She was twenty when she died.
She’d just graduated with a double first in Literature and Preservation from Exeter. She’d been accepted into a prestigious master’s school in London.
She’d moved into a basement flat with her best friend and a couple of his friends. She’d been glad to escape her childhood house, where her mum and dad traded vicious words over who was getting how much in the divorce.
She’d promised her brother she’d get him out too, once she had a stable place that the courts would approve of. She had been due to interview for a job at a big bookstore chain next week.
And then someone had broken in while her flatmates were out. She shouldn’t have grabbed the knife. That just made the armed man freak out.
The last thing she remembered was a bang, and the blubbered words “I didn’t mean to!”
She wakes up as a baby.
She waves her arms around and cries as an unfamiliar lady with brown hair and brown eyes bends down over her crib, hushing her with more urgency than is really warranted.
Rain hammers down outside and thunder rumbles directly overhead.
Then a man with blue hair and grey eyes arrives. He stinks of copper, and that makes her wail harder.
The man and woman confer, words too fast for her to understand.
Then the man gently presses a cloth which smells chemical and awful to her face, hushing and looking at her with sad eyes while the woman strokes her head.
She struggles, but eventually swirling red circles dance before her eyes and she succumbs to sleep.
She grows, and learns that she is not anywhere remotely like her home anymore.
She looks in mirrors and sees grey eyes like the man’s, brown hair like the woman’s, hair too straight, eyes too angular, skin too pale.
Her new name is Ketsugi Mayu. The woman’s name is Ketsugi Chie, the man’s is Ketsugi Jirou.
They live in a little house, on the outskirts of a village that’s nothing like the village she previously grew up in. It’s too big, too bustling, with large compounds with symbols decorating the exteriors and brightly painted buildings, flat roofs alternating with asian-style pagodas.
Faces carved into a mountainside like a bastardization of Mount Rushmore. Huge trees everywhere, though she couldn’t tell you the type. She never was any good at biology.
Her “parents” escaped to this village from the rainy place before. Both of them work, but the woman takes her with her, or comes back first.
She gets the feeling their neighbors don’t like them very much.
Despite the electricity for lights and plumbing and cooking, there are not electronic communication devices, not like she knew them. Photography, but no video or animation.
Calculators and computers are unheard of, abacus and notebooks in their place.
The food is good though. Fresh and flavorsome, with meals that are usually served in what she mentally called “plate-2-bowls” style, a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, and a meat or vegetable dish in the center.
The woman she is supposed to call her “mother” scolded her for ages the first time she dumped the rice out of the bowl onto the plate and tried to eat it that way.
The man she is supposed to call her “father” just laughed and said how lucky they were to have a daughter who would eat everything given to her.
And she did. Even if she doesn’t like the flavors, she eats it all and leaves no scraps.
One Piece taught her that those who waste food are scum, after all. She’ll never learn how the series ended now, so she does her best to live up to the ideals of her favorite characters in its place.
She probably should’ve seen it coming in the end.
The story she was read at bedtime was called “The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi”. There were constantly people dressed in dark clothes jumping across the roofs.
There were stalls in the market that sold throwing knives and stars and japanese swords.
But she didn’t realize exactly what world she’d been reincarnated into until she sees a little boy around her age, with blonde hair and blue eyes and three familiar lines like whisker marks across each cheek.
He’s racing away from a severe woman dripping with orange paint, cackling even as she screams, “GET BACK HERE NARUTO, YOU LITTLE DEMON!!”
She’s four, so she promptly bursts into tears and remains in a strop for the rest of the week.
Naruto doesn’t have food.
It’s dumb and doesn’t involve her and she shouldn’t care because she never even read this series because it was stupid and sexist and dumb and pirates will always be better than ninjas no matter what stupid morons on the internet who have no interpersonal relationships say—
But Naruto doesn’t have food.
She saw the food vendors at the market slap away his money, yell at him for trying to steal from them, chase him away from their stalls with rotten produce.
And he goes away empty handed.
Every. Damn. Time.
Sanji wouldn’t let him go empty handed.
She buys three lunch boxes and an “easy cook recipes” book from a lady who coos at her.
She buys extra rice and ingredients so that she doesn’t use up her “family’s” food.
She decides on a sweeter, more protein-focused meal for breakfast, and presses rashers of bacon and scrambled eggs between slices of crusty bread, filling the compartments with orange slices and strawberries and a plain yogurt.
For lunch she tries and fails to recreate Ketsugi Chie’s perfectly triangular rice balls filled with salmon, but consoles herself that the cucumber and seaweed salad turned out okay, To make up for it, she sticks a packet of gummies in the dessert bit.
