Chapter 16: Kindness
After the incident with Kisame, I wanted to kick myself. Why didn't I chase after him? Why didn't I ask more questions?
The answer was already clear to me. I was scared. I wasn't the type of person to pursue the truth or look into other people's intentions sincerely. Those kinds of things will just bring more heartache I found.
"It'll be alright," I said to no one in particular. Kisame was just another person that would come and go in my life. Everybody was insignificant in my life. I should be used to this by now. I scrunched up my face; I needed to believe in my words.
A day later, there was a widespread rumour going around, something about "Ao Oni" had beaten up an older student nearly to death. But rumours were just rumours, right? There was no way Kisame could do that? Could he? I shook my head out of unwanted thoughts and focused on the theory of "Substitution Jutsu."
It seemed that Substitution Jutsu was the most ninja-like spell I had seen, or rather read, so far. I can replace my whole body with an object, usually a chunk of log, by using misdirection. This was a great defensive spell. I wonder if I could do it?
The more in-depth I read about it, the more confused I got. I wished Shigi-sensei would show us how to do it. He would never let us spar with each other or apply any of the jutsus we read about. Unce Nobu was just as surprised when he heard that Shigi-sensei was only focusing on knowledge over the application.
I wasn't complaining. I was super bad with fighting anyway. I haven't landed a solid punch or kick on Uncle Nobu yet.
The rest of my time in Class A came and went. My aim with the kunai and shuriken continued to get better. Everything else was just all memorizing and regurgitating. Finally, after six more months, my evaluation day came. I was the last one to be called to the front to receive my "report card."
"YUKI, HARUMI" Shigi-sensei called? Yelled?
"Yes," I replied. As I made my way towards Shigi-sensei, he gave me a rolled-up parchment. The paper felt thick and grainy to the touch. Ah, goodie, my report card. They have a weird grading system. My marks needed to be a majority of S's and one A to graduate to the next level.
"Harumi-chan," Shigi-sensei's voice was suddenly so quiet and "normal" that I almost questioned if this was the same Shigi-sensei that yelled in my ears for the glorious last six months.
"Y-yes?" I replied as the feeling of creepiness climbed my back. His stern face, his soft voice, his slouched posture, everything about him screamed NOT Shigi-sensei.
"May I speak to you after class?"
I pursed my lip, wanting to know now, but I reined back my curiosity.
He gave me one short nod, and I awkwardly walked back to my seat. I gulped as the roll of paper was sitting snugly in my palm. I heard some defeated groans and some excited chatter accompanied by the crinkling of paper. I was starting to feel nervous. Why did Shigi-sensei want to talk to me after class? Could it be? Did I fail?
My hands were shaking as I slowly peeled off the sticker. I unfurled my paper centimetre by centimetre.
Not a single A. They were all S's! My tensed muscles instantly relaxed. That damn teacher nearly gave me a heart attack! I tried to give him my best glare, but as usual, he gave me no heed.
After that, he continued to give us a lesson about the theory of Transformation Jutsu. Another Jutsu that I memorize the theory of, but never practiced said method. Uncle Nobu only taught me taijutsu, and my grandfather only taught me how to manipulate water and ice...so far. I was surprised that Shigi-sensei still passed me.
The Academy was a lot easier than I thought. Seriously, what was I worrying about?
After class, one by one, students trickled out of the classroom. It was very easy to tell who passed Class A, and who failed by looking at their faces. I sat patiently in my seat until it was just Shigi-sensei erasing his messy scrawl on the chalkboard. The sun was already setting, and streaks of warm orange peeked out from the boarded-up window. I wonder why all the windows were boarded up?
I was glad that I wasn't keeping Uncle Nobu, if he was waiting for me he would be so worried why I haven't left the class yet. At one point, Uncle Nobu stopped picking me up from school, saying something about how I should try to make friends and try to spend more time with them after school, cue in the eye roll. Not wanting to destroy his hope that his niece was a pathetic recluse, I just chuckled shyly and told him I would try to make friends.
I didn't try.
I heard a dull clatter, and Shigi-sensei's back was still facing me. He hung his head low and looked as if the chalkboard eraser was the most interesting thing in the whole world. I wasn't sure if I should clear my throat to get his attention. What was the social protocol for a ninja sensei staring at the goddamn eraser?
I pushed back my chair, causing it to shriek loudly in the nearly empty classroom. I whipped my head back at the still Shigi-sensei still weirdly fixated on the eraser. I slowly walked towards Shigi-sensei, tip-toeing for some reason. I just felt it was necessary from this tense and uncanny situation.
