I had procrastinated for too long. I'd known for a while that I would have to make a decision about the future, both on the behalf of others and of myself, but part of me had been holding out hope that, somehow, I'd be able to avoid doing anything.

Perhaps I hadn't fully started thinking of the characters as anything but characters. I hadn't so much as spoken to one yet, hadn't had an opportunity to see them in the flesh. Perhaps I'd started to think that I never would.

The second I'd laid eyes on Sasuke, however, that delusion had disappeared. Because he wasn't a character anymore to me. I'd talked to him. I'd met his mother. I'd watched him burn his tongue on his tea and pout like a child—because that's what he was. He was a real, living, breathing child. I couldn't avoid that truth anymore.

I lay awake in bed, deep in thought. I didn't remember the series with incredible clarity. I had enjoyed it as a teenager; I'd first started the anime when I'd been, what, fourteen? That would have been around nine years ago, and I hadn't even finished it. In other words, I didn't know everything that was coming.

I knew a little about the ending, though, and it had all turned out alright from what I understood. Even for Sasuke. 'Wasn't there a spinoff series about their kids?' I tried to recall. 'I remember the outrage over Sasuke and Sakura ending up together…' If that was so, then they had clearly overcome everything thrown their way in the original story.

Even if I did absolutely nothing, therefore, it would be okay.

Sort of.

They were still all going to be traumatized. Sasuke's face returned to my mind. Misfortune would strike him especially hard. I thought of what lay ahead of him, the Uchiha curse of hatred, the cycle of pain and vengeance he would surrender to, the endless torments he had in store. I thought of the massacre, of Orochimaru, of his defection from Konoha and quest to murder his brother.

And he was only one person. What about Naruto? What about Sakura? What about the scores of faceless shinobi and civilians who would lose their lives on the peripheries?

What about Kaa-chan?

I rolled onto my side to gaze at her sleeping form. I had no guarantee that she was going to make it through, no knowledge of how her future would be impacted by the bloodshed ahead. She was capable, but many strong people would die in the years ahead.

(I tried not to think of Neji.)

What was more, Kaa-chan's strength was a secret. I truly had no idea what the hokage would do if she were discovered. What if she were accused of spying? What if he gave her back to her village, let them deal with her? Missing-nin weren't exactly treated well, and I didn't even know what village she'd come from.

Horror engulfed me at the realization that she could be from Oto for all I knew. That would truly be a nightmare.

The more I thought, the less certain I felt that I could afford to sit on the sidelines and simply watch the future unfold.

The risks of getting involved, though, were considerable. Even if I ignored danger to myself, which was admittedly high, I could very well change things in the wrong way. The original plot had a happy ending. Getting involved could keep that happy ending from occurring altogether.

But if I didn't try, wouldn't I always wonder what I might've done?

When I finally drifted off to sleep, my dreams were plagued by dead bodies and red eyes and a cold voice whispering, "You chose wrong."

"I don't feel good," I informed Kaa-chan when she woke me the next morning.

She scanned my face. I must have looked exhausted because she accepted the excuse without hesitation, leaning down and pressing her lips to my temple before she left. The door clicked shut behind her and I rolled out of bed.

I had not deliberately reached for my chakra even once in this life. It was time that I finally experimented.

I placed my hand on the wall, attempting to remember the exercise. 'You use chakra to stick to the surface, right?' I almost tried it when I thought of how the trees Naruto and Sasuke practiced on had been damaged when they'd used too much chakra. I couldn't afford to do this in our apartment.

I looked around for something else. Anything I could practice the technique with. My gaze landed on one of my toys on the shelf, a little boat, and I eyed it in thought. 'If it breaks, I can say I dropped it or something,' I mused. I marched over and grabbed the toy, placing it in the palm of my hand, and concentrated.


I frowned and tried again, reaching deep inside myself to where I felt my chakra pooling in my stomach. 'Move,' I tried telling it.

It only lurched, as if deliberately resisting my command. I gritted my teeth and willed it to please, please, just move. My jaw began to hurt and sweat began to bead on my brow, but my chakra barely budged.

