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.
Her parents stay home so the family can strategize.
A war meeting, like those of their ancestors.
She tells them of the paradox that is Naruto, and they tell her that there’s a gag order which prevents them from ferreting out the reason behind the universal hatred of the village.
She tells them about the white masks. Her father frowns and smooths a hand across her bruised arm. “That’s the way of ninja, my girl. Spying even on their weakest and gentlest.”
“Should we continue to associate with the boy? We risk our acceptance in the village, or deportation if the village council believe that we are a threat to him.” Her mother argues.
“But if Mayu-chan reneges on her promise, Hokage-sama could take the rejection as an insult to his hospitality and have us deported anyway.” Her father counters. “Or...”
He tries to make a discreet slicing motion across his neck. It’d work better if he didn’t do the noise too. Okaa-sama covers her face with her hands and lets out a little sob.
“I want to feed him.”
Her parents turn to her.
She fidgets. “Otou-sama, Okaa-sama, he’s—he’s hungry. And alone. He doesn’t know that he needs vitamins to grow up strong, or that he’ll get sick from rotten food, or that too many sweet or greasy foods are bad for him. No one was feeding him. Letting that continue...it’s dishonorable. If—if it would ease things for Otou-sama and Okaa-sama, we could act like I was being bad by doing this? So you could tell everyone that you didn’t support my behavior while I did it, so the council and the Hokage-sama couldn’t deport us?”
She squirms as they stare down at her.
Then squeaks as both envelop her in a fierce hug.
“When did my little girl get so grown up?” Her mother asks, sounding choked up.
“We’re not doing it.” Her father says before she can reply. “Our family stays together, damn what the tree-huggers may think. Even if we have enemies on all sides, the Ketsugi clan will weather any blows. Invite the boy round here for meals—he could likely use the company.”
It’s not that simple, of course.
Naruto freezes up when her mother arrives with her to invite him for breakfast. He won’t stop pinching himself once they insist he stay for lunch and to play in the afternoon. He starts crying outright once they suggest he sleepover on the spare futon after Ichiraku’s (which was delicious and she had to stop herself from whining at Teuchi-sama for the recipe).
He’s not the problem in this equation.
Everyone else is.
The masks appear just as they’re getting ready for bed, and insist Naruto has to go back to his apartment, no matter how much he pleads or her father cajoles or her mother negotiates.
They tell him it’s “not healthy to spend so much time with foreigners to the village”.
Her parents go red at that, arguing that they’ve worked hard for the good of Konoha since they arrived, that Mayu-chan has never known any other home, she’s practically a native.
They still take Naruto away.
People begin to whisper openly about “iron-hearted immigrants jeopardizing village safety”.
She delivers Naruto his food, but there’s a masked person outside the door who goes through her cooking, destroying the now-almost-triangular onigiri, saying she could’ve poisoned it, like that wouldn’t ruin the meal.
It takes all of her willpower not to kick the stupid mask in her stupid shin.
The dark-haired police knock on their door several times throughout the week to query numerous complaints called in about them.
A man spits on her mother at work, and her coworkers just pretend nothing’s happened.
Her father comes home with a black eye that he laughs off, but he makes her wear different, nondescript clothes when she delivers Naruto’s dinner.
Another mask inspects that too.
The next day, someone’s daubed “GO BACK TO IRON” on their house.
Or they’ve tried to at any rate.
She’s woken early by an indignant shriek of rage.
There’s a black streak covering her window.
When she pushes it up and sticks her head out, she sees Naruto dumping the contents of a black can of paint over a woman’s head, red in the face and yelling incoherently.
The woman staggers, shrieking and spluttering and trying to pull off the paint can where it’s become wedged over her ears.
There’s a man who grabs Naruto’s collar and shakes him until he goes limp, snarling about monsters and demons and ungratefulness.
He’s right under her window.
She lands on him like a sack of bricks.
They end up in front of the Hokage again, this time covered in paint.
She doesn’t know where Otou-sama and Okaa-sama are. There’s masks everywhere.
The Hokage sighs. “So all this fuss is over a few meals and a sleepover?”
“Yes, Hokage-sama.” She says, bowing deeply, channelling as much of Nico Robin as she can into her movements and speech. “My family and I are very sorry if we have broken any rules of the village. We didn’t know, and...I thought Naruto would like to eat with us, and maybe stay over. Because food tastes better when you share it together.”
“Yeah, they were just being nice, believe it!” Naruto yells, fists clenched, hair splotched black.
The Hokage rubs the space between his eyes, and looks very tired. “I appreciate your intentions, Mayu-kun. However, as Naruto-kun’s apartment is paid for by the village, he needs to spend more time there than he can at his friends’ houses. Otherwise we would worry he’d been kidnapped.”
“I understand, Hokage-sama.” She says, not understanding in the slightest. Surely adult supervision was better for that rather than staying in a state-subsidized apartment alone?
From the way Naruto’s mouth twists unhappily, he doesn’t get it either.
The old man takes a deep inhale on his pipe, blowing out an impressive cloud. “Well, how about a compromise?”
And so it is decided that Naruto may eat with the Ketsugi family twice a day if he so chooses, and sleep over once a month.
These visits are non-obligatory for him, and there are no dispensations for village holidays.
If her family decides to gift Naruto with necessities outside of food, that is at their discretion. These items must bear the Uzumaki spiral. The presence of the Ketsugi symbol is forbidden.
Mayu can deliver him meals, and they can play together during the day, but he has to go home by sundown every evening and eat one meal on his own.
If not, the masks and the police will come and get him again.
It’s not perfect.
It’s not even that good, which her parents agree after hugging her so tightly that paint smears on their pajamas as well when they’re finally allowed to see her.
But if it makes Naruto smile so widely that his eyes go all squinty and hold her hand all the way back, then she’ll make do.
Even if they do have to help scrub the graffiti off of her house.
The next week, a letter arrives to say that she will be attending the Village Academy.
She does not want to attend the Academy. It’s ninja school and she doesn’t want to be a ninja.
“But why do you want to be a pirate?” Her mother asks, despairing.
“Because they’re free.” She answers. “They’re the freest people in the world.”
“So are bandits.” Her father replies, wiping miso off Naruto’s chin. “But sleeping in the dirt and being attacked by ninja and samurai isn’t much fun, is it?”
Naruto laughs as she pouts. “It’s okay, Mayu-chan! Bein’ a ninja will be WAY better than a dumb ol’ pirate, believe it!”
She tries to kick him under the table and misses. “Better a pirate with comrades and treasure than a lonely old hokage with paperwork.”
He lets out a cry and is off a mile a minute, jabbering that hokages aren’t lonely, everyone’s their comrade, and when he becomes hokage he’ll set any dumb paperwork on fire, believe it!
She hates the Academy even more once they arrive.
There’s dozens of children there, all squabbling, laughing, talking. Yet not a one of them is willing to sit next to Naruto. When he tries to make friends, they push and scramble to get away like he’s somehow diseased.
She squeezes his hand, but he still looks crushed.
She doesn’t get it. In the anime stills of her last life he was always smiling, always happy. Luffy had Ace and Sabo, Shanks and Makino, Garp and Dandan at least. How could this boy have nobody and still be made to smile?
The teacher’s even worse.
The woman goes around the room and has people introduce themselves, but skips over Naruto. He doesn’t get the handout she passes out. It’s like she’s pretending he doesn't exist.
So she gives her handout to him, and relays his questions when the teacher ignores his raised hand.
She’s not the one who wants to be a ninja, after all.
She and Naruto go to the teacher’s lounge when lunch rolls around.
A man with a scar across his nose answers the door, and lets them in to reheat their thermoses of broth in an old microwave. He’s awkward, but at least he tries to be nice to Naruto.
They get back to the classroom, and she watches, worrying her lower lip, as he pours the boiling liquid over the tofu, seaweed, green onions and pre-cooked noodles.
“How is it?” She bursts out when he takes the first bite. “I know it’s not going to be as good as Ichiraku’s, but did I get the seasoning right? Are the noodles okay?”
He slurps, and chews contemplatively.
She leans forward.
He opens his mouth—
And promptly shoves another serving of noodles and toppings into it, grinning at her indignant shriek.
“I’m never cooking for you again.” She grumps as he laughs at her. They both know that’s a lie.
The Academy gets better and worse.
On the “better” side, their classmates begin approaching Naruto more, seeing him interact and eat with her.
He doesn’t become Mr. Popular overnight, but they’ll ask him if he has an extra pencil, tell him to be quiet if he’s getting overexcited without cowering. Some even say “hello” to him.
Guess it’s hard to see a boy who whines for a solid forty-five minutes about how he needed her pudding cup to survive afternoon classes after eating his own as a demon.
The goofy victory dance he does when she gives in is also helps.
In his defense the Academy is making them do long division and fractions in afternoon classes. In a world without calculators, so everything must be done by hand.
It’s hard for her and she’s done this shit once already. For Naruto, who she suspects has some form of dyslexia more and more with each passing day...well, he deserves the pudding cup.
The first to approach is a brown-haired boy with red markings on his cheeks called “Kiba”.
He comes up to them in the schoolyard and sniffs Naruto. “You smell more like a dumb fox than a demon. I bet you’re really weak.”
Naruto bristles like a cat, fists clenching. She grabs one of them. The teachers actively look for any opportunity to punish him, and she isn’t going to let them have the satisfaction.
“Why don’t you and your dumb nose go away then?” She snaps.
The boy snarls and his teeth look like they’ve been sharpened. “Nobody was talking to you, dead fish eyes!”
“Hey!” Naruto yells, lunging for the boy, “Don’t call Mayu-chan that!”
“Try to stop me!” He jeers, looking far happier than he has any right to when Naruto jumps on him for the insult and the two begin wrestling in the dirt despite her attempts to separate them.
Somehow this leads to Kiba eating bits of their lunches, alternating between joking around with Naruto and pulling pranks on him. It’s a weird frenemy thing she’s not sure how to dissect.
Next there’s a sweet, rotund boy named “Chouji”, who must come from a family of cooks.
His lunchboxes are tiered masterpieces that make her green with envy— perfectly cooked rice making up expertly formed onigiri and sushi, braised pork, duck and beef that’s so tender it practically falls apart at the slightest brush, fruit and vegetables cut into intricate shapes.
He tentatively approaches them to ask about the french onion soup that Naruto’s eyeing dubiously, perplexed by the bread and cheese in place of noodles.
“Is it just onions, or are there other vegetables?” He asks in a break in her cajoling.
“Ah, it’s a mixture of white onions, shallots, and leeks.” She says, pleasantly surprised. “It’s not traditional, but I figured the more variety the better, right?”
The boy nods solemnly. “Could I try some?”
“Sure!” She passes over her own untouched bowl. He picks up some onions and cheese with his chopsticks and bites into it.
He puts the chopsticks down. She worries her lower lip. Did he not like it?
“Ketsugi-chan. If I trade you my cutlets, can I have this?”
She blinks and begins grinning like a loon. Naruto begins whining about how he wants a cutlet too.
So she gains a friend who she can trade cooking tips and tricks with. It’s surprisingly nice.
On the “worse” side of Academy life, people being less scared of Naruto means bullies begin to try their luck.
They’re just overconfident brats, playing at having a semblance of “power” by picking on adult-sanctioned targets.
Their little quibbles have nothing on the abuses adults have heaped on both Naruto and her. Unsurprisingly, her family is now quasi-reviled in the village even with the Hokage’s sanction of their friendship with Naruto and they get charged more for goods and paid less for their services. Even the shopkeeps who used to coo when she was younger watch her warily now.
It’s easier to ruin a reputation than it is to repair it after all. But she digresses.
It’s standard bullying fare, almost cliche in its predictability. Verbal taunting in the hallway and bathrooms, their stuff going missing, framings for petty thefts, sharp or messy substances in their seats, attacks that don’t go in their favor.
One did attempt to ruin their food once.
They don’t try that anymore.
The teachers still refuse to acknowledge Naruto. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.
At this point he could dance naked on the tables and if the other students kept quiet about it the teacher would probably do her best to pretend it wasn’t happening.
She should probably learn the woman’s name at some point. Otou-sama and Okaa-sama get bemused looks whenever she just refers to her as “the teacher”.
She’ll do so when the teacher stops glaring at her for conveying Naruto’s input.
The white masks have begun watching her more often.
It feels like there’s one in every tree she looks at, silent and waiting for the excuse to hurt.
Nobody else ever seems to see them as frequently she does, not even Naruto who has a literal cohort of masks shadowing him at all times.
Some of them large enough to be adults, others...worryingly small.
She tries her best not to look.
They’re walking home one Friday when they meet one of the other “main characters”.
She’s grumbling because she got into an argument with the teacher over the story of Usagi-hime. Apparently a tyrant on the level of the World Government is a “benevolent goddess” here.
Naruto just snickers when she makes wordless growls as she mimes choking their teacher.
His head snaps up at the sound of ugly laughter.
He frowns and tugs her to follow him off the path towards the sound of taunting.
There are three girls holding a fourth with pink hair and an red ribbon down, while a fifth laughs.
The fifth girl holds up a round object. “That forehead is so monstrously huge, I bet we could fry an egg on it, couldn’t we? Teach you to play ninja, hiding behind Yamanaka-chan!”
“Hey!” Yells Naruto. “Stop being mean to her!”
“Stop playing with food.” She adds. “It’s a waste.”
The fifth girl sneers, trying to hide a flinch at that word. “Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it? You’re just a moronic demon and an iron-hearted slant!”
“Well.” She says. “At least the egg didn’t break.”
Her knuckles are scraped and stinging and one of her teeth feels wobbly. Naruto’s got a rapidly healing black eye. The pink-haired girl who seems to be universally hated has a bloody nose.
She inspects the egg, sniffs it. It seems to be perfectly fresh. But what to do with it?
Rice omelet, scotch egg, boiled egg in ramen, spaghetti carbonara, meringue—
The hated girl sniffles, trembling. Naruto frowns at her distress, then turns puppy-eyes on her.
No. Nope, nope, nope. Naruto’s enough. She’s already befriended the main character when she was supposed to just feed him. She can’t be more involved in this dumb story than this—
The pink haired girl’s stomach growls.
“Hey.” She holds the egg up. “Wanna bake a cake with this?”
Mixing the batter and the buttercream makes her scrapes sting and crack, and she scowls furiously when they bleed and she has to stop what she’s doing to go wash her hands again.
Naruto’s eager to pick up where she leaves off, whisking so fast he almost spatters both mixtures all over the countertop in spite of her protests.
Thank god Pinky has the good sense to keep her eyes on the jam, carefully mixing in the sugar so it doesn’t burn.
The cakes come out slightly lopsided, but they’re cooked through, so she tries to cut them more evenly. Then she slathers buttercream on one, the set raspberry jam on the other, and presses them together, covering the top in the last of the buttercream.
It’s not the best Victoria Sponge she’s ever made, but Naruto and Pinky seem to like it.
They send Pinky home with half the cake and the rest of the jam. She made it, after all.
Okaa-sama declares that she’ll be making their lunches until her hands are healed at dinner, partly as a punishment for fighting. Her knuckles keep bleeding too much for her to safely prepare food anyway.
She frowns at her hands. They’re her tools. She can’t let this happen again
“Otou-sama.” She asks, while her mother tells Naruto to sit up straight and keep his elbows tucked in. “Do you know anybody who can teach me to fight with just my feet?”
Her father tilts his head to the side, contemplating.
“I’ll ask around at work and see.” He says.
Monday morning, she and Naruto (who said he wanted in on training) are at a training ground at 5AM.
It’s early even by the standards of their old food delivery system.
Her father had seemed weirdly excited the night before and told her that it was a matter of clan honor to make a good impression on her new teacher.
There’s a faint yell echoing in the morning mist.
A man in green spandex bursts out of the undergrowth, executing a series of flawless backflips to land in front of them in the center of the training field.
“GOOOD MORNING BLOSSOMING YOUTHS!!” He shoots them a thumbs up and the rising sun glints off his teeth. “I am Konoha’s Beautiful Green Beast, MAITO GAI!! It is my HONOR to train you into blossoming in THE SPRINGTIME OF YOUR YOUTH!!”
She gets the feeling she’s going to regret this.
She regrets this so much. So, so much.
Naruto groans beside her, face down on the desk. “‘M not doing this anymore, believe it.”
She limply aims a swat at him. “You’re not allowed to abandon me. Jumping ship is bad.”
“M not a pirate.” He grumbles. “M gonna be Hokage, believe it.”
She’s about to reply that a Hokage shouldn’t abandon his people either, when a bright voice goes, “Wow, you guys look dead!”
She lifts her face from the desk to see the blond girl Chouji hangs out with a lot. She looks far too pleased with her assessment.
“Sakura said you guys helped her out yesterday.” The blond girl continues after a minute of uncomprehending staring. “And Chouji says you cook good food. Wanna eat lunch with us?”
“I can’t feel my legs.” She tells her honestly. Naruto mumbles in agreement.
The blonde girl laughs like she’s told the world’s best joke.
They end up getting scolded for sleeping in class.
When lunch rolls around, her legs tremble when she walks over to where Blondie and Pinky and Chouji are eating. Naruto wobbles into a seat, and nearly falls on top of a sleeping boy.
“You didn’t cook today?” Chouji asks, looking concerned.
She snorts and holds up her scabbed hands. “Unsanitary. Okaa-sama put me on probation until they’re healed. It’s my fault anyway—I shouldn’t have been careless with them.”
“I—I’m sorry, Mayu-san!” Pinky squeaks. “If I’d stood up to Ami...”
Naruto snorts, cheeks slightly red. “That’s not your fault! Those girls were jerks, believe it!”
Blondie nods, throwing an arm around Pinky. “Yeah! We’ll make them regret messing with you!”
She accepts a conciliatory tempura from Chouji, and is struck by a thought. “Ah, what were your names again?”
