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An SI's Guide to Surviving the Shinobi World without Dying Tragically

Chapter Text

I really cannot emphasize this enough – if you’re going to get reincarnated or become some sort of interdimensional body-snatcher you really want to end up an orphan. Not because being an orphan is especially wonderful or anything – quite the opposite – but for the sheer simple fact that there are less people intimately acquainted with whoever you were before, you really can’t go wrong with orphan.

 

See, my last memories as well…me, are walking downtown with my sister. Then there’s alarm and general sudden movement and I’m flung against a wall and then…nothing. I presume the sound of a car and the general shit conditions of roads in a Canadian winter means I was struck and died instantly. Which sucks because that means my sister saw me die literally before her eyes. Which means the last words I ever said to her was something about how I really needed to get winter boots so I wouldn’t get salt-stains on my nice boots.

 

I mean, at least I died wearing clean underwear? I never actually worried about that when I was alive before but in retrospect I’m supremely glad to have had done laundry recently.

 

Oh my god my dog. No one is going to take my dog. My poor boy is going to be dropped at the humane society and never know what happened to me. I can at least be sure my family will take the cats but my dog is a special sort of hyper and separation anxiety. Maybe the memory of my death will guilt them into keeping him.

 

A girl can dream, alright?

 

Now, back to being an orphan; it’s not enough to just have dead parents. You want dead parents who didn’t socialise you. We are aiming for as few people as possible able to point out any sudden personality changes. That is a dead fucking give-away and super suspicious. Try for a body that matches your ideal gender expression too – not that there’s anything wrong with your body not matching the socially accepted gender you portray, or…well, look, it’s just a lot easier if you’re already familiar with the general physicality of your new body okay? You’re trying to blend in as not an interdimensional body-snatcher, alright? A case of body-dysphoria might be something you can work through but it’s probably easier to not have to.

 

Really, all things considered, I won the luck of the draw in this case. Parents dead? Well, one’s an unknown and apparently my new mother was a bit of a wild child – came running back to the clan and generally acknowledged to be a social outcast for it. Body? Female – hallelujah. So right off the bat, I’m going 2 for 2.

 

Course, that’s not exactly how it happened. It wasn’t like I woke up peacefully in a new body with a complete memory of what was happening or had happened to lead to this. If you’ll remember my last memory was being slammed violently into a wall by a car.

 

I entered my new life with approximately the same level of violence.

 

My consciousness was one second in black nothingness and the next in a continued world of pain similar enough to being slammed into a wall that I don’t really notice much of a difference at first.

 

It comes in pieces, the overwhelming terror I’m feeling is still tied up in oh my god I’ve been hit but there’s also the lingering echo of No! Okaasan! and the pure desperation only a child can manage. I’m still in physical pain, there’s rubble around me, and an overwhelming blanketing terror I can feel physically pressing me into the ground.

 

The noise is the next thing to hit me. Screaming and something so loud I can feel it reverberate all the way down to my bones. I can’t block it out because it’s all around me but I make a valiant effort to clap my hands over my ears.

 

In the wake of silence between the noise my eyes fall on a crumpled body almost completely crushed by the decimated remains of a building. It’s a woman with long dark hair. I absolutely have no idea who she is but I’m screaming at her to move, please move, and in my head all I can think is my whole family is gone and the scene before me is in vivid red, every inch seared into eyes and I know I’m never going to forget even a second of this for the rest of my life.

 

I scream again and I’m there suddenly, right beside the woman.

 

That’s when I finally get to fade back to black.

 

When I wake, it’s in an unfamiliar hospital room with every bed occupied by children. I stare for a long confused moment at the cheerful cat waving at me in pastel pink on the wall. I’m twenty-seven years old; hospital rooms for adults don’t have happy pastel animals on the walls. Why would I be put in a room with kids?

 

 Because I’m only six, the thought hits me suddenly as if I’ve always known and just forgot for a moment. Aiko-chan is six and wants to be a kunoichi like mama when she grows up. It’s such an antithesis to what I know I am but it’s also still…me? Aiko is both some strange child whose body I’m now inhabiting and also me. We’re one and the same and ****’s mind is just scrambling a bit to adapt to two sets of memories that are both real and vivid to both of us – me.

 

Ignoring the very weird memories of being both me/not-me, I actually bother to sit up and look around. It’s pretty much standard hospital room – minus some of the usual machinery I would expect to see. I can’t tell you what’s missing, exactly, but just...it looks much less equipped than any of the hospital rooms I’ve seen over the years. Other than that, there are four beds with curtain dividers set up to give some modicum of privacy. I can’t see the bed beside me, but I can see the one across and the one beside that and they all have children occupying them. They’re all asleep and I’m not getting any sort of recognition off them so that’s…something, I guess.

 

There’s no call button I can see around but I’m not exactly hooked up to an IV or something so I get up and immediately collapse in a bout of intense vertigo.

 

It fades quickly and I can stand up but for a moment I had the muscle memory of two vastly different bodies getting up and wasn’t quite able to compute. I take a couple hesitant steps in the direction of what I assume is a bathroom and it evens out. I turn on the lights (the switch is higher than I’m used to but also exactly where I expect it to be and this double-sense-memory thing had better fade real fucking quickly).

 

I get the first glimpse of myself and it’s…

 

I’m sickeningly adorable. Straight black hair, black almond-shaped eyes in a round little face. I’ve got pudgy little cheeks. I try a smile and immediately frown and then just kind of make faces for a bit, adjusting to the idea that the face is my face; Aiko’s face (****’s new face).

 

Disgustingly adorable,” I mutter to myself. Then, in a completely different language I have never spoken before in my life, “Absolutely disgusting”

 

For the sake of my sanity I choose not to focus on my comprehension of the very much not-English language that just emerged from my mouth without pause. “I’m Aiko, I’m six years old. I’m also **** and twenty seven. This is fucking insane.”

 

I lack words to properly explain the language switching. It’s like going to speak and just sort of…speaking to the side? I have to focus on the English for it to come out the more I speak in…whatever it is language I now use. Something similar to Japanese, I think.

 

I take care of bathroom business and ahahahahahaha let’s not even repeat the sense-memory nonsense that involves okay? Everything is the same but not my same and just…

 

Okay. So. Basic facts; I’m Aiko and I’m six-years old. I speak probably-Japanese. I want to be a kunoichi. Stop. Okay. A kunoichi. A ninja? Yes. Alright, so wherever I am now, this is apparently an acceptable profession since I have memories of my mother – okaasan – telling me about being a kunoichi before she quit to travel the world and have me. Right. So: we got back to okaasan’s old village and it was being attacked so okaasan tried to get me to safely and then –

 

She –

 

There was a building – it got hit and she –

 

My entire family is gone forever.

 

I press a hand to my closed mouth to hold back the sudden sting in my eyes from turning into full-fledged sobs. I have to heave several large breaths through my nose and swallow forcefully but I do manage that at least.

 

Right. I’m in a hospital. I’m not injured but I was unconscious when they brought me in so I might have been? The lack of medical equipment leads me to believe that’s impossible, logically, but something wriggles in my mind that of course they could heal some cuts and scrapes with no marks left behind.

 

I leave the bathroom behind and get a better look at the room. There’s an open window and I can see the moon hanging in a nearly cloudless sky. There’s so many stars. I kind of want to just go to the window and stare for a long moment – the temptation is great, to just chill and ignore the oddity that is my life right now – but more important is figuring out what the hell is going on and what’s going to happen to me. I might not have the best grip of my memories but I at least know that I’ve only got one parent and she…died. So. Step one: figure out what’s going on.

 

The hallway is long and dimly lit only enough to be able to walk down without walking into a wall; standard nighttime hospital affairs. There’s a nurses’ station further down the way but I can’t immediately see anyone there.

 

I’m a six-year old so it isn’t exactly difficult to slip past the station without being noticed. There’s voices coming from what must be a nurse’s lounge and I actively avoid that to continue my way out of the children’s ward. I want answers, not platitudes meant for someone my physical age.

 

Hospitals are generally labelled pretty clearly (boy isn’t learning my new language skills extend to the written word just a barrel of nearly migraine-inducing fun) so it isn’t hard to find my way down a flight of stairs to what the signage assures me is Emergency Triage.

 

I’m pretty much hoping there’s someone there who isn’t a nurse who will be forced to deal with strange questions from a six-year old. Hell, I’ve seen strangers blindly answer my four-year old niece there’s no way it won’t work on my much cuter six-year old self.

 

I end up in what amounts to a waiting room largely occupied by adults with minor injuries and circulating nurses. I’m six so I go largely unnoticed when I slip in and take a seat to watch some of the proceedings and to eavesdrop. The man I choose to sit beside looks like he’s asleep. His hair is pulled up in a high unruly ponytail and he’s got a bundle of cloth pressed to his face. He opens his one visible eye to peer at me when I settle down and I ignore him completely with all of the blatant disregard all young children have.

 

So, first observations: everyone here is wearing either normal clothes or there’s a smaller but no less present set of people wearing what is unmistakably a uniform. There’s lots of black and navy - with bandages of all things wrapped around ankles and thighs – and mesh. There’s an awful lot of mesh. It throws me for a bit because…well, mesh. It’s a weird style choice. Then there’s these somewhat bulky green vests and weird headbands with metal bits on them.

 

Hitai-ate. The thought bubbles up in my mind and suddenly keywords from the murmurings around me all make sense.

 

“…giant fox…”

 

“….don’t think, the Uchiha…”

 

“…Iwa? But the war’s been over for…”

 

Oh.

 

Oh fuck.

 

“Aiko-chan! There you are!”

 

Kudos to this body for reacting immediately to the verbalization of my (new) name by immediately slumping down into my seat like it’ll hide me.

 

“I’m not here,” I inform the sleeping man next to me. He grunts and turns his head to look at me with one barely interested eye.

 

“Aiko-chan,” the female nurse sets her hands on her hips before she kneels down to put herself on my level. Classic child psychology. I’m not at all impressed. Her voice is so so gentle. “Why did you run away from your room?”

 

I could lie. There are lots of things I could say that would make sense and cement my identity as a normal six-year old.

 

Instead I say, “Okaasan is dead and you aren’t my guardian. I don’t have to listen to you.”

 

Her face does some pretty amazing micro-expressions as she grapples with trying to reason with me or just declare that I have to listen because she’s older.

 

“Maa, she is your nurse though,” says mister completely unhelpful next to me.

 

“She could be a doctor,” I inform him with every ounce of feminist disdain I can drop into my voice, “But it doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t actually have authority over me as a person. No one told me I couldn’t leave my room.”

 

He slowly sits up the more I speak and when his hand falls away he takes the bundle of cloth from his face too. It reveals two very familiar facial wounds and oh boy.

 

I try to remember if Nara Shikaku was jounin commander during the Kyuubi attack. Not that it matters since he has a stupidly high IQ and is probably smarter than I am even if we are roughly the same age mentally.

 

“That’s just a technicality,” he says, “Besides, she’s an adult and you’re just a kid.”

 

“Her hair is brown and my hair is black.” I reply immediately in the most childish tone I can manage because fuck it I’ve already screwed up may as well continue the trend. His brow furrows at me and I (very maturely) stick out my tongue. “I thought we were saying obvious facts, shinobi-san.”

 

“I meant,” he begins.

 

I immediately interrupt with “I know. But age doesn’t necessitate authority.”

 

The nurse is smiling a little despite herself. I’m stupidly adorable – I know I’d be smiling at a child that looked like me being this sarcastic. I have to capitalize on this by pointedly turning away from the Nara and smiling brightly at the nurse. “Sorry for worrying you Nurse-san,” I say, “I just wanted to see what was happening. Okaasan only had time to say the village was under attack and that we had to get to the shelters. We hadn’t even gone to see obaasan and ojiisan yet.”

 

Her face softens immediately into sympathy. “Your clan head will be here tomorrow to get you home,” she tells me. “We just got word a few hours before you woke up.”

 

“Are they dead too?” I asked with a frown that is only partially exaggerated. Then, “Who’s my clan head?” The nurse pulls back a little in surprise. She looks over at the Nara beside me as if asking for permission so I turn to him expectantly. “Well shinobi-san?”

 

“Why don’t you know your clan head?” he returns just snippily enough to show he hadn’t gotten over my earlier behaviour. “Uchiha Fugaku.”

 

Um.

 

What.

 

I stare for a long moment at him and then say. “Oh.”

 

My clan head is Uchiha Fugaku.

 

Because my name is Uchiha Aiko.

 

Uchiha.

 

I kind of want to laugh and also to cry a little bit.

 

It explains why the nurse didn’t want to tell me. The whole village is already low-key suspecting the Uchiha of being behind the kyuubi attack that I clearly woke up in the midst of. I’m adorable but I’m also painfully obviously an Uchiha and it’s not like some of the people in this room have been subtle about musing over my family’s involvement.

 

“I’d like to go to bed now,” I say quietly. “Goodnight shinobi-san.”

 

“I’ll take her,” he tells the nurse, who is visibly unsure how to deal with the sudden downturn of mood. He gets the room number and turns to me, “Can I pick you up?”

 

“Okay,” I let him pick me up and it’s weird, how comforting and immediately relaxed it makes me to be carried like the kid whose body I’m in. Halfway up the stairs back to the children’s ward I quietly ask, “My family didn’t really attack the village, did they shinobi-san?”

 

“Nara-san,” he corrects. Then with a sigh, “They didn’t attack. It was the kyuubi that did all this.”

 

“Who defeated it?”

 

“They say the Yondaime sacrificed himself to stop it.”

 

No shit. He also left no one behind to be his successor – being that he was only a couple years into office – so the Sandaime will take the stupid hat back up and promptly make it basically legal to ostracise and harass a baby for no fucking reason and leaving said kid to conclude that they hate him personally for being alive.

 

Oh boy am I looking forward to this. Oh also, my clan is going to plan a coup and then he’ll sign their unilateral death warrants via thirteen year old. So, unless I do something to stop that I’ve got another early death to look forward to.

 

“Poor Kushina-sama,” I say as softly and calmly as I can. Shikaku tenses almost imperceptibly but I’m pressed up against his front so I feel it. “Okaasan said she was going to have a baby.” You can hide a lot of things but I’m very sure you can’t hide your military leader’s famous wife’s pregnancy from the entire village. Write it away completely after the fact? Sure.

 

“Ah, sorry kid, Kushina-sama died too.”

 

I gasp and pull back. I’m a kid so I don’t really have to do much to seem genuine – kids are weirdly expressive about the oddest things. “What about the baby?”

 

He makes a very sad face even a dumb kid like me should take as “dead baby” but he doesn’t actually say it. Gotta love technicalities and paranoid shinobi who don’t want to lie outright to kids. I make appropriately sad noises and hide my face in his shoulder until we get back to the room.

 

He actually tucks me in which is adorable. Then he tosses a lazy goodnight over his shoulder as he slumps out of the room and leaves me to try and fall into a fitful sleep.

 

When I wake up the nurses bring me breakfast, the other kids are all…kids. Loud, mostly. Brats, the lot of them. They have families that filter in and out in bits. I sit in bed and wait for someone to come see me.

 

It takes a while.

 

By the time someone does show up, the rest of the kids in the room have been discharged so I’m basically alone sitting in silence. It’s not as bad as it sounds – mostly I’m obsessively trying to remember timelines from a show I didn’t get far enough into to get to the flashbacks covering the current timeline. Twelve years from now, I’m set. Now? Not so much. I do know the current deadline on this new life of mine is something like eight years from now.

 

The first other Uchiha I set eyes on is Uchiha Mikoto. She’s got a baby Sasuke fussing quietly in a sling across her front. An Itachi my age walks calmly beside her. He’s…ridiculous composed for such a young baby. He watches me with a bland sort of curiosity while his mother smiles gently. There are lines of fatigue in her face and a tense sort of grief that she’s hiding well enough for normal kids.

 

I’m not a normal kid.

 

“Hello Aiko-chan,” she says, “I’m Mikoto; your mother was my cousin. We’re here to take you home.”

 

We’re Uchiha, everyone is related. It’s probably a bundle of genetic defects and a history of mental illness widely accepted as just being part of being Uchiha. It’s horrible.

 

I smile and say “Hello Mikoto-san.” I try very hard not to think about how the little boy staring at me is slated to kill me one day. It’s the sort of depressing thought you want to ignore. “Okaasan said we were going to live with obaasan and ojiisan – are they okay?”

 

Her smile is gentle but strained. “They’re okay Aiko-chan, but they’re very old and it’s a long way to the Uchiha District; I offered to come get you for them.”

 

Thank you sweet baby jesus and all the saints; I’d been doing mental gymnastics all morning over how to get out of living with tiny murderous genius. The unspoken implication that minimizing Uchiha appearances inside the village proper to the point of not having my own grandparents pick me up is somehow the better option is mildly alarming. Of course, I’m six so I should probably not be picking up on that nonsense.

 

“Thank you Mikoto-san,” I say politely. It eases some of the strain in her smile. “Can we go now?”

 

She’s very kindly brought me some non-hospital clothes. Tiny little black sandals – they’re just as weird looking as my memories suggest but oddly comfortable and I hate them so much let me tell you – black shorts and a black shirt. It’s weirdly loose but thankfully lacks the ridiculous high collar and obnoxious clan symbol across the back (there are tiny fans on the sleeves, unfortunately, but practically tasteful in comparison).

 

She waits for me to get changed and then we go to the nurses’ station to sign me out. Itachi and I walk alongside each other and very subtly size each other up. He’s mostly mildly curious and I’m just weirded out that this tiny child is now my peer.

 

Walking back to the Uchiha District gives me my first glimpse of Konohagakure proper. It’s a weird mish-mash of traditional Japanese architecture with modern amenities and what is very much… It reminds me of Disneyworld, okay? Brand-specific themes in all the buildings and streets but with the air of regular use instead of the weirdness of like a set. Like I’ve walked into a theme-park where you get to stay in the ‘city’ instead of a hotel.

 

People are cleaning up rubble but for the most part the village still looks intact. Mikoto hurries us past a couple streets and I can see the rows of unmistakeable bodies under white sheets near the worst of the damage. I see Itachi – my cousin, I guess – see them too and when he glances at me I meet his gaze long enough to acknowledge that I saw it as well.

 

At this point, my cousin is deciding to become a pacifist. It’s probably the only normal thing this kid is going to do in his life so, I mean, kudos to him. It’s basically impossible but he’s thinking about it at least. I’ll give at least a little bit of credit where it’s due.

 

The Uchiha district is far enough away that it’s almost offensively pristine in comparison. I’m sure that’s helping the relations between them – us – and the rest of the village. Mikoto relaxes as we enter through the main gates and Itachi even reaches forward to link his hand in hers. She smiles at him and offers her other hand to me.

 

It’s not that I want to offend her or anything but I’ve never been a physically affectionate person. This body of mine might want to instinctively reach out but everything that remains of **** recoils at the idea. I tuck my hands into my pockets and pretend I didn’t see the silent offer instead; I peer intently at a display of baked goods in a shopfront across the street instead.

 

Irony of ironies: it turns out my grandparents run the bakery I’m admiring. Uchiha Kouga and Hitomi are both white-haired and stooped with age but very kind in ushering me upstairs into the spare room they have clearly prepared for me. There’s a twin bed pressed against one wall, a tiny closet filled with an assortment of kids clothes, and a desk tucked near the sliding door that opens onto a little Juliette balcony. There’s a little bookshelf with some unfamiliar kids’ books and what looks to be toy weaponry (military dictatorship, I have to remind myself sternly before I visibly startle). There’s even the crowning joy of a soft yellow rabbit plush sitting smack dab on the centre of the pretty floral bedspread.

 

Welcome to my new life, I suppose.

Chapter Text

Day three of my new life has me sitting down to breakfast and finding out that what **** would consider breakfast is not what Aiko expects.  I’m halfway through my miso soup and rice and reaching for a piece of umeboshi before my brain catches up to me. I fumble momentarily with the chopsticks before muscle memory kicks in and I continue while my grandparents exchange a concerned look but don’t actually comment.

 

Okaasan loved umeboshi, it floats through my head and I ruthlessly ignore it. Sense-memory continues into my taste-buds and it’s weirding me out enough on its own without adding a child’s musings to them.

 

“Okaasan said I would get to go to school,” I say eventually as I watch Hitomi – obaasan – start to clean up the dishes from breakfast while me and ojiisan stay at the table working on a cup each of tea. It’s thankfully a black tea which is at least something both Aiko and **** agree on. Ojiisan looks over the edge of his sudoku book at me and I lean forward to look at the current puzzle. “A 2 goes there, in the corner,” I add when there’s no response to my statement.

 

“You like puzzles, Aiko-chan?” Ojiisan sounds delighted.

 

I like reading but all the books in my shelf are aimed at a six-year old and heavy on militaristic indoctrination. “They’re interesting,” I say and take a better look at the one he’s working on when he slides it over encouragingly. “A 6 there,” I point, “and a 3 here.”

 

“Your okaasan didn’t like puzzles much,” he says carefully, in a gentle but leading tone.

 

Talking about trauma is supposed to help you work through it. My trauma over okaasan is wrapped up in an aching grief of a life left behind so I’ve basically been repressing ruthlessly. The conflicting sadness is almost blissfully numb as a result.

 

“No,” I agree. Okaasan liked travelling with the merchants my otousan worked with and the complete absence of the violence of shinobi life. She was only returning because otousan died and lingering family/village loyalty demanded she gave me the chance to know the same. I’ve been working through a child’s memories with an adult’s mind and it’s bizarre but at least makes faking this sort of stuff easier.

 

Here’s the thing – I don’t necessarily want to be a shinobi. I mean, Aiko did (does?) but this new amalgamation me is old enough to recognize that child soldiers are bad and violence is stupid and the whole idea that there’s both a system of powerful villages under supreme military dictators and also a system of nobles with their own actual armies is so patently ridiculous that I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Shinobi are basically magic killing machines and somehow civilian infantry are necessary.

 

A well place doton could definitely take out a lot of soldiers. And it’s not like non-shinobi have a way to counter anything.

 

But in my new 3-step program to surviving past my last life, I need to attend shinobi school. Step 1: become a shinobi. Step 2: don’t get killed by murderous cousin. Step 3: ??

 

I need to work on step 3.

 

But first: school.

 

“School?” I prompt again and watch Ojiisan badly hide a wince.

 

“Ah, Aiko-chan, your obaasan and I thought maybe you’d like to go to your tousan’s school. How about that?”

 

Tousan was a merchant and went to civilian school. There’s no way in hell I survive puberty if I go there no matter how tempting the safety of the familiar seems.

 

“I want to go to shinobi school,” I make sure to frown ever so slightly. “I want to be a kunoichi like kaasan.”

 

The grief is palpable and I resolutely ignore it. I meet my grandparents’ stares and something gives. Obaasan sighs from the little kitchenette and carefully hangs up the dishtowel to dry. “Okay Aiko-chan, we’ll register you today.”

 

Registration turns out to be…surprisingly busy for a village only a couple days away from the death of their new leader and the destruction of much of the village via giant demon fox. I’m guessing shinobi parents are all too aware of the gaps in their ranks and seeking to fill it with their children in a show of absolutely disgusting patriotism. Ojiisan is watching the shop while obaasan takes me to the Academy to register me for classes.

 

Basically we register my basic information – name, age, height, weight – and then get sent into a large practice room where chunin instructors ask us to do a variety of tasks like jump as a high as you can, touch your toes without bending your knees, run the length of the room as fast as you can…etc.

 

Okay, plus side, my new body is absolutely in better shape than I ever was Before. It’s almost insultingly easy to finish each task leaving the chunin looking mildly impressed. Hell I’m impressed at myself. After the physical tests they lead us into a classroom and hand out a booklet with a series of questions.

 

They’re interesting questions. Some are simple math problems which – okay, it’s been a while since I last took a math class but I’m still an adult and this is easy – some are riddles that somewhat trip me up since I’m still working on this reading thing but just focussing on it seems to clear up where they make a play on alternate pronunciations of certain characters and some logic clears up most of that section. There’s a bit on history that I…fail pretty badly at. I can name the founders of the village and even detail a bit of the major events of the warring states era so I can’t answer In what year was Konoha founded? But I can answer most follow up questions in some pretty broad strokes.

 

But then there’s scenarios clearly aimed at judging…our mental ability to handle trauma and violence, basically. I sneak a glance up at the front of the class to the watching chunin. She doesn’t even look slightly bad about these and there’s one that asks what we would do if we discovered our best friend was a traitor to the village.

 

We’re still mostly toddlers.

 

Still, it’s not hard to give neutral responses to most questions. They’re pretty leading questions to begin with so most of my answers consist of repeating the point the questions wants me to make almost word for word the way the question phrases it. If my best friend is a traitor to the village, I would report them to my superiors.

 

There’s a couple puzzles to test spatial awareness which I’ve done variants of before so they don’t take much more than a couple minutes before I’m finishing up and raising my hand to have my test collected.

 

Then that’s that. Obaasan is waiting outside with a crowd of other milling parents and I walk up to her. “I’m done.”

 

“How was it?”

 

“It was okay,” I say. The chunin had said we’d receive our notice of acceptance before the end of the week if we passed the tests so I’m not really expecting one of the instructors to come jogging over calling out for obaasan.

 

She turns with a smile. “Chunin-san, can I help you?”

 

“You are Uchiha Aiko’s guardian?” he asks. He’s got a sharply angled jaw, dark hair, and red eyes that throw me for a moment. Obaasan looks amused and he colours just slightly. “Ah, forgive me, I’m Yuhi Shinku.”

 

“Uchiha Hitomi,” obaasan says. Then, “Aiko-chan is my granddaughter. Did you need her for more tests?”

 

Oh god I hope not. Some of my disdain must show on my face because he hurries to explain.

 

“No it’s just…has your granddaughter ever been tested before?”

 

What.

 

“No, Aiko-chan was raised with her father’s merchants. This is the first time she’s been to a proper school. Why?”

 

“She’s very proficient for her age,” he says. “But it’s not her physical scores that caught our attention.”

 

Oh god no.

 

I listen with dawning horror as Yuhi-san shows obaasan my partially graded test and explains how I was the first girl to finish, only maybe a few minutes behind Uchiha Itachi in the boys’ testing group. How my comprehension is clearly genius-level and how they think I would benefit from starting class right away – never mind the waiting period. If even half my written test is this well done, then sending me home to wait for official acceptance is only doing me a disservice.

 

Oh no no no no no.

 

I was so focussed on completing the test that I didn’t really stop to consider that we were six and not actually supposed to finish the test in its entirety. That some of it was deliberately above our knowledge to gauge our strengths and weaknesses from the get-go to round out the classes. That if I wanted to fly under the radar I should have played dumb.

 

Obaasan seems so pleased and agrees almost immediately to allow me to go join the advanced class with my cousin; she’ll go to the office right away to sign any paperwork. Yuhi-san – sensei, now, I guess – bows politely and turns to me with a friendly smile.

 

Muscle memory has me returning the bow and managing a, “thank you Yuhi-sensei I’m in your care.”

 

Then it’s off to class.

 

The other students are all older – closer to ten than my six – and I’m basically mute as Yuhi-sensei introduces me as another new student today, say hello class and then nudges me into joining my cousin at one of the desks in the back. Uchiha Itachi watches with well-hidden surprise as his hitherto-unknown cousin mechanically takes a seat beside him and opens the notebook kindly stuffed into my hands along with a pencil by sensei.

 

Yuhi-sensei launches immediately back into a lecture about the fundamentals of chakra since apparently I’m being dumped into a class that’s just about to start learning how to use it and begin their first real ninjutsu.

 

Lord have mercy and strike me down now. I can’t quite bring myself to take notes – I’ve read variations of this explanation probably a hundred times – so I’m left sitting stiffly next to my cousin until they announce break and I find an arm slung around my neck before I can even get a chance to move.

 

“Cousins!” says the Uchiha cheerfully hanging between Itachi and I. “Early starters all of us!”

 

“Shisui-kun,” Itachi says blandly and I’m frozen. I’m frozen because Uchiha Shisui is clinging to both of us and oh my God.

 

“We aren’t that familiar,” I finally say and slip under his arm with a visible flinch I can’t quite help. Itachi looks resigned but Shisui is pouting at me. “And who are you anyway, Uchiha-san.”

 

He makes a face but straightens up enough that he isn’t tugging Itachi sideways anymore. “I’m Shisui – none of that Uchiha-san nonsense. There’s three of us in class now; it’s bound to get confusing. So who are you? I’ve never seen you around the district.”

 

“Uchiha Aiko. My kaasan and I were moving back to Konoha – we arrived just before the attack. She didn’t make it.” Mentioning the kyuubi sobers the conversation almost immediately but mentioning my dead mother makes even Shisui freeze. It’s only a tiny bit vindictive pleasure that has me smiling tightly and saying, “Excuse me, obaasan will expect me home for lunch.”

 

I flee back to the district where obaasan greets me warmly, hands over a bento box and tells me to hurry back to the Academy so I can eat with my friends.

 

I don’t really have the heart to tell her I don’t plan on making friends.

 

Itachi still sits beside me after break and I can see Shisui now, sitting a couple desks over throwing glances our way. I resolutely ignore him and focus instead on taking notes. The distance I’d managed to gain by bringing up a recently dead parent lasts until the end of the day when we all walk back to the district in uncomfortable silence.

 

The next day is a different story.

 

Shisui stands in front of the door that leads up to the apartment above the bakery with his hands set on his hips and a determined expression on his face.

 

“Aiko-chan,” he says loudly as I take in a resigned and reluctantly amused Itachi hovering a few feet behind him, “as your older cousin I am here to tell you that you aren’t alone and that I, Uchiha Shisui, will support you on your journey to becoming a proud kunoichi of Konoha!”

 

I somewhat expect a Gai-esque twinkle and sunset to appear behind him but no such luck. Just one determined kid staring at me expectantly and another unmoved by our cousin’s antics.

 

“That’s…unnecessary.”

 

“Too bad,” he says repressively.

 

And that’s…that, really. Try as I might, Uchiha Shisui shows up at my door every morning to walk with me to school. He bullies other students into moving their seats so he can sit across the aisle from me (I stubbornly refuse to sit beside anyone but Itachi – he might be liable to kill me one day but right now he’s also the only one Shisui can’t convince to shift over. I’m absurdly grateful and ply my cousin with sweet dango at every opportunity). He demands to work with both his cousins whenever group assignments are announced. He aggressively pranks anyone who says anything disparaging about three six year olds being in the advanced class.

 

He’s generally exhausting and eventually I just…

 

Give up.

 

“Ne, Aiko-chan, do you wanna train with me after school? Itachi-kun has to go to clan meetings with Uchiha-sama.”

 

“Alright.” Shisui is better at aiming than I am but I’m better at chakra control. “I’ll show you how to get through that transition from boar to ox for kawarimi if you show me that redirection kunai trick.” We haven’t actually performed it yet – we’ve only just learned shunshin which is basically just using the tiger seal to channel chakra (which is a trip let me tell you) into our bodies and move really quickly.

 

I still have trouble sometimes with believing in chakra. The minute Yuhi-sensei showed us how to access it, I swear my mind imploded. Because chakra? It’s everywhere. I hadn’t quite noticed at first, not really, how there was a current inside me. I’d kind of assumed it was just what normal non-depressed bodies felt like. Like they were alive with vitality and energy. I’d spent most of Before with some serious depression so I could scarcely remember what it felt like to not have a brain refuse to make the correct amount of chemicals. To find out that, well, yes you are not depressed anymore, but also, no, that isn’t normal that’s chakra was…

 

Yeah, a trip might be too kind a word.

 

But being so intimately aware of it is apparently a sign of my superior chakra control. Shisui might have shunshin down but kawarimi is more complex and he struggles a little with matching chakra and seals. The shift from boar – relatively simple and settled as far as chakra goes – to ox – which is both a more complex seal and a weird shift in chakra – has been tripping him up.

 

Also while my aim isn’t as perfect as say, Itachi’s, it’s still pretty alright and the redirection thing with two kunai? Seems useful as fuck.

 

I look over at Shisui only to find I’ve inadvertently left him several feet back. I may as well have hit him in the face with the shocked expression I find there. “Shisui-kun?”

 

“You mean it?” he asks me finally. He’s both way more suspicious and serious than I’ve ever seen him. “You don’t have to say yes just to make me happy.”

 

Okay, I’m a tiny bit touched. It’s hard to go through the day-to-day routine of school without falling at least a little bit into a mindset more my physical age. I’ve been fighting my instinctive attachment since day one; knowing what I do about the future if I can’t change it.

 

Which is another thing I’m not even thinking about yet.

 

“Shisui,” I drop the honorific to make sure I’ve got his attention, “when have you ever known me to do something I didn’t want to?”

 

He’s a stubborn little shit. “Maybe I just annoyed you enough that you’re agreeing so I stop.”

 

“Are you going to stop?”

 

“What? No! I told you, Aiko-chan, I’m going to help you!”

 

“Then my agreeing isn’t going to make you leave me alone, is it?” I ask with a heavy dose of exasperation. Child genius though my cousin may be, he’s still a kid.

 

He stares at me for a long time. I can practically see him thinking. Finally his usual cheerful smile appears and he brings up a hand to scratch at the back of his head absently. “Well then alright, Aiko-chan. I’ll show you the trick with the kunai but you have to spar with me too!”

 

I hate sparring with an absolute vengeance. My okaasan had taught me all the basic Academy and Uchiha forms so I could muscle-memory my way through most of our taijutsu classes with reasonable success and only a bit of correction. It’s just…Before I had never fought. Learning to work with my muscle-memory took way more effort than literally everything else. Plus there was the whole fighting aspect.

 

A spar in my old life was a test of skill against another practitioner. It wasn’t really meant for harm. But in this life everything we learned was for the explicit purpose of causing grievous bodily harm to another human being. The Academy encouraged violence. When the boys got rowdy they were told to take it outside but not to stop. Girls would get annoyed at each other and draw blood rather than just yell. We’d get scolded for it later, of course, but that just led to kunoichi classes and learning how a well-placed senbon could cause lots of pain but only draw the slightest bit of blood. Subtlety in our violence.

 

I mean, the school nurse was a mednin who could heal dislocated shoulders and cracked ribs because we got those regularly just in play.

 

“Ugh, fine,” I agree. He brightens immediately the vicious little nasty. “But for that I’m calling no katon.”

 

He and Itachi both have mastered that stupid coming of age rite. It’s absolutely overkill in a spar between toddlers and it gives him such a ridiculous advantage and he knows it too. I’ve been trying to figure out the sharingan – since I’m almost positive I had it activated that first night I was dropped into my body – in an attempt to even it out but no such luck.

 

“How are you supposed to figure yours out without a demonstration though?” Shisui whines but doesn’t actually argue the point which means I win.

 

He still wins the spar without it. I end up successfully using the trick with redirecting kunai and he figures out the transition in kawarimi but by the end of the evening I’m sweating, exhausted, and sprawled in the dirt while my ridiculous cousin cheers his win through panting.

 

I’m an artificial genius but he and Itachi are the real deal. I might outscore them on paper and in control but they’re both painfully better at everything else. I practice with them almost every day and they just…keep leaping ahead. I’d be more bitter if I wasn’t so aware of how well that genius works out for both of them.

 

“Good spar,” I manage finally. I’m working through breathing exercises that double as chakra control exercises. I don’t have much left, having had to rely on kawarimi more than once to evade Shisui’s scarily good shunshin. He’ll eventually be known for it and with good goddamn reason if he’s this proficient at six.

 

“Yeah!” he agrees cheerfully. Then, “did you hear Itachi was going to sign a contract with the crows?”

 

Everyone and their mother know that one. Itachi actually got the attention of the summoning crows himself and signed their contract that way. It’s only added to the mystique of being the clan’s resident shining star. Never mind the other two six year olds in his same class doing just as well. Shisui’s guardians apparently hold the first crow contract and are waiting for Shisui to make genin before they let him sign. Itachi will already have a year of working with his own flock before Shisui lands his own, if timelines match up correctly. Shisui has been avoiding talking to him about it – jealousy, I assume.

 

It actually makes me feel better to know Shisui isn’t immune to it.

 

I close my eyes to enjoy the fading sun. “I heard.”

