Title: No Further Than Before
Fandom: Naruto
Type: Oneshot. First person POV.
Rating: R – just in case
Word count: 5,033
Summary: The genjutsu genius of Konoha, Kurenai Yuuhi, writes a letter to someone who does not yet exist.

A/N:Because as calm as Kurenai always appears, being a woman in a traditionally male occupation can't be easy. Partially inspired by (C)WAC documents and correspondence.

Call me crazy, but I'm writing you a letter when I haven't even decided on your name. I normally wouldn't do something sappy like this -- I hope we get the chance to know each other well enough that you know I'm not usually like this -- but I'm writing for a reason I feel is very important.

I'm writing because I always wish that someone had told me the truth.

I always wish it had been that way, but it wasn't. Instead, I stumbled towards it on my own, scraping my knees on the hard edges that I uncovered; more than just my bones were broken, but it was worth it. It was worth it to know.

I don't even know if I'll be around to tell you what I found out -- life in my line of work is uncertain -- but hopefully you find this letter someday, because you won't get the truth from anyone else. You won't get it from Shikamaru, cynical and ingenious; nor from Kakashi, aloof yet more caring than he'd ever admit; not even from Naruto, future Hokage, truthful and heartfelt and painfully naïve in everything he does.

Maybe Tsunade could tell you, but she's too busy being the Hokage and killing her liver with alcohol to be a good role model. Tenten might tell you too, but she's trying too hard to prove herself in ANBU and I fear that she's going to find herself with her name on the Konoha monument sooner than she finds the recognition she deserves. I can only hope that you someday get the truth from Hinata, if she ever discovers her own confidence and abilities and leaves the chains of her family behind. But if that never happens, I have to make sure that you'll get it somehow.

And so, you'll get the truth from me: Kurenai Yuuhi.

I'm not one to beat about the bush, so let's get straight to it. The fact of the matter is: being a ninja is tough, but being a kunoichi is tougher.

Now before you accuse me of being a bra-burning extremist, listen to what I have to say. (In all seriousness though, bras are of no use to a kunoichi -- chest wraps are the only way to go.) Read my story, and read it all the way through; you won't like parts of it, but you won't like parts of life either, so suck it up. Let me tell you my experiences -- it's the best and only proof I can offer.

My story starts long before I entered the Academy. It starts in bed, with me under my comforter, a corner of my green favourite blanket held tightly in my fist, and my civilian mother reading me stories while my father was out risking his life.

My mother often read me the story of the Sleeping Kunoichi. As it went, a beautiful kunoichi was once out on a highly ranked mission. Her mark, a dangerous and seductive woman, traps her in a genjutsu which causes her to fall into a deep sleep. Her noble hidden village, unwilling to sacrifice their kunoichi, sends a ninja out to rescue her. The ninja is the village's genjutsu genius, and as all bullshit tales go, a regular Prince Charming. In the end, the ninja breaks the genjutsu, marries the kunoichi, and they have lots of ninja children. Even though I drew plenty of crayon pictures of the Sleeping Kunoichi, there was something I didn't like about the story. At such a young age though, I could never figure out exactly what.

As I grew up, the story grew with me: I became the kunoichi, but I was also the genjutsu genius.

My parents first discovered my talents when my father was on a rare break from his missions. We'd all sat down for dinner, together as a family for the first time since my young mind could remember, and my mother heaped a pile of my worst nemesis onto my plate: broccoli. The little green vegetables and I had a staring contest, during which I wished that they would just disappear. Something in the back of my mind clicked and sparked to life and without knowing what I was doing, I pushed and then I pulled and before I knew it I'd woven the broccoli into invisibility. My mother, startled by the sudden disappearance, dropped the casserole dish. My father, too surprised to stop the dish from smashing to bits on the floor, dispelled the illusion and asked me furiously where I'd learned to do that. My tears were enough to convince them that it had all been a mistake. I even ate my no-longer-invisible broccoli in silent apology.

The next morning, my father announced that I would be sent off to the Academy. His face was grim and his eyes were heavy with sadness -- I know now he was upset that his little girl could not be kept safe forever. I could tell that the news wasn't welcome by my mother either, but not even she could argue that my level of skills could go untrained.

My years at the Academy were some of the best of my life. They were also the years in which I started to understand the truth about my situation.

If you've taken the same path as I did, you must surely have noticed this: the male students at the Academy far outnumber the female ones. This isn't because more boys are born with the ability to manipulate chakra. It's just those age-old gender roles that say women should stay home and tend the fire while men go out and kill the saber-tooth tigers.

