The illustrious and infinitely patient romantiscue betaed the first draft of this chapter, any mistakes in the text are mine from later drafts.
I was going to publish this a little sooner, but then I looked at my review count (256? 256!) and decided to add 15% more plot and 25% more Lee. You guys are amazing and I love you to pieces~
A year ago, to the day, I discovered a new-found loathing for the Academy. Now Lee was in the family section (he would be late for class if this dragged on much longer) while I stood amongst three scores of five year olds, every child raptly consuming the words spilling like so much poisoned honey from the Sandaime's lips. Inconceivably, my hatred went up another notch.
"And thus, as another year turns, you enter into a new stage of your lives." Sarutobi Hiruzen smiled genially and I had to bite my cheek to stop myself from sneering. "With your entrance into the Shinobi Academy you have each become a single leaf among many on Konoha's branches. Turn towards the sun of your education and bask in it so you might contribute to the tree as a whole..."
Anger, frustration, resignation. I hid them all in the curl of my fists, secreted in the pockets of my loose shorts. Sunlight. Water. Nutrients. What do you think happens to the leaves that fall? They become mulch. Konoha feasts on desperation, death and failure as much as success. The Uchiha massacre, Neji's father, ROOT...
Listening to the rest of what was being said, I thought this was how Hermione must have felt in The Order of the Phoenix, hearing Umbridge's speech and being the only one who really understood it.
Birds and comets soared from the nearest Academy building rooftop, new shoots and warm earth behind me. I focused on them and breathed.
Slowly, ever so slowly, my fists uncurled. Just in time to applaud the Hokage as he stepped off the podium.
We were all seated in alphabetical order for the first day of school, leaving me near the back in the central column, with the steps on my left and a yawning brunet on my right. It had taken more than ten minutes for all the five year old students to organise themselves without adult input and I wondered if this was some sort of basic competency test. I could have taken charge, but I didn't.
Eventually I took my seat and groaned internally when our teacher announced that we all 'get to know one another', stating our names, likes, dislikes and hobbies to the class. I quickly discarded my theory of competency testing and decided that Takagi Taisuke-sensei was just uninspired and cruel to the socially deficient. He was maybe twenty years old with choppy black hair, medium height, slender build. Small round glasses perched on the end of his nose and hands that fluttered as he talked where his only individual traits at first glance. Seeing as I didn't recognise him from the canon I figured he was either a very minor character, or died before the main storyline kicked off. Depressing.
My notebook had been open on my desk since I sat down (back when I was expecting real work) and I twirled my pen between my fingers while I thought of a few innocuous pieces of information I could give the class. Having jotted those down so I wouldn't flounder later, I wrote down everyone's names as they were given. Basic appearance (what I could see from the backs of their heads when they stood at their desks at least) and the information I could discern from their confidant proclamations, quiet mumbles and everything in between. These facts joined their designations as their introductions came tumbling out one after another, speech to bullet points in shorthand kana.
To all but the most observant onlooker my casual half-slump would give the impression I was doodling, rather than categorising facts and my own impressions out of a mixture of trepidation for the future and, yes, boredom. I didn't know what I expected, but I hated the feeling of getting flung back to primary school, particularly one which would offer me a multitude of careers in killing people for money. Between bios I looked around the room, taking stock of my classmates beyond the mindless scribing of facts.
There were no familiar faces, only a few familiar names, if you counted non-canon clan children.
No heirs though...
A stray thought took root in my mind as I wrote, before I realised that it was my turn to speak. I bowed over my notepad, keeping my hands covering the sheets when I straightened again even though it was all in safe, legible kana and not too incriminating besides. "Hello," I spoke without regard for projection because I frankly didn't care if anyone in the front row could hear me or not. "My name is Rock Hinoe. I like reading and dislike natto. My hobbies are reading and cooking." Then I sat down. There, one of the shortest introductions, no rambling or embarrassment. Mission accomplished.
I continued to write my classmates' bios, inwardly feeling even more grumpy and despondent than usual, for all the obvious reasons. After the last child sat down we got another lecture, echoing the Hokage's speech from earlier that morning.
Honour. Dedication. Perseverance. I wrote down the keynotes that most of the children didn't seem to register past 'honour'. The previously sleepy boy, Ryuzaki Hiroshi, was actually bouncing in his seat beside me. None of them understood how much this society had already indoctrinated them, how few choices had actually been their own up to this point in their lives. How few they would have in the years to come.