 

“Are you thinking of contracting?”

 

Lord no. Holding a summoning contract is pretty much guaranteed to land you on a jounin-sensei team. I have high hopes of flying under the radar and joining the Genin-Corps after graduation. I’ve been looking at careers that keep me out of the village (and away from the massacre). The Diplomatic Corps is basically glorified escorts, scribes, and honour-guards for minor nobles and rich merchants. It’s basically combat-free if you don’t count the occasional bandit or criminal.

 

Which you shouldn’t; a dedicated duck is more of a threat than a bandit compared to a fully-trained genin.

 

“I don’t know,” I say instead. “I’m just branch Uchiha, we aren’t exactly swimming in summoning contracts.”

 

“You could try summoning without a contract – apparently it takes you to the Summons most suited to you,” he says.

 

“Yeah, and if I can’t make their requirements for signing the contract then I could die.”

 

He sighs heavily. “You’re never going to be an amazing kunoichi if you’re too afraid to take risks every now and then, Aiko-chan.”

 

“There’s risk and there’s suicide, Shisui-kun,” I drawl. Then I have to hastily cover up the shiver that saying that to Uchiha Shisui causes. I sit up abruptly to avoid looking at him and seeing him floating down the river in my mind’s eye. “I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

 

My walk home is lonely and cold. I try very hard not to think about the future.

 

So naturally, my sleep is interrupted by the past.

 

In vivid scarlet, I watch myself get struck by a car and die. I watch okaasan yell a warning to find the nearest shelter and then watch scarlet fur fill the sky as the building collapses and crushes her. I’m struck by flying rubble and I want desperately to go to her side but I can’t move I need to move need to go there there now!

 

I wake up in a cold sweat, with vivid scarlet casting a bloody glow over my empty bedroom. I take maybe one step out of bed and I’m suddenly in the bathroom, puking my guts up into the toilet and shaking.

 

My chakra is alarmingly low for someone who just jolted out of sleep. I close the door as quietly as I can and turn the light on so I can wash my face and rinse the taste of bile out of my mouth.

 

When I look into the mirror I freeze.

 

Because I know why my chakra is low. I know why I made it to the bathroom so quickly without consciously using shunshin.

 

My eyes are two bright spots of blue – a blue I recognize achingly from Before – but the lazily spinning triple tomoe are all sharingan. I reach for my chakra, find it overwhelmingly…different, from the usual mix. I tweak the flow so it feels normal and the blue fades but everything is still red and the tomoe continue to spin in a slow circle.

 

Um.

 

Okay.

 

I shift the flow, paying close attention to the way it floods back the moment I adjust the balance. Yin and Yang – spiritual and physical – more spiritual and the blue floods back and my chakra drains at an alarming rate. More balanced and the blue fades but the sharingan remains. I ‘flick’ the switch and I’m left staring at the black eyes I’m rapidly becoming acquainted with.

 

So.

 

Plus side, I’ve figured out the sharingan. Downside – I’ve also figured out mangekyou. And since I’ve got an overbalanced amount of yin chakra (I’ve been theorizing it’s from my life already lived) naturally it draws on that and not my more easily accessible and normal yang chakra like it should.

 

And of course, absolutely no one can know I’ve done this. Awakening the sharingan at my age means genin team for sure and the mangekyou?

 

I mean, aside from the fact that if I kept it up for longer than the handful of seconds I’d had it on tonight I would have fainted from lack of chakra, there’s also the matter of I live in a terrifying military dictatorship and my clan wants to stage a coup.

 

So. More secrets.

 

Yaaay?

Chapter Text

I really wish I could tell you about my super exciting time learning how to be a baby genin. Unfortunately there’s really not much to say. School is a routine and being half the age of your classmates makes it pretty much impossible to make friends. Half of them resent you and the other half baby you – it’s lose-lose any way you look at it.

 

I mean, at least I’ve got my cousins? Shisui and Itachi are freakish little geniuses but at least they’re my age. Plus, Shisui’s particular brand of stubborn has made it absolutely impossible to do anything less than my absolute best in class. Under his insistent tutelage, even my pretty basic taijutsu gets up to his par fairly well. I’m never going to beat him in a spar (not without using my sharingan which ahahaa no) but I can at least hold my own until he figures I’ve met whatever internal goal he’s set for me and then pushes past that.

 

Quicker than I expect, the school year is coming to a close and students are scrambling to study for exams. Itachi and Shisui disappear to train without me more often than not (because they’re jerks; they aren’t even allowed to take graduation exams this year) which actually gives me some time to myself for once.

 

I mostly use it stuffed up in a corner of the public shinobi library of the village proper. It’s the one place you can be pretty much guaranteed not to find Uchiha (the clan has our own library and it’s unbelievably unhelpful but clan pride). You don’t get access to much as a student but what you do get I’ve spent hours of stolen away time carefully activating the basic sharingan and copying everything. I’ve got pretty much every shinobi rule and law stuck in my brain now as well as just about every chakra control exercise and a surprising number of outlines for the many (oh my god so many) forms shinobi are expected to fill out in their lifetimes.

 

Mostly I’m looking for every loophole I can to get out  of the Uchiha District.

 

It’s not that Hitomi and Kouga are bad grandparents to live with. It’s just they live in the District and as a future site for one of the worst massacres of our time I’m justifiably nervous about remaining there. It’s bad enough that Itachi still knows my goddamn name (I can even count him as a friend) without staying close by too.

 

A genin counts as an adult in the eyes of the law so that’s got that bit covered. There’s both shinobi and civilian districts in the village so it’s not hard to find apartments aimed at genin. Granted, they’re not really expecting people my age to graduate so…

 

Nevertheless, there are some pretty basic bachelor apartments that I could reasonably afford, as long as I did at least two or three D-ranks a week or got a not-terrible apprenticeship salary in the Genin-Corps. I’d have to apply to a specific division if that was the case and that means formal recommendations from non-Academy instructors – and it’s notoriously difficult to get recommendations without going through at least the jounin-sensei’s testing stage.

 

Which I absolutely want to avoid. They aren’t likely to want more than one Uchiha on a team, but Itachi is definitely the top rank in the class and I’m definitely the top written score kunoichi. Shisui is just behind Itachi so he’ll be on his own team, but just by standings they’re quite liable to stick me and my cousin on the same team.

 

Seeing as I’m pretty sure Itachi’s team doesn’t exactly fare well – something about Obito attacking and making his sharingan awaken if I’m remembering correctly – I’m actively fighting to avoid that.

 

“Aiko-chaaaaan,” Shisui whines from about a foot in front of me and I slam a lid on the chakra to my sharingan as quickly as I can while simultaneously burrowing my face into the retail listings magazine I’ve been memorising.

 

It’s not fast enough. His eyes light up and he reaches out to shove the top of the magazine down and manages to catch the deep red and spinning tomoe before they fade to black. I reach out and grab his collar, yanking him down to my level and glancing behind him for any other witnesses.

 

“Ouch, Aiko!” he drops the honorific and reaches up to grab my wrist but I’ve got a firm hold. “Since when did you…”

 

“Is Itachi with you?” I demand.

 

“What? No - Uchiha-sama is making him train again so I came to find you. But Aiko-chan why didn’t you…”

 

“Shut up!” I hiss. “I don’t want anyone to know okay? It happened the night I got to Konoha.” The night I lost both my life and my mother in one fell swoop. Jeeze, is it any wonder I got the mangekyou too?

 

“But you could be training with it!” he thankfully lowers his voice to a matching hiss and I release my hold on his wide collar. “Aiko you could be somuch better!”

 

“I don’t want to be better!” The hurt look on his face is enough to make me look away. “Look, I’m already pretty much slated for Itachi-kun’s team and you know what his tousan is like. I don’t want to be just another Uchiha-shaped stepping stone for the prodigal son, okay?”

 

He softens in understanding instantly. “Is that why you keep looking at ways to get into the Genin-Corps?”

 

“I don’t need to be the best frontline kunoichi, Shisui-kun,” I say. “I just want to be a good kunoichi. If I can find a way to get a recommendation, I can apply directly to the division I want and skip the jounin-sensei test completely.”

 

“So you…what, have just been copying every book in the library?”

 

I can feel the flush of embarrassment rise. “Shut up.”

 

“Aiko-chan,” he sounds way more exasperated than he has any right to be, “why didn’t you just say so. I could help you – you probably don’t even know your ojiisan used to be in the Intel Corps.”

 

What.

 

My ojiisan?”

 

“Why do you think he’s always doing those puzzles and stuff?” He tucks his hands behind his head and leans back. “Come on Aiko-chan, you wouldn’t even ask your guardians for help with this? That’s pretty bad.”

 

Okay, yes. He’s not wrong. I’ve mostly been trying to avoid attachment to obaa- and ojiisan by viewing them as sort of weirdly present landlords and caretakers. We eat meals together if we’re all home but mostly they’re kept busy running the bakery and I’m busy with training and doing whatever I can to avoid attracting attention from Itachi’s parents.

 

Mikoto-san is perfectly nice when she comes by the bakery but Fugaku-sama is absolutely terrifying and actively planning a coup so…

 

“How did you know about ojiisan?”

 

“I know about everyone,” he says smugly. “No one cares about the clan orphans and if you pull a couple pranks the elders do their best to pretend you don’t exist.”

 

“You don’t pull pranks just to make the elders ignore you,” I say with the most disapproving frown I can manage. “You pull those because you’re a menace.”

 

His grin is full of mischief. “Come on, let’s go see your ojiisan and see what he says.”

 

Ojiisan is surprisingly helpful. He gets Shisui and I settled in a corner of the bakery with green tea and a plate of anpan fresh from the oven. Shisui is entirely too pleased with himself as I stumble my way through explaining my desire to skip straight to the Genin-Corps – preferably Diplomatic but if ojiisan thinks Intel would be an easier sell…

 

“Ah, Aiko-chan, don’t take this old man too seriously but Intel is maybe not the best for you.” It’s a very polite way of saying I may be smart but not Intel smart. I give my grandfather a probing side-eye and he smiles guilelessly. “But Diplomatic Corps…that might be a good fit for you, Aiko-chan. You’ve always been a very polite girl and your reports from the Academy always say how well you do in the more subtle kunoichi skills.”

 

“Thank you, ojiisan,” I say instead of kunoichi classes are a joke and supremely sexist and why do boys get extra taijutsu class while I get stuck learning how to send messages in flowers.Ojiisan gives me a knowing look and I take a sip of tea to cover the tightness of my smile. He’s not wrong and it kills me just a little inside to admit it. “Would you be willing to give a recommendation to the Corps for me? Please?”

 

Ojiisan is quiet as he prepares his own cup of tea. I share a cautious look with Shisui. My cousin looks more confident than I feel.

 

Finally ojiisan smiles gently at me. “If you graduate next year with your cousins, I’ll give you a recommendation letter. I’ll even get obaasan to write out one; your obaasan comes from a very influential merchant family in the capital you know. It will look very good on your application to have her family back you as well as this old Uchiha.”

 

I don’t know why it never occurred to me that obaasan might have come from outside the clan. I guess I’m just so used to the weird interbred clan purity nonsense that it’s a constant surprise when things don’t match that expectation.  

 

Though it does explain why my grandparents have no problem accepting my runaway mother’s slightly illegitimate daughter as a proper Uchiha.

 

Downside… “Graduate in a year?” I ask just to feel my heart sink at his answering nod. The next opportunity to take the graduation exams are the end of the year in the winter. Since my cousins and I all started mid-year they didn’t let us take the summer exams. That matches up roughly with what I remember of the general timeline – Itachi graduating in a year at the top of his class. Shisui does too but he’s not the heir of the clan head so generally any of his accomplishments get overlooked or dismissed.

 

I don’t know how I feel about graduating with the two of them. On one hand – if I do my ojiisan will pretty much guarantee my place in the Corps. On the other – there’s no way Fugaku will be able to ignore a proper legitimate Uchiha graduating alongside his son.

 

Shisui is beaming. “Ne, Aiko-chan! That shouldn’t be a problem.”

 

Well, I mean, technically no. Some of the math has started giving me trouble (do you know how long it’s been since I had to map a parabola without a calculator?) but memorizing the formulas with my sharingan simplifies things. If Shisui continues insisting on helping with all the combat classes, I’ve got the theoretical ones in the bag. Graduating in a year isn’t a problem.

 

“Thank you ojiisan,” I say with a smile I desperately hope is sincere enough to cover my trepidation. “I’ll try my best.”

 

By the time we get to the clan training ground we usually use, Shisui has worked himself into a bundle of smug baby shinobi. “I am absolutely not trying my best,” I tell him flatly.

 

He dramatically falls to the ground as if that will drive home his shock. I am very much unmoved. “Did you just lie to your ojiisan?” he demands.

 

“I’ll graduate in a year,” I tell him. “But if I try my best then Yuhi-sensei and Hokage-sama might override my application to the Corps and stick me on a genin team regardless.”

 

He looks very unhappy with me. “You should still try your best with me and Itachi-kun,” he says. “It’s not about graduating and being on a team when you train with us; it’s about being safe outside the village on missions.”

 

He is definitely referring to practicing with my sharingan in combat. I make as if to adjust my ponytail to allow my long hair to fall across my face. It disguises the flash of crimson sharingan to anyone but Shisui who stands only a few feet away. He doesn’t nod but his eyes widen ever so slightly in a definite yes that’s exactly what I mean.

 

I finish tying my hair back again and sigh. “I get what you’re saying.”

 

“I’ll get Itachi-kun to find us a private training ground,” he says.

 

If anyone can get a private (and I mean private by shinobi standards) training ground it’ll be Itachi. The whole clan bends over backwards to give him absolutely anything he wants. He’s got the entire hope of the Uchiha planted squarely on his shoulders. His father and the elders are outright grooming him to be the next Hokage. He won’t ever get it and on some level they know that so there’s also this whole level of unspoken pressure to be better so the Uchiha can take what they want instead of getting it the more conventional way.

 

“Uchiha-sama won’t like that.”

 

He scoffs. “Uchiha-sama doesn’t like anything. He’ll get over it if Itachi-kun insists though. Plus, he doesn’t hate you.”

 

“He knows I exist?”

 

He gives me a weird look. “Of course he does.”

 

I feel my shoulders slump. “Fantastic,” I say flatly.

 

“Don’t be like that,” Shisui says as he draws his tanto from its shoulder holster and gets into a starting sparring position. “Now come on, let’s see if we can get your shunshin up to my speed.”

 

I am absolutely, 100%, going to regret letting Shisui in on my goals. Nevertheless, I draw a kunai out of my thigh-holster and get into a low starting stance balanced on the balls of my feet with one hand in a half-tiger seal – as ready as I’ll ever be to try shunshin in combat against the terror that is my genius cousin. “Let’s go then,” I say.

 

I lose. It’s actually kind of amazing how fast I can move and yet still end up clutching bandages to the side of my head, hobbling with a sprained ankle and allowing Shisui to help me get to the hospital. We have to pass the main house to get there and we must make a pretty sorry sight because Itachi literally leaps out his bedroom window when he sees us limping our way past.

 

“What did you do, Shisui?” he demands as he slides an arm around my other side and takes more of my weight. He’s calm but very intense when he looks at our cousin.

 

Shisui, predictably, flails at the censure in Itachi’s voice. “It wasn’t my fault!”

 

He draws away from my side enough to cause me to put weight on my busted ankle. I hiss out my next breath and Itachi’s mild censure upgrades to a definite frown. Shisui hurries to take my weight properly again.

 

You know, in my last life the worst thing I’d ever done to myself (besides dying obviously) was when I slipped and slammed my knee down hard enough that my knee-cap relocated itself partway up my thigh. I spent three days off work with my knee elevated and wrapped, alternating hot and cold to keep the swelling down. I spent the next couple weeks with a brace on my knee and unable to bend it much more than to walk semi-normally.

 

In this life, I sprain my ankle almost bad enough to break and treat it as a minor inconvenience at worst and knowing I’ll be back at training just as hard the very next day.

 

The life of a shinobi is horrifying if I stop long enough to think about it. Most days, I throw myself into it just to avoid thinking too much about all the things I’ve left behind. Also all the things I have to look forward to (puberty again is going to be the worst).

 

“Ah, Itachi-kun, he’s not lying.” I nudge him just a little in as close to a half-hug as I can while still trying to keep the bandages pressed against the split in my scalp from where Shisui got in a lucky strike with his stupid tanto. “My shunshin just didn’t come fast enough to evade and aim away from the exploding tag crater.”

 

“I told you,” Shisui says from my other side.

 

Itachi’s silence is very telling. I don’t know whether I want to be pleased that Itachi is blaming the incident on Shisui for going too hard on me, or annoyed that he thinks Shisui needs to go easy on me.

 

I’ve magnanimously decided Itachi is my favourite cousin by the time we make it to the hospital and tell him so as he eases me into the waiting room chair and Shisui goes off to tell thenurse what’s going on.

 

I’m treated to the delightfully adorable sight of my very serious cousin actually blushing at the compliment. I can’t help the grin that spreads as his general quiet goes even quieter in his embarrassment. “Thank you, Aiko-chan,” he manages finally as he pulls me sideways so I can prop my busted ankle up on his knee instead.

 

“What, I’m not your favourite cousin too?” I pout at him just to watch the way his eyes widen in mild alarm. “I’m just kidding, Itachi-kun,” I add after I’ve enjoyed his squirming enough. He looks relieved.

 

He proves his sense of comedic timing though when he says, just as Shisui comes back into ear-shot, “You are also my favourite cousin, Aiko-chan.”

 

Shisui’s disbelieving whine sets me off into a fit of laughter that continues until the mednin nurse on duty makes her way over to take a look at my injuries. She fixes both pretty much on the spot after verifying the head-wound is clean. I’m left with nary a scar but a giant chunk of hair missing.

 

I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror when I step aside to rinse the worst of the blood off the side of my head. I heave a sigh and turn my head to see how bad it is. I’m definitely going to need to see a hairdresser.

 

I take great joy in telling Shisui he’s paying. Itachi helpfully tags along to provide a disappointed look whenever he tries to run off and get out of it.

 

I’m sure the ninja-wire judiciously applied to trip him up helps too.

 

Itachi is definitely my favourite cousin. It’s such a shame he may end up killing me.

 

I think I give the Uchiha as a whole a bit of a heart attack when they see me on my way to the Academy the next day. We’re a traditional lot, my clan. Sure, our kunoichi go out into the field but we’re pretty much expected to become housewives and raise the children. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – who better to trust your children to then to their highly trained and deadly mothers after all – but it’s sexist enough to set my teeth on edge whenever I think about it. With the expectation of motherhood, there’s also the assumption that we’ll continue in a traditional manner of dress and style. There’s a little leeway as far as active kunoichi go (killing people as a profession generally allows for plenty of weird quirks and coping mechanisms) but even most of the Uchiha girls in the Academy still dress pretty traditionally. Most of my outfits are simple shorts or leggings with kimono-style wrap-around tops of varying sleeve lengths (weather dependant) in just about every shade of black imaginable.

 

But there was really no way to salvage the chunk of missing hair from the side of my head. It was too far back to give me bangs and to match lengths would have left me in the unenviable position of having to explain to every Uchiha I met that yes I am actually a girl thanks.

 

For probably one of the first times since I was dropped in this body, I can look into a mirror and not feel like a vaguely familiar stranger is staring back at me. My ridiculously long hair (Uchiha female nonsense at its finest) is braided back in a straight line down the centre of my skull and the sides are gloriously shaved off in soft fuzz.

 

What I call a Mohawk isn’t unheard of in the Elemental Nations but it isn’t exactly common. You generally only find them in mountainous regions like Iwa or Kumo. I don’t know why but it’s generally accepted that the lack of oxygen in those regions tend to make their shinobi a bit weird.

 

Still, the relief of a familiar hairstyle is honestly so good I can’t bring myself to care. Ojiisan had laughed a little when he saw and made a comment about taking the Diplomatic Corps to heart with embracing other cultures in my hair. Obaasan had hidden a smile and merely said it was ‘interesting’ and wished me luck at school.

 

Shisui and Itachi had both seen the look the night before so they aren’t surprised when I meet them. Mikoto-san, who had decided to walk Itachi to the Academy since she had errands to run in the village proper, however…

 

“Oh my, Aiko-chan,” she says and very politely doesn’t gasp or cover her mouth in shock, though her smile is a little strained, “that’s a very bold look.”

 

Nice save Mikoto-san. “There really wasn’t much to be done,” I tell her cheerfully, “so I decided we should at least make the sides match.”

 

“The hairdresser thought she was crazy,” Shisui says. “But then Aiko-chan braided it and it looks pretty neat, I think.”

 

Itachi nodded along. “It suits her very well.”

 

While I try to decide if Itachi was trying to say something about my character, we start walking to the Academy. Itachi hovers around Mikoto – though, it may be baby Sasuke in his sling that he’s actually hovering for. Mikoto-san bears this with good grace and makes idle conversation with Shisui and I about how our studies are going and the precise reason I had needed the haircut in the first place.

 

Mikoto-san offers to give me some tips on shurikenjutsu to better counter Shisui's kenjutsu but I hastily change the subject before she can get more specific than the general socially-expected offer of an adult to a child. It's not that I don't want her help it's just bad enough that she knows my name. If I can set myself up after the Academy as close to not-a-real-Uchiha as possible then the Clan as a collective will hopefully just forget I exist. I'm pretty sure Itachi isn't going to go out of his way to track down one wayward Uchiha (or offer up my name to fucking Madara or Obito or whatever fucking name he's using at this point).

 

I hit a bit of a snag with my plan of graduating early with my cousins. Yuhi-sensei explains that while I'm definitely top kunoichi of the advanced class, I don't exactly have anyoutstanding skills that would really allow for me to graduate early. Shisui and Itachi can both do their stupid katon which counts as a nature transformation and thus ups their overall shinobi stats to the point where graduating is the next logical step in the progression of their skills. Staying at the Academy to graduate at the standard age (it was removed during the Third war, but now it's back at ten - they'll raise it to twelve again after Itachi slaughters the clan) serves no purpose for them. But I haven't managed the katon yet (I'm not revealing my sharingan) and don't have any other supplementary skills to match it. I leave his office after my meeting and I know the frustration is writ in every tense line in my body because Itachi doesn't even do me the courtesy of ignoring my emotions until I'm ready to tell him.

 

"So you need to learn the katon," he says when he drags the story out of Shisui because I refused to explain why I wanted to graduate early. Shisui had said nothing about my sharingan because he can sometimes show tact. "Or learn a sufficiently advanced supplementary skill."

 

I blow out a frustrated breath. "I hate katon." I'm almost positive my chakra nature isn't fire like most of the clan for it to be causing me as much trouble as it has been. I can get the chakra to change but when I go to blow out the whole thing fizzles into just me standing there breathing out nothing and wasting chakra while I do it.

 

Shisui gets a somewhat gleeful look on his face that instantly sets me on edge. "You know what would count as a sufficiently advanced skill?" he says and stares directly at Itachi as though waiting for him to catch on.

 

Oh no.

 

"Summoning would meet Yuhi-sensei's requirements," Itachi says slowly. "I can ask otousama if he knows who would be willing to pass on a contract?"

 

"I'm trying to graduate early not land myself on a genin team! And that's exactly what a summoning contract will do."

 

“But kuchiyose doesn’t require a chakra transformation,” Itachi is exceedingly practical. “And with your current chakra levels it isn’t likely you will be able to summon anything dangerous enough to be considered useful for a genin team.”

 

“I’m not learning kuchiyose just because I can’t figure out katon gokakyu.”

Chapter Text

I’m learning kuchiyose no jutsu.

 

My absolute refusal had convinced zero (0) of my cousins to leave it alone so I’m stuck sitting in our shiny new private training ground (exclusive use for three hours after the Academy lets out with complete privacy courtesy of Uchiha-sama) listening to them argue the merits of pursuing the Uchiha Clan contracts or just going at it without one and seeing what happened.

 

I’d be more involved in this process but I’m using my time practicing katon gokakyu no jutsu because I’m really very sure that learning summoning is a terrible idea.

 

“I don’t know if jiji will let her contract with the crows just for early graduation,” Shisui says doubtfully – referring to the old man who is nominally one of his guardians. “And your flock isn’t large enough to split yet.”

 

“Apparently there’s a hawk contract in the head family’s storage,” Itachi had, true to his word but also my desire to have everything be a secret, surreptitiously gathered a list of contracts available in the clan. “But we would need otousama’s permission for that.” He shoots me a look as if to say am I sure I don’t want to ask him?

 

I draw in a breath and feel my chakra shift into fire nature. When I give an experimental breath out, it burns in my throat and then fizzles the second it makes it to my mouth. It’s no worse than a drag on a stale cigarette (I was not the healthiest Before) but my young body doesn’t have that muscle memory and I end up in a coughing fit.

 

“Doesn’t that baachan have a contract with the cats? The one with the supply shop.”

 

“No,” Itachi would almost sound sullen if it weren’t Itachi. “They just work with her a bit – she’s not a shinobi and the cats aren’t liable to give up their autonomy and contract with a specific village.”

 

“It’s just Aiko-chan though, not the whole village.”

 

“She’s a future kunoichi of Konoha; it still counts.”

 

My next breath out actually ends up with some flames flicking around my lips. “Fuck,” I swear quietly in English and probe at them with my tongue to feel the extent of the damage. The skin feels warm but it doesn’t hurt much anymore. Still! Progress!

 

“Well what else is there?”

 

“Weasels, but they generally only sign on a one-on-one basis. One of the Elders has a contract and they could make an introduction if we asked.” There’s another probing question in a glance.

 

I take another deep breath and hold it to see if maybe the internal transformation of chakra is where I’m screwing up. It feels a bit like holding a heating pad or something but it’s inside my chest.

 

“Heh, weasels, Itachi-kun.”

 

Never let it be said that Shisui doesn’t have a completely juvenile sense of humour.

 

 “The only other option is to try without a contract,” Itachi says after waiting for Shisui’s giggles to subside. He slides a glance my way where I try and fail again to breathe a ball of fire. “Or just work on gokakyu.”

 

I raise a hand like I’m in class and Shisui scowls at me. “Your opinion doesn’t count,” he says severely, then: “You’re just going to burn yourself if you keep trying.”

 

“I’ve got to be able to get it eventually,” I say, affronted. Unless I’m not fire-nature like I expect in which case it will take nothing short of a miracle to get beyond the internal shift which, while difficult, is actually easier being that the chakra is closer to the lungs and the area were fire chakra is most attuned.

 

“You could at least practice the seals for kuchiyose,” Itachi says placidly. “If you don’t use blood, it won’t complete but you’ll at least get a sense for how the chakra is supposed to flow.”

 

He isn’t wrong. I’m still highly skeptical of this whole idea but I will admit that if I have to practice another breathing exercise in an attempt to get gokakyu to work I will likely scream bloody murder.

 

“What are the seals again?” I turn finally to face my cousins and Itachi helpfully goes through them at half-speed for me. Boar, ram, dog, bird, monkey, ram.

 

I hate anything involving complicated seals like bird in the midst of simple signs like dog and monkey but I dutifully go over the seals until I can get them out at my full speed (which is only like 75% Itachi’s speed if I’m not actively in combat). I hold back on actually adding chakra until I’m sure I’ve got the transitions down cleanly. Itachi watches carefully and gives a short nod once he’s satisfied. Shisui looks positively gleeful at the prospect of getting his way and teaching me to summon.

 

Unsurprisingly, bird is where I have an issue shifting from dog (which is blessedly easy on so many levels). Itachi helpfully summons a crow so I can try to sense where I’m going wrong but my sensing still needs work because I only really get that bird is doing something complicated which thanks already knew that.

 

“Bird is also a wind-release seal,” Shisui offers. “You kind of start that chakra transformation and then…just keep going into monkey and ram. Carry the change but don’t complete it.”

 

“That is the least helpful explanation I’ve ever heard,” I mutter darkly and start at the top again. I hit bird and try to shift it to wind-nature while still moving into the next seals. I feel something shift and brighten up as I complete ram and flare my chakra just enough to mimic what I’d do if I had added blood and completed the summoning.

 

Which I absolutely did not do, I want that on record right now.

 

So it’s something of a horrifying surprise when I feel the disorientation of a full-speed shunshin combined with a blind kawarimi. I’m left blinking at a coastline that my wonderfully landlocked village definitely did not have a minute ago.

 

The rustle of what sounds like silk is all the warning I get before a deeply amused voice rumbles, “So young for a dead girl.”

 

What.

 

I turn away from the baffling sight of waves crashing up against a shoreline that shouldn’t exist to the source of the voice. I’m left staring at a black bird big enough for an adult to ride, with a long thick black beak, shining black eyes, and three legs peering down at me, head tilted curiously.

 

Um.

 

“I didn’t use blood,” I say faintly, taking in the vast hollow tree filled with hundreds of shining eyes and rustling feathered bodies shifting around to get a good look at the small human now in their midst.

 

“Well you would hardly need to do that for us to sense you,” the raven – and it’s definitely a raven – says reasonably. “You have the smell of rebirth all over you; no, you’re definitely one of ours.” His great beak slides against my side when he leans forward to bring one giant gleaming eye level with my frankly terrified gaze. Like this is totally normal and not at all a complete aberration of a summoning.

 

 “Rebirth,” I repeat, unable to quite wrap my mind around the low rasp of his voice coming from a beak in perfectly understandable Common. “This is insane.” I continue in only slightly hysterical English.

 

His head tilts again, away from me but bringing an ear closer. “What’s that, hm? Fascinating. Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of a new language for a long time.” The last in perfectly unaccented English that actually drops me to the ground in shock. The great raven ruffles his feathers and shuffles his wings in visible pleasure as he draws himself back and up again.

 

What.

 

“That was right?” he asks in the tone of one just confirming something he already knows. “You must have been young for so much potential to linger,” he adds and the low rasp of his voice is so so sympathetic.

 

I swallow convulsively. “Yeah,” I manage eventually after a pregnant pause. “Didn’t even hit thirty.”

 

Birds aren’t exactly expressive but he touches the tip of his beak to the centre of my chest and I can feel the sympathy. It chokes me up – bringing up things I’ve been aggressively ignoring for months – and I stifle the gasp that wants to be a sob. The moment I scramble back and away he turns his head to keep one eye on me and very politely doesn’t comment on what is definitely a rude reaction to sympathy.

 

“I am Yatagarasu,” the three-legged raven informs me gently. “And we would be pleased to sign you as our summoner, little dead girl.” He croaks at dark shape in the shadows of the tree and another raven big enough to carry maybe just a kid like me takes off into the impossible heights above me. I watch it go and frantically turn back to Yatagarsu as what he said sinks in.

 

“Aiko,” I say. “Uchiha Aiko, technically. I mean, now. It was something else Before. You’re going to – a contract? Really?”

 

“Aiko-san, then,” Yatagarasu says warmly and thankfully ignores my stammering completely. “You needn’t explain if you don’t want to,” he adds in a soft tone, “but if you sign our contract I will know all I need to about this life of yours stolen so prematurely. We Ravens haven’t had someone aware of their rebirth as a summoner in a long time.”

 

“Um,” I say super intelligently, as the other raven lands and drops a contract down between me and Yatagarasu gently. “So this isn’t a new situation for you?”

 

“Well,” Yatagarasu allows in a careful tone, “we only take those who are reborn-souls as a summoner so it isn’t unknown. But you are the first I’ve ever met who remembers.”

 

“And signing a contract with you means…”

 

“I’ll know everything I need about your Before,” he says. “It’s part of the agreement. I can hardly help you in this life if I don’t know what brought me to what I’m working with now.”

 

It’s really terribly embarrassing how relieved the idea of someone else understanding makes me feel. Also, hey, kuchiyose no jutsu down.

 

“Alright,” I wait for him to roll out the scroll. There’s maybe a handful of other names gone blurry and unreadable in death – the ink and blood just a smear across the heavy scroll. A pair of tiny crow-sized ravens hop over bearing ink and a brush with a small blade at the top of the handle. I carefully write out my name and use the small blade to prick the tip of each finger and spread them out in a careful print of my outstretched hand in the space below.

The flare of chakra is surprising and Yatagarasu’s eyes flash bright familiar blue for a moment before returning to black. “Excellent,” he says cheerfully. Then, “Kuromaru-kun, you’ll take care of her.”

 

“Sure thing, boss,” says another raven behind me. I turn to watch a raven the size of an eagle – so, ridiculously huge – strut over proudly. “Heya, Aiko-san, I’ll be in your care,” he adds to me.  

 

“Of course,” I manage, gaping a little at his size. “Um, how do we…”

 

“Get back? I’ll take us. Your chakra stores are almost too little to summon me, to be honest Aiko-san,” he says the last with a careful sort of censure. “So I’ll take us both back and stick around. That way you don’t kill yourself trying to get me or the boss in combat.”

 

“Oh, she’s trying to avoid that,” Yatagarasu says with warm humour in his rasping voice. “Wants to be the most unremarkable shinobi possible – flying just below the canopy.”

 

Kuromaru bobs his head. “Sounds like fun,” he croaks and fluffs his feathers. “Hide in plain sight then? If you’re set on being a shinobi.”

 

“Something like that,” I agree.

 

Yatagarasu can’t hum but he does an admirable job. “Kagome-chan, Kikyo-chan, you two can answer her summons for now. The rest of you will all have to wait,” he looks up to sternly address the sudden cacophony of disappointed calls that erupts from above. The two little ravens who had brought the ink and brush puff up importantly while I try really very hard not to choke on laughter.

 

Kagome and Kikyo. No way. Yatagarasu’s eyes flash blue again and he does laugh – a riotous noise that makes me blush when he turns one great eye to peer at me. He touches his beak to my chest again so I can feel the bubbling amusement and knowing. “Fantastic,” he says in English. “Good luck, Aiko-san. Until next time.

 

“Call us real soon,” the two young female ravens urge together. “We promise we’ll be on our best behaviour.”

 

“Right,” Kuromaru says and he sounds skeptical. “Stay back you two – you can’t be summoned if you go along with us.”

 

Kuromaru hops up onto my shoulders – one sharp-taloned foot on each, he’s big enough to clear my head without even touching it – and lets out a deep melodious sort of rasping call as chakra flares and the now familiar feel of summoning whisks us back and away.

 

I return to the practice ground where Shisui is frantically demanding that Itachi use his flock to see if he can’t find out where I went, which summons stole me without even a proper summoning, while Itachi cups his hands around the crow perched on his shoulder and argues that that’s not how that works and you know it.

 

“Um,” I say, bracing myself a little more firmly under Kuromaru’s weight as he shuffles his wings. Shisui whips around and gapes at the giant bird perched on me. “So, that happened. Meet my new summons, I guess?”

 

“Crows?” Shisui demands incredulously.

 

“As if!” Kuromaru barks sharply, startling Shisui with his command of the language. “Aiko-chan is signed with Ravens.” I try to tilt my head back to give him a look at the sudden switch from –san to –chan but he’s busy mantling his wings aggressively at my cousin.

 

“Just the one?” Itachi asks while the crow on his shoulder attempts to hide from the much larger bird snapping his beak at Shisui.

 

“Three, technically,” I say. It’s not a lie – Yatagarasu definitely signed me to all the ravens, I know, but he’s assigned only three personally at this point. He’s clearly intending to make it seem like Kuromaru, Kagome, and Kikyo just happened to take a liking to me. It’s incredibly helpful since if anyone figures out there’s ravens bigger than Kuromaru I could be summoning then I’d be slated for a genin team for sure. It also explains why I got downgraded from –san to –chan. One large summons and two little ones barely even counts. “Let me just…” I fly through the seals, scrape my teeth against one of the still open pricks on my fingers just enough to taste blood, and slam my hand onto the ground.

 

There’s only a little smoke, I’m pleased to say (the smoke is just wasted chakra, done perfectly there’s really just a soft noise of displaced air). Kagome and Kikyo fluff up proudly and look around curiously.

 

“Aiko-hime!” they chorus in delighted unison when they set eyes on me.

 

I can feel the heat rising in my cheeks at the suffix. Kuromaru turns his glare on them, possibly sensing my unease, possibly just still annoyed about being mistaken for a crow. “Don’t call Aiko-chan that, can’t you see she doesn’t like it? Use Aiko-san, flutter-brains.”