(Nowadays they're trying to even out the gender ratio with some propaganda targeted towards the civilian population. The posters show pretty girls in victorious poses spouting phrases about the honour and benefits of becoming a ninja. Sometimes they're even shown with a huge katana or some other none-too-subtle phallic symbol. Personally I don't think an add campaign is going to be enough to change society's ingrained gender roles, but I digress…)

My first two friends at the Academy were Ami and Rina, the only two other girls in my class. They soon became the best friends I've ever had. I have no doubt that if they were still alive today, you wouldn't need this letter and I would feel safe leaving you in their hands.

No one ever had the guts to tell her this, but Ami wasn't cut out to be a ninja. She was sweet and bookish and would've been great as anything else in the world, just not a ninja. Everyone helped her as much as they could though, because you had to be a cold-hearted monster to say 'no' to her big blue eyes and fierce determination. She had two main reasons for wanting to walk the path of the ninja. First off, both of her parents were from prominent clans and she didn't want to let them down. Second, Kakashi had become a ninja, and Ami worshipped him as only a preteen with a crush can do.

(To be honest, I never really liked Kakashi. Don't get me wrong, he's an alright guy and was best friends with Asuma, but he makes me uneasy. Even with his forehead protector pulled snug over his sharingan, every time I see him I feel like he's seeing into my soul. "You're insecure, Yuuhi," he would say if he was the sort of guy to do that. Instead he just stares all mysterious at you, and you just know that he's gotten into your head. And maybe he's right; maybe I am insecure. Or rather, was -- now I'm just bitter and jaded. Either way, for all of Kakashi's all-knowing sharingan powers, he never knew how lucky of a guy he was to have someone like Ami adore him.)

Not many people knew this, but Rina's real name was Ballerina, because that's what her nutjob mother had wanted her baby girl to be when she grew up. I guess life has a funny sense of humour though, because Rina never wanted to be anything other than a ninja. She kept running away from home and camping out in front of the Academy before her mom finally got fed up and signed the papers to let Rina attend.

None of us ever missed a class and we always sat in the front row like the keeners we were. The instructors were kind to us -- attentive pupils are what every teacher dreams of -- but I don't think they truly believed we could achieve our dreams. They looked at us with patronizing smiles, their eyes laughing at the little girls who held swords taller than themselves and pretended to be the legendary Sannin -- it only served to make us more determined.

The boys, when they got bored of paper airplanes and talking about how stacked the instructor was, would tease us. "Girls can't be ninja," they would say.

"If that's true," Rina would shoot back, "Then how come Tsunade's so great?"

The boys generally agreed that Tsunade was the exception to the rule, but more importantly than her skills as a ninja, she had a great rack. Their taunts often reduced poor Ami to tears -- Rina would cheer her up as I threw stones at the boys until they left us alone.

Against all expectations, the three of us passed the Academy exams. When we were then placed in the same genin team, we thought we'd be an unstoppable force forever. Rina was the best at taijutsu. She blamed it on the dance lessons her mother had signed her up for as soon as she could walk, but there was something else too. You couldn't be as good as she was if you didn't have talent. I was our group's genjutsu specialist; layering space on space and throwing the whole quilt over people's eyes came naturally to me. Ami was never as strong or as fast as either of us, but it takes a special sort of strength to know this and still love your friends wholeheartedly.

Our instructor, eager to get rid of us so he could return to his S-rank missions, signed us up for the chuunin exam as soon as he could. Rina and I were ready. Ami wasn't.

I never found out all the details of how it happened. All I know is that I came out of the second round of the exam, an individual survival test, proud as punch that I'd made it. When Rina showed up, a little worse for wear, we greeted each other with our team's secret handshake and bragged about what we'd done. Then we settled in to wait for Ami.

She never came out.

We knew there was something wrong when the examiners started whispering nervously to each other, looking in our direction. When they finally told us, Rina and I didn't cry, but we held each others hands so tight that they hurt.

In the tournament round I was paired off against Anko. She was much younger than the other genins, still a snot-nosed brat by all accounts, but she was good and she knew it. When we entered the ring she gave me a smirk and said, "Heard what happened to your teammate. Let's see if you're as weak as she was." Maybe she just meant it to throw me off balance before the fight, but that's no excuse. For starters, you don't speak ill of the dead. More importantly though, you don't say a goddamned thing against Ami without getting your ass kicked by either me or Rina.

