Naoko wakes on the night of the Kyuubi attack, knowledge running through their mind, and magic through their veins.
They open their eyes, ethereal flames flowing from their hands and icy orbs floating in front of their eyes.
Someone enters through the window, and the otherworldly effects vanish in an instant.
Naoko looks at the shinobi who places a baby down in the orphanage and disappears soon after.
They clamber towards the little babe swaddled in cloth, just barely out of their mother’s womb.
“This is your fault.” The not-child tells the slumbering baby. There is no accusation, only tired, bitter acceptance.
The baby shifts and warbles out a cry.
After a moment of hesitation, Naoko takes the baby in their arms and rock him gently.
The seal on the baby glows in response to the magic residue on the child.
“Guess it’s up to me to take care of you. How does ‘otouto’ sound?”
The baby makes a slurred giggling sound.
And Naoko promptly falls in love.
Five months after the Kyuubi attack, twelve orphan children have gone missing.
Naoko keeps a careful count of the children around them and cradles their little brother closer to their chest. The toddler babbles and sticks a hand into his mouth.
Someone is abducting children where they wouldn’t be missed. Children whisper fearfully of Blank Masks and how children go missing for mysterious reasons.
Naoko won’t stand for that.
They lie in wait, outside the room of Jinro, an intelligent boy with abilities beyond average. They lean their head back against the wall and close their eyes, pretending to be asleep, and wait. Their magic chose to react to Jinro today, and what is that if not a sign?
Someone enters through the window.
Shadowy hands reach out for the sleeping boy.
For a moment, Naoko’s vision blurs and they see their little brother being taken instead.
Something in them snaps.
Blue fire washes throughout the room. It is cold and fierce like the anger that Naoko feels.
Jinro wakes up and screams, the fire passing through him and leaping straight at his abductor.
The person in the blank mask clutches their burnt limb and flees.
“You’re lucky,” Naoko tells him later, safe under the darkness of the crowded room, “the Nekomata woke up, and Neko-chan always protects children.”
Jinro, huddled close to them after the frightening encounter, nods and gives a short, thankful prayer to Neko-chan.
Naoko’s magic preens and grows.
Jinro speaks of Neko-chan to the other children and how Neko-chan’s will-o-wisps fought the Blank Masks for him.
They look around the room, untouched by fire, at the light marks that linger on Jinro’s skin where the ghostly fire had kissed him tenderly like a mother’s reassurance, and they believe him.
The legend of Neko-chan starts to spread after that.
Neko-chan watches over children. Neko-chan will protect them from the Blank Masks.
Belief is a powerful, powerful thing.
Naoko feels their magic grow by the day as more and more children whisper prayers for Neko-chan to protect them.
Because the gods they worshipped before had done nothing for them.
But Neko-chan did. Neko-chan listens and watches.
Naoko smiles at the children’s retelling of Neko-chan’s story and the awe in their baby brother’s eyes.
“Does Neko-chan grant wishes too?” A girl, Kana, asks.
Hiro pauses mid-way through the story and thinks.
“Maybe.” He says. “We can try.”
And try they do.
The orphanage is full of children with nothing to do.
When word gets out to them about the mission to ask Neko-chan for a wish, they make it a competition.
“Wanna make wish to Neko.” Naruto tells Naoko with a determined look in his bright blue eyes. “How?”
Naoko looks at their little brother and feels the magic underneath their skin swirling into patterns unseen by everyone but them.
“I wish I knew.” Naoko laughs.
Their laughter fades when a wisp of magic separates from their body and floats through the air. The translucent azure leads to a stray cat. The cat meows.
Naoko swallows and touches it carefully with a hand.
Magic flows out of them and into the cat.
“Hello there, Mika.” Naoko whispers reverently to their first follower.
They turn to Naruto. “Naru-chan, if you want to ask something of Neko-chan, make an offering and tell your wish to a cat.”
If the cat doesn’t take your offering and nod, that means that the cat is not a follower of Neko-chan.
If the cat comes back with your offering, that means that Neko-chan cannot grant your wish.
If the cat accepts your offering and disappears for three days, that means that Neko-chan has heard and Neko-chan will deliver.
Naruto gets extra dessert that evening, and the children of the orphanage scour all of Konoha for a cat and a suitable offering.
Naoko feels Mika spread their magic to the cats of Konoha.
