I was a mother, yet I was a child. I knew this the instant I opened my eyes again, after what was supposed to be the last time. I was a mother, and I'd died holding my child in my arms for the first time. My little girl who will get nothing but a name from me. She will never know that I love her, she will never know who her father was, or the story of how we'd met and how he'd died.
I woke up knowing, instinctively, what'd happened. That I was someone else now. I knew, but I'd rather not have known. I'd rather have forgotten, and not known what it was that I'd lost. Seeing every time I closed my eyes that one brief glimpse of her perfect little face, a tiny little hand curled against her cheek, a few strands of wispy blonde hair peeking out from the baby blanket she was so tightly swaddled in. I woke up every day with her name on my lips, aching, but I couldn't cry. The pain took my breath away.
It was just as well that I was silent, because this new place I was in wasn't kind. For the first month my mother cared for me, gentle and careful in everything she did, and a part of my ache was soothed, determined that if I wasn't going to be able to raise my daughter, I could at least allow this woman that. The woman who so clearly cared for me deeply. But then one day I woke up in another's arms, a man that smelled of booze and sweat and drugs that held me too roughly, and for the first time, I cried. I cried and the man's harsh voice growled at me menacingly, but my body wouldn't listen to me and I couldn't stop, the fear escalating into full-on terror. This man wasn't right, I didn't like him. He was going to hurt me, and it wasn't safe.
Then he slapped me, and I choked on a wail, shocked stupid. I was one month old. ONE MONTH. How dare he treat a child this way! Suddenly I was glad that he'd taken me, because if it hadn't been me it would've been another child and they couldn't withstand it like I would. I wasn't really a child, after all.
So I was silent, as quiet and complacent as I could be for the man and the fluttery, airheaded woman. It didn't help, though. They still fought and argued and forgot me, and I was often left without being changed until I developed sores. Sometimes I went hungry for long enough that I prayed I could survive until I was big enough to get away. I learned to crawl as soon as my body was strong enough, and walked very soon after that. I had no illusions of running away, not yet. Not when I still didn't know the language very well, not when I didn't have a cent of my own. I learned to cook and clean, and I did everything to make things easier for my parents and keep their attention away from me, but it still wasn't enough. When the man came home from work, cursing out his boss, his coworkers, the neighbors, the village, the woman, he'd storm through the house pushing the furniture away from him and sometimes I couldn't get away fast enough. Sometimes it didn't stop at pushing.
I was three when I learned where I was, this world. I was three when my father started cursing shinobi because a retired chunin had taken his job at work, and the beatings got worse. At first I couldn't understand, refused to believe, because this place was just a story to me, one I'd watched in the long months stuck in a hospital bed with my daughter in my stomach and not allowed to leave because the pregnancy was hard enough to make it dangerous. A little girl from the oncology ward would come and sit with me every day since the one time she got lost and ended up in the wrong room. Naruto was her favorite show, gave her courage and occupied the long, painful hours. Comforted her when her hair started falling out and when sometimes the whole night was spent bent over the toilet. It amused me, and since I had nothing else to do I watched the whole thing with her, listening to her chatter on about her favorite characters as I played with her hair and rubbed circles on her back to relax her. And then, when she stopped coming, I watched it again to honor her memory. My daughter has her name.
I looked into the mirror for the first time three months after the revelation and I couldn't believe what I saw. The man broke all of the mirrors early on in a drunken rage and the woman wouldn't let me out of the house, so I'd had no chance, really, to see what I looked like. My hair was white, cut very short in an almost boyish haircut the woman forced me through as a sort of 'makeover' when she came home smelling like poppies once. Really, really white. Straight and soft, incredibly fine. My eyes were a shade of grey I'd always particularly liked, the color of a storm cloud's underbelly. I looked pale, sickly, my skin an unhealthy yellowish color that looked even worse with the bruises, the black eye and the split lip. What grabbed my attention, though, were the two red streaks that went from the middle of each eye to the bottom of my jaw
Jiraiya. I thought immediately. I look just like Jiraiya.
And then I had hope. I could leave sooner now, if I was near enough Konoha. I had enough money saved up that I could travel a while, if it wasn't too far. Knowing this, I now had not only a destination, but if I could find him soon enough I'd have protection. Only if he wasn't dead yet, though. Isolated as I was, I had no idea what part of the timeline I was in, though if I was his daughter (and the resemblance was close enough that I had no doubt) then at the very least Naruto should be alive. If he hasn't been born yet, though, then I had a problem. Jiraiya was a traveler for years before he came back to Konoha and trained Naruto. Still, my best bet to find him is Konoha, and with Jiraiya I'd have protection and a place to stay, at least until I could live on my own.
