A/N: This is 'Leaves of Grass,' which has absolutely nothing to do with Walt Whitman, I promise. It's a story about the ripple effects of a SI inserted into Third War era Naruto. To try and distinguish this story, I'm trying to write in accordance with the following:
-Refrain from using the SI pov. If possible, I'd like to complete the story without ever writing from the SI's pov. Instead, I'm trying to 'show' what the SI is experiencing through other character's perspectives.
-The SI develops naturally as a child. Brain development wouldn't allow the SI to immediately have access to prior adult memories or be able to interpret or understand those memories once she can have access to them.
-Delve into Third War politics/Shinobi Worldbuilding. There's not a lot of detail provided about the Third War in cannon, I want to flesh that out and show the civilian/nobility/ninja tensions that would have led to such a war. I want this to be a story about the war, not a 'coming of age' story (although some characters may grow up during this period).
-Tell the story with an ensemble cast, rather than one main character/protagonist. The story primarily shifts between the pov's of the Sannin, Team Minato, the SI and her OC mother (to get a civilian perspective). Other individuals will be introduced as needed, but won't necessarily become recurring characters. (Kushina is already intruding on that point, she very well may become part of the main ensemble).
-Keep the SI's OC parent as a central/essential part of the story.
Where I've intentionally departed from canon:
-The ages of Team Minato-We start with Obito as 10, Rin as 8, and Kakashi as 6. I have detailed reasons for this, but it boils down to 'I'm the author and this is the way I want it.' I can explain more if someone is really bothered by it, but don't feel like writing two paragraphs on the matter at this point in time.
-Obito's backstory—I'm changing his family background slightly.
-Dan—He's alive. It's really confusing that Dan supposedly died during the Second War (according to canon) and yet was alive to take Shizune to school (canon) which couldn't have happened until the Third War (canon). I've resolved this by prolonging Dan's death by a war. I'm not sure whether he survives this story, that's still up for debate. (Even if you have a theory that would make the above points make sense—Dan's alive for the purposes of this story, at least for a little while).
-This first chapter is 90% OCs, but that makeup changes significantly within the next chapters and by chapter 5 we've reversed it to 75% canon characters and 25% OCs, which is where the makeup is likely to stay.
-Because the story is written in a 'slice of life' style, the pacing is slow and the story itself isn't action-oriented. Please do not ask for that to change.
Leaves of Grass
The local market was busier than usual for this time of day, stalls crowded with men and women stopping to gossip about the latest news from over the river. Usually the people meandering about the small town were amiable and laidback, but today shoulders were tense, voices whispered, and steps were hurried. For a town full of civilians nestled close to the country's Hidden Village, it was clear that the fragile political truces that had held the peace between the shinobi factions for a decade or so were on the verge of collapse. It felt like the softest breath would be enough to send any one of the greater bordering nations teetering over the edge, into a public declaration of war.
Unfortunately, it looked like Grass Country would be the stomping grounds this time, geographically speaking.
Rain Country had been the last to hold that honor. They still hadn't rebuilt; still hadn't recovered. According to the rumors that reached the civilians out here in Takai Bokusouchi, Rain Country was stuck in a vicious, cyclical civil war prolonged by rogue Amegakure shinobi and was well on its way to destroying itself.
Chiyoko stumbled as a burly man knocked into her when she entered the local apothecary, the chiming bells tied to the door ringing in her ears.
"Watch it," said the man with a grunt, beady eyes barely registering her presence.
She bit her tongue to keep from retorting, and instead hurried inside to complete her errands. She was running late already, she didn't have to time to snap at dullards. Something about jewels and swine, as her daughter would say—oh, no, pearls before swine. That's how it went. She was forgetting things.
The twenty-four year old woman hummed nervously to herself as she scanned the shelves, fingers tracing the words on the plaques which explained the products. This apothecary, the largest in the town, was run by an older couple. They were assisted only by their youngest daughter, a girl around Chiyoko's age who'd stayed with her parents and never married. The family of three was usually capable of keeping the shop well stocked, despite the fact that they mixed all their remedies themselves. In the past two weeks though, they'd struggled to keep up with a demanding, anxious population wanting to prepare themselves for an uncertain future. The shelves, normally full of red and green and blue ceramic bottles, held only one or two of each product, or more often, were completely empty.
Chiyoko finally reached the salves and made a small disappointed sound. She knew it'd been wishful thinking to hope that they'd have the one item she needed in stock. She blew some errant bangs from her eyes with a huff of frustration. The teal bottles sitting on the shelf were an aloe based solution, and she'd been told to try the peppermint and basil solution if the aloe hadn't worked. Unfortunately, the little red bottle she needed wasn't present, so she'd have to get in line and talk with Izumi-san about placing an order. She straightened and turned around, heading toward the line at the front of the store.
The very long line of about fifteen people, which would, at best, take at least thirty minutes to get through.
Chiyoko braced herself and joined the grumpy cluster of customers, tucking her purse close and crossing her arms. She focused on giving off 'don't talk to me' vibes and ignoring the ache in her feet. She'd been on them all day—not much time for sitting when you were the sole person responsible for a classroom of young, rowdy children. It was baffling, that children could have so much energy contained in such tiny bodies. She loved kids, loved teaching them, loved to see them learn and mature, but still—
Her thoughts couldn't help but stray back to her own daughter, currently being watched by her sister-in-law and waiting for her mother to come and take her home. Most likely very impatiently. Katsumi held little love for her cousins and perhaps even less for her aunt. At least she found her uncle tolerable, but the man worked late into the night and was almost never home.
Usually, Chiyoko dropped her child off at the local nursery, where a group of women watched very young children for parents who worked all day for a small fee. Katsumi liked it much better there, as she could read whatever books she wanted and her caregivers mostly left her to her own devices.
Chiyoko probably could have entered the girl in school a year early, but she was already far ahead of her age mates and there wasn't precedent for advancing students above their years if they had already mastered materials. The Principal was a stern man who certainly wasn't going to break the rules for the young female child of a single mother with no wealth or political ties. And, honestly, Chiyoko didn't want the type of attention flaunting her daughter's intelligence might receive.
