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Makoto no Monogatari: Ikigai

Chapter Text

Though I do not want

To stay in this floating world,

If I should remain here,

No doubt I shall remember fondly

The bright moon of this dark night.

Wishes and hopes and dreams don't always come true. That's life. Life's not really nice, or fair. And sometimes, when they do come true, people end up wishing that they'd never made that wish in the first place.

However, sometimes… sometimes you get lucky.

I think I did.

I'm not sure when it started. My memories of the transition are really fuzzy. That's probably because of the circumstances behind everything, to be honest. Have you ever experienced that lazy lethargy in the mornings? When you didn't set your alarm, because you don't have anything to do, and you're free to wake up when you wish, as you wish? And you don't want to wake up, you don't want to have to face everything, so you just stay in that warm, drowsy embrace of your duvet cover and pillow?

That's kind of how I felt for the longest time.

In that state where you don't have to worry about anything, where you don't want to care about anything, where you just don't want to move in fear that you'd lose that state. And when someone tries to pull you out of it, you get grumpy and sulky and just try to burrow farther into the nest of blankets? Time doesn't seem to apply in that situation. Neither do worries or stresses or… anything, really.

And when you're a stressed high-school student who only recently realized the gravitas of the world in what basically amounts to mentally aging about half a decade in less than one year… and already having a midlife crisis? Well… I basically was regretting every decision in my life, before hand. I felt like I'd wasted so much time, that I wasted my life. I wished that I could have learned things earlier, that I could have gone back to… probably around third, fourth grade? I'd had so many opportunities… and I didn't take any of them. I wasted so much time.

And so, when nothing came to shake me out of that state of grumpy lethargy? Well, it just lasted. And lasted. And lasted longer.

I should have probably realized sooner, but… I'm not the most observant person.

No, that's not an exaggeration. Once, my family set up a Christmas tree in the living room… which is connected to our kitchen, where I eat dinner. I only realized it was there halfway through dinner, about three hours after it arrived, and only after my parents pointed it out. I'd been wondering when they got new pine-scented air fresheners.

Yeah… that's not really an air freshener, though it does smell pretty good.

And then… I have two little brothers. They shared a room… and I only realize that my youngest brother finally got his own bed about five months after the bed arrived.

In my defense, we co-exist via mutual ignorance… and I never really go into their room. That time, I'd been looking for a book or something, I think.

There were also other examples, like when I thought Justin Bieber was Justin Beaver, and something like Mickey Mouse, or Elmo, or Barney, or the Groundhog… for almost four years? Over four years. I realized in 6th grade… only after the others girls at school started feuding over the One Direction versus Justin Bieber thing.

I don't watch a lot of TV… or really do a lot of anything involving socializing or what's popular. I usually kept my head in my books. They were more interesting.

(I also have difficulty understanding sarcasm, certain jokes, and various references, but that's another story. Funnily enough, the incomprehension of sarcasm goes both ways— I don't understand when others use sarcasm… and they almost never get it when I do, either.)

And… did you know that infants can't see clearly until they're about… I actually don't know. But I got kicked out of my drowsy state… sometime. Several months after I was born. It could have been one… or five. I was too busy trying to not wake up to actively register time.

But how do I know? Because that's when my new parents took me to see a doctor.

...yeah. Apparently, it's not normal for babies to… essentially, not do anything, including not tracking toys. That's what they were. I thought it was something like a weird dream, you know? Those half-remembered snippets that you ignore and go back to sleep when you hit the 'snooze' button?

That was probably the first time I went outside the house, which marked an end to my… let's call it, 'mini-sleep coma.'

But… I won't go into details.

Let's just say… for some reason, everything seems really loud, and really big, and just really… overwhelming. I… I cried. I'll admit it. I started crying. And that really panicked large human transportation device #2. Who handed me to large human transportation device #1. Who I realized I should probably call 'mom.'

And I realized that no, I legitimately did not understand a single word of what was going on.

Even for me, that's a bit of a record.

I cried more.

The good news, I managed to (eventually) figure out that the language going around me was Japanese. No, I'm not a miracle baby (actually, on second thought, I kind of am… I think? But… no! No thought tangents! Back to the point!). It's not too hard. I was exposed to quite a few languages in my past life, and it wasn't English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or… well, Japanese has a distinct sound. The romantic languages (which come from latin) have a… almost watery, or… no, not watery. Machine-gun feel. But… like a machine-water-gun feel. It's this continuous flow of words, with longer vowels held for emphasis at times.

Germanic languages, on the other hand, are more… guttural. Consonant-filled. Chinese is… Chinese. It's really quickly-paced, too, but in a different way than Spanish. How do I know? Well… in my other life, I was Chinese. I don't think I died… so, I don't think I can call it my 'past life.' Though, that would also work, I suppose… it's not like I have anyone to argue with what I decide.

I had long black hair and brown eyes. I had a few friends. Not a lot, but… more than sufficient. I was not a stereotypical Asian, despite the fact that I liked anime and had decently high grades. They weren't good… they usually hovered in the low A- to A range, but… they weren't bad. They just weren't that good. I had a good life, with nice parents. I never took Chinese lessons, though, though I was… 'homeschooled' in that aspect. Not really. I could barely read anything, and my vocabulary was about that of a preschooler's. I was relatively fluent, though— I was fluent enough for many people around me to use me as a translator, sometimes. I started learning Spanish in fourth grade, and… I think I was my school's Accelerated Spanish III course. I was… was I planning on learning AP Spanish next year? I don't really remember, but… it doesn't matter now. And, to be honest, that's a bit of a shock… but a nice shock. It's like a breath of fresh air. I don't have to worry about school.

I also studied singing privately, so I know—or at least how to pronounce— German, Italian, French, and… that's it, I think?


And one of my friends was half-Japanese. Is half-Japanese. Wait… my friends and family. I should worry, I guess? Did I just… disappear or something?

...I don't want to think about that, though. This is like… a really nice dream. I don't want to wake up from it. And… we were drifting apart, anyways, so… I don't really feel that regretful. For anything. I should probably feel more, but… I'm just kind of… apathetic. The memories… they're not really associated with emotions. I don't know why. But I think I'm relieved. I want to be happy.