"Shigi-" I started, but was cut off when he suddenly turned to face me. I took a quick step back to create some distance between us.
"I'm sorry Harumi-chan," he said barely above a whisper.
"Uh…" I answered dumbly. What was he apologizing for?
"Had I known that you were this brilliant, a prodigy, in fact, I would've invited you to my private lessons earlier…" First, I wasn't a prodigy. It was just that math and literature were super easy for me. Plus, if we sparred, he would have known that I was pretty terrible. Before I could retort, I noticed Shigi-sensei's dark circles under his eyes. He looked so much more tired and older than before.
I couldn't stand the dead and penetrating stare from Shigi-sensei, "W-what do you mean by private lessons?" I asked.
"Most students take a year to two years to graduate out of Class A. But for you to graduate so soon…" He trailed on.
I was confused, what was he talking about? "What…why?" I didn't know what to ask first.
"This is just my own weakness and my failure of being your teacher. Harumi-chan, I wanted to give you a fair evaluation. You are a fast learner and an excellent student, but you haven't applied any of your knowledge yet. You won't be ready for class S."
"What are you talking about…Sensei…?" My saliva was getting harder to swallow, it clung to my throat.
"The report card you received are just the marks based on what you learned, but that wasn't the full lesson."
"What was the full lesson then?" My voice started to crack. I didn't like the direction this conversation was headed.
Shigi-sensei sighed, finally reflecting his growing age. "Do you know, Harumi-chan?"
I waited patiently for him to continue on because frankly, no, I didn't know.
"There was a terrible war between clans and non-clans members…" Shigi-sensei stared at the boarded-up windows. "When the clans lost the civil war, the people were divided, there was a hierarchy placed in this country. The academy used to be for everyone, but now… they are divided into two. The lower level and the upper level."
"So…we're in the lower level…?" I vaguely remember Sana mentioning something about my status and why I was in a run-down school despite my family being financially well off.
"Yes." Shigi-sensei finally choked out.
"So what's that got to do with me…Shigi-sensei?" My voice felt tighter.
"The lower level Academy has a particular requirement at the end…I specifically choose students with compassion," he stared back at me, his eyes were waging war with so many conflicted emotions, "students who can display good teamwork, and value their teammates before I admit them to the private lessons."
"O-oh…" I said awkwardly. I was having a hard time trying to piece together the cryptic message Shigi-sensei was giving me. What was this particular requirement even? Before I had a chance to ask, Shigi-sensei continued with his train of thought.
"I wanted to admit you to the private lesson next year, I didn't think you would graduate so soon…if only, if only, I could prepare you better!" Shigi-sensei suddenly dropped to his knee.
"Shi-" I didn't know what else to say.
"I'm sorry, Harumi-chan! I'm sorry. I'm sorry!" Shigi-sensei covered his eyes with his hand. But I could see drops of tears sliding down his face.
The man with an overabundance of energy. The man who stood tall, proud, with a beaming smile, suddenly broke in front of me. This was definitely not normal...right?
"Shigi-sensei!" I finally said. Seeing a grown man cry, no, seeing this hyperactive, and smiley sensei cry was incredibly jarring.
Shigi-sensei took a small breath in. He removed his hand from his eyes. His eyes were so dark, gloomy, and dead. His eyes reminded me of Ogura-sensei. No matter how much she smiled, her eyes were always dimmed.
"Your grandfather came by the other day," Shigi-sensei spoke out after taking three more deep breaths. "He said that whatever I failed to teach you, couldn't be marked fairly."
"Why did Oji-sama…?" I was starting to feel that my grandfather had a heavy hand in my academy progression.
"But, you can still turn it around, Harumi-chan!" Shigi-sensei looked at me with desperation.
"H-how?" I asked.
"Students have a choice to not advance to the next level if they feel uncomfortable to graduate!"
"Why – why would I purposely –" Why is Shigi-sensei saying all of this bullshit?
"I promise you, Harumi-chan. I promise that I will protect you, and all my students!"
"Pr-protect me?" I wanted Shigi-sensei to stop talking nonsense. I didn't want to hear any more of this. I couldn't deal with this bullshit right now. Why? Why was he saying this?
"I will help you and get ready for Class S next year! After all, it's normal for students to graduate at the age of nine!" Shigi-sensei's eyes slowly brightened up.
My body froze, "N-nine…?" My throat felt like it was going to close. Huh? It's getting harder to breathe?
Instantly, memories of the conversation with the Fourth were relieved:
"Basically, I'm saying that if Haru-chan here shows great results in her Shinobi career – let's say, in the next six years? Then her clan will be spared."