A disbelieving silence. Blondie wordlessly gestures to herself and Pinky, going red when she nods.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T KNOW OUR NAMES, WE'VE BEEN CLASSMATES FOR OVER A YEAR!!”
The sleeping boy snorts when she topples out of her chair at the force of Blondie’s yell, while Naruto groans and munches on an octopus sausage.
Her schedule becomes much busier after that.
She gets up an hour before training with Gai-sensei and goes to get Naruto. He’s taken to setting up traps again to dissuade her, growing more complex and subtle by the day.
She’s getting very good at dodging and disarming them.
They train with Gai-sensei for two hours. Usually running laps and doing katas focused on fluidity and strength. He seems to have taken Sanji’s creed as a personal challenge and she’s usually wearing mitten-like weights over her hands or has her arms tied behind her back.
After training, she returns home to practice katas with her father, using a smaller bokken.
She has a very short amount of time to shower and get dressed before Naruto arrives for breakfast with her family.
Sometimes Gai-sensei joins them, and she never knew embarrassment before she had to watch her parents try not to swoon over his every word. She suspects both Okaa-sama and Otou-sama have crushes on him.
Naruto grimaces next to her and they eat their food in double time and shout their goodbyes as they run to the Academy.
They eat lunch separately.
It’s Naruto’s idea, and rather ingenious if she does say so.
They sit at opposite ends of the same table while Ino, Sakura, Shikamaru (sleepy guy), Chouji, and Kiba are spread out between them. She knows their names now. Ino made sure of it.
Ino and Sakura try to get her involved in girl talk, Chouji alternates between talking to her about cooking and to Shikamaru about classes, while Kiba and Naruto discuss what kind of cool ninja moves they know and will learn next year.
They’re close enough that it still feels like they’re spending time together, but the conversation and slight dispersal of the seating positions mean they’re “technically” not eating a meal together.
After the Academy day is over, she goes to the market with her mother to buy groceries. Once they get back, she prepares their lunch boxes the moment groceries are put away, making extra due to the sheer amount of sharing that goes on, with Naruto yelling ridiculous suggestions as Okaa-sama measures him for new clothes.
He seems to be going through a growth spurt, now his body is getting the nutrients it needs.
They finish their homework together in the kitchen while her mother makes dinner. Otou-sama usually arrives in time for them to finish setting the table and they eat dinner together.
On Wednesdays and Fridays they get ramen from Ichiraku’s. Every other weekend is when the Hokage checks in on Naruto, so she’ll not see him for the entire two days.
After Naruto leaves for his curfew, she helps wash the dishes while her parents ensure she’s up to speed on their family history.
She goes to bed early, because she learned quickly not doing so made Gai-sensei’s training that much worse to bear.
They move up a year.
It’s almost a shame, because towards the end there the teacher had begun warming up to Naruto, if saying “Good luck Ketsugi, Uzumaki.” counts as “warming up”.
She supposes she maybe should’ve had a bit more faith in the teacher, even if the woman does have an unhealthy idealization of the World Government-level tyrant Usagi-hime and is completely, totally wrong about pirates being poor role models to aspire to.
Now they’re going to have a new teacher and begin the whole rigmarole over again.
At least their classmates are already used to him, and they get a three week break before the summer term starts.
Her new birthday’s the weekend before classes start up again too, so there’s that.
Naruto’s being stalked.
She notices it a few days into the break, when Okaa-sama begs for them to act their age for once and go play outside instead of just training or cooking.
Naruto knows a good swing set outside the Academy and they spend half an hour trying to see if they can get the swing to go all the way round.
Yes, she has the memories and partial mindset of a twenty year old, but this is the dream of every child who has ever been on a swing, including her, and they are in an anime ninja world.
If there’s anywhere it’ll be possible to fulfill this dream, it’s here.
She’s managed to go almost horizontal on her swing while Naruto whoops in glee behind her, and on the backswing she spots a blur of dark hair hiding behind a tree and watching them.
No, she thinks, slowing a little while Naruto kicks with increased vigor and whoops again once he touches tree branches, the person’s weird pale eyes remaining fixed on his swinging. Watching him.
The stalker follows them everywhere.
She’s getting reasonably sure the stalker is a girl, because just about the only place she doesn’t follow Naruto is the boy’s bathroom.
She’s almost on par with the masks for stealth otherwise, remaining far enough away that it’s not obvious she’s stalking but close enough that she always has a clear line of sight to Naruto.
She’s definitely a member of one of the village clans. Her skills and the symbol on her high-quality clothing attest to that much. But what’s her interest in Naruto?
She waits a minute after Naruto enters the bathroom, and then walks towards the stalker.
The girl knows better than to run and draw attention to herself, but she does backpedal a bit.
“Look,” She says, not unkindly. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why you’re watching Naruto. I don’t think you want to hurt him, and I’ll let you off so long as you don’t. Just don’t steal any of his underwear, or invade his privacy and make him uncomfortable, or we’ll have problems. Am I clear?”
The girl blushes tomato red. She opens and closes her mouth several times. She flees.
She sighs. The stalker may have just been too shy for her own good, but it’s always wise to nip a potential yandere in the bud before obsession really takes hold.
That weekend they get an addition to their morning training.
Gai-sensei comes striding onto their training field with a boy about their age trotting along behind him. He has a braid and very bushy eyebrows.
“This is Rock Lee!” Gai-sensei says proudly. “He will be joining our most youthful training!”
“I am Rock Lee and I am eight years old.” The boy introduces himself. “I am honored to meet the students of Maito Gai-sensei!”
“I’m Uzumaki Naruto and I’m seven! Imma be the Hokage, believe it!” Naruto cheers, waking up more with the chance to say his dream.
“Ketsugi Mayu. I’ll be seven two weeks from now. It’s nice to meet you, Lee-senpai.” She bows to him.
“Ah! It is I who should be calling you senpai, as you were students of Maito Gai-sensei before me!” Rock Lee insists, eyes shining. What a polite boy.
“Heck yeah! Just call me Naruto-senpai!” Naruto boasts, hands on his hips and nose in the air.
“No, don’t make him do that...”
“HOW YOUTHFUL!!” Gai-sensei roars, tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. The only person she’s ever seen cry more than him is Franky. “It brings me much joy to see my students getting along so well! Yosh! LET US RUN 50 LAPS AROUND KONOHA ON OUR HANDS!!”
“Yes, Gai-sensei!!” Lee yells back.
She and Naruto share a horrified glance. Oh god there’s two of them now.
There’s a lot of falling on faces, and 50 laps around Konoha do not get completed. They do manage 20 circuits somehow, and Gai-sensei tells them all he’s extremely proud of them.
That’s what’s nice about Gai-sensei. Even if you couldn’t quite reach the goal he set the first time, he’s always encouraging and takes every effort as something to be celebrated and built upon. He makes you want to succeed, but not worry about failing to get there.
They’re doing cool down stretches when Lee’s stomach growls.
Her eyes narrow.
Naruto catches sight of the look on her face and begins snickering.
Gai-sensei, cheerfully oblivious, straightens up. “Yosh! Mayu-chan, would your parents mind if we imposed upon them for breakfast?”
“Of course not Gai-sensei. They’d be delighted to have you.” She smiles.
Lee curls into himself a little, beginning to retreat. “Then I shall meet you all here tomorrow! Have a good morn—”
Her hand clamps down on his arm. She keeps smiling. “Training breakfasts are at my house. Here’s the address for you, so you can join us.”
Lee blinks, eyes shining suspiciously. “Ah...uh..is this...okay?”
“Don’t fight it Lee!” Naruto calls behind her. “Or she’ll hunt you down to feed you, believe it!”
“I did not hunt you down!” She yelps indignantly. “You set traps when I left you food!”
“I just wanted to say thank you!” “With chalk dust?!”
And so Lee joins them for breakfast.
He’s loud and a bit awkward, effusively thanking her parents for even the smallest of things and easily getting caught up in Gai-sensei’s pace.
He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body though, and can be surprisingly level-headed and reliable when not overexcited. Which, admittedly, is a lot of the time.
He also likes her curries, which Naruto wrongly insists are “pure LAVA on a plate, Mayu-chan, curry’s supposed to be sweet and savory, not burn your mouth off!”
She’s just glad she now knows somebody who can appreciate what a real curry is rather than the sweet, spice-less sauce that cowards attempt to pretend counts.
Her parents are convinced he’s somehow Gai-sensei’s long lost son. To be fair to them, the eyebrows and enthusiasm are very...similar. Their theorizing ran rampant when Lee mentioned he lived in the Village Orphanage while assuring her he did, in fact, get enough to eat.
Gai-sensei isn’t exactly dissuading these theories with how much he mother-hens the boy either. She suspects he overacts and exaggerates his normal robustness a little bit for Lee, to stop the boy from glancing around during training sessions or meals like he can’t quite believe he deserves to be here.
She can’t exactly criticize, since she and Naruto and Okaa-sama and Otou-sama are also doing all they can to make Lee feel welcome.
The weekend of her birthday isn’t like any birthdays she’s had before in this life.
For all that she grew up in Konoha, she never had any friends before Naruto. Running laps was a much more productive use of her time, even if her mother worried about her being lonely.
A quiet dinner in with her new parents was enough for her.
Naruto missed her sixth birthday because he had to spend the weekend with the Hokage, then insisted on trying to draw Luffy for her from the stories she’s told him as a late birthday present.
It’s not a very accurate drawing—Luffy’s straw hat is upside down and he’s got lasers shooting from his eyes and looks like a distressed noodle overall, but it hangs on her wall all the same.
Naruto has been pulling a vanishing act sporadically throughout the week, which she wasn’t overly concerned about.
She knows about birthday preparations, and if he wants it to be a surprise, she’ll humor him.
Though she did stumble upon a scene where Lee was on one knee in front of Sakura, while Naruto prepared to hit him with a bag of mulch from behind.
All three froze when they realized she was there, stammered out something incomprehensible, and fled like startled mice.
She has no idea what was going on there, but she’d pay good money to find out.
Or at least cook a good meal, because all her ingredient purchases leave her perpetually broke.
Naruto isn’t in his apartment the morning of her birthday.
She gets past all of his traps only to knock on the door and hear no answer. The neighbors yell at her when her repeated hammering on the entrance gets too loud.
Lee isn’t with Gai-sensei when she finally arrives to training. He pointedly ignores all her questions about where the other two are, but teaches her the kata for a dropkick in exchange.
It’s difficult, but the grin she gets when her heel hits the ground and leaves a dent is blinding.
He walks her home too.
That’s when she realizes this was planned.
Sure enough, the curtains on the windows are drawn, and Gai-sensei is a little eager to go ahead of her into the house.
The lights coming on are blinding, and the yell of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY MAYU!!” should not be as loud as it is considering there are only five people in the room.
She’s sweaty and worn out and for some reason she can’t stop smiling so hard her cheeks hurt.
Lee and Gai-sensei present her with a set of weights and a few pairs of orange leg warmers to cover them, like the ones they wear on a daily basis. She grins and thinks it might be nice to wear something that reminds her of the two of them and Naruto, who has insisted on getting mainly orange clothing since Okaa-sama once told him he had the coloring for it.
Okaa-sama and Otou-sama give her a book on baking bread that’s about as heavy as the weights and several bags of different types of flour. She hugs them as tightly as she can. There’s wheat and rye and multigrain and gluten-free and she can’t wait to see what she can create with all of this.
Naruto fidgets and shoves a small pot with a rosemary plant in it into her arms. “Ino let me have it if I helped out at the Yamanaka flower shop with her and Sakura-chan, believe it, and she said it tastes really good in food and its name is Habu-san because plants are living things, so they should have names like people and animals do, right?”
She inhales the slightly salty scent.
Later, after she’s finally had a shower and gotten dressed with the addition of the leg warmers, Sakura and Ino will drop by with a set of sparkly silver hair clips and a chef’s hat keychain.
They’ll all go to a restaurant owned by Chouji’s family to eat, and she’ll devour one of the best plates of chicken katsu, intent on figuring out the recipe through taste alone. She’ll share a chocolate cake with Chouji and Naruto, laughing as the latter pouts when describing Lee’s declaration to woo Sakura when he becomes a worthy ninja.
But for now, she just beams at her best friend and tells him, “I really love Habu-san. Thank you so much for giving this to me, Naruto.”
They return to the Academy.
Lee walks with them there, and they wave to each other as they go to their respective classrooms.
Kiba runs up to them within seconds of arriving in their new classroom, a beam on his face so bright it could outshine the sun itself.
“Igotmyninkenpartner!!!” He bursts out, practically vibrating with happiness.
She blinks. Looks at Naruto, who shrugs. Looks back at Kiba. “Beg your pardon?”
He groans, cuddling a bundle close to his chest. As she’s looking down at it, it squirms.
“I. Got. My. Ninken. Partner.” He repeats, with exaggerated slowness. “It’s a huge thing for the Inuzuka! We get chosen by a ninken, and they can understand human speech and learn cool ninja moves with us, so when we grow up we’ll be twice as awesome as any other ninja!!”
“What’s a ninken?” Naruto asks as the bundle squirms again—
And a puppy pops out.
“Meet Akamaru!” Kiba says proudly. Akamaru is white with floppy brown ears and big dark eyes and—
“Akamaru.” She says seriously. “You are a very good boy.”
The puppy yips in response and she could die right then and there from happiness.
This year they’re actually moving into the ninja portion of Academy learning.
The new teacher is a white haired man and he has them sit criss-crossed on the floor.
“Chakra is a force found in all living beings, a combination of their spiritual and physical energy, or yin and yang. It is a ninja’s greatest tool, the source of genjutsu and ninjutsu.” He drones on.
Does it run on midochlorians too? A voice in her head that sounds like her past brother’s mocks. It just all sounds so inaccurate, like a bunch of different ideas mashed together to seem cool.
At least Devil Fruits were somewhat understandable in how they worked. Eat a weird fruit, it messes with your genetics, you get powers. Much more plausible.
She pokes Naruto awake again and the teacher glares at them. “Today we’ll focus on basic chakra awareness. I want you to meditate and locate your chakra center.”
The classmates around her close their eyes. After an especially sharp glare, she does so too.
It’s warm in the classroom.
It’s noisy outside, and she can feel Naruto’s knee press into her leg.
She focuses on her breathing. It’s almost peaceful, retreating inside herself like this—
There’s something inside her.
It wasn’t there before.
It doesn’t belong in her.
She thinks it doesn’t like that she’s found it.
It’s like forcibly being made aware of blood circulating through your body. Not simply your heart beating, but the friction as the liquid scrapes through your veins, the pain as the breakneck current is divided and divided again, until dead ends send the liquid flying back to where it came from at the same terrifying speed.
“What the shit?!” She gasps out, eyes flying open.
Then she hears what she just said and claps her hands over her mouth as the children around her break into surprised titters.
The teacher glowers. “Ketsugi, go stand in the hall.”
Somehow it gets worse after that.
It’s hard enough living with the realization that she’s been reborn with an entirely new circulatory system that parasitizes energy from her training and studying and doesn’t like her.
But then the teacher begins making noises about learning to mold this system to their wills.
Like trying to harness the weird unnatural force for its powers isn’t going to end horror movie style.
Especially since they’re using those dumb hand signs to do so.
She feels a little bad for disparaging it, since Naruto’s trying so hard to form them properly.
But most of them look like they’d dislocate her fingers if she wasn’t careful, her mind recalling videos of howling children who tried a little too hard to copy their favorite show and were left with fingers that dangled the wrong way.
She can’t risk damaging her tools again.
“Ketsugi.” The teacher says. “Demonstrate the Ox sign for the class.”
She cautiously twists her fingers, then drops them when something twinges. “Can't do it.”
“Of course you can, if you bother to try. The Ox sign.” The teacher snaps.
“But these aren’t necessary, right?” She pushes.“They just make using ch-chakra easier. A handicap.”
The teacher sighs. “They’re a tool, not a handicap, which you would know if you were paying attention to the lesson. Form the signs, Rat through Serpent.”
“I’m not doing them.” She snaps. “It’s embarrassing as a human being!”
There’s a moment of silence as what she said sinks in.
“Mizuki-sensei, why does Ketsugi-san look so smug?”
“Because she’s about to serve detention Uchiha.” The teacher growls. “Ketsugi, out in the hallway, now!”
She pouts as she holds the water buckets. They’re not even that heavy after training with Gai-sensei.
And so what if she was smug? She got to say Nico Robin’s line, she deserves to feel proud for that.
“It’s embarrassing as a human being.” She whispers to herself and can barely stifle slightly hysterical giggles.
Naruto and Kiba end up in detention with her after school.
Somehow they managed to turn the teacher’s white hair orange enough to rival Nami’s.
It’s almost the same length too, making her snicker.
She thinks of her own hair, now below her chin. It’s too fine and straight to pull off Nami's look. She pouts down at her fingers.
“What is your family symbol anyways?” Kiba says, cracking his knuckles and shaking his fingers out. They’ve been cycling through the dumb signs for the past twenty minutes.
She peeks down at her shirt where there’s a little embroidered grey pelican with its wings raised to almost form a circle and a red tomoe where its beak meets its breast.
“It’s a pelican.” She says. “A sea bird. Their beak can hold lots of water, like a bucket.”
“Oh.” He fidgets, scratching the markings on his face. Akamaru barks. “Is that why it’s your family symbol? Carrying water?”
“Ah, no.” She gestures towards it as covertly as she can. “There’s this idea from a long time ago that pelicans babies are nursed on blood. So the pelican stabs itself with its beak so it can feed its babies. It’s a metaphor for something, like self-sacrifice, I think. I’m pretty sure they don’t do that in the wild.”
Kiba “hmms” and a frown creases Naruto’s face, but he doesn’t say anything for the rest of the afternoon, and that evening he’s back to normal.
She wonders if she should’ve questioned it.
One day a little under half of their class is gone.
She looks around. “Where is everyone?”
“You mean you don’t know?” Ino gasps, looking vaguely ill. Her skin’s pale and there’s bags under her eyes.