 

I don’t like it but I wasn’t going to crush their tiny little hearts. They both puff up indignantly now and start up a loud series of croaks, barks, and caws instead of speaking. Clever little girls, I think fondly, to pretend they only know how to say my name.

 

Kuromaru pretends (?) to argue with them in raven-tongue until one of them says, with a sullen croak, “Aiko-tan,” in the cutest little lisp I’ve ever heard and I melt.

 

“That’s fine,” I tell them. It’s weird how I can tell them apart. Like signing the contract just makes me hyper aware of exactly which raven I’m talking to; Kagome is just a tiny bit smaller than Kikyo but she feels like her chakra reserves are bigger. They both immediately begin preening smugly while Kuromaru makes an admirable growling noise of derision.

 

“Well,” Itachi says finally after quietly dismissing his summons. I send Kagome and Kikyo away too and shuffle a little under the weight of Kuromaru taking off to find a perch slightly more stable than a young girl. “You won’t need to learn gokakyu,” he says to me with an almost wry look.

 

“Aw man,” Shisui sighs heavily. “Now you’ve both got summons and I’m still stuck waiting.”

 

“Okay, of the three of us, who was the only one in danger of not graduating this year?” I ask.

 

Itachi, bless his sarcastic little heart, immediately picks up the game. “Really Shisui-kun, you’re being very inconsiderate to Aiko-chan.”

 

“My feelings are truly hurt,” I add helpfully.

 

Shisui glowers at both of us. “Okay jokers,” he mutters darkly and pulls out his tanto with intent. “I’ll show you hurt feelings.”

 

It’s kind of fun to team up with Itachi. He’s a genuine genius and plans around my capabilities while still including me in the spar. I never feel like I’m weighing him down – just sort of making him think a little harder to adapt. Shisui is good but Itachi is better so it’s really no surprise that the spar ends with Shisui trapped with ninja-wire and calling out alright, alright, I give!

 

I’m riding a bit of a high when I move to untie him, since the wire was mine and Itachi set up the move perfectly for me. It’d feel a bit like being handed a win if Itachi wasn’t as gracious and kind about it as he is. He looks proudly smug behind a gently amused smile tugging at his lips as he watches me scold Shisui for making things worse for himself by struggling. I eventually unwind the wire and get it stored back in my weapons pouch at my hip.

 

“Otousama will be here soon,” Itachi says quietly, watching Shisui and I put ourselves to rights.

 

I look away awkwardly, not wanting him to see the distaste in my expression. Shisui is familiar enough with my less than stellar opinions of most of the main house that he only tugs a little on my hair from where he’s rebraiding it for me (I may have sprained something during a lunge earlier and lifting my hands up long enough to do my hair again is a task I will gladly hand over to someone else).

 

“We’ll get out of your hair soon then, Itachi-kun,” he says. “Give you some training time with Uchiha-sama.”

 

I make a tired gesture at where Kuromaru had been watching the spar. My summons swoops down to land at my side where I’m sitting on the ground. “Can you find my house?”

 

“Of course,” he says. “I’ll wait for you there.”

 

We watch his dark feathered form launch into the sky and turn in the direction of where I live. Shisui huffs and reaches down to grab my hand and haul me to my feet. We say our goodbyes and leave before Uchiha-sama shows up. Itachi looks…sad, to see us go. I’m pretty sure the only time he gets to be a kid is with us and, let’s be real here, one genius and one former-adult-in-a-child’s-body do not exactly make kid-like companions. It’s supremely unsurprising to me that the poor boy goes along with Obito/Madara’s fucking ridiculous plans. It’s not like anything in his life has ever made sense or gone normally so why would that.

 

When I get home, Kuromaru has gathered up my spare blanket from the back of my desk chair and made a little nest atop the trunk at the end of my bed where I store extra weapons and other shinobi stuff. He turns to me immediately and stands at a ready sort of attention when I enter the bedroom and close the door behind me. Obaasan and ojiisan are both still downstairs running the bakery for a few more hours so it’s just me and the raven in the apartment.

 

“Sorry about the –chan, Aiko-san,” he says immediately. “Yatagarasu-sama figures you want to play it off as my idea, not the Ravens as a whole.”

 

“I don’t mind,” I tell him. It’s mostly true; Aiko-chan the child expects the diminutive honorific and **** from Before didn’t use them so doesn’t have any strong opinions on the subject. Would I prefer –san? Sure. It’s exhausting being talked down to by adults when I know I’m actually probably older than them.

 

Maybe something shows on my face or maybe my summons are just attuned to me because Kuromaru immediately mantles his wings and shakes all over. “It matters,” he insists. “Those two brats will agree too, if you asked them. They’re both romantic little fledglings; I’ll make sure they stop that –hime nonsense too.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” I try to assure him.

 

“Aiko-san,” he says gravely. “We Ravens signed with you to help you. We’re your guides and companions now and you can rely on us to take care of you however we can. That includes addressing you as the adult you are, not the fledgling you look like.”

 

“What are you getting out of it then?” I can’t help the exasperation. Everything I’ve read in this world about summons suggests that they require something from their summoners in exchange for their allegiance. I’ve so far done nothing but have the (mis?)fortune of remembering my last life.

 

Kuromaru manages to convey his startled confusion well enough that I don’t even need Yatagarasu to be there sharing emotions with a physical touch.

 

“What do we get?” He asks. “Well, we Ravens only Contract with reborn souls and there aren’t a whole lot of those, to be honest. Lots of reincarnation which is…different. Most Ravens don’t get to go outside the Home Tree territory ever so getting assigned to help a new summoner is an honour. Other than that, Yatagarasu-sama gets to share in your past. He learns from your old life and can apply any new knowledge to this one. He doesn’t share it all with us,” he adds this last quickly. “Just the important things.”

 

“He can do that through touch?” I ask as my hand strays unbidden to where his great beak had pressed against my chest.

 

“It’s a gift of the Three-Legged Crow,” he agrees cautiously. “Seeing the past, or well, past lifetimes. Yatagarasu-sama is a raven, properly, of course, but that’s the name humans gave him. Gave his position, really; one day his daughter Yagura-sama will take his place and be the new Yatagarasu. Right now she’s the Three-Eyed Raven – she can see potential futures. It’s how we knew to be ready when you tried that kuchiyose even if you didn’t use blood as a sacrifice.”

 

“The future?”

 

“Eh,” Kuromaru wiggles back and forth a little. “Sort of. Potential futures. Generally only for humans that will be close to the Ravens. Yagura-sama says she can get a bit from Shisui-kun and Itachi-kun since they’re both contracted – or will be – to crows and the crows still technically owe Yatagarasu-sama their allegiance. She can’t get much, but enough to know you’re definitely going to need our help, Aiko-san.”

 

He’s 100% correct on that front. I’m in way over my head still. The past couple of months have been me frantically treading water trying not to drown in sense-memories and actual memories and working through the process of becoming essentially a child-soldier. It’s crazy and ridiculous and I’ve been exhausted ever since I woke up.

 

 “You’re not wrong,” I say finally. “But let’s just get me to graduation first; then we can worry about whatever it is Yagura-sama may or may not have seen, alright?”

Chapter Text

With Kuromaru perched on the chair beside me, it isn’t difficult to get Yuhi-sensei to sign off on my early graduation recommendation. It’s basically just a checkmark on my file under Known Jutsu: (1) C-Rank. Considering most Uchiha learn Katon Gokakyu right after graduation, anyone looking at my file will probably just assume that that’s what the C-Rank is. Shinobi don’t like to keep specific records of skills but any Village this size does love some good old fashioned bureaucracy so we at least keep track of how many techniques of each rank our shinobi know. The other Villages do too since, ultimately, we all answer to our respective Daimyos and they like to have cold hard facts to rub in each other’s faces.

 

I spend pretty much the rest of the school year alternating between training with my cousins and getting all my paperwork squared away to skip straight into the Genin Corps. I wish I could tell you all the super fun adventures I had with them but…

 

Look, school is monotonous and boring even for shinobi. There’s way more coursework than you would think and I am forcibly reminded how much I miss calculators on an almost daily basis. I don’t exactly make friends since I’m six and also nominally friends with Itachi who is universally regarded as the coolest kid in the Academy – never mind that he’s only seven – and therefore regarded with envious suspicion.

 

At some point, my grandparents realize that I’ve apparently completely missed my own birthday (which is apparently in June now, who knew) and get me a belated birthday gift. It’s essentially a ribbon of short senbon that I can braid into my hair. It takes me…longer than I care to admit…to figure out how to braid it in without stabbing myself. Shisui spends at least a couple weeks trading off with Itachi in doing it for me until I get the hang of it. Obaasan cheerfully hands me a couple vials of mild paralytic poison I can coat the spikes with for combat purposes. It doesn’t do much but sting like a bitch and then numb the nerves rapidly but it’ll at least distract and hinder the hand-seals of any shinobi who tries to grab it.

 

Kuromaru and I work on our summon-specific combat skills as well. Under his watchful eye, I learn how to sync my chakra with his, Kagome, and Kikyo’s in order to borrow their senses – to see through their eyes, or hear what they hear. It doesn’t help so much during combat – I’m more disoriented than anything – but it’s helpful for say, getting advanced warning when Uchiha Fugaku is on his way to the training grounds, or to avoid the rest of the clan when I want to practice with my sharingan.

 

By the time the exams roll around again, I’m about as prepared as I’ll ever be. Ojiisan has put forth my recommendation along with a letter from obaasan on behalf of her family. Yuhi-sensei gets final approval from the Hokage’s office to leave me (and a couple other mostly clan-kids) out of the listings for jounin-sensei and instead files the paperwork for my immediate application to the Genin Corps, Diplomatic division.

 

At the grand old age of seven, Itachi, Shisui, and I all graduate the Academy as newly minted genin.

 

It’s kind of surreal, to be holding my new hitai-ate and the acceptance letter from the Genin Corps. I’ve spent almost a year in this new life and it’s blown by so quickly. My life now is so different from Before that I’ve almost become numb to the differences that seemed so big when I first woke up.

 

I know over a dozen different ways to kill someone now and, honestly? I don’t even know that I’ll mind killing someone. The Academy does to a pretty incredible job of desensitizing you to violence and no one graduates without learning how to hunt and kill our own food so I’ve learned all the various ways to kill and gut most woodland creatures without even flinching.

 

The first bunny was tough, but the threat of no food and days of training still to look forward to was pretty fucking convincing. I was absolutely not going to let myself faint from lack of food on a week-long overnight trip while surrounded by jealous kunoichi resenting my causal ease with my genius cousin Itachi.

 

(Kunoichi are mean – they’d poison your food out of spite – the only safe thing to do was to prepare it yourself.)

 

There’s all sorts of nationalistic ways of justifying state-sanctioned murder and it’s harder than I care to admit to shrug off all of it. I still don’t know that killing people is the right way to go about things but I’m selfish enough to admit that if it comes down to me or them, I’ll pick me almost every time.

 

Yuhi-sensei is kind enough to sneak me three extra hitai-ate for my summons with just a brief conspiratorial grin. Kagome and Kikyo get me to tie them around opposite wing-joints like little armbands and cheerfully inform me that they’ll be loyal to Konohagakure for as long as I am. Kuromaru actually is as grumpy about the cheerful girls as he pretended to be all those months ago and wears his draped around his neck instead and tells them they look ridiculous.

 

I take after my main summons and loop mine around my neck like a scarf. It’s too much hassle to tie it around my hair spikes and to be honest adding something to guard my throat makes a lot more sense.

 

“Hey, Aiko-chan!” Shisui doesn’t drape himself across my shoulders anymore – now that the threat of potentially poison spikes is up in the air on a day-to-day basis – but he does hook his arm around my waist and spin me around to face hm. “You did it, congrats!”

 

“I train with you every day,” I point out. “Was that honestly in question?”

 

He pouts at me. “No,” he says. “But it’s the polite thing to say.”

 

I take the hint. “Congratulations to you as well, Shisui-kun.”

 

He beams at me. “Itachi got Team 2, I got 4,” he says.

 

“I got my approval to join the Diplo-Corps,” I hold up my acceptance letter and then have to promptly surrender it to Kagome and Kikyo who swoop away with in delight to read it themselves. We watch my summons go with amused smiles. “Be careful with that,” I call after them.

 

Kuromaru heaves a sigh. “I’ll watch them Aiko-chan,” he says and takes after the twins calling out admonishments in barks and croaks.

 

Shisui’s grin is excited when he stares after them and I rightfully guess, “You’re signing the contract today then?”

 

“Yup!” he pops the ‘p’ cheerfully. “Won’t be the only one left out of your and Itachi’s secret messages anymore.”

 

“We don’t send secret messages, don’t say it like that,” I make a face. Itachi and I use our summons basically as cell-phones at this point. He passes along when he won’t make it to group training because of his father, I pass on when Shisui does something dumb enough to warrant making him aware of it. The time he was convinced Kuromaru could bear his weight and glide him from treetop to treetop was particularly hilarious.

 

“So are you going to get new gear now that you’re a genin?”

 

Apparently, it’s tradition to go to the shinobi-only stores and get all new gear when you graduate. Obaasan had already taken me to get fitted for my own mesh under-armour, shinobi boots with guards to the knee, and got me a new kimono-style jacket a la Tsunade-hime. It’s a pretty thing, black with the faint dark-grey outline of feathers falling to the bottom hem but it also doubles as an insulated emergency blanket if you flip it around and activate the seals sewn into the hem. I’ve paired leggings with a plain v-neck t-shirt over the mesh armour with its three-quarter length sleeves. My new supplies pouch sits solidly at the small of my back and my weapons-holster is strapped to my thigh over bandages.

 

There’s not a single fan or hint of red anywhere to even hint at the Uchiha and that more than anything is the reason I went along with the whole trip. That I ended up with approximately five identical versions of the outfit to save myself ever having to change it up speaks to me on a spiritual level.

 

“Last week,” I say. “Ojiisan says Diplo doesn’t have a uniform but they appreciate under-stated style.”

 

Shisui makes a face which is rich considering he wears the same shoulder-holster and black clan-symbol shirt/shorts combo every goddamn day and I know for a fact he has no plans to change it because he’s the laziest fucking genius I know. Maybe he just likes the option of being unique.

 

I mean, I would too, don’t get me wrong, but most of my notions of individual expression have fled screaming in this life in favour of unremarkable not-Uchiha as possible.

 

“Good luck with that,” he says. “We’re still going to train together, right?”

 

Being that he is literally the only other human soul on the planet who knows I have a fully-formed sharingan, it’s not like I have any other options for practicing with it. “We’ll see what my new schedule looks like and how often you have to meet your team.”

 

“Itachi-kun too?”

 

“Depends on what his team schedule is like.”

 

Since they both have to go meet their respective sensei the next day and I have to prepare for orientation we agree to postpone training until we can all get together again. Itachi promises to send a crow to both of us with his schedule and I’ve already got my new hours on my acceptance letter (after convincing Kagome and Kikyo that they can’t take it with them to show Yatagarasu-sama, he probably already knows because of Yagura-sama anyway).

 

Showing up that first day for my new job is…something. It’s way more normal than I was expecting. They show me around the somewhat cramped offices (diplomatic relations are still pretty much crippled after the last great shinobi war) and I’m informed that, since no one else wanted to go into Diplo-Corps, I can have my very own office. It’s a cramped sort of cubicle-like space and its farthest away from the break room but I’m pretty much fine with that (I don’t intend on making friends until I’m sure I can actually survive my family’s massacre).

 

My supervisor is a kunoichi named Inari Yukari. She sits me down to go over my file and the very first thing I do is try eliminating my family name from becoming a thing associated with me.

 

“Just Aiko is fine,” I assure her. It’s already weird to have a seven-year old in the department as a new member so I can see the relief in her face at not having to refer to me as Uchiha-san or something equally as formal.

 

“Aiko-san, then,” she says, “you and I are technically the same rank now.”

 

I smile along with her and hope to god she puts my last name completely out of her mind now that she hasn’t even had the chance to say it out loud.

 

My first year will be mostly just running courier in-village, some research, and eventually minor-drafting. She explains that after a year, I can be sent on missions out of the village – mostly just to our embassy in the capital but also at the request of minor dignitaries and politicians. It’ll be mostly secretarial work, she admits, but with the added prestige to the client of having a shinobi as one; civilians outside of the village proper mostly view us in terrified awe (unsurprising considering we basically do magic).

 

I have a not-terrible but not-great salary, and Yukari admits that if it’s slow at work we’re welcome to head to the missions desk to take D-ranks to fill our downtime if we want. We get all my paperwork squared away and then Yukari gives me my very first task as an official member of the diplomatic corps.

 

“This draft needs to go down to R&D in the basement,” she says. “They want to requisition some supplies from outside of the Land of Fire and we need them to fill out this form so we can get to work on finding ways to trade for it. Just take it down to Lab 6 and find the jounin in charge.”

 

When I get down to Lab 6, I’m forcibly reminded of one factor I had forgotten completely to account for.

 

Orochimaru, in all his terrifying sannin glory, looks up from where he’s doing something involving titration, to see who exactly is coming into his lab.

 

Since my heart is apparently actively trying to escape my chest through my throat, I slip into a polite bow and murmur, “Orochimaru-sama,” to give myself the chance to get my shit under control. “I have some paperwork from the diplomatic division we need you to fill out to get started on your requisitions.”

 

I’m digging through every memory I have of when, exactly, the snake sannin had decided human experimentation was a grand old idea, when Danzo had fucked the duck again with another of Konoha’s elite shinobi, and exactly how fucked I was going to be. I completely miss him setting aside his work and coming over to take the paperwork from my lax grasp.

 

“You must be a new genin,” he says conversationally. His voice is smooth and not at all as terrifying as my racing pulse thinks it is thanks self. “There aren’t many left in the Diplomatic Corps.”

 

I can recognize a prompt for information from a mile away. “Yes,” I agree, and cautiously rise from my bow to peer at him going over the paperwork with a cursory eye, leaning against the counter casually. He flicks a glance my way as he turns the page and I force myself not to show the screaming fear in the back of my mind.

 

Kuromaru is upstairs, I tell myself, Yagura-sama would know if I was in danger and he’d reverse-summon me in a minute. It helps.

 

“Young, for a genin,” he sounds so idle. Like he doesn’t care and is just being polite and…

 

He may actually just be being polite, it occurs to me suddenly. If he’s in-village and still got a Lab with public access he’s even pretending to use, then he’s probably actually being polite because we’re both shinobi nominally loyal to the village. The tension in my spine unknots itself.

 

“Seven,” I agree. “I applied directly to the Diplomatic Corps.”

 

His next glance has a hint of interest, even as he marks down something in the paperwork. I’m willing to be nice, but I’m not stupid enough to respond to anything less than a direct verbal prompt from a man who thinks human experimentation is a good idea.

 

“Most early graduates have a goal,” he says. “Some grand ideal they strive toward.”

 

“Wanted to work in the Diplomatic Corps,” I say with only the slightest lift of my shoulders in a shrug. “Peaceful cooperation seems like a decent goal considering war did nothing but cause needless deaths. The villages have pretty much resumed things at the same status quo, after all, if you look at the statistics.”

 

Which is 100% true and it boggles my mind daily how anyone can look at the raw data from the last war and not see it. Did we lose the Yondaime? Yeah, sure, but everyone knows we also managed to recapture our demon in a new jinchuriki and we have the sannin. Well, one of them, at least, but none of the other villages know that Tsunade and Jiraiya have buggered off. We lost a whole bunch of elite shinobi, but the war forced new ones – better ones – to take their place. And since we weren’t the only ones who suffered losses everything pretty much evens out in the end. In point of fact, the only thing that suffered was our diplomatic relations.

 

It’ll be years before we can work out all the various trade agreements and political ties we lost. Worst of all, it’s all just a footnote to our countries as a whole. The Land of Fire Daimyo 100% was unaffected by our war except in getting an upgrade to his shinobi guard that he isn’t even aware of.

 

“World peace?” he says wryly, the smirk on his face unnerving even if his tone was all mild amusement.

 

“Hardly,” I say reasonably. “Mutually assured destruction, ideally.”

 

It worked for the super-powers of my last life. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in this one. Plus, violence is the only thing most shinobi understand on a fundamental level. Using mutually assured destruction as incentive for them to just be nice to each other is the best bet.

 

“Interesting,” he says and hands me the finished paperwork. “Perhaps we could continue this discussion another time…?”

 

Stranger danger. “Maybe, Orochimaru-sama. I wouldn’t want to disrupt your work and I’m just a lowly genin in the Corps, after all.” There is not even one hint of self-deprecation in my tone. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m angling for another chance to be near him but I don’t want to outright refuse him either. Unremarkable mild curiosity, I tell myself, that’s our goal here. “Have a nice day, Orochimaru-sama.”

 

I don’t exactly high-tail my way out but my unhurried gate is calculated unhurried. I hand in the paperwork to Yukari who quietly asks if I’m okay.

 

“Orochimaru-sama can be…” she clearly doesn’t want to disparage an elite jounin but Orochimaru is fucking creepy.

 

“He was very polite,” I offer and she relaxes. How much of his creepiness is because his chakra feels so abrasive and how much is because he is genuinely creepy is up for debate. I feel like one led to the other because of lack of proper socialization because kids fucking suck and we’re the goddamn worst. Cool motive, still murder, I remind myself. “What’s next?”

 

What’s next turns out to be taking the amended list of requisitions and going to the library to find normal civilian reasons we want these ingredients. The goal being that we’re going to slip them into regular acquisitions for the village so that the other villages can’t guess why we need certain things.

 

Being that these are ingredients for Orochimaru, I’m pretty fucking sure no one would guess what they were for even if we outright just said what he wanted them for. Still, research in the library? That’s easy. I gather Kuromaru to act as lookout and hole up in a study room surrounded by books I memorize with the sharingan so I can recall anything relevant to my subject instead of having to slog my way through actually reading any of the technical books and scrolls I end up having to drag out.

 

It’s like a mental google and it’s fantastic. As big of a pain as it is to conceal, I wouldn’t trade this kekkei genkai for the world.

 

Aside from that terrifying first assignment, most of the next weeks are fairly simple. Only Yukari has any knowledge of my being an Uchiha, and I introduce myself as “just Aiko” so many times that no one even finds it odd or questions it that I don’t use a family name. Being that the village has an abundance of orphans after the war and the kyuubi attack, no one wants to bring it up to ask.

 

I finish up the research for Orochimaru’s requisitions (which ended up mostly burying the ingredients in ridiculously specific technical jargon so we could pass most of it off as hospital supplies). Yukari was impressed enough that I end up doing a lot more research jobs, interspersed with more in-village courier service – though, thankfully, no more to Orochimaru.

 

I meet up regularly with my cousins to train and eventually give in and allow Shisui to start teaching me how to use his ever-present tanto. Together we figure out tree-climbing and water-walking and I gain vindication at my inability to this day to use katon gokakyu when we get ourselves some chakra paper and discover I’ve got elemental affinities for water and lightning – not fire.

 

“Just because you don’t have an affinity doesn’t mean…!” Shisui begins indignantly after I flick the soggy crumpled paper in his face.

 

“I told you,” I smack his shoulder and turn my face away, “I told you it wasn’t that the jutsu was too difficult.”

 

“He isn’t wrong,” Itachi says. “You could still learn it even without the affinity.”

 

Yeah, let me list the ways that was not going to happen. “How about you go out of the village and bring me back a water-release technique instead.” They aren’t uncommon in Fire, but finding a teacher was on a list of things not to do unless absolutely necessary. Considering most of my training is solo or with my genius cousins, I’m actually probably better off than most of the Genin Corps. My cousins are aiming for a meteoric rise through the ranks and if I can even keep halfway up to them then my skills should at least meet chunin standards by the time they hit jounin and ANBU.

 

“Speaking of water-release,” Shisui interjects, “Have you heard about Mist yet?”

 

“What about it?”

 

“Otousama mentioned it,” Itachi says carefully. “Their most recent graduation exam.”

 

“Again,” I say patiently, even though I’ve definitely figured out by now where this is going, “What about it? They aren’t known as The Bloody Mist for nothing.” Everyone knows that their graduation exams are a last-man-alive situation.

 

“Someone slaughtered almost their whole Academy – over a hundred kids,” Shisui’s voice quiets to a hush. “Wasn’t even a student.”

 

Itachi hums unhappily. “They call him the Demon of the Hidden Mist.”

 

Momochi Zabuza is probably sixteen. He wouldn’t even be older than my youngest sibling from Before. He’s practically a baby and he’s murdered over a hundred children in cold-blood. Touching though his death will be in approximately 10 years or so, he’s still absolutely terrifying.

 

This is my life now, talking about bonafide murderers and finding myself impressed at their ability to murder.

 

“Probably aiming to get himself a Sword,” I say and my cousins both look alarmed and intrigued by the suggestion. The Seven Swordsmen of the Mist are almost as famous as our Sannin, after all. “Well, better train harder with that blade then, Shisui-kun, Itachi-kun. I’m relying on you two to bring me back a water-release, after all.”

 

Shisui lunges and I block with my still sheathed blade, and that’s really all it takes to shake off the knowledge of a hundred dead children and return to normal.

 

Over the course of the next couple months, I manage to save enough for a down-payment on a shinobi apartment in Konoha-proper. Ojiisan and obaasan splurge and hire a genin-team to clean and paint my new bachelor as well as move all my things over. It’s kind of bizarre to see some of my old classmates again but they seem too occupied with completing the tediousness of a D-rank mission to even notice me.

 

My grandparents don’t mind that I’m moving out so young. They think it’s good that I’m so much closer to work and ojiisan even says he knows I was never comfortable in the District. He’s eyeing my non-traditional hairstyle and the complete lack of Uchiha-symbols on my clothes as he says this so I let him think it’s because I noticed how the village disparages us in whispers behind our backs.

 

I mean, sure that, but mostly the whole Massacre thing.

 

My apartment is cheerful pale gold in the kitchenette and soft violet-grey in the main space. My bed is pushed up under the wide window and I’ve got a small paper screen painted with climbing flowers to keep it mostly separate from the living space. A squashed but comfy grey couch sits with a blue coffee-table. Opposite, there’s shelving already filled with my rapidly accumulating collection of scrolls and books, a matching squashy chair in deep blue with a little side table with a round little lamp. The bathroom is just a shower stall, toilet, and sink but it’s enough for my purposes.  

 

Obaasan had filled my cupboards and fridge with plenty of easy-to-make food and she and ojiisan present me with a collection of potted succulents to “liven it up a little.” They even thoughtfully get a heavy wooden perch for Kuromaru which he thanks them for very politely. They make me promise to visit sometimes and then it’s just me alone in my new apartment.

 

“Well,” I say to Kuromaru hopefully, “at least we’re out of the District now.”

 

He, having been informed of roughly the timeline of events I’m worried about, hums thoughtfully. “Sure Aiko-san, but we’re still pretty much in-village.”

 

“One step at a time,” I say firmly. “I’ve got time still; I’ve just got to lay low and do well enough that the Corps lets me take missions outside the village but not so well that anyone notices I’m doing well.”

 

“Be normal by being a genius,” he says skeptically.

 

“Essentially,” I agree.

 

He fluffs up and shakes out his feathers. It’s the avian equivalent to a shrug. “Whatever you say, Aiko-san; I’m here for you.”

 

Chapter Text

It’s almost been a year since I started at the Corps. Itachi and Shisui are improving in leaps and bounds and the gap in our skills is finally widening. While before I was always just behind them in skills, it feels more and more like they’re actually teaching me now. Shisui has become so terrifyingly good with his shunshin that I’ve unilaterally banned him from using it during our spars. At some point he awakens his sharingan and when he shows up to training with it activated I feel the knot of tension begin to form again.

 

He’s got a new best friend on his team, apparently, and won’t share him with Itachi or I.

 

“It’s nothing personal,” he says as he leads me through a new kata with the tanto. “I just…it’s nice. To have something outside the Clan, you know?”

 

Being that I’m on an active crusade to remove myself as much as humanly possible… “I get it.” He reaches out to tap my elbow where it’s apparently too low and I adjust. It’s just that if this friend starts to get better than you, you’re going to get jealous and…

 

I still wake up in a cold sweat every now and again, mangekyou blazing, and Kuromaru has to talk me down before I can relax enough to consciously turn it off. Only about fifty percent of the time can I even go back to sleep without my regular sharingan active. Leaving it active drains my chakra only a little nowadays, but it comes at the cost of sleepless nights and fighting active migraines at work the next day.

 

Sparring against someone with an active sharingan is interesting. Shisui is obviously a much better shinobi than I am – having active missions that put him in direct combat requires it – but at this point my sharingan is still more powerful than his. I have no idea whose mangekyou will be the best of the three of us, but right now I’ve got three tomoe in each eye compared to his two.

 

So sure, I can keep up with his shunshin, but I don’t have the reaction time to actually deflect his attacks. As much as I appreciate that he takes care to hold back only enough to provide a challenge, I still don’t want to go into work and have to sit in my cramped little office while covered in bruises and minor fractures.

 

Our straight taijutsu is still pretty evenly matched. He’s picked up some new tricks while training with his team but my sharingan sees, copies, and lets me adjust my own style to match. Uchiha-style taijutsu is pretty much designed to work with our sharingan. It’s subtly different from the Academy-style.  Both place a heavy reliance on turning your opponent’s momentum and force against them (since we’re children and generally always going to be fighting someone bigger than us) but the Uchiha-style is designed less on turning your opponents against themselves and more on using their moves to adjust your own.

 

If Shisui comes at me lightning quick, I should adjust to evade by only the barest minimum and find the perfect moment to strike when he tires himself out. When he comes at me with powerful blows, I turn them aside or go with the blow and use his momentum to power my counter-strike.

 

We tend to end our training sessions with taijutsu since it ends with both of us feeling accomplished no matter who wins.

 

“Have you heard from Itachi-kun recently?” He asks as we stumble our way back into Konoha proper from the training grounds.

 

“Last I heard he was heading to the capital with some caravan. He sounded annoyed with his sensei too.”

 

“What?” Shisui frowns at me or the situation – it’s hard to tell. “He didn’t say anything to me.”

 

I shrug. “It was very polite. He wrote something about how his sensei assigns him lots of solo-training. Sounded more like he thinks his sensei is jealous of him and refusing to train him directly.”

 

“No way you got that from one comment.” He narrows his eyes at me.

 

“Of course not,” I say. “I also ask his summons what he looked like when he was writing the letter. They’re surprisingly astute and they’ve got his ‘minor annoyance’ face down to a science.”

 

I lean into his side when he laughs and he flicks my braid over my shoulder before tugging me closer. It’s nice, sometimes, to hang around Shisui. He’s pretty free with his affection and I don’t exactly have anyone else I can seek it from. Kuromaru will cuddle if pressed but straight up friendly human contact? Not much. I could visit obaasan and ojiisan but my standoffishness leading up to my moving out pretty much cemented the ‘don’t touch unless initiated’ rule.

 

It’s a habit from Before, mostly. Avoiding contact that could be construed as sexual works for an asexual adult me, but for a still-developing child me the lack of contact is…not good. Kids are supposed to be physically affectionate with their caregivers, for the most part, and it helps them in all sorts of developmentally important ways.

 

I may be nearing thirty in my head, but I’m still only going-on-eight physically.

 

“You be careful, alright?” I say when we get to the point in the road where I’ll continue into Konoha and he’ll swing back round to the District. I let him draw me into a hug and sigh against his collar, my voice muffled.

 

“Always am, Aiko-chan,” he grins at me, squeezing tight for one last measure, and then releases me to head home. “Goodnight!”

 

I find out through gossip at work the next day that Itachi’s team was chosen to escort the Daimyo on his annual visit to Konoha. He hasn’t reached the capital yet but the order came down today and they’ve sent the hawk with the mission scroll just hours ago.

 

“The Uchiha must be so proud,” I say when pressed for my opinion. “Excuse me.”

 

I convince Yukari to give me some busy work. I cite a desire to get more experience in the type of work I’d be doing out-of-village but I’m really just looking for anything other than sitting around research and unable to stop thinking about Itachi waking his sharingan and my deadline of fading into obscurity approaching faster.

 

“Sure Aiko-san,” she says and digs through the available assignments. Each one is technically a D-rank (or, less likely, a C-rank) mission but we get all ours in batches that can be completed almost entirely at our leisure since all of us have a salary paid by the village instead of payment-per-mission.

 

“Here, one of the jounin is requesting someone to act as assistant for a week,” she says. “Should just be transcription and fetching supplies, but some of the work will be classified shinobi-only so it’ll count as a C-rank for you.” She smiles at me cheerfully, pleased to offer me some new challenging work.

 

Because the universe hates me, I’m almost entirely unsurprised to knock on the door of my new boss for the week to find Orochimaru looking up from an old scroll and smiling at me.

 

“Orochimaru-sama,” I sink into a polite bow and shout down my protesting lizard-brain that demands we make a break for it, “I’m Aiko, I’ll be in your care for the week. Where would you like me to start?”

 

“Those files,” he gestures to a pile on the corner of his desk. “Find anything with results in second-stage testing over 60% but less than 72%. Sort them by date, ascending, not descending.”

 

Though every inch of me is itching to run, I force myself to smile pleasantly and step forward to take the pile, closing the door behind me as I go. He makes a gesture again, toward a chair and small coffee table in the corner, and then returns to going over the scroll he was working with before.

 

I’m…supremely uncomfortable, would probably be an understatement. The files are full of technical scientific nonsense I only somewhat recognize, with breakdowns of…something, in various graphs interspersed throughout. It’s an entire day’s work without my sharingan and as I take a highlighter out of my pouch (I’ve got all your standard war-time supplies plus several generic office supplies because this is my life now) I start an intense internal debate over more time spent in a closed room with Orochimaru  and letting him know I’m a fucking Uchiha with a fully-developed sharingan.

 

I eventually go with fuck it, play my cards right he’ll think I’m dead anyway and activate it. I flip quickly through the first file to get them all memorized, then go back through to every mention of results in the range I’m looking for and start highlighting.

 

A glance up reveals the sannin still pretty much engrossed in his work, so I take the time while drawing on my mental copies of the work to go over it. It’s kind of impressive, I realize, part way through copying the second file, how he can hide mentions of experiments on clan-kids without outright saying anything identifying. Secondary internal systems interfered in stable results sounds an awful lot like Aburame kikaichu and some of the age-weight ratios scream Akimichi. It’s all couched up to look like generic testing done at the hospital but…well, knowing Orochimaru and Clan secrecy tendencies as I do, there’s pretty much no way he got this data through legitimate means.

 

It makes me angry, really, that I – with no personal connection to Orochimaru – can see this nonsense even just looking at his public work. Knowing that Hokage-sama definitely would be able to see and make the same logical leaps I did and that he either didn’t look to begin with or did and ignored it.

 

“Oh ho,” he sounds delighted and I look up to find him standing in front of me, staring down with a grin. He reaches out to lift my chin with one finger and I narrow my eyes fractionally and lean back and away from the touch but lift my gaze up to his anyway in response. “An Uchiha with a fully-formed sharingan in the Diplomatic Corps,” he muses.

 

I don’t swallow convulsively though I can feel the desire to. “It’s not for everyone,” I say agreeably, trying desperately to get him to drop the subject and let me just go back to work. I can see every micro-expression and shift in weight in red-stained slow-motion and it’s making me unaccountably paranoid but I can’t turn it off when he’s right there.

 

“How accurate is the recall, really,” he asks, glancing down at the completed first file and how far I am into the second. He’s crouching down now, bringing himself to my level, and even if it’s definitely a calculated move to make me relax it fucking works and I hate myself just a little bit.

 

Sorry Clan, I will 100% give up secrets to make him focus on literally anything but me. “It depends on the level of the dojutsu,” I say. I’m acutely aware that he’s counting the tomoe in my eyes, not actually making eye-contact. “Fully formed like this, with three tomoe? Perfect recall. You could probably do it with two tomoe but it’d be more…specified. You’d have to actually read everything word for word instead of just scanning the page as a whole. I know you can’t do it with one.”

 

“Skill is equal across development then?”