“We will heed your call, Nekomata.” They murmur, and Naoko hears.
“Protect the children.” Naoko sings to them in their heart and calls out to them with their mind.
Naoko doesn’t know what happened that night of the Kyuubi attack.
Before, she was just a girl struggling to stay afloat. After, they became something else.
There is something in them that had been touched by death, and it whispers to them.
Whatever it is, it changed Naoko.
Naoko sure doesn’t feel like a little girl anymore, not with the memories of a boy who became a man.
But it’s fine. Whatever happened, it gave them the ability to protect their new little brother and the children of the orphanage.
One day, when the story of Neko-chan spreads beyond these dull grey walls, Neko-chan’s influence will spread and children throughout Konoha will no longer have to fear the Blank Masks.
But that day is not now, so Naoko waits for the day until Neko-chan can truly rise and be seen.
The oldest batch of orphans leave, walking on their respective paths of life.
But unlike the others before, they visit the orphanage that was the birthplace of Neko-chan, and talk to the younger children, regaling them with tales of their ghostly protector.
They bring tidings and news of the situation beyond the walls of the orphanage.
Naoko watches her little brother and listens and remembers.
The legend of Neko-chan spreads to the civilian Academy and to the shinobi Academy.
Children find cats lurking about every corner, watchful and ready for an offering to be made in exchange for a wish.
One day, a child that has nothing but gossip to offer, whispers about her shinobi parents that have been called away for a very, very secret and important mission. The cat listens and does not return for three days.
The child finds a pretty hairbrush waiting for her in her bedroom.
And the children learn that not all offerings have to be solid, for Neko-chan will accept whatever the children have to offer.
Naoko slowly eats their breakfast as the cat tells them of the information it has gathered.
They learn that information, in this shinobi world, is more precious than anything else.
The legend of Neko-chan grows, a stark contrast to the little children’s tale it had been barely a year ago.
Children in Konoha know of Neko-chan. And they know that she is real, as seen by the gifts she has granted them.
Naoko’s magic sparks with every offering accepted, with every piece of information that the cats give them.
They make little knick-knacks for the children that ask for such material things, magicking the scrap items into things that the children desire. Every gift of Neko-chan is made with magic, and the leftovers of items that Naoko has managed to find.
Neko-chan keeps all the offerings, except for the consumables that the cats have already devoured. They lie, hidden in the corner of an abandoned building, reminders of the children who believe in her and ask of her protection.
Naoko isn’t Neko-chan. Naoko has Neko-chan’s magic and Neko-chan’s memories, but Naoko doesn’t have Neko-chan’s belief.
Naoko is a six-year-old with a little brother who is only a year old. They like to read and they are one of the best storytellers in the orphanage.
They are not Neko-chan. Neko-chan is a legend who can conjure up will-o-wisps and has the ears of cats throughout the village. Neko-chan is an ethereal being, a protector of children.
Neko-chan is believed in.
That is the main difference between Neko-chan and Naoko.
No one remembers Naoko, for she has done nothing to be remembered by. Even when Naoko changed to become another Naoko, no one remembered that they weren’t always this way.
But Neko-chan is a legend, and what are legends without belief?
Neko-chan appeared on the night of the Kyuubi attack, the children whisper. The Blank Masks are remnants of the evil of the demon that attacked, and the evil beings took the children away.
But on a night of a full moon, a time when the moon sees all, the moon noticed the evil and sent Neko-chan down to Konoha to protect the children and purify the evil beings.
For as long as a child believes in Neko-chan, she will protect them from the Blank Masks.
If one wants to ask Neko-chan of a wish, just find a cat and make an offering. It can be anything- from a souvenir to a piece of information. If the cat disappears for three days, that means that Neko-chan will grant the wish.
It was foolish for Naoko to assume that no one else would learn of Neko-chan.
They sit down by the playground and watch Naruto play on the slide when they hear someone start to talk.
It’s a teenager, a boy about twelve-years-old with a cat in his lap.
“Neko-chan, can you please make my little cousin Itachi happy?” The teenager gives the cat a wooden kunai.
The cat takes the kunai and pads over to Naoko.
It drops the kunai in front of them, curls up on their lap and purrs.
“Wha-? Hey!” The teenager scowls.
Naoko stares at the kunai, then up at the teenager, and laughs.
