to glance at her, sitting stiffly with all thoughts of sealing abandoned as whatever she’s thinking about consumes her.

“Isn’t sealing really expensive?”

“Well…” Asano draws out, reluctant to say such a thing for a moment before she relents, “yeah. It’s pretty expensive. That’s why I’m using normal paper and ink right now. The real stuff is super expensive.” Asano puts her brush into her ink pot and leaves it there are she blows gently on the wet ink. The smell drifts across the room and I wrinkle my nose slightly.

“Oji-san was clear that I’ll probably never be able to use elemental chakra, not unless my entire chakra network was healed one channel at a time. And the only medic skilled enough to maybe do it is the Slug Sannin.”

“The one who retired and left Konoha before we were born?” I ask, thinking on how coincidence is a terribly cruel master.

“That’s the one.” Asano agrees, and it feels like she agrees with my thoughts as much as my words. My little sister, crippled by luck.

“The last living Senju?” I ask, because I want to be sure. There might be multiple Slug Sannin, I’ve never asked. Oddly enough the stories don’t really intersect. She is either the Slug Sannin or Tsunade-hime, I’ve never really heard a story where she asks as both.

“Yep.” Asano confirms distractedly, trying to get a particularly stubborn spot to dry.

“You know she’s our Great Aunt or something like that right?” I say, trying to close my eyes so that I can go to sleep. It seems to be a losing battle. I ask despite fact that I’m pretty sure she knows, since Ka-san and Tou-san were very good at talking about how the Senju without being clear about our connection (or the effects of our connection) to them. Perhaps to keep us safe, perhaps because they found it awkward to talk about.

“Yep.” Asano pulls a tissue from a pocket and dabs the paper, no doubt smearing ink everywhere. Asano is good at many things, but I can already tell that sealing will be an uphill battle more due to her poor handwriting and inking than to her inability to understand what she’s doing.

“Do you think she’d come back to heal you?” I ask, curious. I have no particular reason to believe that Asano will know the answer, but maybe Oji-san advised her on it?

“No.” Asano replies flatly. For a few silent seconds we both rage at a woman we have not met for her selfishness that could cost my sister her life.

“... Is that why your friend has been looking to medicine?”

“Biology as a whole actually and… I don’t think so? Honestly I’m not sure. Maybe.” Asano says, shrugging lurchy way that makes her bed shake slightly.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to be a chunin.” I admit to the silent room after a while.

“I know, but you’ll do a good job anyway.” I hear as my brain finally quiets at my confession.

I am not ready.

Chapter Text

‘Kunoichi classes are a whole different world’ , Inner points out when Sakura is once more bewildered by her classmates’ (and teacher’s) behaviour. Sakura couldn’t say that there was one single goal behind kunoichi classes. They are taught instruments and decorum and flower arrangements. At the same time they are taught how to gossip and persuade, they make up special signals with each other, and learn the nonverbal language of the Kunoichi.

 

Asano hates every moment of it. She complains that only girls have to do it! Which she finds problematic because Asano’s not sure if she’s a girl or not, but also because it’s not fair that girls have to spend three extra hours at school a week. Technically , it’s not mandatory, but any girls graduating from the academy who didn’t attend the kunoichi class are thought of as lazy or otherwise lacking.

 

Which, while is definitely not fair, Sakura still kind of likes kunoichi classes. For once no one is screaming about Sasuke (usually). Although Sakura does admit to finding him visually attractive she doesn’t pretend that his behavior is anything other than rude. The other girls explain away his actions are stoic or manly, and Sakura can kind of see why they say that. Far too many parents spout his praises.

 

The ratio of boy to girl in normal lessons has started to change rather dramatically. Ten students have dropped out since Sakura started at the academy and seven of them were girls. Their class is currently made up of 35 students, but eventually this number might get low enough that they’ll be merged with one of the other terms. (At least that’s what Asano’s brother told her, so they were both taking it with a grain of salt.)

 

Sakura likes the feeling of unity in kunoichi class. She knows that if she ever needs it, she can go to any of the 12 girls in her kunoichi class and they will help her. If, for some reason, they aren’t available, four of the girls have siblings Sakura would be willing to go to (not counting Asano). Another option would be the older and younger kunoichi classes that they spend two lessons a month with. (In the group a year ahead there’s a boy that is in the kunoichi class, which makes Asano happy.)

 

Kunoichi classes are currently bizarre because they are currently talking about how to pass as civilians… and either Sakura, or the general class have serious misconceptions about civilians.

 

The civilians that Sakura knows are born and raised in Konoha, and while they might take part in a quiet gossip with the neighbours that also were born and raised in Konoha, they would never talk to strangers. The civilians that Sakura knows barely even talk to immigrants about anything other than the weather. (There are four go to topics for safe conversation in Konoha: the weather, Lady Torii Kiyonobu, food, and the trees.)

 

The girls (and teacher) in Sakura’s class seem to think that civilians are slightly slow, unaware of how privileged they are, and generally spend all day gossiping. The civilians Sakura knows work harder than any shinobi she’s ever met, and that includes her parents. In part because despite working for up to 16 hours a day, they still make an effort to spend time with their families, which takes effort.

 

“Uuuughh, kill me now,” Asano murmurs from where her head his resting on the kotatsu*. It’s getting a bit too warm to have the heater on, but Asano insists that her feet are cold, and Sakura doesn’t mind all that much either (open toed sandals, while very popular, are not particularly good for conserving heat).

 

“Civilian women tend to wear impractical, and brightly coloured clothing…” Absolutely bizarre .

 

“Sakura,” Asano says, nudging Sakura’s side without looking up. “Remind me not to do an all nighter on sealing when I have a full day coming up.” Sakura ignores her, mostly because they both know that’s never going to happen. “My head hurts,” Asano moans, finally (and unfortunately) drawing their sensei’s attention.

 

“Sakurai-chan, am I disturbing your rest?” Sakura giggles silently and without moving (okay, so it’s Inner who’s giggling, but it’s basically the same thing) as she watches Asano’s respect for authority clash with her need to make a smart-ass comment.

 

“...No ma'am. You’re not disturbing me very much at all, if you could lower your voice a little though…” Asano trains off, still having not raised her head.

 

“Sit up, Sakurai-chan.” Sensei says, voice going hard, away from her usual fluttery voice. Sakura is abruptly reminded that their sensei is, as a matter of fact, a shinobi. That no matter how often she pretends to swoon over the thought of the Hokage’s son, Asuma, she is still a battle hardened warrior who would kill them. She is reminded why infiltration skills are so important, because Sakura had completely forgotten these, rather key, points.

 

Sakura watches as Asano’s back heaves in a sigh before she sits up.

 

Asano’s face, while mostly normal, has an inky mustache on her top lip, and another smaller stain on her cheek. Both Inner and Sakura giggle, along with much of the class.

 

“What happened to your face, Sakurai-chan?” Sensei doesn’t look so upset anymore, but if she’s laughing it’s all happening on the inside.

 

“Well…” Asano draws out, grinning even as her face flushes in embarrassment, “you see… it turns out if you have ink on your hands… and then you go like this,” Asano lifts her left hand to rub her upper lip contemplatively with her thumb on one side and her fore and middle finger on the other, “then you end up with a pretty rockin’ mustache.” (‘ Rockin?’ Inner echoes in confusion. It sounds like a good thing… but it can be hard to tell with Asano sometimes. She just makes up words sometimes. Inner shrugs at another of Asano’s many quirks.)

 

Sensei stares at Asano for a long moment before pulling a small bottle out of one of her huge sleeves and places it on the table in front of them.

 

“Go to the bathroom and use this to remove the marks. In the future, ink can be removed with jam, baby oil, or disinfectant.” Sensei gives Asano a sharp nod, and Asano leaves the room to get the humourous stain off. It’s too bad, apparently Asano’s Uncle has a friend coming over and it would’ve been fun to see their reaction.

 

Chapter Text

After kunoichi lessons, Asano invites Sakura home for dinner, which is pretty common these days. Asano’s mom has finally started to warm up to Sakura after her disastrous comments during their first meeting, and firmly believes that it is necessary to eat dinner with others as often as possible. (Sakura is starting to get the feeling that Asano’s mom dislikes the way her parents are never home… But Sakura might just be imagining things, Asano’s mom is hard to understand.)

 

The walk back from the academy is quiet, and short (but only until this weekend). Asano is humming something under her breath, a repetitive beating song that Sakura doesn’t recognise. Asano probably made it up, despite having less than zero musical talent she quite enjoyed it. (Even their Sensei from kunoichi class gave up on Asano having any marketable musical skill, which is saying something serious. Sensei even ranked the deaf student two years above as a better musician.)

 

“Maybe you could move in with us. Then we could have a sleepover every night.” Asano suggested as they entered the house. Sakura avoided the newly placed trap by the door that Asano didn’t even notice.

 

“WE’RE HOME!” Sakura calls on their behalf before replying to Asano. “No. We would murder each other.”

 

“Well… I would murder you since I am willing to stay up all night and you can’t even stay awake past midnight.”

 

“Probably,” Sakura agreed at they climbed the stairs, ”but only if you didn’t bother me so much that I murdered you while we were awake. I’m better at hand to hand than you are after all.”

 

“And you’re faster too, damn,” Asano pouted. The room was mostly bare, only a small pile of clothes by each bed, and a large bag by the door with the dirty clothes that would (hopefully) be washed at Asano’s new house. Sakura hadn’t seen it yet since Asano’s dad said it was bad luck for non-family members to see a house before they moved in.

 

As per usual they both smushed onto Asano’s (rather tiny) bed and each pulled out their book of choice. Asano’s was the best book detailing sealing that they could find in the entire available library area (neither of them were willing to try to sneak into even the genin section of the library). They both agreed that the book was probably misplaced and should be in the upper library sections (which were ironically named since at least one of the areas was under ground). Neither of them mentioned it the chunin who checked the book out for her though.

 

Sakura’s book was a handwritten journal of a mysterious background about human biology. Sakura had grabbed it at first because it looked like a medical book, but it was so much better than that. She’d also checked out four books about medicine so that the chunin on duty would over look it a little more, since she was about 65% sure it wasn’t actually a library book. Inside was some… admittedly creepy stuff (Sakura did not want to meet the author) but most of it was just really interesting.

 

It explained how elemental natures were genetic (and theories on how they could be changed) which was incredibly relevant to Asano. Why the Hyuuga and Uchiha couldn’t intermarry (when the Uchiha were alive,) with detailed drawn examples - gross! As well as why it was dangerous for academy level students to wear weights (their chakra wasn’t fully formed enough to prevent a stunted growth).

 

Asano was just reading and trying to decypher the seals today since actually practicing was, as earlier noted, messy. She had pulled out her little notebook, and was using a pencil to mark down potential interpretations. She also had a representation of a new seal that she was dissecting, all in pencil. (It was cleaner, cheaper, and Asano was a lot better at it. It was too bad the academy only accepted work written with ink and brushes since it improved dexterity.) (Exceptions were made for orphans with limited funds, which upon first glance seemed like a good idea to Sakura, and upon second glance seemed to mean they cared less if the orphans had less dexterity and died because of it.) (Sakura is not wrong.)

 

“Welcome home,” Asano’s Uncle says from the doorway, in that stilted, awkward way of his. Sakura has nothing against Asano’s Uncle (who according to Asano, isn’t even her actual uncle. He’s really an ANBU operative who’s there to train Hideo and make sure he doesn’t become a missing-nin. According to Asano at least, and although it seems unlikely to Sakura, she trusts her friend. Asano’s life is pretty strange, to be honest.) Asano jumps because she didn’t hear him enter and was off in her own world. “What are you working on?”

 

“I’m trying to decypher Taro’s tracking seal,” Asano answers immediately, and Sakura wonders how much Asano’s Uncle knows about their independent work. “It’s really interesting, but really hard. There’s almost nothing in the library about sealing!” Asano exaggerates her voice and Sakura recognises the way that Asano never says the full truth to her Uncle. She also wonders who else would recognise such a thing since she knows that Asano is… a less than honest person in general.

 

“For good reason,” Asano’s Uncle warns, “sealing is incredibly dangerous if it goes wrong.” Asano nods with a serious look on her face. Sakura turns back to her book, wishing that she’d brought one of the more boring (but more acceptable) medical books with her as well.

 

“Do you have any sealing books that could help?” Asano asks, and without glancing over Sakura knows that Asano is making that face. It would be cute on a four year old, but on Asano’s nine year old face it just looks awkward (to Sakura at least, it still works worryingly well on Asano’s dad though).

 

I don’t…” Asano’s uncle says slowly, “but you can ask my senpai. Just remember not to be too rude to him, otherwise he’ll…” Asano’s uncle trails off and when Sakura glances at him he has a horrified look on his face, and is looking towards Asano’s window. Then the cool breeze reaches her and Sakura turns to the window. And gawks.

 

Crouched in the window frame of Asano’s room is a shinobi she’s never seen before.

 

A shock of gravity defying greyish white hair sticks up, and a Konoha headband covers one eye. His nose down is covered by a dark blue or black mask (he’s silhouetted in a way that makes it impossible to tell). (Theoretically the mask could be dark purple too, but Sakura thinks that would be unlikely.) The rest of his outfit is typical chunin wear, and he’s holding a bright orange book in one hand. Overall, nothing about him seems particularly dangerous, except for the horror on Asano’s uncle’s face (a supposed ANBU operative).

 

“Senpai!” Asano’s uncle pleads desperately with a single word.

 

“Is that what my darling kohai thinks of me?” Sakura can’t see his face, but she thinks he might be pouting.

 

“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” Asano shouts, rolling off the bed in her excitement. A quietly muttered, “ow.” rises from the edge of the bed.

 

“You can call me Kakashi.”

 

“HELLO KAKASHI-SENPAI!” After a moment Sakura can hear the increasingly loud mutters of, “Oji-san’s senpai? Senpai squared? Kashi-pai?”

 

“My,” the shinobi says, stepping into the room, “what an… enthusiastic niece you have.” Sakura glances at Asano’s uncle, who has a strange look on his face.

 

“THERE HAD BETTER NOT A SHINOBI SNEAKING INTO MY CHILDREN’S BEDROOM!” Asano’s mom shouts, despite the distance it sounds threatening, and Asano’s uncle’s senpai quavered for a moment before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Half a second later there’s a knock on the door downstairs.

 

Sakura giggles and Inner agrees. She’s still not convinced on this new shinobi, but he’s a little funny at least.

 

Asano sits up and sticks out an arm that her Uncle grabs to pull her up. She makes a dramatic showing of dusting herself off and her Uncle watches with an amused and mock judgmental look on his rather blank face. (For the first four months she knew him she thought he never made facial expressions, she’s since learned that most of his are just a little bit more discrete.)

 

“We’d best go downstairs and meet our guest,” Asano says in a pompous voice before running towards the stairs and slipping slightly on the hardwood floors. Sakura smiles at her goofy antics.

 

“I’ll be down in a minute,” Sakura assures Yohei when he sends her a questioning look, “I need to use the toilet.” It’s true, but also not the truth . (When did Sakura get so used to this? To these half lies?) She’s pretty sure Asano’s uncle knows she’s not telling the whole truth, but is too polite to call her on it, which she appreciates.

 

Once he’s gone she packs up her and Asano’s books, and tucks them into a corner. Although they found them both in the correct section, and checked them out the official library chunin (who they both agree is probably a clone), there is an agreement that they probably shouldn’t be found with these books.

 

Sealing is considered a chunin rank skill once it’s user can do more than write explosion tags (which are pretty easy to make according to Asano, who hasn’t actually made a single tag, because sealing will often default to explosion if you mess up). There is nothing so simple about Sakura’s book. There is also nothing blatantly wrong with it. Mostly just a lingering feeling of uneasy when people see her reading it, and the recognition that experimenting on human beings is wrong, and who ever wrote the book knew a lot about it. (Sakura and Inner take turns arguing that they should put it back, destroy it, give it to Iruka-sensei. They both know they will never do that.)

 

When Sakura arrives downstairs Taro and Hideo are sitting on the couch and Asano is holding up her notebook to ask the shinobi called Kakashi about sealing. He doesn’t even look like he’s listening, but Asano doesn’t seem bothered by it. (Inner echoes Asano’s words from weeks ago, ‘ sometimes the best way to hide something is to shove it into people’s faces.’ ) (Sakura feels oddly bitter sometimes, wondering how much Asano hides from her. It’s silly though, since Sakura is pretty sure Asano tells her more than anyone else.)

