It’s funny, almost, how much of our lives are outlined and maintained by our routines.
Get up, eat, shower, brush your teeth, start the day. Go to class, eat, go to work, eat, study, relax, sleep. Repeat. It can make the days blur together, and make entire weeks slip by in the blink of an eye. And for me, that was a pretty comfortable situation, if a little on the dull side. Occasionally I switched things up—I’d go out with friends, or write, or just laze around—but on the whole I plodded along in my own little groove, content and ultimately unremarkable.
That probably explains a lot about how I reacted when I first realized what had happened.
I had always been a quiet type, the girl who didn’t stray too far from the pack and disliked making a scene. So, when I blinked out of an all-nighter driven doze to find a tanned, scarred man smiling down at me, I completely locked down and stared at him.
“Impressive as ever, Tsukimi-kun,” the man said warmly, handing me something. I took it without really seeing it, feeling thin fabric and cold metal as I reflexively nodded in acknowledgement. “Congratulations. You’re officially a Genin.”
My expression went event blanker at that, but not quite as blank as my mind did. The man—Iruka a faint voice in the back of my mind gibbered—was still talking, reciting something that sounded patriotic and proud that I completely glossed over. I came back to myself when he ripped three conjoined sheets off of a small, official-looking pad. He scribbled a time and a series of numbers into blocked off fields, then slid both the pen and what I belatedly recognized as carbon paper across the table he was seated at.
By some grace, my new body seemed to be just as inclined towards routines as the old one, because the pen was in my hand and moving mechanically across the remaining required fields before I had much time to panic. I mean, I still did, but it was a broad panic rather than a specific one.
“All right,” Iruka nodded, tearing off the top sheet to file away in a manila folder and handing the remaining two to me. “This is your appointment for your registration photograph at the Tower tomorrow. We’ll meet back here on Tuesday for team assignments, at nine sharp.”
I fingered the thin papers for a moment, finally letting other details filter in—namely the fact that there was another person in the room. At first glance, aside from the pale gray hair, he seemed like a laid-back person, shooting me a friendly grin.
“Congrats,” Mizuki told me with real warmth. “We know how hard you’ve worked for this, Rookie of the Year.”
“Hey, you know we aren’t supposed to talk about the results this early,” Iruka chided, but he didn’t look very upset.
“It’s not exactly groundbreaking news. She knows she’s good,” Mizuki bantered back easily, as though he didn’t have a plan in the works to manipulate a twelve year old into committing larceny and treason as they spoke.
I felt my breath begin to get shorter and abruptly bowed—probably too deeply, since I could feel the familiar uncomfortable tingle that came on the heels of breaking some sort of sequence—to both of them.
“Thank you,” I said, toneless because the only other option was strangled hysteria. “For everything.” I straightened up and noticed that they both seemed a little dumbstruck, and finally gave into my baser instincts and fled. My pace was slow and graceful, but it was what it was.
There was a side door at the back of the room that led to a hallway, which opened up into a courtyard filled with families and jubilant little soldiers-to-be. I had exactly fifteen second of horrifying uncertainty as to whether anybody was waiting on me, expecting their daughter, until I found my answer.
“Ah!” A voice cut across the hustle and bustle, a bit too sharp to properly be called ‘sweet’. “Tsukimi-chan made it!”
I glanced in that direction and found myself looking at a blonde girl—undeniably Yamanaka Ino, that same little voice whimpered—who was looking at me with a dreamy sort of look that made my stomach knot up in instinctive horror, my subconscious finally reaching understanding even as my mind rebelled. I started walking again, this time lengthening my strides as I tried valiantly to ignore the interested stares I was garnering.
Given that there was a wide, high collar I was hiding most of my face behind, it was frustratingly difficult to run away from the truth dogging at my heels. I left the school grounds and hit the streets, letting my feet take me where they would while I struggled with my own fragile world-view.
Rookie of the Year.
That meant I was the top of the class. That meant, from what I remembered, I was going to be sorted with the worst student as a teammate, and then a third would be our buffer, probably making up for the former’s worst deficiency.
A deadlast and a bookworm.
Oh God. Oh God. I sucked in a breath as I finally drew to a stop and looked around, somehow not even surprised at the fact that I was standing in front of a large, imposing gate in an unsettlingly quiet area, mostly bereft of shops. I let my eyes trail resignedly up to the insignia at the top, a faded fan in red and white.
