A/N: Hi! I thought I'd take a minute to say first:
This story features child neglect, abuse, and a generally complicated mother-daughter relationship.
If that kind of thing is too difficult for you to read, I recommend you sit this story out, because it's going to be a pretty prominent theme. I will try to post heads-ups at the start of each chapter in which abuse or neglect occurs so you're warned in advance. Let me know if there is anything else that you'd like me to warn about too.
Please take care of yourselves!
Nothingness had been my companion for so long that when giant hands enveloped me and pulled me straight from it, I scarcely remembered how to be. Ripped away from the comforting dark and thrust into the brightest light that I had ever seen, it was no wonder that I screamed the way I did. My ears throbbed from a cacophony of sound hitting them as if they were hearing for the first time. I screamed harder, screwing my eyes shut tightly, but the backs of my eyelids weren't enough against this incomprehensible brightness. On top of it all, I felt a thrumming pulse around me, or maybe a thousand thrumming pulses, a sensation that was so entirely new and intense and awe-inspiring that all I could react with was pure terror.
It dawned on me faintly that I was not the only one screaming, until I was tugged the rest of the way from my cocoon and the other voice gave way to sobs. The giant hands stroked my brow and I became aware of gentle murmuring all around me. I quieted, trying to make out what they were saying, but it was gibberish to me. I strained my ears and could soon tell that, though it wasn't a language I could understand, it was somewhat familiar. I had heard it before, hadn't I?
A sharp pain at my midsection tore my attention away. I thrashed desperately at the hands but the being (deity?) merely giggled at me and carried me to the weeping woman.
As I was transferred into a strong set of arms, I gingerly opened my eyes to observe my captor. I was met with an enormous, tear-streaked face looming over mine, and perhaps it was because I hadn't seen another person in so long, but in that moment the radiant, faintly tremulous smile she sent me was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I tried to tell her so, but all that left me was a whimper. My tongue was like lead in my mouth and my vocal cords were ravaged.
The woman didn't seem surprised by this, however. She shushed me and drew me close, and I was struck with the same comfort that had existed in the void I had left. My eyelids drooped as she pressed a soft kiss to my brow and though I was falling asleep alarmingly quickly, I wasn't worried. I knew that this woman would do whatever was in her power to keep me safe.
"What will you call her?"
I paused at the question. I'd never expected to make it this far. Every day of this had been a step in an uphill climb, every night a triumph. I had come so far for this moment and yet had failed to imagine it.
I glanced outside my window, observing the last pink vestiges of the sunset glinting off the snow, and reflected idly on the omen. Anyone I knew would say that it was bad luck to be born at sunset. The life of the child would be plagued with endings instead of beginnings, and far too few opportunities to build from. I smiled wryly.
"It's a good time for a birth, isn't it?"
I looked up sharply at the medic. She had spoken offhandedly, but the contradiction with my own thoughts struck me.
"What do you mean?"
She looked up from her work and gave me a warm smile. For a moment I was tempted to discount her words when I saw it. This woman may have been older than me, but in many ways I could see that she was just a child, really, someone who knew nothing of the world outside this village.
"Well," the medic mused, straightening, "this winter has been unusually cold, but it's almost over. You can tell because the plum trees are blossoming even in this frost." She gestured at the view outside. "They say that a child born in spring will always have a fruitful life."
I leaned back and mulled this over. "Even in this frost," I repeated. I looked down at the child. It had been so long since I'd dared to hope.
"…I want to name her Baika," I whispered, tightening my hold on my daughter. "My little blossom."
The confusion of existence began to sort itself out over time, although it seemed like an age. My senses dulled, or rather I grew used to having them again, and I found myself able to perceive the world with a clarity I never had before. Part of that came from the newness of my body. My skin was more sensitive than it ever had been and my eyes and ears keener. I knew it was also due to an extra sense that I had gained. It was tricky to understand, let alone describe. Of my other five senses, it was the closest to touch, but it would be better to call it an awareness. Every living thing blazed around me, and while it wasn't unpleasant, I had no idea what was happening to me. It took a while to move on from the difficulty of that fact and to accept it, but the revelation that I was an infant dwarfed it so completely that I managed soon enough.
'This isn't how it should be.'
