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Let Them Eat Cake

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It was very dark and very warm when I woke.

 

I didn't know where I was.

 

-an ambulance wailed in the night, blue and red flashing behind closed lids and cold hands touching my face-

 

I didn't know who I was.

 

- "Honey, hold on- over here! Over here!"-

 

I couldn't move and I wasn't breathing.

 

There was nothing but the soft pulse gently thrumming my veins, curled up and suspended like a teabag in water, and.

 

And I waited.

 

There was no crying because I couldn't cry.

 

There was nothing to look at, except the bruise purple darkness around me. 

 

Impressions of sound passed by in irregular intervals, thick and slurred and indistinct. So fleeting, I wondered if I merely imagined them.

 

- I was cold and scared. A woman was holding me. I didn't know her, didn't know the soft fall of her black hair or the thick mascara that stained her tears dirty grey. And yet, in those final moments-

 

Final, final, how did I know they were final? Were they not a beginning? Had I not always been there on that tarmac - what was tarmac? - and under those strange lights?

 

-I felt as though she belonged to me. As if we had some hold on each other, her hands grabbing mine like tethers to this world. My Stranger. 

 

( Did that make me hers too?)

 

I couldn't possibly guess how much time had passed.

 

(In hindsight, looking back, it was many months. The obvious number.)

 

Then, somehow sudden and yet completely expected all at once, everything changed.

 

My cocoon - 'prison' conjured images of cold bars and danger circling, a far cry from where I really was - shuddered around me, noises coming even sharper and louder than they had when I, in moments when I just needed to stretch, lashed out with my stiff little limbs. 

 

And then the fluid around me - which I now knew for sure had been liquid in the absence of it - was draining away.

 

I'd….really rather fucking not linger on what happened next.

 

It was cold and sharp, the air that had been quite literally slapped into my lungs so much harsher than what I was used to. My body was beyond my control and, after so long huddled in warm safety, the feeling of being held to the elements - exposed, danger, weak, SCREAM- had me on the verge of a panic attack.

 

I wheezed and hacked like some kind of terrified animal, bawling my eyes out because I may not have known what was happening but I could almost feel myself falling.

 

Something warm and long curled around me, pulled me against a fabric - clothes, holy fuck, I had just been born - and I was so shocked that my eyes-

 

Opened.

 

I couldn't see much, unsurprising seeing as I had just been born, but the colours that shifted above me were so new and so familiar that I actually stopped crying.

 

A tanned blob-

 

-sunshine and sun cream, the buzz of wasps and the drip of condensation from a beer bottle. The salt of the sea and the pulse of the heat, white skin peeling pink and freckles dancing across every limb. 

 

Dark hair and dark eyes and white teeth-

 

-became marginally clearer. 

 

A wide, smiling mouth beamed. Cuddled me close with strong arms and shaking fingers, those digits trailing lovingly across my sensitive face. Touched my chin and lingered.

 

Something in me, something that had known this all before and knew it now again, brought tears to my eyes.

 

My new father was crying too. He, however, looked happy.

 

"Kiharu," he whispered, reverent.

 

Another child, another name flickered in my mind before fading away, an ember where a fire had once roared.

 

I looked back at my father and started crying harder.

 

…………………………………………………………………...

 

My Second Life - for what else could it be, to know life and death and then know it again? - was… odd.

 

Maybe this was just what happened when you lived again. Maybe it was my First that had been odd and my Second was going to set the precedent for everything that would follow. Maybe this happened to everyone from before.

 

I may have been a baby, stuck with a baby's mind, but I really doubted it.

 

My parents - Seiichi and Aki, I was almost certain, considering that they tended to just… address each other or utter endearments - were first-time parents and I was incredibly glad for it.

 

They seemed to just… roll with it. When I bawled my eyes out over anything, when I stared at them with eyes far too knowing and aware. How I floundered between the extreme emotions and stared at nothing. They were young too, barely twenty and so deliriously in love that I didn't doubt they were still firmly in their honeymoon stage.

 

I didn't know… what to do with everything.

 

I had been someone - I was still someone - and I'd had a family - I had one now - and friends and a future - the potential loomed, I was just a baby after all.

 

I had died young; I hadn't withered after a full life and clutching my pearls in my rocking chair. I hadn't resigned myself to death. By rights, I should have kicked off and kept kicking - I should be furious with whatever higher power had plonked me down here.

 

But, despite the fact I was literally lifted and laid and slept almost all of my time, I was so tired.

 

Weary, in the way only an ex-Millenium kid could be. 

