Trigger Warning: In later chapters of this fic, there will be some content that might be triggering for people who deal with dissociation and dissociative episodes, so please read with care. This is a fic that deals heavily in the theme of identity and has points where it can become intense. If this will be something that will make you uncomfortable or be difficult for you to read, please click off now.
A second warning will be posted above the chapter where this content begins.
Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.
Haruko hums to herself as she waits for the teacher to take her spot at the front of the room.
It's a disjointed little tune, one that she makes up as she goes, but she likes how it sounds and she doesn't staunch the volume of it, even if it means the seat beside her remains vacant. She sits alone in most of her classes anyways, has been since they started their classes a couple of weeks ago, and she doesn't see why the kunoichi classes would be any exception.
She taps a bare foot against the wooden floors and sways in her seat, following the gentle beat of her own tune. Waist-length black locks swish against the back of her seat as she moves. She lets her lips lift up into a serene smile that multiple people have told her is unnerving.
All around the room, girls have their hands raised to their mouths but none of them fully mask the sounds of their whispers, passed between each other like candy. Words are met with giggles and condescending stares. Eyes are averted. Backs are turned to her.
Haruko catches it all.
"What a weirdo."
"Her brother's weirder."
"Her brother? No way—their dad is the biggest weirdo."
"Dad said that I gotta avoid 'em both."
Haruko ignores it all.
Judgement, cruelty, and assumptions—five-year-olds are the masters of all three. Children are like miniature drunkards. Too young to have a filter, too young to know what snakes slither from their mouths and sink their poisoned fangs into the unfortunate recipient at each offhand comment. Young and ignorant in the worst way possible. They'll learn, one day. Haruko doesn't listen to it in the meantime; poisons are her pleasure and she's plenty resistant already.
A woman strides into the room and stops to stand in front of her desk. The room falls into a hush at her presence.
Haruko quits her humming. She slips her feet back into her sandals and smooths down the skirt of her pink and green floral dress. It's her favourite dress. Soft pink with green, leafy details that wind along the length of it. The best part of being a child again is that all of the clothing is so adorable and sweet, especially when she shops in the civilian parts of the village. The ninja clothes, even for children, are dreadfully practical and boring, single colours and made of functional material instead of comfortable cotton. What a yawn. Haruko takes the flashy vibrancy and overt girliness any day.
The woman, who Haruko assumes is their teacher, is on the younger side, with blonde hair a bit past her shoulders and olive-green eyes that sit behind the cover of glasses. She wears a traditional kimono, the colour of it a mossy green that compliments the hues of her eyes and skin and hair all in one fell swoop, and has half of her hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head while the rest sits loose. She smiles at them—it's a good smile, the kind that disarms and calms, could assure a person of their safety even as the tip of a kunai dug into the delicate skin of their back.
Well, Haruko thinks, this woman certainly knows what she's doing.
She finds comfort in that.
"Hello, girls," she says. Her voice is controlled and softer than a summer breeze. "What a pleasure to meet you all. My name's Nonou Yakushi, and I'm the kunoichi class teacher here at the Academy."
"Hello, Miss," the class chants.
Haruko tilts her head and watches the woman move behind her desk in measured movements. Nonou reaches down to pull a clipboard from her bag. "I'll start by taking attendance."
Each time a name is called, Haruko sees a hand go up and a high-pitched voice chimes in, "Present!"
Haruko considers mimicking the rest of the girls. "Hello," she says instead and raises her hand in a wave.
The girls break out in giggles, as if Haruko has done a woefully idiotic thing. How silly of her to answer in a way other than them. What is she thinking? What a loser.
She notices Nonou watch her with interest for a second before ticking something off on her clipboard. "Thank you."
Nonou breaks them up into groups after she finishes attendance and gives each of them a vase of flowers to arrange however they please. The girls crowd around their tables, squeezing in so as to avoid anybody having to sit with Haruko.
This way, Haruko has her own vase to arrange entirely as she pleases.
She starts to hum again and picks at the flowers. She changes their places with no particular goal in mind other than to make it look nice—she knows nothing about flower arranging. All she knows are complimentary colours. For a kunoichi, flower arranging is more significant: kunoichi use flowers as one uses pen and paper to pass messages. Haruko thought of taking out a book or two on the subject, but ultimately didn't bother. She's glad she left it; if she already knew how to do it, the fun of the class would be ruined.