Then the woman left one day when I was four, and for the first time the man deliberately sought me out. When after the third day she failed to come home, he came after me, his face red with anger, veins bulging, and for one, terrified moment I prayed for someone to help me. For someone, anyone, anyone at all to make it stop.
And in the next instant when the heavy fist fell and I heard my ribs break, I realized. No one can save me now.
I curled in on myself as I'd learned to do, and waited out the pain. The blows fell on my back, my sides, my legs, and I waited for him to tire. I waited and waited, but they just kept coming and coming and I realized, He's not going to stop this time. A kick in just the right place made my whole body go limp, and I fell out of my fetal position just in time for him to stomp on my arm, full force. There was a crack, and then a blinding pain, an incredible pain shot through me, and I screamed. I screamed and when another blow fell I was flooded with adrenalin.
I'm going to die. I'm really going to die!
I reached out blindly with the arm that wasn't broken for something, anything, and my hand closed on the neck of an empty beer bottle he'd left lying around and I swung. It hit his temple and he staggered and fell, but he was still conscious so I swung again and again and again in a blind panic with one thought going through my mind: Idon'twanttodieIdon'twanttodieIDON'TWANTTODIE!
When I finally calmed down enough to stop, I realized there was blood. There was blood everywhere and I couldn't breathe, I couldn't breathe because I was crying too hard and I couldn't see either because one eye was swollen shut and the other was blurred with tears but I knew. I knew there was a dead body in front of me, and I threw myself backwards, away from the violence and the pain an the fact that I just killed a man.
Falling back, I tripped over an overturned chair and twisted, trying to catch myself, and ended up landing on my broken arm. I screamed as black spots filled my vision and there was one, long moment where I writhed in agony before it was too much and I knew no more.
When I became aware of myself again, I was in a different place and nothing hurt any more. There were trees all around me, ancient cedar trees with elegant limbs, the soft needles forming a beautiful canopy like umbrellas above my head. I'm in a hammock, swaying softly back and forth with a whisper of a light breeze through leaves, which was funny since cedar's don't have leaves but it seems to fit, somehow. Confused, I swung my legs around and stepped on the forest floor, unnaturally soft beneath my feet, and I noticed that the limbs were my limbs, from before I died.
As if that were a signal of some kind, a sharp cry pierced the serenity and sense of utter peace. It cut through me with a stab of pain, a baby's cry. My baby's cry. I ran towards it, heart pounding to find… me. The other me, that I was now. She was so small, so terribly, terribly thin and pale, deep circles beneath her eyes but otherwise free of bruises and blood. And in her arms… was my baby. My little girl, and she was crying.
I made to step forward, to snatch her out of the other me's arms, but when I was just twenty feet away my body froze. The girl looked up at me then, her eyes tired and infinitely sad, and she spoke.
"So you're here." Did my voice sound like that, so thin and breathless?
I felt the paralysis peel back from my mouth. "Who are you? Why do you have my baby?"
She staggered a bit, and her eyes unfocused slightly, but she caught herself and replied in a surprisingly steady voice. "I'm you. The other you, the part that was wiped clean when we were born again, your childish side. This," she gestured to the clearing we were in and the surrounding trees, "is your mind, or mindscape, if you prefer."
"Mindscape?" That sounded familiar. "Like… Naruto's sewers?"
"Well, yeah. Everyone has one and this is yours."
I looked around at the soft, muted colors. "It's beautiful, but why are there two of me?" I asked, unable to tear my eyes away from the pink bundle in her arms. "Why is my daughter here?"
She shrugged. "The conflict of mind and body, I'd say. This isn't really her, either. She's made up of your memories of her. I'm probably here as a sort of defense against your memories, our memories of our first world. Your longing, your pain, it's tearing us apart. You need to make a decision." She shifted in place, adjusting the squalling baby in her arms with strain visible on her face.
She nodded. "One of us has to take the memories and let the other one take the body." Seeing the alarm in my expression, she laughed a little, a stressed, tired little huff. "Don't worry, it's not permanent. The one that stays behind will still be able to see through our eyes and support the other and eventually we will merge again, but for now we aren't strong enough to handle the strain of being both."
"I- I'll take her. It will be better for us to act like the child we are supposed to be if you were in charge. You should be allowed to be a child and I- I just want my baby." She smiled at me, a little more lively than before, and the paralysis broke, letting me lurch forward in five, purposeful strides and take my baby. The moment I did, the bags under her eyes lightened and the sickly hue to her skin faded somewhat, and she seemed less tired.