 

Memories, shattered and distant like dilapidated stained glass windows, fluttered through my mind constantly. I remembered how global warming and civil rights and generational hopelessness had used to squeeze my too-young heart with too-old grief and felt little of that old pain.

 

I remembered brushing long hair and painting my toenails, remembered the whip of waist-high grass gone to seed and the stick of tree sap and melted ice lolly between fingers that were calloused from hours of drawing. Remembered the ache of a period and the soft, awkward press of my first kiss and the flush of humiliation when I was caught sleeping in maths at school.

 

I wondered if I dreamed it all. 

 

Aki gripped me under my arms with careful hands, nails manicured and skin soft from rose-scented lotion. Her hair was blonde, naturally so and rippled through with honey highlights, and some part of me whispered mine. Her lips, damp from her tea, pressed against the crown of my head, scalp barely covered by hair that was still wispy thin. Her voice, careful and low like a secret between us, murmured a language I didn't understand. 

 

One I recognised regardless.

 

Staring over her shoulder, down a corridor my baby eyes could barely distinguish, I wondered if I was mad.



……………………………………………………………….



We settled into a routine.

 

Dad, who was tanned and tall and laughed all the time, worked a steady job. He'd had time off - paternity leaves , that old part of me murmured - but I was such an avid sleeper, rarely screaming because why bother when kicking had much the same effect with parents who were so vigilant, that he didn't stay off long. He wore blues with a green jacket and those odd sandals every day, like some kind of police officer. He left really early in the morning before the sunrise could fully emerge, and always came in to see me before he left.

 

Around that time, I would generally wake up and bask in the rare moment I was left alone. Despite the language barrier that prevented me from understanding a single thing that was said, I had grown to really care for my new parents. They were so normal and happy together, delighted in every single thing that I did and I was helplessly charmed.

 

And yet, I relished the space. 

 

In the quiet hours, when the sky was the barest lavender that I could just make out through the pale blinds beside my cot. The house was utterly silent, even the dog - which I hadn't yet met, I assumed because it was being kept away from me for now, but I knew existed from the large cushion on the living room floor and the water bowl in the kitchen - ceased padding around and slept. 

 

I cried silently, admittedly brooded and tried to piece together the fragments of who I had been. 

 

Then, when my room had lightened to a pale grey, the door would silently push open and Dad would creep through.

 

He would speak to me, dark eyes meeting mine and then crinkling up in a blinding grin. One hand beneath my head whilst the other supported my back.

 

He smelled, Old-me knew, of lemon shampoo and mechanical oil. I wondered if he worked in a factory, one that demanded such an odd uniform but almost as quickly discarded that line of thought. I didn't know what kind of world, society, this was. I wouldn't for a while.

 

He would sing to me - hum, in all honesty, conscious that Mum was fast asleep in the adjoining room -, rocking gently as he circuited the nursery a few times and carefully pulled the blinds up. The room grew marginally brighter and I rested my head in the crook of his shoulder with a soft sigh.

 

After Dad left, having fed and changed me, it was just Mum and me together until evening. She would clean and cook, reading aloud from seemingly endless shelves of books. By evening time, after a day of sleep and cuddles and essentially puttering around, Dad would return for dinner. 

 

Without much to distract me, save my parent's attention or my own memories, I spent a lot of those first months just observing.

 

I had little dimples on my belly from vaccines I'd been given shortly after I was born, a reassurance of advanced medicine that I hadn't known I'd needed so desperately until it was provided.

 

The house, what little I could squint to distinguish, seemed almost unnervingly close to what I was used to and yet so profoundly different that it was all the more jarring. Mum never watched TV or listened to the radio because she didn't have one and yet the lights were all fitted and switched on as I had always known them to be before. 

 

We had running water, a large shower cubicle and a luxurious bath. Aki wore makeup on days when she wanted to but nothing was branded. Her clothes were beautiful but distinctly hand sewn. Seamstresses, then, and not consumerist fast-fashion. 

 

We had no servants, not even a cleaner despite the generous size of the house and the fact that Aki never seemed to tear the place down cleaning it. The floors were real wood, the sofa made of real leather - the smell and buttery feel gave it away - but I had the odd sensation that we weren't rich. 

 

Where was I, in a world where seemingly anyone could have things that would've cost an arm and a leg back home?

 

Then there was the culture.

 

The language, from what I heard and vaguely recognised, was, if not closely resembling, Japanese.

 

Needless to say, I didn't know shit about Japanese.