But… that's not the point. The point is that her mother spoke Japanese. And I also watched anime. The point is, I know how Japanese sounds. And I'm pretty sure this is it.

My next big shock was realizing that… yup. I'm in the Naruto-verse… I think. I'm pretty sure that's the only place those terrifying… medic-nin-uniform-things exist. To be fair, I might have recognized some things earlier. That might be the Hokage monument that I saw flashes of.

But I'm myopic. Nearsighted.

...rather, I was myopic. Now… infants' eyes don't fully develop until they're… I'll hazard a guess and say, 'toddlers?' I don't know. I don't know how to speak… this. But I'm pretty sure that I might not be myopic. That's awesome.

I'm not joking. That is awesome. I really don't like glasses, and hard contact lense are annoying… and often hurt. As for why I don't like glasses… I'm clumsy. I lose them and/or break them. That's… not good. Plus, my mother often harped on about my eyes and… let's just say that I am thrilled. To be able to see, clearly

I thank whichever higher being decided to smile upon me and give me this opportunity from the bottom of my heart.

Wait… opportunity. Will… will this end? I don't know. I don't want it to. I had always envied some anime characters. They had interesting lives. They had motivation, a clear-cut goal that they could see. They had bonds of friendship tested by fire. I… I want that. Maybe it's selfish of that, but… I want to be selfish.

I love it so much here… I want another chance, a restart. Besides, it's not they'd miss me for long, anyways.

So… please, whatever let this happen. Whether my grandma really is looking out for me… or there is some higher deity. Thank you, and… please don't take this away from me. Please?

...Apart from my internal revelations, I also have some external revelations. Things are… awkward… when you're not in that hazy sorta-asleep state. Life got so much harder. It's not boring. I've longed for this state of nothing-much-to-do. Though, to be honest… I have quite a bit to do.

For one, I have so much trouble with just… moving. My arms, legs… general body. And don't get me started on my fingers. I used to play piano. I used to dance. This is… highly not acceptable. (And improvement is really slow. I also get easily discouraged. But then I just sleep.)

Seriously. I love sleeping. And it's quite nice having two… well, they're kind of like servants. I make sure to not make a fuss, and they normally leave me alone in this child-proofed room (and baby bed) for long periods of time, but… it makes you feel really powerful when all you have to do is scream, and then someone comes running.

I'm not kidding. I thought I saw a spider crawling in front of me once, when I woke up, and… well, luckily, the spider wasn't on the bar of the bed. It was on the window, and what I saw was the shadow. Unluckily… let's just say that my parents panicked, and smothered me for the two hours after. Two entire hours of getting my… lower extremities… inspected for a rash and of having large giants invading my personal space is not fun.

And it's also one of the worst ways to discover that you've switched… um… reproductive organs. Yes. I now have the anatomically accurate body of a male infant.

It just looks weird. It doesn't feel too weird… the male part, that is. The infant part's too overwhelmingly weird for me to worry about anything else. Again… I'm more surprised it took me this long to realize. Then again… I have a diaper. Oh, and that reminds me… diaper rash is the worst. No, I'm not describing it, but… it's really not comfortable.

Other than the general awkwardness on my part, my new parents are really nice. Like… really nice. And they're really affectionate, too. It's weird.

Currently, I've been trying to act normal, which means crying, pooing, getting my diaper changed, and eating but… I'm also doing my best to not bleach my mind sometimes.

I have a new sympathy for my little brothers. My new parents… they coo at me. And blow raspberries on my stomach. And tickle me. And have I mentioned that, for some reason, just like in my past life, I'm super ticklish?

And… all while I'm naked?

But they are nice. But a bit weird. Like, a while after my birth, I remember going on this… trip? That was my first no-don't-freak-out moment. There was a cart… and some large animal. I think it was a horse, but I couldn't actually see it clearly.

There was also a shinobi with really pretty hair and a nice voice. Okaa-san knew… her? Him? I actually don't know, but Okaa-san knew shinobi-san really well. I really liked shinobi-san's hair. We went to this… I think it was a shrine. I met my… "Obaa-san," my grandmother. I only remember warm brown eyes, a rather wrinkled face, and gray hair in a bun. I spent most of my time with her grabbing at her necklace, which was this jade pendant on a string with some beads. I remember being dressed up in something a bit heavier and stiffer than normal. It was a formal outfit. I think it was a kimono, though thankfully tied with a cord. Obaa-san carried me up a set of steps, a guy with a kimono and weird hat-thing said something, and we left. So, it was cool, but… rather uneventful. I think I like Obaa-san though. I think she's nice. I wish I could have spent a bit longer with her.

Another time, they made this really big deal out of dinner. I'm not sure whether the red plates are important, but they were pretty, I'll admit that.

As another example, sometime during… late spring, I think? They gave me this samurai doll, and put up these fish-shaped banners. I just smiled, giggled, and tried to wonder why.

It's also weird that I have have, like… at least one doctor's appointment every week. I'm not sure when it started? Maybe because of my sleep-coma? The good news is that language immersion programs really work, and my parents are awesome… even if I haven't left the house to do anything more than visit the doctor's, yet. But through a bit of previous vocabulary, and hearing everything repeated constantly, as well as my parents' patience—and many, many flashcards— I've figured out the language to the point where I understand what everyone's saying. Mostly.

However, I have no clue how I'll start talking. Or when I should. I've started gurgling sometimes, now, though, after the medic-nin started checking my mouth and throat and tickling me to make noises. I'm not sure what to do, but… I try. I laugh. I pout. I make funny faces. I try and get my tongue to twist, to fold. By this point, I'm getting a little bored, but… my first tooth arrives. And suddenly, I'm wishes for the sweet, merciful grasp of boredom.