I held her carefully, her small body just as soft and warm as I remembered it was, just blissfully happy for one precious moment, pretending it was real. That she was real. The moment I'd settled her into the crook of my arms she'd stopped screaming. Oh, my beautiful baby, I miss you so much…
Hefting her up onto my shoulder, bouncing a bit, I asked the other me, "why do you still look so tired?"
She smiled a painful smile that I didn't want to see on a child's face. It didn't feel like my face, yet. It still didn't feel like me. "Because I'm not strong yet. Because… because it hurts and I'm sorry and I know I'd do it again because I don't want to die!" Her volume rose as she spoke, until the end where she broke out into sobs, crumpling to the ground.
My maternal instincts basically kicked me in the heart. I crouched down awkwardly, careful not to jostle the baby, and wrapped her in my free arm. "No, no, it's okay. Shhhhhh, it's alright honey, we did what we had to. You'll be safe soon, I promise! I will always protect you."
She shook her head violently even as she trembled in my arms. Gruesome bloodstains appeared on the simple white nightgown she had no that went to her knees. "You can't promise that! You don't know!"
"No," I told her firmly, "no, I do know. I know because we-" I shook us gently, "are one tough cookie.
She looked up, the sobs that wracked her tiny frame stilled, and she looked up at me, tear tracks under her eyes parallel to the markings, and gave a shaky, wavery smile. Then she snaked her arms around me, leaning into the hug, and everything went black again.
The smell was what woke me up, the cloying, metallic smell of blood and feces in the air that made me gag, only to wince when the abrupt motion aggravated my ribs. My arm burned and stabbed me in sudden, sharp pinpricks of agony, and I rolled over instinctively only to have to hold back a scream. Sitting up carefully, taking stock of all the pains and figuring out which needed immediate attention, I tried to open my eyes only to find that one of them wouldn't listen, so I went to rub it and with my good eye saw my hand caked in blood, and it all came flooding back.
Instantly my stomach heaved, and I turned my head to throw up, bile stinging my throat as my mind processed it all. Oh god, I killed someone. He's DEAD and it's my fault. God his blood is all over me, it's on my hands and I'm filthy and-
Shaking, I tried to pull myself up on the chair I'd tripped over last night and staggered towards their bedroom and private bathroom, which I knew had been well maintained by the woman when she was here. The only mirror in the house was in there, and I'd never been allowed anywhere near it before, though that didn't matter now.
There she was, that stranger in the mirror. I made for a macabre sight, such a small little girl, thin and sickly looking, covered in bruises that turned my skin purple where it wasn't a sallow yellow color, or streaked with brown. My thin, white hair I actually kind of liked was matted and caked in dried blood. I looked terrified and half dead.
It wasn't me, that reflection. That girl is a murderer and a victim. She lives as an anomaly in a make-believe world, a pathetic thing that can't protect herself or her baby. I wanted to scream that this wasn't fair, what did I ever do to deserve this? I wanted to scream that I never wanted to hurt anybody, never wanted to have to live without my daughter or leave her there all alone in that other world. I wanted to have disappeared after I'd died, because I didn't want this and it has to be punishment, living in a stranger's skin, for abandoning my baby. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg the man for forgiveness because even if I hated him, even if I wanted him to pay for treating me this way, I never wanted him to die. I never wanted to be a murderer.
And then I got a hold of myself, holding back the hysteria. The other me in my head sent a wave of calm, telling me that I had to move on and take care of myself right now. This wasn't the time. If someone heard us last night they might be coming any minute now, and we couldn't be here when they did. Just take it step by step.
Mechanically, I took a washcloth and started to wash the blood off. Numb, I pushed away the horror and all the irrelevant thoughts and lost myself in the task at hand. Later, I'd deal with it later, right now don't think just do. So I washed out the blood and then stripped off my pants and contemplated doing the same with my shirt, but with my arm the way it was it would have to stay. Pulling on another pair of pants, I rummaged around in the man's clothes as the woman took hers when she left, and I half pulled on one of his jackets to cover the bloodstains after bracing my arm to the best of my ability. One sleeve hung empty and it wanted to slide off, but it was big enough that it'd stay on while moving and that was good enough for now.
Then I mulled over the problem that was my backpack, a pack I'd had ready since I was two of things I'd need on the road in case I ever had to leave abruptly. It was a two strap backpack that I'd be unable to put on properly, but I needed it, so instead I slipped the extra sleeve through the empty strap and tied it around me, helping to stabilize my arm and keeping the backpack on at the same time, though it was a bit awkward.