She and Naruto glance at one another. She shakes her head.
The blonde leans in close, voice dropping to a whisper. “The entire Uchiha clan was killed last night. Massacred.”
She blinked, looking around at the empty seats. Then it hits her. “What?! Even the—”
Ino shrugged, rubbing her arms. “I don’t know. They haven’t reported any survivors. J-just that the clan compound was—w-was—”
The blonde began trembling violently, breath coming in harsh gasps. Her eyes widen and she slips an arm around Ino’s shoulders, frantically gesturing to Naruto who looks like he’s confronting a bomb instead of a panicking girl.
Between them they got Ino sitting down and nibbling half-heartedly on an orange slice. Shikamaru, Kiba and Choji are in just as bad shape. Chouji is chewing his thumb so hard he makes it bleed, while Shika jumps at the slightest sound. Kiba’s just curled around Akamaru.
Nobody talks much that day.
Eventually the teacher throws his hands up and tells them all to go home early.
All the other civilian kids leave immediately in twos and threes. The clan kids stay seated.
Ino laughs hollowly when Sakura asks what’s taking her so long. Chouji won’t stop trembling. The quiet boy in the back buzzes restlessly. Kiba even lets out a whimper.
She exchanges glances with Sakura and Naruto.
They’re scared stiff.
Naruto stands up, and goes to where his stalker and the quiet boy sit at the back of the room. “Hey,” He says, “Wanna walk home with Mayu-chan an’ Sakura-chan an’ Ino an’ Shika an’ Chouji an’ Dogbreath and me?”
He sounds out of breath once he’s finished.
“U-um,” The stalker stutters. The quiet boy says, “That will not be necessary. Why? Because...”
“Oh come off it and walk with us.” She snaps. “We’ll hold hands and everything. Safety in numbers, right Shikamaru?”
He scoffs, but stares intensely at a spot on the wall. She can practically see the cogs turning in his head.
“Okay.” He says. “Here’s how we’ll do this.”
They run into Lee on the way out, but he gets incorporated into their weird-dodechahedron-chain-thing easily enough.
He and Naruto are at the front, laughing and talking like nothing’s wrong. Naruto holds Kiba and his stalker’s hands, while Lee holds the quiet boy’s and Shikamaru’s.
The clan kids make up a mass in the middle. Kiba (after much grumbling) holds the quiet boy’s other hand, while the stalker holds Ino’s and Shikamaru grasps Chouji’s hand.
She and Sakura take the rear, holding hands and not doing as good a job as Lee and Naruto at pretending everything’s fine. Sakura’s also holding Ino’s other hand and she’s holding Chouji’s.
People stare at them as they walk, barely tripping each other up.
Some snigger, but more look pitying.
She spots a couple of masks following them at a distance and tightens her grip on Sakura and Chouji.
They go to the compound that’s farthest from the village proper first and work their way in.
The quiet boy’s father has glasses like his son, and thanks them with a low buzz for returning “Shino”.
Kiba’s mum gives him a noogie and her dog calls them “good kids” gruffly.
The stalker is welcomed by an attendant who calls her “Hinata-sama”, flicks cold eyes over them and shuts the door in their faces.
Ino’s mum is almost in hysterics and she can’t stop hugging and kissing her daughter.
Chouji’s dad looks on the verge of tears, and he calls them brave for looking after his son.
Shikamaru’s mum keeps it better together, but her voice cracks when she thanks them.
When she closes the door on them, Mayu, Naruto, Lee and Sakura all look at each other, pensive and grave. The four “civilians” with no compounds to hide in.
Not that the compound saved the Uchiha.
“Wanna go cook something at my place?” She asks.
Her parents return with Gai-sensei and a pink-haired man and a blonde woman who introduce themselves as Kizashi and Mebuki Haruno.
They hug their daughter for a long time.
Lee looks longingly at the scene, so Gai-sensei slaps him on the shoulder and challenges him to run 100 times around their garden on his hands. Otou-sama eagerly asks if he can join in, which Gai-sensei enthusiastically agrees with.
Otou-sama repeatedly falls on his face, but he looks like he’s having fun.
She checks to see if the meat is done, then calls out that the food she, Naruto, Sakura and Lee have prepared is ready.
Naruto grabs the extra chairs while Sakura balances a pitcher of ice water and the hot plate and Lee brings out covered dishes of thinly sliced vegetables and rice.
It’s too hot for hot pot really, and they’re all sweltering as they crowd round the dining table Gai-sensei and Kizashi lugged outside, but at the same time it feels like the heat of the dish could almost burn away the horrors that happened today, warm and mild flavors grounding them in the idea of home and family and making it seem ridiculous that such things could be violated.
Her mother brings out bottles of sake, and she can tell by the way Mebuki Haruno whistles that it’s good stuff.
She uncorks one bottle and pours a dish out for everyone, even the children.
Then her father uncorks the other and holds it up in one hand, his sake dish in the other.
“To the Uchiha. May their memory be honored, may they find justice, and may their spirits be at peace in the next life.”
“To the Uchiha.” They chorus, and he pours the bottle out into the grass as they drink.
She’s never had the tongue for alcohol so it doesn’t taste very nice. From the way Naruto’s sticking his tongue out, Sakura’s hacking, and Lee’s pulling a face, they think the same.
Luffy, I know this isn’t really your thing. She thinks. But maybe get Robin or Nami or Brook to help you out. Please, please get those poor souls somewhere they’ll be happy and free. And knock the fucker who did a Buster Call on them out with a gomu gomu no bazooka.
She tosses back the rest of the sake with that silent prayer.
Naruto leans into her side, resting his head on her shoulder, so she rests her head atop his. Okaa-sama sits down on his other side, taking his hand and carding her free one through Mayu’s hair. Otou-sama brackets them on the other side, throwing an arm over their shoulders and drawing them all together, a bit squashed, and adds his hand to the pile.
They watch the sun set and mourn the lives lost.
Nobody goes home that night.
The masks don’t even come for Naruto.
They end up spread out around the living room, futons and bedding haphazardly laid out.
She wakes up in the early morning with Naruto spreadeagled beside her on the floor, one foot in her father’s stomach and her mother curled up behind her and—
The mask that hurt her standing over them.
She tenses weakly, eyes frantically darting around. Her father is at their feet, so he’ll have to go over them to save her, giving the mask enough time to slit her throat.
Gai-sensei is sitting in her mother’s armchair, head thrown back and snoring while Lee is curled up on his lap. He won’t get to her in time either.
Kizashi is squashed on the couch, with Mebuki blocking him in. Sakura is on the coffee table for some reason, cuddling a paperweight. She can’t drag them into this.
She’s not strong like the Monster Trio. Hell, she can’t even hold a candle to the Coward Trio. There’s no way she’ll be able to take the mask and live to tell the tale. She’ll barely scratch him.
The mask looks at her. She curls a hand around Naruto’s arm protectively and glares back.
He raises a single finger the mouth of the mask and bursts into a flurry of leaves.
She can’t go back to sleep after that.
They’re in the morning paper.
Not as the front page headline. No, that’s reserved for a picture of a little boy that’s so much like the anime stills that used to be bandied about in flame wars of her past life, with the headline UCHIHA ITACHI CONFIRMED KILLER above it and the phrase SEVEN YEAR OLD SOLE SURVIVOR OF MASSACRE underneath.
They are halfway down the second page though. There’s a grainy photograph of their hand-holding escort, taken so as to obscure Naruto as much as possible behind Lee.
It doesn’t quite work, because you can see his hair and ear, and his hands holding Hinata and Kiba, the Uzumaki spiral clearly visible on his shirtsleeve.
Naruto eagerly points this out, and bragging about how “We’re famous now, believe it!”
The caption under it reads: Clan and civilian children draw together in historic show of solidarity. Whoever writes for the paper likes alliteration too much for anyone’s good.
Her father peers at it. “That’s quite a scary face you’re making there Mayu-chan.”
She says nothing and eats her rice quickly while her mother gives Otou-sama a Look.
It’s not her fault she was glaring at the masks when the photo was taken.
Everyone’s talking about the photo in class too.
Ino’s even signing copies of it.
At least she’s feeling better. The others seem to back to a semblance of normality too.
All except the stalker. She keeps stealing quick, furtive glances at Naruto, before gazing sadly back down at her hands.
Ino notices her staring and nudges her. “I heard Hinata’s dad blew a gasket at the picture. Said she’s not allowed to associate with Naruto anymore.” She says conspiratorially.
She winces. For a moment she’d been so caught up in the sense of communal mourning, she’d forgotten she lived in a world where Naruto was a pariah.
“Anything we can do?” She murmurs to Ino.
The blonde purses her lips, tapping her chin, but Sakura, with bags under bloodshot eyes from drinking a bit too much and sleeping on a table, is the one who answers. “Have her sit on the girl’s side of the table. That the way she’s close to Naruto without associating.”
“Sakura, that’s brilliant!” Ino gushes.
Instead of blushing and modestly denying the praise like usual, Sakura presses her face into the desk and mumbles, “Fuck yeah I am, shannaro.”
She cracks up at the expression on Ino’s face.
Naruto invites Shino to sit with him as well to disguise their intentions.
He accepts, but seems a little on edge with all the noise, curling in on himself a little whenever Ino or Kiba or Naruto go a little loud in the volume department.
It’s not his fault; some people just don’t do as well with noisy gatherings like this.
Hinata’s perked up a lot though, so there’s that.
She tries to follow Ino’s efforts to make Hinata feel included, but her mind keeps going back to the headline picture.
She knows about him vaguely. She used to participate in many arguments by claiming that Roronoa Zoro would definitely kick his pasty little arse seven ways to Sunday, magic eye or no.
There were enough pictures and videos of him and Naruto fighting online that she knew they were enemies, even if she didn’t know the whys or hows.
She knows his brother killed his clan, and the flame wars over whether this was justified would always take over the thread.
Sitting here with under half the class gone, dark-haired kids whose names she should’ve made more effort to remember, it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it. But she digresses.
The image of the little lost boy staring at the camera like he can’t understand what’s happening to him returns to haunt her. Naruto used to look like that, when he went home covered in rotted produce and belly growling.
Sanji preserve her, but she’s a sap.
“Will the Uchiha go hungry now?” She asks herself, pushing a grain of rice around.
There’s a silence.
When she looks up, the rest of the table is staring at her. Some inquisitive, some suddenly calculating, one despairing.
Naruto groans, startlingly loud. “I’m not sharing my lunch with him. You can make him food, but I’m not gonna sit with him, believe it.”
“I don’t want to either.” She says honestly, and bites into her red bean bun as those around her stare in bemusement.
Naruto suddenly grins, bright and vicious. “You’re so weird, Mayu-chan.” He crows, biting into his own bun.
She shrugs. Well, he’s not wrong.
Naruto is not being helpful.
“Make him the orange curry.” He says. “I heard he loves curry, believe it.”
“You mean the chicken tikka masala, which you described as ‘fire in food form’?” She asks wryly.
He points a dramatic finger at her. “YOU ADMIT IT!”
“Inside voice please, Naruto-kun!” Okaa-sama calls from the other room.
“Sorry Mayu’s Okaa-san!” He calls back. “But yeah, you should make him eat the fire curry, believe it.”
She sighs. “I’m not gonna make him eat the ‘fire curry’. I’m not sure if I’m gonna make him any food yet.”
She looks up when he scoffs, but continues, “...I don’t know if he needs it or not—whether he’s going have a live-in caretaker, or go into the Orphanage with Lee or what. I’ll wait until he comes back to the Academy and then we’ll see.”
“S’not what it sounded like last week, believe it.” Naruto grumbles.
He’s sitting on the countertop and banging his heels against the cupboards behind her. Loudly.
She tries counting to ten in her head.
She makes it to seven.
She turns and grabs his ankles. “Look, what’s this about?”
“Nothin’! Leggo!” He scowls and tries to tug his legs out of her grip.
She wraps her arms around them to prevent his escape, scowling right back.
“You weren’t like this when I fed Sakura and Lee, or shared food with Kiba and Chouji.” She points out, tightening her grip to stop him from kneeing her in the chin on accident. “What’s so special about Uchiha?”
“Everyone thinks he’s special!” He yells, going red in the face. “They’re all like ‘oh, isn’t it sad he’s all alone’, like I wasn’t alone too!! I’m sorry his family died, but I never knew mine!! I never had mine!! And no–nobody e-ev-ever told me ‘sorry your parents are gone’ or c-c-cared about—about me being all on my own, except Jiji an’ Teuchi an’ Ayame an’ you an’ Okaa-san an’ Otou-san, an’—a-an’—”
She watches, horrified, as fat tears slide faster down his face. “An’—an’ now you’re gonna make food f’r him, and you’re gonna like him better’n me, jus’ like Jiji does, an’ you won’t wanna be my friend any-any—”
She pinches his arm sharply, ignoring his pained yelp.
“Don’t.” She threatens, swallowing around a lump in her throat. “Don’t you dare spout that nonsense around me, Uzumaki Naruto, do you understand?! How could you—how could you even think that?!”
“You were gonna give him food.” He sniffs, glaring reproachfully.
“What—you think—you think I just feed people because I wanna be their friend?!” She asks, incredulous and insulted.
Naruto nods, hesitantly.
She drags her hands over her face, ignoring that they come away wet.
“Right. You listen to me Uzumaki, and you listen good. I. Will. Always. Feed. The. Hungry. Even if I hate their guts.”
Naruto blinks, looking slightly alarmed as she rants. “I didn’t even know Sakura’s name when we made that cake together! I just cooked with her because she was hungry. Shit, if my worst enemy were trying to kill me, and couldn’t finish the job because they were starving, I would feed them. Maybe with foods they hate, but I’d still feed them. Because I am a bloody professional and those who let people go hungry are scum.”
He startles back as she grabs his knees again. “You are not my friend because I fed you. You are my friend because you stuck around and took me to Ichiraku’s and defended me and you’re nice and funny and gave me a drawing of Luffy and Habu-san and I like you, you little shit. You’re my best friend. I am not replacing you. Not now, not ever. You’re stuck with me, whether you like it or not.”
Naruto gulps, eyes shining bright again and lower lip wobbling.
She sniffs fiercely, ignoring the trembling in her hands.
“Ketsugi Mayu.” Okaa-sama’s voice comes from behind her, and her blood runs cold. “What have I told you about using profanity?”
That’s how she ends up on another week-long ban from cooking.
Naruto tries to make it up to her with a stream of too-tight hugs.
It partly works. Partly.
Otou-sama clicks his tongue at her when he gets home and Okaa-sama tells him what happened, and musses up her hair.
Then he picks up Naruto and spins him around like he used to do to her when she was small, and carries him into the entrance hall to sit on the stairs, the one place in the house where there are no nearby windows.
She tries to listen in while she’s setting the table, standing closer to the door than she really needs to.
“...not for that, you’d be wearing a pelican...” is all she hears before Okaa-sama grabs her shoulder and steers her back into the kitchen.
Naruto’s eyes are swollen again when her father carries him back in for dinner.
Hers and Okaa-sama’s ramen still isn’t as good as Teuchi-sama’s at Ichiraku’s. But Naruto eats it just as quickly, eagerly gulping down the shoyu broth and pouting over-dramatically when there aren’t seconds.
Okaa-sama insists he wash his face before he leaves so his eyes aren’t sore tomorrow.
It’s cutting very close to his curfew when he finally leaves, twisting around to look back at them as he walks down the street.
Okaa-sama and Otou-sama hug her before she goes to bed that night and tell her how proud of her they are.
She returns the embrace greedily, whispering she’s proud of them too.
Sasuke Uchiha doesn’t return to school for another two weeks.
During that time, Kiba managed to insult Shino by repeatedly asking if he was sure his bugs weren’t fleas.
She didn’t understand the comment, until literal insects begin pouring out of Shino’s sleeves and chasing Kiba and Akamaru.
Well, that explained the buzzing.
Ino added to the pandemonium by shrieking so loud she thought her eardrums would burst and swatting a load of the insects in one swipe. Which made Shino howl in pain and turn his wrath on her as well.
The teacher had given them all detention, on the grounds that none of them stopped the incident from happening or went and snitched to him.
She sat between Shino and Sakura and doodled Usopp on the worksheet they were supposed to be working on.
Ino was sandwiched somewhat unwillingly by Chouji and Shikamaru, who were whispering furiously to her. Kiba was in a similar position with Hinata and Naruto.
“That person cannot be real, or you are bad at drawing.” Shino said, peeking at her paper. “Why? Because his nose is impractically long.”
“Shino!” Sakura hissed from her other side. “That’s not very nice!”
“He may not be real, but I like him anyway.” She replied, tapping the pencil against the paper. “His name is Usopp. He’s a pirate sharpshooter who can hit anything with a slingshot.”
“Unlikely. Why? Because a slingshot does not have half the accuracy or firing power of a bow, a shuriken, or a firing arm.”
“For him it does.” She says fondly. “He’s also a coward, but he’s brave when it counts and he loves insects. It’s funny, because they’re just about the one thing he doesn’t run away from.”
“Ah.” Shino says. He takes another, longer look at the drawing.
The next day, Ino and Kiba apologize to Shino with a wounded air.
He nods stiffly, but still flinches away from Ino.
At lunchtime, he sits in between Shikamaru and Chouji, and Ino switches places with her to be at the end of the table, away from him.
She offers him half of an egg and watercress sandwich. He accepts it with a nod.
He lifts his sleeve onto the table.
While everyone else draws in a wary breath, insects, shiny-black and dull brown, crawl out onto the table.
They crawl around and settle down and hold still in a certain pattern. Black ones mimicking waves of curls and dark eyes with long eyelashes. Brown ones outlining a bandana, a jawline and an impractically long nose.
Or the not-very-good drawing of Usopp she showed him yesterday. But still. Usopp.
She grins widely, darting a pleased look up at him.
Shino nods again, the insects breaking formation and trundling back up his sleeve. He begins eating the sandwich.