 

Seeing as I was roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and that was including the blankets I was often swaddled in, I didn't curse myself too harshly for being unable to properly see the words Mum would read or the occasional note Dad would tag to the fridge. Still, there was a lip by the front door where Dad would abandon his weird sandals for slippers and they had a little ritual of phrases for greeting each other and starting meals.

 

Like all their little habits - like Aki tickling me with strands of her hair and kissing Dad's nose, like Dad always forgetting to blow on his food and instead forced to huff and puff until he could swallow-

 

-I was as enamoured by them as they seemed to be by me.

 

(I stopped crying, genuinely crying the tears of the grieving, every night when I was around two months old.)

 

……………………………………………………………..

 

I started teaching myself to sit. Probably far too early but I didn't know much about baby development - having been the youngest in my old family and never really interacting with babies at all - and so I didn't really have any excuse not to try. It wasn't like I was an actual baby who had the instincts to know when I was ready to start certain things.

 

Still, self-conscious about freaking my parents out, I kept my practice to myself.

 

I didn't remember having broken a limb before , so I couldn't, beyond the new experiences, remember any kind of physiotherapy. Anything where my body betrayed me, unless wheezing through P.E counted. 

 

In the weeks it took to gain any semblance of control over my own damned limbs, I returned to kicking off tantrums.

 

Part of me, the tiny mature bit, was ashamed. Aki was finally getting full night's rest, catching up on the fatigue of pushing a watermelon-sized human from her body, and now I'd seemingly renegade on our unspoken truce. I'd try to sit, inevitably fall over, and be such a huge bitch over it that everyone else in the house had to be miserable too. 

 

No, I didn't want to be changed or rocked or burped or to suck on a tit, I wanted to walk. I wanted my body to obey .

 

I genuinely think I scared Dad more when, a week later and finally sitting in my crib - slumped over is a more accurate description -, he woke to my spontaneous cackling.

 

If he was anything other than delighted to see me plonked on my own nappy-ed ass, pudgy fingers firmly clasping the pale oak bars of my crib and only three months old, he didn't show it. 

 

Despite the stupid hour, Mum was more than happy to wake to Dad's shout that I was supporting myself - I assumed - and dawn was spent having a little celebration for the first of what would be many personal victories.

 

The days blurred again, different in the fact that I had designated Tummy Time and was encouraged to sit between Mum's knees as much as possible, finally working my way up to leaning back against her legs as she gently held my fists.

 

I could admit to becoming… complacent. It was hard not to be, considering the gentle shift of our daily routines. Nothing new happened unless it was something I did, whether that was looking around or clapping or laughing or whatever. If the change happened, it was because I set the pace .

 

Until one day, Dad didn't leave for work.

 

I woke up at dawn and he didn't come in to greet me, the faint drone of his nasally snores audible from the bedroom. This was actually the first time our little ritual had been broken and I lay there, flummoxed by the pout pushing on my lower lip. If Dad had a day off, in a world where weekends seemingly weren't a thing, then good for him.

 

And yet, I felt jilted! 

 

I almost wanted to make some noise, a cry or a shout or whatever it took to get him over here. Because I had been awake for a while, I'd stared into the abyss plenty for this morning thank you very much, and I didn't want to wait around for him.

 

Babyhood had, obviously, made me a spoiled little shit.

 

Still, I metaphorically bit my lip - because I didn't have teeth - and let him lie in. 

 

When he did wake up, when the sun had risen properly and Mum was in the shower, I was a little too busy brushing him off - as much as a baby, cradled in her father's arms, feasibly could - to wonder exactly why he wasn't gone.

 

The answer was the thing in the living room.

 

At first, still as blind as Velma without her glasses, I had passed it off as a throw on the sofa, black velvet or something equally stupidly luxurious. I had been a spring baby and it was a balmy summer now, but I didn't linger too much on it. I was much too busy trying to shame my father with a series of baby side-eyes and button-nose snubs. Considering the fact that he was still singing to me (poorly), I didn't think he noticed which, naturally, only made me crankier. 

 

But then, obvious even to me and from my height, the throw moved.

 

I must've made some kind of noise, a squawk, that alerted Dad. Instead of being a good parent and protecting me from the not-throw, he took me towards it.

 

I was rapidly becoming a mummy's girl.

 

Whatever platitudes or explanations left his lips were lost on me, an incomprehensible babble dotted liberally with what I recognised as my own name and the words I had come to assume were 'it's okay' from the number of times I heard it whilst crying. 

 

One hundred per cent not reassured, I screamed a little louder when I was turned to face the thing.