My spirits sank. I reminded myself of how young this body was and that I was trying to do a technique that genin had trouble with. Sakura had mastered tree walking right away, but she had been twelve and also exceptional at chakra control. Why had I thought that I could do it right away?

'Because I'm not a kid,' I thought sullenly. 'Not entirely. And I'm probably more aware of my chakra than any other person on this earth, since I didn't always have it. Shouldn't that be enough?'

I trudged to my bed and sat down to stew in quiet disappointment. What could be the problem? What made someone bad at chakra control, anyway?

Perhaps, I thought, the issue was that I'd never had to consciously engage with chakra before. If I could do that, the rest would be relatively easy… in theory. I brainstormed a way to connect with my chakra. There had to be some exercise for it.

It was a moment before it occurred to me. Meditation could isolate the mind from external distractions and bring a deeper awareness to the body. Surely it would at least help me understand my own chakra better?

'Worth a try.'

I lay down, closed my eyes, and began to breathe deeply. For a hot-head, Eva had been pretty decent at this in her lifetime, and I was considerably more patient than she had been. As my muscles relaxed, I honed my focus on my stomach, where my coils resided.

The circulation of my energy was calming. I visualized it as a river, flowing with a slow but powerful force. Hesitantly, I imagined dipping a hand into it. It was ice cold, but I found it comforting. I slipped inside the icy water and let the current pull me along, basking in the chill. I exhaled softly and noticed with a start that where my breath touched the water, it was beginning to freeze solid. I glanced up and went rigid at the sight that greeted me.

The entire river was clouding over with a layer of ice. It spread across the surface at an alarming pace, and I whirled to see that it was coming from all sides straight toward me. I ducked my head into the water on instinct to avoid it and the spot where my head had just been was frozen in an instant. I was trapped beneath an increasingly thick layer of ice. Terror clawed at me as I pounded on it, but it wouldn't move, and the water was getting more and more solid around me—

I jerked from my meditation and blinked my eyes at the ceiling. Frost stuck to my eyelashes and my short breaths condensed into clouds of vapor in front of me. My entire body had grown frighteningly cold.

I forced myself up and ran to the bathroom, gasping at my reflection. My sweat had turned to a thin layer of ice upon my skin and, to my horror, my skin was a pale gray and my lips were blue with chill.

'Frostbite,' I thought in a panic. I stripped out of my clothes and threw myself into the shower, turning the hot water on and forcing myself to stand directly in the spray for as long as

I could, gritting my teeth at the burning pain it brought to every inch of me that it touched.

When I stumbled out at last, my skin, though faintly red, was back to normal, my lips a healthy pink. The only evidence of what had happened was the still frozen pile of clothes in the corner, and I draped them over the water heater to steam off.

"No more unsupervised chakra work," I promised my reflection.

(I vaguely remembered that there was something important about chakra and ice. I did not think about it.)

Even if I had wanted to, I didn't have many opportunities after that to practice. I was with Kaa-chan all day, every day, and I didn't know how to broach the subject of training with her. I wasn't even sure I knew how soon I could get started. As a toddler, surely I'd have to wait a little while.

'Itachi was pretty young,' I mused as I idly doodled in the margins of my coloring book. 'But he was considered a genius.'

I outlined another petal on the rose I was drawing, my pink marker squeaking as I pressed down a little harder than necessary. 'Do I want to be a genius even? If I attract too much attention, then…'

I thought of a man with a sharingan-infused arm and shuddered. 'I don't want that guy coming anywhere near me.'

It was a sobering reminder, how narrow a tightrope I would have to walk if I tried to go through with this. I'd have to be strong enough to make a difference, but not strong enough to have a silencing seal slapped on my tongue. It was hard to determine where to draw that line, or even if such a line could be drawn. How early would I need to start to get ahead? How late would I need to start to not attract attention?

My eyes flicked to Kaa-chan as she charmed a young customer, his blush evident while he stuttered out his order and she giggled.

'Then again… I could always just ask, right?'

That night, as we entered our apartment, I broached the subject as casually as I could. "When do kids start training to become shinobi, Kaa-chan?"

To her credit, she didn't even flinch. "Hard to say," she said with equal ease as she slid on her house slippers. "I believe Mikoto mentioned that most students start at the academy at six or seven."