 

I do swallow this time, because he’s reached out to take my wrist in one hand and is taking my pulse idly. I can actively see him taking mental notes just through his micro expressions. “There’s power levels still,” I say. “My cousin, Itachi-kun, has less tomoe but a more powerful dojutsu overall.” Or he will, I assume, at some point this week when he gets ambushed on his way back to the village. But Orochimaru doesn’t know that because our clan doesn’t exactly announce shit like that. We let people find out organically to better increase our general air of superiority.

 

“You can measure it then?”

 

Lord have mercy. “It’s more a feeling than a quantifiable measurement,” I explain haltingly. “Sharingan versus sharingan you just…know, when yours is stronger.” I’m pretty sure it’s even across the board, to be honest, but you can definitely compare mangekyou-to-mangekyou; just see who traps who in tsukuyomi first. Being that I’m pretty sure at least one of my eyes is capable of short-range kamui, I’m hoping the other isn’t tsukuyomi. I’ve no desire to have anyone in my mind but me, thanks.

 

He hums thoughtfully and resumes taking my pulse. I really want to snatch my wrist back from him but he’s terrifying and it’s taking all my energy to keep my pulse even.

 

“Orochimaru-sama…?” I finally lilt out questioningly. His eyes snap back into focus from where he had mentally wandered off on a tangent and I take the opportunity to draw my hands back into my lap.

 

“Finish with those files,” he tells me, and rises in one smooth movement. “I’ll be back soon.”

 

Um. “Okay,” I say and watch him go. He seems determined to do…something, and I really hope this doesn’t spell doom for me. I mentally go through my kunoichi classes to see if I remember the seals for the poison-detection jutsu we were shown precisely once. I’d missed hiding my sharingan to actively copy it but I remember the chakra flow to it well enough that I could probably reverse-engineer the seals if pressed.

 

What a fucking waste of a class; we spent weeks on flower-language but one measly class on poison-detection.

 

There’s maybe thirty files and I make it through almost a third of them by the time Orochimaru returns to the office. He’s armed with what looks like a genuine doctor’s bag and pulling along a cart with what my untrained eye would call either a seismograph or lie-detector.

 

He’s plugging the machine in while I mentally calculate how much chakra I’d need to shunshin away fast enough to avoid a sannin. I’m only mildly comforted by the brief flash of black feathers in the window as Kuromaru shuffles to the end of the branch he’s perched on.

 

“Do you know what this is?” Orochimaru asks as he feeds paper into the machine and fusses with various settings.

 

“I want to say a seismograph,” I say honestly, “but I’m betting it’s not that.”

 

He looks pleased which is...

 

Well. He did manage to convince an entire village to form under his command so he’s bound to be able to be charismatic. I’d just never expected it to work on me.

 

“It’s a similar idea,” he allows. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take some readings of chakra fluctuation as you use your sharingan.”

 

I can’t immediately see a sinister motive in allowing it but I want to say no. He’s watching me with a patient expression, blinking slowly – like he’s perfectly comfortable waiting as long as it takes for me to agree. Since I’m pretty much terrified of him I don’t want to know what happens if I say no. At the same time, I don’t want to say yes and snowball my way into a bad situation.

 

I’m fidgeting anxiously but I can’t stop the shifting in my hands. I can see him notice and while my first instinct is to avoid looking at him that seems like a terrible idea.

 

He’s reaching out and kneeling down again and I’m pretty much frozen, watching as if from a distance, as he takes my wrists to still the fidgeting and peers at me curiously. I take a long breath and force the tension to loosen from my shoulders and back.

 

“I don’t see why not,” I venture finally. I’m not even lying; I actually can’t see a reason to say no.

 

He looks so pleased. It’s kind of unfair how beautiful it makes him even with his features washed out by the red of my sharingan. He squeezes my wrists ever so slightly and then turns to the machine. He tapes two sensors to my temples and then one over my heart. He’s very gentle and narrates everything before he does it, giving me plenty of time to react, and something in me dies a little at how comforting that is. I do not want to find him even slightly nice.

 

He sets up the machine, takes a look at the initial readings, and then nods at me. “You can go back to that,” he says.

 

It’s kind of weird to work while the machine ticks away nearby. I try to avoid it to focus on the work. It’s making it hard to surreptitiously try to figure out what exactly Orochimaru is studying based on the research I’m being allowed to go over.

 

From what little I’m able to understand it doesn’t look like anything you couldn’t get during an in-depth physical. Granted, there’s almost no way any of the clans would willing submit to a physical of the depths these reports suggest, but I can’t outright accuse him of that seeing as I’m basically branch Uchiha and we aren’t exactly privy to Clan secrets. I can’t quite figure out what it is he’s trying to measure either – just that based on the readings he’s been getting, he hasn’t actually achieved whatever it is he’s attempting to prove.

 

“Can you feel a difference between using it now and using it in combat?” He asks, startling me from the hyper-focus of memorizing pages of the file. When I look up, he’s looking over the scans with a somewhat furrowed brow.

 

Being that I get to use it in combat maybe twice a week or so, depending on Shisui’s availability…”Not noticeably,” I suppress a grimace. “But it does draw on my reserves almost constantly when in use.”

 

“And how long would you say you could keep it active?” His eyes are gleaming red-gold in my vision.

 

“If I wasn’t in active combat, I could probably keep it up almost indefinitely? I’d have to turn it off, so to speak, while I slept in order to make up the chakra, and eventually the draw would exceed my ability to regenerate with rest but I could probably do it during all my waking hours for maybe 2 weeks or so before I’d have to recharge completely. But that’s just because my chakra stores are still developing.”

 

“I see,” he says and peers intently between my eyes, watching the slow spiral of the tomoe.

 

This is the longest I’ve had it active in a while – spars only usually last a few minutes at a time at most – and when it’s active while I sleep, it’s not actively being used so it doesn’t exactly feel like a strain. But this has been a few hours now, and while text on paper is alright, it’s starting to strain my eyes trying to catch and interpret all his micro-expressions. The increased visual information is starting to cause a low-grade headache without the adrenaline of a spar to balance it all out.

 

With great reluctance, I let the sharingan fade and watch the colours bleed back into his face. The gold of his eyes is even more pronounced against his pale skin without the red to give it a warmer tone. He leans back and it’s so much more difficult to read his expression now without the sharingan. I rub at my eyes and pull the sensors off carefully.

 

“There’s also the headaches,” I tell him to forestall any questions. “You take in a lot more visual information with it active and while I’m sure Uchiha are genetically more able to process the additional information, it’s still a strain after a while if you’re using it to do more than just one focussed task. So sure, a couple weeks waking hours with it active, but I’m going to be basically useless with a constant migraine by the end of the first day.” Unless I had an Eternal Mangekyou, of course, or the sheer fucking determination of Uchiha Madara who could manage it even before he got his brother’s eyes.

 

From my admittedly limited perspective, he seems somewhat surprised at that information. Either the information or my willingness to share it. Which really shouldn’t be as much of a revelation to me as it is; I’m well aware of my Clan’s tendency to keep things close to the chest. We’re stubbornly traditional and that tends to come across as uptight and we, unlike the Hyuuga, have also born suspicion since back when Konoha was founded. Madara was simultaneously our pride and joy and also our biggest shame.

 

I think the biggest problem is the Clan’s refusal to see him as our shame. We cling to the memory of him at his highest and try to move past his faults. It’s not that the Clan doesn’t acknowledge that he wrong; we just never did so openly and explicitly so the rest of the village could see. It caused tension that’s carried through to today and with the kyuubi’s release and attack of the village, it brings up old memories and people look to our clan again to blame. After all, our fucking hero Uchiha Madara was the one who used the demon in the first place, who’s to say we wouldn’t do it again?

 

We don’t like to show our weaknesses – especially not ones related to our kekkei genkai.

 

“I’m just going to finish this normally then,” I say with great reluctance, looking back at the files and already dreading the effort it’s going to take to find the results he’s looking for.

 

“You’re dismissed,” he says shortly. “You already did more than expected today and I have work to do in my lab. Just report back here tomorrow morning, same time.”

 

“O-kay?” I say, setting the file I was working on down and watching him out the corner of my eye. He frowns at me and it’s terrifying enough to hurry me up. “Until tomorrow then, Orochimaru-sama.”

 

Kuromaru swoops in the moment he spots me outside the building. “You’re okay?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

He turns his head side to side, hopping around me, trying to inspect every inch of me he can. I put up with it for a minute before I shove him off and start toward the market – if I’m off work early then I’ve got time to browse before it gets busy.

 

I basically survive off rice and stir-fry since it takes almost no effort to make and provides all the nutrients an active shinobi needs. Well, at least as far as actual sit-down meals go. There’s a disproportionately large ratio of restaurants to citizens for a reason after all; we tend to eat almost constantly in order to sustain our constant training. Shinobi don’t “go for coffee” unless it’s proceeded by a friendly spar.

 

“Itachi-kun got his new orders today,” Kuromaru is large enough that it isn’t difficult to keep pace with me even just walking along on the ground. “According to some of the ravens posted around the Capital.” It’s earlier than I expected him to arrive considering they only sent the orders this morning.

 

“For a solitary bunch you sure do like to gossip.”

 

Kuromaru clicks his beak at me. “You take that back, you heathen,” he says. “We don’t gossip.”

 

Report, sorry.”

 

“I’ll have to consider the apology,” he says and then, slyly, “Maybe if you bought the good tuna…?”

 

“Mooch,” I accuse but I’m smiling and he knows I’ll add it to the mental list of groceries. “Have you heard anything from Yagura-sama or Yatagarasu-sama?

 

He hums at me. “Are you worried?”

 

Of Orochimaru? Absolutely. Of Itachi? Also absolutely. “No, I’m sure it’s fine.”

 

“Liar,” he says fondly. “I’ll get the twins to check tonight so you still have someone at the apartment.”

 

They aren’t going to discover anything more than I already know. I’m more concerned about attracting the attention of the psychopathic sannin. So far, I’m banking on my relative obscurity combined with name-dropping clan heirs while cooperating with him to keep me safe from being used in a fucking sharingan-theft on Danzo’s behalf.

 

Like 90% of my backup plans involve having the ravens reverse-summon me and living with them in their home tree until the entirety of canon blows over. It’s not the best plan but it’s the only one I’ve got right now.

 

“Do we have any milk left? I want to make smoothies for breakfast this week while the good fruits are all in season.”

 

“Get some more anyway,” he says, “You’re too short.”

 

“So rude,” I mutter and aim a playful kick in his direction. He hops away and makes as if to peck me in return before flapping vigorously to take to the air.

 

“See you at home, Aiko-san,” he says cheerfully.

 

Grocery shopping goes a lot easier if you pretend like you’ve been sent by your parents. I’ve got the schedules of most of the local grocers, market stalls, and convenience stores memorized by now. It’s easier to go when there are either disinterested teenagers or women old enough to be mothers; they tend to either ignore anything with the single-minded intensity of the underpaid or with vaguely maternal amusement. Either way, I don’t stand out as “kid living alone” so much as “responsible kid running errands.”

 

 Since I’m on a fairly strict budget (it’s hilarious and horrifying on so many levels that it takes dying for me to be able to finally stick to a fucking budget), I tend to jump wildly between shopping locations depending on who has the best sales. It takes a little longer to complete errands, but the extra walking is always a relief after spending most of my day in an office. I finish up my shopping and drop briefly by the apartment to set some chicken marinating in the fridge and some of the good tuna out for my three summons who are holding what could either be a quiet argument from Kagome and Kikyo or a loud lesson courtesy of a hassled Kuromaru.

 

My poor main summon has been largely in charge up keeping the twins updated with any of our joint tactics. Most of their training is done at the Home Tree by the other ravens, but since Kuromaru is the one who actively trains with me on a regular basis it falls to him to adjust his half of any of our strategies to work with the smaller twins as either a pair or individually. I help, of course, since they’re working with me ultimately but it goes a lot easier if he gets the basics down beforehand.

 

I know I make it seem like my training has only been with my cousins but it’s really not. I spend a truly disgusting amount of time running laps around the village, going through taijutsu and kenjutsu kata, squeezing every spare percent of control out of my ninjutsu with chakra control exercises, doing obsessive target practice, as well as just about every strength training exercise recommended for someone of my height and weight.

 

If I had to guess, I probably spend a whopping total of 80% of my spare non-work/mission related time purely training. There’s always plenty of Genin Corps members hanging around willing to spar and if I spend most of those spars keeping my skills reigned it? Well, it’s a sort of practice in its own right to hide your proficiency against other shinobi. Shisui and Itachi are the only two who have any idea of my actual skill level is and that’s only because of Shisui’s refusal to leave me alone.

 

I try to keep any public spars only to shinobi outside of my division. The ones in my division I’ll occasionally let harangue me into taking bets on who has the best aim with various projectiles. We’ve got a board up in the office we can all hit from our respective offices with minimal effort. Since Itachi is actually known for his perfection with shurikenjutsu and he’s nominally my primary teacher in that area, I allow myself to win more often than not. Even if the others don’t know it, it’s a matter of pride that I take the pot whenever a decent sum of money is riding on it.

 

That the extra income and bragging rights give my fellow Corps members enough of a “personality” that I can fade away in all the ways that actually matter is just a bonus at this point.

 

I spend a productive couple hours basically just working out. I do a hundred or so each of push-ups, sit-ups, and squats followed by probably twenty laps around the village. The laps are shorter than the entirety of the village, to be honest, because I swing wide through the streets to avoid the Uchiha District entrance. It’s a fairly well-worn path used by mostly shinobi, though you do see an occasional dedicated Academy student, so the shinobi patrolling the village walls spare me only a cursory glance once they spot my hitai-ate.

 

I can tell you that there are exactly 1034 steps to climb to the top of Hokage Mountain. Which is about a thousand steps more than I could do Before. Circulating chakra is a passive skill by the time you hit genin and it takes actual concentration to stop now. I’d consider it a giant fucking cheat if I weren’t so impressed with my own physical prowess in this new life of mine.

 

I’m winding down my evening workout with some yoga-like stretching and going through a couple kata I could probably do in my sleep when I hear the rustling grass. Since I’m currently balancing my entire weight on one hand, I flow liquidly into a new stance that’s more of a crouch and glance in the direction of the noise as casually as I can manage.

 

That rustle had been accompanied by the slight flare of chakra shinobi typically use as a friendly heads-up when approaching an ally but you can never be too careful.

 

There’s a snake coiling casually into itself even as it keeps its entire focus on me. I reach out with my awareness and it flickers a questing tongue out and flares its chakra again politely in confirmation. It feels very similar to Orochimaru’s – slightly abrasive at first touch but with a sleek finish. It’s a common breed of snake we call the Konoha Garter – not poisonous in the slightest.

 

“Hello,” I offer slowly – lilting it into a question.

 

“Orochimaru-sama would like you to meet him at training ground six tomorrow instead of his office,” the snake says. “Acknowledged?”

 

“Acknowledged,” I agree and it seems like that’s all the summons requires because it starts uncoiling fairly quickly. “Snake-san,” I say quickly.

 

It stops all movement immediately.

 

“Does Orochimaru-sama require me to bring any specific supplies?” I’m not thrilled to be speaking with one of his summons but I won’t hold him against them and not be polite. I similarly won’t be deliberately bad at my job just because he makes me uncomfortable. He’s my boss for the week and I’ve got to accept that.

 

The little head turns back around and extends in my direction. I stay perfectly still in my crouch, holding position, until it gets close enough that it’s next tongue-flicker touches skin. There’s something satisfied about its easy retreat after.

 

“Nothing specific, kunoichi-san,” it says. “Further questions?”

 

“No, thank you.”

 

“Acknowledged,” it says and then its chakra tapers away to the flicker of a normal snake and it vanishes into the fading light of evening.

 

When I return to my apartment after a rather less relaxing wind-down than normal, I’m recovered enough from the encounter that I don’t even stumble over reporting it to Kuromaru.

 

He mantles his wings the entire time I’m speaking as if to ward off the long-gone snake.

 

“No more training alone,” he says firmly. “Pardon me, Aiko-san, but I don’t want you left alone with a strange summons ever again.”

 

“It’s just a week,” I say but I don’t disagree. Kuromaru is familiar enough with me by now that he takes my lack of outright refusal as permission because he immediately calms down. “It’s probably just in-village fieldwork. The assignment notes acknowledge that as a possibility.”

 

“Let’s hope so,” the raven mutters darkly.

Chapter Text

Orochimaru is holding a sword – not Kusanagi, thank god – when I show up with Kuromaru to the training ground the next morning. My summons isn’t so obvious as to mantle his wings but his ruff of feathers fluffs up and hops closer to my side. The sannin is going through some kata with a thoughtful expression and he’s unfairly beautiful as he does so.

 

“Good morning, Orochimaru-sama,” I say and allow myself to drink in the absolute perfection that is his shift from kata to standing upright. He’s not wearing the standard jounin uniform he had been wearing the day before but a soft lavender yukata belted loosely over leggings and a mesh shirt. His hair is pulled up and away from his face in a high tail so you can see his silver tomoe earrings shining against his slender neck and even my prepubescent hormones stand up and take notice.

 

He doesn’t look real. If any sort of body-image nonsense hadn’t been drilled out of me in the Academy, I’d be jealous. I still am a little jealous and I can’t even tell how much of that is Before me and how much is Now me.

 

He makes me wonder if I’m going to have more to worry about once puberty hits than I thought.

 

“Good morning, Aiko-chan,” he says and I might not have my sharingan active but even I can see the pleased surprise in his face. It might even be sincere, which is mildly alarming. “I trust my summons didn’t alarm you delivering my message.”

 

I’ve had a night to get over it so none of my brain’s bitch of course it did shows on my face. “They were very polite,” I tell him. His eyes slide to one side and pause pointedly on Kuromaru at my side. I smile reflexively. “Ah, this is my summons.”

 

“You rarely see raven summons,” Orochimaru says, presumably just to show off, with a tinge of a smug smile.

 

“I suppose,” I agree vaguely and make a couple hand-signs behind my back where only Kuromaru can see that mean hide and then within viewing distance. He takes off and vanishes into the surrounding forest. “What am I helping you with today, Orochimaru-sama?” I say when his attention shifts away from me to watching after the raven.

 

Golden eyes turn to me and I offer up as sincere a smile as I possibly can. He doesn’t speak for a long moment and I try to exude as much polite willing helpfulness as I can. Finally he makes a gesture with his free hand to the tanto I’ve taken to carrying at my hip. “How well versed are you with that blade?”

 

Shisui is much better than I and Itachi is better still for all that he doesn’t carry one with any regularity. “Reasonable,” I say after considering the question. I very carefully don’t allow my hand to stray to the hilt of my blade as I think. Orochimaru still has his naked blade in hand after all.

 

“And a longer blade?” he brings up his sword at a casual horizontal and steps closer, holding it out as if to offer it.

 

I obligingly inspect the sword. It’s a rather plain wakizashi so while it’s longer than my tanto it’s not as long as a katana. I don’t reach out to touch it but I do make a vague interested noise. “I haven’t had the occasion to learn.”

 

He brightens. “Excellent.”

 

Um.

 

I make a noise that’s the verbal equivalent of a question mark since I can’t decide on what question I want to ask first. Orochimaru chuckles at me and it’s both mortifying and terror-inducing.

 

I feel the heat of a blush in my cheeks and there isn’t anything I can do to stop.

 

Either he has enough of my silence or he takes pity on me. “I was thinking about what you said about the limits of the sharingan and I wanted to test first-hand how quickly you can learn a new skill.”

 

Being as a tanto is really mostly meant for stabbing with occasional slashing, a longer blade is definitely a new enough skill to count even if some of it is transferable.

 

“With that blade?” I ask and hold out a hand tentatively. “It’s not that much different in style from using a tanto though? Compared to say…a katana or a jian.”

 

He looks pleased again at my knowledge. I feel like maybe he honestly thinks I’m a genius or he just desperately needs to make friends with honest-to-god adults. He’s what…early fourties? It’s old for a shinobi but not so old for a civilian. There has to be a way for him to associate with people who aren’t stuck in the height of their youth emotionally.

 

Shinobi expect to die young so we don’t tend to know what to do with ourselves when we get to an age where civilians start gaining what you’d call wisdom.

 

 I mean, mentally I’m probably only ten or so years younger than him, but I already feel like I’m much older.

 

“I’m going to show you a new style that works for any length blade,” he says. His eyes drift over my limbs clinically as he hums. “My summons say you’re flexible enough for it.”

 

Ignoring that his summons had been watching me long enough last night to take note… I rock back on my heels a little to consider. On one hand – Orochimaru. Full stop. On the other – learning a skill from one of the sannin. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity.

 

Still, it’s an opportunity I’d be a fool to take.

 

My hesitation is obvious and he steps closer still. The blade is sheathed neatly and set to the ground as he moves to kneel in front of me. We’re of the same height, nearly, when he does so I’m level with his golden eyes. He hasn’t been keeping his chakra hidden but it neatly vanishes now and I turn my head to make the twist of my lips less obvious.

 

One of his neat eyebrows raises and interest gleams when he lets his chakra loose again to normal resting levels and my lips untwist. “You’re very sensitive,” he says and uses two fingers to take my pulse while I watch helplessly – unwilling to be so rude as to rip away and out of his immediate space. “It doesn’t bother you? My chakra?”

 

“It’s just different,” I say honestly. “I’m not that sensitive, either,” I add with what I know is a more petulant tone that I intended.

 

“But you are uncomfortable,” he says knowingly.

 

I want to scream obviously! but masterfully manage not to. “Yes.” I agree bluntly and watch his expression slip into something harder as his politely friendly mask falters. “I don’t like to…” it’s my turn to falter. I don’t know whether to go with stand out, be watched or something closer to the actual truth with have the attention of someone so powerful.

 

“Share secrets of your dojutsu.”

 

I huff in frustration because that is not remotely my problem. His other eyebrow goes up to join the other in honest surprise this time when I let the sharingan bleed into my eyes and paint the world red. “I don’t care about that,” I tell him. “I just don’t see the point?  I’m here for the week to assist you so obviously if this is what you want then fine but…The sharingan isn’t that great so as to merit your attention like this, Orochimaru-sama.”

 

“Now why would an Uchiha say that?” he seems quietly bewildered behind the instinctive rise of anger I can see writ in the tension in every micro expression flickering across his face.

 

“It’s just a kekkei genkai,” I breathe out heavily and stop myself from rolling my eyes only by virtue of lifting them to the sky as if in prayer for patience. “Surly someone who holds a contract with snakes could be doing something better like…becoming a sage? Don’t the snakes have a sage?” With the toads and slugs, snakes are among the oldest summons in the known world. Even before the sannin became the sannin, they were known for their respective contracts.

 

He drops my wrist and I tuck my hands into opposite sleeves, crossing my arms and watching him intently. I don’t know that anyone has straight up called him out on anything since Tsunade and Jiraiya left. When his face goes blank, I can see something that might be remembered fondness mingled with irritation and try very hard not to let it affect me. The sharingan catalogues a few more rapid-fire emotions before he speaks.

 

“The risks of being a sage outweigh the benefits,” he says finally.

 

“I don’t see how,” I say doubtfully. “Isn’t it just about being in balance with the natural world? I mean, I’m not an expert obviously but well…it’s Senju Hashirama on that mountain.” I let my sharingan spin lazily and don’t say and not Uchiha Madara.

 

“Yes, I know the Uchiha are eternally disappointed about that.”

 

“We aren’t,” I say. He looks so openly incredulous that I can’t resist the scowl that forms. “I know what it looks like but…Madara-sama was wrong. The Uchiha will always support the village and we regret that it took Hashirama-sama such extreme measures to prevent him from destroying it.”

 

“That’s not the opinion of the Uchiha,” Orochimaru says.

 

“It is,” I insist. “Right now is just hard with the Kyuubi attack and people looking to us as if…” I trail off and let the silence fill the unspoken as if we made the same mistake again. “There aren’t any Senju left.” There’s plenty of Uchiha goes unsaid.

 

No one likes to see us prospering on the heels of Kyuubi.

 

The silence that follows is a considering one. It appears as though it had never occurred to Orochimaru that the Uchiha aren’t mindlessly grabbing for power. I mean, we are grabbing at power, whatever we can get to get ahead but we aren’t doing it at the expense of the village. Not anymore. Power without the village behind us puts us in no better position than the warring states era and that’s a time none of us are too eager to return to. I’m not sure if there are any survivors left of that time shortly after the founding, but it’s still fresh enough in the village’s collective minds that no one wants to disrupt this still so tentative peace.

 

Finally he speaks, “I’ll allow that it is perhaps a more nuanced situation that I initially supposed. Nevertheless, I would ask that you allow me this chance to test a fully mature sharingan. With your permission, of course.”

 

Being that I don’t have a reasonable excuse not to… “If that’s what you want, Orochimaru-sama. I’m at your disposal for the rest of the week.”

 

The forms and style Orochimaru nominally “teaches” me for the rest of the week relies heavily on a boneless sort of flexibility and fluidity to every movement that really tests both my ability to copy what he’s doing with the sharingan and my ability to actually force my body through unfamiliar forms. It kind of really drives home how much I haven’t been pushing myself in my training. Even Shisui doesn’t push my ability to the limit Orochimaru does.

 

He has this unsettling way of sliding up into my personal space before I even get a chance to sense him. The gentle way he presses my body into each position when I’m not arched or stretched or whatever enough always causes me to tense up and his amused smile and chiding “a little more, Aiko-chan,” has become the bane of my existence. I mean, sure, it encourages me to make sure my form is perfect so he doesn’t have to touch me, but I’m very sure that my discomfort is exactly why he continues so perfection is probably not even a guarantee to end it.

 

“It really is a lovely style for you, Aiko-chan,” he praises in a low murmur almost directly into my ear. I’ve got one arm extended with blade in hand, balancing on the toes of one foot while sliding my other leg out in a slow mime of tripping one opponent behind me while I’m hamstringing one in front. My other arm wants desperately to shoot out of position to catch myself before I tumble to the ground in shock but Orochimaru is quicker and his hand settles delicately on my waist.

 

“If you say so,” I manage to keep most of the strangled discomfort out of my voice and finish the quarter-speed motion. His hand follows me through into standing and the heat of it makes my spine crawl. “Like that?”

 

“A little lower,” he says and taps a finger to my waist before circling around and demonstrating the move at full speed. “Your opponent won’t expect you to be so low to the ground - it’s too difficult for most shinobi to recover after dipping so low deliberately, see?”

 

I want to say it’s too difficult for me but he has already patently proved that false in having me succeed at a quarter speed. Moving at full speed gives me momentum too and makes it easier. Still, he’s watching me pointedly so I flow into the form again and dip even lower than before. The slow smile is approving and I feel something inside me shrivel up and die when that approval actually makes me grin ever so slightly in return.

 

The adult me doesn’t want his approval but the competitive kunoichi Konoha has fostered for these long few years is thrilled to impress a sannin.

 

“As I was saying,” he says and turns away to lead me through the entire sequence from the top, “it’s a lovely style for you. Your natural flexibility and speed combined with your sharingan’s ability to copy and predict your opponent go together beautifully if I do say so myself.”

 

“I thought the whole point was that it was difficult enough to stress my sharingan and provide you with data?” There’s a handful of seals carefully inked onto sticky paper all over my person and they feed data back to a master seal on a scroll Orochimaru activates each day. It’s easier than trying to do it with wires and sensors. I’d made quiet inquiries to confirm it’s a legitimate tool and not something he came up with on his own.

 

Orochimaru chuckles and his long hair flips over his shoulder artfully when he tosses his head back to shoot me a languid smirk. “A master can still appreciate his work, can he not?”

 

I can’t help the shiver or the way I close my eyes to shut him out while I collect myself. “I appreciate the opportunity, Orochimaru-sama, but I’ll be going back to work tomorrow. I won’t be able to finish learning this style.”

 

He scoffs quietly and flicks his fingers out to tap my elbow into a wider arc. “You’ve seen enough,” he says firmly. “Perhaps I’ll check in?”

 

Lord no. “Please don’t trouble yourself, Orochimaru-sama,” I say as calmly as I can.

 

“Such a polite girl,” he muses in an almost believable affectionate murmur. “It would be a delight, Aiko-chan.”

 

“It’s just I know you only had the one genin team,” I don’t stammer but it’s a close thing. “But surely you keep in touch?”

 

His eyes glitter under heavy lids. He knows I’m avoiding the subject so it’s really just a matter of whether or not he cares enough to go along with it or force the issue.

 

“I suppose Anko-chan would get jealous,” he concedes with grace. “Very well, but you will continue to practice, won’t you? It would be such a waste otherwise.”

 

“Of course,” I agree readily. As much as I don’t want to have even a fraction of the snake sannin’s attention, I really can’t deny that the style I’ve spent the week copying and practicing really is a good one for me. Enough so that I’ve had to forcibly pull myself away from the displays of katanas in the weapons shop window every time I swing by on my way to the training grounds. I can’t afford one right at this moment but give it a couple months…

 

By the time I head home, I’ve literally spent an entire day training under the discomforting eye of a literal psychopath and I’ve still got regular workout and training to do. Kuromaru has spent the walk back home darkly muttering about humans who try to avoid death between informing me how much better off I am without the sannin’s tutelage.

 

“It’s just work,” I remind him tiredly as I climb the stairs to my apartment.

 

“Just work,” he repeats with a noise suspiciously like a growl. “Circling you like choice carrion, sure ‘just work’.”

 

“Kuromaru, please…”

 

The stairs in my apartment complex are covered but otherwise open. Most shinobi buildings tend to have both open staircases and larger than average windows. I’d always wondered why shinobi had constantly avoided doors like normal people but now that I am a shinobi… We’re a paranoid bunch and civilian buildings with their enclosed hallways and smaller windows tend to make us anxious and nervous and that’s never a good idea for people who can do things like spit fireballs on command.

 

I only mention this because it means that I see my cousin standing at my door well in advance of actually making it to my floor. Kuromaru takes off to circle round to the window when I make a quick sign for ‘privacy’ and leaves me standing there staring at my cousin as he turns quickly to face me, sharingan active and stress in every line of his body.

 

“Itachi-kun,” Even knowing what was coming – knowing the stress it takes to activate your sharingan that first time – it still hits me in the chest, the sympathy, and I reach out tentatively. It startles me when he actually does take my hand and I can feel the minute tremble. The sharingan is so red and he stays silent. “Here, come in. I’ve got a nice spiced tea you can try.”

 

He doesn’t let go of my hand until I’ve guided him to sit at my squashy little couch. I go to the window to open it and find Kuromaru perched in a tree across the way. I sign out a quick ‘meeting. Private. Report later’ and wait for him to acknowledge before closing the window again. Itachi still has his sharingan active when I turn around and I cross quickly to make the tea.

 

I’ve got some leftover dango and onigiri in my fridge from my last visit with my ojiisan and I put it out on a plate and bring it out to Itachi. “Eat,” I tell him firmly while I set about pouring the tea. “And turn that off before you get a migraine.”

 

He startles visibly (which in Itachi is more rapid blinking and a slight widening of his eyes). I make sure he’s looking to catch the flash of red in my own eyes as my sharingan spins lazily. “Aiko…”

 

Before you get a migraine,” I remind him and let my sharingan fade. His follows shortly after and he reaches to take a stick of dango. I wait for him to finish at least one piece before I say anything else. “So I take it your standard escort was a mite more complicated?”

 

“It’s classified.”

 

“Shinobi are horrible gossips and I work in Diplo – I knew the day they sent the orders.”

 

“When is Shisui-kun due back?”

 

“Don’t change the subject,” I say. “I’ve had it since the day I arrived in Konoha and watched my okaasan die. Shisui-kun is the only other one who knows.” Well, and Orochimaru but he’ll be out of the village within the year so that doesn’t really count.

 

My cousin avoids my gaze by busying himself with the tea. Maybe I could drag the answer out of him, a proper explanation of events I’ve only got a hazy idea of, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen Itachi rattled. He’s a genuinely calm person probably 90% of the time – I think Shisui is the only one to see that other 10%. But Shisui isn’t here and I’ve got the patience to wait the eight years for the massacre so I’m very sure I can outwait a preteen boy – genius shinobi or not.

 

“We were ambushed,” he says finally, voice soft. “One teammate was killed and the other is turning in her resignation today. They’ll be assigning two new genin from the next batch of graduates.”

 

As expected then. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

 

He stares at me for a long silent moment. “We weren’t that close,” he says finally and looks away.

 

“Itachi, you activated your sharingan. You can’t tell that to me with a straight face and expect me to believe it.” He looks a little hopelessly lost at my blunt retort and I look away to give him the chance to get himself under control. “It’s okay to mourn.”

 

“Shinobi must never show their tears.”

 

“Don’t quote the Rules at me,” I say. “It’s a stupid rule anyway; supressing all that is just going to fester in your soul. Better to face it now and lance the wound while it’s fresh – surely you paid attention in first-aid?”

 

He makes a brief annoyed noise and I smile into my tea.

 

“Aiko-chan can be rude,” he mutters finally.

 

“I’m going to take a day off tomorrow,” I tell him. “You can take the couch – we’ll train together and you can get used to your sharingan.”

 

He looks so quietly relieved I have to smile.

 

“Thank you, Aiko-chan,” he says. “I’ll send a message to okaasan so otousama doesn’t send out the Police Force.”

 

“Please do,” I make a face and ignore his mild amusement. “I’ll just swing by the udon place on the corner and pick up supper. Make yourself at home and don’t let Kuromaru talk you into giving him the last of the good tuna – he’s been a menace all day and doesn’t need the extra calories.”

 

Itachi is quietly sharpening kunai when I return with food. Kuromaru is sitting on his perch picking at a plate of hard-boiled eggs and various sliced fruits. He mantles his wings at me and makes a hissing noise while I close the door and set the food down on the coffee table.

 

“Has he been doing that the whole time?”

 

Itachi looks up from his kunai. “I hadn’t noticed.”

 

“Mind your manners,” I tell my sullen summons. “Eat your fruit.”

 

Dinner is a quick affair in mostly silence. One of Itachi’s crows comes by shortly after as I throw out the trash. Whatever message it carries in return is enough that Itachi actually relaxes enough to stretch out on the couch. I curl at the opposite end and we pass weapons back and forth.

 

“How has the Corps been?” Itachi asks when we get to the finicky process of working on shuriken.

 

I shrug a little. “I just finished a week assisting a jounin in-village.”

 

“Which jounin?”

 

I hesitate long enough that Itachi reaches out to nudge me pointedly with one foot. It’s the most relaxed I’ve seen him and I don’t want to clam up and discourage it so I heave a sigh. “Orochimaru-sama.”

 

His surprise is a quiet thing; a long pause on the point of one shuriken, and a slow look up at me. I avoid meeting his eyes. “That’s quite the opportunity,” he says diplomatically.

 

At this point Orochimaru’s reputation is not to the point that anyone thinks he’s experimenting on children but it’s still not good. Most shinobi know he was given prisoners from the last War to do with as he pleased in the name of interrogation. Still, he’s one of our Sannin and he’s the only one left in village so we tend to view him with reluctant respect.

 

It hasn’t exactly escaped anyone’s notice that he was given precisely one genin team. Regardless of the entire team’s graduation to chunin in their first exam (a feat that has only happened several times ever), he was never given a second. Since the Hokage is responsible for deciding which jounin are due to take a team and the Hokage was also his jounin-sensei, it doesn’t exactly reflect well on him.

 

Personally, I don’t know how much I want to attribute to him not being a good sensei when I know Danzo has his fingers all over the place. Based on my week of training, he tends towards vaguely creepy but actually very good at teaching. He’s no weirder than any other elite jounin – provided you don’t know about the experimenting on children. Which I do.

 

“It was certainly interesting,” I say to avoid thinking about the eventual reality of that coming to light where I will actually have to face it. “Do you get to know who they have slated for your team?”

 

“Minazuki-sensei won’t say.”

 

I shoot him a flat look and flick a dull shuriken at him. He catches it and goes for the whetstone without even a moment’s pause.

 

“Don’t make me ask.”

 

“An Aburame and a non-clan kunoichi with above average infiltration scores.”

