Wow, it's been exactly six months. I am so sorry haha. How are you guys doing?


x


My arms and shoulders ached. Cramps pinched the underside of my ribs as I struggled to keep my breathing quiet and steady. I could barely lean against a limb without having it tremble like jello. All a part of the training.

Inoichi was merciless today. I think the first warning sign was when he said that today's entire training was to be done while staying in the trees. The second was when he had me constantly relying on my chakra senses to search for tagged areas throughout the public village training ground which he had rigged with a whole bunch of traps. The traps threw ninjutsu, genjutsu, and shinobi weapons - some I'd never even seen before. Thankfully, they weren't that hard to detect and dodge, but I still had several close shaves, some of which were the fault of my own negligence. I had a time limit of three hours to find twenty five chakra tagged spots; it was one of the most rigorous training sessions I'd ever had in this life. Today was one of those training days: pushing yourself to the limits, breaking through the barriers you thought were impossible to surpass.

I was crouched on a high branch, leg muscles shaking uncontrollably like those of a newborn calf, when Inoichi called the time.

"Time's up," he yelled. Even though I had missed seven chakra tags, I let out a deep sigh of relief.

Finally. I glanced at where he stood on the ground about twenty paces behind me before cutting off the flow of chakra to my feet. Immediately and expectedly, my grip on the tree branch loosened and without enough strength to hold myself up by muscle alone, I free-fell downwards. My body tucked into a ball at the last moment, breaking my fall, and I rolled like a ball towards Inoichi until I uncurled like a fruit rollup. I didn't bother getting up and stayed spread out like a starfish on the ground. Dirt and leaves clung to my sweaty skin and clothes, but I paid them no mind. I was so burned out my muscles were spasming, and I didn't trust them to hold up my weight.

"How'd I do?"

"Hm, not bad, I suppose; you got sixteen out of the twenty-five tags," Inoichi began. "Your chakra senses are impeccable as ever, however you ran out of chakra too quickly and got sloppy towards the end with the traps. Those were some close calls."

I nodded my understanding, silently agreeing with his assessment. Flicking away a clump of hair bangs, I faintly noted the crudely trimmed edges hanging in front of my eyes. Ninja wire was terrifying.

I paused at his first detail, though. "Wait, I thought I got eighteen?"

Inoichi wagged a finger. "Tsk, tsk, Haru, are you sure they were all the same chakra signatures?"

Oh no, I hadn't bothered to actually examine and check each one I located to see if they matched the initial sample Inoichi had given me. I should have assumed that there were going to be false leads among the targets; if this had been a real situation, I would've wasted time, or worse, ruined the mission. Wrinkling a nose, I pulled the stacked pieces of chakra stained paper out of my clipped pouch and riffled through them one by one until I separated two from the pile.

"Oh, you had another person tag these two," I observed tiredly. Right after examining the chakra signatures on the two fakes, I dropped all conscious effort towards chakra sensing. I'd never actively and rigorously held up my chakra senses for this long, so I felt like an overstretched rubber band on the brink of snapping. I started doing some cool down stretching so that my muscles wouldn't cramp later. Wincing when I stretched a particularly sore muscle in the upper back, I marvelled at how despite not being a full-fledged genin, I was still more physically capable than the average human. Shinobi didn't exactly have to do any kind of stretching unless it was for physical therapy or training for a new taijutsu technique. Physically, shinobi were always ready to spring into action at any given second. A regular civilian would probably pull some muscles if they attempted ninja stunts without proper warm-ups.

"Should I be worried that I messed up too much at the end?"

"That's all due to your stamina. You're not shinobi so it's not exactly expected of you to hold that much endurance," Inoichi finished. "All in all, you did a decent job. I simply keep comparing you to shinobi standards; I hope you don't mind."

"I don't," I told him. It was nice to know I fared against shinobi expectations. If anything, it gave me a reality check before I could ever become a little conceited about my strength. Sometimes I'd feel a bit disdainful towards my Gakuen peers whenever they struggled with anything remotely physical, and then a flash of shame would hit me afterwards.