 

(In four months, while laying on the bank of the river, Asano will say, ‘I’m only as clever as I am because this is my second life,’ and Sakura will laugh. Sakura will barely think about the statement, because the conversation up to that point makes it clear that she is joking. It will be years before Sakura remembers that conversation, remembers today, will think of all the strange hiding places Asano finds, and will think that Asano has always known how to hide secrets. In plain sight.)

 

Sakura can hear voices from the kitchen, but no actual words. There is a tension in the room though, a humming on her skin that she cannot explain. A ripple echos from the kitchen and Asano’s head will snap towards the kitchen door. Sakura will glance over and accidentally notice the way Kakashi’s gaze sharpens. (But maybe she imagined it, shinobi are hard to read.)

 

“Why is Ka-san using chakra on Oji-san?” Asano says, head cocking like Akamaru before he starts chasing something. Kakashi doesn’t answer, busy reading his book.

 

“How can you tell it was Ka-san who used chakra instead Oji-san?” Taro asks from where he’s laying, Hideo is poking him in the ribs and being ignored.

 

“Would you use chakra on Ka-san in her own kitchen? I’m not sure even the Hokage would do that…” Asano pauses, and turns to Taro, “actually, I’m sure the Hokage wouldn’t. He’s too smart for that.” Taro looks contemplative at that, before shrugging and nodding slightly, returning to the book in his hand. Sakura thinks about seeing what it says, Taro is older and smarter than she is (smarter than she will ever be, it sometimes feels. At least when he makes intelligent responses that completely shut down her ideas).

 

“Your mother is Yoko Iryoku, correct?” Kakashi asks lightly, not even glancing up from his book. (Inner sends him an annoyed look, but Sakura is too polite to do so.)

 

“Ahh…” Asano pauses, “I’m not sure what her last name is-”

 

“It’s Iryoku.” Hideo says, his head on his brother’s stomach. Taro and Asano both pause for a moment, tilt their heads, and in eerie unison (they weren’t even looking at each other - Taro hadn’t even stopped reading!) nod.

 

After a moment Asano gave up on Kakashi helping her with her sealing and joined Sakura to talk. They sat the top of the stairs and as Asano tried (and failed) to think of a point of conversation they were willing to have overheard, Asano watched her brothers intently.

 

“Where’s Kimiko?” Sakura asks, having done a double take when she realised Asano’s ‘favourite little sister in all of this dimension’ wasn’t present.

 

“She’s over at her friend’s house.”

 

“...She has friends?” Sakura asks, slightly awkward about how much she doubted this. Whenever she came over Kimiko was home, always. She was never quite clear on what Kimiko did all the time, but as far as Sakura could tell she never left the house.

 

“That was my response!” Asano turns to Sakura, grins and says, “I’m joking. Kimiko enjoys playing sports with a civilian group, she made some friends there. I think her two best friends are civilians, but she also hangs out with an Aburame and an Akimichi.”

 

“Alright, come and eat!” Asano’s mom calls from the kitchen. It’s pretty early to have dinner, but no one seems to mind.

 

Even with Asano’s dad gone (presumably on a mission), the kitchen is a tight squeeze with all of them there. The food is all resting on the kitchen counter since there’s no space on the table, and once they're seated everyone’s legs are touching each others. Sakura is sitting between Asano and Hideo, which is just about the best possible arrangement. Furthest away from her is Taro and Asano’s uncle, which also suits her pretty well.

 

Asano, who seemed to excited to meet Kakashi, is now entirely focused on eating, and completely ignoring the man, who is still reading his little orange book. Every time Sakura glances over, food has disappeared.

 

After a few minutes of… admittedly awkward conversation, there is a poof, and Kakashi is gone. (There are a limited number of times you can apologise for the trouble you caused when they saved you from bullies by accident. Hideo hasn’t told anyone else, as far a Sakura knows, that he hadn’t meant to grow a tree. He had wanted to protect her, and that just happened to take the form of a tree rising out of the ground and carrying her to the sky.)

 

The rest of the meal carries on as normal, although Asano’s uncle is usually to busy to join them. Watching him slightly over dinner (he has an odd senpai), Sakura notices how mechanically he eats, and Inner adds a tally to her mental chalkboard under ‘ANBU’. The ‘Non-ANBU’ column is pretty weak to be honest.

 

Sakura looks around, feeling kind of tired from her day, and the stress of a strange shinobi coming in the window. A hand touches hers, cooling her warm skin, Asano sends her a smile.

 

Once the table is clear it’s time for Asano to walk her home, since Sakura’s not allowed to know about the Secret Mokuton Lessons and Sakura is reminded that Asano is at least (more) honest with her.


What a strange day .

Chapter Text

Over the weekend, I have permission from Nori-sensei to miss training for the move, which I appreciate for a wide number of reasons. Largely because sleeping in is heavenly, and neither Asano nor Hideo got time off school, so I get to relish in their jealously. I think of copying Asano’s “evil person laugh” where she taps her finger tips together and “cackles” by saying the sound “Mwah ha ha haha!” but it seems a bit ridiculous, so I made sure no one is looking when I do it.

 

It’s quite funny how Nori-sensei, and high level shinobi in general have a warped perception of difficulty.

 

Running from Water Country to Fire Country? Annoying, but anyone can do it (most don’t bother though). Having dinner with a family? Impossible(ly awkward).  Fighting a B-rank missing-nin who’s already killed dozens of other shinobi? Just in a day’s work - although you may need a medic to heal your scrap later. Moving house? You’d best take the week of. Maybe the month?

 

That said, I am definitely going to take advantage.

 

The morning of the first moving day is a bit frantic. Ka-san sent Oji-san ahead since he didn’t own very much stuff, and Tou-san tried to leave with him, giggling all the while. Ka-san was running the operation, and honestly she looked super stressed, and Tou-san wasn’t exactly helping. I felt bad for Ka-san.

 

Then she came for me though, and I didn’t feel very bad at all. There wasn’t actually much left at our current house, mostly just the last set of clothes and whatnot. Most of the work would be done actually at the house, unpacking boxes and all that fun stuff.

 

Luckily for me, and unfortunately for my parents wallets, they had agreed that us kids needed new beds. What with my toes almost sticking out of mine at 13. None of us were ridiculously tall, but the beds here were still child size (three adult size beds would not fit in our shared room).

 

Most of the packing and unpacking was rather boring, but on Sunday night, Ka-san had us all invite the people we spent time with over.

 

Sachi, Bachi, and Koji all came, but Nori-sensei said he had “dishes to clean” and couldn’t make it. When I relayed this to Ka-san she nodded with an amused (and worryingly, slightly contemplative) look on her face.

 

It turned out that somehow, my team and my family had managed to avoid meeting each other until this point. Which seemed bizarre to me considering I spent 50% of my time with each of them.

 

It was really quite awkward for the first few minutes, since the three of us (and Bachi) were all graduated from the academy and onto funner (Sachi’s point of view), more interesting (Koji’s), and scarier things. Then Bachi got over the butterfly that had escaped and decided to meet the new people.

 

I learned two very important things. The first is that Hideo is slightly afraid of dogs. The second is that Asano loves them. Bachi’s still pretty small now, so Hideo mostly just sat there, frozen, while Bachi sniffed him. Asano on the other hand, give him a tummy rub and is probably Bachi’s number one non-Inuzuka person.

 

Thankfully, Koji was pretty good with kids, and Kimiko adored all the attention she was getting from someone new. (It turns out Kimiko enjoys playing sports? When did that happen?) Koji is the smallest of the three of us (not including Bachi), and was only a smidge taller than Hideo, something Hideo took great pride in.

 

Asano was jealous of Koji’s hair, which was… strange to say the least. Koji had (according to Asano) ‘brown hair with a hidden reddish tint’. Asano apparently was unhappy with her ‘plain brown’ hair in comparison to Koji and Kimiko’s reddish brown locks. (Yes, everyone is wondering where Kimiko got the red hair colour that showed in direct sunlight.)

 

This jealousy was rather odd, considering Asano has never cared for how she looked. Like. Not even a little. Her hair (until recently) was cropped short in the same style that Hideo and myself wear (with slight variation between the three of us). Her clothes… well… She wears Hideo’s when she can’t find any of her own that are clean.

 

Perhaps the best way to summarise it was that she doesn’t even bother looking in the mirror some days which is how she ended up going to the Academy with ink all over her face. Multiple times.

 

You know, I had thought that Asano was trying to be sneaky with her sealing, considering that if Ka-san realised what was going on Asano could lose her right to fresh air. (In a fight between Asano and Ka-san, Asano wouldn’t stand a chance . Even if she tried to run.)

Ka-san knows sealing basics and very much reminded Hideo and myself (and I assume Asano and Kimiko) that sealing was more dangerous than working with poisons. Sealing was more dangerous than falling into a pool of water when you can’t swim. Sealing is dangerous because you can’t tell where exactly the danger is going to come from.

 

I had thought that Asano was trying to hide it. It turned out she didn’t even need to. As far as I can tell, besides her asking the masked shinobi from the other day for help, no one had even realised she was doing it. Despite the ink on her face .

 

As I let my thoughts wander, Sachi and Hideo started to bond in the form of chasing after each other and hitting one another with sticks. Good fun that. (Luckily Hideo didn’t start turning the sticks into trees or anything stupid like that, though I wouldn’t put it past him anymore.) Kimiko eventually joined in the fun, though Hideo and Sachi let get in a couple of hits since she hadn’t even started at the academy.

 

Asano is explaining to Koji what sealing is, using an explosion tag as an example. She points out how the curve of the ‘Rei’ symbol means one thing and not another. (I hear her words but I do my best to block them out. Another thing that makes her special. That makes me redundant.)

 

“So if you push down too hard the lines will come out too thickly which can cause the sealing to require excessive amounts of chakra, and if you make it too thick the lines start to bleed into each other when you charge it. If you ever see a seal do that, run .”

 

Koji watches, rapt at attention and I want to warn him - remind him, sealing is expensive. Koji’s every ryo goes into his apartment which he shares with another genin, that and food apparently. He can’t afford sealing equipment. (I can, I could buy him some. It would only benefit me, in the end, if he has more strengths. He could pay me back?)

 

Asano’s friend was able to come around after a while, causing them both to disappear, presumably into the house.

 

Eventually we had dinner, during which some interesting points of conversation were brought up. Namely Sachi asked Ka-san how she felt about Asano being in the same class as a boy called “Naruto”. Apparently her family had been less than thrilled when one of the clan head’s children, Kiba, ended up in the same class as him.

 

Who this “Naruto” is, and why he is so dangerous, I have no idea.

 

Tou-san told Asano to try to avoid him, apparently his chakra might damage Asano’s channels? Or something? They weren’t very clear on the specifics. Asano looked rather annoyed by the whole thing, and her friend seemed mostly curious and surprised by the reaction.

 

(Later Asano and her friend explained that Naruto was an idiot, but not dangerous. Loud, but not scary. Ambitious, but weak, according to Asano’s friend. Asano seemed to believe he would get stronger eventually. They agreed that there was no reason to be afraid of him though.)

 

I like Asano’s friend slightly more than I expected. She’s clever, not like Asano, and not like myself, but when she can work up the courage her comments are amusing (even if she didn’t mean them to be). Apparently she’s learning biology, but would rather focus on taijutsu than being a medic-nin.

 

Asano and her friend laugh, sharing that apparently Asano pulled them both into running, and it’s only been three days but Sakura is enjoying it way more.

 

“You’ve always liked punching me when you think I’m being an idiot!” Asano laughs, Asano’s friend punches her in the arm and they both laugh some more. I wonder, briefly, what it would be like to have friend like that. It seems like a lot of work, but I can see, perhaps, why people might enjoy it. (If I was prone to metaphors I might say that Asano’s smile lights up the room, and her laughter makes my chest warm. Luckily, I am not prone to such fits of imagination.)

 

“You started it!” Asano’s friend insists, pushing Asano onto her side before laying on top of each other. Pink hair mixes with brown and Hideo pokes me, only to smile when I glance at him. What is he going on about?



Extra - Choji’s POV:

“Why are you staring at me?” Shikamaru asked, looking slightly disturbed when he looked away from the sky. Choji flushed slightly. He hadn’t meant to stare. He was just. Watching intently. For reasons.

 

“Why don’t you ask Asano on a date or something?” He finally asked. It’d been bugging him since he’d had ice cream with her and Sakura. “She’s really nice.” Choji adds, in case Shikamaru is worried about Asano being mean about it.

 

“A date?! Asano?!” Shikamaru would’ve spit out his food if there had been any in his mouth. (He really was too thin.)

 

“Well yeah. I’m not stupid,” Choji said, a little hurt Shikamaru thought he hadn’t noticed. “You stare at her all the time, and pay attention when she talks. She’s probably the only person you know the name of.”

 

“I know other people’s names,” Shikamaru denied rather unconvincingly. “And I don’t have a crush on Asano. She’s creepy.”

 

“Creepy?” Choji echoed. Asano wasn’t creepy . A little strange, yeah, but in an inoffensive and certainly not creepy way. (Making up her own slang terms wasn’t normal . But it wasn’t that strange.)

 

“Yes. Creepy,” Shikamaru said seriously, he sat up and put his fingertips together. He paused then moved his hands a bit to readjust. “Her reactions are a fraction late, she purposely fails, and she knows things she shouldn’t. It’s creepy .”

 

Choji thought about it for a minute, yeah maybe she took a second too long to laugh at jokes and stuff, but she just thought before she acted. She also mentioned that she got worried over tests and messed up on things she knew. As far as Choji could tell, Shikamaru knew things he shouldn’t, so why couldn’t Asano?

 

“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Choji said, an earnest look on his face, “it’s just that you just gave the lamest excuse for a crush that I’ve ever heard!” He broke into a smile while Shikamaru watched him, dumbstruck.

 

Alright so maybe Shikamaru didn’t have a crush on Asano, but the look on his face was hilarious. (Choji was a good friend though, so he wouldn’t bring it up… too often.)

Chapter Text

On Sakura’s birthday, Asano buys her a ribbon, and gives her four books that Asano’s mother owned. The books are old, and the inside pages are stiff with time. Sakura loves it.

 

Her parents are home for once, and together the four of them go to dinner. Her parents choose the restaurant that was Sakura’s favourite when she was seven, and hasn’t been to since her last birthday. The server gives Asano a sharp look, but there isn’t any recognisable emotion behind it.

 

The fancy lighting leaves long shadows on the wall and Sakura stares at them with the thought that this is a terrible restaurant. The service is fast, but the overly polite manner makes her hesitate and second guess yourself. Asano gives her a sympathetic look before treating the whole thing like it’s completely normal. She smiles at the waiter and says thank you, and even though the waiter makes no reply, his face doesn’t even twitch, Asano seems smug.

 

When the food arrives the portions are too small and Sakura is hungry . (Running in the morning takes energy! Going to the academy… okay well that doesn’t take much energy at all. But the adventuring that comes after does!)

 

Sakura’s mom asks Asano all sorts of questions, since it’s the first time they’ve met. Sakura’s dad has met Asano twice before, but only briefly.

 

“So, Asano,” her mom says, all sugar sweet. It’s too late though, Sakura can already tell that Asano hates her, maybe she hated them both before now. Sakura wonders why that makes her feel so… good. It feels like agreement.

 

Sakura doesn’t hate her parents, not yet, but she most certainly does resent them.

 

Conversation is stilted, and awkward. Too many blank pauses where no one knows what to say to each other. It’s clear, to Sakura at least, that her parents want to say something without Asano or herself noticing, but at ten years old (and Asano almost there), they are too sharp eyed.

 

Asano and Sakura sit on opposite sides of the table, and although Sakura am so thankful she is there, she can tell Asano feels like an outsider. Despite how often her parents are away, they are family.Sakura’s mom seems to want to remind everyone of that, throughout dinner she makes jokes and references to before Sakura was in the academy (before she’d met Asano) when her mom was still on leave. She only returned to full time duty when Sakura joined the academy, claiming that Sakura was a big girl now, although she’s been working since Sakura was five. (Even then she would spend days at a time in an empty house, is it any wonder she was so quiet? That her Inner voice is so loud so she didn’t go insane in the silence)

 

After Sakura and Asano finish eating they leave as soon as possible so Sakura’s parents can have a drink and pay the bill without them. Asano leads her up to the Hokage Monument and takes her to a specific bench. From which Sakura can see across Konoha, across Fire Country. Down below the sky was already dark, but from here they watch as the last vestiges of light leave the sky.