She looks up to find Ino looking...strangely elated?
Sakura wiggles her eyebrows at her, mouthing ‘we are going to talk’.
She rolls her eyes and tucks into her own lunch.
“Mayu-chan, is it true you’re in love with Shino?!”
Naruto bursts out with this question just as Otou-sama takes a sip of his orange juice at breakfast.
Otou-sama chokes on his juice, and Okaa-sama leans over with a concerned “Anata!” as he coughs, going red in the face.
Gai-sensei stares at her, lower lip wobbling.
Lee just tilts his head at Naruto and goes, “Who is Shino?”
“He’sh the bug guy.” Naruto says with his mouth full, the traitor. “He did Mayu-chan a pishture with bugs.”
Rice falls from her chopsticks and splats onto the table.
“HOW YOUTHFUL!!!” Gai-sensei wails. “Mayu-chan is experiencing the blossoming of ROMANCE!!”
“No.” She says desperately. “I’m not. Really, really not.”
Shino is seven years old. She’s mentally twenty (most of the time) and not a pedophile.
“Ah! Congratulations, Mayu-chan!” Lee beams. “I hope your love is as passionate as the Will of Fire!”
Nami give her patience.
“Naruto, who did you hear this from?” She asks.
Her chopsticks creak in her grip.
“Sakura-chan!” He chirps, pointing an accusing finger at her. “She said you showed him a picture of long-nose-guy who likes bugs after Ino squished his, and then he did the picture in bugs, an’ you were really happy! She called it suuuuuuper ro-man-tick, believe it!”
“He’s not ‘long-nose-guy’.” She seethes, plotting Sakura’s demise. Or not demise. Inconvenient disappearance due to her hair turning green, maybe. “His name is Usopp.”
Okaa-sama kneels in front of her. “Mayu-chan...would you like us to send a request for marriage negotiations to this boy’s family?”
It goes so silent one could hear a pin drop.
“Marriage what.” She wheezes.
Okaa-sama squeezes her hands. “I know it may seem sudden.” She says. “But...with the Ketsugi clan being what it is...”
“What your mother’s trying to say Mayu-chan,” Her father cuts in, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Is that clans are required to do things certain ways, or else they risk dissolution. Even branches like us. But we want you to be happy. And if you think that you l-love this boy, and that you would enjoy living your life with him...”
Her mouth works soundlessly. Naruto and Lee just look extremely confused.
Gai-sensei has stopped crying, at least. But he’s frowning, bushy brows furrowed.
“Your father and I...we were very lucky with each other.” Okaa-sama smiles softly. “We want you to have that same luck, or better, if you can.”
“You did not have a choice in your love?” Gai-sensei’s voice is strangely soft.
Her parents immediately fluster, going redder than beetroot.
“That’s, um—” Her father stammers. “We, ah—” Her mother squeaks.
“HOW INCREDIBLY YOUTHFUL OF YOU TWO!!!” He yells, tears springing anew to his eyes as he somehow sweeps both of her parents up in a hug. “TO MANAGE TO FIND LOVE IN EACH OTHER WHERE OTHERS ONLY CARED ABOUT OBLIGATION!! I AM OVERWHELMED WITH ADMIRATION FOR YOUR DEVOTION!!”
She can practically see the steam coming out of Otou-sama and Okaa-sama’s ears. That much blood in someone’s face can’t be healthy.
She shoves the last of her rice into her mouth, shooting Naruto a look that has him eating his double-time and helping to feed Lee the remnants of his breakfast while he’s left starry-eyed by the adults’ display.
She scribbles a brief note explaining that no, Shino’s just a friend, there’s no need for any marriage arrangements until she’s at least twenty.
Then she grabs Naruto, Lee, and their bentos, and runs like her life depends on it.
Sakura makes the mistake of waving when she sees them come in through the gate.
Her expression goes from smiling to wary when she sees Mayu drop the two boys and zero in on the pink-haired girl
“Haruno.” She growls. “Run.”
Haruno Sakura runs.
And escapes up into a tree. Which she’s never been very good at climbing.
She scowls and kicks the trunk, wishing it would break.
“Get down here so I can punch you in the shins.” She tells the tree grumpily.
“What?! Why?! I didn’t do anything!!” Sakura’s voice emerges from between the leaves.
“You told Naruto I was in love with Shino.” She hisses.
The tree is suspiciously quiet. “...No I didn’t.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Yeah, pray to Usopp to make you better at lying. Because that one’s awful.”
The tree’s leaves rustle indignantly. “But I didn’t! I was just talking to Ino about how you two would be cute as a couple, and Naruto was eavesdropping!!”
“You told INO?!” That’s it, her life here is over, time to run away to become a pirate before the engagement can be arranged.
“Sakura, I’ve just barely convinced my parents to stop planning marriage negotiations!!” She seethes. “Ino will tell everyone and set back all my progress!!”
There’s a moment of quiet.
Then a strange, high-pitched noise begins emanating from the tree. Across the schoolyard, Akamaru whimpers and buries his head in his paws. It sounds a bit like a dentist’s drill, so it takes her a moment to place it.
“NO!!” She roars, red-faced and pointing an accusing finger at the tree. “STOP SQUEALING! THIS IS NOT SOMETHING TO SQUEAL ABOUT!!”
Sakura does not listen.
She ends up squealing and kicking her little legs so hard she falls out of the tree.
Luckily Lee dives under her, and she considers the expression Sakura makes at realizing exactly who caught her adequate punishment.
It takes her an entire day to sort this mess out.
Ino and Sakura take sadistic joy in her suffering. Lee is confused but supportive. Hinata and Shikamaru stay out of it as much as they can.
Kiba and Naruto exploit it to tease her and Shino for all they’re worth. So does the rest of the class, once they realize they now have prime taunting material.
Hell, even the teacher gets in on it by telling Shino he doesn’t know what he sees in her, and that a kunoichi who wasn’t afraid of hand signs would be a much more suitable match for a clan heir like him.
She gets detention for flipping him off.
Only Shino and Chouji seem to be as upset as she is.
She never realized what a loyal and true friend Chouji was before this.
She needs to appreciate him more.
She brings extra pork belly for him in her lunch the next day, to thank him for not betraying her.
His eyes light up when she gives him the food and a hug, and he eats eagerly.
Shino spends all of that morning with his head on the table. He only turns it to the side when Shikamaru finally pokes him.
“I am contemplating running away.” He says solemnly. “Why? Because my father spent all of yesterday evening trying to reassure me about the rumors surrounding Ketsugi-san and myself and telling me I will be a catch when I am older.”
She grimaces in commiseration. She finally got through to her parents and Gai-sensei, but they had then insisted on telling her similar platitudes all throughout breakfast.
She thought she knew embarrassment. She was wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spots a dark-haired head where there isn’t one normally.
She does a double take.
“Wait,” She asks, throughly confused. “When did Uchiha get back?”
The table freezes. Most of them twist around to confirm that, yes, Uchiha Sasuke is sitting at a desk at the far end of the classroom, glaring at them darkly while eating a tomato slice.
“Yesterday.” Shikamaru says dryly.
He then winces at Ino’s ear-piercing shriek, berating him loudly for not saying something earlier.
That people forget (mostly) about her and Shino is about the only good thing to come from Uchiha Sasuke’s return.
She vaguely remembers him pre-massacre. He seemed alright enough, but he hung out with a different group of people to her and Naruto, so they never interacted much.
Those people appear to be gone now though, given how alone he is now.
This suggests he never had any friends outside of his relatives, which she’ll admit is a bit odd, given how large that group was.
Guess there were more Uchiha in the class than she thought? But that doesn’t feel right...
Point is, he was an okay kid with friends.
Not for lack of trying of course. She finally understands what Naruto meant by “special”.
Even outside the well-wishers who repeatedly try to convey their condolences, half the girls in the class seem to lose their heads over him as the weeks go on.
Ino in particular begins to sing his praises endlessly, going on about how “aloof” and “cool” he is, to the point where Chouji, patient, kind Chouji, begs her to talk about anything else.
This is why she should’ve been reborn into One Piece. She wouldn’t have had to deal with this romance bullshit in a series where the main character’s asexual.
Sakura just sighs and stares at him, ignorant of how Naruto droops every time she does so.
(She tries to console him with extra food and too-tight hugs. It partly works. Partly.)
Even the teacher uses him as the standard against which all their work is judged, praising his stance in the Academy katas, his precision with throwing weapons, his answers on tests.
To hear others say it, Uchiha Sasuke is a prodigy who’s overcome his trauma through sheer determination and talent.
So why does he keep glowering at their lunchtime group like they’re somehow part of his tragedy?
It has to come to a head at some point.
She knows something bad’s going to happen when the teacher tells them they’re going be fighting one another in pairs in the center of a taped-off square. Winners either force their opponents out of the square or put them in a position where a killing blow could be struck.
Their classmates stand around the edge to watch and cheer.
Chopper’s Rumble Balls. This couldn’t scream “blood sport” any harder if they were in a cage arena and betting on the matches.
Though she thinks she does spot some money changing hands...
First up is Shikamaru vs Chouji. Shikamaru promptly declares it a drag and flings himself out of the square at Chouji’s first blow. Chouji looks worried right up until Shika rolls onto his side for a nap. Then he just looks exasperated.
Then Chouji’s set against Hinata. They’re both too hesitant to really hit each other, but eventually Hinata manages to get him to step out of the square through speed and disorientation.
Hinata versus Kiba. Kiba versus Ino. Ino versus Fuuka. Ino versus Shino. Shino versus Sasuke. Sasuke versus Sakura. Sasuke versus Mori, Ami, Yosuke, an endless number of civilian kids he effortlessly beats in one or two blows, using moves that don’t look like the Academy kata they’ve learned.
Sasuke versus Naruto.
She shoots him a thumbs up and a grin as he goes into the ring. He beams back, returning the gesture before focusing.
The pair of them make the silly-looking “Seal of Confrontation”.
Naruto takes up the opening position for Strong Fist style.
Sasuke, with his hands in his pockets, snorts dismissively.
“Begin!” The teacher yells.
Uchiha fakes a punch like the one that dropped Mori, before going for the sweeping kick that knocked Ami and Junko on their backs.
Naruto doesn’t balk at the feint and neatly hops over the sweep (Gai-sensei’s training makes you good at dodging), jabbing a quick palm strike into Uchiha’s chest.
Sasuke stumbles. He’s frowning. So’s the teacher. This isn’t the way they expected this to go.
She grins, fiercely proud. Good.
Uchiha’s style is fast. The teacher is right that it’s technically flawless, leg perfectly straight with every kick, stance perfectly solid for every punch. He’s clearly been trained in this from a young age.
But he’s skinnier than he used to be, and his lunchboxes are pathetic. It’s simple, easy-prep foods, under or overcooked rice and ragged tomato slices, which aren’t bad, but shouldn’t be the only foods he’s eating if he wants to have strength and energy.
Naruto’s still got some kinks in his form he’s got to work on with Gai-sensei, overbalancing here, not defending there. But he can take his opponent’s blows, and his own land with all the force of a freight train, mixing up Strong Fist, Academy style, and what looks like street brawling.
Naruto’s also been eating well-balanced diet for as long as he’s known her, which may not count for much in the long term, but it’s counting here.
Because, as much of a prodigy as Sasuke is, it’s slowly becoming apparent that he’s on even ground in this fight, and may even be losing.
“Come on, Naruto!” She yells, as he manages to kick Uchiha’s ankle out from under him and—
Kiba and Akamaru yelp as the teacher keeps blowing a whistle until he’s red in the face, yanking Naruto away from his opponent by his collar.
“I said we would be sparring WITH ACADEMY KATAS, Uzumaki!” He roars. “If you can’t keep to SIMPLE INSTRUCTION, you’ll be spending the rest of the MONTH in DETENTION, do you hear me?!”
Naruto’s looking stunned and frightened, like he’s not sure what he did to merit this reaction. “B-but—”
The teacher drops Naruto with a dismissive, “Disqualified. Match default to Uchiha Sasuke.”
“But that’s not fair!” She howls. Chouji’s holding her hand tight, probably so she doesn’t do something stupid like try to break this hypocritical farce of an educator’s kneecaps.
Kiba points at Uchiha. “He’s been using non-academy techniques since his match with Bug-boy! How come you haven’t pulled him, huh?”
The teacher sniffs. “Sasuke is advanced in taijutsu and can be trusted not to seriously damage his opponents. Uzumaki is too violent and out of control to be trusted—only once he masters the Academy Three will he have the discipline to avoid reckless stunts like this. And if you’re done shrieking, Ketsugi, get your behind in the ring.”
Her ears burn hot. She wants to hurt somebody. She wants to hurt them badly, for even being witness to Naruto’s ill-treatment. It’s not a nice feeling, hot and roiling in her belly like bile.
Don’t act out aggression violently. That’ll just give the masks ammunition and they’ll hurt you. Remember what Okaa-sama said. If calming down is impossible, escape the situation.
“Sorry.” She can’t stop herself from snapping. “I’m not disciplined enough to avoid breaking your sheltered little prodigy.”
She stomps over to Naruto and helps him up. His palm is trembling in hers as she leads him away, ignoring the Uchiha’s insulted look and the teacher’s yells.
They’ve both had enough of the academy for today.
Bread is excellent for venting anger.
She’s probably overworking the dough, but better that than doing something she’ll regret later. Like kicking the stupid teacher as hard as she can between his stupid legs.
Naruto’s despondently fiddling with Habu-san’s leaves.
“I wouldn’t have hurt him.” He murmurs. “I’ve done it with you an’ Lee an’ you two haven’t been hurt, right?”
“No, we weren’t. But you would’ve beat him. Pass me a bit?” She washes the rosemary off, muttering darkly as she pats them dry. “He didn’t want you to win and make his little teacher’s pet look bad.”
Naruto’s brow furrows as she folds the rosemary into the dough, placing it in a bowl and covering it with plastic wrap and leaving it aside for the first prove, setting the timer for an hour.
“You’re really mad, aren’t you? You’re not even doing the singy thing.”
She stops in the midst of washing her hands. “Singy thing?”
Naruto shrugs. “Yeah, when you cook normally, you do this thing. Like you’re singin’ but there’s no words an’ the sounds are all weird. Like this.”
Then, in quiet, heavily accented English he croons, «An’all the roads we have to walk are WINDing, an’all the lights that lead us there’re BLINDing, THERE are many THINGS that I Would LIKE to SAY to YOU—»
She covers his mouth with a wet hand, because if she has to hear Naruto sing any more of that song she’s gonna either crack up or melt into a little puddle of shame on the floor. “Yes, I get the idea, thank you Naruto.”
Then she shrieks because he’s licked her hand and seizes his shirt so he can’t escape as she wipes off the saliva off on his cheek, before he grabs her other arm and rubs his face on it.
They end up wrestling until the timer shrills that it’s time to take the bread out and knead it again.
She has to rewash and dry her hands before she can touch the dough.
“D’you wanna talk to Gai-sensei about it? He could always go and kick the teacher’s a—butt until he lets you use Strong Fist.”
He shrugs, gaping at how the dough has doubled in size. “I’unno. Maybe I’ll ask him to drill me on the Three?
She blinks, eyebrows raised.
Naruto shoots her a cheeky grin. “He did say I could do whatever I wanted once I mastered it.”
She snorts gleefully. “Do it. See if you can beat everybody using just that.”
There’s a comfortable silence as she kneads, then stretches the dough to see if it has the proper consistency, before folding in more rosemary and putting it back in the bowl for the second prove.
“He felt really light. When I was fighting him.” Naruto says slowly. “I think he could...y’know...”
He wraps his hand around his wrist, where his thumb and pointer finger can no longer touch.
She hums. “You think I should feed him.”
Naruto nods rapidly, giving her his damn puppy-eyes again.
Technically, Uchiha’s got food in abundance. She sees it when they run by the worn down compound on Gai-sensei’s laps in the morning, bags of rice and fruit and vegetable baskets and freezers waiting outside the complex for its sole occupant to collect them.
The problem is that he obviously has no idea what to do with all of it.
And despite said lack of expertise, he still refuses all of his fangirls’ offers of lunchboxes made with their feelings and lives off of rice and tomatoes. It’s probably a pride thing. Sanji would—
She removes the dough from the second prove, scores its top and sprinkles some salt over it, covering the baking tray with foil and sliding it into the hot oven. “I have an idea to feed him.”
Naruto cheers, leaning forward eagerly.
“We’re going to have to eat the ‘fire curry’ tomorrow.”
Naruto slumps down, exuding betrayal from every pore.
She makes four servings of chicken tikka masala.
Three for their plan, and one for Lee.
She’s not going to make one of his favorite foods and then not have a portion ready for him. That’d just be cruel.
He’s horrified when Naruto recounts what happened in the spar, puffing up in indignation when he hears of the stolen victory and baseless favor bestowed on his opponent.
She’s never seen Gai-sensei look so stony-faced as when he hears what the teacher said about Naruto being violent and lacking discipline.
He does his usual tears of joy when Naruto asks about drilling in the Academy Three, yelling for all and sundry to hear about, “the BLOSSOMING of your YOUTHFUL WILL OF FIRE!!”
But they’re close enough to see it’s more playacting than his usual dramatics, his expression subtly determined and scheming as he makes them run through Academy kata.
Otou-sama makes them both promise to come to him or Gai-sensei if the teacher tries anything like this again, drumming his fingers on the hilt of the bokken he always carries.
This is despite the on-again off-again debate he’s been having with Okaa-sama since last night over whether Hokage-sama and the Village Council will take it poorly if he attempts to intercede on Naruto’s behalf.
At least they both agree to trust Gai-sensei to act for them if they can’t intervene, even if they both end up blushing that deep beetroot shade and staring off into the distance at the mention of him.
The teacher glares at them when they walk into class.
She glares right back, and it’s only because Naruto’s holding her hand that she doesn’t immediately flip him off again.
