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The Undesired Second Chance

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Jet lag, Axel decided, was the absolute worst feeling.

Well, jet lag after several sleepless days working to wrap up a project, presenting said project, and then immediately taking a plane back home to Germany from the opposite side of the world probably broke his scale and scattered its shattered pieces on the wind, so he had to settle with 'absolute worst'. Not to mention that his tired, short-circuited brain was more likely to fall apart than think up a more eloquent gripe.

He resisted yawning for a grand total of maybe three seconds and then almost fell asleep when his bleary blue eyes briefly blinked shut. Sleep had been in short supply lately. Non-existent during the flight, in fact, since he had been stuck sitting amidst an overeager Japanese tourist group that, apparently, didn't need to sleep. Thus Axel had the dubious honor of spending most of the flight answering a veritable barrage of questions about Europe and Germany and München specifically, asked rapid-fire in a language he was only two steps above familiar with. How the insistent bunch could notice enough about his features to correctly peg him as a German but skim over his obvious exhaustion and attempts to evade conversation was beyond him.

He just couldn't, for the life of him, get them to shut up!

And he had tried. Several times, in fact. Some of his later attempts were almost blatantly rude, but all were unsuccessful.

Looking back, he really should have just pretended that he didn't understand Japanese at all. Shame he hadn't thought of that at the time.

Nothing against the Japanese in general, of course. Axel had just spent the last few months in their country for work, not to mention the time he had spent learning enough to be halfway decent at understanding the language. But right now, looking back on the flight as he stands dizzily sleep deprived at the airport baggage claim amidst an uncomfortably dense crowd and still at least an hour away from the comfort of his own bed, well… he wasn't feeling very charitable.

Yawning again, Axel scrubbed a hand through his short straw-blond hair and tried to rub the sleep from his face. It didn't work. Next time, he promised to himself, don't count on sleeping during a long plane ride. And, since he was thinking about it, probably not a good choice to pull all-nighters right before either. He had no idea why he had ever thought that'd be a good idea.

Readjusting the straps of his backpack and rolling his shoulders had him feeling somewhat more steady on his feet, though it was probably just wishful thinking: the world still seemed to spin when he moved too fast. If he looked as bad as he felt… Well, judging by the condition of his scarf, wrung out and wrinkled after hours of fiddling with it as he talked with the excitable tourists, he probably looked a hair shy of 'walking corpse'. On that note, he eyed a nearby vending machine; perhaps he could buy something caffeinated in an attempt to resurrect his sleep-deprived self.

But no, as much as he wanted another burst of artificial energy, it definitely wouldn't be the best idea. A full 24 hours running on chemicals is already more than enough.

He was broken from his musing when he finally spotted his suitcase round a bend on the baggage carousel, grabbed the closest handle to heave it off, and finally began making his way to the exit.

Axel walked out of the terminal and toward a less packed area of the concourse, looking around and just taking in the fact that he was finally back in München (even if just in its airport). The ceiling arched overhead, mid-afternoon light streaming through its clear glass panels. He basked in it for a moment—and he hoped it was just a moment and he hadn't been standing there like a dunce for minutes on end—before reluctantly turning his attention from the glorious almost-warmth of the sun. In his defense, the past week hadn't left any time to just have a quiet moment.

Weaving through the rest of the waiting crowd and onto an escalator down to the S-Bahn platform, he heaved an exhausted sigh. Then his bag got caught on something and he had to tug it free, which nearly sent him falling down the steps. The sigh changed into a muttered curse.

Once safely on the escalator, he took the chance to just stop and listen as the intercom made an announcement about the arriving trains. Hearing German spoken again by someone other than himself to himself in cases of extreme annoyance had been a much greater comfort than he had expected. Axel couldn't help but smile at the fact that, for the first time in as many months, he was back in his home country and just a shortish train ride from his bed. His bed, and wasn't the thought just wonderful? The novelty of temporary accommodation wears off rather quickly, he had learned.

He stumbled off the escalator, nearly face-planting on unforgiving concrete before somehow recovering. However, he did step out of the way to take a moment and re-orient his sense of balance before setting off again.

Barely avoiding collisions with all the people rushing into or meandering about the platform was a miracle in and of itself, but Axel managed to reach one of the ticket machines without too much trouble. Tapping through the options as quickly as he dared, he found the one he needed and made his purchase. And then almost left it behind in the machine: thankfully the person behind him was more aware and caught his mistake. Reasonably sure he had everything he needed, Axel finally wandered off to find somewhere to wait for his train to arrive.

It was only when he heard the intercom make another announcement that he realized he had zoned out again. More alarmingly, he had drifted dangerously close to the edge of the platform while distracted.

A train swept through the station, tossing his short hair out of his face and filling the concrete hall with a symphony of whooshing wind and singing train tracks.

He took a huge step back.

It's a good thing he wasn't driving, since in all likelihood he'd end up getting himself killed by his own scattered attention. Walking even farther away from the edge, Axel leaned back against the side of the escalator. There were benches, but he decided to avoid them for fear that he wouldn't be able to get up again if he sat down.

Axel resisted another yawn and blinked his eyes back open when he realized they had shut at some point. He checked his wristwatch, worried that he might have missed his train and would be forced to wait another grueling quarter-hour-or-something before beginning the last leg of his journey. Another grueling quarter-hour-or-something-plus-train-time before glorious, stress-free sleep. But no, thankfully his lapse had only lasted two minutes.

A train whooshed in on the other side of the platform, stopping to let off its passengers. It wasn't the one Axel was waiting for.

And another, but this one was the one he wanted. He got on with only minimal issues—his bag snagged again, this time in the gap between train and platform. In other news, he felt a bit less tired. Adrenaline does that.

“What, are you trying to get me killed?” Axel hissed at his luggage after arriving at an available seat. One of the other passengers chuckled quietly at something, and he was abruptly reminded that here and now, being back in München meant other people would be able to understand him when he grumbled to himself in German.

That didn't really matter though, since there really wasn't much difference between getting weird looks for what was said and getting weird looks for the language it was said in. What did matter was that he had almost half an hour until his stop, and that meant one thing: nap time. Maybe after a bit more rest he'd stop accusing inanimate objects of attempted murder.

He pulled out his phone, set five or six alarms, sat down backpack-and-all, and was awake for all of maybe two seconds before conking out.

Axel slept like the dead, and when his alarms went off he certainly felt like the dead.

He thought naps were supposed to help with exhaustion. After catching sight of his reflection in one of the train windows, he grimaced. 'Walking corpse' indeed.

After a halfhearted attempt to piece his face back together, he had to call it a lost cause. In a move of great foresight, he hadn't brought a comb with him to deal with his short hair that had somehow worked itself into even more disarray during his nap. And of course there was nothing he could do about his scruffy face; even if he had a razor, his hand was so shaky that he'd be more likely to slit his own throat than successfully shave.

A few minutes later and it was finally his stop. He trooped off with a few others and took a deep breath.

It was good to be back. He smiled and, for the nth time in as many minutes, yawned hugely.

He walked the rest of the way since it was fairly likely—nearly guaranteed—that if he sat down again he wouldn't be getting up for at least a few hours. Besides, München's cobbled streets called to him, and if a few of those calls nearly led him into oncoming traffic, well… He'd just need to forgive and forget.

And finally he was back: standing in front of his small apartment building, walking to his front door, unlocking it and shouldering through, seeing the familiar furniture, posters, books, and even the questionable reddish stain on the flint-gray carpet (it had been there since he moved in). Everything was such a welcome sight: even the stain, though Axel did set his baggage down over it to cover it up.

Taking in the familiar sights of his empty apartment with a happy (albeit sleepy) smile, he sat himself on the ground with his back against his bed. It was more comfortable than one might expect.

He fished his phone out of his pocket and turned off airplane mode. After a moment the device went crazy with buzzes, updating all the texts he had missed during his flight: two from his parents, a couple from friends wanting to meet up now that he would be back in town, and eleven from his little sister. That's pretty much what he expected.

Tapping back a few short messages to friends promising drinks and stories, followed by one to his parents saying he had gotten home safely, he shifted into a more comfortable position on the floor. One person left. His sister's name glowed at him from his phone's screen and he couldn't help but smile. Honestly, Adriane could be such a doofus sometimes.

Did he need someone to send the occasional text counting down to his arrival back in Germany? No.

Doesn't mean he didn't appreciate it.

He called, but she must have been in class since it went straight to her answering machine.

“And now we finally reach 'zero',” he said, finishing her countdown for her. The sharp edges of the German words were blurrier than usual due to his jet-lagged exhaustion. “Looks like I made it back in one piece, Adri. The flight was a nightmare even though I didn't even get any sleep, but I'll tell you more later. Want to get lunch? You can tell me how your first year's going. You've been in Uni for one whole semester right? You have to have some stories by now; we can do a trade! Anyway, I need some sleep so… See you tomorrow, hopefully!”

For a moment he just sat there staring up at the ceiling with a small grin. His own first year felt like ages ago… and wow he felt old when he put it that way—he was barely twenty, come on! Not nearly old enough to be nostalgically reminiscing about the 'golden age' of his university days. Sure, everyone else was at least five years his senior at the time, but he was still good friends with the other members of his old club: a medieval recreation group called the Society of Creative Anachronism, or SCA for short. He had joined to find an outlet for his interest in blacksmithing, since just because he had majored in metallurgical and materials engineering didn't mean he had a valid excuse to forge swords and stuff.

Plus, despite graduating from university and going their separate ways into the workforce, his friends and he all tried to schedule their vacation time around the larger events so they could go as a group. And they still occasionally pestered him to make armor or weapons or just generally help them with their medieval personas or…

Axel realized that he must have fallen asleep at some point during his recollections when he woke up to darkness and an empty stomach. His next realization was that he definitely wouldn't have any food in his fridge. Or the pantry. And he was fairly sure he had eaten all of his flight snacks. He then realized how uncomfortable it was to have slept sitting up against his bed frame rather than in it. While he had been planning on relocating to the mattress before conking out, clearly his brain had had other ideas.

“Aua…”

Pushing his reluctant body upright and stretching out the worst of the cricks, Axel forced himself to walk back to the door. He made sure to grab his backpack on the way—he'd left his wallet in it and was too tired to fish it out. God, he really needed something to eat. Thankfully there was a convenience store down the block that should still be open.

Good enough for now.

And he was outside again, the crisp night air maybe doing the slightest bit to rouse him. Stepping onto the sidewalk with a deep breath, Axel began his slow trip to the store. He was waiting at a crosswalk when he heard…

He turned to the street and was blinded.

Axel wasn't tired anymore.

Adrenaline does that.

His could see the truck, even the driver at the wheel, slumped over on the horn and probably unconscious. He ran a few split-second mental calculations: probable mass, velocity, trajectory, distance…

There was only one conclusion, and he thought he might have cursed out loud but he didn't really notice because, well… there was no helping it.

He was dead.

Axel's world knew white, then red, and pain, then darkness.

 

=X=X=X=

 

And then, somehow, white again.

He blinked up at the ceiling—clean and clinical, though the lights were oddly outdated—and some part of him was collected enough to guess he had somehow gotten to a hospital. Glancing around the plain room didn't tell him much else: it was very white, undecorated, and generally very hospital-like. No wait, there was some decoration: an oriental-looking scroll hung up right by the headboard, which struck him as kind of weird. But then, he'd never been in a hospital before so he wouldn't really know. A soft knock at the door startled him slightly.

“Ja?” Nobody came in for a moment, so he added, “Sie können rein kommen.”

Another moment passed before the door finally swung open to admit a slightly confused-looking elderly Asian gentleman. Axel took note of the older man's appearance—clean professional clothes (if a bit old fashioned and also distinctly oriental)—and decided he seemed pretty trustworthy.

And then the man spoke and Axel's mind might as well be flatlining for all the help it was being.

Because, just… Japanese!?

His thoughts stuttered to a halt, sure that his observation was correct but drawing a blank as to how it was even possible. Though his brain was still catching up to the language shift, he was able to catch at least some of it.

And by 'some of it', he caught something about finally waking up and finding a forest. Then, because telling him about finding a forest makes absolutely zero sense, Axel corrected his translation: more likely it had actually been about finding him in a forest. But he did understand the whole last sentence, so he counted it as a success overall.

“How are you feeling?”

Axel considered: his right leg, he belatedly noticed, was suspended in a cast and thus was likely broken, his ribs hurt with a deep persistent pain, and general aches were everywhere. With his not-bad-but-still-nowhere-near-fluent knowledge of the Japanese language, he finally answered with an uncertain, “Better?”

It was clear by the curling grin the doctor gave him that his accent was as atrocious as he thought. He said something else that Axel struggled to catch—something about his head? Maybe hitting his…

Oh, fantastic; the doctor apparently thought he had brain damage for some reason. Then Axel remembered that he currently has no idea where he is and, in fact, had thought that he had been in his home city hit by a truck when he had, apparently, been in a forest on the other side of the world hit by a… something.

Somehow.

Alright, so maybe there's a case for this brain damage idea.

When next the doctor spoke, Axel was too distracted to decipher any of what was said and ended up just staring back blankly. The doctor, showing commendable patience, repeated himself without complaint. “My name is Kimura Shuichi. What is yours?”

An introduction was simple enough and certainly within Axel's capabilities, even as confused as he was. “I…” Yet his brain decided to prove him wrong, faltering on recalling the full phrase, though only for a moment. “I am Axel Brandt.”

It didn't escape his notice that Dr. Kimura's—Axel was pretty sure that that was his family name and thus doubly sure he had just introduced himself backwards—expression became almost comically disbelieving when he finished introducing himself. Sure enough, the doctor was soon butchering Axel's name.

“Ak—” The doctor paused, considering, before attempting: “Akuseru Buranto?”

One might think that it would be easier to pronounce something correctly when it had just been said aloud, but there are some language quirks and accents that tend to mess things up. It was something Axel had especially noticed about the people he had worked with in Tokyo—'X's and 'L's tend to be an issue for Japanese, meaning his name was always difficult—so he just repeated his pronunciation slightly slower. “Ax-el Brandt.”

Dr. Kimura just shook his head this time, choosing not to make another attempt quite yet. He did, however, say something about strange names: Axel didn't think he had the language skills to argue with that. The doctor did a few more doctor things, generally checking him over, before prescribing continued bed rest and leaving to check up on other patients.

Axel stared up at the ceiling, finally alone and awake and thus (presumably) able to figure out what had happened. He had stumble-asked the doctor a few things: the results were more confusing than illuminating. Apparently one of the villagers passing by had found him passed out and bleeding a few minutes away from the village in the surrounding forest and that was that. Axel found it a tad odd that Dr. Kimura didn't seem to find it overly strange to encounter severely injured people lying around in the woods, but then who knows. Maybe the woods around here are particularly dangerous for some reason.

Regardless, that doesn't change the fact that he had somehow turned up back in Japan, injured, with none of his luggage save his backpack and whatever was in it. He knew why he was injured (he wasn't just going to forget his near-death encounter), and missing luggage was fairly easy to accept, but missing out on traveling halfway around the world was another matter entirely.

“Gott im Himmel… Bin ich verrückt?” Axel groaned to himself. Well, maybe insanity was a perfectly valid explanation.

 

=X=X=X=

 

The patient in the other room must be crazy.

No, scratch that. All the circumstances around him, in addition to the man himself: all crazy.

Even before he had woken up things weren't making sense. Morimoto Kichirou, the blacksmith's boy, had found him bleeding in the forest, minutes outside of town in a clearing just off the side of the road. From his injuries—broken right leg, bruised ribs, lots of normal bruises basically everywhere, cuts, and maybe a slight concussion as well—it could be guessed that something had slammed into him with some force and more than likely sent him flying. Now Kimura Shuichi wasn't much of a shinobi himself, having studied exclusively medical ninjutsu and literately nothing else before retiring from the force to run his family's clinic, but the only thing he could think of that could cause that kind of damage was a ninjutsu. But then… the surrounding ground was completely undisturbed. Hell, according to Kichirou-kun even the thin layer of frost had been unbroken before he had trampled it when he went to help.

So the man was found gravely injured with absolutely no signs as to how.

And then he woke up and things somehow got more crazy.

Shuichi had been hoping he could get some answers out of him once he woke up, but that clearly wouldn't be an option. At least not for a while. His speech was so rough and tinted by… something that the doctor could barely understand him. In the end all he had learned was his name. Not that he could even pronounce it.

It's not that he was annoyed that his patient was finally awake and on the road to full recovery, but honestly .

He let his head thud onto the paperwork on his desk, scattering a few by the edge, and groaned an annoyed sigh. Peeking through one eye showed him the butchered attempts at writing the patient's name down at the top of a form. It was the report he was writing up, as had to be done for any suspicious character that couldn't be accounted for, but he didn't know what to put down for most of it. As such he had ended up leaving most of it blank, save for two things: name and age.

Specifically that the patient's name was something along the lines of 'Akuseru Buranto' (but sharper somehow) and he was (probably) in his early 20s.

That's it. That's all Shuichi knew.

Part of him grumbled that he was getting too old to need to deal with these things.

At this point he hadn't even looked too closely at the fact that his patient should be dead. Should have been dead since he had first been brought in. Was dead even now, technically… but not. It was easy to see that he still breathed, that his heart still beat—he was alive —despite one glaring point that should make it impossible: he didn't have a chakra system.

Which, now that he thought about it, probably explained why it had been so hard to stabilize him; trying to use what medical jutsu he could still perform felt like trying to keep water in a strainer: the chakra he put into the technique just drained away before doing anything. Though that's not quite accurate, since he had been able to make a difference for the broken bones by shoving way more healing chakra than should be needed and directly forcing it to stay in place with every single ounce of control he had. And even then it had been slow-going, energy intensive, exhausting work that didn't fix nearly as much as he had hoped. All of that's beside the point though.

The point is, his patient has no chakra.

He has absolutely no chakra .

But he was awake in the other room, just down the hall, so Shuichi must have made a mistake. Because if it wasn't a mistake then the man in the other room just down the hall should be dead and he clearly isn't .

“I'm getting too old for this,” he repeated, but this time out loud and mumbled into his paperwork. Deciding that he must have been wrong, since the alternative was literally impossible, he scribbled down that the patient was a civilian. A barely-there chakra system (and there had to be a chakra system, he told himself) could mean nothing else.

There was a sudden loud knock on his door: only one, and very heavy-handed. With yet another sigh, though this one more fond annoyance than just plain annoyed, Shuichi called, “Kichirou-kun, please. While knocking is the polite thing to do, if you could avoid denting my door whenever you stop by I would appreciate it.”

“Sorry, Kimura-sensei. I'll keep that in mind.” The door slid to the side to reveal exactly who he expected, though looking quite a bit dirtier than usual. Morimoto Kichirou was pretty tall for a 15-year-old, and right now most of him was covered in a fine layer of soot from his father's smithy. Even his near-black hair was several shades darker than it should be.

“All the same, given that you haven't stopped yet, I doubt you'll stop now.” The doctor ran a hand through his greying hair in an exasperated gesture, but his crinkling smile said otherwise. “Though usually you do try to clean yourself up more before rushing over.”

At least the teen had the decency to look a bit chagrined at that, though not for long. “Sorry, I just… Is it true he's woken up?”

Shuichi nodded. “I believe he's been conscious for nearly two hours now.”

There was a pause as Kichirou-kun waited for him to say more, expectant, but his patience dried out quickly. “Well? What's up with 'em?”

“It's 'with him '. And honestly…” For what might as well have been the hundredth time, he mentally ran through his brief interaction with his patient. “I have no idea.”

“Didn't you ask him? You had to have gotten the guy's name, right?”

At that the doctor grinned, appreciating both the irony and the boy's increasingly frustrated expression. “Yes, I asked.”

“Oh come on, Kimura-sensei! Tell me!”

“His name is—” and of course he knew he was going to say it wrong, “—Akuseru Buranto.”

A blink. “Aku-what-now?”

“I know. When he first woke up he was rambling nonsense. I suspect he had been caught in a genjutsu of some sort.” While there had been injuries to the man's head, there was nothing that would suggest such a loss of linguistic skill. “Fortunately he still remembers some when it comes to speaking, even if his speech is horribly stilted and the way he pronounces words…” Shuichi shook his head, at a loss. “The man made no sense most of the time.”

Kichirou-kun flopped himself down in the room's other chair, looking incredibly disappointed. “Dang, man. I was hoping to weasel some cool stories out of him.”

An idea struck, and the doctor's expression became slightly scheming. “Well, if you are so interested in getting Akuseru-san to talk, then perhaps something could be arranged.”

The teen became pensive, clearly picking up on the older man's tone.

“Speaking lessons, then? That will work nicely,” Shuichi slyly continued. “Practice holding a conversation should help my patient overcome his strange impediment: what a fantastic suggestion, Kichirou-kun! Shall we arrange a schedule for you to—”

“Wait, a schedule?”

“Of course! You'll need to come by once a day, I suppose, to guarantee progress.”

“Once a day,” the boy repeated under his breath. He was absolutely flabbergasted by this point. “I don't… I can't… I mean, once a day?! I already help Dad in the smithy, how much free time you think I got?”

The doctor corrected, “Come now: 'do you think I have'. And I think that if you have enough time to wander in and pester me every other day then you might as well help out every now and then.”

There was no argument at that, only a defeated-sounding sigh. “Okay, fine .”

“Fantastic!” Shuichi clapped his hands together, giving the arrangement a sense of finality. “Come along, let's go introduce you to him.”

“You mean now? As in now now?”

Sure, he was perhaps enjoying pestering the teen a bit too much, but don't begrudge an old man his entertainment. Walking around his desk, he shepherded the younger boy out the door and down the hall. “Why not?”

Before any answer could be given, he knocked on the door to his patient's room. From the other side they heard, “Ja, bitte— Uh, ich meine… Please come in.”

The doctor pushed the door open, ignoring the incredulous look Kichirou-kun shot him: it's not his fault the boy thought he had been exaggerating. Akuseru-san was sitting up, at least as much as he had been able to manage by himself, and he gave them a polite, slightly confused smile as they walked in.

“I trust everything is still fine, Akuseru-san?”

“Yes.” The man paused for a moment, clearly thinking over what to say next. “Sorry. I said my name the wrong way. It is Brandt Axel.”

Kichirou-kun's expression was getting more incredulous by the second and even Shuichi, who was beginning to suspect the craziness had no bounds, was a bit thrown by the name flip.

“Then I must apologize for my rudeness, Buranto-san.”

There was another pause as his patient digested his words and, though the doctor didn't know it, did his best to translate. “Nein, es ist…” He paused, his expression becoming disgruntled, and tried again. “No problem. You can call me Axel, please. Who is this?”

“I'm Morimoto Kichirou,” the teen replied, since clearly he was the new face. “Nice to meet you, Aku— Akus… Crap. Um, could you repeat your name?”

“Axel.”

After a moment's consideration, Kichirou-kun took a crack at pronouncing the strange name. “Akser-san?”

“Fast richtig!” From the man's grin the remark was something positive, quickly proven when he added, “…er, very close!”

Kichirou-kun looked like he was mulling over the name again, before demanding, “Say it again, man!”

“Uh, Axel…?”

“Akser,” the teen repeated. “Ak-kser. Aks-ur. Dang, how're you doing that? I know I'm wrong, but I just can't get it!”

Smiling somewhat apologetically, Buranto-san (Shuichi decided he'd use the man's surname, partially due to convention but mostly because it'd be easier than the other name to figure out how to pronounce) just shrugged and said nothing. He clearly didn't know how to help on that front, likely lacking the words to try and explain further.

Shuichi, however, took this lull in the conversation to state, “There will be plenty of time for you to figure out how to say his name, since you'll be helping Buranto-san regain his speaking skills.”

“I'm gonna visit a lot to get you to practice talking more!” clarified Kichirou-kun, noticing the blond man's confused expression. He ignored Shuichi's attempt to correct his grammar and just continued speaking. “I mean, it'll probably be a lot of work, but at least it will be interesting, right?”

It took Axel a moment to understand the sentence and the hours of boredom between the teen's frequent visits to catch the sentiment, but in a few weeks he would come to wholeheartedly agree. By that point, however, it wouldn't be about the lessons or practicing language. No, by then it will have more to do with literally everything else.

Because really, adjusting to a new language is minor when compared with adjusting to a new world.

At least it will be interesting, right?

 

Chapter Text

After nearly a week cooped up in the small hospital, Axel was going a bit stir crazy. Sure, Kichirou's visits helped alleviate the boredom—forcing him to shift gears from zero to goddamn-it-takes-so-much-effort-just-to-understand-you without much warning—but practicing an unfamiliar language is not… He couldn't say it was very fun at this point. It is interesting. It is a good challenge. The actual conversations were always entertaining, like talking with long-time friends.

But it is exhausting.

At least both of his regular visitors were finally pronouncing his name correctly (enough).

His own pronunciation of their names, however… it left quite a bit to be desired: it was as correct as his accent allowed. He was still practicing, though, since if they were going to put in the effort to learn his name he sure as hell was going to return the favor. Especially since they were also patient with his still-developing skill in Japanese. Neither doctor nor teenager knew any German or, more surprisingly, any English—which admittedly struck him as a bit odd, but whatever—so instead they had taken it upon themselves to teach him more of their language. Axel didn't have much hope that his understanding was improving, but it was the thought that counts.

Just yesterday Kichirou had come in ranting about 'sneaking rocks and leafs' or something, so he clearly must not be making much progress on that front. Unless that was one of those unhelpfully cryptic oriental sayings, in which case… yeah, unhelpful.

So, yes. He was still bored, confused, and lost with little more than the clothes in his backpack.

Not the clothes on his back, since those had been pretty much ruined by whatever had beat him up so badly. His cellphone was another casualty of the mysterious apparently-not-with-a-truck accident, having been stuffed in his pocket. The screen was cracked and falling out of its bent casing, completely unusable, but he thought he might be able to salvage the memory card. It was a pleasant surprise, if somewhat unexplainable, to find that his backpack had survived largely unscathed.

Which meant that at least he had something he could do other than practice Japanese: take inventory of what he had. The backpack had a change of clothes, his favorite gray puffy jacket, his laptop and its solar charger, headphones, the rubik's cube he had never bothered to take out, his wallet, e-reader, and a slew of charging cords: basically what he always packed in a carry-on, just in case the airline lost his luggage. (In this case, however, it looked more like he had lost the airline.) He was decently sure that there were a few pens in there somewhere as well. All of the devices were dead at the moment, solar charger included, so he couldn't actually do much with them at the moment, but it was nice knowing they weren't in pieces.

He fiddled with the rubik's cube absentmindedly. Adri had given it to him nearly two years ago as a graduation present, demanding that he should solve it because he was a nerdy-type and she could never figure the 'cruddy color cube' out. That was honestly what she had called it. Ever since it had basically lived in his backpack. With a sigh he flicked a few sides, lining everything up, then noisily reshuffled it. Axel really hoped his sister wasn't freaking out that he wasn't back in München yet.

Or rather, that she wasn't too freaked out. The freaking out part was probably non-negotiable.

It just didn't make any sense. He should be back in München. He had been. And yet, obviously, he was not. Last he checked people in Germany spoke German… or English, at least. Frequently both.

Not neither.

With a quiet grumble that sounded suspiciously like curses (from three languages, no less), Axel took his time sliding the segments of the rubik's cube back into order. Honesty the language barrier was the most frustrating part of this whole confusing fiasco. He could never be sure if he was understanding or being understood, and actually that fact seemed to be the only thing he was sure of lately.

A few more minutes of mindless puzzle twiddling passed before a soft knock at the door told him he had a visitor. The doctor and teenager (who else could it have been, really) walked in without waiting for a reply. Kichirou, apparently very excited about something, was already talking before the door even opened all the way, leaving Axel with no time to mentally switch languages.

“Hey, man. Guess what we've sorted out?” Kichirou swung himself down into the room's only spare chair, looking inordinately pleased about something.

Dr. Kimura (or however that's phrased in Japanese, he should probably figure that out but he had always had issues with honorifics) stood to the side with a small smile and ignored the younger boy for a moment to ask, “How are you feeling today, Brandt-san?”

The pair of them talking in such quick succession did no favors for Axel's ability to understand.

“Yes,” he manages, intelligently.

Kichirou rolls his eyes, having become used to Axel's speaking skills—or, more to the point, the current lack thereof. “He's fine, Kimura-sensei. Let's get to the good stuff!”

To himself, and embarrassingly several days late, Axel noted that '-sensei' is the correct honorific-type-thing to stick on the end of the doctor's name. Teachers and doctors get that ending, at least. He can probably remember that one.

“I don't see why, given your eagerness, you haven't simply charged into the matter already.” The doctor walked closer and gave his patient a brief once-over, resting one hand lightly on Axel's cast and continuing after a thoughtful moment. “Though I would prefer keeping you under watch until whatever has garbled your language faculties has passed, unfortunately my clinic simply isn't large enough to loan out a room to an otherwise healthy individual.”

Axel had caught barely any of that.

“So, since you can't stay here,” Kichirou barreled back into the conversation, “I figure you can use the spare room we have back home!”

Oh. Oh… what?

“I… Wa— What?” Axel stuttered, managing to work out most of what was going on. “I couldn't… that's too much!”

The teen laughed, rocking back in his chair with a huge grin on his face. “Well, too bad so sad, man! Besides, I'm sure my dad'll be fine with it.”

“Wait… Dein— your Va—” He had to stop himself, needing to gather his linguistic wits before trying again. “Your father doesn't agree?”

“Haven't asked yet,” Kichirou replied with a shrug. “But I'm sure he'll find things for you to do to help out in the shop, maybe even the smithy, so he can't complain!”

Axel stared at him for a long moment before turning to Dr. Kim— or rather, turning to Kimura-sensei in confusion. It was true that he could probably help at least a little with blacksmithing (he liked to think he was pretty damn good at it, after all the things he had made for or sold in his university club) but this whole plan was progressing really quickly and with hardly any input on his end and, well, to be honest… he was a bit lost.

With a distinctly this-is-your-problem-not-mine shrug, the doctor pointed out, “It is not as if you have anywhere else to go, am I correct?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then it is decided.”

Slumping down into his pillow, Axel felt very much like he had no control over his life at all. Between the pushy tourists from the flight which may or may not have happened, the complete mystery that was how he ended up back in Japan, and now this… perhaps the feeling was justified.

However, even though he apparently wasn't going to get any real say in the matter of lodging, Axel did manage to get a promise from Kichirou to bring his father over so they could at least meet in person before he was made to live in the same building.

Of course, he hadn't expected said meeting to happen the same day. Clearly the teen was eager to get this plan rolling.

The introduction itself was a bit peculiar, with Kichirou making sure everyone knew everyone else's name, only for everyone just stand in awkward silence for a minute. Apparently the blacksmith was a man of few words, and of course Axel simply didn't have many words to begin with. Hence everyone just staring at each other.

Morimoto Hiroshi—given name being Hiroshi with Morimoto as his family name: Axel had to remind himself that every time a name came up—was a large, muscled man who, for obvious reasons, had quite a lot in common with his son in the looks department. Both had the same coloring and even a similar hair style, though the father's was a bit longer and pulled back into a loose tail.

“There, now you've met!” Kichirou, mood almost uncomfortably (but genuinely) optimistic, nudged his father in an attempt to get him to speak up.

He didn't, just observing everyone silently.

Small talk, meet the least capable individual in this conversation. Begin.

“So zuerst…” A fantastic start, not even in the right language. Axel frowned and coughed once, as if that could temporarily clear the German from his tongue. It didn't even last for one sentence. “I am not good at speaking in… uh,” and, drawing a blank, he finished, “…japanisch. Offensichtlich.”

Morimoto—and Axel knew should stick on an honorific, but just using the last name would have to be polite enough for now—didn't look very surprised at the butchered sentence. He did shoot his son an understanding look, though, as if he had just made a connection to something he'd mentioned before. “Yeah, so I've been told.”

“I may or may not have said you sound like a crazy person,” the teen supplied, sounding wholly unconcerned.

Understanding the gist if not the exact phrasing, Axel summoned as much sarcasm as he could fit into the unfamiliar language and deadpanned, “Thanks.”

The blacksmith snorted, apparently finding their interaction amusing, and a smile found its way onto his typically stern face. With a decisive nod, he asserted, “You know what?— I like this guy. If he really does need a place to stay then he's welcome to borrow our guest room.”

And with that it was officially decided (apparently).

 

=X=X=X=

 

It was hot in the forge, as it always was when there was work to be done, fire dancing in the furnace. Charcoal dust drifted through the air and mixed with sand and dirt on the floor. Tools hung on their hooks over the worktable, metal made dark and worn by long use. A lone broken pair of pickup tongs lay to the side, where it had for several days now, waiting for someone to finally find the time to actually fix it.

Kichirou distractedly watched his dad maneuver glowing hot metal, actions careful and smooth with the confidence of long practice. A breath, and he plunged the steel into a vat of oil, a burst of flame flaring up orange and gold. Metal now quenched and hardened, he drew the unfinished kitchen knife from the bath, checking it for warping with a careful eye.

“Make sure it's kept vertical.” It was advice Dad had repeated probably a thousand times, every single time he walked through the process. One more wouldn't hurt. “Otherwise you'll need to reforge: bubbles around the metal can damage the form.”

Humming a distracted acknowledgment, Kichirou's attention flicked to the tangle of threads in his hands. He was supposed to be braiding them into a cord, something to wrap the hilt with, but frankly it wasn't going too well. His mind just couldn't settle on the task at hand. Picking at the impressive knot he had inadvertently made, the teen tried again to focus.

But still his thoughts drifted. Asked. Wondered if he would be insulted. Either of them, really.

Settling the knife under a few hot coals—the heat would temper it further during the next hour or so—his dad stepped back from his work with a satisfied nod.

Kichirou decided waiting wouldn't help anyone. “Hey, so… Dad, I was, well…”

Sure, waiting wouldn't help anyone, but he couldn't quite find the right words.

Dad turned, waited. He knew how his son sometimes stumbled through sentences, having started them without any idea where to proceed after that point.

“He's just so… alone? Er, well, it's not like I know—” he rambled, gesturing just shy of wildly. The threads of the cord he was supposed to be weaving were like streamers to his energetic, if unfocused, rant.

Kichirou.” His dad rested a firm hand on his son's shoulder, gently but firmly cutting off the string of jumbled words. “What is it?”

Taking a deep breath and refocusing, Kichirou asked, “Can we keep Axel-san?”

“…What?”

“I mean, I've never had a brother, and I guess technically I've only known him for like a week…” Drifting off, Kichirou needed another moment to find the right words. “But he fits.”

His dad frowned thoughtfully, likely thinking back on his as-of-yet very brief interactions with the other man. There was so much about Axel's mannerisms, even beyond the accent and unfamiliar words, that set him apart, and yet talking to him was easy.

“I suppose so,” Dad allowed, after review.

Happy for the confirmation that he wasn't just imagining things, Kichirou burst out, “RIGHT. And he knows blacksmithing. Might as well be part of the family already!” Then, with an energetic point between the two of them, he nearly tossed his half-braided cord across the room. He'd forgotten he was still holding it.

As the son fumbled with tangled strings, his dad had a sudden scheming look cross his face. “Have you, by chance, asked where he's from? Where he lives? From what I understand he doesn't have much.”

Setting aside his work before he could accidentally fling it into the furnace, Kichirou shrugged. “Yeah, just a bag of stuff Kimura-sensei couldn't figure out. He did mention something about getting home, though. Somewhere… I think he called it 'Tokyo'?”

“'Tokyo'.” Dad had clearly never heard of any town or village by that name either, certainly nowhere nearby. However, as he turned the word over in his mind, he seemed to think of something. “Perhaps he meant it as 'tō' and 'kyō', not a name by itself.”

“How does that help? There's no capital east of…” A thought struck, and Kichirou mused, “Well, except maybe Konoha. It's kinda like a capital, right?”

They had lived in Konoha once, years ago. He had been a baby at the time, so it's not as if he could really remember anything, but his dad had told him that they had run a small family smithy there. Then, well. They were at war. An attack on the village had left their building one of very few in that district to survive, and business on an abandoned street just wasn't enough to provide for what was left of their family.

“Perhaps, if he is from Konoha…” While Dad didn't finish the thought, Kichirou could still tell there was the beginnings of a plan somewhere in that sentence fragment.

Eyes narrowed in suspicion, Kichirou asked, “Just what're you planning?”

“It's need to know,” Dad replied, tone so perfectly serious it was clear he was joking. He shrugged, nonchalant about whatever he was scheming. “We'll see if he needs it first.”

For a moment the teen considered pressing for answers, but, knowing Dad, he'd probably just continue getting vague responses. “I'll ask him next time it comes up.”

“And even if he doesn't, maybe I'll still make the offer.” A smile, and then his dad just shrugged and turned back to tend the forge, adding a vague, “Who knows?”

As the conversation lulled into silence, Kichirou picked the unfinished cord back up, untangled what was left of the knot, then braided a few more strings. Another few minutes of quietly working, and he paused. Looked back up, feeling unexpectedly worried.

“Do… Do you think he'd mind if I call him 'Axel-nii'?”

“He'd better not,” Dad remarked with a shrug. “I expect my family to get along, after all.”

 

=X=X=X=

 

Family helps family, even when that family hasn’t even realized they’ve been claimed yet.

Which was why, over the next week and a half, Morimoto Hiroshi joined in as another regular visitor to the clinic. Admittedly, in the beginning it was mostly curiosity and his son’s nagging to drop in as a new conversational partner for the still-learning blond… but he quickly found himself honestly enjoying his visits.

Axel, for all his stumbling through sentences, was fun to talk to. Easy to talk to, even despite the technical difficulties.

Of course the language thing would be dealt with eventually, with the entire Morimoto clan (of two) forcing speech practice whenever they dropped by. Hiroshi, by virtue of not being his son—a thus not a spazzy teenager with tendencies of abrupt topic changes—was certainly a more effective teacher than Kichirou.

The current topic in their impromptu lessons was writing, specifically hiragana (for now), and Hiroshi was going through them character-by-character. Axel could read well enough—a little better than he could speak, anyway—but writing was a different matter. Kimura had been the first to notice his patient’s linguistic challenges extended into the written word, having asked how to spell the blond’s name and having received… unclear results. So here they were, Axel diligently trying to accurately copy the hiragana Hiroshi wrote for him.

Very diligently.

They had been at it for three hours already.

A small table had been set up in a corner of Axel’s clinic room for the sake of convenience, given that he wasn’t very good with the crutches he had been given. The two of them were sitting across from each other, the table between them filled with sheets of paper, some with example hiragana provided by Hiroshi and far more covered in Axel’s attempts to replicate them.

Hiroshi couldn’t help but grin when he spotted a few of the pages that had doodles on them instead of work. Before they had ended up on this marathon hiragana practice session, Axel had been using drawing to help fill in blanks as they talked about various things (but mostly blacksmithing, a subject they were both passionate about). The blond was actually pretty good at free-handing diagrams, but people?—not so much.

Right now Axel was just staring down at his latest try at the 'mu' character, looking rather displeased. His last three tries all looked remarkably similar, and consistently incorrect. Tired of his lack of significant progress, he pushed the paper away, accidentally bumping the table and nearly knocking over the crutches in the process.

As Axel scrambled to steady his teetering crutches, Hiroshi grabbed the practice sheet before it could slide past him. Checking over the latest scribbles, he remarked, “You’re getting better.”

“…Easy to be better than zero,” Axel replied.

Hiroshi shook his head, a bit peeved at the self-deprecating tone. “You sell yourself short.”

His protest was ignored as Axel began musing to himself, though he surprisingly didn’t slip into that strange rambling like he usually does when thinking aloud. “What I need is paper with… hmm.” The blond man paused in that way that meant he was searching for the right word and coming up empty. After considering, he came up with, “Squares.”

A moment later and Axel seemed to have an epiphany. An epiphany he apparently thought he should have figured out earlier, since he smacked a hand to his forehead.

“Kariertes Papier.”

Hiroshi snorted in amusement: there were the nonsensically harsh sounds he had expected.

Grabbing a blank sheet, Axel began drawing rows of carefully straight, thin lines. Then he drew another set that crossed the first, making a grid of near-perfect squares. Next he shuffled through the papers Hiroshi had written up, finally choosing one that had particularly large example hiragana. He boxed in one of them, tracing another grid on top of the character. Setting the two papers next to each other, Axel looked back and forth between them as he slowly copied the character. Mindful of the spacing for each stroke, thanks to the lines, his finished character looked much more like the original than his previous attempts.

“Prima!” Judging by his tone, it was clearly a happy cheer of some sort.

But Axel wasn’t done yet. He set up another, smaller grid that had less lines. Drawing the same character again with less guides, then for a third time, then a fourth, and each time he each used a less detailed grid. Eventually he’d forgo the grid entirely and still be able to draw the character.

In theory, at least.

Hiroshi watched with a slight smile.

The blacksmith had seen a lot in his life, having been forced to grow up during one shinobi war, having survived, only to then lose so much in another. The blond’s method might be new, but right now, sitting quietly with Axel, he was reminded of those years gone by: reminded of his own father teaching him and of him helping to teach his younger brother. The old emptiness in his heart ached, pulled tight by the unexpected reminiscence.

Like his son had pointed out: no matter how unexpected their meeting had been, he fits.

The melancholy Hiroshi had slid into didn't last long, however, as Axel rested his head on his hands and, defeated, simply stared down at his paper. His first attempt without the grid wasn't nearly as successful; the lines were rather unsteady.

“Sehr schnörkelig,” he muttered, with an edge of annoyance.

One quiet blink, then two, and then Hiroshi couldn't help but burst into laughter.

Yes, he reaffirmed to himself. This was someone he wouldn't mind calling 'family'.

 

=X=X=X=

 

Once his cast was finally removed (which happened much sooner than he had really been expecting), Axel only spent a few more days in the clinic before finally being discharged with a clear bill of health. He gathered what little he had with him into his backpack, Kichirou and his father met him outside, and together they led the way through the quaint rural village to their home.

“That's the grocers,” Kichirou said, pointing out a frankly adorable storefront with a few fruit and vegetable displays set up out front. The young woman working there sent them a cheery wave when she noticed them. “It's run by the Sasakis. They're pretty cool, and usually give Dad a good discount 'cause he helps repair stuff for them sometimes.”

Axel was paying the teen just enough attention to generally follow what he was saying; he was too distracted by the scenery. It was brisk out, spring having just barely sprung, but the sun hanging in the blue sky overhead was doing its level best to bring temperatures up. The road was hard packed dirt—dusty, but not too bad—and all the buildings had pale walls with fairly colorful roofs. There seemed to only be one major street, with a few small offshoots, but the town didn't exactly run in straight paths; that is to say, the buildings seemed to only use the road as a very rough guideline.

Something about the architecture seemed familiar, like he'd seen pictures of it before, but Axel couldn't quite figure out what other setting the place reminded him of.

Large—wow, really large sometimes—trees could be seen branching over the rooftops and down at the end of any turns that didn't end with a building, so the village must be in a densely forested area. With huge trees. He hadn't had the time to visit the Japanese countryside during his business trip—he had worked in Tokyo for most of his time there, though he had visited other major cities, before leaving (though he apparently hadn't actually left)—but he hadn't really expected it to look like this. It didn't look much like how Studio Ghibli portrayed it in movies anyway. Then again, perhaps anime wasn't be the best source to base his expectations on.

Now that he'd thought it, yeah. Probably.

His observations were interrupted when he was forced to quickly step back, nearly overbalancing because of his heavy backpack, as a group of children barreled around the street corner. They were shouting and tossing little wooden knives at each other, pretending to be ninja as they ran and rolled away from the attacks. He noticed that they had even drawn symbols on strips of cloth tied around their foreheads.

“Oh, von Naruto,” he realized, having needed a moment to recognize the spiraled leaf design as the one from the anime his sister had recently made him start watching. “Are most of the kids here…” and again a word escaped him. “…They like the show?”

“What'd you say?” Kichirou called back from farther down the street. He was waiting outside one of the shorter buildings, noticeably built with more distance between it and its neighbors: fire safety, perhaps. Since Morimoto was unlocking the door, it was a safe guess that this was their house.

Axel shrugged it off, too lazy to repeat the question. “It's nothing.”

The lock released with a smooth click as he caught up to them, and the blacksmith pulled the door open to let his son and new guest inside. As is typical for Japanese homes, the entryway had a small shelf for shoes to be exchanged with slippers. Kichirou was already hopping on one foot as he struggled to remove one of his sandals.

“Come on, Axel-nii! I can't wait to show you the workshop!”

It had been one of the more frequent topics that had cropped up during their hospital conversations: the workshop, blacksmithing, and craftsmanship in general. While he might have had difficulties following an overly-excited Kichirou's dialog, Axel knew enough about the subject and could usually figure it out from context. At least, he could so long as the teen took the time to speak slow enough for him to tell the words apart.

“You'll be staying in my brother's old bedroom, though it, well, it hasn't been used in a while.” Morimoto gestured down the hall, pointing out an open door at the end. “Probably a bit dusty, though we did try to clean it up. Oh, and my boy called dibs on showing off the place, so he's probably going to ditch work to give you a tour as soon as you drop off your stuff.”

From somewhere else in the house there came a muffled sound that seemed to be a confirmation, and the blacksmith nodded to himself.

“I… Thank you very much,” Axel managed with an awkward nod-bow, not quite sure what would be appropriate.

“Don't thank me yet: I'll probably rope you into helping around the shop.” He smirked, and there was something in the expression that made Axel think the older man was planning something. “Anyway, make yourself at home! I'll be around if you need me.”

Morimoto headed off through one of the other doors, leaving Axel to slide his way down the hall: they didn't have a pair of spare house slippers yet, and socks plus polished hard-wood floor make for a very unsteady walking experience. Suffice to say he was glad the doors were the Western variety, since if they had been sliding doors he wouldn't have been able to grab at any doorknobs when he felt a step land poorly.

The room at the end of the hall—his room, at least until he could figure out how to get back to Tokyo and catch a plane home for real this time—had a bed, a small desk, and a closet. As he looked around, he was a bit miffed to notice that they didn't have any power outlets. Then again, the one he had spotted at the clinic didn't look like it would match with his plug (he had an adapter, but apparently this rural town just had to be unique). It didn't really matter all that much, though, since the room did have a window and there was a good amount of sunlight filtering through.

He unpacked his backpack, laying out most of his things on the mattress but already setting up the small solar charger in the rectangle of sunlight on the desk. Deciding to leave his laptop on the desk as well, Axel stuffed the other electronics away. There was also a packet of papers—notes from the writing lessons, along with some blank ones for practice. He set them beside his laptop with a sigh. While it was true that he had gotten much better at writing, he still wasn't really… well.

One thing was certain, Axel had never been more thankful for the relative simplicity of the alphabet.

His jacket and his one change of clothes he stowed in the closet, since he would probably be staying here for a few days. While Kimura-sensei (the one honorific he could be counted on to remember) had let him leave the clinic, the man had made it quite clear that he didn't want Axel traveling across the country quite yet.

So yes, he had a few days. Maybe even a full week. And besides, he still needed to figure out how he was getting to Tokyo in the first place.

Chapter Text

“How does I… nein, 'do I'.” Axel was much better after three weeks of having Japanese as the only option if he wanted to be understood, but some points still tripped him up since he wasn't familiar with every word or conjugation. “How do I get to Tokyo from here?”

Kichirou glanced up from the groceries he had been considering, looking very much like he had just been reminded of something. “Do you mean Konoha?” he asked, vaguely gesturing with an eggplant in what was presumably the right direction. “That's the largest city east of here.”

Axel hadn't known that the fictional hidden village from Naruto had a real-life counterpart, but at least it sounded large enough to have trains or a phone or something. He just settled with an uncertain nod and wondered how frequently the local kids—who he had seen running around playing ninja nearly everyday—bugged parents to let them visit. “Uh… Yes? Maybe?”

“Are you from Konoha? You don't talk about yourself very much.” The teen dropped the purple vegetable into the bag Axel was carrying for him, moving over to look at the cabbages. Picking one up, Kichirou checked to see if it had any rotten bits; a few, but better than some of the others so he handed it over as well.

“What? No, no, I'm from München. You know, Munich. In Deutschland.” At Kichirou's blank look, he tried, “Germany? …Doitsu?”

“Sure, whatever.” The teen shrugged, tone making it clear that he wasn't really following his blond friend anymore. Instead he just held up a radish for Axel to help inspect. “Does this look good to you? I'm not sure about this bit here.”

Since he didn't know much about telling ripe vegetables from one-day-till-compost, Axel couldn't say for sure the discoloration wasn't a sign of rot or something. He took it and gave the questionable spot a poke. It didn't feel gooey, which was a good sign, so he added it to their groceries.

Despite the bags being uncomfortably full by this point, Kichirou seemed determined to stuff in a few more veggies. He had a tendency to over-pack, something Axel had noticed on a previous grocery run when the teen had spent several minutes rearranging things for maximum food-to-bag density.

After packing in as much food as possible, they finally made their way to the counter to pay. It was really lucky that the blacksmith family had been kind enough to temporarily take him in; he had no money worth anything here. In fact, he had exactly €2,35 and not a cent more. He hadn't so much as seen any yen since waking up at the clinic, since he had stored what he had left in his checked bag to avoid carrying unnecessary coins through security. Interestingly enough, he hadn't seen any card readers either. So while he didn't enjoy feeling like a charity case, until he could find an ATM or something he was stuck on that point.

They spent a brief moment debating who would carry most of the bags back, as seemed to happen at the end of every shopping trip. And, just like those other times, Axel was ultimately left with one mostly-empty bag: it held only a single cabbage. The other things it had held had been carefully (and impressively) tetrised to the rest of the bags that Kichirou had insisted on carrying himself. Apparently, having just been released from the clinic, Axel was just too fragile to be trusted with heavy groceries for the trip back home.

Axel shook his head and gave the overly-concerned teen half an eye roll, but otherwise just went along with it.

“Anyway, Konoha's about a day's walk away,” Kichirou continued from the first question, one hand loaded down with all the bags as he led the way back to his house. “Or at least, it is when we're bringing in things to sell. There're plenty of signs at crossroads for merchants and travelers, so I wouldn't worry about getting lost.”

Axel snorted, the terms reminding him of fantasy stories and the medieval fairs his college club had taken trips to visit whenever classes had allowed.

“Of course, it only takes shino…” Kichirou drifted off, thinking. “Actually, I don't really know how fast they can make the trip. Pretty fast, I'd reckon.”

They reached the door before Axel could ask what a 'shino' was, and Kichirou awkwardly tried to fish out the keys from his pocket with one hand. After a moment of watching the younger boy flounder—the shopping bags swinging about unhelpfully—Axel grabbed his bags from him so he could open the door in peace.

“Hey, Dad! We're back!”