Chapter Text

There is no good way to realise you are being pursued, and that all previous attempts to drive them off course have failed. I, of course being a genin, was not actually the one to realise this. Instead it started with Nori-sensei shouting,

 

Scatter !”

 

There was never a time in my life that I thought that I would be unable to think, not before I was dead at least. Unfortunately, I had found that moment.

 

Return !”

 

Nori-sensei’s command to return to Konoha independently almost made me trip. What was he thinking? There was a squad of three chunin and a jonin following us and he was the only one who stood a chance. Sachi hadn’t even had her first kill yet!

 

( My kunai is in his throat. His throat. Blood is dripping down my forearm, no doubt staining my shirt. Yielding flesh benea-)

 

If I don’t run, I’ll die.

 

A sort of wild, single minded focus forces it’s way through my panic.

 

Run.

 

Run.

 

Run.

 

My feet are moving before I can figure out which way Konoha is. My team has left already, faster than me, even if I have better stamina. (Bachi can only run for a short while and Koji grew up barely leaving the orphanage. I grew up chasing after Hideo.)

 

Run.

 

Run.

 

Run.

 

All I need to do is keep moving. Nori-sensei has the scroll so I don’t even have to worry about it.

 

Goal in mind, my thoughts sharpen into icy clarity. The grass flies past me as I rush towards the border to Fire Country, not all that far away (four days walk, five hour run.) The hair on the back of my neck is raised and my heart is pounding and the mud below my feet is anything but silent. I don’t have time to learn how to make it quiet. Chakra maybe? If I’m wrong I could hurt myself. It’s better to be loud than to break my foot.

 

I’m not even going that much faster than normal, but my breath burns my throat and my chest is tight and my head is dizzy even as my thoughts fly.

 

(I don’t want to die.)

 

My thoughts are on nothing but running. On the smell of mud, sweat, and the fish from the market I passed through yesterday. The sound of the mud beneath my feet and the rustle of the grass around me. My thighs burning with painful heat, the sweat dripping down my neck. (I’ve never been so thankful for my headband in my life, the most useful thing it will ever do is act like a sweatband.)

 

My breakfast is sour in my mouth. Rust, from where I bit my tongue.

 

Nori-sensei’s commands for running comes to mind, a refinement on the academy instruction.

 

Number one: focus on consistency.

 

Run as fast as you can - but only if you can sustain it. I feel my pattern, my breathing, the soreness of my muscles from the fight only a few days past.

 

Nori-sensei practically beat into our heads: it doesn’t matter who arrives first if you’re dead on your feet when you arrive. Perhaps not the most… how do you say it… eloquent of sentiments, but an important one nonetheless.

 

I’m going too quickly.

 

I slow, reluctantly, I slow ever so slightly. I don’t feel better. I don’t feel like I can go on longer now, but after some more time running through grass- (How long? How long? How long can you go?) -my breath eases. Not a lot. Not enough to be comfortable. But a little. Maybe. I think.

 

(Run, run, as fast as you can. Run little piggy, there’s nowhere to go. No house can stop me, said the wolf. Not straw, not sticks, not stones.)

 

My feet ache, three weeks on a mission, yesterday’s chase through the border of Earth Country into Grass. It’s too much.

 

(Just give up, the wolf said. Just me eat you, it’ll be so much quicker. Easier. I’ll make it painless. I promise .)

 

The sun has moved, the wind has picked up. And not in the right direction either. The chill burns my face. (Some part of me is childishly indignant - it’s summer still! September is still summer!) My nose is running, and fearing for my life is even less glamorous than I thought.

 

Regardless, I preserve.

 

(You will never catch me, says the first little piggy. And the little piggy runs, and he hides, and he runs again. The fat from his bones drain and all that is left is skin and bone.)

 

I can see trees in the distance but that means nothing. The trees of Fire Country are so tall they can be seen from some of the cities in Earth Country. (I would know, just a few days ago I stood on a building and Nori-sensei pointed out their tiny dark tips against the horizon.)

 

My first steps over what I imagine must be the border turn into a stumble as wet grassland shifts into rocky dirt. I trip, and fall, and get back up, I cannot stop.

 

(What good is avoiding death if you die at your own hand? The wolf asks, looking at the body of the first little piggy. Why not go easy? Go quickly. You’ve hurt yourself more than you’ve hurt me, the wolf coaxes.)

 

I feel vomit rising in my throat, heavy and bitter. I cannot stop.

 

(Run little piggy as fast as you can, it does you no good, I’ll just chew on your bones.)

 

Reaching the forest edge feels like victory for a second. Then I stumble on tree roots and plants crunch under my feet. (Are they gone? Am I safe?)

 

It’s been hours. At least. (I think, I can’t tell, I’m so scared.)

 

(The second little piggy runs, but stops. The second little pig hides. Hides behind a pack of boar with their thick hide and elongated tusks.)

 

I jump to the branches above me and stumble again. (I’m so tired.) The smell of mud lingers on my clothes, but the forest smell musty and alive. (It feels safe.)

 

(Why bother? The wolf asks, circling the pack. I can see YOU .)

 

I hear the snap of branches, and I didn’t make it.

 

I don’t stop.

 

I don’t look behind me.

 

I run.

 

(Run. Run. Run.)

 

Surprise turns to panic and my limbs are numb. My chakra is full to the bursting within me but useless at helping me escape. I can feel it though, rolling like thunder, audible only to myself. Heavy and thick within my chest, easing my breathing just a touch.

 

My steps are unsteady and Nori-sensei’s admonishing face comes to mind.

 

Number two: focus on your movements.

 

Sachi described it as ‘one step after another, forever’. I focus on my legs, on their reckless movement, I control my arms. One branch after another.

 

“Oh my fucking Kami.” Someone whispers behind me. Too close. Far too close. Faster, faster, faster.

 

(Run, run, run. Run as fast as you can! The wolf snarls, snapping his jaw at the second little piggy.)

 

Fire Country’s dry summer forests are famous. They famous because they give Fire Country it’s name. They are famous because in summer they burn hotter and brighter than alcohol, day and night for weeks.

 

(Chakra rolling in my chest. I can light a campfire.)

 

Horse. (Run.)

 

Serpent. (One more step.)

 

Ram. (I don’t want to be a shinobi.)

 

Monkey. (I don’t want to die.)

 

Boar. (Ka-san why?)

 

Horse. (I’d do anything to keep them safe.)

 

Tiger. (Wouldn’t I?)

 

I turn and blow the largest fireball I can manage into the twigs of the branches behind me. I can see the silhouette of my wolf.

 

The fire doesn’t ignite like I imagined. It doesn’t burst into violent flames, although it has started. It starts with a single flame, and it spreads. I don’t have time to watch it though.

 

Again. Horse. Serpent. Ram. Monkey. Boar. Horse. Tiger.

 

This one I blow in an arc in front of me, and I jump through it just as it catches. The smoke is suffocating, but I push for a burst of speed.

 

I don’t have much chakra left. Maybe enough for one more? But what if I get caught?

 

(I warned you, snarls the wolf, even as the boar attacked. I warned you!)

 

I can hear a cough behind me, only a branch or two behind, I can’t tell. I can’t look back.

 

(Why even bother? The wolf asks, voice like honey now that the second little piggy is no more.)

 

A sharp pain in my right shoulder throws me off, and I fall . I’m too tired for the heart stopping moment before I grab the branch with my left hand and use it to swing myself forward. I hold my right arm close to my side and pull out the kunai in my shoulder with my other hand. I’ll lose more blood, but I can’t risk tearing my shoulder muscles.

 

(Why even bother? The third little piggy says, that cut on your side will kill you. No matter what you do. My brother has won, even if he is dead.)

 

Whoever is chasing me is faster than I am. They’re chunin vest declares them stronger than me too. What can I do?  (I don’t want to die.)

 

My lungs ache. My shoulder hurts. I don’t want to run anymore .

 

(He’s dead! The wolf screams, enraged by the idea that he might’ve lost. I ate him!)

 

My knee hurts and my side is cramping and I can barely plan because the only thought in my head is: this sucks. How mundane. I sound like Asano.

 

(And soon so will you be, the third little piggy said softly. Because I am the biggest, I am the strongest, and you killed them .)

 

There is a rage that I have never felt before simmering in my stomach. Pain and fury and exhaustion.

 

I cannot run anymore.

 

(And the third little piggy charges at the big bad wolf, the one who out eat it.)

 

So I don’t.

 

I spin in my step, turning instead of moving ahead. My hands fly to my kunai with I throw with adequate accuracy.

 

I see my enemy clearly for the first time.

 

A boy, no more than a year or two older than myself. His mouth twitches in what I recognise to be contempt even as he pants for breath. (I also notice that his clothes are smoking and the edges of his shirt are singed. Pride mixes with my rage and I am grinning .) I am not smiling, I know what I wear on my face is not a smile, it’s a snarl.

 

(Pigs are many things, most of all they are fat. And when the third little piggy runs at the wolf, still fat and slow from his meal of the second little piggy, there is nothing he can do.)

 

If I don’t stop him then I will die. I doesn’t matter how much chakra I have if I’m dead. How many explosion seals I have to buy to recover my buildup, as long as I’m alive to buy them.

 

I don’t have much in the way of a plan though, a small thought says, but I- I don’t care, I want to cry!

 

I throw senbon (I’ve barely practiced with them and not a single one hits it’s mark). I throw my shuriken, something I know much better.

 

My enemy has a kunai in his thigh and two shuriken in his chest. But his hands are moving through seals more quickly than my eye can see. I throw myself to a different tree and start to run into a circle. I cannot beat him face on. (I wish I knew some genjutsu.)

 

I can’t find him anymore though, although I can see where dirt spikes impale my previous position.

 

What do I do? Sachi is the team tracker, Koji is the one who fights, I’m the one who plans. I can’t though. My mind is blank. Like paper. Like the back of a  gravestone. (If I die here, I won’t even get only, just another name on the memorial stone.)

 

Tears burn in my eyes as I look around. There’s a rustle and I dart after it, after all, my enemy didn’t grow up in a forest. I did. I focus on being silent as I move up through the canopy.

 

My foot tugs on a branch and I barely glance down, only enough to see the silver glint and throw myself forward as senbon fly out of the bushes at me. My hands land on solid wood but my shin hits a second trap and the explosion throws me through the air.

 

My head snaps forward, and dots of light flicker in my vision (like stars).

 

I’m not sure there are words to describe the way it feels, to fly through the air and feel my body as it crushed against nothing, only for a second wave to hit. I can feel the ripple as it passes through me.

 

Oddly, I burp. In a less interesting reaction, I vomit. I watch as it falls through the trees below me feeling blank.

 

For a moment, I think I’m safe, and then the pain starts to come through. My leg…

 

Something in my leg hurts, like crushing your fingers in a door but a thousand time worse. When I look down, my head and sight are dizzy but even so, I can see the blood.

 

(The wolf falls back, falls back as his ribs creak. The third little piggy, now the only piggy throws itself once more, and the wolf’s ribs snap. Snapped like the second little piggy’s had in his teeth. But the wolf is not done yet. He snaps and snarls even as he bleeds, like a rabid animal. Like a cornered animal.)

 

My hand is shaking and I wonder how it went so badly so quickly. I touch a gentle fingertip to my thigh and almost scream.

 

I can feel bone.

 

My finger rises to my face, bloody, and I stare at it. I watch as my own blood shines on my skin. My right arm is stiff, and the shoulder hurts more than I would prefer.

 

I limp a step forward and my knee buckles, and I fall forward, my right arm reflexively moving to catch myself again the tree next to me. I don’t scream. I whimper. Tears are falling from my eyes and the salt burns my skin.

 

I can feel my hope drain away. I can’t run like this. I can’t fight like this. I can barely move.

 

Out of the corner of my eye-

 

(The wolf dies, stomach full and ribs broken. The third little piggy is left alone to wonder who won.)

 

HorseSerpentRamMonkeyBoarHorseTiger

 

One last deep breath (my back hurts, why does it hurt) and I blow the flame straight at my enemy. The kunai in his hand falls to onto the wood below, burning red hot. I watch, as the flames engulf him and I can hear as his skin crackles. I can smell his skin burning.

 

(Asano always did tell the creepiest stories.)

 

I can see the sky through the trees. I can see the stars.

Chapter Text

The first sign that the common people saw was smoke, rising from some far of inferno. The ash tinted the sky orange and the air had a heavy feel it it. Many an embarrassed gentleman brushed dandruff off his shoulder only to realise that it was falling from the sky like snowflakes.

 

Konoha, was much further than the villages that first saw the flames, but all the same they could see the plumes of smoke painting the sky. At first, it was ignored (after checking to make sure there was, in fact, no invasion in process). Fires in Fire Country were not exactly unheard of, and usually it would be allowed to burn for a day or two unless it posed some sort of risk.

 

Half an hour later 14 squads of older chunin were called to start on the fire fighting process. (Firefighting had killed far too many new shinobi before it was agreed to leave it to those with my experience.)

 

Fires were good and well, but this one burned far too closely to Grass Country and if it spread it could very well destroy all of Grass - small place it was. It probably wouldn’t be good for international relations to accidentally burn a neighboring Country to dirt and ashes. Especially not one as pitiful as Grass. (Grass has never really recovered from the Third Shinobi war when it stood between Earth and Fire.)

 

Shoichi was among the force sent out. As a rather generic chunin he was, of course, only skilled at using his own inborn element, fire. Luckily, fighting fire with fire is actually a thing, and although it was a rather delicate thing, Shoichi has a fair amount of practice.

 

One had to careful with chakra fire of course, it burned hotter, and faster, and if it found fuel, longer than natural flames. Even chunin stayed in their squad for the gruelling fight. Over the course of a week more than two hundred chunin took shifts fighting the inferno that would not die. Smoke inhalation is a dangerous thing, but it was also how the cause of the fire was found. Trace amounts of chakra in the smoke suggested that the fire was originally from a jutsu.

 

That’s when Shoichi got called to meet with the Hokage. Again.

 

There is a certain sort of resigned dread that came with knowing that despite your best attempts, your children would never be discretely average.

 

“Sao-taichou?”

 

“Return to Konoha Sakurai-san, the Hokage has called for you.”

 

“Hai, Taichou.”

So Shoichi is ran home, away from the ravenous fire, wondering briefly who would start such a thing. Was it an accident? Stupidity? An attempt at sabotage? He knew that Taro was on a mission right now in Earth country that had run a little over time but he should be home by now unless his team was delayed even further.

 

Kimiko and Asano were looking happier recently, they seemed to enjoy the new house, although Shoichi felt like he had barely spent any time in it at all. Yoko liked being able to get around the house better, since most of it was on a single floor. Taro liked it because he enjoyed stargazing which was easier, and Hideo was trying to build a house in a tree using mokuton with Yohei’s assistance and Asano’s ‘emotional support’.

 

Konoha came into view and Shoichi smiled at the colourful city that he loved so much. He didn’t always like the sacrificial nature that shinobi were encouraged to adopt, and he didn’t like how much power the clans had. He was always a touch bitter about the mirror image life that his older half brother would live. Overall though, he didn’t regret it. He loved Konoha.

 

“I was called to see the Hokage?” Shoichi says, more nervous than he’d prefer when he speaks to the secretary. The pinch in his gut gets worse at the pitying look he receives.

 

“Please wait here for a minute, the Hokage will be ready in a moment.”

 

“Of course,” Shoichi sits carefully into the nearby chair, enjoying the relief on his aching legs. It’s not worth the time cost to return to Konoha when off duty while firefighting, so there’s a Konoha camp a few kilometers away from the fire which makes for a rather miserable week. Even with that space between the bed rolls and the fire everything stinks of smoke, and of course the beds are never as warm or as comfortable as the one he shares with Yoko (even when she sticks her cold feet on his leg).

 

Yoko rolls in the door and he sends her another incredulous look. He knows there are a whole flight of stairs outside the door, yet she never comes in looking ruffled or annoyed by what can no doubt be an inconvenience.