Surprisingly the teacher doesn't make any mentions of punishments for their skiving yesterday, though he looks like he wants to.
The Uchiha is also glaring at them, but in a slightly more considering fashion.
They need to play this carefully—too little, and he may not even approach them, and Hinata might end up with a competitor for her stalking. Too much and he’ll wise up to what they’re doing, which will probably make him deliberately avoid them because he feels slighted.
So she leans over to Naruto and whispers, “His hair looks like a duck’s butt.”
Naruto snorts a little too loudly, glancing over and away not-quite-quickly enough not to be obvious, snickering as he takes his seat for class.
She mentally fist pumps as the Uchiha catches the looks and laughter but not the words that caused them, bristling like a wet cat.
Ino sends her a calculating look, and she smiles innocently back before focusing on the lesson.
At lunchtime, Naruto waits until after they’ve carefully reheated the curry and are on their way back to the classroom to begin complaining loudly about how it’s too spicy, and she and Lee are secretly robots for being able to eat it.
She falls into the swing of the argument, projecting her voice so anybody could easily hear her say that this isn’t even the spiciest curry she can make (it isn’t), and that Naruto doesn’t really have anything to complain about with the huge serving of sour cream she brought along for him, dulling it down for his delicate tastebuds.
They’ve no sooner re-entered the classroom than the Uchiha stands, striding over to them.
“Fight me.” He says to Naruto.
Naruto blinks, the picture of bemused innocence. “Now? But it’s lunch.”
She rolls her eyes dismissively. “Leave it Naruto. He’s just a sore loser who’ll run to the teacher when you win again. Let’s eat.”
He steps in front of her, blocking her path. “I am not.” He grits out, brows furrowed. “I could’ve won yesterday, if not for the interference.”
Oooh, someone’s bitter.
She pretends she’s Sanji looking down on Zoro, channels that disdain into every aspect of her posture. “What? You and your basic white rice lunches? Please.”
“Yeah, everyone knew I was gonna win yesterday.” Naruto boasts, cocky façade not quite hiding the slyness in his eyes. “You’re just lucky Mizuki-sensei likes you too much to let you lose.”
“I bet he couldn’t even stomach my curry.” She says, faux-conspiratorially.
Naruto shoots her an affronted look. “Only robots can eat your curry.” He says. “Even I can’t handle it.”
“Sasuke-kun could do it!” Ino improvises, flouncing over uninvited. “He can do anything better than you can, Naruto, isn’t that right Sasuke-kun?” She flutters her eyelashes at him.
She holds her breath. This wasn’t part of the plan. If this tips him off...
Uchiha Sasuke eyes Ino, then turns away from her with a dismissive huff. “Whatever. I bet it isn’t even that spicy.”
“Care to prove it?” She challenges sweetly.
“Gladly.” He growls back, ignorant of the discreet thumbs up Naruto flashes Ino.
Turns out Uchiha actually can handle spice a little more than Naruto can.
That’s not saying much to be honest.
His face has turned a healthy pink as he eats, despite the face that she gave him the portion with rice.
He’s refused all of Naruto’s offers to share the sour cream so far, intent on finishing it as is.
He’s also picky, pushing the red peppers and onions to one side as he eats.
Maybe she should feel bad for pointing that out and telling him it sounds like he’s trying to say he can’t do it when he grudgingly admits that he doesn’t like them, but she’s on a mission here.
He’s not going to get his vitamins by leaving anything behind on his plate.
Plus this way when they plot their next avenue of attack, she can tailor the meals a little more so he doesn’t fuss as much.
Eventually he finishes his meal.
He then seizes Sakura’s juice box and chugs it without so much as a by your leave. Not that the girl seems to mind, given how she promptly swoons and collapses into Hinata’s lap.
Ino pouts, despite sitting in the coveted next-to-Sasuke-kun spot.
“There.” He says, panting like he’s run a marathon. “I did it. Fight me.”
“Okay.” She replies. “But if I win, I get to look in your kitchen.”
He squints, a look of offense crossing his face that’s so comical she has to fight not to laugh. “Not you. Naruto.”
“Okay.” Naruto says. “But it’s gotta be on Monday after school—it’s Ichiraku’s night tonight and ‘m seein’ Jiji this weekend. Also if I win, Mayu gets to look at stuff in your kitchen.”
Uchiha Sasuke shoots him a look of profound betrayal. “...Fine.” He eventually concedes. “When I win, Ketsugi’s not allowed to force me to eat her cooking again.”
The poor boy, she muses to herself, as she and Naruto shake on it with him.
He could’ve stood a chance if he hadn’t stipulated that.
The Uchiha compound is creepy.
It’s the same way Auschwitz is creepy. The knowledge of the atrocities committed there, combined with all the little context clues which make it more than just knowledge.
Smashed windows, run down storefronts, overgrown gardens, doors hanging off of rusted hinges. Random objects scattered around, as though waiting for their owners to pick them up.
Brownish stains everywhere.
This is what she always imagined the aftermath of a Buster Call would look like.
Except this is.
She shudders and clutches Naruto’s hand tighter. He squeezes back, averting his eyes.
Uchiha scoffs in front of them.
She frowns at his back. What, are they not allowed to be disturbed by the scene of a genocide? Still, she’s surprised he can stomach cutting through here, even if it is a shortcut to their destination.
“Is it far to your house?”
“Hn.” He says.
She scowls at his back. So much for pleasant conversation.
Eventually they come to a large house at the very center of the compound.
There’s more brownish stains here than in the rest of the compound, but Uchiha pushes the front door open.
“...Don’t bother taking your shoes off.” He says. “Training ground’s this way.”
“Wait.” Naruto stops dead, looking around wild-eyed. “You said the trainin’ ground was near where you live.”
The Uchiha actually turns around at this. “Yeah, and?”
She stares at the dusty, dark interior of the house. She closes her eyes and counts to ten.
“Sasuke-kun.” She says with her brightest smile. “Is there anyone living with you at the moment who looks after you?”
He shudders. “N-no. That’s stupid, I’m an Uchiha. I don’t need to be looked after. And d-don’t call me that ever again.”
She keeps smiling as she buries her face in her hands and tries not to scream. For the love of Luffy, Chopper and Robin, how is this child not a gibbering wreck?
Naruto gestures wildly at their surroundings. “But why—why’d you live here?! The village gave me an apartment! Why live where—”
He clamps down on the sentence. But it’s too late.
“What? Where my an-bro-broth—where That Man murdered my family?” Uchiha sneers. “A clanless moron like you wouldn’t get it.”
Naruto flinches a little.
“Well no one can if you don’t use your words and explain this shit.” She snaps, irritated. “People aren’t mind-readers you know.”
He stiffens, lip curling, before turning his back on them again. “Let’s just get this over with.”
She throws her hands up into the air as Naruto cracks his knuckles, following him into the darkness of the house. “Bring it, jerk.”
Much like the spar at the Academy, the two of them are on even ground initially.
Also like the spar at the Academy, it’s not long until Uchiha begins losing.
Even without an audience, Uchiha has something to prove in this fight, and that distracts him instead of motivating him.
All the little needling remarks they’ve been making clearly get under his skin and making him lash out where it would’ve been smarter to play it safe, his stances and footwork becoming less precise and more sloppy as he frantically tries to beat Naruto down and make him stay down.
Whereas Naruto can easily dodge or shrug off these blows, redirecting the motion and using the openings to hit back.
She winces gleefully at a particularly painful hit on Naruto’s part. They’ve trained under Gai-sensei. One of the first things he taught them was the importance of letting your emotions fuel your resolve instead of trying to keep them separate and leaving them liable to distract you at the worst opportunity.
Naruto knocks Uchiha’s ankle out from under him and carefully controls the fall so Uchiha doesn’t even end up winded, but is definitely pinned with no hope of escape.
She grins widely, crowing. “Finished! Match victory to Uzumaki Naruto!”
Naruto promptly leaps up and begins whooping, running in circles around Uchiha, while the boy on the ground shouts that this wasn’t fair, he was only warming up, they need to go another round so they can clearly see how strong he is.
She just keeps grinning fiercely. “It’s better to accept loss with grace, Uchiha-san. Now, where’s your kitchen?”
This is a travesty.
If Sanji was here, he’d kick Uchiha Sasuke so hard he’d rearrange his entire shitty face. Of course, given the track record of that move, it’d probably end up improving his looks, but still. Travesty.
There’s fruit shoved into pile in a corner and moldering, glimpses of white-green fuzz visible.
There’s packets of meat and fish in the fridge that have been carelessly torn and left open, their juices dripping down onto other items.
There’s eggs and yogurt left out on the countertop, already long curdled by the smell of them.
There’s congealed leftovers shoved into the fridge on the plates they were served on, without any foil or covers to protect them.
There’s grimy and poorly cleaned utensils sitting in a sink full of dirty water, and the countertops themselves are covered in stains from previous cooking attempts.
At least he knows milk goes into the fridge, and put the tomatoes in the cooler drawer. Even if they’re so squished together over half of them are bruised.
She takes a deep breath and tries not to choke on the stench. Sanji give me strength.
“Well.” She says brightly. “Congratulations. You’ve managed to somehow be even worse than my shittiest expectations.”
Uchiha glares at her out of a swelling black eye. “Shut up.”
She hangs her head, exhaling harshly. Not constructive Ketsugi.
“Right. Where do you keep your bin bags? The bigger the better I think.” She steps up to the sink, pulling the plug and letting the grime drain away, turning the tap on as far as it can go on “hot”.
Naruto makes a face at the rattling sound the drain makes, the expression pulling at his fat lip. She sighs. “Rubber gloves too, if you have them.”
“Your problem.” She tells him, in the middle of sorting through the fruit and seeing what’s salvageable and what has to go, “Is that you have too much food.”
They’re on the fourth bin bag already, having filled the other three with the contents of the fridge and carried them out to a monstrous skip at the back of the compound.
“You have loads of people giving you more than you can feasibly eat, let alone prepare.” She continues, grimacing at a particularly fluffy punnet of cherries. “So it goes to waste. You need to begin doing your own shopping. Or telling some of them thanks but no thanks. Or, hell, even donating the extra stuff to people who can use it.”
“Like who?” Uchiha asks dismissively, as he reorganizes his pantry so things aren’t just thrown in there willy-nilly, carefully sweeping up spilled grains of rice or flour or sugar or pasta into a dustpan as he goes.
“The Orphanage.” Naruto throws out as he scrubs pots and pans until they gleam under almost-boiling water. “They’d always tell me they never had enough food to go around when I lived there.”
Sasuke’s face is wrought with some complex emotion when he next empties the dustpan into the bag, his mouth twisting when she mutters, “Wouldn’t get it, huh?” striding back into the pantry like he hadn’t heard her.
She tilts an avocado, marveling at how much it feels like a rock, and says in a louder voice, “You could always see if there are any charities or soup kitchens that would appreciate the donations. Even I could always take some of what’s left over and make you something with it.”
“...” There’s a lot of judgement she doesn’t appreciate in that silence.
“I don’t just make curries.” She replies snidely, stuffing some rotten bananas into the bag with more force than is perhaps strictly necessary. “I do lots of other foods. Right Naruto?”
“Yeah!” He says, depositing a metal spoon onto the veritable field of tea towels they’ve laid out over the counter. “She just makes the curry super spicy because she has no idea what it’s supposed to taste like. She does other foods normal though!”
Her eyebrow twitches and she has to fight to stop herself from lobbing a mushy apple at Naruto’s treacherous head.
By the time they’re done, the countertops are gleaming, the fridge has been scrubbed clear of contaminating juices, and the sink’s drain no longer sounds like it’s giving out a death rattle every time water goes down it.
The pantry is arranged so Uchiha actually knows where stuff is, and the fresher meat and bread he doesn’t know if he’ll eat in the next week or so has been frozen and put into the freezer.
They have used a grand total of seventeen bin bags to throw away all the wasted food.
In one of the now-gleaming pots, there’s enough minestrone soup for one person gently bubbling away. All Uchiha has to do is let it simmer until the pasta is cooked through and then he can eat it. And wash everything up. She’s very adamant about him washing up properly.
She now has a bag stuffed full of food that Uchiha turned his nose up at on her shoulder.
The sun is beginning it’s slow descent out of the sky. They need to get going if they want to even have a quick dinner together.
“Wait. You two live together?” Uchiha asks, incredulous.
“No. I have to live in my apartment in the village.” Naruto says, looking crestfallen. “An’ I can only eat with Mayu-chan and Mayu-chan’s Okaa-san and Otou-san if I make it there and back before the sun sets.”
She smiles sadly at him, reaching out to squeeze his hand—
“If I leave, the Uchiha clan lands are forfeit.”
They turn back to Uchiha Sasuke, who’s begun looking like he really, really wishes he hadn’t said anything.
He huffs. “If I leave this place, the council will take it as a declaration of the Uchiha clan forfeiting their right to this land, since there wouldn’t be any living here anymore. The land will be reclaimed by the village, and—and—”
Clans are required to do things certain ways or risk dissolution. She sighs. “There is so much wrong with...that, but okay. We can start working on that next. Thank you for explaining.”
He nods stiffly, and walks them to the gate of the compound.
“I don’t get it,” Naruto says as they walk down her street, sun hot on their necks. “Even if the village does claim the lands, wouldn’t it be better to not live with...that?”
She shrugs the bag higher on her shoulder. “If he does, the village might tear down the old compound buildings to make new ones. And even if it is the site of an awful tragedy, he may still think of that place as ‘home’. If you’d lost everything else, would you wanna lose that too?”
Naruto shakes his head and bites his lip.
She gently bumps his shoulder with her own and they arrive home in pensive silence.
She makes sure to bring her (now dogeared and slightly stained) easy recipes cookbook with her to the Academy, alongside extra servings of eggplant tempura, to loan to Uchiha Sasuke.
He doesn’t quite throw a tantrum.
But it’s pretty close.
“I. Don’t. Want. It.” He grits out, glaring at her.
She bites into an onigiri she’s traded from Shino. There’s half a hard boiled egg inside as filling, and it’s supplying her with absent-minded ideas for recipes based off of food from her past life.
“Look, we’ve got your food down to manageable levels, but that means nothing if you can’t do anything with it.” She taps the book’s cover. “This is the first cookbook I ever owned. It’s what I used to use to make stuff for Naruto when we met.”
Naruto perks up a little at the other end of the table, craning to see it’s cover, so she holds it up for him. “It’s pretty easy to follow, and there are some more complex recipes in the back if you want a challenge—”
“I’m not wasting my time with cooking.” Uchiha hisses, nose wrinkling in distaste. “I need to focus on getting stronger. Only civilians care about useless things like that.”
She’s about to give him a good kick in the shins and see how he feels about civilians then, when Chouji abruptly stands up next to her.
“Wanna say that again, Uchiha-san?” He says, his tone low and surprisingly steely.
Shikamaru lifts his head off the table and sits up straight for once to give him a death glare, while Ino scoots her chair away from “Sasuke-kun” and crosses her arms, frowning at him imperiously.
Uchiha’s eyes dart between each one of the three, and he looks away, taking a bite out of one of the tempura she’s snuck into his lunchbox. “Hn.”
She blinks, trying to digest this new information about there being stellar cooks who also are apparently ninja while Chouji just sighs, settling back down in his seat and returning to his sandwich.
Of course, once he feels slighted, Uchiha can never leave well enough alone.
“It can’t even be that good.” He grumbles, pretending he doesn’t hear Kiba’s snickering. “If it was where soup you made came from. That was disgusting.”
She hears Hinata breathe a soft little “oh dear,” over the rush of blood in her ears.
“I see. What was wrong with it?” She asks.
The Uchiha puffs up a bit, oblivious to Shino shaking his head behind him. “Everything. I couldn’t even eat it, so I threw it out.”
There’s a soft slap as Shikamaru covers his eyes, muttering “Troublesome.”
“Alright. Well, since this is the first time, I’ll be sure to take your complaints into account.” She says, smiling.
She grabs his shirt collar and drags him up over the table to meet her gaze. “Because the next time you waste food, Sasuke-kun, I’m going to rip out your baby teeth, boil them down into a bone broth, and feed that to you instead. Are we clear?”
The Uchiha goes pale.
“Easy Mayu-chan, I think the jerk’s just lying to make you mad.” Naruto says, leaning over and gently attempting to pry her fingers off of the shirt collar. “C’mon, jerk, Mayu-chan doesn’t mean it—”
“Yes I do.” She adds.
“—No you don’t, stop making this worse!!” He yells, finally separating her from Uchiha. “I get you’re upset, and he shouldn’ta hurt your feelin’s, but you can’t just make bits of him into ingredients over stuff like this! Even Sanji wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“...Sorry, Naruto.” She replies hesitantly, feeling a bit abashed.
He gives her a disapproving look that is a stunning replica of her mother’s. “I’m not who you should be apologizin’ to, am I?”
She shoots a poisonous look at the offending party. “...Sorry Uchiha.” She says grudgingly.
He just huffs, storming off to the other side of the classroom where his fangirls coo over him and glare nastily at her.
But her cookbook has vanished along with him.
The next day he comes back and throws her recipe book at her face.
She has just enough time to catch it before it clocks her in the nose before he begins boasting in that quiet, insinuating way of his about how he’ll surely surpass her as he waves around a newer, updated copy of the same book.
She asks if that’s supposed to be a challenge, mind turning over the possibilities of recipes Uchiha will willingly cook and eat, mentally marking down the pages.
He haughtily snorts, but doesn’t deny it.
Sakura then shoots up, one hand in the air, saying she’ll be the judge. When Sasuke snorts and says she’ll be biased because she’s civilian, her lips purse and she grabs Chouji’s arm, proclaiming him to be her “co-judge”.
Chouji just shrugs and says he doesn’t mind getting more food.
So then of course, Ino invites herself and Shikamaru along as “moral support”, though why the judges need it is a little beyond her.