It hurts. I've always been a little bit of a crybaby, but now that I am actually a baby… I see no reason to hold back the waterworks. I've also gotten a bit spoiled, admittedly, but that's nothing new. I gnaw at everything in an effort to ignore the pain. I prefer my sheets, because they're convenient. Sometime during that haze of pain and discomfort, my second tooth arrives… then my third… and by the time my first birthday rolls around, I'm the proud owner of seven baby teeth.

My first birthday. That was… also weird. I realized that I should be crawling several months ago, during… I think around fall? All I know is that it was really, really warm… and sticky… and just several degrees of not fun. Crawling around helped that, and then walking, too. The walking was especially useful when the days started to get colder, and I needed to grab my blanket from wherever in the room I'd left it.

Usefulness aside, though… learning to walk was not fun. My butt hurt so much… and I'm pretty sure I bruised my tailbone at least once. Thankfully, babies are quite resilient.

I've also managed to figure out a bit of the helicopter-parenting- I think I was born after the Kyūbi attack, and… something happened that makes everyone worry about whether I'm healthy. All I know… is that I somehow have white hair, even though my mother, my Okaa-san, is really pretty, with shiny brown hair that reaches to her shoulders and equally warm eyes. My Otou-san, my father, is a tall man, with black hair already streaked lightly with gray at the temples and lightly sun-tanned skin, along with these amazing amber, almost orange-ish eyes that twinkle with laugher. Me? White hair. Ghost-pale skin. And blue eyes. I think.

My eyes are… unique. They're kind of this blue-green mix, and it's really, really weird. In fact, everything about me is a pretty weird. My new coloration is probably something that can only be found in an anime. For one, my hair is white, and it practically glows when under direct sunlight. My eyes, as mentioned before, are a scarily-bright bluish-green that looks pretty unnatural. That's helped by the fact that my eyes themselves are light, but have a really dark, thick ring around the iris— I think it's called the limbal ring? And… I'm actually still annoyed that boys always have the nicest eyelashes. I mean, it's pretty awesome now that I am a boy, but… it's still so unfair for Before-me.

I mentioned before my eyes are scary? They are. I scare myself sometimes. Like, this one time Okaa-san was carrying me into the bathroom, but the lights were off (except for what came in through the window), and I thought I was a ghost.

Apart from that, though… my face actually looks pretty similar to what I had before… I think. Or at least, similar to my younger photos… not my baby pictures. Before, I looked liked a meter-long sausage squashed into baby clothes. Now… I'm a lot smaller, a bit more delicate, a lot softer and pudgier due to the baby fat… but I think I'll end up with a similar bone structure, at least before puberty in this body hits.

Oh, no. Even my ears are the same. I hated my ears! I still hate my ears. The tops are folded in, I have no ear lobes, and they're just smaller than they should be.

I hope they'll change.

I am still young, so hopefully that changes. Babies normally have small ears, right? And my nose is still too big. Maybe it's just insecurities speaking, but… gah! Then again, I am just a baby, so it'll probably change… at least a little. I hope. Because right now, it looks especially wide. Okay, I'll admit, it's mainly just insecurities talking. According to my mother before, my nose was probably the most auspicious feature on my face, according to some esoteric branch of Chinese fortune-telling. I had a good nose, my younger brother had good eyebrows, and my youngest brother had a good head shape. I have no idea what most of them mean, but… yay?

Other than that… my hair seems a bit too light, and even a bit thin… but that might just be because I'm not used to how short it is, compared to what I'm used to.

So, all in all… I look both the same and very, very different. I'm not sure if that's good or not, but… it's me, now, I guess. So… meh. I'm not unhappy with anything, thankfully. It's easy to complain, but I'm actually pretty grateful. My body functions more-or-less correctly, to the best of my knowledge. Of course, I currently don't really look like I have eyebrows, but… I'm praying that that also changes.

For the most part, though… I look like a really weird baby.

I'm not sure why I don't resemble either of my parents, though. I'm pretty sure I'm not adopted… I think that the medic-nin attributed my characteristics to the Kyūbi no Kitsune, the Nine-Tailed Fox. I was born after the attack, from what I can decipher, and… I think something happened during my gestational period? I think the best decision is just to roll with it. It's not like weird hair colors are uncommon in anime, either, so… I'm hoping that's it, and not some weird, deep, nefarious reason. It probably doesn't matter, right?

Back to the subject— my first birthday party. It's… a bit weird. I'm not even talking about the fancy clothes I'm dressed up in, or the ridiculously large quantities of food that my new mother, my Okaa-san, cooked. I'm talking about the insanely heavy block of… something… that my parents attached to my back and encouraged me to walk with.

The weirdest thing? Unless my ears are deceiving me, I'm pretty sure that 'something' was mochi. As in, that sticky, sweet, dessert-thing made from rice that you eat?

The candles and mochi (that I got to eat) were a nice touch, though. Even being a baby doesn't really change my sweet tooth.

One of the most anxiety-inducing parts of the entire day, however, was the erabitori ceremony… thing. Okaa-san and Otou-san had surrounded me with this circle of objects. There was a brush pen, money, a ruler, chopsticks… and more stuff that I can't remember or name. This is something that's more for fun than anything, and it's supposed to "predict" what a child will do later in life. I panicked. I grabbed the brush pen… then the money… and then just decided to grab everything. Hey, I can be pretty indecisive, okay?

My second year of life… was a bit more boring. But at the same time, less boring.

Pretty early in the year, I'd gotten sick. Very sick. It was a really miserable time, and… well, it turns out that my lungs are a bit weak. I'm still mildly allergic to pollen, and I (again) have asthma. I think. I'm pretty sure it's asthma.

I practically went to the doctor's office every day, and let me tell you, getting poked with glowing hands, despite the initial novelty, gets a bit annoying after a while.

After I recovered, my parents got even more protective. I didn't really leave the house that often, though they did carry me outside sometimes, and pointed out various objects, teaching me their names. I practiced the pronunciation diligently.

It's also around this time that they moved me from my raised baby-bed to a fūton, which is basically a mattress and a duvet that are laid on the floor. Okaa-san or Otou-san fold it and store it inside of the closet during the day. There are two parts— a shikibuton (the mattress) and a kakebuton (the duvet). I normally only get to use the shikibuton, because my parents are afraid… that I'll suffocate myself? I think that was the word they used.