I considered leaving it there. I really did. But if I was going down this road, there was something I'd need to discuss with her at some point.

So, in that moment, I gathered my nerve and asked, "When did you start training, Kaa-chan?"

She stopped and turned, her eyes meeting mine, and she had never in my life looked at me so coldly. I almost flinched, but I held my head a little higher. I couldn't back down now.

There was a tense moment where neither of us said a thing. Then she dipped her head in acknowledgement. "When I was six." She turned away and headed to the kitchen to fix dinner. Conversation over.

I blinked at her back.

I'd known she might catch on, ever since I'd noticed that the loose floorboard was in a slightly different position than I'd left it, but when Baika uttered those words, I'd felt my stomach sink.

I wondered if I'd made a mistake in acknowledging it, but I'd seen the resolve in those eyes and known that it wouldn't have deterred her. After all, it wouldn't have deterred me, either.

But now Baika knew. Baika knew.

I watched my sleeping daughter's chest rise and fall evenly with every breath, and briefly imagined placing my pillow across her face and holding it until that rise and fall stopped forever. Briefly. I didn't even really consider it.

Even so, agonizing shame rise within me. I rolled onto my side, choking on my own fear and self-hatred.

'This day was always going to come,' I reminded myself. 'She's bright. She won't tell anyone.'

But now I had made her an accomplice. Now she would be lying, too. I had always intended to shield her from that responsibility.

I couldn't let this go any further. She was safest in the dark.

I'd do whatever it took to keep her there.

We didn't discuss it again for a long time after that. We were very good at ignoring the elephant in the room. It helped that there were plenty of other things to occupy our time and attention, such as the café.

Or, more specifically in my case, who was visiting the café.

The next time that I saw Uchiha Mikoto bring her son in by the hand, I made a beeline for the back room without hesitation.

"Uchiha-sama," I heard Kaa-chan greet warmly. "Here to warm up again?"

"We were visiting the library and I remembered how lovely that chamomile was," Mikoto replied, a smile in her voice. "Is your daughter here today?"

I drew back the curtain separating me from the rest of the shop and tried desperately to signal a 'no' to Kaa-chan, but she gave no indication she had noticed (she definitely had) and nodded her assent. "Yes, she was just fetching me something," she said, gesturing me over. "Baika, come here."

I inhaled sharply and joined her with reluctance. "What is it, Kaa-chan?" I asked, sending her a deeply unimpressed look.

She smiled down at me, and I caught a glint in her eye that told me she was enjoying this. "You remember Uchiha-sama and her son, Sasuke-kun, don't you?"

Sasuke met my eyes as directly as I had in our first meeting, folding his arms across his chest as if in challenge. "No," I said flatly, and he gaped.

Mikoto giggled behind her hand. "That's alright, Baika-chan," she said, placing a calming hand on his head. "I'm sure so many people come through here every day, it must be difficult to remember them all."

"She hasn't gotten to meet very many children her age," Kaa-chan said, squeezing my shoulder. "It made me so happy to see them play together the last time."

Mikoto smiled softly. "Me, too," she said. "Sasuke doesn't know that many other kids either."

"Don't need to," he interrupted. "I have nii-san."

My heart clenched.

"That's true," Mikoto agreed, kneeling to his level. "But you can never have too many friends. Won't you play with Baika-chan again?"

The sight of his mother's pleading expression was enough, and he uncrossed his arms. "…Fine," he muttered.

I internally sighed. No getting out of it now. "Do you like coloring?" I asked, fetching my coloring book and markers.

Sasuke glanced at them with curiosity. "It's alright," he dismissed, but the slight eagerness in his eyes betrayed his true feelings.

I couldn't help but grin. 'Already too good for kid stuff, huh?'

He continued the disinterested act for a few minutes as I began to move my marker across the page, but it wasn't long before his tiny hand grabbed a shade of blue and he was clumsily following suit.

After that, Sasuke and his mother came in somewhat frequently. Each time I saw him was a little easier, a little freer, and at times I was almost able to forget what I knew.