Naruto and Lee come with her, obviously, so Kiba and Hinata also show up that weekend with a reluctant Shino in tow.
Shikamaru’s beginning to teach him how to play shogi, and she’s experimenting with different concentrations of sugar water and fruit juice to see what his insects enjoy best, so she hopes he’s not too put out by spending time with them.
Akamaru is still a very good boy, and is perfectly happy with bits of meat and a rawhide bone.
They work out pretty quickly that Naruto can’t really be around for the cooking contests.
This is because Uchiha will, without fail, work out something to argue about with him, and then they’ll have to take it out on each other in the training ground, and by the time they’re finished it’s always too late to actually begin cooking.
So the weekends when Naruto is required to visit the Hokage become cooking contest weekends, while the ones where he comes become sparring weekends.
They don’t all always show up—Ino’s parents have a flower shop they want her to help out at, and her and Chouji and Shikamaru’s parents are all best friends so sometimes they have to go to parties. Shino, Hinata and Kiba often will have clan duties that mean they can’t come.
Sometimes she and Naruto or Sakura can’t come just because they’re spending some time with their parents.
But there’s always someone there on any given weekend, as the leaves on the trees change colors and fall off. And it works. Uchiha’s house is beginning to feel less like a mausoleum and more like somewhere lived in again.
She enjoys the chance to stretch her culinary muscles without bankrupting her parents and test her skills against a rival who she will grudgingly admit might be catching up to her.
She’s still more irritated by him than not, but Sanji and the other chefs at the Baratie drove each other up the wall too, so she’s fine with this working relationship.
Comrades don’t need to get along or even share the same goals to be able to work together after all.
Naruto’s birthday is always a strange affair.
They aren’t allowed to see him for the entire week, for one thing. He’s always collected by masks on the Sunday before and doesn’t return to his apartment until the next Monday.
The first time it happened, she freaked out badly enough that her father accompanied her to the Tower and they sat in a little waiting room outside the Hokage’s office for four hours, not meeting the glares that all the busy, ant-like people sent them.
Hokage-sama had taken their visit in good humor, even as he told them he couldn’t tell them where Naruto was, for the boy’s safety. He’d patted her head and told her not to worry, that Naruto would be back soon.
Of course, she’d worried enough that she ended up sitting outside of Naruto’s apartment for most of the week, watching the village’s festival below and knocking on the door intermittently, occasionally munching on bits and pieces from food stalls that her parents brought for her.
When she’d finally knocked on the door and Naruto had answered, she’d tackled him to the floor in a hug.
There may have been tears. She really couldn’t say.
Neither could Naruto, no matter what he likes to insinuate about “photographic evidence”.
So they’ve developed a tradition of celebrating Naruto’s birthday the weekend after the week it actually happens.
His birthday dinner is held at Ichiraku’s, like there’s any other option.
He gets his first five bowls of ramen free, and the rest heavily discounted. Teuchi-sama and Ayame-sama ladle extra toppings into each bowl, with a grinning “Happy Birthday, Naruto!”
Unlike last year, he’s got two birthday cakes this time, because Uchiha turns even gift-giving into a competition. He’s made an extremely bitter coffee cake with dark chocolate fondant and decorated with sour cherries forming an Uzumaki spiral. Naruto manfully eats two entire slices before passing it off to the adults, who derive much more enjoyment from it.
He likes the lighter vanilla sponge with orange buttercream and a white chocolate narutomaki which Chouji made much more. Chouji subtly lords this over Sasuke for the rest of the night.
Hinata stutters out a “Ha-ha-happy B-bi-bi—” before dropping an intricate box filled with shuriken and a whetstone on the counter and fleeing.
She lasted ten minutes longer this year.
Kiba gives Naruto kunai, as does Ino, which leads to an argument about the quality of their preferred suppliers. Sakura gives him a book on the language of flowers, while Shikamaru gives him a book on the plants of Uzushio and a calligraphy set.
Gai and Lee give him a piggy-bank in the shape of a smiling frog on a lilypad.
It’s really cute, and Naruto instantly declares it to be Gama-chan’s “big sister”, Kaeru-chan.
Her parents have bought him a selection of orange hoodies, some sleeveless and some not, all with the Uzumaki spiral hand-embroidered on the back by Okaa-sama. She also added little ninja frogs with teeny shuriken and kunai and katana in all of the hoods.
She’s a bit worried about her present by now, because it seems silly by comparison. Never mind that she had to search high and low all throughout Konoha and eventually ended up giving all her money to a merchant from Takigakure for this.
She hands him a (rather ratty) plush of a grey pelican with an offensively yellow bill. Her embroidery skill is nowhere near her mother’s level, so the red Uzumaki spiral she attempted to stitch onto its breast in place of the customary tomoe is crooked.
Naruto stares at it for a really long time.
The adults are very, very quiet.
“Well,” She hazards. “Hokage-sama did say everything we give him needs his symbol on it?”
Then Naruto begins laughing and hugging her tightly, proclaiming that it’s name is now Peri-chan, and the adults begin talking again, acting like nothing interesting has happened.
So she hugs Naruto back as hard as she can, Peri-chan squished between them.
It’d be nice if this could last.
She should know by now that a running theme in her new life is that it doesn’t
The weather’s finally warmed up again. The cherry blossoms suffered because of the continued cold snap this year, and Ino’s family flower shop is struggling to keep a lot of their stock alive.
She knows this because Ino will not stop complaining about it.
They’re in the first class of the day and the teacher is lecturing about chakra, teaching them the difference between genjutsu and ninjutsu. She’s thinking that both sound horrifying in their own ways— subverting the laws of nature to attack an opponent, or invading their brain to do so.
A sound pierces the air.
It’s not a siren wailing—not quite. It’s high and fluted, too close to birdsong for that.
But it has a similar urgency. The teacher’s head snaps up the moment he hears it, and his face goes pale.
“Everybody follow me.” He snaps. “Single-file line, hold hands now. Anyone trying to mess around or run off will be automatically expelled from the Academy, do you understand?!”
There’s a bit of confused muttering, and a couple of lamentations from Kiba when it transpires he has to hold Shino’s hand again, but them teacher shoots them a wild-eyed, barely restrained look.
That shuts them all up.
They walk out into the hall, where several other lines of children, older and younger than them, are assembled into similar formations and following other teachers out of the building.
She catches a brief glimpse of Lee, holding hands with a girl with her hair in buns, before the crowd of children moves and swallows him up once more.
“What’s going on?” Naruto mutters behind her.
She shrugs helplessly, shaking her head at him.
In front of her, Chouji shifts nervously, clutching her hand tighter.
They’re lead out of the Academy and up to the not-Mount Rushmore.
They’ve been learning that these are the past and current leaders of the village. Their huge faces seem to frown down on them as they approach.
They take little trails up the side of the cliff face, so thin and crumbling that their single-file procession is the only way to avoid plummeting to a painful end.
“Look!!” Someone—she doesn’t recognize who—yelps from several children in front of them in line, a pale arm appearing seemingly out of the throng to point.
They stutter to a halt, as people’s heads crane round to follow the pointing finger and they stop moving to see what all the fuss is about.
They’re a lot higher than the village, at this point on the trail. So it’s easy to see numerous shapes—dressed in dark clothes and white masks, or in green jackets like Gai-sensei’s—moving with a single minded focus through streets and over roofs towards one building.
The Hokage Tower.
There’s a low, percussive BOOM.
Fierce wind pushes the children flat against the mountainside as dust and debris rolls through the streets below.
The side of the Tower closest to them now has a gaping hole.
“MOVE, all of you!!” The teacher from their first year screams.
Someone’s crying as they all begin shuffling forward again at a faster pace, an intense wail that almost drowns out the harried whispers of “What was that—” and “This can’t be happening—” and—
Naruto’s foot slips.
He shrieks as gravity pulls him down. She hears a scream as she tightens her grip on his hand and yanks as hard as she can, inadvertently using Chouji as an anchor.
To his credit, he plants his feet and holds onto her as tight as he can to stop her from going off the edge after him.
Shino, holding Naruto’s other hand, also strains to keep him from plummeting, a mass of insects swarming out of his sleeves and pushing at the boy’s chest until he’s leaning against the cliff face, sweaty and panting.
They shuffle along a lot more carefully after that, until they arrive at the entrance to a series of tunnels.
Naruto suddenly makes an urgent little noise behind her. She turns back to look.
There’s a person.
They’re perched on a roof not too far away, face turned up towards the little mountainside procession.
They could be a boy or a girl, long blond hair whipping in the wind. They seem...small. Maybe about Ino or Shikamaru’s size?
Their clothes seem strangely bulky for the mild weather and help to hide their sex. There’s a dark mask over the bottom of their face, concealing it from view.
Their eyes, however, are clearly fixed on Naruto.
She clenches his hand tighter, tries to pull him behind her so the stranger won’t have a clear shot at him. Shino’s insects buzz in warning. Kiba bares his teeth as he and Akamaru let out twin growls. Chouji begins yelling for a teacher.
The masked person tilts their head, considering.
Then they vanish in a swirl of white she thinks might be snow.
Several masks materialize around the place where the person was, before disappearing themselves in flurries of leaves.
The teacher from their first year grabs Naruto and Chouji’s shoulders and shoves them behind her.
She does the same thing to her and Shino, pushing them all deeper into the tunnels as she strides back to the entrance, a kunai clenched in her teeth.
She thinks she might’ve respected Taki-sensei more while she taught them if the teacher was nicer to Naruto, if she didn’t have such an obsession with Usagi-hime (the tyrant), and if she had known that the woman could do a stellar impression of Zoro-on-the-Warpath.
They’re swept along in the throng of crying, shouting, scared children.
Chouji’s muttering what happened to Shikamaru, who’s growing paler by the second. Kiba’s growling epithets and empty threats behind them, punctuated by Akamaru’s high-pitched barks, while Shino remains worryingly silent.
Sakura, Ino, Hinata and Uchiha are too far ahead for her to be able to see them, to know if they’re alright.
She can’t see Lee anywhere in the crowd around them either, and an irrational cold sweat breaks out on her brow.
Naruto’s hand trembles slightly in her grip. She squeezes it, gently.
They walk for what feels like miles, before the tunnels finally widen out into a cave.
From there they’re told by the teacher (their current one) and the nice man with the scar to sit quietly with their class as the teachers call role to see if anyone’s missing.
Much like the fire drills of her past life, it devolves into chaos pretty quickly.
Lee manages to sneak away to join their lunch time group in a corner.
He greets the others with his usual exuberance and takes her sudden, frantic hug with aplomb. Then he promptly sets about telling Sakura how lovely she looks today.
They all relax a little bit at that, even Sakura who’s desperately trying to hide how unused she is to the praise by changing the topic to anything else.
The knowing looks Ino keeps giving her and Lee only serve to exacerbate the pink-haired girl’s efforts.
She startles suddenly. “Oh shit.”
“Huh? Mayu-chan, what’s wrong?” Sakura asks, nervous.
“This is bad, this is bad, this is so, so bad—” She repeats, running her hands through her hair, nearly knocking her silver hairclips loose. Luffy save her, this is a nightmare on top of everything else. They couldn’t go on like this. How could she be so stupid?
“What is it?!” Shikamaru demands, eyes tight and focused.
“I forgot our lunches back in the classroom.” She rasps.
For some reason, instead of reacting with the appropriate horror, everyone else just groans.
“Mayu, it is ten in the morning.” Ino says. “Lunch isn’t for another two hours.”
“We might be here for longer! You don’t know!” She argues, cheeks flushing hot. “I don’t want you guys getting hungry!”
“Why are women so troublesome?” Shikamaru grumbles, flopping back to stare at the ceiling.
She pouts, Hinata’s hand on her knee the only thing stopping her from booting Shikamaru in the side, and leans into Naruto’s side to grouse about ungrateful friends, not appreciating all the worry she goes through on their behalf.
He pats her head consolingly.
She’s drawn out of her sulk by Sakura’s worried. “...Sasuke-kun?”
When she looks up at the boy in question, he’s white as a sheet, hands digging red lines where they grasp his knees, eyes bulging and staring at nothing, breath coming in shorter and shorter gasps.
“I believe Uchiha is having a panic attack.” Shino says. “Why? Because he is unresponsive to the stimuli provided by my kikaichū and his pulse is elevated to fight-or-flight levels.”
“What’s a panic attack?” Naruto asks, eyes fixed on Uchiha’s shaking form.
“Something reminded him of something scary,” She says, hoping she’s not mangling the description as horribly as Ino’s face is suggesting she is. “Now he’s having trouble staying in the here and now.”
Uchiha begins muttering something, too low to hear.
Kiba tilts his head. “Why’s he saying ‘it’s him, he’s back’ over and over?”
Shikamaru’s eyes widen. “The massacre. Shit.”
Lee’s about to whip around, like he expects to find the murderer of the Uchiha behind him, when Ino grabs his arm.
“Don’t.” She orders. “No sudden movements or raised voices. Daddy says that freaks them out more. Just be calm and quiet. Can you do that?”
Lee nods silently, and Ino gradually releases her grip on his arm.
“Uchiha-san.” Hinata asks. “Can you hear me?”
Then—a quick jerk of the head.
“I was wondering if you could tell me how you made that cake. For U-Uzumaki-kun’s birthday last year? The one all the adults liked?”
There’s a silence.
“...Whisked sugar and butter.” He croaks. “Didn’t use as much sugar as Akimichi wanted. Still was fluffy. Added eggs and a bit of flour slowly. Can’t use all the flour until after. Fold it in with baking powder. And coffee bits. Lots of coffee bits. Half the tin.”
“That’s dumb.” She says in her most soothing voice. “You’re only supposed to do one tablespoon.”
He actually lifts his head and glares at her. “No it’s not.” He argues. “It’s too sweet otherwise.”
She’s about to argue that it’s cake, that’s the entire point when Sakura cuts in. “Yeah.” She says. “Your cake just had a more...mature taste than what Mayu-chan’s used to.”
She narrows her eyes at Sakura, contemplating elbowing her. Her tastebuds are fine, she just doesn’t destroy them with bitterness and acidity.
But Uchiha’s snorting in amusement and his trembling’s slowed down a lot, his breathing gradually returning to normal.
They keep talking quietly like that about cakes and the various ways Uchiha was planning on butchering perfectly good recipes, and the potential of making safe doggy-cakes for Akamaru, until the teachers tell them the coast is clear.
The sun is long past the noon mark by the time they make it back to the classroom.
She was right about them going hungry, because everyone falls upon their lunchboxes with the ferocity of wild beasts or a hungry Luffy before the teacher sends them all home for the day.
Sasuke somehow leaves before anyone can notice and offer to walk back with him.
Okaa-sama is waiting outside the gate to greet her, Naruto and Lee.
Her teahouse uniform is covered in brownish dust, which her mother appears heedless of as she hugs each of them individually, and then gives them all one big hug.
Nobody knows what happened, or why a bit of Hokage Tower exploded yet. Apparently there was a huge genjutsu cast that made everyone in the surrounding area, even the masks, fall asleep after that, so the culprits got away for now.
Okaa-sama reassures them that the Hokage will surely have his best hunter-nin on the case, and they’ll be caught and brought to justice soon.
She goes a bit green when Naruto describes almost falling, and then seeing the mysterious person who was likely one of the perpetrators staring at him, squeezing his hand tightly as they walk.
There are lots of people walking home now. Even shopkeepers are closing up early and returning home to their families.
She wonders when Otou-sama’s coming home while she washes up the lunchboxes with Lee and Naruto. Surely his job would’ve let him go home by now?
Nobody says anything, but his absence becomes palpable as dinner draws closer. Okaa-sama makes them wait half an hour past when the food should be served, watching out the window anxiously.
Eventually they have to eat or Naruto won’t get home by curfew. They leave aside a plate warming in the oven.
Okaa-sama has begun gnawing at her bottom lip when a knock at the door finally comes.
Everyone exchanges glances, before her mother rises and goes to answer it.
It’s not Otou-sama.
It’s a mask.
“I am here to collect Uzumaki.” The mask says. At least it’s not the one that hurt her.
“I understand,” Her mother replies. “Naruto-kun!”
Naruto stands from where they’ve been peeking around the doorframe. Lee follows him.
“If it is alright, ANBU-san, I would like to walk home with Naruto-kun!” He says. “I wish to ensure he returns home safely before going back to the Orphanage.”
The mask tilts his head. “This is permissible. Come.”
“Wait.” Naruto says, stopping before the threshold. “Where’s Mayu-chan’s Otou-san? He’s never this late. He even missed dinner.”
“That is not relevant.” The mask says, trying to grab Naruto’s arm. “Come.”
“No!” Naruto ducks back into the house, hiding behind Okaa-sama’s legs. “I wanna know where Mayu’s Otou-san is! I’m not going until I know!”
Okaa-sama shrugs helplessly but makes no move to pull Naruto out from behind her. “Please sir, we’re all just worried about my husband. If we could have some word of his whereabouts—even if he’s in hospital—?”
The mask goes very still.
“Ketsugi Jirou is currently being held in custody of Konoha’s Interrogation department. He will be released once he cooperates with questioning regarding today’s incident.”
Then he rips Naruto away from Okaa-sama, grabs Lee, and vanishes in a whirl of leaves.
And all she can do is watch as her mother slowly sinks to the floor.
She begins crying in the still-open doorway.
It takes her a long time to get Okaa-sama back inside.
There’s masks watching from the trees as she closes the door, and she can spot more through all the windows, glimpses of white against dark leaves.
She closes the door and locks it.
Then she draws the blinds on all of the windows, as though that will act as a barrier somehow.
Her mother is still weeping softly downstairs.
She slides down a wall, trying to choke back sobs herself. She can’t do this. Not now. She needs to think, to plan, not—not cry like a helpless little eight year old.
She is mentally twenty, she needs to act like it.
She pinches her arms, hard, until the tears in her eyes are from the pain instead.
Think, Ketsugi. How can you convince the authorities of Otou-sama’s innocence without getting yourself and Okaa-sama locked up as well?