"Also, have you seen that shinobi you mentioned from before?"

I paused in my stretching. "No, I haven't."

Fu said that Kabuto had only asked about seemingly trivial details. Our family backgrounds, what hobbies we liked, our peers, etc. Luckily, Inoichi hadn't questioned my unfounded suspicion of Kabuto too deeply and actually took my comment with a level of gravity.

Inoichi rubbed his chin. "Alright. I've looked up his file already, but I'd like to see him, so let me know when you catch him again."

I nodded. "Will do."

"We'll talk more about today's training the next time we meet. You're dismissed now," Inoichi concluded brightly.

"Thank you, I'll head home now," I responded, gathering my stuff. Stuffing my water bottle and soft sweat towel into a small bag, I took out a parchment paper-wrapped simple onigiri stuffed with shredded fried mackerel. The rice itself was mixed with a bit of sesame seeds and salted dried seaweed. It smelled so good, and my stomach growled at the sight of it. I hadn't been this happy to see something edible in a long time. I patted myself on the back for thinking of preparing something to eat to bring to training today. I knew it was worth the effort and time, not that it was difficult to make, simply a bit time-consuming; I was just lazy in preparing things beforehand.

"Didn't make one for me?" Inoichi joked. I grinned and pulled out another, tossing it. I actually had made a lot of onigiri this morning, but more than half of them had disappeared because of Yuuma, Fu, and Ryouta's fat mouths. Shinju-soba had even claimed one when my back was turned, claiming that she was taste-testing my food. The end result was that I managed to salvage exactly four rice balls for myself to enjoy, now three because, of course, you had to be courteous to your teacher and clan head and elder.

I was almost out of the training grounds, already finished with the first and about to take a bite into the second onigiri, when someone swiped it out of my hand. I sighed when I saw Shisui on a branch of a nearby tree, holding my food. I hadn't even sensed him, since I was so worn out from today's training.

He chirped, "Hey Haru, you're done with training today? Did you make this? For me? I'm so touched."

I sighed. "Yeah, I'm done, yes, I made that, no, it's not for you, don't-"

Shisui took a huge bite. "This is good!" he managed to say with a stuffed mouth.

"Thanks," I said in a hollow voice and kept walking, heading for the clan compound. I wasn't going to protest the theft. I had one last onigiri in my bag, after all. Shisui jumped down from his tree and trotted up next to me, unfinished onigiri in hand.

"You want it back?"

"No, you keep it." It was a little hard to keep the exasperated tone out of my voice. "Consider it as a thank you and payback for when you took me home last week."

"Oh yeah, are you feeling better now? You shouldn't train if you still got the cold," he commented.

"Don't worry about it. I got better after just a day of rest," I said while grimacing. It was kind of embarrassing to talk about nearly catching a cold in front of shinobi. They rarely caught basic illness because with experience, most could unconsciously regulate their body temperature accordingly to the weather and they had strong immune systems. The only time they ever got something like a cold or a fever is if they were in no condition to take care of themselves, such as when they're severely injured, or when they're chakra-depleted, resulting in weak immune systems.

Shisui finished the onigiri, handing me the leftover crumpled parchment paper wrapping. "Well, you should still be careful. Hokage-sama says that everyone needs to be careful right now because of Kumo; we haven't gotten anything official from them yet."

Stuffing the wrapping into my bag, I made a sound of agreement but didn't say more. Ever since Akio was locked up , all communications with Kumo had gone silent. They hadn't said anything and it'd been almost a month, which was extremely worrisome. I had no idea what was happening, or what was being planned. I wasn't good at anticipating future events. I was just a reborn kid with good sensing abilities, some foreknowledge of this fictional universe, a figuratively bleeding heart, and a terrible urge to do some good even though I was in no position to do so.

"-you going?"

I blinked, returning to Shisui's voice. "Sorry, what did you say?"

Shisui sighed dramatically and placed a hand over his eyes, lamenting, "Haru, for once in your lifetime, will you please stay in touch with reality?"

I ignored his antics. "Just repeat what you said."