I looked up and very nearly snapped my pencil in half. No. No, no, no, I didn't want this, this was exactly what I wanted to avoid—

"Sasuke," I greeted, setting aside my drawing. I marveled at how normal my voice sounded. "Who's this?"

Sasuke's smile was as bright as the sun as he tugged on the hand of the much taller boy beside him. "Tell 'er," he entreated, pure affection in his gaze.

The taller boy bowed politely. "Hello. My name is Itachi. I'm Sasuke's older brother." He rose and met my eyes and it took everything I had not to flinch. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Sasuke has told me a great deal about you."

I wanted to die.

"Pleased to meet you," I echoed with a bow of my own. "Sasuke talks about you, too."

"Nii-san's just got back from a mission so he has a day off," Sasuke said, his excitement bubbling over with every word. "He's a really, really strong ninja!"

Itachi's smile became slightly pained.

"So I've heard," I said in one the grossest understatements possible. "You must be tired if you just got back. Can I offer you anything?"

"Ah, jasmine tea would be lovely." Itachi glanced down at Sasuke. "Anything for you?"

"I want some too!" I couldn't help but stare a little. Sasuke so often tried to act mature and above childish things, but Itachi's presence brought him such happiness that he didn't even try to hide. I'd never seen him behave so much like a kid.

"…Yeah," I said quietly. "I'll brew you a pot."

Sasuke bit his lip. "Will… will you sit and have some with us?"

I started. I hadn't expected that. I glanced to the side. "Well… I guess I can," I said slowly, glancing back at Kaa-chan who'd been watching the exchange from behind the service counter. She smiled encouragingly.

"I'm glad. Any friend of Sasuke is a friend of mine," Itachi said, and I winced internally as I led them to a table.

"That so?" I asked quietly.

The conversation was a little bit stilted, something that Sasuke appeared to pick up on from the way he kept blinking at my formal behavior, but I got through it intact. Unlike my first meeting with Sasuke, I didn't cry when they left. I'd grown used to the way my heart often ached when Sasuke visited. This was only a reminder of why.

It pleased me to see Baika make another friend. It was good for her development. It was a sign of normality.

When Sasuke brought in his brother, I had to consciously remind myself of all of these things.

I had heard of Uchiha Itachi. I had heard what a genius he was, how ahead of his time, how he was expected to make chunin shortly.

And he had already unlocked his family's famous dojutsu.

Seeing him speak with my daughter, I did my best to swallow my revulsion. He would have his first kill soon. There was no question. That kind of talent carved a trail of blood wherever it went.

I did not want that trail coming near my daughter.

"Pleasure to see you," I greeted with a bow, prompting a hearty laugh from Aiko.

"Well! That's charming service," she said, ruffling my hair.

Kazuya poked his head from behind her leg. "Hi, Bai-chan," he said with a shy smile.

"Aiko-chan," Kaa-chan called as she moved around the counter and joined us. "This is a nice surprise! What brings you here?"

"Well, I have a late shift at the hospital tonight, so I thought I'd go ahead and grab a coffee." Aiko shrugged. "Plus, you know. I thought I might visit a friend."

Kaa-chan smiled. "That doesn't hurt," she agreed. "Please, sit. Baika, you can join them."

I guided the pair to a table by the window, pulling out their chairs despite Aiko's protests. "A customer is a customer, Aiko-san," I insisted. "This is the least I can do."

She rolled her eyes. "So professional, Baika-chan," she swooned, flopping into her seat. "And so well-spoken! Kazu's learned a lot of words from you."

Kazuya flushed and I tried not to wince. Clearly, I wasn't great at speaking like a child my age.

"No, I'm sure he gets it from his mother," I said, and she giggled.

Kaa-chan joined us shortly, balancing two coffees and a pot of herbal tea on a tray.

"What are you up to? It's been a few weeks," she noted as she sat.

Aiko's lively expression dimmed in irritation. "An exercise in futility," she groused.

Kaa-chan quirked her lips. "Come on, I'm sure it's not that bad."

"You're right. It's worse." Kaa-chan raised her brows at that, and Aiko slumped. "I'm trying to get approved as a combat medic," she said at last. "The physical requirements are so strict, though. I never got to train under a jonin-sensei, so I'm at a disadvantage."