Unfortunately, the nursery closed shortly after the school did and if Chiyoko was running late or had errands, her sister-in-law was the only adult available to watch the girl. Eri would pick Katsumi up from the nursery after she collected her own sons from school and watch them all until Chiyoko returned. She had promised Katsumi-chan that she wouldn't have to stay at her Aunt's for long, but a parent had been late today and Chiyoko always stayed with her students until they were picked up, and then with the crowds and the line for the medicine—
Chiyoko looked down at the small hands tugging on her yukata.
"Arata-kun, don't grab at people!" The little boy's mother drew her eight year old's hands away from the younger woman.
"It's fine," said Chiyoko with a tired smile as she examined the dark-headed woman, "nice to see you again, Fukui-san."
"I miss being in your class, Sensei," chimed in the boy before his mother could return her greeting, "This year I have Kimura Sensei, and he's just mean. He doesn't do the voices in the stories the way he's supposed to, everything's just boring."
Chiyoko crinkled her eyes in amusement.
"I'm so sorry Sensei," muttered Fukui-san—Chiyoko couldn't remember what the woman's first name was, despite having taught two of her children by now.
Arata's mother kept a firm grip on her son's shoulder, to keep him from running off down the aisles of fragile medicine bottles. "He can't stop talking about how his last year was so much better than this year. School's only been going on for a month of course, but he seems convinced you're the only capable teacher there."
Chiyoko pasted on a smile and shared the other woman's pleasant laughter and soaked in the boy's beaming face. She tried to appear happy to accept the compliments, but she kept an eye on the length of the line and herded the small group closer to the counter every time a customer left. As much as she liked to be appreciated, she was kind of in a hurry, and now she had to make cheerful small talk on top of everything else.
"—Of course he'll get the hang of it soon enough. He's just jealous his older brother was selected for shinobi training. We were so surprised, but it's such an honor, of course. He's been writing home about how much he enjoys 'weapons practice' and now I keep finding toy daggers" she ruffled her child's brown hair, "everywhere. I've sent them through the washing machine at least a dozen times. Sooo thankful they aren't real or I would have ruined them and the clothes—probably the machine too!" The woman burst into laughter.
Chiyoko echoed her politely, wishing she or her sister-in-law had access to a washing machine in their home. She remembered those from her childhood, so convenient. Now-a-days they did everything by hand or after a long walk to the laundromat across town. Fortunately for Chiyoko, the laundry was minimal in a two person household. Especially when her own child was disturbingly nit-picky about being clean.
"How's your own daughter?" asked nameless-mother-san with the too-perfect hair. "She'd be about four now, right? I remember her from that class picnic last year. Such a smart little thing."
"Oh yes," agreed Chiyoko, frantically trying to remember who her offspring had offended that particular day— it was always someone. "Well, she's still a smart little thing, reading everything she can get her hands on, you know."
"Reading already?" The woman's brown eyes glowed in interest. "I shouldn't be too surprised, considering who her mother is—"
Chiyoko offered a weak smile and moved forward a step as a sneezing man hurried past them for the door.
"—I just won't ever forget the look on Maka-san's face when your daughter told her—"
"Kinoshita-san?" A petite woman wearing glasses called for her from the counter.
"I'm so sorry," Chiyoko apologized, not sorry at all to miss reliving whatever her daughter had inflicted on the company that day. "I'm being called."
"Of course, of course." The other woman and her son waved her goodbye as she excused herself.
Chiyoko leaned forward on the counter, letting out a relieved breath.
"Long day," asked Izumi sympathetically, tugging idly at her dark messy braid, an old nervous habit. The two women had grown up together in Bokusouchi. Chiyoko had almost thought about going into medicine with her friend, before she determined that her heart was set on becoming a teacher. Still, the circle of well-educated women in this town was small. The circle of women who considered themselves "modern" and "forward-thinking" was even smaller, so Izumi and Chiyoko had always been close, and seen as outsiders and a bit strange by the more traditional women in town. However, the traditional women were happy enough to send their children to the two to learn their letters and have their coughs treated, and to pay for those services, so mostly everyone was satisfied by the state of things.
"Mmm," agreed Chiyoko, rubbing her forehead. "The aloe didn't work."
"She's still itching." Izumi bit her lip in concern. "But no rash or anything?"
"No, other than the scratches she's made herself." Chiyoko brushed brown hair back from her eyes with a small sigh. "Did you happen to—"
"Yeah." Izumi disappeared behind a pane of frosted glass, voice muffled. "I put some aside for her when I saw the stock dwindling, just in case you came back."
"Oh good." Chiyoko hadn't been looking forward to going home empty handed, even though she doubted this would work. None of the last four salves they had tried worked.
"You know," said Izumi, popping back up to the counter, sliding a small brown bag across it into Chiyoko's outstretched hand. "If this doesn't work, you probably need to bring her in to see Dad."
The mother in her balked at that, and she turned her green eyes down to the counter, lips thinning.
Izumi leaned forward. "I know you don't like it, but you want her to get better, right? She sounds miserable…"
Chiyoko's face twisted. "Yes, but, all the reporting," she kept her voice low. "They seem to be taking anyone for any reason they can think of these days. I don't want to draw attention to her."
Izumi tapped purple nails against her chin and blinked her intelligent dark eyes. "I think it'll be ok, I'll do the paperwork, alright? You just bring her in first thing Saturday morning if that salve doesn't work, hear me?"
The brunette teacher smiled sadly, not wanting to ask the favor but terrified to bring her child in without such assurances. "Promise?"
"Absolutely," nodded Izumi, patting a hand over her heart, a gesture conveying that trust given wouldn't be betrayed. "Tell your darling 'hi' and to read a medical text on tapeworms for me. I'll quiz her when I see her."
Chiyoko felt slightly queasy at the notion. "She doesn't need ideas. How much do I owe you?"