 

Bright eyes, large enough and close enough to be reasonably clear to me, bore into mine.

 

The pupils, bisecting irises of fierce emerald green, were thin slits.

 

I froze like a deer in headlights.

 

Something stupid managed to filter through the chaotic jumble of my thoughts. Not running from dogs, movement-based vision and that scene in Jurassic World when Chris Pratt covered himself in fuel to hide. 

 

Held with my back to Dad's chest, his hand under my arms and the other under my nappy, I wasn't in a position to do anything but freeze like the prey I really, really was.

 

Please don't tell me this is a universe where babies are sacrificed to wild animals, holy fuck .

 

"Kiharu-chan!" Dad babbled, voice reverberating through my spine, seemingly delighted with the apex predator sizing up his only child. A stream of utter nonsense and then-" Hitoshi."

 

Great , we were being introduced.

 

Heart jackrabbiting in the clutch of my stupidly small ribcage, the fucking panther took that as permission to shift even closer. It's nose brushed over the delicate tissue of my feet, whiskers bristling as it scented me.

 

Its mouth opened, exposing rows of fangs and a wet, red tongue and-

 

It spoke.

 

My heart beat once, twice.

 

My mind blanked and completely rejected what my senses were telling it, rejected reality.

 

It was just-just instinct.

 

And I just-

 

Kicked the panther right smack in the nose.

 

There was a lot of screaming - my fault - and shouting - Dad was scolding me, I think, which was fucking unfair in the name of self-defence - and then the panther was snarling and pacing but not attacking and Mum was running in and asking rapid-fire questions, taking me from Dad and wagging a finger at the predator that tried to eat me.

 

Not feeling like the severity of the situation was being appreciated enough, I decided to scream harder.

 

All focus snapped back to me, which unfortunately included the panther too, and both parents rushed to reassure me with hushed murmurs and gentle bouncing. I could feel the way my face had turned red, feel the heat radiating and the roar in my ears, and I realised that my parents didn't have a dog they were keeping away from the new baby but a fucking panther that spoke.

 

Utterly betrayed by the veneer of normalcy that I'd been taken in by, I screamed myself hoarse and to the brink of exhaustion.

 

An hour later, slumped against the crook of Mum's hair and feeling utterly cheated , the three of us were sitting quietly on the sofa. Face hidden, I tried not to think about where the panther currently was.

 

If he does eat me, surely I'll just wake up again, it hardly matters, and that way I'll skip the bullshit of a domesticated panther-

 

But… I was a little reluctant to give up my new parents so quickly, even if they apparently lacked all common sense. And the thought of existing in a womb again so soon was more than depressing.

 

Still, my own bastardised and theoretical - three was a trend and I was only on Life Two, after all - immortality did make me feel marginally less like prey. I found it in myself to sniffle my way to silence.

 

Apparently bolstered by my returning calm, Dad started speaking again and that disturbingly deep voice replied.

 

It wasn't Dad and it definitely wasn't Mum.

 

The panther, my mouth twisted against the fabric of Mum's collar. Hitoshi.  

 

There was a snuffle of movement on the sofa beside Mum, heat radiating from a huge figure that I could feel close by but not see. 

 

And then- the skim of whiskers brushing my feet and back. I tried to twitch away but Mum's arm looped beneath me didn't give me much room to retreat. 

 

Something silky smooth pressed against the arch of my foot, vibrating against me and filling the air with a rolling noise, like thunder or an idle engine.

 

Purring, I realised with a jolt. Hitoshi was purring.

 

He kept purring all day, stayed close to me but out of sight, occasionally bumping against me or speaking to my mother.

 

It struck me, as the hours ticked past and the genuine normalcy of the situation pierced through the shock, that Aki and Seiichi spoke to Hitoshi like he was another adult in the house. I understood little of what was said, between names and the words for meals and other normal things that I'd slowly assimilated into my vocabulary. But… the tone, the questions posed, all felt like something shared between equals. Hitoshi sounded prideful, speaking slowly out of seeming thoughtfulness and not stupidity. After nothing but baby talk, I was feeling a little foolish.

 

I had been asleep when we came home from the hospital. Idly, I wondered if our very normal house was actually in the middle of a rainforest. 

 

Hitoshi stayed beside me all day. And, when I was put down for bed after dinner, he padded through on velvet paws to peer through the bars of my crib, like some backwards zoo enclosure.

 

Evidently, despite the great big kick I'd planted on his sensitive nose, meeting me was a watershed moment. 