I knew this because this wasn't how it always had been. I could recall a different body with poorer sight and more aches, a spine that hurt from too much time hunched over desks and one hand that hadn't closed into a proper fist since I'd punched a wall and broken it long ago. This hand made a fist easily, though, and in those early days I spent a surprising amount of time flexing it and staring at it in wonder.
This body was often a little too warm. It was fine in the beginning, but it wasn't long until the weather began to heat up and I found myself kicking off the blankets at night covered in sweat. I wasn't alone in this; though she bore it well, when she came in the door my mother immediately stripped and changed into loose, lightweight clothes that most other people in the village would have shivered just to look at. The first time she took me with her for a walk outside, I was dismayed to learn that it was still spring, and immediately thought that summer was going to be miserable.
I was proven right.
It was only a matter of time until I saw my reflection. My mother carried me into the bathroom to wash me and held me up to the mirror beside her own grinning face, making silly expressions to amuse me.
Even knowing that I wouldn't see what I was used to, I subconsciously expected a tall girl with dark curls and green eyes and tan skin. Blinking my brown eyes at my tiny form and the shock of light hair atop my disproportionately huge baby head was disconcerting the first time.
I started to get used to my new reflection soon, however, sooner than I would have thought.
I didn't know how to feel about that.
It occurred to me that I hadn't just woken up like this one day. I could still recall the state of not being, the state of nothingness that I had enjoyed for what felt like a long, long time. To have reached that nothingness, though, I knew something must have happened. I hadn't just appeared in the void.
When I thought about it for a moment, I knew that I must have died.
Although really, I supposed that I'd always known that. I wasn't realizing it so much as acknowledging it for the first time.
What I did realize was that I didn't remember it. I didn't know how it had happened. I knew that I had been twenty-three, no less healthy than any other out-of-shape artist I knew, and living a very low-risk lifestyle. It would have been some accident or something, probably.
Every time I thought too much about it, though, I felt myself hitting a mental wall. Something telling me 'You don't want to go here.'
I listened to it.
(It wasn't the first time I had felt something like that. I had noticed something odd that first time walking around outside. Over the rooftops, I could just barely see carved faces in the mountainside, looking out over the village. Something about them itched at the back of my mind in recognition. I ignored the feeling.)
One night I woke to my mother thrashing in her sleep like she was being assaulted on all sides. The air was heavy, my extra sense drowning from some enormous presence in the room. It pressed against the walls of the apartment like it was trying desperately to escape, and I could hardly breathe. I frantically looked around for someone—something—that could be emitting it but I saw that the room was empty except for the two of us. Mother whimpered, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes, and the very air trembled in time with her weeping.
On noticing this, I hesitated. 'Is it coming from her?'
I reached up with a weak arm, gently pressed my tiny hand to her face, and began to stroke it. She twitched but didn't squirm away, the threatening aura freezing in place as if from indecision. My clumsy hands did their best to smooth her blond hair away from where it was plastered to her forehead. She shuddered and leaned into my touch, and the presence that had been so frightening a moment before curled itself inwards until it rested in an almost protective circle around the bed.
I continued until her breaths had evened out again, and then I rolled over and went back to sleep.
My mother got a job. I was pretty sure that was it, anyway. She started leaving me home alone for extended periods of time. On the one hand, it wasn't that big a deal since I wasn't about to crawl to off and drink bleach or something. On the other, it wasn't like she knew that. It was pretty irresponsible not to have someone look after me.
Then again, she'd also never had visitors. There was no father in the picture, no grandmother to come help her out with me or even a friend who'd been over for dinner. Aside from me, it seemed Mother was totally alone.
And given how little furniture there was in the apartment, it didn't appear that we had much money to spend. I suspected the only reason that nobody was watching me was that she couldn't afford to pay someone.
So, I didn't hold it against her. On the contrary, I did my best to make life easier for her. When she came home exhausted, I reached my tiny arms for her and smiled. The grin she gave me back as she gathered me into her arms told me that even though supporting me was clearly a lot of work, it was work she would do in a heartbeat for me. I couldn't help but love her for that.
How old was I really? Perhaps at my birth I could have told you confidently. 'Twenty-three,' I'd have said. That was how many years of memory I had, so that was how old I was. Over time, though, it became harder to answer that question.