Kaa-chan hummed, sipping her coffee. "Is this a common problem?"

"Like you wouldn't believe," Aiko snorted. "Half my coworkers are in the same boat. There aren't enough resources for ninja who don't get team assignments." She rubbed her eyes. "And the ninja who do still rarely qualify, since they get deployed too much to effectively study as medics. It's infuriating. Combat medics are an essential part of the force and there are never enough." Her jaw was clenched, and I got the feeling this was something that she discussed a lot. She sighed after a beat though, forcing herself to calm down. "Sorry," she muttered. "I get really fired up about this."

"Understandably so," Kaa-chan said, reaching forward and placing her hand on Aiko's. "Let's not dwell on it, though. What else has been going on with you two?"

Their conversation continued, but I found myself barely listening. I was too busy contemplating all that had been said.

I had thought about my options many times before. The idea of becoming a ninja had seemed like the most direct way to help people, but I was still leery of changing too much about the plot. Suddenly, however, another option had unfolded itself before me, seemingly so obvious that I should have recognized it before.

Combat medics were rare but indispensable. They were capable of drastically improving the odds of a mission, of saving entire squads that might have otherwise been doomed.

If I could train as a combat medic, I wouldn't have to change the story at all to do a lot of good. All I would have to do is my job. That would be enough.

Even if I ended up with no jonin-sensei, I'd have resources to help me gain the necessary skills. I'd have Aiko to help me train as a medic and Kaa-chan to help me train as a fighter.

I'd have to start working toward it ahead of time, however. Even if I could secure the help of Aiko and Kaa-chan, this was not an easy road. I'd still need to go through the academy and pass to become a genin, and after that point, it would take a good deal of work just to get myself up to field standards.

Kaa-chan had said she'd begun training at six years old. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I should do the same. It might be enough preparation to enter the academy a year later but not so much that I would be singled out as a genius. It was also a good place to start, though, because it might be a more acceptable age to her. It would be difficult for her to say that I was starting too early since she'd started at the same time.

Unfortunately, however, that meant that I had three years to spend sitting on my hands until I could get started. I would have to watch the time go by and let things fall into place without being able to do much about them. What was more…

The Uchiha massacre would happen pretty soon after that point.

I couldn't do anything about it. At least, I couldn't think of a plan that didn't end with me being either placed in a psych ward or suspected as a spy. Either option would mean new eyes on Kaa-chan that she really, really didn't need.

I thought of Sasuke and felt a lump in my throat. I would have to let it happen.

The thought chilled me, but it was the truth.

I shook my head and forced myself once and for all to move on from the massacre. I couldn't prevent it, but there were other things I might be able to. If I wasn't going to use the next three years training, I'd have to use them planning instead.

On my birthday, I asked my mother if I could have a small notepad to practice writing with. She bought me one without hesitation, and I set to work. Every chance I got to be alone, I wrote out whatever I could remember about Naruto's plot. I wrote in English, hoping that I was right about nobody else in this world speaking it, and kept it on me at all times. Kaa-chan never asked to see how my kanji was progressing, for which I was infinitely grateful. I could absolutely understand why she portrayed herself as delicate. Being underestimated was a great way to hide something.

Though I spent a good amount of time simply trying to prepare, I also tried to enjoy my childhood. I could remember a time when I'd wished that I'd appreciated being a kid for what it was, and while I definitely resented the limitations it presented, ('What if I just told them the truth,' I thought once, then immediately dismissed it. Nobody was going to listen to a child.) I did my best to savor it.

I threw myself into dancing and drawing. They were both reliable ways to take my mind off the pressure of the impending future. One morning, Kaa-chan entered the kitchen to find me painting furiously on all fours.

"Baika…" She looked at the paper scattered around the room, with everything from portraits to landscapes to abstract smears of color littering the kitchen floor. "How long have you been awake?"

I shrugged tiredly, wiping my forehead and probably smearing the red paint on my hands straight across it. "A while," I said.

She didn't scold me. Instead, she filled the bathtub and ushered me into it, scrubbing the colors gently from my skin until the water was opaque with paint.

"Did you have a nightmare?" she asked after a long while.