"Now lets get away from this stuffy classroom and enjoy the sunshine!" Takagi-sensei had the audacity to chirp, prompting happy shrieks from many of his students. I sedately followed after stowing my notes, tying my hair up off my neck in preparation. 'Enjoy the sunshine', yeah, more like take laps around the grounds.
It's going to be a long seven years.
The Academy grounds were a sprawling expanse of green, diverted and cut off and split apart by the various buildings that housed everything from classrooms to teachers' lounges and equipment storage. It was through this system that different years gained their own spaces while still having free reign over the area as a whole. As a general rule, the younger non-clan children stayed away from the kunai ranges and in the improvised sparring rings.
Finding Lee in the chaos of the lunch hour exodus proved more difficult than normal, because he was among so many unfamiliar energy signatures, many of which were as simplistic in imagery as his own.
Soil warmed under a rising sun, a young plant nestled in it curling up towards beckoning heat, dew clinging to spring green tendrils.
"Lee!" I called, waving at the familiar figure I had tracked down, his signature braid turning this way and that as he scanned the other students for me.
Hearing my voice, he turned. "Hi-ch- Hinoe!" He cried, cutting himself off before he called me 'Hi-chan', I suppose he might be a little embarrassed to call my nickname in public.
"Want to eat lunch together?" I asked as I jogged over.
Lee scanned his surroundings before nodding. "Yes."
"What," I teased, "too cool to sit with your little sister?"
"No, of course not." Lee shuffled his feet, smiling awkwardly. "It is just odd, seeing you at school."
I accepted the explanation and together we found a nice tree to have our lunch under.
My suspicions about Lee's lack of friends seemed to have been proven right, but it wasn't like canon Lee had any friends to speak of before Team Gai. Unsure how to address the issue without making Lee feel bad about himself, I talked about classes and the profile log I was throwing together of my classmates.
"You can be very creepy sometimes, Hi-chan." Despite himself, Lee chuckled as he munched on a spiced egg roll.
I tugged his hair in retaliation. He bumped my shoulder in return. It devolved into a two-person game of tag from there.
I settled into my classes with all the grace I could muster. There were a million coping mechanisms I used to get through the day. The fact that I would never actually graduate was a good one and keeping that in the forefront of my mind helped me get through lectures. The subject material wasn't especially grisly, not yet at any rate, but there were casual references to techniques we would eventually learn, anecdotes slipped into every lesson which were aimed to desensitise.
The first few years were building blocks, I knew that from Lee's syllabus last year and the homework he was bringing home for this one. Seeing it all first hand was still difficult for me however. If someone had taught me these things knowing I was really an adult, I might have found them fascinating. Sitting among real children and looking like one myself while being taught the shinobi arts was positively stomach churning however.
God, they're all so young and yet they are already playing 'Ninja' with such attention to detail in the school playground. Really putting their vital area training through its paces.
"The taijutsu forms you will learn before graduation are as follows: Sapling Stance, Little Forest and Dancing Leaf." Takagi-sensei listed off, writing the pertinent titles on the blackboard. "These forms can be combined and built upon with other styles because they are simplistic and easily adapted. That doesn't mean that you can just do what you feel like however, each new addition should be made with the help of a teacher or qualified shinobi..."
I split my attention between the lecture simplified for five year old ears and the hushed conversation one row down.
"He's going to win again this year, freaking blew the competition out of the water last time."
"No way, there are Uchiha in his class. They know he's serious competition now."
"I'm telling you, he'll kick them all the way to-"
"Tai, Akito." The teacher's voice was stern and commanding even though he was still turned towards the board. "Save it for the break."
Hyuuga Neji. I wrote on the loose paper I kept for my observations. Class 2-C's number 1 again? The Uchiha are gunning for him...
After almost a year of study I was no closer to utilising my chakra. The problem being that I couldn't even find the damn thing.
Perhaps I didn't have any, which would be a red flag of epic proportions considering that every living thing in this world had at least a spark of the stuff. Chakra was synonymous with life, to run out of it was to die. Chakra exhaustion was listed as one of the leading causes of shinobi death bar enemy nin and every book I had studied warned against overexertion.