The easiest way would be to catch the real culprit.
But she has no idea what actually happened yet, let alone who could’ve done it. If she tries to start snooping around the crime scene for clues, she’ll probably be caught and imprisoned for suspicious behavior. And then Okaa-sama would be all alone, so that’s out.
She could go on strike.
Not a hunger one, but she could sit outside the Hokage’s office with a cardboard sign? Naruto, Lee, Chouji and Sakura would sit with her, she’s sure. Maybe even all of their lunchtime group.
And then the masks will take them, like they’d taken Naruto and Lee, all of her friends vanishing in swirls of leaves, never to be seen again—
She has to bite down on her knee, teeth digging into the flesh awkwardly, to keep herself from screaming.
She briefly entertains a fantasy of going around and beating masks up until they tell her where Otou-sama is, and then staging a dramatic rescue complete with a dynamic entry and exit.
No, she decides, swallowing the metallic taste in her mouth. She’s nowhere near strong enough for that, no matter how much she’s improved under Gai-sensei’s and her father’s training. The masks would just hurt her again.
So if she can’t find the true culprit, or peacefully protest his imprisonment, or rescue Otou-sama by force, what can she do?
She gnaws at her lower lip.
...There really isn’t anything, is there?
Everything she can think of would end up with them imprisoned as well, or worse. Konoha’s not like her last life, with laws and foundations and charities against illegal incarceration. They don’t even have a police force anymore, since all the Uchiha were the police and all the Uchiha are dead.
Things like bail or lawyers or civil rights are probably about as substantial as a pipe dream here.
That must be why Okaa-sama’s crying so much.
Because she knows that the people who took Otou-sama have all the power here, and anything they try to do to get him back could mean he’s forced to stay captive for longer instead, to punish them for disobedience.
All they can do is keep their heads down and try not to show any aggression or resentment and hope obedience translates into loyalty and innocence in the eyes of the right people.
They’re just immigrants after all. They have no power in a village that doesn’t want them here.
She troops downstairs, knee stinging with the movement.
She takes the portion on the plate out of the oven, and switches the oven off. She gently puts it onto a smaller plate and covers it in foil, waiting for it to cool before she puts it into the fridge. She washes off the big plate and puts it back in the cupboard where it lives.
She does not consider giving the meal to someone else or eating it herself. Otou-sama is coming back. It’ll...just take him a little while, that’s all.
She goes back upstairs and brushes her teeth and puts on her little nightie.
By the time she comes back down, the food’s cooled enough to safely be put in the fridge.
She lingers in the doorway of the living room. “Okaa-sama?”
Her mother lifts her head from her arms. Her eyes are swollen and red, and her thick brown hair is disheveled. “Hm?”
“Can I sleep with you in the big bed tonight?” She asks, ears burning, painfully aware that she hasn’t done so since she was two and would wake up screaming from dreams about her old family and best friend and robbers with itchy trigger fingers.
“Oh sweetheart.” Her mother murmurs. “Of course. Just let Okaa-san get ready for bed, alright?”
“Okay.” She says. She goes back upstairs.
She sits and rubs spit into the little teethmarks on her knee, so the sluggishly bleeding punctures will scab over and she won’t get blood on her parents’ sheets.
They’ve stopped bleeding and she’s crawled under the covers and dozing by the time Okaa-sama finally comes upstairs and begins washing up for bed.
Her mother hugs her close in bed, her hair dampening under the onslaught of silent weeping.
Hey Franky, Usopp, Sanji and Luffy. She prays silently. I know this is a lot to ask, but please, please, please. Let Otou-sama come home safe. Me and Okaa-sama can’t do anything, so please. Help us by doing what we can’t.
She rolls over in bed, eyes feeling too heavy to open.
“Psst! Little girl! What was it...Ketsugi Mayu-san!”
She wrinkles her nose, blinking and rubbing the sleep out of one eye.
There’s a turtle on her pillow. It’s little, and green with yellow swirls on it’s shell.
But still. Turtle.
“Y’r a t’rtle.” She slurs.
The turtle looks very indignant (can turtles do that?) and straightens its head. “I.” It whispers, in a very self-important tone. “Am a tortoise.”
“Y’r a t’rt’se.” She corrects agreeably. Then pauses. “Didj’ou jus’ talk?”
“Yes I did. Honestly girl, haven’t you ever seen a summons before?” The tortoise complains.
“Whassa summons?” She asks, rubbing her other eye.
The tortoise mutters something that sounds a little unkind about civilian families. “You can call this one Jimichi. I have come from Gai-sama, bearing a message for Ketsugi Mayu-san.”
Okaa-sama shifts restlessly behind her.
She looks behind her at her mother, and then back to the tortoise. “May I pick you up, Jimichi-san?”
Jimichi-san looks like he’s about to protest when Okaa-sama lets out a soft little sob in her sleep. “Ooh—alright then, just this once, mind!”
She carries the tortoise into her bedroom and sets him down on her bed, kneeling in front of him.
“Are you hungry, Jimichi-san? Would you like some water or anything?”
The tortoise looks considering, before shaking his little wrinkly head. “No, thank you. I will be fine, so long as I complete my mission.”
She sits back on her heels to listen, trying to ignore the little pinpricks of pain in her knee.
“Gai-sama wishes to tell you he will be out of the village for the next week or so—he is currently in pursuit of the thieves who broke into Hokage Tower earlier today. He conveys his regards to Ketsugi Jirou and Chie, and expects you to keep up your most youthful training with Uzumaki Naruto-kun and Rock Lee-kun.” The tortoise took a breath.
“Are Naruto and Lee alright, Jimichi-san?” She bursts out, hardly able to control herself.
The tortoise shoots her a withering look. “How should I know? Yūcho and Katsu were sent to talk to them, not me.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I-I just haven’t seen them since the mask took them away a-aft-after—” She swallows, and makes herself continue even if her voice sounds small. “—After he said my father was being held in Interrogation.”
There’s a quiet inhale.
“Has your father been doing anything that warrants this suspicion?” Jimichi-san asks.
She frowns. “Of course not. If he were going to do it, Otou-sama would’ve talked it over Okaa-sama and come up with a plan to get her and me and Naruto out if he got caught—he loves her too much not to. And both of them are too much in love with Gai-sensei to hurt the village he loves like this.”
“What.” Jimichi-san squeaks.
There’s a soft snap from the tree in next door’s garden. Maybe a stray cat?
“I know.” She whispers, barely stifling giggles. “It’s so embarrassing—at breakfast t-they always pine over hi-his e-eve-every w-wo—”
Ah. She’s crying. She rubs furiously at her face, but it’s not stopping, why won’t it stop—
“Oh—blow.” Jimichi-san sighs. “...if I find out what happened to Uzumaki Naruto and Rock Lee, will you stop making this racket?”
She sniffs miserably. “‘M sorry.”
He gives a disdainful huff before retracting into his shell.
There’s two puffs of smoke, and then there’s a yellow tortoise with blue swirls on its shell and a purple one with red swirls on her bed.
“Jimi, dude, what gives?” The yellow one says.
“I am not your ‘dude’, Yūcho!” Jimichi-san hisses. “My name is Jimichi! And keep your voice down, you numbskull!”
“Awright, awright, don’t get’cha panties in a twist, jeez.” Yūcho-san says without lowering his voice very much at all. “‘Sup little dude?”
“Hello.” She replies, biting her lower lip to keep from laughing. Don’t think about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, don’t think about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, don’t—
“U-um.” The purple one whispers. “Why are we here, Jimichi-san? Was there a problem with delivering your message?”
“Wh-of course there wasn’t!” Jimichi-san blusters. “My message was delivered with all due promptness and clarity, wasn’t it, Ketsugi-san?”
“Yes Jimichi-san.” She nods. “I’m Ketsugi Mayu. It’s nice to meet you, Yūcho-san, Katsu-san.”
The purple one—Katsu-san— startles a little. “Eh, nice to meet you too. Um.”
“Oh fuck.” Yūcho-san stares at her. “You’re the one who’s dad is de—”
Jimichi-san somehow rockets himself across her duvet to slam into Yūcho-san and send him spinning like a top. “Don’t you dare use those words in front of a little girl, you idiot!!”
She gapes as Yūcho-san gradually slows and begins groaning complaints, not quite sure what to do or how to stop it if this somehow turns into a tortoise-brawl on top of her bed.
Don’t think about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Jimichi-san stands. “Honestly. Ketsugi-san asked me to call you here because she was worried about Uzumaki Naruto-kun and Rock Lee-kun, and here you are, wasting her time. Now, did you two deliver your messages successfully to your recipients or didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, dude!” Yūcho-san protests. “Blondie was in his apartment and got the message loud and clear!”
“Um, I also was able to locate Lee-san at the Orphanage.” Kastu-san volunteers softly. “He was deep in thought, but was not actively distressed.”
She sighs. Well, she’ll take what she can get. “Thank you for your help, Yūcho-san, Katsu-san, Jimichi-san.” She bows at the waist.
“Ah, i-it’s no problem.” Katsu-san stutters, while Yūcho-san cheers, “Hey, happy to help!”
Jimichi-san lets out a little huff. “Well, you just keep your head down and your nose clean, alright? You’ll be no good to anyone if you’re in trouble too. Now run along back to bed, go on.”
She stands and bows to them again. The three tortoises all vanish in puffs of smoke.
It feels awful, trying to get up at her normal time the next morning.
She rubs the sleep from her swollen eyes, and tucks the blanket back in around her mother. Okaa-sama hadn’t even stirred during the night. Little furrows still crease her brow in sleep.
She kisses the crown of her mother’s head, and leaves the house as quietly as she can.
She keeps her eyes on her shoes and doesn’t look up at where she can feel the masks watching her.
Naruto hasn’t set up any traps this morning. She knocks on his door, the sound jarring in the quiet of dawn.
His eyes are bloodshot and red, making the blue look even bluer.
“I wan’ ‘Tou-san.” He mumbles.
She reaches out and hugs him tight, pretending she doesn’t feel his shoulders shaking as she strokes his back.
“I know.” She murmurs. “I want him too.”
Even Lee is subdued compared to his usual exuberance.
He’s trying his best. He takes both of them by the shoulders and says, “Don’t worry! Gai-sensei will definitely find the culprit soon and free your father from his most unyouthful imprisonment!”
Naruto’s face crumples even more at that for some reason, so she does her best to smile back at Lee for the both of them. “Yeah. Thanks, Lee.”
Since Lee’s the oldest and the most like Gai-sensei in temperament, it’s unanimously decided that he will be the one to lead the group’s exercises.
He’s not as hard a task-master as Gai-sensei, dropping the number of laps they have to do around Konoha by five every time Naruto yawns. They end up doing only one hundred of the original one hundred and fifty.
They’re running through the basic kata for what will eventually be a Dynamic Entry once their leg muscles are built up enough when it hits her.
She stops dead.
Unfortunately, her momentum doesn’t, so she wavers on her toes before her leg buckles and she crashes to the ground.
“I’m okay!” She unfolds herself and sits up, looking into two pairs of worried eyes. “I’m fine—just remembered something and got distracted is all.”
“What is it?” Lee asks as Naruto plops down beside her.
She opens her mouth, and closes it. She looks away, ears and neck burning with embarrassment.
“I—” Her voice cracks, and she has to swallow. “I...may have forgotten to make us lunch last night?”
Lee decides that the best thing to do is run another lap of Konoha before going back to her house to make lunch together.
She readily agrees. She doesn’t think she could stand it if she had to work in a silent kitchen. Not today.
There are more people up and about now.
It may just be paranoia, but she could swear that many of them were whispering and pointing at her.
She keeps her eyes down and does her best to ignore this as she ignores the masks.
The house is still dark when she lets them in. Well, Okaa-sama does need her sleep.
They decide to make something quick and easy for lunch.
They have plenty of bacon, and some spring greens left over from yesterday’s miso soup. So while she parboils and shocks the vegetables, Lee stirs the bacon around in the pan, and Naruto puts what may be a little too much honey mustard on slices of bread.
Okaa-sama comes down sometime during when she’s patting the spring greens dry.
Her mother won’t stop touching, whether it’s ruffling Lee’s hair, giving her kisses on the cheek, or hugging Naruto.
Naruto latches onto Okaa-sama like an octopus with his arms and legs. Her mother promptly heaves him up to sit on her hip, showing no sign of strain at carrying around an eight year old boy, and begins to prepare breakfast around them.
By the time the sandwiches are assembled and put into the lunchboxes with sides of cherry tomatoes and pudding cups for dessert, there’s barely enough time to run through the basic strikes her father was teaching her.
Lee’s enthusiasm about her training is...well-intentioned if ill-advised.
“No, I’m not going to hit you with the bokken! It’ll really hurt!” She argues.
“Do not worry, Mayu-chan! I am sure that I will be able to block adequately so I am not injured!” Lee says cheerfully, giving her a thumbs up.
“I’m telling you, even blocking this will give you bruises!!” She yells back, exasperated. “Okaa-sama! Tell him!”
Okaa-sama smiles at them as Naruto giggles weakly, hitching him higher. “I think Mayu-chan is right about this, Lee-kun. Come on in both of you, breakfast is ready.”
The Academy is buzzing with rumors
Apparently what happened yesterday was a theft—though whether anything got taken or not or if the theft was combined with an attempt on the Hokage’s life is hotly debated.
The thief—or thieves’—target was apparently a scroll of some kind, which apparently contained some insanely strong, killer jutsu from the Nidaime’s time. Or the secret to eternal life. Or the Shodaime’s ultimate bloodline ability. Or all the money in Konoha’s treasury.
For some reason everyone pulls a face when one of the civilian kids volunteers the last option.
There’s also plenty of argument about who the culprits are. A lot of people think it was the Demolition Squad from Iwa, given the huge explosion. Others say it wasn’t flashy enough to be Iwa, that it had to be missing-nin from Suna. Still more say that there’s no way it’d be Suna, that the only people strong enough to get through Konoha’s defenses were the Seven Swordsmen of Kiri.
One or two say it might’ve been Uchiha Itachi, come back to test his strength against the Hokage, but glares from their lunchtime group quickly shut that up.
There’s a general consensus that it had to be an inside job though. That the culprits, whoever they were, needed somebody in Konoha to know where their prize was and how to get to it.
“But we saw that blonde guy yesterday.” Kiba insists. “It’s obvious that was one of the thieves!”
“That doesn’t discount the possibility of there being someone in Konoha who helped them.” Shikamaru drawls. “After all, how could an outsider who’s never lived here know anything?”
Something niggles in her brain, but she focuses on eating her sandwich.
Ino sighs. “Daddy’s had to do so much overtime at his work because of this stupid thing.”
She narrowly avoids flinching, and asks, “What does this have to do with your dad doing overtime at the flower shop?”
Theres’s a silence.
“What?” Ino says, confusion written all over her face.
She shrugs. She doesn’t think she said anything weird...
“Mayu.” Shikamaru says slowly. “What is it you think Ino’s family does?”
She takes another bite that tastes like cardboard and carefully thinks over her answer. “...Flower shop ninja?”
Ino snorts and Hinata begins giggling quietly, while Sakura stares at her. She shifts in her seat.
“Right.” Shikamaru says, squinting at her. “Okay. And Chouji’s family? Or Kiba’s.”
Oh, she knows these. “Chef ninja and dog ninja.” She replies confidently.
Chouji shrugs, nods, and bites into an onigiri while Kiba cheers, pulling Akamaru off his head for cuddles and doggy kisses.
“My family?” Sasuke cuts in, bags under his eyes. He looks like crap.
She meets his gaze head on. “Police ninja.” Then she puts the other half of her sandwich and her cherry tomatoes into his lunchbox.
He looks down at it, grunts, and bites into the sandwich. Then makes a face. “Too much mustard.”
“Blame Naruto.” She says, grinning at the boy in question’s mildly irritated “Hey!”
“Mine, Shino’s and Hinata’s families?” Shikamaru asks, head now cradled in his hands.
She frowns. “Insect ninja...” She points at Shino, who inclines his head, “I have no idea about Hinata...Sleepy ninja?”
Ino and Kiba promptly crack up. Even Chouji chuckles a bit.
Shikamaru’s head drops through his hands and thunks on the table. “How have you lived in Konoha your whole life and still know nothing?!”
“I know some things!” She argues, flushing in embarrassment. “It’s just—knowing what food you like is more important than where you come from, right?”
There’s a moment of silence as everyone stares at her.
Then Hinata goes red as Chouji hums next to her, a quiet, happy sound, and Shikamaru mutters “Troublesome,” under his breath as everyone focuses back on eating.
For someone who considers exerting effort on practically everything “troublesome”, Shikamaru doesn’t exactly do the things he does decide to put his energy into by halves.
Throughout the rest of the week, he and Sakura continually drill her on everyone’s families until she can recite their contributions to the village by heart.
Naruto and Lee become unwitting participants in this when Sakura enlists them to help with her recitation early on, and subsequently discovers that they barely have any more idea than her what all the fuss is about.
She now knows that there are apparently four “noble” clans of Konoha—the Akimichi (Chouji), the Aburame (Shino), the Hyuuga (Hinata) and the Uchiha (Uchiha).
These clans were some of the first to join the village, and became known as “noble” for their clout in battle and their contributions to stabilizing the village’s infrastructure. The Akimichi and Aburame handled food growth and distribution, the Hyuuga helped set up the hospital and health care, and the Uchiha were the police.
There used to be a fifth “noble” clan, the Senju. They founded the village and served as administrators, but their line died out around the time of the Third Ninja War.
Other clans, like the Inuzuka (Kiba), the Nara (Shikamaru), and the Yamanaka (Ino), while no less important today than those first five, came a little later once stability had been mostly established.
The Inuzuka serve as trackers with their ninken while the Nara are tacticians and help fill the administrative gap left by the Senju.
The Yamanaka are in charge of the Torture and Interrogation department.