Izumi waved her away. "Not today, Chiyo-chan. Next please!" She called loudly over Chiyoko's shoulder, waving the woman away.
"I can pay, Izumi," she hissed through clenched teeth, searching for her wallet.
"Not today you won't, see you later!" Izumi grinned and adjusted her glasses, pushing Chiyoko's purse off the counter.
"Stop holding up the line," shouted a voice from the back, discontented murmurs echoing from others behind her.
"Yeah, get movin' slow bones," joked the healer.
Chiyoko grudgingly accepted the gift in lieu of causing a riot in the apothecary and slipped out the door.
"You're late," said Eri. Chiyoko's sister-in-law was lounging at the kitchen table and flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine, studying the newest trends from the capital.
Chiyoko's daughter primly sat across the table from Eri, giving her mother a steady, flat look, hands laced together and clasped tightly in the folds of her pretty summer yukata. Her dark curls brushed her shoulders and her green eyes flashed indignantly.
Uh-oh. Chiyoko fought down a laugh at how adorable her pouty child looked and mustered the appropriate grimace. I don't need childhood development books to interpret that look.
"Hi, Honey," she greeted her daughter, ignoring her sister-in-law for the moment. "Sorry I ran late, everyone's shopping right now and it was harder than I thought to get what I needed."
"I don't know why you try to explain yourself to her," said Eri dismissively. "She's just four."
Chiyoko bit back her sigh, and her explanation, because she'd given that to Eri a dozen times before and the woman never listened.
"She is right here," quipped the four year old, looking grim.
Eri snapped her magazine shut and looked sharply at Chiyoko. "See that? That right there is what I'm talking about. You let her get away with everything! Doesn't matter if she's smart or not if she doesn't know when to hold her tongue."
Chiyoko could see the glittering eyes of her three nephews as they began to poke their heads around the kitchen door, sensing a possibly interesting confrontation but wise enough by now to know when to stay out of their mother's line of sight.
"I'm not raising her to hold her tongue, Eri—" Chiyoko started, but she decided to end that rant before it began. Best to try and extract her daughter as quickly as possible. "Why is she in 'time-out' anyway?" Because that was the only reason Katsumi was ever at the kitchen table when Chiyoko came to get her.
Katsumi was always at the kitchen table when Chiyoko came to get her.
"Because you won't let me spank her and she got smart with me again. I know how you raise your children." Eri flutter her hands in the air, flashy, cheap rings on her well-manicured hands glinting in the light. "But kids don't get smart with us in this household."
Chiyoko struggled to keep her temper, once again wishing there was someone, anyone, in this mostly backward town that she could trust to watch her child when she had to run errands. Leaving her child with Eri felt like exposing her daughter to harmful toxins, but she was too small to easily take with her when running all over town. Four year old legs just didn't carry someone very far very quickly, and Katsumi-chan's curiosity made any excursion last twice as long as it should under childless circumstances.
It was hard being a single working mom, and she didn't have a lot of family to support her. Not as hard as it was thirty years ago, when she probably would have been socially exiled for having a child out of wedlock and not even allowed to hold a job. At least that was one good thing that had come from living so close to a shinobi village, the acceptance of women in the working force—still, single mom-hood was hard. Especially being the single mom to an almost disturbingly intelligent and perceptive child such as Katsumi.
Chiyoko doubted Eri appreciated just how truly trying it was to raise Katsumi. If Eri were actually parenting Katsumi, if the two lived together, then Katsumi would be in control of the household within a week. She'd have thoroughly manipulated Eri so that the woman only saw the perfect child she'd expected, and Katsumi would be—Katsumi would be—shopping for a new wardrobe and bullying her cousins into doing her chores and giving her their share of allowance, actually. Her schemes were still age appropriate in nature, but just give the kid some time to dream and she'd be in charge of the yakuza.
Anyway, Eri and Katsumi's current issues stemmed from the fact that each had absolutely no respect for the other, and knew that their time together would be limited. Thus, woman and girl strove to have the maximum impact on each other in their minimal interactions…but it would probably offend Eri if Chiyoko tried to explain that by responding to Katsumi's jabs the woman was essentially deigning to engage in a verbal war of attrition with a four year old.
Chiyoko rubbed her eyes, trying to ease her tension headache. She just wanted to grab her kid and go home, but Eri was going to drag this out and wouldn't be satisfied until she felt Chiyoko was enforcing some type of discipline appropriate to the infraction. And then she'd demand an apology, so Chiyoko cut to the chase. "What'd you say, Katsumi-chan?"
"Lots of stuff." Katsumi looked imperiously at her mother and gave a one-shouldered shrug as she soothed out the folds in her yukata. "But I think what made her mad was when I said that she had to have smart kids in order for 'smarting off in a household' to be possible."
Oh. Chiyoko blinked. It didn't help at all that Katsumi had quite excellent jabs, for a four year old. They'd be excellent for someone thrice her age, really.
Eri sniffed superiorly, before setting her glare on Chiyoko. "Your kid's a freak."
"Mommy—"Katsumi turned a wide green gaze on her mother as she was pulled back toward their home, her mother setting a hurried pace. "Mommy you slapped Aunt Eri!"
"I know," grumbled Chiyoko, feeling overwhelmed with guilt at what a bad example she was setting for her only child. "And then Mommy said that she was very sorry and she'll never do it again. It should never have happened. Mommy lost her temper and she's an adult and she knows better."
"But Mommy," Katsumi laughed, "Mommy it was awesome!"
"No!" Chiyoko felt stressed. The last thing she needed was for Katsumi to admire that behavior and start it herself. "Do as Mommy says, not as Mommy does." She paused when she realized how late it was and that they would need to stop and pick up dinner before heading home. "What are you hungry for, love?"
"Pocky!" Cheered Katsumi.
"That's not dinner food, Honey," chided Chiyoko, feeling the ache in her feet once more now that she was slowing down and the adrenaline was leaving.
"But Mommy," said Katsumi gravely. "I spent the afternoon with Aunt Eri. The deal is that when I stay with Aunt Eri, I get pocky after."