They took the grocery bags into the kitchen, but before they could start unloading their purchases, Morimoto walked in with an uncharacteristically annoyed expression aimed squarely at his son. Axel decided the best course of action was to let them handle whatever the issue was between themselves, and so he turned back to the less dramatic option of stocking the fridge with vegetables.

“Kichirou, I know they've been laying around for ages now, but didn't I tell you to repair the broken pickup tongs?”

“Yeah?”

“That's what I thought.” Morimoto set down a pair of metal, definitely-not-broken pickup tongs onto the table with loud clang and a stern look. “Who did you even buy this from?”

The teen blinked at the tool in confusion. “I… What? I didn't buy that!”

His father crossed his arms. “You're good, but still learning. I know you didn't make this.”

“Well, yeah, I was gonna fix them. Eventually.” He looked very confused. “I hadn't even really thought about them since Axel-nii moved in.”

He hadn't been following the conversation—it was going by just a bit too fast for him to easily listen in—but the sound of his name made Axel glance back over his shoulder. Spotting the tool on the table, he sheepishly grinned; it seems like he might have gotten Kichirou in some sort of trouble. “That was me. Sorry if using the… forge?— Sorry if using the forge was not okay.”

For a moment he wondered if he had said something horribly rude or incorrect—or horribly incorrectly, as the case may be—since both father and son just stared at him in surprise for a long moment.

“Did I say it wrong?” Axel asked, hesitantly closing the fridge and glancing back and forth between the two of them. Kichirou looked very much like the human version of a buffering video, but his father was just thoughtful. “Or… Was it really not okay? If so, sorry.”

“You really fixed this?”

Late yesterday afternoon, when both Morimotos had been out of the house doing who-knows-what and he had been left with basically nothing to do, Axel had come across the broken tool set out on the worktable. He had been meaning to ask for permission to use the forge at some point, but since the chance was so tantalizingly there and (as Axel had justified to himself) he was capable enough not to make a mess of things… well, he figured it would be fine.

“Yes,” Axel answered, warily unsure if they were angry or not. “I wanted to be helping.”

Kichirou picked up the tongs, looking them over, and distractedly corrected, “You mean 'helpful'.”

“I hadn't thought I'd ever see you fix someone else's grammar,” Morimoto remarked, chuckling to himself. “You're almost starting to sound like Kimura-sensei.”

The comparison had Kichirou dawn a sudden (and jokingly exaggerated) expression of horror, acting as if nothing could be worse than finding out he had done something similar to the old doctor. His father grabbed the tool back from him before he could drop it dramatically in fake shock, but it was a funny performance all the same.

When Kichirou turned to his blond friend for reassurance (presumably), Axel just nodded with a shrug.

“Now you're just being mean,” the teen huffed, though with no real heat behind it. While perhaps a little bit genuinely bothered by the comparison, Kichirou didn't really mind all that much. Or at least, not so much that he'd stop smiling.

Secretly, Axel breathed a sigh of relief: the conversation had moved past his use of the smithy without permission and it didn't even look like they particularly cared about that in the first place.

So they continued talking about random things as they finished up putting away the groceries and the bags. Then, in spite of Axel's thoughts that the topic of his unapproved repair work had been resolved, both father and son teamed up to not-so-subtly steer him back into the workshop. Morimoto in particular seemed rather determined to get Axel to show that he could handle himself as a blacksmith, though Axel himself hadn't the faintest idea as to why.

The rest of the day was spent in the forge, Morimoto all but testing Axel as he presented topic after question after tool and on and on. It was fun, if a bit tiring, and he enjoyed listening to an actual professional blacksmith talk about his chosen trade. Axel had occasionally taken the things he had made—weapons, buckles, latches, ornaments, and so on—to sell at medieval recreation fairs, but that had mostly been because he had nothing else to do with those things. Hearing the perspective of someone who makes a living of smithing, rather than just doing it as a hobby, was pretty interesting.

When the impromptu… was it a test or a lesson?—finally finished and the evening drew to a close, everyone retreated back to their own rooms for some much needed rest. The day had taken a rather unexpectedly energetic turn when the whole blacksmithing topic had sprung.

Flipping open his laptop and typing in his password with a speed born of long familiarity, Axel then promptly… did nothing. Just sat there and stared silently at the desktop. He had discovered that there was no internet in this small town, as ridiculous as that might seem, as soon as he had turned his computer on for the first time after recharging: or at least, he had no way of getting at the internet. When he had tried asking about it, he received only strange looks and uncomprehending shrugs—another casualty of his sub-par language skills, he supposed, even if he had been improving.

He again lamented the loss of his cell phone: he might have had data here, at least. Enough to send a text message, surely.

God, his sister was going to be positively furious with him.

Navigating through his computer files, he opened a document that he had been using to keep track of interesting or helpful smithing tricks as he learned them. He added a few of the tips Morimoto had mentioned, then scrolled through the long list to check that they hadn't already been in there somewhere.

When he realized he had reverted back to blankly staring at the screen, Axel decided he might as well just go to sleep. Soon he could head out to the non-fiction Konoha; he had to assume that, as a larger city than this adorable town, it would hopefully have a train station, an ATM, and maybe even an internet café (if he's lucky). He sorely needed to send off an email to his family to reassure them that, while a bit lost, he was alive and well.

Soon.

 

=X=X=X=

 

It had been a little over a month now.

Scratch furious, his sister was going to straight up kill him for all but dropping off the face of the planet. At least the day had finally come: they were packing up to head for Konoha.

Axel wasn't even all that sure how he had let so much time pass: the days had just slipped by, one after another, until it had been another full week and then some. He just fell into a comfortable rhythm, helping out around the store and working in the smithy and generally… settling. There was a soothing peace in the small town, regardless of the occasional inexplicable moments of tension in the otherwise relaxed community. Sometimes he felt like the town was on-edge or maybe even scared—waiting for bad news, an attack, somethingbut since he couldn't figure out any real reason for why, he decided he must just be imagining it.

He had somehow lost track of (or hallucinated) a trip around the world, so it wasn't that farfetched.

“Axel-nii!” Kichirou called from the other side of the door, followed by a loud and extremely unnecessary knock. Then, because announcing himself was apparently the only permission he needed, he let himself in.

Axel was stuffing his things into his backpack. Or at least, he was trying to. Morimoto had forcibly gifted him a few changes of hand-me-down clothes at the start of his stay, so now he couldn't quite fit everything. It's not as if he would need the extra clothing once he got home, but his attempt to return them only earned him a stern stare that brokered no arguments. So here he was, trying to cram everything away.

Maybe he could just hide the clothes in the room somewhere, tell no one, and skedaddle before the jig was up and Morimoto could chase him down with a sack of old shirts and pants. The blacksmith, counter to his gruff appearance, was remarkably fussy and protective of the people he cares for. Apparently Axel had somehow stumbled into that category during his stay.

Of course, the hide-and-run plan wouldn't even have a chance to work since Morimoto was coming with him to Konoha: knocking out two birds with one stone by both guiding Axel and bringing in a delivery of various goods. At least that was Axel's understanding—the older man had been oddly sneaky about the whole plan whenever asked about it.

It didn't help that he had been banned from helping Morimoto pack the cart, partly because of said sneakiness and partly because Axel's attempt to help had led to him accidentally dropping a box on his own still-recovering foot. The box had also, somehow, cut a new gash in his leg that then needed bandaging, so all in all…?

Really not his greatest moment.

“Dad thought you might need this,” Kichirou said from the doorway, bringing Axel from his musing by tossing him an empty bag. It looked just large enough to hold both the backpack and clothes.

Failing to catch the bag, it instead thwapped against his face. At least Kichirou got a chuckle out of it.

“Ah, thank.” Axel shook the bag out and looked it over. It was made of a sturdy dark-blue fabric and had a drawstring that doubled as a shoulder strap, with one end around the opening and the other attached at the bottom. “This helps a lot.”

Kichirou pulled out the chair from the desk and sat down tailor style, cross-legged despite not sitting on the ground. “No big! I know my old man's being pushy, but you don't need to feel bad about keeping them. He just wants to help, since you don't have much.”

“But I don't need—”

“So you say, but he's unconvinced.” The teen shrugged and, with a lopsided smile that suggested he wasn't too convinced himself, changed the topic. “Oh, he also wanted to ask if your legs are alright. It's not really a hard trip, but you'll still need to walk for most of the day.”

Blue satchel now full of all his worldly possessions, Axel sat down on his— rather, on what had been his bed. He could admit that it hadn't been his brightest moment, trying to move one of the heavy boxes Morimoto was planning on taking to Konoha. Apparently the advice to lift with your legs is less helpful when said legs had been recently broken and still healing. Nothing newly snapped, thank goodness, but he had a fresh bruise on his foot and a new bandaged cut on his apparently-still-unsteady leg to show for his mistake.

Axel lightly checked over his latest injury, concluding, “Should be fine. Lot's of stops, right?”

“Better be. Don't hurt yourself, man.” Kichirou scuffed a foot against the floor, slowly looking around the cleaned-out room he had begun to think of as Axel's.

For a moment the two of them sat quietly, eyes scanning over the bare desk, the bed and its mattress left with no bedsheets, the open closet, floor to ceiling. Even the recently emptied trashcan.

Kichirou, apparently deciding the mood had gotten a bit too depressing, shoved aside his frown with an only somewhat forced smile and eagerly (though kind of abruptly) restarted the conversation. “Anyway, Konoha! I haven't been since I was super young, so I don't remember much.”

Eyes scanning over the now-empty room, Axel refocused on his younger friend. “Why not visit more?”

“Eh, it's a lot of work.” With a shrug, the teen added, “Plus, things have been pretty… tense lately.”

Before Kichirou could say anything else, they both heard his father shout for them through the walls from outside; he was apparently done with his own packing. Casting one last look around the room as a yelled conversation passed faster than he could follow, Axel decided he was also done. It was well and truly time to head out.

The door clicked quietly shut behind him, closing off what had temporarily been his. Compared to when he had first seen it, the room he left behind was at least more clean and tidy.

And empty.

One month: that's as long as he had known them. Just a single, short month, but somehow… it almost felt unreal to be leaving. Like he was staring at a sentence and recognizing none of the words. Or, far more literally, like how he had felt leaving for Japan all those months ago, in the airport waving goodbye, soon to be on the opposite side of the world from his sister and his parents and everything familiar.

Now, as he walked down the hall, he saw that these past few weeks had become familiar in their own way.

Kichirou and his father had pretty openly welcomed him into their small clan of two, and he couldn't help but feel that, had he been able to introduce them to his own family, they would have fit together like metal in a mold. Knowing his sister, Adri and Kichirou would have been fast friends: both having similarly energetic, this-is-neat-so-time-to-rant-for-ages personalities. To be honest, he felt a bit like he'd accidentally acquired another younger sibling.

Though it would probably be more accurate to say Kichirou acquired him.

Beyond and beside their friendship, however… Axel owed them, plain and simple. They had helped him—housed him—when he could barely speak their language, for goodness sake! They're good people, that's for sure, and Axel was glad that circumstances led him to them. Strangeness of those circumstances notwithstanding.

Goodbyes are always a bit bittersweet.

And yes, he was definitely going to miss them.

But Axel was glad to be heading home.

Morimoto was waiting near the front door, leaning back against a wooden pull-cart that he had loaded up with crates of who knows what. It was quite impressive, since some of the boxes looked like they were only saying in place by the grace of a lot of rope. And an unsafe amount of good faith. One of the two wheels creaked loudly and for no apparent reason.

When he had tried to help out earlier, this was not the finished, fully-packed result he had been expecting. Mainly because it wasn't fully-packed: it was rather drastically over-packed

“Will that be… okay?” Axel asked, internally debating whether or not the cart would be able to carry his bag despite already looking (and sounding) overburdened.

“It'll be fine,” the blacksmith said, slapping the side of one of the crates as if to prove a point. The was another wooden groan, followed by a metallic clack as something the the pile of stuff shifted. “Perfect.”

That obviously didn't do much for Axel's confidence. Even Kichirou was giving the stacked crates a skeptical look.

“I bet I could have fit more stuff.”

Okay, then. The teen was clearly as blind to packing-logic as his father. Or, thinking back to the groceries, perhaps this is a simple case of 'like father, like son'.

Looking more closely at the stacks of crates and stuff, it seemed significantly more stable than he had first thought. Tugging at one of the ropes in order to gently test the cart, Axel elected to just ignore the escalating challenges of who could out-pack who going on the the background; he idly wondered if they had ever played Tetris, because the competition they'd get into would be intense.

He actually found a small area where he could store his bag if he wanted, but considering it held a number of electronics that he certainly didn't want getting accidentally crushed by whatever was in the boxes, well… he decided to just carry it.

“Oh, hey… um, Axel-nii?” Since his voice wasn't quite enough to catch Axel's attention—distracted as he was by packing and travel logistics—Kichirou poked him. “You'll keep in contact, right?”

“'Contact'?” Axel repeated, the word failing to come up in his mental dictionary, despite how much it had improved.

“Yeah, you know… send letters, write back, maybe visit sometime?”

“Sure, I could write back. Maybe.” Thinking back to the hiragana lessons, he added, “But could you read it?”

From Morimoto's direction there was a snort that sounded suspiciously like a cut-off laugh.

Kichirou just smiled. “I'm sure we can manage.”

Axel was going to say more—even though he hadn't quite figured out what that 'more' was just yet—but he was interrupted before he could make a fool of himself stringing together nonsense words. He had been cut off by a rather loud wooden groan of protest, as Morimoto had walked to the front of his teetering cart and experimentally pulled it forward about half a meter.

It didn't fall apart, which was a good sign. Even if it sounded a light breeze from collapse.

“Will you be okay?” Axel asked. The cart and its, shall we say, optimistic stack of boxes was clearly not going to be argued away, but someone was still going to need to pull that probably-heavy burden. “Maybe we should take turns pulling—”

Kichirou was quick to put a stop to that barely-even-voiced idea. “Are you kidding?”

“I'll be fine,” added Morimoto, looking as if he'd be tempted to roll his eyes if he was any less mature. “Besides, you just hurt yourself when you were trying to help pack earlier.”

That couldn't really be argued, but that didn't mean Axel had to like it. Putting it that way made him sound rather inept. “Why do you need to bring all this?”

The older man got a peculiarly shifty look in his eyes. “I was hoping we might be able to reestablish old business, you know. One way or another.”

“Dad!” Kichirou all but groaned in annoyance. “That doesn't—” The teen suddenly stopped, realized something, then adopted an expression that very much suggested he had just been let in on a great scheme.

“Doesn't what? What?” asked Axel, looking between the two of them in growing curiosity and, if he was being honest, slight trepidation. A feeling like he might be the butt of some yet-to-be-sprung joke, based on a sense developed over many years with a younger sister trying to catch him by surprise.

“Nothing,” the teen said, quick to wave off the questions now that he had apparently figured it out. “You'll see eventually.”

Which apparently means that 'eventually' would come along this evening, since he imagined that he'd get his answers as soon as they arrive in Konoha.

A few more last-minute checks to make sure they had everything, and then finally it was time to say their goodbyes. After promising again to stay in contact—just as soon as he got an actual address or number or whatever—Axel and Morimoto set off on their long day's walk. Kichirou, who had followed them to the edge of town, waved until they were out of sight.

Chapter Text

Walking for extended periods of time is tiring; anyone who has spent hours tourist-ing through a city or wandering around a museum knows that.

It turns out that walking for a whole day, just to travel from point A to point B, is an entirely new level of exhaustion. There's an added level of monotony and boredom and this-needs-to-be-done that weighs the experience down—in addition to the actual weight of his bag, which really wasn't heavy if he compared it to the overburdened cart Morimoto was stuck with.

Even though the older man didn't seem to be having any issues with it.

“Are you sure you don't want me to help with—”

“It's fine, Axel.” Even though Morimoto was preoccupied making sure the cart would stay in place during their well-earned snack break, he still found the time to shoot the blond a quick look. “Just like the last time you asked.”

Clearing off a fallen log to use as a seat—the only task deemed safe enough to be relegated to him—Axel grumbled back, “No breaking yourself.”

Morimoto wedged a rock under each of the wheels, waited to see if it would keep rolling, then decided it seemed to be enough to keep it in place. With a satisfied nod, he replied, “I appreciate your unnecessary concern.”

Axel sat himself down, one hand distractedly rubbing at his latest bandages. And what a thought that was: he wasn't used to being injured frequently enough to have need of classifying a cut as 'latest'. Trying to be gentle, he did his best to work out any new pain in his leg from all the walking. It was frustrating that he shouldn't actively help with the heavy lifting, since his bruised and broken bones were not yet back to full strength. His earlier attempt had, after all, resulted in a fumble and a brand new cut.

“'Unnecessary',” Axel scoffed quietly, pointedly tapping on his injured leg as he half-heartedly grumbled to himself. “Erzähle das meinem Bein.”

Even though he hadn't been able to hear most of what the blond man had said—and, of course, what he had heard sounded like nonsense—Morimoto could easily get the gist of it from the snarky tone. “I've made it this far, haven't I? Besides, after this last rise it should all be a bit downhill.”

Eyeing the sky and sorely missing the ease of just checking his phone clock—or his wristwatch, which he honestly wasn't sure what had happened to—Axel tried to gauge how long they had been walking. There was just the barest hint of warmer colors in the blue stretching overhead, so he'd say very close to the whole day. It was tricky, given that he couldn't actually see the position of the sun because of the trees, but he thought that they probably only had an hour or so of sunlight left. “Soon, then?”

“With any luck,” Morimoto replied, taking a seat on the log as well. He held out a box with some of those onigiri rice-ball things, offering a late snack to tide them over until dinner. “You can probably get a good view from the top of this hill, actually.”

Gratefully taking one of the onigiri, Axel munched on it as he looked up and down the road they were traveling on. It was a fairly broad dirt path, packed down by years of travelers but still dusty enough to flick up dirt in a breeze. The forest lining each side of the road was full of tall, sturdy trees: many with branches that looked strong enough the stand on. Given the dense tree cover, he had to assume there would be a gap of some sort in order to get the view Morimoto was talking about. Any added height from the slight incline of the road wouldn't help much, otherwise.

Axel swallowed another mouthful of tasty rice before asking, “Is there a… uh, hole? I mean, a clearing?”

“Not so much a 'clearing' as a 'crater', at least last I saw.” The older man shrugged, taking a drink from his canteen of water before continuing, “Usually they try to keep things like that in the training fields, but you know how they can be sometimes. I just just hope they make sure us civilians don't get caught up in anything.”

Which, as an answer, really only brought up more questions. For example, Axel had no idea who 'they' were or why they might be randomly making craters. Or, to be honest, how they might be randomly making craters. After all, a crater has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is typically explosive. Which in this case, according to the remark about training fields, means that that particular explosion was at a legal somewhere.

As if blowing up the local forest was just part of the norm.

Axel couldn't help but wonder what kind of village would just have explosion craters near the city limits.

Then, briefly, a ghost of a thought brushed against his mind, whispering that it was only natural for Konoha to have blast craters around its perimeter. It was honestly to be expected.

Of course, that would be in fiction Konoha.

For some reason… that thought wasn't very reassuring.

They sat there snacking for a few minutes longer, enjoying a companionable silence as they watched the sky shift into the warmer colors of oncoming sunset. It was quiet, peaceful; certainly not indicative of any potential fiery destruction happening in the immediate area.

Which, if the anime his sister had made him watch were to be trusted, fiery destruction was exactly what would happen.

He paused mid-bite on his second onigiri, almost jokingly listening for any sign of—

There was an odd sound of metal hitting wood, like an arrow on target at an archery range.

Then three pitches humming slightly out of tune, growing louder and more dissonant.

A snapping pop.

And a resounding BANG.

Air—warmer than a natural gust would have been, but by no means scorching—rushed through the trees and did its level best to knock them off the log as it swept up from behind. Even startled, Morimoto had the wherewithal to brace himself and snatch the box of onigiri before it could topple to the ground. The cart, luckily, seemed too heavy to budge just because of a little forceful wind. As for Axel, well. In his defense, he wasn't fully recovered yet.

He would also claim that his surprised yelp was very manly. Naturally.

In short, he didn't stay on the log.

At least he didn't fall on his face: he just sort of… slid (flailed) off to the side and onto the ground.

“Fantastisch,” Axel grumbled, though a part of him had to appreciate how silly he probably looked. He flopped over so that he was staring through tree branches at the now orange-tinted sky.

“I'm so sorry!” Someone was calling out perfuse apologies: strange how the voice sounded almost like it was coming from up in the trees rather than the ground. There was a thud, like a landing perhaps, and whoever it was continued. “Is everything alright? I heard a yell, and— Oh!”

Suddenly Axel's view of the sky was cut of by a sheepishly grinning blond, long sunshine-yellow hair framing a sincerely apologetic expression. In greeting, Axel blinked and managed, “Uhm. Hi…?”

“Hello,” the other man replied, offering a hand to help him stand back up. “Sorry again, I rushed out to try an idea I had for a new seal and, well… I must have miscalculated.”

Which was a sentence with words that Axel was pretty sure he understood, but he still didn't really grasp what they meant. So he decided to ignore that in favor of bigger questions. For example: “Who are you?”

A blink, and then a slight embarrassed blush. “Oh, sorry, I— Yes. My name's Namikaze Minato.”

…That name.

Axel knew that name. He'd heard it before.

Somewhere.

Even the man's face looked familiar, now that he thought about it. Long blond hair, cut shorter in the back than the front, fell loose around a friendly face. He was a bit frazzled and dusty—logical, since he had been much closer to his explosive mistake—but he didn't seem to care that his plain brown shirt and gray pants had a few extra shades thrown in courtesy of scattered dirt.

For some reason, Axel had expected him to be wearing white and forest-green. No idea why.

“Morimoto Hiroshi,” the blacksmith provided, seeing that Axel was thoroughly distracted by something. He pointed to his horizontal companion. “And this is someone who'd likely be better served running his own introduction.”

Intrigued by the peculiarity of that suggestion, Minato asked, "What do you mean by that?"

Axel, pulled from his fruitless attempt to place the newcomer's name, finally took the offered hand gratefully (if not gracefully) and was helped up off the ground.

“His name's a bit… well…” Morimoto paused mid-answer, struggling to find the right word.

Stood upright as opposed to laying in a heap in the dirt, Axel decided to just dust himself off and get on with it: his name would serve as its own explanation. “Brandt Axel.”

“What?”

“My name,” Axel clarified, grinning. “I'm Brandt Axel.”

“…Ah, yes. I see.” Minato nodded, faux solemnity outed as fake by the humor in his blue eyes. “All is clear now, Morimoto-san.”

The light-hearted snark earned a snort from the older man, who wholly agreed with the sentiment. Cheerily grumbling to himself—though it was more of a purposeful stage whisper, really—he turned from the pair of blonds to check that the gust of wind hadn't dislodged anything from the precarious stacks in his cart.

Minato was quietly mouthing words to himself, likely trying to figure out the strange name.

“I'm no good with name…s.” Axel had needed a moment to recall the plural, but quickly pressed on. “So, because I'm no good, you can call me any. I mean either. Axel, if you want.”

“More like 'if you can',” called Morimoto. “It looks good over here, by the way. Shall we get moving?”

As he watched them gather up their things, shifting from one foot to another in that uncertain way that suggested he wanted to help but didn't know if he really should, Minato asked, “Heading in to Konoha?”

The blacksmith nodded, somewhat distracted, then kicked the stoppers out from under the cart wheels. It rolled back maybe a few centimeters before he caught the handles and held it in place. “That's right. Got a whole buncha' stuff to sell.”

“Oh!” Minato was at the front of the cart in a near instant. “Here, let me! I should probably head back anyway, if I'm so tired that my mistakes have turned explosive. I knew I should've checked my figures before rushing out, but too late now.”

Still staring at where the other man had stood just a moment earlier, Axel slowly turned to find him taking over cart-pulling duty. He blinked, mentally measuring the distance and wondering if perhaps he had hit his head when he fell off the log: hadn't even noticed Minato moving until he was already gone.

The traveling duo-turned-trio started off up the hill at a much faster pace than they had previously managed, since apparently Minato barely noticed the heavy load he was now stuck pulling along. Morimoto was walking by the cart itself, keeping an eye on the cargo, while Axel trailed a few meters behind.

At the new speed, they crested the hill in no time. It was much brighter there, the dim sunset light near blinding when compared to the shady forest, and Axel had to take a moment to shield his eyes and wait for them to adjust. From what he could make out of the nearby trees, it really did look like something had blown up here and cleared space.

Then, still blinking, he looked out.

And froze.

As promised, the rather out-of-place gap in the trees let them see down over the village. Colorful rooftops—orange or burnt red, typically—topped nearly every building lined along the village's internal roads. He couldn't actually see the streets, but he could still see people: small figures zipping from roof to roof. A mountain, carved with the images of three massive faces, stood tall at the village border.

It wasn't a perfect view, by any means—tree branches crowded in along the edges and vibrant green leaves blocked a good deal of the mountain, in particular—but it was certainly more than they could make out otherwise.

“Gott im Himmel,” he breathed. Then, in Japanese even more hesitant than it had been a month ago, quietly added, “I really am crazy.”

Because it was Konoha.

As in, it was actual fiction Konoha.

Granted, he hadn't seen the show for a few months now. And granted, there are obviously differences between how something appears in a stylized drawing versus real life.

But.

But—impossibly, crazily… it was Konoha.

Chapter Text

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

Axel couldn't believe it.

"It's been a while, but it's just as striking as I remember."

The ground felt unsteady under his feet, and everything around him felt… too real. Fake.

It must be. It couldn't be real.

A dream, he thought. This must all be a dream.

"—do you think, A—?"

Someone was speaking, but he couldn't… couldn't focus when the world had gone sideways!

"—el? Hey—"

He could see the world—the village and the trees and the people—but his mind refused it, too shocked to be able to accept reality as it was. And while he could feel that he was standing upright, all but frozen in place, at the same time it felt like everything was spinning. Axel tried to concentrate on his breathing: in, and out. In, and out. Simple.

It should be simple.

Focus.

"Brandt-san?" The voice—newly familiar, not Morimoto—sounded like it was coming from far away, but the sound of his name helped to ground his shattering perception of reality. Footsteps, maybe, and then a gentle hand rested on his shoulder. "Are you feeling well?"

How could he possibly be?

How could he ever be again?

"F-fine," Axel managed, but his accent was heavy with the confusion he was feeling. His voice sounded weak and unconvincing, even to himself. Not that he was really trying to convince himself that everything was alright. He knew where he stood on that front, because he didn't know where he stood in literally every other sense of the phrase.

He was just so lost.

But he needed to pull himself together, and fast. If that village was truly one and the same as the fictional hidden village from the show—well, ninja. Enough said.

Blinking and giving himself a stern mental shake, Axel turned his attention to the concerned voice and its attached hand on his shoulder. His own blue eyes met another pair of worried blue, and he was surprised to find it had been Minato who had reached out to him, cart left unmanned a meter or so away. It made sense, of course. To be worried, that is. Perfect sense. He wasn't quite sure why he was so surprised, given there were only two people with him so really it had to be one of…

And now his fellow blond was giving him a highly skeptical look, single brow raised in concerned disbelief; Axel's one-word, clearly uninspiring attempt at reassurance falling flat in the wake of his distracted silent staring.

But it was Morimoto, watching with concern from where he stood minding the cart, who drily remarked, "Sure you are. Unresponsively staring out into nothing for nearly two straight minutes is perfectly normal."

Correctly guessing what 'unresponsively' meant by context, Axel couldn't do much but shrug. He could tell that if he tried to talk too much it'd likely just come out a stuttering mess. Or in German, which would be colossally unhelpful. Thus, more silence.

Silence which was, thankfully, filled by Minato as he lightly joked, "Don't worry, I'm sure Brandt-san was simply struck speechless by the view."

Axel paused, brain latching on to the more handleable surprise and choosing to blatantly ignore (for the moment) the world-shattering discovery of ninja-anime-is-real-life-now. "Did you… you said it right?"

"Said what— Oh!" Minato smiled, face lighting up happily. "So I did pronounce your name correctly. I wasn't sure, especially since there wasn't much of a reaction earlier…"

Not much of a reaction, indeed. The dimensionally-misplaced man had been much too busy reeling at his reality toppling down to pay too much attention. Now, though, he was using the unexpectedly correct pronunciation as a distraction. He needed a distraction. At least until he got somewhere safe where he could properly fall apart and sleep, hoping to wake up somewhere logical.

He doubted he would. It's already been a month.

It's already been—

Ignore that thought, continue on.

"Ja," he confirmed, swallowing past his panic. "Yeah. Überras— er… Surprising, that's all."

Morimoto nodded in agreement. "It took me over a week to finally get it right, and way longer for his given name. I swear, it's a tongue-twister and a half."

"That bad?" Minato had an expression that rather distinctly reminded Axel of the 'challenge accepted' face, crossed arms and all. Very deliberately, he sounded out, "Ax-el. Axel-san."

"Well, I'll be darned," muttered Morimoto, expression a mix of disgruntled and impressed.

After his own brief moment of surprise, Axel felt he had to insist, "No '-san'." Feeling self-conscious about his own honorifics-usage short-comings, he gave a slightly embarrassed shrug. "I have problems with, uh, with using the end things. If I don't—can't—you shouldn't need to."

Looking a little curious and a lot unsure about dropping honorifics altogether, Minato nonetheless nodded. "If you're sure, Axel." He cocked his head to the side, as if listening to what he just said, then observed, "You know, it's a bit weird but… it actually does sound better for your name without it. Huh."

"Yeah, I thought so too."

Axel laughed nervously, turning to look anywhere else but at the two of them. Unfortunately his gaze slid back to the village and landed on the three gigantic faces on the mountainside.

Three. Only three.

The part of his brain that wasn't still scrambling for anything—literally anything—to distract himself with noted that that should mean something to him. That there was something important about the fourth face that should be carved up there, stonily watching over the village he had saved from—

Oh sweet merciful heavens.

The fourth Hokage. Naruto. The Nine-Tailed Fox attack.

It hadn't happened yet.

He only noticed that he had frozen up again when Minato once more called his name in concern. Blinking himself back from his spiraling thoughts, Axel was again struck by that sense of recognition when he looked at the worried ninja. And yes, he belatedly realized, the other man definitely had to be a ninja.

"Sorry, I was…" Axel gulped, having no clue how to explain without actually explaining; it sounded insane in his head, so putting it out in words would probably be down right lunacy. "Just. Realized something."

Minato still looked pretty concerned, but he did step back to give him some space. "Are you sure that's it? You look like you, I don't know, saw a ghost or something."

"A ghost," he echoed, voice small as his eyes flicked back to the empty space on the mountain.

In the village below, life went on its merry way. They were standing close enough that there was a sort of quiet clamor of the sounds of people shopping and selling and walking and talking and living. Occasionally one of the crowd would break off and casually disregard physics by running up or along the colorful walls of the buildings. Axel watched a pair of small figures jump to a rooftop, seem to have a brief argument, then vanish in opposite directions so quickly that it was obvious why, in animation, it's just a blur of lines.

Well, it's certainly not animation anymore.

 

=X=X=X=

 

It looked like Axel was having a bit of an existential crisis.

Morimoto Hiroshi didn't really know why Axel would be so suddenly unsteady—as if the world was pulled out from under him—and he certainly did not like it. He especially didn't like how empty Axel had sounded, repeating those two words to himself. Or how empty he had looked—blue eyes disbelieving and so, so lost—when they had just looked out over the village.

Axel said he had only realized something.

To himself, Hiroshi wondered what realization could shake the young man down to his very core with only a glance.

However, much as he'd love to get answers right away, he would need to pester him about that later: Axel looked a gentle breeze away from collapsing right where he stood. At least Namikaze-san had seemed to pick up on that as well, since he offered a shoulder of support that Axel automatically latched onto with a murmured phrase that was probably thanks.

"We should get going," Hiroshi said, his gruff tone not doing much to disguise his worry. "You might just need some rest, and you're not getting that on the road, Axel." He sighed. "Maybe it was a bit soon for such a long trip."

After all, the good doctor had never figured out what had garbled Axel's language skills so throughly. In all likelihood, whatever it was that had messed with his speech could have done worse; sometimes what the man said, while technically understandable, was just nonsensical. Especially whenever he talked about his life before he had somehow wound up half-dead off the side of the road. Head injuries could do strange things, and doubly so if shinobi were involved.

Perhaps seeing Konoha had simply… knocked something loose.

Glad that the rest of the trip would be both short and mostly downhill, Hiroshi took up position at the front of his heavy cart and began to tug it forward. He could feel Namikaze-san's gaze on his back, clearly concerned, but the shinobi apparently decided that Axel needed more assistance because he moved to help him stay steady.

"So… where are you two from?" Namikaze-san asked a few minutes later, just to make conversation. The question was followed rather quickly by apologies. "Sorry, I mean, uh, well," he floundered, trying to fix what he clearly thought had been the wrong thing to say.

Hiroshi spared him his stammered attempt at maybe-apology, distractedly answering over his shoulder, "Chotto, just about a day's walk away."

Slowing briefly to look back, a joke about his hometown's frankly uninspired name (a small town called 'small'—how clever) just waiting to be… the joke died in his throat. He could see why Namikaze-san had immediately tripped over himself with apologies. Hell, the look in Axel's eyes, all the more blue when set wide against shock-pale skin, nearly made the blacksmith stop in his tracks. He had seen that expression before, on the face of a friend standing outside what remained of his home, less than rubble, as the reality sunk in little by little.

Axel had somehow lost everything, just by looking out over the village.

Hiroshi promised himself that he would get the answers he wanted—that he needed. After all, family held each other together, through thick and thin. Not knowing why the blond was hurting, what he had lost… Hiroshi wanted to help, but he couldn't if he didn't know what had broken.

 

=X=X=X=

 

Foot well and truly introduced to his mouth, courtesy of what he had thought to be a harmless question, Minato tried his awkward level-best to right the conversation.

"Chotto… Oh, I think I've been through there," he replied, perhaps just a hair too quickly. Hopefully the cadence of small-talk might help Axel (no honorific, he reminded himself) to keep a grip, despite whatever it was that had thrown him so badly. "My first mission after making chunin, I, well… I forgot to pack bandages and had to pick up some up from the clinic there."

They managed to keep a fairly steady stream of lighthearted banter going for some time—even earning a few distracted chuckles from the still shell-shocked blond—and soon enough they arrived at the village's western-most gate. The green doors stood wide and unobstructed, save for a pair of shinobi keeping watch and what looked to be a jonin with a trio of tired genin.

Or rather, two tired genin and one small, exuberant green beast.

Minato smiled, giving the almost impossibly driven genin a small, one-handed wave. Maito Gai was, well… he was an experience all his own. And apparently, he was an experience barreling straight toward them. An odd sort of confused recognition flickered through Axel's eyes when he spotted the seven-year-old genin charging their way.

Morimoto-san cautiously maneuvered the cart more to the side of the road, making sure he wasn't in the path of the almost preternaturally energetic boy. He chuckled softly: likely at Axel's expense. This was promising to be an amusing encounter. Especially since Axel was still gaping like a fish out of water.

Then, rather abruptly, his fellow blond smacked one hand to his forehead. Minato thought he overheard him murmur, with a hushed sort of disbelief, that the world must be joking at this point. Or at least, that was the sentiment dripping from each indiscernible word of nonsense.

"Hello, Gai," Minato greeted, quite familiar with this particular bombastic genin thanks to his own stoic and anti-social student. "Just back from a mission?"

Whispering quietly, Axel confusedly asked himself, "'Gai'? Nicht Lee? Aber dann—" A glance to the carved mountainside. "…Oh. Richtig."

Any other strange words Axel said were soundly drowned out by Gai's energetic hello. "The first of what is sure to be a shining career, Minato-sensei!" he declared with a thumbs-up and a sparkling smile. "And what luck to meet you here!— I must find my Eternal Rival to tell him! Do you know where he is!?"

"Not at the moment, no." The jonin could make a few guesses, but he'd been in the forest for some time. All day actually: he had rushed out before breakfast with an idea he just had to test out.

For a moment Gai looked slightly less (hyper?) energized, but it passed quickly when he rather abruptly noticed that there were two blonds standing before him, not just one.

"A new face! Today is truly overflowing with youthful good fortune!" Gai gave another one of his literally shining smiles and struck a dramatic pose before introducing himself. "Hello! My name is Maito Gai, genin of Konoha!"

A recent promotion, Minato knew, but a genin all the same. The boy's team was slowly making their way over as well, now that it had become clear that Gai wouldn't be heading back with them soon without someone pulling him away.

Axel nodded, understandably overwhelmed. While Minato might not know why seeing the village could have struck the other man dumb, Gai's particular brand of… youth was more than enough to shock anyone into silence.

When Axel made no move to introduce himself, Gai spun into another somehow-even-more-dramatic pose; he decided to take the direct approach: "What is your name?"

"Woah, Gai, give the man some space!" called one of the green beast's teammates: a slightly older boy named Shiranui Genma, if Minato recalled rightly. He pointed towards Gai's hand, and funnily enough the senbon in his mouth wiggled as if it, too, were gesturing. "Your finger's only, like, less than a handspan from his nose."

Gai gasped, retracting into a less in-your-face but still equally bombastic position. "You are right! I was simply overflowing with energy and did not notice my rudeness!"

"Das kann ich sehen," Axel grumbled, but the corners of his mouth twitched upwards, almost involuntarily. "I'm Brandt Axel."

A blink to process, and then Gai leapt into yet another pose and began proclaiming how 'youthful' such a name was.

Genma-kun, in quiet contrast, just asked, "Ak-su-what-now?"

Apparently quite used to repeating himself by now, he simply did so. "Brandt Axel."

"No offense, but that's certainly a mouthful." After a moment's consideration, mentally trying to shape the odd name, Genma-kun seemed to find it to be a lost cause. The third genin team member, who had walked up just as Axel introduced himself, seemed to agree with the sentiment, since he didn't even bother trying to figure out the pronunciation.

"Bu-rant Aku-ser!" Gai exclaimed, rather suddenly. Then: "B-rant A-kser! I will get it soon!"

The practice names continued with variable success, and Genma-kun simply ignored them. "Anyway, I'm Shiranui Genma, also a genin, and this is Ebisu."

"Genin," Ebisu-kun added, just to be consistent.

"And I'm Akimichi Chōza," said a low voice, "the jonin supposedly in charge of these three."

Axel looked very much like this entire situation made positively no sense to him at all, but that, for the sake of sanity, he had decided to just go with the flow for now. This didn't stop the other blond from taking a single, carefully judged step back in order to position Minato solidly between himself and the rowdy young ninja. Or maybe it was more between him and the large Akimichi: Minato's fellow shinobi did look imposing, even if he was actually anything but.

So, while Minato did notice the slight shift, he choose not to comment on it. Instead, he teasingly quipped, "Oh dear, are these three causing you trouble, Chōza?"

The large man nodded, expression almost an even split between false and perfectly genuine sincerity. "Seems to be their natural state. But whatever, what are you doing out here?"

"Ah, well…" Minato was a little embarrassed, given the accident he'd had with his experimental seal, so he waffled over what to say for a bit.

He waffled a bit too long, since Morimoto-san took it upon himself to answer (even if he didn't bother moving from where he stood beside the cart). "This young ninja here had a… somewhat explosive problem near where we were resting from our journey. He's decided to help us out as an apology for scaring Axel off a log."

Axel seemed somewhat bothered by the frank description of his graceless-ness, but since he couldn't dispute it he just crossed his arms with a slight huff.

Minato smiled sheepishly. "An experimental seal," he explained. "It just… didn't work as desired."

"Seriously?" Chōza raised a skeptical brow and pointed out, "He said it exploded."

"Kinda, when the outer seal six-point array triggered out of sync with the tertiary—"

"I'm gonna stop you right there, Minato." The large man had never had an inclination towards the sealing arts, and he could tell when Minato was slipping into teacher mode; it was something of a habit for Minato, even back in the academy.

"But, well, I mean," he replied, even as he tried to sort himself into a neater explanation. Eventually he had to concede the point. "Okay, yes, it did blow up in my face. But only a little!"

Axel shook his head, and Minato barely caught the tentative smile that twitched at the other man's lips. "'Only a little'?"

"As one does, you know," added Morimoto. "Explosion or not, I—"

Suddenly, Gai. It doesn't really need any more description. "BE-RANT ACK-SEL," he said in time to the handstand push-ups he had apparently decided needed doing. "If I cannot get it right by the fiftieth, then I shall do one hundred more!"

Axel was staring, so Minato gave him a little nudge and a smile.

"Gai's a bit of a, ah…"

"Interesting character?" provided Axel. The words were ever so slightly bitter, and his voice had that barely-held-together fragility that was a bit worrisome, but overall the tone suggested it was a joke of some sort. Minato couldn't quite figure out how.

"That's one way to put it."

"BRANDT ACK-SEL!"

Ignoring the noise coming from his loudest genin with enviable ease, Chōza glanced between the two newcomers to the village and their overburdened cart. And to Minato, who was still standing beside Axel just in case. Then, finally, to the still energetic Gai. He seemed to have an idea, because after a moment, he called for said shinobi's attention: "Gai-kun."

Gai immediately flipped out from his handstand push-ups and landed in a pose—more business-like than earlier, and yet only marginally less bombastic. "Yes, Chōza-sensei?"

The big man gestured to Morimoto and his cart. "How would you feel about a quick mini-mission?"

"Wait a second," Genma-kun interjected, crossing his arms with a slight scowl and petulant flick of the senbon in his mouth. "Why only Gai?"

With a nod, Ebisu-kun added to the protest, "We're a team, aren't we? We should do missions together."

Chōza smiled at his students, clearly already soft on them even though their team had only been together for a few weeks. "If you think you're still up for it after our mission, then…" He shrugged. "Eh, I guess you could help too."

There was a brief lull in the conversation as the trio of genin waited to hear what their sensei had planned, but, when no details were forthcoming, the ever-eager Gai decided to press on. If 'press on' meant 'wildly guess'.

"Oh, is it a mission to race back to report to Hokage-sama? Or to help a little old lady cross the street?" A dramatic hand pointed toward the village without looking and, surprisingly, there actually happened to be a little old lady quietly making her way home with groceries. He didn't seem to notice the vast difference between his first two guesses. Gai paused, then vigorously shook his head. "No, no! It must be—"

"Gai-kun. Really," Chōza shook his head, still smiling, "it's just helping them get where they're going."

Axel looked vaguely horrified by that idea, but then again he had looked vaguely horrified by everything that had happened since he had first seen the village: or at least landing somewhere on the spectrum between 'denial' and 'vaguely horrified'. Minato wasn't a hundred percent confident in his ability to read the slightly older man for… well, for various reasons, actually. Not to be rude, but Axel's face was peculiar. Obviously his facial features weren't as out there as some shinobi, but his prominent nose and the position of his eyes in particular made Minato second guess himself.

Plus, they had only just met.

Before Axel could try and dissuade the idea—that's probably what he was planning on doing when he opened his mouth—Morimoto had already agreed. "That'd be a big help! After today, I just wan—"

Morimoto wasn't even able to finish his sentence before Gai all but appeared in front of the cart, ready to start off at top speed. Before he could, thankfully—who knows where it would have ended up, otherwise—his teammates rushed over.

"We're a team, Gai!" Genma-kun poked his green-spandexed friend, tone reprimanding. "Don't just run off to do the mission without us!"

However, since Gai had already begun to pull the cart, further chiding was set aside as the trip resumed. All seven of them walked the final, slight distance to the village threshold.

As they approached the two shinobi guarding the gate, Morimoto seemed to remember something and proceeded to slump in exhaustion. "Dagnabbit, I still need to hand over the paperwork, don't I."

Minato winced in sympathy: he might never have needed to fill out the customs forms when coming or going, but he had witnessed the impressive lines that sometimes formed outside the gates. Luckily it seemed to be just late enough in the day that it shouldn't take too much time.

"It should be fairly quick, this time of day."

And so it was, much to everyone's surprise. Even if there was a bit of a snag when it came to Axel—who apparently had no documents, strangely enough—the guards didn't seem too bothered. They just waved him on through.

But Axel hesitated. He stood there, staring blankly at the line in the dirt that marked the edge of the village. Then, as if mechanically, his eyes panned up and over to the mountain side and looked at each giant face in turn. But he otherwise remained completely frozen in place.

So, naturally, Minato gave him a little shove.

Axel stumbled into Konoha.

"Welcome to the Village Hidden in the Leaves, Axel!"

Chapter Text

The rest of the trip passed in a blur, at least to Axel.

He was pretty sure he had been part of a conversation, supplying distracted hums of acknowledgment whenever the topic veered in his direction. At some point Morimoto had been surprised by something, maybe, and of course Gai—he was still reeling about running into Gai of all people—was consistently energetic the entire time. Probably. Axel wasn't really paying attention.

Or maybe he had been, at the time. He certainly couldn't remember any of it now.

The house Morimoto led them to, though Gai and the cart were technically always in the lead, was a simple two-story building with a bit of overgrown yard between it and the road. Axel only noticed those things because he tripped on his way to the front door and again when trying to go up the stairs.

Morimoto had wasted no time showing him to what was presumably going to be his room, at least for the moment, before vanishing back downstairs to help the trio of newbie ninja—genin?—unload the cart.

And there Axel stood, just inside the room as the door swung shut behind him, not really sure how he got there.

His bag slipped from his shoulder, and he let it fall to the floor with a heavy thud. He followed shortly after, all but collapsing against the door as the willpower that had kept him upright for the past who-knows-how-long drained away. Exhaustion and disbelief and denial and confusion and deep, suffocating fear swirled in his gut.

Not fear of the ninja themselves, no. Although, thinking back to some of the late series fights Adri had either sent him the videos to or simply sat him down to watch… that would be justifiable. Summoning meteors or flattening villages or the entire whatever nonsense the final battle had been: that's all serious business now. Real threats.

But that wasn't what he was so scared of.

(Mostly.)

Axel stared blankly at the empty room. It was an unfamiliar, empty echo of his apartment back in München: a bare shelf and a desk on one wall, an unmade bed along the other. Numbly, he stood and managed to walk to the bed. Part of him noticed that he no longer had shoes on, just socks—probably took them off when he came in.

Sitting down on the edge of the mattress, Axel closed his eyes and tried to focus on his breathing. Keeping it consciously steady and deep and consistent.

He didn't know how he got here. Got to this world.

He didn't know how he could get home.

If he even could.

And that scared him.

With a suddenly shuddering breath, he flopped back on the bed—uncaring that it had no sheets or blankets yet—and draped one arm over his face. Lying like this, blind to his surroundings, he could almost convince himself that he was back in Germany. Or Tokyo. Or even back to earlier in the week, still blissfully unaware.

The window was open slightly, letting in a gentle breeze that tugged at the curtain and stirred the air. It was quiet. Peaceful. A few dogs somewhere outside barked. Axel focused on that.

Calm.

He was calm.

This was… unexpected, to say the least. But he was here, and that wasn't likely to change anytime soon. Especially if he panicked himself into an early grave.

With each breath, Axel focused on himself: how inhaling pulls and expands, exhaling releases and contracts. Focused on how his bones and muscles and skin felt in the moment, just existing.

And, after some time, he was calm.

Calm enough, anyway.

Still in his travel clothes and lying on an unmade bed, Axel fell asleep.

 

=X=X=X=

 

When he woke up, it was to a dark, empty room.

In that space between dreaming and wakefulness, Axel could almost convince himself that he was back in his own apartment. It was easy to lie to himself, to say that everything that had happened over the past month or so simply hadn't happened. And it was such a nice lie, too.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, and Axel let go of the lie.

To be honest, he hadn't expected to be able to fall asleep at all.

With a tired groan, Axel propped himself up and blearily blinked at his pitch-black surroundings. He could make out the vaguest of outlines marking where the furniture was, but other than that he might as well have been blind. Too tired to continue the totally justifiable panic attack from earlier, Axel just sat there in the dark.

Blankly staring out at nothing.

Actually, now that he was awake enough to notice, he realized that he was kind of thirsty, to be honest.

Hoisting himself to his feet, Axel stumbled in the direction of the bedroom door. His stumbling nearly became a complete faceplant into the hardwood floor when his foot caught on something. Smacking a hand to the wall to regain his balance, Axel slowly crouched and carefully waved his hand through the air around where he tripped.

Ah. It was his bag, left forgotten where it had fallen earlier. He gently pushed it aside with one foot, safely out of the way, and opened the door.

The rest of the house was just as dark as the bedroom, apparently. That, plus his complete lack of knowledge about where most anything was—in this case a sink, which would presumably be in a kitchen or a bathroom—meant he had no idea where to go. He was pretty sure the stairs were to his right, and he thought he remembered passing through a kitchen when he was led to his room, so that's the way he went.

He was correct: turns out the stairs were directly to his right. His left hand, which had been reaching for a wall, whiffed through empty air and he rather unexpectedly leaned out over empty space. With a startled gasp, Axel blindly grasped for the railing, found it, and decided he had better let his heart slow back down before continuing.

Good to know that the stairs apparently led almost directly up to his room, only offset by about the width of a door. He would have liked to learn as much without nearly falling down them, but oh well.

Axel made the rest of his way downstairs without further mishap, though he did stumble on the small landing halfway down.

At the base of the stairs, feeling slightly (very slightly) more confident in his darkness-navigation skills, he took a left and promptly tripped over a box. He managed not to fall on his face only by toppling sideways into another box. Clearly he had discovered where the cart's heavy burden had been stored. So, one hand on the wall and one foot scooching cautiously over the floor ahead of him, he crossed the room and entered the next.

And was quite delighted to find that he had successfully made his way to the kitchen. The glow from the digital clock over the stove didn't light up very much and Axel rather doubted the time displayed was correct, so it wasn't helpful for anything other than confirming where he was. Based on the texture under his fingers—still held up to track the wall—he was standing right beside the fridge.

But, though he was kind of hungry, thirst won out in the end. He could make out the faint outline of what he hoped to be a sink opposite him. A bit closer and he could see four glasses and some plates set out on an old drying rack, from which he grabbed one of each, trusting that they would be clean. Axel held the cup under the faucet and twisted the handle on, then just listened to the pitch of the splashing as it filled up.

With his first gulp of cool water, he realized he was much thirstier than he had thought.

And hungry. He really hoped that there were leftovers from the trip snacks in the fridge: maybe half a sandwich from lunch.

Filling his glass again, he wandered carefully back to the fridge. Opening it swung a beam of cool light over the rest of the kitchen, and he was pleasantly surprised to find—

Something behind him skittered.

That wasn't the pleasant thing.

Axel spun, water sloshing around in his cup. There, in the shadow of the doorway between the front entrance and where he stood was a— a… That couldn't be right. He blinked.

It was a dog, frozen in the act of sneaking around the house. Its fur was mostly black, with tan on its muzzle and three of its feet. The dog—a boy dog—had scruffy dirtier-than-it-should-be hair and no collar. It was the lack of a collar, more than anything else, that led Axel to believe the dog was a stray.