 

Teams are set up in advance of graduation – in theory you can pretty much predict how your students will perform – with all sorts of contingency set-ups. They’re stored at the Academy and it’s pretty much expected for at least one student to break in and figure out their placement after graduation. It’s literal child’s play to break in when you’re Itachi.

 

“Restructuring as an infiltration team? Or tracking?” Uchiha that don’t go into the Police Force tend to be on straight combat teams. They wouldn’t normally put a shinobi of Itachi’s skill onto a team for tracking or infiltration unless they had no other option.

 

“The chunin exams are being held in Suna in two months,” Itachi says. “I think they’re setting up the team for after I get promoted.”

 

“Makes sense.” No sense restructuring the whole team when the chunin exams are only months away and the only odd member out is Uchiha Itachi. Still, that’s at least two months of putting Itachi in the unenviable position of trying to impress the Elders and his father while being stuck on infiltration and tracking missions which are…

 

It’s not that we don’t value the work accomplished in those missions, but as a Clan Heir the family tends to want you on straight combat or escort where other people can see and appreciate your skills. It’s never made sense to me considering they also desperately want him to make ANBU where step number one is don’t be seen. But far be it from me to call the Elders out on their inconsistent demands.

 

“I can’t believe I didn’t know about your sharingan,” he mutters into the long silence.

 

“No offense Itachi-kun, but if I had my way no one would have known.”

 

I catch the shuriken he flicks at me and grin. He makes a soft noise and holds out a hand expectantly. I pass it back and he returns to sharpening.

 

It’s kind of nice, later that night once I’ve pulled out the spare sheets and blankets and made up the couch for him, to be lying in bed and able to hear the quiet breathing of another person. It’s comforting to know there’s another capable shinobi in my space. Konoha might breed paranoid child soldiers but at least they encourage teamwork to the point that we can each take comfort in the presence of another paranoid child soldier.

 

Sleep comes easy.

 

Chapter Text

Training with Itachi the next day is more interesting that it has been for a long time. He’s much better but my week of non-stop training with Orochimaru has made a difference; my old forms are smoother and, when I try a couple of the new forms, Itachi is visibly surprised. Between my improvement and Itachi’s discomfort with his newly activated sharingan we almost even out skill-wise and are both fairly exhausted by the end of a day of sporadic sparring between regular training.

 

“Thank you,” Itachi says almost happily as he finishes gathering up his scattered kunai. I glance up from my post-spar stretching. “For…”

 

“Don’t mention it,” I return quickly. Itachi’s eyes crease as he turns and waves goodbye. “Send a crow next time you’re free!”

 

I finish stretching and head home. I don’t even get through the first syllables of “I’m home…” before Kuromaru’s voice rises in a furious rasping growl. “What’s going on?”

 

Kuromaru is squared off, wings mantled and making an angry hissing noise, opposite a pale white snake big enough to eat him coiled on my bed. I don’t recognise the breed but the snake isn’t being aggressive; though it’s not exactly being unthreatening either. The bulbous tail is rattling warningly and it’s tensing and coiling in on itself anxiously.

 

“Filthy reptile!” Kuromaru snaps. “You’ll leave Aiko-san’s space if you know what’s good for you.”

 

“Kuromaru,” I gesture at his perch violently and he snaps but goes where he’s told. “Snake-san,” I continue tightly while injecting as much command as I can.

 

“You must be Aiko-san,” it says in soft feminine voice. “This one is Tsubaki. Orochimaru-sama sends us with a gift.”

 

“A gift.”

 

“Correct.” Its little triangular head tips up and down in a polite nod. “One moment please.” I don’t recoil but it’s a close thing as her mouth opens to grotesque proportions and what is unmistakably the hilt of a sword begins to emerge from the pink flesh of its throat. I take a careful hold of the hilt once it’s mostly out and then gently tug it free. Tsubaki pulls back and tilts her little head as if to inspect the sword has emerged intact.

 

It’s hovering at an awkward length – the long range for wakizashi and the short range for a katana – so I’m not quite sure at immediate glance what it is. I pull it free from the matte-black sheath to get a better look at the make. I’m not intimately familiar with weaponry beyond the basics so after inspecting it for a long moment I turn back to Tsubaki expectantly.

 

“A kodachi,” she says knowingly. “Orochimaru-sama bids you use it well with the snake forms.”

 

“The snake forms,” I repeat in what is absolutely not a shaky tone only by virtue of sheer force of will. “Of course. Please convey my thanks but explain that this was absolutely not necessary.”

 

Tsubaki hisses what might be a laugh if you squint. “Orochimaru-sama insists,” she says and then promptly dismisses herself before I can even begin to unpack that.

 

“Just work?!” Kuromaru snaps at me the moment the smoke from the snake disperses. “Gifts from that sannin do not fall under ‘just work’ Aiko-san!”

 

“I can’t say no to a gift, Kuromaru,” I snap back – irritated and shaken and still holding the naked blade. It’s been treated to a similarly matte sheen as the black sheath. The hilt is unadorned and simple. The complete lack of ostentatious ornamentation I expect out of a shinobi as preening as Orochimaru is just about the only thing holding me together right now.

 

The snake forms. Christ on a cracker I knew it was likely some obscure style he’d picked up but this is… Orochimaru is the last of a long line of snake summoners. The snakes – famous though they are – had fallen out of use as the clan declined to the point that their name has been lost.  Orochimaru had come literally almost out of nowhere – the last of a nameless clan – and succeeded in signing a contract with their leader, Manda. That alone would have propelled him into infamy let alone his team with Tsunade and Jiraiya. Snake forms implies a family technique – implies a technique taught by the snakes for their summoners – of which there is precisely one member left.

 

It’s…alarming, it probably too kind a word, for the idea that Orochimaru is teaching me something literally no one else on the planet knows.

 

“I don’t like it,” Kuromaru’s voice softens into something closer to shame as he takes notice of the fine tremble in my hands as I sheathe my new blade and set it down on top of my shinobi-gear trunk.

 

“I’ll handle it,” I say.

 

 

 

Through absolutely no fault of mine, I don’t at all handle the situation. At work the next day, Yukari gives me an assignment that will take me out of village for the first time – it’s a trip to a nearby civilian town to deliver an updated contract and negotiate any minor changes.

 

“We’ve been working on this for months,” she says as she hands me the info-packet and mission-scroll. “Any changes likely to come up in this final meeting are outlined in there along with our final offers for adjustments. You’ll be authorized to make any changes for outlined contingencies but anything beyond that will require approval from the supervising chunin. Try to avoid that if you can, but if it does happen then fill out a new proposal draft and bring it back to the missions desk to pass on.”

 

“Timeline?” I ask.

 

“A week, tops,” she assures me. “You’ll be in Fire the whole way so travel should only be a couple days there and back and a couple days in-town. Nothing you can’t handle on your own. Plan to leave tomorrow midday; I’ve already informed the gate of your departure so they’ll be expecting you at the desk.”

 

Most genin aren’t sent out of village alone – they usually require either a full trio of genin or a chunin supervisor. But the Genin Corps, of which I’m a member, are usually career-genin. That is to say, they have either the physical or mental skills to make chunin, but not both. Under a jounin with actual combat experience, I could probably make chunin in another year or so. In the Diplomatic Corps, I simply won’t make the mission requirements on paper to put forth my name for advancement. Not for years.

 

Still, being a member of the Genin Corps means that our out-of-village missions are considered D-ranks and not C-ranks. There’s no expectation of combat and any complications have generally already been accounted for by the supervising chunin who put in the request for the mission in the first place. It means I can take one on my own – honestly, the way I would prefer it.

 

“Anything else for today?”

 

She shakes her head. “Take the time to prepare your gear and familiarize yourself with the intel; you’re dismissed from the office for the rest of the day.”

 

“Thanks Yukari-san,” I gather my things and smile at her.

 

She grins back. “Enjoy yourself Aiko-san, it’s your first mission outside the village. You’ve earned it.”

 

It’s early enough in the day that there are a handful of genin training grounds still available. I book myself into the most secluded one I can and haul my gear out to go through while taking advantage of the nice weather.

 

Memorizing the files with my sharingan is a matter of a moment’s effort which leaves me time to make sure my yet-unused gear is still fine. Tarp, sleeping bag, rations, first-aid kit, canteen for water, even a two-man tent and cooking set sealed away in a scroll. I check everything over and make sure nothing has expired or gone too musty from sitting in my trunk for so long. It’s all fine though I do take the time to hang up my sleeping bag to air out just in case (the tent and cooking set have been sealed so they’re exactly as they were the day I purchased them; mission-ready, scroll safely in a waterproof container).

 

Kuromaru spends his days spying around the village while I’m at work. This early in the day he’s probably lingering around near the gates to see who’s heading out which  means I’m actually alone in the training ground for the next 3 hours I’ve signed it out for.

 

Despite everything, I pick up the kodachi and decide to go through the forms Orochimaru had been showing me. I’m good at them and I’d been raised Before to never say no to free stuff. As a kunoichi now, it comes with a whole bunch of caveats of after making sure it wasn’t a trick to maim/injure/harm you but the sentiment still stands. They feel better with the kodachi than they did with the longer katana and I slow to half-speed to get a clearer sense of just how different the slight adjustment to blade-length makes them.

 

As if merely going through the forms summons him, I slide into a wide low stance and find pale hands pressing gently downward at my waist and the sudden flush of body heat all up and down my spine.

 

I don’t manage to keep my reaction down this time. I drop the sword and spin round, sharingan spinning wildly, and flailing back in an uncontrolled stumble from the smiling sannin standing up where I had just been. My heart rate – previously calm from the soothing repetition of kata – skyrockets and I have to physically hold back my gasp with a hand over my mouth.

 

He looks so amused under the mockery of a concerned furrow of his brow. He’s picking up my new sword and holding it out to me gently; hilt first over his arm like he’s presenting it to royalty.

 

“I didn’t mean to startle you Aiko-chan,” he practically purrs.

 

“I don’t believe that for a second,” it slips out before I can stop it – derision my first response to embarrassment instead of a smarter silence. My eyes widen when his laugh is actually genuine – eyes crinkled and everything.

 

“Perhaps a little,” he agrees and sidles closer in a way that makes my skin crawl anxiously even as I feel a blush rise up into my cheeks. “I noticed your chakra signature on my way by and just had to come say hello.”

 

Really didn’t need to, buddy. I swallow those words down with a herculean effort. “Hello then, Orochimaru-sama. I’ll let you be on your way.” I go to take the sword and smother a scream of frustration when he pulls it back just enough that I’m forced to meet his eyes.

 

“Do you like it then?”

 

“It’s a nice sword. Practical.” My hand is on the hilt but he won’t take the hint. I can see his amusement increase each time I attempt to pull it free without exerting enough pressure to be rude.

 

“And you were practicing your forms, I see,” If I ever saw a grown man leering at a child my age the way he is now, I’d have stabbed him already. “Surely you should be at work so late in the morning?”

 

“Out of village mission tomorrow,” I say shortly as I make another attempt at the sword. A muscle in my jaw ticks when it remains unmoving. The sharingan allows the chakra he’s using to hold it to shine blue even if he’s got is tamped down tight enough for me to not be able to feel. “Just preparing now, is all.”

 

“A chance to use your new skills in combat,” he says with poorly disguised delight.

 

“I was sparring with Itachi-kun just yesterday,” I manage to shock him with the name dropping of my cousin and get the sword back and sheathed before he recovers. The light of amusement has flattened in his eyes and I avoid looking directly at gold as much as possible. “I think he was pleasantly surprised.”

 

“Was he.” It’s not a question, not with how flat his voice is. The hand that glides over my shoulders – leaving every muscle to tense in its wake – dips and settles on the curve of my hip as he gently but firmly guides me out into the middle of the training ground again. “Let me see then. Just a little spar, Aiko-chan, and I promise to go very easy.”

 

Sparring Orochimaru – even one behaving as if he were a mother cat with her kittens – is terrifying and stressful and generally awful all around.

 

He alternates wildly between moderating his skill and then his chakra vanishes and you have to dodge a not-at-all friendly blow that would have definitely broken bone had your sharingan not seen him first. You get to land maybe one lucky half-hit and then have to endure long arms trapping you in place against his chest as he whispers silky corrections to your form in your ear while you shakily perform a kawarimi blindly just to get away.

 

He’s not even using a sword, which is both insulting and relieving all at once. Or at least, it is until the first shuriken nearly takes your braid off and only narrowly avoids slicing your shoulder open.

 

Fuck,” I’ve yet to find a curse that works better in any language. Literally none of my ninjutsu is going to surprise him or throw him off and genjutsu is largely untaught with the still present Uchiha Clan filling out the ranks. I’ve got the standard false surroundings variations in my repertoire, as well as a smattering of raven-themed ones developed after watching Itachi and Shisui with their crows. He’s bigger and stronger and faster than I am and he has more combat experience than I can ever hope to match.

 

“That sounded rude,” he says disapprovingly even as his face is twisted into a wide demented grin. I have to whirl away from the flurry of his next few moves – the sharingan my only saving grace. He’s not actually letting me avoid his blows, I can see, but even being faster than me, my sharingan gives me enough of an edge to just avoid them. I’ll tire faster than he will so I shunshin across the clearing and flip back immediately to dodge the snake that makes a lunge for my ankles.

 

Kuromaru explodes into the clearing in a flurry of feathers and plucks the snake out of the air mid-lunge. His wide swoop and the angry hiss of the snake pulls Orochimaru up short long enough for the raven to drop the snake at his feet and swing back round to land before me, wings spread wide and hackles up.

 

“Kuromaru,” I breathe out and drop to the ground behind him, heaving in frantic breaths and trying to calm myself down. Orochimaru dismisses his summons and neatens out his just barely ruffled clothes as he peers over at me somewhere between amused and annoyed.

 

My summons won’t even return my greeting which speaks volumes.

 

“Enough for today, I think,” Orochimaru says as if anyone had asked his opinion at all. “I’ll see you next time I have a free moment and you’re back in-village, Aiko-chan.” His shunshin leaves behind swirling leaves instead of smoke and it’s only once the oppressiveness of his presence has vanished that I actually manage to take a full, even breath in.

 

“Handled it?” Kuromaru snaps.

 

“Shut up,” I return, flopping back exhausted and aching and shaky with terrified adrenaline. “Just a little longer.”

 

Kuromaru knows roughly that Orochimaru is due to leave the village. It had been my first reassurance whispered after that first day of testing out of his office. My summons is furious still and while normally he takes to ignoring me as if it’s somehow my fault that the sannin does whatever it is he wants, he’s clearly not in a mood to leave my side again. He refuses to look at me or speak again; just watches me wince and wheeze my way through gathering my things and shuffling in the direction of the apartment.

 

He flaps from perch to perch rather than walk alongside me and chat as we would usually. The silence hurts more than I care to admit but I’m not going to push him. It’s not my fault that Orochimaru is a fucking creep and I won’t apologize for sparring with him when it’s not as if I was given a goddamn choice in the matter. And I won’t apologize for being passingly polite to him in the first place, given that he’s a sannin and an S-rank jounin and I have no explainable reason to not be.

 

His silence continues even into the next day as I’m signing out at the desk. Orochimaru had ambushed me at my morning workout and in deference to my approaching mission had only spent an hour or so going over full-speed kata with heaping dose of inappropriate contact for no reason. Kuromaru had watched it all silently from nearby and still won’t talk to me

 

Since I don’t have any civilians with me, I can travel almost exclusively through the huge Hashirama trees that surround the village and spread throughout the land of fire. How many of them were actually grown by our first Hokage and how many are just naturally occurring is up for debate but they’re what I imagine the great redwood forests from Before looked like (not that I’d ever had the pleasure to be able to compare properly). My summons has enough space to travel nearby if he wanted but he takes to the skies and the warm thermals and winds to carry him along instead. It makes me feel very alone.

 

You’d think I’d be more nervous about leaving the village for the first time but…well, I’m not a kid. I may have spent most of my new life in Konohagakure but I’d lived in a few different cities Before and I’m no stranger to the idea of leaving home. The only thing that concerns me is how to react to civilians that don’t know how to handle shinobi. The civilians in hidden villages are very good about treating pretty much anyone regardless of age as an adult if they see the hitai-ate. Civilians outside the village…

 

Well, experience isn’t the only reason we try to send genin out with someone else. My aggressively competent self is an exception, not a rule.

 

The village is probably a full day’s travel at a steady clip. I make it a fair bit farther than I’d planned by the time night starts to make seeing beneath the canopy difficult. Most of that is probably pure spite at my reticent summons. I whistle the standard two-tone call that means for him to return to my side and drop down from the branches to set up camp for the night.

 

I’m lucky in that I drop down pretty much on top of a rabbit and am fast enough with the tanto (now housed in the small of my back just above my supplies pouch) to catch it before its fear releases it to flee. Between some wild herbs picked nearby and a little bit of oil and salt from my provisions (I have a small tin box of assorted spices and a small flask of oil) and some foil wrap, I’ve got a decent roast sitting in my campfire in just a few minutes. Kuromaru eats the offal with some berries I bring back as a sort of peace offering after leaving to gather enough firewood to last me through the night.

 

 It’s a small rabbit so it doesn’t take much more than an hour before the smell permeates the area. I’ve finished setting up perimeter traps and put down a light false-surroundings genjutsu (not standard for setting up camps but it should be, in my opinion) so I dig out the rabbit and open up the foil with the point of a kunai to let the steam and trapped heat escape and have it cool down enough to eat. It’s a little bland but much better than just staking it out above the flames the way they tried to teach us. I had stuck like glue to the Akimichi kunoichi during that class and her furious whispered complaints had offered enough information that I’ll never resort to that.

 

Sleep is the light half-wakefulness they teach you in the Academy and then the sun is up. I eat cold rabbit for breakfast and then take down the traps, bury the evidence of my fire, leaving the carefully cut grass cover over the disturbed earth, and head back into the trees to continue. I get to avoid the meandering main roads travelling a pretty much direct line to the village and arrive late morning – hours earlier than they had expected.

 

That, combined with my evident youth, throws them off enough that they don’t even bring up any of the expected revisions. There’s a polite sit-down formal tea and then they sign the agreement with a round of thankful bows from various attendants. They offer to put me up for the night and I accept.

 

“Please,” says one of the attendants, “It would be our honour. Konoha’s shinobi truly do live up to their expectation if your quick arrival is to be judged.”

 

All in all – by the time I return to Konohagakure and hand in the completed mission scroll, it’s almost a delight how easy the mission was. Even Kuromaru softens enough to offer up “congratulations Aiko-san.”

 

I’m in a good mood so of course I’ve only just put my mission bag away and set out the good tuna for Kuromaru when someone knocks at my door.

 

“It’s after eight; I only answer for family,” I call out from my spot curled up with a copy of The Utterly Gutsy Shinobi which I had found in the back of a used bookstore gathering dust. I’m reading it mostly out of perverse curiosity. It’s so cheesy and clearly aimed at kids that I’m astounded an actual fucking adult liked it enough to name their kid after it. If I were Naruto, I’d almost prefer being named after the fishcake.

 

The wordless flare of chakra is enough for me to recognize and I get to my feet with a quiet groan, opening the door to find Shisui looking lost and young. “Shisui-kun…?”

 

I’m accustomed to seeing his sharingan but not three tomoe and when they spiral into four distinct points I can’t help it and fling my arms around him. He clutches at me with an almost painful intensity, his breath stuttering out on a shuddering sigh and practically vibrating with tension. “Aiko!” he manages and I pull him into the apartment enough to shut the door, making shushing noises all the while.

 

“Here, sit down, that’s it, just…” so soon after Itachi I hadn’t prepared… “tea? I think I’ve got…”

 

“Just,” he reaches out, snags my arm and tugs me down with him. My hair is out of its braid and spilling over one shoulder and he buries his face into it and inhales, tucking me against his side and shutting me in between his body and the couch cushions. “Just sit with me. Please, Aiko.”

 

“Okay,” I whisper, a little stunned and a lot overwhelmed at the sudden closeness. I bring a tentative hand up to pat his shoulder and let a quiet ‘eep’ when his grip tightens. “There’s a throw just…”

 

Kuromaru’s wings just brush my head as he drapes the blanket over my cousin and I. I mouth a thank you and slowly relax down into Shisui’s desperate grasp. He’s not crying, not exactly, but with his face tucked so close against me I can feel the heat of his shaky breathing.

 

“They don’t tell you what it feels like,” he whispers to me. “’Sad’ or ‘helpless’ they said.”

 

I have Opinions about the things the Academy tells its students about preparing for the death of comrades. I swallow all of them down and this time when I put a hand on his shoulder he pulls back just enough to look back at me with dark eyes, sharingan gone. I sigh and lean into him. He takes my weight and tugs the blanket around us. He’s gotten taller than me while I wasn’t looking and I can tuck my feet against his shins.

 

“There’s no way to explain it,” I murmur. “Not really.”

 

“You knew,” he says and he looks like he really will cry this time. “Oh god, your okaasan, Aiko…”

 

“It was years ago,” I say helplessly – thrown by his abrupt switch. “Shisui please don’t…this isn’t about that.”

 

He pets at my hair and I sigh again when he tucks his face into my shoulder, murmuring. “I didn’t even realize…until he died that…”

 

“Tragedy does have a way of putting things into perspective,” I try for light and miss the mark if the noise he makes is any indication. I’ve always been terrible at comfort so I maybe flail a little trying to hug him again. “Look, I know it doesn’t seem like it now but this will pass, Shisui, I promise.”

 

His eyes are watery but clear of tears. I close my eyes and curl into his embrace, heaving out a long breath. He’s quiet for a long time, curled around me and only shifting to adjust the blanket when it slips down.

 

He finally speaks. “How are you always so good, Aiko? I’ve never even seen you…you joined the Academy just days after your okaasan…”

 

I stiffen automatically and his hand slides through my hair and strokes absently up and down my spine. I want to rip myself out of his grasp but he’s calmed down now and his eyes – always so sharp I’ve been terrified for years that he’ll see right through me – are watching. He makes a soft soothing noise and his chakra has always been a source of comfort – familiar as it is, and as comforting as knowing he’s there to back me up even when it was just pranking kids in the Academy – is warm to my senses and I’d have to block it out to stop it and I can’t.

 

“I don’t want to talk about it, Shisui,” I sound thin and shaky.

 

“Alright,” he agrees softly, tugging me down so it’s my head tucked into his shoulder this time. I can hear his heart beating and the soft brush of his hand up and down my spine slowly eases the tension. “I’m on leave for a week; I’m staying with you,” he says it so matter-of-factly – so by-the-way that I laugh. His smile is weak but there.

 

“First Itachi-kun, now you,” I grin weakly but it’s in my voice, “I think you should both just admit that I’m the favourite cousin.”

 

He squeezes me and laughs. “Itachi-kun too, huh? You must be then, if that’s the case.”

 

“About time you both admitted it,” I say.

 

He sighs around a chuckle and I feel the press of his face against my hair. “Let me get you dinner,” he says, “After bursting in on your evening.”

 

I try to sit up to protest, but he’s quicker. He’s standing and tucking the blanket around me, handing me my discarded book and smiling. “Shisui, no, you don’t have to.”

 

“I want to,” he says firmly. “Let me take care of my little cousin?”

 

“We’re the same age.”

 

“Aiko,” he says mock-sadly. It’s a relief compared to the aching sorrow of before. “You just shush and leave it all to me, okay?”

 

“I won’t say no to free food, I suppose.”

 

His smile is bright. “Be right back!” His shunshin is perfect and leaves absolutely nothing but his sudden absence. I glance down at my book and see he’s even managed to hand me the book back open to the page I’d left off on. The show-off.

Chapter Text

Shisui spending the week with me is probably the most comfortable I’ve been since I first woke up as Aiko. He tends to his flock of crows in a far more hands-on manner than Itachi does; he summons a different crow, or group of crows, each day to hand-spoil. Kuromaru suffers their presence in our apartment only by virtue of threatening each new crow with grievous bodily harm if they take his perch. Still, the bustle of voices and beings is comforting; it reminds me of Before and even if I’m still not ready to unpack that trauma I’m at least okay enough to think of it fondly.

 

After spending two nights squashed on the couch, Shisui worms his way into sharing the bed with me. 

 

“You’re so tiny you won’t even notice,” he wheedles, dragging the spare blanket and pillow with him as he gently shoves between me and the window.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Shush,” he smooths a hand through my hair and tucks my blankets back around me once he’s made enough space. “Let me be on the window side, okay?”

 

Having him in the apartment is a relief; I’m not on edge waiting for Orochimaru to appear out of nowhere or send one of his summons to bother me. If the price for that comfort is letting him on the bed and having him take the more vulnerable window side? Not even a question.

 

With the single death on his team, Shisui doesn’t have as long a wait for the space to be filled but he does have a series of after-action reports and debriefings to attend. “I’ll keep busy while you’re at work,” he promises. The sadness in his eyes is still there but it’s quiet in the sunshine. “I’ll pick you up?”

 

Work is mostly research in preparation for another out-of-village mission. We’re negotiating new shipping contracts which will eventually need to be presented in-person. Until then though, I’m pretty much glued to my desk or holed up in the archives. I would normally take my work outside on a nice day – get it done quickly and then spend free time training – but  Orochimaru has me on edge.

 

Literally the one day of the week Shisui spends at my place that he’s held up in another ancillary meeting, I exit the building exhausted from manually researching to hear my name being practically purred from an alcove off to the side.

 

“Orochimaru-sama,” I sigh. He’s in his jounin uniform which is…something. It’s a lot more comforting than when he’s in one of his yukata, at least.

 

“Free from your shadow,” he notes.

 

I’m fantastically thrilled that he knows about Shisui.

 

“Shisui-kun is on leave until the open spot on his team is filled so he’s…visiting.” It’s not untrue. “I live closer to HQ than the compound.”

 

 “Then you have some time,” he says and it’s not a question. “Walk with me?”

 

The arm around my shoulders isn’t a question either.

 

The training ground he leads me to is for jounin – it’s both larger and more isolated than the genin grounds I have access to – and I’m on edge. He turns and nudges my legs apart until I’m in an appropriate starting kata and then leads me through one of the series he’s shown me before. I draw my kodachi and he pulls out a standard ANBU katana and it’s pretty much silent training for a while before he whirls abruptly.

 

I pull up short and manage to keep my surprise confined to a moment of rapid blinking.

 

“Why didn’t you go to a genin team?”

 

Uh. “Not to be rude, Orochimaru-sama,” I say slowly, “but that’s a little personal.” I let ‘and none of your business’ linger in the space between words.

 

“You’re talented enough and graduated early,” he persists. “You’ve a fully formed dojutsu and you chose the Diplomatic Corps. Why?”

 

“The only people who know about my sharingan are two of my cousins and you,” I say shortly. “I only graduated early because the curriculum was beneath my ability and I had a C-rank under my belt with my contract to the Ravens.”

 

His eyes glitter. “You chose this.”

 

I sigh with far more exasperation than I mean to. It’s a little hysterical, to be honest, but I’m so tired of dancing around things with this man and all it’s got me so far is an admittedly nice sword and fighting style but otherwise just straight up harassment.

 

“I just think shinobi skills are wasted in combat,” I decide on finally.

 

“What,” he says flatly.

 

“Any Uchiha with a sharingan can copy almost anything they see,” I say. “Sure, we’re deadly in combat but you know what else it’s great for? The minutiae of paperwork. If I wasn’t keeping it quiet, I could complete my entire department’s work in a day by myself. It’s inefficient to throw every Uchiha with a sharingan into combat just because we’re historically good at it.”

 

He’s still staring at me but I’m on a roll now that I’ve started and I don’t intend to stop.

 

“The Aburame work with insects and we stick them in tracking and infiltration because that’s what they’re historically good at. They control insects. Think that might be useful in food production? If you can encourage pollination and keep harmful insects away without the use of chemicals isn’t that better for crops?”

 

“Disaster relief sure would be helpful if you could speak to and understand your canine partner like the Inuzuka. Hyuuga can see through things – disaster relief, again – or, how much more efficient would your medic or doctor be if they could just see the issue without having to resort to exploratory surgery? Which is what civilians have to do,” I add viciously because this one offends me on so many levels. “Mednin aren’t allowed to perform surgery on civilians. They have civilian surgeons who have to use machinery to see as best they can before just cutting into them and hopefully they can fix the issue. A good mednin could figure it out without having to wait for tests. A Hyuuga mednin could do it better.”

 

Orochimaru’s eyebrows have damn near disappeared into his hairline they’ve gone up at each name dropped. I don’t know what he was expecting but clearly my answer wasn’t it.

 

Being that my next complaint involves mental health and Yamanaka, I decide to shut up quickly. Because mental health and Orochimaru? I slide my sword away and cross my arms, looking away to end the conversation before I get worked up enough to say anything else stupid. I can’t help the quick, “to say nothing of your average shinobi’s ability to literally manipulate the elements at the drop of a pin.”

 

“Let me be clear,” he says finally. It’s a lot flat and a little incredulous. “You went into the Diplomatic Corps because you object to shinobi…being shinobi?”

 

“I’m not naïve; there will always be violence and there are always going to need to be people who can deal with that,” I say sharply. “I just don’t think it should be our first step. And I don’t think every kid who can manipulate chakra should be shoehorned into it before they’re old enough to know better.”

 

“You’re a pacifist.

 

“I prefer pragmatic, if we’re looking for adjectives,” I sniff. “But I don’t see pacifism as an insult either way.”

 

“An Uchiha with a fully-formed sharingan that no one knows about and a pacifist,” he says and now there’s a sort of twisted delight hovering around the edge of his voice. “You’re enough of a genius to graduate with the Uchiha’s prodigy heir and you’ve been smart enough to avoid being noticed.”

 

“To be fair,” I say warily, “you noticed.”

 

He laughs. “Yes, after you used your sharingan openly.” He leers at me. “Hokage-sama and those fool Uchiha elders have no idea what a gem they’ve produced. You should really allow me to take you on as an student, Aiko-chan. I could turn you into something truly great; enough to make those changes you want so badly.”

 

“I don’t want to be great,” I say and he falters ever so fractionally. “And I don’t believe in ruling by might. Leaders are supposed to serve their people – it’s hard to do that if you have to crush them to get there.”

 

He heaves a dramatic sigh and looks at me from behind his long bangs. “Such an idealist, Aiko-chan.”

 

“Someone has to be,” I mutter and turn away from his piercing stare.

 

“If you ever change your mind,” he says and waves an airy hand dismissively. “But that’s enough for today. Your shadow is surely looking for you by now.”

 

Now that I’m able to tear my attention away from the sannin, I can hear what must be Shisui’s crows calling out (the patterns are too regular to be anything but signals; I know seriously too much about bird noises since signing my contract). No one with any sense actually bites their thumb every time they want to summon a contract beast – you just build up callouses that way and make it way more difficult each successive time – but my hair spikes aren’t poisoned today so I prick a finger on one of the points and summon Kikyo.

 

“Aiko-san,” she says politely and peers over at Orochimaru, assessing, before deciding she wasn’t pulled out for combat and turning back to me.

 

“Go tell Shisui-kun I’ll meet him at home,” I’m hyper-aware of Orochimaru lingering as if to see me off. Kikyo and Kagome have a handful of human words they ‘know’ as far as anyone else is concerned. They use ridiculously croaky voices to say them to continue playing up the idea of Kuromaru being the intrepid corvid behind my contract. “Repeat.”

 

She looks over at Orochimaru again and then back to me. “Aiko-san okay. Home.” She says in a mix of clear on my name and croaky on the rest. She shuffles her wings restlessly and touches her beak to my hand before taking off.

 

I dip a shallow bow to the sannin and mumble, “Good evening Orochimaru-sama.” Then I chain-shunshin as far as I can until I can’t feel his chakra anymore.

 

“What kept you?” Shisui asks when I come in and find him setting out sukiyaki for dinner.

 

“Ran into someone I know from work,” I say evenly. “That smells great, where’d you get it?”

 

It’s enough to distract him and the subject is dropped.

 

Shisui goes back to his team the next week and I’m back to being alone in the apartment. The lingering unease of Orochimaru still coming round and coercing me into training with him has me taking more and more missions out-of-village. It’s mostly courier work, but on one occasion I get to ride as escort with a load of vegetables going to market one town over.

 

Yukari winces a little when she hands me the assignment. “They’d send a team for this sort of thing, normally,” her voice is apologetic. “But they’ve already had a chunin out clearing the area of bandits so there should only be stragglers if there are any at all. The merchant we’re escorting is doing this as a trial run; if we impress them, then they’re willing to open negotiations with the village. It’s not exactly prime goods you’ll be protecting – just produce – but it’s a chance and that’s what matters.”

 

The civilians aren’t exactly thrilled that a nine year old is the only guard they’ve been given but all I have to say to their complaints is, “I’ve been a shinobi for almost two years now.” That quiets them but they still look uneasy and try to insist on my sleeping at night and letting them take their own watches.

 

“No need,” I say calmly as I settle a double false surroundings genjutsu over the camp and the various traps I’ve set up along the perimeter. In the low evening light, Kuromaru’s eyes glint when he lands heavily on my shoulder with a harsh cry. “Kuromaru will keep watch while I take a nap. Shinobi are trained to operate on minimal sleep; you needn’t stress yourselves with a watch at all.”

 

 They grumble but under my unyielding stare and the light pressure of my chakra unfurling into the night air they all settle in for the night. The next morning I’m awake and idly scanning the maps for likely ambush sites based on the intel of how the main bandit camps had scattered from the previous chunin teams. They seem surprised that I’m awake but the judgemental stares stop and I’m left, for the most part, to sit on the rear wagon and stretch my awareness as far back as I can. Kuromaru is scouting ahead and will warn me of anything coming and, anyway, the wagon train is only three wagons long – it’s not exactly hard to cover that distance even if I couldn’t just shunshin there.

 

It’s partway through the second day of travel that Kuromaru alerts me to trouble. I move to the front wagon and signal for a halt when we come across a poorly done roadblock. The logs across the road are an obstacle, sure, but not when the land to either side of the road is hard-packed earth from the lack of rain recently. The trees here are sparse enough that the six men that emerge are visible long before they actually line up in front of the roadblock.

 

Their armour is a weird mix-up of pieces in metal and leather. One guy, the leader I assume, has the most complete set of proper metal; chest-piece, bracers and gloves, greaves and boots, and a round little helmet. None of the others have a chest-piece, but they all wear sturdy leather. The clearly got themselves outfitted outside legal means.

 

Thankfully, none of them register on my senses as anything other than non-shinobi. That makes everything so much easier.

 

“You seem to be in the way of the road,” I say loudly, hopping down from the wagon and walking forward. I don’t rest a hand on my sword the way they all are and I make sure to pointedly look at each one who tightens their grip for a long moment before I speak again. I tuck my hands behind my back casually – going for the standard at-ease most soldiers or combat-trained civilians learn. They all relax, exactly as I expected, and smirk at each other as if they’d accomplished something. “I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

 

“No chance of that, girl.”

 

I tilt my head enough that I can catch the light off my hitai-ate. A couple of them hesitate when they see the Konoha insignia but the leader just scowls and steps forward aggressively, hovering threateningly in the edge of polite space. “I really must insist,” I say.

 

“And I have to insist you hand over anything of value and then turn around and go back the way you came. Maybe we’ll be polite and not even rough you up too bad, since you’re just a kid and all.”

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Bandits rank at about a dedicated duck on the threat-level for a fully-trained genin. To be fair, six on one does up that difficulty.

 

It’s marginally more difficult to do signs upside down and behind your back but snake and rat are just two signs and I smile as I announce “Narakumi no jutsu,” and watch their eyes all glaze over as my chakra settles around them as gentle as rain. The hell-viewing technique is a supplementary technique since most shinobi of any decent level can shake it off no problem.

 

Civilians with no access to their chakra have no ability to do so. They can only wait for it to run its course. I’m maybe layering it on a little thickly because none of them are screaming or crying out but they’re sweating and positively white with fear and a couple of them fall to their knees. I think one even loses control of his bladder. I’ve got it locked down enough that even physical reactions are being squashed under the paralyzing effect of my chakra.

 

Uchiha aren’t just feared for our sharingan, after all.