I knocked Anko out in one hit and kept beating in her face even after the referee tried to pull me off her. They almost didn't let me graduate to chuunin for that stunt, but it was worth it. Even back then, Anko was a fucking bitch.

I don't remember much about the months after the chuunin exam, but every time I heard someone moon over Kakashi, I could only remember blue eyes and the smile of the sweetest girl I'd ever met. Ninja are supposed to be without emotion, but goddamn it, my heart fucking ached.

With one corner of our holy trinity gone, Rina and I were split off to other teams. The guys in my chuunin team weren't bad, but nothing compared to what I'd had before. I never quite fit in with Genma and Raido -- we got along well, but there was always that feeling that I wasn't one of the guys. Rina and I kept in touch, seeing each other as often as our busy schedules allowed. She was always my best friend. Separate yet together, we started to grow up.

Don't listen to the crap civilians will feed you about young kunoichi being forced to lose their virginity during missions. Those are all barbaric rumours, ancient practices that have long fallen out of favour in Konoha and the other forward-thinking hidden villages. I did, however, lose mine as the result of a mission.

It was supposed to be an ordinary C-rank mission, but it all went to absolute hell. One minute everything was going peachy and we were just about set to go home, then the enemies appeared from nowhere. Our employers had said that the scroll we'd been sent to retrieve contained sentimental yet trivial information. They'd lied, and I learned the hard way why everyone says you shouldn't look people in the eye when you kill them.

Raido spent the night in the hospital for a wound that would leave him with a permanent scar across his face. When the medic-nins told us he was out of danger, Genma dragged me, still shell-shocked, out of the hospital. "You need to relax, kid," he told me. "Everyone gets like this after their first kill, and I know just the solution."

Genma's great solution was to bring me to a club. He wasn't being purposefully irresponsible, this was just the only way he knew to unwind. I was too young to be there, but the bouncers didn't care. "How old are you?" they asked, obliged by the law. "Eighteen," I lied and walked right on in.

(Don't be surprised, it's completely normal. I wasn't the only one underage, and this sort of thing happens all the time. Go into any club and I'll bet you an S-rank mission's pay you'll find at least a handful of girls who haven't even grown hips or boobs yet.)

Given my mental state, going to that club was the worst thing I could have done. Genma was older than me and knew the place well. He bought me some shots, draped his arm around a girl, and left me alone with one of his friends. The guy seemed nice enough at the time, but how could I judge when I was an emotional wreck? It was only icing on the cake that I was drunk and dumb -- that special sort of dumb that only comes with being fifteen. My muddled mind told me that my first kill was just one step towards growing up. Might as well take the next one. Besides, if Genma -- who I swear still has the emotional maturity of a ten-year-old -- could do stuff like this, why couldn't I?

Let me tell you something: When a guy walks into a pharmacy and buys a box of condoms, no one gives him a second look. But when a girl goes into the clinic to get the morning after pill prescribed, the doctors look at you like you're single-handedly responsible for spreading VD to the innocent male population.

Speaking from first-hand experience, it's not a nice feeling.

(Maybe I wouldn't have minded so much if the night had actually been worth it. But like pretty much all girls, my first time sucked.)

It was a while before I started going to clubs again after that disaster, but when I was older, Rina and I went out every night we could. "I like going out with you, Kurenai," Rina would confess with a wink after a few shots of tequila, "Cause we never have to compete with each other for the people we want to pick up." What she said was true, if only because Rina preferred the company of other women. (After all I've been through, I don't blame her.)

She got a lot of flak for living the way she wanted, not bothering to hide her lifestyle. "This is why they shouldn't let women become ninja," people would say in disgust, not bothering to whisper. "Life in that line of work turns them masculine."

I don't know what those guys were talking about, because if Rina wasn't feminine, then Konoha was filled only with men. She'd grown up to be the kunoichi I'd read about as a child, at least in the physical sense. She had long chestnut hair that would put a shampoo model to shame, and high cheekbones and arched eyebrows that could make royalty blush with envy. She loved things that were considered girly too, like skirts and make-up and chick flicks. Everyone would've thought she had some fabulous boyfriend if she didn't always wear a pin of two female symbols entwined.

(To be honest, I think that anyone who spread rumours about Rina was just bitter from having been turned down by her. I can't think of a single guy who wouldn't have given everything he had for a minute of her attention. Hell, if I were into girls, I would've chased her too.)

It was tough, what with the inevitable glass-ceiling and all, but Rina and I finally broke through and got accepted into ANBU. We worked in different divisions, so we didn't see much of each other for a few months. When at last we were assigned to the same mission, we'd never been happier. It was practically a suicide run, but we thought we were invincible as long as we were together. Gods, do I ever feel stupid about that now.