"Not today dear, I don't feel like either of us should be rewarded for good behavior tonight." She pulled her daughter toward a ramen stand. At least there would be vegetables.
"You didn't negotiate for good behavior Mommy." Katsumi looked at her mother speculatively. "That would cost more than pocky."
"No, Katsumi," Chiyoko put her foot down. Except, of course, this was Katsumi, so by the time she turned around from the counter with their orders, it was to see her daughter on a stool, addressing the rest of the attentive patrons.
"My parents argue about money, what do your parents argue about?" Announced the cheerful four year old to the restaurant.
"oh god," said Chiyoko in a small voice, feeling mortified.
"See, that's conditioning Mom," continued Katsumi, in between bites of noodles. "You break a deal and I behave badly as a result, and in the future you're less likely to break the deal."
"I think that's just called misbehaving," Chiyoko corrected wearily. Where was the chapter on this type of behavior in all those parenting books she'd read? "Where did you even learn about conditioning," Chiyoko muttered, exhausted and so glad to be home, finally.
"In the dictionary," piped Katsumi, stuffing her cheeks.
"Of course," sighed Chiyoko. "The dictionary."
"Yup." Katsumi licked her fingers, then popped to her feet and grabbed all the empty containers left over from the consumption of their take-home dinner. She took the garbage to the kitchen, reaching up on her tiptoes to push it all over the edge of the trashcan. Chiyoko sat on a cushion at the low dinner table. She watched her tiny daughter try to do all the same chores Eri assigned to her oldest son, even though she didn't yet have the reach and physical skill to accomplish them all. Sometimes it felt like Katsumi was in far too much of a hurry to grow up.
Chiyoko clapped her hands, bustling her daughter off for a bath and then getting her ready for bed.
"Are you still itching?" She asked her daughter as she placed the towel-wrapped child on her futon. She was already reaching for the newest salve before the girl answered affirmatively.
"Where does it itch?" Chiyoko unscrewed the lid of the small red jar, the scent of peppermint instantly emanating throughout the bedroom.
Katsumi scrunched up her small nose. "Everywhere."
"Everywhere, huh?" Chiyoko took a few minutes to examine her daughter's arms and legs. "I still don't see anything."
"It itches bad," was all Katsumi would say, sounding miserable.
"Is it getting worse or better?" Asked the older woman as she soothed the salve over her daughter's arms, rubbing it gently into the soft skin.
"No difference." Katsumi grumbled, happy once the routine was done and she could wiggle into her fresh nightgown and crawl under the covers. "Story first," demanded Katsumi, pointing at her bookshelf.
"I wouldn't dare skip it," agreed Chiyoko, walking over to her daughter's treasure trove, which the child kept in order by genre and author's last name. "What tonight? Should we finish the kitsune stories?"
"Yes," nodded the little girl seriously, damp brown curls clinging to her face. Katsumi pushed them impatiently away as her mother sat on the futon and curled around her, pulling the bookmark out and beginning to read. "There once was a white fox…"
All too soon, Katsumi's eyes closed and she couldn't open them again. Chiyoko finished the words of the last story and quietly slipped off the bed, putting the book back in its proper position on the shelf. Katsumi was a little obsessive about how she organized the bookshelf. If she woke up later and noticed the book on her nightstand, she'd get up and refuse to sleep until she'd confirmed that every book was in its proper spot.
Chiyoko walked back to the futon, tucking the covers in around the sleepy child and the girl's favorite stuffed animal. She leaned down and pressed her lips against the small forehead. "If you don't get better soon, we're probably going to have to take you to see a doctor," she murmured the words into her daughter's hair as she kissed the girl goodnight.
"Ok," said Katsumi with a yawn, curling up even tighter.
"Ok," agreed Chiyoko sadly, turning off the light and softly closing the sliding door as she left the room.
She walked back to the main living space, hand trailing along the wooden walls. The unexpected movement of shadows along the walls caused her to jump a bit, before she realized that the man waiting for her was her brother. He sat comfortably slouched on her cushions, sipping some tea he'd taken the liberty to make for himself.
"You scared me," she scolded, kneeling down on a cushion across the table.
"Sorry," her brother said low, smiling in apology. "I knew you'd be putting her to bed and I didn't want to wind her up again."
Chiyoko bit her lip. "Is this about me slapping Eri, 'cause I'm really sorry?"
Her brother waved her off. "If she asks yes, but not really. The boys told me what happened; they thought it was all pretty funny until Eri snapped. It sounded like it was a bit deserved."
Chiyoko let her shoulders relax. She was grateful she had a sibling who would always make sure his home was open to his niece, no matter how problematic that might be. "I'm so sorry, I know they just don't get along but if I could think of any other option—"
Hideki snorted. "Your kid would be causing trouble no matter who you left her with right now. But I actually came to tell you to be careful about leaving her with other people. You may want to start leaving her with Eri during the day instead of at that nursery. I know you're always working, but I've been hearing some stories…" He trailed off, looking uncomfortable, rubbing a hand against the back of his neck. He sighed. "Do you even know if…?"
Chiyoko stared at the floor, studying the familiar stains on the faded tatami mats. "No." She refused to look at her brother, and instead bit nervously at her fingernails. "I just worry because she's so smart, that's all."
"From what I hear that's all they'll need," agreed her brother flatly. He also seemed to find the floor fascinating this evening.
Chiyoko hissed. "But she's still so little—"
"Don't matter," her brother cut her off. "Not right now, not with the way the politics are playing out. They're starting them all now, starting them young. Just in case. I think they're hoping by the time things are bad, they'll have a good crop ready to go."
His sister made a pained noise. "Don't talk about them like that."
"That's all they are." Her brother said softly, drawing his finger around the edge of the teacup. "That's all they were. Jun is too old now, but Shinji and Nori—"
The two sat in silence for a few minutes, before Chiyoko broke it by rising. "I'm going to get some sleep," she said warily, patting her brother's shoulder as she walked past him. "You should too, we both have work in the morning. You should finish your cup and you can let yourself out."