Which was yet another reason why I was afraid to help Lee unlock his chakra. Without knowing the first thing about it on a personal level, how could I supervise the use of it? Especially since there were so many warnings against new trainees practising by themselves.
Worse still, there was no hint in any of the texts how someone went about finding their chakra. It was like telling someone to find their hands- they were just there and thus the various books I had practically come to memorise during Lee's first year of the Academy were next to useless on. It wasn't like any of them gave me a road map. The 'chakra network' wasn't even a physical thing, not like veins or arteries, it literally existed on another plain of existence and no one even found this strange!
Chakra was otherworldly, yet painfully common in this universe. I was from another world and if chakra was as spiritual as it's make up suggested (physical and spiritual energy being its whole gimmick) then it was possible that my spiritual otherness had screwed up my chance for having a working chakra system, as surely as Lee's physical failings had thrown a wrench in his, maybe.
At least in canon, nothing had been confirmed yet. Weak as it was, Lee's signature was getting stronger. I could pick out the weak pulse from several streets away now and that had to mean something.
Canon Lee did have chakra, he opened the celestial gates and the energy had all but poured out of him then. Perhaps it was his network that was deficient, allowing bursts of chakra but no precision. Power without control, on a scale which made Naruto's heavy-handed attempts look downright skilful. Only Lee didn't have the monstrous reserves to compensate.
Maybe. It was all conjecture. I had been thinking about this a lot but it was all just circular without confirmation. I needed to have that soon, preferably before Lee started chakra training half way through his second year. Only six months away.
What's the go-to cliché... meditation, right? Sitting cross-legged under a waterfall seemed to be the sure fire trope for self discovery, that or melodic humming surrounded by monks. I didn't have time for a spiritual pilgrimage, nor the inclination to find a waterfall, but I figured that deep breathing couldn't hurt. Certainly trying to find my chakra as I lay in bed wasn't working, since I always drifted off before making any progress. Finding time to search beyond those sleepy windows of opportunity was hard however, since between the Academy, Lee, finances, studying, exercise, chores, clothes repair, cooking and so on I had little time for self discovery.
Looking to rectify that, two weeks into my first year on a bright spring afternoon, I sent Lee to do the shopping by himself then pushed our meagre living room furniture against the wall to create a blank expanse. Then I sat down cross-legged on one of the flat cushions, nominally belonging to the low table I'd shoved against the bookcase, and tried to push the world and all its subsequent worries out of my mind.
Okay. Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on, um... a calm pool of water. Maybe with occasional ripples. No, water, not caramel, why am I even imagining caramel? Breathe in, breathe out...
I could totally make caramel though. Sugar cane from Kusa, low heat on the stove-
No! Stop it! Breathe in and breathe out! Imagine a flame or something! Gently flickering...
No, not a flame antronach, for goodness sake- a bloody candle flame!
...I really miss video games.
Flopping backwards onto the tatami mats, I smacked myself in the face with the pillow.
"My own mind doesn't even listen to me." I sighed before getting to my feet to make some tea. Caffeine probably wasn't the smartest idea, as it might only make me more restless, but I needed something to do with my hands. When the water was almost boiled I poured it into the pot with the leaves; the little thing had a flower pattern which couldn't decide if it was peach or cherry blossom, but it was pretty and came with matching cups. Just four, the six cup set had seemed a little too hopeful for my future entertaining prospects.
I didn't wait long before I poured the first cup, having settled back onto the cushion in seiza pose this time, a position which had become more comfortable to me over time. The first batch of tea was a very pale green, with only a few runaway spear-shaped leaves floating in it. None of them stood upright but I was beginning to believe that that particular anime trope was a myth which flaunted physics as much as massive magical power attacks did in the real world.
Ha, real world, like this one isn't. It's hard to tell if you're awake when you're sleeping, but the easiest thing to confirm not being asleep when awake. Can't even be a coma, or my wandering thought processes would have given Konoha tap-dancing unicorns by now.
I stared into the tea, focusing on the almost uncomfortable heat of my palms, the bitterness on my tongue as I took a sip, the absence of warmth as I put the cup on the tray with its matching pot.
I'm a chakra sensor. This should be easy for me.
...Unless it has something to do with never knowing yourself as well as you do others? No, that's stupid. I don't need to know people to sense them. Sensing someone just means I memorise the feel of them and can find them from a greater distance.