Every day, I grew a little more distant from my previous self. I didn't feel like the same person. In many ways, I was not. I had instinctually thought of this woman as my mother since the instant I saw her. There were times when that filled me with guilt. I remembered my first family. My mother was a kind, affectionate person. We hadn't always seen eye to eye, but she had done her best for me. I wished that I could find it in me to call her my 'real' mother, but I couldn't.
My body wasn't the only thing that had changed. Or maybe it was, and genetics had more influence on personality than I'd thought. It was hard to say. What I knew was that I was different. I remembered being a wild woman, a hot-tempered woman, a free spirit, a hopeless romantic. I remembered the urge to create, my devotion to my art, my certainty that I would make something of myself, that the world would see my work and know my name.
Now, I was calm. I was mild. I was patient. It would have been wrong to say that my old self had no influence over me, but in many ways she and I were not the same person. I still knew all that I had known then. I remembered that passion and fire with fondness, and, at times, longing. I remembered my mother and my older brother and my friends and the career I had left behind.
Every day, though, I became more Baika, and I was happy with that.
But every night in my dreams I was Eva again, like I had never died at all.
Then one day, the world was on fire.
I shivered in terror, unable even to scream, as my extra sense pinged dangerdangerdanger and the screams outside filled the burning air.
Mother clutched me against her, huddled in the bathroom doorway. 'Doorways are some of the most stable places in buildings,' my disoriented thoughts helpfully reminded me. Mother whispered soothingly to me, but I saw the fear in her eyes and the set of her jaw. She held a strange blade in her free hand, and something about it was familiar in a way that only filled me with more dread, but I couldn't reflect on it when death was so close, and I knew it was because I had felt it before. All I could do was shiver and wait until it was over.
A few days later Mother dressed me in a black kimono to match hers. She twisted her blond hair up and pinned back my bangs with a pretty white hairclip. The solemn look in her eyes gave me an idea of where we were probably going that day.
I was right.
When we stepped out of our home, I saw more people than usual walking through the streets. Despite the increase in activity, however, the air felt quieter than I had ever felt it. Nobody spoke as we all moved in the same direction through town, all dressed in the same black kimonos. Even if we hadn't passed by countless crushed buildings spilling rubble everywhere, even if the streets hadn't borne scorch marks, the tense silence would have signaled to anyone that there had been tragedy here.
The memorial service was simple. We all crowded in front of a wooden platform at the furthest point of the village from the gates and listened reverently to a singular speaker, countless photographs of the dead set up behind him. I barely understood a word of what he said. It didn't matter, though. I knew the man who spoke before the entire village from much more than his words.
I knew him from the hat and robes he donned, red and white shining like a beacon through the sea of mourning clothes. I knew him from the people standing closest to the platform he spoke on, foreheads covered with cloth and metal headbands. I knew him from the four giant faces carved into the mountainside behind him, the ones I had recognized all along from somewhere, that I had never seen so close before. Now, almost directly below them, I was unable to deny the truth.
I was listening to the Sandaime Hokage of Konoha.
And I was in trouble.
As I slept that night, scenes unfolded before my eyes. I watched a group of children play while one blond boy sat dejected on the sidelines. I watched a brother slaughter his entire family, leaving only one survivor to languish in grief and anger. I watched a girl with vibrant pink hair walk away from a bench with her childhood friend still sitting there, staring at her retreating back in betrayal. I watched so many things, so many people, for so long, and it frightened me how intense the memories were even after all this time.
I woke in the early hours of the morning and did my best to calm my breathing. I had always known that there was something different about this world, but only now did I consider with some trepidation that it might have been a world I had seen before. I looked over at my sleeping mother, her beautiful pale hair spilling over her beauty-marked cheek and her face looking far younger and more relaxed than it ever was when she was awake. I reflected on all that I had seen, and then I realized.
The odd blade my mother had held that terrifying night was a kunai.
I put off deciding what to do with what I knew. Instead, I focused on speeding my development up a little. Every time I thought back to that hellish night—the Kyuubi's attack, I now realized—I knew I couldn't be helpless anymore. When my mother wasn't at home, I exercised my tiny limbs. They were clumsy and weak at first, but in less time than I normally would have hoped, I gained control over their movement. I reflected that this must have been due to my body's chakra. When I exercised, I was not only strengthening my muscles. I was also becoming used to feeling energy travel through my body.