"Be careful," he said expressionlessly, watching her leave the room.
"We always were," she called back, voice equally emotionless. Careful wouldn't be enough to keep them safe, in the end. It wasn't before, it wouldn't be now.
"Are we going to see Aunt Izumi?" Katsumi bounced next to her mother, impatient to go outside and see things. She didn't get to walk across town often.
"Hold still, Honey." Chiyoko mumbled around a mouthful of pastel ribbons. She finished putting in the last bobby pin and took them out of her mouth. "You were the one who wanted the ribbons in perfect, I can't do that if you are bouncing off the walls."
Katsumi sighed but stood obediently still as her mother finished putting her hair up. "I like matching," she said, holding up a mirror and watching her mother's confident fingers finish fixing her hair.
"All done," said Chiyoko, holding her hand out to her daughter with a grin. She knew better than to let Katsumi outside without a firm grip on her. The girl was easily distracted and not very in tune with her surroundings. She would bound in front of carts after butterflies if let loose. It was a childish tendency at odds with her verbal capabilities, but reassuring in its childishness nonetheless.
There weren't many people outside this early on a weekend morning, which meant that there were fewer things to attract Katsumi's attention. But it also meant that the girl felt more confident about asking questions.
"What's that?" pointed Katsumi at every corner, quickly followed by "what does that mean?" or "what does one do in a _."
Chiyoko was caught off guard when the subject matter of the questions changed.
"Who are they?" Katsumi to some drably dressed men with sturdy vests and boots.
Chiyoko stilled nervously. She hadn't seen that uniform in a while. Her eyes flickered to their foreheads. No hitai-ate…militia? Or purposefully unaffiliated?
Chiyoko pulled her rudely pointing daughter forward, thankful that the men were distracted by their own conversation.
"Mommy?" Katsumi repeated, more softly as they turned onto the next street.
Chiyoko forced herself to don an unconcerned smile. "Soldiers, Honey. Those were soldiers."
Katsumi looked confused.
Chiyoko stopped when she realized they'd walked three blocks and her daughter hadn't said a peep. "What's wrong, Love?"
Katsumi's mirror-green eyes met hers. "Nothing." Katsumi looked down at her sandals. "I just thought I'd seen them before, it was familiar—"
"You've probably seen the men before, but not the uniform." She pushed them forward again. If the men were militia, Katsumi had possibly seen them around town before—it was a large village, but not so large that you never came across a familiar face.
It was also an entirely civilian village. They didn't get many shinobi out here, not even Kusagakure shinobi, not really. No one would be shocked to see one, but a Kusa-nin would generally just be stopping through on an escort mission. They were close enough to the Hidden Village (or so she'd been told) that ninja didn't stop here to spend the night, they travelled straight home. And she'd been told that the Hidden Village had even more to offer entertainment-wise than the capital, so why would any of them be out here? No good reason, that's for sure.
Especially considering most of the population of this village enjoyed the separation from the shinobi. They didn't want them here, the shinobi had their own village; this one belonged to civilians. She wanted it to stay that way. She'd chosen this lifestyle and she'd never looked back. Not once. Not once except in one, tiny, supposedly insignificant moment. She looked down at her daughter as they neared the apothecary, glad her child wasn't looking back to take note of her mother's desperate gaze.
Izumi met them at the back entrance of the store, ushering them in and giving each a warm hug.
"I drew you a picture of a tapeworm." Katsumi held up her present proudly. "Mom helped with the labeling, 'cause my handwriting is still wobbly."
And isn't she so bitter about that? Chiyoko hid a smile behind her hand as Izumi admired the odd picture (which was admittedly quite well drawn, and accurate, for a four year old) and hung it on a fridge. A fridge that might actually house tapeworms, for all Chiyoko knew. She'd never bothered to ask what was kept in that fridge and now she'd probably be too terrified to ever open it.
"Good morning, Chiyo-chan," greeted Izumi's father, leaning heavily on his cane as Izumi directed Katsumi to sit on one of the two stools in the room. Chiyoko felt a bit silly that the old man still addressed her as if she were a child, but he and Izumi were the only two who did so anymore, so she supposed it was alright. (Her brother might call her that as well, if he was feeling sentimental).
Izumi was still technically her father's apprentice. It was a good arrangement, as due to her father's age, his own handwriting was shaky and either his wife or his daughter attended all his appointments to make notes of the meetings.
Generally, they just took notes for their own records and for the patient. But sometimes the government required certain information be reported for investigation. Chiyoko hadn't made a formal request, but she was hoping that if this exam revealed certain information, there would never be a record of any anomalies to be reported.
Izumi winked at Chiyoko over her clipboard.
Chiyoko tried to smile, but that was hard to do when one felt like one's breakfast was about to make an unwanted reappearance.
"So, Katsumi-chan, you're itching all over is that it?" He squinted at the child as he lowered himself onto the stool across from her. Katsumi nodded and he motioned her to hold out her arms. He rotated her wrists, examining her from head to toe and asking her to describe what she was experiencing.
Izumi was attentive, the scratch of her pen echoing in Chiyoko's mind as loudly as a clanging hammer.
The old physician brought out a tray of substances, applying some to her child's skin, testing to see if there were any allergies. Eventually, after receiving no reaction other than an occasional giggle when Katsumi exclaimed something was cold or ticklish, he sat back and scratched his head. "Well my dear, I suppose there is only one thing left to try then."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small square of paper. "Hold out your hand," he instructed.
Katsumi responded obediently and he placed the frail paper into the small palm.
Instantly, the paper split in two and fell to the scuffed tiles beneath the table.
"What-," Katsumi looked startled, confused. "What happened to the paper?"
"Nothing bad, dear, nothing bad," the elderly man rushed to reassure her. "Its just—"
"No." Chiyoko didn't realize she'd spoken at first. Didn't realize she was the panicky, illogical sounding woman rambling incoherently. "No, I don't—Just don't—"
The physician blinked at her in surprise, and gestured to his daughter to leave.