 

“Please go ahead,” I instruct the wagons behind me. I keep an eye on the men before me and a tight hold on my chakra. “I’ll catch up and Kuromaru will let you know if there’s anything else ahead.”

 

Six-on-one brings them up to maybe a pair of dedicated geese. I wait for the wagons to get around the logs and a fair distance down the road before I let up on the narakumi no jutsu.

 

Kudos to the leader for recovering quickly; he shakes his head as if that will help and as soon as he sees me he pulls out his sword wildly – scraping it off the scabbard in a cringe-worthy move – and screams, “You little bitch!” as he lunges for me.

 

I’d like to say I considered letting him live – that I made an actual decision – but what happens next is pure instinct after months of being accosted by a sword-wielding sannin.

 

My sword finds its way to my hand even as I’m bending back in a perfect arch to avoid the wide strike, swinging my legs up to kick him in the face and arms. I can hear the sword fall and when I twist at the height of what’s basically a one-armed handstand, I bring my body back down with enough momentum that my extended blade goes straight up through his jaw and into his skull, popping his helmet off comically. I sink into a low crouch and the blade comes cleanly out and he falls back – the spray of blood flying above my head and then straight up as he hits the ground.

 

It happens in a matter of seconds. I don’t even notice flowing into the next form, hamstringing the man to his immediate right, and then springing up behind two others.

 

They get with the program pretty quickly, to their credit, but by the end of the next few minutes I’m standing with blood splattered on my face and one arm, and the remaining two still breathing but terrified bandits dropping their weapons, shouting about yielding and never doing it again, and taking off into the underbrush.

 

Just like that I’ve made my first kills. I expect to feel freaked out but instead I just feel…numb. A bit of water from my flask rinses off the blood on my blade and I wipe it dry with a rag I pull out of my supplies pouch before sheathing it again. I’m left staring at four dead bodies scattered around me and…

 

Well, when faced with your first state-sanctioned murder at least there’s protocol to fall back on.

 

Disposing of the bodies is a fairly simple katon jutsu that even my katon-challenged self can manage. I have body-scrolls for sealing high-value bodies but bandits certainly don’t warrant that. I gag a little dragging the heavy bodies into a pile and then setting them off. It’s basically a flash-cremation – useful for disposing of bodies but useless in combat. It basically fills chakra pathways with fire and incinerates them from the inside out but it needs empty pathways – something you aren’t going to find in a living creature.

 

Soon all that’s left of my first kills is a sooty spot in the gravel of the road. I make a notation on my map to have someone sent out to clear the huge logs out of the way, and then catch up to the wagons.

 

Kuromaru casts a gimlet eye over me and I realize abruptly that the vaguely horrified looks I’m getting are for the blood on my face. “It’s not mine,” I hurry to assure them only to consider that perhaps that’s not comforting. I smile tightly and grab a facecloth out of my bag to clean up as best I can as I retake my spot at the rear of the train – stretching out my senses once more and pointedly refusing to dwell on any feelings I may or may not have regarding the four human beings I’d killed and burned back on the road just a few minutes ago.

 

The rest of the mission goes smoothly. We make the village and the head of the merchants assures me they will definitely consider trade with Konoha. Travel back at an easy lope takes half the time and even though it gives me more time to linger over my first kill I remain eerily numb.

 

To be honest, I’m pretty much terrified that when it sinks in that I’ll crash hard.

 

Turning in my report this time gets a little more complicated.

 

“I’ll need an After Action Debrief for this one,” I tell Yukari when she looks up from her work to see me still standing in front of her desk after handing in my paperwork. She looks a little bit stunned and scans my report immediately while I painfully resist the urge to wring my hands (or worse, start picking at my nails which is a habit I thought I’d kicked Before but had clearly followed me now). I can see when she gets to the part about the bandits in the report so I add, “Multiple disposals.”

 

The jargon we use to avoid the reality of murder and dead bodies is both frightening and relieving. It sounds so clinical and boring I can almost pretend I haven’t turned an entire lifetime’s worth of morals on its head and spat on them too.

 

“This is your first, isn’t it?” Yukari asks – not gently, but with a sort of soft professionalism. I don’t think I could have stood it if she’d been more kind about it. “Will you require any additional meetings?”

 

We don’t have counsellors, not really, but we do have the ability to walk through our kills with a higher ranked shinobi who will assure us that it was both necessary and understandable. Apparently that works, for the most part, in the sense that we manage to not off ourselves out of guilt and continue to take missions and kill again. The indoctrination in the shinobi villages is truly amazing, if I’m being honest.

 

“Just the debrief will be fine,” I say. I don’t want to hear someone justify my kills to me. I already know they would have hurt me, that we’d already killed the rest of their gang, and that if I hadn’t they could have continued to threaten others on the road. I know all that and I also know that my genjutsu would have been enough to scare them off; killing them was a knee-jerk reaction to being attacked and that makes it worse. Because I want my first instinct to not be lethal force and there’s nothing I can do about it now.

 

I’ve never felt more separated from my life Before than I do right now.

 

“Well then,” she says and closes the file to give me her undivided attention. “Report, Aiko-san.”

Chapter Text

Following my first kills, Yukari insists on putting me on at least a month of in-village missions.

 

“You don’t have a team to fall back on,” she says, “So you’ll have the month of downtime to reflect before you can go back on outside missions. It’s standard protocol.”

 

 Excellent. More time to ruminate over everything.

 

Kuromaru doesn’t understand my guilt over the killing. Or, rather, my guilt at feeling a lack of guilt. He shuffles his wings at me and absently preens as I try to focus on the minutiae of sharpening shuriken to take my mind off it. “They would have hurt you,” he says, head tilted curiously. “Your reaction was perfectly in form.”

 

“I know that,” I mutter darkly. “But I’ve only barely had trouble sleeping over this; most of my nightmares are still…” My death. Okaasan’s death. Orochimaru on the rare occasion.

 

“Those are more personal,” he says – correctly guessing where my mind had gone. He’s been responsible for talking me down often enough in the middle of the night.

 

“More personal than killing someone?”

 

Kuromaru huffs. “Why don’t you talk to your cousins then?”

 

“How is that going to help?”

 

“They come to you for their problems,” he snaps. “Make them return the favour.”

 

  My cousins are training almost constantly with their teams and on their own in preparation for the chunin exams. Even when they train with me, the intensity has become a bit much. Considering I’m actually an adult, with an adult’s ability to handle and compartmentalize stress, it’s quite a bit much.

 

“I’ll think about it.”

 

Instead of keeping to my word, I take my work and find an excuse to take myself down into the records room. With Itachi and Shisui on their way to chunin, it’s starting to become imperative that I begin preparing for the future.

 

Step one of my plan involves changing my name.

 

Not right away, but I want to make sure I can carry it off without a hitch.

 

The records for the genin corps are pretty much guarded by whichever unlucky chunin has been relegated to desk duty in the basement. Any shinobi can access genin records because there’s generally nothing of value in them. If there is, then they get classified and stored in the T&I and Intelligence archives instead of the general ones. The village keeps record of every student that graduates the Academy – in case they quit, in case they fail their placement test from their jounin sensei, in case they take an apprenticeship or posting in the corps – so there’s actually a lot of files in the general archives.

 

My file is located here. I’ve done nothing notable to require it getting moved; killing a handful of bandits doesn’t count because every genin is going to rack up kills eventually. We may be considered the nice village but we’re still just glorified soldiers. Even killing them solo isn’t too much of a surprise. Most of the Academy classes are still heavily geared toward a war mindset; I’ve been hearing talk of redoing the curriculum now that outright war is over but it hadn’t been implemented when I was there. This barely post-war generation of graduates I belong to are definitely more lethal than the proposed changes will leave the main timeline kids.

 

It has occurred to me that the Massacre and subsequent clipping of the curriculum will leave that generation woefully underprepared for the trials ahead. I can’t even remember when they make their first kills – if they do so at all. Presumably they do, but my memory isn’t perfect and it’s not like I can just look it up.

 

My file, like every genin’s, also lists every file that my name is listed in and their locations. If I ever get promoted, it needs to be easy to find everything that could be stolen or used against me or the village and get it moved into classified archives.

 

Uchiha Aiko has Academy records (located in the Academy archives which are available to everyone), my genin file, as well as citizenship papers in the diplomatic archives. My name is also listed as the sole heir to my grandparents’ estate on their Wills (legal department) and as an emergency contact at the hospital, as well as on my mother’s death certificate (also at the hospital). The Konoha Bank also has paperwork with my name but, since I’ve been promoted to genin, all that gets stored in my genin file.

 

All of these are very easily accessible – less so the hospital, but not beyond my reach, by any means – and also only very rarely actually checked by anyone but other genin.

 

Since it takes only the briefest of glances to memorize everything, I linger around a little and cross reference any recent graduates with any influential merchant families who aren’t native to Konoha. Its information the diplomatic corps might need, but not strictly necessary for any of my assignments. Still, it’s both convincing and boring enough that the chunin on duty makes a face and leaves me at a desk with hardly a backward glance.

 

See, here’s the thing. Uchiha Aiko can’t exist by the time the massacre rolls around. I mean, even assuming I survive, I’ll lose access to my bank account and my ID number will be flagged as deceased so I won’t be able to take any missions without revealing myself.

 

My grand plan is to literally change my name on my records. The only people who know me closely are all either doomed to die, or aren’t about to drag me out into the spotlight any time soon. None of my coworkers in the Corps even remember I’m an Uchiha; I don’t look like one and I’ve been introducing myself solely by my first name for years now. Mostly people just assume I’m one of the many orphans of war and the kyuubi and go on their way.

 

It feels terrible to admit, but Uchiha Kouga and Uchiha Hitomi – my doting grandparents – are the biggest problem. I’m going to need my inheritance from them to outright buy a new apartment in case Itachi decides to check my current one and to supplement my income when I’m inevitably forced to lay low on any of the out-of-village (and therefore more expensive) missions immediately following the Massacre.

 

“Slow poison,” Kuromaru suggests helpfully when I propose my problem to him.

 

“I’m not poisoning my grandparents,” I hiss at him.

 

“It’s the only way to guarantee they die before anything happens,” he argues practically. “Your ojiisan is a retired shinobi; he’s healthy enough to live a long life, even if your obaasan doesn’t.”

 

It’s absolutely infuriating and my annoyance over the whole situation puts my guilt over state-sanctioned murder on the backburner while I tackle the problem at hand.

 

Changing the records to have a different last name isn’t going to be a problem. Once I copy them with the sharingan, I can recreate them perfectly – down to the last smudge of ink or imperfection in the page. Despite the existence of things like televisions, radio, wireless communicators and cameras, shinobi absolutely do not have anything like a computer. It doesn’t even exist – at least, not in any recreational form that I’m familiar with. All records are exclusively paper – nothing digital to trip me up or flag anything as off if I mess up. As long as no one catches me swapping files, no one will ever know. We’re paranoid enough to not even bother to put cameras in our records room; that’s why we have a chunin guard or the secured archives you need have special clearance to access.

 

It’s maddeningly inefficient and ridiculous to my futuristic always-online Before self, but I can appreciate the delightful simplicity and security to be found in keeping things analog.

 

It smarts, but I can admit that.

 

 I’ve started getting all my pay in cash, sealed away under Kagome and Kikyo’s wing-band hitai-ate. The most difficult part in doing so had been carving the correct sealing array with the zero room for error an etching requires versus a multitude of blank scrolls. A portion of my pay goes automatically to the Uchiha coffers, of course, but everything else I’ve been splitting between cash in the seals and my personal accounts still under Uchiha Aiko’s name.

 

It’s not so much that I don’t trust the bank as it is I don’t trust my ability to survive the Massacre just yet. It’s a lot easier to disappear from the village if I have money stored away than it is to run off in the middle of the night with nothing. I’m hoping it doesn’t come down to that but there’s only so many contingency plans I can have going at once.

 

 “Are you sure I can’t tempt you into making a showing in the exams?” Orochimaru is lounging idly on a tree branch, long limbs drooping like a willow, dressed in a silken green kimono with bright yellow and gold koi. “It wouldn’t be hard to produce a pair of genin to make up a team for you.”

 

I’ve got a pair of vipers large enough to eat a horse striking out and forcing me to dodge in increasingly complex maneuvers. Orochimaru has both my kodachi and my tanto slipped into his obi and refuses to return them.

 

Without Itachi or Shisui training with me, Orochimaru has more time to corner me. The chunin exams approaching means most of the Diplomatic Corps work has trickled down to nothing. The exams are more than just a chance to showcase our shinobi to the various lords and daimyo; they’re also one of the only times we can enter other countries to make deals or foster connections with only the mildest retaliations. My department is in a weird holding state until the cards all settle after the exams. As the most junior member, I get dropped from shifts before the senior members even if my month of downtime is over.

 

“You really can’t, Orochimaru-sama,” I slip under one of the vipers and strike out with a bare hand to jab the other in the throat mid-lunge. It recoils with an angry hiss while the other turns back round to follow in a swaying curve. “I’m perfectly content where I am.”

 

He makes a disgruntled noise and flings an arm back dramatically – long sleeves swishing – to slide a hand under his head. “Content with mediocrity.”

 

“It’s not like I can’t improve,” I take a chance and leap to avoid the next strike and narrowly avoid the kunai he flings at me in reprimand for going outside the range of the style. “I just don’t do so openly. It’s not a bad thing, to be unknown.”

 

“Certainly,” he allows with a narrow side-eye. “I suppose I simply want to display my work in its best light.”

 

My work, Orochimaru-sama,” I return as sharply as I dare, “Though under your gracious tutelage.”

 

He preens just a touch even through the tightening of displeasure around his mouth. I’ve pretty much confirmed by now that Orochimaru has desperately wanted another genin team after the success of his first. He can’t exactly hide the hints of wistfulness and resentment whenever he’s training me from my sharingan and its red-stained view. I’m sure he’s still training Anko too, because his patience with me is always thinner and shorter after he’s been with her. My not-so-expert opinion is he can only take so many reminders of the Hokage’s lack of faith in one day.

 

“Aiko-chan,” he says on a sigh, “I think I’ll look back on you in the future and lament the wasted potential.”

 

“One can only hope not,” I say with a smile that feels so faked. “But not today?”

 

“No,” he agrees. “Not today. Go through that set again, faster this time.”

 

A month of ambushes disguised as training, a dwindling supply of work, and anxiety surrounding my increasingly complex contingency plans while contemplating my potential future death, and then the exams end and the teams return to Konohagakure.

 

Shisui and Itachi are officially chunin and I’m running out of time.

 

“You could’ve done it, Aiko-chan,” Shisui says to me when he shows up with celebratory mochi and Itachi in tow. “The Suna shinobi were the most vicious but I’m pretty sure you play dirtier when it comes down to it.”

 

“I’m not sure if I should take offense to that or not,” I step back to let them both in, “Congratulations on your promotions though.”

 

“He’s delusional,” Itachi says quietly, humour tilting the corners of his lips just slightly, “it was the Kumo-nin that were the worst. It’s telling that he thought those second-rate Suna-nin were the worst, however.”

 

“Hey!”

 

I laugh and it’s genuine for the first time in what feels like a long while. “You’ll have to tell me the truth then, Itachi-kun, while this fool cousin of ours tells his tales.” Then, softer, “I’ve missed you.”

 

He reaches out to squeeze my hand, dark eyes warm and mildly concerned. “You too,” he says quietly. He’s kind enough not to press but I’m pretty sure I’m going to have one of his rare bouts of concerned hovering to deal with in the next couple days.

 

“I’m going to eat all of this if you don’t hurry up and stop whispering over there,” Shisui calls from the couch.

 

“Go ahead; get fat to match your ego.”

 

He yelps and I prod him with a toe to make space to sit, eliciting a noise like a squeak that he tries to cover with a cough. Itachi’s quiet breath of laughter follows while he settles into my squashy armchair.

 

“After I went out of my way to bring you a present too,” Shisui huffs and pulls out a scroll, dangling it tauntingly just out of my reach.

 

I don’t actually make any attempt to take it, just track his hand with my eyes and try to figure out what it is. The rollers are made of wood that can be found pretty much anywhere – besides which, I’m not exactly an arborist to be able to tell what it is at a glance – but the ends are blue-grey with a faded symbol I can’t make out. Still it’s enough to make a guess on.

 

“Did you steal something from a Kirigakure team? Water release for your favourite cousin?”

 

He rolls his eyes and hands over the scroll. “Take all the fun out of it. Yeah, looks like some of their supplementary jutsu; kid was an idiot to carry it around. Not sure how he managed to graduate with that level of skill.”

 

“Poison,” Itachi says knowingly. “We ran into them too. Wasn’t fast enough for the poison to make a difference though.”

 

“Hiding in Mist, Hiding in Water, and mizu bunshin,” I read out, scanning the contents with my sharingan. “Supplementary and a C-rank.”

 

“It’s just a clone,” Shisui scoffs. “Hardly even counts as a real C-rank.”

 

“It’s still a nature transformation,” Itachi says in the mildest form of disagreement possible.

 

“More importantly, water release techniques,” I say. “Ones we don’t teach in Konoha and that are almost exclusive to Kiri. Shisui, you’re fantastic.”

 

He preens and Itachi tosses one of my throw pillows at his head. “Don’t be smug,” he says. Then, to me, “Would you like to hear about the suna-nin taijutsu? It seems very similar to what you’ve been developing.”

 

Right. Because no one knows that Orochimaru has been assaulting me with tutelage. The only conclusion my cousin could come to for my new style is to assume I’m developing it myself. It’s flattering and patently untrue.

 

“Sure,” I say brightly, smiling to cover the unease even just thinking about the sannin causes, “I’m assuming you copied it too? To demonstrate?”

 

 Suna taijutsu is sinuously smooth with darting strikes – very similar to the snake forms I’ve been learning but without the emphasis on movement at the last possible second. We abscond with a thermos of tea to the small garden on the roof of my building. The tall potted trees and the trellis of vines provide enough privacy from random shinobi sweeps through the village that I don’t mind following along with Itachi’s demonstration – sharingan spiralling lazily as I laugh a little at the soft disgruntled noise my cousin makes when I slip into the forms more easily than he does.

 

“You haven’t been focussing on flexibility, cousin,” I say as I spin through the movements easily – correctly identifying where he isn’t able to make the full reach of some of the motions and smiling at the narrowness of his eyes as he pauses to watch. Shisui laughs and trades places with Itachi, slipping into following me through the set. “You copied this from a kunoichi, I think.”

 

“I did,” Itachi agrees, quietly surprised, while he pours his own measure from the thermos.

 

“It’s the footwork,” I tell him, “the steps are smaller than you make them, and the arm movements are larger. I imagine she had long sleeves? Maybe even wore a long kimono outright.”

 

“Yes,” his expression clears. “Like dancing, I see.”

 

“Exactly!” I grin at Shisui when he stumbles a little trying to shorten his stride. “It’s a style meant for kunoichi, sorry Itachi-kun. I’m sure you could master it, but it would be easier with a long skirt and sleeves and I’m not sure Uchiha-sama would approve.”

 

“I’m glad you can make use of it at least,” Itachi says, dark eyes warm and calm as he peers at Shisui and I.

 

My cousins being chunin means they tend to be sent out on more dangerous missions. They’re both dangerous and graduated so rapidly and early that there’s no way the Hokage is going to let their skills stagnate giving them lower-ranked missions to ease them into their new positions.

 

As such, I don’t actually see much of my cousins in the months after their promotions. That celebratory night of easy ribbing was the last time I can remember spending actual proper time with them just goofing around and not training. Itachi at least bothers to send a crow with a letter every once in a while, but Shisui can go long stretches of weeks with not even a brief glimpse of him around Hokage tower.

 

It means Orochimaru can corner me more easily. How he’s managed to take as much of an interest in me without arousing suspicion is beyond my ability. I’m mostly resigned to it at this point; the sannin seems convinced that if he figures out the right thing to say, he can convince me to give up my comfortable place in Diplo and…join him? Rise through the ranks?

 

I’m not sure what he’s hoping for, to be honest. My best guess is he’d like to consider me for a host (I’m very positive he’s still in his original body) but needs at least nominal permission to have the technique work. At least, based on my memories of canon and his bouts of frustration when I don’t rise to the goading to accept his help beyond the training he literally won’t let me get away from.

 

“You could put yourself into the running for next Hokage with the right work,” he tells me. “That heir of your clan is put forth constantly for promotion; it’s clear what his parents are grooming him for.”

 

“Itachi-kun doesn’t want the hat either,” I say confidently to that particular verbal jab. “Key word is either; I don’t want to be Hokage. I don’t actually agree with totalitarian governmental systems.”

 

Sometimes he brings work with him and tosses inquiries out at me – puzzles and questions that make me think. He’ll read out results of tests and then ask what I think he was looking for.

 

“Sounds like chakra efficiency between complementary elemental affinities,” I say after one such session. He looks so pleased. “It’s interesting, I suppose. Shodaime-sama did combine earth and water for his mokuton and we’ve never properly figured that out.” I’m actually desperately curious about that – it seems to be a genetic thing but none of the Senju after him ever developed such a thing. Orochimaru eventually implants his cells into shinobi to make it work but just having cells from another person, even DNA, shouldn’t be enough to make a genetic ability work. There’s clearly more to it; personally I suspect something to do with natural chakra.

 

“If you left Diplo, I could get you set up with a lab and you could look into such things to your heart’s content.”

 

“It’s interesting,” I say again, and slide around his next strike, grunting when his kick impacts anyway and sends me sliding back in the dirt. “But I’m not really all that good with lab-work or research, if we’re being truthful Orochimaru-sama. I really do like Diplo.”

 

His sighs are always so artful even in the midst of a spar. The hands that capture my wrists and slide down my arms to readjust my stance are spine crawlingly awful. I hold the correct stance picture perfect until he stops touching me. He takes position again and strikes out – this time when I slide around his strike I also manage to catch his kick and flip into a new sequence without pause.

 

“You’re wasted in that backroom department,” he says and his next strike comes with a hidden kunai I just barely deflect to the side.

 

“I chose that backroom department.”

 

“More’s the pity.”

 

I hold up a hand in a gesture for a pause. “Orochimaru-sama, is there a point to this?”

 

I don’t train with the sannin without the sharingan active, so I can see the tightness of his expression – the hints of smugness and upset mingled. If my timelines are straight in my head (its entirely likely they aren’t but I’m pretty much resigned to having to guess everything at this point) then he’s due to be run out of the village pretty much any day now. I’ve been waiting for the announcement to trickle down the grave-vine of gossip for weeks.

 

“You know what I’ve been working on,” he says finally. His gaze feels like a physical weight pinning me in place. “You’re far more intelligent and observant than you would have anyone believe; I think you know exactly what I’ve been up to.”

 

I know what you’re up to because I know everything. But sure… “I could make an educated guess, I suppose,” I hedge uncertainly.

 

“You know,” he says, eyes glittering, “and you continue to allow our sessions.”

 

I had a choice in these? I try to keep the incredulous skepticism off my face and turn my eyes away from him. “You’re the last loyal sannin,” I say finally. “I’d be an idiot to turn away any instruction you decide to give. As far as your work goes…” I absolutely cannot justify it in any way shape or form.

 

“Yes?”

 

“I imagine Hokage-sama granted you permission at first,” thank god for shinobi conditioning to stop my anxiety from showing outwardly, “It’s no secret that they gave you prisoners during the last war.”

 

“And now?” he prods.

 

“Do we really need to discuss this?” I ask instead.

 

He stares at me implacably and doesn’t speak.

 

“Hokage-sama is your sensei,” I blurt finally, frustrated and scared, “if I can see clan-shinobi in the work you willingly let some random genin look through then so can he. If he can’t, then he’s not looking at it but someone has to – the council, probably - which leads me to think that one of them knows and is enabling you or, at least, not actively hindering you.”

 

His smile is so proud I have to look away. “Could you make a guess?” he asks leadingly

 

“I would really rather not,” I say and flick a glance back at him and then away again. “Orochimaru-sama, I don’t know where you’re going with this but if we could get to the point of this conversation sooner rather than later I would really appreciate it.”

 

“Make a guess.”

 

“Not Utatane-sama,” I say eventually when it becomes apparent Orochimaru really won’t move on until I say something. I try to inject as much finality into my answer as possible. I absolutely do not want to say Danzo’s name out loud.

 

“Aiko-chan you are so much more intelligent than you allow yourself credit for,” he’s practically crooning at me, leaning into my space and smiling at me. “Let me teach you properly.”

 

“I was under the impression that Hokage-sama wasn’t allowing you to take another team.”

 

“He won’t,” he agrees. “But you’ve said time and again how you disagree with the way certain things are run in this village; what if that was no longer an issue?”

 

“I don’t see how it won’t be,” I say and then freeze at the pointed look he gives me. “Orochimaru-sama, I may disagree with some things but I gave my oath to this village when I became a genin.”

 

“As did I. But if the village consistently lets you down…”

 

“Then my oath still stands,” I say sharply. He blinks slowly, a dangerous shutter of his eyes, and I twist my lips and look away submissively. “If I can’t be trusted to keep my oaths, then I can’t expect my village to do the same. And I do think it can change just…perhaps not under this Hokage.” I glance at him quickly and he’s watching me carefully. “He’s named a successor before, he’ll have to do so again and if history has shown us anything it’s that he’ll lean toward a younger successor; I’m not worried about…certain people becoming Hokage.”

 

“You are perhaps the only person I know who isn’t referring to me when they say something like that,” he says on a sigh. “So I couldn’t convince you to join me?”

 

“I made an oath,” I repeat with a measure of apology. “Please understand, Orochimaru-sama, I don’t give my word unless I mean it. I don’t even like to lie.”

 

“Just not tell the whole truth,” he says knowingly. “I’ve noticed.”

 

“I’m sorry, Orochimaru-sama,” I murmur. I even genuinely mean it at least a little. The lost opportunity, the tragic backstory that led him to this place, Danzo – it’s all enough for my sympathy, though not my understanding.

 

“Don’t be sad, Aiko-chan,” he says and draws me in with an arm over my shoulder to hug me against his side. I don’t return the embrace but I allow him to take at least part of my weight by leaning into him slightly. “You’re an entirely too kind a soul to this old jounin,” he murmurs silkily. “I promise I won’t let anything touch you in the inevitable fallout.”

 

At least he’s honest about where his machinations are heading. I pull back enough to meet his gaze steadily, letting the sharingan bleed away. “I believe you, Orochimaru-sama.”

Chapter Text

It seems like a stupid idea, to trust Orochimaru, but it’s not really out of the realm of reasonable. He’s got a weird sort of…I hesitate to say honour, but something like that and something like pride. I don’t hear from him for an almost worryingly long time after that confrontation which is both relieving and anxiety-inducing.

In point of fact, I don’t hear from him at all. Just as I’d been waiting for, the rumour mill is astir one day. The high ranking shinobi have all closed ranks. It’s not in and of itself unusual to have the upper levels shut down on us – information and rumours both tend to follow rank with jounin knowing the most down to genin knowing the least. Still, if something is big enough it does eventually trickle down in its entirety – you just have to be patient.

The radio silence from the jounin has unsettled the chunin and they’re snappish with us lowly career genin as a result. It doesn’t take more than the morning though, for the first of the news to come out.

Orochimaru has left the village.

After that first bit, the rest spills out in a near torrent of whispers and furtive conversations. I sit in my office and keep an ear out for the murmurs.

Orochimaru was pursued from the village.

Hokage-sama chased him from the village.

He had a secret lab where he experimented on people.

Where he experimented on Clan people.

Clan children.

There’s only so long something like this can go without an official statement. The report comes out to each department and Yukari calls us all into the briefing room where she’s got pictures up and is waiting with a grim look.

I knew it was bad. I knew there would be children. But I don’t think I was prepared for exactly what I see.

“Orochimaru has been declared an S-rank missing-nin,” Yukari begins shortly. “I know he’s the last Sannin in the village but Hokage-sama has approved this briefing so that we all understand just how serious this is; we won’t be sending out hunter-nin for him. He’s too dangerous and having him out of the village is enough for the council and Hokage-sama.”

She continues to explain that the pictures up are the non-classified pictures which is…alarming on so many levels. I tune out the rest of the briefing to peer at them intently.

There’s one picture that catches my eye – at first I’m not quite sure what it is, just a jumble of flesh in weird proportions. It takes a minute for me to either accept what I’m seeing or to pick out enough detail to see what it is.

In tubs the hospital uses to dispose of biological waste, lined up neatly along a wall, discarded like so much garbage, are dead children. They’re naked and malformed – some look like they’ve been vivisected and stitched back up – and many of them are still sporting what look like PICC lines (semi-permanent ports threaded up through a vein for prolonged IV treatments). There are smears of blood and other substances streaking their skin and blurring the lines between one body and the next.

I knew about the children but these aren’t just children. These are babies. Not one looks old enough to be walking, let alone whatever Orochimaru had done to them. Most of them don’t even have a full head of hair yet.

These are the non-classified pictures. There are worse pictures somewhere in classified archives. There are things worse than a literal pile of dead babies.

We’re shinobi but we aren’t monsters. Some of us turn away and refuse to look, a couple people grab the nearest waste basket and straight up vomit. I’m standing in the middle of the group and wait for Yukari to finish. She does, with tears falling silently down her cheeks, and dismisses us – telling us we can take the day off if needed or visit with counsellors – before immediately going to her office and closing the door. There are quiet noises behind it and as much as I want to offer comfort, I just finish up with my open casework and then head off.

Babies. What use could he possibly get from babies? They aren’t developed enough to respond to tests with any coherency beyond crying or not crying. Plus it’s babies. He had children already why did he need babies too? Ruthless practicality, the scientist in me suggests in-utero genetic manipulation. There had been dead women in those pictures too – it isn’t beyond possibility.

Still, it’s horrific to contemplate and I throw myself into going through everything Orochimaru had taught me with a sort of single-minded intensity. I don’t want to think about him but his lessons were invaluable and I can’t go through the motions without the copied image of him in my head shadowing me.

It’s a desperate attempt to make his forms my own – to adjust them better for my strengths – and to separate them from his in such a way that I can put him as much from my mind as possible.

Itachi corners me during one such training session. “You’ve been avoiding us,” he says placidly. His eyes are sharingan red when I look up at him leaning against a nearby tree. It fades quickly when I steady my breathing and sheath my kodachi.

“Have I?” I ask and close my eyes, tipping my head back to let my long braid hang away from the sweaty back of my neck. “Or have you just been too busy for your favourite cousin? I understand being chunin has many more responsibilities.”

“Sasuke-kun has entered the Academy – my spare time belongs to him, most days,” Itachi says in not-quite apology.

It jolts me. “Has he? I hadn’t thought he was that old yet?”

He looks amused. “He is five now. It is the standard starting age.”

“What? No. It hasn’t been five years since we met.” I’m eleven? It doesn’t seem real but the math doesn’t lie. The whole idea of my physical age versus my mental is usually enough of a headache that I simply avoid thinking about it.

“I assure you it has,” Itachi sounds mildly amused.

“Well then,” I accept the arm he holds out as if to escort me as more of a crutch against the exhaustion pulling at my limbs than as the polite gesture it is, “I bow to your superior knowledge.”

His lips turn up fractionally and he takes more of my weight with a subtle grace I don’t bother to protest. I’ve probably been actively hurting myself with excessive training recently but there’s only so many out-of-village missions I can take on my own and I’m still hesitant to make any connections with other shinobi in taking joint missions. I cast a cursory look at my cousin and linger on the lines near his eyes and the unusual pallid pallor to his already pale skin; I’m not the only one pushing myself.  

Tsunade never stuck around long enough to see her dream of a medic for every team but her initial push for it had ended up with the Academy taking the time to send a mednin over to teach those of us with above-average chakra control a handful of fairly simple techniques. 

I can mould healing chakra and use it to mend small cuts in flesh provided there aren’t any major arteries or muscles damaged too. I can also do a basic scan – I can’t interpret much beyond not-okay without actually looking at the damage with my actual eyes but I don’t need much more than that for what I do next.  

Itachi is a paranoid little child soldier but he’s always relaxed his guard near Shisui and I. So he doesn’t immediately notice when I match my chakra wavelength to his as best I can and slip it into his system as gently and subtly as I’m able where I’m holding onto his arm still. I don’t need to go much farther than his arm, either, because my senses flicker roughly where I imagine a freshly inked ANBU tattoo would sit.  

He stiffens slightly when he notices but doesn’t pause in his walking. “I’m not injured,” he says mildly. 

I’m cautiously nonchalant when I return that nonsense with, “Does it count as an injury if it’s done deliberately?” 

Something in the line of his spine relaxes a little when I don’t demand anything else. He tugs me just close enough that I know it’s affectionate and not threatening and murmurs. “No, I don’t suppose it does.” 

“Be careful regardless,” I say. “Some injuries run deeper than you’d think.” 

He tilts his head – he knows me well enough to know that I avoid disparaging our elites no matter what my personal opinions are – and asks, “Tea? That little hole-in-the-wall you like so much.” 

It’s not that I like it so much as they’re the only place in the whole of Konoha who knows how to brew a proper cup of coffee – it’s more of a luxury item in this world so most places that even bother to carry it don’t make it often enough to make it taste any good. And why would they when most people prefer tea anyway and there’s so much more variety? 

Shin’s is almost a literal hole in a wall – it looks like someone converted a narrow bathroom extension out back of a building into a half-hearted walk up food stall. Shin (no last name, aged somewhere between thirty and seventy depending on the day, and almost as short as he is wide) runs the place with a silent grouchy intensity that stops him from having many repeat customers. He’s got a fairly heavy Kumo accent too which doesn’t help him much when he does bother to manage more than a handful of words.  

Either Shin’s way better off than his shitty little stall-shop suggests or having the stall-shop instead of an actual shop is funding his acquisitions. No matter what, I’m eternally thankful for the comfort of a familiar drink on those nights sleep doesn’t come. 

 Itachi offering to take me to Shin’s – where he knows his preferred tea will likely come burnt and over-steeped while I get to enjoy my perfectly brewed dark-roast – means he’s actually taking my words to heart. He wouldn’t dare mention my guilty pleasure of a shop otherwise since I will make him treat me and my coffee is almost twice the cost of a cup of really good tea.  

“You’re paying?” I ask cheerfully to the blink-and-you-miss-it distaste that pulls his lips back before he lets out a soft breath and nods silently. “Then yes, of course.” 

Shin scowls at Itachi when he orders green tea in the same breath as my order for the darkest roast he has but when he turns to me the scowl turns merely grumpy. “Got a special order,” he says, “Espresso. I’ll steam milk for you.” 

“Kami-sama bless you,” I murmur fervently when he hands over the most perfect latte I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. He grunts and busies himself rinsing off equipment and disposing of used grinds. Itachi’s gaze is flat but amused over his own cup as he dutifully hands over the cash when Shin growls the total in response to my words.

“So,” I say eventually after Itachi has followed my meandering to one of the few quiet parks in town, “Chunin working out well then? Uchiha-sama must be thrilled.” The emphasis is subtle to anyone who isn’t used to the taciturn ways of our clan. Itachi flicks a gentle admonishing look at me and I meet his eyes with a flat expression.

For all that I try not to think on it too often, it hasn’t escaped my notice that the Uchiha have been even more standoffish than they normally are. The handful of vendors who show up to Konoha’s general markets to represent various shops from the District have all but vanished in recent weeks. The Konoha Military Police Force has quietly slid through new regulations to stop non-Uchiha shinobi from joining – and that’s saying something considering we already make up 90% of the force. I haven’t visited my grandparents in months since they’ve started checking IDs at the gate to keep non-Clan members out. Obaasan and Ojiisan aren’t oblivious to the tension and graciously step out to visit with me at a rotating selection of restaurants instead of prodding me into coming to visit them at their shop.

The Uchiha Clan has been retreating and the disparaging rumours only get louder with each passing day. If Itachi has joined ANBU already then that means…

“How’s Shisui-kun been recently?”

“Well,” he says. “Though you could always stop by and visit him yourself.”

As far as I last heard, Shisui still lived in the District – though in one of the small efficiency apartments near the gates offered to Uchiha shinobi at a discount. “I might.” Not even if you paid me.

