Kakashi’s soul mark says ‘Participant #57’.
He can read it, of course. He understands the numbers, and he knows what the word participant means. Only babies and morons can’t read fluently. By the time he is four, Kakashi has decided he is neither.
“It’s not a name,” he says to his father, showing him the pale unscarred flesh of his inner arm where it’s written.
Sakumo takes his wrist in his own big hands and peers at it for a long moment. The good humour fades from his face and his mouth twitches down at the edges.
He gives Kakashi back his arm.
“Sometimes you find these people in experimental programs,” Sakumo says laconically, after a pause for thought.
Kakashi knows what he means by the tone he uses. It is the tone of breaking bad news, the one that means missing in action or caught leaving the village without permit. Kakashi straightens to hear it. He is four years old, nearly five, and he is not a baby or an idiot. Kakashi is a genin of Konoha, and he can handle bad news.
“This person probably doesn’t have another name. If you meet them…” Sakumo hesitates, contemplating the words.
“Well. You probably won’t meet them,” Sakumo says. “But if you do… a person like that will need you to help take care of them.”
Kakashi recognises, even at four years old, that Sakumo is prone to believing everybody needs to be taken care of – often a great deal more than they actually require. The indignities he subjects Kakashi to in the name of this peculiar instinct are innumerable and ridiculous.
Kakashi takes Sakumo’s words with a grain of salt – but he also hears the tone of his voice, that mix of resignation, sadness and weary anger. So he listens anyway and commits it to memory.
If he meets his soul mate, and he 'probably won’t' – which means Sakumo thinks they’ll die soon, even if he's not saying it like that, Kakashi’s not stupid – he will need to take care of them. Maybe. Probably.
At least a little.
They will need his help. At four, Kakashi is small and serious and eager to prove himself, so that seems like a good thing.
It makes more sense when the dreams come in a few years later.
By that time Kakashi is a chuunin already, and he has a better understanding of what kind of experimental program might keep human subjects without proper names. Konoha is at war, and each new mission blooms red on the map of his mind. He has seen a lot.
In the face of all contrary odds, Kakashi’s soul mate is still a dogged Participant #57 on Kakashi’s arm, text worn but dark and stark. They are still alive, despite never graduating from a number to a real name.
Kakashi dreams through their eyes, and decides that now he knows what it’s like to be a fish in a tank five times too small. The light swims, greenish blue, through the fluid they are kept in, strange and diffuse, and all the sounds are distorted – except his soulmate’s breathing and the steady internal thump of their heart. There are other tanks, a light that flickers, an occasional shadow moving around the space.
But mostly? Kakashi’s soulmate lives alone, contained, trapped in a tank.
He dreams, just once, of bright overhead lights, of a face in shadow, a pale-fingered hand and a syringe gleaming coldly. Whatever is in it burns like the devil in his veins, and Kakashi wakes pale and sweating and disoriented.
For a second he is certain he’s strapped down.
They are on mission, near the Ame border, and the forest canopy is dark overhead. Moonlight filters through in patches, casting strange shadows across the land. It leeches the colour from everything and leaves the whole world in shades of grey.
His gasp sends Obito tumbling from the tree where he’s meant to be keeping watch.
“What the hell,” he complains at Kakashi, rubbing his bruised shoulder, like it’s Kakashi’s fault he can’t keep his balance in a tree.
Rin sleeps like the dead, but across the embers of their fire Kakashi thinks he sees a sliver of blue beneath Minato-sensei’s mess of blond hair.
“Bad dream,” he says flatly, in case sensei is awake, and then he rolls over and staunchly ignores Obito’s whining. His watch begins in a few hours, so it’s best to sleep while he can.
He knows there is no way to help his soul mate, that they could be anywhere – in Iwa, even, given the efforts they’ve been putting in to developing strange new bloodlines to win them the war.
It’s not until after he makes jounin that Kakashi wonders what his soul mate might think, when they see through his eyes.