"Come on darling." Izumi scooped Katsumi up and carried her from the room. "Let's go have that quiz on tapeworms. Get everything right and I've got pocky!"
Chiyoko almost walked after her daughter anyway, drawn by the worried look her child was giving her over Izumi's shoulder.
Izumi's father caught her wrist. "Sit down dear."
Chiyoko closed her eyes, realized there were tears in the corner of them and hurried to brush them away. She took a minute to compose herself and then took her daughter's prior seat.
Earnest, familiar dark eyes gazed sympathetically at her. "You expected this, didn't you?"
Chiyoko realized she was worrying her hands and clasped them tightly together. "Yes," she said, voice coming out raspy and dry. "But she was miserable, and I was worried—"
"She'll be fine, just fine," assured the physician. "It's nothing to worry about. Some children are more sensitive than others to what—to what's going on inside those young bodies of theirs. She probably doesn't even realize she's doing it, but she's producing a lot of chakra trying to fight the itching she's feeling." He ignored her flinch. "Which, well, that just means that her chakra coils are developing correctly, as they should, there's nothing wrong with her."
He stroked his beard. "It is surprising that she's able to make so much of it for that tiny body of hers at the moment. But I don't believe she realizes what chakra is, and she's not actually doing anything with it once she's formed it. It's just building up, intensifying and prolonging that 'itching feeling' that she's complaining about. She's built up so much of it at the moment that she didn't even have to consciously expel the stuff when she touched that paper. It will all settle down soon enough and she won't be bothered anymore. Completely natural, nothing wrong at all. But it will probably happen on and off as she grows, until she learns to consciously control chakra production."
Chiyoko sniffed, trying to focus on finding a part of the problem she could solve. "Is there any way to stop the itching?"
"She could burn off the excess—but that would require her learning chakra exercises, which means shinobi training," said the old man gently. "But really, she's not going to be harmed by this, just annoyed. Any buildup will dissipate in time, and eventually her body will learn to regulate itself a bit better, even without any formal training."
"Good," said Chiyoko, voice growing strong again. "I'll just keep her busy; get her to focus on other things."
"That's a good plan," he nodded along. "But Chiyo-chan, they're going to know. That much chakra—they're going to see, it's only a matter of time. They have-there are people who can sense chakra. If she's already capable of generating this much, this young—"
She held a hand to her face. Deep down, she knew. She knew. But it was still—it sent her reeling to have it confirmed anyway. To really know that this moment was here. She'd fought so hard, so long, all her life to stay away. Going back down that road only led to sorrow, she knew.
"What am I supposed to do?" Her voice felt so small, so fragile. She could hear her daughter's laughter from the other room, knew the smile that would be accompanying it. But she couldn't draw enough energy to open her eyes at the moment and go into the other room, to acknowledge the change, to see the sympathy (empathy) in the eyes of the father of her closest friend.
"Only you have all the facts right now dear," he murmured. "They're going to come for her, but you decide how they find her. Who finds her."
He patted her knee and rose. "Come now." He held out his arm when she finally looked up. "Escort an old man to that lovely girl of yours, before my daughter fills her up with so much chocolate that you can't get her to sleep for twenty four hours."
It was late in the afternoon and Katsumi was smearing finger-paints across one of the canvasses Chiyoko had bought for her. "What happened with the doctor? Did he figure out why I'm itching?"
Chiyoko finished marking the spelling quiz in her lap, red ink bleeding through the pages onto the ones below it. She couldn't bring herself to worry about it too much this afternoon. "It's just growing pains. They'll go away in a few weeks." She took a sip of tea.
"Growing pains?" Katsumi looked back at her in disbelief. "I've been itching for weeks, growing pains?"
"Mmmmhhhmmm," hummed Chiyoko affirmatively. Because that was absolutely all she was willing to say on that matter.
Chiyoko watched her daughter sleep that night.
It was probably creepy, but she was going to have to make a decision soon. Whatever she chose might mean that nights like this, where her daughter slept peacefully in her own bed, were numbered.
The issue was, of course, that Chiyoko really did know who was the source of the problem, despite what she'd told her brother. Unfortunately, as she weighed her options, he was also probably the best solution.
She knew what happened to civilian children 'selected' for shinobi training during war time. She'd lost three of her four older brothers that way.
They had no advocates, no proper military sponsors like the civilians who were recruited by Kusagakure during peacetime received. They were completely exposed to one of the most brutal careers with the highest mortality rate. They were released onto the battlefield undertrained, undersupervised, unprotected.
They were slaughtered.
Chiyoko took a shuddering breath and leaned back against her daughter's bookshelf.
Not her brilliant little girl.
Chiyoko's greatest asset had always been her mind and now it was time to put it to good use. If her daughter was going to survive the next few years, she was going to need options. She was going to need an advocate. Someone already in and respected by the system that Chiyoko had worked so hard to keep her daughter hidden from.
Which meant she was going to have to get in touch with her daughter's father.
She didn't have enough curse words in her vocabulary to adequately express her displeasure with this concept.
Fortunately, while she hadn't seen him in over four years (and had been happy enough with the thought of never seeing him again) she did have an idea of how to get in touch with him.
She stayed late at Eri's after the next work day, much to the displeasure of both her sister-in-law and daughter. Making dinner on her own for the three boys and three women went a long way to soothing Eri's hurt feelings. Doing all the dishes and getting the boys into bed at a decent hour soothed the rest.
Eri was asleep in her own room and Katsumi was tucked in with her youngest cousin by the time Hideki got home.
He shook his mud-covered boots off outside, wandering into the kitchen with bare feet and bleary eyes and an aching, empty stomach.
She met him with his favorite dish.
"What?" He asked in surprise—she wasn't sure if it was at her presence or the food.
She waited until he'd sat down at the table and eaten a few bites. "I need you to write a letter."
He looked at her blankly, before wiping some curry from the corner of his mouth.