My mind flickered back to visions of Sasuke leaving Konoha. I sank deeper in the water. "Something like that," I whispered.

Kaa-chan hung up her favorite pieces of mine, so proud of my 'art', and I tried not to scoff at her exuberant praise; my hands were still not as skilled as they had been before. It was painful to know exactly what I was trying to do and to still come up short because my clumsy fingers didn't move the way I wanted. The part of me that was Eva sulked at every misplaced line. The part of me that was Baika consoled her by pointing out how we'd already progressed. My drawings might have been chicken scratch compared to my previous work, but they were pretty damn good for having been done by a kid. Still, I had to fight the urge to scowl every time I looked up at my sloppy pictures tacked on the walls.

Dancing didn't carry the same baggage. Maybe it was because I couldn't see myself, maybe it was because Eva had been much less coordinated than I was now, but I didn't feel so self-conscious. When I danced, I didn't think about much of anything. I found myself living for those moments of total thoughtlessness.

It was odd, having something that I could recall being deeply important to me usurped by something else. Every time I felt sure that I knew who I was, who Baika was, something new came along that stirred Eva up within me. It was a peculiar balancing act that I was not, in truth, getting much better at.

As my sixth birthday approached, and Kaa-chan retreated into her annual solitude, I filled the lonely hours planning how to ask her about training. I debated the best way I could make my case. I knew she wouldn't be happy. I knew she'd protest. But maybe, just maybe, she'd hear me out. That was all I needed. Once she heard that I was planning to be a medic, that the danger to myself would be minimal, maybe she'd relent. It was this thought that comforted me every time I found myself worrying.

And then, at long last, the day was here.

The celebration was a small affair. Sasuke hadn't been able to come, so Kaa-chan, Aiko, and Kazuya took me out for a modest dinner, the café having closed early for the occasion. Aiko gave me a beautiful new yukata that looked a little big, "So you can grow into it," she explained with a warm smile.

Kazuya gave me a handmade card and a bouquet that Aiko definitely had picked out, a blush staining his face. "Happy birthday, Bai-chan," he said quietly, and I couldn't help but smile.

We parted ways after dinner and Kaa-chan carried me home on her back. I rested my chin atop her head, sleepy eyes surveying the streets around us. I was already determined, but even so, I considered for one last time the comfort of the quiet life Kaa-chan wanted to give me. I imagined growing up and becoming a co-owner of the café, avoiding trouble and letting her keep me by her side forever. I imagined Kaa-chan, old and withered, dying peacefully knowing that I had lived the way she had hoped I would, a smile on her face and a hand in mine.

I thought about that smile for a long time.

It was still not enough.

"…Kaa-chan," I whispered.


"I'm six now. I want to start training."

She didn't look back, but her steps slowed.

"…No," she said quietly.

I had expected that. It didn't mean it wasn't frustrating. "You did at my age," I countered, after ensuring that nobody was around to listen.

"I did," she acknowledged. "But you can't."

"I want to be a medic, like Aiko-san. No danger necessary."

She let out a soft laugh. "Blossom, It's not just about the danger."

"Then what is it about?" I was usually able to resist childish urges, but I couldn't help but huff like a kid, and she moved me from her back to her arms so she could look down at me. She was smiling sadly, an expression that caught me off-guard.

"It's not that I don't want you to," she murmured. "Come on, we'll discuss this at home."

That was so far from what I had expected that it shut me up instantly. The rest of the walk was filled with a tense silence, each step filling me with anxiety as I wondered what could be ahead.

After what felt like an age, though, I was seated across her at the kitchen table, a steaming cup of chamomile tea in front of me. Its fragrance brought me back, for an instant, to the day I'd met Sasuke and been set on this path.

'Ironic,' I found myself thinking as I watched Kaa-chan open her mouth to begin her explanation.

I could scarcely have been more shocked at what she told me, however. My thoughts screeched to a standstill, and I stared at her blankly for several minutes.

"…You're saying that I'm sick," I repeated at last.

Kaa-chan nodded, looking weary. "I never told you," Kaa-chan continued, "because I didn't think you would pursue being a shinobi. It will never be an issue as a civilian but building your reserves and using jutsu could cripple you."