Nonou visits her table before the rest of the girls. She slides into the seat across from Haruko and settles her hands in front of her. She observes at first, her expression clean of anything besides a polite curiosity. That stretches on for a couple of minutes.
Finally, she asks, "What song is that?"
"It's a lullaby," Haruko says.
"Yep," she answers. "My mom used to sing it to me before she died."
Nonou blinks and Haruko gets a sense of satisfaction at the off-balance look that slips onto her face before Nonou schools it out. "Is it, now?"
Haruko giggles, an airy noise that resembles tinkling bells. "Not really, no," she says. Nonou shifts. Haruko waits a second. "My mother died giving birth to me, so I never heard her sing any lullabies. I'm just making it up."
Nonou hides her unease this time around, if she feels any. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"S'okay. I've got dad and Gai, so I'm not lonely," Haruko says as she places a carnation amongst a cluster of colourful tulips. She fluffs up the flowers. "And dad always says mom watches over us from up in the sky."
"I agree with him," Nonou says. "Your mother, I'm sure, is very proud of you."
Haruko makes a little noise of agreement and nods her head. She grabs for a cream gardenia that matches the accents in Nonou's kimono. "Yeah." She sticks her chubby fist out to give the flower to Nonou.
Nonou takes it, her gaze cutting from the flower to Haruko in a type of sharpened attention that contradicts the otherwise unbothered expression on her face. "Thank you."
The makeup and kimono come out after this. Again, limited sets of makeup, though there is one kimono for each of them. Nonou gives them half an hour and tells them to dress how they would if they were going to an event with nobility present.
Haruko tosses on the kimono with a bit of care but doesn't worry over the exact details. She sees the other girls helping each other get them on, which Haruko assumes was the intent of giving them to kids who can't possibly get them on alone—see who flocks to help who, who seems to help everybody, who gets left out in the cold.
Nonou is making the most of the two hours she has with them.
Haruko decides to make herself up like the prostitutes she saw when she and Gai accidentally wandered into the wrong side of the village one day. With her abysmal skills the resemblance is pitiful, at best, but Haruko gets a kick out of the end result.
"Which lord are you hoping to impress with that look?" Nonou asks her.
"A rich one," Haruko answers.
"Rich lords tend to prefer proper ladies with a more subtle approach to makeup."
"Not if I'm a hooker." At Nonou's silence, Haruko says, "You didn't tells us we had to pretend to be nobility."
"Yes… I suppose I didn't."
Out of the corner of her eye, Haruko watches Nonou retreat from the table.
A timer up at the front dings once thirty minutes pass. Haruko's reflection in the mirror is equal parts clown, cheap prostitute, disaster whose power was out that morning and had to apply their makeup in the dark, and all hilarity. Haruko thinks it's perfect.
Now in their clothes and with their faces done up, Nonou turns on some music and lets the girls dance up in the middle of the room one by one.
This is where Haruko truly feels in her element.
She stands up in the middle of the circle and lets the rhythm of the music, the piano and the flute and the beats of silence, seep into her bones. Memories of standing in front of a crowd of thousands, center stage, lights on her and the same type of soft music at her back, engulf her mind. Haruko is certain she lost a few pieces of herself between her old body and this one, but her love of dance and music remained intact.
Haruko moves in an odd mishmash of what she remembers her body doing and what she's seen the women in this world do. It comes out a bit awkward and stilted with her young limbs, but that's to be expected. She'll train some grace into it yet.
Nonou dings a chime to mark the end of Haruko's time with the music. Haruko rights herself and gives a short bow to the other girls. Surprise is written over most of their faces.
"Thank you, Haruko," Nonou says. She checks her list. "Haruna, it's your turn."
When the music stops for good, Nonou ushers all of them together and helps get their makeup and kimonos off. It's a slow process that takes up the rest of their time in the class.
One of the other girls comes over to Haruko when they've been dismissed. She looks relatively normal, with a bit of a plain face and unassuming clothes. Brown eyes, brown hair pulled into two pigtails. She's the kind of girl who could walk into a crowd of people and disappear without any struggle.
"Hi," Haruko says to her.
"Uhm… hey." The girl scuffs her foot against the ground. "I thought your dancing was real cool."
"Thank you," Haruko says. She examines the girl a bit more closely. "That's a pretty necklace."
The girl reaches up and clasps a hand around the silver heart pendant. "Really?"
"Yeah. I like hearts."
That gets a toothy grin. "My name's Mari."
"Cool. I gotta go, mom's here, but I'll see you tomorrow!"