I'll always remember the night before it happened. We were camped out along the border with a bunch of other ANBU. Rina and I were the only women there, so we got to share a tent. There was still some time before lights-out, so we had ourselves a girly chat, just like how we did when we were teens.

"If this were your last night on earth, who would you bang?" Rina asked me impishly.

I had to think about that one for a minute. "Maybe Iruka, I guess."

"Serious?!" She stared, open mouthed, but I knew her reaction was exaggerated. "But why? I mean, he's a chuunin!"

"I know, but I find him kinda cute," I admitted, shrugging. "Besides, unlike most other ninja, he's not an arrogant douchebag."

Rina gave me a sympathetic smile. "That's what you get for being into men. Maybe someday you'll see the light and come over to my side," she half-joked and reached over to muss my hair. "Not to say certain ladies can't be trouble too, of course…"

"What about you?" I asked, bringing us back to our original topic. "Who'd you do if this were your last night?"

"Hmm…" Rina put a finger to her lips in thought, but now I wonder if her answer was entirely truthful. "Tsunade," she replied, making curvy motions near her chest.

I laughed. "I kind of figured as much."

She quirked an eyebrow, the dull lighting in the tent accentuating her features. "How could you tell?"

"When we used to play Sannin back at the Academy –" A wave of nostalgia hit me hard and I swallowed before continuing, "You always wanted to be her. We'd fight about it, but you always let me win."

"That's cause I love ya', honey," she said as she winked at me playfully.

I almost wish that my last memories of her were of that night -- laughing and gorgeous and just Rina -- but they weren't. The next day, after the mission was over and the survivors were left to sort through the aftermath, I found her. Ignoring every rule of protocol, I tore off both our ANBU masks as I yelled for the medic-nins. Rina looked so different from the night before; no one ever dies with grace or beauty.

"I won't let you die," I said with that desperation and denial that all ninja feel when they hold a dying friend in their arms.

"You're a damn sentimental fool," Rina told me, words spluttering out with her blood. "But you're a beautiful one."

I'll never know how she was so strong when the reaper already had her by the hand, but she grabbed me by the collar, dragged me down, and with her last breath she kissed me full on the lips.

I quit ANBU and never looked back.

For a while I was confused about what to do with myself. I had been deemed emotionally unfit for jounin missions, but with my mind idle, I couldn't escape nightmares of the past. I begged and pleaded with the Third to let me work again, and we finally arrived at a compromise.

Teaching had its ups and downs. The pay was shit, but seeing the pride in kids' faces was reward enough for me. I had a great team, but it wasn't always good times.

They say that the worst part about being a teacher is watching your students die. This hasn't happened to me yet, and for that I am infinitely thankful. The second worst thing, however, is seeing that you can't do anything for them.

You might say that Hinata is my personal project. When I first met her, it was like time had frozen and I was face to face with Ami again. They didn't look much alike, but they could've shared the same personality.

Hinata is another case of someone who's a wonderful person, but who isn't right for ninja work. She's soft-spoken and gentle, she just had the misfortune of being born into a stuffy, traditionalist family. Every time her family gave her crap, I wanted to go give them a piece of my mind. But you don'tt argue with the Hyuuga. You just don't.

One day Hinata showed up and actually looked sad. I knew something was up just from that; no matter what Hinata was feeling, she always kept a cheerful façade. So at the end of the lesson I took her aside and tried to find out what was wrong.

It took a lot of digging and we drank an entire pot of her favourite tea, but Hinata finally spilled everything that was bothering her. It went from serious stuff about her family -- mainly her father, sister, and cousin -- to things that only seem serious when you're twelve, like how she wasn't sure Shino thought of her as a friend because he never smiled and how Naruto hardly knew she existed.

When she'd finished, her tears were falling freely. I'm not much of a crybaby myself, but when you see someone like Hinata break down, you can't help but follow suit. With one glance at me, Hinata's tears dried up and she shifted into comfort mode. If that girl has one fault, it's that she cares too much about other people.

"Don't cry," Hinata said simply, her twelve year old face with the blank eyes and gentle voice smashing down my carefully constructed emotional barriers, "I'll be fine." She even gave me one of her small smiles, but that only made me cry harder.

The next day I raged at the Third, sympathetic and accessible to even the lowliest citizen despite his position, but he only shook his head sadly. The Hyuuga clan was too powerful -- no one told them what to do. It was an awful feeling, but I knew the only thing I could do for Hinata was try to set a good example for her to follow.