I stepped into the Uchiha District, the beginnings of a hysterical giggle tickling at the back of my throat.
As it turned out, ‘Uchiha Tsukimi’ lived in a small but relatively lavish two-story townhouse down the street from the Main House she had probably lived in with her parents. The bottom floor had a sitting room, a bathroom with a large, covered tub, a kitchen and a tiny little laundry room.
The first room I found after going up the stairs was an extra room filled with weaponry.
Literally filled with weaponry. There were actual boxes of kunai and shuriken, with larger and more specialized weapons mounted on the walls. I left that room behind, after a few moments of numb staring, to explore the second floor. There was another bathroom, this one only sporting a toilet, shower, and sink, and a large master bedroom with a balcony.
It was dismally familiar: one wall was entirely glass, leading out to a balcony, and the opposite one sported several wall scrolls and the clan insignia. The bed was queen-sized, with a neutral blue coverlet and three thick pillows. There was a low table towards the sliding glass doors, a TV, and several low, long cabinets filled with books and folders.
Shunted off to one corner was a full-length mirror, which was… Well, it was certainly something.
It gave me my first glimpse of Uchiha Tsukimi. She—I?—was pale and dressed in a particularly familiar and incredibly upsetting fashion. There were the arm-guards, the blue shirt, and the only real difference in design, from the collar down, was the fact that I was wearing white capris pants rather than shorts. I regarded my new self for a moment, then reluctantly went to go draw the curtains and shuck off the baggy shirt, idly confirming that there was a fan emblazoned on the back.
I tossed it onto the bed, and turned back to the mirror with my hands on my hips. My first thought, looking at the willowy, pale preteen staring back at me, was that I was disgustingly cute. I had large doe-eyes, thick, dark lashes, and shapely, pale pink lips. My bust was—understandably—much smaller than I was used to, now little more than a modest curve in the weird, strappy sports-bra I had been wearing, and my stomach was flat with a surprising amount of definition for a twelve year old. My arms were too, and probably my legs as well, under those capris.
My second thought was, ’Thank God I don’t have his hairstyle, too.’
My hands drifted up into the long, dark mane I now sported. I had bangs, but the rest of it fell to the small of my back. It was thick with a strange, pleasant volume; I’d almost call it fluffy, except it slid silkily through my fingers when I combed through. As a person who had grown up with curly hair, this was a bittersweet victory.
Ino’s hair had been long as well, I remembered, and then dropped that line of thought like a hot stone because I wasn’t ready to contemplate that aspect of my situation just yet. There was so much more to worry about before even touching that particular can of worms.
I sighed and cupped my face in my hands, leaning in as I pinched and tugged at my cheeks, testing out different expressions. I tried on a snarl, a glower, a cold look, even an affronted pout, but it was to no avail. I was still offensively attractive. I didn’t even want to know what I might look like with a pleasant smile; my twenty-two year old ego was battered enough by how much this body outclassed my last one already. I sat down on the floor in front of the mirror, stared down at my bare, pale toes, and tried to stay calm.
My breath grew ragged and my throat tightened.
As ironic twists of fate went, sticking a crybaby wannabe psychologist in the shoes of a vengeance-driven child with half the weight of the world on their shoulders had to be pretty far up the list. I finally caved and gave in to the urge that had been growing stronger by the minute: I hugged my ankles and let myself sob, helplessly. When I finally calmed down, hiccupping and sniffling, I glanced up and found a rosy-cheeked, glistening-eyed picture of misery peering back, and let out a watery growl of frustration.
I even looked cute after crying like a bitch. In what world was that fair?
I pulled a (cute) face at the mirror and dragged myself back to my feet, shuffling off to the bathroom to get a cold, damp washcloth, which I held over my eyes for a moment while I forcefully prodded my sluggish, terrified brain back into motion. This was an arguably real, arguably inescapable situation. Fine. I was locked into a career where I would be expected to lie, cheat, steal, kill, and sabotage. Not fine at all, but I could probably fake it for a while until I came up with some way to deal with all of… that.