Learning a language is a bit easier when you have an idea about what people are probably saying.

Being the only child of a rather well-off couple has its perks. My bedroom is enormous. I love it, to be honest. The floor is currently carpeted in this thick material that I can fall face-first on and still not get hurt. It's not really a carpet though— just a rug. A wonderful, soft, thick, plush rug in a beautiful soft grey. Okaa-san and Otou-san, my new mother and father, added the rug when I started walking, after several scares. I'm… not the most graceful as a toddler.

It's around this age that I learn more about my parents. You see, my parents own a tea shop. And they worry if I'm out of their sight. This wouldn't be as big a problem had I been older, since we live right above the tea shop, but… well, I now have a "playpen" in the corner of the tea shop, behind the counter.

I… feel a bit like a cute little pet, or animal, with how visitors come over and coo over me.

I don't like that. As a result, I normally just try to close my eyes, drift off slightly, and either disconnect myself or lose myself in trying to make plans and remember the timeline. Basically, anything that keeps me motionless and allows me to pretend that I'm not there. I get even better at not thinking. It turns out that this is similar to meditating, because after I got really good at clearing my mind and not thinking, I discovered my chakra.

Yes, that chakra. The physical and mental energies found in all living things.

Maybe it's because I'm used to a body and a world without chakra, but the bright blue pathways are clear as day after I shake off some distractions. Playing with the flow of chakra becomes my new favorite pastime, and highly addicting. It takes time, but I've got almost too much of it. I'm very thankful for my weak body at these times, because it gives me an excuse for not being "awake" a majority of the time.

I follow my chakra mentally, tracing each coil. The tenketsu are easy to "see" after a little time. Or… a lot of time. They're pretty hard to find and pin down, especially in the context of their actual locations, but… they shine like little stars. It's hard to actually locate them, though, when I'm not tracing my chakra channels. I circulate the chakra, trying to speed up the flow and sometimes trying to stop it. When I stop it, I feel like I'm practicing my splits as the buildup stretches the pathways. The stretch is painful, but in a good way, and it only becomes overwhelming after I hold it too long. It's surprisingly fun.

Chakra manipulation is mentally exhausting, though, and I'm never able to do this for long before I actually fall asleep. I plan on seeing whether I can reverse the flow next, or send chakra out from the tenketsu.

But… aside from giving me motivation to avoid attracting attention, my playpen also introduces me to some very interesting people over the course of the following months.

Of course, there are some things you should probably know, first. For one, my new family is quite… traditional. I'm pretty sure both of my parents come from old money, but… I'm not sure why they run a tea shop, if that's the case. The thing is, some things don't add up, even when you add in the fact that our tea shop includes services for tea ceremonies. For example, Okaa-san loves ikebana. Both of my parents are great at calligraphy, but Otou-san prefers ink painting.

Our shop… it's actually normal-sized for a large… shop. Most restaurants are about this size, the grocery stores and clothes shops are about the same size, apparently. I think. About 16 meters by 9 meters? So… that's 144 meters, or about 1500 square feet. We just use our space differently.

For one, we don't need that much storage, nor do we need a large kitchen. About two-thirds of the first floor is divided into different tea rooms, lined with tatami. The walls are thicker than normal, though, even if they are covered in rice paper, so a lot of people come here for meetings and stuff. There are three rooms that are about two meters by (a little under than two) meters, which only fit about two people; two rooms that are about 3.5 by 1.5, and three rooms that are large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large (4 x 4.5, 6 x 4, and 6 x 4.5). Mind you, my space perception is probably off, and I'm not usually allowed in there, so… the measurements are estimates only.

There are two entrances— one in the front, by the actual shop part, and the other is at the back. Most people who use the rooms come in from the back, while those who just want to buy tea (or drink tea at a small table while staring outside) come in from the front. Also, if you come from the back, it usually means that Okaa-san or Otou-san knows you.

I'm by the front, so I usually don't see what's happening back there, but from what little I have seen… the people who come in that way are… interesting. There's shinobi, and people in formal clothing and businessmen and pretty geisha and maiko with their thick face paint and colorful kimono.

There's a storage room, and a small "kitchen" area (it's just got a stove for teapots, a sink, several cabinets with teacups and pots, and a small refrigerator with the stuff that people eat as they drink tea) by the desk/checkout area/help desk where Okaa-san or Otou-san usually sit, and I'm on the other side of that, tucked into a corner next to a shelf with— you guessed it— tea.

It smells really nice here, all the time.

We live above the shop. The stairway connecting the upper and lower floors is in a small room right next to the back entrance, in the corner. It goes up to the living room, which is right next to the kitchen/dining room. Right past that is my room, with windows overlooking the street in front of the shop. Next to that is Okaa-san and Otou-san's room, and then, next to the living room, is a guest room that's… pretty barren. It's literally just a really big square room with a really large, room-length closet. Otou-san uses it as his office, though, so there's a cabinet and desk overflowing with paper, too.

My room is… about the same size as the guest room, but that's accounting for my bedroom, wardrobe, and bathroom. It's really big, though it's only a bit more than half the size of Otou-san and Okaa-san's bedroom. I'm happy with it, though. Any bigger, and I'd feel dwarfed by it.

I think I'm very lucky.

The bookshelf of stuffed animals is really a bit much, though. Okaa-san and Otou-san keep on worrying that I was bored, or didn't have enough things to play with… and they overcompensated. I don't think they actually know that much about raising children. I am perfectly happy with my blocks and my pillow. The stuffed animals and more… uh… collectible toys aren't really ideal to sleep with, which I think was the intended function. They're very nice and well-made, sure, but… they're not really… cuddly? They do make really nice decorations, though, and I have fun organizing them and rearranging them and… you know what, I do play with them. I have no shame in admitting that. Mock tea ceremonies are fun, and flowers in general are nice. Plus, the porcelain dolls are pretty, and their little costumes are really colorful and pretty.