 

Steadfastly ignoring his slow and steady breathing from where he kept vigil beside me, so close I could touch his shoulder through the bars - and I wasn't sure if it was my own small size or my memories failing me but I hadn't thought panthers were so big - I succumbed to sleep.

 

When I woke at dawn, as per usual, to contemplate the existence of God varying across universes, Hitoshi had moved only to lie down. When Dad came in to see me - evidently his day off had been purely to introduce me to the panther - he cast Hitoshi an indulgent smile before continuing our ritual as normal. When he left for the day, it was with Hitoshi on his heels.

 

I spent the entire day trying to rationalise how a panther could speak and why a factory worker-potential-police officer might need one as a companion.

 

Needless to say, I didn't get far.

 

That evening, when Mum settled me down in my crib, I noted the huge pillow from the living room had migrated to the floor before my crib, directly between me and the door.

 

When I woke at dawn and, twisting my head on my pathetically weak neck, met watchful emerald eyes-

 

It wasn't a smile, okay. It was a smirk.

 

……………………………………………………………

 

Meeting Hitoshi turned out to be a watershed moment for a lot of things. 

 

At four months old, we finally had visitors.

 

I was a little put out with all of this - yes, it was inevitable and change was good, change was informative , but there was something to be said for the comfort of a bubble life - but curiosity naturally beat out complacency. 

 

I was sleeping a little less now, shifting from that fresh and wrinkled stage to something that could kind of move and kind of had hair. Not a lot of it, mind you, but it was definitely more than before from how Dad liked to play with it. I knew people had come around, the murmur of voices and cooing of strangers filtering through my daily dozing, but I hadn't been aware through them.

 

Hitoshi, having taken himself up as my guard, a dubious honour after the way I treated him, had taken to watching me whilst Mum was out of the room. She'd pop me down on the soft blanket in the middle of the living room floor, bracketed by a mountain of cushions and reclining back to gaze at the ceiling. And...as soon as she was out of the door, Hitoshi was up and padding over to investigate.

 

He snuffled at me, silent because he had very quickly grasped my displeasure at every flash of pearly incisor, before caging me between his forelegs for a good old cuddle.

 

Hypocrite that I was after the fuss I kicked off, I couldn't deny the impressive senience Hitoshi displayed. He wasn't like some domesticated animal allowing a baby to yank on its fur, he was like another parent in the body of an apex predator. And, as much as I respected his teeth, he was warm and gentle and he purred. Rolling, comforting. I swear I could feel the endorphins flooding my brain to the sound that was quickly becoming the symphony of my childhood here.

 

Hitoshi was also large, much larger than I remembered panthers being before , but this was a new world so I just accepted it, a frankly easier pill than the concept that he could speak. He was closer to the size of a small horse than a big cat, paws larger than Dad's hands bracketing me in. He didn't lick me, whether because he didn't have the instinct to or because I wasn't hairy enough to require grooming or because my parents had rules about baby cleanliness, but he did cuddle me something fierce.

 

Mollified by his devotion, the deep pitch of his purrs and the velvet plush of his inky fur, my heart slowly accepted another into our little family.

 

We had only a few regular visitors.

 

One was an older woman, someone I would place around the middle-aged mark, with flowing platinum hair held back by a butterfly clasp and a soft pink robe swathing her slight figure. She was gentle and soft-spoken, holding me much easier than my parents had at the start and I recognised a woman who knew babies in the soft assurance of her posture. She smelled of the same lotion Mum did and I wondered if they'd recommended it to each other or if it was just something they had in common. The connection, as it was, lulled me to sleep easily.

 

Yuri was her name. I wondered if she was my grandmother.

 

Before I turned five months, our visitors increased again. This time, a couple.

 

It was late when I heard the voices. I had been set down for bed again, still sleeping roughly fourteen hours a day. However, I'd spend the entire day nursed between Hitoshi's paws in a drowsy stupor. So, I was actually awake to hear the people in the kitchen. 

 

My sight, distance-wise, wasn't good. But my hearing seemed to improve by leaps and bounds, even keener than I remembered it being from before. Maybe that was just faulty memories, what happened when deprived of almost all senses in the womb.

 

Regardless, the murmurs of conversation pierced my staring match with Hitoshi and I reflexively twisted to try and peer at the door.

 

Following the direction of my attention, Hitoshi spoke in a low tone. I wasn't sure if he was humouring me or if he didn't understand that I didn't know what he was saying.

 

A word caught, customised as I had become to the cadence and flow of the language.

 

I felt pale, just as the door cracked open and my Dad poked his head around to see if I was sleeping, coming in fully when Hitoshi spoke.