Shigi-sensei took my silence to continually babble on with his idiocy. "That's right! You're still young, you still have time, Harumi-chan!"
His voice was starting to drift far, far away from me. I was underwater again, drowning out the memories, the voices, and the deaths.
I felt a hand squeezing my heart tightly. I clenched my teeth, trying to stop my slow-burning anger from exploding out. Time? Time? Time? Time? I repeated the word over and over again.
"Harumi-chan, there's no rush at all! Just sa-"
Before I could control my body, my fist slammed down onto Shigi-sensei's desk. "Like hell, I could wait that long," I growled lowly.
"N-now, Harumi-chan, I under-"
"Sensei." I cut him off. "So, please let me get this straight." A moment of furious anger, but a wave of cold washed over my sweaty body. I could feel tiny goosebumps rising from the hairs of my arms. "You just feel guilty that you have sabotaged my chance to do well in Class S?"
"Harumi-chan, that's not-"
"Should you have taught the class equally from the start, NONE of this would've been an issue!" My voice was growing louder and louder.
"Harum-" My teacher started.
"WHY? WHAT MADE YOU THINK THIS WAS OKAY? WHAT DO YOU EVEN KNOW ABOUT ME? DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT I HAVE TO GO THROUGH?" I screamed out as loud as I could. My throat was burning, but the pain in my throat was nothing compared to the fear the Fourth had engraved deep in my mind.
Shigi-sensei stopped talking. My body was heaving in air painfully. "If I don't graduate soon… if I don't graduate soon, my clan…mother…" I stopped talking.
"Harumi-chan…I know that my method is…disagreeable, but it was the best way to prepare my students with Class S. I…I never would want to sabotage your chances."
"But you did." My voice finally cracked, only being able to utter the barest of a whisper. My eyes were searching Shigi-sensei's face, searching, and searching, hoping that this was all a crudely placed joke.
"T-that's why, Harumi-chan, if you stay one more year, just one more-"
He was serious.
"Why did you pass me if you didn't think I was not ready?" I looked at Shigi-sensei. He looked pathetic the way his eyes were cast down, unable to look at me properly. Who was the adult? Who was the child?
"Your…grandfather…I-I just wanted what's best for my student! You have to believe me!"
He kept mentioning my grandfather. Did my grandfather threaten him? He continually avoided giving me any more information about that. Worry slowly wrapped me up tightly. Was Class S that hard? How I desperately wanted to take Shigi-sensei's offer, but I was turning SIX YEARS OLD three weeks from now. That left me three more years to graduate out of S class and show whatever results the Fourth wanted from me.
Oh God! The walls, the floors, Shigi-sensei, they were all multiplying. I blinked rapidly, desperately, trying to stay focus. Oh God! That's not enough time! THAT'S NOT ENOUGH FUCKING TIME!
I wanted to yell at Shigi-sensei. I wanted to scream and curse him for putting me in such a difficult spot. But nothing was going to be fixed from that. What was done was done.
"Goodbye, Shigi-sensei," I finally mustered enough self-control to say. I just wanted to get out of this classroom. I just couldn't bear to see Shigi-sensei's face any longer. His whole presence repulsed me.
Shigi-sensei gave a sharp gasp, "Wa-wait, Harumi-chan!"
If I didn't graduate on time, if my clan got executed as punishment… then…before I knew what I was going to say, the words slipped out so quickly, so fluidly. "Shigi-sensei, you're a murderer." I wanted to say something; anything to just hurt him. I wanted to relieve my hatred and anger instantly. The moment the words were uttered out of my lips, I could never forget the tormented face Shigi-sensei gave me that day. I began to walk away from this useless and pathetic man who was my teacher.
"Harumi-chan! Please believe me when I say that I do care about my students. I never – I would NEVER do anything to let my stu-"
"But it will," I said curtly. I knew what he was going to say, and there was no point in continuing this conversation any longer. "And it has," my voice gave near the end. Shigi-sensei looked away from me, and I took that moment to take my bag and walked out of Class A-2 one last time.
I was the last one to leave the school. The schoolyard was empty, back to its' deserted dead space. When I rounded the corner, I punched the wall as hard as I could. "FUCK!" I screamed to no one in particular.
My hand hurt.
Once I entered the compound, Uncle Nobu was the first one to greet me. He must have super hearing, how the hell was he always ready to greet me whenever I came home.
"Harumi-chan!" My uncle smiled widely. "You're a bit later than usual, does that mean you made some fri-"
"I talked to my teacher," I cut him off shortly. My knuckle was decorated with a blossoming bruise from where I stupidly punched a brick wall.