As soon as I was ready I was out the door, refusing to look back. I knew what was behind me, the evidence of what I'd done, and I could only be thankful my vision was impaired enough last night to not have seen very much. That man had scarred me enough, I didn't want that image burned into my eyes to haunt me for the rest of my life. It was him or me, and I couldn't bring myself to fully regret what I'd done.
So I set out, following the lone road away from the nearby village, in case someone saw me or came looking for the man. It was hard, forcing myself to move when my entire body wanted to just shut down and a large part of my mind wanted to curl up in a ball and cry myself to oblivion. Movement helped the stiffness, though, when the soothing repetitive motion of walking distracted me from the pain of some of the larger bruises. The other me, a vague, comforting presence in the back of my mind that watched attentively, gave me strength, pushing away the dark thoughts and telling me what I needed to do. For one thing, I avoided anyone else I met on the road, ducking into the trees on the side of the road whenever I saw someone- or, actually, sensed someone, somehow?- and following along parallel the road until they were gone. I couldn't risk someone recognizing me (or rather my father's features in my face) or noticing my wounds and taking me back to my village to get to the bottom of things. It was half a day before I reached another village and came close enough to eavesdrop on them, learning that I was indeed fairly close to Konoha.
As the day wore on and night began to fall I wanted to stop, my entire body screamed at me to stop. Not the least of which my arm, which throbbed and spiked with sharp pain at each jostle. I refused to stop, however, because I knew that if I did, in all likelihood I wouldn't get back up again. I was used to moving through pain, I could do it. So I walked through the first night and into the afternoon of the next before I finally found myself at Konoha's intimidating front gates.
I was cautious, nervous, hanging back far into the tree line to observe the comings and goings. What do I do now? What do I say? When I first set out for Konoha I hadn't thought about how I'd make it through the security screening, and now it seemed a glaring oversight. If I just walked up and asked to be let into Konoha without any sort of papers, I'd immediately be taken as an infiltrator, and an inept one at that. An hour or so past before I spotted one of the groups approaching the gate and made a snap decision, darting from the trees to mingle in the back of the large group of children. None of them noticed, and I was rather surprised that somehow, miraculously, neither of the two chunin guards for the group of- I quickly learned- orphan ninja-wannabes noticed either.
Tense, anxious, I felt my heartbeat in my teeth as I watched the chunin approach the daydreaming guards with papers, and felt one of them scan the group intently. There was a moment when I was sure his eyes lingered on me, but then he turned back to the guards and motioned for them to go through, allowing us to stumble into Konoha with wide, curious eyes.
I couldn’t believe my luck. It's true that since I don't have any training there wouldn't be any indicators in movement or chakra strength that I was in any way unusual, and I had used the one of the woman's abandoned makeup containers to conceal the worst of the bruises on my face and hide my markings, but surely they should've noticed my posture? The way I hid my face with the hood of the denim jacket? Security here was rather lax, and from that I deduced that it must be a peacetime of sorts. Between which wars I wasn't certain, but I was relieved at the high possibility that I wouldn't be thrust into combat and die young when I chose to join the Academy.
Not having any better ideas on how to proceed from here, I followed the group a ways until we were in the heart of the Village and the Hokage Monument was highly visible overhead. Four faces, but was I before or after Naruto's birth? Was Minato only recently instated? No, it was obviously peacetime or I never would've made it through the gates unchallenged, so it has to be somewhere in Naruto's childhood between his birth and the disastrous Chunin Exams. Great, so I was close to the Fourth Shinobi War, then. Just peachy. And now I have to decide whether or not to interfere.
I broke off from the group then when I spotted an inn off to the side. If I kept following them then I'd be discovered immediately when they started taking attendance. The inn was called Summer Breeze, a bustling inn with a restaurant on the bottom floors that seemed to be pretty popular with shinobi, if the senbon-covered dartboard was anything to judge by. The receptionist at the door was nice enough too when I asked for a room. I had to make up a cover story pretty fast when she noticed my swollen eye, but easily let it go when I told her I had an accident while training to be a ninja. Kind of worried me, actually, that she so easily accepted that, but I guess since it's a ninja village they've probably seen worse.
Finally- relatively- safe in my room, I sluggishly stripped off the backpack, fumbling for at least a minute with the knot keeping it in place before I flung it off and dropped onto the bed. I was out like a light the minute my head hit the pillow.