 

A man followed him, tall and broad as my Dad. His fair hair hung down his back in a high ponytail, his fringe falling over a headband.

 

Utter disbelief froze my limbs, gripped me as still as a doll as Dad picked me up and started introducing me.

 

Hitoshi had already mentioned our guest.

 

But I knew him.

 

I knew that hair, those clothes, that name.

 

And, as pupilless aqua eyes peered kindly down at me from the face of a young but weathered man, I could scarcely draw breath.

 

This was worse, god this was worse. Worse than being offered to a panther like a slab of meat, worse than those traumatic hours of labour, worse than the vague memories of death I could fumble to recall.

 

Because this was happening and I couldn't escape. This was my future and I knew what was coming.

 

Hitoshi's intelligence made sense. His very presence made sense. Dad's odd uniform - oh god, oh fuck - and the Japanese I was slowly navigating.

 

Dad bounced me a few times, holding me up so that the blonde could tickle a forefinger across my cheek, his own face washed in the gentle glow of my nightlight. "Kiharu," Dad gushed with all the pride and elation of a new parent.

 

Yamanaka Inoichi, Konoha emblem glinting on his headband, beamed back and, capturing one of my limp hands, pretended to shake it with false solemnity. "Inoichi-oji, Kiharu-chan," he introduced himself.

 

I couldn't even bring myself to scream this time.

 

……………………………………………………………

 

I-I-

 

I didn't cope well.

 

I was in the Narutoverse.

 

….what?

 

The Narutoverse.

 

Days passed in a haze of sleep and total incomprehension.

 

Dad came to me at dawn and I feigned unconsciousness, unwilling to look upon his uniform and see it for what it was. To think about what that meant. What those gentle, calloused hands had done.

 

Hitoshi lounged beside me, seemingly content to allow Dad to go to work alone, and licked his chops. 

 

I tried to ignore thoughts of what those teeth had done.

 

I clung to my mother, the civilian, and tried to ignore how Dad's face crumpled in disappointment every time I fussed for her. 

 

Aki murmured a single phrase over and over, every time I couldn't settle in his grip and she had to intervene. I knew exactly what she was saying in that calm, reassuring tone.

 

"It's just a phase, she doesn't hate you."

 

I didn't hate Dad, she was right. I loved him, had grown to love them all and our sunlit house. 

 

I was terrified.

 

I wouldn't be forced to become a ninja, I knew this. I would disappoint my parents, perhaps. The higher powers, certainly. But my mother was a civilian and I didn't recognise my father as a character, in name or appearance, so I was as reassured as I could be that I could avoid being a child soldier.

 

But Naruto… between the lines, it was a massacre of the innocent. Incomprehensible powers that tore the world and reality itself asunder, I had no place I could flee to to escape any fall out of this world. 

 

We lived in Konoha, which would either be destroyed in the future by Pain or constantly under threat from an endless list of enemies at any time. Regardless of the timeline - and, judging by Inoichi's presence, I would see this village attacked by the Kyuubi, invaded by Orochimaru and crushed by Akatsuki, lucky me to roll all three - I was in danger just by being here.

 

Being born into a family that loved me, that was comfortable and could support itself and into a place of relative peace… it had been a miracle.

 

But every coin had its opposing side.

 

This would be the price I would pay for a home like this.

 

For the first time in a while, I woke at dawn and cried. This time it wasn't for myself and all that I had once lost and loved and known.

 

It was for the pain ahead, for the fates of my parents and this village around me and all the innocents who would die because of a twisted few.

 

And, when Dad came in and scooped me up, breathing a lullaby against my wet, ruddy cheek-

 

I held him tighter.



……………………………………………………………

 

The days passed quickly after I realised where I was.

 

I had learned to time my naps so that I was awake shortly after noon and then in the wee hours before dawn. If I had spent the whole of my waking time with my mother, I felt exhausted by her attention and all the things she showed me. Wooden toys and rattles and soft flannel teddies that looked well chewed, I assumed from their own childhoods. In the daytime, I tried to pay strict attention to her conversations with Hitoshi, to the words she said as she pointed out everything around me, but I had never had the mind for languages as some people did and headaches, when one was a baby, were not fun.

 

In the early hours, those spent with Dad as he gently rocked me on slow, meandering walks of the house and quietly warmed a bottle for me in the microwave, it was peaceful.

 

Ironic, I would think with fresh eyes, that nights were for Dad, the professional murderer.