I let the washcloth slide down my face and leaned against the doorway of ‘my’ bedroom, idly staring at the discarded shirt I had left there. I raked back my bangs, and huffed out a small sigh, coming to my first real decision.
There was no way in hell I was going to live my life wearing a glorified cone of shame, historical and cultural relevance be damned. My stomach gave a small growl around the same time, and reminded me that I should probably figure out where the hell I kept my money. I began nosing my way around the room, checking my pockets, the drawers and my closet first.
I found a thin black wallet tucked into a hidden pocket in my kunai holster, filled with several bills of varying denominations. The closet at least confirmed that I did not, in fact, own any normal shirts or even dresses that weren’t a somber black number I vaguely recalled as being funeral-fare.
The drawers yielded underclothes and medical supplies, as well as even more books and folders that turned out to be past textbooks and Academy assignments which I idly skimmed. I had apparently inherited the body of the world’s most organized hoarder, and I fully intended to binge read all of it once I had solved my financial and fashion crises, respectively.
I checked a couple more of the books stacked in the side-cubby of the desk near the closet, and finally found what I was looking for. The thick Ikebana of the Great Nations, Vol. III had a secret compartment cut into the pages, filled with several rectangular white envelopes addressed to Tsukimi, most with a “10,000” written in the bottom corner in pencil except for the top one, which had no number and was still sealed. I apparently either did not believe in banks, since I assumed this was the savings built up from whatever stipend I received from the village, or I was waiting to open an account for some reason.
I took a deep breath, opened the top envelope, stuffed the contents into my wallet, and went to go pull my stupid shirt back on. I checked the refrigerator on the way out, and was satisfied that I had enough groceries to get me through the next few days.
I guessed that more shinobi-centric shops would naturally gather somewhere in the general region of the Hokage’s Tower and set off in that general direction. If nothing else, it would be good practice for tomorrow, since I had an appointment to keep. Given how eerily, anally tidy the house was, I probably had a reputation for being faultlessly punctual as well.
I felt my stomach drop as I gradually moved back toward more populated streets, filled with people beginning to head home after work or heading out to take over the next shifts. It was still light out, and I realized I should probably figure out what the date was at some point or another, since it hadn’t been written on my little carbon-paper certificate. I mused on that as I weaved through the moderate crowds, passing grocery stores and food carts.
Eventually, I caught sight of a promising display window down a side street a few north of the Tower and ducked in, noting the various feminine mannequins posed around the shop. Some of the styles seemed like something—understandably enough—right out of a manga, but by and large most of what I saw on the racks seemed similar to what I might have found in an active-wear section.
There was a shop assistant who greeted me immediately, zeroing in on the telltale shirt that obviously marked me out.
“Uchiha-san,” she greeted. “Welcome. How can I help you today?”
Her nametag dubbed her ‘Chika,’ and I very carefully tried not to focus on how I could read the characters so naturally. I had tried that when pawing through the books, and had gotten a splitting headache and a flash of double vision for my trouble.
“I need a new outfit,” I said, completely unnecessarily, and then scrambled to B.S. something else so that it sounded as though I had merely been pausing for effect. “Wearing clan clothes around the village is one thing, but now that I’m a Genin…” I had taken the forehead protector along with me, tying it loosely around the base of my collar.
I was talking entirely out of my ass, but Chika merely nodded along understandingly. “Very forward-thinking of you,” she praised. “Do you have an idea about what you’re looking for?”
I informed her, short but civil, that I wanted to browse before making any decisions. The door opened behind me with a soft chime, heralding the arrival of two older women, also sporting forehead protectors on their arm and thigh respectively, and I was politely abandoned to poke around as I wished.
I flipped through the racks, trying to ignore the speculative looks I could somehow feel occasionally raking over my back. I drifted around, picking up and discarding different combinations as I went, until I finally had something I was satisfied with and was ushered into one of the changing rooms at the back of the shop.
One of the first things I had selected was what appeared to be a thin black camisole. It was tighter than it looked, with some mesh-like under-armor with built-in support between two layers of thin black fabric. It was snug but flexible, and I paired it with a long, cream-colored tank top made of something that looked like cotton but was surprisingly slick to the touch, probably as a precautionary measure during close-quarter fighting or some equally grim rationale. I decided to trade out the capris for black stirrup-style leggings and dark shorts nearly hidden by the hem of the tank. I studied myself , decided I was going to ditch the arm warmers, and tossed a dark overshirt with large, elbow-length sleeves open on top.