She shadowed him the evening before, and so wakes up obscenely early, tugging on the clothes she wore yesterday.
She deposits the food outside his door, checks the sticky notes with “BREAKFAST” and “LUNCH” on them are secure.
Then she raps on the door with all the power her little fists can muster and bolts.
She’s about halfway down the street when she hears the overexcited whoops and fights to keep a smile off her face.
That night, when she comes bearing a thermos filled with miso soup and a box with rice, baked salmon with mushrooms, and dango, the other two are stacked neatly outside the door, licked clean.
She deposits dinner, grabs the other boxes, knocks again, and bolts so she can make curfew.
Here’s her routine.
She goes to bed and falls asleep instantly after preparing that boy’s breakfast and lunch.
She wakes up early and runs through the village while the streets are still asleep and deposits his food, collecting his dinner box and the feedback sheet, knocks and goes, avoiding any traps he’s set up to try and catch her on his endless quest for her identity.
They’re harmless, more intended to snare rather than hurt, and she’s gotten good at dodging.
She gets home in time for her “parents” to wake up, washes up the box while they shower, and goes upstairs to get ready for the day.
Ketsugi Jirou makes her run through katas before breakfast. Sometimes he lets her practice with the wooden sword he carries, and laughs when she falls over, kissing her bruises.
Ketsugi Chie serves breakfast and corrects her table manners and posture. After Jirou has kissed them both and left, she is given lessons in calligraphy and etiquette.
Sometimes Ketsugi Chie takes her along to her job at a tearoom, and she has to observe as her “mother” elegantly serves the patrons and makes polite conversation.
Sometimes she’s left to clean the house and study the books on the history of her family. There are many, but more are missing, references they have no source for.
At lunchtime, she reviews the feedback sheet, making notes of what worked and what didn’t.
She’s supposed to play outside after lunch, so she runs laps. Once Ketsugi Chie’s shift is over, the woman either collects her from home or goes with her straight to the market for food.
She begins making Naruto’s portion the moment groceries are put away, serves it hot and runs it over. She picks up the empty lunch boxes and paper, deposits the dinner, knocks, and runs away.
She eats dinner with her “mother” and “father”. Jirou quizzes her on what she’s learned.
After dinner she washes up the dishes and makes tomorrow’s lunch and breakfast while her parents tell her a bedtime story.
Then she cleans up after herself, and goes to bed, falling asleep instantly.
It’d be nice if this could last.
So of course, the next time she deposits breakfast and lunch, an adult dressed in black with a white mask tackles her to the ground.
She barely avoids spilling the food, clutching it to her chest with one arm as the other is twisted viciously behind her back.
She screams, tries to kick out, but her legs are too little, she can’t hurt the bastard—
The lunchboxes creak ominously under her.
“Who sent you?!” The adult hisses—there’s no way that’s not a man, not with that baritone— “Drop the henge and tell me, or I’ll—”
A mass of rope drops onto them, followed by chalk dust.
“HAH!” Comes a much higher-pitched yell. “I told you I’d get ‘em, believe it, I told—wait, what the heck?! Jiji, mask-guy’s hurtin’ my friend!”
The click of a cane and the sound of an old man’s voice. “Hound-san.”
The pressure on her arm lessens and the adult gets up, though he doesn’t let go of her. She wheezes, feeling her eyes watering now she can breathe properly.
She hiccups once. Twice. Bursts into floods of noisy tears.
A blurry figure of orange comes into her view. “Hey, hey don’t cry, don’t cry! It’s okay, mask-guy won’t hurt you anymore, Jiji won’t let him, believe it! Yo-you’re the one bringin’ me the food, right? It tastes really good, believe it! M-my name’s Naruto, wh-what’s y-yours? Plea-please don’t—”
The blur of orange begins crying as well.
“Oh dear.” The old man sighs.
The old man takes them to the tower in the center of the village, drawing curious stares at the sight of two wailing children, one bleached white by chalk dust, following him.
The tower is scary. It reminds her of government buildings, with lots of people in green or grey jackets or white masks moving from one place to the next like fire ants, ready to turn and bite intruders to their nest at a moment’s notice.
She doesn’t work out who the queen ant is until the old man sits behind the big desk in the room at the top of the tower, and another mask brings her and Naruto water at his gesture.
“Now, let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we?” Says the old man, smiling genteelly.
A shiver goes down her spine.
The questions should be easy. What’s her name, how old is she, where does she live, who are her parents, where do they work, does she have any siblings, what are her hobbies.
But her tongue is stuck to the top of her mouth and when she tries to speak, she just makes a pathetic little croaking sound, no matter how much water she swallows.