I'm a pre-toddler, and even Before, I was a child at heart. I don't care about you, societal opinions, and you can't make me stop being a kid!

But, seriously, learning how to perform tea ceremonies is pretty fun. As is arranging flowers for ikebana. And tea smells nice.

So… back to the topic of my playpen. To be fair, it's more of a pen and bed and chest of drawers and table all mixed into one. It looks expensive. Like, why-on-earth-are-you-giving-this-to-a-toddler expensive. It's a nice, dark wood with pretty carvings and nice drawers and some extra flat space they can leave stuff on, with space for me inside.

I can just get my head over the bars if I stand up, but I can't get myself out of it… or at least, I couldn't when they first got it. But that was when I wasn't even one year old, and by now, I've grown quite a bit (thankfully). Now, with a little care and some maneuvering, I can sit on the flat area at the head and foot of the playpen. It helps that Okaa-san took the mattress out during the summer when I was two.

I don't do that when anyone can see, though. I'd rather not spark a panic and the re-emergence of the helicopter parents.

But even my spot inside the pen is is a nice place to people-watch… and hide from people. The customers are interesting to watch. There's the old lady who comes once a week and always gets green tea and something either fruity or flowery. There's the other old lady… and the other old lady… there are a lot of old ladies. To be fair, there are a lot of old people, in general. It's just the old ladies I'm more familiar with since they come over and pinch my cheeks.

The non-elderly customers… well, they fit into four categories. The largest are the Hyūga. They're kind of easy to pick out after a while. (Yes, they actually have white eyes, and yes, they look rather terrifying. Of course, that's more because they seem so… polite? Cold? Not cold, but… not particularly warm and cuddly.) Next are the other shinobi. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and color, but… they all have that hitai-ate and don't usually make that much noise. They're also scary, but just in the sense that it's terrifying when you're lying down and suddenly someone sticks their face over the edge and ahhhwheredidyoucomefrom?!

There are quite a few Yamanaka. They usually deliver flowers, or other plant-related stuff, but they don't come that often. Yamanaka Inoichi-sama is quite nice. He comes about once a month, and Okaa-san often visits Yamanaka Flowers for her ikebana. A lot of flowers have meanings in hanakotoba, the language of flowers, and it's really interesting. There's a lot of symbolism in general, to be honest. For example, wagashi, traditional sweets often served with tea, which are made from mochi and anko, sweet azuki bean paste, is often formed into shapes that represent the season. The ikebana in the rooms also is important, as well as the artwork on the scrolls that Okaa-san hangs on the walls of the tea rooms.

I'm mainly a bit annoyed that it took me three months to figure out who he was.

It took me considerably less time to figure out that another semi-frequent customer, who visits about once every two months, is the head of the Hyūga clan, Hyūga Hiashi-sama. He's very different from Yamanaka Inoichi-sama. He's… really, really intimidating. Thankfully, he isn't the one who arranges for purchase of large quantities of tea. Instead, that task belongs to his twin brother, Hyūga Hizashi-san, who is also intimidating, but not as much. Instead, Hyūga Hiashi-sama and various other Hyūga, who are pretty recognizable, just come by every once in a while to occupy our largest tea room. By 'once in a while,' I mean, about once every few months. It's not that common, and I'm thankful. They're a bit scary… though after that one visit where Hyūga Hiashi-sama discussed traditional painting and calligraphy with Okaa-san, a subject that came from his comments on a new hanging scroll Okaa-san just hung up. Anyone who likes art that much can't possibly be bad.

I established a pretty nice routine. I woke up, ate, got carried downstairs, napped, woke up, watched people, tried to eavesdrop on what they were saying, napped, woke up, watched more people, maybe ate a snack, and just repeated that pattern until someone carried me upstairs to take a bath and sleep.

Sometime during that routine, my second birthday passed… and things changed.

For one, my "routine" stopped really being routine. For example, along the way, I learn that Ichiraku Teuchi-san owns a nearby store, when he comes in to buy some black tea in bulk, along with a set of tea cups. That was interesting, but not that interesting. Like most customers, he's kinda old. And it's not like he has electric blue hair or something. He looks normal. He acts normal. His daughter is kind of shy, but rather nice… even if she really doesn't have much interaction with toddlers. I remember her more than Ichiraku-san. We don't get a lot of younger kids in here.

The most interesting thing, though, happened in April. There was a sudden storm early in the morning, before most of the customers arrived. Okaa-san had run off to… get something(?)... and Otou-san had run upstairs to close all the windows. That was weird in and of itself. Most storms don't start in the morning, and most of them aren't that heavy, either. But… I remember two people running inside. Well, one person. He was carrying the other "person". I remember him well because he was pretty short and… well, he wore black, and only black, from head to toe. His hair was black. His eyes were black. His shirt was black. His pants were black. His shoes were black. Everything else was pale, like an off-white shade. His skin. The bandages just above his shoes. Etcetera.

Oh, and the little "person" was whining. Loudly. He was annoying. He was the loudest thing that had come inside the shop in a while. We don't get a lot of loud people in the shop, and what loud things we do get are usually infants. Like, younger-than-me infants. This was not an infant.

I just remember that he had weird hair. The taller short person also had kinda-weird hair, though, too. Honestly, a lot of people have weird hair here.

I don't remember what I was thinking, but for one of the first times in my relatively-short life, I raised my voice. "Ohayō!" I called. 'Morning!

It was also funny seeing how the older person slipped in the puddle that had formed around him and barely managed to catch himself.

"Ah… ohayō gozaimasu," he responded. He had a nice voice.

"He's loud," I told him, pointing at the shorter short-person. "Tell him to stop whining. Please?"

"Right. Yes. Shitsureishimashita," he apologized, quickly whispering something to the short person.

"Irrashaimase," I mumbled monotonically. That's the typical store greeting. "Makoto desu," I said, deciding to introduce myself. "There are towels over here. You're wet."

"Ah… arigatō," taller person murmured, quickly squelching over and grabbing two, pausing. It makes sense. They're the nice towels. "What towels should I use to… clean up the water?"