A stray that was both very long and very short.

And also very much breaking into the house.

The dachshund gave a somewhat hesitant wag—that wag dogs use when they're pretty sure that they've been caught mid-crime but were still hopeful for an escape.

“Warum ist…?” Axel began, but he couldn't quite figure out how to finish that question. Man and dog stared at each other for a long minute, so he decided to ask something else instead. Rhetorically, of course, since the dog wouldn't be replying. “Hungry?”

Perhaps there were a number of questions that would make more sense in this situation—what, how, where, general confusion—but then again it's not like the dog could supply any answers. Though the dog did perk up at the possibility of food. Which was a bit strange, to be honest, since it was almost as if the question had been understood. The dachshund slunk closer.

“That's a yes, then.”

Taking a quick drink before setting his cup down, Axel finally checked the fridge to see what sorts of food Morimoto might have in supply. He was quite relieved to find that Morimoto had either brought food in one of those crates or he'd gone on a quick grocery run while Axel had been too busy freaking out to be helpful in any way. It would have been unfortunate if there hadn't been anything to eat, seeing as he'd already gotten his hopes up.

Grabbing a package of ham, Axel tore it open and pulled out a number of slices to flop on his plate. Though technically no longer his plate, seeing as the food he set on it was intended for the dog. In the light from the refrigerator, he took a moment to appreciate the tiny-but-detailed shuriken designs on the plate.

Then, careful not to startle his unexpected four-legged visitor, Axel lowered the dish to the floor and nudged it over with his foot. It skid smoothly across the floor, but the dog took a hesitant (and some would argue wise) step away. Axel stayed crouched, since he thought it probably made him seem less threatening.

After a minute of silent staring, the crouching position was deemed to be too much effort so he sat down entirely. The motion startled the dachshund, who gave a sharp twitch and then shot the human a distinctly disgruntled glare.

Axel thought it was pretty darn cute.

As if able to read his thoughts, the dog gave a huffed bark. Taking those last few steps over the the plate, the ham was given a hesitant sniff and deemed safe enough. Then, naturally, the dachshund proceeded to thieve the entire plate. Which is to say the dachshund carefully took the ham—plate and all—and swiftly booked it in the opposite direction.

“Hey, wait, that's—” Axel cut himself off mid-sentence, realizing that the target of his confusion had already vanished. With a sigh, he leaned back onto his hands; the floor below felt cool and only a little dusty. “It not even my plate of give.”

He was trying to peel out another slice of ham for himself when he abruptly realized, “Wait, I meant 'it's' and 'to', not… well, not that anyone's here to complain.”

Finally freeing another slice, Axel stood up, tossed the package back into the fridge, and shut the door. The kitchen was plunged back into darkness, but at least he sort of knew where things were now. Finishing his small midnight snack, he blindly reached for his cup. Blindly and cautiously, thankfully, which would be why he didn't smack it off the counter.

Glass in hand and a slightly less vague mental map of the house in mind, Axel began his careful trip back to bed. As he walked, he could feel his eyes sliding unfocused as exhaustion crept back up on him: it seems that sleep due to sheer panic wearing him down to near unconsciousness is not particularly rejuvenating.

Go figure.

When he reached his room, he left his cup on the desk and briefly pondered if it would be worth getting bedclothes and changing into pajamas. Fairly immediately, Axel realized that a blanket and pillow and some sheets were already nicely folded near the head of the bed. They were even slightly disheveled; clearly he had actually laid right on top of the folded stack without even noticing.

However, just because he had sheets and stuff didn't mean he had to nicely make the bed quite yet. Instead Axel just sort of haphazardly spread out one sheet—mostly on the mattress though a good deal spilled onto the floor—then the blanket. It would do for now. After that, he barely put in the effort to change into sleepwear: his t-shirt would be good enough.

Stretching one last time, his gaze flicked to the curtained window. Unavoidably, his mind turned to the truth of his situation, and it felt like something cold gripped his throat. He swallowed past it.

It was a relief to crawl into bed and call the long, crazy day well and truly finished.

 

=X=X=X=

 

When he woke up, the world was still crazy. As evidenced by the perfectly mundane, empty room he awoke to.

He sat up.

In the light of morning—or maybe afternoon, he wasn't sure—Axel realized that his bedroom was rather large. Certainly larger than the guest room he had claimed previously. Even slightly larger than his room back in München.

That thought, reminding him just where he was, twisted in his gut. A deep, measured breath smoothed it out.

His eyes landed on where his bag still sat on the floor, and, after staring at it for what was probably an unnecessarily long time, he decided he might as well deal with it.

Swinging his legs out from under the pile of (mostly) unmade bedsheets he had slept in, Axel stretched. Some ache from the long walk the day before eased away, and so he stood up.

It wasn't until he scooped his bag off the floor that he noticed something about his room. Namely: it was more than just really large. In fact, there were three doors, only one of which would lead out. Naturally that begs the question of just what the other two doors led to. So, obviously he temporarily abandoned his bag on the bed and went to investigate.

Turns out his room apparently had a walk-in closet and an en-suite bathroom.

He stood in the doorway to the bathroom, confused. For multiple reasons, not least of which being why his room had an attached bath. Other than that, though, the layout was strange. It had the usual bathroom stuff—toilet, sink, shower—but it also had a separate bathtub. A large separate bathtub. Looking between the shower and bath, Axel wondered why they each had their own space; it would be more efficient, after all, to have the shower built into the tub and use the same drain.

But then it wasn't his place to judge: it could just be an oriental thing or maybe a… ninja-world thing.

Regardless, everything about this room felt… large.

He had better things to do than stare at a bathroom, though, so he returned to his original activity. Straightening out the snarl of blankets, he proceeded to dump out his bag on the bed. Axel carefully set aside his backpack, which still had his laptop and so on, and grabbed the secondhand clothes. There was plenty on closet space for them, obviously, so he dropped them on a shelf in there and called it good enough.

He placed his backpack on the desk, not quite willing to unpack it yet.

Pulling on pants, he decided it was time to face the day. No matter how crazy.

The situation wouldn't be changing any time soon, after all.

Axel found Morimoto in the room of many boxes, stooped over one and shuffling through its contents.

“Good mor—”

The older man jolted upright, startled, and spun around. “GAH—! Oh, it's just you… Yes, good morning, Axel.” He collected himself quickly, having become at least somewhat used to the blond's unexpected skill at sneaking up on people. With a glance outside, he added, “Although I'm pretty sure it's afternoon already.”

Following the older man's gaze to the window, Axel saw that it was, indeed, pretty darn light outside. The extra sleep was well worth it, though—necessary, even—so he didn't let himself be bothered. Instead, he hopefully asked, “Food?”

“Food,” Morimoto confirmed. “Though when I looked this morning some of the ham was suspiciously missing.”

Axel blinked at the sentence, needing a quick moment to string meaning together from what he knew should be a fairly simple statement. Finally, and somewhat surprised, he asked, “That really happened?”

“What?”

“I was hunger—”

“'Hungry',” came a swift correction.

“—hungry,” Axel repeated, logging it somewhere in his mind before continuing. “I came down and got food late. There was a… a, uhm…” Having no idea what the word for 'dachshund' might be, he went with a somewhat goofy sounding descriptor. “A long dog broke in. I gave him some food.”

Shoving the box he had been digging through out of the way, Morimoto turned around with a skeptical expression. “By 'long dog', do you mean a dakkusufunto?” he asked.

The word was unexpectedly similar, assuming they were indeed talking about the same thing.

At Axel's only somewhat hesitant nod, a smile tugged at the corners of the older man's mouth. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, a dachshund.”

“And it broke in?”

“As far as I know.”

At this point Morimoto was shaking with silent laughter, and Axel was doing his best to keep a straight face. It was quite hard: likely because picturing a dachshund sneakily slipping through a cracked window, shifty-eyed and decked out in spy gear, was, on all accounts, a hilarious mental image.

“He stole a plate, too.”

That was clearly the final straw, since Morimoto doubled over laughing. He tried to support himself with one of the cardboard boxes, but all that succeeded in doing was folding in the side of the box and making him stagger awkwardly until his balance returned. Which it did do. Eventually.

Finally catching his breath, the blacksmith smiled at his blond friend. “The dog… the dog stole a plate? How did—? Or wait, better question: why?!”

“When I gave him ham,” Axel answered, and, looking back at the events of the last night, he shook his head. “I put the ham on a plate, and the dog took both.”

Morimoto shook his head in amused befuddlement. “I suppose that explains why dishes were missing from the drying rack.”

A few minutes later, when they actually went into the kitchen to get food, they would both be confused to find the bottle of soap knocked over onto the floor. Then they were further perplexed to find the missing plate, edges decorated with the tiny shuriken Axel remembered, sitting at the bottom of the sink in a shallow layer of soapy water.

“Either we're both crazy—which is still up for debate—or that,” Morimoto mused, “must be one well-trained dog.”

Axel could only nod in agreement: a very well-trained dog, indeed.

Chapter Text

The other stray dogs had taken to calling him 'Boss', for some reason. This was despite the fact that, when compared to some of the other dogs (all of the other dogs, really), he was positively tiny. Long, yes—but also very, very short.

He cursed his stubby little legs.

And, though they did call him 'Boss', he found that he didn't really get much out of the title. Basically it meant he had to keep an eye on everyone and make sure their small makeshift pack of stray dogs and cats was kept relatively safe, sheltered, and fed. Which, obviously, was often easier said than done. All in all, the title just meant more work for him when all he wanted to do was snooze and quietly watch the world pass him by.

At the moment, however, he had found something interesting to chew on.

Metaphorically.

Not literally, although he did remember spotting a particularly good-looking stick in one of the lesser-used training fields that would serve nicely.

No, now was not the time to be dreaming of chew toys. He needed to focus. This was pack business, after all.

At the moment, the dachshund was spying on the newly-occupied house across the street. His attempt at infiltration that first night had gone belly-up faster than an attention-seeking poodle, but it had worked out well in the end. Clearly he was out of practice if the blond one—who had a peculiar scent that was somehow different from everyone else the short dog had sniffed—had been able to sneak up on him so easily.

Still, the-one-who-smelled-different seemed to be a nice enough guy.

Although, to be fair, ham could do much to sway his opinion of someone.

Hiding in the gutter on the roof of the building opposite the target's house, he peeked his nose over the edge to give a few test sniffs. No change. Deeming the coast clear, he lifted his head to peer over at the target. Or rather, at the building the target was in. In the past week, he had yet to see the blond man actually leave.

In fact, he had yet to even spot the blond man through one of the windows.

It was a bit worrisome.

"Psst, hey Boss," came a barking voice.

"What is it, Miho?" he asked, front half popping up from the gutter to look down at the window below him. Sure enough, a familiar fluffy brown dog was staring back at him. Miho, unlike himself, was quite a large dog: at least five times taller than he was, which, despite his own stubbiness, was not insignificant. Since she couldn't join him on the thin roof, she had had to settle with resting her head on the windowsill and watching from there. She looked quite bored.

"Why do I gotta do this stake-out with you?" Miho huffed an annoyed breath, grumbling, "I'd rather be out looking for that cat… er, you know, whatshername."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." The dachshund wiggled the rest of himself free of the gutter and agilely dropped down through the window. His entrance kicked up a good amount of dust which had both dogs sneezing.

Catching her breath again, Miho repeated her question. "So why am I here, Boss?"

"Because. That's why."

The significantly larger-and-fluffier dog snorted. "That's a stupid answer."

Popping his head out the window briefly to shoot a glance back at the target's house, the dachshund changed the subject. "So who's gone missing this time?"

Miho's white ears pulled back, clearly worried. "The old hissy tabby-cat. Had a bit missing from her right ear?"

"Wait, you mean Tora?" He had liked that cat; a bit crazy and with grand delusions of being a tiger, sure, but she was pretty good at keeping the other cats in line. "She's missing?"

"Since yesterday at the latest."

He frowned, not liking what that meant. "That's the fifth one to go, counting the three last month."

Somewhat reluctantly, Miho said, "Maybe more. Kuromaru, you know him—handsome, dark fur, had to get a sweet eyepatch recently? He's an Inuzuka too, so—"

"Yes," the dachshund was quick to interject. Ever since he had lost his human partner in the attack that left this district empty, the clan had been a touchy subject. "I know."

Thankfully Miho took the hint, dropping that topic and continuing on to her point. "He said that some of the other stray packs have been getting antsy. He thinks they might be missing members too, but not as many as us."

Realizing that he had begun to pace anxiously, he forced himself to sit down. "And what are your thoughts?"

"My thoughts?" She blinked, surprised that he'd ask for her opinion, before her expression grew suddenly grim. "I think something's up, and I don't like the smell of it."

With a grimace, the dachshund nodded. "I agree. Something—or someone, more like—is snatching us strays off the streets. Who knows why."

"Kidnappings? Really?"

"It fits, though again— not sure why anyone would kidnap strays."

Miho snarled as her mind flipped through the most likely reasons. "Nothing good, I'd bet."

Unfortunately, she was probably right. Then a foreboding thought occurred to him and, unable to sit still any longer, he began pacing again. After all, if this mystery kidnapper doesn't mind snatching animals, it's not much of a stretch to think they might raise the stakes. "Have you heard of any missing humans?"

Her ears flipped up. "You think—?"

“No news of that, then. Good.” She probably wouldn't sound so surprised at the idea if she had heard of something like that happening already. He didn't stop pacing, though he did slow down slightly.

“Not that I know of,” she concurred.

Another few turns around the room and he finally stopped, decision made. “Alright, Miho. You can go look into this.”

Suddenly at full attention, the large dog sprung to her feet. "Seriously? Thanks, Boss! I'll track 'em down in no time! But… uhm, what about you? You're not coming?"

"No, I…" The dachshund's eyes drifted toward the house across the street, almost as if he couldn't help himself. "I still have to figure out these new humans."

Miho beamed him a positively mischievous doggy smile, teasing, "Hoh hoh, so you're that concerned for this blond guy?"

"What?!" he yipped, and if a dog could blush he probably would have been bright scarlet. "I— that's— NO. I'm clearly concerned about this guy. Not for."

"Sure you are." Miho sounded a mix between teasing and genuinely pleased.

He determinedly repeated, "Not for."

"Methinks you protest too much."

That earned her a still-embarrassed-sounding growl.

She ignored that, noticing instead the traitorous wag of his tail. Standing up—another smile aimed squarely in his direction—Miho shook off some of the dust that had settled on her fur before heading to the door. "Well, whatever. I'm off."

"Yes. Good. You do that."

"You have fun stalking the new guy."

"I'M NOT—" he started, but he caught himself. Lowering his voice, he tried again. "I'm not stalking anyone. It's reconnaissance."

Miho shrugged and shouldered the door open. "Whatever you say, Boss. Whatever you say."

The dachshund stared at the door after it swung shut, then turned back to the house across the street. To himself, he reaffirmed, "I'm not."

He also firmly told himself that he wasn't that worried that he hadn't seen any sign of the blond man for the past week. It was fine, the blond man was fine, and it wasn't like he cared either way.

Honest.

Chapter Text

To distract himself from the confusing mess of impossibility that his life had apparently become, Axel worked hard to help Morimoto unpack the boxes and otherwise get the house set up. He still hadn't figured out why they were working to make the old house livable again, but at least it gave him something to do. It was an effective distraction, even if some of the contents only served to remind him where he was; many of the boxes held tools or jewelry-type things, but there were others filled with weapons like kunai and shuriken.

Axel also wasn't sure how Morimoto expected to sell all these things quickly enough to get back to his son before the teen burned something down. Not that Kichirou would purposefully torch anything, but, to be fair, he had a tendency to get a bit distracted at times. It was an almost valid concern.

Kicking out the bottom of one of the last cardboard boxes and folding it flat, Axel tossed it onto the pile with the others. After a full week of mindless busywork, distributing the contents of all those boxes—weapons included—around the house, they were finally nearing the end.

Morimoto, who had been doing something in the forge area (yes, this house had a forge and it was amazing), came into the room with a suspiciously happy grin. "Nearly wrapped up here?"

"I think?" replied Axel, half because he wasn't sure how long it would take to unpack the rest and half because he wasn't sure about the use of 'wrapped' in the sentence. "Just three more boxes."

"Fantastic!" The blacksmith walked over and popped one of the last boxes open, nodding to himself as he recognized whatever was inside. "Oh, right. These. Best save them for later, actually."

Choosing not to question it, Axel only shrugged.

Morimoto took the silence as a chance to push for something he had been trying to get Axel to do since that first afternoon in the village. Namely: "I need to get some more things for the forge, fuel and the like. Want to join me?"

Now, just because Axel was no longer in a state of shock due to complete-world-flipping didn't mean he was quite ready to face that flipped world. Thus he had avoided going outside or even looking out the windows for too long. Using a rather lackluster excuse, he answered, "It gives so many things here that I still need to do."

"I think you mean 'there are'. As in 'there are so many things', which I suppose is true." The blacksmith paused before pointedly adding, "Or at least was true. I think you can spare an hour or so."

Axel's eyes darted to the door, then back to the man attempting to convince him to walk through it into the world beyond. That strange world beyond that should be fiction. "I still need to, uh… I-I could… clean more?" It came out as a question.

Not impressed with either of the lame excuses, Morimoto crossed his arms and gave the blond a stern look. "I don't know what you're so scared of, but it's not going to work itself out in here."

He started to protest, but the words died before he could even finish a full sentence. It was true, Axel realized. He was scared. At this point it was more than denial or unease or discomfort; it was fear, plain and simple.

It was about time he faced it.

"Besser spät als nie," he said to himself, cementing his decision. "I… I guess I need to sometime."

The blacksmith's stern look melted into a pleased smile. "Good! I was planning on restocking the forge, you know. This is a good chance for you to see how it's done."

Not quite sure what was meant by that, Axel asked, "Why would I need to—"

The question was swiftly interrupted as Morimoto ushered him to the door. "Anyway, let's be off! Places to go, things to buy, and only so many hours in the day."

Now Axel was downright suspicious. But, having no idea what it was all about, he simply let himself be dragged to the door. He stood at the threshold, pulling on his shoes much more slowly than necessary, and tried to psych himself up to face the world. It's not as if delaying would make it any easier.

As ready as he'd ever be, he followed Morimoto outside.

It was a beautiful day, and the sun was shining bright with nary a cloud in sight. He had always thought that the fictional Konoha was remarkably colorful for a village full of ninja, and it was pretty clear that that impression was correct. Even here, in what he understood to be an abandoned district, the rooftops were still colored vibrant shades of blue, orange, red, or green. Plants were retaking what they could, now that nobody cared to maintain the roads or buildings, but all that meant was there were more shades of green trailing across the pale walls.

He took a deep breath—appreciating the clean, earthy scents in the air. A breeze, warm with just a touch of the upcoming summer heat, tousled his short hair. The sun shone overhead, and the ground was solid under his feet.

The world was still as real as it had been. Just… different.

Focusing on that, he began to follow after Morimoto. "Where we going?"

"Left out an 'are' in there, Axel."

Familiar with this routine, he simply corrected, "Where are we going? Forge stuff?"

"I know a guy over in the market district," was the supremely unhelpful answer.

"For forge stuff, yes?"

Morimoto waved a dismissive hand, answering, "Old business partner. Thought I'd, you know…" In actuality, Axel did not know. The older man vaguely finished, "It's good to have contacts."

"Er, alright?" Axel wasn't sure what else to say, other than maybe slightly annoyed complaints about skirting around a subject. Honestly, he didn't see what was so hard about speaking plainly.

Maybe it was another ninja-world thing.

As they got closer to the edge of the abandoned district—which didn't take as long as he had expected—they ran into more and more people just wandering the streets. And with more people about, there always seemed to be at least one darting shadow cast by a passing ninja.

It was a little unsettling.

Everything was just… just different enough to throw him off.

Frankly, he was feeling a little overwhelmed the more people he saw; every new face—and especially any faces that brought on that disconcerting sense of recognition—just drove in how very far from home he really was.

It hurt to think of home.

Because this wasn't just the other side of the world.

But he just took another deep breath. After all, here was where he was. No matter how much he might wish otherwise.

"Here we are," Morimoto said at last, having led the way to a small shop ringing with the sound of hammers and the muted roar of a furnace fire.

Axel stared at the door, colored a bright shade of green, but more to the point he stared at the sign hanging off it. After a moment to translate what was written there into sounds, he realized he had just wasted time puzzling out a sign that just indicated that the store was, in fact, open.

"Oh," he acknowledged, eyes still latched onto the three printed characters. Distracted, he didn't notice Morimoto's growing concern.

The older man wasn't blind, and he certainly wasn't as socially inept as a rock, which is what he'd need to be to completely miss the soul-deep grief that occasionally settled over his blond friend. Axel would be fine one second, then his gaze would drift over to the window or settle on something perfectly ordinary—chopsticks, for example—and suddenly he'd just close down.

Like right now.

Morimoto set a hand on Axel's shoulder; he'd learned that contact helped pull the younger man out of whatever dragged his mind away in the first place. "You can wait out here if you'd like. The fresh air will do you good."

With a wry smile, Axel replied, "Think I'll embarrass you?"

"No," the blacksmith shot back, "but you might embarrass yourself."

It seemed that Axel had no argument for that, mumbling what sounded like an agreement with those oddly foreign sounds. "Gute Entscheidung."

Decision apparently made, Morimoto headed into the shop without the dimensionally-displaced blond. Axel leaned back against the wall beside the green door, planning on waiting and trying not to think too hard about where he was.

It was what he had been doing since he first realized that Konoha meant Konoha.

Frankly, he was embarrassed. He had been here for over a month now, technically, even if he hadn't known as much for most of that time. Yet here he was, still scared to look at the world around him. That needed to stop. Now. Swallowing past his indecision, he turned toward the mountain, and he could just barely see the third face between the buildings. His blue eyes stared into unseeing stone, head on.

His sister wouldn't be so unsettled. Maybe. Adri had ranted to him about stories like this often enough, so at least she might not have been caught so off guard.

Oh God, his sister.

The thought felt like something cold, reaching through his gut and wrapping around his spine. Unable to remain standing, he slid down the wall until he was sitting folded with his knees to his chest.

He might never see her again.

Because for all that he still breathed, he might as well be dead to her. And to his parents. And his friends.

His world.

He looked away from the mountain's face.

"…Axel-san? Or, er, Axel?"

Blinking to refocus, he looked up at the sound of that concerned voice. "Minato?"

For a split second, Axel didn't recognize the man before him. Well, he did recognize his appearance. Nearly, anyway. Add a long white coat, edged with stylized flames, and cut off a few centimeters of height. Memories of his sister overlapped the here and now. She had stood at the top of the stairs to show off her latest costume—or latest cosplay, as she would correct him—with a happy, thankful smile. He had made her some of the character's knives, though dull, to complete the look.

In the memory she spun one around on her finger, but it only made three full turns before slipping off. They shared a surprised laugh when it struck the floor and ended up sticking upright out of the carpet.

"I asked first," the ninja quipped back, smile only slightly worried. "What are you doing down there?"

Axel closed his eyes on the happy memory—now tinted with sharp loss—and then looked past his knees to the mostly clean sidewalk he was sitting on. Since the ninja would be expecting an answer and Axel had no clue how to say 'pondering the fate of my previous existence' in Japanese, he settled with, "Thinking about… life."

With an expression that suggested he knew exactly the sort of thinking might have been going on—that is to say, the bleak and distressing kind—Minato offered him a hand up. "A dangerous game," he remarked.

Taking the hand and letting himself be pulled upright, Axel countered, "But it needs making."

"'Making'?"

Axel reviewed his sentence, then corrected, "It needs doing. Or maybe playing. I have problems with words."

"What sorts of problems?" Minato asked, openly interested.

"Eh, well…" It probably wasn't the greatest idea to tell the crazy world-hopping truth, but he couldn't resist saying, "Japanisch ist nicht meine Muttersprache."

Minato blinked once, then twice: surprise and curiosity played across his face, mixing with quite a bit of confusion. "Wait, what?"

Of course, instead of answering the question, Axel changed the topic entirely. "Why are you here, anyway?"

A bit miffed at the blatant redirect, Minato vaguely replied, "Oh, no reason, Axel-sa… Axel."

It must have been odd addressing a virtual stranger without any honorific at all, as evidenced by the ninja's stumbles. But then again, it must not have been that off-putting, seeing as Minato went along with it without protest.

Before Axel could make a cheeky guess about the purpose of the other blond's presence—they were standing outside a shop, after all—the green door swung open and Morimoto stepped out onto the street.

"Hello, Namikaze-san," he greeted, one hand busily folding away a few papers while the other offered a cheery wave. "How have you been this past week?"

"Blown up anybody else?" added Axel, unable to resist the urge to tease. He was an older brother, after all.

"Ah, w-well about that…"

"Shinobi," Morimoto scoffed with a smile. "Always up to something."

Axel really had to agree, even though his only experience with ninja so far was Gai; he knew from the show that even most other ninja thought him and his… youthfulness to be peculiar, so that might not be the most accurate baseline.

In this, however, it seemed that Minato also agreed. He just gave a sheepish, but pleased, smile. "I lost a lot of good kunai, hence why I'm here, but I think it will be worth it."

He reached into one of his vest pockets and pulled out what was left of one of his throwing knives: what was probably the very tip of the blade, though it was hard to tell given it had melted into a barely pointy blob.

To be honest, Axel was impressed. "How many?"

"Maybe… around fifty? Sixty?" Minato scratched the back of his head, embarrassed. "I sort of lost count at around thirty-two."

"Das kann nicht dein Ernst sein!" Axel exclaimed in disbelief, ignoring the confused looks his foreign language earned him from other people walking down the street.

Morimoto burst into laughter. "And that," he said, still chuckling, "is why it's good to be a blacksmith in this town."

They spent a few more minutes chatting, discussing both the creation and destruction of various ninja weaponry, before Minato abruptly realized that he really didn't have time to talk. After a fast apology and an even faster goodbye, the other blond took off like a shot—plan to shop for more kunai abandoned by time constraints.

Morimoto was slightly disappointed that he didn't get to invite him to drop by the house: like a playdate, just not phrased as such. In his opinion, Axel really needed to make a few friends. And after all, it hadn't escaped his notice that Axel had quite enjoyed talking shop with Minato.

As they made their way back to the house, Axel was in a better mood than he had been for several days now. That, too, didn't escape Morimoto's notice.

"Glad to see you smiling again." He led the way up the short yet overgrown path to the house. Then, in a gentle tone that suggested he wanted to know what was wrong, he added, "You had me worried."

Busying himself with the keys and unlocking the door, it seemed like Morimoto either didn't notice or simply ignored how his statement froze Axel where he stood.

Then, as the silence dragged longer, he softly added, "You don't need to tell me anything if you don't want to."

Axel had known he'd need to bring this point up eventually, but the words still caught in his throat. It had been days since his initial realization, but those days weren't nearly long enough. Just as he had avoided the outside world, he had yet to admit it out loud: that just felt too… final. Too real.

But he had to, of course. Saying it aloud wouldn't really change anything.

"When we first got here…" Axel began, hesitantly. "Or, well, I suppose it was when we hadn't actually gotten here yet, but when we first saw the village." He swallowed dryly, and found himself unable to continue.

Morimoto, who had been hopeful to get an answer but hadn't really been expecting to get any, rested a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. "It'll be alright," he said. "And you can bet that if I can help, I will."

Axel nodded, still gathering his courage. When he began speaking again, his sharp accent was far heavier. "I see, er, saw it—the village—and I… remembered, I guess. I can't… everything is…" He broke off again, took a deep breath, and finished, "I don't have anywhere to go."

He thought of his sister, and another stab of heartache wrapped around his chest. It was hard to breathe. His family, his friends, his home, his world, his everything: it was all gone.

Maybe he hadn't technically died in that car crash—who knows what the heck had actually happened—but he thought this might very well be worse. Alive, but alone. Separated.

"Oh." The older man didn't move his hand, and, when Axel glanced over to gauge his expression, Morimoto gave him a comforting smile. "But you do have somewhere. It might not be the same as whatever you've lost, but you can stay for as long as you like."

"...What?"

Morimoto didn't look even remotely embarrassed. "While I have to go back to Chotto to make sure my kid hasn't caused some sort of catastrophe somehow—" apparently he and Axel shared similar concerns about that, "—you are free to stay here as long as you want."

Axel's voice became very small, uncertain, and he just repeated, "What."

"I own the place," the older man continued, his relaxed air disguising some of the old hurt in his voice. "Of course, the district's been abandoned since about fourteen years ago. I took Kichirou and left to stay with what was left of my family."

Given that the man now lived alone with his son, Axel could guess something had happened. Something he shouldn't pry into now, and maybe not ever. Instead, he asked, "Why let me stay here?"

"It's empty, I don't use it, you need somewhere. Why wouldn't I?"

"'Why wouldn't—'! Because— because es ist…" The outburst petered out almost as soon as it had begun, and all Axel could manage was a confused expression. He had lost his grip on Japanese—a part of him distractedly wondered if the language was still even called Japanese here—and he suspected he'd need a moment to regain it.

"Look, Axel." Morimoto's calm tone demanded his attention. "You're a good guy. I like to think that I've gotten to know you pretty well over the past month, given you've been living under my roof, and Kichirou definitely thinks of you like an older brother."

Axel was still at a loss for words of any language, but even if he could gather enough words to form an understandable sentence—which was doubtful—the older man wasn't done yet.

"My son, well… he has a few close friends, but he certainly isn't a social butterfly. And he certainly doesn't usually befriend near-dead strangers he finds in the forest." He had a pleased grin on his face and, taking his hand from Axel's shoulder, he added, "So look, even if I didn't trust my own judgment about you—and I do—I'd trust his. Why shouldn't I help you?"

A blink, then another. In an almost whisper, Axel said simply, "Thank you."

"Eh, no problem. I mean, this works out well for all of us." Morimoto looked a bit sheepish and, with a gesture to the house as a whole, he explained, "I've kinda been hoping to force the place on you for a while."

"A while? Since when?"

He shrugged. "Since I learned you have a great hand at smithing. Figured you could restart the smithy here."

"You've been… since… And wait, so I could WHAT?"

 

=X=X=X=

 

"And just what," he hissed, "could you mean by that?"

The snake curled in on itself, recoiling on instinct, but its eyes remained as sharp as cut glass. When it spoke, the words slid one into the next with an almost whispering cadence. "Just what I have said, Master."

For a long moment, tension thick as blood, the only sound in the laboratory was a quiet drip: a buret releasing a single drop of acid into a sample of unknown solution. Measured, calculated, predictable.

"I see."

In the silence—drip, drip.

Not daring to move, the small summon simply stared back. It had done as was commanded. It had watched and listened, and finally reported back. Now it could only wait.

Golden eyes cold as ice and voice deceptively relaxed, threats left unspoken, he asked, "You say my seals were poorly drawn?"

"No, Master," the snake replied. "Only that they were wrong."

A slow, measured blink. "Explain."

Its tongue flicked out to taste the air, cautious and trying to judge the tone of that single word. "There are two warmths."

"Two," he echoed, with that same emptiness. "Where my seals found only one."

Dangerous, the snake decided. And with an edge from bruised pride. It needed to approach this carefully. Pulling itself up, arching into a graceful curve, it soothed, "Two warmths, yes. But only one chakra."

That got a narrow look.

"As it sounds, Master." With a motion that was likely a serpentine shrug, it added, "I watched, I felt. I am sure of this."

Drip, drip.

"It's impossible," he said at last. "Having no chakra is the same as being dead."

The snake said nothing.

A series of rapid hand signs, followed by a sharp jab to the wall and a precise pulse of charka, sent black lines radiating outward from his pointing finger. In a rapid cascade of ink, a map of the abandoned district drew itself with precise strokes. A few spots blinked, moving or remaining in place, updating the position of the chakra signatures being tracked. Checking over the entire seal in a brief but thorough glance, he found no obvious faults.

So, withdrawing his chakra, he allowed it to fade away.

He closed his eyes, thinking. The snake waited.

And quietly, that constant rhythm—drip, drip.

"You would not lie to me," he said at last, but it felt like an accusation.

"Never, Orochimaru-sama."

His smile was slow and, like a knife, it glinted with a killer edge. "How very, very interesting."

Chapter Text

The front room of the house was an absolute mess of half-way built empty displays, scavenged tables, and boxes of stock. Axel was standing amidst the pile of store things, attempting to puzzle out the instructions for setting up the various shelves or racks. At least, he was pretty sure the thing he was currently struggling to put together was a shelf of some sort.

With a jangle of keys in the lock, Morimoto shouldered his way through the door. “How's it—” He walked around the wall that sectioned off the small entryway and stopped short. “Oh. That good, huh?”

Axel snorted, well aware how the room had fallen apart during the course of his attempted set up. By this point quite exasperated, he said simply, “Yes. Help?”

“Naturally,” Morimoto replied, wading into the mess without even bothering to put down the box he had carried into the house with him.

Which was just what they needed, really: yet another box to deal with.

In answer to the unasked question, the blacksmith popped open the box and let him sneak a peak. It was an old faded blue cash register, clearly secondhand—or maybe even fifthhand, based on the gentle scuff marks from long use—but it looked to be in working order.

“Figure'd you'd need one of these,” he explained, setting the box down by his feet. “But we'll deal with that later. What're you having issues with?”

Handing over the sheet of unhelpful instructions, Axel just shook his head in that way that was both annoyed and too tired to be annoyed. “I can't read.”

Morimoto, as he scanned through the list of steps, offhandedly remarked, “You can read, just not everything.” Then, with a grin, he added, “Not yet, anyway.”

“Why are there so many characters?” Axel groaned to himself, thinking of the positively exhausting number of symbols from various syllabaries—kanji, katakana, hiragana—that he'd need to practice into fluency. To distract himself from that inconvenient truth, he knelt and started sifting through the stack of unmade shelf bits for a specific piece.

Joining him in shoving any unrelated mess to the side—scraps and empty boxes and even the newish old cash register got pushed away—Morimoto began laying out the pieces they would be needing. Some of them, Axel noted, were things he had thought to be completely unrelated. Clearly, getting the older man's help had been the right decision.

(To himself, Axel despaired that he couldn't put a simple shelf together without assistance.)

With help translating each step into something he could understand, the shelf finally began to take form. The shelves themselves had adjustable angles so that the goods on display could be seen and reached easier, but that threw him for a loop when he accidentally attached one end to be significantly steeper that the other.

He briefly wondered just how stupid he must be to still mess up something so simple even with help, but that thought, having apparently been said out loud, just earned him a reprimanding smack from Morimoto.

“Stop that, Axel,” the blacksmith chided. “You just set the shelf crooked, it's not like you broke anything.”

“For now.”

With a displeased look that said he had very much considered another smack, Morimoto flipped a page in the instructions and they turned back to work.

Before they could continue construction, however, there were two sharp knocks at the front door. Axel, who was at that very moment elbow deep in shelf-building, shared a look of confusion and curiosity with his instruction-reading companion. Smacking the crooked shelf panel onto the desired pegs—meaning it was no longer crooked at all—Axel dusted off his hands and straightened back up to standing.

A second later there came a third knock, and Morimoto gestured at him to go answer the door. So, with shrug, he headed over to see whoever had come to visit.

The door opened with a click.

“What are you doing here?” Axel asked.

Minato, who had been curiously eyeing the roof of the building across the street, spun around when the door opened. He hadn't noticed anyone approaching the door on the other side, so he had been rather startled. Embarrassed, he shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. “Hello.”

“Guten Tag,” came his ingrained response to a direct greeting. Then, nearly immediately after speaking, he realized how he had basically just opened the door and, well… the first thing he said certainly hadn't been a polite welcome. More like a rude dismissal, though he hadn't intended the question as such. He'd just wanted to know a reason for the visit, that's all!

Looking unsure of how to respond, Minato blinked.

Axel attempted to backpedal: “Not that you can't, er, you can come here, I mean, just how, uh…” Too frazzled, the words escaped him.

Though his tone made it sound more like a question, Minato stopped the jumbled mess of an attempted apology by answering “Just thought I'd visit…?”

“Oh, good.”

And it was good, Axel thought to himself. He had enjoyed the few times he had spent talking with him, distress at world-changing (literally) revelations notwithstanding. Minato seemed like a sane enough guy, despite his status as a ninja.

If the show is to be trusted, sane ninja are a definite minority.

Which would be why Axel had decided that ninja, in general, should be avoided. It wasn't that he thought they were bad people, per se, but more that he figured his odds of survival would be better if he stayed away from any ninja nonsense. He could probably make an exception for this one, though.

More importantly, he wanted to make an exception for this one.

Minato, well… He reminded him of Adri. And maybe that was just because she had dressed up as him once or twice, or because his sister and the ninja were around the same age, or maybe they had a similar smile—it didn't matter why, really.

In the surprisingly companionable silence of that conversational lull, they heard Morimoto clear as a bell when he quipped, “I think this is the part where you let him in, Axel.”

“I… I knew that.” Axel shot what very well might have been the most non-frown frown of all time in the direction of the the older man, though naturally Morimoto wouldn't be able to see it through the wall. “Definitely knew that. Come in?”

The ninja sent another glance at the roof across the way, and when Axel followed his gaze he thought he caught sight of something small and black ducking out of sight. Which was a bit concerning, to be honest. It's not like he really merited somebody spying on him: he's just a normal guy.

Even if he was from a completely different world.

…It's not like anybody else knew that.

Resolving to just dismiss the possibility of a ninja stalker, Axel waved in his guest and shut the door behind him. Minato paused in the entryway and started to take off his sandals: the polite thing to do when entering someone's home.

“No, don't need to.”

One shoe already half off, Minato gave him a curious glance. “Really?”

Axel shrugged, gesturing in the direction of the room still full of half-assembled shelves and other furniture. “It's messy enough not to care.”

“Plus,” Morimoto added, seeing the stunned look on Minato's face when the ninja rounded the corner and took in the mess, “it'll be a shop eventually. No need to have customers take off their shoes whenever they come in.”

“A shop?” asked Minato, before he seemed to recognize something. “I've seen that type of shelf before, in weapons stores.”

“Blacksmith.”

As if to punctuate that single word, a teetering box of miscellaneous stuff slid off its stack with a thud. The only reason it didn't cause a cascade of other things falling over was because Morimoto stuck out his foot to steady the propped up shelf-pieces it nearly knocked over.

“I'll sort this out,” the older man said, wanting Axel to socialize more than he wanted help setting up shelves. He shooed the pair of them off as best he could with one foot occupied. “You go chat.”

Axel didn't think he had ever been very good at small talk, even when he had the advantage of speaking his native language. Speaking probably-not-called-Japanese, he had even less faith in his conversational skills. Nothing for it but practice, though, so he simply led the way into the kitchen.

Unlike the front room, which was still swamped with things to unpack, the kitchen was perfectly in order. Kind of. It wasn't decorated, they definitely needed to get more utensils besides chopsticks, and the sliding door needed some tending to so that it wouldn't squeal if not pulled in just the right way, but beyond that everything was set up nicely.

After filling two glasses of water from the sink, Axel joined Minato back at the table. He wondered which would alleviate paranoia of poisoning more: a shared pitcher of water he could pour his own drink from, or watching him fill the glasses from the sink. Not that he had a pitcher, but whatever.

Still, given his guest was a ninja—and therefore probably suspicious of the world as a whole—he thought it best to at least let Minato choose which cup he wanted.

Which, based on the slightest twitch of blond eyebrows, was a bit of a surprise.

Axel hoped he hadn't committed some kind of ninja faux pas.

“So.” He took a sip from his water, thinking, and then decided to just cut to the chase. “What are you doing here?”

In answer, Minato pulled out a small scroll from one of the many pouches on his ninja vest. “I thought maybe another set of eyes could help.”

He unrolled it to reveal a deceptively simple image: scribbles of ink framing a rather conspicuous circular blank space in the middle of the page. Tapping the edge of the design with one finger, there was a puff of white smoke and something was unsealed from the page.

The casual use of ninja wizardry-magic unnerved Axel for a brief moment—it was surreal to see what had only ever been animation, from his point of view, rendered into reality—but he tried to take it in stride. Ninja were just a fact of life here, after all, and that meant all their wierdness-es were, too.

After waving away the smoke, the unsealed item was revealed to be another scroll. In fact, this one looked to be slightly larger than the first.

Almost like reverse Russian nesting dolls, Axel thought to himself with a grin. If only this scroll also had a larger scroll sealed away, and inside that one there was another, then another, and so on forever.

He pulled himself back from his wandering thoughts with a shake when Minato unrolled the scroll to reveal another seal. It looked fairly similar to the last one, though elongated and the empty space had been filled. The most prominent feature was a carefully inked ellipsoidal spiral; it had been drawn with a steady hand, so the width between each line of the spiraling curve was consistently equal. There were what looked like characters for various words written around the outer edge, but they could just have easily been random doodles for all that Axel understood what they meant.

“This is what I was working on,” Minato began, gesturing to the design as a whole. “It's supposed to be a sort of offensive containment seal that sucks up a target without needing to be directly placed on it.”

Not really sure why he was being told this at all, Axel was nonetheless interested. “The one that explodes?”

The ninja sighed. “Yes, the one that explodes.”

Though he doubted he could actually trigger the seal—he didn't have any chakra to trigger it with, after all—Axel still shifted his hands a little farther away. Just to be safe.

Minato noticed the motion, of course. “Don't worry, it won't just randomly go off,” he reassured. Followed immediately by a much quieter, “Probably.”

Which, rather than worry the hapless German further, only made him want to bust out laughing. He couldn't really explain why, but there was just something hilarious about how that completely genuine faith in the lack of explosions crumbled almost immediately.

“Forgive if I still stay back,” Axel remarked, smile broad and laughter in his blue eyes. “And if it explodes, you better help fix the house.”

“It won't!” Minato repeated, and to his credit he sounded much more convinced of his own words this time.

Quirking an eyebrow in disbelief—though, to be honest, it was more teasing than anything else—Axel pointedly moved farther from the unrolled seal. “Sure you want to do this inside?”

“Actually…” The ninja, as should be expected of a ninja, looked to be mischievously scheming something. “We could always go to one of the training grounds.”

Axel didn't like that idea. But he also didn't want to blow up the house.

Dilemmas.

“…How far?”

 

=X=X=X=

 

Not far at all, apparently.

Plus, it turns out the training grounds are big. Really big. He probably should have guessed that, since ninja could get themselves lost in there as the need suits them. Not to mention that the only one from the show that he could recall off the top of his head was that death forest place from the Chunin Exam: huge and dangerous.

This training ground looked to be significantly more peaceful.

Probably.

Or, to be more truthful, it looked peaceful for now. There would be explosions soon.

Minato had led the way to a wide open field, edged with forest, that had a number of beaten up and worn down logs jammed upright in the ground to serve as targets. The grass was green, the trees were greener, and the sky overhead was a cheery blue. There were a few patches of dirt scattered about—likely damage left behind by some other ninja—and it was blatantly obvious that the field hadn't been cared for in quite some time.

In a word, it was overgrown.

Which was just as well, Axel supposed, given they were planning on blowing it up anyway.

Flitting through hand signs faster than the eye could follow, Minato knelt to place palm to dirt. With a low rumble, earth rose and hardened into a low stone table.

Ninja magic.

The whole scroll unsealing thing had been just a few minutes ago, so it's not as if this was the first Axel had seen of ninja magic, but still… wow.

While Axel couldn't help but stare at the rectangular rock pulled from the ground by force of will and skill, Minato was setting up a few things on top of it: small slips of blank paper, an ink well, brushes of various sizes, a larger scroll that looked to be full of notes on various bits of the seal, the scroll with the seal itself, and a few kunai to pin down anything that might get caught in a stray breeze. He sat on the ground and gestured for the still speechless German to join him.

Grabbing one of the blank tags, the ninja carefully copied over the experimental seal and then tied it to the hilt of a scrap kunai—dull and rusted, but still good enough for this.

“You might want to move to the other side of the rock,” Minato warned. “Just to be safe.”

Axel blinked, refocusing past the impossible-now-possible aspect of this new world that hadn't quite struck home before just now. Still, as he moved to a safer spot, he managed to cheekily reply, “But I wanted to be exploded.”

“Well, I don't want you to be exploded.”

It's not as if wishing for people to not blow up was unusual, but the sincerity caught Axel off guard. “Thanks.”

Minato smiled, then checked over the kunai again. Finding nothing amiss, he asked, “On the count of three?”

“Count of three,” Axel repeated with a nod.

“Okay.” The ninja stood and shifted into what was probably a ready stance. “3… 2… 1…”

With a sharp flick of his arm, the kunai flew straight and true at the target. It lodged in the wood with a biting thunk.

A single hand sign, and the world around the seal tag spiraled. Swirling, then twisting into itself, winding tighter and tighter.

Then, with a sound like a horribly broken vacuum cleaner, a concussive blast spun away whatever the seal had tried to suck in with a whoosh of air. Minato deflected any debris that came too close, though they were far enough away that not much actually reached them.

A sigh, and the ninja made his way over to the destroyed target. “There you have it. It makes for a semi-decent explosion, I guess, but there's too much delay.”

Minato poked around, investigating the pieces of wood that had been torn up and spat out by the attempted sealing. There wasn't much of use, unfortunately. Dusting off his hands and, for some reason, pocketing whatever was left of the kunai, Minato trotted back to their temporary rock desk.

Axel was mentally replaying the explosion, comparing it to the various other explosions he'd seen in videos or pictures.

It had spiraled. That struck him as important, since the central design on the seal was a spiral and everything had spiraled in toward the tag before something made it all spiral back out again. Explosively.

Kind of like a compressed spring.

Actually, a lot like a compressed spring.

“Any ideas?”

Not really sure how he was supposed to help with this but with a vague maybe-useful possibility in mind, Axel asked, “Have you tried a different sort of spiral?”

Minato seemed a bit thrown by the question. “A different sort?”

Spirals were more of a math thing, and so, much like this whole ninja-world situation, more his sister's cup of tea. He had always been more interested in the application of math concepts—into physics or material structures and so on—rather than the math itself. That didn't mean he wasn't familiar with them, however; Adri was nearly as prone to math rants as she was anime ones.

But there was one in particular that he was trying to recall, without much luck at the moment. It had to do with the golden ratio, and patterns on plants, and something about looking artistically pleasing, but that was all he had at the moment.

“Yeah, A different… uhm…” Whenever he forgot a simple word—take, for example, an easy word like 'look'—Axel felt the language divide quite keenly.

Luckily, Minato seemed to get the idea anyway. “You mean its appearance.” He shook his head, slightly disheartened by his lack of success. “I've tried tight and loose spirals, the opposite, changing direction.”

“What about that one that, uh…” Axel had to think for a moment, again trying to recall the name Adri had given the pattern of numbers. Coming up with a frustrating blank, he instead traced the spiral he was thinking of in the air. “Like this.”

Minato sat down, pushed over the large scroll he apparently used for brainstorming, and handed over the brush. Axel stared at the unfamiliar writing utensil for a moment before gamely attempting to trace out the curve in question onto the scroll. It came out worse than he had wanted but better than he had expected, all things considered.

“There's a— a pattern to it.” He scratched at his head, still thinking: the answer was so close he could almost taste it. “It's… adding, I think. Somehow.”

“No harm in trying,” Minato said, grabbing another tag to copy the changed seal.

Axel gave him a look of disbelief for that remark. “It explodes.”

Being careful to match the curve Axel had sketched, outside to inside, Minato just nodded distractedly.

Minato,” he insisted. “It explodes.”

“Yeah, it explodes when it shouldn't.” As he attached the new tag to another junk kunai, the ninja smirked. “Can't mess it up much more than that.”

Which was actually a pretty fair point.

Another countdown, and the knife thunked into the next target down the line.

Minato made the same hand sign as before, triggering the same swirl of reality as the seal started to pull at its surroundings. Unlike before, however, the twisting looked… different, somehow.

For a moment, it looked like it might work.

But no.

A split second and it was as if the spiral fell apart, collapsing with a wail of wind and force.

Minato looked hopeful, though, and after some of the dust cleared Axel could see why.

The two of them blinked at the log. Or rather, where the log had been. Yes, there had still been an explosion and that horrible vacuum shriek, but that didn't matter because there was no denying the bitten-off edge where there had been a wooden target. It had actually sort of worked.

Abruptly, and for no reason he could think of, something clicked.

“Fibonacci!” Axel exclaimed. “Die Fibonacci-Folge!”

Minato gave him a curious stare. “The what?”

“The numbers with a pattern. It can make a spiral,” he attempted to clarify, and at the blank lack of recognition he realized his mistake. “You, uh… maybe call it different.”

Since Minato made no motion to stop him and did, in fact, nudge the brainstorming scroll a little closer in an open invitation to continue, Axel tried to figure out how best to explain. And also tried to remember how to say numbers.

He was infinitely glad that, for whatever reason, this world still used normal Arabic numerals.

“It goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8,” Axel began, writing the numbers down on the scroll, then circling the first two and adding an arrow to the third. “These add to the next number.”

Minato tapped the space at the end of the sequence. “And next would be 13.”

“Yeah.”

The question now was remembering how to take those numbers and get a spiral out of them. Adri had drawn it for him once, but that had been ages ago. He knew it had squares, so that's what he started to draw, with each sharing a side with the others: one small square, another of the same size, then one twice as large.

Apparently Minato saw where he was going with that, since he reached over with his own brush and added two successively larger squares to the sides. Then, with a deft twist of his wrist that spoke of long practice drawing curves, he added the spiral.

“You know,” Minato mused, “I've tried other spirals before, but they were all unstable. How'd you come up with this?”

“What? I didn't—! It wasn't me, it's—” He floundered, trying to find the right words.

Looking back toward the targets, the ninja suddenly laughed. Their small dog stalker was rooting though the pieces of wood, checking that there wasn't a better stick to chew on than the one he already had in his mouth. The dachshund glanced their way, startled by the sound, then booked it into the forest.

Axel blinked. “Was that… I think that dachshund broke into the house once.”

Still laughing a little bit, Minato nodded. “Strays do that sometimes, checking out their new neighbors.”

Which was a bit of a weird thing to think—dogs or literal cat-burglars sneaking in just to look around—but Axel wrote it off as another one of those world differences. Maybe he'd leave out food tonight, since it seems this particular dog was still unsure about him.

Actually, he wondered if that's what the ninja was doing, too: investigating the new guy.

“Regardless, thanks for the help.” Minato grabbed another blank tag, hoping that a more accurate spiral would have better results. “It was a good idea to visit you.”

Axel couldn't help but ask, “But why visit me?”

The ninja paused, then slowly looked up at the civilian man he had, for some reason, reached out to for help with developing a technique. His expression was an interesting mix of clueless but confident, and he smiled.

“I don't know,” Minato said. “But I'm glad I did.”