“C’mon, I thought you were supposed to go to Neko-chan, not- not off gallivanting to a kid!” The teenager points at the cat accusingly.
The cat purrs.
Naoko is laughing so hard that their whole body is shaking. The cat rolls off their lap and onto the ground.
It glares at Naoko balefully and stalks off.
“I can help fulfil your wish for Neko-chan.” Naoko offers, picking up the wooden kunai. There is the tell-tale sign of magic on the offering. They pocket it.
The teenager huffs. Naoko glances at the head protector on his forehead with slight surprise. A shinobi, then.
“Yeah, why not?” The teenager says. “That’s Itachi.” He points to a boy about Naoko’s age. “Make him laugh, and I’ll let you keep that kunai.”
Naoko smiles and walks over to the black-haired boy.
“Hello.” They say, noticing that Naruto is playing with a child who looks like the boy in front of them.
The boy turns to them and nods in acknowledgement.
“Your cousin asked me to make you laugh.” Naoko probes.
The boy stares at them emotionlessly.
“But I don’t think I can do that.” Naoko says, turning their eyes to their little brother. “But I know someone who can.”
“Naru-chan, who’s your friend?” They coo.
Naruto looks up and toddles over. “’Ke.” He points at the other toddler.
“Ru!” ‘Ke’ cheers.
“This is An’ki. Best!” Naruto says, hugging Naoko’s leg.
“Nuh, uh! My An’ki’s best!” ‘Ke’ says defiantly, determinedly toddling over to Itachi.
“My An’ki tells stories of Neko-chan!” Naruto says. “An’ki saw her!”
‘Ke’ gasps in awe. “Really?” He asks Naoko.
“I saw her will-o-wisps.” Naoko mock-whispers. They think they see Itachi smile at ‘Ke’s’ obvious reverence.
“Sasuke, it’s not nice to bother people like that.” Itachi says.
“It’s fine. Your brother’s almost as adorable as mine.” Naoko says. Itachi looks minutely offended.
“What they look like?” Sasuke asks.
“The will-o-wisps… They’re… beautiful. Like a blue moon coming to life in fire that doesn’t burn. They feel cool, like ice in the summer, and they make you feel safe, like being with someone you know will protect you after a nightmare. They look like mist come alive, like ghosts that you’re scared of, but you know will always protect you.”
Sasuke stares at them, eyes wide. Naoko blushes.
“Neko-chan is magic, and Neko-chan protects. She brings light in darkness and drives away the Blank Masks.”
“Blank Masks?” Someone interrupts.
It’s the teenager.
“Rude.” Naoko says at the same time as Naruto and Sasuke.
The teen sticks his tongue out at Sasuke’s direction. “Blank Masks?” He repeats.
“You dunno what Blank Masks are? Idiot.” Naruto says derisively. Naoko flicks him in the back on his head and he yelps.
“Blank Masks are the evil remnants of the demon who steal children away in the night. Neko-chan protects children from them.” Naoko explains.
The teenager is silent for a while. Naoko turns to Itachi, a question on their face. Itachi makes a shrugging motion.
“Hey, do you know what the Blank Masks look like?” The teenager asks.
“Bad people, wear black and have blank masks.” Naruto answers. “They almost took Jinro-nii away, but Neko-chan saved him.”
“You know how to make an offering to Neko-chan but not what Neko-chan does?” Naoko asks.
The teenager laughs sheepishly and scratches his cheek. “I saw kids doing that, so I thought it was a new way of making wishes.”
“Idiot.” Naruto scoffs. He yelps when the teenager pokes his ribs.
“An’ki! He’s bullying me!” He yelps and hides behind Naoko.
“Shisui’s a meanie.” Sasuke says conspiratorially. He then yelps when Shisui pokes him.
“Ru! Save me from the meanie!” Sasuke yells and runs to Naruto, but trips and fall flat on his face.
“Avenge me.” He says weakly, pawing at Naruto’s chubby leg.
“Ke! I’ll never forget you!” Naruto sniffles and says valiantly.
Naoko blinks and turns to Itachi, who looks as surprised at the sound as they are.
“Hey! He laughed!” Shisui says, stating the obvious.
Inside Naoko’s pocket, the wooden kunai glows. Moments later, Naoko feels her magic expand with another wish granted, and the start of another believer.