I pointed at the cabinet with the rags Okaa-san and Otou-san use to mop up spills. "There."

I paused, watching him quickly towel himself and the really-small person off, before mopping up most of the water.

"Okaa-san and Otou-san should be back soon," I called, deciding to be helpful for some obscure reason.

Taller short person nodded. "May we wait here until the storm dies down?"

I blinked, nodding. "Yup!" I mean, it's not like I can say, 'no, I forbid you from staying here and force you and your…'

"Is he your brother?" I asked, pointing at the shorter short-person. That's the most logical guess, even if they don't really look that alike. The shortest person has bluish tints in his hair that the taller one doesn't have.

"Hai," the taller person nodded. "Oh, my apologies. My name is Uchiha Itachi. This is my brother, Sasuke. It's nice to meet you. Thank you for letting us stay."

"Uh… you're welcome?" I responded, staring slightly. Well. That's… interesting.

And pretty soon, Okaa-san and Otou-san came back, fussed over the two, and brought them inside for larger towels. Then, when the wind quieted down a little, Okaa-san sent them off with an umbrella.

It's really amazing how much just three-to-five minutes can completely baffle a person.

After that, I just... stared at the door. I spent the next week wondering if that had really happened.

Over the course of the next few months, it's as if someone up there decided that I'd had enough peace. I meet Ino-chan, who stops over with Yamanaka-sama for about half-an-hour during a weekend when Otou-san is sick and Okaa-san needs to run an errand.

I am now terrified of her. She decided that I was "cute," tried to give me a makeover, and almost managed to kidnap me.

I don't know how she managed to get her hands on lipstick, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know either. What I do know is that I spend the rest of that day glued to Okaa-san.

When summer starts, Okaa-san also starts to bring me outside on walks when she goes to get groceries, and stops by the park for about half-an-hour to let me "play." I don't play. Instead, I go crouch by ant-trail (of which there are many) to watch them instead. I don't like insects that much, and I probably never will, but ant-trails are fascinating to watch when they're not in your house. They're also fun to follow.

I hate getting them on me, though. Ants aren't like bees or ladybugs or butterflies. They're more like spiders. As in, "stay away from me and don't move, and I won't scream or try to kill you." I hate killing spiders. They also creep me out, but they're not that bad when I can pretend they're not there. Their webs are also really cool.

In fact, it's sometime after summer, around September, when I meet Aburame Shino. There was a large spider web at the edge of the park, with an interesting spider perched right in the middle. It was a really pretty web, too, with dew making the entire thing sparkle. I'd been absorbed in looking at it when I looked down… to see a little kid, about my height, in a hooded coat and dark, round sunglasses, also looking at it. I practically jump out of my skin, and for a while, I stare at him instead of the spider web.

I debate just walking away. Instead, I walk around and extend my hand. "Hello. I'm Kobayashi Makoto. Who are you?"

He hesitates before slowly, gingerly accepting my hand and shaking once. "I am Aburame Shino." Then, as if he's used up his social quota of the day, he retreats back into his shell.

"Nice to meet you, Shino-san," I reply, before pausing as I try desperately to fish for an icebreaker. "I think the web is really pretty. What do you think?"

And so begins about ten minutes of companionship. We talk about the spider web, and I show him the trail of ants (which now has an offshoot leading to a discarded apple core).

That was the second time that I decided that I wanted to see someone again. The first time was… with Itachi-san. He was interesting. But he didn't come back, and I couldn't find him. I was determined not to leave any more loose ends behind me. And so I introduced Shino-san to Okaa-san, and we made plans to meet the next morning.

And I was determined. I dragged Okaa-san and Shino-san to find his father, and made sure to get him to promise to bring Shino the next day.

Aburame-sama is very intimidating, but I think he's pretty nice. At the very least, he agreed to bring Shino the next day.

And then, the next day, we meet up again and look at the ants again. Again, I make Aburame-sama promise the bring Shino the day after, and sure enough, the day after, we meet again. And for another half-hour or so, we look at stuff and just… talk. That repeats, and it becomes a pattern. August turns to September, and the leaves turn red and brown and crunchy as the days shorten and get colder. There are hiccups, of course. Sometimes, Shino can't make it one day. Another time, I get sick. Still other times, Okaa-san or Aburame-sama have something they need to do. And other times, I stay with Shino for longer than a half-hour.

Things chang in November, when snow starts falling. It gets really cold, really quickly. Our playdates move to the shop and take place less often, around twice a week instead of every day. It's not that bad, though. Shino stays over for longer for when he does visit, and I spend a lot of time just… watching the snow.

I love snow. It seems weirdly heavy, though, and Okaa-san and Otou-san agree. I hear them talking. It's still fun to watch. And it's also fun to watch the people clearing the snow. There aren't cars or anything, so everyone clears the snow by hand. It's fun seeing the fresh, clean blanket in the morning, then the people as they start shoveling little pathways through it, then the little bits of color as the layers of snow thin.

Shino doesn't like the snow as much. He's always cold, and seems a bit slower and grumpier than before. I think it might be because of the bugs? I don't know.

It's during a visit in early December that I invite Shino to my birthday party. It's also in December, not too long after I invited Shino to my birthday party, that I first meet "Ojii-sama." He's probably best known as Hokage-sama or Sandaime-sama. He knows Okaa-san well. He even calls her "Kimiko-chan," which is weird, because she's my Okaa-san. He came over for tea. Because, apparently Okaa-san's birthday is also in December. Cool.

I spent most of that (pretty short) meeting gnawing grumpily on a rice cracker and staring at the weird old man. He's surprisingly short.

He didn't stay for long, either, which I guess makes sense. He dropped by before the shop opened, there was a round of greetings, I was introduced to him, and the adults shared a cup of tea. The only interesting thing I got was that, apparently, the snow was really, really heavy this year. And to be honest, I kinda figured that out for myself.

I did like the weird monkey plushie he gave me, though. It's not furry— it's either knit or crocheted or something— or overstuffed—- in fact, it's more the opposite— but I actually like that. It also has a cool storage pouch in its stomach… where I found a toy shuriken. I deadpanned so hard at that.