I squinted up at her. My first instinct, when my brain began working again at last, was disbelief. It was true that my awareness of my own chakra had always been heightened, to the point of discomfort in my early days. However, I'd been just as aware of the chakra of others, and I'd always thought—Well. I remembered a world where there was no such thing. That was why.

I'd thought that was why.

"How—" My voice cracked, and I took a gulp of tea. "How does it work?"

Kaa-chan sat back in her seat. "Your chakra is unusual," she murmured. "You have too much spiritual energy to mold chakra properly or control it with precision. The doctors told me that it could hurt you if you tried using it, that the spiritual energy would overload your physical body as a result."

I furrowed my brows. When it was explained like that, it started to make sense. Spiritual energy came from the mind, and my mind was much older than my body. Of course there would be an imbalance. The idea that it could hurt me, though?

(My mind flashed to my terrified face staring back at me from the mirror with blue lips and frozen skin.)

I hadn't accounted for this. My hopes of becoming a medic-nin and helping from the sidelines faded in my mind. With a few words, that plan had been rendered impossible. Indeed, all of my potential plans seemed far-fetched now.

And then I had a thought.

"…I could train my body and try to increase my physical energy." I tilted my head up at her. "Even them out a bit."

This wasn't an easy option. The disparity was probably huge. But I was pretty sure that I didn't need them to be exactly equal. I just needed them to be closer together.

Kaa-chan's. "You'd have a long way to go to narrow that gap," she said gently.

"I'm patient," I countered. "I'm willing to try."

Her lips pursed with displeasure. "How do you know that your spiritual energy and physical energy won't increase together?"

What could I say to that? I was pretty sure that they wouldn't, that the issue came from having the knowledge of an adult encased in a tiny shell, and that it was therefore possible that physical training could catch my body up just enough to where I could safely use jutsu, even if my control wasn't the best.

But I couldn't come out and say that. I mulled over my response. "You have no guarantee that it would, either," I said carefully. "So… I want to spend some time training and we'll see how my chakra responds."

Surprise crossed her face at the suggestion. For a moment, it seemed that she was considering it. My heart quickened. Maybe… But then her eyes closed, and her jaw set, and I swallowed my hope.

"I'm not risking it," she said gently. "No, Baika. No."

I stared up at her in disbelief, but she had already looked away from me. She would not be budged.

I turned and trudged into our bedroom, my shoulders slumped in a show of defeat, but I could feel a fire light in me even as I shut the door behind me.

'Alright, immovable object,' I thought. 'Meet unstoppable force.'

'The best lies have truth to them,' I reflected.

Kaa-chan had been in high spirits today. Over the last few days, actually. On Saturday, she'd spontaneously suggested that we take a walk around the village and had stopped in every shop that I'd glanced at for more than a moment, asking me if I wanted anything each time. On Monday, she'd given me the last cookie of the batch at the end of our shift. On Tuesday, she'd encouraged me to run over to the library to find a book for us to read together. It was the first time she'd ever let me go somewhere by myself.

She hadn't mentioned That Conversation since it had happened, but she'd been doing her best to make up for it. Part of me wanted to just accept the silent apology for what it was. The other part of me saw the opportunity it presented, though.

I tugged the skirt of her yukata during a slow period at work. "Kaa-chan?"

She looked down at me with a smile. "Yes, blossom?"

I fiddled with my sleeves, a habit I knew she found adorable. "I wanna start going out alone more," I said quietly. "Like when you let me go to the library. That was a lot of fun."

She hesitated. "Well, the library is right next door, blossom," she pointed out, furrowing her brows. "I don't know if I'd be comfortable with you going much further."

I shrugged. "Kazu's allowed to go to the park and stuff by himself," I pointed out.

This was true. I had grown up in a post-latchkey era in my first life, but Konoha hadn't quite gotten there yet. The village was pretty safe, from what I'd been able to tell, and people weren't quite as concerned with walking alone at night. Possibly since one scream would be enough to send any shinobi within five blocks running to investigate at top speed. Which, considering they were shinobi, was pretty fast.

Kaa-chan, however, didn't view it that way. "I don't know, Baika," she said, biting her lip. "You're younger than Kazuya."