The man who hurt her gets more and more tense with every failed answer.
The old man just looks sadder, like she’s failing a test, like he’s going to let the mask hurt her again—
Naruto asks, “Can you make ramen?”
She swallows. “I—I’ve never had it. I don’t know the ingredients. Is, is it like miso?”
“It’s WAY better than miso, believe it!” Naruto yells. “It’s got noodles and green onions and fish cakes and pork and tofu and chicken and fish and seaweed, and sometimes the broth can taste like miso but better and sometimes it can be spicy and Ichiraku’s is the best, and I’ll take you there so you can have some, believe it!”
She frowns. “How can it have pork and chicken and fish? That doesn’t work. Those meats go with different flavors—like chicken katsu and pork katsu are served with different toppings.”
He blows a raspberry. “They’re not all in the same bowl at one time! There’s different types.”
Her mind ticks over the possibilities. “...So a dashi broth for miso could work? What type of flour are the noodles?”
He shrugs. “I’unno. There’s different types?”
“Of course there are!” And she tells him about wheat vs buckwheat vs rye vs rice flour, and how flour mixed with water can serve as food in a pinch but isn’t sustainable for him because he’s malnourished—
“I’m not mal-no-ished, believe it!” Naruto protests.
She scoffs. “Don’t be stupid. Look, try to touch your thumb and pointer finger around your wrist.”
He looks at her warily, but does as she says easily. There’s enough space between his hand and his wrist that she could wriggle her little finger in there, if she tried.
“See?” She says, holding up her own wrist where her thumb can’t quite reach her finger. “You’re too skinny, because you don’t eat enough. You need to bulk up, and eat to get your vitamins, or you’ll grow up weak and feeble.”
The boy pouts. “S’not my fault the stupid jerkwads in the market won’t sell to me.” He grumbles.
“No, it isn’t.” She replies. “But they sell to me. And those who let people go hungry are scum.”
There’s a wounded noise. She looks up at the forgotten adults, tensing again.
The masked man has vanished. The old man just looks tired, but also...happy?
The old man walks her and Naruto home, and she glimpses many more white masks in the trees. The idea that any one could hurt her at any time has her trembling, fists clenched.
“What’s your name, anyway?” Naruto asks, clutching his lunchboxes close.
“Mayu.” She replies after a moment’s hesitation. “Ketsugi Mayu. I’m five and ten months.”
“I’m Uzumaki Naruto and I’m six, believe it!” He cheers. “Imma be the Hokage one day and take over from Jiji, believe it!”
She frowns up at the old man. “What’s a hokage?”
He laughs. “It’s the ninja entrusted with the safety of the village and all those within. The Hokage specifically is the leader of this Village Hidden in the Leaves, Konoha.”
She looks around.
“This place is way too big to be a village, no matter how you look at it.”
Her parents burst out the door just as they arrive at her house, her father clutching his bokken, her mother still in nightclothes.
They blanch when they see her, the woman reaching out with an abortive hand.
The Hokage bows to them. “Ketsugi-san.” He says. “May I congratulate you on raising such a fine daughter?”
Ketsugi Jirou bows hesitantly back, eyes not leaving her. He has to press a hand to Chie’s shoulder to get her to do the same. “You honor us, Hokage-sama.”
The Hokage smiles and gently pushes her. She totters forward and is swiftly captured in a crushing hug, both adults muttering “Mayu, Mayu.” Like she’ll disappear if they let go.
Her eyes begin watering again, because she’s escaped. She’s safe. For now.
“Otou-sama.” She whimpers. “Okaa-sama.”
She mentally apologizes to her parents in her past life, and the brother she left behind. In their memory, her new family will remain “Otou” and “Okaa”, never “Mummy” and “Daddy”.
She half-turns in the hug, sees Naruto and the Hokage some distance away.
“COME GET RAMEN WITH ME TOMORROW!! ICHIRAKU'S IS THE BEST, BELIEVE IT!!” He yells, with far too much volume.
She sniffles. There’s something wrong with Naruto. He lives alone and borderline starves, but the ruler of this village visits him enough that he calls the man “jiji”. People in the street call him “demon” and “monster” openly, but the masked man attacked her for approaching him.
The smart thing to do would be turn him down politely. Thank you, but no thank you. She’s his food provider, she’s not under any obligation to be his friend.
So, of course, she yells back, “EAT YOUR FOOD AND I'LL BE THERE!”
He pumps his fist and whoops, cheering loudly as the Hokage smiles and guides him away.
Mayu Ketsugi and her parents tense as the accusing, silent stares pierce them.
The neighbors never liked them much anyway.