Chapter Text

Minato absentmindedly tapped the wooden end of his brush against his drink, the audible clink dampened by what water he left in the glass. The wind chime hanging at the window rang in a gentle breeze. He had commandeered the kitchen since his desk wasn't nearly large enough to spread out everything (mental note: get a bigger desk). His scroll full of various sealing notes lay unrolled across the table in front of him, and Minato stared at the elegant spiral.

He was distracted: busy considering the person who had drawn it there.

Axel was, to be frank, kind of weird.

A good kind of weird. Just… different than he had come to expect.

It had been a few weeks since then, but Minato still had no clue why he had decided to seek out somebody he had only meet twice, kind of—and a civilian, no less!—and yet he still couldn't say it had been a bad decision. Far from it, actually, and that was a big portion of why he was so confused.

He'd stopped by several other times, just wanting to chat or maybe fish for more information about the spiral or, as he had come to discover, a whole slew of other random tidbits. His scroll of notes was getting rather crowded with theories and thoughts and the occasional attempt at explanation written in by Axel in large careful script. Most of Axel's notes had drawings to go with them, to clarify any issues in his writing.

The last time Minato had visited, just the other day, the store had appeared to be up and running; the shelves were built and stocked with everything from basic civilian tools (which were, perhaps, a little over represented for a smithy in a shinobi village) to tools of a more… deadly variety.

Since he'd blown up a good number of the regular kunai he had had on hand, Minato had bought a small set of ten. In a mildly interesting coincidence, although he had only chosen based on how the throwing knife felt in his hand, all ten he had chosen off the rack had been made by Axel rather than Morimoto.

With a quiet noise of a jingling key, and a soft swoosh of familiar chakra to temporarily disarm the various security seals on the front door, someone let themselves in. Then there was a pause.

“Yo, Minato, you here still?” called Kushina in that brusque, to-the-point way of hers. She could sneak with the best of them, and often her directness was just a cover for something sneakier, but not now.

“Yes?” Minato looked up to smile at her as she walked in. “Welcome home.”

She quirked one red eyebrow at his relaxed greeting, and then ran a cursory glance over the latest mess he had brought to their kitchen table. Then a more focused one, once she took in just what project he had laid out. “Is this that sealing thing you've been on about for the past few weeks but haven't let me help with?”

“I let you help at the start!” he objected. “Then you tried to commandeer the entire project, so I kept it to myself.”

Snorting a bemused laugh, Kushina shook her head slowly: couldn't argue with that. She pulled out another chair and sat down across from him, reading through the notes on the scroll with increasing interest.

A good deal of it—well, most, to be honest—was in her boyfriend's familiarly tidy handwriting. Less often, but always with a sort of confidence in content, was another script; the lines themselves were uncertain, but, unlike the 'what-if's from Minato's scribbles, these seemed to be explanatory.

After reading one such note and looking over the image next to it, Kushina paraphrased, “Triangles are strong shapes in architecture stuff, so they could be strong for seals. Ya know, that… does sorta make sense.”

Minato nodded distractedly as he considered a list of increasing numbers. He tapped the number '3' contemplatively, followed by the numbers '5' and '8'. Thinking aloud, he said, “I feel like these come up a lot.”

Taking the shift from her topic to his in stride, Kushina simply asked, “Comes up in what?”

“Just…” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “Like the Five Elements Seal. Or, well—” tapping the '8' again, “—there's the whole Eight Sign Sealing Style.”

“What about the Four Symbols Seals? Four seems to come up a lot as well.” She could see what he meant, however, since, although she offered up a counter example, her mind had thought of far more that matched those numbers in some way.

Minato frowned slightly. “I know, but basically all the other ones I think of fit this sequence.”

“'Sequence'?”

“1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on,” explained Minato. “The next number is the sum of the previous two.”

Having joined him in staring at the list of numbers, Kushina thought for a few minutes, then slowly proposed, “Ya know, the first three add up to four.”

For a moment he just blinked at the numbers he had written, and then, smiling, he sat back in his chair. “And 3 is even the next number after the first three, making it the fourth number with the previous summing to 4. Not to mention how layering a pair of Four Symbols Seals, an 8, is stronger in general.” Minato shook his head in amazement. “How did Axel come up with this?”

Kushina tilted her head, long red hair shifting through the motion like water; she had thought she'd met all of Minato's close friends, but apparently not. “…Uh, who?”

“Brandt Axel.” Distractedly taking down more notes on what they'd just figured out and thinking back to the first time he'd met Axel, he added, “I nearly blew them up with a defective seal, and later, on somewhat of a whim, I went back to have someone to bounce ideas off of.”

Frowning, Kushina proceeded to make an assumption that was as humorous as it was wrong. “Well, if these notes are any indication, at least she was able to help.”

“Yeah, I wasn't— Uh… 'she'? You think Axel—?” Minato tried not to laugh at the unbidden thought of his blacksmith friend in a dress, then tried to correct her. “No, no, Axel isn't a— Why would you think—? I mean, sure the name's a bit odd, but—”

Seeing her frown become ever so slightly more pronounced as he tripped over himself trying to fix the misunderstanding did not help him stay collected. Indeed, talking around swallowed laughter was incredibly difficult.

Glancing up at the clock, Kushina peevishly asked, “Weren't you meeting with Kakashi-kun today, ya know?”

Minato blinked at the abrupt topic change, but nodded an affirmative before looking over to check the time as well. Still caught up in the hilarity of his girlfriend's mistake, it took him a moment to recognize that it was about five minutes till noon.

And noon was, of course, the time he had agreed to meet his ever-punctual student.

Oh dear.

In a flurry of motion, the scrolls on the table were rolled back up and sealed away. Or at least, most of them were. Some notes he left out, just in case Kushina wanted to look over them further. Then, standing up so fast his chair nearly slammed into the wall, Minato ran for the door. His arms were still full of various sealing tools, but he had more important things to do than worry about tidying up right this instant.

Still, he paused. “Er, sorry to just—”

“Get going,” she said, waving him off. “I'll be angrier at you being late than I will be because you ran off mid-conversation.”

Smiling gratefully, Minato gave a quick goodbye and was off at close to top speed. Still staring at where her boyfriend had vanished, Kushina was left to wonder just who this strange—she tried to wrap her head around that name and couldn't quite manage—new someone was.

 

=X=X=X=

 

It wasn't so much that Minato-sensei was late, Kakashi mused to himself, but rather that he wasn't early.

Kakashi had arrived at their usual training ground with about fifteen minutes to spare. That was usually more that enough time, given Minato-sensei was nearly always already at the meeting spot before his student. Contrary to what was usual, however, was that today his sensei had yet to appear.

Of course Kakashi wasn't really that concerned. The young shinobi shot a speculative look in the direction of the Hokage Monument and, more to the point, the Hokage's office.

He was just… wondering why Minato-sensei was late.

But, before Kakashi could definitely not tie his insides up with worry, and just a minute shy of their scheduled time, his sensei appeared at the front of their training field in a flurry of leaves and paper.

…Paper?

As Kakashi jogged over, he saw that there were indeed several partly unrolled scrolls strewn about. He caught one sheet of paper before it could be carried away by any stray breezes. Minato-sensei knelt to quickly gather them all up, offering his student an apologetic smile.

“Sorry I'm so late today,” he said, and the scrolls he had gathered up were sealed away with a puff of chakra smoke. “I lost track of time.”

Kakashi was about to state his blunt opinion on punctuality—and maybe also ask about what could have been so distracting—when he glanced down at the paper he had grabbed. It looked like one of his sensei's usual unorganized note sheets, until he noticed that more than half of the page was filled with handwriting he didn't recognize. After curiously reading through some of it, he had to admit to some interest; whoever this other person was, no matter how childish some of their lettering or wording might be, they knew what they were writing about.

It only took a moment to collect the rest of the pages and seal them away, and Kakashi noticed that virtually every sheet had at least some scribbles written in that unfamiliar handwriting. He resisted the urge to ask about it.

He was fairly sure Minato-sensei noticed his curiosity, despite his efforts to appear disinterested. But, rather than provide an answer, his sensei simply moved onto the task at hand. “Okay, today we will be—” he suddenly paused, then slapped one hand to his forehead in annoyance. “I forgot the box. Be right back.”

The blond shinobi crouched to touch the ground with one hand, leaving behind his signature mark. Then, between one blink and the next, he was gone. Kakashi felt himself frown slightly: Minato-sensei wasn't one to just forget things like that. Whatever had been distracting him must have been very interesting indeed.

“I'm back.”

It was hard to keep himself from jolting in surprise—even with the advantage of having seen the technique before—but Kakashi managed. A box full of something with a familiar metallic smell was dropped at his feet with a clatter, and, after dusting off his hands, Minato-sensei grinned a satisfied smile.

“Okay.” He opened the box to reveal a heap of kunai, all of various conditions and sizes and weights. “Today we'll be focusing on this.”

Kakashi looked over the collection carefully, then took what looked to be a fairly average kunai from the box. It turns out that it definitely wasn't: the knife weighed far more than it should have. Though he was beginning to get an idea of what his sensei had planned, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“Often you might find yourself fighting with equipment that isn't your own: maybe you grabbed it off an enemy, or are forced to borrow a teammate's.” Ignoring the slightly derisive gleam that entered his student's eyes at the subtle suggestion that he would be part of a team in the future, he continued, “It's best to be familiar with subpar equipment, just in case.”

Humming to himself in consideration, Kakashi dropped the heavy kunai back into the box and chose another: it looked newer than the rest, and nothing about it seemed damaged in any way. He held it up, questioning.

His sensei nodded, and added, “Of course, some of the kunai are good quality. I bought that one just a few days ago. You won't know which sort you've got to throw until it's in your hand.”

Another quiet hum, and then Kakashi turned sharply and launched the knife at the targets. It hit dead-center, right where he had been aiming, with a very satisfying thunk. A perfect shot.

That throw felt—somehow, for some reason—better than usual.

Looking from the kunai now half-embedded in wood, to his hands that had lodged it there, Kakashi frowned ever so slightly.

Noticing this, Minato-sensei asked, “What is it?”

He didn't answer right away, instead thoughtfully drawing out one of his own kunai from his pouch. After regarding the weapon for a moment, Kakashi again threw at the target. Again it struck right where he had wanted it to, but it felt different. It was a noticeable difference, too, like comparing older shoes that fit perfectly with an unfamiliar new pair.

And it made no sense, because it hadn't been his own kunai that felt most comfortable in his hand.

Almost unconsciously, curiosity driving his actions, Kakashi took another kunai from his pouch and reached out to pair it with another from the box.

Minato-sensei watched this, and he got a knowing glint in his eye. “Ah, so you've noticed already?”

Suspicious of his teacher's almost nonchalant tone—nonchalant shinobi are always up to something—the student gave him his full attention once more. It would seem that there might be more to this lesson than simply acquainting oneself with a wide variety of otherwise familiar tools. “…What do you mean?”

“Here,” Minato-sensei said, carefully selecting several more average kunai from the box. “Mix these in with your own and practice.”

After Kakashi accepted the knives, his sensei made a single hand sign to cast a subtle but thorough masking genjutsu. Now the box kunai looked exactly the same as his own, and neither had any defining scents. It was a bit disconcerting, to be honest, though Kakashi simply shuffled the weapons and refused to acknowledge that feeling.

“I see where you're going with this,” he said, setting aside all but one of the now indistinguishable kunai. Turning it over in his hands, Kakashi tried to guess whether it was one of his own knives or not.

Walking down range toward the targets, Minato-sensei called out, “Go ahead, throw it.”

Trusting his sensei's skill, Kakashi did so. Just as the others had, the kunai struck true.

“Well?” Minato tugged the kunai from the log. “Was this one of yours?”

Kakashi, expression contemplative, shook his head. Then he threw the next one.

They worked their way through the small collection of mixed knives, and, depending on his answer, Minato-sensei sorted the disguised weapons into one of two stacks. When he was out of weapons to throw, Kakashi joined him by the knives and his sensei dropped the genjutsu.

The smaller collection of kunai were all ones taken from the box, no exceptions, while the large stack had all of his and only three that were not. He had to admit, that was an unexpectedly high success rate.

“I almost got them all correct.”

“Actually,” Minato-sensei said, crouching by the stack of Kakashi's kunai to pick up the three unfamiliar ones. “You guessed correctly for all of them, given what I was trying to show.”

Kakashi frowned behind his mask. “But I missed those three, Sensei.”

As the blond shinobi tucked away the kunai in question, he shook his head. Gesturing to the smaller stack and seemingly veering off topic, he asked, “Why did you single these out?”

“Those felt different, so they couldn't have been mine. Throwing them was…” Hesitating, not sure how his gut answer could be right since it didn't make any sense, Kakashi drifted off.

“Easier, right?”

He nodded.

“I noticed something like that, too,” Minato-sensei explained with a smile. “And there is one major difference between these two stacks: who made them.” He pointed to the small stack. “Axel made all of these.”

Kakashi blinked. “…Who's 'Ak-ser'?”

“Wait, haven't I—” He cut himself off, looking rather surprised at himself. “I haven't introduced you yet?”

The blond shinobi suddenly seemed to notice something just behind his student, and his blue eyes lit up with happy surprise. At the edge of his vision, Kakashi thought he saw something move into the trees. He didn't get a good look before he was quite thoroughly distracted.

“Yeah, come on, Minato-kun,” came a teasing voice, and a heavy weight—an arm—draped across Kakashi's shoulders. “Why haven't you introduced us?”

Startled, though his mask helped hide it, Kakashi tried to jerk himself away. “Release me, Jiraiya-sensei.” He tried to cram as much annoyance as possible to the added title, but the eccentric shinobi didn't even seem to notice.

“Ne, Chibi-kun, don't look so peeved.”

“Don't call me that.”

“Call you what? Peeved?”

Kakashi couldn't help but growl under his breath, though he tried to keep a lid on it.

Of course, Minato-sensei would have been perfectly content to just watch them bicker—he'd done so before—but this time he chose to step in. “I wasn't expecting you to be back for another few days, Jiraiya-sensei.”

Dramatically, the white-haired shinobi gestured grandly at the village. “I couldn't bear to stay away: I haven't seen my precious student in months!” His smile became slightly… twisted. “And, of course, all the lovely ladies. Truly, nowhere else can compare to Konoha's beauties.”

“In case you couldn't tell,” Kakashi bit out, “none of those 'beauties' are anywhere near here.”

“Ah, but Chibi-kun—”

“Don't call me that.”

Jiraiya-sensei looked set to continue as if he hadn't even heard him, but he was cut off by a slightly reprimanding tone. “Sensei…”

“Heh heh, well.” He coughed, a little sheepish, then completely changed the subject. “Anyway, who is this guy you mentioned? He wouldn't happen to be that new blacksmith in the abandoned district, would he?”

From Minato-sensei's expression, it would seem so. Which meant that both of them knew who this 'Akser' person is, while he was left in the dark. Kakashi didn't like being left in the dark. “Wait, so who is 'Ak-ser'?”

“He's a friend,” provided Minato-sensei briefly, before moving onto his own questions. “But I'm more interested in how you knew about him.”

“It's my job to know. I've been hearing some rumors among the civilians.”

That led into an anecdote the older shinobi had overheard about fishermen and gloves and sharp knives that felt somehow easier to use than others. Kakashi, while interested, didn't catch much of it since he was distracted by an unexpected smell: snake. He subtly glanced toward the trees, over to where he had thought he had seen motion earlier.

A white tail vanished into the undergrowth.

 

=X=X=X=

 

The serpent dismissed itself with a puff of chakra smoke, leaving his master to muse over its report.

Orochimaru had assigned that particular snake to a reconnaissance detail. Unfortunately, due to a surprisingly persistent pair of stray dogs, his snakes had been unable to get a good position to monitor the subject of interest directly and still remain completely undetected. The next best thing, though still difficult, was to spy on the one person who seemed to be on familiar terms with the subject: that upstart Namikaze Minato.

This latest report was particularly interesting.

He steepled his fingers, looking over the various data he had gathered over the past weeks with a careful eye. By now, the shinobi had checked over the information several times. It was frustrating to admit, but he still had no answers.

Tapping at the subject's name at the top of one sheet of paper—a crude phonetic spelling—Orochimaru found himself smiling.

“Fascinating,” he murmured to himself.

Chapter Text

Ninja are curious people. It's in their very nature.

Unfortunately for Axel, who had decided that he would try very hard not to catch the attention of the ninja community, he is a bit of a puzzle. For one thing, he's running a business out of a house in the abandoned district: the place where nobody bothered to set up shop because they wouldn't get any customers. For another, Axel is… blunt isn't quite the right word, but something like that. He tends to say what he means, and doesn't bother with burying things underneath the underneath.

Perhaps, on a very basic level, the ninja simply find it strange that Axel is normal.

For a given definition of 'normal', at least. By his own standards: yes. By the standards of the world he was born in: also yes, though maybe with a little less conviction, given he had gone to university five years younger than most people.

But by the standards of this world?— No.

Because Axel has never been very good at being sneaky or scheming. And he doesn't like to lie.

Which isn't to say that everyone in the ninja world was sneaky or scheming or a liar, but simply that those traits are an accepted part of the culture—for civilians and ninja alike.

Plus, in addition to his poor choice for shop location, he's really not much of a businessman either.

“What?!” yelped the white-haired ninja, looking across the room to Axel with an almost comical expression of shock. “These can't cost that much!”

Axel simply stared back from behind his open notebook, He had been distracting himself—or attempting to, at least—since this guy first walked in: trying to keep his emotions under-wraps as he interacted with the definitely-no-longer-fictional person before him.

Writing always seemed to help him organize his thoughts, which was why he'd gotten the little notebook in the first place. Unfortunately for him, he had been filling it with half-remembered plot points from when this whole… everything had just been an anime.

Which, naturally, made it kind of hard to distract himself from how completely not-anime the person before him was.

Really, he had positively no clue what could have possessed Jiraiya, of all people, to drop in on his shop.

And of course Axel had recognized him—even in the show he had stood out as an interesting character (for lack of a better term). He had nearly had a heart attack when he realized who had just walked in; when Axel had looked up from his notes and seen, well, him… suffice to say that it was lucky he had already been sitting down.

Though he hadn't expected Jiraiya to be quite so tall. Or to behave so much like he was portrayed in the show: a bit counterintuitive, perhaps, but it still surprised him. The guy really could be that flamboyantly dramatic when the mood struck him, which it apparently had.

“Why not?” Axel asked, wondering if he should have pitched a lower price; he wanted Jiraiya to find whatever it was he wanted, buy it, and leave as soon as possible.

The white-haired ninja looked positively scandalized. “What do you mean 'Why not'?!” He picked up one of the shuriken, checking it over carefully. “This is worth at least thrice that amount!”

So it would seem that his half-baked plan to hurry the ninja out of the shop backfired somewhat.

“What makes you say that?”

“Just look at it!” Jiraiya exclaimed, holding the shuriken dramatically up to the light where, if it hadn't had a matte-black finish, it would have shone in the store lighting. “Its keen edge! Its comfortable balanced weight! And its… certain something else!”

“What 'certain something else'?” Axel asked, then could have smacked himself for doing so; he wanted this ninja out of the shop, not sticking around to answer questions.

It didn't matter, though, since the question was brushed aside.

“I simply cannot allow you to continue this mispricing practice!”

He really wanted to curse, but the language barrier—as much as he had improved since his arrival—kept him from being able to articulate exactly how frustrated he was. So, unfortunately, he settled for mentally cussing the ninja out in the privacy of his own mind.

Before Axel had a chance to move on from internal swears to hopefully-more-civil spoken words, there was a noise that sounded very much like a startled dog followed by the door to the shop swinging open with boisterous energy.

Well, this wasn't entirely unexpected. Though the timing was a little unfortunate.

“Brandt Axs-er-san!” The voice was loud, rambunctious, and, by virtue of repeated visits, familiar. Gai leapt into view with his signature beaming smile. “Surely today's attempt—!” Seeing two people where he expected only one, the kid screeched to a halt mid-sentence.

After their first encounter at the village gates, the young ninja had apparently (inexplicably) turned his superhuman determination onto correcting his pronunciation. As for why… well, Axel honestly had no clue. Regardless of reasons, the spandex-wearing ball of exuberance had taken to bursting in every other day to take another shot at getting his name right.

And so it was that Axel had at least gotten used to one of the people in this village that he recognized from the show—if just barely, and he still mistook him for Rock Lee sometimes.

Two people, in fact, if he counted Minato as well. And he had the nagging feeling that he really should, even though he couldn't quite recall seeing him in the first two seasons. He knew that Minato was in the show, somewhere, just not where.

(He was avoiding his laptop, actually, precisely because he didn't want to know. Even if it would be helpful for filling in his notebook.)

Right now, though, Gai was a welcome distraction.

“Brandt Axel.”

“Brandt Axs-erl,” Gai repeated. “Ax-er-l.”

Personally, Axel thought it was close enough. He had for some days now, and he had told him as much, but Gai remained unconvinced. For a minute or so Gai parroted back pronunciation attempts, getting closer sometimes but never quite perfect.

Jiraiya simply watched with an amused sort of smile.

And when Gai left, it felt like far to soon.

It was quiet, though, and Axel flipped his notebook back open to try and keep it that way: maybe if he looked busy enough, the ninja wouldn't—

“Hey, where're you from anyway?”

His hand tensed, accidentally crinkling a few of the pages in his notebook. He carefully forced himself to relax and smooth out the creases.

This new topic veered rather drastically toward territory Axel wasn't keen on stumbling through: he couldn't lie very well, especially not on the fly, and telling the truth is rather out of the question.

…Or was it?

München,” answered Axel frankly, and it was hard to get the word past the lump in his throat. “It's, uh…” he tried to think of a safe descriptor, “…far.”

Spinning the shuriken, Jiraiya considered. “I haven't heard of anywhere called Mun-shen before.”

“It's—” in another dimension entirely, “—gone now.”

Jiraiya went still, and an uncharacteristically solemn look crossed over his face. “Ah. I'm sorry.”

Not knowing how to respond, Axel just nodded and stared down at his notebook. The page it was open to had a list of character names he could remember, most of them probably misspelled. Most of them probably weren't even born yet.

How peculiar, he thought, distantly.

It was with a determined gathering of will that he pulled his attention back to the here and now, and he tried to smile. He could feel that it didn't quite reach his eyes.

“It's alright,” Axel lied. “Are you interested in buying anything?”

Tossing the shuriken from one hand to the other, Jiraiya nodded. “Only if you let me pay what it's worth.”

 

=X=X=X=

 

As soon as the white-haired menace finally—finally!—went on his way, Axel felt about ready to collapse. The adrenaline, though he wasn't sure what about the conversation had been so stressful (other that the whole, well, it was Jiraiya), was draining away and left him feeling almost numb.

The reality—his new reality—was apparently still settling in.

Feeling a little light-headed, still reeling from the unexpectedness of it all, he managed to make his way out the back door. Then on through the forge, where Morimoto looked up from some work with a small frown of worry.

Axel waved off Morimoto's concern.

He just needed some air, that was all.

Sometimes… sometimes it all seemed to hit him at once: who these people actually are, where he really was. Is.

Axel heavily plopped down at the edge of what was probably technically the backyard of a neighboring building, resting his head on his knees.

“Wieder mal,” he groaned to himself. “Wieder, wieder, und wieder—! Warum kann ich nicht…”

He thought he'd be over this by now. It's been weeks, after all.

Sighing, Axel pressed a hand over his eyes.

Denial isn't healthy, he knows that. And yet, that's exactly how he's been functioning: simply pretending he wasn't stuck here, in this… this anime-manga-real-life fiasco. Pretending this was all just an event or a vacation or a dream.

After a few minutes trying to just focus on his breathing, Axel felt something bump his foot. He cracked open one eye, lifting his hand slightly to be able to see what it was.

It was the dachshund again.

Axel blinked at him for a moment, and an unbidden smile pulled at his lips. The dog had sat down near enough to touch, but seemed to be determinedly looking in the opposite direction. It was like the dachshund was trying to look like he didn't care: pretending like he had walked over for no reason, and certainly not because he was worried or anything.

“Danke.” He cautiously lowered a hand to gently touch the top of the dog's head. On the off chance that he could be understood—this was ninja-magic-world, after all—Axel repeated, “Thanks.”

The dachshund looked up at him, or, more to the point, at his hand. Huffing a quiet bark, the dog stood, seemed to consider something, turned twice, and then lay down with his head resting on Axel's foot.

The companionship, so simple and peaceful, cast a delicate calm over him. He let himself relax back into the wall slightly, just enjoying the chance to think. And indeed, he found he could think further than his own breathing again. This was, understandably, a huge relief.

Honestly, the past month or so was throwing Axel into more panic attacks than he had ever thought he'd encounter.

But counting up minor (or less minor, sometimes) panic attacks was not the best way to spend his time right now. What he needed to do was figure out a plan going forward: something that could help prevent future anxiety-inducing encounters.

So, staring up at the sky, Axel thought.

People had been talking about him.

Never mind that he had no clue why, the fact was that it happened. It had to have happened, otherwise there was no reason he could think of for somebody like Jiraiya to pop in to look around.

Probably.

Which meant that his solution could be keeping people from talking about him or the shop. Somehow. He wasn't sure how to make it more difficult to talk about the shop, given it's not as though the shop actually had a name

Now there's an idea.

“Vielleicht…” he murmured to himself, considering the option. Then he nodded.

It could work. Maybe.

Hopefully.

From where he had been snoozing, head pillowed on Axel's foot, the dachshund yawned and glanced up to see what the slight motion had been about.

The dachshund eyed him for a moment, and Axel managed a small smile.

Another second of consideration, before, with an oddly satisfied nod, the dog stretched and stood up; it was time to head off, apparently, now that the human didn't need comforting.

Watching the small dog leave, Axel noticed that there was another larger dog waiting at the other side of the yard. This dog—a girl—was brown, significantly larger than the dachshund, and very very fluffy. She also looked kind of smug for some reason, and the dachshund, once he noticed her, seemed almost peeved. Or maybe embarrassed.

It's not as if Axel really knew how to decipher dog body language—beyond wagging, anyway.

He couldn't be sure, but it looked almost like the dogs where bickering. Chuckling slightly, Axel waved at the pair of them. The dachshund stuck up his nose and turned away, but his tail gave a few telling wags. The girl dog, seeing this, barked what sounded like a very pleased bark.

He unfolded his legs, letting them stretch out as he could finally relax, and leaned back into the wall. It was nice, just having that quiet companionship as he gathered himself back up. Standing, he dusted the dirt off his pants and pulled open the door to the forge, ready to head back inside.

And when he looked back across the yard one last time, the two dogs were gone.

“Are… are you alright, Axel?”

He felt the hand on his shoulder, and managed to give Morimoto an almost genuine smile.

“Yes,” he answered. Then, “Well, mostly. I have an idea.”

 

=X=X=X=

 

Axel was finally making a sign for his shop, and—in an ironic contrast to what signs are usually built for—he hoped it would help prevent people from talking about him. It had taken a while to choose the perfect name. It had to be virtually unpronounceable for this plan to work.

After all, they can't talk about his shop if they can't even say its name. Right?

He would, of course, look back on that optimism with something akin to embarrassment; but for now it really seemed to be the ideal plan.

Forging the letters he needed hadn't been all that hard, although some of the finer details were a bit tricky to keep strong. The issue of what to mount them on was neatly resolved by Minato, on accident. The ninja had once again blown up some of the nearby forest in his seal testing, resulting in a perfect (if slightly charred) log for his use. Personally, Axel thought the metal lettering—a Germanic font, just to look extra cool and, more to the point, confusing—looked fantastic on what was basically a misplaced tree trunk.

There was a thump of something landing upstairs.

Axel glanced up at the ceiling then toward the staircase, largely unconcerned. It was a noise he was becoming quite familiar with, after all. No matter how much it annoyed him, he was fairly sure that this was going to be one of those things he'd just need to get used to. He suspected that the noise was actually a sort of polite courtesy: ninja could move silently, after all.

Minato, having entered from a window on the second floor, jumped down the stairs and rounded the corner with a cheerful hello.

“Guess who finally probably figured out where the seal kept going wrong!” the ninja said, happily brandishing a small scroll that probably had the aforementioned seal drawn on it. “And this time I'm pretty sure I've got it right!”

Which might not mean very much, actually, seeing as the very piece of wood he was nailing letters into had come from an earlier version of the seal that Minato had claimed to be confident in: a version that, in addition to being explosive, had caught a good portion of the training ground on fire.

So his skeptical expression was somewhat justified. “Have you?”

“It wasn't timing at all!” Minato continued, which could kind of be considered an answer. “The new spiral improved it tremendously, yes, but the true problem was the outer seal six-point array. Six! Of course that wouldn't work well, it's off sequence—”

Axel had only the absolute barest of understanding for what he was ranting about. “Minato. What?”

The ninja paused, remembering that he was talking to a friend who, while occasionally helpful, didn't actually know about the written ninja magics. “Right! Right, so how to explain…”

Not bothering to stand from where he was kneeling on the floor, Axel just smacked down his mallet once more to securely nail in one of the metal letters. There was only nail left to hammer down now, and then the sign would be complete. Kind of, anyway. He'd still need to actually put it out front, but that would be easy enough.

Especially if he could get some help from Minato.

“Anyway… what are you working on, Axel?” The blond ninja in question walked over, apparently choosing to drop whatever he had stopped by for in favor of his own curiosity. After a moment, he seemed to recognize the log. “Oh! Is this your shop sign?”

Axel nodded. “I've come up with a name,” he explained, looking both proud and somewhat like he was making a joke only he understood. Even when he had asked for the wood, he hadn't yet figured out what the sign should actually say.

With a grin, Minato lightly chided, “Well, it's about time. The store's been open for weeks!”

Holding the last nail in place—the bottom of a lowercase 'r'—Axel gave it a few taps with the mallet to get it started. Then, with a few more stronger hits, the final nail was in. He sat back to look over his handiwork, and Minato peered at it in fascinated confusion.

Which, fair enough: the store name wasn't written in any language the ninja could know of. As such, the sign for the shop was completely illegible, in a manner of speaking. It was a series of nine symbols that probably looked like nonsense geometric patterns to anyone from this world.

But to Axel, the sign was a word—or, to be technical, a name: “Excalibur.”

“What?” Minato asked, wondering if he had heard that correctly. “Is that… the name?”

“Excalibur,” repeated Axel, smiling. The name had been specially chosen to be hard to say, with the hope that it would be bothersome enough that people simply wouldn't talk about it. “It is a legen, er, legernd… Is a special sword from stories.”

Even as Minato tried to puzzle out how the odd image could be read as such an odd word, he still thought to correct his friend's mistake. “Did you mean 'legendary'?”

“Probably.”

Still staring at the positively unreadable symbols, Minato had to ask, “How is this… what you said?”

Axel, for a moment, had no idea how to respond; after all, he'd never been asked to properly explain the alphabet before. When he couldn't figure it out, he decided to just roll with his most default response: Axel shrugged.

But of course the ninja wouldn't—or maybe couldn't—let that stand. Axel knew Minato well enough by now and, perhaps even more importantly, had been included in enough discussions about that written ninja magic stuff to guess that Minato was always interested in new symbols or concepts that could be incorporated into his explosive designs. These peculiar scribbles were probably, to him, utterly fascinating.

“Axel,” Minato urged, “Please?”

“Ach, warum musst du so sein?” he grumbled under his breath, not caring how unintelligible the words would be to Minato. The ninja, that friendly weirdo, always seemed to be a mix of delighted and confused when Axel slipped into German.

“So… does that mean you'll tell me?”

“Maybe,” Axel allowed. “But I'll only explain this once.”

Minato looked unconcerned.

Chapter Text

Akaiko was a bit concerned, to be honest.

She watched the house with a careful eye, occasionally probing with chakra to check that the house still felt just as empty as before. Of the two people living there, only one had a signature she could detect: the civilian named Morimoto Hiroshi. He was out at the moment.

The other resident was tall, blond, and if she hadn't spotted him earlier when he walked past a window, she wouldn't have known he was in the building.

So yes, it was a little disconcerting.

When she was assigned this mission, she had been warned that there was a supposed civilian who could hide his chakra well enough to fool high level shinobi. Considering who had reluctantly brought the information to the Hokage's attention, well…

Orochimaru might freak her out, but he had definitely earned his reputation. If it was something that could sneak past him, it was only natural to be interested.

But now, two and a half days after accepting the mission, she was having second thoughts.

Because it was, in every sense, a perfectly boring reconnaissance detail.

Okay, so that's not entirely true. There had been a brief altercation early on the very first day with a pair of ninken-turned-strays, but they left her alone when they realized she had to be there under the Hokage's orders.

One of the perks of being a uniformed ANBU, she supposed.

Akaiko carefully adjusted her mask and tried not to yawn. It was especially uninteresting to keep watch when she didn't even have her partner on hand to annoy— talk to. Inochi apparently had clan business, and had thus taken leave for a week: something about her cousin, Inoichi, finally getting hitched.

Cue mental scoff.

On a tangential note—and because there was nothing more interesting to think about—Akaiko had to wonder about the tendency clans had to name everyone with a similar pattern. All the Yamanakas seemed to be obsessed with starting names with 'Ino-', and the Naras like to use 'Shika-'. It made it easy to guess which clan somebody might belong to, but it's such a pain to keep track of everyone.

Plus people in a clan tend to look similar as well, so the issue was two-fold. Sure, she could do it—she was an ANBU, after all—but honestly.

Motion outside her target's house caught her attention, pulling her mind from its drifting. But alas, it was nothing interesting: just Namikaze Minato again. Given the past few days, the blond not-her-target seemed to stop by at least once a day to hang out with his… friend? Yes, she supposed that was correct.

A little peculiar, to be sure: shinobi don't often make friends—meaning real friends, not just business partners or convenient acquaintances—with civilians.

He leapt to an open window on the second floor, perched for an instant on the sill, then vanished inside.

She followed his movement through the house by tracking his chakra. Based on where Namikaze's signature had stopped, she'd guess that her target was in the back room, separate from the part that had been turned into the store.

Curious, and without her partner there to talk her out of it, Akaiko decided to get a closer look.

Careful to keep her chakra restrained and muted—doubly so, since she was trying to sneak up on at least one sensor—Akaiko jumped from her little surveillance base and crept up to the side of the house.

For a split second, she reconsidered. After all, she was just here to run reconnaissance on this strange new maybe-maybe-not civilian. There was no real reason beyond curiosity compelling her to move closer.

But she was a shinobi—curiosity is basically part of the job description.

Enhancing her ears with the barest trickle of chakra let her listen in on the conversation.

“—instead of one character being a… a, uhm.” There was a pause, and the oddly-accented voice sounded vaguely frustrated. “I don't know the word.”

Even knowing that her target was in there as well, it still came as a surprise to hear an unfamiliar voice when her chakra sensing told her that there should only be one person in there.

The next voice to speak was definitely Namikaze, who suggested, “Maybe 'syllable'?”

“Is that like 'char' in 'character'?” There was a pause where, presumably, Namikaze nodded. “Then yes. So instead, each is part of that.”

Akaiko could hear some papers shifting, then the scratch of pencil writing something. She was kind of annoyed that now, limited to listening as she was, she couldn't tell what he was doing.

“Fascinating,” said Namikaze, a moment after the scribbling sounds stopped.

This made Akaiko even more peeved that she couldn't see what he'd written.

“Sure,” replied Akus— uhm, her target.

When she was first given this assignment, she had spent several minutes trying to figure out the name listed in the mission files. It was written as 'Buranto Akuseru'—which was weird enough—but then it also had a note that this was only an approximation for his actual name. Whatever that meant.

After writing some more, there was a quiet but distinct tap. The accented voice said, “This is the… I don't even know if you have a word for it.”

“But you do, right?”

There was a pause, then: “Alphabet.”

Namikaze snorted in amusement—or at least, Akaiko assumed it was amusement. “I have no idea how you come up with these things!”

Under her breath, Akaiko couldn't help but murmur the odd word to herself. Or try to, at least. “'Arufabet'?”

“I don't come up with them,” grumbled her target, sounding vaguely annoyed and… maybe sad? With just his voice, it was hard to discern between what was emotion and what was just his odd accent.

“Anyway,” it seems Namikaze has chosen to change the subject, “how do you write my name?”

Akaiko sat back against the wall as the sounds of writing returned, and wondered just what this strange 'arufabet' thing looked like. Wondered how her own name would appear, written differently from how she had always seen it.

She had never really liked her name all that much. Honestly, nobody had ever accused the orphanage of having creative naming sense, but they could have put in a little more effort than 'red child'.

And it only got worse when she was saddled with the red fish mask and the ANBU codename 'Koi'. She was fairly sure that choice had been made for the pure word play; meaning she had gone from 'red child' to 'red fish'—what an upgrade.

On the other side of the wall, she could hear Minato start listing other words he wanted to see written in this new way; he was going through colors now. He asked for green, yellow, orange, red— and the beginnings of an idea formed in her mind.

One hand reached up and tapped the edge of her mask thoughtfully.

If Inochi were here, she would probably advise against this course of action. Yes, surely her ANBU partner would think this new idea stupid, unnecessary, and just generally bad. This was a surveillance mission, after all: protocol said she should surveil the target at a distance and without them knowing.

But there was no reason she couldn't run her surveillance from up close.

Akaiko returned to her base of operations across the street, ill-advised plan in mind. After checking the area one last time to make sure she was in the clear, she took off her mask. The smooth porcelain was painted with a leaping fish. Tapping it to the tattoo on her shoulder sealed it away with the slightest puff of chakra smoke.

She was no longer acting as ANBU Koi.

Well, kind of; her mission would continue without her in uniform.

Pulling her brown hair out of the strict bun she always wore it in when working, she switched it to a loose braid. Fishing through the sealing scrolls she had on hand, she found a disguise that would suit her needs. She really only needed the clothes: a pair of dark blue pants and a comfortable pinkish blouse. The top used to be white, but she put it in the wrong wash. Several times.

She was ready.

Jumping back out of her base, Akaiko crossed the street and walked right up to the front door. It was locked. In fact, there was a sign hung up that declared the store to be closed.

Stepping back, she eyed the open window on the second floor.

Then again, the lock should be easy enough to pick.

And so it was. Tucking away her lock pick set, Akaiko opened the previously-locked door and stepped into the shop.

Taking a moment to scan the area, noting things ranging from civilian kitchenware to shuriken and more, she had to admit to being a little impressed. There was less of each item in-stock than she had seen in some of the village's other stores, but the sheer variety put those other smiths to shame. Especially since she could tell a lot of care and skill had gone into everything set out for sale.

She could hear Namikaze and her target still talking in the other room, so she walked through the shelves toward them. From the doorway, she saw that they were sitting on either side of what looked like a misplaced tree trunk, scroll unrolled on it as if it were a table.

“Hey,” she called out. “What're you guys up to?”

Namikaze looked up to her, smiling and perfectly relaxed. But there was an edge to his easy smile, as if he were judging whether or not she was a threat to his friend. She had the sneaking suspicion that he had known she was there the entire time: even when she had been eavesdropping from outside.

Her target took her arrival less gracefully, trying to twist around from his spot on the floor and nearly falling over for his trouble. Clearly he doesn't do well with being startled.

Then he looked up at her, annoyed, and she saw his eyes.

Blue. As blue as the sky at noon.

And while blue eyes weren't particularly rare—take Namikaze, for one, and the entire Yamanaka clan, for another—his eyes were so… open. She wasn't really sure how to explain it.

“What?” he said, then decided to ask a better question. “Who are you!?”

“My name's Akaiko.”

“That's not the point!”

She cocked her head to the side. “So what is the point then?”

Namikaze looked inordinately amused at this whole deal. “I believe Axel wants to know what you're doing in his house.”

Akaiko blinked at the name—it was his first name, so he and Namikaze must be better friends than she first thought. Plus, well, she could see why they had needed to use an approximation in her files. She tried to say it, and felt like she got close: “Axer?”

“Axel,” he corrected, though she was pretty sure it was just an instinctive response. “Brandt Axel.”

She repeated, “Brandt Axel.”

Her target—Brandt—nodded, and looked faintly impressed. But then he frowned again, remembering the original issue. “So? Why are you here?”

Gesturing back at the shelves in the room behind her, Akaiko said, “Well, it's a store, isn't it?”

“It's closed right now,” Namikaze pointed out.

Brandt looked suddenly pale, and he glance in the direction of the front door with worry. “How did you even get in?”

“I picked the lock. Easy.”

“You just—” He pinched the bridge of his nose in clear consternation. “Ninja,” he mumbled under his breath, and the unfamiliar words had an almost mocking edge to them, “haben kein Konzept des persönlichen Raums.

There was more, but it got too quiet to hear and likely remained as impossible to puzzle out, so she ignored it. With Brandt clearly distracted by his grumbling, Akaiko shot a questioning look to her fellow shinobi.

Namikaze just shrugged. “I was told,” he began, and the emphasis he put on the word made her think he wasn't quite convinced, “that it's a side effect of a particularly persistent genjutsu.”

She'd never heard of such a genjutsu, so she could see why he sounded doubtful. Still, it did make a certain sort of sense; she'd make sure to include it in her report, in any case.

“Anyway,” he continued, “Why are you here? Because, as I said, the store is closed right now.”

In answer, Akaiko sauntered over and plopped herself down across from her target; he glanced up at her warily, and she had to commend his instincts. She repeated the first thing she had said to them, as if none of the conversation between then and now had happened. “What're you guys up to?”

“What.”

“I want in,” she said.

With more stress: “What.

Namikaze smiled again, and this time it wasn't judging her motives: it was just bright and friendly. “I think she wants in, Axel.”

“Great,” Brandt groaned, looking between his friend and her. “There's another one.”

Akaiko just grinned: she liked him already.

 

=X=X=X=

 

Axel squinted at the bright light—or near it, technically—as the scrap metal heated through red to white-hot, melting into a pool at the bottom of the crucible. At least he could get something useful out of the dull, chipped, and broken weapons; kunai and shuriken are basically disposable, so once broken they just aren't worth the time it would take to repair them.

It was, however, well worth the effort to melt them down. No sense letting perfectly good metal go to waste in broken tools.

He quite purposefully turned his mind away from what those tools were built to do.

When he judged it to be completely molten, he carefully moved to the mold he had set up: he'd shape the metal into a basic kunai, nothing special. With practiced ease—though it was always a tad nerve wracking—he poured the liquid metal into the mold. Now it was just a matter of waiting for it to cool.

Stepping back, Axel set to work cleaning up his tools and putting things away.

The odd woman who had intruded two days ago—Akaiko, his mind supplied—hadn't come by again, though she had made it clear that she planned on inviting herself over more in the future. He wasn't sure how to feel about that. Minato seemed okay with her, which was a good sign, but he was still undecided.

As for Minato himself, he had, for some reason, insisted on coming over today to sit in on some of the smithing process. Specifically for making kunai. As for why he wanted to watch… Axel had no clue. Regardless, he was watching all of this with peculiar intensity, as if he expected Axel to pull some special trick partway through.

“Do you make most of your kunai from scrap?”

Axel shrugged. “Since you started bringing in enough for me to do that, yeah.”

With a considering hum, the other blond reached over to the worktable and picked up one of the nearly complete throwing knives: it still needed wrapping for it's grip, and a final sharpening. He weighed it in his hand. “You made this one.”

It was more of a statement than a question, which he though to be a little strange. Morimoto had made a good number of the kunai laying around, after all, since he was coaching Axel. As a simple hobbyist blacksmith, making things for fun or because a friend had requested something, he hadn't pursued some of the finer points of the skill.

“How'd you know I made it?”

Minato sighed, spinning the kunai around his finger. “That's what I'm trying to figure out.”

Which was, to be honest, a very odd way of answering the question. It was only a half-step away from answering a question with another question, and as such still equally unhelpful.

Axel quirked an eyebrow, silently prompting for a better response.

“Well, I've noticed that the ones you make feel…” The ninja had to pause, gathering his thoughts. “They feel different, somehow. As if they're more familiar. I thought maybe you were doing something to the metal, but if you're just using scrap—”

“—then clearly I'm not,” Axel finished, thoughtful. “But, what do you mean by familiar?”

He considered the knife he held, and, after a contemplative moment, he gently tossed it blade-over-handle to catch it in his other hand. “Well, perhaps…” Minato chose his words carefully, as if working out an idea as he spoke, “My chakra flows through it naturally, easily, so it feels almost practiced in my hand. So I thought maybe you had done something.”

“How could I have, I don't even have—” Axel had to cut himself off one word shy of what would probably have been a very ill-advised confession: that he didn't have chakra.

“Don't have what?”

In an attempt to steer the conversation away from his near slip-up, Axel turned his attention back to the cooling metal. “Let's go inside,” he said. “This will take a while.”

Minato frowned slightly, but, at least for the moment, he went along with the blatant deflection of his question. “Alright.”

They relocated to the kitchen, and Axel was a little disappointed that Morimoto hadn't returned from wherever he had gone; he would have been able to distract the ninja. Probably. But, without that as an option, he just busied himself getting a couple of glasses of water and hoped the delay would be enough.

It wasn't.

“So,” Minato said, taking his glass and sipping some of the cool water. He was smiling in that way that meant he was about to cause a little trouble. “What is it you don't have?”

“Uhm.”

What a great start.

Then, luckily enough, there was a knock at the door.

“Gott sei Dank,” he murmured to himself. More loudly and perhaps a bit too eagerly, he invited whoever was there to come in. “It's unlocked!”

Minato smirked at him, seeing the escape for what it was.

The door opened to reveal… green. It was Gai. Which was unexpected, given the genin usually just burst in whenever he came for a visit. But perhaps he, of all the ninja out there, had actually respected the sign on the door that said the store was closed.

“I see you have finally named your fine store!” announced Gai almost immediately after opening the door, and he gestured toward where the log-turned-sign had been placed out front.

He nodded, pleased but also a tad concerned. Based on the kid's fixation on his name, Axel could guess why he'd wanted to come in: “I assume you want to know how to say it?”

Gai bounced on the balls of his feet, nodding excitedly.

Axel, rather suddenly, had misgivings about his plan.

Since the blacksmith wasn't making any move to reply, it was actually Minato who provided the genin with the name. He said it slowly, clearly, and perfectly.

Gai stuck out his tongue, as if tasting the word on the air. “Eku-suk-ari-ba”

“Excalibur,” Minato repeated.

“Ek-ska-ri-ba.”

Which was such a significant improvement from his first attempt that Axel couldn't help but smile, regardless of conflicting feelings about the energetic (and, as a consequence, loud) genin learning the name of his shop.

“YOSH!” Gai exclaimed suddenly, pumping a fist in the air. “I have decided! If I cannot say it by my fiftieth try, then I shall run twenty laps around the village!”

And then he was gone, as swiftly as he had arrived (as usual). The door was left swinging—which was impressive, because Axel could have sworn that the door didn't open both ways.

Well, hopefully the door frame hadn't been broken too badly.

Minato was staring after where the green hurricane-in-small-human-form had ran. “Has he even figured out how to say your name yet, Axel?”

Shrugging, Axel took a sip from his glass of water and tried to ignore his sudden apprehension. “He's better now, for sure.”

“I suppose I'll just need to get used to hearing shouts of 'Eks-kal-i-baru' at uncomfortable hours in the morning.” He sighed, but otherwise looked resigned to that fate. “That's what he did with your name in the beginning.”

Slowly, as his mind realized just what Minato was suggesting, Axel set his glass down. “Wait,” he said, and he knew now what those misgivings had been about. “Wait. Gai's going… going to run around the entire village… shouting the name of my shop.”

“Well, yeah.”

Fantastic. Simply fantastic. He honestly should have expected this.

Axel could all but feel the heat as his plan went up in metaphorical flames.

Minato was staring at him, expression slightly befuddled. “Was… that not the plan?”

“No!” he snapped, though it wasn't so much in anger as it was self-deprecating annoyance. In an almost defeated tone, he repeated, “No. It was supposed to stop that.”

Sounding thoughtful and very amused, Minato pointed out, “That won't quite go as you wanted.”

Axel held his head in his hands, and he wholeheartedly agreed.

Chapter Text

“How do you talk me into these things?!” he gasped, running at top-speed after the older boy as they weaved through familiar alleys to make their escape.

Kaito just laughed, bright and happy, the sack of stolen rice heavy in his arms. “We all gotta eat, Toto!” he yelled back. “Makes for a convincing argument!”

Gasping for breath, the four-year-old was unable to provide his usual annoyed reprimand about the nickname and had to settle with a sharp glance. Which, since it distracted him from running, made him nearly trip over his own feet.

Honestly, Kaito was the one to choose the name in the first place; it made no sense for him to butcher it and cut it down to nearly nothing. It's his own fault he chose a long, cumbersome name like 'Yamamoto' and he should have to deal with the consequences.

The pair ducked down an alley, then squeezed through a gap in the wall much too narrow for their adult pursuers: there were very few perks to being small, but this was definitely one of them. From where they were crouched—somebody's thoroughly neglected garden—they quieted to listen for any sounds from the other side of the wall. Shouts and footsteps swept past their hiding spot. After waiting for a long moment to make sure the coast was clear, the two finally wriggled back through the gap.

“Home free,” Kaito said, still cautiously quiet but undeniably triumphant. Shifting the stolen rice to check his grip, he then trotted to the opening of the alley. Carefully sticking his head out, he glanced around for any sign of their pursuers.

“No,” the younger child corrected. “Not before we actually get home.”

“A good point, Toto.”

“It's not—” He sighed, already sensing the futility of his protest. “If you wanted to cut the name down, why couldn't you choose something cooler? like 'Yama' or… or 'Yamato'? I like that one. Can't we use that one instead?”

Dramatically, Kaito put on an expression of abject shock and shook his head. “How could you say such a thing, Toto? 'Toto' is a perfectly good name, Toto.”

“It sounds like a dog's name,” the kid grumbled.

To himself, however—and he wouldn't admit this for all the rice in the world—he did kind of like it. Barely a year ago he didn't even have a name, after all, and he couldn't remember anything but being cold and hungry. Then everything changed. All because Kaito had found him huddled at the base of the Hokage Monument mountain, and named him accordingly.

Though, logically, the whole 'finding him' had more of an impact than 'naming him'. He just liked to be dramatic sometimes. And, yes, it's true that they were still cold and hungry more days than not. The physical situation might have actually gotten worse, with two mouths to feed rather than just one.

But it was still better, because now they had each other.

Plus, in just the past few weeks, their life had had yet another positive twist: a shabby-but-amazing old house in the abandoned district. Right now, with stolen goods in hand, they needed to get back to base.

Seeing the coast was clear, Kaito waved his little brother forward and they ventured together through the streets of their village. Though they were still careful to avoid anyone that might know to resume the earlier chase.

It was much easier to do that, once they passed into the abandoned district. People might skirt through the edges occasionally, taking shortcuts on once well-traveled streets, but hardly anybody still wandered more than one block in.

Which suited the young rice thieves perfectly.