That was my 'extra sense', I now knew. I felt the chakra all around me, likely more so than most infants, since I remembered a life where it wasn't there at all. Perhaps one day that would help me. I remembered the uses for chakra sensors in this world. I was a long way away from that, however; the presence of this energy in all living things was deeply intense to the point that I had difficulty distinguishing anything at all with it. It was like I was standing in a crowded room of people speaking all at once and attempting to listen for one in particular.
I did start to learn certain chakra signatures, however. I always knew when Mother—Kaa-chan, I reminded myself, I needed to work on my Japanese—when Kaa-chan was about to come home. Her chakra was gentle but strong, like a caress from a firm hand wearing a velvet glove. Most of the time, it was a small presence, small enough that most probably wouldn't have noticed it unless they were looking for it. I had come to know it very well, however.
It helped that I had felt the full thing.
There were many more nights like that first one when I'd awoken to see Kaa-chan in the clutches of a nightmare and felt that immense presence in the room with me, but they became easier to bear when I knew that it was her chakra uncurling from her body in response to her distress.
Every time she woke from her nightmares and caught sight of me curled up next to her, she relaxed, and her chakra eased with her. I knew in those moments that she would never hurt me.
I also knew that she wouldn't hesitate to kill anything that tried.
Baika was so much like him. Too much like him, I fretted at times as I watched her grow. People often remarked when they saw us how mother and daughter could scarcely have resembled each other more, but every time Baika turned those brown eyes on me I was forced to disagree.
My child's brilliance astonished me frequently. Baika started walking sooner than I expected. Then again, I was no child-rearing expert, and I didn't really know what was normal for this sort of thing. Still, her face betrayed far greater understanding of her surroundings than any infant should have.
She took far longer to speak, however. Whether it was from genuine difficulty or simply that she hadn't yet wanted to, I wasn't entirely certain. There were times when we were out in the village and I could see Baika trying to listen in on the conversations around us, her brow furrowed deeply as if in frustration. There were other times when I caught her trying to talk. Not the way babies typically gurgled out random syllables. She said things that sounded unlike any words I knew, then glanced up at me in slight panic, like they'd just slipped out. I never gave any indication that I had noticed these things, however, and the relief on Baika's face chilled me every time.
I started reading children's stories to her every night. I made flashcards with pictures on them and went through them regularly with her, teaching her 'boat' and 'red' and 'bird.' In other words, I tried to encourage her. That was what mothers were supposed to do, I thought, then snorted. As if I knew.
Kaa-chan was, I came to understand, highly vigilant. Aside from her chakra outbursts, I almost never found any tangible proof that she was anything other than a civilian, and I was both around her more than anyone else and, at this point, actively looking for them. It was common, I was pretty sure, for high-level ninja to keep their chakra suppressed most of the time. Letting out too much of it was both an open invitation to attack and probably fairly intimidating for civilians to be around. Keeping it mostly hidden wasn't inherently suspicious.
But like I've said, there were almost no other obvious signs. I never saw that kunai again around the house, even after I got big enough to walk through it and actively search. Kaa-chan was never gone for longer than the workday, so I knew she wasn't being sent on missions. There was no genin team photo on display. Most worryingly, there was no hitai-ate anywhere.
She was definitely a ninja, though, or at least had been once. Even if I hadn't felt the size of her chakra, even if I hadn't seen that kunai in her hand like it belonged there, now that I knew to look for them, I saw other things.
Kaa-chan moved with an unbelievable grace. She never dropped or broke things in front of me; in fact, her reflexes were quick enough that when things slipped from my stubby toddler fingers, she usually caught them with ease. She wielded the kitchen knife with startling precision while preparing dinner. More than anything, though, the nuances of her behavior practically telegraphed the truth to me now. She was always watching when we were in public, eyes flicking around every room she entered. First, she scanned for entrances and exits. Then she took turns sizing up every person there, gaze lingering on any ninja.
And every time, she did this so quickly, with such an unassuming aura about her, that nobody else ever seemed to notice.
Not only was she a ninja, Kaa-chan was powerful.
And she was deathly afraid of something.