"'We'-", Shisui emphasized 'we'. "-are going to Sandaime's grandson's third birthday," he declared, without elaborating who 'we' were. I assumed he meant the old Academy group: Kenta, Takeshi, Itachi, Shisui, and Shin.

"Are you going?" he added.

"Yeah, Inoichi-sama mentioned something about that earlier this week. I'm looking after Ino," I affirmed. Shisui nodded as if he'd already suspected the answer. Inoichi had mentioned that it was relatively formal and a bit awkward since it was of the few occasions that shinobi and non-shinobi were forced to mingle. Chika-san had already asked me to accompany her as Ino's overseer. I imagined that the old Academy group was also going to be babysitting their respective clan heads' children and heirs.

"Do you see the other guys often?"

Again, I assumed he meant our old friend group.

"Not really, you're the most recent face I saw in the past month," I answered blithely. Shisui pumped a fist into the air.

"Yes!" Shisui cheered. "Who's second on the list?"

"Itachi."

Shisui paused at that. "When did you see Itachi?"

"He's been stopping by the blacksmith shop pretty often lately for weapon repairs and polishing," I said.

"Oh, I thought second would be Takeshi or Kenta," Shisui said thoughtfully. I didn't add anything to his comment. I'd bump into Kenta maybe once a month, but it was never awkward unless the topic strayed to Takeshi. I'd had to regretfully admit that my friendship with Takeshi had waned somewhat considerably after I left the Academy. I think the confrontation at the Sarutobis' further strained whatever was left in the friendship. In a way, it was my fault. From an outsider's point of view, I was distant, aloof, and not open whenever I talked to him. I internally sighed at my lack of social communication skills; I should probably at least try and patch up my relationship with Takeshi.

Shisui's voice cut through my thoughts. "You know, you should probably talk to him."

"Kenta and I are fine," I said, though I was fully aware of to whom Shisui was actually referring.

Shisui raised a brow. He knew whom I was avoiding to mention. "Sure, so when was the last time you saw him?"

"At the Sarutobi compound," I mumbled unenthusiastically.

"Did you guys talk a bit?"

"Yeah."

"You had a pleasant conversation with him, right?"

I blew a chunk of hair out of my face. "Sure."

Strangely, Shisui didn't push the subject further and stayed silent for the next few minutes of our slow walk back to the Yamanaka compound. I couldn't help but compare the differences between as we walked. Shisui was eerily silent while I sounded like any person who had gone through a rigorous training workout: breathing somewhat loudly while obnoxiously stepping on twigs and crunching gravel beneath my feet.

"So how was training with Inoichi-sama? Is he a good teacher?"

"He's good," I confirmed. "Training today was actually kind of fun even though I feel burned out. How's your team?"

Shisui stretched his arms out behind him. "Pretty good. I think our sensei is planning to put us in for the next chunin exams."

"Oh, is that happening soon?"

"Yup, it'll be during the summer this year. We're going to pass," he said confidently.

"Must be nice to have so much confidence," I murmured airily as I flexed my fingers in front of me. Although Inoichi may have said that I did well today, hearing Shisui being so self-assured while knowing that he had truly justified reasons to believe so suddenly made me feel inadequate.

"I'm confident in being a true shinobi," Shisui clarified. "You can be strong, but that doesn't make you a real shinobi."

A ghost of a smile rested on my face when he said that. It was comforting to know that even though Shisui had every right to brag about his skills, he didn't consider strength as the only factor of being a good shinobi.

"And what does it mean to be a true shinobi?"

Shisui answered without missing a beat. "I believe a true shinobi is a someone who maintains peace from the shadows."

"Sounds like Anbu," I commentated casually.

Shisui nodded and said, "It does."

"An interest in a future occupation?"

"It'd be welcome," Shisui vaguely answered. He didn't elaborate, but asked instead, "What about you? What's your motto when working for the Fourth Hokage?"

"If something is inconvenient, pretend you didn't hear anything," I drawled, which made Shisui snort.

"Isn't that a bit rude?"