 

It’s probably not even worth asking though, Yoko enjoys having her secrets. (So many secrets, a part of Shoichi says. The part of him that loved Yoshiko’s honest nature more than anything else. A part of Shoichi that has never let go of the way Yoko chose him for his connection to the Naras, and not for himself.) Shoichi pushes those thoughts away and sends her an indulgent smile.

 

“What are you smiling about today? I thought you’d be grouchy at not having the chance to wash for a week.” Yoko asked, moving a chair so she can sit next to him. He moves a hand to rest on hers and she rolls her eyes, always amused and annoyed by his want to touch her in public. (Public displays of affection, as Asano lovingly calls it.)

 

“But I get to see my lovely wife again, the rest of my squad won’t get to see their’s again for another week before we get relieved.”

 

“Oh,” Yoko raises an eyebrow, “so you’re glad to be missing out on work.” Shoichi has always been something of a slacker, and Yoko has… well… not. They accept each other’s differences though.

 

“Always,” Shoichi promises vehemently and Yoko shakes her head in (mostly) mock disgust.

 

Someone Shoichi doesn’t recognise leaves the Hokage’s office, and once they’ve left the room the secretary turns to them and nods for them to enter.

 

The feeling in the Hokage’s office is… worrying it say the least. The Hokage looks tired. It doesn’t decrease his feeling of power at all, but he looks weary in a way Shoichi has learned to fear.

 

“Noritaka Hoga has informed me that your son, Taro Sakurai, is missing in action,” the Hokage says as soon as Shoichi has sat down.

 

There are hardly words for the feeling that makes Shoichi freeze. The terror looming just over his head. The fear in his stomach (just behind the sacral chakra gate, fiery chakra burning cold). The grief that isn’t even assured causing a lump in his throat.

 

“On the most recent mission in Earth Country, Team Hoga faced Iwa nin intent on recapturing the scroll they were sent to retrieve. The mission was labeled as a C-rank only because of the fact it was outside of Konoha, there wasn’t supposed to be any defense at all as the scroll was only supposed to contain some family heirlooms.”

 

Shoichi does not sob, he does not cry. He stares into the middle difference at the thought that his son has died because of some useless heirlooms. Shinobi don’t cry. (Not in public at least, not where anyone can see.)

 

“Upon realising they were being pursued, Hoga-san ordered his team to scatter and return to Konoha, as they had practiced. Hoga-san carried the scroll in the hope that the squad following them - made up of three chunin and a jonin - would all follow him. In case of emergency each of the genin had a seal they would use to call for help.”

 

Shoichi knew the seal; Asano had been so interested in how it worked, why the point on the master map would still show their positions if the seal was destroyed. She had been so disappointed when Taro told her (very clearly) that she couldn’t activate it to test it.

 

“Their pursuers, three chunin and a jonin leader, separated and chased after each of them separately. One of his teammates, Koji, made it to Konoha without interruption. His other teammate, Sachi Inuzuka, did not. She activated her seal and was rescued by Hoga-san. Unfortunately because your son didn’t activate his seal, something he was clearly instructed to do if he needed help, we don’t know where he is. By the time Hoga-san attempted to call the seal in reverse, the seal had already been destroyed.”

 

Yoko doesn’t stiffen, not like most people do, she’s too well trained to do that. In fact if asked to pinpoint how he knew she was upset, he wouldn’t be able to give you any words. He just… knew?

 

“Herein lies the problem. Without a body, and without a call for help, your son cannot be declared killed or missing in action. Without his presence, or a declaration of death, he can only be marked as away without leave. If his body, or his presence cannot be found within thirty days, and no signs of capture are shown, Taro Sakurai will be marked as a missing-nin.”

 

Shoichi didn’t gasp, his jaw didn’t drop. (He wasn’t a civilian, after all.) He did, although he’ll deny it, stare at the Hokage in shock. His son was missing, most likely dead, having been chased down by a shinobi of superior skill and experience. His son had given his life for Konoha, and he would be marked a traitor for it.

 

The Hokage, looking solemn, pulling out a gray scroll and handed it across the table.

 

“If your son is dead, and after seven years no sign of him is found then he kill be marked down as killed in the line of duty, and his name will be added to the memorial stone.”

 

Shoichi opened the scroll, and found it containing a formal declaration of Taro Sakurai as away without leave, and a demand that he present himself for reprimanding by Konoha government.

 

“As the previous legal guardians of Taro before his graduation you will be asked to take part in a small interrogation. Unless there is reason to suspect that your son may have defected then your other children will not need to get involved.” The Hokage was quiet for a moment before his statue soften and he leaned slightly forward.

 

“Regardless of what happened, I am sincerely sorry for your son’s disappearance. Although I know that this can, in no way reduce your pain, I want you to be aware that Hoga-san will be under formal review regarding his choices during the mission, as well as during training.”

 

Shoichi stiff and unmoving. If he didn’t restrain himself, he would no doubt make bad choices. (His son. His son .)

 

“You may go.”

 

Shoichi wasn’t sure he had ever hated Konoha as much as he did in that single moment.

Chapter Text

I was sitting at home when Ka-san was called away by the ANBU hiding by the window. Asano said that they had all had to learn letters too, but I’m pretty sure I have it the worst. After all, they all had each other, but only Asano ever plays with me. Taro says that he’s too old to play, and Hideo has his own friends (even if no one has ever seen them).

 

Asano and Hideo are at the academy today, and Asano has kunoichi class after school today, which means Sakura is probably coming over. Sakura is bad… but she’s weird. Also, Asano never plays with me when Sakura’s here. So kunoichi class days are worse.

 

Luckily , if I get my writing practice done, Ka-san said I can go play with the civilian kids. The civilian kids are all busy unless their lessons are done for the day. I’m really jealous because they all get to go to school together, while Ka-san said that I’ll homeschool until it’s time to start at the academy, which isn’t for another year !

 

If I only practice writing with one hand, do you think Asano will be mad at me? She always says to practice with both hands but that’ll take forever . (Kanji is really difficult!) She probably won’t notice anyway.

 

I run down the hall, slipping and sliding in my socks, into my room. I’ve always had my own room, but now it’s way bigger! Asano still hasn’t put in the privacy seals she said she would. She’s going to make these ones, the ones in my old room were just from the store, so I’m pretty excited!

 

I crawl under my bed and pull out the book Asano made me, I’m not allowed to read it when Ka-san’s home, so I haven’t gotten to read it in ages. The front just has really the words My Home World in really big letters. She wrote it all in hiragana and katakana, so I can read it. She wrote another version in kanji for when I’m bigger too, but she won’t let me read it yet because she said sad things happen in it. (Which is silly, I’m six and a half not four. I read sad things.)

 

I’ve read the story a lot, but I like it because the I’m in it. Expect instead of being called Kimiko I’m called Katherine (which is a super weird name! But Asano said that people on this planet don’t speak our language, so she had to translate it all). Instead of having my hair, Katherine has curly blonde hair and she’s a civilian. (Every in the book is a civilian, which seems a bit strange, who protects everyone from the bad guys then?) Asano, Hideo, and Taro are in it too, but they all have different names. Hideo in the story is way smarter than he is in real life!

 

Also! There aren’t any clans! Asano didn’t put Ka-san or Tou-san in though, she made up perfect parents instead. Asano calls them Mom and Dad like Sakura calls her parents.

 

I flip through the book slowly, looking at the little pictures Asano’s drawn in the margins. They aren’t very good. (Hideo’s the best at drawing stuff, but Asano said I can’t show this to anyone .)

 

I can hear the front door open so I slide the book back under my bed and run out. Asano says I should be discrete about reading it, so I make sure to pretend I was using the toilet.

 

Ka-san looks sad, so I climb onto her lap (even if I don’t fit very well anymore) and wrap my arms around her.

 

“Love you Ka,” I say because Asano says that anyone could die at any time, and then they’re gone forever. I don’t want Ka-san to go away…

 

“Hello Kimiko,” Ka-san says, rubbing her cheek against mine and making me laugh. “Did you do your writing?”

 

“...Some of it,” I say, trying to climb off her lap. I’m too late though and she tickles me!

 

“Tou-san is picking Asano and Hideo up from the academy, and then we need to talk okay? So go get your writing done before they’re home.”

 

“Alright,” I sigh and running back to the kitchen table. It’s huge! Oji-san made the table and it’s really big and when it was new, Asano laid down on top of it and could barely reach each end. I write it all out with my right hand, because Asano is the only who cares if I can use both hands. Even if it’s cool when she writes things with both hands at once, I’m no good at it.

 

When Tou-san gets home he looks really sad too!

 

Asano and Hideo seem confused, and Asano looks worried (I think that’s the face she’s making) but neither of them look sad. Asano gives me a hug, and Hideo ruffles my hair, which feels nice but I still frown at him because Ka-san’s gonna make me brush my hair again now that he’s messed it up.

 

“Kodomo,” Ka-san says, and it takes me a second to remember that that’s the formal way to say children… usually she only says it when all four of us are present though. That, and the way Asano falters in her steps towards Ka-san makes me frown. “Come sit down,” Ka-san points to the chairs in the living room and we all take a seat.

 

In the living room Ka-san and Tou-san each sit in separate chairs across from the sofa where I am wedged between Asano and Hideo. Hideo’s legs swing back and forth. Asano’s fingers twitch. For a moment it feels like the world pauses. Then Ka-san starts talking again.

 

“Taro’s mission went wrong.” No one says anything when Asano makes a quiet keening noise. “He’s currently missing and is most likely dead.” Hideo makes a funny noise and Asano moves to his side and pulls him into a hug. He’ll get better though right? I already know the answer though. You don’t recover from being dead. Say… goodbye? Did I say goodbye when he left?

 

“Taro didn’t trigger his emergency seal,” Tou-san said, voice… cold? Almost. Like he’s talking to one of the people who call Ka-san a coward. “At this time, Taro will be labeled as a missing-nin. We can only hope that he is dead or incapacitated, and has not betrayed the village.”

 

I look to Asano: she’ll explain it. She always does. They’re both crying. Asano’s arm is wrapped around Hideo’s shoulder, a bit like a hug. Asano looks up and I look at her as I whisper,

 

“Asano? Taro?” Asano waves for me to sit next to her on the other side of Hideo.

 

“Kimi, remember when I told you about how when you die, you wake up again as someone else?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Taro’s dead, which means he’s going to wake up somewhere else, but he won’t remember us.”

 

“But.. how will we see him then?” I ask, a small ache the my head telling me that I already know. That Asano already covered this.

 

“We can’t see him anymore.”

 

“I-” I pause. I know, kind of, what this means… I don’t have the words to describe it. “Taro’s body is empty?”

 

“Yeah,” Asano says through a sob, I feel my eyes water as well.

 

“I want Taro!”

 

“I know. I know. I do too,” Asano cries into my hair as she wraps her free arm around me. “I know.”

 

***

That night I crawl into Asano’s bed so she doesn’t die too.

Chapter Text

Sakura and Asano, for all that they are really quite good friends, still fight. Of course they do, they’re both human. Luckily, despite the fact that Sakura knows she has a hair-trigger, and Asano reads into every action way too deeply, they usually sort things out pretty quickly. Asano basically never stays mad for a more than a day, and Sakura usually lets it go once she’s gotten revenge.

 

The first time that Asano and Sakura got in a real, actual, fight it went on for several days, and it was over the stupidest thing. Sasuke . Sakura had been looking at Shino, since Shino had something and everyone had ignored him. And Asano had thought she was looking at Sasuke, and made a snarky comment. Sakura, despite knowing that Asano probably didn’t mean it got annoyed, in part because she felt a bit embarrassed she had loved him (she really hadn’t thought that through) and also because it was none of Asano’s business (so what if she still thought he was cute)!

 

Sakura wouldn’t say sorry, and Asano’s sorry was flat, and rather blank and sounded entirely insincere.

 

It took a week for something to change. It was Hideo, actually, who did it. During lunchtime he found Sakura and took her to the side.

 

“Sakura?” Sakura looked up to see Hideo, Asano’s old brother standing nearby. He looked a bit embarrassed. “Can I talk to you for a moment?” Sakura glanced around the near empty classroom. Most of the other students went out to play during lunch so it was fairly deserted.

 

“Um?” Sakura’s mouth was open, and making noise without any thought having gone into it. Without a plan. “Sure?” Hideo made an obvious glance around the room to where Shino, Hinata, and Etsuko each sat independently.

 

“Can we go into the hallway?” Hideo asked after a moment.

 

“Okay,” Sakura stood, and after a moment of deliberation left her lunch sitting on her desk next to her bag. Hideo led the way out the door, and or a moment they stood in the warm, empty hallway in silence. It only then occurred to her that as Asano’s brother, he might take offense to their fight, and might express that in a physically violent way. In a physically violent way against Sakura. (Inner looked pale in terror, before running far away into the far expanses of her mind.)

 

“I-” Hideo’s mouth twitched, “Asano-” he sighed, and raised a hand to rest his face on. “Asano is weird. In a lot of ways. One of which is that when she’s emotional or upset, it turns… inside.” Hideo said, lowering his hand to tap his sternum. “I didn’t notice for a long time. So I thought she was ingenuine or didn’t care.” Ahhh. The realisation dawned on Sakura, he wasn’t annoyed with herself or Asano, he was annoyed with himself.

 

“I’m not as clever as Taro. But he’s not noticed yet I don't think. So- Just. I doesn’t mean you have to accept her apologies, and it doesn’t make whatever she did okay just. You don’t realise what’s happening in her head.” At that Hideo grimace and glanced away, clearly remembering something Sakura wasn’t privy to.

 

It was quiet for a long, awkward moment before Sakura said,

 

“Thank you for telling me…” Hideo grinned, his usual cheerful self returned and he waved at her and turned to leave,

 

“Just think about it!” Then he ran down the hall, probably to play with his friends.

 

It wasn’t something that Sakura thought on often, that revelation. Hideo had been right, in a way. Not completely, Asano did show strong emotions, but differently. Like an echo or a reflection of an emotion. She hated to look weak, Sakura learned. (She had learned that long before, in the aftermath of the massacre though, even if she hadn’t known what it had meant at the time with Asano screaming at Sakura to get out of her room through tears.)

 

She was thinking about it now. The day before Asano’s dad had pulled her out of class early, and Iruka-sensei had a strange look on his face. Not quite sad, not quite angry. (“Smad,” Inner laughed.)

 

Asano was back in class today, but a little different. (Like the streets, erie without the pale skinned, black haired police officers. Strange in a way she couldn’t identify until it was pointed out.)

 

Sakura wasn’t as good as Asano at reading people, or the little patterns that Asano always seemed to watch for. She wasn’t as good at snap judgements. (Asano claimed those came with experience - which was stupid because Sakura was six months older !”) Sakura couldn’t read people , but she could read Asano . (Sakura-and-Asano. Asano-and-Sakura.)

 

Something had happened, was no doubt ringing in Asano’s head. Something big. (Maybe, probably, Asano sometimes took criticism really hard though.) Sakura hoped it was something small. Maybe her room was messy and her mother had told her off. (“But then why was she pulled out of class?” Inner reminded her.)

 

As the class drained out for break, Asano turned away from the window she had been staring through to reveal a tear stained face. Sakura froze, unsure of the correct response. Usually you were supposed to comfort crying people, but Asano wouldn’t like that.

 

“Taro’s gone missing.” Asano said it so blankly, so flatly, that it took Sakura a second to process her words. (Asano’s body was completely still, even if Sakura could see the rapid thrum of her pulse on her neck - Sakura’s book had an entire page and a half about that spot.)

 

“Like, Missing, or missing.” They were two very different things after all. To be Missing meant you had betrayed your family, your friends, and (worst of all) your village. To be missing… well you’d gone after a stray cat and got lost. That sort of thing.

 

“I don’t know.” Asano’s eyes weren’t looking at Sakura, or maybe they were. Either way, the light wasn’t reflecting off of them like it normally did, her gaze seemed distant, even as tears slid their way down her face. “He was on a mission and hasn’t returned. His team had split up to avoid enemies. He’s being labelled Missing.” Somehow, despite the fact that Missing and missing were the same word, Sakura could hear the emphasis, the weight to it.