Is it like the onigiri adage? What's that from again... Fruit's Basket. A riceball can't see what's on it's back... god, that is the dumbest metaphor ever... Though I suppose a takoyaki ball doesn't know it's batter is hiding a piece of octopus either...
I really need to stop personifying food, it's only going to make me hungry.
No, focus. You can do this. Find your calm. Look inward.
What did I feel? Breath. Heartbeat. The easy ache of my overlapping feet as I leaned back on my heels. The roughness of the mats against my skin and through the cotton of my shorts.
Pull back. Inner stimuli. Focus.
My ribcage expanding with each inhalation, shrinking as my lungs depressed, the rise and fall of my diaphragm. The hairs on my arms lifting as a draft from the cracked window teased them into bristling. If I concentrated I could feel everything softly pulse in time to my heartbeat, my body's tempo which dictated the pace of everything else.
Was there a tiny warmth in the pit of my stomach? Perhaps it was the tea. I focused on it anyway, pressing one palm down on that warmth and another on the left side of my chest.
Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
I imagined that tiny warmth expanding, running along the route which had been burned into my brain after staring so long at all those pathway charts, which paid varying tribute to the hundreds of tenketsu running through the human body.
There were gates too, I remembered back home that they were (ironically) called chakras. A straight line, from the crown of the head to the naval, I paid only cursory attention to these, just enough so that I could move on without my mind dragging me back to them. I couldn't unlock them even if I wanted to and adamantly did not. Not ever.
Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
Spread the warmth out, like water, or oil. Feel it spread through every cell of my thighs and calves, to the very tips of my toes. I returned to the pool in my stomach and drew a portion of it up my torso, splitting it at the crossroads of my collarbone then down my arms, to my fingers until they too tingled with that sensation I could not adequately describe. Warmth, liquid, static. It was adrenaline, yet it was also serenity. No wonder ninja were so sure of themselves, if this is what they felt like all the time.
I drew it up, further and further by minuscule fractions. Bringing it up to my head... would it feel like drowning? I took a deep breath and stoppered my lips, in preparation for the plunge.
Ba-dum! Ba-dum! Ba-dum!
Light headedness only heightened the sensation I was feeling as the chakra electrocuted every cell and pore and follicle. My heart was pounding in my ears and the warmth felt a little like blood rushing back, or like that brief, mildly terrifying lift preceding true take off. My prior experiences fell short in describing it and I felt both disconcerted and exhilarated simultaneously.
My breath finally burst past corked lungs and lips and heart pounding, nerves tingling, I finally let that feeling -my chakra!- slowly recede. Sitting up straight and swaying slightly, I let that feeling wash over me as the whole world slunk back into my mind's eye.
It feels like-
The moment suddenly shattered as the front door opened, the sound a jarring awakening to my newly rediscovered ears. My chakra finished flowing back to its reservoir then curled up tight, condensing so small that I wasn't sure if I could ever find it again. I would though, I knew the paths now and they would only become easier to navigate the more I walked them. Surely.
"I'm home!" Lee called as he kicked off his sandals at the door, neatly stacking them in the cupboard to the sound of rustling paper shopping bags and the door banging shut behind him. "There was a deal on daikon so I got two!" He sounded immensely pleased with his business savy ways and I couldn't help but smile, although the expression was probably a dreamy one. I still felt light and floaty.
"That's great!" I responded, standing up carefully before retrieving the tray, the tea quite cool now. Must have been meditating longer than I thought... I hissed as the blood hushed back to my legs and I shook them to try and abate the inevitable pins and needles, before giving that up as a lost cause and heading for the kitchen. "We can pickle the spare one and have some of the other in tonight's salad." I ruffled Lee's hair as he started unpacking the bags, causing him to duck his head and grin widely.
Early morning markets were the best time for meat, particularly fish, but fruit and vegetables were easier to procure on discount nearer closing time, provided you weren't too picky about what you took home. I helped Lee unpack, loading up the fridge like an irregular game of Tetris and pointedly holding up the jar of chilli flakes which were decidedly not on the shopping list. Lee had the grace to look abashed as I stored them with the rest of the spices, one side of the cupboard dedicated to a plethora of shades ranging from mustard to oxblood. "Just make sure I take my share before you dump these in the pot, 'kay?"
"'Kay." Lee folded an empty paper bag carefully before putting them in the drawer next to the sink, bumping it with his hip to get the runners to slide. "Did you have fun today?"