"Nah, it's a lot more useful than you'd think; you'll know what I mean once you escort high profile figures for missions," I said in a half-serious voice.

We had to pass a predominantly civilian district before reaching the Yamanaka compound, so Shisui in particular got a number of stares. Shinobi, for the most part, were overwhelming to just be around. 'Overwhelming' could be too strong of a word and sometimes didn't exactly describe the feelings civilians had when being next to them. 'Awe' or 'wonder' could be more accurate, possibly some wariness mixed in, maybe even a little fear, but for the most part, civilians at the very least held a respectable distance around them because we all knew that any of those ninjas could kill people with a flick of the wrist.

Or eye, I thought distantly as Shisui's eye flickered to red and black. Before we entered the compound, Shisui held out an arm.

"Hey, who's your visitor?"

Visitor?

"What visitor?"

Shisui tilted his head towards the compound entrance. "The person loitering outside your house."

Sighing, I briefly flashed my chakra outwards for a quick scan of the compound, expecting a clan member sent by Inoichi or someone vaguely familiar, but that wasn't who was in front of my house. My stomach flip-flopped when I recognized the oily chakra body. Kabuto.

What was he doing here?

Kabuto's chakra signature shifted from where he stood waiting patiently for something, or someone. Me. Or Fu inside the house. My brothers and Shinju-soba were also inside, and the thought of Kabuto being so near my family turned my insides into jelly.

Inoichi. I needed to get Inoichi, but I didn't know where he was.

"Haru?"

Shisui's calm voice brought me back.

"I...uh, need Inoichi," I stammered. The Uchiha laid a hand on my shoulder.

"What's wrong," he said. It sounded more like a command than a question.

I swallowed down a ball of fear because I wasn't sure how good Kabuto's auditory senses were and if he could hear us. Some shinobi honed their auditory skills so well that their hearing could stretch to more than a hundred meters. Plus, I was so drained of chakra that I was struggling with holding up my senses.

I murmured, "That 'visitor' is a shinobi named Kabuto. I don't like him."

Shisui tilted his head. "Okay?"

I turned to the Uchiha and looked at him in the eye, trying to convey my nervousness.

"No, Shisui, I don't like him," I repeated in a low voice, and flicked my eyes in Kabuto's direction.

He's no good, I mouthed, internally hoping that Shisui would understand that the grey-haired shinobi was bad news.

Shisui blinked his dark eyes once, like an owl filtering out light so that it could focus on the view in front of it, before I could see him registering my meaning.

"Let me meet him," he said and started forward before I jabbed an arm in his way.

"What? No, what are you doing?" I hissed.

"It'll be fine," he insisted, and nudged me into the compound. Despite protesting just seconds before, I decided it would be easier to trudge forward without resisting. Having Shisui next to me was actually a good source of comfort right now. Once we got closer to my house, Kabuto's chakra swirled as if it was irritated at the unexpected addition of company.

"Hello, Haru."

Kabuto's smooth voice made my skin crawl, and I forced down the urge to grimace when I saw him languidly sitting on the front porch of my house.

"Kabuto," I said warily as a greeting. "What brings you into the compound this time?"

My words would have been rude if my tone hadn't been so careful.

"Haruka, that is no way to speak to a guest," a new voice cut in. My eyes flicked up and narrowed when Shinju-soba walked out with a wrapped box.

"I'll talk to whomever I want, whatever way I want," I muttered under my breath while looking away. I was quiet enough that Shinju-soba couldn't hear me, but Kabuto's smirk and Shisui's light huff of amusement told me I was still heard.

"Thank you again for your help, young man," Shinju-soba said to Kabuto. I raised a brow when I detected faint traces of warmth in her voice. Kabuto must have really charmed my grandmother over if she was speaking to him like this; she rarely even spoke to me with that voice.

Kabuto smiled a smile that I wanted to smack off his face. "It was nothing. I'll take my leave now. I'll see you around, Haru-chan."

As he passed by us, Kabuto paused and nodded at Shisui. "Shisui-senpai," he acknowledged before finally leaving.

"And who's this?"