 

Sometimes, I let the acknowledgement of what he was wash over me and let it stay there to stew. Dispassionate eyes tracking the utter silence of his steps, the odd scars and callouses of his hands, the nimbleness of his fingers. 

 

Other times, when my new-found bitterness was tempered by memories of history lectures, exams around the power of propaganda and state monopoly. When I was able to look at him and see a person raised in a world where shinobi were respected and a massive part of the fabric of civilisation. On those mornings, I very nearly pitied him.

 

Being with my mother was easy. A facade of normalcy, where I could stretch this new body and push my mind and exhaust myself rolling around in the space between Hitoshi's paws.

 

But at night, in that interlude between sleep and activity, I learned to cope.

 

It was in spending time with Seiichi, with Dad , that I stopped hyper fixating on what lay ahead of us all. Was able to crush intrusive, escapist thoughts that wondered about the effectiveness of a fall from a cot and drowning in my baby bathtub. They were easy to move past - Hitoshi would never have let them happen.

 

Days turned into months and my body grew stronger.

 

I was six months when the trees outside started to fade to gold and amber, vibrant against the perpetually blue sky. Mum started taking me on little trips outside of the house at that point, trips down our well-maintained front garden and onto a packed-earth street and down into a village shop. The world rushed by me in a symphony of indistinguishable voices, strapped as I was by a large wide scarf to Mum's chest. People stopped to peer at me and, frankly overwhelmed, I kept my eyes firmly clamped shut.

 

The word for blue was passed around a lot and I assumed they were talking about my eyes. How novel.

 

Hitoshi never came with us on these walks, which was rather frustrating considering the fact that he felt the need to guard my crib but not my exposed little body on the middle of the street. Then again, from what I have picked up about Hitoshi's attitude - that was to say, he had one - I assumed that he was banned from most shops. More likely, he flat out refused to go in.

 

A few times, we had more visitors come to the house. Inoichi - I would roll in my grave if I had one - and a man I was perturbed to place as his brother. Older, from looks and the way he talked to him, with a frail ginger woman on one arm and a little head of similarly fiery hair peeking out of a bassinette hooked on the other.

 

I was almost violently reminded of Ponyo.

 

Inoko, Inoichi's niece - I was developing a twitch in one eye every time this man's character was fleshed out into a living, breathing human being -, was an eerily normal baby.

 

Braced against my own father's neck as Inoichi's brother - Inokumo - tried to get his daughter to wave, I watched the other baby extremely closely for any signs of advanced life.

 

That was if she was like me. If I was one in many.

 

It was pretty obvious she was not. 

 

In fact, as we were kept so closely together for the day, our parents seemed to twig that I was...well, more than Inoko. From the way they looked at us, all bemused smiles and thoughtful eyes, I knew the moment they started comparing our progress. 

 

Hitoshi remained totally silent beside me. For whatever his reasons, his presence felt like solidarity.

 

Inoko was… interesting, though. 

 

She was a happy baby, giggly and always smiling widely, gums proudly displayed. As someone who hasn't really had the opportunity to be around babies before and was more than a little keen to speed up my own experience, it was oddly mesmerising to watch a new baby.

 

My parents deemed the day a success, a large part of which was due to the way Inoko's laughter enticed my own smile of genuine amusement. Despite my memories and attitude, I was a baby. Even the faintest tinkle of the ginger's laugh had me in stitches and the endorphins from the day had me glowing for a long time afterwards.

 

So long afterwards that I didn't even let myself linger on the fate of a Yamanaka born so close to the Clan Head. I just let myself be amused by Inoko's simple joy and the Playdates continued throughout the autumn.

 

In winter, Dad started leaving for trips. Later, I would look back and realise that, despite the relatively brief paternity leave he had been granted, Dad had been benched from active mission duty for the better part of my first year and, probably, the weeks leading up to Aki's due date. However, as the eight-month mark loomed and I was greeted every morning to the hum of the central heating clicking on, Dad's break came to an end.

 

I knew something changed when, as usual, he came to see me in the morning and he had bandages skillfully wrapped around his knuckles.

 

Slowly, because that was the only speed available in this feeble shell of mine, I dragged my hand across the unfamiliar loops of white bleached linen. Whatever it was that Dad said to me, whether an explanation or a platitude, went over my head. I could well imagine what the words meant anyway.

 

This was reality, intruding again. Can't get too comfortable, after all.

 

I sucked my lower lip into my mouth, the closest I could get to chew on it, and wondered if those first few months of birth had been the end of real peace for me. Something in my gut told me I wasn't exactly wrong.