I hadn't told him what I needed time for, Lee had been too excited at the new responsibility to question the reason behind it. "Some," I settled on, "I think I might like a few more days like this, if that's okay?"
"Un!" Lee took a stick of chalk from the little shelf of the blackboard we had hanging on the wall adjacent to the door and marked 'groceries' off our to-do list with an exuberant slash of green. "But..." He faltered, "we can still do stuff together, can't we?"
"Like you could get rid of me." I stuck my tongue out at him.
Lee seemed to consider this declaration for a moment before, quick as lightning, he made a feint for my tongue. I reared back and shrieked in delighted surprise. Lee so seldom initiated play, although he would often make alterations to the games I suggested.
We circled one another, around the kitchen table with its bags and account book lying ignored between us. "Are you a cat today, brother dearest?" I sing-songed sweetly, trying to find an opening without getting caught.
Lee plastered an expression of utter innocence on his face. "But sister dearest, I am not the one with a cat's tongue!"
I opened my mouth, floundered for words, then snapped it closed before trying again. "Do you realise the linguistic nightmare you just-" Lee took the chance to dart around the table, tugged on my long braid sharply, then ran laughing for the front door.
"Braid tag!" He called over his shoulder, gleefully.
Nothing that'll spoil. I assured myself as I spared the remaining shopping a glance before sprinting after Lee.
When we came inside a couple of hours later, barefoot and grass-stained, we made dinner together. Lee talked animatedly, with his hands as much as his mouth, swapping between languages as he washed and stirred and snuck tastes when he thought I wasn't looking. In return I made exaggerated expressions and put on outrageous voices as I accepted washed or unpackaged food for dissection on my chopping board. We bumped hips and shoulders and I blew on the back of Lee's neck to make him assume a turtle position and (after the knives were away and dinner in the oven) we did anything we could to make one another squeak or shriek or giggle.
We both pointedly ignored the chalk board, which told us is was time for endurance training, with a guilty exuberance.
I was eating lunch with Lee, like I always did during the longest break of the school day, when I felt a chakra signature flutter in distress.
Gossamer wings, ripped and useless, the dying thrashes of an insect with powdered wings, its pattens and species indistinguishable amidst the dirt in which it writhed.
There was other imagery, but I couldn't focus on anything except that one facet of this person's chakra signature. I was standing before I realised what I was doing.
"Hinoe?" Lee put his bento aside, tensing to spring. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know yet." We abandoned our things under the birch tree we had claimed all those months ago and, with a frown playing about his face, Lee followed me into copse of trees we sometimes practised our climbing on.
So focused on following the chakra, I didn't hear the crying until Lee tugged my sleeve and tilted his head in the mimicry of 'hey, listen'. It was hard to tell if the sobs were masculine or feminine, they were just young, as young or even younger than the owners of those spiteful voices sniping derogatory things.
"Hyuuga-san, Hyuuga-san, why'd they call you that? You're justa wimp." One on the boys (hopping hare, gleeful twitching whiskers) tugged at short black locks, revealing a tear-stained face with every upward yank.
"P-please leave m-me alone." Hinata tried to untangle her hair from his fingers, tried to stand up, but he had her in a primitive lock and she couldn't pull away without loosing half her scalp. She knows enough Gentle Fist by now, surely?
"They say she's the heir," the other boy (river slipping over jutting rocks and waving weeds) laughed as he nudged Hinata with his foot, "lota good that does her. Can't even hit anyone in class-"
I had seen enough. "OI!" I shouted after I grabbed the second boy by the back of his shirt and yanked. "Back off!"
Beside me, Lee was equally angry, falling into a stance that I vaguely recognised from my own introduction to taijutsu. "Let her go!"
"Mind your own business!" Snapped the one I still held by the scruff. Despite my best efforts to throw him to the ground he didn't budge from his rooted stance no matter which way I tugged. Mad enough to spit nails, I kicked the backs of his knees which finally made him crumple. Before he could get up, I slammed him in a police-issue arm lock, sitting on his legs so he couldn't kick or roll over.
By the time I looked up, Lee had tackled the other boy and Hinata was looking at us with a wide-eyed stare. "Hi," I quipped, "I'm Rock Hinoe."
"I am Rock Lee!"