I waved a hand between them. "Shinju-soba, this is Uchiha Shisui. He was my classmate from the Academy."

I had been surprised at how quiet Shisui had been the last couple of seconds, but at the introduction, he returned to his chipper persona.

"Nice to meet you, Yamanaka-san," he greeted with a deep bow.

Shinju nodded. "Thank you for taking care of Haruka. I hope to see you more often in the future."

With that short parting, she returned inside the house.

"Well, she's not as bad as you make her out to be," Shisui commented.

"Whatever, it's Kabuto who's the problem," I bit out. My nerves were strung so tight, I was barely able to keep myself from lashing out at Shisui. I was used to dealing with Shinju-soba, but the fact that Kabuto was 'chummy' with her made me want to punch the bespectacled kid's face in. It was fine if it was just me Kabuto kept facing, but now he was familiar with my grandmother, and possibly Fu. Who was next? My brothers?

"I've seen him around, but he never really stuck out," Shisui confessed.

"Well, you better pay closer attention to him, because he just doesn't have his claws out," I snapped. "He's up to something bad, I know he is."

Shisui raised his hands at the sudden sharpness of my voice.

"That's a relatively dangerous accusation," he pointed out. "Do you really mean that?"

I didn't say anymore, but I was sure my glare was sufficient to answer his question.

"I'll keep an eye out for him," the Uchiha stated. "Who else did you tell about this guy?"

"Inoichi-sama."

Shisui tilted his head. "What about the Yondaime? Why haven't you told him about your worries?"

I sighed. "He's the Hokage, he can't be bothered with someone I think is suspicious without having any grounds or evidence."

"Actually, you should reconsider. Since it's you, he might listen. You are kind of close with him," Shisui suggested.

"Maybe, but thanks for today," I replied while giving him a tight smile.

"Kabuto makes me really nervous," I added in a quiet voice. Shisui's relaxed expression hardened when I admitted this.

"You really do suspect him of something unpleasant," he observed while searching my face as if to make sure I was not up to any jokes.

"I have a bad feeling about him," I said in a firm tone. Shisui nodded thoughtfully before he waved goodbye.

"I really think you should tell the Hokage. If you're not going to, I will," he called out as he jumped onto my house's roof. I waved back to let him know I heard what he said. At least I knew that there was another person who acknowledged my suspicions regarding Kabuto without questioning me too much.


I should have seen it coming: Land of Waves, wealthy business dude. Gato.

This was so complicated and unexpected. I hadn't thought that, out of all the rich people outside of the village, the orphans' patron would be Gato. In a way, I should have pieced this together before, when Eiji had mentioned their patron came from the Land of Waves. I mean, there weren't that many wealthy folks from there. The only one who would have had enough money to support five orphans in a prestigious academy was Gato.

Now I was wondering if I was capable of hoarding all these secrets if I couldn't even put two and two together about my orphan friends' patron. Gato just proved that I wasn't capable of foreseeing future possibilities. Either that or my friends were that good at keeping secrets, but there had been enough clues for me to pick up on, so I blamed myself. I wasn't competent enough to handle this. And the more I thought about having the notebooks and journals stashed in the corner of my room, the more I believed it wasn't right of me to keep them hidden away.

"I don't like Gato," I said aloud, to no one in particular. I wasn't expecting a response from Eiji, Misaki, or Isao, but the flashes of uncertainty across their faces was enough for me.

Eiji said nothing, looking away, while the other two shifted uncomfortably where they sat.

"He's definitely invested in you guys, otherwise he wouldn't be your patron, but the second you're no longer useful to him, he'll toss you," I continued in a low voice. "So I don't know what you're planning, but at least let me know what's happening from now on."

"Mm, I'll keep that in mind," Eiji responded in a clipped tone.

A second passed before he spoke up again, "Why do you even keep him around?"