 

“I’m sorry,” Sakura said, because she was. It was a sad thing. She had liked Taro, even beyond his vaguely attractive appearance he was smart, and could have a smart, deadpan wit if he chose. He sometimes added to her conversations with Asano when they had both forgotten he was in the room. He knew about the books they were reading, she thought. She didn’t think he cared all that much. (She wasn’t even quite sure he saw her as a person, to him, Sakura was an attachment of Asano, not a person on her own. But everyone was that way to him. It wasn’t personal in both the coldest, and most literal of ways.)

 

“So am I,” Asano murmured. And something shattered. Not a real thing. Sakura wasn’t even sure why she said that, it was just- there was. Something on Asano’s face shift. Shut down.

 

“Hello there.” Sakura jumped at the voice behind her, coming down the path between benches. The man was a shinobi, chunin based on the vest. He had a bandana on his head instead of the normal headband, and despite his somewhat cold tone he had a kind look to him. “I need to borrow Sakurai-chan for a little while. Her teacher is already aware. She’ll be back before the end of the day.” Sakura frowned slightly when she realised that the man was talking to her, instead of Asano herself.

 

Sakura glanced at her friend, trying to figure out if the man was being rude, or Asano already knew what was going on. She couldn’t tell though, from the steady, unrushed way that Asano took and packed up her things.

 

“Thank you for listening.” Asano said, briefly placing a hand on Sakura’s head before she left with the man.

 

Sakura continued to stare at the closed door her friend had left through than perhaps made sense. That goodbye had seemed awfully final.

 

Luckily, it was not. And indeed, Asano was back by the end of the day. Largely the same, but there was something subtly different. Some part of her that had cracked at the arrival of the chunin and had not repaired itself.

 

“So where did you go?”

 

“I went to Torture and Interrogation so that a profile could be made for Taro based on his closest friends and family.” After a pause Asano continued in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “that might be classified, I’m not sure.”

 

“Are you okay?” Sakura asked, Inner providing gut wrenching imagines of genjutsu torture forced upon Asano, leaving no mark on her body.

 

“Well. No, but not from that - the interrogation was very mild.” Asano said, eyes looking off towards the horizon. “Can we go to your house. I don’t think I want to be in mine right now.”

 

“Of course,” Sakura said, ignoring Choji’s questioning look as she dragged Asano out of the academy gates. It was Asano’s business who she told, and even if she did decide to tell him, she could go it later.

 

Sakura’s house was blessedly empty, and it was strange how a terrible event could cause something normal to feel like such a relief. Instead the dust danced endlessly around the main room as winter sunlight spilled in through the windows and Sakura was led to her room by an increasingly fast Asano.

 

Sakura watched, feeling like an outsider in a way she rarely had since they had met, as Asano slammed Sakura’s bedroom door shut and grabbed a blanket from the end of her bed. Asano wrapped herself up in the blanket before sitting, with something like determination, on Sakura’s bed. She watched, somewhat stunned as Asano’s face went from blank and cold and ever so disturbing to red and tear stained and sobbing .

 

It occured to Sakura, that she felt entirely unprepared for how to respond, and hoped to never know, since it seemed likely that to be prepared she would have to have suffered a similar loss.

 

“I wouldn’t have died for him you know.” Asano said, at some point. Each moment was agonisingly awkward to Sakura, but no matter how the seconds dragged, she found herself unable to tell how much time had passed exactly since Asano’s crying had begun. “I loved him but I didn’t feel responsible for him. And now I feel guilty for it which is stupid because even if I had been willing to die for him that doesn’t mean I could have saved him from leaving or dying or getting captured for whatever! It’s not my fault that something happened to him! But all I can think is-” Asano’s voice had become increasingly tight and choked up as she spoke until another sob broke through her words.

 

“All I can think is-” Asano repeated a few times, seemingly unable to find the words, or perhaps too overwhelmed to say what came next. Eventually she stopped trying and went back to crying desperately, occasionally grabbing a tissue from the box on Sakura’s window sill. (It was convenient since Asano was both: over often, and regularly sick.)

 

At some point Sakura joined Asano on the bed, sitting closely, one arm wrapped somewhat awkwardly around her best friend. Eventually the sobbed subsided and Asano was left, cold and wet and tired. Sakura stood to grab a water and as she opened the door she hear Asano murmur, perhaps to herself, perhaps to Sakura:

 

“All I can think is that it’s my fault.”

 

When Sakura gets back Asano is asleep, face red and body wrapped in a blanket on Sakura’s bed.

 

The next morning Sakura woke up alone in her bed.

 

This was not particularly unusual, even when Asano stayed over and they shared that space. Asano woke up early and seemed to find it difficult to lay in leisure in the morning. It was strange to see in someone who could be so still for so long, but in the mornings something about Asano thrummed. Not the content humming of a morning person the way Sakura’s father did. Nor the reluctant gurgle of Sakura’s mother who was very much a night person. Instead it was a sort of strained stillness. As if Asano had the world to conquer, despite the morning breath and heavy eyelids.

 

When Sakura paused in getting dressed, glancing out the window to be sure she wasn’t running late (it wasn’t likely, Asano would’ve made sure to wake her up, then again, Asano hadn’t really seemed like she was present enough to have noticed yesterday so who knew). She knew her clothing was nothing special, like most she wore a similar if not identical outfit each day. This year however, was the first year she wore clothes she had chosen, instead of her parents. ( A note covered in coin about being old enough to buy her out things. She wasn’t bitter though. )

 

It wasn’t as flashy as some of the other girls, but the red t-shirt made her feel important, and with the white circle it matched the Haruno clan symbol which was a white circle surrounded by (bright bloody) red. Asano had helped her reinforce the knees of her black trousers, and even sewed on two extra pockets on the thighs, ‘combat pants’ as Asano called them.

 

Asano had, of course, pointed out that wearing bright red in the field was maybe not the brightest idea ever, but they weren’t in the field yet and Sakura was going to enjoy the safety of Konoha while she could. Bright red t-shirts and all.

 

In the kitchen Asano was making breakfast, and singing something in gibberish.

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are grey,”

 

Asano had described how she had made up her own language, the meanings no in particular combinations like normal, but it was language where the meaning came from the type of sound. Sakura had a nagging feeling that what she was singing was not that language. That the gibberish came from somewhere other than her own head.

 

It was one of Asano’s private things. She never used it in public, or when her family was around - as far as Sakura could tell. It was not the only weird thing about Asano, but it was perhaps one of the most distinct. (Although since Asano was Sakura’s first best friend, maybe it wasn’t so special. Maybe a lot of people had a secret language they never told anyone about and only used at strange times. Like to swear. Or when they’re really, really upset or tired.)

 

It was something used in delicate moments, something like a prayer.

 

Please don’t take, my sunshine away.”

 

Asano scooped the rice into a bowl for each of them, tears dripping down her face even though she was smiling, and seemed a lot more human than she had the night before.

 

Breakfast was quiet, Asano was clearly lost in thought, and Sakura let her own mind wander. The book had a small note that death would be overcome, eventually. It had pointed out that Second Hokage Tobirama had started a jutsu that would revive the dead. Sakura was unsure if that was true or not, she’d never heard anything of the kind, but if it was… Well it was easy to say that Sakura would do just about anything to revive Asano should she die.

 

(“Would you kill to bring her back?” Inner asked, and Sakura paused because… yes. Yes she would. She’d never killed anyone before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. That said, it would be a part of her life at some point, and she valued Asano’s life above just about anyone else’s. Maybe even more than her parents.)

 

As soon as Asano and Sakura arrived at the academy, they were ambushed by a panicked looking Hideo.

 

“Do you know what you’ve done?!” He exclaimed, grabbing Asano’s shoulders and shaking her back and forth, “Kimiko hasn’t stopped crying! She thinks you’re dead!”

 

“What.” Sakura said, not daring to try and remove Hideo’s hands. His hair was distinctly unbrushed and his shirt had… something on it.

 

“Kimiko has been sleeping with me since we learned about Taro. I don’t-” Asano sounded confused.

 

“She was sleeping with you so that ‘you didn’t die’ according to her, and then you didn’t come home. Like Taro didn’t come home . How did you think she would respond you idiot!”

 

“I- I stay at Sakura’s all the time?”

 

Things are different now!” Hideo hissed, looking genuinely upset in a way that was far too private to show in public. Sakura couldn’t help but take a step back. Asano’s siblings were all rather terrible at thinking about how their actions affected the people around them. This was just one of many examples.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t- I’m sorry.” Asano said, looking somewhat baffled by the turn of events.

 

“I know you didn’t you idiot. Just a sec, Tou-san’s around here somewhere.” Hideo let go of his sister briefly to glance around, Sakura joined in to find Asano’s Dad asleep against a nearby tree. “TOU!”

 

Asano’s father was standing before them faster than Sakura’s eyes could follow, and upon seeing Asano, pulled her into a tight hug. He lifted her up and set her against his hip, which was odd to watch since Asano was fairly average for their age and Asano’s dad wasn’t super tall so they weren’t that far apart in height. Nonetheless as a shinobi, Asano’s dad had all the strength he needed to carry her however he wanted.

 

“Oh Sano, you can’t do that anymore. Kimiko was so scared,” Asano’s dad said to her rather surprised face. (“He’s saying that Kimiko was scared, but I get the feeling that she wasn’t the only one.” Inner observed from the safety of Sakura’s mind. Sakura agreed.)

 

“Tou-san,” Asano murmured, hugging her father tightly. “I need to go to class or we’ll be late. I’ll be home after school. Sakura’ll be with me.”

 

“That’s fine,” he said, placing Asano back onto the ground, “I’ve got to go. Just remember to be safe and remember-”

 

“I love you.” Asano blurt out, looking as surprised by her declaration as her father did.

 

“Of course you do,” he said after a moment, a small smile making the corner of his lips curl. He ruffled her hair, making her scowl ever so slightly despite the way it made her glow.

 

“You’re gonna get me in trouble with Ka-san for having messy hair.” Asano grumbled as she headed towards the school. Her father laughed and waved before he lept away.

 

“See ya’ later Hideo!” Asano shouted at her brother’s already distant form before turning back to Sakura. “Thanks for letting me stay over last night, I really needed it.”

 

“I know,” Sakura laughed, despite how awful yesterday had been. Asano hadn’t exactly been discrete yesterday.

 

Asano slides into her normal seat (by the window of course) and Sakura next to her.

 

“Is Shikamaru staring at you?” Sakura whispers after a moment, because it kind of felt like he was staring at one of them, and it wouldn’t really make sense for him to be staring at herself. Asano stiffened but didn’t look behind her.

 

“I hope not. That’d be weird.” She said after a moment, after another couple of seconds she relaxed and added, “it’s not like I can do anything about it if he is.”

 

The rest of the class slowly filed in, although Sakura noted that Shino was out today - probably at home sick. (Asano had pointed out that Shino got sick when the weather got colder as well, probably because of his bugs.) Finally when there was everyone in except Naruto, Iruka-sensei started lessons (a few minutes early actually). If anyone else was missing Sensei probably would have waited until it was officially time for lessons, but Naruto was late so often it wasn’t worth waiting for.

 

Today’s lesson was about hunting, killing, and cooking animals for the field trip they would be taking in a couple of weeks when it started to get warmer. The key pieces seemed to be that one should focus on making the animal’s death as painless as possible, and to remove their guts before cooking. Sensei explained that they would be working on stealth for the next couple of weeks so that they would be able to sneak up on the animals when the time came. Sakura was sceptical of how much they could improve in the next few weeks - most people in the class weren’t exactly quiet, herself and Asano included.

 

A few days later proved Sakura wrong.

 

Stealth was hard, and definitely not her strong point, but Asano was pretty good at it. Most of the class had pretty mixed results - Hinata and Kiba were both really good at it, Sasuke was hilariously terrible at it. The rest of the class was somewhere in between for the most part. Most of the civilian kids were pretty bad at it, even the orphans were better than the ones with parents. (Actually, the orphans, although mixed, seemed less disadvantaged here than most other subjects.)

 

Sensei explained that it was about being inconspicuous. You didn’t have to be silent, just unnoticeable. Indistinct. When Sakura heard this she felt less surprised that Asano wasn’t having much difficulty.

 

Naruto was being more disruptive than usual for some reason. He also was getting more obsessed with some stupid idea of being Hokage. He was stupidly loud about it, especially when Sensei was busy or out of the room. It was starting to drive Sakura crazy, and she’d noticed Asano twitching at it as well.

 

Sakura had other things on her mind though. Asano had taken Taro’s disapperane and decided she needed to be stronger. As she explained it, “pressure can make you break, or it can make you stronger than before. I’m not willing to break just yet.” This obviously meant that Sakura was also getting stronger now, and not without work put into it either.

 

“Sakura? Are you awake?” Asano poked her and Sakura groaned.

 

“No. I’m not awake.”

 

“It’s time to get up,” Asano was no doubt smiling to go along with that stupid sing-song voice. “There’s food warm and ready!”

 

“Go ‘way,” Sakura rolled over so she was facing the wall with her back to Asano.

 

“Nope!”

 

Sakura shivered as her blankets were suddenly pulled away from her.

 

“Nooooooooo…..” They both knew it was futile though. Sakura hoped that one day Asano would give up though. Just let them both die once they were fully qualified shinobi, it’d be worth it get another couple hours of sleep each morning for the next couple of years.

 

“UP!”

 

Sakura lurched in alarm and Asano took the chance to grab the arm previously curled tight against her chest and used it to tug her off the bed. At this point, Sakura gave all hope and stood up, but she made sure to loudly complain about painful bruise that would no doubt form where she had hit the floor.

 

“Yeah yeah yeah, let’s get going.” Asano says, helpfully tugging Sakura out the door while she struggles to pull on her sweatpants. (Oh glorious sweatpants, Sakura regrets holding out on buying a pair before now. She thought they looked too sloppy but 6am in Konoha wasn’t warm enough to avoid them.)

 

Once down in the kitchen Asano held out a plate of eggs and green things that Sakura’s still bleary eyes failed to distinguish. It wasn’t the best breakfast Sakura had ever had, but she hadn’t made it herself which made it about a thousand times better. As she ate, Sakura, and thus Inner started to wake up properly. (“ Wait…..” )

 

“Asano?”

 

“Yeah?” Asano turned off the water and turned away from the dirty dishes she was washing. (“So helpful!”)

 

“How… how did you get into my house?”

 

“Ahhhh-” Asano flushed and turned towards the sink to continue scrubbing the bits of egg stuck to the pan. “I might’ve stolen your keys yesterday. But only because you wouldn’t let me in yesterday morning!”

 

“I let you in eventually,” Sakura insisted through a mouthful of kale? Spinach? Seaweed? Clearly her mouth wasn’t awake yet. Asano sent a her a glare that made Sakura smile.

 

“Right, well I had to make sure that didn’t happen again. And of course we have twice as much work to do since we didn’t manage it yesterday.”

 

“You could’ve done it without me,” Sakura grumbled, handing Asano her empty plate and gulping down her glass of water.

 

“Of course I couldn’t, don’t be silly. Anyway, I was thinking we’ll stretch, then run, then do strength training before we meditate.”

 

“...That sounds like way too much. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to spread the work out.”

 

“You’re right, but we were supposed to do strength training yesterdays and missed it, and I can’t have you thinking it’s worth trying to skip. So today we’ll do both.” Asano finished in a satisfied tone. Sakura groans quietly, because Asano is never going to let her escape this until she is done with it. And Sakura likes sleeping. Sleep is good. Underrated. (Sakura had never been the kid to deny her afternoon nap, not until she started reading at least.)

 

Training grounds were made exclusively for ranked shinobi, the purpose behind that was likely so there was less worry about civilian spies or little kids getting in the way. Unfortunately that meant that the best place for them to exercise was at Asano’s house. Which was pretty crowded in the morning.

 

As they arrived Hideo and Asano’s Uncle were already there - though they moved when Asano’s Uncle saw her. Kimiko was sitting outside watching, and came to join them when Hideo and their Uncle wandered into the small forest behind the house. Poor Kimiko didn’t seem too much happier about being awake than Sakura was, but she refused to sleep when Asano wasn’t there.

 

The other day Asano’s parents had been outside exercising when they had arrived. It had actually been quite interesting to watch, it looked like the stretches they were doing were made to keep Asano’s mom’s legs from atrophying. Sakura had never really thought about such a thing before, Asano had already explained that her mom couldn’t walk, Sakura hadn’t thought about it much beyond that.