As my first birthday approached, Kaa-chan became more withdrawn. Even as she smiled at me, I could tell that she wasn't really here. She started humming unfamiliar tunes around the apartment and each day she spoke less than the day before.
The week before my birthday was the worst of it. She stopped bothering to put her hair up, the pale strands hanging lifelessly in her face. When she came home from work each day, she just walked straight to our bedroom and closed the door behind her and that was that. I sat in the kitchen and watched the hands of the clock move well past dinner time and she never came back out. When I finally entered our room for bed I found her either in a nearly catatonic state, not seeming to notice me at all no matter how I tried to gain her attention, or else already deep asleep, still fully dressed. I went to bed hungry every night and woke every morning to a large breakfast waiting for me on the table, her silent apology for her own neglect.
One night, I entered our room a little earlier than usual and just barely caught a glimpse of her sliding a floorboard back in place that I had never noticed was loose before. Curiosity burned in me, but I forced myself to ignore it. I didn't bother thinking about whatever she was hiding from me. Her empty eyes upset me too much.
On the morning of my first birthday, the spell was broken. Kaa-chan woke me early to usher me out to the balcony and watch the sunrise with me, her hand rubbing soothing circles against my back. I still had some trouble with Japanese, but I understood her fully when she turned to me and whispered, "I love you, Baika. Don't ever doubt that I love you."
Even though she'd spent the last week inside her head, even though I knew better than most children my age that our parents weren't supposed to forget about us, I believed her fully. I threw my tiny arms around her and felt my eyes tear up a little bit. I was simply grateful that she was with me again, and for now, that was enough.
The next year passed much like the first. I rarely spent time around anyone other than Kaa-chan, and she rarely spent time around anyone other than me. My language comprehension shot up quickly, and if I spoke a little better than a kid my age should, she never said anything. I mastered the art of walking without falling over, something that made me feel embarrassingly proud considering how mundane an activity it really was, and the books Kaa-chan read to me got more advanced.
I asked Kaa-chan one day how she was so graceful and she began to teach me how to dance. That became a regular pastime of ours, and I loved every minute; even if I still felt like a clumsy oaf compared to her, it was thrilling to whirl and spin around the room with her. Every time that I really let myself go in a dance, flowing faster and faster until my mind couldn't keep up with my body, I felt something of Eva take over me and surrendered to the moment completely.
It brought Kaa-chan joy, too. I relished every proud smile she sent me at my progress. My balance and posture improved, and I practiced walking how she did, trying to copy the way she glided across the floor.
I had almost forgotten about how Kaa-chan had withdrawn from the world last year until it was a month before my birthday and I realized it was about to happen again. I could see it in the distance of her gaze, could feel it in how she rarely wanted to venture outside anymore except to go to work. She became more absent-minded, especially where keeping up the home was concerned. Food rotted in the fridge and I was the one to throw it out. The floor became filthy and I was the one to sweep it clean.
The near-catatonic state came on a little sooner this time, but this time I wasn't going to try and urge her out of it. I knew it wasn't going to end until she decided it was. I fixed my own meals and tried to ignore the resentment bubbling up inside me.
I caught her moving that loose floorboard back again one evening. I still said nothing, but I was not going to forget about it this time.
When my second birthday arrived, she was, indeed, back to normal, and while I was relieved to see her smile, I knew now that it wouldn't last.
The next time that she was out, I slowly crept to the spot and felt for the correct floorboard. If I hadn't seen it move, I never would have found it, but after a few moments my fingers managed to catch it and I slowly, carefully, moved it to the side and peered inside the floor.
There were a few things I could spot down in Kaa-chan's hiding spot. I saw folded blue and brown clothes, what appeared to be a casual yukata of sorts and some kind of thick, pinstriped underclothing. It looked warm. Atop it was a weapons pouch and a faded photograph of a young couple. I leaned down and examined it.
They weren't quite adults. The taller of the two, just barely, had long dark hair spilling over their shoulders and a face pretty enough that I was not entirely sure whether it belonged to a man or a woman, although I leaned towards the former after a beat. He was smiling fondly at the girl beside him, his brown eyes gleaming. The girl had pale blond hair in twin braids and a beauty mark beneath one of her pale gray eyes. She appeared to be huffing at him, brows furrowed and a deep flush on her cheeks.