"It doesn't count, it's only by a few months," I protested. Plus, there was the whole 'used to be an adult' thing, though I wasn't going to mention that. "Well, what about Sasuke? He's been going out on his own more, too."

Kaa-chan softened. "…Alright, Baika," she said. "I'll let you go out without me more." Just as my head shot up and I began to grin, though, she held up a single finger. "If you have Kazuya or Sasuke with you," she finished.

My smile faltered.

This would be trickier than I thought.

On Saturday, Sasuke met me at the café, and we left for an afternoon out. I had thought a great deal about my options over the last few days. This situation wasn't ideal. The plan worked best if I was alone. I wasn't sure whether I could do it with Sasuke here. If he mentioned it to Mikoto and she discussed it with Kaa-chan, I'd be right back where I started.

'Not back where I started,' I corrected myself. 'Worse. Because I'd lose Kaa-chan's trust.'

The alternative, though, giving up altogether, didn't sit right with me. Was I really not even going to try? No way.

I just had to bring Sasuke in on it.

When he started toward the park, I grabbed his hand. He whirled to face me in surprise, mouth open to say something, but I spoke first.

"Not that way," I said confidently, pulling him down a different street at a fast pace.

Sasuke wrenched his hand from mine. "Don't tell me what to do," he grumbled, but he walked with me anyway. "Where are we going?"

I sent him a broad smile that I hoped said 'fun' but that probably said 'trouble'. "You'll see," I said.

We arrived at the training grounds and found them blessedly empty. There were many training spots around here but with the number of shinobi who used them there had been no guarantees. Sasuke was blinking at our surroundings, brows furrowing. "What are we doing here?" he asked.

I turned to him and swallowed. "Sasuke, I want you to help me train," I blurted.

He blinked, taken completely aback. "Train? But… I thought you couldn't be a ninja."

I frowned. My suspicions that Kaa-chan had told Mikoto were correct. That might make this harder. "Kaa-chan doesn't think so, but I think I can." I glanced down at my feet, tracing a shape in the dirt with my toe. "I just want to try. If I can't do it, then I'll quit. But I want to know for sure. Even if I have to do it in secret." I looked up and took a step closer to him. "Will you help me, Sasuke?" I had intended for the plea to sound level-headed, but even I could hear the desperation in my own voice, and given Sasuke's expression, he could, too.

He was staring at me, biting his lip in thought. I could tell he was conflicted. "…Would I have to lie to Okaa-san?"

I gave him an apologetic smile. "Yeah, I think you would," I said, not even attempting to sugar-coat it. "I'm sorry for that."

He closed his eyes and huffed slightly, opening them again after a beat. "…Okay. I'll help you," he said. "But I'm not lying to Nii-san. He's in on it, too."

I was too relieved for that to make a difference. I threw my arms around him in a hug that made him stumble back a few steps. "Thank you, Sasuke," I cried. "You have no idea what this means to me."

He didn't move at first. Then, hesitantly, he reached up and embraced me. "Whatever," he grunted, and when I released him, his cheeks were pink. "Don't worry about it."

I smiled. On another day, I might have teased him for it, but my gratitude stopped me. Because this was the first real step toward a better future, and I had no intention of taking it for granted.

A/N: Thank you so much for the positive response to chapter 1! I hope that you continue to enjoy this story as it goes on. Special thanks to NexonAnon, WhEdgy, AilahtaN, Saria Skye, CloeMika, and guests for reviewing! I'd love to hear what everyone thinks of chapter 2.

There was a question I'd like to respond to briefly. One guest reviewer asked why I left the content warning on this fic when Asuka clearly loves Baika. I'd like to say firstly that the warnings about child abuse and neglect are not exclusively about their relationship, those topics will come up in other ways. However, it's important to note that it's entirely possible to love someone and still hurt them, and we've already seen that Asuka neglects Baika at times. We know Baika can take care of herself, since she has the mind of an adult, but no parent should leave their child to fend for themselves, no matter the emotional difficulties they are going through. As for the complicated mother/daughter dynamic… that will become more evident later.

Another HUGE thank you to everyone who reviewed, favorited, and followed. I'll be working on chapter 3!