Itachi nudges me with an elbow; he knows exactly where my mind went. I flash him a grin and he just narrowly avoids rolling his eyes like the child he is. He takes a sip of tea to cover his slip and distaste skitters its way across dark eyes. My grin turns just slightly smug when my sip of coffee does nothing but go down smoothly – rich and delicious.

“Awful,” he mutters darkly and drops the mostly full cup in a bin as soon as we wander near one.

“Don’t ask for tea then.”

“Get better taste in drinks,” he returns. Then, goadingly, “Spar?”

“Show up to drag me from my perfectly good training ground and then corner me for your own gain. I see how it is.” I dodge the almost playful swipe aiming to trip me up and spill my cup. “Just for that we’re working on shurikenjutsu after.”

If he were any less a shinobi, I’m sure he would complain. His shurikenjutsu is the perfection most of us strive toward and an almost complete waste of his time – now, when his vision isn’t being ravaged by overuse of the mangekyou. Maybe he’ll need the training later but for now I’m the only one benefitting from a session focussed on them.

Still, my cousin is gracious enough to concede to my demands. The spar ends with him victorious – of course – though my kenjutsu has improved to the point that he admits I’m actually better with them.

“What? No I’m not,” I protest to that.

“You are,” he says placidly, mildly disapproving of my dismissal. “Perhaps not obviously, but your style is designed to be versatile around a blade, not just with one as a happy coincidence.”

I restrain the face I want to make. Goddamn Orochimaru and his fucking useful and versatile snake forms. Sure, I’ve been adjusting it to work better around my sharingan and being able to predict opponents’ next moves versus just reacting to them, but it’s still very much the sannin’s work. I wouldn’t have ever considered moving into kenjutsu beyond my tanto had I been given an actual choice. Konoha doesn’t have many shinobi interested in focussing on kenjutsu so there’s only so many people I can turn to for a good spar (even if I do have to curb my skill for most of them). It’s not the best way to stay unnoticed.

“You can just copy it though,” I point out.

He smiles slightly. “I’m not flexible enough; even if I was, you’re a better sensor than I am so it’s easier for you to keep track of enemies for those blind strikes.” When I’m twisting or bending away in some ridiculous and unnervingly boneless looking manner and not actually looking directly at my opponent. Orochimaru was always very clear that the unnaturalness was an important facet of the style – all good intimidation was.

“Still.”

“Take the compliment, Aiko-chan,” he murmurs and reaches out to touch my hand on the hilt of my bare kodachi. “Now, let me show you where your shurikenjutsu has gotten sloppy.”

His dig about visiting Shisui myself burns in the back of my skull for weeks. I find myself taking a closer and closer route to the District during my runs around the village. I watch as what used to be just a distant part of Konoha proper start turning into more of a compound. Sure, the Uchiha have always been more distant from the village but we weren’t actually fenced all the way in. The gate was more symbolic than anything else. Now it’s actually a gate. Walls are erected overnight and buildings are purchased and pulled down to create a clear distinction between Compound and Village.

The Uchiha stand alone.

I keep the sides of my head shaved obsessively short and my hair spikes are always poisoned now. I go out of my way and, shivering with anxiety and self-hatred the entire way, commission a merchant specialising in such things to catch me two of the most venomous snakes he can get. These are regular snakes, not summons, so I don’t know why I can’t separate them in my head from Orochimaru.

Still, the brown and cream striped mamushi and the yellow-brown spotted sakishima habu end up housed in a massive habitat spilt horizontally in two that ends up taking the place of my bookshelf and squashy chair. I put up shelves above my bed instead for any books and start keeping scrolls sealed away in other scrolls grouped by subject. Kuromaru takes one look at the two juvenile snakes and growls at me.

“Those eat birds, you know,” he snaps.

“They’re practically babies,” I return from where I successfully prove I’m both stronger and faster than a mamushi pissy about being removed from the big rock with the warming seal inked onto the bottom. I watch the rubber topped vial fill as I firmly press on the venom glands and milk my new pet for all it’s got. “Besides, I’m keeping them well fed on rodents – they aren’t going to go after you.”

“Why couldn’t you get spiders,” he whines, “there aren’t any of the common sorts big enough to eat me.”

These aren’t big enough to eat you, even fully grown.” I unlock the glass door and open the front of its enclosure and drop the snake back in. It coils angrily and tries to lunge but I’ve already got it locked back in. “Don’t give me that,” I scold absently and flicker out my chakra gently to up the output on its warming seal.

“Spiders,” Kuromaru continues as if I’d never spoken, “there’s way more of them and the smaller ones are the venomous ones. No need for this…thing, taking up valuable perch space.”

“Not in two lifetimes,” I say darkly. I’d run screaming Before; now, I’ve been conditioned not to react to stressors like fear so while I’m still afraid of them on an almost preternatural level I don’t do much more than curl my lip and try to avoid them if possible or suffer silently if I can’t.

Now, armed with venom vials alongside paralytics and the highest grade poison you can get from the shinobi shops, I feel a tiny bit like I’m preparing for war. I’ve got senbon hidden in the sleeves of my coat, spikes in my hair, tanto at the small of my back, kodachi on my hip, kunai and shuriken in the holster on my thigh. There’s exploding tags and smoke bombs, a nearly mednin-level field kit, shinobi wire, whetstone and even a basic sealing kit complete with blank paper tags, inkstone, inkstick, and brush all housed in my supply pouch just below my tanto.

I’d feel paranoid if I didn’t know how things were going to turn out.

Eventually I suck it up and swing by the Distr…Compound now. The Uchiha Compound. It’s evening and I’m already done my workouts. Shisui’s building has an attendant who grudgingly tells me which apartment is his but only after he peers intently at my shinobi ID.

“Really?” I snatch it back. “How do you think I got in here in the first place if the Gate didn’t already confirm I’m Uchiha?”

He sniffs and looks down his nose at me. Bold little civilian to stare down a shinobi. I narrow my eyes and start to let the beginnings of intent furl into the air when a hand clamps down on my shoulder accompanied by a familiar flare of chakra that has me settling almost immediately and sagging to the side into Shisui’s warmth.

“I’ve got it,” he tells the attendant firmly. “Though, in the future, you might not want to irritate a kunoichi.” His killing intent is a sharp deadly flash I almost miss for how tightly he focusses it on the man. I take a guilty pleasure at the way he freezes like a deer caught in headlights.

The hand on my shoulder trails down my spine and flicks my long spiked braid out of the way to curl warmly around my hip. He steers me a way with a jaunty wave of his free hand.

“Aiko-chan,” my cousin says softly, “it’s been a while.”

“I suppose,” I say. “I didn’t want to bother you; you’ve been busy, I hear.” The deliberate brush of my chakra against his system finds the faint vanishing flickers of his almost completely healed ANBU tattoo.

I can see the smile out of my peripherals. “Too clever by half,” he says cheerfully. “Kuromaru-san complained you acquired some new pets last time he dropped a letter here.”

“Perfectly safe,” I assure him with a wry twist to my mouth I can’t help. “You should come by and see them some time.”

“If it’s all the same to you,” he says and opens the door to his floor, “I think I’ll wait until I’m not due to head out for a mission. My crows won’t take kindly to helping out if I smell like I’ve been visiting with snakes.”

The efficiency apartments are vaguely dorm-like. There’s one large bathroom with stalls for showers and toilets, a huge shared kitchen and laundry room for the whole floor, and then the actual bedrooms that are being rented – all with individual locks. Shisui leads me to his room, unlocks it and performs a couple rapid-fire seals to disarm his traps (no good shinobi trusts just the standard deadbolt), then ushers me in.

There’s really only room for a bed, a narrow side-table, a trunk, and some wall-shelves. Being that it’s a building for active shinobi, there’s obviously a window dominating one wall, but beyond that it’s…

“And I thought my place was small,” I have to say, shooting an amused Shisui a quick look in apology.

“Your summons never told you?” he laughs and drags me down to flop on his bed, already picking through my braid to get the spikes out.

“They said the Academy classrooms were small,” I say. “I guess when the sky is your world, everything is small.”

He dangles my spikes so I can see and sets them on the bedside table. The slow scratch of his nails against my scalp where he’s got his hand tangled in my hair makes my next glance at him languid and warm. His grin is a subtler, softer, thing now and I heave a sigh when he presses a fleeting kiss to the side of my brow.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re just as stressed as I am,” he says fondly.

“Not that stressed,” I agree. I’m not going to end up on ANBU’s radar ever unless you count Shisui and Itachi (which I increasingly don’t – their loyalty and affection is evident in every brush of chakra and the way they let me slip so close under their defences, right up against all their soft places). “But then, I’ve always been more relaxed than you.”

“You’ve also always had the enviable vision necessary to see your plans through,” he tucks me into his side and half-curls around me. He’s just over five feet tall and I’m only barely pushing 4’3”. I desperately hope puberty brings me a growth-spurt but I’m becoming more resigned to my future life of being distressingly short. “Itachi-kun says you’re going to be dangerous with kenjutsu if you keep on the way you’ve been.”

“I’m already dangerous,” I tease haughtily.

He grants me the seriousness of not laughing, just grinning and shaking his head. So, I haven’t been imagining the faint traces of his chakra during some of my training sessions. “You are,” he agrees. “It’s a shame there aren’t any master kenjutsu users in the village.”

“A tragedy,” I agree. “I know there’s a couple in the jounin ranks, but I won’t bother them for training. Konoha needs them more than I do.”

“Even just a couple hours?”

“I work in Diplo, I know what our relations look like; we can’t afford it.”

His grin is rueful but pleased. Knowing what I do about the Clan, I imagine hearing even just one member arguing for the sake of the village instead of the Uchiha is probably a boon on his poor nerves. Granted, that one member is me and I’ve been a known constant with an almost rigid schedule for years if you discount the stint of training under a sannin in secret.

“I’d offer to help out,” he says, “but I’ve got a mission coming up tomorrow. I won’t have the time – after, maybe?”

“Send a message,” I agree and stretch out, rolling away when he takes the chance to try and dig in his fingers to my side. He grins and drags a soothing hand through my hair and down my spine when he pulls me back into his side murmuring an apology. “Brat,” I mutter into his shoulder.

“Love you too, Aiko-chan,” he smiles against my skin and briefly cups a hand behind my head. “Going to stay the night?”

“You’ve already stolen my spikes,” I grumble. “Least you could do is share the bed with your favourite cousin.”

“Take off all that gear at least,” he laughs and sits up. I slant a narrow look and then close my eyes and sprawl dramatically. His voice is fond when he says, “Yeah, yeah, I got it.” He makes quick work of stripping my various pouches, weapons, and boots and tucking them out of the way.

“Kunai between the mattress and wall there,” he says and taps just near my hip. “I’ve got another over on this side and a couple of shuriken under the pillow too.”

“No senbon?” I sit up just enough to drape my coat over the foot of the bed.

“Not my favourite in the middle of the night,” he says with a shrug. “If you want, I’ve probably got a couple you could hide in the edge of the mattress?”

“Nah,” I manage around a yawn as I wiggle to get the blankets out from under me. “Got you, don’t I?”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, Aiko-chan,” he purrs. I kick him off just as he goes to sit down and he laughs from the floor where he graciously allowed my strike to take him.

Sharing a space with Shisui ends as it always does. He tucks me against his side, face-down into his shoulder with one arm wound around me so he can trail a path up and down my spine and through my loose hair. He curls on his side around me, letting me tuck my feet against his shins, and brings up the comforter over both of us with his free hand. I flash a reassuring glance up with a slow-spiralling sharingan before letting it fade. He returns the favour and his mangekyou only spins once – just barely long enough for normal eyes to see – before he too, deactivates his.

“It’s good to see you again, Shisui-kun,” I mumble into his shoulder – half to hide my face and half because my anxiety has finally levelled out with the comfort of his presence and I’m exhausted.

“You too, Aiko,” there’s another press of lips against my temple and a gentle tug of hair when he grips the place my neck meets my skull. His voice is so gentle. “Love you best.”

I’m painfully aware of too many things. “Love you too, Shisui.”

Chapter Text

"Saw your boy,” Shin says while passing over what smells like a caramel macchiato but could just be a flavoured latte. I hadn’t been able to count change and watch at the same time and the not knowing has me craning my neck under his scowl until he hands it over.

“I don’t have a boy,” the first sip is rich and bitter under the sweetness of caramel – macchiato, definitely.

“You have two,” Shin corrects, eyes narrowed as he judges whether or not I approve of the drink appropriately. “The one that smiles.”

I wonder if I should get another one to-go. “They both smile.” He has to mean Shisui.

“Wasn’t smiling when I saw him,” Shin says and drops my change pointedly into his tip jar instead of my outstretched hand. “Didn’t tip.”

“Jokes on you,” I tell him, clutching at my cup and kissing that thoughtful second one goodbye, “I was going to leave that anyway.”

Shin grunts and pulls the jar out of my immediate reach. “Just letting you know.”

 I drop a handful more change into his jar and tell him, in my rapidly improving Kumo Standard (only 70% so I can understand his mutterings), “Mind your own business, old man.”

 "Don’t make it my business, bratty girl,” he returns. “Now, get – shoo!”

 Tracking down Shisui is always a struggle nowadays. Between chunin missions, ANBU, and presumably spying on Itachi, it’s always a toss-up to whether or not he’s in-village. Even then it’s only 50/50 on his being available. The only upside is that if he and Itachi are both in-village then I can usually count on them being together (provided Uchiha-sama isn’t being a terrible excuse for a father and leaving Itachi to pick up the slack with little Sasuke). 

Kagome doesn’t mind helping out when I summon her. “Won’t be two shakes of my tail-feathers,” she says cheerfully. “I’ll be right back!”

Since I was pre-emptively heading to the Compound anyway in case they are in-village, I swing by the bakery. Ojiisan looks up at the chiming of the bell over the door and smiles. “Aiko-chan, so lovely to see you.”

“Ojiisan,” I say and hover closer to him than I would a stranger. It’s the closest I can get to showing actual physical affection for my grandparents. I’m lucky that ojiisan is a former shinobi and that obaasan is used to oddities from him; neither one force me into uncomfortable hugs or anything else. I actively lean into my cousins because they feel safe – they’re the closest thing to real family I have in this life and the only ones who have even a slight inkling of my many and varied secrets. I like my grandparents just fine, but I’d been a mess of anxiety the entire time I lived with them and some of that discomfort still exists. “Where’s obaasan?” I can’t hear her shuffling around anywhere.

“Ah, she’s a little under the weather,” he admits, and the lines around his eyes deepen despite his best efforts to hide it from me, “late summer cold. She’s resting upstairs.”

“Do you need any help?” I’m still capable of falling into perfect customer service mode (I think I’m actually better at it now than I was Before). I don’t much like helping at the bakery but I’m not rude enough to just let it go if ojiisan needs me.

“It’s nothing to worry about Aiko-chan,” he says with a gesture at the empty shop; it’s just afternoon so it isn’t that surprising. “I can manage just fine.”

Still. “Let me know if that changes,” I say. “I can arrange for a genin-team.” Now that I’m one myself, I can hire other teams at a discount for immediate family. I’m stuck looking for friends to volunteer if I want the help for myself or else pay full price.

Being that Itachi and Shisui are my only friends, I try to not need help in the first place.

“Thank you, Aiko-chan, but don’t trouble yourself on this old shinobi’s behalf. Are you here long?”

“One of my ravens is looking to see if my cousins are around,” I tell him truthfully. I never say their names out loud but ojiisan knows exactly who I’m talking about. “I have some time.”

“Sit,” he insists, shuffling me in the direction of the little table closest the back of the shop. He pointedly doesn’t touch me, just gestures and uses my affectionate orbiting to steer me where he wants. “I have that tea you like. Give me one moment.”  

I think most of my relationship with my grandparents is just tea and food. Occasionally I bring obaasan pretty floral arrangements or puzzle books for ojiisan. They keep a stash of what’s basically chai tea even though neither of them like it and tend to ply me with that and little desserts whenever I drop by. I feel guilty that I’m not closer to them, especially considering I’m all they have left of their daughter, but they haven’t once complained about anything I’ve done. In point of fact, the closest they came to a complaint was insisting on buying new furniture for my apartment even though I had been totally fine with staking out the second-hand stores.

“Does it bother you?” I ask ojiisan after watching him flip the sign on the door to indicate his taking a break.

“I’m afraid you’ll need to be more specific, Aiko-chan,” he says while sliding my perfectly doctored tea across the table and setting a small plate of sugar cookies at my elbow.

“That I don’t visit often.” The cookies are perfect and I eat two before he’s even collected his own tea and sat back down.

“You’re an old soul,” he says with a slightly sad smile. “Your obaasan and I knew from the moment you came home with us that you wouldn’t be for very long. Yours is a wild spirit – we couldn’t keep you tied down even if we tried.”

The old soul comment is right on the spot. “I wouldn’t say I’m a wild spirit,” I say doubtfully.

“Only in the sense that you don’t suffer being told what you can and can’t do,” he clarifies with a smidgen of pride and amusement alongside the sadness. “Insisted on the Academy when we suggested civilian school, signed with a summons just because your sensei told you that you couldn’t graduate early, joined the Corps because they only told you about genin teams…moving out wasn’t a surprise to us, dearest.”

“Even so early?”

“Aiko-chan, you are your mother’s daughter. If we learned anything from raising her, it was that any child of hers would be just as stubborn and that anything trying to stop them would just make them flee.” The guilt I see is clearly for okaasan leaving the village and only returning because she didn’t want to be a single mother on the road. They’ve never explained what led to her estrangement for so long but they welcomed me fully and, really, that’s all that matters.

“Does it bother you?” I ask again. I stare at my tea and don’t look up. “I’m all that’s left of her and I’m…”

“I was a shinobi too,” he says. He sounds different – more like what I imagine Uchiha Kouga the Intel officer must have sounded like in his prime – and his voice is more flat than has ever been directed at me. “Your okaasan too. It would be hypocritical of me to be disappointed that you chose the same path we did. Yes, Aiko-chan, it does make me worry that you’re out in the field so young but we trust you. You’re a gifted young kunoichi and we couldn’t be more proud; that the thought of you in danger bothers anyone is on us, not on you. You, dearest granddaughter, are everything we could have ever dreamed of.”

I let him fold my hands between his. They’re wrinkled and covered in old scars and callouses that don’t belong to a baker. My chest feels tight and I can’t look up at him – not without running away immediately. He squeezes once and I can hear him go back over to the door to flip the sign back around. He pauses on his way behind the counter again and says softly, “We love you Aiko-chan. No matter what. Now, go visit your cousins. It looks like your summons must have found them.”

Kagome hops off her perch on the streetlamp outside to sit on my outstretched arm when I emerge from the bakery. “Itachi-san is with his little nest-mate and Shisui-san is out in the old training grounds.”

“What’s he doing out there?” Those aren’t even inside the Compound – too overgrown for even the Uchiha to want to bother with when we have nicer, newer, ones within the walls.

“Training, I imagine,” Kagome says with a cheeky little cackle. I shake her off my arm and she dismisses herself with a quick, “Bye Aiko-san!”

Shisui isn’t training when I find him; he’s standing there with his arms open and waiting for me to enter the overgrown clearing. I huff at him but step into his embrace and let him fold me against his chest. He smells like sweat and dirt and I wrinkle my nose but don’t pull away.

“Not that I’m complaining,” I say into his throat, “but what’s up with the hug?”

“Can’t I miss my favourite cousin?” He asks lightly.

“Sure, just so long as this has nothing to do with the pressure marks here at your hairline.” I haven’t had a chance to inspect the mechanics of ANBU masks but they do leave these faint marks after prolonged use and Shisui has been gone for weeks.

“Too smart,” he says fondly. “Do I not get a hug if it is?”

“No,” I mutter and bring up my arms to cling to him tightly. “But I won’t be happy.”

“You’re about the only one who wouldn’t be,” he says and draws back enough to see me. “How have you been? Your grandparents? Had a chance to see Itachi-kun recently?”

“He’s been busy and I imagine you’d know better than me,” because of spying and ANBU reasons. “Obaasan is sick right now though.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

“According to ojiisan she will be.”

“Let me know if they need any help,” he says and offers a cheerful wink. “My discount is better than yours.”

“Brat,” I grumble but I’m smiling.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you avoiding my question there,” he nudges me. “Itachi-kun is back home too; I think a training session is due, don’t you?”

I don’t know that I really want to be one of the reasons Itachi is pulled away from Sasuke, but then, I don’t exactly think theirs is a healthy relationship either. Not with Uchiha-sama constantly comparing them to each other and openly finding his youngest lacking. That Sasuke is more likely to seek Itachi out than their own father

“You go get a training ground and I’ll get Itachi-kun.”

The Uchiha Head household is a sprawling traditional thing which at least makes it easy to separate out differing chakra signatures. Mikoto is inside, moving around, and what must be Uchiha-sama’s is stationary. With no other signatures on the grounds, I take to the trees and cast my sensory net wider. It’s not exactly difficult to sense things at a distance for me, not really, but interpreting the wide array of feedback tends to be overwhelming the wider my ‘net’ gets. In this particular instance, I’m not trying to interpret it at all; Itachi’s chakra signature is as familiar to me as Kuromaru’s and sticks out from all the white-noise of sensing like a flag, albeit a faint one.

I follow the beacon of dappled-sunlight-warmth and flare my chakra gently before quieting it and taking up a comfortable spot on a thick branch up against the wide trunk of a hashirama tree. There’s an answering flare and I peer down into the little clearing to spy Itachi and little Sasuke tossing kunai at targets crudely carved onto a downed tree held up only by virtue of its larger still-living neighbours.

I haven’t had a chance – nor have I wanted one – to see Sasuke much before now. His chakra feels like searing-spiky-sharp. Everyone feels chakra differently, so maybe others would feel something else, but little Sasuke’s signature is uncomfortable. As someone who doesn’t actually mind Orochimaru’s chakra (almost universally felt as physically painful though, to me, it tends to feel more like the edge of a razor – smooth one way but dangerously sharp the other, a hint of acid, but cool and soft beneath) it says something that I find even baby Sasuke’s chakra upsetting.

I activate my sharingan just in time to watch Itachi perform a – to him, at least – lazy bunshin-shunshin combo. The heat of him settles behind me on the branch and I lean back against his legs – trusting that he’ll take my weight – and look up at him. His lips turn up in the slightest hint of a smile before he looks back down at his little brother. There’s something regretful in his gaze after a moment of observation and I peer back.

Sasuke hasn’t even registered the switch. He’s continuing to throw kunai, beaming up at the clone when it offers suggestions, and looking fit to bursting with joy when the clone ruffles his hair gently before gesturing back to the target and demonstrating the throw again. It’s not… the switch hadn’t exactly been subtle, even discounting my sharingan.

“Do they not teach sensing in general anymore?” They’d taught everyone to at least be able to sense chakra through touch if they hadn’t had any particular sensory abilities while I was in the Academy. I could tell immediately when I was touching a clone back then – it’s only recently and with familiar signatures that I can tell from a distance now, but even still; it’s not a difficult skill.

Itachi sighs quietly. “They do,” he says, “but it’s not visible skill like taijutsu or weapons.”

Ah. Not a demonstrable skill. My sharingan makes it easy to track Sasuke’s throws and see how they’re all off. He’s not bad by any sense of the word, but he could be better. Should be better, considering Itachi himself is offering private tutelage, and watching him repeat the same mistake after the clone corrected him again is…a little bit painful.

“I feel like we weren’t…like that, in our Academy days,” I say quietly and wince in unison with Itachi when Sasuke only avoids flinging his kunai straight up because the clone quickly adjusts his elbow. Clone-Itachi kneels down and physically guides the boy through the correct motion.

I can feel the tension in my cousin through where my back is still pressed into his legs. “He’s in the top percentile of his class,” he says.

“I knew they’d revamped the curriculum,” I say slowly, wary of upsetting my cousin more than he already is, “more theory in the younger years than we would have had.” Assuming we’d not been thrust into advanced classes and graduated in a year.

 “He’s working ahead in the practical lessons, yes,” Itachi agrees and lets out a careful breath as he relaxes in increments. I lean back with more pressure and he nudges me back gently. “He’s fairly advanced of the curriculum of his current class.”

“But he’s not trying to graduate in a year,” I finish softly. “Not like we were. He’s following the curriculum and working ahead but he’s still keeping pace with his classmates.”

“Tell otousama that,” Itachi mutters darkly.

I hum noncommittedly and hold up an expectant hand. Itachi gently hauls me up and I lean into his side. “Shisui-kun wants to have a group session,” I tell him and pointedly ignore the way he tenses up beside me. There’s no way Itachi hasn’t noticed our cousin’s increased attentions; he’s too good a shinobi not to.

“When? And are you going to be there this time?”

I’ve tried not to draw attention to it but several times Shisui has arranged group sessions for the three of us only to ‘forget’ to tell me of a change in time. Those have all ended with me wandering up an hour or so into a session and to be greeted with a sheepish apology. Once or twice, I could dismiss, but Itachi had picked up on the pattern. When I arrived after that, it was always to tension and the beginning of actual animosity.

 I’ve become fantastic at pretending obliviousness to everything between my cousins.

I do the same now. “Now-ish,” I say with a smile, “Shisui-kun has gone to get us a training ground. If you’re busy here though…”

“No, it’s fine,” Itachi says. “I’ll meet you there.”

I cast another glance back down at Sasuke. He’s gathering up his scattered kunai with a happy but intense look. Sorry little man, but I need your brother right now – Shisui won’t be paying attention fully if Itachi is in the village and he’s not keeping an eye on him. Our elders and Hokage have no idea what kind of amazing shinobi they’re ruining out of selfish want of power.

I find Shisui by following the beacon of light-breeze-heat and a lazily circling crow. He grins brightly at me when I land in the training ground. It’s the most private of the Uchiha grounds – the one we used to use back in the Academy – and the familiar shape and feel of the place is enough to have me stretching languidly and beginning to go through the series of stretches and katas that make up my increasingly personalized snake form styles. I don’t tend to practice these anywhere but out in the forests surrounding Konoha or in the genin training grounds when I can snag a secluded one and it isn’t busy. I’m only slightly paranoid that someone might recognize any of it as related to Orochimaru.

It’s highly unlikely but still possible enough that I don’t tend to risk it.

“I take it by that smug look that he agreed?” Shisui calls teasingly.

“I did tell you I was the favourite,” I say serenely.

“Now who’s the brat?”

“Shisui-kun, I imagine,” Itachi says, appearing in a swirl of leaves, and reaching out to apply steady pressure to the small of my back to help me through a particularly ambitious stretch.

I can see our cousin mock-scowling in our direction. Itachi huffs out a light breath that’s the closest thing to outright laughter he gets these days. I hum agreeably and lean into the next stretch just to savour the burn of muscles pushed to their limits.

If the me of Before could see me now, she would be disgusted at the enjoyment I get from exercise these days. To be honest, there are still days I want to rebel against the kunoichi in me that wants to be up and running laps at stupid-o-clock in the morning by just staying in bed and ignoring my alarm.

I don’t but the thought is still there.

Three-way spars between us usually follow the same general rules; we tap-in-tap-out from two-on-one so that whenever the person on their own gets tired they can just tap-in one of the others as a partner. Its great fun and lets us get practice with working with different strengths.

Sparring with my cousins when neither wants to be on a team with the other is…

I half-heartedly swipe at Shisui when he taps me into his team. As much as it sucks to be on my own against both cousins, it still isn’t fun to always be stuck on a team.

“Time out!” I call and heave huge breaths – they’re exhausting at odds. “What’s with this keep Aiko on a team nonsense?”

Itachi is stiff and offers a shallow bow and murmured apology. Shisui grins wide and says, “Aww Aiko-chan, no one’s doing…”

“Whatever it is,” I interrupt and scowl at both of them through loose strands of sweaty hair, “you two need to work it out. I love you both but it’s a tiny bit insulting that just because you’re both chunin you think you have to patronize me.”

The grin slips of Shisui’s face so fast it’s like it wasn’t even there. “Oh Aiko, no,” he says and wraps me in a tight grasping hug. I squirm and he pulls back enough to force us face-to-face, “No, Aiko it’s not you I promise.”

Obviously, but if I’m the only thing you’re going to care about… “It sure seems like it.”

Itachi’s arm drops carefully to rest across my shoulders. He shares a brief look with Shisui before turning me just slightly towards himself. “I’m sorry if we made it seem like we don’t take you seriously, Aiko,” Itachi says softly – pain in the creasing of his eyes. “You are an exemplary kunoichi and we shouldn’t have ever let you think otherwise.”

It’s flattering and touching and I can’t help the blush that rises as my cousins bundle me between them and offer assuring touches to go with their apologies. It makes me feel guilty for deliberately messing with them; it feels like I’ve turned their legitimate problems into an excuse to press for praise.

“I’m just being sensitive,” I say and look away from them both. “How about we meet up tomorrow and try again?” It’s getting late and while the weekend is tomorrow – meaning I don’t have work – they don’t have any such schedule.

They both agree readily and we agree to another afternoon session. I gather up my discarded weapons and force them both into a group hug that only leaves Itachi a tiny bit ruffled but reassures both Shisui and I.

The next morning is when it happens and I’m the least prepared for it. I’d already gone through my morning routine, I’m dressed down in an old yukata a shade too small, and I’ve just finished milking my mamushi. My snakes have gentled to my touch now – though they still dislike being milked no matter what. I answer the knock at my apartment door while absently shushing my unhappy pet.

To their credit, the civilian messenger doesn’t even blink when faced with an eleven year old dressed in a worn yukata (white with multi-coloured flowers and a blood stain on the hem I’ve never been able to get out) with a pissy mamushi draped over her shoulders. Sure, it’s mostly harmless being freshly milked and all but they don’t know that. I’m sure I must look a sight.

The mamushi settles – though how much of that is because of me and how much because the cool morning air is distasteful in comparison to huddling against my shoulders for warmth is up for debate – and the messenger glances at it briefly before holding out a yellow envelope and clipboard. “Sign here please.”

 

“What is it?” I manage to tuck the envelope under my arm without dislodging the mamushi and sign on the line beside my name and address. The somewhat familiar logo of one of the Uchiha law offices (all Clan businesses incorporate that damn fan in one way or another so they all tend to look the same) sits at the top of the page. I’d filed my will through the Corps instead of the usual practice of going through the Clan instead so it can’t be the mandatory yearly update for active shinobi and I can’t imagine what other business I would require a lawyer for.

There’s a quick shake of a head, “Not my business,” the messenger says. “Address is on the front though, if you wanted.” They take off before I can even bother scrounging in the dish I keep on a tiny table by the door (for spare change, keys and the odd senbon) for a tip.

 “Thanks I guess,” I mutter in parting before going to get the mostly-calm pit-viper back into its enclosure. I drop the envelope on the coffee table on my way and leave the envelope until I’ve had time to collect a cup of tea and settle comfortably on my couch. “Let’s see what we’ve got then…”

Last Will and Testament is about as far as I get before I jolt away from the papers as if that will make it less real.

I thought I would be prepared. I'd been so careful and yet. The papers taunt me from the table. Kuromaru comes in through the window words of morning teasing already issuing forth but he stops mid-word when he sees my face. "Aiko-san?" He drops down onto the table and tilts his head to one side to read the paper. "Oh dear. Do you want...?"

 I summon Kagome and Kikyo and they burst to existence in a cloud of smoke; my control shot to all hell in wake of the message sitting on my coffee table. The girls, to their credit, read the room and shuffle forward to press their silky feathered heads into my outstretched hands. "Can you go," I falter and then force out, "Can you go tell Shisui and Itachi that we'll have to put our training off until tomorrow?"

Apparently I have an appointment with my grandparents' lawyer to go over their Last Will and Testament. According to the generic condolence letter I pick up after my two summons take flight, my grandmother had passed away due to complications with her apparently month long illness and the stress of it all was too much for my grandfather's heart to take. Which he hid away well enough that I didn't notice. Didn't even suspect...

A month. I didn't notice anything wrong for over a month and now...

The lawyers office is thankfully willing to get through everything in as perfunctory a manner as possible when I show up in blank-faced calm. They've left the bakery to the Uchiha Clan - obviously - and aside from some specific things to other friends or family members they've left everything else to me.

"Hire a genin team on my behalf; I want obaasan's nice tea set and ojiisans favourite haori - the green one with gold trim. Everything else can be donated to the orphanage." The lawyer hands me the requisite papers to sign to transfer their accounts to mine and to organize the funeral on my behalf. "Whatever they wanted, but arrange it for tomorrow morning. I don't...I want it over with as soon as possible, please."

Arranging things - even with the lawyers handling the bulk of the work - takes the rest of my day. There aren't many people in the village who specifically would come to the funeral so the rushed affair isn't really a problem. By morning, I've managed to find a black dress to wear. The coat with the falling feathers that I got when I graduated - too small now but only just - I wear over it. I think obaasan would be pleased to see it. I have to wave away my right to say a few words and as soon as it's over I flee back to my apartment. I curl into the couch, wrapped in ojiisan's old haori, and drink tea from obaasan's pretty tea set.

That's how Itachi finds me. I look up when he bypasses my traps and collapses to his knees in front of me. Tears are streaming down his face silently and I nearly drop the tea. Only Itachi's quick reflexes save it from breaking.

"No."

I shake my head, lips pulled tight, as hot tears begin to well and my throat closes up. Itachi gently, so gently, pulls me forward off my couch and into his lap where he wraps me in his arms with a desperate fervour. I struggle but he holds fast. "No!"

"He loved you," Itachi whispers in an absolutely wrecked voice. "Don't ever think he didn't, Aiko. He loved you best of all I promise."

I sob like I've never sobbed before. The pain of my lost life, my grandparents, the stress of all my knowledge and keeping it all a secret wells up as I'm consumed in agony. Itachi holds me through it all, murmuring meaningless assurances, letting me soak his still sweaty mission-gear with my tears and snot, and cries silently the whole time. I would scream if my throat weren't choked and I didn't need every spare gasping breath just to exist there, in my cousin's arms.

Shisui is dead.

Chapter Text

I should never have let myself get attached to him. Shisui’s death guts me in a way I haven’t felt since Before. I hadn’t really realized how much of my life had revolved around him until he wasn’t there anymore.

See, here’s the thing. I was the thing holding the boys together through clandestine spying and political affairs; I was the one keeping our group together through determined obliviousness (even if it was feigned). But the glue of our group? Our loadstone? The foundation of all of us?

That was Shisui.

Itachi and I watch his funeral from afar. I because I don’t want to be seen and recognized for attending, and Itachi because the entirety of the clan is pretty much convinced that he murdered him. Little Sasuke attends with Mikoto-sama and a blank-faced Uchiha-sama. Itachi stares at him with swirling crimson sharingan as if he could set his father on fire through sheer willpower alone.

To be fair, he probably can now.

“He would have hated the lilies,” I mumble. “Lilies and the chrysanthemums.”

Itachi exhales slowly and I can see his eyes close out of the corner of my eye. When he opens them again, his sharingan is gone and he looks more composed. “He would,” he agrees. “You’ll have to bring something else to his grave later.”

We will,” I say calmly and ignore the way he turns to silently stare at me. “I’m thinking bellflowers, jasmine, and hydrangeas. Asphodel.”

Itachi inhales sharply at the last. “Not asphodel,” he says and his voice trembles a touch as he leans into my side. “Marigolds, maybe.  Pear blossoms and red poppies. Orange and white tulips.”

I laugh through the sting of tears. “You didn’t even take those classes,” I say shakily. Then, when he winds a careful arm around me, “This is going to be the ugliest bouquet.”

“We’ll add honeysuckle too,” he says and I break into laughter.

Looking at the riot of white, purple, blue, orange, red, and yellow flowers bound in a haphazard mess that we end up with after hunting through the closest open flower shop and refusing the offer to set it up in some sort of pleasant arrangement, I can’t help but grin in delight. It’s a mess.

It looks beautiful laid out on Shisui’s grave.

Though, that might be the vindictive joy of sweeping the other funeral flowers off to scatter about speaking.

 

 

 

Life without Shisui is…empty, I suppose, is the best word. Itachi retreats almost completely from anything that doesn’t involve a mission or training. I try to invite my cousin out but even when he agrees to spar, it’s with an uncomfortable intensity and void of any of his usual shows of emotion. For the first time, Itachi scares me properly; I can see the shinobi who participates in the wholesale execution of our clan. 