They were looking at each other with such tangible affection that a lump came to my throat. That was when I noticed the dried tear stains on the photograph.
I didn't dare to touch anything. Instead, I slid the floorboard back in place and left the room.
My mother glanced up from the groceries and stiffened very slightly, slightly enough that the woman hurrying over most certainly didn't notice.
"I'm sorry," she said, a charming smile coming to her lips. "Have we met?"
The woman grinned when she reached us. "I suppose it's been awhile, hasn't it," she chuckled. "Forgive me. It's Aiko, from the hospital. I helped deliver your daughter. It's been, what, about two years now?" She cast a warm look my way, and I clutched Kaa-chan's skirt. It's not that I was especially shy, but Kaa-chan was tense. She didn't want to be here. "Baika-chan, right? Such an unusual name, but it suits someone as cute as you!" She reached down and booped my nose, and I was startled enough that I turned bright red.
Kaa-chan rested a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. "I remember now," she said softly. "You were very comforting to me."
Aiko brightened and straightened up. "I'm glad to hear it. You seemed so afraid when you first came in. You had only just arrived in Konoha, right?"
I furrowed my brows. This was news to me.
"It seems like you've adjusted though," Aiko continued. "You seem right at home now! I heard that you were planning on buying up the old café by the library, right?"
Kaa-chan giggled. "It sounds like you've been keeping tabs on me," she remarked with a practiced ease that I marveled at.
Aiko blushed, glancing to the side. "W-well, truth is, I've never been able to forget about you," she mumbled. "I was so touched when I heard your story… To be in a new village with a child and no husband around to help you." Her smile dimmed. "In fact, I… well. I know a little bit now about raising a kid alone."
Kaa-chan assessed the woman in a new light at this. I watched the tension drain from her, a tenderness entering her smile, and I knew that she had decided that this woman was not a threat.
"It's sweet of you to worry," she said, dipping her head. "Yes, I'm buying Ito-san's café. She's ready to retire, and I've enjoyed my time working there."
I was learning a great deal about my mother today.
"That's great! I'll have to come by the place sometime, see what you do with it." She glanced down at me and smiled again. "You're just younger than my Kazu, you know," she confided. "Maybe there'll have to be a playdate soon."
I didn't know how I felt about spending time with other children, but Kaa-chan seemed to like it. "She hasn't gotten to be around many kids her age," she mused, and she looked down at me. "How would you like that, blossom?"
I saw the hope in her eyes and immediately nodded my agreement.
That night, I reflected on what I had learned. Knowing that my mother wasn't from Konoha made sense. I still had yet to see any friends or family. She spent all her time either at work or with me. She eyed those who spoke to her in public with deep distrust. It all fit with someone who was unfamiliar with the village. It was also worrying in the context of what I had already discovered about her.
If she was from Konoha, she might have been an early retiree from the force, someone who had decided that ninja life wasn't for her and who was eager to forget about it. If she wasn't, however, then it looked a little different.
It looked like she had run from her village.
It looked like she was hiding.
Soon after that, I met Aiko's son and I remembered what children my age were supposed to be like.
He barely spoke and hid behind her leg for most of the time. I was somewhat at a loss. In my previous life, I had little experience with kids, and I didn't really know what to do with a toddler. Kaa-chan gave me a nod of encouragement, however, and I stepped forward and bowed.
"Nice to meet you," I said.
Aiko grinned. "Well said, Baika-chan," she praised. She knelt to her son's level and gently urged him forward. "Can you say 'nice to meet you,' Kazuya?"
Kazuya grunted and sloppily copied my bow. "…N-Nice t'meet," he mumbled.
It was altogether an awkward first encounter, especially since he could barely talk, but Kaa-chan was thrilled and spoke excitedly with Aiko the whole time about our future friendship, and that was enough for me to make an effort.
I knew Baika was different from other children her age.
I supposed I'd always expected it, given who her parents were, but it didn't make it less painful to see every day. I'd hoped that spending time with Kazuya would bring some normalcy to her, but over time it was clear that she was not going to grow out of her oddness.
"I love you," I said every day, and meant it.
'I am afraid for you,' my mind echoed every time.