 

“Stretching first?” Sakura asked through a yawn as the sunrise blinded her.

 

Asano agreed and they sat on the (luckily dry) grass. Asano led the stretches, running through half a dozen automatically, each to the count of eight. (Why eight? Sakura had no idea. Maybe because it was twice four, and four was death?) After that Asano slowed down a bit, clearly trying to remember what came next.

 

The stretches were strange, and Sakura got the feeling it was a conglomeration of a wide range of different styles. As pre-teen girls, both Sakura and Asano were fairly flexible, and as Asano had pointed out several days ago, they should probably take advantage of that. Sakura remembered her Mom being rather flexible, so they planned on asking her for advice when she got home.

 

To Asano’s disappointment her own parents weren’t much help when it came to flexibility. Neither of them had been able to remember the stretches they’d been taught as genin (thought they had excused it as the war making it hard to have a clear education). Asano’s mother had a much stronger focus on strength and stamina when she had been an active duty shinobi, and her father was something of a ‘jack of all trades’ (one of Asano’s terms, but Sakura liked it more than most of them).

 

Running wasn’t new, like everything else, and Sakura enjoyed it a lot more. Perhaps in part because while Asano was annoyingly flexible, she was even worse than Sakura at running. Neither of them were great at it, so it wasn’t a huge accomplishment to be sure, but it was nice to be better than Asano at something .

 

“Hey Sakura?” Asano panted, from somewhere behind her.

 

“Yeah?” Sakura asked, trying to make sure she maintained an ‘upright posture’, something that she still sometimes forgot and then proceeded to lose points on because Sensei was ruthless .

 

“I hate you,” Asano announced, finishing one part of their daily routine. She always hated Sakura during the runs, but at some point before they had to seperate Asano would give her a tight (and often sweaty) hug and whisper “I love you,” into her ear.

 

It wasn’t romantic. They weren’t like that, they were 10 after all, it always felt odd to Sakura, who didn’t come from a particularly verbal family. Sakura had seen Asano do the same to just about everyone else in her family (except for her Uncle, which was understandable because he was both new and strange). It still felt weird to be on the receiving end though.

 

“I know,” Sakura agreed, and waved at the wall guard as they passed. Running on the Konoha wall was hard. Konoha was not a small place, but they had agreed to work up to it, so instead they ran from the edge of wall near Asano’s house, over the part of the wall that was closest to Sakura’s house (but still not that close since Sakura lived in inner Konoha) and then they ran back if they could manage. It was a bit embarrassing to be so obviously out of breath from just running a third of the wall, but it was better than the eighth that Asano had collapsed at the end of when they were starting.

 

“Just so we’re clear.” Asano confirmed before pulling Sakura into a surprise sweaty hug - her least favourite kind. “You’ve got my sweat on you!” Asano shouted, pulling Sakura to the ground from behind before sprinting ahead. (“ EW!” Inner screamed, as Sakura very much wanted to.) Instead she stood up and went to chase after her no-good-very-bad-extra-terrible best friend.

 

It was a struggle, as it always was. Her lungs were uncomfortably tight and her whole body felt too hot.

 

“I! AM!” Sakura paused shouting so she could breath, Asano already growing closer, “TO! KILL! Ohmygod,” Sakura stopped running and walked slowly as a cramp attacked her side. Freaking cramps. Despite her loss of motivation Sakura couldn’t just give up on her declaration, “YOU!”

 

She could hear Asano laughing from here.

 

She could also see that Asano had just tripped up against the edge of the wall while laughing and was now looking very dead. (“Serves her right.” Inner declared, still looking fairly pristine. It really wasn’t fair.)

 

A green blur darted past. A shinobi that had never stopped to say high, but passed them every morning they ran. Multiple times. Sakura ignored it with her steadily growing experience. But god did she hate running.

 

They didn’t manage to fit strength training in that morning, Asano’s mother insisting they both eat breakfast and leave on time for the academy (to Sakura’s great relief). Asano, always a touch weak willing when it came to exercise, despite appearances, relented. They wouldn’t have to do a double session to catch up unless Sakura missed another day.

 

(Sakura didn’t much like exercising, but she didn’t mind the feeling that came after. The one she got after a run when her whole body felt like it was singing and she could feel her chakra thrumming inside her and all of her senses were sharper. Or when she finished showering and changing into the clothes she kept at Asano’s and her hair was wet and she was clean, but she could feel a slight soreness in her legs. She didn’t much like exercising, but she quite enjoyed the effects.)

 

 

Chapter Text

Time passes, as time does, but the wounds of Taro’s disappearance don’t heal quite like they should. Shoichi’s not sure if his children have noticed, but Yoko certainly has. None of the kids have ever suffered a loss like this one before, so he wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t recognise the way the pain of his disappearance fails to become normal. It takes months to stop setting a place for him at dinner, or buy enough food for 6 people instead of 7.

 

Yohei barely seems to recognise that Taro’s gone, but then again, they hadn’t known each other all that well despite living in the same house for months (years? Shoichi’s not sure, Yohei just feels like a fixture in their lives).

 

There is no funeral for Taro, he’s not been announced dead after all. There’s no gravestone or ashes, his name isn’t on the memorial stone. He’s just… missing.

 

Kimiko has the hardest time, she can’t tell the difference between ‘missing’ as in Hideo forgot to warn anyone that he had to go to the store after school, or Shoichi’s mission ran late, and Taro’s ‘missing’ and being gone forever. She doesn’t understand why everyone is acting like he’s dead. No one is quite willing to explain in detail that if he’s not dead, then something worse has happened.

 

Asano runs into Shoichi’s room one day, sobbing uncontrollably. Between sobs she explained that she had found a book Taro would’ve liked and had gone to share it with him. She’d forgotten until she’d opened the door to his room. Shoichi holds her tightly, and doesn’t mention that Yoko still washes Taro’s sheets, and dusts off his desk. (Taro had been so excited when he’d gotten the hardwood desk for his birthday. He’d enjoyed filling the drawers with clutter and covering its surface in clothes, mission gear, and notes about potential specialisations in the future.)

 

Shoichi can hardly bare to think about the idea that Taro could be alive. He could be a missing-nin. He could’ve been captured and no one is looking for him. He could be in a coma in a far off civilian village. He could have amnesia and can’t remember where Konoha is, or why he needs to return. The thought of if hurts. It hurts so much .

 

It brings back memories of Asano’s birth, of the uncertainty of her life hanging over his head.

 

Some days Shoichi can barely function. Yoko is not immune to the pain of losing Taro, but she responds to it differently. She’s started to work on her chakra control to see if she can be a healer, she’s started borrowing Asano’s textbooks to see if she could be an academy teacher. Shoichi doesn’t bother to point out that they’ll never accept her in either. Medics need to be able to move quickly, to be reach the operating table, which is too tall for Yoko in her wheelchair. Teachers need to be able to protect students in a time of crisis. They need to be able to seperate fights.

 

Hideo graduates.

 

He’s not top of his class, like Taro was, but he’s in the top half. His team fails their sensei’s test though, and Hideo returns to the academy for one more term with the 33 other students who failed. He’ll retake the graduation exam and go onto a new team at the end of it, so Shoichi’s not too worried.

 

(Shoichi tries not to think about what would’ve happened if Taro hadn’t become a shinobi. He’d always known it wasn’t something Taro was excited for, not the way Asano was. He wonders if Yoko had thought about trying to push Taro to become a medic like he had wanted to. He can’t let himself go down that path though.)

 

Shoichi stands, pokes his current teammate, Santa Yamanaka, awake.

 

“It’s your shift.”

 

“Right right, give me a moment please.” The other man groans, and Shoichi take that time to tuck the sword he had sitting next to him back into the sheath. He’s not great at kenjutsu, but it's something he’s decided to practice in his free time. It’s always good to practice new skills. It couldn’t hurt to have a non-chakra based weapon either. (Was that what happened? Did Taro run out of chakra?)

 

Yamanaka sat and stretched slowly, no doubt he could be ready in a second if he had to, but Shoichi saw no reason to make the man’s life any more difficult. Unfortunately Shoichi couldn’t relax until his replacement was ready. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep either way, but it was always important to rest, even if genuine sleep refused to come.

 

After a few minutes the other man was ready, hair back in a ponytail and kunai in hand and Shoichi was able to crawl under his blankets and close his eyes.

 

In his dreams Taro returned home, happier than Shoichi had seen him in ages. On the whole it was a pleasant dream, but each action was tinged by a sort of lingering fear. What if Taro’s attempts to quit shinobi work failed? What if Yoko got mad at him? What if Asano stopped respecting her older brother? What if all his other children followed and the Hokage thought that Shoichi had poisoned his children against the shinobi lifestyle?

 

Waking up was almost a relief. (Oh but it hurt so much, to know that Taro would never again sneak in the front door and try to hide in his room before Yoko called him to help her with something.)

 

The mission was not the most pleasant ever, one of Konoha’s informants had started double dealing information, and it was Yamanaka’s job to figure out who it was to. Shoichi wasn’t qualified to perform physical interrogation, but he was decently skilled at soft interrogation which mostly relied on seeking reliable and reasonable.

 

Their third on the mission would’ve been an Uchiha, before the massacre. Shoichi couldn’t say how exactly knew that, but he’d had such missions before. Uchiha were good for these missions maybe. Either way, he could feel the hole that Takibi Uchiha left. (God it’s been year since he died. It hasn’t felt that long.) Instead they had a new chunin name Chuugo, and orphan probably, based on the lack of last name.

 

It was a B-rank mission despite the lack of fighting expected, no one wanted genin to accidentally end up with a mission like this, where their target was often dead by the end of it. It was almost worse than an assassination mission, because of the interrogation that happened before the target could be allowed to die.

 

“Sakurai?” Yamanaka asked from his place at the head of their group.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Have you heard any reports of bandits in the area?”

 

“No, why?”

 

“I just saw a rusty sword stuck to a tree a short ways back.”

 

“Aah,” Shoichi responded noncommittally. Rusty swords was a rather cliche mark for bandits.

 

“You’ve made your first kill right, Chuugo?” Yamanaka asked and Shoichi nearly scoffed at the idea of being a chunin before having your first kill. Except… it wasn’t quite so impossible now, as it had been when Shoichi was younger… Oh Kami. He’s been a shinobi for 20 years now. (He’s almost as old as his mother was, when she died.)

 

“Yeah,” Chuugo said and Shoichi could almost sigh. The tone of voice very clearly said that he had killed… just not very much.

 

“The mission isn’t very time sensitive.” Shoichi said, mostly because he knew Yamanaka was already thinking it.

 

“You’re right Shoichi, we should go have a look around!” Yamanaka sent a cheeky smile that Shoichi scowled at. He didn’t dislike this particularly Yamanaka, but did he have to be so nosey. Their mission wasn’t about any bandits. And they could set it as a C-rank mission for genin who needed to make their first kill when they got back.

 

Instead, Shoichi knew that if he protested Yamanaka would preach social responsibility. He would talk about how much easier we could make life for others by taking care of it now - if they was indeed anything to take care of. Shoichi would, of course, be forced to relent because he couldn’t exactly say that he didn’t care whatsoever about Konoha and it could go fuck itself because they let his brother, mother, and son all die and disappear. That wouldn’t exactly go over well.

 

So Shoichi scowled and grumbled, all the while well aware that Yamanaka knew it was a persona. Yamanaka just had the wrong idea of what it was covering, that was all. For some reason, through the dozen or so missions they’d completed together, Yamanaka had developed this idea that I was a grouchy old man with a heart of gold, or something like that at least.

 

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Chuugo asked, looking rather uncertain as Yamanaka started to shift aim towards the left where he had presumably seen the rusty sword in question.

 

“Nope,” Shoichi assured, “but it’s the sort of thing do gooders like Yamanaka insist upon.” After a pause he added, “don’t worry, you probably won’t die.” Actually… that probably didn’t sound particularly reassuring either. Oh well.

 

“Do gooder?” Chuugo quietly echoed, sounding confused. Shoichi winced, he never meant to use Asano’s strange made up terms, but somehow one would sneak in on occasion.

 

“Sakurai, get up here!” Yamanaka shouted, sounding rather more serious than just bandits deserved. Then again, Yamanaka took his duties as a helpful shinobi very seriously, so it doesn't necessarily mean that something had gone wrong…

 

If only Shoichi was so lucky as a person.

 

Before Shoichi even managed to take the three seconds to reach Yamanaka there was a flurry of kunai coming down upon them. Kunai in general weren’t particularly dangerous to high level chunin and above, meaning Yamanaka and Shoich could both dodge them fairly easily. Chuugo, on the other hand, got hit at least once. Shoichi could hear the wet ch-thunk sound of a kunai impaling flesh, and the soft

 

Fuck ,” that came with pain softed with adrenaline. Shoichi echoed Chuugo, no one wanted to deal with missing-nin with new chunin. (Please don’t let Taro be one of the missing-nin.) At least Chuugo wasn’t a genin, Shoichi had been saved at least that much.

 

Shoichi wasn’t a chakra sensor. That said, almost any shinobi who’s survived long enough starts to develop… well something of a detection. There were levels of it, of course. Some people got so good at it they became classified as a sensor, some people never developed it at all. Shoichi was, as per usual, in between and could feel the group of five shinobi ahead of them, now that he was aware that they existed.

 

Groups of five were most common in Iwa, where chunin made up squadrons of five and troops of 15. Konoha, Shoichi could happily admit, did not have a lot of missing-nin. (Although the ones Konoha did have seemed to be abnormally strong, which was… not great.) Kiri probably had the most defectors and betrayers… for obvious reasons. Iwa though, Iwa probably had the least number of missing-nin of any of the major villages. Shoichi wasn’t sure why, but defecting from Iwa just didn’t happen that often. Or maybe it was just that the defectors didn’t last long enough to be noticed.

 

Shoichi felt a twitch in one of their enemies chakra.

 

On something even more base than instinct Shoichi’s body moved, his feet repelled against the branch, his arms raised to grab a nearby branch and he swung himself as far out of range as he could manage. Just in time to see the needle sharp earth spear straight through puncturing the branch he’d been standing on.

 

Shoichi was bored on fighting honestly. He’d been fighting since he was nine, killing has stopped being traumatising, adrenaline has stopped making him grin with the feeling that he could fight anyone . Shoichi was used to fighting.

 

He was scared of war though.

 

“Non-lethal takedown only !” He shouted, despite the knowledge that their enemies may have heard him. He couldn’t risk not telling them in time. He couldn’t see them so he couldn’t sign them, Shuugo hadn’t been a chunin long enough to know all the chunin voice calls.

 

The Iwa nin team was situated on the ground, and as Konoha nin his team was far safer in the trees. That would be okay for Yamanaka who was a long distance fighter and himself who was mid-ranged. Chuugo though was both the weakest, and the closest range with a taijutsu focus.

 

Shit .

 

(Would he let the squad die to prevent another war? If it came down to that? Or would he be another White Fang?)

 

Shoichi dropped to the bottom layer of branches, just out of the Iwa nin’s sight. He couldn’t see any headbands. Double shit .

 

(Three men, two women. At least one taijutsu specialist and a kenjutsu user. All of them have darker skin tones which means they definitely aren’t from somewhere like the Land of Snow, and they probably aren’t from Land of Lightning which tends towards even darker tones. They could - theoretically be from Kiri though, just based on skin tone.

 

Two different members have dark red hair - a signature of Iwa blood.)

 

Shoichi ran through the hand signs he knew better than his own children. RatRatBoar

 

“Fire thread jutsu ” It was a containment jutsu that didn’t work all that well on its own, but he’d worked enough with Yamanaka to know that the man’s genjutsu worked a charm with his own ninjutsu. The thin line of fire coming from Shoichi’s mouth made a gentle loop around the squad just above ground level.

 

Sable flesh.” Yamanaka whispered from the other side of the Iwa nin. God the Yamanaka whisper projection was so creepy. Sable flesh was a genjutsu that Yamanaka got from his clan. Shoichi doesn’t know what it does, and he doesn’t really want to. All he wants to say is never fuck with a Yamanaka. They are terrifying.

 

“Tell Chuugo to stay back, he’ll just get hurt in this fight if he has to hold back and they don’t.” Shoichi whispered to the empty hair and hoped that Yamanaka could pass on the message. Chuugo would get hurt either way, these guys are working together like they’ve trained since they were four. Which they very well might’ve, Konoha’s intelligence on Iwa training was lacking.