They must, sometimes. Can they feel Obito’s sharingan burning hot in his skull? Can they see what he does for his village, creeping, cat-footed in the dark?
The world through Kakashi’s eyes is not necessarily a better place.
After Rin’s death – after she uses him as the instrument of her suicide – Kakashi feels as though he hits rock bottom.
It’s a rational act on her behalf, given the circumstances. He can’t yet forgive her and he hasn’t tried to forgive himself.
He spends, Minato-sensei says, too much time at the cenotaph. He stands there dry-eyed and blank-faced behind his mask, and all the things he wants to say stick in his throat. He loses time there, staring, and Minato is predictably too easy on him when he forgets himself and winds up running late. It’s habit forming.
ANBU is a balm. In its way. It’s not that Kakashi has a hard-on for state sanctioned murder, but ANBU missions require a great deal of focus and he doesn’t have room to think about anything else when he’s working. Minato-sensei worries, but Minato-sensei is an inveterate mother hen. It is a strange disposition for an S-class ninja who carries a flee on sight warning. It’s still true.
So Kakashi feels like he hits rock bottom after Rin is gone, but it isn’t long before reality conspires to remind him that there is always, always still lower left to fall.
The Kyuubi attacks. Kushina dies, and then Minato-sensei doesn’t long survive his soul mate.
Sarutobi-sama is so clearly exhausted to be called upon, but he returns from retirement and takes up the hat again – just for now, just until it is stable. Of course, stability is not the fate of the elemental nations. He will be Hokage for a long, long time.
Kakashi is – wild, confused, unmoored and adrift. He is lost.
Orochimaru, another towering Konoha legend, falls from grace just as violently as Sakumo had – worse, in Kakashi’s view, because Sakumo never, ever turned against his own people. He wouldn’t have. Nothing could have made him do that.
The older he gets, the more Kakashi understands his father. It is a bitter understanding.
Kakashi sees the labs, later.
There are glass tubes, human-sized and drained, lined up along the walls like fish tanks. Insects buzz against the lights in their mesh casings. There are tables painted with beautiful calligraphy, with seals so intricate Kakashi feels faintly awed just looking at them, is reminded powerfully of Kushina, of Minato, of the people long lost who could once do this sort of work.
And then, seconds later, he notices the thick leather restraints and the drainage channels cut into the surface of the tables.
Oh, he thinks. His brain goes quiet and blank.
There are no survivors from this, he reminds himself. The records are clear. And the script on his arm is still stark and black. So it’s not – it’s not this facility, it’s just–
It just seems so familiar here.
Kakashi walks through the abandoned laboratory and he feels like his dreams have become sick and prophetic.
There are bodies. They’re young. Kakashi is only three years older than the eldest of them, but they seem younger. Orochimaru has cut each of them open and meticulously recorded their state, then stacked them side by side and slapped a paper preservation seal on them. Together they form a wall of stiff limbs and neat catgut stitches.
Kakashi wonders that Sarutobi-sama lets Orochimaru flee. Is it possible, he wonders, to be so sentimentally attached to a student? Is it possible to be this attached to anyone?
Later, in his office, where the sun shines through the windows and Konoha’s roofs stretch out below and that whole subterranean laboratory seems like a terrible fever dream, he almost asks. He would have asked Minato-sensei. (He would never have asked Minato-sensei, says a treasonous part of him, because he would never have had to.) But he looks at Sarutobi-sama and he thinks he sees the same questions reflected in his tired face.
And Sarutobi-sama is so terribly old.
He doesn’t ask.
Orochimaru goes to ground, god knows where. Neither Jiraiya nor Tsunade has heard from him, and neither one of them seems very interested in tracking him down.
Participant #57 is still black on Kakashi’s arm.
Kakashi dreams of the laboratory. He knows these are not soul mate dreams, because it’s him walking through the lab all over again, putting one foot in front of the other. And when he comes to the tanks, it’s himself he sees floating inside – blank, staring, with his hair drifting upwards, all suspended in blue-green fluid.