She and Naruto freeze up when this fact is revealed.
“O-oh.” She stutters, trying to tamp down her instinct to lunge across the table and beg Ino for any scraps of information regarding Otou-sama’s health and whereabouts.
She’s trying to be good, like Okaa-sama and Jimichi-san suggested, but it’s getting harder and harder with each day that passes.
It starts with children pointing her out to their parents when they were collected from the Academy, the adults quickly hustling their offspring away when they realized she could see them staring.
Then shops begin refusing to let Okaa-sama buy anything, saying the ryō she had was clearly counterfeit, threatening to have her locked up too if she tried to make a fuss. They have enough food to last them the week between what they’ve got in the pantry and Uchiha’s donations, but not much longer beyond that.
The dead birds that are left on their doorstep, with sad eyes and plucked grey wings and crushed eggs beside them, are just upsetting. She gives them burials in the back garden before Okaa-sama or Naruto can see them.
Maybe that’s why Naruto can suck in a quick breath, and ask, “What happens to people in Interrogation? The innocent ones?”
Ino looks like she wants to laugh—but then her mouth twists, pensive.
“They get food and water, and a bed.” She says, softly. “Interrogation might need to keep them longer, if they’re really helpful with intel gathering, but they all go home sooner or later.”
Naruto slumps, breath rushing out of him, and gives Ino a dazed smile. “Right. Good to know.”
He bites into his soba noodles and she looks back down at her own lunch, pretending she doesn’t feel the same heady rush of relief.
She ignores the little voice in her head that keeps saying Ino only told him what happened to the ones they thought were innocent.
She walks home with Naruto and Lee, like they’ve been doing all week.
This way, after they wash up the lunchboxes, they can make tomorrow’s lunch right away together, and she doesn’t have to worry about forgetfulness distracting her during training again.
Okaa-sama usually comes home by the time they’ve assembled their lunchboxes and put them into the fridge for tomorrow.
So it’s worrying that that she still hasn’t arrived an hour past her usual return time.
Lee suggests that she practice using her bokken on them to pass the time, so they can practice dodging and she can practice her strikes.
She shuts that down quickly by asking if they can do strength training by kneading bread.
Naruto chooses a recipe for melon bread from her cookbook, because they have a can of pureed melon from Uchiha.
“Plus it’s weird.” He says. “It’s called ‘melon bread’, but it’s not melon flavored? There should be a better name for it, believe it.”
Lee tilts his head. “It looks a bit like Katsu-san’s shell, so maybe tortoise bread?”
“That’s a much better name.” She nods. “I think we might have food coloring somewhere—wanna make it look like them?”
They chatter as they knead and experiment with color combinations that won’t turn brown when mixed with the melon. The purple of Katsu-san’s shell may be an unattainable dream.
Naruto complains loudly about “that dumb yellow turtle,” who told him something “mean” about Interrogation that he refused to divulge, no matter how many bowls of ramen he was promised.
They all do their best to ignore the rising tension in the air as the hours tick on and Okaa-sama still hasn’t come back.
Then, just as the bread’s ready to come out of the oven, the front door slams open.
“WE HAVE RETURNED!!” Gai-sensei yells.
Naruto and Lee rush out of the kitchen ahead of her, babbling a million questions a minute.
It’s probably because she has to shove the latest batch of bread onto a cooling rack and pull off the oven mitts before following them that she catches sight of her mother while Naruto and Lee receive hugs from Gai-sensei.
Her kimono collar is torn and her hair has been half-ripped out of its work bun and there’s a large blue-black bruise blooming along her left cheekbone.
Her breathing feels too shallow and blood’s pounding in her ears.
Okaa-sama catches sight of her and her eyes go soft and sad. “Do we have any frozen peas, sweetheart?”
She nods, numbly, and goes back into the kitchen to the freezer.
She jumps and nearly elbows Gai-sensei in the stomach when his hand comes down on her shoulder.
“Mayu-chan.” He kneels down in front of her, brows drawn down over his eyes. “Your mother is alright. Her youthful spirit flows strong even in the face of disapproval of those who should call her a comrade.”
Her mouth works silently. The peas make a cracking sound as her grip on the bag tightens.
“Did you catch them?” She asks finally.
His brow furrows and he shakes his head. “Unfortunately, the unyouthful thieves were able to evade our search. Even my cool and hip rival and the most youthful Inuzuka Tsume were unable to track them. But they will be found and brought to justice, have faith in that.”
She swallows to making her voice sound less like a croak. “And then Otou-sama will come home again, right?”
Gai-sensei nods authoritatively, flashing her a thumbs up. “Of course!”
She thinks that she can maybe hold out a little while longer. She needs to be better, so they don’t hurt Okaa-sama, but that shouldn’t be too hard.
She tries to tell herself that she won’t let it be as two thirds of her family crowd around the dining table, being as loud and boisterous as they can to try and make up for the empty chair.
Otou-sama doesn’t come back that night either.
Okaa-sama waits up the whole night, or near enough that there’s hardly a difference.
She comes down to leave for training with Gai-sensei, and Okaa-sama’s still there, watching the sunrise spill light onto the street in her nightclothes with the now lukewarm bag of peas pressed to her cheek. Her mother startles badly when she touches her elbow gently.
She can’t keep her mind on her katas, despite all her efforts in the face of Gai-sensei’s encouragement.
Is Otou-sama alright? How much has he eaten in the past week? Are they hurting him?
Will he come back at all?
When this thought crystallizes, she has to duck behind a tree to be violently sick.
Gai-sensei finds her spitting bile and crying so hard she can’t stop herself. He offers her a packet of tissues to wipe her mouth with and pulls her into a one-armed hug, rubbing her shoulder soothingly.
It’s almost enough to make her believe everything will be right again when training ends and she goes home.
Not quite. But almost.
It feels strange.
She sees her mother’s puffy eyes (Okaa-sama didn’t go to bed like she suggested, even if she knows from one too many all-nighters at Uni that it’d be hellish to try and face today on no sleep), she sees Gai-sensei’s concerned glances between her and her mother, she faintly hears Lee and Naruto’s questions about how Okaa-sama’s feeling and when Otou-sama’s coming back—
But it’s like there’s a fog. Clouding her brain, making her head hurt. That’s blocking her from really feeling— everything.
She keeps expecting Otou-sama to open the front door, maybe with a black eye but no worse for wear, laughing about the mixup they had at his work, how it’s all a misunderstanding, how ridiculous it was anyone in a million years could ever suspect him—
Otou-sama misses breakfast.
Okaa-sama takes her aside before she and Naruto and Lee can go to the Academy for the day.
“We weren’t—” She purses her lips, twisting tight around the sob in her throat. “We were going to wait until you were ten. But—with your father—”
Okaa-sama can’t quite choke off that sob. She waits, patiently, until her mother can explain, can press the thing she’s holding into her little hands.
It’s not a knife or dagger. It’s too long for that, but not by much. It has a pretty sheath, grey decorated in red tomoe, and the blade gleams a cold silvery-blue when she pulls it out carefully.
“...Across the stomach, right?” She asks. That’s what she heard about hara-kiri from her past life, but she doesn’t want to get this wrong. Not when it’s Ketsugi honor on the line.
Okaa-sama blinks, drawing away from her, something like horror dawning across her face. “...N-no, sweetheart. Across the stomach is for men. We women do it across the throat. But that is not what this is to be used for. This is for self-defense only, alright? Mayu, promise me.”
She nods, not quite understanding what she needs defending from. Gai-sensei said there were only comrades in the village. She just needs to be good, and keep her head down, and they’ll stop hurting Okaa-sama and Otou-sama and realize they’re comrades too.
“Keep Naruto or Lee with you.” Her mother breathes, hugging her close and hard after tying an obi around her dress. It feels like the not-knife sticks out like a sore thumb beneath the bunched fabric. “Your Otou-san will be back soon. And we all need to be there to greet him, understand?”
“Yes, Okaa-sama.” She says, hugging her mother back, trying to convince herself that ritual suicide won’t be such a bad way to go if worst comes to worst, that she’s not afraid of death, that she has no right to be, given that she’s died once already.
Judging by the tears that gather in her eyes, she’s awful at persuasion.
She tries her best.
She’s even a little annoyed at the fog-headache, because while it keeps her from feeling all the awful truths and doubts about the situation, it also stops her from absorbing Mizuki-sensei’s lectures.
And she needs to be a model little tree-hugger if she wants Otou-sama to come home.
The pretty not-knife digs into her stomach whenever she moves. It’s very distracting.
Naruto and Chouji and Lee and Ino and Kiba and even Sasuke speak to her in careful tones of voice though. Like she might break if they go louder than a slow semi-whisper.
She wants to appreciate it. She really does. But, well. Brain fog. Makes it hard to concentrate.
Maybe the fog is also part of chakra? Distancing the host from their intentions and emotions to better manipulate them into mindlessly producing the energy it needs to feed. If she could just get Mizuki-sensei to listen, she could get the use of this stuff banned once and for all—
By the time she checks back in, she’s blinking up at Akamatsu Ami with the word “Traitor!” ringing in her ears.
“...S-sorry?” She asks, her voice wavering.
Ami huffs. “What are you, stupid? I said everybody knows your daddy is a filthy traitor to this village. Just watch, his execution will be scheduled before the day is up. Guess the Hokage will know not to take in slant-eyed scrap from Iron anymore.”
And Naruto is yelling and Ino is yelling and Kiba and Chouji, and Sakura is drawing back a fist to punch Ami square in the mouth, and she can’t understand that, because how does she dare? How does she dare to strike anyone—
—if she knows it’s forbidden? Sakura must be strong. So strong. Why did everyone hate Sakura in her past life if she could be this strong? Strong enough to flagrantly defy the essential rule—
—the one that she could never have the guts to defy, no matter how much it hurts? No matter how much she feels like she’s choking on the inaction? No matter how much it hurts to grit her teeth and clench her fists and bite down harder and harder and harder—
She’s never heard Mizuki-sensei yell this loud before.
Naruto’s holding her hand and crying. Why is he crying? She tries to shush him, tell him it’s alright, but her just cries harder when her hand brushes his hair, his grip sure to bruise.
Then there’s the nice man with the scar on his nose kneeling on front of her.
“Hello Ketsugi-chan.” He says. “Do you know who I am?”
Of course she does. He’s the one who tries to be nice to Naruto. He’s not always successful, but he tries, which is more than she can say for Taki-sensei and Mizuki-sensei. She tries to tell him this, but it comes out illegible and half-burbled, her mouth burning.
She frowns. Stupid mind fog.
“Right.” The nice man says, frowning. She doesn’t want him to frown. She wishes she could give him a better answer. “Well, I’m Iruka-sensei. I’m going to take you to the hospital now, because you’ve bitten your poor lip very hard. Do you understand, Ketsugi-chan?”
She does and she doesn’t like it, because Okaa-sama said she wasn’t to go anywhere without Naruto or Lee, because if she does go somewhere without Naruto or Lee, she’ll have to commit ritual suicide with the pretty not-knife and then Otou-sama will never come home, because Okaa-sama said they all had to be there for him to be welcomed back, and she wants Otou-sama back, she wants Otou-sama, she wants—
“Easy Ketsugi-chan, easy, easy.” Iruka-sensei presses a hand to her chest, stopping her from inhaling until the pressure lightens, making her exhale when he presses down again. It should feel scary. It’s weird how it helps her focus on his words instead, “You’ll be okay if Naruto-kun and Lee-kun are with you?”
Yeah, that sounds fair. She nods rapidly so Iruka-sensei gets the message.
He grabs her head. His face looks scared, before he begins smiling again, uneasy. “Right. Okay.” He picks her up, cradling her against his green jacket.
It doesn’t feel like Otou-sama or Gai-sensei picking her up. It’s not bad, but not familiar. She squirms a little in his grip.
“Lee-san, can you come with us please?”
She can hear Lee, distantly. It sounds strange, like someone’s taken Lee’s voice and made it too high, too panicked. She wants to pat his head too, tell him it’s all okay, Otou-sama will come back before we know it.
Then they’re in the village, and then they’re in a white building with a lot of rushing people. It looks like a hospital.
“That’s because it is a hospital, Ketsugi-chan.” Iruka-sensei says, distracted.
Oh. That makes sense.
They make Iruka-sensei sit outside.
They try to make Naruto and Lee stay outside too, but she begins crying and Naruto begins crying and Lee gets shiny eyes and a wobbly lower lip, so eventually they let them in with her.
The nurse who takes her height and weight is nice, if a little too smiley. The smile is nice, soft and friendly, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes all the way. Like it’s pasted onto her face.
Her smile goes weird and rigid when Naruto and Lee suddenly begin drooping like they’re tired and she grabs their hands hard to wake them back up. She walks out of the room quickly, without saying a word to any of them.
The doctor is even more nice, so that makes up for the weird smiley nurse.
The doctor frowns and says there wasn’t a nurse, but he’s more focused on doing something to Mayu’s mouth which involves a pretty green glow, so she forgives him for being a bit oblivious.
She gets a lollipop that the nice doctor says is for later, and she tells him obviously, they haven’t even had lunch yet, it’s very important to eat a proper lunch before you can have dessert, otherwise you’ll fill up on nothing but sugar and feel sick later.
Naruto lets out a watery laugh and the doctor tells her she’s very right, that she should be a nutritionist when she’s older, and pats her head.
She accepts the head pat but regrettably tells the doctor she’s going to be too busy being a pirate chef to be a nutritionist, but thank you for the offer.
The doctor tells her that’s okay as Naruto hugs her a little too tight and Lee tells her he thinks she could become the best ninja nutritionist AND a pirate chef if she wanted to when Okaa-sama and Gai-sensei burst in.
So apparently she bit her lip so hard, her teeth ended up going clean through it.
There’s now a small, white scar on her lower lip, and another on the flesh-colored bit under it where it meets her chin. The nice doctor says it should fade in a couple of years.
It makes her feel sort of gross to think about it too hard, so she tries not to.
She gets a lot of hugs, for some reason.
From Okaa-sama, who manages to confiscate the not-knife with a stern look sometime between the second and the third, and she doesn’t try to hide how much easier it is to breathe without it digging into her.
From Gai-sensei, who’s bawling about youth and strength and relying on others and youth and somehow has managed to sweep Iruka-sensei into the hug as well, despite the scarred man’s sputtering and attempts to escape.
Okaa-sama tries to insist that he come round for dinner, but he says a lot of things about not wanting to impose and favoritism, so eventually they haggle him down to treating him to Ichiraku’s some time.
Nobody can turn down Ichiraku’s.
Naruto and Lee have been all but attached to her side since the nice doctor told them she’d be fine, but maybe don’t yawn too widely for a few weeks. Naruto somehow managed to smuggle her lollipop away from her during the walk home and is now eating it.
When she protests, he pulls it out of his mouth with a sour look. “Mayu-chan, you bit yourself so bad I thought you were gonna die. There was blood everywhere, believe it. Imma need the-ra-pee to get over it.”
“Therapy doesn’t mean you get all my desserts, Naruto.” She replies.
He raises his eyebrows in challenge, lollipop firmly in his cheek.
“Fine.” She grouses, leaning more into Lee, who has been moved to tears by Gai-sensei’s third rendition of the importance of relying on your comrades and not shouldering burdens alone.
They end up sort of—collapsing. Once they’re back home.
It’s been a very stressful week for all of them.
Guy-sensei is chuffed seven ways to Sunday once he finds out about the tortoise melon bread, which somehow managed to go uneaten in all the fuss of the previous night, so they end up tearing those apart to share as a light lunch.
Her mother soon drops off, curled up in her armchair, while Gai-sensei ends up snoring on the couch. She regales Naruto and Lee with her best rendition of One Piece’s Alabasta Arc, half-drowsing in the sunlight.
Lee’s especially enamored with the idea of Luffy’s techniques and the Dugong Gang.
The Harunos drop by late into the afternoon, bearing their bags and lunchboxes which Mizuki-sensei apparently foisted upon them after school ended, so they share that between them as a late afternoon snack.
There’s an unspoken consensus that tonight’s dinner will be Ichiraku’s takeout.
She’s taking down everyone’s orders when there’s a knock at the door.
There’s a man with familiar blue eyes and blonde hair standing there when she answers the door.
She doesn’t hear what he says, because hanging over his shoulder, hardly standing under his own steam is—
She can barely hear the ragged cry that tears itself from her throat because she’s barreling forward, slamming into her father and holding on as tightly as she can.
His hakama feels stiff and crusty under her fingers, and he stinks of sweat and copper.
But she doesn’t care about any of that, doesn’t care that she’s bawling like a helpless little eight year old right here in the street, because her Otou-san is back, he’s here, he’s home.
The fingers he runs over her hair are rough due to the bandages that cover them, and his face is bruised when he pulls her cheeks up to look at her, grinning widely around a split lip and a broken nose held together with gauze.
“I’m home, Mayu.” He says.
And she begins crying all over again, and Naruto barrels into him on her other side, equally snotty nosed, then Lee, and Okaa-san, kissing all of his bruises and choking out a “welcome back” right before Gai-sensei slams into them, toppling everyone to the ground as he wails harder than anyone else.
Later she’ll learn the blonde man is Ino’s dad, and she’ll make the girl so much pudding that the Yamanaka won’t need to purchase that product for a month. She’ll also make Sakura enough anmitsu that she can’t look at the dessert for a week.
She’ll learn that her father has bandages on his hands because his fingernails were ripped out, and it takes a long and painful time for them to grown back in before he can even think about holding his bokken like he used to. That he did end up helping the village once Yamanaka-san met with him, because the thieves tried to scatter around money and symbols from other nations to throw everyone off the scent, but he knew the ryō from Iron was twenty years out of date, and all the others were tarnished with age, except for—
And then her mother will tell her to stop eavesdropping and go to bed, which she will, but not without much whining beforehand.
But right now, she revels in the slightly crushing weight and squirming limbs of her family around her, and begins laughing wetly through her tears.