Kaito picked up the pace, having caught sight of the run-down building they called home. It was missing the front door, it having been forcibly removed at some point, but that didn't matter to them. The walls might be cracked and the floor might have water-damage, there might be more broken windows than whole ones, but this was their home: they loved it all the same.

The younger boy paused at the doorway, even as Kaito, eager to cook up their stolen prize, hurried inside. As always, he reached up a hand—he was short, so he had to stand on tiptoe—and traced the diamond carved on the door frame. He treated it as a good luck charm, of sorts.

“Come on, Toto!” Kaito poked his head out from behind one of the walls farther into the building. “I need you to help me set this up.”

“Not 'Toto',” he said, but he hurried inside anyway.

They had only found this place a few months ago, when they had been trying to find somewhere to hunker down in during the cold winter nights. There wasn't any furniture inside, and, as noted, the door was missing. None of that mattered. Because it had walls and a roof, and that was more than they had had for a long time.

It even had a small garden in the backyard: overgrown right now, but nothing unwillingly-nicknamed-Toto thought he couldn't handle. Plants were simple, relaxing. In his opinion, there was nothing better than sitting down with the dense mess of greenery and clearing out the dead scraps.

Coming in close second place, though, was the kitchen sink.

For some reason, the house still had running water. Slow running water, more like a very large drip or a very small leak, but it was amazing!

At the moment, Kaito was trying to position the faucet over one of the pots they'd scavenged from a trashcan, but the pot was too large to just set in the sink. So he was trying to jam it in at an angle and it wasn't going well. Especially since he was trying to do that with one hand, and the other was already reaching for the matchbox.

The house might still have water in the pipes, which was already beyond lucky, but that luck didn't extend to the electricity. If they want warm food, they need to set up a fire.

They didn't get warm food often.

Seeing the pot slip dangerously toward falling—which would definitely damage something, be it the sink, the pot, or his brother—the younger boy yelped in alarm. “Stop!” He hurried over, scrambled onto the box they kept nearby so that he could actually reach the counter, and grabbed onto the pot before his brother could drop it. “You'll break it!”

Kaito gave a nervous laugh of the almost-made-a-huge-mistake variety. “Thanks. You got this?”

Given his aversion to all things burning—which was a healthy fear to have, honestly—he gladly agreed to take over the position of pot-proper-up-er. “Don't burn us down, Nii-san.”

“I'll try.” Opening the box, he found that there was apparently just one match left: they'd need to nick another pack next time they ventured out. “Not to. I'll try not to burn us down.”

The little boy gave him a threatening look, black eyes promising retribution if even one spark ended up out of place. Chuckling nervously (no four-year-old should be allowed to be that scary), Kaito left the room to head over to the designated fire pit outside. The pit—though it wasn't much of a pit, given it was just a circle of rocks on the back porch—hadn't been used much recently. Fires were always a rare comfort anyway, saved for particularly cold evenings or for special occasions.

Like today.

Sort of.

He didn't actually know what they were supposedly celebrating, but (in typical Kaito fashion) his pseudo older brother had just decided that today was a special day. Personally, he was pretty sure that Kaito just wanted an excuse to eat something other than what leftovers they could beg from restaurants.

It took ages for the pot to fill up with enough water, during which Kaito stuck his head back inside to say he'd managed to get the fire started—with nothing burning that wasn't supposed to be, no less! The two of them moved the pot outside once it was filled, and together they positioned it over the heat of the fire and poured in some of their precious, newly-liberated rice.

Rooting through the overgrown garden, the little boy gathered up some of the plants that he was fairly sure were edible. Probably. It could be a bit of a toss-up, since shinobi were known for sometimes growing poisons in their own backyards, but these looked safe enough.

Once the rice was cooked, the vegetables were torn into smaller pieces and mixed in. It was a meal fit for a king, assuming the king in question ruled over an abandoned house that didn't even have a front door. Kaito served up their meal on cracked plates, scooping it directly from the pot with the dish.

“Here's to another year, Toto!” Kaito cheered happily, clinking the plates of rice in a toast. “A fourth for you and a…” he paused, running a mental tally, then finished, “eighth? Eighth for me!”

“I've been four for a month now, Nii-san.”

His brother didn't reply right away, since he had shoveled rice in his face as soon as he finished his little speech. “M'yeah,” he said, swallowing, “but we didn't celebrate then, did we? Four years is a big milestone, little bro!”

The young boy cracked a smile. Then, embarrassed, he swiftly turned his attention to his own food in an attempt to cover it up. Kaito graciously pretended he didn't notice.

They spent a long time just eating and enjoying themselves, for once letting themselves not worry about anything but the next plate of rice. It might be approaching summer already, so the air wasn't cold, but there was just something comforting about sitting around a flickering fire with… family.

They had plenty of wood to keep the fire going even when it started to get dark, since for some reason the nearby training grounds were absolutely covered in wooden shards: some shinobi's handiwork, no doubt.

The shadow of the house began to stretch farther and farther as the sun hung lower in the sky, casting the two of them into cool darkness. The slightly chill air of twilight made both boys shiver, and Kaito gave the embers of their fire a sad but hopeful poke, wanting to summon back the cozy warmth.

Then he stilled, looking out to the edge of the yard with a slight frown.

Stretching and pulling himself upright, the younger boy yawned. “Sleep now, Nii-san?” he asked, already so tired he was almost dead on his feet.

Kaito had a peculiar look on his face, as though something wasn't sitting quite right. It took him a moment to answer. “Ah… yeah. Sleep, Toto. It'll be good for you.”

That response doesn't inspire confidence.

Using what was left of the water, the fire was damped into nothingness and the ashes were given one last look over to check for any sparks that might be desperately holding on. Without the crackling of the fire, the night turned peacefully quiet. But still frowning, still troubled, Kaito cast one last glance out, as if searching for something.

“I could have sworn…”

“What's 'matter?” he asked, trying to keep back another yawn.

Kaito shepherded his little brother inside, shaking his head. “It's… probably just my imagination.”

They went to the one room that still had a mostly-intact window and a door—though the door didn't close very well and had a tendency to swing open by itself. Inside was a nest of ratty blankets, which made for a decent place to sleep.

The four-year-old curled up on his favorite bit, with a blanket that had probably been bright green once, but the older boy stayed were he was. Kaito had one hand on the doorknob, keeping the door closed, and he was reluctant to let go.

He didn't know why.

 

=X=X=X=

 

The four-year-old was awoken by a strong grip on his shoulder and a hand over his mouth. Still too sleepy to be alarmed, the little boy blinked his eyes open and, somewhat surprised, saw that the hands belonged to his brother. “Mm-mhm?” he grunted, before the muffling hand was gently taken away. “Wha—?”

“Hide!” Kaito hissed urgently, and he shoved his little brother, blanket and all, into a dark corner where there might have once been a closet. “Whatever you do don't—” Something, maybe a slight sound that the younger boy couldn't hear, made Kaito cut himself off. “Just stay there, Yamamoto.”

The use of his full name woke him up completely, alarmed. “But—!”

“Stay!”

So he did; curled up, tightly holding his knees to his chest, he waited. Confused and far beyond scared by this point, the seconds stretched on until they felt like eons. Then, at last, he heard something: from the other room, a strangled gasp. It sounded… wet. Something heavy fell down, and the fear in his gut burned.

The little boy waited, scared what that might mean, until he couldn't bare the silence.

“Nii-san?” he called out, hesitant.

There was no response, and he remembered that thud and his terrible fear.

Growing even more alarmed, he risked crawling out of his hidden corner and called again. “K-Kaito?”

Scared and shaking, the little boy made his way over to where the door hung partially open. He peered out through the gap, squinting through the darkness. A slight breeze carried with it the smell of copper, and something horrible gripped his heart.

Fear. Death.

Suddenly, even though he couldn't see, he knew. With sickening certainty, he knew.

“Kaito?” It came out as a whisper, desperate and uncertain: now more of a prayer than a name.

He pushed the door farther open, cautiously looking out into what had once been a familiar room. It felt empty. Cold. This had been home. Now, that only made it all the more terrifying.

It was dark, so much darker than it should have been.

But he could still see well enough.

He could still see.

There. On the floor.

Eyes hazy and empty, and red blood glimmering in the faint light.

It was as if the ground dropped out from underneath him. He couldn't breathe, every gasping breath freezing in his chest and curling around his heart like icy thorns. This couldn't be real.

“Ah, yes.” A cold, unfeeling voice, but it seemed so far away. “There you are.”

The little boy couldn't tear his eyes away from his brother, lying in a pool of red. Even as that cold voice drew closer. He couldn't look away, because Kaito was there and he wasn't moving and, and— He couldn't! Kaito couldn't be—!

The cold voice didn't care. It didn't even pretend to care.

“Yes,” the voice hummed again, and a pale hand reached toward the little boy.

He couldn't move, frozen in place by more than fear now.

Almost gentle, three fingers brushed aside the boy's brown hair and settled against his forehead. “This will be a more suitable specimen.”

And then the child knew only darkness.

Chapter Text

Something bad was in the air tonight. It was faint, carried only on the barest edge of the midnight breezes, but it was there.

He could smell it, and he didn't like it one bit.

Unable to fall asleep, the dachshund finally had to admit defeat and get up completely. He wrinkled his nose, giving a quiet sneeze at the persistent bad-smell, and glanced toward the window. It was dark, likely still a few hours before dawn.

Three of the other stray dogs that had taken to following him were curled up on their own piles of newspaper or salvaged cushions, undisturbed by whatever sense was bothering him.

Miho, however, was glaring out into the night with suspicion. She had her ears folded back, clearly unsettled by something.

So it wasn't just him, then.

“Anything new?” he asked in a whisper, trotting over to join her by the glassless window frame.

The larger dog shook her head. “Not that I can see,” she replied. It was clear by her tone that this frustrated her. “Shouldn't you be asleep, Boss?”

Ignoring her concerned question, he instead said, “I'm smelling the same thing you are.” He put his paws up on the wall so he could actually look out.

Miho followed his gaze, recognized what house lay in that direction, then smiled. “Hoh, look at you. Worried for your human?”

He determinedly looked the other way.

This was evidently enough proof for Miho, as the fluffy dog nodded to herself. “Me too.”

“I'm not—” he started to protest, but gave up halfway. Because he was worried. “You know what?— Yeah. I think I'm gonna go for a walk.”

She cocked her head to the side, surprised. “Oh. I guess… Just stay safe, Boss.”

He jumped the rest of the way up onto the windowsill, gave her a quick nod of acknowledgement, checked briefly over what was left of his pack again, then dropped down outside. Landing in a patch of dead grass that prickled at his paws, he set off down the street.

It was a quick trip to the human's house, just one block over. He walked up to the back door, the one connected the room that smelled like fire and metal. Just like the past few days, there was a plate decorated with small shuriken—the same plate from that first night—and on it were a few slices of ham.

He sniffed at the air, and was relieved to smell only ham: the bad-smell was even more faint than it had been when he first noticed it.

With a few chakra-assisted jumps, the dachshund landed on the roof and walked around to the front of the house. Careful not to slip into the gutter, he nevertheless got as close to the edge as he could. Then he went still, listening closely for signs that the human was inside.

Calm, long breaths of someone deeply asleep: the blond man was safe.

He let himself relax slightly.

Now he just had to find the source of that unsettling smell, and make sure it wasn't a threat to his pack… or his human. His.

Jumping back down to street level, he followed his nose back the way he came. It was a little unsettling to find himself heading closer to where his pack was sleeping, though, if he had to guess, it would be a few blocks past them. Thankfully.

He couldn't help but remember the animals who had gone missing. It seemed every district had had at least one stray simply vanish overnight. That old tabby-cat, Tora, hadn't ever turned back up. Neither had any of the four gone from his own pack.

None of the missing strays had ever returned.

A shadow passed overhead, and he tensed. He caught a glimpse of a white mask before the figure landed on the side of the wall. The shinobi clung there for a heartbeat, then slid gracefully to the ground.

The figure turned, and the red painted koi stood out clearly against the white mask. He knew this ANBU: she was one of the two running surveillance on his human.

He dropped his defensive stance with a sigh, then continued on walking. “I suppose you smell it too?”

She fell into step beside him, but, given that she was actually walking faster than him, she clearly didn't need him leading the way. Which was answer enough, really.

“Fantastic,” he murmured under his breath, picking up his pace to match hers. “I was still kind of hoping that I was just imagining things.”

They didn't have much farther to go, and they found that the trail stopped outside of a run-down house that was missing its front door. The ANBU flicked her hands through a few gestures and, although he hadn't needed to recognize shinobi sign language for years now, he recognized that they meant 'no enemy nearby'.

But the bad-smell was still there.

Another few hand signs that he was decently sure said she would approach from above, and then she vanished in a flit of shunshin.

He took the less exciting route of simply walking through the front door. Or at least, through where there should have been a door. A small diamond carved into the frame caught his eye for a moment, but, after checking that it wasn't some kind of fuinjutsu trap, he simply ignored it.

The house felt profoundly empty. As he cautiously sniffed around on the first floor, he found… nothing. He could tell that somebody had been living there—the bottom of the sink was damp and there were signs of a recent fire on the back porch—but beyond that was a terrifying blank.

He couldn't smell anything. It was all just dirt and water and ash. Even the persistent bad-smell seemed unnaturally muted once he got inside. There was nothing to indicate who had lived here, what they were like, or where they were now.

The ANBU came down the stairs, steps silent. A gesture asked if he had found anything, and he shook his head.

It seemed like she had expected that answer. “Upstairs,” she said, after briefly walking through the rooms to double check his report. “A child's been killed, and I'm certain that another's gone missing.”

“And the attacker?”

She shook her head. “Gone. But they didn't have time to clean up completely before we got here.”

The dachshund felt his blood run cold as his thoughts turned immediately to his pack… to his human. At least Miho was keeping an eye on the other strays. The human—Axel didn't have that defense. And while it was doubtful that he was in any real danger, given the police force would be swarming here soon enough, the possibility made the small dog want to turn tail and run back just to be sure.

For some reason, he got the feeling that the ANBU understood that urge.

But while she had to report this to the Hokage, he, luckily, had no such responsibility.

 

=X=X=X=

 

Axel was awake significantly earlier than usual.

Not particularly sure why he had woken up, he looked around his quiet darkened bedroom with a sleepily accusatory stare. Everything looked to be in order—nothing he could easily blame for his current wakefulness, at least—so he rolled over to try and get at least a little more sleep.

Then he rolled over again, seemingly unable to find a comfortable position.

Staring up at the ceiling got boring quickly, but unfortunately it wasn't boring enough to put him back to sleep. Same with staring at the walls or floor or desk or shoving his face into his pillow so that he wouldn't be staring at anything at all.

Groaning in annoyance, Axel decided that he might as well get up and face the day. Even if, since the sun was yet to rise, he didn't really consider the day as having started. Not bothering to get changed out of his pajamas, he headed downstairs with half-awake plans of making toast or something.

The kitchen light was already on, so, surprisingly enough, it would seem that he wasn't the only one up unusually early.

“Guten Morgen, Morimoto,” he yawned, to sleepy to bother with Japanese at the moment.

The older man, quite used to this by now, simply offered, “Tea?”

Axel shook his head, already filling up a glass with water, and watched as Morimoto still poured two cups of tea. For a moment he wasn't sure why, and then he had his second surprise of the morning: one of those cups of tea was clearly for the ninja seated at the kitchen table.

“Minato?” Axel asked, confused to see his friend visiting before the sun had even had time to rise. “Was ist— uh, What's going on?”

The blond ninja tried for a smile, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. “Good morning. I hope I didn't wake you.”

“No, not that I know.”

“That's good.”

Based on the serious expression the usually-smiling Minato was wearing, whatever it was that had brought him here so early… it probably wasn't good news.

It wasn't.

“There—” Minato had to stop, staring down into his teacup as he considered what to say. “A child was found dead. Just a few blocks south from here.”

For a moment, Axel thought he had misheard. Or that maybe he didn't know the right words to understand it correctly.

His mind replayed the sentence.

Axel sat down his glass of water, not quite trusting himself not to drop it. Voice hushed, he couldn't help but numbly ask, “What?”

Some of the tension seemed to bleed out of Minato's shoulders, though that was followed by an almost guilty glance to the side. He had been worried that his friend might have been involved somehow.

“The boy was killed sometime last night,” Morimoto answered for him, likely having been told some of this already.

That word hit like a physical blow.

“Killed?”

Over the next few minutes, Minato summed up what he knew of the situation. Most of it, anyway, as some of it naturally needed to remain confidential. But he did mention that, as horrible as it was to consider, this might not be an isolated case.

Axel listened silently, trying to wrap his head around this most drastic of differences between his old world and this one. München wasn't a particularly violent city—Germany, overall, was considered to be a pretty safe country to live in.

But in this world… violence might as well be a part of life.

Minato was sad, sure. Angry that something like that had happened in his village, definitely.

But he wasn't surprised.

Even Morimoto just seemed… resigned.

Axel closed his eyes for a moment, letting the realization settle, then he decided something.

“I'll be back,” he said. “It is too early, and I need be more awake for this.”

Not waiting to see how that statement was received, he just turned and walked out of the kitchen. He hoped that he’d feel more ready to face this whole situation after he wasn’t dressed in pajamas anymore.

Once back in his bedroom, he fished out some actual clothes from the closet. And they were his clothes: the t-shirt and pants he had packed away in his carry-on luggage. It was comforting to still have a few bits and pieces of the world he had lost.

His laptop caught his eye for a moment. It was on his desk exactly where he had left it, sitting quietly beside its solar charger. He hadn't so much as touched it since he had set it there a month ago.

A thought struck.

Maybe his sister had mentioned something relevant to whatever had happened, hidden among all the random anime trivia she sent him. Adri had always been into theorizing beyond the scope of a show. He probably had email chains and chat logs miles long, saved away to the computer automatically. Now that was all he had left of her.

He hoped she was doing alright.

And he wondered, briefly, how this entire situation looked from her perspective.

Maybe he had just been erased from his reality, as if he had never existed in the first place. Maybe he really had simply vanished. Taken away by some fluke of dimensional alignment. Gone missing.

Or maybe he really had died in that crash, and all of this was just his imagination going wild in his final moments.

Not that that mattered, since it all felt real enough to him.

Axel—who realized that he had been staring at his closed laptop for an embarrassingly long time—was pulled from his thoughts by a slight noise.

He glanced around the room, not sure what he had heard, and then another rasping scrape came from the direction of the window. Persistent, almost manic, the sound came again: scratching and scratching and scratching.

Cautious, Axel slowly approached the window. The sound was coming from above, and it had become an almost constant grating. He hesitated for a moment, before carefully sliding the window open.

The sound stopped instantly.

Leaning out the window, he tried to get a look up on top of the roof.

There was something sticking out of the gutter: long and black and thin.

It looked a bit… like a tail?

Yes, it was definitely a dog's tail. Which, presumably, meant there was a whole dog up there. In the gutter. On the roof. Somehow.

In fact, he was pretty sure he knew this particular dog.

A familiar nose peeked up over the side of the gutter.

He watched for a moment, still processing the fact that the dachshund had ended up on the roof for some reason and trying not to let out a relieved laugh. The nose dipped back out of sight, and a moment later the sound came back as the dog pawed at the inside of the gutter.

“…Are you stuck?” Axel asked.

The sound stopped and the tail gave a nervous wag, which he took to be confirmation.

Of course this didn't answer the bigger question of why the dachshund was on his roof—not to mention how he had gotten up there in the first place—but Axel decided he didn't really need to know. He considered a few different ways of trying to get the poor dog unstuck, and decided that the easiest one was probably the best.

“I'll go get Minato.”

Chapter Text

This would be a sentence Axel had never thought he would ever say. It wasn't really a sentence he had ever thought of before, even as a joke, and he needed to take a moment to frame the words before speaking them aloud.

“There is a dog stuck in the roof,” he said.

Minato blinked at that, thrown almost as much by his friend's re-entry into the conversation as he was by the abrupt topic change. He asked, “'In the roof'?”

Nodding, Axel tried to clarify. “Stuck in the rain… tube.”

“Gutter?”

“Yes, that. Probably.”

After taking a sip of tea, a small smile pulling at his lips, Morimoto shooed the ninja toward the door. “Go make yourself useful, Namikaze-san.”

Given that being stuck in a narrow metal half-pipe was probably uncomfortable—even, or perhaps especially, for a dog whose dimensions seemed to be perfectly suited for such shapes—Axel immediately led the way to the door. Minato followed, but only after giving the older blacksmith a wry look.

Once they were both out front, he pointed up toward his bedroom window. It had gotten quite a bit brighter outside since he had first discovered the dog's predicament, which made it easier to spot the thin black tail wagging uncertainly, just barely visible from the ground. The nose popped up, then back again.

“There he is,” Axel said, still sounding somewhat bewildered that the dog was up there at all.

Catching onto that confusion, Minato shrugged and answered the unasked question to the best of his understanding. “I bet he was worried about you.”

The dog yelped in disagreement, though it sounded somehow more like he was trying to give an excuse and as such wasn't a very convincing denial.

Shaking his head in a tolerant manner—which probably meant he was well-used to dealing with that type of personality—the ninja jumped easily to the roof. It was impressive, at least to Axel, and he couldn't help but feel a little jealous. He couldn't easily tell what what going on, other than that his friend seemed to be talking to the dog as he worked to free him.

It took longer than one might expect for the highly skilled ninja to finally release the dachshund from his accidentally-self-inflicted prison, but he got there eventually. Abashed dog in hand, Minato dropped back down.

The dachshund seemed pretty embarrassed by this whole situation, and wasn't able to look in the blacksmith's direction for longer than a few seconds at a time.

“You know,” Axel said, thinking back over the past few weeks, “I have seen this dog a lot.”

Minato, who had noticed the dachshund hanging around significantly more often than his civilian friend could have, nodded in complete agreement. “I'm pretty sure he spends most of his days in your backyard or on the roof.”

The dog, naturally, looked even more humiliated by this.

“…The roof?”

It did make a sideways sort of sense, given that was where the dog had gotten himself stuck. Though Axel had to wonder how and why the roof would be such a favored spot for a dachshund: it must be tricky for someone so short to get up there in the first place. And besides, it wasn't like there was much to actually do on the roof. Maybe the dog just liked feeling tall.

Axel held out a hand for the dachshund to sniff—which the small dog did, if cautiously—but he got the feeling that pats wouldn't be received too well at this point.

“How about 'Dach'?” he asked, out of the blue.

“What?”

The dog looked almost as confused as the ninja holding him, so Axel clarified, “As a name. I see the dog a lot, and I don't have anything to call him.”

It was a bit of a silly name, granted: basically a pun. But then, when the world seems to line things up for a joke, it would be a shame not to take advantage. After all, the word for roof matches the first four letters of dachshund, and the dachshund in question was frequently seen on the rooftops. At least nobody here could be annoyed by the sub-par joke.

“'Dach',” Minato said, testing the word. He sounded relieved, likely because at least this name wouldn't be too unpronounceable. “Sounds good to me. Does it mean something?”

Axel was spared from needing to explain—or to avoid explaining, as the case may be—his crappy naming skills, as the dachshund wiggled to be let down. All four paws on the ground, the dog promptly sat down and gave them both a considering look. Then he looked away, off down the street.

“You don't have to stay.” Turning to head back inside, Axel paused. After a thoughtful moment, he added, “I'll just leave the back door open for you.”

Before he even made it through the front door himself, the dachshund squeezed past his legs and into the entryway. His tail was wagging, and overall now Dach looked a bit more pleased than embarrassed. He vanished deeper into the house, taking advantage of the chance to openly snoop around.

“Woah, little guy!” came a surprised shout: the dog had found Morimoto.

When Axel and Minato rejoined him in the kitchen, they found the dog once more suspended in the air and looking none too pleased about it.

Morimoto gave them a curious look. “I suppose you let him in?”

“Axel gave him a new name and everything,” supplied Minato, looking shamelessly amused. “Morimoto-san, meet Dach.”

The dog and man inspected each other for a moment, and then Morimoto smiled. Giving the newly-named Dach a pleased pat on the head, he remarked, “Well, it's a bit short notice but… I'm glad that there'll be somebody around the house to keep an eye on you, Axel.”

“Other than me, you mean,” Minato joked.

“You don't live here,” returned Morimoto, “so you don't count.”

Glancing between the two of them and the dog, Axel began to feel slightly apprehensive. He pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen table and sat. “What 'short notice'?”

“You know,” Morimoto said, setting Dach down. The dachshund walked over to sit by Axel in a huff. “Since I'm heading home today. That's why I'm up so early in the first place.”

Ah.

Axel stared at the man who had become something of a mentor to him, the man who had helped him through this whole world-changing business (even if unawares). For a moment, it felt as if his heart dropped down somewhere past his feet. But then, after a second to gather himself, he just sighed: he'd known Morimoto would need to head home eventually, after all. Plus, well…

Slightly more annoyed than distressed now, Axel pinched the bridge of his nose. He really only had one thing to say.

Did you tell me this before?”

Dach had been watching his new human carefully, still trying to figure him out, but at that he shot an almost reprimanding scowl back at the older man. Even Minato gave him a distinctly unimpressed look.

Arms crossed, Morimoto thought back through the past weeks. “I could have sworn…” Then, apologetically, he shook his head. “Must have forgotten. Sorry.”

“It's fine,” Axel said. It was more unexpected than he would have liked, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn't too bad. After all, they'd only be a day-trip away.

Not—

He shook himself before the thought could finish, and Dach glanced back up at him in concern.

Minato still looked a bit peeved by proxy, but not enough that he couldn't try and lighten the mood. “So he said nothing and you missed him packing up?”

“I spend all day in the store or forge,” defended Axel, shrugging.

“And to be honest,” Morimoto added, “I don't have much to pack. Most of what we brought will be staying here, after all.”

The ninja nodded, acknowledging the point.

Nearly an hour later, when the sun was at last well and truly up, Morimoto decided it was time for him to head out. It took no time at all to load the pull-cart. Indeed, compared to the unsteady pile of crates they had arrived with, now the cart only had two bundles of clothing and a small box for the return trip.

Axel looked down at his right leg, thinking guiltily back to their arrival. He hadn't been able to help with the cart then, even though most of the things it had been loaded down with had been simply to help with settling into an otherwise empty house.

Of course, he hadn't know that at the time, but he still felt a little guilty.

Morimoto pulled the cart a few steps. “It's so much easier to deal with,” he remarked. “I imagine it'll be a faster trip, getting back home.”

Which was good news; days were already much warmer than they had been just one month ago, as the season slipped out of early spring and into almost-summer.

“We'll walk with you to the gate,” said Minato, though his tone made it sound more like an offer; he wouldn't mind if the older man would rather say his goodbyes here and get them over with.

The three of them—plus one dachshund who seemed determined to stick with Axel—began to make their way down the peaceful street.

Rather suddenly, Axel thought of something.

“Wait!” Backing away the way they had come, he held his hands out in a clear 'just give me a minute' gesture. “One thing, I be fast.”

Then he ran back to the house.

Left with the cart and a few questions, Morimoto and Minato shared a confused look. Even Dach had been caught off-guard; he did follow a little ways after his human, but, seeing the front door shut, he could only sit and wait.

“Any idea what that's about?” the ninja asked.

Morimoto leaned his arms against the side of his cart and shook his head. “I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.”

 

=X=X=X=

 

It didn't take long for Axel to need to drop from a dead sprint to a speed slightly less exhausting, though he still tried to hurry. He got out his key, unlocked the door, and immediately headed up to his bedroom. Nearly tripping over the stairs in the process.

On his desk, he grabbed one of his pens and his notebook. Flipped to the back, and tore out a page.

Now he had to slow down. Though he had continued practicing, he wasn't nearly good enough writing hiragana to do so in a rush and have the end product still be readable. Being careful to write each character correctly—and still making mistakes he had to cross out—Axel penned out a short, very simple letter for Kichirou. After all, he wasn't sure when his next chance to send the teen a letter might be.

The letter didn't say much more than a greeting and a thanks, but that should be fine. The teen's father could well fill in the rest of the details.

Reading through the note to double check for any glaring errors, Axel turned to leave. He wondered, briefly, if maybe Kichirou would appreciate a small gift as well. Maybe one of the kunai or shuriken he had made.

And his eyes happened to land on a little plastic toy resting on a corner of the desk.

The rubik's cube.

He did remember Kichirou asking about it, once. Back when he had been fiddling with it to pass time in the clinic. Kichirou had been fascinated by the little puzzle, and Axel had spent an afternoon watching the teen try to match up the sides.

Maybe…

He kind of didn't want to. It had been a gift from Adri, after all, though she likely had intended it as little more than a joke present—just a 'cruddy color cube' that her brother would play with then forget somewhere in his apartment.

And now it was one of the few links left of home.

Axel picked up the rubik's cube, turning it over in his hands. Adri had written on the yellow squares, one letter on each to spell out a disjointed 'CONGRATS!' whenever fully solved. Written in English, she had defensively explained, because the German equivalent simply had too many letters to fit easily in nine squares.

Something in his chest felt tight, the memory touched bittersweet by loss.

Still, he considered the option.

And made his choice.

Pocketing the puzzle, he wrote a few more sentences at the bottom of the letter.

It felt final, choosing to give the toy away. In a way he couldn't quite explain.

He snorted, wondering just when he had become sentimental about a plastic cube that had, until recently, languished forgotten at the bottom of his backpack.

…He hoped Kichirou would take good care of it.

Putting aside his uncertainty and reminding himself that he was, in fact, in a bit of a time constraint, Axel hurried from the house. Dach barked a greeting as he approached.

What took you?” asked Morimoto, beginning to pull the cart onwards again as soon as his friend had rejoined them.

Axel didn't have the breath to answer, and lacked the charades skill to explain with handwaving. By way of explanation, he instead handed the letter over to Minato.

'Kichirou'…” the ninja read from the note. “So, a letter to Morimoto's son?”

He nodded, pulled out the rubik's cube, and breathlessly added, “And present.”

The colorful little puzzle grabbed Minato's attention, and he traded back the letter to get a closer look at it. As Axel handed it over, he demonstrated how the segments turned to rearrange the sides. Minato was fascinated.

How does it work?” he asked, shuffling colors around.

A shrug. “Don't know, really.”

Which only seemed to heighten his interest. “You didn't make it?”

No.”

Minato looked like he was just itching to take the rubik's cube apart, but instead settled for delicately poking at it and asking questions for most of the walk. He was still theorizing about it by the time they reached the village gates.

“Maybe the pieces are attached to a segmented sphere…” Minato mused, “but, no, that would still need to hold together, wouldn't it…”

Morimoto stopped the cart, smiling in a way that suggested that he was wondering how long it would take the preoccupied ninja to notice. “Minato?”

“What?” The ninja blinked, took in the situation, then sheepishly scratched at the back of his head. “Oh, sorry. Ah, here, let me…”

Taking the letter and a handkerchief from one of his vest's many pockets, Minato neatly folded the whole present in cloth before handing it back. Axel had sat in on a lesson about Japanese fabric wrapping once, during an event his university club had gone to, and he had to admire the quick efficiency with which his friend knotted the package shut.

“Don't worry,” Minato thoughtfully added, “the handkerchief's clean.”

“That wasn't what I…” Axel shook his head, not sure how to finish that sentence. “Thanks.”

Morimoto chuckled—affectionate, and already sounding like he missed them. “I'll be glad to be home with my boy, but…” He let his fond smile finish the sentence for him, and he gave Minato a look. “You two keep an eye on each other, you hear me?”

Dach yipped at him to get his attention, sounding positively affronted.

“I bet you can take of yourself, little guy. These two, however…”

“Wow, Morimoto-san. Do you really think I need a minder?”

The older blacksmith just shrugged, stating, “I've heard the explosions.”

And, of course, Minato couldn't really deny that implication.

“I'll make sure he doesn't blow up anything important,” said Axel. He collected himself, and held out the small package. “This is for Kichirou.”

“So I gathered.” Morimoto looked vaguely amused, taking the wrapped rubik's cube and setting it carefully with his other things in the cart. “He'll be glad to hear from you.”

Axel felt a tightness in his throat and tried to swallow it away. “Thank you,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady and understandable. “For lending me your old house, and—”

He was kept from saying more when Morimoto raised a hand, one finger pointing skyward. “Now look here, you are misunderstanding something.”

Axel blinked, not following.

“That house,” Morimoto said, voice precise and uncompromising, “is now your house. I even wrote you in to the paperwork and everything.”

Minato, addressing nobody in particular, asked, “Is that legal?”

The man just shrugged, unrepentant.

Honestly, Axel should have expected this. Still: “You what?”

“It's your house, Axel,” he continued, undeterred. “I might still be the signature at the end of the scroll, but it's yours now.” With a nod to the small gift now sitting in the cart, he added, “Consider that payment.”

All Axel could think about was just how many rubik's cubes it would take to buy a house, paired with the ridiculous answer of 'just one'.

Morimoto must have seen something in his face, because he nodded to himself in a distinctly satisfied manner. As he began to walk away, cart trundling behind him, he called over his shoulder, “Oh, and Namikaze-san?”

The ninja in question looked a bit startled at the sudden address. “Yeah?”

“If you're ever in Chotto again,” Morimoto paused, looked back, smiled, “don't be a stranger!”

Minato laughed, bright and surprised and pleased. “I just might take you up on that!”

Both of them stood by the gates, waving, until Morimoto and his cart were hidden behind the trees. And even then, Axel couldn't quite get himself to leave just yet—simply staring out to elsewhere. Dach set a paw on his foot, picking up on his distraction. Axel crouched down, and the dachshund let him gently scratch behind his ears.

Next, the dimensionally-misplaced man decided, would be figuring out how the post worked in this world. Or if there actually was one: at the moment, he couldn't even recall if there was a mailbox outside the house.

His house, Axel reminded himself. Letting that ever-so-slight change of reference settle in his mind.

It was odd, but… right.

“Ready to head back?” Minato asked, in no particular rush.

Axel breathed, and smiled up at his friend. Stood and dusted himself off.

“Yeah,” he said, accepting a fact he hadn't even realized he had been denying. “Let's go home.”

Chapter Text

Crouching on a branch with the help of just the barest touch of chakra, Kakashi remained perfectly still to listen to the trees. He felt Pakkun shift on his shoulder, stubby pug nose in the air to sniff for any trace of their quarry. Minato-sensei was nearby, they could be sure of that.

But where nearby was the question.

Kakashi slowly turned his head, tracking sounds and smells relative to himself to paint a mental image of his surroundings. Navigating through the trees while blindfolded was proving to be very difficult.

Tracking, even more so.

There was a soft shush—grass and leaves being moved out of the way—as something quietly padded across the forested ground directly below him. Kakashi nearly threw a slew of shuriken at the source before his mind caught up to inform him that the quality of the sound suggested greenery against fur, not fabric.

Pakkun shifted his weight on his paws in a specific movement, confirming that it was a non-threat.

He took a long breath, keeping it carefully slow and steadily silent. It smelled like lush greenery, sunlight through leaves, dirt, the animals that lived in the area, and running water. He could hear the last, faintly; a small creek snaked between the trees nearby. Wind ghosted through the branches.

A jutsu kept his own trail from muddling up what he could smell, though Minato-sensei was likely using a similar technique on himself—

Whisper sharp and nearly inaudible, a kunai thunked into the wood where his feet had been moments before. Kakashi was already leaping away, unsure if that weapon had three prongs and unwilling to risk proximity if it did.

He also loosed a kunai behind him, a paper flash-seal attached to its hilt. Just in case.

After all, given the cloth tied over his eyes, it's not as though he'd be disadvantaged by a blindingly bright burst of light. The knife hit wood, though he thought it sounded like it had hit the trunk rather than the branch he had been aiming for.

Pakkun stiffened, which definitely meant that—

“A flash-seal? Kakashi, what if I hadn't already known where you were?”

An instant later he felt a sort of click and, even through the blindfold, the surge of light was quite visible. His teacher had a good point, though. If he hadn't already been found out, a beacon like that wouldn't exactly help with the whole sneak-and-find aspect of this exercise.

Too late now, he needed to make himself scarce.

And fast.

Dashing through the trees that he couldn't see, Kakashi flipped through the hand signs for the most basic clone technique. Two clones with their own pug companions puffed into existence, and he tossed them a pair of alarm seals. The first ran ahead, then phased through the ground: becoming the bait for a trapped pit he had prepared ahead of time. When Kakashi passed, he primed the triggers and pulsed his chakra, hopefully giving the impression that he had just performed a jutsu to hide underground.

The second clone darted off to his right, jumping along the lower branches of the trees. He had run along those particular trees earlier, so the fact that the immaterial clone left no trail should be harder to detect.

Kakashi himself continued on a straight path, careful to keep his chakra signature suppressed and leave as little trace as possible. The sound of water grew louder, meaning he was definitely heading in the right direction. Jumping out of the foliage—he could feel the warmth of the sun on his skin—Kakashi landed on the surface of the creek.

Water walking was much trickier when blind, apparently. He slid across the surface for a few steps, adjusting to standing on a changing surface he couldn't even see.

The alarm seal from his trapped pit tweaked his chakra, informing him that his first false trail had been caught and disarmed. He flicked out another clone, passed it a seal, and this one continued his straight trajectory back into the forest on the other side of the creek.

Disguising a trail over water is easier than over land, just needing a twist to the chakra in his steps to help the energy disperse into the water more quickly after he moved on. It would have been the ideal route to send a non-solid clone on.

Which is precisely why he didn't.

Not that Kakashi really thought his teacher was actually falling for any of his false leads; they would probably be good enough to reliably fool unwary chunin, but certainly not jonin.

And certainly not jonin like Minato-sensei.

Sensors can be so tricky to deal with.

Still, he was probably going to follow each trail anyway. This was training, after all, and he would want to see what sort of plan his student was setting up.

Another alarm seal meant that Minato-sensei had just caught the second clone, confirming his speculation. It also meant that his teacher was as far away as he was going to get; his range as a sensor is, frankly, annoyingly large, but any distance should help to dampen the ability.

Kakashi jumped and flipped his hands through a weak suiton jutsu, and when he landed on the surface of the creek again, the water folded under his feet. He sank all the way down, completely enclosed in a thin bubble of air. With a quick henge, he looked like nothing more than a collection of rocks at the bottom of the creek.

Then he got to work on the second purpose for this training exercise: chakra suppression.

On his shoulder, Pakkun kept watch on the surface of the water. Smell wouldn't be much help underwater, and sound tended to do strange things, so it was up to the pug to keep an eye out.

The third clone was dispelled, its seal sending the alert back to Kakashi.

Not much longer now, and he'd find out if his ruse would hold. A minute passed.

Pakkun tensed.

“Well done,” came the muffled voice of his teacher, likely standing on the surface with a big grin. “I almost missed you down there.”

Well, that answered that question: he was caught. Kakashi scowled and pulled off the blindfold while still underwater, taking that remark to signal the end of this attempt. As he had expected, the blurry image of Minato-sensei through the water was still unmistakably smiling.

Not wanting to bother with the hassle of getting from treading water to standing on it—no point wasting chakra unnecessarily—Kakashi swam to shore.

Pakkun jumped from his shoulder and onto dry land at the earliest opportunity. “Maybe make the bubble a bit bigger next time, Boss,” he quipped, shaking off some water that had apparently gotten on the top of his head.

Carding a hand through his damp silvery hair, Kakashi had to agree with his canine companion. “I'll keep that in mind.”

“Also keep in mind that it's tricky trying to hide chakra being used in a jutsu,” Minato-sensei added, joining him on shore with a proud smile. “You did well, but we'll definitely need to practice that.”

“It's hard.” It was a frank agreement, no hint of whining or complaint.

His teacher nodded, contemplatively flipping through a few hand signs and presumably feeling how his chakra shifted. “That'll be for the future, I suppose,” Minato-sensei hummed at last, after a moment spent thinking. “I'll see what I can come up with. For now we should head back.”

“What?” Kakashi glanced toward the creek, gauging the time based on how the shadows of the trees played across the water. “But it's barely past noon.”

“I have some teamwork exercises planned for the afternoon,” he said, with a sunny smile and his usual cheery tone.

Kakashi was suddenly very suspicious.

“'Teamwork exercises'?” asked Kakashi cautiously.

Minato-sensei just grinned, and switched the topic non-too-subtly back to the exercise.

As they walked back toward the entrance of the training ground, his teacher went over some of the other points he had noticed: tracking, situational awareness, trap laying, and so on. Mainly that the false trails were less effective than the pit trap, but that they will work better once he learns solid clones. Still, even with limited techniques, Kakashi found it reassuring to hear that his teacher had been impressed.

He could go without that sneaky-pleased smile he caught on his teacher's face between topics, though.

“Sensei,” Kakashi said, when the blond stepped over a root with a bit too much spring in his step. “What, exactly, did you mean by a teamwork exercise?”

It was a little concerning that Minato-sensei didn't answer right away, though he also didn't switch the conversation again. Instead he looked like he was carefully trying to find just the right words, and his smile, though still undeniably excited, was slightly worried.

“Ah, well… I have good news!”

Kakashi trusted his teacher implicitly, but he wasn't sure how he felt about that happy-nervous tone.

“We're getting a genin team!”

“What.”

“Or, well, they haven't graduated yet,” Minato-sensei continued. “It's sort of a special arrangement, all things considered.”

He was still walking, but that was mostly auto-pilot. His teacher was still talking, and while he was still listening and categorizing everything being said, Kakashi wasn't processing it at the moment.

It was a given that he would be added to a team eventually, and probably sooner rather than later: just an unfortunate fact of life.

Still, Minato-sensei had seemed perfectly willing to wait a few years. Kakashi suspected that his teacher was hoping that team members around Kakashi's own age—if not skill—would help him to 'make friends' with them. As if teammates needed to be friends.

To himself, and so quietly that even Pakkun couldn't hear, Kakashi asked, “Then… Why now?”

 

=X=X=X=

 

It was the perfect time. Morimoto had left a few days ago now, the store was closed at the moment, and Minato wasn't planning on coming by until dinner. Nobody would walk in on him, unless a ninja decided to jump through his bedroom window.

Which could happen, to be fair.

Axel leaned back in his desk chair, not quite looking at the login illuminating his laptop screen. He glanced to the window for a moment, briefly, just wondering if maybe he should close the curtains. It was a miracle of dead batteries and sheer dumb luck that had kept his computer from gaining attention thus far, and he didn't want to botch that good fortune. Anyone who had seen it before he had woken up had probably just thought it to be a crappy mirror or something.

A part of him distractedly wondered if they even had computers in this world. After all, he had yet to see anything like it, including when it had just been a show. The only tech he could remember from the anime that might count was that random name generator that paired off fighters during the Chunin Exam; not really much of a computer, all things considered.

Then again, having only personally watched up through said exam arc, there were a lot of episodes that he hadn't ever seen. There's no telling what sorts of things he had missed.

And so he was brought right back around to why he was sitting here in the first place.

The text cursor blinked at him, waiting for him to login.

Axel typed in his password, and the screen loaded up his familiar desktop background: a picture of a misty camp scene, white canvas tents with towels drying on the guylines. It was from the last trip he had gone on with his university club, just before his ill-fated trip to Japan.

Not that the away trip was the problem, obviously. The return was where things had gone sideways.

Smiling at the background, he then navigated his way to the folder reserved for all the random things his sister sent him; mostly story snippets she had written or fan art she'd drawn, but she sent other things as well. Adri—after dealing with one-too-many dead links or blocked content—tended to just download and send files over wholesale.

His sister's eccentric file habits meant Axel had copies of videos, images, memes, and more. Though some of the blame for that was the fact that he kept the files she sent him, renaming them and organizing them by topic.

There were a few different folders for different shows, which he maintained mostly in the hope that doing so would help him to follow along with her excited rambling. Though he had been considering just making a text file to keep track, rather than keeping all the videos and such.

He had never been more glad that he hadn't gotten around to cleaning out his computer.

Scrolling down the list of Naruto-related documents, Axel hesitated with his cursor hovering over the name of his best friend. It would seem there was an actual folder set aside for Minato, which was just a point in favor of that nagging feeling that his friend really was a more important character in the anime than he wanted to admit.

Axel decided that he'd come back to that later.

A little farther down, there was another name he recognized: 'Orochimaru'. That creepy snake guy who showed up in the Chunin Exam and killed the third Hokage.

He opened that folder, thinking that an evil mad-scientist type was as good a place to start as any. Ignoring the clips of fights, Axel opened a few of the text files. They were short fanfiction excerpts, mostly, with a few notes on possible continuations scattered here and there.

Apparently, or at least according to his sister's interpretation, Orochimaru had been kicked out of the village because he was caught performing unethical human experimentation. And there were discomfiting suggestions that he wasn't working alone; there was some guy in the village government that had enabled those tests.

Hopefully Adri had taken some creative liberty with that, but, pessimistically, he kind of doubted it.

Axel closed the documents, unsettled. He ignored a lot of the other files tagged with names he recognized, as most of those people probably hadn't even been born yet.

The folder labeled 'Akatsuki' didn't fit what he was looking for, given it seemed to be an organization based in another country. Probably unrelated to the local murder mystery. Plus, it might not even exist yet. Otherwise, that group seemed fairly important to the overall plot; at the very least, it looked like almost everybody could be connected back there somehow.

There was actually an image file that lined out some of the more twisty teacher-student-teammate relationships, though he doubted it would help him at the moment. He skimmed through some of the steps from the first Hokage, then, when he saw Minato included in the tree, decided it was too much to deal with right now. He'd come back to it later.

Actually, on the topic of teachers and students, for the past day or so Minato had been worrying about his own student a lot. Axel couldn't remember how the topic had first come up, but maybe he had been a bit too blunt with his opinion on children forgoing a peaceful childhood for training with knives.

He knew this world was different from his own—some of the characters in the show had been promoted at ridiculously young ages, when kids should just be figuring out crayons—but still. Clearly his points had hit a few chords with his friend.

Although at least Minato had seemed more hopeful than concerned when he stopped by this past morning.

His cursor moved back toward his friend's folder, tempted.

Axel wondered if it would count as an invasion of privacy, reading or watching through versions of his friend's life. He personally thought so, though the ninja mentality probably differed. They might even go so far as to think him crazy for even hesitating.

The thought made him smile slightly. He glanced toward the window again, imagining—

Minato was at the window.

“Was zur Hölle—?!” Axel exclaimed, startled and scrambling to close the laptop and get to the window. And, somewhere in there, kicking his foot into his desk in the process. Hard. He crouched, grabbing his foot with a low hiss of pain.

Honestly, part of Axel thought to himself in a detached sort of way, he should have expected something like this. Because ninjas.

“Oh, crap, uh… Sorry, Axel.” Apparently Minato, being a ninja, had no issues opening the locked second floor window from the outside; Axel decided not to think about that too much. “I didn't mean to scare you like that.”

At least he seemed a bit sheepish about the whole thing.

“Is fine,” Axel said, giving his toes a wiggle just to be sure. “You're early.”

Minato let himself in, lightly dropping from the windowsill. “I figured you might want some forewarning.”

That's ominous. He would have said as much, if he knew the word.

Instead, Axel asked, “What about?”

“Well,” and Minato looked very pleased about this, “I have two more students now.”

There came a young, impatient voice from outside. “Minato-sensei?”

Glancing toward the window, Axel couldn't help but smirk a little. “You had a solid few seconds lead, there.”

“It's the thought that counts.”

The two of them headed downstairs, and Axel considered his dinner plan. There should be enough food for two more, as, luckily enough, the six pack of meat had been on sale. Assuming none of the students were members of that one clan—the Akimichi clan—he should have plenty. The main change would be how long it took to prepare five schnitzel rather than just three.

There came a few insistent knocks at the front door.

“We're coming, we're coming.”

Axel opened the door, the little bell hanging off the frame giving a welcoming chime.

There were three kids, as expected. They all looked to be around seven or eight years old, which was less expected: after all, in the anime, the protagonists didn't graduate until they were already twelve. Two of them were largely unfamiliar, a girl with odd purple marks on her cheeks and a boy with orange goggles.

The third… Axel did recognize.

Because the third was a miniature, angsty-looking Hatake Kakashi, inexplicably standing at his doorstep with two other kid ninja.

And—honest to goodness—the first thing Axel felt about this was a vague sort of surprise that the ninja's hair was as silver and gravity defying as the show would have viewers believe. This was followed swiftly by the thought that this young Kakashi looked far less chill than his older counterpart.

You're Axel?” said mini-Kakashi, looking between his teacher and the similarly colored adult that was staring at him in surprise.

The boy with goggles made a funny-sounding noise of confusion. “He's a-who-now?”

Minato stepped in with a smile. “Team, this is Brandt Axel. He's a friend of mine. Axel, these are my new students,” he made sure to point out each student as he named them, “Nohara Rin, Uchiha Obito, and Hatake Kakashi.”

Axel, for one, was realizing quite a lot of things. Most importantly, however, was that his best friend was apparently the teacher for the person who would grow up to become the teacher of the titular character. This was followed by the annoying-but-funny thought that he wouldn't be dealing with this surprise if only he had read a few more lines of that relationship chart.

Nothing for it now, though.

“Nice to meet you,” Axel said, stepping back to let them inside. “No bother with your shoes.”

The goggles kid—now known to be called Obito—gave him a curious look. “You talk weird.”

“Yes.”

Axel sighed, just a little. Dinner was going to be… interesting.

Chapter Text

There weren't enough chairs.

Three chairs, four guests, and the table wasn't even built for five people to comfortably sit around to begin with; at least one person was going to end up with a table leg right smack where their legs were supposed to go. Still, there should technically be enough space.

He did have enough plates, glasses, and silverware. So he had that going for him too, which was nice.

Still not enough chairs, though.

Minato pulled the round table out from the wall, positioning it so that everyone could claim a spot. Then, with a knowing smile, he withdrew a scroll from one of his vest pockets.

“I knew you didn't have enough,” he flicked the scroll open, “so I thought I'd go ahead and bring in some from my own kitchen.”

There was a poof of white smoke that quickly dissipated to reveal two chairs. Axel—who had, by now, figured that the only option would be grabbing the chair from behind the register in the shop and the desk chair from his bedroom—was incredibly grateful.

“Thank you,” he said.

With the chair issue settled, he could turn his attention to the next sticking point: actually cooking dinner for everyone. Since his guests had all arrived quite a bit earlier than he had been expecting, he hadn't even started preparing the food.

Well, mostly. The chicken was thawing in the sink and there was a jar in the cabinet filled with cabbage he had diced up, kneaded with salt, and left to ferment a few days ago. It didn't taste quite like the sauerkraut he was used to, but when he had tested it just this past morning, it was close enough.

“Since you're early,” Axel said, moving past the genin to get various ingredients from his fridge, “I still need to make the food.”

Minato, whose eagerness was likely the reason they had been early in the first place, looked a little sheepish. “Ah, well… can I help at all?”