 

“Where the fuck did they go, Asshole?” One of the women hissed to a tall, rather thin man wearing a worn chunin vest (neutral colouring without any village association). Some teams have different types of interaction. Shoichi, as a team jumper knew that better than most. Despite the course language there was a certain lack of tension that only came from weakness or feelings of safety.

 

It made sense of them to not be concerned, there weren’t a lot of Konoha shinobi in this area usually. More genin and missing-nin than anyone else.

 

“Gimme a sec, I’m not a sensor you know!”

 

“Of course I know, I’m just saying, do your ‘not sensing’ faster .”

 

Shoichi could see as the genjutsu hooked them. The loud woman’s eyes bulged and a shaky breath was released. The tall taijutsu focused man looked sharply to the side so faster Shoichi wondered if he would break his own neck. That would make things a lot easier.

 

One of the great downsides of genjutsu was that it was a bit like poison, and took awhile to take effect. Another downside was that it affected people at different rates. Like a taller man would take longer to be taken down by poison, a smarter or better trained person would last longer against genjutsu. Only milliseconds longer, but that could be enough for things to go fucking terrible.

 

“There’s something wrong.” ‘Asshole’ hissed as the rest of his already lost squad. “Oh fuck.” ‘Asshole’s eyes crossed briefly before returning to normal.

 

Shoichi jerks his head back his hisses in through his teeth, tightening the fire thread around the group so that it lightly touched those furthest out. Their clothes start to smolder and the four under the genjutsu shuffle in like cattle.

 

“YOU FUCKING ASSHOLES!” are the last words on the tall man’s behalf before this eyes glaze over and his breath becomes eerily rhythmic.

 

“Alright, Chuugo, are you good for some easy knockouts?” Shoichi says through his teeth once they’re as close together as possible and the genjutsu continues to hold.

 

“Yep, on it!” Chuugo drops down from above, making Shoichi frown. He was supposed to be out of the way. If things had gone badly, just out of sight in the trees wouldn’t have been nearly far enough away. Chuugo pulls out the lastest knockout breathalyzer, made for the one in a hundred times that your victims are already unable to fight you.

 

All Shoichi can think is that Taro would’ve been so much smarter. (Hideo won’t though, Hideo will make those silly mistakes and believe the ads suppliers hand away, he’ll be smart about action though. He’s got a decent head on his shoulders when it comes down to it.)

 

Once Chuugo has safely put the end of the breathalyzer into the Iwa nins’ mouths and held it there for 10 to 15 seconds to ensure they’ll be out for at least another 10 hours, Shoichi relaxes, a little.

 

“Yamanaka, we need to return them to Konoha before we continue.” Shoichi says, jumping the last couple of steps towards the shinobi.

 

Yamanaka jumps down from his low branch that from Shoichi’s current position is completely obscured by a stupidly fluffy branch of leaves. He’s frowning.

 

“This mission isn’t urgent but it shouldn’t be delayed either,” Yamaka says, letting out a tense hiss before continuing. “There was something wrong with them. They didn’t.. Feel right. I don’t-” Shoichi raises an eyebrow, a Yamanaka, lacking the words to describe someone?

 

“We definitely need to get them back to Konoha, but we should go fast.” Yamanaka glances at their enemies unconscious figures. “For multiple reasons.”

 

The mission as a whole was scheduled to take between one and two weeks, depending on who the contact had sold information to. Travelling to the town he was usually stationed in would only take three days, and they were on the second.

 

“Chuugo, do you have any capture scrolls?” Shoichi asked, looking at the five. Unfortunately, neither Shoichi nor Yamanaka knew enough sealing to make one, and Shoichi would eat his exploding tags if Chuugo did.

 

“No, should I?”

 

“Nah, neither do I, it’s not worth doing unless you’re expecting to need them.” Shoichi said, eyeing Chuugo. He wasn’t particularly tall, but as a taijutsu specialised shinobi he would be able to carry at least one, but either way he’d be basically useless in a fight so he might as well carry two.

 

“I don’t either,” Yamanaka said, for nor reason since Shoichi already knew that. They had run missions together after all. “The scrolls are pretty expensive but they’re good if you don’t have a medic and someone’s at risk of being seriously injured.”

 

Chuugo looks interested in the new information but Shoichi is too busy worrying to pay much attention. Yamanaka was right, there is something wrong.

 

On first, second, and third glances they look like Iwa nin. Except. The sword that the kenjutsu user has is more popular in Kumo than Iwa. The tall man, the one who lasted the longest, is wearing a shirt with material found in Kiri.

 

There’s nothing to be done about that though. Maybe they really are missing-nin, the kind of trash that doesn’t even acknowledge their own village with a line through their hitai-ate. Or.

 

“Yamanaka, I want you to be on guard, you’re right that something doesn’t fit here. It might be a trap. I’ll carry two, Chuugo, I want you to carry two, and Yamanaka, you take the back and let us know if they start to wake up.” Technically, Yamanaka is the lead for the mission, but luckily he trusts Shoichi to know what he’s doing.

 

“Alright, fine, let’s get going.” Yamanaka says, his nerves showing in the way he tightens his ponytail. Chuugo checks his pouch, a good habit that Shoichi had never quite mastered.

 

“Let’s do this quickly, I don’t want to risk them waking up. We’ll need to go full speed and in eight hours Chuugo’ll give them another dose.” That’ll make things dangerous if they do somehow wake up, but it’s their best chance to get them back easily. Chuugo’s unlikely to have enough of the knockout gas to last five people three days so they need to go fast.

 

“Is there somewhere we can call for backup?” Chuugo asks, looking uncertain as he and Yamanaka work together to get one of the assumed Iwa-nin over his shoulder.

 

“Not really,” Yamanaka sighs, “the closest one is more than five hours away, and even if they did have shinobi to spare, going that way would be a bad idea. As you get closer to the border the chances of running into trouble increases. Besides, Sakurai and myself are more skilled than most of the shinobi on the border would likely be.”

 

Shoichi lifts a shinobi onto each shoulder, his chakra automatically heping stabilise a little. Although they’re both heavy, Shoichi is more worried about how awkward carrying two full sized adults is going to be when it comes to jumping through the trees. Great .

 

For three hours it’s exactly as bad as he expected. He’s in the lead, so it’s his job to push stray branches off the path and to scout, which is difficult with a body on each shoulder blocking his view. The weight isn’t impossible to manage, but it’s not easy either. Shoichi isn’t a taijutsu expert, and carrying twice his own weight is no mean feat. He’s draining chakra to keep himself from wobbling or dropping them, and they had already been running for several hours before Yamanaka saw the sword.

 

Then things go from awkward to terrible, because that’s how Shoichi’s life goes.

 

“Warning!” Yamanaka shouts, with just enough time for Shoichi to think:

 

“?!” before the body on his right shoulder twitches and everything goes to hell.

 

His right arm gets pushed off and Shoichi hears a growl. He turns and finds that the young man with tanned skin and dark brown hair has become… something decidedly different. There’s some sort of spreading tattoo that’s crossing over the man’s face, a simple circular pattern.

 

There is a brief moment of pause as the man looks around, the whites of his eyes dark. Shoichi hears Chuugo curse, followed by the sound of someone falling through roughage.

 

The body on his left shoulder twitches as well, but Shoichi is busy dodging the sword that the man is currently swinging at him. Shoichi’s own sword is sealed, and wouldn’t be much use anyway as he’s still got his left hand around the body on his left shoulder.

 

That’s going to make sealing hard too.

 

Shoichi jumps towards the man. He has a kunai in hand, and his leg out to kick the man in the head. The man dodges Shoichi’s kick, but some of his chest length hair flutters down as the kunai scores his collar bone.

 

“Fuck you old man, that took forever to grow out!” The man growls, throwing himself at Shoichi with alarming speed. Shoichi ducks back. The sword hits a tree on the far side of the swing. The man yanks the sword out as Shoichi throws a hand of kunai at the man.

 

“What’s goin’ on Ikari?” A high, feminine voice next to Shoichi’s ear asks. Shoichi throws her off his shoulder and jumps back. The man dodges the kunai, but his eyes are on the girl.

 

“Just some Konoha bitch, nothin’ serious.” The man, Ikari presumably, answers, throwing some shuriken with one hand, and swinging his sword with another. Shoichi glances at the girl, she too has the strange markings on her face and the visible parts of her right side. It’s spreading, on both of them.

 

The chances that they’re Iwa nin are low, maybe 30%. That said, if Konoha shinobi kill five special Iwa nin, there will be a war. The problem is that whoever these shinobi are, they aren’t against killing him.

 

Shoichi dodges another sword swing. He jumps up, the girl’s out of sight though and when he turns to look her armoured fist hits his cheek bone.

 

His vision goes blurry; the pain is rather distracting. Shoichi’s kunai skewers the girl just below the sternum.Her red shirt darkens with blood as Shoichi pulls the kunai and stabs her again, hitting the bone this time.

 

“Ow.” The girl spits blood, but she doesn’t look alarmed or dead enough for Shoichi’s peace of mind. The markings are almost fully across her face and Shoichi doesn’t want to see what happens when they finish.

 

“Fire spear!” Shoichi shouts, too distracted to lower his voice. BoarHorseBoar. The girl jumps to the side but she stumbles slightly on the landing and the crackle of burning flesh makes Shoichi smile.

 

Anyone who’s been a shinobi long enough knows not to fight a Konoha shinobi in a forest.

 

Shoichi turns to find the man, Ikari, again but as he turns he feels the iron cut his side. Shoichi jumps back again, feet finding branch again. A deep breath reassures him that his lungs are still fully functioning but the spike of aderaline is narrowing his vision.

 

Shoichi pulls out an exploding tag and attaches it to a kunai, throwing it next to Ikari with a pulse of chakra. Ikari jumps forwards, slashing his sword just a finger width away from Shoichi’s chest as he jumps back again.

 

“Darting shadows!” A female voice shouts, followed by a wet cough. Shoichi glances around, but perhaps as expected the darker parts of the trees have become shadows. The whole thing is dizzying and Shoichi takes a moment to-

 

“Kai!” Yamanaka’s voice shouts as his hand lands on Shoichi’s shoulder. The fluxiation in chakra makes Shoichi’s grasp on the branch slip and he falls down to a lower limb. The sound of Shoichi’s exploding kunai fills the background.

 

“How’s Chuugo doing?” Shoichi asks what he hopes is a shadow clone. Yamanaka lands next to him and shrugs,

 

“Not great, but we’re managing. You looked like you needed some help though.”

 

“I was doing fine until-” The girl and Ikari burst out the trees at the same time. The girl’s hands are clasped together in preparation. Shoichi and Yamanaka jump away in seperate directions as a earth spear breaks through the leaves.

 

The girl follows Yamanaka.

 

Ikari has pulled out a kunai that he has in his left hand while he continues to hold his sword in his right. The markings on Ikari’s face are completely covering him, but nothing more seems to be happening, thankfully .

 

For the next few minutes there is nothing more than dodging. Ikari isn’t fantastic with his sword, but he’s good enough that between that, his own blurry vision, and the pain whenever his side moves, Shoichi can’t grab any of his kunai. That leaves him down to ninjutsu, of which he has limited chakra.

 

“Fire thread!” Shoichi winces at the pain in his side, but fire thread is one of the lowest chakra consuming elemental ninjutsu around. The fire loops around Ikari too slowly though and the man jumps up to the next layer of branches to avoid it. Shoichi keeps pushing chakra into, but draws it closer as he follows the man so it doesn’t catch the trees on fire.

 

Fire thread works best as a surprise move but, even if a fight it works decently. When Shoichi jumps through the branches he can see Ikari running to help one of his fellows.

 

Shoichi pushes the thread forward, hissing out breath. The thread loops around his sword arm, pulling back and burning the skin.

 

“Oh fuck!” Ikari spins around, the fire thread pulling tighter. Shoichi pulls a poisoned senbon out the inner pocket of his pouch and darts under Ikari’s swinging sword. The senbon goes through Ikari’s neck, only stopping when it reaches the back his throat, hitting the spine.

 

“Phase two, fucker!” Ikari shouts, dropping his sword and drawing his hands into ram position. Ikari shudders.

 

Shoichi immediately grabs a kunai and stabs him repeatedly in the chest.

 

Ikari’s face goes slack and he falls to the ground below. Shoichi follows after,

 

“Cremation!” Basically the only use of the jutsu is on the dead, it’s not the fastest jutsu around, but if you get hit by it and you aren’t dead-

 

Oh fuck. Shoichi was supposed to leave him alive, wasn’t he. Damn. Shoichi turns and blows the blue flames into the trees, which instantly start to burn. Fuck .

 

Shoichi pulls out a body scroll and pulls it open, finally reaching the ground. If Ikari wasn’t dead before, he sure is now. His skin is almost red and something that looks like horns have started to grow. His neck is broken though, from the landing. Shoichi dumps his body into the scroll and runs to join Chuugo and Yamanaka.

 

By the time he arrives, the fight has already ended.

 

Chuugo is dead. Yamanaka is injured, a kunai in on leg - self inflicted, and another in his shoulder. There’s dirt covering them both, and only one of the supposed Iwa nin are still alive.

 

“Well.” Shoichi sighs, looking at the clusterfuck, “we’ll just have to pretend Konoha never saw them. Come on, let’s load them up.” Shoichi pulls out the same body scroll. You can fit up to 15 people in a body scroll, compared to the two-per for living scrolls it’s a much better deal.

 

“I have a seperate one to put Chuugo in,” Yamanaka says, sounding sad as he gently place the new chunin, barely more than a boy in.  “He tried to be a hero.” Shoichi nods sympathetically, clearly it didn’t work out like the boy had hoped.

 

“That’s probably a good idea,” Shoichi nods, “they’ve done something freaky to themselves. We’ll probably have to talk to T&I about that.” Yamanaka nods, the other woman that Shoichi hadn’t fought looks like she completely changed.

 

The only one still alive has been knocked out again, this time rather physically judging by the bloody stain on the back of his head.

 

“Should I carry him?” Yamanaka asks, nodding to him. Shoichi pauses, then nods.

 

“Yeah, if he wakes up again I can use fire thread. Oh- I started a fire down below. Do you have any earth jutsu?”

 

“Uh, one. It’s not great though.” Yamanaka winces, throwing the likely concussed enemy over his shoulder. Shoichi nods,

 

“I started using cremation before I remembered to store the body.” One the advantages of creatmation is that it doesn’t spread that much, as long as they don’t leave it too long.

 

“Alright, let’s go take care of that.” Yamanaka says, frowning as he tucks Chuugo’s scroll back in his vest.

 

When Shoichi finishes speaking with the Hokage, and visiting the hospital, his family are just starting to wake up. He kisses them each goodbye as they leave, and he pauses outside of Taro’s door before going to bed.



Chapter Text

“There’s something special about chakra.” Sakura murmured, eyes glued to the glow of Hideo’s hand. Asano made a noise of agreement, Hideo laughed.

 

“It’s not that special,” Hideo paused, looking at his own hand for a moment, “it feels like it at the beginning though. So enjoy the feeling while you can.” Sakura shook her head,

 

“It’s gonna feel like this forever.” There was so much opportunity in that blue glow.

 

“Now remember, this is not, not, not, the same as your medical books ‘mystic palm’. All I’m doing is channeling a lot of chakra to my hand to make it visible. Do not try to heal someone like this. In fact, don’t try to heal anyone at all until you’ve been trained at the hospital and gotten approval. Medical chakra gone wrong is really dangerous.” Hideo said, giving a pointed look at each of them.

 

Sakura stared at Hideo, doing her best to keep her face unamused. She knew that. Obviously.

 

“Duhhhh,” Asano said, drawing it out long it enough it became funny, then awkward, and then funny again, “hhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Sakura smirked.

 

“Alright, fine then, don’t listen to your older brother, just trying to pass on some of his infinite wisdom to his younger sister and his adopted younger sister.”

 

“You’re a less than a full year older than me,” Sakura pointed out, enjoying the look of exaggerated betrayal on Hideo’s face.

 

“Come on Hideo, Ka-san’s gonna call us in soon, hurry up.” Asano pushed, a weird look on her face.