"Oh, well wha-"
"I passed Class A, Uncle," I felt empty, drained, and tired. I just wanted to go to bed.
"I'm going to bed," I cut off Uncle Nobu again.
When I walked past him, I felt a strong hand clutching the crown of my head. "Ack!" I yelped in surprise.
"Now, now, Ha-ru-mi-chan, why not spend some time with Uncle Nobu tonight? Hmm?" Ah shit, uncle Nobu was pissed.
"Ugh. Fine," I conceded immediately. I walked away muttering, "you should go and get yourself a girlfriend." Uncle Nobu just snickered as he walked right behind me. One time I pissed off Uncle Nobu when I refused to come out of my room when I didn't want to train anymore. He broke down my door and made me spend the whole day with him. There were only so many cringy jokes I could take before I screamed. I could never forget the stares and the hushed whispers directed at us when I threw my ice cream cone at Uncle Nobu when he talked to me in cliche dad jokes all day.
We walked to the kitchen, and Uncle Nobu made dinner for the two of us: rice, some grilled fish, miso soup, and other salted vegetables as side dishes.
"Sit," Uncle Nobu ordered.
I heaved another tired sigh and dragged my feet towards the table.
"You can't just skip meals, Harumi-chan. A shinobi should always be well fed! You never know when you won't be able to eat when you go on a mission!" Uncle Nobu lectured me. I never really listened to him wholeheartedly.
"Hm," I replied vacantly.
"Now let's see your report card."
I pulled my knapsack from underneath the table, and saw the slightly crinkled and curled up report card staring back at me. I passed the report card and threw the bag under the table before I started to pick at my rice. I wasn't really feeling hungry at the moment.
"Ohhh!" Uncle Nobu's eyes were wide, and a big grin was plastered across his face. "All S's! That's a perfect report card!"
I clutched my chopstick a bit tighter. I didn't want to recall what Shigi-sensei said.
"What's wrong, Harumi-chan?" Uncle Nobu asked.
"No-nothing." I murmured. I didn't want to talk about it... at least not now.
"Something is wrong, after all, you're stabbing poor Mr. Fish in the eye."
I broke out of my stupor and realized that, yes; I now have Mr. Fish's eyes punctured through. "Ew…" I grimaced.
"You can tell me, Harumi-chan," Uncle Nobu said softly, all of his previous amusement gone.
"Uncle Nobu…" I wanted to talk to him about what happened between Shigi-sensei and me, but I knew nothing could get fixed.
"Ah, I see now," Uncle Nobu said suddenly.
"Huh?" I blinked out of my thoughts. Could Uncle Nobu already have guessed my troubles? He was pretty good at reading me.
"It's boy trouble."
"Ah?" I scowled and narrowed my eyes.
"You have a crush, and you just can't tell Uncle Nobu," Uncle Nobu covered his eyes with his arm. "Oh, how you've grown, Harumi-chan!"
I threw my chopstick at his head; he caught it swiftly and easily.
"Eh? I was wrong?"
"TOTALLY. COMPLETELY. WRONG!" I gritted out loudly.
"Oh. Good. I don't have to have a talk with the boy then," Uncle Nobu grinned at me childishly.
"No! There's no boy or anything! It's Shigi-sensei!" I finally blurted out.
"You have a crush on Shigi-sensei?"
I threw a spoon next. He caught that just as easily.
"I'm just kidding! Haha," Uncle Nobu laughed jovially. "Being sad doesn't suit you Harumi-chan!"
"So you went for irritation and anger?" I remarked coldly, my eyes burning in annoyance.
"Now, now Harumi-chan. Just tell Uncle Nobu what's bothering you!" Uncle Nobu easily deflected my questions, and I could only sigh tiredly. I just can't deal with these types of people. There was no winning against Uncle Nobu and his stupid tactic.
"Shigi-sensei talked to me saying that he had to pass me, even though I didn't get the full lesson." I pulled out my hand, opened palm, and Uncle Nobu passed my chopsticks and spoon back to me. "He also mentioned that Oji-sama talked to him. He said that I won't be ready and that I should stay for one more year." I could feel my blood boiling over once again. "Why? Why would he do this to me?" I tried to keep my voice even and bit the inside of my cheek.
"Hmm," Uncle Nobu hummed. "I thought that it was weird that you haven't practiced any of the E-Rank jutsus or even spar with your classmates yet."
I started to poke Mr. Fish in the ribs.
"But, I guess the rumour about Shigi-sensei was right."