Haruko waves goodbye to Mari and gathers her things.
The walk home from the Academy isn't long, and Haruko sees it as an opportunity to bask in the wonderful weather.
The sky is dimmed by clouds and a light shower falls around her. Rivulets of water trace the bare skin of her arms. The moisture creates a spotted pattern on her dress and gets between her toes, the water splashing up through her sandals anytime she steps in a puddle, which she goes out of her way to do.
The village streets are largely empty. People retreat into their homes at the first signs of rain. Without them, the only whispers Haruko hears are those of the rain making acquaintance with the ground.
Haruko loves rain. Rain brings with it life and renewal. It's a treat she normally only gets to experience during the spring, and she considers herself lucky for getting out of class in time to walk home in it. She misses it when it's gone, which is the majority of the year. Fire Country spends most of its time under the scorching reign of the sun.
She aimlessly wanders around the village for a couple of hours. Whatever catches her fancy she goes to explore, be it a new store opening or a cat scurrying along into an alley that Haruko decides she wants to pet.
She sees no reason to rush home because she already knows that an empty house is all that'll greet her when she returns. Gai and Dai are going to be training. They didn't say it, but it's an obvious thing, especially since Gai was pushed through into the Academy after failing the entrance exams.
It's not until Haruko realizes she's shivering that she walks the path that leads her back to the tiny house the three of them have shared for years. It's a charming thing. One floor. Painted all white along the outside with only two windows, both of which look out into the backyard instead of the front of the house, and some square-shaped brown panelling. There's no porch to speak of, just a three-foot-long stone path to the door that carves through the grass. It's the only house Haruko's ever had in this life.
Haruko walks in and sets her bag on the ground. She dries her feet on the mat and trades her sandals for slippers, but only for so long as it takes her to walk through the living room to the backyard. She wants to see her garden.
Most of their backyard is converted into her garden. She grows most anything in there, from vegetables to poisonous plants to flowers. The vegetables go in their meals, but the poisonous plants have about as much use as the flowers—sit there and look pretty. She might do something with them. One day. Until then, Dai, bless his soul, will continue to comment on the weeds scattered among her garden.
She checks over the garden. Some of the summer plants are beginning to go out of bloom and wither, but that's to be expected. She can't do anything to stop that, unless she learns how to dictate the change of the seasons, which, as far as she knows, isn't an ability one can have, not even in a world as extravagant as this. Satisfied, Haruko goes back inside and changes into dry clothes, a skirt and matching flowy blouse.
She gets a book and settles down on the couch in the living room to wait for her brother and father to come home.
Haruko often thinks that she couldn't have been reborn into a better family. They're an odd bunch, and for that reason, Haruko fits right in. When Haruko meets people unaccompanied by her family, some don't realize the relation at first—while she and Gai are twins, with an uncanny physical resemblance, she was named for her mother while Gai was named for their father. It was fitting in the end. Gai got their father's lack of skill with chakra control and Haruko got their mother's chakra prowess.
Dai trained Gai to follow his footsteps since they could walk. He trained with Haruko, when she wanted, but not in the way that he trained with Gai, and that was fine with Haruko. Taijutsu wasn't of any particular interest to her. Neither was ninjutsu, her mother's specialty. She liked genjutsu. It was hard for her to get her hands on books that talked about it, but she finangled her way into getting a couple. One of them is open in her lap.
It's an Academy text, given out to students in their final years of study, that goes into a bit of detail around the theory of genjutsu. Haruko can't understand half of what the text is saying but she likes reading it nonetheless.
Gai and Dai get home after dark.
Haruko ends up making dinner, a basic pork-fried rice with eggs on top. A pink stool stays in the kitchen for whenever Haruko cooks dinner, which is often, considering Dai isn't much of a cook and Gai spends more time at the training grounds than at home.
Dai raised them on a diet of takeout and rice. Haruko and Gai began to fix that as soon as possible, though the effort is more Haruko's than Gai's because Gai is an actual five-year-old who can't necessarily focus his mind or control his movements enough to cook a meal without disaster. Haruko herself isn't much of a cook, but in their house she's the best and so the meal responsibilities mostly fall on her shoulders.
She has it all set up on the table by the time they walk through the door. She hears the raucous laughter and the house's walls shake when the front door slams open.
Dai sees her and his face lights up. "Haruko! My dearest daughter!"
"Hi, dad," she says.
"Haruko! My dearest sister!"
Haruko wonders if there'll ever come a day where they don't greet each other this way.