 

“Alright, so remember that if you start to get tired while channeling chakra, take a break for the rest of the day. I didn’t know it when I started, but chakra exhaustion is really dangerous, and Asano,” Hideo sent Asano a pointed look, “you’ll be at a much higher risk from it. I’m serious here, you’d probably have to go to the hospital if you got it.”

 

“Why is that?” Sakura asked, curious. She didn’t know much about chakra exhaustion, there wasn’t much about it in the book she’d found. (All of the books that talked about chakra beyond: “you’ll learn about this in the academy” required a higher level of clearance than ‘Academy Student’. Shame.)

 

“I’m not really sure? I know that chakra is a bit like blood, a bit like a muscle, and in certain situations you can get an addictive high from chakra exhaustion. For Asano, Ka-san warned me ages ago about it, in case she tried something like I did.”

 

Sakura was not satisfied with that answer, for a number of reasons really. It sounded interesting to learn about, but also any risk to Asano needed to me looked into. Maybe she could make a jutsu using chakra exhaustion? (Someone else’s chakra exhaustion, obviously.) Inner continued to ponder it while Sakura tried to focus on Hideo’s speech.

 

“So to start learning to channel chakra, the easiest thing is to learn an easy jutsu. It seems weird, but jutsu are something that the academy has been sneakily teaching you how to do since you started, so it’ll be nearly automatic to use chakra there. After that you have to try and find the feeling of chakra when you use it. That’ll take a while…” Hideo trailed off for a moment, “I’ll probably be a genin before you can do that consistently.”

 

Sakura and Asano shared a look, they were, after all, very well motivated. Asano had finally started to get “feedback” on her seals. Not like, a person telling her things feedback, but something else. Sakura never really understood what Asano was going on about when she talked about it.

 

Hideo had been right, almost. Sakura successfully used the transformation jutsu three days after Hideo’s graduation. Unfortunately he returned to the academy a week later, and only a few days after that, Asano successfully used the clone jutsu.

 

It was strange for both of them. Both Sakura and Asano had found learning things… easy. In general at least. Sakura was excellent at memorisation, and Asano usually only had to read over the explanation once and then work through a few questions before she had the topic mastered. (At least, as far as Sakura could tell. In all honesty, Asano could be staying up late at night to understand the work, and was just pretending to be as good as she was… That seemed unlikely though.)

 

After that, it had taken another month before Sakura could feel the chakra move inside her as she performed the transformation jutsu. It was a strange feeling. It was a bit like having a gulp of cold water on a hot day, when she could feel the water as it slid down her throat, cooling her body around it. That wasn’t exactly right, though. Sakura tried to explain it to Asano, and failed. It just wasn’t really something that could be explained. It was like trying to explain breathing .

 

Sakura found that meditating helped her find it, and oddly enough, so did exercising. She hadn’t noticed at first, but during their morning runs (which Sakura would deny enjoying to her dying day!) she had started to feel a pulsing, beating thrum inside her, similar yet separate from the blood that made her face flush and body heat.

 

Asano still hadn’t managed to find it though. She could use the clone jutsu, but she was struggling with feeling the chakra itself.

 

Hideo had suggested that Asano get help from their mother, since it was possible that her difficulties were an effect of all her other issues, Asano turned it down though.

 

Iruka-sensei started talking about darker topics at school. It was always in a light hearted way, and it felt to Sakura a bit like no one else noticed. Except… Asano definitely did. Sakura hadn’t even noticed at first, as Iruka-sensei explained that someone could bite off their own tongue to commit suicide. It was gruesome, but Iruka-sensei had already gone over the places you stabbed to kill, and the places you stabbed to maim, and the places to stabbed to limit damage and so on. Asano though, her face had gone white and small beads of sweat had gathered on her hair line.

 

“I think Iruka-sensei is going to talk about getting captured by enemy combatants soon,” Asano had mentioned off hand after class, and she was right. He had told them that suicide was an acceptable option, that telling the enemy classified information was not. He said that their families would get paid if they died honourably. (Asano had stiffened when he had said that shinobi who share secrets are considered missing-nin, no matter the cause, and that their families would be dishonored by this.)

 

It was after one such lesson that Asano started meditating, and when she shook Sakura out of her own revere, she was grinning.

 

“I got it.” She said, “I got it, I got it, I got it!” Sakura smiled and congratulated her, all the while wondering why Asano had thought that she maybe hadn’t ‘gotten it’. If Asano didn’t have chakra, she’d be dead . That was the whole point wasn’t it? Asano’s new doctor had said that most of the children who had died had stopped producing chakra because some reason or another. (Sakura had been rather distracted by the sport balls Asano had been throwing at her during the conversation.)

 

Most of the time, Sakura and Asano would meditate in a small grove of trees near a civilian playground. It was calm, and the forest kept the summer weather cooler. Hideo would always smile indulgently, as if he were ten years older, not just a few months, whenever he found them there. Sometimes his eyes would be soft, and had that sad, shiny look to them. Sakura suspected it had something to do with Taro, but didn’t ask.

 

Asano didn’t talk about Taro. As far as Sakura could tell, she didn’t think about Taro either. Sakura had kept a lookout for the kind of ‘troubling behaviour’ Iruka-sensei had mentioned some shinobi developed. Asano didn’t grow more quiet, even if Sakura sometimes wished she would. Asano didn’t separate herself from her friend or family, to Sakura’s great relief, and she hadn’t shown any level of discontent with Konoha (or… any more than usual at least).

 

Sometimes, really late at night, when Sakura had gone too long without sleeping, she wondered if she’d imagined Taro.

 

In early August, Asano finally pulled out a seal and gave Sakura a conspiratorial look.

 

“Alright, I chose a beginner seal, so if it works it should make a small bit of water come out. If it goes wrong, it shouldn’t go too badly wrong. Too much water, no water, or just dampness in the air if things go a little wrong. A small fire if things go really wrong, although I’m not sure how that would happen. That said, we’re taking no risks!” Asano instructed, as if she was teaching a whole class instead of lecturing just Sakura, pausing briefly to cough into her elbow.

 

“You’ll go hide behind those trees over there,” Asano pointed to a small cluster of trees a serious distance away, Sakura wasn’t even sure she’d be able to see if it worked from there. “I, on the other hand, will trigger the seal and then run like hell towards you. At this point we will wait, and watch for three to five minutes, depending on the results. Okay?”

 

“What if a fire starts? Should I just keep waiting for the ‘three to five minutes’?” Sakura asked, it felt like a silly question, but Asano had been very clear that seals were super dangerous, so it was best to make sure.

 

“No, this is a one use seal, so once it does something it shouldn’t do anything else. That said, if something does go very, very wrong, we’ll need to go get a shinobi from the street.” There was a small street near the park, but shinobi didn’t tend to pass by that way. “If either of us are in danger then we need to call the ANBU, who will probably be able to get here fastest. But reserve that for serious health risks!” Sakura rolled her eyes, as if she’d ruin the privacy of the grove by allowing other shinobi to enter! (Unless Asano or her own lives were at risk, she didn’t care about the grove that much.)

 

“Ready?” Sakura asked, holding back a smile at the way Asano seemed to be vibrating with excitement.

 

Instead of answering Asano moved towards the stump she had originally pointed out as her ‘seal testing place’ so many months ago and had, since then, worn down the jagged edges from whatever had caused the tree to fall originally. Asano placed the seal onto the stump, carefully pressing it down, although Sakura wasn’t sure why Asano was treating it so delicately.

 

“Sakura,” Asano sighed in exasperation, having glanced back. Sakura paused, then moved behind the cluster of trees. Asano nodded, and Sakura turned the ‘okay’ civilian sign. (The shinobi ‘okay’ sign was a high pitched whistle, since it was meant to be used when there weren’t any enemy combatants left. Sakura didn’t really want to draw any attention to their current… activity. Which, while not illegal or any such thing, would likely be frowned upon. Adults got oddly upset about being left ignorant of certain things, for some reason.)

 

Sakura watched carefully as Asano placed a hand on top of the seal. Asano’s right hand was placed on the seal. Asano was turned away from Sakura, so all she saw after that was Asano running towards her. She slid around the edge of the trees where they both crouched.

 

After a moment, Sakura saw a few drops of water fall over the edge of the stump, although from her low position she couldn’t really see the top, or the seal itself.

 

“How long do we need to wait for?” Sakura asked, since it looked to her as if the seal had worked perfectly.

 

“It’s probably fine…” Asano hesitated, sounding worryingly unsure. “I think she should wait here for a minute anyway.”

 

“Alright,” Sakura agreed easily. Inner had already suggested an idea that her liked rather a lot. “Tell me the ‘killer story’ while we wait.” Asano sent Sakura dubious look, then turned away to cough.

 

“Really? Why?”

 

“It’s useful,” Sakura said, (“It’s hilarious,” Inner echoed).

 

“Alright,” Asano sighed, after a momentary pause she continued in a more dramatic ‘storytelling voice’. “First, there was Etsuko, who stabbed a Iwa nin in the eye.” In a deadpan tone she added, “It took the Iwa nin time to die.” Sakura nodded, remembering the way that Iruka-sensei had drilled into them the idea that if you didn’t get your weapon into the brain, they wouldn’t die, and if you were too precise, they could survive even that.

 

“Then there was Niko, who was rather lazy and didn’t want to deal with the extra struggle, so he stabbed his Kumo nin in the throat.” Sakura wrinkled her nose, for all that Asano’s story was pretty funny, it was also kinda gruesome. One by one, Asano went through and named all the ‘deadly areas’ that Iruka-sensei insisted they remember, as well as the effects such attacks had. (Cutting open someone’s guts made everything smell like poop. Ew.)

 

“I really don’t get why you like it,” Asano said after she finished, resting her head on the bark behind her head.

 

“It’s just. You say it in a way that is just so unconcerned!” Sakura giggled, “and anyway, it’s funny to hear you describe Shikamaru stabbing someone’s spine.

 

“So you like imagining our classmates messily murdering enemy shinobi?” Asano asked turning her head and raising an eyebrow.

 

“Alright, so you if you don’t think it’s funny then why did you make it ?”

 

“It’s a study technique, obviously,” Asano sighed, voice rough from coughing, “I remembers stories better than just plain facts.” Sakura nodded with mock seriousness. “I got a 15 out of 40 on the latest history test!” Asano insisted.

 

Sakura paused. That was pretty low.

 

“It’s my own fault too,” Asano pouted, “I forgot which year Suna became recognised as a nation, and which day of March Kumo sent the ‘red flag spies’.” Sakura winced. The test hadn’t been that hard, but if you didn’t know the dates, you were basically guaranteed to fail it.

 

“Do you think you did okay on the hand signs test,” Sakura asked in a sympathetic voice, alright knowing the answer. Asano smiled,

 

“Of course I did. Sensei said I did particularly well on Tiger, Boar, Ox, and Dog.” Asano ran through them as she said it, and to Sakura’s inexpert eye they did look pretty smooth. Sakura returned Asano’s own small smile, those were the hand signs for the clone jutsu which Asano had been learning to use chakra with. She could probably do those in her sleep at this point, much like Sakura could do the Dog, Boar, and Ram for the transformation jutsu just as well.

 

“Do you think we’ll actually get to do the jutsus in class soon?” Sakura asked, glancing curiously at the stump and seal which she’d mostly forgotten.

 

“Yeah, maybe. I think he’ll make sure we can do all the hand signs properly first, did you see the way that the orphans barely knew them?” Asano asked, Sakura nodded, everyone had seen it. It had been kind of embarrassing actually. It’s not like Asano or Sakura’s parents had taught them how to do the seals, that had been all their own work. “Doing the hand signs wrong isn’t as dangerous as messing up on seals or anything like that, but it can still be… not good.”

 

“Even the ‘Academy Three’ are that dangerous?” That would be weird. All that had happened when Sakura had messed up on her transformation was she looked weird, or couldn’t walk because she couldn’t see her own feet or something like that.

 

“Eh… probably not,” Asano said, standing up. “I imagine he’s mostly trying to instill good habits and all that nonsense.” Sakura knew first hand that Asano didn’t really think it was nonsense, without saying anything they could agree that the next few Thursday ‘ninjutsu’ sessions at school were probably going to be quite boring.

 

Sakura followed Asano over to the stump. (“It looks exactly like it should,” Inner pointed out, “why is she acting so weird about it?”) Asano slowly, slowly, slowly moved to grab the wet seal, her whole body nearly thrumming with tension. Nothing happened though.

 

“Well I guess that worked perfectly.” Asano said after a moment, ‘I- I was honestly expecting something to go wrong. Huh. Cool.” (“I still don’t get,” Inner said with a small sigh, barely bothering to even say it, “what temperature has to do with anything. Why is ‘cool’ a good thing when she prefers warm weather so much?”)

 

In class it had become increasingly evident who had been training, and who had shinobi parents. Several of the clan children had bragged about already knowing jutsu (including Kiba and Sasuke, two people who Sakura had found herself comparing on an increasing basis). The most entertaining part of the day had been Asano’s increasing annoyance with Naruto Uzumaki’s (now) near daily proclamations of future Hokage-hood.

 

Then Asano snapped, and it was delicious to watch. Or, at least Sakura thought so.

 

It started with Iruka-sensei getting called into another room to deal with a fight. Naruto wasn’t in class, but Shikamaru, Choji, and Kiba all where. The four of them had been missing lessons as group more regularly recently, but Naruto was only in class around half the time these days. After a few minutes Iruka-sensei tossed Naruto into the classroom and slammed the door closed behind him. This left Naruto alone at the front of the class while Sensei continued to deal with the trouble in the hallway.

 

Sasuke often got in fights with Naruto, usually because Naruto started it, but this time it seemed that Sasuke hadn’t been able to hold himself back. (Not that Sakura could blame him, if she hadn’t known Asano would give her the Eyes of Disappointment, she might’ve been tempted herself.)

 

“Hey Dobe-”

 

“Who you calling DOBE?!”

 

“-I get you can’t reach your desk without touching the ground.”

 

That had, admittedly, not been what Sakura had been expecting. Usually Sasuke’s responses were limited to dismissive insults or just kind of… beating Naruto up in taijutsu.

 

“I TOTALLY CAN! You- You- Teme!”

 

“Teme?” Sasuke murmured quietly, sounding offended. Naruto meanwhile, had backed up to the front wall with the chalkboard before launching himself forward in a quick run, jumping at the edge of the first desk. He jumped a surprising distance, but clearly hadn’t planned very well considering that he had jumped from the floor, to the floor, and had missed his desk by several rows.

 

“Dobe.” Sasuke repeated. Naruto, clearly take a ridiculous amount of offense to this statement stuck his tongue out.

 

“I bet you can’t do any better!”

 

“Sit. Down. Uzumaki.” Iruka-sensei’s voice made everyone jump as they turned to see him standing in the open doorway. Sakura noticed Asano shuddering slightly, probably at the way someone had entered the room without a single person noticing.

 

The next day, Iruka-sensei was a little late, as he tended to be on Thursday mornings, and Naruto was arguing with Kiba that he would be Hokage.

 

Asano snapped.

 

Sakura didn’t see the moment it happened, unfortunately, but she did see as Asano stood up.

 

“Naruto!” Asano’s shout was not particularly commanding, given that it was rather gravely from her recent cough.

 

“What?!” That wasn’t much a problem though, since Naruto would fight with anyone .

 

“You keep saying you’re gonna be Hokage-”

 

“I am gonna be Hokage!”

 

“But you’re wasting your damn time in this goddamn motherfucking boring-as-fuck classroom -” Everyone stared as Asano went from speaking perfectly comprehensible Japanese to absolute nonsense mid-sentence. “Ahem. Sorry. You have something like six clan heirs in this singular classroom! You don’t become Hokage just by being strong - a ton of shinobi are strong ! You need to be respected! Smart! Charismatic!” Asano’s breath ran out, forcing her to pause for air.

 

“I honestly believe you will become Hokage,” Asano said, far more calmly than before, “but you aren’t showing me someone I want to have as Hokage right now.” Asano sat back down, seemingly ignoring the fact that everyone was staring at her. Including Iruka-sensei who was standing in the doorway.

 

“Alright class, settle down,” he said after a moment to the dead silent room. Naruto moved to his seat without a word, and Akamaru tugged on the frozen Kiba until he sat.

 

“Today we’re going to be talking a bit about chakra, and I’d like to remind you all that the Hokage will be coming to visit our class for the day next week…”