"Hy-Hyuuga Hinata, please treat me kindly." The girl sniffled as she bowed over her knees, slipping into seiza like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Well, Hinata," I said, straining to hold the river-rocks-weeds boy in place, "we are going to start running to the nearest teacher at the count of three."
"One," Lee chirped helpfully, digging his knee into his captive's back.
"T-two," Hinata scrambled to her feet, her fingers twisting together with nervousness.
"Three!" I cried, disentangling myself and sprinting back the way we came, in the direction of the most developed chakra signature within close distance. Lee and Hinata's energies mingled as one of them stumbled behind me, falling into pace together as the two boys scrambled to their feet and gave chase, at least until we broke into more crowded surrounds.
Bullies are cowards. I reminded myself as I slowed and retrieved a handkerchief from my pocket which I handed to Hinata.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on the cat pattern before guiltily pocketing it. "I will wash and return it, I p-promise."
I nodded in ascent before flagging down one of the tenure chuunin and explaining the situation.
She was unsurprisingly unsympathetic. "Did your sparring get out of hand?" Was her immediate question.
"It wasn't a spar." I gritted out. Lee and I then spent the rest of the lunch break arguing that fact, trying to ensure punishment for Hinata's aggressors.
Finally, the third year teacher sighed and conceded that the altercation may have gone beyond Academy guidelines. "I'll have to call in everyone's parents, if this is a serious charge."
"Th-that won't be ne-necessary, thank y-you." Hinata stuttered out, stumbling over her words even more than when she was getting bullied.
Even as I tried to protest, Kanzaki Nameko-sensei ordered us to our separate classrooms.
The next morning I found a perfectly clean purple handkerchief sitting atop my usual desk, ironed and folded to best display the cheerful cat pattern printed across it.
After that, Hinata avoided Lee and I with the single-minded determination of a hunted animal.
Kunoichi classes were... interesting.
All right, so my knee-jerk reaction was to protest the gender segregation. In a world where you could literally change your sex with a D-class ninjutsu, it struck me as positively medieval that harmful stereotypes would be perpetrated to such an extent.
The lessons were not completely useless however. Just insulting.
Perhaps it was because this was only the first year of training, but I didn't want to learn about the strict rules of Japanese flower arranging or their meanings. Ikebana and hanakotoba were interesting yes, back home I might have loved to study their intricacies. But here, in this world, all I could think about was how wasteful it was to teach girls about flowers when the boys were all using this same timeslot to train in subjects more pertinent to their survival. Flowers wouldn't save you on the battlefield. Passing along messages secretly, blending in as a geisha, noble woman or housewife were all infiltration skills. If your cover was blown, flowers wouldn't save you.
Stupid gender constructs. Judging based on sex rather than personal predilection to a branch of shinobi arts is ridiculous. It just means that you have a bunch of infiltrators who would have been better as heavy hitters and vice-versa, with a million shades in-between.
In silent protest, I set about looking for the flowers with the most negative connotations I could find in the flower field, which all the girls from the three first year spring classes had been assigned to comb through. I could see many 'named' characters from here: Sakura's pink hair and hunched shoulders weren't hard to spot, nor were Ino's bright blonde bob and confidant posture as she picked a fight with Ayame. Word was that the Hyuuga heiress had permission to skip kunoichi training in exchange for more clan training time. A pity, since this would have been a great time to corner her.
Red spider lilies had been planted along one of the boundaries, blending in among the majority of their fellows with little subtlety, and it was these I made a bee-line for. I cut two long stems with my switchblade, a novelty amongst my classmates who either had real kunai from home or were content to hack at flowers with the wooden gear that we all had to hand. Personally, I liked a sharp implement I could made safe by simply folding away. Even if I got teased for my use of a 'civilian' tool, I still got far fewer accidental cuts than my classmates.
Higanbana, as spider lilies were called here, had a few different meanings. Usually they are associated with abandonment, but I preferred their secondary symbolism: we shall never meet again.
Forget-me-nots, or wasurenagusa, didn't have the obvious meaning here that I was used to, becoming one of the countless flowers associated with love in the hanakotoba tradition. With a vague idea forming in my mind I harvested a multitude of the longest stems I could find bearing those small powder blue flowers.
Miyadera Suzume-sensei frowned at my unconventional choice during my rather lacklustre presentation. Two spider lilies shorn short and splayed in a 'V' formation with a curtain of forget-me-nots spilling over the sides of the bamboo pot, more clusters winding up the taller flowers in a weak, grasping embrace.