After he left, I decided to take a nap. I probably shouldn't have. When I woke up, I found a small "pillow" stuffed with ammunition, in the form of small bean bags. I also found a set of two wooden kunai and three shuriken… and Okaa-san and Otou-san arguing over a doll. I only understood little bits and pieces of their conversation. It's something about a friend of Okaa-san, something that's "too expensive" and… it's a bit of a muddle. What I did know was that the doll is pretty and I wanted to hold it. And so, I asked.

Okaa-san and Otou-san broke apart, and Okaa-san rushed over. I asked for the doll. After a brief moment of hesitation, she carefully brought it over and explained that it was a gift to me from a friend of hers, but that there must have been a mistake or somet—

I promptly decided that I liked it and asked to keep it.

And thus began an hour-long conversation about the differences between boys and girls and an explanation of a festival called "Hinamatsuri," which is what the doll was for. There was a long, long "argument" consisting of me stubbornly refusing to relinquish my new doll and Otou-san trying to convince me that it wasn't a toy, and Okaa-san trying to mediate.

Celebrated each year on 3 March, platforms covered with a red carpet-material are used to display a set of ornamental dolls, hina-ningyō, representing the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians in traditional court dress of the Heian period.

So, first off… Hinamatsuri is one of the five seasonal festivals that were held on auspicious dates of the lunar calendar: the first day of the first month, the third day of the third month, and so on. Now, it's just 1 January, 3 March, 5 May, 7 July, and 9 September. This festival was traditionally known as the Peach Festival (桃の節句 Momo no Sekku), as peach trees typically began to flower around the time, and although that's no longer really true, the name stayed the same, as did the symbolism of peaches.

The primary aspect of Hinamatsuri is the display of seated male and female dolls, obina and mebina, usually on red cloth. More elaborate displays will include a multi-tiered doll stand (hinadan) of dolls that represent ladies of the court, musicians, and other attendants, with all sorts of other stuff. The entire set of dolls and accessories is called the hinazakari, and the number of tiers and dolls usually depends on how much money someone wants to spend.

According to Okaa-san, the two main dolls are handed down in her family, and she actually has two that were meant for me… before they realized that I wasn't a girl. Usually, the hinazakari spends of most of the year in storage, and girls and their mothers begin setting up the display a few days before 3 March (boys normally do not participate, as 5 May is supposed to be their— sorry, our— festival). Traditionally, the dolls were supposed to be put away by the day after Hinamatsuri. Historically, the dolls were used as toys, but now they're more for display only. The display of dolls usually discontinues when the girls reach 10 years old. According to Okaa-san, that's when the girls in her family get their own personal obina and mebina, so that they can save the traditional ones for their children.

There's also a bunch of traditional foods and so on during the days before the festival, but I don't remember most of the names. There's just something about chirashizushi and mochi and daifuku and… yeah, I forgot the rest. There was something about clams, though.

Basically, the problem here is that I am not a girl. Apparently, Okaa-san's friend is a shinobi, and rather socially awkward, too, so he didn't realize that the hinamatsuri dolls were supposed to be for girls only, and thus not for me. He also, apparently, doesn't have much experience with kids, hence the assortment of presents. I barely had enough time to hide a kunai and shuriken inside my new pillow before Okaa-san and Otou-san confiscated those. They left the pillow, thankfully.

I think I like the pillow. It's made of this tough, canvas-thread-like material and looks as if someone picked all of the brightest threads they could fine and wove them together. It's got all my favorite colors, alizarin crimson and viridian green and pthalo blue. Personally, I think the person just picked the most colorful thing they could find. I like this person.

Later on, I drag the pillow and knit-monkey into my room. By then, I've managed to get my way, and I could tell that Okaa-san's really excited. She found the obina and mebina, and she helped carry the dolls to my room. Okaa-san let me hold them, and then showed me how to pack them carefully, promising to leave them inside my closet and help me set them up come May. She made me promise to keep them a secret. I agreed, thrilled to have such pretty dolls.

On my third birthday, I wake up smiling. I even make an effort to put away my fūton— though that's more along the lines of folding it in half and awkwardly dragging it into my closet.

I run to my chair, awkwardly pulling myself. "Ohayō!" I call to Okaa-san and Otou-san. Good morning.

"Ohayō, Makoto-kun!" Okaa-san calls from where she's setting plates down at the table. "Happy birthday!" Otou-san's over by the stove, and he waves.

Soon, Okaa-san passes me a bowl of soup, and another bowl of rice with a tea-stained egg— my favorite! I also get a plate with cold tofu (with negi, chopped green onions, and soy sauce) and grilled saba— mackerel. I love fish, but the bones can sometimes be pretty tricky without Okaa-san's help.

I wait until everyone's sitting down before starting in on the food. "Itadakimasu!" I murmur, clapping my hands together. I'm starving and these are some of my favorite foods!

After breakfast, I brush my teeth and change into the clothes that Okaa-san picked out as she brushes my hair (a pretty simple task, given how short it is) and tugs a majority of it into a small high ponytail. Okaa-san arranges the strands that aren't long enough so that they "frame my face."

I just sit through it. I like it when Okaa-san plays with my hair. It's soothing.

Afterwards, she buttons up the thick, high-collared, fur-lined, knee-length coat that she got for me when snow started falling. It's my favorite. It's this beautiful blue-grey color, and it matches my… general color scheme really well, and it's soft and pretty and… I just really like it, okay? It was a bit loose two months ago, but now it's a bit too tight if I wear more than two layers underneath.

I head over to the front of the shop, taking a seat at one of the tables by a window. The heaters aren't on, so it's nice and chilly. I keep an eye out the window, though my focus moves from the road to the condensation forming on the window. Using my finger, I draw lines and shapes in the window. I'm working on a rather decent rendition of a cat, when the a bell tinkles. My head snaps over to the door. My face breaks into a smile, and I hop off the chair, rushing over to the front.