"I need you to write a letter to him," she repeated. "Because of Katsumi. I mean—" she paused, choked up. "Don't tell him about Katsumi, I'll do that. But I've got to see him; I have to talk to him about her."
Her brother finished his meal. Man of few words, he was. He wiped his mouth a final time and considered his youngest, and only living, sibling. "Because he's the only person you think of who might help," he asked, eyeing her carefully, looking for clues. "Or because he has a personal obligation to assist her?"
"Both," she said, cheeks pink. She felt more than a little embarrassed.
He stared at the table.
Chiyoko wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Goddammit." He finally said. "Go—I told you to stay away from him, I told you!"
"You did," agreed Chiyoko, tracing the grooves in the wooden tabletop that were probably made by Eri's nails.
He flung his napkin on the table and marched off in disgust, but he came back with a pen and paper.
Chiyoko let out a slow relieved breath, leaning over to rest her head on her arms as the soft scratching of pen and paper echoed in her ears.
Hideki knocked on her door a week and a half later.
Chiyoko slid it open cautiously, there were more militia in town every day now, and there were shinobi beginning to appear as well. She kept Katsumi inside and was beginning to think that if war ever happened, she couldn't be more terrified than she was when she took her daughter to and from the nursery every day. It was only a matter of time before her daughter attracted attention from some type of sensor-nin.
She rubbed at the dark circles around her eyes and backed into the entryway when she realized it was her brother. He stepped inside, but didn't change his shoes.
She was having dreams where she tucked Katsumi in at night, and her daughter was gone from the bed in the morning. Instead of a small body in the nest of blankets there would only be a note from Kusagakure. She'd wake struggling to breathe, tangled up in her sheets and unable to relax. She'd go slip into bed with her daughter for the rest of the night, knowing that if they really wanted to take her, not even holding her child in her arms would keep her safe.
"He's here," Her brother looked at her solemnly. "I'm supposed to meet him at the Iron Horse in thirty minutes."
She wrinkled her nose. "That's a—"
He snorted. "I warned you, you're the one who—"
"Enough," she slapped his shoulder gently. "This is why I never told you. I knew you'd never leave off, and it was only one time. It was the only time, ever," she added darkly, kicking some slippers at her brother. He took the hint and bent down to change his shoes.
"Well," he muttered. "You sure know how to pick 'em."
"On that we can both agree," she said, pinning her hair up quickly and checking her reflection in a mirror she's hung on the wall.
"How do you want to handle this?" Hideki paused, holding a boot. "I could go get him and bring him here."
"No." She shook her head. "I still haven't decided if—" She stopped, not wanting to finish the sentence.
"'s fine." Her brother straightened, brushed some dirt from his sleeves. "I'll watch her 'till you get back."
She grabbed her purse, pausing to kiss her brother on the cheek. "Thanks." She turned to yell in the direction of her daughter's room. "Katsumi-chan, I have to go run an errand. Your Uncle is going to watch you for a few minutes."
Katsumi poked her head around out of the hallway, from where she'd most likely been eavesdropping on the conversation.
Her brother snorted, folding his arms. "Read me a book?" Which was about as friendly an overture as he ever made to any child.
Katsumi considered him, head tilted to the side in thought. "That is acceptable." She disappeared to get a book and her brother slumped down onto a cushion, poking at the remnants of their dinner.
They'd be fine.
She heard him, before she saw him.
He had one of the loudest laughs of any man alive, more like a bellow really.
When she entered the—bar, which was a generous description for the establishment, she didn't need to be directed toward his booth. She turned the corner and there he was, not even trying to be inconspicuous or go incognito or any of those ninja-y things that ninja did when they didn't want to be noticed. Which they usually didn't, because they were ninja.
She supposed that didn't apply to super ninja or something.
She was very nervous. She could feel her palms sweating and she tried to wipe them on her dress.
She was going to vomit.
No she wasn't.
Yes she was.
She could do this. She could do this for Katsumi.
Although, standing against the wall and watching two scantily clad women drape themselves over him wasn't reassuring her at all that she'd made the correct choice for her daughter's future.
Deep breath, Chiyoko. She started walking toward him.
He wasn't that handsome. Or charming, even, not really. She had no feelings for him.
She'd been young, and drunk, and curious.
And he'd been tipsy, and responsive, and present.
And he knew her favorite literary authors, and could hold a decent conversation about them. Which was apparently novel enough to get her into bed after three glasses of whatever it was she'd ordered that night. She would've never guessed she'd be that easy; it was the very good reason underlying her decision to never have more than one glass of alcohol on any occasion.
And he'd certainly had no qualms about any of his behaviors, neither that night nor the morning after.
As for her…well, she'd really been too drunk to remember much of it. But she remembered waking up, and she remembered realizing just who she'd slept with and all the implications that had. She kept remembering it every day for the past four years, every moment since she spent a week straight unable to keep down oatmeal and vomiting into a wastebasket she still couldn't look at without feeling nauseas.
She didn't expect him to remember her (it wasn't like he'd been carting around permanent evidence of that night for the past four and a half years), so it wasn't too surprising when she finally reached him and was completely ignored.
She cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Jiraiya-sama."
His gaze flickered to her briefly, and she could see him dismissing her just as quickly.
Admittedly, she wasn't dressed to compete with his current entertainment. Not that she wasn't pretty, she was…er, she just wasn't on display like, well that, at the moment. And wasn't planning to be. This was strictly a no alcohol night.
"Jiraiya-sama," she repeated. "I need to talk with you."
"Just a moment, Gorgeous," he said in a low voice to the giggling girl on his lap as he pushed her back a few inches.
"Yes?" He grinned up at her.
She gripped her purse tightly, resisting the impulse to whack him. "I'm the one you're supposed to meet tonight, we need to talk."
He furrowed his brow. "No, I'm waiting for—"
"Hideki-kun," she finished his sentence. "He wrote to you for me. I'm the one who needs to talk to you."
He gave a dramatic, forlorn sigh and the women slipped away from him, freeing up the seats in his booth. "Sorry girls," he said mournfully. "Duty calls, but come back and check on me, alright?"