"Very... imaginative." The chuunin settled on. "But can anyone tell Hinoe what three rules she broke when preparing her ikebana?"
I took the display home at the end of the day, scrunching up my paper name plate and rearranging the other attempts so that it looked like there was nothing missing at a cursory glance.
Japanese tradition dictates that small shrines to the dead be kept at home, to allow for convenient daily remembrance, and this was one of the few traditions I could think of which remained exactly the same is this mismatched world. Photos of the deceased, incense, small food offerings- these were all commonly found at home shines as well as grave sites.
The people I lost hadn't died, quite the opposite. I was the one who had disappeared.
I didn't have any photos to hang, even if I could get away with having them, and I wasn't a particularly competent artist either. The longer I lived apart from them, the more blurred and indistinct their features became in my mind's eye anyway. The thought of trying to put their images to paper and failing made me feel sick. Never mind the questions, never mind that this was a military state full of paranoid shinobi who didn't like unanswered questions. If I closed my eyes and pictured them, I could pretend that they hadn't changed at all. Floundering with paper and pencils would shatter that fragile pretence irrevocably.
An innocuous flower display without incense or offerings would go unnoticed by even Lee, who would believe whatever I told him concerning it. Even if someone looked into the meanings, they would assume I was paying homage to Izuki and Daisuke.
"I miss you." I whispered, even though I was alone in the apartment, and stroked the long swooning red petals of the spider lilies. "Both of you, more than anything."
It was with great surprise that I received a progress report as the spring term came to a close. I held the scant two printed pages, stapled together at one corner, and joined the end of the line to talk to Takagi-sensei after class. Unlike the other students waiting nervously or indignantly in the queue, I wasn't concerned about my rank or grades. I was quite pleased with my #14 actually, since I'd been aiming for somewhere in the middle. I could even raise my grades a little and aim for #11, a nice innocuous number for a group of twenty students.
"Sensei," I broached quietly, rising on tiptoes to better see over the hefty wooden desk.
The man continued shuffling through his papers, the last student in front of me had already left for home.
"Are the reports a new thing?" I asked a little louder in case he hadn't heard me. Takagi-sensei jerked back in shock, his hand reaching for his thigh pouch as he looked at me like he'd seen a ghost.
"What? Ah- Hinoe." He blinked, still looking dazed as he straightened his glasses. "Rock Hinoe, yes?"
I wasn't surprised he had to confirm my name. "Yes. What I mean is-"
"How long were you standing there?" His tone was a hair's breadth from commanding, a notable change from his cheerful classroom demeanour.
"Yes- I mean... excuse me?"
"I didn't notice you standing there." He pressed. "Were you there all the while?"
I blinked, unsure of how to respond. "...I was at the end of the line the whole time?"
"Right." The teacher's shoulders sagged and he rubbed his eyes with one calloused hand. "My mistake, I must be overworked..."
"I am very short." I smiled self depreciatingly. "It's not hard to miss me."
He barked a laugh, although he still looked disconcerted. "Yes, of course. Well, I'm sure you'll grow more soon. What were you saying?"
"I was just wondering if the reports are a new thing, and if they are universal between all the classes."
"Well, yes, of course they are. Why wouldn't they be?"
I sighed, shouldering my school bag as I pre-emptively sought out Lee's chakra signature lingering by the front gates. "No reason at all, sorry to bother you, sensei." I bowed shallowly as I closed the classroom door behind me and went to meet Lee.
I thought we had a good relationship. My feet dragged along the worn floor boards, then the grass and dirt outside. Why wouldn't he show me his end of term reports? He must have gotten two of them last year and now another today...
Lee was standing by the gates when I spotted him, shuffling his feet and looking about nervously. There wasn't a scrap of paper in sight so I knew he must have hidden it.
With some consideration, I stowed my own report in my rucksack and went out to meet him. I won't be one of those mothers. He'll show me eventually. I just need to emphasise that grades aren't everything, that I'm proud of him no matter what... there are lots of child psychology techniques I haven't tried yet.
Those optimistic assertions did nothing to block out that heavy sensation in the pit of my stomach. After all my efforts, was I still managing to screw this up somehow?
"Kick her butt, Nawahiro!"
"Don't lose to a girl!"