When Kaa-chan bought the café, I no longer was left alone at home; now that she was her own boss, she was able to bring me to work with her. She dressed me in a simple yukata like hers. It was a little too hot, but I didn't complain because I knew she felt the same. She showed me where the supplies were kept and told me the greeting to give the customers. In the beginning, greeting was about my only responsibility. She gave me coloring books and toys to play with behind the counter, but I only bothered with them to please her. Most of the time, I was too busy watching.
I kept an eye out for familiar faces. I knew that, if the Kyuubi's attack had taken place in my first year, it placed me in the same age group as the Rookie 9. That meant that everyone Naruto had known in Konoha was here, now, walking around and living their lives.
Theoretically, at least, given that I had yet to see anyone.
The village wasn't small, even if it was nothing compared to the cities I'd seen, and fewer citizens than you'd think were shinobi. Most of the people who came in and out of the café were just civilians, and the ninja who did show up were almost always genin and chunin that I had no recognition of. There had been a tokubetsu jonin who had come in once for a coffee and set Kaa-chan completely on edge. I had yet to see a full-fledged jonin.
I gathered the nerve to ask Kaa-chan about it one long, slow day at work, and she blinked. "I believe I've heard that, including those who have retired, they're about one third of the village," she said. "Why, blossom? Curious about shinobi?" She smiled, but I could read her better than anyone and I saw the slight anxiety behind her eyes.
I shrugged, downplaying it. "They're cool," I said, the best explanation I could offer for a child to be interested.
Kaa-chan giggled and ruffled my hair. I brushed the ashy blond strands from my eyes and pouted up at her, but she scarcely seemed to notice.
"I suppose they are," she murmured distantly.
After this conversation took place, I became less watchful for familiar faces.
Of course, that was when one walked right through the door.
A lovely woman with coal-black hair ushered in a scowling toddler and smiled at my mother's greeting. "Ah, I think some hot chamomile," she said. "My son doesn't like the cold."
I frowned. It was still pretty warm to me, but winter was coming on and the others around the village were already complaining of the chill.
Kaa-chan chuckled as she glanced over at me, and I saw instantly that she wanted me to come over. I did, standing by the counter and meeting the eyes of the dark-haired child dead on. He seemed startled at it, as if nobody had looked at him in so unimpressed a manner, and his frown deepened. "Baika, say hello," she urged gently.
His mother was thrilled to see me. "Sasuke, look! You two can play while we warm up."
My heart momentarily stopped.
I tried not to react outwardly to the name, but my expression must have shifted, because he seemed even unhappier all of a sudden.
"Don't wanna," he grumbled, and our mothers traded amused glances.
"That's not very polite," his mother—Uchiha Mikoto, I reminded myself—scolded. "You'll never make friends if you aren't nice, Sasuke."
Kaa-chan, likewise, appeared put out that I was forgetting my manners, so I pushed aside thoughts of Team 7 and Orochimaru and the Uchiha massacre and bowed. "Nice to meet you, Sasuke-kun," I whispered.
He seemed startled, but his expression relaxed and gave way to something shyer. "Nice to meet you," he said stiffly. He spoke more clearly than Kazuya, I noted, but I supposed that came from clan obligations and also being admittedly pretty brilliant.
This playdate was shorter than the handful I'd had with Kazuya, but it was less awkward since he spoke better, and I didn't worry as much that I was acting too grown up for him.
That didn't mean that I didn't go to the back room and cry when he left at the thought of what was in store for him.
A/N: I've had this story knocking around my head for awhile, so I'm very excited to present it to you! I have a lot planned for these characters. I hope you'll enjoy the direction it goes in.
I will say from the start that pairings are not definitive yet. I have a few in mind, but nothing will be finalized there until Baika is considerably older, although there will be moments for various pairings before then.
The rating may increase over time.
Comments are appreciated! I'd love to hear what you all think.
Baika: Plum blossom; I thought about naming her Ume instead, since it's more common as a name, but it's used for the tree and fruit specifically and not the blossom. Plum blossoms represent hope and perseverance since they come at the tail end of winter.
Asuka: Asu- tomorrow, fly ka- bird; I originally picked this name in honor of the wrestler, but it only became more appropriate as I kept fleshing out the character's backstory
Aiko: Ai- love ko- child; a pretty standard name for a pretty normal lady
Kazuya: To be at harmony