The offer had to be considered carefully. It wasn't so much that Minato couldn't cook, but that he really shouldn't; he tended to overdose on spices. With a narrow look—debating for a moment longer—Axel judged that it was probably safe enough to have him peel and cut the potatoes. He directed the ninja to the sack in the pantry, and soon enough one of Minato's kunai was temporarily re-purposed as a kitchen knife to prepare the tubers at the table.

Noticing Axel's somewhat dubious look, Minato scooted a handful of freshly skinned and sliced potatoes to the side of the cutting board and smiled. “Don't worry, it's a new one. Hasn't stabbed anything but vegetables.”

Axel decided it was best left at that. As he gathered and set out the rest of what he would need—eggs, flour, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, and the lemons—he noticed that only one of the three genin was still paying them any attention. Obito had wandered to peek back into the store space they had walked past to get to the kitchen and ogling the various weapons hung on display. The girl, Rin, seemed torn between joining him and dragging him back to the table.

Kakashi was… glaring at him, Axel decided. It was hard to read the kid-ninja's expression when half of his face was behind a mask, but his eyes had a telling edge to them.

Nothing he could really do about that though, so Axel simply moved on.

“Can we help at all?” And there was Rin, having made her choice and dragged Obito over by his sleeve. She was barely tall enough to see over the countertop—standing on tiptoe to get a look at the ingredients.

Schnitzel wasn't hard to prepare and wouldn't take long, but any help is always appreciated. Axel pulled the bowl of thawed chicken from the sink and set them out on a baking sheet.

“Thanks. Here, you can—” He stopped short, a mostly empty gap in his mind where the word he needed would have been.

Rin, noticing his faltering language, shot her teacher a confused glance. But of course Minato decided it would be more amusing to watch his friend struggle for a moment, and simply continued slicing potatoes with a smile.

So Axel was left with one option: figure out a different way of saying the same verb: “…Hit the chicken.”

With another glance at the ingredients on the counter, Rin quirked her head to the side. “Are you making torikatsu?” she asked, probably having added up the ingredients and compared them to a mental list of recipes.

Having had torikatsu during his stay in Japan, Axel did have to admit that it was similar to schnitzel. He shrugged and handed her the mallet to tenderize the meat. “Of a sort, yeah.”

“Oh, I know how to make that!” Obito said, perking up. He took the tray of chicken and grinned at his teammate. “We can do this together, Rin!”

Since they couldn't easily reach the counter, the two of them set up at the table across from where Minato was finishing with the potatoes. Axel filled one of his larger pots with water and salt, and put it on the stove to start heating up.

The final potato was sliced and piled with the rest.

“Now what, Master Chef?” Minato asked, tone teasing.

As soon as he translated those last two words, Axel coughed a choked laugh. The cooking show didn't exist here and him randomly giggling would make no sense. It wasn't even that funny, and he didn't watch the show… but it caught him a little off guard.

Although it did give him an idea: perhaps he should fiddle with more of the ingredients he could find at the local stores, just to see if he could recreate more different foods from home.

To answer Minato's question, Axel chucked an onion at him. “Cut up small, please?”

Cooking was a breeze with so many eager helpers—though sometimes having so many in his not-large kitchen had them tripping over each other. Minato was beyond skillful with a knife, of course, Obito and Rin had made quick work of the chicken, and Kakashi had… gloomily stayed out of the way.

Really, between the two boys, it was Kakashi—not Obito—who acted more like the Uchihas from the actual anime: angsty, reserved, and glaring.

By now the mashed potatoes were coming along nicely, the onions and some of the sauerkraut had been mixed with butter and water to simmer, and Axel was minding the schnitzel as they fried. Minato and his new team where quietly sitting around the table, there being nothing else for them to help with.

“So…” Rin began, trying to open conversation, “You two are friends?”

Best friends,” Obito added. “How'd that happen?”

It was kind of funny, Axel thought to himself, how Minato looked so reluctant to answer that question. He decided to reply in the vaguest way possible: “Explosions.”

That even got a raised eyebrow from the ever-stoic mini-Kakashi.

Minato raised a finger, about to protest, then thought about it some more. “That's… surprisingly accurate.”

Checking the bottom of the schnitzels, Axel decided this first batch of three was done and moved them out to a plate. The next three were added to the pan, and crackled on the hot oil.

“You're a civilian.”

He blinked at Kakashi in surprise—from the boy's persistent silence, Axel had kind of expected he wouldn't say anything all dinner. “Yes. I am.”

Before Kakashi could get another sentence out, there was a patter of paws and the door to the forge was nosed open. Dach trotted in with a bark of greeting, and got all the way to his food dish—a certain plate decorated with shuriken—before he noticed the guests.

“Oh, he's so cute!” Rin exclaimed, slipping down from her chair to crouch and hold out a hand for the dachshund to sniff.

And now Kakashi had a peculiar look in his eyes, conflicted, almost like he wanted to join her but didn't want to at the same time— Wait. Axel pulled up old memories from those early episodes, when the characters had gone on their first mission outside the village; Kakashi had summoned a dog pack.

“Hey, Kakashi—” Axel started, and the boy sent him a sharp look. “Could you get Dach some food?” He gestured to the plate of chicken. “One of these schnitzels would be fine.”

He looked somewhat suspicious, but he did get up from his chair. “…These what?”

Torikatsu,” he corrected, kicking himself mentally.

Still, Kakashi didn't remark on the odd word further—simply giving him a narrow look and taking the dog's plate from the floor. He got the dog one of the schnitzels, tore it into smaller pieces, and set the dish back down.

Minato, however, felt his students were owed a little explanation: “Axel uses some interesting words, and dislikes honorifics. Just take it as him being weird, not rude.”

Axel snorted, and turned over the chicken to cook the other side. There was some talk about Dach, and how the dog had ended up here—it was a funny enough story—and by the time that topic was settled, the food was ready to serve. Mixing the cooked onion and sauerkraut with the mashed potatoes, he sploped it into a serving bowl.

From the cabinet, he got out five plates and cups to set out on the table. Then he pulled open a drawer and got out his utensils.

“What are those?” Obito asked, when a fork was set beside each plate at the table.

Axel had made the set of forks himself, after he had sat down to dinner one night a month ago and realized that if he didn't take matters into his own hands he'd have to eat with chopsticks for the rest of his life. He wasn't good at eating with chopsticks.

“This,” Minato dramatically picked up his own fork, “is another of Axel's eccentricities.”

“Thanks,” said Axel drily, grinning.

But Obito was still giving his silverware a mystified look. “Okay, but… what is it?”

Axel demonstrated the usefulness of the utensil by stabbing one of the schnitzels and moving it to his plate, then scooping out some mashed potatoes from the serving bowl. “It's called a 'fork'.”

Following the set example, Minato served himself. As did the three genin, though they did so with varying levels of enthusiasm; Kakashi seemed indifferent, Rin was somewhat intrigued, and Obito still looked like he didn't trust his fork one bit.

Then they began eating, and the oddness of the forks was overshadowed by the oddness of the food. Sure, schnitzel and torikatsu are similar, but the usual side dishes aren't. And that thought reminded him that he had forgotten to cut up the lemons he'd bought.

“Just a minute,” Axel said, standing to do so now. He passed out the citrus wedges, and squeezed the juice over his own slice of chicken.

Adding lemon to her next bite, Rin smiled at the change in flavor. “Your food is weird. Good—but weird.”

Obito said something too, but he had discovered the deliciousness of mashed potatoes moments before and could not be understood around his mouthful of food.

“Same as the man himself,” Minato joked: “Good, but weird.”

Kakashi remained silent, but, based on his half-empty plate, he had at least enjoyed the chicken. Not that Axel had any idea when the boy had eaten, or how: the mask had remained firmly in place, as far as he had noticed. Just another thing that lined up tidily with the anime, despite the obvious logistical difficulty of eating without letting anyone see behind the mask.

Rin took it upon herself to clear away the dishes when everyone was done eating—even when Axel said she really didn't need to—and set the stack of plates in the sink. When it looked like she might actually clean them, he had to put his foot down.

“I clean them later,” Axel said. He turned to Minato for backup, saw his semi-scheming look, and raised a curious brow. “Besides, I think your teacher has plans.”

Minato smiled. “Well, you do run a blacksmith store. And my poor students—two of them don't have any tools of their own!”

A statement Obito had to puzzle over a moment longer than Rin, before matching her excited grin. Kakashi was keeping his face carefully blank, but there might have been the briefest flash of jealousy in his grumpy gaze.

“But only a discount, Minato,” Axel said under his breath, as they followed the more eager genin out to his shop. “Half off.”

“I knew I could count on you,” his friend whispered back. Then Minato raised his voice, calling his students to order. “Alright, kids! We'll start with five kunai and two shuriken each. Choose well!”

Two happy shouts of agreement, followed by a clatter of metal as both students carefully weighed their options: literally, since the balance of a throwing knife is very important. Rin tossed a kunai from one hand the the other, and Obito swiped one kunai through the air in a mimed slash attack.

Axel looked to Kakashi, who had stayed back. “That includes you. If you want.”

The boy frowned at him, then turned to his teacher.

“Don't look at me,” Minato smiled, but he waved him forward. “If you want new kunai, go right ahead. I'm paying.”

Looking at them all in turn—even Dach, who had followed them out of the kitchen and was now watching the excited kids with a wagging tail—Kakashi made his choice. He walked over to join his new teammates at the shelf of throwing weapons.

The three of them began debating the different knives, clearly aiming to get the best kunai they could out of this deal. Rin had a collection of four that he had decided on, but was torn on which she should claim as the fifth. In contrast, Obito couldn't even decided on one.

“They're all so cool!” he lamented loudly, looking between two kunai that looked basically identical.

Kakashi shook his head, as if he couldn't believe that his teammate would have such trouble choosing… but that didn't change the fact that he had only set aside two by then.

“So,” Minato said, leaning over, “do I get a discount, too?”

Axel crossed his arms, giving his friend a long look. “This is a business, not a give-away.”

“'Charity'?”

“Not for you.”

“Darn.” But Minato didn't really sound that bothered. “Anyway, have you had any luck?”

Not following the sudden topic change, Axel shook his head. “What?”

“About your kunai,” he continued, pulling one such knife from his leg pouch. “Why they feel natural. What it is that you do to make them that way, despite you not having…?” His voice trailed off, deliberately, just asking for the sentence to be completed.

Axel blanched; he had rather hoped that conversation—from more than a week ago!—would have been forgotten by now. He actually did have a theory, or at least the beginnings of one. But he had no idea how to go about saying it without sounding crazy.

After all, everyone has chakra. Revealing that he just didn't… What if somebody decided that was reason enough to whip out the scalpels and start investigating?

“Uh… No?”

It sounded like a question. Minato just tilted his head to the side, waiting.

“Okay, well.” Taking a breath, choosing his words very carefully, Axel asked, “When you fight, even with knives, do you use chakra?”

“Yeah. Why—” He cut himself off, blue eyes brightening as he landed on an answer. “Oh, of course!”

Axel swallowed, worried what that expression might mean.

But Minato just smiled. “Your chakra must be quieter than I thought.”

“…What?”

“I assume it's some sort of kekkei genkai,” he continued, not noticing the flash of confusion, and nodded to himself. “Something that makes your chakra impossible to detect. I suppose that might make it line up easily to other signatures.”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.”

Minato noticed the uneasy tone in his voice, and promptly misinterpreted it. “Don't worry, Konoha doesn't prosecute people with kekkei genkai. I've heard other villages do, sometimes.”

Before Axel could say anything for or against the explanation Minato had come up with (and he wasn't even sure which way he'd go), the genin called for their attention. All three of them looked quite pleased with their selection—even Kakashi.

Axel gratefully took the excuse to leave the conversation, walking over to the register to ring them up.

“This everything?”

Obito nodded, though he did look longingly at a tanto hung up on one of the other displays. It was a new piece, the last one Morimoto had helped him with; it did look pretty impressive, even if Axel wasn't fully satisfied with how it had turned out. He wished he'd had more time with the more experienced blacksmith, to pick his brain for advice.

Well, Axel thought to himself, he did actually know of at least one other smithy. And this was a hidden village, for goodness sake!— He should be able to find somebody who knew their way around making swords.

Minato paid for the assorted kunai and shuriken, looking amused at how jealously each of his students guarded their own choices from the others. Even Kakashi was careful not to mix his selection with the rest, though he was less obvious about it than, say, Obito.

“You were eyeing it, don't lie!” the boy exclaimed, quickly storing away the kunai in question. “You're jealous I got the best one!”

“I wasn't,” denied Kakashi, sounding (remarkably) amused.

“Boys,” Rin stepped in. “There's really no point arguing. Especially since we all know I got the best ones.”

That got both their attentions: “What?!”

Minato looked like he was about to dissolve into laughter, and was only keeping quiet by phenomenal force of will. He coughed into his fist to get their attention. “Okay, team. It's getting late, and we should be getting going.”

They all said their goodbyes—Kakashi's tone had gone back to being grudging, but at least he wasn't glaring anymore—and Axel waved them off from his front step.

“Well,” Axel said, sharing a look with the dachshund standing by his feet. “That went better than I thought it would.”

Chapter Text

Axel had no idea how well this plan would go, but he was hopeful. Maybe he shouldn't be, but he was nonetheless.

Heading for the door, he again checked that he had his keys, notebook, pencil, and—most importantly—the bundled up sword. After all, he was seeking advice on smithing: it seemed logical to have an example on hand to help steer his questions.

He opened the door.

And the first thing he heard, as soon as he did, was, “Sorry for breaking in before.”

Axel blinked at Akaiko, then down at the bundle of flowers she was presenting to him.

The bouquet may have once been artfully arranged, but her nervous fiddling had destroyed most of the careful positioning. Other than some decorative sprigs of green, most of the flowers were of the same type: a stem topped with a dense collection of blue or purple blooms. Akaiko shifted from one foot to the other, and they both stared down at the flowers in her hands.

He was just trying to process what was happening here.

“…The flowers were Inochi's idea,” she said, sounding somewhat embarrassed. “Her family runs a flower shop, actually.”

“Oh.”

Given he had no idea who that was, hadn't been expecting to run into anyone—especially not before he had even made it through his own front door—and had never been gifted flowers before, Axel was just generally not sure what to do in this situation. His bafflement didn't help him much when it came to figuring out how to respond.

Misattributing his silence as an accusation when it was just plain confusion, Akaiko hastily reassured, “Not that I wouldn't have apologized if she hadn't said anything.”

“That's fine.” Axel waved dismissively, having long since become used to the ninja tendency to make an entrance and ask permission later. “I've noticed trends.”

Because while it's true that she had broken in, it is equally true that Minato preferred coming in through the window in the guest room on the second floor. A window that Axel typically kept locked, meaning his friend must be doing some breaking in of his own.

He had just come to accept that, in a world of ninja, any door might as well be an open invitation to come right on in. Even if that door is locked. Or a window. After all, whenever opportunity closes a door, there's no reason to bother searching for an open window if the lock is easily picked.

Maybe he should be worried about how easily he just accepted that way of thinking.

Of course, there was a major difference between these two cases: that being that Minato, unlike her, has a standing invitation to come over whenever he pleases. Not that he hadn't enjoyed her visit—because he had, she was fun to talk with—but just that, well…

Whatever.

Taking the bouquet, Axel waved her into the house and went to the kitchen to get something to hold the flowers. From his pillow under the dining table, Dach gave his human a puzzled look at the speedy return; then he spotted the flowers, the woman lingering by the door, connected the dots, and curled himself back up into a comfy ball.

Akaiko herself didn't come in too far, just hanging around the entryway while he, lacking an actual vase, opted to just fill a mixing bowl with water and plop the bouquet in that.

As the sink was running, he couldn't help but ask, “So… How long were you standing out front of my door?”

She shifted, crossed her arms defensively, but didn't look away. “Not too long.”

Which, based on her attitude, he took to mean anywhere from five to twenty-five minutes. Maybe even longer. But this, too, he shrugged off.

“Alright.” Since he spent most of his time either in the forge or at the front desk—and flowers don't mix well with fire—he set the bouquet bowl by the register. At Akaiko's curious look, he just explained, “No flower glasses.”

“I think you mean 'vase',” she corrected.

As he checked that none of the flowers were at risk of flopping themselves out of the water, he made a mental note of the word and added it to his vocabulary. Despite his improvements with the language, there were still plenty of specific words he simply didn't know yet. A stack of flashcards sitting on his desk helped, but he couldn't add to it without tripping over unfamiliar phrases first.

“Thanks.”

Almost hesitantly—which was a little hilarious, given her first entrance was a confident break in—she joined him by the register. She plucked each flower out one by one, trimmed the end of a the stem at an angle with a kunai, and replaced it in the bowl. Now that he thought about it, Axel could remember his mom doing something similar with the bouquets his dad would buy on special occasions: though not with a mixing bowl, of course.

“Inochi gave me a whole rundown on flower care,” she said, cutting another stem. “Wouldn't even let me take them before she did. We were genin teammates so she's known me forever, but it's like she doubts my ability to to do anything more than breathing sometimes.”

Which, to be honest, reminded him of some of his own friends—they would trust him around near-molten metal to make knives, but would downright refuse to let him use said knives to prepare food or anything. It wasn't as though he was a bad cook, just that they worried for no particular reason.

“She's never told you how to breath?” he asked, teasingly.

“Not recently,” Akaiko quipped back with a smile.

They chatted for a while, working their way through the bouquet more and more slowly as they traded jokes and stories: heavily censored on both sides, for completely different reasons.

Somehow the conversation had turned to swimming lessons, and Axel was relating a story from one of his family trips to the beaches of Denmark—naming no names, of course—when he felt a pawing at the hem of his pants. Dach, one paw on his foot, gave him a distinctly chastising look before turning deliberately toward the door.

“Do you want out?”

The dachshund rolled his eyes, sat, and gave him another pointed look: a clear 'no, you' said without words.

Axel blinked, and, adjusting the wrapped sword hung over his shoulder, remembered that he had more plans for today than just hanging out with a friend. “Oh, right. I was going to ask for help.”

Seeing his human was once more on track, Dach gave him a satisfied nod and trotted back to his bed.

“Ask who for help? With what? Can I help?” Akaiko leaned in, openly curious. A curiosity that didn't make much sense to the poor misplaced German, given he had no way of knowing that she had basically been assigned to learn his schedule.

Though in this case her interest was less to do with business, and more a consequence of her being a naturally curious person. She had certainly not gone into this apology planning on spying; her only intent had been to chuck the flowers at him and maybe hang out. Snooping is just an obvious consequence of being an intelligence agent with some free time on her hands.

So she followed him out the door and down the street as he explained his plan to try and find a blacksmith who would let him pelt them with questions about sword smithing. He didn't think this plan was anywhere close to exciting, but she waved him off.

“It's my day off, and my only other plans were to waste it away chucking kunai at a log.” She sketched a throwing motion through the air, then shrugged. “Spending time with you is a definite improvement, trust me on that.”

 

=X=X=X=

 

The door shut with a very definitive click, and Axel sighed; that would be the third blacksmith unwilling to hear him out. All he wanted was a little help, but it would seem that he had underestimated how jealously they would hoard their skills. Just one of those differences that he hadn't thought to consider.

In hindsight, it was kind of obvious. After all, ninja are sneaky, secretive, and always keep a few tricks up their sleeves. It just stands to reason that even the civilians would pick up on that mentality.

In the real world—or his old world, he didn't quite know how to refer to it—there was no shortage of helpful resources. Either he would know somebody, or he would know somebody who knew somebody, and Axel could just ask them if he ever got stuck on something. And if there wasn't anyone who could help locally, the internet was always an option: literally a massive community perpetually sharing information and ideas. Even if a lot of those ideas were just cat pictures and memes.

The point is, the ninja world liked its secrets. He couldn't say if it was the ninja that caused the secrecy, or vice versa. Either way, he hadn't quite seen it coming.

Axel turned away, and began walking to his forth attempt.

“No luck?” Akaiko asked, pushing off of the wall she had been leaning against to fall into step beside him.

“No,” he sighed.

She kicked a pebble and it bounced off down the street with a clatter, not hitting any of the other pedestrians in the area—and, given her ninja status, maybe that was on purpose. The look on her face was somewhere between unsurprised yet, somehow, still annoyed.

They caught up to her pebble and she kicked it again. “Well, that sucks. Seems the civilians have picked up a thing or two from living with shinobi.”

Which echoed just what he had been thinking so closely that it was almost spooky.

It was kind of weird visiting these blacksmiths without Morimoto, since he had always been the one doing the talking. Having Akaiko there was more reassuring than he had expected; it wasn't quite the same as visiting with a mutual friend, but all the smiths could recognize that she was a ninja and therefore a potential customer. Axel had the distinct impression that their refusals would have been much harsher if she hadn't been present.

They turned a corner, and he spotted the bright green door of his next and final target. It was the first place he had visited in the village, having been dragged out of the house by Morimoto and taken along to meet one of the man's oldest business partners. He had chickened out that first time, but there had been no shortage of opportunities later on; Morimoto had been plenty determined to set him up with contacts.

So Axel had come here a few other times, more often than any of the other smithies, though he had never completed any of the transactions himself. Mostly he had stood and watched, trying to follow along as the two more experienced blacksmiths talked shop. The owner—an old man named Pei—had always seemed willing enough to share ideas with Morimoto. Hopefully he'd hear him out, at least.

The sign hanging on the green door said the store was closed, but he could still hear the sounds of people hard at work inside. Axel knocked, and, after a moment, the door swung open to reveal an short old man whose beard had more than just a few white hairs.

“Can't ya read the—” Pei paused, mid-sentence, and his eye narrowed in recognition. “Hey, you're that weird fella who followed Hiroshi around, ain't ya?”

Akaiko scowled a bit at that. “Who are you calling weird, you—”

“Easy there, Spitfire,” The old man held up his hands in mock surrender. “Nothin' wrong with being a little weird.” Then he eyed Axel, considering. “So. What're you here for?”

“I want advice,” he said.

The old man looked surprised, brow furrowed slightly, but it wasn't quite out-right refusal. Axel thought that was probably a promising sign.

With a tone that was squarely between cautious and reluctant, Pei asked, “What sorta advice?”

And that was more promising than all three previous blacksmiths put together!

Axel grabbed the bundled up cloth from his back, unwrapping one end to reveal the hilt of a tanto; he had made this one purely for practice—the result of said practice, which Morimoto had deemed decent, now hanging in his shop.

“I'm… more familiar with a different type,” he said, thinking of the metalwork he had done for his university friends. Their club had been part of a whole organization focused on recreating skills from medieval Europe, so it only made sense that he'd have more experience making western weapons.

Some techniques translated. Others… didn't.

Pei frowned, hands held behind his back as he considered what he could see of the sword. He hummed contemplatively, leaning in for a closer look. “I can tell.”

Choosing to take that statement as plain fact, free of any snide-ness the old blacksmith may or may not have actually intended, Axel pressed, “Can you help? We can trade.”

“Trade, huh.” He rocked back on is heels slightly, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Goods or information?”

That was unexpected. In fact, he had begun to think he might not even get this far and had subsequently forgot whatever it was he had been planning to say next. However, to be honest, that wasn't what caught Axel most off-guard. That would be the fact that: “You'd actually want something I made?”

Eyeing the blond for a minute, bemused, Pei asked, “Yaknow, for a while I thought it was Hiroshi makin' those new knives.”

Not quite picking up what the old man was trying to put down, Axel shifted in place. “What?”

“Thought he'd come up with some new trick in the process.” He seemed to be partially talking to himself now, musing out loud. “I actually asked him about it, straight out, but—”

The odd emphasis stood out, but the reasons for it—why being direct would be worthy of note—were not quite clicking in Axel's mind at the moment. Before he really thought his way through what he was saying, he was already mid-sentence.

“Of course you asked, isn't that just common… sense…” Then Axel drifted off, question dangling, and immediately wished he could smack himself. Common sense here was very uncommon—or, at the very least, defined differently.

The old blacksmith stared at him for a minute, expression unreadable, then burst into laughter.

“Ain't it just?” he asked, tone still jovial. “There I was, thinkin' he was just playing sneak when he pointed over 'atcha for his answer.” He shook his head, and his tone switched back to something more serious. “But it was you, wasn't it. You're the one what made those kunai.”

This wasn't so much a question as a statement of fact, with the curious trimming on his tone that suggested it was something he had only just realized.

Axel nodded, wondering if that would be a problem; it was surreal, and maybe a little worrisome, to realize that more people than just his friends had noticed the curiousness of his metalwork. Especially since there wasn't some trick to it, it was just the plain fact that he didn't have chakra. He couldn't very well spread that particular tidbit around.

“Alright then, one smith to another… I'll level with you,” Pei said, arms crossed. “This sword would probably shatter in its first conflict. There's some promise, 'specially in the fittings, but the rest is gonna need real work.”

That tone sounded almost as if— “So… you'll help?”

The old man clapped a hand to Axel's shoulder, which was a little awkward given the not-insignificant height difference between them. “Hiroshi really liked ya, Blondie. What kinda friend would I be if I didn't help?”

“Didn't stop the rest of them,” Akaiko grumbled.

Which, again, was very in-line with what Axel was thinking.

Pei just laughed. “Well, ya get to my age and you don't have time ta second guess yourself. Now get in here,” he waved them inside, heading toward his forge, “Let's see if we can't cram some more stuff in that head o' yours.”

Chapter Text

By now summer was well and truly underway, and the uncomfortable heat was a constant reminder that this country he had found himself in was called 'The Land of Fire' for good reason.

Axel—stuck working around a forge for at least several hours every week—was really regretting his career choice at the moment.

It had been a month now since he had gotten that first lesson with Pei, and during that time he had gone to him for any other questions he stumbled across while working. Of course, actually asking the questions proved to be a little tricky, given his still-limited vocabulary. He had to try, though, since the whole process of making a true katana or tanto or any other such blade was a bit more involved than for making a European longsword.

For one thing, he couldn't just purchase a bar of steel of a specific grade and hammer it into shape. There was this whole process of choosing bits of metal with the appropriate carbon content—though Pei didn't know that that was what he was technically doing—heating them, and hammering them down to weld the pieces together. Then hammering and folding the metal to remove even more impurities, hammering and folding, and only then would the metal be ready to be shaped into a weapon.

It was fascinating to watch a master at work, how he timed every action carefully based on color and sheen and sheer experience whereas Axel had been leaning on his knowledge of the metallurgy behind it all to reach similar—if a little more amateurish—results.

Still, he mused to himself, the raw materials left quite a bit to be desired.

Getting solid metal was expensive, and even then it was still basically a mishmash of steels with different carbon concentrations. Morimoto had helped with that tremendously, having made use of his connections to set up the store with a small stock before he went back to Chotto, but that would only go so far.

As such, Axel had been making use of a lot of recycled metal—mostly scavenged kunai and the like from the training fields. But that, too, wouldn't work forever.

Which was why he had begun looking into producing his own metal.

So he had purchased a bin of iron sand to experiment with.

And, as expected, there's a lot of crap mixed into iron sand. Sand is sand after all, and, though the magnetite itself has very few impurities, the overall mix contains all sorts of other minerals and undesirable stuff.

The current process to un-blend this mess of sediments involves using what amounts to large-scale gold panning techniques and flowing water to sift the heavier metal from the rest. Followed, naturally, by repeating the process a large number of times.

It was, to be frank, more effort than he was willing to deal with regularly. Especially since he had another system in mind.

He just needed to figure out where he could get a magnet.

For now, though, he was sketching out the rest of his temporary set-up. Two rollers, a conveyor belt to run over them, a funnel he could pour the iron sand through onto the track, and a pair of jars or something to catch the runoff—tests would show if he needed anything else. The system would work by having one of those rollers be magnetic, or have a magnet inside, so the non-magnetic stuff would fall off the track straight away while the iron would stick a little longer and fall off a little later.

Simple.

If he had a magnet. Or means to create an electromagnet.

Axel was capable of making a coil and an iron bar—that would be easy—the problem was getting an electric current; he had no clue how to go about getting batteries or whatever. The house has lights and appliances, but he hadn't actually seen any stores selling electrical components or the like.

Actually, he hadn't even seen any power outlets since the one he had spotted back in the clinic.

He peered around the kitchen where he had been planning out this project, got up and wandered into the other room, then to the front store. Indeed, none of the walls had any plugs at all. It was kind of impressive that he hadn't noticed until this point, after living here for almost half a year, but then again he used his solar charger for his laptop and didn't have anything else he'd need to plug in.

On the topic of the solar charger, he briefly wondered if he could use his laptop charging cord as the wire in an electromagnet. Possibly, but he wasn't keen on messing with the only way he had to keep his laptop powered. And it probably wouldn't work too well with where he actually wanted the magnet, anyway.

Back to his kitchen-table-turned-workspace, he crouched to the floor and considered the bin of iron sand resting on one of the chairs.

There was a character from the anime—his favorite character, actually, though the name escaped him at the moment—that could control sand. He wondered if there were any other ninja out there who could, and if maybe they had developed ninja-magic techniques to separate the iron sand.

Actually, he recalled Adri excitedly ranting to him about fighting with gold sand manipulation once. More distinctly, he remembered telling his sister that that seemed really useless; the gold would have to come from somewhere, and would probably be better spent… well, spent.

Just staring at the box and thinking about the possibility of physics-breaking ninja methods wasn't getting him anywhere though, so he decided to just build what he could and figure out the rest later.

 

=X=X=X=

 

It was later—by two weeks—and he still hadn't figured out a good solution for the electromagnet issue.

At this point, he was just hoping that ninja-magic might have the answer he needed. Unfortunately, Minato had been busy with missions for a while and therefore not available for questioning. Even Akaiko had been off somewhere. He didn't know any of the rest of his regular ninja customers well enough to ask them for help.

And that wasn't something he had originally planned on: having regular ninja customers. He didn't really want to involve himself with ninja matters, but at this point it didn't really matter. That's what he told himself, anyway. They were nice enough, and that was all that mattered in the long term.

Younger ninja stopped by fairly regularly as well—Gai, of course, Obito, Rin, and even Kakashi seemed to have decided his shop was the place to go for kunai—but he wasn't sure they would have any useful answers if he asked them.

Regardless, if ninja could spit fire and summon giant animals or even freakin' meteors (he was fairly sure that was a thing that happened in the show at one point), they should be able to run a small amount of electricity through a metal coil.

Right?

Who was he kidding, Axel had no idea about what ninja could or couldn't do. Still, he thought it safest to err on the side of assuming ninja could do whatever they wanted.

There was a familiar thud from overhead.

He glanced in the direction of the stairs, and soon enough a slightly ruffled looking Minato—still decked out in his mission gear—appeared from around the corner.

“Hey, Axel!” He gave him a cheery smile. “Long time no see!”

“Everything went well?”

Minato didn't answer, as he was immediately distracted by the pile of metal parts on the table. “What's all this stuff?” He picked up one of the sheets of paper, looking curiously at the diagram drawn on it of one of the rollers and a few calculations for the electromagnet. “A wheel?”

“Kind of, it's for a… moving thing.” He should really check if he still had a German-Japanese dictionary downloaded to his laptop. And if so, maybe just spend a few days reading through it. “For getting iron from iron sand.”

The ninja was about to say something, but a knock on glass in the other room interrupted him.

Axel leaned back in his chair to get a look at the front window, waving hello to the peeved student staring back at him. He was rewarded with an only somewhat grudging wave in return. “You just got back? Kakashi looks impatient.”

“Oh, right.” Minato hurried to the front door. “We still need to report to the Hokage. Just thought I'd stop by on the way.”

“See you later?”

“Yeah!”

And with that, his friend and his student vanished to the rooftops. Or probably to the rooftops—he couldn't actually see their movement, but ninja seemed to love jumping from building to building.

By the time Minato returned several hours later, Axel had set the project aside and was instead just chilling at the register. Though the purple and blue flowers had long since wilted, for some reason Akaiko had taken it upon herself to keep him stocked with a variety of foliage ever since. The latest bundle from two weeks ago were still going strong, remarkably, and the small lavender and white flowers filled the warm summer air with a fresh fragrance.

He was checking the water level in the mixing bowl when—wonder of wonders—Minato actually came in through the front door.

Axel flicked the water off his finger, sitting up and smiling at his friend. “Welcome back.”

“Good to be back,” he replied. He had clearly changed his clothes and showered since his brief visit earlier, and generally looked more comfortable. “I don't mind travel, but I do start to miss my own bed on the longer missions.”

Axel very pointedly did not think of his own apartment back in München.

“So,” Minato continued, heading immediately for the kitchen table and the project still strewn across it, “How does this work?”

He turned the handle on the back roller, pulling the belt around on its loop. The conveyor part of the contraption was a little bit shorter than the table, in the hopes that it would be easier to pour the iron sand onto the belt and not make a huge mess in the process.

Axel took the two shallow metal trays stacked on his chair and set them on the floor underneath the other roller. “You turn that,” he pointed to the handle Minato had already been messing with, “and the sand goes across. It falls off into this tray. Iron sticks longer, and falls later.”

“Iron sticks to this?” Minato asked, touching the belt lightly. “It just feels like leather.”

Which would be because it was leather, though he might need to change it out with rubber or something later depending on how much the sand stuck to the leather itself. Assuming he could even buy rubber at all. He didn't even know if plastic had been invented yet.

The technology in this world was all over the place, it was weird.

“Not yet,” Axel said. “It will stick, but I need a—” Right, he didn't actually know what the word for 'magnet' was, but whatever, “—Elektromagnet.”

“A what?”

He was trying to figure out how to explain his way around the word, when the door abruptly burst open.

Axel felt he should probably be more startled by this, but it happened virtually everyday by now. For example, Gai still tended to make regular—but somehow unpredictable—visits almost weekly. Although, interestingly enough, the person responsible this time was not an overexcited genin in green spandex.

There was a swirl of red hair framing an energetic smile. “Where is she?!”

Axel blinked. “What?” To himself, he wondered why the heck this woman looked so familiar. “Who?”

Beside him, Minato was suddenly remembering a very brief conversation from months before. He looked like he was either going to collapse into uncontrollable laughter or was hoping the ground would rise up and swallow him whole. Either way, answers wouldn't be coming from him.

She crossed her arms, stance wide and unshakable. “I wanna meet her!” she continued, either ignoring or not registering his growing confusion. Her smile turned mischievous as she turned to Minato. “Friends of yours are friends of mine. And she sounds cool, ya know?”

“Holy crap, Kushina,” Minato breathed, voice quiet as if he thought he could sneak out a sentence or two without triggering any giggles. He was unsuccessful.

So it seemed his friend had some idea of what was going one here, while he remained in the dark. “What are you talking about?”

The woman—Kushina, he'd heard of her, she was Minato's girlfriend—seemed to deflate, just slightly. “What, seriously?” She sounded honestly disappointed. “I wanted to meet her…”

Voice still with an unsteady air that came from trying not to laugh, Minato stated, “Yeah, I think you'd really like…” he had to regroup, “…'her'.”

Axel now knew for sure that something was afoot—that odd one-word emphasis and the glance his way were just too distinct to be anything but a sign of some kind of guilt. So he narrowed his eyes, suspicious, and Minato struggled to maintain his composure.

“Is there something you should tell me, Minato?” Axel asked.

The ninja just innocently looked to the side, though his poker-face was still cracking. Given the stealth aspect of this particular career, one might expect ninja to be masters at concealing their emotions. And most of the time, they are.

Just… not so much with friends.

Kushina smiled as if she had just stumbled on an unexpected ally. “Yeah, Minato,” she chirped, putting one hand on the back of Axel's chair. “Who is this chick?”

And that seemed to be too much for poor Minato, as he immediately dissolved into laughter. “You really— But he's not…” He took a deep breath and held it—which was trickier than he'd care to admit—then exhaled slowly. “Alright. Kushina,” he gestured to his fellow blond, “this is Axel.”

Kushina blinked. Blinked again, and then flushed a bright red that could rival the color of her hair.

“Axel's a dude?!” she exclaimed, genuinely shocked.

And all at once, Axel realized what miscommunication had occurred. “You thought I wasn't?”

“I hadn't met you yet, ya know!” She crossed her arms. “Ya've got a weird name, it was anybody's guess.”

He bristled a little at the name comment, but in this world he had no leg to stand on if he tried arguing. After all, most people here couldn't even say his name without tripping over the 'X's and 'L's at least a few times first.

So in the end he just sighed. “That's fair.”

She brushed off her embarrassment with enviable ease, moving on as if the entire situation hadn't even happened. Leaning over the table to check out what they were up to, Kushina raised an eyebrow when she realized that she couldn't actually read most of what was written there. “So… What is this, Blondie?”

Axel chose not to remark on the nickname, and instead just gave her the same quick rundown that he'd told Minato; it was best to just roll with it when dealing with ninja.

Then, of course, he came to the same word he didn't know. He held up the coil of metal he had prepared, tracing its shape. “I need a… flow… of—” And another word he didn't know. “Elektrizität,” he finished. “Small lightning?”

They both seemed to catch what he meant, though, so that was good.

Minato took the coil, nearly dropping the metal bar that it was wrapped around. Then, with one end in each hand, he closed his eyes.

There was almost a buzz in the air, a gathering of energy that had the hair on the back of Axel's neck standing on end. Blue light shimmered into existence, sparking around Minato's right hand with a distinctly electric crackle. Minato exhaled, and let the energy run through the coil to the other side.

“Heilige Scheiße,” Axel breathed, eyes wide.

Well, he called it ninja-magic for a reason.

“Now what?” Minato asked, looking entirely too amused at his friend's reaction.

“Oh, uh…” Axel scrambled, dashing to the cabinets to grab a plate and scooping out some of the iron sand from the bin.

While he did that, Kushina regarded the electrified metal somewhat skeptically. “How is this supposed to help with the sticking?”

Axel grinned. “Just watch.”

He held the plate of iron sand up to the newly made electromagnet. The magnetite in the sand immediately began shifting around, some of them light enough to make the jump up to the coil while the rest arranged themselves inline with the magnetic field.

Now it was the ninjas' turn to look shocked, even if one of them was still channeling electricity safely through his hands. Axel tilted the plate, and the pattern in the particles shifted accordingly.

Minato moved the coil left and right, up and down, watching the changes play out on the plate of sand with a delighted smile. “How…?”

Grabbing a bit of stray metal off the table, Kushina tossed it onto the side of the magnet and laughed when it stuck in place. “How does that even work?” she asked.

Both of them turned expectantly to Axel, and he knew he didn't have even half as many of the words he'd need to explain electromagnetism accurately.

He paused to consider what vocabulary he had that could help with this. “The lightning makes… waves, and the waves push or pull at the iron more. Doing this,” he traced a spiral in the air, “makes the waves stack so is stronger.”

Letting go of the chakra current, Minato set down the coil on the table. “So you can use that to make the iron stick longer, and not the rest. Right?”

Axel nodded.

“That's so cool!” Kushina burst out. “How'd you come up with that?”

Right. That.

“I… didn't?” He blinked. “I don't know?”

It was sort of true, since he didn't know the name of whoever first invented the electromagnet. He wondered how well they would take 'some electrical engineer from another dimension' as an answer.

One eyebrow raised in question, Minato pulled over one of the sheets of paper that was covered in equations and text he couldn't read. With a rather significant look between his friend and the assorted notes, he simply said, “Really, Axel?”

Axel shrugged and looked to the side, trying to keep his thoughts away from places he'd likely never see again. “I learned about it from somebody else.”

When it looked like Kushina wanted to ask more, Minato quietly put a hand on her shoulder with a small shake of his head. For the briefest moment she looked up at him, slightly confused, and then she glanced back to Axel.

And she knew what she had almost missed.

That expression was one she should have recognized at once; one she had seen in her own reflection, years ago. And she still remembered the loss that put it there. Of course she did.

So Kushina nodded, understanding without him needing to say anything.

Then, naturally, Minato's next action was to clap his hands together to get everyone's attention and serve as a convenient distraction. “So. What's the next step, then?”

Axel was glad for the change in topic. “We need that in this wheel.” He gestured to the front roller. “Don't know how to do that.”

“Oh that's an easy one!” Kushina said brightly.

She grabbed one of the papers and flipped it over, then produced an inked brush from somewhere. A minute later, and an intricately jagged image had been drawn across the page. It look vaguely like the branching pattern lightning left behind in sand, or those videos he had seen before of electric discharge through glass, but bracketed in by characters and other designs whose purpose he couldn't even begin to guess.

With a tap to one end, the ink lit up with sparks of electricity.

Axel managed not to curse this time, but it was close.

“See? Just use a seal.”

“Ah.” He wondered if he would ever get used to the nonchalant use of ninja-magic. Probably not. “I, uhm, can't use seals.”

“Right,” she hummed, “you being a civilian and all.”

“Yes,” he agreed, maybe too quickly.

Minato chuckled. “I'm sure we can work something out.” He sat down, pulling over his own piece of paper to try things out on. “With one and a half fuinjutsu masters, anything is possible!”

“Half?” Axel asked.

“Ya know it, man!” Kushina crowed proudly, claiming her own seat. “He's still got a long way to go before he catches up ta me, ya better believe it!"

Axel blinked, that last phrase setting off an alarm somewhere in his memories—but, after a moment trying to figure out why it struck such a chord, he just ignored it. The two ninja where already huddled together, trading ideas that he couldn't follow at all; words he didn't recognize and topics he had no experience in left him so far out of his depth that he decided to just head for the metaphorical shore.

He sighed, and glanced at the clock. “I… guess I'll make us something to eat.”

Chapter Text

The ANBU ghosted along the corridor, pace brisk and silent. Despite her slender stature, she cut a remarkably imposing figure; the white mask all but glowed over the dark uniform, red paint almost black in the dim lighting. But behind that mask—behind the deadly shinobi gear and confident stride—she was grinning and actively keeping the spring from her step.

Today was the first day of the week, after all, and that meant that she would get to pop around to the shop with the indecipherable name and mooch some food off her friend. Not that it really counted as mooching, since she regularly brought her own food to contribute to their weekly dinners. Last time Minato and Kushina had brought some groceries with them, and the two of them made enough ramen for everybody to eat their fill and still have leftovers for later. Now, Akaiko wasn't much of a cook, but the least she could do was pick up some dango after work to bring as a dessert.

Looking back over the past months, it was unclear how having dinner at the shop came to be such a regular occurrence. She was happy that it had, though.

And she would be even more pleased to participate once she was done staking out her friend's house. The guy was just too… non-shinobi-esque: all open and honest. Sometimes he was a bit suspicious of things, to be sure, but he never really acted on that suspicion.

Axel just didn't scheme. Not like a shinobi would, anyway.

In fact, it made her feel a little guilty whenever she was on duty—keeping an eye on him from a distance. By now she was fairly sure that he either had no clue he was under surveillance or just didn't mind. She wasn't sure which was worse for her conscience.

A genin with a teetering stack of papers rushed past, not even registering her presence. Which was understandable, given the subtle genjutsu she had woven over herself to keep less careful glances away. Usually she didn't come through the halls—preferring, like most jonin, to use the windows—but she had the distinct impression that the Hokage was tired enough these days and really didn't need shinobi popping in from any entrance at any moment.

The war was stressful enough, having taken a sharp turn for the worse just barely over a year ago with not much improvement since, and… Well. Every once in a while, they were still getting reports on missing children.

At least the documents she was handing off today were not weighed with news of war, but rather about the funny new blacksmith in the otherwise abandoned district. Maybe the Sandaime would appreciate the anecdotes she had taken care to include. Like how the smith—what a clever codename—had started letting his customers try out kunai with test throws at the store's log sign through the open window. Or how that same sign—completely unintelligible—seemed to be the first thing any customer commented on, and how the smith looked a little more vexed every time. And that the different factions of local stray ninken seemed to have declared the property to be some kind of neutral zone.

Just funny or lighthearted observations and stories.

It was… relieving, to have some good news to hand over to her Hokage.

Even if it had been a bit weird at the start, doing spy work within the village bounds for once—she and her partner Inochi were usually sent out on long term infiltration missions, being away from home for months or more at a time. Being able to stay at home for a while had been a relief in and of itself.

Up ahead, a door swung open and her brisk pace came to an abrupt stop.

She pulled Koi—her ANBU identity—around herself like a shield, hands loose at her sides and ready to flick through signs at any moment. The chakra signature was familiar, but that was no comfort; she had never been able to put her finger on why, exactly, but there was something… almost wrong about it that always had her on edge.

Councilman Danzō leveled a stern gaze at her, his one unbandaged eye regarding her cooly. There was a flicker of dampened chakra, and the masked shinobi accompanying him vanished in a swirl of smoke and leaves.

Then he smiled, slightly, and it never seemed to reach his eye. “Hello, Agent Koi,” he greeted, voice perfectly smooth. “I presume you are here to deliver a report to Hiruzen, yes? Oh, excuse me. To Hokage-sama.

She gave a curt nod.

Danzō hummed to himself, his expression becoming thoughtful—though she had little doubt that this encounter was not mere chance. His chakra was hard to read, uncanny, but she could still feel a twist of intent from him; he wanted something from her.

“I can take the report from here,” he said, holding out a hand for the scroll.

From behind her mask, her eyes widened. She hadn't expected that, there was no reason to have expected that: he had to know what mission she was currently assigned to, and that it had nothing to do with the war or political intrigue. Her report was purely pedestrian, just a banal account of a civilian setting up shop and being, by most standards, unremarkable.

Koi slid one foot less than half a step back, bracing herself, and replied politely with the perfectly generic cadence every agent was trained in; it was meant to help maintain anonymity, though this particular man had the clearance to know who she was already. “This report is to be delivered to Hokage-sama personally.”

She stood still, feeling the councilman's chakra subtly test against her determination. After a long moment, his eyes narrowed, and his fingers curled into a loose fist as he withdrew his hand.

Voice as steady and deadly calm as a honed knife, he said simply, “I see.”

With a polite bow, Koi slipped past him. Her guard remained up as she walked on down the hall, until she finally felt his regard of her turn away.

How… unsettling.

She was really regretting not taking the window route now.

At least it didn't take much longer to reach the Hokage's office, though that might have been since she had begun rushing a bit after that strange encounter. There was no need to knock on the door, as it was already open.

From his desk, Hiruzen Sarutobi—the Sandaime, a man hailed as the God of Shinobi—glanced up with a friendly smile and waved her in. He looked tired, and the stacks of paper beside him were almost as tall as he was.

“Come on in, Agent Koi,” he said. “And close the door behind you, please.”

She stepped inside, and the door shut with a soft click. The Hokage's office was always positively swamped with documents, but it seemed to be even more packed than usual; there were packages and a fairly fancy crate in one corner, and many of the scrolls on his desk were letters rather than mission reports. There was even a vase she didn't recognize, tied up with a bow, almost swallowed by paperwork.

“That's new,” she pointed out, a question in her tone.

The Sandaime sighed a little, giving the innocuous pottery a glance as if he somewhat expected it to try and bite him or something. “It was a gift from the Daimyo,” he said.

Handing off her report and waiting as he unrolled it to briefly skim through, Akaiko gave the vase a closer look. The negative spaces between the blue forest designs were shaped to look like dogs; given who it was from, it must have been intended as a particularly unsubtle message about the relationships between the hidden village and their country's leader.

With a chuckle at something in her report—she mentally cheered—the Hokage finished scanning the scroll and set it down on one of the rare patches of free space on his desk. “Report.”

Akaiko stood at attention, and began recounting her observations from the past week with confident efficiency. There wasn't really anything new: just who had dropped by to see him, and who he had dropped by to see. The shop had become fairly popular among those who knew it was there, and she kind of thought that a lot of the regulars who shopped there now sometimes came around just to visit—even if they always left with a new knife or ten.

Sarutobi-sama smiled when she added that little observation.

When she finished, he leaned back in his chair with a sigh. He unrolled her report again, rereading some parts of it again more carefully. “So tell me,” he asked, looking back up, “in your own opinion, what do you think of him?”

That was an easy question, but she still took a moment to think. Akaiko never let her opinion sway her reports—she was a professional, after all—but she knew that the smith was a friend: a somewhat strange one, but a friend nonetheless.

“Honestly, he seems harmless to me.” A shrug. “If it weren't for… well, you've read the reports. Mostly just the chakra thing. Other than that, I'd say he's just your average civilian.”

He nodded, looking thoughtfully down at the scroll in his hands. “Alright then. Report again in one week and, assuming nothing new comes to your attention, we will end surveillance.”

She brightened, noticeable even with her still wearing her white koi mask. “Should I bring flowers for your fancy new vase next time I come in?” she asked, only partly joking. “Crane has been going on and on about gifting flowers lately.”

Which was almost an understatement: her ANBU partner—Inochi Yamanaka, ANBU infiltration specialist and part-time flower saleswoman extraordinaire—had been basically shoving bouquets at her for weeks now. Akaiko was already forwarding those flowers on to Axel, so bringing some for the Hokage would be no trouble.

The Hokage did not seem interested in that prospect. Actually, he looked positively against it, though at least amused at the idea of his highest ranked shinobi delivering flowers on a whim.

She bowed, turning to leave, and then a thought made her pause.

“Hey, so…” Akaiko grinned sheepishly. “If you're not planning on using that vase, would you mind if I took it off your hands?”

 

=X=X=X=

 

The blue and white vase sat on the floor beside her, a new card she had just written—in hiragana, since she knew that Axel still wasn't that great at reading—tied onto its ribbon.

She stretched, glancing over to the house across the way to make sure that nothing had changed. A quick chakra sweep didn't tell her much besides that fact that Axel may or may not be in there, but she was mostly checking that nobody else was in there anyway.

As it turned out, there were four somebodies in the shop; five, since Axel was almost definitely present if there were customers. From their chakra signatures, she figured it must be a jonin-sensei and their little genin students. One of the genin was familiar to her chakra sense—that green-spandex kid stopped by often enough that it would be stranger if she couldn't recognize him.

Akaiko lifted her mask slightly to scratch her nose, shifting ever so slightly to keep herself from getting stiff keeping the same position for too long.

Stake-outs were always either nerve wracking or mind numbing, with no real in between. And given she was spying on Axel—the funny, altogether harmless civilian whom she considered to be a close friend—this instance fell squarely under the boring category.

No offense to the smith, of course: it's a good sort of boring. The ones without the ever-looming threat of death were better for her health anyway.

And besides, she would only be stalking him—or rather, surveilling him with explicit permission from the government—for one more week. After that she would probably be given some time off, then back to the usual missions.

She smiled at the thought, though a little sadly. It would be nice to not need to think of Axel with 'suspicious individual' perpetually tagged in the back of her mind.

Akaiko ducked behind the sill as the shop door swung open, relying on her chakra sense to track the young genin team as they left and made their way down the street. She could catch some of their conversation, but mostly only the very loud parts: so basically just whatever the one in green-spandex said. After a few minutes, she popped her head back up and resumed her bored vigil.