Rumito Nawahiro was a popular boy in class 1-C, not particularly cute but roguish enough to make up for any aesthetic short comings. Brunet, tanned, long limbs for a five year old, and used to using his comparative size against others in class spars.
We had been doing nothing but sparring all day and although we hadn't been told as such, I suspected that this was the beginning of the class ranking system.
I skirted the boy, giving him a wide berth. I had won three matches already by waiting for my opponent to tire themselves with easily dodged attacks and them pinning them to the ground when they overreached. For obvious reasons, I wasn't exactly enthused with the prospect of beating up five year olds.
Unlike my previous sparring partners, Nawahiro had at least some shinobi influence- evidenced by his upgraded equipment and the fact that he had known the taijutsu forms before we started learning them in class. The ninja in training grinned at one of his friends on the sidelines, a quick, playful expression which shook my resolve of non-violence almost as much as what Nawahiro said next.
"This won't take long! Who am I fighting next, sensei?"
He made the first move, but my anger left me ill-footed and I stumbled to dodge his punch. Still, I managed to pull the motion through at his wrist to knock him off balance, even if I wasn't able to kick him from behind like I had intended to.
Nawahiro recovered his balance quickly, lashing out at my knees from the front with a kick I jumped over. Even motion was broadcast with the soundless vibration of taiko drums and the rustle of rice fields in high wind as the chakra in his limbs flurried to catch me. I leaned back from a punch aimed at my chest, knowing from previous experience that blocking with my forearms would probably end in another trip to the Academy's medical ward.
I leapt away from another flurry of blows, making the circle of watching classmates shuffle backwards to accommodate me.
Except one of my classmates didn't move, not the way I intended her to at least. Akimichi Chiki, one of Nawahiro's admirers, pushed me back into centre of the ring with all her strength when my back bumped with her chest. I stumbled, almost falling flat on my face, and my opponent took the opportunity granted to him.
He threw me to the ground in a move reminiscent of a few self defence classes I had in high school. That is, if my instructor hadn't cared about safety and not known his own strength. Pulling me through the momentum Chiki had already pushed on me, Nawahiro slammed me into the ground and jumped on my back, pulling up one of my arm until it was tucked painfully high against my shoulder blades.
Even through my pain and discomfort I couldn't help but think: That little shit stole my signature move- and he's not even doing it right!
"Do you give up?" I could hear the smirk in his voice, but my diaphragm had taken the blow and now I couldn't speak, couldn't breathe.
Nawahiro pulled on my arm harder, thinking I was being stubborn. Something snapped, loudly.
I found the breath to scream.
I do not own Harry Potter, The Elder Scrolls (though there may be antronachs in other things?), Fruits Basket or any other media that I've mentioned which I've forgotten to note.
The 'linguistic nightmare' mentioned in the kitchen segment is a mixture of Japanese and English idioms plus word meanings which were jumbled together. In English: 'Cat got your tongue' is a common saying for someone who is lost for words, thus Lee was being teased for being cat-like for trying to pinch Hinoe's. In Japanese however, 'cat's tongue' is a saying which refers to someone who cannot handle hot food or drink. In English, 'hot' can mean both spice and temperature, but in the context of cat's tongue it strictly refers to temperature because Japanese have two words for 'spicy' and 'hot'. Lee refers to the saying in English, thus borrowing the word meaning of 'hot' to extend to spice (something Hinoe cannot bear), thus creating the linguistic tangle you see above.
Ikebana is the art of Japanese flower arrangement and hanakotoba is the meaning of flowers as dictated by Japanese tradition. That segment not so subtly refers to Episode 41 of the animated series in which Ino and Sakura flashback to their childhoods. Suzume is a real chuunin who teaches kunoichi techniques, but as she was never given a family name I stole hers from her Japanese voice actor. Lee's teacher, Funeno Daikoku (who I forgot to comment on last chapter) is also a canon character (who had the grace to get a full name) and taught Itachi when he was at the Academy.
Please take the time to leave a review! The ones that really make my day and help me improve are the ones which tell me what you liked/didn't like and why.
I recently published the start of an Avatar: The Last Airbender (animated series) story called Kaze no Uta, it's had very few hits and I would love to hear more feedback from readers. There's also an Avengers story called Two Steps Back if you didn't spot it earlier- it would be interesting to see how many readers from this story span different fandoms.