I tried to be a strong role model for her, showing her that girls could be ninja too. I tried to show her that a woman could be smart and capable and speak her mind, and that there was nothing wrong with that. I think I succeeded on those points, but just as Hinata could never work up her courage around Naruto, my own romantic life was a mess. No matter how hard I tried to fix it, I just kept making it worse. Until, of course, it went and fixed itself.

"Goddamn Kurenai," Asuma commented one day after a teacher's meeting. "You look like shit."

"Charming as ever, Asuma," I replied dryly.

Knowing me well enough, he took an educated guess at the problem. "Another guy went and broke your heart, didn't he?"

"I'm not sure if he ever had enough of my heart to break it, but you're on the right track. I don't know why I keep getting stuck with men who are such assholes." I knew I sounded bitter, but that was fine because I was.

Asuma took a long drag on his cigarette, like he was thinking hard about something important, before replying slowly, "It's cause you don't know where to look to get the good ones."

"Oh really?" I snorted doubtfully. "You got a guy in mind?"

"Yeah," he said, putting out his cigarette and looking me straight in the eyes. "I can think of one."

It's funny how the two most memorable kisses of my life were nothing like the perfect ones you see in movies. The first one left the blood of a dead woman on my lips, and the second tasted of stale cigarettes.

I'd known Asuma pretty much forever -- I used to let him copy my homework back in the Academy in exchange for sharing his comic books with me -- but I never expected him to be the father of my child. (Don't get me wrong, he's a salt of the earth kind of guy, but I just hope you look more like me than like him.)

Aside from never expecting Asuma to get me knocked up, I also never expected to be in this state at all. The doctors call the pill a great miracle of science, and women say it's the most effective way of letting you have lots of fun and sex without thinking of the consequences. Maybe this is true for the ninety-whatever percent of the population that's lucky, but they're not named Kurenai Yuuhi.

(But you know, now I think maybe I am one of the lucky ones. The doctors tell me you're going to be a girl, and I hope to all the gods I can think of that they're right, because maybe then all of these experiences I've had will be able to help someone.)

To be honest, I never wanted a child. I realize this must be hard to hear, but it's not the worst you'll have to deal with in this life -- not by far. It's not that I didn't want you -- I didn't want the consequences for me. And I don't mean consequences like stretch marks and saggy boobs. I mean that I didn't want to walk down the streets of Konoha and have everyone judge me.

See, kunoichi have a dilemma. When we're single or without kids, everyone laments that we're missing out on the joys of life. But as soon as you do get pregnant, you're fucked. Suddenly you're the picture of what's wrong with women as ninja. Everyone assumes you're in your situation because you couldn't take the stress of your job and started sleeping around to cope. Or that you're flat out irresponsible. Or that you needed an easy way out of ninja life and can now sit back and enjoy the unemployment checks paid for by public taxes. And who cares if your boyfriend died for a noble cause? You're a single mother now, and even in today's supposedly forward-thinking world that label comes with a stigma.

And that's precisely the situation I'm in now.

So that's my story. Blunt and a bit vulgar, but I can't think of any better autobiography.

I've never been all that good with words -- I'm a kunoichi, not a writer. But I hope you understand now that being a kunoichi isn't the glamorous life it's made out to be by those old stories. Beautiful kunoichi won't get taken captive by their marks and get saved by Prince Charming -- they're more likely to wind up dead or disillusioned.

When it comes down to it though, I don't care if you end up as a civilian or a ninja. I don't care if you're making pennies or millions. I don't care if you're prettier than Rina was or stronger than Tsunade. All I want is that you somehow manage to grow up happy and can be comfortable with who you are. If you can do that, despite this world filled with prejudice and obstacles, then you've already gone further than the almighty Tsunade. Hell, you've gone further than me. But if you aren't happy with yourself, and if you take shit from anyone, I don't care if I'm six feet under -- I'll claw my way out of the grave and fucking smack you.

… Oh hell, who am I kidding? I want you to grow up well and learn from my experiences, but I guess everyone has to figure this shit out on their own. Just remember: no matter what happens, I'll still love you. You know, 'cause I'm your mother and all -- as cheesy as it sounds, that's just what mothers do.

I love you,

Kurenai Yuuhi.

P.S. You know what? If somehow I'm still alive when you're all grown up, I'm going to break out this letter anyway. We can get good and drunk and you can laugh at your crazy sentimental mom all you like. (Just know I'm going to kick your ass for it later.)