That caught my attention. "Ru-rumour?"
"There was talk that Shigi-sensei picks the students he will pass after six months of evaluation, and admit them to a private lesson to help students pass Class S. He teaches them enough to give them a bigger advantage than any other teachers in the Academy."
"But why didn't he…" Did Shigi-sensei hate me because I was a clan kid?
"Shigi-sensei is a kind fool," Uncle Nobu said.
"Kind? He practically sabotaged my chance." I bit out acridly.
"You came at the end of the 6 months, and he didn't get the chance to admit you into his private studies probably."
"Why did he pass me then? If he knew I wasn't ready?" I could feel my voice rising in volume once again. Nothing made sense with Shigi-sensei.
"Because what he is doing is illegal."
That snapped me from my growing anger. "Huh? Illegal?"
"The lesson plan is something the senseis have to follow strictly. I know some senseis change the lesson plan because it can be harsh for children. But because no one has reported them, some of the senseis continued with their own custom-made lesson plans."
"Oji-sama… did oji-sama…?" I started to piece together the jigsaw of information Shigi-sensei and Uncle Nobu gave me.
"He probably 'convinced' Shigi-sensei," Uncle Nobu didn't say anything more than that. He didn't need to. It was clear that Oji-sama has threatened to report Shigi-sensei.
"So…I'm going to Class S, unprepared as ever." I summarized my current predicament. I formed a tight fist, and the bruise on my knuckle stung. "What kindness?" Bitter bile rose, "Shigi-sensei's kindness is what's going to cause my downfall."
Uncle Nobu gave a small sigh, "You'll meet many different walks of life, Harumi-chan. Kindness from another person will sometimes end up being poisonous to others."
I nodded with agreement.
"I'm not saying what Shigi-sensei did was right, and you don't need to forgive him. But you should at least try to understand he meant no ill will against you."
I grimaced in disgust, only listening half of what Uncle Nobu said. Like I could forgive a stupid teacher.
"When you become a shinobi, you will always have multiple choices laid out in front of you. What you deem as kindness may hurt others. But by understanding why Shigi-sensei did what he did, it may help you avoid making the same mistakes."
I couldn't understand Shigi-sensei. I would never try to either. What he did was wrong. It wasn't kindness. "Like I would make the same mistakes as him!" I hissed out, but Uncle Nobu didn't lecture me any further.
If I listened to Uncle Nobu that day, could I have averted the tragedy to come later in my life?
"Harumi-chan, you still have three weeks before the start of the new school year." Uncle Nobu smoothly changed the topic.
"I will help you with the E-ranked jutsu, and I'm confident that you will do well in the sparring sessions too. So don't worry too much about it."
"Will I be okay…?" I asked, as my eyes were looking at the mutilated Mr. Fish's body. Poor Mr. Fish.
"You will be. I'll make sure you will be, Harumi-chan. Trust me."
I felt warmth spread from my chest to the tips of my finger. I looked at Uncle Nobu, and I couldn't control the smile forming on my lips. "Okay. I trust you."
For two weeks, Uncle Nobu taught me how to use Substitution jutsu. I had to use this jutsu to escape the barrage of Uncle Nobu's water balloons. Suffice to say; I was soaked to the bones.
"Ahk!" I yelped when I was doused with yet another of his ice-cold water balloon.
"Come on Harumi, you have to make the hand sign faster!" Uncle Nobu lectured.
"I'm t-t-t-t-rying t-t-t-to!" God, why was the water so freaking cold! "Y-y-y-ou're g-goonna g-g-get me sick!" I managed to stutter out.
"Less complaining. More log switching" Uncle Nobu retorted back. "Again!" At least he gave me a warning this time.
Before I closed my hand together to make the seal -
"ACK!" I screamed again. I started to hack out some water that got up my nose and through the airway of my throat. "Ugghhh…" That stung!
At the end of the two weeks of hellish training, I lucked out in dodging the ice-cold water balloons twice. As for the Transformation Jutsu, I had to transform into Uncle Nobu. Apparently, I kept giving him an abnormally large nose.
Uncle Nobu gasped when he saw my work of art. "I-I don't look like that!" Uncle Nobu whined.
He ended up wearing a facemask for two weeks after that incident. No matter how many times I apologized, he wouldn't take off the stupid facemask.
In the third week, we celebrated my birthday. It was the same as last year, and the year before that, obligatory smiles and congratulations. As I looked at the banner with the big SIX on it, it was a count down to our demise.
I still haven't seen the twins anywhere.
Three more days until I attend the Academy – specifically Class S.