These ones are just nightmares.
Participant #57 must be made of steel.
That's just as well, Kakashi supposes, since increasingly he is certain he cannot be trusted to help anyone. He avoids the thought. He buries his nose in one of Jiraiya's novels and tries not to need anything at all.
He dreams of barracks now, dim and soulless, and of flashes of sunlight and good dirt and green growing things. Somewhere amid it all he’s certain he sees a Konoha hitae-ate. Participant #57 must be a ninja now, although the war settled into an uneasy peace at Minato-sensei’s feet years ago.
Kakashi is sent on mission after mission chasing Orochimaru’s trail – mainly false – even though he has no idea what he’s expected to do if he finds him. Kakashi is good. Kakashi is excellent. But he isn’t Orochimaru. He’s just a teenager with no one to miss him and no one left to lose, and Sarutobi-sama sends him chasing the breeze in the hopes of getting answers to the questions that gnaw at him at night.
Kakashi is good at tracking, and the solo missions require him to give all he has. He comes back exhausted every time. Those nights he sleeps like the dead and nothing bothers him.
ANBU is a hotbed of conspiracies and black ops, from the T&I guys in the basement to the ANBU director’s shifty relationship with the daimyo’s second wife. It doesn’t strictly surprise Kakashi when he learns about the planned assassination of Sarutobi-sama, since those are ten a penny. What surprises him is this: the plot comes from Root, which, while hard line and very conservative, is an internal organisation that usually operates in the best interests of Konoha as a village.
He wonders, when he hears of it, if this is also in the best interests of Konoha.
He knows Sarutobi-sama is not the Hogake they need.
(That will always be Minato-sensei. Kakashi is biased, yes, but that much is the truth.)
Kakashi cannot even think who might replace him. That Danzo controls Root is an open secret in ANBU, but is that who would be Hokage? Or someone else? Would they recall Tsunade – she’s the closest thing Konoha has to royalty, and when she’s sober she could be fit for it.
Sarutobi-sama is not the Hokage they need, but he is the Hokage they have, and Kakashi isn’t so far gone that he can betray that.
Inevitably, he tips him off. Kakashi still has that much loyalty, at least.
He meets his soulmate when he tries, and fails, to assassinate the Third Hokage.
Since he is the one who tips Sarutobi-sama off, Kakashi is the one who arrives in his place. The ANBU were once only the elite protection squad of the Hokage, and that is the role Kakashi takes on now – a cat’s paw for a greater man.
The wood release comes as a… bit of a surprise.
So does the moment when the would-be assassin’s fist connects with Kakashi’s skin and he feels it – a flutter of heat and pleasure, bright, unmistakable, burning hotter than even the sharingan in his skull.
Then he registers the impact. Kakashi’s soul mate hits like an avalanche.
The shock of it stops them both cold, though. Kakashi can see it clearly in his soul mate’s huge, dark eyes. They are startled, enormous in the shocky and pale face of a boy at least four years his junior.
Participant #57 flees, knowing better than to risk himself against a ninja who is clearly not his target.
And Kakashi lets him go, because…
He tells Sarutobi-sama that it’s because one day the wood release will be a great asset to Konoha.
But when he is alone, Kakashi rubs the text on his arm and he wonders.
What kind of konoha-nin might end up embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Hokage? It comes together in his mind with sharp clarity: the dreams, the labs, Orochimaru, Root --
It seems impossible that he’s been so close for this long.
Six months later, Kakashi meets the new subordinate on his team of hunter-nin, a black-eyed ANBU.
Kakashi would know him anywhere now.
“What’s your name?” he asks, looking up over the edge of his book.
Participant #57 doesn’t twitch, doesn’t hesitate. He has no tells, not even in his scent. No social skills, either, except what he’s been taught for the purposes of this specific mission. “Tenzo,” he lies. “I’ll be in your care.”
Yes, Kakashi thinks, and he surprises himself with how savage it is, even in the most hidden recesses of his own mind, you will.