I glanced at Eiji who was currently scrutinizing Yuzuru in the distance. He was trying to change the subject, but I let him. The orphans and I were lazing around one of Gakuen's courtyards since all our classes had ended early, a rare occurrence that we took advantage of. Misaki had packed a picnic as an after school snack for everyone so we were spread across a wooden table underneath the shade of the many trees, enjoying her food. Much to Eiji's annoyance, Yuzuru had tagged along with us. The rest of us, Misaki, Isao, and I, joined Eiji's observation of Yuzuru, who was a short distance away. At the moment, our two youngest orphans, Aiya and Jun, were ordering around the long-haired son of a diplomat according to their whims. Yuzuru yelled in protest when Jun and Aiya forced him to go on all fours, insisting that he play as their horse.

"Yuzuru follows Haru almost everywhere," Isao answered for me.

Eiji changed his question. "Then why do you let him follow you?"

"But my clothes!" Yuzuru wailed as he discovered patches of dirt on the fabric over his knees.

"I'm not sure, but I guess he'll be useful in the future," I said as we watched him attempt to remove the stains and fail. He most likely had never tried to clean his own clothes before, and the stain only got worse. Yuzuru's father was technically a well-known person in the Daimyo's court. However, it was hard to see Yuzuru following his dad's footsteps. The kid was temperamental and almost hilariously immature. The childish persona almost completely took away attention from how much he knew about the social and economic matters of this village, being privy to his father's workplace. Sometimes I wondered if Yuzuru's childish personality was all a ruse so that everyone would underestimate him, but as quickly as I would consider it, I'd dismiss the notion. There was no way.

Always one to see the best of people, Misaki said softly, "He's not a bad kid,"

Eiji snorted at that. "Misaki, this kid looks down on orphans."

"His name is Yuzuru, and he's been more careful about the subject ever since the etiquette exam," Misaki reminded him. The subject of our talk perked up at the sound of his name and bounded over, his soiled clothes forgotten.

"Were you guys talking about me?" Yuzuru's eyes glittered with interest.

I said "no" at the same time Eiji grunted, "yes."

"Well? What did you say?" Yuzuru demanded.

"Nothing," I said.

"You're annoying," Eiji stated bluntly. Yuzuru bristled at the uncalled-for insult.

"Eiji, you're being rude," Misaki reprimanded. Eiji turned the opposite direction of Yuzuru, his body language clearly saying that he couldn't care anymore about the boy. With a reddened face, Yuzu was on the verge of bursting into tears or a tantrum, or possibly a mixture of both. Although I did feel apologetic for Eiji's behavior, I also desperately hoped that Yuzuru would throw a tantrum instead of tears. Tears were always hardest to take care of.

"Haru, your friend is mean," Yuzu complained while pointing at the oldest teen in the vicinity. Internally, I released a sigh of relief. He was throwing a tantrum, thank goodness.

"Eiji, could you please apologize to Yuzu?" I nudged Eiji's knee with a foot. Isao covered a smile when Eiji, predictably, didn't respond. I delicately nursed the growing headache. Yuzuru turned into such a baby whenever Eiji was around, and Eiji's attitude didn't help at all in these situations.

Yuzu pouted even more and shook my arm. "Haru, tell him to go away, I don't like him," he whined.

And then Eiji spoke up, "Oh, what a coincidence. I don't like you, either."

Yuzuru stiffened at the scathing comment, like he was ready to pounce at Eiji.

"Eiji," Isao said in a warning tone.

Yuzuru lunged across me to tackle Eiji.

"Calm down," I intoned, annoyed by the bickering. Isao and I grabbed Yuzuru's arms before he could reach a smirking Eiji, who hadn't budged the entire time. Isao tightened his grip on Yuzuru's arms, and I gently pushed the dark-haired boy away despite his objections.

"Let me go! This is not fair!" Yuzu cried out, his voice raising an octave. "He started it!"

"I know, Yuzu, I know," I said in a sympathetic tone. In all honesty, I, too, was getting tired of Eiji's game of poking barbs at Yuzuru. There was only so much unwarranted negative attention anyone could handle in a short amount of time. Being in Eiji's line of harassment was never enjoyable - even I tried to go out of my way to avoid his sharp words sometimes. Yuzuru stopped struggling against our hold when Misaki offered the boy half of a simple sandwich, but before he could even reach for it, Eiji's hand swiped it away.