A familiar whisper of chakra slipped into the room, and she turned her head slightly to see her ANBU partner with almost a full armload of yellow roses.

“Hello!” she greeted, keeping her voice hushed but still somehow infused with friendly energy.

Akaiko eyed the flowers somewhat skeptically, even if the expression would be lost behind her mask: Inochi knew her well enough that she would be able to tell just from the head tilt. “I wasn't expecting you to bring back the whole shop, Crane.”

“It's fine,” she replied, her free hand gesturing the coded hand sign for 'all clear' as easily as a shrug.

“Actually, it isn't—the vase is not nearly large enough for all of those.”

She tilted her head to the side, probably smiling behind her crane mask. “That's alright, I'll just leave what you don't take around T&I. Liven it up a little.”

Of course—yellow rose decorations were just what the Torture and Interrogation Department needed. The bright color would complement the gloom and fear so well.

She chose not to comment.

Inochi settled herself by the vase and got to work arranging the flowers into something presentable; it wasn't something Akaiko could be trusted to do on her own. Flowers, while a subject every kunoichi studied in the Academy, was not her strong suit.

With the yellow roses next to blue porcelain, Akaiko couldn't help but be reminded of the color of his eyes under blond bangs. Of course, Axel's hair was not nearly as yellow as these flowers were, though the shade of blue just about matched his eyes. Not perfectly—his eyes were brighter. Or maybe deeper. Different from the vase, regardless.

Akaiko shook her head, and realized that her partner had apparently finished with the arrangement and was watching her. Probably with an annoyingly smug look on her face, hidden behind her mask.

With an almost teasing flip of her wrist—who knows how she managed that—Inochi signed 'advance on target'. Then, with a rather significant nod toward the house across the street, she pushed the vase of roses a little closer and added a cheeky 'aim for the heart'.

Behind the white koi mask, Akaiko rolled her eyes. Her partner had a tendency to look for drama and romance in everything. Actually, thinking about it, every Yamanaka she had ever met had been the same way: maybe it was just another clan genetic thing.

That's beside the point.

Making a mental note to get back at her partner for that signed implication later, Akaiko flicked her hands through an adamant denial.

From her body language, Inochi seemed unconvinced.

Well, too bad for her.

Akaiko could tell that she wasn't going to convince her partner of anything fast, so she just sighed and turned back to the house across the street again. With one hand tracing along the side of the vase, the smell of roses rich and fragrant in the air, she waited for her chance to deliver her present.

 

=X=X=X=

 

There was a vase sitting by the register, filled with a new set of flowers: yellow roses, apparently. The mixing bowl they usually would have been sitting in was nowhere to be seen, but presumably had been relocated back into the kitchen where it belonged.

It was a nice vase, to be sure—decorated with delicate branching tree patterns painted on in blue over a pure white base.

The issue was, of course, that Axel didn't actually own a vase.

Or at least, he hadn't.

A note tied around the narrowest part of the vase informed him that it now belonged to him. The note also teased him a little bit for having not owned a vase in the first place, as if that was simply an item every household was expected to own.

And maybe that was the case, Axel sure as heck didn't know. Maybe ninja were all closet flower enthusiasts or something. Minato may very well have a secret stash of prized perennials for all he knew.

The mental image of his friend hunched protectively over a patch of colorful flowers prompted an amused snort.

As if summoned by his thoughts, the bell hanging over the front door gave a cheerful jingle and his friend called out, “Hey, Axel.” Minato sounded pretty tired. He was scrubbing a hand through his hair as he came around the corner, mussing his blond locks into a disordered mess. “I have another mission tomorrow and need to buy some… more…”

He spotted the vase and drifted off, frowning a little to himself.

Axel waved a hand in front of his friend's face to reclaim his attention. “You okay?”

A slightly confused blink brought Minato back into focus, and he pointed to the bouquet of flowers. “I've seen that vase before. It was on the Hokage's desk just yesterday.”

“…It was what?”

“Yeah…” It was like the memories where coming back slowly—he must be more tired than he was trying to let on. “He said it was a joke or something.”

Regarding the vase now as if it might explode into a billion pieces, Axel asked, “How did Akaiko get it?”

Minato smiled and sent a glance out the window, enunciating clearly. “I'd imagine Hokage-sama pawned it off on her. He didn't look particularly happy with it.”

From across the street, likely having read his lips, there was a confirmatory flicker of light that Axel didn't even notice.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

The ninja shrugged. “Not sure,” he replied. “I'm sure it's fine. Just don't break it, you probably won't get another one this nice.”

Axel tapped the porcelain thoughtfully, admiring the skill that must have gone into the shaping and painting and whatever else is involved with pottery; it was true that it was probably the single most expensive thing he owned now. Except maybe his laptop which, being from a different dimension, was a completely priceless unique item.

He twisted the ribbon around so that the note wasn't hanging on the side customers would be seeing and, as an extra caution, shifted the vase farther from the edge. It really would be a shame if it broke, after all.

Chapter Text

It had been a full week since he had been given the vase and, remarkably, it was still in one piece. Young ninja do not always have the best aim with their kunai yet, but, when given a kunai, they are still very likely to try throwing it at something. He didn't think they had really been aiming for the vase, but the reality was that now the wall just a few centimeters shy of the vase had a fresh stab wound.

Other than that latest excitement, Axel had had a peaceful, largely unremarkable seven days.

Well, assuming he looked past the fact that ninjaactual martial-arts-magic ninja—had become a normal everyday thing for him. Which was pretty remarkable in and of itself.

Really, the thought that he had been hit by a car, sort of died, and woke up to find himself in a real-world version of a famous anime still baffles him sometimes. Still, that had been almost a full year ago by now and nothing nearly so world changing—for lack of a better phrase—had happened since.

Thankfully.

These days he mostly spent his time working in the forge, stocking up the shelves in the shop, or just sitting behind the register. Routine would be shaken up by the occasional visit from a friend, and of course customers—mostly ninja—would pop in throughout the day to chat and shop. And usually they would buy something, even if just a single kunai.

Axel didn't think a single kunai would have been worth a trip out to his shop, given his shop was basically the only thing in the abandoned district worth visiting, but whatever. Ninja were weird.

So, in short, nothing terribly exciting on a day-to-day basis.

This week wouldn't even have his friends dropping by for dinner, unfortunately, as Minato had gone off on an out-of-village mission six days ago and wasn't due back for at least another six. And given that Akaiko hadn't dropped by at all either, he guessed that she probably had some kind of super-secret mission as well.

Axel tried not to think too closely about what might happen during those missions.

Just like he tried not to wonder just where the kunai and other such tools he sold would ultimately end up. He just hoped that… that his customers were good at what they did. That they were efficient. And he tried not to let his hand in the matter bother him too much.

“Andere Länder, andere Sitten,” he muttered to himself, making his way to his bedroom after locking up the front door of his shop. After all, when in a ninja village, the best choice is to steer clear and just let the ninja do their thing. And lock the doors, even if it probably wouldn't help much.

At least he wouldn't have to worry about anybody dropping in at his windowsill for the upcoming week, since the two people most prone to doing that were out of town.

Which meant that he had a chance to do something that he hadn't in almost a full year, and he was only slightly nervous about it; he closed his bedroom door behind him, checked the window for unexpected visitors, and then opened his laptop to the music app.

He hit shuffle, letting the computer decide what to play and then humming along in an only-slightly-off-key harmony.

But he wasn't just here for the music.

It was time to open that folder.

Although… since he was using the computer already, perhaps he should take a moment to see if he could find that German-Japanese dictionary first. Just real quick, while he's thinking of it. A few searches later, and he had determined that he probably didn't have that application downloaded anymore. Though he had found a couple of the assignments he had typed up for a language course at some point, which could maybe be helpful.

Skimming through old files made his heart ache, even just documents from old school work. It wasn't painful anymore, not really—it had been nearly a year now, he'd had time to come to terms with it—but sometimes that weight would still settle heavy in his chest. At least his friends and family were probably okay, wherever they were a world away.

A pop-up window appeared with a small disgruntled-sounding boop, alerting him to the fact that his email application couldn't reach any servers.

Go figure.

Dismissing the alert with a click, he switched the screen over to his perpetually-open-but-now-largely-useless mailbox. He had started using it as a journal of sorts just a few weeks ago; writing emails to his sister, his mom and dad, friends—anyone, really—even though he would never be able to send them.

He wondered, and not for the first time, if they thought he was really dead or if he had just vanished right off the street. Either way, he wished he could tell them that he was alright. After all, he wasn't exactly dead so much as he had been caught up in some kind of dimensional fluster cluck and fallen into an alternate reality… or something.

Actually, when put that way, he wasn't sure if they would take that as an improvement.

The song changed again, and he returned to browsing his computer.

Slowly, finally, making his way to one file in particular.

It was time. Today would be the day that he finally opened the folder on Minato. With the man in question out of town, Axel should have a bit of time to process anything he might find out about his friend before he came back.

He had his notebook open beside him, so that he could copy down anything that might be important onto something not dependent on functioning electronics from an entirely different dimension.

He was ready.

He should be ready.

…He was not ready.

That's why he was listening to music and wandering through his other old files to distract himself from actually opening that folder and reading whatever was inside. Not that he expected there to be anything really bad in there per se—he doubted his sister would have put so much effort into a costume if there was, after all—but more that he didn't know what he wanted to be in there.

The music changed to some upbeat techno song, one he recognized as being from a CD his sister had given him years ago, and he found himself laughing at himself.

“Komm schon, Mann.” He shook his head, bemused by his own half-baked reservations. “What's the worst that could happen?”

His cursor found the file in question, and he clicked it open.

And the first thing that caught his eye was an image titled 'FourthHokage_vs_NineTails'. From the image preview, the picture had an awful lot of red and orange framing snarling teeth, with a single bright spot of white near the bottom left.

With a growing sense of unease, he opened the file.

It depicted a small figure standing against a wall of red flames that shaped the face of a positively gigantic demonic fox. Each fang was as tall as the human figure it was looming over, and its red eyes were marked with some kind of unnatural designs in black. The spot of white he had seen in the preview turned out to be a billowing cloak, bold red text written down the back and with a bottom hem of stylistic flames.

He actually recognized it, since his sister had worn just such a cloak when… she cosplayed Minato…

This picture was in Minato's folder.

And the figure had familiar, bright yellow hair.

Axel glanced back to the file name, and then again to the name of the folder the image was tucked inside of in the first place.

Minato. The fourth Hokage. The Nine-Tails.

He did not like where this was going.

One after another, he opened the rest of the pictures in the folder. Then Axel went back to that first image and leaned back in his chair, as if those added centimeters could ease some of the shock from what he had just learned. Unfortunately, it didn't help very much. All it did was give him a slightly different angle of pictures that were still definitely anime-style depictions of his best friend—though perhaps it should be the other way around, since to him, in a way, this all was the live-action version of an anime.

Anyway.

So.

Minato was… or would become, at some point, the fourth Hokage.

Alright.

Okay, sure.

That's perfectly fine.

Apparently his best friend would one day become the head honcho of the entire ninja village. And also would die because of a giant chakra fox-demon thing.

That's great.

Axel took a deep breath, holding it in his lungs for a long moment. His hands were pressed tightly together palm-to-palm in front of his face, though he could still see the images displayed on-screen. Slowly, he exhaled. Told himself to relax.

Well, so much for trying to avoid involvement with the super-powered people in his new reality. Though, to be fair, that plan had never really showed any sign of actually working. And he had known that already; he was perfectly aware that his best friends now were basically all ninja.

Honestly, Minato's sheer ninja-ness wasn't the issue here. Axel was more bothered by the fact that his friend was apparently slated for death at the hands of a giant monster.

Not to mention the fact that the giant monster responsible for the death of the fourth Hokage had also attacked the entire village. The village where Axel now lived, and that was home to most of the people he cared about. Well, the ones that weren't on the other side of a dimensional divide, anyway.

At least the Morimoto family would probably be safe, since they lived a day's walk away. Though even then, he couldn't be sure: it was a very big giant monster, after all.

All of a sudden, the orange and red pixels making up the nine-tailed fox in the pictures on the screen looked quite menacing indeed. Though he had, on some level, known that the demon fox would attack Konoha eventually—he had realized that as soon as he had laid eyes on the village—but knowing who would stand against such a monster, and seeing even an artistic rendition of the event… it added a whole new sense of reality to that knowledge.

Because that creature actually exists in this world.

He had no idea what to do about that.

Or even if he could do anything about that. Which, to be honest, he probably couldn't—the fox was literally the size of a skyscraper, after all.

He held his head in his hands, and wondered what he should tell Minato. And how, and when, and if he should tell anybody else. Mostly the how and what, though; it's not like he had any way to prove it, short of trying to explain everything. And who knows how that would pan out.

Axel looked at the pictures through his fingers, meeting the digital black-red gaze of the demon fox.

“Scheiße.”

So much for his unremarkable, peaceful life.

Chapter Text

Contrary to his expectations, the dramatic discovery he had made did not immediately turn his life into some big, remarkable, chaotic mess. In fact, the entirety of the following day went along the same calm routine as usual—completely undisturbed—as did the day after that.

Which, of course, actually makes perfect sense. Just because he knew that there was a possible doomsday threat looming in the future, doesn't mean anybody else does. Heck, the attack may not even happen for years yet. It's not as though he had a lot to go on when guessing how much time he had: a couple of images drawn by fans couldn't tell him much.

And even if he did know when it would happen, there was even less that he could actually do about it. He'd sound like an absolute lunatic if he tried to tell anybody. Imagine going up to the Hokage—or even some random ninja—with claims that, according to a cartoon in a different dimension, the Nine-Tails would attack the village at an indeterminate time in the maybe-not-so-distant future.

No. Not a good plan.

Honestly, the only person he'd even consider telling would be Minato himself. And given that Axel would still sound crazy, he decided he'd hold off on any warning attempts until he had an explanation less insane than an alternate reality television show.

Of course, though there were no disturbances on the level of village-destruction in his day to day life—thank goodness—there were still the typical excitements. Ninja will be ninja, after all.

Take, for example, the innumerable holes jabbed into the various surfaces in the store from overeager shoppers trying out the throwing knives. He had started leaving the front window open and requesting that, if the knife really needs a test throw, his customers at least spare the building and aim for the log sign out front instead. There were still a few new punctures, though, including one kunai that was now stuck so far in the ceiling Axel doubted he'd ever be able to get it out.

And take, for another example of ninja disruptiveness, the pair of young genin-in-training currently sitting at his kitchen table working on their homework. At least that's what he assumed they were doing—or trying to do, anyway—and even then it's only half true: one of them was working. The other was trying, but he was just a tad too energetic to sit still long enough.

“Obito.” No matter how sweet Rin may have sounded, there was still an audible eye roll in her tone: friendly, yes, but there nonetheless. She gently scolded, “You do know that you actually have to do the work for it to get done, right?”

There was a laugh that the boy probably meant to sound confident or reassuring but just ended up being kind of sheepish. “It's fine, no problem!”

Rin gave her teammate a look.

“And, well, it's such a nice day out,” Obito continued, trying to deflect, “so, uhm, maybe we could take a break…?

“We can take a break after you finish the first page.”

“But—”

“No buts!”

Thinking maybe he should see if he could help help, Axel closed his notebook—setting aside thoughts of doomsday and his sketchy plans for trying to warn people about it—and stood up. He stretched, relieving a number of cricks in his arms and legs from sitting so long at the register without doing anything but scribble down notes.

His moving roused a disgruntled bark from down by his feet, and a petulant dachshund nose peeked up at him from deep under the desk. Dach, who was curled up on an old cushion he'd stuffed under there, had apparently been using one of his human's feet as a pillow.

“Es tut mir leid,” Axel apologized quietly.

Dach snorted in maybe-amusement, pawing the bed a few times in preparation for the renewal of his comfortable snooze. But before he could lie down again, something outside caught his attention. The dachshund stared out the window for a long moment, and then, with a huff, he stood and put his front paws up on the windowsill. With a small bark, Dach looked back at Axel in request.

“…Want me to let you out?”

The question got an affirmative wag, so Axel did as he was asked; he scooped up the small dog, leaned out the open window, and deposited him on the grass outside. He stayed there at the window for a minute, a slight breeze ruffling his blond hair.

It really was a beautiful day, both outside and in.

Though it was a bit louder inside, of course. Hearing Obito still trying to distract his studious teammate from their homework assignment—with no success, she absolutely could not be budged—Axel returned to the matter at hand.

“What are you working on?” he asked, joining the kids in the kitchen. “Can I help?”

Obito startled slightly, then flushed pink with embarrassment. “Uh… well… You don't need to…”

“I'm not doing anything else,” Axel replied, sitting in the third chair and scooching in to look over the papers scattered across the table. They were apparently working through multiplication and long division worksheets, which meant that he could actually help; he'd have been useless if they were working on history or writing.

“Math?”

“Math,” Rin confirmed.

Her papers were mostly done, just missing a couple of questions here or there. In contrast, Obito had only completed the first three problems. The rest of his worksheets were either blank or covered in distracted doodles.

Axel took one of the scrap papers and a pencil, then copied down the unanswered fourth question at the top of the page. It wasn't a hard problem—basically the same as the first three, but with different numbers—so he spun the page toward Obito.

“Show me how to do this.”

 

=X=X=X=

 

They were still working—maybe halfway done with the whole worksheet—when the bell hanging over the front door gave a cheerful jingle.

“I'll be there soon,” Axel called.

“No need to rush.”

He didn't recognize the voice, which was somewhat strange; most of his customers lately were regulars, coming by often enough that he almost knew them all by name. After helping Obito through the last step of the problem they were on (and wringing a promise out of him to start the next one), he went back out into the store.

Axel was getting better at telling civilian customers from ninja, and the beautiful woman perusing the shelf of throwing knives was definitely the latter. She had long, straight black hair, and was wearing a simple dark blue dress. It wasn't typical ninja apparel, but it was pretty clear from how she carried herself that she was a ninja.

The fact that she was looking at kunai and not kitchen knives was also a pretty big clue.

“Can I help you?”

She turned to him, frowning thoughtfully, and he was struck by the inexplicable sensation that he should recognize her. There was something about her face—her dark eyes—that seemed very familiar.

Then she smiled, and the moment passed.

“I am looking for a gift for my fiancé,” she answered. “When I asked a friend of mine if she had any ideas, she reluctantly recommended your shop.”

To be honest, he wasn’t sure if he should feel affronted or not.

Apparently reading that from his expression, she quickly added, “Not because she doesn't like your shop, but rather that she doesn't like my future husband.”

Having no clue how to respond to such a statement, Axel eloquently replied, “Oh.”

“She had only good things to say about you, really,” she continued, “even if some of her remarks were confusing at the time.” The woman paused, regarded him for a moment, then nodded slightly. “Accurate, but confusing.”

“...Thank you?”

She smiled again, glad the misunderstanding had passed, and turned back to the kunai. Carefully trailing a contemplative finger along the sharp edge of a long, oddly shaped throwing knife, she stated, “I haven't seen this style before.”

The knife in question was a little over thirty centimeters long—which was at least three centimeters longer than a typical kunai—and it wasn't straight: the blade curved first convex, then concave. It also didn't have much of a handle, making it a weapon purely meant to be thrown.

“It's from far away, back where I'm from.”

With a gesture to the knife, she asked, “May I?”

Axel was just surprised she actually asked for permission. “Go ahead.”

“How odd,” she mused, slowly turning the blade over in her hands. “I imagine this takes a different throwing technique. Less like a dart, perhaps, and more like a shuriken.”

That's a point he hadn't even considered, and probably explains why nobody had bought more than one or two of them; purchased more for curiosity rather than utility.

And then, as if to contradict that thought, she said, “Do you sell a set of five?”

“Wirklich?” he blurted out, surprised. “Uh, ich meine… You really want five?”

She blinked at the language change, but did not remark on it. “Perhaps he'll enjoy the challenge,” she said instead, smile now just slightly mischievous.

He still thought that deadly knives were a weird gift for a romantic partner, but he shrugged it off. “You'd be the one to know.”

“I'm not sure these will fit in a standard pouch,” she said, sending a quick look around the store to check. “Do you sell cases as well?”

As a matter of fact, he did. Both Morimoto and Pei had introduced him to people they worked with to keep weapon accessories stocked in their stores, and now he had a few business arrangements of his own. He didn't have many, but he did have some.

“Yes, I'll go get one.”

It didn't take him long to find a suitable case, since the box of all his stock was right by the front desk. He had yet to figure out where he was actually going to display them—he had limited shelf space, after all—so that's just where they had ended up.

As he loaded them into the carrier, she asked, “Does this style of knife have a name?”

Axel paused, trying to think if it did; he could recall the name printed on the knife he had used as a model, but he had no idea if that was the type or a brand or what. “I… think it's called 'Bo-Kri'.”

“Not 'bokiri'?” she replied, looking amused. “A name like that would suit a weapon thrown like a shuriken.”

The word wasn't one he was familiar with, but he assumed it must a descriptor of some sort—maybe a word like 'spinning' or something. He just nodded, as if he got whatever joke had been made.

Then he told her how much it would cost.

“Really?” She sounded pleasantly surprised, which was the typical response. “Are you sure? I was certain it would cost more.”

“I've been told that before.”

Eyebrows raised, she asked, “And you haven't raised the price?”

“You bothered to come out here.” Axel shrugged. “Least I could do.”

As he finished the transaction, the woman gave him a very thoughtful look: as if measuring how truthful he was being. That, too, was a typical response.

Less typical was another pause—a glance through the window—just after she had carefully bundled her newly-purchased throwing knives. It was a very brief pause, to be sure, but he still noticed: something outside had momentarily caught her attention.

Just as something had with Dach earlier.

If that kept happening, he'd start thinking he had a stalker or something.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Blacksmith-san,” she said. “I'm sure I'll come in again someday.”

The bell chimed again as she left.

He sent a suspicious glance out the open window, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth worrying about. After all, fretting about it wasn't going to help—not to mention he wasn't sure what he would be fretting over in the first place. So rather than worry, he just rejoined the two kids in the kitchen.

Both of whom were blankly staring at the front door, looking a bit bamboozled.

“What's wrong?”

“Wasn't that Uchiha-sama?”

Axel frowned. He almost asked how that could be possible, but thankfully caught himself before asking something that stupid. The Uchiha Incident—the massacre—hadn't happened yet. Which was something he'd known ever since he'd first met Obito, but apparently that reality hadn't set in until just then.

Just fantastic. With both that and the Nine-Tails attack, the future seems to be teeming with possible tragedies.

…Maybe he shouldn't joke about that.

Instead, he said, “I don't know, I didn't ask.”

“I've only seen her a couple of times,” Obito said. “She's engaged to the clan head.”

Axel blinked. If she was engaged to the clan head, then that would mean that… her fiancé was the clan head. He wasn't daunted by the fact that the Uchiha clan had been—scratch that, was one of the largest clans in the whole village. What had him struck him was the realization that the woman he had just spoken to was the mother of two rather important characters from the anime.

At least now he had a better idea of when he was; if they weren't married yet, it was a fairly safe bet that neither Itachi nor Sasuke have been born yet.

“…Oh.” Axel wasn't quite sure how to react to that. “I'm… going to step outside. Watch the store briefly?”

Before Obito could say anything, Rin stood up. “I will.”

When it looked like her teammate was going to protest—he wanted the excuse to stop studying—she gave a pointed look between him and his unfinished worksheets. He slumped in his chair.

“Alright, yeah, I get it,” he mumbled, returning to his dreaded work while she went to take her post at the register.

Axel went to his backyard, wanting a bit of fresh air and a break from socializing. Just before he stepped outside, he noticed one thing immediately: Dach was standing in the middle of the yard and staring up at something on top of the house. The next thing he noticed was that the dog looked like he was waiting for something.

The third thing he noticed was a stick, thrown from the roof, that Dach happily chased down.

“I saw that.” Axel glanced quickly at the roof, just in time to see a dangling foot hastily pulled out of sight, and added, “I saw that, too.”

At least this explains all those distracted glances outside; it turns out that he did have a stalker. And he had a pretty good guess who it was, too.

There was a long pause. Then, almost before he was aware of it, Kakashi had lightly dropped down from the top of his house. To be honest, it kind of surprised him; Axel hadn't expected the kid to actually announce his presence.

In as much as silently appearing could be considered announcing oneself, of course.

Since it didn't seem like the kid was going to say anything, Axel took it upon himself to ask, “Have you been watching me all day?”

Kakashi said nothing, his expression nearly inscrutable behind his mask.

Axel sighed. “I think that's a 'yes'.”

After a long moment, Kakashi finally stated, “You're a civilian.”

Well, that was a call-back to the first time they had actually met. And it wasn't really an angle Axel had been expecting this conversation to start with—although, to be perfectly honest, he hadn't really known what to expect.

“Yeah?” he replied, somewhat questioningly. “Last I checked, anyway. Why?”

The kid didn't answer directly, and instead opted for another straight remark. “Just… some average guy.”

So long as nobody counted accidentally ending up in an apparently-not-fictional universe after being hit by a truck, of course. And, given nobody should know that particular fact, nobody should know to count it.

Axel just nodded, waiting to see where this was headed.

At that point, Dach returned with the now-slightly-more-chewed-on stick. The conversation was put on pause as the dog carefully considered the two humans. Then, apparently judging that Kakashi was indeed the superior stick-thrower of the two, the dachshund trotted over to the boy.

Kakashi seemed pleased—as evident by the fact that his expression didn't change at all. His face being half covered by a mask certainly didn't help when it came to decoding emotions, but Axel had an inexplicable hunch. The boy threw the stick off to the farthest corner of the yard, and it jammed upright in the dirt.

“…I don't get it.”

It was said softly, barely above a whisper. If Axel had to guess, he'd say he probably wasn't supposed to hear it at all. So he thought it prudent to pretend he hadn't.

“Any reason for the questions?” he asked at last, having failed at coming up with something more productive to say.

Kakashi glared at him, but after another moment he seemed to deflate into himself slightly. More loudly this time, he repeated, “I don't get it.”

“Don't get what?”

He looked away, watching Dach struggling to free the stick from where it was stuck in the ground. “Why are you friends with Minato-sensei?”

Axel considered the question seriously. There were plenty of reasons why he might want to be friends with him—not least of all that Minato is just a good guy—but in the end, well: “Do I need a reason?”

“…Nevermind.”

Before Axel could add anything else, the other half of the conversation vanished.

“Ninja,” he grumbled to himself. Still, he did address the possibly-empty air one last time. “Thanks for playing with Dach. When you two are done, you can come in if you want.”

Having said what he wanted to say—as unexpected as the whole encounter had been—Axel went back inside. Though he did leave the door open, just in case.

“How's it going?” he asked, seeing the baleful look Obito was giving his homework.

“Urrrgh…”

A splendid reply.

Taking a seat and grabbing a pencil, Axel got back to helping the boy work through the question he'd gotten stuck on.Rin rejoined them when she heard all the talking going on, and together they did their level best to get Obito through the worksheets.

And after a few minutes, the door to the backyard clicked shut. This was followed by a pattering of dog paws… and a quiet set of footsteps.

Rin's eyes went wide with surprise.

“Oh hey, Kakashi,” Obito said, too caught up in glaring at his math to really register the unusual-ness in the fact that his third teammate was actually present. It fully processed after a few seconds, and he jerked his head up in surprise. “Wait, Kakashi?!”

The white-haired boy just rolled his eyes. “I could hear you guys from outside. You're going to need all the help you can get.”

Since Minato had never actually taken back the chairs he had lent him, there were still seats around the table. Kakashi sat down, ignoring the continued surprise of his team, and tapped a finger to one of the math problems.

“You forgot to add the one.”

Chapter Text

“No,” corrected Kakashi, his tone sounding as worn as his patience. “Nine isn't divisible by six.”

Obito scowled at his paper. “Why not?”

“What do you mean 'why not'?!”

“I mean 'why not'!”

“Because it isn't!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up in frustration.

That was, quite possibly, the most animated Axel had ever seen the typically unemotional—or at least unemotive—young ninja. Assuming, of course, that one doesn't count any scenes from the anime. Which he certainly doesn't; adult-Kakashi and mini-Kakashi are clearly two very different people.

Which was a little odd, come to think of it. The two characters in question—the same person, just one young and one old—were incredibly different from one another, almost to the point that they might as well be polar opposites. Axel certainly couldn't picture mini-Kakashi showing up to a team meeting even five minutes late, let alone five hours.

Obito, yes: it was easy to imagine him running late to everything.

“But nine and six both have three in em', right?”

“I mean, yes—”

“So they should be divisible!”

One fist pressed to his forehead, as if to stave off an oncoming headache. Kakashi answered, “That's not how any of this works.”

Before Obito could continue on with the completely unnecessary and unhelpful argument over basic math functions, Rin gently whapped him with a rolled up piece of paper. He gave her a pitiful glare for her trouble, but she was unbothered.

“You can only fit one six in nine, Obito,” she tried to explain. “One six is just six. Two sixes is twelve, and that's already three more than nine.”

He looked completely lost. “What do all those other numbers have to do with anything?”

Axel hadn’t been planning on saying anything—largely content just sitting back and watching the kids work things out—but he decided this might need some simplification. “What is six plus six?”

“Uh, twelve?” Obito paused, processing, and then his eyes went wide as something clicked. “Oooh— 'two sixes', and… right. Okay, that kinda makes sense. But, like, eight is divisible by four, and they both have two in them so why doesn't that work?”

“What about eight and six?”

There were another few seconds of silence as Obito actually took the time to think that question through, then he groused, “Why must six cause so much trouble?”

“It's not six's fault you're such an idiot,” Kakashi grumbled.

“Shut up, Baka-kashi!” He scowled. “It's not like you were any help.”

This led to another bout of arguing, but this time it was even more unnecessary and unhelpful than earlier.

Sitting between her bickering teammates, Rin looked to be both amused and annoyed. She spoke up before things could get too heated, hands raised placatingly but with a hard edge that threatened a good smack if she was not listened to. “Guys, calm down. Calling each other names isn't going to get anything done!”

The two boys stopped squabbling, seeming to (reluctantly) agree that she had a point.

“What do you suggest we do, then?” asked Kakashi, somewhat testily.

She looked vaguely stunned: clearly she hadn't quite thought she'd get that far. “Take a break, maybe?”

“Yeah?” Obito liked the sound of that. “What should we do?”

For a moment, they all just stared at each other, no answers forthcoming. Then, unanimously—and for no reason he could think of—all three turned to Axel with expectant looks.

“What?”

 

=X=X=X=

 

In his defense, he had been put on the spot. It had been the first group activity he had thought of, and, for three young ninja-in-training looking for an activity with which to distract themselves, it had seemed perfectly suitable. If perhaps a little on the nose.

And so it was, once they added a few tweaks to the rules.

Now the ninja were playing… well, ninja.

It was pretty amusing to watch, truth be told, though quite a bit more dangerous to both participants and bystanders alike than the original version had been. Mainly seeing as the original didn't involve throwing knives and sneaky jutsu, just slapping at each other.

Axel was watching the whole thing play out from a relatively safe distance; the kids were in the middle of the yard while he was standing back by the forge entrance, leaning against his stack of firewood. He was still keeping an eye out for stray projectiles, of course, but nothing had come his way yet.

Though the allowable move-set had clearly changed for this more ninja-y version of the game, the goal was still the same: take turns trying to smack the hands of the other players for a few seconds, try not to be smacked yourself, and if both hands get hit then you're out of the game. At the moment, Kakashi was the only 'unharmed' player as neither of his teammates had managed to score a hit on him. Obito and Rin had apparently decided to partner up, seeing as they had both lost a hand—right and left, respectively—and now had to play as if that arm had been broken.

They were taking that particular part of the game very seriously: Rin had gone so far as to spend one of her attack turns in full retreat, binding her 'useless' arm with bandages so that it wouldn't get in her way. Once they had made a team, she had done the same for Obito.

To them, this simple game had become something like a turn-based simulation of a real fight.

It was… somewhere between cute and a little unnerving.

Still, at least they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

To get out of the way of a particularly reckless charge, Kakashi substituted himself with a bundle of thin pieces of firewood. The twine holding the sticks together snapped during the switch, and all the bits of wood ended up strewn across the ground.

Axel was rather startled to find the white-haired boy suddenly standing beside him, still unaccustomed to some of the crazy-fast movement tricks ninja had available. He was extra startled when the stack of wood he was leaning against collapsed slightly due to the loss of one of its bundles.

As for Obito, he certainly hadn't been expecting the sudden face-full of wood; he tripped and nearly fell flat on his face. He still managed an awkward sort of roll, even with just one useable arm, and spared his nose the shame of being broken.

It was't enough to get him out of range though. He was completely open for a counterattack.

Or he would have been, if Kakashi had the next turn.

Instead, as she had done for the past few rounds, Rin took her chance to dart in and get her partner away from the danger zone.

It was a good strategy, and probably the only thing that had kept them in the game for so long. With Obito able to focus entirely on attacks, relying on her following turn to get himself out of trouble, they had actually come pretty close to scoring a hit several times.

Not quite, but close.

Kakashi threw a few kunai their direction, forcing them to split up or get hit, then he dashed after Obito. He had to be fast to actually get a shot in, since his substitution had taken him farther away from his opponents than was convenient.

But speed can lead to mistakes, and his swipe whiffed through empty air. His turn ended with him left perilously close to the enemy.

Obito took his chance. His hand darted out at top speed—trying to score at least one hit—and his fingers got close enough to almost snag on the forearm protectors Kakashi wore.

The other boy still dodged it, of course.

But when Kakashi jumped back, he landed very close to where Rin had ended up after avoiding his kunai. He really didn't seem to notice, too focused on Obito and that near-miss.

It was her turn next.

There was a smack.

Rin had hit both of his hands, and was looking pretty proud about it.

Her turn ended.

And her victory did not last long.

Less than a second later, the limbs entirely poofed away into white smoke and two arm-sized sticks of firewood dropped to the ground. Kakashi looked like he was probably smirking behind his mask, neither of his hands anywhere close to where they had appeared to be a second prior.

Axel knew very little about chakra and the tricks it can be used for, but it was fairly obvious that the boy had pulled some kind of ninja magic to make the sticks look like his arms. Whatever he had done—and however he had done it—there was no way that Rin would be able to get enough distance to make it through the next turn; she was basically screwed.

By her disgruntled-but-impressed expression, she had already realized that. “You've been under a henge since that substitution earlier, haven't you?”

He nodded and, before she could react further, smacked her remaining hand.

She sighed, already undoing the wraps she had put on her arm. “Guess I'm out, then.”

“I'll revenge you!” Obito called dramatically, ignoring his partner's semi-exasperated correction of his word choice. He immediately began his own turn, running forward and throwing a pair of kunai to keep his target from being able to easily dodge to either side.

They weren't thrown very well, but it didn't even matter because with a few hand signs Kakashi had simply replaced himself with one of the numerous pieces of firewood still scattered across the yard.

Obito quickly spun around in order to keep his opponent in sight, skidding a little as he came to such an abrupt twisty stop, and his turn ended.

“Oh c'mon, again with the jutsu?” he complained. “We didn't use jutsu!”

“That's because we each lost a hand, and we don't really know any one-handed jutsu,” Rin pointed out from the sidelines.

“You should learn them, then.” To make his point, Kakashi flicked just his right hand through a few fast gestures and vanished.

He reappeared directly behind Obito, having substituted himself again with the same piece of wood he had used just seconds earlier. Before the other boy could even turn back around, a light smack to his left hand ended the game.

“Show-off.” Obito grumbled for a bit, a little whiny, but it was in more of a good-natured way than truly genuine annoyance; he was smiling, so he couldn't be that bothered.

Based on the shape of his eyes, Kakashi was probably smiling under his mask. At least until he seemed to realize that he was smiling, and immediately stopped. Still, it was good to see the generally grouchy kid looking somewhat happy.

Axel absently wondered why he hadn't known anything about Kakashi's old genin teammates. Their names were somewhat familiar—courtesy of his sister's rants, no doubt—but they hadn't made an appearance in the first season of the show, as far as he knew. It just seemed a bit odd; especially since, as a jonin teacher, Kakashi had always made teamwork such a big deal.

Though they were ninja, and apparently there was a war going on. Maybe they just…

He didn't want to continue down that train of thought. Just his presence in the story—in the world, it's not just a story anymore—had probably already shaken up the future. Things could turn out completely different.

Right?

Before his thoughts could go any darker, an exuberant shout drew the attention of the whole group.

“FIGHT ME!”

A second later, a green blur had landed in their midst. When the dust cleared—and that dust had to have been chakra enhanced for dramatic effect, the backyard wasn't a sandpit—it revealed a posing Maito Gai pointing directly at an unamused-but-probably-secretly-amused Kakashi.

Then Gai seemed to notice that, in addition to Kakashi, there were actually two additional kids his age present. He gasped. “Rival, have you gotten a team?”

“It's only tempor—”

That excuse-denial was swiftly cut off by Obito, though he probably hadn't done it on purpose. “Yeah!” he exclaimed, cottoning on to the other boy's energy. “I mean, I wasn't super sure about it at first since technically we haven't really graduated yet and, well, Kakashi—but still! Minato-sensei's cool.”

Axel tried not to laugh at the incredulous heights Kakashi's eyebrows had just reached before dropping into a scowl. Then softening slightly at the complement to his teacher.

“They're playing a game,” Axel said, before Kakashi could decide on which of those emotions to react. “It might be fun to have more people.”

Of course, Gai was super down with the idea of joining in. They explained the gist of the game to the new player—what is or is not allowed, how long the turns are, the order of turns—before spacing themselves out across the yard.

Then the second game of ninja began.

It was hard to say if Obito and Rin actually benefited from the presence of a fourth player. On one hand, Gai was clearly way faster than them and probably wouldn't have any trouble knocking them out of the game. But on the other hand, he was focused solely on his rival.

As such, it was basically three against one; Kakashi had to be on defense almost constantly.

Instead of direct attacks, he had been trying to position the other players so that they would end up targeting each other while keeping himself out of the line of fire. It sort of worked, but Gai was really focused.

And really fast.

Kakashi dashed to the other side of the yard in order to keep both Obito and Rin between himself and Gai, who had the next turn. The green genin jumped after him, choosing to just go over the other two players rather than target them.

Obito had to duck or risk getting kicked in the head. Then, with a startled yelp, he jumped back up. His feet did a funny little hop-slide when he landed, as if he was trying to avoid stepping on something. After a brief stumble, he rounded warily on the offending patch of grass. “Snake!”

But there was nothing left but white smoke, and that vanished so quickly that Obito thought he might have just imagined it.

“Snake?” Rin asked, sounding alarmed. She took a step back and scanned the ground around her feet, but apparently did not spot any slithering creatures. “Where?”

The game was briefly put on hold as the four of them quickly became quite thoroughly distracted.

“There!” Obito said, pointing. “Well, I mean, it was just there…” With a slight frown, he peered around the grass a little more closely. “Where'd it go?”

Gai bounded over, keeping an eye on the ground. “What did this sneaky snake look like?”

“It was white and small.” He held up his hands about ten centimeters apart. “Not any bigger than this, I think.”

“That's a small snake.”

“All the better for sneaking,” Gai said, sagely.

Kakashi frowned, his nose was wrinkled slightly as if smelling something unpleasant. “Hey, Axel,” he called out, “I think you might have a snake problem.”

“Really?” Axel asked, coming over to join him. The other three kids had spread out, scanning the grass for any sign of the snake but apparently not finding much.

He shrugged. “I've seen a lot of snakes around your place recently.”

That seemed… foreboding.

For some reason, his mind turned to the anime. There was definitely a character in the show associated with snakes, and he had been bad news. Axel frowned, running a concerned glance over his backyard as he tried to recall the name. He knew that it was a long name, and that it began with an 'O'.

Something like 'Orochi'. Or 'Orochimimi'—yeah no, definitely not that one. Or maybe…

“Orochimaru,” he said to himself, quietly. That had the right ring to it.

Kakashi gave him a strange look, having apparently overheard the name. “The Snake Sannin?”

“But he's not with the village anymore, right?”

“I think you mean 'in the village'.” He sounded genuinely confused at the direction the conversation had taken. “And actually, I don't think he's been out on a mission in a while.”

Axel blinked, once more processing the fact that he was here, in this world, before any of the events of the show. Which naturally meant that some things simply hadn't happened yet.

“Oh,” Axel replied.

That probably wasn't good news.

Chapter Text

The laboratory was lit with a green glow, casting the surroundings in a sickly pallor that made it feel as if all other colors had been wiped out of existence. Death hung heavy in the air, particularly around a stack of boxes covered in preservation seals.

Boxes just large enough to hold a child.

Most of the space was occupied by a series of tall glass cylinders, and within hung the subjects for his current run of experiments. Limp bodies floated suspended in thick fluid, cables and tubes wrapping around their young, fragile limbs. Over half of the testing chambers were empty: drained of liquid and unlit.

At a lab table amidst the various testing apparatus, waiting for a cloudy solution to congeal, Orochimaru considered his notes.

The project had been proceeding precisely as he had expected it to: poorly.

By now nearly all of the test subjects had failed, either succumbing to the chakra drain from the injected Hashirama cells or simply too weak to survive the procedure in the first place. Obviously, none had shown any sign of developing the Wood Release kekkei genkai.

“Such a waste,” he murmured to himself, vaguely irritated with the situation.

He may as well have just tested on cadavers.

Doing so was generally preferred, actually; there was less risk involved, and no consideration need be made for the survival of the subject. Granted, some experiments did require a living participant, but he had an… agreement with the Torture and Interrogation Department for those cases. The unfortunate death of a traitor or prisoner had never been much of an issue.

Not that it was much of an issue now. Clearly nobody cared if the street orphans simple vanished—it would not have been so easy to get the case dropped otherwise.

Still, if the commander hadn't been so insistent that the project remain completely secret, he would have rather followed his usual methods. The secrecy meant an annoying lack of human subjects for introductory experiments, and there was only so much he could learn from stray animals.

So instead, subjects that could have been worth something ended up dying in the preliminary tests.
Like he had said: a waste.

As things were, two thirds of the original S1-15 group had failed, leaving five barely alive and fading fast. The second group, S16-25, had lost only two, but the remaining eight were all on a steady decline and their deaths were basically assured. All but one of S26-35 had died. Testing on S36-45 had only just begun, but he was certain that its results would be much the same.

All sacrifices to even begin to understand the effects of the injections.

At least, dead or alive, there was much that could be learned from the bodies.

There was a shift in the chakra seals lining his laboratory, and he spared it enough attention to determine that the detected intruder actually had the clearance to visit.

Unfortunately, yes.

With an irritated scowl, Orochimaru tapped a quick sequence on the table and pulsed his chakra: a seal built into the wood immediately stored away all of his research notes save what few he'd actually share. As much as he disliked detailing his discoveries to a second party, at least the man he reported to could appreciate his work.

With the Hokage… Sarutobi-sensei had always looked sad. Apologetic.

The lab door slid aside.

“Commander Danzō,” Orochimaru greeted, smile drawing up on one side into a sarcastic smirk. He tapped the side of the beaker in front of him, checking how much the cloudy solution had thickened. “What a pleasant surprise.”

It was nothing of the sort: he was busy.

His lone eye glancing around the lab with an expression of detached interest, Danzō approached the lab table. “What have you learned?”

Instead of answering, the scientist simply handed over a scroll summarizing the unimpressive results of the most recent batch of experiments. It was faster than trying to lecture him on the finer points of genetic engineering, and the councilman likely wouldn't have understood a more detailed account anyway. The older man unrolled the report, quickly skimming through to get the general details.

It was easy to notice when he reached the section on the actual test results.

“I gave you these children to make them stronger,” he remarked after a moment, pocketing the scroll. “To make capable weapons for the village. Not to kill them off.”

Orochimaru was unconcerned, simply continuing his work. He took a metal scoop and the beaker of now-opaque viscous solution, measuring out a small amount and adding it to a test tube of thick red liquid. The mixture hissed, and the glass warmed.

“You cannot expect one to find their way through uncharted country,” he said at last, one hand idly unrolling a scroll while the other gently swirled the thin glass, “without taking a single wrong turn.”

The commander nodded, apparently in agreement despite his earlier tone. “Sacrifices must be made.” He set a hand against the nearest glass chamber, peering at the small body suspended inside with an unreadable expression. Then he glanced back to the scientist. “Though a traveler must always be wary of stepping on a snake.”

Orochimaru resisted the urge to roll his eyes, catching both the literal and implied remarks. It would seem that word of how his summon was almost trod on by a child had spread. He would need to do something about that.

“So it would seem,” he replied, tone perfectly neutral.

“Tell me,” Danzō continued, “what have you learned?

It was the same question as before, but the topic had clearly moved on. He knew what—or rather, who—the councilor was asking about, of course.

“There's nothing to learn.” He set aside the test tube to settle. “Aside from his fascinatingly undetectable chakra, there is nothing remarkable about him. The man is just a civilian.”

Which was not a lie, but was not quite the truth either.

Orochimaru had been keeping a passive eye on the odd blacksmith since he had first learned he was there. His monitoring seals could not track him and, given the proximity to his laboratory, the man could not simply be left unchecked. Not to mention the peculiarity of his chakra, which was enough reason in and of itself to assign some of his snakes to monitor him.

He had quickly determined that the man couldn't possibly be a shinobi; he answered questions too easily, and the information he shared didn't line up nearly well enough to be considered a stable cover story—another point of interest. Essentially, he was simply too suspicious to be an infiltrator. Nobody would sneak into a hidden village with a persona guaranteed to have the authorities keep an eye on them…

Unless they were a distraction.

Which was why he had actually bothered to inform the Hokage, all those months ago. If there was a threat to the village, something needed to be done.

Of course, even with ANBU surveillance in place, his summons remained. Threat or not, he was still curious about the man's strangely undetectable chakra.

Weeks became months, and the village remained largely undisturbed.

So the man likely wasn't a threat of any sort: had he actually been an infiltrator or distraction or attacker, something would have changed after nearly a full year.

Still, just as obviously as he couldn't be a shinobi, the odd man was far from a typical civilian.

Though his expression barely changed at all, Danzō still managed to look unconvinced. “A civilian, certainly. That agrees with the report given by the ANBU.” He turned and headed for the door, but then paused, as if debating whether he should say more.

“And your own agents?” prompted Orochimaru.

“They have found nothing of note, besides the fact that there seems to be nothing to find.”

That had him raise a brow, interested. “How curious.”

“He has managed to ingratiate himself with several figures of importance in the village, and we know nothing of where he comes from.” The councilman shook his head. “It would be remiss to ignore that fact simply because he appears harmless.”

That emphasis was definitely aimed at one individual in particular.

“If something must be done,” Orochimaru said, tapping one finger on the side of the now-cooling test tube, “I'm sure that something could be… arranged.”

“Indeed.” His lone eye narrowed in grim promise, before his expression returned to something more passive. “In the meantime, well. There is only so much we can learn at a distance.”

At that, Danzō left. The door shut silently behind him.

There was a long moment of stillness, disturbed only by a the occasional liquid gurgle from the test chambers.

Then: “Caught by an academy student,” he hissed in annoyance.

There was a blur at the floor by his feet, and a small white serpent slithered into view. “I was not caught, Master. Only seen, and the one who saw me did not seem bright.”

“True,” he conceded, “but that only means you were spotted by an idiot. That is no improvement.”

The snake scowled—in as much as a snake can scowl—and replied, “It means he does not know what he saw. The civilian will think nothing of it.”

Orochimaru frowned slightly, doubtful of that for no reason he could put into words. He gave his summon a dismissive wave, and the white serpent didn't hesitate to vanish in a cloud of chakra smoke.

Finally, he was left alone with his thoughts.

He had been preoccupied with more important projects over the past year, so he hadn't had much time to actively investigate the odd civilian: almost all of his information came from brief reports given by his summons, which were mostly inane tales of an unremarkable life.

But only mostly, and so his attention remained caught.

There were too many pieces that couldn't be easily explained, and he wanted to know how they all fit together. Now that the first stages of the experiment were fully underway, it was only a matter of gathering data and waiting; he should have time to pursue a few of his idle curiosities.

“Perhaps it is time to try another approach,” Orochimaru mused, finding his thoughts lining up neatly with the councilman's parting remark.

There is only so much that can be learned at a distance, after all.

Chapter Text

Minato didn't really know much about the life his friend had led before Konoha, and he thought that perhaps he might learn some more if he took a few steps back to look things over from a distance.

In a manner of speaking, anyway.

There wasn't any real planning that led him to the fairly peaceful streets of Chotto, since it was just sheer chance that the route back home from his mission headed straight through the small village where his friend had lived temporarily. Just a few weeks, but he had apparently made a mark.

“Good afternoon, Brandt-san. I didn't know—” When he turned around, the elderly woman gave a small start. “Oh dear… my apologies, Shinobi-san. I mistook you for somebody else.”

“It's perfectly alright.” He chuckled. “I didn't know Axel and I look so similar from behind.”

Now she was surprised for a different reason. “You know Brandt-san?” A pause, then she nodded to herself. “Well, I suppose that's not so odd— you both live in the same village now, after all. Tell me, is he doing alright?”

They traded a few more pleasantries, she shared some news of her grandson that she asked him to pass on for her, then they went their separate ways.

She was the third person to mistake him for Axel; it was like people saw his blond hair first, and just didn't process any other details until later. A tendency that made quite a bit of sense, he realized with surprise. After all, blond hair wasn't particularly common outside of the shinobi villages.

Which made him once more wonder just where Axel had come from.

The town was called Mun-shen, according to Jiraiya-sensei, though Axel gave the the word a tighter twist in the middle so it sounded slightly different. A lot of his friend's strange words were like that, with a sort of contrary inflection or emphasis that was different from anything else he'd ever heard.

Mun-shen. München.

Well, whichever way it was pronounced, trying to find information on that place had led nowhere. It was as if it simply didn't exist at all.

Then again, it may just be too small to find easily—goodness knows there are countless tiny villages scattered through every country, it's impossible to know them all. And if such a small town had been wiped out in a shinobi skirmish, then it may just be another overlooked casualty of the war.

But neither of those explanations added up quite right in his mind.

For one thing, Axel seemed used to most of the amenities his store came with: the stove, lights, heater, and so on never gave him pause save figuring out the controls. He just seemed to accept them as normal, so Minato would have expected his home town to be fairly large or wealthy. Luxuries like electricity and running water were usually only found in the capital, the hidden villages, or the rare wealthy mercantile city—not places that could simply vanish from a map.

Chotto itself was something of an exception to the rule. It may be small, but it was near the center of the Land of Fire and close enough to trade easily with Konoha, both facts that came with a host of benefits.

“Oh!” A surprised voice, right in front of him. “Are you Namikaze-san?”

He blinked, registering the teen—just a few years younger than himself, really—who had just walked out from a grocery store with bags of food and an expression like he recognized him. Maybe.