One of the girls actually giggled as he pinched her ass when she left, and Chiyoko wanted to slap them both. She felt ridiculously out of place, a schoolteacher in a—this was all the stupid PTA would be talking about next week, she just knew it. She slipped into the recently vacated seat and faced the man she'd asked her brother to summon.
"So," the shinobi drawled, taking a sip of his drink. "Ms.-?"
"Chiyoko. Kinoshita Chiyoko," she said, trying to keep her voice steady and not understanding why she suddenly wanted to burst into tears.
Jiraiya seemed to feel equally uncomfortable with her temperament.
"Can I get you a drink—"
"NO!" She yelled, probably a bit louder than socially acceptable, judging by the mildly alarmed look on the man's face.
"That's fine!" He held up his hands disarmingly. "That's fine, you don't have to drink!"
"Ok," she said in a small voice, trying to get herself back under control. Maybe the better idea would be to get him talking. She wasn't sure, she just, she needed—"can you tell me about Konoha's shinobi school?" She blurted out.
He furrowed his brow. "The Academy?"
"If that's what it's called." She flexed her fingers nervously. "The ninja academy in Konoha, what is it like—for its' students, for civilians who enter to train there?"
He looked a bit worried. "They don't take adult-"
"That's not—" she shook her head. "Just, is it safe? Are the students happy?"
Jiraiya set his drink down, looking perturbed. "What's this about Kinoshita-san?"
"Can't you just—"answer me, she felt so aggravated. So upset. This was the man she was thinking about giving her child to? How was this going to be any better than Kusagakure shinobi taking her child?
"I have a team." Jiraiya said suddenly, saying they words as if they were a peace offering, as if he sensed her desperation and frustration. "They're like my family, my sisters and brothers. My student is like my son. Konoha ninja are a family, they take care of their own."
She felt herself relax a bit. "And is each one important? Is each life important?" This was probably such a naïve question, but she felt like she had to ask it. Felt like she had to try to find someone who would reassure her that her child would be looked after, wasn't just going to be lost in a crowd of children, sacrificed to the vicious, insatiable greed of an older generation.
"Yes," said Jiraiya gravely. "In Konoha, we see the children as our future. Each one is important. If we don't take care of them, we wouldn't have a village in a few years now, would we?"
Ok. That was good. That was helpful. Better. No Kusa-nin would say that, not right now. Not with the grim future for which they were preparing.
"Ok." She felt dazed, numb.
Was she really going to do this?
She licked her lips.
If she didn't—She'd regret it in the morning. He'd leave, without the girl, without—
"You said your student was like your son," she looked up suddenly, focusing on him. He was staring straight back at her, dark eyes thoughtful, concerned. "Would you, if someone threw him into a situation he wasn't trained for, which he probably wouldn't survive, would you intervene?"
Jiraiya shrugged casually, grinning. "There's not much he couldn't take on nowadays. He's full grown and pretty damn good. But if I knew that—he was likely to get his fool ass killed," he sobered. "Yeah, I'd jump in and save the idiot."
Well, then. She probably couldn't get better than that. She certainly wasn't going to get that here in Kusagakure.
She rose, brushing invisible crumbs off her skirt.
"Oh, hey," blinked Jiraiya in surprise. "That's it? Where are you going?"
"We're going on a walk," she said numbly, gesturing for him to get up. "Come with me please."
Bemused, Jiraiya rose to his feet and followed her.
"You alright?" He asked idly, as they left the noise of the red light district and set out on a main road toward the residential area.
"I'm fine, why?" She looked over at him as they walked.
"Just wondering why you're acting like you're making a death march, that's all."
She scowled and quickened her pace.
He laughed at her. "Your ass looks really familiar from back here, are you sure we haven't met before?"
Her spine straightened and she walked faster.
When she got to the house, she was a good bit ahead of Jiraiya. She could hear him following her, humming some strange tune. She stomped up her porch and slid open the door, not too surprised to find her brother passed out on the floor, snoring loudly.
She was surprised to find Katsumi at the table, dressed in a nightgown but happily entertaining herself with a coloring book and sipping at chocolate milk.
"Oh, Honey!" Her shoulders slumped as she addressed her child. "You know you're not supposed to have chocolate milk this late!" She was never going to get her to bed now.
Katsumi blinked up at her innocently and opened her mouth to respond. When she snapped it shut in shock, green eyes wide, Chiyoko knew Jiraiya had entered the house behind her.
That didn't explain why the shock quickly morphed into a look of complete betrayal and anger.
"Katsumi-chan?" Chiyoko asked her daughter, ignoring her guest out of concern for her daughter.
"Oh, hey kid." Jiraiya greeted the girl with a grunt and a wave.
Katsumi hopped off her chair and put her hands on her hips, looking at the two up and down from head to toe, face scrunched up in a strange expression, as if she was on the verge of tears.
"I don't—" Jiraiya looked frantically at the befuddled Chiyoko. "What'd I do?"
Chiyoko took a step toward her daughter, but the girl backed away.
"You could have told me," said the tiny girl, voice quaking in anger. "That I misfiled the geography book in the fiction section!" She hissed and spun on her heel, stalking off to her room and slamming the door shut so hard the glass panes rattled.
"Wow," Jiraiya said slowly, blinking and scratching his cheek as Hideki continued to snore away on the floor, oblivious to the entire situation.
"Dramatic little thing isn't she?" Jiraiya said with a whistle.
Chiyoko's head turned sharply toward the man as she scowled. "Yes," she agreed. "And now I know exactly who she gets it from!"
"Oh?" Jiraiya asked, still distracted by the loud thuds coming from the small child's room.
It took him a minute to register the look that he was getting from the pretty petite brunette woman in the room with him. He rewound his mind through the past half hour of conversation and froze.
"Oh, no." He said, black eyes wide, head shaking back and forth.
"We need to talk," sighed Chiyoko, gesturing politely to an empty cushion next to her snoring brother.