Both of them run over and crush her in a hug. Dai falls to his knees and pulls her into his chest, and Gai comes around the back to wrap his arms around the both of them, his head on her shoulder. She's taller than him, always has been.
They both smell awful.
"Dinner's on the table," she says, her voice muffled.
"Dinner!" Gai cheers.
"Sustenance!" Dai cheers.
They both let her go and the smell blissfully disappears.
"With egg!" Dai cries. "What a wonderful, balanced meal! Full of protein!"
She takes the empty seat at the table and tucks into her own plate. "The pot on the stove's full of it, too."
There's silence while Dai and Gai scarf down their first plate of food, and only once they've licked them clean and gotten a second serving does the conversation pick up.
"So, Haruko," Dai says. "How were your classes today?"
"Fun," she answers.
"Did you make friends?"
Dai grinned. "How wonderful!"
"Her name's Mari," Haruko says. "I met her during the kunoichi classes. She's in Gai's class, I think."
"Yes! Mari!" Gai says. "She's nice!"
"Yeah." Haruko pokes Gai with her bunny slippers. "How about you?"
What ostracization Haruko experiences is less severe than what Gai gets from the people around him, she knows that. Gai dresses like their father. Gai fights like their father. Gai acts like their father. It's inevitable that Gai gets the brunt of the disdain that the village feels for their father.
"Ah. My day was fine."
"Did you talk to that white-haired boy?"
"Kakashi, my rival," Gai says. He nods. His expression is now fully serious, as it always goes whenever the topic of Kakashi comes up. "Yes."
Gai taps his chin thoughtfully. "I challenged him to a match of kunai throwing again. He declined."
Dai claps a hand down against the table. Before his palm can make contact, Haruko lifts up her bowl to avoid having the contents spilled all over her lap. Gai isn't as lucky—not that he notices, his attention pinned to their father. "You must be persistent!"
"Yes! One day, he will accept your challenge, and you can prove yourself to him!"
Haruko takes a bite of her rice. "Or you could lull him into a false sense of security by not saying anything to him for the next week. That way, when you challenge him again, he won't be expecting it and he might accept out of sheer surprise."
Dai and Gai stare at her. Haruko shrugs.
"Never!" Gai says. He slams a fist down on the table. "I will make him agree, fair and square!"
"Yes, that is the way my son!"
They finish up dinner and Haruko does the dishes. Dai and Gai offer to help, as they always do, but one too many dishes have become casualties to their over excitement and if she let them help each time they offered, they'd be replacing the dishes every few weeks.
The evening is the only time their household falls into any semblance of calm. They sit down and do their bookwork, and Dai helps where he can. When the homework is done Gai and Dai take up another round of exercises in the living room while Haruko reads, sews, or lays on her back and stares up at the ceiling, pondering her existence as an insignificant speck in an ocean of stars. On nice nights she'll go out for a walk.
Haruko walks over to a safe place in the living room, on a rug and out of the way of Gai and Dai, and lays down on her back. Their ceiling is made of the same wood as the rest of the house. She can hear the rain above pound against it.
Tonight is a nice night.
Haruko picks herself up off of the ground and walks over to the door.
"Where… are you… going?" Dai asks her between pushups.
"Out. Gonna go for a walk."
"Exercise!" Dai cries. "Wondrous!"
"Uh huh. Back in a bit."
Haruko grabs her cat umbrella from beside the door and goes out on an adventure. She doesn't bother with shoes. She wants to feel the water, cold and fresh, on the soles of her feet with each step she takes through the village.
The moon shines through a black sky. Bright, reflected in the puddles on the ground that dip and shake with the force of raindrops falling into them. The air is crisp.
Haruko twirls the umbrella as she walks the village streets. She heads towards one of the parks by their house and hums under her breath. The beat of it matches the pace of her gait. She prances along, adds in skips and twirls, her pleated purple skirt swishing around at all of the movement. What few people are out take the time to stop and stare at her as she passes. She gives them a smile for their trouble.
A bridge that crawls over a gentle river is her ultimate destination, hidden in the depths of the park. Haruko comes here a lot. It's a comfortable place. Not a lot of people know it exists. She hops up onto the railing and kicks her heels against it, eyes on the river. Haruko drops the umbrella down onto the bridge behind her.
The rain pitters against her skin and her hair and her soul.
Sometimes, when the world around her doesn't seem quite so real, the feel of water on her skin is all that can remind her that she's alive.