The closest thing I can get to my last and only friend is when he shows up once a month to mark the day of Shisui’s death. He doesn’t make much of a point of it though; if he’s on mission than he simply doesn’t join me (which is, coincidentally, the only time I can be sure he’s in-village or not since he’s also stopped responding to my messages).

Those visits are mostly in silence. He shows up at my door early in the morning with something from Shin’s and then escorts me with a gentle hand to a randomly selected flower shop. I generally pick the flowers and Itachi doesn’t comment on whatever message it is I’ve crafted. He adds one flower selection of his own to my mess of a bouquet and he always slips a single asphodel and snowdrop blossom into a tiny glass vase that sits on my windowsill – right where it had appeared on the first month anniversary – before he leaves safely back at home.

I’ve come back from missions after I’ve been absent for the visit and found two fresh blossoms waiting for me and a single fresh offering at the grave too which is…

Something heartbreaking and awful, if I’m being honest.

So, absent any real human friends to speak of, I tend to throw myself into my work and missions and planning for my future.

Breaking into the archives and records room is easy – mostly because I’m actually allowed in there so it isn’t exactly breaking in. Making a couple changes so my last name shows up as Uchida and instead of Uchiha is even easier. Getting new travel documents and identification is actually literally part of my job so all it takes is slipping it past a harried Yukari-san one day and even that’s official.

I’ve been getting my pay in cash almost since I first started as a genin; my bank account exists but only insofar as my grandparents opened it for me while I was at the Academy, a couple initial paycheques went through automatically before I switched to the cash-out option, and then it’s sat untouched but for the deposit of my inheritance only recently. Being that, for security, any mention of shinobi accounts on paper in a civilian building is solely through identification number, it isn’t even an issue there. I get a new chequebook with Uchida Aiko on it and take myself shopping for real-estate.

I’m not planning on moving any time soon, but I want everything in place. I find a one-bedroom apartment for sale in central Konoha (some jounin honest-to-god retiring, I get the place for a steal thank you shinobi-solidarity!) and make arrangements for furniture to be delivered and then for a cleaning service to visit monthly. The whole affair takes a pretty decent chunk out of my account but even accounting for property-tax, upkeep, and utilities, I can actually cover both the new place and the rent on my old apartment with just my current pay and only a little dip into my savings.

That’s right, my budget skills are insane. The only thing stopping me from fully becoming Hatake Kakashi levels of mooch is my lack of actual companions or friends.

I have zero shame in admitting that too.

“I think you’d be proud of me,” I tell Shisui’s grave. Itachi hadn’t shown up so I’m reasonably safe sitting up against his grave-marker and fussing with the irises and yellow poppies that make up this month’s selections. “You always complained I’d outgrow my apartment. Which is hilarious considering you basically lived in a shoe-box.”

The only response is the quiet shuffling of Kuromaru’s wings where he’s perched on the gravestone. I start picking at my nails with a senbon and stretch out my awareness; I’m the only one in the cemetery this early in the morning.

“Are you at all concerned about that boy noticing the name change?” Kuromaru murmurs gently.

“No, family names aren’t really used for anything once you hit genin,” I reply. “Everything goes by serial number.”

“So you what, have each other’s numbers memorized?” he asks skeptically.

“Well…yeah. It’s not very secure to keep records or parcels for active shinobi listed under their name.”

“Reduced to a number,” Kuromaru mutters darkly. “The Raven’s chosen Summoner a number. Yatagarasu-sama must have every feather twisted.”

“Yatagarasu-sama should be thrilled,” I return. “Speaking of – do you think I could summon him myself now? It’s been years since I signed.” My reserves are enormous compared to back then.

Kuromaru tilts his head. “Well, you could definitely summon me. Flocks of our smaller cousins – they can be clones or part of genjutsu – Yagura-sama would answer your call if she saw the need.” He ruffles his feathers and clicks his beak. “My…sisters, would answer. And any clan members ranked below them – which is a great many.”

“Hold up,” I twist back to look up at him. “You have sisters.”

“Three,” he says shortly. “From a previous clutch, before you ask. They’re all big enough to carry an adult – provided it was a small adult.”

“Why am I just hearing about this now?”

He croaks at me. “They’re annoying. And bossy.”

“Ah,” I grin at him. “So I should meet them, is what I’m hearing.”

His hackles flare around his head and he hisses. “In an emergency only.”

“Fine, fine…” I turn back to the grave and gently trace the characters of Shisui’s name. “Hear that cousin? I know I never told you but you probably knew I was hiding it.” He’d always been more observant than Itachi was ever willing to turn on me.

Kuromaru turns his head at a distant call. “Someone’s coming,” he says. Kagome and Kikyo run lookout during grave visits.

“Goodbye cousin,” I say quietly. “Miss you.”

 

 

 

Okay so, here’s a fun fact about kunoichi I would never have guessed unless I lived it. With Itachi standoffish and gone and Shisui…well, on my own most of the time, I’d been bugging Yukari-san for the chance to take my turn at a long-term posting in the capital. It’s this thing Konoha does; we send a contingent of shinobi representing our various departments to serve in the daimyo’s court and amongst the nobles and the wealthy as a sort of…advertising? Showcase of what we can offer? Only better because the long-term postings aren’t actually for our prime shinobi, just the run-of-the-mill sort of which I am – out of necessity and not a lack of skill – an excellent representation.

Long story short: kunoichi aren’t allowed to take a long-term posting until we hit puberty. Yes. You know exactly what I mean. Tsunade-sama – bless her soul – had created the most amazing and quite possibly bullshit-chakra-magic (it’s not science as I know it from Before but it works and it makes the **** part of me so goddamn jealous) implant to prevent both pregnancy and menstruation for active kunoichi. This is what no one tells you. Further to this, until you actually require said implant, kunoichi are not allowed to take long-term postings.

And no one actually says it, so now my months of hinting and carefully hedged requests just seem stupid in hindsight. So I’m sore, hormones raging, and angry during my appointment at the hospital with the med-nin and perhaps maybe I scare the poor sucker stuck in the records room when I growl and mutter my way through an update form for my shinobi file.

Upside, armed with a flag of a successful implant procedure, my next request for a long term posting is approved almost immediately.

“It’s perfect for you, Aiko-san,” Yukari assures me as she and I go over the rules, procedures, and expectations of the posting. “I know you prefer working alone – no it’s fine, I understand completely what with your age – and the long-term postings are all about solo-work. Diplomatic Corps tends to work as a sort of jack-of-all trades in this position. Some scribe work, some escort, infiltration, courier, bodyguard…but we tend to get the Court appointments, so you’ll end up incognito as a civilian more often than not.” She says this last with a sort of grimace I can’t help but share. Still, having spent way more time as a civilian, I’m actually the most comfortable playing one of all the shinobi in our department.

I’m not one, not anymore, not by a long-shot, but a lifetime’s worth of memories don’t fade completely even with training.

I’ll have an already furnished suite at our embassy during my posting – it’s nothing fancier than a small sitting room/office with an attached bedroom and ensuite (overall smaller than my bachelor now) – but I can send any particular requests for things ahead. Some shinobi will request traditional furniture like futons and low tables instead of the standard modern furniture. I make note in my paperwork that I’ll be having some specialized furniture sent ahead; Kuromaru’s perch, my snakes’ enclosure and supplies for their care and milking. 

The snakes themselves will travel with me. Having grown in a chakra-rich environment like Konohagakure, they’re more aware than the average animal. Not quite the same way the Inuzuka dogs have evolved (that was careful breeding, training, and probably some mingling with Summons Dogs over the years) but, in general, any creature living in an area rich with chakra being used will tend to either develop in size or intelligence.

Case in point: Training Ground 44 a.k.a. The Forest of Death.

My snakes haven’t been living in the centre of things for so long that they’re any bigger than normal, but they’re definitely more aware and thus, finicky and particular and outright hostile if they aren’t being handled exactly right. It’s safer in the long run for me to haul two grumpy beasties along with me than it is to send them along with some civilian courier service.

 “You aren’t going to like this,” I tell them as I go about setting out and testing the carrier I sort of had to invent. It’s basically a woven-box with straps and two small compartments just big enough for a warming rock and one overstuffed snake. My plan is to leave right after a huge meal for them, so that they’re more inclined to sleep and stay curled and thus not be unduly upset over being trapped in a confined space instead of their enclosures.

Kuromaru makes one of his hacking cough-growls. “Let them be miserable,” he says darkly. He’s never actually given up his hatred of them, even though Kagome and Kikyo (who arguably have reason to be afraid) don’t even side-eye them anymore. 

“Go see if Itachi is joining me in the morning,” I tell him. It’s the last anniversary visit to Shisui before I leave on assignment. It’s also a wasted gesture at this point, to send any of my summons off to my cousin, but I continue stubbornly until Itachi asks me to stop. He hasn’t yet and that’s enough for me to stay the course.

He squawks indignantly at me. “Have you even told him we’re leaving for six months?” The standard posting is a year, but for first-timers it’s only six months, with the option to renew for another six.

“If he shows up,” I hedge. “I’ll leave a note at the Incoming desk if he doesn’t.” Incoming desk is basically inter-office mail but for active shinobi. Being that we’re away on missions so often, and don’t always have time to check at home between, it’s standard protocol to report to the Incoming desk when a mission is complete. That’s also where you get direction on where to go to debrief or where to turn in your mission report. If you’re a shinobi leaving messages for another shinobi, that’s where you leave it and they’ll get it next time they report in.

Kuromaru eyes me. Then, satisfied at my sincerity, he dips his head. “Alright Aiko-san,” he agrees carefully. “I’ll check.”

I continue testing the carrier until I’m satisfied then set it and my mission-pack off to the side. Being that I’ll be gone for more than a couple days, my usual seal-it-in-a-scroll and shove it in my utility pack with other gear method isn’t going to be enough. I’ve broken out my actual backpack for my long-term posting. Compared to the space I usually have on my person and the amount of stuff I carry on a daily basis? The backpack almost seems excessive.

By necessity, it’s not even a very large backpack. Kuromaru is going to be the one carrying it so it just has my clothes, spare armors and weapons sealed in scrolls, and a couple books and scrolls for leisure. Honestly, if I wasn’t 100% positive that the mark-up on shinobi-quality clothing in the capital was going to be insane, I wouldn’t have even bothered with more than my usual spare set.

I’m just finished feeding my snakes when Kuromaru’s familiar chakra flares quietly and I turn to find an actually somewhat rumpled Itachi climbing in through my window with an actual frown set into tired features. The sight of my cousin so undone for the first time in months is…

“You’re leaving?” He says shortly. It’s more statement than question but it still rings with accusation despite the monotone he delivers it in.

I shoot a quick glare at Kuromaru who stares back unrepentantly. Then I face my cousin again. “I wasn’t aware you would care,” I return sharply. “It’s just a standard Capital posting.”

He doesn’t flinch but I can feel the spike of his chakra. It’s back under control in the second it takes to sense but I did sense it. My cousin takes a halting step forward and then whirls around to my summons who peers at him and then turns and takes flight. Itachi closes and locks the window behind him and then stays with his hand on the latch for a long time.

“I’m sorry.” His voice is barely above a murmur but in the frozen stillness of my apartment it sounds like a gunshot.

“That’s nice,” I say.

He turns enough to peer at me with his peripheral vision. “What do you want me to say?”

“Don’t play like you don’t know exactly what it is I wanted,” I tell him. “It’s unbecoming of your genius.”

The lines around his eyes seem to deepen. “I was busy.”

“Do not tell me you were too busy to drop by long enough that I would at least know you were still alive. That you even still cared enough to check for the same of me.”

“Flowers are traditional mourning gifts.”

“I wanted my best friend not flowers!” my voice isn’t a shout but only by the barest threads of my control. Tears are pricking angrily in my eyes and I ignore them and hope they go away. “Don’t you dare tell me you didn’t know.”

“He was my cousin too.”

It’s so…childish. I jolt a little and stare for a long silent moment at Itachi.

We’re only just going on twelve years old. Working in a profession such as ours lends itself toward the illusion of maturity but we’re still just kids. Sure, kids who can live on our own, murder on command, and regularly are entrusted with responsibilities that would have civilians blanching but still – children. I’ve been viewing Itachi and Shisui as my peers because they have been but only because of Aiko. **** is an adult and even though her memories are clear and present and almost all of my thought processes are because of an adult’s sense of being, I still forget.

I’ve been expecting Itachi to behave like the adult everyone expects and sees him as instead of the twelve year old boy he actually is; shinobi world or not, Itachi is a child.

The brewing tension blows out of me in the space between breaths. “Look, I don’t think you killed him,” I say and don’t even attempt to soften the blow. The whole clan thinks he did and even knowing the truth, I’d be hard pressed to argue with their logic. “But I do think you’re both caught up – or were caught up – in things above my rank. Which is fine but Itachi…I can’t handle it anymore.”

“What do you mean,” this isn’t a question. He knows exactly what I mean but he’s going to make me say it out loud.

It breaks my heart a little but I continue. “I’m not making you choose between our friendship and whatever it is that the village or our Clan is demanding of you. I’m not asking for the truth just so I can hear whatever lie it is you think I want to hear. You aren’t going to tell me the truth about Shisui and whatever it is that got him killed. So…I’m making the decision; for my sake, please don’t contact me anymore. Not personally. Pretend we’re strangers or that we aren’t related or just…” I sigh and look away from the resigned hurt blooming across his face despite his iron control. “Just leave. Don’t look in, don’t leave me flowers, don’t send messages just…leave.”

“…for how long?” he whispers in the softest most sad voice I’ve ever heard. He sounds his age and it hurts.

“Unless you hear from me, I don’t want you to even know I exist. It shouldn’t be hard for an ANBU to lose track of some random career genin.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever outright said it and the flash of alarm in his eyes isn’t because I know.

 “Aiko…”

“I mean it, Itachi,” I say sharply. “Not even a whisper.”

His face goes smooth and blank but his eyes gleam with barely disguised hurt. “If that’s what you want.”

“It’s not about what I want, Itachi.” I look away so I don’t have to look at the boy as I break his heart. “You know that.”

From the corner of my eye, I watch him nod once sharply. Then he moves and, when I turn around, my window is open and he’s gone. Kuromaru returns just in time to watch me collapse into my bed.

“Oh Aiko,” he croons gently. I feel him settle behind me and press his feathered bulk against my back. His beak glides through my hair as he quietly preens through any knots. His chest reverberates with a low soothing purr-like noise that rises and falls as his beak moves. He keeps up the silent comfort until I’m just at the edge of sleep. “You rest,” he murmurs, “I’ll keep watch.”

 

 

 

Morning brings a sort of clarity of purpose and I finish preparations for my move to the Capital. Kagome is keeping watch on Itachi while he’s in-village to be sure he’s sticking to my request. I know he will; his sense of duty and honour and love for me is such that he’ll listen even if it kills him to do so.

The Capital is probably a two weeks journey at a decent clip (for a shinobi, obviously) and I’ll be hauling two venomous snakes besides. Moving them into their travel basket is fairly easy. They’re both fat and rounded with a fresh meal and are indolent enough that the moment I move their heating rocks they try to use me instead.

“Come on now, in you go,” I murmur to the habu as I stroke her smooth back until she deigns to unwrap herself from my arm. The mamushi is a bit of a grumpy bastard about being shuffled around when all he wants to do is sleep but they’re both freshly milked so I wasn’t exactly worried about him snapping at me. “Do you have that bag okay, Kuromaru?”

He stretches his wings in response and shakes out his feathers until they settle around the straps around his body. Summons birds are sturdier than their common counterparts so – at his size – he’s more than capable of carrying my usual travel pack, even with the extra supplies for an extended stay within. He picks at a couple loose feathers and turns back to me. “All settled well,” he says. “Might be a little side heavy – I’ll be able to tell once I’ve been in the air a bit.”

“You and your sister know where to meet us?” I ask Kikyo. She primly adjusts the fall of her hitai-ate and then bobs a bow at me.

“Yagura-sama has had the fledglings swarming the city for days,” she admits. “She Saw and wanted us to be prepared so we’ve got the layout memorized now.”

“Thank her for me,” I say, touched and a little overwhelmed at the care my Summons put into looking after me even when I’ve only interacted with a handful of them. “She didn’t have to.”

“Yagura-sama does what Yagura-sama wants,” Kikyo says fondly. “If she didn’t want to look after you, even Yatagarasu-sama wouldn’t be able to move her. She likes you Aiko-sama, promise.”

“Still,” I say a little weakly, “tell her okay?”

“Of course, Aiko-sama,” Kikyo says softly. She nudges up under the hand I hold out to her and leans into the gentle petting. “We’ll see you there soon.”

Kuromaru hacks a caw. “Time to go.”

I take one last sweep of my apartment and disable the traps – wouldn’t do to have my landlord die just because he was trying to check on my place while I’m away. I settle the snakes’ carrier on my back and lock up.

Time to leave the village. Finally.

Chapter Text

The Capital, by necessity, centers around the Daimyo’s palace. It’s surrounded by smaller – but no less grand – nobles’ compounds, as well as more modern businesses, sprawling gardens, and government buildings in what is referred to as the Heaven District. This is where the shinobi embassy is located and it’s all honestly a bit much for a first impression.  

 Compared to Konoha the Capital is enormous. A proper city the likes of which I never thought to see again. Even if it doesn’t properly compare to ****’s memories, it’s close enough for the nostalgia to hit hard. As I wind my way through back-alleys and side-roads to avoid the crush of the main streets, I take the time to catalogue the surprising differences between the capital and Konoha. 

 Everything is more cramped, for starters. Konoha has wide streets and even our smallest alleys still have room for you to walk down without touching the buildings. Part of this is that our smaller population doesn’t necessitate these larger apartment buildings in the residential districts but a lot of it is deliberate planning on Konoha’s part. Shinobi don’t tend to like small spaces if we can avoid them so when the village was founded we naturally arranged it to suit our tastes. It’s a very similar system to why we have so many more – and larger – windows that open fully too. Even a handful of windows with bars across them are more than I’ve seen in years

 Kuromaru had gone directly to our assigned suite to drop my pack so I’m following Kagome at a sedate pace as she flits from streetlamp to sign to exposed pipe or fire-escape.  

 “Not much farther, Aiko-sama,” she says. “Wait, hold for a second…okay, coast is clear.” 

 I’ve been avoiding the civilians because I’m still carrying two relatively large venomous serpents on my back and I’d rather not attract attention. Kagome, bless her little heart, has been incredibly accommodating about finding alternate routes. Between her and her sister, the most I’ve seen of the populace is at the end of an alley. There’s also the matter of how much I stick out in my full shinobi gear. I can’t pass for a civilian even a little bit right now – not with my leggings and boots and excessive equipment packs. I wouldn’t even blip on the radar of the civilians in Konoha but here in the capital? Working my way through the Heaven district and the ornately dressed nobles? I’d draw more than a handful of suspicious looks if I weren’t avoiding people.

By the time we reach the Konoha Embassy and get settled into our suite, I’m feeling like my plain shinobi clothes are a target. I don’t have a superior officer here to report to – the capital postings tend to work together and coordinate as needed while working through our monthly batches of assignments from Konoha – so I have time to myself to get settled and changed into something a little more fitting. 

I knew in advance that I’d be spending most of my time around the court, so my new uniform is both formal and practical. I’ve swapped my half-sleeve mesh shirt for full-body mesh armour with compression shorts. The shorts are necessary because of the way the sides of my new calf-length qipao-styled dress are split clear up to my hips.  

It’s deep forest green with wide haori-like sleeves in a silk-steel blend I had to use almost an entire paycheck to procure. In deference to the formality of my position, it’s patterned heavily with jade-green and gold leafs, branches stretching in the space between, and the Konoha insignia stark black on my back. It looks a little odd with the usual shinobi gear –even pared down to ankle-boots, armoured gloves, and my sword, without the full assemblage of pouches and the tanto typically at the small of my back - but then again, that sort of dichotomy tends to titillate the civilians endlessly.  

“The glasses,” Kuromaru says as he watches me wind a length of bandages around my thigh to cushion my kunai holster (the only pouch I’m allowing myself).  

“I remember.” The blood-red sunglasses are nearly black and sport neat little side-shields in a positively retro look that suits the idea of Mysterious Shinobi that most people expect of us. More importantly, I can activate my sharingan behind them with nobody the wiser.  

I’ve only just finished settling the snakes when there’s a knock at the door to my office. I go to leave the bedroom to see who it is and Kuromaru barks “Glasses!” again. I wave a hand at him and slide them into place, letting them ride a little low to peer over the top as I head out into the office and open the door to get a look at my visitor.  

He’s dressed in black shinobi pants and long sleeved-black shirt with more formal looking emerald green haori. With brown hair to his chin and dark eyes, he looks maybe twenty, tops. Unremarkable, as far as I can tell, so I’m betting he’s from a Corps like mine and not something like Assassination or Interrogation. “You’re our new Diplo rep?” he asks. “I’m Kamizuki Izumo, the unlucky bastard who drew the posting-duty short-straw from Intel. We’ll probably end up working together a lot so I figured I’d come over and introduce myself – you can just call me Izumo.”   

Ah. A name I recognize but… I turn this information over in my head. He makes chunin with that other one, doesn’t he? With the wild hair. I don’t remember them getting much higher than chunin and I can’t really see anything terribly wrong with associating with him. At the very least, we’ll be working together until his posting is up.   

“Izumo-san,” I say and offer a small smile. “I’m Aiko – from Diplo Corps, as accused. There weren’t any straws involved in my posting, however.” 

 “Really?” he sounds genuinely interested, if skeptical.  

I shrug a little and hold the door open a little more. He glances over my head at the sparseness of my new office and makes a face before stepping back into the hall proper and not just my doorway. I follow him out after flashing a sign for later at Kuromaru poking his head around the door to the bedroom.  

“I was going to see if I could find a good tea shop,” I say. It does me no good to ignore my colleagues here and since there’s absolutely zero way they could know I’m Uchiha… I feel a tiny bit more comfortable socializing.  

“Do you have any preferences?” he asks and neatly adjusts his pace to match mine. “A good tea is one of the most important tools for this job.” He winks at me a little. 

I can’t help the tiny grin, even if the teasing chit-chat throws me off a little. It’s been a long while since I’ve spent personal time with anyone but my cousins. “I prefer coffee, if I’m being honest, Izumo-san” I admit. “But any tea shop will do.” 

 He lights up and tucks his hands behind his back in cheerful mockery of parade-rest. “Like Shin’s, Aiko-san?” he asks with a grinning emphasis on my name. He seems at ease enough to ignore my slightly monotone answers and doesn’t appear to mind the halting familiarity.  

“Exactly like Shin’s,” I agree with a wry twist to my mouth. It doesn’t surprise me that someone in Intel was drawn to the little shop and its grumpy keeper. Tea is all well and good but it doesn’t exactly kick you in the face and get you through long hours poring over reports. Shin may chase off most of the average customers but he has enough loyal ones in the ranks who swear by him.  

“You’ll like this then, Aiko-san,” he says and steps ahead to lead me along.  

 

 

 

“You’re joking,” I stare at the tiny little shop nestled in the space between two buildings. There’s an old sign reading Shun’s above the walk-up window and a man just as old and just as wide and just as grouchy glowers at me. “There’s two of you?” I ask in Kumo Standard, and ignore the startled look Izumo shoots me.  

The man who must be Shun growls at me. “You must be the brat,” he says. “My brother, Shin, he says you would find my shop.”  

“Who names their sons Shin and Shun? Did your mother hate you?” 

He grunts and points at me sharply. “You will have special brew,” he tells me and turns round to gather a little copper pot and begins manually grinding beans into a fine powder. Turkish coffee is obviously not called that here and is instead a Kumo special. “Sugar?” he tosses over his shoulder in Common. 

“Sweet,” I reply in kind and he narrows his eyes a little but reaches for the pot of sugar obligingly.  

“No wonder you wanted the posting,” Izumo says with an amused but impressed grin. “Not much chance to use that back in the village.” 

“There’s some,” I say a little awkwardly now that I have his attention without the buffer of a grumpy Kumo man. “Some textile merchants come through fairly often, and Shin, obviously. It’s more a hobby than anything else, and I’m only really fluent in Kumo Standard.” The Land of Lightning has a common tongue – from which their hidden village takes its name – as well as a second dialect used primarily in their northern provinces – Lightning Standard, since it’s exclusive to their country.  

 Konoha, being central to most countries, uses Common exclusively. If we had any other dialects, we don’t use them anymore.

“More than most shinobi outside the upper ranks.”

“Well,” I accept the tiny cup of frothy dark sweetness and hand over several notes of cash. I don’t get any change and Shun thrusts his chin out at me.  “I’ve got a lot of downtime in Diplo. We still haven’t really recovered as a department yet.” I let my glasses slide down to grin approvingly at Shun after sipping. His chin goes down and he slides a cup of water over with a small dish of chocolates.

Izumo winces a little. “Yeah, you really haven’t. Escorting merchants?”

“For the most part. It’s a bit of everything. We’re essentially operating as a PR department more than a Diplomatic one.” It’s hard to be a showcase of Konoha’s abilities when we’re understaffed, underfunded, and primarily genin.

We chat idly, hedging around certain topics in deference to our public location. By the end of it, I’ve got a handle on how things operate and the sort of things to expect. Izumo eventually leaves to handle his own affairs and I finish my coffee and chocolates.

“You visit tomorrow,” Shun tells me gruffly when I go to leave. “I will make something my fool brother will not.”

“I like Shin,” I tell him.

“Pah,” he scoffs. “Foolish girl. Foolish brother. You make a good pair then.”

“No wonder Shin never mentions you, rude old jiji,” I sneer and he waves a dismissive hand.

“Tomorrow,” he says again. “Go!”

 

 

 

I slip surprisingly smoothly into a routine. My predecessor left virtually nothing of note behind to give an idea of what I should be doing so I take my first week to go over the requests from Konoha and run recognisance on my clients. Izumo helpfully brings over a listing of the current Court with brief bios on important members that take the matter of minutes to copy but at least a few days sitting in a drawer at my desk before I can return them.

As far as anyone is aware, I don’t have a handy kekkei genkai to help me.

The first assignment I ‘officially’ take on is to join a noble on a visit to negotiate a ceasefire over some contested farmlands. Watanabe-sama has dark hair shot through liberally with silver and a hawkish nose under sharp eyebrows. He dresses traditionally in fine slate-blue hakama and haori when I’m escorted through his compound just outside the Heaven District and offers a short tilt of his head as greeting to my more deferential bow.

“You’re younger than I expected,” he says instead of a greeting. It would be rude if I were a civilian and not almost literally a hired servant.

“My hitai-ate is evidence enough of my credentials,” I say smoothly and peer at him over the rim of my glasses. “If my lord would prefer someone older, that can be arranged, though it will necessitate a postponement to allow for someone else to arrive.”

He snorts and the smoke from his pipe billows like a dragon’s breath around his head. “No,” he says shortly, “That was a very polite rebuke of a stubborn old man. You are already leagues ahead of the last one they sent me.” His brow is furrowed but amusement tugs at the corners of his frown.

Given the only notes left on Watanabe-sama in the Diplo office were ‘demanding’ and ‘impossible to please’ that doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. I incline my head as graciously as I can and say, perhaps with a little much sardonic amusement, “I will take that as a compliment.”

“Ha!” He barks a laugh and stands. “Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we? I won’t be putting this engagement off any longer than I already have. I’m assuming you’ve brought all the necessary supplies?” He glances at the servant who escorted me, now standing at attendance just inside the door.

“Shinobi-san did not bring anything with her,” he reports hesitantly, shooting a sideways glance at me as I carefully fold my hands into opposing sleeves.

“I have everything I need on my person, Watanabe-sama,” I smile into the disbelief arching his brow high. “The brief from Konoha was quite thorough and I’m aware of all aspects of my assignment.”

Even without my usual heavy equipment pouch at the small of my back, I have enough things stored in a sealing scroll in my weapons pouch at my thigh that I can comfortably make the three day trip slated for the mission. Besides which, Kuromaru will be joining me and he has something of a small fortune in cash sealed into the hitai-ate around his throat.

 

 

 

The trip to the onsen resort chosen as the neutral meeting ground between Watanabe-sama and the lord from Lightning is uneventful. I’m not required to run as guard until the actual meeting – in which I’ll be body-guard and negotiator both, as all soldiers have been banned from the meeting for security’s sake – so I take to keeping easy pace with the convoy during the day and joining the infantrymen in the evenings to entertain them with my ability to skewer just about anything they can find to toss into the air with a swift kunai or senbon.

“You must make a killing at darts,” one of the officers says to me in amusement when he comes by the campfire to find out what had his soldiers up in such a riot.

I smile ruefully and shake my head. “Not so,” I say, “the rules for Shinobi Darts are rather more stringent than Civilian Darts; that is to say, non-Shinobi, not just civilians.” I tip a glance over at the soldiers with a brief flash of an apologetic grin.

“Shinobi-san must see us so poorly,” one of the soldiers nudges at a companion. “’Civilian’ she says – you hear?”

The officer shakes his head at them and I offer a brief bow. “I’m unaccustomed to working alongside our military,” I say. “You understand, in Konohagakure, if you aren’t a shinobi you are a civilian. It may take some time to remember that the lack of hitai-ate does not a civilian make.” I tap pointedly at the metal plate hanging about my hip and spin a kunai around a finger absently.

“It is funny though,” the officer muses as I excuse myself to my own little campsite just off the main path, “Shinobi don’t tend to be viewed as soldiers for the purpose of things like this, and yet very rarely do shinobi even think of actual soldiers as soldiers.”

I hum a little and peer up into the trees to seek out Kuromaru’s comforting bulk. He shuffles into the light of the torch and startles the officer into staring. Kuromaru turns his head to stare at him and caws softly, huge claws scraping the bark as he settles. “It’s hard, I suppose,” I say and smile at my imposing summons – huge and black and thrice or more as large as a normal raven, “How do you define a soldier? Purely by service or by ability? I can create clones with a thought, dissolve into a puddle of water, or vanish before your very eyes with nothing more than simple speed. And then of course…” I hold up an arm and Kuromaru flares his wings to float silently down to the offered perch. He weighs a lot and yet long-practice and muscle hold steady under his weight with little effort.

The officer steps back, startled anew at Kuromaru’s bulk now right there. I brush my spare hand down his back and grin sharply over at my temporary companion. “Kuromaru, say hello to Captain-san.”

“Evening, Captain,” Kuromaru croaks and clacks his beak sharply at the harsh intake of breath, “You might think about setting another watch to the North, it’s spread thin there, and there looks to be a touch more sake flowing than on this side. A suggestion, nothing more.”

“Thank you dearest,” I say and lift my arm so he can launch himself into the night. I temper the sharpness in my smile when I bid the man a good evening and head off toward my camp.

 

(Watanabe-sama asks me to sit alongside him the next day and when Kuromaru soars just above our heads, he laughs. “An excellent investment,” he tells me. “This might not be so horrible as I imagined.”)

 

 

 

Watanabe-sama’s acceptance – and the successfully negotiation of ceasefire and ownership of contested lands both – brings with it a number of new requests for shinobi negotiation. Izumo brings me a new, thicker, stack of bios and shakes his head in amazement at the increasing piles of paperwork crowding my desk.

“You do know the last Diplo rep deliberately avoided this sort of nonsense, right?” he asks.

“I know the last rep called Watanabe-sama ‘impossible to please’ when he clearly just needed a half-decent reason to respect us,” I say primly and accept the new information with only a little bit of childish grabbing motions. “No sense wasting time lounging around when I could be working.”

“You’re wasted in Diplo,” he says on a laugh. “Intel would be thrilled for such work ethics – instead they just get me and my ilk,” he waggles his eyebrows a little when I snort at the self-deprecation.

“Boredom is a powerful mistress,” I say wryly. “My assignments were all going to be marriage contracts and gossip collection if I didn’t do something.”

“Just don’t get in over your head,” Izumo says with a smile that’s just this side of cautious. “We report back to Konoha for anything extra for a reason.”

The only thing I’m worried about nowadays is whether or not I survive the Massacre. The Ravens keep an eye on things for me back in Konoha and I’ve already heard the increasing rumours of Uchiha shinobi being excluded from missions. I’m sure the Elders are thrilled. Kuromaru tells me that Itachi is being sent out more and more and spends more time out of the village than in it. Paranoia has me worried he’ll see me around the capital but the deeper threads of love and trust tell me that there’s nothing that will make Itachi break his word when it comes to contacting me or looking into my wellbeing. He promised.

My cousin is a lot of things, but he’s never been a liar. Not to me.

“I can handle it,” I tell him with a small smile I try to make as genuine as possible. It’s not hard; Izumo is a kind man and easy to like.

 

 

 

Work in the Capital is both different and monotonous. Watanabe-sama’s good word nets me an increase in negotiations as well as acting as bodyguard for nobles and the wealthy elite alike. Izumo’s work in intel finally gets put to use and we often wind up at Shun’s to go over things. We spend a lot of joint-missions slipping through the Court and mingling around various gatherings just eavesdropping. As shinobi, we’re afforded some fairly major leeway in regards to social standings and so despite our lack of rank we have standing invitations to most major and minor events. Sometimes we even bother to announce ourselves to our hosts; mostly we slide in and out without being noticed.

It’s a solid few months of steadily improving relations before Watanabe-sama contacts me again – directly, this time, instead of through Konoha.

“My lord,” I’m actually a little surprised to see him at my door when I call out to the sharp knock that interrupts me while I’m finishing up my monthly report back home. I make a motion to stand and he waves me off. “Did we have an appointment?” The Embassy shinobi usually take turns acting as secretary and I hadn’t had a message brought up all day.

“No,” he says and settles into the seat across my desk. “I wanted to run something by you immediately before wasting my time with the bureaucracy of it all.”

“Well,” I set my work aside, “I am at the disposal of the Court. What did you want to discuss?”

“Daimyo-sama has awarded command over some of our northern troops to my power. I’ll be travelling to the border to deal with what may be an incursion from Lightning.”

“I’m assuming that ‘may’ is because of Hot Water.” The Land of Hot Water is somewhat a laughing-stock amongst the Great Nations. Yugakure shinobi are by-and-large reliant solely on observation and have stopped offering any sort of combat-related services. At best, they’re like really sneaky hall-monitors – only for the entire country. The large swath of scattered resorts and the presence of another shinobi village – even one so poor as Yugakure – is enough that neither Lightning nor Fire have made any attempt to take that land. I think they enjoy the buffer zone.

Still, just because they won’t take it doesn’t mean they don’t go through it free as you please – Yugakure certainly won’t try to stop either side, so long as we keep any combat out of their borders (or, more usually, at least away from any settled areas).

“Indeed,” Watanabe-sama says with little humour. “I’m to meet with one of their Daimyo’s generals to gently dissuade them from any hasty action. Being that they are from Lightning, they will undoubtedly bring their own shinobi.”

“So you would like a team to join you?”

“Just one,” he says and stares at me pointedly. “I’m quite sure, knowing this general of theirs personally as I do, that he will bring a standard team. What I want to know is if you, Aiko-san, are up to the task of representing your village well enough alone.”

“A power move,” I say, “One of ours is worth a team of yours, yes?”

“Just so,” he agrees with the missing humour of before.

I don’t doubt my own skills. Having been nominally trained by a sannin and moderately kept up with two ANBU geniuses, I’m more than a match for even three genin, or a single chunin when pressed, if it came to blows. A standard team implies either a pair of chunin, or a jounin and three genin. The jounin, I worry about. “This doesn’t precisely fall under my purview,” I say slowly, “but then, you know that – having come to me directly. If you’re not expecting outright combat and only a simple show of power…it isn’t outside my abilities. If not, at the very least, it’s adjacent to them.”

“So you will help?”

This is a terrible idea. I should definitely turn him down and request a team from Konoha. But recent intel puts Watanabe-sama departing in the next day and it’s not nearly enough time to find a well-matched team to dispatch from the village, even assuming I could get a message back before nightfall.

“I’m at your disposal, Watanabe-sama.”

A terrible idea.