“Sorry, I mean, my dad was telling me about you 'cause you're friends with Axel-nii so he, uh…” His sentence petered off, embarrassed and not sure where it had been heading.

Still, the rambling had cleared things up. “Would you happen to be Kichirou-kun?”

“Yeah!” The boy shifted his bags around to free up a hand, then offered it to shake. “It's good to meet you!”

It was a civilian greeting Minato was only vaguely familiar with, and even then it was only because a handshake is often used to seal business deals.

“Back at you,” he replied with a smile, accepting the gesture only after taking a split-second to check for potential weapons: shinobi paranoia in action. “Morimoto-san has told me about you, too. I hear you're the one who found Axel in the woods?”

The teen grimaced. “Yeah. He… wasn't in good shape.”

Minato couldn't help but ask, “What happened?”

Kichirou-kun shrugged. “I dunno. There weren't any signs of a fight nearby, and he was pretty far away from the village, so—” He immediately cut himself off, looking like he very much regretted that last statement.

And no wonder, given what Minato had been told by both the boy's father and Axel himself. “I thought you found him just a few minutes away.”

“Yeah, well, uhm…” He shifted from one foot to the other. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you but, uh, I should get these groceries home.”

An obvious attempt to dodge that conversation, and Minato was not having it.

“Oh, let me help you,” he said, and there was nothing in his voice that might betray the numerous strings attached to that offer. Well-meaning strings, but strings nonetheless. “You can tell me more while we walk.”

He would get an explanation.

“Nah, I mean, I can handle it.”

“I insist,” Minato pressed, holding out one hand to take some of the groceries.

Kichirou-kun heard that very particular emphasis and met that determined look, thought things over for a moment, and then sighed. “Fine. I can tell you're worried.” He handed off one of his bags. “I'll tell you what happened, but you can't go spreading it around, okay?”

“Sure, if—”

“And,” he cut in, “don't go acting weird about it to Axel-nii. Got it?”

Minato's eyebrows vanished behind his forehead protector, surprised at the uncompromising tone, and he couldn't help but wonder just what had actually happened back then. If Kichirou-kun was this serious, then he must have lied for a bigger reason than just having wandered farther from the village than he was allowed.

He nodded. “I promise.”

The walk to the house was short and quiet, save for the occasional greeting from passersby. Some of which did funny double-takes when they realized Minato was not Axel—despite his matching hair color—and that Kichirou-kun had managed to run into another blond to help him with groceries.

When they arrived a few minutes later, the front door was unlocked.

“I guess Dad's still here,” Kichirou-kun muttered to himself with a small frown, one hand on the knob. Thought for a moment, then he pointed out an open window on the upper floor. “My room's that one. Can you…?”

Minato smiled, quietly amused; he was a shinobi, a jump like that was stupidly easy.

So, to answer, he simply put down the groceries he had been carrying, dusted off his hands, and leapt. He was inside before the teen even picked the bags back up.

It was a small room, made smaller by a number of unfinished craft projects scattered around the floor. Papers were pinned up on the wall. Notes and doodles, mostly, written by a number of people: he recognized Axel's unsteady handwriting mixed in there, too. And there, on the desk, sat a familiar colorful cube.

He picked up the puzzle and sat beside the window, careful that he couldn't be seen from outside. After sliding the sides to further shuffle the already-mismatched squares, he turned the cube over in his hands. Considered, then began twisting segments. By the time Kichirou-kun joined him, he had it nearly solved.

“Dad's left,” he said, once the door had shut. “He'll probably be gone— Hey, that's mine!”

Minato set aside the cube with a sheepish smile. “Sorry, just passing time.” He sobered, refocusing on the question at hand. “So. What actually happened back then? Why lie?”

“Because I actually found him… somewhere else.” Kichirou-kun wasn't looking at him, instead just staring somewhere off to the left. “And I didn't want people to be scared of him.”

That's… an interesting sentence to try and unpack.

“Scared? Where did you find him?”

“At the—” Kichirou-kun paused, and gave him a look. Like he was bracing himself and hoping for the best at the same time. “At the edge of the Tamashī no Mori.”

Minato blinked, processing the name and finding it unfamiliar. “The Forest of Spirits?”

“You haven't heard of it.” It was question and statement in one. “It's due east of here, just a few hour's walk. It's basically halfway between here and Konoha. You really haven't heard of it?”

He shook his head. “Not by that name, at least.”

“Huh. I thought… well, I guess shinobi are fast enough, so they wouldn't have to worry about that stuff.”

Minato raised a brow, even more curious that before. “What stuff?”

“Lotta people think that place is haunted,” Kichirou-kun said frankly. “Even Dad used to tell stories that his dad told him, about sometimes hearing voices they couldn't understand or seeing flashes of light and stuff like that. It's why the road doesn't just go straight to Konoha from here, and goes a bit north instead.” He shrugged. “Most of the villagers tend to steer clear, and don't want anything to do with it.”

“Which is why you lied.”

He nodded. “I didn't believe it, until… well, I found Axel-nii there.”

From that tone, something more had happened. “I take it you didn't just happen across him.”

“No. I had been camping for a few days, and chopping trees for firewood back home. The forge uses a lot, and we had been running low.” Kichirou-kun paused, gathering his thoughts. “I thought it would be fun to try and spend the night there, yaknow? I wasn't scared of no haunted forest! And Dad didn't know I went out that far, which I guess is for the best now…”

He stopped, and an uncertain silence settled in the air. Hesitant, as the teen tried to find the right words to use for what came next.

Minato waited for a moment, then prompted, “So you found him at night, I'm guessing?”

A nod. “There was a rumble,” he said. “It woke me up even though I could barely hear it, and I thought I might have been imagining things. But then there was a flash, crash—” He shook his head. “I followed it, and found him.”

Which certainly warranted being a bit tight-lipped about the where and, in particular, the how he'd found an injured man unconscious in the woods. Somebody who had been knocked out can't call for help, after all, and the forest was massive.

“I had the cart with me, for the firewood,” he continued. “That was lucky. I never would have been able to get him back to the village without it—it took hours. I'm glad he made it. And, well, I guess you know the rest.”

Another silence fell between them, less unsure and more thoughtful than the last, and Minato considered this new version of events. It raised more than a few questions, to be sure, but it… felt correct. It didn't really help piece together any of the oddities he'd noticed, but the frame it set them in seemed solid. If weird.

But then, Axel had always been a bit weird. One more thing—even something like being found injured in a haunted forest—didn't change that.

So. “I see why you lied.”

Kichirou-kun looked relieved. “Right?”

“If people really are as spooked as you say…” He nodded, decided. It was on the way back, anyway. “What else can you tell me about this forest?”

Half an hour later, bounding through the trees as he made his way home, Minato was still trying to reconcile the stories he'd been told with what he knew of the area. Stories about unintelligible voices from nowhere, lights in the dark, small things appearing or vanishing: all that was news to him.

Minato jumped from one branch, landed on the next, then jumped again.

“It's strange,” he mused to himself.

And it was strange because, well, he'd never thought this forest was strange. He'd been through here before, and never noticed anything really off about it: certainly nothing worth the name it had apparently earned among civilians.

Tamashī no Mori.”

Another leap, longer as he passed over a gap in the trees.

Mid-jump, something on the ground below caught his eye. It was small and white, or some other light color, and therefore very out of place against the dark forest floor. He stoped on the next branch, turned, dropped down to the ground, and made his way back to get a closer look.

It was a single pale-blue flower petal.

He glanced around, wondering where it had come from, but…

Well, as he had already noticed, there were no blue flowers in the area.

The air might have been just a touch more chill than it had been a second before, a gentle breeze whispering through the trees like a sad voice, and he decided that he had seen enough. He definitely wasn't spooked by the idea of ghosts. Certainly not.

With a jump back up into the branches, he hurried toward home.

He had quite a bit to think about.

And some new questions for his best friend.

 

=X=X=X=

 

There was a chime from the front door, but Axel was a bit distracted at the moment.

“Hey man,” came a bright greeting. “I need a new set of kunai, my last ended up…” A pause, then: “Blacksmith-san, what are you doing?”

More and more people had taken to calling him that, and he hadn't quite decided how he felt about it. It was understandable; most found his first name hard to pronounce, though he hadn't realized 'Brandt' would be such a tripping stone as well. Still, while people dropping his real name in favor of just 'Blacksmith' made sense and was even kind of flattering, it was also… just a little bit depressing.

He shook off those thoughts, instead whacking his wooden pole against the kunai jammed in the ceiling. The metal hook he had stuck on that end was technically small enough that it could fit through the loop on the knife, but actually getting it to was another matter entirely.

“Trying to get it out.” Another dull clang, but the kunai wasn't budging. He sighed and lowered the pole, switching his attention to his customer. “Not working. How can I help you, Aoba?”

At this point he had a little bit better grasp on honorifics, though he still left them off. Not the smartest choice in some cases, probably, but it was his decision to make. Call it defiance to this reality, or maybe some sort of denial… he just couldn't quite convince himself to use them.

“Yeah, uh, I need a new set of kunai. My last one kinda… well, I got some of the bits to trade in.”

“Bits?” he echoed, curious.

The young genin pulled out a scroll and unsealed a pile of blobby metal scrap. He'd probably melted them with a fire technique during training—either accidentally or on purpose.

“Ah.” Axel nodded, taking the offered metallic chunks and looking them over more closely. “Bits.”

Aoba wasn't quite a regular, though he'd stopped in enough times over the past month that he was starting to see a pattern. The kid would buy a set and either lose or destroy the knives within a week. Losing them wasn't unusual, since they were throwing weapons, but the destruction was a bit odd.

His jonin friend went through kunai like candy when he was testing some new technique, of course, but this kid was just a genin. It should be a few years before he started getting creative with his knives.

“At least my aim is better now, kinda,” he said, sheepish.

“Your aim with what?” He shook his head, amused. “Well, get a set. Two free, for the scrap.”

Axel could—and would, in just a few minutes—go out personally to collect what bits of metal he could scavenge from long-abandoned streets, but he thought he'd been pretty clever to offer a deal to get his customers to bring in more. It was a good idea all around: he got more metal to work with, his customers got a discount, and the district got just a bit cleaner with every old can or broken kunai they turned over to him.

Sweet.”

“Quick, though,” he added. “I'm about to close.”

The genin said something under his breath—probably a curse—and hurried over to get what he wanted. It was a quick purchase, finished in under five minutes, and then Axel was free to lock up the house and head out for his evening stroll (and clean up any litter he might find on the way).

The clean-up part was fairly new. When he'd started going on daily walks—with Dach, of course—it was just because he didn't have much to do after he closed shop for the day, especially with his friends out on missions at the moment. Cleaning up trash as he went just seemed like a good idea.

Plus, the dachshund seemed to treat the garbage collection like a game of fetch: he'd run ahead, find some litter, and carry it back, tail wagging all the while.

Like now, actually.

A bark drew his wandering attention to his feet, where Dach had dropped what looked to have once been some kind of food package, before weather and dirt made it into a clump of barely-distinguishable plastic

Axel took his pole—hook replaced by a sharp spike—and stabbed it through the rubbish. Then he shook it off of the end of the skewer into the bag he carried full of similar bits of litter.

It was so weird that this world had plastics, but not so many of the other things he associated with modern life.

He'd actually asked Minato and Akaiko about it—even Pei, and sometimes his customers, if they'd caught him in a contemplative mood—and though he'd tried to choose his words carefully, they all tended to give him odd looks for his trouble.

His friends usually just rolled with it, or asked questions of their own, but there was always that split second of confusion. Not that he really blamed them for it, given he probably sounded like a crazy person.

In fact, he probably sounded pretty weird (read: semi-delusional) quite often. He was just glad it hadn't gotten him locked up somewhere or anything. Yet, at least.

And that would be why he'd decided to set aside those sorts of questions.

Mostly.

He stabbed another piece of trash, plus the empty instant-ramen cup Dach carried over, and added both to his garbage bag.

There was the library, of course, though he had only visited once or twice; from the perspective of a curious dimension-lost civilian, it didn't offer much helpful information. History books about the warring clans and establishing villages were all well and good—if probably more than a little biased—but they weren't really what he had been looking for. Novels and other fiction seemed remarkably rare, and most of the non-fiction technical books seemed to be restricted as ninja-only.

So in the end, he did still pester his friends with questions: they didn't mind if he was a little odd sometimes, and he trusted them. There was only so much he could work out on his own, after all.

He'd poked around at one of the lights in his house, and it did appear to be electric. Unfortunately he hadn't been able to figure out how to shut off the power, so he couldn't get too close without risking frying himself.

Still, no power outlets: none here or in any of the other shops he'd been in. There might be some in the hospital, given that the only one he'd seen had been back at the clinic. If a small infirmary in a small town had power outlets, it stood to reason that the much larger medical facilities in Konoha would as well.

Not that he was planning on a visit to check. After all, a hospital filled with ninja trained to know the human body probably had the best chance to notice his… oddities. Like, say, having neither chakra nor a chakra system.

So yeah, he tended to steer clear.

Back to the power outlets, though, Axel had eventually decided that it was probably just a paranoid ninja thing: not wanting to spread casual use of electricity in civilian society. They had it, but it was kept as more of an elite ninja-only thing.

Another jab with his stick, then a shake to knock the trash off into the bag. The old soup can in the gutter that he found a few meters later, he added to a smaller pouch he had slung under one arm: more scrap for the forge.

So it went, stabbing rubbish and gathering junk metal. It was monotonous, and a little boring, but at least he felt like he was… well, 'helping' wasn't quite the right word. And he didn't feel like he was making a difference to the world, certainly not given the scale of events to come—he was just cleaning up trash.

Still, he mused as he made his way between empty buildings, he liked feeling productive.

A little over halfway into his walk, and Axel became aware of familiar voices nearby.

Rounded the corner, and nearly ran smack into the familiar people those voices came from.

“Minato!” he blurt out, surprised. His friend looked tired and a bit disheveled, so he must have only just gotten back from his mission. “Welcome back!”

Dach barked a hello of his own, trotting back from wherever he had been sniffing around.

“Axel!”

Happy to see him, he judged, though slightly started by his abrupt appearance—it was unexpectedly easy to sneak up on ninja sometimes. Even the heavy-set ninja standing beside Minato was a bit surprised, though it was probably easier to miss light footsteps when the genin team you taught was as… loud as his.

“Hello, Brandt-san!” shouted the green spandex-clad wonder, spotting him from across the street. And Gai was this close to bounding over to them, before his teacher spoke up.

“You all keep working,” Chōza reprimanded, trying to keep his students from getting too distracted. “You're on a mission, remember?”

“Yeah, a D-rank mission,” scoffed one of the other genin—Genma, if he recalled correctly.

Amused, the jonin shook his head with a fond smile. “Brats.”

“Ah, but they're your brats,” Minato said, likely thinking of his own students.

“So they are.” He sounded a little rueful, but certainly not unhappy. “I can just tell that they're going to grow up from little menaces to, well, big menaces.”

Watching green blaze down the street, probably having set a personal challenge to pick up as much trash as possible in the least amount of time possible, Axel nodded. He'd seen clips of his future, essentially. “Untertreibung,” he murmured quietly.

Because really, 'menace' didn't quite do the Green Beast justice.

“I have done it, and with seconds to spare!” Gai cheered suddenly, loud and clear even from the other end of the street. “So next I must be twice a fast!”

“Gai, wait up—!”

“This is a team activity, come back!”

The other two genin sprinted down the street to catch up, and all three vanished around the corner. Their jonin teacher sighed, but made to follow after.

“By the way…” Axel began, and the ninja paused. “If you find any old metal stuff—”

“Bring it 'round to your shop, right?” Chōza nodded. “That deal you've got set up for scrap is at least half of why we're doing this. D-ranks to clean up this district have been posted for ages, but just hadn't been worth it before.”

He blinked, taken aback.

“You've got a deal for scrap?” asked Minato, interested. “Like, a discount?”

“That he does,” the large man replied with a chuckle.” So brace yourself, Blacksmith-san. They're really looking forward to a shopping spree after this is all done.”

He waved, and left to go find his students.

“Maybe I should replenish my stock now, before you're sold out,” Minato said, thinking aloud. Then he gave his friend a sideways glance. “But you've already closed for the day, right?”

Axel rolled his eyes. “You come by whenever.”

“Was that permission, or just an observation?”

“Both.”

That earned a tired laugh, that then faded into a sigh. “I'd talk longer, but I guess I should get going too.” Minato glanced toward the center of the village. “I still need to give my report to the Hokage.”

And Axel was suddenly ambushed by the thought that, well… This was the first time he had seen his friend since he found out. Since he had learned some of what might happen.

That his friend was going to be Hokage one day.

That he was going to die as Hokage, to save his family and his village.

He swallowed, throat suddenly dry.

“Okay.” Axel managed to keep his voice steady. “See you later?”

“We'll see if I'm still awake after giving my report,” Minato replied, smiling. Then, with a wave goodbye, he vanished up to the rooftops.

Axel thought—and not for the first time—that maybe he knew a bit too much about what the future might hold for his ninja friend. That maybe he shouldn't have opened that folder, shouldn't have seen those pictures.

Still, he knew now.

And maybe, just maybe, he was close enough to make a difference.

Chapter Text

And maybe, he reconsidered when faced with his best friend and a worryingly inquisitive look, he might be a tad too close. Minato was eyeing him like one might eye a particularly interesting puzzle, though with more than a smidge of friendly concern mixed in.

“I have a map,” the ninja said, already pulling out a scroll from one of his vest pockets. “If you point out the general area—”

“I can't,” Axel cut in, because of course he couldn't. He hated whenever this topic came up, how it reminded him in no uncertain terms just how far from him his family was: unreachable.

He'd actually been avoiding maps entirely, which was thankfully very easy if one didn't travel outside the village. Reading about world history and whatever tidbits he could on ninja magic felt like learning fantasy lore, but a map for a foreign world was just one step too far. Too real. He just didn't want to see the names of places he'd been—where he lived now—on a map that could never lead him home.

Minato set down his scroll on the desk between them, then leaned back in the chair he'd dragged over from the kitchen. Frowning slightly, worried, he considered his clearly agitated friend. “If you don't know any nearby towns, we could always try and narrow it down by what you remember of the topography.”

“The what?”

“The topography,” he repeated, unrolling and unfolding the map to its full size. “Like whether there were mountains nearby, or a forest. That sort of thing.”

Axel kept his eyes up, not so much as glancing to the paper as he pretended to be thoroughly focused on fiddling with the cash register in front of him. “That won't help.”

“Maybe it'll be difficult to find, but—”

“It won't help. München is…” He had to take a steadying breath. Even after a year, saying it out loud still hit hard. “It's gone now.”

Paper shifted as Minato adjusted the map, and then he scooched around the desk so that they were sitting more or less on the same side. He was quiet for a moment, before gently saying, “I don't know what happened, but if what happened to you is tied to what happened to your town…”

“No, it— I don't even know…”

The bell hanging at the front door gave a chime, interrupting him and providing a welcome distraction. Two ninja came in, one that Axel didn't recognize—from the show or otherwise—and the other was one of his regular customers.

“Trust me, Sensei. This place is the best,” Kondo assured. Given the now-chunin had been dropping by his shop almost since it had opened, he'd be one to know.

“Whatever you say.” The unfamiliar probably-a-jonin gave a long-suffering sigh. “And I told you to stop calling me that.”

Minato chuckled. “Once a teacher, always a teacher. There's no escape, Masuda-san.”

“That's just troublesome,” the customer grumbled. “Hello, Namikaze-san.”

Honestly, Minato seems to know everyone. It's pretty ridiculous.

“Feel free to look around,” Axel spoke up, wanting to make sure the new customer knew the ground rules before any more knives ended up in his ceiling. “But if you want to test throw, hit the log and not my walls please.”

Masuda looked caught off guard for an instant, at least by ninja standards, as if he hadn't noticed there was somebody sitting behind the register. Then, quickly, he glanced to the walls and out the window to the log in question. There were patches on a few of the walls that still needed a coat of paint, and the log itself was studded with narrow holes. He shot Kondo a look.

The younger ninja held his hands up defensively. “Wasn't me.” With a sly grin, he added, “And don't think I didn't notice that, there's no need to feel embarrassed. Blacksmith-san pretty much spooks everyone their first time.”

“I'm not spooky!” Axel objected.

Three sets of raised brows met that remark.

“I'm not!”

“Not really 'spooky' I guess, but…” Kondo thought about it for a second, and said, “It's like if a tree noticed you were lost and gave you directions.”

“…A tree?” Unsure how else to react to that description—they really all seemed to be in agreement—Axel just shook his head.

Minato leaned in and whispered, “It's your kekkei genkai.”

“My—” He cut himself off, remembering in time. His friend assumed he had some ninja bloodline thing that made his chakra undetectable, which was a misunderstanding he was both grateful for and felt somewhat guilty about.

“Because of that, it feels like nothing's there to notice,” Minato continued. “Then when you move or say something, well… it is very much like if a tree suddenly spoke up.”

Being a tree was better than being some kind of undead at least, which had kind of been how he pictured it before; no chakra was like not having a pulse, as far as he understood, but he was definitely alive. Since nobody had ever really remarked on that to him, he'd assumed that non-ninja all tended to have low pulses, so to speak, and that his entire lack of chakra just blended in with the rest of the civilians.

At least this explains why it was so strangely easy for him to sneak up and startle freaking ninja.

“Well,” Kondo rubbed his hands together, eagerly eyeing the kunai rack. “We came to shop, Sensei, so let's get to it!”

“I'm not—”

But it was too late for protest, as the chunin was already dragging his companion over to the shelves of throwing knives.

With his customers chatting and shopping and therefore no longer pulling his friend's attention away from the map, he needed a new distraction or topic before they just returned right back to their previous conversation.

So Axel pulled out his journal, deciding to buy time by jotting down some notes about his apparent tree-ness in the section about chakra. He had always seen chakra just as the craziness-justifier for the anime: basically a ninja version of technobabble, something to point to when something unbelievable happens on-screen. It was odd having it play a role in simple everyday life as well.

As he wrote, and with a distinct lack of subtlety, Minato nudged the map a few centimeters closer. Then another few. Busying himself with his journal apparently wasn't enough of a deterrent.

Closing the notebook, Axel sighed. “Minato…”

“I just want to know.”

They were speaking with hushed voices now, so that the customers couldn't easily listen in on their conversation. Honestly, though, Axel wished they just weren't speaking at all, he really didn't want to talk about this… Yet he had to say something, had to tell him that there was no use looking for somewhere that didn't exist.

Even still, it took him a long moment to get the words to come.

“It won't be on your map,” he managed, looking off to the side.

“I know.”

His attention jerked back to his ninja friend, startled and alarmed. “What?”

Minato was looking down at the map, tracing some of the lines with one hand. “It's not on any of the maps I've checked, anyway.” He shrugged. “That's why I'm trying to think of another way we can find it.”

Oh. That's what he meant.

He swallowed, throat dry. “I can't go back. They're out of reach.”

“Even if the town is gone—”

With deliberate slowness, Axel set down his notebook. He'd written a label on the front cover, and the German lettering made his heart twist with that now-year-old ache he tried to ignore.

“I can't go back,” he repeated, a near whisper.

There was a chance. Maybe. Ninja magic could do a lot of unbelievable things, after all. And there was always the possibility, no matter how slim, that one day he'd simply wake up in a hospital bed, worried sister hovering then calling for his parents and a doctor because he was back

But everyday he woke up here, in the same bed he'd fallen asleep in.

It was just an impossible dream.

If he let himself hope, he would never be able to open his eyes and face the day. He would never be able to keep moving forward, working toward whatever life he could make for himself here. It hurt to give up without even trying, but, well… he wasn't a ninja, with reality warping powers at his disposal.

He was just lost, and trying his best to keep going.

A comforting hand on his shoulder pulled him from his homesick thoughts, and he managed a weak smile that probably wasn't as reassuring as he wanted. “Thanks. I'm fine.”

“You will be,” Minato replied with enviable certainty. “We're here for you, Axel.”

Though Axel didn't know it, his friend had seen that kind of heartbreak before. Kushina always set aside time every year to visit the small memorial for her village, after all, and as for Minato… All he had left of his own family was his name.

Minato knew: loss never really leaves, but it can heal. So for now, at least, he carefully began folding away his map. It wouldn't hurt to wait for his friend.

“Anyway,” Axel said, clearing his throat and awkwardly trying to change the subject. “Have you ever thought about what you'll do?”

Minato glanced up, pausing as he rolled the map back up. “What do you mean?”

Relieved that the conversation had moved on, Axel shrugged. “What will you be in years from now.”

The ninja had to process that sentence for a moment, filling in missing words. “You mean, like, what do I want to be doing in the future?”

“Yes, that.”

Though he busied himself putting away the map, from his expression he was seriously considering the question. After a moment, he answered: “I've always wanted to be Hokage, to be able to protect everybody I care about.”

Really, he should have seen that coming. But it was too late now, as the conversation had already veered right back into dangerous waters—though unknowingly, on his friend's part.

Axel had to bite his tongue to keep from saying anything, recalling animated scenes of gigantic orange tails sweeping through the air and a Hokage who gave everything he had to protect his home. That was hypothetically (hopefully) years from now, and by then he would have had time to thoroughly screw up the timeline. Maybe.

It wasn't sheer chance that had the Nine-Tails attack the village, Axel knew that much. What changes he might make in this world—and in the lives of his friends—may not spread to whatever megalomaniac originally dreamed up the attack in the first place.

Minato wasn't done, though. “Speaking more personally, though…” he flushed a light pink, probably thinking of a certain redhead. “I want to have a family.”

“Your kid will be a menace,” Axel said, and immediately wondered if maybe he shouldn't have.

But Minato just grinned, looking pleased. “You think so?”

Of course. Not only had he seen Naruto from the show, but now he knew both of that kid's parents: there was no way he wouldn't be a ball of energetic sunshine, and good luck to everyone in range.

“Es ist garantiert.”

Taking that confirmation for what it was, even if he didn't really understand the words, Minato shrugged. He glanced out the window, about to say something else, and then—

“Hello, Blondie!”

“Gah!” Axel jolted, and in the process somehow managed to jam his notebook under the cash register. It was a good thing the map had been put away, or it probably would have been crumpled into a scrunched-up mess.

His sudden surprised yelp made both ninja browsing his wares startle, and Kondo, for one, was instantly armed and ready to defend the shopkeeper if need be. It was an unnecessary gesture, though still appreciated. The chunin relaxed a moment later, tucking his weapons away again and giving the unexpected visitor a slightly embarrassed nod before returning to his shopping.

Leaning in from the open front window, looking far too amused with himself, was Jiraiya. His white hair was a tangled mess—some of which appeared to be snagging on the rough wood of the log sign—and he was about halfway to being completely sopping wet.

“As jumpy as usual, I see,” the sodden ninja cheerily remarked.

Axel rolled his eyes. He was well-aware that by this point, one might expect that he would be less startled by the tendencies of ninja to simply suddenly appear with no warning. But alas, the knowledge of a jump-scare actually does very little to lessen the surprise.

“You—” and virtually every other ninja, he added internally, “—do that on purpose, and you know it.”

“Well, obviously!” Jiraiya leaned back dramatically, but the action was stopped abruptly; leashed by his own hair pulling painfully taut, still stuck on the log sign. With a few quiet curses, he set about untangling his snaggled white locks.

Axel was dealing with a snag of his own: his notebook had managed to slide perfectly between the feet on the register, and was now wedged under there pretty effectively.

“Besides,” Jiraiya added, “we're just getting back at you!”

Though he had been distracted trying to free his notebook, that remark caught his attention. “What, you think I'm spooky too?”

“When you're quiet, at least. You're actually pretty sneaky—” he cut himself off, suddenly sending an almost anxious glance over his shoulder and down the street. “Ah, anyway, speaking of sneaking…”

Minato cocked an ear, listening carefully, then gave his teacher an unimpressed stare. “I take it that's why you're soaking wet, Jiraiya-sensei?”

He got only nervous laughter in reply.

Recalling some scenes from the anime… well. Axel only needed three guesses as to why the ninja appeared to have been dunked in water, and the first two don't count.

He could almost hear women shouting with righteous rage.

Wait a second. That wasn't just in his imagination; there were actually yells in the distance. And, after a moment listening, he realized that they were growing louder. A look to Minato got a nod of confirmation.

“No,” said Axel, taking a guess at what was going on. “You can't hide here.”

Jiraiya was working at de-snagging his hair, careful not to leave behind any white strands, but he could spare a hand to point right at the protesting civilian. “Exactly! That's why your respectable establishment is the perfect place to hide!”

“And despite your attempt,” a new voice slipped in smoothly, somehow both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, “as always, you are embarrassingly easy to find.”

A weight settled in his gut, that sly tone poking at his memory in the worst way possible. Shifting to look past Jiraiya, Axel spotted another ninja stalking up to the window, straight black hair stark against pale skin and white clothes.

And Axel did recognize him, but not from real life.

Oh, scheiße.

“Hey, Oro-chan—”

Holy crap, that nickname: emotional whiplash in two words.

Never call me that.”

“—You don't need to get involved,” Jiraiya plowed on. He dramatically waved his hands, gesturing to the promise of freedom just down the road. “Let me simply vanish into the night, like the sun descending over the horizon.”

“It's almost noon,” Axel said automatically, his subconscious taking the wheels temporarily as his brain did it's best to keep his internal freak-out, well, internal.

“It's a simile,” he said, waving it off. “No need to be picky about the details. The main thing is me vanishing, quick, so are you with me or not?”

The Snake Sannin crossed his arms, clearly resoundingly unimpressed by his comrade. “You're not vanishing anywhere.

Jiraiya scowled.

As for Axel, caught between them, well… He couldn't quite decide whether he should retreat from the possible squabble or burst out laughing like an insane person at the fact that apparently Jiraiya would teasingly call Orochimaru—freakin' Orochimaru!—a cutesy nickname like 'Oro-chan'. It was nearly too absurd to believe.

“Come on, Oro-chan, it's no big deal.”

Serpentine eyes narrowed. “Don't call me that.” Then he drew himself to his full height, somehow looking down on Jiraiya despite their height difference, and sneered. “And for your information, I am not here to see you punished for your degenerate ways. I am only here in hopes of keeping you from embarrassing our entire village.”

All he really registered from that was how unexpectedly short Orochimaru actually was in real life. Well, he wasn't really short, per se, but he wasn't tall either. Axel had at least seven or eight centimeters on him, which he wouldn't have expected given how he was always presented as this looming figure in the anime.

Jiraiya looked suspicious. “Wait, and it's not to do with—?”

“No, it is not about—” Orochimaru pinched the bridge of his nose, and may have even counted to ten before continuing. “Jiraiya. Do you know what day it is?”

“…Tuesday?”

Dead silence.

“Well, it can't be your birthday. You never liked any of the parties I set up for you anyway.” In a stage whisper, he added, “Icing just doesn't agree with him.”

Jiraiya.”

As he watched the two highly-skilled and deadly ninja bicker—one teasing and one doing a very convincing job of being only annoyed by it—Axel found himself reevaluating some things.

“He's not as scary as I thought he'd be,” he murmured absentmindedly.

Still scary, sure: he's still Orochimaru after all. But at the same time, it is technically more than twelve years before the first episodes of the show, so perhaps the snake ninja hadn't gone full crazy-evil quite yet and was still just average crazy…

And all three of them were giving him odd looks now.

“What?”

“You are a weird one, Blacksmith-san,” Jiraiya said, leaning through the window to size him up. “I have it on good authority that Oro-chan can be quite menacing.”

Axel frowned slightly, not entirely sure where that statement had come from, then his eyes widened with realization because he most certainly hadn't meant to say any of that out loud.

Distracted trying to recall exactly what he had muttered, Axel only barely noticed the annoyed glare the nickname earned. He didn't register the suddenly odd atmosphere at all until Kondo sat down on the floor with a thud, and it looked like the shelves were helping to keep Masuda from joining him. Even Minato looked slightly alarmed. All of this was a little weird, to be sure.

Jiraiya smacked his old teammate on the shoulder. “Oh cut that out, you can handle a little teasing,” he scolded sternly. “You're bothering the customers. And poor Blondie's right here, be careful.”

Though he didn't actually say anything in response, Orochimaru did raise a brow and gave a pointed look to the blond civilian in question. A civilian who looked perfectly unruffled by the sudden spike of killing intent that had just briefly filled the room. In fact, Axel just looked faintly confused—or perhaps amused—as to what they were talking about.

Minato, who had already been checking over his friend for any issues, was relieved and surprised when he found none. “Huh.”

And now Axel's confusion was quickly changing to a cautious concern, faced with the interested stares of two powerful ninja and one worried friend (who also happened to be a powerful ninja, but that's beside the point). Even without the pressure of trying to keep some very important secrets, anyone faced with such a situation would be at least a little uneasy.

Jiraiya wasn't so bad to be around, to be fair. He was a good guy in the show—though perverse—and, as surprising as it had been to find out, the man was actually Minato's teacher. So, all around, probably trustworthy. To an extent, at least.

It was the other guy he had issue with, obviously. Orochimaru wasn't the only recurring villain in the show, of course, but he was the only one Axel had actually seen on-screen. The rest of what he knew was mostly hear-say from his sister.

But as a villain, Orochimaru had really left an impression.

Since they seemed to be expecting some sort of response—heaven help him, he had no idea what—he had to figure out something to say.

And he was drawing a complete mental blank.

“Hello?”

Yes, the perfect reply.

It worked well enough, at least, since Minato burst out laughing and Jiraiya had a funny sort of smirk on his face.

“No reaction at all. ” Orochimaru simply looked interested, which was a tad worrying: he's definitely got the mad scientist schtick down to a tee. “I had wondered.”

“You did that on purpose, didn't you?” Jiraiya accused. “That's dangerous, Oro-ch…imaru.”

Good save.

“You could have seriously hurt the poor guy!”

He shrugged, unbothered. “But in the end, it did not.”

“He's still a civilian,” Minato protested. “Killing intent can be harmful to untrained—”

“That's real?” Axel blurted out, plainly astonished by that fact, and his stunned interruption startled his friend into another laughing fit.

Killing intent had come up in the show, of course, but he'd sort of assumed it was just artistic license to help add in extra drama and tension: nothing more than an excuse to use surreal effects or fake a death scene or whatever. Should have known better.

“Curious, but I suppose I don't have time for trivialities at the moment.” Orochimaru turned his attention back to his still-wet teammate. “Jiraiya. You know that shadows cast by a tree always lead back to its roots.”

It seemed like a really random thing to say, but the ninja blanched. “That's today? I thought that was Wednesday!” He quickly tugged the rest of his white hair free from the log sign, not caring if some strands got pulled out. “We gotta go!”

Orochimaru looked like he probably would be rolling his eyes at that if he wasn't… well, Orochimaru.

Hair free an instant later—and somehow even more of an absolute mess that usual—Jiraiya waved goodbye before both Sannin vanished in a swirl of leaves. Gone just as abruptly as they arrived, as is the manner of most ninja.

Some of the leaves actually got inside, and he wondered why ninja always seemed to shed greenery when doing their fast travel thing; he'd need to clean them up later. For the moment, though, Axel slumped back into his chair with relief. He really wished he'd get a few more minutes to brace himself before big-name ninja from the show just dropped in on his store like that.

He'd need to write down some details about the Snake Sannin now that he'd actually met him, just as soon as he got the darn notebook free from the register. Axel poked around under there for a moment, but didn't feel his journal; odd, he hadn't thought it was jammed that far.

Before he could get a better look, a noise drew his attention to the back of the store.

Kondo had slid all the way down until he was lying flat out on the floor, and there he let out a long gusting breath. “I thought I was gonna die.”

“It was a bit alarming,” Minato agreed, sending his civilian friend another worried glance.

Not sure what else to do, Axel just shrugged. “I'm fine.” Much more quietly, he added, “I didn't notice.”

“Still, maybe I should go get a medic. It can really mess up your chakra circulation—”

“Nein!” He hadn't meant to be so abrupt, but that was a very bad idea. For him, at least. “No, Minato, trust me. I'm fine.”

He didn't look entirely satisfied with that, but he did seem to drop the hospital idea. “Well, at least let me get you some tea,” he said, standing up and heading for the kitchen.

A hand waved at them from the floor, and Kondo asked, “Me too, please?”

Masuda smacked his hand back down, but he looked like he could use a cup too.

To be honest, Axel wasn't against the idea—Minato brewed really delicious tea—he just didn't like the idea of making his friend play host like that. It was his store, after all, so he should at least help get out the cups and stuff.

Before he could so much as get up, though, Minato turned and gave him a look. Jabbed a finger at him, then pointed to the chair. “You stay put, Axel.”

And he swept away to the kitchen to brew them all some tea.

“Behüte mich Gott vor meinen Freunden,” Axel joked to himself with an amused smile. He picked up one of the stray leaves and tossed it through the window. “Mit den Feinden will ich schon fertig werden.”

Chapter Text

Akaiko was far from home, and surrounded by enemies.

This wasn't a problem, of course, as none of them actually knew she was their enemy—that’s the whole goal when infiltrating somewhere, after all. Still, even if she did appear to be just a simple civilian minding her own business, the Land of Mist isn’t exactly a peaceful place to visit, ever. Doubly so if since she happened to actually be a Konoha kunoichi in disguise, and triply so with Kirigakure on the verge of joining in the war against her village.

But Akaiko didn't bother to worry about all that, since for all intents and purposes she was just a nobody running a stall at the local festival. She was more worried about Inochi, since her partner was the one who actually needed a disguise to stay low-key. Honestly, there were plenty of benefits to having brown hair and a plain face when it came to sneaking around: she didn't need to deal with hair dye and contacts, unlike her Yamanaka partner.

She trailed her fingers lightly over the water in the shallow glass tank she had set up, poking one of the floating bouncy balls and mentally checking the rock-solid presence of Inochi's chakra elsewhere in the crowd. It was subdued to a civilian level, of course, and seemed unconcerned. There were a few other strong signatures that stood out to her—deep murky water and an ocean being the most worrying two—and Akaiko would guess that some of the civilian chakras she felt weren't actually civilians at all.

Festivals are good places to gather intel, so she actually would have been more worried if there hadn't been other shinobi snooping around. With most everybody in the crowd happily relaxed and talking (or at least drunk and talking), she'd already overheard a number of interesting conversations they would need to follow up on later.

Of course, she'd also listened to plenty of chatter from people just having fun.

“Come on, come on, come on,” murmured the little girl playing at the moment, nearly broken paper scoop in one hand and a bowl of her eight colorful captured bouncy balls in the other. “Just two more!”

With a gentle twist of chakra, so slight even the best sensors would have had trouble detecting it, she tugged a current around one of the floating balls and pushed it away from the scoop. The player groaned and tried to go after it, but the paper in the scoop had spent too much time in the water and finally broke.

“No! Augh, I was so close!”

“I really thought you had it there for a moment!” Akaiko said, which was a lie even if the way she said it sounded perfectly genuine. She handed over the prize for catching over five balls: a little wooden charm carved to look like a fish. “Want to try again?”

The girl looked like she very much did want to try again, but then she shook her head and tugged the long sleeves of her kimono back down from her elbows, plainly disappointed. “I'd better not. My mother would be annoyed if I spent all my money trying to win a fish.”

Akaiko chuckled, glancing over her shoulder to the carefully stacked tanks behind her. Each held a single betta fish, serving as the reward for catching ten or more bouncy balls. At the moment they were all swimming about and proudly displaying their colorful fins. For all their complaining about how degrading it would be for them, her summons—for that's what they were—seemed to be really getting into the idea of being prizes for a festival game.

They probably liked all the attention.

“Well.” Akaiko crossed her arms, watching a bright blue betta twirl dramatically with a fond smile—Gebra had always liked to show off. “They are nice fish.”

And quite good spies, too, if one could get them into position.

The girl nodded, enthusiastic, and looked as though she was about to say something when a shouted name from the crowd made her wince.

“Oh, I was hoping they wouldn't notice for a while,” she whispered.

“Who wouldn't notice what?” asked Akaiko, the picture of obliviousness. She pretended to not yet notice the young shinobi storming their way.

Because of course the boy was a shinobi, he was the ocean she'd noticed: to her senses, the sheer size of his chakra reserves clearly marked him out. And if that somehow hadn't been enough, his shark-ish appearance and the Mist hitai-ate tied at his forehead certainly would have done the trick.

She recognized this brat, actually. Hoshigaki Kisame may be just a ten-year-old kid, but his teacher was somewhat infamous. As one of the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen of the Mist, his Bingo Book entry took up quite a number of pages: it was essentially a severely abbreviated biography, and as such it did include a snippet on his student.

And if Hoshigaki was here, his teacher couldn't be too far away.

Not that she was particularly worried about that, as she'd already noticed that definitely-not-civilian murky water chakra signature milling around near the other end of the festival. It was good to be able to pin a likely name to that shinobi.

“Keiko…-sama.” The honorific was added almost like an afterthought, as Hoshigaki clearly didn't like addressing somebody younger—or, more likely, somebody weaker—than him with any kind of respect. “Your father was worried.”

“Oh, I see,” Akaiko leaned forward, resting her chin on one hand with a cheeky grin. “Looks like someone's in trouble.”

Hoshigaki gave her a quick once-over, and a suspicious scowl.

As the girl—Keiko, he'd called her—fiddled nervously with her necklace and generally floundered her way through her justifications for sneaking away from her parents to enjoy the festival, Akaiko quickly reevaluated the situation. She hadn't thought the girl was from a family wealthy enough to hire shinobi guards, let alone one that would need to do so in the first place.

Perhaps having one of her fishy spies in that household might be worth it after all.

“Tell ya what,” she said, interrupting the girl mid-sentence. “I'll give you a second chance at winning one of my fine fish friends, free of charge.”

Keiko blinked at her, mouth open in surprise, then she smiled brighter than the sun. “Really? You really mean it?”

Hoshigaki scowled even more (somehow) and looked like he was going to say something against it, so Akaiko cut in again. “Sure, so long as you promise not to give Shark-Boy here any more trouble.”

The look of complete 'what the-' on his face was totally worth it, as if he couldn't process what this civilian had just said to him. “Don't call me that.”

“I promise!” the girl chirped, happily taking the last paper scoop from the tray and focusing her full attention on her second chance.

Akaiko smiled to herself as she knelt to peer around under the table, looking for her stock of paper fish-catchers (or rather, bouncy-ball-catchers) to refill the tray. Unfortunately, it wasn't the only box she'd stuffed under there.

“Bouncy balls?” It was Hoshigaki, surprisingly enough—she really hadn't expected him to try and make conversation. “Doesn't this game usually use goldfish?”

“Well, sure,” Akaiko sniffed, now half-under her stand and too busy rooting around the boxes to actually look at the boy she was talking to. “But bouncy balls won't attack each other, obviously.”

Also, she doubted that she would have been able to convince her proud little summons to be scooped out of the pool for entertainment. It had been hard enough to get them to agree to be prizes, no matter how much they might preen with the attention.

The boy said nothing for a moment, and she was thinking he might have just walked away—even without Keiko, whom he was apparently supposed to be guarding—but he did eventually speak up again.

“Goldfish don't attack each other.” Another pause, then more uncertainly: “Do they?”

“Nah,” Akaiko replied, waving away that question. Most of her was still under the table, though, so all the boy could see of her was that hand.

“Oh. So why bouncy balls?”

She would have answered, but she'd just found the box she'd been looking for. “Got it! Dumb thing was behind the fish food.”

As she backed herself out from under the stall, dragging the box with her, she knocked the back of her head against the bottom of the table. Cursing under her breath—she really hadn't meant to hit her head quite that hard—she sat up and looked at the kid peering down at her over the stall with not-well-concealed amusement.

At least her goofily hurting herself had had the effect she wanted; there's no way she could look like somebody worth being cautious around after bonking her head like that.

“Why bouncy balls?” he repeated.

Rubbing at the sore spot on the back of her head, playing up her fumble, she gave him the same answer as before. “I told you, Shark-Boy, bouncy balls don't fight.”

“I said don't call me that.” He scowled at her. “And you just said that goldfish don't fight either.”

“Yeah?”

“Why not use goldfish?”

Akaiko jerked her thumb to the stacked fish tanks—or, more to the point, the colorful bettas watching them with detached fishy interest. “Do you see any goldfish here?”

“Then why'd you get betta fish?”

“Obviously that's because betta fish are way cool, Shark-Boy,” she defended with a huff.

He smiled threateningly, showing off his sharp teeth. “You're kinda stupid.”

She wasn't sure if that was in reference to her hitting her head, choosing to use betta fish over an easier alternative, or just her continuing to use that nickname. It was probably the nickname, though.

Usually if she encountered shinobi while pretending to be a civilian, she would have gone for 'scared' or, at the very least, 'uneasy'. Both of which were personas she could pull off without a hitch, thank you very much. But honestly, if there was one thing she had learned after meeting a weird certain someone nearly a year ago, it was that acting like yourself could ease a lot of suspicions.

Man, she missed Axel.

“Well, thank you,” Akaiko quipped back. Then, before he could say anything else, she gestured with the paper scoop from his spiky blue hair to his standard-issue sandals. “Anyway… you must be some type of shinobi, right?”

He scowled at her, which was actually pretty unnerving looking given his peculiarly inhuman eyes: unblinking white on black. Neat.

“I'll take that as a 'yes'.” She pushed herself back to her feet, refill box under one arm, and dusted off her kimono with brisk motions. “But a better question,” she continued with a smile, “is if you're just here to fetch the little miss back to her dad.”

“…What?”

“C'mon, Shark-Boy, do you want to play too or not?” she asked, holding out one of the paper scoops for him to take. When he didn't, she gave it a little wiggle as if to make the offer more appealing.

It was almost funny how out of depth he managed to look without even twitching at all, just staring at the scoop like it was going to bite him or something.

“You're not just stupid,” he finally bit out, “you're crazy.”

She shrugged. “So my friends tell me.”

It looked like he was trying to figure out what to say in response to that—it was something of a conversation killer—when a small splash and a startled 'oh no!' drew their attention back to the girl. Keiko was fishing around for something the the water, and she wasn't using the scoop.

“Hey!” Akaiko yelped, surprised that the girl would try something like that when she wasn't looking. “Little miss, ya know that's against the rules, right?”

“Sorry,” Keiko apologized, and she lifted something that was distinctly not a bouncy ball from the water. “My necklace came off.”

And the light from the lanterns strung overhead glinted off… something unexpectedly familiar.

“That pendant…” Akaiko found herself saying, wondering if she had seen that correctly. “Was that… Do you mind if I took a closer look at it?”

Keiko blinked, then glanced to the necklace she had already begun drying with her sleeve. “Uh, sure, I guess,” she replied, sounding uncertain as to how it could be interesting. Still, the girl gamely held it out for her to see.

The pendant was small and round, only a little bit larger than her thumbnail, and it vaguely resembled a copper coin. Not that any of its features looked like any kind of coin she was familiar with, save for the large '1' on one side, but a coin nonetheless. Akaiko leaned closer, and the light caught on some of the smaller details of the raised relief on the metal.

And yes, she recognized it.

In a manner of speaking, anyway. She wasn't able to read what the characters—the 'letters'—spelled out, but she knew someone who could.

It was weird seeing the same word-shapes that Axel used so far from home.

“Where'd you get this?” she asked, careful to keep her tone in the range of simple curiosity.

“Father said he found it by the road when he was traveling somewhere with the caravan.” The girl shrugged, and turned the coin so she could see the back. “He thought I'd like the funny bird thing.”

The image on the back was, indeed, a funny bird thing. It looked kind of like a hawk, if the hawk splatted itself into a window; its wings and legs were splayed out, and, as she looked even closer, even its tongue lolled from its open beak.

Still, those 'letters'…

“Hey, new deal,” she said, and she pointed from her bettas to the dangling pendant. “I'll trade you a fish for that necklace.” Reconsidered after a second. “Or just the pendant at least, since that chain looks kinda expensive.”

Almost as soon as she finished her sentence, Keiko was eagerly slipping the pendant from its chain and handing it over.

Hoshigaki looked skeptical. “You actually want that thing?”

“Well, sure.” Akaiko went to the stack and selected Gebra from the top row—blue fins still proudly unfurled and showing off—then, fish tank in hand, carefully turned back. “I have a weird friend, and it's a weird coin thing with a funny bird. It's perfect.”

Keiko took the tank from her almost reverently, wide eyes admiring the shimmer of dark blue scales. “Oh, he's so… so pretty!”

“Careful there, I'm sure his ego's already plenty big,” she said with a small chuckle.

“I'm going to name him…” the girl paused, thinking, and finished, “Bluey!”

It was almost comical, seeing how affronted her summon looked at his new name. Alas, that he must pose as a simple fish and thus could do nothing about the whims of his temporary owner.

Akaiko gave her a very quick rundown on betta fish care, like food and tank cleaning and so on. “Oh, and if you move him to a bigger tank—which I strongly recommend, by the way—you should keep those pebbles in there with him.” She smiled, perfectly innocent. “It'll help him feel at home.”

It would also keep the few slightly-larger hollow stones with her summon, which was necessary if the fish was to be able to trigger the seals carefully rolled up inside. She used to sandwich the necessary sealing tags between two plates on the bottom of the tank, and her summon could trigger them to open a line of communication with her. As it turns out though, hanging out with Minato and Axel during their idea sessions had the happy side effect of being not only fun, but informative as well.

They helped her upgrade her setup, and now some of the pebbles acted like very small tags that her summon could use to remotely activate a much more complex seal. This larger seal could selectively amplify or record any sounds in the vicinity of the tank and directly contact her.

Very useful, as one might imagine.

Even for a civilian, Axel really didn't seem to have a frame of reference for what shinobi could or couldn't do half the time. As such he had a lot of crazy ideas, if one could pester him into sharing them.

“I'll do my best, don't worry!” Keiko chimed in, interrupting her thoughts of home. “He'll be safe with me, I promise!”

“I'm sure he will be,” she said, smiling, and she waved as the girl and her likely-way-overqualified shinobi guard walked away into the crowd.

And when Hoshigaki sent her one last suspicious look, she may or may not have definitely clearly mouthed a very snarky 'Goodbye, Shark-Boy' and earned herself one last amusing glare. That kid really needs to get a sense of humor.

Actually, considering the reputation of his home village, any sense of humor he might gain there would probably be pretty sadistic… so maybe not.

Akaiko sat back on the chair she kept behind the stall, half watching and listening to the crowds as they moved past her and half checking out her new necklace pendant. Not that she'd keep it for herself, knowing that it must be somehow related to Axel and his… weirdness-es.

No, she was planning to give it to him as soon as she got to return to the village and could drop by his shop for a visit. Which, seeing as festival season was coming to a close, should hopefully be within a week or so. She was already looking forward to it.

“I wonder…” she murmured to herself, a fond smile on her lips as she thoughtfully turned the coin over in her hands. “What'll Axel think of this?”