Yuzu shrieked in anger. "Hey!"

Isao and I grunted, fastening our grip, when Yuzuru tried to tackle Eiji a second time.

I groaned, "Eiji, will you please stop?"

Making no reaction to our disapproval, the teenager stuffed his mouth with the food while goading a bright-faced Yuzuru with an obnoxious expression. I was sure that poor Yuzu was going to cry now. Neither my words nor Isao's could stop Eiji

"Eiji," Misaki said his name in scolding. "Stop that."

She held out another half of a sandwich for Yuzuru and sharply slapped away Eiji's reaching hand this time. Not expecting the hit, Eiji blinked in bewilderment as he stared at his stinging hand in front of him while Misaki handed Yuzuru the sandwich. Releasing our grip on Yuzuru, Isao and I held each other as we tried to keep our laughter down at the obvious disbelief on Eiji's face. He appeared almost betrayed by what had just happened. It wasn't often when Misaki hardened her voice or even hit anyone, and it wasn't every day that her ire's target was Eiji.

Despite the small altercation between Eiji and Yuzuru, we all enjoyed the rest of our late afternoon in the courtyard before it was time to part ways.

I stepped out of the Gakuen grounds and sighed when I sensed a chakra body heading my way.

Who is it this time, I thought tiredly.

It had been a week since I had noticed that something was up (though it might have actually started right after I told Minato about Kabuto): I was now surrounded by people every minute of the day. If I wasn't with my family inside the house, with Kenshin at the shop, or with classmates at Gakuen, there was someone else with me. If it wasn't Inoichi, then it was Minato, one of his subordinates, or a random chunin that I had helped do administrative duties at the Tower.

"Yo, Haru-chan."

"Genma-san," I greeted in a flat tone. Shiranui Genma had been a frequent patron of Kenshi's blacksmith shop, so I was relatively familiar with him by now.

A senbon clicked against his teeth slightly as the special jonin spoke. "I'm heading to the Yamanaka compound, what about you?"

"What a coincidence, me too," I said hollowly. Genma chuckled and ruffled my the top of my head .

"Bear with it for the time being," he said quietly. Genma knew that I had noticed I was being escorted and watched everywhere, even though I hadn't been directly told so.

The leisurely pace to the clan compound was, in a way, relaxing. Genma and I shared a similar type of dry and sardonic humor and we exchanged some details of how our past week had been going. Out of all the special and elite jonin, Genma was of the most casual and easy-going that I'd met.

I helped Genma find Inoichi's house before leaving for my own home. Excusing myself from dinner that night, I locked my door and sat at the center of my room in silence, staring at the inconspicuous bag lying in the corner. I was sure that with every passing day I was more and more ready to lay out everything in the open. I knew for sure that I was going to tell Minato about my notebooks soon. I would first explain the notebooks, and then I'd answer whatever questions Minato had from there, and then eventually reach the part of how I really didn't belong in this world.

The fear was indescribable. If I wasn't careful, it could swallow me whole and force me into a panic attack. It would loom over me, watching for the moment I'd allow the flicker of hesitation and doubt burn any brighter than it already was. It would smother me at night while I laid in bed and keep me awake until the early dawn when I'd see the beginning of the day shining through my window. My mind buzzed with the circumstances and outcomes, negative and positive.

After staring at the bag for a bit, I realized that I had stopped breathing. A whoosh of air left my lungs as I began counting my breath. Seven seconds in, seven seconds out. Slow. Steady. I didn't keep track of time until a knock interrupted my self-reflective state. I glanced behind the window curtain in my room. Complete darkness outside told me that it was late into the evening.

"Hey sis, are you okay?" Ryouta called out behind the door. Unlocking the door, I came face to face with my brothers.

They've grown so much, I reflected fondly. The twins were up to my shoulder and ready to graduate the Academy. Actually, they'd been ready, but it was because of my insistence that they'd stayed.

"I'm good, just tired ," I said to their pinched, worried faces. "And hey, what do I keep telling you about scrunching your brows?"