 

Dad held me for longer that morning, pressing his goodbye kiss to the soft skin of my forehead at least five times before he could bring himself to put me down.

 

My heart ached a little and I wondered if new parent separation anxiety wasn't also an affliction of the babies as well.

 

He didn't come home that night and, at dawn the next day, I unashamedly burst into tears when he didn't come in either.

 

Days passed, all five of them, before the door opened to admit a beloved, familiar face.

 

I honest to God wailed, first like a crack of lightning in the still of the house and then muffled into the warm skin of his neck when Dad dashed over to whisk me up.

 

I'd missed him. 

 

He could have died.

 

I didn't think about the lives he may have ended whilst he was away.

 

I thought about the miracle that he came back to us.

 

In short, I started to develop a selfishly short list of priorities.



……………………………………………………………

 

My first birthday, three months after New Years so I was reasonably sure it was in March, was a genuinely colourful day.

 

The cherry blossoms had started shedding their vibrant petals a couple of weeks back but the garden and the street were still covered in their aftermath. 

 

The house was hardly decorated - I was glad not to find myself surrounded by extravagant banners and balloons - but my parents had taken the day off and dressed nicely as if I was going to judge them (I did, but only because I was so very impressed with the peacock embroidered onto the hem of my mother's robe). The morning seemed to revolve around me, even if I slept through most of it.

 

Around noon, timed no doubt to coincide with my periods of wakefulness, the party began.

 

There wasn't a birthday cake; instead, there were beautifully shaped dishes all positioned like teddy bears and bunny rabbits in their bowls, often with a quilt of sauce poured around them. I knew for a fact neither of my parents was responsible - Dad was, in a word, artistically 'ham-handed', and Mum always started eating the components before the plate could properly come together. My gaze drifted to Yuri-baa, who had arrived well before lunch and had the aura of a domestic goddess, and I quickly drew the right conclusion.

 

It was the thought that counted and even my annoyance at being unable to eat any was, reluctantly, set aside. Having started the miserable experience of teething, I gnawed on a plastic hoop instead and tried to pretend it was a doughnut.

 

The party, not counting the family, boasted of five guests. 

 

Yuri, who I was still fairly sure was my maternal grandmother, had arrived first, bearing a fruit basket and a beautifully woven quilt for my cot, fresh ocean blues and treetop greens like a flurry of fish dashing through water. It was achingly soft to the touch and something about the way Mum gushed over the detailing made me think the older woman had made it herself. 

 

Everyone else arrived together, unsurprising considering they were all Yamanaka's; Inoichi, Inoko and her parents. 

 

For a baby with no social life, I thought it was a pretty impressive turnout.

 

Inoko and I had been strapped into high chairs side by side on one side of the kitchen table - our dining room table was one of the low ones you sat on the floor to access and I hadn't learned the name for yet - as our parents chatted about the presents and the food and, no doubt, gossiped like mad. 

 

I knew for a fact that they gossiped because my parents always leaned in and tittered to each other after these visits. Like bloody teenagers and, yes, I was annoyed I couldn't join in. I wanted to know what was so funny!

 

Inoko was quiet, flushed as an apple and still sniffling from the wailing she'd given out earlier. I would have judged her for stealing the show but, knowing the pain of teething and having the benefit of a remembered pain tolerance, I was feeling pretty damn charitable to the poor thing. 

 

Also, Inoko was interesting to look at, true ginger with ridiculously fair skin and white lashes and brows. The blush only made her colouring more striking. Pretty baby, yeah.

 

Hitoshi, sat proudly beside me with all the composure of the Sphinx, heaved a sigh.

 

I could just about reach over to pat one velvet ear. It twitched beneath my clumsy, fumbling fingers.

 

The timbre of his voice rumbled through my fingers. I recognised the single word; "careful."

 

I squeezed out a grin and patted his head a little more.

 

Dad interrupted at that point, either eager to refocus me or maybe taking pity on the panther - judging from previous behaviour, I would bet on the first - and I was presented with a handful of new toys. A fabric book - with all of four pages, unfortunately, that labelled the three written terms for four pieces of fruit - and a-

 

I crooked my arm around the black plushy, the kitten only vaguely resembling the panther beside me from proximity alone.

 

"Hi...ssy."

 

The party went very, very quiet.

 

Hitoshi broke into obnoxiously loud, rolling purrs.

 

Dad's face was a comical study of betrayal. "Tou-chan?" He tried to correct me.

 

A smile pulled my lips wide, dimpling rosy cheeks. Then, as deliberately as I could-"Hissy."

 

Mum started laughing.