I was almost satisfied, but as I drank in my reflection, my eyes kept drifting to that cute, doll-like face and the dainty white column of my throat. I rummaged through the accessory section, past holsters and stiletto daggers disguised as bejeweled hairpins, until, against all odds, I found what appeared to be a rack of infinity scarves. They were probably used as makeshift slings or nooses or something to that pragmatic, macabre tune, but I wasn’t going to think too deeply on it. I selected one in the same basic shade of cream as the tank top and snatched up a few copies of the final outfit before dumping them at the register.
I walked out a little shell-shocked and with a lot less in my wallet, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that it was ultimately for a good cause. I got an itemized receipt with the date on it, as an added bonus, so I had my first frame of reference for pricing around here, too.
I wandered back to the Uchiha District around the time the streetlights came on, and only felt a little silly as I ran into the townhouse and bolted the door behind me with a full-body shudder. I refused to feel silly about turning on all of the lights. It was a damn creepy literal ghost town out there, and I was inarguably a wuss.
I hung up my new clothes, guilted into neatness by the sheer oppressive sense of order that oozed from every corner of the house, and carted a bunch of the old Academy work and books down to the kitchen as I got ready to make myself a late dinner.
I had some studying to do.
The next morning, I paused halfway through the history of the Third Shinobi War to shower and change into a fresh high-collared shirt , though I elected to wear the leggings-and-shorts combo. I had already wrapped on my holster and fastened my weapons pouch before I noticed what I was doing, so it took relatively little time to get ready. I toweled off my hair and properly tied my forehead protector in the traditional place.
I had a plan.
Well, that might be giving me more credit than I really deserved. I figured that official photos had a greater chance of being leaked or used for Bingo Books—I vaguely remembered some sort of detailed program for VIPs during the Chuunin Exam, too—so it was probably for the best if I looked like an average Uchiha was expected to.
It wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius misdirection, but I figured I would probably need every little edge I could get, being the alleged ‘last’ Uchiha. I didn’t think too deeply on that subject however, because that way lays madness. And Orochimaru. God, I was not ready to even consider thinking about Orochimaru yet, let alone any of the other dangers looming ahead.
I blinked, snapping out of my anxious musings to look at the antiquated camera. I hadn’t slept at all, so I didn’t really have to force the cool glare I leveled at the lens. With one flash it was over, and I was ushered out to hand my carbon-paper off to the Third Hokage himself.
I had seen the faces carved into the mountain, but I had somehow half-expected him to appear to be a kindly, unassuming old man, like my grandfather or the elderly chemistry teacher I had during high school.
I was entirely wrong.
Sarutobi Hiruzen was broad-shouldered and stately. His hair may have been white and his tanned skin dotted with what appeared to be liver spots, but altogether he had a harsh, hawkish face only somewhat softened by the laugh-lines creasing it into a proud, grandfatherly expression. He stamped my paper, tore off the top sheet, and handed back the last one, nodding to me with solemnity.
“Congratulations, Tsukimi-chan. You worked hard for this.” he said, and I struggled not to be surprised at how deep and rasping his voice was. Then I struggled not to feel self-conscious. Had the boy originally meant to be standing here been congratulated over and over like this? Or was it different, because I was a girl.
“Thank you, Hokage-sama,” I managed to say smoothly, letting a habit I never formed take over and guide me through a proper bow.
Luckily, that seemed to be enough, and I was sent off to another desk to collect a thick envelope of registration paperwork, which the Chuunin—a fresh-faced brunette kunoichi—walked me through in the brisk, practiced fashion of somebody who had been saying the same thing over and over again all day. It covered the basic policy for submitting mission reports, which I had re-learned how to write sometime around midnight, how to submit a request for a training ground, which I didn’t need because my District was full of empty lots and old training areas, and so on and so forth.
As an aside, I found out that I would get a hefty bonus package for opening up a bank account as a shinobi, rather than a student, and decided to make that my next errand for the day after I stopped to drop the information packet off at ‘home’.
After all, I thought dismally, it was possible—unlikely, but distinctly possible—that I might end up failed by Kakashi come Tuesday.