Ryouta batted away my hand after I tapped their foreheads, grumbling, "We know, we'll get wrinkles."

"Can we sleepover in your room tonight?" Yuuma piped.

"Yeah! Can we? And can we make a pillow fort, too?" Ryouta exclaimed. I dragged a hand over my face, hiding a weak smile. I was in no mood to be interacting with other humans after being surrounded by them 24/7. However, my brothers would always, always be the exception.

"Yeah, yeah we can," I said through the smile. The twins whooped and dashed off to gather supplies from throughout the house. I think I heard Shinju-soba raise her voice at one point, most likely because they were raiding the house of cushions and blankets. In just an hour, we had a decent sized fort: chairs served as pillars, mantles draped across our heads and over the floor, and pillows cushioned the sides of the structure. After cleaning up and getting ready to sleep, the twins and I were lying on our backs under the cozy shelter of our makeshift fort.

"Hey, Ryouta, Yuuma."

The twins turned over to me.

"Do you guys like me?"

They blinked at the nonsensical question. "What?"

I rephrased the question. "Am I...okay as your sister? I mean, how am I as a person?"

"Sis," Ryouta treaded carefully. "Is something wrong?"

I sighed, "Can't you guys just answer the question?"

"You're okay as a sister," Yuuma spoke up.

"Yeah, sometimes annoying, but I guess still cool as a sister," Ryouta agreed.

I laughed and covered my face with an arm.

"Thanks, you two are annoying sometimes, too, but I'm glad to have you both as younger brothers," I said back to them. With one twin lying down at my right and left, I reached for their hands and compared our hand sizes.

Though my hands were much larger, I could tell that in maybe three more years, the twins would out-grow me. Their fingers were beginning to form more callouses than mine, too. My own hands no longer held the childish smooth skin of a young teenager; they had hardened over the past seven years with Academy, clan, and apprenticeship training. My Gakuen female classmates took great care in their white, slender, soft hands. In contrast, muscles rounded mine, the fingernails were cut short, and the skin was tanned from exposure in the sun.

"Sis, your hands are kind of gross," Ryouta bluntly commented.

"She works with weapons," the younger twin cut in with a condescending tone.

"I can tell," Ryouta snarked back.

"How can you tell?" I asked.

"Your skin is kind of wrinkly from working with heat and water."

"You have the weird callouses on your fingertips from polishing metals with chakra."

"The other callouses are from Inoichi-sama's clan training."

"You got dry skin from polishing weapons with whetstones."

"And-"

I dropped my hands and lightly smacked the twins' shoulders, scowling,"Okay, I get it, my hands are ugly."

Yuuma yawned. "You're the one who taught us to look at people's hands."

"Yeah, for observational skills, not to tear down self-esteem," I said dryly. We all giggled a little at that, but once the small bubbly feeling subsided, the somber mood from an hour ago returned.

I mumbled, "Hey, I want you guys to know that no matter what, I'll always care about you two...understand?"

"Sis, are you okay?" Yuuma asked.

"Understand?" I stressed.

"You're making it sound like you're leaving or something," Ryouta said under his breath before muttering "yeah". Yuuma also held a discontent expression as he murmured something similar.

In that moment, I felt contentment settling inside. I knew that despite whatever unstable thoughts and feelings I may have held towards this world and life, that this moment with my brothers would always remain with me. I believed it was this one small memory that enabled me to take the first step to confront the fear inside. To talk openly about my secrets to someone.

So one morning, it just happened. I woke up one day, and I knew I felt ready.

Before I could begin convince myself to back out, an hour later after washing up, changing clothes, and having a bite to eat, I found myself in front of Minato's Hokage desk with a drawstring bag on my shoulders. I must have appeared a little pathetic: clammy skin, twitching hands, wobbly knees, bags under the eyes, and a pale face.

Minato quirked a brow at my unexpected entrance. "Haru, you should be in school right now."

Oh yeah. I completely forgot about school.

I swallowed down a ball of terror.

"I... have something I want to tell you," I said with a cracked voice.


x


Ho Hum.