I bounce on my feet as Shino-kun and his father come in. "Yōkoso," I chirp, bowing quickly. Welcome! "Sorry it's a bit cold out here. I know we usually stay out here… and I know you just got in… but… if you would follow me? There's a back entrance."

I slip on my shoes (which I'd brought just for this reason), holding my slippers in one hand and lead them back out the shop with another tinkle of the bell hanging at the door. After taking two rights, I quickly scramble through the alley, take another right, and quickly slip in through the back door. It is cold.

I trade my shoes for slippers, leaving them on the rack, and gesture for Shino-kun and his father to do the same. Here, it's a bit warmer, and they also leave their coats on the hooks. I fold mine over my arm, shivering a bit, and scurry up the stairs.

"Tadaima, Okaa-san," I call. I'm back!

"Okaeri," she replies, walking over. "Ah, yōkoso, Aburame-sama, Shino-kun," she smiles, bowing. They bow back, Shino-kun a little lower than his father.

Shino-kun shifts a little, evidently awkward, before holding out… "A present? For me?" He nods. "Oh, thanks!" I grin excitedly. "Can I open it now, or…"

He nods again, and I almost squeal. Instead I blurt, "Okaa-san, can we go to my room? Please?"

She smiles, and I immediately grab Shino-kun's hand, practically dragging him over to my room.

After introducing Shino-kun to all of my toys, unwrapping his present (a really pretty wire-and-glass butterfly of the type that you usually find in garden shops, but nicer), we sit down at the kitchen table for… the traditional way of celebrating birthdays in Konohagakure. Normally, people here don't really celebrate birthdays, especially in the more rural regions. However, shinobi villages make a pretty big deal out of birthdays, apparently. I think that the low life expectancies have something to do with that.

A lot of people just spend effort cooking something nice, maybe get a new set of clothes, or spend some time on themself. A lot of people, especially children get sweets. There's an entire set of stuff that represents long life, too. There's also a thing with writing a wish on a leaf and burning it, but that's a bit hard to do year-round, so people often just substitute leaf-shaped pieces of paper.

I just draw a picture, and Otou-san burns it carefully in a bowl.

Then, we get cake and daifuku (mochi stuffed with anko, sweetened red bean paste) and taiyaki (a fish-shaped… pastry?… also filled with red bean paste) and cream anmitsu, a dessert made of small cubes of a type of jelly in a bowl with anko, boiled peas, soft mochi, and fruit, as well as mitsu, a type of sweet black syrup, and in this case, ice cream on top!

I especially like the cake. I got to watch Okaa-san make it, and it's hundreds of… I think crepes… stacked on top of each other with layers of home-whipped semi-sweet cream blended with matcha powder, with more matcha sprinkled on top.

I've seen Youtube videos of this thing Before, and I can assure you, it tastes amazing. It tastes better than it looks, and it already looks awesome. Seriously, I think this is my new favorite type of cake.

After the cake and other sweets, Shino and I go back to my room to play around some more. When you're small, it's surprisingly easy to play hide-and-go seek in your room, especially when you can make the person who's It stay outside the room. Shino's… good at hiding, in the sense that he's very good at making himself small and not moving or making any noise, but… he's not as creative as me. Considering how I routinely find the weirdest—- and most uncomfortable, and dangerous— hiding spots, that's probably a good thing. Seriously, while I can fit inside a drawer… and in the cupboard under the sink… and behind clothes on a shelf… I do get a bit claustrophobic at times. It gets warm, hard to breathe… and then I kind of panic. That's not really good. I'm trying to work on that.

When I'm trying to catch Shino after finding him behind the door, a knock sounds. I turn to see Okaa-san and Otou-san with Aburame-sama.

"Oh." I slump. "Is it time for Shino to go?"

Aburame-sama nods, and Shino quickly gets up. "Ah… goodbye, Makoto-san. Happy birthday… and thank you for inviting me," he murmurs quietly, shuffling over to his father. But he pauses, tugging on his father's sleeve. He whispers something, and after a short whispered exchange, he brightens up.

His father turns to face us. "Shino would like to ask whether Makoto-kun would free to visit the Aburame compound on the twenty-third of this month."

I gasp. "Right, it's Shino's birthday, isn't it?"

Shino nods, hunching over slightly. "Since you've been so nice as to invite me… I thought…"

I smile widely, bouncing on my toes. I run over to Okaa-san and Otou-san. "Please? May I go? Pleeeeaaase?"

Okaa-san relents. "Of course!" She turns to Aburame-sama. "Oh, where should I drop Makoto-kun off? Or…"

"We can come pick Makoto-kun up at… 9:30 in the morning," Aburame-sama suggests. "Would that be agreeable?"

Okaa-san thinks a little, then nods. "Definitely. We shall see you then," she smiles. "Oh, and would you like any of the remaining sweets?"

Shino tugs on his father's sleeve again, and his father responds, "If you have any taiyaki left…"

"Of course," Okaa-san responds, heading over to the kitchen.

Otou-san steps out. "No need. I have some right here," he gestures, handing over a foil package.

"Thank you, Kobayashi-san," Shino murmurs.

Otou-san laughs a little. "You're welcome."

Shino pauses… then rushes over. I stiffen in surprise as he hugs me. "Thanks, Makoto."

I smile, returning it. "You're welcome. Really, thanks for coming."

Okaa-san, Otou-san, and I see them down the stairs and to the door, where they bundle up again. I stand in the doorway, waving.

As they leave, I see Shino-kun turning doing the same, and I call, "See you in a few days!"

When they turn the corner, I turn and head back in after Okaa-san. I'm tired. I stretch, yawning behind my hand, as I slump back up the stairs. I brush my teeth, splash some water on my face, and change into pajamas, before wishing Okaa-san and Otou-san goodnight.

That night, wrapped in my fūton, I grin.

I get to visit a shinobi compound.

That… is so cool!

Though I do not want

To stay in this floating world,

If I should remain here,

No doubt I shall remember fondly

The bright moon of this dark night.

— Emperor Sanjo






— 三条院

Kokoro ni mo

Arade ukiyo ni


Koishikaru beki

Yowa no tsuki kana

— Sanjo In